Last of the White Russians

File:Wrangel Peter.jpg

Occasionally an item of news reminds us of how transient most great political dramas are, and how quickly major crises come and go.  This is rather healthy: it puts us on notice that most of the issues we care about very deeply will be forgotten fairly soon too.  This is certainly the effect of a compelling obituary notice in the New York Times (emphasis added):

BASILEVSKY–Nathalie (nee Wrangel), 99, of Cos Cob, CT. Beloved mother of Peter A. Basilevsky and the late Helen A. Basilevsky, grandmother of Alexis P. Basilevsky and Katharine H. Deering and two great-grandchildren. She died peacefully on August 9, 2013. She had a big heart, a sharp intellect and will be missed by all who knew her. Mrs. Basilevsky, born in 1913 in St. Petersburg, Russia, was the last surviving child of Lt. Gen. Baron Peter N. Wrangel and Olga M. Wrangel. She was predeceased by her husband Alexis G. Basilevsky, sister Helene Meyendorff and her brothers Peter and Alexis Wrangel. Baron Wrangel was the last Commander in Chief of the White Army in the Russian Civil War and who, after a long and valiant struggle despite his army being woefully outmanned and undersupplied, engineered the seaborne evacuation of approximately 150,000 soldiers and civilians, including 7,000 children, from the Crimea in November 1920 in the face of overwhelming advancing Bolshevik forces.

It’s worth remembering that the Russian Civil War was a close-run thing. If the White Army had been better-manned and better-supplied, we might be mourning the loss of a rare human link to a late, great White Russian (pictured above).  And “Stalin” would mean nothing to us.

No apologies: the President of the UN General Assembly rocks with Bon Jovi


Vuk Jeremic, a former foreign minister of Serbia, is coming to the end of a year in the very important job of President of the UN General Assembly.  His tenure has been anything but dull.  He organized a concert which featured a Serbian choir singing a song “associated with massacres carried out in the 1990s against civilians who were under the protection of United Nations peacekeepers.”  He convened a thematic debate on criminal justice that the U.S. claimed was “trying to discredit the war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.”  And last week… he went to a Bon Jovi concert. Continue reading

The case for (continuing) counter-narcotics work in Afghanistan

There’s a bit of a debate currently about whether the Coalition in Afghanistan should continue to invest in counter-narcotics work in the country. The problem – as articulated by people on the ground is that much of the work has failed. Opium production is up, American troops are no longer allowed to set foot in poppy fields let alone burn them and in a year’s time drugs won’t be high on the Afghan Government’s to do list – if it’s on it at all.  What we do next matters because it is liable to have an impact in the UK… below is a short piece I did for RUSI. Continue reading

Taksim, Tayyip and Turkey – a balance sheet

The sultan's pavilion, Aya Sofya, Istanbul

The sultan’s pavilion, Aya Sofya, Istanbul


During my annual visits to Turkey over the past fifteen years, I have taken a great interest in the country’s development. My wife was born in the southern town of Iskenderun, and most of her relatives still live either there or in Izmir or Istanbul. I have seen how many of those relatives have prospered economically over the past ten years having struggled greatly before that, and also how they have grown increasingly frustrated with the government that has helped create that prosperity.

I should say that most of those I have spoken to about Turkey’s progress (or in some areas lack of it) live on the coasts, where secularism is strong and where people value highly the freedoms Westernisation, since the time of Ataturk, has brought them. I have also had long conversations with Kurdish students, but very little dialogue with the religious conservatives from the interior who form the bulk of the governing AK Party’s support. Despite this deficit, however, I have usually found myself arguing in favour of the AKP’s record in often heated discussions with the secular liberals with whom I spend most of my time. My support was based primarily on economic arguments – and I accept that money isn’t everything, but it’s pretty important if, like too many Turks in the early 2000s, you are struggling to put food on the table – and I was also unconvinced by the secularists’ prediction that under AKP rule Turkey would soon become a new Iran.

The recent unrest, although predictable, has forced me to question my stance. While it is true that Turkey is nothing like Iran and that those fears have not been borne out, the heavy handed response to the protests by the police and the brittle reaction from the prime minister Tayyip Erdogan are indications that the government has taken an authoritarian turn. The decision to ban alcohol purchases in shops at night also seemed needlessly provocative (you can still buy drinks in bars) in a country where a significant minority of the population is convinced that it is on its way to theocracy.

I will be visiting Istanbul next month for a wedding, and have been told to expect an ear-bashing from my secular friends, many of whom have joined in the protests. So I thought I’d better arm myself – and work out whether my praise of Erdogan was misplaced – by gathering some data on how the country has done since he came to power in 2003. I looked at the economy, quality of life indicators such as health, education and equality, and the controversial topics of freedom of speech and corruption which fuel much of the criticism of the prime minister. I relied on the most recent available data from the World Bank, Freedom House and Transparency International. My research didn’t cover the harder to measure impacts of events such as the PKK ceasefire, Turkey’s support for the Syrian rebels, the reduction in influence of the military, or the jailing  of army generals in the Ergenekon affair. I hope I haven’t been too selective with the indicators I’ve chosen, but here’s what I found:

The economy:

  • Per capita incomes have almost trebled since Erdogan came to power, rising from $3790 in 2003 to $10410 in 2011. On a purchasing power parity basis (at current US$), they have almost doubled, from $8700 to $16940. 
  • The poverty rate has fallen from 28% in 2003 to 18% in 2009.
  • Turkey has risen slowly up the UN’s Human Development Index (which incorporates measures of life expectancy, education and income) from 96th place to 90th.


  • Turkey has made slow progress in reducing income equality, its Gini Index score falling from 43 in 2002 to 40 in 2010 (lower is good). The share of income earned by the highest 10% of the population fell from 34% to 30%, and that of the top 20% from 49% to 46%.
  • On gender equality, women’s labor force participation rate has barely shifted, from 27% in 2003 to 28% in 2010.
  • The ratio of females to males enrolling in secondary education has increased from 73:100 to 92:100.
  • The proportion of parliamentary seats held by women has risen from 4% to 14%.


  • Life expectancy at birth has increased from 71 years in 2003 to 74 years in 2011 (for comparison, the global increase was from 68 years to 70 years).
  • Immunization rates for DTP (diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis) have increased from 68% of 12-23 month old children to 97%.
  • The infant mortality rate has fallen from 22 children per 1,000 live births in 2003 to 12 children per 1,000 in 2011.
  • Under-5 mortality has fallen from 28 children per 1,000 live births to 15.
  • The share of pregnant women receiving prenatal care rose from 81% in 2003 to 95% in 2009.


  • Net primary school enrolment is up from 95% to 99%, net secondary enrolment from 71% to 79%.
  • Gross tertiary school enrolment is up from 28% to 55% (Mr Erdogan may be regretting this particular success…)

Freedom of speech:

  • Freedom House rated Turkey a “partly free country” in terms of freedom of speech in 2003, and that assessment has not changed today. Scores on press freedom, civil liberties and political rights have shown no improvement, but nor have they declined. However, Turkey’s civil liberties score was downgraded from 3 to 4 in 2012 – back to its 2003 level – due to what Freedom House describes as ‘the pretrial detention of thousands of individuals—including Kurdish activists, journalists, union leaders, students, and military officers—in campaigns that many believe to be politically motivated.’


  • In 2003 Turkey ranked 77th on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. In 2012 it had improved to 54th.

So take your pick. If the past is a guide to the future, those Turks who support the AK Party will seize on improvements in incomes, corruption, health care, education and poverty reduction, while those involved in the recent protests will point to recent declines in freedom of speech, limited advances in reducing income inequality, mixed results on gender inequality, and Turkey’s rather sluggish rise up the Human Development Index, which compares Turkey’s progress with that of other countries. To me, although there is clearly much work to be done, the balance still looks favourable. It is to be hoped that the protests will act as a constraint on Tayyip Erdogan’s authoritarian side and inspire him, with the help of all Turks, to make even stronger efforts to advance the country’s development. In the meantime, I shall be taking a flak jacket along with my gas mask when I visit next month.

Game changer time: China’s working age population is now in decline

Last year saw a big tipping point in China that went relatively unnoticed: its working age population shrank, kicking off a trend that will carry on over the next 20 years.

The head of China’s national statistics bureau, quoted in the FT, carefully says that “there are different opinions on whether this means that the demographic dividend that has driven growth in China for many years is now coming to an end”, but admits that the trend is “worrying” – all the more so, presumably, since it hadn’t been expected this fast. Here’s HSBC’s co-head of economics, in the same article:

“Most projections … estimated that the decline in the working-age population would start around the middle of this decade. But [these numbers] show it has already happened, which suggests the decline over the next few decades will be faster than expected.”

To see this tipping point in its larger context, it’s worth taking another look at a presentation that David did for the British Council in 2010, available here on Global Dashboard. In it, he notes that the world has now split into three demographic groups:

–          One in which population is stable or shrinking, including Europe and Japan, and in which half of its people will be over 40 in 2015;

–          A second group of countries in which the population peak is in sight, including China and India, and in which half the population will be under 30 in 2015; and

–          A third group that includes the world’s most fragile states, mostly in Africa, where population growth is still rapid – and where half the population will be under 20 in 2015.

Each of these groups faces distinct challenges, he argued. For group 1, it’s how to “grow old gracefully” – not just coping with rapid ageing, but also using their last shot at being ‘rule-makers’ on the global stage. Group 3, meanwhile, faces the challenge of providing jobs for its mushrooming youth bulges, so that demographic change is a springboard for prosperity rather than a driver of anger and instability.

But for countries in group 2, like China, the challenge is especially demanding. They face a balancing act: on one hand, they need to work at home to build the infrastructure needed to underpin the next wave of prosperity, while managing both middle class aspirations and the needs of the poor. But at the same time, they face growing exposure to transboundary threats, and need to figure out where they fit in to managing them – and how this will affect growth strategies at home. No easy task…

Europe and Obama: no miracles ahead

ECFR has just published a brief multi-authored paper looking at what President Obama’s re-election means for Europe (I was one of the contributors).  The paper highlights that there are still many areas – from the Middle East to climate change – on which the US and Europeans differ.  But is a new transatlantic bargain possible?

How should Europe respond to Obama’s re-election? Two basic strategic choices are on offer. The first – and the most tempting – is to imagine that Europe and the US can work together on a common project for the future of the international system at a period of deep change in global politics. According to this vision, Obama and the EU can unite to reinvent the post-1945 liberal order for a multipolar world, fulfilling an agenda that many in the US and EU foresaw in 2008. The president may have strayed from this agenda, the argument goes, but now he is no longer constrained by the need to win a second term and can make up for lost time.

The strategic alternative is to assume that Obama’s highly pragmatic approach to international affairs will not fundamentally change in his second term. On this reading of the president, his tepid commitment to global governance and willingness to use tactics like drone strikes have not been aberrations. Instead, they represent his considered view of the best strategy available to the US at this time. If European leaders want to fit in with this realistic American worldview, they should focus on developing their own power and their outreach, leverage and alliance-building capacities with emerging democratic powers, and in particular managing crises in their own backyard, rather than trying to woo Washington. In fact, the US would welcome a tougher Europe of this kind.

Read the full analysis here.