Bershidsky on Europe: Khodorkovsky Chooses Exile
Here's today's look at some of the top stories on markets and politics in Europe:
Freed Khodorkovsky to stay out of politics and business
Russia's best-known political prisoner, ex-oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, released after 10 years' imprisonment and swiftly flown to Germany, gave a press-conference in which he said he did not intend to go back into business, enter politics or, indeed, go back to Russia. Khodorkovsky told reporters he intended to "repay his debts to those who are doing worse than I am, meaning those who are still in prison, and to Russian society." The former oil tycoon, who still controls a large fortune stashed away outside Russia, will now deal with family matters, work on the release of some of his co-workers who were jailed with him, and probably set up a charity organization. Khodorkovsky said he did not hate Russian President Vladimir Putin and spoke against a boycott of the Sochi Olympics. As things stand, Khodorkovsky's release 10 months before the end of his prison term is a public relations victory for the crafty Putin, who is trying to curb a quiet boycott of the Olympics by world leaders.
Erdogan accuses foreign 'interest-rate lobby' of plotting corruption probe
A conspiracy theory Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been pushing since before last summer has resurfaced in the current government corruption scandal. After more than 50 of its allies, including the sons of three cabinet ministers, were arrested in the course of a large-scale graft investigation, Erdogan has struck back fiercely, making fiery speeches and forcing resignations at the Istanbul police headquarters. Now, he has said the probe was instigated by a Western "interest-rate lobby," which for unknown reasons seeks to drive up the cost of Turkish debt. The corruption accusations against Erdogan's team members deal, in part, with Turkey's gold exports to Iran in exchange for gas, meant to circumvent international sanctions. Erdogan has hinted that the U.S. ambassador to Turkey was in on the "interest rate lobby's" plot. The prime minister's bizarre defense tactic only lends credence to the accusations and undermines Erdogan's reputation for clean governance.
Greek parliament extends ban on foreclosures to 2014
The Greek legislature extended a ban on home repossessions for one more year, covering about 90 percent of Greek homeowners. Families with an annual income of less than $48,000 and savings of no more than $20,000 can keep their mortgaged homes valued at $273,000 or less. The foreclosure suspension will save about 200,000 families from homelessness – and cause Greece's four biggest banks to heave a huge sigh of relief. About 24 percent of Greek mortgages, almost $24 billion worth, are in default, and if banks are allowed to repossess homes covered by them, real estate prices are expected to fall another 10 to 15 percent, forcing banks to write down the collateral on more loans. Despite tens of billions of dollars in aid from the EU and the IMF, the Greek economy is held together by strings, such as the foreclosure ban. Problems like these are swept under the rug so as not to increase the costs of the rescue. They will, however, resurface once the aid money is gone.
First artificial heart transplant a success
An autonomous artificial heart designed by the French company Carmat was successfully transplanted to a patient at the Georges Pompidou hospital in Paris. The French government, aware of a severe shortage of transplant organs, allowed such operations in September. The patient, who was about to die of heart failure, is now awake and talking to his relatives. The Carmat heart is a precise imitation of the human organ, with sensors able to accelerate and slow down blood circulation. It is, in effect, an intelligent blood-pumping robot, evidence that humans may eventually achieve extreme longevity by becoming hybrid bio-electronic organisms.
Privatized post offices more efficient than state-owned ones
An EU study of the efficiency of European postal services showed that those at least partially sold to private investors are more profitable than those still in state hands. Belgian Post, with a 13.4 percent pre-tax profit margin, is Europe's most efficient. It is 50 percent state-owned. Only four of the ten most profitable services are still state-controlled, and two, the Dutch and Maltese ones, no longer have the government as a shareholder. Something for the United States to think about as the U.S. Postal Service continues to lose money.
(Leonid Bershidsky can be reached at email@example.com).