Sunday, 21 December 2014

The Mythos and the Logos in Russia and the West

All nations, all groups of people, have their myth, their shared narrative of how they came to be, what they are and why they are. And they have their sacred words - a constitution, the Rule of Law, around which social order is maintained.

Or at least they should do.

Britain - the mythos - a Celtic island nation formed by numerous invasions (Romans, Angles, Saxons and Jutes, Normans); Magna Carta, Habeas Corpus, maritime exploration, the Mother of Parliaments, the Empire Upon Which The Sun Never Set, Industry, Britannia Ruling the Waves, the tragedy of the Great War, Standing Alone in 1940,  Royal Family, the Welfare State, a Free Media, Tolerance, Common Sense, Good Manners and Decency. The logos is based on an unwritten constitution; absolute respect for private property, Common Law and precedent; parliamentary procedures, Green Papers, White Papers, Bills and Acts. Separation of the judiciary from the legislature, independent institutions.

America - the mythos - Pilgrim Fathers - civilising the savage wilderness, no taxation without representation - the primacy of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness, rugged individualism, right to bear arms, Just Wars to Free the Oppressed, from the Civil War to WWII, the City on the Hill, the refuge for the Huddled Masses, the bringer of innovation to the world. The logos is firmly rooted in the Constitution of 1776 and its amendments, the division of the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary, Allegiance to the Flag.

Poland - the mythos - the Piast dynasty and the creation of a Polish, Christian nation state; alliance with Lithuania to form Europe's largest land empire, from the Baltic to the Black sea; sold out by self-interested magnates and carved up by Prussia, Russia and Austria, off the face of Europe for 120 years to re-emerge only to be tragically partitioned once again by Hitler and Stalin; occupied by the Nazis for five years and under Soviet domination for the next 45 - free at last and determined to make up lost ground. The logos - the legacy of the Constitution of 1791, the current constitution of 1997, the European Union Treaty, the ongoing nation-building work to improve the legislative process and build strong, independent institutions.

Russia - the mythos - Kievan Rus', Orthodox Christianity, a golden age before the Mongol hordes swept across from the East; 260 years suffering from oriental despotism, before home-grown autocracy in the form of Ivan the Terrible took hold. And via Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, a Eurasian empire stretching from Central Europe to the Pacific Ocean was formed, on the back of a vast army of serfs. All the while Russia was being invaded by foreigners - Swedes, Poles, Turks. The Romanov dynasty was either a) the Successor of Byzantium or b) the Oppressor of the Masses. So in 1917, it was overthrown either a) by a band of gangsters driven by a misguided ideology or b) the Vanguard of the Proletariat. Then Stalin collectivised the peasantry of the Russian Empire (including Ukrainians, Belarusians, Georgians, Armenians etc), and enforced industrialisation upon a backward nation - doing this well enough to drive out Hitler and his Fascists. But Russia continues to be set upon - by America, NATO, the EU, Fascists, Liberals, Catholics, Muslims... and only one man can keep NATO's missiles away from Russia's frontiers - Russia's Man of the Year for the past 15 years.

The Russian logos? It's whatever Putin says. Close down McDonalds? The sanitary inspectorate will willingly come up with the right papers. Seize the assets of Sistema? Get the procurator to place its owner under house arrest. Invade Crimea? Eastern Ukraine? Not me mister, he bravely lied. Russia so demands a strong man, the logos resides with, and is, the strong man. Unlike the West, the logos belongs to whoever happens to be running Russia. Not a good thing for Russians.

This time last year:
Going mobile - I get a smartofon

This time two years ago: The end was meant to end today (remember?)

This time three years ago:
First snow - but proper snow?

The time four years ago:
Dense, wet, rush hour snow

This time five years ago:
Evening photography, Powiśle

This time six years ago:
The shortest day of the year

This time seven years ago:
Bye bye borders - Poland joins Schengen

Saturday, 20 December 2014

There won't be snow in Jeziorki this Christmas

There's little doubt, the climate is changing. Last December was almost snow-free, the forecast for Warsaw unto the end of the year does not forecast snow. Yesterday, although it was rainy for most of the day, the temperature hit a staggering 12C, while today on my walk around Jeziorki, the day's high was 7C. Note that Warsaw's average daytime high for December is around 2C (sources vary from 1.9C to 2.1C).

Once upon a time, snow could cover Warsaw from the end of November through to early April. Since I started coming to Poland in winter, in the early 1990s, there have been thaws (odwilże) punctuating the snowy season. December has usually been snowy (check back past Decembers on this blog). The planet is warming up.

On today's walk, there was a distinct feel of spring in the air; like the przednówek season when nature is waiting patiently to explode back into life - but we've not had winter yet - real winter, with frosts of -20C and a 15cm (six-inch) layer of snow over everything.

So - onto the photos. I set off, turn into ul. Dumki. Below: the birch trees have been bare for a month. In the distance, ul. Trombity.

Below: a cygnet (left) and its parent swimming on open water. In past years, they'd have been long gone, migrating south to return in late March. The recent warmer winters have persuaded them to stay in Warsaw. Click here to see swans in ice on 7 December 2012.

A view across the lake; when the sun appears from behind the clouds, in the strong westerly wind it feels exactly like March. No different. A few more weeks like this and buds will be appearing on trees...

Across the lake, this is the reverse view of this photo, albeit taken with a telephoto rather than wide-angle lens.

Below: After a few weeks of rain, ul. Dumki has become impassable to motorised traffic (a good thing) and to those not wearing the stoutest of footwear.

Below: across the railway tracks towards Dawidy Bankowe, the low winter sun highlights the unseasonal verdure of the arable fields.

Below: a panorama of Warsaw city centre from Dawidy Poduchowne (just within the city boundary). Second skyscraper from the left is Warsaw Spire, under construction. The gap in between is the Wola district, which should fill up with high-rise developments. Warsaw is already ranked fourth in the EU (after Paris, London and Frankfurt) in terms of cities with buildings over 150m high. Click to enlarge.

And a follow-up from Sunday, 21 December, the shortest day of 2014. I cross the tracks and spot new-style PKP PLK SA snowdrift screens, replacing the wooden ones which were rarely used in recent years.

Poland's railway management is increasingly sensitive to bad PR typu 'Sorry, taki mamy klimat'. Good to see that action is being taken in good time to prevent mishaps and delays.

This time last year:
Man falls under train at W-wa Żwirki i Wigury

This time four years ago:
Kidnapped by Koleje Mazowieckie

This time five years ago:
Google Earth updates Jeziorki

This time six years ago:
Out and about with two foot of glass

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Contagion - contagion - contagion - CONTAGION

Yes I did once take a phone call from someone in America convinced that Yugoslavia is the capital of Poland.

The Russian economy is tanking - estimates of a 4%-5% contraction of GDP next year coupled with 10% plus inflation. The Polish economy is sturdy - analysts are still holding to a forecast of 3% GDP growth next year while inflation is invisible. So why did the zloty perform so strangely today?

Opening at 5.34 to the pound, at the time I write it is 5.42, a change of over 1.5% in a day. (How would you like to earn 1.5% return on your capital - not over the space of a year, but during one trading session?)

The word is 'contagion'. Look at these graphs: The first one shows the rouble's performance against the pound today. Note what happened when Putin began his press conference this morning - the rouble began to slide (shown as a rise in the value of the pound on this graph). The pound cost eight roubles more by the middle of the performance than it did when he started. After he announced no foreign exchange controls on exporters, the rouble regained its composure somewhat. [All graphs courtesy of]

The zloty (considered by FX traders in New York and London as the currency of a former Soviet republic or something like that) did that same dip as the rouble - but then kept on falling. The zloty is traded around the clock, so while rouble trading ceased for the day at 18:00 CET, zlotys are still being bought and sold as I write.

Let's look at other parts of the former Soviet Union, as perceived by dimmer members of the foreign exchange community... Czechoslovakia - (hang on - consults Wikipedia) - er... Czech Republic...

Uh... and...err... Hungaria...

See the resemblance? What's the difference between these countries? They are somewhere between the eurozone and Russia. Never mind the different fundamentals and forecasts, it's perceptions that count.

Having galloped along towards their Christmas bonuses, the FX traders sniffed an opportunity to make a very quick (and not insignificant) buck. The weakening of the three Central European currencies are good news to exporters in the region, but somehow I doubt it will hold. Having breeched the 5.40 = 1 GBP barrier, the zloty is stabilising and my bet is that market fundamentals will see some profit-taking and a return to 5.25 = 1 GBP before the New Year. The strong pound is also good news to the hundreds of thousands of Poles working in the UK who remit money to their families in Poland - an extra 15 grosze for every pound they send home.

I took advantage of today's sharp move spotting an opportunity to sell sterling at the top of the tree. If you want to shift GBPs into PLNs, don't - whatever you do - use the services of the UK high street banks - they will fleece you. I used the services of OneMoneyMail (Sami Swoi), negotiating a far better exchange rate than the high street banks would offer (like 10+ grosze to the pound better), and a mere fiver for next-day transfer to my Polish bank account. Very easy and convenient service - I was amazed at how quickly it all went.

Back to macroeconomic fundamentals though. Politicians can huff and puff and make all sorts of pronouncements. But, to quote Daniel Gross from the Daily Beast: "The currency markets can't be bought off... They are faceless, merciless and swift. Every day, they are passing judgment on regimes around the world. Russia's caving rouble doesn't just make Putin look bad, it has real and instant effects at home...
[the] hedge funds, financial institutions, individual investors, companies and central banks that make up the vast foreign-currency exchange market are turning against Putin. They are not punishing Russia because they don't like the country's geopolitics. They are doing so because they don't like the underlying trends that dictate the relative value of the rouble."

So - are the markets punishing Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic because of their underlying trends?

In Poland's case, the value of exports match the value of imports. There is good economic growth (3.3% in the third quarter of this year), falling unemployment, price stability and political stability. Which is why I've bet on the zloty regaining its lost ground by the end of this year.

Let's take a long-term view then - here's the Polish zloty against the pound over the past ten years:

...And here's the rouble:

This is the underlying fundamental story - one economy has diversified, globalised, opened up to foreign investment, innovated - the other is totally dependent on the sale of natural resources, plundered from the state by a gang of ex-spooks hell-bent on enriching themselves.

This time last year:
Muddy Karczunkowska

This time three years ago:
Ul. Trombity - a step closer to dry feet?

This time four years ago:
Matters of style

This time five years ago:
Real winter hits Warsaw

This time six years ago:
This is not Mazowsze, no?

Sunday, 14 December 2014

End-of-year classic car quiz

Eight British classics snapped in the UK over the course of 2014. Can anyone accurately say what they are? Extra points for model year plus any additional info... A chance for the Inner Anorak to emerge and shine!








This time last year:
The poet's gift - an exploration into Why One Writes

This time three years ago:
Advertising H&M on Warszawa Centralna station

This time five years ago:
Jeziorki in the snow

This time seven years ago:
Staying Underground: Piccadilly Circus

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Snow or no snow?

A catch-up post from Wednesday, 10 December. I wake up, look out of my bedroom window and see - snow? Not forecast for today... strange. I get dressed and set off for work.

Stepping outside - a light dusting of snow - or freezing fog? Or a bit of both?

I wait for the bus. It takes me to Ursynów, where there's no snow on the pavements - only frost on the trees. So it looks like Jeziorki did get a light dusting today.

Sub-zero all day long. By the morning of Thursday 11 December, back above freezing. And on Saturday 13 December, the temperature briefly nudged +10C. Below: the corner of ul. Kórnicka and Trombity.

A long time-exposure, ul. Trombity looking towards the lake in the distance.

This time three years ago:
Old manual-focus Nikkor 28mm lens attached to Nikon D40

This time four years ago:
What's the Polish for 'pattern'?

This time seven years ago:
"Rorate caeli de super nubes pluant justum..."