About Doug Merrill

Freelance journalist based in Tbilisi, following stints in Atlanta, Budapest, Munich, Warsaw and Washington. Worked for a German think tank, discovered it was incompatible with repaying US student loans. Spent two years in financial markets. Bicycled from Vilnius to Tallinn. Climbed highest mountains in two Alpine countries (the easy ones, though). American center-left, with strong yellow dog tendencies. Arrived in the Caucasus two weeks before its latest war.

Meeting the New Year

The Project for a Post-American Century meets an international system with Chinese characteristics.

There’s something in this Evan Osnos article in The New Yorker for nearly everyone:

[Trump] announced his intention to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Agreement on climate change and from UNESCO, and he abandoned United Nations talks on migration. He has said that he might renege on the Iran nuclear deal, a free-trade agreement with South Korea, and NAFTA. His proposal for the 2018 budget would cut foreign assistance by forty-two per cent, or $11.5 billion, and it reduces American funding for development projects, such as those financed by the World Bank.

China’s approach is more ambitious. In recent years, it has taken steps to accrue national power on a scale that no country has attempted since the Cold War, by increasing its investments in the types of assets that established American authority in the previous century: foreign aid, overseas security, foreign influence, and the most advanced new technologies, such as artificial intelligence. It has become one of the leading contributors to the U.N.’s budget and to its peacekeeping force, and it has joined talks to address global problems such as terrorism, piracy, and nuclear proliferation.

Some of China’s growing sway is unseen by the public. In October [2017], the World Trade Organization convened ministers from nearly forty countries in Marrakech, Morocco, for the kind of routine diplomatic session that updates rules on trade in agriculture and seafood. The Trump Administration, which has been critical of the W.T.O., sent an official who delivered a speech and departed early. “For two days of meetings, there were no Americans,” a former U.S. official told me. “And the Chinese were going into every session and chortling about how they were now guarantors of the trading system.”

For Chinese leaders, Yan [Xuetong, dean of Tsinghua University’s Institute of Modern International Relations] said, “Trump is the biggest strategic opportunity.” I asked Yan how long he thought the opportunity would last. “As long as Trump stays in power,” he replied.

The Trump clan appears to “directly influence final decisions” on business and diplomacy in a way that “has rarely been seen in the political history of the United States,” the analyst [from the Pangoal Institution, a Beijing think tank] wrote. He summed it up using an obscure phrase from feudal China: jiatianxia—“to treat the state as your possession.”

For years, China’s startups lagged behind those in Silicon Valley. But there is more parity now. Of the forty-one private companies worldwide that reached “unicorn” status in 2017—meaning they had valuations of a billion dollars or more—fifteen are Chinese and seventeen are American.

There’s also an extended bit about a startup that combines AI and facial recognition. The company works very closely with police. For example, in one demo it displays jaywalkers’ names and official ID on a display screen at the intersection. “As a demonstration, using the company’s employee database, a video screen displayed a live feed of a busy intersection nearby. ‘In real time, it captures all the attributes of the cars and pedestrians,’ [the company’s VP of marketing] said. On an adjoining screen, a Pac-Man-like trail indicated a young man’s movements around the city, based only on his face.”

Happy New Year!

Arrr!

Remember the Pirate Party?

Back in September 2011, they boarded the Berlin city-state legislature, winning 8.9 percent of the vote. That put five parties in the legislature and complicated the coalition math. They highlighted the Greens’ generational challenges, put digital issues on leaders’ radar screens, and showed that discontent among Berlin voters was not limited to the eastern parts of the city.

After that breakthrough, they won seats in the state legislatures of Saarland (in March 2012), in Schleswig-Holstein (in May 2012), and in North Rhine-Wesphalia, Germany’s most populous state (also in May 2012). Looking forward to national elections in the fall of 2013, they polled as much as 13%. A fleet of black and orange sails was visible on the horizon.

Then what happened?

Scandals, splits, sinking. They were chronically short on money, early leaders proved unable to grow or govern the organization (sometimes the leaders were unable even to govern themselves), and then some things just got weird. They also had problems with rightist extremists in their ranks.

After their rise in 2012, in 2013 the Pirates just barely cleared 2 percent in Lower Saxony (January), fell below that in Bavaria (July) and hovered near that figure in the national elections in September. In the years that followed, the Pirates sailed away from the state legislatures they had so brazenly boarded in the heady days that followed their Berlin success.

In the national election in September 2017, they polled less than one half of 1 percent.

The tale of the Pirates is unlikely to be instructive for AfD, its leaders, or its voters. It should be. It is very similar to the tale of the Republikaner, which won seats in Baden-Württemburg, Berlin and Bremen. It is similar to the tale of the “Schill Party,” which won nearly 20 percent of the vote in Hamburg in 2001 and entered the legislature as the third strongest party. The NPD and DVU had similar trajectories with lower peaks.

The AfD has done what no party since the Greens has done: win enough votes in a national election to enter the Bundestag. And yet, at their first press conference after the election, one of their most prominent members, Frauke Petry, announced that she would not be part of the party caucus and walked out on live television. It’s unlikely to be the last division.

Dead parties tell their tales, even if no one in the latest sensation is inclined to listen.

Reds Got the Blues? No.

Over on social media, a friend-of-a-friend said that the strong showing of the far-right AfD in Sunday’s German election was “further erosion of the neoliberal left.” Yeah, no.

Here’s what the main public broadcaster in Germany has from their polling about voter changes from 2013 to 2017.

(The link is here, you’ll have to scroll down a bit to Wählerwanderung, and it obviously helps to read a bit of German, although it’s not strictly necessary for that particular graphic.)

AfD’s sources of voters, in ranked order:
1. Previous non-voters (1.47M)
2. People who voted AfD in 2013 (1.43M)
3. CDU -> AfD (1.04M)
4. People who voted for parties that did not clear the 5% threshold in 2013; my suspicion would be NPD (0.73M)
5. SPD -> AfD (0.51M)
6. Left -> AfD (0.42M)
7. First-time voters (0.13M)
8. FDP -> AfD (0.12M)
9. Green -> AfD (0.05M)

Each of the first two is an order of magnitude greater than any one of the last three.

You’ve got to have a pretty heavy prior commitment for “erosion of the neoliberal left” to be your takeaway. “Protest party draws in 1.5 million previous non-voters,” “Rightist party draws votes away from center-right party” or even “Extreme right puts on new clothes, finally clears 5% hurdle” are all more accurate descriptions. (And I don’t see how you can characterize the Left party as “neoliberal,” but that’s another story.)

Further, the biggest party-to-party move of SPD voters was SPD -> CDU. That makes “Left-of-center voters reward Chancellor’s party for immigration stance” a greater factor than “Social Democrats turn to anti-immigrant party.” We’ll see what happens with the SPD in opposition, but looking at where SPD voters went, it’s clear that we have another chapter in the basic poli sci book, Voters Frustrated With Junior Partner in Grand Coalition, which should surprise precisely nobody.

German Elections on Sunday

Some thoughts about Germany’s election this Sunday, hoisted from comments over on Facebook. They’re more about personal preferences, and maybe not anything new for the three readers Fistful still has after Brexit broke the blog. (By the way, there’s still a media niche that could be filled by Brexit Jones Diary, if anyone has the stomach for that task.)

Martin Schulz [the Social Democrat] is not bad. I’m of several minds. Merkel absolutely did the right thing with refugees in 2015, against the trend of her party, and it made a huge difference for Germany and for Europe. And I want to see that kind of choice rewarded. Certainly, if Germany has to have a government led by the conservative party, having a female scientist from the East, who is also a pastor’s daughter, as the head of that party is the way to go. On the other hand, an additional term of office would be years 12-16 of a Merkel chancellorship. Governments get to be long in the tooth; the people in them forget that they have ever not been in power; scandals accumulate; stagnation can set in. Maybe Merkel’s next government (she is likely to be the head of the largest party still after Sunday) will beat those odds, I don’t know.

[comment from friend]

[Me again] Well, it’s proportional representation, so everybody is in the running. The Christian Democrats (Merkel’s party) are likely to come in first, with the Social Democrats (current coalition partners) also likely to come in second. One of the tricky parts comes afterward: putting together a coalition that can command a majority in the parliament. Right now, there’s a “grand coalition” of the two largest parties. They don’t really want to work together, but that’s how the math turned out last time.

Her main opponent, Martin Schulz, is the top candidate of the Social Democrats. Previously he was head of their faction in the European Parliament (Brussels and Strasbourg), and in fact president of the European Parliament. His candidacy is a good thing for a number of reasons, though I will be surprised if he and the Social Democrats win by becoming the largest part in Germany’s parliament.

The far-right party, AfD, also looks likely to get into the national parliament. This is unfortunate for a number of reasons; on the other hand, it’s not surprising that far-right voters make up something like 5%-10% of the German electorate. If anything, that’s pleasingly low. But! It will be the first time that a far-right party has made it into parliament (despite what some people say about the Bavarian part of the Christian Democrats), and that’s disappointing enough. It may also mean that there are six parties in parliament, which makes putting together a coalition challenging. Not least because the Social Democrats are still holding fast to their pledge not to work with The Left at the national level. (The Left are, several name changes later, the successors to East Germany’s Communists. Back in the old days in East Germany, the Communists went after Social Democrats with special vigor, sending some to Siberia and putting others in camps that had recently been vacated by the actual Nazis. So one can see why the Social Democrats would not want to work with them.)

That’s probably more than you wanted to know, isn’t it?

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Brexit and Airlines

About a week before the UK government triggers Article 50, and the stories are just rolling out about taking control how difficult untangling the UK from the EU is going to be, how much business is going to head across the Narrow Sea (and to a much lesser extent, across the Irish Sea), and how very little influence the UK government is going to have on the process.

EU chiefs have warned airlines including easyJet, Ryanair and British Airways that they will need to relocate their headquarters and sell off shares to European nationals if they want to continue flying routes within continental Europe after Brexit.

The Guardian adds a little British understatement, “The ability of companies such as easyJet to operate on routes across the EU has been a major part of their business models.” Indeed.

Some airlines have started to seek headquarters within the EU and to restructure their ownerships. EU holding requirements could include “the forced disinvesting of British shareholders.” At least some business leaders were hoping the problem would go away. Because reasons, I suppose. “EU officials in the meetings were clear, however, about the rigidity of the rules, amid concerns at a senior EU level that too many in the aviation industry are in denial about the consequences of the UK’s decision to leave the bloc.”

Getting a new agreement won’t be easy, either. At present, the European Court of Justice is the final arbiter of disputes that arise under the agreements that cover air travel within Europe. The current UK government has signaled that it wants to leave the ECJ’s jurisdiction entirely. And of course undoing a multilateral agreement opens the door for some states to assert their individual interests in negotiating a new one: Spanish diplomats have said that they will not sign on to any international accord that recognizes the airport in Gibraltar. Somebody might be taking back control.

This is shaping up to be a very good couple of years for corporate relocation businesses, and possibly for people looking to sign on at the new headquarters locations replacing folks who were unwilling or unable to leave the UK when their jobs picked up and went.

Brexit and Banks

With Prime Minister May due to trigger Article 50 eight days from now, shit’s about to get real the clock is about to start ticking, not least for the huge financial center in London. Nothing in the present UK government suggests that they will be able to negotiate an amicable separation in the twenty-four months before they are unceremoniously bounced from the European Union. (Less actually, as agreements will have to be finished early enough for the relevant bodies to vote on their approval.) Hard Brexit, here we come.

Likewise, I don’t see any reason for the 27 to let London continue to have the same access to EU financial markets that it had when the UK was a member of the Union. Prudent bankers came to similar conclusions long ago, and indeed Bloomberg finds that plans to move people and capabilities into the remaining EU are taking concrete shape. Frankfurt and Dublin are the likeliest winners: Frankfurt is the largest financial hub on the continent, and home to the European Central Bank; Dublin is the only English-speaking alternative. (At least until Scotland joins the Union.) This was always the way to bet, and reporters’ talks at individual banks are adding micro details to the macro framework.

“Bank of America Corp., Standard Chartered Plc and Barclays Plc are considering Ireland’s capital for their EU base to ensure continued access to the single market, said people familiar with the plans, asking not to be named because the plans aren’t public. Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Citigroup Inc. are among banks eyeing Frankfurt, other people said.”

Two Japanese institutions Bloomberg spoke with are considering Amsterdam; Morgan Stanley, local patriots, insisted that New York would gain as they and other institutions re-allocated resources away from Europe entirely. Brexit is going to put a huge dent into one of the UK’s most important economic sectors. Taking back control!

Made it through another month

Now that Trump has outlasted William Henry Harrison as president of the United States, perhaps it’s time to publish here something I wrote elsewhere just a few days after the American election.

Germany’s next.

If there is any major leader who has Putin’s number, it is Merkel. A Clinton-Merkel tandem at the world’s top table would have made things exceptionally difficult for him. Half of that tandem is out of the picture, and Putin would clearly like to see off the other half as well. National elections here are next year (probably in mid- to late September).

We’re about to see a stress-test of Germany’s democratic institutions, and of the values that the postwar era has strengthened.

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Well then.

Looking back at posts from January 2009, I see a mix of hope and serious concern. Country after country was following the US into what has since become known as the Great Recession. It is reckoned by some as the largest global contraction since the 1930s; I’ve only been following such things for about 20 years, so I don’t know for sure (the Asian currency crisis of 1997 might give it a run for its money in terms of the number of people harmed), and Edward, who would likely have known off the top of his head, is no longer with us.

Still, for all that massive economic dislocation was bearing down on the developed world, new leadership in America gave cause for hope. Republican ideas had been tried, and had failed in the sands of Iraq and in the money markets on Wall Street that had turned into casinos where gains were privatized and sufficiently large losses offloaded onto the general public. With the Bush restoration in 2000, that party had claimed that the grown-ups were back in charge. But it was Democrats who did all of the adult things of putting America back together after the economic carnage of 2008, and they even managed to extend America’s promise to people who had been excluded, to take some of the fear out of American health economics, and to give regular folks more of a chance against plutocracy. In foreign policy, Obama’s most famous adage — “Don’t do stupid shit” — illustrates the low bar set by his predecessor, one unlikely to be cleared by his successor.

Here at the outset, the Trump administration (I still can’t believe I have to write that) looks set to do some very stupid shit indeed. Statements from the transition have not been particularly coherent, but they indicate that the incoming administration does not care whether NATO and the European Union continue to exist, and may in fact prefer it if they didn’t. This is foreign policy malpractice on the greatest scale imaginable. NATO and the EU are human institutions, and therefore imperfect, but blithely talking about doing without them indicates that the Trump people have not asked the third great policy question: “Compared to what?”

We’ve seen what Europe is like without institutions, in which Putin-style land grabs and subversion of neighboring governments are the order of the day. Every few months construction crews in Berlin dig up another unexploded bomb that’s a relic of the last time that kind of Europe was in vogue. Let’s just not.

Given that European policy and politics with Trump in the White House are likely to be a Gish gallop of ridiculous idiocy, it will be worth it to me to concentrate on a few things, in the hope that other people will pick up other threads. At the moment, I’m most interested in Kremlin subversion of the upcoming German election, further signs that Putin’s circle is testing Europe’s institutions, conflicts in the Caucasus, and some aspects of Brexit. In my working life, I have been doing a lot of things related to pharma and biotech in recent years, and so at a micro level I am interested in whether the European Medicines Agency stays in London (seems unlikely, post-Brexit) and if not, who will win the competition to host the agency. I’m sure other stuff will attract my attention, but that’s what I know I will be looking at.

Thanks, Obama. I hope we see your like again before too much time has passed.

4200

Thirteen years, and now 4200 posts.

Judging from the level of activity, Brexit broke the blog. Now with the election of Trump, we’ll get to see a lot of other stuff broken. When I first started writing here, I was still doing a fair amount of public speaking in cooperation with the US consulate in Munich. I often fielded questions about a multipolar world, and they often implied that such a world would be better than the unipolar moment following the end of the Cold War. We’re about to find out about that now, too, because the incoming administration is going to take the US out of a lot of global debates. The new political leadership may also render the government lame by personal corruption, chaos in the top echelons, deliberately gumming up the works, or some new way to fuck things up that I wasn’t previously aware of. (Needless to say, I won’t be doing any public speaking in cooperation with the embassy in Berlin for the next four years.)

Next year promises to be interesting. The Putin government is already working out ways to meddle in the German and French elections. I think Trump’s election put paid the idea that a president Le Pen is impossible; let’s hope that France nevertheless finds a way to avoid such an outcome. From current polling, it looks like the AfD will get into the German parliament. That means six parties in the Bundestag, assuming the FDP manages to come back from their drubbing last time around. Building a coalition will be difficult, and the larger the AfD delegation, the more difficult it will be. The SPD may finally have to work with the heirs of the Communists who so effectively persecuted their forbears in East Germany.

Thirteen years. 4200 entries. Onward.

Just Send Me Word by Orlando Figes

From the Preface to Just Send Me Word: A True Story of Love and Survival in the Gulag, by Orlando Figes:

Three old trunks had just been delivered. They were sitting in a doorway, blocking people’s way into the busy room where members of the public and historical researchers were received in the Moscow offices of Memorial. … Noticing my interest in the trunks, they told me they contained the biggest private archive given to Memorial in its twenty years of existence. It belonged to Lev and Svetlana Mishchenko, a couple who had met as students in the 1930s, only to be separated by the war of 1941-5 and Lev’s subsequent imprisonment in the Gulag. …
We opened up the largest of the trunks. I had never seen anything like it: several thousand letters tightly stacked in bundles tied with string and rubber bands, notebooks, diaries, documents and photographs. The most valuable section of the archive was in the third and smallest of the trunks, a brown plywood case with leather trim and three metal locks that clicked open easily. We couldn’t say how many letters it contained – we guessed perhaps 2,000 – only how much the case weighed (37 kilograms). They were all love letters Lev and Svetlana had exchanged while he was a prisoner in Pechora, one of Stalin’s most notorious labour camps in the far north of Russia. The first was by Svetlana in July 1946, the last by Lev in July 1954. They were writing to each other at least twice a week. This was by far the largest cache of Gulag letters ever found. But what made them so remarkable was not just their quantity; it was the fact that nobody had censored them. They were smuggled in and out of the labour camp by voluntary workers and officials who sympathized with Lev. Rumours about the smuggling of letters were part of the Gulag’s rich folklore but nobody had ever imagined an illegal postbag of this size. …
As I leafed through the letters, my excitement grew. Lev’s were rich in details of the labour camp. They were possibly the only major contemporary record of daily life in the Gulag that would ever come to light. Many memoirs of the labour camps by former prisoners had appeared, but nothing to compare with these uncensored letters, composed at the time inside the barbed-wire zone. Written to explain to his sole intended reader what he was going through, Lev’s letters became, over the years, increasingly revealing about conditions in the camp. Svetlana’s letters were meant to support him in the camp, to give him hope, but, as I soon realized, they also told the story of her own struggle to keep her love for him alive.
Perhaps 20 million people, mostly men, endured Stalin’s labour camps. Prisoners, on average, were allowed to write and receive letters once a month, but all their correspondence was censored. It was difficult to maintain an intimate connection when all communication was first read by the police. An eight- or ten-year sentence almost always meant the breakings of relationships: girlfriends, wives or husbands, whole families, were lost by prisoners. Lev and Svetlana were exceptional. Not only did they find a way to write and even meet illegally – an extraordinary breach of Gulag rules that invited severe punishment – but they kept every precious letter (putting them at even greater risk) as a record of their love story.
There turned out to be almost 1,500 letters in that smallest trunk. … These letters are the documentary basis of Just Send Me Word, which also draws from the rich archive in the other trunks, from extensive interviews with Lev and Svetlana, their relatives and their friends, from the writings of other prisoners in Pechora, from visits to the town and interviews with its inhabitants and from the archives of the labour camp itself.

Does the book live up to the promise of its preface? Yes. Yes, it does.

(Cross-posted to The Frumious Consortium.)