Today’s list:

1. This real estate listing from Detroit. The house is flawless and only costs $500K – one bedroom condos in my part of Seattle are now around $450K.

2. Paper presented at APSA, “Anti-Americanism or Anti-Interventionism? Evidence from the Arabic Twitter Universe”

3. Masha Gessen on Russia.

4. Apropos of Jeff Koons.

5. Subsidizing Colbert.

6. Iran and Latin America.

7. Wolfgang Streeck on the end of capitalism.

8. Boko Haram – ISIS Junior?

9. They’re making a movie about Raju the crying elephant! (big fan of Raju)

10. The FSB and Russian universities.


A decade or so back, I traveled with an Icelandic colleague from Phnom Penh to Bangkok by car. The gentleman was barred from leaving the Kingdom of Cambodia because the border guards did not believe that Iceland was an actual country. And who can blame them? Iceland – it sounds made up.  

“And where are you from?”

“Snowland. It’s in Europe.”

Absurd indeed. Even more so for a 40 year old Poipet border officer in a small, post-genocidal Southeast Asian state where ice is not a naturally occurring phenomenon. 

My friend was subsequently required to return to the capital and obtain a letter from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirming that Iceland existed and his passport was, in fact, real. In my view, this anecdote rather well encapsulates the country. Unless the topic is related to inexpensive flights to Europe or the wonders of geothermal power, we in North America (including Canada – guardian of the North, according to Prime Minister Stephen Harper) seldom think about Iceland. However, perhaps it is time that we do so. Moreover, I contend that is time we seriously reflect on this seemingly innocuous northern land with a great deal more attention and with a much more critical eye. For Iceland may in fact be the pariah state of the far north.

Now before you get all hot (suspiciously, not something they do there – outside of their volcanic baths and itchy wool pullovers) and bothered and shout “Hey, pariah? That’s a bit beyond the pale – and isn’t that term reserved for Russia?” – let’s explore the evidence. There is a great deal of material to lay before the bar of history which well supports the case for Iceland’s rogue state status.

Let’s begin with what’s in the news – the problem of the volcanoes. All of us recall the chaos which occurred in 2010 as Atlantic air travel came to a halt. And today – yet again, the world faces the possibility of disrupted production chains, destroyed holidays, and knock-on chaos owing to the unique geological features of this obscure north Atlantic island. Alaska has volcanoes. Hawaii has volcanoes. My home of Washington state has an enormous volcano which one day will destroy a significant part (fortunately, not the nice part) of the greater Seattle area. Yet we have never caused the level of air traffic chaos inflicted by “Island” – to use the term they refer to themselves. Now you might be saying to yourself – “That’s just geology. They can’t control it. It’s just an unfortunate coincidence, not some sort of dastardly plot.” Perhaps – but let’s plow forward all the same and explore the grim history of US-Icelandic relations.

First off, Iceland is a global security free rider. Yes, Reykjavik – the name burns on my tongue – is a member of NATO but it is the only member without a standing army. They have a coast guard. Well, lah-dee-dah. Thanks for doing your part for the protection of the western world. The cod are safe. All the benefits, none of the costs – even Luxembourg makes more of an effort. Moreover, under the 1951 defense treaty the United States is obligated to protect Iceland in the event of a threat to its security. The relationship costs are remarkably one sided. 

Historically, Iceland has never been a reliable ally to the national interests of the United States – particularly those on the Icelandic left. A common term among the populace for Americans in the 1950s was “Herrenvolk” – associating the US military presence with the Nazi occupation of Europe. Rocks were thrown at the American embassy during regular protests. To make matters worse, during this period Iceland (although the UK has responsibility here) developed a significant trade relationship with the Soviet Union. By 1956 the only way the US was able to maintain its military presence was via millions of dollars in low interest loans (on top of the Marshall funds already given and the significant boost to GDP from US military bases and US construction of large parts of the country’s infrastructure). During this era of conflict, as the Icelandic military scholar Gudni Johannesson has noted, President Dwight Eisenhower’s position could be summed up as: “The Icelanders were so feeble that they could not be fought, for that would be bullying, and their allegiance was strategically vital.”

And so remains Iceland’s foreign policy to this day – like a grey haired, housecoat wearing great aunt who for whatever historical reason owns an important family asset, so Iceland leans on its walker, pretends the batteries in its hearing aid are dead, and serves tepid Darjeeling tea while happily screwing over its allies. And not just the United States – let’s set out a more detailed list:

1. Per capita GDP around $40K per year – refuses (like Norway and Switzerland – pleasant but greedy) to join the EU and pony up its fair share for the continent despite all the trade benefits.

2. The Cod Wars – the thirty year dispute between the UK and Iceland over fishing rights. Seriously, the Brits had to send warships out to protect their fishing fleet. That’s not normal. Ultimate outcome – the destruction of a large portion of the British fisheries industry.

3. The 2003 Icelandic demand that the reordering of US defense priorities be revised and (this time) that the USAF maintain a presence at Keflavik in Iceland.

4. The collapse of Iceland’s economy in 2008 – including several systemically key banks such as Landsbanki – causing significant loss of savings by depositors in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. Iceland refused to guarantee the deposits of foreign investors.

5. An exceedingly disconcerting history with the International Whaling Commission – yes, they still kill whales “for scientific research.”

Thus, as you read about the latest volcanic disruption from Iceland (where, coincidentally I’m sure, a new and very large Chinese embassy was recently completed) please consider the fact that while it might be just a regular accident of geology, it’s certainly a convenient one for this Viking nation. Yes, THOSE Vikings – they of the pillaging and the raping. In light of Iceland’s history of near constant aggression – it’s time to re-evaluate the relationship. Or one day all of us might feel the sting of Reykjavik’s boiling, geothermal steam jet of hostility.

Bringing this feature back after a long hiatus …

1. The Horrors of Modern Architecture:

2. Morton Jerven on the problems with current statistics in Africa:

3. The Catholic primate of Ukraine on recent events:

4. 1950s Hong Kong Street Photography:

5. Bottom-Up Marketization in North Korea:

6. Cash for Inter-Ethnic Weddings in Xinjiang:

7. Putin’s domestic competition:

Recent events in Ferguson, Missouri have precipitated a wealth of commentary – most of it, unfortunately is quite poor. Two recent pieces buck the trend and are very much worth reading: Jonathan Rodden’s discussion of the realities of local governance in the inner suburbs of St. Louis – and Walter Russell Mead’s analysis in The American Interest –

The conclusions both authors reach as regards local governance and the problems thereof are remarkably similar to what I found in Western China.

As a comparative political economist, I don’t study American politics. However, I am struck by the parallels between the issues in Ferguson and the problems in contemporary Xinjiang. For those unfamiliar, Xinjiang is China’s westernmost province – comprising one fifth of China’s territory and the historic homeland of the Uighurs – a Turkic, Muslim ethnic group. The relationship between the Uighurs and the Han Chinese community have never been very good and rioting and ethnic tension continues to increase in the region. Several years ago I did field work in the province in order to try to determine why certain parts of the province were particularly restive while other regions were consistently peaceful. I found the answer in what I termed “Culturally Specific Public Goods.” And the parallel to Ferguson appears to hold. Allow me to explain …

In 1949, the population of Xinjiang was 95% Uighur. Over the course of the subsequent decades, the province experienced significant in-migration from eastern China (Sichuan and Hunan in particular – great for cuisine, not so great for communal harmony) – sometimes this was facilitated by the state in the form of an organization called the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, occasionally it was simply run of the mill economic migration. As the Han population increased, the number of Uighurs in front line government service provision jobs declined (both in absolute and relative terms), particularly as regards policing. I conceptualized policing (the provision of security) as a public good – thus, while the state provided this to the entire population all did not receive that benefit equally owing to the fact that Uighurs increasingly dealt with a police force which was predominantly Han Chinese. The language barrier (very few Han speak Uighur and many Uighur do not speak Mandarin) I conceptualized as a “cost” which acted a barrier to the Uighur population’s access to this public good. The population (correctly) perceived this as being unfair resulting in a concomitant decline in trust, thereby shifting the perception of public security away from being understood as public good to something much less positive.

Over the course of six weeks I traveled around the province and collected data on local police forces. Having spent a bit of time in Xinjiang police stations (all foreigners are required to register their residence), I had noticed that each of them has a board with the photos and names of every officer working in the precinct. Han names and Uighur names – as one would expect from ethnic groups belonging to very different language families – are remarkably easy to differentiate. So I walked from precinct to precinct playing “confused foreigner” and asking for directions to some place or another from the local cops while counting the number of Han and Uighur officers who were serving in each precinct. The data correlated flawlessly with the location of “ethnic rioting” (measured by a survey of reports in the local media).

Over time, these riots have gotten much worse and have expanded to parts of the province which were previously peaceful. This was directly albeit inadvertently facilitated by the Chinese government which continued to increase the number of Han police officers and bringing in the para-military (and heavily Han) People’s Armed Police to maintain order. In response to the attacks in Urumqi earlier this year – which coincidentally happened to take place directly in front of my old apartment building – the Chinese government has increased policing yet again. You can see where this is headed – a vicious circle which results in increasingly worse conflict. I argued that the solution here was in fact to provide a “Culturally Specific Public Good” – in other words, increase the number of Uighur police officers, remove the barrier/perceived cost, and ameliorate the level of societal trust.

To return to the United States – events in Ferguson appear to have a similar (albeit slightly reversed as regards the history) causal path. As the black population has increased, local police have remain dominated by the pre-existing majority ethnic group (whites) resulting in the same problems which afflict Xinjiang today. Now there is no language barrier – but for the sake of discussion, we can hypothesize some other perceived barrier as the divider here. Rodden and Mead both point this out in their pieces. However, again as Mead notes, this problem is much more difficult to solve in the United States – the Xinjiang government could simply hire more police officers, an economically stagnant suburb such as Ferguson simply does not have the budget to do so and is constrained by civil service law from fundamentally remaking its police force in order to provide the culturally specific public good.

Now to pre-empt the obvious objection – yes, there are other causal factors at play here as regards discontent as expressed by a minority group. However, these factors are not determinative as regards where violence will take place. Uighurs and blacks both have incomes which are lower, unemployment rates which are higher, and various other depressing scores on variables of interest. I am not contending that resolving the security question is the solution – not remotely. However, addressing this question can “buy time” to achieve the necessary deeper societal reforms. In other words, reform will make rioting and violence less likely and provide a political context which is less polarized and more conducive to incremental change. Moreover, not doing so (or worse, exacerbating the status quo divide) is only likely to make things worse and send America’s inner suburbs down the unfortunate and dangerous path which China has so unwisely taken.

If one is casually following the outcomes of the European elections, one might be under the impression that a vast wave of hard right, Eurosceptic MEPs will be goose stepping through the streets of Brussels in the very near future. In my opinion, a significantly more nuanced view of the results are required and that entails breaking down the assumption that the various “anti-EU” parties are identical and significantly deepening our grasp of just who is going to be sitting in the hemicycle. So, let’s start with the numbers.

There will be a total of 751 MEPs divided into an as yet unknown number of parliamentary groupings. The number which can be placed into the “Eurosceptic” or “Anti-Federal Europe” categories is, by my count, 133.

Now for those unfamiliar with the Byzantine world of European Parliament politics – like-minded MEPs form up into groups and in some cases more deeply institutionalized European political parties. Thus we have the European Socialists, the European People’s Party (pro-federalist right), Alliance of Liberals, the Greens, and the European Left (basically ex-communists and some not-so-ex-communists who are Eurosceptic – and remarkably anti-democratic, but generally get much less attention from the European center-left commentariat).

The problem for Farage is on the right and those 133 Eurosceptics MEPs.

Let’s divide them up by grouping:

51: New Parties/Non-Inscrits (Right wing parties without a current grouping)
44: Europe of Conservatives and Reformists (UK Conservatives and other anti-federal parties)
38: Europe of Freedom and Democracy (Farage’s group – they want out altogether

These groups share a common opposition (or at least) deep suspicion of the current state of the European Union project. However, that is pretty much where the commonality ends. The problem for Farage and UKIP is that they are not likely to be welcomed into the ECR group (unless David Cameron has a change of heart/a fit of panic as he looks at the numbers for next year’s UK elections and even then it is doubtful Farage would sign up, his position would be significantly diminished and he would threaten his new groundswell of support from disaffected white, working class Labour voters) which appears to have maintained its membership in the required 7 (minimum) countries/25 MEPs necessary to form a group. Let’s take a look at who that group includes and who is likely to join it:

These are the “mainline” conservatives or “soft eurosceptics.” In other words, those who do not want to be of the Euro project and would like to return significant regulatory powers from Brussels to their respective capitals. These parties include:

1. Alternative fur Deutschland (7 seats) – new party, the so-called “Professors’ Party” led by a group of right-leaning German economists – leans socially conservative, not so keen on the renewable energy and Merkel’s environmental policies. Basically disaffected Christian Democrats and those fed up with the bailouts/ESM. Negotiating to join ECR.

2. The Conservative Party (19 seats) – although it is important to note there are figures in the Tory Party (David Davis, Daniel Hannan) who would very much like to quit the EU altogether.

3. Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (19 seats) – Poland’s “Law and Justice” party. Close to the Catholic Church, essentially a Christian Democratic party in the tradition of the German CDU/CSU, they seek reform but not exit.

4. Občanská Demokratická Strana (2 seats) – Czech Republic, very similar to the Tories in terms of political philosophy and economics.

5. ChristenUnie (1 seat) – Dutch, center-left strict Protestant party. Very pro-environment, but due to their religious beliefs (pretty mainline stuff in the US), not so comfy with the EPP.

In addition to these – four more seats from four different countries – Slovakia, Croatia, Lithuania, and Latvia. So ECR is pretty well set – they have reached the minimum and although down to 53 seats, they will sit as an independent force with all the perks and recognition that entails.

Now let’s look at what Marine Le Pen has been doing. In the previous election, her party held three seats and were part of the “Non-Inscrit” group – in other words, not part of any group. Today she announced that she has commitments from a few parties (the usual suspects) to join with her. No real surprises here, but let’s run through the list:

1. Front National (24 seats) – Le Pen’s party. ‘Nuff said.

2. Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (4 seats) – formerly led by the late, closeted Jorg Haider, they are up two and no real surprises on the alliance with Le Pen.

3. Partij voor de Vrijheid (4 seats) – led by Geert Wilders who pushed for an alliance with Farage but was rejected by the UKIP leader owing to their rather open racism.

Now this is where things get interesting …

4. Lega Nord (4 seats) – The Italian Northern League. Populist, a mixed bag of ideology, deeply distrustful of Rome and Brussels, and FORMERLY part of Farage’s Europe of Freedom and Democracy (so strike one country from the 7 Farage has to get). Their lead MEP is a major supporter of LePen, so no surprises here.

5. Vlaams Belang (1 seat) – Belgian Flemish nationalist party which saw its vote collapse (more on that later). Previously a MEP who was elected on the VB ticket and subsequently served as an independent signed on to sit with Farage’s group. Now, the VB has announced they will join with Le Pen.

So, this leaves Le Pen’s yet to be named group with 37 MEPs from 5 countries, requiring 2 more to form a group. (And yes, the wonderful irony of Flemish nationalists working under a French dominated party). And the question now presents itself – where does this leave Farage and UKIP’s “Europe of Freedom and Democracy.” Well, it appears to be in a pretty uncomfortable position. Unacceptable to the ECRs (too anti-Europe) and unwilling (wisely) to work with crypto-fascist continentals. Let’s look at who the EFD group has left:

1. UKIP (24 seats) – a gain of 11 and the largest British party in the parliament.

2. Finns Party (2 seat) – like UKIP, trying to shift away from the “hard right” stereotype and go mainstream in domestic politics. They could to stay. Up 1 seat.

3. Dansk Folkeparti (4 seats) – the largest Danish party in the parliament with a young leader and an increase of 2 seats on the last round, also trying to use their gains domestically. They have already ruled out joining Le Pen, and are likely to remain if they cannot get into the ECR group.

4. Staatkundig Gereformeerde Partij (1 seat) – Calvinist political party from the Netherlands, in US terms – think the Christian right from west Michigan. They’re not going anywhere.

So, Farage is on 4 – the remainder of his group either lost their seats or have jumped to LePen (Lega Nord) or might jump to LePen, to wit:

1. Tvarka ir teisingumas (2 seats) – Order and Justice from Lithuania, no change on the previous election, led by former president Rolandus Paskas (MEP). Where they go is a big question at present.

But, let’s assume that they remain with Farage. That puts Farage on 5 and Le Pen on 5 and both require 2 more national parties to form a group. Both have rejected the fascist parties – so Jobbik (Hungary, 3 seats), NDP (Germany, 1 seat), and Golden Dawn (Greece, 3 seats) are off the table.

Who’s left? Not so many. The rise of the populist right has consolidated a great deal of the vote and there are fewer 1 MEP parties with which to cobble together a coalition of 7 or more countries. Here’s my best guess …

1. Sverigedemokraterna (2 seats) – Swedish Democrats, on the right and problematic, trying to re-brand, they have already rejected working with Le Pen, will likely go with Farage as the ECR probably will not have them. Although it is important to note that the Tories could make a move to expand ECR in order to prevent Farage from forming a group and undermining his position. If the Tories take that route, they might be more likely to pull the Danish People’s Party which has expressed interest in joining the ECR group. For now: Likely EFD/Farage

2. Kongres Nowej Prawicy (4 seat) – Poland, new party, while libertarian on economics (more fitting UKIP), their remaining ideology and their rather odd leader are going to make things hard for UKIP to look mainstream in next year’s general elections. For now: Leans Front National/Le Pen

3. Movimento Cinque Stelle (17 seats) – Italy’s protest party led by Beppe Grillo, but very ideologically diverse with many likely to have major problems with the EFD folks. They could simply remain non-Inscrit. For now: Toss Up between EFD and Non-Inscrit.

This leaves us with a couple of Bulgarian center-right parties (not likely to go with Farage in light of his position on Bulgarian immigration) and a center-right Slovenian party which is historically similar to the ODS (part of the ECR group). So, assuming the Lithuanians stick with Farage (by no means certain) he is on 6 and will desperately need Beppe Grillo’s members to come over to EFD. Le Pen is stuck on 6, absent further defections, and looks like she will have to open up to one of the hard right parties or get defections from the EFD side.

So while the right has done well – we can take away a few lessons here. First, the right in the parliament is NOT uniform and should not be discussed as such, there are major divisions (and we have not even gotten into economic policy). Second, while the headlines discuss a major right wing victory, the percentage voting “eurosceptic” is only about 30% and the divisions between the parties are already beginning to cause problems. Third, these groups must be formed by late June/early July so something has to give or all those new anti-federal MEPs could find their influence (what influence MEPs have, not much in reality) significantly diminished. Lastly, there is an opportunity for the Tories here – Cameron could bring in the Danes/Finns/Swedes to the ECR, suffer the short term blowback, and deprive Farage of a grouping or force him to join up with Le Pen. It’s problematic but domestic politics still trump European politics and he does not appear to have many other options. It’s the smart move.

Both have beautiful, landscaped grounds; a diverse set of activities; large numbers of people with very strange understandings of the world; an absurd number of overpaid administrators; and it costs a huge amount of money to reside there full time with costs being completely out of reach for the average middle class family. Thus I present the greatest game of all time: “University or Psychiatric Hospital?” Because higher education and mental health are increasingly “luxury goods” in our society. (Answers at bottom)

1. Priory UK

2. USC

3. Cambridge

4. Ridges

5. Condon

Answers: 1. The Priory (Hospital) 2. University of Southern California. 3. Cambridge University. 4. The Ridges (Mental Hospital, Ohio). 5. Condon Hall, University of Washington (could go either way)

Everyone’s favorite former collective farm chairman, Belarus president Alyaksandr Lukashenka, noted yesterday that Russia’s recent annexation of the Crimea sets “a bad precedent.” In comparison with Ukraine or Kazakhstan, Belarus has a comparatively small ethnic Russian minority around 10% or so; however concerns over future Russian intervention in the country and Minsk’s dependence on Russia have historically been THE question of Belarus foreign policy. This leads us to ask: What do Belarus’ actions tell us about the strength of Vladimir Putin’s position vis-a-vis the West? So let’s spend some time with Europe’s least understood country …

It is essential to begin by disabusing the casual observer of the assumption that Lukashenka is simply a tool of the Kremlin. Belarus maintains (for now) an independent foreign policy – despite popular assumptions to the contrary. For nearly two decades Minsk was able to play the West and Russia off one another – until the 2011 economic crisis and Lukashenka’s woeful human rights violations (in particular the violent crackdown of December 2010) finally resulted in the West calling it quits and the isolation of the country by the EU.

Belarus’ inability to gain access to an IMF bailout program resulted in the subsequent acceptance of a financial package from Russia which significantly increased the Kremlin’s economic position in the country – government departments in Minsk being required to implement major policy changes (aligning Belarus’ economy closer to its larger neighbor) very rapidly as part of the conditions for Russia’s bailout. However that has not resulted in Belarus transforming into a wholly owned subsidiary of Moscow. Yes, Minsk generally votes with Russia in various international institutions, shares an affinity for authoritarianism, and has been hosting the Russian air force since early March – but the story is rather more complex than that.

Lukashenka has consistently refused to recognize the independence of the breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia – much to the annoyance of Moscow. At the March 5 meeting of the Eurasian Economic Association leaders, along with Kazakhstan’s president Nursultan Nazarbayev, he refused to send observers to the Crimean Referendum and focused his speech on pressing certain tariff and oil/gas pricing issues which serve as a major barrier to deepening of the Eurasian Union project. Moreover, in an attempt at counterbalancing, Minsk has deepened economic and military cooperation with China – Deputy Foreign Minister Chen Guoping having met with Belarus Foreign Minister in Minsk early this month to discuss new opportunities and the expansion of existing programs.

However, Russia’s influence in Belarus continues to grow – pressures to privatize state owned enterprises (with the buyers being Russian firms) and increased Russian investment in Belarus’ energy infrastructure depict a process whereby an independent albeit Russian leaning Belarusian foreign policy is probably not long for this world. That being said – Belarus is an important cog (not as important as Ukraine by a long shot but a cog nonethless) in the Eurasian Union project and foot dragging by Minsk could seriously harm that initiative and (as noted in a previous post) Putin’s grand strategy for Russia regaining its position as a world power. Is there any evidence of this taking place beyond Lukashenka’s public pronouncements?

Yes. As the events in Kiev and Crimea have played out – Belarus has actively sought to avoid upsetting its Baltic neighbors (Lithuania in particular) which have played a key role in restoring relations with Brussels taking a line on Ukraine in media and in other forums which can be rightfully termed “pro-Ukraine.” As commentators in country have noted, the March 10 conference “EU-Belarus Sectoral Cooperation: Looking Back and Looking Forward” was marked by a very different tone from that which has been experienced previously – all smiles, optimism, and building on the baby steps taken last year working towards EU/Belarus visa liberalization. This does not bode well for Moscow which is seeking to rapidly complete the process of “locking in” the Eurasian Union before it formally commences on January 1, 2015. Closer relations with the West and Western financial and other policy support could very much hinder that process and hit Putin where it hurts. Belarus’ hedging (along with Kazakhstan) depicts the shaky foundations of the Eurasian Union and the inherent weakness of Putin’s position.

That being said – the West is now placed in an awkward position. Lukashenka and the government he runs is most commonly referred to as “Europe’s last dictatorship.” Today, March 23, the voters of Belarus go to the polls to elect 20,000 members of local and regional councils – this election is no more “free” or “fair” than any of the others in recent years and the usual restrictions on opposition parties continue.

Thus the awkward question presents itself: In order to achieve its goals contra an authoritarian leader with no respect for human rights, will the West engage with and support another authoritarian leader with no respect for human rights? It’s a very delicate question and one to which greater attention needs to be paid as the West continues to craft its response to events in Ukraine.

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