DEYAN RANKO BRASHICH was born in Belgrade, former Yugoslavia, and is an Op-Ed columnist for Connecticut's Litchfield County Times.  He writes the monthly Letter From America column for Romania’s Scrisul Romanesc, a literary magazine and is the Editor-at-Large for  The Country and Abroad, another literary/art magazine where he authors the Dispatch from Abroad column. He is a frequent contributor to Pecat, the Belgrade, Serbia weekly news magazine, Britić, a magazine published in the United Kingdom, Ekurd Daily, a multinational Kurdish news portal and Passport, a lifestyle quarterly. He resides in New York City and Washington, Connecticut.

 

 

Past Entries
Media
Tuesday
Sep112018

THE BANKS ARE MADE OF MARBLE

The Weavers Carnegie Hall 1963 – "The Banks Are Made of Marble"

PUBLISHED BRITIĆ [UNITED KINGDOM], PEĆAT [SERBIA] AND EKURD DAILY [TURKEY IRAQ SYRIA]

I drove by Carnegie Hall today and remembered the Weavers’ 1963 reunion concert. Back then I was living in shabby poverty, subsidized by the State of New York to the tune of $1,500 a year, for the privilege of attending law school, with tuition a mere $1,200. I was on life’s merry-go-round with a better than even chance of grabbing a golden ring.

That reminded me of one of that night’s songs “The Banks are Made of Marble”, banks that had, according to the song, a guard at every door. I remember the Weavers belting out the words that promised that “we’d own those banks of marble … and we would share those vaults of silver”. That was then, and this is now. That hope is now dead.   

We live in the age of hedge funds, of soaring unpaid, non-dischargeable student loans; the age of obscene credit card interest rates, of stagnant wages and failing health care; the age of minimum wage below the poverty level, of public schools operating on four-day weeks; the age of tax cuts for the rich, of billion dollar tax forgiveness for corporate America; the age of everyman man for himself with the one percenters owning government and the financial institutions made of marble, dollars, yens and euros.

You may recall the other songs on that night’s program, songs of hope, pride and unity: “Roll On, Columbia Roll On”, an ode to the WPA and the future after the Great Depression; “This Land Is Your Land”, an all-inclusive hymn of sharing bounty; “Guantanamera”, a song of peace adapted by Pete Seeger from José Martí’s original for the Cuban Missile Crisis; “Ain’t Gonna Study War No More”, an anti-war protest song sung on the eve of the Vietnam War; and Shel Silverstein’s sly love song to the atom bomb “I’m Standing Outside of Your Shelter”.

There were songs that celebrated African Americans - “Goodnight Irene”, “Rock Island Line” and “When the Saints Go Marching In”; songs of honest labor “Greenland Whale Fisheries”, “A Miner’s Life” and “Train Time”; and just plumb being American songs and ditties, “Old Smoky”, “The Frozen Logger” and “So Long It’s Been Good to Know You”.

Back to that song – the composer Les Rice, a Kingston, New York apple farmer, was a staunch Farmers Union man. He opposed the government’s decree that “parity” be set at 60% allowing monopoly companies to squeeze the farmer both as to cost and price. He refused to be “…sixty percent an American … sixty per cent a man. That’s what parity says I am. That’s the law of the land”. He wrote that song of protest in 1948 and it spread countrywide and even up to Canada. For a time, protest, for that’s what it was, worked.

The musical lexicon of the day reflects the mood of the country. Back in 1963 the mood was optimistic and so was I. In May, 1963 Jack Kennedy was in the White House. America’s infrastructure – the Eisenhower interstate highway system was a-building, a-pace. Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and War on Poverty was yet to come. Education reform, consumer protection and environmental protection were being debated and would soon be passed. Racial divide was being addressed by integration, by force if necessary.

Today’s musical lexicon is incoherent. I read this morning that Eminem’s album Kamikaze is Number 1 on the musical charts. “Kamikaze”, the World War Two Japanese attack by suicide, is an appropriate metaphor for today’s political landscape. The nation is committing suicide in plain sight with Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan and many others, Betsy Devos, Steve Mnuchin, Scott Pruitt, Jeff Sessions – the list goes on – all sharing the blame.

Yet it was Walt Kelly’s wily rascal Pogo, the denizen of the Okefenokee, not the Washington DC Swamp that got the root of our predicament right: “We have met the enemy, and they are us”.  

Wednesday
Aug292018

THE ROUNDHOUSE WHITE HOUSE  

I was having lunch on the patio of the Roundhouse Hotel in Beacon, New York enjoying the air and the nearby waterfall when that old saw “Run to the roundhouse, Nellie, they can’t corner you there” popped to mind. What had prompted that random thought was Donald Trump’s present legal entanglement and dire predicament. How appropriate, how simply frightful, how delightful!

To date, Special Counsel Robert Mueller has notched six guilty pleas and convictions on his prosecutorial gun, with more soon to come. Rumors abound that the Trump Junior, the son and heir, as well as Jared, the son-in-law, may soon join the convicted felons and that others from the Trump orbit will follow. With accusations and indictments coming from all sides the “roundhouse” is an appropriate image.

It’s difficult to corner someone whose reality is evolving, ever changing, never constant. At the outset the White House categorically denied campaign contacts with Russia and Russian interests. Jeff Sessions – our stand-up Attorney General - perjured himself in denying Russian contacts but was forced to recant his false testimony. Michael Flynn in pleading guilty soon followed admitting meetings with Soviet officials. All in all, the press has documented 31 meetings between the Trump presidential campaign and Russian interests. Still another reality will be revealed when Mueller issues his final report or new indictments unsealed.

The reality of “alternate facts”, demonstrable falsehoods existing in a reality where a version of truth is not truth because “truth isn’t truth” turns a White House into a roundhouse where facts have expiration dates, have lifespans that are terminated at will making it difficult to assess responsibility, pin the blame.

Donald Trump has been forced into the roundhouse waiting to be cornered, drawn and quartered. He has three alternatives: he can stay the course and face impeachment by the House, trial by the Senate, and if he survives a senate trial, he still faces indictment and conviction after leaving office; he can tough it out and gamble on not being indicted or impeached, walking away unscathed and innocent; or he can cop a plea, make a deal, resign his office with a promise – much like Richard Nixon – of immunity and pardon for himself and those close and dear, Don Jr. and Jared. I personally see no other.

So, as I sit here finishing my beer I am tweeting: “Run to the roundhouse Donnie and hope Bobbie Mueller can’t corner you there”.  

Thursday
Aug232018

OUR IMPERIAL DEMOCRACIES

President Franklin D. Roosevelt with daughter Anna and wife Eleanor circa 1932

PUBLISHED PEĆAT [SERBIA], BRITIĆ [UNITED KINGDOM] AND EKURD DAILY [TURKEY IRAQ SYRIA]

Democracy, a recent invention, has been proven frail and fragile, susceptible to being hijacked by totalitarian forces. Lest we forget, Hitler’s rise to power was the result of the 1932 elections with the Nazi party dominating the Reichstag with 196 seats. Autocratic power and the Holocaust were but a hop, skip and jump away. Democracy died with a whimper while the masses praised and worshiped a dictator.

Remember, Mussolini came to power with the 1924 Italian general election giving him two-thirds of the seats of Parliament and control of all the levers of government. The fasches of power were bestowed upon him by voters until 1925 when he declared himself “Il Duce” and became a dictator. As for Portugal, Antonio Salazar was Prime Minister under a succession of elected presidents for an unsurpassed 36 years – 1932 to 1968, maintaining power by despotic means.

Presently democracy is at a mutation stage - cancerous change – that can bring on a swift demise. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has moved that country from a struggling democracy to an autocratic state with the rule of law abolished. The imperial presidency is ascendant in Ankara. In Budapest, the far right has just won unexpected political power in the last election. Victor Orban, the Prime Minister has instituted a “soft autocracy combining crony capitalism and far-right rhetoric with a single-party political culture” making Hungary a “democracy in sharp, worrisome decline”. Poland is in a similar state of political gestation.

What is worrisome is that these political changes mirror the words and actions of the current resident of the White House, Donald J. Trump. I won’t repeat the litany of Trump’s political sins except that they mirror those of Hitler, Mussolini, Salazar, Erdogan and Orban. But Donald Trump is not the only one to blame. The Office of the President has been slowly evolving from that of a modest public servant to a that of a pampered, cossetted autocrat with unlimited power unchecked by the legislative branch and only occasionally by the judiciary – the rule of law, decency and accepted norms do not apply.       

I have had a personal ringside view of the changing nature of the Office of President as it morphed from austere public service with little pomp and circumstance to its exalted present omnipotent, unchecked position of power.                                

My first brush with the American Presidency was in 1951 when my father dragged me in attending an anti-communist political rally at the old Madison Square Garden in New York City. My dad and I travelled by subway to Time Square and then walked several blocks to 49th Street and 8th Avenue. We were standing on the sidewalk waiting to get in when a couple of New York City motorcycle cops with flashing lights wheeled up to the front entrance followed by a green, black and white squad car. Then came a black Buick Roadmaster and a utilitarian Chevy sedan. Bouncing out of that Roadmaster came none other than a smiling old Harry S. Truman.

I was within spitting distance of the President of the United States and had I known better I could have gone and shaken his hand as others did, glad handing and patting him on the arm with a couple of Secret Service types close by. Remember, this was just a year after the assassination attempt on his life at Blair House by Puerto Rican nationalists.       

In 1990 I started using the local liquor store around the corner. It was an old line establishment in business since the 1930’s featuring a photograph prominently displayed on one of the walls, a black and white photo of the intersection of 96th & Madison with a small number of people waving at an open touring car. Look closely and you see that it is a smiling Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt driving by. A patrician President yet still one of the common folk accessible to his constituency.

President Richard Nixon, a plebe with pretentions of grandeur, signaled the decadence of democracy by personally designing the White House’s “Palace Guard” uniform – “double-breasted white tunics, starred epaulets, gold piping, draped braid, and high plastic hats decorated with a large White House crest” - truly a uniform to “épater les bourgeois”.

“Times They Are A-Changin”. In the building next door lives a very rich man who has no political compass except the one he uses to make himself even richer. He has hosted campaign fund raisers for both Presidents Bush and Obama and several for Biden, the wannabe president. When he hosted George W, they closed the down 95th Street but by the time Barack’s and Joe’s turn came to troll for campaign contributions the perimeter was expanded – 96th Street as well as Madison and Fifth Avenues were closed down for a time and a white tent erected to protect the President and Vice President from public view as they exited the bullet proof limousines with only the Praetorian Guard in full uniform missing.

Donald Trump’s Presidency has turned exclusivity up a notch. Adjacent to Trump Tower, 56th Street between Madison and Fifth Avenue has been permanently closed to the public. Should the Donald decide to travel to his Bedminster Gold Club by car Fifth Avenue, a major midtown artery is shut down and the Lincoln Tunnel, both inbound and outbound, is reserved for his exclusive use – damn the public, full speed ahead.

Follow these autocratic trends and our Western democracies will soon be just like Putin’s Russian Federation complete with a resplendent Kremlin Honor Guard.

Friday
Aug102018

CYPRUS’ BANKING GNOMES ■ YESTERDAY AND TODAY 

Borka Vucic – CEO Beogradska Banka Cyprus Branch

PUBLISHED PEĆAT [SERBIA], BRITIĆ [UNITED KINGDOM] AND EKURD DAILY [TURKEY IRAQ SYRIA]

Cyprus keeps coming up on my radar screen, year in and year out without fail, just like a bad penny. This week the bad penny was more like millions of them turning up in secret banks accounts in the name of offshore shell companies controlled by Paul Manafort and his side kick, Rick Gates. Many of the accounts where with Bank of Cyprus headquartered in Cyprus’ capital Nicosia – the one that Wilbur Ross, the current US Secretary of Commerce, played tic-tac-toe with Russian oligarchs, that are close to and dear to Vladimir Putin’s heart.

Before rushing to any conclusion take heed of Donald Trump’s warning that “[w]hat you are seeing and what you are reading is not what’s happening” because the news, as reported by the “enemy of the people”, is “fake news” and not to be believed. 

Donald is partially correct - our perception of reality is often controlled by Hollywood. Shady unscrupulous international bankers and money launderers, the Gnomes of Zurich, are portrayed on the silver screen are polished gents sitting in marble Swiss mansions catered to by uniformed flunkies delivering documents on silver trays – see the Jason Bourne, Mission: Impossible and The Thomas Crown Affair movies. Real life is something else – real gnomes are more like Wilbur Ross, bald greedy Elmer Fudd-like geeks ready to swindle you out of any ruble or kopeck still in your pocket.

My introduction to Cyprus’ shadowy world of offshore banking was in 1993 when the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia [Serbia and Montenegro] - all that was left of former Yugoslavia - was placed under a harsh economic United Nations embargo. All commercial transactions were prohibited. All FRY [S&M] assets: companies, inventories, ships, planes, consulates and embassies, anything of value outside the country were seized, frozen. Commercial transactions came to a full stop – credit cards and checks didn’t work but cash was king.

Cash, dollars, pounds, francs and marks poured into Yugoslavia evading sanctions. That cash, duffel bags full, was flown to Cyprus and deposited in offshore shell companies. In a flash, illegal Yugoslav cash was laundered with double-entry bookkeeping making it totally legit. It’s an earlier version of the method used by Manafort and Gates in committing the crimes now being tried before a jury in an Alexandria, Virginia courtroom.  

This money laundering did not take place in a grand Swiss bank, all marble and bronze on Zurich’s Bahnhofstrasse. It was done on the 9th floor of a second rate office building in Nicosia, at the Cyprus branch of Beogradska Banka, former Yugoslavia’s largest bank. There were no teller windows, no loan officers’ desks, no indices of traditional banking, just simple desks and fax machines, with the duffel bags of cash being counted in a windowless room next door. More than a billion dollars was washed and a lot of it stolen through that make-believe bank.

In charge of the Beogradska branch was Borka Vucic, a real-life shriveled gnome of a woman who guarded the operation with a vengeance. She was as mean and as dangerous as a mongoose in heat, just take a gander at her photograph at the start of this article. She had her start in politics with Tito’s Partisans during the Second World War and killing for a just cause never required the cumbersome process of law.

Fortunately, I was just an observer, not a participant. Nor was I an aider or abettor to money laundering and violation of sanctions regulations. Thankfully, I was never in Borka Vucic’s or her henchmen’s cross hairs. Nor did I cross the sanctions prohibitions which would have put the Feds up my ass. So, I write freely about it.    

The mechanics of the scam were simple. Absent close scrutiny the laundered cash became legitimate funds in an account in the name of the shell company. The shell company would direct Beogradska Banka to wire transfer the funds to a supplier of goods or services, say a shipment of gasoline. Once the funds were received the gasoline was smuggled by barge on the Danube to the FRY, with bribes paid to ease the passage. Once in the FRY, the gasoline was sold for hard currencies and the cycle repeated.

The mechanics of this decade old scam remain in place. Today, Manafort and Gates can set up a shell company in Cyprus for a couple of hundred bucks, open a bank account with old Wilbur Ross’s Bank of Cyprus, receive millions of dollars from Ukrainian oligarchs – which in fact they did. Then hide the income from the Internal Revenue Service and enjoy an opulent life style until someone took a closer look landing them on trial before a Judge and jury.     

Which proves, yet again, that “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”.

Friday
Jul272018

SAUVE QUI PEUT – IT’S EVERY MAN FOR HIMSELF

PUBLISHED PEĆAT [SERBIA], BRITIĆ [UNITED KINGDOM] AND EKURD DAILY [TURKEY IRAQ SYRIA]

It appears that the Trump Administration is approaching critical mass and may implode momentarily - tomorrow, next week or in a month’s time. The Trump Administration, a human endeavor, is made up of men and women whose mettle will be tested and who will be judged by their actions or inactions while in office and in a time of crisis. How will they fare in history books yet to be written?

The French are deemed weak and willing to surrender when challenged by adverse events - their precipitous surrender in July, 1940 and the Quisling Vichy Regime that followed have yet to be erased from France’s proud escutcheon. If members of Trump’s cabinet follow the French model you will see every man/woman for himself/herself scrambling to safety forgetting the brave “women and children first” dictum.

The Brits are perceived as a nation of fortitude, of stiff upper lips, of Churchill’s “we shall fight on the beaches” and “blood, toil, tears, and sweat” - never admitting defeat. This perception flies in the face of the fact that Brits will fight to the last Frenchman in defense of their island. Some Cabinet members are sure to adopt this position, let someone else take the heat first and let me just slide by.   

Or perhaps Trump’s toadies will adopt the German “I was just following orders” Nuremberg defense when justifying their time and actions in office. And lest we forget, there are dozens of tried and true defenses, alibis and justifications out there, just waiting to be chosen.

I am sure that Gina Haskel, the CIA Director, will invoke the Nazi defense – she used it justifying her complicity in torture while being confirmed to her current post. Jeff “Beauregard” Sessions, the Attorney General will choose the “Higher Power” defense - he has cautioned us to “obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order.”

General Kelley, the White House Chief of Staff will use the Kellyanne Conway parallel universe “alternative facts” defense where words that were never spoken by Congresswoman Frederica Wilson are used to support a vicious attack on her credibility. Rex Tillerson, the Secretary of State, will downplay his Putin awarded Russian Medal of Friendship while defending his gutting of the Department of State.

I will not venture excuse and defense choices for the likes of Scott ‘thirteen open ethics investigations” Pruitt, Ben “the Pyramids were built to store grain” Carson, Wilbur “NAFTA is an ancient treaty” Ross, Steve “I firmly believe the US has to honor its debt” Mnuchin and Betsy “guns in schools to protect against grizzly bears” DeVos. Their collective intelligence and mine will be sorely tested when they inevitably publish their tell-all memoirs.

A true reckoning of their tenure will be found in the inevitable New York Times obituaries upon their demise.