Popular anger in European
capitals a sign of things to come

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

Times Online  Wednesday, 21 January 2009

 FUROR NORMANORUM—Icelanders gather outside the  parliament 
in Reykjavik to vent their wrath against political parasites huddled inside.  

LONDON — 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 yogurt,
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. 

Unrest spreads to Bulgaria and Latvia

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 – where growth has been in double-digit figures for
years anger is bubbling over at official mismanagement. GDP is
expected to contract by 5 percent 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.

World approaching a tipping point

The LSE economist Robert Wade — addressing a protest meeting
in Reykjavik’s cinema — 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.

“It 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.”

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.

Russian riot could be omen

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 hasn’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.