Saturday, February 28, 2015

Boris Nemtsov RIP

Readers of this blog know that it is not a great fan of President Putin's but it has always maintained that, bad and vicious and tyrannical though the man is, he is no Stalin. On the whole, I still think that but as the news of Boris Nemtsov's assassination and of the immediate official reaction to it came through I was not the only person who recalled another assassination, that of Sergey Kirov on December 1, 1934 and what came out of that.

The assassination was undoubtedly professional and well organized. Whoever was in that white car from which the shots were fired knew exactly what route Mr Nemtsov was going to take and when. In connection with this one has to ask questions about his companion, apparently a young woman, called Anna who had come from Kyiv just a few hours previously. That is what another oppositionist, Ksenya Sobchak, has said. The young woman herself has been taken away by the police for interrogation and not been seen since.

Bravely, the people of Moscow have been streaming to the site, which was cleaned up after a couple of hours (so thorough) and laying flowers. The opposition groups are planning what was going to be a march for peace in Ukraine tomorrow, called Vesna or Spring, into a memorial march for Boris Nemtsov and, it seems, permission has been given by the Mayor of Moscow. One can merely admire such courage and wish them well. At present I don't know whether there are any events in London in support of the Moscow march. As soon as I have any information I shall blog it and tweet it.

In the meantime, a representative of the Investigative Commission, Vladimir Markin, has announced that they will investigate the crime very seriously and are looking at several possibilities: an attempt at provocation to destabilize Russia (really, it is a shame from their point of view that Berezovsky is dead and people know it), a possible link with Islamist extremism (unexplained as Nemtsov had nothing to do with Chechnya but, unknown to anyone but the Russian security services he had received threats after Charlie Hebdo), and Ukrainian internal matters (it seems that on both sides of the conflict in eastern Ukraine there are loose canons who might assassinate Putin's opponents). There might also be other causes, said Mr Markin, to do with business matters (Nemtsov does not seem to have had any business interests) and private issues. So, there we have it. How many will be arrested?

In the meantime the police raided Mr Nemtsov's flat and took away documents, writings and the hard disk from his computer. One can only hope that there are copies on what he was working on in other places, preferably abroad, for his friends and colleagues say that he was researching details of Russian involvement in eastern Ukraine.

More as I find out.

UPDATE: There will be a memorial meeting in London tomorrow, March 1, at 2 pm outside the Russian Embassy in Bayswater Road. The organizers are asking people not to bring posters but only flowers, candles and, if they have any, portraits of Boris Nemtsov.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

In the House of Lords

It is hard to work out timing but this may well be going on now or will be starting soon: a short debate that is due to last an hour and a half about EU Regulations and British agriculture, initiated by Lord Willoughby de Broke. I shall, as I told his lordship, enjoy reading Hansard tomorrow and blogging about it.

The Grand Committee will be sitting in the Moses Room at 2 pm when, among other matters they will debate the three European Union Association Agreements, with Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. President Putin's wars seem not to have the desired effect.

Monday, February 23, 2015

I do not think that word means what they think it means

Readers of this blog would have noted that I have been procrastinating. Not only I have not completed my response to Edward Lucas's challenge, I have not written about two events that discussed alternatives to Britain's membership of the EU. Indeed so. Here is another piece of procrastination caused by annoyance at people using some word or another without bothering to find out its meaning.

To start with, here is the short excerpt from The Princess Bride that gives the line I changed a little for the title:

I am sure readers of this blog have their own favourites and they are welcome to add them to a discussion, preferably affixing some kind of a moniker to to their comments but my own bête noire is the word nemesis. Readers of this blog will know that the word comes from the Greek goddess of divine retribution, who may or may not have been the daughter of Zeus or Oceanus or Erebus and Nyx. Mostly it means either the inescapable agent of someone's downfall or the downfall itself, often preceded by hubris, that is unthinking arrogance.

However, for some people who ought to know better the word has come to mean an enemy or just someone not much liked. I spent a good deal of time trying not to grit my teeth too loudly in bookshops as I went past a book by Bertrand Patanaude entitled Stalin's Nemesis: The Exile and Murder of Leon Trotsky. Precisely: Stalin outwitted Trotsky, destroyed him, exiled him, hounded him from country to country and finally had him murdered. In what way was Trotsky the inescapable agent of Stalin's downfall? Judging by this review in History Today the author made no mistakes in his account in the book so who thought of the title?

Yesterday I came across an even more egregious use of the word. I went to see one of the Katharine Hepburn/Spencer Tracy films at the National Film Theatre, State of the Union. It's the one in which Tracy is talked into running for President and finds that in order to do so he has to abandon all his (rather mushy and illogical) ideals and become a machine politician. Just in time and with the help of his wife, Hepburn, he wakes up to reality, abandons his quest and decides to become a different and not very well specified kind of politician. The film mostly moves along at a fair clip, slowing down occasionally for long political speeches and is a little clunky in the way it shows the Tracy character's sudden corruption. But its picture of political wheeler-dealering is wonderful and the two main stars are supported brilliantly by three others: a very young Angela Lansbury as the ruthless media mogul, Adolphe Menjou as the political fixer and Van Johnson as the cynical columnist who becomes a campaign manager and reluctantly begins to acquire some honesty in a very jolly sort of way.

The film was made in 1948, a year in which many people in Hollywood found that they had to make some difficult political decisions but also the year in which Harry S Truman was elected as President, having taken over on Franklin D. Roosevelt's death. The film, though it is about the Republican party, takes no real political sides only the side of the United States, as one would expect from its director and producer, Frank Capra.

In the background, however, there were ructions with the HUAC Hollywood hearings going on and the CPUSA playing its own games, usually on orders from Moscow. It was the CPUSA's decision  (well, probably Stalin's) to abandon the first line of defence for Hollywood's Communists, and that is the First Amendment and to order them all to deny their membership of the party thus turning the whole exercise into an attack on the Truman Administration who, they said, was persecuting the Left in general. At the time, this disgusted quite a lot of people; since then the CPUSA line seems to have been swallowed hook, line and sinker by film makers, journalists and assorted commentators.

Katharine Hepburn in real life seems to have been a good deal less smart and more naive than the parts she played, especially opposite Spencer Tracy. This is what we can read in the notes provided by the NFT, which, in this case, is an extended quotation from William J. Mann's Kate: The Woman Who Was Katharine Hepburn with, I think, some explanation from someone in the NFT in the square brackets:
Months before Kate's speech [Hepburn attacked the House Un-American Activities committee in a controversial speech at a rally by potential Democratic Presidential candidate Henry Wallace - the speech was written by Communist Party member Dalton Trumbo, and for the occasion Hepburn wore a red dress], Spencer had been negotiating with Frank Capra to make a film called State of the Union, based on Howard Lindsay's play about a crooked politician running for president who gets a lesson in values and morality from his estranged wife.
I suspect Mr Mann would have known that with Truman in the White House the potential of any other Democratic Presidential candidate in 1948 was zero and, in any case, Henry Wallace, widely and with some justification believed to be a Communist stooge, ran as the Progressive Party's candidate. Hepburn's behaviour cannot be called anything but rather silly. Reading out a speech by Dalton Trumbo is not the sign of political intelligence or independent thinking.

Both Capra and Tracy wanted Hepburn in the film, despite this rather awkward behaviour and the fact that she was once again regarded by Hollywood as box office poison. So they got her in and there she was up against the Adolphe Menjou character and against the man himself. Menjou was on the other side of the political divide and was much hated by the Left and, undoubtedly, the CPUSA for being a HUAC friendly witness. However, filming was done on a "reasonable and professional" basis according to others involved.

Now we come to an interesting part of the story and the original point of this posting. There is some evidence that HUAC intended to subpoena Hepburn but did not do so.
But at some point during the making of State of the Union, the right-wing radio commentator Fulton Lewis Jr announced on the air that Kate wished to recant her actions. According to Lewis, Hepburn said she didn't know what she was signing when she joined the Committee for the First Amendment, and that she'd had 'no idea of the type of speech' she was reading at Gilmore Stadium. Meanwhile, according to Kate's FBI files, Adolphe Menjou told a government official (from either the FBI or HUAC - the name has been blotted out) that Spencer Tracy insisted 'Hepburn wanted to make a statement in order to clear herself with the American public'. Menjou claimed the force behind this was Frank Capra, whose reputation for American values was unassailable.

This mea culpa, despite being secondhand, seems to have satisfied the investigators. Kate was never called by HUAC. What the records suggest is that her nemesis Adolphe Menjou, in association with Tracy and Capra, got the committee to back off.
In a round-about and I hope not uninteresting way we have arrived at the point I started with. How on earth could Menjou, who went out of his way to help save Hepburn from HUAC and, thus, her career be called her nemesis. She may not have liked him and she may not have liked being saved in that way, behind her back and without her knowledge (though the author is not certain about that) but nemesis does not mean what William J. Mann thinks it means.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Louis Jourdan 1921 - 2015

We interrupt the discussion of Brexit and foreign policy to bring you the news that one of the most talented and most underestimated actors, singers and musicians, Louis Jourdan has died. Not that he was particularly young but it is still sad.

We all remember him in Gigi, of course, but he hated the way he was always being pushed into playing smooth Latin (or just generally Continental) charmers. This track from his appearance on the Judy Garland Show is funny and the song he sings is very schmaltzy but his amusing attempt to get away from what he is known for sounds true enough.

I would say his best performance (much as I love Gigi) was in Letter from an Unknown Woman when he took the part of the smooth charmer and turned it into something desperate and tragic. If you have not seen it and get a chance, please do. It also has an astonishingly good performance from another slightly underestimated actor: Joan Fontaine.

This trailer gives some idea but only some:

And finally, yes, Gigi, but not the one the one you were expecting. At least I don't think you were expecting this:

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Should we really abandon discussions of Brexit because of Russia? - 1

On Tuesday evening I attended an event organized by the Foreign Policy Centre (partner: the European Commission) at which they launched their new publication, Trouble in the Neighbourhood? The Future of the EU's Eastern Partnership. There is a good deal to say about the publication but in this posting I want to concentrate on something that came up during the panel presentation and discussion (all of which was about forty minutes too long).

But first: we have yet another agreement between Ukraine, Russia and, to represent the EU and the West in general, Germany and France (I'll come to that later on). The agreement, though arrived at after an all-night sitting, does not seem to be that different from the one signed in September, which was broken within hours.

As Baroness Falkner of Margravine said in the debate that followed the Statement on Ukraine in the House of Lords, also on Tuesday:
Does my noble friend accept that in the unlikely circumstance that we have progress in Minsk tomorrow and that Mr Putin sticks to his word perhaps for more than an hour or two, or even a day or week or two, the holding of any ceasefire is contingent on the verifiable force of peacekeepers?
Indeed, that debate showed that few of the peers, interested enough in the subject to participate, had any illusions about the Russian President (who continues to look ever less like a human being and ever more like somebody who could be put next to the Lenin wax work in the Mausoleum).

One of the participants in the FPC discussion was Edward Lucas of the Economist, a man who is very knowledgeable about Russia and other countries that had formerly been either in the Soviet Union or the European Communist sphere but whose great fault is inability to look beyond the European Union even though he spends a great deal of his time rightly criticizing its activity and non-achievement.

It was he who made the obvious comment that the whole idea of an Eastern Partnership was deeply flawed as it involved treating very different countries, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Belarus as being essentially similar and homogenous. This is, undoubtedly, true but the problem is that this is the only way the EU can create policies. Mr Lucas also added that "we" presumably the West but mostly "Europe", a concept that was mentioned frequently throughout the evening, have no Russia policy. Indeed not. The EU has no Russia policy just as it has no Ukraine or any other policy because it cannot have one.

This goes back to the whole problem of common foreign policy on which I have written so often that it would be impossible to link to the various postings here or on my erstwhile blogging home, EUReferendum. Foreign policy has to grow out of some definition of interest and the European Union's member states have no common interests while the Union's own interests do not extend much beyond survival and ever closer integration. (In fact, one of the member states, Greece, is an ally of the Putin government and has always been pro-Russian, regardless of what was going on.)

When I first started writing about the common foreign policy and its non-viabiltiy, all those years ago, I compared the EU to an amoeba in that its survival depended on shape changing and swallowing of organisms close to it. At the time the nascent common foreign policy consisted largely of efforts to make the neighbouring countries into member states. There could be no question of policies or relationships. If a country could not become a member then we did not know what to do with it and that, obviously, applied to Russia.

The fall of the Soviet empire presented the EU with various problems, some of which it could solve to its own temporary satisfaction by taking the Central and East European countries in, even though at least two of them, Romania and Bulgaria, remain problematic. The Balkans were and continue to be a mess despite the fact that two of the former Yugoslav republics are now within the EU and little attention was paid to the former Soviet republics except for the Baltic ones that are, as agreed by all, in a different category.

No optimistic or pessimistic analysis can possibly postulate EU membership for any of the countries in question. Therefore, they will remain near (or relatively near) neighbours and some sort of a relationship needs to be established with them. But, not having any particular interests only general, ill-defined "values" the EU cannot do so. Therefore, it has fallen back on its past method of treating all the countries as one region and dealing with them as such. The fact that this method has been unsuccessful in the past does not seem to bother anybody. After all, argue the officials involved, what is successful? We have structures, we have conferences, committees, reports and funds for managing certain problems. What else do we need for success? The fact that we cannot cope and are not set up to cope with the huge crises in the various countries, let alone the war/civil war that is going on in parts of the Ukraine remains a detail.

Mr Lucas is right to point out the faults with this sort of policy but wrong in that he cannot see that it is endemic to the political construct he has (still) such high hopes for.

[I was hoping to cover the subject in just one posting but find that it is not possible. Therefore, I shall put this up on the blog and continue in a second installment.]

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Good to know that crime has been solved by a number of UK police forces

How else can one explain this story?
Several British police forces have questioned newsagents in an attempt to monitor sales of a special edition of Charlie Hebdo magazine following the Paris attacks, the Guardian has learned.

Officers in Wiltshire, Wales and Cheshire have approached retailers of the magazine, it has emerged, as concerns grew about why police were attempting to trace UK-based readers of the French satirical magazine.
There is, one must assume, no crime of any description in Wiltshire, Wales or Cheshire and the police forces are so bored that they are going around asking impertinent and ridiculous questions about who has bought and even read the special issue of a French satirical magazine.

There is, of course, another explanation and that is that the police forces of the two counties and of Wales consider that behaviour to be criminal and something that needs to be investigated and, possibly, punished.

The police forces explained it all rather differently, producing that old bromide about the need to keep community tensions down. Or something. Not, surely not, a need to control what people read.
A Dyfed-Powys police spokeswoman declined to say why officers sought the names of Charlie Hebdo readers but said: “Following the recent terrorism incidents, Dyfed Powys police have been undertaking an assessment of community tensions across the force area.

“Visits were made to newsagents who were maybe distributing the Charlie Hebdo magazine to encourage the newsagent owners to be vigilant. We can confirm the visits were only made to enhance public safety and to provide community reassurance.”

In Warrington, Cheshire, a police officer telephoned a newsagent that had ordered one issue of the magazine for a customer, who asked to remain anonymous. She said: “My husband ordered a copy of the special edition of Charlie Hebdo from our local newsagent in North Cheshire.

“Several days later the latter had a phone call from the police, saying they’d been told that he had been selling and advertising Charlie Hebdo in his shop. He replied that this was untrue: he had supplied in total one copy, concealed, to a customer who was a French lecturer. I find the police action quite disturbing.”

DCI Paul Taylor, of Cheshire constabulary, said he was not aware of any officer contacting newsagents by telephone but added: “We were aware of the potential for heightened tensions following the attacks in Paris. Therefore where it was felt appropriate officers visited newsagents to provide reassurance advice around the time of its publication.”

In a later statement, a Cheshire police spokeswoman said: “Officers were asked to call into local newsagents in their area to provide visible reassurance around the time of publication and were not asked under any circumstances to make inquiries as to who was purchasing or preordering the Charlie Hebdo magazine. Each area endeavoured to visit as many newsagents as possible however we cannot provide an exact figure.”
Remember that the next time any of the police forces mentioned here complain about lack of resources.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Well, what else can HMG say?

Yesterday's Starred Questions (I think they are now known as Oral Questions in a further attempt to make the House of Lords as useless as the House of Commons but this blog prefers the traditional name) included one about the new Greek government and HMG's relationship with it.

Absolutely top-hole, said Baroness Anelay of St Johns who happens to be the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office:
My Lords, the Government’s first priority is to establish a strong working relationship with Greece’s new Government. Last week, the Prime Minister called Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras on the telephone to congratulate him, and yesterday the Chancellor met the new Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis. The UK remains committed to working closely with the new Government on the full range of bilateral, EU, NATO and wider international issues.
Well, fairly top-hole anyway.

Lord Clinton Davis, a former Commissioner and a man who is, therefore, in receipt of a handsome pension from the European Commission but he does not have to declare that as an interest, followed his original question by the following:
My Lords, are not the poor and many middle-class people in Greece enduring unbelievable hardship? What are the United Kingdom Government able to do to mitigate this disaster? Are the people of Greece able to look forward in any way? It is hardly surprising that they are resorting to radical measures. What can the Government do, given that Britain is a member of the European Union, to alleviate their plight?
The Minister then proceeded to give the noble Peer some elementary lessons in EU structures:
My Lords, we are indeed a member of the EU, but we are not a member of the eurozone; so I would gently say to the noble Lord that we are not directly involved in Greece’s debt repayment negotiations, and nor indeed should we be. Of course, we are open to the discussions with the Greek Government, as I explained in my first Answer. The discussions yesterday were cordial and constructive, and that was the interpretation of both the Greek Finance Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer. As I say, we are open to discussions, but since we are not a member of the eurozone we are not the country that will take the decision about how the Greek Government may decide to present their plans—which possibly will be next week. I know that they are working hard to achieve that.
The rest of the discussion amounted to very little. After all, what can anyone say at this stage? We have no idea what the Greek government will come up with and what of their initial proposals will be real as opposed to just bargaining chips.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch did say the unsayable (he often does, as readers of this blog know):
My Lords, given the euro’s catastrophic effect on jobs and prosperity, should not our top priority be to encourage Greece, and indeed the other euro member states, to abandon it? If that led to the collapse of the whole project of European integration, would that not be hugely beneficial to us all? Just in case the Minister does not agree with me, can she tell noble Lords what is now the point of the European Union and its wretched euro?
To which HMG in the shape of Baroness Anelay replied:
My Lords, it is clear that the stand-off between Greece and the eurozone is fast becoming the biggest risk to the global economy and is a rising threat to our economy at home. I say that, and indeed the Chancellor of the Exchequer said it yesterday after his meeting with the Greek Finance Minister. It is up to Europe to come to a conclusion which means that Greece can remain part of the euro, that the European Union can prosper, and that jobs and growth can continue. That is the way forward for success in Europe and for the success of this country in Europe.
Not much else it can say.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

A serious anti-Communist film

Before I turn my attention to other matters, here is another and much more serious anti-Communist film, probably the best film about East Germany, the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the system. I am, of course, talking about Das Leben Der Anderen (The Lives of Others), directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, which unexpectedly won the Oscar for the Best Foreign Language Film in 2007.

This was unexpected for two reasons: the film was really very good in every way and it was anti-Communist, not an ideological position Hollywood takes these days. As I wrote at the time:
It was noted that Cate Blanchett seemed utterly stunned when she handed over the prize. This was …. Sshhh …. Whisper who dares …. An anti-Communist film.
Sadly, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck has not lived up to expectations since then, having made one rather feeble film but been feted all over the world and described as highly influential for reasons that escape me. Don't you have to have a sizeable body of work before you can be called influential? Someone like Alfred Hitchcock for instance? Or produce at least one film like Citizen Kane that has had an enormous impact on other directors?

Be that as it may, The Lives of Others is an excellent film and tells a very good story of the committed Stasi officer who begins to have doubts, of the mildly but ever more strongly dissident writers and journalists, of the political and moral corruption of the East German society and other matters.

Two points are worth noting. One is that there is no particular indication in the film that either the playwright under observation, Georg Dreyman or his partner, the actress Christa-Maria Sieland are particularly brilliant artists. In fact, that one scene from Dreyman's play, performed first in a sub-Brechtian and then in a post-modernist style, indicates something less than Shakespearian talent. But that is irrelevant. Freedom is for all or should be, not just for the brilliant ones.

The second point is rather ironic and does not seem to have been picked up by reviewers or commentators. At various points Hauptman Gerd Wiesler, the hero or anti-hero of the film, decides to intervene to help the couple under his surveillance. Each intervention ends disastrously for the couple though neither Wiesler nor anyone else in the film realizes that.

Incidentally, Ulrich Mühe, who died far too young soon after the film's release and the Oscar, had been an ant-Communist activist in East Germany and had been under surveillance. He had found out that his then wife, the actress Jenny Gröllmann, a Stasi informant, as it turned out, reported on him. She denied it and there was a certain amount of feeling in Germany at the time that he ought not to  have written or spoken about it. So far as I know the truth of it all remains murky.

Back to the film. It is hard to know what to put up as there are no amusing scenes or dance routines. So I thought I would show the beginning and the end. The film starts with Wiesler interrogating a prisoner who is accused of aiding and abetting his neighbour's escape to the West. A recording of the interrogation is also used in a lecture to Stasi recruits, at least one of whom shows regrettable bourgeois tendencies of mercy and is marked as unreliable.

The ending of the film is rather different and quite moving. Georg Dreyman who had no idea that he was under surveillance finds it out from a former East German Minister. He goes away to read his files (a huge pile of them, which elicits admiration from the archivist) and realizes that certain things did not happen the way he had always believed.

A film that is very well worth seeing.