Archive | July, 2009

>1989 ABC

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Here I am interviewed on Australian radio’s ABC Overnights magazine programme about 1989 in Eastern Europe. Attentive listeners may hear my brain whirring as I try to answers questions about the Berlin Wall and the re-unification of Germany.

My children suggest that next time I use simpler words, stop saying ‘er…’ and perhaps consider singing a song. Damn good advice.

The recording is from 19 July 2009 and was provided and used by kind permission of ABC.

>Croatian greys quit government

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Javno.com reports that the Croatian Pensioners’ Party (HSU) have quit the ruling coalition. As they have one deputy that may not make much immediate different but seems is an interesting and direct impact of financial crunch, which has moved down the headlines recently – at least in relation to Eastern Europe.
“ZAGREB, CROATIA 24 July 2009 – The president of the Croatian Pensioners’ Party (HSU) Silvano Hrelja announced today that the party was leaving the leading coalition.
In a conversation for Javno.com, Hrelja revealed that HSU will now join the opposition parties in a battle against the Cabinet’s tricks.
HSU reminds that on Thursday they sent a clear message to the Cabinet that they will not accept a larger tax than the one agreed upon, and that they accept the Cabinet taxing only the difference for amounts over three thousand kuna, at a maximum rate of three percent.
“Considering that the Cabinet did not find the calculation to plug the hole in the budget, they later said that they need to tax the entire amount of all of the salaries and pensions that surpass three thousand kuna, we considered the negotiations over. This sort of burden would mean nearly a four times larger burden for workers and pensioners” say sources from HSU. They consider that the latest Cabinet proposal to also be unacceptable, considering that it is considerable less favourable than the one they had already agreed upon.
“Considering that the Cabinet was at least nine months late to react, and considering that the Minister of Finance Ivan Suker has been deceiving not only the media, and coalition partners, but the whole Croatian public, HSU has brought the unanimous decision to leave the coalition, defending our reputation and continuing the fight for the rights of Croatian pensioners” it says in the report by the central HSU committee, which also seeks the resignation of the Minister of Finance.”

>TOP cats

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Want to know the name of the man who will determine the future direction of Czech politics? I’ll tell you. It’s His Serene Highness Prince Karl Johannes Nepomuk Josef Norbert Friedrich Antonius Wratislaw Mena von Schwarzenberg. That’s Karel Schwarzenberg to you, me and the Czech elecorate. Mr Schwarzenberg (as I shall call him) is the widely respected and popular Czech independent of aristocratic descent and Swiss-Austrian-Czech background, who is heads the newest party on Czech political scene: TOP09. That might sound like some kind of trade fair but the acronym, in fact, stands for Tradition, Responsibility and Prosperity a slogan vaguely reminiscent of Vichy France, so understandably they are sticking with the corny but safe TOP09.

That lack of class perhaps gives the game away. The party is not really Mr Schwarzenberg’s creation, but that of one time Christian Democrat leader and smooth political operator Miroslav Kalousek. Mr Kalousek quit the KDU-ČSL when its scandal hit leader Jiří Čunek finally stepped down to be replaced by older stager and former Foreign Minister, Cyril Svoboda. Mr Svoboda is – at least compared to Mr Čunek – squeakly clean and comes without any of the scandals concerning money in brown envelopes, derailed criminal investigation or populist outbursts about Roma that marked his predecessor inglorious stint at the top of Czech politics. Still, he’s not good enough for Mr Kalousek and sundry other heavyweights Christian Democrats because of his obvious inclination to work with the Social Democrats. Kalousek et al are rather more market-oriented and much prefer the right: Mr K was the driving force being some pretty detailed and well thought ideas in the Christian Democrats’ 2006 election programme, although he did rather blot his copybook but suddenly deciding that he would break the political impasse after the election by entering a coalition with… the Social Democrats with the tacit parliamentary support of…. the Communists. Kalousek was ousted by an internal rebellion for his pains.

Not the best recommendation for the leader of new centre-right party. Enter Mr Schwarzenberg. Having managed the family estates and supported Czech dissidents in exemplory fashion under communism, served as an advisor to Václav Havel and been elected to the Czech Senate as independent in 2004, Mr S. was propelled into top rank politics when the Greens screwed huge concessions from the Civic Democrats in 2007 to claim the post of Foreign Minister and then played a trump card by choosing the experienced, capable and mutli-lingual Schwarzenberg as Czech Foreign Minister. By all accounts, he did a decent job batting on a very sticky wicket as the Czech EU Presidency – and ultimately the government – slowly fell apart.

Now, however, he has, as he himself observed, staked all his political capital on one spin of the political wheel. TOP09 has a bland but broadly right-of-centre programme, which all about clean and straightfoward politics and getting things done and balancing market forces and social resposibility. And, of course, it’s Europhile and Atlanticist. Anyone with a long enough memory will be distinctly reminded of the programme of the now defunct Freedom Union, which broke away from ODS with much hullabaloo in 2008. The early indications for TOP09 – despite being well financed (14 million crowns in donations from businesspeople and wealthy supporters – one of 11 million), having linked up with movement of local independent mayors and, at last, got a new party logo – look less promising. The party has recorded poll preferences of 2% and 3.5%, which suggest a less than stunning entry onto the Czech political stage (if any) in October’s early elections.

On the other hand, the party might just be poised for a late and effective pre-election surge: the Freedom Union, you will remember peaked too early in the polls before the 1998 elections and never really recovered. Perhaps TOP09 will match the Czech Greens’ rather better timed picking up of momentum in 2006. And, of course, in Mr Schwarzenberg they’ve got a fascinating political figure. And, you will remember, exiled aristos turned political independents do have a certain political track record in the region. Bulgaria’s exiled king Simeon II stormed to political success and turned the Bulgarian party system upside down in 2001 (his former bodyguard’s party GERB has now just repeated the trick) and, more recently, the Hungarian Democratic Forum saved itself from political death by fielding Prince George Habsburg, grandson of Hungary’s last king and former head of the Hungarian Red Cross, as the number 2 on its European elections list last June.

This seems reflects a rather interesting mix of anti-political perception of remnants of Central European aristocracy as special breed of charismatic and cultured technocrats, who can step down into the grim and graft of the political arena, work a little stardust and provide honest and non-partisan solutions no-one else could manage: their education and polish, so it is said, makes them confident movers and shakers, their cosmopolitan background chimes with ideals of an integrated and united Europe, and their long-settled family wealth makes them impervious to the blandishments of corruptin – after all, why take a bribs when you own large chunks of Switzterland.

I’m not sure if I entirely like this buy this argument, which seems to be just a snobbish veneer applied to what is really an form of anti-political populism. For my money Mr Svoboda was just as a good a Foreign Minister as Mr Schwarzenberg. But it’s certainly true that Mr Schwarzenberg and TOP09 – if they can somehow gain the Czech equivalent of Big Mo over the summer – may be the last best hope for the Czech centre-right. On most other scenario, no matter how well the Civic Democrats do – and they are currently ahead in the polls – they will as in 2006 have no allies strong enough to build a parliamentary majority. And that leaves us looking at either a minority Social Democrat(-led) government helped into power by the Communists, or some kind of ill tempered Grand Coalition between Civic and Social Democrats.

>Twelve Not Very Angry People

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For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been sitting on a jury, an interesting but ultimately rather draining experience. The jury system is being as one of the few well established channels for mass participation in the British legal and political system, and a hallowed and traditional one at that. So it makes for an odd experience to roll up at a government building one morning as a member of the public and get the the usual friendly and slightly causal British bureaucratic processing, but not actually be in the usual passive role of service user, patient or customer, but as also to be someone integral to making a real decision.

The first stage sitting – the Jury Assembly area – has the feel of a hospital waiting room or the departure lounge in some small provincial airport, although unlike these situation no one is in any particular hurry to be called. When you and the rest of a fifteen person jury panel do get
called you then suddenly find yourself standing awkwardly in what seems to be television set: a courtroom, which seems oddly small, but otherwise straight out of Rumpole, Judge John Deed with judge, lawyers, clerks and prisoner all sitting in costume and read to go at the press of a button.

And without further ado (small matter of jurors swearing an oath to return a true verdict – in about half the cases, including mine this means affirming minus the bible) the trial kicks off with the prosecution’s opening statement. The sense of unreality gradually lifts, although it is
for the most part a little like looking in a play. You watch, you listen, you make notes, the court rises and you can go home or go downstairs and buy coffee and teacakes from the staff-and-jurors counter of little stall staffed by retired volunteers (proceeds go to charity – this week an
animal sanctuary).

For anyone who likes social science methodology, there is a lot get into the trail process: evidence, inference, causation and argument. Indeed, what academic could fail to admire – and enjoy anticipating – the barristers’ unfolding arguments, ultra-polished presentation skills and
carefully planted sound bites? There is an emerging human story. Over the several days of the trail witnesses take the stand and names or blank faces in the dock and public gallery slowly emerge into compelling cast of dramatis personae.

Then there is the bit everyone has not been looking forward to: deliberation. The defence case closes and we are sequestered in a Jury Retiring Room and have to reach a verdict. We are not allowed out, but can make tea and coffee and knock on the door for the jury baliff to bring
more milk. Friends who had done jury service warned me that this was the worse bit: “Be prepared to meet some very thick people”. But, in fact, I didn’t. Most of my fellow jurors were well educated and with, one possible exception, anything but thick. So the atmosphere was more Twelve Very Reasonable People than Twelve Angry Men. This didn’t make it any easier to
reach a verdict. I realised that, unlike in the movies, even a simply chain simple events involving a small number of people may never yield up all its secrets. In the end though, we did agree a verdict which seemed to fairly reflected the evidence – and thinking back over the complexities,
possibilities of the case I still think it does.

The local paper reported the end of the trial and our verdict the next day, rehashing the more sensational bits of the evidence and soap opera elements of the case.

>Lithuania: Anti-gay laws highlight CEE states moving apart on social issues

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Lithuania’s Gay League have sent me and various other specialists working on Central and Eastern politics a press release highlighting forthcoming illiberal legislation in Lithuania against the propogation of homosexuality asking that it be widelty circulated. I am more than happy
to reproduce it below.

For British readers old enough to remember the 1980s this has some echoes of the the (now repealed)Clause 28 legilsation passed by Mrs Thatcher’s government which banned the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality in school (although the bill reported below seems much more wide-ranging) and this perhaps gives a clue how to interpret it from a more academic, political
science perspective, giving that ‘Thatcherism’ had a strong ‘authoritarian populist’ elements

Lithianian developments seems to fit into a wider pattern of growing illiberal populism – and illiberal legislation concerning gender and sexuality – which seems to a feature of politics in some countries in the region (Poland, Latvia and Lithuania). Meanwhile, others parts of CEE have bumped along with a slow process of social liberalization: the Czech Republic and Slovenia have even got round to legalizing civil partnerships, although God forbid that you should want to propagate totalitarianism (legally banned in the CR) or question Slovenia’s claims to its maritme border (currently blocking Croatia’s accession to the EU).

“LITHUANIAN PARLIAMENT TAKES FURTHER STEPS TOWARDS THE CRIMINALIZATION OF HOMOSEXUALITY

Press release by Lithuanian gay league (LGL)
July 10, 2009

The Seimas, which earlier rejected amendments criminalizing propagation of homosexuality, this Thursday took another step in this direction.

The amendments will be returned to the assembly hall at autumn session after considering them by the parliamentarian committees. Only the Liberal Movement Alliance and the Liberal & Centre Alliance had no representatives who supported these amendments.

The initiators of the amendments: the members of the group Order & Justice Petras Gra?ulis, his colleague in the group Algimantas Dumbrava, the representative of the group of the Nation Resurrection Party Jonas Stanevi?ius, and conservatives Petras Luomanas, Kazimieras Uoka, and Justinas Urbanavi?ius.

The amendments of penal and administrative codes suggest that a person propagating homosexual relationships in public areas is committing a criminal action to be punished either by public works, or by a fine, or by arrestment. The amendments stipulate that a legal person also is to be responsible for such actions.

It is suggested to impose LTL 1 to 5 thousand fine for propagatinghomosexual relationships or for financing propagation in public places.

Earlier, the Seimas rejected initiated by P. Gra?ulis amendmentsstipulating the punishment for propagation of homosexuality, zoophilia and necrophilia, by deprivation of freedom for the term up to one year.

Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus vetoed a bill that banned from schools and public places information that agitates for homosexual, bisexual orpolygamous relations, late last month.

Seventy-one votes would be needed to override Adamkus’ veto on July 14.

The vetoed Law on the Protection of Minors Against the Detrimental Effect of Public Information, has been denounced by Amnesty International, ILGA-Europe, Human Rights Watch, foreign governments and members of the European Parliament but is likely to be finally approved next Tuesday.

Vladimir Simonko, chair of the national LGBT advocacy organizationLithuanian Gay League says:

“These heavy homophobia driven laws codify discrimination based on sexual orientation, deny freedom of expression, and inhibit LGBT persons’ rights to education, information and every day life. Panic fear of the Baltic Pride event planned in Vilnius for May 9, 2010 overshadows clear violation of international and European human rights law to which Lithuania is a
party”.

For more info:

Eduardas Platovas,
Programmes co-ordinator
Tel.:+370.5 2610314
Fax: +370 5 2130762
Mob. +370 612 15243
E-mail: edis@gay.lt
www.atviri.lt; www.lgl.lt