Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Pontevedra Pensées: 20.12.16

I recently sent an article to friends about what Putin is up to in the Middle East. I commented that he'd surely pay a price in the form of increased terrorism in Russia. What I meant, of course, was that ordinary Russians would face the consequences. This has happened even sooner than I thought it would, to the Ambassador in Turkey. He won't be the last to die but I doubt this worries Mr Putin. If this subject interests you, there's an article at the end of this post from Janet Daley of the Daily Telegraph, who - for my money - has been a beacon of common sense for more than 20 years. And is possibly the only decent writer left at that once great newspaper.

Still on this Russian theme . . . My friend Dwight sent me an article about how Western intelligence agencies dupe - or even directly employ - journalists to ensure we get a relentless diet of frightening news about Russia. It's probably true but, then, the last few decades have surely seen a massive propaganda battle between the West and Russia, with the latter recently getting the upper hand via RT News, Sputnik and the like. Not to mention the (alleged) hacking. All of this has been helped, of course, by the rise of the internet and the demise of the the traditional media. Now known as the MSM. Long gone are the days when I'd buy both The Sunday Times and The Observer - and a packet of jelly babies - and then spend all Sunday morning reading their articles, especially the results of what used to be known as investigative journalism. Whatever happened to that? No one can afford it these days of 'free' reportage. All of which reminds me of a thought and a question I've had several times over the years . . . Whenever I read anything on a subject I'm familiar with - say, Iran in The Economist - even the 'quality press' always gets things wrong. So, why do I bother to continue reading their output? That's a rhetorical question, by the way.

Galicia is dying. The population has been reducing for many years now. And there are numerous villages in the hinterland with fewer than 20 people. Even some with fewer than 5. You'd think there'd be an interest in attracting 'rich', retired and voteless foreigners here to replace them but there's no sign of this. And experience down South suggests the Spanish government doesn't recognise the benefits of this strategy. Quite the opposite, in fact; there seems to be a perverse intention to alienate them, in one way or another. So it's hardly surprising that many have voted in the only way they really can. With their feet. I guess it makes sense to someone.

I had an entertaining walk back from the centre of Pontevedra to my car yesterday, with a young gypsy guy who begs in town. And also door to door in my street. We talked about the 2 permanent gypsy encampments on my side of the river and about George Borrow. For the second time, I offered them a lecture on the latter from my Dutch friend, Peter, who's an expert on this famous British eccentric, though I can't see his name in this Wiki article on Borrow. I say 'friend' but, as Peter knows nothing about this proposal, this could change quite soon.

Finally . . . I've managed to get shut of Mac's new operating system, Sierra, which had been causing me endless problems. Before that, though, I played around with Siri, as it were. It had great difficulty with the word Pontevedra but eventually gave me something. Not so with my own first name, which it insisted on interpreting as call in. And then repeatedly asked me whom I wanted to call. I even tried the American pronunciation of Colin (Powell), without success. By chance, I discovered it could display some AI when I began "Who is Colin". Small mercies. To say the least, I won't miss either Sierra or Siri.

Today's cartoon  . . .

Russia is on the rampage, and the world has forgotten how to deal with that: By Janet Daley [Who might or might not be on the payroll of MI5]

Here’s a quiz question for the holiday family entertainments: what is the “peace dividend”? I’m betting that nobody under the age of thirty-five will have a clue even though that deliriously optimistic phrase was the received wisdom not so very long ago. The peace dividend was expected to be a natural consequence of the end of the Cold War.

The collapse of the Soviet Union which had been bankrupted by a relentless arms race led by Ronald Reagan’s Pentagon, and fatally weakened by a loss of internal credibility, would produce unprecedented bounty for the triumphant West. The vast amounts of national wealth that had gone into military spending would now be available for home comforts. 

Modernised public services and welfare provision of untold generosity could flourish without stint. Truly, we had arrived at an age of international good will and prosperity in which we could be sure that local skirmishes would never again become global power struggles. After all, the great ideological argument of the past century was over. Free markets and democratic government had conclusively won out over command-and-control economics and totalitarianism.

The prospect of a Third World War – which had once been thought inevitable – was now out of the question: when “little conflicts” erupted they would not be manipulated (and escalated) by opposing superpower blocs. No more puppet regimes. No more proxy wars.

Well, we all know how that went. It turned out that the global chess game with its ruthless players had very little to do with ideological argument. This wasn’t really a high-minded debate about how men should live or the best way to organise a just society: it was all about the old fashioned, down-and-dirty matters of rabid nationalism, imperial spheres of influence and revanchist political leadership. What drives Russia now is not the (half-pretended) belief that its system of government is the moral solution to all social problems. It is the naked desire to reassert its control over areas of the world where national pride dictates that it must not be eclipsed.

Vladimir Putin may be presiding over a dying population and a failing economy but if he can annex the Crimea and intimidate former satellite states in Eastern Europe without fear of Nato reprisal, as well as maintain the hideous Assad regime (with the help of his allies in Iran) then he is on top of the world. Indeed, he is, as Forbes magazine decided last week for the third year in a row, the most powerful man on the planet.

The big question is: how on earth did we not see this coming? Did nobody understand that the loss of the Soviet empire – the disintegration with a whimper, not even a bang, of what had seemed an invincible great power – would be a devastating existential crisis for the Russian nation? How could this not have ended badly? The Communist system fell, not just into disrepute, but into chaos.
So eager was the country to divest itself of the old Soviet institutions that it made a fire sale of its national assets, selling them off to a handful of oligarchs who became obscenely rich. The public services and much of the ordinary transactional arrangements simply ceased to exist so that people were left in helpless poverty, often selling their possessions in the streets. The West, or the parts of it that bothered to watch, may have been surprised by the degree of nostalgia for Communist rule but, in truth, it was scarcely surprising given the disorder and outright kleptocracy that came after.

So here we are. The Western governments have made their promises to their own populations about all that money that could now be spent at home. They have encouraged the expectation that it is their own people’s domestic problems that will be the centre of attention, rather than a constant contest for the hearts and minds of emerging nations in Africa and Asia. But while they were beating their swords into welfare programmes, Russia was on the move. In order to distract from a stagnant economy dependent on the price of oil and a society still enamoured of the Western lifestyle, Putin took the traditional path of re-establishing his country’s power abroad.

Aleppo is the grotesque outcome. It is agonisingly clear that nobody has any sort of strategy for dealing with this. At the UN last week, the US ambassador Samantha Power hurled insults at the Russian Federation (“Is there literally nothing that can shame you?”) which Russia’s ambassador returned (“[It is] as if she was Mother Theresa herself”).

Where does that get us? And how hollow does it sound after the President whom Ms Power represents withdrew from intervention in Syria after his own red lines were crossed, and has since singularly failed to make any move that would stop the Assad-Putin homicidal rampage. Putin can laugh in the face of any leader who claims the moral high ground while retreating from the battlefield.

There is a fresh dimension to this in the cyber scandals that are now creating political havoc in America. It is almost certainly true that Russia hacked the emails of the Democratic party leadership during the election campaign. What is less clear is that they did this with the specific intention of damaging Hillary Clinton’s prospects and thus getting Donald Trump elected president.

In fact, it seems to be generally believed that they hacked both parties but only handed over the Democratic emails to Wikileaks which would appear to give credence to the helping-Trump theory. But there is another plausible explanation: that what they found in the Democrats’ exchanges was dynamite (that the Democratic National Committee had deliberately set out to undermine Bernie Sanders, and that the campaign managers sometimes despaired of Mrs Clinton’s performance) while the Republican material was less surprising and newsworthy.

I think it is highly likely that the intention was not so much to help determine the outcome of the election as to discredit the whole process and so destabilise the democratic institutions of the United States. If that was the aim – to cause the US electorate to distrust its own political leadership at a time when Russia desperately wants to re-assert its global influence – then it was stupendously successful.

The doubt that it has created about the causes of Hillary’s shocking defeat has egged on the tireless campaign to review the result. There is now a video from the inevitable collection of Hollywood celebrities demanding that members of the Electoral College defy the votes cast in their states and switch their support to Mrs Clinton: a move that would create a constitutional crisis which would conveniently (from the Russian point of view) distract America from international events for the duration.

So what about the coming Trump administration? Is he really going to be Putin’s ally and apologist? His characteristic leap into Twitter motor-mouth mode would suggest it. He is defying, in a quite unprecedented way, the assessment of his own security agencies in declaring the accusations of a Russian hacking operation to be groundless nonsense. He has also appointed a Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, who is reputed to be a “friend” of Vladimir’s. But on the other hand, it is widely believed that he will put John Bolton, who is very hawk-ish indeed, into the number two spot at the State Department. And he has recruited a few generals who are known to be hard line too.

Is the White House going to play hard cop/soft cop with the Kremlin? Is there a cunning plan beneath the contradictions? Or any sort of plan at all?


Maria said...

Russia has been Russia since Peter the Great. We ignore it or pat the nice, furry bear on the head at our own peril. I, too, remember the end of the Cold War. And then Muslim fundamentalists showed up, and Putin showed up, and now it's even more complicated and mashed up together than it used to be in the simpler days of the Cold War. And more dangerous.

Rural Galicia is dying, and the only thing that could bring it back to life is decent jobs and services in the forgotten corners of Lugo and Ourense. Few foreigners will settle down in those hilltop villages without decent services. Some type of permanent industry is needed. And not just government loans to set up a milk farm, just to have it languish in a God-awful market and end up with debt to hand down to your children and grandchildren, either.

Perry said...


Apologies, but it's "get shot of" not "get shut of". No dialectals here please.


Colin Davies said...

@Maria: Many thanks. Interesting, as ever. Much appreciate your informed views.

@Perry: Perry, one bloody pedant - Mr Mittington - is more than enough!

Colin Davies said...

@Perry: http://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/get+shut+of

Rur. To get rid of someone or something. I can't wait to get shut of that old refrigerator.

Don't know what 'Rur.' indicates.

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