Archive | December, 2006

>Bad experiences with Good Energy

>I rue the day that I ever signed up with the eco-electricity company Good Energy, whose major selling point – backed ads in The Guardian and The Independent and various ethical shopper recommendations – is, far so, the only UK electricity provider to offer 100% renewable electricity. They are pretty expensive – having hiked prices about a year ago to match the rising cost of carbon generated electricity which (apparently) sets the market rate – but the real fly in the ointment, as discovered, is their atrocious customer service. The unspoken assumption seems to be that environmentally minded consumers willing to pay a small premium will put with anything to combat global warming.

It all started in September when I realised that we had been misreading our old fashioned four dial electricity meter. I tried to contact the Good Energy and quickly discovered that their customer enquiry line is never answered in person only by a recorded message asking callers to leave details and a promise to call back. Calls were returned but only after a delay of two or three days (sometimes longer) and invariably when I was out. As the ‘customer operatives’ left no direct number I was back at square one.

I finally emailed Good Energy at their enquiries email address, got no reply for a week, emailed again, did receive a reply and, hallelujah, a customer service agent telephoned me at a time when I was actually at home. They agreed to take a ‘verified reading’ on 20 explaining helpfully earlier readings would have been automatically adjusted at a computer centre to fit earlier customer reading and so any discrepancy would not automatically come to light.

A meter reader duly came (although not on the day agreed) and explained that, yes, our meter had indeed been misread and “a real stinker”. The correct reading was about 2000kw/h lower – about three month’s consumption – we had thought. Naively, I thought Good Energy would quickly sort things out re-bill. How green I was and not just in the ecological sense. I heard bugger from all from Good Energy, so five weeks later. I finally emailed them and received a reply from a Katie Smith say that she had located the reading of 16 October, would get it be validated and a new bill issued. Two days later I duly got a bill, which made no reference to the verified meter reading just an estimated reading based on the earlier incorrect figure.

So I then emailed Good Energy again on 4 December and four days later received an email response (sent 8 December 2006 by a Vicky Breydin) saying – without any additional explanation – that she had ‘been asked’ to arrange another verified reading and asking that I telephone to arrange this! Knowing their dud customer unfriendly enquiries line, I emailed back asking them to contact me, if possible by email and also asked just why-oh- why for Climate Change’s sake they needed to another ‘verified reading’. Was the first one wrong? Taking a leaf from George H.W. Bush, I also decided to draw a line in the sand so gave them two weeks to sort the mess out. Predictably, three weeks later …. no response whatsoever.

I guess the next stage to write a formal letter of complaint to the company and probably also complain regulator-cum-consumer watchdog EnergyWatch. I’ll certainly have to move to some green but halfway efficient alternative, but I’m starting to wonder if I will ever escape the clutches of Bad Energy. It’s hard not to think they are deliberately prevaricating to hang on to my money.

>Putin on some Christmas cheer….

As I suspected, the assassination of Aleksandr Livitnenko has somewhat damaged the Russian President’s public image, satirized on the latest cover of Private Eye ….

>UK Liberals’ Estonian ‘Cheeky Boy’ may have hidden political depths (honestly)

>I’ve always had a sneaking regard for the Liberal’s Northern Irish-born, Estonian-descended MP for Montgomeryshire in Wales, Lembit Öpik. As well as unusual family and political origins on the Celtic/Baltic fringe and some standard praiseworthy Liberal Democrat concerns with keeping rural post-office open and civil liberties, Öpik combines a eccentric range of personal and political interests: hang-gliding (which nearly finished him off), caravaning (he is a parliamentary consultant to the Caravaning Club of Great Britain), regular appearences on TV chat and talent shows (he plays the harmonica and does a decent stand-up routine) and appeals for increased spending to detect asteroids on catastrophic collision course with the Earth. He also seems to specialize in bringing the political kiss of death to other Lib Dems, having backed alcohol-impaired Liberal leader Charles Kennedy to the last last year as all around were finally giving up (Kennedy resigned) and then backed Lib Dem President Simon Hughes in the race to be his successor (whose chances promply collaped after relevations of hypocritically concealed bi-sexuality – Hughes was first elected to parliament in 1980 in a by-election which saw his Labour opponent subjected to some of the most virulently homophobic campaigning ever seen in Brtitish politics)

Interestingly, although Britain’s best known Estonian – he speaks the language fluently – and co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Estonia, his voting record and webpages show Öpik somewhat inactive on (East Central) European issues. He does, however, seem to have a weakness for Eastern Europe and kitsch pop music. Not only did he attend the Eurovision song contest as a guest of Tallinn City Council in 2002 – the only recent Estonian related entry in the Register of Members’ Interests – but he is in the news once again for having dumped his fiancée, Welsh TV weather girl Sîan Lloyd for one of the Cheeky Girls, a UK-based Romanian kitsch pop duo – who I had never actually heard of until the Guardian Online (who else?) broke the story. Not sure whether to be proud or ashamed of that.

Öpik is not really taken seriously by some of the more worthy and staid Liberal Democrats – “Anyone seen an asteroid?” a card carrying Lib Dem academic immediately commented when I mentioned Öpik in his presence last year. However, the piccareque, self-deprecating, media-hogging personality must it seems to me, in part, be cultivated and seems to be to be a potentially valuable political asset. Lib Dem MPs tend to rely on local bases and individual votes far more than those of the two large British parties and a colourful personality can shore this up as surely as grassroots constituency work. Both London Mayor Ken Livingstone and now booze-felled former Liberal leader Charles Kennedy (“Chatshow Charlie” ) built up personal followings that enabled them to outmanoevre duller, more standard politicians in their party establishments by developing the same kind of never-boring “cheeky chappy” image. I’m sure – politically speaking – we really haven’t heard the last of Lembit.

>Czech Republic: Proposed Institute of National Memory stirs new decommunization controversy


A research student sends a link to a very interesting essay by Michal Kopeček, a young historian based at Prague’s Institute for Contemporary, which discuses the current Czech debate about the possible creation of an Institute of National Memory along Polish or Hungarian lines to manage archive including (presumably) the archives of the StB, the former communist secret police (Lidové noviny 18 November).

Kopeček condemns the proposal as an abuse of the notion of ‘national memory’ as a historian would understand the term and sees it (probably accurately) as an attempt by decommunizers to gain further ground. The centralization of archives and historical research into the communist past in a single, politicized organization with a brief to oversee ‘national memory’, he suggests, would be a retrograde step, reducing pluralism of debate and reinforcing the tendency to view the past in polarized simplistic terms characteristic of both communist historiography and a newer tendency seeking ‘historical sovereignty’, which he links to a new sense of national vulnerability linked to EU accession. He also makes the point – interesting from the point of view of the political science debate about the party political preconditions and triggers of decommunization measures- that the existence of the Czech Republic’s large hard line Communist Party also provides a focus for decommunization entrepreneurs. The issue of institutional management and control of the archives is perhaps a neglected area in decommunization research, which has tended to be over preoccupied with lustration, trials etc. Interestingly, it seems that in a Romanian context there is also debate a centralizing the archives (or not) although here the opponents appeared to those afraid of the political consequences of some form of lustration, rather than those seeking to move beyond it in the name of a liberal pluralist history. Perhaps decommunization research should focus as much on the strategies of decommunizers as the forms of decommunization that emerge. Decommunization in any case seems a never ending story

>Putin’s Russia: Informal enquiries


Last Monday I attended the roundtable launch of the much awaited new book my SSEES colleague Alena Ledenev: How Russia Really Works (Cornell University Press, 2006). Alongside the author, the two roundtable participants were Sir Roderick Braithwaite, former British ambassador to Moscow and Prof Archie Brown of Oxford University. Alena started with a succinct presentation of key arguments combining intellectual clout with brutally offbeat satirical illustrations from the book. Its key argument is that the economic and political system of post-communist Russia in the Putin era has come to work through a large dollop of new post-communist informal practices, which complement, feed off and reshape the formal institutions of electoral democracy, market economy and civil society.

Such practices, she suggested, have replaced the Soviet era coping strategies of blat intended to cope with an economy of shortage and a formally closed and authoritarian political system. While blat was a relatively democratic and benign phenomenon, Alena argued, the ‘market’ for informal use of economic and political power is now far more unequal and restricted to players in the overlapping worlds of post-Soviet media, business, crime and politics, taking the form of ‘black PR’, kompromat, ‘dual accounting’, ‘black barter’ and other nefarious informal practices. These form a latterday and much more potent version of the circular networks of dependence and control well known from Soviet times (the krugavaya poruka phenomenon immortalized in a perestroika-era pop song, whose lyrics are thoughtfully reproduced as an appendix in the book).

I say ‘nefarious’ , but Alena argued that in fact it is wrong to read Russian simply as a kind of failed or distorted liberal state – its informal practices are two edged: they impede the efficient – democratic or competitive – functioning of the system, but like blat also enable some form of basic political and economic functionality and contribute to a gradual, if authoritarian inflected, modernization. Slightly contradicting Andrew Wilson’s arguments in Virtual Politics, Alena argued, these practices differ in scope and quantity but not in kind when viewed comparatively, a reason for long-term optimism she thought. The two roundtable panelists were impressed by the book but gently critical. Sir Roderick could not fault its line of arguments but thought the modernization argument somewhat heroic. For Archie Brown the book’s great strength was the represented a reinvention of the tradition of multi-disciplinary in Area Studies supposedly lost in 1990s favour of a procrustean influenced US political science obsessed with quantitative method and rational choice theory. For him too the authoritarian Putin era contrasted with genuine if chaotic freedom and (political) competition of the perestroika period, which he sees in hindsight as a high point – or at least a missed opportunity (a similar argument was advanced this week in The Guardian by Stephen Cohen.

When the floor was opened for questions and comments several Russian specialists from outside UCL then joined the fray, some making some rather exasperatingly drawn out questions-cum-speeches on the state of contemporary Russia The basic point –already made by the two roundtable panelists and indeed by my SSEES colleague Pete Duncan in the first question – was that Putin should perhaps be viewed as a politically lucky authoritarian propped up by surfeit of oil money, rather than Russia’s last best hope for incremental modernization. Were not the informal practices described in the book rather less ambiguous and complex in their effect than suggested?

Not being a specialist on post-Soviet politics, I watched this debate from the sidelinesl, looking mainly for comparative insights for work on CEE. My instinctive reaction was that instinctive British discomfort at Russian’s increasingly illiberal democracy (perhaps I should write ‘democracy’) missed the point, which seemed to be a more subtle one about the relationship of formal and informal forms of power, which could in principle take open or close forms. The key to Russia’s political system, distinguishing it from other more liberal post-communist democracies – as far as I could understand – was less the greater predominance of informal forms of power (although these are far more prevalent) but their greater centralization and monopolization. Should we not study informal practices in other (Central European? West Europe?) to find out how Hungary or Holland ‘really works’?

Archie Brown was right, I suspect, to see Alena’s book – which I picked up from the Cornell University Press stall immediately afterwards – as staking a new claim to be a new genre of political anthropology painting a large canvass rather than a local miniatures – although Katherine Verdery’s work on Romania may be a partial exception. However, his critique of US political science did strike me as attacking a straw man. As well as a legion of Rational Choices and Quant Methods specialists, the US has also has perhaps the strongest and biggest area studies centres (or should I write centers?) producing work, which manages both to combine excellent qualitative research with a stiff dose of methodological rigour that the soggier, more mongraphical British tradition – my own work included – can only dream. ‘Multi-disciplinarily’ in the context of UK research on Russia and East Europe was too often been a euphemism of acres of description with a sprinkling of social science terminiology. Few working in this rather traditional school can sadly match the heights of Brown’s The Gorbachev Factor, although Mary McAuley’s Russia’s Politics of Uncertainty comes to mind.

>Communism as kitchenware?


I was pleased and interested to see that a former SSEES MA student had revised and published some the research she did for a dissertation on decommunization in the Baltic with an American academic co-author in the latest issue in the Journal of Communist Studies and Transition Politics. In the article her comparative analysis is partly reworked into a defence of co-author John P. Moran’s theory of the causes and timing of different states’ decommunization policies. Moran’s ‘pressure cooker’ model, first outlined in 1994, argues that decommunization is a product of psychological desires for revenge against communist oppression, but that it is relieved when there are valves for the release of pressure through ‘voice’ (protest, reform, some element of free discussion) or ‘exit’ (mass emigration – which, it seems, only applies to East Germany).

The article argues that this ‘pressure cooker’ approach can incorporate all manner of more recent approaches into a kind of Grand Theory of comparative decommunization in CEE – Williams, Szczerbiak and Fowler stress on the use of decommunization as tool to fight against post-communist successor parties in the politics of present; Nedelsky’s arguments about regime legitimacy as a product of national development etc. These, constitute ‘switches’ on the giant pressure cooker of communist/post-communist political systems.

I found this analysis somewhat unconvincing. Moran’s approach is first not really ‘psychological’, but, in fact, stresses communist regime legacies, albeit with an original take: basically how liberal communist regimes were (The GDR is an odd and outlying case and I am dubious as to how much ‘exit’ was offered by the GDR’s ‘sales’ of pensioners for Deutschmarks – many communist regimes including that in hardline Czechoslovakia offered the ‘exit’ option of booting dissidents into emigration). No arguments about psychology or public opinion evidence of varying levels of demand are really presented.

The metaphor of the ‘pressure cooker’ and its extension into a discussion of ‘switches’ ‘fuel’ and sundry other specifications is also slightly odd, as it is not really developed or explained in any clearer, more academic language. The net effect of this stress on ‘psychological pressure’ is to obscure the the playing out of factors that other analyses, such as Williams, Szczerbiak and Fowler’s more sophisticated and carefully comparative ‘politics of the present’ article explain more systematically. Obviously, there is (or, at least, was) some kind of social/social-psychological demand for decommunization in CEE after 1989, which may in some sense have ‘driven’ the whole process (although one could equally well talk in terms of the constraining effects of framing, discourse or ‘rhetorical entrapment’), but communist societies and political systems really cannot, I don’t think, be well understood as a Heath Robinson-esque piece of kitchenware.

What does interestingly emerge, however, is that the ‘voice’ allowed by liberal communist regimes was counter-acted by the emergence from such regimes of a large reformed communist parties as the main force on the social democratic centre-left – a tempting target for decommunization by political competitors. Indeed, one might almost argue that far from releasing pressures for anti-communist revenge, ‘voice’ under later communism allow the formation of an anti-communist proto-right. (Williams, Szczerbiak and Fowler’s stress on collective action problems and the need to build minimum winning coalitions extending from right to centre is rather overlooked but adds a further complication, as it suggests the post-communist ‘target’ will not always be squarely hit ).

The more normative argument in the article claims that decommunization policies can be categorized into ‘criminal adjudication’ (trials of individuals), ‘civil adjudication’ (returning confiscated property) and ‘political adjudication’ (measures against groups restricting political right such as lustration). Criminal and civil adjudication – more characteristic of Latvia and Estonia – are, it is argued, more legitimate and more effective and than much abused lustration policies.

This is an interesting attempt to rethink typologies of decommunization measure, but not fully convincing as ‘civil adjudication’ is not exercised against individuals, but in most cases by them against the state – it is state and collective farm property that is returned and only rarely the property of individuals associated with the regime. (Land and buildings subject to restitution may of course have a new user but these, I suspect, were rarely favourites of the regime, although in the Baltic the fact that new occupants were more likely to be ethnic Russians may conceal that). Moreover, it assumes that in the context of regime changes civil and criminal law can be meaningfully and neutrally applied. Leaving aside the issue of which laws applied under communism, that is how legal and legitimate communist regimes can be considered to be – something which has to be politically determined through the passing of restitution laws, statutes of limitation etc – this assumes an efficient professional judiciary not subject to political pressure, which can scarcely be said to have existed. The quotes from de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America rather underline this – I am a huge admirier of US political science, but American academics are forever returning to Madision, Jefferson and de Tocqueville and the early American Republic as reference point for the most unlikely and removed of situations in ways I really find very puzzling. No doubt de Tocqueville has also been name checked in discussions on Iraq.

The article’s most interesting analyses – drawn from the original dissertation- contrasts patterns of decommunization across the three Baltic states, rather than a rearguard defence of the ‘pressure cooker’ model from Moran’s 1994 article. Lithuania, which had only a small ethnic Russian minority, developed a reformed ex-communist social democratic party and followed a ‘Central European’ pattern of decommunization via lustration. Estonia and Latvia had politically significant minorities, saw ruling communist parties melt into the post-communist political firmament and followed a different ‘Baltic model’ of trials, restitution and exclusionary citizenship laws, which may have acted a functional substitutive for decommunization – although I know colleagues working on the Baltic, who are sceptical about this interpretation.

E. Jaskovska and J.P.Moran (2006) ‘Justice or Politics? Criminal, Civil and Political Adjudication in the Newly Independent Baltic States’, Communist and Post-Communist Studies, 23: 485 – 506.

J.P. Moran (1994) ‘The Communist Torturers of Eastern Europe: Prosecute and Punish or Forgive and Forget?’, Communist and Post-Communist Studies, 27 (1994), 95-109.

N. Nedelsky (2004), ‘Divergent responses to a common past: Transitional justice in the Czech Republic and Slovakia’, Theory and Society, 30: 65-115

Williams, K. Szczerbiak, A. and Fowler, B. (2005) ‘Explaining Lustration in Eastern Europe: A “Post-Communist Politics” Approach’, Democratization, 12: 22-43.

>Academic books: stocking up for 2007

>So what would I like from Santa Claus this year? Maybe some of the following

Anna Gryzmala-Busse, Rebuilding Leviathan: Party Competition and State Exploitation in Post-communist Democracies, Cambridge University Press, forthcoming 2007

Jean Blondel Ferdinand Muller-Rommel, Darina Malova Governing New European Democracies, Palgrave, forthcoming December 2006.

Gerd Meyer (ed) Formal Institutions and Informal Politics in Central and Eastern Europe: Hungary, Poland, Russia and Ukraine,Verlag Barbara Budrich.

Pieter Vanhuysse, Divide and Pacify: Strategic Social Policies and Political Protests in Post-communist Democracies , Central European University Press, 2006

Leslie Holmes Rotten States?: Corruption, Post-communism and Neo-liberalism, Duke University Press, 2006

Stephen White, David Stansfield, and Paul Webb (eds.) Political Parties in Transitional Democracies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming 2006

Susanne Jungerstam-Mulders, (ed) Post-Communist EU Member States: Parties and Party Systems, Ashgate, 2006

Cas Mudde, Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe, Cambridge University Press (forthcoming 2007)

Paul Webb, Paul Taggart, Paul Lewis, Aleks Szczerbiak and Charles Lees, Party Politics in Contemporary Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming)