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!

Friday, August 31, 2012

Climate Change - celebrating the clumsy approach

The UK Royal Society of Arts is an interesting British institution –
committed to finding innovative practical solutions to today’s social challenges. Through its ideas, research and 27,000-strong Fellowship it seeks to understand and enhance human capability so we can close the gap between today’s reality and people’s hopes for a better world.
Its Director’s blogs give a very good sense of what a highly intelligent and engaged individual in today’s Britain is thinking. Sometimes, for me, it sounds like messages from Mars! No reflection meant on Matthew Taylor! Just on the environment in which the UK chattering classes currently operate with its neo-liberal government.
The blogsite of RSA Fellows also offers fascinating insights and I was impressed with this recent one which was inspired by Professor Mike Hulme’s most recent book – Why we Disagree about Climate Change - which applies cultural theory and reframing to the issue. He argues that the very different perspectives and underlying values we all have make climate change an issue for which we should not be trying to find "a solution". A question of the best being the enemy of the good. Finding a way through the highly contested values involves intense dialogue and the acceptance of "clumsy" compromises
So much that is written about the subject is, quite frankly, hysterical – and the tone both of the blog and of the book which inspired it are rare examples of how we should be debating issues.
Climatology/Science
1. Do we really understand how the climate works?(If it’s so much more complex than the financial system, and we got that badly wrong…)
2. Is climate change happening?(Yes, demonstrably so, but some say ‘climate change’ is not – i.e. it’s nothing out of the ordinary if we had access to records that went far enough back. They are almost certainly wrong)
3. Is climate change anthropogenic (man-made)?(Almost certainly, but there are enough sceptics to allow people to imagine there is a position to be taken here- we are often asked “Do you believe in climate change”)
4. Is ‘runaway global warming’ likely or not?(How valid/important is the idea of ‘tipping points’)
5. How many degrees of planetary warming are ‘safe’?(Is the 2 degree limit a political or scientific judgement?)
Science/Technology
6. Are there any likely scientific breakthroughs that will solve ‘the problem’?
7. Do current intellectual property laws help or hinder the development of carbon abatement technologies?
8. Will anticipated technological change happen quickly enough to prevent avoidable harm, or not?
9. Could an ‘energy internet’ meet our energy needs?(Some, e.g. Jeremy Rifkind argue the key is to make households produce and share energy, not just share it)
Macroeconomics/Modelling
10. Is it viable to stop seeking economic growth in the developed world?(Some say economic growth is economically imperative, but ecologically impossible)
11. Do we have to assume indefinite economic growth in climate models?(Most climate models, e.g. The Stern Review, assume 1.2% growth in perpetuity- this matters because it implies future generations will be richer, and better able to deal with the worst effects of climate change)
12. What should the price of carbon be?
13. Is ‘absolute decoupling’ possible?
14. Does/could ‘cap and trade’ work?
15. Can we design a viable carbon market that is ‘functional and fair’?(The magazine Ephemera recently devoted an issue to this question)Ethics
16. Do natural systems and species have intrinsic value or not?
17. Can we place a quantitative or comparative value on a life?
18. Should/can we value the quality of life of future generations as much as our own?(This question, the so-called ‘discount value’ appears to be a critical wedge issue because it can only be a value judgement, with no objective way of settling the question, but most economic models discount future generations considerably in their models).
Communication/social marketing
19. Is ‘climate change’ the best expression to work with?
20. Is climate change an environmental issue?
21. Is Climate change best framed as a public health issue?
Political
22. Are relatively short democractic electoral cycles part of the problem, or not?
23. Does the developed world have an obligation to allow the developing world to pollute relatively more to correct for historic exploitation, or not?
24. Do we need more regulation or less?
Worldview
25. Is nothing sacred?(Are there things that don’t have a price, or that if they were given a price, would be valued even less?)
26. Do attitudes drive behaviour, or is it the other way round?(A biggie, but I was impressed by this resource as giving some ammunition for an answer)
27. Is the rebound effect serious or not?
28. Should we appeal to economic incentives, or not?
29. Should we work directly with values, or not? 
Framing and reframing (and recognion of the importance of cultural values to problem-solving) goes back a long way. I remember being impressed in the 1960s with the 3 world views suggested by Etzioni in his "Social Problems". Post-modernist thinking, however, has focussed more and more on the variety of ideological prisms with which we sense of the world. And yet, the professionals in my field who teach policy development to the senior civil servants in the Balkans, Near East and Central Asia continue to sell the rational model of problem solving. I hope to look at this in more detail in the future.  

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Property, theft and municipal strategies


Rural crime, we are told by the radio, has been increasing so much recently that new policing methods are being introduced. 
Curious to know what this meant for our area (one of the local shops suffered a break-in a couple of weekends ago), we tried today (at 16.00) to call in at the local police station (the neighbouring village some 20 minutes drive away) – only to be met by a closed door and 3 telephone numbers. 
In one sense, “neighbourhood watch” is old hat here as everyone can (and does) see what is going on elsewhere (that includes my middle of the night pees!!)
Seeing is, however, one thing – the issue for crime detection and prevention is getting people willing and able to summon help; and for that help to arrive expeditiously. Romanians are exhorted in national campaigns to use the 955 national number (which connects to Bucharest) - but I suspect most follow the advice on the police door and use their local connections. And how quick is the response?
Of course it is only nouvelles arrivees such as me who are vulnerable – not the poor locals - vulnerable, that is, for the fantasising that goes on about the wealth of foreigners. Perhaps the best protection would be a few articles and media episodes about the low-income (or possession) profile of most ex-pats here. Why else would foreigners buy property here - except that they don't have the means to buy elsewhere? A Bulgarian magazine did a good article on the profile of the Brits who bought there big-time a few years back -with many being unable to adjust to the new life and returning home.
It is the Romanians with the large, ugly villas who have the cars, white goods and possessions the thieves want.
Yesterday we changed the 2 kitchen windows – replacing the rather shoddy double-glazing job with state of the art triple Thermopan. I was horrified with how quickly the guys dismantled each window. It took them less than 5 minutes to prise out the frame and hop inside!! Fortunately the new system we installed makes it impossible for such entry. Anyone trying will be blasted to kingdom come!! Other, simpler, barriers have also been created against those wishing to steal the black and white photographs I treasure of my childhood!

If local villagers are not worried about break-ins, they should at least be concerned about water; and here the municipality could and should be doing more about water conservation. Since water meters were installed a year or so ago, I suspect the ruling assumption is that the price signal is enough to alter behaviour. But people still need to know the options - and to be encouraged to use water responsibly. I know how wasteful I was until I realised how little water I actually needed for cleaning my teeth and washing....  

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Social Democracy alive and well?

I don’t talk enough here about my homeland – so I am glad to devote this post to an important policy issue in devolved Scotland. Melissa Benn is a name to conjure with in UK educational circles – her mother, Caroline Benn, was the most ardent campaigner for some 5 decades for good education for all; her father is the tireless socialist Tony Benn; and she carries on the family tradition in her role as a radical educational journalist. She had a platform at this year’s Edinburgh Book Festival and has posted a thoughtful piece which points up some Scottish successes in the educational field which she considers are not getting the attention they deserve in England.  
The most immediate thing to strike a visitor from the English educational field is how very different the atmosphere and assumptions are on this subject north of the border. With its proud tradition of the "democratic intellect", long history of compulsory education and world-renowned universities, the Scots seem genuinely to value their school system.
Here one finds very little teacher-bashing and scant reference to market solutions to social problems. At the Edinburgh event, the overriding concern was how to improve access by poorer students to higher and further learning and keep universities free, despite considerable pressure from an unholy alliance of English newspapers and Scottish conservatives. There is a heartening and robust belief in publicly funded, publicly accountable high-quality education.
Is this perhaps the very reason we in England hear so little about Scotland's education system, bar some envious carping at its avoidance of tuition fees? While every fashionable free-schooler or educational conservative has rushed to bash underfunded Wales as proof of comprehensive failure, or bemoaned attempts in Northern Ireland to eliminate its outmoded selective system, there is little discussion of the evident strengths of the Scottish comprehensive system.
In fact, Scotland has deliberately rejected what (their Education Minister) Russell accurately labels the Germ (Global Education Reform Movement) approach so beloved of the coalition, with its commitment to privatisation, competition and deregulation.
He is rightly scathing of the "three initiatives before breakfast" policy-hyperactivity of the current English government. At the Edinburgh session he declared himself "stunned" at recently announced English plans to allow unqualified teachers into classrooms. Rigorous teacher training is at the heart of the Scottish approach, and there are plans, modelled upon the Finnish example, to require every teacher to possess a master's in addition to a first degree.
Scotland publishes no official league tables, although individual schools release their results. (Even Wales now publishes the results of secondary schools grouped into one of five bands.) The Scottish government is moving towards greater school self-evaluation and has, over the past decade, slowly rolled out a progressive "curriculum for excellence", in stark contrast to our own government's speedily devised, overly prescriptive and increasingly contested programmes for learning.
And it seems to be working. Results for Scottish highers, a formal examination taken between 16 and 19, have slowly climbed over the years and are up again in 2012, with no serious claims of grade inflation. From this year, pilot schemes will be rolled out, with the ultimate aim of each child learning two languages in addition to their own. And only last year, the Royal Society praised the high numbers of Scottish students – 49.7% – who study science to the higher levels, and suggested that the rest of the UK should emulate Scotland
in this regard
Scotland managed to keep its separate educational system even after the Treaty of Union with England of 1707 - so we have generally been spared the more mad of the English initiatives. However the development of the comprehensive school was something which took place in both parts of the kingdom.
The reestablishment in 1999 of the Scottish Parliament and Government has, however, given the distinctive nature of the Scottish directions in social policy a stronger legitimacy.
I am not a Scottish nationalist. The issue of Scottish independence was a live one at my school in the 1950s and, when I became active in local and Regional government in the 1970s and 1980s, the Scottish Nationalist party was always an electoral consideration. As, however, Conservative MPs were wiped out in Scotland in the 1980s, the legitimacy of the Thatcher regime was called in question by us all in Scotland (including the churches and professions) and a long (and consensual) constitutional process produced a Scottish Parliament and devolved powers for a Scottish Executive in 1999. 
New Labour’s policies attracted little respect in Scotland – despite the electoral support we gave to Bliar and Brown. 
And the crude neo-liberalism of the 2010 Lib-Con Coalition has increased the support for the apparently social-democratic core of the Scottish nationalist leadership. 
Hence the astonishing ease with which the Scottish Nationalist Party took power (despite the proportionate voting system) in 2011.  Just look at the lecture delivered in London earlier this year (at the Hugo Young Lecture) by the Government’s First Minister (Alex Salmond)
The Scottish Government's policies attempt to protect many values which would be dear to any post-war social democrat in these isles. For example, we have promoted what we call a living wage - £7.20 an hour. And we have made a conscious decision to provide certain core universal services, rights or benefits, some of which are no longer prioritised by political leaders elsewhere – such as free university tuition, free prescriptions, free personal care for the elderly and a guarantee of no compulsory redundancies across the public sector
And looking at the problems of health reform now, I thank the heavens that Westminster's writ no longer runs in Scotland on health issues. But the looming issues of welfare reform exemplify why Scotland needs the powers to make our own policies to meet our own needs and values.
We do this because we believe that such services benefit the common weal. They provide a sense of security, well-being and equity within communities. Such a sense of security is essential to a sense of confidence – and as we have seen over the last three years, confidence is essential to economic growth.And the social wage also sets out our offer for people who want to live in Scotland, regardless of their background. We will provide a secure, stable and inclusive society. And by doing so we will encourage their talent and ambition. Scotland will be a place where people want to visit, invest, work and live.
An independent Scotland could be a beacon for progressive opinion south of the border and further afield – addressing policy challenges in ways which reflect the universal values of fairness – and are capable of being considered, adapted and implemented according to the specific circumstances and wishes within the other jurisdictions of these islands and beyond.
That, I believe, is a far more positive and practical Scottish contribution to progressive policy than sending a tribute of Labour MPs to Westminster to have the occasional turn at the Westminster tiller – particularly in the circumstances of the Labour opposition's policy increasingly converging with that of the coalition on the key issues of the economy and public spending.
Social democracy, then, seems to be alive and well.......

Those wanting to know more about the Scottish devolution experience of the past 13 years can read a good objective treatment here
And those wanting to get a sense of the sort of discussion which is going on about the future of the country - read here

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Prejudiced Orthodoxes

Although I’m a great lover of classical music, I was a great Queen fan in the 1980s and have always been very fond of Dire Straits. It’s only today, however, that I discovered that Mark Knopfler was their lead player – and what a charming man he is. BBC4 put together a nice tribute (which includes some black and white footage of Glasgow where he spent his first 6 years before moving to Newcastle

As I was leaving the church, a nun was nearby and I asked where the donation box was. She showed me and asked if I had any names I would like to give her for prayer. I said that yes, I did, and she then asked me if I was Orthodox. I told her I was Anglican and her response was that in this case she could not take my names for intercessory prayer. Rather taken aback, I said that I could not, therefore, give a donation, for it was incorrect to accept my money and yet refuse to pray for those who needed it, Orthodox or not. In my own church, anyone is accepted at the altar and although, unless confirmed, they can not take communion, they can be blessed whatever their faith and intercessions are for mankind in general.
I left a comment, saying that I was so glad she had blogged about this. My Romanian partner and I had the same experience in a central Bucharest church a few years back - and it has left a deep scar on me. My father was a (Church of Scotland) Minister who had a "reconciliation" mission for several decades with a German Lutheran church in North Germany and whose practice (rather than words) taught me the meaning of love and forgiveness. People should read Victoria Clark's "Why Angels Fall - a journey through Orthodox Europe from Byzantium to Kosovo" to get a real understanding of the evil most of these priests represent. As I've asid, my young local priest here in the village is of the more tolerant sort - I was allowed to make a financial contribution to the church - and he treated me very kindly when I attended a neighbour's wake.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Open Government as terrorism

I had wanted to say something about the Swedish context of the Assange extradition process. But two major contributions persuade me to postpone that for the moment and focus instead on the wider reasons for the demonisation of Assange. First an academic colloquium on Wikileaks which sets the scene thus -
every allegation that WikiLeaks and Assange have come up against thus far are just that, allegations. The juridical principle of presumed innocence has been repeatedly ignored, and the closing of accounts based on a “crime” being committed appears prejudicial – in the double sense of both prejudice and prior to law.Since the cables began leaking in November 2010, the violent reaction to WikiLeaks evidenced by the numerous political pundits that have called for Assange’s assassination or execution, and the movement within the US to have WikiLeaks designated a “foreign terrorist organization” (even Assange's London legal adviser has been put on a terrorist watch list), amount to a profound showing of authoritarianism, thereby signalling the underlying logic of the state. If you listen to the fear mongering that pervades conservative media outlets in the US,WikiLeaks is rendered in the national imagination as a “threat to America”. This notion actually has some resonance of validity if we consider “America” as a cipher for systemic covert dealings and organised impunity rooted in an entrenched system of privilege then indeed WikiLeaks represents a threat as it challenges the parameters of liberalism, the ideology upon which the American state is founded.
The “Wikigate” scandal thus marks a watershed moment for the future of both liberalism and the state. Consequently, it also represents an important occasion to think critically about what this case tells us about the limits of democracy, freedom of information, transparency, and accountability, and as anarchist critiques have long suggested, the violence of the state when it cannot control these limits.
And, today, the Guardian has a long piece exploring the reasons for the venom of the attacks on Assange from the media
The personalized nature of this contempt from self-styled sober journalists often borders on the creepy. On the very same day WikiLeaks released over 400,000 classified documents showing genuinely horrific facts about massive civilian deaths in the Iraq war and US complicity in torture by Iraqi forces, the New York Times front-paged an article purporting to diagnose Assange with a variety of psychological afflictions and concealed, malicious motives, based on its own pop-psychology observations and those of Assange's enemies ("erratic and imperious behavior", "a nearly delusional grandeur", "he is not in his right mind", "pursuing a vendetta against the United States").
There are several obvious reasons why Assange provokes such unhinged media contempt. The most obvious among them is competition: the resentment generated by watching someone outside their profession generate more critical scoops in a year than all other media outlets combined.
Other causes are more subtle though substantive. Many journalists (and liberals) like to wear the costume of outsider-insurgent, but are, at their core, devoted institutionalists, faithful believers in the goodness of their society's power centres, and thus resent those (like Assange) who actually and deliberately place themselves outside of it. By putting his own liberty and security at risk to oppose the world's most powerful factions, Assange has clearly demonstrated what happens to real adversarial dissidents and insurgents – they're persecuted, demonized, and threatened, not befriended by and invited to parties within the halls of imperial power – and he thus causes many journalists to stand revealed as posers, servants to power, and courtiers.
Those impatient to get a  blow-by-blow account of how the Swedish authorities have handled the Assange case can do not better than read this 57 page briefing put together by Nordic News Network. This post by Craig Murray deals with the strength of the case against him. 
And those impatient to get a more detailed analysis of the legal peculiarities should consult Naomi Wolf’s paper

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Julian Assange - leaking in America and Sweden

The Assange story becomes more and more convoluted – with sex and lies making it difficult to focus on the real issues. So, in the true spirit of this blog,  let’s step back; get the story line; and then try to identify the issues.
Most recent writing on Assange focuses either on the sexual issues; on his wider political mission; or the diplomatic complications of his most recent refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy in LondonWe need to pull all the issues together.
This post sets out some basic facts. The next one will focus on the ideological and political context in Sweden which has created such a maelstrom from an act which, in all countries other than Sweden it seems, would be regarded as a private misdemeanour.
  • Wikileaks was founded in 2006 by Assange "to bring important news and information to the public... One of our most important activities is to publish original source material alongside our news stories so readers and historians alike can see evidence of the truth." Another of the organisation's goals is to ensure that whistleblowers and journalists are not jailed for emailing sensitive or classified documents. An online "drop box" was designed to "provide an innovative, secure and anonymous way for sources to leak information to our journalists."
  • It has nothing to do with Wikipedia
  • Wikileaks’s main data bases are in Sweden.
  • in early 2010 Wikileaks began releasing cables which had been sent by 274 of the US consulates, embassies, and missions around the world. Dated between December 1966 and February 2010, the cables contain the diplomats' assessment of host countries and their officials. According to WikiLeaks, the 251,287 cables making Cablegate the world's largest release of classified material.  
  • The first document, the so-called Reykjavik 13 cable, was released by WikiLeaks on 18 February 2010, and was followed by the release of State Department profiles of Icelandic politicians a month later. 
  • WikiLeaks starts negotiations with media partners in Europe and the United States to publish the rest of the cables in redacted (edited) form, removing the names of sources and others in vulnerable positions.
  • April 2010. Julian Assange visits Sweden to discuss an offer of protective co-operation from the Pirate Party, a political movement devoted to maximum freedom on the Internet. After only a brief existence, the upstart party had surprisingly won a place in the European Union Parliament, and had suggested that WikiLeaks would be safer from repressive measures if it were sponsored by a parliamentary party. It is just weeks after WikiLeaks astounded the world and severely damaged the image of the United States by issuing “Collateral Murder”, a military video documenting an appalling war crime by the seemingly inhuman crew of a U.S. helicopter gun ship in Iraq.
  • In August 2010 Assange visited Sweden to formalise the deal with the Pilot Party. During this visit he spoke at a Conference arranged by the Social Democrats and had sex with two women one of whom was an SD supporter and who subsequently used a police friend to check what power they had to force Assange to take a medical test (since unprotected sex apparently took place).  The main instigator is horrified when the police say they will charge Assange with rape – and refuses to sign the interview sheet. A warrant for his arrest for rape is issued (but rescinded within a day by a higher authority on the basis that there is no case to answer) An SD politician fighting a difficult election gets the case opened up a few days later and leaks to the press (He has a legal partnership with an ex-Minister who allowed American rendition).  Assange waits in Sweden for 5 weeks for clarification; is told there are no charges against him; leaves the country on 27 September. That same day a warrant is issued for his arrest.
  • On 28 November 2010, the first 220 cables were published by El País (Spain), Der Spiegel (Germany),Le Monde (France), The Guardian (United Kingdom) and The New York Times (United States). WikiLeaks had planned to release the rest over several months, and as of 11 January 2011, 2,017 had been published.
  • The US government reacted angrily to these disclosures – and a Grand Jury is apparently in existence collecting information (with FBI help) for a prosecution.
  • On 30 November 2010 Swedish Prosecutor Ny (the third to be involved in the case) issues a European Arrest Warrant for Assange and authorises an Interpol Red Notice concerning him. This is reserved for terrorists – but even Gaddafi was given only an Orange notice
  • Assange uses every legal means to resist extradition to Swedenfearing that their close cooperation with the USA will lead to his extradition to the USA where he has become a hate figure – with some politicians openly calling for his assassination.
  • he spent almost 500 days in "protective custody" while fighting the case with the English legal system (this means with friends with an electronic tag on his ankle) 
  • when he finally lost the battle to be extradited to Sweden, he sought refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London
Although I'm a fan of Scandinavian systems, the Swedish bureaucrats were exposed a decade ago for their eugenics programme which compulsorily sterilised more than 60,000 women from the 1940s through to the 1970s. In the late 1980s, I experienced personally the heavy-handed nature of their police when I tried to enter a night club with a Swedish Professor and his academic colleagues. More later.............................. 

Monday, August 20, 2012

tourists in Brasov

First two weeks of August overcast and cool – but the cloudless blue skies now encircle the Carpathian mountain ranges again. Saturday we acted as Brasov tourists – catching the funicular up the mountain which (a bit like Sofia) towers over the city; and then taking an open-air bus for a city trip. Well worth the 7 euros the afternoon cost (3 for the first; 1 for second; and 3 for parking). Clocked an excellent wine shop en route – offering well-presented wines from various parts of the country – and finished the day with a moving organ and soprano performance at Ghimbav’s fortified church. I’m not a great fan of classical solo singing but Cristina Radu’s voice had me spell-bound. Next Saturday evening sees the last of the Musica Barcensis performances at the most easterly of the fortified Saxon churches - in Rasnov. Brasov has about ten such fortified churches within a short distance - four of them in our neighbourhood. 

A visit to the Carturesti bookshop netted Sach Sitwell’s 1938 Romanian Journey whose intro could have been written yesterday (apart from the references to the royal family)
For Roumania is still unspoilt. Perhaps there is no other country in Europe of which this is true to the same extent. More than this, under good rule, it has limitless possibilities from its untired human stock, who have come safely through the nineteenth century in their pristine state (ie without industrialisation). Let us hope that there will never be a town in Roumania with a million inhabitants. Bucarest must be getting near that mark. For there is always misery in very large towns; and the good fortune of Roumania lies in its mountains and its plains. And this must bring us back, once more, to our general contention. What is permanent and unforgettable in Roumania is the great plain of Transylvania, the woods of Oltenia, the swamps of the Danube Delta, the valleys of the Neamt, painted Sucevita and Voronet, and the wooden houses and gay costumes seen upon its roads. That is the permanent Roumania; while the modern Roumania of factories and model flats is only its amelioration into twentieth century conditions of civilization. We prefer the old. And it is that which will last, tempered by the new.
an attractive book on the secluded (and old-world) Bukovina region by one of the country’s best-known photographers (Florin Andreescu) was also bought; and some autobiographical musings by Norman Manea who got out of Romania in the 1980s and has an interesting foreward to this 2000 book Romania since 1989

3 DVDs of the magnificent old Romanian conductor Celibidache – playing Bruckner with whom he was great friends - completed the purchases. It's said that noone understood his music better.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Rule of Law

In commenting on the Pussy Riot “witchtrial” in Moscow, I broke my general rule not to comment on ongoing events. My blood boiled, however, as I read the live coverage yesterday of the judge’s justification of the two-year sentence she inflicted on the band’s young members for their brief act of defiance in a Moscow church earlier this year. “Conspiracy driven by hatred of religion” indeed! Judges (and priests) in so many of the countries in which I have lived in the past 22 years are so illiterate and craven that they probably cannot even begin to understand the meaning of civil disobedience (see the late 1990s book - Why Angels Fall).

Amidst all the rhetoric in the past 2 decades about democracy one thing is clear. Without the semblance of “rule of law” it is meaningless. That means a system in which the judiciary owes no favours to the political executive. And Russia and China have made it clear that such a system is not for them. I was, two years ago, tempted to China to head up a project which purported to advise the authorities on how to bring such a system into existence (along with lots of other fashionable things such as performance management). After 6 weeks I could see what a nonsense it was – and got out.

The only bright light here in Romania is the independent spirit being shown by prosecutors and judges – one of the probable reasons for the high-handed actions being taken by the new Prime Minister. Hopefully the genie will not go back in the bottle.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, European governments tear up what was left of “rule of law”. The UK, for example, is tearing up the Vienna Convention of 1961 which has allowed people to take refuge in foreign Embassies. This is an excerpt from an ex-British Ambassador’s post on the matter -
The UK government has decided – after immense pressure from the Obama administration – to enter the Ecuadorean Embassy and seize Julian Assange. This will be, beyond any argument, a blatant breach of the Vienna Convention of 1961, to which the UK is one of the original parties and which encodes the centuries – arguably millennia – of practice which have enabled diplomatic relations to function. The Vienna Convention is the most subscribed single international treaty in the world.
The provisions of the Vienna Convention on the status of diplomatic premises are expressed in deliberately absolute terms. There is no modification or qualification elsewhere in the treaty.
Article 22 - 
1.The premises of the mission shall be inviolable. The agents of the receiving State may not enter them, except with the consent of the head of the mission.
2.The receiving State is under a special duty to take all appropriate steps to protect the premises of the mission against any intrusion or damage and to prevent any disturbance of the peace of the mission or impairment of its dignity.
3.The premises of the mission, their furnishings and other property thereon and the means of transport of the mission shall be immune from search, requisition, attachment or execution. 
Not even the Chinese government tried to enter the US Embassy to arrest the Chinese dissident Chen Guangchen. Even during the decades of the Cold War, defectors or dissidents were never seized from each other’s embassies. This terrible breach of international law will result in British Embassies being subject to raids and harassment worldwide.The British Government bases its argument on domestic British legislation. But the domestic legislation of a country cannot counter its obligations in international law, unless it chooses to withdraw from them. If the government does not wish to follow the obligations imposed on it by the Vienna Convention, it has the right to resile from it – which would leave British diplomats with no protection worldwide.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

A European Tour

An absolutely brilliant travel blog which I’ve missed for the past couple of years as Merlin and Rebecca have traipsed around Europe – spending a couple of weeks in each country and posting superb photos of places and food, with recipes thrown in. They have only 6 of their 50 countries left to visit (if, that is you count UK as one – it is really 4). They were in Romania in June and have nice posts about the wooden churches of Maramures; a communist prison; and Romania’s national drink Tuica

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Fighting for freedom

Some courageous and stirring words from the three members of the feminist punk band Pussy Riot currently being tried in Russia for their brief (and uninvited) performance in a Moscow Cathedral and who delivered closing arguments on Wednesday in a case seen as a key test of the Russian president's desire to crackdown on dissent. Let me reproduce the story almost in full - 
"This is a trial of the whole government system of Russia, which so likes to show its harshness toward the individual, its indifference to his honour and dignity," Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, one of the trio on trial said in an impassioned statement. "If this political system throws itself against three girls … it shows this political system is afraid of truth."
The judge set 17 August as the day she would deliver a verdict against the women, charged with hooliganism motivated by religious hatred following an anti-Putin performance in a Moscow cathedral.
Prosecutors have asked for a three-year sentence, arguing that the women sought to insult all of Russian Orthodoxy and denying they were carrying out a political protest.
"Even though we are behind bars, we are freer than those people," Tolokonnikova said, looking at the prosecution from inside the glass cage where she and her two bandmates, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich, have spent the nine-day trial. "We can say what we want, while they can only say what political censorship allows."I am not scared of you," Alyokhina (24) told the court. "I'm not scared of lies and fiction, or the badly formed deception that is the verdict of this so-called court. Because my words will live, thanks to openness. When thousands of people will read and watch this, this freedom will grow with every caring person who listens to us in this country." 
Each woman ended her closing statement to loud applause from the Russian journalists sitting in the courtroom.
There are some aspects of this case I don't like - their performance was childishly offensive in its location and content; and the western media (and Madonna) fail to explore the question of how such pranks would have been treated in the west. But the fact remains that the cosying up of the Russian Orthodox church to Putin is sickening; noone else seemed to have the guts to challenge it; and the girls' words are inspiring. 

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Novels and music

Have been indulging myself in past week – eg reading three John le Carre novels in quick succession – A Small Town in Germany (1968); The Second Pilgrim (1991); and The Looking Glass War (1965). His portrayal of Embassy life in the first two is cutting; and the dialogues on the compromises such people make rise occasionally to Shakespearean levels. Corporate power looms large in the middle book – and the conclusions of all three books, unusually for such thrillers, give idealists little hope. I’ve come late to le Carre and am hooked. He is a great wordsmith; crafts great atmosphere; and, by virtue of his focus on moral dilemmas, can reasonably claim to be one of the great political novelists.  
Pity he can’t be persuaded to write a novel based on Romanian political realities! Presumably someone will soon write a novel focused on the recent work of prosecutors here which, having put one ex-Prime Minister and a Minister of Agriculture into prison, now have another ex-Minister and current MEP in their sights 

A great Romanian pianist died at the weekend – at the tragically young age of 33 - Mihaela Ursuleasa
She represented Romania’s great cultural tradition whose musical side was celebrated recently in a Sarah in Romania post 
Not just the well-known Enescu but composers such as Porumbescu (here and here); Martian NeagraDinicu  and Constantinescu to mention a handful. And these are just some of the composers! Then throw in the performers eg The Balinescu quartet eg their wine’s so good and their Life and Death. Hopefully you can hear the YouTube music - for the moment I have no sound!
What a pity that their political class has dragged the country's reputation down!

And I have just learned that Gore Vidal has died - at age 86. I've only read a couple of his novels but it was his increasingly acerbic essays on American politics which had me rolling in the aisles - particularly his mock State of the Union addresses.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

State Capture

I returned from Sofia last Thursday (with many litres of white Bulgarian wine) and am now back in the mountains – silent witness to the latest events of the pantomime which passes for politics here in Romania.
Only 46 percent of voters apparently cast their ballots in Sunday’s referendum called after the Romanian parliament suspended Basescu in early July on accusations that he had overstepped his power. Given the outdated nature of the electoral register, this is an astonishingly high percentage for such a contentious, quickly-called and inconveniently-timed referendum and suggest to me the ballot-stuffing of which this government has proved itself highly capable.
88 percent of those who did bother to vote favoured Basescu's ejection, but the president had asked his followers to boycott the referendum.
On Monday, just hours after the country's Central Election Bureau announced that voter turnout had not been sufficient to make results of the referendum valid, Basescu went on the attack. Those who "organized this failed coup," he said, "should be held responsible before the state institutions."
Prime Minister Victor Ponta promptly responded by demanding that the president resign. "He will probably stay in the presidential palace, will have cars, villas and some profiteers around him who will continue to advise and praise him," Ponta said on Monday. "But for the Romanian people he stopped being a leader last night."

The Romanian Academic Society is one of the few bodies in this country which tries to offer analysis rather than emotional diatribes – and I missed its typically balanced paper which puts the recent antics in the detailed context of legislative and political events and court decisions in Romania over the past 2-3 years. The paper draws attention to the scale of parliamentarian cross-dressing (MPs changing parties during the course of a parliament) and argues that 
the reason for this bitter fighting and the high political migration in Romania is one and the same: the high stakes of state capture in an environment with major corruption opportunities. 
The paper even-handedly points to the corruption of Basescu colleagues which has been unearthed recently – undermining the argument that this has been, in the phrase of one German newspaper, a case of white knights versus black knights
A system in which the suspended President’s daughter; acting President’s wife and Prime Minister’s wife are all (from different parties) Members of the European Parliament indicates just what a self-serving political class we have here. Another RAS commentary gives more detail on the political aspects of the RomanianConstitutional Court.