IPS Blog

With Bus Segregation Israeli Apartheid Becomes More Blatant

Israel’s continued disregard for Palestinians is yet again highlighted in its latest segregation of the region’s bus system—modern day apartheid at its finest. Especially problematic is the fact that the bus system is a public service and under law should employ nondiscriminatory practices. The Palestinian Deputy Labor Minister and the Workers’ Union have denounced the “racist measures.”

The Israeli transportation authorities have said that segregation of the bus lines was put into effect to improve overall service for Palestinians by making the transport more effective. They also claim costs will fall—Palestinians will no longer be required to pay high prices for private, unregulated taxis to bring them to and from checkpoints.

Media reports indicate, however, that Jewish settlers lodged complaints with the government concerning safety on the buses with Palestinians aboard. Settlers also claimed buses were crowded and that high tensions between Palestinians and settlers pose security risks. This reasoning is likely the real reasoning for this troublesome policy.

The plan has drawn the opposition of the Israeli Knesset’s more progressive members. Zahava Gal-On, leader of the leftist Meretz leftist political party, called for the immediate cancellation of the segregated bus lines. “Separate bus lines for Palestinians prove that occupation and democracy cannot coexist,” he said. The Israeli human rights group B’Tselem also condemned the move, calling it “revolting.”

A few citizens took drastic measures to protest the segregation policy by setting aflame two of the buses just one day after its implementation. Discontent amongst Palestinians is apparent—how much further will Israel go to isolate this continually marginalized population?

The monetary savings of having segregated bus lines may be helpful to Palestinians but overall this policy does nothing to improve or even sustain the delicate political balance between these two populations. Israel continues to implement segregationist policies, pushing political boundaries to the breaking point while at the same time having no regard for the resulting repercussions.

Renee Lott is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.

Emphasis Added: The Foreign Policy Week in Pieces (3/8/13)

Emphasis, as always, added.

The UN Temperance League

“We make the modest proposal that the negotiating rooms should in future be an inebriation-free zone,” Joseph Torsella, deputy U.S. ambassador to the United Nations for management and reform, told the General Assembly’s budget committee.

“While my government is truly grateful for the strategic opportunities presented by some recent past practices, let’s save the champagne for toasting the successful end of the session, and do some credit to the Fifth Committee’s reputation in the process,” he said.

An annual vote of the budget committee … tends to come at Christmas time in late December. The debates often become heated marathon sessions that run into the early hours of the morning.

Diplomats who participate [in] sessions have told Reuters that it is not unusual to see delegates showing visible signs of having imbibed heavily.

U.S. urges ban on drunk diplomats at UN budget debates, Reuters

Reserve First Use of Nukes for Hackers Along With Nuclear and Biochemical Weapon Attacks!

The United States should be prepared to use every military option, including nuclear retaliation, in response to a huge computer attack, an independent Department of Defense task force said.

… “It would have to be extreme,” Paul Kaminski, chair of the Science Board and a member of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board, said about the kind of attack that might trigger a nuclear response. “It would have to be the kind of attack that we would judge would be threatening our survival.”

Well, as long as it’s extreme.

Report: US Should Keep Nuke Option for Cyberattack, Andrew Conte, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Would Sanctions Drive Iran from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty?

Enmity with Iran is deeply institutionalized in the US political system. This explains many lost opportunities to improve relations, as well as the swiftness with which Obama’s initial diplomatic failure was translated into a determination to sanction the Iranian economy into ruins. Given Obama’s unprecedented success on the sanctions front, it might just be too tempting to keep Iran on its knees until it capitulates or its regime changes. [But] Absent a way out of the current predicament, Iran has little to lose in withdrawing from the Treaty of Nuclear Non-Proliferation.

With Iran posed to be a regional player, US should find ways to repair relations, Tytti Erästö, Global Post

Be There or Be Square: the Annual Nuclear Deterrence Summit

At this conference, like the previous ones, the most tedious aspect is the fundamentalist flavor of much of the discourse – the intense intellectual and psychological attachment and rehearsal of a nebulous and highly abstract construct. … Nuclear Deterrence. … It reminded me of Santa Claus, or the Tooth Fairy, or their evil twins. … The nuclear tooth fairy leaves billions of dollars under the pillow each and every year.

… This year, like other years, aging cold warriors are brought forth to lead the hosannas, renew the faith, recall the glory days when the enterprise was running on all eight cylinders (when it was as large and “important” as the U.S. automobile industry itself) and contribute their ideas as to how to keep faith alive in an age of doubt.

Reflections on the Deterrence Summit, Greg Mello, the Los Alamos Study Group

Ability of Nuclear Deterrence to Defuse Crises Exaggerated

Nuclear StatecraftWe may owe thanks for the absence of war (other than proxy) during the Long Peace — aka the Cold War — between the United States and the Soviet Union less to nuclear deterrence, as is commonly assumed, than to the “underlying politics.” That’s a thesis beginning to gain credibility which Francis J. Gavin presents as well as anyone (though I’ve just begun the book) in Nuclear Statecraft: History and Strategy in America’s Atomic Age (Cornell University Press, 2012).

Theories about nuclear weapons, he writes (my additions bracketed):

… were based on a certain view of the world: that the international system was no longer solely driven by geopolitical competition between the great states. While these drives still mattered, international relations were now shaped by the existence of and interaction between rival nuclear forces. The weapons themselves — their lethality, their numbers, their deployments — drove the politics, not the other way around. The interaction could produce outcomes — arms races, dangerous crises, and even inadvertent war — separate from the political sources of the rivalry. These theories implied that the most effective policy might not be focusing on the underlying political dispute between rivals but to control their [nuclear] weapons and their interactions. [In part, it] meant that mutual efforts had to be made to limit dangers and to negotiate, not about the core geopolitical issues driving the dispute, but control of the weapons themselves.

“This is an extraordinary way of viewing international relations,” Gavin continues. But, he asks, “does it accurately reflect the way the world works?” He then attempts to answer his own question. (Emphasis added.)

It is interesting to reflect on how rarely the ups and downs of the superpower geopolitical competition mirrored the movements of the arms race. The Soviets pushed the United States aggressively on the issue of West Germany’s military status by threatening West Berlin’s viability at a time when the USSR was not only weak but potentially open to a US first strike in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The Soviets left West Berlin alone after 1962, even as the US nuclear superiority that arguably helped protect the city disappeared. Why? Because the core geopolitical questions surrounding West Germany’s military and political status were resolved, largely to the Soviet Union’s satisfaction. In fact, it is very hard to find any evidence that … the Soviets ever considered launching a “bolt from the blue” against the United States.

Ward Wilson also approached the failure of deterrence in the Berlin crisis of 1948. In his book, Five Myths About Nuclear Weapons (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013), about which we recently posted, he writes:

Historians debate whether the redeployment of [nuclear weapons-capable] B-29s to England successfully deterred the Soviets. But few ask how Stalin could have initiated the crisis in the first place. When he ordered access to Berlin cut off, the United States had a monopoly on nuclear weapons. (the Soviet Union would not explode its first nuclear weapons for another year). Cutting off access to Berlin carried with it a significant risk of war. Where two large armed groups confront each other in a narrow space, there is always the possibility of accidental escalation. Or escalation could have been intentional. One of the options considered by Washington during the crisis was sending an armored column to force its way up the autobahn to Berlin. Given the risk of provoking a nuclear war and the U.S. nuclear monopoly, why wasn’t Stalin deterred from initiating the blockade? If the risk of nuclear war deters, why did Stalin start a crisis that could have led to the use of nuclear weapons against his country?

In other words, politics often proceed independently of considerations of the threat of a nuclear attacks. Meanwhile, far from lending clarity to international relations, nuclear deterrence just creates another obstacle and adds another layer of complexity to world peace.

Will the Next Pope Embrace Liberation Theology?

Cross-posted from the Dissent Magazine blog Arguing the World.

Will the next pope embrace liberation theology? The conventional answer would be: fat chance. However, without going too far out on a limb, one could also answer in the affirmative. In their own ways, both responses will likely be correct.

The chances that a true radical will be selected as Pope are next to nil. That’s because none are in the running. Technically, any baptized male Catholic can be elected to the post. But, in practice, the pope is selected from the church’s cardinals under the age of eighty. At this point, all the eligible cardinals were appointed to their positions either by Pope Benedict XVI or by Pope John Paul II. Both men vigilantly stacked the deck with cardinals whose views range, in the words of one religion professor, from conservative to ultraconservative.

Liberal theologian Hans Küng gives a harsh assessment of Benedict’s selection of Vatican personnel. “Under the German pope, a small, primarily Italian clique of yes-men, people with no sympathy for the calls to reform, were allowed to come into power,” Küng stated. “They are partly responsible for the stagnation that stifles every attempt at modernization of the church system.”

The most brilliant suggestion I’ve seen for a candidate who would decisively break with established traditions (and who would need to come from outside the current pool of cardinals) was penned by E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post. In a recent column entitled, “The best choice for pope? A nun,” Dionne argued that “An all-male hierarchy adopted policies to cover up the [sex abuse scandal plaguing the church] and seemed far too inclined to put protecting the church’s image ahead of protecting children.” He added, “Throughout history, it’s not uncommon for women to be brought in to put right what men have put wrong.”

Since that’s not going to happen, we can at least hope for a church leader who recognizes and validates the critical social justice work carried out largely by nuns, rather than spending his time reprimanding women religious.

One of the candidates considered to be among the frontrunners in the papal conclave would appear, at first look, to fit that bill: Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana. Not only would Turkson, as an African, break the European stranglehold on the papacy, he would come to the office straight from serving as president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. In this capacity, Turkson oversaw the release of a 2011 document that gave a fairly stinging critique of the international financial system. It blasted speculative trading, reiterated previous church warnings against “idolatry of the market,” and argued, “No one can in conscience accept the development of some countries to the detriment of others.” This is what has led some commentators to suggest that liberation theology may make a comeback if Turkson becomes pope.

But as Naunihal Singh explains at the New Yorker, Turkson has a strong conservative side. He is notably homophobic, even by church standards, having defended anti-gay legislation in Africa and having linked the Catholic Church’s pedophilia scandals to cultures that are permissive of homosexuality (rather than to an internal institutional culture that prizes secrecy, hierarchy, and obedience). Turkson also caused a scandal last year by showing a fear-mongering and discredited anti-Muslim video to a meeting of church officials. The British Independent has dubbed the cardinal “Conservatism’s Cape crusader.”

While they may seem incongruous, Turkson’s seeming contradictions speak to a wider point: in order to understand the Vatican’s response to liberation theology, one must appreciate how individuals such as Turkson can be considered conservatives within the church and nevertheless produce statements strongly critical of neoliberal capitalism.

It is widely noted that, before he became Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger headed the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, formerly known as the office of the Inquisition. There he earned the nickname “God’s Rottweiler,” leading the effort to silence creative and non-conformist voices within Catholicism. During Ratzinger’s tenure as doctrinal enforcer, the church is said to have officially rejected liberation theology.

But this is only true in part. The Vatican did object to liberation theologians’ use of Marxist sociological analysis, and it rejected their challenges to the centralized authority of Rome. Yet, at the same time, it affirmed many of the central doctrines of liberation theology, especially those relating to poverty, inequality, and economic justice. Most notably, the “preferential option for the poor,” the once-radical idea that God takes sides and identifies with the oppressed and impoverished, has been mainstreamed as Catholic theological doctrine.

To this extent, if not necessarily in the overall orientation of his ministry, the next pope is almost certain to carry forward the liberationist tradition.

Under each of the last two popes, the church has released statements about the global economy that take cues from liberation theology’s teachings. John Paul II condemned “the resurgence of a certain capitalist neoliberalism which subordinates the human person to blind market forces.” And it is worth remembering that Pope Benedict gave Gustavo Gutiérrez, one of the founders and leading lights of liberation theology, a place of honor at anAsh Wednesday mass in 2007. Religion & Politics editor Tiffany Stanley notes that Ratzinger’s current replacement as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, German Archbishop Gerhard Müller, “is said to be sympathetic to liberation theology and even co-authored a book with Gutiérrez.”

Likewise, it’s fascinating to read the reflections of prominent Brazilian liberationist Leonardo Boff, who was famously silenced for a year in 1985 and who ultimately left the priesthood in 1992. Boff is critical of Benedict. But he was also on friendly terms with Ratzinger, and he cites occasions upon which the former cardinal referred favorably to his books.

As for the upcoming conclave, probably the best candidate one can hope for from the perspective of liberation theology is another Brazilian, Cardinal Cláudio Hummes, the former archbishop of São Paulo. Hummes has shifted towards the center in recent decades and, like Turkson, has taken some controversial and reactionary stances (in his case, opposing the use of condoms to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS in Brazil). That said, he has significant progressive bona fides.

Preaching in working-class areas in and around São Paulo in the 1970s, Hummes supported Worker’s Party dissidents organizing against the country’s military junta. As Anna Flora Anderson of the Dominican School of Theology in São Paulo explained to the BBC in 2005: “The military would quickly shut down any union meeting. So one of the great things Claudio did was to open up the smaller churches [to activists]—so the unions could meet without interference.”

Hummes is a personal friend of former Brazilian president and Worker’s Party leader Lula da Silva. He has defended the land occupations of the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra. And he has long been regarded as an ally of the grassroots “base communities” that put liberation theology into practice throughout Brazil. As the Washington Post reports, on his first day on the job as archbishop of São Paulo, in 1998, Hummes “attacked the spread of global capitalism, saying the privatization of state companies and the lowering of tariffs had contributed to the ‘misery and poverty affecting millions around the world.’”

Much more than the many yes-men in the conclave, Hummes would open the door for the revival of social justice ministry in the Catholic Church. Unfortunately, you should only put your money on the Brazilian to become the next pope if you like betting on long shots. As of this writing, the odd-makers have him at 50-1.

Mark Engler is a senior analyst with Foreign Policy In Focus and author of How to Rule the World: The Coming Battle Over the Global Economy (Nation Books, 2008). He can be reached via the website Democracy Uprising. You can follow Mark at his Facebook page.

Nuclear Weapons Have Outlived Their Usefulness — if They Ever Had Any

Five Myths About Nuclear WeaponsLong awaited by many of us in the arms control and disarmament communities, historian Ward Wilson’s book, Five Myths About Nuclear Weapons, was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in January. It doesn’t fail to deliver. What at first seems like a short book soon becomes a distillate of years of the author’s thinking, to which the expansive footnotes and lengthy bibliography also attest.

Wilson is a senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies of the Monterey Institute of International Studies. For years unaffiliated, though, with either academy or a foundation, his writing style can be characterized as plain speaking and congenial, accessible to the general public as well as policymakers, strategists, and historians.

Sixty-eight years after the Trinity test, the first detonation of a nuclear weapon, arms control moves in fits and starts and total disarmament is considered unrealistic — unattainable to its advocates, inadvisable to most. Meanwhile, those members of the public who aren’t too frightened by existential issues or too distracted to face them view global warming as more urgent than nuclear weapons. Others operate under the illusion that the end of the Cold War has diminished the nuclear threat to the point where we can live with it.

Besides, the primal logic of deterrence — discouraging an attack by your ability to respond — makes perfect sense to many. But, nuclear weapons may not lend themselves to deterrence as well as conventional thinking holds. In fact, the idea that “nuclear deterrence works in a crisis” is one of Wilson’s myths — as is even the proposition that they keep us safe.

Actually, deterrence is the second pillar of faith in nuclear weapons. The first was erected when their detonation at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II supposedly forced Japan to surrender. It’s also the first myth that Wilson attempts to debunk: “Nuclear weapons shock and awe opponents.” For one cannot stand without the other. As he wrote in a 2008 article (The Myth of Nuclear Deterrence) for Nonproliferation Review that helped put him on the map as a nuclear-weapons historian: “The collapse of the Hiroshima case undermines one of the cornerstones of nuclear deterrence theory.”

Turns out, as Wilson writes in Five Myths, “Japan’s leaders consistently displayed a lack of interest in the [conventional] bombing that was wrecking their cities.” To them, it was the Russian invasion of Manchuria and Sakhalin Island upon which the war hinged. With Russia also planning to invade Hokkaido, the northern-most of Japan’s islands, Japan realized it could not fight a war against both Russia and the United States-led Western powers. Wilson then turns the question around.

Proponents of nuclear weapons who claim that Japan was forced to surrender because of the bombing of Hiroshima face a difficult question: Why would Japan’s leaders have been motivated to act by an event that was not strategically decisive?

The main piece of evidence that Wilson uses to build his case against the efficacy of nuclear weapons is the Cuban missile crisis, about which you’ve no doubt already seen much revisionist history in commemoration of its fiftieth anniversary last year. Wilson, though, instead of concentrating on why our nukes didn’t deter Russia, focuses on why Russia’s nuclear threat didn’t deter President John Kennedy from blockading Cuba and demanding that nuclear missiles be removed from Cuba. “So why did,” Wilson asks, “nuclear deterrence fail? And why did Kennedy take steps that seem to meet [a] definition of reckless lunacy?” (Author’s emphasis.)

In still more picturesque language, he rephrases the question directly.

In the most dangerous nuclear crisis the world has ever known, one leader saw the nuclear deterrence stop sign, saw the horrifying image of nuclear war painted on it, and gunned through the intersection anyway.

In other words, fear of Russia’s nuclear weapons didn’t keep President Kennedy from putting the pedal to the metal. Wilson again:

One way that proponents of nuclear weapons explain Kennedy’s willingness to risk nuclear war is by arguing that U.S. nuclear superiority made the risk of nuclear war negligible.…But most of the senior participants and Kennedy himself said, either directly or indirectly, that nuclear superiority had had little to do with decisions made during the crisis.…by the late 1950s both sides had the ability to inflict significant damage in the event of a war, even after absorbing a nuclear strike.

Another approach that helped lend Wilson credibility early in his career was to forbear attacking nuclear weapons from the point of view of morality and, instead, hold them accountable on the basis of their actual usefulness as weapons.

The problem with nuclear weapons is that there is no way to concretely verify the claims that are made about their importance. There is really only one data point — Hiroshima — determining their cash basis. The danger is that we have overinflated their value by misinterpreting that one event.

Confident that he’d win, it’s as if Wilson agreed to cede the home-court advantage to the arrayed forces of national defense: “Body count aside, will nuclear weapons win wars?” (My words, not his.) More to the point, will bombing cities, known as area bombing in World War II, prove decisive in winning wars? Wilson writes:

People often talk about nuclear weapons’ ability to create destruction as if it were an accepted fact that destruction and military effectiveness are the same thing. But.…destruction does not win wars.

Among the instances he cites besides Hiroshima and Nagasaki are the siege of Stalingrad during which the Wehrmacht destroyed the city with bombing and artillery. Soviet soldiers clung to the ruins and eventually outlasted the German assault. Wilson concludes:

Destroying cities and killing civilians is large beside the point in terms of military strategy.

Each of the five myths transitions to the next. Wilson pulls this off exceptional gracefulness when, at the end of Five Myths About Nuclear Weapons, he addresses the subject of the nuclear genie — the idea that nuclear know-how and technology can’t be un-developed, as it were, and stuffed back into the bottle. Connecting the circle, he writes that obsolescence will obtain when it’s shown that nuclear weapons are no longer viewed as useful in winning wars.

Reconciling Displaced Libyans and Their Neighbors

While this month marked the second anniversary since the start of Libya’s uprising, the country is still struggling with the ramifications of its upheaval and the difficulties of reconciliation following its violent conflict. Thousands of Libyans remain internally displaced by ethnic tensions unleashed by the revolution.

The city of Tawergha is perhaps the most poignant example of the exile many Libyans have experienced: it is now a veritable “ghost town,” its residents forced to take refuge elsewhere following the catastrophic battles between loyalist and rebel forces that occurred in the area. Tawergha’s estimated 30,000 to 40,000 displaced residents continue to be prevented from returning to their homes due to safety concerns. The few who have tried to return have supposedly been stopped by Misratan brigades who “threatened to kill them and burn the remains of their houses,” according to the Libya Herald.

Tawergha lies along the road between the central coastal city of Sirte—Muammar Gaddafi’s last stronghold and the city where he was both born and killed—and the northwestern city of Misrata, a rebel stronghold that rose up in rebellion in February 2011. As a result of its proximity, Tawergha was occupied by Gaddafi’s forces and used as a base for loyalist military operations against the neighboring Misrata.

Tension between the two cities remains high, as residents of both Tawergha and Misrata have experienced the fallout from the violent clashes between loyalist and rebel forces. Misratans accuse Tawerghans of siding with Gaddafi, participating in his military operations against Misrata, and committing war crimes such as rape and looting. There is also a racial element to this tension, since Tawerghans typically have noticeably darker skin, and many of Gaddafi’s forces were comprised of African mercenaries as well as Libyans.

The reprisal for Tawerghans was swift after Gaddafi’s fall, with Misratan forces launching a series of attacks on the city that Amnesty International characterized as ethnic cleansing. The town’s infrastructure is considerably damaged—even uninhabitable—as a result of the rebel capture of the town in August 2011, which precipitated widespread fires, gunfights, and NATO airstrikes. Tawergha was later looted and pillaged by anti-Gaddafi forces, and the green sign to the city has been vandalized with “Misrata” graffiti.

Libya’s Deputy Prime Minister Awad Barasi has recently announced plans to address these internally displaced citizens, meeting with ministers to discuss solutions to the problem. Without state support, there is little chance that reconciliation or lasting peace can be achieved between these displaced groups and their neighbors.

Leslie Garvey is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.

Bulgaria: The Next Generation

Bulgaria’s younger generation carries the past more lightly.

Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com. John is currently traveling in Eastern Europe and observing its transformations since 1989.

 Nevena Milosheva-Krushe

Nevena Milosheva-Krushe

My current project focuses on re-interviewing the people I talked to in East-Central Europe in 1990. But if I restricted my interviews to this group of people, I’d get a rather skewed picture of the region today. After all, I’d miss out on an entire generation of people that was too young to participate in the changes or was born afterwards.

To ensure that I have a more balanced picture, I thought it would be interesting to interview the children of the original interviewees. Nevena Milosheva-Krushe, the daughter of Mariana Milosheva-Krushe, is the first of these interviews.

Like many people of her generation, Nevena has no direct experience of the communist era. She was only two years old in 1989. She remembers the stories that her elders told her. But 1989 is as far away in time for her as the 1960s were for my generation (it took me a long time, for instance, to realize that Woodstock was something other than a character in the Peanuts comic strip).

Nevena works in one of the multinational companies with an office in Sofia. She is rather optimistic by temperament, a trait she shares with her activist mother but which is sometimes a sentiment in short supply in Bulgaria. And because of her contact with other ethnic groups and her own time spent abroad, she highly values multiculturalism.

“Since I was little, I had contacts with different groups through my mother,” she told me. “And then in the university we had people from different ethnic groups and also different countries, mostly from the Balkans. And in Amsterdam, we had people from very different places. I really don’t like generalizations that all people from this group are such and such. I experienced the same thing in Amsterdam: ‘You’re a Bulgarian and this means that you are not hard-working and so on.’”

It is perhaps this awareness of the outer world – and how the outer world perceives Bulgaria – that distinguishes the younger generation from those who lived during the communist period. From an early age the post-communist generation has travelled outside of Bulgaria and/or has had access to all sorts of global media. They carry the past more lightly and are often bemused by the intense arguments that still rage over what took place before they were born.

Of course, young people in Bulgaria are all over the map, literally as well as ideologically. There are young neo-fascists and young farmers and young populists and young drug addicts and young rock musicians and many many young people who are living outside of Bulgaria. Many of these young people share little in common except for the generation gap that separates them from their dinosaur parents. But that gap doesn’t seem very large in the case of Nevena and her mother.

The Interview

When did you first realize that you were living in a country that was completely different before you were born?

There were many things that were different compared to other countries. For instance, I remember the stories of when we had only one kind of chocolate or standing on line for bread. One of my first memories, when I was younger than 8 years old, is my grandmother telling me about the fall of the Berlin Wall. When I was 8, I traveled for the first time abroad and the difference was huge. We went to Switzerland.

Ah, well the difference between Switzerland and most countries is huge! Your mom said that you got a business degree. Where did you get that?

In Amsterdam. It was my master’s degree. My bachelor’s was at the American University in Bulgaria.

How was that experience at the American University?

Very interesting. Our educational system is much worse than the Western European and American education. But I wanted to be in Bulgaria, so that was my choice.

Were all the classes in English?


Was your English pretty good when you graduated high school?

I studied some subjects in English in high school. But I needed to study quite a lot more: to learn business terms and so on.

You were interested in business early on in life?

No, actually, I wanted to study politics. I started with politics at the university. But then I wanted to stay in Bulgaria and honestly I didn’t feel like going into politics in Bulgaria. I took a business course and it was very interesting. But I also studied journalism as a second degree.

You said you wanted to stay in Bulgaria. Why?

Because I am more optimistic than most people. Many things have improved a lot here, even though people are quite negative about everything around here most of the time. Many things continue to improve regardless of what specific party is ruling.

A lot of your classmates didn’t stay in Bulgaria. Did you have arguments trying to persuade them to stay or did they try to persuade you to go?

Yes, we had arguments. But to be honest, then I went to Amsterdam for a year for my masters. What was most different there was that it was more organized. It can be quite tempting to stay somewhere else. But again, I have my family and friends here.

You weren’t tempted to stay in Amsterdam?

A little bit. But finding a regular-level job there was much more difficult than finding one here.

It was easy to find a job here when you got back from Amsterdam?

Yes. I got a job at a company called Shevana. We deal with service departments for employees traveling around the world.

What are your responsibilities?

I’m in marketing and sales. We do different campaigns, communicating with different kinds of customers.

Customers just in Bulgaria?


That’s why you have to speak English.


You’ve seen Amsterdam. You’ve studied business. How would you evaluate the business climate here in Bulgaria? Is the workplace here basically the international standard? Or are there some things that are really frustrating?

I think it’s getting better and better. Many international companies have offices here by now. Most of the bigger ones and some smaller ones. Of course we’re a good destination. The salaries can be lower but at the same time the work standard is good. In Amsterdam, the salaries would be quite higher.

Can you give an example of something that was frustrating that is no longer frustrating?

At the beginning many companies were not paying maximum health benefits. For the past five years, this has been much better.

You said at one point that you decided not to do politics. Do you think the political situation has improved?

I think there’s some improvement. For example, it might sound strange, but now we have a subway line. Of course we also have more traffic. On social issues, I think it’s getting a bit better. There’s more tolerance of differences than some years ago. Of course, there’s still some problems, many problems, but I think it’s improving a bit. More foreigners are visiting the country than before.

In your free time you mentioned that you do volunteer work?

I haven’t had a lot of time for it, but I’ve helped my mother on some of her projects. But I’d like to help children, orphans, in my free time.

She mentioned that your friends and colleagues are also interested in volunteering.

For example, I have one friend working in a bank for seven years who also feels like doing something in his free time, because business gets a little tiring. You need to not just sell products but help people, without any salary. Most people are not doing a lot. But there is a desire to do more. But then we also have to stay at work quite late.

Have you gotten involved in any of the big environmental actions?

I’ve heard about them. But I’m more interested in topics connected to children or discrimination. I have a friend who works for this type of organization. I’m thinking of helping her.

On the issue of tolerance, you’ve said that the situation on the street is a little better and there are more visiting foreigners. But there’s also the anti-Roma sentiment. How do you explain these two things?

In other countries also, there’s been these tendencies after the collapse of the communist regimes: prejudice but also some improvement in tolerance. Before, we had the same Ataka type of thing, but it was not public. These people had the same views.

They just didn’t open their mouths in public?

Yes. And they didn’t have such a political party.

How much contact did you have with other Bulgarians of different ethnicities when you were at school or growing up?

Since I was little, I had contacts with different groups through my mother. And then in the university we had people from different ethnic groups and also different countries, mostly from the Balkans. And in Amsterdam, we had people from very different places. I really don’t like generalizations that all people from this group are such and such. I experienced the same thing in Amsterdam: “You’re a Bulgarian and this means that you are not hard-working and so on.”

In the business community here, is it mostly ethnic Bulgarians?

Mostly. But there are different people. The companies are international and for them it’s only important whether you do your job.

On the Roma issue, I’ve talked with people about three different policy directions: good jobs, good education, and political power. Which do you think is most important?

Education. But at the same time, in order to to start with education and get to political power we need to be more tolerant. In schools, for instance. Most Bulgarians are not very nice to other ethnicities.

Can you give some examples?

I remember in my first to fourth grade school, we had two Roma kids and they were mostly not treated in a nice fashion. That was not okay with me. We should start by understanding each other’s cultures.

Was there any Roma information in your textbooks or your classes when you were growing up?


Ethnic Turkish culture?

Only from the history textbooks about when we were enslaved by the Ottomans. But that was a long time ago. We should now just look at people as people.

What about at the American University? Were there classes about Roma or ethnic Turkish culture?

Nothing specific.

In the United States, the civil rights movement went hand in hand with a change in textbooks. It’s hard to have a change in people’s attitudes without that change in education. You were lucky to have your mother.

You’re right about education. We need to learn more about their culture. That would help people understand each other better. We can start with that.

You were more pessimistic about the future than you were in your assessment of the past.

Yes, but my view of the future was more optimistic than most people’s.

Yes, but why didn’t you say 8 about the future?

I think we are going to develop further but at a slower pace than other countries.

What do you think about the overall economy in Bulgaria? A lot of people tell me that they go abroad or don’t come back because of the lack of jobs. Is that something you hear among your friends?

Very often. But actually, I think things are getting a bit better than before. It’s as hard as in other countries. Before you go and live somewhere for a year, you can’t know what it’s like. Many people think that Western Europe is great, all well organized and arranged. But you’re still a foreigner over there. And it’s as hard to find a job as here. The salaries are low here. But our living standard is lower too. The minimum wage is quite low. And the pensions are really a big problem. I don’t think any grandparents can live by themselves without anyone helping them. That’s a problem.

When you hear the word NGO, what do you think?

People who help society but not related to profit.

So you have a positive association. I’ve heard that people here have negative associations with NGOs.

Yes. They feel like NGOs are not doing enough. But I think it’s because they are doing things for the long term. You have to be patient for the change they’re working for to come. Of course, I communicate with business people. They are thinking in terms of short-term profit. So, that’s a different mindset.

What do you think will happen in the next Bulgarian elections in the fall? Let’s say there are two scenarios: the one you want to happen and the one you don’t want to happen.

All the times that I could vote, I wasn’t voting for a scenario I wanted to happen but for the least-worst scenario.

Because your scenario wasn’t available.

Yes. I don’t think there’s any party that’s perfect, that I want to vote for now and forever. But of course, everyone has pitfalls. And everyone is trying to do something. Even the current government.

When you say that they’re trying to do something, did you have anything in mind? Other than the new subway.

The financial situation is not so bad in the context of the global economic situation. It could be quite worse.

Why haven’t young people come together to form a political party?

I think there’s quite a lot of fear. And people are not that active in civil society, including young people. They are trying some stuff like, as you said, on the forest issue. But still we need more activity. People focus on their job, their business, and that’s it.

What do you think of when you think of Europe?

The continent.

Does the continent include Bulgaria?

Yes, the whole continent includes Bulgaria. The EU also includes us. But we’re a new member, so there are certain restrictions.

Do you think the overall experience of joining the EU is a good one


Any negative aspects?

I don’t think so. We are a very small country, and we need to somehow to join the others. Of course the situation of the EU right now is not the best. We don’t have the Euro, and for the first time it’s a good thing that we are a little backward.

Yes, hooray for the leva!

Yes, exactly.

Do you see yourself living in Bulgaria for the rest of your life? When you talk to your friends, what do they think in terms of the future?

More people are staying here and wishing to stay here. Maybe five years ago, I knew many more people who wanted to leave. And now, many people want to stay.

When you look back to 1989, when you were two years old, and all that has changed or not changed, how would you evaluate that on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being least satisfied and 10 most satisfied?


Same scale, same period of time: your own personal life?


When you look into the next couple years, what do you expect for Bulgaria, on a scale of one to 10, with one being more pessimistic and 10 being most optimistic?


Sofia, October 2, 2012

Did Arafat Jaradat Die Under Interrogation?

On Saturday, Palestinian prisoner Arafat Jaradat died from wounds suffered while being held in an Israeli prison. Israeli officials claimed Jaradat died from a heart attack but now say the autopsy evidence is inconclusive. Palestinian officials determined his death was the result of torture.

Arafat Jaradat

Arafat Jaradat

Described as being in good health by his family and friends, it seems unlikely that 30-year-old Arafat would succumb to a heart attack. An autopsy revealed a slew of bodily injuries incurred during Jaradat’s five-day incarceration. These include: six broken bones in the neck, spine, arms, and legs, severe bruising on the back and chest, broken ribs, muscular wounds to the shoulder, chest and right hand, and facial bruising with bleeding from the lips and nose. Jaradat’s heart was healthy with no signs of damage.

The UN Security Council and UN Middle East peace envoy, Robert Serry, have called for an “independent and transparent investigation” to establish the cause of death in this case. The inquiry presents a likely catch-22 for these investigating bodies.If the report finds prison authorities complicit in the torture of Jaradat there could be an outbreak of unrest. If authorities are not found responsible Palestinians will likely say the investigation is swayed in Israel’s favor, generating significant outcry.

The back-and-forth only deepens the escalating tensions that have come to a head in past weeks. Thousands of prisoners have been participating in widespread hunger strikes to protest Israel’s administrative detention policy and bring attention to their plight. The death of Arafat Jaradat only swells the anger and outrage felt by Palestinians that could soon boil over.

The upheaval comes as President Obama is set to visit the region in the coming weeks. Israeli Defense Minister, Amos Gilad, is already claiming that Palestinian medical officials are jumping to conclusions to “stir things up” in advance of the president’s visit. But thus far Palestinians have only called for justice and fairness for detained prisoners, to avoid another tragedy like the death of Arafat Jaradat.

Emphasis Added: The Foreign Policy Week in Pieces

As always, emphasis added.

Credibility: The Only Thing People Value More Highly Than Their Credit Rating

So why do so many smart people keep embracing an approach to Iran that is internally contradictory and has consistently failed for more than a decade? I’m not entirely sure, but I suspect it has a lot to do with maintaining credibility inside Washington. Because Iran has been demonized for so long, and absurdly cast as the Greatest National Security Threat we face, it has become largely impossible for anyone to speak openly of a different approach without becoming marginalized. Instead, you have to sound tough and hawkish even if you are in favor of negotiations, because that’s the only way to be taken seriously in the funhouse world of official Washington (see under: the Armed Services Committee hearings on Chuck Hagel).

On Iran, try backscratching, not blackmail, Stephen Walt, Foreign Policy

Netanyahu’s Alarmist Tachometer

So if we are looking for real “red lines,” the obvious trip-wires should be either the expulsion of IAEA inspectors or the detection of diversion of nuclear material to non-peaceful uses – not some artificial red line drawn by a non-NPT member state.

How close is Iran to nuclear weapons?, Yousaf Butt, Reuters

Nuclear Disarmament on the Sly

… the administration continues to keep secret the current size of the stockpile, which, among other effects, forces officials such as Dr. Cook to be unnecessarily vague about the extent to which the United States continues to make progress on reducing nuclear weapons in compliance with its obligations under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. [Because] the unilateral retirement of roughly 500 warheads from the stockpile since 2009 – an inventory comparable to the total stockpiles of China and Britain combined – is political dynamite (no pun intended) because conservative Cold Warriors in Congress (and elsewhere) vehemently oppose unilateral reductions of U.S. nuclear weapons.

(Still) Secret US Nuclear Weapons Stockpile Reduced, Hans Kristensen, FAS Strategic Security Blog

What Would the Supreme Leader Do Without the U.S.?

Reaching a lasting deal with Khamenei has never been about Iran’s nuclear program but rather the political legitimacy — and thereby survival — of the Islamic regime. … Mindful of threats to his power by rival conservative and reformist factions, Khamenei has nearly always undermined efforts by any one of these groups to resolve Iran’s long-standing disputes with Western powers. … Simply put, normalization of relations between Iran and the United States would deprive Khamenei and the deeply invested cohort of radical ideologues around him of a powerful justification for their arbitrary rule.

Why Iran says no, Hussein Banai, The Los Angeles Times

A war against a name is a war in name only”

Last September, Matthew Olsen, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, testified to Congress that “core Al Qaeda”—the original, Arab-led group, whose surviving members, hiding mainly in Pakistan, are thought to number in the dozens or low hundreds—is at “its weakest point in the last ten years.” Yet, to explain the White House’s policy, he and many other counterterrorism analysts warn of a resilient threat posed by Al Qaeda “franchises” … Each group has a distinctive local history and a mostly local membership. None have strong ties to “core Al Qaeda,” … A franchise is a business that typically operates under strict rules laid down by a parent corporation; to apply that label to Al Qaeda’s derivative groups today is false. … If Al Qaeda is not coherent enough to justify a formal state of war, the war should end.”

Name Calling, Steve Coll, The New Yorker

Organizing the Public in East-Central Europe

Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com. John is currently traveling in Eastern Europe and observing its transformations since 1989.

Mariana Milosheva-Krushe

Mariana Milosheva-Krushe

The transformations of 1989 began in the streets as people protested their governments in Leipzig, Prague, Bucharest, and Sofia. The agents of change were popular movements like Solidarity, Civic Forum, and the Union of Democratic Forces. Gradually the protests receded, and these popular movements turned themselves into parties. Many activists, however, didn’t want to join formal politics. And so was born the new era of the NGO in East-Central Europe.

Non-governmental organizations proliferated throughout the region in the 1990s as part of the institutionalization of civil society. They often received support from foundations and governments in Western Europe and the United States. Exchange programs brought staff for training sessions in Washington and London and Paris. NGOs became increasingly important in addressing social issues – poverty, inter-ethnic tensions, trafficking – as the governments in the region downsized. In this way, NGOs devoted to public works were paradoxically part of the wave of privatization that swept the region. What governments no longer had the money to do, private organizations stepped in to help out.

In the early days, NGOs enjoyed a rather high reputation in part because of the legacy of “anti-politics” from the earlier period. Newly enfranchised citizens viewed government and the official political realm with a degree of suspicion just as they dismissed the communist governments as the playthings of the nomenklatura.

Today, however, NGOs don’t meet with such universal acclaim. “Of course there is a certain frustration about the lack of progress in the region,” Mariana Milosheva-Krushe explained to me over coffee at the Archaeological Museum café in Sofia back in September. “So, who do they blame? NGOs.” NGOs are often perceived as well-funded entities that don’t in the end produce anything of enduring value. Although some NGOs certainly fit this description, others have achieved sustainable results with relatively modest means.

Mariana Milosheva-Krushe has been working with NGOs in Bulgaria and throughout the region for more than two decades. She first encountered community organizing in the United States in 1993 and was impressed with this grassroots approach to political and economic development. She brought that spirit back to Bulgaria to democratize the NGO sector. Deeply involved in this sector, she is nonetheless critical of the bad habits of civic organizations.

“Change depends on people in the community,” she told me. “I learned my lesson in Stolipinovo. We raised some money from an outside donor to pave some of the streets there. An old man was sitting and watching me. He said, ‘Pave the street over there too.’ I said, ‘Come on, it’s your street.’ And he said, ‘It’s your project!’ And he was right. He was very wise. I was coming with this money and we were creating a consumer culture.”

In addition to the evolution of NGO culture, we talked about working on Roma issues in Bulgaria, the rebirth of the chitalishte cultural centers, and political polarization.

The Interview

Do you remember when the Berlin Wall fell and what you were doing and how you reacted?

Yes. I was having a sandwich and walking to the office I was working for here in Sofia. I just dropped the sandwich. I couldn’t believe it. I was just stunned. So, this is a very vivid memory.

Where were you working at the time?

At the Institute of Modern History. It was very boring, very politicized. I couldn’t find a job as an ancient historian, as an archaeologist. I had to do something.

Did you think about the implications for Bulgaria? Or was it just an event happening on a distant planet?

Of course, something was going to happen. You had a feeling that everything was changing.

When perestroika started in the Soviet Union, at some point we began looking for Russian magazines to see what was happening. I had three exams in Russian/Soviet history and I knew nothing about it, only the official things we were studying. So, it was a real exciting time. These magazines were not easy to find: they were too alternative for us here. The Soviet Union was moving faster than us, which has not always been the case. So, It was already in the air that we might see some changes in our lifetime.

Was there a specific moment in your life in Bulgaria when you realized, ah, something is changing?

Yes: when I saw the completely stunned face of Todor Zhivkov. He just couldn’t believe that he had to go. That was the visual moment I remember.

For me, personally, probably the most exciting thing was to meet people who survived from the old political establishment, like Dr. Petar Dertliev and Dr. Atanas Moskov, who were Social Democrats. Meeting them was a great opportunity for me to see that not only can the system change, but there are ways to change it. I worked with them. This was the best school for me in terms of participation, elections, campaigns. I was the director of their foundation, the Yanko Sakazov Foundation at the Bulgarian Social Democratic Party. I started as a secretary then became director.

Do you remember in 1990 the conflict between groups that were willing to have some political compromise with the former Communist Party and those who weren’t, like the people in the City of Truth?

Yes, the City of Truth took place right over there. It was very exciting. We all were enthusiastic that things could change. But others were also denying everything. If you cook under pressure and you try to open the pot too fast, it can explode. I guess these different trends were trying to keep from exploding.

When my daughter was very little, I would walk her in the park. There was one column of people walking and screaming UDF (Union of Democratic Forces), and the other column walking and screaming BSP (Bulgarian Socialist Party). It was too polarized. Maybe that’s normal. But it was also generational: in most cases, the older generation, the people who were called the “red grannies,” supported the status quo because they were afraid of change. So in a way complete denial was not the best, but neither was compromise. Change was very much needed.

Do you think there was a point at which this political polarization disappeared? Or has an element of that initial polarization continued?

I don’t know. Right now, I don’t see very much passion and polarization. We don’t have a real opposition. We have the ruling party GERB (Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria). It calls itself a citizens’ movement, but it’s really a party. There’s the Movement for Rights and Freedoms and the Bulgarian Socialist Party. Unfortunately the UDF lost, and that’s kind of sad.

This development has taken place over the last 10-12 years since King Simeon came here. This was for me the first sign that populism — in our sense, not in the American sense – had overwhelmed politics. People just wanted immediate benefits. They were frustrated with the slowness of change, and they couldn’t see any direct benefit to their income or wellbeing. The king’s slogan was: Trust me. People voted for that! Without anything more concrete. But perhaps that’s normal.

I’m worried that whenever frustration grows like this, it always touches on the ethnic issue, especially Roma, and that’s really bad. I like talking with taxi drivers: they’re my focus group. Whenever you mention Roma, they say, “They’re dirty, they cheat, they do nothing, they have no potential.” Sometimes the sentiment is against the Turks, the Muslims. This is our supposedly tolerant Bulgaria! Sometimes I wonder what we’ve done for the last 20 years, with all our preaching about human rights and equal opportunities for people. I still don’t see enough mixed schools or different colors on television. Bulgaria is monochromatic.

Do you remember the campaign against the ethnic Turks in 1988-89? What was your impression of that? How did your circle of friends react?

I was at home on maternity leave. My daughter, who was born in 1987, was very little. I was living near the Palace of Culture. There were these orchestrated demonstrations against the eksursianti – that’s what they called them, people who go on excursions. None of my friends supported this. “What if they rename me?” they worried, “Or tell me where to live?” This was the stupidest thing that communists did. This is what gave birth to all the anti-regime groups, this and the environmental movement, like the Club of Mothers in Russe.

It also gave birth to the Movement for Rights and Freedom. It generated a lot of controversy. Number one, the constitution said you couldn’t have a party based on religion. Number two, Ahmed Dogan was a very controversial figure. And number three, it was the third largest party, so it played a major pivotal role in determining coalitions.

It continues to do that.

I’m curious about your analysis of the MRF and its evolution.

The idea was good, because you need a certain self-organization. No matter what, when people say that Turks were represented in other parties, they weren’t. However, like all parties, the MRF was copying the old totalitarian model of party organizing, especially Dogan. He’s very smart, an amazing politician, but he’s really totalitarian in my book. But they also had some good people in that party. They had systematic strategy for growth in their cadre. And the whole idea was based not on ethnic principle but to defend all rights and movements. This should have cut across the platforms of all parties, but it didn’t happen that way.

So there hasn’t been any attempt by BSP, the UDF, the king’s party, or GERB to to address issues of ethnic Turks?

There have been some attempts, usually around elections, with all parties buying the votes of Roma and ethnic Turks. It’s ugly. I don’t think the parties consciously care about those issues. Individual politicians, yes, but these issues were missing from the party platforms. That’s why I decided to work for civil society. It’s not enough to have elections and demonstrate that you care about the issue by buying votes or supporting the issue the day before elections. What’s important is what you do in between elections.

But I’m afraid that the political culture here was not consciously integrating the necessity of rights. That includes the MRF. We were doing community projects in the Rhodope Mountains, and ethnic Turks talked about being suppressed by their own party members. Using fear, threats to the family – the MRF was not practicing what they were established to do. Individuals within the party, yes, but not the party itself.

You worked in community development organizations in Baltimore and North Carolina.

I had an internship there for six weeks in 1993. I had several different opportunities to go to the United States on internships to learn about civic organizing, non-profit management, community foundations and the evaluation process. The first time I was in the United States was in 1991 or 1992, on an exchange. People were laughing at me in the States because I was saying, “Ah, this is the model!” And they said, “There is no model. You have to adapt whatever model you find.” I am so grateful to all the people, all the community organizers I met. I learned so much.

You started out in ancient history and archaeology. What motivated you to turn to community development?

I was bored with history. I couldn’t find work, and it was boring to dig under the ground. We were creating history! That’s why I joined the Yanko Sakazov Foundation in 1990, because it was so exciting to organize elections. I’m not an extreme person. I’m always trying to be moderate, to find the balance. I think I was closer to the Social Democrats. But unfortunately that party doesn’t exist any more. The BSP absorbed all the rhetoric, but not the actual principles.

I was working at the national level, assisting fundraising for people to do campaigns locally. But campaigns don’t resolve issues. They need to be ongoing. That’s why I decided to continue in civil society. First we created the Access association. I had a passion was for community organizing, especially in ethnically mixed communities. I was responsible for the program for community change. If you can do community organizing in a Roma neighborhood where there’s extreme poverty, then it can happen anywhere. At the same time, there’s something lost in other communities, such as the bonds between the extended family.

I was also a technical organizer of an Anne Frank exhibition. We wanted to link the messages of the exhibition to the current situation, so we included an exhibition on Roma in Bulgaria. I was shocked by the reaction of the young students coming to the exhibition. They could understand the messages of Anne Frank, what had happened in the past, and they were open to different tolerant thinking. But whenever they saw pictures of Roma, it was immediately a very negative reaction.

I talked to a Roma poet. She said that the problem was not with the beggar children sniffing glue: it’s with poverty and growing economic issues. “You should go to learn from the communities,” she said. So, I just learned from going to the Roma neighborhoods and talking to people. I’d been excited by what I saw in Baltimore, in Washington, DC, where I saw some direct work in housing projects in poor neighborhoods. As a result, in 1995 we created CEGA – Creating Effective Grassroots Alternatives — which developed effective community development projects and grassroots alternative.

What surprised you the most from your experiences in Roma communities?

It’s a completely different culture. And if you don’t understand it and respect it, you’re just lost. This was the biggest problem of most “projects” of different donors: they remained projects. In many cases they had a kind of “drive-through” approach. You need to work with people inside the community so that they start self-organizing. The big word “empowerment” means for me that individuals open their eyes, then they open up the eyes of other people, and they get together to do things. Nobody can do it from the outside.

We did a great job, I think. We worked with more than 40 organizations in different parts of the country. I still maintain contact. I do evaluations. But we are far from resolving the issues, right? We were trying to do things, to cultivate people, and at the same time, the situation was changing completely. Economically there was no opportunity. This was the biggest mistake: no one did anything for income generation. Generations of people never worked; generations of people did not study very much. It went very deep. A lot of good people who were activists got burned out. That’s normal. If you live in the neighborhood, you work 24 hours a day: if you’re real and you’re not just working for the money. You do it because you care

Some people had an opportunity to go abroad, and they said, “No, I’ll stay here.” They were committed. Some of them succeeded in really bringing Roma kids back to school. For instance, in Lom, at the Roma Lom foundation, 10 years ago they had only one or two students at university. Now they have over 25. That’s amazing!

Can you give an example of community development that has worked in Bulgaria, a flagship example so to speak?

There are different flags: one flag does not fit all. One of the examples is the Roma organization in Lom, but of course it’s not just Lom.

Another example is the chitalishte. I was evaluating a program done by UNDP, and the woman working there was so excited about these chitalishte, these cultural centers established in the 19th century as a vehicle for national revival. They were in every community: more than 3,000 all over the country. During communism, they were nationalized and became a controlling structure in the system of culture. The UNDP program decided to revive them and restore their real meaning. They did a great job. But they needed to develop assisting organizations for these chitalishte. That’s what Agora (Active Communities for Development Alternatives) does, funded by the America for Bulgaria foundation. This is community development. It’s out of the project culture. It’s just getting people involved on the issues they care about. It’s making people into active citizens.

Change depends on people in the community. I learned my lesson in Stolipinovo. We raised some money from an outside donor to pave some of the streets there. An old man was sitting and watching me. He said, “Pave the street over there too.” I said, “Come on, it’s your street.” And he said, “It’s your project!” And he was right. He was very wise. I was coming with this money and we were creating a consumer culture.

There were some great donors who were open to supporting crazy ideas. I love this spelling mistake my colleague in Romania made — these “democrazy projects,” she called them. In such projects, there’s space to grow so-called ownership. I hate these words already. They’ve become buzzwords. But still, people must own the ideas. It’s a different pace from the project pace. Projects are rhythmic: you have to spend on time and report on time. Otherwise you’re in trouble. But sometimes community development — activating people, linking them together — might go at a different pace. The biggest lesson is the pace of change. When I read all these announcements of “fast-track projects,” it sounds like McDonald’s! It doesn’t work this way. It might take years, and the development might not be linear.

What makes me pessimistic is that it was our dream to join Europe. But European Union membership came with a certain spice. It’s completely blocking community development and civic participation and democracy culture. EU funding is not accessible to small groups because of the very heavy technical requirements. And the bureaucracy in Brussels is then retranslated through our bureaucracy. This money is supposed to help municipalities and civil society. But I haven’t seen this happen.

I visited the Mercy Corps office in Tuzla in Bosnia. To get EU funding, Bosnian organizations had to partner with EU members. Many small organizations decided not even to try to get EU funding because of the reporting requirements. But the Mercy Corps office in Tuzla was extremely well organized. They had a wall full of boxes filled with the reports. And I thought: you have to be a very special organization to work the European system to get that money.

I know the European programming well. Sometimes it’s so rigid. But the intentions are good. I advise colleagues who apply to keep focused on what their organization is for, no matter what. If necessary, hire someone to do the reporting, but continue to focus on working with people. There are some good organizations doing this. But something is wrong with this system, and these bureaucrats don’t care.

One option is to reform the European system. That’s a pretty ambitious goal, and Bulgaria is a pretty small country. What other options are there? What about developing a national system that supports small organizations and community foundations?

There have been some attempts to do this, in Romania, for instance. But it’s being done by alternative donors, not the EU. The Civil Society Development Foundation gives giving small grants, supported by the Trust for Civil Society and the Romanian-American Foundation.

We’re lucky here in Bulgaria to have a colleague from the NGO community on the structural fund. He’s great. And some other people work in this system. NGOs make many suggestions about changes, but it depends on effective advocacy at the national level and the EU level. We have members in the European Parliament, and they should put forward changes to some of the ridiculous rules.

At the same time, I’m optimistic because of the involvement of young people. It’s outside the NGO community. It’s through Facebook or through humanitarian initiatives. They are acting in their own way. My daughter is 25. She grew up traveling with me to visit civic projects in the Roma community. But she decided to study business administration, and most of her friends are in the business community. Some of them say, “We want to do something else. We want to be involved in something that gives us social meaning.” That’s a good sign.

The Bulgarian Donors Fund is developing a platform for emerging donors. They are trying to stimulate a new culture of giving. We need to develop more philanthropy, more involvement of people who are donating. The Charles Steward Mott foundation did a lot on this. It applied a matching approach — if you raise this money, we’ll match it. If all the grants were like this, everyone would think about raising support. Yes, it’s very difficult, especially for minority issues, but it’s not impossible.

What is the future of informal initiatives in Bulgaria? Has the NGO experience in Bulgaria reached a certain limit in terms of its effectiveness, reach, attractiveness to young generation?

It depends on the NGO and the way it works. I can’t generalize. Of course there is a certain frustration about the lack of progress in the region. So, who do they blame? NGOs. Also, the donors needed boxes into which to invest money, and the NGOs were those boxes. Again, it was a kind of McDonald’s approach. The trick is not to serve your own self-interest. My computer used to be very creative in spelling, giving me suggestions while I was typing. When I was typing NGO, it was suggesting EGO. If you get beyond the EGO, the NGO is more broader based.

Are NGOs over? I don’t know. You need a form of self-organization, and sometimes you need well-structured forms. Governments will not listen only to informal movements. At the European level, you need a platform, you need to mirror the existing bureaucracy because bureaucracy talks to bureaucracy or organized structures.

Sometimes networking is “notworking”. I’d like to see more linkages and joint work among organizations. The National Children’s Network here in Bulgaria is very good. It brings together 80 organizations from all over the country. They have a platform, they go to the government, and they are listened to. They are lucky to have the support of a Swiss foundation and UNICEF. It’s also very active on Facebook. NGOs need to keep pace with what’s happening. They need to use new technologies to attract young people.

The environmental movement also gets people excited. Some issues excite people. With other issues, like rights and diversity, it’s more difficult. Everyone here is brought up with more or less prejudice. It’s much easier to mobilize against something, however, like racism. The new social media also can serve for negative mobilization, something that triggers your frustration, rather than positive issues.

Let me ask about the organizing on the other side of the political spectrum: the populist xenophobic rightwing movements here in Bulgaria like Ataka

What a shame that they have a TV channel! What’s shocking is that it’s supported by well-educated people.

Why has this become so much more popular in Bulgaria? Is it simply because of the economic crisis and the need to blame it on another group?

When people are frustrated and unhappy, when they have an inferiority complex, it’s easy to manipulate them. They need something to feel like they are someone. Here in Sofia, some people say, “All these newcomers come here because they can’t do anything in the communities they come from.” You can mobilize this type of inferiority complex into a platform. That’s what happened in Germany in the 1930s: lumpenization.

We need to activate educated people too. We need civic education classes all over the country. If people are not growing up with these ideas, it’s very difficult for them to get it from just reading a newspaper or seeing a campaign clip on TV. It has to be part of the curriculum. There have been lots of attempts: the Step by Step program, the Debates Program of the Open Society Institute.

People are very busy with their families. They have to survive. My daughter works from 9 am to 9 pm. That’s how it is in the business world. In the NGO community, it’s 24 hours. Because of all these busy people, children grow up without this supportive system within the family. When they’re with their parents, they absorb their negative sentiments, their frustrations with life. But it’s not only here. It’s all over Europe. You can see this type of xenophobic, nationalist attitudes in Holland, in Germany.

The paradox is, the German economy is doing quite well. They’ve dealt with the financial crisis quite successfully. They’re a creditor nation. And yet still there’s this xenophobia.

The perception there is that these foreigners are coming and taking their jobs.

Even though these are jobs that Germans generally don’t want.

It doesn’t matter. It’s the same in Holland: it’s a prosperous country yet people feel vulnerable and are becoming protectionist. It’s the same in the States. No one likes immigrants flooding into their country.

Having civic education throughout the system would be useful. An improvement in the overall economy would be useful. Anything else that would be useful in terms of overcoming this xenophobia?

Investing in individuals is great: individuals from those groups that are being scapegoated. Equal opportunities can bring out the best, no matter your origin. This is what’s missing in the region. We talk it, we don’t walk it. Roma should be more visible – in the media, working in the banking system. So that people see them and say, “Hey, they’re the same person as me.” In Lom, one of the kids there who studied in London is now working in parliament. People in Lom know this and say, “Wow, it can happen, he was my neighbor!”

In Hungary, Roma journalists were working on many different shows, not just shows on Roma issues. There were Roma in government: brilliant people, spoke English, came from the NGO community. Unfortunately the new government fired most of them. But still the investment in those individuals is worth it, because they are now working in different sectors, or at the European level, or they go to other countries. When you have examples in communities, people try to follow it. It might take generations, but it’s worth it.

The investment in people is worth it. But that leads me to the topic of the brain drain. A lot of people, especially young people, have left Bulgaria. Do you think that might be coming to an end?

First, it’s not a brain drain because not all the smart ones left the country. Some of the smart ones decided to stay, me included! I could have left. Since 1992, I had opportunities to do so, and I know other people in the same situation. My daughter’s generation, many of them very good English speakers, they’ve decided to stay here. She studied in Holland for a year for her master’s degree. She said, “No, I want to be here. If we all leave, who will make things happen?”

It’s freedom of movement, and I love it. Because I couldn’t travel before. Come on, it’s not feudal times or communism, when we had to be registered in particular places.

There’s a perception that the Bulgarian government is backtracking on liberal principles. Obviously we’ve seen it more intensely with Viktor Orban and Fidesz in Hungary. I’m curious about your impression of the general trajectory of the current government in Bulgaria?

It’s a joke. But I still vote, otherwise I can’t bitch. If I have to be honest, there are a lot of professionals in this government. But it’s such populism. People like it. The government is popular.

Why is it popular?

Because the prime minister speaks a simple language. People get it. He’s doing some stuff, like repairing roads. He’s responding to the popular culture. People don’t want to hear intellectual talk.

Is that why the UDF has failed?

I think there are many reasons. The leadership is responsible. They had many supporters. Most of the people working for change supported the UDF. But it was incapable of fighting corruption. It couldn’t demonstrate that it was an alternative. It became arrogant too.

I’m afraid of what happened a couple years ago with Ataka. If there’s something positive about GERB, it’s that they took some of the more moderate supporters of Ataka and absorbed them into a more civilized alternative. Eventually there will be new movements more oriented toward what we all strive for: greater democracy.

Have you seen actual policies based on the rhetoric of Ataka or the cleaned-up version in the current government? Or has it stayed in the realm of the rhetoric?

We have anti-discrimination legislation. We have all the tools to control this negative trend. But the traditional NGOs are needed to shine the lamp on this implementation. If we don’t have strong local organizations, municipalities can do whatever they want. All parties were buying minority votes. There were cases of threats and beating people. This should be exposed. This should be in the media. But these accusations are only used by one party against another. Active citizens can be troublesome, but it’s much better than having manipulated citizens.

Have you seen any successful anti-corruption initiatives here in Bulgaria?

There were big projects on this, and some of them were good. However, I think that corruption depends on the individual level. I would never give a bribe. When they ask me, I say no. If everybody says no, then… Back in the past, you had to pay under the table to get anything done. But there are new generations now, and the generation of my daughter won’t give. They think, ”Hey it’s your job, and you’re supposed to do it.”

I was recently stopped for speeding. He didn’t ask me for a bribe. He just wrote me a ticket. He did not even hint at it. Is that a good sign? A friend said, “Maybe they knew who they were talking with.” But I just look like a normal driver. It’s not written across my forehead that I’m an anti-corruption activist.

The government tried to arrest people, but of course they were just small fish.

As you look ahead, in your work evaluating civic groups, what excites you the most?

I’m excited that I’ll be working with the organization Amalipe for half a year on organizational development. Amalipe is a Roma NGO in Bulgaria. They work all over the country. It’s a small project but it’s exciting because we’re finding the best way for them to develop as an organization. Sometimes it can be very depressing doing evaluation: just assessing and not saying how you think things should done.

Just a couple last quantitative questions. When you think about the changes that have taken place since 1989, how would you evaluate them on a scale of one to 10, with one being most disappointed and 10 being least disappointed?


Same scale, same period of time: how do you feel about your own life?


Looking forward into the near future, how optimistic are you?

6. I should also tell you my favorite joke. The optimist and the pessimist are talking. The pessimist says “It can’t be worse,” and the optimist says, “It can happen.”

Sofia, September 25, 2012

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