IPS Blog

Reconnecting the Balkans

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

Vojko Volk, Slovenia's ambassador to Croatia.

Vojko Volk, Slovenia’s ambassador to Croatia.

When I was traveling in East-Central Europe in 1990, I had only a handful of contacts outside of Poland, where I had lived the year before. I usually arrived in some capital city and started calling the few numbers I had. Then I relied on those people to connect me to their friends, their colleagues, and sometimes their political adversaries as well.

So it was that I was exiting a café in Ljubljana, the charming capital of Slovenia, after a meeting with political scientist Mitja Zagar. We happened on a group of party representatives drinking coffee on the terrace. Mitja made introductions for me and I quickly arranged interviews with two of the people there. One of them, Vojko Volk, was serving at the time as a consultant for the Socialist Party. He had previously worked on human rights issues.

When I prepared to return to Slovenia 22 years later, I discovered that Vojko Volk had become a diplomat and was now posted in Zagreb as the Slovenian ambassador. One of the great pleasures of this current project is to see where people have gone and what they have done in the intervening years. Because many of the people that I met in 1990 spoke English quite well and were engaged politically, it is no surprise that many of them became diplomats. On this trip alone, in addition to Vojko Volk, I spoke with the Bulgarian ambassador in Slovenia and the former Croatian ambassador to Egypt, both of whom I interviewed in 1990 before their leap into diplomacy.

In this interview, Vojko Volk talked about the challenges that Slovenia currently faces, particularly in the economic realm. On this issue in particular, he has had some second thoughts over the years.

“I was suspicious that the so-called Slovenian model of transition would not in the end be the best,” Volk told me. “Our model was not to sell the silver, not to sell the companies that were basically owned by the state. All the other countries did the opposite: Hungarians, Czechs, they sold their companies, they sold everything. We didn’t do that. And it went well for us for 15 years. It was swell even after we entered European Union. From 2004 to 2008, we had an average growth of more than 4 percent every year, and sometimes more than 5 percent. We achieved, can you imagine, 92 percent of the GDP average inside the European Union! It was the record for ex-communist states. Then it turned out, in the last four years after the Lehman Brothers collapse, that state ownership is not good when it comes to banks.”

As in 1990, our conversation returned in the end to the potential of regional cooperation. Twenty-two years ago, we discussed the viability of an Adriatic Alliance. This was before, of course, the collapse of Yugoslavia and the ensuing wars. Now, Volk champions a slightly different proposal: Reconnecting the Balkans.

“There is no success in the Balkans without reconnecting, reconnecting everything except politics,” he concludes. “We should reconnect everything in former Yugoslavia: energy, roads, railways, sports, culture, economy, market.”

Below the current interview I have included a transcript of our discussion in 1990.

The Interview (2012)

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

I was in Ljubljana, and I was trying to find a way to go to Berlin, of course. We were in contact with some friends from the German Socialist party because at that time I was a human rights activist and I was trying to establish a socialist party in Slovenia. I was following the news closely. I was glad that many of my friends were actively involved in bringing down the Berlin Wall, including some friends from the Salzburg Global Seminar, which is famous for discussions of human rights and which I participated in 1988. At that Salzburg Seminar were journalists from the opposition papers of what were at that time communist states, from Slovenia and Serbia, from the Middle East, Catholic and Protestant journalists from Britain and Ireland. At that time I was writing for Mladina, the famous Slovenian newspaper.

In 1988, nobody believed the Berlin Wall would be destroyed the next year. Nobody.

George Will, the famous American columnist, published a column in early November 1989 saying that the Berlin Wall would last for at least another two decades. So that was embarrassing for him! Since that time, have you had any second thoughts about anything you thought in those days? Have you rethought any of your positions, or do you pretty much believe now what you believed back then?

I pretty much believe in the same things, but not everything. There’s an old saying between old war veterans: when they gather to drink together, they say, “We didn’t fight for this!” Sometimes I say this also, because my country doesn’t look like what I wanted it to be. Especially today, because this economic crisis is so bad. It’s not just an economic crisis in Slovenia, there’s also the political situation, the relationship between our political parties. The political divisions are still strong, between those on the right and those on the left, between those who have different opinions about World War II. So, our unification at the time of independence did not last long.

So maybe I made two mistakes in my opinions. The first was that our unification around independence would last longer, and it didn’t. It lasted for maybe 3-4 years until some events caused us to split.

Second I was suspicious that the so-called Slovenian model of transition would not in the end be the best. Our model was not to sell the silver, not to sell the companies that were basically owned by the state. All the other countries did the opposite: Hungarians, Czechs, they sold their companies, they sold everything. We didn’t do that. And it went well for us for 15 years. It was swell even after we entered European Union. From 2004 to 2008, we had an average growth of more than 4 percent every year, and sometimes more than 5 percent. We achieved, can you imagine, 92 percent of the GDP average inside the European Union! It was the record for ex-communist states.

Then it turned out, in the last four years after the Lehman Brothers collapse, that state ownership is not good when it comes to banks. State ownership is killing the real free market, so maybe this was not the best idea.

Do you think it would have been smarter to start selling the silver right at the beginning or maybe once you joined the EU?

The answer to that is very simple. You should sell the company when you have buyers. We had buyers in 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003. We had buyers for telecom; we had buyers for banks. We had buyers for our biggest pharmaceutical plant Lek, which was bought by Sandoz and which boosted our budget by more than a billion Deutschmarks. And it is still a very successful company, though it is owned by the Swiss.

We missed the chance to sell our telecom company, which is now practically 100 percent state-owned, and it’s bringing us nothing but problems. Our biggest bank is 60 percent state-owned, and it’s dragging us over the cliff. Slovenia’s problem is not the condition of the state economy. Our problem is the condition of the two major banks. So the problem was that we didn’t sell on time. There is always a best time to sell, and we missed it.

There are some things we can sell now. The Triglav insurance company is the biggest insurance company in this southeast European region, and we have buyers. If we sell either the Triglav insurance company or the Petrol oil company, it would be enough to cover everything, and we could live life like before. In Croatia they have nothing left to sell. The same in Hungary. We have to sell, but it’s not the time for selling. Now it’s the time of crisis.

A number of Bulgarians regret selling their airline to foreigners, who then closed it down, and now Bulgaria has no airline. And that’s a problem not because they could have had a great airline but because they expected it to be a hub for international travelers.

Everybody wants to have a hub.

Right, but if you have no airline it’s very difficult. Now, did you ever think 22 years ago that you would be sitting in this position someday?

No. Not here.

Where did you think you would be 22 years ago?

At that time I was a human rights activist, and I was trying to establish a normal political system, which we mostly accomplished. I saw myself more in human rights, more becoming something like an ombudsman. Because when you deal with human rights, something catches you. You really help people. There are so many poor people in the world who suffer different injustices.

But then it turned out that my political career was not very easy. My political party, the Socialist Party that we had established, didn’t succeed in entering parliament in the second elections. So we all went from the liberal left to a newly established party, the Liberal Democracy of Slovenia, guided by the famous late president Janez Drnovsek. With that I entered diplomatic service, which was not difficult for me because I studied international relations and international law. I entered the diplomatic service, and I did quite well and I liked it. I like my job.

Where else have you been posted?

My first diplomatic mission was deputy ambassador in Rome from 1993 to 1998. Then I was ambassador in Rome from 2001 to 2005. Then I was first chief of the UNMIK office of Slovenia to Kosovo for two years and ambassador there. And now I’m ambassador here in Zagreb.

You’ve come here at a reasonably good time. Relations between Slovenia and Croatia were not always so good, given the disputes over the maritime boundary. Has that left any residue of tension between the two countries?

Yes, unfortunately. I was there when we were planning together our independence. I remember these nice times when we, with our Croatian friends, even with Croatian President Tudjman, were personally organizing our independence. We declared that we were leaving Yugoslavia because at a certain point we realized that there was nothing left to do and for us it was best to leave the house.

Then, in 2001, the Tudjman era in Croatia ended. I was working at the time with President Drnovsek as state secretary for the ministry when we prepared the Drnovsek-Racan agreement to resolve the border dispute — under the encouragement of Washington and Brussels. This was for me the best possible agreement. In 2001, Washington and Brussels already knew that Slovenia would very soon enter the European Union. Their concern was very logical. It would be good to resolve this border issue with Croatia before we entered the European Union, because otherwise it could create problems for us and especially for Croatia. It was very well organized, and the impetus came as well from Zagreb.

So, we started to prepare. For six months we prepared the Drnovsek-Racan agreement, and it was accepted by Ivica Racan, then the prime minister of Croatia. In that agreement, we resolved the border issue and also the Ljubljanska Banka issue, which is still bothering us today. And you can imagine how disappointed I was when this agreement couldn’t be ratified in Croatia because extreme nationalistic forces were against it. And the politician that built his reputation around the rejection of this Drnovsek-Racan agreement was Ivo Sanader [who became Croatia’s prime minister in 2003]!

So you can imagine how happy I was to go through it all again and finally achieve an arbitration agreement over the border issue. This was déjà vu for me. And now we have to repeat the exercise with Ljubljanska Banka. It’s not nice to say, but I’m a bit fed up.

But today the bank issue aside, most outside observers say that the hard right here in Croatia has largely collapsed. The Party of Rights doesn’t really have any representation in parliament. HDZ, up to the last elections at least, has moved to the center. The extreme right here in Croatia has declined in its political influence. And is that your observation as well?

This is mostly true. But it’s also not good at the same time. Because of the simple reason that in order to have an efficient government you need a strong opposition. This is the lesson we have learned in Slovenia. Usually, here in the Balkans, people are happy when they get a government with 2/3 of majority, with just one or two strong parties. On the contrary, the opposition must be strong because here in the Balkans absolute power corrupts absolutely, like everywhere but here even more. So I don’t think this is good for Croatia.

A couple months ago, I spoke to Tomislav Karamarko, the leader of HDZ, and I told him about the experience of the Slovenian Liberal Democracy Party. I told him that, in order to be a big and stable power, you need to go over the bridge to find supporters and voters. If you just keep on your side of the river, you risk remaining with just 20 percent. You must speak to the voters that are not completely yours. Karamarko is doing just the opposite by trying to convince voters who are already on the right. Maybe he has good reasons to do this, but I don’t think so. Only by expanding your ideology to embrace more and more people can you be a good ruler.

Do you think that human rights issues in Slovenia have largely been solved?

Except for the Erased, yes.

And that problem is still going on?

Not anymore. The European Court for Human Rights reached a verdict and we have to fulfill it. And that’s that.

And will the government do it? Other countries have ignored the European Court…

Well, that would be really against the nature of Slovenia.

That’s good to hear!

Of course, nobody likes it. I don’t like it that my taxes are going to reimburse people because some stupid bureaucrat did the wrong thing in 1992. But the position in Slovenia is to respect the courts, especially European courts. Maybe the intention of those bureaucrats in 1992 was not bad, but the execution was wrong and we have to pay for it.

We also have, of course, some slight problems with the Roma minority in Slovenia. But if you take into account that there are maximum 10,000 Roma in Slovenia, the scale of this problem is much different than in neighboring countries where they have half a million.

As an ex-human rights activist I would say we are doing very good in the field of human rights except for those two things. And we are doing good also with the Roma minority because there are two models in Slovenia. One is in the eastern part of Slovenia where 4,000 are living, fairly integrated, with electricity, water, schooling. Near the Croatian border, there is a different kind of Roma community, which has more problems interacting with people. But we are solving even that.

One of the issues we focused on 22 years ago was this gap between rich and poor that had emerged in Slovenia. Do you think that for the most part the economic benefits achieved during the years of economic growth were distributed relatively equally throughout society?

In the first years, yes. And in the time of growth, the social welfare state was treated fairly enough: the health care system, the school system. All the social reimbursements were really high, so it’s difficult to complain about that. Of course, in the time of crisis, huge differences began to appear, because the welfare state in Slovenia was completely dependent on the economy. We don’t have access to the transition funds, so the welfare state depends on the budget. If the budget goes down, so does social welfare. It’s suffering now, and it might suffer even more.

There’s a book recently published in the United States about the Slovenian model. It didn’t really talk much about the issue of privatizing the best…

The issue of not privatizing.

Yes. It talked more about the pace of economic reform and it argued that the Slovenian model was quite different from what happened in Poland, for instance. It held it up Slovenia as a useful model, not necessarily for this region any longer but perhaps for other countries in the world thinking about economic reform.

And I agree. Because in capitalism there are just two models. There’s the model where a national economy is highly competitive because it has low taxes and a poor welfare state. And there’s the model with extremely high taxes and an extremely strong welfare state, which of course is the Scandinavian model.

I recently wrote an article about the Scandinavian model of the welfare state. I wrote that there is no economist in the world who can explain why, among the top ten competitive economies in the world, you can find all five Scandinavian states and three Asian states and Switzerland and Malaysia and Singapore. These are five states with extremely high taxes and five states with extremely low taxes. There are some mysteries in economics, too.

We are average. In Slovenia, our tax rate is 40 percent. When I get my wage, 40 percent goes to the state and 60 percent goes for me.

That’s high from a U.S. point of view, but from a Scandinavian point of view that’s…

In Germany, they take away 44 or 45 percent.

A social scientist, not an economist, would look at that situation and say that obviously taxation is not the important variable here in terms of economics. What do you think is the most important variable?

To have an efficient state. This is my answer in that article. The Scandinavians have discovered how important it is to have an efficient state. For example, when you ask a Scandinavian, “Is it really so wise to give an unemployed person 1,000 Euros of support,” they will tell you, “Yes, because if I give him 1,000 Euros, he won’t go to jail, he won’t be a druggie, he won’t steal. Because then it will cost me even more.” I like this answer.

But if you buy a car in Denmark, do you know the tax on the car? 200 percent. So if you buy a car for 10,000 Euros, that car will ultimately cost you 30,000 Euros. Try to explain this to Americans!

Americans would not accept that.

That’s why many people call Denmark a communist state.

A lot of people here in Croatia, but certainly all the people I’ve talked to in Serbia and Bulgaria, have said that the most important factor is the opposite of efficiency: corruption. Which proves your point, too. Corruption is the most important factor holding back Bulgaria and Serbia.

There is no corruption in Scandinavia. Almost none.

What about in Slovenia?

Quite a bit, I’m sorry to say. It’s a bit difficult to understand how you can count corruption, but if you believe the numbers, then yes, quite a bit. In Denmark, in Scandinavia, they believe in good police, good courts, good criminologists, all of which fight corruption. If it’s true that corruption costs Slovenia more than a billion Euro per year, it’s better to invest in police, in courts, in more efficient courts. Because a billion Euro is a lot of money.

So there must be some reason that is not in the economics textbooks why Scandinavians are successful. Maybe the reason is in some other kind of book, a sociology book maybe, that talks about how the values are much different in Scandinavia than they are in the Balkans. In Scandinavia, they value the state, they value the police, they highly value the army, they highly value even administration not to mention teachers. In the Balkans, if you are a teacher, it’s close to being a waiter in a bar.

It’s not just the Balkans. You’ve been to Italy, so you can speak about the challenges there…

This is what happened in Italy, too. Teachers, scientists, research: they are all going down.

They are going down or they are going out? Leaving the country? And is that a problem in Slovenia? It’s obviously a problem in Croatia.

Not yet. But we are struggling right now. Everybody supports the government reforms that would enable us to come out of the crisis. Three reforms are most crucial. The reform of pensions is for obvious reasons since we are living longer. Second is reform of the labor market, which should be more flexible. And third is reform of our banking system to make our bank system healthier. But of course the most important reform is to cut the budget. And people from the university world are pretty angry. They’re already protesting on the street.

If those enterprises were owned by foreign corporations and they cut the work force, then the anger would be directed at foreign corporations. But if they are owned by the state and the state cuts the jobs, then the anger is directed at the state. So there is a political cost to state ownership as well.

Indeed. I wouldn’t take Malaysia or Singapore as a model for central European society. But South Korea is a good example. You pump 20 percent of the budget into science and schools, and within 10-20 years you get one of the most developed societies in the world. We are doing just the opposite.

When we talked 22 years ago, one of your major goals was to see an authentic left emerge in Slovenia, do you think it ever did?


At the time we talked, the Social Democratic party was basically a party of the right. It embraced a rather severe austerity program and was somewhat nationalistic. So, why didn’t an authentic left emerge in Slovenia? Of all the countries in the region, Slovenia would have seemed the most likely place for an authentic left to emerge.

It’s a very simple reason why we don’t have today an authentic left or an authentic right. The reason is the experience of our fathers who fought in the Second World War, when we were divided. As you know, Slovenia was occupied by Germans and by Italians, by Nazis and Fascists. The Nazis succeeded in dividing the Slovenian nation. And then the Communists did as well. Even today we suffer from this division. There are the families of those who collaborated with the German occupiers, and there are the families of those who were on the side of the Partisans, with the resistance. And this is how we interpret politics today, whether you’re talking about privatization or the welfare state or anything. This is the tragedy of Slovenia. We don’t have normal political divisions.

What will take to get beyond this kind of division? The dying off of an entire generation of people?

I’m afraid that we have tried so-called conciliation, but it’s difficult to force conciliation on people who literally fought each other. I was one of those trying to do everything for conciliation. I remember an anecdote when I was trying to convince at least one important resistance veteran to go to the festivity of the veterans of the other side. And he said, “Why would I go there?” You should go there, I said, because you can tell them that you were wrong but you have no hard feelings and we must build the future together. In the end he told me: “Listen, I might go to that festivity, but I won’t say what you are suggesting.” And you know what he wanted to say? “We didn’t kill enough of you!” I was so shocked. That’s when I understood that we need a new generation that’s not poisoned by the stupid divisions of their fathers.

And you think the younger generation…

They’re coming to that point. They don’t give a damn about those things.

That’s a good thing as long as the younger generation stays in Slovenia.

Croatia, Serbia, and all other republics suffered a brain drain. Serbia is maybe the world record holder. Years ago many highly educated young people escaped from Serbia because of Milosevic. It happened also to Croatia but on a minor scale. It’s not happening to Slovenia. Don’t ask me why, because I don’t know. People go, but they like to come back. There’s nice nature in Slovenia. The landscape is perfect. The air is healthy. Maybe that’s why.

If people come to Slovenia from other parts of the region, are you the beneficiary of this brain drain?

Yes, we are a beneficiary. But we also did something about this. For example, years ago we abolished fees for study for everybody who comes from ex-Yugoslav countries. They don’t have to pay anything to go to university. I fought for that. We have also introduced a lot of scholarships, hundreds of scholarships, which then were cancelled last year because there is no money. We did this because we need physicians, doctors, computer programmers, engineers. Mostly they come from Croatia and Serbia. They learn the language in three months. They like to stay here because they are close to home and their wages are three times more than in Serbia, two times more than in Croatia. So, yes, we are a beneficiary.

Almost everyone I talked to in Bulgaria thought that they had been brought into the EU too early for a variety of reasons. Some of them felt that economically they were not prepared. Many others felt that the EU lost an opportunity to use the political leverage of accession to demand that Bulgaria reform more thoroughly, especially on the issue of corruption. Do you think that anybody in Slovenia believes that Slovenia entered the EU too early?

No. Actually public opinion polls say that more than 60 percent of Slovenians are satisfied with being members of the European Union and would vote again for the EU.

Are there any negative side effects to membership? Other than, obviously, the economic crisis.

It’s all connected to the economic crisis. Everybody blames Europe. There is no escape from that.

And in some sense that provides a certain amount of political cover for whatever government is in charge in Ljubljana. They can say, “It’s not our fault.”

Exactly. This is the reason why in all five of the last elections no government was reelected. Which I like. Eight years of one government is too much. I would introduce a law that the government must change every four years.

In Croatia, support for accession was around 66 percent.

In Slovenia, it was 89 percent.

That’s amazing. A lot of people in Croatia expected to be a part of the EU in 2005 or 2006. But do you think that anybody here believes in Croatia that they are entering too early.

Yes, many people believe that, but for different reasons. There are people who think that there is no need to hurry because the European Union is suffering a very bad moment. A year or two years ago, we didn’t know the outcome of the European crisis. Now we can foresee that Europe will survive, and we can foresee that the European Union will somehow reform itself and proceed.

Another group of Croatians are against the EU on the basis of really deep nationalist or hard right positions. In rural areas, I’ve heard people say, “why should we enter the European Union when it’s a Sodom and Gomorrah?” I said, “What?” And they said, “Yes, men are marrying each other, girls are marrying each other. They want to have gay pride parades.” I don’t know how big a percentage of the population this is but perhaps 20-30 percent.

We are very similar, Croatians and Slovenians, and we’ve had similar history for the last 2,000 years. But at the same time we are very different. Gay pride in Slovenia has been around for 10 years. Of course if you introduce a law on gay marriage in Slovenia, there will be a debate. And some Slovenians are not very happy about making such marriages completely equal. But to introduce the law to legalize marriages and for gay people to have equal rights? It’s a piece of cake.

What explains the different cultural attitudes of Croatians and Slovenians?

Historians will tell you that the differences arise from the fact that Croatia was under the Hungarian part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Slovenians were under the Austrian part. But I don’t believe this very much.

The Austrians are not necessarily more liberal when it comes to social attitudes.

I think that rural society in Slovenia was never so rural as it was in Croatia. There are parts of Croatia that are still inaccessible because of bad roads and bad communications. In Slovenia, thanks to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the infrastructure was always there. There have been roads to every village of Slovenia for hundreds of years.

Plus, Slovenian independence was prepared for by civil society, not just by politicians. Even the church had a role in the independence movement here. I remember today’s archbishop in Ljubljana, Anton Stres, was with us. We prepared together the first free elections. He was one of us. So we treat church as a civil society — the most important part of civil society, but still. So this was the difference also.

They have civil society in Croatia, of course, but it suffered a lot because of the war. How could you speak in favor of the Serbs during the war here? Or refugees? There were people who did that, but it was very difficult.

What do you think are the most important issues that Croatia has to deal with in order not only to get into the EU but to succeed once it gets into the EU?

One issue is Croatian, the other is regional. The regional one is even more important. It’s impossible to live in the Balkans if you don’t have relations with all your neighbors. If you’re always trying to resolve issues with your neighbors, you never really have time to promote important ideas. There’s a saying: great minds discuss ideas and small minds discuss neighbors. We should stop discussing neighbors and start discussing ideas.

When I was coordinating the western Balkans in the ministry before I came to Zagreb, I introduced this idea — I have a copyright so you can’t steal it! — called “reconnecting the Balkans.” There is no success in the Balkans without reconnecting, reconnecting everything except politics. We should reconnect everything in former Yugoslavia: energy, roads, railways, sports, culture, economy, market.

You actually talked about supporting an Adriatic alliance 22 years ago.

We cannot escape from here. We are so interdependent.

But the internal problem is that we are all lacking a good, efficient political establishment. Croatia needs to have this. The establishment needs to introduce the laws and reforms so that Croatia can become a booming country. They have everything they need. They have a coastline. They have resources. They even have oil.

In Slovenia, we had a wonderful government that brought us into European Union. We had also a very good political establishment in the first period after we entered the EU. Before that and after that, we were not so lucky.

So, my explanation is very easy. You must have good politicians in the government. If you have bad ones, you can screw up even the best country in the world.

The Interview (1990)

Vojko Volk works as a consultant for the Socialist party, the smallest of the parties in the Slovenian parliament.

Could you describe your work with the Socialist Party?

I used to work as a human rights activist and I also travelled around Europe, but in Western countries. I advise on questions of human rights and international politics. I studied those questions and I worked on those questions. Now those issues are not so hot. In Yugoslavia they are, but in Slovenia, most human rights activists are active in various governmental bodies or in political parties. So I am too.

I understand you have a human rights commission here?

We have some governmental organizations and also a lot of non-governmental organizations. And I used to work in a kind of non-governmental organization for human rights. We had this organization for three years and we worked a lot and had a lot of success. Now, our organization is mostly governmental and works in parliament and it is paid by parliament. And that is better because before we worked as volunteers.

What does the commission work on?

The work of this body is now the same as in Western countries. It works on some issues specific to ex-East countries. These are questions about some problems which were made in the times of totalitarianism: some political judgments, war crimes during and after the war, ex-political police and questions typical to the Western world like issues of security and privacy of information.

In some countries in this region, the new governments must decide what to do with files once kept on citizens.

This problem is mostly solved in Slovenia. Those files are open and anyone who wants them to get them. Our Council for Human Rights is now dealing with questions of criminal code. Because our code is quite socialistic, we have to reform it. So this body of experts works on the reform of the criminal code. Our code is not so problematic as in the southern parts of Yugoslavia. We have not had for instance the death penalty in Slovenia for thirty years now. Now it is also legal, it is written in the constitution, that there is no death penalty. In 1961 we had the last execution. The last people prosecuted for political reasons in 1974 were imprisoned for one year and are now members of the leadership of two of our parties.

Do the governmental or non-governmental organizations devoted to human rights violations deal with problems in other parts of Yugoslavia?

We have solved most of the civil and political rights problems here in Slovenia and also in Croatia. We don’t deal much with political and civil rights. Now we deal with social rights. But in Serbia and other countries they haven’t done anything about political or civil rights. A few days ago in Serbia they registered formally the first political parties. Then you have violations of fundamental civil rights all over. You don’t have free trade unions, you have only a few political parties registered. Then you have all sorts of violations of privacy. Then you have the violations of rights of whole nations, like the Albanians in Kosovo. You perhaps heard about the Helsinki Federation being thrown out of Serbia just two days ago. Their delegation went to see what was going on in Kosovo – since Yugoslavia is a signer of the Helsinki Declaration, they have the right to go and see. But the Serbian police arrested them and declared them persona non grata in Yugoslavia for three years. Our party protested that action with a letter sent to the American Senate and the Helsinki Watch group. It is important that these people now know that it is not Yugoslavia that is violating human rights, but Serbia. Its very important for us because we don’t have violations. We have protested the situation in Kosovo since 1981. We had a very big political gathering here in Slovenia a year ago: all the political parties participated. It was one of the biggest gathering of the year protesting the violations: at the time there were 20 people dead in riots in Kosovo. At that time, we had very strong conflict between Slovenia and Serbia. Serbia also stopped all economic relations with Slovenia. There was an economic embargo.

In what way are you working on social rights?

The social rights is connected with the bad economic situation here in Slovenia. Though Slovenia is quite a developed country with $6000 per capita salary. But we have now the problem of unemployment. From this year on, our people will have to pay for schools, medicine.

Through taxes?

No. Directly. We also pay through our taxes. If you get an average salary of 800 DM, you have to pay 350 DM for taxes. And these taxes include money for school, for medicine, for culture and so on. But now we will have to besides that, directly!

So all services have been privatized?

No, they’re not privatized. This state just doesn’t give enough money to medical institutions and schools because they must find equilibration between industry and non-profit parts of the economy. It is the problem of socialist heritage. It would be very easy to blame the new government. It is the problem of the whole Eastern world. Now the unemployment will 10 per cent like in Western countries. Last year we had 4 per cent. This was a low percentage. One wage in Western Europe is enough to survive for one family. But not here.

What happens to people if they don’t have enough money to pay for school and medicine?

Those people are tax-free. They won’t have to pay. But the problem is that the privatization of schools and medical services is beginning. And we are afraid, as a socialist party, that those people who don’t have enough money will just have to put their children in national schools which will have turned really bad. We want to ensure that everyone will have the chance to go through all the levels of education. We are a nation of 2 million people. We cannot afford to have a big gap between educated and unqualified. Our strategic plan from our party is to have here a higher level of ecuation than in Italy. Another problem is the segregation between the rich and the poor. This segregation will get worse during the privatization of social property. Some wild actions of privatization could ruin our social structure here. Or people from abroad could come and buy all our property.

There seem to be two strategies concerning the privatization of public services like education. Either keep the state services and allow privatization from below. Or actually sell the state properties associated with those services. Which will prevail here?

Nobody knows exactly. Also my party does not know which way to go. But something we do know is that we want a normal and not revolutionary process.

Frankly speaking, I don’t think that any country is ready to recognize an independent Slovenia.

Our general view is that any kind of solution should be rational, functional and democratic. Within these principles, we don’t think very much about the forms that it might take. We support generally confederation. But we also know that if someone would go wrong in Yugoslavia that a sovereign state is one solution. We know what it is like to live in a confederation with big differences. Not just human rights. The index of economic differences between Slovenia and Kosovo is 1:8. The index between Slovenia and Serbia is 1:5. And if you know that the index between Sweden and Turkey is 1:4, you know what this means. You simply cannot have the same criminal or economic code, the same politics, the same international relations with these differences. It is impossible. It is very opportunistic if you live in Italy or Germany and say, “Well, you Yugoslavs should stick together because we don’t want to have problems in the Balkans.” Today, federation is not possible. But confederation – maybe it is stupid because it is not a known term – means for us that each part of this confederation is sovereign and it has in common just those things which are rational and functional. That means common borders, duties, common market of course, common international affairs in general (though it is normal for us to work with Italy and Austria and for Serbia to work with Romania, Bulgaria and Greece). And we can also have a common, but common, army. That means that this common army is composed of armies of those republics. In peace, our army; during a war, duties are common.

Don’t you think that the problems of federation now in Yugoslavia will also make a confederation difficult as well?

Of course.

If there are in fact major economic differences between the partners, won’t common policies be near to impossible to devise and then enforce within a confederation?

But you should look at the EEC. This is a kind of confederation that works on functional, rational issues. Especially economic issues.

But those are equal partners. And where they’re not equals, there will be for instance cash transfers to ensure equality. So practically, confederations cannot possibly work between unequal partners.

Yes, well that’s true. But we know that and despite that we are trying our best to solve our problems within the borders we have. You can do anything in Yugoslavia but change the borders. We hope that these borders will become in ten or fifteen years just formal borders. As in the EEC.

What about Italy trying to regain part of its previous territory in Slovenia?

We are not worried about that. Some lines in Europe are so strong that if they intend to do something like that, they will be ruining the Helsinki document and treaties like that.

The problem is: which surrounding countries are most natural to cooperate with for Slovenia? Middle Europe? Or Slovenia and Serbia? Slovenians have lived in Middle Europe, in Austro-Hungary, with Czechoslovaks, Hungarians, Austrians and North Italians for 200 years. And we are living with Serbians for 70 years. 70 years is nothing compared to 200 years. Our farmer in Slovenia is the same as in southern Austria and is very different from Serbian farmers. For example.

Nations should live together in some kind of homogenous region and then they will be satisfied and they won’t be searching for problems, for wars.

Do you expect a one person/one vote system here in Yugoslavia?

It would be really astonishing if you had one person/one vote in Yugoslavia. We would all turn to Serbs because they are more than ten million.

But what of the Czechoslovak solution with two chambers of parliament?

That works in Czechoslovakia. And we have that system now in Yugoslavia. In our federal parliament we have two chambers, one civil and one republic. And it doesn’t work. Because you always have the process of majoritization.

Have you considered an Adriatic Alliance?

The newest promotion of my party is the idea of the parliament of the Middle Europe. We are developing this idea in the socialist parties of the Alpine-Adriatic. Socialists in Austria and Italy, in Hungary and in southern Poland, in Czechoslovakia, in Croatia and in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Our idea is to make Middle Europe again a common political and economic space. With institutions such as the Council of Europe. Our idea is to make such mechanisms for Middle Europe. There are many reasons for this. First, Italians and Austrians and Germans in Bavaria (who would also be included in Middle Europe) are afraid of the Fourth Reich, as they say, of the united Germany. They are not afraid in political terms but mainly in economic terms. Because Germany has the major economic connections with Yugoslavia and Hungary, not Italy. And Italy wants to be our main economic partner. Also, many of the countries of Middle Europe do not have a chance to join the EEC for another ten years. So this would be to prepare politically and economically these Middle European countries to join the EEC. It would also be a great chance for the USSR to become a member of the European house. We are not prepared now to go to Europe. Our economy is not prepared to compete on equal terms with Germany. It is not a question of making Austro-Hungary again! The fact is that this Middle European space could be very endangered by the process of German unification. We would like to involve all of Yugoslavia in this but they have to express their preparation. Bosnia and Herzegovina is now in the game. And we believe that Macedonia will be soon. And Serbia we will see.

How much support does this idea have outside of socialist parties?

There are some suspicions from people who are not the promoters. If they would be the promoters, however… I think this idea will go through because it means economic advantage to everyone.

Now to turn to the Socialist party. Where does it come from?

Let’s start from the end. We are now quite a modern normal socialist party of the Western type. Our program is like this and so are our documents and our work in Parliament. We are the constructive opposition here and cooperate with all the parties. We are a lay party, which means that we cooperate with the church, but not just with Catholics. Our goals are a socially right state, like the goals of any other socialist party in the West. We are not just ex-Communists in our leadership. There are people who were never in the party. Maybe our leadership has fewer Communists then the present anti-Communist parties. Our heritage is mostly socialists from before the second world war. Socialists had a very rough history here in Slovenia because they were not for Yugoslavia in the 1920s; they were against the Serbian king and they were against the idea of Yugoslavia. So they disappeared because the clerical parties before the war were for Yugoslavia. And there were not many workers before the war. But on the top we had some very strong people, writing books and so on. So we are basing our movement on their thoughts and their thoughts were of the modern socialist movements in the Western world. But we had here in Yugoslavia after the war some kind of national front like in Poland which was working until 2 years ago. Within this national front you had all those individuals who are now in different parties. Out of this national front came the social democrats, the liberals and so on. And the last of the parties to come from the national front was ours, the Socialist Party of Slovenia including myself. Even our human rights organization, which was independent, was financially cooperating on this national front which 2-3 years ago was very open.

The main problem at the beginning of our party was that we were the most eager anti-Communist party in Slovenia. But that was our problem here in Slovenia. Because everyone was telling us that we were some kind of different clothes Communists and it was not true. And we had the most problems on the political scene with the Communists! We decided to go into the elections and reached our six percent of seats in the main chamber of parliament. We won many seats in local communities; we have mayors there. So we are one of smallest parties in parliament, which means that we are also one of the most important parties in Slovenia if you count the parties which are not in parliament. We know that we will have to cooperate with the Communists and the Liberals because we are in the opposition.

The problem is that socialism is not very popular in this country. But if this country develops in a normal way, socialists will become part of the normal power as in France, Italy, Austria or anyone else. We just hope to have better cooperation with Social Democrats. Because they are now in power. Our goal is in one or two years to maybe unify the parties. To have Socialists and Social Democrats in one country is rather stupid.

What are the differences now between Socialists and Social Democrats?

The only difference is that they are in power and are quite right-oriented. We are both kind of members of the Socialist International. But their program is quite right wing.

In what sense right-wing?

In terms of nationalism and social politics.

So what makes it a Social Democratic party exactly?

Nothing really.

The name.

Yes, the name. We know that they will have to change if they want to become really social democrats. That’s the problem with this period.

The problem with membership in the Socialist International is that we are not a party of a formerly acknowledged state. We could be accepted as members of the SI if we were the Yugoslavian Socialist party. So now we are trying our best to convince the SI to have us as a full member. The danger is that new Yugoslav Socialist parties are emerging, with ten members but they call themselves Socialist parties and who knows? It would be rather stupid if the SI gave more legitimacy to those who call themselves socialist than those who are really socialist. And the Serbian Communist party could call itself the Yugoslav Socialist party. A few days ago we had a press conference in which we called the Serbian Socialist party “national socialists” because of what they are doing in Kosovo. We are not prepared to cooperate with them until they change. We cooperate with Croatian socialists, Bosnia-Herzegovina socialists, Montenegro socialists.

In most countries in this region, people say they like the idea of socialism as in Sweden, but the respective governments simply don’t have enough money for such social programs. Therefore, austerity is the only possible answer. How do you answer this here in Slovenia?

Our Social Democrats talk this way. A week ago representatives from our party and from the Social Democrats were at a Western meeting of socialists and the president of the SD spoke this way. And everybody was laughing: what kind of social democrat is this? Well, it’s rather crazy to talk this way. We have a very strong tradition of civil society here. Our sociologists, writers and thinkers began five years ago to promote strongly the idea of civil society which means a separation of power, state of law, and so on. And we have very clear ideas here in Slovenia about what the state of law is, about what government is, about the three levels of power and also about civil society means for normal life. In that way, if you would say “we don’t need a left wing any more,” we would become a very rightwing country in ten years. And in ten years, no one would have any chance to be socialists or to talk of civil society. We would have again totalitarianism here. That’s for sure. And that’s the reason why the intelligentsia which was working on democratization for all these years are not now in power. They are neither in government nor in the opposition. They look from the side. They know that this spirit is very important to survive. The left wing must survive.

You will not see racism and nationalism as strong here in Slovenia as in Croatia. Because in Croatia there was no democratization. They just had totalitarianism then very quick free elections and now they have democracy, so-called. It is a very nationalistic democracy without people who know what democracy is. Romania is also an example of what you have when you don’t have democratization. That is not to give medals to our Communists. But you must give them acknowledgement. At least they have not been repressing democratization for the last ten years.

We know that we don’t have the money for a social state. But that doesn’t mean that we must not fight for social rights! The logic would be very beastly then. You can fight for social rights only in rich countries? That’s rather stupid. We have now two trade unions in Slovenia. And one is pro-government and it says, “don’t strike, people! Because our poor country doesn’t have enough money!” That’s not logical. We are not prepared to forget our ideas and our name simply because it was compromised in history.

“Non-Member Observer Status” a Hollow Victory for Abbas

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

When the State of Palestine was declared a non-member state at the UN General Assembly last week, it was hailed by the Palestinian leadership as key victory for the Palestinians in their struggle to establish their state. The vote at the UNGA where 138 countries voted in favor of Palestine with only nine states against it was an important moral and symbolic victory for the Palestinians, and perhaps, unfortunately, nothing more.

For President Mahmoud Abbas and his Palestinian Authority ( PA), this vote was not a necessary part of a national strategy to achieve real statehood for the Palestinians — in the absence of any peace process with Israel — rather a last-minute attempt to boost his increasingly diminished relevancy and to cover for the Palestinian leadership historic failures. This political victory is also significant in terms of its political and historic ironies.

By the time the Jewish settlers in Palestine, the “Yishuv,” declared their state of Israel in 1948, they had by then an established and experienced army numbered over 60,000 men and immediately after that an air force. For the Palestinians on the other hand, by the time the UN declared their statehood, last week, they have abandoned all of the military capabilities they had in the past and ended up making themselves helpless and defenseless.

In reality, moreover, the new status of Palestine as state is meant to compensate for the failure of the “peace process” with Israel that was supposed to lead to the same conclusion. More importantly, however, it exposes the Palestinian national-secular movement failure to address in reality the continuing statelessness of its people, the issue of Palestinian refugees and their right of return, and what will become of the Palestinians who ended up becoming Israeli citizens after the establishing of Israel in 1948 and the fate of the Palestinian diaspora.

It is worth noting ,meanwhile, that the new Palestinian “victory” and the new status at the UN came only after President Abbas failed last year to submit an application for Palestinian statehood to the UN Security Council under pressure from the US. Abbas could have submitted the application for the UNSC, last year, which would have been denied anyway, but he could have turned to the General Assembly to force it to act in place of the Security Council, and to hold a vote for full membership to the UN in which case he would have won .

But president Abbas did not use that strategy for fear of full confrontation with the US and Israel. This explains why he opted to submit an application for a non-member observer status, a watered-down status from a full-member state.

To sell this “victory” to Palestinians, PA officials have argued publicly that with this new status, Palestine can join the International Criminal Court ( ICC) and other UN agencies, thus threatening to punish Israel over its war crimes and violations of international law. Although this is all true, to activate the ICC investigation, the Palestinian leadership is required to make a declaration to accept the ICC jurisdiction as it did in 2009 and also can join the ICC on an ad-hoc basis.

But this is easier said than done. If and when the Palestinian leadership decides to take Israel to the ICC for its war-crimes violations against Palestinian civilians as per the findings of the Goldstone Report, Israel can at the same time lodge a complaint against Hamas officials accusing them of committing war crimes against its citizens. In this albeit unlikely scenario, the Palestinians will risk having Hamas leaders being prosecuted by the ICC alongside Israeli leaders.

Palestinians ended up in this political limbo ever since the late Yasser Arafat started this “peace process” with Israel over 20 years ago. In order to stay relevant in the regional politics, the Palestinian secular nationalist movement, represented by the PLO, abandoned all of its military means in the hope that negotiating peace with Israel would alone deliver them the state of Palestine on the 1967 borders.

This strategy has proven itself to be self-destructive for the secular nationalists as evident by this hollow victory. At the end of the day this new status changes nothing for Palestinians, while Palestine as envisioned by the UNGA resolution and president Abbas, is increasingly disappearing from the map due to constant illegal Israeli settlement building.

As for Hamas, while labeled as a terrorist organization by most of the world major powers, all that it has to do is to present itself as a credible alternative to the secular nationalist model, especially in light of its recent victory in Gaza, while waiting for the PLO to eventually self-destruct.

Hamas’s victory last month against Israeli attempts to destroy its military capabilities in Gaza shows that Hamas political thinking stands a better chance of establishing a Palestinian state if it shows political flexibility and moderation. Needless to say, Hamas cannot win an outright war with Israel, but maintaining a military capability that in itself can create both deterrence and a leverage against Israel, can be a winning formula to achieve a real statehood for the Palestinians. With those elements in mind, it would not be far-fetched to imagine a deal between Hamas and Israel whereby Palestinians can establish their real state under better conditions.

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

AlterNet: Five Job-Destroying CEOs Trying to “Fix” the Debt

In poll after poll, the American people say they are far more concerned about the jobs crisis than the “debt crisis.” A powerful coalition of CEOs says they have an answer for both problems.

Give us more tax breaks, they say, and we’ll use the money to invest and create jobs. The national economic pie will expand and Uncle Sam will get plenty of the frothy meringue without having to raise tax rates.

That’s the line of the Fix the Debt campaign. Led by more than 90 CEOs, this turbo-charged PR/lobbying machine is blasting the message that such “pro-growth tax reform” should be a pillar of any deficit deal (along with cuts to benefit programs like Social Security and Medicare).

And it might be a good line — if not for some pesky real-world facts. You see the same corporations peddling this line have already been paying next to nothing in taxes. And instead of creating jobs, they’ve been destroying them. Here are five examples of job-cutting, tax-dodging CEOs who are leading Fix the Debt.

1. Randall Stephenson, AT&T
U.S. jobs destroyed since 2007: 54,000
Average effective federal corporate income tax rate, 2009-2011: 6.3%

AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson is part of the problem, not part of the solution. Photo by Alternet.

AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson is part of the problem, not part of the solution. Photo by Alternet.

Randall Stephenson presides over the biggest job destroyer among the Fix the Debt corporate supporters, having eliminated 54,000 jobs since 2007. The company also has one of the largest deficits in its worker pension fund — a gaping hole of $10 billion.

Can Stephenson blame all this belt-tightening on the Tax Man? Not exactly. Over the last three years, AT&T’s tax bills have been miniscule. According to the firm’s own financial reports, they’ve paid Uncle Sam only 6.3 percent on more than $43 billion in profits. If the telecom giant had paid the standard 35 percent corporate tax rate over the last three years, the federal deficit would be $12.5 billion lower.

So where have AT&T’s profits gone? A huge chunk has landed in Stephenson’s own pension fund. His $47 million AT&T retirement account is the third-largest among Fix the Debt CEOs. If converted to an annuity when he hits age 65, it would net him a retirement check of more than a quarter million dollars every month for the rest of his life.

While his economic future is more than secure, Stephenson emerged from a meeting with President Obama on November 28 “optimistic” about the chances of reforming (i.e., cutting) Social Security as part of a deal to avoid the so-called “fiscal cliff.”

2. Lowell McAdam, Verizon
U.S. jobs destroyed since 2007: 30,000
Average effective federal corporate income tax rate, 2009-2011: -3.3%

Another telecommunications giant, Verizon, is close behind AT&T in the layoff leader race, with 30,000 job cuts since 2007. Like its industry peer AT&T, Verizon also has a big deficit in its pension accounts. It would need to cough up $6 billion to meet its promised pension benefits to employees and another $24 billion to meet promised post-retirement health care benefits.

Did the blood-sucking IRS leave Verizon no choice but to slash jobs and underfund worker pensions? Far from it. The company actually got money back from Uncle Sam, despite reporting $34 billion in U.S. profits over the last three years. If Verizon had paid the full corporate tax rate of 35 percent, last year’s national deficit would have been $13.1 billion less. Had that amount been used for public education, it could have covered the cost of employing more than 190,000 elementary teachers for a year.

Verizon’s new CEO, Lowell McAdam, already has $8.7 million in Verizon pension assets, enough to set him up for a $47,834 monthly retirement check. McAdam’s predecessor, Ivan Seidenberg, who has also signed up as a Fix the Debt supporter, retired with more than $70 million in his Verizon retirement package.

Wanna see who is rounding up the worst five? Read the rest at Alternet.

People, Machines, and Challenging the Election Results in Ghana

Ghana President John Mahama.

Ghana President John Mahama.

It’s tough to lose an election. As the United States 2012 election result became evident, Mitt Romney and his team reportedly could not believe that they had been defeated. Apparently, Romney was “shell-shocked.” He did concede to President Obama, but elsewhere in the world, presidential candidates facing defeat don’t always go quietly. In Ghana, where presidential and parliamentary elections have just taken place on December 7 and 8 (the voting was extended into a second day because of technical difficulties), the opposition candidate, Nana Akufo-Addo, is challenging the Electoral Commission’s declaration that John Mahama, the incumbent, has won the presidential election.

As Sunday, December 9 in Ghana came to its end and the results of the large majority of constituencies had been accounted for in an 80% turnout election, Mahama had 50.70% of the vote, followed by Akufo-Addo with 47.74%. (Twenty-three political parties are registered, but the system is dominated by only two: the National Democratic Congress and the New Patriotic Party.) Preparing for the eventuality of unrest, armored vehicles surrounded the Electoral Commission building in Ghana’s capital, Accra, where a small and short-lived protest had earlier broken out. Several religious and other leaders put out appeals to Ghanaian citizens to eschew violence of any sort, with the concerted message that the winner of the election is Ghana as a whole.

Mahama’s victory will give him a second term in power. His history as Ghana’s president is unique in that he was the vice-president until July 2012, when the then-President John Atta Mills died unexpectedly and Mahama was sworn in as the head of state. For the most part, he has continued Mills’s policies, running a well-organized campaign based on promises to improve the country’s infrastructure and the general lot of Ghanaians, particularly in view of the country’s newfound oil wealth. A scholar and author, Mahama has been described as affable and approachable. His acceptance speech was short, informal and humble — certainly without any of the soaring rhetoric that Americans sometimes expect from their presidents.

For challenger Nana Akufo-Addo, the defeat is particularly stinging, as it is a repeat of much the same result in his 2008 bid. An economist and lawyer by training, he comes from a family of well-known political luminaries in Ghana’s history. His education in the UK evident from his clipped, British-tinged accent, he may have appeared to some Ghanaians as rather pedagogic and less a “man of the people” than Mahama.

Ghana’s political process is vigorous. Radio and TV debates between opposing groups can be quite vociferous, and huge political rallies include brash highlife music, dancing, and exuberant flag-waving that make the American counterpart look like a dainty English tea party with finger sandwiches.

This is the first time that Ghana has used a fingerprint-based biometric system during the voting process, in order to eliminate any possibility of fraud. As well intended as the idea is, failure of the devices was the primary cause of massive delays and long lines at the polling stations. By the end of Friday, December 7th, many would-be voters had to be turned away. Most returned, but there is no doubt that some did not, or could not. The country has another four years to get the system working. For some reason, no matter the location, electronic machines and elections don’t always get along.

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

Y-12 Activists May Be Barred From Bringing up the Morality of Nukes at Their Trial

Remember the activists, including an 82-year-old nun, who infiltrated the Y-12 nuclear weapons complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee on July 12? They’re members of Transform Now Plowshares, the current version of the original Plowshares Christian pacifist movement. The Plowshares Eight initiated these kinds of actions in 1980 when they snuck into a General Electric nuclear missile facility in Pennsylvania.

Like their predecessors, the Transform Now Plowshares Three are as physically courageous as they are morally. A lengthy jail term could see at least one of its members, 82-year-old Sister Megan Rice, die while incarcerated.

At the trial in February they each face 15 years in prison and fines up to $500,000. Worse, as the co-director of a nuclear watchdog group in Wisconsin called Nukewatch, John LaForge, wrote at the Transform Now Plowshares site, “federal prosecutors have mentioned bringing two heavier charges, including sabotage ‘during wartime,’ which together carry up to 50 years.”

Even worse, the Transform Now Plowshares Three may be left destitute of tools with which to defend themselves. LaForge explains.

If the government gets it way, the trial judge will keep facts about nuclear weapons away from jurors and make sure that questions about the Bomb’s outlaw status are left out of jury instructions. … before starting deliberations.

On Nov. 2, federal prosecutors [urged the judge] to “preclude defendants from introducing evidence in support of certain justification defenses.” The motion asks the court to forbid all evidence — even expert testimony — about “necessity, international law, Nuremberg Principles, First Amendment protections, the alleged immorality of nuclear weapons, good motive, religious moral or political beliefs regarding nuclear weapons, and the U.S. government’s policy regarding nuclear weapons.”

The prosecution’s justification? That it is “not relevant.” Even though

The U.S. Attorney’s motion … confesses, “[w]e do not suggest that the deployment of nuclear armament systems does not violate international law, but merely that Congress has power to protect government property.”

The value of the Transform Now Plowshares Three’s efforts was initially depreciated because the only kind of soul searching resulting from their actions was about plant security, not the morality of nuclear weapons. Now, federal prosecutors would move to expunge justification for the existence of nuclear weapons from the trial and reduce it to a simple case of trespass and vandalism at a military installation.

Clearly, the U.S. Attorney’s office fears that admitting discussion of the justice of nuclear weapons to the jurors’ deliberations will only obstruct the progress of the trial. More to the point it probably knows it’s an argument it can’t win.

Foiled Coup Against Sudan’s President Bashir Exposes Growing Islamist Dissent

Cross-posted from the Arabist

Last week, Sudanese security forces arrested the country’s ex-spymaster Salah Ghosh and at least a dozen other people, including high-ranking military officers, on charges of attempting a coup against President Omar al-Bashir. Little information has been made available regarding the alleged plotters, but according to AFP, state media also announced that “[t]his plot is led by some opposition party leaders.”

The arrests came a few days after President Bashir returned from a “minor” operation in Saudi Arabia — one of the few places he can travel without fear of being turned over to the ICC to stand trial for war crimes — and oversaw the appointment of one of his main parliamentary boosters as secretary-general of the nation’s Islamic Movement organization, which Bashir and his cohorts created in 1999 after falling out with the cleric Hassan al-Turabi, who in the 1980s and 1990s led the Islamist organization that helped the current regime seize power. The new appointment was strongly criticized by al-Turabi, who is now the leader of the opposition calling for Bashir to step down, and has been described in Sudanese press commentaries as a defeat for “reformists,” since it further weds the organization to the president’s own political party, the NCP. Alex Thurston notes that the political battle at the Islamists’ national conference may not have been a precipitant for the arrest of the accused plotters and other individuals. According to Thurston, “[t]he combination of military defections and Islamist dissent (and of course there is overlap between military and Islamist ranks) poses a major problem for a regime that has relied on these constituencies as pillars of its support.”

If this was a coup by dissatisfied elements of Bashir’s military/intelligence inner circle, it bears out the worst-case scenario(s) alluded to in Reuters’ and the ICG’s November special reports on Khartoum’s precarious control over the factions the regime feels it must placate to avoid being deposed by an increasingly disappointed and impoverished populace. When students and state employees have come out into the streets this this past year to protest government austerity measures, Bashir has dismissed them as “elbow-lickers,” and his security forces have cracked down on them, reportedly spiriting dozens away to be tortured in “ghost houses.”

As an (optimistic) accounting of the “coup” in Al Quds Al-Arabi opines that “regardless of the validity of the charge against the officers of the detainees, this confrontation may have brought the internal crisis in the system to the point of no return” because “there are even signs that the important components in the security sector in turn has withdrawn its support for the regime and sided with the reform camp.”

This would be extremely dangerous to Bashir’s rule because a significant part of the criticism leveled at Bashir from his fellow Islamists stems from the 2005 ceasefire and 2011 independence of South Sudan from the north. Since then, although Sudan and South Sudan “signed several agreements paving the way for resuming vital oil exports and creating a demilitarized zone along their contested, oil-rich border” in September 2012, South Sudan says Khartoum is delaying the implementation of the agreements because it now has “additional demands on security issues that go far beyond the scope of the 27th September agreements.”

Those “issues” are, according to the Sudan Tribune, Khartoum demanding that South Sudan oversee the disarmament of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement – Army North (SPLM/A-N), which is fighting an insurgency against the Sudanese Army in several provinces bordering the new South Sudanese state, provinces which have been absolutely devastated by the ongoing conflict, in which thousands of civilians have been killed and hundreds of thousands more made refugees.

Sudan denies there is a humanitarian crisis, of course, yet still does its best to bar aid and outsiders from entering the region as it carries out military operations. Bashir’s government is not going through with the much-needed September agreement because it claims that the SPLM/A-N gets its marching orders from Juba, and there is some truth in this charge.South Sudan says it has no control over the SPLM/A-N, and this is also partly true because even if it is a kind of “stay-behind” organization, as Khartoum charges, like all “stay-behind” organization the SPLM/A-N has its own parochial interests to consider – Khartoum having been quite clear it is willing to pay a high price in civilian lives to secure this region, one of its few remaining oil sources. Moreover, Juba has enough problems trying to disarm militias within its own borders.

Leaving the military matters aside for now, though, there are still sufficient non-South Sudan-related grievances to hound Bashir. According to Reuters:

Perhaps the biggest threat facing Bashir comes from inside his party. The movement that seized power in 1989 in a burst of religious fervor has atrophied. Younger and mid-level officials are angry that the same people have been running the country for more than two decades. Many educated officials are unhappy because Sudan’s isolation curbs their career prospects.

And, from the ICG:

The NCP is in a state of confusion, extensively fractured and with no coherent strategy for addressing multiple security, political and economic challenges. Members are deeply unhappy with the leadership, its policies and massive corruption. Discontent is rising, and local chapters are increasingly challenging decisions, as well as the party’s general orientation. Internal divisions are spilling into the open in the form of critical memorandums and calls for reform. Different parts of the NCP – right-wing factions in the youth movement, the parliamentary bloc, the army and the student movement – have independently sent written protests to the leadership.

Both centers and the ICG also note that Bashir is earning a reputation as a less-than-sincere Islamist among hardliners in the clerical establishment, such as those who helped organize the anti-Western protests this fall that saw the German embassy in Khartoum assaulted and gutted by fire over the film “Innocence of Muslims.”

Bashir may believe he can dismiss the “elbow-lickers” – his security services moved quickly to cow them of stating any repeat mass demonstrations – and rely on old men like his Islamic Movement secretary-general appointee to hold the Young Turks in line, but given how he rose to power, he cannot be so dismissive of such dissenters as his former spymaster Ghosh and ex-special forces men known as the “Al Sa’ihun” who had been deployed in the conflict with the SPLA up until 2005.

And unfortunately for the two Sudans, if there is one undertaking Bashir can score points on despite the fuel shortages, “ghost houses” and arrests, it is upping the ante on the southern border.

Nuclear Weapons Laboratories National in Name Only

Greg Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group (LASG) recently returned from another one of his trips to Washington, during which he meets with congressional and executive-branch officials and analysts about nuclear weapons. First, he followed up on the proposed nuclear-pit laboratory at Los Alamos, the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF), which has now been delayed five years, in large part due to the efforts of LASG.

He reports in LASG’s most recent newsletter that, despite the delay, the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act, “will almost certainly contain (as does the House version) … a requirement to continue CMRR-NF design and construction.” As of this date, I’m unable to ascertain if that’s the case with the bill, which passed in the Senate yesterday (Dec. 5). Next a House-Senate committee reconciles their separate bills and sends the final version to the president.

Mello gives us an idea of the opposition the LASG has been up against in trying to put “a stake through the heart” of the CMRR-NF just locally in New Mexico (emphasis added).

When and if these provisions pass, they will do so in substantial part because of strong efforts of New Mexico Democrats (Heinrich, Udall, Bingaman, and to a lesser extent Lujan), who have consistently allied with the most hawkish members of Congress to achieve this end.

Mello was also in Washington to reemphasize his concerns with the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which is becoming increasingly privatized.

The last sliver of NNSA which is not a management and operating (M&O) contractor (just 3%, by dollars spent) is not making many decisions. To say there is a leadership vacuum is an understatement.

In fact, writes Mello:

There is very little space left in which a vacuum could form. When it does, the big nuclear labs and plants (i.e. the contractors) automatically fill it.


… when NNSA needs “independent” advice, it generally turns to more contractors to help out. The U.S. nuclear warhead business – and it is a very big business, with sweet multi-decade contracts for the vaguest sort of work that run more than $30 billion in total value in the case of [the Los Alamos National Laboratory] (just to pick one) – has very little federal character left.

Mello explains.

The proposals of the nuclear hawks basically amount to unshackling the contractors even more – giving them even more money to begin even more projects with even less accountability. Despite the appearance of occasional inter-party conflict, the federal government – really all parts of it, at the moment – have basically circled the wagons to protect the contractors who run the warhead complex.

He can only conclude that

… most members of Congress do not really understand the degree of privatization involved, or that the nuclear weapons laboratories are actually corporate actors, not federal.

Is the World Bank turning up the heat?

Daphne Wysham on Al Jazeera discussing the World Bank and climate change:

“It was 1992 when the World Bank was asked at the Rio Earth Summit to begin to marshall the funds to address the climate crisis, to help the developing world move away from fossil fuels, and they have done the exact opposite.”

Daphne Wysham is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and works with the Sustainable Energy and Economy Network. See the interview on Al Jazeera’s website here.

The Private Sector’s Murky Role in Climate Finance

While the costs of mitigating and adapting to climate change rise and thus the need for climate finance in developing countries grows, wealthy governments shift focus from public support to private finance. But can the private sector meet the needs of those most impacted by climate change?

Climate Justice

In the halls of the UN climate negotiations in Doha, Qatar, you will hear a mantra that’s being echoed by developed country governments from their capital cities to international forums. It goes something like this: We’re broke. There’s no public money. And so, we have to use the scarce resources we do have to leverage massive wealth in the private — and particularly the financial — sector.

You’ll also find in the halls of the annual climate summits the faces of private interests — industry reps, investors, and carbon traders. They’re a regular fixture here, but this year the private sector has taken centre stage in debates over climate finance.

At COP18 there are seven times as many side events about getting private finance and carbon markets engaged in climate action as events highlighting the role of public funds.

There has also been a strategic shift in the rhetoric of developed countries away from talking about “providing” climate finance to speaking about “mobilising” money. The former implies public flows. The latter suggests countries are shifting emphasis toward looking outside national budgets for financial resources.

Nowhere is the trend toward privileging the private sector more apparent than in the Green Climate Fund (GCF) — the newest financial institution under the climate Convention. After many contentious debates during the Fund’s design phase, industrialised nations succeeded in creating a sub-fund that guarantees the private sector direct access to the fund.

Countries did win one concession — a ‘no-objection procedure’ that is meant to keep multinational corporations and international investment banks from going directly to the Green Climate Fund to undertake work in countries without the knowledge of national capitals. But investors are already starting to push back, saying that any kind of vetting process by the UN would make private sector engagement untenable.

In light of these challenges, the GCF’s board will have to grapple as they write the Fund’s business model this year with the question of what the ultimate purpose of the Green Climate Fund is — to maximise the involvement of the private sector, or to support low-carbon, climate-resilient sustainable development in poorer nations as its mandate states?

While these two aims don’t have to be mutually exclusive, lessons from existing private sector institutions – like the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation – show that private finance often bypasses low-income countries, fails to reach the poor in middle-income countries, and prioritises large corporations over small and medium enterprises.

In addition, the use of financial intermediaries to repackage and channel capital leads to serious challenges in transparency and public accountability. Particularly important is the fact that private sector money flows where the profit potential is greatest. For a climate fund this means big, mainly mitigation activities — not community-scale projects, adaptation, or disaster relief.

Certainly, the private sector plays a critical role in any economy – and without its participation in making the shift away from dirty energy and polluting industry there will be no transition to a low-carbon future. But the private sector efforts that the Green Climate Fund should support are domestic enterprises that will reinvest wealth to meet the climate priorities of the people and communities most impacted by global warming.

Free Elections Encourage in Sierra Leone, But Most Left Behind by Western Development

The citizens of Sierra Leone have failed to benefit from booming oil exploration and the mining industry.

Cross-posted from The New Context.

Sierra LeoneThe people of Sierra Leone are to be commended for performing their democratic duty—in droves. On November 17, more than 2.2 million voted, almost 90 percent of eligible voters, and no serious violence was reported. Five days later, the National Election Commission (NEC)—responsible for Sierra Leone’s entire voting system, from biometric registration to counting—announced that President Ernest Bai Koroma of the All People’s Congress party (APC) was re-elected to another five-year term. Since Koroma received more than 55 percent of the ballots cast, the run-off election some anticipated was not necessary.

His main opponent, former military leader Julius Bio Maada of The Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), received 37 percent of the vote while seven other presidential candidates split roughly 5 percent. Local races, from councilors and mayors to parliament seats, also comprised the election.

The SLPP leadership, which has traded political power with the APC since 1961, refused to recognized the overall election results and called for its winning parliamentarians and council members to boycott the government until an “independent international assessment” of the voting can be done.

This was a slap at the NEC and its apparent lack of interest in addressing SLPP complaints of election fraud—including charges of APC ballot-stuffing and vote-buying. The NEC has noted the complaints on its website, asking for the accusers to provide solid proof.

The United Nations chief observer Richard Howitt, who lauded the election as peaceful and transparent, acknowledged reports of APC bribery at several polling stations. But cases of tampering in some districts, according to Howitt, have been the “exception, not a trend.” The chief observer did admit that the ruling APC held a strong advantage in campaign resources and media airtime.

Indeed, the majority of English-language press outlets that cover Sierra Leone back the current administration —some more subtly (The Sierra Leone Times, This Is Sierra Leone) than others (Cocorioko, “Sierra Leone’s biggest and most-widely read newspaper”). The most outspoken English-language outlet supporting the opposition SLPP (that doesn’t formally bill itself as SLPP) has been the Sierra Leone Telegraph. (Read a critique of Sierra Leone’s media during the 2012 election here.)

But polarization in the Sierra Leone media—obviously exaggerated during election season, as in the developed world—only represents more problematic political divisions. Voting is generally done by blocs, not by individuals, who benefit from a patronage system that resembles the special interest groups of First World lobbies. From Think Africa Press

The APC draws majority support from the Temne, Limba and other northern tribes, and Krios of the Western Area, while the SLPP are favoured by the Mende and tribes of the southeast. Elections are regarded as “winner takes all” contests with defeat entailing exclusion and disadvantage for the losers, and their regions…. Both parties, when in power, have used their position to fund political campaigns and buy voters. This practice remains widespread. Political parties continue to organise and condone the intimidation of voters, often perpetrated by their youth wings.

Another problem for the frustrated SLPP leadership: Hundreds of international monitors were on the ground, from the European Union, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) as well as the African Union, the UN and the U.S. Carter Center—some observers had been in-country for months. The consensus? A free and fair election in Sierra Leone. The international community bestowed its legitimacy and the only group crying foul is the losing party—not a particularly objective group.

The NEC, an organization steeped in international money and credibility, is not concerned about the SLPP’s accusations—nor is it beholden to Sierra Leoneans. Ernest Bai Koroma was sworn in by the NEC the day after the results were announced, and he has been congratulated by the likes of President Obama, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and EU High Representative Catherine Ashton. The 2012 election is over.


In spite of its wealth of mineral deposits, Sierra Leone is one of the world’s poorest countries. In 2011 it placed 180 out of 187 on the UN Development Index, which ranks life expectancy (49), maternal mortality (970 per 100,000), income per capita ($340 a year) and adult literacy (41 percent). It is slowly creating an infrastructure—based almost entirely on foreign aid and investment—but roads, running water, electricity, health care and telecommunications are still relatively scarce. The average Sierra Leonean’s lack of education and skills limit potential of individual advancement and societal growth, particularly by Western metrics.

And yet according to Businessweek, Sierra Leone has the fastest growing economy in Africa.

Sierra Leone’s $2.2 billion economy will expand 21 percent this year and 7.5 percent in 2013, fueled by diamond mining and iron-ore production by London-based African Minerals Ltd. (AMI) and London Mining Plc (LOND), according to the International Monetary Fund [IMF]. Foreign direct investment soared to $3 billion so far this year from $200 million in 2007, Koroma said in an interview … on Nov. 10.

A UN Security Council report in August had the IMF projecting “extraordinary growth of 35.9 percent in gross domestic product in 2012″ and a Chinese steel company pouring in $1.5 billion.

Earlier in November, a major US evaluator of good governance (to encourage public and private investment) gave the international community a new green light to do business in Sierra Leone. Freetown sent this press release:

The Government of Sierra Leone is pleased to inform the general public, development partners, civil society groups and the media that on November 7th 2012 Sierra Leone passed the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) scorecard for the first time since the international ratings initiative was established in 2004. The MCC is a United States government aid agency that gives funds to low income countries as a reward for good governance. The decision on which countries to give funds to is based on annual performance scorecards consisting of 20 indicators that measure social, political and economic issues.

This news was not picked up by the British press (who regularly cover West Africa), despite the fact that Sierra Leone did not pass the MCC score card in 2011. Perhaps this information didn’t gel with the media narrative, which hyped the election as tight and warned of political violence. The blurb-style coverage in the West rehashed the civil war from a decade ago and never went without the “Sierra Leoneans live on less than $1.25 a day” factoid. Meanwhile, Freetown had improved, within the year, in MCC categories including Freedom of Information, Girls Primary Education Completion Rate and Trade Policy—yet fell short in Natural Resource Protection and Inflation.

Though the mining industry has boomed, and oil exploration is looming, foreign industrial development has not improved the lives of most Sierra Leoneans. But there is potential for Chinese agriculture funding and hope that prolonged peace can build tourism. The promotion of the concept of free and fair elections has been crucial for private investment, which President Koroma is keen to get.

The NEC Goes International

Ernest Bai Koroma was an insurance broker in 2001—a smart businessman who took advantage of postwar restructuring to win the APC’s presidential nomination in a stunning 2002 upset. (He went on to be defeated handily by SLPP incumbent Ahmad Tejan Kabbah.) In 2007, as minority leader of the All People’s Congress, he defeated the vice president of the SLPP, which had been in power for most of the last decade (when not interrupted by coups).

The NEC played an important role in Koroma’s victory. Though a National Election Commission had been enshrined in the 1991 Sierra Leone constitution, the United Nations effectively made it over as an independent organization in 2005, disconnecting it from the national government. In 2006, Dr. Christiana Thorpe, a former government minister with an impeccable human rights résumé, was named Chief Electoral Officer. (During the 1991–2002 civil war, she was politically and socially active and helped found the Sierra Leonean chapter of Forum for African Women Educationalists [FAWE]. She received various international honors, such as the “Voices of Courage” in 2006.) An impartial, independent NEC, seen as above party loyalty and headed by a respected humanitarian, lent the Commission legitimacy going into the 2007 election.

The 2007 presidential election, not this year’s contest, was the true test of Sierra Leone’s national fortitude (despite the media’s natural inclination to exaggerate this November’s historical significance). Just five years after the war, it was the first election to occur without thousands of UK troops deployed. Buoyed by plenty of funding and technical support from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and international donors, Thorpe and the NEC saw to it that the election was given a worldwide stamp of approval as free, fair and generally nonviolent.

The peaceful transfer of power from the Sierra Leone People’s Party to the All People’s Congress in 2007 was a watershed in the nation’s existence. However, it was a controversial NEC ruling that put Koroma and the APC in charge. Implying ballot-stuffing and underage voting, Thorpe’s group announced the annullment of ballots in 477 polling stations where “instances in which greater than 100 percent turnout was reported,” in and around SLPP-held regions such as Kailehun and Kenema (see the National Democratic Institute report).

From one perspective, the action solidified the NEC’s status as an objective institution—after all, outgoing president of the SLPP, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, installed Thorpe as chairwoman. That the NEC acted against the party in power could also be seen as adding to its credibility. The UNDP and the international donors were obviously counting on this view. The other perspective, held today by many in the SLPP, is that the NEC stole the election.

Thorpe was widely hailed for the successful election and won the 2009 German Africa peace prize, which augmented her reputation on the international stage. (Read an interview with her here).

To prepare for 2012 election season, Thorpe and the NEC implemented Biometric Voting Registration (BVR), which started recording fingerprints and faces in January. Critics, citing that a majority of Sierra Leoneans live on dollars a day, questioned the program’s cost-efficiency, as well as its potential for technical malfunctions and abuse. But BVR was funded by the UNDP and international donors, which had sunk $40 million into the Commission, and the new form of registration has not come up as an issue.

Another money problem stoked political ire against the NEC when it substantially raised the registration fees for opposition candidates. The smaller parties took Thorpe to task for “incompetence, poor planning, and deliberate attempts to frustrate the oppositions’ chances,” as the Sierra Leone Telegraph editorialized. When President Koroma offered to subsidize the other candidate registration fees, he raised more ethical questions. The international community condemned the move and fees were eventually lowered.

Former Colonizer Makes Good

The United Kingdom became conspicuously involved with its former West African colony when it sent several thousand troops to end Sierra Leone’s extended, sporadic civil war—made possible by Liberia’s Charles Taylor and Sierra Leone’s lucrative-metals mining, among other things—from 1991 to 2002. The war, which went through many phases with half a dozen factions, became known globally for creating “conflict diamonds” and for the hacking off of limbs by the rebel forces. Between 50 and 75 thousand people died with thousands more dismembered and millions displaced.

In 2000, with United Nations peacekeepers captured by rebel militias and Freetown in danger once again, Prime Minister Tony Blair ordered military operations to evacuate European and British citizens. The mission was quickly expanded by commanders on the ground who secured the capital and airport. Subsequently the British committed to stabilizing the country through counterinsurgency methods and rebuilding the Sierra Leone Army. Along with the paratroopers and special forces came dozens of development and reconstruction agencies to implement various aid packages. The Brits revived Sierra Leone and, along with the UN and thousands of troops, saw the nation through to the May 2002 presidential elections: President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah of the SLPP defeated Ernest Bai Koroma in a landslide.

Blair—blessed by counterinsurgency success and arguably responsible for a new peace and development regime—was considered a hero by many Sierra Leoneans and retained a connection to the land. During his last visit as prime minister in 2007 (a few months before the election), he began work on his African Governance Initiative to promote private investment. He returned to meet with President Koroma and encourage tourism in 2008 and again in 2009.

Blair has praised the good work of Koroma on several occasions, and wrote in 2010: “Since [his 2007 election victory] has taken on the challenges faced by his country, one by one.”

After Blair labeled Koroma a “visionary leader” of Africa, Sierra Leone People’s Party presidential candidate Julius Bio Maada called Blair out (as he’d done before) for picking sides. Maada wrote at the Huffington Post in January 2012

If our President is to be believed, then Sierra Leone is booming. Supported by Tony Blair and international lobbyists, he has taken this message around the world. But good PR is no substitute for the truth…..

For ordinary Sierra Leoneans, life has become much harder. Rice, flour and fish—the essential foodstuffs of our people—have doubled in cost since 2007. Fuel prices have rocketed. Five million Sierra Leoneans remain in desperate poverty. This decline is in contradiction to a government that portrays itself as spearheading an economic boom.


International intervention has reset Sierra Leone on a hopeful path. A string of transparent and peaceful elections are an appropriate and welcome metric of progress. Also, it is important that the reduction in outside government aid and development funds due to the global financial collapse be offset by private enterprise where beneficial. Yet in the drive to make Sierra Leone safe for foreign investment and capital development—in part by creating an international election apparatus—there is a danger of leaving the ordinary Sierra Leonean with no recourse against Freetown’s champions of Western growth.

Michael Quiñones is the editor of The New Context, an online journal of international affairs at the New School.

Page 40 of 239« First...102030...3839404142...506070...Last »