The new great game

Our next anniversary guest post is written by the the great Jonathan Edelstein.

It’s starting to look like the season of referenda in the near abroad.

On September 17, less than a week from today, voters in the unrecognized republic of Transnistria, located between Moldova and Ukraine, will be asked to vote on whether to “renounce [their] independent status and subsequently become part of the Republic of Moldova” or “support a policy of independence… and subsequent free association with the Russian Federation.” The option of “free association” with Russia, which is widely considered a prelude to outright annexation, is reportedly backed by a large number of Russian-financed business and political organizations, some with long-standing presence in Transnistrian politics and others apparently formed for the occasion. In the meantime, South Ossetia, which had earlier explored the possibility of petitioning Russia’s constitutional court for annexation, has just announced its own referendum for November 12, and although Abkhazia currently denies similar plans, there are rumors that a plebiscite may be in the works there as well.

The referenda, which are rather transparently supported by Moscow, represent something of a change in policy for the Russian Federation. It’s certainly nothing new for post-Soviet Russia to attempt to maintain its influence over the countries comprising the former Soviet Union, and it has at times used Russian citizenship to cement the “soft” annexation of neighboring territories; for instance, at least 90 percent of Abkhazians and South Ossetians now hold Russian passports. Nevertheless, up to now, it has soft-pedaled the issue of de jure territorial expansion. The forthcoming vote on whether Transnistria should become a second Kaliningrad suggests that policymakers in Moscow are at least starting to think seriously about taking formal responsibility for the territories that have broken away from other former Soviet republics.

At first glance, it’s hard to see why Russia would push such a policy at the present time. All three of the breakaway republics have substantial minorities who oppose union with Russia; Transnistria is almost evenly divided between ethnic Russians, Ukrainians and Romanians, and despite post-Soviet ethnic cleansing, South Ossetia and Abkhazia retain Georgian minority enclaves. The recent wave of terrorist bombings in the Transnistrian capital of Tiraspol may well be linked to the referendum, and Russian annexation of the Georgian breakaway republics would only intensify border conflicts such as the Kodori Gorge. Nor would successful plebiscites lend a veneer of legitimacy to a Russian annexation; indeed, given the current international attitude toward non-consensual secessions from recognized states, this would only make Russia’s legal position worse by transforming it into an occupying power.

In other words, the referenda seem like a recipe for stirring up ethnic conflict within the breakaway republics, making Moldova and Georgia even more alarmed over Russian political ambitions than they already are, and creating new diplomatic and legal problems for Moscow. Which leads naturally to three questions: why now, what does Russia stand to gain in compensation for these risks, and how much should the rest of the world (and particularly Europe) care?
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Hungary’s Reform Programme

Just a bit of background info to accompany Doug’s post on AFOE:

“Everybody in Hungary knows that real income will decrease in the next two years … and very significant social groups will feel their interests hurt. If this simple rejection is transformed and mixed with national radicalism and social populism, then this is a dangerous thing,” Gyurcsany (Ferenc Gyurcsany, Hungary’s Prime Minister) said.

He has said that Hungary aims to meet eurozone criteria on the public deficit, national debt and inflation by 2009 and adopt the common currency by 2013.Last week, Hungary submitted to the European Commission a revised plan to prepare for adoption of the euro. Under the plan, the public deficit would be slashed from 10.1 percent of gross domestic product GDP) this year, the highest in the EU, to 3.2 percent in 2009. Although it is an ambitious programme, some analysts have called on the government to cut spending further in social areas such as pensions, in order to tidy up the country’s shaky finances, a recipe Gyurcsany has so far rejected.

The so-called euro convergence programme, not deemed aggressive enough for some, has also sparked protests in Hungary and led to a huge drop in the government’s popularity. The reforms include ending free public university education and overhauling the state-run healthcare system that is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, by introducing co-payments for visits to the doctor and to the hospital, among other things. The aim of the plan is to put a greater financial burden on citizens and curtail the welfare state, which is becoming increasingly hard to finance in a society that, like much of Europe, is growing older.

This information also has some relevance to the debate which is raging on this thread about reform.

Visit Hungary Now!

Because they devalued the forint this summer, so everything is now about 7% cheaper.

Well, they didn’t actually devalue it. No. I mean, that would imply there had been a… devaluation. Ha ha, how silly. No, what happened was that the Bank of Hungary moved the band in which the forint was allowed to float freely. Whereupon the forint freely floated down from around 250/euro to more like 275/euro. So, it was a sudden fast downward change in the value of the currency caused by central bank action. Which is not a “devaluation” at all.

(The forint lost about 10% of its value in a month; you can see the graphic here. It has since clawed back about a third of that loss. Still, a Euro will go about 7% further than it would in May, and about 10% further than in March.)

Nobody seems to have paid much attention, but I think there are some points of interest here.
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Fifth anniversary of 9-11

I do not normally do linkdumps here on AFOE, but German Television Channel ZDF has a magnificent interactive online anniversary exhibition on 9-11 that is a must see even for those of you who do not speak German: click here

PS: I cannot tell if the site works for people who are not on DSL or ISDN. Hat tip for the link goes to Dutch weblog Sargasso.

Eurozone Watch Blog

Well I have just noticed a new new Eurozone blog: Daniela Schwarzer and Sebastian Dullien who have been blogging at Eurozone Watch Blog for a few months now. Daniela has a post today about Mr Euro, Jean-Claude Juncker. But see this George Parker piece in the FT:

Jean-Claude Trichet, European Central Bank president, on Friday delivered a stiff warning to eurozone finance ministers to back off in an escalating dispute over the bank’s independence.

Mr Trichet pointed out that it was his signature on euro banknotes and that it was unlawful under the EU treaty for finance ministers to give instructions or try to influence the bank.

His comments came at a strained news conference in Helsinki with Jean-Claude Juncker, Luxembourg prime minister, who was on Friday given a second two-year term as political head of the eurozone.

Mr Juncker said he had only agreed to carry on chairing the eurogroup – the political arm of the single currency – after finance ministers supported his plan to have an “intensified dialogue” with the ECB.

As I say in a comment on Daniela’s post. This is about the only topic I am currently in agreement with Trichet on: I simply don’t see what he and Trichet have to talk about.

Meantime over on Afoe Mark Thoma had a very interesting guest post last week on whether the eurozone will be affected by any possible downturn in the US, and this post has been picked up by both New Economist and Claus Vistesen at Alpha Sources.

Moment of Truth?

You know I was just reading my way though this article describing the frantic to-ing and fro-ing which seems to be taking place between Baghdad and Teheran at the moment, and I couldn’t help asking myself, well if, as now seems likely, the UN puts some effective sanctions on Iran in the coming weeks, is the Iraq government going to implement them? This doesn’t seem at all likely, so where does that leave us, imposing sanctions on Iraq for systematic sanctions busting?

Analytic philosophy

This anniversary guest post is from the brilliant John Emerson.

“It is an ancient Mariner,
And he stoppeth one of three.
`By thy long beard and glittering eye,
Now wherefore stopp’st thou me ?…..

He holds him with his skinny hand,
`There was a ship,’ quoth he.
`Hold off ! unhand me, grey-beard loon !’….
(Coleridge, “The Ancient Mariner”)

“I alone have escaped to tell thee. ”
(Job 1:19)

When I attack analytic philosophy, a very common response is bafflement: why do I dislike it so much, and just what it is that I would prefer? I have recently come to understand that this bafflement is sincere and real, and that no one younger than forty-five or so can remember a time when analytic philosophy was not dominant. Even by the time of my own undergraduate years (1964-7) the kind of thing I wanted to see was being phased out, and by now I am effectively a fossil. This post is my attempt to clarify my objections to analytic philosophy, and to sketch what it is that I would have wanted.

I think that it is agreed that analytic philosophy descends from Frege, and the short way of expressing my dissatisfaction is to say that Fregean philosophy does some of the things philosophy used to do much better than any earlier philosophy did, but at the cost of ceasing entirely to do some of the other things that philosophy used to do. Analytic philosophers speak with condescension and scorn of anyone who regrets the loss of the old “big picture” philosophy, but I think that their condescension and scorn are not justified and, in fact, justify my own low opinion of them.

By and large the problems I see in analytic philosophy come from the attempt to make philosophy into a scientific, technical, professional activity. In particular, I think that the standards of truth and clarity, the general bias toward analysis as opposed to synthesis, and the skittishness about “thick” or mixed discourse have played a malicious role. The philosophy I would prefer would be more inclusive and more enterprising, but less certainly true, and in this would resemble the pre-Fregean philosophies.

I’ve put my criticisms / proposals in four categories, which I will just sketch. By and large, my criticisms are especially of analytic philosophy’s approaches to social, political, historical, ethical, and other “humanistic” questions, though I suspect that the analytic philosophy of science is dubious too.

First, I think that at least some philosophers should reverse the priority that analytic philosophers give to rigor over comprehensiveness. Rather than reducing problems to a size which can be successfully handled with rigor and certainty, I think that philosophers should try as best possible to handle large questions in their entirety. And these should be actual, real questions in all their thickness, and not questions about formalized models or imaginary hypothetical questions.

Second, if questions have both a normative (political or ethical) and a factual component, as most do, both components should be discussed together, rather than simplifying them by the “bracketing-out” process, and assigning the separate parts to the respective specialists.

Third, discussions should be oriented both to persuasion and to truth, and this means, to a degree, the renunciation of expert professionalism. The kinds of philosophical questions I’m talking about are of very general concern, and to treat them as specialized subjects not accessible to laymen has not only the disadvantage of elitism or even authoritarianism, but also that of presumption. The technical devices by which philosophers exclude laymen from their discussions have the effect of excluding very intelligent, concerned
non-philosophers from the argument. There are reasons why fluid dynamics, for example, should be a specialized topic, but ethics and politics should not be. (To put it differently: philosophy can be as
difficult as it wishes, but it cannot intentionally reserve itself for professional philosophers alone. And yes, Kant and Hegel were more accessible than contemporary philosophy is, because they did deign to address “the things that matter in [people’s] little lives”. )

Finally, philosophy should be constructive, and for that reason cannot be truth-functional. Every writer and every reader faces an uncertain future which can be influenced by his or her actions. Comprehensive
philosophies are by nature, and absolutely should be, constructive proposals or projects about how we should make our futures. And proposals and projects cannot be true, but can only be constrained by truth.

All past philosophies exaggerated their claims to truth, and the Fregean critique was a powerful one. But Fregean philosophy cannot produce a thick, constructive, persuasive, comprehensive world view,
and has thus renounced one of the functions of philosophy. Not all analytic philosophers fail on all four of the counts I have listed, but as far as I know they all fail on at least one of them. In effect, the philosophy profession has delegated some of the most important traditional functions of philosophy to journalists, freelancers, politicians, administrators, and charlatans.

Why reform has become a dirty word.

This anniversary guest post was written by the indispensable Jérôme Guillet, who normally writes for The European Tribune.

Laurence Parisot, the head of MEDEF, the French business
organisation, recently complained that:

There is one word who meaning for the public has changed in the past 25 years: “reform”. It used to be synonymous with progress, and now it means social regression.

One wonders why. Or not. As I’ve written incessantly over the past year at European Tribune (for instance here), “reform” has come to mean only one thing: less regulation of corporations, lower wages, fewer rights for workers, and weaker unions, i.e. the elimination of anything that can impede corporations’ freedom to make profits in the short term.
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State of the World Population

I’ll keep this brief since there are some excellent guest posts just a little bit further on down the page just waiting for you to read and comment on. I’m not sure whether this is more about form or content, but the UN has a supremely interesting and readable report out today, as part of its State of the World Population programme, entitled A Passage to Hope, Women and International Migration, and whatsmore the report is presented in an extremely blog-like format, as I say highly readable and with the content readily available. And as if that wasn’t enough, the ‘traditionalist’ Financial Times (traditionalist in terms of content, not in terms of format) actually has a hyper-link to the report itself inside its article (bravo FT!). People often ask what kind of importance and influence blogs have, well sometimes I feel you only have to cast your eyes around a little bit.

On the substance front the contents of the report are obviously very relevant to our recent debate about Sub-Saharan migration to Spain. Indeed on the SotWP homepage you can find a link to a fascinating first person account by a Burkinan migrant (Adama) of his convoluted 3 year journey up through Mali, Algeria and Morocco, before finally reaching Spain via the Canary Islands. Clearly in migration terms people like Adama are the pioneers (anthropologists tend to call them the ‘heroes’, those who blaze the trail) who struggle against all adversity to find land and establish themselves (and tragically many do not make it all the way). What the arrival of Adama means is that many more will inevitably come behind, following a network logic which I have attempted to describe in the previous post.

But the new UN report isn’t about Adama, it is about the relatively new phenomenon of female-lead migration. Obviously the report highlights the situation of sex workers et al, but I would like to underline the fact, which is absolutely evident here in Spain, that the welfare services in Southern Europe at least simply cannot handle the rapid population ageing which is taking place without the massive arrival of female care-workers from outside the EU. The later economic development of Southern Europe and the comparative underdevelopment (not to say virtual non-existence in many cases) of institutional care make this inevitable.

One last thing while I am here, we have often talked about the economic growth imbalances which comparatively small migratory movements are causing between and within countries. The outward migration of skilled and highly educated workers from Germany is one such case, while the regional tensions which might arise inside Spain is another. Well today Randy McDonald has a timely and very interesting post about how oil revenues and subsequent economic growth differential in Alberta have produced a migration and fertility phenomenon which may well change the face of Canadian politics as a linguistic divide becomes a growth-model and socio-political one. Finally (the last thing after the last) anyone interested in looking into earlier European ties with Senegal (now being renewed) might like to glance at this link that Randy sent me on Senegalese participation in the European revolution of 1848, or read about the fate of one group of Senegalese soldiers who fought on the allied side in WWII, as described by Senegalese director Sembène Ousmane in his film Camp de Thiaroye (my input). And for those who still want to ask what all these Senegalese may have to offer the future Europe we are collectively building, maybe I could recommend the little known but excellent work of the Senegalese group Orchestra Baobab.