what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Impervious power

For more than a decade I lived and worked in states in central Asia and central Europe which were (and remain) systemically corrupt – my work being in “small islands” of institutional improvement which had been negotiated as part of a much wider international reform effort. 

In Transit- notes on good governance” was the little book I used as a calling card in Uzbekistan (3 years); Azerbaijan (2 years); Kyrgyzstan (2 years), Bulgaria (2 years) and, more briefly, Romania (whose project management I could take for less than a month), 

I devoured the literature first on “transitology” (early reading was captured in the 2nd chapter of "In Transit") and then on “anti-corruption”….and tried, in various papers, to make sense of my experience .

In 2007 I brought my critical thoughts together in a paper Missionaries or mercenaries? presented to the Annual Conference of Network of schools of public admin in central and eastern Europe which I updated in 2011 as a result of an important policy paper about the European Commission’s programme of Technical Assistance  which tried to address the criticism.
That second paper was called The Long Game – not the log-frame – and, in it, I coined the phrase “the impervious state” because of the ease with which, for various reasons, systemically corrupt political regimes have been able to deflect criticism (both domestic and from international bodies) like water slipping down a duck’s back. Sadly, the phrase didn’t stick but states continue to be (ever more) impervious to public discontent.

And, equally sadly, Romania is a prime example of both this systemic corruption and apparent public indifference. There were no celebrations at the beginning of the month – when the country might have been expected to be celebrating what was, after all, the tenth anniversary of its membership of the European Union and when indeed it was celebrating the 27th year of freedom from the iron grip of Ceaucescu.

Privatisation was a policy insisted on by global institutions after 1989 but was favoured by apparatniks and leaders of many political parties in the region as a means of enriching themselves.
State bodies were left alone - as the fiefdom of these parties - with “reform” efforts consisting basically of new acronyms and rhetoric. 
Lack of any serious reform efforts meant that Romania had no chance of being allowed into Europe in 2004. Although its membership was approved in principle in 2005, a system of annual monitoring and verification reports was installed from 2005 - and is actually still in place for judicial reform. Indeed its eventual membership was allowed 3 years later largely because of the reform efforts of the Minister of Justice Monica Macovei - appointed in 2004 by newly-elected President Traian Basescu

It was however typical that the very day after Romania entered the EU (and therefore escaped most of its “conditionalities” ), the Romanian Senate voted for Macovei’s resignation which duly came the following month…..  – just one of so many attacks over the years by politicians and the media on attempts to sustain an independent judiciary

The Anti-Corruption Agency (created in 2003) has managed to hang on….although it is clear that many of the subsequent convictions have been on the basis of tenuous evidence…..public support remains high (judging perhaps it better to have a few“Al Capone” type convictions than let the systemically-corrupt walk free)….
 
It is remarkable how few Europeans know (let alone care) about Romania. Tom Gallagher is an academic who published his Theft of a Nation – Romania since Communism in 2005; Romania and the European Union - how the Weak vanquished the Strong (2010); and has written over the years frequent columns for the European and Romanian press. His interests, however, are much wider which means that the occasional article by outsiders who know little of Romania (such as these by Dennis McShane and David Clark) can so easily (and shamelessly) mislead.
Gallagher must have French and German equivalents but I don’t know of them…. 

Alina Mungiu-Pippidi is a highly respected academic indeed one of the world’s foremost writers on anti-corruption efforts (now based in Berlin) but her efforts to help her country are attacked by the local corporate media….since she is seen as parti-pris…..Here is a typical piece she wrote about her country’s successful efforts in outsmarting the EU.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Can outsiders ever understand what's going on in Romania?

An article and paper from a British consultant/hired gun about aspects of Romania’s judicial system has coincided with an explosive scandal here in Romania about tapes of conversations between anti-corruption agents, Prosecutors and the Secret Service apparently targeting for prosecution people, for example, who were getting under the skin of the previous President……
It got me reflecting for the first time for some years on what Francis Fukuyama called the “Getting to Denmark?” question – namely how long it takes a society to develop strong and reliable institutions of liberal democracy….. This will be a rather personal and disjointed post as I try to collect my thoughts...so forgive me.....I will try shortly to gather them more coherently...

My relationship with Romania goes back exactly 26 years – I arrived to heavy snow and dim lights in January 1991 and, for a week, was ferried to places such as Brasov and Alba Iulia in an ambulance (I was on a WHO assignment) to meet various dignitaries; subsequently travelling to and from Iasi in the East by train. 
In mid 1992 I took up a year’s assignment in the Prime Minister’s Office, working with the newly-elected big city mayors and the Ministry of the Interior to design the country’s first EC project of support for local government – during when I had discussions with several very senior politicians and officials and had a vague sense then of the iron fists and years of experience concealed in their gloves, eyes and voices.…
I was even one of a small number of foreign guests given seats of honour and a special mention at one of the first Conferences then of the renamed Social Democratic party (PDS) - which was all too quickly admitted to the Socialist International…This proved to be a useful network for some very skilful operators to use to pull the wool over Europe’s eyes about the dismal reality of reform efforts in the country in the 90s.

I remember vividly Ralf Dahrendorf’s judgement in 1991 that it would take at least a generation to make the beginnings of an impact on the communist mindset inculcated in central european countries for 50 years. But the European Commission knew differently and made a decision in 1997 which shocked me to the core – that EC technical assistance to central European and Balkan countries would no longer be governed by “developmental” objectives but rather by their ability to meet the formal legal requirement of the Acquis Commaunitaire (AC)…….ie of EU membership
It was obvious that the old power structures were still firmly in place but a break in the rule of ex-communists had taken place in 1996 when a liberal President was elected who sadly proved to be ineffective - and the old communist rule continued under Iliescu until sea captain and Bucharest ex-mayor Basescu took power in 2004. Only then can it be said that the reform of state agencies (slowly) started – very much under the eye of the EC…. Although the country was admitted (with Bulgaria) to the EU in 2007, its judicial performance (with BG's) caused sufficient concern to ensure that it was subject to continued monitoring under the terms of the Verification Mechanism. This continues....  

By then, however, the EC and EU strategy was simply to request Romania to observe the legal formalities of the AC;  and to set up and ape the institutions of old Europe (already started through “twinning” with appropriate agencies in member countries, in the last decade with the hundreds of millions of euros of EC Structural Funds managed entirely by Romania).

Noone, it needs to be stressed, is an expert in the transition from communism to a system of liberal democracy – or whatever we want to call the European system. We need to be very clear about this….noone expected it the Wall to fall - the only remotely equivalent experience was the collapse in the 70s of the Iberian and Latin American dictatorships – so people like me had (slowly) to try to build up a new set of putative skills and capacities……with rather limited success as I try to explore in The Long Game – not the log-frame (2011)

 I can’t pretend to be an expert on Romania - since I returned only in 2009; have divided my time since then between Bulgaria and Romania; and don’t even speak the language…..
But, thanks to my Romanian partner, I did take part in workshops, for example, for Young Political Leaders led by American advisers who really shocked me for the disdain they showed for policy matters – everything was about political marketing….These, of course, were the days when everyone was preaching that the State should be dismantled….only in 1997 did the World Bank Annual Report grudgingly admit that they may have gone too far in their exhortations about privatisation…….  

Another memory I have of these days is the Head of the European Delegation (Karen Fogg 1993-98) who gave every consultant (like me) a summary of Robert Putnam’s Making Democracy Work – civic traditions in Italy (1993) which suggested that the "amoral familiasm” of southern Italian Regions had undermined their pretences at modernism and effectively placed them 300 years behind the northern regions.  Putnam indeed spawned an incredible technocratic literature on the concept of social capital and ideas on how it could be “engineered” to deal with the new alienation of modern capitalism..
Romanian communism had almost 50 years to inculcate more cooperative attitudes and behaviour – but the forced nature of “collective farms”; the forced migration of villagers to urban areas to drive industrialisation; and the scale of Securitate spying created a society where, paradoxically, no one felt able to trust.
From 1990 the market became God; Reagan and Thatcher had glorified greed; the state was bad; and television – which had been limited by Ceaucescu to 2 hours a day - the great good……As the commercial stations and journals spread, the values of instant gratification became dominant.

The short pamphlet Fighting Corruption with Con Tricks- Romania’s Assault on Democracy  just produced by the Henry Jackson Society shows absolutely no understanding of any of this……..nor the scale of theft perpetrated by business - national and international. 
I want to be fair to this article and the 20-odd page pamphlet about the Romanian both of which I have read very carefully. I think he makes some very fair points …….What, however, is missing is any balance. The scale of the plunder carried out by Romanian businessmen and politicians challenged only by the establishment a few years ago of the anti-corruption agency is never mentioned - nor the scale of the the plunder and the role of the PSD in sustaining it….

And unlike this longer academic review of the Romanian judiciary published last year, Clark’s brief coverage of the communist period’s influence on the judiciary is used simply to tar the current system with communist methods….
Clark is not stupid – he must realise that in the heavily politicised Romanian context, his paper is going to be used to weaken the only agency which has been giving ordinary Romanians some hope that their country was at last making progress toward a system which held powerful people accountable……Nor am I na├»ve – I understand the power various secret agencies exert here over judicial and political figures…..but that requires us to be so very careful and balanced in what we write – not to give succour to the devious        

Those who really want to get a sense of the country can do a lot worse than clicking Mapping Romania - notes on an unfinished journey

Monday, January 9, 2017

Revolutionary Times??

For the past 2-3 months the Brits have found themselves discussing a constitutional issue - namely the scope of parliamentary power. For the British PM, “Brexit is Brexit”…..it is her government, she asserts, not parliament, which should make the formal request to the European Union to start the negotiations for withdrawal…
The relevant Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty says: “Any member state may decide to withdraw from the union in accordance with its own constitutional requirements.” But the UK’s constitution is unwritten and, therefore, contentious……..inevitably therefore some people took the government to (the High) court on the issue

The UK calls itself a “parliamentary democracy” but was judged by a senior Conservative Minister in 1976 to be more of an elective dictatorship – by virtue of the power Britain ‘s “first past the post” electoral system gave Prime Ministers. British Parliamentarians are generally “whipped” into support for “their” government (of whichever sort) and shows its independence only in times of crisis or when government whips cannot drum up the necessary numbers.
It was the narrowness of the votes which forced (a Labour) government into the first concession to a Scottish referendum (on the question of an elected Assembly in 1979) – although it was actually the third time that decade the device of a referendum had been used. The first - in 1973 – was one for Northern Ireland voters alone – one of no fewer than 8 localised referenda for different parts of the UK (inc in 1998 for London). The 1975 referendum seeking confirmation of the British membership of Europe which had been negotiated 2 years earlier was the country’s first UK-wide one and also the first time British Cabinet Ministers had been allowed a free vote.

Brexit was actually the eleventh referendum in British constitutional history but only the third which was open to all UK voters (The second UK-wide referendum was in 2011 - when a proposal for a system of proportional representation was soundly rejected…)

So a referendum is still a rarity in British constitutional practice……as such, its results are (and must be) highly prized……
The issue before the UK’s Supreme Court is simply whether government or parliament should trigger the request to Europe to withdraw. This is how a prominent public law specialist put it - 
The decision of the High Court in London (in November) was a ruling not on whether Brexit should happen, but on how it can happen lawfully. Some of the press coverage of the decision has been deplorable. There is nothing–nothing at all–in the court’s judgment to block the will of the people, to reverse the result of the referendum, or to get in the way of Brexit. Nor is there anything inappropriate in turning to the courts to determine how Brexit can proceed in accordance with the rule of law.
 To rule on such matters is emphatically the courts’ job. For 25 years I have been among the first to criticise judicial rulings that trespass into terrain better left to politicians and Parliament. But this is no such case. The court has done nothing improper and those who sit idly by whilst others who should know better castigate the judges for doing their job should be ashamed of themselves. We are a country that abides by the rule of law, and we should act like it.  
So the question is whether ministers can trigger the beginning of the UK’s formal departure from the European Union without further parliamentary enactment. The question is not whether ministers could conclude that process without further parliamentary enactment. (The answer to that question would clearly be no.)
In other words, the questions is not “does Parliament have to be involved in the Brexit process”. Of course Parliament has to be involved. The question is a much narrower one: “does Parliament have to be involved before the Brexit process may be formally commenced under Article 50?”.     

The Professor then goes on to argue that the High Court was actually wrong in its eventual judgement that it was parliament which had the right to trigger article 50.

A good friend of mine runs a website which exposes the manoeuvrings of what he calls the global nomenklatura and the deceit and silences of the corporate media. I have a lot of sympathy for his position – if not quite his same faith in direct democracy and “the people”
A couple of weeks ago he sent me an article he had written which excoriates those who dare challenge the thrust of Brexit. It contains a sentence which had me reeling -    

 “The Outcome of a referendum cannot at all be questioned by anyone – just as God’s word cannot be questioned” which admirably captures the underlying thought process of Brexiters.

I see just three little problems with this statement –
- The result of the 1975 UK referendum was never accepted by eurosceptics whose subsequent and unceasing campaigning efforts eventually paid off after more than 40 years. The 2015 Scottish referendum result has not been accepted by Scottish nationalists and others….. Public debate never ends….so I don’t accept the view that those who continue to argue for “remain” have somehow lost their right of free expression. Indeed I find the vehemence of the campaign mounted by the popular press in Britain against judges and “remain” parliamentarians (for example) frightening and indeed dangerous in its utter lack of respect for (if not understanding of) democratic rights…..….The British system is one which, until now, has respected the rights of minorities since, one day, they too can become the majority….

- Britain’s “unwritten constitution” has placed parliament; the judiciary; and a neutral civil service at its core. I grant you that (a) parliament seems to have abrogated much of its authority (if not respect); (b) the judiciary’s deep class partiality has been successively exposed in judicial mistrials (such as The Birmingham Six; and Hillsborough); and (c) that the senior civil service has been heavily politicised in the past decade or so…..
But how ironic that it is the very Brexiters who talked about “parliamentary sovereignty” who are now objecting to parliament being given a voice in the withdrawal process….The main opposition party has made it clear that they support Brexit - but that the significantly different forms Brexit takes require parliamentary discussion and approval (or another referendum) of its precise shape.

- The third problem I have with the statement that the “people’s will is God’s will” is simply that most of us are at least agnostics, if not downright atheists – and even believers interpret God’s will in many different ways

The Guardian newspaper embodies the voice of the liberal elite and is, indeed, a paper I have been reading myself with increasing scepticism (respecting only journalists such as John Harris and Gary Younge) but this article had an important insight…

For decades, eurosceptics revered the UK’s unwritten constitution: its sovereign parliament, its independent judiciary, its neutral civil service. But an alternative centre of power - the people - has now been established. Rather than their loyalty to the constitution, institutions are now judged according to their loyalty to the demos (nearly half of whom voted to remain) ...
The elected Commons is no more respected. There is only one parliament that is currently guaranteed a say on the final Brexit deal - and it is not the British one. Brussels’ much-maligned MEPs, unlike MPs, are assured a vote.
Like past revolutionaires, the Brexiteers are seeking to remake national institutions in their own image. But as they contend with the biggest task facing any government since 1945, they may yet regret their dismissal of accumulated wisdom.

I have never been a friend of the mass media or the political class – this is the short piece (written by Anthony Jay of “Yes Minister”) which is the best expose of the Nomenklatura for me and which I always highlight in my continuing effort to make sense of the global crisis eg Dispatches to the post-capitalist generation (p70).
And this is the expose of the corporate media - Fraudcast News – written by Pat Chalmers who, for more than a decade, was part of the Reuters News system.

But I get worried when the rule of law gets ridiculed or trampled….It takes us back to the 1930s…..

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

The Slaves' Chorus

If you’re looking for a good read in this relaxed period after the New Year, let me recommend The Slave’s Chorus – the 2016 posts whose format I explained in this post a month ago
The title is a reference to the Brexit and Trump upsets – when the vox (and disgust) of the populi was loudly heard - and reminded me of the electrifying performance of Verdi’s opera of that name which I heard in the early 90s in Brno (Moravia). The way it was being sung sent shivers down my spine with its expression of the long pent-up frustration in the country……   

……I do the drive between Bucharest and Sofia fairly frequently and had interesting side trips to both Eastern and Western parts of the countries during the year which are duly recorded……as well as my artistic and wine experiences…….

A nice feature this year, I think, are the illustrations which, for the most part, are taken from my painting collection….and here is the book in more accessible format - https://issuu.com/ronaldyoung0/docs/the_slaves__chorus

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

John Berger - someone to look up to....

I feel John Berger’s death (at age 90) very personally since he has accompanied me for most of my life….I vividly remember his (black and white) television documentary in the early 1970s - Ways of seeing - whose very title indeed continues to echo in my head and has influenced my writing inrecent years. The book can be read here in full…..

He was a writer who used words to craft sensitive stories about both artists and peasants (he lived in a village in the Haute Savoie from 1974) but was, for me, at his most powerful in two books he wrote with the Swiss photographer Jean Mohr –
- A Fortunate Man (1967) which followed the life and travails of an English country doctor and which can be read in its entirety here
- A Seventh Man (1975) which looked at the fate of immigrants in post-war Europe….

His writing, like the man we saw in later interviews, was extraordinarily thoughtful – not for him the slick phrases which pass for most interviews these days. Words were magic and needed to be weighed carefully….I was amazed to find, as I googled for the Berger resource I have put together below, a virtual conversation Noam Chomsky had with him in 2014

A John Berger resource


Sunday, January 1, 2017

Romania's Socialist Realist tradition

My readers will know that I find art galleries the last bastion of civilisation – private galleries often offering the chance to chat; and well-structured public galleries the opportunity to think. 

Bucharest’s National Gallery gave me on Saturday such an opportunity – with its (first ever) post 1989 exhibition of Romanian Socialist Realism - Art for the people 1948-1965 ? – which will run through to the spring….
….A nicely-presented Catalogue (of 300 pages) accompanies the exhibition and is, for the first time for the Gallery, bilingual and well-priced (13 euros).
I have today selected more than 70 of the reproductions for this flickr album 

Bulgaria and Romania may be neighbours but have rather different experiences of the communist period - with Bulgarian communism having a strong presence at the start of the century and a horrific killing period marking the Bulgarian takeover which started in September 1944. Romania, on the other hand, is reckoned to have had only about 1000 members of the communist party when the Red Army rolled in and the communist takeover took therefore some 3 years before they could officially take over...

The two countries also tend, very sadly, to pretend that the other doesn’t exist – whether in matters of culture or wine……the Danube certainly does seem to act as a bit of a geopolitical barrier (both physical and mental) but Bulgaria stole a bit of an edge on its larger neighbour last year with an  exhibition on the subject – building on one it held as far back as 2002 about the paintings of the 1980s which languish neglected and forgotten in the archives of Sofia City Gallery…(I have its superb catalogue)
And I was remiss in not writing about the autumn exhibition Afternoon of an Ideology in Sofia’s City Gallery about the communist period and painting during this period - which attracted this great blogpost from a young Bulgarian.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Thanks God it's Friday

I have, for the past month or so, been looking over the year’s posts - with a view to compiling a little E-book which allows both their chronological presentation and some reflections on their significance (if any). I first tried this last year and titled the result In Praise of Doubt – a blogger’s year – although it had a double bonus in starting with some posts from the previous year and finishing with a “sceptic’s glossary” whose provocative definitions deserve a higher profile and are therefore added to the 2016 edition which I hope to publish in a few days – running at the moment with the title The Slaves’ Chorus  …...
This is my 8th year of blogging – at their height, posts averaged one every 2 days….now they average one a week – arguably a more appropriate period for disciplined thinking and writing than the 24 hour frame…..Indeed one of my favourite bloggers - The Archdruid Report - sticks (religiously) to a weekly schedule ….

I try to avoid mainstream media, preferring more marginal writing - so was prepared for the outcomes of the British referendum and the American elections. But the Brexit vote in particular was like a kick in the stomach…. ..my EU citizenship, after all, gives me more significant freedoms (to travel and reside) than does my British citizenship…. Almost a third of the posts dealt with these 2 issues….

As befits a blog whose title refers to two mountain ranges another third of posts deal with my (generally very pleasant) experiences of living in Bulgaria and Romania – particularly experiences relating to art and wine……

The final bunch of posts have more miscellaneous topics, generally occasioned by my reading….. or viewing (documentaries have been an important discovery for me this past year). Indeed I seemed to find books less gripping this past twelve months – only seven made sufficient impact to inspire a post -
How will Capitalism End? - a summary of whose basic thesis can be found in this 2014 New Left Review article

Recommended Blogs
All blogs have a “blogroll” – many of which are outdated. I try to keep mine up to date
A few of the good ones send me automatic updates – generally the collective sites such as Eurozine journal, RSA and the Real World Economist blogs; the great Scottish Review E-journal; and one single blogger How to Save the World. Those which deserve a special mention include –
Poemas del rio Wang - the most amazing site which tends to focus on memories of old central and east European lands; which runs some trips to them; but whose current series is on Iran
That’s How the Light Gets In – the imaginative site of a retired Liverpudlian Polytechnic lecturer with strong cultural tastes
 - Michael Roberts blog - an elegantly written Marxist economist blog
Stumbling and Mumbling - a rather academic blog with, however, good hyperlinks 
Britain is no Country for Older Men – an informative (if rather sexist) blog which celebrates the life achievements of various unsung heroes

The painting is a recent acquisition – one of Plamen Todorov’s dreamlike sequences……