January 21, 2009
World Agenda: riots in Iceland, Latvia and Bulgaria are a sign of things to come
Our third global political column explores the start of an age of rebellion over the financial crisis - beginning in Iceland Icelanders all but stormed their Parliament last night. It was the first session of the chamber after what might appear to be an unusually long Christmas break.
Ordinary islanders were determined to vent their fury at the way that the political class had allowed the country to slip towards bankruptcy. The building was splattered with paint and yoghurt, the crowd yelled and banged pans, fired rockets at the windows and lit a bonfire in front of the main door. Riot police moved in.
Now in the grand sweep of the current crisis, a riot on a piece of volcanic rock in the north Atlantic may not seem to add up to much. But it is a sign of things to come: a new age of rebellion.
The financial meltdown has become part of the real economy and is now beginning to shape real politics. More and more citizens on the edge of the global crisis are taking to the streets. Bulgaria has been gripped this month by its worst riots since 1997 when street power helped to topple a Socialist government. Now Socialists are at the helm again and are having to fend off popular protests about government incompetence and corruption.
In Latvia â€“ where growth has been in double-digit figures for years â€“ anger is bubbling over at official mismanagement. GDP is expected to contract by 5 per cent this year; salaries will be cut; unemployment will rise. Last week, in a country where demonstrators usually just sing and then go home, 10,000 people besieged parliament.
Iceland, Bulgaria, Latvia: these are not natural protest cultures. Something is going amiss.
The LSE economist Robert Wade â€“ addressing a protest meeting in Reykjavikâ€™s cinema â€“ recently warned that the world was approaching a new tipping point. Starting from March-May 2009, we can expect large-scale civil unrest, he said. â€œIt will be caused by the rise of general awareness throughout Europe, America and Asia that hundreds of millions of people in rich and poor countries are experiencing rapidly falling consumption standards; that the crisis is getting worse not better; and that it has escaped the control of public authorities, national and international.â€
Ukraine could be the next to go. The gas pricing deal agreed with Moscow could propel the country towards a serious financial crisis. Russia, too, is looking wobbly. A riot in Vladivostok may have been an omen for things to come. What will happen when the wider economic crisis translates into higher food prices? Or if Gazprom has no choice but to increase domestic gas prices?
Governments have so far managed to deflect attention from their role in the crash, their slipshod monitoring, by declaring themselves to be indispensible to the solution. This may save the skins of politicians in wealthier countries who can credibly and expensively try to prop up banks and sickly industries. But it does not work in countries that are heavily indebted, with bloated and exposed financial sectors. There, the irate crowds are already beginning to demand: why hasnâ€™t a single politician resigned? What has happened to ministerial responsibility? Who will investigate government failure?
Good questions, it seems to me, in these unquiet times.