A case for postal banking in “Taking on the banks: The truth about the Australia Post Cartier watches affair”

“Taking on the banks: The truth about the Australia Post Cartier watches affair” (Citizens Insight / Australian Citizens Party, 19 February 2021)

In this video, the Australian Citizens Party makes a strong case that the Australian government’s sacking of Christine Holgate as CEO of Australia Post for awarding senior Australia Post managers Cartier watches worth $20,000 as performance bonuses masks an agenda to enforce a privatisation of the postal institution which would effectively prevent Holgate from developing Australia Post as a postal bank offering an alternative banking service to the Big Four banking corporations (Westpac Banking Corporation, Australia and New Zealand Banking Group, Commonwealth Bank of Australia, National Bank of Australia) that would actually benefit all Australians and the Australian economy in the long term. Narrator Glen Isherwood explains how supporting Holgate is an important step in supporting the creation and development of a postal bank that works for the public’s interests, and in forcing the Australian banking and financial industry to clean up the corruption among its largest companies which enjoy oligarchic cartel-like control over the industry.

Isherwood leads off with examples of corruption such as liar loans, faked payslips, forged documents and cash bribes in the Australian banking and financial industry. Liar loans amount to nearly $500 billion and customers have been charged up to $1 billion worth of services they never received. Despite a recent Royal Commission in 2018 uncovering instances of bank corruption and predatory behaviour on bank customers, the Coalition government under Prime Minister Scott Morrison claimed the Commission did not uncover any criminal behaviour that his government did not know about. Isherwood then returns to the topic of Australia Post and Holgate, and reels off how Australia Post saved bank customers across the country when the major Australian banks closed down branches and left many towns and communities without a banking service. For this, Holgate compelled the major Australian banks to pay commissions amounting to $70 million to Australia Post. Isherwood then demonstrates how the Australian government contrived to create a case around Holgate and the Cartier watches to push for her sacking by paying $2 million for a report whose authors Maddocks even admitted Holgate had not engaged in illegal activity but nevertheless found there were no rules governing Holgate’s decision to award the watches to the senior manager (which could be interpreted to mean that she had broken no rules at all).

An interesting comparison between Holgate’s performance as Australia Post CEO and her predecessor Ahmed Fahour’s performance then follows, showing up how effective Holgate has been in turning around Australia Post’s business and forcing the major Australian banks to cough up what they owe to Australia Post. Isherwood’s report is supported by interviewee Angela Cramp, the executive director of Community Licensed Post Offices Group, an organisation representing the interests of the people who are owner-managers of licensed post offices.

At the time of this review, a swelling group of prominent politicians (including Barnaby Joyce and Bob Katter), journalists, analysts and others have come forward to support Holgate. The Australian Labor Party is attempting to distance itself from its early castigation of Holgate and portraying itself as a staunch supporter of Holgate by piling criticism on the Morrison government. Two more interviewees, solicitor Robert Butler and former ANZ Bank director John Dahlsen discuss Holgate’s performance as CEO: Butler describes the craven behaviour of Board of Directors of Australia Post in supporting privatisation of the Australia Post and desertion of Holgate once her views about Australia Post becoming a postal bank became known; and Dahlsen praises Holgate’s achievements in a difficult working environment.

Using interviews and newspaper articles, the Australian Citizens Party exposes the agenda of the Morrison government and the elites it answers to as a predatory one antagonistic to the interests, needs and desires of the Australian public. Privatising Australia Post would deliver huge profits to a small number of companies and individuals while Australia Post employees lose their jobs and post offices in rural or remote areas are forced to close, leaving communities without banking services. The Australian Citizens Party cites sources such as Daisuke Kotegawa, a former senior Ministry of Finance public servant in Japan, who explains the difference between financial benefit (usually immediate and short-term) and economic benefit (usually associated with major infrastructure projects, and long-term and often hard to quantify), to support its call for a postal bank service. Viewers sceptical that the Australian Citizens Party is cherry-picking and citing sources to support its push for a postal banking service are urged to do online searches on the advantages and disadvantages of postal banking: the article by Mehrsa Baradaran at this link is a good introduction to the topic .

Strategic Flows, by Jacek Bartosiak: stream-of-consciousness monologue on geostrategy and geopolitics

Hubert Wala, “Strategic Flows, by Jacek Bartosiak” (Strategy & Future, 11 January 2021)

Strategy & Future is a Polish thinktank founded by lawyer / speaker / writer Jacek Bartosiak dedicated to stimulating and developing geopolitical thought and strategy for Poland and Central Europe. This film on how connections and flows between and among individuals, communities, organisations, nation states and their networks influence and are influenced by geopolitical / geostrategic concerns. At the level of nation states and their relations with one another, connections and flows which Bartosiak calls “strategic flows” (be they movements of people, trade in goods and services, flows of data, information and technology, and transportation logistics) not only determine the destinies of nations and their peoples but have also been subjected to varying forms of regulation including restrictions and outright bans. In his narration (a transcript of which can be found at this link), Bartosiak draws on history, and in particular recent history from 1945 onwards, to emphasise the importance of strategic flows as a major rationale (if not the major rationale) for the decisions that nations and major powers and superpowers especially make and have made in recent times.

Bartosiak flits between the example of Poland and larger powers such as the US to demonstrate how these nations’ physical geographies influence and determine the decisions they make with respect to defence and allocating resources to their militaries. He states that over the past 500 years, beginning with European nation states traversing the Atlantic Ocean to found colonies in the Americas and to open up trade routes to Asia, the World Ocean has become the major foundation over which global power can be exercised by nations. In the past, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, Britain and France all vied for influence over the Atlantic Ocean and its networks and then over other oceans and theirs; since 1945, the dominant power that rules the World Ocean is the United States through its Navy.

European and then US control of the World Ocean produced its antithesis in other nations’ conquests of the Eurasian landmass and the construction of railways to strengthen their control of the lands of the Eurasian heartland. Nations such as Britain and France that were sea powers were also keen to dominate trade networks in regions of the heartland (the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent, Central Asia) to link their colonies with both land and sea routes.

In recent times, US control of the oceans, and the political influence exercised by the US by its military projection, has come to be challenged by the rise of China as a major economic power and as an alternative role model, ideologically as well as politically and economically, for other nations, especially Third World nations, to follow. Bartosiak concludes his talk by stating that a new era of power struggle has begun between China and the US, with China challenging the US in creating a new trade network (the Belt and Road Initiative) across the Eurasian heartland and into Africa and even the Pacific ocean, in disputing and undermining the assumptions underlying the international rules-based order, in determining and controlling narratives about who runs the world and how it should be run, and in presenting an alternative model of economic growth and development that is not dependent on understanding and following Western political ideologies.

I must confess that the transcript is not easy to follow – it does have a stream-of-consciousness direction – and the film is even less easy to follow. Bartosiak’s voice-over narration is very monotonous and his narrative would have been better served in being structured in sections organised chronologically and perhaps starting with Poland and then jumping to the US. The narrative would have been much easier to follow. The continuous background music is unnecessary and is unintentionally soporific. At least the collage of films, much of which is irrelevant to the narrative, will keep viewers awake.

My main criticisms of Bartosiak’s talk are that he appears very selective in choosing facts and other information that support his views, and he makes assumptions about China and Russia – two nations that happen to be designated enemies of the US, and by extension enemies of Poland – that are not supported by facts or later political and economic development. He blithely brushes aside the chaos and poverty Russia suffered in the 1990s as a result of President Yeltsin’s leadership. He interprets China’s BRI ambitions and the nation’s move into developing 5G technology as geostrategic moves by Beijing to break Eurasia away from US domination, ignoring the fact that through economic sanctions on China and other nations signing up to China’s BRI, the US is effectively retreating into isolation of a not-very splendid kind. He ignores the possibility that American military dominance of the World Ocean has come at a significant cost to the American people themselves in the form of decaying infrastructures across the US mainland, the loss of manufacturing jobs to China and Mexico from the 1990s onwards, and the destruction of the US middle classes by their politicians, the US financial industry and large US corporations, all of whom, Bartosiak might have noticed, are linked through money flows and shared ideologies.

If USE blog readers are still interested in watching the film, following the transcript is best recommended – unless they’re watching it as a cure for insomnia.

The Red Dagger: a fiery poem essay narration and diatribe against corruption and oppression

Alan Cox, Heathcote Williams, “The Red Dagger” (2013?)

Presented in six parts on Youtube, British actor / poet Heathcote Williams’ poem essay “The Red Dagger”, a diatribe against the City of London and the part it has played in oppressing humanity across the world since the 1300s at least, is given vivid and impassioned audiovisual life by fellow UK actor Alan Cox who narrates the poem and supplies the montage of art, photographs, film stills and snippets of film and video to accompany his recitation. The red dagger of the title refers to the red sword that appears on the emblem of the City of London and, according to Williams and Cox, represents the dagger used in the murder of Wat Tyler, one of the leaders of the Peasants’ Revolt in England, in 1381 by officers loyal to King Richard II. (According to other sources I have read, the red sword on the emblem is a representation of St Paul, the patron saint of London.) Through the details of Wat Tyler’s Rebellion, in which Tyler and rebel monk John Ball led a movement insisting on social equality, abolishing the political hierarchy supporting the monarchy and ending the feudal system (under which peasants were the de facto property of landlords, bound to their masters’ lands), the poet Williams calls attention to the corruption of the political and economic elites that surrounded King Richard II (reigned 1377 – 1399) and finds parallels with the present City of London, its corruption and its control of the global financial industry, and how the activities of the financial elites impoverish and enslave entire nations.

Parts 1 and 2 of Cox’s fiery narration cover the 1381 uprising of English peasants against the King and his lords, and in itself the uprising as portrayed is very stirring. Whether or not the uprising has lessons for us in the 21st century might be debatable: for one thing, the levels of technology in mediaeval England were low, scientific and other general knowledge was limited, and the manipulation and exploitation that English elites exerted over the peasantry correspondingly were limited to mainly physical means, with some limited brainwashing of people’s minds courtesy of the Christian Church, a significant landowner and itself a major landlord oppressor of peasants. The most significant parts of Cox’s narration are Parts 3 and 4 in which he goes into detail about the extent of the activities and networking of the elites in the City of London and its secretive institutions, the extent to which the City of London controls the British government, its past participation in the British colonial / imperial project and the Atlantic slave trade, and its current participation in trafficking arms to nations with sordid human rights records and the global drug trade. Individuals and businesses in the UK financial services industry take advantage of opportunities to evade paying taxes owed to the government by sending money into offshore trust accounts or transfer pricing arrangements in tax havens. Something of the lavish, decadent culture of the City of London elites, dependent on rich banqueting and the associated networking, fuelled by addictions to drugs, casual sex and use of prostitutes, and possible links to sex trafficking and other sordid underground activities, is revealed in the narration and montage.

Cox’s film and Williams’ poem cover much ground and detail of how the City of London operates and has operated over the centuries, and viewers might well need to see the film at least twice to absorb most details. Being based entirely around Williams’ poem, the film does not give information sources so viewers will need to do their own research to confirm the information about the City of London. (A good start is Nicolas Shaxson’s book “Treasure Islands” which investigates the global scourge that is taxation evasion.) While the poem and film might play hard and fast with some details in parts, and Tyler’s actual rebellion might not have been as utopian, idealistic and socialist as the poem implies, the poetry genre proves to be an ideal format by which Williams (1941 – 2017) brings important political, economic, social and historical information to the general public’s attention.

The film along with transcripts of each part and footnotes giving information sources can be viewed at this link.

The Plot to Destroy Syria: a good overview of the agendas aiming at Syria’s collapse and extinction

Carlton Meyer, “The Plot to Destroy Syria” (Tales of the American Empire, 2 October 2020)

In just over 10 minutes, director / narrator Carlton Meyer lays out quite a detailed context of antagonists and their agendas behind the US-led war against their common protagonist target Syria. This war has been portrayed incorrectly (but deliberately) in the Western mainstream news media as a “Syrian civil war” waged between so-called anti-government opposition groups supposedly fighting for democracy and freedom on the one hand and on the other Syrian government forces loyal to President Bashar al Assad who is always painted as dictatorial. Meyer’s explanation of the background to the war that began in Dar’aa in southern Syria in 2011 is succinct and accurate, and viewers do not really need to know very much more beyond what Meyer states in the video, though a general knowledge of Syrian history since the country became independent of France in the 1940s, with the rise of Hafez al Assad to the Presidency in particular, would certainly help.

Meyer points out that quite a few nations in Syria’s neighbourhood want Assad gone: Israel for one wants to grab territory where Jewish people lived in Biblical times, and this territory happens to stretch from the Nile River in Egypt as far east as Baghdad in Iraq, and from northern Saudi Arabia in the south to Cyprus and much of Syria in the north under the notorious Yinon Plan; Saudi Arabia and the Gulf kingdoms, all Sunni-dominated, do not want an example of a country whose institutions are based on socialist principles and values so close to their own oppressed Shia-majority publics, and their plan for a gas pipeline running through Sunni Muslim territory from the Persian Gulf to Turkey and Europe was nixed by Syria; and Turkey under current President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is keen on taking over Syria’s northern border areas as part of a resurgent neo-Ottoman empire. In addition, The United States has long had ambitions to invade Syria as part of a long-term plan under the Project for the New American Century to invade seven countries in the Middle East and northern Africa and seize their energy wealth and mineral resources. Meyer could have noted that all these nations’ ambitions overlap considerably although viewers should be able to see this overlap and realise it will lead to a situation where Syria’s enemies will co-operate to a certain extent where their interests coincide and clash where their interests conflict – with Syrian cities, towns, villages and the countryside as the battleground. Wisely Meyer does not discuss ISIS or Jabhat al Nusra, both of which need their own videos to explain how these groups arose in Syria and how they are funded and supported by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Israel, Turkey, the US, the UK and France.

Maps showing Israel’s Yinon Plan and its designs on the Golan Heights and surrounding areas in Syria and Lebanon, the Sunni gas pipeline (and the pipeline running through Iran, Iraq and Syria that replaced it), Turkey with Syria’s northern border areas added to it, and others make for a very visual history lesson. There are not many live-action films referenced in the video and what there are, are of US politicians during discussion and debate. For the most part the video is well-paced but it does get faster and quite breathless in discussing Bashar al Assad near the end. Assad is portrayed as an intelligent and socially progressive leader who is popular with his people. Ultimately it is due to Assad’s character as a man of integrity that he continues to be President of Syria and to attract the public support that holds the country together and stops it from succumbing to a de facto coalition of invading forces from all around the planet.

The video is worth replaying to get a full picture and understanding of what was originally at stake for Syria and still is, even though the country has defeated ISIS and other invaders and is in the process of steadily reclaiming territory (though the US still holds parts of eastern Syria) and driving terrorists out of Syria through Idlib province. The major stumbling block is Turkey which continues to drag its heels in repatriating the terrorists remaining in Idlib and to harass Syria’s northern border areas. Meyer promises more short films about Syria and the recent war there.

WeWork – The $47 Billion Disaster: a profile of a company and its founder peddling an unsustainable vision and business model

Dagogo Altraide, “WeWork – The $47 Billion Disaster” (ColdFusion,2019)

Some workers probably wish their employers would make their working lives fun for them by sending them to fun fairs once a week perhaps to ride on roller-coasters for free. Few of them would probably opt to work for a company that is a virtual roller-coaster all the time. This though has been the role of tech company WeWork in the last few years. Founded in 2010 by Israeli-American entrepreneur Adam Neumann, WeWork provides office space with a funky hipster atmosphere to pop-up and start-up ventures and freelancers, the aim being to foster a collective collaborative culture that will spark creativity and new ideas to pitch and market to target audiences. Over the next several years, the company grew very rapidly and expanded overseas to the point where it owned 840+ properties in over 120 cities around the globe and rented them out to up-and-coming entrepreneurial ventures. In 2017, Neumann met Masayoshi Son, the founder and CEO of SoftBank, who was besotted with Neumann’s vision and plans for WeWork enough to commit billions in investment in WeWork. This enabled Neumann to set up and splash out mega-bucks on subsidiary firms like WeLive, a service that buys furnished residential property (usually following the then current fashion Zeitgeist) and leases it out, and an experimental school for preschoolers and kindergarteners – provided their parents can fork out the yearly equivalent in fees of a lower middle-class income.

Unfortunately this mix of generous investment funding and Neumann / WeWork has led to a very precipitous rise and equally steep fall in WeWork’s fortunes as documented by Cold Fusion TV, an Australian online media company helmed by founder Dagogo Altraide (who made the video under review and also provides voice-over narration), in a very calm and straightforward, rational way that makes following the ups and downs of WeWork’s recent history quite easy for viewers, even if the highs and lows are dizzying. The documentary makes clear that WeWork’s abstract business model is financially unsustainable and resembles an elaborate real estate Ponzi scheme, in that the people who rent space from WeWork essentially become the company’s employees as well as tenants. As long as WeWork provides a place for freelancers and contractors to work in, all is well for them; the moment WeWork decides to sell the property, these people have nowhere to go and become effectively unemployed. They could perhaps go to their local libraries or the Starbucks coffee shop to work as long as those places offer free WiFi but then they could have done that initially and not gone anywhere near WeWork. In addition, WeWork’s business model can only work if property prices are rising and interest rates are low, in a real estate environment where perhaps few people are able to afford their own homes because banks keep lowering interest rates to encourage property speculation and thus pump money into the economy, leading to a situation where people end up borrowing big. As one interviewee in the documentary says, the moment property prices start going down and interest rates start going up, WeWork’s business model starts to rack up huge debts quickly and alarmingly and the company starts sacking people.

What doesn’t help WeWork either is its founder Adam Neumann’s bizarre and narcissistic behaviour, verging on sociopathy, in the way he misuses the billions invested in WeWork by SoftBank, preferring to splash money on private jets and a luxurious and wasteful lifestyle. Meanwhile his employees must tolerate his abusive behaviour and tirades, his lies, his drinking and his frankly unhygienic habits. The documentary makes clear Neumann’s shabby treatment of WeWork employees and SoftBank’s trust and investment in WeWork.

The last part of the documentary is interesting in its demonstration of how WeWork’s failure and collapse without even having come as far as going public on the New York City Stock Exchange exposes the fragility and instability of the US financial system centred around Wall Street. Public confidence and trust in large investment banks doing the right thing by the bulk of their shareholders and by the public generally undergird the banking and finance industry; if confidence and trust are lacking, the banks potentially face failure and closure if companies they invest billions in fail and the banks are exposed. They would then have to call in their loans and other companies start to fail, setting off a contagion of runs and further losses of public confidence and trust in their operations.

The documentary is well made, relying on a mix of static photos and occasional moving picture videos. The pacing is steady and easy-going, and Altraide speaks with a reassuring air and confidence. If Altraide is furious at WeWork for peddling a false New Age / Age of Aquarius vision of people in offices wearing comfy casual clothes, quaffing coffee and sitting in colourful open-space settings while they work, his voice remains remarkably free of bitterness and anger. The story Altraide tells is structured in clearly defined segments, with perhaps the most interesting segment being about Neumann’s self-centred arrogance and sense of entitlement.

What the ColdFusion video ignores is why and how a company selling an abstract feel-good hippie vision and similar tech firms promoting a work culture of fun and supposed high ethical ideals end up being not only wasteful of investment money but also turn out to be deeply corrupt and hypocritical.

Vladivostok 2020: portrait of a very Russian city on the edge of the Pacific Ocean

Graham Phillips, “Vladivostok 2020” (2020)

In this 20-minute showcase of the glories of Vladivostok, the famed Pacific Ocean gateway to Russia, investigative British journalist lists what he calls his Magnificent Seven features of the city, the Magnificent Seven part being a reference to Vladivostok’s most famous export, Yul Brynner, who was one of the stars of the Hollywood Western classic based on the Japanese film “The Seven Samurai”. And these seven features are indeed amazing, not just magnificent: the two major bridges alone spanning the bay on which the city straddles, Russian Bridge and Golden Bridge, are breathtaking in their scale and architectural beauty; the city’s port is still a working port through which Russia exports and imports goods to and from nations around the Pacific Rim; the city’s emblem, the Siberian tiger, adorns Vladivostok in sculptures and in the city’s popular culture; and most amazing of all, Vladivostok is the only major Russian city in which most people drive right-handed cars, an anomaly from the chaotic years in the 1990s when manufacturing in Russia nearly all but ceased and Russians in the nation’s Far East regions imported cars from Japan to drive and sell.

Initially Phillips sets out to counter and debunk a BBC documentary featuring narrator Simon Reeve who travelled through the city. Apparently Reeve made much of Vladivostok’s geographic proximity to the Chinese border with the insinuation that Chinese investors and migrants would soon overtake the city and turn it into a Chinese city. Although Phillips does an excellent job of refuting Reeve and the BBC to the extent of grinding the Britons into fine powder beneath his feet, the camera lets the city do most of the talking: statues and memorials to famous figures and events of Russian and Soviet history dot public spaces, Orthodox cathedrals vie for tourists’ attention with their onion domes, distinctive crosses and flamboyant colour schemes, and ordinary citizens uphold quaint and eccentric Russian customs and traditions such as going commando in cold water in the middle of winter. Astonishingly Phillips also comments on the rise in shark attacks (!) along the Pacific coast near Vladivostok and accordingly the city authorities have set up shark nets along the coast so residents can indulge in another distinctive Russian custom: going to the beach, swimming and sunning themselves even when the day temperature is barely into the early 20s Centigrade.

Without doubt the best parts of the film are those parts where the camera pans around the cityscape as Phillips walks around or drives across the two bridges. Special mention must be made of a lighthouse whose keeper Phillips visits for tea and sugar, and of a famous submarine whose crews participated in major feats of heroism against the Japanese navy during the Second World War. While Phillips strolls about, one can’t help but notice how clean and tidy the streets are, how wealthy it and its citizens look, and the confidence they have. City panoramas show a gleaming, prosperous urban landscape dominated by cars, cars and more cars, many of them actually being right-hand drive cars imported from Japan. Phillips’ film is sure to have many viewers putting Vladivostok on their bucket lists of cities to visit.

The Tragedy of Russia’s Reforms: a survey of Russia under Boris Yeltsin’s leadership in the 1990s

Leo Mattei, Johnny Miller, “The Tragedy of Russia’s Reforms” (PressTV, 2017)

Made for the Iranian news channel PressTV, this measured documentary turns out to be a detailed survey of the period of Russia’s transition from a Communist society to a capitalist one under President Boris Yeltsin (1991 – 1999) and the neoliberal economic reforms carried out under the guidance of the so-called Harvard Boys (US economists with Harvard University backgrounds tasked to assist the transition). These reforms privatised most state-run industries including the major energy industries and enriched a small number of well-placed people, many of whom were former Soviet government apparatchiks looking out for Number 1, while the vast majority of people in the new Russian Federation became impoverished. Living standards and life expectancies fell as people lost jobs and fell into despair; many turned to drink and dangerous drugs, and in parts of the country, the rates of new HIV / AIDS infections skyrocketed alarmingly. As discontent against Yeltsin’s policies became widespread, in 1993 the Russian parliament impeached Yeltsin who then dissolved the parliament; the stand-off resulted in military units ordered by Yeltsin storming the parliamentary building and the national TV station centre, killing nearly 190 people and wounding nearly 440 others. Yeltsin became a more dictatorial leader and economic “reforms” continued to devastate the country’s economy, especially its manufacturing industries, sending more people into poverty as jobs were lost. The country’s financial situation became dire and Russia was forced to rely on IMF loans which in turn tied the country even more to neoliberal economic policies, placing it on a downward spiral into more economic and financial destruction and instability, and with that political corruption and escalating levels of crime, including gang warfare and homicide.

Through interviews with people who were close to Yeltsin, such as his former bodyguard Alexander Korzhakov and former Soviet Deputy Prime Minister / founder of centrist Yabloko Party Grigory Yavlinsky, or observers of the period, such as sociologist Boris Kagarlitsky and historian Alexander Tarasov, the documentary follows the career of Yeltsin as President starting with a tour of the Yeltsin Center and its museum in Yekaterinburg. This is a strange and sinister place: it whitewashes Yeltsin’s career and encourages not only uncritical hero worship but rewrites Russian history in the 1990s. The interview with Korzhakov who wrote a book of his experiences dealing with Yeltsin in 1997 is an excellent remedy: Korzhakov is frank about the impact of Yeltsin’s leadership and the deeply corrupt and despotic nature of his government. Kagarlitski, Tarasov and other interviewees discuss the economic policies of advisors and ministers such as Yegor Gaidar and Anatoly Chubais who favoured “shock therapy” privatisation. Ordinary people are also interviewed: they speak of how the Soviet aircraft industry, built up over decades, was effectively destroyed by the “reform” policies, and how the corruption in Yeltsin’s government (from which Yeltsin family members benefited financially) and among the country’s new rich elites, known as “oligarchs”, permeated Russian society generally, encouraging the growth of criminal gangs and other criminal activity across the country. Most disturbingly, photographer Alexander Poliakov, interviewed about the 1993 constitutional crisis, implies in his statements that the events of the crisis may not have transpired as reported in official accounts.

In the mid to late 1990s, the most significant events in Russia were the outbreak of war between Russia and the breakaway republic of Chechnya (the causes of which Yeltsin himself must bear some responsibility for) and Yeltsin’s re-election as President in presidential elections held in 1996, for which Yeltsin needed US help in creating a marketing campaign playing on voters’ insecurities and fears, and the results of which (in some regions such as Ossetia) were likely tampered with or made up to help get Yeltsin back into power. Once returned as President though, Yeltsin gave himself over to the demon drink and allowed his government to fall into the hands of others. Powerful oligarchs meddled openly in Russian politics by buying up influence over politicians. The looting of the Russian economy continued with some oligarchs amassing tremendous fortunes reckoned in the billions of dollars. Corruption and crime were rampant throughout the country. Just when people could see no hope out of their predicament, Yeltsin surprised everyone by resigning as President in 1999 and nominating Vladimir Putin to succeed him as caretaker President. The following year, Putin won the presidential elections and since then has been President (with a 4-year break from 2008 to 2012).

The documentary flows smoothly and well, and does an excellent job in following the impact of Yeltsin’s leadership and his disastrous policies on particular sectors of the Russian economy, the social fabric and day-to-day life for many Russian people. The film notes the insidious role the Boris Yeltsin Center plays in whitewashing the politician and the impact he had. Just as insidious though is how the film gives little credit to Vladimir Putin in ending oligarch meddling in the nation’s politics (by making an example of crooked businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky by jailing him for 10 years when he refused to give up interfering in the political process) and reviving the Russian economy, and insinuates that high global prices for oil in the early 2000s were mainly responsible for the Russian economic resurrection. As leader of a centrist, socially liberal party, Yavlinsky is not likely to have a neutral or positive opinion of Putin, and as a dissident academic, neither is Kagarlitsky.

The film ends on a warning note about how undertaking “wrong” economic reforms can ruin economies. This is an incorrect reading of what was done to Russia by neoliberal economic policies during the Yeltsin years: far more correct is that these policies were intended to destroy Russian power and break up the country so its resources could be seized by foreign corporations and elites, and so they were the “right” policies. Attempts by the Yeltsin Center and others to portray Yeltsin as a saintly leader and decision-maker are to be seen in a similar light, parallel to how other major world leaders who also introduced neoliberal economics in their countries have been sold to the public as wise or capable, even as their economic policies sent thousands or millions into unemployment, poverty and despair.

Borderless: European refugee / migrant crisis harbours a sinister agenda

Caolan Robertson and George Llewellyn-John, “Borderless” (2019)

Lauren Southern is a political activist and independent journalist notorious for expressing views considered to be white-nationalist and borderline racist / xenophobic. However this documentary on the European refugee and immigration crisis is free of ideology and criticism, and Southern (together with her 2-person camera crew) interviews as many people involved in the crisis as possible to get an understanding of the scale of the crisis: these people include refugees and migrants in camps in Morocco, and in Lesvos and other parts of Greece; a homeless migrant from Mali in Paris; EU citizens including a Greek farmer whose farm was overrun by people traffickers and smugglers; people working for NGOs (non-government organisations) in refugee camps supposedly assisting refugees; vigilante militia members in Bulgaria on the lookout for illegal migrants; and an Irish investigative journalist who speaks frankly about the profits that smuggling networks can earn from illegal migration for the people who control them. Southern’s work takes her and her crew across southern Europe and northwest Africa, and to Ireland and Paris.

Initially the film is slow and appears quite amateurish as Southern waits late at night for refugees and migrants to arrive at a beach in northwestern Turkey where people smugglers will take them on a possibly hazardous voyage in flimsy dinghy boats to Lesvos island. After that episode, when the film cuts to Morocco, the pace picks up and the film has more focus and direction, though the unnecessarily dramatic music is intrusive and jarring. From this point on, viewers begin to get a sense of what Southern is working towards: that the refugee and migration crisis, in which huge numbers of people are forced to move from war-torn and/or impoverished areas in the Middle East, western Asia and sub-Saharan Africa into a Europe struggling with its own problems of austerity economics, high unemployment, excessive property speculation and homelessness, appears to be part of a sinister plan created and engineered by an unseen cabal of people who actually profit financially and otherwise (such as perhaps stealing vacated land sitting atop natural gas and oil deposits) by huge shifts of populations, with no regard for how different groups of people with very different histories, cultures, values and traditions can live and work together in crowded conditions and with limited resources.

Alarming moments abound through the documentary: in northern Greece, migrants from as far away as Afghanistan tell of daily fights and violence in their camp and one man says that ISIS fighters have infiltrated the camp by pretending to be refugees and are on the lookout for him (he is an atheist) and others like Christians or Kurdish people who refuse to submit to their Wahhabi brand of Islam; members of NGOs funded by the UN or the EU admit teaching migrants how to fudge their personal details and commit fraud in order to enter Europe, and how they themselves benefit financially from aiding and abetting the human trafficking; African refugees and migrants in Morocco pour out their hopes and dreams of work and success in the European countries they strive to enter; and several migrants in camps in Greece and Morocco admit that they wished they had stayed home. Where migrants find the thousands of euros or their equivalent to pay smugglers to take them abroad is never mentioned but from the way some migrants speak and the way they try to dress and comport themselves, one suspects they may have come from middle class backgrounds or pulled some strings. One odd thing about the migrants that might strike viewers is how very few women, children and elderly people there are in the camps; another odd thing is that some migrants have come from as far away as Afghanistan.

In Brussels, MEPs Southern interviews admit that the EU wastes huge amounts of money in driving an agenda that forces open border policies on EU member nations with no thought for how individual countries cope with housing migrants, feeding them and giving them work at the same time that many of their own citizens are homeless, suffer food insecurity and cannot find work in conditions already strained by austerity policies that have shrunk economic and business activity. Southern travels to Wicklow, a rural town in Ireland, which is trying to cope with an influx of asylum seekers holed up in a hotel. The Wicklow locals lament the irreversible changes forced on them by a local government council that refuses to listen to them, and the asylum seekers themselves see the homelessness, the lack of work, the despair and the suspicion surrounding them.

While the film’s conclusion is an untidy mix of images from previous parts of the documentary accompanied by the tiresome muzak soundtrack, Southern’s address to the audience, in which she admits her astonishment at the scale and complexiy of the crisis and the greed, manipulation and criminality involved in what is virtually a giant global human-trafficking operation, on par with (and superseding) the trans-Atlantic slave trade from Ireland and Africa during the 17th to 19th centuries, and her realisation that refugees, migrants and the peoples of the host nations alike have been deceived and played for fools by a small group of what she calls “evil men” (in reality, governments and their puppet masters), is remarkable in its stark honesty. Southern herself has come a long way in her own research and discoveries, and while she may still express views considered antithetical to the bland and shallow values under the Identity Politics / Diversity umbrella, at least these views are informed by reality on the ground.

Nobody Visits This Country … Find Out Why: a UK tourist finds out why in the ruin and decay of Kishinev

“Nobody Visits This Country … Find Out Why” (Bald and Bankrupt, April 2019)

Bald and Bankrupt is the nom de plume of an English traveller who makes short videos of his travels to little-known and neglected parts of the world for his Youtube channel of the same name. The fellow certainly is bald but bankrupt in generosity and conviviality he most certainly is not. This video which he filmed himself on his mobile phone was taken during a trip to Chishinau (I prefer using the old Kishinev), the capital of Moldova, a country sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine in southeastern Europe bordering the Balkan region. Initially Bald and Bankrupt – we’ll call him BB for the sake of convenience – visited Moldova on a jokey trip as he had heard that the country was the least visited place in Europe and that fewer people visit Moldova in a year than visit his local Tesco store every day!

In the space of just over 16 minutes of edited footage taken on his mobile phone, BB reveals the alarming extent of the neglect of public facilities in Kishinev: stairs leading from the street into the graffiti-covered tunnels to the subway are broken and dangerous to use, the wheelchair access is unusable; a large hotel is derelict and its fountain is empty save for rubbish; an observatory is falling into ruin. BB talks to pensioners in the streets and all independently agree that life under the Soviet Union before 1991 was better and cheaper.

Walking around city neighbourhoods, BB sees some election posters and reels off the names of various politicians and describes them as thieves or embezzlers. He sees pensioners selling personal possessions on the street and is shocked to see an advertisement from someone willing to buy people’s hair: a sure sign that people are desperate and will sell anything of theirs to supplement meagre incomes and buy food. BB mentions that pensioners are paid 40 euros every month.

At the end of his video, BB tells viewers something of what Moldova was like when it was part of the USSR: it was a holiday destination for Soviet tourists, it offered a good life for its citizens. Since independence, the country has been ruled by corrupt oligarch politicians who have looted the national wealth and impoverished the citizenry, even though it is supposedly moving closer to the European Union which is dangling the prospect of EU membership and a surefire path to the sort of prosperity that countries like Latvia and Lithuania are currently enjoying … not.

BB is a likeable narrator, very knowledgeable about Moldova’s politics and history, who resembles fellow Brit, the journalist Graham Phillips who himself fearlessly sallies into countries that mainstream Western news media would rather not know about, in appearance and open manner. His video on Kishinev is the first of a number of videos on life in Moldova.

Altimir: a village representing in microcosm the impact of neoliberal capitalism on post-Communist nations

Kay Hannahan, “Altimir” (2016)

Since 1989 when they left the sphere of Soviet political / economic / cultural influence, and particularly since 2004 when they joined the European Union, the post-Communist / post-Soviet nations of central and eastern Europe have seen their economies shrink and die for lack of investment (public or private, local or foreign) in industry and agriculture. Correspondingly jobs have also been disappearing, unemployment is rising and more people need social welfare at a time when taxation revenue is shrinking and governments (some of which are dominated by diaspora politicians connected to the US government directly or indirectly through marriage and the US State Department) refuse to increase public spending because … public spending is socialist! The result in many of these nations, from Bulgaria in southeast Europe to Latvia and Lithuania in the northern Baltic Sea region, is the phenomenon of young people voting with their feet to wealthier parts of the European Union to find work, never to return.

In this documentary, Kay Hannahan travels to Altimir, a tiny village in northwest Bulgaria near the Danube River border with Romania, where she stays with an elderly couple, Yordan and Malinka, their daughter Iva and granddaughter Ioana. The family makes do with the few possessions it has in its ramshackle house where clothes are put out to dry on a dryer next to the heater in the tiny kitchen. Yordan takes Kay on a bicycle trip around the village, showing her various deserted buildings including a church whose grounds are now overrun with foraging chickens, a derelict schoolhouse and several factory buildings where (during Communist rule) upwards of 20 or 50 people used to be busy working at machines and equipment that have since disappeared or degenerated into scrap. They pass by the town hall and the village government building and Yordan tells Kay to film away (the implication is that under Communist rule when the building was in use, people were forbidden to film or take photos of it). While pay cheques were not great, workers were still able to take holidays in mountain areas or go down to the beaches on the Bulgarian coast. Yordan remarks that under capitalism, pay is better but pay cheques fewer and nearly all young people have left the village in search of work and money.

They visit some friends of Yordan’s, Gosho and his wife, and the three of them reminisce about the old Communist-era times when Gosho could visit Cuba and bring back gifts, and when people could make their own brandy at home. In present-day Bulgaria, people can no longer make brandy or other wines at home due to European Union restrictions. Despite their poverty, Gosho and his wife are generous hosts, making enough brandy to feed a football team, along with lunch made from whatever they can afford from their small fridge.

Everywhere they travel in the village, Kay and Yordan come across quiet and empty streets, overgrown parks, abandoned buildings in various states of decay, and few signs of life. Kay’s skilful use of cinematography, relying heavily on static or slowly moving hand camera, portrays the stillness of an emptying village. The villagers talk about their lives and the life of Altimir under Communism, how there was plenty of factory work to support a population of some 3,500 people, and how things have now changed dramatically under the EU and capitalism. There is no sense of despair or hopelessness however; the elderly folk shrug their shoulders, talk of things as they used to be under Communism, complain about the EU strictures and get on with business as usual. Where the money comes from to buy food for themselves and their animals – Kay’s hosts keep pigs and some cows – is not said in the documentary, but it’s likely that Yordan and Malinka get meagre pension cheques from the Bulgarian government, and their children working in the cities or overseas may send regular remittances as well.

In spite of the village’s dereliction, Kay’s hosts and their neighbours are proud representatives of Altimir, detailing the life that used to exist and showing off its history and war-time monuments. It seems a great tragedy that eventually when the elderly go, the entire village will become a ghost town ripe for the wrecking ball and a politician’s ambition to build a superhighway or a mine for foreign corporations to exploit.

The sense of the villagers’ attachment to Altimir and its past history and identity is strong and the villagers’ hospitality to a stranger whose intentions and background they do not know is very touching. Viewers are left with the sour feeling that life under Communism, while restricted and lacking in freedom, was better for the villagers than what they now have under the EU and neoliberal capitalism.