1 June 2014

Today Monday, 2nd of June, at 4 pm in Berlin ESI, together with the German Federal Commissioner for Human Rights, organises  a public debate on the future of political prisoners in Europe. Our goal is to raise the awareness about this issue and about the current failure of international organisations. It is also to discuss concrete proposals on what to do next.

It certainly seems the right moment to focus on this issue. A few days ago I got a message from Leyla Yunus, one of Azerbaijan’s most respected human rights defenders:

“No support from CoE!

All of us hostages. procurator do not return our passports, which they took illegally!

Leyla”

 

Leyla Yunus Foto: Christian HassLeyla Yunus

 

We are hearing a lot from people already in prison in Azerbaijan about the economic hardships faced by their families as a result of their captivity. They also often rely on lawyers they cannot afford to pay and who therefore work pro bono, with a significant risk of later being harassed for this very work.

For all these reasons ESI and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee have put together a set of concrete proposals for discussion in Berlin. We will share it at the conference, discuss it more on Tuesday with leading practitioners, and then put it online after receiving more ideas. Here are some of these concrete ideas – an excerpt from our paper – for your feedback:


Introduction

In 2014 there are, once again, a growing number of people in Europe who are jailed for no other reason than for disagreeing with their government.

In Azerbaijan, we witness at this very moment a wave of repression against independent journalists, youth protesters, election observers, opposition leaders and Muslim believers, with many receiving long jail terms. In Russia, people who participated in peaceful protests in Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square after Vladimir Putin’s re-election in 2012 have received tough sentences. Many other activists and government critics have also been brought before the courts. Ukraine, until recently, held political prisoners. There are many political prisoners in Belarus.

Europe has the densest network of human rights NGOs in the world. All European states, with the exception of Belarus, are also members of the Council of Europe. They have thus signed and ratified the European Convention on Human Rights. They have committed themselves to respecting fundamental rights and freedoms. Belarus has accepted the human rights obligations of OSCE membership. But the problem persists, and is in fact getting much worse.

Proposal I: a European website on political prisoners

We propose to create a website on political prisoners in Europe, supported by a coalition of human rights NGOs. This could help focus and mobilise public attention.

The website would highlight all cases of people arrested for their views or on other politically motivated grounds in European countries.

In particular, it would include and consider as political prisoners for this project the following individuals, and make clear these sources:

-          all prisoners of conscience recognized by Amnesty International,

-          all presumed political prisoners identified by PACE rapporteurs,

-          all other relevant cases identified by reputable human rights organisations, including Human Rights Watch, Reporters without Borders, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Article 19, as well as leading national human rights organisations, which have a methodology and resources and a definition to establish their lists.

Such a website would feature prisoners’ photos, biographies and information on developments in their cases. The aim would help raise awareness of political prisoners among the European public.

There might also be a separate section on alleged political prisoners. NGOs and human rights activists can submit information to the website administrator on who in their view should be included in this category and whose case would deserve to be looked at more closely. These would add pressure on the Council of Europe to find ways examine these prisoners’ cases and establish whether there are systemic patterns of politically motivated persecutions.

 

Proposal II: Effective support mechanisms for families

and lawyers of political prisoners

How can one most effectively mobilize support for families of political prisoners and their lawyers? What existing aid channels are there, and which organizations have already been involved? Where do gaps exists? Are there opportunities for better cooperation in raising the awareness of the need for support among different NGOs?

There appears to be a need for new support mechanisms, for ordinary people to contribute to them and for better ways to advertise them.

 

Proposal III: Establish a standing Expert Commission on Political Prisoners

The Council of Europe needs a new professional and credible mechanism to address the issue of political prisoners. The mechanism must be potentially applicable to any member state where a systemic pattern of repression is suspected. Its work must be compatible with the work of other institutions (the Court and rapporteurs) and complement their work. A new Expert Commission on Political Prisoners could meet both requirements.

The initiative for creating such a panel can come from the Secretary General or the Committee of Ministers. The panel then would be set up by the Committee of Ministers, which is authorized to set up “advisory and technical committees or commissions.”This would require a two-thirds majority of votes cast with a minimum of 24 votes in favour. No member state would have a veto. This panel would become active if one of the following Council of Europe institutions finds a systemic pattern of politically motivated repression!

The proposed panel on political prisoners could be composed of 3 to 7 experts. These should be former judges, presidents of national courts or senior human rights lawyers. . They would act in their individual capacity. The panel would receive necessary resources and a budget for travel, translation, legal aid, and other expenses.

Several institutions would have the right to independently appeal to this Expert Commission to begin work and examine the situation and cases in any country where they are suspecting systemic repression.

-          PACE rapporteurs of any committee; the president of PACE; or the PACE bureau.

A new PACE rapporteur on political prisoners could also ask the Commission to examine – with more resources than a rapporteur will ever have – whether there is a pattern of systemic repression, which would make his or her political work easier.

-          The Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights.

-          The Secretary General.

-          A number (to be determined) of member states of the Committee of Ministers

The commission’s work would consist of investigating individual cases in a quasi-judicial capacity, but not leading to legally binding judgements, to see if there is a systematic pattern of abuse. Suggestions for cases to examine would be submitted both by the Council of Europe’s own institutions and by local and international NGOs or human rights defenders.

The panel would select a limited number of pilot cases and examine them first. Then, it would complete draft opinions on whether these individuals are political prisoners according to the PACE 2012 definition and ask the authorities of the country for feedback. After this, it would finalize its opinions and set a reasonable deadline for the authorities to react by granting a release or retrial and carrying out reforms to stop systemic abuse of this kind.

After the deadline, either the Secretary General or a PACE rapporteur for political prisoners or the Commissioner for Human Rights should assess whether the authorities have acted on the findings of the experts.

If this is not the case, the Assembly and the Committee of Ministers should consider sanctions, including a boycott of official Council of Europe meetings in this country and loss of voting rights. Also, no such country would be able to assume the chairmanship of the Council of Europe as long as the situation is not resolved.

A similar panel of legal experts was already successfully used by the Council of Europe in 2001-2004 for Azerbaijan. The combined efforts of the experts and PACE rapporteurs led to the determination that there were 62 presumed political prisoners in Azerbaijan and to the release of hundreds of alleged political prisoners in the country.

Currently in the case of Azerbaijan, PACE did already adopt a resolution on 23 January 2013 stating that there were not only individual cases but in fact a systemic pattern of arrests. The Council’s Commissioner for Human Rights has also identified “selective criminal prosecution” of dissenters in Azerbaijan. Either of these findings would in the future automatically trigger the Commission to look into the situation more closely.

Proposal IV: The future of the Russian delegation in PACE

In April 2014, following Russia’s annexation of Crimea and military involvement in the Ukraine crisis, PACE voted to suspend the voting rights of the Russian delegation until the end of the year. It should be considered to link the restoration of voting rights to progress on other human rights issues, not limited to Ukraine, and in particular to addressing all concerns about political prisoners.

Proposal V: Azerbaijani chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers

On 14 May, Azerbaijan assumed the six-month chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers. There is consensus among human rights NGOs that the situation with political prisoners has markedly deteriorated in Azerbaijan. This has also been publicly confirmed by various institutions of the Council of Europe. On 29 April, the Council’s Human Rights Commissioner Nils Muiznieks issued a statement on Azerbaijan, in which he condemned “unjustified or selective criminal prosecution of journalists and others who express critical opinions.”

On 22 May, Secretary General Thorbjorn Jagland published an op-ed in European Voice, in which he conceded that Azerbaijan was “known in Western capitals for stifling journalists and locking up opposition activists” and maintained that the Council of Europe was not blind to violations. The same day, ECtHR issued a judgment saying that the Azerbaijani authorities had arrested opposition leader Ilgar Mammadov to “silence and punish” him for criticising the government.

On 23 May, PACE President Anne Brasseur spoke in Baku, mentioning a “more than worrying state of affairs” in Azerbaijan, criticising the deterioration of freedom of expression, assembly and association, and calling on the government to release Ilgar Mammadov.

There is a consensus on the seriousness of the problem. There should now also be an appropriate reaction. One clear measure to be considered now would be to hold no Council of Europe meetings and events in Azerbaijan until Ilgar Mammadov, on whom the ECtHR has already ruled, is released.

Secondly Azerbaijan should officially agree to the appointment of a new PACE rapporteur on political prisoners and commit itself to cooperation.

Thirdly, the Secretary General and the Committee of Ministers should establish an Expert Commission as outlined above.

Proposal VI: an EU visa panel for human rights violators

The European Union has the power to sanction human rights violators. One type of sanctions (“restrictive measures”) are travel bans. Traveling to the EU is not an inherent right. It is a privilege that governments are free to deny. Sanctions can be proposed by member states and the High Representative for Foreign Policy, who can also act together with the European Commission.

The body responsible for imposing sanctions is the Council of Ministers. It does so by adopting – unanimously – a document called a “decision”. For travel bans, no additional legislation is necessary, and member states are obliged to directly implement the Council’s decision. Travel is a privilege, not a right. The EU needs to develop a forward-looking policy of denying entry and visa to human rights violators from Russia, Azerbaijan and other states.

To do this, member states could sponsor an independent commission of senior former judges, who would make annual recommendations to the Council of Ministers on who should be barred from entry.

This proposal avoids two pitfalls: it is not summary justice and it provides a mechanism for appeal. The independent commission would review its recommended blacklist annually, providing room for appeal. The whole process would also ensure transparency. This would increase pressure on EU governments to act, spur debates, and create a credible process that human rights defenders can use.

Conclusion: a campaign “2015 For a Europe without political prisoners”

Many of the most respected human rights organisations have their roots in campaigns on behalf of political prisoners: Amnesty International (the 1961 letter by Peter Berenson on “The forgotten prisoners”), Human Rights Watch (the Helsinki committees to support dissident in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union).

After the end of the Cold War it seemed for a short moment as if this particular problem no longer haunts Europe. Now it has returned. This is a test of the ability and compassion of European civil society, and of the organisational capacity of human rights defenders. A reactive approach is clearly no longer enough.

Combined efforts pay off. Concrete initiatives and proposals can be brought together under the banner of a Europe-wide campaign “2015 For a Europe without political prisoners.” Such an effort would be a joint effort of different independent human rights NGOs. The strategy could encompass all these various elements:

-          highlighting stories of individual victims better;

-          mobilising support for victims, their families and lawyers;

-          mobilising think tanks and NGOs to monitor and analyse PACE and its members;

-          taking back and using existing mechanisms in the Council of Europe;

-          setting up a new mechanism in the Council of Europe to look into systemic imprisonments on political grounds in member states,

-          institutionalising a process for visa bans for human rights offenders by the EU.


In accordance with Article 17 of the Statute of the Council of Europe: “The Committee of Ministers may set up advisory and technical committees or commissions for such specific purposes as it may deem desirable.”

PACE Resolution 1917 (2013) “The honouring of obligations and commitments by Azerbaijan”, 23 January 2013, para. 14.

 

Azerbaijan - Chairman of “REAL” movement Ilgar Mammadov and Deputy chairman of Musavat Party Tofig Yagublu

Ilgar Mammadov and Tofiq Yagublu, two political prisoners in Azerbaijan

A few days ago a  relative of another political prisoner in Azerbaijan, Tofig Yagublu, forwarded me this appeal:

“I have been sentenced to prison term on absurd charges since I fight for democratization of Azerbaijan, for its transformation into the part of the progressive world. So that you have an idea about absence of any justification for charges against me, I would like to state that, those charges have as much relevance to you as it has to me.

Due to aggressive actions of Russia against Ukraine the humanity is on the brink of its another tragedy. It is a problem of lack of democracy. Russia’s complacent, illogical and unfair actions are due to lack of democratic society and democratic government formed in accordance with popular will. Would Russia be able to act complacently and carelessly like this, had it had democratic societies in the countries surrounding it?

Therefore, one of the most effective ways of helping Russia is seriously supporting democratization process in surrounding former soviet countries. The Azerbaijani authorities are illegitimate and corrupt. The amount of money stolen by these authorities from the people is way more than the state budget. There have not been any free and fair elections in Azerbaijan since Aliyevs came to power in Azerbaijan. The OSCE ODIHR opinion on the presidential elections held in the autumn of 2013 was the most critical and strict among the opinions stated until present. But even this critical evaluation is lenient compared to the objective reality.

The statements of the authorities with regards to absence of democracy and human rights problems in Azerbaijan is similar to what the USSR leadership used to say on the same topic, and to what the North Korean leadership is saying now. The incumbent government is using energy resources and its important geographical location to refrain from carrying out its international obligations on democracy and human rights. Unfortunately, they have been successful in this until present.

Take into consideration that, political parties and civil society organizations fighting for democracy in Azerbaijan unambiguously see the happy future of Azerbaijan in integration to the West, to EU and NATO. Under such circumstances, the interests of the Azerbaijani people and the progressive world will be ensured more effectively and in a more guaranteed way, unlike in case of existence of the regime, which is staying in power through the Kremlin’s support.

Therefore, it is obvious that, significant pressure on the incumbent regime to start democratic reforms in Azerbaijan is an objective necessity. Under such circumstances, carrying out of the June session of OSCE PA in Baku is withdrawing in front of the Azerbaijani authorities, which have closed the Baku office of this organization and have declared war against the Warsaw bureau due to its negative opinion on the elections. It is difficult to understand this step.

The First European Olympic Games will be held in Baku in the summer of 2015. Shortly after this competition the parliamentary elections will be held in the country. It is very illogical and unfair that, such an event will be held in a country which lacks basic freedoms, prisons of which are full of political prisoners, where free press is mercilessly strangled, on the brink of another election fraud. Those Games shall be boycotted. Until the start of real democratic reforms under the monitoring and guarantee of the international organizations in Azerbaijan, all possible sanctions shall be applied against the Azerbaijani authorities.

Tofig Yagublu, political prisoner 17.03.2014 “

 

14 May 2014

This is an unusual post in two respects: it is personal (about two grandfathers in World War I) and it is not by me but by the next generation:  my daughter produced this for a school  project in France, researching the family history in World War I. It was an excellent way to reflect on this anniversary, and we all learned some new things.

I hope those who  understand German agree that this is interesting to share, as another generation comes to grips with the madness of nationalism in Europe in the very recent past. These lessons remain as relevant today as ever.

 

Zwei junge Männer, zwei Fronten, zwei Gefangenschaften

Fanny Knaus (Paris)

Viele Mitglieder meiner Familie haben im ersten Weltkrieg gekämpft. Das ist die Geschichte von Gottlieb und Alfons, meinen beiden Urgrossvätern, die an unterschiedlichen Fronten kämpften.

Alfons Schwärzler an der italienischen Front. Gottlieb Knaus an der russischen Front.

 

Gottlieb Knaus ist 1895 in Schladming in den österreichischen Alpen geboren. In jungen Jahren arbeitete er in einem Kohlebergwerk.

Mit 19 Jahren zog er 1914 in den Krieg. Er kämpfte an der Ostfront gegen Russland. Dort kam er in Gefangenschaft. Er wurde in Sibirien bei einem Bauern (Kulaken) zur Zwangsarbeit eingeteilt. Es ging ihm relativ gut. Er spielte viel Schach und lernte perfekt Russisch. Nach 40 Monaten, nach der russischen Revolution, gelang ihm die Flucht und er kam zurück nach Österreich.

 

Gottlieb Knaus in Sibirien als Kriegsgefangener

 

Später gab er seiner ältesten Tochter den russischen Namen Ludmilla. In meiner Familie nimmt man an, dass er sich in Sibirien in eine Ludmilla verliebt hatte.

Alfons Schwärzler (der meine Grossmutter adoptierte) wurde 1898 in einem Bergdorf in Vorarlberg  in Österreich geboren. Er kam aus einer armen Familie. Er hatte sechs Brüder und drei Schwestern. Als Bub musste er ins Schwabenland ziehen und dort schon als Kind auf einem fremden Hof arbeiten, da seine Familie ihn nicht ernähren konnte.

1916, als er 17 Jahre alt war, wurde er von der Armee eingezogen. In einem Brief vom 18 Mai 1916, den ich gefunden habe, erzählt er Details aus der Zeit der Vorbereitung auf den Krieg in einer Kaserne: er wurde erstmals geimpft; er hoffte seinen Anzug, den er abgeben musste, nach Kriegsende bald wieder zurückzubekommen; und er bat seine Familie ihm seine Pfeife zu schicken. Er erzählte auch, dass viel exerziert wurde und es „in wenigen Wochen nach Italien geht, um den Katzelmachern [ein Schimpfwort für Italiener] einen Denkzettel zu geben [sie zu bestrafen]“.

 

Gottlieb Schwärzler als junger Soldat während der Ausbildung 1916

Nach der kurzen Ausbildung wurde er in die Alpen geschickt. Er verbrachte zwei Jahre in den Dolomiten hoch oben in den Bergen. Hier kämpfte Österreich-Ungarn gegen Italien. Der Alpenkrieg war sehr gefährlich. Berggipfel und Höhlen wurden gesprengt. Man kämpfte oft im Schnee.

Einmal, beim Essenholen, geriet Alfons in eine Lawine. Er konnte sich an einen Baum klammern und überlebte. Alle litten schrecklich Hunger in den Bergen.

Nach Friedenschluss kam Alfons von den Bergen ins Tal. Trotz des Friedens wurde er nun, wie viele andere, von den Italienern gefangengenommen. Alfons erging es dabei viel schlechter als Gottlieb in Sibirien. Er war über ein Jahr in Gefangenschaft wo er schrecklich Hunger hatte, weil es jeden Tag nur dünne Reissuppe gab. Die Gefangenen lebten in Zelten. Sie froren und es gab viele Krankheiten. Alfons hatte danach ein Leben lang einen Lungenschaden.

Ich fand eine Postkarte an ihn von seiner Familie aus dieser Zeit. Sie ist addressiert an den „Kriegsgefangenen Soldaten aus Österreich“ [prigioniere di guerra soldato austriaco Alfonso Schwärzler].

 

 

Sehr interessant finde ich, dass sowohl für Alfons Schwärzler wie auch für Gottlieb Knaus 1918 der Krieg noch lange nicht vorbei war. Durch ihre Gefangenschaft waren sie noch viele Jahre von ihren Familien getrennt.

Heute kann ich diese sinnlosen Kämpfe nicht verstehen. Mein Vater und meine Tante haben beide in Italien studiert. Mein Grossvater und mein Vater haben Russisch gelernt und mein Vater in der Ukraine gearbeitet. Heute lernen meine Mutter und ich beide Russisch. In Italien war ich schon, aber nach Sibirien muss ich noch fahren.

 

 

Filed under: Austria,Europe,Russia — Gerald @ 10:54 pm
7 April 2014


Universität Czernowitz 1994

Es sollte eigentlich ans baltische Meer gehen, doch dann sperrte die Fakultät in Riga kurzfristig ihre Tore. Wie wäre es mit der Ukraine, wurde ich gefragt: auch hier suchte man 1993, kurz nach dem Auseinanderbrechen der Sowjetunion, junge Leute mit Interesse daran, einer post-sowjetischen Generation westliche Wirtschaftslehre nahezubringen. So landete ich im Sommer 1993 in Czernowitz, im Grenzgebiet zu Rumänien und Moldau, Hauptstadt der nördlichen Bukowina.

Ich hielt Vorlesungen zur Volkswirtschaft und international political economy, vor dem Hintergrund von Hyperinflation und dem Zusammenbruch aller Strukturen. Und ich entdeckte dabei ein mir bis dahin vollkommen unbekanntes Land.

Da war die Armut, das Gefühl von Isolation gerade eine Tagesreise von Wien entfernt. Der Zusammenbruch von sowjetischer Infrastruktur und Industrie. Ein Jahr lang kein Warmwasser, manchmal tagelang keinen Strom. Die Kopiermaschine, die ich aus Wien mitgebracht hatte, gab ihren Geist auf, nachdem hungrige Mäuse in meinem Schlafzimmer alle Kabel durchgebissen hatten. Im Winter wurde der Unterricht abgesagt, denn die Räume der Universität konnten nicht mehr beheizt werden.


Czernowitz Herrengasse – A young Austrian teaching economics in 1993

Da war die Verzweiflung einer ex-sowjetischen Mittelklasse. Und die Entdeckung der Vergangenheit einer Region, die der Historiker Timothy Snyder als Bloodlands bezeichnete: Mittelosteuropa, das wie keine andere Region im frühen 20. Jahrhundert unter Besatzungen, Vertreibungen, Völkermord und totalitären Regimen gelitten hatte.

An die mitteleuropäische Vergangenheit erinnerte nicht nur die Architektur der Stadt – Universität, Herrengasse, Schlossplatz, Volksgarten – sondern vor allem zwei ältere jüdische Damen, noch in der k. u. k. Monarchie geboren. Zwei Freundinnen, Lydia Harnik und Rosa Zuckermann, die seit Jahrzehnten jeden Tag miteinander telefonierten. Ich besuchte sie mindestens einmal die Woche in ihren Wohnungen. Deutsch war ihre Muttersprache, Europa ihre geistige Heimat. Lydia hatte Mitleid mit der Ukraine, diesem “armen geschundenen Land”. Von ihrer Rente konnte sie nicht leben, und so unterrichtete sie weiterhin Sprachen; Französisch und Deutsch, in ihrer winzigen Wohnung neben dem Volksgarten. An der Wand das Portrait von Thomas Mann, im Regal die Romane der russischen Schriftsteller, die sie verehrte. Sie liebte die russische Literatur  ebenso sehr wie die deutsche.

Beide hatten im zweiten Weltkrieg Angehörige in faschistischen Lagern verloren. Beide waren selbst nach Transnistrien verschleppt worden. Rosa und Lydia erinnerten sich allerdings auch an ein Europa mit offenen Grenzen, so wie jenes, in dem es einst ihren Eltern möglich war, bis zum Ersten Weltkrieg ohne großen Aufwand von Czernowitz nach Wien zu reisen. Damals war hier die östlichste Universtät des Habsburgerreiches, und ein junger Ökonom war damals ebenfalls auf die Idee gekommen es doch zunächst einmal in der Provinz zu versuchen (Joseph Schumpeter). Diese Zeit lag fern, die Bevölkerung jener Stadt war vertrieben oder ermordet. Lydia hoffte dennoch dass nun, mit dem Ende des Kommunismus’ und der Sowjetunion, eines Tages auch die Ukraine zu einem neuen freien, demokratischen Europa gehören würde.


Rosa Zuckermann, mentor in Czernowitz

Und so hatte jede Generation hier Erinnerungen an den Fall von grossen Reichen. Melancholie lag auf der Stadt. Die Industrie war zusammengebrochen. Der grosse jüdische Friedhof der Stadt oberhalb des Prut war überwachsen. In der Stadt kannte damals kaum jemand Westeuropa – kaum jemand konnte reisen. Wir befanden uns dabei weniger als eine Stunde Fahrt von der rumänischen Grenze entfernt, doch Rumänien zählte damals noch nicht zu Europa. Zu absurd die Grenze, zu arm das Land dahinter.

Zwei Jahrzehnte sind seit damals vergangen. Ich besuchte Lydia noch einmal kurz vor ihrem Tod mit meiner zukünftigen Frau – Lydia hatte mir zur Hochzeit geraten,  sie war die erste Person, der wir von einer Telefonzelle vom Hauptbahnhof in Rom aus nach dem Heiratsbeschluss von unseren Plänen erzählten. Unsere Tochter heißt, nach ihr, Fanny Lydia.

Rosa besuchte ich später auch zu ihrem neuzigsten Geburtstag, eine 28 stündige Zugreise war dazu notwendig, aus Wien mit Umsteigen in Lemberg.  Sie kam zu jener Zeit durch einen wunderbaren Film – Herr Zwilling und Frau Zuckermann – in ihren letzten Lebensjahren zu einer gewissen Bekanntheit in Deutschland. Das amusierte sie sehr. Ich hatte sie und Herr Zwilling oft in ihrem kleinen Haus in der Klara Zetkin Straße besucht und tatsächlich sehe ich sie heute noch, winkend von ihrem Balkon beim Verabschieden, nach außen fröhlich und resolut, im Inneren melancholisch und besorgt.


Herr Zwilling und Frau Zuckermann (Filmtrailer)

Mittlerweile sind Lydia und Rosa beide auf dem überwachsenen jüdischen Friedhof von Czernowitz bestattet. Europa hat sich seit jenen Jahren dramatisch verändert.

Nicht nur Österreich, auch Polen und Rumänien sind der Europäischen Union beigetreten. Wer heute aus der Ukraine nach Polen blickt, kann die Veränderung dort oft kaum fassen. Ein Europa der offenen Grenzen, ohne politische Gefangene, kein Abholen von Kritikern des Nachts durch die Geheimpolizei, ohne Angst vor Kriegen, Revolutionen oder neuen Vertreibungen. Dieses Europa ist heute weniger als eine Stunde Fahrt von Czernowitz entfernt an der rumänischen Grenze, die zur Grenze der Europäischen Union geworden ist. Und doch hat sich eines nicht geändert: die Ukraine gehört weiterhin nicht dazu.

Die politische Hoffnung der beiden jüdischen Freundinnen, eine europäische, demokratische Ukraine, sie ist bislang nicht in Erfüllung gegangen.

Will man verstehen warum im November 2013 erst Tausende, dann Zehntausende Menschen aller sozialen Gruppen und Generationen in Kiew auf die Straße gingen, um mit europäischen Fahnen in der Hand für ein Assoziationsabkommen zu demonstrieren, das kaum einer von ihnen im Detail gelesen haben dürfte, dann muss man sich die Verschiebungen der politischen Grenzen in Europa vor Augen halten. Ich vermute es gab nicht viele Ukrainer, die davon motiviert waren sich von Russland abzugrenzen, ein Nachbar der hier – auch bei Rosa und Lydia – viel weniger als Bedrohung empfunden wurde als in den meisten Ländern Mitteleuropas. Daher gab es auch in Umfragen bis zu den Protesten nie Mehrheiten für eine NATO-Mitgliedschaft der Ukraine, ganz anders als in Polen, dem Baltikum oder Georgien.

Was es gab, vor allem bei der jungen Generation, war ein wachsender Konsens darüber, dass die Ukraine sich nicht noch einmal zwei Jahrzehnte auf der Suche nach einem Sonderweg leisten konnte. Die Plünderwirtschaft großer Oligarchen, ein von Korruption zersetztes politisches System, eine Gesellschaft ohne Perspektiven, das Gefühl, vor verschlossenen Grenzen zu stehen … all das trieb viele einer Generation, die zum Zeitpunkt des Zusammenbruchs der Sowjetunion oft noch gar nicht geboren war, auf die Straße. Auch die Enttäuschung über das Versagen der letzten Proteste, der Orangenen Revolution 2004.

Als ich im Winter 2013 nach Kiew kam, bemerkte ich bei jungen ukrainischen Studenten großes Interesse an den Erfahrungen ihrer westlichen Nachbarn, Interesse selbst für die arme, kleine Republik Moldau, die die Ukraine auf dem Weg zum Erlangen der begehrten Visafreiheit für Schengen-Staaten überholt hatte. Und auch Angst, dass die Ukraine erneut den Anschluss zu verlieren drohte. Als schließlich Ende des Jahres auf russischen Druck hin ein schon zu diesem Zeitpunkt enorm unbeliebter, weil korrupter Präsident das Assoziationsabkommen mit der EU verweigerte, schien eine weitere Hoffnung auf ein irgendwann besseres Leben zu schwinden.

Tatsächlich waren die meisten der Demonstranten auf dem Maidan vor allem für eine andere Ukraine, eine europäische, ähnlich dem heutigen Litauen oder Polen, auf die Strasse gegangen (Von westukrainischen extremen Nationalisten, die niemals die Mehrheit stellten, einmal abgesehen). Was war auch die alternative Vision der Herren im Kreml, und ihrer ukrainischen Verbündeten? Warnungen vor einem dekadenten Westen, der ehrbaren Slawen die Homosexuellenehe aufzwingen wollte? Zumindest in dieser Frage stimmten Putin und ukrainische Nationalisten überein.

Der Kreml verhöhnte die EU, von der politischen Klasse in Moskau schon lange als impotent, künstliches Konstrukt, machtlos, dekadent, abgeschrieben. Doch bot Russland selbst keine Hoffnung. Mit einer Wirtschaft, deren wertvolle Rohstoffe Europa zwar auf dem Weg durch die Ukraine erreichten, deren Nutznießer ihren Reichtum dann allerdings sofort nach London, Paris, Wien oder Nikosia überwiesen. Dieser im westlichen Europa gelagerte Reichtum ist heute die Achillesverse, aber auch ein Machtinstrument des Kremls. Denn nun, nach der Besetzung der Krim, nach Ultimaten, Drohungen mit Einmarsch und Krieg und der Verletzung aller eingegangenen internationalen Verpflichtungen, die Souveränität der Ukraine zu respektieren, sind es auch wirtschaftliche Interessen, russische Milliarden, die Europa davon abhalten, auf das russische Verhalten entsprechend zu reagieren. Und das hieße: Druck auch auf die persönlichen Interessen der Herren im Kreml. Die von einer Wiederherstellung eines eurasischen Großreiches träumen, ihre Reichtum und ihre Familien aber in London oder Paris vor einem räuberischen Staat in Sicherheit bringen.

So kommt es heute in der Ukraine zu einem Aufeinandertreffen zweier Visionen. Da Herrscher, die unbeliebte Grenzen unter vorgeschobenen Argumenten mit Gewalt neu ziehen. Dort die Erfahrung von Integration und offenen Grenzen. Es geht um die Frage was die Werte der Europäischen Menschenrechtskonvention, später auch von Russland bei seinem Beitritt in den Europarat akzeptiert, heutigen Demokratien noch wert sind. Die heutige russische Elite fürchte – trotz ihrer Rhetorik – weniger die NATO als die Möglichkeit den eigenen Reichtum zu riskieren. Oder fürchtet gerade dies eben auch nicht: denn nicht nur ehemalige deutsche Bundeskanzler sind heute auf der Gehaltsliste kremlnaher Betriebe, sondern auch internationale Organisationen, wie der ebengenannte Europarat, wurden in den letzten Jahren von den Autokratien des Ostens unterwandert.

Dass es bei der Bewahrung dieser Werte letztlich um Zivilisation geht, um Sicherheit nicht nur für Ukrainer sondern für ganz Europa; das hätten Lydia Harnik und Rosa Zuckermann jedem jungen Europäer glaubwürdig dargelegt.

Filed under: Europe,Russia,Ukraine — Gerald @ 2:05 pm
8 March 2014

In October 1935 the Italian army invaded Abyssinia. In the same month the Abyssinians appealed to the League of Nations for help. The League condemned the attack. All League members were ordered to impose economic sanctions on Mussolini’s Italy. Then all resolve faltered.

Sanctions were half-hearted. They did not include vital materials such as oil. Britain kept open the Suez Canal, crucial as Italy supplied her armed forces. In December 1935 the British Foreign Secretary and the French Prime Minister met and presented a plan that gave large areas of Abyssinia to Italy. Mussolini accepted the plan.

The League’s involvement was a total failure.The capital, Addis Ababa, fell in May 1936 and Haile Selassie was replaced by the king of Italy. Somaliland, Eritrea and Abyssinia became Italian East Africa. The League of Nations was a corpse even before it perished. It had no more legitimacy.

DL0929

The Crimea crisis and events in Ukraine today pose a similar threat to the credibility of other European organisations … created, like the League, in the wake of a devastating war with high hopes of launching a new era.  And one organisation already  in the crosshair of the dictator’s assault, already reeling, which Russia was able to join under false pretext and then proceeded to capture with the support of other autocrats in the East and accomplices from the West is the Council of Europe.

Until a few weeks ago one could fear that the Azerbaijani presidency of the Council of Europe, set to begin a few weeks from now in Strasbourg,  would mark the low-point in the history of this once proud organisation. And one might have hoped that, perhaps, it was still possible that the sight of a dictator at the helm of this club of democracies might produce a long overdue shock; wake up democrats across Europe, to pay attention to an institution once created to embody the values of post-war Europe (stated in the European Convention on Human Rights) and recently captured by autocrats from Europe’s east.

Until a few weeks ago I thought there was time to rescue these institutions. Certainly, that it was worth it Today there is good cause to wonder whether the Abyssinia moment has not now also come for Strasbourg.

Unless the Council of Europe reacts to the dramatic illegal occupation of one member state by another member state; unless PACE – the Parliamentary Assembly – issues a strong and unequivocal declaration; unless member states in the Committee of Ministers now take effective actions against Russia; it is hard to see how this “spiritual union” of European democracies can survive as more than a bureaucratic corpse.

It is not hard to envisage a future for the OSCE in this new, harsher, Europe: it will return to being a forum for debates between dictatorships and democracies, similar to the CSCE after the Helsinki Accords were ratified in the 1970s.  It has long been obvious that countries such as Uzbekistan, Belarus, Russia or Azerbaijan are not democracies. The notion that they should participate in setting  high standards for European democracies – which need these standards as much now as ever – debases everyone. Instead let diplomats meet in Vienna and talk (and exchange insults) about peace and common interests. Such a forum is useful as long as it does not serve to legitimize dictatorial rule as “democratic.”

The same is not true for the Council of Europe. Between the  OSCE and the EU it has no future if it does not credibly defend the highest values of democracy. The demise of its credibility creates a void that also needs to be filled: most probably by the European Union, now called upon to define its own human rights acquis more explicitly.

The EU should make human rights central to its association agreements. It should spell out its “political criteria” much clearer, both for accession candidates and for its own members. It should find ways to cooperate with other genuine democracies, from Switzerland to Norway to Moldova in the East.

Of course it would be preferable to preserve the Council of Europe and see dictators such as Putin and Aliyev censured instead, until their countries change their ways. But this looks increasingly unlikely. Instead we will have an Azerbaijani presidency and not even symbolic sanctions against Russia after its aggression.

The Palace of Europe in StrasbourgThe Palace of Europe in Strasbourg

It is hard to see is how the Council of Europe can function much longer as a hostage of dictatorial and aggressive members. They pay an important share of its budget. They are bent on destroying the values it once stood for. And for some time now they have imposed their vision of the world with impunity.

It should also be noted that there would still be a lot worth rescuing  from the burning house of the Palace of Europe, the Council of Europe’s headquarter in Strasbourg. Conventions, agreements, commissions, initiatives (such as the Venice Commission), all serving their members , all worthy of being preserved … but outside of the clutch of dictators. (The same is less obvious in the case of PACE, which appears increasingly superfluous next to the European Parliament on the one hand and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly on the other).

The thread does not stop here, unfortunately. Other proud institutions might soon face a similar challenge: one is the OSCE’s Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights in Warsaw. It has so far stood up, valiantly, to pressure from the East over its professional work on election monitoring. Why would Putin or Aliyev want credible election observation any more than rulers in Tashkent or Minsk? It is fighting tough battles over its budget. It soon faces a crucial choice over its future leadership. ODIHR’s independence and professionalism must be defended at all costs. In fact, should ODIHR be at risk of losing its credibility as a result of an ongoing Russian and Azerbaijani campaign, or should it be paralysed – then the EU and democracies like Switzerland should stand ready to fund it directly.  To rescue valuable experience. To preserve it as the preeminent  European election monitoring organisation, open to other European democracies.

It now seems only a matter of months before post-Maidan Europe will see a broader debate on the institutional architecture needed to preserve core values and safeguard the lessons from the 1930s and 40s.  And we had better prepare for it. For it now seems increasingly likely that Russian troops in Crimea and Ukraine might have a similar effect on European institutions as Mussolini’s troops had when they embarked on their aggression in East Africa many decades ago.

Council of Europe. Photo: Alban Bodineau / Council of EuropeCouncil of Europe

 

ESI background analysis: how the Council of Europe is losing credibility

9 June 2013
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What would it take for the vision of a Europe without political prisoners to become a reality in the 21st century?
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The Congress of Europe, held in The Hague and presided over by Winston Churchill, proclaimed in 1948 the need for “a Charter of Human Rights guaranteeing liberty of thought, assembly, and expression as well as the right to form a political opposition”:

The Movement for European Unity must be a positive force, deriving its strength from our sense of common spiritual values. It is a dynamic expression of democratic faith based upon moral conceptions and inspired by a sense of mission. In the centre of our movement stands the idea of a Charter of Human Rights, guarded by freedom and sustained by law … To rebuild Europe from its ruins and make its light shine forth again upon the world, we must first of all conquer ourselves.”

The Statutes of the Council of Europe, signed at St. James Palace in London in May 1949, committed all members of this new organization to respect “the spiritual and moral values which are the common heritage of their people and the true source of individual freedom, political liberty and the rule of law.”
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The European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, ready for signature in Rome in 1950, then spelled out these fundamental civic and political rights, which “the governments of European countries which are like-minded” committed to respect.
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Repression of liberty of thought and of political opposition in Europe did not end with the creation of the Council of Europe and the adoption of the Convention, however. Hearing about two Portuguese students in Lisbon, sentenced to seven years imprisonment for raising their glasses in a toast to freedom motivated the British human rights lawyer Peter Benenson to write an article in the Observer about “forgotten prisoners” in 1961. He started:
“Open your newspaper any day of the week and you will find areport from somewhere in the world of someone being imprisoned, tortured or executed because his opinions or religion are unacceptable to his government. There are several million such people in prison—by no means all of them behind the Iron and Bamboo Curtains—and their numbers are growing. The newspaper reader feels a sickening sense of impotence. Yet if these feelings of disgust all oer the world could be united into common action, something effective could be done.”
At the time five of Benenson’s eight “forgotten prisoners” were Europeans: a Romanian philosopher, a Spanish lawyer, a Greek trade unionist, a Hungarian Cardinal and the archbishop of Prague. Benenson of course went on to set up an innovative and new organisation in the wake of his successful camapaign: Amnesty International.
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However, neither Portugal nor Spain, neither Romania nor Hungary nor Czechoslovakia were then members of the Council of Europe (Greece would withdraw from it in 1969 following its military coup). None of them had accepted and ratified the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights. More than half a century has since passed. The Council of Europe has expanded dramatically so that today 47 countries with a total population of 800 million people have pledged to respect the fundamental rights of the European Convention. But today there is again a challenge to its core values, and this time it is one that has emerged within the very institutions that were meant to protect them.
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In October 2012 the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe adopted a definition of “political prisoner”.  This definition was first developed by eminent European human rights lawyers working for the secretary general of the Council of Europe as independent experts. The adoption of this definition, following a heated and controversial debate, came at a moment of growing concern that in a number of Council of Europe member states we see a new wave of trials for political motives.  In some countries, one sees the re-emergence of the phenomenon familiar from an earlier period of European history: dissidents, sent to jail for speaking out loud.
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The immediate question that emerged now was obvious: how would such a definition become operational? The first attempt to apply it – in the case of Azerbaijan in January 2013 – ended in defeat in the Parliamentary Assembly (see more here: http://www.esiweb.org/index.phplang=en&id=156&document_ID=136)
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There are many wider policy questions raised by all this –which ESI together with the Jarl Hjalmarson Foundation explores this week at a seminar in Stockholm: What should and could be done by the institutions of the Council of Europe to operationalize the definition of political prisoner that has just been adopted? Is the current system of monitors capable of confronting systemic violations? Are other member states, who are committed to defend the European Convention of Human Rights, able to define red lines that must not be crossed by Council of Europe members with impunity? How can European civil society do even more to use existing institutions and commitments to resist a rising authoritarian temptation?
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The October 2012 PACE resolution sets concrete criteria for what defines a “political prisoner.”. According to Resolution 1900, adopted in a 100-64 vote, a person shall be regarded as a political prisoner if he or she has been deprived of personal liberty in violation of guarantees set forth by the European Convention on Human Rights and its Protocols, including freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; freedom of expression and information; and freedom of assembly and association. Additional criteria include detention imposed for purely political reasons without connection to any offense; the length or conditions of detention being clearly out of proportion to the offense; a clearly discriminatory manner of the detention; and unfair, politically motivated proceedings leading to the imprisonment.
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But what can institutions like the Council of Europe do, going forward, to better defend the ideal of a Europe in which the values of the ECHR are fully respected and in which there would not be any political prisoners in the sense of the definition adopted by PACE in October 2012 (see below). Of course there is always the European Court of Human Rights for individual cases, but what if problems of political prisoners become systemic? It is important to put this debate in the current European context of challenges to the convention, including politically motivated arrests.
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Situations are obviously different even among countries in which problems exist. Azerbaijan and Russia, along with several other post-Soviet states, are today members of the Council of Europe. Yet in recent years governments in these countries have become increasingly aggressive in challenging core values of the Convention – through legislation and through systematic arrests and intimidation of critics and possible political opposition. They have thus tested the instruments and institutions of today’s human rights regime in Europe and have found them to be weaker and easier to manipulate than anybody would have expected in the 1990s. Four decades after the rest of Europe learned about “dissidents” in former communist countries a new generation of dissidents is emerging in the European East … yet this time in countries which insist to be considered “like-minded members” of the club of European democracies.
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Furthermore two other members of the Council of Europe, Turkey and Georgia, have also come into focus in this context, though
evidently the situation in both of these two countries are very different from that in Moscow and Baku, as well as very different from each other. In Turkey we have conceptually at least three different kinds of issues. There is a pattern – for decades – of a judiciary using repressive laws to attack free speech in the name of public morality; there are a range of cases on the basis of anti-terror legislation; and there are the recent high-profile cases against senior military officers and the “deep state”. There is noticeably a lot more freedom of speech than one decade ago, with competitive elections; yet there are also de facto more journalists in jail in Turkey than in any other countries in the world. The trials against many senior military members have been a key tool in a struggle by a civilian government to break the hold of power of the military; and yet there are many signs that they are also political trials, not too concerned about evidence and fairness. How promising then are current efforts to promote reforms of the legislation and the judiciary in Turkey to address such problems? Is the definition of political prisoners, is the Council of Europe a useful reference point in a Turkish context?
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In contrast to its Caucasian neighbours, Georgia has seen a democratic election lead to a real change in power in October 2012; and there are strong and protective laws on freedom of speech. The Council of Europe definition on political prisoners has recently also been applied to set
people free from jail.  At the same time there are growing concerns about prosecutions of former UNM members. A lingering question is whether these cases will turn into witch-hunts, whether the judiciary will be able to preserve credibility and fairness, and how to ensure that the behaviour of the executive and prosecutors remains within limits of rule of law.
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The aim of the Conference is to have an open discussion on the issues of political prisoners and political persecution, rule of law and the role of the judiciary overall in the context of the cooperation within the Council of Europe, in particular in the member states mentioned. The discussions will also focus on how the Council and its member states should act in a consistent fashion in addressing these issues.  And what options there are for different instruments available to in the Council of Europe framework to have more impact on the human rights situation in member states: the parliamentary assembly (PACE) and its monitors, the Commissioner for Human Rights, the Committee of Ministers and the office of the secretary general.
Some recommended reading:
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Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, The Definition of Political Prisoner, 2012
Rapporteur of the committee of Legal Affairs of PACE, The follow up to the issue of political prisoners in Azerbaijan
http://www.assembly.coe.int/ASP/Doc/XrefViewPDF.asp?FileID=19217&Language=EN
European Stability Initiative, Showdown in Strasbourg: The political prisoner debate in October 2012
European Stabiliy Initiative, Azerbaijan debacle: The PACE debate on 23 January 2013
Human Rights Watch, Laws of AttritionCrackdown on Russia’s Civil Society after Putin’s Return to the Presidency, 2013                                http://www.hrw.org/reports/2013/04/24/laws-attrition
Andrew Drzemczewksi, The Prevention of Human Rights Violations: Monitoring Mechanisms of the Council of Europe, 1999
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PS: The Council of Europe definition of political prisoner states:
The Assembly declares that a person deprived of his or her personal liberty is to be regarded as a “political prisoner” :
a. if the detention has been imposed in violation of one of the fundamental guarantees  set out in the European Convention on Human Rights and its Protocols (ECHR), in particular freedom of thought, conscience and religion, freedom of expression and  information, freedom of assembly and association;
b. if the detention has been imposed for purely political reasons without connection to  any offence;Those deprived of their personal liberty for terrorist crimes shall not be considered political prisoners for having been prosecuted and sentenced for such crimes according to national legislation and the European Convention on Human Rights.
c. if, for political motives, the length of the detention or its conditions are clearly out of  proportion to the offence the person has been found guilty of or is suspected of;
d. if, for political motives, he or she is detained in a discriminatory manner as compared  to other persons; or,
e. if the detention is the result of proceedings which were clearly unfair and this appears  to be connected with political motives of the authorities.
Filed under: Azerbaijan,Human rights,Russia,Think Tanks,Turkey — Gerald @ 11:46 pm
4 January 2009

Welcome back to these pages in early 2009.

I hope you had as good a transition from 2008 as I had, here in Istanbul. The weather was quite mild, the waters of the Bosporus still deep blue and the New Year’s party I attended, in a 19th century building hosting American teachers from Robert College (Istanbul’s most famous and most attractive private school) was reminiscent of what I imagine parties on the US East Coast were like in the early 1950s.

Put on the music of the film Mona Lisa’s Smile and you understand the mood I am referring to. The 1950s were also, of course, a time of personal optimism (for most households in the West) against a background of geopolitical fears (the Soviet Union had acquired the nuclear bomb and war had erupted in Korea).

I hope that the many warnings about the unfolding world economic crisis did not depress you. My personal strategy against too much pessimism is to take a walk and then to read a book or two about recent European history. This puts most things in perspective. Donald Rayfield’s Stalin and his Hangmen, for example … but more on that later.

Moscow

On the other hand, there has been no shortage of bad economic news from around the world in recent days. Even Gazprom seems to be running out of money, as the NYT reports (“once the emblem of the pride and the menace of a resurgent Russia, Gazprom has become a symbol of the oil state’s rapid economic decline”)! The NYT quotes the strategist at a Russia-focused hedge fund, who says about Gazprom management that “they were as inebriated with their success as some of their investors were.” At the end the article notes that today a significant portion of the Russian corporate bailout fund is to be reserved for oil and natural gas companies. Quite a hang-over.

This is bad news for the Russian state and its oligarchs. It also turns some of my personal spending last year into a minor misallocation of resources. I had bought a whole stack of books about “resurgent Russia”, which I had not yet had any time to read. Starting one (Alexander Rahr’s Russland gibt Gas – Die Rueckkehr einer Weltmacht, 2008; Rahr has long been a leading advocate in Berlin of a strong German partnership with Russia) during these past days, I came across its bold thesis on page two:

“The West is afraid of the new Russian concentration of power, where money, resources and power are brought together. Yet anybody considering toppling this system will recognise: it is very stable. Energy prices will not decline in the coming years and the demand for Russian raw materials will rise. Its natural resources, linked to high energy prices, make Russia immune to economic crises.”

Oh well.

I put the book aside, to read some other time, perhaps. And I think back to the seminar I attended, at the invitation of Carl Bildt, on the island of Visby a few months ago. There, Boris Nemtsov and Mikhail Kasyanov had presented a rather different picture of Russia. They saw a country which had wasted the years of high oil prices; a political economy where both the state and public companies had underinvested; a situation where sources of previous high growth had been exhausted. They certainly did not see a stable system of power.

Nemtsov had published, in February 2008, a report on Putin’s Russia (The Bottom Line) on “the outcome of Vladimir Putin’s activities for the country – an outcome that is hidden from Russian eyes by a smokescreen of official propaganda.” Its conclusion was blunt: “The opportunities offered by the oil windfall have been missed. As under Brezhnev, super income from the export of oil and gas has to a large extent been frittered away and necessary reforms left undone.”

Visby

In Visby, Boris Nemtsov presented part two of his report. It was focused on Gazprom, “the Russian government’s wallet”. It makes fascinating reading as a story of mismanaging (enormous) resources. Here are some of the highlights:

  • 11 of the 18 members of Gazprom’s board are people who either worked with Putin in St. Petersburg or in the FSB in the 1990s; this, the report notes, is “not the typical way in which global energy companies are run … former small-time regional bureaucrats, port and building company managers, do not usually get given top management positions in major oil-and-gas corporations, especially in such numbers.”
  • The results of this management, from 2001 until today, “are pathetic”; it has “almost totally failed to make the corporation perform its main task – that of providing the Russian consumer with a reliable supply of gas.”
  • The paper gives many illustrations of this failure: gas extraction in 2007 fell back to nearly the 1999 level, while demand increased. The paper notes: “Bearing in mind that some of the old gas fields are drawing close to empty, gas extraction may actually go from not just stagnating to actually dropping like a stone.”
  • As a result of this Russia was forced in 2007 to get one third of its gas from non-Gazprom sources. This meant vastly increased imports of Central Asian gas (from just over 1 billion USD in 2005 to 11.7 billion USD in 2007).
  • This stagnation in domestic gas supplies is the result of systemic underinvestment in gas production. “Russia has proven gas deposits sufficient to last it 80 years at current extraction levels. However, many of these deposits are not being worked. A good proportion of these deposits are located in new areas that have not yet been fully explored, lack the necessary infrastructure, and present extreme difficulties.”
  • For all these reasons 2007 saw an increase in sales turnover (plus 8 percent) and a drop in profits (minus 11 percent), against a background of rising gas prices. The reason was rising costs: much more imports, rising debts, rising spending on wages for a growing staff.
  • The economic rationale for many of the current Russian gas pipeline projects is dubious (more in the paper); and
  • There has been tremendous asset stripping from Gazprom in recent years by people well-connected to Putin in recent years.

So far, so disturbing. And surprising, if one looks at the larger picture – and the current investor flight – for one moment.

How, I wondered, first reading this paper a few months ago, could all of this have been news to any insiders? What were all the investors, who had driven up Gazprom’s stock (and who are now fleeing it), thinking about all of these problems? Did energy (or Russia) experts not know these trends unfolding since 2001, when they predicted the rise of a new Russia, powered by the rise of an awesome Gazprom? Was understanding these things – and paying for the best possible research to do so – not a central concern of investors in particular?

This brings me to a second article. I also read it recently, and recommend it strongly. It is another story of massive overconfidence, bordering on stupidity, by a whole class of highly paid experts, massively misallocating resources. Only this story is set in the US and instead of Putin’s cronies from St. Petersburg the villains are investment bankers from Wall Street. Its author is Michael Lewis and it is called, simply, The End.

Lewis tells the story of Steve Eisman and his hedge fund FrontPoint. Eisman had come to a conclusion early on which is today all too obvious: that the subprime mortgage bond market was one huge bubble; and that, as a result, the investment banking world on Wall Street was dealing in illusions. FrontPoint invested the funds it managed based on this insight; when the crisis came, it emerged vindicated.

There is no need for me to sum up Lewis’ article here. If you have any interest in the current economic crisis unfolding around us, you will probably read it yourself. But the most interesting issue the article raises goes beyond any assessment of the financial sector. It is the same question that is raised by the sudden need for most experts to reassess their analyses of the true state of Gazprom-Russia: how could such a large community of experts working in a certain sector be so mistaken?

In one of the seminal paragraphs in his article, Lewis describes the reactions of Eisman and his team when the Wall Street crisis did erupt in earnest in September 2008:

“This is what they had been waiting for: total collapse. “The investment-banking industry is fucked,” Eisman had told me a few weeks earlier. “These guys are only beginning to understand how fucked they are. It’s like being a Scholastic, prior to Newton. Newton comes along, and one morning they wake up: ‘Holy Shit, I’m wrong!” Now Lehman Brothers had vanished, Merrill had surrendered, and Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley were just a week away from ceasing to be investment banks. The investment banks were not just fucked; they were extinct.”

London

I sent the article also to a close friend, who first suffered through a PhD in economics and currently works in the financial sector in the City of London. He wrote back:

“I buy the basic point that the main problem for investment banking as for the scholastics is that – despite what would seem to be incredibly powerful incentives for the opposite to be the case – the culture of skepticism and genuine research in order to discover and continually reassess what is actually the case is remarkably underdeveloped.”

“Is not the City of London, or Wall Street, amongst other things a massive machine for generating research and knowledge on even the most far-flung parts of the world and the most esoteric economic activities? Well, yes – but also no. The more I think about it, the more I get the feeing that they are research machines in the way that scholastic universities must have been research machines: lots of resources and activities, but somehow missing the crucial ingredients, the crucial elements of the underlying philosophy, to actually make any use of it all – and to prevent egregious, and eventually ridiculous (or, as in the present case, tragic) errors.”

Here is the meta-question which all these myriad crises raise, and which is of more than passing interest to anybody in the business of analysis and research. It is a question about research, mental models, and the absence of critical questions.

It is daunting, even scary, to realise how not just a few experts, but whole communities of practitioners, with a huge supposed material interest to get things right, could get them so wrong. Of course, there were material incentives involved, and much of the story of understanding this failure must now focus on these: how it actually paid off to be wrong.

On the other hand, there was also a remarkable failure of understanding. Thus, all these stories amount to a very strong case for honest, empirical research. Thorough research, not simply opinions or commentary; research that at times might even be surprised by its own findings.

In January 2009 it is not only Gazprom managers and Russia experts but the best paid people in the most advanced economies that wake up with a terrible headache. And with the nagging question, which Eisman had asked himself before the crash: “The thing we could not figure out is: It’s so obvious. Why has not everyone else figured out that the machine is done?”

Now here is a good New Year’s resolution for anybody in the think tank business today: figuring out now what will be obvious three years later. And having the courage to state it, when nobody else does.

PS: Here are a few recent editorials I recommend, in case you missed them, while enjoying the sun on some Alpine slope: Frank Rich on wall street; Paul Krugman on The Madoff Economy; and Tom Friedman on America’s Generation X.

Filed under: Russia — Tags: , , — Gerald @ 1:35 am
14 August 2008

In last night’s BBC World Today programme, the Italian and Polish Foreign Ministers, Franco Frattini and Radek Sikorski, and I were interviewed on the recent crisis in Georgia and how it affects EU-Russian relations and EU foreign policy. You can listen to the full interview here:

Get the Flash Player to see the wordTube Media Player.
Gerald Knaus on the Georgian crisis. © 2008 BBC World Today. All rights reserved.

I also wrote a commentary (in German) in the Austrian Falter magazine, it’s called “Russen und Rosen” (“Russians and Roses”)

Franco FrattiniRadek Sikorski
Franco Frattini – Radek Sikorski

Filed under: Georgia,Russia — Gerald @ 1:10 pm
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