IPS Blog

Chemical Weapon Use in Syria Could Trigger Intervention

The Syrian government has denied permission to a U.N. mission ready to investigate alleged chemical attacks that have occurred in recent months in the country. Both Syria’s government and opposition requested that the U.N. form a mission to investigate the use of chemical weapons after trading blame over a March attack in Khan al-Assal—a village outside Aleppo—which killed at least 31 people.

However, Syria is now denying the team entry into the country over concerns of the U.N. widening the investigation to include other alleged chemical attacks—such as an attack near Damascus on the same day as the Aleppo attack and another from Homs in December, over which the government and opposition have also traded blame—brought to U.N. attention by Syria’s opposition.

Both Britain and France wrote to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon after the Aleppo and Damascus attacks, urging the mission to include all three reported instances of chemical weapons use in the country. Britain, France, and the U.S. have also provided Ban with intelligence about the possible use of chemical weapons in Aleppo and Homs.

Western powers have been particularly concerned over any use of chemical or biological weapons in Syria, since the country is believed by Western intelligence agencies to possess one of the largest undeclared stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons in the world. U.S. President Barack Obama has also already stated that the confirmed use of chemical weapons in Syria would be a “game changer,” which some have interpreted to indicate U.S. military intervention in Syria’s civil war.

Syria is amongst eight countries that did not participate in the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, which bans the use of such weapons internationally and, as of February, has seen to the destruction of 78% of the world’s declared chemical weapons stockpiles.

‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’

Syria’s government, according to the Guardian, argues that the inclusion of the other attacks in the investigation “might allow the U.N. mission to spread all over the Syrian territories,” which it claims “contradicts the Syrian request from the U.N.” and “constitutes a violation of the Syrian sovereignty.” The Syrian government has hinted at a hidden Western agenda in the mission and likened the situation to the investigation for chemical and biological weapons in Iraq, particularly Ban’s submission to Western states “known for their support for the shedding of Syrian blood with the aim of diverting [the probe] from its true content.”

Russia—a steadfast ally of Damascus throughout Syria’s two-year civil war—has echoed this claim, suggesting that “Western countries are using the specter of weapons of mass destruction to justify intervention in Syria, as they did in Iraq,” according to Reuters.

Headed by Ake Sellstrom, a former U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq, the U.N. mission is comprised of 15 inspectors, chemists, and medical experts—none of whom are from permanent members on the U.N. Security Council. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW)—which oversees the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention—has prepared and sent the team to Cyprus, where it currently awaits a decision between Syria and the U.N.

Syria and the U.N., however, are at an impasse: Ban Ki-moon believes there is sufficient evidence to investigate at least the Aleppo and Homs attacks and has said that all implicated sites “should be examined without delay, without conditions and without exceptions.” Syria, however, will not allow the mission into the territory unless it can guarantee that the mandate only covers the Aleppo attack.

A decision needs to be made soon, regardless: Ralf Trapp, an expert on chemical and biological weapons and a former official of OPCW, predicted immediately after the Aleppo and Damascus attacks that the time frame of the U.N. mission, though critical, would likely take weeks. And the longer the investigation is halted also compounds the evidence lost and, therefore, the further testing needed to collect such data: “Each day lost will influence the speed with which the investigation can be concluded,” he said, according to NBC, “because as more time elapses before biological sampling occurs, more sophisticated DNA and other toxicological testing is required.”

The Syrian government is unlikely to budge, especially while being backed by Russia and given preliminary evidence that suggests the chemicals used in the Aleppo attack—but not necessarily those in Damascus or Homs—were rudimentary and likely the product of an Islamists. One would hope that Ban would take into account the fact that the team has unfettered access to at least one site for now, lest Syria deny the investigation altogether.

Leslie Garvey is a contributor to Foreign Policy in Focus and Focal Points.

Tunisia and the IMF: Ennahda’s Mana From Washington (Part Two)

Cross-posted from the Colorado Progressive Jewish News.

Read Part 1.

“I get by with a little help from my friends.”
— Lennon, McCartney

News reports suggest that Tunisia and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) are ‘very close’ to coming to terms over a $1.78 billion loan to the North African country to help navigate it through the current stormy economic seas. In the short term, there is no doubt that an accord of such a large amount to such a small country will help the country get through the next few years, and help stabilize what has been an unstable and increasingly unpopular transitional government. But at what price to the country’s medium and long term future? Rosy IMF projections that, with the loan’s help, the Tunisian economy will grow by 4.5% next year are hardly credible.

Tunis Brique, a l'oeuf maker.

Tunis Brique, a l’oeuf maker.

There seems to be something of a ‘rush to the finish’, an effort on both the IMF’s and Tunisian government’s part to wrap up the negotiations as soon as possible. It is as if they are looking over their shoulders nervous that, as the agreement’s terms get out, opposition could grow among the Tunisian people, thus the mutual effort to get the whole thing over with as soon as possible. There is mounting concern within Tunisian civil society about the agreement, both in terms of the process which has been typically secretive and the “structural adjustment conditions” that the country will be forced to submit to in order to fulfill the Tunisian part of the deal.

In traditional IMF fashion, the negotiations were very much ‘under wraps’ with virtually no input from anyone other than one member of the Tunisian Central Bank and another from the finance ministry. But in this post-Ben Ali age of Tunisian freedom of speech, it turned out to be difficult to impossible to hide the agreement terms, which several talented Tunisian researchers have been able to unearth.

The Political Significance of the IMF Loan

It is easy to get lost in the somewhat complex economic details of such agreements (although we will look at them shortly) At the same time, sometimes lost is the political significance of the agreement. It is nothing less than a ‘green light’, ‘a seal of approval’ – for the current direction of the Tunisian political leadership – most specifically, the Ennahda Party (Islamic Party) which dominates the ruling coalition and the political and economic direction of the country. The two other parties represented in Tunisia’s ruling coalition, the Congress for the Republic (President Moncef Marzouki’s party) and Ettakotal (Democratic Forum for Labor and Liberties) are much weaker, and their political will more or less circumscribed by Ennahdha. [i]

News of an impending agreement comes just at the moment when the Ennahda-led coalition government needs it most. In February, a popular opposition leader, Chedli Belaid, was assassinated at his home in Tunis. Belaid has been a critique of Ennahda’s collusion with the country’s Salafist elements, and the drift away from Tunisian democracy which has accelerated under Ennahda. The angry demonstrations that followed, which placed responsibility at the door of Ennahda, charging something between neglect and complicity very nearly brought down the coalition government.

While it survived, former Ennahda Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali, who attempted to broaden the government’s social base, was forced to step down. Jebali was replaced by another Ennahda bureaucrat, Ali Laarayedh, who was moved over from his post as interior minister. Key to forcing Jebali out was Ennahda Party leader Rachid Ghannouchi, who conveniently holds neither formal government nor party post, but is, for all intents and purposes, the gray eminence behind the scenes.

Ennahda survived the crisis, but barely. It managed to scrape by with a little help from its friends…in Washington and Paris. Its popularity tumbling in the polls, the economy stagnant – in worse condition than when Zine Ben Ali fled – Salafist thuggery growing and unimpeded, Ennahda needed something dramatic to reverse or slow its growing unpopularity among the Tunisian populace. Like mana from heaven – or more aptly from Washington – coming just in the nick of time, the IMF delivered the economic and political oxygen Ennahda needed to retain its hold on power.

Ennahda’s Mana From Washington

Whatever their hesitations, both Washington and Paris – which together have considerable influence over IMF decisions – have decided that, when it comes to Tunisia, the horse that they are going to ride is Ennahdha. This is the central political message of the IMF loan. Washington’s support for Ennahda comes in spite of unimpeded storming and partial trashing of the U.S. embassy in Tunis last September in which the Tunisian Ministry of the Interior was unable to stop the riot, despite prior warning of danger, including a warning from U.S. Ambassador to Tunisia Jacob Welles that went unheeded.[ii]

Although some may wonder why the Obama Administration would support Ennahda, knowing well its working relationship with the country’s radical Islamic militants of Salafist and Wahhabist persuasion, it is not as strange as it might seem at first. When it comes to working in tandem with U.S. regional strategic and economic goals, the Ennahda Party has never wavered. As we say, they know well on what side their bread is buttered. On economic policy, Ennahda continues, and with this IMF loan, even intensifies, Tunisia’s commitment to neo-liberal economic policies – i.e., keeping the Tunisian economy open to global finance and corporate penetration.

Ennahda: Partner of the Obama Administration, Strategically and Economically

While Tunisia’s strategic role in the region remains modest, still it plays an important role. America’s Tunis embassy is a communications center for the Mediterranean and North Africa – a potential ‘lily pad’ from which U.S. military forces could ‘jump’ into sub-Sahara Africa (or elsewhere) if the situation presented itself. More importantly is the embassy’s role collecting intelligence from throughout the region.

In other ways Ennahdha has made it clear ‘which side it is on’. Much of its foreign policy is geared towards cooperation with U.S. strategic goals. The government’s posture towards the crises in Libya and Syria suggest the kind of role Tunisia plays. Two examples:

• Recently there have been a spate of news stories of Tunisian youth dying fighting with Islamist rebels in Syria. Some reports suggest that it entails hundreds of Tunisian youth; at the very least, Ennahda has turned the other way and not interfered with Salafist recruitment, transfer to other places in the Middle East and training of these youth. There are some allegations that Ennahda’s role is more active. “Three young men from my village (near Sousse) will be buried today,” a Tunisian friend wrote. “They died fighting in Syria,” he went on, noting that a forth villager, a 22-year-old fighting with Islamic rebels, had died a few days prior. “They (the Ennahda-led government) promised us training, work, dignity, – in a word – ‘a future’ but they lied, betrayed us, and trained our youth to become assassins.”

• Under Ennahda pressure, an incident which, among other things, revealed the powerlessness of Tunisian president Moncef Marzouki to protect Khadaffi’s foreign minister, Baghdadi Al Mahmoudi, who had sought political asylum in Tunisia. In a sop to the U.S. and NATO, Ennahda turned Al Mahmoudi over to the Libya’s National Transitional Council. One of Marzouki’s closest advisors, Ayoub Massoudi, resigned over the handover, criticizing the Ennahda government as a ‘theocratic dictatorship.’ As a result, Massoudi was indicted and faces a military trial.

It is true that the new Tunisian government has initiated a new, more hostile posture towards Israel although that seems more for domestic public consumption than a real change in policy, and Israel knows it. Tunisia’s Israel policy parallels that of Turkey, i.e., verbal criticisms but strategic cooperation through U.S. CENTCOM and NATO formations.

If its contribution strategically to Washington is somewhat limited, still, the Ennahda government is falling in line. The same goes for economic policy; actually where it concerns economic integration, Tunisia pre-and post-Ben Ali shows little to no signs of change. The Tunisian economy remains open to foreign corporate and financial penetration. The policies that led to the 2010-11 crisis, the cause of which were, in large measure, economic remain in place and intensify. Tunisia’s continued vulnerability to the labile whims of structural adjustment will continue.

IMF Agreement Ties Tunisia’s Hands Economically to the Neo-Liberal Economic Policies of the Past/La Lutta Continua

The proposed agreement – the details of which I will look at in depth in the third part of this series – essentially commits Tunisia to the neo-liberal economic path it has been on since 1987, when Zine Ben Ali first came to power. Ben Ali might be gone, but a policy of privatization of state resources, open capital markets, de-valued currency, wage repression, lifting of subsidies (already started), and cutting government spending for social programs will continue and with it the continued deepening suffering of the Tunisian people.

The situation I see developing in Tunisia looks something like this: the IMF loan will give Ennahda some ‘living space’ and in the short term they will be able, probably to cling to power. But in the medium and long run, their hold is untenable for their have failed to provide a vision for the country’s future. All the old shortcomings – the economic stagnation, corruption, and not least, repression will once again show their faces and perhaps in an aggravated form.

Unable to deliver economically, but kept in power by the IMF loan in large measure, Ennahda, having all but destroyed the political coalition which came together to drive Ben Ali from power, will find, more and more, that, like Ben Ali, it too will have to resort to heightened repression to keep order; one can see the outlines of their policy – in part they will continues to use their Salafist allies as brownshirts, to break up possible democratic coalition.

Under the veil of religion, there will be increasingly repressive legislation limiting freedom of speech, action. The labor movement, women’s rights movement, the integrity of the country’s higher education systems – all institutions, social movements that are already under fire – will be further reined in one way or another. All this will be done while Washington sings its song about human rights, but supports those in Tunisia who undermine them.

And as the history of structural adjustment almost always shows, the polarization, class and democratic struggles will intensify. Like my friend Jaco, a Tunisian Jew, said last summer when I asked him how he saw the situation in Tunisia playing out, “Before it gets better, it will get worse…but it will get better.”

La lutta continua.

[i] For example, the position of the Tunisian presidency, held by Marzouki, has lost most of its power in the post Ben Ali era. That power has been transferred largely to the Tunisian prime minister – an Ennahdha member.

[ii] Interview with Abdelfattah Mouru, considered ‘the number two’ man behind Rachid Ghannouchi in the Ennahdha Party structure – in Denver, September 2012.

Boston Marathon Bombing: What Do Chechens Have Against the U.S.?

With news that the dead bombing suspect is named Tamerlan Tsarnaev and, along with another suspect, his brother, is believed to be from Chechnya, the question naturally arises: what do Chechen — presumably separatists — have against the United States? Hasn’t their beef always been against Russia?

It’s well documented how brutal Russia’s prosecution of the first and second Chechen wars were. Chechens responded with savagery in kind: the 1999 bombings of a shopping arcade and apartment building in Moscow, the 2002 seizure of Moscow’s Dubrovka Theate, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis.

Chechen militants have fought alongside al-Qaeda and the Taliban and possibly vice-versa. In Chechnya: From Nationalism to Jihad (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008), James Hughes sheds some light on possible reasons that Chechen separatists might attack the United States:

U.S. criticism of Russian policy in Chechnya intensified in the first six months of the [George H.W.] Bush presidency. [But the] 9/11 attacks led to a complete reversal of U.S. policy on Chechnya. This was partly a moral revulsion against the associations between some Chechen rebels and al-Qaida, and partly a concession by the U.S. to secure Russian support for its campaign against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in 2002 and for the war in Iraq in 2003. … After 9/11, Putin’s framing of Chechnya as part of the “global war on terror” has been incorporated into Western policy approaches to Chechnya, and Chechen groups and leaders have been placed on the U.S. and UN lists of terrorist organizations.

An Inside View on the Tricky World of Wall Street-Driven Climate Markets

The World Bank likes to talk a good game on climate change. But when it comes to taking action, its approach can be “too narrowly focused, small scale and uncoordinated,” admits Bank President Jim Yong Kim. Worse still, it often backs entirely the wrong strategies, like carbon markets, while continuing to invest billions every year in new fossil fuel infrastructure.

Climate Finance Markets Site - www.climatefinance.org

VIEW NEW WEBSITE HERE: www.climatemarkets.org.

Since taking the helm, Jim Kim has made repeated promises that addressing climate change – and the devastating impacts it has on development – will be at the center of the Bank’s agenda. Key to this is a new Presidential Task Force on Climate Change, which will examine fossil fuel subsidies, carbon markets, “climate smart” agriculture, and partnerships to build cleaner cities. At the same time, the Bank’s low-income focused International Development Association (IDA), and its private sector arm, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), have both identified climate financing as a priority area.

The World Bank-IMF spring meetings convening in Washington DC provide an opportunity for the Bank to flesh out a new approach. The early signs are not promising, though. Carbon markets remain a central pole of the bank’s strategy, with $110 million pledged to a “Partnership for Market Readiness” that is encouraging the creation of new markets modeled on a European scheme that has already virtually collapsed.

There are indications, too, that much of the Bank’s “bold” new thinking is based on reaching out to the financial sector, using some of the same Wall Street tricks that proved so devastating for the United States and global economy in the 2008 crash. The Bank isn’t alone in this approach: the Green Climate Fund, and many of the other international financial institutions, are looking to encourage (“leverage”) private sector finance to plug the massive holes in climate financing left by industrialized countries failing to meet their obligations.

Dusting down the same old financial approaches isn’t going to work. In climate circles, it’s already possible to hear the familiar refrain that rich-country austerity means that “There Is No Alternative” to courting the private sector. To which we’d respond: the United States is not broke, and neither are the other industrialized (“Annex I”) countries that should be making far larger public financial contributions and developing ambitious domestic plans to curb the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change. On the financial side, these could be supplemented by a range of genuinely “innovative” approaches, including financial transaction taxes, or a “Robin Hood tax.”

We’ve set up a new website on Climate Finance and Markets (climatemarkets.org) to explore these new approaches, and to monitor how the World Bank, the Green Climate Fund and others are courting the financial sector.

The site, put together by IPS with the support of the Heinrich Böll Foundation North America, offers a range of materials that could help climate activists and advocates understand the new financial tools that are emerging, the role of key private sector actors (from banks to private equity funds), attempts to “leverage” private investment, and alternatives to this Wall Street-driven approach. Bank staff, public officials and journalists attending the World Bank-IMF spring meetings could even learn a thing or too as well.

Climate Finance Markets Site - www.climatefinance.org

See climatemarkets.org or follow us on Twitter @ClimateMarkets1

Emphasis Added: The Foreign Policy Week in Pieces (4/18)

It’s All About the Spin (and I don’t mean centrifuges)

Some of the reformists [in Iran] have indicated that the burden of proof of the peaceful nature of the country’s nuclear program now rests with Iran, due to its past mismanaged policies and reckless statements. Thus, they favor more intrusive and comprehensive inspections. But even advocates of the status quo seem poised to accept more limited stockpiles of 20 percent enriched uranium and more flexibility in allowing inspections, in return for an end to sanctions. The latter group, led by Khamenei, is really insisting that whatever the nature of a possible agreement, the Islamic regime must be allowed to declare victory.

The Ayatollah in His Labyrinth, Abbas Milani, Foreign Policy

The Alternative Energy That’s Dependent on Conventional Energy

Nuclear power, which we might mistakenly think does not rely on fossil fuels, is actually totally dependent on them. Leaving aside the uranium mining problem, nuclear power requires exacting conditions to operate safely and reliably that include diverse and reliable general and specialized supply chains, a stable electrical grid, near-certain physical security, and many other social, political, and economic conditions that directly or indirectly dependent on thermodynamically-cheap fossil fuels. … there is no indication that a safe, reliable, large-scale nuclear power based energy system would be possible without the heavy use of relatively cheap fossil fuels.

The submerged mind of Empire, Greg Mello, Forget the Rest

Will the Boston Marathon Bombing Only Isolate Us Further?

Terrorism poisons if not destroys our public spaces and the physical and psychic experiences we share with one another while in such spaces. … We must be vigilant about finding and punishing the perpetrators who terrorized Boston. But we must be equally vigilant about refusing to surrender our public places and events, for doing so is … fatal to our collective identities.

Another victim of bombings: public spaces, Thomas Schaller, the Baltimore Sun

An Advanced Degree in Atrocity

The costs of the terrorism inspired by the [Iraq] war include much more than the number, however horrifying, of lives lost. The terrorists who have been drawn to Iraq since 2003 and survived have been battle-hardened after fighting the most sophisticated military in history. … They have developed expertise in counterintelligence, gunrunning, forgery and smuggling. [We have] left behind, after seven bloody years, not only a shattered nation but also an international school for terrorists whose alumni are now spreading throughout the region.

Iraq: Where Terrorists Go to School, Jessica Stern, the New York Times

Sound Familiar?

Without [Tony] Blair’s charismatic thespianry and false hopes, without even the Shakespearean drama of Brown’s blighted leadership, an atmosphere of deathly, affectless decadence has settled over the [British] Labour Party. Populist but not very popular, Labour has become a dead mechanism animated by a blind drive: win elections. It is an election-winning machine which can barely win elections, and which has long ago forgotten why you would want to win an election in the first place. By contrast, the Tories have a feverish sense of purpose. They serve ruling class interests even when not in power by dragging the ‘centre’ ground to the right. Once in government, they impose their policy agenda at high speed, without majority or mandate, retrospectively justifying it, if they bother to justify it at all, with the kind of “debate” we saw last week.

The Happiness of Margaret Thatcher, Mark Fisher, Verso Books Blog

This Week in OtherWords: April 17, 2013

This week in OtherWords, Donald Kaul skewers the “progress” Congress is making on gun control, Chris Schillig weighs in on the Boston Marathon attack from a runner’s perspective, and Jim Hightower marvels at the Army’s green ambitions.

Here’s a clickable summary of our latest commentaries and a link to our new cartoon. If you haven’t already subscribed to our weekly newsletter, please do.

  1. Under-Regulating the Regulators / Michael Smallberg
    The career moves of the latest SEC chiefs underscore the agency’s revolving door problem.
  2. Let’s Lace Up and Keep Running / Chris Schillig
    We can’t close down the world and huddle in our houses after the Boston Marathon attack.
  3. Cutting Your Benefits Isn’t the ‘Middle’ Way / Peter Hart
    The rest of us are being left out of the “entitlement reform” story.
  4. ExxonMobil’s Mayflower Mess / Michael Brune
    Tar sands crude is both more toxic and much harder to clean than ordinary oil.
  5. No Progress on Gun Control to Report / Donald Kaul
    Gun lobbies have our legislature of cowardly lions in their teeth.
  6. The Art of Inequality / Sam Pizzigati
    Monumental gifts to museums are coinciding with the erosion of arts programs at the nation’s public schools.
  7. How to Send Less Trash to the Landfill / Jill Richardson
    Make a down payment on your own soil’s fertility by composting.
  8. The Army Goes Off the Grid / Jim Hightower
    Fort Bliss, a base near El Paso, is a hotbed of solar power and other green energy initiatives.
  9. Where the Money Is / William A. Collins
    America’s banks have always been shady.
  10. Sacrificing Social Security / Khalil Bendib cartoon
Sacrificing Social Security, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

Sacrificing Social Security, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

How About a Tax System for the 99 Percent?

Cross-Posted with Yes! Magazine

Paying taxes, as tens of millions of us in the United States do every April, evokes many emotions—from gratitude for government programs that feed the hungry to disgust over paying for fossil fuel subsidies and unjust wars. But among a growing number of people, it is also evoking anger over an unequal tax system that favors the 1 percent over the 99 percent. More and more of us are saying that corporations, Wall Street, and the wealthy should pay their fair share.

Robin Hood Tax USA/Flickr

Robin Hood Tax USA/Flickr

The good news is that rising numbers of organizations and people are involved in struggles for a more just tax system. Below we share the contours of three such campaigns, all of them winnable before the next U.S. president is elected.

Corporations: Daily newspaper headlines remind us that corporations are making record profits while their workers’ paychecks have been frozen for decades. These same corporations complain that the corporate tax rate, pegged at a mere 35 percent, is one of the highest in the world. And, corporations are lobbying furiously to cut that rate.

Read the rest of this post on Yes! Magazine’s website

Did Boston Marathon Bombers Choose Patriots’ Day to Cover Their Tracks?

At National Journal, Michael Hirsch wrote:

The timing of the Boston bombing, coming on Patriots Day in Massachusetts, might well suggest [a U.S. right-wing extremist group] says Jessica Stern, a terrorism expert at Harvard University. … “All these discussions about whether they’re going to take away our guns would be another reason to suspect anti-government groups. The other thing that points in the direction of right-wing nuts is the date.”

Patriots’ Day, which commemorates the battles of Lexington and Concord and is celebrated in Massachusetts on the third Monday of April, “has been for long time exciting day to be an extremist violent group,” says Stern. The Oklahoma City bombing of 1995, the Columbine high school massacre allegedly timed with Hitler’s birthday, and a more obscure incident in which authorities raided a compound occupied by a radical “Christian Identity” group called The Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord” in 1985 all occurred in April. “This whole week is a very important week for right-wing extremists,” adds Stern.

On the other hand, as Ms. Stern wrote in Time magazine, pressure-cookers packed with hardware-store shrapnel such as nails and ball bearings have

… been used around the world, including in the Mumbai attacks of 2006 [and] was recently promoted in an article titled “How to Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom” in the summer 2010 issue of al-Qaeda’s online magazine Inspire. The Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad followed the recipe, though Shahzad’s bomb would have killed many more people than the relatively small bombs in Boston.

The question arises: If the bombers were Islamist extremists, did they use the date and venue to deflect blame onto American white supremacists? Which gives rise to other questions: Would the former be aware of how important the day, week, month, and city are to the latter? More to the point, wouldn’t Islamist extremists they want to turn the violence into a statement by claiming responsibility?

Perhaps more likely though, especially since no one has yet brought the presence of Middle Easterners to our attention — except for innocent Saudis* lucky to escape with their lives and limbs — white supremacists chose the type of weapon to cast blame on Islamist extremists.

*To see how sympathetic some Saudis were to the suffering in Boston, visit the Saudi blog Riyadh Bureau.

Bands Like Laibach a Powerful Amplifier of Former Yugoslav Social Discontent

LaibachThe worlds of rock music and academia are not entirely separate. Noam Chomsky has appeared on stage with Rage Against the Machine. Poet Paul Muldoon and fellow Princeton professors play gigs as the Wayside Shrines. And, of course, plenty of students opt for courses that deconstruct Madonna, probe the historical impact of the Beatles, and so on.

But in Yugoslavia, and particularly Slovenia, a particularly close relationship sprang up in the 1970s between punks and professors. “At that time, classical political and social critique was not possible, so the political and cultural discontent and critique took the form of Rock music,” explains sociologist and politician Pavel Gantar. “Punk Rock music was a form of contestation. Later on, the State started to apply political oppression, and, as I said, intellectuals came out against this oppression. In the late 1970s, Rock music substituted for the absence of political and social criticism.”

Intellectuals came to the defense of punk rockers, and musicians expressed many of the sentiments that intellectuals couldn’t safely utter in public. The music scene in Yugoslavia soon became the envy of everyone else in the Eastern bloc, and many music fans in the West also began to follow bands like Pankrti and Laibach.

Laibach was a particularly provocative band. In Bulgaria, Zheliu Zhelev wrote a book about fascism that was in fact a veiled critique of communism. Laibach offered a much more in-your-face comparison. Adopting a totalitarian aesthetic that was equal parts communism, fascism, and futurism, it parroted the rhetoric of the Yugoslav authorities and thereby presented itself as a paragon of socialist realism. Defending Laibach, Slovenian intellectuals were also defending freedom of expression.

But by the 1980s, when Laibach appeared, intellectuals were already beginning to create the civil society movements that served as vehicles for social and political critique. Music remained a powerful amplifier of social discontent. But now there were proto-political formations that began to carve out space in Yugoslav society for alternative platforms.

When I interviewed Pavel Gantar in 1990, he was the head of the Liberal Party. The number one question in those days was the fate of Yugoslavia. Would it stay together as a loose confederation or as a more centralized federation? Or, as some began to hint at in those days, could the country stay together at all?

“We went to Belgrade and came back very disappointed,” he told me in 1990. “Rational discourse was not possible. We talked about interests and they are talking about Serbian soil and blood and fears and fights and so on. That’s why we think that Yugoslavia is probably not an option any more. But still the question remains: how to come to such solutions if we can’t stick together. Every solution is a bad solution in this game. We would stand for any solution which would not cost lives.”

Slovenia would declare its independence in June 1991. Pavel Gantar went on to join parliament and become its chairman in 2008. He was a politician for 18 years: six years as minister of environment and spatial planning, four years as minister for telecommunications, information, and technology, four years as an MP in the opposition, and then three years as speaker of the house of parliament.

When I caught up with him a few months ago, he was taking a hiatus from politics. We talked about his years supporting oppositional culture, the period he spent in government and parliament, and what Slovenia might have done differently during its transition. Below the most recent conversation is the original interview from 1990.

The Interview

Pavel Gantar

Pavel Gantar

Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?

I certainly remember the fall of the Berlin Wall. I was here in Ljubljana watching the direct TV transmission, and certainly, as far as I remember, we discussed this issue with our friends very closely and considered what is going to happen after that.

And what did you think was going to happen?

We believed that this was the end of the Eastern bloc, but at that time I was not quite sure how quickly the so-called reunification of Germany would come true. At that time, Yugoslavia was not a member of the Eastern bloc, but everybody knew that this would somehow stimulate the democratic processes in Yugoslavia.

At that the time you were teaching?

I was an assistant professor at the University of Ljubljana, in the faculty of social sciences. My professional area is urban sociology and urban planning. Ever since I enrolled in university, I was in involved in student politics, and later on in democratic politics. I was involved in student movements from 1968 to 1974. Then there was the period of communist oppression from 1974 until the end of the 1970s.

The different civil movements started slowly in Slovenia, basically with the rise of punk music in the late 1970s. There was a very peculiar alliance between the punk music scene and the intellectuals, who tried to justify the appearance of this punk music. Punk music was immediately attacked for being anti-socialist, obscene, pornographic, pro-fascist, and so on. Why punk music? Rock music was the only form of criticism tolerated at that time. Therefore social and political critique was spoken in the language of punk rock. There were a lot of intellectuals, including myself and Tomaz Mastnak and others, who engaged in the public media against the labels that were given to this music. And from that point on started all the different movements like the peace movement and the ecological movements.

There was a debate here on civil society based on the interesting articles of the UK scholar John Keene on why civil society matters for socialists and others, which posed the idea of taking the notion of civil society out of the prevailing conservative discourse to give it more of a socialist orientation. And this discussion of civil society was very important in Slovenia: we started with the idea of socialist civil society and then we evolved to the idea of civil society under socialism, which actually proved that, in a one-party system with limited pluralism, civil society can virtually not exist. It can only exist in private, as an alternative independent of the socialist or communist structure. These debates were the basis for the social movements.

I also became president of the culture organization called Skuc Forum, which developed different artistic forms and aesthetics through theater, music, movies, and so on. Most of the artists involved at that time were suppressed in different ways. But these men and women, who are now 30 or 40 years older, now form the core of Slovenian art. All of them have received high awards. But they started in isolation.

In the 1970s the idea emerged that if you cannot change the system you should try to organize your life independently of the system. You should develop alternative forms of socialization that express your interests, and you shouldn’t care about what happens around you in institutions. The idea of antipolitics of Gyorgy Konrad had a great impact upon us. Then there was conflict between the army and Slovenian civil society in the case of Janez Jansa. Then came the fall of the Berlin Wall and all these transformations. Slovenia had an opportunity to become independent and start a new chapter in history with a lot of good things and, of course, a lot of bad things.

I’m curious what elements of the student movement of the late 1960s proved to be enduring contributions to the debate in the alternative sector in Slovenia?

I would say, in terms of direct importance, none of them. But in the middle of the 1970s, the student movement and its serious suppression produced a very important experience for the actors in the movement. They realized that change is not so easily achieved. They understood the huge gap between the ideas of socialism and the reality of socialism. Losing these illusions was a very important experience for those who were active in the student movement and then later in the civil movement. We became more skeptical. We understood that, most likely, the change of the system was impossible. But no system is so perfect, so totalitarian, that you can’t develop your own forms of socialization. And that’s what we did. We tried to expand the area of freedom. We tried to stand up against the very orthodox aesthetic criteria of the formal culture of Party politics. In the environmental field, we stood against water pollution, the illegal and unethical conduct of some companies toward nature, and so on. We criticized the national army in connection with the anti-nuclear movements in Europe at the time.

In this way, I think the experience of disillusionment was important for those who participated in these movements and later in the civil movements. We recognized the distinction between society and state. This is very important. And it came out of the discussion of socialist civil society, which turned into a discussion how civil society can survive under socialism.

As a result of many of the protests of the 1960s and early 1970s, which were repressed in turn in each of the republics, Yugoslavia got the 1974 constitution. Many people have told me that the 1974 constitution basically met many of the demands of these movements for greater autonomy of the republics.

Yes, the issue of autonomy was certainly an issue for the student movements: autonomy of the university, autonomy of different social groups, and also autonomy of the republics. But autonomy of the republics was not itself the goal. It was more autonomy in terms of democracy. I think the federal party leadership changed the constitution because it realized that the very strong oppression of the different autonomy movements – the so-called nationalism in Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia – would not work, that they had to find a forum and formula that would in the future prevent such sort of nation-based politics in the republics. And they tried to do this by somehow easing the relations between the federal level and the republics. They were sure that they could keep this within strong institutional structures.

There was a debate in the Party about whether to allow some forms of political pluralism or to allow the more autonomous activity of the Party within the republics, and they obviously decided for the latter. Greater autonomy for the republics was basically a rejection of greater political pluralism. I don’t think they dreamed that later on this autonomy could bring about secession or the collapse of Yugoslavia. They thought they had all the serious political strings in their hands under the control of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia and the Yugoslav National Army. So they could ease up on the relations between the republics and the federation and at the same time maintain the political domination with the Party and the Army. It was a miscalculation.

It was not only a miscalculation. You’re suggesting that the choice between different types of autonomy — autonomy at the republic level versus greater political autonomy — ultimately determined how Yugoslavia would dissolve. It other words, it could have dissolved in a politically liberal way, but instead it dissolved in a national republic way.

Certainly this is true. The problem of Yugoslavia is, speaking very frankly, that Tito probably died 10 years too late. He was a sort of symbolic guarantee of the state, but at the same time he was a guarantee that nothing would change. If you look at the history of Yugoslavia, from the time it was established in 1920 up to 1990, what do we see? Yugoslavia existed as a democratic state for only for a few years—from 1920 to 1922. And then there was authoritarian rule up to the beginning of World War II. After that there was a dictatorship and the rule of the Party. Immediately when authoritarian rule started to loosen up, the so-called centrifugal tensions became stronger.

So basically Yugoslavia might have been a nice idea, but it never actually functioned as a democratic state. This was the difference between the collapse of Yugoslavia and the peaceful division between Slovaks and Czechs. Here it was much more based on nationalist ideas, particularly of the Serbs. At that time, the Serbs implicitly equated their own views and interests with the interests of the entire country. And that was unbearable.

I’m particularly interested in the punk music period. It’s so unusual for university professors to come to the defense of punk musicians.

At that time, I was a very young assistant. I started as assistant at the university during the dismantling of the student movement in the early 1970s. This dismantling encompassed all student movement institutions, including the independent community of high schools in Slovenia. Only one institution remained: Radio Student. Radio Student was the first student radio in Europe, established in 1970 as a part of the syndicalist program of the student movements. I also worked there, as a correspondent. Radio Student broadcast from noon to 3 pm, which wasn’t very much. The Communist Party considered Radio Student relatively apolitical and not a dangerous institution—so they left it alone.

But at a time when other institutions had been erased, Radio Student took on the role of expressing protest and cultural discomfort through music. They were the most important promoter of international Rock music in Slovenia. They played all the new Rock music, especially British punk music like The Clash, The Sex Pistols, and so on. This music was also broadcast immediately here, maybe with fewer administrative and political obstacles than in the UK, because here it was just foreign music and nobody cared about attacking the Queen of England.

I’m sure the Communist Party here was happy to promote music that attacked the Queen of England!

Yes. Three years ago, I had dinner with the Queen, and I recall thinking, “How nice this lady is! She really looks just like my mom. It’s very pleasant to talk with her.” And I remembered the Sex Pistols lyric, “God save the Queen, the fascist regime,” and I thought, “Maybe she didn’t deserve that!”

But back then, this punk music found its natural environment here. The people were disappointed. The young generation was without hope. There was growing tension in the economy. There was no future. Slowly some local bands were established, like the band Pankrti. The lead singer Peter Lovsin had a big interview today with the newspaper Dnevnik, where he said that he never consciously meant to be a revolutionary, that it was only by accident. But the provocative lyrics, like the ones about having no future, were absolutely critical. At that time, classical political and social critique was not possible, so the political and cultural discontent and critique took the form of Rock music. Punk Rock music was a form of contestation. Later on, the State started to apply political oppression, and, as I said, intellectuals came out against this oppression. In the late 1970s, Rock music substituted for the absence of political and social criticism.

And there was Laibach…

Laibach was post-Punk. Laibach came later, in the early 1980s. While Punk actually criticized the hopelessness of the situation, Laibach took all these development one stage higher. Laibach was actually mimicking socialism. They took socialism seriously. They held up a mirror to power, to the Party. And it was because of this that they were subversive. They didn’t say, “We don’t like this ideology.” No, they said, “We will seriously apply this ideology to music.” And the authorities were very surprised with Laibach.

And did the audience understand this?

There is always a question of whether or not you understand the music, whether or not it touches you. And of course this music touched a lot of youngsters. They made the effort. But no one can really say how it affected people’s lives. But basically Laibach fans were more or less oriented toward democratic movements. Laibach comes from a coal miner’s town in Trbovlje, where there is a strong proletarian tradition, which has both some sort of nostalgia about that time as well as criticism of the coal miner tradition, industrial society, and so on.

And in this post-punk era, was it necessary for intellectuals to come to the defense of Laibach as well?

Of course! Laibach was actually operating under the Skuc Forum. And I did a lot of activities to protect the group. This peculiar connection between Rock music of all sorts and critical intellectuals persisted all through the 1980s up to the 1990s.

I want to focus on one aspect of the 1980s and that’s the anti-politics aspect of Gyorgy Konrad’s work. As you point out, there was a point at which people said, “We will simply ignore the political reality and will create our own space.” It seemed to be two options coming out of Konrad’s understanding of anti-politics. One was that you ignore the official political sphere and you focus on the private sphere. The other was to take the Charter 77 approach and challenge the authorities not politically morally.

Yugoslavia and Slovenia at that time were, in terms of political freedom of expression, much more open than the Czech Republic or Hungary. So basically a Charter 77 movement was not really needed, because a lot of things could be said here. There were movements around the magazine Nova Revija and its famous issue number 57, where actually there was already the idea of an independent Slovenia. And there was the Trial of the Four in 1988 [that pitted the Army against the magazine Mladina], which had some resemblance to the movements in Czechoslovakia at that time. But again, Slovenia was a relatively free country in terms of expression, so political engagement took a different form.

And do you think that the anti-politics of that period still has resonance today? I find that in other countries, in Bulgaria for instance, where people still have profound suspicion of the political realm, even if it’s a different political system?

Yes, I think so. Some part of the so-called 99% movement in Slovenia, which had been camping last year in front of the national stock exchange, resembled this anti-politics, even if they were not aware of it. They were much more inclined toward the radical political ideas of the 1980s and 1990s from the United States, like David Harvey and some others, and not so much inclined to rethink the experience of the protest movements and anti-political ideas developed under socialism in 1970s and 1980s.

And when you assess the political temperament of the average person in Slovenia—not so much the activist or the 99% movement, but the average person—is there any anti-political residue from that period?

I would say there is an exhaustion with politics. There is a general non-confidence in politics. There is a general conviction that politics is something dirty, something you cannot rely on. The people are sick of politicians and politics. They tend to withdraw to the private realm. But it’s not the type of engagement used in anti-politics. It’s much more neo-corporatist, I would say, more focused on collectivities like trade unions, pensioners, teachers, and trolley drivers.

When we talked in 1990, the discussion was still about whether a confederal model was possible. And at the time I think the specific debate was whether Croatia and Slovenia should work more closely with each other or whether Slovenia should go off by itself.

This idea of a close cooperation of trade between Slovenia and Croatia was a very transitory idea. The idea of a so-called Yugoslav confederation designed on the model of the European Economic Community was much more viable, and I remember the Liberal Democratic Party (LDS) actually advocated this idea. It was represented as an idea by intellectuals in Belgrade and elsewhere, but it was rejected entirely. The intellectual movement in Belgrade demanded radical democratization: one person, one vote, and so on. But that wouldn’t have changed anything, and it would have meant the absolute predominance of Serbian politics and the centralization of the state.

You could ask, “What would have happened if Milosevic was not there?” Maybe there could have been some sort of window of opportunity to redesign the federation into a looser, more democratic community of nation states. But this may or may not have happened. You could say that it was almost inevitable that Milosevic as a movement would appear. So, we should not ask ourselves what would have happened if Milosevic had not appeared. Instead we should ask ourselves, “Why did it happen that Milosevic was the option for Serbia?”

Back in 1990 you said, “There would have been a very good possibility that Vuk Draskovic would have been in power” and that would have perhaps been even worse.

Even worse. Because he would have had a democratic legitimation at least at the beginning. So as I said, Yugoslavia was a beautiful idea. But never in its 70-year history—except for maybe two years—did it exist as a more-or-less democratic state.

Do you think that any action by any major actor at the time, between 1989 and the end of 1990, could have made a difference in terms of avoiding such a savage war? And I don’t mean simply what Slovenia could have done, or what Croatia could have done, but also what the European Union or the United States could have done.

I think everyone underestimated the potential for ethnic conflict in terms of the agreements of Milosevic and Tudjman on the division of Bosnia. This was the problem. Everybody overlooked that. What we knew in Slovenia is that we should exit. Slovenians at different levels tried also to convince some others that this was an option for them too, but they didn’t believe it. They waited too long. They should have learned their lesson earlier. The basic problem was that the disintegration of Yugoslavia was an opportunity for the nationalist idea in Croatia and Serbia. Their claims over such a large ethnic and physical territory: that was the problem. Only if Bosnia, when it declared independence, could have come under some sort of international protectorate, with the UN or the EU immediately sending forces down there. You can’t really blame European or American politicians for not doing this. Nobody probably could have done this.

It would have been unprecedented.

Unprecedented. In the end, it would have been impossible because the Soviet Union stood strongly on the side of the Serbians and Milosevic. Nobody was happy about what was happening. The European Economic Community at that time tried to keep Yugoslavia together. But it was difficult to prevent the disintegration. Only maybe if Izetbegovic had been more open to the Serbs and Croats, advocating a much more ethnically pluralist society instead of building a Bosniak party. But again I think this would not have prevented the situation.

As you point out, the discussion at Karadjordjevo between Tudjman and Milosevic had already taken place. So nothing Izetbegovic could have done would have been effective.

No, not by that time.

When you look back at the decisions that Slovenia made, after the brief war that took place and once sovereignty was established, is there anything that could have been done differently that could have ensured a better outcome?

Of course, yes, particularly two decisions. One was very bad, and this was the law on the restitution of property that had been seized and nationalized during the communist rule from 1945 to around 1957. According to this law, everything should be given back to people in terms of property, objects, and so on. And if the property was no longer available, then qualified people would get really generous payments. We’re still paying for this. It has actually produced new inequities. With the restitution in Germany, if the house was still there then you got it back. If it wasn’t there, your compensation was very small. The more you have had confiscated, the less you got back. If the communists confiscated from you 100 euros, you got 100 euros back. But if the government confiscated 1 million euros, then you only got back 100 thousand euro. But here, it has been one of the great redistributions of wealth. Many of the properties that were nationalized had mortgages. And those loans were held by companies that had been nationalized. So, if you were overburdened with loans and your property was nationalized, now you were given it back after 30 or 40 years without any debt. Or you would get compensation if your house was no longer there because it had been replaced by a highway or something like that.

So it was 100% restitution?

Almost. And particularly for the church. The archdiocese of Ljubljana was allowed to restore the ownership of large forests in some Slovenian regions. Some of these forests had been actually sold to the state in the early 1920s. Later, on the eve of World War Two, they were returned to the Church. When the Germans occupied Slovenia they renationalized these forests, and of course when the communists came to power the forests remained in state ownership.

I don’t understand that. So the Church actually sold the forest in the 1920s…

Yes, and because this had been renationalized by the German state and then the communists nationalized it again, and so then it was subject to restitution. And just recently the Catholic Church got back the only island in Slovenia, which is on Lake Bled.

So they had owned this island up until the communist period?

Yes, they owned the church on the island. Nobody had any objections that the church building goes back to the Catholic Church.

But they get the whole island?

The whole island, yeah. It’s crazy. And there’s been a reorganization of local communities and municipalities, which has been led by the conservative parties. They want to preserve as many of the municipalities as possible. We are now facing enormous costs connected to local politics. We have 210 municipalities, and some of them don’t even have a thousand inhabitants. They have more eagles than people!

When the restitution law was proposed, was there opposition to it?

There was opposition, but it was not sufficient to prevent this law. Some of the members of the opposition—particularly ex-communists and liberal democrats—didn’t vote for this. They actually abstained and thus allowed the law to be adopted.

Also, the voucher privatization was not very good. Everybody got vouchers, but of course some of them traded their vouchers as soon as possible. Later of course some of these companies were viable; some others were not. But speaking very clearly, some sort of privatization had to happen. It was not optimal here, but I would say it was much better than in Hungary or some other countries where they simply sold what they got to funds controlled by foreign investors.

Up until recently, the Slovenian model of economic reform was held up as an example

The Slovenian model, after 20 years, is at the stage when it should consider some constitutional changes to promote better development. For instance, we should make some changes concerning the referendum process, because referendums are so easily achieved that you can block any sort of legislative decision.

Can you give me an example?

For example, on pension reform. Everybody knows that we should change the age of retirement from 63 to 65, not because of the economic crisis but because we live longer. But the law, which is very mild in terms of a long transition period, had been turned back by referendum.

It passed in parliament, but it was blocked by referendum.

Yes, and there have been other laws as well.

And there’s no mechanism for parliament to overturn a referendum?

No. The referendum is the last word. It’s not that the referendum should not be allowed. But the problem is that there is no quorum. If 20% of the population votes in the referendum, this 20% of population decides. And a lot of the issues have not aroused the wider attention of the public, so the minority can control the issue through the referendum process.

Also, the election law should change, in terms of providing more competition and more equal chances in some regions. Politically Slovenia has become very polarized. Center politics has disappeared in Slovenia, and now it’s much more polarized to the left and to the right.

The polarization of politics is of course happening in many countries. What factors do you think contribute to this polarization, aside from internal factors? What do you think are the common factors that lead to this polarization?

I keep asking myself this, but unfortunately I have no answer. In the Slovenian case, I would say that when one actor, like Janez Jansa, who has personified right-wing politics, chooses polarization, it’s very difficult for the other side not to play this game. The economic crisis has also created conditions in which politicians call for clear-cut solutions, which are one-sided and polarize the people.

In Slovenia there is a historical reason as well. There is a longstanding conflict between liberals and conservatives, between the clerical politics on one side and liberal (sometimes only “liberal”) politics on the other side. This polarization has existed in Slovenia since the late-19th century.

When we talked in 1990 the central tendency in the liberal party was between those focusing on classical liberalism—the classic economic liberalism of the European tradition—and the liberalism that focused more on civil liberties, and also social benefits, or the American liberal tradition. Does that tension still exist here?

It’s not very strong. This was an issue for the liberal democrats even before they came to the power. But later on the ideas of the traditional social liberalism of the American variety has prevailed in the LDS. The so-called neo-liberal politics played only a minor role in the early stages of the LDS. Later on the neo-liberals have been located elsewhere, particularly in the Slovenian Democratic Party. In the UK and the United States too, the political expression of neo-liberal economic ideas is conservatism, so they have been much more been linked to conservative politics, not liberal politics.

You mentioned two things in terms of your own experience of being both an academic and an activist and then going into politics. You mentioned the experience of polarization and also the experience of the power of referendum. Are there other things that surprised you about the political experience?

I spent 18 years in professional politics: six years as minister of environment and spatial planning, then four years as minister for telecommunications, information, and technology, then four years as an MP in the opposition, and then three years as speaker of the house of parliament. So I have a really rich experience in politics, and a lot of things surprised me.

I was surprised until my last day of professional politics, and I’m surprised even now, by how aware we were in the first period that we were creating a new state. We were developing institutions to enable people—at least so we believed—to have a decent life. Particularly in the environment and with physical planning and urban planning, our idea was to connect Slovenia by building highways. We did that. We believed that water was one of the most important resources and should be preserved and developed. So we started a large water-cleaning program. We adopted all the legal structures according to the demands and requirements of the European Union. So, there was a sense that we were doing something to enable Slovenians to have a better life, so that they wouldn’t have to worry about the water they were drinking, and so on. And this period ended with Slovenia’s entrance into the European Union.

The following period coincided with Janez Jansa taking over the government. And this became more of a battle over who gets what out of development. This has actually brought this country to the brink of economic disaster, where we now have to apply to the European Central Bank and the European Union for help. All of this earlier awareness has been lost after entering the European Union and adjusting our institutions to the requirements of a modern democratic state. After that, there was no big goal any more. It was more like: we are where we want to be so now it’s time to get as much as possible out of it. And those who resist this approach have no political power. So Slovenia now has a very unpredictable future.

Do you think that if EU membership had been delayed a couple of years more, these challenges could have been met internally?

I don’t think so. I think that this problem has been somehow present this whole time. After we joined the European Union, we thought that nothing bad could happen to us. It’s a psychological problem. But again, I’m somehow optimistic. I believe that we will find a way out of this period. And in many ways Slovenia is not doing bad.

Are you willing to back into politics?

I don’t know. Never say “never again.” I’m very happy with my position. I’m very glad not to be around politics right now. After 20 years of democracy in Slovenia obviously this is a time of generation change in Slovenian politics.

When you think back to your own positions back in 1990 or so, have you rethought any of your positions in any substantial way?

Not really in a substantial way. I rethought some of my decisions, for sure, but not in a substantial way. So, for instance, I would have made some environmental policies more quickly.

What about your understanding of liberalism as a philosophy?

I never understood liberalism in the market way. I saw it as a complex of ideas of basically European origin plus some later American features. I still persist in believing that thinkers from the 18th or 19th century cannot really fully answer questions today. But of course, you can also see how these issues and problems have been developed during this history, and that’s useful. So I’m not a dogmatic liberal-thinking politician. I know that the liberal set of ideas is maybe the most unorganized and controversial set of ideas ever. So if someone says to me that he is liberal, then I just start to consider what he could really mean by that.

Do you think the concept of an open society—which is fundamentally a liberal conception–is under attack in a substantial way? Do you see the possibility of an actual rollback to a very dangerous time, and I’m thinking here of FIDESZ in Hungary and…

Yes, certainly, I think so. This concept of open society is absolutely essential, particularly for the kind of democracy that can evolve out of authoritarian or totalitarian rule. I was so upset when I found that in the program of the LDS about six or seven years ago there was no mention of open society. Fortunately, I redrafted some of the chapters and put it back.

This is a really important issue, because the solution that is offered, whether by FIDESZ in Hungary or the Slovenian Democratic Party and Janez Jansa here, is a closed society: keeping society under control and depriving the people of possible alternatives. That’s a very dangerous idea. Sometimes people all too easily accept this idea, because they think that they will get security. At the end of the day, however, they will have neither openness nor security.

The last three questions are, quantitative. When you look into the future, the next couple of years for Slovenia, how do you assess the prospects on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being most pessimistic and 10 being most optimistic?


When you look back into the past from 1989 until today, and you assess everything that has changed or not changed here in Slovenia, how would you rate that on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being most dissatisfied and 10 being most satisfied?


And when you look at your own personal life over the same period, 1989 to today, same scale, 1 to 10, 1 being most dissatisfied, 10 being most satisfied?

I would say 8.

Ljubljana, October 17, 2012

Interview (1990)

Could you describe your present activities?

You should know that I am a member of the presidency of the Liberal party here in Slovenia. It is an interesting issue of how the party I belong to became a liberal party, what liberalism means for us, politically, economically. The history of this party also describes the democratization processes here in Slovenia and also the dilemmas that appeared after the first so-called free elections. If I start at the end of the story, one thing which is more or less obvious for us: the path from the one party system, basically totalitarianism, to a pluralist system, democratic elections and so on, is not such a one directional path. After the elections, we have still problems and issues with democratic institutions. Partly we are witnessing a new appearance of totalitarianism within the so-called democratic parties. We see some danger of the over-emphasis of the focusing on issues of national sovereignty which, I am speaking personally, endangers the rights of individuals.

One very important issue, to illustrate, is the question of national army. Now it is a very important issue in the so-called democratization process. Before the election, there was the idea that we should try to achieve some sort of internationally recognized status of Slovenia as a de-militarized zone, a zone where there is no army and so on. Almost all so-called opposition parties before the elections were for this zone more or less but after the elections, after Demos came into power, they very strongly changed their attitude and they see the national army as a very important attribute of national sovereignty.

The Liberal party’s view is that we should now build our economic and political future more on the formal institutions guaranteed through checks and balances so that political options should prevail in their totality and not so much on substantive issues which might be national sovereignty or the army. This liberal option is: we don’t believe in great projects. We don’t believe in socialism. Our organization has done a lot to show how to dismantle this system. We don’t believe in projects in big capital letters: Socialism, Nation, even Democracy. What we are really trying for is a sort of a actual political and economic system which would prevent any political group and any political issue from dominating all the others. And here our prime concern, therefore, is human rights. Human rights considering the citizens of Slovenia and Yugoslavia and trying particularly now in the debate centered around the new constition, we will strongly support maximum human rights guarantees, all sorts of checks and balances built into the constitution.

In the sphere of the economy, we clearly see that the so-called socialized socialist economy didn’t work. But on the other side, we see that there is no one way, no easy solution. We also know that the market economy or regulated market economy has had crucial setbacks. But nevertheless we don’t think that here we can organize an ideal economic system. What we are striving for is to create a situation which would enable people to take their initiatives in the economy with all necessary measures, particularly concerning ecology, social issues and so on. I would describe our liberalism more as human rights liberalism than economic liberalism. Although we think that we have to de-nationalize and re-privatize the economy but with some guarantees that would not allow the management and owners free disposal and so on.

The other very important topic is Yugoslavia. We also function differently on the topic of Slovenia-Yugoslavia. Before the election, the parties involved in Demos were standing for the independence and sovereignty of Slovenia as soon as possible. But we stood for cooperation which we operationalize in terms of a Yugoslav economic association which would have a common market, common elements of external politics, some financial and banking institutions. But the republics should be in other ways independent to act. Now, after the elections, Demos took this idea of cooperation. Now the situation is so that Demos will probably fight for cooperation between Slovenia and Croatia which we still don’t consider a good solution. Because good relations between two republics in which one is very small like Slovenia, various sorts of differences can come out. But now the situation concerning Yugoslavia is very different. As it looks, we went to Belgrade to see if there is some sort of possibility for restructuring Yugoslavia and then we found out quite clearly that there is not. Not because we don’t want it, but because Serbia doesn’t want it.

At the moment.

Yes, but this moment could last a very long period. Even after the elections. We talked with the opposition groups and they have the same position as the ruling party. We spoke of some sort of pact between Yugoslav nations and they were talking about war and redrawing the borders, dividing the territories – Macedonia, Bosnia and so on. So actually it is not the issue that Slovenia and Croatia are for greater independence but that Serbia is now determined that if they can’t rule over all Yugoslavia, they will advocate some sort of separatism to dominate south-eastern parts of Yugoslavia. Concerning the elections in Serbia, the opposition parties there think that Milosevic will prepare a new constitution, give the constitution to a referendum, certainly he will win a overwhelmingly majority and after that immediately organize the elections in a period of months with no chaance for the oppositional parties to prepare a fair pre-election campaign. But even if some other party comes to power, it will not display a different view on this issue. Particuarly if Draskovic comes to power. The Democrats and the Liberal Forum, whose basic ideas are close to ours in terms of liberal democracy, have no chance of coming near to power. So paradoxically if we are left to choose between confederation of Croatia and Slovenia and an independent Slovenia, we are inclined more toward independence.

What about these more democratic Yugoslav options?

This is what we were striving for. We produced this document about the Yugoslav economic association which is based on the following assumptions. All republics should have free elections. After the elections, the major political powers that come out of these elections should come together in some sort of round table and see the options. As you know, Yugoslavia’s beginning was already marked with bad marks. And that after the war, Yugoslavia was based on some rational assumptions which may work on a symbolic level but not on a level of practical political life. Its very rude what I will say, but: the fact that Yugoslavia is composed of very different cultural worlds (I’m not saying that the cultural wworld that Slovenia belongs to is higher, I’m a cultural relativist). So I’m not saying that the Serbs are in comparison to Western culture something less. Rather, I would claim quite the opposite. But the fact is that they are different worlds. The more I think of Yugoslavia, the more I believe that the causes of conflicts are based in the cultural sphere not in political or economic disagreements. But in the very differnt ways that people think that life should be organized. On the other side, the south-eastern space – from the alps to Greece – could present a terrain of mutual cooperation, but it must be based on mutual interest of the republics, of the nations. We think that Yugoslavia is possible if it is based on “a pure and rational calculation of interests.” So if every republic thinks that it will be better for it to join Yugoslavia, then Yugoslavia is possible. There are very few issues of interest: dispersion of population (Croats living in other republics) and the economy

There seems to be a basic contradiction between the ideals of liberalism (rational self-interest) and the irrational forces of nationalism that today exist within Yugoslavia. What will come of this clash

We went to Belgrade and came back very disappointed. Rational discourse was not possible. We talked about interests and they are talking about Serbian soil and blood and fears and fights and so on. That’s why we think that Yugoslavia is probably not an option any more. But still the question remains: how to come to such solutions if we can’t stick together. Every solution is a bad solution in this game. We would stand for any solution which would not cost lives.

Even if you become independent you will still have to deal with Serbia. Serbia will not suddenly become transfered to another part of the globe.

That’s the point. There are different options. But the problem is: the Serbians say “if you Slovenes don’t want to stay in Yugoslavia, you are free to go.” But that is not the situation in Croatia. 10 per cent of the population there are Serbs. Serbia are claiming historic territory including almost all of Bosnia and part of the Dalmatian hinterland. There are two possibilities in Serbia-Croatia relations: one is violent conflict, the other is some sort of agreement between Croats and Serbs. And this would allow that Yugoslavia would become some sort of confederation. But what would be the price of such an agreement? If the price would be that Kosovo goes to Serbs, and also part of Macedonia, then we would not go for such compromise. Because this was the politics before the war. Two big brothers were dealing between themselves and the smaller nations paid the price – Slovenia, Macedonians, Albanians.

Superpower relations.

Yes. Here human rights issues are involved. If we go apart, we would leave the Albanians to themselves. But if we stay in Yugoslavia, can we help the Albanians? That’s why I said that there is no good solution.

I don’t think anyone wants to see a partition solution as between Indiaa and Pakistan. That would mean population traansfers and the creation of homogenous populations. And the loss of life.

We claim that as well. Such a scenario involving moving a large section of population would be the worst for us. We are strongly in favor of ethnic minorities. They are entitled to the same rights as the majority population. And we do see them as a sort of element, abstractly speaking, which increased the variety of society. What is really boring is one nation. Sometimes we make jokes with Austrians: it’s really boring there! Yugoslavia is something you have to experience, sometimes dangerous, dynamic compared to the stagnant Austria.

In terms of Serbia, it will perhaps become more dangerous if isolated, if it feels cornered or trapped.

As I can see, Serbia is not very much interested in the Western parts of Yugoslavia. They are interested in part of Croatia, part of Bosnia-Herzogovina, and Macedonia. What we can see in Europe, tensions have been removed from East-West relations and transfered to the Balkans. If you see those Balkan countries treat national minorities you will see that Serbs are the most democratic! Compared to Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Greece, Albania. Sometimes I think that these Balkan nations are only waiting for Yugoslavia to fall apart and then they will jump for Macedonia. Part of the territory will go to Greece, the major part divded between Serbia and Bulgaria. Albania is simply too weak though it has 1/3 of the population in Macedonia.

You mentioned earlier some of the principles of classic political liberalism, checks and balances, etc. I’m wondering if you also hope to follow another liberal principle: the triangular relationship between state, business and labor developed in the U.S. in the 20th century?

Yes. I worked on this interwar period in U.S. history in my Ph.d. But Slovenia is very small and prone to corporatist solutions – in which labor and government come to some agreement, some undefinable unity. We would not be able to see how these interests are articulated. Already in the last 20 years, the Slovenian government wanted to rule the country as a big corporation with everything owned by the government. Some sort of unstructured corporate division which developed some para-governmental structure: this is what we want to prevent

Like Slovenia as a company-town.

Yes, we would like to prevent this. The other issue: precisely because we are small, the social space is very intensive. A lot more is happening in a small social space. Slovenia is in those terms a modern society. Therefore we stand for a strictly proportional system of voting which would allow that political and other preferences are presented through the institutional systems, in opposition to the majority system in which you have a reduction of interests before they enter into the institutions. But basically we do accept this scheme that social policy should be determined by these three actors: government, business and labor. But we want to see clearly defined positions. Now, the government is becoming even stronger than the last two years before the elections. Before it didn’t have the legitimacy as a one party government. Now it is a multiparty government but institutions remain the same. So it has political legitimacy and all the powers from the one party system. Which is very abnormal. On the other side, we have a business shattered by the bad position of the economy. We have a considerable industrial tradition, we don’t have big industrial cities or urban industrial working class. Aproximately 50 per cent of the working class is working farmers. Either they are employed in small industrial companies in the country or small cities or they move from the villages daily to the cities. The industrial urban working class is supposed to be the social basis for strongly organized labor either politically or in trade unions. But trade unions are not very important social factors here. Workers-farmers are culturally and politically inclined toward the country way of living and toward more rightist parties. Slovenia is not good soil for liberalism either. You had the domination of two big collectivist ideologies here: Catholicism and Communism. The urban middle class educated is very tiny.

You want to create countervailing forces without the social basis for such forces and in the face of a government clearly not interested in creating such opposition. What can you do?

The point is, as I said, when we think in these macro-sociological categories, the situation looks rather pessimistic. But I don’t really believe very much in terms of political parties and social bases. What is very charasteristic for our party, liberal intellectuals or even leftist-liberal intellectuals are certainly a minority in terms of the population as a whole but not a minority in terms of providing concepts and ideas. They have knowledge and skills of mobilizing the population. If you would order all liberal writers to stop all their writing, then the papers would simply have no articles! Right now we have 40 members of parliament out of 240 total. We are the strongest single party in parliament. That’s not so bad. In those terms, it is a question of party strategy. If it is able to organize, but not in a party way: it is chaarasteristic of liberal intellectuals not to want to belong to a party. What we do with this party is to create a supporting mechanism for the members of parliament and to make some channels for information and so on. We don’t want to be some kind of populist party with 50,000 members. We don’t need this.

One problem for liberals in the West, however, is that they often can’t win in elections because they have this faith in the power of ideas while other parties believe in the power of power.

We think that if we can manage to have some 15-20 per cent of the elected bodies, we would have a fairly good chance of providing stability. We wouldn’t say that publically: we say that we want more publically. But 15-20 percent, we think we can get that. Lawyers and professionals like that support us. Managers too. So we are not so restricted to only so-called liberal intelligentsia.

Are there major differences of opinion between branches of the party, between human rights liberals and economic liberals for instance?

We had the very same structuring in the Liberal party as characteristic in European Liberal party with this opposition of the two groups. Up to now, we don’t see this opposition as damaging to the party. On the contrary, it constitutes an internal dynamic of party life.

No Peace Dividend? Not So Fast

This blog post originally appeared on The Hill’s Congress Blog.

Obama administration’s budget included a promissory note. It will take them a few more weeks to tell us what they plan to spend next year on the Afghan War. Their intention to bring that war to an end, though, is clear.

Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and his Harvard colleague Linda Bilmes are predicting that this will produce “little in the way of a peace dividend for the U.S. economy once the fighting stops.” They base this bleak assessment on the kinds of meticulous calculations that anchored their 2008 book The Three Trillion Dollar War: on the huge sums we will and must be spending to care for wounded veterans, for example, and the money squandered when war support functions were massively and unnecessarily shifted to private contractors.

They are surely and unfortunately right that what we will save by ending these wars has already been “spent” on the future, baked-in costs of misguided decisions made during those wars. But that doesn’t mean that the prospect of a “peace dividend” is gone.

That’s because the ending of the wars is coinciding with a broader defense downsizing, propelled by the battle over the budget deficit. And the effects of automatic budget cuts known as “sequestration” on the Pentagon budget will actually produce a smaller downsizing than any of the previous postwar periods: smaller than after the Cold War, or the Vietnam War, or the Korean War.

There is more downsizing to do, therefore, on a military budget that, adjusted for inflation, climbed higher during the post-9-11 period than any budget since World War II. During this period the idea of making choices among military priorities was simply shelved. And this budget grew on top of the separate budget that has funded the post-9-11 wars. With an economy starved from lack of public investment, we need that peace dividend. Will we get one? You wouldn’t think so, from the looks of the administration’s Pentagon budget request this year, which fails even to stay within the limits set by sequestration.

Jeff Attaway/Flickr

Jeff Attaway/Flickr

But there’s better news in what the new Defense secretary has been saying. Chuck Hagel’s first major speech April 3 at the National Defense University referred to the “inevitable downturn in defense budgets.” He criticized past weapons spending programs that produced “systems that are vastly more expensive and technologically risky than what was promised or budgeted for.” Hagel has committed to a serious reexamination of his Department’s spending practices, a “Strategic Choices and Management Review,” that will actually tie our national security strategy to the budget available to pay for it.

It will identify actual priorities from among the long list of missions the Pentagon has claimed for itself in recent years. The last major Pentagon reorganization, he noted, came during the height of the Cold War, when “[c]ost and efficiency were not major considerations.” He promises that the new review will take seriously the proposition that “DoD is incentivized to ask for more and do more,” and work to change this budget-busting combination.

Will he succeed? No telling, as yet. The first Obama administration (and last Bush administration) Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, had some of the same intentions, most of them unrealized. But the post-sequester world is different. In this world we know it really is possible to shrink the Pentagon’s budget, despite the best efforts of the defense industry, its congressional allies, and much of the Pentagon staff itself to keep it climbing ever higher.

To get to a Pentagon budget that is sized for our new postwar world, the downsizing momentum needs to keep going. While the war budget declines, we need to make sure that the “regular” Pentagon budget comes down with it. This is where a peace dividend can be found. We can’t give up on that goal so easily.

Pemberton is a research fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and co-author, with Lawrence Korb of the Center for American Progress, of the Unified Security Budget for the United States.

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