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.

 

 

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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.

Friday
Jul202018

INVESTIGATE THIS, INVESTIGATE THAT 

“MOUSE” JIM MORIN COURTESY OF MIAMI HERALD“In Helsinki, [President Trump] agreed to ongoing working level dialogue between the two security council staffs. President Trump asked [Ambassador John Bolton] to invite President Putin to Washington …” tweeted Sarah Huckabee Sanders, White House Press Secretary. “Say that again?” “Okay!” “That’s going to be special!” said Dan Coats, Director of National Intelligence, blindsided while live on national TV learning of the invite. Interesting, says I.

That exchange of unvarnished shock and incredulity when taken in context with the throw-them-under-the-bus Trump craven performance in Canada, Brussels, London and Helsinki leads me to the only conclusion that makes sense to me: treason and high crimes and misdemeanors. Let’s investigate that, says I.

“Congratulations America, [you] are now into the second year of [the] single greatest Witch Hunt [of a politician] in American history”, twitted President Donald J. Trump. “The Mueller investigation is ridiculous”, declared Representative Devin Nunes, R-California. “It’s about time to get the damn thing over with”, said Trump defense lawyer Rudolf Giuliani. “Really?”, says I.

On July 17, 2014, Eric Garner, a fat black guy was selling “loosies”, single tax-free cigarettes on a street corner in Staten Island, New York. In broad daylight, in full view of passersby’s, with an iPhone recording the event, five of New York City’s finest tried to arrest him and in doing so put him in a headlock for 15 to 19 seconds, choke holding him and causing his death. The United States Department of Justice and the FBI have been conducting an investigation for four years and, as of this writing, it is not as yet complete.

Some investigations take longer than others. Some because they are complex and far reaching, others because they are impeded at every turn.

On November 22, 1963, John F. Kennedy, the President of the United States riding in a convertible with his wife and another couple in Dallas, Texas was shot and killed by a guy using a mail order, second hand rifle purchased for $12.78. The assassination was in broad daylight, in full view of many spectators lining the motorway and with a camera filming the event. The resulting multi-national investigation interviewed thousands of witnesses, performed hundred forensic tests is still on going with the conclusions still disputed by some.    

Investigations of political scandals with hints of treachery and soupçons of treason are nothing new, nor are they easily and swiftly disposed of. Take France’s Dreyfus Affair which began with a conviction in 1894 and ended with an exoneration and vindication some twelve years later in 1906.

Notorious world class trials that require little investigation such as the “Trials of Major War Criminals before the International Military Tribunal” held in the Palace of Justice, Nuremberg at the end of World War II still took three years to complete – 1946 to 1949. Had investigation been necessary decades would have to be added to the “final solution”.  

Domestically the Iran-contra investigation took 6 years and 8 months to complete. The Bush passport investigation took 3 years. The Clinton Whitewater inquiry dragged on for 6 years and 8 months. The Clinton/Benghazi investigation was conducted by 5 separate Congressional Committees for 10 years collectively while the Clinton/State Department/FBI probe over some 32,000 deleted emails lasted 3 years. Multi-year investigations are the norm.   

The Muller investigation covers a presidential campaign spanning 3 years. It expanded to include the first year of the Trump Administration. It deals with collusion, perjury and obstruction of justice, as well as campaign law and income tax violations. It involves domestic as well foreign actors. We have Americans, Russians, Brits, Turks, Ukrainians, Saudis and other assorted Arabs playing leading and supporting roles. Actions taken and words spoken on three continents and four islands.

In one year the Mueller investigation has resulted in thirty-five, that’s 35 indictments; six, that’s 6 guilty pleas and two, that’s 2 trials about to take place. It has spawned an investigation of the President’s personal attorney and fixer, as well as the indictment, arrest and jailing without bail, of a Russian agent. A solid showing if there be one.

So, Mr. Mueller keep on investigating this and investigating that, and don’t forget that some dare calls it treason.

Thursday
Jun282018

WASSUP WITH THIS COURT? – IT’S VULGAR POLITICS  

Tim Bower, Supreme Court’s Citizens v Federal Election Commission Ruling, Gouache on Illustration Board, 2010

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

Larry Flynt, the legal scholar and publisher of Hustler magazine is one of my heroes, a staunch defender of civil rights and of the 1st, 5th and 14th Amendments to the Constitution of the United States.

As party plaintiff and defendant, Larry played a prominent role in litigation reaching the Supreme Court, setting precedent. His legal positions flirted with extremes but were fundamentally fair and just. Extra judicially he weighed in with blunt, sometimes obscene, criticism of public figures. His “Asshole of the Month” column was subject of litigation reaching the Wyoming Supreme Court and the one in Washington, DC as well as being the subject of several law journal articles, including one published in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Brigham Young University Law Review.

Starting with the Burger and Rehnquist courts, Larry Flynt has found the Justices sadly wanting. He has savaged sitting presidents, senators, congressmen, moguls, celebrities and men of the cloth, most notably Jerry Falwell with the bogus Campari “First Time” ad that made it all the way to the Supreme Court. But he has reserved his most scathing opprobrium for the Justices, recently for Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and his wife, Virginia. As of today Neil Gorsuch should be added to that Pantheon of worthies.

His most virulent and intemperate attack on the “Supremes,” which earned him a contempt citation and a threat of jail, was when he called them “nothing but eight assholes and a token cunt”. After reading today’s Trump Muslim Travel Ban decision I would change that to “nine assholes including three sitting cunts.”

The Supreme Court has abandoned its role in deciding what is right and what is wrong; what is permissible, what is not; what is constitutional, what is not. The individual Justices now decide on the basis of what is political correct, politically correct to the party that has shoehorned them onto the bench. I wonder if Larry Flynt has anything to say this time around, I know that I do.

Article III of the Constitution establishes judicial branch as a co-equal governing body, along with the Executive and Legislative branches. Section 1 vests that power in “one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish…” Section 2 provides “[t]he judicial power shall extend to all Cases, in Law and Equity, arising under this constitution, the Laws of the United States, and Treaties made, or which shall be made, under their Authority”. Federal courts are limited to hear and decide actual cases and controversies and to decide them on the merits and not on partisan political bias.

Historically the “5-4” decision is a recent phenomenon. The Supreme Court averaged less than two “5-4” decisions per term through 1940. “In the period between 1801 and 1940 less than 2 percent of all the Supreme Court decisions were decided by 5-4 vote”. With the advent of the New Deal and with control vested in two dominant political parties, with no viable alternative, the Rehnquist and Roberts Courts finds the “5-4” decisions multiplying and averaging 60 cases a year or more than 20% of the Court’s docket.

Polarization has now spread to the judiciary so that “in the 2014-2015 term virtually every 5-4 decision … was split perfectly along party lines”. The Justices no longer decide what is right, what is constitutionally permissible, what is within the Executive’s power or what law or legislation is constitutional. They now decide cases based on the political agenda of the party that had nominated and supported them to become one of the “Supremes”. 

The Justices are no longer an independent judiciary, a co-equal partner in governance. The Supreme Court, as now constituted and operated along party lines, “constantly alters its interpretation of the Constitution” making it just another bunch of political hacks doing the bidding of vested political interests, see the just announced abortion free speech and anti-union decisions.

President Obama was denied his nomination and appointment of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court by Mitch McConnell’s political demagoguery. Trump was able to fill this stolen Supreme Court seat. Now with the retirement of Justice Kennedy, the make up of the Court is crucial.

Why, you ask, should you care? You live in London, perhaps Belgrade or Tehran, or maybe Istanbul. Well, if you are a Muslim your travel choices have just been severely limited. If you live in Somalia the President’s authority to kill you with drones and wage war will be defined by this Court. The Court will decide if you are subject to detention at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. And that’s just for starters.

I have a solution for this dilemma: each presidential candidate must nominate 3 candidates for the next vacant Supreme Court seat. The names are put in a hat and once a vacancy occurs that seat is filled by the luck of the draw, by lot. Truly “blind” American justice, better than what we have now. I’m sure Larry Flynt would approve.