IPS Blog

Did the Israeli Prison System Claim Another Palestinian Victim?

Maisara Abu HamdiyehPrisoners in Israel’s Ramon Prison recently rose up in protest for fellow inmate Maisara Abu Hamdiyeh, who died of throat cancer on April 2. Attributing his death to a late diagnosis and improper medical treatment, protesters are also being heard throughout Gaza, Jerusalem, and the West Bank.

Hamdiyeh originally complained of throat pain in August of 2012 and in January was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. It is unclear what sort of medical treatment, if any, he had been receiving up until his death, and reports from each side vary. Palestinians claim medical negligence, while Israelis say that adequate medical treatment was provided.

Following the announcement of Hamdiyeh’s death, prison protests prompted Israeli guards to fire tear gas on inmates in their cells—who were only guilty of “banging on their cell doors and throwing objects around” according to the BBC. This appeared to backfire however, as six guards along with three inmates were sent to the prison clinic after the teargas was used.

In solidarity with prisoners, Palestinian citizens took to the streets in protest. In Hamdiyeh’s hometown of Hebron demonstrators threw rocks at Israeli soldiers, who retaliated by launching tear gas canisters and firing rubber-coated bullets into the crowd.

Maisara Abu Hamdiyeh is the second prisoner in as many months who has died in Israeli custody, after torture victim Arafat Jaradat. Israel continues to show blatant disregard in addressing basic needs of Palestinians in the prison system, significantly increasing tensions in this already polarized society.

Who will be the next victim of the Israeli prison system?

Renee Lott is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.

Bulgaria’s Podkrepa Made the Same Mistake as Solidarity

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

Oleg Chulev

Oleg Chulev

Poland was unique in East-Central Europe for the size, strength, and pivotal role of its labor movement, Solidarity. In no other country in the region did workers take the lead in challenging the communist system. But that doesn’t mean that worker movements were not important in other East-Central European countries. In Bulgaria, for instance, Podkrepa was a key part of the opposition representing workers’ voices.

From the word “support” in Bulgarian, Podkrepa had its start in February 1989, before the spike in popular revolt. Later, as change accelerated in the country, it was a founding member of the opposition coalition known as the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF). Through “citizens committees,” Podkrepa campaigned on behalf of the UDF in the first free elections in 1990. By 1991, and the election of the first non-socialist government, Podkrepa formally withdrew from the UDF.

But those were challenging years for trade unions affiliated with the political opposition. There were fierce debates within the union over whether to be involved in formal politics. When opposition parties supported economic reforms that adversely affected workers, these debates became even more heated.

“We made the same mistake as Solidarity,” Oleg Chulev told me. “We participated in governments. I was the head of the national employment service for four years: at the time when the unemployment rate ranged around 18-19 percent. This led to shrinking membership. And the repressions at the enterprise level pushed a lot of people away.”

I met Oleg Chulev of Podkrepa back in 1990, when it was a relatively young organization. Since then he has continued to work with the union and has also participated in government, heading up the national employment office.

Our conversation focused on what workers have gained and lossed in Bulgaria over the last couple decades. “The hired labor force now has the freedom to choose what to study, where to study, what to work, where to work,” he told me. “They have the freedom to move. But this comes with a price.”

That price can be measured in different ways: “If you consider the standard of living in Bulgaria now and back then, you’ll see that people live better now. They have a higher standard of living. But there was no unemployment back then. There was so-called artificial employment for all. Now, the GINI coefficient can be felt by the man on the street even if he doesn’t know what this coefficient is. The gap between the rich and poor is much higher now in material terms than the gap between the nomenklatura and rank and file was back then. The insolence of the new rich is no way smaller than the insolence of the party nomenklatura was back then.”

Our conversation ranged from how economic reform could have been done differently in Bulgaria and the failure to create a Labor Party to labor-market policies and the impact of the European Union on the Bulgarian economy.

The Interview

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

It was the evening, and I was sitting with friends at home. And it was a big joy. But it wasn’t as unexpected as one might think. It was just a matter of time. It was already happening in our minds. We used to say that Gorbachev shouldn’t stop. But even if he did, he would only delay this process.

When did you first become involved with Podkrepa?

It was in the spring of 1989. I got in touch by phone. There was no other way to get in contact at that point. My affiliation with Podkrepa back then was personal: signing the declaration of support of Podkrepa. I joined the organization in October 1989 when we started meeting with people from other cities in Sofia. This is when we founded the teachers’ trade union as well. In November, we officially founded it, at a press conference.

You’ve been affiliated ever since?

Yes, since the beginning of October in 1989.

It is often said that the people who lost the most during the transition are workers. Do you think that’s the case?

Yes, if by workers, you also mean not just blue-collar workers but also teachers and clerks. They were lied to. Of course, they didn’t have much to lose. They lost the illusion of security, the illusion of equality. Materially, they are not worse off now. But they lost the feeling that they could do the same job in the same place for the rest of their lives. They lost the feeling that if they were qualified for a job, they could always have that job.

They also lost security in real terms. If you consider the standard of living in Bulgaria now and back then, you’ll see that people live better now. They have a higher standard of living. But there was no unemployment back then. There was so-called artificial employment for all. Now, the GINI coefficient can be felt by the man on the street even if he doesn’t know what this coefficient is. The gap between the rich and poor is much higher now in material terms than the gap between the nomenklatura and rank and file was back then. The insolence of the new rich is no way smaller than the insolence of the party nomenklatura was back then.

However, when one loses, one gains too. We often don’t know what we gain when we lose. The hired labor force now has the freedom to choose what to study, where to study, what to work, where to work. They have the freedom to move. But this comes with a price.

Are there any things you would have done differently from a trade union point of view?

Plenty of things, starting first of all, with the privatization process. Privatization was carried out unfairly. Well, fairness and unfairness are emotional characterizations. Let’s say, rather, that it was non-transparent. The winning bidders were known in advance. Enterprises were not sold so that the factories could continue working. Rather, the new owners cashed in the mortgages and took the money. There were no safeguards to preserve the workplace and the jobs.

There are so many examples. There was the sale of the national refinery to Russia’s Lukoil, which made Bulgaria dependent on this company. There was the sale of the Bulgarian national carrier, Balkan Airlines, which went bankrupt after its purchase. With the privatization of mines and metallurgical companies, the new owners, instead of modernizing manufacturing and making it more environmentally correct, squeezed out as much money as possible and then went bankrupt.

This all resulted in structural unemployment. The government kept giving bonuses to employers through tax benefits and by reducing the insurance contribution rates. They ended up creating the so-called bad debt millionaires by providing them with a state guarantee. These bonuses given to the employers didn’t go to creating jobs or higher salaries. Over the last 7-10 years, businesses failed to pay $10 billion in taxes. And instead of raising salaries, they bought yachts and Bentleys.

Plenty of things could have been done differently. The fact that we were half a trade union, half a political organization: now I can say that this was a mistake. Back then, however, this may have been necessary. Together with Fratia in Romania, we were the first two trade unions after Solidarity. Fratia consolidated with the former government trade union and lost influence in society. And now there are other strong players in Romania. Despite the errors that we recognize now in our political commitments, Podkrepa managed to preserve its influence.

Only very late did we learn the lesson that it’s not so important who is in power but how they exercise this power. Currently the members of Podkrepa do not vote for socialist parties and will not vote for the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP). But if we consider the economic claims of Podkrepa, they are much further to the left than the Socialists. It can’t be otherwise. The Socialists evolved in a weird way. The Socialist Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev, who is now the chairman of the European Socialists, introduced the flat tax in Bulgaria, something that two right-wing governments didn’t dare to do. This party, in other words, was protecting the interests of big capital. One third of the members of the BSP Executive Board, the leaders, are millionaires!

One of our mistakes during the transition was that we did not consider setting up a Labor Party. Until the mid-1990s, we identified ourselves with the party of the right wing, the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF). But within this right-wing coalition was Petar Diertliev of the Social Democrats, the Agrarian Party, and the Green Party. It was a political mistake for the UDF not to have specified its identity. Initially, it filled the whole political spectrum. It shouldn’t have identified itself as the right wing, leaving the whole left to the former communist party.

But you were in a common predicament. The former Communist Party in Poland instituted austerity communism. And Solidarity initially supported shock therapy. You may have made a political mistake, but it was not a unique political mistake.

I’m not a believer in global conspiracy theories. I don’t think anyone predetermined that these mistakes would happen. Perhaps this was just the logic of development.

Is it too late to establish a Labor Party?

Sooner or later it will spring up. But our members believe that this isn’t our business. They do not trust politicians, regardless of their party. It’s not just our members. This mistrust has resulted in a tsar being elected prime minster, which was basically a rejection of political parties. Later, after the unsuccessful mandate of the BSP, this mistrust in parties resulted in the current prime minster coming to power. He set up a party five minutes before the elections, just because he needed it for the registration. Basically, a person who doesn’t respect any parties won the elections. But this can’t go on. If voters are not swayed by extremists, such a party will eventually come into being. And then it will be natural for the two trade unions to support it. But if we invest efforts in political activities, people will not trust us.

I remember at the beginning of the transition here, Jim Baker of the AFL-CIO came to Bulgaria. He told us off the record that political democracy is beautiful but it ends at the threshold of private companies. We had no idea what private property meant back then. We had so much to do in the field of industrial democracy. We are still not on equal footing with employers. They have their own powerful representatives. Many years ago, you and I talked about the trade union lobby in parliament. Now almost all MPs belong to the lobby of capital.

When populist parties here, like Ataka, talk about economic issues, they sound left wing in their criticism of big capital and globalization.

This is why I said that if they don’t shift to extremes, people would support a Labor Party. But poverty is the problem. When the poor are marginalized, they become the social base for both right-wing and left-wing extremists, including nationalists. It’s easier to put the blame on the Gypsies, on the Jews — on the Martians, if you like! — rather than admit that you must take your life into your own hands.

Podkrepa now cooperates quite well with the former official trade union CITUB.

For 10 years now. In general, we do not have different paths though we have two different headquarters. But we do compete as rivals within enterprises. We compete for workers: who will offer more, who will do more. Usually, our demands are stronger. Maybe they are better negotiators; maybe we are better in action. For instance, during the railway strike of a year ago, their leaders were more in the front. But 75 percent of the strikers were ours. They waved the flags.

But there are two trade unions in Bulgaria, that’s a fact. They are the larger trade union. The time when Podkrepa was growing is over. We made the same mistake as Solidarity. We participated in governments. I was the head of the national employment service for four years: at the time when the unemployment rate ranged around 18-19 percent. This led to shrinking membership. And the repressions at the enterprise level pushed a lot of people away.

We do not have the financial resources that CITUB has. I’m the head of the Institute for Social and Economic Trade Union Research here at Podkrepa. Our institute doesn’t have permanent staff. It works ad hoc. The mirror institute of CITUB, meanwhile, has 15-16 staff. Nevertheless we are rivals. Our people keep working because of an idea. They do this for minimum pay. They work elsewhere and come here to support Podkrepa. I suppose that this is what holds us together: the idea.

At the same time, we developed a network of service not only for our members but for all workers. We provide legal counseling free of charge as well as assistance on labor market and assistance for professional retraining, We’ve finally been able to grow our youth network. This is very important because the workforce is aging in Bulgaria. The young people entering the labor market are more individualistic. They don’t care about trade unions. And the fact that this youth network is developing is very satisfying.

Have you had second thoughts about your four years as the head of the national employment office?

Yes. After the economic crisis of 1996-97, the situation here was terrible. The closing of workplaces was accompanied by hyperinflation: this was a huge challenge. The right-wing expert government of Stefan Sofiyansky and the right-wing government that followed of Ivan Kostov invited two trade unionists to serve: the minister of labor Ivan Neykov from CITUB and I was from Podkrepa. The national employment office at the time was not a government agency. It was a public employment agency. It had a tripartite governance. We had advisors from the U.S. Department of Labor and support from USAID for institution-building and capacity building. And I think that this reform was good. Personally, it was difficult. I had to work 10-12 hours a day. Everybody did.

At that time, we introduced labor-market policies that exist everywhere but were new for Bulgaria. And I think with scarce funding we managed to stabilize the situation. We also managed to preserve the social peace or, at least, we prevented the unemployment rate from exploding.

I now hold an expert position at Podkrepa. I provide expertise to the leaders of Podkrepa particularly on the issue of labor markets. And I represent Podkrepa in the national council for employment.

Does Bulgaria have a social safety net that is sufficient, comparable to safety nets in the region? And has the EU been helpful on this?

My reply to this is in the form of a question. Is there a European social model? Is there a social Europe?

We have the poor South and the rich North here in Europe. The difference between our standard of living and the European standard of living is huge. But there is also the difference between Spain and Portugal on the one hand and Netherlands and Sweden on the other. I’m talking here not about the phenomenon of migration but internal European mobility whereby a qualified labor force from Spain, Portugal, and Italy goes northward and we Bulgarians take their places. They engage in social dumping in the north, and we do the same in their countries. It’s quite doubtful, of course, that the Spanish will ever receive Swedish pensions or that our workers will receive Spanish pensions.

The institutions of a social safety net are there. They are more or less working. The problem, however, boils down to people’s incomes, because contribution rates are dependent on income. We have a 10 percent flat tax rate here in Bulgaria, which is unique in Europe. If I get $1000 dollars, I pay $100. Bulgarian pension system faces two problems. The first is stability. It depends on the income. The second is adequacy. Pensions fail to replace income, regardless of the European level. Health insurance fails to cover adequate services. The current government is very much concerned about stability and security, but they don’t care about adequacy.

I can give you an example. Every worker pays health and pension insurance contribution. The military, police, and civil servants, however, do not pay: the government transfers their contributions to the insurance system out of the taxes of the same employees. I’m not going to refer to this as honest and fair. It’s illogical! I said my score was 4 for the social sector. Because the institutions are in place and largely corruption-free. The sector isn’t corrupt because it doesn’t generate profits. It operates at a deficit.

My forecast for the future, however, is not very positive. Employment remains low. In its 2020 Strategy, the government set as a goal an employment coefficient of 75-76. This is the proportion of the workforce that has a job. The Europe-wide coefficient is 72. The Bulgarian government’s goal is too ambitious. Right now we are about 50! Maybe they are expecting that the next government or the government after that will achieve this goal. Brussels requires many papers to be submitted: a national strategy on this, a national program on that. We are excellent at delivering these papers. But this particular one is really a non-paper.

One policy the government takes pride in is the retention of young people. Emigration has dropped. But this is because the jobs in Europe have decreased. Our efforts should not be to convince people to stay rather than emigrate but to convince the government and the employers to increase remuneration. The average productivity of labor in Bulgaria is 43 percent of the European average and the average income is 30 percent below the average. For over 10 years, remuneration has been lagging behind productivity. In the last couple years it has gone slightly ahead of productivity. But there’s a lot to do. Our job is to fight employers at the negotiation table. Our job is to be the red light in society and to tell capital that, when there’s a crisis, it’s better to negotiate with us in order to avoid social explosions. However, the appetite of capital is insatiable.

You see what happened in Europe. When the Berlin Wall was still in place, Europe was a symbol for us: something to look up to, a colorful shop window. Workers from France and Germany came here on holidays, with loads of money. Back home they had lots of rights. They had strong trade unions. They were highly respected. That showed the advantages of capitalism. After the Berlin Wall fell, we witnessed, I won’t call it exploitation, but the intensification of labor. In the years after the Berlin Wall fell, especially lately, Western Europe was shaken by protests and strikes that it had not seen since the 1960s. It’s still going on. This is why Cyprus elected a communist president and Greece all but did as well.

Where do you think there is the greatest potential for growth in trade union membership? Are there barriers to organizing new members imposed by the government or by international circumstances? We have for instance Right to Work laws in the United States.

Something similar is attempted in Bulgaria in terms of an effort to limit collective bargaining. The Civil Service Act deprived civil servants of the right to become members of trade unions. Traditionally, trade unions were very strong in this sector. Now they have no right to collective bargaining. They have no right to strike. We lost a lot here. If this law is not amended, we won’t be able to organize in this sector.

As for prospects, that’s where the greatest obstacles lie, for instance in the banking sector. There’s not a single bank with a trade union. In the high-tech sector also there are many challenges. At the beginning of this year, we set up a chapter in a mobile operator called M-Tel (Mobitel). Young people were working there, average age of 25, with good education and language proficiency. They are confident that they are working at a good company, and they receive handsome salaries. When hired by a bank or a high-tech firm, new employees sign declaration that they voluntarily don’t want to be part of a trade union. This refusal of labor rights has no significance. But the human resources managers often refer to this declaration.

In any case, four times we tried to set up an organization within M-Tel. And four times they fired the initiators. Two years ago, the fired employees won their case in court and were restored to work. M-Tel said that it was cheaper to pay out 100,000 Euro in judicial costs and compensation rather than allow a trade union in the company. The owner was a Russian mafia guy, Mikhail Cherny, who was subsequently ousted from the firm. But we suspect that he continues to be in charge through an offshore company.

This last time, we worked underground for 6 months at M-Tel until we had 250 people. And only then did we announce the existence of the union. The managers couldn’t deal with that. But the first union was set up in the call center and in the headquarters, where they do technical support for software. It those workers were dismissed, the company would collapse. Even if they go on strike, it will be detrimental to the company. So, there is potential. It’s a matter of strategy.

One of our big allies is the anti-trade union policy. Currently, we have temporary work agencies. The companies dismiss people that have permanent contracts and hire people from these agencies at half-salaries. The notorious EU directive on Flexibility and Security in the Labor Market is all about the growth of temporary agencies, part-time workers, distance workers, and so on. In Bulgaria, this means flexibility for workers — they must be very mobile, be willing to work flexible hours — and security is only for capital.

The response to this is to make people organize. I’m observing this organizing within M-Tel. They have developed their own tactics. They are scattered around the country. They communicate by Internet. They set up meetings over the Net. New members are admitted online. This has never been done here before. One of the tasks of our institute is to observe this tactic and see the results and propose it for organizing at other companies.

The EU once represented something positive, not just for Bulgarians, but in terms of harmonizing up social welfare standards, labor standards. But more recently it seems that the EU is driven more by banks and finance. Flexibility is definitely part of that. But do you see a possibility of EU institutions strengthening trade unions or leading to the overall improvement of working conditions and compensation?

Yes. The problems that Europe faces are not unique to Europe. They are part of globalization. Workplaces were shifted to China, not only from Europe but from the United States as well. The knowledge-based economy was deployed on such a minor scale that it never was able to create new jobs to replace industrial employment.

The response to globalization is a mirror image. Trade unions have responded by unifying on a large scale. Six European trade unions in metallurgy, transportation and mines became one big union. All public sector unions – teachers and so on — united into the European Public Service Union. This response gives us more possibilities.

When we organized a strike at a Turkish company in the Bulgarian city of Targovishte, which privatized a glass factory, it was a 60-day strike. We were supported by the Turkish trade union, because they had 7,000 members in that sector, as well as the European glass factory trade union members.

Has there been cooperation among trade unions within Eastern Europe?

Yes. Interestingly, the former relations are preserved. For instance, Podkrepa maintains close relations with Solidarity. CITUB is closer to OPZZ. There is some sentimental value to these relationships. So, certain strong relations were established in the past, and they are still in place. However, some of the trade unions that we partnered with in the past are no longer influential, like Liga in Hungary, which is very very small, or Fratia in Romania.

Are there joint projects? Around organizing in companies that have enterprises in both countries?

Yes, and we use European money for joint projects and cross-border programs. It’s always best to have a Western partner so that there’s a transfer in knowhow and innovation. Some time ago, I visited Barcelona. With a trade union in Catalonia and with Polish partners, we introduced knowhow for career counseling. Up to now this service was not offered by unions in Bulgaria. We trained 70 people who will be offering this service all over the country.

This knowhow didn’t exist in Spain, Poland, or Bulgaria. The transfer of this knowhow originated in Austria. This was not a major project in terms of funding. The training, localization of materials, and translation came out to 60,000 Euro — 20,000 Euro per country – and it lasted a year. It’s a wonderful project because it provides people with a free service that would otherwise be very expensive on the market.

Do you see any prospects of “wild capitalism” being any less wild in the future?

No. It hasn’t become milder. Perhaps only a little bit more civilized. What can stop capitalism from becoming wilder is the recognition that greed may lead to social explosion. There’s the example of Greece. You don’t think that the deficit resulted from the fact that the Greek workers and pensioners simply ate this money. Money was wasted, and the budget crisis is the result of the actions of politicians and big capital. But the price will be paid by the workers and pensioners. And when they can’t pay, they go onto the street and you see what is happening there. This won’t threaten European institutions. But it can serve as a very bad example.

I saw two rallies in Barcelona in two days. One was for the independence of Catalonia. And the second was against the austerity measures. Both of these rallies were very strong. And there were Greek flags waving there.

So, there are areas in which we perform well and we can give a high score. No matter how unproductive our elections might be, we have political freedom. The right to choose is amazing. We also have the right to travel, the right to information.

I have contact with our colleagues in Russia and Ukraine. When I tell my son that they restrict the Internet over there, I think that he’s happy that he lives in Bulgaria rather than in Russia or Ukraine.

When you look back to 1989 and what has changed or not changed since then, how would you evaluate the situation in Bulgaria over that time, with 1 being most dissatisfied and 10 being most satisfied?

4. Because 40 percent of things are done.

The same period of time and the same spectrum, how do you feel about your own personal life?


Looking into the near future, how do you feel about the prospects for Bulgaria over the next few years?


Sofia, October 2, 2012

Emphasis Added: The Foreign Policy Week in Pieces (4/8)

Not Just a Wife, But a Slave; Not Just a Slave, But an Advertisement

Because Naghma, whose name means melody, was not chosen by the groom, she will most likely be treated more like a family servant than a spouse — and at worst as a captive slave. Her presence may help the groom attract a more desirable second wife because the family, although poor, will have someone working for it, insulating the chosen wife from some of the hardest tasks.

Painful Payment for Afghan Debt: A Daughter, 6, Alyssa Rubin, the New York Times

Christian Influence in Politics as Disgraced as George Bush

The cavalier militarism and the justification of torture during the Bush years, along with the strident in-group-ism of the last four decades, prodded many evangelicals to re-examine themselves and their actions. George W. Bush may have fractured the Christian coalition that elected him.

The New Evangelicals, Marcia Pally, the New York Times (December, 2011)

So Much for “the Lady”

Outside of the actions of the dictatorship, under Ne Win, Saw Maung and Than Shwe, I believe the worst thing that has happened for Burma since 1962 has been the rise of Suu Kyi, together with her receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize. This award enshrined an accidental and half-hearted advocate as a national leader. It is a handicap that has hobbled the country for the last twenty years.

Aung San Suu Kyi: Burma’s Robert Mugabe, Roland Watson, Dictator Watch

They’ve Yet to Meet the Enemy, But They Think It’s Us

First, we hear that [the Department of Homeland Security] is in the process of stockpiling more than 1.6 billion rounds of hollow-point ammunition, along with 7,000 fully-automatic 5.56x45mm NATO “personal defense weapons” plus a huge stash of 30-round high-capacity magazines. Incidentally, those are also known as “assault weapons”, but are not the limited single-fire per trigger-pull semi-automatic types that we civilians are currently allowed to own. By some estimates, that’s enough firepower to fight the equivalent of a 24-year Iraq war.

Why The Heck Is DHS Buying More Than A Billion Bullets Plus Thousands Of Guns And Mine-Resistant Armored Vehicles?, Larry Bell, Forbes

At Least George W. Bush Waged War in the Open

Obama’s morally and constitutionally questionable reliance on drones puts him in the tradition of cautious Eisenhower Republicans. President Eisenhower himself preferred using the CIA to orchestrate coups, in places like Iran and Latin America, to doing nothing or sending troops. What spooks were to Ike, drones are to Obama.

Chuck Hagel nomination: Obama rebukes Bushism, Michael Lind, Salon

The Genocide Gene

World War II ended 68 years ago [but it’s] as if the Germans, even the very young, to whom tales of the Nazis must feel as if extraterrestrials were at work, still shudder when they think about what their grandmothers and grandfathers were capable of. As if they were afraid that certain patterns of character and behavior could be passed on to future generations.

‘Our Mothers, Our Fathers’: Next-Generation WWII Atonement, Roman Leick, Spiegel Online

How a North Korean Attack on South Korea Might Unfold

Seoul is only 30 miles from the DMZ.

Seoul is only 30 miles from the DMZ.

For over twenty years, it has been evident that North Korea lacked the capacity to successfully conquer the Korean Peninsula through military invasion. Economic stagnation after (among other things) the fall of the USSR led to military deterioration, and it appeared that North Korea’s giant military was a powerful deterrent to invasion and an instrument of internal control, but nothing more. In the present day, South Korea has twice the population and forty times the economic power of the North, and by most metrics its military forces far outclass those of the North. However, one contingency seems to be missing from the discussion: what if the North Koreans grew desperate enough to attempt to conquer only the portions of South Korea closest to them, since after all, those are the most valuable parts?

According to at least one North Korean defector, the North Korean military intended for at least some of its tunnels, dug under the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), to connect with the Seoul subway system. To an extent, this is a bit comical, evoking cartoon slapstick (picture an invading force storming into the subway, only to be blindsided by a speeding train) or perhaps the members of Spinal Tap, wandering about backstage, unable to find their audience (this apparently happened to KISS once). With that said, it illustrates a stark reality of Korean geography. The Seoul area lies only about thirty miles from the Demilitarized Zone. This is often mentioned in the context of Seoul’s vulnerability to massed North Korean artillery, missiles, and rockets. As the tunnels demonstrate, it is at least theoretically possible for large numbers of North Korean soldiers to reach Seoul’s outskirts on foot, and initially undetected.

The Seoul metropolitan area (including the port city of Incheon, site of General MacArthur’s famous landing) is surrounded by a densely populated province, Geyonggi-do. This province, and especially the cities it surrounds, contains nearly half of the country’s population and is overwhelmingly the center of South Korea’s commerce, finance, and industry. Immediately to the east lies Gangwon-do, a sparsely populated rural province, noted for its abundant agricultural land. Both of these prizes lie immediately to the south of the DMZ. Thus, the scenario: if North Korea continues to deteriorate (and there is no guarantee that this will happen, but it is likely), might Kim Jong Un’s government decide that the tiny chance of success of seizing large portions of the peninsula’s most valuable territories beats the sure thing that their regime will crumble beneath them in their own lifetimes?

The plan might go something like this: the North spends several months gradually moving substantial forces close to the DMZ, and stockpiling supplies, including perhaps fuel synthesized from coal (if the North Koreans cannot do this, the Chinese can). When the attack comes, North Korea’s massed artillery and missile batteries will open fire not on Seoul’s residential areas, but on every known South Korean military base in the area, plus a few farther afield. Bombers and ground-attack aircraft (including many scores of obsolete fighters) will launch massed airstrikes on military targets, while fighters attempt to distract the South Korean air force (they cannot defeat them) from defending their air space and retaliating. Shortly thereafter, armor and infantry of the Korean People’s Army will surge southward through the DMZ, attempting to smash through South Korean (and possibly American!) military units and proceed south.

Crucially, the North Koreans have attempted to compensate for their decaying military capabilities by reinventing huge parts of their military as asymmetric-warfare specialists. The North Koreans are thought to have about 200,000 special-operations troops (with better food, equipment, and training than most of their comrades, with a particular emphasis on indoctrination), along with “several” conventional army divisions repurposed as light-infantry units. Besides simply sneaking through the DMZ, these soldiers can be delivered en masse from helicopters, transport planes such as the AN-2, hovercraft, submarines, small boats, and any undiscovered tunnels. They are known to possess copies of South Korean uniforms and equipment, and are trained and equipped to sow chaos and disorder. Surely they are well-aware of the efficacy of roadside bombs.

The Kim regime may be hoping that, once their troops penetrate into built-up urban areas, South Korea’s massive technological advantages and air superiority will be less relevant. The North Koreans are notably known to be involved in cyber-warfare and GPS jamming, in attempting to level the playing field. Similarly, Pyongyang might count on both the United States and the remnants of South Korea being in no financial, political, and/or military position to mount a counter-attack, partially due to fear of provoking the Chinese, and they may have a point.

So would it work? Almost certainly not, unless the North Koreans have been able to upgrade their command and control capabilities to the degree necessary to pull off such a coordinated operation with any degree of surprise. If they lose the momentum, they would be routed by superior South Korean forces, and the ensuing conflict would instead lead to the fall of the government in Pyongyang, not Seoul. Even if the initial phases of the campaign went according to plan, the loyalty of the North Korean forces might easily crumble upon coming into close personal contact with the glitz and vibrancy of Seoul and the lush bounty of Gangwon-do. Before (or as) the disparities between the two countries reached a tipping point, this strategy might have been viable; now, it might just enable defection on a massive, perhaps terminal scale. Even with a party-line blaming their problems on foreign sanctions, both military personnel and civilians defect from North Korea on a regular basis as it is. On top of that, could the North Koreans control such a large and restive civilian population?

Might it still happen? Yes, for reasons outlined above. Pyongyang might prefer to take a chance, rather than succumb to a pathetic certainty. Also, the scenario might become more likely if the North Koreans, from their perspective, felt pushed to the wall by the escalating saber-rattling between both sides, regardless of who started it. The phenomenon of “groupthink” (which does not mean thinking or acting as a group, rather it essentially refers to teamwork gone wrong) is notorious for occurring in tense, cohesive, homogenous, insular groups. Those characteristics do seem to fit the government in Pyongyang.

It is wrong (as usual) to dismiss Kim and his cohorts as irrational or crazy, but it is highly possible they might be delusional enough, due to ignorance or pathologies like groupthink, to make a very bad decision. The South Koreans (and the Americans, who have no direct national interest in the matter) should not make it any more likely for them to do so. Rather than brinksmanship around the topic of nuclear weapons, they should take care not to leave Pyongyang with only one drastic option: an enormous “limited” war.

Scott Ryan Charney received an M.A. in U.S. Foreign Policy from American University.

Purge of the Marabouts: Salafists Target Tunisia’s Islamic Heritage

Cross-posted from the Colorado Progressive Jewish News.

1. From Timbuctou to Tunis, marabout desecration

Marabout at Tozeur, in the Tunisian Sahara

Marabout at Tozeur, in the Tunisian Sahara

Fueled with Saudi and Qatari money and arms as they are throughout the Middle East and North Africa, Salafist Islamic radicals on the move in Mali hijacked the Tuareg-armed insurrection giving it a decidedly Islamic fundamentalist tinge which the rebellion did not originally have. Among their main targets was the historically vital city of Timbuctou.

In early times Timbuctou was a key transit point for the trans-Sahara caravan trade. It remains a key center of African Islam with an extraordinarily rich heritage of Sufi (Islamic mystics) shrines and written documents going back a thousand years. Its manuscript collection is acknowledged as one of the richest treasure troves of human culture anywhere.

One of the goals of the Islamic radicals that temporarily seized and held Timbuctou was to destroy as much of that heritage as possible, understood by Salafists with their stone-age concepts of Islam, as heretical. Countering such destructive activity has become a pretext for big power intervention, be it the United States in Afghanistan or France in Mali (although both countries have more significant, ulterior motives).

The Salafist militias radicals sought to snuff out Timbuctou’s rich regional Islamic heritage – destroying mausoleums (called marabouts [i]), purging Sufi holy men and destroying as much of the city’s precious manuscript collection as possible. In the short time that they ruled Timbuctou, the Islamic militants instituted a typical regime of Wahhabist-like Sharia law with its usual retrograde practices (the subjugation of women, outlawing singing and dancing, stoning women to death for violating Salafist versions of sexual misconduct, i.e. the usual Taliban-like/Saudi-like nonsense).

Fortunately, much of Timbuctou’s manuscript heritage was saved, hidden away from the Salafist inquisitors. But much damage was still done. During the months Salafist militias ruled more than 300 of the town’s marabout shrines were destroyed. Islamic radicals also were able to burn two buildings to the ground housing extensive leather-bound manuscript collections, some dating back to the 13th century. Considered not merely an attack on African history and culture, the Salafist purge of Sufi documents has been described as “an assault on world heritage comparable with the demolition of the Buddha’s of Bamiyan in by the Taliban in 2001” – not an unfair comparison.

2. At least 40 Tunisian marabouts desecrated; transitional government seems unconcerned.

Timbuktu Sufi manuscripts

Timbuktu Sufi manuscripts

But then, Salafists and their Saudi Wahhabist allies have long been on a campaign to purge the diversity in Islam worldwide, including in Tunisia where until recently Salafist influence has been weak to nonexistent. While Malian Salafists were doing their best to wreak havoc on indigenous African Islamic traditions, their soul brothers and sisters in Tunisia, in solidarity, were doing likewise and have been since the rise of the Ennahda Party to political prominence in October, 2011. The growing Salafist influence in Tunisia is due largely to the tacit – and often open – support and encouragement they have received from important elements of the current transitional government.

Defended by the Ennahda, their actions suggest that Tunisia’s Salafists are little more than the brownshirts of the Arab Spring. While publicly criticized by the U.S. State Dept and media, still the United States has a long and sordid history of allying itself under certain circumstances with Islamic fundamentalism. During the Cold War the U.S. sought alliances with Islamic fundamentalists to counter secular Arab Nationalism. The policies of Islamic fundamentalism – be it Ennahdha or the Salafists in Tunisia, or the Moslem brotherhood in Egypt – dovetail nicely with U.S. sponsored neoliberal capitalism. In the same veins, Islamic regimes partner with the U.S. military in its strategic goals – be it in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, or now it seems, in Tunisia. In Tunisia, the main goal of the Salafists is freeze the radical possibilities of the Arab Spring in its tracks, to help the United States and its regional allies to “manage” the region-wide upsurge and to prevent the establishment of broad-based coalitions, in Tunisian and eleswhere, that could lead the region on a path of sorely needed structural changes.

In Tunisia, besides targeting the country’s media, women’s rights, trade unions – virtually anything that “reeks of democracy” – desecrating the few remaining Jewish cemeteries and trying to hijack the curriculum of the Tunisian university system with their own medieval versions of Islam, Tunisian Salafists have been especially intolerant to the country’s own unique tolerant Islamic heritage which extends back nearly 1,500 years.

In January of this year, a marabout in Sidi Bou Said, one of Tunisia’s most famous, was trashed and burned in an arson attack.[ii] Tunisia’s president, Moncef Marzouki, condemned the Sidi Bou Said attack as a “criminal act,” arsonists as “trying to undermine the country’s culture in its historic dimension.” Nor was the Sidi Bou Said arson the first incident of its kind. The Sidi Bou Said marabout trashing was serious enough to draw worldwide attention. But it was hardly the first incident of its kind. Marabouts all over Tunisia – more than 40 of them – had been attacked and destroyed in the months prior to January, 2013. While not on the scale of Mali, Tunisian manuscripts and other cultural jewels, again like Mali, some dating back nearly 1,000 years have been destroyed. Despite Marzouki’s outrage, very few of the marabout-trashing perpetrators have been tracked down or arrested by the Tunisian authorities, suggesting that protecting this part of the country’s national heritage is a low priority.

Sidi Bou Said is something akin to the “Aspen” of Tunisia – a lovely town north of Tunis sitting on a hillside overlooking the Mediterranean and one of the country’s primo tourist sites. There is a strong Salafist–Islamic fundamentalist presence in the area, which is also a stronghold for the Ennahda party. The day before, five ultra-conservative Muslims were arrested, charged with having burnt down another marabout in the Tunis region.

Targeting marabouts has emerged as an integral part of the Salafist revival in Tunisia, one tolerated by, if not coordinated with the goals of, Tunisia’s ruling Ennahha Party.[iii] Salafist elements in Tunisia, with their stone-aged, factional vision of Islam, consider such shrines, the veneration of holy shrines and ascetics as “un-Islamic.”

Present-day Tunisian Salafist opposition (much of it emanating from Saudi-trained Wahhabist imams) to the marabouts is based upon their narrow vision of the Islamic religion that charges the marabout system as being polytheistic. The more mystical Sufi tendency, which helped spread Islam, not only to Africa, but to as far east as Indonesia, is seen as nothing short of heresy, as is all of Shi’ite Islam and it is mercilessly attacked.

3. Rich history of Tunisian (and North African) marabouts

It is something of a half truth to claim that Islam came to North Africa “by the sword” alone. Military conquest only began the process of conversion. If Christianity has its Jesuits, Franciscans and the like who tried to compensate for Spanish (and other European) military colonial brutality with “good works,” Islam has its Sufi mystics, those wandering aesthetics whose connection to local populations was much stronger than the generals’. Hermits, scholars, their example was critical in the eventual conversion of many in North Africa. To honor them, locals built what the media calls “mausoleums” but what are better known through North Africa as “marabouts.”

The Sufi mystics so-honored with marabout shrines were ultimately much more effective than the Christian missionaries that preceded them in North Africa in the 3rd to 7th centuries. The latter’s influence rarely extended beyond the Magreb’s urban trading centers on the Mediterranean. To the contrary, Sufi influence, overtime – it took several centuries – struck deep into the North African countryside and desert in a way that the Christianity of earlier centuries was never was able to penetrate. It is through them in large measure, that Islam spread first to North Africa and then across the Sahara to Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, Niger, Chad and Northern Nigeria.

While many marabouts are distinctly Moslem holy places dedicated to the memory of Islamic Sufi mystics (like the one in Sidi Bou Said, Tunisia, that was just firebombed), marabouts honoring women are not unknown. Jewish holy men, highly respected local rabbis, have also been so venerated. In gratitude for their kindness and wisdom, in areas where the Sufis lived and worked, locals built simple but enduring structures over their teachers’ graves that have come to be called “marabouts.”

Marabouts are found everywhere in North Africa from Senegal to Libya. Not the sites of formal pilgrimages (reserved for Mecca and Jerusalem), they are more places of reflection, of inspiration. Distinctly local sacred sites, marabouts commemorate the memory of people who led, according to a particular vicinity, exemplary lives. People come with offerings, to pray, ask for the safety, success of loved ones, etc. While over the years there have been different attempts in all North Africa countries to discredit if not purge the marabout societies that have been organized to maintain the marabouts, they have been tenaciously preserved by their supporters.

Although such shrines – or something similar – are found elsewhere in the Moslem world (Pakistan, India, Bangladesh), the marabout tradition remains an integral part of North African Islam and has a distinct regional cultural touch. Marabouts are classic examples of what might be called “religious syncretism”, the tendency of new proselytizing religions to integrate former (in this case) pre-Islamic themes into their theological fold. By way of example, in the same way that North African Islam merged with some aspects of pre-Islamic regions, Mexican/Central American Catholicism embraces many aspects of Aztec-Mayan religious practices.

Marabouts are also an example of both the flexibility of Islam to embrace and absorb other religious traditions and the general tolerant manner in which North African Islam has often been practiced, with respect for and acknowledgement of people living “sacred lives,” regardless of gender or even religious background!

North African Islam acknowledges, as do all Muslims, that there is only one God and that is Allah, but maintains tradition of respect, if not veneration for people who have led exemplary lives. Historically, at different times in the past, when more Sunni-Salafist, fundamentalist elements have come to power, as at the time of the 13th century Almohads, marabouts and marabout societies have been the target of fierce purges (along with the Jews), as nasty as the Catholic Inquisition, which they managed to survive.

The ones in Tunisia tend to be small whitewashed cubical structures with topped with a dome. Inside are graves, perhaps a lamp, very simple. Most often they are no bigger than an American tool shed, although they can be larger. Locals have given loving, tender care to these graves, uninterrupted, for centuries.

While not treated as “saints” – which would violate Islamic belief in the oneness of God, Allah, still the holy people buried in marabouts are revered, the graves themselves the sites of local pilgrimages where people come frequently to pray and give offerings, visit in times of crisis. Curiously in North Africa, while most marabouts honor Sufi mystics, there are others that honor rabbis, some holy women.

The care and concern that Tunisians have for their marabouts should not be under-estimated. Many of these sacred tombs have been cared for by extended families for centuries. One friend, whose family hails from Beja in the Tunisian northwest, related how his family had cared for a marabout for more than 800 years. The psychic damage done by destroying such sites cannot be measured in monetary terms.

[i] Actually It is not fair to call Salafist goals”medieval.” Medieval Islam in Tunisia was far more theologically flexible, even “modern looking” in its day than Salafist thinking today.

[ii] In English, marabouts are usually described as “mausoleums.” Marabouts are tombs of venerated holy people, mostly it seems, Islamic Sufi teachers, mystics, but they can commemorate others as well.

[iii] While Ennahda is, technically one of three parties in the ruling three-party coalition, the other two parties are much weaker, almost paper parties. To a very great degree it is Ennahda that runs the show.

Ntaganda: What? No Bail Bondsmen in the Hague?

Congolese warlord Bosco Ntaganda

Congolese warlord Bosco Ntaganda

Notorious Congolese warlord Bosco Ntaganda, who surrendered himself to the U.S. Embassy in Kigali, has been transferred to the Hague for his trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC). Known as the “Terminator,” Ntaganda is being charged with war crimes including rape, murder, the recruitment of child soldiers and sexual slavery.

At the arraignment, journalist Marlise Simmons reported that Ntaganda seemed uncomfortable but still sparked surprise amongst observers by requesting his release until the start of the trial—highly unlikely for a warlord who has been fleeing the courts for years.

The ICC issued the original warrant for Ntaganda’s arrest in 2006, but the Congolese government had declined to apprehend him, claiming he was instrumental to the fragile “peace” in the country.

Ntaganda continued to perpetrate well-documented crimes against humanity in plain view of government officials, foreign diplomats, and UN peacekeepers in eastern Congo. He was filmed, for example, commanding rebel forces in Kiwanga, where rebels massacred 150 people less than a mile from a UN peacekeeping base in November 2008.

A peace deal in 2009 made Bosco Ntaganda a general in the Congolese army. Eventually, however, he became unsatisfied with the situation, defected, and with other military defectors formed the rebel group M23 in April 2012. For the past year he has been accused of committing the same crimes he is wanted for by the ICC, perhaps on an even grander scale.

But the union was not to last. A recent splintering of the M23 last month brought renewed conflict in eastern Congo between rival M23 factions. Ntaganda lost ground with his group and, according to the breakaway rebel leader Colonel Kahina, was shot at last week.

With the group turning against him, did Ntaganda see no way to save his own life but to surrender himself to the ICC?

The repercussions of Ntaganda’s surrender will also impact Paul Kagame’s regime in Rwanda. Kagame has been accused by many of capitalizing on sales of precious minerals funneled through Ntaganda’s various rebel groups, and Ntaganda’s ICC trial may well produce incriminating evidence against Rwandan officials. If Ntaganda can fork over evidence against his former patrons, he may well secure a lighter sentence for himself.

Renee Lott is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.

The Assassination of Dr. King and the Suppression of the Anti-War and Peace Perspectives

April 4th is an anniversary that I suspect many people in the U.S., including those in government, would prefer that people ignored. On that date 45 years ago, James Earl Ray, supposedly acting alone, murdered Martin Luther King Jr. on a balcony of the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee — silencing one of the great oppositional voices in U.S. politics.



Unlike the celebrations organized around the birthday of Dr. King, with which the U.S. government severs Dr. King from the black movement for social justice that produced him and transforms his oppositional stances into a de-radicalized, liberal, integrationist dream narrative, the anniversary of the murder of Dr. King creates a challenge for the government and its attempt to manage the memory and meaning of Dr. King. The assassination of Dr. King raises uncomfortable questions — not only due to the evidence that his murder was a “hit” carried out by elements of the U.S. government, but also because of what Dr. King was saying before he was killed about issues like poverty and U.S. militarism .

Read the rest of this post at http://www.ajamubaraka.com/

Ajamu Baraka is an IPS associate fellow.

Changing of the Guard All Too Common in the Central African Republic

President Michel Djotodia of the Central African Republic

President Michel Djotodia of the Central African Republic

Described by journalist Graeme Wood as a “black hole of governance at the center of the continent,” the Central African Republic has been plagued by conflict and coups since its birth. In the most recent unrest, President Francois Bozize (who himself led a coup to become president) was ousted by rebel forces that have been slowly pushing for a full takeover of the C.A.R.

Michel Djotodia, national defense minister turned rogue, entered the capital in late March with rebel forces and declared himself president. There were reports of heavy gunfire throughout the day the following Sunday as a United Nations official in Bangui called the situation “confusing and very tense.”

Characterized by fragile political and economic systems together with a weak military, the C.A.R. has repeatedly fallen victim to takeovers. Scholar Louisa Lombard, who has studied the country extensively, claims that “factionalism flourishes because heading up a rebel group is a good way to be taken seriously” in a country with weak political and civil institutions.

Seleka, the rebel movement that has taken responsibility for this most recent ousting, is a coalition of groups from around the country disenfranchised with the country’s kleptocratic government and its cronies. But after the ousting, Seleka lost control of itself. Unable to deal with the ensuing chaos, regional peacekeeping forces were called to stop the looting of businesses, U.N. offices, and hospitals. Although there are still areas of resistance from pro-Bozize forces, things are slowly returning to normal as Central Africans acclimate to this latest unscheduled changing of the guard.

How long until the next one?

Renee Lott is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.

This Week in OtherWords: Tax Day Special Edition

This week in OtherWords, we’re running a Tax Day special edition. Sam Paltrow-Krulwich talks about the “gay tax” her family must pay until the nation fully embraces marriage equality, Scott Klinger highlights the declining share of tax revenue that American corporations contribute, and Gerald Scorse calls for parity between the taxes on income from wealth and work.

Speaking of taxes, here’s a friendly reminder: OtherWords is a free and non-profit editorial service funded by tax-deductible donations from people like you. Please consider making one today.

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

  1. Transplanting Taxes from Corporations to the Rest of Us / Scott Klinger
    American taxpayers are increasingly picking up the tab for unpaid corporate taxes.
  2. The Gay Tax / Sam Paltrow-Krulwich
    Marriage equality is about civil rights — and tax justice.
  3. Futile Military Financing / Chris Toensing
    Almost all the $3.1 billion in yearly U.S. aid to Israel is now slated for weapons.
  4. New Health Care Taxes: A Poor Prescription / Gerald Scorse
    Hitting the rich on Medicare blurs the case for a major tax reform.
  5. We’re Watching a Great Depression Re-Run / Donald Kaul
    Virtually everything about the economic catastrophe of the 1930s has a precise parallel in today’s major political dilemmas.
  6. A Wall Street Powerhouse Attorney Talks Sense / Sam Pizzigati
    Taxes can do more than simply raise revenue.
  7. A Recipe for a Sounder Diet / Jill Richardson
    There are ways to make healthy food affordable that don’t require abusing farmworkers.
  8. Fracking Free Speech / Jim Hightower
    The gagged townspeople of Sanford, New York are suing their town board over the infringement of their First Amendment rights.
  9. Under-Taxing the Rich Is Uncivilized / Emily Schwartz Greco and William A. Collins We all pay for those cuts down the road.
  10. Taxing Economics / Khalil Bendib Cartoon
    Taxing Economics, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

    Taxing Economics, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

Bulgaria’s Labor Perpetually in Crisis

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

In the early 1990s, I helped put together a delegation on the topic of women and workplace in East-Central Europe. Several U.S. groups invited the delegation to the United States, with support from the German Marshall Fund, to meet with women’s organizations, trade unions, and a variety of Washington-based organizations.

It was not an easy task to identify women for the delegation. Many unions wanted to just pick the participants and didn’t understand my request for several candidates and their CVs. Also, there were two types of unions in the region: former official unions and new unions affiliated in some way with the political opposition. In those days, they didn’t get along very well. The U.S. government, and most U.S. organizations, only worked with the independent unions. So, it was challenging to put together a delegation with representatives of both sides.

I pushed hard to include representatives from the former official unions. As I wrote in a 1993 report, “The former communist trade unions have been doing a reasonably good job of democratizing themselves, and they still command the lion’s share of workers’ support. This despite several years of money and effort on the part of the AFL-CIO and the U.S. government to strengthen the ‘alternative’ unions. Now the international unions are having to adjust their strategies and open doors to the very unions they initially spurned.”

It seemed like the people who might benefit the most from a trip to the United States would be representatives from these former official trade unions. And it would have been educational, to say the least, for U.S. trade unions and government staff to meet with “the other side.” But for a mixture of external and internal reasons, a mixed delegation didn’t happen.

Still, I learned a great deal from my meetings at these former official unions. Some of the best discussions that I had on these topics, for instance, were at the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions (CITUB) in Sofia, thanks to the help of Snezhana Dimitrova who was working with the international affairs division.

Twenty-three years later, I returned to the CITUB building and met in her office. CITUB still owns a big building in the center of Sofia. But whereas many other offices in Bulgaria’s capital have been remodeled and modernized, the CITUB building has none of the fancy furniture and outfitting that USAID recipients enjoy. It looks much as it did during the communist period, though without the bustle or the security. There was no guard in the booth in the lobby on the day I visited, and I pushed through the turnstile without having to announce myself.

Indeed, it has not been an easy time for CITUB. It has seen its membership base decline from 2.5 million to 300,000. However, it is still by far the largest union confederation.

“We no longer have heavy industry in Bulgaria,” Snezhana Dimitrova explained to me as a major reason for the decline in membership. “There are still union members in the big cities, where there is work. Also, it’s very difficult for workers at small enterprises to organize, because they’re afraid they’ll lose their jobs.”

The economic reforms, from a trade union perspective, were largely disastrous. “From 1991, controls on prices were removed and industry was privatized,” she continued. “Collective farms were dissolved. A new constitution was introduced in July 1991. Economic reform started off in the wrong way. For example, agriculture was destroyed. Now they are saying that they made a mistake when they destroyed the cooperatives. They also didn’t privatize the right way. When they privatized and sold off the enterprises and the machinery, we lost many enterprises and many many jobs. The chemical industry, the Kremikovtsi steel complex, heavy industry in general: everything was destroyed.”

We also talked about the relationship between CITUB and the other major trade union organization (Podkrepa), the role of strikes, and the economic prospects for Bulgaria. Economic crisis in Europe? “Here in Bulgaria,” Snezhana Dimitrova told me, “we say that we are not feeling the crisis because we’ve always been in crisis.”

The Interview

Can you tell me how you got involved in your current work at the union?

After university, I started as a translator in the international department of the Trade Union School because my languages are Slavic: Czech and Russian. At that time, we had a lot of contacts with trade unions in Slavic countries – Czechoslovakia, Poland, Russia – so I had a lot of work then. After that, I started to learn English, because we had a trade union school with many people coming from Latin America, United States, United Kingdom, Australia. Because I was in the international department, I started to translate English too, but my English is not fluent.

The transformation of society begins with trade unions. We had a lot of contacts with friends in the United States, from Western countries, and we began to have exchanges with them. We had a lot of groups from the West, like British coal miners, who were having a lot of problems with the Thatcher government because it was cutting jobs. It was interesting to work here at that time because of these contacts. There was more freedom. It wasn’t like in the Center of the Communist Party, which was much stricter.

The Institute for Social and Trade Union Research (ISTUR) is a research institute at the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions (CITUB) in Bulgaria. CITUB is the successor to the 100-year union tradition. The Confederation brings together 35 federations, trade unions, and associations and a number of associate members. The main subject area for ISTUR is to analyze the processes associated with social and economic reforms in Bulgaria in the transition to a market economy and prospects for trade union policy and industrial relations. Research is being conducted at three levels: theoretical, applied and as ordered by public organizations.

The Institute employs 12 researchers representing different specialties: economics, sociology, political science, psychology, and computer science.. ISTUR maintains a network of outside contacts with relevant research institutions, universities, social partner organizations, state administration, and NGOs. Now we are only 12 people, so I have to do a lot of work. I’m the national coordinator of Eurofound, the librarian of our small collection of books, and I also translate.

CITUB was the only trade union for a long time. And then Podkrepa began in the late 1980s. What was the relationship like between the two union confederations?

Podkrepa started out very well. It was a new trade union. It was accepted by the population as a break from the old. Many of the trade unions in our confederation went over to Podkrepa. I couldn’t say why. We have a very wise leadership here.

I expected one large trade union to emerge here in Bulgaria, but that didn’t happen. All the time we were the largest trade union organization, but of course the membership is not the same as in 1989. We are the better trade union than Podkrepa. I can’t say why they lost their initial advantage. I suppose maybe it’s poor leadership. They had everything. They were new. They were supported by western countries. They received material support.

But we remain the largest. We have about 300,000 members. Podkrepa has 60,000. In 1989, our membership was 2.5 million, because membership was obligatory. All workers had to be members of trade unions.

In the beginning, because CITUB was thinking in terms of the old-style trade unions, the relationship with Podkrepa was not good. Now, with compromises by both sides, it is good. Over the last 10 years, we’ve coordinated our strikes with Podkrepa, and they’ve coordinated theirs with us.

CITUB has proven that it is a new organization with new vision. Our leader is a relatively young man: Plamen Dimitrov. He started activity in trade unions as Varna district coordinator, executive secretary of CITUB, and vice president of CITUB.

Why has there been such a big decline in union membership?

We no longer have heavy industry in Bulgaria. There are still union members in the big cities, where there is work. Also, it’s very difficult for workers at small enterprises to organize, because they’re afraid they’ll lose their jobs.

Bulgarian workers are losing jobs, and they have lower pay. Compared to other European countries, we are at the bottom in terms of wages. Also, pensions are very small. If pensioners didn’t live with their families, they couldn’t pay for electricity and heating.

As a trade union, CITUB attaches great importance to collective bargaining as an essential tool for the effective protection of the rights and interests of employees. Since 1995, CITUB is a member of the European Trade Union Confederation, which is an institutional partner of the European Commission. Representatives of CITUB participate actively in the work of the European Economic and Social Council.

In Bulgaria, we have many trade union organizations. The labor code defines the criteria for trade union representativeness at national, branch, and sectoral levels. According to this labor code , only Podkrepa and CITUB are national representatives of workers. Other trade union organizations are present only at the enterprise level. They can’t negotiate at the national level. This kind of trade union has no power. Wages more often depend on the ministry, at the national level. Because of that, it is necessary to have a bigger trade union that can negotiate with the ministers. But still, more aggressive and more charming union leaders are appearing at the enterprise level, perhaps because they are not satisfied with either CITUB or Podkrepa.

Have there been a lot of strikes?

There were many strikes, especially between 1991 and 1993. There were meetings, rallies, political strikes, economic strikes. And sometimes the government resigned because of the strikes. After this political turmoil, they strike only for wages, to improve working conditions. They strike because they don’t want to lose their jobs if the enterprise closes. You can read about every strike at Eurofound, where we are the correspondent for Bulgaria. You can read about what happened, the results, and who was the leader, whether CITUB, Podkrepa, or another organization.

Have there been any particularly successful strikes?

The railways wanted to stop increasing wages. They threatened to cut jobs. Both CITUB and Podkrepa negotiated with the management. We had a strike. Now the railways make reforms but without cutting jobs, and they even increased the wages a little bit.

How would you evaluate the economic reforms that have taken place here in Bulgaria?

From 1991, controls on prices were removed and industry was privatized. Collective farms were dissolved. A new constitution was introduced in July 1991. Economic reform started off in the wrong way. For example, agriculture was destroyed. Now they are saying that they made a mistake when they destroyed the cooperatives. They also didn’t privatize the right way. When they privatized and sold off the enterprises and the machinery, we lost many enterprises and many many jobs. The chemical industry, the Kremikovtsi steel complex, heavy industry in general: everything was destroyed.

Sold to whom?

Most enterprises were sold to domestic buyers. But Balkan Airlines was sold to foreigners and then closed down. We are now without an airline. We had access rights in airports in London, Vienna, Paris. But we’ve lost those rights. I fly now only with Turkish airlines.

Are there any positive signs economically?

They are now developing the tourist industry. And agriculture has started again. The agricultural produce grown here is a hundred times better than what we are buying from Macedonia, Greece, and Turkey.

Are there positive signs for growth in union membership?

There is no potential for growth. This is normal, not to be a big organization. It’s better to be a strong organization, to organize people whether they are members or not. If we negotiate something for a branch, the deal is valid for all people working in the branch, not just the members of trade union organizations. It’s better to give all the people the possibility to increase wages and not just your trade union members. It’s easier at the national level to negotiate with the minister to increase the wages for all branches, for all enterprises.

Where would you put CITUB along the political spectrum?

Normally, trade unions are closer to the left wing. But here in Bulgaria, I couldn’t say. First, the trade union supported the economic reforms, and the reforms were made by the right wing. That meant that we supported the right-wing party. But then CITUB decided to be an independent trade union and not to support a particular party. Now, the union supports the party that has programs similar to ours in terms of economic development, wages, and jobs. Now we support the party that wants to increase wages and create new jobs.

All parties are the same. They implement only a small part of their programs. Most people don’t believe in the parties. Only the people on the left and the right vote for particular parties. Most people don’t vote. They don’t know whom to choose.

The current government is popular. The leader speaks with ordinary people. He makes jokes. Women like him: not me, but other women.

How do you evaluate the future prospects for Bulgaria?

I can’t see anything positive. Most young people want to work abroad. For example, the young people who win the medals from math or science Olympiads, when they return to Bulgaria, they get offers from American or British universities to study there. And they agree immediately, without thinking that they could study and work here.

A friend of mine told his children to stay where they are. One is in Belgium, the other in France. Mothers don’t want their children to come back here: because it is difficult to get a job, especially a job with a good salary, even for people who are educated. As for people in the villages, there aren’t any jobs, good or otherwise.

What about foreign investment?

Everybody knows that it’s good to attract foreign capital. We have no capital. We are not a rich country. Only the trade unions can protect the rights of workers in this situation. If foreign investors want to cut jobs, the trade unions negotiate how many and and under what conditions. We negotiate so that they pay six months of wages, and we make sure that pensioners get their pensions.

Can you explain the pension situation here?

The minimum retirement age in Bulgaria has been increased by 4 months as of Sunday, January 1, 2012, as part of a controversial retirement reform package. The same measure will be applied on the first day of each of the upcoming several years until the retirement age in Bulgaria reaches 65 years for men and 63 for women. Up until the new pension reform was approved in December 2011, Bulgaria’s retirement age was 63 years for men and 60 years for women.

There are three kinds of pensions: the government pension fund, an obligatory fund for people born after 1960, and private pension funds. In terms of the private pension fund, you can pay into this fund for an additional pension. The employer can also pay for an additional pension to the worker, particularly if the trade union negotiates this arrangement. In the beginning, this private fund was interesting because it was very new. It was also important because the government pensions in Bulgaria were very low. The trade union believed that it was important to have this additional pension, especially if the employer was paying into it.

What kind of international cooperation do you now have at CITUB?

For instance, at ISTUR we are working with Turkish trade unions with women in trade unions there on career development. This project, led by Italians, has EU funding, and we participate as lecturers.

How do you feel about Bulgaria’s own membership in the EU?

I am optimistic about Europe. I still think that membership is a good thing. But I think that most people here had high expectations that wages would increase automatically and everything here would be closer to the living standard for Europe. That didn’t happen, so they are disappointed.

We lost our former markets in the region. Russia was a big market. It accepted everything that we produced. Now with the EU, we can’t sell them our products in the same way. So, it’s quite difficult.

People in Europe talk about the economic crisis. But here in Bulgaria, we say that we are not feeling the crisis because we’ve always been in crisis.

Sofia, September 27, 2012

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