Mr Potato Head

Sometime during the group phase of the last World Cup, a lefty German newspaper, the Berlin-based taz, compared Poland’s current president to a potato. I’m sure that there was more to it than that, but the original version has disappeared into pay-per-view is here, and my reading knowledge of Polish isn’t what it was a decade ago. If yours is better, there’s a Polish version is here, do let me know.

Anyway, the satire was part of a series called “Rogues Who Want to Change the World,” and Kaczynski was in there with other figures you’d expect from an alternative daily, including Chancellor Merkel and German President Köhler. Whether the comparison was apt in Kaczynski’s case will be left as an exercise for readers.

I would think that the occasional irritating comparison is part of the price of being president, and you’d probably think the same, but maybe that’s why Mr Kaczynski is president of Poland and we’re not. Plus the matter of being Polish. Because being president means that there’s a law that says insulting you is a crime. Up to two years in the Polski pen, and Warsaw prosecutors are, even as I write this, investigating whether to take out an EU arrest warrant for the Berlin-based satirists. The smart money is on no, but smart has not exactly been the controlling adjective in what has the makings of a good silly-season story. (Quite a number of European states have these “don’t insult the president/state/ruling house/whatever laws,” and they are usually defended with the assertion that they are never used. Well.)

Godwin’s law, of course, has long since been violated, by Poland’s foreign minister no less. The president skipped a meeting with German and French leaders just before they went to the G-8 summit, though he quickly denied any connection with the satire. Said he had stomach trouble. Not due to tubers, surely. And the new prime minister, not coincidentally the president’s twin brother, saw no need to change course. “We haven’t insulted anybody.”

On the other hand, amidst all the foolishness, President Kaczynski did manage a cruel blow. He said, according to the weekly Zeit, “even in the history of this peculiar newspaper” the potato portrait was an unprecedented insult of a foreign head of state and a criminal act. If in thirty-plus years of lefty alternativeness, the taz has never done anything more tasteless than call a jumped-up szlachta a lumpen-potato, they have seriously missed out on one of the perks of being lefty and alternative. I think Kaczynski’s been clever here and cast aspersions on their capabilitieis as caricaturists and satirists. But for all I know, these aspersions will harm their business and professional reputations. Maybe the taz should consider a counter-suit?

American Dreamz: When satire doesn’t go far enough

A few months back, I picked up, on a lark, a short French novel called Allah Superstar authored by the pseudonymous Y.B. (generally known to be Yassir Benmiloud, columnist for the Algerian daily El Watan). I bought it entirely on the basis of the excerpt on the back cover:

Une fatwa, voilà ce qu’il me faut pour devenir à la mode. C’est plus rapide que Star Academy, ça dure plus longtemps, tu voyages dans le monde entier, tu donnes des conférences, tu descends dans des palaces, tu montes sur scène avec U2, tu prends le thé avec le pape, une bière ou deux voire trois avec Chirac, une vodka givrée avec Poutine, un cigare humide avec Clinton, une grosse ligne avec Bush Junior, un masque à gaz avec Saddam Hussein, à chaque fois que tu dis une connerie tout le monde entier il t’écoute vu que tu as une fatwa au cul le pauvre, alors que le monde entier il est autant dans la merde que toi vu que c’est bientôt la fin du monde pour tout le monde.

A fatwa, that what I need to get famous! It’s faster than Star Academy [a French American Idol-type show], it lasts longer, you can travel the world, give speeches, stay in palaces, be up on stage with U2, take tea with the Pope, a beer or two or even three with Chirac, a chilled vodka with Putin, a humid cigar with Clinton, snort up a thick line with Bush Junior, share a gas mask with Saddam Hussein, and no matter what stupid thing you say everybody listens because you have a fatwa on your ass, while everybody else is just as deep in shit as you are seeing how the world’s gonna end real soon.

Allah Superstar, written as a monologue in several chapters, follows a young Frenchman of half Arab, half-European ancestry as he tries to become a famous comedian. Ultimately, he is seduced to, well, the Dark Side of Islam, gets his fatwa as part of a fundamentalist plot to make him famous, and when he is finally asked to perform at the Olympia in Paris (think: the French version of Radio City Music Hall) for a special September 11th performance, he blows himself up on stage, killing most of the audience.

This plot is similar enough to the one in the film American Dreamz (which has already been out for six weeks in the States, but only just came out here, and which I went to see this afternoon because, frankly, the World Cup is not my bag) that I wonder if “Y.B.” has considered suing the film’s producers. It’s far from identical, but weaker claims have led to studios to pay up.

But where Allah Superstar is a satire of French society that brings together the desire for fame at all costs, transgressive comedy and fears of terrorism, American Dreamz, directed by the man responsible for American Pie, is merely a little joke on shows like American Idol and President Bush. As satire, it falls far below the potential implicit in its concept.

The rest of this review contains spoilers, so you decide if you want to read it.
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Forget It Jacques, It’s Clearstream

It never stops when your blog has to cover an entire continent. Hardly had the Italian left taken AFOE’s advice to get Giorgio Napolitano elected as president than the Clearstream scandal in France was getting out of hand, and nothing at all on the blog! Fortunately, at the moment the news from that quarter is coming so thick and at such a howling rate of speed that it wasn’t going to be hard to catch up. The latest despatches suggest that, firstly, it was De Villepin and Chirac, and secondly, that the victim-Nicolas Sarkozy-probably has something to hide too, as in any good film noir.

And that’s before you get on to the 300 million francs in the president’s secret Japanese bank account. Allegedly.

So what is a Clearstream and why is it a scandal? Clearstream is a bank clearing house in Luxembourg that permits banks to carry out international payments on a net basis, paying just the balance of their transactions in cash every business day. It has a bad reputation in France because of one Denis Robert, who has written three books alleging that it’s responsible for money laundering on a vast scale. But more relevantly, it’s also the supposed cause of a major political crisis.
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Behind the scenes

The Financial Times has an interesting article about how the Ukrainian government did consider the use of force against the protestors, but eventually backed down, mainly because President Kuchma blocked it.

Those lobbying for the use of force included senior officials, among them Viktor Medvedchuk, the head of the Ukrainian presidential administration and Viktor Yanukovich, the prime minister.

According to people inside and outside Mr Kuchma’s administration, the president resisted the pressure and the danger passed.

“The key moment came on Sunday, November 28 (a week after crowds took to Kiev streets), when soldiers were given bullets. Then they were going around not with empty machine guns, but already fully armed. I think that was the peak of the whole conflict,” Mr Yushchenko said.

Vasyl Baziv, the deputy head of the presidential administration, told the FT: “I know that many representatives of the [state] apparatus lobbied the president to impose a state of emergency. They said it is time to use state power. The president, from the first moment, was consistently against the use of force.”

I suspect that there’ll be quite a few stories like this over the coming weeks – and if Yushchenko does win on December 26, as everyone assumes, the trickle will become a flood as everyone starts trying to blame everyone else for all that went wrong. One can read this report as being Kuchma trying to get his story into the arena first – as part of his ongoing attempt to get amnesty after he leaves office – by portraying himself as the man who didn’t want to “leave office with blood on his hands.”

However, it is interesting to note how the reports match up with some of the rumours that were going about at the time of the crisis, particularly the idea that the clampdown would begin after the CEC announced Yanukovich as the victor of the election:

Tensions rose sharply on Wednesday, November 24, when the Central Election Commission officially confirmed Mr Yanukovich’s victory. Mr Yushchenko responded by urging protesters to blockade public buildings, including the cabinet office and the presidential administration.

With Javier Solana, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, and other mediators due in Kiev for conciliation talks on Friday November 26, the authorities considered using force to clear the blockade surrounding the presidential buildings. About 2,000 anti-riot police were deployed in the area. But, with the mediators urging restraint, the Ukrainian authorities backed off.

The talks on November 26 failed to break the deadlock. The following day, the pro-Yushchenko crowds in Kiev swelled to an estimated 500,000, with smaller demonstrations in some other cities.

The critical moments came on Sunday November 28. Mr Yanukovich’s supporters in eastern Ukraine raised thestakes by making separatist threats.

Mr Kuchma chaired a meeting of the key National Security Council which discussed plans for armed action. Western diplomats say intelligence reports showed interior ministry troop movements around Kiev. One senior western diplomat says: “There were credible reports that troops were moving on Kiev.”

More from Ukraine

I’m starting a new post for the latest information as the old one was starting to get a bit long. The session in Parliament has broken up as there were 191 deputies there, but 226 (50%+1) were required for a quorum, so no action could be taken. However, the Kyiv Post reports that Yushchenko has taken a ‘symbolic’ oath of office as President:

After the session ended, Yushchenko swore an oath on a 300-year-old Bible. The Ukrainian constitution, however, stipulates that the president swears allegiance on a copy of the constitution. Lawmakers chanted “Bravo, Mr. President!”

There’s other interesting information in the story as well, such as how a no confidence vote would also be symbolic rather than binding:

“All political forces should negotiate and solve the situation without blood,” said parliament speaker Volodymyr Litvyn.

“The activities of politicians and the government … have divided society and brought people into to the streets,” Litvyn said. “Today there is a danger of activities moving beyond control.”

A no-confidence vote in parliament would have carried political significance, but it would not have been binding. According to the Ukrainian constitution, a no-confidence vote must be initiated by the president – and outgoing President Leonid Kuchma has staunchly backed Yanukovych.

Opposition leader and Yushchenko ally Yulia Tymoshenko, wearing an orange ribbon around her neck, called on lawmakers “not to go to into any negotiations” with the government. Instead, Tymoshenko said, they should “announce a new government, a new president, a new Ukraine.”

However, there are welcome signs that direct confrontations are being avoided:

Mykola Tomenko, a lawmaker and Yushchenko ally, said some police had joined the opposition, although the claim was impossible to independently verify. One police officer, wearing an orange ribbon in his uniform, ordered a group of police outside a government building to retreat inside, defusing tension between them and Yushchenko supporters.

Kyiv’s city council and the administrations of four other sizable cities – Lviv, Ternopil, Vinnytsia and Ivano-Frankivsk – have refused to recognize the official results and they back Yushchenko.

Elsewhere, idiotprogrammer discusses (the lack of) American coverage of what’s going on (though we have now been mentioned on Instapundit).

Update: BBC News 24 reports (from the AFP wire) that Yushchenko has called on the police and army to come out and support him while miners are threatening to march on Kiev in support of Yanukovich. AFP also reports that Dutch Prime Minister Balkenende – the Netherlands currently holds the EU presidency – has informed Ukrainian President Kuchma that the EU has doubts about the result of the election.

Update 2: The Periscope has lots of information, including translations of what’s being broadcast on Ukrainian radio right now. They also report that Javier Solana will be addressing the European Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs tomorrow focusing on events in Ukraine.
Latest breaking news from the Kyiv Post reports Putin saying that “criticism of the Ukrainian election by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is “inadmissible” because there are no official results.”
More blogging from Kiev at Le Sabot Post-Moderne.
Interesting BBC News article on some of the background to the protests. It mentions a Ukrainian student group – Pora – who have connections with Georgia’s Kmara and Serbia’s Otpor movements, both of whom were at the forefront of the protests in their countries that overthrew governments. As several people have noted, Georgian flags are being displayed quite prominently amidst the protests.
There’s a good Financial Times article on the processes going on behind the scenes:

Although Mr Kuchma has spent a decade building an authoritarian regime, he has not established complete control – unlike President Vladimir Putin in neighbouring Russia – and it is unclear whether he can assure victory for his prime minister, Viktor Yanukovich.

In particular, he does not control parliament or the Supreme Court, both of which could play a vital role in determining the victor.

The core of Mr Kuchma’s power is his dominance of the bureaucracy, law-enforcement and state security structures inherited from Communist times. Even before Mr Putin made similar moves in Russia, Mr Kuchma established presidential control over regional governments and placed close allies to oversee the news on the main state and private television channels. […]

Critically, the president has failed to establish a reliable majority among parliament’s 450 members. Recently, Volodymyr Lytvyn, the speaker, and more than 30 deputies deserted the pro-presidential bloc, creating a stalemate in which neither Mr Yushchenko nor Mr Kuchma have a majority.

Mr Kuchma cannot take the support of domestic institutions for granted, especially the Supreme Court, where judges enjoy independence thanks to lifetime appointments. Before the polls, the court acted in Mr Yushchenko’s favour by ordering the Central Election Commission to exclude 41 extra polling stations in Russia for the numerous Ukrainian citizens there amid concerns that they might be used for ballot fraud. After the first round, the court ordered the Central Election Commission to reverse a decision to exclude votes from a pro-Yushchenko district.

As the widespread allegations of second-round fraud have shown, the government has attempted another challenge to institutions Mr Kuchma does not fully control.

The authorities successfully ordered and bullied civil servants to co-operate in ballot-stuffing operations – ranging from university professors who applied unfair pressure on students to police officers who were paid to tour polling stations and vote more than once. But the machine did its job too well. The sheer scale of fraud required to swing the official results in Mr Yanukovich’s favour has provoked huge protests and international criticism.

Update 3: Victor Katolyk’s live reports from Ukraine are in this Periscope thread. BBC News 24 just had live pictures from outside the Presidential offices where police are present in full riot gear and standing about 10-15 deep, completely blocking access to what appeared to be a large crowd of protestors. However, despite all that, things still seemed peaceful – the crowd was quite orderly and there was a gap between them and the police, with no signs of imminent trouble. At times like this, though, it only takes one hothead to spark a flame.
There’s a brief post on Siberian Light that makes an interesting couple of points:

* Putin seems to have made a major error of judgement in backing Mr Yanukovych. If the election result is overturned, he will have made an enemy of Yushchenko.
* And if Yushchenko does win the Presidency he won’t have such a strong mandate from the people as Saakashvilli did in Georgia’s Rose Revolution (which, by the way, is celebrating its 1st anniversary today). Even if the election had been free and fair, I doubt Yushchenko would have won by more than a few points. There are deep East-West divisions in Ukraine which have bubbled to the surface this week. They won’t just go away.

BBC News reports that Yushchenko has asked former Polish President Walesa to mediate in the crisis. Walesa is reported as saying he will if Ukrainian President Kuchma asks him to.
Update 4: Right, one last set of updates then I need to get some sleep. Things seem to have quietened down now – it’s 2am in Ukraine right now (for reference, it’s GMT+2, CET+1, EST+7). Victor has continued to updates at The Periscope– the general trend seems to be reports of public and international support for Yuschenko, coupled with rumours of potential trouble from forces allied with Yanukovich tomorrow. There’s nothing we can do but sit and wait to see how those pan out.
Yuschenko’s website in English (click on ‘ENG’ at the top of the screen) has lots of news, including a story that Mikhail Gorbachev has backed Yushchenko.
Interesting posts from
Daniel Brett and Coming Anarchy.
There are many reports of international demonstrations and protests for Yushchenko tomorrow – I’ll add those to the thread above.
Two more sites gathering and reporting news from Ukraine in English – Maidan and Brama.

More Statecraft In Action?


Condoleezza Rice
Colin Powell, who in all likelihood will renounce to using the phrase “between a rock and a hard place” for the rest of his life, is leaving the US administration, and Condoleezza Rice, currently US National Security Advisor, has been nominated by President Bush as next Secretary of State. Many in Europe, Deutsche Welle, I don’t think it matters if Powell’s departure strengthens hardliners who are insensitive to European sensitivities. Both European and American leaders have by now realized the need to work together, and they have – somewhat – adjusted their sensoric system and significantly reduced their mutual expectations. Pessimists may lead unhappy lives, but at least they are less likely to be disappointed.
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