Monthly Archives: February 2013

John Paul Rathbone

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. 

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.

 

Esther Bintliff

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”.

 

 

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. 

Gideon Rachman

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. 

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.

Daniel Dombey

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.