Tuesday, December 20, 2016

A Quick Update on the Bukovsky Trial ...

Just before the trial, The New York Times ran an in-depth piece titled, "Foes of Russia Say Child Pornography Is Planted to Ruin Them:
"CAMBRIDGE, England — His indomitable will steeled by a dozen years in the Soviet gulag, decades of sparring with the K.G.B. and a bout of near fatal heart disease, Vladimir K. Bukovsky, a tireless opponent of Soviet leaders and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, is not a man easily put off his stride.
"But he got knocked sideways when British police officers banged on the front door of his home on a sedate suburban street here early one morning while he lay sick in bed and informed him that they had “received information about forbidden images” in his possession. 
'“It was all very bizarre and disturbing,” Mr. Bukovsky said. “This is not normally the language of a free society,” he added, recalling how his old K.G.B. tormentors used to hound him and his friends over texts and photographs declared forbidden by the Soviet authorities. 
"The images sought by the British police, however, had nothing to do with politics but involved child pornography, a shocking offense in any jurisdiction. The officers hauled away a clunky desktop computer from Mr. Bukovsky’s study — a chaos of books and papers dusted with cigarette ash — and a broken computer from his garage. 
"In April last year, the veteran Soviet dissident, a onetime confidant of Margaret Thatcher, finally found out what was going on: The Crown Prosecution Service announced that he faced five charges of making indecent images of children, five charges of possession of indecent images of children and one charge of possession of a prohibited image 
"The case was supposed to go to court in May in Cambridge but, after Mr. Bukovsky, 73, entered a not-guilty plea it was delayed until Dec. 12. This followed a prosecution request for more time to review an independent forensic report on what had been found on Mr. Bukovsky’s computers and how an unidentified third party had probably put it there.
'“The whole affair is Kafkaesque,” Mr. Bukovsky said in an interview. “You not only have to prove you are not guilty but that you are innocent.” He insisted that he was the victim of a new and particularly noxious form of an old K.G.B. dirty trick known as kompromat, the fabrication and planting of compromising or illegal material.
'Old-style kompromat featured doctored photographs, planted drugs, grainy videos of liaisons with prostitutes hired by the K.G.B., and a wide range of other primitive entrapment techniques. 
'Today, however, kompromat has become allied with the more sophisticated tricks of cybermischief-making, where Russia has proved its prowess in the Baltic States, Georgia and Ukraine. American intelligence agencies also believe that Russia used hacked data to hurt Hillary Clinton and promote Donald J. Trump in the U.S. presidential election, according to senior officials in the Obama administration. 
"Russia’s cyberwarriors serve a multitude of goals, including espionage, the disruption of vital infrastructure — as happened in Ukraine last year when nearly a quarter of a million people lost electricity after a cyberattack on three regional energy companies — the discrediting of foes and the shaping of public opinion through the spread of false information. 
"Hacking is not only a good way to get real information, like the emails of the D.N.C., but a relatively easy and usually untraceable way to plant fake information. For example, when unidentified hackers last year broke into the computers of a government research center in Lithuania, they stole nothing, but planted bogus reports on its website that the country’s stoutly pro-American president had worked as an escort and K.G.B. informer while a student in Leningrad during the Soviet era. 
"A similar break-in affecting the Lithuanian military’s website replaced a bland announcement about a coming NATO exercise with a fake statement that presented the exercise as part of a plan to annex Kaliningrad, a Russian exclave on the Baltic Sea, and join it with Lithuania, a member of NATO. 
"The supposed NATO plan outlined in the phony text closely mimicked methods used by Moscow in 2014 to annex Crimea and stir up unrest in eastern Ukraine, including the seizure of military posts and police stations and calls for the establishment of the Kaliningrad People’s Republic. 
"Written in faulty Lithuanian, the statement was “immediately obvious as a fake,” said Rimtautas Cerniauskas, the director of Lithuania’s National Cyber Security Center, which was set up last year in response to increased alarm over Russian aggression.
"But, he added, the stunt nonetheless succeeded in distracting cyberdefense staff members from their normal work for days and in spreading a lie that, though immediately exposed, polluted discussion about NATO. 
"“I don’t believe in aliens, but if you see enough articles about aliens visiting Earth, you start to think ‘Who knows, maybe the government is hiding something,’” Mr. Cerniauskas said. 
"Seemingly, no target is too small to warrant attention, no attack too petty. Trained to believe that the ends always justify the means, Russian security service operatives “have sick minds,” Mr. Bukovsky said. “They live in a virtual reality.” 
"This blurring of all boundaries between truth and falsehood in the service of operational needs has created a climate in Russia in which even the most serious and grotesque accusations, like those involving pedophilia, are simply a currency for settling scores. Mr. Bukovsky is far from the only one fending off such allegations. 
"Yoann Barbereau, the French director of the Alliance Française in the Siberian city of Irkutsk, has been struggling since early last year to defend himself against charges that he posted child pornography on a website for Russian mothers. His lawyers, pointing to evidence that his computer was tampered with after his arrest, believe that the material was planted by local security service officers to punish Mr. Barbereau for an extramarital romance with a woman connected to a powerful local official. In September, after months under house arrest, Mr. Barbereau fled. 
"Konstantin Rubakhin, an environmental activist who lives in exile in Lithuania, also got a visit from police officers looking for child pornography. Mr. Rubakhin speculated that that raid, in June last year, may have been part of an effort to derail his application for political asylum or his work for the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum, a research group that investigates corruption. In the end, the Lithuanian police dropped the case. 
"Getting someone labeled a suspected pedophile has the added benefit of fitting “perfectly with the Kremlin’s line that human rights activists are all just degenerates,” said Vytis Jurkonis, a Lithuanian human rights activist who works with Russian exiles.
"Russia has denied any involvement in all of these incidents. “Of course they do,” scoffed Linas Linkevicius, Lithuania’s foreign minister. “They never have anything to do with anything that is going on in the world,” he said, describing Russian hackers, whether working directly for the state or as freelance vandals, “as part of their weapons system.” 
'“They have very efficient hybrid warfare means,” he added. 
"In the case of Mr. Bukovsky and the others involving pornography stored — or planted — on the computers of Kremlin critics, the high degree of deniability offered by the shadows of cyberspace has left the accused struggling to salvage their reputations.
'“To use a technical term, you are completely screwed,” said Jeffrey Carr, the head of Taia Global, an American cybersecurity company, and the author of a book on cyberwarfare. “If something like this is sponsored by the Russian government, or any government or anyone with sufficient skill, you are not going to be successful. It is terrible.” 
"Russia first flexed its cybermuscle publicly in 2007 with a blitzkrieg attack across a broad front in Estonia, a Baltic nation often at odds with Moscow. The computer systems there of the police, military, banks, media and government offices faced a lengthy barrage of superfluous requests designed to crash their networks, a tactic known as a distributed denial-of-service attack. 
'Taimar Peterkop, the director general of Estonia’s Information System Authority, which watches over the core pillars of the country’s highly digitalized economy and government, said that after that early assault the cybermischief linked to Russia has only expanded in both range and sophistication. 
'“Nowadays it seems they want to show they are everywhere,” Mr. Peterkop said. “Like flying bombers close to our and other countries’ borders, they perhaps simply want to show they have an important global footprint. It is almost as if they want to be seen, or maybe we are just responding better.” 
'Last year’s assault on Ukraine’s energy system involved far more elaborate tools than those used in the 2007 distributed denial-of-service attacks on Estonia and were the first known successful effort by Russia or its proxies to knock out vital civilian infrastructure with hackers worming their way into control rooms. 
'Robert Lee, the director of Dragos Security, a cybersecurity company in Maryland, who helped investigate the electricity shutdown in Ukraine, said that identifying the culprits would “never be certain” but that “when we look at tradecraft, capabilities and motive of the group involved, we can come to a high-confidence assessment that the group was Russian-based and a medium-confidence assessment that there were members in the government that knew this was going to happen.” 
'This gray zone of uncertainty has been seized on by Russia as proof that it is the victim of “Russophobic” hysteria over its role in cyberspace. It has also left Mr. Bukovsky — and others caught in what they believe are Moscow-orchestrated kompromat traps — at the mercy of Western police and courts that demand hard evidence, not guesswork and accusation from defendants. 
'No matter what the court in Britain decides, Mr. Bukovsky has already had his reputation — and, by association, that of other critics of the Kremlin — trashed in Russia.  
'Inside Russia, kompromat has featured for years in political and business disputes. Under President Boris N. Yeltsin in the 1990s, it was a dirty game played by both the Kremlin and its foes but, under Mr. Putin, compromising videos and other embarrassing material invariably target only the Kremlin’s opponents. 
'Before becoming president at the end of 1999, Mr. Putin played a prominent role in a particularly spectacular example of this Russian specialty. As head of the Federal Security Agency, or F.S.B., in 1997, Mr. Putin won the trust of Mr. Yeltsin by helping to destroy the career of Russia’s prosecutor general, Yury Skuratov, who, after starting an investigation into Kremlin corruption, was disgraced on national television by the broadcast of a video that showed a man who looked like him in bed with two young women. 
'Mr. Putin certified in public that the man in the video, widely believed to have been arranged and then filmed by the F.S.B., was indeed the prosecutor general. Mr. Skuratov resigned. The corruption investigation ended. A grateful Mr. Yeltsin named Mr. Putin prime minister and then president. 
'For the Kremlin’s supporters, the verdict on Mr. Bukovsky is already in. On learning of the charges against him, Margarita Simonyan, the editor in chief of the state-funded television outlet RT, posted a sneering message on Twitter: “The Pedophile Plan: rape a child, sign up in the opposition, emigrate, expose the flaws of the motherland and all will be well. Or not.” 
'The idea that Europeans and Russian opponents of the Kremlin are sexual deviants with a taste for pedophilia is a strange but recurring theme in Russian propaganda. The Russian ex-wife of a Norwegian man gained wide attention in state media, for example, with fabricated claims, made after she lost a child custody battle in Norway, that her former husband dressed up their 4-year-old son in a “Putin costume” and raped him.
'Foes of the Kremlin have sometimes picked up the same ugly club and used it to beat Mr. Putin, as did Alexander V. Litvinenko, a former K.G.B. agent who died in London in 2006 from poisoning by a highly toxic radioactive isotope. Four months before his death, which a British inquiry ruled was probably state-sponsored murder approved by Mr. Putin, Mr. Litvinenko published an article that, without any evidence, asserted that the Russian president was himself a pedophile. 
'Mr. Bukovsky, who was a close friend of Mr. Litvinenko, said he had strongly urged him not to publish. “I was very angry with him,” Mr. Bukovsky recalled, noting that in many ways Mr. Litvinenko, despite his ferocious hostility toward the Kremlin, still had the mind-set of a security officer and “could not understand the difference between truth and operational information.” 
'On the “dark web,” an area of the internet that requires special software and authorization codes to enter, suspected Russian hackers openly offer to plant evidence of pedophilia as a way to destroy an enemy. 
'“I’ll do anything for money,” promised an advertisement placed by a hacker who offered to ruin “your opponents, business or private persons you don’t like. I can ruin them financially and or get them arrested, whatever you like.” Boasting that it was possible to destroy both individuals and businesses, the hacker added, “If you want someone to get known as a child porn user, no problem.” He gave a price, denominated in Bitcoins, of around $600 per job. 
'Paulo Shakarian, the chief executive officer of IntelliSpyre and the director of the Cyber-Socio Intelligent Systems Laboratory at Arizona State University, said his team had analyzed the advertisement and concluded that it was probably posted by a Russian (or at least a Russian-speaking) hacker. He said the price was in the normal range of what hackers demand for character assassination. 
'No matter what the court in Britain decides, Mr. Bukovsky has already had his reputation — and, by association, that of other Kremlin’s critics — trashed in Russia. Russian state television, in a report on the case, described the dissident as “a lover of child porn.” 
'Mr. Bukovsky complained that European countries that expect clarity and follow rigid procedures easily fall prey to the dirty tricks of a regime that excels in hiding its tracks and creating confusion. “They are very good at using the West against the West,” he said.
'"A Russian dissident," they wrote, "accused of making and possessing thousands of indecent photographs of children said he was doing research and that some of those involved looked to be enjoying themselves, a court has heard. 
'"Vladimir Bukovsky, who sat in court in a wheelchair, has gone on trial accused of having accessed still and video images over 15 years, some of which were being downloaded at the point of his arrest in 2014. 
'"The 73-year-old told police he had become curious at the end of the 1990s about issues involving control of and censorship of the Internet and decided to look into what was available online, prosecutor Will Carter said. 
'"The pensioner, who was living alone in Cambridge when he was arrested, said it had become something of a hobby, which he told no-one else about."Mr Carter said: "What he said was that his initial curiosity turned into a hobby rather like stamp-collecting.""Bukovsky denies five counts of making indecent images of children, five of possessing indecent images of children and one of possessing a prohibited image of a child. That's the article you want to see, if you're in Bukovsky's position. Unfortunately, it went downhill from there.

After the first day of the trial, things looked quite bad:

Vladimir Bukovsky, the veteran Soviet era dissident, said downloading more than 20,000 indecent images of children was a hobby "like stamp collecting", a court heard.  
Bukovsky, 73, who sat in court in a wheelchair, is on trial accused of having accessed still and video images over 15 years, some of which were being downloaded at the point of his arrest in 2014.  
He told police he had become curious at the end of the 1990s about issues involving control of, and censorship of the Internet and decided to look into what was available online, prosecutor Will Carter said.  
The pensioner, who was living alone in Cambridge when he was arrested, said it had become something of a hobby, which he told no-one else about.
Mr Carter said: "What he said was that his initial curiosity turned into a hobby rather like stamp-collecting." 
Bukovsky denies five counts of making indecent images of children, five of possessing indecent images of children and one of possessing a prohibited image of a child. 
A handful of his supporters were in court.  
'"The defendant is considered a hero by some who support democratic reform in Russia, but has another side, the jury was told. 
"Mr Carter said: "The prosecution say that there was another side to this man which was far from laudable, an extensive interest in real children really being abused."  
Owing to Bukovsky's poor health, the trial was adjourned before his lawyers were able to explicate his defence.
Bukovsky was then hospitalized with pneumonia. His trial was postponed and the jury discharged. His lawyer, Robert Brown, said he had been "in poor health for a long time" and "continues to assert his innocence. Mr. Bukovsky hasn't yet had any opportunity to present his side of the case. It's therefore extremely important the case isn't prejudged."

I agree it's important, but it is hard to do based on what we now know. I can't imagine a defense that would cause me to change my mind about the evidence I've so far seen. But I'll wait, of course, before drawing formal conclusions. It looks pretty bad to me, though.

Yesterday I received an e-mail from one of his close friends:

Unfortunately, I can’t shed any more light on Vladimir’s matter. I did go to Cambridge yesterday with great difficulty getting there and back because the railways are in chaos. Unfortunately, two people not known to me arrived at the same time, and this would have made any confidential conversation impossible, on top of which I was only able to stay less than an hour before rushing back to Cambridge station in order to be able to get home. Quite honestly, I don’t know whether I would have started interrogating him, because what I saw was an old, very sick man who looks positively drained and pitiable. He is pumped full of steroids and antibiotics, which can’t be too easy on an already frail constitution.  I did manage to grab a quick word with P. but all I got from him is that there will be a retrial when the doctors judge that V is well enough to appear in court, and that won’t be any time soon.  In any case, the matter will be heard again from scratch (new legal team, new jury, etc.) so if I’m reading the tea leaves correctly, this is going to drag on and on well into next year. How feasible that is I have no idea: all we’ve heard so far is the presentation of the prosecution, and if V.’s legal team thinks his chances of winning are good they must have a basis for this. 
My own feelings are that whatever the outcome, it will still be an ignominious end to the life of a very remarkable man. I can only say that if the accusations are true, it is something neither I nor anyone else has detected, not by the slightest word or action to raise even the ghost of such suspicions: these things always leak out. 
"Then again, who knows what goes on in the darkest corners of someone else’s mind, no matter how well you may think you know them? We all have things we would rather the world at large did not  know about.

So here we are -- waiting for Bukovsky's recovery so that we can hear his defense. Unsure whether anything said in his defense could mitigate what's already been said against him in court. The only option is to wait.

A sad and disturbing story.

Friday, December 9, 2016

The Trial: Bukovsky Before the Crown Court

This afternoon I’m leaving for London, and tomorrow I’ll be in Cambridge to watch Vladimir Bukovsky’s trial:
On Monday, 12 December 2016, Russian dissident and activist Vladimir Bukovsky will appear in Crown Court in Cambridge, UK, to face a jury trial for possession of child pornography on his home computer. The files were found by law enforcement officers, who received a tip shortly before Bukovsky was to testify in the inquiry into the murder of his close friend, former Russian secret service officer Alexander Litvinenko.
Bukovsky was so hated by the FSB that he appeared on a leaked hit list of five people slated for assassination. Two of those five are now dead; another has been poisoned.
Many believe Bukovsky was framed by Russian operatives who planted the offending files on his computer. But winning a Not Guilty verdict will be a challenge for his defence team. “For such a defence to work there will need to be more than the theoretical possibility – computer code showing the presence of a back door for remote access will be expected,” said Professor Peter Sommer, who has acted in a number of leading trials and investigations for both defence and prosecution.
Members of the press are allowed to tweet from the courtroom, although not to send sound files or photos. I’m not sure whether we’re allowed to communicate beyond Tweeting: I understand it’s at the judge’s discretion. I’m @claireberlinski on Twitter. Five days of court time have been reserved, but this doesn’t mean the trial will necessarily last five days.
Yesterday, The New York Times ran a long and prominent piece about Bukovsky and other opponents of Putin. It’s very worth reading:
This blurring of all boundaries between truth and falsehood in the service of operational needs has created a climate in Russia in which even the most serious and grotesque accusations, like those involving pedophilia, are simply a currency for settling scores. Mr. Bukovsky is far from the only one fending off such allegations.
Yoann Barbereau, the French director of the Alliance Française in the Siberian city of Irkutsk, has been struggling since early last year to defend himself against charges that he posted child pornography on a website for Russian mothers. His lawyers, pointing to evidence that his computer was tampered with after his arrest, believe that the material was planted by local security service officers to punish Mr. Barbereau for an extramarital romance with a woman connected to a powerful local official. In September, after months under house arrest, Mr. Barbereau fled.
Konstantin Rubakhin, an environmental activist who lives in exile in Lithuania, also got a visit from police officers looking for child pornography. Mr. Rubakhin speculated that that raid, in June last year, may have been part of an effort to derail his application for political asylum or his work for the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum, a research group that investigates corruption. In the end, the Lithuanian police dropped the case.
It’s pointless for me to speculate now, because in a few days I’ll know, for sure, what kind of evidence the Crown Prosecution Service has and what the jury concludes from it.
For those of you unfamiliar with Bukovsky’s writings, I suggest beginning with his introduction to the archives he collected. (Here’s a link to the archives themselves, which I highly recommend.)
… Looking at this line up of the Soviet “elite” I recalled an old joke which went around in the 1960s, that there are three qualities which cannot coexist biologically in one person: intellect, honesty, and party membership. One of the three was invariably excluded, so the result could be either a smart son of a bitch, or a stupid party hack. When the crisis of the regime came, that is exactly how they divided up: while the minority of clinical idiots continued to march, waving red banners, the cynical majority was quickly metamorphosing into “reformers”, “democrats”, “nationalists” and “free marketeers.” As far as they were concerned, the events in Russia did not constitute a revolution, nor liberation from totalitarianism, and certainly no sacrifice of their ideals, but simply an opportunity to advance their careers, jumping a couple of the old hierarchical steps in one go. How could CC secretary for propaganda from the Ukrainian satrapy, Kravchuk, pass up the chance to become President of a sovereign, nuclear state? Or economics editor of Pravda, Gaidar, the post of Prime Minister of Russia? And who cares whether this is now called democracy or socialism? For people like these, who were devoted only to their own privileges, “democracy” meant merely new opportunities for deceit, and the “market economy” meant only one thing — corruption. For that reason, they would stifle any independent initiative under the guise of stamping out corruption, while justifying their own corruption by “market forces.” Having seized power with a Lenin like grasp, they will never allow anything new to develop, apart from one thing: a new mafia in place of the old. …
… Everything in my life proved to be a host of phantoms, nothing more. All that remained was an enormous cemetery, in which, as everyone knows, triumph belongs to the worms.
There was also dismay, bitterness, a feeling of helplessness and of a wasted life:
Why the hell could we not have brought this chapter of our history to a more worthy conclusion? What did we overlook? Where did we go wrong? Or maybe all our efforts were hopeless and senseless right from the start?

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Postcards from Vienna

vienna7Last Sunday, Norbert Hofer lost the Austrian presidential election to Alexander Van der Bellen. This was a re-run; the original vote was held in May, with Van der Bellen, an elderly former Green Party leader, defeating Hofer by little more than 30,000 votes. Hofer’s party — the Freedom Party — challenged the results of the May election on the grounds of procedural irregularities: The glue on the absentee ballots, they said, was defective. The Constitutional Court ruled in their favor and called for a repeat. 
Hofer is widely described as a far-right candidate, although I don’t think this term helps readers to understand what he represents. That said, I’m not sure that I can explain what he represents, even after a week of asking Austrian people what they thought he represented. I was surprised by the vagueness or the evasiveness of the response when I asked people, “So, what does Hofer stand for? What’s his ideology?” 
Agnes Palmisano, a Viennese coloratura soprano who doesn’t care for Hofer, repurposed the Otto Reutter song for the election: Take the old one
I asked her why the young one rubbed her the wrong way. She told me she wasn’t political by nature, and she usually avoided political arguments because she knew that “very frankly, I’m not informed.” But she instinctively found Hofer unwholesome. Her father was ethnically Slovenian, she said. She didn’t like the idea of predicating Austrian citizenship on German ethnicity. She was uneasy, too, about the way people wouldn’t say, forthrightly, that they planned vote for Hofer, even though they obviously meant to do it. The unwillingness to debate his ideas openly seemed unhealthy to her.
One of the most interesting people I met was Evgeni Dönmez, a Turkish-origin politician for the Green Party. He felt that people who voted for Hofer were responding to a very real problem — to the problem the culture many of the new arrivals brought with them, to Islamist authoritarianism — which his own party was unwilling to acknowledge. Hofer’s party, he said, was “asking the right questions.” But their answers were “absolutely the wrong ones.” This conversation was worthy of a post of its own; I’ll come back to this after I transcribe my notes from the meeting.

The polling station — a local high school.

In August of 2015, 71 refugees and migrants were found in the back of a truck on Austria’s A4 road. They had suffocated to death while being smuggled into central Europe.
A few days later, hundreds of refugees began walking from Budapest to Vienna. They were initially met with a wave of support. Austrian authorities begin ferrying refugees from the Hungarian border to Vienna, and then onto Germany via Salzburg. Some 170,000 refugees and migrants passed through Austria like this. The international media favorably contrasted Austria’s police and politicians with Hungarian authorities. Thousands of Austrians donated, volunteered to help the new arrivals, attended rallies in support of the refugees. 
Not everyone in Austria was moved by this, however. Fear about immigration led to a surge in support for the Freedom Party, which immediately gained 15 percentage points in Upper Austria elections in September, then took 31 percent of the vote in Vienna elections in October.
On October 17, 2015, Hungary closed its border with Serbia and Croatia. By the end of 2015, thousands of migrants and refugees were trapped at Austria’s Slovenian border. Austria’s conservative Interior Minister, Johanna Mikl-Leitner, announced that Austria would build a fence to help control the flow. In the beginning of 2016, Austria built a barrier at the Brenner border with Italy. In March 2016, Macedonia, Croatia, and Slovenia shut their borders, with Austria’s encouragement. After the closure of that route and the strengthening of controls at Austria’s Italian border, refugees and migrants largely stopped trying to transit the country.
Austria accepted nearly 90,000 asylum applications in 2015 — one of the highest per capita numbers in Europe. But the government decided it couldn’t allow this to happen again, and announced a new annual upper limit on asylum applications of 37,500. The Austrian parliament adopted one of Europe’s toughest asylum laws. The bill permits the government to declare a state of emergency if migrant numbers suddenly rise and to reject most asylum-seekers directly at the border.
One year after the initial influx, Austria introduced one of Europe’s strictest asylum laws. Controls on the Italian border were strengthened. The Balkan route was cut off.
What most surprised me is that I expected to be able to see the effect this wave of migration had on the city. I’m not sure why I expected this, because rationally, 90,000 people wouldn’t be that visible in a city of 2.6 million. But the election I had come to see was represented, in the Anglophone media, as a contest between a left-wing candidate and an anti-immigrant populist. Why would an anti-immigrant populist gain purchase in Austria unless there was, visibly, a significant immigrant presence? 
You might suspect that I had my globalist, rootless cosmopolitan blinders on, so I took as many photos and videos as I could. This is the city center, although most of the city looks like this, ethnically speaking:
I asked Lillibellt and her husband to take me to the neighborhoods people worried about. Here’s a so-called Turkish neighborhood:
Vienna is consistently ranked the world’s most prosperous and best-run city, and that prosperity is obvious. Well-made cars purr sleekly along wide roads free of traffic. On weekend mornings, the Viennese practice their equestrian skills and walk their greyhounds and Weimaraners in the woods. There are no bad neighborhoods; at least, none that I saw. Vienna is extremely wealthy compared to Paris. It’s extremely wealthy compared to Seattle, for that matter. It’s still the cradle of Alpine skiing, topped-rank in Mercer’s personal safety index based upon internal stability, crime, effectiveness of law enforcement.
Even Vienna’s public housing projects, in the center of the city, are luxurious and immaculately maintained. It’s true that they’re spooky to walk through at night, but only because the streets were so absolutely silent and empty. 

High gothic architecture is glorious, if spooky. St. Stephen’s Cathedral.

And everything in Vienna looks a bit spooky to me, because it’s the dead of winter, and there’s something about Central Europe — Gothic architecture, in particular — that suggests ghosts, hauntedness, a permanent Halloween. 
It would be epic arrogance to claim that after six days in Vienna, I fully understand the situation — particularly because I don’t speak German. My impression, though, was that Vienna looked barely affected by the refugee crisis. 
Perhaps what caused people to feel overwhelmed was the fall of 2015, when, everyone agrees, the authorities lost control. When Merkel she said there would be “no limit” to the number of refugees Germany would accept, it caused people to think that literally millions of people would soon show up in Austria. I took her statement to mean (as I still think she probably intended), that Germany would set a good example and accept a generous number of refugees, this in the expectation that other countries would do the same. But it was understood as a genuinely insane statement, one that literally meant, “We will accept as many needy people as there are in the world, perhaps billions.” The failure to discuss the situation forthrightly gave the impression that the authorities generally, and Merkel particularly, had taken leave of their minds.
I wonder if the sense of crisis could have been forestalled had the Austrian Chancellor said from the first, “We’ve studied our budget and come up with a cvienna4oncrete number of refugees we can accept, feed, house, and educate until their country is safe or until they enter the workforce. That number is four-tenths of a percent of our population per annum. We will pay for this by making thesespecific cuts to our budget, and raising taxes by this amount. People who wish privately to sponsor more refugees are welcome to do so, so long as the refugees in question pass security and background checks, for which you as the sponsor must pay. Asylum applications must be processed at the border to ensure that no one enters the country on an illegitimate claim. Here is the plan. It is a specific plan.” It was the vagueness of the official response, I suspect, that made people lose their minds. 
vienna-2There are no hordes; Austria has not been overrun.
It’s true that if the borders had stayed open, and if everyone who wanted to come to the West had shown up in Austria, Austria would, indeed, have been inundated and unable to cope. That week, or ten days, extrapolated over a year, say, would be the nightmare people believe they can already see. But it didn’t happen, and it won’t. 
It looked manageable to me. But if people think there’s no way to discuss immigration forthrightly, perhaps it doesn’t look manageable.
On the other hand, if a politician is telling you there’s a huge problem, but you can’t see it — why would you trust him, either? I was surprised that Norbert Hofer was defeated by such a big margin, but perhaps I shouldn’t have been.

Monday, November 28, 2016

What Did France's Conservative Primary Election Mean?

Last week, I wrote about the first round of the French conservative party’s primary elections, which to my surprise ended the political career of Nicolas Sarkozy and resulted in the unexpected success of François Fillon. Yesterday, in the second round, Fillon defeated his rival, Alain Juppé, in a landslide.
Fillon’s domestic proposals: He wants to cut half a million public sector jobs, end the 35-hour work week, raise the retirement age, and scrap the wealth tax. For this reason, he calls himself a Thatcherite.
But I cannot imagine Margaret Thatcher taking the posture he has toward Russia. Or toward America, for that matter.
“Islamic totalitarianism, American imperialism, the dynamism of the Asian continent all threaten Europe. Don’t let them defeat us!”
“Now what is that supposed to mean?” asked Arun.
This is the first time I’ve seen the expression “American imperialism”—exclusively far left in pedigree—in a long time. And I have no memory of having ever heard it uttered by a high-level politico in a French party of government, and by one who may be elected president of the republic no less. … If a President Fillon makes nice with Vladimir Putin over and above France’s relationship with Germany, that will mark a sea change of major proportions on the continent—and in geopolitics more generally.
Juppé: “Our priority is to combat ISIS. But that cannot be a reason, like Russia, to liquidate the entire respectable opposition to Assad’s regime, to ally with Assad, who is responsible for the death of more than 300,000 of his compatriots.”
Fillon, just before the beginning of Russia’s Syrian campaign: “We must help Assad’s regime, with all of its defects, which is on the verge of collapse.”
As for that — this morning, Erick Erickson at the Resurgent wrote, “It is impossible to take seriously any person who thinks Donald Trump is a threat to freedom and democracy when that same person mourns the loss of Fidel Castro.” Quite so. The left disqualifies itself from seriousness when it embraces dictators. So does the right. 
The French press is reporting that the Russian trolls were out in force in support of Fillon over Juppé. The Nouvel Obs quotes Marie Peltier, a historian whose speciality, interestingly is the rise of conspiracy theories on the Internet:
A few days before the first round of the primary, French far-right networks, linked to and financed by Russia, began a violent campaign on social media, most notably on Twitter, to support Fillon and destroy Juppé, attacking him, particularly, on the theme of Islam … it seems that a bit before the primary, the Kremlin decided to help Fillon from the right, not just Marine Le Pen, and at the same time help [far-left loon Jean-Luc] Mélenchon.
Did this have an impact on the election results? I don’t know.
What does Fillon’s victory mean for France? It’s too soon to say. The elections will take place in May, and as our new member Fidelio102 put it, between now and then we could see “a major terrorist offensive, a collapse of the Euro following an Italian banking crisis; all sorts of game-changers are possible.” I agree. As I wrote:
We seem to have entered a world of radical uncertainty. Or perhaps I should be more precise: We’ve entered a world in which we’re aware of our uncertainty.
I’ve lost any confidence I had that my gut feelings about where things are headed, politically, are worth much. I’ll note my gut feeling about France not because I’d bet a dime on my own prognostications, at this point — I’ve been consistently wrong for a while now. It’s been a long losing streak. But my gut feeling is that France is in no way sold on the idea of cutting back the state. I suspect what people really wish is that they could undo their knowledge that the left hasn’t delivered. If the [socialists] hadn’t been in power all this time, I figure they’d be channelling all the throw-the-bums-out energy into putting them in power.
I’m guessing Fillon won precisely because Juppé characterized him as “too radical.” People want a radical change. Juppé tried to sell himself as a practical, realistic version of Fillon — [and the voters] said, non.
But now, I wrote, Fillon will have to sell himself as a practical, realistic version of Le Pen. How else can he run? Le Pen is selling more socialism (with an ugly nativist twist). Fillon is telling people that they’ve run out of other people’s money. So which way, realistically, are all those former PS voters going to go? I figure they’ll go to Le Pen.
The conventional wisdom says Fillon will win the election. Le Monde gives him “a good chance of winning against the National Front and a comatose left.” Polls show that if the election were held today, Fillon would take 26 percent of the vote (against 24 percent for Le Pen) in the first round, then 67 percent against her 33 percent in the final round.
The conventional wisdom is probably right, but I wouldn’t put money on it.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Fillon, Thatcher, and Putin

putinThe French presidential election begins in April 2017, and if no candidate wins the first round, it will go to the second and final round in May. François Hollande looks, at this point, like the walking dead. His poll numbers are almost comically low — the opposition could triumph by running any reasonably healthy goat. His party will hold primary elections in January; they may put him out of their misery and select another candidate, or he may decide not to run.
As of now — keeping in mind that this has been a surprising year, politically — polls suggest that it will ultimately come down to a contest between the traditional conservative party, Les Républicaines (LR), and Le Pen. Polls also show that if that conservative candidate was boring Alain Juppé, the LR would win by significant margins, but I’m beginning to suspect we’ve entered an un-pollable world owing either to cell phone usage or to people’s greater savviness — or wariness — about speaking to pollsters, so who knows.
Last Sunday, LR held the first round of its first-ever open primaries. The party, asmy friend Arun Kapil describes them, is “the latest iteration of the neo-Gaullist movement.” They represent the traditional French right and center-right. The decision to hold American-style primaries was made well before the party had a chance to contemplate the most recent result of our primary system, which gave us two candidates loathed by everyone. Whether they’d have been keen to switch to US-style primaries after seeing that, I don’t know. But what’s done is done, and these are now the rules in France. 
The results were surprising. In a post written on the eve of the primary, Arun ran through the seven candidates in the race, explaining their positions on the issues. He didn’t seem to give Fillon much of a chance:
Fillon looked like a loser for most of the campaign, treading water and going nowhere, with no hope of catching Sarkozy and Juppé. Already four years ago, in the wake of the bloodbath between the fillonistes and copéistes for control of the UMP, I pronounced him toast and for all time. But lo and behold, his poll numbers have been surging over the past couple of weeks and with him now in striking distance, even at parity, with Sarkozy for second place. If Fillon makes it to the 2nd round, it will be a stunning coup de théâtre foreseen by no pundit or politico. And if it happens at Sarkozy’s expense, it will be such sweet revenge for Fillon, who hates Sarkozy with a passion, Fillon having been mistreated and humiliated during his five years at Matignon under Sarko’s hyper-presidency. If this comes to pass and Fillon squares off against Juppé, he will have an excellent chance of winning, and ergo be the odds-on favorite next May. Whoda thunk it?
So, guess what happened: another stunning coup de théâtre foreseen by no pundit or politico. Fillon took 44 percent of the vote, handily ending Sarkozy’s political career and relegating Juppé to a distant second.
This is very unusual for the French right, which tends to pick the most Gaullist candidate it can — the most charismatic, largest personality. Part of it, perhaps, is that everyone is just sick of Sarkozy and his vanity, and no one looked forward to seeing his face on television for another five years. And perhaps — this is pure speculation — Juppé reminded voters too much of Clinton: entitled, lacking vision, running on his long experience at a time when no one thinks that experience reflects well on the ruling class. Perhaps voters thought, “We saw what happened to Clinton; Juppé will lose to Le Pen.” Perhaps they were right.
Because I didn’t expect him to go anywhere, I paid no mind to Fillon, and can’t tell you much about him beyond what the media’s reporting. He served as prime minister from 2007 to 2012 under Sarkozy. I wasn’t living in France then, so I have no personal memories of him. He’s a 62-year-old Catholic from a village in the northwest. He’s proposed what’s being called a “radical pro-business” reform program: labor reform, increasing the retirement age, cutting 500,000 public sector jobs in five years.
thatcherThis makes him sound like a rare economic liberal in an age of statism and populism: He calls himself a “Thatcherite,” and defended economic liberalism as common sense: “I’m tagged with an [economically] liberal label in the same way one would paint crosses on the doors of lepers in the middle ages. But I’m just a pragmatist.”
It’s extremely unusual for a French politician to liken himself explicitly to Thatcher. It’s particularly striking that he’s done so when so many in France — and the world — see the kind of liberalism she represented as a failure, of which Donald Trump’s election is only the most recent symptom. He’s swimming against the current with this label. I was pleased to see that “Thatcher” was trending in France yesterday. Some commentators think this is what attracted voters; others think it’s the book he just published, which I haven’t read, but which apparently says sensible things about energetically combatting Islamists without targeting law-abiding Muslims.
My reaction to all of that is, “Well, that sounds good. I thought well of Margaret Thatcher. The election of someone like that would be good for France and good for Europe.” 
Except that Monsieur Fillon also seems to be a committed fan of Vladimir Putin.
Now, how he reconciles this with being a great fan of Margaret Thatcher I don’t know; as far as I’m concerned, they can’t be reconciled. But he’s called for a rapprochement with Russia without demanding any concessions, in turn. He’s campaigned feverishly against the economic sanctions placed on Russia following the invasion of Ukraine; he says they’re counterproductive and “strategically devastating for our farmers.” He looks forward to what he hopes will be a good relationship between Putin and Trump. He says he admires Putin’s “cold and effective pragmatism” in the Middle East. Cold and effective, for sure.
Le Point reports that Fillon and Putin use “tu” with each other — which is like being on a first-name basis:
Vladimir Putin can rejoice. If François Fillon enters the Élysée Palace, Putin can count on having a new friend in the circle of Western leaders. Indeed, like Donald Trump, the former French prime minister intends ardently to work with Russia. One month ago, at the very moment the world was outraged about the Russian bombardment of Aleppo, Fillon was one of the rare people to condemn François Hollande’s refusal to receive the Kremlin master who wanted to inaugurate the [new] Russian orthodox church in Paris. “Of course we should welcome him,” he snapped. “Do we want to make war on Russia?”
In other words, as Leonid Bershidsky put it for Bloomberg, without too much hyperbole, Vladimir Putin is Winning the French Election, in so far as it looks as if it will now come down to two enthusiastic Russophiles:
While it’s unclear how well Russian President Vladimir Putin will get along with Donald Trump and his team of Republican hawks, it looks as though he has already won the French presidential election. The front-runner in the primary election of the French center-right, Francois Fillon, is nearly as enthusiastic a Russophile as Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front, and the center-left hardly stands a chance in next year’s presidential election. …
Among the center-right candidates, Juppe was the most anti-Russian. He has condemned the Crimea annexation and the Russian bombings of Aleppo, accusing Russia of “war crimes” in Syria. “At a certain moment, we shouldn’t hesitate to tell Putin ‘stop,'” he has said. If he ended up running against Le Pen, Putin would have a thing or two to worry about; he might even need to find a way to provide more funding for the National Front leader. With Fillon as the center-right candidate, he can relax.
Fillon’s position is longstanding; it’s not a whim. There’s always been a part of the French right that’s been hostile to American power and eager for Russia to be a counterweight. That’s where Fillon comes from. And that idea seems to be a trend, even in America.
So, I don’t know whether this is a victory for Thatcher’s ideas of for Putin’s. All I know is it can’t really be both. We’ll see.