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Ukraine Election

Unlike comedian Alec Baldwin, who is famous for his impersonation of President Trump on Saturday Night Live, comedian Volodymyr Zelensky is famous for playing the anti-president, an accidental hero who sweeps into the presidency of Ukraine and cleans up all the corruption. He used to play it for laughs, and now he’s playing it for real.

Zelensky is now leading in the opinion polls for the Ukrainian election on Sunday with 25% of the vote, well ahead of incumbent president Petro Poroshenko (12%) and former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko (18%). (She’s the one who used to wear her hair in braids wound up around her head.)

The other third of the voters are currently divided between 36 other presidential candidates who will be eliminated in Sunday’s vote, which will also decide whether Poroshenko or Tymoshenko goes up against Zelensky in the two-person run-off three weeks later. Baldwin will never be the US president, but there’s a good chance that Zelensky will be the Ukrainian president.

What a heart-warming story, I hear you murmur. Humble comedian plays even humbler high-school history teacher Vasyl Holoborodko, whose classroom diatribe against the corruption of Ukrainian politics is secretly filmed by a student. It goes viral on the internet, and humble teacher is instantly elevated into the presidency by a grateful public.

The story gets even better. In real life, ‘Servant of the People’, the TV show about the teacher-turned-president, plays on the country’s biggest television channel, 1+1, and is a nationwide hit. Then the guy playing the teacher, comedian Volodymyr Zelensky, decides that he has a chance of working the same miracle in real life. So he puts himself up for the presidency, and lo! The public agrees.

This is not art imitating life; it is life imitating art. But if you are a nasty old cynic who suspects the worst about people’s motives, then you are probably right, at least in this case. Zelensky is not just a simple comic who got lucky.

A little background. Ukraine is one of the less fortunate post-Soviet countries, with ageing heavy industries, few natural resources, and barely a third of Russia’s per capita income (in terms of purchasing power parity). It has been mired in a low-intensity war with Russian proxies in its eastern provinces for the past five years, and has lost Crimea to Russia for good.

You might think that, in these circumstances, political debate would concentrate on ending the war and raising popular living standards, but the war is barely mentioned and the main economic debate is about ‘corruption’.

That debate would make sense if it was really about cleaning up an extremely corrupt political system dominated by the ‘oligarchs’ (who also control most of the media). In practice, it is mainly a struggle between rival oligarchs, using accusations of corruption to target each other when in fact they are all corrupt almost by definition.

Poroshenko, a leading oligarch who won the election after the 2014 revolution, was at daggers drawn with Ihor Kolomoysky, the second-richest man in Ukraine, from the beginning of his presidency. In 2016 he nationalised Kolomoysky’s PrivatBank, the largest bank in the country, and Kolomoysky went into self-imposed exile in Israel while fighting Poroshenko’s actions in the courts and the media.

It was at this time that Kolomoysky and Volodymyr Zelensky, already a successful comedian with his own production company, began developing the TV series about the accidental president, and it went on air on Kolomoysky’s 1+1 channel two years ago. It was an instant runaway hit, and now Zelensky is the leading candidate for the real presidency.

Is Zelensky just a stalking horse behind which Kolomoysky can take control of Ukraine away from Poroshenko? Not necessarily. The two men may have a pragmatic alliance but their own separate agendas. But it is noteworthy that Zelensky showed up at Kolomoysky’s birthday party last year and was introduced as “our president”.

That large numbers of Ukrainians should fall for a fake maverick (who doesn’t even offer much in the way of concrete policies) is a measure of their disappointment with the status quo of rule by oligarchs behind a facade of democracy. Russia’s relative prosperity is mostly due to its oil, but it also owes much to the fact that Vladimir Putin has brought its oligarchs under control. In Ukraine, their rivalries still dominate everything.

There is not much reason to believe that Ukraine will finally turn the corner in this election and escape from the miseries and failures of its first three decades of independence. On the other hand, it’s not getting any worse either, and for the moment the war in the east seems encysted and confined. Hope dies last, and maybe Zelensky will surprise us.

To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 13. (“That…everything”)

Italy: Berlusconi at Bay

6 April 2006

Italy: Berlusconi at Bay

By Gwynne Dyer

Nobody has asked Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi if he has kept his January pledge not to have sex during the two-and-a-half months leading up to the general election on 9-10 April. But if he has, then he is living proof that sexual abstinence does not bring political success, because he is still been trailing his centre-left rival, Romano Prodi, by four or five percentage points in the opinion polls.

This is hardly surprising, since Italy’s economy is in dreadful shape. Berlusconi sold himself as a billionaire businessman who would turn Italy into another successful business, but over his five years in power the economy has grown at less than one percent a year. As his prospects for re-election fade, moreover, his rhetoric, always flamboyant, has become so extreme that it topples into self-parody.

In January, he told a TV talk-show host that only Napoleon had done more for his country — “but I am certainly taller than him.” In February, he switched to being the Son of God: “I am the Jesus Christ of politics. I am a patient victim, I put up with everyone, I sacrifice myself for everyone.” By March, he was comparing himself to Winston Churchill: “Churchill liberated us from the Nazis. Silvio Berlusconi is liberating us from the Communists.”

It suggests that panic has invaded the camp of the Knight (Il Cavaliere), as Berlusconi is widely known, and even some of those close to him are now taking their distance. Last month the newspaper Il Foglio, partly owned by Berlusconi’s wife and run by a close friend, carried a front-page editorial declaring that “the Knight is now tilting at windmills and the outcome of wars against windmills is well known. Knights generally succumb.”

Many people would rejoice to see Berlusconi lose, including some who voted for him in 2001 — most leaders of Italy’s big business community now see him has a disaster, for example — but it is too soon to assume that he is finished. That four or five point lead might represent the proportion of the electorate who secretly plan to vote for Berlusconi but are too embarrassed to admit it even to an opinion poller. It’s unlikely, but he could just squeak back into power.

It’s easy to see how Berlusconi could have fooled Italian voters in 2001, but how could a people as sophisticated and even as cynical as the Italians still be taken in by him today? The answer is that around half of them are not taken in at all, and will vote against him — and many among the other half know exactly what he is up to and approve of it.

Silvio Berlusconi became “the richest man in Italy” under deeply suspicious circumstances. His fortune is founded on his control of commercial television, which he owes to a murky 1980s deal with Socialist prime minister Bettino Craxi (who later fled to Tunisia to escape corruption charges and died in exile). The later growth of his business empire allegedly involved collusion with the mafia and systematic bribery of officials and judges, and his entry into politics in 1994 was widely believed to be an attempt to escape indictment for these crimes by the “clean hands” magistrates who were then taking on the system.

His first term in office lasted less than a year, and through the later 1990s a long series of indictments against him and his business associates slowly progressed through the Italian courts. But since he regained the prime ministership in 2001, he has used his parliamentary majority to pass one law after another that had the aim of getting himself and other members of his business clan out of legal trouble. And many Italians, knowing exactly what he was up to, applauded him for it.

 Most Italians hate the state, and they have good reason. Italy’s bureaucracy is among the most labyrinthine, irrational and slow-moving in the world, and frustrated Italians are more likely to try to get round it than through it. So they tend to admire those who are very good at getting round the law — even if the individual in question is asking for their votes so that he can re-make the laws to get himself out of trouble and reduce the state to a servant of his personal interests.

The broader coalition that has kept Berlusconi in power for five years includes neo-fascists and the racist, anti-immigrant Northern League, but the core support for his own Forza Italia party is millions of small businesspeople whose lives are burdened by far too many taxes and laws, inspectors and regulations. In the long run Silvio Berlusconi will make both them and the state poorer if he stays in power, but in the short run they love to see him get away with it.

Even if Berlusconi loses this election, his original purpose in coming into politics has been achieved. His previous changes to the law decriminalised false accounting, made money-laundering harder to trace, and gave amnesties to tax dodgers and illegal builders. His most recent change to the law halved the time within which trials for many different offences must be completed and the sentences enforced: as a result, nearly 90 percent of corruption cases before the Court of Cassation will be struck down, together with most cases of embezzlement. So if the vote goes against Berlusconi this time, he can still retire from politics and enjoy his wealth in peace.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 10. (“It  suggests…succumb”; and “The broader..with it”)

Muslim Stereotypes

17 August 2003

All The News That Fits The Stereotype

By Gwynne Dyer

Sitting in Cairo in a flat borrowed from a friend. Turn on the TV and catch the news on BBC World: six stories in fifteen minutes. Iraqi guerillas blow up a couple of pipelines. European hostages released by Muslim guerillas in Mali. Nigerian peacekeeping troops in Liberia. Rioting between Muslim sects in Pakistan. Iceland resumes whaling. Islamist terrorists arrested in Indonesia. End of world news.

Four out of six: that’s how many of the stories were about Muslims who do violent things. That would make sense if two-thirds of the world’s people were Muslims, and most of them were violent. Since only one-fifth of the world’s people are Muslims, and many of them don’t even spank their children, it calls for an explanation. Especially because the international news is like this most of the time.

BBC World is not particularly bad. In fact, from Minnesota to Moscow to Manila it is the preferred source of TV news for people with an interest in the world, a knowledge of English and access to cable. It is serious about delivering ‘balanced’ news to a multi-national audience, and yet it is doing an absolutely terrible job. Why?

The BBC is not American, so it’s not following the White House’s agenda. It is not pandering to the paranoid belief, quite widespread in the United States since 11 November, 2001, that Islam is a more violent and dangerous religion than, say, Christianity. Its selection of stories is genuinely driven by what it thinks will be of interest to its audience of a hundred nationalities on five continents, a great many of whom are Muslims. And yet its selection of international stories comes out not very different from Fox News.

The bias in favour of ‘violent Muslim’ stories is less obvious on domestic news channels where the foreign items are buried under a far larger number of domestic stories, but it is the same. Wherever you are in the world (apart from the Muslim parts of the world, of course), try keeping track yourself for a few nights. You’ll find that at least half the foreign stories are about violence committed by or against Muslims.

Consider the four ‘Muslim’ stories among the BBC World six I listed at the top of this article. The Iraq story is legitimate: when the world’s greatest power is sinking into a political and military quagmire, it is going to get coverage. But why Muslim hostage-takers in Mali rather than politically motivated kidnappers in Colombia? Why sectarian clashes between Muslims in Pakistan rather than inter-caste violence among Hindus in India?

The story of suspected terrorists arrested for the Marriott hotel bombing in Jakarta is of legitimate interest, but there’s a lot less follow-up when suspected Basque terrorists are arrested in Spain, or when a resurgent Sendero Luminoso blows something up in Peru. The BBC is not anti-Muslim, but it is responding to a definition of international news that makes ‘violent Muslims’ more newsworthy than violent people in other places.

It is largely a Western definition, following an agenda set mainly by the dominant US media. It is rooted in Western perspectives on the long-running Arab-Israeli conflict, and has been vastly strengthened by the Islamist terrorist attack on the United States two years ago. It is also a huge, steaming heap of horse-feathers.

I’m not preaching pious nonsense about Islam being a ‘religion of peace’: the only peaceful religions are dead religions. And I’m not denying that the Muslim world has a big historical chip on its shoulder: having run one of the most powerful and respected civilisations on the planet for the first thousand years after they burst out of Arabia and conquered large chunks of Europe, Asia and Africa, Muslims have spent the past three centuries being overrun, colonised and humiliated by the West. But the image of Muslims that the rest of the world gets through international news coverage is deeply misleading.

For the past month I have been wandering around the Middle East with eight other members of my extended family. For some, it was their first time in the region; others of us have lived here or visited often enough to be able to lead everybody astray. And we gave less thought to our personal safety — and much less to petty theft — than we would have done on a comparable trip across America, or even through Europe.

I won’t go on about how kind and friendly most of the people we met were, because most people are like that everywhere. I would point out that every single person I discussed current events with was against the American invasion in Iraq, but that I nevertheless encountered no personal hostility although I am easily mistaken for an American. (Would an Arab doing a similar trip around America have the same experience?)

If Iraq gets completely out of hand, the patience and tolerance that still prevail at street level in the Muslim Middle East will be severely eroded, and even Asian Muslim countries may end up taking sides against the US and Britain. But for the moment Samuel Huntington’s nightmare vision of a coming ‘clash of civilisations’ is still a long way off, and the most striking thing is the sheer ordinariness of daily life in the Muslim world. Don’t be misled by television.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“The BBC…Muslims”)