The Biden-Trump Debate, 29.09.2020

Thanks to a spot of insomnia, I awoke last night at about 2.30 am Brussels time and was able to catch the final third or so of the Great Debate.

The opinions aired on CNN and on BBC World just after the close of the debate were fairly uniform: that it had been ‘chaotic’ and the worst such event in living memory, though it reflected fairly the low level of political culture which the United States is presently experiencing. Most commentators agreed that the debate, such as it was, more like pig wrestling in the mud, will not change the minds of voters and will not influence the 10 or 15% of Americans who said they were undecided before the event. They did not see much discussion of the policies that the two sides plan to implement if they win the election, only a lot of name calling, heckling and interruptions.  Everyone felt certain that there will be no further debates this season, because this one was a dud.

There were, on the Biden side, commentators who said that the former Vice President had done well. He had not made any gaffes, he had held his own in 90 minutes against an aggressive and emotional opponent.

Of course, both CNN and the BBC are mainstream media that were against Trump in 2016 and have not gotten friendlier towards him over the past four years. Their remarks on how Biden performed have to be understood in that light.

My first thoughts from watching the debate live in its last third or so were very different:  during that entire segment Biden was flagging.  Yes, there were no gaffes. But there was no mental force, he was searching for words and even for concepts that were eluding him. This was beyond any doubt a man whose intellectual faculties are failing.  Not quite senile, but well on his way. And if this is how he performs before the election, then we can well imagine that he will be a wreck in two years’ time, not to mention by the end of his first term. Will this be the man to deal as an equal, nay as a superior being with other world ‘leaders’ on the international stage? 

That was a purely rhetorical question. The answer is flatly “no.” Calling Trump Putin’s “puppy” may sound clever, though it is absolutely false.  Whose ‘puppy’ Biden will be remains to be seen.

People close to Biden know and understand this fact.  It was not just a slip of the tongue when a month or so ago his vice presidential running mate, Kamala Harris spoke of a “Harris Administration” in answer to a journalist’s question before backtracking and changing that to a “Biden-Harris Administration.”

Trump is precisely correct when he suggests that Biden will be the plaything of people at his side. Trump thickens the paint when he says they will be radical left Democrats.  Surely, that is one possibility. Another is that he will be in the pocket of the US Intelligence Services, of the Pentagon, of the hacks still remaining in the State Department.  Even the obstreperous and often obnoxious Trump has had a hard time staying out of their grasp.

I concede that upon watching excerpts from the debate taken from the start, Biden appeared to be in  better shape than in the segment I watched live.  He delivered some punches, usually below the belt, calling Trump ‘a liar,’ ‘a clown’ and telling him repeatedly just ‘to shut up.’  Biden’s supporters regret that he was baited by Trump to stoop so low and speak in such an ‘un-presidential’ manner.  

Indeed, I recall how my mother, in her late 80s, a life-long Democrat, had spoken of Biden in 2012 as such a ‘gentleman.’  To whom was he a gentleman back then?  To white Social Security claimants like my mother. Not to the rest of the world.  To the world at large Biden was a vicious imperialist, an authoritarian who presumed to dictate to them how they should conduct their affairs.  In that guise he spoke before the Ukrainian and Georgian parliaments. In that guise in 2011 he instructed Vladimir Putin to abandon plans to return to the Russian presidency and instead to take up the chairmanship of the Russian Olympics Committee.  Could one possibly construe Biden’s past behavior as meddling in the internal affairs of other countries, something which the United States finds totally unacceptable when applied to its own political life?  Absolutely!

The world knows what Trump’s “America First” means.  It willingly has forgotten that Biden and the Democrats today are no less ‘in your face’ in pursuing national interest and denying the existence of national interest to every other nation state.  The difference between the parties and the candidates is only one of frank aggression (Trump) versus honeyed and deeply hypocritical words about ‘universal values’ (Biden).  Even in industrial policy, Biden last night managed to present a program that was stolen shamelessly from Trump’s playbook when he said he would promote a ‘buy American’ program that would be directly contradicting the WTO principles.

If Biden came on strong at the start of the debate and ended as a smirking but wordless mutterer, that tells you he lacks the staying power to put in a full day in the White House and master the challenges that come up daily.  Trump may be no smarter, no better read than the day he took the oath of office in 2017 but he is mentally alert and resistant to directives from the bureaucracy.  They can, with the assistance of the Congress, outfox him and outmaneuver him, but they cannot tame him. That is his saving virtue and the one fact that so far has prevented the United States from slipping into a one-party police state under the flag of  Democracy Promotion values.

©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.]

From the personal archive of a Russianist, installment forty-three

Diary notes on the past week, visit to Warsaw, Tuesday – Friday, 8 – 11 December 1992

Following my boss’s indications that he wanted all due help for fixing the mess in Warsaw, I have turned my schedule inside out, gone over to Warsaw this week and cancelled my trip to Russia for next week so that I can return to Warsaw for yet another attempt to put all in some kind of new order.

I arrive to find that the operation is indeed a mess and that it requires considerably more than a quickie fix. The new airport cargo terminal where we have been operating since October is unsuitable to our needs and destroys our ability to deliver imports on day of arrival, even documents. We do not get access to our imports till 3 hours after the plane has touched down. In short, it is a typical airfreight operation.  The customs situation is indeed a mess, with graft and corruption getting out of hand. On January 1st there is a new customs law in effect requiring licensing as brokers for us to continue to serve our consignees, and it is unlikely we will get that license since our Service Partner has been unable to raise the $35,000 bank guarantee. I press for creation of a UPS subsidiary particularly to get the brokerage license.

Meanwhile the brokerage clerk I have sent in does a fine job of bringing order to the messy record keeping. But the bigger problem is the inability of our Partner to extend credit to consignees and to pay the customs duties on their behalf. Here is where the need for UPS to incorporate is acute.

In pursuit of incorporation, I meet with lawyers who explain that we can set up a wholly owned subsidiary in two weeks for legal fees of 12,000 DM and with ground capital of $4,000. Looks like Poland is the place to incorporate! Cheaper than elsewhere and no requirement exists for having any local staff.

That finding is further bolstered by the findings on banking in Poland. I visit the Citibank office, where I see a fully operational bank that is foreign owned. Poland has got to be the first country in Eastern Europe to have crossed that bridge, just as it was the first to introduce limited convertibility of the currency. This is a real plus.

Generally my impressions of Warsaw after an absence of nearly three quarters of a year are very positive. The clutter of street trading has been swept away and the shop fronts reveal heavy investment. Merchandise of all varieties is available here: no need to travel to Germany any more. And there is some taste and pretension. The facades are being reworked on major streets and assume a Western look. Even the PKO bank office at the intersection of Al. Jeruzalemske and Marszalkowska looks grand now that the window panes have been replaced and the whole structure is transparent.

New office complexes are opening all around the center. There are new hotels: I am now staying at the recently opened Jan III Sobieski owned and managed by the Viennese firm Rogner. Meanwhile older hotels like the Forum seem to have been given some cleaning up. There is a hustle in the air. Also a feeling of crookedness, quick profits. The same old officials now wear sportier clothes, improved eyeglasses, and better hairdos.

I fly back to Brussels Friday afternoon from the new terminal, which is typical German quality. Rather small, however, and it is hard to see how it will handle all the new traffic that is to come here. They have learned from the West how to skim off money: the snack concessions are priced like in New York’s JFK!

©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.]

From the personal archive of a Russianist, installment forty-two

Diary notes, trip to Moscow – St Petersburg, 6 – 16 October 1992

There’s an excitement, sense of greed in the air. You feel it at the power breakfasts in the Hotel Radisson-Slavyanskaya, where Americans are wheeling and dealing, smacking their lips over the billion dollar contracts awaiting completion. The consultants, real estate brokers, lawyers have moved in like locusts to serve the manufacturers, oil and minerals companies that are opening shop as Russian and CIS laws change in favor of foreign investment in primary as well as in hi-tech industries. Mostly these guys are going to stick their fishhook in one another’s ass. But for now they are hopeful carpetbaggers; they gladly show off their few words of acquired Russian in greetings in the lobby. They eagerly swap tips on where to find broads and rental apartments while sweating it out in the hotel sauna.

Out on the street the rampant commercialism is felt at every step – from the street beggars and kids ‘cleaning’ windshields at traffic lights, to the forest of kiosks at each metro station and along major boulevards like Kutuzovsky Prospekt and Novy Arbat.  The Old Arbat is one vast flea market onto which the flotsam of wrecked empire washes up. – from fur hats and Orenburg shawls, to Lomonsov factory porcelain, to oil paintings, to banners of Communism, old war and political medals of merit, icons, samovars, caviar and vodka, old pre-revolutionary bank notes and coins, false blank passes for KGB and Central Committee members! The black market has become the mainstream. Meanwhile state stores stock more and more imports. You can buy Philips consumer electronics for rubles. Fresh chicken is ubiquitous – better looking than anything I remember in the past and available at a price about 8 times cheaper than in West Europe.

The kiosks sell all sorts of cheap liquor from East Europe and most anywhere. Belgian beer turns up at 80 rubles per can. The exchange rate if 310 rubles / $1.00 at the bank. And the private hanks will convert the other way as well. Foreign goods tend to be cheaper in rubles than in currency.

The Moscow real estate market is really hot. Foreigners are scheming to get out of the overpriced hotels and into more affordable accommodations. I speak to the head of the Société Générale Bank rep office, Mr. Van Wemmel, who says some Belgian construction people are successfully doing renovation work on Moscow buildings for the sake of foreigners. The problem continues to be uncertainty over who really owns the land. No one is really impressed with the existing 99-year lease scheme. All await a decree from Yeltsin allowing full and clear title to land.  Van Wemmel himself spent time in New York and Belgium, and engaged  in real estate speculation. Says slyly, you’ve got to be ready everywhere to pay under the table to municipal officials to get permits to do what you want.

I take in a fair dose of culture: see an excellent production of Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet at the Stanislavsky Theater in Moscow, notable for the positioning of the orchestra in mid-stage so that there are a foreground and background on which dancing takes place, and dancers pass from one to the other over ramps cut amidst the orchestra. Also see a terrible production of Don Carlos by Verdi at the Mariinsky Theater in St Petersburg.

Also buy a fine still life in oils by a contemporary St Petersburg academic painter. To avoid border hassle, I ship it home to Brussels on UPS. Surprisingly it arrives the next day in impeccable condition.

One curiosity of this trip is my meeting in Sheremetievo with former ITT colleague Luigi, who arrived on the same Austrian plane from Vienna. Looks the same as five years ago, only plumper and nearly bald.  The past weekend he was in Brussels for the regular get-together of ex-ITT managers. He is now preparing for a visit to Russia by Rand Araskog, ITT chairman.

The weather provides some surprises on this visit. October 11-12 we have full-blown snow storm. I leave the Mariinsky Theater in St Petersburg Sunday night to find 6 cm of fresh snow on the ground and a blustery wind. And it stays on the ground for a couple of days.

In StP I meet with the director of the House of Cinematography, our new landlord for the UPS office. He tells me about their project to do a film interview  with opera singer Galina Vishnevskaya (wife of cellist Rostropovich) and enactment of her biography. She agreed subject to their also filming an interview with family friend Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

Rumor has it that Solzhenitsyn is taking up residence in Moscow – his wife has been in town shopping for a townhouse.

©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.]

From the personal archive of a Russianist, installment forty-one

Diary notes, 5 September 1992:   Group meeting of UPS Service Partners in E. Europe, taking stock

How wonderful to live two, three lives simultaneously. In effect that is what my crazy travel schedule confers on me. During the past week, there were four days spent in Prague at the UPS general meeting of Service Partners in Eastern Europe followed by three days in Lake Bled, Slovenia talking shop with customs officials from there as well as from Germany, Austria and elsewhere in Europe regarding the needs of the international express industry. 

The general Partners’ meeting was a get-together which I dreamed up and first implemented last year in spite of skepticism from some quarters. Well, we reconvened this year under the aegis of the same senior staff, who now find it very worthwhile, indeed essential.

Thanks to the split up of the ex-USSR and ex-Yugoslavia, and to my persistent efforts to adapt our organization to these new realities by rearranging agency ties, we had nearly double the attendance of one year ago: 12 country delegations and a greater number of district and region staff from the UPS side. A total of 33 participants.

They came from the ends of the earth, and everyone was there. Two Ukrainians (just signed up as agents the week before), one each from Estonia and Latvia, one each from Croatia and Slovenia, two each from Lithuania, Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria. Russia had two from Moscow and one from St Petersburg. Czechoslovakia had the two Bacigal brothers plus the new office manager in Prague, Mr. Hojsak. I am delighted that my colleagues can inspect all the new faces reflecting new contracts.

The team looks good. Everyone speaks English, some quite well. All look reasonably well dressed. There is a decided emphasis on youth. And an unusually high profile for women. Both owners (Kovacs for Hungary; Glab for Poland; Kriuchkov for Ukraine; Bacigals for CSFR) and working level people are present.

The time is divided between formal UPS presentations and workshops focused on the key problems before us: collections from shippers, computerization, rates and selling into competition. We hear a short presentation from each country around themes of macroeconomics, legal environment, competitive challenge, and plans for 93.

Region Manager Gerry McGuire joins us for the first couple of days. His presence gives weight to the proceedings and I know he comes away impressed by the quantity and quality of our E. European team.

In typical corporate fashion we have chosen one of Europe’s most beautiful cities for our venue and then settle ourselves 15 km out of town in a hotel on the highway. However, I do manage to schedule a walking tour of the old city for Monday night. And even the efforts of our unimaginative Gray Line guide (old line Communist) to show us the architecture of the past 20 years and skip the remote past does not prevent our doing the essentials: starting at the Hradciny and descending the Nerudova, where we tarry for a beer, then crossing the Charles Bridge, amidst the horde of American and other youth strumming their guitars and singing, over to the Klimentinum, then to a dinner at the U Fleku.

Yes, this was touristy, with a band playing mostly international tunes and only an occasional Czech piece. But we do get platters of heavy sausages, we do get duck and knedliky and kraut with caraway seeds, and we get the world’s best dark beer. My boss, Wolfgang, comes around and admits it was well worth doing. Tuesday we have his sports evening with bowling and tennis and swimming, and with part of our group stealing away to the town for shopping.

What did we achieve? An enormous amount of detail work. Decisions to extend revenue sharing to those countries still not enjoying it. The decision to introduce computers everywhere in East Europe before the end of the year. The chance to appreciate the talent in our midst. Sergei Kriuchkov from Vneshexpobisness makes an especially strong and positive impression, followed by our guy in Riga. As a result we will now have a separate contract with Riga.

©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.]

From the personal archive of a Russianist, installment forty

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Diary notes on a three day visit to Kiev, Monday – Wednesday, 17-19 August 1992

A lightning visit to Ukraine to put in order UPS relations with new partners Vneshexpobusiness [VEB]and to close the door on our former agents Kievvneshtrans. Useful insofar as now the owners of VEB begin to appreciate the sophistication of our product, the market to be created and the immediate issues for success: release of our sacks at plane side at the airport, customs clearance at the downtown office, day of arrival delivery of documents , payment of customs during in advance on behalf of consignees to expedite customs release, etc.

I am put up in the Hotel Kiev, formerly the hotel of the parliamentarians, which is quieter than the Intourist hotels, but otherwise equally run down. The only fast moving and clever creatures are the roaches. One rascal escaped my plans for his destruction.

Other impressions from the visit [to Kiev] are not very positive. My walk around town, along the Kreshchatik reconfirm my impression of three months ago: the reforms are proceeding very slowly down here, well behind Moscow and St Petersburg. Privatization of apartments and property is moving along. But Western investment is still quite rudimentary despite the large number of business visitors. Very few Western products are on sale for local currency. Not too much is available for hard currency either. No Western boutiques to speak of.

Given the mess with introduction of ‘coupons’ to replace roubles earlier this year and continuing prevarication over intro of the hryvna as a genuine Ukrainian currency, it is not surprising nothing else is succeeding. Now the coupon is down to 300 to the dollar, while in Moscow the rouble is only at 180. Looks like the Ukrainians shot themselves in the foot.

It is amusing that everyone I run into, either at the business meetings or just on the street is speaking Russian, not Ukrainian. Now that may be a peculiarity of Kiev.

I manage to catch a press conference given by Kravchuk on TV. He behaves very well: sure of himself, giving the impression of a reasonable man who is above politics and just trying to serve the national interest. Very presidential.

On the business side of things, I get satisfaction from the knowledge that here in Kiev we, UPS have been the first of the big express companies to work directly on import and export not over Moscow. DHL and TNT and Fedex are thus well behind us. And now we are developing customs experience that none of the others have.

©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.]

From the personal archive of a Russianist, installment thirty-nine

Diary notes, Sunday, 16 August 1992, the coming break-up of Czechoslovakia

Another extraordinarily interesting week gone by. Started in Cologne with the head-to-heads on Monday and staff meeting on Tuesday. Hanjo Lutz and I finally fly to Stuttgart and onward to Vienna, where the Bacigal brothers, our Service Partners in Czechoslovakia are waiting for us at 10.00 pm to take us the 40 minutes onward to Bratislava.

On this trip, Hanjo shows his talent. He is a pretty good judge of character and of human interaction. He is also a capable raconteur and has more than usual sophistication among my German colleagues. Knows a smattering of French as well as passable English.

The trip starts in Bratislava and then moves to Prague. Bratislava looks better and better, but what really can you expect of a town of 350,000?  The real eye-opener is Prague, which is undergoing a face-lift nearly everywhere. Facades are being repainted, interiors are being stripped. New, slick upmarket shops are filling in. Looks like the boom Budapest of 12 months ago. Probably ahead of Warsaw . And the tourists: the Old Town is swarming with them. Mainly on selected streets, very much as in Venice. Still more like Venice in the nationality:  hordes of Italians. Smattering of most everything else. Large numbers of American youth here, as the English language papers further confirm.

The Charles Bridge is an open air youth hostel. Boutiques carry unusual, specifically Czech handicrafts that are very appealing: glass, of course, but also a type of lace that passes for jewelry, wooden toys. Downtown buildings, theaters look glorious. When that dismal soot is covered by pastel colors on baroque facades, the effect is extraordinary.

Do I want to live here? Once upon a time, I would have. But now I don’t particularly feel an attachment. Better crazy old Petersburg. The Russian culture is somehow more sympathetic. Czech irony and black humor is more wearisome.

The Bacigals have created the CSPS for UPS as I had demanded. They have taken over new and very impressive office premises in Prague where only the UPS logo is featured. Mr. Jan Hojsak, the old Cechofracht manager who had been feeding us business is now appointed as station manager Prague.

The time is taken up with operational questions and also with advertising policy. On ops I find that Bacigal has not implemented the data procedures that were fully agreed. It turns out, yet again, that they are unhappy with what UPS wanted but never said a peep, only later voted with their feet. I get to the bottom of the matter and hopefully we have a working arrangement for manifests and key entry. Otherwise I am busy with McCann Erickson redoing our planned advertising program for October; stripping away high price television in favor of print media, negotiating the cost sharing with the Bacigals.

I am also busy with last preparations for the East Europe general partners’ meeting: inspecting the hotel and preparing the Bacigals for their part in the presentations. Per requirements of my management, there will be  no high culture, only gastronomy, beer drinking, a walking tour and bowling.

I don’t have much opportunity to brush up my Czech. Instead all our meetings are held in German, mainly for Hanjo’s benefit. By the end of the three days I am dreaming in broken German. God, what an exercise! As is often the case, I seek to dominate conversations so that I control the vocabulary. Hanjo takes my relative fluency for full comprehension and tends to leave me in the dust with his jokes and slang. The Bacigals’ German is far easier for me.

One evening I take Hanjo around the Old Town and across the Charles Bridge. He is enchanted and lost in thoughts over how he can find the occasion to take his wife down here. We stop for a beer (he) and a caloric dinner of duck and dumplings (me) on the Main Square.  Kids form arcs around flame eaters and folk singers. A hundred meters away, just past the Rathaus clock is the American Youth Hostel and Chicago Pizza outlet. The talk of the town is the recent opening of the second McDonalds in town, at the start of the Vaclavske namesti, just about opposite the Bata building. Otherwise, Wenceslas is overtaken by cheap whores and money changers. The vendors of Russian watches and matrioshkas still are doing business in the Old Town, but the caviar, which was cursed in the local media, has disappeared.

Billboards feature almost exclusively Western goods. Proctor and Gamble has invested heavily. The Skoda ads now run the line ‘member of the VW Group’. Mars bars are everywhere. M&Ms cover trams with their message.

The other concession to tourism during the stay is dinner at U Kalechu, the Schweik pub. How I had managed to miss this attraction over the years is a mystery, for I have twice been to the competing U Fleku. U Kalechu recently went private and Hojsak complains they are too commercial. Indeed, they try to please the tourist. An accordionist and tuba player decked out firstly in WWI costume, then in zany 20s outfits play restrained oompah music. Food is palatable. I go for old reliable: goose leg with kraut and dumplings. The brown beer is said to come from U Fleku and is wonderful as usual. Besides the flock of tourists from all over, including the Far East, there are some tables held down by natives.

One of my tasks is to see what the Bacigals expect by way of political evolution given the widely reported split of the Czecho-Slovak state in two on October 1st. Their view is there will be a customs union and possibly a currency union. I am particularly doubtful about the second, because it means continued setting of fiscal policy in Prague, and it is precisely that which has led to the Slovak secession. And regarding the customs union, it is difficult to see how that will help us.

The docs for registration of the Bacigals’ new company already show how the republics are drifting apart and each is shy of doing anything that will impact the other: the company is granted a license to operate only in Slovakia and will have to apply for a Czech license later. What I see is that goods we land in Bratislava will, at best, get a transit customs seal there and will have to be finally customs cleared in Prague.  This will change the entire system we have set up. We must now concentrate on getting a second port code for Prague so that we can do a split in Cologne can do a separate manifest to ease customs clearance.

The Bacigals are happy to talk politics. Both were partisans of Klaus’ economic reforms and anti-nationalist policies. Both were disappointed by the subsequent victory of Meciar in Slovakia and the move to split the country. They see blame, however, on the Czech as well as Slovak sides. First it is a mistake to say that the nationalists are closet Communists. The elections brought in only 0.8% votes for Communists in Slovakia compared to 14% for neo-leftists (ex-Communists) in the Czech lands.  Why? Because of the strong role of Catholicism in Slovakia compared to agnostic Bohemia/Moravia. Havel played into the hands of Slovak nationalists when he visited the rallies of extremists in Slovakia and gave exaggerated importance to the fringe people. There were tactical errors here. And now it is the Czechs more than the Slovaks who are pulling the federal republic to pieces. Of course, the Slovaks will be the big losers.

I take a look at my volume of Kennan’s Prague After Munich, 1939.  Just after the Munich pact. The Germans are moving into Prague. The Slovaks are calling for break-up of the unified state. Sense of déjà vu. Also I come back to reevaluate Kennan himself. Was he alone a coward? Or was it, is it diplomacy in general. These embassy personnel are reporters, not doers or decision makers. They are eunuchs by definition. What is disgusting is his flippancy about the misery of others. Very much like that December Harvard Club meeting in Brussels when the ambassador for the EC in Moscow Michael Emerson spoke of the helplessness of the world community in the face of the ongoing Bosnian/Yugoslav disgrace.

©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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From the personal archive of a Russianist, installment thirty-eight

Diary notes, 17 May 1992    – my Germans are saying “re-build the Wall!”

After three very hectic weeks of travel, the past week was a chance to dig out from under the mountain of personal mail at the Cologne apartment (which I did not visit for the whole period) and business mail at the office.

I had the good luck to be away during the two weeks of industrial strife in Germany when the public sector employees, including garbage removal and postal workers, were on strike. And perhaps the intensity of the local feelings about the costs of reunification escaped me. Because that is what the latest round of industrial action is all about.

 I had been very admiring of Chancellor Kohl at the time when he forced the pace of reunification 24 months ago, because I had listened to my German co-workers who were uniformly unenthusiastic about unification with the East on grounds of the likely costs in higher taxes. These guys had seemed so pedestrian, so lacking in vision, whereas Kohl, who previously seemed so potato-like dull, now showed the great historic sense – to seize the moment of Soviet disintegration and the generally benevolent tenure of Mikhail Gorbachev, to do what two generations of W. Germans had said was a national goal and to reunite the divided nation.

Now I see the dangers of ‘leadership’: Kohl over the two years has made light of the costs. His formula of 1DM=1 Eastmark was politically expedient in alleviating objections in the east before the vote; however, it led to the economic destruction of what had been the strongest economy in Eastern Europe as E. German labor priced itself out of the market. The bills eventually came in: something like 100 billion DM per annum to prop up the terminally ill E. German economy, the creation of a gigantic welfare establishment which the West Germans have been paying for partly in the form of higher taxes but mostly through public borrowings that have driven up the interest rates to giddy levels, and partly through a steep rise in the inflation to over 4.5%  It is the latter phenomena that gave birth to the labor demands for steep wage hikes even as the economy has softened. Kohl was not forthright with the people as he led them down a path that had little public approval and now there is hell to pay. As my boss says: “we don’t see why it was necessary to unify with the East; the wall should have stayed up; they are a different country and should have remained so.”

Is this a good or bad thing? How curious that while England’s Thatcher and France’s Mitterand have fretted over a hypothetical resurgence of German nationalism, the facts have shown the opposite: the average German doesn’t give a damn about the big policy issues and is concerned only about his levels of taxation. So the remarks of my German classmate from Harvard, that someone might take away his Ph.D. given that his thesis set out to prove the impossibility of reunification, those remarks are premature: the reunification has not really taken place in spirit; the GDR has been taken over but not absorbed.

©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.]

From the personal archive of a Russianist, installment thirty-seven

Travel notes,  Monday 16 March – Friday 20 March 1992 – Tour of the Baltics

A very compressed trip with many impressions. A very exciting time to be visiting the Baltics, and good to stop en route in Warsaw to look over the new contractor operation set up under my guidance, and to visit in Helsinki with the ops manager Ari Kovero to finalize plans for changed traffic flow to St Petersburg and the Baltics.

Warsaw.   Have a brief meeting with LOT downtown office to prepare the way for using their flights into Vilnius to serve the Baltics; then go out to the Service Partner’s offices at Warsaw airport in a container owned by LOT. Low overhead solution – all the basic necessary equipment is installed – telex, IBM and Acer computers. All staff have signed written labor agreements with the new contractor, per my demand. Staff is rather sullen towards me, and even Jack and Konrad are cautious with me, since I really did pistol whip them all during the showdown with the Servisco boss the preceding week. However, I make no apologies for my behavior.

At 8pm I check in for the LOT flight to Vilnius. I have had misgivings about flying this route. LOT was not my favorite airline, but I was reassured by the spring like weather we had been having and by the official designation of a French-Italian built new propjet plane ATR on the route. Weather has since turned foul – we have had wet snow all day long. So I am not surprised to learn, shortly before scheduled departure that the flight is delayed due to difficulties at Vilnius airport. However, after an hour we are invited to board.

The plane is indeed new; but as an elderly Pole sitting across the aisle from me complains, it vibrates like hell even if it is a Western product, so the 90 minute flight is no treat. We arrive to similar weather conditions in Vilnius. On the taxiway I see, to my considerable surprise, a parked Boeing 737 with the colors of “Lithuanian Airlines.” The terminal building is in advanced reconstruction, with adaptations for starting international services underway, so that we are offloaded onto a bus and then taken all around the terminal building to a side entrance where passport control booths have been installed. I get my cost-free visa in 10 minute – on a separate sheet. The crest of the Republic of Lithuania below, the Soviet text above.

Before leaving Warsaw I got assurance from Glab that he had made phone contact with Vilnius and that they knew to meet me at the airport. Now as I come through customs the 3 partners of Lex Ltd are there waiting for me and we drive in their little Lada through the icy streets down to the city where I am shown to my suite and where we proceed to go over current business till nearly 1 am. Meanwhile we learn that Messrs Saarestik and Suiray from Tallinn have also checked into the hotel, so all is proceeding as I had hoped. Finally, thoroughly talked out, I collapse in my bed. The hotel, though clearly built in the late 1970s or 80s is typically run-down and shoddily constructed.

Tuesday, 17 March 1992

Breakfast before 8am in the ground floor restaurant. As I take my place by a window close to the entrance, I am sure that the guy at the next table is familiar – but he is so stocky that I am not sure I am right. After all  the face is so very Finnish that it could be someone else. He sits down with 4 colleagues, then stands to introduce himself to another co-worker who is joining his table. “I am Kauko Peltonen” – I immediately go over to shake hands. It is indeed old Kauko, former SEP (ITT) manager in Moscow, who left the company after Alcatel divested itself of the Finnish subsidiary, but whom Luigi brought back to become the Alcatel office manager in Moscow. Kauko is not delighted to see me, says sourly “as you can see, nothing has changed here” then we exchange cards.

At around nine I meet up with Saurestik and Shiray, and all of us – the Tallinnn and Lithuanian groups – sit down together in my suite to put together the action plan for the Baltics. I learn that Moscow has been holding for more than2 weeks all Baltic traffic at the office; that Yuri’s pledge to forward all packages by train was never kept. Only now, when I am in the Baltics, has Moscow finally put a man onto the job and arranged train forwarding. Some 140 kg in 6 sacks are being sent up to Tallinn; a sack for Vilnius arrives while I am there. I catch Yuri on the phone and he says lamely that he couldn’t free up a man to look after the transfer.  He also confirms by phone that he’s having difficulty assuring traffic to and from St Petersburg!

We agree tentatively that we will set up direct movements into and from the Baltics either via Tallinn (Helsinki) or via Vilnius (Warsaw), that I will gather all possible information during the visit and we will take a firm decision beginning next Monday. I separately order Cologne to suspend shipments into the Baltics until we can reach a decision.

We meet with Lithuanian Airlines and explain the interest we have in using their flights from Vilnius to Warsaw. Also have friendly chat with Austrian airlines at the airport regarding their twice weekly flights to Vienna. Go over to meet with the U.S. Embassy staff around 6 pm – there we are received by the Communications manager, who definitely shows an interest in using UPS for diplomatic mail. The embassy is spanking new and still glows from the recent visit of U.S. Vice President Dan Quayle.

Weather has turned fair and cool, but there is absolutely no time for sightseeing. We go straight down to parliament mall, where barricades from construction materials still safeguard the representatives from the still present Soviet military.

Vladas, the senior among the troika, with a doctorate in computer sciences, arranges a press interview for me with a lady journalist at the country’s leading newspaper, where his brother works as a layout designer. The gal is tough and curious – wants to know my political views and not only company claptrap. So off the record I express my admiration for Lithuania’s toughness, stubbornness in the face of Western indifference to win and defend their independence from Moscow. Asks about my wife and daughter – just thirsty for fresh information about how a manager in the West lives.  Then we go over to the other hotel for a brief radio interview with a lady reporter for Radio Lithuania. I make a short statement that is broadcast the next day in their shortwave English language program.

We all take a late dinner at my hotel – the top floor hard currency restaurant that resembles the Hotel Vitosha setting in Sofia. There is a sexy bare assed floor show which we sit part way through. Go to bed at close to midnight – hoarse but exhilarated.

Wednesday, 18 March 1992

After breakfast at 9.30 we all set out for Kaunas, home base of 2 of the 3-man Lex team. The second capital of Lithuania is roughly in northeast direction en route towards Latvia.  I join Sarestik and Shiray in their chauffeur driven big Mercedes.

In Kaunas, we stop just off the central pedestrian mall, the main street of the town. All is orderly, clean, in an excellent state of repair. We visit the honey-comb offices where Lex is now camping out, and where they are now threatened with eviction. A single room with city phones. The legal basis for free enterprise is scarcely there. All is political conflict between various factions of reformers and hard-liners. VAT is a subject for conjecture. Profit taxes are headline news. Privatization is the buzz word, but the reality is continued uncertainty, fighting over procedures for accepting and adjudicating claims of pre-war owners.

Currency is the ruble. Cash is in artificially short supply. One of the partners takes me on a little walk through stores – some already private. A department store is showing off Western household goods, kitchen appliances. A street kiosk sells me 110 g of Russian caviar in a blue tin for $3.00  Currency is rationed to citizens who can obtain up to $200 in a year for travel abroad. He shows me the equestrian statue to the 14th century prince of Lithuania. A nearby alley displays marble pedestals and bronze busts of 18-19 century scientific and cultural leaders in Lithuania. I am stunned to learn that these are all reconstructions of original monuments destroyed under Stalin – reproductions made over the past 2 years and paid for by public subscription. A fantastic witness to popular determination to sweep aside the nightmare of the past 50 years and rescue the fabric of national life.

We part with the Lithuanian group and continue towards Riga.

Vilnius – Riga is 300 km. The road is mostly 4-lane highway in good shape. This was the one achievement of the last Communist premier, who appropriated funds for construction in the face of opposition from Moscow.

As we reach the Latvian border, I get a first surprise: notwithstanding all the talk about the Baltic union, this is indeed an international border, where border police stand watch on each side and inspect travel documents. My Lithuanian visa is accepted. We reach Riga towards 3 pm and after some difficulty find the offices of our unofficial delivery partners. These guys had not been interested in the parcel business when we met 6 months ago in Tallinn but now the champagne bubbles have burst, the drink is flat – the economy is in a slide and income from UPS business looks increasingly attractive to them. We have a quick meeting in their offices during which I collect their delivery records, agree on installation of a telex, and agree that they will be a subcontractor to the Tallinn team. (Separately I had agreed with the Lithuanian group to find subcontractors in Minsk to cover Byelorussia for us)

Riga looks big – solid. We take lunch at a nearby hotel restaurant; all the old treats – vodka, smoked fish and meats. Then we walk to the newly opened 4-star Western luxury hotel. The clientele is here – the prospects are good. Riga with a population of 1 million has nearly 40% of the total population of the republic. The VEF electronics factory now has connections with Philips. The outlook for business is interesting. Whereas the local guys had only deliveries till now since they had no written contract, they will now also be interested to sell exports for us.

Towards 6 we again set out by car in the direction of Tallinn. Another 300 km, now on a two lane ordinary road. But with newly raised gas prices, traffic is minimal so we mostly cruise at 120 km/hour.

Again we reach a genuine international border at Estonia. The ongoing journey across Estonia by night hints at a rich countryside, with occasional private houses and apartment buildings that are brightly lit and resemble closely the Finnish countryside. We pass a couple of the newly opened NESTE gas stations – splendid, perfectly Western, and charging FIM for petrol that Estonia still gets largely for rubles from Russia. Saarestik complains bitterly over this perceived rip-off which is supported by systematic shut down of the old state-run stations. We reach the Hotel Olympia at just after 10 pm and I take my junior suite.

Thursday, 19  March 1992   Tallinn

Tough day of meetings with Saarestik. I learn all the unsavory details about how he had a fight with his partner, how our records have been stolen, and the clientele was turned over to TNT, with whom that partner had been working in parallel. I visit the offices of Baltic Trading nearby to discover that this  contractor to Finnair who does aircraft handling for imports, has accepted DHL as a sublease tenant in their premises and are letting DHL use their basic account for Estonian shippers’ payments. Nonetheless, the scheme is workable for us to tender to Finnair in Helsinki and receive imports in Tallinn straightaway. Perhaps in two months direct export will also be workable this same way.

Friday, 20 March 1992   Tallinn – Helsinki

A very rushed morning. I visit the US embassy  and British embassy to wave the UPS flag. Both show clear interest in the service. Then rush over to the airport for the 11.15 am flight to Helsinki – where I am met by Ari Kovero and taken over to the UPS offices for a couple of hours of discussions.  Ari speaks with Finnair and confirms that we can do transfer from incoming UPS charter flight at 8.00 am to ongoing Finnair flights to St Petersburg (9.30) and to Tallinn (10.05). Also agrees to help get emergency supplies down to Tallinn and to train Shiray.  Back to the airport for the Sabena direct flight to Brussels.

Hell of a trip. I’m in seventh heaven.

©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.]

From the personal archive of a Russianist, installment thirty-six

Finale of the USSR, Gorbachev’s leaves the stage

Diary notes, 25 December 1991

Wednesday,  25 December – a completely lazy day. The news of the day is Gorbachev’s resignation speech and U.S. recognition of the successor states to the USSR, – Russia, Byelorus, Ukraine, Armenia, Kyrghizia. This is a watershed in history. For the first time in 70 years the red flag is lowered in the Kremlin and the tricolor flag of Russia is raised in its place.

I have been a most admiring fan of Gorbachev for most of the past 7 years of his rule. He is clearly a giant intellectually and in political gifts. He succeeded in moving the Soviet Union into radical reform without violence and catastrophe thus far.  Yet he was also a victim of his own successes and eventually made himself irrelevant. He opened the political process to new forces which rightfully moved onto the stage and displaced him. He put too much emphasis on retaining the structures and personnel of the past, hoping to make the Communist Party into an obedient tool of his reforms. Instead he nearly became the victim of the Right, whose powers he, like most everyone else, overestimated.

The death knell for Gorbachev’s years sounded  during the August 21-23, 1991 coup d’etat. The loud mouth and unorganized democratic opposition , Yeltsin, Sobchak, Popov, who had over the preceding years shown only their unpreparedness to administer and run things, now in a pinch showed their civic courage and saved Gorbachev’s freedom from the henchmen of totalitarianism: Yaneev, Pavlov, etc. whom Gorbachev himself had put in power ostensibly to forestall such a right wing reaction, but also as continuation of his balancing act between right and left to maintain his own relevance and indispensability.

Gorbachev, saved by the Liberals, now became their hostage. Like a sparrow that has been rescued by humans, he was healed but lost his ability to fly. It was only a question of time before the dual power, the contest between him and Yeltsin would be solved once and for all. And so it should: continued dualism would only invite further putsch attempts.

Yes, I agree with those who find the gentleman Gorbachev a far more calming, reassuring leader than the ruffian Yeltsin, who seems to talk from the corner of his mouth and to snarl. But this is the man who saved Russia, who scrapped the Communist Party and he’s the one to implement economic reforms about which Gorbachev could only talk in a dilettantish way. Yeltsin, like Walesa, is the first leader to have an electoral and popular mandate to carry through reforms that everyone knows will cause much suffering on the already miserably poor and unhappy population. The price de-regulation comes on January 2nd; let’s hope Yeltsin can stick with the Polish radical reform and not fall back on the populist, interventionist economic policies that were formerly ascribed to him.

©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.]

From the personal archive of a Russianist, installment thirty-five

Travel notes, Yugoslavia, Wednesday 20 November  –  Friday, 22 November 1991

This is my first trip back to Slovenia since the start of the civil war this summer. In the meantime, six weeks previously I was in Belgrade for a meeting with Dragan Brscic to spin off the Serbian and south Yugoslav operations from control of Intereuropa. Brscic had spoken like a true Serbian nationalist, though in fact he is a Croat with a father in the Yugoslav foreign service.

Now I meet with old friends Tanya Filipovic, Rihard Baznik and Alojz Pozar. The last, most conservative, finally agrees there can be no restoration of the Yugoslav household, that the idea of living under one roof is unthinkable. Still, for business purposes, he does have hopes that realism will prevail and that Intereuropa can once again serve us in the non-Serb southern republics.

Tanya is no longer looking like a freedom fighter. She is a mother who is hoping that peace will break out. I say that there will be peace only when the Croats start doing war: that the issue of the day is not the EEC peace-keeping mission of Lord Carrington, which has merely been a smokescreen used by the Serbs to wage their war of aggression against Croat civilian populations, nor is it the follow-up peace mission of Cyrus Vance, which served involuntarily the same function. Rather, the issue is as soon as possible to achieve recognition of Slovenian and Croat independence and supply of real arms from outside so that they can properly defend themselves and repulse the Serbs. Tanya is frightened by my talk. Rihard is in agreement. Here the Croats have been wishy-washy, to their great loss whereas the Slovenes have stood fast and put their backs to the wall.

What is incomprehensible to me is why the Croats have not simply blasted some of the Yugoslav Army barracks into cinders. That would get some attention. Here I see criminal lack of leadership by F. Tudjman which is paid for in the blood of Slavonia and which may bring him the bullet he so richly deserves.

Otherwise the Slovene Istrian towns are unchanged. We get new Slovene currency and we see that a real international frontier will come down now between Slovenia and Croatia. Slovenes are probably safe: Serbs need an independent Slovenia as a buffer state between themselves and the Italians/Austrians. But Croatia is going to suffer a terrible devastation while the Serbs exact their vengeance.

©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.]