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.

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.)

Their Eyes Were Watching Vlad

Occasionally, representatives of Germany’s Left party (Die Linke) will complain about being tagged as the successors to East Germany’s communist party. Well.

As part of the German parliament’s debate about the budget and foreign police, Gregor Gysi, parliamentary leader of Die Linke, spoke out forcefully against further sanctions against Russia. He called them “absolutely counterproductive.” He added that they provoked Russian countermeasures and hurt the economy. Rational policy, in his view, would be to lift the sanctions immediately.

Not to be outdone, Sara Wagenknecht, Gysi’s first deputy, said that economic warfare with Russia was damaging and “playing with fire.” She added that NATO maneuvers and EU sanctions were making the implementation of a ceasefire in Ukraine difficult.

Russia and the Russian government are, of course, utterly blameless in all of these events.

Not coincidentally, the party’s history as recounted on its English-language web site begins in 2007. If I had their background as the unreformed heirs to the Kremlin’s stooges, I’d keep it off the web site, too.

It’s not like this was a surprise

Or, why reading David Remnick is nearly always a good idea:

I spoke with Georgy Kasianov, the head of the Academy of Science’s department of contemporary Ukrainian history and politics, in Kiev. “It’s a war,” he said. “The Russian troops are quite openly out on the streets [in Crimea], capturing public buildings and military outposts. And it’s likely all a part of a larger plan for other places: Odessa, Nikolayev, Kherson. And they’ll use the same technique. Some Russian-speaking citizens will appear, put up a Russian flag, and make appeals that they want help and referendums, and so on.” This is already happening in Donetsk and Kharkov.

“They are doing this like it is a commonplace,” Kasianov went on. “I can’t speak for four million people, but clearly everyone in Kiev is against this. But the Ukrainian leadership is absolutely helpless. The Army is not ready for this. And, after the violence in Kiev, the special forces are disoriented.”

That’s from March 1.

Overtaken by events

The draft blog post said to watch out for funny business in Melitopol and Mariupol, Ukraine. Those are the largest settlements along the coast between Russia and the Crimean peninsula, and sit astride the road that runs from Rostov-on-the-Don and the Crimea. Mariupol is the second-largest city in the Donetsk region, with a population of nearly half a million. Melitopol is also a crossroads: east to Russia, south to the Crimea, north to Zaporizhia and west to Kherson.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s daily summary noted:

By early evening there were reports of skirmishes between pro-Russia and pro-Ukraine groups in Kharkiv, a tense standoff in Zaporizhia, and the occupation by pro-Russian activists of local government buildings in Makiyivka and Mariupol. Pro-Russian activists were also reportedly moving on the Security Service building in Odessa.

So let’s go with a quick scoreboard from this weekend and last instead.

Kharkiv: occupation attempt repulsed
Zaporizhia: tense standoff
Kramotorsk: buildings occupied
Druzhkivka: buildings occupied
Yenakijeve: buildings occupied
Makiyivka: buildings occupied
Mariupol: buildings occupied
Luhansk: buildings occupied
Donetsk: buildings occupied
Slovyansk: buildings occupied
Mykolaiv: occupation attempt repulsed
Odessa: occupation attempt repulsed
Krasny Lyman: disturbances

The buildings that are being occupied are local city halls, police stations and administrative buildings. That most definitely includes any local arsenals.

This weekend has also seen the return of the “little green men,” so called during the occupation of the Crimea because their origins are so mysterious that they must be from Mars. Never mind that they wear Russian uniforms sans insignia, have equipment issued to Russian armed services, and use Russian words that are not generally used by Russian-speaking persons who live in Ukraine.

Ukraine’s acting president has not minced words. In a live televised address, Oleksandr Turchynov spoke of

war that is being waged against Ukraine by the Russian Federation. The aggressor has not stopped and continues to organize disorders in eastern Ukraine.

This is not a war between Ukrainians. This is an artificially created situation of confrontation aimed at weakening and destroying Ukraine itself.

He also said that a large-scale counter-operation would begin Monday morning. Stay tuned.

Looking back at last month’s guide to revisiting the 1930s, further east:

Kharkiv, Donetsk: Sudetenland. Some real tension, mostly trumped up and stage-managed confrontations. ((Check.)) Pleas for “protection” from some parts of a particular nationality to the outside power. ((Check.)) Not fooling anyone. ((Check.)) In contrast to then, Kiev would try to defend the frontier region militarily. ((Check, as of April 14.)) (The great powers will not intervene, should it come to that.) ((Check.)) Whether that defense would succeed is rather an important question. There’s not a major defensible barrier until the Dniepr. Speaking of which…

Dnepropetrovsk, Zaporizhia: Poland. The great powers would not be able to overlook the dismemberment of a major European state. They wouldn’t be able to stop it, either.

Zaporizhia hasn’t seen much in the way of disturbances. Yet.

Also: Toomas Hendrik Ilves noted on Twitter, “After these several weeks, Europe’s M-F, 9-5 foreign policy establishment might perhaps recognise what’s happening next door weekends too.” Maybe all of the little green men and their associated crowds have day jobs, or maybe the powers-that-be on Mars have noticed that Saturday is not a big day for news, and are timing their operations accordingly. It’s not likely that they read John Scalzi’s blog, but he makes a point concerning publicity and next weekend:

But of all the Saturdays in all of the calendar year, the very worst possible Saturday to announce anything is the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter. Because it’s the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter, that’s why — the Saturday sandwiched between two major religious holidays, which means the “weekend” that week starts on Thursday and Sunday’s news cycle is swamped by the most important Christian holiday of the year — Christmas is noisier for longer, but Easter is concentrated. If you’re the Pope, Easter Sunday is great for you, news wise. If you’re not the Pope, not. …
If I were a crooked politician who had been caught murdering kittens while masturbating to a picture of Joseph Stalin, then the day I would choose to have that news go out into the world would be the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter.

That Western and Orthodox Easter align this year makes the news gap even larger. People in the wider world will not be paying attention next weekend. Don’t be surprised if the little green men are very active indeed.

Old habits die hard

Occasionally, representatives of Germany’s Left party (Die Linke) will complain about being tagged as the successors to East Germany’s communist party. Well.

Yesterday, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe voted to strip the Russian delegation to that body of its voting privileges for the rest of 2014, as a reaction to Russia’s annexation of the Crimea. The overall vote was 145 in favor of revoking the Russians parliamentarians’ votes and 21 against, with 22 abstentions.

The German delegation voted 5-1 to revoke, with Yes votes coming from a Green, two Christian Democrats and two Social Democrats. The sole No vote? From a Left parliamentarian. Because Moscow, I suppose.

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