Globalisation meets Bulgaria

Here’s another little USA extradition headache for an eastern European country, but unlike the Serbian case where it’s a bar fight that turned out very badly, this one is a tiny little slice of the global nature of the current financial crisis.  At issue is the whereabouts of Bulgarian-born Julian Tzolov, whom federal prosecutors would very much like to talk to about his career as a broker at Credit Suisse selling auction rate securities (asset-backed bonds with frequent yield resets) to now aggrieved clients.  The clients apparently thought they were buying bonds backed by student loans but were in fact buying dodgy mortgages, an impression due it seems to the wheeze of adding the description “student loan” to whatever the asset actually was. 

Whatever the outcome, Tzolov provides a good example of why America can seem like an appealing place: he went from arriving in the US in the early 1990s with not much more than high school graduation to his name, to getting a degree in finance (with a bankruptcy in there somewhere), to jetting to Israel to sell these securities to corporate investors.  He even managed what sounds like a trade-up to Morgan Stanley before the feds started sniffing around and his apartment emptied out.   Anyway, the point is that the US may have been the playground of the financial shenanigans, but everyone was getting involved. 

Amazingly, there is a US-Bulgaria extradition treaty all the way back to 1924, and the US Senate is supposed to ratify a new one very soon.  So there will likely be more about the case in the months ahead.

Turkey: splitting the baby?

So, a happy surprise: Turkey’s Supreme Court didn’t outlaw the governing party. But it did rap them sharply across the knuckles, cut their funding and put them on notice.

At first glance, this looks like a good outcome. Maybe a very good outcome. The Court saves its face and dignity, but doesn’t thwart the democratic will of the electorate, nor provoke a potentially disastrous confrontation. AKP survives, but gets a painful warning. Everyone can claim a win.

At first glance… but I know just enough about Turkish politics to know how little I know. Any more informed commenters want to jump in?

Some stupid stuff about Ukraine

While researching the recent floods in the Ukraine, I stumbled across this wince-inducingly stupid article. It appeared a few weeks ago in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung.

The article is by Richard Wagner, a Transylvanian German writer. (Well, former Transylvanian. Like most T-Germans, he emigrated from Romania as soon as he could get out.) While much of the article goes off on a red herring chase about whether “Galicia” is really European or not, the core of it is here:

Ukraine is firmly anchored in the Eurasian region that traditionally answers to Moscow. The cultural-historical fusion with Russia reaches deep into the past to the Kievan Rus, the original formula of the East Slavic concept of state, as does the Byzantine-Orthodox hold on mentality and society. The majority of the population speaks Russian and geographically and geo-politically speaking, the country has a number of non-European coordinates that are indispensable to Russia: the Black Sea, Crimea, the Caucasus. The Ukrainian economy is tightly bound up with its Russian counterpart, it is reliant on Russian raw materials and energy resources, and is organised along the same lines. The same goes for the political structure of post-Soviet society which, in both countries relies on the Byzantine habitus and the survival skills of Homo sovieticus. Oligarchic interests and a bizarrely ad hoc party landscape define the political climate in both Russia and Ukraine and no end of bold “Orange” revolutionaries will be able to change this. They have defended their honour, but they don’t hold the political reins.

A good many of the western proponents of the Ukrainian entry into EU and Nato are governed by imperial desires. These are either American strategies aimed at weakening Russia, or EU superpower fantasies. Yet it would be extremely hazardous to over-stretch the unconsolidated EU project. Precisely because Europe now has the unique historic opportunity to regulate its business, we should recall the Occidental idea at the heart of the project. This is something that was strongly emphasised by its founding fathers in the fifties, politicians like Robert Schuman, Alcide de Gasperi and Konrad Adenauer.

The Occidental idea is incorporated into cultural and geo-political borders…

And then off on the Galicia thing.

Austrian journalist Martin Pollack tried his hand at a response, but got sidetracked in much the same way. However, Pollack does ask one rather silly question: “How does an author who comes from the Romanian Banat region come to do such a thing, I ask myself.”

Well, that’s easy: it’s because Transylvanian Germans always saw themselves as a cut above, a breed superior to their Romanian neighbors. The T-Germans contributed a lot to Romania, but it was always very much de haut en bas. In that sense, Wagner’s screed is exactly what you’d expect.

But it’s worth engaging with, at least briefly, because it raises a lot of bad ideas and conveniently bundles them together. Continue reading

The message

If anyone qualifies as candidate material for the position of the new Solar King, then David Miliband certainly does. So perhaps the young contender doesn’t have to say anything, he just has to be heard to speak. For potential admirers, tone is what matters, and as far as that goes he seems to have banged out a workable melody in sentiment couplets. Miliband is passionate/dispassionate. He’s also youthful/wise, rational/emotional, optimistic/cautious, critical/supportive. He is very much of today’s Labour party, but he also lets slip a hint of what tomorrow could be. Or rather, he might give a hint about that, later on. For right now we’re at a starting point:

The starting point is not debating personalities but winning the argument about our record, our vision for the future and how we achieve it.

He then says:

When people hear exaggerated claims, either about failure or success, they switch off. That is why politicians across all parties fail to connect. To get our message across, we must be more humble about our shortcomings but more compelling about our achievements.

Of course, they also switch off when you attempt to bend credulity into a pretzel. Or rather, they give up because it just doesn’t make sense any more. It’s been ten years, and the message has long since emerged. Broadly, it’s this:

1. We admire business leaders and entrepreneurs; their wealth is evidence of their achievement. We will always take the word of such people as law.

2. You, on the other hand, are a prole and the best part of your income belongs to us.

3. There will be capital investment in the healthcare, education and transport sectors, but it will be with money borrowed from the high achieving business leaders and entrepreneurs we admire. Naturally, they will expect to be rewarded in the years ahead. This is where your taxes come in.

4. Some of your tax money will be spent on higher pay for teachers and doctors. Of course, in the long run we’d like see health and education providers become ‘high achievers’ themselves.

5. The civil service shows little potential for ‘high achievement’, so instead we will pay Accenture and similar companies to provide a top quality ‘civil service’ in parallel. And quality costs.

6. Some of your tax money will be spent in support of American foreign and defence policy, whether it’s lawful or not. In connection with this we will either buy American weaponry or the sorts of weapons the Americans tend to buy.

7. China! India!

8. Some of your tax money will be spent on poorly specified IT systems, all of which will have the general intent of increasing the government’s powers of surveillance and control. In scope, these systems will overlap in an unstructured, chaotic way. In practice, many of these systems will not work as intended. Your personal data will get leaked all over the place. Also, we will encourage the police to take samples of your DNA.

9. We will talk up the threat of Islamic terrorism to the point of incitement to racism. We may condone torture.

10. There will be constitutional change. Generally, we will enlarge the powers of the executive and decrease all forms of oversight.

11. The Olympics! Technology!

12. Economically, the good news will be because of us, the bad news will be because of ‘the global situation’. Specifically, we will encourage our citizens to speculate in a local market that has no mechanism for arbitrage; the UK property market. This speculation will be unsustainable and a recession will follow. We will do nothing to anticipate or moderate this outcome, because that is not what business leaders and entrepreneurs say they want. Whichever way it pans out, expect to pay much more to a bank over the course of your lifetime than your parents did.

13. All of this is good. If there are to be further improvements, they will have to come from you. Don’t complain. Embrace change! Be fitter! Work harder!

I think that’s most of it, but I’m sure you can think of more. Miliband finished with this:

Every member of the Labour party carries with them a simple guiding mission on the membership card: to put power, wealth and opportunity in the hands of the many, not the few. When debating public service reform, tax policies or constitutional changes, we apply those values to the latest challenges.

We can remember it as his four legs good, two legs bad moment.

Transnistria: underwater?

It’s sometimes hard to get solid news about Transnistria. No international news agencies report regularly from there, and it doesn’t have a good English-language site. News stories about the breakaway state tend to come out of Russia, Moldova or Ukraine, often in the local languages.

So it’s not clear what impact the recent flooding is having there. (For our non-European readers, the last week has seen huge floods across southeastern Europe. There are at least 13 people dead in Ukraine and several more in Romania and Moldova, thousands of people have been evacuated, and the damage is in hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars.) Since Transnistria is basically a thin sliver of low-lying land along the bank of the Dniester river, you would expect they’d have problems, but it’s not easy to find out what’s going on.
Continue reading

The best amusement park in Europe

It’s Playmobil Funpark, just outside of Nuremberg.

– Big: you can stay all day and still not do everything.

– Cheap: just 6.50 per kid. Food prices are also reasonable (okay, by amusement park standards) and you can bring a picnic if you like.

– Varied: whether your kid wants to climb, dig, play, or run around and scream, there’s something.

– Interactive: instead of passive “rides”, pretty much everything at PFP is interactive, from the huge sandbox to the large building full of toys. (Playmobile toys, of course.)

Really, I was astounded. It’s not Disney World, no — not as big, not nearly as over-the-top amazing — but on the other hand, a family of four can have a wonderful day for under 100 Euros.

About the only negative is that it’s targeted at a fairly narrow age group: big enough to climb and build, small enough to think it’s cool. Say ages three to ten. My six year old thought this was a solid slab of heaven. Five years from now he’ll be curling his lip. But you’re never going to make “Playmobile Land” interesting to teenagers, and the narrow-guage marketing makes it work better.

Oh, and: not to indulge in national stereotypes, but this park is just astonishingly clean.

It’s the end of July: vacation time. Where would you take the kids?

Dabic/Karadzic: the power of healing?

It seems self-proclaimed guru Dragan Dabic aka Radovan Karadzic may possess some healing powers after all. At least, that is what some Dutch Srebrenica veterans hope (hat tip Eric Gordy):

Former Dutchbat soldier Johan de Jonge is elated about Mr Karadzic’ arrest. He hopes there will be less focus on the former Dutchbat soldiers now that one of the lead actors of the period has been brought to justice.
“I hope that people’s eyes will be opened now. That they will know we were not to blame. But that there are people who had preconceived plans to exterminate certain population groups”.

As we all know the Dutch government at the time resigned over the Dutch peacekeeping troops’ failure to prevent the massacre of Srebrenica and both Dutchbat, the Dutch military in charge of protecting the Bosnian muslims in the enclave, and the UN were dealt a heavy public relations blow. To say the least.

Yesterday I watched the Michael Christoffersen documentary Milosevic on trial on Arte. If Karadzic turns out to be anything like Milosevic, who tried his very best to turn the whole trial into a charade, I give the Dutch very little hope for redemption. The Karadzic trial will certainly bring the Dutch national ‘trauma’ back into the spotlights, for better or for worse.

BTW, it looks like the Dragan Dabic website may be a hoax or pr-stunt. Several people seem to have discovered that the site was launched on July 22nd, the day after Dabic was arrested. Check out the comments to this post by Eric Gordy. Weird.

Update: According to the editor of the Srebrenica Genocide Blog (see the comments to the post) the authentic Dabic website is PSY Help Energy. Check out the forum. Also, please note that I have included the links to The Srebrenica Genocide Blog for illustrative purposes only.

One more headache for Serbia

The story is explained here.  Short version: 21 year old Miladin Kovacevic, recruited by Binghampton University in western New York state is alleged to have beaten a fellow student to a coma, along with 2 accomplices.  His passport was seized when he was bailed but the Serbian consulate in Manhattan issued him an emergency passport which allowed him to return home, from where the Serbian government says that he can’t be extradited.  However the government seems to acknowledge malpractice in the consulate.  There’s never a good time for a case like this but to have it hanging over the country’s seeming rapprochement with western countries is especially awkward.

Obama in Berlin

Can’t find any pictures yet, but I’ve seen blogs of people coming up from Prague just to see him. That’s about a five-hour trip each way by train (no ICE connection yet). Expectations on the radio this morning were that the event would be huge.

Wish I could be there, but we’re getting packed up to move to Tbilisi, Georgia. Which of course means no more TV, so here are streams from German media. The top one will have commentary in German; the lower says it is in uncommented English. Speech starts at 18.50; presumably the streams will begin a bit before.

Update: Screen cap from ARD. The stream is spotty, wonder if the online flash crowd is too big?

Who wants to see Obama?

Who wants to see Obama?

Ok, this is huge.