Time for Resignations and Reform

It has been clear for the last decade at least that Europe is in need of serious reform. Indeed, it is the lack of reform and the lack of democracy in its central systems that gave credibility to Mr Farage’s movement and ultimately to Brexit.

But simply because we have left Euope must not stop our interest in the wellbeing of our neighbour and must not silence us when we see grave wrongdoing.

In this case, Mrs Von der Leyen needs to lead by example and resign. She invoked Article 16 without reference to Ireland or the UK, she published the details of the EU contract with Astra Zenica (and inadvertantly revealed the secret deal struck that was probably itself against EU law, quite apart from the fact that the contract revealed that the prior UK agreement was perfectly sound). What she has done, most clearly is to demonstrate a level of hypocrisy that should not be tolerated. I spoke about this today in a Youtube video made on the back of an interview I did for a TV news show.

This evening, following exactly what I did while I was on “the Circle”, I drew a picture of Mrs von der Leyen. When I drew people in “the Circle”, it was an opportunity to get to know them. Nothing is as intimate and as revealing as the process of drawing a portrait, however cursory that sketch may be. My conclusions, therefore, about Mrs von der Leyen: I do not think she is a bad person. She has kindness and sincerity in her eyes. She wants to be liked. She likes to be led, to take advice. She needs to be persuaded to do the right thing, the bold thing and to set an example to the rest of the EU bureaucrats. I simply think this is a chance for the EU to look at the way it is working and nothing will effect this more dramatically than a clear resignation.

Here is a link to the video I made on Youtube:

It’s a bit rich

When the evidence is on film and circulating around social media, it is a bit rich to blame the protestors for violence when the only violence seen was done by the police. Mr Putin stressed to students that violence was not positive, but he also called the protests a form of “terrorism”, something I think that stretches credulity.

Meanwhile, our own Foreign secretetary has said quite clearly that the “use of violence against peaceful protesters and journalists” is wrong and the Russian government should “release citizens detained during peaceful demonstrations”. If past experience is anything to go on, however, there will be severe penalties imposed on anyone who happened to be caught on the streets on saturday, particularly if they have a recognised name. The Russian police want scalps rather than justice, it seems. They want names.

Of course, this can backfire, as in the arrest of Mr Ustinov in 2012 who was simply visiting a friend. He managed to get the Orthodox church to intercede for him and to get his 3 year prison sentence squashed. I suppose he was lucky. But a nasty experience.

Today, masked men raided Navalny’s flat and surpised his brother Oleg. It is worrying. Clearly, these are not the police- these are thugs or thieves but they may still be government-sponsored- there is no evidence that they are an independent group of masked men. This is not the way to proceed.

Nor is bluster. I think “Putin’s biggest secret” on the Black sea needs to be sorted out. If it does not belong to him, then the proud owner might now step forward. But that will not happen. There is no other owner. Putin is quite right, I am sure, that neither he, nor any member of his immediate family have put their names to any contract for the “palace”, but it does not make it any the less his.

The time has come for Mr Putin to bow out of public life and arrange a smooth transfer of power. A frank conversation with Mr Navalny might even guarantee him the immunity he has been trying to effect in law through the Duma, though the price Mr Putin may have to pay will be to surrender his new thuggish friends to the demands of transparency, and public order. Magnanimity at this stage, however, (and Putin is still in a position to be magnanimous) will cost Putin less than the utter destruction of his reputation and a bunker mentality. He knows the game is up: he might have attracted thugs and villains to his inner circle, but he is a canny politician at heart and one of the longest serving heads of state- there is something to respect in a man who knows when to exit.

The Ancient Roman term for an exit was vomitarium whoich gives us the englsih word”vomit”.Exit seems a much politer way to describe the end of an era.

For the Irada Zeynalova story, see the BBC report here and follow my links: https://monitoring.bbc.co.uk/product/c200wjny

Is the kremlin defence credible?

In the book “the Greeks and the Irrational”, the idea of a shame-based society is applied to ancient Greece. I was fascinated by this concept because it suggests that the village or community has a collective identity and a collective understanding of impropriety- hence the idea that, in Classical law, a person is considered guilty until they demonstrate their innocence or appeal for the Jury’s understanding. A “Guilt based” society is more urban and individualistic. I am a 21st Century urban animal – if I have done nothing wrong, I have no need to explain my actions: I do not live in the ancient world. As a rule, if I have done something wrong and I am overeager to defend myself, I look fairly guilty. Often, therefore, in today’s world, a dignified silence is the best approach.

This evening, Moscow has begun a fairly impressive fightback against the Navalny uprising. On Turkish TV, a very impressive journalist, Sevil Nuriyeva, presented what amounts to the Kremlin defence. It had five major points. Firstly, and most importantly, that the Navalny show was staged by unnamed powers in the West intent on destabilising the Kremlin regime, and that Navalny is financed by western powers. Some of this has been suggested before. Secondly, a flat denial that the Black sea palace is Putin’s- it is a government building. Thirdly, a clarification of the reason for Navalny’s current 30 day detention- specifically, that he has failed to appear at a police station in line with the parole agreement reached after the 2013 suspended sentence. Fourthly, that the Kremlin has a tradition of permitting protests to take place because it is a proven way to flush out the organisers and put them under arrest. The threat is clear- they can expect to be arrested in the coming days and weeks. Fifthly and finally, a piece of polemic, partly put forward by Mr Putin himself on 17th December when he answered the BBC journalist, Steve Rosenberg. If Russia intended to kill its enemies, he teased, it would do so efficiently and effectively. The whole aura of nerve gas, the argument goes, is a Western image that conjures up teh worst excesses of the cold war and cannot be proven to have been sourced in Russia if indeed such nerve agents actually exist. Again, there are demands for Germany to provide the evidence or to give Russian agents access to the material being investigated.

There is one final statement that has emerged- that at least two people are being groomed to succeed Mr Putin and neither of these are called Navalny.

Ms Nuriyeva knows Russia well and understands the way things work. What she has said today is paralleled by other reports coming out of Moscow. This is, in other words, a targeted response. It is also a thoughtful approach and a good analysis of the material available. I think it is wrong.

Moscow has moved from outright denial to a very specific and cogent presentation that makes the Kremlin the victim of the story. It is accompanied by new reports that reduce the numbers of arrests and of the crowds that apparently assembled across Russia on Saturday. I will not question these revisions Instead, I will stick to the five points that Ms Nuriyeva has put forward.

I hesitate to answer each point in turn but here goes- I think there is no doubt that Mr Navalny is financed by powers in the West, but these are almost certainly Russian exiles. I have referred to at least one and I have strong suspicions about others. For what Navalny has sourced so far, it is certainly not necessary to have CIA access of spycraft. It can be explained away very simply by arrogance and stupidity on the part of the russian agents themselves. These same agents have already demonstrated a marked degree of stupidity in claiming to have visited Salisbury to chjeck the height of the spire. The only reason to visit Salisbury is frankly in celebration of the 3 paintings done by Constable, and of these there was no mention at all.

There is enough anecdotal evidence to suggest that Putin stays in the Black sea palace complex. Artists have performed for him there and been paid with lavish gifts. Some of them have not kept their mouths shut. It is certainly possible that Putin’s friends in the government are also welcomed to the Palace but the fact that his toy car collection is on display suggests something more personal than a Government bolt hole.

While the parole offence is a reasonable excuse for detention, the 24 hour deadline, the lack of notice and most significantly the bundling of extra charges suggest that this is not a routine follow-up investigation. The last two points are rehetorical and fairly well rehearsed, the first, that protests are allowed as a way to identify the ring-leaders is clearly a threat and the second is a scary statement that sends shivers down my back- “if we wanted to kill someone, we would”. There is a list of people who have died in unexplained ways, all of whom have fallen foul of the Russian regime. There is also fairly good evidence of the use of poisons, whether radioactive or chemical. If the conversation Mr Navalny had with Kardryacheb is ignored, and I think this would be to overlook a central piece of evidence, then Mrs May’s statement after the Salisbury incident is still decisive here- either the Kremlin is responsible for the poisoning or it has let these weapons get into the hands of unidentifed terrorists. There is, of course, the argument that all the evidence is fabricated and that there has never been any radioactive poisoning, or any chemical attacks at all.

I would like to think the best of the Russian government. I like Russia and I enjoy my trips to Moscow. I am also of the opinion, as the great man John Maynard Keynes said, that “when the facts change, I change my mind.” I make no claims at all to infallibility and I am eager to bow to better knowledge than my own; however, the facts, as presented, do not seem to me to be scuppered by the defence that is now being paraded.

As for the novel idea, the first we have ever heard of this, that successors are being readied to follow Mr Putin- that seems to me to confirm my fears that Mr Putin realises how badly he has been damaged. I think it is only a matter of time.

Teatime with Tim- who knows what subjects will come up in discussion!

What about the people?

There have been two events in the space of a month where politicians have called the people on to the streets and the resulting scenes of chaos have been broadcast around the world.

The first was Mr Trump’s call to his supporters and the storming of the Capitol. 5 people died. The second has been Navalny’s call to take to the streets on 23rd January. Comparisons may not be wanted but they cannot really be avoided.

Riots have been a feature of history and there have been many different ways of stirring them up and of quelling them. Cleon and Alkibiades stand as images of demagogy. While Libanius argued for clemency and Piso favoured reason in dealing with a rioting mob but for the most part riots in the ancient world, however they were started, were met with the brute force of a military crackdown.

The riot act of 1714/15 was only repealed in 1967 and effectively meant that if people did not disperse when told to do so, they faced death. Hence, the phrase “to read the riot act”.

Last year, the George Floyd protests turned violent and 5000 National guard were deployed across 15 states and Washington DC. Parallels were drawn then with the riots in the UK when protests over the death of Mark Duggan in early August turned into 4 days of looting and riot. In the British instance, copycat riots flared up acros sthe country leading to more than 3000 arrests and 5 deaths, a number of serious injuries and £200 million property damage. These were the early days of social media and a combination of twitter and the more prestigious blackberry system (BBM) was used to direct looting. People posed for photographs, selfies, with their stolen goods and indeed these self-same trpophy pictures were later used by the police to identify them and make arrests.

The Daily Mail and BBC were quick to blame Twitter. The Daily Telegraph particularly talked about twitter as a means to “incite and film the looting and violence”. Some of this could be put down to pique that the traditional media was late in getting the story, and there is also a case for arguing that twitter was simply the “messenger” of choice. But ease of communication must be a factor in the spread and speed of the riots, the flash-mobs that moved from venue to venue and the subsequent looting. Following the riots, the MP for Tottenham David Lammy called for BBM to be suspended.

Various other factors have been advanced to explain how a peaceful protest might turn into a riot. Police over-reaction, and response as well as the presence of agitators in the mass of protestors can be decisding factors. Often, it is a matter of nightfall. What is peaceful during the day turns nasty at night.

In the UK, the right to peaceful protest is well documented and is defined by the mass marches seen regularly from the Jarrow crusade to the countryside alliance against the Blair fox hunting law. Indeed, the right to protest peacefully is enshrined not only in common law but also in the human rights act of 1988. Buttressing these is Article 10 of the European convention on Human rights which explicitly protects freedom of expression free of state interference and Article 11 which guarantees the Right to Peaceful assembly.

There are grey areas, of course, as these laws are interpreted in a variety of different ways that might permit, for instance, police practices like kettling and guiding protestors, filming and monitoring them and placing restrictions on numbers and location of protests, particularly those taking place near Parliament. It might have been interesting to have seen what would have happened in practice had Jeremy Corbyn won a National election and then had to face down a protest led by his brother Piers.

But the rights of freedom of association and of assembly are qualified rights and, certainly in Britain, protests can be prevented in the interest of health and safety. Under the tiered lockdown, a protest might have been legitimate but I wonder if it would be equally legitimate under the current blanket lockdown rules. I know there were plans to tighten up the rules and that the Government has discouraged mass protests.

This brings me to the protests across Russia. So far, I understand that about 2000 people have been arrested and detained; film records suggest that many of these arrests were targeted by the police at known supporters and “ring-leaders”, and it is also clear from before the protest began that the police intended to stop it citing a variety of reasons, only one of which was covid regulations and health, another was about “encouraging minors to commit illgal acts that might endanger their safety”. The number of people who turned out, therefore, despite the threats from the authorities, is remarkable. Perhaps more remarkable is the absence of any reports so far of looting. This, to me, marks this protest out as very different to the one that took place on 6th January in Washington. Looting, violence and shooting suggests something terrible which was aggravated by Trump’s failure to call his supporters to heel even if they might have been inclined to disobey him. At its heart, therefore, is the question of “incitment” which has always been tricky in an age of free speech and mass media. My argument would be very simple, that a head of state should not be in a position where this is even under debate. Trump chose foolishly to place himself at the heart of an angry mob. Trump’s role as a sitting President puts the riot of 6th January in a completely different box to anything called today to support the cause of Alexei Navalny.

If Pushkin square was known as a place to assemble, why did the police not close it down?

AS for the Nalavny story itself, there is now a new twist emerging. The Kremlin has clearly decided that its policy of denial is no longer working. It has now started to aportion blame and claims that the Navalny telephone call to Kadryacheb could not possibly have happened without American secret service support.

I am afraid this is a lame claim. I will finish therefore with a small story from my own experience. When I was trying to work out what had happened to my partner in detention in Crete in 2001, and to secure justice for him, I found myself facing not only a stone wall of legal indifference mounted by the judicial system in Hania but also by a form of manipulation from the very charities that should have supported him, whose offices in Athens behaved scurriously. In some desperation, therefore, I called the coastguard office and, by pure chance, spoke to an official who not only knew of the case but was clearly friends with the men who had been responsible for Necati’s assault. Simply because I spoke to him in Greek, this man assumed I was part of the navy defence team and I am afraid I did not make any effort to clarify my role. Accordingly, he sang like a canary and confirmed many of my worst fears, chief of which was that tehre was implicit State support for Dandoulakis and Vardakis. I did not need US sceret service support to make this phone call. I simply relied on the rank stupidity and boredom of the staff who answered the phone. Equally, I did not intend to have the telephone conversation that occured. It was a matter of pure chance. I am sure that Navalny was able to do exactly the same and the story he tells about his exchange with Kadryacheb sounded very familiar indeed to me.

This is now a story that can only have one ending. How that happens, God knows, but Putin’s time has been called and it is up to him to look over to Trump and to negotiate a more dignified exit. If I were now in Navalny’s position, I would ensure that an up to date and detailed manifesto is published as soon as possible. He has secured the youth vote. He now needs to reassure the older generations and business leaders that he has the means to deliver a better future and a stable, functioning government. He might be the face of this movement at the moment but he needs a much bigger team around him, and more dynamic local leaders to lend their voice to his or it will be a matter of replacing one autocrat with another. This should not be about revolution but about Russian reasurance.

Alexei Navalny protests

Novichok is familiar to me because it is the word used to describe a first-year student, what Americans call “a freshman”. For the last five years, I have been a professor in one of Russia’s leading universities and have met many fresh-faced Novichki. For most of us in the West, however, Novichock has another more sinister identity- it was the name of a military nerve agent used in the 2018 Salisbury attack on Sergey and Yulia Skripal.  It was used again, according to German investigators, in a failed attempt on the life of Alexey Navalny. In the words of Mrs May, “Either this was a direct act by the Russian State against our country. Or the Russian government lost control of this potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others.” In other words, the use of Novichok in any instance represents either Kremlin malice or incompetence. The more often it is used and identified, the more Mr Putin has to explain.

The problem with Russia’s denials is that Moscow already has “form”. In 2006, the exiled critic Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned with radioactive polonium and died in University hospital, London. The Russian secret service, the FSO was implicated in the case.

There are three main aspects to the Alexei Navalny story.

The first is that the Kremlin’s cack-handed and consistent response to Mr Navalny has turned the former 2007 blogger and critic into an international star and real political contender, the second is the embarrassment he has already caused the Kremlin and the third is the effort made to silence Navalny’s supporters and more specifically the attempt to invoke Covid regulations to stop the protest planned for Saturday 23rd January that, as I am writing has already attracting sizeable numbers in Moscow’s Pushkin square and in St Petersburg.

This is, in other words, a story that makes the current Russian administration look foolish, and in the last few days, Navalny’s allegations of corruption have become personal with the publication of a 2-hour video showing what is alleged to be a 1 billion dollar palace in its own complex the size of a small state on the black sea built apparently with money given secretly in return for political favours, a form of backshesh on a staggering scale.

The question really is whether even Navalny could have anticipated his own success. Much of it has been delivered to Navalny by an increasingly anxious Kremlin, initially to stop his bid to become Moscow mayor and later to stop him running against Putin as a Presidential candidate. Indeed, the more the Kremlin responds, the more powerful it makes Navalny. It is Putin’s response that makes Navalny so credible- the attempts to intimidate, silence and even kill Navalny suggest that what he is saying is true. Even in 2015, the Wall street journal described Navalny as the man Putin fears the most. So much so that, like Lord Voldemort, Putin will not even mention his name. He calls him “a certain force,” or “a character you mentioned”, but Putin’s friends, like former bodyguard Viktor Zolotov in 2018 have been more vocal. Zolotov challenged Navalny to a duel, accused him of libel and in a youtube video says : “I’ll make a nice juicy steak out of you” and “give you the spanking you deserve”.  

On returning to Russia last week, Navalny knew he faced arrest on charges of fraud, of libelling an army veteran and of breaking a parole agreement put in place in 2013 following arrest and imprisonment for an offence dismissed by the EU and timed to make his bid for political office impossible. So, besides being outspoken, Navalny is unquestionably brave. It was the parole issue that was cited on his arrest and imprisonment, a matter the regular Kremlin spokesman called an “internal affair”.

There is some irony in the charges against Navalny: Navalny alleges staggering and specific corruption within the Kremlin and yet, he himself is now charged with embezzling money donated to his own campaign. At the end of December, coinciding with news that Navalny had recovered from poisoning, his suspended sentence, imposed in 2014 was due to end. But at this point, the Russian authorities demanded that he appear in Moscow or face further detention. And it is his failure to meet the 24 hour deadline that seems to be the charge holding him currently in Matrosskaya Tishina prison.

The support Navalny has received, however, is already staggering. The video he posted about Putin’s alleged corruption garnered 60 million views in 4 days, tiktok postings in his support over the same period have been viewed over 300 million times and the threatened marches, despite intense cold, an aggressive police crackdown, the arrest and detention of his spokesperson and lawyer, are already building up around the country.

Perhaps most damning of all was Navalny’s cheeky telephone call to konstantin Barishovich Kadryachob, a FSB agent who was tricked into confirming that he was responsible for cleaning up the scene after Navalny’s poisoning and that the Novichok had been put in Navalny’s underwear. Had Navalny’s plane not made an emergency landing and had he not been given immediate medical help, Kadruyachob was sure the poison would have been efficacious. This call came only a couple of days after Putin himself on 17th December had a testy exchange with a BBC reporter, Steve Rosenberg referring in his response to “the famous blogger” and “this patient in the Berlin clinic”. Putin said, “who needs him anyway? If [they] wanted to, they would’ve probably finished it. But in this case, his wife asked me, and I immediately gave the order to let him out of the country to be treated in Germany… This is a trick to attack the leaders [in Russia].”

Putin’s aggressive denial is matched by a wide campaign to discredit Navalny. The allegations of fraud are probably not credible as similarly Putin’s sweeping dismissals of the opposition leader as someone with “delusions of grandeur” and a persecution complex. The internet makes it harder, though, to censor news in any traditional way, so, while Navalny is rarely mentioned on mainstream tv broadcasts or in the official press, his story dominates social media and even if the police and Russian authorities manage to disperse the crowds this afternoon, the damage to the Kremlin’s authority has been done.

Navalny, for his part shows no signs at all of going away any time soon. And he has made efforts to protect himself. Any attempt, for example, that the prison authorities might make to stage his suicide in prison are already anticipated by a positing Navlny has made saying he is not suicidal and, in addition, that he has already strenuously denied the allegations against him. Moreover, while the Kremlin might say this is an internal matter, it is difficult to dismiss Western support, and it will become harder and harder for Moscow to ignore the European judgement that his 2013 conviction was an “arbitrary application of the law.” It is this case which was commuted into a suspended prison sentence and this case that forms the basis of Navalny’s current detention. More significantly, as time goes on, it will become harder for Moscow to ignore the both the German and British evidence of Novichok poisoning. At some point Mr Putin will have to answer Mrs May’s clear question about the poison itself- is its use as a weapon evidence of incompetence or of malice.

Here is a short video that I made last night

It is worth adding that Navalny has actually published a proposal of what he would do in office. This was in 2017

Mr Trump and Mr Biden

This is an english version of a piece that appeared elsewhere in Turkish:

The controversy surrounding the election of the 46th US President reached its conclusion today with the ceremonial “swearing-in” and a poll that suggests President Biden personally commands slightly more approval than did George W Bush at the same point and certainly more than his predecessor Donald Trump scored when he became President (however large the inaugural crowd)- and Mr Trump has entered the record book as the only post World War 2 president never to achieve a positive approval rating at any time during his tenure. The public response to Biden, however, is perhaps more positive than we might have expected especially because there remains a growing belief throughout the US since the 2008 financial crisis that things have gone wrong. Biden’s call to “end this uncivil war that pits red against blue” was wise, as was the intense security around the Capitol. He has to move fast and to be seen to be in control after so much chaos. He has followed up the oath of office with a hasty move to issue 17 executive orders that will reverse key features of the outgoing administration. One of these will see the US rejoin the Paris Climate accord, and another will halt the ban on visitors from certain muslim countries- this latter may be an academic exercise in the light of pandemic travel restrictions but it is an important diplomatic signal, as also is Biden’s plan to visit the UK in the near future, and to meet the Prime Minister who had openly supported Trump.

I hope we shall see a reversal of the zero-tolerance policy on immigration and I hope the horror stories of children taken from their families and forced into immigration camps in the US will become a thing of the past. Only today, the story of a 9 year old Haitain boy, Vladimir Fardin, hit the British press and his incarceration, as well as scant news about his current location, is shocking. A lead from Biden on this issue may send a message to our own Home Secretary as borders tighten following Brexit.

The big question is whether Biden will lend his active support to plans to put Mr Trump on trial before the senate. One of the great bits of advice from Winston Churchill is to be “magnanimous in victory” but equally the same Churchill text goes on to vow “defiance in defeat”, something his predecessor has certainly taken to heart. But there is a practical issue:  a Trump trial will delay Biden’s ambitious agenda as well as further embitter a disturbingly loyal, vocal and active following which has so far shown little sign of backing down, has stormed Washington and has interestingly shown an unwavering level of support over the 4 tumultuous years of Trump’s presidency.

At the same time, and despite that support base, Mr Trump is an image of bitter defeat, even if reluctantly he finally conceded. In this, Trump, like the tennis player Serena Williams, sets a bad example- she called the umpire a “thief”, he said the election was “stolen”.

It is easy to paint Trump, who exploited national grievances, disinformation and his own celebrity cult, as the villain in this story, but of one thing we can be sure- he did not coin the phrase “Stop the steal” which can now be heard around Washington. That goes back to 2016 and there are two competing stories: one is Ted Cruz’s attempt to grab the Republican nomination from Trump and the other is Hillary Clinton’s defeat by Trump. Mrs Clinton was questioning the validity of the electoral process long before Trump.

Last night, I was delighted to meet Eliza Orlins who is one of the candidates for the upcoming race to be the New York District Attorney and to replace an increasingly unpopular Cy Vance. What was clear from our conversation was that none of the candidates doubt that Mr Trump’s tax situation appears irregular. Whatever happensto him in the Senate, therefore, Donald Trump is almost certain to come to court in New York whoever wins the DA race. This will be a sensational postscript to his presidency.

But Eliza went further and criticized Cy Vance for dropping cases against the Trump family. Had they been pursued, and had there been less cronyism and less pandering to the New York elite, she believes a Trump presidency could never have happened.

Mr Trump’s one-term presidency began in January 2017 with ominous reference to “American carnage” and that carnage was delivered on 6th January with 5 people dead on the steps of the Capitol. Until that point, many International observers may have been egging him on as “the devil you know”, but his behaviour after Biden’s victory has been shameful and it will be very difficult now for an American presidency to ever again voice concerns about contested elections in other parts of the world or, indeed, to claim that America is the bastion of democracy whatever Biden may have asserted when he said that “Democracy has prevailed”. One thing is abundantly clear to his administration and to the watching world: America’s international reputation has been gravely injured by this election.