Opinion

John Lloyd

Ukraine is Putin’s great test

John Lloyd
Feb 28, 2014 23:22 UTC

To lose Ukraine — as the Russians and the President of Russia Vladimir Putin would see it — would be a huge blow. For Russians, it is part of them; of their history, of their economy and of their kin. If Putin were to “lose” Ukraine it would hurt him with the large part of the Russian population who have supported him and even more with the circle of military and security people who are his closest and most critical colleagues. The specter of being deposed like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, or, even worse, Libya’s late dictator Muammar Gaddafi, hangs over him.

More than anything else in his 14 years in power, four of these behind the scenes as prime minister, Putin is faced with a test of his own rhetoric. After his return to the presidency in May 2012, his speech has been composed of increasingly bellicose warnings to the West.

“Nobody should have any illusion about the possibility of gaining military superiority over Russia,” Putin said in his annual state-of-the-nation speech last December. “We will never allow this to happen. Russia will respond to all these challenges, political and military.” In the same address, and on other occasions,  Putin has portrayed the West as degenerate. “Euro-Atlantic countries which have moved away from their roots, including Christian values…on the same level (are placed) a multi-child family and a same-sex partnership…this is the path to degradation.”

When large-scale protests broke out in Moscow in 2011, he said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had “given a signal” to the demonstrators, “and with support of the U.S. state department, they began active work.”

Again, according to Putin and his supporters, the hand of the West is behind the revolt. In his account, the West must be faced down and shown who, in former Soviet terms, is the vozhd, the boss

In Italy, enter the wreckers

John Lloyd
Feb 25, 2014 21:22 UTC

Bologna – As of this week, Matteo Renzi is Italy’s third prime minister in a year. He follows Mario Monti (November 2011-April 2013) and Enrico Letta (April 2013-February 2014). At 39, Renzi is absurdly young by Italian standards, where in politics one’s sixties are seen as an apprenticeship period and one’s seventies are the time of full flowering. Renzi is full of reformist plans, as were his predecessors. He has had no national governing experience, but neither did Silvio Berlusconi when he came to the prime minister’s office in 1994.

The new thing about Renzi, nicknamed the rottamatore — the wrecker — is how he wants to change the ways of doing politics, business and administration in Italy. Another, even newer thing, is that so do his competitors.

There is no viable political force in Italy today that is politically conservative. Each of the leaders of the three major political groups says he wants to overturn the settled order. Each excoriates much of what has been the way of doing politics for much of the post-war period and proposes a leap into a new era.

Ukraine’s important next move

John Lloyd
Feb 21, 2014 15:02 UTC

Ukraine’s people are radicalizing by the hour. The estimates of at least 60 dead, the flow of blood, the images of snipers on both the government and the security side taking aim, the shrouded bodies being blessed by priests, and the incendiary rhetoric all point to a country where tensions, suppressed for decades, could take militant, armed form.

On the Maidan, Kiev’s central square and the main site of the protests, the “right sector” — a group of members of various groups including extreme rightists who sport Nazi symbols, have seized the role of protectors of the opposition. Volodymyr Fesenko, head of Kiev’s Center for Political Studies, says that “people support them not because they share its far-right ideology, but because they view it as the opposition’s army.”

The leader of the Maidan “army,” Dmitro Yarosh, said through a spokesperson that “our group is fully capable of waging a civil war.” Supporters of the group have already called for the people to arm themselves — a call that has allowed President Viktor Yanukovich to brand them as terrorists.

Chattanooga’s union blues

John Lloyd
Feb 18, 2014 19:12 UTC

Last Friday, the workers in a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee voted 712 to 626 — 89 percent of the eligible workforce — against joining the United Auto Workers after the UAW had spent two years attempting to organize there. The result is larger than the effect on the union or the company. This vote has global importance.

Unions are under pressure all over the western world, battered by a quartet of forces: technological change, a shift away from manufacturing, cuts in the public sector where unions are strongest and, in the past five years, recession. The ties that once bound unions tightly to labor and social democratic parties, especially in Europe, are loosening as both sides sour on the other. Neither can deliver the historic support they once did.

In the U.S. and elsewhere, the postwar consensus that unions were good or at least should be allowed to exist and grow has ended. In Chattanooga, a range of individuals and groups campaigned for a workforce dismissal of the UAW’s bid to represent the workers. One of these, the city’s former mayor and now Tennessee Republican Senator Bob Corker, employed what BloombergBusinessweek has called “borderline dishonesty” in claiming, as the vote began, that a “no” vote would guarantee a new SUV model coming to be built in the plant. This was contradicted rapidly by Frank Fischer, the plant’s CEO, who said no such linkage existed.

Switzerland says ‘We’re full’

John Lloyd
Feb 10, 2014 18:15 UTC

Swiss voters have opted for stiff restrictions on immigrants entering the country — including those from European Union countries. In doing so, they’ve given joy to the burgeoning anti-immigrant, anti-EU parties, a blow to the politicians and officials in Brussels and a blaring warning to center parties on the continent and everywhere.

In Europe, the consensus on immigration has always been fragile — and now it’s being shredded to bits.

The vote was narrow — 50.3 percent of the electorate with a mere 19,000 votes. However, this is Switzerland, where the people’s voice is paramount. Over the next three years, the federal authorities must develop strict immigration curbs designed to sharply reduce the inflow of immigrants who now make up between 23 and 27 percent of the population of eight million, the second-highest proportion in Europe (after Luxembourg).

As the world revolts, the great powers will watch

John Lloyd
Jan 28, 2014 19:20 UTC

Civil wars, those raging and those yet to come, present the largest immediate threat to human societies. Some have similar roots, but there is no overall unifying cause; except, perhaps, a conviction that the conflict is a fight to oblivion. Victory or death.

Syria currently leads in this grisly league. Deaths now total well over 100,000 in the war between the country’s leader, President Bashar al-Assad,and opposition forces. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported nearly 126,000 dead last month, and said it was probably much higher. More than 2 million Syrians have left their country as refugees, and 4.25 million have fled their homes to other parts of Syria. Last week, a report by three former war crime prosecutors alleged that some 11,000 prisoners had been tortured, many to death, in “industrial scale killing” by the regime of President Assad.

We are watching a relentless horror unfold. The current negotiations between the various factions of the opposition and the Assad government in Montreux may have saved some women and children from the besieged city of Homs, but at the core remains a presently insuperable clash of aims: the regime insists that Assad remain in power, the opposition that he depart immediately. Assad’s forces appear to have the advantage.

CEOs on stage

John Lloyd
Jan 21, 2014 21:57 UTC

Gerrit Zalm, the chief executive officer of the Dutch bank ABN AMRO, appeared before his staff in drag last week. In a performance that belied his usually dour management style, Zalm was dressed as his sister, “Priscilla.” He may make a bulky drag queen, but the CEO’s performance as a Madame working in the world’s oldest profession offered a series of brilliant comparisons to the profession of banking today.

Posing in a purple dress with startling red hair, Priscilla gave her brother a lesson in “putting the customer first” from a “flourishing business with a centuries-long tradition.” She noted that Zalm had given up working for leading — a choice that immensely benefited his salary.

“You should start with core values. In my company, we have three: reliability, professionalism and ambition. We try to give the customer a warm welcome. We aim for long-term client relationships and we deliver what we’ve agreed upon.”

French minds turn to scandal

John Lloyd
Jan 13, 2014 21:13 UTC

Like all great nations, the French have acquired a series of stereotypes that have a greater or lesser amount of observable truth going for them. One of these has been around since the nineteenth century, which is that its politicians all have semi-official mistresses. They are chosen from the ranks of the “grandes horizontals,” which reveals a Paris, for all its present economic woes, that still appears to be rich.

Much of that is due to the literature of the age. The best-known French novelists of the nineteenth century, Alexandre Dumas and Emile Zola, both put courtesans at the center of their fiction; women whose beauty and wit were their living. Zola’s Nana (1880), based on the beautiful Blanche d’Antigny (among others), saw its heroine die of smallpox; her face ravaged by pustules. Dumas also killed off his heroine painfully in La Dame aux Camelias (1848; and the source for Verdi’s La Traviata). But Guy de Maupassant’s Bel Ami (1885) has the handsome hero, Georges Duroy, rise through society to a position of power and wealth aided by affairs with the wives of powerful men — a kind of male “grand horizontal.” Though Zola and Dumas both gave a conventionally grisly ending to their sinful heroines, they clearly sympathized with them. Maupassant was famously “immoral” for using a prostitute in his Boule de Suif (1880) to show that she is superior in character to the disapproving bourgeois men and women who surround her.

In Britain, Russia and the U.S., sexuality was generally disguised in nineteenth century literature. Thus, France’s reputation as a country at ease with male and female sexuality passed into the shorthand image of the country — a place where “Oo la la!” and “cherchez la femme!” were thought to be the most common sayings, and the Folies Bergeres was the leading Parisian theater.

Journalism’s next big problem

John Lloyd
Jan 8, 2014 19:01 UTC

For a brief time at the beginning of the last century, politicians and journalists were friends. Not just friends, but colleagues, comrades in arms, letter-writing correspondents who praised and flattered each other in copious screeds. The politician during this period was President Theodore Roosevelt and the journalists were a handful of driven and talented writers. Many of them — Lincoln Steffens, Ray Baker, Ida Tarbell and others — were brought together by Samuel McClure in the magazine that bore his name.

McClure’s was published with the dual intention of explaining the contemporary era in lengthy researched pieces and supporting reform, especially of corrupt city governments and the huge, powerful corporations or trusts of the time.

Novelists, like Frank Norris and Upton Sinclair, and social investigators, like Jacob Riis, Gustavus Myers and Frances Kellor, compiled loosely fictionalized accounts of mass poverty, exploitation and desperation — the underside of America’s vast expansion. Sinclair’s novel The Jungle, about the meatpacking district of Chicago, brought about significant legislation on working conditions.

An empire dies slowly

John Lloyd
Jan 2, 2014 21:55 UTC

Stalingrad is the center of action in one of the world’s great novels, Vasily Grossman’s “Life and Fate.” Grossman, a Soviet war correspondent, spent months in Stalingrad in 1942 under constant bombardment. The description he gives of those who defended it against the encircling Wehrmacht is of a struggle, often hand-to-hand, across a ruined city between the troops of two totalitarian states. It was the war’s central turning point when the Red Army broke its hold on the encirclement.

Five years after Joseph Stalin fell from favor in 1956, Stalingrad become Volgograd. On Sunday bombs hit the city’s train station and a trolleybus, killing more than 30 people. There is a kind of symmetry in this attack and those that had reduced Stalingrad to rubble. The preservation of the city took a near suicidal feat of arms on the part of the Red Army, which in turn saved the Soviet Union. The bombings in Volgograd were Islamist suicide attacks, and they are likely to be a critical point in the slow death of the Soviet empire.

The passing of great empires can last for many years, and often decades. The effects of the withdrawal of the British, French and Austro-Hungarian empires from the vast territories they once commanded can still be felt. The Soviet Union collapsed in the late 1980s without a civil war like the one that nearly killed the new Soviet state between 1918-21. There have been, however, major conflicts in Chechnya, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Dagestan, Ingushetia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Uzbekistan, Moldova, Kyrgizia and a full-on, if brief, invasion of Georgia by Russia. Only the first and the last of these have been extensively covered by journalists. The attack in Volgograd signals that there are more conflicts to come.

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