Opinion

Chrystia Freeland

In 2011, the revolution was tweeted

Chrystia Freeland
Dec 29, 2011 21:26 UTC

2011 was a good year for protest and a bad year for government. 2012 will be a good year for both if our political leaders can figure out the connection.

Across the globe, this was a year when people took to the streets, often overthrowing their leaders in the process. That was true in the Arab world, in Russia, in India, in Western Europe, in the United States and even in China.

And everywhere, this year of mass defiance wrong-footed those who were supposed to be in the know. The experts had thought the Arabs were getting richer and were too scared of their autocrats, that the Russians were apathetic and quite liked their neo-czar, that the Indian middle class was politically disengaged, that West Europeans were too old for outrage, that Americans didn’t care about the class divide and that the Chinese comrades were too effective at suppressing dissent.

But everywhere, the conventional wisdom was turned upside down by people who turned out to be angrier than their elites had suspected, and better able to channel that dissatisfaction into mass protest and even revolution.

The first surprise was the strength and near universality of the public discontent. Like Tolstoy’s unhappy families, the motivations of protesters in each country were unique. But there was a common thread to the uprisings and a common reason why the elites were taken by surprise.

MIA – U.S. shareholders who care

Chrystia Freeland
Dec 23, 2011 17:54 UTC

Who knew Swedish finance could be so sexy? The late, great Stieg Larsson’s best-selling The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo — the Hollywood version hit North American theaters this week — was the first to tap into a hitherto undiscovered global fascination with Nordic number crunching.

Following gingerly in his footsteps, I’d like to report on a fascinating discussion at the Securities and Exchange Commission in Washington this month, where the Scandinavian story was center stage.

The conference, where I moderated a panel, was organized by the European Corporate Governance Institute and Columbia Law School. The theme was the involvement of shareholders in the companies they own.

Arab Spring, Russian Winter

Chrystia Freeland
Dec 16, 2011 14:35 UTC

This has been a bad year for dictators, starting with the Arab Spring and ending now with the Russian Winter. If you are one of the autocrats who survived the annus horribilis of 2011, here are three lessons, drawn from some smart Russians and Russia-watchers, of what the unexpected Slavic protests this month could mean.

The first is that authoritarian regimes don’t run on autopilot. To survive, particularly in the age of the Internet, jet travel and global capital flows, dictatorships need to be savvy and effective. We often attribute the success of democratic revolutions to their brave leaders or the spirit of the times, but, as Lucan Way, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto, argues, “authoritarian incompetence” can be an equally powerful driver.

That is certainly the case in Russia, where one reason United Russia, the party of power led by Vladimir V. Putin, did so poorly in elections this month is the simple fact that the regime made a lot of political mistakes.

Obama and the 99 percent

Chrystia Freeland
Dec 8, 2011 22:10 UTC

All the doubting Thomases who wondered whether Occupy Wall Street would have lasting political impact got their answer this week in Osawatomie, Kansas. That’s where President Barack Obama traveled to deliver a speech that is being billed as the mission statement for his 2012 re-election campaign.

The president chose that town of fewer than 5,000 people, 50 miles, or 80 kilometers, southwest of Kansas City, for its historical resonance — it is where Theodore Roosevelt journeyed just over a century earlier to give his seminal “New Nationalism” address.

But Zuccotti Park in New York, the informal epicenter of the leaderless Occupy Wall Street movement, served as an equally important, albeit less explicit, inspiration. The movement’s accomplishment is to have legitimized discussion of rising income inequality in the United States — Obama described it as “the defining issue of our time.” That is a landmark declaration.

Workers of the Western world

Chrystia Freeland
Dec 2, 2011 00:22 UTC

Branko Milanovic has some good news for the squeezed Western middle class — and also some bad news.

Good news first: the past 150 years have been an astonishing economic victory for the workers of the Western world. The bad news is that workers in the developing world have been left out, and their entry into the global economy will have complex and uneven consequences.

Milanovic’s first conclusion is contrarian, at least in its tone. After all, with unemployment in the United States at more than 9 percent and Europe struggling to muddle through its most serious economic crisis since World War II, Western workers are feeling anything but triumphant.

Russian revolutions, past and future

Chrystia Freeland
Dec 1, 2011 22:54 UTC

London’s legal battle between Boris Berezovksy and Roman Abramovich is the best show in town. Who could resist a fight between two Russian oligarchs that includes open discussion of multi-million dollar bribes and a spat about whose lifestyle is more “exuberant?”

But for Russians the court case has been rivetting for more than its juicy revelations about lives of the rich and famous. That’s because it hinges on the original sin of the post-Soviet era — the loans-for-shares privatisation in which vast stakes in the country’s natural resources were sold to a small group of men at fire-sale prices in exchange for their political support of Boris Yeltsin in the 1996 election.

This was the windfall which created the oligarchs, and an enduring legacy of striking inequality — the 101 Russians on the 2011 Forbes billionaires list have a collective wealth equal to 29 percent of the country’s GDP. The gulf between the 1 percent and the 99 percent is center-stage in America today — but this country’s billionaires’ combined booty is equal to just 10 percent of the nation’s GDP.

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