Slovakia: Hm

Last month I posted about the elections in Slovakia. Robert Fico’s “Smer” party — leftish nationalist-populists — had beaten the center-right technocrats.

Well, Fico and Smer have formed a government. And it’s… interesting.

They chose two coalition partners: the right-wing hyper-nationalist, vaguely racist Slovak Nationalist Party (SNS), and the aging ex-Communists of Vladimir Meciar’s HZDS. (You may remember Meciar as the sort of Milosevic/Lukashenko wannabe from the ’90s.)
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Oh, yes, Macedonia

They had Parliamentary elections last week. Nobody much noticed, but,

1) The voting was conducted in good order and — according to international observers — was, for the most part, fair and without irregularities;

2) The opposition won a fairly clear victory; and,

3) The government promptly acknowledged the opposition victory, and is handing over power forthwith.

This is no small thing in Macedonia, an ethnically divided country with a long and miserable history of political violence. A bit more below the fold.
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Taxi! For Nöel Forgeard

Well, it looks like one of the questions from this post may have been answered indirectly. It now matters little whether or not the Clearstream affair is ever cleared up, as some of the people most responsible for it have anyway been disgraced. Since the last post, the only real news on the Clearstream story is that the allegations by General Rondot (that the government wanted him to investigate Nicolas Sarkozy for partisan reasons) were confirmed, by the top EADS executive Jean-Louis Gergorin, although he continues to deny being the corbeau.

However, the Clearstream story has largely been overtaken by events. One explanation for it was that it began as part of a scheme by a faction at the huge Franco-German aircraft and armaments company in order to prevent the head of Thales (another French defence contractor, specialising in electronics and shipbuilding) from becoming the boss. Their alternative candidate was almost certainly the choice of the French government, being a personal friend and political compadre of Jacques Chirac, one Nöel Forgeard. This chap had a good claim to the job anyway, having run the EADS division that builds the Airbus civilian airliners and culminated his time there by overtaking Boeing in sales for the first time and seeing the A-380, the world’s largest passenger aircraft, to its first flight. He also promised to maintain French primacy of influence, which is important as EADS’s structure gives it two co-chiefs, in practice one French and one German.

Forgeard today resigned in disgrace as chief executive. Like Clearstream, it was an overdetermined event. For a start, there was the lingering scandal-Gergorin being an old pal of his. But there was also trouble at the mill. The A380’s delivery timetable has slipped after problems were discovered with the electrical systems of several airframes, beginning with serial no. 013, and requiring a temporary halt to work at station 40 on the assembly line. This has caused trouble with some of the buyers, who have threatened to invoke penalty clauses.

But that wasn’t the real problem. It flies, after all, and has passed its safety certification (something which escapes those journalists who have been claiming Boeing’s Dreamliner project has overtaken it – the 787 has, I think, yet to fly let alone be type-approved). The real problem was that Forgeard exercised his stock options immediately before the public heard about the cock-up on station 40. He denied vigorously that he knew of the problem, without credibility – the director of production for the A380, Jean-Claude Schoepf, had informed union representatives of the problem as early as the 24th of February. This perceived dishonesty, stacked atop the Clearstream muck, left him shaky, and Jacques Chirac’s response didn’t help. Chirac (and presumably the government) wanted to replace him with the current head of the French railways as a new single chief.

Enter Angela Merkel. The German government wanted, rather than more centralisation, to see more EADS stock in free float. Putting the SNCF in charge, possibly sensible given their reputation, was not going to grip them. But – without a major change in EADS’s charter – sacking Forgeard would require the German co-chief to step down too. It now seems that the Germans are willing to accept the railroad tycoon, Louis Gallois, instead of Forgeard, even at the price of dropping Gustav Humbert – the new head of the Airbus division – in favour of an exec from Saint-Gobain. This means, of course, that there is a need for new German appointments.

The Germans have therefore thrown out the bums, got rid of responsibility for the trouble at Airbus, replaced the French co-CEO with someone apparently competent, and kept their own rights of appointment. Advice: don’t get into an argument with Angie Merkel. It’s like the EU budget all over again, when she essentially pushed Tony Blair out of the presidency chair to close the deal.

Meanwhile, a French government commission on official secrecy is said (by the Canard Enchainé) to have advised the Ministry of National Defence to open the files seized from Rondot on the rest of Clearstream, including the infamous investigation by Gilbert Flam into Chirac’s alleged bank accounts in Japan. It doesn’t end for the General, either. He’s being sued by Carlos “The Jackal” from his prison cell, over his arrest in the Sudan back in 1994. Rondot traced him to a clinic there where he was undergoing medical treatment, had him arrested and flown to Paris in a sack, where he went on trial for various terrorist acts. Now, after Rondot spoke about the – well – very extraordinary rendition in an interview with Le Figaro on his retirement, he’s suing. Cheeky old bugger.

Balkenende government falls over Ayaan Hirsi Ali

It seems that this morning Dutch PM Jan Peter Balkenende is visiting the Queen to signal the resignation of the cabinet. The smallest of the three parties in the centre-right government, D66 with six seats, has signaled that it would not continue to support the coalition if Immigration Minister Rita Verdonk retains her portfolio. The cabinet refused, so now they have to resign.

The main coalition partners, the CDA and the VVD (Christian Democrats and Liberals), blame D66 for taking umbrage at a minister who was just doing her job. D66 complains that it did not intend to force a crisis on the government, it just wanted Verdonk to resign.

At the centre of this is Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Ms Verdonk is something of a controversial character in her own right, but her handling of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s immigration status appears to have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. According to Trouw, Ayaan Hirsi Ali finds it “sad” that the cabinet fell over her immigration status.

It’s not clear whether there will be an election forthwith. It seems that Balkenende may be able to form a minority government with just the two main coalition partners, although the lifespan of such a government might be short. Otherwise, Dutch law calls for elections within three months. Polls suggest the centre-right parties do not have the support to come back into government, but it’s close enough that the election campaign might make a difference.

Update: Guy has a much more extensive post on the subject at A Few Euros More, which I didn’t see when I posted this.

Romania edges towards the door

Romania’s PM Tariceanu announced yesterday that he wants to withdraw Romania’s troops from Iraq.

Right now here are about 900 Romanian soldiers there — one full battalion, with the catchy name of “The Red Scorpions”. They’re deployed in the Al-Nasyria area. They don’t do combat operations. There’s an intelligence team and some de-miners. 900 non-combat soldiers may not sound like a lot, but they made Romania the fifth largest member of the coalition (after the US, Britain, South Korea and Italy).

Why were they there? Well, Romania places a high value on the security relationship with the US. (A cynic might suggest that they’re keeping up the payments on their national security insurance policy.) The numbers involved are not large, Romanian casualties have been very light (one death in three years, to a roadside bomb), so up until now it hasn’t seemed like a very expensive investment on Romania’s part.

The withdrawal isn’t a done deal, BTW. PM Tariceanu must ask the Defense Council for permission; unlike a US President, he isn’t Commander in Chief of the armed forces. And President Basescu (who until recently was saying that the troops should stay “until democracy is established”) may yet weigh in.

From a little distance, I have the impression of a government edging cautiously towards the door, floating a trial balloon and waiting to see how everyone else reacts.

Note that the new government of Italy is sharply cutting Italy’s military commitment to Iraq; the troop count there has dropped from 2,700 to 1,600, and Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D’Alema says all troops will be out by early 2007. That would leave the Poles (900 troops) and the Danes (550) as the only European countries other than Britain with significant numbers of troops in Iraq. (Hereby somewhat arbitrarily defined as more than 200 men. There are a dozen or so countries with 20 or 50 or 100 there.)

European countries that had significant troop levels in Iraq, but then left:

Spain — 1,300, left April 2004 (Zapatero government)
Hungary — 300, December 2004
Netherlands — 1,300, left March 2005
Ukraine — 1,600, left December 2005 (Yushchenko government)
Bulgaria — 460, left May 2006

So, there were nine (counting Britain); five have left, one looks getting ready to go, that would leave three.

No further comment, just taking note.

A disturbing pattern

I’ve been surprised at the lack of uproar over the discovery that the CIA has been data mining SWIFT transfer archives. I suppose it’s because this is far from the first troubling secret breech of the right to privacy by the Bush administration, and most people – the ones that don’t have large sums of money – generally don’t have any banking privacy anyway. But this new secret program touches a core Bush constituency: white-collar criminals. If Bush is able to secretly monitor transactions in the name of anti-terrorism, a future Democratic government might be able to use it against money laundering and accounting fraud. That’s surely something the Republican Party could never stand for.

SWIFT is headquartered in Belgium, but operates computer centres both in the US and the EU, so the company probably was not in a position to refuse the government’s request. According to page 4 of the original NY Times article: “Intelligence officials were so eager to use the Swift data that they discussed having the C.I.A. covertly gain access to the system, several officials involved in the talks said.” If they were prepared to break in to get the data, there was little to be gained by the firm taking a stand.

But I note in today’s Le Monde something about this affair that I find troubling.
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Slovakia swings left

Slovakia had elections this weekend. They don’t seem to have attracted much attention, but I think they’re worth a quick look.

Short version: a center-right government that was committed to controversial social and economic reforms got thrown out in favor of a left-wing populist.

Now, depending on what corner of the political spectrum you come from, your reaction to this may be, “Aw, shucks” or “At last!” What makes it interesting, I think, is that this is Eastern Europe, where everything is a bit rawer and the safety catches are off. PM Mikulas Dzurinda and his SDKU party, in power for the last eight years, had an economic program that would have made Margaret Thatcher go dizzy and weak in the knees. Privatization, a flat tax, brisk reorganization of social programs… it was quite something.

Especially since Dzurinda came into office after Vladimir Meciar. Remember him? An obnoxious Communist-turned-Nationalist of the Milosevic-Lukashenko sort, but without even the modest redeeming qualities (i.e., intelligence and a grasp of basic economics) of a Lukashenko. Meciar was a buffoon, a demagogue, and an incompetent; whether you like Dzurinda or not, there’s little doubt that he was the best choice available back in ’98.

Anyway. Dzurinda’s policies saw some results. Slovakia got hothouse economic growth and a surge of foreign investment that has turned it, against all expectations, into the automotive manufacturing center of Eastern Europe. But it also saw sharply increased inequality in income and wealth; and while unemployment went down, the jobs created were mostly available to the young, the urban, and those willing and able to pick up stakes. Jobs may be going begging in the capital, but a few hours west, on the Ukrainian border, the unemployment rate is over 25%.

Without getting into a debate over the merits of SDKU’s policies (though that’s very interesting in its own right), it’s clear that the Slovakian electorate has decided to swing left for a while.

Numbers below the fold.
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The Catalan Statute

Well here in sunny Catalonia we don’t have a fooball team of our own right now, so maybe that’s why we chose this precise moment to hold a referendum about our future.

Now the first thing to get straight is that despite all the direst predictions, Spain is still here the morning after the big vote, and in one piece, I just touched the floor to prove it. Indeed 11 footballers (some of them Catalan) will also come to earth on German turf tonight just to graphically illustrate the point. So it does seem that some of the concerns raised in the coments to this post were well wide of the mark.

Some issues do, however, remain.
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Photographs on the fence

If you’re ever in Pristina, capital of Kosovo, you’ll want to swing by the Government building.

(It’s called the Government building because, well, that’s where the government is. The Parliament, the Prime Minister, the President, and half a dozen or so government agencies are all squashed into one huge building downtown. It’s sort of refreshing. Imagine being in London or Berlin and just popping down to “the government”.)

Why? Because there are these photographs. Between two and three thousand of them… closer to two, I think. The government building has a fence around it; and, since the building is pretty large, the fence is easily a couple of hundred meters long. And it’s covered with the photographs of Kosovar Albanians missing in the 1999 war.

It’s not a very cheerful display, obviously. But it’s certainly food for thought. And if you walk the length of the fence, you’ll spot some patterns.
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Montenegro: Over and Out

It looks like Europe has a new country.

As of 6:00 am this morning, with over 99% of the ballots counted, it appears that the “out” votes have just barely won in Montenegro. Secession from Serbia required a 55% supermajority; the unofficial, not-quite-final count has 55.2% of the voters approving.

Now, in a jurisdiction the size of Montenegro, 0.2% of the total is a few hundred votes. Literally a couple of hatfuls. So we can pretty much guarantee that the count will be contested. Still, at this point it appears that the secessionists have won the day.

Anyone who’s been reading this blog regularly knows my thoughts on this; I see no need to repeat myself. I wish the Montenegrins good luck with their new endeavour.

Some thoughts on Serbia below the fold.
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