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He can't get them out of the Maidan

Well, it was too good to be true, the Yanukovych government did sent the riot police back into the Maidan overnight, but two bad things happened to them. The first is that even where the police pressed hardest, the crowd did not give way. The Berkut were simply not strong enough to get the crowd to move. The second was that the police themselves are now obviously divided. The most loyal forces of the government are wavering in the face of the spectacular size and determination of the crowds.

Meanwhile Yanukovych is getting desperate- the attempt to extort €20 billion out of the EU in exchange for signing the association pact is a frankly rather pathetic piece of blackmail and will privately laughed out of court in Brussels. It demonstrates how far away Yanukovych still is -or ever was- from engaging with either the European Union or the thousands still in the square. His obvious duplicity has weakened him still further.

The condemnation of last night's police action from the United …

Holding our breath for Ukraine and for Europe

The extraordinary roller coaster of the past twenty-four hours in K'yiv has not finished yet. I have friends in the Maidan at the moment and it does appear that the riot police are withdrawing. Inevitably rumours are swirling, but after the failure to dislodge the protest either in the City Hall or in the Maidan itself suggests that Yanukovych is in real trouble.

Three of the oligarchs are in the Maidan and it looks as though the rest are backing away from the regime. The presence of both Cathy Ashton and Victoria Nuland, the US Deputy Secretary of State seems to have focused minds in the regime about how to get out without the bloodbath that might have occurred last night. The huge cheer in the Maidan as the police withdrew to their buses certainly seems to suggest that crowd thinks that the threat level has eased a bit after the intense pressure of the past two days.

We can only watch and wait- and pray.

Ukraine has not perished yet.





Ukraine: Its the Russian economy, stupid!

Hundreds of Thousands of people on the streets of K'yiv. 

Viktor Yanukovych at bay facing allegations of corruption and criminality. 

Why it could almost be the Orange revolution of 2004 all over again.

Except it is 2013, and the stakes are even higher this time.

The root of the crisis does not lie in K'yiv, but in Moscow. The Kremlin is seeking to restore its influence in a remade USSR: the Eurasian Union. Ukraine is a country as similar to Russia as Denmark is to Sweden, so the idea that it would reject the Kremlin's overtures is shocking to many Russians. Yet the fact is that the Eurasian Union bears little resemblance to the European Union, which it seeks both to emulate and to compete with. Politically, Vladimir Putin's government lost its political legitimacy the day he sought to return to the Presidency, and as a result he was forced to fix the election in order to win it. Economically, Russia has little to offer except basic goods: oil, gas and other commodities. I…

This is NOT the age of the train

Across the European Union- indeed world-wide- there are huge projects to develop high-speed rail systems. The pioneering days of the Japanese Shinkansen and the later French TGV network are now being followed by investments across the EU, and -especially- in China.

Yet there is a problem.

Railways may be more energy efficient once built, but they are hugely capital intensive- all of the components- track bed, signalling and rolling stock, must be built together and the project must be complete before it can operate.The power of rail is in the network, and without such a network, it does not work to anything like peak performance. Whereas road improvements can be made piecemeal and fit in with existing road infrastructure, high-speed rail lines are generally built from scratch. So the cost of such projects as HS2 in the UK or Rail Baltica (to link Tallinn with Warsaw) run into tens of billions of Euros. Even the Chinese are beginning to balk at the huge costs involved, while Californian …

The Tragedy of Pskov

Pskov is one of the very oldest cities in Russia. It is 1110 years since the putative foundation of the city in 903 and it still possesses its ancient citadel - the Krom- and much of the city walls- dating from the time of the Pskov Republic, which like Great Novgorod, tells of an alternate, non-Czarist Russian tradition.

Unlike many Russian cities, Pskov lies close to the border of Russia- only 20 kilometres from the Estonian border. It has a history of trade and contacts all over Europe. Sometimes Pskov has been at the very centre of Russian events: Czar Nicholas II abdicated close by, and the most beloved Russian poet, Alexander Pushkin lived and worked- and is buried- in the region.

Yet there is little or no tourism in Pskov.

There is little or no anything. The bureaucracy of late Putinism and the corruption of the local civic leadership has strangled any potential this extraordinary city might have. No one goes to Pskov, few indeed have even heard of it.

Recently the local government…

Paxman, heal thyself!

I see in the UK that the arch-inquisitor of Politicians, Jeremy Paxman, has said that he too is rather disillusioned with British Politics

Paxman treats politicians as self serving creeps who are only in it for themselves. His view seems to be that if they are not actually criminals, they are fools.

Paxman is paid a £1,000,000, plus generous expenses, a year- a back bench MP earns £66,396 a year and has to account for every penny of their expenses, from which they are also expected to employ several staff.

The fact is it is not politics or politicians we should be disillusioned about- the vast majority of MPs are hard working, decent human beings who are in politics because they believe it makes a positive difference to other peoples lives.

Russell Brand, whose absurd call for a revolution has hit the headlines this week, is a drug taking womaniser with dubious morals and even more dubious opinions, but hey, he is a celebrity- a film star no less. In the vacuous world of BBC celebrity, …

Whether the weather be fine or whether the weather be no...

The day after the "St Jude's day Storm":  it was a rough night, but let's face it, we've had worse- well anyway, enough of Estonia. 

In the UK the predicted zombie apocalypse seems not to have happened, although the press-inspired panic was by turns absurd and sinister- like most things in the British press.

In fact it is still pretty wet and windy in Tallinn, but we just get on with it- after all a year ago we were fighting the first blizzard of the year, at the beginning of a very long winter, and for sure there will be tricky days ahead when the winter finally does arrive.

As for the disruption and mild panic in Southern England- it all seems a very long way from the stiff upper lip, and makes the British look ridiculous.

Politeness, Political Correctness & Censorship

In "1984" George Orwell created the idea that the way we express ourselves has a fundamental effect on the way we also view the world. In the world of Newspeak, bad things could not be permitted, they could only be ungood. In such a way, the party restricted the ability of the individual to dissent. If the idea of dissent could not be expressed, then the very concept of opposition to the party line became impossible.

In recent years the idea of political correctness has gained much traction in the way we talk about the world. Ideas deemed to be socially unacceptable- discrimination on the basis of race, creed, sex, sexual preference and so on- are to be eliminated by the use of carefully proscribed norms. Sometimes the earnestness of this exercise seems faintly comic, and at times "politically correct" has become a term of abuse.

I have generally been tolerant of politically correct language, on the basis that it is a matter of politeness to address a person or a gro…

Unprofitable dinner

After the usual tedious journey to Riga, I attended the kind of dinner that wealth managers inflict on their customers. I happen to have a long history with these particular wealth managers, so received an invitation- probably to make up the numbers, since we have not transacted any business.

If I sound a little jaded, well, perhaps I am- the speaker was interesting in himself, but the topic- trying to institutionalize entrepreneurship- was not really what the first- really only- generation of Baltic millionaires is yet ready for. It was, of course a plug for the services that this particular house provides, and frankly, given the pleasant venue and good wine, fair enough.  Yet as so often in the past I was struck by the way that the large investment houses have a tin ear for the process of innovation and change that is hitting financial businesses around the world. 

They seek to trade on a brand which reflects "centuries of tradition and continuity", yet this particular house…

Tallinn re-discovers an old tradition

Dimly remembered from my fourth year Latin is the idea in Virgil that a nation should "choose foreign leaders". 

It is surprising how often nations do in fact choose foreign leaders, the positive and negative examples are legion: of course there is Hitler, an Austrian, who led Germany, Eamonn De Valera, a half Sicilian New Yorker, who led Ireland and Napoleon, the scion of a Corsican speaking family, who led France. Winston Churchill was half American, and most royal houses trace their origins to each other and not necessarily to the countries that they reigned over.

In the Baltic there has been a civic tradition of foreign participation. The first Mayor of Riga was George Armitstead, who came from a family of British Merchants. 

Now we have a successor, Abdul Turay- whose family originated in Guinea, became prominent in Sierra Leone and later came to the UK. Abdul had already added another step in his family's journey, by marrying an Estonian wife, but now he is set to be …

EU turn

The FT reports on the sharp rise in support for the limitation of the powers of the European Union- even amongst traditionally strong supporters of the bloc.

The context is interesting- the suggestion is that the backlash against the EU is coming as a result of the rapid growth of immigration. The rise of immigration has indeed been rapid, and there is obviously generally pretty limited support for expanding the rights of free movement to the citizens of Bulgaria and Romania. Yet the majority of immigrant attacks are not made against EU migrants but against those coming from the Arab World, the sub continent and sub-Saharan Africa.

To my mind, the issue of immigration is a kind of referred pain: discontent is far more entrenched than merely a right-wing backlash against immigration. The creation of giant government-lead projects, such as EU funded rail construction, is a symptom of a Brussels elite which is seeking to buy the support of the voters. Yet the elite is very isolated and as …

The Low Tax Problem of a Global City

A few weeks ago, Michael Goldfarb published an article in the New York Times highlighting the growing crisis in London property. His view- that Prime London property has become a global currency- has been said before, and rightly. However the timing of his article hit the zeitgeist of growing anxiety about the mismatch between London as a place to live, the capital of the United Kingdom, and London as a playground of the globalized rich. 

The squeeze in London is having a strongly negative effect on large areas of British Society, and the influx of hot money from places such as China, Russia and the Arab World- not to mention crisis-hit EU member states is not just undermining the social fabric of London but the economic fabric of the UK.

At the Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow, several London based members made the point that these apartments now owned by the global uber-rich are often left empty, so at night you see few lights on in Mayfair and Belgravia- and the impact on the c…

Blogging On

Blogging has become more and more intermittent of late.
There are two reasons, one weak and one perhaps less so.
The weak reason is that I have been travelling even more than usual and have simply got out of the habit. 
The other reason is that this blog has its origin in my political activism, and although I am more motivated than ever to try to put forward a platform for economic, social and political change, the fact is that I am much less sure that conventional politics in the UK can deliver necessary reform.
The Liberal Democrats have been a great ideas factory. Many of their ideas were so powerful that they were adopted by the party's political competitors: most recently the increase in the tax-free rate, but also in many other things, such as the independence of the Bank of England.
Most of all the Lib Dems were the party that recognised the deep problems of the British constitution. The position of the citizen, which we call a "subject" in the UK, has been undermined …

Russia a large country that nobody likes

After the sensational rudeness of Dimitry Pleskov, "the voice of Putin" describing the UK as a small island that nobody listens to at the St Petersburg summit, it is hard to see how much further the Russians could descend into fiasco.

The tasteless Marie Antoinette costume ball, the vainglory of the spectacular corruption of late Putinism, all add up to a thoroughly nasty and inept display.

After all, Russia may be a large country, but the large numbers of Russians who prefer to live in London do so because no one likes or trusts the secret policeman who stole the election in Moscow and idles his time seeking the death and torture of gay people. His support for the butcher Assad in Syria just shows that you really can judge a man by his friends.

British Interests

As the fallout of the government defeat in the House of Commons over the proposed military action against Syria rumbles on, it seems pertinent to ask a few questions.

Despite various attempts to place foreign policy analysis in some kind of ethical framework, the fact is that military action exists within a purely Darwinian framework: Right does not prevail, unless it has sufficient might. There are many despicable governments on the planet- including, not least, the government of Russia- but we do not propose to remove their corrupt and criminal incumbents by force. That would be inviting a trial of strength with a foe that has a nuclear arsenal that is quite sufficient to render the concept of victory a meaningless one. The West has disputes with China over human rights that are no less serious that with pre-war Syria, but we do not propose the use of force against Beijing- we use the instruments of soft power and persuasion to try to ameliorate the oppressed in that huge country.

So …

First they came for the Gays...

This blog is no fan of the regime of Vladimir Putin.

Russia has suffered enough authoritarian government and it has repeatedly ended in crisis as the inherent corruption of unchecked power brings the system to breakdown once more. 

At various points in Russian history, from the burning of the proto-democratic city of Novgorod by Ivan the Terrible in 1570, to the Great Terror of Stalin in the 1930s, the country has suffered catastrophe at the hands of a state appointed "gangster elite", whether called the Ophichniki, the Okrana, or the Cheka.

Vladimir Putin thinks that he is a man in the same mold as Ivan IV or Stalin- a strong leader who imposes order upon the fractious Russian body politic. Yet these leaders were ultimately failures- they murdered thousands or millions of Russians in their determination to crush dissent and impose order. Both were certainly monsters and probably both were mentally ill. 

In fact Putin is- thank God- not in the same class as his evil predecessors…

"Realos" and "Fundis" debate misses the point for the Lib Dems

Ahead of the annual conference of the British Liberal Democrats there has been a certain amount of posturing. Nick Clegg has been talking about the need for a "grown up" party that can carry through the responsibilities of power. This supposed debate of Realos- the pragmatic party of government- versus Fundis- unrealistic keepers of some pure Liberal flame- is a complete straw man anyway. Clegg may actually wish to face a challenge in order to be seen as being the master of his party, but the truth is that the Lib Dem leadership is promoting an inward looking and irrelevant debate. The political weather is not going to be made by whether or not a Lib Dem junior minister receives the whole-hearted backing of the party membership in their promotion of some Civil Service inspired political initiative or not. The Cleggite "Realo" case is that the most Liberal thing that the party can do is support the parliamentary party in the exercise of power. The "Fundi" …

Property Madness in UK

London Prime Property has become an international asset in the same way as any other tradeable asset from gold to bonds. It may be that the majority of properties in Zone 1 are now owned by foreign non residents. Syrians and other Arabs, Russians, Chinese: the London Property market has attracted speculators from around the globe. Increasingly, however, these new owners do not let these properties, they simply leave them empty. Walking in some central London neighbourhoods at night is a sobering experience- there are few lights on, and the economic impact is growing ever more severe.

The reasons why London Prime property became so attractive are many and varied, but the primary reason is that the UK does not tax these empty properties. Council tax is not levied when no one lives at the property, and Capital gains and VAT can be avoided very simply.

This gross distortion of London Prime property prices is destroying the city and the country. As George Osborne seeks to reflate the propert…

The Son of Our Future ex-King?

It is customary for the UK to get a bit Maiden Aunt at the news of a royal birth, and sure enough the pages of saccharin nonsense that cover the front pages, and indeed most of the middle pages, of the London press today completely conforms to type. Steely-eyed literary bitches with the morality of Caligula and a usual turn of phrase as uncompromising as nitric acid have suddenly turned into cooing imbeciles around the Royal pram. At least you know that these journalists are being moved to such soppy heights by something they hold most sacred of all: money.

So the endless articles about "Our Future King" whose star sign (Leo, apparently) will apparently guarantee him to be a good King and whose ineffable good breeding will make him endowed with the best blessings of existence, but still some how, you know, normal, will doubtless continue for a few days. The fact is that covering the Royal birth is so cheap, and thus TV, print media, Twitter and the rest of it will cover the s…

The Political-Journalistic Complex

The Ipsos Mori poll published last week showed a perhaps surprising amount of simple ignorance amongst the British Public. In major areas of public policy, it seems that large numbers of people do not have even a most basic understanding of the data behind the issues of the day. Alex Massie in the Spectator put forward the idea that this ignorance is why some kind of political class is necessary. Robert Sharp at Liberal Conspiracy rebutted this, making the fairly valid point that the ignorance on display can in fact be blamed on media failures as much as educational or political ones. The Liberator Blog, rightly points out that the ignorance of the Public does not let politicians off the hook.

So where does this shocking display of political ignorance leave us?

Aside from the structural failures of education, I think it clearly does underline the spectacular failure of the British media to either inform or educate- and the failure of the British public to ask the right questions, but it…

What is to be done?

In nineteenth century Russia a perennial theme of commentators was "What is to be done?". 

In pamphlets, articles and even novels, the question "What is to be done?" is endlessly repeated- notably by Lenin. The crisis of Czarism was obvious, and yet the solutions were not so clear, and in the end the breakdown of Czarist autocracy led to the totalitarianism of Stalin and the murder of millions on a scale that would have been beyond the comprehension of even the most absolute of the Czars.

Now in Russia the question "What is to be done?" is being asked again.

The kleptocratic system that has replaced the faded brutality of the Soviet Union is no more responsive to the winds of freedom than its predecessor. All of the KGB instincts of Vladimir Putin, honed under the stagnant tyranny of Brezhnev, rebel against even the most basic of Western Democratic freedoms. On almost every issue, the gangsters and spooks who have shared the spoils of Post Soviet Russia now …