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From a barrier to a bridge: reclaiming economics a tool for change

Sat, 2017-10-21 07:41

We need a new generation of economics educators, communicators and commentators

Economics is having an image crisis. It’s all around us, and yet few of us are able to relate to the subject, let alone feel the agency to transform it. At a time where our dominant economic models are failing us, individuals aren’t equipped to effectively participate in discussion of the subject - exasperating an already non-functioning democracy. The subject urgently needs to be transformed from a barrier to a bridge for people to engage in critical, grounded and informed political debate. For most people, economics is recognised as simultaneously ubiquitous and important, but an inaccessible, distant and abstract force over which we have little control. People know it’s all around them, but what it even is (let alone how we can affect it), is a mystery to most. At Economy, we’re working to unpack how people experience the subject, what the barriers to engagement are, and what needs to change in order for it to become a tool to build an economy created by everyone. One of our first findings last year was that only 12% of the UK feel that politicians and the media tend to talk about economics in an accessible way that makes it easy to understand. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is even starker in lower income families, dropping to 7%. When it comes to elections, for many the highpoint of the democratic calendar, only a third of us feel that information about the economy in the media is useful enough to help us make an informed voting choice. The perception of usefulness of economics is lower than the pitiful average in not only those from a lower socio-economic background, but also the young. In the election this year, our research found that nearly 60% of young people did not feel the information they could access was useful enough to inform their vote. And yet we know that democratic malaise is not the issue; passion, excitement and energy in politics amongst the young is at an all time high. The problem lies in how the subject is communicated. The single biggest request from the people we speak to is always the same: ‘Explain it in layperson’s terms!’. This statement is often closely followed by a complaint that economic information is not presented in a manner relevant to their lives, and it is often shrouded in meaningless, inaccessible terminology. This sentiment is found in over 70% of participants. It’s a clear message: economics, as spoken about in the public sphere, needs to eliminate jargon, simply and define difficult vocabulary, and drop assumptions about the levels of understanding of its audience. Answers like this are common in our interviews: “When people talk about the economy, it’s just talking about millions and billions of pounds. So I feel it’s not connected to me at all” “I feel like [the economy’s] very big, like it refers to something very big… I don't feel I know enough to have an opinion” “FTSE? I know that’s a thing that you do with your feet under the table”  Our research highlights a serious economics literacy problem, leaving economics accessible to those with a certain level of power, privilege and education. This leaves us with a major imbalance between decision makers and citizens - an imbalance that leaves those feeling the worst effects of our economic system the least able to engage in change. New thinking for the British economy needs support from a public that is able and willing to hold those with economic power to account. Moreover, it needs a public that can engage with economic discussion and that has the agency to assert its demands from the economy. Fixing economics communication cannot be left only to those already doing it. We need to develop a new cohort of economics educators, communicators and commentators, representative of the society the economy should serve. Elinor Ostrom remains the only woman to have ever won a nobel prize in economics (out of more than 75 awarded), and there have only been two non-white recipients. There is little sign that the current arbiters of economic excellence have any interest in bringing more people into the conversation. We need to reclaim economics as a tool we can all use, take ownership over, and have confidence in. When considering some of the dominant economic narratives of the last ten years (austerity being the most obvious example), it is clear that they haven’t been created in the interests of the many. With better understanding, communication and presentations of the subject, the subject can be used as a catalyst for change.

Rights:  CC by NC 4.0

Babiš’ Czech Republic: too thin a gruel?

Fri, 2017-10-20 12:32

There is always a chance that, owing to unforeseen domestic or external dynamics, the Czech Republic may yet slide into illiberal isolation. But it will be not be by design.

Andrej Babis, founder of the liberal-populist ANO-party, hands out his book, 'What I dream of when for once I get some sleep' to voters in West Bohemia's Pilsen, Czech Republic, 07 October 2017. Michael Heitmann/Press Association. All rights reserved.Central European politics is taking a dangerous turn. After the success last weekend of right-wing populists in Austria, today’s elections in the Czech Republic are likewise set to deliver a more Eurosceptic, and less liberal, government in Prague.

The ultimate fear is that Andrej Babiš, a Slovak-born oligarch and media mogul whose ANO (Yes) party will come first with over 25 per cent, will align himself with extremists to steer the country down the same illiberal and isolationist path as Poland and Hungary. This possibility lends the election a sense of existential threat unfamiliar to Czech democratic politics after 1989. But how real is the fear?

Much of the anxiety has do to with Babiš himself – and rightly so. Should Babiš become prime minister, the sheer concentration of political and economic power in his hands would spell trouble for the integrity of Czech democratic institutions. Given that he currently faces charges for EU subsidy fraud, he might be tempted to subvert the rule of law or seize control of the public media. Beyond Babis, there is concern over the late surge of the far-right Party of Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD) of Japanese-born entrepreneur Tomio Okamura, which champions a Czexit referendum and could easily cross 10 per cent.

The worst-case scenario – for both the Czech Republic and Europe – would be the unholy alliance between a power-hungry Babiš and a xenophobic Okamura, possibly aided by the unreformed Communists and cheered on from the castle by the pro-Russian President Milos Zeman.

In theory, such a configuration could trigger a pattern similar to Hungary or Poland: oligarchic centralization wrapped in nationalism and hostility towards the European project.

In reality, however, fears of ‘Orbanization’ of Czech politics are misplaced, even if a Babiš-Okamura coalition were to emerge. This is not because of some innate resilience of Czech democratic institutions, or the strength of the country’s liberal constituency. Rather, it is due to the ideological emptiness of their challengers.

Babiš himself is a quintessential opportunist. The defining trait of his political persona is the absence of any coherent set of ideas, let alone any alternative – illiberal – vision of Czech or European political order. His parochial and inconsistent Euroscepticism (ANO belongs to the ALDE political family), encapsulated in the rejection of Eurozone membership on the grounds of monetary sovereignty, is a far cry from Kaczynski’s and Orbán’s ideological project of turning back the clock on European liberalism and post-modern integration. Which also makes it too thin to sustain a centralizing regime.

Lacking a national myth

The same kind of intellectual flatness characterizes Babiš’s would-be allies on the fringes. SPD’s campaign employs a generic repertoire of Europe’s alt-right: it plays on voters’ fears of Muslim immigrants (of which there are precious few in the Czech Republic), incites hatred against Roma and other minorities, and rails against Brussels diktat.

Yet Okamura’s rise owes more to skilful marketing than to any authentic connection to Czech nationalism (after all, he is half-Japanese). SPD’s role could easily have been filled by any of the other far-right groupings, had they hit on the right cocktail of xenophobia, anti-establishment rhetoric, charisma, and timing. 

When it comes to right-wing populism, the Czech Republic makes for a different terrain than the rest of Visegrad. The SPD is closer to west European far-right parties than to Jobbik of Hungary or far-right movements in Poland. The same holds true for the Czech Civic Democrats (ODS), polling below 10 per cent, whose comparatively milder Euroscepticism – a mixture of free-market and anti-immigrant attitudes – is taken straight out of the Tory Brexiters’ playbook.

The paradox of Czech anti-European sentiment is that it is widespread – popular trust in the EU is consistently among the lowest across the Union – but ideologically diffuse and bereft of any organizing idea. Unlike elsewhere in Central Europe, Czech nationalism has no fascist or ultra-conservative legacy to draw upon. Beyond a lingering and fading mistrust of Germany, Czech right-wing populists lack a powerful national myth - akin to Poland’s and Hungary’s sense of historical victimhood - to tap into and mobilize around.

Hence the relative prominence of petty symbols - such as the alleged EU ban on traditional Czech rum – in the Eurosceptic narrative.

The upcoming election, in which Eurosceptic parties (ANO, SPD, Communists, ODS) are set to garner well over half the vote, will be interpreted as a Czech revolt against Europe. Yet it is more a product of indifference than intense hostility. Rather than deep-seated structural factors – cultural or socio-economic – Czech mistrust of the EU speaks to the weakness and incompetence of an entire generation of centrist pro-European politicians, who have failed to articulate a positive vision of the Czech role in the EU, thus ceding discursive ground to the likes of former President Vaclav Klaus, Milos Zeman, and now Babis and Okamura.

Social democrats missing a migrant trick

Much of the blame lays on the governing Social Democrats, who could not muster the courage and strategic foresight to make a compelling case for Eurozone membership in the campaign. This stands in contrast to their closest ally, Slovakia’s Robert Fico. In 2016, Fico – another quintessential Central European opportunist – exploited the hysteria surrounding the refugee quota mechanism for electoral gain. Unlike Czech Prime Minister Sobotka, however, he then used his credibility as a defender of conservative and national values against Brussels to make a U-turn and sway the Slovak public in favor of deeper EU integration in 2017.

In all, given the ideological emptiness in Czech attitudes towards Europe, on both sides of the debate, the election portends more continuity than rupture. The new government, most likely dominated by ANO, will resist Eurozone and Banking Union membership. It will eschew closer EU integration in other areas, possibly barring defence and security.

Prague will align with Warsaw and Budapest on issues such as immigration and opposition to multispeed Europe, but is unlikely to join their counterrevolutionary crusade against European liberalism, and instead will balance its EU policy through strong bilateral ties to Germany and Slovakia. There is always a chance that, owing to unforeseen domestic or external dynamics, the Czech Republic may yet slide into illiberal isolation. But it will be not be by design.

Country or region:  Czech Republic EU Topics:  Civil society Culture Democracy and government Ideas International politics Rights:  CC by NC 4.0

Brexit dark money revelations trigger MP's question on 'foreign interference'

Fri, 2017-10-20 09:34

openDemocracy's investigations into Leave donor Arron Banks and the DUP make global headlines, prompting calls for transparency. 

Ben Bradshaw in the House of Commons (fair use)

An investigation by openDemocracy has made global headlines this week and triggered questions in the UK parliament about 'foreign and possibly Russian interference in western democracies'.

Citing our series of revelations this week on the 'dark money' that funded the Brexit campaign, Labour MP Ben Bradshaw yesterday asked Andrea Leadsom, the Speaker of the House:

"Has she seen the very worrying series of reports this week by openDemocracy, on the role of dark money in the EU referendum, including revelations of illegal donations to the DUP and new questions today over the real wealth of Arron Banks, the main financial backer of Leave?

Given the widespread public concern over foreign and particularly Russian interference in Western democracies, will she assure this house that the government and the Electoral Commission will examine these reports very carefully and reassure our country that all of the resources spent in the referendum were from permissible sources?"

The story was then quickly picked up by The New York Times, The Guardian, the Financial Times and Bloomberg.

Arron Banks, the donor who gave the Leave campaign over £9m and whose sources of wealth we investigated in yesterday's story 'How did Arron Banks afford Brexit?' declined to comment to reporters following up the story. However he tweeted:

"The series of investigative reports Ben Bradshaw referred to were published by openDemocracy, a political website funded by none other than global George Soros, an expert in 'dark money'."

Screenshot from Leave.EU Twitter used under Fair Use.

openDemocracy's funding sources are listed here.

We invite the same transparency from Mr Banks, and from Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist party.

Sideboxes Related stories:  Who bankrolled Brexit? How did Arron Banks afford Brexit? Mystery deepens over secret source of Brexit 'dark money' UK government set to ignore Northern Ireland parties’ transparency calls ‘Substantial’ fine linked to DUP’s secret Brexit donors Rights:  CC by NC 4.0

FP October 20

Fri, 2017-10-20 07:27
Select Show on Front Page:  Show on Front Page Right Image My white friend asked me to explain white privilege, so I decided to be honest. Hide in waterfall:  Do not include in section waterfall ? #Blacklivesmatter and white progressive colorblindness Wrestling with my white fragility How did Arron Banks afford Brexit? Hide in waterfall:  Do not include in section waterfall ? Harvey Weinstein: Italian media coverage of the scandal has been predictably outrageous Hide in waterfall:  Do not include in section waterfall ? ISIS, a global franchise Hide in waterfall:  Do not include in section waterfall ? No answers on 2016 attack against international election observers in Georgia Hide in waterfall:  Do not include in section waterfall ?

The official investigation is still yet to answer key questions.

Why does the UK Data Protection Bill exempt the ‘risk profiling’ industry? Hide in waterfall:  Do not include in section waterfall ?

Anyone trying to open a bank account must undergo risk assessment by private data-brokers, which amass non-credible data and falsely blacklist people.

After Raqqa: what will it take to get to peace in Syria? Hide in waterfall:  Do not include in section waterfall ? What will it take to get to peace in Syria?

The drivers of the war remain open wounds.

Victim of Chechnya’s anti-LGBT purge seeks justice Hide in waterfall:  Do not include in section waterfall ?

Maxim Lapunov needs justice. The Russian authorities have no excuse not to deliver it to him and to the rest of the victims of Chechnya’s anti-gay purge.

Palestinian winemaking under occupation Hide in waterfall:  Do not include in section waterfall ?

‘Please get me moved from here!’ Pregnant woman in G4S asylum housing

Fri, 2017-10-20 07:07

Refugee and asylum seeking women are shockingly over-represented in the records of UK maternal deaths. Yet pregnant women and infants continue to be placed in dangerous housing.

Rear window of Sharon’s G4S asylum home (all images by John Grayson)

One showery September morning I stood outside a large red brick house, just off the town centre in Doncaster, South Yorkshire.

I’d been told that the hostel was being used by the security company G4S as accommodation for pregnant women asylum seekers, and lone mothers with babies. One of the growing number of lone mother and refugee children hostels in the UK’s asylum market.

Old carpets had been dumped in the hostel’s back yard, a blocked drain overflowed. It didn’t seem a safe place for children to play.

Leaky ceilings and filthy carpets

“Come and see, carpet is too dirty for my baby!” Rita shows me to her room, introduces me to her fourteen month old son. Friends had provided a play-mat to cover the filthy carpet.

Safe for toddlers? Back yard, Sharon’s homeRita and her housemate Janet were showing me round the hostel. In the kitchen Janet said: “This kitchen is the only room we can meet and let the children play.” She showed me damp patches on the kitchen ceiling where water had leaked from the bathroom above.

We looked in on the lounge. “We can’t use this room now, they put old beds in there,” Janet said. It was packed with beds and children’s buggies. “We have nowhere else to put them, the stairs are steep.”

A local agency who work with women survivors of trafficking had asked me to take a look at the hostel. They’d protested to G4S on behalf of a client from West Africa, a heavily pregnant woman who had been placed in a room at the top of the house, up three flights of stairs.

An agency worker told me: “Sharon says the place is very dirty and that she is stranded at the top of the house. G4S are simply not doing anything about her.”

I climbed up the stairs to Sharon’s room. She was sitting on her bed. I apologised for visiting on my own. (Usually I visit all-women accommodation alongside a female colleague). “That’s OK, please get me moved from here, I have never unpacked,” Sharon said. “I must move. I am in constant pain, in both my knees. I cannot take painkillers, for the baby.”

Dirty staircase, Rose’s homeI recognised Sharon. She had been in a G4S house in Barnsley. I had been told that earlier in her pregnancy she had been in an attic room there and had fallen down the stairs. “They have said I will maybe have a C-section. I could not carry my baby up all those stairs. I stay in bed most of the time,” she said.

The carpets along the corridors and the stair carpets were filthy. G4S display a management sheet in their houses to record all inspections, cleaning and work. The sheet showed the hostel communal areas had last been cleaned in early July, almost three months previously.

An official resident list named twelve people, six of them apparently small children under three years. There was a baby of fifteen months and a toddler of two and a half. The record was incomplete: Sharon and some others were not listed.

Punished for complaining

The previous week I had been to see Rose, in another G4S house, in Sheffield. Rose, also from West Africa, is a survivor of trafficking. In this house too the corridor and stair carpets were dirty. The last recorded clean had been over three months ago.

Kitchen cupboard in Rose’s home

“I can’t walk in bare feet outside my room, the soles of my slippers are dirty.” Rose said. She showed me her own very clean room, and the women’s clean bathrooms. “There are seven women here, just one dirty kitchen, I have to store pans and food in my room,” she said.

Two women joined us in the kitchen. Tina opened a floor cupboard, exposing mould and dirt. “I never come down here at night, not for months, there are cockroaches when you put the lights on.”

On the notice-board a Pest Control notice, dated February 2017, mentioned cockroaches, but there was no evidence of visits in the eight months since then.

Pest control notice in Rose’s homeOn the same notice board was a threatening warning to the women, a controversial ‘behave or get deported’ notice. 

Of course G4S doesn’t have powers to deport tenants. I’d exposed this particular abuse of power here back in April 2017

G4S claimed then that they were withdrawing the notices from the properties they managed.

Rose told me: “I was forced to move a month ago from a really clean, nice house in Rotherham. I had friends and help there. I complained to G4S because a woman in my house was aggressive and shouted at me. She was really mentally ill, but she reminded me of the woman who trafficked me here. I was very frightened. G4S did not give her a place on her own — they moved me instead.” Rose seemed depressed, and became tearful as I left.

33 weeks pregnant, moved away from medical help

In Barnsley, on the 29th of September, I visited Lucy. She was 33 weeks pregnant, but that day she’d been moved from Barnsley town, near the hospital, to a shared house six miles away in a former mining village, on the outer edge of the borough. Lucy told me she had appointments with her midwife in Barnsley, and at the hospital, over the next few days.

G4S implies it has powers to deport“I cannot stay here, I could walk to the hospital when I was in Barnsley. The G4S driver said this place was six miles from Barnsley, he pleaded with the G4S welfare officer not to put me up here. I rang about a taxi to get to the hospital — he said it would cost £18 there and back.”

On the 4th of October, Lucy asked me to post a letter from her midwife to G4S and the Home Office. The letter confirmed that Lucy was now 34 weeks pregnant and at high risk. It went on:

“She is currently housed in accommodation in the attic 2 flights of very steep stairs. This is impacting greatly on her physical and mental wellbeing and will not be suitable for her baby when she delivers. She has also been moved away from this surgery which means a two bus journey for appointments.”

This is impacting greatly on her physical and mental wellbeing.

Lucy told me: “Take my picture walking up these stairs, there are three flights of stairs.” 

Three weeks on, and 36 weeks pregnant Lucy is still waiting for a move.

Midwife: “This is impacting greatly on her physical and mental wellbeing.”

Children’s early years, blighted

G4S, the largest security company in the world, won a slice of the £1.7 billion UK Home Office COMPASS (Commercial and Operating Managers Procuring Asylum Support) contract in June 2012 with two other security companies, Serco and Reliance. None of them had experience of housing. In the first months of the contract an Ethiopian woman whose twelve week old baby had a heart defect, was transported from Bradford, forty miles away, to a tiny flat in Doncaster with no cooker, table or chair, and only a tiny sink to wash dishes and clothes.

In November 2012, Angela, from West Africa, a survivor of trafficking, was transferred with her five month old baby son from her Leeds council flat to a slum property — by Cascade Housing, then a G4S subcontractor. The back yard was piled with rubbish. The place was infested with cockroaches and slugs. She did not dare put her baby on the floor. Angela found a cockroach in her baby’s bottle.

Refugee and asylum seeking women make up 12% of maternal deaths, and 0.3% of the UK population.

In 2013 in evidence to a Children’s Society parliamentary investigation Dr Jenny Phillimore of Birmingham University pointed to “growing evidence of high maternal and infant mortality rates amongst asylum seekers and in asylum seeker dispersal areas …Refugee and asylum seeking women make up 12% of all maternal deaths, and 0.3% of the population in the UK. The perinatal mortality rates in the City Hospital Trust area of Birmingham which at the time of data collection contained the highest concentration of asylum seeker housing in the city, is 12 per 1000 and rising compared with a national average of 7.6.” Dr Phillimore told the inquiry. “The City Hospital area of Birmingham has the highest infant mortality rate in Europe, not just in the UK.”

Communal lounge in Sharon’s home

In 2013 the Refugee Council and the Maternity Alliance issued their report “When Maternity Doesn’t Matter: dispersing pregnant women seeking asylum”, based on interviews with twenty women. The researchers found:

“Accommodation for pregnant women or those who had recently given birth was often inappropriate. There was rudimentary equipment for the baby but little effort was made to ensure adequate hygiene and sanitary facilities for new-borns. Women often had to climb several flights of stairs to their rooms.

In 2016, in Glasgow, in Serco’s COMPASS contract area, Red Cross researchers spoke to pregnant asylum seekers, and new mothers in their report “A Healthy Start?”:

“The state of carpets preoccupied several of the women with young babies who were about to crawl and spending quite a lot of time on the floor. Living in a dirty, cramped house meant that many of them were not feeling able to relax and feel at home. Several lived on upper floors, which caused difficulties when trying to carry a baby, a buggy and bags of shopping up several flights of stairs.”

Accommodation for pregnant women or those who had recently given birth was often inappropriate.

On 31 January 2017, the  record of the private companies in asylum housing was laid bare in the latest UK Home Affairs Select Committee report on Asylum Accommodation, which found “vulnerable people in unsafe accommodation … children living with infestations of mice, rats or bed bugs, lack of health care for pregnant women … inadequate support for victims of rape and torture.”

Making money from refugee babies and toddlers

I and my SYMAAG colleague Violet Dickenson and fellow campaigners have worked alongside brave whistleblower tenants over five years to expose conditions in the G4S mother and baby market in asylum housing hostels. We exposed the G4S/Jomast Stockton hostel in 2012 where mothers described their rooms as “cells”, and a G4S Leeds hostel in 2015 in a grubby Victorian villa with one bath for twelve women and eleven babies.

In June this year support workers told me about a G4S/ Cascade “fire trap hostel” in Halifax with seventeen people, parents, a pregnant mother, new born babies and toddlers.

G4S gets £8.42 per family member, per night, for these hostels (according to contract details revealed in a High Court judgement here). At that price, packing 17 people into the Halifax hostel brings the monthly take to around £4,300 of taxpayer’s money. The Doncaster hostel’s take would be around £3,000, every month.

Jomast Accommodation Ltd., the G4S contractor in the North East of England, has extended the Stockton hostel, and developed similar hostels in Hartlepool and Newcastle. Smaller G4S hostels for lone mothers and babies have appeared in HMOs (Houses in Multiple Occupation) in Doncaster, Derby, Barnsley and recently in Huddersfield.

The Hostile Environment

The UK Labour government by 2009 was locking up 2000 children a year in detention centres, around half of them in the Serco managed Yarl’s Wood centre, near Bedford. In April 2009 after an inspection of Yarl’s Wood the Independent reported that the Children’s Commissioner for England “found that seriously ill children were denied hospital treatment.... ….Children suffering from serious medical conditions and the mentally ill were routinely kept in detention despite guidelines stating clearly they should not be. …. An eight-month-old baby with asthma was neither released nor given an inhaler.”

Under the play-mat

In September 2009, Home Office Director of Criminality and Detention at the UK Border Agency and former Assistant Commissioner at the Met, Dave Wood, was called before the Home Affairs Committee. He described Yarl’s Wood as a “family friendly detention centre”. MPs asked him: “Why are children detained under the immigration system, because they have not done anything wrong, have they?” Wood explained that the lack of detention “would act as a significant magnet and pull to families from abroad”.

In May 2017, the government handed G4S a new contract to lock up families at the Tinsley House detention centre at Gatwick airport. BBC TV Panorama in early September 2017 exposed the violence and mistreatment of people detained in G4S’s other Gatwick centre, Brook House.

G4S, exposed for its abuse of children in children’s prisons, like Medway in Kent, which it managed, decided to sell (yes it can sell!), these youth prison contracts together with its children’s homes. G4S Children’s services as a whole had annual revenues of £40m from government and local authority contracts. In June 2017, G4S sold eighteen of its children’s homes to the Prospect Group for over £11m.

In December 2016, the government handed G4S, Serco and Clearsprings a two year extension to their asylum housing contracts, stretching them to September 2019. In August 2017, the Home Office started to advertise for new contracts from 2019. The contracts are worth £600m of public money.

Consider the companies’ record. Consider the very notion of international security companies being handed control over housing for pregnant women, for refugee babies and children. For years now we’ve listened to asylum tenants. We’ve witnessed conditions that blight children’s lives. Campaigners are working hard to stop international security companies like G4S and Serco getting contracts to house refugee babies and children.


Note: For the refugee women’s protection, names have been changed in this article.

All images by John Grayson. Edited by Clare Sambrook for Shine A Light.



Sideboxes Related stories:  ‘How do we get out if there’s a fire?’ In Yorkshire, G4S tenants live in fear High Court blasts ‘outrageous’ assault by Tascor staff on torture survivor Theresa May’s tough line on immigration punishes British children Behave or get deported, says G4S ‘People come in here normal, but they get ill.’ Protesting against deaths at a UK migrant jail Fail, fail, and have another government contract Five years of denial: the UK government’s reckless pursuit of a punitive asylum policy — never mind the evidence of harm Rights:  CC by NC 4.0

After Raqqa: what will it take to get to peace in Syria?

Fri, 2017-10-20 06:00

While the ruins of Raqqa have changed hands, the drivers and impacts of the war remain open wounds.

Destroyed houses in the Al Dariya neighborhood in western Raqqa. Picture by Morukc Umnaber/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved. Expelled from Raqqa – or what remains of it - ISIS may be on the way to defeat. Yet with the conditions that gave rise to it still largely in place, the threat could merely recede to emerge in new forms on different fronts. Despite the positive fanfare surrounding the progress of the coalition’s campaign, the dilemmas facing western decision-makers about how to protect Syrians and push for a lasting end to Syria’s bitter war are as acute as ever.

While the ruins of Raqqa have changed hands, the drivers and impacts of the war remain open wounds. The Syrian war will not end with Raqqa, and the Assad regime that nurtured the jihadist threat in order to cling to power is as malignant as ever. Fearful repression remains the norm for people in regime areas, while Russia and Iran will continue to prop up an unrepentant and emboldened regime, using the smokescreen of fighting ‘terrorists’ to attack civilians and hospitals and starve the population in opposition areas into submission. The successor to al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, remains strong in Idlib. Turkey has engaged militarily to temper the ambitions of Kurdish militants. And to compound these challenges, there is increasing evidence to indicate that the US-led coalition is responsible for a significant uptick in civilian casualties since President Trump’s inauguration.

Perception of abandonment has driven many desperate Syrians into the arms of well financed and equipped jihadist groups since early in the war

Even though the vast majority of Syrians despise ISIS, the destruction and killing in Raqqa will add to the grievances of the many Syrians who feel abandoned by the international community. For six years, the international community has persistently failed not only to protect Syrians from the regime, but also to get aid through to besieged and hard to reach areas – past the criminal obstruction of the regime and other problematic actors, and past the rules designed to stop aid being diverted by terror groups. This perception of abandonment has driven many desperate Syrians into the arms of well financed and equipped jihadist groups since early in the war.

These conditions will remain in place as long as western actors focus on combating Syria’s fundamentalists without a more comprehensive strategy for ending the conflict that nourished them. A new report titled ‘Syria: playing into their hands authored by David Keen for Saferworld explains significant flaws in the west’s approach to date, and identifies four strategic priorities for ending the war.

It is vital for forward strategy to stop killing civilians

First, move from a ‘war on terror’ focus to a more comprehensive strategy. From Vietnam to Afghanistan, generations of war fighters have found that eliminating ‘evil’ groups without addressing the factors that bred them just doesn’t work. As Joe Biden found in Afghanistan “There’s a balloon effect. We squeeze it, and it pops out somewhere else.” It is vital for forward strategy to stop killing civilians, and focus on alternatives to use of force. Even if ISIS has been beaten back, things like the US-led coalition’s illegal use of white phosphorous in populated urban areas will create blowback.

There must also be focus on the reasons why people joined armed groups. As the Saferworld report explains, many Syrians joined Syria’s fundamentalist groups not because of any ideological affinity, but because they could not live under the most murderous actor in the war: the Assad regime. Others faced starvation, the absence of livelihoods to feed their families and a complete collapse of services other than those offered by fundamentalist groups.

Second, tackle resource scarcity. While the west has been willing to pay for hugely expensive military action, it has failed to provide enough aid or get it past the Assad regime’s obstruction and obfuscation. Those fleeing from Raqqa must be assisted on a far greater scale, or they will continue to feel victimised and betrayed. Indeed, the whole of Syrian society needs more support – not only relief, but also fuel for cooking, development and livelihoods assistance. Obstruction of aid by the regime – and latterly also Turkey – needs to be countered. Overly generalised sanctions, which make aid provision and economic life difficult, also need to be made more targeted. Failure to address scarcity in Syria benefits only the regime, war profiteers, ISIS and HTS.

Third, redouble the search for a diplomatic solution. Western governments must now use every ounce of leverage to guarantee the rights of surrendering populations and push for an acceptable transition. Russia and the regime appear ascendant, but in reality the regime itself is weak, bankrupt, ill-disciplined and faces enormous and virulent public opposition. If its backers, Russia and Iran, can be persuaded to back transition, the regime may have no choice. Russia, no fan of ‘regime change’, is unlikely to cave to demands for Assad to go. But it likely cannot stomach a bloody and costly commitment to uphold a hated and cruel regime indefinitely – nor can it foot the reconstruction bill. By deploying the right carrots and sticks, western actors can play a useful role.

Failure to address scarcity in Syria benefits only the regime, war profiteers, ISIS and HTS

Finally, if peace is possible, it will also require readiness to support the emergence of new governance arrangements. Demanding regime change will not work – but insisting on a credible plan for changing the regime, e.g. though power sharing and decentralisation – is essential. Western actors must not seek to impose their vision – but should look for ways to stop Russia, Iran and the regime from imposing theirs. The key will be to empower and protect Syrians to consider all options openly – assisting civil society, young people and women to play a full and meaningful role in peace and reconstruction processes.

Even if a peace deal can be reached, many dangers lie ahead. In particular, zones dominated by the regime and particular groups could lead to persecution and exploitation of surrendees and minorities, and Kurdish autonomy will become a thorny question for regional stability.

If the west wants to overcome problems like ISIS and Al Nusra/HTS, it urgently needs broader peace strategies that resolve the conflicts that nourish them.

Syria: playing into their hands is available for free download from Saferworld’s website.

Sideboxes Related stories:  Militias and crony capitalism to hamper Syria reconstruction Justice after ISIS: time for judicial triage White phosphorus over Raqqa Kurdish struggles and the challenge of foreign support: the case of Syrian Kurds Country or region:  Syria Topics:  Conflict International politics Rights:  CC by NC 4.0

No answers on 2016 attack against international election observers in Georgia

Fri, 2017-10-20 01:33

An incident involving international election observers during Georgia's 2016 parliamentary election raised questions that the official investigation is still yet to answer.

October 2016: Scenes of disturbance at a polling station in Jikhashkari village in the southern district of Marneuli. Image: Luka Pertaia / Netgazeti. Just before midnight on 8 October 2016, the day of the parliamentary elections, a group of men stormed into a polling station in Jikhashkari, a village in Western Georgia. The station was closed for the counting of votes, but the attackers were able to get past the police guards and into the polling station. There were at least four police officers present in and around the station, while other units were nearby.

The attackers threw ballots and papers around, disregarding the protests of the polling station commission. They disrupted the vote tabulation, in a manner that resulted in the annulment of the elections at that precinct, and acted in an intimidating and threatening manner. Then they turned their attention on three international election observers who were present.

We’ve had the privilege of working closely with Georgian civil society organisations for the last 15 years. While these years have been marked by disturbing and dramatic events, such as the war in August 2008, there has also been progress in some important areas, such as freedom of expression and access to effective courts of law.

While relations with neighbouring Russia remain strained, relations with Europe have improved to the extent that Georgians now travel visa free to the EU. There are many reasons for these developments, but key has been the willingness of the people to participate in public affairs and express their opinions through elections that have generally become more free and fair over the last 15 years.

In the Caucasus region, free and fair elections do not come about by themselves. They are hard-fought achievements. Georgian civil society and key human rights institutions have worked with Parliament, the Central Electoral Commission and the media to protect the right to vote. In this, they have been supported by international election observers.

In 2016 the Norwegian Helsinki Committee together with the European Platform for Democratic Elections, International Partnership for Human Rights and the International Electoral Studies’ Center observed the parliamentary elections. We focused on regions that had previously experienced irregularities and violence in connection with elections. Three of our teams went to Western Georgia.

Specifically we chose to observe in the district (#66) where Sandra Roelofs ran as the candidate of the United National Movement (UNM), the main opposition party. Ms. Roelofs is married to Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia’s former president who fled the country after facing charges relating to corruption and abuse of power.

It seemed to us that this seat was a prestigious prize and that the local authorities perhaps would like to avoid a second round of voting, which would indicate the Ms. Roelofs, Mr. Saakashvili and the UNM still have support. After tip off’s about possible trouble in Jikhashkari, one of our teams went there to observe the count. At one point during the count, the sizeable pile of ballots for Ms. Roelofs suggested that the ruling party candidate would not gain an outright victory in the first round at that precinct. Just afterwards a number of election commission members left the premises, and the attackers entered.

Election observation is an important democratic institution that is protected by Georgian law and international organizations that count Georgia as a member. Yet the police in Jikhashkari did not intervene when our three observers were attacked. Two of the observers had their mobile phones taken (they had filmed the altercation in the polling station), two were physically attacked and one female observer from Russia sustained light injuries.

The incident was covered in Georgian media. Various Georgian and international bodies protested. The authorities opened a criminal investigation and an administrative inquiry into the conduct of the police. The NHC followed the processes, wrote letters and had meetings with the Ministry of Internal Affairs on many levels and the Office of the Prosecutor. Our aim was to ensure that case was properly investigated. 

A year later, and on the eve of local elections, it is perhaps useful to sum up how the incident was dealt with. The administrative case launched by the General Inspectorate of Georgia’s Interior Ministry resulted in the reprimanding of two officers who were found to have neglected their duties. In two separate cases in May and June, two men were convicted of attacking our observers and given conditional sentences.

Throughout the year, Georgian authorities answered all our queries promptly and convincingly declared that such an incident should not happen again and that election observers should feel safe in Georgia. The administrative actions taken against the two policemen and the conviction of two of the attackers are evidence that the justice and police authorities recognised that a crime had taken place and that actions were taken to punish some of those who were responsible. 

Yet we are also left with a number of unanswered questions. It is difficult to understand why the identity of the other attackers have not been established. Jikhashkari is a small village, yet even the policeman present during the attack was unable to identify any of the other attackers. There is no explanation as to why why the police failed to contact reinforcements stationed on the outskirts of the village. Individuals who witnesses reported to have been part of the group of attackers were apparently not questioned during the investigation.

There is no mentioning of a motive for the attack. Local witnesses, interviewed by us, claimed that the commission members were warned about the attack beforehand, but instead of locking the doors, they left the building. They believe that the commission members and the police colluded with the attackers, in the sense that they did not intervene to stop the attack, and that there may have been an order to disrupt the vote count in Jikhashkari and annul the results there. 

The incident in Polling Station 79 does not appear to have been linked by the investigators to the identical attack on the other polling station (108) in the village, which took place at the same time and presumably involved the same group of perpetrators. Indeed even the cases against the two individuals who were charged with attacking Polling Station 79 and our observers, were investigated and tried separately.

Our feeling is that Georgian police and justice authorities have refrained from a full-fledged investigation into the aims and organisation of the attack, and settled for a “compromise solution” where a few individuals are punished, administratively and by the courts. We are left wondering: If it was a premeditated attack, as circumstances seem to suggest, who planned and ordered it? 

We will anyway return as election observers in order to strengthen democratic institutions and cooperate with Georgia’s vibrant civil society. We trust that Georgian authorities will do their utmost to protect the institution of international observers in the future. In many respects Georgia is way ahead of the neighbuoring states with regard to human rights and democratic standards. 

Still, the lesson from Jikhashkari seems to be that some of the practices from previous Georgian regimes have survived despite the many improvements that have taken place.


Sideboxes Related stories:  Mayor or manager? Tbilisi chooses its kingpin Afgan Mukhtarli: after the abduction Is election observing in Central Asia a lost cause? Georgia: the exiles’ election Big trouble in little Georgia Ending impunity in Europe? Rights:  CC by NC 4.0

Harvey Weinstein: Italian media coverage of the scandal has been predictably outrageous

Fri, 2017-10-20 01:06

The Italian media has failed, once again, to focus on systems of power and abuse. Actress Asia Argento has been treated particularly harshly. 

Harvey Weinstein at the "Fk Me I'm Famous Party" in Cannes, May 2011. Photo: Bellak Rachid/ABACA/PA Images. All rights reserved.Over the last two weeks, Harvey Weinstein – co-founder of Miramax studios and one of the most powerful men in Hollywood – has been accused of using his power and his position to sexually assault and harass dozens of women who worked with him: assistants, employees and actresses.

It’s also become clear that concerns about Weinstein's actions were known in the industry, but that they went largely unspoken, and unchallenged. As if Weinstein was too powerful to touch.

The scandal has attracted worldwide attention – particularly in Italy. One of Weinstein’s named accusers is Italian actress and director Asia Argento.

Argento told The New Yorker that she has been sexually assaulted by Weinstein in an hotel room in 1997, when she was 21. She described how the incident marked her for life, and how she felt that she had to continue sexual relations with him for several years afterwards. She said she did not speak out before out of fear that Weinstein would “crush” her.

Asia Argento in Cannes, May 2012. Photo: Hahn-Marechal-Nebinger/ABACA/PA Images. All rights reserved.The Italian media has devoted significant space to the scandal – but they have failed, once again, to focus on the alleged perpetrator, and the systems of power and abuse that run through Hollywood and work environments everywhere.

Instead, media scrutiny has fallen on the victims. Argento has been treated particularly – but predictably – harshly by our newspapers, focusing on her own behaviour, describing her as an opportunist, and questioning why she had waited so long to come forward.  

A flurry of social media users criticised Argento, as did prominent Italian media personalities. Former politician and TV host Vladimir Luxuria blamed her for not reporting the alleged assault earlier, and for not “saying no to Weinstein as other actresses did”.

Media commentator Selvaggia Lucarelli wrote on her Facebook page that “harassment is horrendous but it is not sexual violence,” adding that it is not “legitimate” to complain “after 20 years to a US newspaper, about your relationships as an adult consensual woman… depicting these as ‘abuses’.”

'The Italian media have failed, once again, to focus on the alleged perpetrator and the systems of power and abuse that run through Hollywood and work environments everywhere.'

Alessandro Sallusti, editor in chief of the right-wing newspaper Il Giornale, stated on the current events TV programme Matrix that reporting the incident now “is cowardice. You are not a victim, you are a partner in crime.”

Veteran journalist and writer Natalia Aspesi – who describes herself as feminist – said that if Weinstein asked Argento for a massage “and you gave it to him, then it is difficult to be shocked by the evolution of events.”

“In these accusations there is a fundamental insincerity,” Apesi continued. “They are late laments, a chorus that does not take into account the reality of facts that producers, since I have memories of similar stories, have always acted like this.”

One of the worst attacks against Asia Argento came from the right-wing newspaper Libero, with a column entitled: “First they give it away, then they whine and pretend to repent”.

On Twitter, Argento said she has sued the newspaper, which she said offended her “dignity as a woman” and her reputation. But inexcusable coverage and commentary has continued.

Libero’s editor-in-chief, Vittorio Feltri, said on the radio that Argento (who has alleged that Weinstein forcibly performed oral sex on her), “had to give something to her producer” and that “in the end it was cunnilingus. That’s a little lick...and a little lick is always pleasurable.”

“Other women refused,” he continued, and became “shop assistants or cashiers in a supermarket. No one obliges you to become a big actress.”

Libero and other newspapers have also chosen to illustrate articles about the scandal with photos of Argento from the 2007 movie Go-Go Tales, in which she played a lap-dancer. 

"we live in a country based on a deeply patriarchal system where the social and economic power is completely on the male side.”

“Argento received such treatment from Italian media because we live in a country based on a deeply patriarchal system where the social and economic power is completely on the male side,” said journalist and writer Giulia Blasi. 

“We treat harassed and raped women as they are guilty, we put them on a ‘public trial’: they have to prove their innocence, that they do not want revenge, or that they do not want to use their complaint to get fame. Asia Argento was accused for all this. It is indecent, and it is systematic,” Blasi told me. 

Supported by a group of women and LGBTI and feminist websites and Pasionaria, Blasi launched the #quellavoltache (“that time when”) campaign on Twitter, calling on women to speak out about their own experiences of abuse.

Il Momento che raccoglie #quellavoltache è ormai lungo come Infinite Jest.

— Giulia Blasi (@Giulia_B) October 15, 2017

‘Slut-shaming’ and victim-blaming are not solely Italian phenomena, of course. But Blasi argues that in this country “voices like the ones that accused and insulted Argento are considered common sense… like ‘what your grandmother would have said to you.’”

The #quellavoltache campaign was launched, Blasi said, by women who are “frustrated seeing everybody blame the victims and say nothing about the offenders and what led a man to harass or rape women or use his power to blackmail them.”

“We saw the lack of support for Asia Argento, who was brave to tell her story, and we decided that the only way to give victims voice was to make them speak all together,” she explained.

The result was something of a collective story of hundreds of tweets telling daily of a range of sexual abuses against women of all ages: on the bus, on the streets, at a party, at work, during the day or at night, by a friend, a colleague, a father, a cousin, a stranger.

#quellavoltache mi hai aggredito sotto casa. Mi hai sbattuto contro un muro. Ti sei masturbato sulla mia gonna. Ti ho denunciato. Sei stato condannato a un anno di carcere. Non hai mai fatto nemmeno un giorno di prigione. Era il 1998.

— Francesca Nava (@franziskanava) October 18, 2017

Women in other countries have also taken to social media with similar campaigns in the wake of the Weinstein allegations. US women are using #metoo to expose the scale of sexual abuse and show solidarity with victims. In France, the relevant hashtag is #balancetonporc ("Expose the Pig").

#MeToo Way too many times. Early I learnt that it is a man's world. Men live while women survive... Better laws are needed.

— Ms Aina Isenskjold (@Isenskjold) October 18, 2017

In Italy, outrageous media coverage of the Weinstein scandal was predictable. Argento – well-known since childhood, the daughter of a famous horror director – has long been a divisive figure, the imperfect victim the media loves to hate.

But Blasi says the response to the #quellavoltache campaign was not expected. It was as if it “hit a nerve and intercepted a moment of deep frustration,” she said. “A lot of women raised their voice at the same time, and every tweet encouraged the next to speak.”

She does not seem too optimistic, however, about a sea-change in how such abuse is discussed and confronted. “This is a system that tends towards self-preservation,” she said. Blasi added, of the men who have tweeted messages of support: “Where have they been, all these years?.”

Country or region:  Italy Rights:  CC by NC 4.0

Vesti: Weapon or casualty in the information war?

Thu, 2017-10-19 16:48

The search for Russian influence in Ukraine’s media is an important task. But when the mainstream makes little space for inconvenient facts, who ends up losing?

A still from CCTV that allegedly captures editor Igor Guzhva blackmailing a Ukrainian politician. Source: Facebook. In Ukraine, the long-running conflict around the Vesti media group and its successor has produced strongly contrasting narratives. For many patriotic minded Ukrainians, these outlets are weapons in Moscow’s information war. They believe these media mixes lies and half-truths to undermine support in the Ukrainian government and the army, still fighting in the east. Yet for those opposed to Ukraine’s post-revolutionary political order, the papers are a victim of repression by a state intolerant of dissent.

In truth, much of the worst of both narratives is true. Vesti is the revanchist project of a Moscow-exiled oligarch from Viktor Yanukovych’s fantastically corrupt administration, while is a partisan organ for the remains of Yanukovych’s party. Both media are in transparent pursuit of the latest zrada (treachery, sellout) of the ruling liberal-nationalist coalition. But they are also the object of selective, heavy-handed investigations and raids by Ukraine’s tax authorities, prosecutor general and security services on questionable charges of money laundering and inciting treason. In parallel to this official pressure, they have faced forceful intimidation from radical activists who have taken on themselves the task of “fighting separatism”.

This conflict tells us much about the challenges of maintaining open discourse in conditions of hybrid warfare — and how the boundaries of civil society are policed in Ukraine.

Speaking for whom?

The tangled narrative begins in 2012, when the Vesti media group burst onto the scene with anonymous funding and a free daily paper, a long read journal, a TV station and a countrywide radio network. Under the management of veteran editor Igor Guzhva, the Vesti group quickly became one of the country’s leading media outlets.

Fast forward two years, and Vesti did not join many other papers in championing the Euromaidan cause. Instead it took a skeptical and sometimes hostile attitude to the revolution. However, in contrast to most Russian media, Vesti did cover the brutalisation of protestors by the Berkut riot police. One of its reporters, Vyacheslav Veremiy, was murdered when he tried to photograph the titushki thugs bussed in to beat up protesters.

This tangled narrative does not lead to easy conclusions. It is difficult not to see a concerted campaign against specific media and journalists in the efforts of the security services, tax authorities and prosecutor general’s office

Vesti’s opposition to the revolution marked it for opprobrium from both liberal and radical circles. These suspicions darkened in the intense atmosphere of national survival brought on by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and concealed invasion of the Donbas. Many heard echoes of Russian media narratives in Vesti’s relentlessly critical view of Ukraine’s new government and the military operation in the east, which included reports of high civilian casualties. At a demonstration in September 2014 to shut down Vesti in Kyiv, one Maidan activist put it thus: “This mouthpiece of the Kremlin is meant to destroy the consciousness of Ukrainians, deceiving them about the real events going on in the east and inciting civil war in our country. We believe that the articles in this newspaper kill no less than bullets.”

The authorities and activists saw Vesti’s anonymous funding as a possible inlet for Kremlin financing. In May 2014, the tax authorities raided the paper’s offices and opened a criminal case alleging that money was laundered to the paper through Crimea by the fugitive oligarch Sergey Kurchenko. Others linked the paper to Viktor Yanukovych’s son, but most often to Aleksandr Klimenko, a notorious figure accused of epic embezzlement at Ukraine’s Ministry of Revenue and Fees. When Yanukovych fell in February 2014, Klimenko set up shop in Moscow, where he runs a marginal Ukrainian political party that peddles business-friendly politics and plots his return to Ukraine.

June 2016: Alexander Klimenko appears at a Uspishna Kraina ("Successful Country:) forum on tax reform. Source: Uspishna Kraina.The idea of money flowing into a major media outlet from the state waging war on Ukraine raised appropriate alarm. But the case itself is highly questionable. Beneath the trappings of “Kremlin financing”, the case actually boiled down to an administrative dispute over the timing of tax payments. Though several more raids were made as part of the case over the next two years, Guzhva claims it largely fizzled after a court decided there were no damages to the Ukrainian government.

Soon the official accusations took a more ideological hue. In 2015, the Ukrainian Security Services opened a second case against Vesti.Reporter — this time for “compromising Ukraine’s territorial integrity and inviolability”. The accusation pertains to three articles about the unrest in eastern Ukraine which extensively quoted separatist sympathisers. I’ve read the articles in question, and in fact they are nuanced examinations of how Russia mixed mercenaries and arms into large-scale indigenous unrest in the Donbas to launch its separatist project. This allegedly treasonous narrative would soon find outlet in Deutsche Welle, the Guardian, the New York Times and other leading papers covering the Ukraine conflict. This case also went dormant after a forensic linguist testified that the articles contained no incitement to treason.

In parallel to this official attention, Vesti was targeted from the street. Radical activists led by parliamentarian Ihor Lutsenko (who had been kidnapped and tortured by titushki during the revolution) ransacked a Vesti event on 28 June (Constitution Day), warning that “This is our last peaceful demonstration about Vesti. We won’t have any more patience if they don’t change their editorial policy.”

June 2014: roughly 40 people in masks turn up to disrupt a Vesti public event in Kyiv. Image: Vesti. A week later, at the start of July 2015, several dozen masked youths beat up a security guard at the paper’s offices, smashed some windows and hurled flares inside. Liberal parliamentarian Serhiy Leshchenko speculated that Vesti organised the attack itself in order to attain martyr status, and the leader of a radical nationalist organisation soon took public responsibility. He was never arrested, and later showed Vesti reporters a certificate of appreciation from the SBU and told them he actively cooperates with the Service “against separatism and the opposition, the actions of which are aimed at the undermining of national security and discrediting of the government.”

Meanwhile, the nation’s leaders began weighing in on the situation. After chief editor Igor Guzhva complained of repression on Facebook, the chair of the Verkhovna Rada Freedom Speech Committee Viktoria Siumar fired back: “Are you sure you don’t work for the government that is waging war on my country? I’ve got a question for the security service: why after a year and a half of war does the public still not know about the sources of financing of this expensive ‘free’ paper?” (Vesti was distributed for free in large cities). On Journalist Day (5 June), President Petro Poroshenko stated that “transparency of media ownership in wartime is an extraordinarily pertinent national security question… If the tax authorities provide evidence of opaque financing of Vesti, the country has the ability to defend itself.”

"I consider pressure on the press unacceptable, even in wartime. But to treat these media like regular publications that supposedly have their own viewpoint would be suicide"

The claims that Vesti had funding from a fugitive oligarch received ironic confirmation in June 2015, when Guzhva suddenly announced he was resigning as editor in chief and selling his share of the media group. Media observers alleged that he had been forced out by owner Aleksandr Klimenko as a sop to the Ukrainian government, possibly to facilitate the latter’s return to Ukraine or at least reduce pressure on his remaining business interests. Journalists and radio newscasters from within the media group confirmed Klimenko’s ownership and the handoff of management to his common law wife. Complaints of editorial manipulation quickly emerged and many leading journalists and radio personalities jumped ship.

Journalists practicing politics?

After Guzhva’s jarring departure, Vesti has continued reflecting and stoking the discontent of some Ukrainian citizens over the government’s management of the economic crisis, the conflict in the Donbas, linguistic and national memory policies. But it has become less hard-hitting and more transparently an organ of Klimenko’s political project, publishing constant fluff pieces about the oligarch. In this cruder form it is distinctly less influential in the Ukrainian information sphere. This, perhaps, was the goal of the intense political pressure: to defang the troublesome paper without shutting it down, which would lead to international outcry.

As for Guzhva, he quickly opened a new internet outlet, Strana has continued to bait Ukraine’s post-revolutionary ruling elite. Guzhva claims that after Strana published recordings by fugitive parliamentarian Aleksandr Onischenko in late 2016 that alleged vote buying by President Poroshenko, the order came “right from Bankova Street” (that is, the presidential administration) to shut him down. Citing political repression from the top makes good copy, but Guzhva’s claims received some confirmation when two more criminal cases were opened against him. These were loudly publicised by Ukraine’s Prosecutor General Yury Lutsenko, who even had his press secretary publish video evidence of Guzhva’s alleged wrongdoing on Facebook.

Vesti has become less hard-hitting and more transparently an organ of Klimenko’s political project, publishing constant fluff pieces about the oligarch

The first case alleges that Guzhva coerced $10,000 from a Radical Party parliamentarian to pull an unflattering story about him. According to Lesya Ganzha, chief editor at the public watchdog Access to Truth, there are frequent rumours in the Ukrainian media sphere of monetary payments for withholding negative press and removing already published stories. Prosecutor General Lutsenko released multiple videos of Guzhva in alleged negotiations with an intermediary, but they are barely decipherable and the story has its share of unanswered questions. The parliamentarian’s own testimony about the proposed transaction contradicts that of the intermediary. The second case involves Guzhva’s alleged possession of a flash drive full of military secrets (confiscated during a search of the site’s offices as part of the first case). published a rebuttal claiming that the flash drive is missing from the official protocol of items confiscated during the search. The first case is now due to go to court.

Igor Guzhva, former chief editor of Vesti and now Source: Facebook. This tangled narrative does not lead to easy conclusions. It is difficult not to see a concerted campaign against specific media and journalists in the efforts of the security services, tax authorities and prosecutor general’s office. Yet the role of both Vesti and as organs of revanchist political forces is also clear, the former for Klimenko personally and the latter for Opposition Bloc, the political party which emerged from the ruins of Yanukovych’s Party of Regions. Guzhva himself ran on the Opposition Bloc ticket for Kyiv city council in 2016, and the editorial section of is chock full of MPs and political consultants in the party’s orbit.

Because of their association with discredited pre-revolutionary politics, Vesti and have received little in the way of journalistic solidarity from their liberal peers. Denis Kazansky, a journalist who fled Donetsk for Kyiv after the outbreak of conflict, acknowledges the political motivation of the investigations against Guzhva, but claims that’s just the point. “Guzhva is not a journalist,” Kazansky tells me, “he’s a politician practicing journalism. He and his party have a political conflict with the government. This isn’t between politicians and journalists, it’s between politicians and politicians.” In Kazansky’s assessment, Vesti and cannot help but filter the news through their political sponsors’ “Moscow interests”.

Inciting separatism or laundering stolen funds are prosecutable crimes, but serving an unpopular reading public is not

Yury Lukanov, a veteran Ukrainian journalist and active participant in Ukraine’s independence movement and EuroMaidan, believes the publications’ links to exiled oligarchs in Moscow puts them outside the journalistic fold. “I consider pressure on the press unacceptable, even in wartime. But to treat these media like regular publications that supposedly have their own viewpoint would be suicide.”

Information security

Journalists who do express solidarity (even mild) with the publications can find themselves similarly ostracised. Serhiy Tomilenko, the head of Ukraine’s National Union of Journalists, criticised the Ukrainian government’s “selective approach” towards investigating Vesti and on Facebook. This immediately brought the ire of National Front parliamentarian Dmytro Tymchuk, who runs Inforesist, a patriotic website that publishes war dispatches from the east. Tymchuk wrote that Tomilenko “is playing against the information security of Ukraine… acting as advocate for anti-Ukrainian publications… seriously strengthening the position of the aggressor in the media sphere.” Tymchuk inspired an intense online campaign against Tomilenko and the Union, and the latter claims he even received violent threats.

3 March, 2017: a largely older crowd protest the closure of Radio Vesti outside Ukraine's presidential administration, Kyiv. Source: Vesti.For his own part, Guzhva claims no owner has ever influenced his editorial policy and asserts his commitment to a unified Ukraine (he is a native of Donetsk).

In 2015 he described how Ukrainian journalists had divided into three camps — those who were ready to serve the Euromaidan revolution, those who wished to see it crushed with tanks (who today reside in Donetsk or Moscow) and those who tried to objectively record events.

“The first group hates the second, and the second the first, and they both hate the third. Vesti belongs to the third group, so we have problems with both sides of the front… That’s the fate of objective media in a breakthrough period of history. It’s a very difficult position to hold, because you’re constantly in the crossfire.”

Given the partisan bent of his publications, Guzhva’s claim of strict objectivity raises eyebrows. In truth, Vesti and are representative of one of Ukraine’s dominant ideological camps, which opposes the post-revolutionary order, pines for “eight hryvnia to the dollar” under ex-president Viktor Yanukovych and criticises the military operation in the east. Many liberals distrust this camp and suspect it of blending easily into separatism. But the fact is that many Ukrainian citizens subscribe to it. Inciting separatism or laundering stolen funds are prosecutable crimes, but serving an unpopular reading public is not.

The only struggle?

Watchfulness over the role of oligarchic money in Ukraine’s press and vigilance against Russian media warfare are necessary tasks. But in monitoring publications like Vesti with suspect finances and loyalties, we should avoid ascribing Kremlin origin to any narrative that is challenging or uncomfortable.

For instance, in July 2014 Vesti’s front page showed two residents of the warzone community Stanitsya Luhanska fleeing their flaming home after bombing, most likely by the Ukrainian air force, that tragically killed up to twelve civilians. The headline read “Mass civilian death in the east.” One critic indignantly offered this as proof that “the publication has more than once used openly anti-government rhetoric and distorted facts.”

But a Ukrainian battalion commander acknowledged the airstrikes could have been caused by pilot error, and the rising civilian death toll in the Donbas was confirmed by the UN, OSCE, Amnesty International and other international organisations. I have spent much time in Stanytsya Luhanska, a rural suburb of Luhansk severely shelled by both sides of the conflict, and can attest to the critical importance of understanding the violence its inhabitants experienced. More and more Ukrainian media are grappling with such painful topics, including major outlets such as Hromadske Radio and Ukrainska Pravda.

This deserves at least as much effort as the search for Kremlin mouthpieces.


Sideboxes Related stories:  Goodbye, Radio Vesti Where now for Ukraine’s brave new journalism? The terror against Ukraine’s journalists is fuelled by political elites What is the meaning of journalism in Ukraine today? Critical thinking at (the) stake: Ukraine’s witch hunt against journalism Donbas: “We’re used to the shelling” Rights:  CC by NC 4.0

My white friend asked me to explain white privilege, so I decided to be honest.

Thu, 2017-10-19 16:35

He wanted to know how institutional racism has made an impact on my life. I’m glad he asked, because I was ready to answer.

Yesterday I was tagged in a Facebook post by an old high school friend asking me and a few others a very public, direct question about white privilege and racism. I feel compelled not only to publish his query, but also my response to it, as it may be a helpful discourse for more than just a few folks on Facebook.

Here’s his post:

To all of my Black or mixed race FB friends, I must profess a blissful ignorance of this “White Privilege” of which I’m apparently guilty of possessing. By not being able to fully put myself in the shoes of someone from a background/race/religion/gender/nationality/body type that differs from my own makes me part of the problem, according to what I’m now hearing. Despite my treating everyone with respect and humor my entire life (as far as I know), I’m somehow complicit in the misfortune of others. I’m not saying I’m colorblind, but whatever racism/sexism/other -ism my life experience has instilled in me stays within me, and is not manifested in the way I treat others (which is not the case with far too many, I know).


So that I may be enlightened, can you please share with me some examples of institutional racism that have made an indelible mark upon you? If I am to understand this, I need people I know personally to show me how I’m missing what’s going on. Personal examples only. I’m not trying to be insensitive, I only want to understand (but not from the media). I apologize if this comes off as crass or offends anyone.

Here’s my response:

Hi Jason. First off, I hope you don’t mind that I’ve quoted your post and made it part of mine. I think the heart of what you’ve asked of your friends of color is extremely important and I think my response needs much more space than as a reply on your feed. I truly thank you for wanting to understand what you are having a hard time understanding. Coincidentally, over the last few days I have been thinking about sharing some of the incidents of prejudice/racism I’ve experienced in my lifetime—in fact I just spoke with my sister Lesa about how to best do this yesterday—because I realized many of my friends—especially the white ones—have no idea what I’ve experienced/dealt with unless they were present (and aware) when it happened.

There are two reasons for this: 1) because not only as a human being do I suppress the painful and uncomfortable in an effort to make it go away, I was also taught within my community (I was raised in the ’70s and ’80s—it’s shifted somewhat now) and by society at large NOT to make a fuss, speak out, or rock the boat. To just “deal with it,” lest more trouble follow (which, sadly, it often does); 2) fear of being questioned or dismissed with “Are you sure that’s what you heard?” or “Are you sure that’s what they meant?” and being angered and upset all over again by well-meaning-but-hurtful and essentially unsupportive responses.

So, again, I’m glad you asked, because I really want to answer. But as I do, please know a few things first: 1) This is not even close to the whole list. I’m cherry-picking because none of us have all day; 2) I’ve been really lucky. Most of what I share below is mild compared to what others in my family and community have endured; 3) I’m going to go in chronological order so you might begin to glimpse the tonnage and why what many white folks might feel is a “where did all of this come from?” moment in society has been festering individually and collectively for the LIFETIME of pretty much every black or brown person living in America today, regardless of wealth or opportunity; 4) Some of what I share covers sexism, too—intersectionality is another term I’m sure you’ve heard and want to put quotes around, but it’s a real thing too, just like white privilege. But you’ve requested a focus on personal experiences with racism, so here it goes:

1. When I was 3, my family moved into an upper-middle-class, all-white neighborhood. We had a big backyard, so my parents built a pool. Not the only pool on the block, but the only one neighborhood boys started throwing rocks into. White boys. One day my mom ID’d one as the boy from across the street, went to his house, told his mother, and, fortunately, his mother believed mine. My mom not only got an apology, but also had that boy jump in our pool and retrieve every single rock. No more rocks after that. Then mom even invited him to come over to swim sometime if he asked permission. Everyone became friends. This one has a happy ending because my mom was and is badass about matters like these, but I hope you can see that the white privilege in this situation is being able to move into a “nice” neighborhood and be accepted not harassed, made to feel unwelcome, or prone to acts of vandalism and hostility.

2. When my older sister was 5, a white boy named Mark called her a “nigger” after she beat him in a race at school. She didn’t know what it meant, but in her gut she knew it was bad. This was the first time I’d seen my father the kind of angry that has nowhere to go. I somehow understood it was because not only had some boy verbally assaulted his daughter and had gotten away with it, it had way too early introduced her (and me) to that term and the reality of what it meant—that some white people would be cruel and careless with black people’s feelings just because of our skin color. Or our achievement. If it’s unclear in any way, the point here is if you’ve never had a defining moment in your childhood or your life where you realize your skin color alone makes other people hate you, you have white privilege.

3. Sophomore year of high school. I had Mr. Melrose for Algebra 2. Some time within the first few weeks of class, he points out that I’m “the only spook” in the class. This was meant to be funny. It wasn’t. So, I doubt it will surprise you I was relieved when he took medical leave after suffering a heart attack and was replaced by a sub for the rest of the semester. The point here is, if you’ve never been ‘the only one’ of your race in a class, at a party, on a job, etc. and/or it’s been pointed out in a “playful” fashion by the authority figure in said situation, you have white privilege.

4. When we started getting our college acceptances senior year, I remember some white male classmates were pissed that a black classmate had gotten into UCLA while they didn’t. They said that affirmative action had given him “their spot” and it wasn’t fair. An actual friend of theirs. Who’d worked his ass off. The point here is, if you’ve never been on the receiving end of the assumption that when you’ve achieved something it’s only because it was taken away from a white person who “deserved it,” you have white privilege.

5. When I got accepted to Harvard (as a fellow AP student, you were witness to what an academic beast I was in high school, yes?), three separate times I encountered white strangers as I prepped for my maiden trip to Cambridge that rankle to this day. The first was the white doctor giving me a physical at Kaiser:

Me: “I need to send an immunization report to my college so I can matriculate.”

Doctor: “Where are you going?”

Me: “Harvard.”

Doctor: “You mean the one in Massachusetts?”

The second was in a store, looking for supplies I needed from Harvard’s suggested “what to bring with you” list.

Store employee: “Where are you going?”

Me: “Harvard.”

Store employee: “You mean the one in Massachusetts?”

The third was at UPS, shipping off boxes of said “what to bring” to Harvard. I was in line behind a white boy mailing boxes to Princeton and in front of a white woman sending her child’s boxes to wherever.

Woman to the boy: “What college are you going to?” Boy: “Princeton.”

Woman: “Congratulations!”

Woman to me: “Where are you sending your boxes?” Me: “Harvard.”

Woman: “You mean the one in Massachusetts?”

I think: “No, bitch, the one downtown next to the liquor store.” But I say, gesturing to my LABELED boxes: “Yes, the one in Massachusetts.”

Then she says congratulations, but it’s too fucking late. The point here is, if no one has ever questioned your intellectual capabilities or attendance at an elite institution based solely on your skin color, you have white privilege.

6. In my freshman college tutorial, our small group of 4–5 was assigned to read Thoreau, Emerson, Malcolm X, Joseph Conrad, Dreiser, etc. When it was the week to discuss The Autobiography of Malcolm X, one white boy boldly claimed he couldn’t even get through it because he couldn’t relate and didn’t think he should be forced to read it. I don’t remember the words I said, but I still remember the feeling—I think it’s what doctors refer to as chandelier pain—as soon as a sensitive area on a patient is touched, they shoot through the roof—that’s what I felt. I know I said something like my whole life I’ve had to read “things that don’t have anything to do with me or that I relate to” but I find a way anyway because that’s what learning is about—trying to understand other people’s perspectives. The point here is—the canon of literature studied in the United States, as well as the majority of television and movies, have focused primarily on the works or achievements of white men. So, if you have never experienced or considered how damaging it is/was/could be to grow up without myriad role models and images in school that reflect you in your required reading material or in the mainstream media, you have white privilege.

7. All seniors at Harvard are invited to a fancy, seated group lunch with our respective dorm masters. (Yes, they were called “masters” up until this February, when they changed it to “faculty deans,” but that’s just a tasty little side dish to the main course of this remembrance). While we were being served by the Dunster House cafeteria staff—the black ladies from Haiti and Boston who ran the line daily (I still remember Jackie’s kindness and warmth to this day)—Master Sally mused out loud how proud they must be to be serving the nation’s best and brightest. I don’t know if they heard her, but I did, and it made me uncomfortable and sick. The point here is, if you’ve never been blindsided when you are just trying to enjoy a meal by a well-paid faculty member’s patronizing and racist assumptions about how grateful black people must feel to be in their presence, you have white privilege.

8. While I was writing on a television show in my 30s, my new white male boss—who had only known me for a few days—had unbeknownst to me told another writer on staff he thought I was conceited, didn’t know as much I thought I did, and didn’t have the talent I thought I had. And what exactly had happened in those few days? I disagreed with a pitch where he suggested our lead female character carelessly leave a potholder on the stove, burning down her apartment. This character being a professional caterer. When what he said about me was revealed months later (by then he’d come to respect and rely on me), he apologized for prejudging me because I was a black woman. I told him he was ignorant and clearly had a lot to learn. It was a good talk because he was remorseful and open. But the point here is, if you’ve never been on the receiving end of a boss’s prejudiced, uninformed “how dare she question my ideas” badmouthing based on solely on his ego and your race, you have white privilege.

9. On my very first date with my now husband, I climbed into his car and saw baby wipes on the passenger-side floor. He said he didn’t have kids, they were just there to clean up messes in the car. I twisted to secure my seatbelt and saw a stuffed animal in the rear window. I gave him a look. He said, “I promise, I don’t have kids. That’s only there so I don’t get stopped by the police.” He then told me that when he drove home from work late at night, he was getting stopped by cops constantly because he was a black man in a luxury car and they assumed that either it was stolen or he was a drug dealer. When he told a cop friend about this, Warren was told to put a stuffed animal in the rear window because it would change “his profile” to that of a family man and he was much less likely to be stopped. The point here is, if you’ve never had to mask the fruits of your success with a floppy-eared, stuffed bunny rabbit so you won’t get harassed by the cops on the way home from your gainful employment (or never had a first date start this way), you have white privilege.

10. Six years ago, I started a Facebook page that has grown into a website called Good Black News because I was shocked to find there were no sites dedicated solely to publishing the positive things black people do. (And let me explain here how biased the coverage of mainstream media is in case you don’t already have a clue—as I curate, I can’t tell you how often I have to swap out a story’s photo to make it as positive as the content. Photos published of black folks in mainstream media are very often sullen- or angry-looking. Even when it’s a positive story! I also have to alter headlines constantly to 1) include a person’s name and not have it just be “Black Man Wins Settlement” or “Carnegie Hall Gets 1st Black Board Member,” or 2) rephrase it from a subtle subjugator like “ABC taps Viola Davis as Series Lead” to “Viola Davis Lands Lead on ABC Show” as is done for, say, Jennifer Aniston or Steven Spielberg. I also receive a fair amount of highly offensive racist trolling. I don’t even respond. I block and delete ASAP. The point here is, if you’ve never had to rewrite stories and headlines or swap photos while being trolled by racists when all you’re trying to do on a daily basis is promote positivity and share stories of hope and achievement and justice, you have white privilege.

OK, Jason, there’s more, but I’m exhausted. And my kids need dinner. Remembering and reliving many of these moments has been a strain and a drain (and, again, this ain’t even the half or the worst of it). But I hope my experiences shed some light for you on how institutional and personal racism have affected the entire life of a friend of yours to whom you’ve only been respectful and kind. I hope what I’ve shared makes you realize it’s not just strangers, but people you know and care for who have suffered and are suffering because we are excluded from the privilege you have not to be judged, questioned, or assaulted in any way because of your race.

As to you “being part of the problem,” trust me, nobody is mad at you for being white. Nobody. Just like nobody should be mad at me for being black. Or female. Or whatever. But what IS being asked of you is to acknowledge that white privilege DOES exist and not only to treat people of races that differ from yours “with respect and humor,” but also to stand up for fair treatment and justice, not to let “jokes” or “off-color” comments by friends, co-workers, or family slide by without challenge, and to continually make an effort to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, so we may all cherish and respect our unique and special contributions to society as much as we do our common ground.

With much love and respect,


This article was originally published by Good Black News and then edited for and published in YES! Magazine

Sideboxes Related stories:  #Blacklivesmatter and white progressive colorblindness Wrestling with my white fragility For racial healing, we need to get real about racism Rights:  CC by NC 4.0

Estonia’s Narva: caught between two worlds?

Thu, 2017-10-19 16:15

An attempt at self-immolation in this Estonian border town is shifting the focus back on geopolitical games between Russia and the EU. RU

View of Narva Castle and Ivangorod Fortress. Photo CC BY-SA 4.0: Aleksander Kaasik / Wikimedia Commons.Narva lies on the easternmost edge of Estonia, on the Narva river, right by its border with Russia. Indeed, the Russian town of Ivangorod lies across the river. The results of municipal elections in town have shown that most local people have no desire for change. But one Russian pensioner who tried to take his own life by setting himself on fire was a reminder that not everyone was happy with the results.

On 15 October, Estonians went to the polls to elect new municipal governments. In Ida-Viruuma, a border region with Narva at its centre, a place where more than 80% of residents are ethnic Russians, Estonia’s Center Party retained its majority in the local council, winning 23 out of 31 seats. There was nothing unexpected in either its victory or the traditionally low (46.7%) local voter turnout.

The day, however, didn’t pass without incident. An elderly man, thought to be a Russian citizen, tried to set himself alight in the city’s central Petrovsky Square in protest at Estonian government politics. He managed to douse himself with petrol and use his cigarette lighter, but police officers swiftly put out the fire and he was not seriously hurt.

For Narva this was an extraordinary event. Back in the early 1990s, certain sections of the Russian population of Ida-Viruuma dreamed of establishing an autonomous "Narva Republic", but for the last few years life here has been quiet. The older generation discusses its problems in its kitchens while younger people, who have grown up in the EU, are busy getting educated and moving to Tallinn or another European capital.

In the shadow of Estonia’s last Lenin statue

You can travel from St Petersburg to Narva by direct train or bus, but it’s a boring journey. It’s more interesting to buy a ticket to Ivangorod, on the other bank of the river, and see the difference between the two halves of a city divided by the river that forms the border between Estonia and Russia. Ivangorod has roads full of potholes, smashed street lights and a path between bushes leading to the grass-surrounded old customs post. Your first impression of Narva, on the other hand, will be of smooth, clean roads, a new customs building and well-lit streets. Only overhearing Russian hits of the 1990s by bands such as Rukhi Vverkh (“Hands Up”) and Demo might remind you that we are in the most Russian city of Estonia, and indeed the entire EU.

The last undestroyed statue of Lenin in Estonia on the territory of the Narva Castle. Photo courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.In the first light of dawn, no doubts remain. The rows of five storey housing blocks once ubiquitous throughout the USSR remind you that Russia is close. This Khrushchev-era innovative architecture stands next to a 17th century town hall, but a statue of Lenin, the last in Estonia, can still be seen inside the even older Narva Castle. It was moved here from the city’s central square a few years ago, so that Ilyich, as Lenin was popularly known, could hide from the tourists, his arm stretched out towards Russia, on the other bank of the river. Whether he yearns to go there, or is just calling for help, is unclear.

As you stroll through its streets, you can’t stop wondering how this place regularly finds itself at the centre of geopolitical scandals

This city, the third largest in Estonia and an outpost of the “Russian World” on the Baltic Sea, is small and quiet. As you stroll through its streets, you can’t stop wondering how this place regularly finds itself at the centre of geopolitical scandals.

When Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, and the Ukrainian government countered with its Anti-Terrorist Operation in south-east Ukraine, Narva was inundated with journalists from both the Russian and western media. Armed forces flexed their muscles on opposite sides of the border: first there was NATO carrying out exercises and then, on the other bank of the Narva River, the Russian Army followed suit. But the special correspondents, after gauging the mood of the local population, sent very similar reports back to their countries: this won’t be another Donbas — people here like Russia, but no one wants a war.

Vladimir Izotov, a deputy of Narva’s city council, had to spend a lot of time answering western correspondents’ questions about whether Narva would be a second Crimea, citing himself as an example of the ethnic Russians’ loyalty to the Estonian state. Being Russian, he could be successful in both politics and business, and could even make speeches at council meetings in his own language without any problems.

“The news from Estonia doesn’t always reflect the opinions of either the government or the local people,” Izotov tells me. “The news agenda is often set by Estonian nationalists, who have only 10% of seats in parliament. They are always thinking up populist slogans about things like removing the vote from non-citizens, and the media feed off them hungrily in search of sensations. But I can tell you for sure that 99% of Narva’s population has no interest in leaving Estonia. They have enough problems.”

This won’t be another Donbas — people here like Russia, but no one wants a war

The nationalists in question are the Conservative People’s Party of Estonia (Eesti Konservativne Rahvaerakond, EKRE). This party is both anti-Russia and critical of integration in the EU, and in particular of the government’s lack of legislative independence.

Estonia's ruling Center Party won Sunday's local election in what has been seen as a key test for Prime Minister Juri Ratas, whose party split into two factions in 2016. (c) Guo Chunju/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images. All rights reserved. The radical conservatives have seven seats in the national parliament, but neither they nor other nationalist parties took part in the municipal election, as there was no point. The only political forces that have any traction here are those that promise to support the Russian-speaking population: the Centre Party has traditionally done well here, as has the main opposition party, the Our Narva electoral alliance, one of whose central slogans is, “Narva is also Estonia.”

A Narva Republic?

The first post-Soviet years in Ida-Viruuma were marked, to an extent, by burgeoning ideas of revolt. Enthusiasts among the Russian-speaking population nurtured a plan to create a Narva Republic, an autonomous Russophone entity within Estonia, and proposed to give its government the power of veto over laws that would infringe the rights of the ethnic Russian population. The issue came to a head with a referendum held on 16-17 June 1993. The pro-autonomy faction claimed that they won a majority of the votes, but the Estonian government didn’t recognise the referendum and neither did Russia, on whose support the Russian-speakers were counting.

These days, the might-have-been Narva Republic has museum displays devoted to it. Even Estonian nationalists — the people who call for removing the vote from Estonian citizens with Russian or grey “stateless” ID papers and expect Russian aggression at any moment — don’t believe it could ever happen.

“We believe that there might be a Russian invasion anywhere along the border, but the people living in Ida-Viruuma won’t support it”

“We believe that there might be a Russian invasion anywhere along the border, but the people living in Ida-Viruuma won’t support it,” Martin Kummets, of the nationalist Estonian Independence Party (Eesti Iseseisvuspartei, EIP), tells me. “Many of these people have family on the other side, and they know fine well that life is better here. And after all, nobody outside Russia recognises the legitimacy of the referendums in Crimea and Donbas.”

According to Kummets, Russian and Estonian young people are well integrated with one another and ethnic-based conflicts between them never arise. He also believes that his party has supporters among Narva’s Russians.

Narva Town Hall, built in 1671. Photo courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.Alexander Kornilov, head of the Baltiya information project that is the voice of the Russian community in Estonia NGO, is one of the main ideological opponents of Estonia’s radicals. Articles debunking the ultranationalists appear on it alongside news of Russian-language cultural highlights and events honouring Second World War veterans, criticism of the EU and updates on Catalonia’s fight for independence. Kornilov believes that the Estonian government deliberately withholds funding from the Ida-Viruuma region because of its Russian population, and in doing so is making its biggest mistake.

Unlike Estonian patriots, the Russian journalist accepts the possibility of Narva and the area around it breaking away from Estonia: “Anything is possible in our world today – you just have to look at the United Kingdom and Spain. And given central government’s negative attitude to our region, there’s no telling what might happen”.

According to Kummets, Russian and Estonian young people are well integrated with one another and ethnic-based conflicts between them never arise

Figures from Estonia’s Revenue and Customs Department show that in 2016, residents of Narva had the lowest incomes of anyone in the country. Their average monthly salary, pre-tax, was €802 (£715): the average for Estonia as a whole was €1,084 (£967). Ida-Viruuma has also traditionally had the highest unemployment rate in the country: at the end of September 2017 this stood at 9.2%, over twice the national average of 4.5%.

Teens go to the polls

The 2017 elections have been the first in which 16 year olds have been able to vote, after a law was passed last year lowering the age limit for municipal elections. And although most of Narva’s teens have little interest in voting, there are socially active young people who are interested in politics, says Alexey Kupavykh, the Speaker of Narva’s Youth Parliament. This body is elected on the basis of votes cast in schools, and its main job is to organise social events. But the members see their chance to vote at such a young age as a sign of trust in them.

“The people who vote are the ones who have concerns, who have faced problems they can’t deal with on their own,” Alexey tells me. “It doesn’t even matter whether they’re interested in politics or not: it teaches them responsibility. It’s like a leap into adult life.”

Alexey is 17, and this is his last year at school. He is planning to continue his education in Tallinn: it’s a more interesting place for both studying and having a good time, and salaries are higher there too. He does, however, think that he might come back to Narva in the future. He’s happier in his home town than he would be in, say, the more prosperous Tartu, Estonia’s second city.

I listen to his thoughts on his future and ask an awkward question: “Lyosha, you’re an ethnic Russian and you’ve spent the last four years living in the EU. Do you still feel a link with Russia?”

“With Russian culture, yes,” he answers, “But not with the country. It probably sounds rude, but everything’s different there. All those advertising boards on houses and along the roads. You arrive in Russia, and you look at all the run-down villages… and the people are different: sad and bad-tempered.”

Lack of jobs and prospects

Narva is literally dead at night. After eleven o’clock it’s not just a question of no one out on the streets — most of the windows are dark as well. The only things that are open all night are a flower shop and currency exchange kiosks, not to mention casinos where taxi drivers hang around waiting for fares and tipsy punters smoke nervously. I decide to buy some flowers.

Despite the late hour, temporary florist Zlata and her husband Sergey have a customer: a fortyish woman is buying flowers for Teachers’ Day. After she has paid and left, the couple turn their attention to me, and, having quickly realised that I’m not a local, pour out all their stories of woe.

Ivangorod fortress. CC BY-SA 3.0 Simm / Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved.Zlata and Sergey are from Ivangorod, and are filling in at the flower shop for Zlata’s sick sister, who owns the shop. It’s no problem for them – home’s just a walk away - but there’s no work in the Russian border town: all the factories have closed down.

“We had so much here before! The fish processing plant was a prestigious place to work, for a start,” says Zlata. “But it all disappeared overnight, and now there are just food shops and pharmacies.”

There is nothing accidental about these types of business — they are targeted exclusively at Ivangorod’s western neighbour, Narva. People come across from Estonia to buy unobtainable medical products, cheap alcohol and cigarettes. And there’s a parallel stream in the other direction, with Russians going to Narva to buy contraband cheese (unavailable in Ivangorod because of international trade sanctions), red salmon and second hand clothing, usually for resale.

There are more and more second hand dealers, or touts, as Zlata calls them, in Narva. After the collapse of the USSR all the factories closed here, just as in Ivangorod, and no new large firms have come to replace them. Sergey may have spent all his life in honest work, but he can understand the touts. Two employers in Ivangorod owe him money – he was working for them on the side, cash in hand. And it’s not easy to find another job, on either side of the river.

“I think the Estonian authorities are ruining Narva,” he says. “You know what I think? In the future there’ll just be a NATO base here, nothing else. That’s all they need the city for.”

When Zlata discovers that I’m a journalist, she tells me her “favourite story” that has to do with fireworks:

“On ‘Ivangorod Day’, they used to have a firework display. But then they switched off the lights in people’s homes, to recoup some of the money it cost. It’ll soon be the New Year; we’re already stocking up on candles, so we’ll be ready. You write about it, try to let President Putin know what’s happening here. The local authority has tarted up some small bits of Ivangorod; they’re taking photos of them and publishing them all over the place, but the whole town’s in ruins.”

The “ruins” of Ivangorod are a walking distance from Narva — a kind of dreadful warning against any attempts at reintegration with the Russian world. The year 2012 saw the start of a project to build promenades along both sides of the river, as part of an EU financed “United by Borders” programme for cross border cooperation. The promenades were opened in February 2014, but much less of the work on the Russian side was completed, and it was noticeably less impressive than on the Estonian side.

The “ruins” of Ivangorod are a walking distance from Narva — a kind of dreadful warning against any attempts at reintegration with the Russian world.

Another story that has turned into folklore on both sides is that of the new customs posts, where building work also started at the same time in both Russia and Estonia. Estonian officials have now been occupying their new buildings for two years, while the Russians are still awaiting their “housewarming.”

In August this year, Rosgranstroi, the body that oversees border construction projects, announced that the two Ivangorod Customs Posts would be in operation by September. It’s now nearly November, and people are still walking along paths between bushes to the old Customs buildings.

It’s issues like this that make the inhabitants of Narva love their country a little more, despite all its problems and disadvantages — even as they have no confidence in the ability of their local government bodies to solve these problems any time soon.


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Palestinian winemaking under occupation

Thu, 2017-10-19 13:18

The stories of two Palestinians reviving winemaking as a source of livelihood in Palestine and a reminder of the rich cultures and history that is often obscured by the conflict.

Picture by Sari Khoury. All rights reserved. Wine is not usually what springs to mind when thinking about Palestine. As Lebanese, Turkish, and Cypriot winemaking flourishes and the controversial Israeli wine industry booms, Palestinian wine has received far less attention in recent history, overshadowed by news of occupation and bloodshed.

Israeli vineyards often use native Palestinian grapes on land stolen from farmers during the 1948 Nakba. Similarly, many newer Israeli wineries come from illegal West Bank settlements but are labelled as ‘products of Israel.’

With the exception of Latroun and Cremisan monasteries which both run on foreign funding and instruction, the rich Christian heritage of winemaking in and around the famous Palestinian cities of Nazareth, Bethlehem, and Jerusalem as well as the northern Galilee region have been relegated to the domestic market until recently. Now, a new wave of entrepreneurs and winemakers are reviving Palestinian wine not only as a source of livelihood but also as a way of reminding Palestinians and the world of the rich cultures and history that is often obscured by focus on the conflict.

Nemi Ashkar and Sari Khoury are two such examples showing they can make a high quality product despite the choking restrictions of the Israeli occupation. They both produce a range of great wines from historic Palestinian sites: the village of Iqrit inside present-day Israel, and Bethlehem’s picturesque mountains in the occupied West Bank.

Returning home: Nemi’s story

Nemi Ashkar comes from the northern Galilee village of Iqrit which was occupied in November 1948 by the Israeli army and its inhabitants dispossessed. He grew up in the region but was exiled from his village, whose population is forbidden from returning except to visit their church and graveyard. Iqrit has since been under the control of the Israeli Land Authority, which manages 93% of Israeli land and ensures that it can only be rented and cultivated by Jewish citizens. 

Picture by Nemi Ashkar. All rights reservedNemi recalls making wine at home with his mother and grandmother, using grapes from their garden. It was upon visiting his church one day that Nemi discovered that part of the village’s land was being used to farm grapes by a Tunisian Jewish settler. The sight of the grapes inspired Nemi to extend his passion for winemaking to a large-scale project, “to prove that I can also use my land even in an indirect way.” 

Nemi buys the harvest from the settler who grows them to his specifications, and turns the Iqrit grapes into wine in the cellar of his home in the nearby village of Kafr Yassif. Although an original image of Iqrit from before 1948 adorns the label of his product, he is forbidden from labelling his product as Palestinian. For Nemi, the wine is “Palestinian because I am Palestinian. And [even though] the owner [of the winery] is Palestinian and the grapes are from Palestine and the production is in Palestine, we must put it is Israeli.” He circumnavigates this by highlighting the family name as the name of the winery: those in the know will understand that Ashkar and Iqrit are Palestinian.

The Galilee region has a wine-making tradition going back to the Crusader period, but the Ashkar family were among the first to make a Palestinian wine available commercially. When he decided to make the commercial step, Nemi first studied wine making in Akka, and uses the help of his family, brothers, sisters, and whoever is around to pitch in making the wines in the cellar of his house. Because the wine is not kosher he cannot sell it in Israeli national institutions or hotels. It is, however, currently available in a few high-level restaurants in Tel Aviv, in Palestinian areas of Israel, and widely across the West Bank. Unable to commit to a marketing campaign while he still works in the high tech industry by day, Nemi relies on word of mouth to promote his products. Despite this, he sells around 12,000 bottles annually, increasing every year. While Israel has plenty of boutique wineries, including several controversial settlement wineries, business for the Ashkar family is good and they are looking to export their wines internationally, where they hope to be able to label it as a Palestinian product. 

Picture by Nemi Ashkar. All rights reservedHis dream is to build the winery in Iqrit. I ask him if he thinks this is possible. “Sure” he says. Nemi is an optimist, but a pragmatic nonetheless, given the current political situation and the sustained ban on Palestinian Iqrit residents returning to their village. His spirit is Palestinian and he believes in the future of Palestine, and is part of the Palestinian industries that may one day fuel an independent state. After all, he says, “it is our land, [when] we return back, we are returning to our land so we can build the winery and make the house and return everything.” 

Grapes of wrath: Sari’s story

Sari Khoury, a Palestinian architect and entrepreneur, had the idea of setting up a Palestinian winery with his friends Nasser Soumi, a Palestinian artist, and Pascal Frissant, a French wine maker, while completing his MBA in Paris. Sari, a Christian from East Jerusalem, grew up with his grandfather making wine at home. He never had aspirations to produce his own until the year Nasser gave him a book about wine as a Christmas gift. Sari discovered wine as a way to travel and explore other cultures and has since spent years learning about wine making in France, traveling around the best French and Italian wineries. “Behind every exceptional wine there is also exceptional people,” he explained, an idea he attempts to convey in his own product. 

Picture by Sari Khoury. All rights reserved. The high quality of the indigenous grape varieties, the terroir, and the seasonable climate, not to mention the power of the Bethlehem brand name led Sari to establish his winery, Philokalia, in his Bethlehem home. Sari works one-on-one with individual farmers, learning their traditional organic methods. “This country is the cradle of the vine and wine making, and this heritage has been lost somehow,” he tells me, “[the farmers] have this heritage and this knowledge that hasn't been documented in books so…it’s transmitted through this project.” Sari named his wine Philokalia; “the love of the beautiful and of the good, where beautiful means the radiance of truth”, after a series of writings under the same name begun by Orthodox monks in the 4th century here in Palestine. 

Bethlehem, a large city in the southern West Bank, is surrounded by Israeli settlements so any investment in agricultural ventures is a high-risk endeavor. “One of our vineyards is close to a settlement, and the settlers sometimes decide to come out and destroy the vines. This also means that we cannot work comfortably; I prefer to harvest at night when the grapes are cooler, but farmers are scared to go out at night and be discovered by the settler patrols who will shoot first before asking questions.” Another vineyard uses a 70-year-old Palestinian vine that was destroyed by the Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) to make a road to a settlement. They used large stone boulders to crush the vines and then paved over them with asphalt. Miraculously, “the vines grew back between the rocks, so I called the wine we made from them “grapes of wrath”. [However,] because this vineyard is in such a tense area, the farmers are afraid even to approach their land. I don’t know if I’ll be able to harvest this year.”

For commercial scale projects the World Bank can supply ‘political risk’ insurance “but it’s a very expensive means of protecting your product, and only compensates you financially, not for the loss of a 70 year old vine.” He adds, “such insurance doesn’t reflect the spirit of the project, which serves as a vehicle to protect the vines.” 

Picture by Sari Khoury. All rights reservedSari prides himself on producing natural and organic wines that reflect Palestinian farming methods. The local wine tradition, Sari explains, goes back centuries. If you search in the Palestinian countryside around Bethlehem, in the Galilee, even Gaza, you can find Canaanite era wine presses. Under the ancient Egyptians, Gazan wine was held in high esteem and was hugely important. The Canaanite god of fertility, Baal, is still a daily reference for these farmers, who refer to certain plants as baal, meaning they haven’t been watered other than with rainwater. Olives are baal, figs are baal. Grapes too, are baal

Both winemakers aim to highlight the prosperity of Palestinian land and its products – as Sari explains: “the land is not poor, it’s wealthy – but do you see that wealth? Nature is capable of creating beautiful things. This abundance is there and it’s ignored.”  

Unlike West Bank ID card holders who must apply for permission from Israeli occupation administration, Sari is able to move between Bethlehem in the Occupied West Bank and Israel through military checkpoints to access his vineyards. He may not, however, export his finished product without registering it with the military administration and paying a large fee. Similarly, as a Palestinian, he will incur lengthy delays and large customs costs should he try and import his equipment from abroad. It is by such means that Israel prevents Palestine redeveloping its once thriving agricultural economy from its wealth of native product species. He adds that “the roads in Palestine are bad so it’s difficult to even transport the wine without shaking it up.” He would like to take it to Jerusalem, the Galilee, Haifa, and Nazareth, but for now it cannot pass the checkpoints.

Picture by Sari Khoury. All rights reservedHaving sold out of his first vintage of 700 bottles, Sari is apprehensively awaiting this year’s harvest. He’s not interested in selling the wine in shops but instead wants to work closely with people who he feels understand and capture the spirit of the project. He prefers to develop links with local restaurants, with their food and clientele. “The wine project has been very interesting in the sense that I am trying to make wine but at the same time the wine is making me.” Without a Palestinian wine industry, or the infrastructure for it, the future is uncertain, but Sari is enthusiastic. The challenge now is to focus on the quality of the wines and to let the project continue organically. “Every year has it's own story and it's own merits. We try to stay in that spirit.”

Sideboxes Related stories:  “I am proud to keep resisting”: fighting the occupation in Hebron The Israeli algorithm criminalizing Palestinians for online dissent Activism and political organising in academia: a conversation with Ilan Pappe The vertical apartheid Country or region:  Palestine Topics:  Culture Economics Rights:  CC by NC 4.0

ISIS, a global franchise

Thu, 2017-10-19 12:32

What do a Somalia truck, a Filipino city, and a Niger start-up have in common?

Explosion site near Safari hotel in Mogadishu, in which more than 300 people were killed on 14th October 2017. Faisal Isse/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images. All rights reserved.The war against ISIS in Raqqa is nearing its end. But in all likelihood, the group will transform itself into an insurgent force, thus reclaiming the status it had until 2013. The four-year caliphate will then be propagandised, in two ways: as an example of what can be achieved against the formidable power of the world’s strongest military coalition, and as a symbol of what will surely come again. Even if this is wishful thinking from ISIS, it is worth reflecting on current developments in three other regions which point to the evolving nature of this new era of irregular war: the Philippines, Somalia, and Niger.

Manila: elusive victory

The military forces of Rodrigo Duterte's government are reportedly close to retaking Marawi, on the southern island of Mindanao. The city was overrun in May by paramilitary groups allied to ISIS. The expected brief operation turned into a five-month siege in which more than 1,000 people, including many civilians, may have died. Thousands more have left the city, large parts of which have been destroyed.   

Two aspects of the Marawi operation have long-term implications. The first is that dislodging the determined and well-organised insurgents required the extensive use of air-power and artillery. This repeats the experience of Ramadi, western Mosul and most recently Raqqa. Much is made of the use of precision-guided weapons; but over three decades, Islamist paramilitary movements have gained combat experience against such tactics. As a result, to defeat these movements now means wrecking cities (see "ISIS: a war unwon", 14 September 2017).

The second aspect is that events in the southern Philippines reverberate across south-east Asia, where ISIS and similar groups are proselytising among sympathetic communities. The decision of Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines to establish a programme of joint maritime-reconnaissance patrols over the Sulu Sea is one acknowledgment of a growing concern. The patrols will initially be monthly, carried out in rotation, alongside coordination of more frequent national patrols. Defense News reports:

“The trilateral maritime and air patrols were initiated in response to fears that the Islamic State group will use the Sulu Sea to move fighters between the three countries, which all have coastlines along the Sulu Sea. ISIS-linked militants had seized the southern Philippine city of Marawi in late May, triggering a counteroffensive from the army to take back the city, which continues to this day”.

Mogadishu: high tension

The huge truck-bomb attack in central Mogadishu on 14 October, which devastated several acres of the city, was almost certainly an al-Shabaab operation. The updated death-toll of 329 is likely to rise, and many hundreds of people were injured. The vehicle appears to have been heading for a government ministry when it was halted at a roadblock. Its explosion also set off a fuel-tanker, adding further to the carnage. There is some evidence that a second truck-bomb was intercepted on route to a different target. If it had exploded, this might have been the largest single paramilitary attack since 9/11.

There is some evidence that a second truck-bomb was intercepted on route to a different target. If it had exploded, this might have been the largest single paramilitary attack since 9/11.

The attack follows military pressure from Somalia's newly elected president, Mohamed Abdullah Mohamed, who is supported by United States forces. Al-Shabaab, which has links with al-Qaida, has been fighting successive governments, a multinational African Union force and US units for a decade. It has lost territory but still represents a major threat to the government, and this incident suggests an increase in its capabilities.

Several hundred US special forces and army personnel are deployed in the country, and American drones repeatedly target al-Shabaab. A decision by Trump means the Pentagon's rules of engagement are being loosened. What happened in Mogadishu may be the prelude to approve increased levels of force. 

Niger: start-up war

If the Philippines' conflict is low-profile in the western media, and Somalia's is only covered after major events, Niger's has been almost invisible. That may change after the killing of four US special-forces personnel in a remote part of the country on 4 October, by a militant group reportedly new to the area. The survivors were eventually rescued by French aircraft from a base in Mali around 500 kilometres away.

The incident throws light on the United States's fluid set of military operations across much of the Sahel, which includes contributions by France and Britain as well as other contingents. In the case of the "quiet war" in Niger, a rare detailed assessment by the Guardian's Jason Burke says the group may have been acting on its own initiative with little back-up. Such evolving autonomy has been matched by the US military's own tactical shift. Burke quotes a former special-forces officer:

“Since Trump took power, US forces deployed around the world have had a lot more room to manoeuvre. Decisions about when and what to engage have been devolved right down to unit level. Any soldier knows that if you give guys on the ground more independence, then they will be that much more aggressive and will take more risks.”

Pentagon: off the leash

The notion that the latest, Trumpian iteration of the sixteen-year “war on terror” is easing following ISIS’s reversals in Iraq and Syria is tempting. But in light of the above, three things counter it.

First, much more is happening in the military sphere than is commonly reported. Thus, any idea that Trump has embarked on security "isolationism" is nonsense: campaign rhetoric and experience in office are proving to be two very different maters. Second, the transition from “boots on the ground” to “shadow wars” continues. Third, there is a particular contrast between Trump's and Obama's administration, as follows.

During the latter's eight-year period, Obama certainly oversaw major changes, especially towards the use of drones (including targeted assassination). That was controversial for many people who may have approved of many of his other policies. But whatever one’s views of this element, his White House team kept tight control over what was done by the military in the administration’s name.  

That has changed under Trump. Now, the Pentagon has much more freedom of movement and far less need to get approval from above. It is one more reason why escalation of US military actions around the world is likely to continue. Many of those actions will be more vigorous and violent. They will also be largely unreported. All this is part of what Trump sees as his historic task of making America great again.

Sideboxes 'Read On' Sidebox: 

Department of peace studies, Bradford University

Paul Rogers, Irregular War: ISIS and the New Threat from the Margins (IB Tauris, 2016)

Oxford Research Group

Paul Rogers, A War on Terror: Afghanistan and After (Pluto Press, 2004)

Paul Rogers, Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century (Pluto Press, 3rd edition, 2010)

Jane's Intelligence Review

Long War Journal

Jason Burke, The New Threat: The Past, Present and Future of Islamic Militancy (New Presws, 2017)

Shiraz Maher, SalafiJihadism. The History of An Idea (C Hurst, 2016)

Peter R Neumann, Radicalized: New Jihadists and the Threat to the West (IB Tauris, 2016)

William McCants, The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State (St Martin's Press, 2015)

Fawaz A Gerges, ISIS: A History (Princeton University Press, 2016)

Related stories:  ISIS: worst of times, best of times ISIS: the long-term prospect Irregular war, and how to reverse it Trump’s wars: more to come Washington's wars: in a fix Rights:  CC by NC 4.0

Why does the UK Data Protection Bill exempt the ‘risk profiling’ industry?

Thu, 2017-10-19 10:55

Anyone trying to open a bank account or send money overseas must undergo extensive risk assessment by private data-brokers, which amass non-credible data and falsely blacklist the wrong people on a speculative basis.

Flickr/Al Ibrahim. CC BY-SA 2.0.The EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is one of the most important pieces of human rights and consumer protection legislation of the 21st century. It extends the rights we have as citizens and overhauls a framework developed in the 1990s that governs the way states and corporations can collect and use information about us. The GDPR also allows the free movement of personal data across the EU and the government’s decision to seek to implement the measure in full, regardless of the Brexit negotiations, is a mark of its importance.

However, the bill transposing the GDPR into UK law is complex and labyrinthine. As the GDPR must be applied by May next year, the government has set a tight legislative timetable for its passage, and the bill has already had its second reading in the Lords.

Yet to be raised is the significance of the exemptions set out in Schedule 2 to the Bill, which, as drafted, would potentially remove entire industries dedicated to vetting, profiling and blacklisting private individuals from the reach of the law. Whether intentional or not, the language it contains means that private companies that vet people on behalf of banks, employers and landlords could claim exemption.

Those actors who the bill proposes to exempt do not simply act on a ‘case-by-case’ basis; instead they compile large, pre-emptive and often highly speculative databases that result in de facto blacklisting.

The scope of the exemptions is striking, but one particular and apparently deliberate application stands out: vetting in the financial sector. Under UK and EU law, anyone trying to open a bank account, send money overseas or enter into various financial transactions must undergo an increasingly extensive risk assessment in accordance with anti-money laundering and counterterrorism conventions. These checks are now frequently outsourced to private companies who have created vast databases containing the names and profiles of individuals and organisations who might pose such a risk. One of the market leaders is World-Check, a UK based data-broker owned by Thomson-Reuters that has now amassed more than 3 million such records, and featured regularly on the pages of Vice (see here, here and here).

Over the past few years, our work has highlighted both the lack of credibility in the data giving rise to some of these profiles and the adverse implications that being listed as a financial crime or terrorism ‘risk’ by companies like World-Check can have. Not only could you be refused financial services, you could be passed over for a job, or denied a visa, because employers and authorities also subscribe to these databases in large numbers.

We have represented dozens of individuals and organisations who suffered devastating consequences as a result of being falsely identified as posing a terrorism risk. We believe these cases represent the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

Under the exemption provisions in schedule 2 of the current bill, World-Check and its numerous competitors would ostensibly be exempt from the core data protection provisions that apply to other data controllers. They would be under no obligation to inform you that they hold your data – or consider you a crime risk – and would be free to share it across the world. You would have no right to access your records, object to the processing, or seek any form of redress in the event that the data they hold is false, inaccurate or misleading.

World-Check and its numerous competitors would ostensibly be exempt from the core data protection provisions that apply to other data controllers.

Crucially, it is only through individuals exercising these rights under the existing UK data protection framework that legal accountability has begun to be possible. We are concerned that these fundamental rights may fall by the wayside, particularly on such tight timeframe for legislative scrutiny.

Also included in the Schedule 2 exemptions are profiling related to the provision of banking, insurance, investment or other financial services; to the health, safety and welfare of persons at work; to the maintenance of effective immigration control; and to the protection of charities or community interest companies against misconduct or mismanagement.

This means that as long as they can claim a vague, undefined, ‘public interest’ justification, credit reference agencies, employment agencies, letting agents, companies that profile charities and their staff, and private companies involved in the enforcement of immigration control could all seek to rely on these exemptions in the future – where none exist at present. We are unlikely to know whether those public interest justifications are validly applied unless they are challenged. Yet without the right to know what data is being processed, will such a challenge even be possible?

What should concern us most is that those actors who the bill proposes to exempt do not simply act on a ‘case-by-case’ basis; instead they compile large, pre-emptive and often highly speculative databases that result in de facto blacklisting. The Consulting Association scandal, the Equifax hack and today’s news about World-Check profiling trade unionists and animal rights activists demonstrate why the proposed exemptions are of such concern.  

Back in 2011, lobbyists employed by World-Check had pushed for the inclusion of similar provisions in the EU proposals for the GDPR. Their efforts received short shrift from EU legislators. Last week in the Lords we were told that

“offerings such as World-Check [play] a key role in Europe and globally in helping many private sector firms and public authorities identify potential risks [and] will be needing a number of clarifications in the Bill so that it will be able to continue to provide its important services”

We should not be fooled. The only clarifications we need are to schedule 2, to ensure that the likes of World-Check have to respect the rule of law like everyone else.

Sideboxes Related stories:  The ongoing march of the EU’s security-industrial complex The role of independent supervision in upholding privacy in the age of surveillance Theresa May’s counter-extremism plan will create an incompetent police state Waking up to the UK’s Investigatory Powers Act Weapons of maths destruction Rights:  CC by NC 4.0

FP October 19

Thu, 2017-10-19 07:17
Select Show on Front Page:  Show on Front Page Right Image Halfway to Gilead: how the alt-right’s online culture wars made hate mainstream Hide in waterfall:  Do not include in section waterfall ? ‘Assemble ye trolls:’ the rise of online hate speech How the Alt Right is trying to create a safe space for racism on college campuses Scorn wars: rural white people and us If the hard Brexiteers have nothing to hide, they've nothing to fear Hide in waterfall:  Do not include in section waterfall ? Danger: there’s a centrifuge in the White House Hide in waterfall:  Do not include in section waterfall ? The presence of the past: lessons of history for anti-trafficking work Hide in waterfall:  Do not include in section waterfall ?

Those fighting against modern slavery draw inspiration from history, but their misappropriation of the transatlantic slave trade is dangerous.

New economic thinking is the method: the object is to change the world Hide in waterfall:  Do not include in section waterfall ?

We need to transform economics. 

Estonia’s Narva: caught between two worlds? Hide in waterfall:  Do not include in section waterfall ?

An attempt at self-immolation in this Estonian border town is shifting the focus back on geopolitical games between Russia and the European Union. RU

The UK, ‘modern slavery’, and the elephant in the room: prevention Hide in waterfall:  Do not include in section waterfall ? Creating the Democratic Economy Hide in waterfall:  Do not include in section waterfall ? Vesti: Weapon or casualty in the information war? Hide in waterfall:  Do not include in section waterfall ?

How did Arron Banks afford Brexit?

Thu, 2017-10-19 05:19

The self-styled ‘bad boy’ who bankrolled the Leave campaign appears to have exaggerated his wealth. So how did he pay for his Brexit spree?

Arron Banks in 2014, when he pledged £1million to the UK Independence Party. Ben Birchall/PA Images. All rights reserved.

In September 2013, the man who bought Brexit – Arron Banks – was in trouble. 

For the past two years, financial regulators in Gibraltar had been scrutinising his insurance under-writer, Southern Rock. They had discovered it was keeping reserves far below what was needed.

This was a serious problem. Banks claimed he had already provided £40 million to plug the hole. He also told the regulator he would step down as a director, but has since been required to find an eye-watering £60 million in extra funding. 

A year later, these financial worries seem to have completely evaporated. Banks had begun buying diamond mines, investing millions into chemical companies and wealth management firms, setting up loss-making political consultancies, and most famous of all – funding the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). 

One question remains though. If Banks was in such a tight spot in September 2013, how did he manage to be so generous the following year?

Over the past four months, openDemocracy has conducted an in-depth review of Bank's business dealings since he first started out in business in the early 2000s. As well as his own public statements about the sources of his wealth, we have spoken to his former employers, and obtained and reviewed court documents. There are of course a number of perfectly innocent ways that Banks could have obtained the extra funds, but given Banks’ significance to British politics, what have found so far is extremely troubling. 

“Quite good at persuading people to buy things they didn’t want to buy”

Banks had started out selling vacuum cleaner appliances door to door in Basingstoke in the late 1980s. “I was quite good at persuading people to buy things they didn’t want to buy,” he told the New Statesman in October 2016. He also briefly worked as an estate agent, and ran a failed bid to become a Conservative councillor. He married young and was soon the father of two daughters. 

After leaving school with few qualifications, he had eventually found himself in a junior position in the Lloyds' insurance market. This is where Banks gained his first exposure to the industry, where syndicates of insurers spread risks between themselves and traded financial assets to cover their positions. Banks spent seven years at Lloyds', working his way into a junior underwriting position before he moved to Bristol, following a split from his first wife.

If Banks was in such a tight spot in September 2013, how did he manage to be so generous the following year?

It is here the cracks in Banks’ biography start to appear. Banks has claimed he was promoted and rose to lead his own sales team at Norwich Union – now part of Aviva. However, Aviva say they have no record of Banks ever having worked for Norwich Union. He has also claimed to have worked for Warren Buffett around this point in his career. We asked Buffett about this. He replied. "I have no memory of ever hearing of the name Arron Fraser Andrew Banks. He certainly never worked for me." Further checks across the Berkshire Hathaway group, made by Buffett’s office, yielded no evidence he had ever worked for any of his subsidiaries. In a letter delivered by his lawyers, Banks declined to comment on either of these points. 

In 1998, Banks got taken on by a tiny broker focussed on motorcycle insurance run from offices above a shop in the sleepy village of Thornbury. He was granted a 20% shareholding in the fledgling business. In November 2000, he resigned as a director of the firm, and two months later, sold his shares for £251,000. 

Shortly afterwards, Banks met the woman who was to become his second wife, a Portsmouth-based Russian called Ekaterina Paderina. According to the Sunday Times, Paderina’s former husband had been interviewed twice by Special Branch because they suspected her of working for the Russian government. Ekaterina moved to join Banks in Bristol but stayed on the electoral roll in Portsmouth until 2008, still registered to a council flat overlooking the naval base. When Portsmouth Council found out she should not have been entitled to the flat because she was living with Banks, council officials reportedly demanded a cash payment be made by the Banks family in recompense.

Banks and Ekaterina wed in 2001 and in the autumn of that year Banks set up his own insurance company, with financial backing from his relatives and from the Northern Irish insurance tycoons, Leslie Hughes and James Bowers. The business focused on motorcycle, motorhome and van insurance.

The new businesses were also the first he formed with two men who would become his long term business partners, the Australian solicitor Jim Gannon and the accountant Paul Chase-Gardener.

In June this year, the Financial Times published their own analysis of the overlapping businesses of Arron Banks, the “Bad Boy of Brexit”, and its editor Lionel Barber quite reasonably asked on Twitter: “but how rich is he really?”. 

Banks fumed in a tweeted reply: “I founded and sold a listed insurance business for £145m! Not even mentioned – no FT, fake news.” That listed company was Brightside.

The amounts Banks has given to British politics are extraordinary.

The amount Banks made from the sale of Brightside is crucial to understanding whether Banks is really as rich as he says he is.

Company documents we have reviewed show Banks made £22 million from share sales, £1.2 million in salary from serving as the group’s CEO and Chief Insurance Officer, and just £270,000 in dividends.

So when Banks had told the Financial Times in 2015 he was worth £100 million, where did this valuation come from? More importantly, if he only made £22 million from Brightside share sales – where did all this cash for Brexit campaigning come from? 

The amounts Banks has given to British politics are extraordinary. A total of £6 million in loans, still outstanding, was made to Leave.EU. He famously pledged £1 million to UKIP in 2014, at a time when the organisation’s finances were stalling. Without Banks, the political potency of the party may well have fizzled out. In 2016, his company, Better for the Country Ltd, also bought almost £2 million in pro-Brexit merchandise and donated it to Grassroots Out, another Brexit campaigning group. In total, his political contributions have come to nearly £10 million. 

That would mean he might have given away almost half of what he made from Brightside to political causes. That seems amazingly generous.

“Serious and widespread failings” 

As his own tweeted rebuke of the Financial Times suggested, central to the Banks mythology is the sale of Brightside Plc. in 2014. The buyer was private equity firm Anacap. Although he tweeted that the sale had been for £145 million, it was reported at the time as being worth only £127 million. How much, though, did Banks get? 

The story starts in 2001 when Banks set up Group Direct, which was the principal operating company for his insurance brand Commercial Vehicle Direct. Group Direct made losses of over £400,000 in its first two years of operation, before finally turning a profit in 2004. 

By 2006, overall debts had increased to £34 million, but the group appeared to be growing strongly, with turnover of £20 million. Banks began to aim for a public listing of the group. The same year, he became a director of Brightside, at that time a recently formed debt management service aimed at the personal insolvency market. Crucially, Brightside was already listed on AIM, the junior stock exchange.

In June 2008, the original Banks insurance group took part in a transaction known as a ‘reverse takeover’, in which a listed company takes over a much larger unlisted company. This allows the unlisted company to obtain a listing on a stock exchange quicker than usual. Under the terms of the deal, Brightside duly bought the three companies which constituted Group Direct. The £50 million valuation put on these companies seemed high but the deal did not boost Banks’ bank account – as the consideration for the deal was in Brightside shares. 

Then, in 2008, the financial crisis hit. As with many businesses, Banks’ lending facilities came under pressure. But Banks was still able to raise money from Brightside’s shareholders: in 2009 and 2010 the company raised a total of £29 million, attracting investors with its eye-catching growth rate and ambitious plans to acquire other companies. 

Two of the assets Banks’ firm acquired were the little-known insurance brands "E-Car" and "E-Bike." The price was an initial £15.5 million, with £19.1 million deferred, based on future profitability.

In fact, both brands were owned by Southern Rock Insurance, a company of which Banks, Gannon and Chase-Gardener collectively owned 72%.

Two other companies, "E Systems" and “E Development” were bought for a further £17 million in 2011. At the time E Development had net liabilities of over £500,000. E-systems had been set up just months before the sale by Banks, and Brightside IT director Simon Jones. It had no other customers than Brightside.

These acquisitions seem hard to justify, but in documents sent to Brightside shareholders notifying them of the proposed purchase of E-Systems and E-Development, the company stated that they had received undertakings from Banks and his fellow directors that the funds would be used to shore up the firms under-writer, Southern Rock, and thus allow Brightside to continue trading. And this is, indeed, what happened.

However, within the year Banks was fired from his role at Brightside. He famously recounted how he punched his partner and friend, Jim Gannon, in the face, when the solicitor broke the news to him. 

Banks remained a shareholder in Brightside and in 2013, sold a tranche of his shares for £6 million to a competitor, Markerstudy, which was said to be contemplating a bid for the company. After conducting due diligence and negotiating with the Brightside board however, Markerstudy declined to make a full bid, with their CEO describing Brightside as “over-valued”.

In 2014, the investment firm Anacap arrived and thought differently. They bought Brightside in its entirety, paying £127 million to take control. 

Anacap have since alleged in court that the new management team discovered “serious and widespread failings” throughout the company, many dating from Banks’ time as CEO and Chief Insurance Officer. All of the purchases of Banks' companies (E-Car, E-Bike, E-Systems, and E Development) were confirmed to be worth far less than had been paid for them. The software supplied by E-systems was said to barely function and the Brightside website was hacked and remained inoperable for over a month. Court documents obtained during our investigation allege widespread failings, including an incendiary allegation that the company was “in breach of its banking covenants and insolvent on a net asset basis.” There were also, according to the same documents, no correct systems in place for the handling of client funds. 

All of the purchases of Banks' companies were confirmed to be worth far less than had been paid for them.

For an insurance company, this was a particularly serious problem. Anacap replaced several senior staff and board members including the CFO, Paul Chase-Gardener. Over £35 million of value had to be written off from the Brightside balance sheet, in part because Anacap deemed the E-Car, E-Bike, E-Systems and E-Development purchases had been grossly overvalued. Within a year of the takeover, the new owners also had to plough in an additional £40 million to prevent the business from going bust. Further large write downs were made in 2015. Court documents show that £12 million had to be inserted in a failed attempt to repair the IT system alone, with numerous other consultants brought in to clear up the problems the new owners found.

openDemocracy asked Banks to comment on Anacap’s view of the value of these businesses. He declined to reply to our specific questions, instead sending a copy of a letter which his lawyers wrote to the BBC in May of this year. In this letter his lawyers say: “The offer from Anacap to acquire Brightside was announced in May 2014 nearly two years after Mr Banks had left the company.” 

In 2016, Anacap began legal action against Chase-Gardener and Brightside’s auditors for failures to adequately manage the business and present accurate financial reports. With the assistance of his brother Jonathan, a Hong Kong based lawyer, Banks was able to settle out of court in May 2015. Privately, many of the new senior management team brought in by Anacap wanted to pursue the case against him. As part of their settlement with Banks, Anacap were able to extricate Brightside from contracts with other Banks controlled businesses, such as Southern Rock, which they described as “onerous.” The case against Chase-Gardener is still being pursued in the High Court, where Anacap are seeking £20 million in damages from him. The auditors, BDO (now part of RMS Tenon), are facing a claim of around £50 million. 

Southern Rock in difficulty

Arron Banks with former UKIP leader Nigel Farage. Ben Birchall/PA Images. All rights reserved.While at Brightside, Banks had been able to partly re-finance the ailing Southern Rock, through buying E-Cars, E-Systems, E-Development and E-Bike from the Gibraltar based group. But the Gibraltar Financial Services Commission had also passed their report to the Financial Conduct Authority in London for review.

The authorities in London concurred with the Gibraltar regulator’s findings, that Southern Rock had been trading without sufficient reserves, and in 2013 Banks voluntarily recused himself from the FCA register. He stepped down as a director of Southern Rock in 2014. Both regulators had effectively barred him from holding a position of control within an insurance business. 

He also had to balance the books. While the funds from the sale of E-systems and E-development were passed to Southern Rock, this still left the business short of the capital needed to fund its loss reserves as the company struggled with high claim levels and a challenging market. He told Private Eye he had agreed to find £40 million to re-capitalise the business. Banks claims that Southern Rock is now a profitable company. The letter from his lawyers to the BBC, forwarded to openDemocracy, says “Southern Rock Insurance Company Limited recorded a profit of £42 million in its latest set of filed accounts (2015).”

Banks frequently boasts about running an insurance business. The reality is that he is not permitted, at the moment, to run his own insurance company.

In fact, the accounts show an underlying loss of £27.9 million on its underwriting and insurance activities in 2015 – and while the company did report a profit of £41.5 million overall, this came only after selling the rights to the "ancillary income" on its motor insurance policies for £17.5 million, and the rights to the "finance arrangement fees” for £60.2 million to another company owned by Banks, Isle of Man-based ICS Risk Solutions. Ancillary income is an umbrella term for any money an insurance company makes on top of ordinary under-writing risks, for example from instalments or administration charges. 

Given Southern Rock had only written 197,000 motor insurance policies at this time, paying nearly £78m for these rights seemed a high valuation. These assets had also not been recorded in the Southern Rock balance sheet prior to their sale, and resulted in the company booking a large capital gain. Crucially, it was the value of these sales that enabled Southern Rock to meet its obligation under the solvency regulations, and post a profit in its accounts for this year.

Whether Southern Rock will be able to do the same next year, which will likely be required under the terms of capital restructuring deal mandated by the regulators, is unclear. Banks strongly contests the assertion that Southern Rock is in difficulty, pointing out that the Gibraltar regulator, Southern Rock’s independent auditors and the London-based Financial Conduct Authority have approved the arrangements, and that all the payments to date from ICS Risk Solution, which Southern Rock relies on to remain solvent, have been made on time and in full. The letter from his lawyers states: “The future solvency of [Southern Rock] is not dependent on any particular future transaction.”

As for the regulators’ demand that Banks “voluntarily” recuse himself, he has abided by the ruling, but appointed his Hong Kong-based brother in his stead. His name and signature still appeared on a 2014 annual report filed at Companies House, where he was named as a “director.” “This mistake arose from an administrative error,” he told us in a written statement, “which was corrected as soon as it was detected. Once the error was noted, the accounts were withdrawn and resubmitted to Companies House.” He continues to control Southern Rock and Eldon Insurance, owner of the GoSkippy brand, through his holding company ICS Risk Solutions. 

Banks frequently boasts about running an insurance business. The reality is that he is not permitted, at the moment, to run his own insurance company. A letter from the Financial Conduct Authority concerning the investigation into his insurance activities, dated 17th July 2017, states that “Mr Banks does not have FCA approval to carry out an operational executive role at Eldon Insurance Services Ltd,” his new firm.

Banks’s Isle of Man-based ICS Risk Solutions is a curious organisation too. In theory, this is the ultimate holding company for Banks’s insurance empire. Yet according to a source with good knowledge of its finances, ICS Risk Solutions has just £1 million in assets, and still owes £60.2 million in monthly instalments, to Southern Rock. These payments are expected to continue until December 2020. A letter from Banks’ lawyers confirming this also said “there is no reason to doubt that the remaining outstanding amounts will be paid in full and on time,” and that Southern Rock is required to report monthly to the Gibraltar authorities, “to confirm the payment of each monthly instalment,” and so “any failure to pay would be immediately apparent.”

Banks’ present financial status is then somewhat unclear, and sometimes dependent on buying assets from one company, in order to shore up another company he himself holds a stake in. But it does seem clear that his claimed worth of £100 million is hard to justify. In the letter sent to openDemocracy, Banks claimed his worth could be even higher than £100 million, saying that he would “broadly agree” with an analysis made by the Sunday Times Rich Times list that his net worth could instead be some £250 million. When asked to explain how he accounts for all this extra wealth, Banks declined to comment.

A Lazarus-like recovery

Banks’s finances seem to have had a remarkable recovery in early 2014. But based on a full review of all the publicly available information about his companies, it is unclear where this money could have come from. 

He first had to settle a tax bill with HMRC for £1.86 million, a cheque which he subsequently sent to the Guardian newspaper to prove he was paying his taxes.

In April 2014, the MailOnline reported how Banks had raised eyebrows when he bought £2 million of shares in an AIM-listed chemicals company called Iofina – a sector he had shown no prior interest in. The company produces iodine in an industrial process which takes place alongside fracking. It had never turned a profit and swallowed up large amounts of capital as chemical prices shrank due to reduced demand. Banks’s investment is nursing a huge loss.

In June 2014, he set up Chartwell Political, a PR company which would go on to work on the Leave campaign with Jim Pryor, a former Tory party spokesman who had also worked on FW deClerk’s campaign against Nelson Mandela in South Africa and former Sunday Mirror editor Bridget Rowe, a close friend of Nigel Farage. The company would rack up losses of over £300,000 by June 2015.

Banks would go on to spend a total of £9.6 million of his personal fortune funding the organisations which arguably clinched Brexit. This accounted then for half of his lifetime earnings.

The next month, in July 2014, Banks bought more shares in STM Group plc, which offers "wealth preservation solutions," and specialises in setting up offshore trusts and companies. He bought over £600,000 worth of shares – on top of an existing shareholding. This brought his total share value up to £1.5 million. 

By September 2014, Banks had also bought a loss-making, family-run jewellery shop in Bristol, for an undisclosed sum, and lent the firm some £200,000, and by February 2015 he was the owner of four diamond mines in South Africa.

The diamond market had fallen sharply since the financial crash and big players, such as de Beers, began to withdraw from older mines picked clean and requiring huge investment to return to profitable production. Many of these mines had changed hands several times in the years since. One of the mines Banks picked up had collapsed in value from a reported £12 million valuation in 2005, to as little as £200,000 by the time Banks bought.

One of the four mines also remains closed, according to Banks’s website, another contains just “tailings,” meaning there little more than piles of waste to scrabble through. What exactly motivated Banks to buy these mines remains unclear.

Crucially, October 2014 also marked the time Banks began his extraordinarily lavish political spending campaign, with his first £1 million pledge to the United Kingdom Independence Party. Interestingly, Banks never came fully good on this promise – dripping in just over £400,000 in cash instalments over the next six months. Nevertheless, Banks’s 2014 spending alone, or what can be seen of it from publicly available records, came to an estimated £5 million. This was a very large sum given the pressure he was under from the Gibraltar regulators. We also estimate it to be just under a quarter of his total gross earnings of £22m – from his various businesses – since 2001. 

Nor did his political spending slow down. Banks would go on to spend a total of £9.6 million of his personal fortune funding the organisations which arguably clinched Brexit: Leave.EU, UKIP and Better for the Country Ltd (set up by STM Fidecs). This accounted then for half of his lifetime earnings – an amazingly generous amount. 

One of his most lavish donations was some £2 million to Grassroots Out via Better for the Country Ltd, which was categorised to the Electoral Commission as “non-cash” – a designation usually reserved for the provision of office space or in-kind services to political parties. In reality, even this “non-cash” donation cost Banks significant amounts of hard cash. In a letter to openDemocracy, Banks’ lawyers say Better for the Country bought “merchandise, leaflets, billboards, pens, badges and other paraphernalia,” before donating all of this to Grassroots Out. 

In early 2016, he used Better for the Country to make cash donations to Trade Unionists Against the European Union, and another pro-Brexit group called Veterans for Britain. Banks also provided £100,000 to Martin Durkin, a climate change sceptic and producer of “Brexit: The Movie,” a controversial online documentary produced to support the campaign. The sum was equivalent to a third of the documentary’s reported budget.

These donations were all the more remarkable because his new insurance company, founded after Banks left Brightside, was now also requiring large amounts of investment, according to industry experts. Eldon Insurance achieved a profit of just £281,000 on a turnover of £33.6 million in 2015. 

Earlier this year, Banks attempted a £200m fundraising effort for Eldon, according to the Times, but was unable to raise the finance from City investors and abandoned the listing. Profits fell further in 2016, to just £165,000. Earlier this month, Banks announced he was attempting a second public listing, and aiming for a valuation of some £250m. He claims to be forecasting a dramatic increase in profits – anywhere between £25m and £28m for the year. To support this claim he provided the Mail on Sunday with unpublished figures showing the profits for the first six months of the year. We asked for a copy of these, but his spokesperson did not respond.

To drum up business, Banks’ insurance brand GoSkippy now advertises heavily on Leave.EU's websites, social media and email marketing. However there are numerous reports of poor customer service, onerous terms obfuscated in confusing small-print and administrative failings by the company, some of which have left motorists unaware that they were no longer insured. In response, Banks commented that “Eldon works very hard on complaints and actively reviews its processes off the back of both internal and external audits of both customer service quality and compliance with regularity requirements,” saying their main brand GoSkippy had complaint levels below 3 per 1000 customers, and that a maximum of 4 per 1000 was the industry guideline.

Southern Rock, despite its difficulties both before and after the regulators’ intervention, has until very recently been the principal under-writer of both Banks’ Go Skippy brand and the Debenhams Insurance brand. The letter from Banks’ lawyers points out that the recapitalisation plan designed to allow Southern Rock to meet its solvency obligations were approved by the regulator and the company’s independent auditors and that they have a perfect record of delivering their monthly payments to date on time and in full. 

It is clear, however, that the company only posted a profit last year by relying on the £60 million generated from selling rights to other companies controlled by Banks. To continue to trade on a solvent basis in the years to come, Southern Rock will need to have a profitable underlying business, or have additional cash injections.

And Banks’ own Eldon Insurance, which owns GoSkippy, now plans to move its business from Southern Rock – instead setting up a “managing general agent” called Somerset Bridge, which will be arranging under-writing services from a different Gibraltarian under-writer, backed by a Bermuda-based reinsurer.

The fabric of our democracy 

Interestingly, our review of Banks' business empire also shows a huge cross-over between the key figures in Leave.EU and Banks’ businesses. Leave.EU’s Chief Executive Officer Liz Bilney serves on the board of numerous Banks’ companies.

Leave.EU’s director of communications, the Belizean diplomat and close associate of Lord Ashcroft, Andy Wigmore, was appointed to the board of Southern Rock in 2014 and joined Eldon Insurance in December 2015, despite having no background within the industry. 

Crucial to maintaining the fabric of democracy in Britain is understanding where large donors have made their money, and just as importantly, how.

Banks holds a substantial share in Manx Financial, an Isle of Man banking group controlled by Leave.EU’s early backer and co-founder Jim Mellon. The meagre profits of Manx Financial have not yet provided dividends to its investors – including Banks. 

Crucial to maintaining the fabric of democracy in Britain is understanding where large donors have made their money, and just as importantly, how.

Our review of the publicly available records for Banks’ business empire, and his own public statements, has revealed a patchwork of legal disputes, regulator interventions, and poor corporate governance. Two of Banks’ claimed previous employers have denied he ever worked for them. The value of his businesses are materially lower than Banks’ own inflated boasts and, while still a wealthy man, was he wealthy enough to give so much to the Brexit campaign, without some other undisclosed source of income?

How Banks could afford to give so lavishly remains a mystery. There is no doubt that Banks did more than most to make Brexit happen – the question is, how could he afford it?

This is day four of openDemoracy's #BrexitDarkMoney series. See our reasons for publishing the series, coverage from day one and day two, and day four.

Sideboxes Related stories:  Mystery deepens over secret source of Brexit 'dark money' Who bankrolled Brexit? UK government set to ignore Northern Ireland parties’ transparency calls ‘Substantial’ fine linked to DUP’s secret Brexit donors Revealed: The Tory MPs using taxpayers’ cash to fund a secretive hard-Brexit group Key poll which boosted Leadsom’s leadership bid funded by DUP’s dark-money donors Release details of DUP Brexit ‘dark money’, MPs tells Northern Ireland Secretary We've forced a change in the law on 'dark money'. But we still need to do more The new Brexit minister, the arms industry, the American hard right… and Equatorial Guinea Revealed: how loopholes allowed pro-Brexit campaign to spend ‘as much as necessary to win’ MPs demand full investigation of hard-Brexit backing Tory "party within a party" Rights:  CC by NC 4.0

If the hard Brexiteers have nothing to hide, they've nothing to fear

Wed, 2017-10-18 12:58

Molly Scott Cato MEP explains why she has teamed up with the Good Law Project to force the government to lift the veil of secrecy on its Brexit impact reports - through action in the high court, if neccessary.

Molly Scott Cato, Green MEP for South West England

We have heard more talk about democracy in the past year than in my whole lifetime and frankly most of it is nonsense on stilts. Democracy is about making choices between real possible futures. The referendum wasn't that. Instead it was an invitation to bundle up all your frustrations and disappointments and hurl them at ‘Brussels’.

Many of us were deeply disappointed by the EU referendum campaign. The Remain side grossly exaggerated the immediate economic hit from a Leave vote - rather than the process of leaving the EU - making it easy for Brexiteers to parody their case as Project Fear. On the Leave side there were innuendoes, false facts, and unachievable promises.

Democratic decision-making is a process, not a snapshot of opinion in time. As negotiations begin, the lies unravel, and the economic impact becomes clear, we must keep the debate going. Brexit hasn't yet happened. We can still stop it if that is what the majority want. To change their view – or not – people need to have the best possible information about what the potential impacts of Brexit will be.

This is where the secret Brexit studies come in. Back in April there were several leaks that made it clear DExEU had detailed information about the consequences of Brexit that they were not making public.

I wrote to David Davis asking him to let me have this vital information so I could reassure my constituents and effectively continue to do my job as an MEP. A response from DExEU confirmed that analysis had been carried out in 50 sectors of the economy but no reason was offered as to why these studies were not being made available. Just reassurances that ministers had “travelled up and down the country to listen to the hopes and concerns of businesses, civil society and the general public”.

I pushed again. I received a response from Steve Baker MP, Undersecretary of State for exiting the EU. This time there were clues as to which sectors the government has analysed. These include financial services, agriculture, energy, retail, infrastructure and transport. But Baker said it would be “inappropriate to publish analysis that would risk damaging the UK’s negotiating position”.

So I made a Freedom of Information request for details of a leaked study undertaken by the Department of Health into the impacts of Brexit on the NHS. This suggested that the UK could be short of 40,000 nurses by 2026. This request was refused on the grounds that the information “might prejudice international relationships, the UK economy and the policy development process.”

All my attempts, and the attempts of many others, to get this information into the public domain has met with the stock response: that to do so would damage our negotiating position in Brussels. This can only suggest that the impacts revealed are as bad as many of us have feared. But if it is encouraging news, then our businesses need the chance to prepare to make the best of the amazing Brexit opportunities.

So I have now teamed up with The Good Law Project to demand the government release the studies within 14 days or face judicial review proceedings before the High Court. We believe there is a clear legal and principled case to say that these studies should not be hidden from public view.

I was proud to announce our policy of holding a ratification referendum during the general election campaign. And that remaining in the EU should be an option in this referendum. There is nothing undemocratic about this. We are asking for more democracy, not less. We are asking for a democratic choice between two real, possible futures at the end of the negotiations: the deal – or remaining a member of the EU. It is the Brextremists, fighting tooth and nail against the ratification referendum, who are the anti-democrats. They are terrified that the British people will next time round be armed with the full facts and have a much clearer idea of two alternative futures.

Does Boris Johnson believe in democracy? The man who touted for votes on the basis of the biggest lie in the history of British politics?

Does Iain Duncan Smith believe in democracy? The man who has since claimed that, for the Leave side, “our promises were a range of possibilities”?

Does Steve Baker believe in democracy? The man who received funding from the secretive Constitutional Research Council that gave the DUP more than £425,000 for its Brexit campaign? Baker is now minister in the Brexit department - the very same man who is now refusing to release the secret Brexit studies that reveal the potential impacts of Brexit.

And what of Dan Hannan? Does he believe in democracy? The man who famously said ahead of the referendum that “absolutely nobody is talking about threatening our place in the single market”. This is the same Hannan who was the founder of the European Research Group (ERG), a group of Tory hardliners advocating a hard Brexit including full withdrawal from - you guessed it - the Single Market.

The hard Brexit being driven by extremist Tories is nothing less than a soft coup. The stories published by OpenDemocracy are beginning to reveal the murky alliance between Putin, the DUP, Bannon and others who created the deceitful propaganda that persuaded a traditionally prudent country to vote for its own demise. Behind the myth of taking back control was the reality of a power shift away from Parliament and to Ministers. To restore democracy we must have the information those ministers have about what Brexit really means for our economy, our health service and all our lives.

Sideboxes Related stories:  Mystery deepens over secret source of Brexit 'dark money' Rights:  CC by NC 4.0

Victim of Chechnya's anti-LGBT purge seeks justice

Wed, 2017-10-18 09:16

But will the Russian authorities deliver on their pledges to Investigate?

Maxim Lapunov, centre, at a news conference in the office of Novaya Gazeta newspaper, Moscow. Image: Human Rights Watch. Yesterday, I ran a news-conference at which a man described how he was rounded up and tortured during Chechnya’s anti-gay purge in the spring. One of dozens of victims of this large-scale “cleansing” operation against gay people in Chechnya, Maxim Lapunov, 30, is the only one who has dared to file an official complaint with the Russian authorities and then talk to the media, without hiding his face or real name. He is also the only non-Chechen local security officials had targeted because of his homosexuality.

As Lapunov spoke to a roomful of journalists, reliving the horrific experience of beatings and humiliation during his 12-day confinement in a dark, fetid basement, his hands shook and he had to stop several times to regain composure. On 16 March, security officials dragged him into a car in central Grozny, where he had been selling bright, festive balloons, took him to a police compound, pulled out several grisly torture devices, threatened to use them on him and to “tear him apart”.

The officials forced Lapunnov to call a gay acquaintance and invite him to a “meeting” — in fact a set-up with security officials waiting. Lapunov slept on the blood-stained floor of a tiny basement cell. He was beaten, and witnessed and heard as security officials beat and tortured other men presumed to be gay with electric shocks. Close to 30 others assumed to be gay were held at the facility during his time there — along with other detainees who weren’t part of the anti-gay round-ups.

Lapunov needs justice. The Russian authorities have no excuse not to deliver it to him and to the rest of the victims of Chechnya’s anti-gay purge

Lapunov did not expect to survive. His legs, buttocks, ribs and back were all black and blue. When his torturers finally released him, he “could barely crawl”. Six months later, he still wakes up in a cold sweat from the piercing screams of other detainees in his nightmares.

Facing a broad international outcry over the purge, the Kremlin gradually moved from shrugging off the allegations to pledging to conduct an effective investigation and opening a federal-level inquest. However, high-level officials repeatedly flagged that not a single victim had stepped forward. They did not acknowledge the depth and legitimacy of victims’ fears about coming forward but rather used this to justify the investigation’s apparent lack of progress.

Like the rest of the victims, Lapunov had every reason to fear retaliation by Chechen authorities, especially as the security officials who released him warned him to keep silent. But, as a Russian man from Siberia who had gone to Chechnya for work, Lapunov did not have to face what every Chechen man caught in the purge feared: being targeted by his own relatives for “tarnishing family honour” or exposing his entire family to overwhelming stigma because of his homosexuality. It took Lapunov months to reach a decision, but ultimately he felt that no matter the risk of retaliation, he could not live without justice.

In August, with the help of Russian human rights lawyers, Lapunov met with the federal ombudsperson, Tatiana Moskalkova, who in May had stressed her readiness to speak to “anyone who wants protection and official investigation.” On 22 September, Moskalkova forwarded his statement to federal investigative authorities. Lapunov and his lawyers had several meetings with investigators and asked to travel to Chechnya with the investigative team to examine sites and interview alleged suspects and witnesses. Lapunov kept it quiet from the media, giving the investigation ample time to take some meaningful steps. But after almost a month, nothing happened. He requested government protection, but the investigation has made no arrangements to accommodate his request. Lapunov and his lawyers believe that media exposure is their only hope to get the system to budge.

Since Lapunov started his quest for justice, he has received threats from Chechnya. Nevertheless, he perseveres. “We all have rights…,” he said, “If we just let it be [in Chechnya], it’ll start happening across the country… and we’ll never know whose son or daughter will be taken next.”

Lapunov needs justice. The Russian authorities have no excuse not to deliver it to him and to the rest of the victims of Chechnya’s anti-gay purge.


Sideboxes Related stories:  “Brothers, be careful. Don’t meet up in Grozny” Charting Russia’s most dangerous cities for LGBT people Anti-LGBT violence in Chechnya: when filing “official complaints” isn’t an option "You have to start improving yourself to improve Russia" Putting Russia’s homophobic violence on the map Rights:  CC by NC 4.0

Recently on OpenGlobalRights: authors debate human rights' relationship as democracy declines

Wed, 2017-10-18 09:00

Catch up on OpenGlobalRights, where recent articles discuss effective coalition building, using court judgements to uphold human rights, elections at the UN Human Rights Council, and the decline of human rights institutions in the face of populist democracies. 

For the past few weeks in our Perspectives section, authors from across the world have debated issues from court judgements pushing back against political leaders to the rising tensions between democracy and human rights institutions. 

In September, Andrew Hudson discussed strategies for creating effective coalitions in turbulent political climates, while James A. Goldston analyzed how courts across the world are standing up to political leaders to uphold human rights. K. Chad Clay discussed new efforts to measure civil and political rights, and Joel R. Pruce encouraged the human rights community to rethink its habits. Finally, Peter Splinter made a call for new leadership in the UN Human Rights Council.

So far in October, Lisa Sundstrom has asked whether democracy and human rights institutions are becoming irreconcilable, and in this debate Alison Brysk examines citizen solidarity and the decline in democracy. Stephen Hopgood discusses recent events in Myanmar and asks whether human rights are losing ground to populist leaders, and Peter Splinter reveals that upcoming “elections” in the UN Human Rights Council make a mockery of the institution.

Flickr/Fibonacci Blue/CC BY 2.0(Some Rights Reserved). The recent violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and Trump’s reticence to criticize those groups given his electoral base, is one example of the perverse impact that populist forces can have on politicians’ commitment to human rights.


We are continuously publishing new content and creating different themes for debate and dialogue, so stay informed by subscribing here for weekly updates. Interested in writing for us? Click here for submission guidelines.

Sideboxes Related stories:  Recently on OpenGlobalRights: authors debate rising threats and challenges in human rights Rights:  CC by NC 4.0

Chile elections: why progressives will not win

Wed, 2017-10-18 07:38

Chilean progressives have achieved great cultural victories but are politically fragmented. Their crisis is deeper than it seems. And solutions are not just around the corner. Español

Photo courtesy of Nueva Sociedad. All rights reserved. This article is being published as part of the partnership between Nueva Sociedad and democraciaAbierta. You can read the original article here.

The apparent fragmentation of Chilean progressives before the elections of November 19 is truly paradoxical. This is happening after a four-year government led by Michelle Bachelet, who was elected President for the second time in 2013 with the most progressive programme ever written or imagined by a center-left coalition since the return to democracy in 1990.

That second victory of hers came after the four parties that make up the Coalition of Parties for Democracy (the Party for Democracy, the Socialist Party, the Christian Democratic Party and the Democratic Socialist Radical Party) included in their coalition the Communist Party. The New Majority was thus established. After the victory at the polls, it was expected that the new government would significantly advance a progressive agenda. The coalition won 20 out of 28 senators (53%) and 67 out of 120 representatives (56%). If we add the leftwing independents, the totals were 55% and 58% respectively. As for the Presidency, Michelle Bachelet got 46.7% of the votes in the first round, and an overwhelming 62% in the second round. 

But soon enough, a split surfaced within the ruling coalition. Some sectors at the conservative end began demanding more market-friendly economic policies, a more gradual approach in general and a more aggressive agenda on growth. Others, at the other end, demanded a speeding-up of the transformative impulses. These divisions caused abrupt Cabinet reshuffles, the postponement of some projects, and tensions between the coalition parties. The institutional changes included in the government’s agenda were, among others, changing the electoral system to a more proportional one, reforming primary and secondary education, establishing free university education for the poorest sectors of society, decriminalizing three cases of abortion, establishing affirmative action for women in electoral competition, and starting a process to establish a new Constitution. 

The political fragmentation of the center-left has been all too evident

But the political fragmentation of the center-left has been all too evident. In fact, this will be the very first time since the return to democracy that the coalition’s Left and the Christian Democratic Party (PDC) will present different presidential candidatse. Independent Senator Alejandro Guillier will run for the Party for Democracy (PPD), the Socialist Party (PS), the Socialist Radical Party (PRSD) and the Communist Party (PC) and Senator Carolina Goic will run for the PDC. The coalition has also failed to set up a coordinated electoral list for the parliamentary elections, which has meant that the PDC will be competing in alliance with Citizen Alliance and the Broad Social Movement, two minor parties within the coalition. In addition, there are four other presidential candidates from the Left: Beatriz Sánchez for the Broad Front, Marco Enríquez Ominami for the Progressive Party, Alejandro Navarro for the Party País, and Eduardo Artés for the Patriotic Union.

The latest polls give a clear advantage in the first round for former President Sebastián Piñera (40-45%, depending on the poll), followed by Alejandro Guillier (16-22%), Beatriz Sánchez (12-19%) and Carolina Goic (3-5%). A closer result is to be expected at the second round, particularly if the contestants are Piñera and Guillier, and a victory for the former.

Ironically, the voters’ preferences for the centre-left are identical to those for the Right, but we know that those preferences just cannot be added. Given the cohesion of the Right around the figure of former President Piñera and the fragmentation of the centre-left into six candidacies, the most likely outcome is that President Bachelet will end up her term, for the second time, handing over the presidential sash to a leader from the Right. 

But how are we to explain why a cultural triumph that has moved the country’s agenda on issues of equality, rights and redistribution does not translate into a unitary progressive political project?

But how are we to explain why a cultural triumph that has moved the country’s agenda on issues of equality, rights and redistribution does not translate into a unitary progressive political project?

The answer has to do with three aspects. First, the inability of the parties to renew their practices, institutions and discourses. The social and institutional transformations have not had, as a counterpart, a change in the practices and the leadership of the traditional political parties – even less so in the parties of the Left. And the allegations of corruption involving all of the parties - except the PC and the emerging Broad Front – have increased the gap between citizenship and a political class that is perceived to be abusing their privileges. The expression "old politics" refers precisely to this issue: political actors who maintain practices which favour agreements at the top and preserve their share of power. Traditional parties keep on relying rely on their traditional leadership and do not generate a new political breed which could bring in a different view of politics. 

In Chile, progressivism has not produced an emerging alternative force as in other countries. At the 2009 elections, a presidential candidate, Marco Enríquez-Ominami - a former Socialist who managed to position himself in third place – created some hope but subsequently became mired in allegations of illegal financing. This time, what is new is the Broad Front which groups more than a dozen movements and emerging parties opposing neoliberalism. However, this grouping lacks a powerful nationwide territorial basis, and so it their electoral impact is likely to be limited, although it will probably win more than the three representatives it currently has. 

The third aspect has to do with programme. Today, Chilean progressivism is composed of three seemingly irreconcilable elements: a "humanistic-Christian" one, which is heir to the 1960s reformism, a "traditional social democratic" one, heir to the 1980s Socialist renewal, and an "anti-neoliberal" one, that questions the foundations of the development model and its institutional foundations. The great contradiction of the present time is the ability of progressivism to promote a transformative agenda and its inability to turn this into a coordinated political option capable of leading the voters’ preferences. 

The fragmentation produced among those same transformative forces is its great defeat

Since no party on the Left has been able to become a majority option, the only choice to promote political change is by forming government coalitions. This raises an essential question: is it feasible today to set up a cooperative framework of the different progressive worlds? The current political fragmentation and the different actors’ programmatic ambiguities make this scenario unlikely. Several critical leaders – from the Broad Front, for example– are unwilling to participate in a coalition with the more moderate sectors of the Left and political centre. At the same time, several PDC leaders argue that they would not form again an alliance with the PC. The trends currently predominating are for each party to seek its "own way", increase its vote flow and access power in the future.

To this should be added a framework of decreasing voter turnout due to the introduction of the voluntary vote. With less than 50% turnout rates, the parties have defined very limited electoral niches, where the lower socio-economic sectors no longer participate. Representative institutions are losing their value and streets– the stage for protests– are becoming the most effective mechanism to obtain social benefits. This political logic deepens inequalities to the extent that the groups which are capable of organizing can influence the political process more effectively than others. The poor, the indigenous peoples, the immigrants, the children and the old become sectors excluded from society and lacking political representation. 

The scenario is not promising for progressivism, for division takes precedence over agreement, and fragmentation over the building of social majorities, and dogmatism over strategic-electoral considerations for accessing power. The need to transform the foundations on which the neoliberal model was founded in Chile is the great cultural success of progressivism. The fragmentation produced among those same transformative forces is its great defeat.

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