About Douglas Muir

American with an Irish passport. Does development work for a big international donor. Has been living in Eastern Europe for the last six years -- first Serbia, then Romania, and now Armenia. Calls himself a Burkean conservative, which would be a liberal in Germany but an unhappy ex-Republican turned Democrat in the US. Husband of Claudia. Parent of Alan, David, Jacob and Leah. Likes birds. Writes Halfway Down The Danube. Writes Halfway Down The Danube.

Press freedom in Ukraine: bad, worse

Just three months ago I wrote this about Ukraine’s new President:

Yanukovych’s young administration is interesting for two things: what he’s done, and what he hasn’t… [S]o far, he hasn’t cracked down on Ukraine’s lively press and media. Nor has he moved aggressively to purge the judiciary and the civil service, bring corruption indictments against political rivals, or change the laws to make himself and his supporters immune to investigation or prosecution… Watch this space, I guess.

At that point Yanukovych’s administration was just a few weeks old. Unfortunately, a lot has happened since then:

Most television networks in Ukraine are now owned by oligarchs friendly to Yanukovych. The most-watched Inter channel belongs to State Security Service chief Valeriy Khoroshkovskyy. The nation’s top spy also serves on the High Council of Justice, which appoints judges…

Khoroshkovskyy has maneuvered to expand his media empire through court actions against his competitors, the independent outlets Channel 5 and TVi. In June they were stripped of their broadcast frequencies. A journalists’ group, Stop Censorship, demonstrated outside a recent court session that confirmed the decision… their action was not covered on central television stations.

Khoroshkovskyy also sits on the Board of Directors of Ukraine’s Central Bank; he’s been an ally and backer of Yanukovych for years.

Meanwhile, the crusading editor of a local newspaper has disappeared and is presumed dead:

The one fact everyone agrees on is that Klymentyev vanished. His family reported him missing the next day and Kharkiv police opened a murder inquiry. His friends are convinced he is dead, though so far there is no body. On 17 August a boy discovered his mobile phone and keys in a small rubber boat floating in a rural reservoir…

Klymentyev’s friends and colleagues say they have no confidence in the official investigation into his disappearance. The journalist was a savage critic of local prosecutors who have now been given the task of finding his killers.

Meanwhile, in the background, the laws on press freedom are being amended:

A law protecting personal information, signed by President Yanukovych on 26 June and due to take effect in January 2011, will significantly complicate the work of journalists and expose them to the possibility of criminal prosecution. Under this law, journalists will have to ask a person’s permission before publishing virtually any information about them aside from their name and surname… Draft law No. 6603, which has been submitted to the Verkhovna Rada (parliament) following approval by the cabinet on 30 June, would require news agencies to register with the state every year. Disseminating news without being registered (or re-registered) would be punishable… The bill has been criticised by [free speech organisations] as an attempt to bring Internet media under political control by treating them as news agencies.

Reporters Without Borders came out with a report in July, but the media situation has continued to deteriorate rapidly since then.

In retrospect, this is exactly what one would have expected. Yanukovych was always an authoritarian — it was part of his appeal — and many of the people around him are worse. Still, it’s pretty depressing. Relatively high levels of press and media freedom was one of the few clear accomplishments of the Orange Revolution. It’s clear now that those freedoms are going to be rolled back; the only questions are how fast, how far, and how permanently.

Two random videos

This video is a satire — I want to emphasize this: a satire — done by the great American comic newspaper, The Onion. (The first 15 seconds is an ad. Sorry, that’s how they pay for this stuff.)

This video is an actual commercial that played on Greek televsion recently. (Scroll down for the English translation if you don’t speak Greek.) By pure random accident, I just happened to see them both on the same day.

And that’s all.

Kosovo and the ICJ: well, damn

So the International Court of Justice (“ICJ”)delivered its opinion on the legality of Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence (“UDI”)today. (I blogged about this a few months ago.)

To everyone’s surprise — mine included — the decision was clear, strong, and favored Kosovo. A clear majority of the judges held that the UDI was legal. They tried to frame the decision narrowly, but it’s still a big win for the Kosovars. Some people are saying it’s therefore a big loss for Serbia, but let’s get real — Serbia had no prospects of recovering Kosovo or ever getting the Kosovar Albanians to accept rule from Belgrade, however tenuous, again. (It is a hit for the Tadic administration, but probably not a serious one.)

Immediate knock-on effects: a few more recognitions for Kosovo. It won’t make that big a difference, though, in the short run — the few EU members who are refusing to recognize Kosovo are mostly doing so for internal domestic reasons, and that won’t change. Russia will still veto any UN resolution affecting Kosovo’s status, which sharply limits room for maneuver.

That said, it’s a win. And the longer-term effects could be interesting.

Meanwhile, watch for various other frozen conflicts, from North Cyprus to Abkhazia, to claim that this decision validates /their/ UDIs. Of course, to make that stick, they’d have to file and win similar suits before the ICJ. And to do that, they’d have to get a resolution past the UN General Assembly. Good luck with that, South Ossetia.

I’d say more, but I haven’t read the decision yet — it just came out a few hours ago, and the ICJ’s website has crashed. Give me a day or two.


Round of Sixteen

Wasn’t there some sort of sporting event going on?

So both the finalists from last time have been sent home in various combinations of sorrow and shame. As one observer noted, “The really weird thing is how attractive I find most of the cultural products of these countries otherwise. Lots of people hate France on principle, [but] the puzzle is how two countries this great produce football teams that are so reprehensible…”

Mind, now that the initial euphoria over Italy’s departure has passed, in the cold light of day we must acknowledge that Holland-Slovakia is not quite as thrilling a prospect as Holland-Italy would have been. But at the end of the day, it’s hard to be sorry.

And, hey, England-Germany.

Consider this an open thread.

Hungarian passports; or, dumbest Stratfor article ever

This sort of thing is why I have trouble taking Stratfor seriously.

Short version: the new, center-right Hungarian government is reviving the plan to offer Hungarian citizenship and passports to ethnic Hungarians living outside Hungary. (There are a couple of million of them. Most live in Hungary’s neighbors Romania, Slovakia and Serbia, with smaller numbers in Croatia and Ukraine.) Stratfor sees this as “an insurance policy — a way of broadening [Hungary’s] power and securing itself should its protectors, the European Union and NATO, weaken.”

What the hell? Continue reading

Orange sunset?

So, President Yanukovych. I don’t always agree with the folks at Foreign Policy, but I think they nail this one:

Ukrainians were absolutely correct to stand up and defend their democratic rights back in 2004. Yanukovych and his party were guilty of egregious election fraud. Moscow supported Yanukovych so openly, and so brutishly, that some Ukrainians presumably ended up voting for his opponent out of sheer spite.

But let’s face it. The record since then hasn’t exactly been an exercise in the glories of Ukrainian democracy. No sooner had Yushchenko and Tymoshenko achieved power (as president and prime minister, respectively) than they began to indulge in a feud that essentially paralyzed Ukrainian politics for the rest of Yushchenko’s term. The result was a long list of non-accomplishments. Kiev-based commentator Mykola Riabchuk, an ex-supporter, ticks off the list: “He failed to bring Ukraine closer to Europe,” thus frustrating one of the central demands of the Orange demonstrators. “He failed to separate business and politics” — another key disappointment for a country where a tiny group of business tycoons wields power constrained only by their competition among themselves. No sooner was the new president elected, Riabchuk notes, than he appointed several of his oligarch supporters to ministerial positions.

Small wonder, then, that Yushchenko didn’t make much headway against Ukraine’s fantastically stubborn culture of corruption. Last year global corruption watchdog Transparency International gave Ukraine a ranking of 146 on the group’s notorious “Corruption Perceptions Index.” To offer some context, that was the same rating achieved by Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone, East Timor — and, oh yes, Russia. In 2004, when Yushchenko scored his great victory, Ukraine’s ranking was 122. “I don’t think that’s changed, and no one’s tried to change it,” says David Marples, a Ukraine-watching history professor at the University of Alberta. “In Ukraine the corruption goes right down to the village level.”

Yushchenko turned out to be a pretty big disappointment all around: stubborn, clumsy, tone-deaf, and obsessed with internal rivalries. He got eliminated in the first round this time. The runoff election was between Yanukovych — a former petty criminal who seems unable to string three coherent sentences together — and the equally horrible Julia Tymoshenko. Under the circumstances, it’s hard to blame the Ukrainians for choosing Yanukovych. (N.B., while the 2004 elections were marred by gross fraud, this year’s elections seem to have been pretty clean.)

So far, Yanukovych’s young administration is interesting for two things: what he’s done, and what he hasn’t.

What he’s done: Yanukovych has swerved Ukraine sharply closer to Russia. Continue reading

Kosovo snips another cord

So Kosovo just turned off the remaining Serbian mobile phone towers:

The Kosovo Albanian authorities in PriÅ¡tina removed the equipment of all Belgrade-based mobile and landline operators this morning…

Eyewitnesses, who secured the premises, said that “special police” broke into Telekom, Telenor and VIP structures to help cut off cables and take down equipment, at around 05:00 CET.

Eyewitnesses said that workers of a “telecommunications regulatory body” from PriÅ¡tina removed transmitters and randomly severed cables.

As a consequence, 40,000 Serbs are either left without mobile service in that part of the province, or have very poor reception.

A little background. Before 1999, Kosovo was covered by Serbian mobile phone networks. Since 1999, it’s developed its own — three of them. But the Serbian networks have continued to operate towers and provide mobile telephony. Unsurprisingly, most of the users have been Kosovar Serbs in the enclaves. Meanwhile the Kosovar Albanians have been buying chips and service contracts from the three Kosovar networks.

If this sort of thing interests you, there’s more. Continue reading

About that Greek public sector

Charlemagne, over at the Economist blog, can be… uneven. But this recent post about Greece’s public sector is IMO top notch. It puts the creation of Greece’s huge, poorly paid, inefficient public sector in historical context:

Take the painful question of the huge public sector, and all those civil servants with jobs for life, and unusually generous retirement packages. The existence of those jobs for life is not a cultural quirk, in which Greek officials simply like coffee and backgammon too much to do any work. It is the end result of a brutal, multi-decade power struggle between the left and the right: a struggle that got people killed within living memory…

The Greek civil war, and the bloody score-settling that followed, is a living memory for many Greeks. Any consideration of Greek nepotism or clientelism needs to be seen in that light. So for example, it is not enough to say that Greek civil servants enjoy jobs for life, and that is a big problem. (Though it is a big problem, not least because many Greek civil servants are paid pitiful wages—partly because there are so many of them. That means they will resist austerity measures all the harder, because they feel like victims in this crisis, not fat cats.) But the bloated public sector is also a function of history… Continue reading

Russia on the rebound

Two interesting facts:

1) After sharply negative growth last year, Russia’s growth is predicted to exceed 6% this year. Okay, that’s just clawing back what they lost. But it’s still better than almost anywhere else in Eastern Europe.

2) For the first time in many, many years Russia’s population grew slightly: by a little over 20,000 people in 2009.

This growth is a combination of a slight downturn in the death rate, a noticeable uptick in the birth rate, and a sharp rise in immigration — it hit a ten year high, with about 240,000 people moving into Russia.

So: short-term blip, or sustainable? Continue reading