The Patrimony

In politics, everything is relatives

Category: Family, Inc.

A killer twist to the Syrian civil war

by fpman

It is probably worth watching out for developments in the Latakia area in Syria these days. One of the last few strongholds of the Assad regime, it is simultaneously under attack from rebels and developing mixed feelings towards the Syrian leadership that has so far been the unquestionable protector of this Alawite-majority region.

This comes after Suleiman al-Assad, a first cousin once removed of President Bashar al-Assad has, on August 7, killed a Colonel of the Syrian Air Force, Hassan al-Sheikh in what is varyingly described as “a traffic dispute” or “a road rage accident.” Suleiman al-Assad shot Colonel al-Sheikh dead either “because he overtook him at a crossroads” or “because he did not give way in a traffic jam.”

The son of Hilal al-Assad, commander of Latakia’s defence up till his death in battle last year, has thus killed an officer of the force that is still able to give a bit of an edge against rebel forces where it matters.

The killer has by now been arrested. Locals are demanding his execution. Bashar al-Assad promised there would be punishment but will surely have second thoughts as to how he should mediate between the interest of justice (and sane governance, you might add) and the interests of his powerful family.

The Wine, Whisky and Song Society

by fpman

Pakistan is one of those countries where there is a limited set of dominant political families as such — a subject which we will surely return to one day.

For now, let this brief look at Sidi Mohammad Muzzafar Mustafa Khan suffice. Mr. Khan is a relatively non-political member of a pretty significant political family (the Bhutto family). He is a nephew of the late Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and a cousin of the late Benazir Bhutto, both former Prime Ministers of Pakistan, both eventually killed in Pakistan’s internal political struggles — one hanged by the Army, the other assassinated.

Mr. Khan is already contemplating a legacy-building great undertaking to leave his mark on this world in a different way. A significant member of the United Kingdom’s Pakistani diaspora, he is also the owner of nightclubs and hotels in the UK (and had a son grow up beside Benazir for the latter thought his managerial duties and the nature thereof would not permit him to be the best father). He has lived a playboy life or did a very good job of creating the semblance of that and is now interested in passing on the torch to 252 single men carefully selected through a methodical vetting process; young males whom he hopes to socialize into gentlemanhood. This would be his Wine, Whisky and Song Society. Mr. Khan is taking steps to provide for adequate female company, too, of course. And his plan is to throw some great parties in the near future on his luxury yacht and in other convenient venues.

His summary of his personal reasons for all his noble efforts just begs to be quoted here:

“The main reason I’m doing this is I’ll have 250 pallbearers at my funeral and they’ll say ‘this man taught us how to live’. My dear cousin Benazir had a million people at hers so I’ll still be some way behind.”

The Cocaine International

by fpman

Interesting news from Albania.

Former Albanian Communist leader Enver Hoxha’s nephew, Ermal Hoxha, was arrested yesterday during a police raid on a cocaine laboratory in the village of Xibrake, south of the Albanian capital Tirana. Over a 100 kg of cocaine and four tons of additive materials were seized, and two Colombian citizens were also netted in the operation, preceded by a joint investigation of German and Albanian police.

The cocaine originates “from Cuba,” it is reported, although given the presence of Colombians one would think otherwise. Cuba may certainly have served as a transit point along the substance’s route to Europe, on its way towards Germany, though.

Drug cartels began making airdrops of cocaine along Cuba’s shores, for pickup by speedboats headed to Florida, a very long time ago. These drops have also proved sufficient to serve a good part of what domestic market there is for the substance in Cuba. It is small wonder if eventually some Cuban officials got involved and if participation in long-distance trade is a result in what is thus a more permissive environment for related transactions (with officials closing their eyes or actively joining).

If there truly is a link to Cuba in this particular case, a Hoxha’s involvement may possibly be further sign of this trend.

Even though both were Communist countries, Albania and Cuba did not have an entirely convenient link between each other during Communist times. Cuba was backed by the Soviets whom Albanians turned away from (in the post-Stalin period, for a mix of ideological and geopolitical reasons). Cuba and Albania did maintain ties, however, and people from one side may have known people from the other in the past in their case. Which means there may be some ideologically grounded fraternity (or at least the memory thereof) between them. And it also means that some of the people that these people knew in their own respective countries may now know each other, too — and may conspire, although this is purely speculation of course.

Hoxha_StalinRemember Stalin? The late Enver Hoxha at his desk, Stalin’s portrait hanging above his head

Quotes of the day, from Zimbabwe

by fpman

Grace Mugabe (Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe’s wife, 41 years the leader’s junior, formerly his typist, currently head of the ruling ZANU-PF party’s Women’s League, and a target of sanctions by the US and the EU) could easily blame some of the reputation she has on her name. It is just too tempting for critics to call her “Disgrace.” Names like “First Shopper,” however, are not necessarily a result of her otherwise nice first name.

Most recently a series of evictions have been giving her a bad name. She owns farmland in the vicinity of where the latter have been taking place and is thus suspected by some of having something to do with this. A government official’s explanation that the evictions are to make room for a national monument site, for a 19th century anti-colonial hero, sounds not much better from the point of view of those evicted. For now, Zimbabwe’s High Court has ordered a halt to the evictions and so the issue is not “settled” yet.

Our first quote comes from one of the farmers facing eviction:

“The police compared us to ants saying, ‘There’s no way an ant can fight an elephant because Amai (Mrs) Mugabe is a high profile person and you’re ordinary citizens,'”

The police are wrong, of course, and this brings us our second quote of the day. Ants can actually protect trees from elephants who tend to keep away from them. Apparently:

“Whereas giraffes can swipe ants away with their tongues, elephants are more vulnerable because their nostrils are located far from their mouths.”

Purchasing access to the United States through campaign contributions?

by fpman

This NYT story is pretty interesting read on how a wealthy Ecuadorian family may have secured access to the United States for one of its members, Estefanía Isaías. The lady in question is reported to have been involved in fraudulently obtaining visas for her maids for which she was barred from entering the country for a while.

Here is a particularly noteworthy detail of the story, on how the entry ban was eventually lifted:

“The Obama administration then reversed its decision and gave Ms. Isaías the waiver she needed to come to the United States — just as tens of thousands of dollars in donations from the family poured into Mr. Obama’s campaign coffers.

An email from (New Jersey Democratic Senator) Mr. Menendez’s office sharing the good news was dated May 15, 2012, one day after, campaign finance records show, Ms. Isaías’s mother gave $40,000 to the Obama Victory Fund, which provided donations to the president and other Democrats.”

A watchdog organization is subsequently quoted as pointing out the obvious: “When a donation happens and then something else happens, like the favor, as long as they are very, very close, that really paints a story.”

Roberto and William Isaías (of the two, Roberto is Estefanía’s father), who are named as “the family patriarchs” by the NYT article apparently considerably complicate relations with Ecuador given that they have been involved in the crashing of a bank there causing losses to the tune of $400 million. In Ecuador, they have been sentenced in abstentia related to this, and so Ecuador is actually demanding their extradition from the US.

That Estefanía may even have been employed by a fundraiser (Balsera Communications, focusing on the Latino populace) connected to the Obama team is not going to make this look any better from, say, Ecuador.

A futsal cabinet

by fpman

This story is just in from Hungary (in Hungarian). It’s not really a recent development but one that gradually evolved into how it stands at the moment.

The case concerns Péter Szijjártó, Hungary’s new foreign minister who as of this stage has a significant part of his futsal (or indoors soccer) team in employment either by the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade or by other state agencies.

The futsal club’s name is Dunakeszi Kinizsi, so named after a town to the north of the capital Budapest (Dunakeszi) and an historical figure (Kinizsi, a military commander in King Matthias’ service in the 15th century).

By now the following people are working for the futsal affairs, pardon me, the foreign affairs ministry of Hungary:

  • Szilárd Benkő is Szijjártó’s chief of cabinet. He does not have a higher education degree which raised some eyebrows when he got the job.
  • László Monspart, another team member, is also working in the ministerial cabinet.
  • Domonkos Andréka, a former executive of the futsal club, and an intern at the Hungarian Prime Minister’s Office (also under Szijjártó) back in 2010, is by now chief of protocol at MiFAT.
  • Nortbert Temesi, a team member is working under his (Andréka’s) watch, at protocol.

And, as the article we quoted here makes it clear, there are yet others from Dunakeszi Kinizsi in different positions across the Hungarian government.

Minister Szijjártó must firmly believe that people who make for an effective team in futsal can transport that performance to a whole different environment even in the absence of prior experience or training that is relevant to the field in question. In terms of nepotism, they are already scoring high – one has to wait to see how they fare in diplomacy.

futsalteamThe cabinet: the two figures circled are Szijjártó (centre) and Andréka (second from right).

Chaebol nobility

by fpman

Korean Air is the latest South Korean chaebol (large family-run conglomerate) hit by a scandal related to family matters. Cho Hyun-ah, company chairman Cho Yang-ho’s daughter, recently made a flight she was on turn back so one of the stewards could be kicked off at the gate. The reason: she was served macadamia nuts in an unopened bag which she, as the person actually in charge of the airline’s in-flight services, thought was not the proper way. According to common descriptions of the story she basically transformed into a dragon in response. She clearly went way too far, and by now she has ended up stripped of all of her company titles and was forced to publicly apologize for her actions.

ChoHyun_ahCho Hyun-ah (centre) with father Cho Yang-ho, apologizing (photo: Song Eun-seok)

The NYT doesn’t fail to add that the incident

“is likely to stoke already seething anger at the country’s family owned conglomerates — or chaebol — whose leaders have a reputation for imperious behavior and treating their employees like feudal subjects.”

It is worth remembering at this point Chonghaejin Marine Company’s case. It was their ship, the MW Sewol ferry which sank in April of this year. Over 300 drowned in that incident caused to a great extent by human errors. On its last journey the ferry was carrying over three times the amount of cargo it was supposed to carry, and the extra load was not properly secured. After a relatively sharp turn by the vessel at one point the cargo shifted and caused the boat to capsize.

Yoo Byung-eun was the head of the family whose business empire extended to control of Chonghaejin, run by Yoo Byung-eun’s sons at the time. In the wake of the ferry disaster, the public mood turned against father Yoo, and South Korean authorities issued an arrest warrant against him related to charges of embezzlement, negligence and tax evasion. His children fled the country, and in the meantime he went into hiding, presumably with the support of the 100,000-strong Evangelical Baptist Church which he co-founded.

Eventually police found a badly decomposed body in the middle of a field in the middle of nowhere, south of the capital Seoul, and based on DNA evidence it was proclaimed that it was Yoo Byung-eun. He was thus pronounced dead. Police is still after Yoo Som-na, a daugther of his who is also accused of embezzlement and is held in prison in France awaiting decision on her extradition. Her defenders argue she would not get a fair trial in South Korea at this point.

The NYT is also referring to a story where a “ruling-family” member at the telecom and petrochemical conglomerate SK group beat up a union activist with an aluminum bat. This exaplains the context where many papers are now calling on government and judicial authorities to set examples with some chaebol princes and princesses to put an end to what they describe as “imperial abuse.”

Thai “democrarchy”

by fpman

Thai Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn is about to have his third wife’s, that is, Princess Srirasmi Akrapongpreecha’s family stripped of royal entitlements, according to reports, and most likely a divorce is brewing along with this.

This comes related to allegations of corruption against an uncle of the princess, a police general, who may have been party to some serious smuggling and gambling crime, and may have been involved in soliciting bribes regularly. The uncle in question is Pongpat Chayaphan, formerly the head of Thailand’s Central Investigation Bureau. He has been arrested together with seven colleagues of his.

This source allows a peek into some royal intrigue these days, within the ranks of the royal cabinet, known as the Privy Council:

“The prince has been described in secret cables liberated by Wikileaks from the US Embassy as unstable. Members of the Privy Council have confided that they fear his elevation to the thrown and would prefer his sister, Maha Chakri Sirindhorn.  However, the laws of succession specify that the heir to the throne must be a male.”

So the case is an interesting combination of corruption and positioning for power. To me an even more interesting aspect of the story is this tidbit, however, from the previously linked BBC article:

“Until now the severity of the lese majeste law criminalising any critical comment about the monarchy meant that no Thai media had pointed out the family connection.”

“Lèse-majesté laws” (laws on injury to majesty) are supposedly an historical feature of absolute monarchies. That you cannot insult the honour of a royal family is not really compatible with post-monarchic, let alone democratic, political arrangements. Mixing the two results in “democrarchy” which may be as awkward as it sounds. Yet Thailand has a lèse-majesté law and it apparently is a major obstacle in the way of free discourse, according to this study for example. As past application of the law reveals to us, Thai authorities are even ready to incarcerate a US citizen for two years for posting excerpts of a book about the king that has been banned in Thailand related to the law.

ThaiRoyalStandardThe Thai royal standard (from here). What standards apply to the royal family?

But in fact Thailand is not entirely unique in this respect. Most European remnant monarchies have lèse-majesté laws themselves. There the application of the law is different of course and based on recent practice mostly obscene and pointless statements about the royals would get you into trouble. That is less of an anomaly perhaps as it is not entirely out of line with anti-defamation practice. (Although I’m open to the argument that even such a restriction may be viewed as problematic from a democratic standpoint.)

Quote of the day, from Hungary

by fpman

So the head of the Hungarian national tax authority, Ms Ildikó Vida is facing some serious allegations of corruption these days. Given that she is the head of the state authority collecting a good part of Hungary’s citizens’ earnings and that this is legitimized through the state’s supposed capacity to create public good, it is slightly concerning that she might be involved in creating some private good, and consequently some public bad instead. Such allegations have emerged earlier on from domestic Hungarian sources, and now the U.S. government considers her corrupt, too, and has recently banned her from travelling to the United States.

When it first surfaced that this may be the case, Vida disappeared went on a holiday for a while. In the meantime, the Hungarian government threw in the “Russian defence” to protect her, framing their response as defending Hungary’s sovereignty from foreign intrigue. They claimed that those accusing Vida and ruling circles in general of corruption are working to undermine the sovereignty of Hungary, and that the sovereign Hungarian people will proudly defend their right to pick their leaders who can then sovereignly pick the people to serve as head of the country’s sovereign tax authority.

When news came of the definitive confirmation of Vida’s banning from the U.S., she came back from holiday and felt it was time to talk to some sovereign government-friendly press. Which is the point where she gave us our quote of the day. Promising to fight hard, she said:

“I am a tigress type, and I have two families: one my closest family and the other, NAV [Hungary’s national tax authority] itself.”

We think this is pretty amazing. When one regards one’s office as a family affair that is perhaps slightly incompatible with a desire to refute allegations of corruption. At the very least in terms of one’s communication. But who are we to tell that to a sovereign family’s sovereign mother… and as this article reveals she doesn’t speak English so writing this is of no use, anyway.

VidaThe eye of the tigress: Ildikó Vida at work

Question of the day: where, within one’s network of human contacts, is there place for a Gazprom lobbyist?

by fpman

Contrary to what some people may think, in the title I am asking an open question, having just read this article from RFE/RL. It concerns primarily decision-makers, of course, and not the ordinary person.

The article points out that EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (“EU foreign policy chief”) Federica Mogherini has a spokeswoman, Catherine Ray, who has a husband, Thomas Barros-Tastets, who in turn happens to be working for a company called G+ which has Gazprom among its major clients (G+ deals with Gazprom in the value of 300,000 to 350,000 Euros per annum).

Does this help Gazprom? Is it significant related to this that Federica Mogherini, before she took office, was thought by some to be too understanding towards Russia?

One obvious question that has to be asked is if Thomas Barros-Tastets’ work was kept a secret throughout the vetting process which saw wife Catherine get the job of spokesperson. And the answer is apparently it wasn’t. Mogherini as well as others knew.

Of course, for her part, Mogherini then takes even more responsibility for this, in case there’s anything wrong with this. Which is not easy to tell.

Some in the Commission have what seems to them an easy answer. Margaritis Schinas, the chief spokesman for the European Commission says:

“(Catherine) Ray is charged with speaking on Africa, Latin America, and Gulf countries. Fellow foreign affairs spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic speaks for Mogherini on European affairs, including Russia. We therefore do not believe there is a potential conflict of interest with…Ray’s duties at the commission.”

While we cannot determine the answer to the above questions really (especially to the question of whether Catherine Ray’s position helps Gazprom), we can safely tell that Margaritis Schinas is using a flawed argument above. Gazprom, which used to be the Soviet Ministry of Gas back in the day, does not have interests only related to Russia but as a profit-making venture and as a State-Owned Enterprise (majority-owned by the Russian state) it has complex economic and political interests related to almost every continent, the Gulf countries being the most obvious example of this. So in the end this is still kinda interesting.