IPS Blog

Salvadoran Gang Leaders Achieve a Measure of Redemption

Experts traveled to El Salvador to gain insight into how a truce between the gangs Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 led to a marked decrease in violence.

In recent years, El Salvador, like many of its Latin American counterparts, has witnessed an explosion in violence. The contentious fighting between two of the country’s biggest gangs, Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18, is largely responsible for fueling much of the carnage.

Both of these gangs trace their roots to poor neighborhoods in Los Angeles where young, marginalized Latin American immigrants clustered together to form them. When the United States started deporting convicted felons to their native countries, many MS-13 and Barrio 18 members found themselves in countries they hardly knew, including El Salvador. Driven by fear of the unknown and an instinct for survival, they gravitated to the only piece of their past that still remained—the gangs. Today, approximately 20,000 MS-13 and Barrio 18 members populate the streets of El Salvador.

Armed with an arsenal of weapons, including assault-style rifles and grenades, and saddled with a lack of economic opportunity, these gang members proceeded to slaughter each other over arbitrarily designated chunks of territory. That is until last spring, when the gang leaders met in their dungeon-like prisons and decided to enact a truce.

The results of the truce have been nothing short of miraculous. Homicides in the country have decreased by 40 percent, kidnappings have been slashed in half, and extortions have fallen by 10 percent. Hardened gang members, who at times appear to don more ink than skin, accomplished in a matter of weeks what the government failed to do in the past decade—deliver a modicum of peace to El Salvador.

Inspired by the unprecedented events in El Salvador, the Transnational Advisory Group in Support of the Peace Process in El Salvador (TAGPPES)—a coalition of experts in the fields of gang intervention, human rights, post conflict work, and economic development—traveled to the Central American country to better understand the roots of the largely unexpected peace agreement.

What the group found was that despite the strong animosity that existed between the gangs, the yearning for some sense of peaceful normality—the ability to take their kids to school without the fear of getting shot—was stronger.

The group also visited the prisons where some of the gang leaders who brokered the peace were held. The gang leaders, the coalition reported, were often troubled men who had experienced and done terrible things. Their families and friends had been vanquished by the gang war. Many of them had killed, kidnapped, and even tortured their rivals. To many onlookers, the gang leaders appeared devoid of any humanity, which is what made the peace agreement even more remarkable.

But they weren’t devoid of their humanity at all. Despite the darkness of their past and the horrid conditions of their prison cells, the gang leaders still held on to redeeming qualities that shone through their hardened exterior. They wanted a better life for their children and they wanted the opportunity to right some of their wrongs.

“I know I’ve done terrible things,” said one. “I know I’ve thrown my life away. I’m not asking for mercy. I’ll pay for my crimes. All I want is a better life for my children. That is why I agreed to the peace agreement. If I can secure a better future for them, then at least I’ll know my life was not a complete waste.”

Tupac Shakur, who coincidentally is one of the best-known “gangster” rappers, once wrote a short poem entitled, The Rose that Grew from Concrete. The poem is worth quoting at length:

Did you hear about the rose that grew / from a crack in the concrete? / Proving nature’s law is wrong it / learned to walk without having feet. / Funny it seems, but by keeping its dreams, / it learned to breathe fresh air. / Long live the rose that grew from concrete / when no one else ever cared.

If a rose can grow from concrete, then surely peace can emerge from the depths of a dark Salvadorian prison.

Javier Rojo is the New Mexico Fellow at the institute for Policy Studies.

Egyptian Protesters Eat Their Own

Remember the Tahrir Square attack on Lara Logan two years ago while she was covering the demonstrations for CBS News? It seems that women — even protestors — continue to be sexually assaulted. At the Egypt Independent, Tom Dale writes:

A woman was sexually assaulted with a bladed weapon on Friday night, leaving cuts on her genitals, in central Cairo, in the midst of what was purportedly a revolutionary demonstration. … She was one among at least 19 women sexually assaulted in and around Tahrir Square on Friday night, according to accounts collated by Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment, an activist group. … There were other attacks involving bladed weapons. Six women required medical attention. No doubt there were more assaults, uncounted.

To experience the sheer horror of one of these attacks second-hand, read this account at the Nazra for Feminist Studies website. Meanwhile, Dale again:

It is neither my place nor my wish to draw conclusions about “the revolution” from all this: I do not believe that is possible or wise. But I can say that as the familiar chants resonated in the square, the demands for justice, a new government and new constitution, I felt a little sick.

“Tahrir Square,” he writes, “is both a place in which people both demand dignity for themselves and, in some cases, violently strip it from others. … It is not inevitable that Egypt’s revolutionary street politics be undercut by a current of rape.”

Still, there’s a certain inevitability to the emergence of mob mentality. Especially with all the unemployed — and thus un-marriageable — young men in Egypt. Ideally, the perpetrators would be singled out and subjected to some form (not fatal!) of “revolutionary justice.” Still, these crimes can be classified as fallout from not only the Egyptian government’s repressive policies, but its failure to improve the economy. At Time, Tony Karon elaborates on Egypt’s foundering economy.

Youth unemployment, one of the key drivers of the revolutionary upsurge in 2011, continues to grow, with official figures revealing that 25% of economically active [not sure what that means — RW] people ages 25 to 29, and 41% of those ages 19 to 24, are jobless.

Karon again: “President Mohamed Morsi’s plans to save Egypt’s sinking economy hinge on” — stop me if you’ve heard this one before —

… a $5 billion loan from the IMF [which] can be accessed only on the condition of implementing austerity measures that will bring a sharp spike in the economic pain suffered by millions of impoverished households.

In any event, male Egyptian protesters would do well to remember it’s not their sisters who are oppressing them. Diverting resources to policing their own while at the same time fighting the Egyptian government only slows the advance of their cause and diminishes its integrity.

The Sunday Times of London’s Odd Timing on Controversial Netanyahu Cartoon

The Sunday Times of London’s controversial Netanyahu cartoon highlighted the difficulty many experience differentiating between a political comment and a religious insult.

Netanyahu cartoonBritain’s The Sunday Times featured a controversial cartoon this past Sunday depicting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu building a bloody brick wall on the bodies of trapped, screaming Palestinians with the caption: “Israel elections. Will cementing the peace continue?”

The cartoon—drawn by veteran cartoonist Gerald Scarfe, who often utilizes blood in his work—has garnered the attention of Israeli officials and international Jewish groups who have declared the cartoon “sickening,” “anti-Semitic,” and “grotesque.”

Israel’s ambassador to Britain, Daniel Taub, demanded an apology from the newspaper, stating that “We’re not going to let this stand as it is…We genuinely think that a red line has been crossed and the obligation on the newspaper is to correct that.” Other Israeli officials have also spoken out against the cartoon, such as Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, who wrote, “For me and for other Israelis, this cartoon was reminiscent of the vicious journalism during one of the darkest periods in human history,” and that he was “shocked that such cartoons can be published in such a respectable newspaper in the Great Britain of today.”

Much of the outrage has been in response to the fact that Scarfe’s cartoon was printed on Britain’s Holocaust Memorial Day, which coincides with the International Holocaust Remembrance Day marking the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1945. Scarfe himself has stated he was unaware of the timing and publicly apologized in a statement on his website:

First of all I am not, and never have been, anti-Semitic. The Sunday Times has given me the freedom of speech over the last 46 years to criticise world leaders for what I see as their wrong-doings. This drawing was a criticism of Netanyahu, and not of the Jewish people: there was no slight whatsoever intended against them. I was, however, stupidly completely unaware that it would be printed on Holocaust Day, and I apologise for the very unfortunate timing.

Rupert Murdoch, the conservative media mogul whose company owns the Sunday Times, also publicly tweeted an apology, labeling the cartoon “grotesque” and “offensive,” adding that it “has never reflected the opinions of the Sunday Times.”

Some members of the Jewish community have come to Scarfe’s defense, however, such as Anshel Pfeffer from Haaretz, who listed four reasons why the cartoon “isn’t anti-Semitic in any way: ”first, that it is not directed at Jews; second, that it does not use Holocaust imagery; third, there was no discrimination; and lastly, that “this is not what a blood libel looks like.”

Simon Kelner of The Independent also came to Scarfe’s defense, replying to Murdoch’s tweet:

Of course it’s grotesque. Has he never seen a Scarfe cartoon before? But offensive? I can’t find any impulse, emotionally or intellectually, that causes me to be offended. Does this make me a bad Jew? Maybe it does, but I do think the world would be a better place if people were able to tell the difference between a political comment and a religious insult.

Yet for all the controversy one cannot help but wonder whose decision it actually was to print Scarfe’s cartoon on such a date, especially since it would seem that such a cartoon would have been much more timely—and a lot less offensive—had it been featured the Sunday before Israel’s elections.

Leslie Garvey is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.

Cracks in the Eritrea Edifice

Eritrea President Isaias Afewerki

Eritrea President Isaias Afewerki

The small, isolated African nation of Eritrea has received considerable scrutiny for its secretive and repressive policies since its break from Ethiopia in 1993. The socioeconomic condition of Eritrea is one of the worst in the world, leaving many citizens, including members of the military, disenchanted with President Isaias Afewerki.

This simmering discontent reached a boil last week when rogue soldiers seized the Eritrean Information Ministry, sparking worldwide attention—except within Eritrea itself, which strictly controls the flow of information.

Reports indicate that 100 to 200 dissident soldiers overtook the Ministry of Information and forced a newscaster to deliver a statement on air. Their primary demands included the release of political prisoners as well as the implementation of a constitution drawn up in 1997 that was never enforced.

Cracks are beginning to appear in Afewerki’s dictatorship, and the attempted coup may herald the crumbling of his regime in the near future. What will the impact of this event be on the already deteriorating situation in the country?

Because of the geostrategic location of Eritrea in regards to international shipping routes—particularly for oil—via the Red Sea, the world must pay close attention to what unfolds in the coming months. With tensions on the rise, the unstable Horn of Africa could be further engulfed in strife, only worsening the plight of Eritrea’s people.

But would-be interventionists should stay their hand.

For years, Eritrea funded and armed Somali militants, including the terrorist group al-Shabaab, though its support for the group appears to have waned in recent years. But with tensions now on the brink of exploding, any interference from the outside could lead Eritrea to resume its funding of al-Shabaab. The resulting escalation of violence in Somalia could well spawn a new quagmire altogether.

There are few details regarding the events that unfolded last Monday, but in an update from TIME, it was reported that the Information Ministry was off the air for an entire day—contrary to initial reports that it was off for only a few hours. For the members of the Eritrean diaspora, any news from the country is a breath of fresh air. Although a few officials “hinted” that something happened on January 21, the government did not respond to requests for information from TIME.

Renee Lott is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.

This Week in OtherWords: January 30, 2013

This week in OtherWords, we’re mixing food and politics. Wenonah Hauter skewers the government’s lackadaisical regulation of genetically engineered salmon, Jill Richardson calls for a fresh outlook on the relationship between weight and health, Jim Harkness asks whether the Farm Bill has met its demise, and Jim Hightower urges cubicle captives to stop using their keyboards as lunch trays. Donald Kaul, William A. Collins, Alana Baum, and I discuss Obama’s inauguration from different angles.

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

  1. The End of the Farm Bill? / Jim Harkness
    We must build a new policy framework for a fair, sustainable, and healthy food system.
  2. Don’t Put a Fork in It / Wenonah Hauter
    Despite consumer opposition, the FDA is one step away from approving genetically engineered salmon.
  3. Dumped by Time Warner Cable / Josh Stearns
    The story of independent voices struggling to gain a place in our media system is all too common.
  4. Why I’m Singing the Inauguration Blues / Alana Baum
    Like Paul Ryan and Henry Marsh, I had a bad day on the mall.
  5. Obama’s Battle Hymn of the Republic / Donald Kaul
    When he tried conciliation, all he got from the Republicans was implacable hostility, unyielding obstructionism, and insults.
  6. Hogging the Global Pie / Sam Pizzigati
    The richest 100 people in the world are earning much more than enough to end the world’s worst poverty.
  7. Fat Demons / Jill Richardson
    There are no shortcuts to health.
  8. Step Away from That Desk / Jim Hightower
    Don’t let your boss steal your lunch break.
  9. Uttering the G Word / Emily Schwartz Greco and William A. Collins
    Conservatives will miss gay-bashing as an electoral strategy.
  10. Fishy Genes / Khalil Bendib cartoon

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

Serbia’s Strategic Ambiguity and the EU

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

Srdjan Majstorovic

Srdjan Majstorovic

Serbia this week adopted new guidelines for its talks with Kosovo. As usual, the Serbian parliament declared that it would never recognize the independence of the breakaway region. This was not a surprise. But the parliament also called for more autonomy for ethnic Serbians living in Kosovo.

On the face of it, this latter statement seems of a piece with the refusal to recognize Kosovo’s independence. But it is actually quite the opposite, for it implies two things. First, Serbia no longer harbors any hopes of asserting direct control over Kosovo. Second, the guidelines indirectly recognize Pristina’s sovereignty over the entire region of Kosovo. This acknowledgment runs counter to the hitherto popular “partition option” that would turn Kosovo into a kind of Korean peninsula, with a DMZ between the ethnic Albanian majority and the Serbian enclaves in the north.

This is a very delicate balance. The nationalist government currently in place in Belgrade does not want to go down in history for “selling out” Kosovo Serbs. On the other hand, they also don’t want to go down in history for blowing Serbia’s chance to join the European Union. Caught between unhappy bureaucrats in Brussels and unhappy compatriots in northern Kosovo, the Belgrade politicians are relying on a good deal of finesse: negotiating that which must be negotiated while kicking the rest down the road. Call it the Serbian version of “strategic ambiguity,” the same kind of opacity that has allowed Washington to maintain relations with both Beijing and Taipei.

The European Union, too, is involved in a difficult game. Brussels knows that having half the Balkans inside the EU and half outside is not a tenable situation. On the other hand, the EU is struggling with an economic crisis, and there isn’t a great deal of enthusiasm for further expansion after Croatia enters this summer. In fact, according to the head of Serbia’s EU Integration Office, there won’t be any new entrants in the next six to eight years, with the possible exception of Iceland. So, Serbia has to be both realistic about its chances and flexible in its conduct.

But for many in Serbia, the real question about EU integration is not the relationship with Pristina but what kind of state Serbia wants to be. Back in October, I talked with Srdjan Majstorovic, the deputy director of the EU Integration Office, about this issue.

“The European integration process for Serbia is, in a sense, a state-building process,” he explained, “not in the sense of building a Serbian state, which has existed for centuries, but in the sense of creating modern democratic institutions based on the rule of law that can sustain serious political pressure and threat within a democratic institutional setting. For that, we need to continue the EU integration process, because it is the most important transformative power tool in this region, and not only in Serbia. Our primary goal is to strengthen democratic institutions and make them capable of sustaining heavy and difficult political pressures. Only then can we hope for the sustainable resolution of still pending issues and the normalization of relations between Belgrade and Pristina.”

What’s quite surprising about all this is the level of support in Serbian society for the EU path – despite the length of the accession process, the entrance requirements that the EU has demanded, and the less appealing prospects for EU members given the current financial crisis. Not only has the level of support in Serbian society for EU accession remained at around 50 percent, but the pro-EU faction in the Serbian parliament has now reached 90 percent. And, Majstorovic points out, most Serbians want to pursue internal reforms regardless of EU accession.

The question remains: how much “strategic ambiguity” will Brussels and Kosovo tolerate, and for how long?

The Interview

When you look at the next couple years, how do you evaluate the prospects for Serbia?

I would put myself in the position of a cautious optimist: 6. That’s cautious enough, since the prospect is not rosy, I’m afraid. I’m not referring to political stability, but rather that Serbia and the rest of the region are facing serious economic and social challenges to which the governments should pay particular attention. Since we are already integrated into broader European, even global, economic processes, everything that happens in the EU has a direct impact on the economies in the region. In such an environment, it’s very difficult for the governments to be persistent in reforming societies, which on the other hand is a necessity. These challenges can spill over into the political sphere and into the perception of the stability of the region as well and produce a downward spiral when it comes to the eagerness of foreign investors to invest in this part of Europe. In such a complex situation, we are facing the risks of increasing political populism.

And that’s something that we must avoid if we want to stay firmly on the European integration path and reform our society. Because the reforms are necessary. The EU itself provides a model that is accepted in the majority of European countries and at the same time provides technical and financial support along with the introduction of those reforms. And that’s why the transformative power of the EU integration process itself, regardless of current crises within the EU, is so important for the stability of Serbia and the region.

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

I was a teenager. I sensed that this was something huge, a game-changer, if you will. At that time, former Yugoslavia was starting to feel that something is changing on the European continent. This period when big changes were happening left a considerable trace on my political views: stepping out of the one-party political system and into a pluralist political system based on democratic institutions and the respect for human rights and rule of law. That’s something that made a mark on one’s political ideas for life. It was a cornerstone event for my generation.

For my father’s generation, it was a bit different. He belongs to the post-World War II generation, and he felt that the event was a serious blow to the identity of the generation brought up in the era of a one-party system when the state played a large role in the everyday life of the individual. What followed after the fall of the Berlin Wall was something that his generation was not prepared for.

Unfortunately, the political elite in former Yugoslavia was not prepared for the paradigm change marked by the fall of the Wall. Instead of choosing democratization path and economic transition in the process of wider European integration, we took a dive into nationalist frenzy and an overall disintegration of society marked by wars and ethnic hatred.

There’s a perception that the current Serbian government has adopted a go-slow attitude toward European integration compared to the previous government. Would you agree with that?

I think it’s still early to say whether this is true or not. It’s still not the full 100 days of this government to assess properly what the dynamism of the EU reforms in Serbia will be. What is obvious is that the prime minister himself, as well as the first deputy prime minister and the deputy minister for EU integration, are all firm that the EU integration process is a primary goal of this government. I would stick to that and suggest holding them accountable to produce tangible results. But perhaps it is too early to assess what the dynamism of the process will be.

Mind you, this dynamism is not solely based on internal social, political and economic conditions. There is an external factor as well. Unfortunately, what’s happening inside the EU and its economy is influencing not only European-wide political debate, it’s also spilling over into the internal political debate here in Serbia. There are those saying, “Do you see what is happening inside the EU? Are we going to rush in or are we going to prepare ourselves better?”

Although political and economic issues are playing the most influential part our relations with the EU at this moment, we shouldn’t neglect reforms that are necessary to undertake in the process of EU accession. They need to be implemented no matter the tempo of our EU integration process. The important thing is that the government does not lose its goal, which is the EU integration process. Then, in open dialogue with the EU and the European Commission, we can agree on the tempo of the EU accession process, respecting the objective circumstances on both sides. But this tempo of the EU accession process should not affect in any way the internal reforms, which need to be undertaken if Serbia wants to be recognized as a successful, democratic, and modern European state.

In the media, it was presented as an expectation on the part of this government, or this government and previous government, that the discussion of EU integration and Kosovo would proceed in parallel. But in some sense, the two have collided. EU accession, it seems, has been made contingent on an acknowledgement or recognition of the independence of Kosovo. Is this the case? If so, how to resolve this?

First of all, it’s very difficult to ask Serbia to recognize something that five other EU states don’t recognize, namely Kosovo’s independence. The European integration process for Serbia is, in a sense, a state-building process: not in the sense of building a Serbian state, which has existed for centuries, but in the sense of creating modern democratic institutions based on the rule of law that can sustain serious political pressure and threat within a democratic institutional setting. For that, we need to continue the EU integration process, because it is the most important transformative power tool in this region, and not only in Serbia. Our primary goal is to strengthen democratic institutions and make them capable of sustaining heavy and difficult political pressures. Only then can we hope for the sustainable resolution of still pending issues and the normalization of relations between Belgrade and Pristina.

The reality in Kosovo is rather complex. Institutions in Kosovo are ruling this administrative area. Serbia still relies on UNSC Resolution 1244 and deems the same area as being UN administrated. The reality is that Serbia does not have the instruments to rule the territory that is, in accordance with its constitution, part of the sovereign territory of the Republic of Serbia. Nor do Kosovo institutions, which declared independence in 2008, have the instruments to rule the northern part of Kosovo populated by Serbs. So, this is a potential jumping off point for negotiations between the two sides, and there is room here for some future compromise. Both sides can agree to disagree and explore possibilities to find some way out of the deadlock, which has grave consequences on the everyday life of people living in this area.

We need a compromise, because otherwise this situation can breed very bad sentiments on both sides and become a destabilizing factor. In this volatile social and economic situation, it can produce very negative effects. There is 45 percent unemployment in Kosovo, 90 percent of which are young people. This is a social time bomb. The situation in Serbia is just a bit better, with 25 percent unemployment and 80 percent being young people. If not offered a peaceful and constructive alternative, these young people could become susceptible to populism and nationalism and other volatile ideas and ideologies.

We are now eagerly waiting to see what the platform will be for the negotiations between the two sides. The president has been saying that he would like to see this platform adopted by the parliament as well and have full democratic legitimacy to negotiate with Pristina. Then obviously the next stage would be some kind of agreement between the two sides, which will be a crucial historic moment for the start of the process of reconciliation.

We’re speaking today at the same time we are commemorating the 100th anniversary of the start of the Balkan wars, when the Balkan nations fought against Turkey. There is a lot of history in this region, as Churchill put it, perhaps too much to absorb. Such an amount of history, combined with economic and social difficulties and a lack of European perspective, can be easily misused as a legitimizing factor for some dangerous political ideas.

It sounds like the compromise would simply be maintaining more-or-less parallel discussions on integration and reconciliation.

It’s time to behave in a European way. It is necessary to engage everyone in the region in the European integration process. And on the parallel track, it is necessary to find some sustainable resolution of the Kosovo issue. But if you put this issue as a condition too early in the process, you’re just risking a prolongation of the EU integration process and the process of reforming these countries. It might provoke certain nationalistic ideas, which rise much faster in a volatile economic and social environment.

Obviously, as we draw closer to the end of EU accession negotiations, this condition will become more present and visible. But at that stage, democratic institutions and processes and actors will become capable of sustaining political pressure.

In the last week [October 2012], as if this issue weren’t enough to deal with, there was the cancellation of the Pride march here in Belgrade and at least one EU representative saying that this was unacceptable from the standpoint of EU principles. What was your reaction to that?

I was disappointed as a citizen of Serbia. I strongly believe in human rights and liberties. And if a certain right is protected by the constitution of this country, then the state should make it possible for each and every minority to express themselves freely. If we believe in the rule of law, if we believe in freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, the march should have been allowed.

But the government decided that there was a serious security risk for participants and cancelled it. It sent the wrong message, especially to those hooligans, extremists basically, who were threatening the participants of that parade. That’s not the way to fight intolerance and discrimination. Obviously there’s a lot to be done in order to raise awareness among citizens concerning the rights of especially sexual minorities and to improve the overall climate in society regarding the tolerance of those who are different. To be fair, this year’s Pride week was marked by a couple of exhibitions and public events that took place, and these should be considered a small, a very small, but still important contribution to similar events in the future.

Many Bulgarians said to me that the EU brought Bulgaria on board too quickly and missed an opportunity to use accession as leverage to push more reforms through Bulgaria. How do you feel about using EU accession as a tool?

It’s a very useful tool if you implement it properly. I’m glad that you got a realistic picture in Bulgaria. Because Romania and Bulgaria are good examples of how things should not be done. I’m not saying that Serbia would become an EU member state tomorrow. In that sense, we are aware of the lengthiness of the process ahead. But what is important is to start accession talks as soon as possible. Because each and every one of the 35 chapters that we are negotiating basically screens our capability to adopt or not the EU acquis. It provides an objective picture of your own capacities to advance. If done properly, then yes, accession is a perfect tool to improve a country’s position. But still, the accession process is just an opportunity. Success depends on the candidate’s readiness to accept the values and implement the standards of the EU.

Sometimes there’s a lack of understanding that accession is a two-sided process: political and normative. These have to go hand in hand as well and, the process is successful only when both parts are taken seriously and complement one another. There have been a couple of examples of countries acceding to the EU on the merit of a political decision rather than the fulfillment of technical criteria, which proved to have grave, long-term consequences. If a candidate does it properly, yes, EU accession is a very useful tool. But obviously you need to have first of all, political willingness within the country to engage in sometimes very difficult and serious reforms.

Second, there needs to be fully fledged dedication and administrative capacity to negotiate and properly implement all the required technical standards and rules. And then, there should be clear political will, or vision if you wish, on the EU side as well that this process needs to start as early as possible and that this process will lead to the actual accession of candidate countries to the EU. The problem is that the EU today lacks the vision and self-confidence that its appeal still has sufficient transformative power to make aspiring candidates engage in the necessary reforms.

What will be the most difficult chapters for Serbia to undertake?

This is not secret. It will be like the cases of Romania and Bulgaria. There’s judiciary and fundamental rights on the one hand, and issues related to internal affairs on the other: justice, freedom, and security. Those are going to be crucial. The quality of reforms performed in those two areas influences the quality of the overall transformation and success in the EU integration process.

Based on that, the European Commission has begun to use a new methodology in the accession talks, prioritizing these two chapters (23 and 24). This is to avoid the same mistakes that the EU made in previous waves of enlargement. The new methodology implies that, after the screening process, a new series of benchmarks will need to be fulfilled before negotiations on a particular chapter are opened. Depending on the success achieved in these two chapters, the country will move deeper into accession negotiations. If a candidate gets stuck in these fundamental chapters, it will not be able to proceed to the other chapters. This is a new system of checks and balances to assess the readiness of candidate countries regarding the importance and acceptance of the rule of law as a major EU accession condition.

Apart from those two areas, the chapters on agriculture and environment are traditionally very challenging, because these are very large and expensive chapters to negotiate and implement. And the majority of the European acquis is based in these two areas.

Another question that will determine the complexity of our accession process is what the EU will look like in the future. Even more important, what will the EU look like when Serbia is ready to join the EU? Based on the complexity of the current economic and financial situation in the EU, we can say that issues of financial prudence will be very important for the future accession candidates.

Decentralization has been a challenge for Turkey, and some people oppose decentralization there arguing that the country will fall apart if too much autonomy is given to the regions. A debate is also taking place here in Serbia over decentralization, around the issue of Vojvodina. At the same time, centralization is intensifying in Serbia, with so many people moving to Belgrade and some villages in the countryside disappearing. How do you think this debate will play into EU accession?

There is no special request coming from the EU with regard to decentralization. As you know, in the EU this particular topic is left to the competence of the member states with respect to their own tradition when it comes to the territorial division of governance. Thus, there are federal countries, regionalized countries, countries in the process of devolution and traditionally centralized countries. When I was a student, I argued that the Spanish model of autonomous provinces, for example, would have been a good model for addressing secessionist movements in former Yugoslavia, especially in the case of Kosovo back in the 1990s.

According to the constitution of the Republic of Serbia, Vojvodina and Kosovo are two autonomous provinces and as such they do have additional administrative competences. The EU doesn’t have standards on this particular issue. The EU is interested and is following developments in this particular area strictly in terms of respecting the rule of law and respecting the existing competences of the autonomous province. The recent decision of the Constitutional Court on the income of Vojvodina is going to be acknowledged in the forthcoming progress report due to be published shortly, and the two governments (the central and the autonomous province’s) will have to acknowledge that this issue should be addressed and resolved.

The second important issue with regard to decentralization and regionalization in the EU accession process has to do with development aid and policy within the EU. With regard to that, Serbia adopted a law on the statistical regions of Serbia. These are just development regions that basically gave us the opportunity to accumulate statistical data in those regions in order to draw development data and assessments. It is necessary to produce this regional statistical data in order to draw all potential development assistance in different parts of Serbia. The EU structural funds are based on the logic of supporting depopulated areas or areas facing structural problems such as industries moving out or the need for rural development. Obviously the EU integration process will have more impact, of necessity, on improving the capacities of local self-governments (municipalities) and statistical devolution rather than governance devolution.

However, there is a political party in Serbia campaigning on the issue of regionalization. So, these statistical regions could become something more than just statistical gathering areas in the future. But that’s still not a part of the political debate. And if all relevant stakeholders accept this idea the process of decentralization will have to be transparent and based on the widest possible social consensus that respects the numerous regional specificities of Serbia’s multiethnic society.

Every time I ask people here about their impression of the EU, people who are not working on this issue, they turn it around and ask me when I think Serbia will become part of the EU. And I say, “I don’t really know.” I guess there are two scenarios. In the first, accession goes relatively smoothly, with an emphasis on “relative”: the accession talks continue and Serbia enters in ten years or so. The second is the Turkey option. Turkey has been in accession discussions for something like three decades. This is obviously not just a technical question. There’s considerable political opposition in some capitals in Europe. I’m curious what you think in terms of Serbia’s timeline.

I believe Serbia can finish EU accession negotiations in five years, once they start. Perhaps an additional two years will be needed to ratify the Accession Treaty in the EU Member States. But that doesn’t mean that those five/seven years will start from now. It obviously depends on how the Kosovo dialogue ends up. It will depend on the readiness not only of the incumbent government but future governments as well to engage in sometimes very crucial, difficult, and unpleasant reforms: reform of the labor market and the pension system, to name just a few. So, if we draw the parallel between Serbia and Croatia’s EU accession process we can say that Serbia should be able to at least finish the accession negotiations if not join the EU by the end of the next financial perspective period, 2014-2020.

It will also depend on the future of the EU itself. But I don’t have a crystal ball and can’t predict how long it will take for the EU to resolve its internal issues. What is necessary is that there should be a proper political vision with regard to the broader picture of what the EU should look like in the next ten or twenty years. The accession process for the Western Balkans, not only Serbia, should be speeded up, and it should go hand in hand with a deepening of the integration of the EU Member States. That should be a sign of the clear vision, the strength, and the still existing appeal of the EU enlargement policy. Otherwise, it’s going to be even more difficult to cope with transition fatigue in candidate countries and more challenging to motivate political elites to remain dedicated to necessary reforms.

How robust is Serbian support for EU accession. We often see fluctuations in public opinion around this issue, related to economic issues or Kosovo. How large a core group of people will support EU accession no matter what?

We’ve been conducting public polls ever since 2002. You can check them out on our website. We are conducting them in line with Eurobarometer methodology, and they say that 49 percent of Serbian citizens would vote yes if a referendum on EU accession were to be held tomorrow. But this data fluctuates. In 2003, after the assassination of late Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, support was at its highest peak: 76 percent. If there is conditionality regarding Kosovo, support goes down in that particular period. If candidate status is about to be awarded, support goes up. So one can say that public opinion depends on the major paradigm that best describes the major issue in the current relationship with the EU.

What is important for us, and what shows rather the rational side of the public when it comes to the EU accession process, is that when we ask citizens about reforms that we are introducing and implementing during the course of EU accession, there is huge support (68% of citizens support reforms regardless of the prospect of EU accession). Even with doubts surrounding the prospects for EU membership, citizens tend to be very rational on this issue. They are also rational on the Kosovo issue, because the public believes it should be resolved regardless of EU membership (61%). So this is an additional element of legitimacy for the political stakeholders to continue to engage both in reforms and dialogue with Pristina.

And then there is an additional way of measuring support when you look at the number of political parties that are currently part of the mainstream in the parliament. Some 90 percent of those political parties sitting in the parliament belong to the faction of EU accession supporters.

That’s a change!

That’s a dramatic change. The best way to explore the transformative power of EU accession is to go back to 2008 when we signed the Stabilization and Association Agreement with EU and there was a debate in parliament about whether to ratify the agreement or not. That was the tipping point when the former Radical Party split. That was the game changer when it came to a political consensus on EU integration for Serbia.

So, the political consensus exists. But the social consensus needs to be strengthened. And that can be done only with the proper communication with the citizens, to explain what exactly the EU means today, what accession will bring to the citizens of this country, and how these reforms are necessary if we want to be a well-regulated and modern European society.

Belgrade, October 8, 2012

From Dr. King to Barack Obama

Last year, as part of the annual celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday, one of President Obama’s top advisors paid a visit to Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, the church of Dr. Martin Luther King. The advisor, Valerie Jarrett, received a standing ovation from the assembled congregation when she shared the story of how Pres. Obama was responsible for the killing of an unarmed Osama bin Laden as members of his family looked on. I share this strange and surreal scene from Ebenezer Church, where the largely African American congregation endorsed the killing of another human being – while in church – because I think it captures the vast historical and moral distance between two distinct periods: the period of the late 1950s and early 1960s, when Dr.King emerged as the symbolic leader of the civil rights wing of the ongoing Black liberation movement and received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964; and the era of Barack Obama, launched with his ascendancy to the highest political office in the country and the winning of the Nobel Prize in 2008. Two periods and two awards that, when linked, serve as yet another confirmation of the moral decline of liberalism among white and black people over the last four decades.

For the full article click here.

Non-nuclear Weapons States Forget How Much Power the NPT Affords Them

Back in November, at Truthout, David Krieger, president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, wrote about the nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty’s linchpin article — the infamous number VI.* He explained that it

… contains three obligations: “Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”

… It has been 42 years since the treaty entered into force, and the nuclear arms race continues. All of the NPT nuclear weapon states are modernizing their arsenals. They have not negotiated in good faith to end the nuclear arms race at an early date.

Nor have they negotiated

… to achieve nuclear disarmament.

Nor on placing nuclear weapons

… under strict and effective international control.

Krieger levels a damning indictment.

The NPT nuclear weapon states seem perfectly comfortable with their failure to fulfill their obligations under Article VI of the NPT.


… the prospects for a new international treaty are dim if states continue with business as usual.

Therefore the “non-nuclear-weapon states need to demonstrate to the nuclear weapon states that they are serious about the need for a new international treaty,” which is only “the means to fulfill the NPT Article VI obligations” anyway.


UN General Assembly resolutions are not getting the job done. They are not being taken seriously by the nuclear weapon states, nor are exhortations by the UN secretary-general and other world leaders.


… the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation called for bold action by the non-nuclear weapon states in its briefing paper for the 2012 Preparatory Committee Meeting for the 2015 Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference.

Among the call for action’s other premises, Krieger cites:

• The understanding that even a regional nuclear war would have global consequences (e.g., nuclear famine modeling).

• The risks of nuclear war, by accident or design, have not gone away. Stanford Professor Emeritus Martin Hellman, an expert in risk analysis, estimates that a child born today has a one-in-six chance of dying due to a nuclear weapon in his or her 80-year expected lifetime.

• The understanding that humans and their systems are not infallible (e.g. Chernobyl and Fukushima).

• The understanding that deterrence is only a theory that could fail catastrophically.

Among Krieger’s examples of what constitutes bold action.

• Announcing a boycott of the 2015 NPT Review Conference if the nuclear weapon states have not commenced negotiations for a [new treaty].

• Commencing legal action against the NPT nuclear weapon states, individually and/or collectively, for breach of their NPT Article VI obligations.

• Withdrawal from the NPT as a protest against its continuing two-tier structure of nuclear haves and have-nots.

• Declaring the NPT null and void as a result of the failure of the nuclear weapon states to act in good faith in fulfilling their Article VI obligations.

You can see that David Krieger isn’t fooling around. Of course, the measures he suggests require political will and/or wise prioritizing on the parts of the non-nuclear-weapon states. They just need to remember that without them — the have-nots, largely on whose behalf the NPT was negotiated — there would be no NPT.

*Note lower-case “n” in “nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty.” Many forget that it’s the last two words that NPT abbreviates.

The Failure of Funding Roma Inclusion

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

Orhan Tahir

Orhan Tahir

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Interview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How did you get involved in this work?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tell me some more about Civil Society in Action.

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

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

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

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

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

Sofia, October 2, 2012

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

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

 Algerian oil and gas pipelines (In Amenas circled).

Algerian oil and gas pipelines (In Amenas circled).

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Seddat Massacre of 2006

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

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

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

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

Algeria: Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which brings us back to the Seddat operation.

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

Seddat: An Exercise in Overkill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chemical Weapons?

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

Washington Impressed With Algerian Repression

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

The analysis is my own (for better or worse)


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

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

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