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Putin, Navalni, and Thomas à Becket

23 August 2020

In twenty years of writing about Russia’s President Vladimir Putin – he was completely obscure before 1999 – I have never before had reason to mention him and Saint Thomas à Becket in the same sentence. Finally, however, the time has come.

Finnish President Sauli Niinistö phoned the diminutive Russian strongman at the behest of German Chancellor Angela Merkel last Thursday and assured him that he was not a suspect in the poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny. The goal, of course, was to persuade Putin to let Navalny be flown to Germany for treatment.

Niinistö is clearly a persuasive man, because Putin agreed. (Did Putin know how long various poisons remain in the body? Hard to say. He was only in the KGB for sixteen years.) Indeed, Putin even promised to “get the rat behind this.” Which sounds a bit like a Cosa Nostra godfather on a bad day, but at least the man wants to see justice done.

So you can see why the late Thomas à Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, sprang instantly to my mind. Putin’s position is rather similar to that of England’s King Henry II, who ordered the assassination of that martyred cleric by accident, so to speak, and was then covered by shame and regret for his murder (or so he subsequently claimed).

It was in 1170, and Thomas à Becket was being difficult. He was the head of the Church in England, and he was resisting the king’s attempt to make the Church courts subordinate to the civil courts, which answered to Henry. It’s a bit of a stretch, but you could say that Archbishop Becket was the closest things in 12th century England to the leader of the opposition.

Henry II was used to getting his way, and in the course of one of his rants against the cleric he was heard to say “Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?” Four knights at the court, hearing this, decided that the quickest way to rise in the king’s service was to go to Canterbury and carry out the king’s bidding, so off they went to do it.

They found Thomas à Becket on the altar of his cathedral, in front of a large congregation, and hacked him to pieces with their swords. This caused a great outcry throughout a horrified Christendom, and the knights did not get their desired promotions. Indeed, the king swore that it had all been a ghastly misunderstanding: he was only venting, not giving actual orders.

It was all smoothed over, as these things usually are. The knights fell into disgrace, the Church’s law courts kept their independence, and the king did penance: he walked barefoot wearing sackcloth through the streets of Canterbury while eighty monks flogged him (gently) with branches.

Could something similar have happened in Russia last week? It won’t end up with Putin barefoot being flogged by monks, of course, but maybe his minions just exceeded their instructions? After all, that was Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman’s excuse when his henchmen chopped up journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul two years ago, and no government has officially questioned MbS’s word on that.

The problem in Putin’s case is that this is not the first time: becoming the leader of the opposition in Russia automatically invalidates your life insurance policy. Navalny’s predecessor Boris Nemtsov was shot dead within sight of the Kremlin five years ago, and Navalny himself is partially blind in one eye as the result of a 2018 attack.

Moreover, poison is a favourite tool of Putin’s security services. Critical journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning attempt in 2004 (she was later shot to death). Defector Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned with polonium in London in 2006. Double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter nearly died from a nerve agent in Salisbury, England in 2018, and the Russian would-be assassins were caught on CCTV.

Maybe the boss doesn’t sign off personally on each of these attacks, but it is very hard to believe that he doesn’t know what is going on. The Russian counter-claim that all these incidents are actually ‘provocations’ staged by hostile Western intelligence services is quite implausible: Russia is simply not important enough to justify the scale of the effort that would be required.

So what we are left with is smaller than it sometimes seems. It’s a great state that has fallen into the hands of crooks in suits – no longer shiny suits; sartorial standards among the Russian criminal aristocracy have risen dramatically – who occasionally rub somebody out to protect their nationwide protection racket or just to maintain discipline within the organisation. And they only kill other Russians.

Move along, please. There’s nothing more to see here.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 10. (“Moreover…CCTV”)

What Went Wrong in Eastern Europe?

I first met Viktor Orban, the not-quite-dictator of Hungary, in 1989 in Budapest – and the man who introduced us was none other than George Soros.

Orban was then a firebrand student leader, anti-Communist and keen for Hungary to join the West. Soros, a Hungarian refugee who became an American billionaire, was devoting his time and money to finding and subsiding young Eastern Europeans who would lead their countries into the European Union and a liberal democratic future.

But Orban is now the prime minister of an ‘illiberal’ Hungarian government that controls the mass media and regards the EU as the enemy. In last April’s election, he portrayed Soros as the Jewish evil genius who, with the EU’s help, was planning to flood Hungary with Muslim refugees and destroy the country’s culture and identity.

That’s ridiculous, but Orban won almost half the votes and more than two-thirds of the seats in parliament. Poland, a far bigger country, now also has a far-right, ‘illiberal’ government that is ultra-nationalist and hostile to the EU (although both countries depend heavily on EU subsidies).

The extremists are not yet in power in other Eastern European countries, but similar trends are visible in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Romania. The dreams and hopes that drove the anti-Communist revolutions of 1989 are not yet dead, but they are definitely fading. What went wrong?

These countries are among the most ethnically homogenous in the world (due to the Holocaust and the widespread ‘ethnic cleansing’ that followed both world wars). They have admitted almost no refugees, yet their politics is dominated by the fear of being swamped by them.

It’s beyond bizarre, but Bulgarian political philosopher Ivan Krastev has a persuasive explanation for it. He points out that the question “isn’t so much where the nationalism has come from, but where it’s been hiding all these years.” His answer is that it was hiding in plain sight.

During the 1970s and 1980s the nationalists who wanted independence from Soviet rule formed a close alliance with the pro-Western activists who wanted a liberal, democratic future. From Poland to Bulgaria the liberals and the nationalists worked together, and even after the overthrow of the Communists in 1989 they continued to believe (or at least hope) that democracy could accommodate them both.

Maybe it could have, but the nationalist wars that destroyed the former Yugoslav federation in the 1990s put an end to the partnership. As Krastev says, the violence there persuaded liberals that “nationalism was the very heart of darkness, and that flirting with it could only be sinful.”

So the liberals broke their alliances with the nationalists, and for a while the nationalists went very quiet. Nobody, not even Polish or Hungarian nationalists, wanted to be seen in the same light as monsters like Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic.

But nationalism was the most powerful political force in Eastern Europe throughout the 20th century, and it wasn’t going to just fade away. It re-merged in the early 21st century, shorn of its liberal associations with tolerance and diversity, as a major political force in the region – and the driver behind it was what Krastev calls “demographic panic”.

After 1989 many people in Eastern Europe not only aspired to emulate the prosperous liberal democracies of Western Europe. They actually wanted to live in them, and when their countries joined the EU they acquired the right to free movement. If Poles thought that life would be better in England, for example, they could just move there and find work – and a million of them did.

Since 1989, 27 percent of Latvia’s population has emigrated to Western Europe, and Bulgaria has lost 21 percent. Hungary is not so hard hit, but it has lost 3 percent of its population to Western Europe in the past ten years – and almost all the emigrants are young, leaving behind an aging population with a low birth rate.

This is the real source of the demographic panic, but it finds its political expression in a paranoid fear that the country’s dwindling population will be overrun by immigrants with a radically different culture, particularly refugees. It doesn’t matter that there are virtually no immigrants in Hungary, and that it’s about the last place a refugee would want to go. In these matters, perception is all.

The anti-immigrant hysteria is almost universal in Eastern Europe, and it will bring more illiberal nationalist regimes to power before it is finished. The remedy, if there is one, is for the liberals to acknowledge the nationalists’ concerns and rebuild the old alliances with them without pandering to the panic.

That’s not easy to do, but it’s what every Western European democracy has actually been doing for generations. Although they’re not doing too well with it at the moment themselves.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 13. (“Since…rate”)

Varadkar and Bernabic

19 June 2017

Varadkar and Bernabic
By Gwynne Dyer

For most Irish people the most striking thing about their new prime minister, Leo Varadkar, is that he is very young. (At 38, he is the country’s youngest leader ever.) It’s mainly the foreign press that goes on about the fact that he is a) half-Indian, and b) gay.

Varadkar himself, the son of a doctor from India and a nurse from Ireland who met while working in a hospital in southern England, is definitely not keen on being seen as a symbol of changing public attitudes: “I’m not a half-Indian politician, or a doctor politician or a gay politician, for that matter. It’s just part of who I am. It doesn’t define me.”

No, it doesn’t, but it is still worth focussing on for a moment to think about what it tells us not just about Ireland but about the West as a whole, and even about the world.

Homosexuality was legalised in England in 1967, and it was decriminalised in Canada the following year (when Pierre Trudeau, then the justice minister, told the CBC that “there’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation”). It only became legal in Ireland a quarter-century later, in 1993. But two years ago same-sex marriage was made legal in Ireland by a referendum in which 62 percent of the voters said yes.

Well, we already knew that Ireland had changed. It has lots of immigrants now – one in every eight people is foreign-born – and the political power of the Catholic Church has collapsed. So it’s no longer a surprise that an Indo-Irish gay man can become prime minister. But what about Serbia?

The only “immigrants” in Serbia are ethnic Serbs who were stranded in other parts of former Yugoslavia after the break-up. The Serbian Orthodox Church is still strong, and it has no truck with degenerate Western ideas about human rights. As one Orthodox monk wrote: “Homosexuality is not a problem in Serbia. There are hardly any gay people, and society wouldn’t permit them to organize or (publicly advocate) their abominations.”

Two-thirds of Serbians think that homosexuality is an illness, and almost four-fifths believe that gay people should stay in the closet. But Ana Brnabic is an out and proud lesbian, and she has just been appointed prime minister of Serbia. She is also of Croatian descent. How has this happened?

Brnabic was appointed by Alexandar Vucic, who was prime minister himself until he ascended to the presidency in last month’s election. The prime minister is constitutionally the most powerful person in the government, but Brnabic is a technocrat, not really a politician. It is widely expected that she will concentrate on making the trains run on time, so to speak, and leave the sensitive political decisions to Vucic.

The general assumption in Serbian political circles is that Brnabic’s appointment is window-dressing. Serbia wants to join the European Union, and the government would quite like to divert the EU’s attention from a few little image problems: its close ties with Russia, its hostility to refugees, and rampant corruption.

So what could be better than a woman prime minister (a Serbian first) who is openly gay (another Serbian first) and even has foreign antecedents (her father was born in Croatia)? Why, the Serbs are even more enlightened than the Irish! We should make them full members of the EU as soon as possible!

That may well be the plan – and if it is, so what? The European Union knows that there was a considerable amount of calculation behind Brnabic’s appointment, but it will not condemn President Alexandar Vucic for trying to make Serbia look like a suitable candidate for EU membership.

Lots of ordinary Serbs will be shocked by this assault on “Serbian values”, but many of them will understand that it serves the national interest. And little by little, just because Brnabic is the prime minister, they will grow less uncomfortable with the notion of gays – and indeed just women in general – having a legitimate role in public life.

This is how change really happens: not sudden enlightenment, but a gradual acceptance of new rules and values. And the most encouraging take-away from this little story is that even a man like Vucic, once an ally of the murderous demagogue Slobodan Milosevic, understands the new political and social rules of the West.

They are not yet the new rules everywhere. Eastern Europe is way behind Western Europe, North America and Latin America, largely because it spent between forty and seventy years isolated from the rest of the world under Communist rule. The struggle is still intense in parts of Asia, and it has scarcely begun in most of Africa and the Muslim world.

Gay rights, feminism, human rights in general are not really “Western” values: a hundred years ago the West was just as intolerant of difference as everybody else. The change has come to the West earlier mainly because it is richer, but we are all traveling on the same train, and the other end will pull into the station just a little bit later.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit 6 and 8. (“The only…abominations”; and “Brnabic…Vucic”)

Dutch Election

The Dutch political system may not have been deliberately designed to produce middle-of-the-road outcomes, but it certainly works that way in practice: many small parties, multi-party coalitions to create a majority government, perpetual compromise. It is almost impossible to radicalise a system like this, but Geert Wilders is going to try.

Wilders is the founder and leader of the Freedom Party (PVV), which currently holds only twelve seats in the 150-seat Dutch parliament. But he is aiming to make it the largest single party in the March 15 election – which, in ordinary times, would probably give it the leading role in the next coalition government.

But these are not normal times, and the PVV is far from a normal party. It really only has one policy – stop the immigrants – and it is unshamedly racist and anti-Muslim in its rhetoric. Wilders recently called Dutch residents of Moroccan origin “scum”. He vows to close mosques and Islamic schools, ban the sale of the Koran, and stop all further immigrants or asylum seekers from Muslim countries.

He is the Dutch Donald Trump, a silver-maned provocateur who deploys the maximum possible nastiness in his campaign talk and his frequent abusive tweets. In fact, some people argue that Trump must have taken lessons from Wilders, who has been working this side of the street for at least a decade already, but the concept of convergent evolution probably applies. Populists are almost always racists too.

Which brings us to the question that is most interesting for people who don’t live in the Netherlands. Can racism and xenophobia alone, without any help from economic desperation, persuade a traditionally liberal Western electorate to cast its values aside and vote for an authoritarian bully with an anti-Muslim obsession?

Trump had lots of help from economic despair. The key voters who gave him an electoral college victory last November were in the Rust Belt states: men (they were mostly men) who would usually have backed Democratic candidates, but switched to Trump because he promised to “bring back the jobs” and stop the non-white immigration.

There was certainly a large element of racial panic in the American vote. A survey by Zack Beauchamp of the opinion polling and recent academic research on the topic, entitled “White Riot” and published on Vox on 20 January, documented the argument that “the real sources of the far-right’s appeal are anger over immigration and a toxic mix of racial and religious intolerance.”

On the other hand, the Rust Belt states south of the Great Lakes, the former industrial heartland of the United States, are the places that have suffered the greatest job losses over the past few decades, which is why cities like Cleveland and Detroit are decaying and partly abandoned. And they are emphatically NOT major destinations for new immigrants to the US.

Trump himself always ensures that he hits on both immigration and job losses in his speeches and tweets, and he is the world’s expert on the fears and prejudices of his supporters. Could we perhaps speculate that his supporters say that they are frightened about immigration and especially Mulim immigration, but that their racism is really driven in large part by their anger at the steep decline in the number of well-paid industrial jobs?

Of the six states with over a million immigrants – California, New York, Texas, Florida, Illinois and New Jersey – only Florida (where Trump won by a whisker) and Texas (which has voted Republican in every presidential election since 1980) voted for Trump. California, whose ten million immigrants make up 27 percent of the state population, voted two-to-one for Hillary Clinton.

It would seem that, in the words of the old Phil Spector song, to know, know, know them is to love, love, love them (the immigrants), or at least not to fear them. Whereas Michigan, a Rust-Belt state that voted Democratic in the previous six elections and where only 6 percent of the population are immigrants, voted for Trump.

You can see the same pattern in the Brexit vote in England last June. The prosperous big cities are where the immigrants are, and every one of them except Birmingham voted Remain (in the European Union). London, where half the school population is non-white, voted Remain by a 60-40 majority, as did Manchester, Liverpool and Bristol.

The narrow Leave majority countrywide was won in depressed northern industrial cities where immigrant populations are low, and in prosperous rural areas where there are virtually no immigrants at all. So there was again racial panic at the changing ethnic face of England in areas where immigrants were largely absent, but especially in post-industrial areas where they are (wrongly) blamed for the loss of well-paying jobs.

In populist revolts elsewhere, the manifest racism and anti-immigrant sentiment that dominated in the opinion polls masked a deeper resentment about the loss of jobs. In the Netherlands, where unemployment is only 5 percent, Geert Wilders is depending on racism alone, and he is not heading for a Brexit- or Trump-style victory. The latest opinion poll gives him just 15 percent of the vote.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 12 and 13. (“You..jobs”)