IPS Blog

Human Trafficking and Immigration: The Ties That Bind


Stop Human Trafficking

Once again this year, President Obama has declared January as “National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month,” and in his address he calls on the “national mission” to fight human trafficking.

This month, we rededicate ourselves to stopping one of the greatest human rights abuses of our time. Around the world, millions of men, women, and children are bought, sold, beaten, and abused, locked in compelled service and hidden in darkness. They toil in factories and fields; in brothels and sweatshops; at sea, abroad, and at home. They are the victims of human trafficking — a crime that amounts to modern-day slavery.

As Americans, we have long rejected such cruelty. We have recognized it as a debasement of our common humanity and an affront to the principles we cherish. And for more than a century, we have made it a national mission to bring slavery and human trafficking to an end.

For 13 years, our project Break the Chain Campaign at the Institute for Policy Studies provided direct social services and counseling to immigrant survivors of human trafficking and worker exploitation. Our clients were largely women from Africa and Southeast Asia who had come to the US to work as domestic workers in the homes of wealthy families, diplomats and employees of the World Bank and the IMF. When they fled the abuse, they faced a new fear: being undocumented in America.

The issue of immigration, and immigration reform, is tied inextricably with the issue of human trafficking, especially as heightened border control measures lead people to turn to riskier pathways in order to provide food, shelter, and opportunities for their families.

Immigration will be near the top of President Obama’s political agenda in his second term, and organizers are already gearing up for campaigns that will put human dignity, family preservation, and pathways to citizenship at the forefront of these discussions.

In the meantime, working within the enforcement-focused paradigm that we have now, anti-trafficking advocates are faced with the challenge of undocumented immigrant survivors being too afraid to report domestic violence, sexual assault, human trafficking, and other crimes.

We commissioned a group of public policy students from George Washington University to write a brief report on what we’ve been calling the “dual mandate” of the U.S. Government (particularly Department of Homeland Security): to identify and serve trafficking survivors, and to combat unauthorized immigration, and the conflicts that can arise when the two areas of work overlap.

In advance of the release of this brief report, which we expect within the coming weeks, we’ve compiled some of the key findings on the fact sheet, Key Facts from “The Dual Mandate: Immigration Enforcement and Human Trafficking.”

On Brink of Admission to EU, Some Croatians Still Euro-skeptic

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

Daniel Bucan

Daniel Bucan

In order to get into the European Union, Croatia needs the support of each one of the current 27 members. So far, 20 countries have ratified Croatia’s EU accession treaty. As long as the other seven countries do the same, Croatia will become a member on July 1, 2013. In December, as a final sweetener, the EU added a final pre-accession allotment of nearly 50 million Euro – part of a package of nearly 1 billion Euro since 2007 – to help Croatia reach EU standards in various categories. Once Croatia enters the club, then it will have access to another pot of money, known as the Structural and Cohesion funds.

But this long-sought-after goal is by no means a done deal. In mid-December, Croatia’s sovereign debt dropped to junk bond level. The financial powers-that-be are not happy with the current Croatian government’s somewhat permissive approach to austerity. With unemployment at nearly 20 percent and the domestic economy contracting, the Social Democrats allowed the deficit to rise from 3 to 3.5 percent of GDP. This economic performance has contributed to assessments like that of the speaker of the German parliament, Norbert Lammert, who said in October that Croatia “isn’t ready for EU membership.” Germany has yet to ratify the accession treaty.

Still, a queasy economy won’t keep Croatia out of the EU; it will just put the country on par with other troubled members, like Romania and Greece.

Croatia’s long-simmering conflict with Slovenia, on the other hand, might prove to be more than a speed bump. The two countries have been haggling for years over Croatian savings in a defunct Slovenian bank. Slovenia wants Croatia to stop the lawsuits for the recovery of the money in the Croatian accounts in Ljubljanska Banka or else it might block entrance to the EU. It’s not a small sum: 172 million Euro. Croatia wants to settle the issue separately from accession.

Croatian support for accession remains high. A year ago, 66 percent of voters said yes to EU membership in a national referendum. But not everyone is enthusiastic.

“I don’t believe anymore in the European Union,” Daniel Bucan told me. “As soon as the EU tries to become a political union, it will end in a bad way. You cannot make a state out of Europe. Look at Yugoslavia, look at the Soviet Union, look at Czechoslovakia. Such multilingual, multicultural, multi-religious, multinational constructs are always kept together by force. When I say by force, I don’t necessarily mean by tyranny, but by any kind of power. The Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia were kept together by the force of the Communist Party and communist dictatorship. The EU is kept together by the power of Germany and France. No one believes that the Czech Republic or Denmark for example has the same weight as Germany or France.”

Daniel Bucan is not your usual run-of-the-mill Euroskeptic. He’s a former diplomat whose last posting was in Strasbourg, at the Council of Europe. In other words, this is someone who is no stranger to European affairs.

I met Daniel Bucan 22 years ago when he was in the ministry of information in the newly formed government of Franjo Tudjman’s Croatian Democratic Union. Much of his skepticism about Yugoslavia has translated into skepticism of Europe. We also talked about the Croatian Spring, his conversations with Tudjman, and what it means to be a Croatian nationalist.

The Interview

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

I cannot remember exactly. The only thing I remember is seeing it on TV. But let me try to remember…I was for sure in Zagreb, probably at home. Anyhow, it was a historic moment as they say, and I felt like I was witnessing a historic moment. Actually, it didn’t come as a surprise to me, but probably everybody by then knew things were going to change. I mean, there was a process building up to this point. But still, although we might have been expecting those changes, the symbolic dimension of the event was like something you read in a good novel or book of poetry. And that’s how I felt for a moment seeing this.

Did you think at all about what impact it would have here?

Of course. Especially because things had practically already started here, with Milosevic and his party coup in Serbia, what was called in Serbian dogadjanje naroda, which means “the nation is happening.” And he was changing the political elite in Kosovo and Vojvodina. He was instigating these public meetings and political demonstrations all over former Yugoslavia, especially in Croatia. They were already pledging support in Serbia for Knin and other parts of Croatia. So, things here had already been started, and I could not think that the fall of the Wall couldn’t have an impact on what was going to happen here in Yugoslavia.

As a matter of fact, I felt that the problem might be the abrupt way it was happening. There was practically no transition. That was something I felt we should be afraid of. Unfortunately, knowing Milosevic’s political agenda — to consolidate all the republics and to make a unitary state out of Yugoslavia based on the principle of “one person, one vote” — I knew that things were not going to develop in a good way. At that time, the republics had so-called national defense units staffed not by the Yugoslav army but the citizens of the republics. That meant that there was a certain amount of weapons in each of the republics. At a certain point in Croatia, these weapons were withdrawn from the republic. It was a sign to expect the worst, which later on actually happened.

Where were you working in 1989?

I was with the radio, the so-called Third Program, that specialized in culture, art, science. I entered politics because, along with all my friends, we had been dissidents. One of them was a member of the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) and a friend of Franjo Tudjman. Milovan Šibl is his name: he was also a journalist at the radio. And then immediately after the elections, when he was nominated minister of information, he asked me whether I would become his vice minister. I was reluctant, I said: “I’m not a politician, I’m not a party member, I’m not…” And then he said, “But, you know, for decades we’ve been waiting every day for this to happen, and you shouldn’t give up now.” Finally he talked me into accepting it, and that’s how I entered politics.

But I never became a politician in terms of being a member of any party. For a short period of time, I was vice minister of information, and then I joined the president’s office. Tudjman chose a number of counselors and advisors, and I was one of them. Mario Nobilo and I took care of press conferences and so on. For a short period of time everyone was doing everything, and then Tudjman asked me one day: “What would you like to do? Would you like to remain in journalism?” And I said, “You know all my life I’ve been a man of culture. I know that it’s not such a moment to…” And he said, “No, it’s okay, it’s okay! I like to have you with me, and you can, if you want, be my advisor for cultural affairs.” So I spent two years with him there.

Then when the issue of appointing the first ambassador to Cairo was raised, he remembered that I was an Arabist and that I had some experience with the Arab world. And that’s how I entered diplomacy and remained until 2008, when I retired.

So you were in Egypt…

Egypt, and after that I was in Greece. And my third post was the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. I spent probably the best five years of my life in Egypt. It was tough at the beginning because I arrived there in 1993 when the war between Croats and Muslims in Bosnia had started, and I found all the doors closed to me. I couldn’t do anything. Not having any previous diplomatic experience, I was thinking that this was my fault. It took me some time to understand that the position of ambassador depends on the position of the country, rather than vice versa. I believed at first very naively that the position of the country depends on how much the ambassador is capable. But things changed after the Washington agreement on ending the conflict between Croats and Muslims was signed , and there was a turnabout. All the doors opened to me.

I was personally very much interested in Egypt because I had been an Arabist, and I had a lot of opportunities to find books and things. Ancient Egypt was something I’d been interested in since I was a little boy. I was always imagining myself as an archeologist going down there… After that, four years in Greece was very important. While I was in Greece, Prime Minister Costas Simitis proposed to Croatian Prime Minister Ivica Racan that Croatia apply for candidacy for EU membership. So I participated in that process.

After that it was Strasbourg, which was a little bit disappointing. As I said, it took me some time to understand the position and role of ambassador in bilateral negotiations, but when I understood it, it was relatively easy. You have your country’s interests; the host country has its interests. If you can combine the two, then fine. If not, then, you know… I like this realistic aspect of bilateral relations. The Council of Europe is an organization based on values, on ideas. It’s a watchdog that sees how those ideas are being implemented in different countries in Europe. It was a disappointment because very soon I understood that this is only on paper. The principles are principles, but the practice is something else. There was a double standard regarding different countries. What Russia can afford to do, for instance, Hungary can’t afford to do, and so on

Actually, it wasn’t disappointing because by then I understood what politics is, and what international relations are. But it was difficult to be there every day sitting at the meetings and pretending that you don’t see these discrepancies. As a matter of fact, I very often pointed out such discrepancies, loudly… So anyhow, I didn’t like Strasbourg as a job, because it’s very difficult for me to say something I don’t believe in. I’m not good at it. Suddenly, I feel like I don’t have enough words to say or enough imagination to formulate the phrases.

So, I was actually looking forward to my retirement. As a matter of fact I had to ask for it. In Strasbourg you are busy from 8 in the morning until 6 in the evening, every day. There’s an ocean of meetings, and papers, and it’s not easy. And the Council of Europe is not important anymore. Even for us. It’s not a post that everybody grabs for, so they were keeping me there. If I didn’t write letters to the president, to the prime minister, maybe I’d still be there! I’m joking, of course, but that’s how I felt.

I would like to retire to freedom and live the life I would like to live in these few years that remain. For last 30 years I’ve been busy with medieval Arab philosophy. I’ve translated the books of the five or six most important Arab philosophers, including the Jewish philosopher Maimonides, who wrote his main philosophical work using the Hebrew script, but in the Arab language. And I wrote – three books on medieval philosophy. So I wanted to get rid of all of my other obligations.

I want to go back to 1989. You were a journalist working at a radio station, and at that time, if I remember correctly, there was a big scandal around Mladina, the Slovenian newspaper, and press freedom was very important at that moment. I’m curious how that influenced your work as a journalist.

I was lucky having this job on the Third Program, which was in a way an oasis of relative freedom because we tackled exclusively scientific, cultural, and art matters. There was a little bit more freedom within the media not geared to the masses. But every now and then we felt some ridiculous pressures: for example, whether we should use this or that word, whether it was a Croatian word or a Serbian word. It’s very difficult to understand for people who never experienced that part of life.

The choice of words was a very important issue during the Croatian Spring.

Yes, because language is one of the elements that constitutes the identity of a nation. Anyhow, the Mladina controversy was very much influencing not maybe the media but what was being talked about in cafes, in intellectual circles, and so on. Freedom is something that, once you get a little bit of it, you are not ready to go back. You only want to go forward and get even more freedom. There was no way to stop it. Yugoslavia wanted to be perceived as a socialist country, even a communist country, but one with freedoms: the freedom to say certain things and absolutely not say certain other things. As soon as you touched on those that couldn’t or shouldn’t be said, you had problems.

Was there a moment in your own personal life when you felt in your own mind that you were a dissident?

Of course. As a young guy, when I was 18, I became a member of the Communist Party. It was very attractive to young people, this belief that you are making history, that we are going to lead the world, and so on. I became a member of the party just before going to university. Then I came to Zagreb in 1965 after finishing my studies in Belgrade, and I found a job on radio. And there, I confronted what life really is. I understood that our society is completely different from what I thought before.

I always was very sensitive to language. That’s my talent, that’s why I’m a philologist. So, the first thing I discovered was that I was under enormous pressure not to use certain words and then, of course, not to write about certain subjects. Then I noticed that a majority of the leading people on radio and television were Serbs, local Serbs that is. Then I found out that the police is made up of 60% Serbs, although they were only 11 percent of population in Croatia, and so on… That’s how I became a dissident, and that’s how I became what they call a Croatian nationalist.

I remember one of the people who came and talked to me when I was vice minister for information, I don’t remember whether it was you or not, we had been talking like this, and then at a certain point he said, “But Mr. Bucan, I understand from what you are saying that you are a real intellectual. How can you be a nationalist?” And I said, “For me it is not an issue of nationalism. It is an issue of justice.” I mean, I am reacting to injustice. Unfortunately, the injustice has been based on nationality. If it were based on something else, then I would be something else.

So that’s how I became interested in politics.

So you were here in Zagreb during the Croatian Spring.

Actually, I was the secretary of the party at the radio at the time in Croatia. It was a period of euphoria. I was still very young. I said something at the time that almost cost me my job later on. But I didn’t lose my job.

At a party meeting at Radio Zagreb, I proposed that we change the name of Radio Zagreb to Croatian Radio. This was taken as a major sin, because we were discussing short-wave programs listened to around the world. The general director of the radio-television at that time, he was a member of the central committee, he asked me after the meeting, “Are you crazy, what are you doing?” So, with this anecdote, I just want to say that I was young, and it was a period of euphoria.

I was also writing for the Croatian Weekly and it sold 150,000 copies every issue. We felt that people were reading us, believing us, and so that felt great. One felt important. I was mingling with all these people that became friends of mine, like Vlado Gotovac, who was on TV (and before that he was on radio). I remember after Karadjordjevo, which was the end of the Croatian Spring, I wrote a text — I never published it, I gave it to some friends to read — about this defeat. I wrote that it might be a defeat for us, but it might bring victory for the next generation. We were pointing out things that were perceived wrongly in the international community. Abroad, Yugoslavia was perceived as a country of freedom, as almost an “ideal” country. For me, Croatia was something like what I said about freedom: you get a little bit of it and you cannot go back. But the defeat was terrible because a lot of people, including many of my friends, went to prison, and even more lost their jobs.

For a long time I was afraid that I would also go to prison. Years later, I heard that a friend of my father’s who had good relations with Jure Bilic, one of the Communist leaders who took over after the end of the Croatian Spring, had said, “He’s a young guy, his mother was hanged by the Ustasa, his father was a Partisan, so you shouldn’t bother him. Let him be.” It seems that that’s how I didn’t go to prison.

In any case, the Croatian Spring was like a seed planted into the ground.

Even though the Croatian Spring was defeated and many people went to jail, the 1974 constitution was a recognition of these movements — not just in Croatia, but of course elsewhere in Yugoslavia. Some people argue that the 1974 constitution was the end of Yugoslavia, because it decentralized authority in a way that was irrevocable.

That was typical of Tito. I never liked him; I don’t like him now. But he always liked to play both sides, and that’s what he did there too. But in a way, the constitution of 1974 was a return to the origins of Yugoslavia. When Yugoslavia was reconstructed in 1944 and 1945 by Tito and the Communist Party, it was a voluntary coming together of different peoples, nations, republics, and so on. That’s what we were always taught in school. But you couldn’t say it this way in a political context or you would be immediately sent to prison. The 1974 constitution allowed this political formulation, and in a way it became later on the constitutional basis for dismantling Yugoslavia.

Many people have told me how strange it was to live in Yugoslavia in the 1980s, because the country was more liberal than Czechoslovakia or Bulgaria, and so many people from the region came here on vacation, to sell /buy things. And of course many people could travel to Western Europe and work as guest workers and bring money back, and build houses. So it obviously was more liberal than some places, and yet still as you point out, there was censorship, there were people going to jail, there were limits to what you could say. I mean, how did you feel in those years when Yugoslavia was in the middle of the spectrum between the much more repressive governments of the east and the much more liberal countries of the west?

As a young guy, without the experiences and knowledge that came later, I probably wasn’t aware of all this. As I told you, I became aware of things when I started to live: when I married, when I got a job, and when I began to have problems at my workplace… It was pleasant to hear that we were perceived as “better” than some others. But when I started to live a real life, with my eyes open in the 1970s and 1980s, sometimes I thought that the situation here was worse than it was for Hungarians or Czechs or Slovaks or Bulgarians. Not worse in a real sense. But those people knew how they suffered. And we didn’t want to recognize it: we lived in a lie. We thought we were enjoying ourselves. So, it was this double-edged feeling.

When I was talking to Zarko Puhovski, he said he talked with Franjo Tudjman in 1989, because he knew Tudjman’s son, and Tudjman at the time said: “In one year I will be president.” And Puhovski thought, “This man is crazy. He’s already in his 60s. He’s a lunatic.” Then he realized one year later when Tudjman became President, that he, Puhovski, was the lunatic. Things happened so quickly in those days. Did you have any expectation that things would change so quickly with HDZ or Tudjman’s political trajectory?

I’m not sure, but I’ll say this. A few months before the elections in 1990, we were discussing political parties every day in the café: who is going to win, who we are going to vote for, and so on. And 99% of my friends had been for the Coalition of People’s Accord, organized by Mika Tripalo and Savka Dabčević-Kučar and others who were engaged in the Croatian Spring (minus Tudjman). And I and a friend of mine said, “No, we are going to vote for Tudjman, for HDZ.” “But he’s a communist general!” they said. And I said, “Guys, you are very naive. Don’t you see that everybody is against Tudjman? The communist government is against Tujdman. It’s not against Savka-Tripalo, the Coalition. That means that Tudjman is the guy.” And that’s how I voted for Tudjman.

And many other people did the same.

The basis of Tudjman’s success was that he was saying, “We want an independent Croatia.” That was enough for the people, because everybody was thinking it, but didn’t dare say it. Besides that, frankly speaking, he had the support of parts of the secret services: the State Security Administration (UDBA). I knew that Josip Manolic, who was practically number two in HDZ, had been in UDBA. But it seems that it wasn’t only Manolic. Thanks to that fact, Tudjman had the logistics that were needed for such success. Of course he was elected freely, and he was saying what people wanted to hear. But I’m not sure that he could have been sure a year before the elections that he would be president without such support.

When you think back to your worldview at that time, in 1989-1990, is there anything that you’ve had second thoughts about? Have you changed your mind about anything?

Essentially not. Everything that happened, I was expecting to happen: even the corruption and the negative things. Look, we have the same problems as Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Slovenia — everywhere there is corruption, maybe a little bit more here or a little bit less there. It was something I was expecting, because a revolution creates a certain mentality. This revolution freed people: freedom of speech, freedom of enterprise. Everybody was thinking, “I don’t have money. I’ve been in bad shape economically because of communism. Now communism is gone, I can now live as they live in Germany, in Austria, in England. So, how should I become rich?”

The thing that I didn’t expect, frankly speaking, is the role played by the political elite in this corruption. I naively thought that people who are leading the country, especially a country which has freed itself from communism and later on from an aggression, that those people are going to have the national interest and the well-being of the people foremost in their mind. But like everybody else, they had their own private interests foremost in mind, and this is something that I didn’t expect.

So you expected corruption at a certain level, but you didn’t expect it to rise all the way to the top?

Corruption, unfortunately, is not an individual phenomenon. Rather, it’s a system. Corruption within the elite is not only in terms of wealth and money. Corruption also is when you become a minister and you give posts to your friends.

Anyway, like most people, I’m not satisfied with the way things are economically. We are in bad shape, but then today everybody is. On the other hand, we are also ready, and all the governments have been ready, to accept the pressures from the so-called international community, even in things we couldn’t oppose and did not accept happily. In a way, this is again something that is not new to me. Croatia is like an unwanted baby that wants everybody to like him, and he is ready to do anything to be loved. That’s how we behave, and it’s not a good thing for the country. But as I told you, we are ready to accept everything the “big ones” are asking, even if it goes against our interest.

If you would ask me whether I think that the last 20 years — even including the war — was worth it, I would say: “Yes.” Unfortunately, it was. There is something special about our case, about Yugoslavia. Everywhere I went — Cairo, Athens, Strasbourg — whoever I met in the diplomatic community often asked me, “But weren’t you better off within Yugoslavia, when you were all together?” And I said, “But I never heard you asking this of the Czech ambassador or the Slovak ambassador or the Russian ambassador. Why do you believe that it was better back then? If it had been better, what happened wouldn’t have happened.” Unfortunately, it happened in the most terrible way. If it could have happened like in Czechoslovakia, I would without any reluctance say that it was worth it. But even with what happened, I believe, all in all, that it was worth it.

Do you think that the war could’ve gone on a different path? Do you think that Croatia had any control over the way the war happened?

Not really, except that Tudjman artfully conducted the first months of war, trying to postpone things. He was negotiating with everybody and everyone, and he was gaining time. He was gaining both time and a certain perception within the international community. So to that extent, Croatia had some control. But not in terms of what was going on on the ground. At a certain point, almost a third of our country was occupied. But I would say that Tudjman did a very good job in those years.

One of the dominant interpretations is that Tudjman was, as you say, diplomatically very astute in those early years of the war, and that Croatia as a country had a very high reputation. But that shifted, especially those years when you were in Cairo and the doors were closed to you. That’s when Croatia’s reputation dropped considerably. I guess you felt that to certain extent when you were in Egypt.

Yes, of course.

Do you think that could’ve been avoided and Croatia could have somehow maintained its high reputation?

Since I wasn’t here at that time, I have no direct insight, unlike the first two years when I was with Tudjman in his office. At that time, I was with him every day at lunch and he liked me because I was one of the people who spoke openly. He always said, “I am going to decide, but I want you to tell me what you think.” He also liked me because I was not a politician: I was not a member of the party, I had no relations with other politicians and ministers. Every lunch, every day, I heard all of his discussions with people, and so I had direct insight.

Later on, the reason for this shift in perception of Croatia within the international community was due to the issue of Bosnia. Tudjman believed that Bosnia could not survive as it is. He said, “Bosnia is a micro-Yugoslavia. And Bosnia could exist as Bosnia only under Yugoslavia, before that under the Ottoman Empire, and for a short period of time under Austro-Hungarian Empire.” And so he believed that Bosnia couldn’t survive, and that Croats should secure their territories in Bosnia: for their own sake and for the strategic sake of Croatia. Not necessarily in terms of the dismantlement of Bosnia-Hercegovina, but in any case in terms of an “internal structural division.”

He conducted such a policy in Bosnia. He recognized Bosnia. Actually he made Bosnian-Croats vote for an independent Bosnia. But he always thought that Bosnia was going to be divided, whether in terms of giving some parts to Croatia and some parts to establish a Muslim country if it was dismantled, or to establish within the borders of Bosnia various republics or cantons or regions that have a certain independence in terms of cultural and local development policy. The international community — the United States and so on — wanted Bosnia to survive as it was. But that’s when things fell apart.

In Cairo, I was in contact with an American diplomat more or less regularly, and he told me, “Tudjman is a great man. There are no more statesmen today. He’s a real statesman. He has a sense of history.” Of course I knew that he was just trying to butter me up. This went on until the Dayton Agreement was signed. As soon as Dayton was signed, meaning they didn’t have any more need for Tudjman, the same guy began to tell me an ocean of ugly things about Tudjman. So, they accepted Tudjman when he was playing into their hands. When he started to play his own game, they rejected him.

As far as Bosnia is concerned, frankly speaking I still believe that Tudjman was right, that Bosnia should be divided in terms of political structure. I remember when I came to Zagreb from Cairo after the Dayton Agreement, I met Tudjman and I said to him, “It seems to me that the Dayton Agreement is not a good one.” “How do you mean?!” he asked. I said, “To me it seems like a division of Bosnia between Serbs and Muslims.” And he said, “You may be right, but it was the only way to stop the war, and we are not going to allow Bosnia to be divided between Serbs and Muslims.” That’s what he said. And as a matter of fact I believe that that’s what is going on, and it will be unfortunate for Bosnian-Croats.

Do you think that there was a meeting at Kardjordjevo? Not the one that you referred to before, but the later one where Tudjman and Milosevic sat down and…?

Yes, they sat down. There was this meeting, but nobody knows what they were talking about.

But probably they talked about…

I don’t know what they were talking about, but I know what Tudjman thought about Milosevic. First of all, he firmly believed that developments in former Yugoslavia depend essentially on Croats and Serbs, that the Croats and Serbs are the main players and that they should come together and find a compromise. In that way, he accepted Milosevic as a counterpart. But he didn’t believe him. I mean, everybody says that Tudjman believed Milosevic. It’s not true. But Tudjman said, “What can I do? The Serbian people elected him. He is a representative of the Serbian people, and I have to speak with him. I have to negotiate with him.” Part of this negotiation was probably only tactical, to gain time, and part was strategic in terms of finding a solution, trying to convince Milosevic that he cannot have all of Yugoslavia, including part of Croatia. But then what to do about Bosnia? I cannot say concretely what they were negotiating and discussing.

In Richard Holbrooke’s memoir of the Dayton Agreement, he talks very candidly about his discussions with Croatian top generals. He said to them, “Take as much territory as possible before the agreement, because we need pressure on Milosevic and because after the agreement it will be very difficult to rearrange the borders.” So from Holbrooke’s point of view the Croatian military was an extremely important force on the ground for diplomacy.

But still they stopped us before Banja Luka.

That’s true. Holbrooke said, “Absolutely not Banja Luka.”

So this is another indication that Bosnia was the core issue and that they wanted Bosnia to remain as it is. Or they wanted a balance between Serbia and Croatia. If you look at the trials at The Hague, there as well they are trying to establish a balance… Maybe they were afraid that the Russians were going to take over Serbia, which they didn’t want to happen. Serbia is geo-strategically important. Croatia can be bypassed, but Serbia cannot be. Once I told Tudjman, “To me, Milosevic is crazy. He has something that he could sell for great profit. But he doesn’t do it. I don’t know why he’s playing with the Russians.” Because of Serbia’s geo-strategic importance maybe, the international community didn’t want Serbia to be defeated.

Were you surprised at the indictments handed down at The Hague?

Which one? Against Gotovina?

That was the most controversial one.

Frankly speaking I was not surprised. I expected it. I firmly believe that it’s unjust, but that it’s explained by this framework of making a balance. I mean, how can you compare Vukovar and Knin? I am still sure that the Hague Tribunal is a political thing. Look at the judges that are looking into the verdict to decide at the final level. They say to the prosecution: “You cannot convict them on the grounds of excessive bombardment.” And they ask the prosecution to find something else as a basis for conviction. This is unheard of! I mean, Gotovina and Markac have been before the court for this “excessive bombardment,” the judge says they cannot be convicted on this charge, so they should be free!

There were also accusations concerning conduct in Bosnia during the Bosnian War.

I have no insight into those things except for what I’ve read in papers. But generally speaking I would say that the Hague judges don’t distinguish between the aggressor and the defender. Of course, there have been crimes on both sides, and they should be prosecuted and punished. But you cannot, for example, give Gotovina a sentence of 24 years because of Knin and Veselin Šljivančanin a sentence of 10 years for Vukovar and then let him out after seven! They wanted to make both parties guilty. Why? I believe it is easier to manipulate someone who is guilty than someone who is not.

As you said, there is enormous international pressure on Croatia to abide by the rulings of the Hague Tribunal. And of course, the most important pressure point was membership in the European Union. Do you think ultimately, even if the Hague Tribunal was a bad process, or an unjust process, or a political process, was it worth it to abide by the rulings of the Tribunal in order to get into the European Union?

I don’t think so. Especially because I don’t believe anymore in the European Union. As soon as the EU tries to become a political union, it will end in a bad way. You cannot make a state out of Europe. Look at Yugoslavia, look at the Soviet Union, look at Czechoslovakia. Such multilingual, multicultural, multi-religious, multinational constructs are always kept together by force. When I say by force, I don’t necessarily mean by tyranny, but by any kind of power. The Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia were kept together by the force of the Communist Party and communist dictatorship. The EU is kept together by the power of Germany and France. No one believes that the Czech Republic or Denmark for example has the same weight as Germany or France.

Did you believe in the European Union when you got to Strasbourg?

Not anymore.

At what point did you stop believing in the EU?

I stopped believing when I saw that the reforms were going in the direction of creating more and more centralized power. This centralized power means bureaucracy, which is always a terrible thing, and it means that the strongest rule. I also started to look into how the EU functions, who is paying how much into the budget, and it seemed to me that Germany was paying for everything. How long will they be willing to pay for everything and everybody? This is a shaky foundation. I understand that the EU needs a more centralized decision-making process during this crisis. But then, if it were not for this centralizing tendency, if it were not for the Euro, the EU would probably not have this crisis.

Anyhow, I’m not sure that the EU has a bright future, and I’m not sure that we “sold” ourselves successfully. Because what we gain from the EU will depend on our capacity to exploit EU funds, and our capacity to do so is very low. And yes, we will be sitting at the same table, but we won’t have a real voice. That is, we are going to have a vote, but what does this vote mean for a country like Croatia beside the vote of France, Germany, Britain, Italy, and others?

Isn’t it better to have a small vote rather than no vote at all?

Again, it depends on our capacity. If we can be independent outside of the European Union, it would be better not to have a vote at all. But to be independent in such a context you have to have resources, and a capable leadership, and an efficient governing structure — which we don’t have. So I don’t know whether it is better for Croatia to be in the EU or outside. Theoretically speaking, I would opt for being outside, but practically speaking I’m not sure anymore.

Earlier you said that the issue is injustice, and that you were a nationalist because the issue was an imbalance of power at a national level. Croatia is now independent, more or less, and it’s a sovereign country, so do you still consider yourself a nationalist if that injustice has been removed?

I never considered myself a nationalist in terms of the definition of nationalism, either then or now. If you ask me whether I still believe that national issues are still important, I would say yes. Look at human rights. If you want to be politically correct you have to recognize the rights of all different groups, in terms of sexual orientation, national minorities, any minority. But when you start speaking about Croat national rights or Serb national rights, they are going to look at you as a nationalist, even a chauvinist. A man is defined by many things. He is defined by his sexual orientation, by his gender, by the social group he belongs to, and by his nationality in terms of his language, and so on. So why should I recognize his right as a homosexual, his right as a football player, and not his right as a Croat? In those terms, I believe that this national dimension has weight, at least as much as these other dimensions. These issues are not important in the social and political context where there is no discrimination. But if there is discrimination based on language…

Do you think that there is discrimination against Croatians?

There is in Bosnia. I remember very well at the Council of Europe we were discussing the issue of the school system in Bosnia. There had been a lot of criticism of Bosnian Croats because of the so-called “two schools under one roof.” Meaning that the curricula of Bosniaks and Croats differ in mother language and history. And then I said, “Do you remember when the issue of the reintegration of Eastern Slavonia was discussed at the Council of Europe? Both the Council of Europe and the European Union insisted on different curricula for Croats and Serbs. So how can you deny Croats the right to have the Croatian language as a subject matter, and Croatian history as a subject matter, when you insisted on exactly that in Eastern Slavonia?” Nobody said anything. And they of course acted like I’d never said anything.

So those issues are still important, in Bosnia especially. They don’t have, if I’m not wrong, any TV stations for Croats. Of course, Croats in Bosnia are a minority now. And they, at the end, will be constitutionally recognized as a minority, and there will be no problem anymore with such things. But as long as they are one of the so-called three constituent people, they should be treated like one.

What do you think about the current political situation here in Croatia? Many people have told me that they think — if you put aside the issue of corruption, which of course is always a big issue — that the political situation is more or less normal. You have two parties that are strong, and they kind of go back and forth in terms of who’s in power. The extremes are relatively unpopular, and Croatia is now a normal European country.

More or less yes. Because of this corruption issue and, maybe more so because of the economic crisis, not only are parties not popular but politicians in general are not popular. The ordinary people on the street would say to you “they are all the same,” and they would be right. I might have more or less sympathy for this or that party because of ideology, but they are all the same. And I resent that all of them — or both of them because it’s really just HDZ and SDP with their coalition partners — don’t take care of the national interest as they should. Not just in terms of relations with neighbors. They sold out everything. Croatia doesn’t own anything anymore in Croatia.

So the privatization of…

It’s not the same thing to privatize a factory and to privatize practically the whole banking system — 94%, I believe. Or the communications system. But this happened more or less everywhere. And, again, it’s something I did expect, even back in the 1990s. Because Eastern Europe, Yugoslavia included, was for practically half a century under the Communists, and everything has been destroyed in terms of a normal economy. So, when I was discussing such things with my friends, I would say, “Eastern Europe is going to be for the rest of Europe what Latin America is for the United States.” Maybe it won’t be one hundred percent similar, but close enough.

How we are going to reach the same level with Western Europe, in terms of economy, production and everything? It’s impossible if we are going to become a new kind of colony. Unfortunately, it was probably inevitable. But even as a colony you can conduct yourself in better ways and worse ways.

Because you spent so much time in Egypt, I have to ask whether you were completely surprised by the Arab Spring in Egypt, and how would you compare what happened there with this part of the world?

Again, I wasn’t surprised. Actually, if I was surprised, I was surprised that it happened only now and not before. But then it didn’t happen only in Egypt. It is happening all over the Arab World. And the notion of the so-called “Arab Spring” is completely misleading. It’s an Islamist spring, a fundamentalist spring. Why? In the mind of the average Arab citizen, whether it’s in Egypt or Libya, the alternative to the dictatorship they have been under is not democracy. They have no idea of democracy, unlike Europe. Even here in Yugoslavia we had no experience of democracy, but we had this idea of democracy before our eyes. They don’t have it. Of course, a very thin layer of society, intellectuals and so on, have this idea, but average people don’t have it. So what’s the alternative to the dictatorship of Mubarak, or Qaddafi, or Assad? It’s real and authentic” Islam.

Even politically it was structured like this. The only real political opposition was the Muslim Brotherhood and such groupings. In an article I wrote a year ago, I predicted what was going to happen in Egypt. In the first stage, the army is going to take power and guarantee the alliance with Washington. If there would be free elections in Egypt, then the Muslim Brotherhood is going to win — which happened. And it’s happening more or less everywhere, and this is, again, normal. But it might have enormous consequences globally, because it will probably change the balance of power in the Middle East, which is one of the most strategically important regions in the world.

These quantitative questions are the last ones. The first one is, on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being least -satisfied and 10 being most satisfied, when you think about all that has changed here in Croatia since 1989 until today, what would be your evaluation?

5. Because all in all, as I said, I think it has been worth it. It’s better that those changes happened, rather than not. On the other hand, I don’t think we achieved — especially in terms of economy — everything we could have, even in terms of our position within the international community or within international politics. There are things I’m dissatisfied with, and things I’m satisfied with.

Okay. Same scale from 1 to 10, same period of time, but your own personal life.

That’s tougher. I never thought about it, that’s why it’s tough. Because you live your life and you don’t think about. Well, taking into account that I spent five years in Egypt, four years in Greece, and it was great, and taking into account that I was witnessing, from the inside, a historical process, I would say 8.

Finally, looking into the near future, when you think about what will happen here in Croatia in the next couple of years here, how would you rate the prospects on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being the most pessimistic, and 10 being the most optimistic?

Probably no more than 5.

4 Modest Wishes for New Treasury Secretary Jack Lew

This post originally appeared on AlterNet.

I happily joined the more than 200,000 people who’ve signed the “Paul Krugman for Treasury Secretary” progressive fantasy petition. It was a clever way to tell the administration to reject this nutty austerity craze.

Now, however, President Obama has made the far less exciting choice of his Chief of Staff, Jack Lew, for the job. And especially given the experience with Timothy Geithner over the past four years, it’s time to develop some more modest wishes for the new top dog at 1500 Pennsylvania Avenue.

1. If you were complicit in the 2008 crash, please fess up and make a convincing case that you’ve seen the light.

Lew was the chief operating officer of Citigroup’s Alternative Investments unit from 2006 through the crash (he left in 2009) and he should reveal more about what he did there. This should also apply to other top Treasury leaders. Since Lew, a former head of the Office on Management and Budget, is considered more of a budget guy than a financial markets guy, there are rumors that President Obama is planning to install a Wall Street executive as his deputy.

When Geithner was up for confirmation in 2009, Senator Carl Levin asked him to respond in writing to 38 hard-hitting questions. Many of his answers were the evasive inanities you’d expect from someone trying to squeak through a polarized Senate (e.g., “I believe that we need more transparency to promote transparency”). But the only questions he flat out refused to answer had to do with his role in the Clinton Treasury’s push to deregulate over-the-counter derivatives. The law that resulted, the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000, gave rise to the explosion of credit default swaps that were a key factor in the crash.

We should’ve known then that Geithner was insufficiently reformed. In fact recently he was back at it, exempting foreign exchange derivatives from the new Dodd-Frank regulations over the objections of other regulators and consumer protection groups.

2. If you oppose a popular progressive reform, have the decency to explain your position.

The current deficit fixation could be turned into an opportunity for bold, creative thinking on how to use fiscal policy to shift our economy in ways that would make it more equitable, green, and secure. At the Institute for Policy Studies, we’ve compiled a long list of fair and environmentally friendly proposals that could generate hundreds of billions in additional money per year.

One of our favorites is the idea of a small financial transaction tax that could raise massive revenue while discouraging short-term financial speculation. Over the past four years, much of Obama’s core base – including major labor unions and environmental, anti-poverty, public health, and consumer organizations – have been pushing for such taxes. The International Monetary Fund has documented that they are administratively feasible and could be a significant revenue raiser. The European Commission has also produced reams of analysis on the potential benefits, prompting a dozen European governments to commit to implementing such taxes this year.

Here’s Geithner’s most substantive public statement on the issue: “I have not seen the version of that that I think works.” The Obama Treasury has never published a research paper on the topic. Never offered a thoughtful response to the IMF and European Commission analyses. Never engaged in a meaningful debate. Never even responded to the many civil society letters calling for such taxes.

So Mr. Lew, if you’re confirmed, please at least be open to a respectful dialogue over this and other bold progressive tax and financial reform ideas.

3. Please don’t help rich people and corporations hide their money in overseas tax havens.

In Geithner’s response to Senator Levin’s questions, he pledged to “treat the offshore tax abuse issue as a high priority.” Behind closed doors, he has reportedly advocated a shift to a “territorial” tax system that would exempt U.S. corporations’ foreign earnings, giving them even more incentive to disguise U.S. profits as income earned in tax havens. In his most recent book, Bob Woodward wrote that in negotiations with House Speaker John Boehner, Geithner said “The goal is territorial.” Boehner’s staff confirmed the accuracy of the quote.

As a Senator, Obama co-sponsored legislation with Levin to crack down on tax haven abuse – a practice that drains an estimated $100 billion per year from Uncle Sam’s coffers. Fixing the problem would also help level the playing field for small businesses that provide more than half of U.S. jobs – and don’t have accounts in the Caymans. Mr. Lew, you could help make this a legacy issue for Obama.

4. Don’t be a jerk to other governments

Lew doesn’t seem to have much international experience, but he wouldn’t have to do much to improve on the current Secretary’s record. Geithner has sparked animosity by attempting to impose his opposition to some fair taxation ideas on other countries. After receiving a lecture against financial transaction taxes from her U.S. counterpart, the Austrian finance minister commented dryly, “I found it peculiar that even though the Americans have significantly worse fundamental data than the euro zone that they tell us what we should do and when we make a suggestion … that they say no straight away.”

Geithner has also been the main advocate of using U.S. trade agreements to limit other governments’ ability to control volatile financial flows. When more than 250 economists urged the administration to lift current trade restrictions on the use of capital controls, Geithner was dismissive. As a result, U.S. trade officials are pressuring the 10 countries negotiating a Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal to give up this legitimate policy tool. By contrast, the International Monetary Fund’s new “institutional view” in support of capital controls makes them look like a beacon of enlightenment. Mr. Lew could make sure governments around the world have all the tools they need to prevent financial crisis.

This humble wish list doesn’t cover every important issue on the next Treasury Secretary’s plate. I haven’t even gotten into the core question of whether he or she will put the interests of ordinary homeowners and Main Street businesses above those of Wall Street. But it has allowed me to get some of my gripes about Geithner off my chest. And I can only hope that the incoming Secretary may learn a few lessons from his predecessor’s shortcomings.

Sarah Anderson directs the Global Economy project at the Institute for Policy Studies. IPS-dc.org

Is Hagel’s Appointment of Any Actual Use to the Anti-War Left?

Cross-posted from the Nation.

Chuck Hagel isn’t anyone I’d pick to be in a position of power. He’s a conservative Republican, a military guy who volunteered to fight in Vietnam. According to Forbes magazine, during Hagel’s tenure in the Senate “he favored school prayer, missile defense and drilling in Alaska, while opposing abortion, same-sex marriage and limits on assault guns. He voted in favor of every defense authorization bill that came up during the dozen years he served, while opposing extension of Medicare benefits to prescription drugs. Such stances earned him a lifetime rating of 84 percent from the American Conservative Union.” Forbes, of course, thinks this is all great.

Me, not so much. But okay, we’re talking about Secretary of Defense, not someone responsible for domestic and social policy. Well, first of all, if I had to choose a secretary of defense, I’d start with someone who recognized that their first requirement would be to transform the US war machine from an aggressive into a defensive institution… something it’s never been before. If we assume it had to be a member of Congress, I’d start with Barbara Lee or Dennis Kucinich, not Chuck Hagel.

But that isn’t the choice we face. The alternatives to Hagel won’t be the heroic Oakland congresswoman or the committed defender of the Department of Peace, they’ll be military bureaucrats who have never said a word outside their respective boss’s talking point boxes.

At the end of the day, this isn’t about Hagel vs. anybody. This is about what President Obama is signaling by his nomination of Hagel as Secretary of Defense—and about the political forces arrayed against him.

Hagel’s nomination engendered bitter, angry opposition from the moment it was floated as a trial balloon two weeks ago. And the fact that Obama went ahead with the nomination, despite the opposition and the threats that the Senate would never confirm Hagel, is a good indication that on at least some critical foreign policy issues, Obama is not prepared to allow either the pro-Israeli lobbies or the hard-core neoconservatives, in and outside of Washington, to determine whom he could and could not choose as secretary of defense.

The opposition was from both of those separate, though overlapping, Washington cohorts. Pro-Israel forces are outraged that President Obama might appoint someone who once had the temerity to warn that the lobby “intimidates a lot of people” in Washington. Of course, it would have been better if Hagel had properly identified the “pro-Israel lobby” rather than the sloppy “Jewish lobby” description, which ignores the huge influence of the right-wing Christian Zionism; Hagel himself apologized for the careless language. (If Israel didn’t identify itself as a “Jewish state,” with all of the resulting apartheid policies that go along with it, it might be easier to distinguish.) But whatever the language, it’s a significant exposé of the perceived power of the lobby, enough that AIPAC, the lobby’s most authoritative component, pulled back from criticizing Hagel as soon as the nomination was final, leaving the most extremist components, such as the Emergency Committee for Israel, to continue the attacks.

We should be clear, of course—Hagel is no supporter of a just solution to the Palestine-Israel conflict based on human rights, international law and equality for all. He told Ha’aretz that any solution “should not include any compromise regarding Israel’s Jewish identity.” That’s code for accepting Israel’s two-tiered legal system, which privileges Jewish over non-Jewish citizens and denies Palestinian citizens crucial rights available only to Jews. Again, we aren’t looking at a choice between supporters of international law and an uncritical supporter of Israel—but having a secretary of defense who acknowledges the danger of putting Israeli interests above those of the United States and willing to challenge the pro-Israel lobbies is a pretty interesting development. (And if Obama saw the nomination also as an opportunity to pay back Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu for his all-but-official endorsement of Mitt Romney during last year’s election, that’s likely just a bonus.)

Neocon anger at Chuck Hagel isn’t new. Some of it parallels the frustration of the Israel lobbies—Hagel’s refusal to tow the AIPAC line, particularly refusing to call for war with Iran. He warned that “military strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities would signal a severe diplomatic failure and would have their own serious negative consequences for the United States and for our allies.” Hagel has instead called for direct, bilateral negotiations with Iran, and in 2010 he warned of the consequences of attacking Iran, saying “Once you start you’d better be prepared to find 100,000 troops because it may take that.” Notorious Israel occupation-backer and Harvard law school professor Alan Dershowitz announced he would testify against Hagel on Iran, calling his nomination “a bad choice for the country.”

Hagel as secretary of defense doesn’t guarantee there will be no war with Iran—but Obama’s nomination of him, and willingness to defend him against the soft-on-Iran accusations, signals that the White House isn’t looking to move towards a military attack any time soon.

The neocons also have it in for Hagel because he was one of the first Republicans to criticize their favorite project, the war in Iraq. Of course he voted to fund it every chance he got—he’s no peace activist. But Hagel broke politically with George W. Bush and his own party, calling Bush’s foreign policy “reckless,” and called Bush’s 2007 “surge in Iraq “a ping-pong game with American lives.” He didn’t, however, express any concern for Iraqi lives, nor did he ultimately vote against the war—either in 2002 at the moment of the crucial authorize-the-war vote, or later when funding bills came before him. As David Corn wrote in 2002, Hagel “cautioned humility: ‘I share the hope of a better world without Saddam Hussein, but we do not really know if our intervention in Iraq will lead to democracy in either Iraq or elsewhere in the Arab world.’ Bottom line: Hagel feared the resolution would lead to a war that would go badly but didn’t have the guts to say no to the leader of his party.”

Would he challenge Obama—who’s not from his party—if faced with a potentially disastrous new war—in Syria, say—or escalation of the drone war in Yemen, or something else? Probably not—but there’s that slight bit of hope that it could be somehow different than appointing a Pentagon insider bureaucrat.

And then there’s the Pentagon budget. Hagel has called it “bloated,” pretty amazing for a future secretary of defense. Obama may have felt that a decorated Republican military veteran would be the best choice to convince a Republican-controlled congress that some cuts will have to be made. There’s no way Hagel will argue the realities and consequences of the whole military budget—the impact on jobs and healthcare of the $111 billion we spent this year on a failed war in Afghanistan, the million dollars per year it costs to keep just one young soldier in Afghanistan and the fact that we could bring home that one soldier and have enough money to hire her and 19 more young former soldiers at good $50,000/year middle-class union jobs. He won’t argue that.

But still—a Pentagon chief who actually believes his agency’s budget should be cut—that’s new. And ultimately, that’s probably the most important reason for the attack dogs slavering for Hagel’s skin. The Washington Post editorialized that Hagel’s willingness to cut military spending was one of the key reasons to oppose his nomination. Behind the Post, of course, are the military producers and contractors whose CEOs fortunes stand (rarely fall) on the Pentagon’s budget.

Unfortunately, military cuts of the size we really need to rebuild the economy and make our country and the world truly safer—ending the Afghanistan war quickly and entirely, stopping the drone wars, moving towards complete nuclear disarmament, closing the 1,000 or so overseas military bases—will not be on the agenda of Chuck Hagel or anyone else at the Pentagon. But still. Better someone in charge who agrees that Pentagon spending is not sacrosanct than someone who views their role to keep every last billion dollars in military hands.

The Post editorial board went on to condemn Hagel’s politics overall. Most cross-party appointments, they said, “offer a veneer of bipartisanship to the national security team.” But Hagel would be different—he would not “move it toward the center, which is the usual role of such opposite-party nominees. On the contrary: Mr. Hagel’s stated positions on critical issues, ranging from defense spending to Iran, fall well to the left of those pursued by Mr. Obama during his first term—and place him near the fringe of the Senate.”

Whatever else he is, Chuck Hagel is no leftist. Standing to the left of President Obama’s center-right military policy is not a very high bar. But again—standing up to AIPAC, the defense industry (and members of Congress accountable to them) and the still-powerful neocons makes the Hagel appointment a good move for Obama. And it gives the rest of us a basis to push much farther to end the wars, to close the bases, to cut the Pentagon funding, to tax the military profiteers.

Will Chuck Hagel’s Appointment Actually Help the Anti-War Left?

Phyllis Bennis wrote this blog post for The Nation.

Chuck Hagel isn’t anyone I’d pick to be in a position of power. He’s a conservative Republican, a military guy who volunteered to fight in Vietnam. According to Forbes magazine, during Hagel’s tenure in the Senate “he favored school prayer, missile defense and drilling in Alaska, while opposing abortion, same-sex marriage and limits on assault guns. He voted in favor of every defense authorization bill that came up during the dozen years he served, while opposing extension of Medicare benefits to prescription drugs. Such stances earned him a lifetime rating of 84 percent from the American Conservative Union.” Forbes, of course, thinks this is all great.

Me, not so much. But okay, we’re talking about Secretary of Defense, not someone responsible for domestic and social policy. Well, first of all, if I had to choose a secretary of defense, I’d start with someone who recognized that their first requirement would be to transform the US war machine from an aggressive into a defensive institution…something it’s never been before. If we assume it had to be a member of Congress, I’d start with Barbara Lee or Dennis Kucinich, not Chuck Hagel.

But that isn’t the choice we face. The alternatives to Hagel won’t be the heroic Oakland congresswoman or the committed defender of the Department of Peace, they’ll be military bureaucrats who have never said a word outside their respective boss’s talking point boxes.

At the end of the day, this isn’t about Hagel vs. anybody. This is about what President Obama is signaling by his nomination of Hagel as Secretary of Defense—and about the political forces arrayed against him.

Read the rest on The Nation’s website.

Whither Serbia’s Future When Its Citizens Elect “The Undertaker” President?

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

The Serbian elections in May 2012 shocked many liberals in the country. They assumed that the electoral coalition that coalesced around former President Boris Tadic – the Democratic Party, the Social Democratic Party, the Christian Democratic Party, the Green Party, the League of Social Democrats of Vojvodina – would handily win the election. Instead, Tomislav Nikolic, a former ultra-nationalist known widely as “The Undertaker,” squeaked out a victory in the presidential poll while his party coalition beat out the Democratic Party in the parliamentary elections as well.

Many of the people I interviewed in Serbia in October expressed dismay at the return to power of many of the same people who had been prominent in the Milosevic era. “The middle management people, who helped the Milosevic apparatus do all those terrible things, are now back,” a prominent civil society activist told me. “The current prime minister used to be the president of the youth wing of the Serbian Socialist Party and then the spokesperson of the party. First Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic was the minister of media and propaganda for Milosevic during the late 1990s.”

Even more dismaying perhaps to liberals has been the enduring popularity of the new government. The Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), a more moderate offshoot of the far-right-wing Radical Party, can now count on the support of around 40 percent of the population, compared to only 16 percent for the Democratic Party (DS). The SNS has increased its support by 11 percent since the beginning of 2012, while the DS has lost 7 percent.

One reason for this polarization, the activist continues, has been the deep vein of disenchantment with the Democratic Party that can be found among Serbian liberals as well. “During the DS period, the government didn’t resolve the political conflict with Kosovo, and they could have done this: they controlled parliament, government, all the significant positions,” he says. “They never solved the killings of the journalists of the 1990s, like Slavko Ćuruvija. We know it was done by the secret police on the order of Milosevic or his wife. But these people are still somewhere in the structure. This is how the assassination of Djindjic happened, because these people were still in the structure. Not deconstructing the Milosevic regime — that was the biggest problem.”

The Progressive Party continues to maintain a pro-EU accession policy, to negotiate with Kosovo authorities over freedom of movement and other bilateral issues, and to placate Serbs in Kosovo with a “platform” that preserves their autonomy. It’s quite a balancing act. Somehow Serbia is trying to move closer to Europe without quite giving up its claims over Kosovo.

Meanwhile, Serbian civil society continues to push forward on its efforts to make government transparent, support grassroots initiatives, and promote people-to-people exchanges between Serbia and its neighbors. Working at a humanitarian organization with offices around the world including Belgrade, the activist works hard on all the incremental changes that take place across the election cycles. On the condition of anonymity, he spoke with me about the disturbing political continuities with the Milosevic era, the people known as the “losers of the transition,” and the achievements of civil society organizations in Serbia.

The Interview

When you look back to 1989 and everything that has changed or not changed until today, how would you evaluate that on a scale of one to 10, with 1 being most dissatisfied and 10 being most satisfied?

On a scale from 1 to 10, I’d say 2-3. It’s easy for citizens to forget what they had and to forget what has changed for the better. I don’t remember much from 1989. But I remember from the late 1990s. Since then we have achieved some kind of stability: of the dinar, of the system. These structures are devastated, obviously, but we’re building them up. We have more trust in banks, for instance, and we now have savings. In those terms, things are better.

Unfortunately, during the mandate of the Democratic Party (DS) in 2006-7, former President Boris Tadic made an agreement with the Serbian Socialist Party to reconcile with the Milosevic regime and to forget everything that happened during the 1990s. That was one of the biggest mistakes ever made. The middle management people, who helped the Milosevic apparatus do all those terrible things, are now back. The current prime minister used to be the president of the youth wing of the Serbian Socialist Party and then the spokesperson of the party. First Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic was the minister of media and propaganda for Milosevic during the late 1990s. The historical momentum is different now and they can’t do the same things, but the kind of hegemonic policy is still in place: toward Kosovo, toward Republika Srpska. That’s why I give such a low mark of 2-3.

The biggest problem is that the Serbian people never actually faced the past, never faced the role their representatives played during the wars of the 1990s. Even in 2012, if you go out on the streets and ask people about Srebrenica, a significant number of people will denounce it, but a huge number of people will say, “Even if it happened, the number of dead wasn’t that high and anyway, what does that matter in 2012?”

But it is important — because of the reconciliation process. My friends in Bosnia tell me that it’s not any more a question of if but when: when some serious incident will happen again. I doubt it will be a civil war like the 1990s. But it’s a very important indication that we’re still trapped in the 1990s.

The Serbian economy is in really bad shape. Although the government says that it’s because of the global economic crisis that resulted from the collapse of the U.S. economy, the professional economists and analysts are saying that we would be in the same position even if there were no economic problems at the world level or the European level. We are not dealing with these problems. We are only dealing with the “hot topics,” and we are creating those hot topics, like Kosovo, because the politicians are using these topics to distract attention from the main problem. Every time the government has wanted to do something controversial, like selling the oil company NIS, they raised tensions in Kosovo to shift focus away from this other, controversial issue.

Right now we’re able to watch these famous investigative reports called Insider on B92 that are now focusing on the political and corrupt mechanisms behind the Kosovo issue, especially concerning trade and the grey economy. That’s actually the bottom line of the government policy: a few people are enriched by these policies but the poor and uneducated are being fooled. That’s why we say that we don’t have an accountable government.

The Open Parliament initiative attempts to open up parliament and make parliamentarians more accountable to their constituents. But the real nest of evil is in the executive branch. Even some organizations, like the National Democratic Institute, tried unsuccessfully for years to open up the executive branch. This means that we are still preserving the same model of governance, without the participation of citizens or professional associations. The majority of processes are done just between two or three people. And there’s a big influence from tycoons, the couple of people who own everything in Serbia, from land to the processing of food to the chains of stores selling that food. Monopolies control the most important goods and services here in Serbia.

You will quite often hear that we never really had an October 6, 2000, the day after the Milosevic government fell. Why? We had a great opportunity. But the level of skepticism among citizens was pretty high. The new democratic wave ended with the assassination of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, and with that assassination was killed the opportunity for Serbia to move forward.

That saying was confirmed in 2012 with the election of Tomislav Nikolic and the victory of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) and Serbian Socialist Party (SPS). We could have followed the Croatian example. The Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), Franjo Tudjman’s party, lustrated itself and changed its policy views. At a national level, all the political parties agreed to several key issues around which they built a consensus. And HDZ made more progress toward EU accession than the SDS did. I would have been really supportive if this similar process happened here, if the SNS and SPS transformed themselves into strong, conservative European parties. But they didn’t do that. The same figures lead those political parties as they did in the 1990s. That’s why I don’t actually think they will be able to produce any change.

The only difference is that now the EU is much more involved in Serbia’s business. If something good happens here, it will be because of international pressure or EU influence. We’re waiting right now for the EU progress report on Serbia’s progress toward EU accession. It will be a bad one. It will be one of the first signals that we are not on a good path. We always make one step forward and two steps back here in Serbia.

The second quantitative question is: same time period and same spectrum, how would you evaluate the changes in your own personal life?

2 or 3.

In 1989, I was only eight years old. I graduated high school in 1999, when at least one-third of the classes couldn’t actually attend because of the situation. Only a handful of my generation actually ended up in good positions in the professions we wanted. The majority of my friends from high school or the law faculty ended up without any prospects. Some tried to go overseas or to Europe, mainly to work, not to study. Just yesterday, I heard new data on the news that the biggest Serbian export is people: our brain drain.

During the 1990s, we were in a really bad economic situation. My parents are middle-class people. My mom is a doctor, my father a lawyer. We had a decent life during the 1980s, and I’m not just speaking about financial circumstances. My father was the CEO of a huge company that had a chain of stores, like Wal-Mart, but it didn’t deal with its employees like Wal-Mart or have Wal-Mart values. But it was really big, in the third place of successful companies in Yugoslavia. It was called Angropromet, and it was centered in Kikinda, in the north of Serbia, in Vojvodina, where I come from.

But during the 2000s, my father ended up without a job because he was labeled in his small community as politically active. He’s now too old to be employed by these new companies. And his financial potential to start some office of his own was ruined in the 1990s. On the other hand, my mom reached retirement level, if we can call that success.

My father often says that he’s a “loser of the transition.” That’s a phrase we often use here to describe all the people who couldn’t find a place in the new circumstances. They didn’t want to work in businesses outside the borders of the law. They didn’t want to use the new opportunities just to make some profits. They didn’t want to join some political parties just to get jobs. He didn’t want to suddenly become an Orthodox believer and to denounce all of his beliefs just to be popular, because it’s popular to be a believer these days. All of the people who stood by their beliefs, who found it so hard to adapt, they were eaten by the dragon in the end.

Finally, looking into the near future, how would you evaluate the prospects for Serbia, on a scale of one to 10, with one being most pessimistic and 10 being most optimistic?

That’s really hard. If I give a high score, then I could be seen as giving good scores to the government, which I don’t want to do.

For the first time, I didn’t vote in these last elections, at any level. I couldn’t find a person or a group that I could actually stand behind. Actually, at some level, I wanted to see the SPS in government. To see what they can offer? No, I know what they can offer. I wanted actually to see the process of catharsis in the Democratic Party (DS). I thought, and I still think, that if the DS had won another election, it would have become even worse than the Socialists. Because the DS actually showed that it could do even worse things than the SPS did.

For instance, during the DS period, the government didn’t resolve the political conflict with Kosovo, and they could have done this: they controlled parliament, government, all the significant positions. They never solved the killings of the journalists of the 1990s, like Slavko Ćuruvija. We know it was done by the secret police on the order of Milosevic or his wife. But these people are still somewhere in the structure. This is how the assassination of Djindjic happened, because these people were still in the structure. Not deconstructing the Milosevic regime — that was the biggest problem.

I don’t think the Serbian Progressives will do any significant good for the people — on the contrary. We are now witnessing the internal elections inside the Democratic Party. We can expect some new people with some new ideas who are going to lead Serbia after these guys go away. Maybe we won’t even have the Serbian Progressive Party in power for the full four years.

So, if I need to give a number, I would give a 5, because some processes are hard to stop. They can be slowed down to the point where you can’t actually see the difference between slow and stop, and we’ve witnessed that happen. But some things can never be undone, like extraditing war criminals like Mladic and Karadzic to the ICTY. European Union accession cannot just be canceled. We cannot just turn toward the Russians, which this government is doing its best to do. From this perspective, we’ll see some micro-progress in different spheres of life and society, which is why I give it a 5, which is much better than 2 or 3.

You said you graduated from high school in 1999 and that it was a difficult period. You went directly to university. That was a great time to be at the university, because things were just beginning to change, yes?

I was at the law faculty, and I was really involved in politics in those days. There were some professors who were in line with democratic politics, and it was a good opportunity to hear those clever guys and learn something from them. But on the academic side everything was still in chaos. Our academia could not be transformed into a system to educate professionals in needed professions. We failed to transform our educational system according to the Bologna standards. We made some significant progress during the Dzindzic period. But after that, we had an awful minister of education under Kostunica who even wanted to ban computers in schools and enforce creationism as a simultaneous doctrine preached alongside Darwinism. These were tectonic differences. All the Bologna processes were wasted.

Now you have some kind of a mixture. You still finish the faculty without learning the necessary skills by graduation. And you probably won’t find a job. On the other hand, the students who are above average go away for their masters and Ph.D. studies abroad. They are getting scholarships.

What motivated you to become involved on these issues?

I was always socially active, first as an activist and then as a functionary of a political party, the League of Social Democrats of Vojvodina (LSV), the strongest regional party in Vojvodina. It’s a leftist party, with social democratic values and regional patriotism. We had a strong opponent in Milosevic. LSV was the strongest anti-war party and the strongest voice against Milosevic. It never had any secret deals with Milosevic.

Then, at a certain point in 2005 or 2006, I became disappointed with some internal party processes. I realized that a political party — all political parties but that one especially — exists just for the political benefits of a few people at the top. This is also confirmed by the fact that the leaders of all the parties have been pretty much the same for the last 22 years. The Democratic Party is different because it has had several splits in the party.

I was always in pretty good contact with civil society activists. And I was active in some initiatives led by civil society. I started to work with human rights organizations, like the Youth Initiative on Human Rights (YIHR). After a couple years there, I worked with the OSCE (Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe) in Sandzak. My job was to do monitoring activities and work with civil society. So, I was pretty much doing the same job as here, providing support and developing new projects together with civil society.

When you worked with YIHR, you were doing exchanges with Kosovo?


You were working with a regional party in Vojvodina, with OSCE in Sandzak, and on youth exchanges in Kosovo. So you’ve been working in different regions. What was it like when you arrived in Sandzak after spending that time in Vojvodina?

It was a shock for me in those regions. In Sandzak, what I realized is that the biggest problem is that they’re forgotten. No one cares about those people. At that time in Sandzak, there was a division between the leaders of two different political parties, Rasim Ljajic and Sulejman Ugljanin. They supported different religious communities. The divisions went so deep that there were even store chains divided by political affiliation to Rasim or Sulejman. Over time, things changed, and they are now in the same government for the second time. But the central government could cultivate these divisions. If needed, it could pick a side to make whatever impact it wanted.

At the personal level, people there were very hospitable. I was well accepted there. Maybe I was lucky. But I jumped into a circle of open-minded people in Novi Pazar, a place that was witnessing all the same problems and conservatism faced by other parts of Serbia where the Orthodox Church is increasing its influence and people are dealing with religion in a populist way. Except that it’s the Islamic community in Sandzak.

Serbia introduced fiscal receipts and value added tax (VAT) for the whole country. In Novi Pazar, however, most stores didn’t have to submit their VAT receipts. Maybe something changed last year, but that was the case a couple years ago, and it was unique for Sandzak. Our IRS here in Serbia justified it as some kind of positive discrimination toward endangered people. But the fact is, we don’t treat the people there as equal citizens. The state is just not present in Sandzak. That’s what allowed the Bosnian War or the Kosovo War to happen: we wanted everything for ourselves and we didn’t want to accept other ethnic groups into the policy-making process.

Given that experience, what are your expectations of a multiethnic Serbia surviving?

It will survive because those people will survive. But if we are going to have multiethnic communities, Serbia will have to find a way to preserve those multiethnic communities. Unfortunately these days, the Serbian government is appointing only Serbs to the key positions, like the ministries of force — justice, police — especially in south Serbia. Until we see a representative of the Albanian community in some key position in government, we will not actually be a true multicultural society.

On the other hand, Rasim Ljajic has been in some important positions in past years. He was, and maybe still is, the head of the unit for cooperation with ICTY. He was at one point the head of the unit responsible for Serb-Albanian processes in south Serbia. He was in charge of the ministry of labor. He has all these difficult portfolios. But still, his people don’t see him as a unique representative of their interests. Of course, he will win elections and will have good polling numbers because he now creates jobs for a lot of people. A majority of the employees in Serbia are working for public facilities. Only an estimated 300,000 people are actually employed in some other branches of industries of the economy.

So, we really do have lessons that we can learn from. The bad part is that we never started a serious process of facing the past. We never had an opportunity to start the reconciliation processes. One of those initiatives is the Regional Conference on Peace and Conciliation (REKOM), started by the Fund for Humanitarian Law and YIHR and their peers in Bosnia and Croatia and Kosovo. This is the only organized effort to establish processes to build a sustainable peace in this area.

I doubt we’ll have any escalation of violence in Sandzak and in south Serbia. But still, the Serbian state can choose to use those tensions if it wants to.

Your institute was founded in…?

2006. The aim is to build the capacities of local groups to advocate for their own interests, to organize themselves to increase their influence, and to participate in making decisions that are now made completely without their input. We have a methodology of making change at various levels: at the level of law, process, and system. We are still at the level of small changes: in procedures, bylaws, laws. We are still far from making changes at the level of the system. But by equipping CSOs in Serbia, they will be better able to make those changes sooner rather than later.

Your partners are civil society organizations.


Do you work with both NGOs and informal organizations?

We cannot work with informal groups because 95 percent of our activities implement USAID’s civil society program. We are attached to the bureaucratic process of awarding, monitoring, and reporting. By those rules, we need to work with entities that are recognized by the law so that they can make a contract, open an account, receive money, report back.

We recognize the value of supporting informal groups, which are sometimes more influential and have a bigger impact than some well-established NGOs with multi-million-dollar budgets. One of our partners — we have five partner organizations – is the Balkan Community Initiative Fund. BCIF has a re-granting component in their program, and through that we are able to support smaller initiatives.

Can you give me an example of a civil society organization that you’ve worked with to build up its capacity so that it has more impact?

That’s the goal. Unfortunately, here in Serbia, everything is tied to politics. You can work with a group of people, build up their capacities, invest the time and resource in some idea, and then you witness the shift of political parties in power and everything is cancelled. But one civic initiative, which is also one of our partners, has for years worked on building up the framework for how civil society organizations operate in Serbia. We have created the laws and bylaws that provide a clear foundation for the work of civil society organizations.

We have also worked with people who are now becoming leaders, even in governmental bodies. The Office for Cooperation with Civil Society, for instance, is led by a really progressive person. She has formed a team of really good young professionals who are adding a different color to the spectrum of colors in government.

There’s also the Open Parliament initiative. For the first time in our multi-party system, our parliamentary sessions are open to the citizens. From 1997 to today, 15 years of transcripts, 150,000 speeches, are now available to the public and to researchers. After we started to disclose that information on our website, parliament also started to put transcripts on their website, although their transcripts are not in a form that allows other organizations to download and analyze them. But these are steps. In a period of two years, we hope we’ll have a completely different situation regarding the transparency of parliamentary procedures.

One key issue is sustainability. It’s great that USAID is providing assistance to Serbian civil society. But American money will not be available forever. So what are the steps being taken to ensure financial sustainability?

Especially through a new USAID initiative, we’re trying to help organizations find alternative sources of funds. One step is to develop the culture of philanthropy in Serbia, which was really endangered by the embezzlement by some organizations of money raised for humanitarian actions. We just supported a small community foundation in eastern Serbia. We’ll see how that model functions and whether it can fundraise from the local community: from businesses, from individuals, through the Internet. We just supported a small research project on venture philanthropy. We also have a business forum of the leading international companies. Unfortunately, there aren’t many examples of Serbian companies that are socially responsible and investing in these funds and initiatives.

We are trying to find the best models to implement in Serbia in order to support the small grassroots initiatives. The bigger players will be able to fundraise from EU funds, but the small and medium-sized organizations don’t have that capacity. Obviously, many of the smaller initiatives will not continue when the donor community withdraws. But the most valuable will continue, I hope.

Most of the CSOs you work with are in Belgrade?

About 52 percent of initiatives are outside of Belgrade. A large number we support are in Belgrade, but 2 million people live in Belgrade, so that represents a large population in Serbia. One of the criteria we use to deal with the huge level of applications is to support as geographically diverse a set of organizations as possible.

Do CSOs develop outside of Belgrade and then migrate here?

There are strong leaders, and organizations built around those leaders, in key municipalities, like Novi Pazar, Nis, Novi Sad. These guys develop not just one but several organizations, and those organizations are pretty successful. I’m not seeing them move to Belgrade. They are staying in their communities. They studied in Belgrade or Novi Sad, and they realized the value of their communities and returned to fight the numerous problems there. They are the heroes of civil society, because they are working in much more difficult circumstances than here in Belgrade.

Can you give me an example of a particularly successful initiative outside of Belgrade?

In Serbia, much of civil society is funded by the state. Local governments determine cooperation with civil society organizations through a particular budget line. From that line, they’ll support Red Cross, political parties, the church, and so on. If there’s money left over, they give it to some of the organizations that are close to the ruling political party. There’s a huge movement in Serbia to change this practice.

In the city of Pozega, we succeeded in changing the way local government funds civil society organizations. The local assembly adopted a procedure for announcing a request for proposals, establishing a committee to evaluate the proposals, and then hiring a person to monitor the projects. This is unique. Now organizations in Pozega are aware of competing ideas and the fact that only the most useful ideas for the citizens will be supported. Eventually the benefit for citizens will be great.

DveriSrpski, the nationalistic organization, is also part of civil society. To what extent has there been a growth of such organizations that challenge the liberal conception that USAID has promoted?

There are a couple of those organizations, but there hasn’t been a big growth in number. Most of these organizations are tied to conservative political parties or the church. Dveri is actually funded through the faculty of philosophy, and they have close ties to the Orthodox Church. I don’t see them as a civil society organization because they are now registered as a political party and are now in the Novi Sad assembly. One local council member actually left Dveri to join the SPS in order to form the new majority in Novi Sad.

These organizations never wanted to cooperate with us or USAID because, if they did, they could no longer criticize other civil society organizations for being mercenaries that take orders from the American government. Some of these organizations should be banned because they are promoting hatred. There have been some initiatives to close some of them down, and some are still in the process of being banned. Unfortunately this is where our state shows a lack of strength to oppose these dark forces –and they really are dark forces! Because of these right-wing organizations, the pride parade was banned for the second year in a row, and that was a strong indication that the Serbian government has no capacity or will to oppose them.

To return to the issue of Kosovo, Sonja Biserko told me that the future of relations between Belgrade and Pristina depends not so much on official dialogue but on civil society dialogue between groups there and here. Do you see signs of hope at that level?

I don’t believe that the kind of initiatives that put representatives of Albanians and Serbs at the same table just because they are Albanians and Serbs will show any progress. First of all, why just Serbia and Kosovo and not Croatia and Kosovo? We should be making these exchanges more interesting. Also, unless there is interest from concrete professions and sphere of interests for cooperation, none of these efforts will be successful. Obviously the official negotiators should overcome obstacles for normal life, such as communication or travel. But unless there is actual motivation for travel and cooperation, the official negotiations will just be political and won’t directly affect people’s lives.

Is there a particular vector that looks promising in terms of cooperation?

Cultural exchanges. Academic exchanges. Obviously, economic exchanges, which actually never died out. Those links have remained, they’ve just been under the table. Also sports exchanges, though those can sometimes be a problem. The groups of fans can be fascistic. That’s true everywhere, but especially here in Serbia, and there are nationalistic elements in Kosovo as well.

Don’t Call China’s Liaoning a “Starter” Aircraft Carrier

LiaoningConsidering the often-difficult relationship between the Soviet Union and the Western Allies, it’s not surprising that the USSR, unlike several other countries, never obtained one of the surplus American or British aircraft carriers in the years after World War II. What is less obvious is why Chiang Kai-shek’s regime was unable to secure such a vessel, either before or after the retreat to Taiwan. After all, Chinese naval officers expressed an interest in aircraft carriers as far back as 1928. In any event, with the recent commissioning of the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning, international commentators and reporters have been downplaying the significance of the vessel, using phrases such as “starter carrier” and “carrier in name only.” Such assessments stem from a fundamental misreading of the strategic situation of the People’s Liberation Army Navy.

Aircraft carriers are portrayed and treated as decisive craft of paramount importance, and are usually the flagships of a task force or an entire navy. Indisputably, they can make a world of difference, but some of this exalted status is questionable, especially in recent years. In other words, aircraft carriers enable a navy to project air power around the world, but they face steep hurdles to avoid becoming, in the words of a Chinese naval officer who prefers submarines, “floating coffin[s].”

It is true that the Liaoning‘s back-story, particularly its long gestation period, raises some questions. The ship is based on a hull purchased from Ukraine in 1998. Aircraft carriers are inevitably out of action for several months each year for servicing, though this schedule can be stretched in wartime. The Chinese are apparently constructing a pair of new carriers, but as long as the Liaoning is their sole carrier, they will not necessarily be able to count on its availability during hostilities. China’s shipbuilding industry can construct very large cargo ships. Would it not be more efficient to build a pair of ski-jump equipped carriers, designed specifically to fit aircraft the Chinese already possess, and simultaneously use the years of construction to prepare the electronics and train the aircrew? Some of China’s indigenous fighter aircraft have thrust-to-weight ratios similar to planes that currently operate from similar carriers in other countries. Would this not be an adequate stopgap until the folding-winged, carrier-centric J-15 fighter is operational?

A naval task force with an aircraft carrier can launch airstrikes against enemy ships without relying on land-based aircraft, and will also have fighters to provide protection from airstrikes. Even so, the Soviets had no aircraft carriers until the Cold War was nearly over, but they had no qualms about using their submarines and warships to confront enemy carrier battle groups. The Soviets were keen on using cruise missiles to hit enemy carriers very hard, very quickly, and, in an emergency, from a considerable distance. In the Second World War, submarines from both Axis and Allied navies repeatedly sank aircraft carriers, and the Argentine Navy came close to achieving this in the Falkland Islands War of 1982.

More recently, this same scenario occurred when the U.S. Navy engaged in training exercises with the Swedish submarine Gotland. The Swedish submarine apparently proved to be a formidable adversary, “sinking” the U.S.S. Ronald Reagan on at least one occasion. Perhaps more saliently, a Chinese submarine surprised the U.S.S. Kitty Hawk and the carrier’s entire supporting battle group during maneuvers. The submarines in both of these incidents are modern diesel-electric craft, notorious for emitting little noise. Similar submarines (and many more midget subs) are also an increasingly large part of Iran’s multifaceted naval strategy, which, it should be noted, involves more potential adversaries than the United States.

An aircraft carrier can also use its planes to provide air support to ground troops, in situations where helicopters are insufficient. However, ship-borne missiles, old-fashioned shelling, and the aforementioned armed helicopters may be adequate for most such situations faced by the Chinese. Similarly, a carrier’s planes can protect an amphibious operation from air attack, if no other fighter cover is available. The British would never have been able to retake the Falklands without their two carriers and the Sea Harriers they embarked. It is possible that an amphibious task force with an extensive system of surface-to-air missiles and no fighters could be safe from air attack, and in the Chinese context this may be true, but this situation has never been put to the test.

These situations, among others, presuppose that they are relevant to China’s strategic situation, and that the Liaoning should be judged on its adequacy for these missions. As it happens, however, China’s navy is unlikely to fight an enemy in the middle of the Pacific or any other ocean, and, as noted above, they would not necessarily need aircraft carriers to do so. Access to maritime trade is highly important for China’s economy, but even so, China is not an island, and cannot be completely blockaded easily. To alleviate dependence on fuel from overseas, China has built (and is building) pipelines from their neighbors in Central and Southern Asia. Additionally, China apparently has at least some capacity to synthesize oil from their abundant supplies of coal. Without attributing malignant motives to China’s leadership, from a strategic perspective the parallels with the two largest Axis powers are obvious: the first strategy can help overcome the fuel problems, faced by Japan, while the second explicitly echoes a German strategy.

China has no overseas possessions with large populations in need of protection. It is also difficult to imagine the Chinese going to war to support any foreign, overseas regime. This simply does not fit with any pattern of Chinese policy, though in a world with changing balances of relative power, it is plausible that some elements in the Chinese military and civilian leadership might feel emboldened by the presence of the Liaoning and its successors.

In short, aircraft carriers can do some unique, extraordinary things, and the Chinese navy will gain these capabilities with the addition of the Liaoning and its successors. China’s naval skeptics are right to point out, however, that aircraft carriers have many inherent vulnerabilities and liabilities. It would be a mistake for the Chinese to plan their future naval growth strategy around aircraft carriers and the battle groups needed to support them. Likewise, it would be a mistake for foreign observers to assume that the Chinese are following the patterns of other nations by doing so.

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

A Focal Points Roundtable: Is the Taliban Losing?

TalibanRecent coverage of Afghanistan by Newsweek-slash-the Daily Beast has been illuminating. On December 30 Sami Yousafzai and Ron Moreau wrote:

“A shroud of anxiety hangs over the coming year in Afghanistan. It’s not only the country’s war-weary civilians who are beset with trepidation and uncertainty—even the Taliban are uncharacteristically worried. … To be sure, the Afghan insurgents unabashedly welcome the impending U.S. troop drawdown. Maybe now they can start to regroup and regain some of the momentum they’ve lost over the past three years. At the same time, however, they’re acutely aware that their ranks have been decimated, while the Americans have worked overtime to transform the Afghan National Army into a credible fighting force. The Taliban’s propaganda department keeps claiming that the ANA is a laughably hollow threat, unable to fill the vacuum left by the departing Western troops. But privately, the guerrillas in the field aren’t sure which side is stronger now.”

Also …

… powerful former warlords are hastening to rebuild and rearm the private armies they commanded during the 1990s, preparing to fight the Taliban—and quite likely each other—once again.

Before that, on December 12, Yousafzai had asked Will the Taliban Destroy Itself?

A serious power struggle has broken out among the Afghan Taliban’s top leaders. … the two top-ranking members of the Afghan insurgency’s ruling council, the Quetta Shura, are battling each other for control. … Some insurgents blame [top-ranking members] Mansoor as well as Zakir for the Taliban’s setbacks. Both men have failed to gain territory in the southern Afghan provinces of Kandahar and Helmand. On the contrary, they have lost control of former Taliban strongholds. “… they’ve started pointing fingers at each other,” says [a] former cabinet minister. … To make the situation worse, he says, none of the other current leaders have any outstanding abilities as military commanders or as leaders.

A former Culture Ministry official told Yousafzai: “Pakistan is sharpening its knife to remove the Taliban like a cancer from its body.”

As one who doesn’t follow Afghanistan as closely as he should, the idea that, once the United States and NATO leave it, Afghanistan will revert to Taliban rule was received wisdom. For added perspective on whether or not that prognosis has been upended, I enlisted the aid of a few colleagues.

Robert Naiman, Policy Director of Just Foreign Policy:

U.S. officials have been cited (not quoted) in the press as saying that when the U.S. leaves, it is de facto ceding control of Taliban-dominated areas to the Taliban. I don’t see how you can credibly call that “losing” for the Taliban. Of course, you can move the goalposts, and say that the Taliban lose if they don’t take Kabul. That the Taliban can be prevented from taking over the whole country seems like a very plausible goal; after all, the Taliban didn’t control the whole country before the U.S. invasion.

Mark Safranski, historian and proprietor of ZenPundit:

The Taliban controlled 95% of Afghanistan before the US invasion.

That was a different Taliban though than what exists today.

The Taliban has several strategic problems, if their goal is ruling Afghanistan as an independent government:

1. They are deeply dependent on the ISI for support, training, intel, safe houses, supplies, etc. Far more so than in 2001. They have not been able to move in large-formation units in open combat as they did against the Northern Alliance in years and most commanders with such experience are long dead. Shaking free of Pakistani Operational control will be very difficult.

2. They remain a radical Pushtun movement. … They are also unpopular and feared which will come to the fore when America withdraws.

3. Without very generous foreign aid, the economy of Afghanistan is going to rapidly implode by orders of magnitude. Resulting in widespread destitution and likely, unrest and militarization of the population as groups scramble to grab what dwindling resources they can from whomever has or will offer any. Only some kind of negotiated settlement will keep the international aid flowing on which the economy of Afghanistan depends. A Taliban victory by force of arms will end that aid, or most of it.

Steve Hynd, editor of the Agonist:

The unstated question is whether preventing the Taliban winning is the same as a victory worth the name. We’re talking about a reset back to the immediate post-Soviet civil war — I wouldn’t call that a win for anyone.


I agree that the situation has changed since before the US invasion. My point was simply that to the extent that the goal is to keep the Taliban from controlling all of Afghanistan, that’s a very realistic and modest goal, because it was true before even the US invaded. There are a whole bunch of folks who don’t want the Taliban to control all of Afghanistan who have the power and willingness to do something about it and have demonstrated that power and willingness in the past: armed Tajiks, India, Russia, Iran, for example. If in addition to everything they had before, they now have US airpower, and if the US accomplished anything in the last 10 years, it stands to reason that the Taliban are going to have a hard time taking back the 95% of Afghanistan they had before.

So, to the extent that some people in the Taliban think that they can restore the pre-US invasion status quo, they are likely to be disappointed. People can call that “losing” if they want. To the extent that their goal is to drive the US out, they can claim victory to the extent that the US leaves. Studies of the insurgency have indicated that fighting the Americans/the foreigners has been a prime motivation for many insurgents. To the extent that that is true, it stands to reason that if the US withdraws, some people are going to say, ok, I accomplished my goal, I defeated the Americans, now there’s no reason for me to die fighting fellow Afghans. In that sense, a US withdrawal will weaken the insurgency, but I don’t think this is the kind of “victory” that the Pentagon originally had in mind.

People in Afghanistan are talking about what happens when the US leaves. That’s good. It causes fear, and that’s not good, but it also makes people talk more realistically about the future. A similar dynamic happened in Iraq when people started to believe that the US was really leaving: they started to focus on other problems. The Taliban will likely come to accept that they can’t control all of Afghanistan; people in Afghanistan who don’t like the Taliban will likely come to accept that the Taliban, in some form, are a permanent feature of the Afghanistan landscape, whether they like it or not. Hopefully, people on both sides who want to live in a unified country in some sense will at some point decide that they prefer accommodation to continued war. It’s beyond of the power of the West to decide when that point will be, but it’s more likely to occur the more the West withdraws its ground troops.


I believe Yousafzai is dead wrong about Pak intentions re: the Taliban. What they’ve been doing is spreading money around with the Pak Taliban to get them to stop attacking Pak assets and ditto for trying to bring the Afghan Taliban back under their full control as a proxy force. Anyone who thinks the Pak military and ISI are going to excise the Taliban like a cancer is either a subject of Kayani’s Jedi mind tricks or smoking Afghan hashish. They’re too valuable a potential proxy — mostly to deny Indian influence, to act as a training ground for other proxy groups and to enable/allow Pakistani strategic maneuvering space in Afghanistan in the event of an Indo/Pak war — and that calculus has not been significantly changed by a decade of US involvement.


I’m not privy to the internals, but common sense broadly supports Steve’s view. If you believe that the ISI and Pakistani military have been pursuing this proxy policy to the extent that they could get away with it for the last 10 years, why would one expect them to cut off the Taliban now? It doesn’t make any sense. Particularly, given that the US is now “leaving,” and that the US recently has made noises in the direction of accommodating Pakistani concerns and trying to bring Pakistan onside in its “reconciliation” plans. If I’m Pakistan, I’m thinking: my policy has been vindicated. Now is not the time to cut; now is the time to play through. To cash in chips Pakistan needs to keep the Taliban as close as they can, not cut them loose. Pakistan’s main value to the US in all this now is not helping the US kill Taliban leaders but helping push Taliban leaders towards a deal.

We’ll give the final word to Naiman:

As for unstated questions, my favorite is: how is the deal that the US can get with the Taliban now better than the deal it could have gotten from the Taliban in 2006? Who considers that difference justified by the additional bloodshed of the last six years?

Bulgarians Wear Their Pessimism as a Badge

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

Bulgarians are proud to be pessimistic. Many of the people that I recently interviewed in the country spoke with pride of the various polls that bore out this depressing conclusion. So, for instance, in a 2009 Gallup poll, Bulgaria ranked at the very bottom of the world in their view of what life would be like for them five years hence. Incredibly, Bulgarian pessimism outperformed that of Iraqis and Afghans. Given the huge rate of emigration from Bulgaria, it’s also possible that all the optimists simply up and left.

If you look at more recent polls, it would seem that Bulgaria has been robbed of its dubious distinction. A quick Google search reveals that Greece has become the world’s most pessimistic country. But looked at more carefully, the most recent Gallup poll reveals that, thanks to the sovereign debt crisis, Europeans have all become a little bit Bulgarian. The pessimism index shows that Denmark and Poland now rank at the same level as Bulgaria. And even lower down the list are France, Germany, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Austria, Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Greece. Pessimism is becoming a European disease.

What distinguishes Bulgarian pessimism from the garden-variety strain, however, is that Bulgarians are gloomy regardless of the economic situation in their country. This paradox prompted a group of distinguished researchers to conduct an anthropological investigation back in 2003.

Their report, Optimistic Theory about the Pessimism of the Transition, points out that Bulgarians, even young people, measure their sense of relative wellbeing from 1989, rather than the economic crisis of 1997. Large portions of the population – pensioners, the unemployed, the poorly educated, public sector employees – believe that they have not profited from the transition out of communism. The reinforcement of negative attitudes in the media also contributes to the prevailing pessimism, particularly in creating the impression that “the few” have prospered because of their “connections” while “other people” are not doing well at all – regardless of how the respondent feels about his or her own life. Moreover, this research bears out the conclusion that Bulgarians generally don’t appreciate the virtues of democracy while forgetting the vices of communism.

But perhaps the most compelling source of pessimism is neighbor envy: “An enduring sense of frustration arises from the considerable difference between economic conditions in Bulgaria and the developed countries. As a result, society focuses its attention on the country’s lagging behind ‘the developed countries’ rather than on the relative improvement from earlier, more unfavorable economic periods. Contrasted with those countries, the Bulgarian nation views itself as a systematic loser.”

Maya Mircheva works at the Open Society office in Sofia, helping with exchanges between people living in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. She was still in kindergarten in 1989, yet she has all the pessimism of her elders. She has said goodbye to many of her friends who have left the country. She has watched the emptying out of the countryside. She has witnessed the entrenched corruption and apathy.

“For my generation and the generation that has come after us, I’d say that it’s a lost generation,” she told me in Sofia back in October. “We had the misfortune, if I could put it this way, to grow up in a vacuum. For me, this whole period of transition, well, they say ‘transition,’ but I don’t see the end of it coming. It’s been 20 years. It’s the longest transition in history! I can see that young people are very disillusioned. They lack this spark. They don’t feel that anything depends on them or that they can do anything to change the world.”

As the interview progresses, however, she indulges in a bit of cautious optimism. “Of course, I’m not saying that everything is doom and gloom, even though I might sound like this. I’m Bulgarian after all. There are also some things that give you hope and optimism. It gives me hope, for example, to see these grassroots movements emerging little by little. That people are engaging, though on a limited level, in some form of activism is also a very good sign.”

The Interview

So, I understand that the level of pessimism in Bulgaria is very high?

It’s among the worst in the world, which is really surprising. This study was done back in the early 2000s, and they looked at your economic circumstances and how happy you are with your life. It turned out that they’re not really that interrelated. Bulgaria has improved its economic conditions compared to the 1990s. But actually people’s satisfaction has gone down, which is an interesting thing to explore. Also, when they asked people, “What do you think about the situation in Bulgaria in general,” people are more optimistic. When they asked people about their own personal situation, it was much worse. It doesn’t make much sense if you think that society as a whole is on the right track but your own life is getting worse!

Okay, time to apply the test to you. If you look at the situation for Bulgaria since 1989 until today, how would you evaluate it on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being most dissatisfied and 10 most satisfied?


And then your own person situation since 1989, when you were six years old?


Then, if you look at the next couple of years, how optimistic are you?

3. I’m a stereotypical Bulgarian!

Let me ask you first about 1989. You were telling me two stories, one about scarves and another about cartoons.

In 1989, I was still in kindergarten. I went to first grade at 6 years old, which was somewhat unusual back then. Children usually go rather late to first grade, at age seven. But since I was somewhat sickly, I didn’t stay very long in kindergarten, so my mother sent me to first grade. In 1989, the children from first to third grade wore blue scarves, and the Pioneers were the ones who wore the red ones. My brother got to wear both because he went to school before 1990. I was really looking forward to this as well when I got to first grade. But it was exactly 1990, and we didn’t get any of these.

Actually, when I was five or six, I was a bit of a poet. I wrote little poems. When I look at them now, there were 2-3 dedicated to that time, including one about my being very excited about this scarf. The other one was my expressing frustration with all the demonstrations going on every day. Apparently I was very much influenced by what I was seeing on TV. There were a lot of people on the streets. In the first days and weeks and months, people were so excited about the changes, so they were demonstrating, not against something, just letting themselves be seen, letting their new views be known. They were going on the streets for these freedom parades. For me apparently, as I said, it was a bit of a nuisance, because it disrupted my normal life up to then. These are my earliest memories.

And you mentioned that these parliamentary discussions interrupted your cartoons.

They canceled the cartoons! I was very disappointed.

Do you remember at what point you came to understand what took place in 1989-1990?

Maybe it was not until I was in seventh grade. It coincided with the period of the end of the 1990s, with the big economic crisis, around 1996-7. This was when I was a little bit older and it started to dawn on me a bit that things were not exactly as they should be. Until then, and actually after then, I really didn’t care much about politics.

When I look back at that time, the things I miss are the things from everyday life, like certain kinds of food that we had back then that we don’t have any more. For example, we had these pastry bars, these confectioners, called sladkarnitsa. They sold this sort of pastry made of dough and lots of sugary syrup called tolumbichki. You couldn’t get Coke, but you could get boza. You know boza? It’s a very typical drink. It’s still very popular. I don’t really like it that much now, because I’m not used to drinking it any more. But I liked it back then. It’s made from some fermented grain. It’s sweet and thick. Things like this were the peak of people’s gourmandise at the time. Now you have Burger King and McDonalds.

Another thing I miss from that time is the way my grandmother’s village once was. My grandmother lives in a small village that since the 1990s has really deteriorated in terms of all the businesses that have closed down. There was a local cinema, a library, and now everything is closed down. In the village, it’s 89 percent old people, more than 90 percent Turkish. All the young people, like my mother, migrated to the cities. When I was younger, when I went to my grandmother’s village, I could go to the library and borrow some books. I can no longer do any of that when I go there now. It’s just a dead place. That’s one of the bad things about the transition for me. For some reason, everything that’s outside the capital, the provinces, has been very negatively affected.

When you were in high school, as you were getting ready to go to university, what was the average conversation you had with your friends about life in Bulgaria? You said that the whole country was pretty pessimistic. Were you enthusiastic about going to school? Or were people just making plans to go abroad?

In the case of my high school, everyone was making plans to go abroad. I went to a high school with a very intensive teaching of foreign languages. I went to a German-speaking high school where we learned German very intensively and also languages like English. While in high school, we had this option to undergo an even more intensive training at the end of which we could receive a language certificate that gave you the right to study in Germany without passing an aptitude test. Even I passed this. Most of my class did this, and two-thirds went to study in Germany, and very few came back.

I was one of the few who decided not to go, mostly for personal reasons because I didn’t feel ready. For me at the time it was a big step. I’d only been abroad just once. That generation of young people had been all over Europe. But for me, the first time I went abroad was in 2000, when I was in the eighth grade. We went to Austria. Bulgaria wasn’t an EU member back then, so we had to apply for a visa. It was a totally different experience for me, this first time abroad. Maybe that’s why, when I graduated, and I had to decide whether to go abroad and study that I decided to stay here.

We Bulgarians, and this is something very different from America, have very strong family ties, especially parents with their children. Even today, my mother feels that she has to take care of me even though I’m almost 30! But this is normal in our social circumstances. So, I didn’t go abroad because I thought I wasn’t ready and I would be homesick and miss my family.

But most of my friends went abroad. In the conversations we had during high school, they talked about their intention to go abroad. It wasn’t something they decided to do on a whim. Even back then, the situation was like that.

When they talked about going abroad, did they intend to stay or eventually come back?

I mean, who goes abroad with the intention of coming back? Very few of my friends came back. The people who came back were the ones who failed, who didn’t finish their studies. In Germany the tuition fees are very low, but still they have to work to support themselves. The studies are very hard, not like here in Bulgaria, so you have to study hard. And it’s difficult to work and study at the same time. So most ended up dropping out of school and just working. In the end, either they lost their jobs or decided to come back. Most graduated and stayed there. Some got really nice jobs. Of course, I wouldn’t blame them if they don’t come back. That’s how it is.

Do you regret staying here?

I can’t say that I’m here forever. Who knows, maybe I too will go abroad if the opportunity arises. I didn’t do my BA abroad, but I did two masters overseas, plus an exchange year abroad, so I did get around quite a bit. I already see myself as not tied to this country.

There are some Bulgarians who are, well, maybe not patriotic, but they claim to miss Bulgaria when they are abroad. They emigrate, but all the time they are abroad they miss Bulgaria. They don’t come back because they know they’re better off over there.

I’m not one of these. It’s true that I’ve not been abroad for more than a year at a time, but I never actually felt homesick. And I always managed to integrate really well. I actually enjoy being in a multicultural environment, something that I miss here in Bulgaria because we’re such a homogenous society. I don’t get to communicate much with foreigners in my daily life, which is something that I really enjoyed when I was a student. So I don’t think it would be a problem for me. I don’t feel like I missed out on it completely. Someday, I will go somewhere, though I don’t know whether it will be permanent or not.

Where did you do your master’s degrees?

I did one in the Netherlands in Maastricht, a small city near the border with Belgium and Germany. The second one I did in Belgium, in Bruges.

You’re working at Open Society, and you do a lot of work with the East-East project.

That’s my major job at the moment.

The program encourages exchanges within the region but also Bulgaria and other parts of the world.

Not the whole world. Basically only southeast Europe and Central Asia. It has certain ambitions to go global. But the global work of East-East is still very much in a pilot stage. There was some research linking continents, like South America and Europe. But I don’t think any organizations from Bulgaria participated in that.

Does that satisfy at least a little your desire to be in touch with other countries?

That’s one part of my job that I really enjoy doing. And I’m grateful for this opportunity. I have a background in European studies. I studied a lot about Europe, the EU. But I didn’t really know very much about the neighboring regions, the Caucasus, Central Asia. Or even other Eastern European countries, because European Studies is still very much focused on the West. You look to the West and the core of the EU like some kind of example. Even though you’re in the region here, you’re oblivious to the other countries around you. That’s a shame.

I felt very much ashamed when I began working here. I realized that I didn’t really know much about the region. I felt very happy to participate in these annual meetings of coordinators in the East-East network, where we convene each year in a different city in the network. We don’t see each other much in person. We just communicate by email. During these meetings, I don’t just have a chance to meet these people but we have conversations and exchange ideas about situations in our countries. For me, this is what I enjoy most about this work. It really broadens your horizons.

What’s your attitude about Bulgaria’s entrance into the EU? It was such a dream for many people in this country for so long. But how do you feel, having your entire life framed by the desire to be part of Europe and then ultimately becoming part of Europe? And then of course your studies…

Although we are part of the EU, it doesn’t mean that we feel ourselves part of the EU. Or that we have the ability to really subscribe to EU values. Here’s an example that’s very funny. Maybe you haven’t used any public transport here?

I’ve taken the tram.

Then you know what I’m talking about. On many trams there is a sticker on the window with a Bulgarian flag and an EU flag and a caption that basically urges people not to litter. It says, “Please be Europeans. Don’t litter and don’t destroy the vehicle.” This really tells you something about Europe and us not being part of Europe. Europeans are civilized, the ones who behave. And we are still barbarians. This is how Bulgarians think of Europe.

I don’t really think we’ve internalized being EU members. Europe is not seen as a package of rules and obligations that you have to adhere to. It’s just a donor and you have to figure out ways to get money from Europe one way or another.

You know about this cooperation and verification mechanism, the monitoring of our judicial system. This is an example of once we’re in the EU, the EU loses its teeth, loses its ability to influence internal reforms. During the process of applying to EU, the conditionality was much stronger — if you don’t comply, you’re not in. But once you’re in, they don’t have as much influence. It’s not just a problem with Bulgaria but with all other EU member states. Look at the situation in Spain and Italy, and I’m not just talking about the financial crisis. I heard on the news yesterday that because Bulgaria has failed to comply with regulations concerning the use of renewable energy — not surprisingly — we are threatened by the European commission with an infringement procedure. It’s not just Bulgaria. Almost all EU countries have been subject to the same infringement procedure.

Once you’re in the EU, when you’re part of the club, suddenly you no longer feel under pressure to comply like you did when you were trying to get in. It’s a matter of developing your own political and administrative culture and developing the political responsibility to become a well-governed country. The EU or some other organization can’t force you to do this if you’re not willing to do it yourself.

That’s an interesting tension between the need for a country to do it on its own and an external set of pressures. Right now, I guess that Bulgaria is in the middle of that.

Do you feel as if there is a missing generation here in Bulgaria? So many people of your age have left Bulgaria. Do you feel that as a palpable lack? When you get together with people of your own age, is there any sense of pride about being here in Bulgaria instead of somewhere else.

I definitely feel that there is a big lack, that all these people are no longer here. This is one of my major concerns. This brain drain is one of our biggest problems. People of all sorts emigrate, of course, but especially the most educated ones are mostly likely not to come back. I’ve read that there’s a trend of more and more people coming back, especially people from the first emigration wave of the early 1990s when the borders opened. Opportunities for doing business here are relatively better now than before.

But for my generation and the generation that has come after us, I’d say that it’s a lost generation. We had the misfortune, if I could put it this way, to grow up in a vacuum. For me, this whole period of transition, well, they say “transition,” but I don’t see the end of it coming. It’s been 20 years. It’s the longest transition in history! I can see that young people are very disillusioned. They lack this spark. They don’t feel that anything depends on them or that they can do anything to change the world. There are very few idealists who have the potential to become leaders and do something. Most young people have this passive attitude toward life. They live life from day to day. They believe that there is no future for them, without realizing that they are the ones who make their own future.

Of course you cannot just generalize. There are also many people who stay here on a matter of principle and may feel proud of this. But I don’t think that the majority of young people feel very optimistic about the future here. Maybe it’s because, as I said, at the time when they grew up there was also this value shift that came with the changes. The old values are no longer there. But also the new values are still very unsettled. The beginning of the 1990s was a time for these shady millionaires. For a long time, even today, many young people believe that the reason for living is to get rich very quickly. This is all they care about.

I don’t know if you’re aware of this phenomenon of chalga. If you want to study Bulgaria, this is something you need to look into. I call it a social cultural phenomenon. It’s a kind of music. But it’s more than just music for me. This music became very popular during those years. On the face of it, it’s pop music. It’s a mixture of Balkan styles: Serbian and Greek melodies with a pop feeling. I find this music horrible and tasteless. That’s just my personal opinion and the opinion of many other people, with taste. But there are a lot of people who love this music.

They don’t just love the tunes. They subscribe to the whole culture, the whole concept that this music is transmitting. When you look at the videos of these songs — the style of the singers, the lyrics — then it gets pretty obvious. Because they sing about money, about sex. It’s kind of subtle. Actually it’s not so subtle! It’s a social phenomenon as well. A lot of young people listen to it. They don’t just listen to it. They behave like it. Girls like to dress like these singers. They’re role models.

The dress is folk style dresses?

No, how to put it, they dress in a sexually provocative way.

It has some relationship to Serbian turbo folk?

Yes, it’s very similar. It’s a phenomenon of these years. It was unheard of before, of course. It’s interesting to ask why it suddenly became so popular.

When you talk to people who are basically my age and older, 50 and above, do you ever feel like they just don’t understand, based on their own experience, and you just want to shake them and say, “Look, Bulgaria is not the same any more!” Do you ever get that frustrated feeling?

The generation gap is a big issue. Also, in our case. some people still say that Bulgaria will never get out of its transition until the generation who lived at that time dies out. It’s partly true. There’s still a nomenklatura who is part of both politics and business. These people still follow the old ways. And all the problems that we’ve had with corruption — really, the whole mentality that is not European or modern — many of these people have lived this for so many years, they’re not going to change, even after 20 years. If they lived in the old system for most of their lives, and they managed to achieve a certain position under the old regime, they’re going to continue to live this way and work this way. I don’t know what can be done to change this.

Working in an institution like this, I still have some faith that things are changing, even though very slowly. It’s just a matter of constant work in making society understand that things can be done differently. On the personal level, on an individual level, it’s a very tough thing to do. I don’t know if it’s at all possible to do.

Is there anything you’ve seen recently that makes you optimistic? It could be small. Near my hotel, for instance, I saw bike paths. I’ve never seen those before here in Sofia. And also the metro…

Ah, the metro is amazing. It’s brand-new. That’s why it looks so nice.

I was impressed with the displays of the stuff that was found in the archaeological digs.

Yes, in Serdica station. I was also impressed.

Of course, I’m not saying that everything is doom and gloom, even though I might sound like this. I’m Bulgarian after all. There are also some things that give you hope and optimism. It gives me hope, for example, to see these grassroots movements emerging little by little. That people are engaging, though on a limited level, in some form of activism is also a very good sign.

Also, some people do return from abroad. There’s this organization that I admire: the Teach for All network. They have an organization here in Bulgaria. The director, the founder of it here, is a very young woman, in her early thirties, a Harvard graduate who worked at McKinsey, but who still decided to come back and work on this very idealistic goal of making schools better. And they do have some amazing results, as far as I know.

So, people like this exist. I really hope that after a few years they’re still in Bulgaria!

Mali: After the Intervention

Despite the recent UN Security Council resolution authorizing a military intervention in Mali, the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Libya regrettably remains the dominant story on U.S. policy in Africa. Meanwhile, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Ansar al-Sharia – the jihadist coalition linked to the American deaths in Libya– are rapidly consolidating power and Libyan arms in northern Mali. Instead of fodder for retroactive condemnation, the attack in Libya should provide an important reminder to the U.S. and international community that UN-authorized military action alone is not sufficient. A coherent, well-orchestrated plan for disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration of rebel forces and extremists must also accompany any intervention in Mali.

Mali is a landlocked nation in the Sahel region of northern Africa, an area that stretches across the southern border of the Sahara Desert from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea. Mali is most famous for its music and Timbuktu, a centuries-old center of Islamic scholarship and crossroads on trading routes across this region. Today, Timbuktu risks becoming yet another haven for terrorist activity as militants seize control over the northern two-thirds of the country and implement a debilitating version of Shari’a law that calls for amputations, bans on music, and public stonings.

On December 20, the UN Security Council passed a resolution authorizing the African-led International Support Mission in Mali, known as AFISMA, to take “all necessary measures” to restore peace and security. Such authority derives from Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which the Council also invoked to accelerate the end of the 2011 Libyan revolution through a NATO-led intervention. In Mali, necessary measures under Chapter VII include the pursuit of a political solution prior to intervention, the rebuilding of Mali’s security forces, support for the recapture of territory in the north, protection of civilians, and security stabilization activities.

Political, military, and humanitarian solutions are, no doubt, integral to the resolution of the escalating conflict. History demonstrates, however, that security stabilization activities are also essential for long-term stability. In Libya, despite a successful UN-backed intervention last year, security remains the primary challenge due to the proliferation of weapons and prevalence of armed militias. As part of its mandate, AFISMA must therefore establish a clear strategy for stabilization measures – such as disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration of Mali’s divided factions – to secure a safe and successful return to democracy.

For instance, AFISMA, Malian troops, and international partners should implement development-driven incentives to encourage individuals to trade in weapons. Although certainly not a panacea for disarmament, such programs present a viable method for future progress and discourage a culture of violence. Incentives may include distribution of basic resources, including tools and food, in exchange for weapons, as Mozambique did with success following its civil war. They may also incorporate lessons learned from the 1990s disarmament program used in Mali itself, in which fighters could swap weapons for loans to start development projects. Yet, incentives that lack a focus on long-term stability – such as the distribution of IPads and televisions in Libya – may prove ineffective.

AFISMA and its allies can also develop a strategy to separate the extremists from the Tuareg rebels. The UN Security Council’s insistence on continuing the political process, in part through negotiations with groups committed to the cessation of ties with terrorists and the possible use of sanctions against those refusing to cut ties, is a step in the right direction. Such dialogue needs to complement a military intervention.

Additionally, AFISMA, Malian troops, and international partners must ensure that Tuareg rebels and those renouncing their terrorist ties reintegrate into society. Reintegration can include extensive job training, development projects that spur employment opportunities, and psychological counseling. Legal reform focused on improving protections for Tuareg and minority rights might also address some of the Tuareg’s grievances regarding marginalization. The UN Security Council resolution rightly suggested that transitional authorities in Mali should address the “long-standing concerns” of groups in the north.

Prevention is paramount. Failure to tackle the long-term security situation up front may encourage a resort to weapons as a means of conflict resolution. The international community must therefore implement stabilization measures alongside political solutions, military intervention, and humanitarian aid. Otherwise, violence may expand far beyond Mali’s crown jewel, the distant land of Timbuktu.

Annie Castellani is a fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit law firm, the Public International Law & Policy Group, where she focuses on transitional justice, constitution drafting, and civil society development in Libya and other post-conflict nations. Her
views are independent.

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