Thursday, June 25, 2009

• IKEA’s Complaint Of Russian Mob Rule

“The withdrawal of such a large foreign investor from the Russian market may cause considerable damage to the image of the country.” This is an understatement published this week in Pravda, Putin’s personal PR machine, relating a major, and far-reaching decision by Ikea.

Ingvar Kamprad, Ikea’s founder, has revealed that his company had been swindled of $190 million by Russian authorities. Many businesses have pulled out of Russia in the past couple of years, but to have one of the wealthiest individuals in the world make such an emphatic declaration against a country, is a powerful signal that warns others who might venture into the corrupted climate ruled by Putin.

Ikea is one of the largest privately held companies in the world with approximately 300 stores across 40 countries, and it employs over 127,000 people. Its more than $31 billion in annual sales give Ikea a broad reach and clout, yet, it could not find the ceiling of the graft that was required to be paid as it attempted for almost 2 years to open its most recent store in Samara, Russia. Now that 130,000 meter facility will never open. A pioneer in the Russian market has slammed on the parking brake.

Kamprad’s very sarcastic characterization of Russia’s business landscape, “the unpredictable character of administrative procedures,” while almost humorous, is very telling. Businesses and investors know that doing business in Russia means you will very likely deal with either remnants of the KGB, or the mob. Dealing with the KGB provides more powerful and far-reaching influence than buying support from the mob. With the former KGB, you get protection from the highest levels of government.

For giant corporations such as Ikea, size means that the price extracted for doing business becomes an impossible number to cap. The money extraction process is insidious, and because the corporate coffers are enormous, the blood money has no ceiling. Kamprad has finally cried, “uncle.” More importantly, he has done so very publicly. Since 2009 he had made Ikea’s entry into Russia a very personal project. It is entirely possible that this declaration is a temporary stance by Ikea, intended to shake up Putin and his friends into putting a ceiling on the graft payments. Either way, there are no indications that the underlying corruption throughout the system has any hope of finding much-needed repair. Perception of Russia’s corruption levels, as published by Transparency International, equals that of Bangladesh, Kenya and Syria, so it cannot get much worse. Ikea found that, “blackmail, sabotage and pressure for bribes,” as well as disrespect for contracts, became too much.

These are economically difficult times for Russia, as with most other countries. Russia can ill afford declarations the likes of those made by Ikea and its boss. Such news, of course, means that for the foreseeable future, America will continue to be the safe haven for the world’s cash.

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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

• Neda Agha-Soltan - Innocent Symbol Of Revolution

Neda Agha-Soltan was a bystander in the dramatic conflict gripping her country. Today, following her slow death from a bullet in the chest, she is the icon of Iranian reaction to the violent suppression by an entrenched theocracy. Her name means “voice” or “message,” and she has become a dynamic symbol for Iranians seeking openness in government. She has also altered international reaction, even moving the White House off its mark.

The video of her last frightful two minutes was seen around the world within moments of her passing. The ubiquity of the Internet disseminating the powerful images of Neda’s final struggle, elicited additional and essential support almost instantly to the plight of her people.

This unwilling participant has inadvertently stimulated the energy of demonstrators, and has intoxicated events, rapidly evolving them into a full-blown revolution. The success of this revolt is in doubt over the short term, since the ayatollahs are willing and able to take any and all action to retain power. Ali Khamenei has not only gone well beyond the revolutionary Grand Ayatollah Komenei’s tenets, and moved himself toward self-deification, but he is determined to convert his theocracy into a family business, as he grooms and prepares his son to perpetuate his very own history making dynasty.

Neda has made an emotional connection with the world. She is being mythologised, partly because the large demonstrating crowds needed a focus, or rallying point, which opposition leader Mir Hussein Moussavi could not deliver. She has stimulated the popular will. Her biggest contribution may be the impact that she has had on Western leadership. Obama’s reticence on making any statement pertaining to the theocratic thugs he wanted to negotiate with, was broken by, “I strongly condemn these unjust actions.” While this may be typically indecisive, it is a statement that says, “I’m moving off the fence, because I now have no choice, and doing otherwise would show Americans that I lack resolve.” Although this comes well after denouncements of the violence by European leaders, American voices and feelings toward the violence on the streets of Iran have finally been heard officially.

The Iranian leadership cares little what Obama or any other leaders have to say. They are staying on course to retain power at all cost. Only force will alter their determination. At this point they may fear that the retaliation against them might be as extreme as the program of assassinations they very effectively implemented themselves in 1979 against the Shah and his regime.

Neda’s graphic entry into martyrdom will have put an end to the placating of ruling Iranian thugs by a European leadership which has enjoyed business as usual for a generation, sanctions or not. Westerners will no longer idly accept the mollifying that has populated the foreign policy agenda of both Europe and North America on Iran. The ayatollahs and mullahs are prepared to decimate their own population, and will kill many Iranians in the days ahead. We may find Khamenei verbally pretending to give voice to the opposition, however, the systematic aggression will continue, and dissenters will disappear.

Some write that there are divisions among the ruling elite that will grow deeper as the demonstrations and the killings continue. Reality suggests that all members of this despotic regime are complicit in the pilfering of the country’s treasury, and they will in the end go down together. There should also be little doubt of the extreme measures they are capable of perpetrating on other countries once they acquire nuclear potency.

Neda Agha-Soltan has become the perfect symbol for demonstrators who innocently sought a voice in their governance. Reaction to the squashing of that voice is energizing a revolution. The world now waits in anticipation for the day when Iran’s military declares itself “neutral,” and a new leader from within, or from exile, surfaces, marking a new era for Iran, and for the whole of the Middle East.

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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

• A New Dawn For Iran?

In the wake of demonstrations crowding hundreds of thousands onto the streets of Teheran, the world conjures up visions of the 1979 Islamic revolution. No such event is occurring today. The demonstrations are not revolutionary, but they will bring change.

If we were witnessing a revolution, the Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, along with the rest of the vast network of mullahs, would order the army to wreak havoc on the demonstrating public. There is no overt demand for change in the theological administration of the country. There is, however, a relatively peaceful and powerful request for alternate voices in governance, and for a lifting of oppressive measures.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s opponent Mir-Hossein Mousavi has indicated that he would seek to improve relations with the West and enhance the role of women, however, he should not be mistaken for a reformist. Had he been elected, change within Iran would have been minimal. Mousavi is a supporter of the ruling ayatollahs, and is unlikely to appear confrontational to the well entrenched rulers.

Many Iranians seek progress, but ayatollahs and religion will not easily surrender suzerainty over social, economic, and political life in Iran. Unless the violence on the streets escalates the demonstrations into visibly bloody confrontations that are filmed, and disseminated on YouTube, Khamenei will remain firmly in control for the foreseeable future. He will carefully manage Ahmadinejad’s newfound vigor following his landslide victory, and navigate around the Iranian President’s calls for cleaning up corruption among the powerful clerics.

Demonstrators, University Students in particular, are being threatened with the death penalty if they “incite unrest.” Reports indicate that demonstrators are being arrested by the Basij (the Revolutionary Guards), however, their ultimate physical abuse or dispositions will not find their way to our TV sets, or to our computer screens.

Even with the violence, there is a possibility that the marches will continue, and will have impact. The unusual size of the current demonstrations could coerce and change the inertia that has gripped Iranians wishing for an end to the economic and political abuse they are enduring. It may be that the growing crowds, comprised principally of young people, are the proverbial genie that cannot be repressed back into the bottle.

The vast diaspora of Iranians, who left Iran over the past two decades, provides a passionate international network supportive of the demonstrations favoring change. There are anywhere from 500,000 to 1,000,000 Iranians living in the United Sates and Canada, many in Southern California as well as in Toronto and Vancouver. If, in time, the genie succeeds in remaining free of the bottle, a great many of these expatriates would rapidly find their way back to their homeland, bringing their education, contacts, capabilities and money with them. Their return would stimulate an economic growth for Iran that would rapidly escalate the country’s standard of living.

Iran is rich in natural resources, and Iranians have long demonstrated a propensity for hard work and creativity, along with a willingness to “build,” when they are not suppressed by autocratic governments. The lifting of sanctions alone would provide Iran an immediate and discernable economic boost. The resulting socio-economic transformation within Iran would change the Middle East. Iran would become positively pivotal in the region.

The mullahs may have long feared that change would eventually come in reaction to their abuse of the population. Many have moved the proceeds of their pilfering offshore, “just in case.” Some have built themselves Los Angeles and West Vancouver mansions, in anticipation that the gun might eventually not suppress the crowds in Tehran.

The potential for change is directly conditional on the persistence and endurance of the youth filling the streets of Iran. It will be unstoppable if the demonstrations move to the poorer rural regions of the country. Although the nature of the change that crowds are clamoring for may not for now be as dramatic as the video scenes escaping the crackdown, their demands will persist. We can expect that the extent of that change will gradually expand to encompass the nature of Iranian governance. It is now only a matter of time. The growing crowds are shouting, and are being heard.

Note: Jun.19 update - Should the violence being perpetrated on the demonstrators continue or escalate, the ayatollahs and mullahs will have turned these demonstrations into a full-fledged revolution. Our best wishes go to the demonstrators who are defiant, and seek a reduction in their oppression.

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Thursday, June 11, 2009

• Does America Yearn For A Monarch?

Life Magazine fabricated a mythical monarchy in the early sixties by applying polish and airbrushing to John and Jacky Kennedy, elevating them into a Camelot. America couldn’t get enough of the magazine, and rewarded its uncommon “access,” to the JFK White House with financial success. The corporate strategy very successfully built an unprecedented, but mutually beneficial, relationship.

This was not the first popularization of an American President, but it was the most successful anointing of an almost-monarch. We all admire true heroes, however, there are many who seem to require more than honored heroes. To satisfy that craving, we create stars and surround them with irrational adoration bordering on veneration. The mainstream media (MSM) plays a role in the process, and has much to gain from it just as Life Magazine solidified itself, and its profits with the creation of the American version Camelot.

Life Magazine presented a glossy veneer of a young President and his family, because it could, and because it would not have been as profitable to have done otherwise. The public reaction was extremely receptive, and the oversized periodical continued to publish its principal stars’ immaculate images.

America has long succumbed to Hollywood’s very adept star manufacturing machine. Studios and production companies very effectively and profitably practiced the art of star production, as well as veneer creation, for a century. Whether the individuals in question believe their own press, matters little to the studios and the machinery that creates them. They are ephemeral creations that have no truth other than that of existence in the percepts of adoring devotees. They scatter nonsense, and often lies, and all utterances are gratefully accepted. Stars step into the light, feigning timidity, as they engage in absorbing gushing adulation. The star making process has been perfected and whether young, old, intelligent, rich, poor, educated or not, it seems that everyone is susceptible to its affects.

In 2009, the MSM has been provided a new President, whose natural tendency is already a well-prepared gleaming image, requiring little visible airbrushing. Obama’s promotional machine has had the added and unabashed advantage of having its subject well versed and practiced in the art of sermon delivery. Obama placed himself on a pedestal, and the MSM has delivered applause and sometimes infatuation. The zeal of this infatuation has translated into an abandonment of any application of journalistic ethics or common sense. The obsession has been transferred onto the population eager to satisfy a yearning for a monarch. This is not to suggest that America wants a king, because it doesn’t, however, there is evidently a vast portion of society that yearns for a personality that it believes will transcend it to a place where Camelots exist. America doesn’t want to literally revisit the anachronism of royalty, yet the British monarchy is as popular in the U.S. as it is in Great Britain.

In Obama, America found a willing aspirant on whom it consigned the cloak and stature of monarch, the ultimate iteration of star. Modern versions of monarchs however, have no effective power, but they enjoy fulfillment of ceremonial roles. Obama accommodates that role rather effectively and continues his cultivation of the “I,” unabated. As President, he has avoided the thorny details of assiduous analysis on the most critical problems facing America, and has used sweeping, but banal statements of obvious principals, while his appointees actually implement policies and programs inconsistent with the claims of the message.

Obama has filled the ceremonial role of monarch with enchanting voyages across the country and around the world, although the country might wish for more representation of America’s interests, rather than promotion of its leader as internationalist. While the public and the MSM might treat a monarch with reverence, a President should be treated as a politician, and challenged as such.

As President, Obama has yet to demonstrate any proclivity for practical leadership of the free nation envisioned by the unpretentious framers of the Constitution. As he insinuates government into all social and economic fibers of the country, the American taxpayer’s expectations of Obama’s heralded change will rapidly evaporate, the “self-evident truths” will become redefined, and the reality of the costs will become the new, overwhelming burden.

Now that the Congressional Budget Office has notified them that federal spending in 2019 will represent at least 25% of the GDP, all taxpayers should decide that a monarch just will not be injected into their futures in any form, and that their President should be challenged. There are enough stars floating out of Hollywood to satisfy desires of royalty.

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