Monday, April 24, 2017

Defending the Centre - 2

Emmanuel Macron’s success in the first round of the French presidential election leads one to speculate about the chances of a revival of centrism in Europe. While many mainstream media outlets are still plugging the ‘rise of extremism’ narrative, directing their attention and that of their readers to Marine Le Pen, the likelihood that the French electorate is starting to weary of the tensions provoked by the right wing seems to be growing.

Looking elsewhere in Europe, the prospect of such a change does not seem unrealistic. Indeed, as the researcher Ulrich Speck recently pointed out on Twitter, while in France the centre has a slight majority, in Germany the centre has a majority of around 80 percent. And while the party system in France is beginning to break up at the edges, in Germany it is still strong. If Angela Merkel stays the course, the hopes for a centrist, less divided Europe could be far from delusionary.

In the alliance of Labour moderates and Liberal Democrats led by Tony Blair and Tim Farron appears to be slowly forming behind the scenes, in spite of LibDem denials. A new electoral force led by these two pro-EU, anti-Brexit politicians could change the balance of power in Britain decisively, supplant the incoherent Labour leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, make UKIP irrelevant and deprive Theresa May’s government of its current populist surge.

These are not vain expectations: though the path to a centrist Europe may be long and complex, it certainly exists, and is beginning to look more promising. Whatever happens to the presidency of Macron, France is not going to be the ‘third domino’ after Trump and Brexit, and the question now is whether there and elsewhere electorates that have tired of party politics can be persuaded to vote for groupings that represent a true change in European political life. Will they reject the sham-democratic, populist scenarios promoted by sections of the press and media that represent the vested interests of a few?

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Defending the Centre

In Foreign Affairs magazine, two recent items address the widening problem of the demise of political centrism. In their essay The Liberal Order is Rigged: Fix It Now Or Watch It Wither, Watson Institute's Jeff D. Colgan and Princeton academic Robert O. Keohane place emphasis on two high-profile examples:
In 2016, the two states that had done the most to construct the liberal order—the United Kingdom and the United States—seemed to turn their backs on it. In the former, the successful Brexit campaign focused on restoring British sovereignty; in the latter, the Trump campaign was explicitly nationalist in tone and content.
Looking for reasons to explain the populist resurgence, the authors settle on what they perceive to be the 'hijacking' of globalisation by a 'capitalism' (economic empire-building) that has, in their view, left the ordinary person behind. Traditional political parties, in their estimation
must do more than rebrand themselves and their ideas. They must develop substantive policies that will make globalization serve the interests of middle- and working-class citizens. Absent such changes, the global liberal order will wither away.
A related article by Atlantic Council researcher Alina Polyakova examines the way in which European centre-right parties, dismayed by the rise of the populist far right, attempt to mimic their right-wing rivals by adopting similarly illiberal policies, and are then surprised to discover that the electorate prefers the undiluted populism of groupings like Front National to the ersatz versions offered by traditional parties. With concern, she emphasises that because of this the centre right
across the world should not give in to the far right, and the center left must stand firm on progressive principles that channel voters’ anxieties rather than feed them.
Polyakova focuses on France and the Netherlands: but the United Kingdom, not discussed by the author in her piece, faces a similar displacement of political forces: Mrs. May's government has adopted nearly all the policies of its fringe rival UKIP.  Here the process appears to be developing in a way that contradicts the author's argument: far from losing support, the May government is actually increasing its lead over the steadily shrinking opposition, mainly by espousing the positions of the populist right. Tory conservatism, once identifiable as centre-right, is drifting further and further away from the centre -- and a right-wing, pro-hard Brexit Tory government already looks like the victor in the forthcoming general election.

Saturday, April 22, 2017


With Donald Trump’s tacit endorsement of Marine Le Pen’s candidacy in the French presidential election after the Paris terror attack, we enter a phase of history that is once again ‘unprecedented’. Never before have the United States and Europe formed an apparent alliance in the name of ideas and aspirations that seek to rout and displace democracy, and in the words of Garry Kasparov, ‘to roll back the progress and values of the modern world.’

As Kasparov notes, Le Pen, Putin, IS and Trump form a quartet devoted to the weakening of institutions that can challenge that roll-back. Putin in particular is indifferent to left and right, intent solely on acquiring power and causing disruption. Yet it’s hard to see the strategy here: for example, while in his public statements Trump avoids saying anything that could upset Putin, almost in the same breath he expresses views that appear to contradict Putin’s policies at a basic level. The most recent example of this is Trump’s letter to Congress on the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, in which he declares his support for the Act and makes clear 'our commitment to its robust and thorough enforcement.’

What’s one to make of these contradictory steps and counter-steps? At the time of the recent U.S. missile strike on the Al Shayrat airfield, which marked an apparent reversal of Trump’s policy as he stated it during the presidential campaign, numerous voices were heard praising the shift and ascribing it to a ‘new Trump’ who was, according to them, now showing his true, democratic hand. Yet it’s doubtful that Trump has really abandoned his support for Assad, his determination to crush IS, and his willingness to join an alliance with Putin to achieve that goal.

Similarly, in his foreign policy appointments, President Trump has so far shown indifference to direction and ideology: Secretary of State Tillerson’s recent visit to Moscow ended with him remarking that U.S.-Russian relations were at a ‘low point’, and warning Russia that it risked becoming 'irrelevant' in the Middle East by backing Assad. At a Security Council meeting held the day after the Khan Shaykhun chemical attack, the new U.S. Permanent Representative at the United Nations, Nikki Haley, said that Russia and Iran have ‘no interest in peace’ and somewhat later charged Russia with ‘siding with Assad’. Little of this appears to harmonise with Trump’s Middle East policy statements during the campaign.

My own view is that Kasparov is correct: while Le Pen, Putin, IS and Trump in a sense work together to challenge the conventional view of the world and international relations that has been carefully built up since the end of the Second World War, their goal is ultimately the channelling of influence away from the centre and towards the extremes, no matter whether of right or of left. If this requires the forfeiting of previously held positions and policies, so be it: the aim is a dynamic process of backwards, crab-like movement, bypassing and manipulating political and electoral institutions, frustrating the pundits and commentators, leaving the press and media behind, and mapping out a new world that’s created not by slow, measured progress and democratic debate but by the amassing of global power in the hands of a few individuals whose ideas and visions are as yet obscure, but don’t look like the dreams of democrats.

(Cancrizans: [medieval Latin] moving backwards, from cancrizare, to move crabwise.)  

Friday, April 21, 2017

Chechnya: Image and Reality

Those who have been following the reports of gay men fleeing Chechnya in the face of a Chechen government-backed campaign of intimidation may have wondered exactly why Novaya Gazeta has decided to publish these accounts right now. While homophobia is widespread in Russia, and given a certain degree of official toleration, the fact (vigorously denied by the authorities) of its being official state policy within Chechnya is acquiring a much higher profile than its prevalence elsewhere in the Federation.

The stories and narratives emanating from the Republic are certainly disturbing: “They want to exterminate us,” says Ruslan, a gay man forced to leave his wife and children

Human rights organisations like HRW and Caucasian Knot have been quick to take up the stories and investigate them further. In spite of official denials, it does appear that some kind of campaign of intimidation has been started against those whose sexuality deviates from the locally accepted norms. But perhaps it’s as well to reflect that the reports first appeared in Novaya Gazeta, a paper that has a strong tradition of human rights reporting – Anna Politkovskaya was a journalist on the publication – but one that also (like nearly all other mainstream Russian media) has some links to the Russian state and its intelligence services.

Few will question that the LGBT community in Chechnya – as elsewhere in the Russian Federation – do not have an easy time, and that indeed their personal security and their lives may be in danger. But a question-mark does hang over the timing of the reports, and the inevitable danger that they may be used to further bolster the negative image of Chechnya and Chechens that has been built up over the years in the minds of Russians – and Westerners – by Russian press and media. 

Web magazine on Russia

The Interpreter magazine continues to deliver excellent coverage of events and crises in Russia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East, in spite of the fact that its funding was cut off twice – first by Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s Open Russia foundation, and then by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Exactly what lay behind these regrettable decisions remains a subject for speculation, but the fact that the magazine has refused to succumb to financial pressure and has continued publication regardless is testimony to the perseverance and commitment of its staff, in particular Catherine Fitzpatrick, who is currently managing the enterprise almost single-handedly.

Among other items, the current issue of the magazine contains features on the Ukraine war, a survey of recent Russia-related events including flights by Russian nuclear-capable bombers within 100 miles of U.S. territory in Alaska, an account of the aftermath of Rex Tillerson’s visit to Moscow, with sweeping arrests of opposition figures, and an article from Novaya Gazeta on threats of retribution against journalists from Chechen clergy over articles on persecution of LGBT.

Let's hope that The Interpreter will continue to be updated, in spite of its current difficulties, as it’s one of the few independent English-language sources of reliable information about developments in Russia and the ‘Russian world’.

Restarting the blog

After rather a long hiatus, I'm now considering restarting A Step At A Time - Putinism, Trumpism, LePenism and Brexit are all subjects that need attention, and now is as good a time as any to give it. I'm also putting up a tip jar in the form of a Donate button, so if you feel that you have found something useful in the blog, which goes all the way back to 2004, by the way, please feel free to insert a dollar or two.