Opinion

John Lloyd

Khodorkovsky’s time

John Lloyd
Dec 27, 2013 16:35 UTC

After ten years in prison, one surreal day of release and a private jet to Berlin, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s richest man, was facing the press in the Checkpoint Charlie Museum, which houses an exhibition in his honor.

Facing a scrum of reporters, Khodorkovsky was rational and in command of his surroundings. He was modest about his suffering. In the camps, he said, “they can still demean people, put pressure on people, but the hunger, the cold that prisoners spoke about in the past, that doesn’t happen now.”

The political prisoner who comments so judiciously about the conditions of his imprisonment is rare. Even rarer is one who can make a joke. Khodorkovsky said he “won’t be buying a football team,” making a dig at fellow oil magnate Roman Abramovich’s well-known ownership of Chelsea Football Club.

Khodorkovsky’s release is likely a public relations cleanup ahead of the winter Olympic games in the Russian Black Sea region of Sochi. It could also be, as Julia Ioffe wrote in the New Republic, the display of clemency by one who reserves the right to loosen just as much as he will bind.

For the moment, Khodorkovsky retains the power to attract attention and to sway minds — at least as long as media attention will last. He has established a credible track record of concern for his country — a country that has seen little real concern for human rights, that now faces a worsening economy and that has few of the structural reforms that could raise the growth rate and living standards. With his present fame and past record, Khodorkovsky could do much for Russia. His most valuable deed could be to confront the legacy of his class.

‘My people throughout the world’

John Lloyd
Dec 23, 2013 22:02 UTC

This week Queen Elizabeth the Second, now 87, will give her customary Christmas broadcast. Every year she tells most Britons what they want to hear: that they are still great. And she is given much love for that.

That love is said to have been hard won. A few of the books written about Queen Elizabeth’s reign detail a marriage that went sour, at least for some years, because of her husband Prince Philip’s adultery. Nearly all books point to a disciplined life of unremitting travel, briefings, lengthy state occasions and unfailing courtesy. They also mention the constant explosions of sexual waywardness of nearly all of her four children and her (temporary) drop in popularity when, after Princess Diana’s death in 1987, she appeared to insufficiently grieve.

The British like to sneer at the claim of American exceptionalism — the “necessary nation,” as former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright put it in a TV interview in 1998. Britain has its own exceptionalism in the form of the Queen’s Christmas broadcast. In this sense, the Queen is a master propagandist.

The EU’s soft power and the big carrot

John Lloyd
Dec 17, 2013 20:50 UTC

MOSCOW – There’s a joke in Europe, the making of which is credited to Lord Chris Patten, Chancellor of Oxford University who in the 1980s was the EU’s Commissioner for External Relations. Adapting President Theodore Roosevelt’s advice to “speak softly but carry a big stick,” Patten said that the EU’s attitude to foreign affairs was to “speak softly but carry a big carrot.”

Collectively, Europe must exercise influence through “soft power.” The concept was invented by Joseph Nye, the Harvard political scientist, who, in his 2004 book “Soft Power,” defined it as the power to influence other countries without force or money. Instead, soft power draws people to it who, by “admiring its values, emulating its example, aspiring to its level of prosperity and openness — want to follow it.”

U.S. soft power has suffered in the past decade because the hard kind has been so prevalent. But it has not disappeared. It draws people to it still. The EU has had nothing but soft power. The “big carrot” is its ability to have others “aspire to its level,” economic or otherwise, accompanied by the promise of financial assistance. Yet Patten’s joke carries a rueful recognition that this may be a less-than-realistic approach to a hard world.

Corruption is everywhere and nowhere

John Lloyd
Dec 9, 2013 21:30 UTC

December 9 is International Anti-Corruption Day. Started a decade ago by the U.N.’s General Assembly, which states on its website that “corruption is a complex social, political and economic phenomenon that affects all countries…[it] undermines democratic institutions, slows economic development and contributes to governmental instability…[it] attacks the foundation of democratic institutions.” This all sounds good — except for the first part.

There are two escape tunnels in that first sentence. One is that the issue is “complex” (so don’t blame anyone if it takes time — forever? — to eradicate). The other is that “it affects all countries.” It does, but there is a difference between dangerous corruption and the largely trivial amounts, sometimes illegal, spent by British parliamentarians on their expenses or by Swedish cabinet mister Mona Sahlin, who charged her government credit card for a chocolate bar. Most were punished. Sahlin had to withdraw her bid for her party’s leadership, some British MPs were fired, fined or were given (short) prison terms.

Where countries with a functioning democracy and civil society can keep corruption down (but never out), others must live with it as a major, sometimes overpowering, fact of daily life. Eruptions against corruption tend to be massive, even violent. Acting as real-time demonstrations of the U.N.’s declaration, the mass protests threatening the governments in Ukraine and Thailand have corruption at the core of their complaints. The gatherings in Kiev were spurred by President Viktor Yanukovich’s swerve from an association agreement with the European Union toward a closer relationship with Russia. The protesters believe that Yankovich, his family and favored cronies are robbing the people of their state.

Ukraine staying put

John Lloyd
Dec 3, 2013 21:16 UTC

President Viktor Yanukovich of Ukraine must have thought he was opting for an easier life when he decided last week to renege on his decision to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union. Staying connected to the Russian-dominated former Soviet Union had seemed a better choice. Ukraine is the second-largest Slavic-Orthodox state after Russia, and Russians have long looked to Kiev for the eleventh-century origins of their state and religion.

The late American scholar Samuel Huntington called the former Soviet Union, with some other Eastern Slavic states, an “Orthodox civilization.” President Yanukovich must have thought he had avoided a clash with the West, which is, in Huntington’s view, quite a different civilization.

It seemed economically safer too. Ukraine’s creaking industry and infrastructure, its often-opaque banking system and its rudimentary service sector would have been a massive undertaking in moving toward European norms.

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