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>Romania gas emergency decree hits pensioners

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One group of victims of the current gas supply crisis – acute in SE Europe where supply seems to have been stopped and reserves are low to non-existent – are Romania’s pensioners. However, it’s less because they are freezing in unheated homes, but because – Nine O’Clock reports – emergency government decrees make it illegal to receive a state salary and a pension simultaneously. This common (and discriminatory practice) of applying financial sanction against working pensioners – or pensioners who want to work – has more often been seeen as means of shaking out the labour market and helping the young unemployed, but here seems to be have been smuggled in as an emergency measure. Romanian trade unions seem to defending the interests of their retired (former) members.

Update: Romania’s Constitutional Court has a subsequent report notes since ruled this element in the emergency decrees illegal and unconstitutional, although the government seems intent on pushing the policy through legislation (the ruling centred on the permitted scope of emergency decrees). Prime Minister Boc has come out with all populist guns blazing, claiming that the measure is needed to prevent ‘debauchery of state funds’ by unnamed elite groups (seem to include some former judges) rather than hard pressed retired public employees who may need a few extra lei to make ends meet.

>Israel pensioners party banks on stars

>The Jerusalem Post reports that the leader of Israel’s fractious pensioners party GIL has replaced its current MPs as with celebrities/personalities on the party’s electoral list for the forthcoming Knesset elections. Polls suggest GIL will at best gain two MKs. Reports from STA suggest that Slovenia’s pensioners party DeSUS is also taking a beating in the polls only months after its record near 8% score in the country’s elections. However, this may be part of the new left-wing coalition’s sudden drop in popularity.

>Poland: mirror mirror on the wall, who’s the most social of them all?

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The Warsaw Voice reports the latest political shenanigans around the law restricting Poland’s currently wide ranging entitlements to early retirement. President Kaczynski has vetoed the bill, putting the small post-communist social democratic left in a (for once) important position: their votes would be needed by the liberal-peasant coalition govenment to overide the veto. Having looked like they might initially play the role of defenders of social welfare and big and early pensions, they now seem likely to opt for the role of modernizing opponents of the conservative-national right and help overturn the veto. Well, this is Poland, after all.

>Ljubljana diary

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I arrive at night Ljubljana’s Jože Pučnik Airport (newly renamed after the dissident and statesman, who led the anti-communist DEMOS coalition and founded what is today the centre-right Slovene Democratic Party – just ejected from office in parliamentary elections). We’re then whisked by minibus in pitch darkness in the direction of Slovenia’s capital. I try to imagine picturesque mountains and well tended , frosty fields outside, although breakneck narrow roads and the minibus’s driver’s juggling of fag, mobile and steering wheel tends to distract.
20 minutes later we’re dropped off near the station. It’s looks pretty unprepossessing , but after I’ve walked a couple of streets things get neater and better tended and I am in a street lined with imposing 19th century banks and hotels. Then, suddenly, I am in Prešeren Square, the heart of the city. It’s draped all over with blue and white Christmas illuminations and, slightly less magically, filled with oompa music . There are some open air stalls and bars and I treat myself to Carolian sausage and a honey brandy (medica) to psyche myself up for the search for my hotel Three minutes later I am already there. Ljubljana is indeed small.

(….)
Viewed in daylight, my initial impression is that Ljubljana that has the look and pace of a Austrian or Scandinavian regional capital albeit with some architectural gems and government ministries unexpectedly thrown in. My Slovene colleague at the University of Ljubljana has been incredibly helpful and I have interviews to do and a translator to help out recruited via the local student union. First port of call is Slovenia’s pensioners’ party DESUS, where I meet both the party’s General Secretary and it 2002 presidential candidate Prof Anton Bebler, whose flawless English and political science background make for a very smooth and interesting interview. (Slovene academics, I later discover, often make the transition to politics, not infrequently acting as independent expert nominees for ministerial posts).

The headquarters of Slovenia’s main labour federation is, understandably, a smaller and more compact affair than the vast echoing trade union HQ I visited in Prague last month, But it also seems busier and more business-like – Slovenia is the most unionized country in CEE and, although membership rates have slipped – is still a force to be reckoned with. The representative of Slovenia’s pensioners’ trade union who are kind enough to make time for me despite being are on a tight schedule, are clear and informative. They also ask me some good questions at the end. Next day at the Slovene pensioners’ federation, my translator- who has more experience with arts and cultural events than issues of interest aggregation – has a much more challenging time, especially when discussion turns to the political structure of Socialist Slovenia’s highly complex, multi-layered brand of self-managing socialism. Luckily, she is resourceful and clever enough to cope and I am (just about) well informed about socialist Yugoslavia to follow it all. Terms like ‘self-managing community of interests’ are now part of my (very limited) Slovene vocabulary. Going over my notes and the diagram my interviewee helpfully drew for, I realise that such legacies are indeed central to what I’m interested in.

Making an early New Year’s resolution to learn some proper Slovene, I head off to buy a dictionary and a grammar for foreign learners. All the bookshops, bar one, seem to be owned by Mladinska knijga but, in any case, there’s a good (if expensive) selection of both. There’s also an interesting selection of English language books on politics and current affairs mixed in with the Slovene language ones. Later I’m very pleased to meet political blogger Pengovsky and over lunch I learn inter alia that Slovenes are, as I had suspected, big readers and bad drivers and, that electoral appearances aside the the Slovene right has never enjoyed the social and political traction it has elsewhere in CEE. There are , admittedly, bitter arguments between Slovenes about the moral and political status of the wartime communist partisan movement and collaborationist domobranci , but a Slovene lustration law or a flat tax reform would be about as likely as a snow flake in July.

(…)

Before meeting to colleagues at the Social Sciences Faculty, I still have a little time to kill. I feel a a bit guilty just walking round the Old Town seeing the sights, so as the rain sets in I set off for the Museum of Contemporary History, which is just outside the city centre in grounds of the Tivoli park in a small chateau-cum-palace. By the time I get there, the skies have darkened and the rain is pouring. I’m dripping wet and also the only visitor. They switch on the lights and multi-media displays especially for me. There’s a special exhibition about Slovenes in the First World War as well a permanent exhibition about the Slovenia’s ‘s 20th century history. I am struck by the intensity of the propaganda drive to attach Slovenia to the emergent Yugoslav state in 1990s; the fact that even the most radical Slovene nationalists seem not to have contemplated independence (perhaps Slovenia, like Slovakia was then too small and too poor); and the slightly odd jumps from darkly condemning post-war crimes of the Tito regime against political opponents to celebrating Slovenia’s industrial achievement in 1960s and 70s.

The exhibition culminates with a room commemorating the Ten Day War in 1991, when Slovenia’s territorial forces and police put up unexpectedly stiff resistance to the Yugoslav Federal Army’s brutal, but ill-coordinated (and ultimately short-lived attempt) to keep them in the disintegrating Yugoslav federation by force. A multi-screen documentary tells the story through well cut archive footage interspersed with interviews. It is emotive and manipulative in places – there is a broader and much grimmer political outcome to think of – the Ten Day War as the overture to wars of Yugoslav succession) but every new country needs a founding narrative, and as these things go, seems one that stands up. As I watched the scenes of tanks pushing aside bus barricades and angry crowds chanting ‘okupanti‘ at soldiers at passing armoured vehicles, it all struck me as eerily reminiscent of August 1968 in Czechoslovakia – and, of course, Czech failure to resist after Munich September 1938 is still an open wound. I suppose the Czech equivalent is the Velvet Revolution, but can (and has) been dismissed as the overdue collapse of a rotten regime, rather than an active national project.

(…)

I turn up at Pučnik airport an hour before my 7am flight. I needn’t have bothered. The usual security and passport checks take a grand total of 20 minutes, boarding takes place 10 minutes before take off. There are various coffee bars in the recently modernized airport, but they are all closed. I sit and sleepily re-read Sherlock Holmes for a while. Most of the passengers sensibly appear at the departure gate five minutes before boarding. The Adria Airways jet, is like Slovenia itself, is small and comfortable but unflashy and unfussy. At Gatwick we walk for 25 minutes to get to passport control.

>Into the grey

>An interesting up-to-date briefing on population ageing and reform in emerging economies by the Oxford Centre on Ageing appears here.

>Prague diary

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I’m in Prague – doing more interviews with age-oriented NGOs and pensioners’ interest groups. After Brno and Hradec Kralové, Prague at first seems to be terribly crowded and hurried, but after travelling around a bit on bus and metro a bit and making a few arrangements, I quickly realise, that compared to London, the Czech capital and its pace of life is all still on very human scale. Contrasting organizations have contrasting locales: the Život ’90 NGO is headquartered in a cobbled streeton the outskirts of the Old Town, a few metres from a postcard view of Prague Castle across the Vltava. The slightly unreal air is added to when walking a little further down the street after the interview, my wish for an internet café and somewhere to buy groceries are instantly granted. I stand in a queue with some Ukrainian building workers in a oddly old fashioned grocers with all the good behind the counter, then have a cup of coffee, wriite up some notes and check my email in the café. It’s approaching lunchtime, but I’m the only customer.
The office of the retired trade unionist’ organization also has a fantastic panoramic view across Prague from its ninth floor office in the massive communist-ara House of Trade Union. But there any similarities end. The trade union HQ is situated on the historically working class, traditionally bohemian, but now rather down run-down Žižkov district. Ugly on the outside, it size and scale inside are imposing despite its rather faded and worn appearance. More palpable perhaps are the sense of emptiness and inactivity in the wide, dimly lit corridors. The Czech trade union movement is still a force to be reckoned with, but, as my hosts explain over coffee and chlebičky, is in slow decline, meaning the pensioners’ movement needs to hedge its bets and be more than just organiying as the retired wing of the labour movement.

The Economic University is just up the road and, perhaps because of this, there are various cheap shops and cafes nearby. I pop into one for another coffee and a few minutes to collect my thoughts and go over my notes away from the icy rain outside, but succumb to the cheap pizza on special offer (two slices for 80 crowns). I go upstairs to get away from the blaring radio. Ithe upstairs is empty apart from an old lady sitting in the reading Literární noviny, who has also taken advantage of the same special offer. The pizza is excellent.

I head back to my hotel. In the metro some some of the passengers are amused by a bit od neatly written political graffiti

“Co to je za svět?
… komunisté zpět”

They agree, as Czechs always do, that things are indeed going to the dogs. Slightly odd , as Prague is still very much controlled by the right and the Communists are zpět only in five of the country’s 14 regional authorities and only have direct represention in the regional executive in two.

I flop down in front of the a generously sized hotel television, but quickly tire of Euronews and instead watch a historical docu-drama called Kdyby (‘What If’) on ČT2. This week’s counterfactual is what if Czechs had resisted the Munich Agreement in 1938 and fought the Nazi invasion. The programme’s answer is plausible if obvious: they would have lost in a few weeks or months, but gone down albeit fighting with Prague in ruins. Less convincing, is the fact that the main dramatis personnae are a serious of obscure generals: we never see Beneš or the other politicians, who really made the real decisions in 1938 and might – perhaps? – have decided otherwise. It would, for once, also be useful to have some historians’ views interspersing the rather wooden acting and cod 1930s radio annoucements.

>Greys push Serbian coalition for pension hike

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Serbia’s pro-European government has (more) problems because of an obstreperous junior coalition partner. However, it’s not the communists-turned-socialists-turned-nationalists-turned-something-else of the Socialist Party who are the problem, but, reports B92, their allies and sidekicks in the Party of United (or if you prefer Associated) Pensioners (PUPS). And, for once the issue, isn’t nationalism but bread and butter who-gets-what politics that anyone can understand: PUPSs is straightforwardly demanding a big and costly pension hike. Similarly hard bargains have been driven by pensioners’ parties in the newly formed quad-coalition in Slovenia and the now defunct Kadima led administration in Israel.
Update: And, just to update, Earth Times reports that a deal has been signed

“In the end, the smallest partner in the ruling alliance, the pensioners party PUPS, wrangled a concession to keep a 10-per cent increase of pensions that it promised its voters ahead of May polls.

To compensate, [Serbian PM Mirko] Cvetkovic was forced to agree to a freeze in public sector salaries starting immediately and lasting until at least October 2009 – which may lead to protests and strikes.”

A neat illusion of generational politics and the usefulness of a small kingmaker pensioners’ party? Perhaps, although Balkan Insight notes that the deal does involve then freezing pensions in 2009

In Croatia similar pressures linked to an IMF bailout reportedly threatens the Sanader government’s coalition with the (much weaker) Croatian Pensioners’ Party (HSU), although I dare say he may manage a little more easily without the HSU’s one deputy.

>Grey days in the Czech Republic

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I am on the road in the Czech Republic , or rather on the rails – travelling by tram and train – using some study leave and a small grant to do some research on interest groups representing pensioners. It is an unresearched field – indeed, apart from a lot of literature on the American AARP and to a certain extent on the Canadian and Swedish senior movements – there is not a lot even on West European cases. Perhaps a little too under-researched then.

Today I am in Brno. I used to live here, so I know the city reasonably well, although the tram routes have been confusingly changed and it seems impossible to get a cheap cup of coffee anywhere in the city centre. Social policy and social security seem to be the flavour of the month in the Czech Republic just now: the Social Democrats are taking over in the regions rolling back prescription charges wherever they go, sometimes in coalition with the Communists, sometimes with newly pragmatic local Civic Democrats and sometimes alone, but with a little help from the Communists.

The weather is grey and autumnal. Three fully kitted out ice hockey players walk through the city centre, but no one bats an eyelid. I get the tram back to where I am staying to type up my research notes and listen to the man in front complaining that he bought a second hand mobile and the girlfriend of the previous owner keeps ringing him up by mistake.
Tomorrow I go to Hradec Králové.

>Poland: retiring early retirement

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The Warsaw Voice reports protests by trade unionists over the scaling back of early retirement schemes – one of the last remaining special social policies of the transition period intended – some say – to dampen down the possibilty of Latin American style social unrest. Probably the political system is stable enough, the government popular enough, the coffers empty enough and workers in declining heavy industies weak enough to allow this to happen now. Public sector workers may have few unpleasant surprises up their sleeves, but as events last year in Bulgaria showed, no one cares that much if the education system grinds to halt.

>Slovakia and Argentina: the East becoming the South – or the North?

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Slovak daily Sme discusses the parallels between Argentina, Iceland and Slovakia as small vulnerable economies and, specifically, the state taking control of the second pillar of a reformed pension system (compulsory individual savings). The global financial crisis is of course in a sense, good news for politicians with genuine etatist leanings such as Robert Fico, for whom the three pillar pension system left by radically reforming predecessor governing has become a real battleground.