Control Freakery

I was astonished and appalled to hear of Donald Trump’s admiration for Vladimir Putin, especially because of the reasons he gave for it – that ‘Vladimir Putin has his country under control.’

I was reminded today, at the Gardens of Marqueyssac (8.80 EUR and open every day of the year), of how much I dislike control. The gardens comprise several acres of topiary overlooking the Dordogne. My friend Caroline and I bicycled from Siorac en Perigord, an easy mild up and down of about 20 km, on empty roads in bright late summer sunshine through a largely uncontrolled landscape. Uncontrolled, but not unmarked by man.

These gardens, by contrast, illustrate man’s appetite for crushing domination, his determination to tame, torture and distort nature so that nothing of wildness, or colour, or spontaneity remains. Of course, Topiary can be an amusing adjunct to a garden that is more than simply sculptural or architectural, a garden, for example, containing borders and flowers. Perhaps, for a very few moments, if you’re in the right kind of mood, a bush that looks like a bunny rabbit can amuse.

But if all that you can do with your trowel and your master’s degree in landscape architecture is trim and shape, then it’s not enough. If you like box and little else then these gardens might indeed be your Garden of Eden, but if you find it a gloomy shrub, and if its imperfections worry you, or if you dislike its sour smell, then these gardens will depress you, unless, in your view, control is the highest aspiration of mankind.


I greatly prefer the illusion of wildness that the English Garden cultivates. If there is control (and of course there must be) then it is subtle. It is exerted only so that flowers and shrubs can thrive as themselves. Set the starting conditions and step back, barring a little weeding and dead-heading.


So should it be in politics. What is it that Trump could possibly admire about the kind of control that  Putin has achieved, or, in fact, failed to achieve. Total control of the press, of the judiciary, and the political landscape. Total control over his own wealth. Total control over his henchmen – well, perhaps not entirely. Is Russia a country to emulate – where corruption is rife, where bureaucracy stifles enterprise, where homophobia and racism thrive and are not discouraged by the state or by the police, where lies surround every foreign military adventure?

Is that what Trump wants for his own country? This kind of total control?

Look at these ailing, distorted box hedges and lament. Gardens need freedom, as do nations.


A Gulf of Disbelief

When Nikolai Khrushchev visited the United States for twelve days in 1959 he refused to believe what he was seeing. The vast choice of tacky consumer products available in a typical US supermarket, he thought, was entirely a put-up job – smoke and mirrors. There simply couldn’t be so many different things available to ordinary citizens. This reminds me of a soprano I once knew slightly in the 1980s. She’d escaped from Romania to sing in the United Kingdom (and to obtain British Citizenship as a singing asylum seeker). On her first visit to a well-stocked Woolworth’s she cried – not so much, I suppose, with joy at what she’d found there, though she did buy a pair of multi-coloured slippers with bright pink pom-poms, as for the miserable paucity of choice available to the family she’d left behind, and for all the other indignities of living in a ruthlessly misruled nation that she had escaped and in which they still languished.


That it would have taken implausibly extraordinary efforts to deceive Khrushchev so extravagantly counted for nothing. The almost impossible was easy enough to believe because the Soviet Union would have stopped at nothing to deceive a visiting President, Prime Minister or Monarch.

Blunt denial, lying, and deception, have characterised Russia’s response to the West ever since. Take the allegations in yesterday’s WADA report into doping at the Sochi (and other) Olympics. If they are to be believed, which, probably, they should be, the FSB and the Russian Sports Ministry colluded in massive deception, substituting clean urine samples for contaminated ones. The scale of their operation was vast – agents pretending to be plumbers passing samples through a wall separating the testing laboratory from the FSB building next door. They also employed special methods for opening ‘sealed’ test tubes but these, it turns out, were not quite clever enough because they left tiny scratch marks invisible to the naked eye, but detected by WADA.

Smoke and mirrors


Some Russian media have dismissed the WADA report as part of an organised conspiracy against Russia. But even  if they know the allegations to be true, those involved will simply believe they were unlucky to get caught, and that the rest of the world must be doing exactly the same kinds of things, only doing them better, and getting away with it. That is their mind-set – all governments deceive their people and each other. If no one can prove it, then they’re just doing it vey well indeed.

From the Russian point of view, truth and moral principle are irrelevant, because the assumption is that every government must share their point of view and their methods, whatever they might say. I am sure the President Putin sincerely believes that, whatever assertions there might be to the contrary, the so-called independent judiciaries and media of Western states MUST be, in reality, tools of the state.

The report into the murder of the ex-FSB agent Litvinenko in London MUST be a fabrication. Well, of course, they also know it to be correct, but they could never believe that the truth was independently arrived at. The allegation that Russian troops have been assisting the rebels in Eastern Ukraine MUST be false, just as there was no advance guard in Crimea before the referendum on its absorption into Russia (well, actually, they later admitted that the ‘little green men’ were theirs, but it was certainly a false allegation for a while). And the suggestion that the rebels in Eastern Ukraine shot down a Malaysian passenger jet using rockets supplied by Russia, MUST be false. Carefully fabricated photographs showed, beyond a shadow of doubt, that a Ukrainian jet shot the ill-fated Malaysian jet down from the air.

Somewhere in the Kremlin, Putin’s henchmen will be smarting at the fact that they’ve been caught out doping their athletes, but you can be sure that they will simply be smarting at the fact they lost at a game that everyone else plays, but which they believe they’re generally best at. Perhaps I am a victim of Western ideology and too credulous in believing that by and large we’re not dupes of our Western governments in the way Russian citizens are of theirs.

A Russian Abroad

There’s a joke going around the twittersphere about Vladimir Putin. He was asked to fill in a visa form when he recently visited Greece:

Name: Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin

Nationality: Russian

Occupation: Not this time

Russians abroad are a dangerous breed if recent events in Crimea, Eastern Ukraine and France are any guide (though I only mean this in the vaguest possible way, and I’m fond of several Russians who are exceptions to this crude generalisation). In Crimea they were ‘little green men’, and in Eastern Ukraine they are ‘volunteers’.

In Lille tonight, marauding gangs of Russian football hooligans, their techniques perfected at the feet of their British equivalents, are throwing tables, punches and letting off flares. I imagine that their team’s suspended expulsion from the Euros will be enforced forthwith and they will soon be making their way home to a heroes’ welcome as exciting as Lenin’s at the Finland Station in 1917.

It’s possible that the English may also be on their way home (I care no more about that, I’m afraid, than about the Russian’s return). My only fear is that Euroscepticism will be encouraged by English expulsion, making Brexit a dead cert next Thursday.

russian hooligans

But, considering the Russians for a moment, is their behaviour a surprise? A macho, belligerent, bare-chested manner is a mark of the true Russian these days, whether you’re President Putin or a thug in the streets of Lille and Nice.

No wonder, then, that back home they’re winning plaudits for their assertive behaviour, described by a Government official last week as ‘incorrect’ as if it infringes rules, but isn’t necessarily wrong.

‘I don’t see anything wrong with the fans fighting,’ Igor Lebedev, a nationalist MP and football official, wrote on Twitter. ‘Quite the opposite, well done lads, keep it up!’

Is it any wonder that athletes, soldiers, ‘volunteers’, hooligans and politicians behave eccentrically when the tone of the Russian Government is nationalist, thuggish and exceptionalist? It’s okay if Russia doesn’t want to engage with the rest of the world in any sphere or at any level, but if Russia wants to trade, compete and cooperate with the rest of us it needs to show a little sensitivity – or would that be too ‘gay’?


Fear, Trembling and Blunt Instruments

It seems that someone at Remain headquarters has decided that the only useful weapon available to those who want to avoid Brexit is the blunt instrument of fear. Yesterday George Osborne put forward the Treasury’s view that GDP will be ‘six percent lower’ in 2030 if Britain leaves the EU and families will be on average ‘4,300 pounds poorer’.

And this is how BBC News reported it at first, only in later bulletins adding ‘than would otherwise be the case,’ because, of course, the Treasury doesn’t mean ‘poorer than now‘,  or ‘total GDP smaller than now‘. Rather, they mean ‘poorer than we would otherwise be‘ and ‘smaller than it would otherwise be.‘ Without that qualification, Brexit sounds alarming indeed.


But even so, it’s a very contentious claim. Have we ever been able to trust Treasury, EU, IMF or Word Bank economic projections for 14 years ahead? Who’s to say what busts and booms, dotcom or subprime, will trip up the world economy between now and then. What about natural disasters, or global warming? It’s speculative crystal ball gazing. No one can look that far ahead with any confidence.

In any case, consider these calculations:

Average real UK GDP growth over the last 60 years has been 2.47%. Projecting the same rate forward we can expect the economy to be nearly 41% larger in 2030 than now. Even if the economy is six percent ‘smaller’ it will still be nearly 35% larger.

The UK’s average salary has risen by about 2.96% a year over the last sixty years. Projecting forward to 2030, we might expect the average salary to rise from around 26,500 to 39,900 GBP. Even if the average family (I take that to mean two adults on an average salary) is 4,300 GBP ‘poorer’ the same family will be richer by 22,500 GBP.

Overall, I find the economic arguments petty and confusing. Frankly, I think no one really knows what the impact of Brexit might be, short term, medium term or long term, local or global. I am swayed one way or the other by whoever is currently pontificating on the subject. But one thing is clear – everyone seems to have decided that it’s the only topic worth arguing about. So Remain paints a picture of catastrophe, and Leave talks up the economic freedom we will enjoy on Brexit. No one really knows, but no one talks about the other, more important, benefits of Remain.

I’m very definitely for Remain, and not because of any economic arguments one way or another. I’m an admirer of supranational European values and justice (admittedly a work in progress). I’m also for radical reform, for more obvious democracy, less corruption and less waste. I’m also for expansion eastwards to include Ukraine, Moldova and Turkey, perhaps even Russia (post-Putin!). Europe has kept the peace for 70 years and established an admirable and increasingly comfortable way of life for hundreds of millions of citizens. I’ve seen former Soviet bloc nations embrace and enjoy nearly everything that Europe stands for. And if Europe is to continue to play a significant role on the world stage in the decades to come, as China rises, it would be better if we were to stay together. It’s not just about Britain. Brexit will damage whatever survives of the EU.

Everything depends on how you put things, and journalists are sometimes slow to understand the implications of, and the assumptions behind apparently simple statements. There was another report on the BBC website that annoyed me yesterday – Three Day Working Week ‘optimal’ for Over 40s. It explains that researchers in Australia have found that part-time workers over 40 do better in intelligence tests than full-time workers over 40.

It was bad reporting because the writer doesn’t challenge the obvious question (which, I hope at least the original researchers have considered) – isn’t it the case that those who choose part-time work are more intelligent, have pursued more lucrative careers and therefore possess the economic resources that enable them to go part-time? It needn’t, surely, be the part-time work that is ‘causing’ their greater intelligence.


Beyond Reproach

The patrician, well-dressed manner of many top lawyers and accountants often belies the dirty work they do. The leak of more than 11 million documents from Panamanian law firm firm Mossack Fonseca reveals the staggering extent to which professional lawyers and accountants will collude with their clients, many of them sanctioned or with blood on their hands, to help them avoid and evade tax.

mossack fonseca

Give me Rumpole of the Bailey, John Mortimer’s fictional Old Bailey Hack, anyday, in preference to the suave cohorts of clever, unscrupulous, criminal accountants and lawyers. Dishevelled, but principled, Rumpole’s work barely kept him in claret and cheroots.


The leaked documents show that Mossack Fonseca conspired to conceal the true beneficial owners of companies, enabled criminals to conceal the source of their wealth, and assisted prime ministers, presidents and dictators, their families and friends, to benefit from dodgy business transactions that take money from the pockets of their own people.

And yet Mossack Fonseca, with breath-taking chutzpah, have claimed that their operations over the last forty years have been entirely ‘beyond reproach’.

HSBC Private Banking did it. The big accounting firms do it. They all do it. If you have a little more money than most people you’ll attract swarms of professional advisers offering you ways of keeping your money from the taxman. I know. And as long as detection is unlikely, and as long as the cost of such advice is lower than the tax that you’d otherwise pay, these suave cohorts will go on doing it.

It’s time to end the tax evasion game. How?

  • Make tax reasonable
  • Harmonise taxes where possible
  • Abolish tax havens
  • Abolish anonymous ownership
  • Publish beneficial ownership on the internet
  • Apply sanctions when the rules are broken

And yes, it would effectively deny a country the sovereign right to set its own rules on tax, disclosure and incorporation. But ours is a connected world. A country is welcome to go its own way if it chooses, but in economic and political isolation.

Tax is a zero-sum game. What the rich man retains, the poor man loses. Tax evasion and aggressive tax avoidance are immoral and should be both illegal and very difficult.

I am optimistic. These revelations are the start of the end of tax evasion. It’s interesting that so far there’s been nothing about how these 11 million documents have been obtained. Who was the leaker or the hacker? Was it an insider? Or might there have been state involvement?

Oradea – City Under Wraps

Oradea, since 1945 a Romanian city, is a city that’s under wraps, still recovering from the depredations  of the First and Second World Wars and the Cold War that followed. It must get back to where it was before it can become something more. Over the last hundred years it’s been Hungarian twice (as Nagyvarad), and Romanian twice, and you can still hear both languages used interchangeably in the street, though sadly you can no longer hear the Yiddish or German that the large Jewish community spoke before the Holocaust.

IMG_2227 IMG_2246   IMG_2229

The cities of Hungary,to the West, such as Debrecen, and Miskolc, have recovered from history, and gone further. They have renovated and inhabited the shabby, rundown, sometimes bullet-scarred buildings of the Habsburg era. But many of Oradea’s wonderful Jugendstil apartment blocks and institutional buildings are still vacant, shrouded to protect pedestrians from the crumbling, falling stucco. It’s a sorry sight and no doubt a matter of money, not intent or confidence. But underneath the wrappings are architectural wonders waiting to be restored and used again.

There are, of course, some delightful exceptions, such as this restored hotel.


Another exception is the splendid theatre, designed by the astonishingly productive architectural partnership of Fellner and Helmer, who were to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and its theatres what Mimar Sinan was to the Ottoman Empire some centuries earlier, though Sinan generally stuck to mosques, madrasas and the occasional bridge. I don’t believe he ever built a theatre.

Wrappings put me in mind of Christo (and Jeanne-Claude), the Bulgarian wrapper-up of the Reichstag in Berlin, and the Pont-Neuf in Paris.


pont neuf

Christo and Jeanne-Claude don’t claim to mean anything by their art beyond the immediate impression they elicit, but it’s hard to explain the strong emotional reaction we feel on seeing these powerful symbols tamed by drapes. It’s certainly not the melancholy induced by Oradea’s buildings. Wikipedia quotes art critic David Bourdon, who says it’s all about “revelation through concealment.” But I think it’s simpler than that (art critics so rarely write sentences that means anything).

Wrapping up means presents, generosity and pleasure (think of My Favourite Things from The Sound of Music – ‘brown paper packages wrapped up in string’). Wrapping up implies manageability and control. Wrapping reminds us that we can encompass the mechanical, the monstrous, the powerful, the irrational. We can defuse these things if we care to. It’s telling that the Reichstag was wrapped (and thereby disarmed) just five years after the reunification of Germany. Indeed I’d like to see Christo go further. He could wrap up a nuclear bomb, a tank, a Kalashnikov, Vladimir Putin, or even this revolting dish (Women’s Fancy) that I foolishly ordered in Oradea for my dinner (looks like vomit on a plate).

women's fancy 2

Putin’s Pencil

There was much amusement at Vladimir Putin’s snapping of a pencil at his meeting with Angela Merkel, Francois Hollande and Petro Poroshenko in Minsk a few weeks ago. The four of them were negotiating a ceasefire in Eastern Ukraine, and no doubt you could cut the atmosphere with a knife.

putin pencil

I like to think that the pencil snapping meant that Putin wasn’t entirely getting his own way. Certainly it was remarkable, in that Putin doesn’t usually show his feelings. Dignity of office, I suppose, and the great weight of responsibility that he bears, do not permit the Russian President to smile, or do those endearing human things like engaging in folksy chit-chat about hiking with Angela, or simply being charmant like Francois, or twinkly like Petro.

But I think Putin’s interlocutors got off lightly. Meetings can be hazardous.

Just think about what happened when Vlad the Impaler, bent on consolidating his own power, invited a gaggle of regional nobility to a dinner party in 1456. Following the, no doubt, meaty meal, he had the old and infirm immediately murdered and marched the remaining guests 50 miles to a dilapidated castle. He put the surviving nobles to hard labour restoring it. Most died from maltreatment and exhaustion; and those who didn’t were impaled on spikes outside the castle when restorations were complete


And think of poor Alexander Litvinenko’s tea party at the Millenium Hotel in 2006. Invited to meet some former KGB colleagues (possibly they were friends of Mr Putin) he was poured a strong cup of Polonium tea, and died three weeks later.

Then there’s the early Reformation figure, Jan Hus. He was invited, on the promise of free passage, to a pow-wow in Constance, but was imprisoned, tried and burnt at the stake.

I think Angela, Francois and Petro got off quite lightly.

What’s the most pointless work I’ve done?

In the 1980s the Soviets used to buy factories, lock, stock and barrel, from the West, particularly from Finland. They would buy the walls, the ceiling, the machines, the lifts, the windows, the storage crates, the kitchen, everything, with one big contract.

‘Everything’ also included the software to run the factory and, of course, the computers to run the software. And that’s how I found myself in Zelenograd, 40 km from Moscow, in the Autumn of 1988.

The MRP system I was implementing in Hungary, was the final tick in the final box that completed the contract and triggered payment to the Finns for an entire floppy-disk unit factory.

Zelenograd was then the ‘silicon valley’ of Russia, though its shabbiness suggested ‘silicon wasteland’. Wikipedia says ‘Before 1989 Zelenograd was a de facto closed city in some aspects: it was prohibited to take photos in the central parts of the city, near the plants, teaching and research facilities, and foreigners were not admitted into the city.’ But that’s not true. I was there.


The problem the Finns faced was that they couldn’t find a system that could easily be sold to the Soviet Union (export rules being what they were in those days). Unless they delivered a system they wouldn’t get paid. But because our MRP system had already been sold to Soviet-bloc Hungary, it qualified. (There were no packaged MRP systems native to the Soviet bloc at that time.)

It was actually a fascinating project, and when we won the order I approached the project with enthusiasm. Not only did we have to adapt the software to deal with overlapping manufacturing processes, but we also had to provide an interface to clever (Finnish) shop-floor reporting devices placed next to each of the machines involved in the process. The machine operators would report  completion of each stage of the manufacturing process using these devices.

The Finns appeared to be grateful for my enthusiasm and in due course, after we’d trained the factory’s staff and finished all the adaptations, the final box in the contract was ticked. The Finns got paid and we got paid. And that appeared to be the end of the matter.

We went out to a very smart Moscow restaurant to celebrate.

So, when do we start loading real data into the system?’ I asked.

‘We’ll let you know,’ they said. ‘But probably not immediately.’

Of course, the system was never actually used, and I realised, as we celebrated, that it was never intended to be used. Even the clever shop-floor reporting devices were empty of their components, long since ransacked by the factory’s electricians for domestic use.  And in any case the five-inch floppy disk units were already obsolete. Perhaps even the factory was never used. I never heard anything more about it. But I’m sure it made some people wealthy, and I don’t just mean the Finns. That’s how things were.

You might think that getting paid for a project, even if it came to nothing, means that it couldn’t have been pointless, but I am old-fashioned, and I like to think that my work has some direct value.

Riding the Russian bear

I’ve been living in Central and Eastern Europe for nearly three decades, so I’ve seen the region take three steps forwards, and then a step or two back, both politically and economically. Never more so than in Russia. I particularly remember the heady 1990s, when the Russian economy burst into chaos after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Freedom reigned in Moscow, too much of it for some. It was exuberant, expressive, socially liberating, unpopular, and on the whole disastrous.

We were well into the more sober Putin era when my company (LLP Group, based in Prague) was persuaded to dip its toe into the Russian market. We took over the customers of a firm for whom things had gone disastrously wrong. It was difficult at first because almost everything gets in the way in Russia (the form-over-substance financial regulations, the appalling cost of business services, the aggressive nature of customer-supplier relations, the prejudice against ‘Western’ software), but we made progress, and even some small profits in due course.

But these last few months have been more difficult. When the rouble fell in value some weeks ago we found that our bank simply couldn’t or wouldn’t convert our rouble balance into a safer currency and we saw our bank balances shrink in EUR value.

We resell software and consulting mainly to international companies investing in the Russian market. The accounting software we sell, Infor’s SunSystems, can meet both Russian and corporate requirements simultaneously. But, now, with many companies downsizing, or even leaving, it’s hard for us to know what to do. There are fewer companies who need what we sell.

Russian bear

Where is Russia going? Has the country set out on a path towards isolation, or has it been unjustly expelled?

Whatever the situation, we have no plans to leave. We have an excellent team of consultants in Moscow and St Petersburg, and we can break even at the moment, serving our current clients. It’s hard to know, though, if there will ever be new business for us in the future.

Granted, Western ideology informs much of Western reporting on Russian issues (Ukraine first and foremost), but I can’t help thinking that, for the moment, Russian pride has trumped pragmatism. Surely, things will only get worse for ordinary Russian citizens if Putin doesn’t seek a change of direction.

We don’t want to abandon our business. If only Russia were a little more like us, we wouldn’t have to.