Saturday, 29 November 2014

People without imagination should make money

People without imagination should pursue well paid careers. For them money supplies poetry.

Robert Graves was told by his publisher

There's no money in poetry

To which he replied 

There's no poetry in money. 

But in fact it depends on what poetry means to you. 

A. H. Clough's Spectator ab Extra expresses many people's philosophy, including that of quite a few nouveaux-riches I know in Bucharest (almost all the riche here are nouveaux)

They may talk as they please about what they call pelf, 

And how one ought never to think of one’s self, 

How pleasures of thought surpass eating and drinking— 

My pleasure of thought is the pleasure of thinking 

How pleasant it is to have money, heigh-ho! 

How pleasant it is to have money. 

Schopenhauer was characteristically bleaker:

"Money is happiness in abstracto; he, therefore, who is no longer capable of enjoying happiness in the concrete pursues money.

But Schopenhauer was wrong. Lots of people find great happiness in money. 

Romanians registered in the UK increased from 18,000 to 100,000 since restrictions were lifted

According to an article in yesterday's Financial Times

After employment controls were lifted in January, the number of Romanians registering for UK national insurance increased sharply compared with the year before – from 18,000 to 100,000. The figure for Bulgarians rose from 10,000 to 30,000.

The paper said:

"One Romanian woman who recently moved to London from Italy said she and her husband had decided to come to the UK because friends had told them the schools were better." 

I hope she is not disappointed. I read of one Albanian taxi driver in London who sends his child to a private school in Tirana to get a decent education.

I am perfectly sure that the great majority of Romanian immigrants coming to England are decent and hard-working and have much to give, though as Rod Liddle pointed out, a small minority cause big problems. Romanians (and other Eastern Europeans) in the main make great immigrants – they  are Christian, family-minded and conservative. They  resemble the way the English were before the 1960s.  We are lucky to have Eastern Europe from which to draw immigrants, if we need immigrants – though I am not convinced that we do and nor was a Select Committee of the House of Lords that looked at the economic advantages of immigration.

However, we are in the EU and free movement of peoples is a given. I hope that those who settle permanently (very many will) and become British subjects love the British tradition and will learn to be proud that Wolfe took Quebec. Knowing Anglo-Romanians I think they  will. I mention Wolfe because when Churchill was asked how to make children proud of being English he said 
'Tell them Wolfe took Quebec.'
The latest immigration figures in the UK, published yesterday, are startling. 583,000 people entered the UK to settle in the year to June. Only 228,000 were from the EU. This is despite the efforts of the Government to check immigration from outside the EU. This huge movement of people from the Third World not just to Britain but to Western Europe in general is the most important historical phenomenon of our times. I do not believe that it is inevitable, but nor do I expect it to be halted.

Do you remember the two in the poster?

If so, you are probably too old to wear jeans.

Kind hearts are more than coronets and simple faith than Norman blood

The name Howard means hog-herd. The Duke of Norfok's ancestor when surnames were given out was one.

Friday, 28 November 2014

My strongly-held opinion about Plebgate

I still PASSIONATELY believe Plebgate should be called Gategate.

A picture that makes me feel very happy and excited to live in Bucharest

What is the real world and would one want to live there?

I just had coffee with a very prosperous Scottish auditor. We were discussing Scotland and he joked that it was the kind of undeveloped country that I would like to visit. When I replied that Dr Johnson's and Boswell's accounts of their journey to the Hebrides are perhaps my two favourite books and I want to retrace their route the auditor said, 
'You don't live in the real world.' 
I remember he also described hearing me praise Ben Jonson to an English lecturer as 'the conversation from hell'. 

Worrying, especially as he belongs to the Scottish business elite and is standing for Parliament in the Conservative interest.

I was reminded that Logan Pearsall Smith said
How awful to reflect that what people say of us is true.
Another man joined us for coffee who is going off to work in Cambodia for a year. I urged him to visit Burma because 
It's untouched by the modern world.
The Scot said
It sounds like you.
The last time someone told me I didn't live in the real world was a cousin of mine about twelve years ago after I said I went shopping for no more than two articles at a time. I reflected, when he said I didn't live in the real world, that I lived in a potholed slum street with its share of beggars and child prostitutes, though it is true that I walked through their world rather than lived in it. 

Strada Blanari and I have gone up in the world since those days. The street is now full of bars and restaurants. 

Logan Pearsall Smith also said 
It is the wretchedness of being rich that you have to live with rich people.
At least I have escaped that fate so far. I cannot decide whether the rich are more interesting than people with good jobs. In very many ways they are, but I obstinately hope that the people with good jobs are more likely to have read Dr. Johnson.

Bill, who has a very good job, if by a good job one means a well-paid rather than an exciting one, told me that he hasn't read a book for twenty years, since he failed to finish a biography of an infamous Scotch hanging judge. I suspect that tastes in reading reveal our hidden criminal tendencies and perhaps a certain bloodthirstiness has taken Bill into a political career in the British Conservative Party. It's true that a less bloodthirsty, more milk-and-water body than the modern Conservatives is pretty hard to imagine, but in Bill's subconscious mind and in his dreams perhaps he is already presiding over Bloody Assizes, sending Scottish Nationalists and other undesirables to the gallows en masse

What is the real world? I think it is a place of absolute beauty and I find this absolute beauty frequently in Bucharest. Reality is in fact something very close to a mystical experience. I am not sure, however, that Bill would necessarily agree.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

The man who mistook Westminster Cathedral for a mosque

Westminster Cathedral.

Somebody in the South Thanet constituency association of UKIP referred on Twitter to a photograph of Westminster Cathedral as a mosque. The Guardian and many others are taking this slip terribly seriously. How much UKIP is hated - the verb is exact - and feared. Our rulers are very insecure about their hegemony.

It is an understandable mistake - nothing looks less English than neo-Byzantine Westminster Cathedral and after the Hagia Sofia in Constantinople was turned into a mosque this great Byzantine church became the model for the design of mosques to the present day.

In fact Catholic churches can never be national monuments. We are an odd, subversive foreign institution in the eyes of our Protestant compatriots, not part of English life, though we created England. I like this, the feeling of being an outsider that we share with Communists (it's not the only thing).

Of course Pugin, the fanatically Catholic architect who designed the Houses of Parliament, thought Gothic was the only true Catholic architectural style but it is not accidental that the two most famous and most loved Catholic churches in London, the Brompton Oratory and Westminster Cathedral, are not English Gothic but Italian baroque and Italian Byzantine respectively.

I love Westminster Cathedral more than any church in England, even though it is not nearly the most beautiful. Even though someone aptly said the interior resembles the bathroom department in Harrod's.

I loved it since I went there aged three for the first time. Even though the Masses are mostly in English it does not feel like the modern low church Catholic Church. It is intensely, giddily spiritual, unlike the much more beautiful St. Paul's, which is as spiritual as a garden shed. The Abbey, like other medieval Anglican churches, has the faintest trace of spirituality, which is all that remains of its Catholic origins, buried by restraint, good taste, national monuments and moth-eaten flags. 

I go to Westminster Cathedral whenever I am in London, even on brief visits. Possibly its un-Englishness it part of what draws me. Perhaps it reminds me that the only genuinely religious emotion that the English ever experience is hatred of Catholicism.

I wonder which is hated more, Catholicism or UKIP.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Bucharest, mon amour

I walk past this house every day. Half the houses in the centre of Bucharest are like this. The Romantic fascination with decay is what made me decide I wanted to live in Romania within thirty minutes of getting off the train in 1990.

More scenes from Bucharest. They explain is why I love Bucharest so much. It reminds me of Havana, which is the capital of a Communist dictatorship but also the antithesis of the modern world. Havana, Bucharest and Tbilisi are my three favourite cities.

Should you be interested, I wrote about my first visit to Havana here. I urge you to go there, dear reader, before the old man dies.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

I crossed the Euphrates and didn't know it

The friend I stayed with in Iraq just told me that I crossed the Euphrates, the day we went to Lalish, the Yazidi shrine. Why didn't he tell me at the time? Because it was a brook or dried up river bed where we crossed it, he said, but even so he should have spoken. But four years later, I feel a sense of glory. What other river except the Tigris is as impressive as the Euphrates?

It is one of the rivers of Babylon, by which the psalmist lay down and wept.

I did know that I was on the plain of Nineveh though regrettably most of it was outside the Kurdish region and therefore slightly too dangerous.

I wrote about this journey here

Rereading my account, I like the quotation from Bernard Lewis

The Roman Empire and the medieval Islamic Empire were not conquered by more civilized peoples, they were conquered by less civilized but more vigorous peoples. But in both cases what made the conquest, with the Barbarians in Rome and the Mongols in Iraq, what made it possible was things were going badly wrong within the society so that it was no longer able to offer effective resistance.

I should say, as a gloss on this, that I do not see the Islamists conquering the West in battle, though they are wreaking much damage in Kurdish Iraq. I think if Western civilisation ceases to exist it will be because Western women do not have enough children. But I am a bachelor, so I do not have locus standi in that debate.

Friday, 21 November 2014

Liberalism redivivus: UKIP are liberals

The Liberal Democrats got 0.87% of the vote in the Rochester by-election in the UK - some 349 votes. But they are not liberals - UKIP, who won the seat, are. Real, classical liberals.

The Lib Dems scored a lower percentage than any major party in a British by-election since 1918. Lower than any Liberal in the 1950s or 60s. Anywhere in the UK. 
I have three times as many Facebook friends as there were Lib Dem voters in Rochester. Isn't that absolutely wonderful? 

It restores ones faith in human nature.

What are liberals? Sir William Harcourt in 1872 gave the best definition, forty years before the Liberal Party decided to embrace the state.
Liberty does not consist in making others do what you think right. The difference between a free Government and a Government which is not free is principally this—that a Government which is not free interferes with everything it can, and a free Government interferes with nothing except what it must. A despotic Government tries to make everybody do what it wishes, a Liberal Government tries, so far as the safety of society will permit, to allow everybody to do what he wishes. It has been the function of the Liberal Party consistently to maintain the doctrine of individual liberty. It is because they have done so that England is the country where people can do more what they please than in any country in the world.
Admittedly, the Gladstonian liberals were internationalists, not isolationists, but it would be anachronistic to decide that this would therefore make Gladstone or his followers admirers of the EU, which seems to me to interfere with everything it can. Nor would John Stuart Mill have favoured mass immigration. He said in his Essay on Representative Government:
Free institutions are next to impossible in a country made up of different nationalities. Among a people without fellow-feeling, especially if they read and speak different languages, the united public opinion, necessary to the working of representative government, cannot exist. The influences which form opinions and decide political acts are different in the different sections of the country. An altogether different set of leaders have the confidence of one part of the country and of another. The same books, newspapers, pamphlets, speeches, do not reach them. One section does not know what opinions, or what instigations, are circulating in another. The same incidents, the same acts, the same system of government, affect them in different ways; and each fears more injury to itself from the other nationalities than from the common arbiter, the state.
I am not a liberal but esteem liberals - true 19th century ones like UKIP - and there is very little difference nowadays between them and true conservatives. Single-sex marriage might have appealed to John Stuart Mill but not to the Protestant strain in liberalism exemplified by Gladstone and it does not to UKIP. But there are very few liberal or conservative politicians these days. Some people in England are still interested in freedom, the liberal idea, or tradition, the conservative idea - but very many of the English are not very interested in either. This is especially true in the universities, as the very estimable Brendan O'Neill, who is a Trotskyite, reports here. 

In place of freedom, more and more the British are concerned by money, the welfare state and avoiding discrimination. For many these things are not only more important than freedom but have taken the place of the sacred

By the way, I have no idea why Emily Thornberry MP's tweet of a photograph of a white van in front of a house garlanded with St. George's flags should be a 'gaffe'. Her photograph was not mocking in any way. What a fool Ed Miliband is to have sacked her for it and to have said that he felt a sense of “respect” whenever he saw a white van. Mr. Miliband is a nerd and the press are bullies who see he is afraid of them. He is also an ass and too small a man to lead his party.

He managed to turn a news story about a Conservative defeat into a defeat for him. It all seems to have taken leave of reality and moved into an alternative time-space continuum. The writer Jeremy Duns tweeted:
I tried to explain Thornberry to my wife (Swedish-Finn). Got to point Ed said he respected white vans and she asked if it was a real story.

On this subject one last, elegaic point. I liked it when - twenty years ago - the English flag was only seen flying on the towers of country churches and was redolent of rural calm.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Victor Ponta and Traian Basescu were allies in the election

Romanian President Traian Basescu, who is on the centre-right, and his Social Democrat Prime Minister, Victor Ponta, appear to loathe each other and probably do so, but they do deals from time to time. I don’t know whether they met to discuss their strategy in the presidential elections but they were de facto allies against the main centre-right candidate, Klaus Iohannis, who on Sunday unexpectedly won a comfortable victory.

The reason for this unholy alliance was that, although in Romanian presidential elections only two candidates go forward into the second and final round of voting, held a fortnight after the first round, it is very important which candidate comes third. Traian Basescu as President is not permitted to have any party affiliation but he was represented in the election by his great protégée and favourite Elena Udrea. Mr. Basescu’s idea was that Mrs. Udrea would come third and take most of the voters who like Mr. Basescu with her. They come to over 15% of the electorate. In the 2016 elections the PSD would control the presidency, the parliament and the government and Mr. Basescu, as he imagined it, could be the opposition. But this idea was ruined when, to his great annoyance, Monica Macovei stood as an independent candidate. She is the former Minister of Justice who deserves the credit for making Romania’s previously infamously corrupt courts relatively clean. 

She has been a great admirer of President Basescu and would have made a very effective leader for Mr. Basescu’s constituency but Mr. Basescu is devoted to, even besotted with, Mrs. Udrea. In this way the Basescu vote was split. 

Elena Udrea

Everyone agreed, by the way, that neither woman stood a chance of being president because Romanians will not be ready for a woman president for a long time to come.

Meanwhile the PSD had done a deal with the former National Liberal Prime Minister Catalin Tariceanu, who now leads a splinter party. He is the man who sacked Mrs. Macovei as soon as Romania had safely entered the EU in 2007. He was drafted in by the PSD to stand for president in order to take votes from Klaus Iohannis.

It was important for the PSD that Mr. Tariceanu came third so that President Ponta could appoint him Prime Minister as a gesture of inclusivity intended to garner support from people who voted for the main centre right parties that backed Klaus Iohannis. Mrs. MacoveI threatened to wreck this plan too.

On the morning of the first round exit polls – these are published throughout election day here - showed her gathering an unexpectedly high 8% of the vote, not nearly enough to get into the second round but easily enough to take the prestigious third place. This for an independent candidate with no party organization or powerful backers would have been a very great achievement and made her a big force to be reckoned with for the next few years.

In the afternoon and evening something remarkable happened. The exit polls showed her support dropping off and falling to somewhat over 4%. 

This is remarkable because it is a given that left-wing voters vote early (the left is the rural party and in the countryside people wake early). Right-wing voters tend to lie in bed and vote later. Why did this not happen this time? Nobody knows, but the suspicion cannot be suppressed that the vote was tampered with to ensure Mr. Tariceanu took third place, as he did.

So far all went more or less to plan for the PSD though they had expected to win more votes in the first round. All was set for Victor Ponta to be President and to have a nominally liberal and centre right Prime Minister Catalin Tariceanu. This was the plan that was hatched a year ago but, as we know, it was not to be…

Most of Mr. Tariceanu’s voters ignored his advice to vote for Mr. Ponta and voted for Mr. Iohannis, who took the presidency by a comfortable margin of 10% of the votes. Mrs. Udrea told people to vote against Mr. Ponta but on Saturday it was reported that she was neutral. On Sunday she appeared unexpectedly in Paris of all places standing in the queue to vote at the embassy. The Hungarians voted for the German and so did a lot of previously undecided voters. Almost every one of the 400,000 members of the diaspora queuing outside consulates and embassies had several people in Romania they were close to and whom they may have urged to vote –  for 
Klaus Iohannis. Some Romanians abroad told their parents that they would not send any more money home unless they voted for him.

Mr. Ponta lost badly, but not he only. His party lost badly, of course, even though it is still the government. A lot of people who fear investigation by the anti-corruption prosecutors (DNA) know that they may lose very badly indeed. Mrs. Udrea lost fairly badly and will soon have to manage without presidential protection. She has already been interviewed by the DNA. Mr. Basescu, I suggest, lost and so did Mr. Melescanu who gave up running the secret service to be Foreign Minister and resigned five days later because of his failure to arrange enough stamps to allow the diaspora to vote. 

He said it was a resignation of honour but before Sunday's election he had said the law did not permit him to enable people to vote quickly. He will come back. He always does. He also stood for the presidency as a stalking horse to draw away centre-right votes but later the PSD decided Mr Tariceanu was a more useful feint.

Mrs. Macovei backed Klaus Iohannis and it will be interesting to see what the future has in store for her. She didn't lose, even if some of her votes were lost, and, of course, nor did the parties representing the 7% Hungarian minority, who voted for Mr. Iohannis. Whoever wins or loses, the Hungarians always win. A German president is the nearest thing to a Hungarian president that they can hope for, so they may feel that they won big.

Almost everyone I talk to thinks that Romania has won, including some who are connected to the PSD by ties of consanguinity or interest. Romanians, who have a collective father complex, tend to look for a providential figure to rescue them and the President-elect looks providential. Cometh the hour, cometh the man, people are hoping. Let's see.

War in Aleppo takes toll on the legendary Hotel Baron

Here is a short, sad article on Aleppo's wonderful Baron Hotel, my favourite hotel in the world, in one of my favourite cities in the world. Sad though the war is, I am glad that no worse has so far befallen the grand old lady than a roof
 perforated by gunfire and no guests for four years.

Mr. Mazloumian, the owner, is an exceptionally nice man, feline and gentlemanly. Arabs are wonderfully hospitable and warm and when you are a paying guest they are even more so. In the article he is quoted as saying of the fighting in Aleppo,
"You think all this will stop? It will take years."
Unfortunately, he is of course right. 

I stayed in the presidential suite, the rooms where President Assad senior had stayed in 1972 for $70, but would have preferred to pay less and stay where Agatha Christie or Laurence of Arabia had stayed. I wrote about my journey here and a brief note about the Hotel Baron here.

I like to google to find the oldest hotel in a town I visit and hope it is run to seed at least a bit. Wikipedia provides a useful list of such hotels here. Among my favourites are the Hotel Imperial in Jerusalem, the Hotel Londonskaya in Odessa and the Hotel George in Lviv. There is also the Grand Cafe des Londres in Constantinople. The Pera Palace was once delightfully late nineteenth century, like a London club in Constantinople, though not shabby  - it was my favourite place in the whole city and the only place that felt old-fashioned - but it was ruined by renovation. Now it's a five star place with air conditioning designed for Americans.

When I went I wanted to go from Bucharest to Aleppo by train but the Taurus Express had been suspended for four weeks. Now it has been suspended indefinitely, of course. I have since remembered the first lines of 'Murder on the Orient Express' which makes me regret even more not taking that famous train.

It was five o’clock on a winter’s morning in Syria. Alongside the platform at Aleppo stood the train grandly designated in railway guides as the Taurus Express. It consisted of a kitchen and dining-car, a sleeping-car and two local coaches.
Here is a conversation I had with a friend I made in Damascus who now lives in Bucharest. His insight into the war is worth reading.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

What will Victor Ponta do next?

What will happen in Romania next, after the surprise election of Klaus Iohannis (his name is really Johannis) as President?

First we have to see if the Supreme Court rules in a case in which Mr. Iohannis is accused by the National Integrity Commission of having not declared a conflict of interest in a slightly arcane matter in his capacity as Mayor of Sibiu. The court could rule against Mr. Iohannis and rule that he is unfit to be president. I can’t see it happening. It is more likely that they will adjourn the case until he becomes president, when he will have immunity from prosecution. This is what they did with a case in which the current President Traian Basescu is accused of corruption in connection with selling off the Romanian navy.

What will happen to Victor Ponta, who lost the presidency to almost everyone’s surprise?
Nothing, for the time being. He will continue being Prime Minister, despite the change of president. It is the Government not the president that rules Romania. Like his mentor Adrian Nastase, who was the PSD candidate for the presidency ten years ago (and who is now out on parole), Victor Ponta never wanted to be president and wanted to continue as prime minister. So everything is peachy. Except it’s not.

Victor Ponta though a clever man is not leader of the Social Democrat party (PSD) or Prime Minister because of his own strength of personality or sheer stature. He is not what in British politics is called a big beast of the jungle. Only two Romanian politicians really qualify for that description: Ion Iliescu, who overthrew Ceausescu and had him shot, and Traian Basescu. Victor Ponta, by contrast, was chosen as a young (too young to have been a communist) and telegenic front man for the PSD.

For those who do not follow Romanian politics, I should explain that the PSD is not a political party in the sense understood in Western Europe. It is the continuation of the old Communist Party by other means and without the left-wing ideology. It is not monolithic or genuinely national but is a federation of parties organised in each Romanian county. Each country organisation is in effect a business, a conspiracy or, if we are to call spades spades, a criminal network. Mr. Ponta is leader as long as he can balance the competing interests of the leaders of the party in the countries (the so called ‘barons’) and offer them a chance of winning the 2016 parliamentary election.

Mr. Ponta said that any PSD candidate for the presidency would get 40% of the votes. It was up to him to get another 10%. The fact that Mr. Ponta won only 45% of the votes and therefore lost the presidency does not mean he cannot lead his party to victory in 2016. The way he lost Sunday’s election probably does. 

Victor Ponta fought a very old-fashioned campaign that seemed to be tailored to the unsophisticated, nationalistic Romanian electorate of the early 1990s, offering pension increases and public works. Playing the racial and religious cards against his German Protestant opponent is what everyone would expect him to do, though it seems to have been ineffective. No one was surprised by his shameless campaign to bribe electors with public money Electoral fraud which may have stolen up to 900,000 votes has not made a big impact here, through it certainly should have done. But the sight of very long queues of Romanians outside embassies and consulates, queueing all day in the cold, in many cases never to be allowed to vote, were crucial for winning the election for Mr. Iohannis and will permanently tarnish Mr. Ponta’s image. And these things happened not only on Sunday but in the first round of the election two weeks before. They happened because the diaspora is overwhelmingly opposed to the PSD. Those people were not queueing all day to vote for Victor Ponta. Mr. Ponta defended the way in which voting took place abroad on television in his debates with Mr. Iohannis. The contempt for the viewing public was unmistakable.

Remember that Mr. Ponta was discovered to have plagiarised his doctoral thesis. Then there are lurid, melodramatic allegations on the net about his connection with a young prosecutor who committed suicide back in 2002, while investigating Adrian Nastase. If I held stocks in Mr. Ponta I should sell them. That is what the barons are thinking too.

Tony Blair was motivated by envy

My companion at lunch told me Lord Carrington told him that Tony Blair was motivated mainly by envy, of things he didn't have. This is why he loved destroying traditions. Lord Carrington is a wise old bird and might be right.

Psychopaths are motivated mainly by envy too, but I do not believe Mr. Blair is one.

Monday, 17 November 2014

Deutschland über alles - why Victor Ponta lost

"The people's voice is odd./It is and it is not the voice of God." Alexander Pope
"Ponta meet karma - she's a bitch." Placard in Piata Universitatii.
1.00 a.m.

Victor Ponta, the favourite to win the presidency - everyone assured me he would win - has conceded defeat and I am surprised how emotional I feel. Just like when Traian Basescu beat the favourite Adrian Nastase by a whisker in 2004 and the euphoria in the streets of Bucharest the next day was palpable. Where did ten years go? 

I always had a feeling that the German would win it - largely because he's German. Romanians trust Germans more than other Romanians. They usually trust foreigners more than other Romanians, so long as the foreigners are white.

Romania makes a habit of these cliff-hangers. The exit polls showed Basescu losing in 2009 but the diaspora saved him then. This time the diaspora won the election for Mr. Iohannis not because of their votes, which in the end were not crucial, but because of the pictures posted all over the social media of queues a mile long in Munich, London and everywhere else, queues of people who stood eight hours in the cold on a Sunday and in some cases were, even then, not allowed to cast their votes. This happened in the first round of voting two weeks ago and again in the second round, because Mr. Ponta's government had arranged insufficient polling booths. 

These pictures were the best advertising materials Mr. Iohannis could have had. You can't buy that kind of advertising. This was another revolution won on social media.

Viscount Whitelaw, Margaret Thatcher's long-serving deputy, said at one point in the sorry life of James Callaghan's administration, which preceded hers,
"We should certainly not gloat. This is no time to gloat. But I can tell you, I am gloating like hell."
So is half Romania tonight - roughly speaking, the better, more informed and idealistic half. 

Mr Ponta conceded defeat within an hour, while the exit polls showed the result too close to call. Presumably his own polling, much more reliable than any exit poll, showed him he had lost. Did he also fear violence in the street had he stayed? People say half a million votes were rigged by electoral tourism and other malpractice and the votes of the diaspora as always were certain the be strongly anti-PSD. But I wonder if he received calls from the State Department instructing him to concede defeat, as Adrian Nastase is said to have done in 2004.

Victor Ponta's campaign slogan - 'The President Who Unites' - proved almost true, but not in the way he wanted. He united (enough) Romanians against him. For a moment Romania - or Bucharest, anyway - is suffused by a glow of solidarity, as it was after the centre-right victories in 1996 and 2004. What a shame that it will not last long.

Victor Ponta is still Prime Minister, the job I am sure he wanted more than the presidency, and in theory there is no reason why he should lose it. Only his own party can get rid of him and if they do so their mortal foe, President Băsescu, will get to choose his successor. After Mr. Iohannis is sworn in next month it will be Mr. Iohannis who invites politicians to form a new government  - if a vacancy occurs. 

Yet, though Mr. Ponta got almost half the vote, I feel that he is probably a busted flush and not long for this political life. He always looked like a naughty schoolboy and now he has been thrashed, as naughty boys used to be in the days before corporal punishment was banned by the EU.

Note on Monday:

The final figures reveal that it wasn't even close - the figures look like 55% for Iohannis, 45% for Ponta. That's after the alleged malpractice and despite the people in the diaspora unable to vote. So there was never going to be any need for American pressure or social unrest.  

Why did the polls get it so wrong?

In Britain there is a well-known and marked tendency for Conservatives not to like admitting to pollsters that they will vote Conservative or, in the case of exit polls, that they have voted Conservative. In Romania no-one puts too much faith in polls but here too there seems to be a tendency for people not to admit that they are voting for the centre-right candidate. This may explain why the PSD candidate was expected to win the presidency in 2004 and 2014. In 2009 the exit polls said the PSD candidate Mircea Geoana had won.

Another part of the explanation is the influence of social media. Pro-PSD television channels showed Orwellian stories about Hungarian subversion yesterday, but mostly older people were watching. On Twitter and Facebook there was a relentless torrent of pictures and posts from Romanians abroad queueing in lines a mile long, camping out overnight to vote, being dispersed by French and Italian police with tear gas, because the government of Victor Ponta had not provided enough polling booths. And very emotional messages on the social media from the diaspora begging people in Romania to exercise their right to vote may have mobilised a lot of votes - and even changed many minds - as polling day wore on. The exit polls showed a big swing from Ponta to Johannis as the day progressed.

Friday, 14 November 2014


Since he first came on the scene I have been struck by a remarkable resemblance between Victor Ponta, favourite to win the Romanian presidency on Sunday, and Alfred E. Neuman, Mad magazine's eternal write-in candidate for president.

mad magazine the idiotical Alfred E. Neuman for President: Let Him Finish the Job Politics, Alfred E. Neuman, Alfred E. Neuman for President, Mark Fredrickson, MAD Posters


An October day in the Maramures

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Romania publishes as many books as all the Arab countries put together

An interesting piece of information from this site:

....the Arab world, with its population of over 362 million people in 2012 (according to the World Bank data), produces between 15,000 and 18,000 new titles per year, with print runs varying between 1,000 and 3,000 copies each ... Which is the number of books produced in countries like Romania (with a population of 21.3millions in 2012), and Ukraine (population 45.6millions in 2012), and which is roughly the number of titles published yearly by Penguin Random House.

Interestingly, Iran, with 78 million inhabitants, publishes more than the Arab world. 

The Arabs have produced six Nobel prize winners, of whom three were given the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to bring peace to the Middle East and one for campaigning for human rights in Yemen. Romanians have won four. However, of the four Romanian winners two were ethnic Romanians and the other two, Herta Muller and Elie Wiesel, a German from the Banat and a Transylvanian Jew respectively, made their lives abroad and did not write in Romanian. By comparison 32 Nobel Prizes were awarded to graduates of Trinity College, Cambridge. I wish my headmaster had not dissuaded me from going there.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

The Berlin Wall was opened 25 years ago today

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Helmut Kohl at the Brandenburg Gate
On 9 November 1989 the German Democratic Republic told its citizens that they could visit West Germany and West Berlin. The Communist government did not mean they could cross the Berlin Wall (the "Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart") that evening but that's what East Germans understood. For soldiers to have stopped them could have led to violence so they were allowed to go. 

That evening seems very recent to me. WHERE DID 25 YEARS GO?

Many people do not know that Germany need not have been divided until 1989. Khrushchev offered the USA a united, neutral and demilitarised, but democratic Germany - and the offer was unforgivably rejected by the USA. Adenauer oddly was opposed to the idea too - as, of course, was the leader of the GDR, Walter Ulbricht, but his views didn't count with Russia. The same offer in respect of Austria was accepted.

Mr. Gorbachev, looking very ancient, is reported as saying yesterday at an event at the Brandenburg Gate that 

"The world is on the brink of a new Cold War. Some are even saying that it's already begun."

Interestingly, though an outspoken critic of Vladimir Putin, Mr Gorbachev blamed the West for this state of affairs and mentioned the expansion of NATO and NATO military intervention in Iraq, Kosovo and Syria. He has a point but I think the cold war aways continued in the background, certainly as far as military planning and the intelligence services were concerned and, under Vladimir Putin, the intelligence services and former members of those services are running Russia. 

There is no longer much of an ideological difference between Russia and America - but there is some difference, because democracy and human rights can be said to be the USA's ideology. This ideology has led the Americans to try to topple governments friendly to Russia in the former USSR and therefore is a direct threat to the Russian government. On the other hand Vladimir Putin pays lip service to much the same ideals, except when it comes to 'homosexual propaganda' aimed at minors, and does not have an alternative ideology to offer. But, in any case, great powers automatically attract enemies and the USA has done a lot to attract them and so we are in the classical situation where unfriendly powers are vying over influence, something that was not supposed to happen in the democratic era. 

It is depressing and worrying but anyone who remembers Mr. Brezhnev knows that this is not going to be a Cold War like the last one. I suspect though that, since  neither side intended to disturb the division of Europe into Communist and democratic blocs, the Cold War itself was based to a large extent on paranoia on both sides. So did George Kennan, whose famous Long Telegram formed the basis for the US policy of containment of the Soviet Union during the Cold War, but who did not think the Cold War was necessary. Yet the Cold War was a duplicitous, curiously insincere affair. When the Communist regimes fell the Poles and Hungarian anti-Communists got no help from the West. The KGB, not the CIA or MI6, helped bring about the changes in Czechoslovakia and East Germany. 

This is the kind of paradox which is the stuff of Cold War spy fiction and its doyen, John Le Carré. 

Britain and France did not want Germany to reunite and discussed after the Wall opened how it could be prevented but could not think of a way. Mrs. Thatcher and François Mitterand agreed with François Mauriac who once said: 
I love Germany so much I want there to be two of them.
George Kennan also opposed the extension of NATO into Eastern Europe 1998 saying it the beginning of a new cold war. I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anybody else. This expansion would make the Founding Fathers of this country turn over in their graves. We have signed up to protect a whole series of countries, even though we have neither the resources nor the intention to do so in any serious way. [NATO expansion] was simply a light-hearted action by a Senate that has no real interest in foreign affairs." ... 

I was particularly bothered by the references to Russia as a country dying to attack Western Europe. Don’t people understand? Our differences in the cold war were with the Soviet Communist regime. And now we are turning our backs on the very people who mounted the greatest bloodless revolution in history to remove that Soviet regime.

I am sure Kennan was right that Communist Russia was not a threat to Western Europe. He backed detente. He also thought Vietnam was not of strategic importance to the USA and opposed the Vietnamese War, though not the Korean war. He was angry with Eisenhower for letting down Britain and France over Suez and he thought mass immigration a grave danger for America and Europe. That's a lot of things to have been right about. 

Whether he was right to oppose NATO expansion in 1998 is harder to say. Would this have kept good relations with Russia? If not it would have made the Baltic States much more vulnerable than they already are to Russian aggression - although it would also have made NATO less exposed. I suspect that Kennan might have argued that they are not of strategic importance to the USA or Western Europe. 

Had he lived to see it he would, of course, have opposed NATO's later further expansion to include Romania. He makes deploys good arguments, but  NATO expanded into Eastern Europe because Eastern Europe desperately wanted to join NATO. Had NATO not expanded I am pretty certain that Vladimir Putin would still have annexed the Crimea and intervened in Ukraine.

Mark Steyn, who is always worth reading, commemorates the opening of the Wall here and gets in an amusing point about Mr. Obama's narcissism.
As he put it in his video address to the German people on the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall:
'Few would have foreseen on that day that a united Germany would be led by a woman from Brandenburg or that their American ally would be led by a man of African descent.'
Tear down that wall …so they can get a better look at me!!!

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Playing the race card in the Romanian presidential elections

The first round of the Romanian presidential election on Sunday produced a result more or less as expected. The Prime Minister, Victor Ponta, from the PSD, the party which is in effect the successor to the Romanian Communist Party, scored 40%. His centre-right PNL (Liberal) challenger Klaus Iohannis scored 30%, a bit better than expected. If you add on the votes of the other two centre-right candidates Mr. Iohannis’s vote almost equals Mr. Ponta's but Mr. Ponta says he will name former Liberal Prime Minister Mr. Tariceanu as Prime Minister and this may bring over most of Mr. Tariceanu’s supporters. But the election result may be decided by the ethnic Hungarians who make up about 7% of the population and usually vote as a disciplined phalanx as their leaders instruct them.

Wise people who know about how things work in Romania always confidently but mysteriously say that the politicians are marionettes behind whom stand occult interests, shadowy business leaders and the former Communist secret police (and the very boyish Mr. Ponta does rather look like a marionette or even a ventriloquist's dummy). The well-informed people say that the PSD election strategy is a long term one by which Mr. Ponta was persuaded against his will to stand for president and Mr. Tariceanu was persuaded to stand to draw away votes from the Liberal Party and split the anti-PSD vote in return for the premiership. It is also said that the local Liberal barons, powerful political figures in the provinces who are believed to wax fat on sweet deals and immoral activities connected to the public service, have not tried hard to get the vote out for their party leader, preferring the other side to win for financial reasons. 

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Be that as it may Romania has divided in the most interesting way over this contest.

The electoral map of the results of the first round is very telling. Hunedoara and Caras-Severin are the only Transylvanian counties to vote for the PSD, as did the Bucovina. Otherwise the border between Austria Hungary, or Catholic Europe and the Ottoman Empire or the  Balkans is reflected in the voting. The areas which voted for Iohannis were not necessarily more prosperous than those which voted for the PSD but they are culturally very different. This division derives from the nine hundred years that Hungary ruled much of what is now Romania but before that to the dichotomy between Eastern and Western Christianity and the division of the Roman Empire into two halves.

Romania is an example of incomplete nation building, though it coheres, which is much more than Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia did. Ethnic Romanians do not share a common history or the same Orthodox religion  (some adhere to the Greek Catholic church and Rome) but they share a common literary language, accepted in all parts of the country, and a common fear - the spectre of Hungary one day talking back the lands she lost in 1918. Like all spectres this danger is insubstantial and doesn't in fact exist, but is nevertheless scary. Since the revolution the the party that now calls itself the PSD have played on this fear with great effect, as did the Communist party throughout its period in power.

You might expect the Hungarians to prefer a Transylvanian German but there are signs that there might be an unholy alliance between the ethnic Hungarian party, the UDMR, and the PSD. We should know which candidate the UDMR endorse on Thursday but if they think Mr. Ponta will win they will want to give him their support and he is expected to win and.

Ethnic Romanians made up a fraction over half the population of Transylvania before it was taken from Austria Hungary and given to Romania after the First World War. The rest of the population were made up mostly of Hungarians and Germans. The numbers of Germans diminished when very many were ethnically cleansed after the Second World War. Under Communism many more left for West Germany in return for payments by Bonn. In December 1989 when the Romanian revolution took place there were about only 200,000 Germans in Romania, a year later half that. Klaus Iohannis would have left in 1990 had he not fallen in love with an ethnic Romanian girl to whom he is now married.

Sibiu, or Hermannstadt to give its German name, is a city designed by Germans and Hungarians for Germans and Hungarians and is a masterpiece of Habsburg architecture that it is now inhabited mostly by the descendants of the peasants in the hinterland. The same story can be told for old cities scattered across Romania, Serbia, Croatia, Slovakia and Ukraine. After the revolution the numbers of Germans fell so low that the ethnic German party only filled one seat on the city council. Mr Iohannis, an able youngish schoolmaster, was expected to win that one seat in 2000 but to his and everyone else's astonishment he won the job of mayor. He was chosen not for his own merits (he was an unknown)  but, like Mr. Obama, purely because of his ethnicity, all Romanians thinking that ethnic Germans are more honest and more efficient than Romanians. This was the reason why he later became leader of Sibiu County Council and then was summoned to Bucharest, the Great Wen, where the PSD candidate in 2009 promised to appoint him Prime Minister if he won the presidency.  

When he announced he was standing for president I thought Mr. iohannis's ethnicity would swing it for him. Almost all the Romanians that I know trust foreigners more than other Romanians ('so long as they're white' was the caveat a leading businesswoman added when she told me this). But I spend most of my time with intelligent, educated Romanians who went to university. The peasants and factory workers think differently.

There is an interesting book to be written about the intertwined relationship between Germans and Romanians. It would have to include the the German occupation of Bucharest in the First World War. The German commander, Field Marshal August von Mackensen, complained when he left that
"I came to Bucharest two years ago with a legion of conquering heroes. I leave with a troupe of gigolos and racketeers.”
The same trajectory has been followed by a number of German businessmen who came to Romania. Let us hope that Mr. Iohannis preserved his principles despite the temptations presented by political life in Bucharest. His opponents point however to allegations of misconduct. 

Be that as it may - and Mr. Iohannis is the owner of six properties - it is thought that the astonishing arrests of large numbers of leading businessmen and politicians for corruption which have made the last few years in Romania so hopeful are more likely to continue under President Iohannis than they are under a PSD president. President Traian Băsescu has used the presidency to protect the independence of the prosecutors from being unfairly influenced by politicians, in the PSD and other parties he dislikes, and the so-called 'structure of power', the Romanian shadowy equivalent of the Turkish 'deep state'. This is one principal reason why the fight over the presidency is so important.

Ethnic Hungarians are regarded with suspicion by ethnic Romanians but ethnic Germans enjoy good relations with both groups and are much respected. Romania's first king, King Carol I, was German and is regarded as one of Romania's very few good rulers. But is Romania ready for a German president? Perhaps more to the point is she ready for a Lutheran president? (Like almost all ethnic Germans, Mr. Iohannis is a Lutheran in a deeply religious country where being Romanian means being Orthodox.) Mr. Ponta thinks not and is naturally playing the ethnic and religious cards as much as he can. In the countryside these things matter and not just in the countryside. 

People tell me things are complex but I think two issues dominate the election - whether people want the PSD and the post-Communist old guard in power and whether they think a German president would be better.