Monday, 26 September 2011

The Putin-ator - Did you ever doubt 'he'd be back'?

It's been a while. In fact, it's fair to say that if this blog were a residence, the garden would be overgrown, there'd be countless bottles of milk by the front door and the social services would have dropped by to make sure someone hadn't passed away.
But I've returned to put some word down, nevertheless.
And in comparible Terminator sytle, incumbent Russian Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin has confirmed that he has accepted a proposal to run for a return to the Kremlin, for a third time, in March 2012.
Did you ever doubt that 'he'd be back'?
Recent constitutional amendments mean that Putin would be eligible to serve back-to-back six-year Presidential terms and he is thus positioned to remain in power until 2024, by which point he would be 71.
Given the strongman’s hold on the political process in Russia, where he is polled as the country’s most popular politician, the result is uncertain only in lacking the required formalities.
Indeed, if you can find a bookmaker that will give you favourable odds on the Russian Federation waiting at lest six years before it sees a fourth President, take them up on it.
Despite efforts to keep interested parties guessing, the move should come as no surprise.
Putin and Medvedev alike have claimed that decisions were made some years ago regarding who should hold which position in government come 2012 and considering that Medvedev was hand-picked by Putin as his successor in 2008, it has long since been conventional wisdom that the former was simply keeping the door ajar until the latter was legally entitled to return.
Some observers have claimed that the move will be little more than symbolic since Medvedev has been guilty of playing ‘Robin to Putin’s Batman’ throughout his tenure anyway, as infamously described by US officials in wikileaked cables.
But critics are less optimistic citing economic stagnation, increased corruption and a more prevalent police state as likely consequences of the return of Putin’s ‘managed democracy’.
Moreover, it is likely that Russian-foreign relations will hit something of a trough.
In particular, arms-control and trade agreements will likely suffer set-backs as Russia’s membership of the WTO and its compliance with US-led missile defence systems, designed to guard against the Iranian threat, are now at risk.
Putin has been vocal on the latter point in particular, indicating that the dispute over what kind of missile-defence system should be installed – whether that be a NATO-Russian joint command and control structure or Washington’s preferred coordinated system option – would be critical in proving Obama’s sincerity in his stated desire to reset relations with Moscow.
With the ostensible ‘Arab Spring’ calling Israel’s security into question, any further delay on the Iranian missile defence system could prove a diplomatic headache for Washington. But Putin is unlikely to cede ground while he suspects Russia’s own nuclear deterrent to be at risk.
Talk of Putin's rather prolonged reign becoming a parody of Brezhnev’s Soviet rule is not too far wide of the mark; he is certain to be on the front row of Russian politics for some time to come.
Indeed, as Andrew Osborn has highlighted over at The Telegraph, come 2024 Putin may still be as fresh in appearance as he is in presence. Though he won't be the first head of state that begins to look like Jackie Stallone.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

When did "bad" become good? Britain and it's degenerate youth.

Britain today is infested with a youth culture that, by the majority’s standards, is politically detached and socially alien.

I refer, of course, to the London riots. But don’t allow yourself to think that this is a new phenomenon. The chaos we have witnessed over the past nights as the sun has dipped in London -- and now further afield -- goes far beyond this particular episode and pervades the lives of Britons every day.

It may be too soon to conduct a full post-mortem of the riots and of the fate of the youths who are responsible, but making observations on the general demise of their social health is all too possible. 

It has been said that the riots are political in nature; that today's underprivileged youth are disillusioned with the options provided.

Red Ken has pointed to government cuts which allegedly came “too deep and too soon” as a cause for the social divide. On a similar tack, the insufferable Diane Abbott took the opportunity to score politically, lingering on Haringey’s slashed budget as a cause for distaste. Some have even gone as far as to suggest that the riots are simply about a ghostly demographic -- ignored by society for so long -- claiming power, if only for several nights.

I’ll pull no punches; such analyses are not only dangerous but flattering to the brutish thugs who are responsible and morally abhorrent.

In comparison to the youth generation of the Sixties, for example, rich in political activism when faced with the Vietnam War, sections of today's youth are not-far-off politically dead. It is rare to hear political chit-chat in parks or on street corners; rarer still to learn of progressive, widespread movements. 

Instead, wide sections of today's youth are concerned more with strict localities; with post-code warfare, quasi-tribal gangs and street credibility.

These attitudes arose long before the coalition's cuts and, looking retrospectively, were in play deep into Labour’s reign. There is therefore no justification for attaching an overtly political label to these acts and we must accept that it is no more than opportunistic crime, bred through a degenerate culture which determines "bad" to be "good".

Take a look at this pictorial evidence and fill in the gaps; a stage for political statement, or simply an opportunity for image-crazed youths to get their feet into the newest pair of trainers? I suspect videos of these exploits will soon begin to surface on the YouTube accounts of bragging yobs, in a similar vein to the sickening "happy slap" craze some years ago.

To suggest the violence is a means of claiming power -- a perverse and overgrown cry for help -- is a further misdemeanour of ignorance.

Ask decent citizens in some of London’s most deprived boroughs who holds power locally and I would stack my chips on the likelihood that they’d point to the gun-toting, dangerous-dog-wielding gang members. More likely still, an answer would be less than forthcoming for fear of retribution.

These creatures know power all too well and thrive upon it.

Apologists will point to the pervasive cycle supposedly at play; no education, no jobs, no opportunities, all of which is said to lead to a despondent lifestyle of guns, drugs and physical violence thus making proceedings political.

I should make clear at this point that I don't doubt that being raised in a borough such as Haringey can be a hard-knock-life and I am careful to avoid assumptions that breaking this cycle is easy (though this article should provide inspiration). But have the apologists, and indeed the criminals themselves, not taken the time to observe that vast masses of our nation are, like them, hard up, yet manage to avoid acts of barbarity? Are they not familiar with responsibility?

Surely one’s prospects are better served looking for employment as opposed to wreaking havoc? (Am I to assume, perhaps naively, that this approach has already been well trodden by those out in force last night?)

With this frame of mind, I ran a simple search on, using Tottenham as a reference point. The search yielded 250 jobs in a 15 miles radius, of which there was a healthy balance; from requirements for general handypersons (paying in the region of £10 p/h) through to financial service advisors and retail store managers (paying in the region of £20,000 to £30,000 p/a).

Clearly, 250 vacancies are insufficient for an area the size of North London, even when considered in tandem with various other opportunities advertised elsewhere. But if that figure was somehow multiplied, say through the regeneration of London’s manufacturing industry, would the problem necessarily be solved?

I have my doubts.

Perhaps I am being cynical, but I envisage a larger problem at hand, of shifting mentalities to meet these demands. For many underprivileged youths, swapping a casual, often illicit lifestyle for forty hours of hard graft, week in, week out, is disagreeable with their outlook.

Sadly, for many, it is easier to depend on state hand-outs, supplemented by petty or hard organised crime. What is more, I’m not optimistic that society can change that mentality, at least in the short term.

But looking beyond tomorrow, we have serious structural changes to make as a society.  On the one hand we have a welfare system that has for too long rewarded sheer idleness. On the other, we have bred a culture lacking in discipline and in respect for authority -- from school teachers to the police. Both of these areas require serious rebalancing.

This has to start at a formative age, at home and in schools. Parents need to be tasked with forming and maintaining stronger family units and they must be supported in doing so. We cannot facilitate "welfare queens". Moreover, power must be handed back to the teaching profession and the police force, both of which have long-since had their effectiveness eroded, in large part thanks to political correctness.

Of course, the regeneration of some of our poorest regions – ideally through the attraction of private investment – is a further priority.

But I’m afraid the latter point is frivolous when one considers that on-going events are simply crimes carried out by thugs who seek little more than intimidating reputations and some flashy possessions. For those responsible, the only immediate remedy worthy of mention is the proverbial book thrown swiftly in their direction.

Alas, with a nigh on bankrupt government at the helm, I won't hold my breath.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Media: CSIS Colombia 2020

The Centre for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) recently put together a fascinating conference -- 'Colombia - 2020'.

Check out the morning keynote from the Hon Gabriel Silva (Amb of Colombia to the US). 

CSIS have also uploaded a couple of audio files from the event which make for great listening; hear for yourselves --

Friday, 10 June 2011

Opinion: Obama the floater, destined to sink.

I make no secret of it; I've always had a slight disliking for Barack Obama. 

At first, I think it's fair to say that my dislike for him was unfair.  By that, I mean I was perhaps a little hasty in allowing myself to be irritated by the hype surrounding the President-elect.  To recap on what has been observed countless times before, he was celebrated not for his political talent, but for a whole host of shallow reasons: because of his relatively young age; his good-looks; because he wasn't a stuffy white guy; and even simply because of the fact that he just wasn't George W Bush.  He broke the mould and it drove the crowds wild; worldwide.

Perhaps it's fairer to say then, that my dislike wasn't so much for him, but for those who blindly touted his as-yet-unproven political ability.  I couldn't get on board; I wanted solid policy outlines, but all Obama could offer was broad sweeping rhetoric that was almost entirely focused on the virtue (if you want to see it that way) of being distanced from the "neo-cons".  He was wishy-washy.

I sit here now, as I’m sure many others do, and feel justified in my gut feeling.  Floating from one relationship to the next, Obama seems keen on being friends with everyone, but allies with no one.  A concession here, a flowery speech there; throw in a couple of "special relationship" mentions and perhaps the odd assurance to the Middle and Far East and everyone can be friends, right?  Hmmm.

I think perhaps it’s that characteristic flakiness -- his sheer irresolution -- that has really ground my gears over yesterday’s Falklands debacle.  If you’ve not heard, and can’t be bothered to sift through the OAS document, President Obama has used his “considerable” political judgement to side with the likes of Chávez and Ortega in backing Argentina’s right to hold negotiations with the British over the sovereignty of the Falklands.

What’s to negotiate?!  Nile Gardener makes the argument well in his Telegraph piece, leaving little need for me to regurgitate.  But what I will reaffirm is his pertinent description of the decision as “hugely disappointing”.  How true.  Disregarding the relationship between Britain and the US for the umpteenth time, Obama is left floating between the disappointment of a staunch ally and what is likely no more than the vague pleasure of those who remain committed foes. 

This paltry and frankly rather bizarre concession therefore really does no good for anyone.  Not least, it has left Obama looking the clueless fool once again. 

On this occasion, I'll give the last word to Ed Morrissey who sums the whole charade up perfectly in calling it “an insult to the British, as well as to the actual people on the islands themselves.”

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Announcement: What's Next Venezuela?

My last post -- Time to call Chávez's oil bluff? -- has since been cross-posted by -- a website I intend to work closely with moving forward.

Cyber space is often flooded with a lot of poor information, but for anybody interested in the effects of the Chávez regime in Venezuela, particularly pertaining to private property and the economy, WNVz is a great source that I'd highly recommend.

With a convinient news aggregator service (pulling together the highlights from the likes of the Washington Post, the Miami Herald, Foreign Policy etc) and some original, high quality analysis of its own, I'd suggest making space for WNVz in your daily digest!

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Opinion: Time to call Chávez's oil bluff?

Washington has for some time been constricted in taking a tough stance against Venezuela’s Chávez by the threat it perceives to its security of oil supply. But what if that threat was little more than a bluff?

For many interested parties, upon hearing of the fresh consignment of US sanctions imposed on seven foreign firms (including Petróleos de Venezuela – PdVSA) for their supply of refined petroleum products to Iran, immediate thoughts would have gravitated toward two questions that have been well trodden since: will this halt Iran’s nuclear programme? And, will the sanctions hit PdVSA hard?

The short answer to both questions is a round-about no.

The slightly longer version reads that since Tehran has proved itself adept at circumventing weakly imposed sanctions up until now, it seems unlikely that slapping the wrists of these seven firms will buck that trend. And as for PdVSA, oil exports to the US will continue unaffected as will the activities of its subsidiaries, i.e. Citgo, meaning that business will likely continue as usual, save the newly enforced bans on US government contracts, import-export financing and US export licences -- none of which have particularly interested the Venezuelan oil giant in the recent past anyway.

But this exhibition of relative (though still fairly puny) diplomatic muscle from Washington also kicks up a third and less widely touted question: is now the time to start calling Hugo Chávez’s oil bluff?

In recent years, the firebrand has threatened to diversify Venezuela’s oil away from the US market, principally toward China, in a bid to secure new security of supply; making Washington think twice before dishing out demands and creating a bit of wiggle room in the process. But upon closer inspection, Chávez’s aggressive oil diplomacy is perhaps not as well grounded as he might have us believe.

If truth be told, it is actually the US that is better placed to play hardball. Indeed, one of the most curious aspects of the Washington-Caracas standoff is that while both states undoubtedly depend on the other’s custom, it is in fact Caracas whose dependency is more acute. In 2010, 8.3% of US oil imports arrived from Venezuela -- no small fry -- but in marked contrast, this 8.3% translated to fully 43% of Venezuelan oil exports. It should be clear who stands to take the larger hit.

As for the Chinese alternative, for Beijing to take the Venezuelan market seriously, it would require an astronomical investment in order to bridge the logistical gap, not only in terms of transportation, but also in acquiring the capability to process Venezuela’s characteristically thick crude. And the latter point is a particularly important one since the fungible nature of oil as a commodity is called into question when consumers with the ability to process one’s commodity are in short supply. Couple that economic expense with the inevitable political one attached to any move into the US’ ‘backyard’, long since considered its strategic preserve, and a long term strategic partnership between Caracas and Beijing appears unlikely while the latter has better options in Central Asia.

Short of revenue-sapping, politically-charged, regional energy schemes such as Petrocaribe then, Venezuela really has little room for meaningful diversification away from the US.

Taking stock of this reality is important for US policy makers as it essentially means that a significant departure from the trade status quo between Caracas and Washington would be in the interests of neither party and is therefore unlikely as such. Quite frankly, it pours a bucket of cold water on Chávez’s fiery oil-threat since, with paltry means of pulling the plug on US supply the threat becomes little more than a bluff.

With that room for manoeuvre established, what of Washington’s scope for pressing Chávez harder on the ideological line?

Let’s be clear, slapping a reducer on Chávez will be best achieved democratically. The failed coup of 2002, hastily endorsed by the Bush administration, showed in no uncertain terms that attempts at regime change only serve to fan the flames that have kept Chávez’s popular appeal burning. Hence, the focus in Washington has correctly shifted to sanctions -- the uncertain, yet politically safer middle-ground between austere words and boots on the ground.

There is, of course, a legitimate debate to be had on the utility of sanctions as a foreign policy tool in the first place. Indeed, if the proof of the pudding really is in the eating, then the new round of sanctions go some way to exposing the failures of the original Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act (CISADA). That said, the newly revised stipulations in relation to PdVSA may be more useful -- as long as they are backed by a suitably aggressive approach moving forward -- in a secondary capacity, by drawing the relationship between Venezuela and Iran back into the international spotlight and providing a new set of red lines against which Caracas can be judged.

Washington needs to maintain this momentum by pushing a harder line (something that has in the past been constrained by the weighty oil millstone) and calling Chávez’s bluff since taking a tougher stance could help to fragment Chávez’s power. To cut a long story short, by forcing the authoritarian to choose between the two driving thrusts of his foreign policy agenda -- the economic pragmatism of oil, and his proclivity for anti-neoliberalism -- Washington can place its foe in a position he’d really rather not be.

Should Caracas take the first option, the US will score an important victory in making a further pariah of Iran, not to mention denting Chávez’s international standing as an anti-Western revolutionary.

And if Chávez opts for the second and probably more likely course, the US would then be positioned to hamper his ability to plough-back into his political project through further and harsher sanctions. In such an environment, the inevitable failure of Chávez’s unsustainable socialist program would likely be accelerated, perhaps too late to affect his run for another term in 2012, but certainly enough dent his aspirations for perpetual power.

Formulating a strategy around this central goal -- isolating Chávez’s foreign policy thrusts from one another -- should thus be a priority for the current administration in an environment where it needn’t worry excessively about the backlash. Smashing Chávez’s finely tuned balance between the fight against the ostensible ills of neo-liberalism (his raison d’être in the eyes of a significant percentage of Venezuela’s electorate) and reaping the rewards of an oil trade that funds it, could be the diplomatic reducer that Washington seeks.

Friday, 20 May 2011

Opinion: Ecuador's slide to non-institutional government

Amidst the discomfiture of accusations levelled at him by the IISS regarding his links with Colombia’s FARC, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa today has something to smile about.  Going with the BBC’s coverage, details have emerged of Correa’s victory in the May 7th referendum on political reforms, most significantly, giving him greater control over the media and the judiciary.
Writing in the Latin American Herald Tribune some two weeks ago, Lindsay Green Barber took a positive spin on the impending referendum, stating that regardless of the outcome, “the quantity, quality, and creativity of the discourse of the intense campaigns for ¨si¨ and ¨no¨ are evidence of an actively involved and concerned citizenry” and as such, should be viewed favourably.  What is more, she pointed to the encouraging direction of opposition to Correa’s power-maximising bid, from both left and right of the political spectrum.
But despite her best efforts, Correa’s victory has to come as a kick to the teeth.  She may, of course, be right that Correa’s popularity is on the wane ahead of the presidential election scheduled for 2013.  Indigenous groups, for example, have begun to turn their back on the president following a series of clashes over issues such as mining, water and the administration of justice.
But who’s to say the slide to a non-institutional model of governance will stop here?  If we take a hop, skip, and a rather large jump across Colombia and into Venezuela, for example, we find ourselves with a neat working example of how the incremental suffocation of democratic practice through media restrictions, constitutional reform and harassment of the opposition (amongst other initiatives) is actually a rather effective -- though non-commendable -- way of consolidating ones power.
It seems a full collapse of the indigenism that provided the backbone for Correa’s ascent in the first place will be the best means of preventing a slide to neo-statism and non-institutional governance of the brand witnessed in Venezuela today.