Sunk like Estonia

From the BBC:

A Paris court has rejected a claim for compensation over the 1994 sinking of the Estonia ferry.

More than 1,000 survivors and relatives of victims requested €40.8m (£36.6m;$45.8m) from the French agency that deemed the vessel seaworthy and the German shipbuilder.

But the court said the claimants failed to prove “intentional fault”.

The sinking of the MS Estonia killed 852 people, making it one of history’s deadliest European maritime disasters.

The vessel was sailing from Estonia to Sweden on 28 September 1994 when it sank in the Baltic Sea. Most passengers on board the ship were trapped inside after it capsized, while 97 who managed to leave the vessel died in freezing water. There were 137 survivors.

There was always something about that disaster which intrigued me, and I’m not sure what. It might have been that it was the first time I’d ever heard of Estonia and Tallinn: these were names you didn’t really hear mentioned much, even four years after the dissolution after the Soviet Union. This was before the days of Schengen and stag dos; the Baltic states still retained that air of eastern bloc mystique, which was probably the driver of the conspiracy theory that it was a deliberate sinking due to the presence on board of smuggled ex-Soviet military intelligence personnel/secret military equipment (delete as appropriate). There were then rumours that the wreck had been interfered with, and the Swedish government ordered it encased in concrete to prevent anyone finding the truth. I even once met a ship surveyor who claimed some involvement in the investigation and swore the wreck had been physically moved, which he interpreted as evidence of skulduggery. This was a long time ago, and if I believed him then I don’t now. The simple fact is, ferries have always been surprisingly dangerous compared to other forms of transport, mainly due to poor economics, poor maintenance, and crew/owner complacency. I can’t imagine standards in Estonia in 1994 were very high; poor cargo distribution meant the MS Estonia was listing to starboard as it left the port, before the accident with the bow door even happened.

I think what really struck me about the accident is how quickly it unfolded. The ship listed 15 degrees immediately, and fifteen minutes later was at 60 degrees. Twenty minutes later it was at 90 degrees. You can imagine what that’s like, at one o’clock in the morning in September in the middle of the Baltic Sea as freezing water rushes in and the lights go out. Little wonder that out of 989 people on board, only 138 were rescued alive. When in January 2013 I took a ferry from Helsinki to Tallinn during the day, I went out on deck and peered over the edge. That was bad enough. I thought of the poor souls aboard the MS Estonia and shuddered. I still do.


The Baltic States and Brexit

Sometime last year I got into a rather heated exchange with a Latvian lady on the subject of Brexit. I think she’d done what I described here: raise a subject on which it was a near certainty I’d agree with her, only I didn’t. She seemed to think that those who voted to Leave were completely idiotic and that a matter of such importance should not have been put to a popular vote; she thought such issues are too complex for ordinary people to understand and that is why we elect representatives to handle such matters on our behalf.

It is not an unusual view to hold, but what interested me was that it came from a Latvian. Had this conversation not come at me so quickly I might have asked her whether Latvian independence from the Soviet Union ought not to have been decided at the discretion of the representatives of the Latvian SSR and their masters in the Supreme Soviet back in Moscow. After all, the issue of Latvian independence from the USSR was no less complicated and fraught with potential pitfalls than Britain exiting the European Union, so perhaps it would have been better to leave it up to the representatives of the people rather than the people themselves? Okay, there is the issue that the Latvian people’s representatives were not elected, but then nor were those demanding independence.

I couldn’t help but be a little cheesed off that somebody, whose own people demanded independence from a supranational political system they didn’t want and never asked for, and who personally enjoys the benefits of that independence, would be so critical about British people wanting similar independence (as they see it).

What makes this interesting is that the Baltic States aren’t quite out of the woods yet. They are fully paid-up members of the EU, having received enormous funding to get their infrastructure and institutions up to scratch – with quite some success, I would add. However, they all share concerns that Russia might have designs on some or all of their territory and after the seizure of Crimea and the abysmal attempt to do the same with Eastern Ukraine, people are wondering whether Putin & Co aren’t trying to restablish their Soviet spheres of control. If that is the case, the Baltic states aren’t going to get very far asking the EU for help: the Germans would sell them down the river if it means Siemens didn’t lose its operating license in Russia, and the French probably don’t even know the Baltics are part of the EU. The Poles would make a lot of noise but not be able to do much about it; the Netherlands was unable to raise as much as a squeak when the Russian military shot down a plane full of Dutch citizens; and everyone else is flat broke or has an army that could carry out manoeuvres in a pub car park, including armour.

In other words, the Baltic states are completely reliant on Nato to keep the Russians out, which in this case means the United States. However, in diplomatic terms (and probably  a token military one as well) it also means the Brits. If we can imagine a scenario in a few years time when the Russians are massing tanks and troops on the borders of Estonia, Latvia, or Lithuania on some pretext and revving the engines noisily, Britain will be one of the countries they will be pleading with to intervene (meaning, persuade the United States to intervene). How Britain responds ought very much to depend on how the Baltic states behaved during the Brexit negotiations.

It is a given that these countries are minnows in the EU and will be desperate not to rock any boats, but nevertheless the future threat from Russia might focus their minds a bit, particularly on the issue of sovereignty and independence. If the Baltic states decide to vote in favour of hardball tactics designed to punish Britain’s insolence for voting to leave, many Brits – including this one – may be forgiven for thinking independence and self-rule aren’t really important to the Baltic peoples after all. So if Putin does come a-knocking one day, don’t look at us for help: you’re on your own.

Whereas if they vote down any attempt to punish Britain, and make certain gestures towards recognising Britain’s right to withdraw and govern themselves from now on, then they will be demonstrating that these are principles that they do still hold dear themselves, and perhaps they are worth putting ourselves in harms way for.

In short, I think the behaviour of the Baltic States during the Brexit negotiations will be interesting and worth watching closely. If I were Theresa May I’d be reminding the respective leaders of their Soviet past and the Russian army nearby, and having a quiet chat about the principles of democracy, freedom, and sovereignty. Or, to save the busy woman’s time, she could just send each of them a link to this post and they could let us know their stance in the comments.



I’ve a few things to say about Brexit, and here they are.

Firstly, I didn’t vote.  I abstained mainly because I’ve lived outside the UK for 13 years and am not registered to vote on UK matters any more.  When I looked at registering I found the government was asking me for all sorts of information I’d rather not give them, and so I quit the process.  The other reason was that I wasn’t sure how I’d vote.

For strictly personal reasons, I would have been happy enough with a Remain victory.  I am a French resident, I have bought a property in France, and intend to maintain a presence here for the foreseeable future.  Whereas I am quite confident France isn’t about to expel all Brits and a deal will be struck in pretty short order to allow me to remain in France (if for no other reason than France doesn’t have jobs for the 250,000 plus French who would be kicked out of London alone), few people appreciate the different between applying for residency under the terms of French (or any) law and being entitled to residency under European law.  One involves submitting mountains of documents to a bureaucrat who is supposed to operate within the law but is usually a law unto himself, and can delay your application indefinitely, lose it, or reject it without explanation; the other means you don’t need to deal with the bureaucrat in the first place.  Those Brits who can’t see the difference are usually those who haven’t gone through a residency visa application process before.  If Britain does actually leave, it is certain that I will have to jump through a lot more bureaucratic hoops in future.

That said, I was pleased with the Leave victory for one simple reason: I think the EU in its current form is completely unsustainable politically and economically and unless it undergoes major reforms it will plunge the continent into a disaster which might go as far as civil war.  Reforms were never going to happen while the whole project is run by and for Europhile has-been and never-was politicians in the pay of the EU, who as individuals are shielded from the fallout of their own stupid policies.  It would take a cataclysmic event, such as Greece leaving the Euro, defaulting, and taking a few other member states with it, to bring about serious reforms.  Despite all the bluster from third-rate EU shills, Britain walking away from the project might yet be such an event: Germans are going to be keenly aware that it is pretty much they alone who are going to be bankrolling the EU from hereon.  This is the outcome I am most hoping for: Brexit triggers huge reforms within the EU, and Britain either remains or retains the benefits of free trade and movement (with greatly improved immigration policies) while ditching all the regulatory and political crap.  If these reforms don’t happen, I am confident the EU won’t last much longer anyway and Britain will be glad to have jumped ship early.  With the enormous structural economic and social problems in countries like France (particularly), Spain, Italy, Portugal, and Greece it is only fair to ask why Britain would want to remain locked in a union with countries that are heading straight off a cliff.

I have noticed that a lot of the lefty middle-classes who are wailing on social media about the Leave vote “depriving their children of a future” and Britain “turning its back on the world” are monolingual, lifelong British residents.  As somebody who can hardly be accused of turning my back on the world and has carved out a life for myself overseas, allow me to point out that out of the six countries I have worked in since 2003 – Kuwait, UAE, Russia, Nigeria, Australia, and France – I only had the right to work in the last one.  For  the rest I had to apply for a visa, just as an American, Australian, or Canadian has to do when coming to work in Europe.  The idea that working in Europe will become unreasonably difficult should Britain leave the EU is demonstrable nonsense, given how many non-EU citizens work in London or Paris.  Not that many of those complaining on Facebook have actually taken up their right to work in Europe, though.  No, they are content to be middle aged and living in the Home Counties moaning about being deprived of an opportunity I’m sure they were just about to sieze in Slovenia when the racist mob voted to leave.  For most of them, Europe is a place to go on holiday and not much else.  If any of these people are genuinely concerned about their children having an opportunity to live and work overseas they ought to spend time getting a foreign language dinned into them rather than supporting a political union with people with whom they have no intention of interacting outside a holiday resort.

I think part of the problem is that people think European politics work like British politics.  Had more people actually “interacted” with Europe by living there and seeing how things work on the Continent (particularly the southern and eastern parts) they would realise how appallingly corrupt, nepotistic, and disfunctional much of it is.  I think it is precisely exposure to other European politics and government, rather than ignorance of them, that would drive more people to vote Leave.

This protestor seems particularly dimwitted:

Laura Honickberg, 33, from London, said she was concerned that the vote would lead to a rise in violence and hate crime.

“I’m Jewish and I find the rise of nationalism and hate crime in Europe deeply concerning,” she told the BBC.

She added that she felt the Leave campaign “was based on lies, about money that was going to go to the NHS and now isn’t, about what’s going to happen to the economy. These are things that are going to directly impact me.”

If she really thinks the biggest threat to her wellbeing is European nationalism instead of a rapidly expanding demographic adhering to a culture which isn’t too keen on Jews then she is seriously deluded.

But she might have stumbled inadvertently on a point regarding the NHS.  I understand that the Leave campaign claimed that monies freed up from EU contributions would be redirected towards the NHS.  This is monumentally stupid, for the simple reason that hosing more money at the NHS without it first undergoing major reforms is an exercise in futillity and will benefit nobody except the management classes and armies of administrators.  That people wanting to leave a structurally unsustainable EU incapable of reform were boasting of spending money on a structurally unsustainable NHS incapable of reform doesn’t say much about their capacity for consistent thought.  As an organisation, the NHS is about as close to the ideals of the EU as it’s possible to get.

This is why I never quite bothered listening to the bickering over that £350m figure.  Regardless of the real number, I have no confidence whatsoever that any saving would be spent on something worthwhile, and am quite sure it will just get fed into the gigantic maw of the state or some branch of it (like the NHS) with negligible effect.  Similarly, I am also not convinced Brexit will result in pettyfogging EU regulations being torn up: we were the only country to employ armies of people in hi-viz vests bearing clipboards to ensure they were being followed to the letter, and it’s not like any of the current crop of politicians from any party believe in light regulation and small government.  I can expect a huge lobbying effort being made to recreate all those “essential” EU regulations in a post-EU Britain, to be managed by sprawling government bureaucracies crammed full of civil servants.  “Just think of all the jobs it will create!” will be the cry, once “Think of the children!” has faded.

I was also not persuaded by the immigration argument.  Now I appreciate Poles, Romanians, and Latvians might be pinching jobs from hard-working locals in areas of Britain, but the real immigration issue that I see is one of people from outside the EU arriving in Britain with a mindset more akin to medieval theocracies than liberal democracies and no intention of integrating and every intention of causing as much trouble as possible.  The disgrace that is Rotherham, the 7/7 bombings, the murder of Lee Rigby, and the other dozen or so I’ve forgotten about were not caused by EU citizens exercising their right to free movement, it was brought about by immigration policies (some decades old) that were and are firmly in the hands of the British Home Office.  Nobody in government has even admitted there is an issue, and until they do I’m not going to take fears of additional undesirables arriving via the EU very seriously.  True, Angela Merkel’s astonishingly stupid and irresponsible decision to invite in millions of immigrants willy-nilly would have raised genuine concerns that gangs of jihadists will turn up in Britain after obtaining German or other EU passports, but this would be more of a worry were not hundreds if not thousands of British citizens waging merry jihad with ISIS already.

The problem is the British, as with every other citizenry which is not mentally ill, wants freedom of movement to be based on something other than nationality.  Most Brits have no problem with the EU citizens coming to Britain if they are going to be productive members of society and not try to forment foment unrest.  Similarly, most Brits don’t have a problem with intra-EU migration provided it does not come at the expense of their own livelihood.  Both of these are entirely reasonable opinions to hold, but it speaks volumes about the state of western politics that the only prominent politician willing to promote them is Donald Bloody Trump.  Sooner or later, if civil war is to be averted, freedom of movement is going to have to be guaranteed by holding the right passport and not being a complete fuckwit.  The criteria for the latter should not be hard to set.

So all in all, I’m not sure Brexit will achieve much in terms of smaller government, lighter regulation, and improved immigration policies, and it will likely cause me considerable personal headaches in future.  But what Brexit has surely done is given the EU and British political classes and establishments a severe kick up the arse and shaken them to the very core, something that is long overdue.  I am deriving enormous pleasure from hearing the petulant wailing of lefty middle classes who think it all terribly unfair that their right-on, progressive thinking didn’t mean their votes counted twice.  I am also deriving great pleasure from watching politicians and other mouthpieces twist themselves in knots having realised they are firmly on the wrong side of most of the country.  The result has created some extraordinary bedfellows: you have social-justice warriors relaying the warnings of multinational corporations regarding future profits, and anarchists who are usually in favour of smashing the state marching in support of a superstate.  People who were a few months ago campaigning for minimum alcohol prices are now worried the price of wine might go up, and those who thought curbing the “excesses” of the City was top priority are now fearful the banksters might move to Frankfurt.  It is absolutely bizarre in its intellectual inconsistency.

Finally, I am dismayed by the lack of balls shown by many of my countrymen.  All the talks of “fear” and “panic” and “distress” at the thought of Britain, with a functioning (hah!) parliament and centuries of independent rule under its belt not being able to survive without being hooked to Brussels/Strasbourg is embarassing to say the least.  Being a good European, I am reasonably knowledgeable of the modern history of fellow EU member state Lithuania, which in 1990 decided enough was enough and declared independence from the USSR (the first Soviet state to do so).  Given the size of Lithuania relative to the Soviet Union, the demographics, and their dependency on Moscow, this took real balls.  And here’s what happened next:

The Soviet Union attempted to suppress the secession by imposing an economic blockade. Soviet troops attacked the Vilnius TV Tower, killing 14 Lithuanian civilians and wounding 600 others on the night of 13 January 1991 (January Events). On 31 July 1991 Soviet paramilitaries killed seven Lithuanian border guards on the Belarusian border in what became known as the Medininkai Massacre.

On 4 February 1991, Iceland became the first country to recognise Lithuania’s independence. After the Soviet August Coup, independent Lithuania received wide official recognition and joined the United Nations on 17 September 1991.

Any Lithuanian from that era who read about the protest march in London yesterday must be wondering how the hell Britain ever had an empire.  And any European politician jeering at Britain voting to leave might want to consider what impact Lithuania’s departure had on the future of the Soviet Union.


Rasa the car and Lithuanian names

The BBC has an article on a prototype car powered by hydrogen cells made by Welsh outfit Riversimple.  They have named the car Rasa, as in “tabula rasa,” Latin for “blank slate.”

I’m not actually going to say anything about the car itself, but I will say something about the name.  If you ever meet somebody called Rasa, they will almost certainly be female and Lithuanian.  Rasa is a very common name over there, but with Lithuanians having a unique language (bearing only a slight resemblance to Latvian, but nothing else), their being few in number, and the country itself being largely unknown you don’t meet many Rasas unless you’ve been to the place itself.  The Lithuanians converted late to Christianity – don’t ask me when, but they were one of the last in Europe to do so – and their capital Vilnius has so many churches that a message saying “meet me in the coffee shop on Ausros Vartai street beside the church” isn’t very helpful at all.  Due to this late conversion, which took place mainly via bribery with (if my tour guide is telling the truth) shirts being dished out to anyone who was baptised, many of the names in use in Lithuania are of pagan origin.  Pagan names are often based on natural, physical phenomenon, and I happen to know that Rasa means “morning dew”.  And I bet you anything you like the Welshmen who built this car were unaware of the connection when these photos were taken:

While I’m on the subject and rambling away, there is another peculiarity of Lithuanian names.  A man and a woman who are married will have a masculine and feminine version of their shared surname respectively, which is common in several languages (particularly those which are Slavic based).  But whereas in Russian any son will take the father’s (masculine) surname and daughter the mother’s (feminine) surname, in Lithuanian a daughter will have a slightly different surname again, indicating that she is not married.  Via Language Hat, this post explains:

Surnames in Lithuanian end differently depending on whether it’s a man’s surname, a married woman’s or an unmarried woman’s. Men’s surnames typically end in -us, -as, or -ys, as in Paulauskas, Adamkus, Bimbirys. Their sons would inherit the father’s surname, unchanged. However, neither their wives nor their daughters would bear exactly the same name. Thus, the wife of Paulauskas would be named Paulauskiene, but their daughter would be Paulauskaite.

The -aite suffix to a Lithuanian woman’s surname is an indication that she is unmarried (there are other suffixes, but this one is very common).  Which is why, when I saw Lithuania’s president Dalia Grybauskait? on TV, I was able to casually observe that she was unmarried.

Erm, that’s all.


The Fallout of Latvia’s National Disaster

There are two updates to the story of the collapse of the supermarket roof in Riga which I thought were worth mentioning (h/t to TNA for the second one: he’ll make a damned fine research assistant one day).

The first:

Andris Berzins [the Latvian President] said many defenceless people had been killed in “our own made disaster”, and called for foreign experts to investigate what happened.

He said an investigation should be held at “maximum speed”.

And he went on to say: “While not undermining the professionalism of our builders, I believe that we should call upon international expertise which is in no way connected with our construction business.

“We cannot call it a natural accident, because nature wasn’t involved. The evening was calm and silent with a little fog. This is our own made disaster.”

The second:

Latvia’s PM Valdis Dombrovskis has announced his resignation, and thereby the fall of his government, over the deadly collapse of a Riga supermarket.

He made the announcement at a meeting with President Andris Berzins.

“Considering the tragedy and all related circumstances… a new government is needed that has the clear support of parliament,” Mr Dombrovskis told reporters.

When I toured the Baltics last December, I came away with the distinct impression that Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were countries with an educated population making up a normal, functioning society on all levels with each nation heading in the right direction.  The two stories referenced above serve to reinforce that impression.

Firstly, the admission that foreign expertise is required is difficult for any country to make, especially a small nation that has only recently won a series of lengthy battles for independence.  And it is the sign of mature leadership to call in the necessary expertise – wherever it can be found – to investigate a disaster rather than playing politics.  But perhaps more importantly, the foreign expertise will at least bring an element of independence to the investigation and lessen the likelihood that it will fall under the influence of powerful developers in Latvia, one of whom may have been responsible for the construction of the collapsed building.

Secondly, Mr Dombrovskis came to power in 2009 and set about ridding Latvian politics of the corruption that had infested previous administrations.  That a Prime Minister should be prepared to resign and bring down his government over what is a national disaster (in the context of Latvia) at a time when he was still popular with the electorate is to be admired, for its rarity if nothing else.

As an exercise in contrast, can you imagine a Russian president calling in foreign expertise over an accident, or the PM resigning?  Well, we don’t need to imagine: there have been umpteen major accidents ranging from hospital fires (37 killed), explosions at ammunition dumps (6 killed), and plane crashes (50 killed).  In the interests of doing some work today, I limited the examples to those which had occurred in the past 10 weeks, but there are many, many, more.  Not that I think each of these should necessarily have brought about a resignation or foreign help, but too often the initial stern calls for a “full investigation” peter out into nothing (probably because powerful interests ensure no charges are brought) or some lowly scapegoat is tossed in jail for a decade or so.  To take the example of the ferry which sank in the Volga in July 2011, despite the accident being blamed on safety violations the only report of criminal charges I can find is the captain of a nearby tugboat being fined $6,000 for failing to come to the rescue of the victims.  What about the ferry owners?  Or the vessel inspectors?  Nothing, unless the reports are covered only by the Russian press.

Even in the case of major ineptitude on the part of the Russian authorities: Nord Ost, Beslan, and Kursk, those in power carry on largely as before while the rest of the country picks up the pieces.  Russians often like to disparage the Baltic states as being insignificant entities with no oil and minuscule economies.  That may be so, but in this last week Latvia has demonstrated more signs of a functioning, modern society and government than Russia has in a long time.