Dateline Wednesday, March 28, 2018
I am puzzled as to why the U.S. and the U.K., in particular, have now mounted a very aggressive campaign to point the finger at Russia claiming that Mr. Putin and his Government are behind the alleged assassination attempt on the former Russian double agent, Sergei Skripal and his daughter, in Salisbury, England. What is their evidence? On March 26th on the RTÉ news I heard a spokesperson for the Irish Government claiming that they couldn’t share the evidence available to them, primarily one assumes through U.K. sources, because it would undermine our national security! Some other E.U. governments have been more certain in pointing the finger at Russia. Nevertheless on the late news on March 26 it was announced that Ireland was not among the 16 EU countries that announced the expulsion of Russian representatives earlier but that a decision would be taken by Cabinet on Tuesday morning (March 27), amid indications that at least one Russian citizen would be expelled. Unfortunately, our varying versions of democracy across the world reverberate to the words of the Chinese proverb – “The reed that will not bend with the wind, will break”. I presume that the same principle is now being applied by the Irish Government in supporting our neighbour, the U.K. in denouncing Russia, when it is emphasised that we are supporting our nearest neighbour. Mar dhea!
Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, collapsed in a shopping centre in Salisbury, England, on March 4 after being allegedly poisoned with a nerve agent. They remain in critical condition. He had been a double-agent but he was pardoned and sent to the UK as part of a spy swap in 2010, in which Russia released four agents to the US and the UK in exchange for 10 Russian agents in the US. Very shortly after the assassination attempt, Theresa May pointed the finger at Russia in a statement to Parliament, saying it was “highly likely” that Russia ordered the assassination of the double agent Sergei Skripal. Ms. May also said that either Russia ordered the attack or that they had “lost control” of the nerve agent to others. In this way she implied that somebody with access to the Russian-made nerve agent Novichok could have carried out the attack. As she didn’t answer that question herself, we can only presume that this means if Russia didn’t do it then someone else must have! But who? Russia’s foreign ministry dismissed May’s statement as a “fairy tale”.
It appears to me that despite the assertive language used by Ms. May, as Prime Minister, she was very short on facts. It is a fact that Sergei Skripal had been a double agent who after being arrested in Russia had then been released to England as part of a spy swop. It is a fact that his daughter, Yulia, who was visiting him, was also affected by the nerve agent. It has not to my knowledge been stated definitively that it was Novichoc that had been used. If the nerve agent had been stolen or bought from the Russians, how certain is it that the agent used was originally made by Russia. If others now had access to it, is it possible that these unnamed “others” now had the capability to produce it or to produce another version of the same nerve agent? In such a serious international incident as this, it is essential that we deal with the facts and that implies that we should use an evidence-based approach. Emotional reactions, not mediated by reason, are understandable but not to be acted on. Over the past 48 hours it is quite amazing to me that so many countries have fallen into line behind the U.S. and the U.K. leaders, both of whom have been under a lot of pressure recently.
What is the real story, where are the real facts, who is the guilty party, or are we looking at the possibility of “guilty parties”? I know that many will dismiss my comments as crazy, even biased, or as yet another conspiracy theory, but let me put them out there now, admittedly with the health warning attached that we are still in the stage of hypotheses based on partial information, misinformation, possibly on misinterpreted or “false” facts, on opinion, or on mere suspicion!
In such a situation I believe it is right to ask the question: Who is benefiting from this attack? Is it Sergei Skripal and his daughter? Definitely not! The policeman who first found them? Definitely not? Could it be Ms May, Prime Minister of the U.K.? Apparently yes, because overnight she has become the self-appointed but almost unanimously accepted leader of a pack of howling national and international bodies! Could it be President Trump? Definitely yes, if only based on the old adage, “give a dog a bad name …! “ What about President Putin? It appears that he is the guilty party in the eyes of many observers in the Western alliance. He was recently re-elected as President of Russia in an election that was heavily criticised by observers and by the opposition leaders in his own country. That may be so, but Russia is now threatened with even more sanctions and threats of “retaliation” thrown at them. Already half the E.U., plus the U.S, Canada, and Australia are dismissing Russian diplomats from their countries. I can’t see that as a benefit! So what had Mr. Putin to gain?
Taking the U.S, and U.K. first: Note that several U.S. Presidents, Obama, Bush, “Baby” Bush, and others before them and including the present incumbent have had individuals who were opposing them “taken out” by the Pentagon/Secret Service using drones, assassins, spies. We in Ireland know from our own experience and history of the dirty tricks, double agents, undercover military forces that have been used by England to undermine our sovereignty for centuries and right up to today and including the self-same tactic of “removing”, that is, killing individuals who were in their way.
For me, as an Irish observer, there is another very interesting and intriguing parallel between Russia and Ireland, despite the vast difference in size.
For centuries Russia was ruled by Tsars who were remote from the ordinary individual who was treated as a peasant with no rights and often owned by the local land-owner. The Tsar was the only authority. When the Communist Revolution of 1917 happened, the new rulers, despite their different and ambitious philosophy, created a society that led to the enslavement of the ordinary citizen. Only 25% of Russian citizens from 1917 to 1989 were ever members of the Communist Party! As a result, the concept of authority over one’s life was remote and virtually non-existent for many Russians over the centuries.
For over 800 years, Ireland was subject to rule firstly by the invading Normans and subsequently by England. Over those centuries the Irish people had no authority over their own island, because the ultimate political authority lay with the King/Queen in England and the ultimate religious authority lay with the Pope in Rome. This latter point is interesting because, due to its geographical isolation from an emerging Europe, Christianity in Ireland developed around independent monasteries and related communities ruled by abbots whereas in Europe, in general, Christianity was developed around administrative dioceses and bishops who were subject to the Pope in Rome. This led to Irish Christianity being seen as a threat to Christianity in Europe. For those 800 years, Irish people dealt only with authority that was foreign and based outside the island of Ireland.
Both the average Russian and the average Irish citizen today have inherited a culture where the role of the individual is conceived of as not being linked to the authority figure appointed by a distant ruler. These parallel histories have led to two geographically distant national and cultural entities being predisposed by their inherited conditioning to view a national authority in a similar way which is quite different from that of other nations in Europe.
I was born two months after World War II started, so I was a child during the period 1939 to 1945. I have childhood memories of the fear around me at home in the kitchen when we listened each night to the radio to find out what was happening in those distant places and imagined places called England and Germany. I have memories of food shortages and being given a slice of bread and butter with sugar sprinkled on it as a “nice surprise” after dinner. I remember my early national school and secondary school days during the recovery years of the later 1940s and through the 1950s. My younger self still has memories of the Cold War period and the fears that could erupt at the slightest threat. I remember a Catholic tabloid weekly newspaper carrying the headline story one week-end that “a blue light would shine in the Eastern sky when Russia was converted to Christianity”. We didn’t realise that the Russian people were already Christian and of the Orthodox kind. Many years later I discovered that my father’s earlier status as technically a citizen of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire carried the ever-present danger that if Hitler invaded Ireland to attack England on a second front, then my father ran the risk of being press-ganged into the German Army! My mother lived in fear throughout those war years. The stand-off over the Bay of Pigs in April 1961 instilled the fear in me that another light of a different colour and toxicity might illuminate our skies bringing nuclear warfare. Most of my weekends in the 1960s were devoted to demonstrations against the Vietnam war, or travelling to Belfast to join in demonstrations led by my comrades in the Peoples’ Democracy movement. Today’s events, following the attack on Sergei Skripal awaken those old fears in me. Should we not withhold all judgment and jumping to conclusions until we know the facts? Isn’t that what diplomacy is supposed to be about? Should we also not be more careful, as a sovereign country, about the friends with whom we align ourselves. The biggest loser in all this will be democracy. Yes, and I repeat that in case you miss my point: The biggest loser in the present confrontation will be democracy.
I have been observing national and international politics for several years and I still see democracy as a very fragile institution. We hear it spoken of as if it has been around since the emergence of early settled human habitations. We see regular references to Greece being the home of democracy starting 2,000 years ago. We overlook the fact, however, that their democracy was confined to land-owning males, while women (unless they owned land in their own right), foreigners, and slaves were excluded. Today the word “democracy” is very much a catch-all concept covering a wide variety of emerging democratic systems. Which of those allegedly established democratic systems are strong enough to survive another period of Cold War hostilities? Will Westminster, the self-styled home of Western democratic government survive Brexit? Why can’t the tribal leaders of the stand-off parties in Northern Ireland not exercise the democratic mandate they were given and form a government? How will the democracies of France and Germany cope with an E.U. that is suffering from a democratic deficit according to so many of the other member countries? Democracy is supposed to be the system that gives a representative voice to every citizen in the running of their own country. But under the pressures of global capitalism and neo-liberal governments, the very fabric of community life has been atomised, communities and local government structures have been undermined and weakened, the links between government and citizen are being eroded and the stability of the “nation state” is being shaken to its foundations. That is why I suggest that the greatest loser in the present crisis will be democracy itself.
My own life experience has taught me that we would be wise to tread carefully in how we respond to this crisis. I would like to offer some personal information in support of what I have written. I am not anyone special in the sense of having a unique insight into politics or into human behaviour. I have, however, worked for nearly forty years on international development aid projects in Russia, Eastern Europe, Africa (East and South), the Middle East, and in South-East Asia, where I had interaction with American, European, and local politics. I have learned from doing and from being involved and then from questioning myself about what has happened, and why it has happened. This has given me an existentialist and “outsider” view of life and living. Because we now take so much for granted about democracy, behaviour such as that surrounding the events in Salisbury, the rise of Fascism in Europe, the tightening grip of global capitalism, are inevitable and threatening.
In my first eight years of working after qualifying as an electrical engineer from University College Cork, I worked as a teacher in Limerick, Ireland. I learned from my life and my work there, the importance of theatre and the arts in society and their role is holding a mirror up to democracy, and the need to fight for what one believed in. I became a very active Socialist and irritant gadfly in the Irish Labour Party. I began to discern the dark shadow behind the tribal politics of Ireland. From there I spent a four year stint in Zambia where I witnessed the tensions between an emerging African democracy and the remaining colonial presence of Rhodesia, which was supported by the apartheid regime of South Africa. I was working in Angola in South-West Africa when the Portuguese revolution happened in 1975 and a civil war broke out in while I was there. I saw at first hand the efforts of the ruling Portuguese authorities to use development and trade to keep the local native population away from the rebel forces. They failed.
Returning to Ireland I trained with the Tavistock Institute as a consultant in group dynamics and organisational behaviour. Running training programmes in companies and workshops for public applicants, I saw at first hand, the underlying dynamics of organisational, institutional and social behaviour in Ireland and how that unconscious behaviour interacted with the established conscious structures and behaviour of those in positions of power and authority.
I worked in the former East Germany in 1989-90 on a contract with the Treuhandanstalt during the efforts to align the institutions and companies coming from the former Communist system with the new requirements of the market economy. I saw the short-lived hopes and expectations of those from the East who told me that their vision had been to build a new Germany and then move forward together with their relations and fellow citizens from the former West Germany. That vision and those hopes were shattered when the “Wessies” just took charge and treated the “Ossies” as second-class citizens in their shared new country. From there I moved to work in Russia for most of the 1990s. I worked as development aid consultant and team leader on some EU TACIS projects and saw at first hand the way in which American and European governments conspired to ensure that Russia would never recover from the mistakes of the Soviet era. I also was witness to the way in which the E.U. bowed to the demands of the Russian President, Boris Yeltsin, to change the nature of the development aid programmes from small-scale interventions to help local communities and institutions to major projects with political rather than developmental aims.
On one occasion, after a year’s work in which we received great praise from our Russian counterparts and the Russian authorities for the ongoing success of our project in rural development, and were regularly “wheeled out” to tell visiting dignitaries about our achievements, the renewal of my contract with the UK Overseas Development Service was blocked by the U.S. dominated International Finance Corporation (IFC). I had asked Boris Efimovich Nemtsov, then my senior contact and Governor of the Nizhny Novgorod Province, to help me to get access to James Wolfensohn, President of the World Bank, when he visited the city on a tour of projects. I had a fifteen minute interview with Mr. Wolfensohn, who was very courteous and positive. He liked the proposal I outlined and initiated a World Bank process whereby his officials worked with us to develop the project scope. As a result a micro-finance project was established three months later to provide financial support for small businesses in Nizhny NovgorodNizhny Novgorod.
My actions were strongly motivated by humanitarian concerns, seeing new Russian farmers being given farms which were already bankrupt when they received them, who were refused finance by the new Russian banks (re-financed from the West) because they had no collateral to offer. I “walked the land” on a number of occasions with farmers who were in the depths of depression and desperate because they literally didn’t know what to do with the rusted machinery, broken equipment, collapsing sheds and outbuildings on their farms and didn’t know how they could cope. They asked for our help and we gave them what we could. But we couldn’t produce miracles in a country where the land had been poisoned by the overuse in Soviet times of fertilisers, pesticides, and chemical sprays and had to be allowed to recover slowly using traditional organic methods. By a strange “co-incidence”, when, years later, Mr. Putin eventually decided to close the IFC office in Moscow, most of the staff, mainly Americans, Poles and Ukrainians were transferred to a new office opened in the Ukraine. Boris Efimovich, Provincial Governor, went on to become a Deputy Prime Minister under the presidency of Boris Yeltsin of the Russian Federation. Sadly, in February 2015, I read that Boris Efimovich was assassinated on a street near the Duma (Russian Parliament building in Moscow). He had always been opposed to Vladimir Putin who, he claimed, was out to kill him. But Nemtsov also represented the New Russian market capitalist system which was causing havoc in their country.
My final big project was in South Africa in 2001, where the “new” South Africa was shedding its apartheid past and was adapting its institutions to meet the demands of a multi-racial, multi-cultural, society. I started with a contract due to last six years. I left after six months when I realised that the Department of Labour, where I was based, was using E.U. funding from our project budget of €43 million to finance work that was already underway within the department while they were delaying in engaging with our project to build a new national industrial training and qualifications system that was targeting the African population. My German superiors promised support but backed down when the local E.U. office made it clear that negotiating new contracts with the South African government for the importation of South African wines into Europe would be jeopardised if the E.U. didn’t comply with the status quo. I left to keep my own conscience clear. It was painful and depressing.
As well as that, I had begun to see a pattern that was repeated in different countries. I know the effect it had on me, but also I was extremely aware of the implications that pattern had for society in general and for the future. I decided to share my personal experiences rather than quote from the experience of others. I wonder will any of those who read this story detect a pattern? What pattern do you see? How does that pattern affect our society? Is it still being repeated in your country, in your life experience?
There is a saying in Russian that “the Russian Soul is like a Dark Forest”. I fear that we are all now being sucked into a dark forest of misinformation, false news, where nothing is clearly defined and nothing is what it appears to be. What is happening now has the potential to destroy the progress we have made since the end of the Second World War. We face a situation where slow progress is required if we are to succeed but in a situation where instant gratification is the order of the day; where complex arguments have to be compressed into 200 characters or less; where decades of the concentration by media on mind-numbing entertainment where audiences now obsess on boxed sets of TV series portraying a controlled and modulated society where dissent is not allowed or where every problem is resolved by superheroes. We are, indeed, in a dark forest.
As I write this, I have on my desk a photograph that I took one week-end in Russia, when I had the use of my landlady’s dacha, or summer house in the forest outside the city of Nizhny Novgorod. I had left the rural bus that brought me close to my destination and was making my way on foot through the forest to the lodge. It was quite dark in the forest even at midday, but as I came to a turning in the track, I looked to my right and saw a small clearing where the sun shone brightly. It lifted my spirits and now it lifts my spirit again. The Russian forest is dark because the Russian people have suffered and been oppressed. That darkness has also clouded their spirit and taught them to suffer quietly. A Russian colleague who had lost his job as a research scientist when his institution closed down after the collapse of the Soviet Union, now drove our project car. When I greeted him each day at work with the words: “Hello Yuri, how are you today?” he replied “Still alive!” That response was common apparently when Stalin was in power. But the sun rises again and times change and, I believe, that Truth will once again be True. But only if we remember the darkness that is part of our lives and if we deal honestly with reality and question authority.