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Is Ukraine the start of an Arab Spring in Europe? No.

3 Dec

Photo by Ryan Anderson, via Flickr

‘What on earth is going on in Ukraine?’ you might well ask. Or, if you’ve not been paying proper attention, you’re probably thinking ‘Is there something going off in Ukraine then?’

Yes there is. Not that you should be expected to know about it. Since the weekend the mass demonstrations and alleged police violence in the Eastern European country has sat somewhere in the middle of the news pecking order: not close enough to us to earn top billing but not trivial enough to be entirely dismissed by editors.

So what is going on? Once again, a country just far enough away not to worry us has faced mass demonstrations against the powers that be. It might be time to get out your dusty Arab Spring bingo cards if you still have them: police forcibly picking on student protests, hastily planned mass marches against an unpopular president, and fringes of violence. Without too much trouble I could be describing Egypt, or Turkey, or many more.

Like much of the political dissent in the last three years not everyone in Ukraine is angry at the government, and President Yanukovych has a strong popular base of support in parts of the country. This is where the story stops feeling like another Arab Spring sequel. The reason for Saturday’s original demonstration was a decision by Yanukovych not to sign a trade deal with the European Union. A large chunk of the country’s people are extremely unhappy about this choice. Ukraine sits uncomfortably between Europe on one side and Russia on the other. Guess who isn’t too pleased at the thought of a Ukraine integrated into Europe?

The particulars of the Ukraine protests are not complicated. As reported by the guardian a pro-Europe rally in Kiev’s Independence Square was dispersed violently by police, using truncheons. It was apparently vital that an enormous Christmas tree be placed in the square at 4 o’clock on Saturday morning. On Sunday more than 300,000 Ukrainians came out to demand Yanukovych resign as president.  This was in spite of a ban on rallies at Independence square imposed earlier that day.

Now protesters are occupying Independence Square and the Kiev City Hall, while also blockading the Cabinet Ministry. Similarities to Tahir Square in Egypt and Turkey’s Taksim Square can clearly be drawn. But this is not the kind of popular uprising that seems to have been copy pasted from North Africa and the Middle East, regardless of some opposition figures in Ukraine describing things as a ‘revolution’. President Yanukovych’s predicament seems to be grounded in a country divided between its neighbours to the east and west.

It’s unsurprising that much of what has traditionally been Yanukovych’s support base can be found in Ukraine’s east. Although whether this is still the case is another matter.

The President’s chummy relationship with the master of the dark arts himself, Vladimir Putin, may be playing a part. According to Bloomberg the Russian President wants to create an economic bloc out of old Soviet states, with Ukraine high on the list. In laymen’s terms Ukraine is in the middle of the international politics version of tug-of-war.

Ukraine has recent form in peaceful uprisings. The 2004 Orange Revolution saw protests and general strikes in response to corruption and ballot manipulation (manipulation which would have seen current president Mr Yanukovych win the election).  Yanukovych was eventually elected in 2010. Yulia Tymoshenko, a leader of the Orange Revolution who has been imprisoned since 2011, has called for the president’s ‘dictatorship’ to be bought down.

As of Tuesday a no confidence vote against the government was defeated in the Ukrainian parliament. Whether this will satisfy protestors is unclear, but if I were to judge by these pictures I would say things are not quite over yet.

So now you know what’s been going off in Ukraine. Or perhaps not; by the time you read this some more things will have happened. You’ve probably read enough to look smart in front of your work mates though, so it wasn’t a complete waste of time.


Greece, Europe and an abandoned generation

4 Jun

By Chris Hansell

Photo by linmtheu, via Flickr

Photo by linmtheu, via Flickr

In April a bill passed in the Greek Parliament which will lead to a loss of 15,000 public sector jobs by the end of 2014. It’s just the latest wave of austerity measures that have crippled a country and left more than 60 per cent of its young people without work.

The bill was passed as part of an agreement with the so called ‘troika’ – the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund – who have in return obligingly supplied €8.8 billion to the cash strapped country. This money should be used to help Greece get back on its feet. Instead it will almost certainly be used to service an astonishing national debt burden.

In a complex but insightful analysis of the Greek debt burden Nikos Tsafos highlights a vital point. Between 2010 and 2012 the Greek government spent more than 50 per cent of the money it acquired from borrowing and privatisation on servicing its debt burden. This included €37.9 billion in interest on the debt. There is no doubt certain parts of Greek society (most specifically its government and the banks it borrowed from) have lived beyond their means. But like other countries across Europe, such as Spain and Italy, its young people are being unfairly punished for excesses they did not commit.

It does not need to be this way. The troika has already forced the Greek government into lowering the minimum wage and slashing social welfare spending. Austerity is slamming the brakes on economies across Europe, including the UK, and abandoning the youngest generation of workers to a job market that seems to fall away from under them. At the same time private companies like Google and Starbucks pay astronomically low tax thanks to shady but legal tax practices.

It’s hard to dismiss the idea that Europe is in the midst of some shock therapy a la Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine. In the case of Greece it is most potent – cuts to pensions and public services, privatisations, immigration used as a spectre to divert anger away from brutal economic policy – but it’s evident across the continent.

The goal of this kind of austerity is alluded to in the IMF’s recent review of France’s economy. Among its main recommendations are less public spending and reforms to make it cheaper for businesses to hire workers. The message could not be clearer: France must become attractive to multinationals by making it easier to hire and fire workers who they are allowed to pay substantially less.

Last week figures published by the EU’s data office revealed that in the Eurozone nearly one in four young people (aged 16 to 24) were unemployed. April saw a rise in overall unemployment across the Eurozone of 95,000.

Reacting to this sort of news with anything other than a sense of cynical resignation is becoming more and more difficult. As someone who fits the age band for these statistics I cannot help but feel like the horse with the longest odds at the races. But in this case my entire generation is that horse – because we only turned up after the race had finished.

The UK, South Africa and the aid disagreement

7 May

By Chris Hansell

Photo by rabble via Flickr

Photo by rabble via Flickr

Last week a disagreement between the UK and South African governments briefly broke the surface of the UK news cycle. The story trod water for a day or so before being pushed back under by the pressure of other stories.

The disagreement began when our government announced that it would be ending its aid programme to South Africa from 2015. As the BBC reported this costs around £19 million a year, and the feeling amongst the coalition seems to be that middle income countries (as South Africa appears now to be defined) do not need the kind of aid money that poorer, less developed countries do.

Last year the government amicably made a similar decision to end financial aid to India by 2015. The mantra looks now to be that aid is out and trade is in.

But still, the South African government seem to be annoyed about what they say was a lack of consultation before the decision. The problem is that it is difficult to say who is really in the right here.

In the UK the government’s aid budget is controlled by the Department for International Development, which I sometimes think was named so to ensure people’s eyes immediately glaze over when they hear it. Development, for non-politics nerds, is the idea that through lots of complicated schemes poor countries can develop into well off ones like the UK or the USA.

Withdrawing money from a country that’s well on its way to becoming more like us seems like a sensible step. South Africa is considered one of the world’s big up and comers. It is a BRICS country (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), one of the big players in the developing world.

So what’s the big deal? India and South Africa both have the same problem. They are becoming more unequal. In South Africa the richest 10% account for 51% of the income. India is as bad, with the top 10% of earners taking home 12 times more than the bottom 10% according to The Times Of India. Between them the two countries still account for a large number of people in poverty.

When the UK stops giving aid to South Africa in 2015 this means projects that tackle AIDS or improve maternal healthcare will be left without further support. Will these issues really be solved by then?

Data from Department for International Development via Guardian Data blog

Data from Department for International Development via Guardian Data blog

And, ultimately, should developing countries really want to aspire to be more like us? In the USA the last 30 years have seen the richest 1% have their incomes increase by 275%, the BBC reported last year. In the UK the bottom 90% saw their average incomes improve by less than £2,000 between 1997 and 2007. Factoring in inflation this is a shrink in spending power. Meanwhile in the same period the top 1% increased their average earnings go up by over £100,000 a year, and the top 0.1% saw average incomes rise by more than £500,000.

As Wolfgang Sachs pointed out in the recent 40th anniversary issue of New Internationalist ‘politicians as well as populations in many countries set their hopes on the model of a Western-style consumer economy’. Manybe that’s not what everyone should be shooting for.

Aid shouldn’t be about trying to make countries more like us. It should be about making life better for the poorest people in society. When the aid stops coming in 2015 those who rely on it to make their societies better and their lives more tolerable will be worse off.

Other articles of interest:

Mining in South Africa and the rest of Africa

Guardian Poverty Matters blog

The European Union and Cameron’s cynical move

30 Jan

By Chris Hansell

Photo by the World Economic Forum, via Flickr

Photo by the World Economic Forum, via Flickr

Four years is a long time in politics. Whether this passed through David Cameron’s mind before he made his speech in London last week is worth pondering.

By calling a referendum on EU membership Mr Cameron has solved some problems and created some new ones. Let’s set the scene.

In the short term the Prime Minister has put a lid on the fizzing disorder of Tory backbenchers and possibly the voter creep toward UKIP. The Telegraph excitedly observed that Mr Cameron’s EU speech has put both Labour and the Lib Dems in an awkward position.

But cementing his position with his party in the immediate future will mean the Prime Minister will have fewer cards to play later.

The chances of getting real concessions out of Europe are low. Harold Wilson, a more talented statesman than Cameron, was unable to get any substantial gains from the EEC during his renegotiation in the 1970s.

Euro sceptics, in and out of the Conservative party, will only be onside for a short time. Mr Cameron said awkwardly yesterday that ‘yes’ he will be supporting the campaign to keep Britain in. Nigel Farage is right to say ‘it is UKIP which will be leading the campaign for independence’.

Now, having laid everything out in a roundabout way, allow me to get to the reason I began writing this.

The Prime Minister’s decision is a political one. Cameron is pro Europe. Everybody with a nugget of sense knows it’s political. The newspapers have even printed this fact.

This depresses me more than anything else that came out of last Wednesday’s speech. The public get yet another reminder that politics is not about convictions but about party manoeuvring.

The Telegraph reports that several labour figures think ‘Mr Cameron’s move will ultimately force the (Labour) party’s hand to offer a vote’ without pointing out the political cynicism of such a strategy.

The Guardian even published a piece by Tony Blair’s former chief of staff Jonathan Powell outlining why Cameron’s strategy was flawed. Mr Powell is quite right in asserting that as a result of the speech the Prime Minister has wound up ‘snookering himself’. But I would add to this another flaw: decisions this big should not be made for party-political advantage. This is not what a democracy looks like.

As demagogues go Cameron and the class of 2013 do not come across as especially talented at politicking. Comparisons between Cameron and Harold Wilson found their way into almost every newspaper on Thursday, but I have already touched on the problem with this comparison. Wilson was a far more gifted tactician than our Prime Minister.

In terms of general election victories Wilson outscores Cameron four to none. As Peter Oborne details Wilson demonstrated astute political judgement in 1974 to keep Britain in Europe. Cameron on the other hand has yet to show this kind of skill at any point since he became Tory leader in 2005.

With U-turns abound (pasty tax anyone?) and rhetoric designed more to damage political opponents than to explain sincere policy today’s politicians are pretender statesmen.

In the words of the menacing Malcolm Tucker our political class ‘has given up on morality’. They aim for popularity alone, which they achieve through image rather than substance.

The Daily Mail’s Angela Epstein described Cameron’s speech on Question TIme as ‘the first clang of the bell that says the election campaign starts now’.

Today’s politicians are certainly in an election campaign right now but it is not one that has only just begun. In 2013 politics is one long campaign for re-election, and it has drained the people we elect of all substance. All that is left is a thirst to stay in power.

Is the climate beginning to change?

19 Jan
What will be the consequences of pollution in the years ahead?

What will be the consequences of pollution in the years ahead?

By Chris Hansell

Last June I went to China. Arriving in Beijing I spent the first day exploring the city and visiting its more famous haunts. We had just come from a very hot Australia (I’m not boasting – I spent eight months working at a supermarket to pay for the trip, which only lasted around sixty days).

After so diligently plastering every inch of exposed skin with sun cream while down under, I made the foolish decision of going out in the Chinese capital without my factor 50. What could go wrong?  I couldn’t see the sun for all the clouds. After a month of searing sun to be somewhere overcast reminded me of home. That was definitely cloud, wasn’t it?

It was mid-afternoon before I realised the skin on the back of my neck was crisping.

So when I read last week that levels of pollution in Beijing were so bad that residents were being told to stay indoors I could not muster up much in the way of surprise. My only real disbelief was in why this story wasn’t higher up the news agenda.

It might be safe to say that environmentalism has fallen out of fashion from its heights of popularity several years ago. An economic catastrophe caused by banks has left us without much time to think about becoming more responsible with our planet, which would be sad if it wasn’t alarming.

The draft version of the US national Climate assessment recently had some unsettling things to say about the state of the climate. Floods, heavy rain and even wildfires headline a changing climate across the US.

The language of the report is not what you would expect to find in a report that will land on the desk of the US president in the next year or so. Before the end of the draft report’s first page the scientists involved in the study lay out two uncompromising points: ‘these changes are part of the pattern of global climate change, which is primarily driven by human activity’. The second point is this: ‘the sum total of this evidence tells an unambiguous story: the planet is warming.’

It is going to be near impossible to read this report as anything other than a validation of climate change as a real danger (barring some dramatic rewriting). Perhaps scientists are finally tired of fair weather words from politicians and news channels. And who can blame them?

The bushfires raging in Australia in early January have led the Australian Climate Commission to link climate change directly to their summer heat wave. In the UK flooding seems to have become so commonplace it now seems unspectacular. Up in Alaska the melting permafrost concerns American scientists enough that the climate assessment says there is a serious risk to infrastructure.

The solution offered by the UN’s annual Climate Change Conference in Doha in November, attended by representatives from nearly every country on the planet, was to give everyone eight more years to reach Kyoto targets. This extension may be in jeopardy if Belarus, Ukraine, Russia and Kazakhstan decide not to agree to it.

Without the involvement of these heavily industrial nations the new agreement would cover less than 15% of global carbon emissions.  The Kyoto Protocol was agreed in 1997. A new agreement to tackle climate change will not come into effect until at least 2020, almost a quarter century after its predecessor.

Scientists can’t make the world combat climate change; they can only tell us what will happen if we do nothing. The rest of us, including politicians, need to pull our fingers out.

Some other links you might want to check out:

Tim Ballantine's Blog

A desperate attempt to understand the world, using only misconceptions and non-sequiturs

Completely Unravelled

The messiness of life

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