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Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Greek debt crisis: Mr Varoufakis's exit stage left

Yanis Varoufakis leaves the Ministry of Finance after resigning with his wife Danai on his motorbike
Yanis Varoufakis rides off after resigning as minister of finance - with his wife behind

His exit raises questions that go far beyond Greece, to the heart of Europe's future, so naturally I wanted a word.
A few hours after his surprise resignation, I chanced upon Yanis Varoufakis sitting in a cafe surrounded by friends.
A minder gently interposed himself. I reminded the ex-finance minister that I'd interviewed him recently, so he politely shook my hand, saying he wasn't doing any interviews and wanted a break from all that.
He added that it was good to be able to have a beer at lunchtime. But he made it clear he still had a role as an MP. He wasn't going away.
I bet he isn't. He is still a huge international celebrity with all the clout that brings.
Yanis Varoufakis in the cafe, in his admirable shirt
During this brief and trivial conversation, I was entranced not only by his warm smile and engaging gaze, but by the vibrant deep blue of his shirt and its subtly rounded black squares.
I wondered where he had bought it. Not that it would fit me. Mr Varoufakis, unlike your humble correspondent, is a fitness fanatic and a hunk.
The Essex University-educated Marxist economics professor is in political terms, a rock star. He famously wears a leather jacket, but never a suit and tie. He rides a motorbike rather than take a ministerial car. He oozes charm and charisma.
No wonder the other leaders can't stand him.
Media captionYanis Varoufakis posed for selfies and said goodbye to his staff after he resigned from his post as finance minister
Half the world has a crush on Mr Varoufakis. The other half would simply like to see him crushed, and perhaps he has been.
You can argue about his intrinsic merits, but his appeal tells you several important things about politics at home and abroad. On one level, it is fairly simple.
My 17-year-old daughter is one of Mr Varoufakis's fans. It is not the Marxist economics. The looks have something to do with it.

Pecs appeal

But before she saw any pictures, she heard him on the radio - and for the first time ever she showed an interest in one the politicians who provide the soundtrack to our lives on BBC Radio 4.
His words seemed fresh - his directness, his ability to engage with the question - and, impressively in a foreign language, to use language both precisely and playfully.
It should be obvious by now, to everyone but mainstream politicians themselves, that there is a hankering for authenticity.
Evasive carefully crafted non-answers are expected and scorned. Those who both talk straight and are ready to exploit their own personality, rather than retool it by focus group, score well.
I am thinking Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, Chris Christie - and none of them have Mr V's pecs. But it goes deeper than that.

Who is Yanis Varoufakis?

  • born 24 March 1961 in Palaio Faliro, Greece
  • parents heavily involved with politics, particularly the Panhellenic Socialist Movement
  • changed the spelling of name from Yannis to Yanis at school
  • studied economics at the University of Essex, then an MSc at Birmingham University and then a Phd back at Essex
  • taught at many academic institutions and has written several books on game theory
  • adviser to George Papandreou's government (2004-06)
  • appointed finance minister by Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras on 25 January
  • resigned 6 July
On my last evening in Athens, I went for a quiet kebab in a side street in a working-class area. The owner, who has had a cafe for 10 years and opened this little joint three years ago, was eager to talk politics.
He said Syriza was "an experiment" and Mr Varoufakis a rarity - he said what he meant and stuck to it.
That was a good thing - but meant he had to go. He was not really a politician - he was too straight - most of them had to be a little crooked. He did not mean corrupt - he meant they took the less-than-direct path, leading to deals and compromises.
One close observer of the Greek crisis and Syriza, Paul Mason of Channel 4 News, makes exactly this point in his engaging blog, adding the party is changing. How Mr Varoufakis responds to any deal, any imposition of austerity, will be worth watching.

'Cretan character'

The man behind the check-in desk at the airport also wanted to talk politics. "It's because he's from Crete," he said of Mr Varoufakis. "Strong," he said, raising his clenched fists, "stubborn."
Many of Syriza's supporters will see stubborn Yanis as the single victim of a failed coup.
One Greek minister, George Katrougalos,told me: "Some political circles in Europe are afraid that we may prove that there is an alternative to this orthodoxy of neoliberalism, because we are going to have elections in Spain, Portugal and Ireland.
"What if we had success here in Greece? That would clearly be seen as a bad example."
It is true the first democratically elected government of the hard left in Europe in my lifetime, believes in the sort of economics specifically rejected by the rules of the European Union.
The car crash we are seeing now is not an accident - it is the result of neither side wanting to move out of the road.
The Greek government fundamentally sees the EU as a capitalist club, with rules designed to benefit the rich, the bankers and big business. They want to break that. Critics say they want to emulate Venezuela.
The stunning victory of Syriza in January was a big moment for the left, and the next few days are even more important.
Alexis Tsipras speaks to Syriza supporters after winning the election
Whether the Greek government wins or loses, stays in the EU or is chucked out, is vitally important for other newly minted hard-left parties in Europe.
The minister is right - Tempo de Avancar in Portugal and Podemos in Spain will be watching and drawing lessons.
The danger for the EU is that the supporters of the hard left decide that staying in turns the old leftist slogan on its head and: "The people united, will always be defeated."
But the meaning of Mr Varoufakis's exit after a popular vote goes even beyond the call to redesign the nature of the European Union's economic fundamentals.
It is about democracy in the European Union. The relationship between what individual states want and the collective will of those joined in federation, or nation or organisation, is no simple thing.
It is a vital question stretching way back into the past and is certainly worth another article.
But Mr Varoufakis, accused of naivety and childishly sticking to his guns, believed that the election of Syriza back in January, and this referendum, was a clear mandate to abolish austerity.
The other members of the eurozone disagree.
Mr Cameron's mandate is less clear and less precise, and he is not the sort to offensively flaunt stylish menswear or toned muscles.
But he might want reflect not only that that confrontation appears to be against the club rules, but that all the other prime ministers and presidents around the table have a mandate too.
Mr Varoufakis has exited stage left. Greece may follow.
As often in a drama, the shocking killing off of a central character throws into stark relief the uncertain denouement of an unfolding story

Pope Francis highlights Bolivia poverty

Pope Francis is visiting Bolivia, the second leg of his tour of Latin America's three poorest countries.
After landing at La Paz airport, the pontiff
poke of the need to protect the most vulnerable in society from the impact of capitalism.
He was greeted by President Evo Morales, Bolivia's first indigenous leader

Kerala: India 13-year-old girl 'sold for sex' by parents

File picture of protests against rape in India
There have been several protests against rape in India
Police in the southern Indian state of Kerala have arrested the mother and stepfather of a teenage girl for allegedly forcing her into the sex trade for two years.
The 13-year-old has been rescued and taken to a state-run shelter home.
She has told counsellors that her parents would solicit customers and force her to have sex with the men.
Her mother has told a news channel that she would charge 3,000 rupees (£30; $47) from a customer for her daughter.
Police said they had identified 25 of the 40 customers who had allegedly paid for sex with the teenager.
Ten others, including a broker, have also been arrested in connection with the case.
The 37-year-old mother has seven children - the oldest is 24 years old and the youngest is aged four.
Her 55-year-old husband worked as a driver and would solicit customers showing the girl's photograph, police said.
The family lived in a rented house in the northern town of Kottakal in Malappuram district.
In 2011, the police in Kerala arrested the father of a 17-year-old girl for forcing her to have sex for money with up to 200 men.
Twenty-nine others were arrested in connection with the case.

Does India's national anthem extol the British?

Tagore was the first Asian to win the Nobel prize for literature
Tagore was the first Asian to win the Nobel Prize for literature
More than a century after it was first sung in the eastern city of Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), the song that later became India's national anthem is again mired in a worn-out controversy.
On Tuesday, the governor of Rajasthan state Kalyan Singh, a veteran BJP leader, pulled an old chestnut out of the fire by saying that Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore's Jana Gana Mana, had actually praised the British rulers. He said the phrase adhinayak jai he, which literally translates as "hail the leader" should be removed and replaced with mangaldayak, which means the "welfare giver" . Hisaudacious remarks even made it to the front page of a prominent newspaper.
He is not alone. Former Supreme Court judge Markandey Katju wrote recently that Jana Gana Mana, which became India's national anthem in 1950, was "composed and sung as an act of sycophancy" to George V, the only British king-emperor to travel to India.
Mr Katju even offered some dubious evidence to support his thesis: the song was "composed at precisely the time of the visit" of the British king in December 1911, it does not "indicate any love for the motherland", the "lord or ruler" and the "dispenser of India's destiny" (another phrase in the song) in 1911 were the British rulers, and it was sung for the first time at a conference in Kolkata of the Congress party, which was held to welcome the king.
The song, written in Sanskritised Bengali, has had its fair share of controversies: some say it is deferential to the British monarchy; others say it fails to fully reflect India's races and regions.
But historians believe the claim about the song being a glowing testimonial to the British rulers by Tagore - the first Asian to win the Nobel Prize for literature and a patriot, who resigned his knighthood in protest against one of the bloodiest massacres in British history - is disingenuous.
Historian Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, who has written a definitive book on Tagore, believes that this "myth about the song" needs to be "refuted and laid to rest".
Tagore wrote the song on 11 December 1911. Next, day the Delhi durbar - or mass assembly when George V was proclaimed Emperor of India - was held.
The song was first sung on 28 December 1911 at the Congress session in Kolkata. It was also sung, as Mr Bhattacharya reminds us, at the foundation day programme of the Adi Brahma Samaj, a reformist and renaissance movement of Hindu religion, in February 1912, and included in their collection of psalms.
"Many years later fertile and malicious imagination connected the composition of the song and the durbar and it was rumoured that Tagore's poem was meant to be sung in the Delhi durbar," writes Mr Bhattacharya.
The truth was finally nailed by a letter Tagore wrote to his editor Pulin Behari Sen in November 1937. The poet said it was obvious that "neither the Fifth nor the Sixth nor any George could be the maker of human destiny through the ages".
"I had hailed in the song Jana Gana Mana that Dispenser of India's destiny who guides, through all rise and fall, the wayfarers, He who shows the people the way..."
Mr Bhattacharya says to see George V as the "object of worship in place of 'Dispenser of India's destiny..Thou King of all Kings' was only absurd, but also sacrilegious to Tagore".
Clearly, Tagore did not write the poem either for the British king or the Congress. "It was a hymn to his Maker, the guardian of the country's destiny," says Mr Bhattacharya. Something which many appear to be wilfully ignore - or forget.

Phil Rudd, AC/DC drummer, sentenced to house detention

Phil Rudd in Tauranga District Court, New Zealand (9 July 2015)
Rudd's lawyer has said he could lose millions in future earnings if convicted

Phil Rudd, a drummer with rock group AC/DC, has been sentenced in New Zealand to eight months in house detention for drug possession and making threats to kill.
Australian-born Rudd, 61, had originally denied the charges but changed his plea in April.
He threatened to "take out" a former employee, the Tauranga court heard.
When police went to question him over the threats they found a stash of marijuana and methamphetamine.
His sentence will be served at his beachfront home in Tauranga, with Judge Thomas Ingram warning he would be face jail if he breached the conditions, New Zealand media reported.
He had faced a jail term of up to seven years for the threat charges.
Arriving at court, Rudd made no comment to reporters but thanked fans for their support.

Telephone threats

The court had heard how Rudd had fired several employees after the failure of his solo album, Head Job, in August last year.

AC/DC are touring New Zealand later this year, but Phil Rudd will not be taking part

Then in September, he telephoned an associate in Australia saying he wanted one of those former employees "taken care of", said court documents.
In another call he offered the associate "NZ$200,000, ($135,000; £88,000) a motorbike, one of his cars or a house", which the man believed would be in exchange for carrying out the request.
Rudd also called the victim of the threat, saying: "I'm going to come over and kill you."
The drugs were found when police raided his home on 6 November.
Rudd was originally charged with attempting to procure a murder, but that charge was dropped, as was a charge that he also threatened the victim's daughter.
Rudd's lawyer had said the threats were "just an angry phone call" and that a drug conviction would have serious final consequences for the drummer, meaning he could not travel to some countries to perform.
Judge Thomas Ingram dismissed this, though accepted that Rudd had reconciled with the victim and paid compensation.
Rudd is not currently a member of AC/DC, one of the world's biggest rock bands, and has not been invited to join them on their tour of New Zealand and Australia later this year.

China shares continue to trade erratically

Shanghai shares
China's market regulator has introduced a string of new rules to try and relieve pressure on Chinese shares

Mainland Chinese shares were trading erratically on Thursday as regulators continued trying to calm the markets.
The Shanghai Composite index was up as much as 1.4% in mid-morning trade after falling 3.6% earlier.
A move to ban big investors from selling stocks may have soothed investor worries, analysts said.
Meanwhile, the state-run news agency Xinhua said police were investigating "vicious short-selling" on the country's stock market.
Xinhua said authorities would "crack down" on operations that had broken the laws and regulations related to trading.
By mid afternoon, the benchmark Shanghai index was up 1.3% at 3,552.8 points.

Relieving pressure

China's market regulator has introduced a string of new rules in the past week to try and relieve pressure on Chinese shares - which have lost more than 30% of their value since mid-June.
On Wednesday, the Shanghai Composite fell as much as 8.2%, leading some analysts to describe the session as 'Black Wednesday'.
In the latest efforts to try and stem the falling markets, Beijing has relaxed lending rules - making it easier for people to borrow money for investment - in the hope that they will buy more stocks. That follows a move late on Wednesday to ban investors holding stakes of more than 5% in companies from selling shares in the next six months.
Meanwhile, about 1,300 firms have halted trading in their stocks to prevent the value of their businesses falling further.


Analysis: ,
The latest measure to be unveiled by the Chinese regulator is a ban on investors who hold more than 5% of any stock from selling it for six months.
It is an extraordinary restriction, but coupled with all the other government-backed efforts to shore up prices in the face of China's massive slump, it may have finally brought some stability.
That said, around half of all listed companies have voluntarily suspended trading, so it could be argued that the market is, in effect, as much seizing up as it is stabilising.
Analysts are divided over the extent to which the dramatic unwinding of China's massive lending-fuelled stock market boom poses a threat to the wider economy.

Shares in Japan were down on Thursday as investors worried about China's stock market and Greece

Elsewhere in Asia

The volatility in China was mirrored in Hong Kong, with the benchmark Hang Sengindex reversing earlier losses - trading up 3.4% by mid-afternoon.
Japan's Nikkei 225 index was down 1.1% as investors worried about China's stock market and Greece's future in the eurozone.
"Tokyo markets have been affected by Chinese shares since yesterday," said SBI Securities' Hideyuki Suzuki, who is general manager of the firm's investment market research arm.
"But the Hang Seng Index and red chips which are now in positive territory are giving [a] sense of relief," he said.
In Australia, the S&P/ASX 200 index was down 0.2% in afternoon trade. While South Korea's benchmark Kospi index slipped 0.2%.