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Archive for April, 2015

Migrants and the Media

Borimir STotev13 April 2015

image credit: Hope Not Hate

With the persistent misrepresentation of Romanians and Bulgarians in the British press, Rebecca McKeown asks: is it time for an end to unfettered free speech?

Britain’s press freedom must end.

Even as I type the sentence I flinch and want to hammer repentantly on the backspace key. The words read like democracy gone wrong: an attack on a fundamental human right. They bring to mind the heated debates of the post-Charlie Hebdo moral melee. They seem to typify everything that a truly liberal society might hope to denounce.

And yet … I stand by them. The callous portrayal of East European immigrants by the red-top right and the racist generalisations and lies peddled to petulant and ill-informed swathes of the British population have become intolerable. Who gave the British media a free pass to provoke societal division and institutional racism?

Those liberal Britons who have grown up accustomed to the tabloid circus joke at its expense and shake their weary heads at every new, bigoted headline. It seems to me, a newcomer to these green and pleasant lands, that Britain’s populist press is all too often brushed off like an embarrassing drunk uncle—a little bit puckish, a little bit provocative and opinionated, but all in all, harmless.

If you had been a fly on the wall in conversations I have had with UK-based Romanians of late, you would be as certain as I am that such coverage is anything but harmless. Any medium which allows the publication of material that, for example, calls Romanian workers “a huge army of parasites” is in no way innocuous.

It has now been over a year since labour market restrictions were lifted in the UK, allowing Romanians and Bulgarians to work here legally. Certainly, some came. Many went home again too. This is the nature of today’s mobile workforce, and the reality of EU membership. Many Brits count themselves lucky that they can hop across to the continent to live or work in Paris, Munich, Seville, or Budapest. Romanians now have that same right, and, bravo them, many are exercising it.

The great majority of those Romanians who come to the UK prove themselves to be hard-working, honest, contributing members of society, as immigrant communities so often are. But still, still, in this enlightened, largely-liberal, globalised society—still there are a great many Britons who believe the generalisations printed on a daily basis about a people who are no less intelligent, creative, and proud than they are.

Researching this post, I embarked on a Google search for “UK Romanians”. I should not have troubled my fingers with the exercise. So predictable were the headlines, so copy-and-paste clichéd, I could have written them myself given a burst of creative malice. The stories read like bad jokes:

‘Romanian planned to smuggle 3ft 2in burglar known only as ‘The Midget’ out of the UK by hiding him in his luggage and flying to their home country’

‘Romanian thief caught shoplifting twice within three days of arriving in the UK including just hours after stepping off a plane’

‘Romanian children 130 miles from home demand taxi and McDonald’s at London police station’

And these were only the first three headlines I encountered in a search of the past few days alone. Eighteen months ago, I investigated the media’s depiction of Romanian workers somewhat more extensively. In a study of four tabloids and 315 articles, I categorised each piece by the type of language used and whether a positive or negative depiction of Romanian and Bulgarian migrant workers was given.

The results of the study found that the three right-leaning tabloids (The Sun, the Daily Mail, and the Daily Express) were far more likely to report hyperbolic, negative pieces about Romanians and Bulgarians than the left-leaning Daily Mirror. In other words, the tabloid nature of the paper appeared to have less effect on the anti-Romanian rhetoric published than did its partisan leanings. Some of the headlines recorded during the study included:

Bogus Bulgar Benefits Rackets Exposed’

‘Time Bomb: Special Investigation in Romania – Migrants to Bring Drug-Resistant Superbug to UK’

And my personal favourite, demonstrating the innate talent of tabloid journalists at disguising ingrained racism in crude quips: “BULGAR OFF”.

The inanity of tabloid immigration puns aside, the issue of racism towards Romanians (or insert the Central/East European nationality of your choice here) is ongoing and unrelenting. Very often when I meet a Romanian in London, I am shocked by their stories of discrimination. Frequently they are apologetic about their ethnicity. A personal experience of this just two weeks ago almost brought me to tears.

In a small café just north of UCL, a waitress came over to deliver my food. Her accent and appearance led me to believe that she was Romanian, and so I asked her: “Where are you from?”

The look of trepidation and distress that flashed across her face, just for that split second that her eyes met my own, was one of the most heartbreaking experiences of my time in this city. “I’m from Romania”, she replied, every syllable apologetic, bracing herself for what she seemed sure would follow.

My answer, in imperfect Romanian, felt—appallingly—like giving a gift. “Romania!”, I exclaimed, “You have the most beautiful country in the world! I wish I was Romanian!”

How wonderful would it be if such a simple gesture was not so rare as to elicit an overjoyed response? The young woman beamed, sat opposite me for a minute, and poured out her troubles.

“Everyone is horrible to me when they hear I’m Romanian.”

“I miss my family, but this is the best chance I have to support them”

“I want to study, so I am working hard to fund my education”

“The management here treat me very badly. They take the tips I earn and I never see them again”

How I wish this was a one-off conversation. Similar ones are, however, to be had with a great many of the Romanians working hard to earn and contribute here. A young man I met recently came to London to study, but finding himself out of pocket, quit school to work instead. The persistent suggestions that he was in the UK to scrounge off the system had left him determined to prove his worth in a way that other Europeans are rarely forced to:

“I am going to work hard for a few years. Then, when I have enough money, I’m going to walk up to the admissions desk at the university with bundles of cash and pay in advance for my degree, right there on the spot”.

These Romanians, the Romanians that I know and often meet, in no way resemble the violent and dishonest characters that the British press so often choose to splash across their pages and that certain sections of British society choose to see as representative of an entire nationality.

Luckily, I am not the only person who thinks that depictions of Romanians in the UK have spiralled out of control. A group of good people, Brits and Romanians alike, are seeking to remedy the misrepresentations of Romanians in this country. Their documentary is titled 13 Shades of Romanian—but let us not hold this against them. They are producing thirteen stories of thirteen Romanians living in the UK, with the aim of showing a side of Romanians few Brits are exposed to. The project has just achieved its funding goal through a crowdsourced Indiegogo campaign, though they are still welcoming support.

How sad that such a campaign is necessary, and that it is very much an ambulance-at-the-bottom-of-the-cliff remedy. Can Britain’s media not be held more accountable for damning the reputations of every Eastern European who walks through the arrivals gate at Heathrow? As far as I am concerned, the rhetoric that continues to abound about Romanians and other East European expats is a human rights abuse of the first order—more so, I believe, than restricting the unfettered, unfiltered, and unacceptable racism so often printed and consumed in this country.

Rebecca McKeown is a Romaniaphile and Hungarian language learner from New Zealand, currently studying at SSEES. A former radio journalist with interests in diplomacy and development, her current research explores the performance of national cultures in Romania. Twitter: @rebiccamck

Behind Putin’s Self-imposed Food Ban

Borimir STotev7 April 2015

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By Enrico Cattabiani

On August 4 last year, Vladimir Putin responded to the latest round of sanctions levied against his regime by imposing a ban on the import of food products from the EU, the US, and their supporters. The disruption of commerce was worth approximately $12 billion to the Russian economy, with secondary effects in the targeted countries, particularly the EU, causing unemployment within the agricultural sector, a slump in the price of the banned foods in domestic markets, and great losses for producers.

At the same time, Russia saw a dramatic rise in food prices, empty shelves in shops, restaurants obliged to change their menus and a revival of the old-fashioned black market, all as a consequence of the ban. Western media has been harshly critical of Putin’s policy, calling it a desperate and useless retaliation done simply for the hell of it. The ban, they argue, is a boomerang that will come back to hit Russia hardest.

There are two very good reasons why this might be true. First, sanctions are a political tool used to force a rival to alter its behavior. In this case, although affected parties in the West are pressing their governments to lift sanctions, damage to the wider European economies has been limited, and the voices of agricultural producers are not strong enough to force a change in policy.

Second, restrictions on trade are usually harmful for any economy, and Russia is no exception. Although it could eventually be beneficial for some sectors, scarcity of products and rising inflation have predictable and undesirable effects on a large segment of the population. Therefore, the ban on food appears to be ineffective in the first instance and counterproductive in the second one.

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Why, then, has Putin opted for such an irrational policy? Didn’t he have any alternatives to imposing sanctions – and why food, rather than something else? Before asserting that the ban has been a total failure, however, we must analyze the situation from the Russian president’s perspective.

Why Putin needed to act

Two main political calculations pushed Putin to adopt sanctions. First, to be considered a superpower a country must act like a superpower, and that is certainly the status that Putin seeks for Russia. When the sanctions hit, Russia had to show its muscles and hit back. This is even more the case considering sanctions were imposed in response to Russia’s undeniable involvement in Crimea – which Putin has always denied.

The second reason is purely domestic and concerns the fact that many Russians, thanks to state-led propaganda, perceive the escalation of the Ukraine conflict as the result of Western interference in support of a fascist, anti-Russian coup. Putin’s approval rating rocketed up at the beginning of the turmoil in Crimea, and he has had to keep playing the part of the strongman to maintain credibility at home.

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The logic of sanctions: trade-offs, elites, and money

The decision of whether to adopt a particular programme of sanctions is generally made with an eye on the damage, both economic and political, and consequent backlash that they are likely to provoke. In other words, political leaders choose sanctions regimes that maximize damage to its targets and minimize repercussions for their own state or power base.

If we accept that the most important goal of every leader is to remain in power, it follows that, in democratic countries, reducing the impact of sanctions on one’s own economy is essential. Indeed, popular support is necessary to be re-elected, and damaging consumers and businesses for political reasons would likely lead to electoral defeat. This logic has been called the ‘enforcement dilemma’ and expresses the trade-off for the political elite of imposing sanctions.

However, such logic works in a different way in non-democratic countries. Here, to remain in power an authoritarian leader must guarantee a constant flow of money to his inner circle, upon whom he relies for support. In this case, the trade-off is dictated by the need to avoid losses for the elites, disregarding the fallout for the population at large, unless widespread unrest or civil disobedience makes them impossible to ignore.

Such considerations partially explain why Western sanctions have targeted individuals and sectors related to Russian’s elites while Russia has targeted ground-level economic activities in the West.

As such, the repercussions on Western governments of their own sanctions have been manageable, since only a very small fraction of their economies, mostly oil and gas multinationals, have been prevented from trading with Russia. Likewise, Russia’s sanctions haven’t damaged crucial sectors related to the elites’ businesses, nor have they triggered protests or revolts. This may indicate that Putin opted for the solution that caused the least suffering from his own perspective, implying that he acted with absolute (authoritarian) pragmatism.

Behind the choice of banning food

Food is a replaceable good. Russia imports most of it from Western countries. Food is not linked to Putin’s friends’ interests. By bearing in mind these three considerations and by understanding the starting conditions of Russian’s economy, we can put ourselves in Putin’s shoes and understand why he chose to target food imports.

The fall in value of the ruble has led to more expensive imports for Russian firms and to a consequent worsening of the balance of payments. Cutting $12 billion of imports of a replaceable good could help curb Russian dependence on Western countries and slightly alleviate the ruble’s decline. This is not properly orthodox from an economic point of view, for the obvious reasons of rising inflation and widespread shortages, but in Putin’s logic, that $12 billion could also be reinvested and spent elsewhere, which is his declared goal. Where?

The first candidate is obviously the internal market, which can provide goods on the cheap. Second, and more important, are the other BRICS (Brazil, India, China and South Africa) and the countries of Central Asia, with whom a great number of new supply contracts have been signed in recent months. This has contributed to a diversification of Russia’s international trade patterns, which will have further consequences in the long run.

Yet, both the slow pace of transitioning to new suppliers and the inadequacy of local industry in meeting internal demand, as evidenced by the current shortages, demonstrates that not all that money has been spent. Part has been invested in industry, while some may simply have been diverted to other goods.

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Losers and winners

Looking at the ban from a broader perspective, consumers, obviously, have been the main losers. Not only do they have access to a much lower quality of food, but they also face the daily uncertainty of sudden price increases. More dramatically, it could also be argued that Putin, conscious of his approval rating and of ordinary Russians’ paranoia about inflation, has played on their fears to trigger a ‘run on food’, letting consumption accelerate in a problematic macroeconomic environment.

This is plainly unsustainable in the long run, but a crucial point, which many critics seem to have forgotten, is that the food ban will – or at least, should – end in August this year. Food prices may gradually return to normal once trade patterns with Western economies are reestablished.

Yet, nothing will be as it was before. Russia’s internal market will have developed, maybe not enough to compete with the EU and the US, but certainly considerably. Many new supply relationships will have been established with countries in the rest of the world. Restaurants may not necessarily revert to their pre-ban menus: people’s tastes are impossible to predict, but who is to say that Russian consumers might not have acquired a taste for cheaper foreign cuisine (Chinese?). All these factors might keep the demand for Western products low.

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From a broader geopolitical perspective, Russia’s dependency on Western countries will be further reduced, which is line with Putin’s goals. Moreover, the events in Crimea have accelerated a process that has seen emerging powers try to carve out a bigger role on the international stage by banding together, both in political and economic terms. The disruption of the food trade undoubtedly represents another front in this battle.

August is coming. Conclusions may then be drawn. We will see whether one year of the food ban will have been enough to signal a further step away from Western dependence. More importantly, we will be able to determine whether the suffering of Russia’s population in the short term will result in long-term gains for President Putin. If not, we will be free to criticize his decision to ban Parmesan cheese and other delicacies from Russians’ tables and to reflect on the consequences of a failed policy of economic brinkmanship.

Enrico Cattabiani is on the first year of the IMESS double-degree Masters programme at SSEES, studying Economics and International Relations. From next September, he will study at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, where he is planning to write a thesis addressing some of the questions left unanswered in this article.