July 3, 2012 · By John Feffer
What can the experiences of 250 people tell us about the logic of political transformation?
In March 1990, I entered East Germany for the start of nearly seven months of travel throughout Eastern Europe. In my backpack, I carried an early version of a laptop and a cutting-edge portable printer. I had a simple agenda: talk to people, write reports, and send them back to my employers by snail mail.
Dramatic changes had taken place in the fall of 1989. The Berlin Wall had fallen. Governments had collapsed in East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Bulgaria. More gradual but still important change had transformed Poland and Hungary. Yugoslavia was in slow-motion disintegration.
My job in 1990 was to figure out what all these changes meant. The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a Quaker organization, hired me to be their eyes and ears on the ground. From my reports, AFSC would decide what kind of work to do in the region.
By the time I wrapped up my tour with a final return trip to Prague, I’d interviewed about 250 people. They were a diverse crew: Slovenian anarchists, Hungarian environmentalists, ethnic Turkish activists in Bulgaria, Polish economists, Czech journalists, a famous poet, a future prime minister. I had more than enough material for a book, which I published in 1992 under the title Shock Waves: Eastern Europe after the Revolutions.
Beginning this September, I will be heading back to Eastern Europe as an Open Society fellow to track down those 250 people and see what they’re doing today. I want to see how their individual stories reflect the changes that have taken place in the region since I last saw them more than 20 years ago. I want to understand why liberal values have taken root in some places and are under renewed attack in others. I want to test some hypotheses I have about political transformation, which I hope will be relevant for people looking at these questions in other parts of the world.
I’ve kept in touch with some of the people I met in 1990. Deyan Kuranov, for instance, was a dissident intellectual 20 years ago and continues to occupy that role at the Center for Liberal Strategies in Bulgaria. Marko Hren, on the other hand, once led a revolt of anarchists and artists against the communist elite but now works on transportation issues inside the Slovenian government. Some people have died (the late great Bulgarian poet Blaga Dimitrova), and others have seemingly disappeared. Tracking down all these people will be part of the story.
My laptop will be lighter. I won’t need a printer. The reports that used to take a couple weeks to reach my employers will now be uploaded instantaneously to my website. But in this age of instant information, I’m more interested in change over a longer period of time. In the movie series that began with 7 Up, director Michael Apted has revisited the same group of schoolchildren every seven years to chart their progress in society. I will attempt something similar with a larger group across a wider gap of years. I’m not sure what I’ll find. But that’s why the project excites me.
Because of this new project, however, this will be my last World Beat for a while. I’ve been writing these essays and compiling the Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) newsletter for six years. Across these 250-plus pieces, I’ve tried to approach foreign policy issues through a multiplicity of forms (satire, poetry, book reviews, imaginary letters, state of the union addresses, movie pitches, unsolicited commencement speeches) and from a multiplicity of angles (sports, music, visual art, television, architecture, graphic novels, demography, seismology, food). We’ve collected the best of World Beat in an e-book, All Over the Map, in case you’d like to have them all in one place.
FPIF will continue during my leave of absence. But how many articles we publish, how deeply we can delve into the issues, and how effective our policy recommendations will be all depend on your involvement in our project. Thanks to a great team – Emira Woods, Miriam Pemberton, Russ Wellen, Peter Certo, Matias Ramos, Brian Cruikshank, and an extraordinary succession of interns – we have somehow defied the laws of physics over the last couple years by producing more output than our input should theoretically support. Your contributions can help us continue our physics-defying experiment. Any amount is welcome. And if you contribute $35 or more, we’ll throw in a free e-copy of All Over the Map.
This summer, I’ll take a pause between finishing one set of 250 and embarking on the next. But it will be a working pause. If you’re in Washington in July or New York in August, come out and see my latest theatrical production, The Pundit. After doing three one-man shows, I’ve put together an ensemble cast in a play about power, politics, and punditry. You’ll never look at CNN the same way again.
Which is, come to think of it, one of our major aims at FPIF as well.
A New Dawn in Egypt?
The Egyptian elections have produced a winner: Mohamed Morsi. The candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood stimulated much debate about whether Egypt was heading in the direction of Saudi Arabia.
But that’s not the politics of the Brotherhood or of Morsi, and his victory speech made that clear. “Vowing to serve all Egyptians, indeed naming every possible constituency within the country, Morsi promised that he would not let the blood of the revolutionaries go to waste,” writes FPIF senior analyst Adil Shamoo and FPIF contributor Bonnie Bricker in Time to Turn the Page on Egypt. “As the new president promised full rights to all, regardless of gender or religion, Egyptians heard the echoes of the revolution. Yet the weight of the promise seems beyond human possibility.”
One of the major power brokers in the Middle East, meanwhile, is one of the smallest countries. “Qatar, home to only 225,000 natives and 1.7 million foreign workers, has emerged as an influential regional actor in recent years,” writes FPIF contributor Giorgio Cafiero in Is Qatar’s Foreign Policy Sustainable? “Emir Shaikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani has ruled Qatar since 1995, when he replaced his father in a bloodless palace coup, and has pursued an ambitious foreign policy for his statelet. Natural resource wealth, ownership of Al Jazeera, and a carefully constructed web of foreign alliances have allowed Doha to project itself throughout the Middle East.”
Old Wine, New Bottles
Mexicans have gone to the polls and elected a symbol of the old order: Enrique Pena Nieto. The Mexican left has struggled for decades against electoral fraud, corruption, and media bias. Their candidate, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, lost by the smallest of margins in the 2006 election. This time around, the margin seems a bit bigger, but he hasn’t yet conceded.
“Hoping to prevent fraud at the polls, Obrador’s movement signed up over 2.5 million poll observers,” writes FPIF contributor Kenneth Thomas in Postcard from…Mexico. “To monitor approximately 143,000 polling places, the PRD has trained 500,000 people in electoral procedures. According to senior party staff, many incidents and disputes are expected, and it remains unclear whether this plan can prevent fraud.” No word yet on how clean the elections were.
In Haiti, meanwhile, President Michel Martelly has promised to reinstate the army. “But this is one pledge the Haitian president should renege on,” advises FPIF contributor Alex Sanchez in Don’t Recreate Haiti’s Army. “The Haitian military is notorious for its history of corruption, violence, and disrespect for human rights. If the army is reconstituted — which would be a worst-case scenario for Haiti — Washington should sharply restrict the security assistance it provides Port-au-Prince in the future.”
Over in Sudan, the conflict that once took place within a single country now continues between two countries. The new state of South Sudan is coming up on its first anniversary as a country. But there’s little to celebrate. “The status of the province of Abyei is an unresolved issue from the June 2011 détente between Sudan and South Sudan,” writes FPIF contributor Terah Edun in South Sudan’s Unhappy Anniversary. “In the year since South Sudan’s independence, the two countries have managed to avoid a full-scale war. But minor skirmishes on the border and illegitimate air raids on the Heglig oil field in April 2012, however, have disrupted that faulty peace.”
What Constitutes Human Rights?
If you believe that human rights is just about dissidents struggling against Soviet-style governments, think again.
“Today many struggle for social justice and civil liberties through the language of human rights, just as many struggle against a human rights apparatus that works in tandem with regime-change initiatives and imperial ‘good governance’ projects,” writes FPIF guest columnist Vasuki Nesiah in The Rise and Fall of the Human Rights Empire. “Human rights may emerge both for and against the Bush regime and its legacies. Rather than a fixed bundle of rights with a singular history, ‘human rights’ is a contested political terrain that has continuities and discontinuities with traditions as diverse as that of Frantz Fanon and Vaclav Havel, the struggles of Occupy Wall Street, and the campaigns against the slave trade.”
Another example is the environmental movement. Today, a growing number of activists is pushing to recognize access to water as a human right. At the recent World Water Forum, however, “once again the United States did not vote in favor of water as a human right,” writes FPIF contributor Shiney Varghese in U.S. Water Policy Still All Wet, “even though the mission later on agreed that in some situations an explicit recognition of the right to water is the only tool that can help ensure access to water to vulnerable communities.”
And on the subject of North Korea, where some of the world’s worst human rights abuses take place, I question whether more access to information has led to greater prospects for change. “North Korea is not just run by a small handful of aging autocrats,” I write in The Limits of Information in North Korea. “There is a significant elite in the country – political, economic, social – that benefits from the current system. They travel to other countries. They are reasonably well informed about the world. They are largely pragmatic, though they must toe the official political line. This elite will form the core of a new political and economic order in North Korea. But they won’t change their allegiances simply because of what they hear on foreign radio broadcasts or what they see on black-market DVDs.”
Just in one week, we’ve taken you on a well-informed trip around the world, from Mexico and Haiti to Qatar and Egypt to Eastern Europe and North Korea. Please click here to help us continue to sponsor such guided tours in the future.