World in Brief: Shorts

The World Today Published 1 April 2014 Updated 7 December 2018 2 minute READ
Photo: UIG via Getty

Photo: UIG via Getty

Ukraine: Treaty that divides the nation

In his speech on March 18 paving the way for the annexation of Crimea, Vladimir Putin said that the Russian-speaking residents of the peninsula felt they had been handed over to Ukraine ‘like a sack of potatoes’. This happened first when the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, decided in 1954 to transfer Crimea from Russia to the then Ukrainian Soviet Republic. Then in 1991, the residents woke up one day to find themselves citizens of independent Ukraine.

Putin speculated that Khrushchev’s ‘gift’ to Ukraine might have been to atone for the ‘mass repressions’ in the 1930s – known by Ukrainians as holodomor (extermination by hunger) during which up to 7.5 million died of starvation. What he failed to mention was the occasion of the gesture – the 300th anniversary of the Treaty of Pereyaslav of February 18, 1654, an event which bitterly divides Ukrainian nationalists from pro-Russians to this day.

It was then that the Ukrainian Cossack leader, Bohdan Khmelnitsky, swore allegiance to Tsar Alexei I of Russia. As Ukrainians understood it, the oath was intended merely to provide protection for the Ukrainian state from the armies of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth, then a major power.

As it turned out, it marked the first stage of Moscow’s military takeover, leading to the banning of independent institutions in the 18th century and then the prohibition of the Ukrainian language.

For Moscow, and those who view history through a Russian lens, the treaty marked the reunification of the homeland and the springboard for a weak marginal state based in Moscow to become a global power. For Ukrainian nationalists, it was the first example in a long history of Russian bullying and treachery.

Throughout Tsarist and Soviet times, the treaty was celebrated, and Kyiv has a rainbow-shaped Friendship of Nations arch to commemorate it. Ukraine’s post-independence leaders, regarded by Ukrainian nationalists as still having a cringing Soviet mentality towards Moscow, declared February 18 to be a day of national celebration. That is unlikely to last under the new leadership.

Putin’s failure to mention the date shows he sees it as explosive issue which would only inflame passions.

French air: Le Grand Smog

On March 14, air pollution in Paris obscured the Eiffel Tower and authorities restricted cars entering the city. With a level of fine particulates in the air of 110 micrograms per cubic metre, the atmosphere was dirtier than Beijing (89), but not as bad as Shanghai (172). The measures were lifted when a breeze cleared the air.

But how bad was the Paris haze compared with London’s Great Smog of December 1952, when a combination of fog and trapped airborne pollutants blocked out the sun? London’s air was notoriously polluted at the time, with an average level of particulates of around 250 micrograms per cubic meter, similar to modern-day Ulaan Baatar, the capital of Mongolia, or Quetta in Pakistan.

But in December 1952 the levels rose to 4,460. Stephen Mihm, associate professor of history at the University of Georgia, notes that the National Gallery’s air conditioners clogged at 54 times the usual rate, suggesting the level was even higher. At least 4,000 excess deaths were attributed to the Great Smog at the time, though modern research suggests this figure could be much higher.

Investments: The Shanghai gold rush

While investors in many Western markets have been selling gold, Chinese buyers have stepped in, with demand for gold bars, coins and jewellery rising 32 per cent last year. Consumers in China are now buying more gold than India where seemingly irrepressible demand had dominated the global market.

While the two countries now account for more than half of world gold supply, their buying behaviour is quite different.

In India, buying gold and giving it as a gift is a long established tradition – but one which has been restrained by taxes designed to cut the country’s current account deficit.

In China, citizens were banned by law until 2002 from owning gold bars and coins. Since liberalization of the market, buying small gold bars for investment has spread as the middle class has grown – even more so since other investment opportunities appear risky.

The Shanghai stock market is down 10 per cent his year, and 32 per cent over three years, while the country’s property boom appears to have peaked. For China’s savers, worried about provision for old age, gold is an obvious option.

Unlike in India, where the government wants to restrict spending on gold, the Beijing government is actively encouraging its citizens to buy it. One reason could be that China does not trust the US government to preserve the value of the dollar.

The wealth of the future may not be in greenbacks but in yellow metal.