Perception or not, corruption isn’t limited to Third World

corruption index

Transparency International, a German-based organization, recently released its world Corruption Perceptions Index for 2015.

Not surprisingly, North Korea, Somalia, Afghanistan and Sudan ranked near the bottom of the index, which measures widespread corruption in the public sphere, and also factors in instances of abuses of power, secret dealings, bribery, child labor, human trafficking, environmental destruction and terrorism, among other things.

Transparency International found that corruption was rife in 68 percent of the world’s countries: It would be interesting to see a similar index for US states.

If the actual machinations that go on with misuse of tax dollars, corporate incentives and lawmaker ethics, among many other things, weren’t both so well cloaked by those in power and so often overlooked by US citizens, it wouldn’t be surprising to see a number of states ranked somewhere around the nations of Eastern Europe in terms of corruption.

The difference between the US and other parts of the world isn’t a lack of corruption, it’s that our elected officials are better at hiding it, aren’t quite so ostentatious in showing off their ill-gotten booty and generally don’t kill those who threaten to expose them.

I’d imagine the same is the case in other so-called “first-world” nations such as Canada, the UK and France. Even highly ranked countries such as Denmark (No. 1), Finland (No. 2) and Sweden (No. 3), have problems.

They just have fewer issues than lower-ranked countries and their corruption occurs in a more “white collar” manner – say spanking new roads and public buildings in friends’ areas in exchange for laundered kickbacks along with incredibly generous government pensions, as opposed to naked looting of the government coffers and outright execution of opponents.

Like most things in life, it’s all in how you play the game.

(Top: Transparency International’s 2015 Corruption Perceptions Index. The darker the country the more corrupt the public sector; the lighter the less corrupt. Greenland, Antarctica and Western Sahara seem pretty safe.)

Living in a world shaped by World War I and its aftermath

verdun cemetery

As the centennial marking the beginning of the Great War nears, we would do well to remember the sea change brought about by the 1914-18 conflict.

Beyond the more than 10 million killed, the onslaught of the Spanish influenza in 1918 which claimed an additional 50 million lives worldwide and the collapse of four major empires, World War I reshaped the world, and continues to impact us today.

The seeds for a second, much great world clash a generation later were planted in the peace treaties following the Great War; boundaries were drawn that still exist today, with countries created along arbitrary lines that served as catalysts for future tension and strife; and government control over areas such as trade and travel were forever altered and often restricted.

As Margaret MacMillan of Oxford College, the author of The War that Ended Peace: The Road to 1914, writes in the Wall Street Journal, the conflict not only changed the course of history but sent the world down a dispiriting path that likely didn’t have to happen.

Before 1914, Russia was a backward autocracy but was changing fast. Its growth rate was as high as any of the Asian tigers in the 1960s and 1970s; it was Europe’s major exporter of food grains and, as it industrialized, was importing machinery on a massive scale. Russia also was developing the institutions of civil society, including the rule of law and representative government. Without the war, it might have evolved into a modern democratic state; instead, it got the sudden collapse of the old order and a coup d’état by the Bolsheviks. Soviet communism exacted a dreadful toll on the Russian people and indeed the world—and its remnants are still painfully visible in the corrupt, authoritarian regime of Vladimir Putin.

The war also destroyed other options for Europe’s political development. The old multinational empires had their faults, to be sure, but they enabled the diverse peoples within their boundaries to live in relative harmony. Both Austria-Hungary and the Ottomans were trying to work out ways of encompassing the demands of different groups for greater autonomy. Might they have succeeded if the war had not exhausted them to the point of collapse? We will never know, but since then, the world has suffered the violence and horrors of ethnic nationalism.

The armistice of 1918 ended one gigantic conflict, but it left the door open for a whole host of smaller ones – the “wars of the pygmies,” as Winston Churchill once described them. Competing national groups tried to establish their own independence and to push their borders out at the expense of their neighbors. Poles fought Russians, Lithuanians and Czechs, while Romania invaded Hungary. And within their borders, Europeans fought each other. Thirty-seven thousand Finns (out of some 3 million) died in a civil war in the first months of 1918, while in Russia, as many as a million soldiers and many more civilians may have died by the time the Bolsheviks finally defeated their many opponents.

The war had brutalized European society, which had grown accustomed during the largely peaceful 19th century to think that peace was the normal state of affairs. After 1918, Europeans were increasingly willing to resort to other sorts of force, from political assassinations to street violence, and to seek radical solutions to their problems. The seeds of the political movements on the extremes of both the right and the left – of fascism and communism – were sown in the years before 1914, but it took World War I to fertilize them.

The war aided the rise of extremism by weakening Europe’s confidence in the existing order. Many Europeans no longer trusted the establishments that had got them into the catastrophe. The German and Austrian monarchies were also overthrown, to be succeeded by shaky republics. The new orders might have succeeded in gaining legitimacy in time, but that was the one thing that Europe and the world didn’t have. The Great Depression at the end of the 1920s swept the new regimes away and undermined even the strongest democracies.

The death of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, on June 28, 1914, was, sadly, just one of a number of high-profile assassinations that had taken place in the previous few decades, including those of US President William McKinley, Czar Alexander II of Russia and King Umberto I of Italy.

But by the time Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip killed Ferdinand and his wife Sophie on a street in Sarajevo, the world was, quite simply, bound on a course for destruction.

One hundred years later we would do well to study the Great War and the world it made.

(Top: Cemetery at Verdun, France, scene of some of the worst fighting of World War I.)

200-year-old bubbly receives rave reviews

Champagne lost in a shipwreck in the Baltic Sea two centuries ago — recently recovered and uncorked in Finland — was described by an expert who tasted the vintage bubbly as “lyrical, detecting hints of chanterelles and linden blossom.”

Clearly, Cold Duck this was not.

Billed as the world’s oldest champagne, the bubbly — of the brands Veuve Clicquot and the now defunct Juglar — was recovered from a shipwreck discovered in July near the Aland Islands, between Sweden and Finland. A total of 168 bottles were raised in the salvage operation, according to The Associated Press.

“All bottles are not intact but the majority are in good condition,” said Britt Lundeberg, cultural minister of the Aland’s Islands, a semiautonomous Finnish archipelago.

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An appeal the Soviets should have heeded

President Franklin Roosevelt appealed to Mikhail I. Kalinin, the titular head of state of the Soviet Union, on this date in 1939 for restraint on Moscow’s part regarding neighboring Finland.

Roosevelt asked that the USSR “make no demands on Finland which are inconsistent with the maintenance and development of amicable and peaceful relations between the two countries, and the independence of each.”

The appeal came just six weeks after Germany invaded Poland, with the Soviets jumping in against the Poles 2-1/2 weeks later, beginning World War II.

As the Nazi-Soviet steamroller crushed opposition in the fall of 1939, the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were forced to accept treaties allowing the Soviets to establish military bases and to station troops on their soil.

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Lost Soviet sub from WWII identified

s-2

After a decade-long search, a team of Baltic Sea divers has discovered the wreckage of a Soviet submarine that sank with dozens of sailors aboard during World War II, according to The Associated Press.

They found the S-2 submarine near the Aland Islands between Sweden and Finland in February but only announced it Tuesday because they wanted to confirm the identity of the vessel, team member Marten Zetterstrom said.

He said all 50 crew members died when the vessel exploded in January 1940, probably after hitting a mine. 

The submarine was last spotted at surface level by a lighthouse keeper on the Market island, west of the Aland archipelago, said Markus Lindholm, an Aland-based expert who studied pictures of the wreck, according to The Associated Press.

He said the keeper’s notes of the incident have been preserved and describe how the vessel headed north before diving and entering a Finnish minefield, after which an explosion was heard.

Sweden and Finland claim credit for sinking the submarine with mines, according to CNN. Photos from the salvage operation can be found here.

The Soviet Union attacked Finland in late 1939, in what became known as the The Winter War. Although the Soviet forces had four times as many soldiers as the Finns, 30 times as many aircraft and 218 times as many tanks, the Finns were able to hold out until March 1940.

Although the Finns ended up giving up about 9 percent of their territory to the Soviets under the terms of the Moscow Peace Treaty, the Soviets suffered heavy losses in the conflict and their fighting ability was brought into question.

The inability of the Red Army to make quick work of the Finns is seen as a determining factor in Nazi Germany’s decision to launch Operation Barbarossa, its invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941.