Slow Sunday

 The Poisoning of a Russian Spy:

The biggest news of the week was the hospitalisation of a former Russian spy, turned double agent for Britain, and his daughter after their exposure to a mysterious chemical.

Sergei Skripal and his daughter, visiting from Russia, were hospitalised after members of the public alerted emergency services to two people on a bench in Salisbury who appeared to be “out of it”. Both remain in a critical condition, and a police officer, who was exposed to the same chemical, also received treatment. The offending substance is yet to be publicly identified, however, it has been made clear by UK authorities that it is very rare and must have been manufactured in a world-class facility, narrowing down potential sources.

Skripal became a British operative in the mid-1990s but was discovered in 2004 when a mole in the Spanish security service (Skripal frequently met British officials in Spain and deposited his payments into a Spanish bank account) informed Russian intelligence. He was immediately arrested and sentenced to 13 years in a labour camp. Skripal was released in 2010 as part of a major spy swap that saw Anna Chapman, a Russian intelligence agent arrested in the United States, released back to Russia.

Although not much has been revealed, suspicions have fallen onto the Russian government and it hard not to see the parallels with the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, a British naturalised Russia defector and former FSB agent, who was poisoned on 1 November 2006. Skripal and Litvinenko’s status as Russian defectors put them firmly in the Kremlin’s cross-hairs and several Russian expats living in the UK have died in the last decade. A Buzzfeed investigation published in 2017 pointed to 14 deaths of defectors or anti-Putin Russians on UK soil as suspicious and unexplained. The modus operandi for the Skripal and Litvinenko attacks is the same. Both men were poisoned by a lethal substance, in the case of Litvinenko radioactive polonium-210, they had ingested.

The case will raise questions about the continued, and increasingly blatantly belligerent actions, of Vladimir Putin. Not only does he appear to have signed off the attempted murder of someone on British soil, such attacks always carry some risk of exposure to the greater public. The British government will need to react and assuage fears that Putin feels he can endanger British inhabitants with impunity.

Litvinenko survived twenty-two excruciating days in hospital before finally succumbing to his poisoning, and the suspects identified in a government have never faced any sanction. They are still free men, and one, Andrey Lugovoy, is now the deputy of the State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament.

PM Builds Herself Up, Press Team Knocks Her Back Down:

imageTheresa May loves a set piece event, which is strange given her track record. But after a Brexit speech that wasn’t universally chided and in which she finally shone more light on the impact of Brexit, she felt she had another one in her. So this week she resolved to solve Britain’s housing crisis. Not by announcing any policy changes, or a new approach, but in a lengthy call to arms for developers to change their behaviour. And what motivates a lucrative industry to change act against its own impulses more than a weak Prime Minister publicly asking you to?

Well, that isn’t even the real story. The real story is the unprecedented achievement of the industry body representing brick manufacturers, whose public affairs manager is surely in need of an enormous bonus. You see, Theresa May delivered her housing speech not only in front of a brick picture backdrop but even a brick patterned lectern. Putting aside the font choice for the slogan on the lectern and the fact that it wasn’t straight, you have to wonder who thought that much brick was a good idea.

Theresa May’s press and communications team have had a rough time of it. Regardless of her qualities, or lack thereof, in the realm of presentation, they have failed to avoid her looking foolish on several occasions. After the now infamous conference speech, the equivalent of waking up in the middle of your own surgery, you’d think every press decision would be meticulously examined. It seems astonishing that another event has been allowed to descend into an opportunity for the nation to mock the Prime Minister, some of examples of which are available here

German Anti-Islam Radicals Meet Suicide Bombing Advocate:

This week a delegation from the AfD (Alternative fur Deutschland), a far-right political party that won 94 seats in the Bundestag on the back of an anti-immigrant and explicitly anti-Islam manifesto, visited Syria. The AfD, now Germany’s biggest parliamentary opposition party, traveled to the country ostensibly in the cause of fact-finding for their policy to repatriate half a million Syrian refugees from Germany to Syria. Delegates met several officials close to President Bashar al-Assad and posted on social media, praising the “Normal daily life” of Damascus.

But, curiously for a party that identifies Islam as posing a particular and inevitable threat to German society, they had no qualms about meeting Syria’s Grand Mufti Hassoun. A firm supporter of Bashar al-Assad, Hassoun has been the highest official of religious law in Syria since 2005 and in 2011 he said “I say to all of Europe, I say to America, we will set up suicide bombers who are now in your countries…From now on, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”


AfD delegates meeting with Hassoun (fourth from the left)


Sarkozy comes out against democracy:

In remarks delivered to The Abu Dhabi Ideas Weekend forum at New York University in Abu Dhabi, former French President Nicolas Sarkozy said modern democracy “destroys leadership”. Addressing the recent rise of populism Sarkozy continued “where you see a greater leader, there is no populism, where is the populism in China? Where is the populism here? Where is the populism in Russia? Where is the populism in Saudi Arabia?”

Sarkozy expanded his critique to say that the frequent electoral cycles in western democracies prevent leaders taking decisions “that could look into 10, 15, 20 years” time. While some sympathy can be given to this view, it is blunted by Sarkozy’s positive name-checking of four totalitarian dictatorial regimes with poor human rights records.

It is tough to identify when exactly former President Sarkozy lost faith in democracy, though it could be put down to his 2012 defeat by Francois Hollande, or more recently, his failure to make it past the first round of voting in his party’s primary election. Old habits die hard and ‘bling-bling’ Sarkozy’s transformed views on democracy might also be influenced by the lucrative post Presidential vocation of telling audiences what they want to hear.

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