Wednesday, 29 February 2012
'Tell me what you pay VAT on and I will tell you which lobbyists have your government's ear.' This rule can be easily applied to Polish VAT-- the taxes added to the price of goods and services which are the main source of income for the national budget. It is especially true when it comes to VAT on foodstuffs and beverages. With food and drink there are 3 VAT bands- 5%, 8% and the full 23%. Why certain products enjoy the lower levels of taxation is a question which has caused considerable comment and suspicion because many of these products are ones which a healthy diet could really do without. VAT is 5% on corn chips and 8% on crisps, instant noodles and ketchups which include a high level of chemical substances and even some cancer-causing agents. At the same time, healthy products which are recommended by dieticians, such as mineral water, are taxed at 23%. Where is the logic?
The walls of Hargeisa's prison loom over the city, giving shade to the peddlars and bored soldiers who sit and chew hallucinogenic khat leaves. Opposite the prison a barber works like crazy while the mechanic next door tries to fix a bike using a rock.
"Get outta here! F**k you!", shouts one of the soldiers, brandishing his rifle. In his faded uniform and red flip-flops he cuts a rather comical figure. His colleagues do not react so he takes matters into his own hands and attempts to scare me off by himself.
He is not fooling around. The fight against pirates, who fill the prison, is a very important matter for Somaliland, which lies on the Gulf of Aden-- a piracy blackspot. Since declaring independence from Somalia in 1991, Somaliland has never had such a good chance to make friends with Western governments.
The Uruguayan government, concerned with the health of its citizens, has declared war on cigarettes. It has forced tobacco giant Phillip Morris, owner of the Marlboro Brand, into relocating one its factories across the border to Argentina. This is not an isolated incident-- more and more countries have launched similar anti-tobacco campaigns.
Mexico's northern borderlands are a war zone. More people die here than in Afghanistan. Drugs cartels wage war for market share and for control of the smuggling routes north. The gangsters kill police officers, politicians and journalists. They corrupt and intimidate the authorities. They have gained control over entire cities. The chaos is added to by a host of paramilitary organisations and countless guns for hire. The price of a life is around 1000 pesos-- 85 dollars.
Wisława Szymborska has died. Her last wish was to be buried in a secular ceremony at her family plot in Krakow’s Rakowicki cemetery. The National – Catholic RCight has a problem. Had she asked to be buried in the crypt of the Church on the Rock, like fellow Nobel laureate Czesław Miłosz, there would be a pretext for controversy, protests and to remind everyone that she had once written a poem about Stalin. Hell, who needs a pretext? That poem about Stalin will be dragged up anyway but such a request would have made a scandal much easier to create. Now, there is not much to be angry about. The Nationalist Right know that the greatest living Polish poet is Jarosław Marek Rymkiewicz, who has been forgiven for his past membership of the Union of Polish Youth (communist youth movement-CK) because he has become a Kaczyński supporter and has written a poem about the Smolensk disaster. He also has a beautiful name. The name of a true Pole, the truest of Poles..
Bulgaria has unexpectedly pulled out of an agreement to allow the exploration and extraction of shale gas in its territory. On 19th January the parliament in Sofia passed a bill outlawing any exploration or extraction using the controversial method of hydraulic fracturing.
The ban applies to the whole country, including Bulgaria’s territorial waters in the Black Sea. Any company which violates the ban will face fines of up to 66 million dollars, as well as confiscation of equipment.
The Miami Herald has called him ‘the czar of the recovery effort’. Esquire magazine has labelled him the ‘CEO of a country without leaders.’ German magazine Der Spiegel describes Clinton as the lord of Haiti, ruling through his former aide Gary Conille, the current Haitian PM.
The former US president is directing the reconstruction of the poorest country in the western hemisphere, which was devasted by an earthquake in 2010. So far he has been doing so with some success. He has attracted business people and investors and has been able to count on the help of numerous FOBs (Friends of Bill) amongst the political and business elites of the USA. Clinton’s wife, Hilary, is head of US diplomacy and through this direct link he is trying to make sure that the US does not forget the country which, due to its poverty and turbulent history, has been called the ‘cursed island’.
If anything positive can be taken from the decision by the Polish goverment to ratify the ACTA agreement, it is the protests that have been sparked by it. It is the biggest wave of protests that Poland has seen for a long time. We have witnessed the unusal sight of anarchist banners being waved alongside the white and red Polish flag. Most of the protesters are young people who, angered by the way they have been ignored by the government, have taken to the streets for the first time. Unfortunately, the scale of the protests bear witness to the bad news—the ACTA agreement affects everyone, to a greater or lesser degree.
The discussion over ACTA, like so many debates in Polish politics, reminds one of a publicity stunt, albeit on a larger scale and with more emotion involved. People have taken to the streets,there have been chanting and shouting, opposition parties are trying to ride the wave of discontent and the ruling coalition are trying to pretend that nothing is happening. In all of this there has been precious little rational debate over the issue at hand. ACTA is not a charter for internet censorship. The treaty is concerned chiefly with counterfeit goods and does not really focus on the internet at all. Only 10% of the whole text deals with digital content and the rules it states merely repeat the laws which have been in force for years.
When analysing the current situation in Poland, the experts and pundits ask themselves what the authorities are likely to do—how the premier, president or certain minister will react to circumstances. Occasionally the speculation focuses on the politicians in opposition. However, one thing which is never taken into consideration is how Polish society will react. It is as if society did not exist and that politics was a form of theatre to be played out only in the buildings and offices of the powers that be. Can it be that the citizens have ceased to be an active subject in public life and do no longer have even the slightest influence on the course of events?