I'm in the middle of reading Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of our Nature. It's a big book and I stop and start. But today's reading seemed rather appropriate (though it's mostly quotes from other people). In the chapter, the New Peace, he is looking at why since the 90s, there have been so few wars and so few killed (OK it's a controversial book, with a lot of statistics).
His major argument is that democracy inhibits war (well, you can argue, but I won't here). So a little democracy must be better than none, ie autocracy? These semi-democratic administrations or crappy governments, (the term he prefers to anocracies) don't do anything well. Unlike autocratic states they don't intimidate their populations into quiescence, but nor do they have more-or-less fair systems of law enforcement of a decent democracy. They retain the kleptocratic habits of autocracies, from which they evolved, doling out tax revenues and patronage jobs to their clansmen, who then extort bribes for police protection, favourable verdicts in court, or access to the endless permits needed to get anything done. When governments are periodically up for control in a "democratic" election, the stakes are very high. Clans, tribes and ethnic groups try to intimidate each other away from the ballot box and then fight to overturn a result they don't like.
Pinker quotes the "Global Report on Conflict, Governance and State Fragility" as saying that anocracies are "about six times more likely than democracies and two and one-half times as likely as autocracies to experience new outbreaks of societal wars" such as ethnic civil wars, revolutionary wars and coups d'etat.
So far so bad for Ukraine as it tries to improve its democratic system! A further Pinker quote is from Mueller's The Remnants of War: "new wars" are more nearly opportunistic predation by packs of criminals, bandits and thugs, applying ethnic, nationalist rhetoric. The damage can be extensive particularly to the citizens who are their chief prey, since the gangs are just drunken hooligans.
Some of the so-called self-defence bands being formed in Eastern Ukraine sound pretty much like they have swallowed Putin's anti-Nazi and anti-fascist "defenders of Russia" rhetoric but in fact are just gangs of titushki, being used by the Party of Regions to intimidate people.
Let's hope the real democrats are tough enough to cope. And that the EU manages to provide help in more ways than just finance with conditions. (more on that later I think).
I wrote this yesterday. A bit worrying that already an unidentified armed paramilitary group is operating openly in the Crimea.
So Ukraine is back to the 2004 Constitution and the Prime Minister will have more power?
But Parliament won't be re-elected till 2017. So Ukrainians have to depend on these very biddable MPs who are suddenly all for democracy whereas before they were for the Party of the Regions? And judging from their appearance on TV recently, they seem little better than titushki, with their scruffy clothes and brawling habits. Someone should tell them to watch Parliamentary debates elsewhere and learn something. Surely they could at least spend part of their bribes on a decent suit to wear?
Is the 2004 Constitution such a bargain? The President can no longer choose or dismiss the Prime Minister, but he still has considerable powers. A useful one is the right to dissolve Parliament and presumably call new elections, according to the Handbook of Political Change in Eastern Europe 2013 (via Wikipedia). I guess the new President could do that after May.
Does any of this matter while there is no conflict of interest being a lawmaker and a "biznesmen"? In any case, it is still the oligarchs who decide things behind the scenes. They are marginally in favour of being big fishes in the small(ish) pool of Ukraine compared with small fish in an enlarged Russia. They are marginally in favour of property rights now they have got something themselves to protect. Yanukovych was however just the most brutish of the lot. So the oligarchs will still be ruling how the lawmakers will vote, and probably even now the current lawmakers are going to the highest bidder, after their sudden flush of conscience about the killings of protestors.
Would a fresh election for Parliament a good idea? If a clean sweep is needed of all the old lawmakers (an oxymoron in Ukraine where there is no rule of law), where will the new ones come from? I guess since no one has much experience of operating a Parliament properly, let alone governing the country democratically, there is not much institutional memory lost in a clean sweep. But we are talking about a major behaviour change here, not just a change of personalities.
A long way to go before Maidan gets the Parliament it deserves.
The cold weather was quite a shock last week in Brussels, where rain and grey skies are the usual complaint about the weather.
But for me, a bigger shock was the number of homeless sleeping rough on Rue de la Loi, the main windy street whose buildings house the European Commission. Of course, we callous Brits with our Anglo-Saxon economics and politics became used, under Thatcher and later, to people sleeping in sleeping bags on cardboard in doorways. Even "cardboard cities" grew up under railway bridges. And charities set up extra soup kitchens in cold weather for them.
True, I haven't been to Brussels for a long time, so the growth of the homeless sleeping rough near the Commission may have been gradual. But for me it was a shock that here in the heart of Europe, this is what we have already come to, with years of austerity still to come. Perhaps the only thing to be thankful for, is that the main austerity economies are in the south, so sleeping rough is not exposed to such extremely cold temperatures.
And here is another chilling tale, full of sound and fury, signifying something at least.
I was listening with half an ear to Mezzo this morning, when some ghoulish singing stopped me in my tracks and locked me in front of the TV. Afterwards I rushed off to google "Cold Song" by Purcell to find out more about this haunting music that sounded like the teeth chattering of the homeless. It was actually Andreas Scholl singing on Mezzo, but this alternative recording by Klaus Nomi in costume is far more shocking and moving.
It's from the opera King Arthur by Purcell. Here are the words:
———- Purcell’s Cold Genius ———–
What power art thou, who from below
Hast made me rise unwillingly and slow
From beds of everlasting snow
See’st thou not ( how stiff )2) and wondrous old
Far unfit to bear the bitter cold,
I ( can scarcely move or draw my breath )2)
Let me, let me freeze again to death.3)
from Roger Bourland's notes here. Bourland makes it even more poignant by pointing out that Nomi died afterwards from Aids related complications, and his gaunt appearance from illness only adds to the music.
Listen and weep. I would say pray, but to whom? Such heartless gods in Europe at the moment.
The well-known Buddist koan is now solved in Belarus.
Однорукий инвалид оштрафован в Минске за аплодисменты
Сюжет: "Молчаливые" акции протеста в Белоруссии
A one-handed invalid was fined in Minsk for clapping during the recent silent protests.
The Director of LSE (now known as the Libyan School of Economics) has had to resign over accepting funding from Libya. Not just funding for the school, but personal funding. What was he thinking of?
No details yet about how Said Gaddafi got his PhD.
Rumours are that he will be replaced by Tony Blair.
Downhill all the way
I can understand why flights can be delayed by snow, but why is there no heating at Gatwick?
And why does the website not update properly so you can find out what's going on? It seems to have lost all interest in providing live flight information.
Surely Gatwick should be prepared for flight disruptions by now. I can't believe in an excuse along the lines of "wrong sort of snow on the internet"
Bee complaining of kettling at the airport now. With Gatwick staff going round with handwritten placards (?).
Thank God AirBaltic send text messages otherwise she wouldn't know anything.
Just as Assange's release was announced as breaking news on BBC World, someone decided to let off 5 mins of fireworks just below me by the river.
A good thought, of course it must have been coincidence, but well done that Lithuanian.
It's interesting that there is so much faith expressed in the British justice system, just at the time when students are busy complaining at the policing of their demonstrations.
It seems to me that the police have lost their institutional memory of how British demonstrations work, just as recent students have never done much demonstrating.
On the first demo outside the Tory party HQ, they got a sudden shock and have overreacted since. Kettling seems such an infringement of civil liberties when we have hardly got to the petrol bomb or even brick throwing stage. Of course there was some violence, there always was, and the police should know who causes it and round them up out of the way. Or are they scared to do that?
Instead they corral people for hours in the cold, without real reason, so that people become angry and want to get out. Being kept against your will in a kettle is not much different from being arrested.
Stories of police photographing people as they were released show that the police are really over reacting. And there are stories of ripping of their identification number so they can't be identified.
These stories come from what Bee saw herself so I am inclined to believe them.
Personally, it's not treating me so bad. But it's devastating plans for Sloph and Bee in the UK. There are no few chances to start a proper job and a career, and temping provides only short term opportunities, which has played havoc with travel plans on a gap year. How to survive? Sitting it out somehow, which feels like doing nothing, seems the only answer.
I just reread the page Why Wu Wei?
I began this blog when I had a period without work in Greece at the end of my contract and didn't know what to do with myself. I had to make decisions about where my daughter finished her education and there were no clear solutions. The answer seemed to be to do nothing and wait to see what happened.
Well, not exactly "do nothing":
Of course I was still looking for work, improving my web skills, trying to improve the management of my daughter's school, making other friends now I had more time, doing more exercise with regular swimming and generally enjoying the bits of life in Athens that I did enjoy. Both Bee and I were ready for a move to another country even if we didn't know where it would be.
When you feel lost and life doesn't seem to be working out, it is because you have lost the Tao (the Way), the river of life, which will lead you where you need to go. Forcing things does not help to get back to the Way. Sometimes it is necessary to go in the opposite way to that you would expect.
Hence the rubric on the top left of the blog.
Eventually something did turn up: a job in Kosovo. No chance for Bee to live there with me, and only two weeks work a month, for 12 months. So it seemed, no alternative but to bite the bullet and go back to England where Sloph was just due to start university in Oxford.
Not our favourite idea, a bit safe and dull, but it's been a success for everyone but me.
Looking back, it was exactly the right thing to do, even for me. The kids have got their education over, or at least for Bee, university is settled for next year. They have had 4 years of stable life with friends, and for Bee, reconnection with her English roots.
For me, after a brief period feeling depressed by property prices in Oxford and gloom at the lack of attractive property in Ljubljana, I am happily settled in a beautiful flat in Vilnius, meeting new and old friends, and able easily to commute to work in Georgia. I'm glad I'm not locked into a mortgage on an overpriced tiny terraced house in East Oxford.
Even Georgia is coming out of the recession caused by war and global financial crisis. Banks have started competing again. Customers do not want to borrow at current interest rates. So banks, sitting on huge deposits (10% on deposits in hard currency if you leave it there for a year) are slashing interest rates. So there is more work to do here, even though it's been a bit boring for a while.
But it's hard for Bee and Sloph without a home to fall back on in the UK. On top of all the uncertainty of jobs and money and somewhere to live, they have to find solutions to where to put stuff, when there is no attic or garage at home to dump them in. No quick and easy way to come home to Mum when it is all too much. Thank God for Skype and the internet to keep in touch.
Hard to believe it will come right in the end. But for me it always has, so far.
It seems I got so excited about the view of the fireworks on New Year's Eve that I never posted this.
Tonight at midnight, Ignalina NNP finally closes.
From January 1998 to March 2003 (long before I started blogging), my work in Lithuania was mainly about persuading Lithuania to lose its self-appointed title as the country with most nuclear power and manage the energy sector without it.
Ignalina NPP has two Chernobyl type reactors, which Lithuania agreed to shut down at a later date, in exchange with financial help for safety improvements intended to be temporary. During the period of my work, the government continually wriggled out of the deadlines. Finally it made a bargain where the EU could pay for most of the decommissioning, and Lithuania would commit to definite dates for closure of each unit (2005 and 2009).
Without this bargain, Lithuania would not have been able to join the EU.
The story of the negotiations is one which will have to wait for another day.
2005 came and the first unit went. Nobody missed this unit much, as it was not needed, since electrical demand had shrunk after independence and Belarus had stopped paying for its imports of electricity. Nevertheless, still there were suggestions that the second unit should not be closed until it had been replaced by a new safe nuclear power plant.
Now Ignalina NPP is really going to close and there are few that will mourn it, even less people will panic about the lights going out, and nobody will be surprised that the price of electricity will go up, even if it won't double, like all the scare stories.
But has the government taken the intervening time to prepare for closure? Not really. They have not succeeded to get either funding or an agreement with neighbouring countries to share the cost of a new plant. Consequently, electricity will come from a rehabilitated old gas fired power station, until someone does make a sensible decision.
The power sector experts in Lithuania do not generally favour this solution, but since nuclear stations cost a lot, and take a lot of time to build, there's not much choice.
Traditionally the experts have worried about whether Russia will cut the gas off, if gas-fired electricity generation is chosen. They should now not be worrying IF the gas will be cut off, but WHEN it will not be exported from Russia. Russia's gas production is falling, and little new production is anticipated, so it simply doesn't have enough gas production to meet all its future domestic consumption and its contracted exports to Europe especially when all the new pipelines it wants are added. Hence why it is making offers that the 'stans' can't refuse to take the gas off their hands and to control the routes by which it reaches Europe.
So Lithuania, look sharp before the lights go out next time.
However, it's not long since the Economist led with the same head line for Britain: "how long till the lights go out.
With very similar reasons.