Opinion

Chrystia Freeland

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.

“The ineffectiveness and stupid actions of the authorities have accelerated the process,” Grigory Chkhartishvili, the best-selling Moscow author who writes under the pen name Boris Akunin, explained in an e-mail. He recalled asking Yegor Gaidar, the late architect of Russian economic changes, “when does he expect society to awaken. Around 2015, he answered, if they, meaning Putin and his entourage, do not make too many mistakes. Well, they have made too many mistakes.”

Vladimir Gelman, a professor of political science at the European University in St. Petersburg, made a similar point this week. Gelman argued that the Kremlin’s wobble in December was an own-goal, or, as he put it, “a blow delivered with its own hands.”

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.

Corruption and India’s 1 percent

Chrystia Freeland
Nov 18, 2011 00:05 UTC

The only important question in the West right now is how to restart stalled economic growth. So it is easy to be dazzled by India, where a 7 percent rise in gross domestic product is the nightmare scenario, and optimists are shooting for 9.

But Indians themselves are starting to worry about how that growth is being achieved — and who is benefiting. The headline complaint is corruption. That is nothing new here, of course. But the country now has a middle class self-confident enough to feel humiliated by paying quotidian bribes and resentful of the rise of baksheesh billionaires. Anna Hazare’s hunger strike became a national political event because it tapped into this anger of the urban bourgeoisie.

“India has been overwhelmed by corruption scams,” said Kiran Bedi, the first woman officer in India’s elite police service and one of Hazare’s chief lieutenants. “While it has been apparent that India is shining, India has also been declining in many ways in that there has been rampant exposure of corruption.”

George Soros’ advice for the euro zone

Chrystia Freeland
Nov 11, 2011 00:18 UTC

Europeans could use a little cheering up this week. One man who is trying to do that is George Soros. He knows his way around a currency crisis, of course, and he isn’t usually accused of being a Pollyanna. Soros thinks it is not too late to save Europe and the euro — but he warns that time is running out and that Europe’s leaders must fundamentally change their strategy to succeed.

Let’s start with the bad news. “Right now, the crisis has hit a new high, because there’s an unresolved government crisis in Greece and in Italy,” Soros said. “There is also a looming worsening of the financial crisis, because all the efforts to leverage the E.F.S.F. have run into legal or technical difficulties.” He was referring to the European Financial Stability Facility, the bailout fund for the euro zone.

“That means that currently Europe has no ring fence against a possible Greek default, and that is what is pushing the market into a renewed panic,” he said. “I expect the market to fall into despair and panic and I expect that to get worse.”

Do things look different from north of the border?

Chrystia Freeland
Nov 8, 2011 00:40 UTC

My column last week on how a few members of the 1 percent are responding to Occupy Wall Street provoked some vehement responses, many of which appear in the comments to my post. One of the most interesting, though, was sent to me by email from a Canadian reader who thinks U.S. business elites are more sympathetic to OWS than my column suggested. I hope he is right — but I wonder whether his and his clients’ (he is a prominent art dealer) sympathy for OWS is partly a reflection of how much Canadian and U.S. political culture, particularly at the top, diverge. I’m publishing his comments below, and I hope you’ll tell me what you think.

—–

Chrystia Freeland, editor of Thomson Reuters Digital, has fumbled the ball again.

Thinking that Occupy Wall Street (OWS) is the left wing alternative to the corporately funded Tea Party Movement, she finds it paradoxical that former Canadian prime minister Paul Martin and former Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo would be supportive. After all, Martin is a “millionaire businessman,” and Zedillo “serves on the boards of blue chips Procter & Gamble and Alcoa.”

Welfare bums vs crony capitalists

Chrystia Freeland
Nov 4, 2011 15:12 UTC

 

Paul Martin and Ernesto Zedillo are members in good standing of the global elite. Martin is a former Canadian prime minister, finance minister, deficit hawk and, in his life before politics, multimillionaire businessman. Zedillo is a former president of Mexico, holds a doctorate in economics, directs Yale University’s Center for the Study of Globalization, and serves on the boards of the blue chips Procter & Gamble and Alcoa.

Yet when I interviewed the two of them in a wide-ranging public conversation last week, hosted by the Center for International Governance Innovation, an independent, nonpartisan Canadian research organization, they sounded an awful lot like the people camped out in Zuccotti Park in New York.

Neither Zedillo nor Martin had sympathy for the complaint that Occupy Wall Street lacked a clear agenda. As Zedillo put it: “These criticisms — ‘Oh, they don’t have an agenda, they only pose problems and provide no solutions’ — well, they are citizens and they have earned the right to express a very serious, real problem.”

Immelt on America going “all-in”

Chrystia Freeland
Oct 20, 2011 21:38 UTC

I had breakfast this week with Jeffrey R. Immelt, the chief executive of General Electric, and the main dish on the menu was tough love. In an interview before a packed hall in Times Square, the boss of the more than a century-old $177 billion global behemoth told me that Americans can still win in the global economy — but that they need to fight harder.

“We are not trying that hard,” Immelt said. “We haven’t really tried as hard as we can to compete, educate and sell our products around the world and I think we can do better.

“The world just plays harder than we play,” he said. “Whether it is on exports or whether it is on foreign direct investment, the rest of the world plays for keeps. And we just don’t have a similar philosophy.”

Wall Street protesters challenge Reagan Revolution

Chrystia Freeland
Oct 14, 2011 13:59 UTC

On a drizzly evening in Zuccotti Park this week, where the Occupy Wall Street protesters are camped out with the modern revolutionary’s gear of iPhone, blue tarp and cappuccino, I spotted one young man wearing a T-shirt with an image of Ronald Reagan and the words “Bad Religion.”

It was the right outfit for the occasion. That’s because the greatest significance of the wave of leftist demonstrations that started in Lower Manhattan and rippled across the United States over the past few weeks is the potential challenge it poses to the Reagan Revolution.

During the 2008 campaign, Barack Obama drew shrieks from the Democratic base, particularly its Clinton wing, by naming Ron rather than Bill as a president who had “changed the trajectory of America.”

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