Saturday, February 27, 2010

Independent but accountable

Justice Muruianu failed to take the advice I gave him on February 13th.  Rather than resign over his statement that the press is a bunch of rabid dogs who are dangerous to society, he has instead decided to tough it out.  The most we got out of him was a half-hearted "I regret that some people have erroneously interpreted what I said...".

While the Superior Council of Magistrates has opened a disciplinary hearing, the independent press, NGOs and politically aware members of the general public are pressing for a more rapid resolution.  Thy are mindful not just of the rabid dogs comment but also of Mr Muruianu's abysmal record as Moldova's most senior judge (among other things, he is personally responsible for 8 cases lost at the European Court of Human Rights), and the need to purge a judicial system deeply infiltrated by the Communist Party.

Last night the ruling AIE coalition attempted to remove Mr Muruianu through a parliamentary resolution of dismissal.  Due to excessive debating and speechifying, the meeting went on late into the night and eventually was terminated without the resolution being passed.  There was no quorum as the Communists walked out on and a handful of AIE deputies had disappeared off home early.

The testimony of the AIE speakers was damning, but Muruianu himself put up a strong defence.  "You can't touch me", he said; "Constitutionally the judiciary is independent of parliament and self-governing, so you (Parliament) are not allowed to dismiss me.  You're not even allowed to ask me questions."

In a sense he's right.  A democratic, fair & law-abiding judiciary should be independent and self-governing.  Parliament should not intervene so long as the profession itself maintains high standards, is accountable to the people and metes out discipline fairly to judges who fall short of those standards.

A problem, however, arises when the judiciary is not democratic, fair and law abiding.  A problem arises when the profession fails to govern its standards and discipline and loses sight of its responsibility to the people.  That is what has happened in Moldova over the last eight years, and it is a gross breach of the trust placed in the judiciary by the people through the constitution.

In such circumstances I believe it is entirely appropriate that the people, via their elected representatives, hold the judiciary to account and remove those who are not willing to abide by the democratic norms enshrined in the constitution.  Hopefully Dumitru Pulbere shares my point of view...

Thursday, February 25, 2010

MS and NM

The tale of newspapers Moldova Suverana (MS - Sovereign Moldova) and Nezavisimaya Moldova (NM - Independent Moldova) has been making headlines recently.  The facts of the case are these:
  1. Up until a few years ago MS and NM were government-owned newspapers.
  2. During the 1990s they had operated a reasonably independent editorial policy
  3. Under the communists they increasingly came under the control of the ruling party
  4. One of the conditions of PPCD support for Voronin's election as president in 2005 was that the two papers be privatised
  5. The papers were privatised, but using a highly peculiar mechanism.  The existing state companies were placed into liquidation.  Their assets (which were the property of the Moldovan people) were passed (free of charge) into the control of new companies owned by private interests associated with the communist party
  6. The new private companies took over the publication of the papers and pursued an even more pro-communist editorial line than they did as part of the state sector.
Yesterday Vlad Filat's government decided to reverse the liquidation of the state companies, retrieve the assets from the private companies and resume publication of the papers under state tutelage.

There were predictable howls of outrage from the left wing and the pro-communist press.  Omega, shocked as usual, announced that Filat was closing down the opposition press and shutting up inconvenient voices.  Even Marian Lupu joined in with a little tweet to the effect that "The process of nationalisation of MS and NM contravenes the democratic principle of freedom of expression".

As usual, the Moldovan left is using a half truth to confuse and idiotise its electorate.  The principle at stake here is not "freedom of the media", although it may appear that way to an untrained eye.  The real principle being fought over is actually the rule of law.  The assets of MS and NM were stolen from the Moldovan people by the Communist Party and then used to misinform voters.  The decision taken yesterday by the Filat government merely restores these assets to their rightful owner.

Having said that, a democratic government has no business owning media assets.  The 'fourth estate' must be independent if it is to perform its proper democratic function.  Accordingly, over the next few months, the government should sell the two newspapers in a transparent and fair auction process which seeks to maximise the financial benefit to the taxpayer.

If by the end of summer the two newspapers are still in government hands, then Omega and Lupu will have every right to complain about limits on press freedom.  The shots they have fired today, however, are cheap, unfounded and populist.

Lupu and his coupons

Have you ever had to stand in line at a supermarket while some one in front of you pulls out wads of coloured paper and meticulously counts them out to the shop assistant?  Have you ever waited while the shop assistant signs and stamps each sheet if paper and enters the serial numbers into his / her register?

This is where Marian Lupu and the Democrat Party want to take the Republic of Moldova.  A few weeks ago they came out in defence of petrol coupons, offering as an argument that there would be less competition in the market if petrol was purchased with cash.  Unfortunately that's an argument which I am too stupid to understand; everybody has cash while only a few have coupons...

Today Lupu wants to institute a system of meal tickets, ostensibly as a form of social protection for the poor.  The only advantage I can see here is political - the coupons would be a visible symbol that voters would connect with the Democratic Party.

The case against coupons is strong

  • They are of simpler design than cash and hence easier to counterfeit
  • They are difficult to control and can be used to evade tax as they are outside the monetary system
  • An expensive bureaucracy needs to be created to print, distribute and clear the coupons.  This makes them less cost-efficient than cash for delivery of social services
  • They have a limited purpose, i.e. they are designed to patronise the poor by telling them what they can and cannot buy with their money.
  • They slow down economic activity (e.g. the queueing issue I mentioned above)
I applaud Mr Lupu for floating new ideas to improve the lot of the poor.  This one, however, needs to be buried quickly.

Two of a kind

1920s Chicago was dominated by two organised crime gangs, one of which was the 'Southside Outfit' run by Al Capone.  Capone's gang focused on the distribution of liquor (illegal at the time) but also had a number of other shady operations.  Capone ordered many killings during his time in the Outfit, including the seven members of the opposing Northside gang who died in the Valentine's day massacre.

Curiously, Capone was never convicted for any of the killings.  Potential witnesses had a tendency to clam up or disappear entirely.  In the end it was the 'untouchable' Eliot Ness who managed to get Capone locked up using a  tax evasion charge, and the gangster ended his days at the infamous Alcatraz prison in San Francisco Bay.

Chisinau 2001-2008 was not unlike Capone's Chicago, minus a few of the murders.  The President's son, Oleg Voronin, appears to have been able to operate with impunity, gathering to himself immense wealth (estimated at up to EUR 2bn) while officially earning only several hundred thousand Euro per annum.  Stories abound of 'spontaneous' privatisations and of successful business owners being intimidated into handing over their assets at a fraction of their real value.  There are rumours of a Maybach and other expensive cars, as well as a castle in the English countryside (a necessary accessory for every aspiring Russian oligarch).

As in Capone's case, not a single charge has been laid against 'Oleshka' for fraud, theft, racketeering etc.  Not a single investigation has been undertaken by the Prosecutor General.

Until now.  Under pressure from the newspaper 'Timpul' the authorities have finally begun a criminal investigation into Oleg Voronin's affairs.  Timpul raised the issue by pointing out that the income declared by Voronin jr. on his tax declarations was far below the astronomical amounts that were hitting his credit card on overseas shopping trips.  And so, reluctantly, the prosecutor has begun an investigation into potential tax evasion and money laundering, although they have avoided naming Mr Voronin as a suspect.

Let's hope that the people in the Prosecutor's office are just as 'untouchable' as Eliot Ness.  Mr Voronin should note, however, that no views of the Golden Gate bridge are on offer from Penitenciary nr.13.

May the best man come third

In Romania's presidential election it was Crin Antonescu, leader of the National Liberal Party and the only leading candidate with a clear and sustainable vision for Romania.  He came third in the first round and didn't participate in the second round battle between the flawed Traian Basescu and the uninspiring Mircea Geoana.

Now Romania's PSD has dumped Geoana and elected as its president the youthful Victor Ponta, protege of the godfather-like Adrian Nastase.  In this election too, the best candidate, Cristian Diaconescu, came third.

Diaconescu, a moderate and urbane intellectual, served his country well as foreign minister in the previous PSD-PDL government.  I was particularly impressed by his firm, but reasoned handling of Romania's reaction to the events of April 5th and 7th in Moldova, and particularly his willingness to seek advice from former Romanian foreign ministers regardless of political affiliation.

Diaconescu claims that he is being monitored by private investigators, and yesterday declared that he was leaving the Party as a result.  It's the right move; the PSD smells to high heaven of corruption and Diaconescu should seek to distance himself from them.  I wouldn't be surprised if Geoana follows him into 'independence' and the unofficial embrace of the PNL.

Guardian of what?

A truly awful article has appeared in this morning's Guardian.  There's some interesting information, such as the burning down of Abkhazia's national heritage (is that true?), however the article appears to have been written in Moscow rather than London. My rebuttal is below.

Unfortunately I will have to rebut this nonsense line by line:

1. "Abkhazians and South Ossetians have not the slightest wish to be "reintegrated" into a unitary Georgian state" First of all, how do you know this? If based on opinion polls, were these conducted in a democratic environment where people are able to access all relevant points of view? Have you taken into account the views of the tens of thousands of Ossetians who have chosen to live in Tbilisi? And what of the views of the ethnic Georgians who formerly lived in the two enclaves but have been ethnically cleansed?

2. "nobody in Abkhazia or South Ossetia is interested in joining in these discussions" This is not completely true; there are politicians from both communities interested in discussions. It is true that Kokoite and Bagapsh aren't interested, but with a carte blanche from Russia, why would they be?

3. "because of repeated Georgian attacks over many years...the Abkhazians and South Ossetians have no trust in Tbilisi" Actually this works both ways; ethnic Georgians have suffered equally at the hands of (unconstitutional) Abkhaz and Ossetian militias.

4. "all they have been offered by Tbilisi is essentially a return to the status quo ante bellum" Wrong. Georgia has offered profound autonomy under a neutral peacekeeping force to both regions. This offer was rejected in favour of continued Russian occupation.

5. " the August 2008 war – sparked by Saak'ashvili's assault on Tskhinvali". My other leg has bells on and wishes to be pulled. You don't think perhaps that the August 2008 war might have been caused by Vladimir Putin's intention to invade Georgia (evidenced by a massive military build-up in the North Caucasus, shelling of Georgian villages, killing of Georgian policemen, incursions into Georgian airspace, 20 years of failed Russian mediation and peace-keeping)?

6. "President Dmitry Medvedev then promptly corrected Russia's mistake in recognising Georgia's Soviet frontiers" A truly scary statement and one which invites all hell to break loose in the former Soviet states. Think Crimea, Chechnya, Ingushetia, Dagestan, Tatarstan, Transnistria, Gagauzia, former Chinese & Japanese territories...)

7. "There is a role, too, for Georgia's western friends. They need to persuade Tbilisi to face reality and recognise the lost territories. This would then allow the international community to follow suit. It would finally pave the way for meaningful talks on how to establish viable stability across Transcaucasia – something which must be in everyone's interest." The last thing that is anybody's interests is telling a newly aggressive Russia that it's military adventures will be rewarded. Perhaps Mr Hewitt will realise this when Russia invades Scotland to protect its people from 'genocide' at the hands of the English.

A final question. What benefit is Mr Hewitt gaining for writing such one-sided drivel, and who is giving him this benefit?

Friday, February 19, 2010

Thou shalt not covet

In Parliament this morning it was revealed that Victor Parlicov the head of Moldova's energy regulator, ANRE, takes home a monthly salary of 19,700 MDL per month.

This arrangement was criticised by the Communists (even though they put it in place; go figure...) but also by a number of contributors to forums on the free press.  In a country where most earn salaries of around 1,000 MDL, 19,700 seems preposterous and greedy.  It's only natural for those earning a lot less to be envious and covet Mr Parlicov's salary.

Now convert the figures to Euros.  At current exchange rates, 19,700 MDL is about EUR 1,135.  That's about what a middle manager  or a mid-range specialist earns in Bucharest.  Note that, in the United Kingdom, it would actually be illegal to pay anyone so little, as Mr Parlicov's salary is under the minimum wage.

This brings to light a critical issue which Moldova needs to face.  The country desperately needs skilled specialists and managers in many areas.  The Moldovan diaspora probably has the necessary skills and experience to fill the gaps, and in many cases would like to come home.  But they're not going anywhere if it means cutting their salaries to a fraction of what they are currently earning in Western Europe and North America.

The simple fact is that if you pay peanuts, you will get monkeys (or even worse, communists) running Moldova's businesses and government agencies.  In order to attract the right sort of talent, salaries will need to paid which are close to those available internationally.

In the short term this is going to seem very unfair.  Mr Parlicov gets paid around 20 times as much as junior staff in his organisation, and in truth he's not worth 20 times as much.

The problem, however, is not with Mr Parlicov's salary, but with the miniscule amounts being paid to junior staff and unskilled workers.  Those micro-salaries are a function of Moldova's chronic underdevelopment in the two decades since independence.

The focus has to be on lifting salaries by growing the real economy.  Moldova needs to resume its role as a major exporter of food products to Russia.  It needs to develop service industries (e.g. outsourcing, education) that bring in foreign exchange.  It needs to substitute imports (e.g. replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy).

So, if you are one of those wistfully looking at Mr Parlicov and wishing you were earning his salary, my counsel is to be part of the solution:

  1. Bite your tongue; many of those earning good wages have actually earned them though experience, training, hard work and initiative.
  2. Equip yourself for the modern economy.  Learn English, Spanish or Chinese.  Acquire skills that will equip you for sunrise industries such as IT, biotech, renewable energy.
  3. Work hard, work smart and prove your value to your employer.
  4. Put a good resume together.  Stick at your job for at least two years before moving on.  Select your next role so that it helps you achieve your long-term goals; don't fall prey to short-term expediency.
  5. At the right point in time, set up your own business using the capital and skills you have accumulated, as well as that clever idea that's in the back of your mind.
Do all this and you will wake up one day to find that you have become Mr Parlicov.  Better still, you'll find yourself working in a country where even juniors can earn a decent living.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Sounds of Silence

Renowned 'Unionist' Mihai Ghimpu stated yesterday in an interview with a Russian publication that "Moldova will never unite with Romania"

In response to this statement I was expecting songs of adulation from the Moldovenist left.  Where was Grigore Petrenco, who should have praised Ghimpu for being the greatest 'Statalist' of our time?  How come we didn't hear from Vladimir Turcan, who I thought would be commenting on 'Ghimpu's gift for bringing people together'?  Where was Marian Lupu and his comment on how wonderful it was that 'Ghimpu was ending Moldova's political war'?

Nothing.  Nada.  Zip.  Silence

The truth is, with this one statement, Ghimpu has almost completely disarmed his opponents.  Unionism was really the only tangible thing they could hold against him, and that just went up in a puff of smoke.

NB:  For those who are getting worried that Ghimpu has 'lost the plot', I believe his statement does not reflect any change in his own beliefs on the identity question.  It's really just a recognition that the internal situations of Moldova and Romania, as well as the geopolitical landscape, make reunification virtually impossible at the current time.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Three things I admire about...

Mihai Ghimpu
  • His honesty and directness ("I am a Romanian.  Not my decision; that's how my parents made me.")
  • His willingness to put the good of the country ahead of himself and his party
  • His humility and openness (long may it continue, hopefully power will not corrupt him)
Vlad Filat
  • His managerial ability and business-like approach
  • His temperance when faced with intemperate opposition
  • His desire to improve the lot of the Moldovan people
Serafim Urecheanu
  • His resilience in the face of communist persecution from 2001 to 2009
  • His pragmatism on relations with Russia (not that I necessarily agree with his views...)
  • His sensible leadership of Chisinau in the very difficult economy of the late 1990s
Marian Lupu
  • His decision to leave the communist party, which opened the door to democratic government
  • His eloquent Romanian (or should that be Moldovan, at least politically?)
  • His ability to toe a different line while (just) managing to keep the wheels on the AIE
Vladimir Voronin
  • That he never quite managed to make Russian a national language
  • That he failed to unite the country with Russia and Belarus
  • That he stopped short of signing the Kozak memorandum

Four eggs, whipped

Something's cooking.  I don't know who the chef is and I don't have the recipe.  I do, however, have the ingredients:

  1. The revelation by the Ukrainian media (The Weekly Mirror) that an old Soviet radio and television emitter located in Transnistria has been renovated and is being guarded by Russian special forces.  The base is capable of jamming signals for hundreds of kilometres around.
  2. The revelation by the same publication that Ukrainian special services had been successful in catching a group of Transnistria-based FSB spies in the act in the Odessa province.
  3. Transnistrian president Smirnov's offer to host Russian Iskander missiles on the territory of the enclave, as a response to Romania's hosting of a US missile defence system.
  4. Moldovan defense minister Vitalie Marinuta's statement that Moldova may no longer need to remain neutral once it is safely sheltered under Romania's missle shield.
What is certain is the following:
  1. Russia shouldn't have any spies, missiles, jamming stations, special forces or any other kind of military forces in Transnistria.  These are gross breaches of at least three international treaties, including the foundation documents of the CIS, the Russo-Moldovan cease-fire agreement of 1992 and the Istanbul 2000 protocol to the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty.
  2. Since 31 December 2002, the only forces that Russia has been legally allowed to maintain in Moldova are peacekeepers participating in the joint control commission.  Nothing else.
  3. Neutrality hasn't worked for Moldova.  A foreign army is stationed on its territory against the wishes of its government and people.
In terms of what might be going on, I can only speculate.  Perhaps Ukraine is preparing public opinion prior to taking a stronger stand on the Transnistrian issue?  Perhaps Moldova is preparing public opinion for an eventual adherence to NATO (a mammoth task given the decades of anti-NATO brainwashing that needs to be overcome)?  Smirnov is of course trying to prove that he's Moscow's best friend, possibly to strengthen his position against the Evgheny Shevciuk-led Transnistrian opposition.  Russia is as usual trying to be as much of a nuisance to the Ukraine and Moldova as it can be, but to what end?

If you are able to flavour or colour the indeterminate mixture above, please add your wisdom through the comments facility.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Resign, now

The President of the Supreme Court of Justice, Ion Muruianu, made the following statement at today's annual general meeting of judges:

"The mass media is a rabid dog and presents a danger to all of society"

I am the first to agree that the media is capable of distorting issues and pulling them way out of context.  The pen is indeed mightier than the sword and should be used responsibly.

On the other hand the media plays a central & critical role in any democratic society.  It informs.  It entertains.  Most important of all, it investigates.  It is a powerful tool for uncovering wrongdoing in the other three 'estates' - the legislative, the executive and the judiciary.

For the country's leading judge to make a statement so damning of such an important democratic institution is extraordinary.  It either reveals how little he understands about the function of the media in a democracy (bad enough), or (even worse) it reveals how little he cares for the establishment of a true democracy in Moldova.

Either way, he's got to go.  We can't suffer fools in such an important position as this. 

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The end of consumption

I don't know whether you have noticed, but the world economy is a real mess.  To summarise how we got where we are:
  1. During the first decade of this century, economic growth in the West wasn't based primarily on productivity increases (i.e. innovation, technological progress etc.).  Instead it was based on consumers taking on increasing amount of debt, refinancing their houses, maxing out on their credit cards.  By steadily increasing their borrowings, consumers steadily increased the money they were pumping into the economy.
  2. China was an integral part of the system that was created.  Westerners would effectively borrow money from China (through their governments and banks), and use the money to purchase Chinese goods.  As a result, rising western borrowing not only kept the developed world's economies growing, but also kept China's millions in work.
  3. It couldn't last however.  Borrowers got to the point when they simply couldn't afford to take on any more credit, or in some cases to repay what they had already borrowed.  Demand for major assets (notably houses) slumped as a reaction, which in turn triggered defaults on mortgage backed bonds and insurances, bringing down Lehmans and many other financial institutions, and finally threatening the confidence and trust that necessarily underlies the world's financial system.
  4. Governments were forced to step in with massive financial aid.  The aid had two purposes:  first of all it was necessary to stop banks failing and restore confidence in the system through massive recapitalisations (think of the billions poured into AIG).  This government spending probably helped the world economy dodge a bullet and spared us from another great depression.  The second purpose was to replace the private sector demand that had evaporated, so as to keep people in work (the car scrappage schemes are a good example of this)
  5. Now unfortunately, the bill for all of the financial largesse is being delivered to the table.  Economies have bottomed, but have not really started to recover.  Government deficits in many countries are running at truly scary levels of around 10% of GDP, meaning that national governments are piling on debt at rates unheard of (in my lifetime at least).  Greece is the first cab off the bankruptcy rank in this sense; a nation of 10m has a debt of EUR 300bn!  Others will follow.
So that brings us up to date.  Unfortunately it doesn't seem to get any better from here on:
  1. Unless governments rapidly reduce their spending, many are going to follow Greece into effective bankruptcy.  On the other hand, if they stop spending, their national economies will slip back into deep recessions, from which they will not be able to recover until debt levels are restored to 'normal' levels many years down the track.
  2. Something will have to give soon with oil prices.  Brent crude is currently a little over $70 a barrel.  Apparently it needs to be over $80 a barrel to promote discovery and exploitation of new fields.  What's more, this figure is slowly rising.  It is also believed that an oil price over $100 would push most western economies back into recession.  So we have a sweet spot of $80-$100 where we can keep building supply without killing demand.  The problem is that that range is becoming ever smaller as new oil depositis become increasingly expensive to find and exploit.  At some point we will be confronted with high oil prices, unsatisfied demand and recession all at the same time.  Our oil-based economy will cease to function.
  3. We're sitting on a demographic time bomb.  The large baby-boom generation of the 1950s is starting to retire, and they will live longer in retirement than any generation before them.  They haven't saved enough for their retirements, and, among other things, will be forced to unload their large family houses and move into granny-flats to free up money to live on.  The much smaller generation replacing them in the workforce won't be able to absorb that much housing and as a result house prices will fall again.  What's more, taxes will need to rise as a smaller group of workers funds state pensions for a larger group of retirees.  This will reduce demand even further.
  4. Did I mention climate change and the mess that's going to make of many econonmies around the world as they transition to different types of agriculture and try to adjust to a warmer world with higher sea levels?  I forgot, didn't I.
So from where I'm sitting things don't look very pretty.  We're not entirely without hope, however.  The key to getting us out of the woods is, I believe, the recognition that we are stuck in a trap.  We keep promoting increased consumption (even debt-financed consumption) in order to keep people in jobs.  This, however, is a road which will ultimately lead to disaster, as set out above.  We actually need to reduce consumption (of physical things).

That sounds sacriligious, but think about it:
  1. Do westerners really need to live in big houses and pay big heating bills?  Would they be any less happy living in a comfortable, smaller home?
  2. Do they really need to own and run so many cars?  If they all took public transport, then the quality and frequency of public transport could be improved.
  3. Do they really need to fill their houses with cheap manufactured junk from China?  Why not buy quality goods and repair them from time to time like their grandparents did?
  4. Do they need to eat as much as they do, becoming fat and unhealthy in the process?
But, I hear you say, actions such as 1-4 above would cause a massive collapse in  demand and cost hundreds of millions of jobs worldwide...

Not necessarily.  There are new sectors opening up where massive numbers of jobs will be created.  Some of these will be in secondary industry (e.g. the manufacture of wind power and bio-fuels, the exploitation of space), but many others need to be created in service industries.  The large population of elderly will need to be cared for and nursed.  We will need more doctors, dentists and teachers, especially in less developed countries.

The path from a consumption-based economy to a service-based one is deceptively easy.  We gradually stop taxing service provision (i.e. personal income) and instead start taxing consumption (i.e. resource use).  Through taxation, we make the energy and material inputs to manufacturing much more expensive, discouraging wasteful, unnecessary consumption.  By reducing taxation on income, we make labour cheaper; people who today can't afford a nanny to look after their kids will find that this 'luxury' will fit within their budget.  And so on and so on.

We end up with an economy in which westerners will live more simply in material terms but will have more enjoyable lives due to the higher level of services they can access.  Jobs aren't lost from the transition, just replaced.  Capitalist / market structures don't need to be thrown away, just harnessed to serve a different goal.

We probably need a pilot project in a small economy where excessive consumption hasn't yet fully taken hold and income taxes haven't proved very effective.  A country which is in need of some new, bright ideas to rebuild its economy in a sustainable and socially acceptable manner.  I think I might know just the place...

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Gianni Buquicchio, Seagull

The 'Venice Commission' is the European body charged with overseeing constitutional issues on the continent.  It's president, Gianni Buquicchio, spent the day in Chisinau discussing the constitutional reform process with Messrs Ghimpu and Filat.

He was supposed to bring much needed technical assistance to aid in the process of reforming Moldova's dysfunctional basic law.  Instead, he made a bald statement to the effect that "the constitution shouldn't be changed except for a small revision to facilitate the election of a president".  Without saying it in as many words, he implied that the work of the constitutional commission is a waste of time and that the country has bigger issues to deal with.

Mr Buquicchio is right in that Moldova has big problems to grapple with, but dead wrong in his conclusions about the constitution.  Put simply, he appears to have taken a prima facie view rather than taking the time to understand the agony of 2009 and the abuses of power under Communist rule which were facilitated by a constitution that has more holes in it than a swiss cheese.

Furthermore, Buquicchio doesn't see any need for a referendum.  This is astonishing coming from such a senior legal mind.  A nation's constitution must be an expression of its people's desire to establish the state according to their preferences.  It must be a document of the people rather than something foisted on them by a roomful of politicians (note that Moldova's constitution has never been voted by its people).

Mr Buquicchio is a seagull.  He flew in from far away, made a smelly deposit, and flew away again.  Now the locals will have to clean up the mess he has left behind.  The communists and can hardly believe their luck.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Grains of truth

Voices are starting to be raised against the emplacement of a US missile defence system in Romania.  The most prominent voice being heard in Moldova on this issue is that of Vladimir Voronin.  The basic gist of his comments is that the missile system could transform Moldova into a front line of a new cold war between Russia and the West.  Also, he implies that tacit acceptance of the system by the AIE government undermines Moldova's neutrality and could lead Russia to take unilateral steps in Transnistria.

The first thing that needs to be stated about the missile system is that perceived Russian concerns are massively overblown.  First of all this is a defensive system - it has no ability to attack, only to knock out incoming missiles from Iran, Al Qaeda or wherever.  It is no direct threat to Russia.

The Russians counter that the system upsets the strategic balance between herself and NATO; NATO countries would be free to attack Russia with long-range nuclear weapons because they would be safe from Russian retaliation.  This too is nonsense; the system in its Polish incarnation would have been able to knock out only around ten missiles or so (c.f. a Russian nuclear arsenal of around 10,000).

Furthermore, due to its geography and design, the Romanian system is evidently designed to counter short-medium range missiles originating in the Middle East.  It is incapable of intercepting Russian missiles aimed at the US and flying over the polar region.

Simply put, Russian claims that the system is directed against them or somehow alters the balance of power in Europe hold very little water.

What is interesting about Voronin's comments however, is that he doesn't mention what the system can or can't do.  He doesn't discuss the military implications as I have just done above.  He simply makes an assumption that the system will annoy Russia and then extrapolates to some not unreasonable conclusions, all of which strengthen his position with his Rusophone / Communist electorate.

It is very possible that Russia will pretend that the new system somehow compromises its security and kick up a big song and dance about it.  It is very possible that the silence of Moldova's AIE government will be viewed negatively in Moscow.  It is very possible that the US weapons-defence system could be used by Russia as an excuse to strengthen its military position in Transnistria.

Voronin's motivation for his commentary is deplorable as usual.  His continuing demonisation of Romania, his distaste for all things western (including democracy and human rights) and his need to consolidate the rusophone vote are the drivers for his remarks.

The subject matter of his commentary has a lot more substance, however.  Should Russia choose to use the missile shield as an excuse for ramping up regional tensions, Voronin's prophesies may (unfortunately) come to pass.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Solidarity v Charity

You don't have to spend long in Europe before even supposedly right-wing politicians begin espousing 'solidarity' as the basis for the policies they propose.  Solidarity is a concept grounded in socialist philosophy, and as far as I can see boils down to two components, one social and one economic.

Social solidarity is relatively benign, and stems from the recognition that we all share a common society.  We all have certain responsibilities with respect to our neighbours and our living environment (which is a common good).   To me this is about being courteous with other drivers, chipping in to help after a natural disaster, packing up rubbish when you go to the park etc.  All good stuff.

It's economic solidarity that bugs me.  Here the idea is to break down class structures by taking wealth from the rich and successful (in the form of taxes and levies) and redistributing it (in the form of welfare benefits).  The purpose is apparently to break down existing power structures and produce a more 'just' society.

There are a number of problems with this idea:

  1. There isn't necessarily anything wrong with the existing power structure, and accordingly it may not need to be broken down.  People can be rich and successful due to hard work, innovation and efficient use of resources; if this is the case then it probably makes sense that they continue controlling the resources.
  2. There isn't really any purpose to the redistribution - the recipients of the benefits may or may not have need of them.
  3. The redistribution process is often heartless, machinistic and bureaucratic.
  4. The society that results isn't a just one - justice would see labour and initiative rewarded, not punished
You could even view economic solidarity as a form of legalised theft, in which a larger group (left-wing voters) steals from a smaller one (right wing voters).  The fact that it happens within the bounds of law and a democratic system doesn't make it right.

An alternative to solidarity is charity.  Charity is people with resources having compassion for those without, and willingly deciding to share.  Because it is grounded in compassion, I see charity as superior to solidarity (which is grounded in envy).  Of course it does have some downsides:

  1. It can be a bit haphazard, e.g. when giving to highly televised causes prevails over giving to the most worthy ones.  This can of course be mitigated by coordination between charitable organisations.
  2. Socialists complain that charity is patronising, the undeserving rich condescending to the noble poor.  I would counter that receiving a universal benefit I don't need and haven't asked for is just as patronising.
You could argue that welfare capitalism is based on charity.  Here, the right-wing voters that I referred to above agree to pay taxes to fund benefits to the truly needy.  They do this out of a number of motivations - compassion, social-cohesion, PR etc - but at the end of the day their contribution is willing, not forced.


The bottom line is that neither charity or solidarity is an end in itself.  Both paradigms are just means to a particular end.  And that is why solidarity in particular is so insidious.  European politicians believe it to be axiomatic truth that solidarity is something to be sought after.  It's not even questionable or debateable in polite society.

The fact is, however, that anyone proposing solidarity as an argument for a new scheme to lighten your pockets probably doesn't have any underlying arguments.  They may not even have got as far as thinking what they're going to do with the money they have collected, or in particular why a universal benefit would be superior to a targeted one in the given case.

And that's why I have little time for the 'social' policies of the Communist Party, United Moldova and the Democratic Party, which rely on the idea of solidarity.  I'm convinced that any future left-wing government in Moldova would over-tax the economy and then fritter away the funds in various peculiar ways.

I'm far more comfortable with the targeted charity of Dorin Chirtoaca (e.g. his focussing of limited municipal subsidies on the sectors of Chisinau society that need them most).  Moldova can't afford gold-plated universal benefits (either financially or morally).  Whilst looking after the weakest, the country needs to develop an enterprise mentality in which individuals take responsibility for themselves first and others second.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Romania Mare?

A couple of months ago it was a basket case. A presidential election between two less-than-impressive candidates left a smell of vote rigging heavy in the air. The country had no prime minister and no budget, the IMF having thrown up their hands in horror and walked off. Economic activity was in strong decline and unemployment was marching steadliy upwards.

Two months on and one or two of the issues above have been partially resolved. Traian Basescu has been accepted as President by all major parties, a PM has been sworn in and a budget is in place.

But it gets better - Romania is in the curious position of watching from the sidelines as supposedly advanced euro-zone economies such as Greece, Portugal and Spain go down the gurgler due to uncontrolled government spending, debt build-ups and inflexible labour markets.

Thanks to Ceausescu, Romania's government debt levels are moderate. Thanks to Constantinescu and Tariceanu, its labour markets are fairly flexible by continental European standards. Thanks to the IMF, the budget isn't too far out of whack.

And so, we have the news this week that Fitch has upgraded its credit outlook from 'negative' to 'stable' and sees Romanian government debt being upgraded to investment grade during the next two years. After being marked down heavily at the height of the financial crisis, the Romanian leu is now recovering ground against the Euro.

Fitch's upgrade pales, however, against the news that the United States plans to base its missile shield in the country, having earlier pulled out of a similar venture in Poland and the Czech Republic. Taken together with the existing American bases in the country, Romania becomes a very important military ally to the US, probably on equal footing with Turkey and the UK. If the US is the world's policeman, then Romania has just become (to use a term coined by former Australian PM John Howard) a 'deputy sheriff'.

Taken all together, Romania appears to be transitioning from a post-communist failed state to being a mid-ranking European power with an important voice. Notwithstanding the linguistic, cultural and familial ties, Moldova's bid to rapidly improve relations with its neighbour to the south-west makes a lot of sense.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

France undercuts democracy in Eastern Europe

I have on a number of occasions written about the need for a quality independent Russian-language television channel which would be capable of balancing the propaganda transmitted by Russian channels into other former Soviet states.

This need is made obvious by, for example, the popular belief in Moldova that Georgia was largely responsible for the August 2008 war and the Russia responded as a humanitarian peacekeeper.  The facts of the case are rather different, as any well-read independent observer would acknowledge.  The gap is due to the fact that most Moldovans receive their international news either from Russian-government controlled TV or from Teleradio Moldova, which was under the thumb of the Russia-friendly communists.

Not surprisingly, it was the Georgian government that stepped up to the challenge, launching a Russian-language satellite channel called "First Caucasian".  Now that channel has been pulled off the air by French company Eutelstat under pressure from Russia.  (article here)

Come on France, you need to grow a spine once and for all.  It might be expedient in the short term to sell the Russians your Mistral warships and help them undercut freedom of expression in the former Soviet space, however in the long term this will cost you.  Do you not already see how your former protege, Romania, no longer looks to you for security and leadership, but to the US and the UK?  Do you really want Russia's sphere of instability and autocracy expanding deep into central Europe once again?  Do you really want Russia and Iran sitting on top of all the oil and gas transport routes from the Caspian?  Are you really prepared, as one of the world's leading democracies, to see millions of people in Eastern Europe fall under a totalitarian jackboot yet again?  Or do the principles of liberte, fraternite & egalite stop at your borders?

Monday, February 1, 2010

Wide open spaces

With all the political migrations over the last few months, I thought it was time to update my political map.  Here's what I've done:

  1. I've positioned all of the parties with representation in Parliament.  As previously positions are mapped as to where they sit on a traditional left-right economic / social policy axis, as well as where they sit on identity issues (which I show as a vertical Russia / Romania axis)
  2. The first new entrant is Vladimir Turcan's United Moldova Party.  Based on their statements this group is a bunch of diehard socialists who left the communist party because it had moved too far to the right.  The party is mainly ethnic Moldovan, but strongly supports the 'moldovenism' promoted by the Soviet Union and latterly by the PCRM.
  3. The PCRM minus Turcan and effectively led by Tkaciuk appears now to be more or less a party for Rusophiles.
  4. The other new entrant is the European Action Movement of Petrencu and Untila, which holds positions very close to those of the Liberal Party.
As an exercise this time around, I've tried to estimate what proportion of the voting population fills each cell.  I've assumed that a voter's socio-economic preferences should be independent of his/her ethnic identification.

The results are quite startling.  If we assume that 55% of voters are to the left of centre and that at total of 50% would be in the "Romanian" part of the ethnic scale, the result is that the top-left of the map houses 27.5% of the voting population, but doesn't have a single party to serve it.  Who speaks for left wingers that identify with Romania in some measure?

Similarly in the bottom right, there is a population of 22.5% which consists of people who look to the Soviet Union and the Russian empire for their identity but are economic liberals.  Who speaks for them?  No-one.

Why is it that the PD, MU and Ciornii are all madly rushing towards the bottom left corner?  I guess they figure that's where the carcass of the PCRM is, and they can feed on it to some extent.  The two big opportunities, however, are among Russian-speaking liberals and Romanian-speaking social democrats.  If I were the PD I would look to exploit the former, while the latter could be rich pickings for an AMN that desperately needs a new idea.

I have a feeling that a political scene in which all four quadrants are represented in parliament would be quite a lot more moderate and balanced.  The "us and them" problem currently plaguing Moldovan politics would be mitigated as common cause could be found on either economic or ethnic issues (although not on both at once).

Let's see if anyone reads this, takes note and acts.