Antony Blinken’s past: will it catch up with him?

When last week Antony Blinken emerged as the candidate likely to be tapped by Joe Biden to be his nominee for either National Security Advisor or Secretary of State, those of us in the camp dissenting from the ‘bash Russia’ policies on Capitol Hill during the Trump years groaned at the thought of the same policy being now enthroned in the Executive Branch by one of its most prominent spokesmen. Blinken had long served Biden as an advisor, had been in the Obama Administration as Undersecretary of State and was known to be one of those actively promoting imposition of stiff sanctions on Russia as from its 2014 takeover of the Crimea.

When he was interviewed a couple of days ago by Stephen Sackur on the BBC’s Hard Talk show, Blinken gave mixed signals on what Russia policy will be under Joe Biden.  He reiterated his long held stance that Russia would have to pay a tougher price for its [alleged] massive and malign intervention in the American political process during the 2016 presidential election. At the same time, he said that there were areas such as disarmament and climate change where the United States and the Russian Federation should cooperate. Clearly there was nothing about the way he handled Sackur’s questions to suggest he shares the opinion of former CIA Director John Brennan that Russians are incurable liars and low life because it is in their DNA.

A lot of attention has been given in the press in recent days to Blinken’s background from childhood on up. We are told, for example, that he is one of the most “European” American foreign policy specialists in memory. Not quite a Henry Kissinger, but then not a bumpkin either.

Though our journalists are quick to speak of the “fluency” of the leading personalities in our foreign policy community, as for example the supposedly Russian-fluent Susan Rice, in the case of Blinken the bouquet to him over fluency in French is very possibly justified. In 1971, at the age of nine, he left behind the exclusive Dalton School in Manhattan and moved with his divorced mother to Paris, into the household of his new stepfather, the internationally celebrated French lawyer Samuel Pisar. There he entered the Ecole Jeannine Manuel. But before jumping to conclusions about young Blinken’s studying all those years in French, I point out that the Ecole describes itself as “a French bilingual and international school.”  English clearly figures as a language of tuition. Yet, let us assume that Blinken had plenty of exposure to French over a number of years, at home as well as at school.

And what else could a childhood spent in the bigger-than-life presence of Samuel Pisar have meant for the young Blinken other than introduction to the French language?

Wikipedia’s updated entry for Blinken speaks about the link between Blinken’s mother and Pisar in their common experience as survivors, both of them, of the German concentration camps, Auschwitz and Dachau. This was a determinedly Jewish home.

When we turn to Wikipedia’s entry for Samuel Pisar, there is heavy stress on his being a Holocaust survivor, on his collaboration with Leonard Bernstein in the latter’s composition of Symphony No. 3 (“Kaddish”). We read about how he recited a poem at a performance of Kaddish at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem in 2009. Then there is mention of his fabulous education, his doctorates in law from Harvard and the Sorbonne.

Pisar is described as having “become a member of John F. Kennedy’s economic and foreign policy task force. He was also an advisor to the State Department, the Senate and House committees.”  This high profile in the 1960s carried over to his law practice where Wikipedia says “Pisar’clients included many Fortune 500 companies and many known business leaders of the 20th and 21st century.” 

 We are told by Wikipedia that his books have been translated into many languages. But the list of books shown here is on the literary, artistic side, with no mention whatsoever of the book I will present in a moment. It has been airbrushed away lest it detract from the author’s reputation as human rights activist receiving many state decorations in the years leading up to his death in 2015.

We learn almost nothing about how Pisar made his living, exactly which services he was providing to those Fortune 500 companies.  I suggest we give this full consideration because it is highly relevant to the household that young Blinken grew up in.

The fact is that Samuel Pisar was one of the earliest exponents of détente in the heyday of the Cold War and one of the most professionally successful advisors to corporations on how to do business with the Soviet Union. The cornerstone of his reputation with the broad public was his 558 page book entitled Coexistence & Commerce: Guidelines for Transactions between East and West, published in 1970 by McGraw-Hill in the United States.  The French language edition is even more revealing of the author’s intentions: Les Armes de la Paix: l’ouverture economique vers l’Est [The Weapons of Peace: the Economic Opening to the East]. Note that the publication date is just one year before Blinken came into his home.

The covers of the book display blurbs from thinkers, business people, politicians and mainstream media on two continents. Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber tells us: “The publication of Samuel Pisar’s monumental book…is a major event. For the first time, a man of impressive intellectual credentials and vast practical experience explains the entire spectrum of East-West exchange.” Henry Ford II is quoted as saying of the book: “…cuts through the fog of emotionalism, ideology and misunderstanding…a very important book…”    The New York Times wrote: “A timely and authoritative study of trade and its potential as a cold war calefacient.”

Not surprising that the Times was speaking out of both sides of its mouth even back then by likening the book to a mustard plaster…

At the start of Coexistence, on the page opposite the Acknowledgements, Pisar quotes Alexander Hamilton, 1787: “The spirit of commerce has a tendency to soften the manners of men and to extinguish those inflammable humors which so often have kindled into wars.”

I never met Samuel Pisar, though I was hot on his trail in 1979 when I accompanied the Vice President, International of Burger King Corporation to Moscow for negotiations with the Moscow City Council and the Russian Olympics Organizing Committee ahead of the 1980 Summer Olympics. The objective was to win designation as official supplier to the Olympics, to open a hamburger restaurant on the grounds of the Olympics stadium at Luzhniki and also a number of downtown restaurants to serve visitors to the Games. In parallel there was the ambition to get a ten-year exclusivity on hamburger restaurants opening in the USSR similar to what Pepsico received for cola drinks at the start of the decade.

We were welcomed into the Organizing Committee just days after McDonalds had been shown to the door following its protracted and ultimately unsuccessful talks on the same subject. McDonalds was guided in their negotiations by…Samuel Pisar, who reportedly received fees of $150,000 for his sage advice. The Russians were less than impressed. More details on this adventure can be found in my Memoirs of a Russianist, Volume I.

However, a decade later, at the end of the 1980s, I did meet several times with one of Sam Pisar’s former colleagues in his Paris law firm, Jeffrey Hertzfeld. In the Acknowledgements page of Coexistence, Pisar mentions Hertzfeld as having “collaborated in the long, arduous, multilingual research and in the drafting of Book Two.” They had in common their law profession, transatlantic culture and French-English bilingualism. In addition, Hertzfeld was fluent in Russian and his clientele when we met consisted heavily of companies entering the Russian market.

Indeed, Jeffrey Hertzfeld was paid by the International Business Development manager of the French household appliances and Teflon pots and pans company SEB-Calor to interview me in Paris and check my Russian language ability when the company was vetting me to take over management of the joint venture manufacturing facility they were planning to build in St Petersburg. I was duly given a written employment offer which I turned down to join UPS. A year later, our paths crossed again, this time fortuitously near the World Trade Center in Moscow.  Hertzfeld told me that the position at SEB-Calor was still vacant. A nice hint…

Pisar’s Coexistence and Commerce is now long out of print.  In case his stepson, our incoming Secretary of State Antony Blinken should wish to take a look at what his stepfather wrought and to reconsider his own political positions on the question of sanctions and cold wars versus détente, I will gladly lend him my copy.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

Teaser: introduction to Memoirs of a Russianist, Volume II. Russia in the Roaring 1990s

                                       

Foreword

I entered Russia on a full time assignment in 1994 and through 2002 held positions as employee first with Germany’s and Europe’s leading jeans manufacturer. I later held successive corporate posts with the world’s two largest liquor producers, one flying the flag of Canada and the other the flag of the United Kingdom.

For those with some knowledge of Russia and its consumer culture, one might ask how one could not do well working in these specific industries: the jeans that the whole country’s youth craved, and liquor, in the country with the highest per capita consumption of alcohol in the world.  But Russia and the industries themselves threw up hurdles as we shall see. Life was never humdrum.

 In between these major jobs working for multinational corporations in this period I performed project consultancy work for a leading UK brewer, for one of Finland’s largest trucking firms that was a supplier to the US government in its construction of a new embassy in Moscow, to a small foreign owned domestic courier service, and finally to an innovative Russian-owned software development company active in export markets.  I even managed to do a stint as acting Moscow office manager under temporary contract from the NGO responsible for US-Russian academic exchanges, the same people who had overseen my year as a Fulbright Fellow in 1971-72. These various assignments gave me a wide ranging perspective on the entire expatriate manager experience of Russia during the Roaring 1990s which I seek to share here with the reader.

If one wonders why I had such a succession of short term employment, in each of which I entered into contracts as if a lifetime career lay ahead, with provisions for stock allotments and pension plans, the reason is that such was the game at the time.  Major corporations were hard pressed to find people like myself with “gravitas,” as they called it, with in-depth experience of Russian business and fluency in the language as they eased themselves into a tough market where their Board of Directors, rightly or wrongly, had great expectations.

In one of these assignments which I received with the help of a London head hunter, I was “parachuted in” to replace a young general manager, 10 years or more my junior who was deemed by the bosses in London to have gone rogue. I was given a three-month consultancy contract, which was extended repeatedly as the bosses above me were flung out of the company. It ended in a normal employment contract that lasted more briefly than the consultancy contracts which preceded it. The idea of my employers in each instance was to get urgent help while they prepared one of their own fair-haired boys to move in and replace me, the outsider, at the earliest opportunity. They showed me little loyalty, and I reciprocated, moving where possible to their direct competitors, who were best positioned to appreciate what I knew of the business.

The structure of this book follows the rule I established in Volume I:  one third is narrative told in the voice of 2020 and two-thirds consists of my diary entries, personal and business correspondence, news clippings which all express my own and interlocutors’ views of what we saw around us in Russia at the time. Once again I urge the reader to approach the diary entries only after reading the narrative section of the book, because it sets the context. I have reduced to a bare minimum any explanatory information within or between the diary entries themselves.

Though today I pride myself on the independence of my political views from those of the thundering herd, the need for such resolute focus on inner voice has become essential only in the past couple of decades when the major media in the United States and in the West more generally have become wholly aligned on a propagandistic treatment of everything Russia-related. In the period under review in this volume, there was more confusion over where Russia was headed, more diversity of views. Moreover, within Russia there was a lively English language underground press serving the expat community with such titles as The Exile, a publication that was as insightful as it was irreverent and kept us all mentally alert.

The value to the general reader of my diary entries changed over the period 1994 – 2000 in keeping with my career progression and increasing exposure to the broad community of expats, diplomats and businessmen. Over time, my corporate employee positions moved up. Eventually I was in charge of an organization with staff numbering in the hundreds.

Of particular importance in this progression was my move from the rather provincial St Petersburg to Moscow in November 1995. I will ration the allocation of space to the diary entries in this volume accordingly.

My career as multinational corporate executive ended with the incoming millennial year 2000 when I parted company with United Distillers/Diageo. I moved back to St Petersburg and spent another two years assisting a small Russian software development company. My material here on this final stage of my adventure living and working in Russia will be very brief because I no longer was in the midst of the current of political, business, diplomatic developments. My remaining travel to Moscow was mostly in respect to my continuing chairmanship of the country’s most important private literary prize, The Russian Booker.

This book is about a time and place. I seek to present the tumultuous times in that given place, Russia, and what we on the ground knew about the political, social, cultural environment. The subject is not the specifics of any of the companies I worked for or with. What I describe here is the challenges of working in a major emerging market – challenges to the corporate structure, to the individual manager and his or her family.

It is not my intention to characterize the quality of their management, their cultures, their business plans.  Failing to meet these challenges, as several of the companies I worked for failed, is not a condemnation, only a frank acknowledgement of how much has to come together to be successful.

I believe this book enters a niche that will widen over time but still has not been addressed. 

In the period covered, as in my 25 year business career on the whole, I moved through several different industries. While corporations cultivate what they call their “cultures,” the greater factor is sectorial.  Low margin, low paying companies in textiles, in service industries including logistics have one culture.  High margin companies in luxury goods and in technology have another culture which tends to be high pay, offset by high turnover.

Quite apart from the specifics of job rotation and tenure associated with working in a key Emerging Market that I mentioned above, there were as I saw, limitations on your stay in companies of certain industries which were not geography specific. As I saw firsthand in the Fast Moving Consumer Goods companies, nothing moved faster than the managers – in and out. 

The liquor industry which I served for more than half of my time based in Moscow in the ‘90s had a uniform factor, regardless of company or geographic location:  managers were drawn from biscuits, from whatever other consumer goods peers; they were hired to replace rogue managers who had “played with the numbers.” They were given impossible sales targets and within two years were fired for playing with the numbers, meaning reporting as sales physical transfer of merchandise into warehouses while inventory accumulated.

Then one more context must be mentioned here to appreciate fully the volatile atmosphere of the place and times described: industrial consolidation in the liquor industry where I was engaged for much of my expat working life in Russia.

In Volume I, the entry of disruptive digital technologies in the telecommunications industry where I was engaged from 1980 to 1988 with ITT was discussed, insofar as it made the lives of all of us in the sector nervous, with limited career possibilities and a depressed mood much of the time.  So in the 1990s, I found myself in another industry that on a global scale was undergoing insuperable economic challenges that forced upon the actors nonstop reorganizations ending in consolidation and the disappearance of corporations that had, in some cases, very long histories. Brands remained. They changed hands and were redistributed in the portfolios of the surviving companies, often to be redistributed in just a couple of years during the next round of mergers. My own career was directly affected. But unlike the 1980s in telecoms, the 1990s found me surfing the waves of consolidation to my personal profit.

During the period 1994 to 2000 covered in this second volume of my Memoirs, I kept weekly records of what I saw, what I did, what I and others were thinking about.  The stimuli from outside were admittedly uneven with shifting balance between what is strictly personal, often financial or familial, and consequently of little interest to outsiders, and what is in fact highly relevant to an understanding of Russia and of us expats back then.

The stimuli became most representative and I would say political-economic in a broad sense as from mid-1997 when I moved from corporate employee to consultant serving several companies and for a time one very important NGO:  I then joined the American Chamber of Commerce in Russia, went to the monthly meetings of the British business community at their commercial office, and joined the newly established Harvard Club of Russia – all in Moscow. 

When a year ago I finally set about the task of processing the 50 linear feet of file folders which sat on the floor of my home office, I still did not know what this book would present that could be of general interest and also of professional interest to academic researchers for whom it would be one more primary source on the period that I drew out. I only knew that in the given period I necessarily interacted with business people, politicians and statesmen who were also at the height of their careers and so were by and large very interesting as well as influential people. Moreover, I would present the period in question from an angle that has not hitherto been developed – from the perspective of the expat community in Moscow and Petersburg. In the mid-90s this community was very large, numbering perhaps 50,000 families in the capital region.

And then a rather unexpected dimension emerged:  my memoirs as a side of the cultural history of Russia during the period described. Both from the very start and to the very end I was embedded in Russian cultural life, surrounded in particular by the musical world, later by the literary world. Partly this was a consequence of my working for much of the time in the luxury goods industry which favored cultural sponsorship and gave me, as Managing Director, a relatively free hand in choosing what to spend and where. In this connection, I entered in collegial and then often into friendly relations with people in the artistic world.  Partly, it came from the activities of my wife, Larisa Zalesova. As a widely respected journalist and card-carrying member of the Russian intelligentsia, my wife gave me access to the pinnacles of this culture-rich country’s symphony orchestra, ballet and opera theater, drama theater and book publishing milieu.

 At first as I pored over my diaries and found that I had included lengthy thoughts on the great many operas, ballets, concerts that I went to over these years I did not know what to do with this material.  But finally it gelled. These records reflect the fact that high culture, the performing arts were, are and will be a defining element of Russia and as an expat, with a lot of time living alone, with family living abroad, I filled my evenings with this rare offering.  My, our life was spent in the musical world for several years, in the literary world for several years as chairman of the Russian Booker from 1998- 2002.  Many big names like Mstislav Rostropovich, Yuri Lyubimov and Georg Szolti were involved and I think there will be general interest as I set out here interconnections in that society, expat and local.

I hope the reader will find rewards in this testimony of someone who was not privy counsellor to presidents, whose activities were more those of an observer with a trained eye and background knowledge.  Namely, I enjoyed the privilege of freedom to meet and work with Russians and expatriates from all levels of society without intermediation of partisan interpreters or journalists, so as to form my own conclusions, which I set out here. 

.Introduction  

In Volume I, I called out a turning point in the political atmosphere affecting foreign business, namely the July 1978 arrest and shabby imprisonment excommunicado in Lefortovo of one F. Jay Crawford, a service manager of International Harvester. This demonstrated that none of us foreigners was safe from the reach of the Soviet intelligence services. We became pawns in the fast changing political relations at the state to state level. This event, alongside trials of Jewish dissidents the same summer, helped to push the détente policy introduced in 1972 by Richard Nixon to the exit door.

In this Volume II, there was similarly an inflection moment as regards foreign business in Russia. It came in November 1996 with the murder of Paul Tatum, an American, part owner of a business center within one of the first western managed hotels in Moscow, the Radisson Slavyanskaya.

Tatum was shot dead in a pedestrian passage just near the hotel by criminals acting in the spirit of national assertiveness encouraged by then Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov. In case we missed the political meaning of his murder, Russian television showed on the evening news Tatum’s naked body stretched out on a table of the city morgue. This gruesome image had no precedent.

The killing of Tatum came just months after the critically important elections that gave Boris Yeltsin his second term in office, with the connivance of Russian oligarchs, who came into their own thanks to concessions that bought Yeltsin his winning margin in a run-off. It was nine months after Yeltsin changed his accommodative “Mr. Yes” foreign minister Andrei Kozyrev for Yevgeni Primakov, a strong defender of Russian national interests on the world stage. More generally, this was the onset of a xenophobic reaction that I had foreseen back in 1990 and recorded in a diary entry dated May 20-24 of that year whichI published in Volume I on page 350: “Russians are too clever and too well educated to have American hucksters dance on their heads for long. There will be a xenophobic reaction.”

As I looked over not just my own observations in the diaries, but the news and interpretation of leading journalists at the time, it is clear that changes within Russia provided grist for those in the West who were not confident about the country’s turning the corner on its past as trouble maker for the U.S.-led international community. In particular, as the reforms to replace the Communist command economy by a market driven economy stumbled, as the elections brought to the fore strong Communist and nationalist votes, there was nervous concern that the supposedly democratic America-friendly forces marshaled by Yeltsin might be driven from power. Thus, throughout the period under review in this volume the United States and its allies took actions which they may have viewed as defensive in nature, but which the Russians saw as unfriendly and threatening. This set in motion a ratcheting up of East-West tensions that ultimately led us to the head to head confrontation with Russia that has characterized the first decades of the 21st century.  As my narrative unfolds, I will call out the significant moments in the period 1995-2000.

I assumed that in my memoirs of Russia in the 1990s I would be describing corruption in high places which I had witnessed first-hand. In my mind’s eye I had a rogues’ gallery.  Everyone knows that Russia was and is corrupt.  My man bites dog story would expose the corruption of us, the Westerners dealing with Russia.  To specialists in the field, there were known cases or instances of allegations.  In 1996 Western mainstream newspapers discussed in some detail allegations of impropriety, of violation of rules of ethics by the EU’s first ambassador to the Russian Federation Michael Emerson, who had concluded agreements with Russian business interests, read thugs, that would provide him with a living after he left the service, or before as some thought.  There were allegations against Harvard university junior faculty who were seconded to US-financed aid programs to help with privatization and who engaged in “double dipping,” abusing their fiduciary responsibilities for insider trading.

These cases never came to trial, of course.  Emerson had friends in high places.  The boys from Harvard were protected by the President of the University, Larry Summers, who could pull strings back then with impunity.  However, what I saw never came to the public eye. It was corporate slush funds set up ostensibly for paying bribes in Moscow but which in large part never left London headquarters and were said to have been distributed among top managers.  It was executives conspiring with Russian distributors and importers to work against the interests of the corporation or participating in gray channel sales into Russia for which they got a percentage.

It is no secret that the liquor business in Russia, and not only in Russia, was, and surely in places remains highly criminalized.  I can vouch for that fact from my own firsthand experience in the field. From 1995 to 2000 the greatest part of my time was in the liquor industry, which was particularly infested with crooks at all levels, from the street kiosks up to the infamous tennis trainer of President Yeltsin who supervised one of the greatest scams of all time, which I saw firsthand as the manager of a business gutted by this given machination. 

But there were many less stellar thieves and schemers from among the expatriate community whom I rubbed shoulders with at the regular gatherings held in consulates, bars and receptions around town. This was all the more common in Moscow, which was and remains the capital of tusovki, chic parties that Russians so love. Here, to put a face to the characterization, I saw occasionally a well-dressed journalist turned pimp who made a fortune serving the sexual appetite of a Russian business tycoon in St Petersburg.  But, more significantly, here you had deeply corrupt Swiss bankers who were promoting sales of the highly speculative and ultimately toxic Russian state bonds to conservative American pension funds including CALPERS.

Chapter One.  Who were we, the expatriates in Russia in the 1990s?

I began my expatriate existence in Russia in 1994 at 49, an age at which most middle level corporate executives have peaked in their careers and are looking to the exit, which commonly became age 55 in the period under discussion here. In my case, this was in fact the launching age for a career in business that had begun as a consultant, on a steep incline to the top, had hit a wall in 1980 when the Russian invasion of Afghanistan triggered an intensification of the Cold War that put a shabash on all those working in the Soviet empire, which extended into Central Europe.

To be sure, there were plenty of others my age around me during my years living and working in the two Russian capitals, St Petersburg and Moscow, from 1994 to 2002.  However, there were many more youngsters in the expatriate cohort:  new college graduates, many of whom had studied Russian and had some degree of fluency in the language as the main underpinnings of their hoped for fast starts in business life at the new frontier that post-Communist Russia represented.

They had careers to begin. I had a career to cap.

Heading up corporate representations in Russia was a position I had been preparing myself for over several decades, first as an area specialist, then as a consultant to multinationals on large industrial and commercial projects in Russia (the USSR), then as a middle management executive based in the Western European coordination center of one of America’s largest conglomerates with responsibility for several countries in the East Bloc.

I do not conceal from myself or from others, that the 5 years from 1995 to 2000 when I was on corporate payrolls in Moscow and St Petersburg were the most lucrative in my professional life and provided me with the capital to carry on from then to the present in what can be described as “semi-retirement.”

I reached the height of my business career in Russia at the level of Country manager/General Manager, Russia and the CIS.  In the order of things this was either a middle management or lower rung of top management position in major corporations.  This book is therefore not about my own exploits so much as the milieu in which I lived and worked. It will be directed towards the remarkable people I met along the way.  

The 1990s Russia which I describe here was a country very different from the static, almost petrified Soviet Union that I had gotten to know from my student days in the 1960s through business visits in the 1980s.  It was a different country from Russia today in many dimensions, including the prosperity of the population, the degree of civil and political freedoms they enjoy, the conditions of doing business, infrastructure.

At the time, the Big Four global legal and accounting consultancies established a large presence in Moscow  and created an infrastructure supportive of US and international business representations. They created a Potemkin village Russia for the benefit of corporate headquarters in the West and gave to Russia an undeserved patina of rule of law that comforted the home offices though it was largely unmatched by reality on the ground which kept us expat managers on our toes all the time. There were never ending abrupt changes in the tax and legal environment that put in jeopardy all of our earnest and best made business plans, which are the highest preoccupation of every business.

The 1990s Russia was a magnet for swashbuckling characters from the West, fortune seekers and seekers of sexual adventures in an environment where everything was for sale, no holds barred. 

Many of the expat executives I associated with in Moscow in the 1990s were my own age, in their mid-40s, but many others were 15 years my junior, straight out of the university with perhaps a major in Russian and some language courses under their belts.  They were all actively recruited, as I was, to fill posts that were created by decisions from the very top of major corporations to establish a presence in the newly opened Russian market and to throw the rule book of corporate governance out the window while getting started in a land that was chaotic and where the law was a moving target.

I mentioned at the start of this volume how I had been parachuted into the Moscow Representative Office of one multinational in 1995. Since my predecessor had been fired “execution style” as so often happens in large organizations and was barred from entering the office premises to recover his personal effects, I happened to find in one drawer of my desk his cache of personal correspondence going back several years. They were very interesting because of how they reflected the type of young people who came to Russia as linguists, completed undergraduate programs in Slavic languages and literature,  perhaps got an MA in a special joint program with American universities run in Moscow and very quickly saw the opportunities to get immediate employment and move into major companies. They changed career direction and signed on to head representative offices or otherwise take marketing responsibility for Russia and the CIS. 

These new arrivals to the business world were by temperament swashbucklers.  Some married Russian girlfriends and ‘went native.’

But Russia in the 1990s was not just a magnet for footloose opportunists. It attracted some of the world’s best young talent.  Recent college graduates came in the knowledge that this new “emerging market” offered entry level positions that could very quickly turn into serious career steps in line with their professional training.  

Looking at journalism, I think first of  The Financial Times which had a strong team on the ground in Moscow covering not only business and politics but music, the performing arts and visual arts.  One of the most frequent bylines at the FT was Chrystia Freeland, then a young Canadian. Freeland later made a career change from journalism, as Boris Johnson has done in the UK, and eventually became Minister of Foreign Affairs in Toronto, then Deputy Premier. But I think few know that her entry rung on the ladder was precisely in Russia, the land of opportunity.

As I noted in passing above, Moscow in 1995 already counted an English speaking expatriate community of more than 50,000 families.  To serve them, several English language daily newspapers financed by advertising and distributed free of charge in all hotels and western business centers appeared. Some came and went, but the most successful was The Moscow Times in what became an Independent Media empire that drew on very considerable financial flows as the publisher of Russian language editions of US glossy magazines that appealed to the New Russians.  The Moscow Times attracted a very talented group of young US, UK starting journalists, as well as some talented English-speaking Russians including Leonid Bershidsky, whom we see today at the peak of career in association with Bloomberg.

This book will cover other stars in the business world and politics, Russians and foreigners, whom I met in the period with mention of where they are today.

Politics of the expatriate community

In the 60s in the USSR, a popular tune had the refrain “Ух ты, ах ты, все мы космонавты” – “Ooh, Aah, we are all cosmonauts”.  I take that to signify that each age has its mass hypnotism.  In the period of the mid-1990s, we, the expat managers in Russia were subject to such hypnotism insofar as we all shared the globalist and Liberal Democracy values which my favorite newspaper The Financial Times, and most other mainstream media propagated.  They still do. Here again, it is I who have changed.

 But I am obliged to admit that in the 1990s I saw the evolving political world of the New Russia through their lenses. It was second nature to us all.  Not surprising that when Zhirinovsky came onto the scene and did so well in the December 1994 Duma elections, I was describing him in my notes as a neo-fascist.  Where did I get that from? From the FT, which then shifted to calling him merely ‘extreme nationalist.’

Another big source of information was informal, exchange of gossip and speculation with peers and with the diplomatic corps.  The British Embassy in Moscow was a big and generous host of expat gatherings in their premises for free drinks and the opportunity to network, not merely over career issues, about housing issues, but also over domestic politics.  And there were industry associations such as the liquor lobby that I participated in at a certain point.  Add to this personal ties in the rather small community of Russia specialists going back to the times of our post-graduate studies or language programs

Then there was the American Chamber of Commerce in Russia, which despite “American” in its name was de facto the preeminent association of all the world’s businesses.  Separately there was created a European Business association, and the Brits had and have their RBBC meeting in Moscow and St Petersburg, ie. the Russian-British Business Council.  These chambers all had regular luncheons with guest Russian political-government officials and visiting eminent foreigners.

And then there is another factor entering into the issue of what we expats knew and did not know was going on in the country where we were stationed:  as heads of representations we were constantly going back and forth to corporate headquarters in Western Europe, where we were immersed in the visions of Russia prevailing there. In my own case this meant traveling every couple of weeks back to London for several days of consultations.

National security

Russia/Soviet Union was from the very start of my traveling there a place that attracted marginal operators. In 1975, my first employment with a small consultancy based in New York within the premises of one of the largest public relations and advertising houses in the United States at that time provided me with a peephole on this. The brother of the consultancy’s Dutch born chairwoman who split his time between The Netherlands and Moscow at the time was widely rumored to be trading in electronics that were on the proscribed COCOM list, that is prohibited for sale to the Soviet Union. At bars in Moscow I met the same crowd of shady personalities. 

On both sides, foreign and Russian, national security was always a factor in this business.  From my days at ITT Europe in the 1980s, security officers within the company lorded it over us marketing managers with constant reminders of the mission impossible we were pursuing: going after sales of advanced communications systems in countries where the eventual licenses for export were under a question and where too much success could endanger our very extensive relationship with the US defense department.

It was a shock to find that the same security custodians would reappear in my life in the now free Russian Federation in the 1990s, both former CIA, or present CIA, and former Russian KGB. Once again their presence on the scene goes on for decades.  The same ex-KGB general who was expelled from Margaret Thatcher’s Britain on charges of involvement in the Philby affair was now the counterpart and partner of an ex-CIA officer in the service of one of the Big Five accounting consultancies in Moscow.  His name resurfaced in 2017 when his small security company received the contract to provide protection to the US embassy in Moscow following its forced repatriation of half of its staff in the diplomatic row with the Kremlin.

Personal security

In Volume I, I called the atmosphere in late 1970s Russia sinister and intimidating. It was, of course, nothing compared to the real physical dangers of working in Moscow during the go-go years of the 1990s. Then the risks came not from the state security apparatus but from the criminal gangs.  Given that most of my time from 1995 to 2000 I was in the employ of liquor companies, operating with high visibility in one of the most criminally infested sectors of the Russian economy, I am well prepared to discuss what caused our justified attacks of nervousness.

However, the risks were clear to me well before I entered the spirits industry. They were inescapable from my first days as an incoming resident manager in St Petersburg for the German jeans manufacturer Mustang.

©Gilbert Doctorow 2020

Publish or perish!

The old academic dictum “Publish or Perish” has taken on a wholly new, shall we say literal, meaning in our present-day Covid-19 pandemic.  We are in lockdown for our safety, not to fall prey to the insidious killer that lurks everywhere outside the door to our homes. In this suspended state of being we are stripped of nearly all the usual distractions which work against Sitzfleisch, that is to say against sitting tight at the computer and writing. Writing a poem, an essay, a novel, a memoir….Whatever. 

Attending social club meetings, delivering lectures or participating in debates, going out to concerts and opera, enjoying a meal in a restaurant prepared by a chef who knows his game a lot better than I do working in our galley kitchen, or traveling to Russia, to Italy, to more distant and exotic vacations, all of these desires only bring on a sigh of self-pity as the days pass one after another in a monotonous and almost solitary flow.

The consequence is that so many family members are publishing.  Our son-in-law, Dimitri Ryelandt, has just published his third book of adult comic strips, a well-respected traditional genre of Belgium. His own niche is word games, revealing to his readers the nooks and crannies of French Belgian linguistic originality which sets it apart from the French in the neighboring Republic.

Meanwhile, my wife, Larisa Zalesova-Doctorow published her Great Russian Novel in May. With the sweep of a Leo Tolstoy, she relates in The Mosaic of My Life the experience of the Russian nation in the turbulent 20th century from the near norm under the Tsar to the Kafkaesque madness of the late Stalin years, all set out in the life of one family and a handful of characters. In a couple of weeks she will be sending to the publisher her latest manuscript, Dacha Tales: Life in the Russian Hinterland. This will be a short book in the travel genre. It is built upon ten years of experience with a summer home that we built on a parcel of land in walking distance from a large lake situated in a hamlet 80 kilometers south of Petersburg.

And I have finally produced the first of a two-volume set of memoirs that mine 15 linear meters of personal archives from my work in and around the Soviet Union/Russia, 1975-2000. Memoirs of a Russianist, Volume I: From the Ground Up has just been released by publisher Author House and is already available for purchase on www.amazon.com and its related national websites, as well as from Barnes & Noble, www.bol.com and other leading online retailers.

See: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1665506911?pf_rd_r=M13NXV7R69WP9EJ00AKM&pf_rd_p=6fc81c8c-2a38-41c6-a68a-f78c79e7253f

Readers of my blogs have already had a taste of the material in this book from the installments of diary extracts that I have put up on my website in the past few months.  The book itself opens with a solid narrative which provides the context for the diary extracts. The diaries make up two-thirds of the text. They should be of value to historians, and of human interest to the general reader.  They contain a great many usually unspoken bits of advice to business school students and for those entering upon careers in Emerging Markets.

I will be pleased to receive any feedback from readers to the Contact point on this website.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020 

Donald Trump’s refusal to concede defeat

This week mainstream media in the USA and Western Europe are allocating prime attention to the stubborn challenge Donald Trump has made to electoral results in a number of swing states, to his demand for recounts and his insistence that the Democrats have “stolen” the election by encouraging massive voter fraud. There are suggestions that this behavior threatens American democracy. We hear dark intimations that The Donald is plotting a coup d’état and intends to remain in office at any cost. The boys and girls are being mentally prepared to rally in the streets to save the Republic.

For his part, President-elect Joe Biden yesterday told the press that Trump’s refusal to concede defeat is a national embarrassment and will impact on the President’s legacy.  Of course, these moderate words are intended to paper over Biden’s own calling Trump a “clown” and “the worst president in American history” during the first televised debate.  How Trump’s legacy can be further tarnished by his latest antics strains credulity.

Let us move beyond superficialities and go to the essence of what Trump is now doing.  Despite brave words about overturning Biden’s vote tally in the electoral college and winning four more years in the White House, I think it is reasonably likely that Trump knows the score and plans to vacate the White House in January as the law requires.  What we are seeing is something entirely different: he is using every resource at his disposal to delegitimize the election of Joe Biden for precisely the same reasons as the Democrats used every trick in the book to delegitimize his own election in 2016. The main thrust of their campaign then was the completely fabricated claim that the Trump team had colluded with the Russians and that Trump owed his victory to interference in the American political process by the Kremlin.  The attempted knock-out blow of releasing the Steele dossier to the press and doing it precisely via the traditionalist and virulently anti-Trump Republican, Senator McCain, was another leg of this defamation effort. We all know what followed, leading ultimately to the president’s impeachment. Russia was instrumentalized for the purpose of bringing down the sitting president. There was no concern that the attacks on the Kremlin might cross tripwires and endanger national security as a war of words spiraled upwards into something more ominous. This was an historical first for the Republic and it was a new low in political intrigue. In light of this, we can only say “as you sow, so shall you reap” – the Democrats are getting back from Trump now what they inflicted on him four years ago.

The same applies to the transition process, which Trump’s refusal to concede defeat is frustrating immensely. Yes, as our newspapers remind us, at this time in the 2016 post-electoral calendar, Donald Trump and Melania were being taken around the White House by Barack and Michele Obama. BUT, and this is an entirely relevant consideration, at the same time the Obama Administration was doing everything possible to wreck Trump’s main electoral pledge in foreign affairs, to reach a new understanding with Russia. They handed on to Trump a poisoned chalice. To be specific, they seized Russian state diplomatic property in the United States and did what was in their power to disrupt relations.  When Trump appointed General Flynn to discuss with the Russian ambassador the possibility of overlooking this offense pending the handover of power and a new policy on Russia, Flynn was ensnared by the US intelligence services in denials of that happening, which led to his facing the courts over perjury and his eventual removal from power. In fact, what Flynn was doing, reaching out to foreign leaders during the transition period, was a well-established practice going back decades. We see the Biden transition team doing the same thing today, when Biden himself confers with the prime minister of Ireland, as if he represented US diplomacy and possibly in violation of the letter of American law.  Our media find absolutely nothing wrong in this, since it is their boy, Uncle Joe, who is doing the consultations, not the authoritarian, wicked Donald Trump and his minions.

Happily the efforts of Trump to delegitimize the incoming Biden administration are based strictly on the flaws of the domestic voting mechanism, in particular on possible abuses of the mail-in voting, without bringing in some foreign actor and disrupting the nation’s relations with allies and adversaries. However, the venom which the Democrats injected into the game of alternation in power will be with us for some time. Joe Biden may try to evade responsibility for what will be a tough four years ahead, but the buck stops on this one at his desk.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020 

[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble, bol.com, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]

Is a change in the power balance between executive and legislature presently underway in Russia?

What does the reshuffle in the cabinet of the past several days tell us?

The past several days have seen announcements in TASS and other mainstream Russian media regarding an interesting cabinet reshuffle which President Putin has confirmed following new procedures that were set out in rather sketchy manner in the constitutional amendments approved by the Duma and then by the general population in a referendum earlier this year. 

News and analysis of the reshuffle by Russian journalists has been disjointed, telling us a lot about some of the new faces filling ministerial slots but giving little insight into what the logic driving the change may have been. Commentary from Western media has been almost non-existent.  As usual our Russian experts are all piled up at the same “scrimmage lines” of which the cabinet change is not one. Instead they are trying to make sense of Russia’s passage through Covid-19, of the Russian involvement in the peace agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan about Nagorno-Karabakh, of Russian reaction to the election of Joe Biden. This is what we see reflected in yesterday and today’s issues of Johnson’s Russia List.

The most persuasive explanation of the cabinet reshuffle that I have seen in Russian media is that Prime Minister Mishustin was removing persons he took over from the Medvedev era and was installing people he feels more comfortable with, nearly all of them technocrats rather than politicians. However, there are indications, particularly when we consider the move of Alexander Novak from the Ministry of Energy to a newly created position as the 10th Deputy Prime Minister, for us to believe that something more substantial is underway, and that it may be related to the very big issue of an eventual succession to Vladimir Putin.

The procedure now is for the Prime Minister to name the new ministers, for them to confirmed or rejected by the Duma within certain deadlines, and for the Duma-approved ministers to be confirmed in their positions by the President.

We are informed only partially by Russian media on the nay votes and abstentions, both of which were applied to several of the ministerial nominations. We are told that A Just Russia and LDPR were against certain proposed appointments. We are not told how the Communists voted. And all of these Duma parties were not given the microphone to explain themselves.

We may assume that the nominations were approved because of unanimous support from the governing United Russia party.  We note that even with the partial information disseminated it is clear that the process of forming a new cabinet has been left entirely in the hands of United Russia with no attempt to bring in ministers coming from the opposition parties in the Duma.  We may expect, on this basis,  that in the next parliamentary elections United Russia will go for broke to retain its majority and will seek no accommodation or power sharing with other parties.  That may well be a lost opportunity for consolidation of the Russian power structure.

Now, with respect to Alexander Novak:  I find that his “promotion” to Deputy Prime Minister status is very curious. Given the great respect he enjoyed abroad as the country’s chief negotiator over the export terms of the country’s most important sector, oil and gas, it is hard to see that his becoming one of ten deputy prime ministers is truly a move up.  At best it is a lateral move having as its logic to use Novak’s profound industry knowledge, discretion and success as negotiator to help with management of domestic affairs during a period of considerable stress arising from the Covid crisis.

It is tantalizing to read in some Russian media that Duma deputies expect Novak to get involved in resolving issues of the gas industry in the domestic market, namely “gasification” and rate setting for domestic consumers.  It is a widely felt failure across Russia that the world’s largest exporter of gas only partly satisfies the demand for pipeline gas in its own population.  Most of rural Russia is heated by logs in cast iron stoves and cooks with gas from steel cylinders which must be refilled regularly, at great effort.  The failure to supply pipeline gas also affects many cities across Russia.  We all know about the occasional explosions in apartment houses: very little is said of the extent to which they are caused by tenants using gas from cylinders.

The fact that Gazprom has not hooked up much of the population with pipeline gas has to do with the pricing and with the limited means the company has to exact payment from the many consumers who do not pay their bills. If the skills of Novak are brought to bear on these issues, we may expect great progress on one of the biggest irritants in the daily life of Russia’s rural population.

Redirecting Novak to domestic Russian problems may well prepare him for bigger things to come in Russia’s power structure.

None of the foregoing bears directly on the question of Putin’s eventual succession.  But clearly something is underway when we speak of the consolidation of Mishustin’s power through the cabinet reshuffle and about his prospective use of one of the country’s most talented managers to address key domestic problems, as appears to be the case with Novak.

The foregoing prompts me to reconsider the seriousness of the constitutional amendment that enables Putin’s staying on in the presidency beyond 2024.  Perhaps that was, as many said at the time, just a tactical measure to shut up all those who spoke of him as a lame duck president.   Time will tell.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020 

[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble, bol.com, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]

Trumpism without Trump

In this second day after the U.S. presidential elections, the fog is clearing and the likely outcome of the vote is becoming apparent:  in the coming hours or couple of days at most Biden will reach the figure of 270 or more electors needed to declare victory and Donald Trump’s legal team will pursue challenges in the courts hoping to overturn the results.  If the scenario plays out this way, it is nearly certain the Joe Biden will be installed as president in January 2021. 

It is interesting and revealing that yesterday the U.S. stock market reacted with great enthusiasm or, as they say, with ‘animal spirits’ to the prospect of a Biden victory whereby the Republicans hold control over the Senate, the second prospect emerging from the vote tallies.

The Financial Times this morning highlighted in one article the meaning of the sharp rise in share values in yesterday’s session: “Air comes out of the reflation trade. Prospect of a divided Congress and more modest economic stimulus has had a big effect on markets.” Authors Colby Smith and Joe Rennison noted that the markets were pleased to see gridlock in the nation’s capital emerging from the voting on Tuesday. The result is that the projected package of economic relief to compensate for the impact of Covid-19 will be perhaps one half or less than the one trillion dollars that it would have been should Biden have enjoyed the landslide victory that seemed within his grasp on the day before elections and had the Democrats taken full control of Congress.

It seems to me that this analysis of investors’ response to the likely outcome of the election is correct but  fails to consider all the other business-relevant implications of the electoral results as they now are firming up.

What I see is Trumpism without Trump, by which I mean that all of the business friendly measures and legislation that the Trump administration has put in place over the past four years now cannot be undone by an incoming Biden administration because they will fail in Congress, where partisanship will be as vicious and uncompromising as we have seen over the past four years. After all, Republicans will continue to hold the whip in the Senate. In particular, the higher taxes that Biden seeks to impose on businesses and on wealthy individuals in order to finance his ‘green infrastructure’ spend will not go through.

Moving beyond the material interests of U.S. business, the forthcoming gridlock on Capitol Hill means that one of Trump’s greatest achievements on behalf of his core supporters, the creation of a strong six-to-three conservative majority on the Supreme Court, cannot be undone in a Biden presidency, or at least in the first two years of his mandate pending any changes to the balance in the Senate during midterm elections.

The gridlock that market investors are cheering also puts in a new focus the role of the presumed incoming Vice President Kamala Harris.  From the moment of her designation as Biden’s running mate, Harris has been behaving as the force behind the throne, the likely successor to her boss as he moves into dotage. At one point, she even let slip the term “Harris Administration.”  What we have in Harris is yet another bait-and-switch tactic implemented by the Democratic Party administrators to woo liberal to leftist voters, as well as women and Blacks. This is what the Obama candidacy and administration was all about. At the same time, Harris is no party regular who will accept the condescending embrace of its puppet-masters the way that Barack Obama did. Harris is as smug and persuaded of her entitlement to the highest office as Hillary Clinton ever was.

The results of this election tell us that Harris will be stymied in her initiatives along with all the domestic legislative programs that will likely be entrusted to her.  The only dynamic aspect of an incoming Biden administration will be in the realm of foreign affairs, which was and surely will remain the key area of expertise of Joe Biden.

The U.S. foreign policy community, which is nearly 100% behind Liberal Internationalist policies, will rejoice at the prospect of a Biden presidency. The ruptures with our NATO allies will be repaired. The United States will surely rejoin the Paris agreement on climate change.  Transactional relations will be replaced by traditional stress on shared values and alliances.

However, it is unlikely that Europeans will easily forgive and forget the damage done to relations by the policies of naked self-interest that Donald Trump unleashed.  Moreover, behind the mellow words of Biden the outlines of America First will remain.  This was crystal clear in his promise of a “Buy American” policy during the second presidential debate.

Biden may give some relief to anxious Europeans by negotiating and concluding new arms limitation agreements with the Russians.  But otherwise he will likely pursue the Cold War policies that are deeply embedded in his thinking going back to his days in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, including as its chairman, and to his service as Vice President when he stoked the confrontation with Russia by his encouragement to Ukraine and Georgia to pursue NATO membership. 

Though Biden is likely to continue the policy of economic disengagement from China and military rivalry with the Middle Kingdom, it is also likely he will restore Russia to its place as the top arch-enemy. The new anti-Russian sanctions that his administration will bring to Congress may go well beyond the taps on the wrist we have seen so far and may threaten full economic warfare, with all the risks of miscalculation and unleashing of kinetic warfare that it entails.

In the big order of things, the unhealthy divisions in American politics, where gridlock is perceived as a great blessing, are likely to accentuate the country’s retreat from global leadership and to pave the way for the continued rise of China as a dominant force in the 21st century.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020 

[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble, bol.com, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]

The morning after: the U.S. presidential election, 2020

It is not quite 10am, Brussels time, this day after the U.S. presidential election.  The BBC World journalists, their faces showing deep fatigue after an all-night vigil, closed out the morning news broadcast with the uncertainty that still remains over the outcome of the vote, admitting that it may take days or more before a definitive result is clear. 

However, to my thinking there are already definitive results, not on who will take the oath of office as president in January, but over the status of the American electorate, over the support Donald Trump enjoys among those who first supported him in 2016 despite the wild ride and the havoc induced by the Covid19 pandemic. These are self-evident results that our mainstream media refuse to present.

First, the very tightness of the race was something one could not fathom from all major media reporting leading up to the election. They, to a man, focused on the poll results which showed Joe Biden ahead by as much as 8% nationally in the days just before the vote.  However, they all hedged their bets by reference to the surprises of the 2016 election.  The real news is deeper.

By all accounts, from analysts of all political persuasions, the re-election campaign of a sitting president is a referendum on his running the country for the preceding 4 years.  Given the often bizarre aspects of the Trump presidency, given its flouting the long entrenched conventional wisdom of American political elites in so many different policy areas, it is utterly stunning that Trump has done so well yesterday and may even win a further four years despite the Covid-19 pandemic and the devastation inflicted on the economy by the lockdown of this past spring. 

This leaves us with the certainty that Trump would have been re-elected handily had there been no pandemic.  Those here in Europe who believe that the policies of the Trump with respect to NATO and to international organizations are an aberration must think again: they are policies which seem to enjoy the support of one half of the American electorate.  That was not knowable before Trump, precisely because the American media have been wholly partisan in support of the Liberal Internationalist positions, and wholly dismissive of America First.

Another take-away from the preliminary electoral results is that whoever wins the White House by the free acknowledgement of defeat by his opponent or by decisions of the courts, the coming four years will see further vicious partisanship exercised in the Congress, in the courts and wherever possible to frustrate the ambitions of the incoming administration just as has happened in the past four years under Trump. A great deal will depend on the outcome of the elections to the Senate, which at this moment stand in the balance. If the Democrats win the three or four seats they need to overturn the Republican majority in the upper house, then they will have a somewhat easier time implementing their domestic programs. However, the mechanisms of the legislature present great opportunities for frustrating the will of majorities.

Finally, a word is due about the “deplorables,” as Hillary Clinton characterized the Trump supporters in 2016. They are, as we have seen in this election, not some marginal antisocial fringe group. The days of the ‘Tea Party’ are long past. The Trump supporters are close to half of the U.S. population.  Once called by Vice President Spiro Agnew “the silent majority,” they are silent no more.

The only path for reconciling these deep differences in values and policies between Democrats and Republicans in the United States will be for the mainstream media to get off the Democratic Party positions and open their pages to genuine policy debates, devoid of defamation and cheap populism.  These differences are suppressed by the media and the result is intense frustration and potential for violence.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020 

[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble, bol.com, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]

The incredible incompetence of the Belgian medical profession as exposed by Covid-19

This evening’s edition of European news on BBC World has featured the medical disaster in the making in Belgium, to be more precise in the southern city of Liege and the Region of Wallonia to which it belongs. The reportage focused attention on the directives to medical staff in Liege “to keep on working even if they have coronavirus amid a surge in cases and hospital admissions.” The source of this information is the 10 hospitals in the city of Liege and the head of the Belgian Association of Medical Unions, who told the BBC that “they had no choice if they were to prevent the hospital system collapsing within days.”

The report offers the further quote from this high official in the profession that merits inclusion here for what it says about the ‘in the box’ thinking that prevails throughout this country and makes a mockery of the Hippocratic oath and the principle of ‘do no harm’:  “Dr. Philippe Devos acknowledged that there was an obvious risk of transferring the virus to patients.”

This is shocking in the extreme. At the same time the BBC reporter did not tweak out something bigger and damning in its own way, because it points to gross incompetence in a profession that is largely protected by guild walls and suffers no reproaches from laymen.  I have in mind precisely the fact that 25% or more of the Liege medical staff have caught the virus and are infectious.  Half a year after the start of the pandemic, after all that doctors in the medical world have learned about this insidious viral agent, after all that has been done to provide the Personal Protective Equipment that was so sorely lacking in March, the signs are that Liege doctors have not gotten the point any better than the insouciant youths. Have these doctors not learned the medical protocols of their PPEs? Or are they careless in their home lives? The evidence points in these directions. In some countries medical staff treating Covid are kept on the job isolated from friends and family; they live in hotels for this purpose.  And in Belgium?  While we are pulling back the scabs to look at the wounds, we may ask if our medical staff have finally learned how to work with respirators, which they clearly did not know back in March, judging by the massive loss of life among those in Intensive Care Units.

Belgians complain about incompetence in government at home, behind closed doors. There is very little stomach here for open discussion of the degree and causes of this incompetence, which evidently find full counterparts in the medical profession judging by the disastrous facts in the day’s news about Liege and Wallonia.

The source of incompetence is called corruption, and corruption is built into the political system here by the ultra-sophisticated practice of power sharing that enables the two nations of Belgium, French-speakers and Dutch speakers, to spare one another’s throats and enjoy the fruits of governing without concern over competence or popular will.  The problem is compounded by another ultra-progressive political principle built into the practice of governance – proportional representation, which encourages a proliferation of political parties, which in recent decades numbered already double what they had in the 1960s due to party organizations stopping at the linguistic borders. There is a constant search for a parliamentary majority through coalition building, where policy consistency goes out the window for the sake of nose-counting and finding bedfellows however ‘strange’ they may be.  Call it “Vivaldi,” call it “Swedish,” call it anything but decisive.

Belgium did not invent proportional representation, which is fairly common on the Continent. But it has suffered more than most other countries from its baleful side effects, such as the unreasonable time to form a government enjoying the confidence of parliament from the last general election in May 2019 to a couple of weeks ago.  It was under an acting government that the authorities first tried to cope with Covid.

The time to pay the piper has arrived in the person of Covid 19.  It is merciless with incompetence, and we, the people are paying the price. The mortality to population rate in Belgium during the first wave of Covid was one of the highest in the world. To all appearances, we cannot expect better results in Wave Two.

Despite the widespread expectation that a second wave would strike in autumn, the government never prepared dedicated hospitals to divert Covid patients away from the regular hospital services and preserve some quality of medical care for the non-Covid ill. Moreover, it did nothing to pool the expertise of practicing virologists and so raise the chances of successful treatment. Instead bean-counting methods were and evidently still are used to arrive at some notional fair distribution of Covid patients among the existing hospitals, whatever their degree of relevant expertise.

The curfew, closing of restaurants and bars, closing of museums, theaters and cinemas, closing of sports clubs and other curbs on personal liberty that were decreed in Belgium over the past week are good, though not enough to stop the virus in its tracks. That would take re-imposition of total lockdown and no one is yet prepared to take a step which is knowingly so destructive of the economy.  More to the point, the measures taken now are weeks if not months later than should have been. It took no insight of genius to understand that the street bars where Belgian youth were partying this past summer were very likely a cesspool of infection because whatever regulations on social distancing there were, you could not count on the young bar personnel to enforce them. Very likely thousands of good Belgian citizens will die as a consequence and no one, least of all the leaders of the medical profession and the political leaders in the previous and present cabinets will pay any price for their failure to act in a timely way.

As the current President of the United States, known for his way with words, would surely Tweet if presented with these facts:  “NOT GOOD!!”

Meanwhile, on the more hopeful note, the Belgian dailies Le Soir and La Libre Belgique this evening report on the appeal Wallonian medical authorities have made to The Netherlands to transfer there Covid patients who cannot find hospital beds and doctors where they live.  So far the Dutch have said they are taking the request under consideration as they remain uncertain how long their own excess capacity will last.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020 

[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble, bol.com, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]

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Letter to a friend in Seattle as Election Day approaches

hello, John

Thanks for your latest message, your thoughts and experiences as the plague year progresses.

Yes, sadly Europe is in the midst of a full-blown second wave.  Here in Belgium, and more particularly in Brussels, we are experiencing some of the Continent’s worst infection and hospitalization rates. Daily deaths remain a lagging indicator but are still ten times what they were in July.

As in the States, each of the three regions in this country imposes its own restrictions to deal with the problem. Yesterday the Brussels-Capital Region where we live imposed a 10pm to 6am curfew, ordered all stores to shut at 8pm, closed all museums, theaters and betting parlors (!), closed all sports clubs and amateur sporting events (professional football still going strong but in audience-less stadiums).  All restaurants and bars were closed for a month earlier in the week.

How does all this affect us?  Not really.  We were not among the partying and careless youth. We were among the crazed with fear overwhelming majority of adults who to a man or woman is now wearing masks, who try to enter and leave the tram by pushing the door opening button with their elbows, who make a big arc around one another on the sidewalks and engage in other silly, bizarre acts of self-protection.

As one big skull and crossbones going into the All-Saints Day holiday (no Holloween community rounds this year) in the past week we all read with horror that our acting prime minister who stepped down two weeks ago to become foreign minister when a proper cabinet enjoying confidence of Parliament was installed, our dear Sophie, aged 46 and with no known underlying health problems, is now in Intensive Care with Covid. Caught in the family, she supposes.  Fingers crossed that she gets out alive.

As I may have mentioned to you, we turned in our 14 year old Toyota back in March when lockdown hit, there was nowhere to go, and we decided to cut our unnecessary expenses, which were very heavy for a car that was used only to do 4,000 miles a year for more than a decade.    So we were carless!  The first step to restoring mobility was my purchase of a folding bike. Haven’t folded it up yet, because it sits in our front vestibule and I take it our 5 times a week to do heavy service – a15 mile circuit out to the forest bike lanes and back.   Then several weeks ago we discovered Zen, an hourly car rental company all done via an app on your smart phone.  And, surprise of surprises, the cars are all electric.  It has been a great pleasure to find the Renault and the BMW cars I have rented from them to be peppy, with excellent steering and braking properties, as well as the usual creature comforts you associate with BMW.  So, despite myself, I have truly gone Green.

Yes, the election day is approaching.  I imagine that you, like all civilized Americans have cast your vote for Uncle Joe and the Dems.   I have become a more consistent contrarian and voted by mail for The Donald, much as I detest him.  You, like 99% of Americans are surely focused on domestic policies where Donald is Satan incarnate.  I, living abroad, am scarcely affected by what the US does with healthcare, abortion, LGBTQ rights and the environment, whereas I am professionally and personally involved in foreign policy up to my neck.  And in that one domain, Uncle Joe is an ugly American Imperialist who would never get my vote. 

Of course, my Donald vote in New York changes nothing. And even that vote is cancelled in our family by our daughter’s vote for Biden.  Larisa sagely decided ‘a plague on both their houses’ and isn’t voting.

Finally, with regard to the plague:  Donald was very right when he said in the last debate that or was it in an interview just prior to the debate that “a lot of very smart people around the world are running countries which are not doing better than here in the USA.”  Sad but perfectly true. 

In a comparative sense, all of the West has gone down hard from Covid while the much more regimented East has done remarkably well.  I think of Schoenberg’s opera “Moses and Aaron” which highlights the dilemma of leadership, namely that the smartest leader cannot get too far out in front of his people or things go awry. They start worshipping the Golden Calf, whatever Moses says.   And I think also of an interview that Italian Prime Minister Conti gave to the BBC during the summer, when the Covid was at an ebb. Asked if he regretted how he managed the crisis in Lombardy back in March, when Italy became the epicenter of the crisis and lost more than 30,000 citizens in a matter of weeks.  Conti said yes and no.  “Had I imposed full lockdown then, everyone would have said Conti has gone mad.” Yes, he would have been deposed.  The people were not ready for hardship till 30,000 innocents were dead.   And so a Biden presidency would not have produced better outcomes in the States.  Still you have lower death to population ratios than here in Europe despite all the missteps and stupidities that you see all around you.

So, let’s continue to take what pleasure there is in the human comedy. Larisa and I have been drinking up more champagne than usual and have been quaffing all of the remaining 1996 and 1998 bottles of Bordeaux in the basement.  You can’t take it with you!

all the best – and good cheer

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020 

[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble, bol.com, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]

Charlie Hebdo and French anti-Muslim bigotry

Once again I am grateful to RT International for prompting me to get my mind around one of the top international news developments of the day and to respond to their interviewer on live television, which by its nature demands tight logic lest you appear to be a bumbler and lose your rights to the next invitation on air.

The phone call solicitation took place yesterday morning at  10.00am Brussels time and I was given 20 minutes to pull together a commentary on President Macron’s statement to the French nation on the brutal murder of a history schoolteacher in a suburb of Paris which I had noted briefly from the corner of my eye in my daily post-breakfast read through the Financial Times and New York Times newspapers on line, but had not read attentively.

Now, in preparation for the interview, I dutifully went straight to Le Figaro to see what middle of the road French elites were saying about the event.  Decapitation, as occurred in this case, would surely bring to the surface the emotions most relevant to the fundamental issues.

I was not disappointed. The editorial in yesterday’s Figaro was blunt and to the point: “Liberty versus Barbarism.”  Indeed, the whole tragic incident was cast in terms of a civilizational divide. The tone went well beyond defending the values of the French Revolution which still govern political thought in the country today, namely separation of state and religion, or secularism, the famous French laïcité.  Freedom of expression was, in American political parlance, being instrumentalized as the “dog whistle” to bring on popular outrage yet again against the Muslims in their midst. And who are they?  They are 15% or so of the general population consisting traditionally of 1960s arrivals from former French colonies in North Africa and their progeny, but more recently also of Muslim refugees from further afield, like Chechnya, the ethnic  origin of the Moscow-born assailant in Friday’s murderous attack.

For those who might question going into such a television interview on the basis of reading a couple of news bulletins, I hasten to add that the points I was about to raise had been on my mind ever since the bombing of the editorial offices of the irreverent, sarcastic and often outrageous French news rag Charlie Hebdo five years ago. I had kept my silence over that tragedy, though I had believed the editorial board had abused freedom of speech to publish images that would be knowingly deeply shocking and offensive to the Muslim faithful.  Quite without baiting, they are a population in France which is often highly resentful of the powers that be going back to the vicious treatment they received in the Algerian war of independence, which was topped up ever since by resentments over their economic hardships as an under-class in modern France. They live in gilded cages of social housing at the periphery of metropolitan areas like Paris where they are cut off from the economy and where integration into the broader culture is hindered.

Charlie Hebdo dared to poke Muslims in the eye because the editorial board was confident, and rightly so, that the anti-Muslim disposition of French middle classes and intellectuals would back them up. It was all about freedom of expression, adding to their laurels while attracting new readers and subscribers. Wrong!  It was crying “Fire!” in the midst of a cinema screening.

Allow me to dot the “i”:  my personal acquaintances from among respectable, intellectually sound French middle class people leaves me in no doubt that they are deeply prejudiced against their Muslim compatriots. Let me use a more pungent word:  they are bigoted. It shows up in their smirks when anti-Muslim jokes circulate at cocktail parties or when making small talk at table. Everyone can express wistful regret over the taxes being paid to support Muslim men, their harems, and numerous offspring at the expense of the French state.

My heart goes out to the family of the brutally murdered school teacher, Samuel Paty. We are told today that what he did to attract the attention of those now in detention who aided and abetted his murder was not very different from what many other schoolteachers across France have been doing in their classes ever since the Charlie Hebdo bombing of 2015: he presented to the class copies of the infamous cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed published in that weekly, with the intention to illustrate the topic of freedom of expression and secularism. Indeed, not only because of the shocking nature of the murder but also because of the generalized practices of their profession, schoolteachers across France are coming out onto the streets today to express their solidarity.

They are wrong.

Monsieur Paty knew well that there were in his class a goodly number of Muslim believers who could find the cartoons deeply offensive and he proposed that they leave the classroom to be spared the mental anguish. That is to say, he openly divided his classroom into Christians and Muslims and bade the latter to step out of the room.  Is that wise? Does that contribute to what we in “values driven” Europe like to call inclusiveness?  Without meaning to, he was tempting fate.

It is paradoxical that France can practice openly anti-Muslim policies and rhetoric under cover of secularism and freedom of speech at the very time when the United States is experiencing a paroxysm of political correctness whereby you can lose your employment for giving the slightest hint of offense to high visibility minorities such as LGBTQ or Blacks. Both extremes need corrective action so as to apply the rule of reason if we are to enjoy societies that are peaceful and also free.

As regards President Macron, whose address to the nation denouncing Islamic terrorism was the starting point of my talk on RT International, there was one point in his proposed remedial actions which I can freely support: introducing study of Arabic into the public schools so as to draw the Muslim youth away from the mosques and their radicalizing imams. It would be better still if he began to direct attention to the economic roots of Islamic radicalism in his country. Closer attention to immigration policy, in particular to the issue of family reunifications might also be very helpful in curbing the tendency for new immigrants to resist integration into the broader society.  This is another issue where Liberal values run straight into contradiction with common sense.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020 [If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble, bol.com, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]