Will The Real Ukraine Central Bank Please Stand Up!

Does anyone happen to know offhand the “official” dollar rate of the Ukrainian currency, the Hryvnia? I am asking this question since clearly over at the central bank they are having difficulty deciding at the moment, since – like the legendary character Hydra – they seem to be speaking with two “heads” at the same time, and the only question I can ask is: would the real representative of the Ukraine central bank please stand up!

This issue unfortunately is neither a small nor a comic one, since Ukraine is currently running a 30% plus annual inflation rate, and letting the currency rise against the dollar is one of the few serious anti inflation policies anyone has on the table at the present time.

Essentially the story to date is that the Ukraine central bank had been keeping the “official rate” for the national currency – the Hryvnia – at 5.05 to the dollar (within a broader target band of 4.95-5.25) since August 2005 – although traders have generally been saying that the bank effectively stopped intervening around February-March. However during the last 24 hours the “official rate” has become a highly contested issue, with one part of the bank’s monetary policy structure suggesting that the official rate has now been revalued to 4.85 to the dollar, while another part is denying this and maintains the rate is still 5.05. Basically one part of the structure is challenging the right of another to take decisions.

Of course the reaction of the financial markets to this state of affairs is not that hard to predict (at least in the immediate term), and Ukraine’s hryvnia fell the most against the dollar in a single day in over eight years yesterday, falling 4.01 percent on the day to trade as low as 4.7875 per dollar by 6:04 p.m. in Kiev, down from 4.5550 late Wednesday, making it the worst performer among the 178 global currencies being tracked by Bloomberg yesterday. Continue reading

The absence of politics…?

The associative mind works in mysterious ways. At least, mine does. The New York Times has an amazing article today called Bacteria Thrive in Inner Elbow; No Harm Done about, as the title suggests, the countless bacteria that live in and on our bodies. It turns out humans are really individual ‘superorganisms’. What caught my associative attention was the following (emphasis mine):

Since humans depend on their microbiome for various essential services, including digestion, a person should really be considered a superorganism, microbiologists assert, consisting of his or her own cells and those of all the commensal bacteria. The bacterial cells also outnumber human cells by 10 to 1, meaning that if cells could vote, people would be a minority in their own body.

Fortunately, nobody gets to vote here. And that is exactly what set my mind off. Bacteria and humans share a common society, if you will, and both parties benefit from this coexistence. There are no codified rules or policy governing the life of the individual superorganism called man. And over the course of ages this has evolved into something that really works well for all parties concerned.

This made me wonder if we do not sometimes overpoliticize certain social issues within our human macrosocieties. Can we leave certain issues of, for instance, cohabitation to the population itself to sort out in a free market kind of way? Or will this inevitably lead to violence and grief (even if there were no populist politicians to stir up the flames) as seems to be the case right now in South-Africa? And, after all, bacteria wage war too.

Well, a naieve mind can dream, can’t it? Anyway, I thought the article on its own was interesting enough to mention here. And maybe some knowledgeable readers can surprise and enlighten us with comments about politics in nature?

Afterthougt: Alternatively, does it really matter if there are politics or not? Aren’t we, somewhere deep down, inexorably governed by the ruthless laws of nature regardless of all the nice ideologies and institutions we invent to prevent ourselves, periodically, from killing each other?

«La nature a fait l’homme heureux et bon, mais la société le déprave et le rend misérable.»

Quote taken from Le Mythe du bon sauvage

Serbian elections, short version

The mostly pro-European Democratic Party (DS) did surprisingly well — possibly because of a surprising last-minute from Brussels to give Serbia a “Stabilization and Association Agreement”. This was fairly blatant intervention on Brussels’ part, but it seems to have worked — at least in terms of getting more votes for DS.

Prime Minister Kostunica’s increasingly nationalist and obnoxious Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) tanked and burned, possibly because they overplayed their hand — they were all Kosovo, all the time, and pretty explicitly anti-European.

The Serbian Radical Party (SRS) got 28% of the vote, which is almost exactly what they got in the last election, and also the one before that.

The Socialist Party of Serbia (Milosevic’s old party, still kicking) did okay, picking up a few extra seats.

So the vote totals are: Continue reading

Who participates in peace deals?

When a long running conflict is finally brought to “closure”, is the deal only an arrangement between elites on each side?  The question is prompted by the Northern Ireland peace process, where great progress in reducing violence and devolving powers has not been matched by more harmonious relations at the community level.  And apparent puzzlement among many as to why Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley can seem to get along so well after being so implacably opposed.  Was it just about personal power all along?  

Likewise, we could look at the Balkans and see a problem that in sense of war has been “solved” and yet wonder whether the people in BiH and Serbia are any more reconciled to the apparent implications of the peace deals for their countries.  But most of all, we could look at Israel-Palestine and see clear evidence of Tony Blair’s famous bicycle metaphor at work (“you have to keep going forward or else you fall over”) — meaning endless photo-ops between Olmert, Abbas, Bush, and the regional heads of state and assurances from Condi Rice that lots of negotiating work is being done behind the scenes.  But is there any evidence that the Arab people are more reconciled to a long-term deal that would almost certainly see no right of return for Palestinians?  Indeed, this is one of the paradoxes of Bush’s push for democracy in the Middle East — he’ll need exactly the power of authoritarian Arab leaders to ensure acceptance of any peace deal that will almost certainly be a bitter pill for their populaces.

Perhaps AFOE readers have good examples were conflict resolution was truly a bottom-up process.  But it’s not easy to think of one.

Plague of pollsters

Here’s an interesting analysis of the political situation in Serbia from the FT’s Quentin Peel.  This is in the context of what had looked like a good result for the Boris Tadic (president) alliance with their 38% vote share — but with a rival alliance of Radicals, Socialists (former Milosevic) and a group linked to Vojislav Kostunica (PM) inching close to a coalition.  Peel looks specifically at the EU decision to offer an Association agreement to Serbia during the campaign — a transparently political gambit.  It seems that the deal was clinched by evidence from US pollsters —

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The most important European emigrant of 2008

I’ve been meaning to write about the Serbian elections, and the continuing slapfest over Macedonia, and some more about the frozen conflicts, and all that good stuff. But first:

Niko Bellic is Serbian.

He’s not just a generic Eastern European; he’s a Bosnian Serb who fought in the war as a teenager. The game’s backstory (which is revealed over many hours of play) involves his war experiences, and his issues with them pervade the whole game. Also, he seems to have come from rural Bosnia, so he’s initially pretty baffled by American urban culture.

So: is this a simple-minded decision, reflecting a vulgar stereotype of Serbs as violent thugs with a taste for organized crime, ignorant peasants who are thrown into culture shock in the modern world? Or is it an inspired choice, allowing the writers to make the protagonist character more complex and morally ambiguous, and position him as a “fish out of water” observer of the madness that’s modern American street life?

Note that Niko Bellic is not inherently evil. Nor unsympathetic. In fact, you can play him as a hero, albeit a rather noir one. (Yes, you can also go around killing people at random, but that’s your problem, not Niko’s.) And he’s presented as likable, and even — in the first few episodes — somewhat innocent.

On the other hand, providing the protagonist of Grand Theft Auto is not exactly a point of national pride. Niko is now the planet’s most famous Serb, and he’s a small-time crook with issues.

On the other-other hand, Grand Theft Auto! Come on! How cool is that?

So: good or bad?

Comments from informed readers welcome. N.B., you don’t have to have played the game to be “informed”, but you should at least read about it. Not hard, right? It’s the biggest and most famous video game anywhere ever.

Non-Serb commenters are encouraged to pause and ask themselves “what if Niko Bellic were [my nationality]?” Still cool?

What think you, commenters?

New cartoon mayhem in The Netherlands

In The Netherlands cartoon artist Gregorius Nekschot has been arrested following complaints by imam Abdul-Jabbar van de Ven that his work discriminates against, notably, Muslims and dark-skinned people. I really do not have the time right now to write a decent post about this and I am also waiting for more information, but Dutch weblog Polderpundit has dedicated a long post on this subject. Here is one quote to give you an idea about the gist of the controversy:

Personally we think most of Nekschot’s drawings (which we only discovered today) are rather tasteless, although some made us smile (wryly). In other words, we will not buy the book and we won’t subscribe to his newsletter. Period, that’s it. We certainly do not feel more negative or less positive about certain ethnic or religious minorities. Seeing a cartoon where Mohammed sodomizes Anne Frank makes us wish we hadn’t, but it doesn’t change our feelings about either. The only thing it incites us to do is, again, to abstain from buying Nekschot’s books. Maybe it makes others incite to buy it, good for them.

As for the “insulting” part, well, it’s hard to pretend Nekschot’s drawings are uncontroversial innocent works of art. It is imaginable that some people feel indeed insulted by some of the cartoons. In which case they would be wise not to look at them. Just as reactionary (or simply long-toed) christians did not watch “Life of Brian” or “The Last Temptation of Christ”. All these artworks can be considered insulting. But criminally insulting? The Western battle for freedom of expression is also the battle for the freedom of expression of ideas we do not like, including ideas we feel insulted by.

Subsidiary question: Are the imams who call non-muslim children “dogs”, who wish a tongue cancer onto Ayaan Hirsi Ali and all other kind of documented niceties, are these people insulting and inciting hatred? We cannot measure with two standards. The cases of both Nekschot and islamic extremists should be examined with the same zeal and integrity, and depending on the findings, they should be prosecuted or not, and then tried (or not) with identical impartiality.

The really worrying part comes next:

It is always tempting to think of hidden political agendas, and before you know it you are talking about conspiracy theories. As long as there is no more detailed information available, it would seem wise to stay prudent.

At the same time it is true that some high-profile members and cabinet ministers of Holland’s biggest political party, the CDA (christian centre), have been advocating censorship of the Fitna, a movie critical of islam, launched by Geert Wilders (founder of one of those populist parties). Has this antidemocratic attitude seeped down to lower levels? Were the police and the DA trying to please their political masters?

The latter quote I find particularly interesting because it goes way beyond freedom of speech. There is a strong sense of “Why are they allowed to do these things and we are not?” I have seen this cropping up several times before in internet discussions. Personally, I doubt if there is a political conspiracy behind the arrest, but Dutch politicians and society would do well to address what Polderpundit describes as “this antidemocratic attitude” and, more importantly, the perception, wrong or right, that some people get condemned for the very same things others seem to get away with.

Update: The link to Nekschot’s site went 404 following an official request from the Dutch Public Prosecutor. From the dozens of cartoons that were examined by the judiciary eight have been subjected to charges of discrimination and possibly even incitement to violence and hatred. All the other cartoons were deemed to be within the legal limits of freedom of speech and artistic expression.

Forced rebalancing

It’s not clear that there’s much useful to be blogged about from a distance on the catastrophes in China and Burma.   But one difference from the past is that the population scale of Asia relative to the rest of the world is now matched by its economic influence.  In past decades, 6 figure death tolls were something one would read about and try to grasp the misery, but never see any impact on people not directly affected.  Not now.  Even isolated and shunned Burma is an important player in the world rice market but that pales in comparison to China.  One aspect of the Chinese disaster is highlighted by a dreadfully timed report from the US Treasury on its exchange rate policy.

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Soft power in Belgium

In the latest twist in the long-running saga of the increasingly Francophone areas near Brussels but in Flanders, a Council of Europe delegation visited three towns where the election of Francophone mayors has not been endorsed by the regional Flemish government.  The delegation sounded pessimistic and floated the possibility that the case could be subject to a Council “monitoring procedure” — albeit one that falls far short of what an EU monitoring procedure (e.g. for Eurozone deficit targets) looks like.   The Council, with 47 member countries, has no enforcement power.  But its Congress of Local and Regional Authorities is extremely active, perhaps indicative of the fact that Europe’s various national and linguistic flashpoints result not in wars but in bitter local disputes (see also this New York Times article about Liedekerke).  Among the ironies of the Council delegation’s visit to Belgium was the presence of a Serbian member, who was probably relieved to see things don’t look likely to result in a war.  But the situation looks set to drag on and on.

Prenez Soin de Vous – BNF Paris

Do not bring your boyfriend to this exhibition. This is not an exhibition for couples. And, if you are male, don’t bring your girlfriend. In fact, maybe don’t come at all.

There are a few couples here to see Sophie Calle’s multimedia project set in the beautiful 19th Salle Labrouste domed reading room of the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, but I don’t fancy their chances. Most of the spectators are women in groups, or women alone. A few lone men wander through, glancing tentatively at the desktop screens scattered throughout the room. Most of them are looking increasingly queasy.

You see, once upon a time, Artist Sophie Calle’s ex-lover sent her an email of breathtaking audacity in which he explained that he had begun to see other women and, out of respect for her desire for a limited form of monogamy (the man rumoured to be Monsieur X is married), had decided to chuck her and hold onto them. But hey, he ends, “Prenez soin de vous – Take care of yourself.”.

What’s a girl to do? Well, Ms Calle decided that, as she was too devastated to reply to this message personally, she could best take care of herself by sending copies of it to 107 other Frenchwomen, from a police psychiatrist to a schoolgirl, asking for their advice and opinions on the break-up message, then exhibit the results for everyone in Paris (and the World, via her participation in this year’s Venice Biennale) to see, hear and read.

Sophie Calle’s previous work has similarly relied on letting other people tell her what to do. She let a stranger dictate her daily movements (Suite Venetienne, 1980) and imitated a fictional version of herself created by American writer Paul Auster (Double Game 1998). Yet, through this self-abandonment, she obtains an odd kind of power.

This time, she has asked a screenwriter, a poet, two sibling romance-novelists, a translator, a cartoonist, a florist, a judge, magazine and book editors, a journalist, a mathematician, and a schoolteacher, amongst others, to explain her life to her. They’ve responded, not only as women, but according to their metier, and their opinions on the ex range from possible violent psychosis (from the police psychiatrist) to the only woman (I’m afraid I forget her metier but I think it may have been something to do with astrology) who takes the email at face value, believing that the writer has a great and genuine love and respect for the artist.

If you’ve ever been dumped, the result is exhilarating fun. In a reading-room full of old books, mostly written by men, Calle has made new books from the replies she received, all written by women. There is also a ‘livre d’or’ of responses to the exhibition to which men can contribute: I notice the entry, “I’M JUST A NORMAL, BORING MAN!” written in the largest and most self-aggrandising script in the album.

But the exhibition is not just about revenge. It’s a patchwork, a firework, a peacock’s tail, a hall of mirrors of the diverse lives modern Frenchwomen are able to lead. Reading the responses, you can no longer tell where the woman ends and her metier begins.

She has also asked actresses, singers, dancers and a sign-language interpreter to perform their versions of the email, which are played on a loop on screens suspended form the ceiling. Some of them have chosen to enact the voice of the man, some that of the woman reading the letter. You hear the noise of women everywhere. The sounds from the screens mix with reactions of the female spectators to create a constant buzz. It reminds me of the British novelist and critic, Marina Warner who, speaking at her old college in my hometown, Oxford, UK, told an audience of present-day, mixed-sex undergraduates how shocking and disturbing, then how empowering, she had found the unfiltered noise of 300 raucous female students when she joined the then all-girl institution as an undergraduate. In the Salle Lebrouste, the voice of one man has become the voice of many women: a parliament of poulets. It’s jubilant.

I’m at the far end of the hall, watching a video screen of a classical ballerina dance her version of the message, when the man in front of me, hypnotised by the image, backs me against a library desk. In order to see better, he steps backwards, squarely and heavily onto one of my feet. He stays there. I am wearing sandals. He is not slightly built. It hurts. He appears not to notice what he has done. I am about to protest when he cranes his neck further back and steps, heavily and squarely, onto my other foot. Now he has me trapped, unable to move, between himself and the desk. Only when he leans into me does he realise there is another body behind him. He turns abruptly, horrified and, before scuttling toward the exit whispers, shamefacedly, ‘Pardon, Madame!”

sophie calle prenez soin

Sophie Calle, Prenez Soin de Vous, continues at the Richlieu site of the BNF until 8th June. Tuesday – Saturday 10am-8pm (late night opening till 10pm on Thursdays). Sundays from midday – 8pm. Closed Mondays. Adults 7 euros, concessions 5 euros
More info: www.bnf.fr

Joanna Walsh’s homepage is Badaude at www.badaude.typepad.com