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Once Again, Israel Comes Out on the Short End Politically of a Military Offensive

Cross-posted from the Colorado Progressive Jewish News

Whatever It Is Called – Operation Pillar of Clouds, or Perhaps, More Accurately, ‘Operation Killing Hope’ … It Failed

The expropriation of Palestinian lands by Israel since 1948.

The expropriation of Palestinian lands by Israel since 1948.

The end of the latest U.S.-supported Israeli air and sea war against Gaza has triggered a global call for immediate comprehensive peace negotiations that would include an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories seized in 1967, the creation of a viable Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza with its capital in East Jerusalem, and security guarantees for Israel within its pre-June 1967 borders. Not exactly a new framework, but one that is viable, that will end – or certainly seriously reduce – the cycle of violence, and that will produce a peace with justice.

There might be a ceasefire, broadly welcomed, but little momentum to follow up on it with a serious peace process yet despite the appeals. In the end, either the Israelis and Palestinians will move towards peace or towards another round of war. There is no in-between. Nor will the window for peace-making be open forever.

A global consensus supporting the above framework is still broadly supported. But given U.S. virtually blind support for Israel since 1967 – but most especially in Israel’s three recent wars (2006 Lebanon invasion, 2008 Gaza invasion, 2012 air and naval assault on Gaza), it becomes increasingly difficult, if not impossible, for the United States to claim its position as a unbiased broker in such a process. It will take some doing therefore, not only to get Israel to the negotiating table, but to get the United States to play a more constructive role in such a process. Still there is a ray of hope. Isn’t it time to draw the logical conclusion: that military solutions have run their course and will, in the future, fail and that the conflict between Israel and Palestine can only be resolved politically, through a negotiated settlement based on United Nations resolutions?

If not the cycle of violence will continue. Each time it gets more severe, more difficult from spinning out of control as nearly happened this time. That being the case, the logical thing would be for the parties involved to announce the re-establishing of a negotiating process on all the outstanding issues – final status negotiations – and to move consciously and persistently in that direction. Needless to say, this is not the thinking either in Israel, nor from all appearances in Washington D.C. In Israel, more than 70% of those surveyed would have wanted to see the Israeli Defense Force launch a ground invasion of Gaza. In Washington D.C., as in the past and perhaps even more so, there is no political will to press Israel to the negotiating table and keep it there until an agreement is reached. Instead, Israel is re-armed and drawn ever more closely into U.S.-NATO regional strategic war-making plans.

A War With No Winners, Now and in the Future

The NBC online headline reads “After Eight Days of Gaza Violence, Israel Declares ‘Mission Accomplished,’ Hamas Claims Victory.” A bit odd, no? Both sides claim victory? That is not even a half truth. This was, if anything, a war with no winners; given the mismatch in firepower, the fact that the eight-day Israeli air and sea offensive ended in something of a stalemate, and that Israel could not secure a clear-cut military and political victory will be seen as a political victory for Hamas, which it was.

Despite its post-cease fire blustering, Israel got a dose of its own medicine this time, as Palestinian rockets were able to penetrate as far north from Gaza as Tel Aviv and near Jerusalem. The human and property damage Israel suffered, was, compared to the Palestinians, minor (five dead, some property damage), but the psychological shock of Gaza-based missiles landing in major population centers was considerable. It was most probably was a key factor (among many) in Netanyahu not launching a ground war against Gaza. True, Israel’s missile defense system did neutralize about a third of incoming missiles, but two-thirds of them landed.

Israel’s well-worn tactic of playing ‘the victim card’ to somehow cover its role as aggressor is losing its potency. Once again Israel’s ‘precision bombing’ was not very precise. The photos of the victims bely Israeli and Obama Administration contentions that Israel was engaged in a ‘defensive war’. Images of children being torn to pieces, of three generations of Palestinian families bombed to smithereens, of hospitals targeted as well as foreign media outlets (AP, Al Jazeera) do not correspond to a nation ‘defending itself’ from ‘outside aggression. Just the opposite.

The pictures of the human suffering its residents endured, downplayed by the U.S. media but readily available all over the worldwide web, are heartbreaking. A day after it was agreed upon, the ceasefire appears to be holding. Gaza is smoldering but its residents unbowed. Hamas was not weakened by this Israeli attack; rather its prestige has soared, not only among Palestinians but globally. Still, for the second time in four years, Gazans paid a heavy, punishing price.

An incomplete damage report, collected from various sources, just before the ceasefire went into effect, reveals the following:

• At least 145 Palestinians have been killed in IOF attacks on the Gaza Strip. Of those, 29 were children and 12 women. More than 1100 people were wounded, including 326 children and 162 women. At least 865 houses have also been damaged or destroyed, including 92 completely. Of those 92 houses, 44 were directly attacked; including 33 deliberately targeted by direct Israeli attacks using the roof-knocking tactic. Expect all of these statistics to spike somewhat upwards.

• Another 179 houses sustained serious damages. Threats to cut off electrical and water sources did not materialize, but the infrastructure of both suffered once again.

• At this writing, Israeli attacks caused damages to 6 health centers, 30 schools, 2 universities, 15 NGO offices, 27 mosques, 14 media offices, 11 industrial plants, 81 commercial stores, 1 UNRWA food distribution Center, 7 ministry offices, 14 police/security stations, 5 banks, 30 vehicles, and 2 youth clubs. Because of the bombing, some 10,000 Gazans were forced to find shelter from the bombing at U.N.- run schools.

Despite the damage Israel inflicted, militarily, the clash, was something akin to a draw. Politically, regardless of the spin, Israel lost. Now, with U.S. aid, it hopes to recoup politically (through pressure on Egypt) what it failed to accomplish through the F-16-delivered (not very) precision missiles. The Israeli military, by many estimates the world’s fourth largest, was held at bay by what is little more than a rag-tag militia of Hamas defenders with a few short range and (perhaps) anti-tank missiles.

Netanyahu Miscalculated

Netanyahu, itching to launch a major ground assault to punish the Gazans yet again, was forced to put the brakes on such an operation, which entailed too many risks for Israel, the United States, and, strange as it might appear, even a Muslim-brotherhood led Egypt. The ostensible goal of the Israeli assault was to knock out Hamas’ missile capacity, but other factors were at play. Yes, as has been well publicized, on some level Netanyahu hoped to isolate and marginalize his opponents vying for political power in the upcoming Israeli elections.

He also calculated that regardless of how the military operations played out, that it would complicate life for Barack Obama whose re-election Netanyahu shamelessly lobbied against. At the same time, the Israeli prime minister hoped to embarrass and humiliate the Egyptian government, by forcing it to choose between its strategic alliance with the U.S. and the will of the Egyptian people to stand up to Israel.

But the central political goal of this campaign was to kill hope, Palestinian hope that in this, Obama’s second term, there might be a possibility of diplomatic progress towards achieving a political settlement that would lead to a viable West Bank-Gaza Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem. Through a full scale assault – air, sea and with a follow-up ground offensive, Israel intended to strike a crushing blow to the Palestinians once again, to complicate any effort at Palestinian unity, to continue building settlements in West Bank and ultimately to ‘send a message’ that Israel is in control and that there will be no Palestinian state. The occupation would continue as it has since 1967.

A combination of world public opinion fast turning against both Israel and the United States, U.S. pressure on Netanyahu (with its promises of lucrative consolation prize payoffs to Netanyahu), Hamas’ dogged resistance, and Israeli worries that Hamas possibly had anti-tank missiles all merged to end the Israel air and sea offensive and Hamas’ missile response. The Israeli ground offensive never happened.

The Shadow of the 2006 Israeli Military Incursion Into Lebanon Hangs Over Gaza

In many ways how this conflict was fought – and ended – was in large measure dictated by the 2006 Israeli venture into the Lebanon which was, by any objective standard, not just a political but also a military failure in what has been referred to as ‘asymmetrical’ warfare. The limits of Israeli military might were exposed. It might be able to fight a conventional war against another regional power, but is far less prepared to fight the kind of guerilla warfare of the kind that Hezbollah and now Hamas practice. Israel suffered one of its greatest military losses then, its ground offensive stalled as Hezbollah anti-tank missiles disabled several score of Israeli tanks leading the charge into southern Lebanon.

Forced to withdraw its ground troops, Israel responded with a punishing – but largely ineffective – massive air offensive. Hezbollah’s answer was a massive missile attack on northern Israel which forced more than 100,000 Israelis to abandon their homes and seek temporary shelter elsewhere. As will be the case with Hamas today, in 2006 Hezbollah emerged from that war a much stronger force than it had been, not just in Lebanon, but throughout the region.

While in 2008, Israel was able to launch a punishing military offensive against Gaza, this time one might say that it ‘won’ militarily but actually lost politically. That military offensive was little more than an air, sea and ground-based massacre. To call it a war is to mis-characterize what was little more than unprovoked aggression. It did not achieve its goal of eliminating Hamas, which was able to rebuild its structures, cadres and military potential rather quickly. Although Israelis and their U.S. supporters howled against the charges of ‘war crimes’, the moral stain remained. Israel’s prestige in the world – and among American Jewry somewhat – plummeted.

With this current attack on Gaza, Israel’s international standing, despite U.S. support, will continue to tank.

This is the third time in a mere six years that Israel has come out on the short end politically from wars that it has launched. All three times, Israeli military operations have been launched with full support from Washington – be it the Bush or Obama Administrations – and with an ample supply of U.S. made sophisticated weaponry. All three times the thin pretext of ‘Israel’s right to self-defense’ was invoked for what were rather wars of aggression launched on the thinnest of pretexts.

While here in the United States, with the public bombarded with pro-Israeli, anti-Palestinian media spin, the Israeli offensive enjoyed popular support. This was not so in the rest of the world where images of the wanton destruction and killing of Palestinians began to inflame anti-Israeli sentiment everywhere. Outside of the U.S. the argument that ‘Israel has the right to defend itself’ – while somehow the Palestinians don’t have that right – rings surprisingly hollow.

The Forgotten Occupation

For all practical purposes, given the unbalance of power and the oft forgotten fact that Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem are territories illegally occupied by Israel, seized by force in 1967, what took place in Gaza and Israel was not a war. It was rather an attempt by a colonial occupying power, Israel, to yet again strengthen its hold on a colonized – and brutalized – people. While much of the world yearns to see the cycle of violence on both sides end, once one leaves the borders of the continental United States, there are very few voices who would deny the Palestinians the right to defend themselves, as they did this last week in Gaza.

After the 2006 and 2008 Israeli military adventures, the U.S. Congress, speedily and amply provided replacement weaponry throwing in hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to Tel Aviv to boot, this above and beyond the annual $3 billion gift. The just-ending Israel attack on Gaza will follow suit. All indications are that Hillary Clinton, with perhaps her 2016 presidential on the line, did not so much ‘negotiate’ a cease fire as she did pay for it, doling out tens if not hundreds of billions to both Israel and Egypt.

Reports have already surfaced that American financial largess – once again – coaxed Israel to accept a ceasefire and Egypt to press Hamas to do likewise. This is the modern American form of diplomacy – buying its way to unstable peace – otherwise known as bribery – whether it is paying Poland $8 billion to join NATO, or ‘brokering’ a cease fire over Gaza. Months before the fighting broke out the United States gave Israel two gifts, one of $270 million and another of $70 million to upgrade its early warning missile defense system. Promises of additional financial aid to Israel – just the opposite message needed to bring Israel to the negotiating table – are already in the offing. Likewise tremendous pressure combined with financial incentives were put upon Egypt to use its influence on Hamas to accept the cease fire.

How to Change Course.

On a radio program where I participated a few days ago (Hemispheres – KGNU-Boulder), one of the participants spoke about how the Middle East has been marred with religious conflict for the past 5,000 years. This is utter nonsense, a way simply to avoid putting forth concrete suggestions for ending the crisis by taking the fatalistic and entirely inaccurate position that the conflict is essentially unsolvable. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a modern political conflict with its roots in the late 19th century; it is primarily not even a religious but a national and colonial conflict.

In his column today, University of Michigan prof Juan Cole offers what he calls ‘10 Steps that are necessary to lasting Israeli-Gaza Peace‘. They include a call for lifting the Israeli blockade of Gaza which continues to choke the Palestinians there, the granting of Palestinians citizenship and statehood, encouraging Egypt to help with Palestinian rapproachment between Hamas and Fateh, encouraging Egypt to press Hamas to renounce terror as a tool for national struggle, renewed Palestinian elections to create a government of national unity, a moratorium on Israeli West Bank settlement building (the main stumbling block to any successful negotiation), the end of Israeli expropriation of property in East Jerusalem and Israel recognizing the right of Palestinians to have their capital in East Jerusalem, Israel not insisting on recognition by its negotiating partners as a pre-condition for starting talks, an Israeli-Palestinian return to the bargaining table for final status talks, and finally that the United States must stop blocking UN Security Council resolutions critical of Israel.

Taken together if implemented, would mark a shift in gears, from war-making to peace-making. It would be a shame, that after this hard won cease fire, if the situation again deteriorated into another war, which could – as this one nearly did – draw in the whole region, if not the world. With such high stakes, peace really is the only option.

U.S. Using Bad Info for Drone Strikes Like It Did for Detainees

As when the United States greased the skids for war with Iraq, it’s ratcheting up tensions with Iran by disseminating misinformation about nuclear weapons. The United States has also failed to learn from other mistakes in the Iraq, as well as Afghanistan.

Remember how the United States offered rewards to the citizens of Afghanistan and Iraq for intelligence on insurgents? That only resulted in populating prisons such as Bagram and Guantánamo with legions of innocents. It seems that in their haste to unearth terrorists, the U.S. military and the CIA had failed to vet their informants. With an eye for the main chance, Iraqis and Afghans saw informing as a way both to cash in and rid their communities of neighbors who’d crossed them, for whatever reason. no matter how trivial.

Using an occupying army to assist you in ridding yourself of local enemies is a time-(dis)honored tradition. One would think that, by this point in history, the military and intelligence agencies would be alert to manipulation. Presumably a perceived need for live bodies to fill quotas over-rode their wariness. Now we see this mistake repeated in designating drone-strike targets.

The landmark report Living Under Drones, released in September by the Stanford International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic and the Global Justice Clinic at NYU School of Law, quotes author Tom Junod. In a piece for the August Esquire titled The Lethal Presidency of Barack Obama, he wrote (emphasis added):

The US detained the “worst of the worst” in Guantánamo for years before releasing six hundred of them, uncharged, which amounts to the admission of a terrible mistake. The Lethal Presidency is making decisions to kill based on intelligence from the same sources. These decisions are final, and no one will ever be let go.

By “decisions to kill,” Junod means drone strikes. Not only is the CIA using bogus intel for drone strikes as it and the military did to net terrorist suspects, it may also be paying Pakistanis to mark houses as targets by depositing computer chips nearby. In addition, GPS’s are attached to cars to turn them, too, into drone fodder.

The report also quotes Clive Stafford Smith writing for the Guardian.

Just as with Guantanamo Bay, the CIA is paying bounties to those who will identify “terrorists.” Five thousand dollars is an enormous sum for a Waziri informant, translating to perhaps £250,000 in London terms. The informant has a calculation to make: is it safer to place a GPS tag on the car of a truly dangerous terrorist, or to call down death on a Nobody (with the beginnings of a beard), reporting that he is a militant? Too many “militants” are just young men with stubble.

Smith reveals another dynamic. Imagine that a Pakistani who contacts the CIA isn’t motivated by the desire to avenge a neighbor for failing to pay back a loan, or something similar. If he’s only in it for the money, why risk fingering a Taliban commander? If discovered, he and perhaps his family would find themselves on the murderous end of Taliban revenge.

To give the CIA some wiggle room, perhaps it assumes it won’t be provided with bogus info because potential informants would fear the CIA demand return of the money if the lead turned out to be false or that it would even detain them. But, as the NYU-Stanford report indicates, the CIA or U.S. military rarely investigate the aftermath of drone strikes to determine whether civilians were killed.

Perhaps then the CIA assumes that informants would be loath to turn in innocents for fear of reprisal from the families of those killed. When deciding who to finger, though, informants may be targeting victims whose families lack the wherewithal to take revenge. Or, with what, in effect, is an astronomical sum to them, informants may factor in paying retribution money to the families of those killed.

The longer this type of cynical use of indigenous peoples continues, the further one’s respect for the CIA diminishes.

American Jews Still Reject Zionism at Their Own Risk

Cross-posted from Progressive Avenues.

In the 1940’s and 50’s, I was raised on the North Shore of Chicago, in a suburb named Glencoe. The town was at least 95% Jewish, and everyone knew who the 3 black families were, knew the handful of Christians and “others” who resided near us. We understood that we comprised one of the wealthiest, fanciest Jewish ghettos in the United States, and perhaps the world. The great majority of us went to temple at the North Shore Congregation Israel, and donated $5.00 a shot for stickers to purchase “trees” to plant in the new State of Israel. We were going to transform the desert into a promised land and help the oppressed Jews of Europe to create a homeland where pogroms, ghettos and the Holocaust were a thing of the past. For literally decades, Zionists had perpetuated the myth that the territory that would become the State of Israel was “a land without a people, for a people without a land.” How noble and just it all seemed.

If anyone would have asked us why we were planting trees in Israel, when the Holy Land was already covered with Olive trees planted by Arab families for more than 5 centuries, we would have accused them of rank anti-semitism. If someone had suggested that we were purchasing guns, and missiles, instead of agricultural tools, we would have fought them on the spot. Yet history judges us harshly and we now have a reckoning to deal with.

I represented men and women on death row in California for over 25 years. All of the defendants on death row, without exception, were brutalized as young children, either by their parents, or their community. The great majority of prisoners were victims of brutality, and they responded to the society that brutalized them by killing in return.

One would have expected that those who were brutalized as children would have recognized how horrible the experience was and rejected such behavior when it was their turn to have authority over others. But that is simply not so. Humans, unfortunately, by and large, grow up to perpetrate the same atrocities that were perpetrated upon them against those they are close to. While this phenomenon is not universal, it is so common as to be the expectation for law enforcement and the society at large. Children of convicts are expected to become criminals when they grow up, and the society does everything in its power to ensure that that expectation is met. Young black children in this country have to be saints to stay out of reformatories and prisons. One out of three black people in the United States are in prison or on parole.

So, too, do we watch this phenomenon being tragically repeated in the State of Israel. One would expect that a people who had been subjected to the atrocities of World War II, to the Holocaust, to the discrimination and slaughter perpetrated against the Jews, would be the first nation on earth to oppose a similar oppression against others. Yet, the sad reality is that the racism and violence perpetrated against Palestinians in the State of Israel is outlandish and inexcusable.

Gaza is nothing short of a concentration camp. Children are starving there and Israel will kill any individual or group that attempts to bring food or water into that land. Israel is the last country on the face of the earth that has dared to impose a formal state of apartheid against an indigenous population. Israeli checkpoints are the precise duplicates of what the Nazi checkpoints at the borders of the ghettos looked like in 1938 Germany. The excuses and rationalizations used by Israel to perpetuate this oppression against the Palestinian people are precisely those used by the Nazis: Palestinians pose a threat to the security of the nation; they will steal jobs and security from the rightful people of the nation; they are untrustworthy, and owe no allegiance to the nation. The parallels are terrifying.

That this should be the situation in 2012 is so pathetic as to be comical in an historical context. The anti-semitism of the prevailing nations of World War II, the United States and Great Britain was so profound as to obviate the possibility that Jews would be permitted to immigrate or seek sanctuary in either of those victorious countries. The Christian majorities of those countries so hated the Jews that allowing them to seek sanctuary in either country was out of the question.

Instead, anti-semitic nations decided to give the Jews who survived the Holocaust land that belonged to the Palestinians. Kill two birds with one stone. Keep Jews out of the U.S. and Great Britain, and give them the land of a bunch of Muslims that, according to the U.S. and Great Britain, were little more than savages. Certainly, the Western powers could control any opposition the local population might put up to prevent the Jews from entering the new state of Israel. It would be a walk in the park for these countries to disenfranchise the Palestinian people, who had lived on the land for centuries. The fact that Jews had lived in Palestine for centuries without undergoing the sort of atrocities perpetrated by European Christians upon them was quickly overlooked. Give us our land, said the Zionists, and we will take care of the rest.

So now, we are confronted with the situation where there is not a Muslim on the face of the earth that does not see Israel’s occupation of the Holy Land as an unjustified invasion of their land. The only difference between this and the initial colonization of the United States of America, is that, unlike what happened to the American Indians, Caucasians, whether Christian or Jewish, have not been able to eradicate sufficient numbers of indigenous people to take over the land without opposition. The Muslims have not acceded to the colonial expansion of the “settlers” in Israel, to the U.S. demand for expansion of the militarist Israeli state, or to the eradication of those who inhabited the land before the Jews arrived.

In virtually every temple and Jewish Community Center in the United States, Israel is seen as “the good guy” in the Middle East, and the Arabs are seen as devils. The impact this has had on Jews in the United States is to divide the community into two totally distinct communities: those who are Zionists and those who identify with being Jewish, but reject the racism and violence perpetrated by Israel against the entire Muslim world. It is impossible for Jews who take pride in their heritage, to participate in their own communities without endorsing the atrocities perpetrated by Israel against Arabs throughout the world. Jews who reject Zionism are outcasts in the established Jewish communities. They have no base and no community. We are either anti-Muslim or invisible. We are left with no alternatives within the broader community.

The U.S. is perfectly content to let Israel serve as the buffer between hostile Arab nations and U.S. imperialism. After all, it is the Jews who are fighting Muslims on a daily basis, not Americans. But once the State of Israel is defeated because of its bellicose intransigence and intolerance to those with whom they should be sharing the land, Jews everywhere will suffer the consequences and be at risk. One could not write a more ironical conclusion. Non-Zionist Jews are like the non-existent Left in the United States – we are simply not included in the debates of our nation or among our people; and, because Zionists permit no rational debates or discussions, they are without a clue as to the international implications of their cruelty toward the Palestinian peoples. The world will not put up with this indefinitely. It is just a matter of time.

Luke Hiken is an attorney who has engaged in the practice of criminal, military, immigration, and appellate law.

This Week in OtherWords: November 21, 2012

This week, OtherWords is running two “fiscal cliff” commentaries. Guest columnist Mattea Kramer makes the case for deep, yet targeted military spending cuts while Marian Wright Edelman calls for restraint when it comes to scaling back programs that serve children. We will continue to feature under-debated angles of the growing conversation about how to balance the nation’s budget and avoid what could prove a “fiscal swindle.”

Scroll down to see all our offerings. I encourage you to visit the OtherWords blog, where we are running a special Thanksgiving post from Jim Hightower. And please subscribe to our weekly newsletter if you haven’t signed up yet.

  1. Name that Foreign Policy Legacy / John Feffer
    Under Obama’s leadership, Washington is finally coming to terms with the world’s multipolarity.
  2. Will the Supreme Court Dismantle the Voting Rights Act? / Raul A. Reyes
    Widespread efforts to suppress voting by people of color and the poor through a rash of voter ID laws make it clear that we still need the landmark 1965 legislation today.
  3. Don’t Cut Our Kids Out of the Budget / Marian Wright Edelman
    America’s security and prosperity depend on our children’s ability to drive the economy of the future.
  4. The Classy Election of 2012 / Steve Cobble
    Big ideas can change voting patterns.
  5. Another Side of Inequality / Sam Pizzigati
    A vast gulf between the rich and the rest of us is incompatible with democracy.
  6. The Real Problem with Military Spending / Mattea Kramer
    The Pentagon’s budget has plenty of fat, but cuts need to be targeted.
  7. Bosses Gone Berserk / Jim Hightower
    Papa John’s and other employers are punishing their workers for Obama’s win.
  8. Our Endless State of War / William A. Collins
    As long as it’s fought by other people on someone else’s soil, Americans can live with perpetual conflict.
  9. Voting Rights Appeal / Khalil Bendib Cartoon
Voting Rights Appeal, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

Voting Rights Appeal, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

Serbia’s Future: Back to the Past

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

Sonia Biserko.

Sonia Biserko.

The war in Yugoslavia began as a conflict over state structure. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the nationalist movements in the republics championed greater autonomy only to be suppressed in turn by Tito, who then went on to incorporate many of their demands in the 1974 Yugoslav constitution. In 1989, Slobodan Milosevic signaled his intentions to assert Serbian dominance within the federation by removing the autonomous status of Kosovo and Vojvodina. When I was in the region the following year, debate raged over the nature of the Yugoslav federation: should it be a loose confederation, a more democratic federation, or a state in which Serbia reigned first among equals.

In 1990, Sonja Biserko was in the very middle of these debates. She was working in the Yugoslav foreign ministry at the time, an ideal vantage point for witnessing the disintegration of the federation. She ultimately resigned her position and embarked on a career in human rights through the organization she founded, the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia. As one of the early critics of Milosevic, she has also been resolute in her critique of Serbian nationalism. She worked to document war crimes and promote dialogue with Kosovo. These positions were not popular, to the say the least, among right-wing extremists and their more mainstream supporters, but Biserko has bravely continued to speak her mind.

She points out that Milosevic and his team were fundamentally anti-institutional and relied on the power of the mob. “This was how they destroyed not only the Yugoslav federation and its institutions but also Serbian institutions,” she points out. “We are now still living in this provisional state. We don’t have a modern state.” Serbia, in other words, is still struggling with the legacy of Milosevic. And the same policies that tore apart the federal structure of Yugoslavia are now threatening Serbia itself, as Belgrade treats provinces like Vojvodina much as it did the republics of Slovenia and Croatia during the Milosevic era.

Biserko does not mince words about what Serbia must do to change course. First of all, Serbians have to grapple with the nationalist project, spelled out back in 1986 in an infamous memo from the Serbian Academy of Arts and Science, which contributed so much to the war and suffering of the 1990s. “In order to put the region in order, Serbia has the most homework to do,” she says. “Other countries also have homework to do, but they won’t do it until they see that Serbia has started the process. This doesn’t mean putting Serbia in a corner. But we should know, especially the young generation, why it happened. People have to understand what was behind all this.”

We were talking on a warm Saturday afternoon in late September in one of the many cafes of the Terazije, the pedestrian concourse that runs through the middle of Belgrade. Not far from our café was an apartment where three key figures of the Serbian nationalist revival met on a regular basis – the novelist Dobrica Cosic, the painter Mića Popović, and the literary critic Borislav Mihajlović Mihiz – as chronicled in The Nonconformists, a 2007 book by historian Nick Miller. These figures, particularly Cosic, were influential in shaping the “nationalist project” that Milosevic adopted, that continues to influence Serbian state policy, and that Sonja Biserko has made her life’s work to deconstruct, both in theory and practice.

The Interview

Let’s start by talking about the debates around state structure that took place just prior to the collapse of Yugoslavia. There was considerable disagreement about whether Yugoslavia should function as a federation or a confederation.

After the Second World War it was not possible for Yugoslavia to function as a federation because of the pressure coming from the East, from Moscow. The country was really isolated at that point, so there was no space for this concept of federation to truly function. After Stalin’s death, and the relaxation of tensions between the two blocs, these processes within Yugoslavia started to evolve. From the 1960s onward, Yugoslavia began to function as a real federation.

Serbs, however, never accepted these developments because they perceived Yugoslavia as an enlarged Serbia. Any effort to make other people equal or to make their national agenda work in a different way from Belgrade’s caused tensions in the federation. Then, in the 1980s, after Tito’s death, Serbia attempted to redesign Yugoslavia according to its own perceptions, which meant a recentralization of the country.

This was the real reason behind the war — the concept of the state. It became a choice between a loose confederation or federation on the one hand and a highly centralized state according to Serbia’s concept on the other. This was the background not only to the war but also today behind the tensions in Serbia. Serbia lost Kosovo because it was not able to manage the situation there according to the democratic principles already built into the Yugoslav federation. In 1989, Serbia removed autonomy for both Vojvodina and Kosovo, and with Kosovo we know how it ended.

And now we now have this tension between Novi Sad and Belgrade. The Serbian Progressive Party, which is currently in power, is trying to remove what little autonomy that the Tadic government gave Vojvodina over the last four years. It’s not only the Progressive Party. This attitude is common among most of the political parties here in Serbia, but the Progressive Party really radicalized the situation immediately after it took over. There is a growing block in Vojvodina opposing this approach, especially because the current government is now changing local results. The Democratic Party and the Socialist Party agreed to a coalition after the recent election, and they created local authorities in Vojvodina immediately after the local elections. And now the Progressive Party is totally redesigning the local results. They already took over the Novi Sad assembly and their intention is to take over as many other places as possible, wherever the ruling party can make coalition with the Socialists and other parties.

This concept of state structure is now destroying Serbia itself. It’s preventing Serbia from becoming a modern state based on democratic values and principles along the lines of European countries.

In the 1980s was the first attack on Yugoslavia when Serbia removed the autonomy of Vojvodina and Kosovo. The idea was to recentralize Serbia, and the other republics allowed that because they thought Serbia’s appetite would be satisfied. After Tito died, Serbia raised the question of the revision of the 1974 constitution, which gave greater autonomy to the republics. Serbia had the army on its side, because the Yugoslav army thought that only a centralized government could preserve the integrity of Yugoslavia and guarantee the survival of socialism as a system. This is where Serbia and the army converged. Later, it developed into a disaster for the whole region.

In 1989, Serbia changed its constitution, which was contrary to the principle of consensual change. Serbia was the first republic to challenge the 1974 constitution, even though later they always blamed Slovenia and Croatia for being secessionist republics. But, in fact, the first step was taken by Serbia. In article 1, section 33 of the Serbian constitution, there is a provision saying that Serbia will act on its own against the federal constitution if it doesn’t conform to Serbian national interest.

In the memorandum of the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences that was revealed in 1986, the authors also in a way come up with this same argumentation. The memo consists of two parts. One part is a critical assessment of the economy. And the other part of the memorandum is about the position and interests of the Serb nation in Yugoslavia. This was a kind of blueprint for the whole program of Milosevic, and it influenced what happened later on. It started out in the very narrow intellectual circles at the Serbian Academy. In the cultural sphere a lot of books and plays and so on condensed these Serb grievances within Yugoslavia — how much Serbs sacrificed, how much they were victimized, all this sort of thing. Every nation, of course, has its grievances. But this was exploited here to such an extent that every Serb in the country absorbed this narrative and was conditioned for what came later. They were conditioned not to protest but to defend the Serbian nation throughout Yugoslavia against a possible genocide at the end of the 20th century. That was the mindset of most of the Serbian population at that time. But it really started already in the 1980s through culture, and in the informal cafe society.

From 1988 this approach was launched through the media, especially electronic media. Media, which was centralized here, especially focused on these issues through the main news program at 7 p.m., which lasted sometimes for two hours. The poisoning of the Serb nation was really constant, almost on a daily basis. Once Milosevic started the war there was no opposition to it. It was said that the fascist Ustasa was coming in Croatia, that Islamic fundamentalism was coming in Bosnia, that terrorism was coming from Kosovo. They had prepared a story for each specific region.

Throughout the federal government — I was part of the federal foreign ministry at the time – you could already see how this all functioned. The Serbian side started this enormous propaganda campaign, especially in Europe but also in America, against the “Ustasa” as soon as Franjo Tudjman came to power in Croatia. Of course, Serbs were already conditioned to be against Croatia’s new government because of this propaganda. And of course Tudjman moved immediately to change the constitution, just like the Slovenes, anticipating possible separation should things go the other way. But as I said, Serbia already did this first. Even today, you can’t convince people that Serbia was the first to change the constitution and that this was the first step in the destruction of Yugoslavia.

The Yugoslav federation was a very complicated state, which really needed mature and flexible leadership in all the republics. The decisions were based on consensus, and it was extremely important to have this compromise formula at all times. Serbia disturbed this formula, first by removing autonomy for both Vojvodina and Kosovo, though these regions were both constitutional parts of the federation.

I don’t know how much you followed the Milosevic trial at The Hague. Geoffrey Nice, the deputy prosecutor, was very skillful in showing how the Serbian side manipulated who was in charge: whether it was the Yugoslav army that took the first step to go against Yugoslavia or whether it was the Serbian leadership that was behind it. It was very difficult to prove because Milosevic was president of Serbia at that time while the army was a Yugoslav institution. Milosevic also brought in the best people from Serbia, legal experts from law schools, from the academy and so on. It was a struggle over interpretation. Milosevic claimed that people have the right to self-determination, not republics. This issue was quite unclear in the 1974 Yugoslav constitution. After the Hague conference failed in October 1991, the Badinter commission eventually cleared up this ambiguity. It opted for republics. But during the course of the war, and in the court later at The Hague, Milosevic was always arguing that it was the people’s right to self-determination, therefore if Croats decided to leave Yugoslavia, then Serbs in Croatia had the right to leave Croatia.

When I talked to people in Slovenia, in particular, in 1990 before the declaration of independence, they were saying that they wanted a confederation. And I said, “What does a confederation mean? Technically, you already have a confederation, so what is your different conception of a confederation?” When I pushed them, it ultimately turned out that they didn’t have a different conception of confederation. They simply wanted a separate state, but in 1990 they couldn’t express it in those terms.

Also at that time – and I was working with all these people in the foreign ministry – I think that most of the republics were not preparing for the war. Some in the federal institutions — in the army, for instance — understood that something was coming up. But what also was as relevant in judging their arguments for more confederation was the European orientation at that time. In 1991, there was a resolution in the federal assembly about Yugoslavia’s integration into Europe, which nobody talks about. We in the Yugoslav foreign ministry made a draft of this resolution, which was sent to the parliament, and it was passed. Slovenia was behind it; Serbia was against it. The general secretary of the Council of Europe was present at that session. But now it’s just forgotten. That was 1991. Very soon after, the whole thing blew up.

Behind all this were also very different perceptions of values and goals. Yugoslavia was a non-aligned country. We had a very important geostrategic position. We were neutral between east and west and between north and south. Our profile in the non-aligned world was very high, and it is still very respected even today. Vuk Jeremic, Serbia’s foreign minister in the Tadic years, went to the non-aligned world and got support for postponing Kosovo’s independence, because the countries there still saw Tito and Yugoslavia as something valuable. Yugoslavia was the first European country to give a hand to these countries. When these countries supported Jeremic, it had nothing to do with Serbia and everything to do with this image of Yugoslavia. Many members of my generation grew up with this perception of Yugoslavia as an important, independent country that had its own values. There was some pride attached to being Yugoslav, especially by intellectual circles in the West that perceived Yugoslavia as an experiment in self-government and so on. In the East, liberal elites were looking at Yugoslavia as an example for what might happen in their countries. They considered Yugoslavia a dreamland at that time

There were many scholars at our universities who wrote very emotional books in the 1990s. People were taking sides. There was the Korcula Summer School. There was the Praxis group. The Serbian branch of the Praxis group was very demagogic and very dogmatic. They were more radical than the government itself.

Mihailo Markovic – the man in charge of ideology under Milosevic — was in the Praxis group.

The Serbians split from the Croatian group because of this dogmatism. There is a study by Nick Miller called The Nonconformists that I read recently. It’s about three Serbian nationalist figures who met in an apartment not far from here near Studentski Trg: the novelist Dobrica Cosic, the painter Mića Popović, and the literary critic Borislav Mihajlović Mihiz. They considered themselves dissidents, opponents of Tito. They hated Tito. It was not because of socialism. It was personal dislike. And they thought that Serbs not Croats should dominate the country. They presented themselves as fighters for freedom of speech. But when we ended up with freedom of speech, it was just hate speech. It’s a very interesting account. Miller knows the language, he knew the people. But I don’t think he understood the complexity and the relevance of Cosic’s group on the destruction of Yugoslavia. Cosic, for instance, didn’t become a nationalist just in 1986; he was a nationalist from long ago.

But what Miller exposes in this book is extremely relevant for everyone who wants to know something about those days. These nationalists started in the 1970s, especially through culture. That’s why culture is so very important for launching and normalizing the project of resurgent Serbian nationalism. Without that, it’s not possible to reach people to such an extent. Of course, state engagement is also relevant because states in countries like ours influence the cultural sphere.

I’ll come back to these issues, especially the implications for today of what happened in 1989-90 with Kosovo and Vojvodina. But first I want to ask you to assess your level of disappointment with what has happened in Serbia and former Yugoslavia since 1989.

First of all, over time I’ve learned a lot myself. I now have more information and more understanding. Now I would say that I’m not disappointed because this was to be expected. But if you asked me this question in 1989, I would probably say that I was extremely disappointed because I was still living as a Yugoslav citizen. I never identified with any of the ethnic groups and even today I consider myself simply a citizen. But now, after really going into the Serbian history of the 20th century, I would say that we couldn’t have expected better. Serbia is now where it started to head 30 years ago.

It took a long time for the international community to become aware of the Serbian trajectory, the Serbian project. And it took time for especially Western countries to take a clear position on what was going on in Yugoslavia. This hesitancy, this loss of focus, was reflected in the Dayton Agreement, which is totally dysfunctional for Bosnia. In the 1990s, nobody had a clear vision of where we were going as a whole. Milosevic as a leader was operating in this very murky situation. Like under water. He was destroying everything around him: federal institutions, even Serbian institutions. He introduced this anti-institutional approach to everything. He would bring people into the street and say that they had to change the constitution. Because the constitution couldn’t be changed without the consensus of the republics, Milosevic would get it changed from the street. One of the legal experts at the law school said, “This is the people’s constitution and we must listen to the voice of the people.” This was a legal argument!

This was how they destroyed not only the Yugoslav federation and its institutions but also Serbian institutions. We are now still living in this provisional state. We don’t have a modern state. When the West came in, it didn’t understand how destructive the legacy of Milosevic was. They behaved as if Serbia was just a normal country after the war. They treated all these people like normal people. It was only when Zoran Djindjic [the Serbian prime minister from 2001 to 2003] was assassinated that this legacy was revealed. And now in 2012, the West doesn’t know what to do. They’ve supported the current ruling coalition. But after two months they see that this may be disaster for all of us. This engineering of societies like ours has a limit, especially since our society hasn’t distanced itself from Milosevic’s policy.

There is a much harsher campaign against Tadic now than there ever was against Milosevic. The campaign is aimed not only at him and his party but at his orientation as well. The Democratic Party was the only strong pro-European party, despite all its weaknesses and flaws. There is a lot of ground for criticism. But now it’s overdone. In November, the Democratic Party will have its internal party elections. The ruling coalition is trying to destroy the party. If the Democratic Party splits, that will be an end to the party, because neither of them, neither Tadic nor Dragan Djilas [the mayor of Belgrade] would be able to take over the whole party without the consent of the other. If the Democratic Party splits, political life in Serbia faces a real danger for the next few years, until a new party consolidates along the same lines.

In 2003, after the assassination of Djindjic, the West had to topple the Democratic Party to bring in Vojislav Kostunica, who was the biggest disaster for Serbia because of his ideology, which was basically a Nazi ideology. They gave up on Kostunica only after he burned down the American embassy. What is really lacking in the Western approach is an understanding of this kind of society, which is now also visible in the Middle East. When you topple a leader, whether it’s a Qaddafi or a Mubarak or an Assad or whoever, you never know what’s behind him, especially if you don’t have strong voices from civil society. In the Arab Spring in Egypt, young people opposed the regime, but they had no strategy. And then who came in? The Muslim Brotherhood. It takes time to prepare these societies for real change. So, removal of the dictator and subsequent elections won’t necessarily bring in democracy.

We are now struggling with this in Serbia. President Tomislav Nikolic is not a democratic option. Also, the ruling coalition opened the doors for the Russians to come in. You can only see the Russian ambassador leaving Serbia with all these farewells and messages. Nikolic’s victory has really opened the door for true cooperation between Russia and Serbia. I think that the West and America underestimated the relevance of Russia in this region because they considered the Russians to be defeated after the fall of Berlin Wall. But the Russians were always present in the Balkans through the Serbian church, parts of the Army, and intellectual circles. Nowadays the whole region is very vulnerable energy-wise, and we all depend on Russian energy in one way or another. Serbia, through its major energy company NIS [Naftna Industrija Srbije], has the most inconvenient agreement with Russia on oil. The Russians also want to take over the railways. They want to take over the steel plant in Smederevo, which U.S. Steel gave up this year. They want to acquire other major Serbian assets as a guarantee of continued influence over any Serbian government, not only the current one.

The Russians might push for a postponement of a solution to the Kosovo issue, which is a priority now for the West and especially the United States. Nikolic said privately before he was elected that he would have a new policy on Kosovo. The new government would engage in high-level political communication. Nikolic was asking for consensus and even promised to include NGOS in the policy on Kosovo. But right now there is no single word about strategy in Kosovo. So Nikolic is buying time.

Martti Ahtisaari, who was the UN Special Envoy on Kosovo, recently said in an interview with the Serbian newspaper Danas that Serbia has lost the right to manage Kosovo. The Ahtisaari plan almost amounts to partition, almost. But they don’t want to call it that. What Serbia really wants, Nikolic and others, is for the Serb enclaves to have Republika Srpska status there, like in Bosnia, which would be a source of long-term tension on both sides.

Would you distinguish in any important way Nikolic and the other nationalist forces in Serbia? I’m thinking, for instance, of Dveri Srpske.

No. Nikolic and his party are really just bringing in the mob. Even if Nikolic would be against this behavior, he can’t stop this primitivism from taking over all the institutions at the local and provincial level. These people want to be in power for the next 10 years. Okay, the Democratic Party is also corrupt. But Nikolic and the Socialists, the way they rule, are trying to restore the 1990s, ideologically. They rule arbitrarily, changing laws overnight. Tadic and the Democratic Party represent the middle class of Serbia, whatever that is. Tadic did try to change things. His government accepted partnership with NATO. They opened the way for army reform. Three countries were involved in that: the United States, United Kingdom, and Norway. And these reforms really went far beyond expectations. They professionalized the army. But what Aleksandar Vucic, the defense minister, is doing now….

Vucic immediately went to Moscow and made some kind of a military agreement. Each of these new Serbian leaders went to Russia immediately after the elections, and they continue to go frequently. Nikolic has met with Putin, and it was announced that Putin will come here in December. At least at this visible level, you can see this intensification of meetings. Whether it will be followed by concrete projects and money, we don’t know. But the Russians have promised to give $300 million for the Serbian budget. This is not a lot of money for the Russians. But it shows that they think Serbia is valuable in their maneuvering in this new world constellation. Serbia doesn’t need much money for the budget. Our leaders are not ambitious when it comes to the wellbeing of the country. They just need social peace. The Russians don’t think they can get something here in Serbia. But Serbia is a good example of a small country that they can use whenever they need it.

Hilary Clinton will be visiting Serbia very soon. Do you think the United States can play any role in Serbia?

The United States has had an important role in the region because it was perceived by all countries as a strong power with its interventions and all that. Serbia thinks that Americans prevented their national project, which the United States did through intervention, both in Bosnia and Kosovo. This nationalistic elite is very much against America. They think that Americans took the side of Muslims against Serbs. Young people, of course, go to America and the West; they don’t go to Russia. Young people are highly frustrated by the image of Serbia. They identify with Novak Djokovic, with folk singers. There’s nothing much to identity with otherwise. Young people have a totally schizophrenic attitude. The first three sentences out of their mouths will be okay, and the next three will be totally wrong.

People here are hospitable, easygoing. But when you touch on this national issue, their identity, it is such a confusion: are Karadzic and Mladic, for instance, heroes or war criminals?

You don’t see an important generational difference on the nationalist issue?

No, unfortunately. Young people are totally ignorant and frustrated. Nobody is working with them, except for a few NGOs. It’s too little. We run some education programs through which we can understand their problems. We take them to hotels outside Belgrade and put them through a ten-day course. They change easily. When you provide them with a referential system and you explain things, they immediately act like a fish in the water. Then they start to understand.

The messages they get – from the educational system, from their families, from the media, from the political leaders — they’re all misguiding. The narrative about the wars in the 1990s is that we all committed crimes, that the secessionist republics are responsible, that the West took the side of these republics, that it was all a conspiracy of the West to destroy the Serbs — at this level of consciousness it’s all confusion.

Even the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) judgments have no impact on attitudes, particularly of the Serbian elites. The elites say that all judgments are anti-Serb. You can read about the judgments against Muslims, Croats, and Albanians in the Serbian media, for example the Ramush Haradinaj case [the former Kosovo Liberation Army leader was acquitted in 2008 and awaits a verdict in a retrial]. Or take the issue of the trafficking of organs. On the very day that Kosovo’s supervised independence ended, there was a big press conference with an Albanian witness who talked about how he was taught to take out the heart of a Serbian victim — as if you can just come in and cut out any organ. And people buy this story. Because there has been very limited reporting on what’s going on in Kosovo.

So you don’t believe the allegations that Carla del Ponte made about the KLA being involved in organ trafficking?

I don’t trust her. She destroyed all the materials she had on that case. Otherwise she would have undertaken an investigation when she was prosecutor. Look, there are 1,700 missing people in Kosovo, and only 500 of them are Serbs. Between 10 and 11,000 Albanians were killed during the war, but only a few hundred Serbs. Here in Serbia, nobody talks about the 1,200 missing Albanians. They don’t exist.

On this organ trafficking case, there is an EU rapporteur and a team, and they are maintaining a very low profile, without media. This is a good approach, because otherwise it would be politicized. Obviously something happened on this issue. We heard similar rumors from Bosnia, but nobody undertook an investigation. I’m not saying that it didn’t happen. But it’s not only an Albanian-Serb problem. It’s a world problem. Who knows who was involved in the case? What other doctors were involved? Here you only hear “trafficking in organs by Albanians.” They try to criminalize Kosovo in this way. And it had an impact on Western perception for a while. The recognition process was slowed down.

Jeremic was traveling around the non-aligned world, stirring up emotions within the international community against Kosovo. But in the end Serbia is really losing time. We are the losers. That’s the problem. Serbia is really isolated, self-isolated. We lost so many opportunities for investment. With this new government, our credit rating is down. Who knows how we are going to get out of it. And now they have introduced a new level of tensions with Vojvodina.

They are also fighting against corruption. But they have no instruments or people for this campaign. Vucic, who is deputy prime minister but also minster of defense, is now engaged only in corruption. Every day he comes up with a new name, there is a media campaign, and then there is nothing after that. This process is corrupt. The Progressive Party and the Socialist Party should be part of the investigation. The biggest corruption happened during the Milosevic years. You don’t solve the problem by just throwing out the word “corruption.” You have to do something concrete. People buy it because they are all angry and depressed. They want their social problems solved. So, the government retreats into populist measures. Who knows what they will do in the next few months if they don’t have enough money to pay pensions and salaries.

One of the important things you’ve pushed for is greater people-to-people contact between people here and in Kosovo, between NGOS here and there. You already said that there isn’t much going on with young people here. Where do you see the most hope in terms of this people-to-people connection?

Our organization, the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia, has been present in Kosovo for almost 20 years. We started with monitoring and reporting in the 1990s until 1998-99. We also organized dialogue between elites, intellectuals, and NGOs in Kosovo and Serbia. In 1997, we had a big conference in Ulcinj, in Montenegro. In 1998, we had a big conference here in Belgrade at the Hyatt where everyone relevant to political life in Kosovo was present, everyone except Ibrahim Rugova. It was in vain. The process still led to military intervention. Still, it was important to have people from both sides who were able to meet within the country and not just abroad.

After the military intervention, we were also the first down there along with some other groups. We were involved in very intensive cooperation with civil society in Kosovo. People would come here. There were no obstructions to travel. Then, in 2008, after Kosovo declared independence, Albanians were obstructed from crossing the Serbian border. Still, we continued to go, along with Youth Initiative for Human Rights and some other organizations. We focused on the Serb community in Kosovo. We lobbied for the integration of Kosovo institutions. They did take part in local and republic level. But Serbia continued to keep the northern part of Kosovo hostage. There was also talk of swapping the territory as a possible solution: the south of Serbia for the north of Kosovo. But I think that Serbia never had this in mind because this area is strategically important as a corridor to Macedonia.

In the north of Kosovo, the Serbian community has lived under the umbrella of criminal groups that have profited from smuggling. In fact, there are interest groups on both sides that have profited from keeping this northern part of Kosovo in a kind of limbo. Last year, Serbia finally made an effort to partition Kosovo because they thought at the time that it would work in their favor. Kosovo Serbs began to put up barricades. The Serbian authorities, like current Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic, started to speak officially about partition.

Then German Chancellor Angela Merkel came here, and she was very brutal, and rightly so. She said: “No partition and no candidacy. If you don’t start the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina, you won’t get candidacy.” Candidacy for the European Union was one of the major assets that the Democratic Party could use to win the subsequent elections, so they started a dialogue between Pristina and Belgrade under EU auspices. And they came to an agreement about controlling borders, the symbols on the custom seal, and so on. Serbia obtained candidacy in March and that was the main asset with which Tadic hoped to win the elections. But now implementation depends on the current government.

Serbia confronts this tough position of the West that partition is not possible. So the Serbian authorities are trying to come up with a solution. It depends on how much they will be forced to resolve the Kosovo issue: what Russia will offer and whether they will be able to cope in the current economic situation without Western help. There are a lot of factors that will influence the resolution of the Kosovo issue at this point. But the West is really hoping that Nikolic will deliver.

And you think that’s naive?

It depends on a lot of factors. The Serbian government will probably ask for the north of Kosovo to be a “region.” Integration, they will say, will take a long time. This will give them a chance to see what happens worldwide and if these enclaves can achieve a Republika Srpska status in the long term.

There is also this perception here that the EU will fall apart. In this case, why should we become a member in something that is about to fall apart? But nobody is really following what is going on in the EU. They don’t understand that, after 40-50 years, it comes to a point when an institution has to change, to accommodate to a new reality. The Serbian project of Milosevic and others, on the other hand, was against the spirit of time. When they started in the 1980s, though they had this idea in mind much earlier, they thought that the international environment was playing into their hands. And at the moment it looked like that. But as the world has settled down, we turn out to be the real losers. It’s not only because of the wars, but because we lost an opportunity to do something in this country. Because we didn’t accept the new realities, we have had very tense relations with all our neighbors. It’s only now, because the criteria of regional cooperation are very important for the EU, that you see some changes at the political level.

It’s unclear what will happen at this elite level. But your initiatives at a grassroots level, what do you hope to achieve?

In Kosovo, we spent seven months talking with Serbs in all these enclaves, including some known figures, and we heard a great deal. We later produced a report. In this report, you can see that these Kosovo Serbs had already accepted Albanians. There was local cooperation going on behind the scenes. But nobody has wanted to report on it.

At the level of ordinary people, it will go much easier. But the elites are preventing that. In order to bring Albanians and Serbs together — or Serbs and Croats, or Serbs and Bosniaks — you need a responsible and mature elite to do something within Serbia. They need to say, “Okay, we are defeated. But from defeat we can draw some energy and do something else.” Our elite is not doing this. Without doing this, you cannot go to the region and say, “Let’s reconcile. Let’s normalize as if nothing has happened.” It’s not possible. It can go to a certain extent. But all these differences brew beneath the surface, and the tensions rise up again during difficult situations.

How strong is the movement in Vojvodina pushing for greater autonomy and what do you envision will be the outcome of this struggle?

First of all, Vojvodina is not an ethnic issue. It’s really about who controls the money and who manages the economy, which has been destroyed over the years. Vojvodina is an agricultural region. And agriculture here is totally devastated. The land here is divided into small parcels. It’s not based on a modern concept like in the United States where you have two percent of the population working in agriculture and feeding the whole world. Here you have enormously rich and fertile land, but the rural population is very old. Even where the farmers aren’t old, a family can’t run agriculture without modern equipment. No one is doing anything along these lines, so this agricultural potential is totally lost.

Vojvodina has a different political culture altogether. It can more easily meet EU standards and more easily access EU funds. In fact, Vojvodina is considered to be the only region in Serbia capable of accessing these EU funds, which will open up as soon as they start negotiations. Many of the countries in Eastern Europe were not able to use these funds. They didn’t know how. So, much of it was lost or unused because of this inability to use and spend these funds.

Generally, Serbia is totally devastated professionally. Many young people are still leaving the country. Many professionals have already left the country. We don’t have industry. People are buying up factories and closing them down. They’re just waiting for the moment to sell them to foreigners. At this moment, most people are just sitting idle. But there are a few islands that demonstrate that something can be done, and Vojvodina is one of these.

But in Vojvodina at this moment, more and more people are furious with Belgrade. And it’s growing. There were lots of reactions from Vojvodina after the Serbian Constitutional Court decided that the statute of Vojvodina, which was passed during the democratic Tadic rule, is now anti-constitutional because it asserts too much autonomy for the province. Behind all this is Kostunica. His party his small, but there are many intellectuals, law professors, and so on that are members. They are the ideological radicals of the ruling coalition. They make all these accusations, and then Nikolic says that Serbia will ban all parties that are “anti-constitutional,” that support more autonomy for Vojvodina. So, the Vojvodina issue is really a constitutional problem. The Serbian authorities are trying first of all to change the constitution over the long term and meanwhile implement their interpretation of the existing constitution.

There is another possibility. If Vojvodina’s push for a more decentralized state fails, then the Hungarians may ask for the kind of territorial autonomy that was in place for two decades until the late 1980s. This new government in Hungary is also very chauvinistic, and it is working on behalf of Hungarian minorities in Romania, Slovakia, and Serbia. A Hungarian deputy minister recently said that he supported the idea that the north of Kosovo should become a region. Behind this is really Hungarian support for a similar kind of solution for Vojvodina as well as for Hungarian regions in Romania and Slovakia.

Serbia faces three such requests: from Bosniaks in Sandzak, from Kosovars in south Serbia, and from Hungarians in Vojvodina. The problem is that Serbia doesn’t understand that if you ask for maximum status for ethnic Serbs in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo, then it’s just a matter of time before someone else will demand the same thing from the Serbian government. The international community thought that these demands came about because we were at war. They didn’t anticipate, for instance, that the Hungarian government would become so chauvinistic. Also, the economic problems that European countries are facing might trigger this kind of scenario. That’s why Merkel said last year, “no partition.” Because then maybe Macedonia would be next in line in terms of partition. You never know.

This is really about the EU’s decision about its principles. Either the EU reinforces the principles, the civic values, on which Europe was based for the last 50 years. Or Europe develops more along ethnic lines, and there is no end to it.

You are saying that unless Vojvodina has the kind of autonomy that it is asking for – in terms of state structures, not ethnic issues — unless it achieves this kind of autonomy to access EU funds and, for example, improve its agriculture, then the possibility of a more radical scenario, supported by a chauvinistic Hungarian government, becomes a greater possibility. The more the current Serbian government pushes against autonomy, the more likely the situation will radicalize.

Yes.

We talked a little about nationalism, the strength of nationalism, not only at a political level, but also at a cultural level. I’m going to ask the flip side of that: about the strength of liberalism, of liberal ideology. This ideology is somewhat embodied by the Democratic Party but not always, as you pointed out. There were a lot of limitations even with Djindjic. But do you see a kind of authentic, tolerant liberalism emerging here in Serbia that gives you hope? We know that there have been liberal traditions here before, so it’s not about creating something completely new.

Yes, the liberal option always existed, though it was a tiny one. But you never know when such a tiny option can prevail in a given situation.

Vojvodina, Kosovo, and Serbia proper are all different cultural and political entities. Serbia never accepted a federation within itself. It was trying to centralize the country along the lines of Serbia proper, not according to the more European Vojvodina. And Kosovo is even more conservative. Serbian leaders simply didn’t take into account all these differences within Serbia. They missed the opportunity to adapt to the complexities of each of these societies. They oversimplified the Serbian nation. Then you had all these Serbs that came here as refugees, but they too are all culturally different, though they have the same religion.

Communism, or socialism, in former Yugoslavia was a modernizing faith for Serbian society, a way to establish universal values in the country. It had its limitations in terms of political liberties. But three important legacies of this period were education, health care, and tolerance toward minorities. The nationalist project has created such hysteria against this legacy of modernism that it’s necessary to undertake a similar project to suppress the nationalists. What we have now is really the EU, which is helping to build up institutions along certain values, criteria, and standards. But we still don’t have true reform of education. And our media still acts in favor of the status quo. It is still influenced by groups that are not interested in change in Serbia, groups that don’t favor either the free market or a change of political elites.

Finally, we don’t have a flourishing civil society. We had a dynamic civil society only because the West was very interested in bringing down Milosevic. We had a “united bloc” against Milosevic thanks to the United States and U.S. donors. After this period, there were fewer donors. They moved elsewhere. But the more liberal groups in this country remained under pressure, and the Serbian government conducted campaigns to demonize these groups as traitors, as disloyal, as exponents of Anglo-Saxon imperialism. This really shaped the perception of us in society. For instance, when they invite me to a talk show, I am always presented as someone who was in favor of U.S. and NATO military intervention. Or they said that we wanted to return Serbian refugees to Tudjman’s Croatia.

You also have minorities who might be conservative but are still pro-European because there is no other way for them. They are instinctively oriented toward Europe because this is their safe haven. They are always looking toward integration because they are totally outside the political, economic, and cultural community here. The former government, under Tadic, had all kinds of action plans and strategies for dealing with Roma and other vulnerable groups. But this state doesn’t have the money to implement these programs. Implementation will come from either EU funds or from individual member states.

But you have to create an atmosphere for that. Who can help? Civil society. EU delegations from these countries cooperate with the government, which is normal. But civil society can provide independent pressure on the government. We are the ones interested in seeing the implementation of all these action plans.

Our society is very racist against Roma and Albanians, very hostile toward Croats and Bosniaks. You can’t change this with two or three statements. You have to work on this on a daily basis. It’s a long process. It won’t happen in two or even 10 years. There was, after the Second World War, a Marshall Plan for the recovery of the German economy. But it took more than 20 years to discuss within German society what happened during the war. In Serbia, which is a smaller society, it goes even slower.

We are a defeated country, but nobody says that in their diplomatic or economic dealings with Serbia. This may be right. But at another level, you cannot expect regional reconciliation without Serbia taking responsibility for starting the war. Who were the most indicted at the ICTY? Serbs. Why? Because proportionately they committed most of the crimes. That says something. Serbs usually complain to foreigners that most of the indicated were Serbs. But they never acknowledge that most of the war criminals were in fact Serbs.

The Kosovo judgment against the top Serbian officials in the army, the police, and the political institutions is 1,500 pages long. Everything is described there: what happened in 1989-90, not to mention the 1980s and 1990s, how many people were killed down there. For two days, the Serbian media covered it – but only as an anti-Serbian judgment. I’m sorry, but in order to put the region in order, Serbia has the most homework to do. Other countries also have homework to do, but they won’t do it until they see that Serbia has started the process. This doesn’t mean putting Serbia in a corner. But we should know, especially the young generation, why it happened. People have to understand what was behind all this. Very often, you hear people say, “What has befallen us? Who did this to us?” Or they say, “Let’s forget about it.” Or they say, “Yugoslavia was a perfect state.” They say these things because they want to forget. And they are not offered anything better than Yugoslavia.

We had an educational program this summer with children from Croatia, Bosnia, and Serbia. I was a lecturer on Yugoslavia. The children knew nothing. They’d heard of Yugoslavia, of course, but they didn’t even know who the leaders were at that time or what Yugoslavia was internationally. My lecture was for 3 hours. But they kept me two more hours asking me questions. Because they were hungry to know about all this. So there is chance to work with these people. But it has to be comprehensive and very well conceived in order to have impact on their attitudes and their understanding of their former country.

You cannot delete Yugoslavia. You cannot delete socialism. It was our reality. Even if you’re against these things, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t relevant to your history. I think that anti-communism helped these nationalists destroy everything that referred to Yugoslavia. It happened in many socialist countries. Many new elites derived their legitimacy from this nationalism of the Second World War ideologues of the extreme right, like Draza Mihailovic and Milan Nedic here in Serbia, or in Hungary or the Baltic countries.

There was a resolution in the European Parliament initiated by the Baltic countries, the 2009 resolution on European conscience and totalitarianism, that equated Nazism and communism. This is an Eastern European thing, and it’s very much anti-Russian. In response, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev came to the parliament here in Belgrade and delivered a speech that sent a message that Nazism and communism were not equal, first of all because the communists helped liberate Europe from fascism. Similarly, there is a debate in the EU about May 9, whether this is a liberation day or an occupation day. In this way, they’re changing the narrative of the Second World War. We’re not really part of this debate here in Serbia, but still people somehow make use of the discussion.

For example, you start to talk about Serbia and war crimes here, and then a professor from law school responds that Americans committed genocide against Indians. You cannot finish a conversation about Serbia because they always introduce something from two centuries ago!

Why are modern European values based on anti-fascism? It’s much deeper than just fighting against Nazism. It’s about fighting against discrimination. All these conventions and human rights networks were based on this anti-fascist struggle. People just don’t know what anti-fascism means as a value.

America’s Good Food Movement

What better day than Thanksgiving to celebrate our country’s food rebels?

I’m talking about the growing movement of small farmers, food artisans, local retailers, co-ops, community organizers, restaurateurs, environmentalists, consumers, and others – perhaps including you. This movement has spread the rich ideas of sustainability, organic produce, local economies, and the idea of the common good from the fringe of our food economy into the mainstream.

It began as an “upchuck rebellion” — ordinary folks rejecting the industrialized, chemicalized, corporatized, and globalized food system. Farmers wanted a more natural connection to the good earth that they were working. Meanwhile, consumers began seeking edibles that were not saturated with pesticides, injected with antibiotics, ripened with chemicals, dosed with artificial flavorings, and otherwise tortured.

Natalie Maynor/Flickr

Natalie Maynor/Flickr

These two interests began to find each other and to create an alternative way of thinking about food. Today, more than 13,000 organic farmers produce everything from wheat to meat, and organic sales top nearly $27 billion a year. Some 7,000 vibrant farmers’ markets operate in practically every city and town across the land, linking farmers and food makers directly to consumers in a local, supportive economy. Restaurants, supermarkets, food wholesalers, and school districts are now buying foodstuffs that are produced sustainably and locally.

This shift did not come from corporate or governmental powers — it percolated up from the grassroots. And it’s spreading, as ordinary people inform themselves, organize locally, and assert their own democratic values over those of the corporate structure.

Family by family, town by town, this good food movement has changed not only the market, but also the culture of food. As you, your family, and friends sit down for a good meal this Thanksgiving, celebrate this change, which is truly worthy of our thanks.

Jim Hightower is a radio commentator, writer, and public speaker. He’s also editor of the populist newsletter, The Hightower Lowdown. Distributed via OtherWords (OtherWords.org)

Bulgaria’s New Left

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

Georgi Medarov

Georgi Medarov

In the same way that the New Left in the United States distanced itself in the 1960s from the old-style Communist Party and its fellow travelers, this new left in Eastern Europe has taken pains to distinguish itself from the Communist Party politics of the Cold War era.

Partly this is a generational shift. Young people who did not live through the era of Todor Zhivkov and Wojciech Jaruzelski don’t automatically associate socialism with massive human rights abuses and failed economic planning. Partly too it’s a thorough disenchantment with what liberalism has brought – austerity economics, a widening gap between rich and poor, hollow democratic institutions, a disregard for environmental issues. Many people in the region have come up against these shortcomings of liberalism and veered right, into nationalism. Another group has struck off in the opposite direction to create a new kind of progressive politics.

Georgi Medarov, soft-spoken and pony-tailed, is part of this new generation of activists. He works at an environmental NGO in Sofia and also participates in a group called New Left Perspectives. “We accept the liberal position on human rights, but we don’t think it’s enough,” he says. “We don’t accept the militarism and capitalism that a lot of liberal organizations accept.”

Medarov joined the movement in Bulgaria against the U.S. war in Iraq, though he and his cohort made sure to distinguish themselves from the hard-line communists and hard-line nationalists that also came out for the demonstrations. The wars of the Bush era have faded into the background. The new left’s critique of austerity, however, has proven perhaps more enduring, as the economic crisis itself has stubbornly remained front and center. Here, the experience of East-Central Europe is cautionary and could provide lessons for other movements resisting austerity measures.

Similar austerity measures, Medarov points out, “were applied here in this region in the 1990s, and in a more radical way than in Greece or Portugal. So in a way we can witness the long-term effects of what will happen in western Europe if they continue with these austerity measures. The difference is that the resistance to austerity is much more organized. Here in Eastern Europe, the resistance was misguided. For instance, there was a general strike in the 1990s in favor of neo-liberalism.”

The economic hardship that so many people are experiencing in Bulgaria, and elsewhere in the region, has produced a certain nostalgia for the old days. Unfortunately, in Bulgaria, that nostalgia conceals a soft spot for authoritarian rule. “In the group I’m part of, we are trying to understand this nostalgia, but we’re quite critical of it,” Medarov explains. “This nostalgia is about oppression of ethnic minorities, about a strong state. It’s not so much nostalgia about human rights, about minority rights or about the social achievements of the past. There was some improvement of minority rights during the socialist era. But they’re not nostalgic about that.”

Unlike the Leninists of old and the Putinists of today, the new left has no illusions about authoritarianism. It has embraced many aspects of the social movement politics of the 1960s and 1970s: civil rights, feminism, LGBT activism. With a few exceptions, such as the Palikot movement in Poland, the new left in East-Central Europe has not registered yet in the electoral realm. In Bulgaria, the new right and the old left continue to dominate the political realm. But in the environmental protests that recently mobilized thousands of people against unrestrained economic development or the annual Pride marches that have gained in numbers and visibility, a new political sensibility is taking shape in Bulgaria. It shares many of the same perspectives as other new left groups in the region, such as Krytyka Polityczna in Poland or the organizers of the Subversive Festival in Croatia.

But as Georgi Medarov explained to me one night in October in the loud, crowded café attached to Sofia’s Archaeological Museum, Bulgaria’s new left has a sensibility all its own. My conversation with him is an important reminder that if I restricted my interviews only to the people that I talked to 22 years ago, I would miss many critical aspects of the current East-Central European reality.

The Interview

Do you remember when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?

I remember when I was in first grade in 1989: we had to change the way we were calling our first grade teacher from “comrade” to “mister” and “missus.” I found this strange. Throughout the 1990s, I don’t have proper political memories. I remember the 1997 political mobilizations but as something distant.

Do you remember when you became politically conscious?

In the latter part of high school, during the war against Serbia. It was a negative experience that my country was involved even indirectly in this war. I thought that this was an unjust war. It doesn’t mean that I had a proper reflection on this. Some bombs even fell by accident in Bulgaria, on Sofia, and I found this stressful.

Perhaps when I was 20 I started to become involved in the environmental movement, and I was going to environmental protests. I was also involved in some small initiatives – especially after the invasion of Iraq, we were doing Food Not Bombs in Sofia in 2004-5. We were doing this initiative with an environmental organization. We were going to anti-war demos in Sofia as a separate bloc of people because we didn’t really agree with everyone at the demo. Part of the protesters were hardline communists and some were hardline nationalists – so we had a separate bloc together with the anarchists.

Much later I started thinking about the Berlin Wall. The impressions I got from my family were quite contradictory. My parents are very apolitical; they look at both systems quite ironically and are negatively disposed to both. My sister, ten years older, was involved in the political movement of the 1990s. My grandparents were communists of various types. So there was this contradictory thing between my sister and my grandparents. But I had no opinion.

I suppose I’m on the left now, whatever this means. I have had a very ambivalent position toward the past. Personally, my parents were lucky enough that I never experienced extreme poverty in the 1990s. They were educated in Sofia and were able to adapt. For most of the people, it was a loss. There’s not much to lament about the past from my perspective. But many people are quite nostalgic about state socialism because they lost everything.

In the group I’m part of, we are trying to understand this nostalgia, but we’re quite critical of it. This nostalgia is about oppression of ethnic minorities, about a strong state. It’s not so much nostalgia about human rights, about minority rights or about the social achievements of the past. There was some improvement of minority rights during the socialist era. But they’re not nostalgic about that.

There’s a displacement in people’s memories. Their nostalgia for social achievements has been displaced by a nostalgia for a strong authoritarian state.

But this nostalgia comes not because of some kind of totalitarian mentality. It’s a reaction to the last 20 years. In 1989, everyone was excited – both the people who were on the left and those in the democratic movements. Both social movements were enthusiastic. No one was happy about what was happening in the 1980s. But no one really expected what happened in the end.

Can you describe this new left here in Bulgaria?

We use this term to try to carve out space between the old left — what we call the hardline communist left, which is nostalgic about socialism in a conservative, nationalist way, because the socialists became nationalist and kicked 300,000 people out of the country for basically racist reasons — and the Social Democratic party, which became quite neoliberal and quite conservative at the same time. So, we are trying to distinguish ourselves from this hard-line left and the social democratic one.

But at the same time we try to distinguish ourselves from liberals. We accept the liberal position on human rights, but we don’t think it’s enough. We don’t accept the militarism and capitalism that a lot of liberal organizations accept. We were thinking in the beginning that if we offend too many people, everyone would hate us. It’s a very negative way of identifying ourselves. But it turns out that many people are open to us. They come to our events and engage in discussions. There is a social need for this stance.

In the last couple years it’s happening not only in Bulgaria, but in Eastern Europe. There has been a rise of new left groups, with various levels of radicalism. It’s particularly strong in Croatia. The Subversive Festival is attended by a thousand people! They invite mainstream radical and left intellectuals, and they hold discussions throughout the day. It’s not only the festival. There are lots of publications, demonstrations. It’s a mainstream thing, and it gets mainstream media attention. There was a summer school that some people from my group were involved in in Budapest in July: the idea was to gather critical activist groups that are more academic-oriented. We want to make something similar in Sofia.

What is being experienced throughout Europe in terms of austerity measures are perceived as something unique. But actually they were applied here in this region in the 1990s, and in a more radical way than in Greece or Portugal. So in a way we can witness the long-term effects of what will happen in western Europe if they continue with these austerity measures. The difference is that the resistance to austerity is much more organized. Here in Eastern Europe, the resistance was misguided. For instance, there was a general strike in the 1990s in favor of neo-liberalism. We had a general strike in 1997 that was organized by trade unions but which undermined trade union organizing in the long term. They basically lost their membership.

Is there much cooperation between NGOs and social movements east and west? Is there still an imbalance of power between the two?

Cooperation between eastern and western European NGOs is rather difficult even on the NGO level. It’s partly for financial reasons: we don’t have the resources to travel to western forums. But there are various other reasons.

Sometimes bigger NGOs, for example, they impose ready-made schema on the Bulgarian context. The Greens – which were formed here after 2007 –was very promising in the way it grew out of civil society. It was an honest initiative. But there was also an unequal exchange of ideas between west and east. The way they organized their grievances was to import ready-made policies, which were sometimes neo-liberal understandings of what policy should be, especially in realms not connected to the environment, like education. It doesn’t mean that the members really endorse this. But they see politics as a technocratic endeavor, that there are good policies and bad policies, and we should just adopt the best policies of the West and everything will be okay. But it’s more complicated than this. Many people feel that they don’t have to reflect, they just have to copy what western Europe is doing.

The NGO I work for, an environmental organization called Za Zemiata (For the Earth), is funded mostly by the European Commission. I would not call it “left,” but it definitely is quite critical and it is very open to progressive social movements and groups. The EC requires cofunding where you have to raise 20-30 percent locally. But it’s more difficult here than in western Europe. We don’t have vast memberships with fees. We’re very pressed in financial terms. So, it’s difficult to reflect and think because you don’t have time. I see this problem in western Europe too, but here’s it’s more extreme. Because we don’t have public funding here, we’re dependent on western donors.

Some of the more critical NGOs in the west are interested to see the eastern European experience of neoliberalism because they think this experience will be useful to understand what’s happening in the west. But it’s also a critical tool to use against certain trade agreements. We in Za Zemiata wrote a report on water liberalization in Bulgaria that was used as part of the international and European water movement. They need examples to see what will happen, since water privatization is now an issue in western Europe. But it was something we experienced in the 1990s.

Za Zemiata was established in 1994. Before it was more grassroots and more radical as well, but now it has become more of an expert policy organization working with the government. It tries to work on both levels. For instance, we wrote two textbooks on ecological education that were approved by the government and adopted by the school system. But we still have grassroots activities. Every year there is a clean-up of the mountains org annually. It’s very volunteer; no one funds it.

We also take part in movements like the anti-GMO (genetically modified organisms) movement. Six years ago, the Bulgarian government tried to liberalize the legislation connected to GMO food production. Za Zemiata and other NGOs managed to stop this through a protest movement. Then two years ago, the current government tried to liberalize it once again. But there was an even stronger movement against this, with support at every level of society, and once again, there was success. The movement was quite varied, involving many types of groups, such as those raising health issues. At Za Zemiata, we tried to complement this activity by focusing on other related problems, such as patents and intellectual property rights. We invited Canadian farmer (and anti-GMO activist) Percy Schmeiser to Bulgaria to meet with farmers and university students.

How do Bulgarians feels about NGOs these days?

The profile of NGOs has fallen dramatically. NGOs supported the most neoliberal measures and still do — even the Open Society foundation in Bulgaria. It’s a different kind of organization in the United States, more progressive and not as right wing as it is here. It’s not conservative in terms of being racist but in supporting economic policies and foreign policies that most people radically disagree with. But the problem is that Bulgarians don’t have a language to express this disagreement. So you get a lot of conspiracy theories about the Open Society foundation that are anti-Semitic, anti-American.

There is a hatred of NGOs here, but the way it’s formulated is horrible. There is a reason for this hate, however stupid it is. In that sense, there is a lack of belief in NGOs. People tend to believe that if you’re an NGO you just want to take money from the west, you don’t care about real social issues. They think it’s a really easy job and you get paid a lot of money, which is a misunderstanding of course. But in the public imagination, that’s the way NGO-type language sounds.

My personal opinion is that it’s impossible to make social change as I imagine it, in a more critical way, as a professional activist in an NGO. The simple reason is funding. Za Zemiata works with the European Commission, which is quite conservative, but still we can do things, there is no direct limitation on what you can say or do. But in general, you have to adopt Euro-bureaucratic language and this bureaucratic mentality. And especially if one does not have any other language, another way to see the world, one ends up accepting the Euro-technocratic ideology for one’s own. That’s the reason that it’s impossible to have something more radical. So, grassroots mobilization is the way forward, though these movements have to work closely with NGOs.

But what’s left out are intellectuals. Both NGOs and the grassroots often disregard the importance of serious analysis that exists in universities, in Bulgaria as well. The cooperation between these NGOs, grassroots movements, and intellectuals is really important.

I am involved in an initiative called New Left Perspectives, comprised mostly of Ph.D. students. It’s a project for political education, funded by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation – they would never tell us what to do and it’s easier than with the NGO job. Together with most of the same people from that project we are engaged in running a social center in Sofia, where Za Zemiata also participates. We don’t have a long-term vision. We think mostly a year or two ahead. Our long-term plan would be how to make a publication, like a monthly publication, or to develop our website, which would be a year or two ahead.

Can you tell me about LGBT organizing here in Bulgaria?

There’s been a Pride march every year since 2008. Each year there are attacks. The first year was the harshest when skinheads threw Molotov cocktails. But the government decided to defend the march. There was a heavy police presence. That’s why no one dares to attack now.

The first year was about 200 marchers and maybe 100 far-right skinheads and some representatives of religious organizations. Now there are 2,000 marchers. In this sense, the event is quite accepted. I’m not saying that people are tolerant in general, but they are tolerant about this type of march.

However, after every march, someone is attacked on the way home. These militant far–right groups attack not only gay people but leftwing activists, asylum seekers, Roma, Black people living here. There is a lot of this type of violence. There was recently a march in commemoration of a boy killed four years ago in Sofia. The murderers said that they killed him because they thought he was gay. This was their defense! So, they admitted the crime, but they have not been charged, even though it took place already four years ago.

The government deploys the police for the Pride march, but it charges the movement. LGBT activists have no critique of this, they accept this as normal: “They provide us security and we pay for it, and that’s okay.” But this is ridiculous. LGBT people pay taxes.

There is also an artistic Queer Forum, organized as a part of the New Left Perspectives project I mentioned, that is going to take place at the end of November, where we want to push a left understanding of the queer movement.

How would you evaluate the level of extreme nationalism in Bulgaria? The political party Ataka, for instance, has lost a lot of its support.

Ataka disintegrated for personal reasons. This sentiment still exists, though the political spectrum is very divided. There are many parties and groups on the far right. Four years ago or less, Ataka gave its full support to the ruling party. Two years ago, it still had this cooperation when supporters of Ataka attacked a mosque here in Sofia in 2011. People asked the ruling government – what about this coalition with Ataka? “Oh, this isn’t a coalition, it’s just cooperation,” the government said. But if Ataka or a similar party gets 10-15 percent of the votes in the next election, the ruling party will have to make a decision about forming a coalition with them again.

In 1990, the far-right movement split from the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) on the decision to return Turkish names to ethnic Turks here in Bulgaria. The BSP managed to integrate them afterwards. But the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF) also had a far-right dimension. UDF people say, “Oh, we didn’t know that Volen Siderov [the leader of Ataka] had these ideas when he was editor of the UDF newspaper Demokratsia.” But Demokratsia was very involved in historical revisionism that said that there was no fascism in Bulgaria, that denied Bulgarian participation in Holocaust. The opposition worked on Turkish rights because it was against communism. But they also engaged in whitewashing Bulgarian history. And the anti-communist coalition included a group formed by former legionnaires, who were involved in pogroms in Jewish neighborhoods during World War II. These democratic forces were not totally innocent.

So, in a sense, Ataka is not a surprise. It’s not just Siderov. Many other members were ex-members of the democratic forces, such as Rumen Vodenicharov. Usually the far-right is presented as an attempt to restore totalitarianism. It is not seen as an outgrowth of the anti-communist movement.

A year ago, there were neo-Nazi riots all over the country after the case in the village of Katunitsa. There was a guy there, a gangster, a Roma oligarch basically who had been doing extremely illegal stuff for last 20 years, like producing illegal alcohol. The local villagers hated him. He had an argument with a Bulgarian family, the family of the ex-mayor I think, and he threatened the son of the woman. A year later, the son was killed. The villagers protested against him. Initially it was not a racist riot, but it was provoked by the fact that he was an oligarch and could do whatever he wanted, that he was on good terms with all political parties over the last 20 years.

But then some football fans and various far-right youth groups saw this protest on television. They went to this village, along with some bikers, and they burned down one of this guy’s houses. The reason behind this attack was completely racist. It was because he was Roma and nothing else. The police allowed them to burn the house. It looked like a pogrom. Many far-right groups got very excited about it. In every city there was a racist march, and there many attacks against Roma. Some young kids, as young as 12 years old, were chanting, “Kill the Roma.” This type of extreme nationalism was not possible 20 years ago. I think this type of sentiment is increasing. The government is afraid to do anything against this.

The ability of these sentiments to mobilize people is much stronger these days. It’s not just the 15-20 percent always voting for far-right parties. They have managed to poison the discourse of all political parties. The parties have all adopted racist language at all levels. The BSP has campaigned together with the far-right party in support of nuclear energy. Rank-and-file members of the BSP have accepted these far-right movements. In this way these far-right arguments become mainstream.

It is quite clear what is happening. There are many examples of political parties cooperating with the far right. For example, some members of the democratic parties proposed to replace street names with the names of Nazis from the inter-war period. The most extreme propositions like this don’t go through. But it’s become normal for municipal member to make such proposals.

What about the Movement for Rights and Freedom (MRF)?

The sentiments against the MRF have become very extreme. People say, “We are not against the Turks, but we are against their party.” This is still racist, because it’s against the political organization of the Turks. Yes, this party is corrupt, just as corrupt as the other parties. But the attacks against the MRF, shared by democratic parties as well, are very extreme. These attacks were started by far-right groups, but they have been adopted even by some people who consider themselves anti-racist or liberal.

You mentioned groups here working on refugee issues. I’m curious whether there has been any effort to link the experience of refugees and immigrants here in Bulgaria with the experience of Bulgarians emigrating to other countries?

There are NGO groups that are engaged in refugee rights, but they would never make the connection between Bulgarian migration abroad in the 1990s and the migration inwards, like with refugee seekers. I don’t know if it’s possible to build solidarity on this basis. It’s not attempted at a mainstream level.

But there are some small, more grassroots-oriented groups working on refugee rights activism. They work with the NGOs, but they also try to make this connection. There was a project, for instance, called Repositions. In the first part of the project, they took pictures of houses squatted by undocumented refugee seekers. These were then screened in various parts of Sofia. It was a Bulgarian-German project. In the next part, they will do the same thing with Bulgarian migrants in Germany. They are trying to bring forward this argument, understanding migration through the perspective of Bulgarian migrants abroad.

There were other attempts as well. There were a few events connected to solidarity, with Konstanina Kuneva, a Bulgarian syndicalist in Athens who was attacked with acid in 2008 because of her trade union work. Some people in Bulgaria were trying to bring forward her case, speak about it. There was also recently one event at the Red House where they screened an interview with her, and compared environmental activism in Bulgaria with other places, such as the Greek protests and the U.S. Occupy movement.

Gaza: The Light Doesn’t Get Much Greener

Cross-posted from Mondoweiss.

Jabaliya refugee camp.

Jabaliya refugee camp.

The Wall Street Journal reports the result of a press conference held on Air Force One by Obama’s Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes, who works as one of Obama’s main (foreign policy) speechwriters who helped the President draft his spring 2012 AIPAC address. Rhodes expressed hope that mediation efforts by the Egyptians — who had been brokering a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel the day before Operation Pillar of Cloud began — will succeed, but the meat of his remarks comes in the form of a very clear public declaration the US will have Israel’s back no matter what the government decides.

Pressed as to whether a ground invasion would escalate tensions, Mr. Rhodes said, “We believe Israel has a right to defend itself, and they’ll make their own decisions about the tactics that they use in that regard.”

He said that the precipitating factor for the conflict was the rocket fire coming out of Gaza, dismissing those who blame an Israeli airstrike that killed a top Hamas military commander.

“Just to be clear on the precipitating factor: These rockets had been fired into Israeli civilian areas and territory for some time now. So Israelis have endured far too much of a threat from these rocket for far too long, and that is what led the Israelis to take the action that they did in Gaza.”

He declined to comment on Israel’s targeting of government buildings, including the prime minister’s headquarters. “We wouldn’t comment on specific targeting choices by the Israelis other than to say that we of course always underscore the importance of avoiding civilian casualties. But the Israelis again will make judgments about their military operations.”

Rhodes’s words offered a much stronger declaration of support for the Israeli effort than those delivered by White House spokesman Jay Carney on Friday:

We strongly condemn the barrage of rocket fire from Gaza into Israel, and we regret the death and injury of innocent Israeli and Palestinian civilians caused by the ensuing violence. There is no justification for the violence that Hamas and other terrorist organizations are employing against the people of Israel. We call on those responsible to stop these cowardly acts immediately in order to allow the situation to de-escalate.

In … conversations [with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi], the president reiterated the United States’ support for Israel’s right to self-defense. President Obama also urged Prime Minister Netanyahu to make every effort to avoid civilian casualties.

Newsweek and USA Today report that Netanyahu and other Israeli officials have been speaking directing to the President — currently in transit to Asia along with most of his top foreign policy staffers (including Rhodes) — to communicate that “[t]he Israeli leadership at this point is leaning against a ground invasion.” Though Haaretz reports that there was a concerted Israeli effort to “lull” Hamas into a false sense of security before restarting assassinations of its leadership, it is very likely that this whole effort was not intended to “escalate.” Though it was of course expected, planned for and deemed acceptable to risk more civilian casualties in Israel and Gaza when the IAF began the operation — the toll as it stands now is at least 90 Palestinians and 3 Israelis killed, with more wounded on both sides, especially in Gaza where casualties have already reached 700 — it is not likely that a protracted operation was or is desired by any of those who have rallied round Netanyahu’s flag.

But, now that Hamas has hit the suburbs of both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, the stakes for Israel backing down have risen tremendously — the kitchen cabinet of PM Netanyahu has reportedly met several times Saturday day alone, unable to reach a consensus on accepting a ceasefire or going all in into Gaza as a result of the longer-range fire. The call up of 75,000 reservists — a number greater than those summoned for the 2006 and 2008 wars — and multiple reports of massed Israeli armor on the northern borders of Gaza loom large in people’s calculations. Israeli officials, keeping everyone guessing, may be bluffing on the incursion: the divisions are meant only as a message to Hamas, or Hezbollah, or even Egypt, or to Syria and Iran. Or perhaps cover for Iran in the near future.

As Phil Weiss and David Sheen report from on the ground, the mood is very much one of “finishing the fight.” Many Palestinian demonstrators in Gaza are, according to the Huffington Post, also expressing strong support for the rulers’ actions – though the rhetorical denunciations of Hamas officials (and by the Israeli government) belie the actual mediated efforts to end this operation before it turns into a political liability for either side due to rising civilian casualties.

Indeed, only the most zealous nationalists in Israel today are for re-establishing direct Israeli control over Gaza. And a ground incursion is being blasted as unworkable in the news, from The Atlantic and The New York Times to Haaretz and even the Jerusalem Post. More common is the view that this operation, with or without an incursion, has been a long-time coming, a necessary action to ensure “deterrence” is maintained in the hopes — to paraphrase the words of a tsarist general — that the harder Israel hits them, the longer they will stay quiet afterwards. The Interior Minister said that all of Gaza’s infrastructure should be “destroyed” by the IDF “in order to realize calm for a long period.” Israeli officers hinted at conducting a Gazan “incursion” in the summer of 2011 when terrorists from the Sinai killed several Israelis that incorporated most of the language used today to argue for Operation Pillar of Cloud, including a report issued by a right-wing Jerusalem think tank that argued for a crippling assault on Hamas and the Gaza Strip’s infrastructure under the title “The Opportunity in Gaza,” views which Truthout notes have entrenched counterparts in the Beltway think tank-verse.

Lamentably, Pillar of Cloud was only a matter of time after Cast Lead concluded in 2009. The dynamics in Israel and Gaza that led to it, dissected here by Juan Cole, have not changed since then: no hudna or Arab Spring or Obama second term will alter this in the near term. And the next one, whatever name is applied to it, won’t be many years off either.

And in all such instances, past, present and future, I think we can expect the US to offer the same sort of green lighting the White House has delivered this day. Obama was still in transition in 2008 when Cast Lead took place, and “only” received intelligence briefings and Israeli missives on Cast Lead. This week, he has made his views clearer still.

Leveraging Operation Pillar of Defense Into an Attack on Iran

“At first glance,” writes Haaretz columnist Amir Oren, “Operation Pillar of Defense seems to be aimed at the Palestinian arena, but in reality it is geared toward Iranian hostility against Israel.” In fact

… the dark cloud in the Gaza skies might serve as an alternative, or preface to, an Iran operation. … Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have not given up the dream of carrying out a major operation in Iran. …

Hamas often uses Iranian missiles, but, writes Oren

So as not to leave a shred of doubt, [an] IDF Spokesman emphasized that “the Gaza Strip has become Iran’s frontline base.”

In fact, Hamas is considered closer these days to Egypt, Turkey, and Qatar than Iran. Regardless

… the intelligence assessment of casualties likely to be sustained on the home front during an operation in Iran, based on the assumption that the Arrow antimissile system is used (although it has yet to demonstrate actual interception capabilities ) [and will] duplicate the performance of the Iron Dome system. … constitute calculations in favor of an Iranian operation. … Should Operation Pillar of Defense [succeed,] the political leadership, buoyed by strong performances from the intelligence and other branches, [may] try to extrapolate from this operation and transpose it to other places.

In other words, if the Netanyahu administration succeeds in sending the message that Hamas’s will is Iran’s command, and that Israel’s missile defense will afford it protection from Iran’s retaliation, it may feel it then has license to attack Iran.

Jabari Assassination Brought Hamas Negotiations to Premature End

In an oped in the New York Times, Gershon Baskin, who negotiated with Hamas for the release of Gilad Shalit, publicly revealed how the Netanyahu administration scuttled Israel’s most recent negotiations with Hamas.

On the morning that he was killed, Mr. Jabari received a draft proposal for an extended cease-fire with Israel, including mechanisms that would verify intentions and ensure compliance. This draft was agreed upon by me and Hamas’s deputy foreign minister, Mr. Hamad, when we met last week in Egypt.

Thus does Baskin

… believe that Israel made a grave and irresponsible strategic error by deciding to kill Mr. Jabari. No, Mr. Jabari was not a man of peace; he didn’t believe in peace with Israel and refused to have any direct contact with Israeli leaders and even nonofficials like me.

But

… Passing messages between the two sides, I was able to learn firsthand that Mr. Jabari wasn’t just interested in a long-term cease-fire; he was also the person responsible for enforcing previous cease-fire understandings brokered by the Egyptian intelligence agency. Mr. Jabari enforced those cease-fires only after confirming that Israel was prepared to stop its attacks on Gaza. The goal was to move beyond the patterns of the past.

Though Gershon Baskin doesn’t personally reproach the Netanyahu administration for attacking during negotiations, it certainly seems like he had the rug pulled out from under him.

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