Hungary and Serbia’s pro-Russian posturing, Sweden’s new election technology and an Istanbul ferry terminal reopens.
The recent Swedish parliamentary election featured the use of technology that allows political parties to send personalised video messages to voters. “This digital tactic is here to stay,” says Joachim Medalen, Sweden managing director of Norwegian technology company Seen, which produced the films for the Moderate Party.
The message was sent to the more than 170,000 members of the Swedish diaspora who are eligible to vote in national elections. It opens with the Moderates’ leader, Ulf Kristersson, greeting the person receiving it by their first name. That name then appears twice more in the film, printed on a mug that Kristersson serves to a customer in a café and on a banner that billows behind a two-seater aircraft. “This sort of messaging has a lot of impact,” says Medalen. “It cuts through the clutter and engages with people in a way that traditional postal or email campaigns don’t.”
Whether or not the videos affected voters’ decision-making, their recipients’ interest was piqued. On average, people watched their personalised videos three and a half times; they were no doubt wondering how Kristersson was saying their names. In reality, he spent more than an hour and 15 minutes recording every first name that was required, probably grateful that so many Swedes are called Anna and Lars. “Anyone can make personalised messages,” says Medalen. “The magic behind our technology is that it is fully automated and scalable.”
Seen was launched in Oslo in 2017 and produced personalised videos for the Norwegian Labour Party, which went on to win the biggest number of seats in that year’s election. Since then the company has sent out more than 10 million personalised messages. “We’re now seeing this technology succeeding outside Norway as well,” says Medalen. Seen, which opened a base in Stockholm in 2021, hopes to attract political parties from further afield. Voters of the world, you have been warned.
Liv Lewitschnik is Monocle’s Stockholm correspondent.
On a sultry August evening, Ekrem Imamoglu, Istanbul’s mayor, cuts the ribbon on the latest addition to the city’s transport network. The century-old building on the end of Moda Pier, adorned with blue-glazed tiles and lattice windows, has been refurbished after years of standing empty and is now part of the city’s expanding sea-transport infrastructure.
“We have water on every side of us: the Bosphorus, the Golden Horn, the Sea of Marmara,” says Imamoglu. “Istanbul’s sea transport was in a bad situation when I took office. Much of it was being privatised too easily. For it to be beneficial, we have to ensure that there are enough transport links to the waterside, so we are working in a strategic way to ensure this.”
“We have water on every side of us: the Bosphorus, the Golden Horn, the Sea of Marmara”
Few cities live on the water like Istanbul. Some 42 million journeys are made every year on its municipal ferries, which pinball between ports on either side of the Bosphorus. The passage between continents, accompanied by buskers and a cup of tea, is arguably one of the finest in the world and the ferries’ vintage design is iconic. But it is often a slog to get from the port to your final destination; metro, tram and funicular lines seem to have been built according to an entirely separate plan.
The municipality is now working to join it all up with the goal of tempting more Istanbullus onto public transport and easing the city’s chronic road congestion. It’s also providing other options; monocle joined Imamoglu on one of the new 45-strong fleet of sea taxis, which can carry as many as 10 people on bespoke routes between the city’s ports, 24 hours a day.
At the other end of the scale, the Pasabahce, a huge 70-year-old ferry, has been refurbished to its original design. It was decommissioned and put up for sale but Imamoglu’s team cancelled the tender when he took office in 2020. It now carries day trippers between the inner-city Kabatas port and the Princes’ Islands in the Sea of Marmara.
The goal now, says Imamoglu, is to make sea transport more environmentally friendly. Five electric hybrid sea taxis are being built and the whole fleet will be electrified by 2027. “One of our aims is clean energy and another is aesthetics,” says Imamoglu. “Istanbul had the first shipyard in the world. We take inspiration from ourselves.”
Icons don’t come much softer than Scottish cashmere. Beloved by blue-chip designers and bluestockings the world over, the illustrious fabric is mostly sourced from goats reared in Central and East Asia.
So how did it become synonymous with Scotland? Alongside the country’s weaving tradition, a number of factors converged to create a world-beating yarn. In 1830 the Scottish Board of Trustees for the Encouragement of Arts and Manufacture ran a competition for local weavers. The first person who could spin cashmere with a different pattern on each side would receive £300 (about €45,000 in today’s money). This contest, won by a Captain Charles Stuart Cochrane, seems to have galvanised a nascent industry.
In the early 19th century the UK was tightening its grip on northern India, where people had been making shawls from the extremely soft under-fleece of the hircus goat for thousands of years. This gave textile producers in Britain, where the industrial revolution was spurring the invention of time-saving machines, greater access to the material.
Cashmere’s manufacturing process relies on large volumes of water that is low in lime, something that Scotland is famous for. The combination of the softest water, finest fibres and most experienced producers gave rise to companies such as Pringle, Brora and Johnstons of Elgin, which have made their nation the source of some of the world’s finest knitwear (and a must-visit for any Japanese retailer that is after a canny collaboration).
The best cashmere is as much as eight times more effective at trapping body heat than ordinary wool – which is handy for goats in Outer Mongolia, where temperatures can fall as low as minus 40c, as well as humans in wintry Edinburgh, which can’t be far off that.
Russia’s assault on Ukraine should have been one of those clarifying moments when the world sets aside its workaday squabbles and unites to address a bigger problem. For Europe especially, there seemed little doubt about the stakes: one does not require a long memory to recall Moscow imprisoning half of the continent. Two European countries, however, have adopted positions that, if not straightforwardly sympathetic to Russia, are certainly unhelpful to continent-wide efforts. One is an EU member, the other an EU candidate. They are, respectively, Hungary and Serbia, presently best imagined as two tedious delinquents at the back of a classroom, sniggering and throwing paper planes while everyone else is diligently grappling with a complex equation.
Hungary’s motives are the more easily identified: it’s partly a matter of short-term self-interest. Budapest has taken advantage of Moscow’s desire for customers and even greater desire to undermine EU sanctions by negotiating to buy more Russian gas. And it’s also to do with the wearisomely familiar strongman posturing of Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, who was recently a guest at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Texas – a depressingly influential conclave of paranoid nationalist yahoos, many of whom seem to see Vladimir Putin as much more their kind of guy than they do, say, the actual US president.
Serbia’s Russian sympathies run deeper, both culturally and historically. It has made a couple of cosmetic objections to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – it voted for the UN resolution condemning the attack – but has declined to participate in sanctions. In June, Serbia would have hosted Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov in Belgrade had its neighbours not refused his aircraft permission to cross their airspace. Serbia’s media has taken a pro-Russian line: one poll found that 75 per cent of its citizens believed that Nato had forced Russia into action.
Some of this will be a result of sympathy that Russia bought by supporting Serbia’s refusal to acknowledge Kosovo’s independence. Serbia and Kosovo have recently almost come to blows and few doubt that the Kremlin is stirring the pot both there and in the Republic of Srpska, the largely Serb entity in Bosnia and Herzegovina: the Republic of Srpska Investment-Development Bank has been visiting Moscow, seeking to forge closer economic links. Europe is engaged, at barely one remove, in a struggle to stop Russia seizing a country by force. The continent’s leaders shouldn’t take their eyes off attempts to seize others by subtler means.
Mueller hosts Monocle 24’s ‘The Foreign Desk’.
Who vs who: France vs Burkina Faso
What it’s about: Some splendidly French diplomacy on the part of Paris’s man in Ouagadougou, Luc Hallade. Ambassador Hallade suggested to French senators in July that the conflict commonly depicted as Burkina Faso’s struggle against foreign-sponsored Islamist insurgents is actually a civil war between the government and sections of the Burkinabe population that are seeking to overthrow it – not, the ambassador’s tone suggested, without reason. Burkina Faso’s government described this assessment as “discourteous” and “unfriendly”.
What it’s really about: The West African country’s umbrage is partially derived from the fact that it was once the French colony Upper Volta and is therefore somewhat twitchy about any appearance of being belittled by France. Hallade might have been venting his frustration – France has been leading a difficult counterinsurgency operation in Burkina Faso for some time and is unhappy about the Burkinabe military’s seizure of power earlier this year. Or perhaps Hallade is trying to get himself rotated to a more restful posting.
Likely resolution: It might rumble on for a while, not least because Burkina Faso’s junta is unlikely to lose any support by teeing off at the former imperial overlord, regardless of whether Hallade is tactfully reassigned to New Zealand.
Images: Alamy, Getty Images