IPS Blog

The Failure of Funding Roma Inclusion

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

Orhan Tahir

Orhan Tahir

Shortly before the last national elections in Bulgaria in 2011, an incident took place in the village of Katunitsa, which is not far from the second-largest city of Plovdiv. On the night of September 23, a 19-year-old ethnic Bulgarian Angel Petrov was hit by a car and died. It was an accident, but it wasn’t accidental. His accused murderer, a mini-bus driver Simeon Yosifov, was a relative of a prominent local Roma powerbroker by the name of Kiril Rashkov. Tsar Kiro, as the powerbroker was known, had it out for the young victim.

Yosifov the driver would eventually receive a 17-year jail sentence. When his lawyers filed for an appeal, the judge upped his sentence to 18 years. Tsar Kiro also received 3.5 years for threatening several locals.

This incident in Katunitsa unleashed a firestorm of anti-Roma sentiment. Local residents turned their anger on Tsar Kiro and his family. Anti-Roma activists descended on Katunitsa and, though police were on hand to provide security, burned down Rashkov’s properties. Elsewhere in the country, anti-Roma demonstrations took place that featured slogans such as “Gypies into soap” and “Die gypsies.” Skinheads and other racist activists took the opportunity to beat up Roma – in Stara Zagora, Blagoevgrad, Varna, Stamboliiski.

The Katunitsa incident also galvanized Roma civil society – to organize protection, get involved in the 2011 elections, and challenge the Bulgarian media perception that Tsar Kiro represented the Roma community.

One Roma organization in particular leapt into action: Civil Society in Action. It organized election monitoring in Roma neighborhoods to see if Roma were being discouraged in any way from voting. It conducted an analysis of the impact of Katunitsa on the media, the public, and the political process. And it challenged the comfortable relationship between the ethnic Bulgarian political elite and the self-appointed Roma political elite represented by the likes of Tsar Kiro.

Their report on Katunitsa – published last month and available here in Bulgarian – concludes that a combination of anti-Roma sentiment and deliberate manipulation of access to polling sites reduced Roma participation in the elections. Racist sentiment leaked into mainstream politics from what had previously been the populist margins. And the number of Roma elected officials at the local level declined significantly from 113 in the elections of 2003 to a mere 17 in the 2011 elections.

Civil Society in Action wants an honest discussion in Bulgaria about Roma and politics. “Political parties avoided a real debate about what had happened in Katunitsa and after that,” the report argues, “because it would have broken the status quo created in the beginning of the transition period of democracy, whose product was Kiril Rashkov himself.”

I talked to Orhan Tahir of Civil Society in Action just before the publication of this report. He is critical of the nexus of corruption that links some Roma leaders, like Tsar Kiro, with the ethnic Bulgarian political elite. And he is particularly angry that outside donors, like the European Union, continue to strengthen this opaque relationship.

“The European Commission gives money to the national government on Roma issues and then the national government spends this money in non-transparent ways,” he told me. “Since 1999, I have seen only one report from the government about what money was spent for Roma inclusion, and this was $500,000 from the World Bank, not from Europe. If you go to the website of the National Council on Ethnic and Demographic Issues, the state body responsible for Roma inclusion, it’s very difficult to find a financial report. The PHARE program provided about 70 million Euro for Roma inclusion. We asked the Bulgarian government what happened to this money and we haven’t gotten an answer. And the European commission keeps giving money to the government! Of course a small percentage of this money goes to some Roma NGOs, which are bought with this money. My suspicion is that the ruling parties use part of the money to buy votes. It’s like a joke, that the money for Roma inclusion is used for buying Roma votes. But I can’t prove it.”

Our discussion ranged over a number of issues, including the role of the Roma intelligentsia, the populism of Bulgarian politicians, and the country’s possible apartheid future.

The Interview

When you look back at everything that has changed or not changed in Bulgaria since 1989, how would you evaluate what has happened here?

Most people feel disappointed. Only a small group of people benefitted from the transition, mostly in an economic and political sense.

In my opinion, the main problem lies in the nature of the communist regimes. Communist Bulgaria didn’t have an intelligentsia other than a communist intelligentsia. That’s why, after the change, most of these communist intellectuals became democrats. These were the people who studied at Western universities, who knew English very well, who were prepared to be the new democratic elite in Bulgaria. I think that the West was aware that there is no other intelligentsia here.

In comparison to Poland, Bulgaria didn’t have such strong dissident movement that opposed the communists. Poland has a longer tradition of democracy. There were more private owners, so it has a stronger middle class, and we can speak of a bourgeoisie in Poland as well as in Czechoslovakia and Hungary. Polish universities also have a long tradition of autonomy. We don’t have that kind of tradition here: Bulgarian universities were established just after liberation in the 19th century. The greater autonomy of Polish universities – and those in Czechoslovakia and Hungary – encouraged the appearance of alternative thinking, and some kind of dissident movements appeared in these countries.

Here the Communist Party was more totalitarian. It didn’t tolerate different opinions. Here the most prepared people in all fields of life – economics, science, culture – were raised up by the Communist Party. There was no other way.

In this society, then, there was a transformation of power but not a transformation of the holders of power. In many cases, the biggest experts on political issues, as well as many of the ministers in the government, are the sons, the nieces, the sons-in-law of this former communist aristocracy, this red aristocracy.

The Communist regime here didn’t tolerate the existence of opposition groups. Of course there were exceptions, people who didn’t agree with the status quo. But they didn’t organize themselves into something bigger as in Poland or the Czech republic. This is one of the biggest problems of the Bulgarian transition. We didn’t have a real change of the elites. I don’t see how it could have been different. We couldn’t import people from somewhere else. Actually, the most active opposition — those who fought, who tried to organize illegal resistance, the people who were considered dangerous and who could lead a democratic opposition and be real voices for choice — these people were expelled from the country in 1989. Some were sent to Austria and other Western countries. Those who were Muslims were sent to Turkey.

Our so-called velvet revolution was without blood, that’s true. But I can’t say that it was a revolution.

In the universities, there are professors, some of them not even so old, who still preserve this mentality, this communist behavior, and they are only 50 years old. Among these people there are even strong nationalists. I call them national socialists since they are both nationalist and socialist at the same time. People who used to be loyal communists, who used to write thick books about how great the former communist dictator Todor Zhivkov was, are now writing thick books about democracy and about multiculturalism. This is the paradox in Bulgaria – these people belong to a different era, they didn’t really change. How can these people with these kinds of values teach university students and make them believe in these new values? They can’t.

The same is true in the political sphere. People talk about the era of communism like it was a good time. Our current Prime Minister Boyko Borisov said, for example, that nobody has done more for Bulgaria than Todor Zhivkov. You can find his comments on the Internet. We have a populist wave in this country which is on its way to becoming a nationalist populist wave. We describe this in the report of our observations of the 2011 presidential and local elections in Bulgaria — The Impact of Katunica on the Elections in 2011 – published by Civil Society in Action.

In 1999, the government of Ivan Kostov, from the Union of Democratic Forces, pushed Bulgaria ahead. It had good impact. Then came the tsar, Tsar Simeon II, who formed a government with his party in 2001. His government in some way continued this line of economic progress. Then came the triple coalition of the tsar’s party, the Coalition for Bulgaria, and the Movement for Rights and Freedoms. And now we have the worst government since the beginning of the democratic change.

What about the status of NGOs here in Bulgaria and the impact of foreign donors?

Before, many external donors supported the NGO sector and civil society here in Bulgaria. They created some kind of pluralism. There were 5-7 big donors, mostly American, some Dutch. Then when Bulgaria became a member of the European Union, these donors either left the country or extensively limited their activities and their funding for Bulgaria. The Bulgarian government became the biggest donor because the European Commission gives money to the government and the government then distributes all the money to programs like agriculture, regional development, ecology, social inclusion. In this way, by using this European money as an instrument of control, the government creates a loyal circle of private companies and NGOs and media. This is a very bad process, and it is killing civil society. This is the biggest paradox for me: the European Union is helping the national government to kill civil society!

This is especially true for Roma issues. The European Commission gives money to the national government on Roma issues and then the national government spends this money in non-transparent ways. Since 1999, I have seen only one report from the government about what money was spent for Roma inclusion, and this was $500,000 from the World Bank, not from Europe. If you go to the website of the National Council on Ethnic and Demographic Issues, the state body responsible for Roma inclusion, it’s very difficult to find a financial report. The PHARE program provided about 70 million Euro for Roma inclusion. We asked the Bulgarian government what happened to this money and we haven’t gotten an answer. And the European commission keeps giving money to the government! Of course a small percentage of this money goes to some Roma NGOs, which are bought with this money. My suspicion is that the ruling parties use part of the money to buy votes. It’s like a joke, that the money for Roma inclusion is used for buying Roma votes. But I can’t prove it.

Money is an instrument for control. If this money goes through the government, then the government can do whatever it wants. We are voiceless. The media is totally controlled. At the beginning of the 1990s, foreign investors and media groups started new media like television stations and newspapers, or they bought existing ones. About the time when the current government – GERB or Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria — took power in 2009, the foreign owners started selling the media to Bulgarian oligarchs, who are connected to powerful interests like the former secret services. If you look at the latest report of Reporters Without Borders, Bulgaria comes in last in the list of EU countries according to media freedom. We have very serious censorship.

That’s why, when I try to say something in the media, no one covers what I say. I’ll give a press conference, the far-right media comes, and the next day they’ll write something that I didn’t say. Do you know how depressing that is?

How did you get involved in this work?

I’m a comparatively young person. I’m 34 years old. In 1990, I was 12. So I belong to a generation that developed after 1989, that was inspired by democracy, by Western values. When I was a university student, I spent this time working for NGOs. In 1999, when I started work for a human rights NGO, we were reporting cases of violence against Roma.

We are still at this same point. In fact, the level of Roma violence is even bigger. Last year, in the week after Katunitsa, which was September 23, at least 20 Roma were attacked in this country. This information is only from the media. But I have information that the number of attacks was three times greater.

In 1990, the transition started with a big risk to the ethnic peace in Bulgaria. Now again we have another period of inter-ethnic tensions. The issue today is not the Turkish people, the issue is the Roma people. In 1990, ethnic Turks were included in Bulgarian political life. They were integrated, allowed to participate in elections, to make a party. They didn’t need any more illegal organizations or organize armed resistance. This was a shift from ethno-political to social power. But for Roma, the issues remain ethno-political. People don’t talk about economic or political issues connected to Roma.

There’s a question on Facebook: do you support a war between Bulgarians and Roma? Of the 23,000 people who voted, most of them voted for war. It’s clear that the integration of Roma, which took place over the last two decades in an old-fashioned way, has failed. It failed not only because there are still too many illiterate and poor Roma. The criterion should not be the situation of the illiterate but the situation of the Roma intelligentsia: those who have paid their bills, who are decent citizens, who are well educated. These people, people like me, have not been integrated. I know many young Roma people who are unemployed, who can’t find jobs because they are Roma. Those who can hide their ethnicity, it’s easier for them to find jobs.

If well-educated Roma cannot find jobs, cannot progress, cannot live normally, then how can they be an example for illiterate people? They say, “You went to university for five years, and you’re staying at home, unemployed? Your parents spend so much money for your education, and you have no job? Look at the salesman at the market, he is doing better!” The Roma intelligentsia itself is marginalized within Bulgarian society, within the Bulgarian intelligentsia. They simply make it clear to you that you’re not welcome in their circles.

If you look at the parliament, in the political elite, how many Roma can you identify? There are just a few people in mid-level administrative positions. In 1990, the majority could say, “There are no Roma who can do these jobs.” But today it’s different. We have the people. But educated Roma are not welcome.

We have a hidden authoritarian system in Bulgaria under the EU cover. Some of the most progressive and able people have left Bulgaria, so it’s far more difficult to organize anything here than in 1990. It’s all about the human resources and, of course, the financial resources. Still, there are people here who are very clever. But most of these people don’t work in the field where they feel strongest. They work somewhere else just for the money. This is wasting people’s potential, their ability, their knowledge.

There is a very worrying process at the local level: the political clash, the competition of ideas between left and right, is becoming transformed into a competition between ethnic groups. For example, when you have a strong Roma candidate for mayor who is a straightforward guy, honest, not involved in criminal issues, not involved in vote-buying, who has the support of the community – and we saw such candidates recently in three towns – the Bulgarian candidates made an unofficial coalition to not allow these Roma into power. They said, “We cannot allow Gypsies to control this town.” This is the ethnicization of the political process. The clash between left and right has now been replaced by Bulgarian versus Gypsy.

So, the integration of Roma into Bulgarian society has failed in this way.

This is the result of the process of education. The better-educated, better-prepared, smarter Roma are considered an even bigger threat to the status quo than the illiterate poor. They say that it is better to have illiterate poor people, who can be more easily manipulated than to have a class of well-educated Roma, who could compete for the same resources. In Bulgaria, where you have a lot of economic problems, there is a lot of competition for power and economic resources. When it is a competition among ethnic Bulgarians, it is considered an economic competition. But when it is competition among different ethnic groups, it is considered automatically an ethnic competition.

Such ethnic tensions can hardly come from the poor and illiterate. The authorities can always find a way to deal with poor people, through social benefits or whatever. The Roma elite is considered a bigger danger, because all power and resources are concentrated in the hands of ethnic Bulgarians. These people don’t understand the idea that they should share resources with minorities. We already have villages and small towns where Roma people outnumber ethnic Bulgarians. But they cannot exercise their power like the majority. They are not allowed to be a majority. This contradicts the general stereotype that Roma are a minority, should be treated like minority, and should behave like minority. In 20 years, we will have regions where ethnic Bulgarians are a minority but they will try to keep the power. It will be very similar to South Africa’s Apartheid system in the 1950s – the rule of a white minority over a dark-skinned majority.

So, you are skeptical about the effect that all this donor money devoted to Roma inclusion?

If this money is stopped, the ruling class will feel more pain than the Roma people. It’s necessary to stop this money until reform can be instituted. There is a need for reform of all donors in Bulgaria. American dollars also support the government, though the biggest money entering Bulgaria is through the European Commission. What are the priorities of these western governments who contribute money to these funds? What do they want to happen here: a GERB government, a prime minister like Boyko Borisov, and no civil society?

Regarding Roma, our prime minister said last year, “Let’s send the issue back to Europe.” I’m not sure how sending the issue back to Europe, shifting responsibility from the national to the European level, is a proper response to the inclusion strategy. Does this mean that the Bulgarian government doesn’t want to take responsibility for citizens who belong to certain ethnic groups? Does the government treat these minorities in the same way as the majority? It’s like a football game between the West and Balkan countries with the Roma being the football.

A few thousand Bulgarian Roma are well integrated into Western Europe. They send their children to school, and their children know the language better than they know Bulgarian. Why can people integrate better there than here? Everyone is focused on the marginalized, but no one focuses on why these other thousands of Roma are well integrated in Western Europe. They say that the Roma don’t want to work here in Bulgaria, that they don’t want to go to school. But how do they do it in these other countries? No one wants to research this.

Of course there are some people who want to find Roma jobs here in Bulgaria, who want to help them learn Bulgarian language. Most of the NGOs here are service-providers. These NGOs substitute for the state. But who should be providing health care? The state. Who should be providing education? The state. Who should be providing social benefits? The state. Since the state doesn’t want to take care of these issues, they find NGOs to do the work. The government reports that they have hundreds of mediators in health care, education, labor. These mediators went to some training program for a few months. At the local level these half-doctors sometimes do more than doctors, these half-teachers do more than teachers. And what is the state doing? The state says, “This is not our responsibility.”

Of course there is a need for service providers. But there is also a need for think tanks, for people who think about policies. We need people who not just follow policies but think about and create policies. We are trying to do this in Civil Society in Action. But we have problems with financial resources because such NGOs are not a priority with donors. They still follow an old-fashioned model, what they were doing 10 years ago. They are not curing the illness. They are just giving the patient some pills to ease the pain. They are just doing palliative medicine.

We need long-term policies. Political parties in Bulgaria don’t think in terms of long periods. We need to gather the real experts along with people from the grassroots who can be the implementers of policy. We need policy centers where people can meet and discuss the problems and come up with solutions, democratically. Such Roma think tanks need time and resources to analyze what has happened and formulate policies.

Tell me some more about Civil Society in Action.

Our organization Civil Society in Action is a young organization, established last year. We organized a protest at the Sheraton hotel during the European Commission conference about how European funds help the Roma. We showed red cards – like in football – to the European Commissioner and our own Bulgarian minister. We also brought in hidden banners. One of our banners read, “Europe: Stop Funding Roma Exclusion.” They were shocked. They didn’t expect that Roma can organize such things. We got some media attention.

We face a lot of problems institutionally with our organization. Everything we do we do at home, not at an office, and with our own resources. This is the difference. We’re a team of four people. We don’t look at it like a job, something that’s paid, beginning at 9 and finishing at 5. This is real civic activism. We know what we want to do. But when we talk to the donors, they have their own priorities. So, we need a change in the donors.

We are saying that they should stop providing the Bulgarian government with money for Roma inclusion. So, the government cannot consider us a partner. We are aware that even if we sit at the table, we won’t have any control. We don’t want to be just another NGO taking money and doing some stupid things.

The donors want to keep good relations with the government, so we are considered troublemakers. We are raising issues that are not popular now but will be in 10-15 years. The European Commission announced a 26 billion Euro fund for EU member states for social inclusion. They don’t say that this is particularly for Roma. They say that this is for the socially disadvantaged. But this money is for the governments, not the NGOs. And if you have corrupt governments, as in Bulgaria and Romania, governments that are not accepted into the Schengen area because they have problems with high-level corruption, and you say to these guys, “Here’s more money for you,” you actually encourage more corruption and you don’t help Roma. This is insane! This is like giving more drugs to a drug addict to cure him of his addiction.

I cannot accept this. I know that in 10 years, the government will say through its media that these bad Gypsy organizations just stole this money. No one questions where the money has disappeared. My colleagues and I are some of the few people who are asking these questions. We face strong media resistance. We don’t follow the money. We follow the ideas.

Sofia, October 2, 2012

The In Amenas Fiasco Throws Cold Water on the Algeria-U.S.-France Love Fest (Part One)

“The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men Gang aft agley.”
(The best laid plans of mice and men go often awry.)
— Robert Burns “To A Mouse On Turning Her Up in her Nest With A Plow. November, 1785″

 Algerian oil and gas pipelines (In Amenas circled).

Algerian oil and gas pipelines (In Amenas circled).

One of the largest hostage seizures ever ended with the death of 80 people, many of them foreign workers at Algeria’s natural gas complex at In Amenas, located nearly 1,000 miles from the capital, Algiers, and less than 70 miles from the Libyan border deep in the Sahara. In the end it was both a human and political fiasco, the regional implications of which are still evolving.

It was supposed to be an impressive show of force, ‘a message’ of how efficiently the Algerian government could deal with terrorism within its own borders. Had it worked out according to plan, Algerian special forces of its fourth military district that includes large slices of the Sahara, would have saved the day. The message to the world in general, but to the United States and France in particular, would have been, should have been: Algeria can handle domestic terrorism; there is no need for Algeria to get embroiled in Mali by sending troops that would be coordinating with the French and American militaries.

But in ways to be discussed in later sections of the series, something went afoul, the whole thing backfired terribly, and continues to.

Keep in mind that although Algeria had a bloody civil war in the 1990s, called, appropriately enough ‘The Dirty War‘ by former Algerian security officer and author Habib Souaidia, never during that decade was an Algeria oil or natural gas facility ever attacked by guerrillas – a rather odd fact given the intensity of the warfare. It makes one wonder about the kind of radicals that would spare the petro chemical sector from their attacks. The attack on In Amenas, was thus, ‘a first’, for Algeria at least, that must send chills down the spines of oil producers and consumers everywhere.

To understand what was being played out in In Amenas, one has to dig deep, into Algerian history, the role of France, the emerging U.S. strategic-military role in Africa and first and foremost, the fate of the peoples of the region – Algerian Arab Moslems, Kabylie Berbers, Tuaregs of the Sahara, the people of Libya, Mali, Niger and Mauretania, among others. That is what I hope to do in this series of articles, the different threads of which will lead us to back to In Amenas and the slaughter of innocents there.

The series begins elsewhere in Algeria, in the north, outside of a town called Seddat, in May of 2006. Over the course of several articles the thread will lead us back to In Amenas and the events of last week, but for now we’ll start the saga elsewhere.

The Seddat Massacre of 2006

Let’s begin, not with the fiasco at the In Amenas natural gas site on Algeria’s eastern border with Libya, deep in the Sahara Desert, but with a seemingly unrelated incident that took place seven years ago at a place called Seddat in the Kabylie region of Algeria east of the capital Algiers.

There, in May of 2006, with much fanfare, a major military operation was launched by the Algerian army to ‘neutralize’ (which translates in plain language as ‘wipe out’) a supposed Islamic terrorist cell holding out in a cave in the vicinity of Seddat. Despite the fact that the so-called war against Islamic terrorism had supposedly ended by 1998, the Algerian government had not been able to eliminate the last pockets of militant Islamic armed resistance. For nearly eight years Algiers had been repeatedly talking about “the last Islamic strongholds.”

There was another problem which plagued the Algerian government, formally a parliamentary democracy, but informally and perhaps more accurately, a military dictatorship which had been run from the shadows since independence by a group of military officers, derisively referred to as the D.A.F. (which stands for Deserteurs de l’armee francaise, or deserters from the French Army. It refers to a group of Algerian officers in the French military during the Algerian War of Independence 1954-1962, who, six months before the end of the conflict, jumped ship from the French army and joined the Resistance and then quickly took power once independence came).

By 2006 the ruling Algerian military junta could not simply brush off the repeated accusations that many of the militant Islamic groups that it claimed to be fighting in the 1990s were both infiltrated by and run by the country’s powerful intelligence service, the Departement de Renseignment et de la Securite, otherwise known by its initials – the DRS. It all cast a shadow over the bloodshed the 1990s and raised serious questions as to what the fighting was about in the first place.

Algeria: Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places

Something else had happened that plays into the plot as well. By 2006, a new security cooperation relationship was being forged, especially in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, between Washington and Algiers. Despite a certain distrust on both sides which continues until today even, over the five years since 9-11 it had flowered into the beginnings of a political partnership.

For different reasons, both the United States and Algeria were looking for new security partners. The United States needed a North African regional partner, a la the Shah of Iran, with a strong military to assist it in its growing “war on terrorism” in Africa. Then and now, it has been more about protecting U.S. strategic assets in oil, natural gas and strategic minerals than about fighting militant Muslims, a group of which there were precious few in North Africa at the time.

At a time when the United States had already started to shift its security concerns to Asia to meet the growing economic and political challenge of China, finding ‘reliable’ security partners that could fill in the military vacuum had become essential. The United States hoped to at least in part extricate itself from Iraq and Afghanistan, at least ‘tone down’ those conflict and emerge from the quagmires it had created in the Middle East and Central Asia to focus on the Far East.

Such a global strategy could not sustain a large scale U.S. military build-up in Africa much beyond the present strength of AFRICOM. Finding others who might be willing to ‘partner’ with Washington, be it through NATO or other arrangements, became more pressing. Two countries, both unlikely in some ways, to step up to the plate, did exactly that – France and Algeria. The series will deal with France’s role in Africa, past and present in the next part of this series and leave it aside for now.

As for Algeria, it was an unlikely ally in some ways. For half a century the U.S. media had dubbed it ‘the Cuba of the Mediterranean’, supporting, at least verbally, national liberation struggles, criticizing U.S. imperialism, allied with the Palestine Liberation Organization, a strong opponent of Israel and finding itself taking positions opposed to Washington’s on most issues at the United Nations. Diplomatic ties had even been severed for six years in the aftermath of the 1967 Middle East War.

And yet, here again, things were not always what they seemed. Much of the so-called antagonism was little more than posturing on both sides. For example, even during the period when U.S. – Algerian official diplomacy was frozen, Algerian-U.S. economic relations actually flourished, especially where they concerned Algerian natural gas and oil production.

The United States was anxious to break into the Algerian energy sector and did so early on with companies like Halliburton (and others). Algeria had no qualms about allying itself in business with the most conservative, if not reactionary elements of the American political spectrum, and did so enthusiastically. The United States helped Algeria break the French stranglehold on Algerian energy when, in the early 1970s, El Paso Natural Gas of Texas engaged the Algerian government in a deal to buy its natural gas. It started a flood of contracts with other countries willing to sign agreements with Algiers; if Washington would, why not other countries?

While the Algerian–U.S. energy relations went through ups and downs, they became once again quite intense after the collapse of the Soviet Union when Algeria began to privatize big chunks of its petro-chemical industries. The Algerians hoped to both increase U.S. investment in its energy sector as well as strengthen its ties with the U.S. military establishment.

For its part, Algeria was anxious to prove – and the United States was anxious to believe – it could be a ‘reliable ally’ in the war on terrorism, that it could serve U.S. strategic interests in North Africa and the Sahara more or less in a similar fashion that Israel (and now Turkey, Saudi Arabia) are U.S. strategic partners elsewhere in the region. Algeria’s strategy here is based on both hard politics – i.e., the U.S. emerging from the Cold War as the world’s only superpower (at least militarily) and most probably watching the United States and its allies decimate Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Algiers preferred to befriend rather than alienate Washington, and to convince Washington that it could be ‘useful’ to it. Of course, Algeria’s neighbor, Muhammar Khadaffi, tried to implement more or less the same strategy.

Understanding well, that ‘fighting Communism’ was now a thing of the past, and partnering with Washington in “the war on terrorism” was the ‘only show in town’ (the town being the world), Algeria moved to in a number of ways to prove it could be useful. Just after 9-11 the Algerian authorities presented their American counterparts with a list of 500 Islamic terrorists as a friendly gesture.

Military exchanges followed as did visits by high level State Department and military representatives from the USA. They continue. While the Algerians vociferously deny it, there is much evidence that until the Algerians discovered that the United States was using its facilities to spy on Algeria itself, that the U.S. special forces had established a military base in Tamanrasset, in the heart of the Algerian Sahara. Evidence has yet to be presented that Algeria, like so many other countries in the region, participated in the C.I.A. rendition efforts, but then, neither has their participation been disproven. Regardless, U.S.–Algerian security ties enjoyed a level of unprecedented cooperation in the decade since 9-11, relations that despite strains, particularly over Mali, continue.

But despite these improved relations, the Algerians were not sure of the relationship and there were limits to it. Access to Algerian intelligence and security matters remained limited. Algeria most often refused to participate in joint military maneuvers which would have permitted the United States to evaluate its military strengths and weaknesses. Although Algeria had proven its ability to both manipulate, divide and destroy the Islamic based opposition movement which challenged the Algerian generals for power in the 1990s, the junta still felt a need to ‘prove itself’ to Washington. Prove what? That it could still be used to crush opposition movements.

Which brings us back to the Seddat operation.

There were a number of curious, if not downright bizarre aspects to it.

Seddat: An Exercise in Overkill

For one thing, it was a massive, lopsided operation, one that pitted the Algerian military and security forces, numbering in the hundreds of thousands all told, against a few dozen poorly equipped Islamic guerrilla fighters in hiding in Kabylie caves with their women and children. Reminds one of the U.S. invasion of Grenada in the early 1980s.

The assault team, led by Algerian General Ahmed Gaid Salah, major general of the Algerian National Army, was several thousand strong with communications and logistical support from the entire Algerian state apparatus. It was heavily armed with tanks, armored cars, attack helicopters, perhaps chemical weapons and all those military toys that make military dictators from Algiers to Guatemala pee in their pants with joy. Algiers seemed to be eager to prove that when “necessary” it was willing – as it had done in the 1990s – to use the full power of its military machine against its own people.

Seddat was an exercise in overkill of gargantuan proportions to counter a Lillaputian threat (if it existed at all). Mostly it was for show. Most anti-guerrilla operations are done in secret but the Seddat operation was publicly announced several months before in the Algerian press as something approaching a sporting event and followed closely by the Algerian media from beginning to end. It was all a show of sorts, as if the Algerian military had to prove its overwhelming strength to the world at large, and to the United States and France in particular.

It is a fact of no little significance that the U.S. military attache to the Algiers embassy at the time was ‘invited’ to accompany General Gaid Salah on this anti-terrorist mission and to watch the slaughter unfold from up close. Indeed, one could make a persuasive case that the whole affair was stage managed down to the last detail to impress the Americans that when necessary, the Algerian military could be as effective and ruthless in fighting terrorism as any government in the region and should be trusted as such. Washington should take note!

To insure the success of the operation, the Algerian authorities made sure that there was not – to use an exhausted expression ‘an even playing field’ that would insure that the government’s casualties would be few, while the rebels would die in large numbers. The government’s own statistics stated that there were no more than 75-100 militants holed up in caves near Seddat at the most. Even this proved to be an exaggeration. If Seddat had been a purely military or counter-insurgency operations, certainly, the rebels could have been flushed out and neutralized with a much smaller force and much less publicity. Nor was all that communication and military hardware necessary as the group’s location was already pinpointed.

Unlike in In Amenas, where the Algerian special forces lost control of the script (more on that in a latter segment), at Seddat, everything went as planned. The ‘militants’ were defeated and decisively so. Obviously it was not a particularly difficult task. The American military was duly impressed. The show was apparently worth the effort as shortly after Seddat cooperation between the U.S. and Algerian militaries ratcheted up considerably.

Still, news reports of the contrived confrontation, even coming from Algeria’s controlled media, were unsettling. As the details of the operation found their way here and there in the Algerian press, a more cynical picture of what had actually happened began to take shape. For example, the 75 to 100 ‘guerrilla fighters’ turned out to be only six. The rest were women and children killed in the assault, ‘collateral damage’ which the Algerian security forces didn’t hesitate to inflict. Never one to be too concerned about collateral damage, Washington was impressed.

Chemical Weapons?

There were few local witnesses to the aftermath. At least one witness claimed to have seen the bodies of a woman breast-feeding her baby, both frozen in death. There is some speculation that the only way people die frozen in their last life activity like that, is if they are the victims of poison gas attack which kills instantly. The allegation, will, like the mother and children, be frozen in uncertainty because the day after burying the victims’ bodies, they were, according to witnesses, disinterred by the military and cremated, thus eliminating the possible evidence. But it is suggestive, isn’t it, that when deemed necessary, the Algerian military has no compunctions about gassing its own people?

Washington Impressed With Algerian Repression

At least once before in the Middle East, the United States was greatly impressed by the military prowess of a regional player, by its military superiority over its neighbors. I speak of Israel’s victory over Egypt and Syria in the June, 1967 War. Thus began a strategic alliance, couched in the false language of ‘common values’, ‘defense of the only democracy in the Middle East’ and other pretexts.

What impressed Washington in 1967 more than ‘common values’ was the power of the Israeli air force and the devastating blow Israel could inflict on Syria, Egypt and the West Bank in six short days; in so doing, secular Arab nationalism to which Washington was adamantly opposed suffered a blow from which it never entirely recovered. Thus began a well-known strategic love affair that continues until today. Israel had impressed Washington that it could serve U.S. regional interests.

Something like that is now happening in North Africa with Algeria, an unlikely U.S. ally given its half century of anti-U.S., anti-imperialist rhetoric. Algeria has spent the decade since 9-11 trying to impress Washington that it could play a role in North Africa for the United States similar to what Israel plays in the Eastern Mediterranean. The Seddat Massacre – and that is essentially what it was, a massacre – was orchestrated with such a future for Algerian-U.S. relations in mind. It was a part of the overall effort to attract American attention.

In fact, Washington was impressed, so impressed that in 2012, the Obama Administration through AFRICOM General Carter Ham and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spent a good deal of political energy trying to get Algeria to intervene militarily in neighboring Mali, to no avail. But however closely the Algerian Junta hopes to snuggle up to Washington, it was still not ready to be its military cat’s paw in the Sahara.

At a recent talk at the University of Denver that I attended, General Ham, who impressed his audience of students that AFRICOM was more like the Peace Corps than a military special forces attack unit, noted that he had visited Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and asked him to send a military contingent to Mali. French President Hollande visited Algiers and did likewise, to no avail.

In the end, for reasons I will develop in the succeeding sections of this series, the Algerian government, having led on the United States, refused to pick up the military baton and send its troops into the Malian fray, one of the smarter decisions it has made in a long time. The Algerian generals might crush their own insurgencies and do so by whatever means necessary, but even this dictatorship has been careful not to involve itself, militarily at least, the affairs with its neighbors. The one time it did, by supporting the POLISARIO movement in the Western Sahara, it got a pretty bloody nose.

After reading all this, one might wonder logically, what does all this have to do with the In Amenas fiasco? The answer is everything, to be elaborated upon as the series unfolds.

Sources:

Much of the material on Seddat comes from a piece in French entitled “Le massacre de Seddat: les armes chimiques au service de la lutte antiterroriste” which appeared at the website ‘Algeria Watch‘ which appeared on May 31, 2006. The link to the article is: http://www.algeria-watch.org/fr/aw/massacre_seddat.htm

I also want to credit Habib Souaidia, author of La sale guerre (The Dirty War) – Editions Decouverte. 2001. It was in conversations with Souaidia that I first was made aware of the Seddat Massacre.

The analysis is my own (for better or worse)

Link:

Photo exhibit – region around In-Amenas in the 1950s taken by a French soldier stationed there. Gives an idea of the surrounding areas. It was formerly called Fort Polignac.

Rob Prince is a Lecturer of International Studies at the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies and publisher of the Colorado Progressive Jewish News.

Drones on Their Own at Home and Abroad

Drones are becoming simultaneously more fantastic and more ordinary at the same time.

At the Atlantic, Brian Fung writes:

Home drone“Nothing is inevitable, but over the next few decades, it’ll be very hard to avoid the moment when autonomous drones make their way to the battlefield. … Such machines are worth worrying about not because of the prospect we’ll suffer some Terminator-style robot uprising, but because in the next few decades we’ll need to make some extremely difficult choices about when it’s okay for a computer to end a human life.”

Novelist Daniel Suarez treated this with frightening prescience in his thinking man’s (or woman’s — the protagonist is female) techno-thriller Kill Decision (Dutton Adult). Drones are programmed to make their own decisions about what — or whom — to attack.

First, fighter pilots have begun to be replaced by drone operators. Next, drone operators will begin to be replaced by robots. Also, many of the tasks of infantry will be offloaded to robots. Then, when infantry robots become autonomous, what becomes of individuals who, unable to find work in the civilian sector or pay for college, join the military for a job and a route to a college education? Not everyone can be employed in designing artificial intelligence and manufacturing robots. The obvious irony, of course, is that we wind up in the service of robots, which were designed to serve us.

At the other extreme, at Global Guerillas, John Robb continues his campaign for a “door to door, drone delivery system.” Sure, he foresees problems.

• The drones will be noisy.
• The payloads are going to be tiny (ounces) and the containers they are held in will be clunky.
• The distance drones travel will be short (less than a mile).
• There will be frequent failures (drones in trees and on rooftops).
• Hassles will occur (problems with government regulators, police, and nutty neighbors).

On the one hand, it’s encouraging to think that drones can be turned to civilian uses — aside from citizen surveillance — especially since they might be of more benefit to the economy than military drones. But, count me as a “nutty neighbor.” The prospect of them buzzing around one’s community — replete with treetops draped with pizzas they’ve dropped while still in beta — is not an attractive one.

Conceivably, commercial drones will become autonomous. No doubt, that would help acclimatize us to autonomous drones in combat. Face it: between the everyday world and war, proponents of drones have got us in the grips of their pincer attack.

Fight for Human Rights in Bulgaria Meets With Mixed Success

Krassimir Kanev monitors and assesses human rights for minorities in Bulgaria.

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

Krassimir Kanev

Krassimir Kanev

Bulgarian politician Ahmed Dogan was in the news this weekend after surviving a dramatic assault at a party conference in Sofia. Dogan is the controversial leader of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF), an organization established in 1990 that has largely championed the rights of ethnic Turks and Muslims living in Bulgaria. Dogan was going to announce during this speech that he was stepping down as the head of the party.

It was not a clear-cut assassination attempt. The assailant, Oktai Enimehmedov, used a gas pistol, usually a non-lethal weapon though it could do considerable damage at point-blank range. But the pistol was loaded only with pepper spray and noisemakers. Enimehmedov, who is an ethnic Turk himself, was immediately set upon by members of the audience and security personnel, who punched and kicked him. The video of the dramatic scrum has gone viral.

It’s not entirely clear why Enimehmedov engaged in this half-attack on Dogan. He may simply have disliked the MRF leader and wanted the media limelight. This being Bulgaria, however, conspiracy theories abound. The most popular seems to be that Dogan orchestrated the whole affair, though this scenario makes little sense.

Ahmed Dogan is no stranger to controversy. He has long been criticized for his autocratic style and the many years he was on the payroll of the state security services prior to 1989. And the MRF has witnessed various fissures, most recently when former deputy chairman Kassim Dal broke with Dogan and later established his own party.

Despite these controversies, the MRF has achieved considerable successes, both as a political party and as a movement to advance the ethnic Turkish and Muslim community in Bulgaria. I spoke recently with Krassimir Kanev of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee. He has worked on human rights issues in Bulgaria for more than two decades and helped write one of the first reports on the situation of ethnic Turks in Bulgaria in the 1980s.

“Overall, I think that the Movement for Rights and Freedoms was quite positive in Bulgaria,” he told me. “They were able to both protect the human rights of the ethnic Turks, as well as to advance their welfare in the regions where they live — especially when the Movement was in government, which was for much of the past decade.”

“There were, however, also some negative developments,” he continued. “They created a political ghetto for the Turkish minority. If you’re an ethnic Turk, the expectation is that you vote for the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, and there has been little incentive for the other parties to work among the Turkish minority. Although some parties made some moves in that regard, it was mostly the MRF that focused on the issue.”

In addition to the rights of ethnic Turks, we talked about a current court case against 13 imams accused of promoting violence, the declining status of human rights NGOs in Bulgaria, and why Roma in Bulgaria have not replicated the success of the MRF. Below this interview, to provide a point of comparison, I have appended excerpts from an earlier discussion we had in 2007 about identity questions.

The Interview

Do you remember where you were when the Berlin Wall fell, what you were thinking, and whether you thought about its impact on life here in Bulgaria?

As with many other people in Bulgaria, it was something I sort of expected. Because I was active in the “non-formal” organizations under communism, before the Berlin Wall fell I envisaged that the political development in Bulgaria would be somewhat similar to what happened in Russia under Gorbachev. There would be more openness, more possibilities for the freedom of expression, but with certain restrictions imposed by the communist regime. In the long run I thought that communism had no future, but I thought of this perspective as long-term. And in Bulgaria, as in the other Eastern European countries, it happened quickly, this dismantling, this dissolution of the system — against the expectations of many people. At that time I was surprised, I was pleasantly surprised, but at the same time it went against my social, and personal, and advocacy strategy. So I as well as lots of people around me had to reconsider strategies in view of the circumstances.

You were here in Sofia in November 1989?

Yes, yes, I was always here in Sofia. On that day I moved to a new home, where I am still! In the evening we heard that Todor Zhivkov had been dismissed. So it was a new life and a new home, as well as something new in society.

Was there a point when you remember a clear dividing line in your life, between being non-political and being political?

That dividing line was before communism fell, certainly. I can’t think of a specific date, but it certainly happened when I was a PhD student at Sofia University. At that time, my social and political outlook was formed, and I got involved in informal politics at that time. I was sure that this was going to be my future, whether communism would last longer or fall as it did.

You did informal politics with a group of people at the university?

Yes, with a circle of people, some at the university and some outside. They were all intellectuals.

And was there anybody in your life at that time that said, “Krassimir, this is not a good idea?”

Oh, yes! My mother and father of course. They still think it’s not a good idea.

How strenuously did they try to convince you?

They were quite persistent. They thought that this was dangerous and wrong. My life should be more focused on my academic career and my family. They always thought that speaking out in public creates enemies—which is true. At that time more than now, but more or less they were always against this public activity.

At what point did human rights in the sense of monitoring and assessing the situation for minorities in Bulgaria become the focus for your work?

My involvement with minorities and with the persecution of the Turkish minority was a motivation for my initial involvement in politics. That specific period in Communist history, 1984-85 and the name-changing campaign of the Turkish minority, took place in the middle of my Ph.D. time. I was involved investigating this campaign immediately since the beginning. I published an article with several other people, an article about the campaign that was smuggled out of Bulgaria and published in the West.

I was telling Deyan Kuronov that I felt that the opposition came together around the issue of ethnic Turks and he said, “No, no, no! It was just me, Krassimir, and Dmitrina Petrova.

In this intellectual circle of people, yes. But there were of course many other people outside this circle who were involved as well. And those were mostly Turkish intellectuals and activists. There were several other groups in society who were in one way or another involved in this issue, but we were not in touch.

I got the sense from Deyan that for the opposition as a whole, as it came together in the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF) and allied organizations, the issue did not become a rallying point.

No, never. The situation of minorities has never been the focus of anybody’s political work, including the opposition. There were serious debates in the opposition. In the UDF at the beginning were people with very nationalistic outlooks and approaches. That was the reason why the Movement for Rights of Freedoms at that time was not accepted in the UDF.

Was there anything that you think could’ve been done differently at that time to link democracy with the human rights of minorities?

Yes, of course, lots of things. But there was a price to be paid. It was a society heavily indoctrinated into nationalism, under Communism but also before. This nationalism and ethnocentrism is very much part of the Bulgarian national identity. It’s how people think: “We are Bulgarians because we were enslaved by the Turks, and we emancipated ourselves from Turkish rule, and therefore these are our basic enemies.” Therefore it is very difficult to make a political issue from the rights of the Turkish minority. If you try, you will lose.

That was part of the reason why the Union of Democratic Forces could not win a majority in the first elections: because the UDF was perceived (and was made to be perceived) as people who would return the names of the Turks. Within the UDF at that time were people who refrained from taking up the issue of ethnic minorities because they didn’t think they could win on this issue. So my answer would be: Yes, lots of things could have been different, if these democratic forces had been more sensitive to the rights of minorities. But on the other hand it’s not clear what influence this opposition could have had on society.

In other words, it would have been a much better opposition in terms of its agenda, but it also might have been…

Weaker politically, yes.

That’s a common dilemma.

Also now in the United States, I guess.

Yes, unfortunately. When you think back to your perspective in 1989-1990, are there any positions that you’ve had second thoughts about? Or do you feel that your perspective is pretty much the same as it was back then?

One of the things I’ve thought that I could have done better is to go through some additional form of education, either in Bulgaria or abroad. I didn’t, I was very busy. So I made do with my education under the Communist regime. I had to self-educate a lot. I did this, I think, quite successfully, but I always regret that I haven’t taken an additional Masters, or an additional Ph.D. Not because I would have been better at what I do if I had this formal education, but because other people look at these things seriously when you start talking about human rights. This issue of whether you have a law degree always comes up one way or another, for example.

In terms of the focus of my work, I should have picked some topics in the beginning that were obviously serious. Some institutions in Bulgaria that were away from everybody’s eyes — children’s institutions — were revealed as horrible in the late 1990s and 2000s. We didn’t pick those issues at the beginning.

Orphanages?

There are lots of children’s institutions in Bulgaria, for orphans but also for other children, children with disabilities, delinquent children.

That’s very interesting, and I appreciate your candor about those choices that you made. But I’m also interested in any change in thinking you might have had in 22 years.

Yes probably. In human rights particularly, my thought evolved with lots of issues. At that time, for instance, I might have been more inclined to think that it might be horrible to have these institutions—children’s institutions, psychiatric institutions, other types of institutions—but they could be improved by themselves. Now I’m reluctant to tolerate any type of institution for anybody. So my thoughts in that regard evolved.

My thoughts evolved on other human rights issues. In the early 1990s we used to focus predominantly on ethnic and racial discrimination, whereas subsequently we found that other types of discrimination were also worth considering. Those issues were somewhat disregarded, like for example discrimination against sexual minorities or women or people with disabilities. I only started focusing on these issues at a later stage. Other issues became more serious over time. For example, in the early 1990s we didn’t have any refugees or migrants here. This issue became more serious over time, and we had to give some more thought to this.

When I was here in 1990, among the people I talked to, the status of NGOs was very high. Since there was so little trust in government at that time, if you were non-governmental that was a plus. I’m surprised to come back and discover when I talk to people that NGOs are not always viewed so positively.

Well, this image changed a lot – for different reasons. One is that in the 1990s the funding of NGOs was more independent, and so NGOs could be more independent. They could be seen by society as something not part of the government. Now this independence is completely compromised by NGOs associated with some forms of governmental funding that comes either directly from the government, or through some European Union program that also goes through the government. Now there’s not much sense in even saying you’re an NGO if you’re taking your money from the government, one way or another.

Then some NGOs allowed themselves to be used. But that goes also hand-in-hand with funding by the government. They lost their independent image. Still, I must say that there still are NGOs that are able to preserve their status as independent, outside monitors and evaluators of governmental policies. And I believe our organization is one such organization, but there are several other groups too. There are not many, though. On paper and in reality, maybe the amount of money that goes to the NGO sector is the same as in the 1990s, maybe even more. But if you think of really independent NGOs, now there are much fewer than there had been in the 1990s.

In the realm of human rights in particular, are there any other options other than NGOs, government, and the European Union?

There were some governmental structures, like the ombudsman. We had several independent governmental bodies such as the Commission Against Discrimination that became players in this field five or six years ago. And that made a positive change. On the other hand, we had a sharp decline in NGO activity on human rights. There are very few human rights NGOs left, compared to the 1990s.

Largely because of funding?

Yes, the shift of funding negatively affected the human rights NGO world in particular.

What about the emergence of informal movements?

There has been very little development in that regard in Bulgaria, and those groups have had no influence on public policy at all.

In terms of political parties, I’m particularly interested in the Movement for Rights and Freedoms. How would you evaluate the work of the MRF over the last 22 years? Has it made a real difference in the lives of ethnic Turks?

There were positive developments and they were probably more than the negative developments. Overall, I think that the Movement for Rights and Freedoms was quite positive in Bulgaria. They were able to both protect the human rights of the ethnic Turks, as well as to advance their welfare in the regions where they live — especially when the Movement was in government, which was for much of the past decade.

There were, however, also some negative developments. They created a political ghetto for the Turkish minority. If you’re an ethnic Turk, the expectation is that you vote for the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, and there has been little incentive for the other parties to work among the Turkish minority. Although some parties made some moves in that regard, it was mostly the MRF that focused on the issue.

So, for instance, the current minister of culture…

He’s Turkish, yes. And the party now in government, GERB, also tries to reach out to the Turkish minority to some extent, with some success. The splinter group that emerged from the Movement for Rights and Freedoms is viewed as going into prospective alliance with the party now in government. The Socialist party (BSP) had some success in the Turkish regions, but very modest. So, both GERB and the BSP have reached out to the Turkish minority.

When you look at the level of prejudice in society over the last 22 years, do you think the Movement or any other efforts have succeeded in reducing the overall level of prejudice specifically toward ethnic Turks?

Oh, yes, I think so. The very fact that ethnic Turks became visible in society reduced a lot of prejudice. The research also indicates that this has happened. There’s still a lot of prejudice, but certainly not at the level that we had in 1992-93. The fact that we now have government ministers who are ethnic Turks is quite significant. This was unthinkable in the 1990s. When the Movement for Rights and Freedoms was involved in the government in the 1990s, it had to propose a Bulgarian as a government minister because at that time it would have been unacceptable to have a Turkish government minister.

Someone told me that an important cultural indication of the change is the popularity of Turkish soap operas here.

Indeed, yes. But that was a recent thing. I think that they too contributed to better acceptance of ethnic Turks.

When I talked to people in 1990, there were some people who really thought that ethnic Turks would be a fifth column for Turkey to re-colonize Bulgaria. But I don’t have the sense that those suspicions still exist.

They do exist, but at a much lower level.

Let’s move to the Roma issue. I don’t get a sense that there really has been much improvement there, but what’s your impression?

Not at all. There’s even been a decline over the past several years with this government. With the Roma, different governmental institutions adopted different papers expressing some positive attitudes towards integration, but those were largely papers. None of them were implemented in reality. And the situation of Roma remains the same as it was in the 1990s, including the level of prejudice and discrimination toward them.

At the non-governmental level, there were some developments in the desegregation of Roma education over the past 10-12 years. But this government basically attempted to put a stop to this development. There were police investigations into these projects, harassment. The local governments in many situations obstructed any effort at the integration of Roma.

The housing situation improved somewhat for those Roma who were relatively affluent. But for others it worsened, and over the past several years there were forced evictions from several cities, which never happened in the 1990s. The access to health care worsened dramatically since the health-care reform of 2001-2002. Roma were able to benefit much more from the health-care system then than they can now. The last census indicated an increase in illiteracy and in Roma children not attending school.

There hasn’t emerged anything comparable in the Roma community to the Movement for Rights and Freedoms? Do you think that there is still a possibility of a Roma party emerging?

No, it’s impossible. Because they are very diverse. They are diverse religiously, they are diverse linguistically, they are diverse in terms of regional identity. I think that a Roma party comparable to the Movement for Rights and Freedoms has no chance here.

When I ask people, “What will make a difference for the Roma community?” I get different answers, such as jobs or political power. What do you think?

There are lots of things that could make improvements in the Roma community. Measures to desegregate education, for example. Segregated education is a serious problem. This is a ghetto-type education that produces illiterate people with degrees. The housing situation can improve, and yet it doesn’t improve. In certain cases it gets worse. Most Roma in Bulgaria actually live in illegal houses. They can be evicted at any time and left on the street. Access to health care is also important. This health-care reform doesn’t work for Roma, but no one thinks of improving the way poor people are insured. And these factors — particularly education — influence employment. There’s ethnic and racial discrimination in employment, but people are also not hired because their level of education is very low.

Has there been an effort to train Roma teachers to work in schools?

There are Roma teachers, but they teach in segregated schools and that is a vicious circle.

Is there a legal basis to bring the government to court to force it to desegregate?

No, the Bulgarian justice system doesn’t work that way. You cannot expect a court to order the government to desegregate the school, as in the United States. It’s impossible here. There have been efforts to take up this issue in the courts, but all of them were so far unsuccessful.

When you talk about legal strategies, for the most part you’re talking about individual cases involving individuals, or maybe a couple of individuals?

Yes mostly. But we’re looking at these cases as a strategic issue, an issue that would affect the situation of a larger number of people. We had a case this April where the European Court of Human Rights found a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights over a situation of forced eviction. And the legal standards it came up with must be relevant not just to this small Roma community that was affected here in Sofia, but also elsewhere in Bulgaria.

In theory, this would produce a change in the legislation. The problem, however, is that we’ve had lots of such cases that uncover incompatibilities between our legislative framework and international law. But Bulgaria doesn’t execute these judgments. It just pays compensation and doesn’t do anything to prevent the reoccurrence of a similar situation.

You can only go to the European Court if you’ve exhausted…

…all domestic remedies. Which means that very often the Court will find an incompatibility between a certain national law and the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights. But the execution of these judgments is a serious problem.

Other than enforcement mechanisms connected to payment, there really is nothing the European institutions can do to force the Bulgarian government to change policy?

There’s a possibility to impose a fine. The European Union does this when you’re found in non-compliance with a certain EU directive. They impose certain penalties within, say, five months. After five months it becomes double, then triple, and so on. But the approach of the Council of Europe is different. They never fine a country for the execution of these judgments.

The case you’re working on now is connected to religious minorities.

Yes, this is a very serious problem now. There’s a case now in a regional court in Pazardzhik. Thirteen Islamic imams and muftis are on trial for propagating anti-state ideology – for propagating Shari’ah law, which the government considers to be anti-state. They’re not accused of promoting violence. They just say that Shari’ah is the supreme law, which is above the laws of the state. And not all of them, only some.

The initial reason for this trial was a massive raid by the secret police back in October 2010 in areas populated mostly by Pomaks, Bulgarian-speaking Muslims. The police went to the mosques, went to peoples’ homes, went to offices, and took 33 bags of books. And this trial of 13 people came out of this action. Back in 2010, this government was in alliance with the Ataka party, and I think this was part of the reason for the raid. They wanted to display their anti-Muslim sentiment and their anti-Muslim approach. But this was also something that Ataka provoked, and the government party wanted to keep Ataka on its side.

Ataka has always been talking about Islamic fundamentalism, extremism, and things like this. But Muslims perceive this talk as a direct attack against their Muslim religious identity. When this trial started several days ago, there was a gathering in front of the court of Muslims from all those regions, and they spoke at that gathering of a new “revival process.” The name-changing campaign back in the 1980s was officially called the “revival process.”

Are there Shari’ah courts here in Bulgaria as there are in the United States, in the UK, even in Israel?

No, we abolished them in 1938.

So there’s no informal application of Shari’ah?

No.

So you are challenging the government on…?

Freedom of expression and freedom of religion. The defense argues that the peaceful expression of even fundamentalist religious beliefs should not be a matter of criminal prosecution. It would be another thing if you incite violence, but there was no such evidence of this. And the law actually doesn’t require that you incite violence as a condition for prosecution. The mere propagating of ideas that are anti-democratic without violence is a provision in the criminal code that dates back to the Communist period, when it was used to suppress the anti-Communist opposition. I think it is now being used for the first time since 1989 against these Muslims.

So actually it is going to be difficult with this law on the books to argue for the freedom of expression in this case.

This law was passed in 1968. After that we ratified the European Convention of Human Rights and other international treaties. So, it should be interpreted in the light of the standards that were established at that level.

So you think you can get the right judgment in the case without actually getting rid of the law entirely? And just have a reinterpretation of the law?

Yes, that’s what we’re aiming at in that case. But ultimately the law should be repealed.

But if you first have a reinterpretation, then you can use that as the basis for an argument for repeal.

Yes.

And what do you think the prospects are for getting a good judgment in the case?

I would say 50/50. We’ve had very bad judgments affecting Muslims. I am now the representative before the European Court of Human Rights for two people who were convicted in 2010 for organizing a party along religious lines, the Muslim Democratic Union. They simply took the statute of the Christian Democratic Party, which was registered and legally operating—they even have municipal councils here and there—and changed “Christian” to “Muslim.” But that was considered by the criminal court in one area as a crime, and one of the people was sentenced to one year of imprisonment suspended for three years. The other one was fined 4,000 leva. So that case is now before the European Court of Human Rights. We formally have a provision in the criminal court, that again dates from the communist period, that punishes people for organizing a political party along religious lines.

I thought it was also in the Bulgarian constitution.

Yes, the constitution has a prohibition, but you can enforce that prohibition through different means, for example by refusing to register a political party. It is one thing to refuse to register and another thing to go after the person. By the way, in the constitution we have a prohibition of political parties organized around ethnic and religious lines, but in the criminal code we have a provision that punishes only for religiously based political parties. But that is a remnant from communism. They just haven’t introduced the ethnic provision in the criminal code.

Are there other cases similar to the one in Pazardzhik?

Oh, yes. We have now one case of a Muslim girl who was suspended from school for five days for wearing a hijab. That is also likely to go to the European Court of Human Rights, but it is still in the domestic courts.

Is there a law here that prohibits the wearing of the hijab?

No. The law that regulates education says that education should be secular. But that is interpreted apparently in different contexts. On the one hand, it’s secular. But on the other hand, nothing prohibits, for example, Orthodox priests from doing activities in the schools. But when you wear a hijab, then yes, you get suspended.

Has there been any attempt here to introduce the same kind of laws that we’ve seen in France, and elsewhere in Europe, explicitly prohibiting the hijab?

There’s a lot of talk about this. It would be difficult to introduce it here, but I would not be surprised.

What about mosque or minaret construction, like in Switzerland?

No. That actually is something quite positive here. Lots of people laughed about this amendment that was passed in Switzerland. Lots of people here thought that was totally ridiculous.

Well, that’s good.

Because we have 2,500 mosques.

That would be challenging.

To demolish their minarets.

Have any other religions come under legal challenge? Judaism, for instance?

For now it’s only Islam. From time to time Jehovah’s Witnesses get harassed at the personal level when they proselytize in peoples’ homes. They would have problems with the residents, and sometimes also with the government. And the Mormons. But other than those…

Now that Ataka is no longer in government, some people say that the age of Ataka is over — at least politically, as a party.

I very much hope so. But it’s not clear.

Do you think that the ideas of Ataka still are very strong, even if the party isn’t?

Yes. The age of Ataka is over because it shows very poorly in the public opinion polls. But this is because there are several splinter groups from Ataka that also score some results in the public opinion polls. And the combined percentages of all these would make as much as the percentage of Ataka from the last election. So the percentage of people who are prepared to support extremist nationalistic views continues to be quite high.

For instance, people who support VMRO…

Yes, they are now in alliance with Ataka and this will probably become formalized in the next elections. It is not clear what is going to happen.

And they are also talking about forming a kind of paramilitary—similar I suppose to Jobbik in Hungary. Do you think that’s an actual possibility? Do you think there are enough people who are interested?

Oh, yes. There are enough people who are interested in forming such a group, but it’s legally impossible now. I’m not sure that could be made possible by the government.

It’s legally impossible now because…

You are not allowed to maintain private armed militias.

But they might do it even though it’s illegal.

Oh, yes. They have these people, and they have their uniforms. They march from time to time. Every year they celebrate. In February they have a march here in Sofia. Some of them are in uniforms in that march.

We’ve been talking about relatively negative trends. But in terms of a future tolerant Bulgaria, or a future multicultural Bulgaria — if we can go that far — do you see any bright spots or positive trends?

Ethnic minorities have a better presence in public life and the government. Now this is accepted. Roma are heavily underrepresented, but their number is growing as a relative share of the population, so the prospects for them are becoming better. I don’t think that they will ever become influential as a single political party, but they might act through different political parties at the local level. It is now largely accepted that we have Turkish government ministers, something that was previously unthinkable. We never had them actually, not since the liberation!

Since 1878!

Yes! That is a very positive sign. And consecutive governments have had Turkish government ministers. Even this government, which is anti-Turkish and anti-Muslim, has a Turkish government minister! So, the acceptance of the Turkish minority in the mainstream politics seems to be going well, and that is a positive sign. The migrant population, I guess, will grow too, and will have also influence. Initially probably at the local level, but at some point maybe at a national level.

Migrants from…

We have lots of Chinese now, but we have also migrants from the other EU member states. Lots of British, for example, have settled here and bought houses on the Black Sea coast, in the mountains. We have, for example, British municipal councilors.

Really?

If they are EU citizens they are allowed to vote and be elected to municipal government.

Do they speak Bulgarian?

Some do, because they have been here for many years. Most, though, don’t study Bulgarian. They speak English and tend to communicate between themselves. But some learn, get involved in politics, and are basically well accepted by society. We have a very strong Russian community, too, on the Black Sea coast, which is growing.

The last question is about trust. I understand from talking to people, and also from an Open Society report, that there is a low level of trust in this society: trust toward the government, toward civil society, even interpersonally. And I was wondering whether that’s something you’ve also not just seen but experienced…

Oh, yes.

And what do you think is a way to build trust in society?

That has always been a problem in Bulgaria. I wouldn’t say that there has been a positive or negative trend in that area. The level of trust, interpersonal and institutional, has always been very low. Probably part of it comes from the heritage of Communism. Then there’s all these issues of organized crime, and corruption, and government involvement in corruption. This has also undermined trust in institutions. This is a very bad thing, and very un-European. It’s more American, I think, particularly with regard to trust in institutions.

The institution in which Americans have the highest trust is the military, which is very, very frightening.

Here too! But there is very little trust in anything that reminds people of a government.

Other than an anti-corruption campaign, and transparency, and an end to impunity—the usual kind of Open Society Foundation type of programs—is there anything you think can be done, at a non-governmental level, to build trust?

Trust comes with large societal reform: reducing corruption, making an inclusive government, strengthening the democratic process, and learning from the past. We’ve never re-elected a government. Every time we have an election, the party in power steps down and another party steps in. That has to do with trust too. Political parties haven’t learned from their mistakes and from the past.

Finally, some quantitative questions. On a scale of one to 10, with one most dissatisfied, 10 most satisfied, how would you evaluate what has changed or not changed in Bulgaria from 1989 to today?

Probably between 6 and 7. So, overall it was satisfying, although the expectations were higher than the result. Maybe five years ago I would have said 7.

Same period of time, 1989 to today. Same scale, 1 to 10, most dissatisfied 1, most satisfied 10. But this time your own personal life.

Around 5, let’s say.

Finally, as you look into the next couple of years here in Bulgaria, what is your feeling about what will happen, with one being most pessimistic and 10 being most optimistic?

There’s a lot of uncertainty about what’s going to happen in Bulgaria over the next several years. That would mean perhaps I should say 5 again.

Sofia, September 28, 2012

Interview (2007)

ON THE BALKANS

Bulgarians are the only ones proud of being Balkan, because the Balkan Mountains are here. Otherwise people are afraid of being branded Balkan.

There is a tradition here in the Balkans that we have better relations with Germany and France, and not with each other. There is a bad image of the Balkans in Europe and elsewhere in the world. Whoever can avoid calling him or herself Balkan will do their best to do so. The Serbs maybe would now accept being called Balkan, but it’s for the worst reasons: to oppose Europe, to pose Balkan against European.

There are some scholars like Maria Todorova trying to promote the view that everything bad in the Balkans is the influence of the great powers. This is more true for the Middle East and the Muslim world than for the Balkans. Very often the involvement of Europe was very positive in the Balkans.

The idea of a Balkan federation has its origins in the Ottoman Empire. It has had proponents in every Balkan country. Unfortunately, it was also promoted by the communists, and that means that it is opposed and denounced here.

ON NATION-BUILDING

There is a deep-rooted idea in Bulgarian politics of nation-building. This nation-building of Bulgaria was an attempt to establish a homogenous, ethnically-based nation on a territory that has never been homogenous. Bulgaria was more successful than some of her western neighbors, because the number of ethnic minorities here is relatively small.

There is an image here that we have lived peacefully with our minorities for centuries. This is not true. There has never been peaceful coexistence. There were lots of policies of ethnic cleansing. There were assimilation attempts. For Bulgarians, particularly after the fall of communism, there was some pride that “we managed to keep the peace in Bulgaria.” Because of this, you would hear from some that interethnic relations are harmonious. But it was because there was no ethnic conflict of the magnitude of former Yugoslavia. But this also serves as a deterrent in terms of how far it can go.

People here say, “We are not against the Turks, we are only against their political party.” Or they say, “We have nothing against them personally, but why do they build mosques?” The relationships with the Muslims in Bulgaria are probably not that problematic. They can be sorted out one way or another. This country has the highest share of Muslims in Europe on a per-capita basis. In some Western countries, the attitude toward Muslims is based on the assumption that they are not civilized, that they violate the rights of women. There is less of that here, because a Bulgarian would not value gender equality as much as a French or a Dutch would.

ON ETHNIC MINORITIES

For some minorities in Bulgaria, the situation got better, of course. For all the smaller minorities, except the Macedonians, it got better: for Jews, Armenians, Vlachs. They were able to freely express their identity. Their schools were opened. For instance two Armenian schools opened, one in Plovdiv, one in Sofia. There’s one Jewish school in Sofia. The Karakachani registered their associations and opened an out-of-school center for studying their language.

The situation of the Turkish minority generally improved with the restoration of their right to their names. They started to study their mother tongue in public schools. Their political participation has always been strong at the local and national level, and it is improving.

For the Roma, though, I couldn’t say that there has been any improvement, except that they were able to assert their identity. They could register their associations. They could publish their Roma newspapers. But many elements of their life worsened, such as their exclusion from society. They were always excluded from society, but this process of ghettoization increased, particularly after 1990-1, particularly after they lost jobs. There is now a parallel life outside of Bulgarian society. No one pays attention to this parallel society. Mainstream society is interested in guarding itself from Roma society. Neither are the police interested in what happens in the ghetto.

ON ROMA

The ghettoization of Roma life has increased. More Roma entered the ghetto. Some of the ghettos got larger – in Sofia and several of the big cities. People are coming from villages outside Sofia because the employment opportunities are better or at least they can try to find some work – in garbage collection and so forth. With the increased size of the ghettos has come all the consequences. The education became more segregated. And discrimination is quite severe in almost every sphere of social life, such as housing and health care. The latter particularly worsened after the introduction of the current health care reform because it is based on insurance. Before 1999, it was free health care. It was the socialist model. You go to the hospital and get the care for free. Now you have to pay. And in addition to that you have to pay a consumer tax. The Roma are not able to pay. So their access to health care has worsened dramatically.

The situation with employment has improved a little bit with the employment boom over the past several years. There are also possibilities to travel abroad, especially from the beginning of this year, to other EU member states. Many Roma were on social assistance in the 1990s. Since May, the government cut social assistance for everyone, but mostly for Roma. On January 1, the first 18 months of temporary social assistance expires. Perhaps 40,000 Roma will remain on the street. Because of the economic boom, the assumption of the government is that everyone will find employment. But that’s not true, particularly in the countryside. Anyway, the access to social assistance is conditioned on whether the person actually sought employment. If they were able to find a job, they would have found it.

With the economic boom, the price of property went up. The government started targeting Roma neighborhoods for demolition. Last year, in one Roma neighborhood in Sofia, very close to the center, all the 200 inhabitants were supposed to be removed without compensation and just left on the street. At the last moment, four members of the European parliament wrote a letter to the mayor of Sofia and he stopped the demolition. Otherwise, the courts approved that the Roma were occupying the flats illegally. But 70 percent of Roma occupy their houses illegally. They usually can only build illegally.

Since 2005, the general perception of Roma has worsened. The racist Ataka party entered the parliament in 2005. It’s not just Ataka. Their language has also been picked up by other parties as well.

ON MACEDONIANS

The Macedonians are another group whose situation has not improved since 1990. It’s not like under communism when the dominant ideology was that everyone is Bulgarian. After 1990, minorities could publically express themselves. For the Macedonians, however, their political party was prohibited several times. They went to the European Court for Human Rights in Strasbourg, which decided in 2005 that this was a violation of freedom of association. After this decision, the Macedonian party tried to register. Twice it was turned down, the last time on August 23rd. They and the Pomaks are the only peoples whose self-expression and self-identity are not recognized by the government. The opinion of the Council of Europe advisory committee on national minorities issued last year described the situation in Bulgaria quite fairly and singled out these two minorities for mention.

No one seriously fears separatism since the Macedonians are such a small group. But this is the tradition in Bulgaria, to view Macedonia as a Bulgarian land. After the liberation from the Ottoman Empire, there was a gradual process of accession of lands that were at that time outside of Bulgaria. Then came all the wars fought to bring Macedonia under the Bulgarian government. This was the major reason why Bulgaria joined with Germany during World War II, because Germany offered Macedonia to Bulgaria. There was a period of ten years after the communists took over when the government recognized Macedonian identity. There was this dream of a Balkan federation. Bulgaria’s Dimitrov and Yugoslavia’s Tito made a formal agreement. Macedonia was supposed to be a constitutive member of this federation. But this federation failed. For a short time, Bulgaria tolerated this identity. Since Zhivkov came to power, the communist government became gradually more nationalistic and denounced Macedonian identity. But now everyone in politics considers the recognition of Macedonian identity a communist policy!

In formal relations between Bulgaria and Macedonia, there were very few agreements before 1999. Bulgaria initially refused to recognize Macedonia because the treaty was proposed in both Macedonian and Bulgarian languages. The formula in 1999 was that the Macedonian language would not be mentioned. Instead, the treaty would be concluded “in the official languages as provided for by the respective constitutions.” This situation gradually improved through mutual relations. There were a lot of factors involved. One of them was the Macedonian fear that this issue would block integration into Europe. Macedonia also has a problem with Greece and it didn’t want to create a problem with Bulgaria, too.

Macedonia sponsored a Macedonian cultural center in Bulgaria. Two years ago, they employed a Bulgarian national. He was an ethnic Macedonian, with a clear Macedonian identity that he wasn’t afraid to show. The Bulgarian government wanted this person removed. So Macedonia eventually removed him and appointed someone from Macedonia itself.

ON EUROPEAN INTEGRATION

The European commission took a very schizophrenic approach to Bulgaria’s accession. Every report contained a comprehensive list of human rights problems and some of them were quite significant – torture, the situation in prisons, Roma integration, the situation of the mentally disabled. But then, in the end, the commission would say, “Nevertheless, Bulgaria fulfills the Copenhagen political criteria.” The Bulgarian government would just simulate taking some measures. But only those measures that were part of the EU Acquis were effectively taken – the adoption of an anti-discrimination law, the adoption of the data protection law. But on the desegregation of Roma education, the commission simply mentioned that education was too segregated. There were several policy papers from the Bulgarian Ministry of Education. The ministry followed up with several programs that were never fulfilled. It was just paperwork. Bulgaria took small amounts of money from the EU to improve the situation here and there. But it was on a haphazard basis and sometimes based on the political interests of particular politicians. On paper, there are plans and policy documents for the integration of Roma education. But in practice nothing happened, not one Roma child was integrated. Yes, there are several desegregation programs going on, but they are non-governmental, sponsored by the Roma education fund, the World Bank and Soros.

There was a Roma survey on education in May 2005. Roma were asked to evaluate the ongoing desegregation projects and the prospects of desegregation. Only four percent said that they would prefer their children to be in school only with other Roma children. The rest wanted their kids to go to schools with all other kids. The Roma are very much more open about being integrated with Bulgarians. It’s the Bulgarian attitudes that are the problem.

There is usually high support for European integration. Some Bulgarians would say that accession means joining a club of rich people, that it increases the prospects for better social welfare. There isn’t much understanding of a political or human rights agenda. For some ethnic minorities, the perspective is different. You hear from some Roma leaders that they would like to be part of a larger community of nations, that “we would feel more equal in that community.” Also from ethnic Macedonians, they would rely on the influence of the EU to bring their minority situation up to EU standards. But there is no public support for their position. Even in civil society, our organization is perhaps the only one with Macedonians as members.

There have not been many Bulgarians in the past who have promoted ethnic tolerance. There is a feeling of historical deprivation and this feeling is promoted in the culture. We don’t have figures like Martin Luther King, Jr. We don’t have anyone who has promoted tolerance with the Turks. One popular figure of the Bulgarian enlightment, Vassil Levski, had one sentence in his writings about the future Bulgarian republic that all the nations in Bulgaria would live together in peace. On the other hand, he created an organization in Bulgaria to fight against the Turks. Everyone in the Balkans has such contradictory traditions.

ON AMERICANIZATION

The dominant idea of America is the melting pot. It has had some bad influences here in Bulgaria. Because America is a melting pot, and everyone who goes there speaks American, therefore we should assimilate our minorities and make them speak Bulgarian and make them disappear. This is the view promoted by nationalistic circles. On one hand they hate Americans. On the other hand, they give this example of how everyone speaks English, becomes American, and renounces their previous identity. There is no understanding of Americans as a people who assert their ethnic identity. Hip-hop is popular but there is no understanding that this is an expression of a particular culture.

This Week in OtherWords: January 23, 2013

This week in OtherWords, Ron Carver puts today’s gun control debate into a personal and historical context, drawing on his experience on the front lines of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, and research into what prompted the Founders to enshrine the right to bear arms in our Constitution. Donald Kaul finds a striking similarity between the Manti Te’o scandal and the Republican Party’s fantasies, Sam Pizzigati explains what’s wrong with the Washington Beltway’s new “Lexus lanes,” and Martha Burk describes a new advantage French women have over their American sisters.

On our blog, you’ll find my summary of seven steps President Obama can take if he wants to belatedly embrace a progressive agenda, and Sarah Anderson’s four practical suggestions raising much-needed revenue.

Below you’ll find links to our latest work. If you haven’t already subscribed to our weekly newsletter, please do.

  1. Second Amendment Vigilantes / Ron Carver
    It’s a myth that the right to bear arms stemmed from the Founders’ wish that Americans be free to stage an armed rebellion against our own government, should it become tyrannical.
  2. Border Fears Riddled with Holes / Raul A. Reyes
    Despite the rhetoric from immigration hardliners, we are indeed securing our borders.
  3. Making Caregiving Count in France / Martha Burk
    French women who take time off to have kids won’t get a big fat zero in their Social Security accounts like most of their sisters in the United States.
  4. A Chance to Invest in TV News / Jason Salzman
    TV stations should say, “we’re sick of gross political ads, too, and we’re going to hire reporters with our election-year ad windfall.”
  5. Forget Fake Girlfriends, Republicans Have an Imaginary President / Donald Kaul
    One of our major political parties has become infected with the Notre Dame virus.
  6. The Capital of Inequality / Sam Pizzigati
    The Washington region’s increasingly rich elite are now zipping along in Lexus lanes.
  7. Coke Still Needs to Get Real / Jill Richardson
    The soda giant’s slick campaign to make us think its products are getting healthier might change public perceptions — but it won’t make soda good for you.
  8. Duck and Cover 2.0 / Jim Hightower
    The police-industrial complex aims to deploy thousands of domestic drones in the next few years.
  9. The High Cost of Free Trade / William A. Collins
    Negotiations over the new Trans-Pacific Partnership are secret — not even members of Congress get to see the drafts.
  10. Automatic Congressional Allegiance / Khalil Bendib Cartoon

    Emily Schwartz Greco is the managing editor of OtherWords, a non-profit editorial service run by the Institute for Policy Studies. OtherWords.org

Who’s Degraded More: the Torture Victim or the Torturer?

We recently posted about the railroading of former CIA offer John Kiriakou on flimsy charges of violating the Intelligence Identities Protection Act. In the course of his article about the case — in which he himself was a protagonist — Scott Shane of the New York Times writes that Kiriakou

… led the team in 2002 that found Abu Zubaydah. … While he had spent hours with Abu Zubaydah after the capture, he had not been present when Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded, a fact he made clear to me and some other interviewers. But based on what he had heard and read at the agency, he told ABC and other news organizations that Abu Zubaydah had stopped resisting after just 30 or 35 seconds of the suffocating procedure and told interrogators all he knew.

In fact

… the prisoner was waterboarded some 83 times, it turned out. Mr. Kiriakou believes that he and other C.I.A. officers were deliberately misled by other agency officers who knew the truth.

Meanwhile, in 2009, at Empty Wheel, Marcy Wheeler wrote: “According to the May 30, 2005 Bradbury memo” — the same memo that revealed how many times Abu Zubaydah had been tortured — “Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times in March 2003.”

Eighty-three times? 183 times? To begin with, there’s something insidious about the neat difference of 100 in the number of tortures meted out. Other, more tangible, questions come to mind. Before moving on to the humanistic, what about the sheer logistics? Ms. Wheeler cited a memo that explained

… how the CIA might manage to waterboard these men so many times in one month. …where authorized, it may be used for two “sessions” per day of up to two hours. During a session, water may be applied up to six times for ten seconds or longer (but never more than 40 seconds). In a 24-hour period, a detainee may be subjected to up to twelve minutes of water application. … Additionally, the waterboard may be used on as many as five days during a 30-day approval period.

So: two two-hour sessions a day, with six applications of the waterboard each = 12 applications in a day. Though to get up to the permitted 12 minutes of waterboarding in a day (with each use of the waterboard limited to 40 seconds), you’d need 18 applications in a day. Assuming you use the larger 18 applications in one 24-hour period, and do 18 applications on five days within a month, you’ve waterboarded 90 times–still just half of what they did to KSM.

Next, one wonders why the victim — much as one resists casting Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in this light of a victim, can there be any doubt that our “enhanced interrogation” practices has turned him into a victim, too? — doesn’t die from the relentless assault on his body? Of course, a doctor is present to make sure he lives to be tortured another day. But how many brain cells does near-asphyxiation kill?

Also, even though interrogators were presumably vetted to weed out psychopaths, if the practice alone doesn’t suggest unbridled sadism at work, the repetition does. In — facetiousness alert! — fairness, Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed may have been extraordinarily tough as well as holding out for concessions of some sort — better conditions in jail, treatment of their families.

Or the repetition may have been a measure of the interrogator’s frustration with the perceived inadequacy of the tools of torture with which he’d been supplied: “They call this waterboarding and all we’re allowed to use is a common water bottle? Let me dunk his entire head in a tub and I’ll get answers after his first immersion.”

Perhaps, too, the more they tortured, the more they hated themselves and took out their anger on their subjects.

In any event, as Ms. Wheeler wrote:

The CIA wants you to believe waterboarding is effective. Yet somehow, it took them 183 applications of the waterboard in a one month period to get what they claimed was cooperation out of KSM.

That doesn’t sound very effective to me.

In the end — and while torture by American citizens may have ended, we may still be outsourcing the practice — the sessions described above certainly fulfilled all the requirements for the frequently cited definition of insanity (doing the same thing over and over, ad nauseam). The torturer and the government that empowers him inevitably wind up as degraded as those tortured.

Giant Victory in Europe on Taxing Financial Speculation

EU finance ministers were scheduled to vote January 22 on whether to authorize 11 member states to proceed with the introduction of a financial transaction tax (FTT). As it turned out, the ministers didn’t even have to take a formal vote because it was obvious that there was sufficient support to move ahead.

The 11 countries are Belgium, Germany, Estonia, Greece, Spain, France, Italy, Austria, Portugal, Slovenia and Slovakia. It will be possible for other governments to opt in at a later date. And in fact, the Netherlands has expressed interested, but they want to negotiate an exemption for their pension funds.

EU Flags - Photograph: Rolf Haid/EPA

Next Steps

The next step is for the European Commission to make a proposal for the tax. The proposal will be based on one introduced by the Commission in September 2011 that would apply a 0.1% tax rate on trades of stocks and bonds and a 0.01% rate for derivatives trades. As described in the European Council statement released today, the aim of this proposal is “for the financial industry to make a fair contribution to tax revenues, whilst also creating a disincentive for transactions that do not enhance the efficiency of financial markets.”

The proposed tax is based on the “residence principle,” meaning that a financial transaction would be taxed in each case where a resident of one of the participating EU member states was involved even if the transaction was carried out in a country that is not a participant.

The tax proposal will have to be adopted by unanimous agreement of the participating member states. EU Tax Commissioner Algirdas Semeta says it is possible that the tax could enter into force beginning January 1, 2014.

Use of Funds

Although some press reports have said the funds will go towards bailing out European banks, there is no agreement yet on how revenues will be allocated. International campaigners who have been advocating for financial transactions taxes for several years will be redoubling their efforts to demand that revenues to go towards social and environmental purposes.

Sarah Anderson directs the Global Economy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC www.ips-dc.org

Africa to the World: “Don’t Tell Us Who We Are or What To Do”

Algerian flag (albeit customized)

Algerian flag (albeit customized)

Last week, two completely different events demonstrated how sensitized Africans have become about Western attitudes toward them. In the first example, Algerian troops attacked Islamist militants holding hostages inside the Tiguentourine natural gas complex. Among the 700 hostages were Malaysian, Japanese, Norwegian, American and British citizens.

In his most upper-crust accent, British Prime Minister David Cameron told parliament, “Mr. Speaker, during the course of Thursday morning the Algerian forces mounted an operation. Mr. Speaker, we were not [my italics] informed of this in advance. I was told by the Algerian Prime Minister while it was taking place.” Cameron said that during his conversations with the Algerian PM he had emphasized the paramount importance of securing the safety of the hostages. He offered “UK technical and intelligence support” – including experts in hostage negotiation and rescue – to help find a successful resolution.

The Algerians might have posed two questions in response to PM Cameron: First, would you consult us if you had an unfolding hostage situation in England involving Algerian citizens? Second, have you forgotten, Mr. Cameron, that during the 1990s, we fought a bitter battle with Islamist insurgents within our own country? The reaction of the Algerian authorities to this attack on the gas plant was hell no, particularly with the looming possibility that the militants might try to escape across the border with the hostages. Since the vicious War of Independence from France, Algeria is prickly about getting instructions from its ex-colonial power, France, never mind the British. Firmly against intervention by Western powers, Algerians would have rejected outright the idea of foreign security forces sweeping in to liberate the hostages.

One Direction recently visited Accra.

One Direction recently visited Accra.

The second instance could not have been more different from the Algeria siege. The boy band One Direction paid a visit to Ghana on behalf of Comic Relief, a UK-based charity dedicated to alleviating poverty. Some Ghanaian readers were indignant at an article on E! that described Ghana’s capital, Accra, as an “impoverished village.” The population of Accra, a bustling, traffic-choked city, is about 2.3 million.

But that wasn’t the end of the outrage. Niall Horan, a One Direction member, tweeted of the trip to Accra: “I’ve seen the slums right in front of me! This is no joke! They really need your help! Poverty is real!” Several commentators objected to that characterization, prominent among them Ama K. Abebrese, a British actress of Akan origin. The thrust of her objection was that Accra is not one big slum, that there are beautiful and upscale areas, and that One Direction’s fans would immediately form an erroneous impression of the city. A blogger raised the question of the white savior complex or syndrome, the idea that indigenous peoples of color can do nothing for themselves until a white person arrives to show them how. Controversial rapper Wanlov the Kubolor sarcastically tweeted in response to a published photo of the boy band clapping with a group of young Ghanaian kids, “Ghana is getting worse so heaven sent 5 downcut jesuses to teach us clapping.”

Clearly, Niall meant no harm and he was probably expressing his heartfelt sentiments. In any case, since the band was in Accra for charity purposes, it would hardly have helped if he had tweeted, “Having a great time in our luxurious suite at the Mövenpick!” [or wherever they stayed.]

It is not untrue that sections of Accra such as Agbogbloshie are in appalling shape, but arguments over factual details are really quite beside the point. Ghanaians were reacting to a Westerner – a boy, no less – appearing to set Ghana’s agenda. Niall decided that Ghanaians really need help. Niall defined, in effect, that Accra was a representation of poverty. Africans are less and less willing to be defined by Westerners. As countries like Ghana steadily grow their economies, their citizens and governments feel more confident and empowered about their future, even though no one would deny that there is still a lot of work to be done.

Kwei Quartey is a physician, novelist, and Foreign Policy in Focus columnist.

Syrian Citizens Stuck Between the Regime’s Rock and the Rebels’ Hard Place

For those who have been following the bloody events in Syria in the past two years, it is clear that there is no doubt that the regime of Bashaar al-Assad is responsible for killing tens of thousands of Syrian citizens and destroying much of the country’s infrastructure. But to say that is to say only part of the story.

The different militant groups of the Syrian opposition, ranging from the Free Syrian Army, which is supported by the US and other western countries, to the Islamic Jihadists and Salafist groups that seek to establish an Islamic state in Syria, share significant responsibility for committing atrocities in the Syrian countryside, according to news reports and eyewitness accounts reported by several international media outlets.

The conflict in Syria where the government troops are fighting a losing battle against rebel groups has destroyed large parts of the modern Syrian state plunging Syrian citizens into a state of destruction and homelessness at home and in neighboring countries.

Casting some blame on the rebel groups, however, has very little traction in the pro-rebels Arabic media outlets which often report on the death and destruction caused by the regime war machine and army troops.

An Arab journalist and analyst based in Washington D.C who declined to use his name in this column, argued to me that the rebel groups that are currently fighting a war of attrition against the regime and particularly those with Jihadist bent represent a worst alternative to Assad’s regime.

Although he is not supportive of Assad’s regime and blames it for its total dependence on foreign diplomatic and military assistance in order to stay in power, he equally, however, blames the militants for their dependence on foreign military and financial assistance.

“Both parties are destroying Syria,” he said.

While the Syrian regime is mainly supported by Iran, China and Russia , the rebels are supported by the Europeans, the US and its Arab allies.

The conflict and later the war in Syria has, in reality, been transformed from peaceful protests for political and economic reform into a proxy war between regional and international powers at the expense of the Syrian people and their country.

Although different Syrian rebel groups claim to have control over large swaths of the country, especially in the countryside, there is little evidence, however, that shows stability or a sense of normalcy in the areas under their control. Life is not going back to normal in those areas according to several Arab and western news reports. Syrian opposition leaders, in addition, have yet to move back to those areas and set up their own government, a clear sign of instability in those areas.

Meanwhile, Zakariya Al Sayed a Syrian opposition activist whom I reached on the phone in Amman Jordan, told me that there is no such thing as “liberated areas” in Syria so-to-speak. This is because, he argued, the regime still maintains its ability to strike against those areas from the air. The situation in those areas is unlike the Kurdish region in northern Iraq during the US invasion of that country or in Benghazi where US and NATO provided no fly zones and air cover.

It is obvious, moreover, that the Syrian regime is still in control of the major urban cities like Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, Hama and Derra where the residents, according to the Arab journalist, worry about what would happen to them should the Jihadists take control of their areas, thus choosing in the meantime Assad’s regime over the rebel groups. This is not to say that Assad or his regime are popular in the cities — he is not, but many prefer it over the possibility of being ruled by radical and jihadist groups and with them the probability of chaos and civil war afterward.

Adding fuel to the fire is the presence of extremist groups like Al Nusra Front, which the United States designated it as a terrorist organization. Al Nusra, which is reportedly an Al Qaida affiliate, might be the best weapon the regime has, not only to scare its citizens of the alternative to its demise but also the West, which is eager not to repeat its mistakes in Iraq or Libya.

It is this quandary that makes the war in Syria very difficult to end without direct foreign military intervention on the side to the rebels, which is highly unlikely at this point, or in the absence of a rebels’ military operation that decapitates the regime without destroying the remaining infrastructure.

Meanwhile, the prevailing public opinion in the Arab World accuses the West and Israel of keeping the Syrian conflict burning this long because, as the opinion goes, keeping Syria weak and unstable will only serve those powers. As for the Syrian people who chose to brave the killing and destruction and stay or those who are living in refugee camps across the borders the future is unpredictable and bleak even when the regime eventually collapses.

Ali Younes is a writer and analyst based in Washington D.C. He can be reached at: [email protected] and on Twitter at @clearali.

7 Progressive Steps Obama Should Take in His Second Term

7 Progressive Steps - Obama Second Term

Most progressives aren’t exactly thrilled with President Barack Obama’s track record so far. Sure, he came out in favor of gay marriage, raised taxes on at least some of the richest Americans, made history by being the first non-white man to occupy the White House, and called for ending oil and gas subsidies.

In general, however, he riled the progressive base instead of rallying it. Given that hardened conservatives continue to accuse him of being a “communist” anyway, he might as well give a true progressive agenda a shot. Chances of that may look slim in light of his corporate-sponsored inaugural festivities, but he did get that memo about how he’s got to finally do something about guns.

Here’s my cheat sheet for our commander-in-chief, in case he wants to get back in touch with his inner anti-war community organizer.

Dear Mr. President,

You and I have never met even though I grew up in Hyde Park and right-wingers keep insisting that you’re heavily influenced by my organization. (Isn’t that kooky? Look it up if you don’t believe me.) Anyway, I know you’re busy but in case you’ve got a minute or two to spare, here are seven action items for your consideration. I’ve tried to keep it short, but there are lots of hyperlinks for you to explore.

Sincerely,

Emily Schwartz Greco

1) Stop climate change. Surely you’ve noticed by now that the weather got pretty odd during your first term in office. After all, heavy winds are felling the White House’s stately Christmas trees and you wound up embraced by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (a potential GOP presidential contender) right before Election Day because of Superstorm Sandy’s devastation. Uttering the words “climate change” out loud is nice and all, but actions speak louder than words. The best way you can prove that you’re serious about climate change is to nix the Keystone XL pipeline. While you’re at it, bravely declare that fracking is environmentally devastating and do what you can to stop that scourge. Along with mountaintop removal mining. End your love affair with nuclear reactors and see if you can end our reliance on that dangerous source of power faster than Germany.

2) Adopt a foreign policy that respects human rights. You can start by ending all forms of government-sponsored torture, which would require punishing U.S. officialswho have anything to do with it. No, making them the next CIA chief doesn’t count, as bad as things turned out for Gen. David Petraeus. And keep that promise you made four years ago and shut the Guantánamo prison. Oh, and by the way: One great way to respect human rights is to kick your nasty remote-controlled killing habit. Drone warfare won’t make the world a safer or better place.

3) Embrace spending priorities that benefit the rest of us instead of rich folksand corporations. With private pensions becoming an endangered species, it’s time to strengthen Social Security rather than gutting it. You can do this and balance the budget at the same time if you get creative about new revenue sources, such as a Wall Street tax. And put the Pentagon on a diet. That’s what we’ve always done after wars wound down and supposedly we’re wrapping up operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

4) End the wars on drugs and undocumented immigrants. Speaking of pointless and pricey wars that are finally winding down, why not admit that the Drug War isn’t working and never will? Make sure the good people of Washington State and Colorado get what they voted for when they passed marijuana-legalizing ballot measures last year. And go a step further and push for nationwide decriminalization of a drug that at least 100 million of us have tried, including, uh, you. Another thing that might help Latin Americans and Latinos, two of the communities that have suffered the most over the Drug War’s four decades, is a saner immigration policy. Yes, Latinos backed you over Romney, but they had to hold their noses because of those record deportation rates. See if you can do something at the federal level to update immigration laws that might stop the outbreak of oppressive legislation in states like Arizona and Alabama.

5) Address America’s corrosive racial and class disparities, such as the racial wealth divide and the overly black and brown composition of our outrageously huge incarcerated population. The increasingly privatized prison-industrial complex isn’t good for anyone, especially undocumented immigrants, unless you think corporations are people. But if they were, you wouldn’t have gotten a second term, right?

6) Help fix our broken food system. You could get started by getting Michelle to dump Beyoncé as one of the faces of the Let’s Move campaign now that she’s becoming the face of Pepsi. For a change, how about not letting every single application for an untested genetically engineered thing we eat or feed our animals glide through the approval process? Use the power of your post to get the country to eat further down the food chain which would be great for our personal health and the entire planet by serving a vegan banquet at the next State Dinner. See if the Farm Bill could do less for corporate agribusiness and more to give the powerful local-food revolution even more momentum. Do something about factory egg and livestock farms.

7) Take steps to alleviate our growing care crisis before it crushes us all. It’s still mostly a below-the-radar challenge compared to everything else on this list, but the growing numbers of senior citizens aren’t just making the cost of Medicare harder for the federal government to shoulder. We don’t have enough geriatric doctors or any system to increase the numbers of qualified professionals who we need to provide our elders with decent care of any sort. We’ll need at least 1.6 million new caregivers by 2020 and it won’t be easy to recruit them unless U.S. labor laws are updated. Experts predict that the number of seniors in the United States will nearly double by 2030. Sure, it’s possible that robots will solve this problem. Just like it’s possible that you’re going to take all my advice.

Emily Schwartz Greco is the managing editor of OtherWords, a non-profit editorial service run by the Institute for Policy Studies. OtherWords.org

Obama Swear-In Ceremony, January 20, 2013. Photo: White House
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