17 May, 2012

Migrating bird ruffles Turkish feathers

When villagers in southwestern Turkey found a dead bird with a metal ring round its leg stamped "Israel", they reached the obvious conclusion – that the bird had been sent from Israel to spy on Turkey. Local police discovered that the bird had unusually large nostrils, in which they suspected a microchip may have been hidden. A special counter-terrorism unit of the police also became involved, perhaps suspecting that the bird may have been trying to make contact with Kurdish separatists or other extremists operating within Turkey.

Officials from the Turkish Ministry of Agriculture eventually managed to convince locals and the police that the bird – a common European bee-eater – was not a threat to national security and had merely been tagged in the Zionist Entity as part of a routine tracking of the movements of migratory birds. But why were the Ministry officials so keen to dampen down concerns as to the bird's true purpose? Whose orders were they following?


From Hunting Monsters

15 May, 2012

"Our hands are tied"

Can you take it?
I saw a Socialist Party MEP on the news talking about how if the referendum on the European Stability Treaty thing was passed then Ireland would be stuck with austerity budgets forever – no future government would ever be able to break out of this austerity straitjacket. I am not entirely convinced by this. For one thing, I suspect that if the Socialist Party are ever leading a government they will not say: "We would really love to bring austerity to an end, but alas, our hands are tied by this treaty".

There might be a deliberate missing of the point with what is being voted on in the referendum going on. If passed, it allows the state to ratify the European Stability Treaty thing. The actual terms of the Treaty thing are then incorporated into Irish law by ordinary legislation. I am no lawyer, but my understanding is that at some future stage these provisions could then be taken out of Irish law by future legislation – ordinary legislation, not a consitutional amendment, as the constitutional amendment in the referendum merely allows the state to ratify the Treaty thing, but does not require it to do so or require it to stick to the terms of the Treaty thing forever.

What do you think?

Greece – what next?

Join me as I gaze into my crystal ball and attempt to predict what will happen over the next while in Greece. Bookmark this page and come back to laugh at me when my predictions prove to be completely nonsensical.

First up, where is Greece now? Well it is not in great shape. Its public finances are in a disastrous state and its economy is contracting at an alarming rate. It has been unable to borrow on the open markets at affordable rates and instead has been borrowing from a combination of the European Central Bank and the IMF. These institutions have laid down stringent conditions to their loans, which have contributed to Greece's economic decline. But Greece has been a bit slack at meeting its lenders' targets, leading to a certain lack of confidence on their part.

The May 6th election result was inconclusive, largely thanks to a quirk of the Greek electoral system. 250 MPs are elected by proportional representation, but an extra block of 50 seats are given to the party with the largest share of the votes. That was New Democracy, Greece's long-standing centre-right party. Together with PASOK (the old centre-left party) and a small leftwing party a parliamentary majority in favour of continuing with the EU/IMF bailout programme could have been scraped together, but anti-bailout parties clearly won a majority of votes cast. A pro-bailout government would have lacked popular legitimacy and so could not be formed, while an anti-bailout government would have lacked a parliamentary majority. So Greece is calling new elections.

At the time of writing, my understanding is that these elections will happen on either the 10th or the 17th of June. This time I expect that they will produce an anti-bailout majority. Last time, nearly a fifth of Greeks voted for small anti-bailout parties that failed to pass the 3% threshold required to get into parliament. This time enough of them will switch to more popular anti-bailout parties. In particular, I reckon that Syriza, a far-left coalition in some ways akin to the United Left Alliance in Ireland, will finish ahead of New Democracy and pick up the 50-seat bonus. Together with the Communists and perhaps another anti-bailout party or two (but not the Golden Dawn, who are evil) they will form an anti-bailout government.

Things might get awkward if the election results fall in such a way that the far right nutters in the Golden Dawn are needed for an anti-bailout majority in parliament, but I am assuming that this will not happen.

Now, the anti-bailout lot in Greece are not actually against being lent money at advantageous rates by the EU/IMF, they just do not want to have to conform to the conditions attached to the loan. And they may also not want to pay the loan back either. So when they get into government they will basically say: "Keep sending us the money, however we are not going to stick to the austerity conditions agreed with previous governments". Their possibly naïve assumption is that Greece can tough it out with its creditors, because at the end of the day Greek bankruptcy would hurt the other European countries so badly that they will keep the money tap on to prevent thishappening.

The next tranche of bailout money is due to Greece in the middle of June, at the same time as the elections. If that money is not paid over, Greece will be bankrupt; apparently there is a possibility of the Greek state going bust even before then. My prediction is that one way or another, Greece will find itself with an anti-bailout government and no bailout money – the people who are stumping up the money for Greece (primarily Chancellor Merkel of Germany) would rather take the hit on the country leaving the Euro than give more money to a government that is repudiating the bailout conditions.

Things will then get very messy very quickly. With no one lending to it, the Greek government will only be able to spend money it can raise itself in Greece. This is not nearly enough to cover its expenditure (if it was, the Greek state would not need a bailout). It goes without saying that it will then be in the situation they call messy default – abruptly telling its creditors that they are not going to be getting any more repayments any time soon, if ever. But the problem for Greece is that it is running a deficit on current spending – the money it pays to state employees, social welfare recipients, and the other recipients of state spending is way more than what it is raising in taxes. With no bailout money it will have to start defaulting on these payments as well.

Now, in the normal run of things, if you are a country's minister for finance and you cannot borrow money and are spending more money than you are taking in there is only one thing you can do – print more money. Greece is in the Eurozone and cannot print more Euros. I think the only way around this conundrum is an abrupt introduction by Greece of a new currency, a neo-Drachma or some such. The Greek government will be able to print this up to their hearts content and pay people as much of it as they like. Perhaps initially the neo-Drachma will be a parallel currency with Greece still notionally in the Euro zone, but I reckon that the introduction of this banana money will drive the Euro out of circulation and lead to an effective Greek exit from the Eurozone.

Why will the Euro drop out of circulation in Greece? Well, the Greek government have introduced the neo-Drachma to get around the imbalance between its revenue and expenditure. Instead of cutting back on expenditure (easier said than done in a country as depressed as Greece), it will print money to make up the difference. But this gross expansion of the money supply, backed by nothing except the Greek government's not very convincing claims to be setting the country on a new economic tack, mean that the neo-Drachma will rapidly start collapsing in value relative to the Euro. Anyone holding Euro funds will hoard them or, even better, get them out of Greece as their relative value to the neo-Drachma soars.

So Greece enters into a period of hyperinflation. Public sector workers start striking in protest at being paid in increasingly worthless monopoly money and social welfare recipients fall ever further into poverty. The public sector generally starts to fall apart. Anyone with access to money outside Greece may well find that they are doing very well now, as their hard currency goes a long way, but for a lot of Greeks this period is nightmarish. Maybe further along, the devaluation of the neo-Drachma is good for Greek exporters, as their products are so much cheaper on the international market, but what exports does Greece potentially have? Maybe it will see a flood of tourists coming to spend their money in a country that is now amazingly cheap, but do people holiday in a country that is disintegrating?

Well, that's the best I can do. What do you think will happen?

From Hunting Monsters

13 May, 2012

What if the USA was run by Realists…

I have previously mentioned Realism (see here and here), the international relations framing theory that purports to describe the- world-as-it-really-is. Of course, all international relations theorists purport to say how things really are, but by describing themselves as "Realists", the followers of this school are claiming to be far closer to the truth than their rivals. The Realists say that they describe the world as it is, not as how they would like it to be. They agree that a world without war and conflict would be a nice one, but they argue that we will always face threats to our security and that we should act accordingly.

Generally speaking, Realists always come across as the bad guys when you study international relations theory. Partly this is because their "it was ever thus" outlook comes across as a bit smug and self-satisfied, and partly it is because they can come across as a cynical bunch who are only too happy to justify any nefarious activity as necessary to advance state security; Realists do sometimes claim Machiavelli as one of their own, after all. In practice, though, the Realists can often be less like the crazed warmongers that their theoretical position makes them appear. They have a sense of the limitations of state power that makes them wary of any attempt to do more than can realistically be accomplished.

And so I bring you to a recent article on the Foreign Policy website by the prominent Realist academic Stephen M. Walt. He argues that since the end of the Cold War, American foreign policy has largely been under the control of liberal internationalists and neoconservatives. The former have pushed America into the business of promoting democracy and human rights everywhere in the world, while the latter have tried to seize the moment by establishing a permanent US hegemony over the world. Their interests have merged because the neoconservatives reckon that democracy and human rights would probably favour the interests of the USA, while advancing them gives an opportunity to interfere everywhere; the liberal internationalists see US hegemony as allowing for the advancing of their goals.

Walt is hostile the programme these people have adopted, not because he hates human rights or wants the USA to be weak, but because he reckons that the promotion of human rights and democracy is a waste of time and effort, while the neocons' attempt to secure global hegemony seriously overestimates the capabilities of the USA and is actually undermining the security of the USA by encouraging other powers to unite against it. In the article, Walt puts forward ten ways in which US foreign policy would have been radically different over the last twenty years if it had been run by Realists. In doing so he is not just looking back with the benefit of hindsight and advocating different policies to ones which failed, but rather he is restating policies that he and his fellow Realists had actually advocated.

What is striking about Walt's counterfactual is how much it leads to the USA doing less than it has been doing since the end of the Cold War. Walt's Realist USA would not have invaded Iraq, would not have launched a global "War on Terror", would not have encouraged NATO expansion into Eastern Europe, and would not have provided Israel with the blank cheque support it has enjoyed. The Realist USA would also have stayed out of the former Yugoslavia (good news for alternative Earth Slobodan Milosevic and Ratko Mladic) and Libya. The only thing on Walt's list that amounts to some new thing a Realist USA would have done is increase its focus on China. Realists have a bit of a thing about China. Walt is not saying that the USA should have invaded China or pursued an aggressive policy towards it, but he feels that a Realist approach would focus on trying to build Asian alliances that would stop China becoming too powerful or dangerous to US interests.

In some respects, then Walt's Realist USA would have been a lot more isolationist than the one of Clinton, Bush and Obama with which we are familiar, though it would still be taking some interest in affairs beyond its borders and trying to broker alliances where its interests appeared to need them. But it would definitely be far less interventionist than the actual USA. Many people see the USA's interventionism as the source of all the world's problems, so maybe they would prefer to live in the world of Realist USA. Or maybe not.

Still, I am not convinced that the Realists are fundamentally different from the neoconservatives. US Realists and neoconservatives are united in thinking that the USA should maximise its security by any means necessary – they just calculate differently the ability of the USA to reorder the world to its advantage. At root they are basically the same – for all Walt's apparent non-interventionism, if something were to happen tomorrow morning that greatly increased the power of the USA he probably would be quite happy for his government to continue with its policies of global intervention.

From Hunting Monsters

10 May, 2012

Eskinder Nega and press freedom in Ethiopia

The east African nation of Eritrea is famous for being the country with world's least-free press. But now its neighbour and enemy Ethiopia is catching up from behind. Roy Greenslade reports in the Guardian that the journalist and blogger Eskinder Nega is in danger of being sentenced to death tomorrow (on Friday the 11th May 2012). Nega has been under arrest since last September, when he wrote an article critical of the arrest of other Ethiopian journalists under the country's sweeping legislation, which head in the direction of making it a crime to say anything critical of the country's government or supportive of anyone or anything the government dislikes. As well as being accused of supporting terrorism (by writing his critical article), Mr Nega has been accused of membership of a banned political party (opposition parties are often banned in Ethiopia) and of smuggling explosives in from Eritrea.

Mr Nega is no stranger to Ethiopia's prison system. Earlier last year he spent some time inside after writing an article on the Arab Spring that was viewed as an attempt to incite a revolt against the faux democratic regime of Meles Zenawi. He was also banged up in 2005 for writing about that year's disputed elections and newspapers that he and his wife, Serkalem Fasil, write for were closed by the government. There are reports that he has been subjected to torture while in detention.

Mr Nega's detention and possible death sentence is symptomatic of the slight into naked authoritarianism Ethiopia has seen under the regime of Meles Zenawi. Meles and his EPRDF colleagues came to power by overthrowing the brutal dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Mariam, ushering in a new era of hope. Since then, however, his party has settled into a cynically authoritarian rule white-washed by increasingly farcical "elections" every couple of years. The fear must be that this new despotism will usher in the kind of violent reaction that erupted against Mengistu in the 1970s and 1980s, with Meles the midwife of another round of civil war.

More (and image source) (IFEX: The global network for free expression)

Even More (PEN)

From Hunting Monsters

07 May, 2012


Greece held a general election yesterday but the leader of New Democracy, the largest party, has said that he is unable to form a government. Antonis Samaras has suggested calling new elections as the only way out of the country's political crisis.

New Democracy (centre right) and PASOK (centre left) had dominated Greek politics, but they haemorrhaged support at the election as the public blamed them for the economic storm that has engulfed the country. Where previously one or other party would have been able to govern alone, their combined share of seats in the Greek parliament would leave them short of a parliamentary majority. Together they won less than a third of the vote and are only in striking distance of a majority because Greece gives a sixth of the parliamentary seats as a bonus to the party winning the largest share of the votes, in this case New Democracy; they also benefited from nearly 20% of Greeks voting for parties that failed to secure parliamentary representation.

In Greece if the leader of the largest parliamentary party is unable to form a government, the leader of the second biggest is then invited to have a go. That is Mr Alexis Tsipras, leader of Syriza, an umbrella grouping of various far left groups who are opposed to the EU/IMF bailout and to further austerity measures. Anti-austerity parties won more votes than supporters of the bailout, but they have less parliamentary seats. Even if Mr Tsipras was leading a coherent group that wanted to govern rather oppose things, he would find it impossible to form a government unless he can somehow lure PASOK into a coalition that would also have to include the Greek Communists. As PASOK contested the election on a pro-bailout ticket, such efforts are unlikely to succeed.

So maybe Greece will face another election. Or maybe Evangelos Venizelos of the third-placed PASOK can form a coalition including New Democracy and the small centre left Europhile party Democratic Left. Together these three groups would have a parliamentary majority and their share of the popular vote would not be too embarrassingly behind that of the anti-bailout parties represented in parliament (38.2% v. 42.9%).

If fresh elections are held then Syriza will be hoping to pass New Democracy and gain the 50-seat bonus for being the largest party. Their leader would then be in position to form a far left anti-bailout coalition, particularly if the people who voted for parties that failed to make the country's 3% threshold can be persuaded to vote for Syriza or the Communists. Things would then get very interesting. A Syriza-Communist government would most likely repudiate the EU-IMF deal, cutting the country off from any external sources of funding. The country would then be looking at a disorderly default on its international debts, expulsion from the Eurozone, and at having to balance its government books from its own resources. Given the predilections of the Communists and Syriza, Greece might also withdraw voluntarily from the European Union. I suspect that all this would be accompanied by economic collapse as anyone with Greece with anything that is not nailed down tries to get it out of the country, but either way it could be rather exciting.


Greek election: Antonis Samaras coalition bid fails (BBC)

Greek legislative election, 2012 (Wikipedia; with breakdown of votes and seats for parties elected to the Greek parliament)

06 May, 2012

Elections Are Fun

In France, exit polls are saying that Francois Hollande has comfortably won the presidential election. Nicolas Sarkozy thus becomes only the second incumbent president of France to lose an election. Hollande will almost certainly call an election to the French parliament to secure a socialist majority there.

Before the election, Hollande had suggested that he would seek to renegotiate the European Fiscal Compact, to introduce some kind of programme for growth and make it less about the kind of budget balancing beloved of conservatives. He also proposed some quite draconian tax increases on rich people. It will be interesting to see whether he delivers on any of this or if his election has any impact on the referendum in Ireland on ratifying the Compact.

In Greece, meanwhile, today's general election has seen support for the two hitherto dominant parties collapse. PASOK and New Democracy have been blamed for the country's economic collapse and their vote has fallen to c. 14% and 20% respectively.

PASOK and New Democracy are now too weak to govern together in a grand coalition without support from the smaller parties who have seen their vote surge. The other parties are however a bit of an ideological dogs dinner, united by nothing other than their opposition to further austerity measures in Greece. It may not be possible to form a government with majority support in parliament. Or perhaps if a government is formed, it will repudiate the bail-out programme and set off on a road leading to disorderly default, leaving the Eurozone, capital flight, and a chaotic economic and political future.

EDIT (based on Nicholas Whyte's comment): The Greek electoral system gives a seat bonus to the largest party such that New Democracy and PASOK should be able to form a majority grand coalition after all. So maybe Greece is not going to disappear down the plughole just yet.

In Germany, meanwhile, state elections in Schleswig-Holstein appear to signal the end of the CDU-FDP coalition that had governed there. The FDP (a party of rightwing liberals, in some ways akin to the now vanished Progressive Democrats of Ireland) in particular have seen their support tumble.

The CDU (the Christian Democrat party of Angela Merkel) may still be able to form a government in Schleswig-Holstein, but it may be a grand coalition with the Social Democrats. This suggests that a left-right coalition could be on the cards at a national level after the next election. Angela Merkel herself apparently remains popular in Germany, her tough stance towards the more profligate countries of the European periphery reassuring voters that their bail-out monies are not going to be squandered.

Armenia too is holding parliamentary elections today, but I am not familiar with politics in that country so I must refer you to this BBC News article: Armenia votes in parliamentary elections

And just to be part of all the election fun, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu of Israel has announced plans to hold early elections in four months time. Elections are likely to lead to a coalition similar to the hawkish one Netanyahu currently heads. I do not know if Netanyahu is planning to synchronise the elections with any kind of military action against Iran.

From Hunting Monsters