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.

Socialists win big in Greece

This seems to have gotten very little attention, but Greece changed governments last week. The ruling center-right New Democracy (ND) party called elections a couple of months ago, and the result was that — predictably — they got stomped hard.

ND had a wafer-thin majority of 152 seats out of 300; they lost 61 (!) seats, and are left with just 91. The rival Socialists jumped from 102 seats to 160, which will allow them to govern alone.

Two of the three minor parties — the Communists and the Radical Left — stayed about the same. The third minor party, the Popular Orthodox Rally, jumped from 10 seats to 15. That’s kind of depressing, because the Popular Orthodox guys are assholes. They’re your classic Balkan Obnoxious Populist-Nationalist Party; insofar as they have a platform, it’s “Hate Albanians and cut taxes”.

One thing I still don’t understand is why ND called this election. Yeah, narrow majority, economic crisis, blah blah. The ND government was only two years old; they could have clung to power another couple of years. They didn’t expect to lose this badly, of course, but the polls made it clear they were going to get kicked out of government. Can anyone shed light on this?

As for the new government: they say they’ll enact an economic stimulus package. Otherwise, from this distance they look pretty similar to the other guys. Again, more detail is welcome.

That said, it’s noteworthy to see a left/center left party win power in Europe these days. (And in a landslide, too.) That hasn’t been happening much lately.

Trivia: outgoing Prime Minister Karamanlis was the nephew of a previous Prime Minister, while incoming Prime Minister Papandreou was the son and grandson of previous Prime Ministers. I would say Greece needs a whosekidareyou site, but on the other hand probably not — it’s not exactly a secret.

Random thoughts on the recent German election

Heard repeatedly yesterday: “Steinmeier has been an excellent Foreign Minister, but I just can’t stand the Social Democrats any more.”

I wonder how many portfolios our Yellow friends will get. In theory, a Conservative/Liberal, CDU/FDP government is perfectly normal. But in practice, the usual Black/Yellow government has been something like “300 Black seats, 40 Yellow”. This is going to be more like “240 Black, 90 Yellow”. The Liberals will be able to claim some serious mojo this time.

And speaking of portfolios, everyone is saying Liberal leader Guido Westerwelle will be the next Foreign Minister. (“And what a shame, because Steinmeier was so good.”) Giving this portfolio to the junior partner is an odd German tradition that dates back to at least the 1970s; the last three foreign ministers have been a Social Democrat under a CDU Prime Minister, a Green under a Social Democrat, and a Liberal under a CDU. For at least one of those (Fischer under Schroeder) I wonder if the point wasn’t to keep a charismatic/energetic leader of the coalition partner out of the country and so unable to work mischief. There are a lot of people who still remember 1982’s “Constructive Vote of No Confidence” when the FDP stuck it into Helmut Schmidt’s back, rotated hard, and then snapped off the handle.

Isn’t Angela Merkel’s lack of charisma amazing? A friend and I recently went down the list of G20 leaders and concluded that she was the single most boring individual on it. It’s sort of awesome that someone so utterly dull can be elected the leader of a major liberal democracy in the 21st century. And not just once, but twice! Fantastic!

The weather was gorgeous here in Bavaria, and nice over most of the country. Nonetheless, turnout was anemic. The Social Democrats are already spinning this as an explanation for their crushing losses. It makes you wonder what the results would have been had it rained.

And speaking of which, whither the SPD? When was the last time a major European center-left party got hammered like this in the middle of a recession? If it’s like this when times are hard, how will people vote if the economy is booming?

In retrospect, didn’t the Grand Coalition work way better than anyone thought it would? A year from now, will we be missing it?

When you hear “Angie and Guido”, what comes to mind? (For me it sounds like the title of a half-forgotten Billy Joel song from the 1970s.)

Other thoughts?

A Eurovision story

Ex Caucasus semper aliquid novo:

Rovshan Nasirli, a young Eurovision fan living in the Azerbaijani capital Baku, says he was summoned this week to the country’s National Security Ministry — to explain why he had voted for Armenia during this year’s competition in May.

“They wanted an explanation for why I voted for Armenia. They said it was a matter of national security,” Nasirli said. “They were trying to put psychological pressure on me, saying things like, ‘You have no sense of ethnic pride. How come you voted for Armenia?’ They made me write out an explanation, and then they let me go.”

A total of 43 Azeris voted for the Armenian duo Inga and Anush, and their song, “Jan-Jan.”

Nasirli, like others, used his mobile phone to send a text message expressing his preference, little imagining his vote would eventually result in a summons from national security officials. (By contrast, 1,065 Armenians voted for the Azerbaijani team, apparently without consequence.)

— That’s actually a fairly good index of the relative freedoms of the two countries. Armenia is a managed democracy, where the opposition is kept pretty toothless. Last year, when the government got tired of peaceful protests over a stolen election, they gunned down a bunch of protesters in the street. (And then blamed the opposition, of course.) Continue reading

Greek journalist sued for writings on Bosnia

Via Marko Hoare’s blog, here’s an unhappy story about Greek journalist Takis Michas. A few years back, Michas wrote a book about the links between Greece and the Bosnian war — Greek support for Milosevic and Karadzic, Greek volunteers going to fight for the Serb side in Bosnia, and so forth.

Well, now he’s being sued by a Greek veteran of the Bosnian war. The lawsuit seems pretty dubious; the volunteer is claiming that he’s been libelled because Michas described the Greek volunteers as “paramilitaries” who took part in the Srebrenica massacre when (the volunteer says) they were in fact members in good standing of the Serb Bosnian army who just happened to be in Srebrenica around that time. The suit is being funded by something called the “Panhellenic Macedonian Front”, which is an umbrella group for a variety of extreme nationalists. A short interview with Michas, discussing the lawsuit, can be found here: Continue reading

Gazprom in Serbia: How’s that working out?

A year and a half ago, I wrote a post about the sale of Serbia’s oil and gas company, NIS, to Russia’s Gazprom. Here were the high points:

— Gazprom was able to buy NIS for much, much less than its real value — 400 million euros for a company whose value was estimated to be more than 2 billion euros.

— The reasons for this have never been made clear. It may have involved corruption and/or a political quid pro quo for Russia’s support on Kosovo. Or perhaps the last Serbian government was just really bad at negotiating.

— The purchase was made without competitive bids, even several other large oil companies expressed interest, and two publicly stated that they would bid at least 2 billion euros.

— The deal gave Gazprom 51% ownership, but included provisions that ensured its total control. For instance, the Serbian government — which owns the other 49% — cannot sell its shares to anyone without Gazprom’s consent.

— Gazprom promised to assume NIS’s debts, which are about 600 million euros, mostly owed to the Serbian government, and also to invest about 500 million euros in NIS.

— Gazprom committed to building the South Stream gas pipeline through Serbia — giving Serbia transit fees — and also building a large gas storage facility at Banatski Dvor.

Okay, so. All that was a year ago. Since then, the deal has been signed and finalized. Gazprom formally took over NIS early this year; six of the ten members of the company’s board of directors are now Gazprom appointees, as are the Chairman of the Board and the company’s new general director. Although it was the last (Kostunica) government that negotiated the deal, the current (Cvetkovic) government has accepted it; three of the four Serbian board members are politicians involved with the current government.

So how’s it working out? Continue reading

Germany’s elections: um… what?

Germany is having elections for the Bundestag at the end of September!

But you’d never know it. Walking through the village, driving to the county seat, I haven’t seen a single sign or poster. It barely gets mentioned on TV news. Newspapers, some discussion, but it’s mostly below-the-fold stuff. Nobody’s that excited.

I haven’t lived in Germany long enough to know if this is perfectly normal, or if this is just a particularly drab and dull election. On one hand, maybe it is? We’re in a recession, but neither of the major parties seem to have good solutions. It’s not like the election is going to make a big difference. The parties of the left are so far behind that Merkel is almost certain to be Chancellor again.

On the other hand, it is very much an open question whether we’ll be stuck with another Grand Coalition. My very tentative guess is yes. If the election were held today, the polls say that Merkel and the CDU/CSU would win a mandate to rule (along with their junior partners, the FDP). That’s because the Socialists are way, way down right now — polls show them as low as 20%, which is truly horrible. That’s a recent Stern poll, BTW, which showed the CDU/CSU with 37% and the FDP with 14% — just enough to form a government.

It seems really strange to me that, in the middle of a harsh recession, voters are abandoning the center-left party in droves. Wouldn’t the Socialists normally reap the benefit of voter unhappiness and fear? Yet it’s the stubborn, none-too-charismatic center-right Prime Minister who’s prospering; the worst-case scenario for Merkel is four more years of the same.

That 20%… just brutal. But surely it’s going to tighten as election day approaches? That would be normal, right?

— Okay, I admit that after more than a year here, I still don’t understand German politics.

Comments? Can someone explain this to me?

Who’s left from the Class of ’91?

Spun off an earlier post.

Remember the first generation of post-Communist leaders? The guys who took power immediately after Communism collapsed? Well, here’s a question: almost 20 years later, how many of them are still running things?

Not so many. A fair number of them are dead: Croatia’s Tudjman, Bosnia’s Izetbegovic, Hungary’s Jozsef Antall, Russia’s Yeltsin. Some are too old to do much — Romania’s Iliescu, Hungary’s Arpad Goncz. A few have retired from politics — Bulgaria’s Zhelev and Dimitrov. And quite a few are still alive, and active in politics, but will never reach positions of real power again.

— I should clarify my definitions here. I’m looking only at the top guys (they’re all guys). Presidents or other heads of state, Prime Ministers or other heads of government, or those who held equivalent levels of executive power. So, to qualify, you must have been President or PM in the first post-Communist government, and still be President or PM today.

So who qualifies? It’s a short list, but interesting. Continue reading

And speaking of Moldova

First, Scraps of Moscow has had some good coverage of the Moldova elections. If you’re interested, check out some of the recent posts over there.

Second, my recent post on Vladimir Voronin neglected to mention one of the most obnoxious aspects of his regime: his useless and disgusting son Oleg. I should correct that.

So: Oleg Voronin has used his position to become one of the richest men in Moldova; depending on who you talk to, his fortune is estimated at tens of millions, hundreds of millions, or “over a billion” dollars. One analysis suggests it’s around $600 million, which would be roughly 10% of Moldova’s GDP. (Keep in mind, this is a country whose per capita GDP is lower than the Philippines or Mongolia.) Whatever the amount, it’s pretty impressive for a podgy fortysomething guy who, up until the collapse of Communism, was a biologist working for a milk cooperative. Continue reading

Wait, where did the astroturf go?

I just noticed that a number of pro-Russian astroturf websites — including some that I used to read regularly — have gone dark.

First off, there are the Transnistria pages. The Tiraspol Times used to provide a weekly dose of happy, upbeat news about the good times in Transnistria. It’s gone now — “account suspended”.

Then there was transnistria.co.uk, a more or less daily blog that did the same thing, interspersed with some whining about how nobody was nice to Transnistria. That’s gone too. I can’t find archives for either of them, which is a shame — there was some wonderfully wacky stuff in there.

Visitpmr,com, the site for Transnistrian tourism (really) is still up, but it hasn’t been updated for a long time now. Pridenestrovie.net, same thing — still exists, nothing new since 2007. EODE.org, purporting to be an NGO, published one “report” about the wonderful state of Transnistrian democracy three years ago and has been “under construction” ever since. And transnistria.info hasn’t updated its news feed since March.

Okay, so someone was funding a disinformation/propaganda campaign for Transnistria, and they stopped. That’s no big deal. But some of the louder voices of the pro-Russian disinformatsiya have also fallen silent. Remember the British Helsinki Human Rights Group? Their website is gone, as is their “partner” OSCE Watch. (BHHRG’s loudest voice, professional nuisance John Laughland, has moved to Paris, where he’s working for a Russian-funded think tank. Can’t find what’s happened to the rest of them.) And ICDISS — the “International Council for Democratic Institutions and State Sovereignty” — hasn’t updated their website in over a year.

It was always obvious that these various outlets were pieces of the same organism. It’s a little weird to see it confirmed this way, though. Wonder if we’ll ever find out how it all fit together behind the scenes. Eh, probably not.

Meanwhile: does anyone know a good English-language source for news about Transnistria? There’s a German-language site that’s still live, but it doesn’t update very often. There’s the Transnistrian Parliament’s website, which is interesting to look at — basically it’s like glimpsing an alternate universe where the USSR survived into the age of the internet — but not very informative. Otherwise, it’s a lot of scavenging among blogs and human rights reports and other such odds and ends.

I never thought I’d miss the Tiraspol Times and its friends, but it’s surprising how little is left now that they’re gone.

Moldova: don’t let the door hit you, Vladimir

God, it’ll be good to see the back of Vladimir Voronin. There were post-Communist leaders who were far more corrupt (Djukanovic), far more evil (Milosevic), sleazier (Iliescu), slimier (Aliyev pere), crazier (Niyazov), creepier (Nazarbayev), more authoritarian (Lukashenko), and more incompetent (Gamsakhurdia). But for all-around total tool-ness, nobody really beat Voronin. He was the decathlete of political crappiness.

Voronin was a stupid, corrupt, mean-spirited, small-minded, old-fashioned provincial Communist whose world-view was permanently frozen sometime around 1982. He hated the west, the US, the EU, Romania, the Ukraine, Turks and Gypsies. He hadn’t the slightest idea of how to run a modern economy, and he didn’t want to learn. Under his leadership, Moldova slumped from being a modestly prosperous backwater province of the Soviet Union to being in a dead heat with Kosovo for “poorest country in Europe”. It’s the most miserable country in Europe by almost any measurement. The PPP adjusted GDP is roughly that of India, and lower than the Philippines or Mongolia; one out of every five adult Moldovans works abroad.

But it’s not so much that he was corrupt and incompetent — hell, pretty much all the post-Soviet leaders were one or the other, or both. What made Voronin so unbearable was that he was a whiny bitch. Nothing was ever Moldova’s fault. It was always some outside force — the West, Romania, Ukraine, Russia (rarely, but it happened), Romania, the ungrateful ethnic minorities, the weather, “color revolutionaries”, capitalists, the CIA, organized crime, foreign agitators, and Romania.

There were things to like or at least respect about almost every post-Communist leader, no matter how crappy. Milosevic was an evil, relentlessly selfish scumbag who ruined his country, but he was a cunning political tactician and he never gave up. Iliescu was an unctuous smirking sleazeball, but he got his country through an incredibly difficult period without disaster; Romania could have done worse. Even Gamsakhurdia had a certain forlorn, cracked dignity. But Voronin? He… wasn’t an anti-Semite. Continue reading