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December 23, 2009

European referendums

Inspired by the Swiss minaret ban, a reasonably unpleasant German group is trying to force a pan-European referendum on banning minarets. Apparently

The Lisbon Treaty, which has now entered into force, contains a provision for referenda subsequent to the collection of one million signatures in favor of the measure in question. Just how such a process might work, however, has yet to be sufficiently established.

If that's true, surely we're about to be deluged in referendums? A million signatures on a European level is nothing. It's the kind of number Greenpeace could collect without breaking a sweat, for instance, let alone any party organization.

I can't find much trace of it in the Lisbon Treaty (but the treaty is massive, and I have no idea where to look). The closest is this delightfully vague and toothless provision:

Not less than one million citizens who are nationals of a significant number of Member States may take the initiative of inviting the European Commission, within the framework of its powers, to submit any appropriate proposal on matters where citizens consider that a legal act of the Union is required for the purpose of implementing the Treaties. The procedures and conditions required for such a citizens' initiative shall be determined in accordance with the first paragraph of Article 21 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. [article 8A.4]

December 8, 2009

Urban regeneration after a recession

Le Monde points out that periods of recovery from recession are crucial in the growth, or decline, of inequality between districts. It is now that new businesses are created, or not, in depressed areas, and when they can most easily be nudged by state intervention.

C'est dans ces périodes, paradoxalement, que les écarts entre les territoires risquent de se creuser, entre ceux qui végètent et ceux qui rebondissent vite. Dans ces périodes, aussi, que le gouvernement, rassuré quant aux risques d'explosion sociale, peut être tenté de réduire les moyens, déjà limités, consacrés à la politique de la ville pour les redéployer sur d'autres priorités.

October 14, 2009

Greek elections

I'm yet to find a decent analysis of the Greek election a week ago, which gave the centre-left Pasok Party their largest victory ever.

Since my knowledge of Greek politics is limited to a vague awareness of last winter's riots, I'm stuck with not-particularly-informative media pundits. For starters, it seems nobody even has any idea why the election happened. The ruling ND party could have continued for another couple of years, but instead called elections that everybody expected them to lose. Why?

Was it because Prime Minister Konstantinos Karamanlis wanted out, on a personal level? (Many of his ministers didn't want the election). Is there some impending disaster that he'd rather see blamed on the opposition? Or just that the recession will be painful, and it's easier to dump that on Pasok?

The other question is why the centre-left won, when across the rest of europe they're simultaneously disintegrating. As far as I can see the answers have little connection to Europe, or even to the dubious virtues of Pasok. The only international element is the economic collapse. Beyond that, it's all Greek: the corruption, the unpopularity of Karamanlis, anger over December's protests. Or something completely different, for all I know.

[normally when I write about something I know nothing about, I find myself learning a little in the process. Not this time]

July 12, 2009

Chansons des filles de mai

I've taken advantage of my stay in Paris to unearth in a library a book of poems that for years have been nestling, half-remembered, in my head. These are the Chansons des filles de mai, produced by an Italian writer, Alba de Cespedes, who was living in Paris during '68. They aren't her personal story, but a kind of emotional documentary of the young women she met during that year's rebellion, a patchwork of very simple poems constructed from their conversations and self-justifications. This lets her capture both the angry euphoria of the girls who know themselves to be at the centre (or the start?) of a storm -- and also the uncertainty of those feeling isolated, uncertain, constrained by motherhood or shyness, by their parents of by their own depressive lack of interest.

My friend Sara dramatised the collection in 2003, in the immediate aftermath of failed anti-war protests, and the slightly more distant aftermath of the Genoa G8 summit. But while the connections between times are real, they are also oddly insignificant. The poems are infused with politics, but they aren't political poems. Sara writes of them as about 'the will to live out ideals through your own life'. For me, what is even more touching is the recognition that desire can be worthwhile, even when the dreams are impossible. Or when the dreams are failing: this poem, describing the end of the protests, is the one I keep on remembering:


30 Mai 1968

Ce soir, notre quartier,
sur la rive
gauche,
porte le deuil de ses rêves.
Derrière les fenêtres sans lumières
-- orbites noires dans la pâleur des façads --
des yeux vides de regards
fixent les rues désertes.
Encore un soir,
le dernier,
nous serons entre nous:
les fous d'amour et de révolte.
Cette rive sera encore
la nôtre;
à nous seuls, prison, ghetto,
léproserie.
Ils resterons sur la leur.
Ils n'oseront pas traverser
la frontière
de la Seine.
Ils nous reconnaissent le droit
à cete veilée funèbre,
à cette liberté
surveillée -- de loin --
par une armée qui veille
elle aussi,
qui épie
notre silence méprisant,
inquiétant.

Quartier Latin, les étudiants
veillent dans la cour
de la Sorbonne.
La place de l'Odéon
serre entre ses bras
ronds
cette belle nuit de printemps.
Les mots des graffiti
qui pavoisent les fac,
circulent comme des feux follets
parmi les tables des cafés-tabac
du boulevard Saint-Germain.
Dans nos rues, coupables
de complicité,
les pavés-munitions arrachés
ont été replacés hâtivement,
sévèrement.
C'est sur les mains de la jeunesse,
sur les pierres de son chemin
qu'ils rouleront demain,
de l'autre rive,
vers le week-end rassurant.

Dans leurs mansardes
autour de la Sorbonne,
dans des chambres de bonne
tapissées de posters
-- le regard fier du Che --,
des garçons et des filles, armés
de poésie et de colère,
font l'amour avec un plaisir
désespéré,
mouillé des larmes.

Ces garçons aux cheveux longs,
ces filles aux jupes courtes,
sont les citoyens de nos rues
de la rive
gauche.
L'odeur âpre de leurs corps
d'écoliers,
est l'air même
de notre quartier.

Partout, dans le Sixième,
sont affichés des tracts
en forme de poèmes.
Demain matin,
de bonne heure,
on les recouvrira
avec des publicités
de machines à laver
det de frigidaires.

Les hirondelles du Luxembourg
poussent des cris d'adieu.
Des pranches amassées sur le boulevard
s'exhale un dernier relent
de gaz;
mais rien n'en restera
lorsqu'ils viendront de l'autre rive
se faire photographier,
sur les squelettes des voitures
brûlées.

O nos enfants de mai,
héros de nuits criblées d'étoiles
et de coups.
On oppose le fer et l'acier
aux roses de l'imagination.

Aux carrefours, le long
des boulevards,
les yeux perçants
sur les toits des voitures
de police;
les paniers à salade, les ambulances,
les hommes habillés, casqués,
masqués de noir,
les boucliers noirs;
toute la panoplie
sinistre
de la répression est prête
contre une révolution
qui n'aura pas lieu.

Les câbles du téléphone
traversent le ciel silencieux:
Littré, Odéon, Médicis
ne répondent pas
ce soir.
Derrière nos fenêtres closes,
près des téléphones muets,
des transistors éteints,
nous veillons en silence
nos espoirs matraqués.
Mais les gestes de nos enfants
de mai
restent -- ineffaçables --
dans l'air le temps l'espace
de ce quartier,
sur la rive
gauche.

-- Alba de Cespedes

April 10, 2009

Hostages in France

Sarkozy is feeling helpless about the current French fad of workers holding their bosses hostage as part of protests:

"What's this about holding people captive? We have the rule of law in this country. I will not let such things happen," Sarkozy told a group of entrepreneurs on Tuesday.

The same day, workers at a British-owned plant detained four managers, including three Britons, and held them overnight.

This is the same Sarkozy who first gained national attention by personally wading in to rescue hostages. Perhaps he should put together a personal SWAT team and embark on a 'save capitalists' tour of the country.

Apparently 45% of the French consider kidnapping an acceptable tactic in workers' disputes. I kind of agree, as long as it's on the level of 'inconvenience the boss for a couple of days', rather than 'lock somebody in a cell for years, and demand ransom'. But perhaps I should learn to keep my petulant side in check.

April 7, 2009

Universities on strike

Many French universities have been on strike since the start of February - their longest strike since '68. This has received very little media coverage outside France. My sister, being a student in France, is somewhat irritated by this, and keeps emailing me to grumble that nobody has noticed the protests. Unfortunately, my eyes glaze over when I try to figure out all the arguments and counter-arguments. Still, rather than totally ignore it, I thought I'd at least post a few links:

If you want to find out more about all this, you could do much worse than following the notes about it in Art Goldhammer's French politics blog

November 16, 2006

Slamming just says "let's not fight"

When Radio Free Europe report that "Georgian parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze today slammed the Commonwealth of Independent States", they're missing the point slightly. The news isn't that Georgia dislikes the CIS (we know that already), but that they aren't doing anything about it. 'Slamming' is a de-escalation, not an escalation, compared to their other options.

If Georgia wanted to cause trouble, they would be trying to leave the CIS. That's what the opposition want, and what Russia is afraid of: this summit was due to be held last month, at the height of Georgian-Russian anger, but Russia arranged a postponement to avoid a rash pullout by Georgia.

Leaving the CIS is one of the few weapons Georgia has against Russia: the organisation represents the last vestige of Moscow's control over its 'near abroad', but is being held together with chewing gum and bits of string. To the East it's being eclipsed by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and to the West by GUAM. Since these can fulfil most of the functions of an international talking shop, nobody except Russia has an interest in keeping the CIS running. If Georgia left, it could plausibly bring down the whole house of cards.

But the Georgians are being smart. If they actially leave the CIS, they lose a barganing chip and don't gain much beyond the joy of watching Russia suffer. Much better to turn up, refuse to pay membership fees, grandstand about Russia's crimes, and keep that threat on the table:

"We are here to make sure once again if we have any reasons to stay in the organization, or it has no future," Burjanadze announced.

Along with the recent replacement of the Defence Minister, this seems to be part of a very sensible pattern of de-escalation by Georgia.

November 3, 2006

Georgia, still

In lieu of content about Georgia, here's some of what other people have been saying...

The News

  • Russia's anti-Georgia measures have cost Georgia 1.5% of its GDP, and 17% of its export markets, according to the Georgian Prime Minister. That's including the wine ban earlier in the year - but presumably not including the remittances sent home by Georgian workers in Russia, which would push the figure much higher.
  • The media always faithfully reports diplomatic visits like the time Georgian foreign minister Gela Bezhuashvili spent in Moscow this week, but I find it pretty hard to get excited about them. Anyway, Putin refused to meet Bezhuashvili, who in turn went on the radio and threatened to veto Russia's WTO entry.
  • Russia is threatening to double the price of gas supplies to Georgia (RFE/RL,BBC)
  • Eurasianet reports on Georgia's attempts to accommodate the deportees
  • Foreign policy carries a surprisingly lightweight article from Jon Sawyer. He argues that the US "has helped to fuel this crisis: by showering Georgia with cash and praise, by extending the promise of NATO membership, and by standing silent as Saakashvili and his government made ever rasher attacks on Russia"

The blogs

Vilhelm Konnander had an excellent post on Georgia a fortnight ago. He turns up a recent opinion poll saying that 61% of Russians consider Georgia "a bandit state".

Registan also has plenty of posts on Georgia, and DJ Drive is still at it, blogging both in English and Russian. This translation from Kommersant seemed particularly interesting:

The Kommersant Daily speculates that Andrei Illarionov, ex senior advisor and an outspoken critic of Putin's economic policies (which include arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky), might become the next economics advisor for the president of Georgia.

Illarionov, who recently has been hired by Cato Institute, a US libertarian economics think-tank, visited Tbilisi a few days ago to participate in "Freedom, Commerce & Peace: A Regional Agenda" international conference and, according to Kommersant, was invited for a dinner with president Saakashvili.

October 28, 2006

IHT makes LJ look calm

Wow. The International Herald Tribune wades into the fray over Six Apart's deal with Sup over Russian livejournal, and comes down firmly on the side of paranoia:

What's so pernicious about the deal is that it replicates the very Kremlin model that poisoned the rest of the Russian media.

The argument is that Sup is a Kremlin hack (dolboeb, "a former associate of Gleb Pavlovsky, the Kremlin's spindoctor"), backed by an oligarch (Aleksandr Mamut), and that therefore they are obviously going to turn the abuse team into politicial censorship. Therefore, "the days of the Russian blogosphere buzzing with criticial opinions are numbered".

Well, the IHT has certainly managed to make bloggers look like a picture of reason and calmness, compared to foreign correspondents in the MSM. Much better commentary by Veronica at Global Voices, and Bradfitz' list of complaints about the deal is alternately sad and hilarious.

This medieval bestiary feel very much like the etymologies in Sanskrit works like Yaska's Nirukta. Both of them shift between what we'd now think of as etymology (i.e. finding plausible historical roots for words), and a more alien sense that the word, through etymology, somehow captures the entire nature of the thing described. I suppose in the West this goes back to the "Platonism without Plato" that drives medieval scholasticism, and there is something pretty similar in India.

The he-goat is a wanton and frisky animal, always longing for sex; as a result of its lustfulness its eyes look sideways - from which it has has derived its name. For, according to Suetonius, hirci are the corners of the eyes. Its nature is so very heated that its blood alone will dissolve a diamond, against which the properties of neither fire nor iron can prevail.

Also, like all these books, it is a very pretty thing.

October 23, 2006

Hungarian protests

[crosspost from livejournal]

Despite what a few people seem to think, I really didn't come here for the rioting. Still, I did spend a couple of hours wandering around the town centre - I may be spending most of my time at home, but you can't listen to sirens and helicopters without getting a little curious.

In case you've missed the backstory: the political right have been pissed off for the past month or so, since somebody leaked a recording of the Prime Minister admitting (in pretty colourful language) that he lied to win the last election. Partly because of that, his party did badly in the local elections a few weeks ago. The president hinted that he wanted the Prime Minister to resign, the PM won a not-particularly-resounding vote of confidence, and things settled down a bit.

Then comes today, which is the 50th anniversary of an uprising against the Soviets. So that gives an excuse to start the whole thing again. Everybody has the day off work, there's lots of flag-waving anyway, and it's not hard to turn it against the Prime Minister who, being a socialist, gets painted as a sort-of communist clinging on. Veterans refuse to shake his hand, the opposition organise a demonstration, and by lunchtime it's moved on to teargas and rubber bullets.

So I walked around a bit, stood around with a crowd of similarly-uninvolved gawkers and watched the police tear-gassing a protest. Then decided it's a bit silly to get too involved in it all, given that I don't even agree with the rioters. Plus there was far too much flag-waving for me - it's something I have a not-entirely-irrational loathing of. Would have taken some photos, but -despite all your advice - I've not got my act together enough to buy a camera.

As before, there were an impressive number of 60-something-year-olds, although the angry young men were out in force again. Also: a total absence of ghouls around the edges selling whatever the right-wing Hungarian equivalent of the Socialist Worker is, and generally a sense that people don't know what they're doing. It's nothing like, say, France, where everybody knows what happens at protests, they treat them as a fun day out, segregate themselves into little blocs and cliques.

Anyway, I think I've now fulfilled my quota of paying attention to Hungarian politics, so now I'll just sit in my room and see how many hooligans get beaten up by the police.

October 16, 2006

Serbia and Georgia

If Russia decides to escalate the dispute with Georgia, one option is for it to recognize Abkhazia as an independent state. Abkhazia is pushing Russia to do just that.

What makes this a plausible scenario is Kosovo. From Russia's perspective, the situation of Abkhazia within Georgia is parallel to that of Kosovo within Serbia: regions enjoying de facto autonomy within hostile states, and pushing for formal self-determination. In Putin's words:

"If someone believes that Kosovo should be granted full independence as a state, then why should we deny it to the Abkhaz and the South Ossetians?"

The implied 'someone' is the UN, where glacial negotiations are moving towards the recognition of Kosovo as an independent state. Russia is unlikely to let this through the UN without demanding a similar decision on Abkhazia. It might not even wait for Kosovo to come up at the UN - ten days ago, for instance, Mikhail Gorbachev wrote that the "logic of international development may lead Russia to a situation in which we will have no other choice but to recognize Abkhazia"

March 29, 2006

Czech Republic

Next stop is a country I can't help thinking of as Czechoslovakia - and yes, I understand I deserve a slap for that.

The blogs and the wires are talking about floods, floods and more floods. No doubt if Prague floods again we'll see it on British TV. There's plenty about bird flu as well; again something that gets international attention wherever it happens. News I would otherwise have missed is the legalization of same-sex marriages

There are a few English-language Czech blogs around, mostly personal diaries of Prague residents - with all the holiday snaps and personal trivia that implies. Gazing into the Abyss at least has a useful list of East European blogs, categorised by country.

This blog is apparently part of a Prague city-guide website. It has frequent news updates, and this charming excursion into exports of Czech children's TV. Cartoon characters "Pat and Mat" have gained htemselves fansites in Switzerland and Japan

Hmm....that country turned out a lot less interesting than Mongolia and South Korea, but nonetheless I think now is a good time to move my spodding somewhere else. Who knows, maybe I'll return to stories from Prague some other day.