Archive | August, 2007

>Bulgarian centre-right stirs?

> Today’s online edition of the Sofia Echo carries the following reports about centre-right politics in Bulgaria suggesting a degree of recuperation and realignment:

“BULGARIA’S RIGHTIST PARTIES RENEW SOFIA COALITION NEGOTIATIONS
11:50 Tue 28 Aug 2007
The Union of Democratic Forces (UDF) and Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria (DSB, met on August 27 2007 to discuss the upcoming municipal elections in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia. New UDF leader Plamen Yurukov and DSB head Ivan Kostov met to discuss a joint nomination for the upcoming mayoral election. The two leading right-wing parties plan to create an electoral coalition. They also plan to prepare a common list of candidates for municipal councillor, according to Focus news agency. Since 2001, rightist parties have performed poorly in elections, a streak that culminated with a defeat at the elections for European Parliament in May 2007. Though there have been bad relations in the past among some of the politicians in UDF and DSB, it is still possible that their co-operation might lead to a successful campaign. “

“OPPOSITION IN BULGARIA WANTS PURVANOV’S IMPEACHMENT
10:38 Tue 28 Aug 2007
Opposition parties in Bulgaria’s Parliament launched a sign-up list for the impeachment of President Georgi Purvanov. Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria MP Neno Dimov initiated the list, mediapool.bg said. Bulgaria’s constitution envisions two possibilities of impeachment of the president, in the case of high treason or in the case of a violation of the constitution . According to the opposition, Purvanov committed both, as it was proved that he had co-operated with the communist-era secret services. The president committed high treason, discrediting Bulgaria before its allies in Nato and the EU and before the world, opposition members said. He made the country look like an unreliable partner and even an instrument of foreign interest. The opposition also claimed that Purvanov violated the constitution by breaking the oath to obey the law and to be led by the people’s interests in all his actions. The president hid his collaboration with the former secret services in his own interest. The second constitution violation was that the president failed to serve the whole nation, and on the contrary, separated it. “

>Fringe benefit?

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I’ve always had a minor fascination with minor parties, whether in a West European or a CEE context – indeed, the next academic conference I’m planning to go to the International Conference on Minor Parties, Independent Politicians, Voter Associations and Political Associations in Politics at the University of Birmingham at the end of November, where I’ll be doing a paper on pensioner parties in Eastern Europe (and beyond). So I was interested to stumble across the newly set up Berrocsir’s blog, which promises a ‘syncretic view of fringe politics’ in the UK. There are only half a dozen postings so far – including, rather oddly, a review of Cider With Rosy – but the writer does seem well informed about both the far right and the internal politics of the Green Part of England and Wales (including links to the two rival Green Party factions campaigning for and against proposed organizational reforms in the party).
Indeed, perhaps s/he is a little too well informed for comfort as “For a world of ten thousand flags!” tag used to sign off is a variant of the “Europe of a Hundred Flags” slogan of the post-fascist French Nouvelle Droite/aka the European New Right, which has been ably and interestingly academically explored by Prof Roger Griffin of Oxford Brookes University in papers such as the one here. The use of the word ‘syncretic’ – a favourite buzzword of the ENR used to describe their fusion of liberal radicalisms of right and left – is also something of a giveaway.
Even if this particular blogger should turn out to be a bit beyond the fringem, a dedicated blog on fringe and minor parties would be an excellent idea given the general dearth of easily accessible information on them…

>Czech Social Democrats to propose campaign spending ceiling

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Czech Social Democrats are to present a bill to parliament in September introducing a ceiling for election campaign spending, reports yesterday’s online news service for Czech public radio. The exact level of the proposed cap is as yet unknown, but apparently it will be “between millions and tens of millions” (not clear if that’s per election, however – presumably it is). Given expenditure in a not untypical election year when parliamentary elections also coincide with local, regional and Senate elections, this would seem to imply a drastic cut. In 2006 the Social and Civic Democrats forked out hundreds of millions of crowns: ODS paid out 350 million of which some 228 went on the parliamentary election campaign; the Social Democrats 261 million overall and the smaller Christian Democrats, Communists and Greens having more modest outlays of 67, 40 and 26.4 million respectively.

The 64 thousand dollar (crown?) question is, of course, why the Social Democrats are doing this and whether they have any prospect of success? Presumably, the answer to the first question is that they are simply afraid of being outspent by the right, which may have easier access to business donations. Saturation advertising by the right, whose political marketing, might see the Social Democrats’ generally better organized and better thought through political marketing blunted by sheer cash. In theory, the smaller Czech parties too should have an interest in reining in the financial advantages of the two big parties, but in practice the Greens and Christian Democrats have a greater interest in the political success of the current government and some form of electoral re-engineering to give bigger representation to smaller parties, whilst clobbering middle sized players (i.e. the Communists) and not reducing big parties shares of seats overly.

>German lessons for Czech immigration policy?

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Luboš Palata, Central European correspondent of the Czech right-wing daily Lidové noviny is one of the more readable Czech journalists: his coverage of the Visegrad countries has a quality born of consistency rarely found in Western print media, which tend to have generic East European correspondents with wide beats who hop from crisis to crisis or election to election. His coverage of Robert Fico’s official visit to Libya, for example, was both enlightening and amusing. Palata’s commentary in the electronic edition of today’s LN on migration in the new EU is also interesting, although I’m not sure if I entirely trust its logic and conclusions.

Noting that renewed economic growth and a shortage of skilled professionals has at last led Germany to open its doors to well qualified citizens of the new member states in CEE, Palata notes that the Czech Republic has ‘conquered another bastion’ in its struggle to win acceptance as a normal Western country. The sting in the tail is that the Germans may be creaming off the very skilled people the CR badly needs for its own economic modernization. The knock on effect he thinks will be to create economic pressure to recruit migrants into the CR. But, he warns, the country needs a small quantity of high quality, high skilled migrants not a general opening up or a policy of promoting immigration. Here, he thinks, the CR should learn from the Germans.

Reading this, I couldn’t help wondering if this was actually not simply another reflection of Czech fears of large scale future immigration disguised as an argument about economic modernization. After all Germany is rarely cited as a model of anything in Czech right-wing liberal circles and the Czech Republic already has precisely such a programme to allow skilled non-EU migrants to settle in the country, but bureaucracy and the limited attraction of the CR in terms of living standards and broad opportunities have seen only a trickle of such highly skilled migrants..

Some of Palata’s more usual journalism on CEE is now coming out in English translation in Transitions Online and English summaries and links to Czech (and occasionally Slovak and Polish) originals can be found on the Eurotopics website here.

>Slovak press sees Czechs as laggards despite latest reform package

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Slovak liberal daily Sme assesses the Czech reform package of flatter and lower taxation which has, as expected, just squeaked through the Czech parliament – although the headline rate of income tax seems lower in the CR (15% falling to 12.5% in 2009; 19% in Slovakia), it points out effective tax rates are higher as both employees’ and employers’ health and social security payments are included in the Czech tax base. Slovak corporation tax at 19% is still lower, although Czech rates are set to fall to that level over the next three years, and there are no taxes on share dividends. Twisting the knife, Sme notes that the real problem is that there is no strong reform coalition in the CR as there was in Slovakia in 1998-2006. However, if the price of such a coalition is the left blasting back into power a few years later a la Robert Fico, Czech free marketeers might do well do consider whether they in fact may have some hidden advantages, although, that said, the current consensus seems to be that Fico, despite posing as a kind of Central European Hugo Chavez, cannot and will not touch the main pillars of earlier neo-liberal reforms and Czech politics seems polarized even before any really radical reforms have been passed.

>Klaus thinktank newsletter warns of ‘Islamicization’

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Czech President Václav Klaus’s Centre for Politics and Economics (CEP) thinktank has, like the man himself, staked out some interesting and provocative political territory since its foundation in 1998. Although it’s right-wing remedies are not universally to everyone’s taste (not universally to mine in fact), it has at least proved itself reasonably forward thinking in picking out important issues facing the CR such as taxation reform, the future of the EU, population policy, migration and assembling an interest range of academic and political expertise at its conferences. Recently, however, it’s begun to turn plain batty. Having belated signed up to climate change denial at most right-wing politicians have began to realise that it’s scientifically established rather than a left-wing conspiracy, CEP’s recent newsletter – in the person of Lukáš Petřík, editor of the right-wing Czech website EUportal.cz – tackles the question of migration and multi-culturalism in a manner reminiscent of the wilder shores of the oddball far-right.

In a Czech and Central European context issues of (im)migration and migration are both essentially hypothetical questions about the extent to which post-communist democracies like the CR should follow a Western model. There are few culturally distinct ethnic minorities in the CR with the exception of the Roma who are historic minority rather than the product of international migration (unless you count migration within Czechoslovakia in 1950s) who form a thoroughly marginalized ethnically defined underclass. Those migrants are from culturally and geographically proximate states like Slovakia and Ukraine and – as the previous post suggests – rates of inward migration remain low. A smallish Vietnamese minority, pigeonholed reasonably prosperously in commerce and retail, seems the most culturally distinct group. Migration and multi-culturalism are, however, potentially on the long-term agenda of an open liberal European society that the CR had become.

Václav Klaus naturally spotted this early and from 2000 onwards weighed in arguments against Western style multi-culturalism and in favour of tough integration policies designed to make migrants fit in as (he imagined) East European immigrants to the US had done in the 19th and early 20th century. Cultural homogeneity was also good for business he reckoned and promoted civic trust – a sort of market version of the ‘progressive dilemma’ argument about national homogeneity enabling high levels of welfare, as it were. These went down to a mixed but largely lukewarm reception from the Czech political class – including many on the Czech right. Post 9/11 Klaus naturally chucked in an argument about migration and security, but basically (heterodox and mercurial as ever) downplayed the ‘clash of civilizations’ angle as (horror of horrors) a powerful civilizational or even Al-Qaeda threat could serve as a justification for greater EU integration in justice and home affairs. Beside, he thought, Al-Qaeda was just another form of collectivism the same as the Socialist International or Greenpeace.

Petřík’s piece in the July 2007 issue of the CEP Newsletter, however, offers striking different and much darker set of arguments which takes us in quite different territory. It begins by warning readers of that proposals to move towards common standards in EU asylum and immigration policy will lead states with more predictive policies to lose their ‘competitive advantage’ of those with a more generous regime. Moreover, he claims the EU will introduce a quota system directly sharing out asylum-seekers and refugees, forcing those states with low numbers to take more. This he claims is because ‘states like France, Germany and Great Britain after the inevitable failure of the policy of multi-culturalism, political correctness and mass migration…[are] flooded…’. And to cap it all, pressure for a standardized European social policy will have a similar effect.

We then move on to a darkly paranoid depiction of Western Europe so crude, not to say downright odd it is perhaps worth citing at some length. “Immigrant communities in some states”, he told “are taking over whole towns, beginning to apply their customs like Sharia law and through a demographic explosion in their populations, thus increasing the weight of the immigrant electorate and trying using electoral process to introduce elements incompatible with liberal democratic values”. This, he claims, is similar to the situation in Germany in the 1930s when the Nazis abused the electoral process to gain power and introduce a totalitarian regime. Then, changing tack slightly, we discover that a second burning of the Reichstag (Houses of Parliament, Elysée Palace etc) is not around the corner after all. Instead, we are told to watch out for insidious processes in which indigenous citizens in Western Europe, he claims, are gradually becoming ‘second class citizens’ because of political correctness and the insistent pressing of immigrant interests: ‘Britain is gradually becoming New Pakistan, Germany a New Turkey and France a New Arabia’.

For West Europeans this is all straight out of the lexicon of the British National Party, the Front National, Northern League or any other far-right populist party you care to think of. However, this being the Czech President’s thinktank, they don’t get a mention. Instead the British-Israeli writer Bat Ye’or’s Eurabia gets name checked, although the version presented seems to owe less to the odd and esoteric arguments of her book that the EU (and especially French) foreign are deliberately promoting Islamicization to create a ‘Eurabian’ French-led anti-US bloc in world politics than a dark bloggers’ fantasy about the demographic and cultural decline of the West.

This being the Czech right, however, we also get a quick nod towards anti-totalitarianism. Indeed, the references to ‘abuse of the electoral processes’ and Nazis are perhaps the weirdest bit of the whole piece, both because they contradicts the usual arguments directed against Muslim communities in the West and show an almost total disconnection from the realities of Western Europe: the issue more usually highlighted by critics and commentators of all shades opinion in this part of the continent, after all, is the disengagement of Muslims from civic and political life in some cases a deliberate turning away inspired by radical political Islam, not the formation of Nazi-like parties with sufficient votes to subvert democracy. Indeed, where they have engaged in electoral politics, immigrant groups and home-born Muslims have generally not formed distinct parties to enter the electoral fray, still less totalitarian ones, but in time honoured fashion have accommodated themselves with and integrate with established political parties. This may in some cases make for a slightly Chicago style urban politics with various communities leaders trying to deliver an ethnic bloc vote, but really existing democracy can hack that.

Back on Petřík’s ideological ghost train ride, we move back to the theme of Czech membership of the EU and the countries forthcoming integration into the Schengen travel zone for the final shiver down the spine – the prospect that Petřík foresees that ‘the European Union might order the Czech Republic to accept immigrants raises the danger of terrorism or ethnic conflicts for the Czech Republic and with efforts by immigrants to introduce their own customs as has occurred in Western Europe our democratic political system could be threatened.’ (Apart from a rather creative view of the likely development of the EU acquis, this confuses (supposed) EU efforts to co-ordinate the management of asylum seekers and control illegal immigration with migration generally, but let that pass…). We then finish with a spot of Czech integral nationalism. “History” Petřík tells us

‘… has shown several times that where there are citizens on the territory of a state who are citizens of that state, but do not feel part of the political nation…and do not feel loyalty to that state, it can be a great security risk for that state and there is a possibility of disintegration or external interference. This was shown in the case of the Sudeten Germans… Similar problems could be caused today by mass immigration and multi-culturalism…’

We then shudder to a halt on rhetorical question:

‘Do we want the Czech Republic to be dominated by immigrants from a hostile civilization as will be the case in forty years or so in some West European states?’

Such ‘Islamicization’ arguments are, of course, the purest bunkum, basically a genre of political science fiction with a dash of conspiracy theory. There may be arguments to be had about the relationship of Islam and liberalism, or the demands and expectation of Muslims in Western societies, quick glance at the UK census, for example, tells us that, even if they were so minded and coherently politically organized, Muslims are in no position to take over anything as 2.8% minority of the population concentrated only in a few poor urban areas. Similar comments apply to the Muslim minority populations of other West European states, which are generally somewhat larger (8-9% in France, where fear of the Muslim minority among the general population is , interestingly, the lowest in the EU, 5.6% in Holland, 3% in Sweden and so on).

But in the Czech context – even leaving aside the final crude confusion of geographically concentrated historic national minorities like the Sudeten German with the more complex and diverse patterns of settlement that mass migration really brings – these arguments about imaginary migrants and imaginary Muslims are extraordinary.

What is the wider interest of such a piece? Perhaps the most striking and surprising things that an outfit with intellectual aspirations (and contacts with Western Europe) like Klaus’s CEP should have aired such a crude rant. It does, however, fit with a slower, generally more subtle drift on the Czech right towards conservative forms of national liberalism highlighted by the usual paradox of being in favour of global free movement of capital, but not of labour – backed by the sweeping assumption that migrants are economically inactive seekers after social benefits. For followers of the hubble bubble of Czech right ideology it is also interesting in linking stock anti-immigrant, anti-Islamic positions centring on a critique of multiculturalism with Czech right-wing forms euroscepticism and historic traditions of Czech integral nationalism.

A PhD student of mine recently in Prague mentioned to me that there was ‘a nascent Czech middle class of young right-wing (some far right) intellectuals’. Petřík’s poisonous but strangely laughable rant is, I suppose, is part of the same phenomenon. The more interesting question is perhaps just how much of interchange there will be between the neo-fascist fringe and the more conventional ‘liberal-conservative’ right. Petřík, who also heads up a Prague-based organization called the Young Right (Mladá pravice) which split a few years ago from the better established, ODS-aligned Young Conservatives (Mladí konzervativci), seem to be trying to bridge the gap, using the rather semi-detached status of the Czech President and CEP to retain contacts with the mainstream. The Mladá pravice website, naturally, proudly displays a photo of Klaus together with Petřík, who is standing just to the President’s right.

>Bulgaria: Flattened by flat tax?

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Bulgaria’s new system of flat corporation and income tax – introduced at the start of this year by a government led by those unlikely free marketeers the Bulgarian Socialist Party – has, reports the Sofia Echo (citing Bulgaria’s office of national statistics) mainly clobbered those on low incomes and freelancing in liberal professions due to its abolition of many tax allowances. The logic, as with many weakly reforming post-communists states that have adopted flat taxation, seems to be to spur economic growth increasing the overall incomes of those at the bottom and then use the improved state of public finances to pay some targeted compensation to badly affected loser groups. These impacts seem to stem from its very low level in Bulgaria (10%), which makes it attractive to investors and business however, and the lack of a clear package of compensation for groups such as families with children, reports a subsequent SE. This is an interesting contrast with the proposed Czech flat tax trumpeted by the Civic Democrats in 2006, which carefully engineered things to offer some protection low income (or, at least lower earning) groups – mainly I think via some allowances and a proposal for a flat basic income type benefit payment to all citizens – and the much watered down proposal of the current Civic Democrat-led minority government for flatter taxes, which inadvertently clobbered middle income groups.

>Polarization in Hungary (but not in Finland…)

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Came across the interesting (if sparsely updated) PolEmics blog of Emilia Palonen, who has done a PhD on political polarization in contemporary Hungary. Although framed in terms of discourse analysis dealing with the ideological construction of polarization which is not intellectually my cup of tea, and centring heavily on now very fashionable area of public/urban space, memorials and memorialisation in CEE, its analysis of specific politicians’ discourses on particular themes are worth reading. There is also useful discussion of the 2007 Finnish elections, the ins-and-outs of the Finnish electoral system and the interesting phenomenon of the Finnish Greens moving from a red-green to a kind of blue-green coalition, although Finland’s ex-agrarian Centre Party and centre-right National Coalition party are not quite understandable in terms of the West European (or even East Central European) centre-right. Finland, it seems, has more of a consensus based tradition of politics despite left-right alternation (of sorts) seemingly rooted in the memory of sharp conflict between Left and Right in the interwar period.

>East coast intellectual?

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Like a lot of SSEES people, during the summer, I always head East. This year though the Wild East meant Suffolk and a nicely modernized cottage complete with doll’s house, cafetiere and a selection of books and DVDs to suit all tastes. We spent most days on Lowestoft‘s long and sandy beach, with me keeping one eye on the kids and the other (very occasionally) on Frances Fukuyama’s After the Neocons – an attempt to put forward a sensible version of neo-conservatism, whose most interest argument for me was the overgeneralization of the experience of 1989 (and subsequent Coloured Revolutionss) as a template for transitional politics. Even allowing for his writing for wide audience as a public intellectual, Fukuyama conveys an uncomfortable feeling of breadth without depth. In the end I was happy I had to stop at chapter 2 and make sand castles.

Lowestoft is an interesting kind of place – more down-to-earth and with sandier beaches than posher, more cultured places such down the Suffolk coast.like Aldeburgh and Southwold and with an odd juxtaposition of rundown B and Bs, fish and chips and fairground attractions; rundown docks and a half empty industrial and redevelopment zone; and the beginning of the Broads. Packed with daytrippers from Merseyside and the Midland during the sunny weekend, it was half deserted during the cloudier cooler weekdays.

I had reason to grateful if tfor his bucket-and-spade and meets light industrial landscape though as when a vigilent policewoman noticed, much to my horror, that our MOT had expired KwikFit was only a short walk from the beach ( and they were polite and affordable toboot).

Looking the place over, I tried to suss out the local political landscape. Exhorbitant parking charges, cheap municipal swimming pool, complex recycling system, and giant wind turbine overlooking the beach suggested to me that politically speaking we must be in Lib Dem territory. But in fact the local council is run by the Tories who – backed by heftly representation from posher hinterland around the town where the Broads begin – have a large majority and Labour is the main opposition party with councillors mainly from the more run down bits of Lowestoft. The Liberals barely get a look – with three seats they barely matched the one Green and two independents. Clearly, this jarring social mix of seaside, run down industrial and poor social housing is not electorally their cup of tea, or perhaps there are historic reasons, who knows.

>Mend your car? You didn’t ask me.

> The Victoria Garage in Burgess Hill really is a place to be avoided, having gone from from pricey but predictable, to surly, exorbitant and indifferent in the course of 12 months.

When servicing the car leaves you little change from £300 and you end up having conversations like this:

“…I’m sorry but the ventilator’s still not working, did you test it?

“No, you only asked us to unblock it”

Then you can’t help feeling you’ve been had.

Presumably, the VG mechanic thought we just wanted it cleared for aesthetic reasons…

Actually, perhaps he didn’t even think this and thought we just wanted to make a charitable donation, as when we have a look the ventilator is still blocked up with broken glass from a windscreen smash a while back.