Eastern Europe is even more enterprising than I thought

Yesterday I wrote about Eastern European criminals having a field day in Western Europe. I also commented on a certain bias in their provenance: there seems to be less crime among immigrants from Catholic countries than among those who come from Orthodox lands, such as Russia, Rumania or Serbia.

That was merely an empirical observation unsupported by hard statistical data. Still, it’s good to see some new support for one’s empirical observations.

This morning Serbian police have arrested three men suspected of having launched an armed raid on a Zurich museum in 2008. The news item didn’t specify which museum, but presumably it was the Museum of Modern art, for the bandits got away with canvases by Degas, Monet, Van Gogh and Cézanne. It was Cézanne’s painting The Boy in a Red Waistcoat, worth about $130 million, that was discovered in the suspects’ possession.

This points at my oversight: I left art theft out of my list of crimes routinely perpetrated by Eastern Europeans in the West. Now holding up museums can take pride of place among cash-point crimes, pimping, money laundering, protection rackets, drugs and other areas in which post-communists specialise. Next time I’ll research my stuff more diligently. Meanwhile, I’d like to touch upon an adjacent area, one that can’t really be labelled as criminal.

However, Michel Platini, UEFA President, has referred to Ukrainian hoteliers as ‘bandits and crooks’. What caused the ire of the erstwhile midfielder is the tendency of said hoteliers to turn their businesses into scalping operations. Seems like foreign fans, flying over to cheer their teams at this summer’s European Championship, jointly hosted by Poland, are going to have to pay more than they expected for their accommodation.

‘You can’t change from €40 to 100 and then up to 500 just like that from one day to the other, this just is not done,’ railed Platini. Of course it isn’t. We wouldn’t even dream of doing something like that during the Olympics. Charge higher prices at a time of high demand? Never. This isn’t the British way. Of course some of us are renting out our flats in August at 10 times their rent the rest of the year – but hey, that’s private enterprise. Nothing wrong about that at all.

Some of the Ukrainian hotels are refusing to honour the prices stipulated in the contracts already signed, and that’s clearly borderline criminal. But what about the rest of their opportunism?

I’d like to suggest that our veneration of free markets, while generally laudable, should not be applied indiscriminately in every case. If something is right legally, but clearly wrong morally, and if our morality is chiselled in stone while our laws are changeable, then perhaps some laws need changing. Free enterprise is good and property rights are fundamental, but neither should be a suicide pact.

If our laws allow foreign chisellers to use their ill-gotten fortunes to buy up venerable British institutions, such as newspapers, bookshop chains or football teams, then the laws are unjust. Where do you stop anyway? What if tomorrow a foreign Mafioso decides to buy Knightsbridge and move his paramilitary guards into every house there? Should we stand on the principles of free enterprise and allow it? That hypothetical example, incidentally, isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds, for some of London’s loveliest streets have already suffered a similar fate.

The Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister promised to do something about the scalping job ‘within the next 30 days’, suggesting that perhaps his government’s commitment to property rights is marginally less rigorous than ours – though extorting in taxes half of what people earn hardly betokens religious respect for private property.

I don’t know whether Mr Kolesnikov will be as good as his word. One way or the other, even as I advocate a tax revolt against our spivocratic state, so do I think that British fans should stay at home and watch the matches on television. Their accommodation won’t cost them anything extra, their food will be better, their booze cheaper, and they will be less likely to get mugged. The downside is that they’ll miss the sight of Ukrainian girls who are – and I claim this on personal experience – the most beautiful in the world. Or perhaps it’s not such a downside at all, for, along with gorgeous women, the Ukraine also boasts the highest insidence of syphilis in Europe.

Meanwhile, we should all contemplate the grey areas of life, where crime is a business and business is a crime. Regardless of what the law says.

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