Letter from Orlino, August 2019

For the past several years, it has become a tradition for my wife and I to spend at least a month of summer at a house in the country south of St Petersburg. We settle down to a regimen of heavy gardening on a 1400 square meter property administratively designated for“subsistence farming” in the hamlet of Orlino, population 400, which falls within the Gatchina district of Leningradskaya Oblast.

Orlino is not just any destination. It is situated alongside a large lake of the same name measuring one half km by 6 km which has no big noisy beaches but many small coves for the enjoyment of local residents. Access to water is by way of 4 meter wide sand-bottomed corridors between reeds and water lilies or from boulders set on the shoreline.  With barely enough room on shore to lay out a beach towel, there are no barbecue parties coming here and consequently little or no litter to spoil the pristine nature.

Boating quays exist for those who come with inflatable rubber rowboats – no motor craft are allowed.  This attracts the usual complement of amateur fisherman who sometimes come away from a day “at sea” with a good sized pike, but more usually have to content themselves with minnows suitable to feed the cats. Their luck depends on the air and water temperature: the higher they rise, the more likely the large fish are to leave the shores for deepest parts of the lake which are fed by cold springs.

Swimming in the lake similarly depends heavily on days being sunny and warm, to heat up this large expanse of water that is permanently replenished with very cold subterranean waters.  With some luck, the surface water of the lake warms to well over 20 degrees Centigrade. This warm layer may first extend down to 20 cm, but after several consecutive days of true summer weather, may go as deep as a meter.  On the other hand, a day of strong winds can mix up the layers and attenuate the pleasure of a dip in the lake.

There being no bars, cafes or other places of socialization apart from the church and the library in Orlino, almost no teenagers set foot here.  Instead, youth is predominantly represented by toddlers and kindergarten age children, usually accompanied to the lake by grandparents or parents.  The librarian on her own initiative does what she can to amuse the older children of this cohort by organizing chess competitions, outdoor ‘concerts’ in the adjacent park and treating those who come to the library with cakes and candies.

Orlino enjoys an historic reputation as the site of an estate owned by the Counts Stroganoff, of which only the ruins of a tower remain.  The most imposing monument from the pre-Revolutionary past is the Orthodox Church, which is situated on a property, overlooking the water line, has magnificent golden cupolas which are visible from far out on the lake, and is both large in scale and quite active as a social center thanks to financial support from an unnamed oligarch living in the region.

The forests which still remain in this area once attracted Shishkin and other famous Russian painters of the late 19th century.  At a distance of 10 km from Orlino is the well-known 19th century resort town Siversk, which is memorialized on souvenir photos of that age by views of the fast moving Oredezh River that passes through its middle. Over the course of centuries, the Oredezh cut through red sandstone of the higher bank, exposing admirable geological formations to the many sportsmen who do white water canoeing down the river. In Soviet times, Siversk was a center for children’s Pioneer summer camps and so is well known to St Petersburgers of a certain age.

At a similar distance but in another direction is the family homestead of the Nabokovs at Rozhdestveno, where for about a year before the Revolution Vladimir Nabokov  was the owner of the large wooden manor house, today a museum, that had been built in the late 18th century by Catherine the Great to house her regional governor. The surrounding locale is described in his autobiographical volume Speak Memory.

 

At the conclusion of each annual sojourn in Orlino, I have established a corresponding tradition of writing up my experiences as they bear on the general wellbeing or otherwise of Russians living in the Northwest of the country. This year as I approached the task I wondered what I might talk about because the only outstanding news was meteorological.  The weather was disappointing though in no dramatic way.  We did not have record heat waves as in Western Europe about which to complain or philosophize over global warming.  Nor did we have weeks upon weeks of never-ending rain as happened here two and three years ago.  It was just overcast and cold for most of the six weeks of our stay.  A stable weather system over Western and Central Russia extending to beyond the Urals brought a cover of arctic air to the entire area.

Given the unseasonal and gloomy weather for much of this time, Orlino was very quiet.  No day visitors.  Only the local residents busy tending their potatoes and vegetables, taking their Saturday evening saunas and gossiping over fences.  The only noise to break the general silence was the high-pitched whining of gas-powered trimmers that every property-owner uses in lieu of lawn mowers, there being few if any proper “lawns” in the Russian countryside, the evening barking of bored or frustrated dogs, and the cacophony of swarms of crows surveying our fields from on high.

However, during the six sunny days when the temperature soared to 30 degrees C, Orlino instantly turned into a resort.  From morning to late evening, there were processions of visitors from nearby settlements coming for a refreshing swim.  Dozens of cars were parked along the sides of roads leading down to the lake. And the general store was doing a brisk business in cold beer and pre-packed single portions of ice cream.

Just as I was despairing of extracting something of political or socio-economic importance from our 2019 experience of rural life in the Russian Northwest, Le Monde Diplomatique plumped in my lap an article entitled “Dachas fall from favour as holiday homes. Russia’s vanishing summerfolk” by journalist Christophe Trontin to which I can now respond drawing upon latest first-hand impressions. See https://mondediplo.com/2019/08/10dacha

The teaser introduction to the article goes on to say: “The dacha, so familiar from Chekhov’s plays, has lost its appeal for most Russians, who now don’t have to grow their own produce and can often holiday abroad. Can the new downshifters save these unloved summer houses?”
I take my hat off to the author for doing his research thoroughly.  The half or more of the article that is devoted to the history of the dacha [country property] in Russia from the 18th century through Soviet times will be useful to those seeking an introduction to the subject. But the researched, that is to say secondary source nature of the given article is both its weakness as well as its strength. As for the present and future projections, it is based on economic and demographic statistics gathered by others, not on the author’s own experience of countryside life and conversations with people living there. Trontin relies too much on appraisals of the dacha market as determined by Moscow region real estate agents. The Moscow region may well be an important indicator of trends of this national market as it is of trends in other Russian markets, but Russia is vast and the country house phenomenon exists outside all its urban areas.

The author claims that “Russians are falling out of love with their dachas because there are so many other leisure options..” In particular he points to options for spending vacation time abroad  – “the middle classes opt for package holidays in Turkey, Thailand and the Red Sea, or cultural tours of Europe.”  And quite importantly the dacha no longer is needed to provide food on the table:  “…now that fruit and vegetables are available all year round in Russian supermarkets, a major attraction of the dacha has gone.”

 

I will begin my counter-arguments to the author’s overarching thesis with the last named, always basing myself on what I see around me in Orlino and not on abstract considerations.   The author is ignorant of an irrefutable trend among the Russian middle and upper classes: namely concern to live in ecologically pure environments and to eat organically grown food in which no pesticides or artificial fertilizers have been applied, which are not only GMO free but are coming from traditional seed pools as opposed to seeds merchandised globally by several (Western) multinational corporations.  The bio food trend largely explains the latest fad observable everywhere in the Russian countryside:  high technology greenhouses.

I noted the appearance of these greenhouses around me on Orlino properties last year.  This year the trend has continued so that many homeowners, including those who otherwise do not have the land or inclination to maintain potato fields, now own two or more such greenhouses in a compact area next to their houses. In these greenhouses they grow a profusion of fruits and vegetables which by their short shelf life or rarity are not sold by supermarket chains. Russian supermarkets, like supermarkets everywhere, depend on large scale and regular supplies of given produce that does not bruise easily, so that variety is always relatively limited.

The dachniki share what they grow with family; they tin the surplus, as applicable.  As one neighbor deeply involved in this process replied when I asked what he buys when he goes to the supermarket:  “bread.”  The rest he provides for himself. In this respect, growing produce is one more dimension of self-reliance, alongside having one’s own artesian well, own septic system, own log-fed heating system and “own” bottled gas for the stove. The only regular bills to arrive from the outside world are for electricity: the Russian countryside has yet to discover the merits of solar panels for house roofs, though one day it may well do so, more for reasons of pride than for economy.

As regards the less affluent, particularly the older generation of pensioners, I have often wondered why year after year they put in 600 square meters of potatoes, beets and onions when these commodity products are so cheap at supermarkets and when their own produce in these categories is undistinguishable in taste characteristics from what is commercially available.  After consulting with neighbors and friends, I conclude the reasons are love of tradition in what is undeniably a conservative society and creating a pastime that gives life purpose. As my regular taxi driver says about his mother living in the countryside, if she did not look after her extensive garden and process the harvest to gift to relatives and consume herself during the winters, she would spend the day watching soap operas on television and would likely lose her mental acuity.

Now turning to the question of travel abroad as a competing attraction to minding the dacha, I believe that Le Monde diplomatique journalist Christophe Trontin is out of step with the times.  To be sure, foreign travel is a significant factor when Russians choose how to spend their vacation time.  After all, more than 10 million, or about 7% of the general population go abroad every year now, 6 million of them having chosen Turkey in the last year.  However, judging  by the behavior of our St Petersburg friends from the intelligentsia and economic middle classes, I believe that trend has peaked.  Over the past decade, they have “seen it all,” traveled to all their dream destinations and returned home in the knowledge that there is no Eden abroad. Moreover, the Russophobia of Western Europe has turned our friends against return travel there. Instead, they are traveling around Russia,  pursuing their interests in cultural or religious travel in ever more remote places.

None of this travel, whether abroad or within Russia, impinges on time that can or should be spent at the dacha.  Looking after the land  on patches ranging between 600 and 1400 square meters is a weekend occupation, not a full-time task and it can be done intermittently.  In our own case, our property is essentially an orchard of apple, plum and Northern cherry trees, which can be left for months on their own and produce a remarkable harvest of commercially unavailable fruit varieties.

Since the author focuses attention on the bottom of the dacha market, meaning derelict or shabby structures without conveniences, it bears mention that there is an ongoing and significant wave of construction of country houses that resemble and have all the comforts of American suburban homes although their occupancy will be only a few days a year as suits the owner and his or her relatives.

On the outskirts of Orlino there is a growing settlement of such owners who decidedly do not keep potato fields.  The logic for these investments is specifically Russian:  the Russian city dweller, even in outlying districts of the city, lives in an apartment, not a townhouse or villa. The market price per square meter of Russian apartments is higher than in most European cities, and, accordingly, the living space is not overly generous.  By building a country villa, this Russian city dweller buys quality space at construction prices three or four times cheaper than in the city. In the country home, there is room for guests, whether extended family or friends.

While Russian capital markets offer few secure investment opportunities, investment in bricks, especially at knock-down countryside prices, is financially prudent.

For all of the above reasons which I have seen in life around me in Orlino, I believe the Russian country home has a secure future even if a noticeable transition away from its amenity-poor past is underway.

 

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2019

INF Treaty Expiration: Implications

Today’s media have duly noted that yesterday, 2 August marked the definitive withdrawal of the USA from the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty dating from 1987, about which they had given advance warning months ago in keeping with the provisions of that document.

In particular, our television news and newspapers of record carried the remarks of NATO General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg, who insisted that Russia is wholly to blame for the demise of the treaty, because of Moscow’s violation of its terms as first flagged by President Obama in 2014 through development and testing of a new land-based cruise missile with range exceeding the proscribed limits.

But the thrust of reporting is not so much on allocating blame for the repudiation of the treaty first by the Americans, then by the Russians. Russian claims that they had remained within the treaty constraints and their counter-charges against the U.S. over violation of the treaty are also reported.   Instead, the question that seems foremost in the minds of political analysts is where do we go from here:  what this removal of restraints on armaments means for the future?  are we entering a new arms race that will raise defense expenditures and heighten the risks of war?

In his own way, Jens Stoltenberg sought to play down public anxiety over the practical consequences of the loss of the INF.  He said that Europe will not enter into a new arms race. In this regard, we may be certain that Russia also will not be embarking on a new arms race, but for very different reasons:  Russia has been engaged in a very quiet, unpublicized arms race with the United States ever since 2004, and as President Putin indicated in his annual address to a joint session of the Russian legislature in March 2018 and reiterated with greater specificity in his address to the legislature in February 2019, Russia now has a whole array of advanced technology weapons that it believes gives it a ten-year advance on the USA and can provide a persuasive deterrent to any thought of aggression that Washington might harbor.

In what is especially noteworthy,  Stoltenberg announced yesterday that Europe will not allow American nuclear cruise missiles to be positioned on its territory. Such assurances are in fact addressed not only to EU citizens but to the Kremlin, which has said it will refrain from deploying cruise missiles capable of reaching European capitals so long as the American missiles are not installed on the Continent.

So far, so good.  But this discussion around the precise issues that the INF Treaty was meant to resolve misses the more general, and more important nature of that Treaty.   The INF Treaty, together with the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty dating from 1972 that the US unilaterally withdrew from in 2002, and together with the New START Treaty signed in 2010 (replacing the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty of 1991) regulating the numbers of warheads and delivery systems that the United States and Russia may each retain all had a common feature of engagement of the parties  on a permanent basis to limit, verify, discuss their strategic weapons.  Military-to-military, civilian to civilian engagement of the sides had the merit of preventing misunderstandings, clarifying intentions and building trust.

When George W. Bush announced the US decision to withdraw from the ABM Treaty in 2002, we may assume the logic was to free American hands from constraints on missile defense and prepare the way for what ultimately became the “global missile defense” that has encircled Russia and China with US missile installations that are nominally defensive but can easily be converted to offensive use.  The ultimate objective would be to facilitate a decapitating first strike against one or both of these potential adversaries, so that the intention was clearly to alter the strategic balance and ensure unchallenged American world hegemony, also known as  global leadership.

When Donald Trump announced the intended withdrawal from the INF Treaty, it fell perfectly in line with the policy of cutting all ties, all communication lines to and with Russia that President Obama put in place nominally as the US response to the Russian annexation of Crimea in March 2014. This feature of the action denies the mutually advantageous nature of the process of arms control, of arms reduction.  It is the far greater threat to world peace than any of the specific contents of the given treaties regarding qualitative and quantitative  limits on arms.

 

©Gilbert Doctorow 2019

Summertime: has Europe shut down for vacation?

In Western Europe, political journalists have few hopes of getting away from their desks before mid-August, if not later.  The political season just goes on and on this year.

This past weekend, Greece had its ‘snap election,’ which resulted in a change of government from the nominally far left Syriza to a resurgent center right party. Reams of analysis of the incoming administration are still to be written.

In the United Kingdom, there will be suspense until 22 July over the succession to Theresa May as Prime Minister: the voting of Tory party members to choose between the two remaining candidates, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt, will be finally tallied and announced on that date. The ramifications of their choice go well beyond Whitehall, since the candidates have opposing views on Britain leaving the EU with ‘no-deal.’ All of Europe will be watching closely.

And within the European Union itself, the crucial vote of the Parliament to confirm or reject the nominees to fill the four key positions of the European Institutions proposed by the 28 heads of state meeting in summit – Council President, Commission President, High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Defense, and European Bank President – will come only in mid-July, when decisions will also be taken on allocation of ministerial (Commissioner) portfolios among the leading parties in Parliament. Only after these votes are taken can we draw definitive conclusions on how the pan-European elections of 26 May really played out and what policies we may expect from the EU Institutions over the coming five years.

Against this background of high drama in the West of the Continent, the Russian political world and the state media that follow and report on it has just shut down.  To be precise, on 7 July, the highest official of Russian state news and anchor of its widely watched News on Sunday program, Dmitry Kiselyov informed viewers that he was leaving on vacation and this would be his last show until September. Over the coming six weeks, Kiselyov will be spending his time in the Crimea tending his vineyards.

Before turning out the lights, Kiselyov did one thing that was quite remarkable but seems to have gone unnoticed by our newspapers and electronic media in the West:  he spent about 10 minutes at the start of the show portraying Donald Trump as an idiot.  To be sure, he was not saying anything about Trump that you will not find daily in The Washington Post.  But then the publisher of WP, Jeff Bezos, was never said to be in a ‘bromance” with Donald, whereas we all know that Donald Trump was picked and carried into office in 2016 by the efforts of the Kremlin, just as we know that there is a personal chemistry between Donald and any authoritarian ruler he happens to be in contact with.

Be that as it may, Kiselyov selected excerpts from Trump’s speech on 4 July at the Lincoln Memorial, in particular his mention that America’s magnificent air force had defended the country’s airports since the time of the Revolution. Kiselyov suggested that Trump seemed to have forgotten that airplanes and airports came no earlier than the beginning of the 20th century. Kiselyov also heaped scorn on the military parade which Trump had personally ordered.  The tanks were already decommissioned models or if still current, they were in a pathetic condition as rated by Russian military experts. He chose to feature Trump’s inane remarks on how Americans would soon be landing on the Moon and on Mars, and his claim that in its recent wars no American planes have been shot down because the U.S. controls the air.

Though we can be sure that Vladimir Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov would tell us that the Kremlin takes no responsibility for what Russian journalists say or write, one would have to be naïve to believe that Kiselyov would dare insult the President of the United States, as he did, without a nod from the Boss.

Kiselyov and his colleagues at the top of the Russian journalistic world can take a well-earned vacation, because the month of June kept them on their toes reporting on a succession of major international and domestic events that the Kremlin either initiated or dominated during this period. I have in mind, in particular, the St Petersburg International Economic Forum from 6-8 June which had its largest ever visitor numbers from abroad including even an American business delegation that exceeded five hundred, and where the guest of honor was Chinese President Xi, who had arrived on a state visit that began in Moscow and used his three days in Russia to advance the growing geopolitical alliance with the Russian Federation.

Xi’s presence and the clearly close relationship he maintains with his ‘best friend Vladimir’ provided Russian and foreign commentators with days’ worth of material to speculate on the nature of the binational relationship and on the consequences of Russia’s tilt to the East for Europe, for the world.  The many meetings of Putin with individual state and business leaders at the Forum also received extensive news coverage.

Then on 20 June, Putin conducted his four hour televised Q&A program with the nation called Direct Line. In advance of that date, Russian news services spent more than a week informing the general public about possibilities for getting their questions, their videos to the attention of call centers across the nation, and interviewing call center staff for updates on the nature of questions coming in. The Q&A was followed directly by lengthy journalistic commentary and by talk-show discussion of what was new in the day’s proceedings compared to previous years, after which came several more days of reporting on how problems aired were subsequently dealt with by officialdom under the watchful eye of the President.

But the biggest and most demanding news event for Russian journalism in June was the G-20 in Osaka, Japan on the 28th and 29th.  Russian journalists at the G-20 provided their audience with one scoop after another.  They were everywhere and took the audience along like flies on the wall.  We followed their lead reporter down the corridors leading to the Trump-Putin side meeting. We saw the rivalry with American journalists to get to the scene of action first.  We heard the claim of victory when the Russian reporter slipped past an American security guard and under the dismissive nose of Mike Pompeo got his microphone over to Trump. Donald called off his protectors and responded to the Vesti question about how the meeting with Putin went: “he’s a great guy!”  This, we were told, was the very first direct “interview” of Trump by a Russian news agency.

Without having to try too hard, the story line that Russian state television presented to their domestic audience was that their President was the dominant personality at the gathering.  Indeed, one brief video was worth a thousand words: they showed Donald Trump sitting by himself contemplating his cufflinks while a couple of meters away Vladimir Putin stood surrounded by heads of state seeking a word with him.

However, the positioning of Putin as the most important leader in the G-20 began before the event opened and was not organized by Russian media. It came in the form of a lengthy interview with Putin by The Financial Times which was featured on page one of the newspaper including a half page photo of the Russian leader on the day the G-20 opened. The interview, which was taken the day before, was led by the newspaper’s editor, Lionel Barber, who has been at the helm there since 2005 and is arguably Britain’s most experienced senior journalist.

A full transcript of the interview was published in Russian and English on the Russian President’s website, kremlin.ru. It runs to 18 typewritten pages and covers a great variety of international and Russian domestic issues. The interview was video recorded and key moments were put on air by Russian state television.

Of these segments published separately, none was more impactful than Vladimir Putin’s comments on Liberalism, which he described as “obsolete” and “having outlived its purpose.” The comments generated controversy which was heightened still further by the pointed anti-Russian response they elicited from European Council President Donald Tusk, who was also present in Osaka and lost no time defending Liberalism before the cameras of the world’s media.

As Tusk had it: “Whoever claims that liberal democracy is obsolete also claims that freedoms are obsolete, that the rule of law is obsolete and that human rights are obsolete….What I find really obsolete are authoritarianism, personality cults, the rule of oligarchs, even if sometimes they may seem effective”.

The issue of Liberalism’s having outlived its age came up for further discussion on the closing day of the G-20 at Vladimir Putin’s press conference, when he clarified in greater detail what he had meant, namely that after becoming the official ideology in the European Union, Liberalism had shown itself to be intolerant of all other values and sought to dictate its terms everywhere; that Liberalism in power worked against the interests of the great majority of the population under its grip.

It is very interesting that Vladimir Putin has finally decided to weigh in on Liberalism as an ideology ensconced in power.  In the West, Viktor Orban has been the most vocal…politician and statesman on the subject. But the cause “Against Liberalism” has been set out most methodically and persuasively by a French political philosopher, Alain de Benoist, whose book bearing that very title I reviewed here not long ago.

The whole controversy kept Russian news busy for days afterwards and is still reverberating among Russia watchers and pundits in the West who never miss an opportunity to read malign intentions into any political statements coming from the Kremlin.

Lionel Barber opened his interview by asking Vladimir Putin to comment on the present fraught state of international relations so that readers might benefit from his insights as the longest serving head of state at the G-20 gathering. But Putin brought to the table not only experience and dazzling command of facts across the many subjects discussed. The depth of his thinking comes across clearly in many points of the interview.  We may be certain that his understanding of Liberalism as a political philosophy is a good deal more solid than that of Mr. Tusk, not to mention that of the myriad shallow detractors he has in Western media.

It will be interesting to see whether this debate flares up again in the autumn, when the flower of Russian journalism returns from their summer break.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2019

Where is consumer purchasing power headed in Russia? A question raised in Vladimir Putin’s ‘Direct Line’ program on 20 June

One of the key subjects in Vladimir Putin’s 4 hour televised session of Q&A with the Russian public on 20 June was pay levels, family income and purchasing power.  The generalized perception judging by the phone-in and internet communications with the President’s call centers across the country was that living standards have been eroding for the past 3 years or more, with no end in sight.

In response, Putin cited official statistics indicating that real, inflation-adjusted pay and pensions have in fact been going up for more than a year, though due to rising consumer debt on credit cards and easily procured bank loans, disposable family income has been impacted negatively by monthly interest and capital repayment.

 

It would thus appear that the problem in the broad population is rising expectations meeting head on rather modest, almost imperceptible improvements, leading to the grumbling we heard on the Direct Line program. So far this has not translated into any political trends: the latest public opinion polls in fact show a small rise in the popularity of the President, to well over 60% approval ratings.

 

The reasons for the seeming political neutrality of the issue of where living standards are headed is that the situation is genuinely hard to read with any degree of certainty.  In Russia, as most everywhere else, statistics can easily be misleading. And in Russia, the likelihood of error is all the greater, given the vast size of the country and regional variations in cost of living and earning power. The only thing that is certain is that wages are still very low by European standards, and in particular in a country aiming to be the fifth largest economy of the world in just a few years

 

In what follows, I will set out some of the confusing indications on the present condition of purchasing power in Russia, with a focus on the geographical area that I visit regularly, namely St Petersburg and the surrounding countryside of the Leningrad Oblast forming an arc of 80 kilometers from the metropolis. To that, I add some observations relating to spending habits nationally and to the flow of new consumer products to market,  pointing to the degree of optimism among Russian producers of industry, services and agriculture in the future growth of disposable income and future spread of discerning taste and demand.

 

 

Though it is obviously anecdotal in nature, I begin this review with mention of what I consider to be reduced customer traffic in St Petersburg urban and suburban shopping centers over the past year.  This is matched by reduction in the number of cashiers that stores employ, with many cash registers left unmanned.  Is this an indicator of lower purchasing power?  It most certainly is.

 

Meanwhile, I see the counter-indicator of continued expansion of retailing, that is to say the opening of new supermarkets in top, middle and bottom sectors of the consumer market both within the city and extending out into the countryside. To be sure, the biggest change in the retailing landscape here is the proliferation of outlets of an economy level chain called “Fix Price” (written in English, by the way). They are now moving out into the Leningrad Oblast and penetrating towns of 10,000 or fewer inhabitants. This particular retailer offers leading Russian and international brand products at prices suggestive that they “fell off the back of the truck.”

 

In some supermarkets, I see that high value and perishable products like fresh fish have been discontinued; but in others, they are improved with investment into better display equipment to ensure longer salability, and the goods seem to move well.

 

What is most impressive is the continuous expansion of product assortment and upgrading. Allow me to be very specific.  In the past year, I have noted the appearance in supermarkets of locally produced grated parmesan cheese in plastic packets for use with pasta dishes, or rillettes of salmon, of mackerel and other fish in either piquant seasoning or creamy with capers and dried dill.  Without meaning to be condescending, I doubt the average American will know about the French appetizer “rillettes,” which usually comes in the form of a duck spread.  Russians seem to have caught on, however, and a modestly priced and excellent array of such products has been brought to market by a Moscow food producer, sold in chilled displays in supermarkets at about 1.50 euros for a 100 gram jar, and bear the name “rillettes” transliterated into Cyrillic.

 

Then a recent addition to the fresh fish offerings is gorbusha (pink or ‘humpback’) salmon caught in the northern seas by the Murmansk fleet.  These one-kilogram fish which originally grew in the Pacific but more recently are found in European waters are fairly lean, but not dry and make an excellent alternative to the large Scandinavian farmed salmon (entering the Russian market from the Faroe Islands). The whole fish is priced at half the 20 euros per kilogram that the Norwegian steaks now cost.

The Murmansk fishing industry is continuing its penetration of Petersburg and northwest Russia with less elite but high quality wild sea fish such as flounder at often ridiculously low prices.  Their ability to expand in what has traditionally been pork and sausage country comes from the quality and price advantages of their products.

In parallel the fish farming in nearby Russian Karelia provides the Northwest with a steady supply of excellent quality and affordable lake trout weighing between two and four kilograms, making them a festive main course for dinner parties. These may be found on sale even in small towns in the hinterland.  I know of no such comparable fish on West European markets.

The municipal markets here, which had long been controlled by Central Asian and Caucasian traders, have for more than a year shown great commercial flexibility in sourcing, with supply moving from south to north as the season progresses.  A visit to our Pushkin/Tsarsoye Selo market a couple of days ago provided us with a dinner opening with superb wild chanterelle mushrooms brought in from the forests about 150 km southeast of here, in Tikhvin, where composer Rimsky-Korsakov and other notables had their dachas in the late 19th century.  And our meal progressed through baked Murmansk gorbusha, to mixed green salad coming from local greenhouses, to end with very fragrant strawberries coming from growers 100 km to the southwest of Petersburg, northern berries that put to shame the wonderful strawberries from Crimea that were on sale a couple of months ago.

 

The point about the municipal markets is that they are visited by the most discriminating consumers, not necessarily by the wealthiest.  Prices often are not very different from those in supermarkets, but the sourcing is often entirely different. The difference is clearly that the supermarkets are compelled to buy from large-scale suppliers who can fill their retailing networks, while the markets can choose from small-scale growers. And the continuing presence of their customers is another sign that the economic situation of the people on the ground is not really all that bad.

 

I complete this encouraging survey of new and high quality Russian food products put on offer notwithstanding the possibly stagnating purchasing power of the population, by a remark on beverages – on one beverage in particular, sparkling wine.  This category was always a favorite in Russia, firstly among women, but not only.

 

In the past week, I was surprised to discover a new premium Russian sparkling wine sold under the name “Lev Golitsyn” in a special “Coronation” edition and produced here in St Petersburg by the company Igristye Vina, one of the country’s largest and oldest manufacturers in this category. It is available in both Semi-Sweet and in Brut formulations. I bought the Brut and could not believe my good fortune:  this 7-euro wine has a floral fragrance and excellent balance, just as the label informs us (truth in advertising is not a strong point in Russia).  As a professional in the field from my 5 years serving as General Manager, Russia for two of the world’s largest international spirits corporations, I say with hand on heart that the product is superior to most French non-champagne sparkling wines, not to mention Spanish Cava and Italian Prosecco.

 

Why the name “Lev Golitsyn”?  Because that member of a princely Russian family, many of whose descendants ended up in France or in California, had created a champagne empire in the Crimea, at Novy Svet (New World) in the late 19th century and won international prizes for his products before the Revolution.  Why “Coronation”?  This is surely a reference to the coronation of Nicholas II in 1895 and sets the date of origin of the tradition being cited by the producer.

 

The discovery of this new product brought to mind my own experience in 1997 as lead investigator and negotiator on behalf of Joseph Seagram & Sons in a project to conclude a contract with a local co-packer who would produce a premium sparkling wine to our specifications and for sale via our distribution channels. On that mission, I met with the managing directors of several of Russia’s top sparkling wine manufacturers, including the Igristye Vina factory in St Petersburg,

 

At the start of our talks, the manager of Igristye Vina was not interested in cooperation because his operations had fallen to less than 10% of capacity due to the problems handicapping the entire Russian wine industry at the time: the lack of domestic wine stock due to the barbarous destruction of vineyards carried out a decade earlier under the direction of Mikhail Gorbachev in his anti-alcohol campaign, and the massive entry into the market of cheap and untaxed sparkling wines coming across the border from the Ukraine and other former Soviet republics.  With less than 10% of his factory in production, unit costs were prohibitively expensive and the factory had no time for us.   However, at our second round of talks six months later, the refusal to partner with us resulted from the opposite circumstances: state measures to put a halt to untaxed imports and to ersatz, largely German bubbly products, resulted in full occupancy of Russian market players.  Running flat out to supply their loyal domestic customers, they had no time to waste with finicky foreigners who wanted to change the raw inputs and process parameters to produce a relatively small special order in time for Christmas.

 

Now it appears that Igristye Vina have achieved exactly what we were proposing to them in 1997 without Western involvement and in response to an ever more discerning Russian consumer who is ready to lay out twice the price of standard Sovietskoye Shampanskoye for a bottle of premium product that has none of the yeasty flavor and quick spoilage of the Soviet GOST standard product though it is clearly being produced on the Soviet-era continuous production line as opposed to French Champagne’s batch method.  The difference is the quality of the base wines used and the attention to biologicals, including advanced filtration to assure longer shelf life.

 

The label on this product says nothing about the source of the wine materials, which, I assume, are largely if not completely imported – perhaps from nearby, as in the case of Moldova, perhaps from South America or elsewhere in the world.

 

I have taken the time to feature this product, because it makes the contrarian case that Russian consumerism at working class, entrepreneurial and managerial levels is becoming more sophisticated and producers like the wine factory in St Petersburg are moving in to fill demand that may just be starting, but which they expect to grow in the near future. At seven euros, this product is not directed at the affluent who can pay 50 euros for the French original, but to aspirational middle classes.

 

Now let us direct attention to another good indicator of well-being:  vacation travel.  During his televised chat at the G-20 meeting in Osaka last weekend with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, President Putin mentioned that over the past year more than six million Russians have traveled to Turkey on vacation, a new record, and they spent more than 5 billion dollars, meaning more than $900 per capita.  That is to just one tourist destination and it contradicts the notion of economic worries on the mind of the middle class Russian tourist who made that trip.

 

Meanwhile, the large majority of our intelligentsia friends in St Petersburg have this year and last foregone their traditional summer vacations in Western Europe – not because they lack the money but because this is their protest at the Russophobia they know predominates in EU countries today.  Instead they are taking their vacations within Russia, visiting the provincial towns that were long on their ‘to do’ lists. Their travels go well beyond the “Golden Triangle” of ancient Russian cities that foreigners know so well. They take in small towns on the Volga of great historical interest such as Uglich, distant monasteries that have been reclaimed by the faithful and manor houses on former noble estates that have been lovingly restored and often offer lodgings to visitors that vary in price from princely to modest depending on the importance of the given rooms.

Most of our friends come back very pleased with the improved, international level of accommodations and food catering they find in the Russian heartland.  However, some report that the new facilities are still under-utilized. That is to say, investors are pouring money into infrastructure for domestic tourism that is only beginning to gain traction.  This is a leap of faith on the part of investors and runs contrary to the notion of a stagnating or regressing economy.

 

In summation, the Russian economy and the standard of living of the broad population are very difficult to size up with any certainty. But one can say with certainty that there is some actionable optimism about improving conditions on the part of investors, manufacturers and service providers that contradicts the negative notes we all heard during Vladimir Putin’s Direct Line program on 20 June.

 

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2019

Post Script. Results of the European Elections of 26 May 2019 as translated into leadership positions of the EU Institutions

The “Americanization,” meaning the trivialization of European politics, is proceeding apace, as we saw yesterday when Council President Donald Tusk announced the nominations to the four highest positions in the European Institutions agreed by the 28 heads of state meeting in Summit.   Tusk directed attention to one feature relating to the nominees for Council President, Commission President, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, and President of the European Bank: gender equality. The candidates being put forward to the European Parliament for approval are two men and two women.

In news coverage of the nominations on both television and print media, both in Europe and in the United States, the headline remarks matched Tusk’s, though a few more elements in the horse-trading behind the given nominations were also mentioned, as I will detail in a moment..  We are told that for the first time in its history the EU is about to elevate women to the most responsible positions.

This attention to gender is precisely in line with the evolution on national politics in the United States over the past seventy years or more.  In the person of John Kennedy, Americans elected the first Catholic president. Barack Obama was nominated and was eventually elected as the first black in the nation’s highest office.  Insofar as there was a positive message in her campaign and not merely reproval of the misogynist and hate monger, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton ran on the expectation of being the long awaited first female president of the USA.

The commonality between the gender politics in the politically correct EU highlighted by Tusk and the promotion of candidates from “minorities” as a token of inclusiveness in the United States is the ad hominem nature of the reasoning.  Planned programs, policy orientation, not to mention relevant professional experience and track record or, dare we say it, competence are nowhere to be seen here.

To put it in a less kindly light, the way the nominations of candidates for the four leading positions in the EU were presented to the public amounts to intentional diversion of the European voting public from the essence of politics, which is how the pie is divided up, who in the population gets what from the economy, that is to say the social and economic dimensions.

In what was intended to be more serious analysis of the nominations in the media, the most critical comments concerned the lack of transparency in the decision-making process, which went on behind closed doors by the 28 heads of state meeting in their capacity as the European Council.  This we heard on the most widely viewed broadcaster in Europe, Euronews, in its “Raw Politics” program. The same commentators also sounded off on the question of non-adherence this time to the practice of nominating for the Commission President a so-called Spitzenkandidat, i.e. the person put forward by the party in the incoming European Parliament with the greatest number of seats, meaning the party able to muster a majority.  In this year, that candidate would have been Manfred Weber, of Germany’s Christian Democrats, within the European People’s Party bloc of the European Parliament. Weber had the backing of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

However, for reasons that are not yet clear, other than the known opposition to the candidacy by French President Emanuel Macron, Weber was sidelined and other candidates were placed before the Council for review. Among them, the apparent front-runner was the former Dutch foreign minister and current Vice President of the European Commission, Frans Timmermans, who was the Spitzenkandidat of the center-left coalition in the EP.  His appointment would have conformed to another EU tradition of alternation in office of politicians from center-left and center-right.

But Timmerman’s candidacy was opposed by the Polish and Hungarian heads of state, who could not forgive the Dutchman’s rebukes over the alleged recent degradation of judicial independence in both countries, acting in his capacity as Commissioner with responsibility for Rule of Law.

In the event, the Poles and Hungarians won the battle and lost the war. As it turned out, the nomination for President of the European Commission went to a German politician, a member of Angela Merkel’s cabinet and fellow party member of the Christian Democrats, Minister of Defense Ursula von der Leyen. Apart from being a political conservative by her party allegiance, the only political conviction to figure in The New York Times and other mainstream media accounts is that she is a strong advocate of greater European integration leading to the creation of a “United States of Europe.”  Thus, she is pulling in exactly opposite direction of the East European Euro-skeptics and defenders of national sovereignty.

We also hear on the BBC and Euronews, read in the Belgian and French newspapers of record that von der Leyen had the strong backing of President Macron.  But why Macron would have supported a member of Merkel’s cabinet that the Chancellor herself had overlooked is not explained.  Only a few hints are dropped. We are told that von der Leyen is a fluent French speaker, having been born and educated in Brussels. And we know that by promoting a German for the Commission President, Macron could expect to have a compatriot and fellow liberal banker selected to head the European Central Bank as a return favor, which is precisely what happened: the 28 heads of state approved the nomination of former French Finance Minister, current Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund Christine Lagarde to take over the ECB from Mario Draghi.

Intriguing as these personal details surrounding the nomination of Ursula von der Leyen may be, to which I might add, the often repeated remark that she is the mother of seven children, another irrelevancy that our journalists toss into the mix to heighten our appreciation of her femininity, there is a key political dimension to her nomination that they seem to omit systematically:  her position on EU integration and the very concept of a United States of Europe puts her directly in line with the views of the bloc in the European Parliament with which Macron and his République en Marche party is aligned: the Alliance of Democrats and Liberals for Europe, headed by former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt. This is not a small point:  it is crucial for any understanding of how the European Parliament will function in the coming five years during which the traditional ruling bloc of Center Right and Center Left parties has lost its majority in the 26 May 2019 election. They will maintain their control in combination with ALDE, which formerly held about 9% of the seats in Parliament, but now with better electoral returns in several countries this past May and with the infusion of circa 22 seats controlled by Macron, represents about 15% of the Parliament.

Let us recall that ALDE has a longstanding record of calling for the creation of a European Army, that its foreign policy might be described as neo-imperialistic, and that it has been regularly irresponsible in its anti-Russian grandstanding measures, going beyond mere sanctions to the passage of a European version of the U.S. Magnitsky Act.  In this regard, Ursula von der Leyen, who has often spoken out against Russia and might be described as a model Cold Warrior, fits the ALDE political profile to a tee.

Valuable as this insight may be, it does not exhaust the lessons on present-day European Union politics that we saw in the nomination of candidates for the four top executive posts.

In the nominee High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, namely the Socialist Foreign Minister of Spain, Josep Borrell, we see the resumption of an EU tradition.  Prior to the creation of the given office, the EU’s long time head of diplomacy and security was the Spaniard Xavier Solana.  And in the nomination of outgoing Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel to be President of the European Council, replacing Donald Tusk, we see a resumption of a role previously accorded to the Belgian who preceded Tusk in this office, Herman van Rompuy.

Both van Rompuy and Michel are being described by the European press as possessing particular talent in coalition building and striking compromises. Of course, within Belgium Michel is seen differently: as the willing stooge of his French liberal party’s larger coalition partner, the Flemish N-VA.

All of which brings us back to the question of one quality that I mentioned above in passing: the competence of those being promoted to head the key European institutions.

Let us assume that in every respect, Christine Lagarde is fully competent and experienced to fulfill the post of head of the European Central Bank.  About Michel, my negative remark is offset by the nature of Council President’s responsibilities: this is in fact a redundant executive post without any obvious powers. About the Spaniard Josep Borrell, I have no information to judge, as he has not been a prominent figure on the European stage. In his case, time will tell.

This leaves us with Ursula van der Leyen, whose new position as Commission President does have considerable power in setting and implementing the programs of the EU Institutions generally.  Here there are very serious questions that even our somnolent media have detected though they speak about them sotto voce and without drawing the obvious conclusions.

It was remarked by numerous commentators that her nomination received the approval of 27 out of the 28 Member States. The one abstention was her home country of Germany!  What normally would be a red flag was let drop, excused by the observation that there was a dispute within the ruling coalition of CDU and Social Democrats over her nomination.  However, the dispute was precisely over Ursula van der Leyden’s competence if not over her integrity as Minister of Defense.  Her Ministry has come under attack for very poor performance, and there have been allegations of nepotism and misconduct in awarding military contracts.  Thus, it is quite remarkable that she sailed through the nominating process on the strength of Macron’s backing and assorted horse-trading about which we can surmise only after all the Commissioners are nominated and approved in the European Parliament over the coming days.

The dry residue from all the foregoing is that the revolt against the elites, the Euro-skeptic movement that raised anxiety among the defenders of the political status quo in the days before the May elections to the European Parliament have been without effect.  The undemocratic habits of the past will continue unchanged under the new ruling majority hobbled together with ALDE.  And the predisposition of the European Institutions to wage a New Cold War will continue unabated even if we have new faces and new personalities wielding the reins of power.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

 

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2019

Liberté d’expression, la censure et la propagande: la télévision russe aujourd’hui

Discours prononcé au Cercle Gaulois, Bruxelles le 7 juin 2019

 

Nous, les Occidentaux d’un côté et les Russes de l’autre, vivons dans des mondes bien séparés et parallèles.

 

Ici, en Belgique et plus généralement en Europe, les téléspectateurs d’ “Euro News” ont principalement été informé ces deux dernières années des nouvelles et des  spéculations concernant le Brexit quasiment à l’exclusion d’autres actualités.

En Russie la dose quotidienne de programmes d‘actualités’ depuis un ans est principalement dédiée aux risques de guerre et préparatifs pour la guerre.

Les chaînes de télévision russes montrent chaque jour le lancement des nouveaux bateaux sousmarins, le vol en formation des avions de chasse de cinquième génération– le SU 57, la visite de Vladimir Poutine aux usines de fabrication militaire et son discours devant les ouvriers et gérants, l’expansion des bases militaires dans la sud du pays pour mieux protéger la Crimée et le littoral de la Mer Noire, les manoeuvres militaires seuls ou avec partenaires comme la Chine.

Ici en Belgique on ignore les mouvements des forces de l’OTAN sauf s’ils bloquent les routes dans l’est d’Allemagne ou en Pologne et créent des nuisances pour les populations civiles.

Bien entendu, si vous êtes russe et que vous regardez les attaques simulées des armées de l’OTAN contre l’enclave de Kaliningrad, situé entre la Lettonie et la Pologne, cela attire votre attention.

Un événement comparable pour nous serait des exercices militaires russes dans la région de Francfort faisant des préparatifs pour une invasion simulée de la province du Luxembourg ou de l’enclave germanophone d’Eiffel.  Sûrement, cela attirerait l’attention de la RTBF!

 

En Russie, les talk-shows sur les ondes publiques n’ont aujourd’hui qu’un thème: les derniers développements politiques et militaires en Ukraine, un pays présenté comme en crise permanent, avec l’attente d’une faillite et d’une misère totale. Chaque jour on voit à l’écran des images d’échanges d’obus de l’artillerie dans le Donbass, des interviews avec la pauvre population civile près des lignes de combats à Donetsk et Lugansk.

Il ne faut pas être un grand intellectuel pour comprendre le sens d’une telle programmation. Il y a quelques semaines, lors de ma visite à la maison de campagne que nous possédons en Russie, au sud de Saint-Pétersbourg, notre voisin, un plombier, se demandait pourquoi la télévision montre toujours la situation en Ukraine et ignore les problèmes quotidiens des russes. Je reviendrais sur cette question plus tard ce soir pour préciser pourquoi propaganda est devenue la norme dans les médias électroniques russes.

Les choses évoluent partout avec le temps. Ce soir je vais vous montrer la liberté d’expression à la television russe à deux moments différents qui ont eu lieu récemment: en 2016 – 2017, lorsque j’ai pris part à des talk shows sur plusieurs chaînes nationales dans des émissions déstinés à la population russe; et en printemps 2018 lors de la campagne présidentielle russe lorsque j’ai regardé la situation dans les médias russes à distance. Pour illustrer notre discussion je vais vous montrer quelques passages vidéos prises de ces émissions russes. Je  terminerai ce discours par une tentative d’explication sur pourquoi selon moi, la situation a empiré l’année passée.

.

* * *  *

Tout d’abord je dois vous dire un mot sur les “talk shows” politiques. C’est un genre très répandu en Russie sur toutes les chaînes nationales, les chaînes d’état comme les chaînes privées.  D’habitude ces émissions sont diffusés le soir, lors de “prime time,” quand Monsieur est rentré de son travail et a terminé son repas. Mais depuis quelques années, par considération pour les téléspectateurs d’après-midi qui ne sont pas seulement des mamans et des pensionnés, mais également des indépendants qui régardent les émissions sur leurs lieux de travail, on les diffusent à partir de midi et les talk shows peuvent être trouvés sur la télé russe 12 heures sur 24.

Ils sont presque tous diffusés en direct. Mais puisque la Russie est le plus grand pays du monde et compte 11 zones horaires de Kaliningrad dans l’Ouest jusqu’au Kamchatka dans l’Est, cela est plus compliqué qu’il n’y paraît. Midi dans le studio à Moscou c’est 19.00 heures à Vladivostok. Il y a des talk shows qui sont diffusés en direct vers Vladivostok et les pré-enregistrements sont rediffusés à toutes les autres zones horaires, une après l’autre avec le décalage adapté. D’autres talk shows sont diffusés en directe à Moscou et rediffusés aux autres zones horaires. Pour l’étranger on les diffuse via satellite à l’heure de Moscou. C’est ainsi qu’à Bruxelles je peux capter les principaux talk shows russes via mon antenne parabolique.

Il faut souligner que chaque émission enregistrée est re-diffusée sans coupures ou rédaction. Ensuite les émissions sont mis en ligne, très souvent en utilisant youtube.com.  Pour ceux que cela interesse, les émissions sont destinées au public russophone, sans traduction, ni titres.

Je vous rapelle que ce soir nous parlons du degré de liberté d’expression et/ou de censure dans les médias électroniques russes. Et pourtant les méthodes de production et diffusion sont restées inchangées sur la période 2016-2019. Pas de coupures. Diffusion directe.

Pour comprendre ce que cela signifie, il faut savoir que les talk shows, interviews et programmes similaires aux Etats Unis sont toujours pré-enregistrés et subissent un grand processus de filtrage et réduction.  Un ami à New York, professeur d’histoire avec une certaine notoriété, et qui est de temps en temps invité aux débats ou interviewé seul m’a expliqué que pour une émission sur CNN ne seront pris en compte des 50 minutes d’interview, que 2 ou 3 minutes. Les monteurs choisissent soigneusement ce qui’ils préfèrent entendre.  Alors, où se trouve la censure?  Autrement dit, le problème avec la télévision russe d’aujourd’hui est plutôt au niveau de la matière traitée, et non pas de censure dans le sens stricte.

Mais me répondez-vous, les participants à ces talk shows russes sont sélectionnés pour éviter toute possibilité de faux pas, donc – c’est de la censure.  Non, c’est beaucoup plus nuancé, je dis.

En 2016 quand je faisait mes débuts sur les talk shows russes, j’ai pu constater la présence obligatoire des “enemis” et l’exclusion des “amis” parmi le quart de participants qui sont étrangers. Aujourd’hui en 2019 c’est à nouveau le cas: c’est presque exclusivement des enemis qui sont présent parmi les étrangers.

Il y avait et il y a maintenant des raisons très claires pour cela. Premièrement, les talk shows ont deux facettes: ils traitent des actualités du jour et ils sont un divertissement durant lequel il faut un duel. S’ils présentaient uniquement des gens qui récitent la ligne du Kremlin, cela devient très vite ennuyant, avec risque de perdre des téléspectateurs.

Les russes aiment beaucoup les combats sans règles seul à seul, comme la boxe, comme les arts martiaux venus de l’Orient. Ils aiment aussi les joutes verbales. Les talk shows télévisés montrent chaque jour des spectacles féroces entre les défenseurs de la ligne du Kremlin et des opposants. Une bonne partie des invités-opposants sont des étrangers installés longtemps en Russie– des Polonais, des Ukrainiens et des américains.

Vous serez peut-être étonnés parce que dans les émissions sur RT, les invités sont tous de grands amis de la Russie.  Mais la chaîne RT est produite pour nous les belges, les britaniques, les allemands vivant à l’étranger.  Pour les russes mêmes, en Russie, les étrangers participants dans les talks shows étaient en 2016 et sont maintenant, de manière caricaturale, de grands méchants.

Le journaliste David Filipov du Washington Post, dont j’ai fait la connaissance dans les pauses d’un talk show a écrit plus tard que c’est une espèce de propagande de les présenter comme les imbéciles de l’Ouest. Cela démontre que le monde est contre la Russie, qu’il faut se défendre et se rallier autour du pouvoir.

Le problème avec ce raisonnement, c’est que les étrangers invités ne se montrent pas tous comme des imbéciles. Ils maîtrisent pour la plupart très bien la russe. Ils sont soit des émigrés du temps de l’Union Soviétique vivant dans le diaspora, ou des non-russes comme M. Filipov, qui réside en Russie depuis des décénnies pour des raisons professionnelles.

Le plus charmant, celui qui est le plus invité de tous les étrangers sur les talk shows était et reste un américain, un certain Michael Bohm, qui vit à Moscou plus que 25 ans. Il est marié deux fois là-bas, et il a récemment demandé la nationalité russe. Il était établi au départ comme journaliste, mal-payé dans le journal anglophone The Moscow Times. Grâce à ses contrats comme conférencier dans les talk shows de plusieurs châines russes, il est maintenant mieux payé que certains hommes d’affaires à Moscou.

La popularité de M. Bohm est telle parce qu’il joue bien l’américain méchant qui répond à chaque question avec la ligne du Pentagon ou CIA. Mais il est linquiste de haut vol et il réussit à faire des répliques en utilisant le folklore et vocabulaire de la Russie profonde, ce qui amuse beaucoup les spectateurs.  Dans quelques instants je vais vous montrer M. Bohm dans une émission ou j’étais aussi participant.

Et si les invités de l’Occident ne sont pas des imbéciles, ils ont la possibilité d’exprimer des points de vue en contradiction directe avec les propos du Kremlin.  Ainsi, la population russe est exposé aux arguments des “adversaires” –  beaucoup plus que nous dans l’Occident sommes exposés aux arguments des russes dans nos médias électroniques.

Alors qui sont les panélistes russes dans les talk shows?  Ils représentent un mélange des législateurs de Duma et de la chambre supérieure, des professeurs d’universités et directeurs de think tanks. Ils sont pour la plupart membres du parti du pouvoir, la Russie Unie, bien sûr, mais aussi des partis d’opposition, et même des partis miniscules. Gennady Zyuganov, leader des Communistes y participe de temps en temps.  Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader du parti ultra-nationaliste LDPR est un participant très fréquent. Il faut savoir que l’opposition en Russie ne constitue une opposition au Poutine, au gouvernement que dans le domaine de politique domestique – c’est-à-dire les priorités budgétaires, les réformes dans le système d’éducation, les soins medicaux, etc.  En ce qui concerne politique étrangère ils sont tous “patriotiques” – alignés avec Poutine et le parti de pouvoir.

Comment me suis-je retrouvé parmi les invités, si je suis ‘étranger’ et pas méchant envers la Russie?  C’est une question de conjuncture ponctuelle qui commença avec la campagne éléctorale de 2016 en Amérique et termina juste après l’inauguration de Donald Trump en janvier 2017.  Durant cette période, les autorités russes ne savaient pas comment interpréter les développements politiques aux Etats-Unis. A mon avis, et contre toutes les théories courantes à Washington de collusion entre Trump et Poutine, l’entourage de Poutine était divisé sur la question de savoir quel candidat serait mieux pour la Russie – l’élection de la démone bien connue, comme ils disaient, Hilary Clinton, ou l’élection de l’amateur en politique, le très volatil Donald Trump.  C’est pour cette raison qu’on a invité à prendre part dans les talk shows des personnes d’avis neutre et/ou positif envers Trump, comme moi.

La population de participants dans les talk shows en générale est très petite. La plupart vivent à Moscou.

On peut se demander comment j’ai rejoint cette poignée des étrangers?  C’est une question de la chance.  J’ai fait la connaissance ici à Bruxelles d’un des grands conférenciers de la télévision russe, un certain Yevgeni Popov en avril 2016 dans une grande salle de réunion du bâtiment du Parlement Européen. Nous tous ont dû assister à la projection d’un film documentaire de grande importance politique pour la Russie. La projection était annulée au dernier moment à cause de l’intervention des opposants au plus haut niveau de la Commission. Nous étions 12 personnes dans une salle pour 200. Yevgeny me demanda de faire un commentaire en russe sur l’annulation. Son équipe a bien enregistré mon petit interview et Yevgeny était content. Deux semaines plus tard il m’invitait venir à Moscou pour participer dans son talk show “Envoyé spécial,” sur la chaîne des actualités Rossiya-1. Très vite j’ai reçu des invitations d’autres chaînes à Moscou, qui sont en chasse permanente de “viande fraiche.” Comme Popov, ils étaient prêt à m’offrir billet d’avion allez-retour Bruxelles-Moscou, en classe économique, bien entendu.

J’ai ainsi participé sur cinque chaînes différentes une ou plusieurs fois. C’était très interessant, pas tellement pour l’opportunité de dire quelque chose de non-standard devant un public de millions de russes.  Franchement, mon temps devant le micro sur chaque show était entre une minute et dix minutes en tout.

Comme nouvelle personne, comme étranger qui parle tout en étant pas un natif, j’ai profité d’une certaine indulgence des modérateurs. On m’a permit de terminer mes phrases sans m’interrompre ou me contredire, une luxe de laquelle les “natifs” ou habitués n’avaient pas.

Cette expérience m’a permit de mieux comprendre de l’intérieur comment les talk shows fonctionnent, qui est qui, à quel point les modérateurs sont libres, à quel point sont-ils les poupées de fontionnaires supérieures qui leur soufflent à l’oreille via des écouteurs-boutons ce qu’il faut demander, ce qu’il faut dire.

Voici les conclusions que j’en tire:  les restrictions imposées aux modérateurs sont très variables et beaucoup dépende de l’autorité du conférencier et de la politique de chaque chaîne ou groupe de production à part. Il n’y a en tout cas personne de Kremlin qui donne le scénario.

 

Nous allons maintenant regarder quelques courts extraits des talks shows. La première émission, du 20 octobre 2016 est du meilleur show de ce genre, “Le soir avec Vladimir Soloviev.” Soloviev est un proche de Poutine. Il l’a interviewé plusieurs fois et il a fait un film de campagne éléctorale. Aujourd’hui il est aussi modérateur d’une émission hebdomadaire intitulée “Moscou, Poutine, le Kremlin” – le titre parle pour soi.  Le mois précédant j’étais sur son show – pour 2 minutes, pour lequel j’ai dû voyager toute une journée. Mais l’expérience en valait la peine.

  1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rXA0gZBqeRw

00.00 – 00.35

 

Soloviev 20 octobre 2016

 

  1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xejLyhkjqek&list=PLAe6Au-aKEc9TYn9Gdyqn3aivM4qMwAaE&index=1

03.00 – 05.20

 

Vremya pokazhet  (L’avenir nous le dira) –  20 janvier 2017  je suis là. Le sujet est l’inauguration de Donald Trump plus tard le même jour. On me donne le micro et je dis exactement ce que je viens de vous expliquer concernant la pratique traditionelle des chaînes russes de n’inviter que les américains méchants en disant qu’ils seuls représentent le Washington officiel, l’interlocateur unique du gouvernement russe. Notez que M. Bohm est assis en face de moi. Je dis que maintenant nous le people américain ont un président qui rompe avec la politique hostile envers la Russie. Dommage, car je me suis trompé!   .

 

  1. Encore Vremya pokazhet du 23 janvier 2017.   On discute les circonstances de l’inauguration – les manifestations féministes contre Trump, etc.. Je suis là avec les collègues Michael Bohm, David Filippov du Washington Post.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7D9f4cLVdZU&nbsp=

 

13.20 – 14.40

 

 

  1. Un peu plus tard, début février 2017 je suis encore la saveur préférée de la saison et reçoit l’invitation à participer dans les débats d’un talk show basé en Saint Pétersbourg. Cette fois il y a un split screen pour montrer également les participants à distance. Dans le cas j’étais sur ligne avec skype pour ma première intervention sur “Studio Ouverte”, Pyaty Kanal, le 2 février 2017. Notez que c’était bien un talk show “low budget”.  La question du jour concernait l’OTAN et les craintes de l’OTAn          Otkrytaya studia «Чего боится НАТО?»

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ByWQbHoUYKY

09.15  – 09.45

  1. Deux semaines plus tard, j’étais à Saint Pétersbourg pour raisons personnelles, et je fus invité à me rendre au studio du Pyaty Kanal pour une émission concernant l’Ukraine.. Le prix à payer pour eux était assez faible – les frais d’un taxi pour le trajet entre mon appartement dans le banlieue et le studio.

Cet épisode clôture ma période de participation directe dans les talk shows russes.

“Ограбление по-украински» Открытая студия 16.02.2017

A noter:  sur le split screen avec Moscou – un analyste assez jeune mais bien connu M. Delyagin

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A55CP4Dzs5o&t=4s

11.20 – 12.14

 

 

* * * *

La deuxième période que je présente ce soir, c’est le mois avant les éléctions présidentielles russes le 18 mars 2018. Selon les règles de jeu, chaque candidat a reçu un certain nombre d’heures guatuites sur les ondes publiques, télévision et radio pour diffuser ses messages aux élécteurs. Et en supplément, ils ont été invites aux débats télévisés sur les chaînes nationales, chaque jour pour presque deux semaines..

J’ai suivi très attentivement les débats d’ici en Belgique une partie du temps. Par ailleurs j’ai regardé la télé dans ma chambre d’hôtel à Moscou et en Crimée les jours juste avant et après le 18 mars quand je me suis rendu en Russie en qualité d’observateur international du scrutin. Mais, il était aussi possible de regarder les débats quand et où on voulait, parce que ils étaient tous postés sur l’internet directement après les émissions “live.”

 

Le format et les heures de diffusion dépendaient des directeurs des chaînes. Je vais vous montrer deux passages de ces émissions de débats. Sur la chaîne Pervy Kanal on a donné à chaque candidat une allocation de six minutes dans chaque émission:  deux minutes pour présenter sa position sur la thématique du jour, par exemple, le développement des régions de la Russie; deux minutes pour répondre à une question spécifique adressé par le modérateur, et deux minutes pour ses conclusions.

 

Vous trouverez que les modérateurs sont…les mêmes conférenciers que nous avons vu dans les talk shows ordinaires.  Et exceptionellement l’un entre eux, M. Vladimir Solovyov, ne se permet d’agir pas comme simple chronomêtreur mais comme interlocateur en conversation libre avec les candidats.

Je voudrais souligner que le mois avant le scrutin présidentiel russe était sans doute la période de la plus grande liberté d’expression sur la télévision russe depuis 25 ans ou même plus. Même les observateurs de l’OSCE dans leur rapport après le vote l’ont confirmé avec deux qualifications que je vais vous communiquer dans quelques minutes.  Ça veut dire que s’il y a une réstriction ou suppression de liberté de presse en Russie depuis l’accession en pouvoir de M. Poutine, comme insiste la grande majorité de nos politiciens et médias ici en Europe et en Amérique, les réstrictions n’ont pas évolé dans une ligne droite. Pas de tout.

Deuxième remarque:  la participation des partis russes dans les débats télévisés était énormement plus généreuse et, j’ose dire démocratique que chez nous, en Belgique ou aux Etats-Unis. Chaque parti qui satisfait aux conditions d’enregistrement pour le scrutin avait une place dans les débats, même partis qui ne comptent pas plus qu’un pourcent des élécteurs éventuels.  C’est comme si M. Mondrikamen du Parti Populaire était invité à prendre place à coté d’Olivier Maingain sur les ondes publiques en Belgique, ou si le candidat des Greens aux Etats-Unis Jill Stein figurait à coté de Donald Trump et Hilary Clinton dans les débats présidentiels en outre-mer en automne 2016..

 

Les candidats et ses représentatives ont critiqué à la télévision tous et tout qu’ils voulaient, sans mincer leurs mots; ils ont pu faire des promesses les plus extravagantes s’ils étaient élus sans peur d’être punis. Leurs comportements envers les autres participants étaient parfois sauvage, avec des insultes des uns envers les autres, et de tous envers Poutine. On le verra voir dans une des deux passages que je vais montrer.

Alors en considérant ces circonstances vous comprenez pourquoi le président Poutine a decidé de ne pas participer dans les débats. Il a fait son message éléctoral télévisé lors de son discours annuel sur le statut de la nation devant les deux chambres du parlement russe le 1 mars.  .

Une critique de l’OSCE était la domination par Poutine des ondes publiques jour après jour avec le reportage de ses activités en qualité de président.  C’est une critique juste si on oublie le fait que M. Poutine est un des Chefs d’Etat plus actifs et conséquents du monde qui est toujours en rencontres avec ses pairs internationaux et en visite partout dans le pays.

L’autre critique de l’OSCE, c’est que la liberté d’expression ne doit pas être une chose réservée aux éléctions, mais doit se faire toute l’année.  Aussi une remarque juste.  Et nous pouvons discuter de cette question à la fin de mon discours.

 

Nous allons maintenant regarder deux passages de vidéo de mars 2018

.

Débat sur Pervy Kanal

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u4mDLSec66o

 

13.03.2018   –  5 jours avant le scrutin du 18 mars

 

00.00 – 01.15

 

Débat sur Rossiya-1

Zhirinovsky insulte Sobchak – cette prostituée – et elle répond en jetant sa verre de l’eau sur le visage de son adversaire.  Regardez qui est le modérateur – notre Soloviov

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6rmP_S7QZho

00.00 – 01.00

 

 

** * * *

La troisième période de mes observations sur le degré de liberté d’expression sur la télévision russe c’est aujourd’hui. Les aspects négatifs sont celles que j’ai déjà mentionné lors de mes premiers remarques ce soir: la concentration d’attention dans la programmation vers les préparatifs pour une guerre, et la thématique de l’Ukraine comme l’état en faillite, vu comme un voisin très dangereux dirigé contre la Russie par les Etats-Unis et la Union Européenne. Jour après jour les mêmes panélistes adressent les mêmes questions. Au-delà du fait que c’est ennuyeux, c’est aussi une forme de propagande.

Mais la situation est loin d’être sans espoir.  Les talk shows ne se prennent pas toujours au sérieux. Au contraire, ils montrent de temps en temps un bon sens de l’humour comme je vais vous montrer dans deux minutes. Et du fait qu’ils existent permet de donner au téléspectateur russe des points de vue sophistiqués et raisonnés. Ils peuvent écouter les meilleurs academiciens américains qui ne sont pas ni méchants, ni amis, ni propagandistes. Je parle maintenant du show “Le Grand Jeu” (The Great Game) présenté cojointement d’un coté à Moscou par Vyacheslav Nikonov, le petit fils de Molotov, membre du parti de pouvoir la Russie Unie et parlementaire dans le Duma et de l’autre coté à Washington par Dimitri Simes, l’ancien collaborateur de Richard Nixon, longtemps président du Nixon Center, maintenant renommé le Centre de l’Interêt National (Center for the National Interest).

Maintenant nous allons regarder passages des ces deux tendances qu’on peut considérer comme positives.

Video clips:

Sixty Minutes, Rossiya-1   24 mai 2019    édition du soir.   Yevgeny Popov, Olga Skabeeva

00.40 – 2.00

00.40 – 2.00

Le sujet – le nouvel président de l’Ukraine, M. Zelensky. Dans une émission de son Reality Show avant son élection, il a promis de se promener nu si le taux d’échange de la monnaie ukrainien baissait.

Note – Popov est le protégé du chef de toute programmation “actualités” de la télévision étatique russe, Dmitry Kiselyov

 

 

Bolshaya Igra

22.05.2019   Nikonov dans le studio – on montre l’image de Simes sur un grand écran – émission directe depuis Washington

Le sujet, l’Ukraine et les nouvels membres d’administration de Zelensky – ses anciens amis dans les Reality Shows

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1YvWtEikVGE

00.00 – 01.00

 

En conclusion, je me démande pourquoi la télévision russe est pour le moment moins libre, plus patriotique que par le passé.

A mon avis, c’est une question de conjoncture internationale, de la forte pression que nous, Occidentaux, appliquons contre le Kremlin, contre les Russes et son économie. Après cinq ans de sanctions, après l’annulation des conventions pour limiter les armes stratégiques nucléaires, tout cela finalement donne un effet sur Poutine et son entourage.

Je souviens bien les discussions en Amérique, en Allemagne lors de la première Guerre Froide, en particulier lors de la présidence de Richard Nixon et le lancement de la politique de Détente,  lors du lancement de la Entspannungspolitik du chancelier allemand Willy Brandt.  Les défenseurs de la détente disaient que le résultat de la pression contre l’Union Soviétique au nom de défense des droits de l’homme était toujours la dimunition de la liberté et non pas l’augmentation de liberté pour les russes.

C’est avec cette pensée que j’ouvre la conférence à vos commentaires et questions.

The 2019 European Parliamentary election results: an analysis from the perspective of peace on the Continent

During the run-up to the continent-wide elections to the European Parliament that just took place, our European press and electronic media sounded the alarm over the threat of a populist, nationalist, Eurosceptic tide overwhelming the “peace project” that the European Union is said to be.  The great fear was that the Center would not hold, that the alliance between Center Right (European People’s Party) and Center Left (Socialists and Democrats) which has held a majority of the 751 seats and set the agenda for the European Institutions over the past 40 years would be swept away while irresponsible fringe parties would carry the day.

As it turned out, in elections which culminated with voting day in most Member States on Sunday, 26 May, the two-party centrist majority heavily lost seats and no longer can rule alone.  However, the insurgency of nationalist parties led by Italian deputy premier Matteo Salvini and backed by France’s Marine Le Pen of the National Rally and Holland’s Geert Wilder of the Freedom Party, which our journalists were watching with hawk-like attention brought their bloc (The Europe of Nations and Freedom) only modest gains, yielding a total of 58 seats versus 40 in the 2014 elections, and not the 75 or more hoped for.  Salvini’s ambition to enjoy a bigger say in the Parliament, and consequently in the allocation of ministerial portfolios in the Commission will depend on whether he can draw into a working alliance the deputies from Viktor Orban’s party (presently still EPP) and deputies from the governing Law and Justice Party in Poland, among other nationalists, and so rise to over 100 seats on votes of common interest. If these and the other small parties of the same genre were to pool resources, then, in the analysis of The New York Times, populists and eurosceptics on the whole “increased their seats in Parliament to 25 percent, up from 20 percent five years ago.”

However, that hypothetical formation of what is called the ‘extreme right’ pales in comparison with the rise of two other blocs in the latest elections, both of which have the potential to consolidate the Center if they join forces, which is more than likely.  I have in mind the two greatest winners in the latest EP elections:  the Alliance of Democrats and Liberals for Europe (ALDE) and the Greens.

From its 68 seats in 2014, ALDE is now forecast to hold 106 seats in the new Parliament. The increase is in good part attributable to Emmanuel Macron’s taking the 22 or so deputies of his new République en Marche party into the bloc but also reflects a broader swing in favor of the Liberals in several countries. Long-time leader of ALDE, former Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt, was quoted as saying when the election returns came in Sunday night, “No solid pro-European majority will be possible without our new centrist group.”

Meanwhile, one of the Greens’ leaders, Belgian MEP Philippe Lamberts, issued a similar claim: “To make a stable majority in this parliament the Greens are now indispensable”  Indeed, the Greens rose from 51 seats in 2014 to 67 seats in the new Parliament, much of the increase coming from Germany, where the Greens almost doubled their result from the previous election.

The Belgian daily La Libre Belgique summed up the situation succinctly with the headline “In the European Parliament, the Liberals and the Greens are positioned as king-makers.”

The above correlations constitute almost the entirety of mainstream analysis of the 2019 elections to the European Parliament where the focus of attention has been on what the electoral outcome means for institutional stability and continuity of policies. The European Union is deemed to be a “peace project” precisely because the ever growing integration of Member States into a supranational entity comes at the expense of the prerogatives, or sovereignty if you will, of Member States. And nationalism, in the view of these integrationists, is what accounted for Europe’s bloody history over the past two centuries.

However, this concept of a peace project is as unfounded and purely ideological in nature, as the Neoconservative notion that only democratic nations can live together in peace.  These are the Hail Mary’s of a secular religion. They are unproven and taken on faith.

 

I propose a very different frame of analysis to understand the degree to which the results of the latest European elections work in favor of peace or the contrary.

To be sure, there was no “War Party” and no “Peace Party” on the ballots. But let us remember that the Centrist parties of the EU Parliament steered Europe along a course of collision with Russia over Ukraine going back to the fall of 2013 when their foreign and defense negotiators gave Kiev a flat choice of aligning itself with the EU economically, diplomatically and militarily or maintaining ties with its single biggest trading partner and banker, the Russian Federation. And when the Maidan crisis broke in February 2014, the EU reneged on the compromise agreements it had just brokered between then prime minister Yanukovich and his opponents, allowing nationalist militants, including neo-Nazis, to come to power in Ukraine on a violently anti-Russian platform.  Then, when the United States began the unending process of punishing Russia for its intervention in Ukraine by sanctions, the European Union, under the guidance of these same centrist parties, EPP and S&D, unflinchingly followed suit. When the United States mobilized NATO,  began moving military personnel and equipment close to Russian borders, began holding highly provocative war games simulating the invasion of Russia’s Kaliningrad enclave, on the logic of dissuading Russia from committing further “aggression,” the EU Member States, led by the Centrists, did its fair share of saber rattling in Moscow’s direction. If all of this does not constitute a “War Party,” what does?

With the results of the latest vote for EP deputies, the picture becomes even more ominous.  The Liberals and Democrats (ALDE), who are now the king-makers, have been among the most irresponsible voices in the Parliament these past five years with respect to Russia-baiting and imposition of sanctions against Russia. Their aforementioned leader, Guy Verhofstadt has been the European partner of Neoconservative think tanks and lobbyists in Washington formed and directed by Robert Kagan, the political pamphleteer who assisted John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2008 and is the husband of the notorious Victoria Nuland, the key State Department officer who ran the Ukraine putsch and distributed cakes to the radicals on the Maidan Square. France’s Emmanuel Macron has chosen well the war-minded devils he will be supporting in the new European Parliament.

Add to that the newly victorious Greens, whose core group, the German Greens, have in the last European Parliament been among the most vituperous Russia-baiters. It is one thing to favor Environmentalism, which is the current flavor of youth politics in Europe, or to stand up against nuclear power generation.  But politicians in the Parliament have to take positions on more than one issue, and the German Greens have never hesitated to move the Continent into direct confrontation with Moscow, whatever that may bring in terms of destabilizing security and heightened chances of war, including, paradoxically, nuclear war. If I may name one Greens leader who has personified this short-sighted policy, it is Rebecca Harms, who was from 2010 to 2016 President of The Greens – European Free Alliance in the European Parliament.

Moreover, the Cold War orientation of the German Greens did not come from nowhere. It did not depend on any actions from Russia to be manifest but was embedded in their DNA from the very founding.  A reading of the Wikipedia entries of Its long-time intellectual leaders Joschka Fischer and ‘Danny the Red’ Cohn-Bendit make this clear. They maintained an unholy alliance with the Liberals on issues of Euro-integration. Cohn-Bendit, after all, was co-author with Guy Verhofstadt of the book Debout l’Europe (Stand Up. Europe) which advocates a good measure of Euro-imperialism. So much for the peace project….

With allies such as these needed to restore control over the legislature, hence over the European Commission, the European People’s Party – Socialists and Democrats coalition looks distinctly warlike in fact if not in name.

Otherwise, the balance of forces in the incoming Parliament which we may identify as standing for Peace has seen changes in the shares of individual parties within the same overall number of approximately one-third of the 751 deputies who from 2014 to present stood for common sense, fact based construction of relations with Russia, and may therefore be called the Parties of Peace.

Nearly all of the parties that our journalists have labeled nationalists, Eurosceptic and populist have taken positions against sanctions on Russia. A few among them openly call for disbanding NATO. Meanwhile, the Party in this camp which did most poorly on the 26th happens also to bear the name “Greens” but within the broader name of “Nordic Green Left Alliance.”  Over the past several years I had occasion to meet with members of this group who sponsored round tables within the European Parliament to consider or reconsider relations with Russia. They were open-minded and serious people, and it is a pity they have fared poorly in the latest elections.

In closing this overview of the 2019 elections to the European Parliament, I direct attention to results here in Belgium, where the most striking development was the surge in support in the North of the country (Flanders) for the Extreme Right nationalist party Vlaams Belang, who took votes away from the leading Flemish nationalist party, the N-VA which was positioned more to the center and had been the power behind the throne in Belgium’s coalition government  with the French-speaking liberals of the Mouvement Réformateur (MR) till they forced the government to fall over immigration policy last December. The virtual doubling of the vote for the Vlaams Belang have made it the second largest party in Flanders, with approximately 20% support, and a force to be reckoned with at the federal level as politicians try to hobble together a new coalition to run the country.

When viewed from the perspective of Europe and of the War Party-Peace Party analytical frame, the rise of the Vlaams Belang adds another two MEP seats to the pro-détente Europe of Nations and Freedoms bloc (now totaling 55 seats) in the European Parliament. A little more than a year ago, a legislator in the federal Chamber of Repreentatives from the Vlaams Belang was the initiator of a motion calling for an end to sanctions on Russia, which, of course, failed to gain traction in the MR and N-VA dominated house.

Meanwhile, the leader of the Francophone populist party Michael Mondrikamen, the coordinator of pan-European populism designated by Steve Bannon to head his “Movement” failed miserably at the ballot box. His party will lose the one seat it had in the Belgian federal Chamber and has none in the European Parliament. Bannon’s inability to understand who is who in Belgian politics and to back those who ultimately triumphed last Sunday, the Vlaams Belang, shows yet again that the Masters of the Universe residing on the other side of the Atlantic should not try to run European politics but would do better to restore order in the presently dysfunctional American political system.

 

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2019