Monthly Archives: February 2013

Last Sunday morning, “El Niño Verde” – as Jorge Emilio González, a young Mexican senator, is known – was driving down a central thoroughfare in Mexico City in his Mercedes Benz. When the police stopped him for a breathalyzer test, the gallant young rake protested, and gave a false name. But the police insisted, whereupon the bodyguards of the 40-year old senator for the state of Quintana Roo jumped out of their car, and threatened the hapless cops. Normally, this story would be of no transcendence whatsoever – just another run-of-the-mill tale of corruption and the impunity of power. But the local press have leapt on the story with glee – perhaps because it is a telling, and may be even hopeful, vignette of the state of modern Mexico.

To describe “El Niño Verde” as a politician probably stretches the definition of the word, although politics runs in the family. His grandfather was a senator and one-time presidential candidate. His father then founded Mexico’s “Green Party” – another misnomer, although it does explains González’s nickname, which literally means “the green boy”. In one infamous incident in 2004, González was filmed in conversation with a property developer who wanted his help, for a price, to facilitate planning permission to build a hotel in an ecologically protected area near the tourist resort of Cancun. There are other far more tawdry tales that have since attached to this clearly unpleasant young man. And, each time, he has managed to wriggle free, exercising the impunity that he long enjoyed as a member of an old political clan. Read more

What the strange trial of a dead man tells us about Putin’s Russia
Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer who died in a Moscow jail in 2009 after making allegations of tax fraud against interior ministry officials, is to be tried on tax-evasion charges in a Russian court beginning on Monday. Charles Clover, Moscow bureau chief; Geoff Dyer, diplomatic correspondent; and Neil Buckley, east Europe editor, join Gideon Rachman to discuss what this strange posthumous trial says about Putin’s Russia and how could it affect relations with Europe, and particularly the US.

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Beppe Grillo at a rally in March 2008 (Marcello Paternostro/AFP/Getty)

He has been called many things: clown, showman, a “sans-culottes satirist”, Italy’s “funniest man”. And less complimentary things too: “populist, extremist and very dangerous”. But Beppe Grillo, the comedian-turned-political campaigner, can give as good as he gets. His nickname for Silvio Berlusconi is “the psycho-dwarf”, while he refers to the technocrat Mario Monti as “rigor Montis”. Grillo’s way with words is just one talent he has used to shake up the political landscape in Italy in recent years; his digital savvy – he runs Italy’s most popular blog – has helped him harness growing public anger at corruption and turn it into a grassroots political movement.

Final opinion polls published ahead of the February 24-25 election showed his Five Star Movement in third position with 13-16% of the vote – ahead of Monti’s Civic Choice and only a few points behind Berlusconi’s People of Liberty. So how did he get there? And what does he really believe in?

In the FT

  • Grillo’s Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S) presents itself as an antidote to a corrupt political elite, focused on five key areas: public water, transportation, development, internet availability, and the environment. In October, the group scored well in a regional election in Sicily, despite a web-driven campaign spending of just €25,000 – far less than the major parties. The head of one of Italy’s biggest companies lamented: “I can’t stand Grillo. He is against everything. He is aiming to destroy not change”.

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Italy's former Prime minister Silvio Berlusconi delivers a speech during a rally of his party "Popolo della liberta" (People of the Freedom - PDL) in Rome, on February 7, 2013 (ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP/Getty Images)

(AFP/Getty)

As Italy’s increasingly surreal election campaign draws to a close, it is still hard to believe that Silvio Berlusconi, who exited government so ignominiously 18 months ago, may well garner enough votes with his coalition partners next weekend to deny the centre-left and Mario Monti an outright win.

Should that happen, as is probable, Italians are destined for more political instability. They may be back at the polls within a year or 18 months.

In that context alone, understanding the enduring appeal of Berlusconi – who failed to stem a decline of Italian economic competitiveness during his time in office and remains mired in corruption trials – can be baffling for an outsider. But go out on the stump with Italy’s veteran showman, as I did on Monday night, and it all becomes a little clearer. Read more

Sri Lankan journalist Faraz Shauketaly is rushed to hospital (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

Sri Lankan journalist Faraz Shauketaly was rushed to hospital on February 16 (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

The Sri Lankan government has a pretty dismal reputation on human rights, but has paid little discernible price for this. Perhaps the rest of the world is simply grateful that a terrible civil war has come to a close – however brutal the finale.

It is important that disappearances and shootings in Sri Lanka should not go unremarked. So, in case you missed it, here is an FT report on the shooting of a Sri Lankan journalist last week. As the report notes, Sri Lanka is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists. Some 39 have been killed over the last seven years.

The journalist who was shot this week worked for the Sunday Leader newspaper – whose editor was assassinated a couple of years ago, after predicting that he would be murdered by people linked to the government. The Sri Lankan government obviously denies any connection to the killing of journalists – although Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the country’s volatile defence secretary, has issued barely-veiled threats against senior journalists for writing stories he did not like. The transcript of the conversation is here. The defence minister’s interview with the BBC Hardtalk programme also gives a flavour of the man. Read more

By Gideon Rachman

In the 1970s, Mogens Glistrup, a prominent Danish politician, became famous for suggesting that his country replace its armed forces with a recorded message saying “we surrender” in Russian.

Gold bars are seen at the Czech Central Bank on September 05, 2011 in Prague (MICHAL CIZEK/AFP/Getty Images)

The golden stuff (AFP/Getty)

It must rank as one of the most thankless jobs in diplomacy. Just how do you draw up incentives for Iran to rein in its nuclear programme?

Talks have lumbered on, in one incarnation or another, for a decade now. Efforts to win over Tehran have been encumbered by mutual suspicion, political sensitivities (there is always the charge of appeasement) and sheer force of law.

Many of the sanctions the Islamic Republic most objects to are already on the statute book, whether as UN Resolutions, EU agreements or US law. No wonder it is difficult to come up with a compelling offer; few countries can change their laws by fiat.

On Monday, Tehran attacked one of the latest ideas seemingly floated by the world’s major powers – the notion the US could roll back recently imposed sanctions on gold sales to Iran.

The idea may have been designed to help Western allies – notably Turkey –as much as to alleviate Iran’s economic isolation. Last year Ankara became the world’s leading gold exporter to Iran, whether directly or through entrepôts such as the UAE. Demand from the Islamic Republic helped Turkey’s overall exports of the metal reach levels of $1.5bn-$2bn some months.

The trade has various explanations – chief of which is that bank transactions with Iran have become ever more problematic, particularly in the wake of measures affecting Swift, a group that facilitates electronic funds transfers. Against this backdrop, Tehran started taking payment for its oil and gas exports to Ankara in Turkish Lira – instead of via bank transfer – and using the money to buy gold it then ships home. Read more

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(ANDREY SMIRNOV/AFP/Getty Images)

(AFP/Getty Images)

UPDATED 11/07/13: After a number of delays, a Moscow court convicted Sergei Magnitsky ‘in absentia’ on July 11 of tax evasion.

In the next few months, Russian prosecutors plan to put a man on trial. Two things make the case important. First, the man is a whistleblower, a lawyer who was jailed after he had publicly accused interior ministry officials of tax fraud amounting to $230m. Second, he is dead.

Amnesty International argues that the posthumous prosecution of Sergei Magnitsky violates his fundamental rights even in death, “in particular the right to defend himself in person.

Is it even legal to try someone once they’ve died? The key question is whether the trial is criminal, or civil, says William Schabas, professor of international law at Middlesex University. “You can sue a dead person in a civil court – you can sue their estate. But the point of a criminal prosecution is to put them in jail. To my knowledge you can’t hold a criminal trial once someone has died – although I can’t rule out the fact that a perverse justice system could create such a possibility.”

Marie-Aimee Brajeux at Queen Mary’s Criminal Justice Centre, University of London, agrees. “The objective of a criminal trial is to hold someone accountable for what they’ve done wrong and punish them for it. In that case, the defendant has to be alive and no action can be brought against them once they’re dead, especially as they can’t defend themselves.”

Until very recently, it was impossible in Russia to bring criminal proceedings against a dead person – so the case against Magnitsky was closed 13 days after he died. But in 2011, a Constitutional Court ruling allowed that criminal proceedings could be continued after someone’s death, if the deceased person’s relatives insisted on it. This is the basis on which the case against Magnitsky appears to have been reopened – despite the fact that his mother is strongly against the reopening of the case.

As you can imagine, trials of people who have already died are pretty rare – but not unprecedented.

The Pope Formosus, pope from 891 to 896, was posthumously tried by his political enemies in the so-called Cadaver Synod – “one of the most bizarre incidents in papal history.” Read more

A meteorite trail above a residential apartment block in Chelyabinsk (Getty)

Russia sent thousands of rescue workers to help the people injured by a meteorite that shot across central Russia today. The fireballs crashed to the ground just as people were heading to work, but luckily, fears about the behavior of psychotic Russian drivers means there was no shortage of video footage to capture the moment that it landed.

Of course, this isn’t the first time a large body of rock has made a dramatic entrance into our atmosphere. Read more

Keep out – at least until the referendum (Getty)

The British government is said to be deeply concerned about the prospect of heavy migration into the UK from Bulgaria and Romania after restrictions on free movement of labour are lifted at the end of the year. I can understand why. David Cameron has promised to hold a referendum on British membership of the EU after the next election. Under current circumstances, the Brits would probably vote to stay inside the Union. But a surge of unpopular migration from Bulgaria and Romania could really poison sentiment ahead of the vote.

To be fair, even Migration Watch, the anti-immigration ginger group, is estimating that just 50,000 Bulgarians and Romanians will move when restrictions are lifted. Such a relatively small number could be absorbed into London without much fuss. The trouble is that experience with Polish migration proves all such estimates to be futile. Back in 2004, the UK government estimated that net migration from Poland and the other new member states would probably be in the order of 13,000 a year. In the event, more than 500,000 Poles are thought to have moved to the UK – although many move backwards and forwards. Read more

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Half of all world exports are from the US and Europe. Added together, the two constitute the largest, wealthiest market in the world, accounting for over 54% of world GDP in terms of value and 40% in terms of purchasing power. There are many reasons why a trade deal between the two makes sense in the minds of both policymakers and business-owners (a successful pact would boost growth and jobs in both regions, and offer the US and EU a better chance of standing up to an increasingly powerful China, for example).

So why are negotiators working on the deal probably in for the long haul? One reason is that there are some culturally sensitive areas for both regions – in particular, agriculture and food. Here are some potential sticking points:

For US exporters trying to get their products into the EU –

For EU exporters trying to get their products into the US –
  • Buy America. The US fiscal stimulus of 2009 restricted bidding on iron and steel contracts so that only US producers could take part, or producers from countries with a ‘reciprocal government procurement agreement’

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How dangerous is North Korea’s nuclear test?
Within hours of the North Korean nuclear test this week, the UN security council was meeting in emergency session. But how dangerous is this development, and what is likely to happen next? James Blitz, diplomatic and defence editor, Christian Oliver, former Seoul correspondent, and Simon Mundy, the current FT correspondent in Korea, join Gideon Rachman.

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Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev sign the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty in April 2010. (JOE KLAMAR/AFP/Getty Images)

Obama and Medvedev signing the 2010 treaty (Getty)

Can Barack Obama use his second term of office to push through another round of cuts in American and Russian nuclear weapons? After declaring in his State of the Union address that he will “engage Russia” on this issue, the question is suddenly back on the international security agenda.

In his first presidential term, President Obama and his then Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev pushed through big cuts in the number of deployed nuclear weapons each side possesses, with each pledging to have no more than 1,550 each by 2018. Now, Mr Obama has come back to the issue and says he wants to do more – with his officials indicating they want to see deployed US and Russian nuclear weapons coming down another third – to around 1,000 on either side.

Discussions about US- Russia arms control are very technical and the detail quickly gets mind-boggling. To the outsider, the subject also seems dispiriting. Even a big cut like the one Mr Obama is proposing would still leave both countries with massive capability to destroy each other and the world. Still, there are a number of reasons why Mr Obama’s attempt to get new cuts is worth attention in the months ahead. Read more

"DOLY-COM" abattoir, one of the two Romanian companies exporting horse meat to EU countries (Getty)

An emerging scandal about horsemeat found in processed foods has raised questions over European regulators’ ability to monitor the food industry. With the recession creating a glut of horsemeat in Ireland, two UK plants being raided and fingers being pointed at the Romanian abattoir, the trail of responsibility is complex and tangled.

Whether the recent horsemeat incidents were a result of long supply chains or criminal activity, this isn’t the first time food control and regulation has been a hot topic. Read more