Archive | February, 2009

>Ljubljana diary 2

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I am on the early flight to Ljubljana. The plane is packed with holidaymakers going on half-term ski trips, so I find myself in business class (free Adria Airways bottle of mineral water + sweet). I also get to read a three day old copy of the Wall Street Journal – on the op-ed page former Estonia PM Mart Laar recommends continued free market reform as the best possible anti-crisis package but the news pages suggest that if Austrian banks get cold feet the whole of the region could be brutally credit-crunched, not just the current problems cases of Latvia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria.

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As we land I get a glimpse of alpine scenery and half an hour later I am standing outside the terminal looking for way to get the 25km from Brnik to central Ljubljana. There aren’t any buses for an hour or so, having narrowly avoided getting onto a tour bus to a ski resort, I opt for the minibus shuttle. I’m the only passenger , so the driver want to wait half an hour for some more flights to come into. I sit in the minibus sleepily reading a Swedish crime novel, while two flights land and various prosperous looking locals walk past heading for the small multi-storey car park. In the end the driver gives up and takes me on a loss-,mking journey into town, kindly dropping me off at my hotel.

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The Slovene Democratic Party’s headquarters is a large villa just outside the city centre with party, national and EU flag on large flagpoles in the front garden. They’re busy, but in the limited time my interviewees make it clear that – as one would expect of the country’s main party of the centre-right – they don’t share the loose centre-left consensus and unfussed attitude towards the communist that pervades much of the rest of the Slovene political and social scene. They don’t quite match the confrontational free market élan that might mark conversation with Czech equivalents, but (Mart Laar aside) who has much free market élan left these days?

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Slovenia’s Ministry of Labour, Family and Social Affairs is on a top floor of a rather drab, square white gloomy socialist era shopping centre. Teenagers from a nearby school are hanging around outside smoking and gossiping. In the Ministry’s reception area, there’s an overpowering smell of varnish as the parquet floors are being resurfaced. The security guards, who seem to be from a private agency, ring around and having established that I am expected, take me through.without demanding any ID. The Ministry’s offices have the look and feel of a medium-sized company HQ.

My interviewees’ previous meeting is overrunning, so I have to waut. I look through my notes and study the childrens’ paintings on the wall. I don’t, have to wait too long however, and my interviewees turn out to be extremely open and helpful. One of the most interesting interviews , I’ve done in fact. “Tell our boss, we speak excellent English,” one of the officials jokes at the end (and, of course, they all do). The Slovene civil service may lack clockwork timing and bureaucratic punctiliousness of Czech official, but exudes an underlying efficiency and competence.

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The weather’s still cold and but bright and sunny. Sitting in my heavily discounted hotel room opposite the main police station, I read through part of the statutes of Slovenia’s two main left-wing party with the helped of dictionary and some guesswork and look over the front page of Delo. Mainstream parties are desperate to stymie a referendum initiative to block Croatia’s accession to NATO, because of an unresolved Slovene-Croat dispute over seaways and border demarcation. There are some issues with big Slovene companies with unemployment and retenchment, but I can’t quite follow the details., but I do understand that unemployment is over 10%. My left-wing interviewees tell me that Slovenia iswell placed to weather the storm, as it wisely avoided the perils of excessive foreign ownership and carried off many of the high social standards of the socialist period. I don’t know when I’ll be back in Slovenia again, so oater that afternoon on my final visit – to the University – I stock up on cheap and free books on Slovene politics.

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Early morning service at the airport has improved: the coffee bars in the departure lounge are opening up before flights depart. I stand grumpily in line with travellers going to Prague while the expresso machine gets a final polish. “Do you take crowns?” a grey-haired American with a pony-tail and a wad of Czech currency in his hand asks. Unsurprisingly, the answer is ‘no’. At last I get a my hands on a bela kava. It keeps me awake just long enough to take a look out the window at the clouds over Julian Alps as we fly out. My next sight is the M23 motorway near London Gatwick airport.

>Lithuania: Who wants to be… Prime Minister?

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Over at Pozorblog Kevin Deegan Krause has a whimsical and pointed commentary about the vacuous but brilliant election campaign of Lithuania’s National Resurrection Party (Tautos prisikėlimo partija), run by a TV presenter Arūnas Valinskas, who hosts the local franchise of Who Wants to be a Millionaire. The TPP’s advertising mix of clean up, calls novelty and anti-establishment ‘kick the bums out’ billboards, Pozobrblog notes (and illustrates) – which propelled it into parliament and into government last year – is a near perfect illustration of the rise of what my SSEES colleague Allan Sikk calls ‘newness as project’ in the Baltic and beyond – the rise (and fall of) new disposable, use-and-discard parties, who’ve taken the notion of parties as a public utlity (an expression used by Ingrid van Biezen in relation to the increasingly detached, statecentric nature of moden party organization) to its logical end. Parties are as about as programmatic or as permanent as the mobile company: funkiness, celebs, a certain brand identity, but basically the same product at the same price.
I can to get through WordPress’s reader registration procedure to comment, directly dirctly at Pozorblog but it occurs to me is that such funky new post-modern parties still require a very basic old style factor to produce and splash high quality advertising: money. Although celebrity and media savvy might, I supposed compensate, for hard cash to some extent, the real story might be rise of various pocket sized Baltic Berlusconis, each getting their fifteen minutes of … power.

It’s also interesting to think of how and why such projects have failed in some contexts: Vladimír Želeny’s Independent Democrats’ party in the Czech Republic , for example, had similar ingredients, but scrapped a couple of MEPs in 2004 (one an ex-newsreader, one the media mogul himself) then pretty disappeared from sight until VŽ poached the Libertas.cz trademark.

>United Russia repesentative fails to impress EU far right

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Anyone who thinks Russia is on course for a new form of fascism will draw comfort from a EUobserver report about a meeting of EU far-right parties to co-ordinate their strategy against the Lisbon Treaty – it’s a very astute one, essentially do nothing and don’t go to Ireland, especially if you are Jean Marie Le Pen. However, who should be at the summit as an observer amid the Front national, Danish People’s Party and all the usual suspects but an unnamed representative of United Russia (ER) the loose pro-Kremlin, pro-Putin ‘party’ of local political bosses and ex- apparatchiks (and full marks to one of my student’s who noticed a parallel between ER and the Movemiento National in Franco’s Spain – perhaps they did know what they were doing sending an observer). Whoever he was he achieved the impressive feat of being seen as a crackpot by the assembled EU far right: “We had some hilarious discussions with the person they sent… he believes we should all join a bloc with Russia against the United States, which is hardly our position” one of the co-ordinators is reported as saying.
The new EU was represented mainly by Bulgaria’s Ataka which following the electoral collapse of the Greater Romania Party last year is the only really electorally dynamic extreme radical right grouping left in the region, although the Slovak National Party and Slovene National Party seem to be hanging on in there.

>Memories Russian back

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I spend part of the weekend clearing boxes of old possessions, some dating from my student days, from my parents loft: amid the pots and pans and dusty electric kettles, I uncover two boxes of rather good quality Russian language classics dating from my time doing a French and Russian Studies degree at Leeds University. Sadly, I won’t have the time to (re-)read, they go onto E-bay. to find good homes. Any Russophone readers with a literary bent check them out here Oddly, beyond a copy of Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution and a Russian translation of Djilas’s Conversations With Stalin – which I remember reading on a train going to or from Kiev – there is nothing about much on politics. Pausing for a cup of tea, I dip into a novel by Chingiz Aitmatov, one of our second year set texts as I recall. Pleasingly, I can still more or less follow it.