Vesti: Weapon or casualty in the information war?
October 19th, 2017, 07:27 PM

The search for Russian influence in Ukraine’s media is an important task. But when the mainstream makes little space for inconvenient facts, who ends up losing?

A still from CCTV that allegedly captures editor Igor Guzhva blackmailing a Ukrainian politician. Source: Facebook. In Ukraine, the long-running conflict around the Vesti media group and its successor has produced strongly contrasting narratives. For many patriotic minded Ukrainians, these outlets are weapons in Moscow’s information war. They believe these media mixes lies and half-truths to undermine support in the Ukrainian government and the army, still fighting in the east. Yet for those opposed to Ukraine’s post-revolutionary political order, the papers are a victim of repression by a state intolerant of dissent.

In truth, much of the worst of both narratives is true. Vesti is the revanchist project of a Moscow-exiled oligarch from Viktor Yanukovych’s fantastically corrupt administration, while is a partisan organ for the remains of Yanukovych’s party. Both media are in transparent pursuit of the latest zrada (treachery, sellout) of the ruling liberal-nationalist coalition. But they are also the object of selective, heavy-handed investigations and raids by Ukraine’s tax authorities, prosecutor general and security services on questionable charges of money laundering and inciting treason. In parallel to this official pressure, they have faced forceful intimidation from radical activists who have taken on themselves the task of “fighting separatism”.

This conflict tells us much about the challenges of maintaining open discourse in conditions of hybrid warfare — and how the boundaries of civil society are policed in Ukraine.

Speaking for whom?

The tangled narrative begins in 2012, when the Vesti media group burst onto the scene with anonymous funding and a free daily paper, a long read journal, a TV station and a countrywide radio network. Under the management of veteran editor Igor Guzhva, the Vesti group quickly became one of the country’s leading media outlets.

Fast forward two years, and Vesti did not join many other papers in championing the Euromaidan cause. Instead it took a skeptical and sometimes hostile attitude to the revolution. However, in contrast to most Russian media, Vesti did cover the brutalisation of protestors by the Berkut riot police. One of its reporters, Vyacheslav Veremiy, was murdered when he tried to photograph the titushki thugs bussed in to beat up protesters.

This tangled narrative does not lead to easy conclusions. It is difficult not to see a concerted campaign against specific media and journalists in the efforts of the security services, tax authorities and prosecutor general’s office

Vesti’s opposition to the revolution marked it for opprobrium from both liberal and radical circles. These suspicions darkened in the intense atmosphere of national survival brought on by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and concealed invasion of the Donbas. Many heard echoes of Russian media narratives in Vesti’s relentlessly critical view of Ukraine’s new government and the military operation in the east, which included reports of high civilian casualties. At a demonstration in September 2014 to shut down Vesti in Kyiv, one Maidan activist put it thus: “This mouthpiece of the Kremlin is meant to destroy the consciousness of Ukrainians, deceiving them about the real events going on in the east and inciting civil war in our country. We believe that the articles in this newspaper kill no less than bullets.”

The authorities and activists saw Vesti’s anonymous funding as a possible inlet for Kremlin financing. In May 2014, the tax authorities raided the paper’s offices and opened a criminal case alleging that money was laundered to the paper through Crimea by the fugitive oligarch Sergey Kurchenko. Others linked the paper to Viktor Yanukovych’s son, but most often to Aleksandr Klimenko, a notorious figure accused of epic embezzlement at Ukraine’s Ministry of Revenue and Fees. When Yanukovych fell in February 2014, Klimenko set up shop in Moscow, where he runs a marginal Ukrainian political party that peddles business-friendly politics and plots his return to Ukraine.

June 2016: Alexander Klimenko appears at a Uspishna Kraina ("Successful Country:) forum on tax reform. Source: Uspishna Kraina.The idea of money flowing into a major media outlet from the state waging war on Ukraine raised appropriate alarm. But the case itself is highly questionable. Beneath the trappings of “Kremlin financing”, the case actually boiled down to an administrative dispute over the timing of tax payments. Though several more raids were made as part of the case over the next two years, Guzhva claims it largely fizzled after a court decided there were no damages to the Ukrainian government.

Soon the official accusations took a more ideological hue. In 2015, the Ukrainian Security Services opened a second case against Vesti.Reporter — this time for “compromising Ukraine’s territorial integrity and inviolability”. The accusation pertains to three articles about the unrest in eastern Ukraine which extensively quoted separatist sympathisers. I’ve read the articles in question, and in fact they are nuanced examinations of how Russia mixed mercenaries and arms into large-scale indigenous unrest in the Donbas to launch its separatist project. This allegedly treasonous narrative would soon find outlet in Deutsche Welle, the Guardian, the New York Times and other leading papers covering the Ukraine conflict. This case also went dormant after a forensic linguist testified that the articles contained no incitement to treason.

In parallel to this official attention, Vesti was targeted from the street. Radical activists led by parliamentarian Ihor Lutsenko (who had been kidnapped and tortured by titushki during the revolution) ransacked a Vesti event on 28 June (Constitution Day), warning that “This is our last peaceful demonstration about Vesti. We won’t have any more patience if they don’t change their editorial policy.”

June 2014: roughly 40 people in masks turn up to disrupt a Vesti public event in Kyiv. Image: Vesti. A week later, at the start of July 2015, several dozen masked youths beat up a security guard at the paper’s offices, smashed some windows and hurled flares inside. Liberal parliamentarian Serhiy Leshchenko speculated that Vesti organised the attack itself in order to attain martyr status, and the leader of a radical nationalist organisation soon took public responsibility. He was never arrested, and later showed Vesti reporters a certificate of appreciation from the SBU and told them he actively cooperates with the Service “against separatism and the opposition, the actions of which are aimed at the undermining of national security and discrediting of the government.”

Meanwhile, the nation’s leaders began weighing in on the situation. After chief editor Igor Guzhva complained of repression on Facebook, the chair of the Verkhovna Rada Freedom Speech Committee Viktoria Siumar fired back: “Are you sure you don’t work for the government that is waging war on my country? I’ve got a question for the security service: why after a year and a half of war does the public still not know about the sources of financing of this expensive ‘free’ paper?” (Vesti was distributed for free in large cities). On Journalist Day (5 June), President Petro Poroshenko stated that “transparency of media ownership in wartime is an extraordinarily pertinent national security question… If the tax authorities provide evidence of opaque financing of Vesti, the country has the ability to defend itself.”

"I consider pressure on the press unacceptable, even in wartime. But to treat these media like regular publications that supposedly have their own viewpoint would be suicide"

The claims that Vesti had funding from a fugitive oligarch received ironic confirmation in June 2015, when Guzhva suddenly announced he was resigning as editor in chief and selling his share of the media group. Media observers alleged that he had been forced out by owner Aleksandr Klimenko as a sop to the Ukrainian government, possibly to facilitate the latter’s return to Ukraine or at least reduce pressure on his remaining business interests. Journalists and radio newscasters from within the media group confirmed Klimenko’s ownership and the handoff of management to his common law wife. Complaints of editorial manipulation quickly emerged and many leading journalists and radio personalities jumped ship.

Journalists practicing politics?

After Guzhva’s jarring departure, Vesti has continued reflecting and stoking the discontent of some Ukrainian citizens over the government’s management of the economic crisis, the conflict in the Donbas, linguistic and national memory policies. But it has become less hard-hitting and more transparently an organ of Klimenko’s political project, publishing constant fluff pieces about the oligarch. In this cruder form it is distinctly less influential in the Ukrainian information sphere. This, perhaps, was the goal of the intense political pressure: to defang the troublesome paper without shutting it down, which would lead to international outcry.

As for Guzhva, he quickly opened a new internet outlet, Strana has continued to bait Ukraine’s post-revolutionary ruling elite. Guzhva claims that after Strana published recordings by fugitive parliamentarian Aleksandr Onischenko in late 2016 that alleged vote buying by President Poroshenko, the order came “right from Bankova Street” (that is, the presidential administration) to shut him down. Citing political repression from the top makes good copy, but Guzhva’s claims received some confirmation when two more criminal cases were opened against him. These were loudly publicised by Ukraine’s Prosecutor General Yury Lutsenko, who even had his press secretary publish video evidence of Guzhva’s alleged wrongdoing on Facebook.

Vesti has become less hard-hitting and more transparently an organ of Klimenko’s political project, publishing constant fluff pieces about the oligarch

The first case alleges that Guzhva coerced $10,000 from a Radical Party parliamentarian to pull an unflattering story about him. According to Lesya Ganzha, chief editor at the public watchdog Access to Truth, there are frequent rumours in the Ukrainian media sphere of monetary payments for withholding negative press and removing already published stories. Prosecutor General Lutsenko released multiple videos of Guzhva in alleged negotiations with an intermediary, but they are barely decipherable and the story has its share of unanswered questions. The parliamentarian’s own testimony about the proposed transaction contradicts that of the intermediary. The second case involves Guzhva’s alleged possession of a flash drive full of military secrets (confiscated during a search of the site’s offices as part of the first case). published a rebuttal claiming that the flash drive is missing from the official protocol of items confiscated during the search. The first case is now due to go to court.

Igor Guzhva, former chief editor of Vesti and now Source: Facebook. This tangled narrative does not lead to easy conclusions. It is difficult not to see a concerted campaign against specific media and journalists in the efforts of the security services, tax authorities and prosecutor general’s office. Yet the role of both Vesti and as organs of revanchist political forces is also clear, the former for Klimenko personally and the latter for Opposition Bloc, the political party which emerged from the ruins of Yanukovych’s Party of Regions. Guzhva himself ran on the Opposition Bloc ticket for Kyiv city council in 2016, and the editorial section of is chock full of MPs and political consultants in the party’s orbit.

Because of their association with discredited pre-revolutionary politics, Vesti and have received little in the way of journalistic solidarity from their liberal peers. Denis Kazansky, a journalist who fled Donetsk for Kyiv after the outbreak of conflict, acknowledges the political motivation of the investigations against Guzhva, but claims that’s just the point. “Guzhva is not a journalist,” Kazansky tells me, “he’s a politician practicing journalism. He and his party have a political conflict with the government. This isn’t between politicians and journalists, it’s between politicians and politicians.” In Kazansky’s assessment, Vesti and cannot help but filter the news through their political sponsors’ “Moscow interests”.

Inciting separatism or laundering stolen funds are prosecutable crimes, but serving an unpopular reading public is not

Yury Lukanov, a veteran Ukrainian journalist and active participant in Ukraine’s independence movement and EuroMaidan, believes the publications’ links to exiled oligarchs in Moscow puts them outside the journalistic fold. “I consider pressure on the press unacceptable, even in wartime. But to treat these media like regular publications that supposedly have their own viewpoint would be suicide.”

Information security

Journalists who do express solidarity (even mild) with the publications can find themselves similarly ostracised. Serhiy Tomilenko, the head of Ukraine’s National Union of Journalists, criticised the Ukrainian government’s “selective approach” towards investigating Vesti and on Facebook. This immediately brought the ire of National Front parliamentarian Dmytro Tymchuk, who runs Inforesist, a patriotic website that publishes war dispatches from the east. Tymchuk wrote that Tomilenko “is playing against the information security of Ukraine… acting as advocate for anti-Ukrainian publications… seriously strengthening the position of the aggressor in the media sphere.” Tymchuk inspired an intense online campaign against Tomilenko and the Union, and the latter claims he even received violent threats.

3 March, 2017: a largely older crowd protest the closure of Radio Vesti outside Ukraine's presidential administration, Kyiv. Source: Vesti.For his own part, Guzhva claims no owner has ever influenced his editorial policy and asserts his commitment to a unified Ukraine (he is a native of Donetsk).

In 2015 he described how Ukrainian journalists had divided into three camps — those who were ready to serve the Euromaidan revolution, those who wished to see it crushed with tanks (who today reside in Donetsk or Moscow) and those who tried to objectively record events.

“The first group hates the second, and the second the first, and they both hate the third. Vesti belongs to the third group, so we have problems with both sides of the front… That’s the fate of objective media in a breakthrough period of history. It’s a very difficult position to hold, because you’re constantly in the crossfire.”

Given the partisan bent of his publications, Guzhva’s claim of strict objectivity raises eyebrows. In truth, Vesti and are representative of one of Ukraine’s dominant ideological camps, which opposes the post-revolutionary order, pines for “eight hryvnia to the dollar” under ex-president Viktor Yanukovych and criticises the military operation in the east. Many liberals distrust this camp and suspect it of blending easily into separatism. But the fact is that many Ukrainian citizens subscribe to it. Inciting separatism or laundering stolen funds are prosecutable crimes, but serving an unpopular reading public is not.

The only struggle?

Watchfulness over the role of oligarchic money in Ukraine’s press and vigilance against Russian media warfare are necessary tasks. But in monitoring publications like Vesti with suspect finances and loyalties, we should avoid ascribing Kremlin origin to any narrative that is challenging or uncomfortable.

For instance, in July 2014 Vesti’s front page showed two residents of the warzone community Stanitsya Luhanska fleeing their flaming home after bombing, most likely by the Ukrainian air force, that tragically killed up to twelve civilians. The headline read “Mass civilian death in the east.” One critic indignantly offered this as proof that “the publication has more than once used openly anti-government rhetoric and distorted facts.”

But a Ukrainian battalion commander acknowledged the airstrikes could have been caused by pilot error, and the rising civilian death toll in the Donbas was confirmed by the UN, OSCE, Amnesty International and other international organisations. I have spent much time in Stanytsya Luhanska, a rural suburb of Luhansk severely shelled by both sides of the conflict, and can attest to the critical importance of understanding the violence its inhabitants experienced. More and more Ukrainian media are grappling with such painful topics, including major outlets such as Hromadske Radio and Ukrainska Pravda.

This deserves at least as much effort as the search for Kremlin mouthpieces.


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My white friend asked me to explain white privilege, so I decided to be honest.
October 19th, 2017, 07:27 PM

He wanted to know how institutional racism has made an impact on my life. I’m glad he asked, because I was ready to answer.

Yesterday I was tagged in a Facebook post by an old high school friend asking me and a few others a very public, direct question about white privilege and racism. I feel compelled not only to publish his query, but also my response to it, as it may be a helpful discourse for more than just a few folks on Facebook.

Here’s his post:

To all of my Black or mixed race FB friends, I must profess a blissful ignorance of this “White Privilege” of which I’m apparently guilty of possessing. By not being able to fully put myself in the shoes of someone from a background/race/religion/gender/nationality/body type that differs from my own makes me part of the problem, according to what I’m now hearing. Despite my treating everyone with respect and humor my entire life (as far as I know), I’m somehow complicit in the misfortune of others. I’m not saying I’m colorblind, but whatever racism/sexism/other -ism my life experience has instilled in me stays within me, and is not manifested in the way I treat others (which is not the case with far too many, I know).


So that I may be enlightened, can you please share with me some examples of institutional racism that have made an indelible mark upon you? If I am to understand this, I need people I know personally to show me how I’m missing what’s going on. Personal examples only. I’m not trying to be insensitive, I only want to understand (but not from the media). I apologize if this comes off as crass or offends anyone.

Here’s my response:

Hi Jason. First off, I hope you don’t mind that I’ve quoted your post and made it part of mine. I think the heart of what you’ve asked of your friends of color is extremely important and I think my response needs much more space than as a reply on your feed. I truly thank you for wanting to understand what you are having a hard time understanding. Coincidentally, over the last few days I have been thinking about sharing some of the incidents of prejudice/racism I’ve experienced in my lifetime—in fact I just spoke with my sister Lesa about how to best do this yesterday—because I realized many of my friends—especially the white ones—have no idea what I’ve experienced/dealt with unless they were present (and aware) when it happened.

There are two reasons for this: 1) because not only as a human being do I suppress the painful and uncomfortable in an effort to make it go away, I was also taught within my community (I was raised in the ’70s and ’80s—it’s shifted somewhat now) and by society at large NOT to make a fuss, speak out, or rock the boat. To just “deal with it,” lest more trouble follow (which, sadly, it often does); 2) fear of being questioned or dismissed with “Are you sure that’s what you heard?” or “Are you sure that’s what they meant?” and being angered and upset all over again by well-meaning-but-hurtful and essentially unsupportive responses.

So, again, I’m glad you asked, because I really want to answer. But as I do, please know a few things first: 1) This is not even close to the whole list. I’m cherry-picking because none of us have all day; 2) I’ve been really lucky. Most of what I share below is mild compared to what others in my family and community have endured; 3) I’m going to go in chronological order so you might begin to glimpse the tonnage and why what many white folks might feel is a “where did all of this come from?” moment in society has been festering individually and collectively for the LIFETIME of pretty much every black or brown person living in America today, regardless of wealth or opportunity; 4) Some of what I share covers sexism, too—intersectionality is another term I’m sure you’ve heard and want to put quotes around, but it’s a real thing too, just like white privilege. But you’ve requested a focus on personal experiences with racism, so here it goes:

1. When I was 3, my family moved into an upper-middle-class, all-white neighborhood. We had a big backyard, so my parents built a pool. Not the only pool on the block, but the only one neighborhood boys started throwing rocks into. White boys. One day my mom ID’d one as the boy from across the street, went to his house, told his mother, and, fortunately, his mother believed mine. My mom not only got an apology, but also had that boy jump in our pool and retrieve every single rock. No more rocks after that. Then mom even invited him to come over to swim sometime if he asked permission. Everyone became friends. This one has a happy ending because my mom was and is badass about matters like these, but I hope you can see that the white privilege in this situation is being able to move into a “nice” neighborhood and be accepted not harassed, made to feel unwelcome, or prone to acts of vandalism and hostility.

2. When my older sister was 5, a white boy named Mark called her a “nigger” after she beat him in a race at school. She didn’t know what it meant, but in her gut she knew it was bad. This was the first time I’d seen my father the kind of angry that has nowhere to go. I somehow understood it was because not only had some boy verbally assaulted his daughter and had gotten away with it, it had way too early introduced her (and me) to that term and the reality of what it meant—that some white people would be cruel and careless with black people’s feelings just because of our skin color. Or our achievement. If it’s unclear in any way, the point here is if you’ve never had a defining moment in your childhood or your life where you realize your skin color alone makes other people hate you, you have white privilege.

3. Sophomore year of high school. I had Mr. Melrose for Algebra 2. Some time within the first few weeks of class, he points out that I’m “the only spook” in the class. This was meant to be funny. It wasn’t. So, I doubt it will surprise you I was relieved when he took medical leave after suffering a heart attack and was replaced by a sub for the rest of the semester. The point here is, if you’ve never been ‘the only one’ of your race in a class, at a party, on a job, etc. and/or it’s been pointed out in a “playful” fashion by the authority figure in said situation, you have white privilege.

4. When we started getting our college acceptances senior year, I remember some white male classmates were pissed that a black classmate had gotten into UCLA while they didn’t. They said that affirmative action had given him “their spot” and it wasn’t fair. An actual friend of theirs. Who’d worked his ass off. The point here is, if you’ve never been on the receiving end of the assumption that when you’ve achieved something it’s only because it was taken away from a white person who “deserved it,” you have white privilege.

5. When I got accepted to Harvard (as a fellow AP student, you were witness to what an academic beast I was in high school, yes?), three separate times I encountered white strangers as I prepped for my maiden trip to Cambridge that rankle to this day. The first was the white doctor giving me a physical at Kaiser:

Me: “I need to send an immunization report to my college so I can matriculate.”

Doctor: “Where are you going?”

Me: “Harvard.”

Doctor: “You mean the one in Massachusetts?”

The second was in a store, looking for supplies I needed from Harvard’s suggested “what to bring with you” list.

Store employee: “Where are you going?”

Me: “Harvard.”

Store employee: “You mean the one in Massachusetts?”

The third was at UPS, shipping off boxes of said “what to bring” to Harvard. I was in line behind a white boy mailing boxes to Princeton and in front of a white woman sending her child’s boxes to wherever.

Woman to the boy: “What college are you going to?” Boy: “Princeton.”

Woman: “Congratulations!”

Woman to me: “Where are you sending your boxes?” Me: “Harvard.”

Woman: “You mean the one in Massachusetts?”

I think: “No, bitch, the one downtown next to the liquor store.” But I say, gesturing to my LABELED boxes: “Yes, the one in Massachusetts.”

Then she says congratulations, but it’s too fucking late. The point here is, if no one has ever questioned your intellectual capabilities or attendance at an elite institution based solely on your skin color, you have white privilege.

6. In my freshman college tutorial, our small group of 4–5 was assigned to read Thoreau, Emerson, Malcolm X, Joseph Conrad, Dreiser, etc. When it was the week to discuss The Autobiography of Malcolm X, one white boy boldly claimed he couldn’t even get through it because he couldn’t relate and didn’t think he should be forced to read it. I don’t remember the words I said, but I still remember the feeling—I think it’s what doctors refer to as chandelier pain—as soon as a sensitive area on a patient is touched, they shoot through the roof—that’s what I felt. I know I said something like my whole life I’ve had to read “things that don’t have anything to do with me or that I relate to” but I find a way anyway because that’s what learning is about—trying to understand other people’s perspectives. The point here is—the canon of literature studied in the United States, as well as the majority of television and movies, have focused primarily on the works or achievements of white men. So, if you have never experienced or considered how damaging it is/was/could be to grow up without myriad role models and images in school that reflect you in your required reading material or in the mainstream media, you have white privilege.

7. All seniors at Harvard are invited to a fancy, seated group lunch with our respective dorm masters. (Yes, they were called “masters” up until this February, when they changed it to “faculty deans,” but that’s just a tasty little side dish to the main course of this remembrance). While we were being served by the Dunster House cafeteria staff—the black ladies from Haiti and Boston who ran the line daily (I still remember Jackie’s kindness and warmth to this day)—Master Sally mused out loud how proud they must be to be serving the nation’s best and brightest. I don’t know if they heard her, but I did, and it made me uncomfortable and sick. The point here is, if you’ve never been blindsided when you are just trying to enjoy a meal by a well-paid faculty member’s patronizing and racist assumptions about how grateful black people must feel to be in their presence, you have white privilege.

8. While I was writing on a television show in my 30s, my new white male boss—who had only known me for a few days—had unbeknownst to me told another writer on staff he thought I was conceited, didn’t know as much I thought I did, and didn’t have the talent I thought I had. And what exactly had happened in those few days? I disagreed with a pitch where he suggested our lead female character carelessly leave a potholder on the stove, burning down her apartment. This character being a professional caterer. When what he said about me was revealed months later (by then he’d come to respect and rely on me), he apologized for prejudging me because I was a black woman. I told him he was ignorant and clearly had a lot to learn. It was a good talk because he was remorseful and open. But the point here is, if you’ve never been on the receiving end of a boss’s prejudiced, uninformed “how dare she question my ideas” badmouthing based on solely on his ego and your race, you have white privilege.

9. On my very first date with my now husband, I climbed into his car and saw baby wipes on the passenger-side floor. He said he didn’t have kids, they were just there to clean up messes in the car. I twisted to secure my seatbelt and saw a stuffed animal in the rear window. I gave him a look. He said, “I promise, I don’t have kids. That’s only there so I don’t get stopped by the police.” He then told me that when he drove home from work late at night, he was getting stopped by cops constantly because he was a black man in a luxury car and they assumed that either it was stolen or he was a drug dealer. When he told a cop friend about this, Warren was told to put a stuffed animal in the rear window because it would change “his profile” to that of a family man and he was much less likely to be stopped. The point here is, if you’ve never had to mask the fruits of your success with a floppy-eared, stuffed bunny rabbit so you won’t get harassed by the cops on the way home from your gainful employment (or never had a first date start this way), you have white privilege.

10. Six years ago, I started a Facebook page that has grown into a website called Good Black News because I was shocked to find there were no sites dedicated solely to publishing the positive things black people do. (And let me explain here how biased the coverage of mainstream media is in case you don’t already have a clue—as I curate, I can’t tell you how often I have to swap out a story’s photo to make it as positive as the content. Photos published of black folks in mainstream media are very often sullen- or angry-looking. Even when it’s a positive story! I also have to alter headlines constantly to 1) include a person’s name and not have it just be “Black Man Wins Settlement” or “Carnegie Hall Gets 1st Black Board Member,” or 2) rephrase it from a subtle subjugator like “ABC taps Viola Davis as Series Lead” to “Viola Davis Lands Lead on ABC Show” as is done for, say, Jennifer Aniston or Steven Spielberg. I also receive a fair amount of highly offensive racist trolling. I don’t even respond. I block and delete ASAP. The point here is, if you’ve never had to rewrite stories and headlines or swap photos while being trolled by racists when all you’re trying to do on a daily basis is promote positivity and share stories of hope and achievement and justice, you have white privilege.

OK, Jason, there’s more, but I’m exhausted. And my kids need dinner. Remembering and reliving many of these moments has been a strain and a drain (and, again, this ain’t even the half or the worst of it). But I hope my experiences shed some light for you on how institutional and personal racism have affected the entire life of a friend of yours to whom you’ve only been respectful and kind. I hope what I’ve shared makes you realize it’s not just strangers, but people you know and care for who have suffered and are suffering because we are excluded from the privilege you have not to be judged, questioned, or assaulted in any way because of your race.

As to you “being part of the problem,” trust me, nobody is mad at you for being white. Nobody. Just like nobody should be mad at me for being black. Or female. Or whatever. But what IS being asked of you is to acknowledge that white privilege DOES exist and not only to treat people of races that differ from yours “with respect and humor,” but also to stand up for fair treatment and justice, not to let “jokes” or “off-color” comments by friends, co-workers, or family slide by without challenge, and to continually make an effort to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, so we may all cherish and respect our unique and special contributions to society as much as we do our common ground.

With much love and respect,


This article was originally published by Good Black News and then edited for and published in YES! Magazine

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Estonia’s Narva: caught between two worlds?
October 19th, 2017, 07:27 PM

An attempt at self-immolation in this Estonian border town is shifting the focus back on geopolitical games between Russia and the EU. RU

View of Narva Castle and Ivangorod Fortress. Photo CC BY-SA 4.0: Aleksander Kaasik / Wikimedia Commons.Narva lies on the easternmost edge of Estonia, on the Narva river, right by its border with Russia. Indeed, the Russian town of Ivangorod lies across the river. The results of municipal elections in town have shown that most local people have no desire for change. But one Russian pensioner who tried to take his own life by setting himself on fire was a reminder that not everyone was happy with the results.

On 15 October, Estonians went to the polls to elect new municipal governments. In Ida-Viruuma, a border region with Narva at its centre, a place where more than 80% of residents are ethnic Russians, Estonia’s Center Party retained its majority in the local council, winning 23 out of 31 seats. There was nothing unexpected in either its victory or the traditionally low (46.7%) local voter turnout.

The day, however, didn’t pass without incident. An elderly man, thought to be a Russian citizen, tried to set himself alight in the city’s central Petrovsky Square in protest at Estonian government politics. He managed to douse himself with petrol and use his cigarette lighter, but police officers swiftly put out the fire and he was not seriously hurt.

For Narva this was an extraordinary event. Back in the early 1990s, certain sections of the Russian population of Ida-Viruuma dreamed of establishing an autonomous "Narva Republic", but for the last few years life here has been quiet. The older generation discusses its problems in its kitchens while younger people, who have grown up in the EU, are busy getting educated and moving to Tallinn or another European capital.

In the shadow of Estonia’s last Lenin statue

You can travel from St Petersburg to Narva by direct train or bus, but it’s a boring journey. It’s more interesting to buy a ticket to Ivangorod, on the other bank of the river, and see the difference between the two halves of a city divided by the river that forms the border between Estonia and Russia. Ivangorod has roads full of potholes, smashed street lights and a path between bushes leading to the grass-surrounded old customs post. Your first impression of Narva, on the other hand, will be of smooth, clean roads, a new customs building and well-lit streets. Only overhearing Russian hits of the 1990s by bands such as Rukhi Vverkh (“Hands Up”) and Demo might remind you that we are in the most Russian city of Estonia, and indeed the entire EU.

The last undestroyed statue of Lenin in Estonia on the territory of the Narva Castle. Photo courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.In the first light of dawn, no doubts remain. The rows of five storey housing blocks once ubiquitous throughout the USSR remind you that Russia is close. This Khrushchev-era innovative architecture stands next to a 17th century town hall, but a statue of Lenin, the last in Estonia, can still be seen inside the even older Narva Castle. It was moved here from the city’s central square a few years ago, so that Ilyich, as Lenin was popularly known, could hide from the tourists, his arm stretched out towards Russia, on the other bank of the river. Whether he yearns to go there, or is just calling for help, is unclear.

As you stroll through its streets, you can’t stop wondering how this place regularly finds itself at the centre of geopolitical scandals

This city, the third largest in Estonia and an outpost of the “Russian World” on the Baltic Sea, is small and quiet. As you stroll through its streets, you can’t stop wondering how this place regularly finds itself at the centre of geopolitical scandals.

When Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, and the Ukrainian government countered with its Anti-Terrorist Operation in south-east Ukraine, Narva was inundated with journalists from both the Russian and western media. Armed forces flexed their muscles on opposite sides of the border: first there was NATO carrying out exercises and then, on the other bank of the Narva River, the Russian Army followed suit. But the special correspondents, after gauging the mood of the local population, sent very similar reports back to their countries: this won’t be another Donbas — people here like Russia, but no one wants a war.

Vladimir Izotov, a deputy of Narva’s city council, had to spend a lot of time answering western correspondents’ questions about whether Narva would be a second Crimea, citing himself as an example of the ethnic Russians’ loyalty to the Estonian state. Being Russian, he could be successful in both politics and business, and could even make speeches at council meetings in his own language without any problems.

“The news from Estonia doesn’t always reflect the opinions of either the government or the local people,” Izotov tells me. “The news agenda is often set by Estonian nationalists, who have only 10% of seats in parliament. They are always thinking up populist slogans about things like removing the vote from non-citizens, and the media feed off them hungrily in search of sensations. But I can tell you for sure that 99% of Narva’s population has no interest in leaving Estonia. They have enough problems.”

This won’t be another Donbas — people here like Russia, but no one wants a war

The nationalists in question are the Conservative People’s Party of Estonia (Eesti Konservativne Rahvaerakond, EKRE). This party is both anti-Russia and critical of integration in the EU, and in particular of the government’s lack of legislative independence.

Estonia's ruling Center Party won Sunday's local election in what has been seen as a key test for Prime Minister Juri Ratas, whose party split into two factions in 2016. (c) Guo Chunju/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images. All rights reserved. The radical conservatives have seven seats in the national parliament, but neither they nor other nationalist parties took part in the municipal election, as there was no point. The only political forces that have any traction here are those that promise to support the Russian-speaking population: the Centre Party has traditionally done well here, as has the main opposition party, the Our Narva electoral alliance, one of whose central slogans is, “Narva is also Estonia.”

A Narva Republic?

The first post-Soviet years in Ida-Viruuma were marked, to an extent, by burgeoning ideas of revolt. Enthusiasts among the Russian-speaking population nurtured a plan to create a Narva Republic, an autonomous Russophone entity within Estonia, and proposed to give its government the power of veto over laws that would infringe the rights of the ethnic Russian population. The issue came to a head with a referendum held on 16-17 June 1993. The pro-autonomy faction claimed that they won a majority of the votes, but the Estonian government didn’t recognise the referendum and neither did Russia, on whose support the Russian-speakers were counting.

These days, the might-have-been Narva Republic has museum displays devoted to it. Even Estonian nationalists — the people who call for removing the vote from Estonian citizens with Russian or grey “stateless” ID papers and expect Russian aggression at any moment — don’t believe it could ever happen.

“We believe that there might be a Russian invasion anywhere along the border, but the people living in Ida-Viruuma won’t support it”

“We believe that there might be a Russian invasion anywhere along the border, but the people living in Ida-Viruuma won’t support it,” Martin Kummets, of the nationalist Estonian Independence Party (Eesti Iseseisvuspartei, EIP), tells me. “Many of these people have family on the other side, and they know fine well that life is better here. And after all, nobody outside Russia recognises the legitimacy of the referendums in Crimea and Donbas.”

According to Kummets, Russian and Estonian young people are well integrated with one another and ethnic-based conflicts between them never arise. He also believes that his party has supporters among Narva’s Russians.

Narva Town Hall, built in 1671. Photo courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.Alexander Kornilov, head of the Baltiya information project that is the voice of the Russian community in Estonia NGO, is one of the main ideological opponents of Estonia’s radicals. Articles debunking the ultranationalists appear on it alongside news of Russian-language cultural highlights and events honouring Second World War veterans, criticism of the EU and updates on Catalonia’s fight for independence. Kornilov believes that the Estonian government deliberately withholds funding from the Ida-Viruuma region because of its Russian population, and in doing so is making its biggest mistake.

Unlike Estonian patriots, the Russian journalist accepts the possibility of Narva and the area around it breaking away from Estonia: “Anything is possible in our world today – you just have to look at the United Kingdom and Spain. And given central government’s negative attitude to our region, there’s no telling what might happen”.

According to Kummets, Russian and Estonian young people are well integrated with one another and ethnic-based conflicts between them never arise

Figures from Estonia’s Revenue and Customs Department show that in 2016, residents of Narva had the lowest incomes of anyone in the country. Their average monthly salary, pre-tax, was €802 (£715): the average for Estonia as a whole was €1,084 (£967). Ida-Viruuma has also traditionally had the highest unemployment rate in the country: at the end of September 2017 this stood at 9.2%, over twice the national average of 4.5%.

Teens go to the polls

The 2017 elections have been the first in which 16 year olds have been able to vote, after a law was passed last year lowering the age limit for municipal elections. And although most of Narva’s teens have little interest in voting, there are socially active young people who are interested in politics, says Alexey Kupavykh, the Speaker of Narva’s Youth Parliament. This body is elected on the basis of votes cast in schools, and its main job is to organise social events. But the members see their chance to vote at such a young age as a sign of trust in them.

“The people who vote are the ones who have concerns, who have faced problems they can’t deal with on their own,” Alexey tells me. “It doesn’t even matter whether they’re interested in politics or not: it teaches them responsibility. It’s like a leap into adult life.”

Alexey is 17, and this is his last year at school. He is planning to continue his education in Tallinn: it’s a more interesting place for both studying and having a good time, and salaries are higher there too. He does, however, think that he might come back to Narva in the future. He’s happier in his home town than he would be in, say, the more prosperous Tartu, Estonia’s second city.

I listen to his thoughts on his future and ask an awkward question: “Lyosha, you’re an ethnic Russian and you’ve spent the last four years living in the EU. Do you still feel a link with Russia?”

“With Russian culture, yes,” he answers, “But not with the country. It probably sounds rude, but everything’s different there. All those advertising boards on houses and along the roads. You arrive in Russia, and you look at all the run-down villages… and the people are different: sad and bad-tempered.”

Lack of jobs and prospects

Narva is literally dead at night. After eleven o’clock it’s not just a question of no one out on the streets — most of the windows are dark as well. The only things that are open all night are a flower shop and currency exchange kiosks, not to mention casinos where taxi drivers hang around waiting for fares and tipsy punters smoke nervously. I decide to buy some flowers.

Despite the late hour, temporary florist Zlata and her husband Sergey have a customer: a fortyish woman is buying flowers for Teachers’ Day. After she has paid and left, the couple turn their attention to me, and, having quickly realised that I’m not a local, pour out all their stories of woe.

Ivangorod fortress. CC BY-SA 3.0 Simm / Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved.Zlata and Sergey are from Ivangorod, and are filling in at the flower shop for Zlata’s sick sister, who owns the shop. It’s no problem for them – home’s just a walk away - but there’s no work in the Russian border town: all the factories have closed down.

“We had so much here before! The fish processing plant was a prestigious place to work, for a start,” says Zlata. “But it all disappeared overnight, and now there are just food shops and pharmacies.”

There is nothing accidental about these types of business — they are targeted exclusively at Ivangorod’s western neighbour, Narva. People come across from Estonia to buy unobtainable medical products, cheap alcohol and cigarettes. And there’s a parallel stream in the other direction, with Russians going to Narva to buy contraband cheese (unavailable in Ivangorod because of international trade sanctions), red salmon and second hand clothing, usually for resale.

There are more and more second hand dealers, or touts, as Zlata calls them, in Narva. After the collapse of the USSR all the factories closed here, just as in Ivangorod, and no new large firms have come to replace them. Sergey may have spent all his life in honest work, but he can understand the touts. Two employers in Ivangorod owe him money – he was working for them on the side, cash in hand. And it’s not easy to find another job, on either side of the river.

“I think the Estonian authorities are ruining Narva,” he says. “You know what I think? In the future there’ll just be a NATO base here, nothing else. That’s all they need the city for.”

When Zlata discovers that I’m a journalist, she tells me her “favourite story” that has to do with fireworks:

“On ‘Ivangorod Day’, they used to have a firework display. But then they switched off the lights in people’s homes, to recoup some of the money it cost. It’ll soon be the New Year; we’re already stocking up on candles, so we’ll be ready. You write about it, try to let President Putin know what’s happening here. The local authority has tarted up some small bits of Ivangorod; they’re taking photos of them and publishing them all over the place, but the whole town’s in ruins.”

The “ruins” of Ivangorod are a walking distance from Narva — a kind of dreadful warning against any attempts at reintegration with the Russian world. The year 2012 saw the start of a project to build promenades along both sides of the river, as part of an EU financed “United by Borders” programme for cross border cooperation. The promenades were opened in February 2014, but much less of the work on the Russian side was completed, and it was noticeably less impressive than on the Estonian side.

The “ruins” of Ivangorod are a walking distance from Narva — a kind of dreadful warning against any attempts at reintegration with the Russian world.

Another story that has turned into folklore on both sides is that of the new customs posts, where building work also started at the same time in both Russia and Estonia. Estonian officials have now been occupying their new buildings for two years, while the Russians are still awaiting their “housewarming.”

In August this year, Rosgranstroi, the body that oversees border construction projects, announced that the two Ivangorod Customs Posts would be in operation by September. It’s now nearly November, and people are still walking along paths between bushes to the old Customs buildings.

It’s issues like this that make the inhabitants of Narva love their country a little more, despite all its problems and disadvantages — even as they have no confidence in the ability of their local government bodies to solve these problems any time soon.


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Palestinian winemaking under occupation
October 19th, 2017, 07:27 PM

The stories of two Palestinians reviving winemaking as a source of livelihood in Palestine and a reminder of the rich cultures and history that is often obscured by the conflict.

Picture by Sari Khoury. All rights reserved. Wine is not usually what springs to mind when thinking about Palestine. As Lebanese, Turkish, and Cypriot winemaking flourishes and the controversial Israeli wine industry booms, Palestinian wine has received far less attention in recent history, overshadowed by news of occupation and bloodshed.

Israeli vineyards often use native Palestinian grapes on land stolen from farmers during the 1948 Nakba. Similarly, many newer Israeli wineries come from illegal West Bank settlements but are labelled as ‘products of Israel.’

With the exception of Latroun and Cremisan monasteries which both run on foreign funding and instruction, the rich Christian heritage of winemaking in and around the famous Palestinian cities of Nazareth, Bethlehem, and Jerusalem as well as the northern Galilee region have been relegated to the domestic market until recently. Now, a new wave of entrepreneurs and winemakers are reviving Palestinian wine not only as a source of livelihood but also as a way of reminding Palestinians and the world of the rich cultures and history that is often obscured by focus on the conflict.

Nemi Ashkar and Sari Khoury are two such examples showing they can make a high quality product despite the choking restrictions of the Israeli occupation. They both produce a range of great wines from historic Palestinian sites: the village of Iqrit inside present-day Israel, and Bethlehem’s picturesque mountains in the occupied West Bank.

Returning home: Nemi’s story

Nemi Ashkar comes from the northern Galilee village of Iqrit which was occupied in November 1948 by the Israeli army and its inhabitants dispossessed. He grew up in the region but was exiled from his village, whose population is forbidden from returning except to visit their church and graveyard. Iqrit has since been under the control of the Israeli Land Authority, which manages 93% of Israeli land and ensures that it can only be rented and cultivated by Jewish citizens. 

Picture by Nemi Ashkar. All rights reservedNemi recalls making wine at home with his mother and grandmother, using grapes from their garden. It was upon visiting his church one day that Nemi discovered that part of the village’s land was being used to farm grapes by a Tunisian Jewish settler. The sight of the grapes inspired Nemi to extend his passion for winemaking to a large-scale project, “to prove that I can also use my land even in an indirect way.” 

Nemi buys the harvest from the settler who grows them to his specifications, and turns the Iqrit grapes into wine in the cellar of his home in the nearby village of Kafr Yassif. Although an original image of Iqrit from before 1948 adorns the label of his product, he is forbidden from labelling his product as Palestinian. For Nemi, the wine is “Palestinian because I am Palestinian. And [even though] the owner [of the winery] is Palestinian and the grapes are from Palestine and the production is in Palestine, we must put it is Israeli.” He circumnavigates this by highlighting the family name as the name of the winery: those in the know will understand that Ashkar and Iqrit are Palestinian.

The Galilee region has a wine-making tradition going back to the Crusader period, but the Ashkar family were among the first to make a Palestinian wine available commercially. When he decided to make the commercial step, Nemi first studied wine making in Akka, and uses the help of his family, brothers, sisters, and whoever is around to pitch in making the wines in the cellar of his house. Because the wine is not kosher he cannot sell it in Israeli national institutions or hotels. It is, however, currently available in a few high-level restaurants in Tel Aviv, in Palestinian areas of Israel, and widely across the West Bank. Unable to commit to a marketing campaign while he still works in the high tech industry by day, Nemi relies on word of mouth to promote his products. Despite this, he sells around 12,000 bottles annually, increasing every year. While Israel has plenty of boutique wineries, including several controversial settlement wineries, business for the Ashkar family is good and they are looking to export their wines internationally, where they hope to be able to label it as a Palestinian product. 

Picture by Nemi Ashkar. All rights reservedHis dream is to build the winery in Iqrit. I ask him if he thinks this is possible. “Sure” he says. Nemi is an optimist, but a pragmatic nonetheless, given the current political situation and the sustained ban on Palestinian Iqrit residents returning to their village. His spirit is Palestinian and he believes in the future of Palestine, and is part of the Palestinian industries that may one day fuel an independent state. After all, he says, “it is our land, [when] we return back, we are returning to our land so we can build the winery and make the house and return everything.” 

Grapes of wrath: Sari’s story

Sari Khoury, a Palestinian architect and entrepreneur, had the idea of setting up a Palestinian winery with his friends Nasser Soumi, a Palestinian artist, and Pascal Frissant, a French wine maker, while completing his MBA in Paris. Sari, a Christian from East Jerusalem, grew up with his grandfather making wine at home. He never had aspirations to produce his own until the year Nasser gave him a book about wine as a Christmas gift. Sari discovered wine as a way to travel and explore other cultures and has since spent years learning about wine making in France, traveling around the best French and Italian wineries. “Behind every exceptional wine there is also exceptional people,” he explained, an idea he attempts to convey in his own product. 

Picture by Sari Khoury. All rights reserved. The high quality of the indigenous grape varieties, the terroir, and the seasonable climate, not to mention the power of the Bethlehem brand name led Sari to establish his winery, Philokalia, in his Bethlehem home. Sari works one-on-one with individual farmers, learning their traditional organic methods. “This country is the cradle of the vine and wine making, and this heritage has been lost somehow,” he tells me, “[the farmers] have this heritage and this knowledge that hasn't been documented in books so…it’s transmitted through this project.” Sari named his wine Philokalia; “the love of the beautiful and of the good, where beautiful means the radiance of truth”, after a series of writings under the same name begun by Orthodox monks in the 4th century here in Palestine. 

Bethlehem, a large city in the southern West Bank, is surrounded by Israeli settlements so any investment in agricultural ventures is a high-risk endeavor. “One of our vineyards is close to a settlement, and the settlers sometimes decide to come out and destroy the vines. This also means that we cannot work comfortably; I prefer to harvest at night when the grapes are cooler, but farmers are scared to go out at night and be discovered by the settler patrols who will shoot first before asking questions.” Another vineyard uses a 70-year-old Palestinian vine that was destroyed by the Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) to make a road to a settlement. They used large stone boulders to crush the vines and then paved over them with asphalt. Miraculously, “the vines grew back between the rocks, so I called the wine we made from them “grapes of wrath”. [However,] because this vineyard is in such a tense area, the farmers are afraid even to approach their land. I don’t know if I’ll be able to harvest this year.”

For commercial scale projects the World Bank can supply ‘political risk’ insurance “but it’s a very expensive means of protecting your product, and only compensates you financially, not for the loss of a 70 year old vine.” He adds, “such insurance doesn’t reflect the spirit of the project, which serves as a vehicle to protect the vines.” 

Picture by Sari Khoury. All rights reservedSari prides himself on producing natural and organic wines that reflect Palestinian farming methods. The local wine tradition, Sari explains, goes back centuries. If you search in the Palestinian countryside around Bethlehem, in the Galilee, even Gaza, you can find Canaanite era wine presses. Under the ancient Egyptians, Gazan wine was held in high esteem and was hugely important. The Canaanite god of fertility, Baal, is still a daily reference for these farmers, who refer to certain plants as baal, meaning they haven’t been watered other than with rainwater. Olives are baal, figs are baal. Grapes too, are baal

Both winemakers aim to highlight the prosperity of Palestinian land and its products – as Sari explains: “the land is not poor, it’s wealthy – but do you see that wealth? Nature is capable of creating beautiful things. This abundance is there and it’s ignored.”  

Unlike West Bank ID card holders who must apply for permission from Israeli occupation administration, Sari is able to move between Bethlehem in the Occupied West Bank and Israel through military checkpoints to access his vineyards. He may not, however, export his finished product without registering it with the military administration and paying a large fee. Similarly, as a Palestinian, he will incur lengthy delays and large customs costs should he try and import his equipment from abroad. It is by such means that Israel prevents Palestine redeveloping its once thriving agricultural economy from its wealth of native product species. He adds that “the roads in Palestine are bad so it’s difficult to even transport the wine without shaking it up.” He would like to take it to Jerusalem, the Galilee, Haifa, and Nazareth, but for now it cannot pass the checkpoints.

Picture by Sari Khoury. All rights reservedHaving sold out of his first vintage of 700 bottles, Sari is apprehensively awaiting this year’s harvest. He’s not interested in selling the wine in shops but instead wants to work closely with people who he feels understand and capture the spirit of the project. He prefers to develop links with local restaurants, with their food and clientele. “The wine project has been very interesting in the sense that I am trying to make wine but at the same time the wine is making me.” Without a Palestinian wine industry, or the infrastructure for it, the future is uncertain, but Sari is enthusiastic. The challenge now is to focus on the quality of the wines and to let the project continue organically. “Every year has it's own story and it's own merits. We try to stay in that spirit.”

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ISIS, a global franchise
October 19th, 2017, 07:27 PM

What do a Somalia truck, a Filipino city, and a Niger start-up have in common?

Explosion site near Safari hotel in Mogadishu, in which more than 300 people were killed on 14th October 2017. Faisal Isse/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images. All rights reserved.The war against ISIS in Raqqa is nearing its end. But in all likelihood, the group will transform itself into an insurgent force, thus reclaiming the status it had until 2013. The four-year caliphate will then be propagandised, in two ways: as an example of what can be achieved against the formidable power of the world’s strongest military coalition, and as a symbol of what will surely come again. Even if this is wishful thinking from ISIS, it is worth reflecting on current developments in three other regions which point to the evolving nature of this new era of irregular war: the Philippines, Somalia, and Niger.

Manila: elusive victory

The military forces of Rodrigo Duterte's government are reportedly close to retaking Marawi, on the southern island of Mindanao. The city was overrun in May by paramilitary groups allied to ISIS. The expected brief operation turned into a five-month siege in which more than 1,000 people, including many civilians, may have died. Thousands more have left the city, large parts of which have been destroyed.   

Two aspects of the Marawi operation have long-term implications. The first is that dislodging the determined and well-organised insurgents required the extensive use of air-power and artillery. This repeats the experience of Ramadi, western Mosul and most recently Raqqa. Much is made of the use of precision-guided weapons; but over three decades, Islamist paramilitary movements have gained combat experience against such tactics. As a result, to defeat these movements now means wrecking cities (see "ISIS: a war unwon", 14 September 2017).

The second aspect is that events in the southern Philippines reverberate across south-east Asia, where ISIS and similar groups are proselytising among sympathetic communities. The decision of Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines to establish a programme of joint maritime-reconnaissance patrols over the Sulu Sea is one acknowledgment of a growing concern. The patrols will initially be monthly, carried out in rotation, alongside coordination of more frequent national patrols. Defense News reports:

“The trilateral maritime and air patrols were initiated in response to fears that the Islamic State group will use the Sulu Sea to move fighters between the three countries, which all have coastlines along the Sulu Sea. ISIS-linked militants had seized the southern Philippine city of Marawi in late May, triggering a counteroffensive from the army to take back the city, which continues to this day”.

Mogadishu: high tension

The huge truck-bomb attack in central Mogadishu on 14 October, which devastated several acres of the city, was almost certainly an al-Shabaab operation. The updated death-toll of 329 is likely to rise, and many hundreds of people were injured. The vehicle appears to have been heading for a government ministry when it was halted at a roadblock. Its explosion also set off a fuel-tanker, adding further to the carnage. There is some evidence that a second truck-bomb was intercepted on route to a different target. If it had exploded, this might have been the largest single paramilitary attack since 9/11.

There is some evidence that a second truck-bomb was intercepted on route to a different target. If it had exploded, this might have been the largest single paramilitary attack since 9/11.

The attack follows military pressure from Somalia's newly elected president, Mohamed Abdullah Mohamed, who is supported by United States forces. Al-Shabaab, which has links with al-Qaida, has been fighting successive governments, a multinational African Union force and US units for a decade. It has lost territory but still represents a major threat to the government, and this incident suggests an increase in its capabilities.

Several hundred US special forces and army personnel are deployed in the country, and American drones repeatedly target al-Shabaab. A decision by Trump means the Pentagon's rules of engagement are being loosened. What happened in Mogadishu may be the prelude to approve increased levels of force. 

Niger: start-up war

If the Philippines' conflict is low-profile in the western media, and Somalia's is only covered after major events, Niger's has been almost invisible. That may change after the killing of four US special-forces personnel in a remote part of the country on 4 October, by a militant group reportedly new to the area. The survivors were eventually rescued by French aircraft from a base in Mali around 500 kilometres away.

The incident throws light on the United States's fluid set of military operations across much of the Sahel, which includes contributions by France and Britain as well as other contingents. In the case of the "quiet war" in Niger, a rare detailed assessment by the Guardian's Jason Burke says the group may have been acting on its own initiative with little back-up. Such evolving autonomy has been matched by the US military's own tactical shift. Burke quotes a former special-forces officer:

“Since Trump took power, US forces deployed around the world have had a lot more room to manoeuvre. Decisions about when and what to engage have been devolved right down to unit level. Any soldier knows that if you give guys on the ground more independence, then they will be that much more aggressive and will take more risks.”

Pentagon: off the leash

The notion that the latest, Trumpian iteration of the sixteen-year “war on terror” is easing following ISIS’s reversals in Iraq and Syria is tempting. But in light of the above, three things counter it.

First, much more is happening in the military sphere than is commonly reported. Thus, any idea that Trump has embarked on security "isolationism" is nonsense: campaign rhetoric and experience in office are proving to be two very different maters. Second, the transition from “boots on the ground” to “shadow wars” continues. Third, there is a particular contrast between Trump's and Obama's administration, as follows.

During the latter's eight-year period, Obama certainly oversaw major changes, especially towards the use of drones (including targeted assassination). That was controversial for many people who may have approved of many of his other policies. But whatever one’s views of this element, his White House team kept tight control over what was done by the military in the administration’s name.  

That has changed under Trump. Now, the Pentagon has much more freedom of movement and far less need to get approval from above. It is one more reason why escalation of US military actions around the world is likely to continue. Many of those actions will be more vigorous and violent. They will also be largely unreported. All this is part of what Trump sees as his historic task of making America great again.

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Why does the UK Data Protection Bill exempt the ‘risk profiling’ industry?
October 19th, 2017, 07:27 PM

Anyone trying to open a bank account or send money overseas must undergo extensive risk assessment by private data-brokers, which amass non-credible data and falsely blacklist the wrong people on a speculative basis.

Flickr/Al Ibrahim. CC BY-SA 2.0.The EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is one of the most important pieces of human rights and consumer protection legislation of the 21st century. It extends the rights we have as citizens and overhauls a framework developed in the 1990s that governs the way states and corporations can collect and use information about us. The GDPR also allows the free movement of personal data across the EU and the government’s decision to seek to implement the measure in full, regardless of the Brexit negotiations, is a mark of its importance.

However, the bill transposing the GDPR into UK law is complex and labyrinthine. As the GDPR must be applied by May next year, the government has set a tight legislative timetable for its passage, and the bill has already had its second reading in the Lords.

Yet to be raised is the significance of the exemptions set out in Schedule 2 to the Bill, which, as drafted, would potentially remove entire industries dedicated to vetting, profiling and blacklisting private individuals from the reach of the law. Whether intentional or not, the language it contains means that private companies that vet people on behalf of banks, employers and landlords could claim exemption.

Those actors who the bill proposes to exempt do not simply act on a ‘case-by-case’ basis; instead they compile large, pre-emptive and often highly speculative databases that result in de facto blacklisting.

The scope of the exemptions is striking, but one particular and apparently deliberate application stands out: vetting in the financial sector. Under UK and EU law, anyone trying to open a bank account, send money overseas or enter into various financial transactions must undergo an increasingly extensive risk assessment in accordance with anti-money laundering and counterterrorism conventions. These checks are now frequently outsourced to private companies who have created vast databases containing the names and profiles of individuals and organisations who might pose such a risk. One of the market leaders is World-Check, a UK based data-broker owned by Thomson-Reuters that has now amassed more than 3 million such records, and featured regularly on the pages of Vice (see here, here and here).

Over the past few years, our work has highlighted both the lack of credibility in the data giving rise to some of these profiles and the adverse implications that being listed as a financial crime or terrorism ‘risk’ by companies like World-Check can have. Not only could you be refused financial services, you could be passed over for a job, or denied a visa, because employers and authorities also subscribe to these databases in large numbers.

We have represented dozens of individuals and organisations who suffered devastating consequences as a result of being falsely identified as posing a terrorism risk. We believe these cases represent the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

Under the exemption provisions in schedule 2 of the current bill, World-Check and its numerous competitors would ostensibly be exempt from the core data protection provisions that apply to other data controllers. They would be under no obligation to inform you that they hold your data – or consider you a crime risk – and would be free to share it across the world. You would have no right to access your records, object to the processing, or seek any form of redress in the event that the data they hold is false, inaccurate or misleading.

World-Check and its numerous competitors would ostensibly be exempt from the core data protection provisions that apply to other data controllers.

Crucially, it is only through individuals exercising these rights under the existing UK data protection framework that legal accountability has begun to be possible. We are concerned that these fundamental rights may fall by the wayside, particularly on such tight timeframe for legislative scrutiny.

Also included in the Schedule 2 exemptions are profiling related to the provision of banking, insurance, investment or other financial services; to the health, safety and welfare of persons at work; to the maintenance of effective immigration control; and to the protection of charities or community interest companies against misconduct or mismanagement.

This means that as long as they can claim a vague, undefined, ‘public interest’ justification, credit reference agencies, employment agencies, letting agents, companies that profile charities and their staff, and private companies involved in the enforcement of immigration control could all seek to rely on these exemptions in the future – where none exist at present. We are unlikely to know whether those public interest justifications are validly applied unless they are challenged. Yet without the right to know what data is being processed, will such a challenge even be possible?

What should concern us most is that those actors who the bill proposes to exempt do not simply act on a ‘case-by-case’ basis; instead they compile large, pre-emptive and often highly speculative databases that result in de facto blacklisting. The Consulting Association scandal, the Equifax hack and today’s news about World-Check profiling trade unionists and animal rights activists demonstrate why the proposed exemptions are of such concern.  

Back in 2011, lobbyists employed by World-Check had pushed for the inclusion of similar provisions in the EU proposals for the GDPR. Their efforts received short shrift from EU legislators. Last week in the Lords we were told that

“offerings such as World-Check [play] a key role in Europe and globally in helping many private sector firms and public authorities identify potential risks [and] will be needing a number of clarifications in the Bill so that it will be able to continue to provide its important services”

We should not be fooled. The only clarifications we need are to schedule 2, to ensure that the likes of World-Check have to respect the rule of law like everyone else.

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How did Arron Banks afford Brexit?
October 19th, 2017, 07:27 PM

The self-styled ‘bad boy’ who bankrolled the Leave campaign appears to have exaggerated his wealth. So how did he pay for his Brexit spree?

lead Arron Banks in 2014, when he pledged £1million to the UK Independence Party. Ben Birchall/PA Images. All rights reserved.

In September 2013, the man who bought Brexit – Arron Banks – was in trouble. 

For the past two years, financial regulators in Gibraltar had been scrutinising his insurance under-writer, Southern Rock. They had discovered it was keeping reserves far below what was needed.

This was a serious problem. Banks claimed he had already provided £40 million to plug the hole. He also told the regulator he would step down as a director, but has since been required to find an eye-watering £60 million in extra funding. 

A year later, these financial worries seem to have completely evaporated. Banks had begun buying diamond mines, investing millions into chemical companies and wealth management firms, setting up loss-making political consultancies, and most famous of all – funding the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). 

One question remains though. If Banks was in such a tight spot in September 2013, how did he manage to be so generous the following year?

Over the past four months, openDemocracy has conducted an in-depth review of Bank's business dealings since he first started out in business in the early 2000s. As well as his own public statements about the sources of his wealth, we have spoken to his former employers, and obtained and reviewed court documents. There are of course a number of perfectly innocent ways that Banks could have obtained the extra funds, but given Banks’ significance to British politics, what have found so far is extremely troubling. 

“Quite good at persuading people to buy things they didn’t want to buy”

Banks had started out selling vacuum cleaner appliances door to door in Basingstoke in the late 1980s. “I was quite good at persuading people to buy things they didn’t want to buy,” he told the New Statesman in October 2016. He also briefly worked as an estate agent, and ran a failed bid to become a Conservative councillor. He married young and was soon the father of two daughters. 

After leaving school with few qualifications, he had eventually found himself in a junior position in the Lloyds' insurance market. This is where Banks gained his first exposure to the industry, where syndicates of insurers spread risks between themselves and traded financial assets to cover their positions. Banks spent seven years at Lloyds', working his way into a junior underwriting position before he moved to Bristol, following a split from his first wife.

If Banks was in such a tight spot in September 2013, how did he manage to be so generous the following year?

It is here the cracks in Banks’ biography start to appear. Banks has claimed he was promoted and rose to lead his own sales team at Norwich Union – now part of Aviva. However, Aviva say they have no record of Banks ever having worked for Norwich Union. He has also claimed to have worked for Warren Buffett around this point in his career. We asked Buffett about this. He replied. "I have no memory of ever hearing of the name Arron Fraser Andrew Banks. He certainly never worked for me." Further checks across the Berkshire Hathaway group, made by Buffett’s office, yielded no evidence he had ever worked for any of his subsidiaries. In a letter delivered by his lawyers, Banks declined to comment on either of these points. 

In 1998, Banks got taken on by a tiny broker focussed on motorcycle insurance run from offices above a shop in the sleepy village of Thornbury. He was granted a 20% shareholding in the fledgling business. In November 2000, he resigned as a director of the firm, and two months later, sold his shares for £251,000. 

Shortly afterwards, Banks met the woman who was to become his second wife, a Portsmouth-based Russian called Ekaterina Paderina. According to the Sunday Times, Paderina’s former husband had been interviewed twice by Special Branch because they suspected her of working for the Russian government. Ekaterina moved to join Banks in Bristol but stayed on the electoral roll in Portsmouth until 2008, still registered to a council flat overlooking the naval base. When Portsmouth Council found out she should not have been entitled to the flat because she was living with Banks, council officials reportedly demanded a cash payment be made by the Banks family in recompense.

Banks and Ekaterina wed in 2001 and in the autumn of that year Banks set up his own insurance company, with financial backing from his relatives and from the Northern Irish insurance tycoons, Leslie Hughes and James Bowers. The business focused on motorcycle, motorhome and van insurance.

The new businesses were also the first he formed with two men who would become his long term business partners, the Australian solicitor Jim Gannon and the accountant Paul Chase-Gardener.

In June this year, the Financial Times published their own analysis of the overlapping businesses of Arron Banks, the “Bad Boy of Brexit”, and its editor Lionel Barber quite reasonably asked on Twitter: “but how rich is he really?”. 

Banks fumed in a tweeted reply: “I founded and sold a listed insurance business for £145m! Not even mentioned – no FT, fake news.” That listed company was Brightside.

The amounts Banks has given to British politics are extraordinary.

The amount Banks made from the sale of Brightside is crucial to understanding whether Banks is really as rich as he says he is.

Company documents we have reviewed show Banks made £22 million from share sales, £1.2 million in salary from serving as the group’s CEO and Chief Insurance Officer, and just £270,000 in dividends.

So when Banks had told the Financial Times in 2015 he was worth £100 million, where did this valuation come from? More importantly, if he only made £22 million from Brightside share sales – where did all this cash for Brexit campaigning come from? 

The amounts Banks has given to British politics are extraordinary. A total of £6 million in loans, still outstanding, was made to Leave.EU. He famously pledged £1 million to UKIP in 2014, at a time when the organisation’s finances were stalling. Without Banks, the political potency of the party may well have fizzled out. In 2016, his company, Better for the Country Ltd, also bought almost £2 million in pro-Brexit merchandise and donated it to Grassroots Out, another Brexit campaigning group. In total, his political contributions have come to nearly £10 million. 

That would mean he might have given away almost half of what he made from Brightside to political causes. That seems amazingly generous.

“Serious and widespread failings” 

As his own tweeted rebuke of the Financial Times suggested, central to the Banks mythology is the sale of Brightside Plc. in 2014. The buyer was private equity firm Anacap. Although he tweeted that the sale had been for £145 million, it was reported at the time as being worth only £127 million. How much, though, did Banks get? 

The story starts in 2001 when Banks set up Group Direct, which was the principal operating company for his insurance brand Commercial Vehicle Direct. Group Direct made losses of over £400,000 in its first two years of operation, before finally turning a profit in 2004. 

By 2006, overall debts had increased to £34 million, but the group appeared to be growing strongly, with turnover of £20 million. Banks began to aim for a public listing of the group. The same year, he became a director of Brightside, at that time a recently formed debt management service aimed at the personal insolvency market. Crucially, Brightside was already listed on AIM, the junior stock exchange.

In June 2008, the original Banks insurance group took part in a transaction known as a ‘reverse takeover’, in which a listed company takes over a much larger unlisted company. This allows the unlisted company to obtain a listing on a stock exchange quicker than usual. Under the terms of the deal, Brightside duly bought the three companies which constituted Group Direct. The £50 million valuation put on these companies seemed high but the deal did not boost Banks’ bank account – as the consideration for the deal was in Brightside shares. 

Then, in 2008, the financial crisis hit. As with many businesses, Banks’ lending facilities came under pressure. But Banks was still able to raise money from Brightside’s shareholders: in 2009 and 2010 the company raised a total of £29 million, attracting investors with its eye-catching growth rate and ambitious plans to acquire other companies. 

Two of the assets Banks’ firm acquired were the little-known insurance brands "E-Car" and "E-Bike." The price was an initial £15.5 million, with £19.1 million deferred, based on future profitability.

In fact, both brands were owned by Southern Rock Insurance, a company of which Banks, Gannon and Chase-Gardener collectively owned 72%.

Two other companies, "E Systems" and “E Development” were bought for a further £17 million in 2011. At the time E Development had net liabilities of over £500,000. E-systems had been set up just months before the sale by Banks, and Brightside IT director Simon Jones. It had no other customers than Brightside.

These acquisitions seem hard to justify, but in documents sent to Brightside shareholders notifying them of the proposed purchase of E-Systems and E-Development, the company stated that they had received undertakings from Banks and his fellow directors that the funds would be used to shore up the firms under-writer, Southern Rock, and thus allow Brightside to continue trading. And this is, indeed, what happened.

However, within the year Banks was fired from his role at Brightside. He famously recounted how he punched his partner and friend, Jim Gannon, in the face, when the solicitor broke the news to him. 

Banks remained a shareholder in Brightside and in 2013, sold a tranche of his shares for £6 million to a competitor, Markerstudy, which was said to be contemplating a bid for the company. After conducting due diligence and negotiating with the Brightside board however, Markerstudy declined to make a full bid, with their CEO describing Brightside as “over-valued”.

In 2014, the investment firm Anacap arrived and thought differently. They bought Brightside in its entirety, paying £127 million to take control. 

Anacap have since alleged in court that the new management team discovered “serious and widespread failings” throughout the company, many dating from Banks’ time as CEO and Chief Insurance Officer. All of the purchases of Banks' companies (E-Car, E-Bike, E-Systems, and E Development) were confirmed to be worth far less than had been paid for them. The software supplied by E-systems was said to barely function and the Brightside website was hacked and remained inoperable for over a month. Court documents obtained during our investigation allege widespread failings, including an incendiary allegation that the company was “in breach of its banking covenants and insolvent on a net asset basis.” There were also, according to the same documents, no correct systems in place for the handling of client funds. 

All of the purchases of Banks' companies were confirmed to be worth far less than had been paid for them.

For an insurance company, this was a particularly serious problem. Anacap replaced several senior staff and board members including the CFO, Paul Chase-Gardener. Over £35 million of value had to be written off from the Brightside balance sheet, in part because Anacap deemed the E-Car, E-Bike, E-Systems and E-Development purchases had been grossly overvalued. Within a year of the takeover, the new owners also had to plough in an additional £40 million to prevent the business from going bust. Further large write downs were made in 2015. Court documents show that £12 million had to be inserted in a failed attempt to repair the IT system alone, with numerous other consultants brought in to clear up the problems the new owners found.

openDemocracy asked Banks to comment on Anacap’s view of the value of these businesses. He declined to reply to our specific questions, instead sending a copy of a letter which his lawyers wrote to the BBC in May of this year. In this letter his lawyers say: “The offer from Anacap to acquire Brightside was announced in May 2014 nearly two years after Mr Banks had left the company.” 

In 2016, Anacap began legal action against Chase-Gardener and Brightside’s auditors for failures to adequately manage the business and present accurate financial reports. With the assistance of his brother Jonathan, a Hong Kong based lawyer, Banks was able to settle out of court in May 2015. Privately, many of the new senior management team brought in by Anacap wanted to pursue the case against him. As part of their settlement with Banks, Anacap were able to extricate Brightside from contracts with other Banks controlled businesses, such as Southern Rock, which they described as “onerous.” The case against Chase-Gardener is still being pursued in the High Court, where Anacap are seeking £20 million in damages from him. The auditors, BDO (now part of RMS Tenon), are facing a claim of around £50 million. 

Southern Rock in difficulty

Arron Banks with former UKIP leader Nigel Farage. Ben Birchall/PA Images. All rights reserved.While at Brightside, Banks had been able to partly re-finance the ailing Southern Rock, through buying E-Cars, E-Systems, E-Development and E-Bike from the Gibraltar based group. But the Gibraltar Financial Services Commission had also passed their report to the Financial Conduct Authority in London for review.

The authorities in London concurred with the Gibraltar regulator’s findings, that Southern Rock had been trading without sufficient reserves, and in 2013 Banks voluntarily recused himself from the FCA register. He stepped down as a director of Southern Rock in 2014. Both regulators had effectively barred him from holding a position of control within an insurance business. 

He also had to balance the books. While the funds from the sale of E-systems and E-development were passed to Southern Rock, this still left the business short of the capital needed to fund its loss reserves as the company struggled with high claim levels and a challenging market. He told Private Eye he had agreed to find £40 million to re-capitalise the business. Banks claims that Southern Rock is now a profitable company. The letter from his lawyers to the BBC, forwarded to openDemocracy, says “Southern Rock Insurance Company Limited recorded a profit of £42 million in its latest set of filed accounts (2015).”

Banks frequently boasts about running an insurance business. The reality is that he is not permitted, at the moment, to run his own insurance company.

In fact, the accounts show an underlying loss of £27.9 million on its underwriting and insurance activities in 2015 – and while the company did report a profit of £41.5 million overall, this came only after selling the rights to the "ancillary income" on its motor insurance policies for £17.5 million, and the rights to the "finance arrangement fees” for £60.2 million to another company owned by Banks, Isle of Man-based ICS Risk Solutions. Ancillary income is an umbrella term for any money an insurance company makes on top of ordinary under-writing risks, for example from instalments or administration charges. 

Given Southern Rock had only written 197,000 motor insurance policies at this time, paying nearly £78m for these rights seemed a high valuation. These assets had also not been recorded in the Southern Rock balance sheet prior to their sale, and resulted in the company booking a large capital gain. Crucially, it was the value of these sales that enabled Southern Rock to meet its obligation under the solvency regulations, and post a profit in its accounts for this year.

Whether Southern Rock will be able to do the same next year, which will likely be required under the terms of capital restructuring deal mandated by the regulators, is unclear. Banks strongly contests the assertion that Southern Rock is in difficulty, pointing out that the Gibraltar regulator, Southern Rock’s independent auditors and the London-based Financial Conduct Authority have approved the arrangements, and that all the payments to date from ICS Risk Solution, which Southern Rock relies on to remain solvent, have been made on time and in full. The letter from his lawyers states: “The future solvency of [Southern Rock] is not dependent on any particular future transaction.”

As for the regulators’ demand that Banks “voluntarily” recuse himself, he has abided by the ruling, but appointed his Hong Kong-based brother in his stead. His name and signature still appeared on a 2014 annual report filed at Companies House, where he was named as a “director.” “This mistake arose from an administrative error,” he told us in a written statement, “which was corrected as soon as it was detected. Once the error was noted, the accounts were withdrawn and resubmitted to Companies House.” He continues to control Southern Rock and Eldon Insurance, owner of the GoSkippy brand, through his holding company ICS Risk Solutions. 

Banks frequently boasts about running an insurance business. The reality is that he is not permitted, at the moment, to run his own insurance company. A letter from the Financial Conduct Authority concerning the investigation into his insurance activities, dated 17th July 2017, states that “Mr Banks does not have FCA approval to carry out an operational executive role at Eldon Insurance Services Ltd,” his new firm.

Banks’s Isle of Man-based ICS Risk Solutions is a curious organisation too. In theory, this is the ultimate holding company for Banks’s insurance empire. Yet according to a source with good knowledge of its finances, ICS Risk Solutions has just £1 million in assets, and still owes £60.2 million in monthly instalments, to Southern Rock. These payments are expected to continue until December 2020. A letter from Banks’ lawyers confirming this also said “there is no reason to doubt that the remaining outstanding amounts will be paid in full and on time,” and that Southern Rock is required to report monthly to the Gibraltar authorities, “to confirm the payment of each monthly instalment,” and so “any failure to pay would be immediately apparent.”

Banks’ present financial status is then somewhat unclear, and sometimes dependent on buying assets from one company, in order to shore up another company he himself holds a stake in. But it does seem clear that his claimed worth of £100 million is hard to justify. In the letter sent to openDemocracy, Banks claimed his worth could be even higher than £100 million, saying that he would “broadly agree” with an analysis made by the Sunday Times Rich Times list that his net worth could instead be some £250 million. When asked to explain how he accounts for all this extra wealth, Banks declined to comment.

A Lazarus-like recovery

Banks’s finances seem to have had a remarkable recovery in early 2014. But based on a full review of all the publicly available information about his companies, it is unclear where this money could have come from. 

He first had to settle a tax bill with HMRC for £1.86 million, a cheque which he subsequently sent to the Guardian newspaper to prove he was paying his taxes.

In April 2014, the MailOnline reported how Banks had raised eyebrows when he bought £2 million of shares in an AIM-listed chemicals company called Iofina – a sector he had shown no prior interest in. The company produces iodine in an industrial process which takes place alongside fracking. It had never turned a profit and swallowed up large amounts of capital as chemical prices shrank due to reduced demand. Banks’s investment is nursing a huge loss.

In June 2014, he set up Chartwell Political, a PR company which would go on to work on the Leave campaign with Jim Pryor, a former Tory party spokesman who had also worked on FW deClerk’s campaign against Nelson Mandela in South Africa and former Sunday Mirror editor Bridget Rowe, a close friend of Nigel Farage. The company would rack up losses of over £300,000 by June 2015.

Banks would go on to spend a total of £9.6 million of his personal fortune funding the organisations which arguably clinched Brexit. This accounted then for half of his lifetime earnings.

The next month, in July 2014, Banks bought more shares in STM Group plc, which offers "wealth preservation solutions," and specialises in setting up offshore trusts and companies. He bought over £600,000 worth of shares – on top of an existing shareholding. This brought his total share value up to £1.5 million. 

By September 2014, Banks had also bought a loss-making, family-run jewellery shop in Bristol, for an undisclosed sum, and lent the firm some £200,000, and by February 2015 he was the owner of four diamond mines in South Africa.

The diamond market had fallen sharply since the financial crash and big players, such as de Beers, began to withdraw from older mines picked clean and requiring huge investment to return to profitable production. Many of these mines had changed hands several times in the years since. One of the mines Banks picked up had collapsed in value from a reported £12 million valuation in 2005, to as little as £200,000 by the time Banks bought.

One of the four mines also remains closed, according to Banks’s website, another contains just “tailings,” meaning there little more than piles of waste to scrabble through. What exactly motivated Banks to buy these mines remains unclear.

Crucially, October 2014 also marked the time Banks began his extraordinarily lavish political spending campaign, with his first £1 million pledge to the United Kingdom Independence Party. Interestingly, Banks never came fully good on this promise – dripping in just over £400,000 in cash instalments over the next six months. Nevertheless, Banks’s 2014 spending alone, or what can be seen of it from publicly available records, came to an estimated £5 million. This was a very large sum given the pressure he was under from the Gibraltar regulators. We also estimate it to be just under a quarter of his total gross earnings of £22m – from his various businesses – since 2001. 

Nor did his political spending slow down. Banks would go on to spend a total of £9.6 million of his personal fortune funding the organisations which arguably clinched Brexit: Leave.EU, UKIP and Better for the Country Ltd (set up by STM Fidecs). This accounted then for half of his lifetime earnings – an amazingly generous amount. 

One of his most lavish donations was some £2 million to Grassroots Out via Better for the Country Ltd, which was categorised to the Electoral Commission as “non-cash” – a designation usually reserved for the provision of office space or in-kind services to political parties. In reality, even this “non-cash” donation cost Banks significant amounts of hard cash. In a letter to openDemocracy, Banks’ lawyers say Better for the Country bought “merchandise, leaflets, billboards, pens, badges and other paraphernalia,” before donating all of this to Grassroots Out. 

In early 2016, he used Better for the Country to make cash donations to Trade Unionists Against the European Union, and another pro-Brexit group called Veterans for Britain. Banks also provided £100,000 to Martin Durkin, a climate change sceptic and producer of “Brexit: The Movie,” a controversial online documentary produced to support the campaign. The sum was equivalent to a third of the documentary’s reported budget.

These donations were all the more remarkable because his new insurance company, founded after Banks left Brightside, was now also requiring large amounts of investment, according to industry experts. Eldon Insurance achieved a profit of just £281,000 on a turnover of £33.6 million in 2015. 

Earlier this year, Banks attempted a £200m fundraising effort for Eldon, according to the Times, but was unable to raise the finance from City investors and abandoned the listing. Profits fell further in 2016, to just £165,000. Earlier this month, Banks announced he was attempting a second public listing, and aiming for a valuation of some £250m. He claims to be forecasting a dramatic increase in profits – anywhere between £25m and £28m for the year. To support this claim he provided the Mail on Sunday with unpublished figures showing the profits for the first six months of the year. We asked for a copy of these, but his spokesperson did not respond.

To drum up business, Banks’ insurance brand GoSkippy now advertises heavily on Leave.EU's websites, social media and email marketing. However there are numerous reports of poor customer service, onerous terms obfuscated in confusing small-print and administrative failings by the company, some of which have left motorists unaware that they were no longer insured. In response, Banks commented that “Eldon works very hard on complaints and actively reviews its processes off the back of both internal and external audits of both customer service quality and compliance with regularity requirements,” saying their main brand GoSkippy had complaint levels below 3 per 1000 customers, and that a maximum of 4 per 1000 was the industry guideline.

Southern Rock, despite its difficulties both before and after the regulators’ intervention, has until very recently been the principal under-writer of both Banks’ Go Skippy brand and the Debenhams Insurance brand. The letter from Banks’ lawyers points out that the recapitalisation plan designed to allow Southern Rock to meet its solvency obligations were approved by the regulator and the company’s independent auditors and that they have a perfect record of delivering their monthly payments to date on time and in full. 

It is clear, however, that the company only posted a profit last year by relying on the £60 million generated from selling rights to other companies controlled by Banks. To continue to trade on a solvent basis in the years to come, Southern Rock will need to have a profitable underlying business, or have additional cash injections.

And Banks’ own Eldon Insurance, which owns GoSkippy, now plans to move its business from Southern Rock – instead setting up a “managing general agent” called Somerset Bridge, which will be arranging under-writing services from a different Gibraltarian under-writer, backed by a Bermuda-based reinsurer.

The fabric of our democracy 

Interestingly, our review of Banks' business empire also shows a huge cross-over between the key figures in Leave.EU and Banks’ businesses. Leave.EU’s Chief Executive Officer Liz Bilney serves on the board of numerous Banks’ companies.

Leave.EU’s director of communications, the Belizean diplomat and close associate of Lord Ashcroft, Andy Wigmore, was appointed to the board of Southern Rock in 2014 and joined Eldon Insurance in December 2015, despite having no background within the industry. 

Crucial to maintaining the fabric of democracy in Britain is understanding where large donors have made their money, and just as importantly, how.

Banks holds a substantial share in Manx Financial, an Isle of Man banking group controlled by Leave.EU’s early backer and co-founder Jim Mellon. The meagre profits of Manx Financial have not yet provided dividends to its investors – including Banks. 

Crucial to maintaining the fabric of democracy in Britain is understanding where large donors have made their money, and just as importantly, how.

Our review of the publicly available records for Banks’ business empire, and his own public statements, has revealed a patchwork of legal disputes, regulator interventions, and poor corporate governance. Two of Banks’ claimed previous employers have denied he ever worked for them. The value of his businesses are materially lower than Banks’ own inflated boasts and, while still a wealthy man, was he wealthy enough to give so much to the Brexit campaign, without some other undisclosed source of income?

How Banks could afford to give so lavishly remains a mystery. There is no doubt that Banks did more than most to make Brexit happen – the question is, how could he afford it?

This is day four of openDemoracy's #BrexitDarkMoney series. See our reasons for publishing the series, coverage from day one and day two, and day four.

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Call for submissions: Listening to Libya - Intervention and its aftermath
August 27th, 2017, 07:27 PM

NAWA seeks to provide a deeper look into Libya by inviting Libyan writers, and readers to submit their thoughts, articles and pitches but also their reading recommendations to us.

Explosive Remnants of War in post revolution Libya. Picture by United Nations Development Programme / Flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) Some rights reserved. During the month of September, North Africa West Asia (NAWA) is calling for submissions and pitches on Libya.

Since the beginning of the Libyan uprising and especially with the military intervention that led to the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, Libya has become a ghost haunting any discussion of internationalism in Syria, and as primary evidence of western conspiracies for regime change. While much is discussed about Syria, very little has been heard from Libyans and Libya outside of the simplified dichotomy that we see in mainstream media. While indeed part of the story of Syria is located in Libya, the latter’s story is crucial to be told for its own sake.  

NAWA seeks to provide a deeper look into Libya by inviting Libyan writers, and readers to submit their thoughts, articles and pitches but also their reading recommendations to us. Though many foreigners have studied and written on Libya, we aim to bolster the voice and experience of Libyans for this series.

Our focus will be on the call for and the aftermath of intervention. How has the Libyan uprising altered internationalism and what is happening in Libya in the aftermath of the intervention?

You can submit your pitches or texts (50 to 100 words) and / or reading suggestions to

Country or region: 
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Call for participants: Tunisia, Middle East Forum
August 13th, 2017, 07:27 PM

يبحث موقع openDemocracy عن مشاركين لمنتدى الشرق الأوسط لتونس.

openDemocracy is looking for participants for the Middle East Forum for Tunisia.

The Middle East Forum is a project that encourages emerging young voices to express themselves, exchange views and be heard. The project provides participants with a series of workshops to develop writing skills, media presence, and digital security as well as a free discussion space where they have the capacity to debate constructively. Participants in the forum host speakers, acquire skills, share knowledge, and give feedback to one another.

We are currently looking for 7 participants in or from Tunisia to join the project. If you are interested in participating in this project and developing your journalistic skills read the information below and send in your application.


We expect that each participant will have the opportunity to achieve the following benefits:

  • - Career-related experience
  • - Practical and increased practice-based knowledge of journalistic writing, debate, social media
  • - Training which enhances digital security and the handling of human rights issues
  • - Increased knowledge and experience on how to create an online journalistic presence

Participants will be expected to:

  • - Adhere to policies, procedures, and rules governing professional behavior;
  • - maintain a punctual and reliable working relationship, abiding by the scheduled sessions and number of articles agreed to;
  • - communicate regularly with the facilitator, particularly in situations where the participant may need to adjust the terms of the working relationship (e.g., to reschedule a meeting/session);
  • - respect the opinions expressed and confidentiality of the group;
  • - take the initiative to volunteer for tasks or projects that the participant finds interesting.


In addition to these general expectations, the participant will also be required to meet the following requirements during the program:

  • - Meet a minimum commitment of 12 sessions;
  • - develop a working relationship with the facilitator, such that he or she can adequately serve as a mentor;
  • - actively engage in debate, with a focus on the topics and how the discussions unfold;
  • - actively take notes during each session, to be shared amongst the group;
  • - actively engage and participate in developing an online space for debate;
  • - actively produce a minimum of one article per month, based on the discussions that take place;
  • - understand how to and actively promote your work;
  • - evaluate and monitor your own success in terms of reach;
  • - upon completion of the program, reflect upon and write about your experience during the program.

Who can apply?

You can apply for the position if you fall under any of the following:

  • Between the age of 21 - 30;
  • Are an aspiring journalist or blogger;
  • Possess knowledge in the specific region of the program;
  • Have an excellent command of Arabic and/or English.

How to apply?

  • - Send in a sample piece of 1000-1500 words in Arabic or English of something that interests you - a conversation that took place that struck a chord, an observation from your surroundings, a cultural event, an interesting initiative, your point of view on the politics of the region or why you would like to take part in this program.
  • - Your resume.

Deadline for applicaiton: October 20th.

منتدى الشرق الأوسط هو مشروع يشجّع الأجيال الصاعدة الشابّة على التعبير عن نفسها وتبادل الآراء وإيصال صوتها. يقدّم المشروع للمشاركين سلسلة من ورش العمل لتطوير مهاراتهم في الكتابة والحضور الإعلامي والأمن الرقمي كما يوفّر المشروع فضاء للمناقشات يمنح المشاركين فرصة التحاور بطريقة بنّاءة. يستضيف المشاركون في المنتدى متحدثين ويكتسبون مهارات ويتشاركون المعلومات ويعبّرون عن رأيهم بعمل زملائهم.

نبحث عن 7 مشتركين من تونس للانضمام إلى المشروع. إذا كنت مهتماً بالمشاركة في المشروع وبتطوير مهاراتك الصحفية، تابع القراءة وأرسل طلبك.


سيحظى كلّ مشترك بفرصة اكتساب الأمور التالية: 

-       خبرة مهنية

-       معرفة عملية بالكتابة الصحفية والمناظرات ووسائل التواصل الاجتماعي

-       تدريب يعزّز الإلمام بالأمن الرقمي والتطرّق إلى قضايا حقوق الإنسان

-       إلمام إضافي وخبرة في كيفية تعزيز الحضور الصحفي على الإنترنت

يُتوّقع من المشتركين:

-       احترام السياسات والإجراءات والقواعد الملائمة للسلوك المحترف

-       المحافظة على علاقة عمل دقيقة وموثوقة والالتزام بالجلسات المعيّنة وبعدد المقالات المتفق عليه

-       التواصل بانتظام مع الميسّر، وتحديداً في المواقف التي يحتاج فيها المشترك إلى تعديل شروط علاقة العمل (مثلاً، تغيير موعد الحصة/الاجتماع)

-       احترام السرية والآراء المعبّر عنها ضمن المجموعة

-       أخذ المبادرة للتطوّع لمهمات أو مشاريع يجدها المشترك مثيرة للاهتمام


بالإضافة إلى المتطلبات العامة، يجب أن يلتزم المشترك بالتالي خلال البرنامج:

-       الالتزام بحدّ أدنى من الحصص يساوي 12حصة

-       تطوير علاقة عمل مع الميسّر للعب دور المرشد بشكل صحيح

-       المشاركة بالمناظرات بنشاط والتركيز على المواضيع وكيفية تبلور النقاش

-       تدوين الملاحظات فعلياً خلال كلّ حصة وتشاركها مع المجموعة

-       الانخراط في تطوير فضاء إلكتروني للمناظرات والمشاركة فيه

-       كتابة مقال واحد على الأقلّ في الشهر، استناداً إلى المناقشات التي حصلت

-       فهم كيفية تحسين عملك وتطبيق ذلك

-       تقييم ومراقبة نجاحك استناداً إلى اتساع نطاق تأثيرك

-       التفكير في تجربتك والكتابة عنها لدى إتمام البرنامج

مَن المرشّحون لهذا التدريب؟

يمكنك التقدّم بطلب إذا:

-       كنت بين سنّ 21 و30؛

-       كنت تطمح لتصبح صحفياً أو مدوّناً؛

-       لديك إطّلاع واسع على المنطقة المحددة للبرنامج؛

-       تتكلّم وتكتب العربية و/أو الإنكليزية بطلاقة.

كيف يمكن التقدّم للتدريب؟

أرسِل نصّاً من  1000 – 1500 كلمة باللغة الإنكليزية أو العربية عن موضوع يهمّك، مثلاً حوار أثّر فيك أو مراقبتك لمحيطك أو حدث ثقافي أو مبادرة مثيرة للاهتمام أو وجهة نظرك حول سياسات المنطقة أو سبب اهتمامك بالمشاركة في البرنامج بالاضافة الى سيرتك.

الرجاء إرسال جميع الطلبات والمستندات المرتبطة بها إلى موقع والموعد النهائي للتقديم هو ٢٠ أكتوبر.

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