IPS Blog

Both the Muslim Brotherhood and Egyptian Opposition Act as If They’re Playing a Zero-Sum Game

When Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi announced his constitutional declaration last November granting himself unchecked powers, as well as announcing his intentions to go ahead with plans of enacting an Islamist-backed constitution, he was in effect undermining his own legitimacy in the eyes of those who oppose him. Meanwhile, the Egyptian opposition of secularists, nationalists, women groups, minority groups and those who just hate the Muslim Brotherhood went back to Tahrir Square demanding to have their way or no way. As a result both sides entrenched in their respective positions and engaged in a war of elimination, which led the economy to go from bad to worse and sharply polarizing and dividing the Egyptian society.

President Morsi was elected fair and square in the only democratic election Egyptians ever experienced in the modern era, and he deserves to have his chance at governing. That said, however, he should not treat this as a license to undermine the very democracy Egyptians, had sought for decades.

At the same time the Egyptian opposition groups are trying to wrest power from Morsi by forcing him to cancel his controversial decrees that pertain to the constitutional referendum scheduled to take place this coming Saturday. But the manner through which the opposition groups are fighting this battle especially by appealing to foreign powers to intervene on their side is troubling. This kind of divisive political warfare resulted in pushing president Morsi and with him the Muslim Brotherhood into a bunker mentality and equally ready for a drawn-out, yet unnecessary, fight.

The core problem in Egypt is that no one seems to be interested in giving democracy a chance or the time to work or even willing to accept the idea that in a democracy winners and losers can still work together. What’s happening in Egypt today is that every group, whether the governing Muslim Brotherhood party or the opposition of all colors and persuasions, are engaged in a zero-sum game or winner take all.

President Morsi is mainly accused of being more interested in consolidating his and the Muslim Brotherhood powers at the expense of others and acting as if he was elected for forty not four years and behaving as if his name is Mohamad Hosni not Mohamad Morsi.

Adding to the problem is that Arab political culture, Egypt included, is still authoritarian and dictatorial despite the trappings of democracy in the post Arab Spring era. This is because politics in the Arab World revolves around the “charismatic leader” who should save the nation even though he often times ends up destroying it. The Arab world needs good presidents, not Messiahs.

Ali Younes is a writer and analyst based in Washington D.C. He can be reached at: aliyounes98@gmail.com and on Twitter at @clearali.

European Parliament Supports Robin Hood Tax in Landslide Vote

Under pressure to address a massive deficit, legislators voted overwhelmingly this week in favor of a tax on financial speculation. This really happened, I swear.

Robin Hood Tax supporters scored a goal in Europe. Is the U.S. next? Photo by Robin Hood Tax campaign.

Robin Hood Tax supporters scored a goal in Europe. Is the U.S. next? Photo by Robin Hood Tax campaign.

OK, it was in Europe, not the United States. But it could happen here—and it should.

The vote in the European Parliament on December 10 was the latest in a series of victories by international campaigners for a tax on trades of stocks, bonds, and derivatives. Often called a “Robin Hood Tax,” the goal is to raise massive revenues for urgent needs, such as combating unemployment, global poverty, and climate change.

A financial transaction tax would also discourage the senseless high frequency trading that now dominates our financial markets. Recently, the chief economist of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (the top U.S. derivatives regulator) found that such trading practices are hurting traditional investors.

In reaction to the Parliamentary vote, David Hillman, of the U.K. Robin Hood Tax campaign, said that the tax “will raise at least 37 billion euros per year for the countries involved whilst reining in the worst excesses of the financial sector.”

Nicolas Mombrial, a Brussels-based policy adviser for Oxfam, added that “The European Parliament’s overwhelming support reflects the will of Europe’s people. In cash-strapped times, an financial transactions tax is a no-brainer that is morally right, technically feasible, and economically sound.”

Read the rest of this article on the Yes! Magazine website.

U.S. Guilt Over Rwanda Will Only Lead to More Guilt

Rwanda President Paul Kagame.

Rwanda President Paul Kagame.

At the New York Times, Helene Cooper writes about Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and candidate to become the next secretary of state.

“… critics of the Obama administration’s Africa policy have focused on the role of [Rice] in the administration’s failure to take action against the country they see as a major cause of the Congolese crisis, Rwanda. … Ms. Rice’s critics say that is the crux of the problem with the American response to the crisis in Congo: it ignores, for the most part, the role played by [Rwanda President Paul] Kagame in backing [Congolese rebel group] M23, and, as it happens, risks repeating the mistakes of the genocide by not erring on the side of aggressive action.”

Ms. Cooper obtained a quote from Tom Malinowski, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch, who, she writes, “has worked closely with Ms. Rice both in the Clinton administration and after.”

I fear that our collective regret about not stopping the Rwandan genocide, felt by all of us who worked for the Clinton administration, led to policies that overlooked more waves of atrocities in the Congo, which we should equally regret.

There must be a psychological term for this. It’s the exact opposite of the response that’s called for in the wake of a genocide that one failed to help prevent or bring to a conclusion. You’re kidding yourself if you think that giving a pass to a victim of that genocide who is now himself enabling slaughter will alleviate your guilt. That can only be accomplished by thwarting more slaughter, no matter how psychically indebted you are to the perpetrator.

Turning to Israel, it’s doubtful that the attitude of most Americans toward it is motivated by guilt. After all, not many know that, during World War II, for various reasons, the Roosevelt administration failed to allow Jews to emigrate to the United States in substantial numbers. Thus, it’s unlikely that guilt makes us disposed to indulge Israel in its treatment of Palestinians.

But, out of sympathy for Jewish victimization and stirred by Israel’s creation story, we enable Israel in its heavy-handed retaliation against what it perceives as threats. As with Rwanda, no matter how much a people has been victimized in the past, once they become victimizers, they’ve forfeited the right to sympathy for — and guilt about — their pasts.

UPDATE: At Daily Beast, John Prendergast, who worked with Susan Rice, writes:

… some believe that quiet diplomacy with Rwanda will move the region closer to peace, while others contend that punitive measures against Rwanda would hasten a solution. Honorable people can disagree over strategy and tactics. But the implication that Ambassador Rice—who continues to work diligently on the Congo issue—is somehow motivated to protect President Kagame because of guilt over the genocide or other theories is insulting.

The Oracle of Belgrade

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

Sonja Licht.

Sonja Licht.

When I sat down with Sonja Licht in Belgrade in 1990, it was like visiting the Oracle at Delphi. And her predictions of the future were not bright at all.

I’d met Sonja earlier that year through the Helsinki Citizens Assembly (HCA), which she would eventually co-chair with British activist and academic Mary Kaldor. HCA was a radical re-envisioning of Europe. In the late 1980s, before the Berlin Wall fell, activists from both sides of the Iron Curtain planned to meet together to proclaim a new Europe committed to peace and human rights. This exercise of “détente from below” was designed to crack open the bloc system and create the conditions for democracy and freedom in Eastern Europe.

Someone, however, pushed the fast forward button on history. By the time 1990 rolled around, the dissidents in the East had witnessed a dramatic reversal in their fortunes. Vaclav Havel became president of Czechoslovakia, Adam Michnik joined the Polish parliament, and other dissidents were just getting used to life in the limelight. HCA retained its vision of a new kind of Europe, but it recalibrated its short- and medium-term goals. Now, citizens from east and west could work together, without fear of repression, to create new institutions that resolved inter-ethnic disputes, created new kinds of representative structures, and explored different economic models.

The first assembly of HCA was set to take place in Prague in October 1990. Everyone I talked to in the region connected to HCA was excited about the imminent event and eager to establish national chapters.

Although she was looking forward to this first assembly, Sonja Licht was not optimistic about the future. Significant disputes had arisen among the different HCA chapters in Yugoslavia. A long-time civil society activist in Serbia, she anticipated worse to come.

“Yugoslavia is not a problem only for itself,” she told me back in September 1990. “Yugoslavia can really become a very huge problem for a good part of Eastern and Central Europe. Who’s touched by the future of Yugoslavia? Bulgaria, Greece, Romania, Hungary, Albania, and even Italy and Austria. So it is all our neighbors, not to mention other international relations, which would be shaken up by this part of Europe. And if they will be shaken, then much more will be at stake. Something like the dissolution of Yugoslavia will not happen without a civil war and make things much worse in this part of the world.”

No one else I talked with in Yugoslavia at the time was quite so dire in their predictions. But I was persuaded by Sonja’s analysis. When I returned to the United States, I repeated her Delphic predictions. But in 1990, Americans still thought of Yugoslavia as a cheap vacation spot and Sarajevo as nothing more than the location of the 1984 Winter Olympics. “Serbs and Croats? Aren’t they pretty much the same people?” I was asked. “They speak the same language, right?”

When I interviewed Sonja again in Belgrade this September, she didn’t take any pleasure in having been right about the tragedy of Yugoslavia. “I was already convinced in 1990 that we would not avoid a war,” she told me. “I was carefully watching what was happening around us. I saw that there was no internal countervailing energy, and this is why I sounded so pessimistic. I also saw something else. The world couldn’t care less. They simply didn’t understand. First of all, the European Community, but the Americans as well; they didn’t understand how serious this whole thing was. They had their own priorities. Iraq was in those times very present on their agenda. They were busy rearranging the post-Cold War world.”

Now, Sonja Licht is worried about the future not just of the Balkans, but of the entire continent: “As I was worried about the future of my own country in 1989, I am extremely worried about Europe. I hope that you and I don’t meet in 20 years and talk about how we are worried about the planet in the same way. ”

Below the recent interview, I’ve included the transcript of our discussion from 1990.

The Interview (2012)

How would you evaluate all that has happened here in Serbia from 1989 until today on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being most dissatisfied?

In these kinds of places that went through so much, I think it is extremely difficult to quantify. I must at least divide it into two parts. From 1989 to 2000, I would say it’s 1. Our worst nightmares came true. From 2000 until now, I could say that it would be between 4 and 5. By the way, today, September 24, is the anniversary of the democratic elections in 2000 when the Milosevic regime was defeated in an electoral way. Since similar processes happened in a number of countries, some of my colleagues, for example Pavol Demes from Slovakia, have called it an electoral revolution. Whatever we call it, democratic revolution or electoral revolution, our expectations were of course probably irrationally high. We were obviously in the world of wishful thinking. If I want to be very positive about this period after 2000, I would put it between 4 and 5.

How would you evaluate all that has happened to you personally from 1989 until today on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being most dissatisfied?

As a very social person, as a person who cannot divide her private life from her social life, I can say that the answer is similar to the previous question. We were extremely unhappy in the 1990s. And I really think that I could survive it as a more or less normal person because of my husband, who was all the time on my side, and my family. Otherwise I don’t know how I could have survived it and remained normal, whatever “normal” means.

At the same time, during that calamity, I was lucky, first and foremost because of George Soros and the foundation. I had been leading the foundation from 1991 until 2003. I had a tool in my hands to fight the consequences of the war. The most difficult moment in my life was in the summer of 1991 when it became clear that Yugoslavia would collapse. That was the worst moment of my life, after Croatia and Slovenia declared independence and the war de facto started. I was never in such a mood as then. Of course we were trying before that happened, with all forms of anti-war initiatives, to prevent the war. And of course we failed. I say of course we failed because I don’t know one single example in recent history when any movement managed to prevent a war from breaking out if the warmongers decided to start a war. And then the country broke apart.

Thanks to my activist nature, at that time I was co-chair of the Helsinki Citizens Assembly together with Mary Kaldor, I managed with activism to come out of a very difficult suicidal moment in my life, the only suicidal moment of my life. We organized a conference here in Belgrade on July 7, 1991, a huge conference, with participation by Adam Michnik, Milovan Djilas, Ernest Gellner, and many others, devoted to the disintegration of Yugoslavia and the integration of Europe. Already at that time we put it in that framework.

The 1990s were a time of tremendous activism for me, most of it within the Soros Foundation. I mention George Soros first because I don’t know how I could have survived the 1990s without an active interaction with the consequences of the war and trying somehow to make things a little bit better. The foundation managed to address the plethora of consequences, such as the needs of children, especially refugee children. We had a huge humanitarian program for refugees and the local population.

On the other side, we were helping emerging civil society, helping intellectuals no longer able to do their work because of a lack of resources or a lack of outside support. Against all odds, including the sanctions, we were able to provide artists, as well as people in the fields of academic research, culture, and education, with the means to travel, to go to scientific meetings and conferences, and to maintain the communication they had in their previous lives. I used to talk about the necessity to build think tanks and civil society. At one point, one of my good friends evaluating the foundation’s work said, “The most important thing you did was to save people. You saved some creativity and intellectual curiosity in people.” Someone else would say something different, but this statement struck me very much.

That was the 1990s. So, of course we were also very involved in the democratic changes. We supported independent media, Otpor, thousands of different civic as well as independent cultural and educational initiatives. Some were very local, very small; others were large. B92, for example, which at that time was a movement and not just media, was one of our flagship projects.

That brings us to 2000. My personal life, I would put on the scale even higher, especially in those first months of the democratic change. Suddenly I had a feeling that everything I was wishing for came true, and we were heading toward a decent, democratic, and normal society. Then of course in 2005, very personally, my grandson was born and that brought a completely new energy and light into my life, which is still there. And whenever it’s very tough I just have to think about him for a moment and everything gets better.

But then lots of disappointments began again. My life from 1989 to today is a roller coaster. We should all be quite satisfied that we are still alive and still kicking. I left the Soros foundation in 2003 and created the Belgrade Fund for Political Excellence. I have a real problem talking only about myself. I love working with young people, some of whom have aged along with me, and I am satisfied that I obviously know how to choose these great young people.

The Belgrade Fund for Political Excellence organized just a few days ago the second Belgrade Security Forum with extremely rich debates. People left the conference in such good spirit even though everything we were talking about was very difficult: from the crisis of the Eurozone to the major challenges that women are facing in this crisis, also security-wise. On our last panel we had wonderful women including two coming from Libya and Bangladesh. It was fascinating to listen to these women, especially a young woman from Libya and suddenly to realize how similar the risks and the challenges are when compared with women from the United States, Western or Central Europe, and how empowering her thinking is and her action. And she lived her whole life, from age 4 to today in Libya. She talked about how the role of women changed during what she called the revolution. For the first time ever, Libyan women were working in certain fields they never did before. They were going to the gas station to fill up their cars — yes, they were driving, and usually men did that – all the way up to working in the factory. I was sitting beside Mary Kaldor and I said, “Remember World War II in Great Britain and America?” Then the men came back, some of them wounded, some with PTSD. And then of course women were pushed out of power. At one point they controlled their lives, and now they don’t. Do we know this story? Yes, we do. It could be a completely different culture with a different tradition, but the story is so well known. And her main message was: “Please be very careful and don’t impose. We want democracy, but the only way we in Libya can fight for it is for us to come to our own way of fighting for it.”

With the wonderful, gifted and committed young people I am working with I am able to generate this kind of event in Serbia. We did this because we want Serbia to be part of the world and part of the most advanced debates. We manage to be part of the world because these young people have so much commitment to making Serbia part of that world. Yes, a lot of people who came to this meeting also came from different parts of the world, especially Europe because I have had intensive communication with them for more than 20 years. But the event would never succeed without my young colleagues putting in their heart and soul.

And when you look into the future, how would evaluate the near-term prospects for Serbia, on a scale from one to 10 with one being most pessimistic and 10 most optimistic?

I would put the number between 4 and 5.

When I interviewed you in September 1990, you provided the most accurate and the most pessimistic evaluation. Do you remember being so pessimistic at that time?

I remember being very afraid, very frustrated. I’m a born optimist. I was born an activist. The two things don’t go together, pessimism and activism. I remember that I was trying to do all kinds of things, such as organizing women, for example. However, I was already convinced in 1990 that we would not avoid a war. I was carefully watching what was happening around us. I saw that there was no internal countervailing energy, and this is why I sounded so pessimistic.

I also saw something else. The world couldn’t care less. They simply didn’t understand. First of all, the European Community, but the Americans as well; they didn’t understand how serious this whole thing was. They had their own priorities. Iraq was in those times very present on their agenda. They were busy rearranging the post-Cold War world.

I remember that in the period 1989-91 we had so many conferences in different parts of the world, and yet so many wrong forecasts. People didn’t think the Soviet Union would fall apart. They were so short-sighted. They were so impotent. What made me so pessimistic was that I did not see a readiness for preventive action. Unfortunately that turned out to be true.

We should remember that it was also a time of great excitement. The Berlin Wall fell. We all hoped that these countries in Eastern Europe would develop strong democracies with a human face, including social justice and solidarity. Unfortunately, and this is a long story, the dissident movement, with its quest for freedom and democracy, ran into the wall of neoliberalism, which became the model for transition. The neoliberal view as the only one possible, promoted by the Francis Fukuyamas of the world after the end of the Cold War, simply took over as the only game in town. First privatize, then build institutions: and that’s what we have until today.

Of course my part of the world faced not just this kind of challenge but a worse one: the falling apart of the country, ethnic hatred, and all the worst instincts coming from individuals but also from collectives, communities. I’m still convinced that the communist leadership together with the intellectual elite tricked people into this nationalist fever. So the political elite and other parts of the elite are most to be blamed. I was very worried. I saw nationalism instead of democracy taking over: the rights of my people against the rights of every individual. Unfortunately, instead of one country with many problems — a country whose size and human capital would make it quite credible in Europe — we got many small states. Even when very successful — like Slovenia used to be until recently since it had become the model among the new EU members — these small states after a while fall into traps that are the legacy of the dissolution of Yugoslavia. So instead of reforming Yugoslavia into a democratic federation, we managed to destroy it. And I don’t see that anything better came instead.

Now of course we all have another common denominator in the whole region, a common dream, and this is to become part of the EU. I believe that that is our only comparative advantage next to other post-conflict regions. This is why the Balkans could become a successful story after all. We have this common dream, and others don’t. What will happen to our dream is another question. I am a great Europhile because I am a strong supporter of the idea that the EU is the most successful political and peace project in the world. As I just said to a French gentleman, the editor of the journal Le Banquet, whom I met last week, “I survived somehow the dissolution of my own country, but I don’t think I can survive the dissolution of the EU.” It would be too much even for such a stubborn, already aging person like myself. The falling apart of Europe as a project would be a major catastrophe for the whole world, not only for Europe.

Do you anticipate that this will happen?

I don’t. But that’s a fear of people who are smarter than me, people like George Soros. The problem is, and I’m going to quote Mary Kaldor from two days ago who stated at the Belgrade Security Forum: we need more Europe not less Europe as the only way out of this crisis. I’m afraid the statesmanship potential of European leaders is so weak that it can be a serious impediment to our hopes that there will be more Europe. I am going to quote Mary again. People are going to the streets not because of the austerity measures, she said. That they can understood. They are taking to the streets to occupy Wall Street and occupy Hyde Park because they are frustrated with the lack of leadership. And they are afraid because they don’t see who is going to be the one — not one person, of course — who will lead us out of this crisis.

This still very much alive neoliberal model is the third worst thing that has happened since the beginning of the last century. We had of course the huge tragedy of Stalinism. Then we had the huge tragedy of fascism. And I’m afraid that this third thing, this neoconservative, neo-liberal imposed model will be the third huge tragedy. It has brought out such egoism in each society, in people, in states. The whole idea that the market is enough as a mechanism, that everything will fall into place with competition, that through competition we will become a better society, is such a dangerous model. I fully subscribe to the views of people like Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Krguman, Amartya Sen, and others. Sen has been saying these things in a much smarter way than me for I don’t know how many decades. These thinkers even receive the highest prizes, such as the Nobel Prize in economics. And yet they are not taken seriously. The behavior of the leading powers is completely different. And we are now seeing the result. And of course the periphery is much more endangered than the center. Since we are the periphery of Europe we see it very well here.

I know that we live in a multipolar world. And I am fully aware that Europe is not the center of the universe. But at the same time I know that this model that we are tailkng about – the European Union — is the best we’ve had so far. Here I’m quoting a dear woman from Uganda, with whom I was at a huge women’s conference at Guadalajara in 2002. We had a discussion the two of us, a long chat, and she said to me that she’s very hopeful that the EU will succeed according to all the ideas that were at that time on the table. I said, “Why is it so important for you in Uganda?” She said, “Because this is the best model that exists in the world. If we in Africa don’t adopt something similar, I don’t think Africa will survive as a continent.” This was one of the most convincing and at the same time striking statements I ever encountered. By the way, two days ago, when I was giving a closing address at the Belgrade Security Forum, I quoted her.

My dear friend Mary asked me, “Are we ready for a new movement for Europe?” And I said, “of course you can count on me.” I know it sounds a little crazy. I’m 65. But as long as I will bleed, I will fight for this idea. Yugoslavia is a dead idea — gone, finished. I’m never nostalgic. That’s a losing of precious time. But I’m a deep believer in regional cooperation. I believe that by cooperating in our region, by building new forms of confidence-building and working and living together, we can in fact convince ourselves and then we can convince everybody else that this region, despite all the very difficult history we went through, can learn the necessary lessons and can generate something new and creative for ourselves. And maybe we can be a model for others.

In the New York Review of Books, George Soros was very pessimistic about Europe. In some sense, he was saying that the idea of Europe has changed. It’s not just a question of more Europe or less Europe, but the very idea of Europe is changing in a neoliberal direction. In part because of a lack of leadership — he called on more leadership from Merkel. A new division in Europe is emerging between the creditor and the debtor nations and even within societies in Europe. And this will be a very dangerous division, a new kind of Cold War division of Europe. If the nature of Europe itself is changing, maybe the question is not more or less Europe but different conceptions of Europe?

When Mary was talking about more or less Europe, she also mentioned redistribution. As you know, this is the taboo word. You can talk about anything but redistribution. I was never into that. I don’t believe that this planet can survive if we don’t go into a serious questioning of the growing gap of haves and have-nots. This is another way of talking about redistribution, but not only of wealth, also of responsibilities. Helmut Schmidt, who is 90-something and the last great statesman in Germany, said last year in his speech at the Social Democratic Party congress that Germany is in surplus because the great part of Europe is in deficit. He dares to say this. And then he analyzes what it means. You need people like Schmidt and Joschka Fischer to say that something is wrong here, and not just in Germany. Germany is just acting according to the same neoliberal concept, and Germany doesn’t have another Helmut Schmidt.

I’m sure that Europe, like other places in the world, has very smart people. It can’t be that smart people or people with vision have just disappeared! But somehow they’re not in politics. They’re somewhere else. We need that type of people in science, in economy. But we need them first and foremost in politics, in decision-making positions. In Serbia and elsewhere, there is this public assumption that only bad, dishonest, and crooked people go into politics. In my opinion, this is an extremely dangerous assumption. After all, these are the people who are still making decisions about our present and our future. This is by the way why I started this Belgrade Fund for Political Excellence — to try to change the mindsets of politicians as much as possible through the process of education. My role model for this was Elena Nemirovskaya, founder and director of the Moscow School of Political Studies. When I first went to see Lena, when I was invited to speak at her school I knew that this was what I wanted to do.

Lena’s School wouldn’t survive without Soros’ help. I don’t want to say that George Soros is the only bright figure in the world. But in my life, in different ways, he played an extremely important role. Although sometimes we had our differences of opinion, I admire him for being so visionary in understanding what this part of the world means and how you make people aware of the need to fight for the principles of open society. At the same time I admire him because he refused to be part of this neoliberal crap. He made his fortune within that system, but he has consistently refused to be part of it intellectually and morally. I remember, in 1995, at the London School of Economics when he gave his first lecture about market fundamentalism and the fact that the new capitalist societies are not open societies. I told him, “George you added today a lot of new enemies to your list.” He was aware and very proud of that.

George is even more pessimistic than I am. I had a few very pessimistic characters at the conference last week. Some people said that there is no way out. I can’t buy into that — it’s against my nature. But as I was worried about the future of my own country in 1989, I am extremely worried about Europe. I hope that you and I don’t meet in 20 years and talk about how we are worried about the planet in the same way.

You mentioned that Yugoslavia is dead as a concept. You don’t have any Yugonostalgia these days?

Even if I do, I am pushing it aside.

I’m curious about the Helsinki Citizens Assembly — not just as an institution but as an idea — and whether you think there was a moment when something other than the neoliberal model could have triumphed in this part of the world. To a certain extent, HCA represented a different path. Was there a moment when there was a fork in the road and inevitably the countries in this region moved into neoliberalism and there was a moment when it could have been different? Or was it preordained after the fall of Berlin Wall because of where money was, where political power was, that it would move along this path?

I think that possibly there were some moments. I wonder what would have happened if Gorbachev had stayed, at least for a while. I wonder what would have happened if glasnost and perestroika — which were anything but ideal, but which were an opening in even that society — would have been immensely supported.

And then there was the HCA. The HCA was an idea of how to integrate Europe from below. The HCA was trying in a way to integrate all those very different initiatives, movements, and organizations that were really mushrooming after the Wall collapsed. The HCA also had a very strong current of peace organizations. But I’m afraid that the HCA didn’t have a chance because there was always a very organized indifference toward everything coming from below. Even when some dignitaries would sit down with us, the meetings were not substantial. They pretended to care about what civil society says and does. We were going here and there and visiting different important institutions. But I never had the feeling that they were substantially interested in what we had to say and were doing.

The integration of Europe from below meant integrating European citizens into the idea, bringing the idea to them and making them stakeholders. This was not really accepted, and I believe that this is one of the problems today. You see it in all this Euroskepticism. Citizens were never seriously encouraged to be proud Europeans. They were proud Germans and French and Belgians (whatever that means) or Brits or Albanians or Serbs. Being a proud European was simply not there.

Without those top-down and bottom-up approaches meeting and embracing each other, it is extremely difficult for Europe to respect one of its main slogans — unity in diversity. One problem is the European crisis. The other problem is that we don’t know how to live together. You remember how proud we were of that main slogan of unity in diversity. And it is lost because we are stopping people from coming into Europe. According to very serious estimates coming from European think tanks, a workforce of 100 million people will be needed in EU countries by 2050. Yet we are doing everything — letting them get lost in the Aegean or drown in the Mediterranean — just to prevent them from coming.

Last May at the Sofia Forum, there was a lady from Tunisia who said, “Look, you are asking us now how can Europe help. And we don’t really take that question seriously. If Europe was not able to host 20-40,000 Tunisians — many of them very educated, French-speaking Tunisians — and make them into a bridge between Tunisia and Europe, then I won’t take seriously that you want to help.” If maybe Europe would be sensitive and smart enough to open up to the 20-40,000 Tunisians, political Islam wouldn’t have become so prominent in Tunisia. I don’t know. I don’t know these countries and societies enough. But I have enough experience to dare to think this way.

The project of a united Europe carried the potential for a different Europe, not more, not less Europe, but a Europe ready to provide leadership in a world facing tremendous challenges, from global warming to the arms race to problems of migration. Is Europe ready to come out with a new type of thinking about economy that could be strong enough to challenge the model that is basically falling apart in front of our eyes?

Was there a point when you thought that the HCA was not going to work? You talked about when you met with elites and they weren’t interested in your perspective. Was there a moment when you thought, “As much as I love this project, as much as I believe in these principles, it’s just not going to happen”?

I’m not sure if there was a single moment. I think there was a series of moments. I was extremely hopeful when we had the constituent assembly in Prague in October 1990. A thousand people came from all over, and it was like a celebration of a new type of freedom, a new type of communication among those who had never communicated. Then we had our first regular assembly in Bratislava in April 1992. Then we had our second in Ankara in December 1993. Already in Bratislava and especially in Ankara — and by the way, the topic in Ankara was Where Does Europe End? — I already felt that something very important was missing, that we were losing the moment.

For example, in Ankara, I was chairing a huge session that lasted for five-and-a-half hours about the Turkish-Kurdish relationship. I was struck by how totally insensitive some people coming from the core European countries were in facing those issues. In fact, they almost messed up everything. There was a Green representative from Germany who brought that meeting — the first meeting of that kind to take place in a semi-open way — almost to collapse. Probably that was the moment when I started wondering about who are the partners for this project in general, and whether HCA could be a real catalyst for building a partnership between Turkish and Kurdish activists and the Green activists in Germany, for example. That was our basic idea, to bring everyone together and build a new community of those who care and dare to fight for a different Europe. I didn’t believe that we could change everything, but I thought we could have a serious impact. Unfortunately, already in December 1993, I saw that this was simply not happening.

We were holding probably some of the first conciliatory meetings between the Macedonians and the Greeks, the Kosovars and the Serbs, the Azeris and the Armenians — you name it. We knew that this is a long, painful process, and you need devoted people, people who will do it out of commitment, out of conviction. It’s okay if they also want to gain credibility or if this helps their vanity, that’s all okay, as long as we have a positive result. But I realized that unfortunately things are much more difficult than we thought when we were dreaming to create a Europe of communities and not just of nation-states. You can see the results today. This is why we don’t have a fiscal union, why we don’t have European bonds. Yes, the European Union is the most successful political and peace project. But it has not managed until now to become a political community. That is what we need. And again, we need to remember that we are a diverse community and this kind of diversity must be maintained. We can’t be a different Europe within a Fortress Europe model.

I remember in those first preparatory meetings before the first Assembly, there were big arguments over the structure of HCA and the question of Yugoslavia was also brought into that. Do you think that was a cleavage point for HCA?

The first huge argument we had in Budapest — at the first serious preparatory meeting — was about the place and visibility of the LGBT population at the first, founding Assembly. Our Slovenian friends insisted that their role must be visibly mentioned in the program. And the Czechs partners said, “Out of the question. If we put that into the program, we will immediately lose a huge potential constituency.” On one hand, you had the conservative, more patriarchal Eastern European attitude and on the other hand you had the more alternative, more progressive Slovenian attitude. For me, that discussion was very important because it was clear that we have very different worldviews in the same basket.

There were other debates, a few months later, about the structure. But at that time, you also had these debates very much overshadowed by what was happening in Yugoslavia. That was the first real-life challenge to HCA. All kinds of things happened. For example, some of our Slovenian friends suddenly out of the blue started supporting the Slovenian leadership, started to make normative statements like “they are the aggressors and we are the victims.” If we weren’t in such a challenging environment, this would have been maybe a normal debate. As I think back, some of them were for Yugoslavia without an army, Slovenia without an army, and then suddenly Slovenia becomes independent, and some of them became advocates of Slovenia having a huge army. Some of them could not resist this call.

We were not fully aware that we were living through history in the making. On the one hand, there was the fall of the Berlin Wall and the building of a democratic order. On the other hand, there was a country falling into pieces where one kind of autocratic order was being changed by another kind of autocratic order. It was maybe too complicated to understand what was happening at the moment. But HCA also suffered from many different problems including the fact that probably it didn’t have the best possible structure. A group of people was leading the whole process and then there were the national branches, which were sometimes really great at generating all kinds of creative and daring civic ideas and actions. In between were these assemblies every 18 months, which became weaker, weaker, and weaker. We didn’t have the resources for more assemblies, and we probably needed more structure. You see something similar with the Occupy Movements: they have a lot of potential but they have a major problem reaching out to and influencing the decision makers. For this you need structures and for this you need resources.

By the way, I think that the European Council of Foreign Affairs, which I was asked to join a few months ago, is one of those efforts to try to rethink Europe. But I’m afraid that it’s not enough. We must also act. We must do both processes at the same time: rethink the concept and act to save the existing one. If we don’t save the existing one there will be no space for the new one to come.

In 1990, you felt that nationalism had overwhelmed the political discourse in Serbia. Where are we today? We have a new government in Serbia. Some people say that it’s nationalist, it’s reversing some of the promising reforms of the Tadic years. That’s at the top, with the government. But we also have these nationalist formations coming more or less from below, populist movements like Dveri Srpske. There’s obviously a relationship between top and bottom here. Are you fearful of this? Or do you think that Serbia is basically heading in the right direction?

I think that nationalism in Serbia has basically exhausted itself as an overwhelming power. It exhausted itself, and most people understand that it is a dead end. This is why, when you look at the figures in a comparative perspective in the region, hardcore nationalism is much higher in some countries in the region other than in Serbia: Hungary, Bulgaria, not to mention Greece. Unfortunately in Greece there has been the revival of the worst kind of nationalism, which is really scary. And we know why: because of the economic crisis and the problem of migrants. The two things go together.

This doesn’t mean that this nationalism can’t come back in Serbia. But I don’t think that this is our immediate future. In terms of this new government, the majority is coming from the nationalist forces that were active also in the 1990s: the Socialist Party and the Progressive Party (which basically at that time was part of the Serbian Radical Party). But they are acting in completely different circumstances. I’m not worried so much about nationalism but about whether the government has the knowledge and skills to lead this very complex process that Serbia faces: on one hand European integration and on the other hand how to normalize the situation between Serbia and Kosovo.

Many serious analysts here, and also in Europe, believe that this government will have more maneuvering space than the previous government because they are understood as nationalists. These analysts cite De Gaulle and Nixon as examples of conservatives who were more successful than liberals in solving major challenges facing their nations. We’ll see. This government could be part of the solution if it manages to enhance its competence and if it has the right mixture of pressure and support coming on one hand from within the country, from the political opposition and civil society, and on the other hand, from the EU, from all those capitals that really count. For example, the first necessary step is to open the accession negotiations for Serbia, and for all the countries of the Western Balkans, as soon as possible since only through this process we have a chance to build our democratic institutions, rule of law and hence the necessary political culture.

Serbia is in a pretty challenging situation. First and foremost, as with all the other countries in the neighborhood and beyond, this is because of the economy. If the economy collapses in a major way, and there are some reasons to believe that this might happen, then of course we don’t know which way we can go. But this is not unique for Serbia. We saw it in Greece. The situation in Romania and Bulgaria doesn’t look so promising either. I believe that the safeguard here is again the European integration process. I think that it is extremely important that the major European capitals understand this, not only for Serbia but for the whole region. It is difficult to talk only about Serbia. We are so closely dependent on each other in the region: economically and in all other ways.

I think the European Union and the European Commission should have an even more serious regional policy than they do. When I say regional, I mean the enlargement policy. I’m advocating the need to have a very active, very thoughtful task force that would connect different parts within the European Commission, which would deal with the opportunities for how the region can go forward. This is not because I believe that the Balkans is the only important place in the world, but because I believe that the progress of this region could provide stronger institutional recognition for the Commission itself among the member states of the EU and even beyond.

When Berlin, Paris or London make their decisions individually and collectively, they don’t really take the Commission as a decisive factor. I know that this is not pleasant for the Brussels bureaucrats to hear, but this is the truth. In gaining success in the Balkans and in neighboring countries such as Ukraine, for example, or Moldova, they could prove to these capitals that without them the situation will become more serious on the periphery of Europe. They could institutionally strengthen themselves by helping us to become more successful.

It is true that support for immediate European integration in Serbia has fallen to around 50 percent. But 2/3 of Serbian citizens say in the same polls that we need European-type reforms. I think that this proves that there is a serious maturation of the citizens, that they understand that reforms are necessary. They understand that strengthening institutional infrastructure and rule of law is necessary. We have to build on this. This is where I see that Serbia made a huge step forward from the beginning of the 1990s.

Of course, I was hoping personally that we would manage to have stronger institutions over the last 12 years. This institutional weakness is something that worries me deeply. Then if you have in mind that the European Commission is always saying that the Serbian institutional and administrative capacity is much stronger than in other parts of the region, that worries me even more. But I also agree with Ramzi Lami from Albania, one of the most outstanding thinkers and activists from Albania and from the region, who said at our conference two days ago that the region is more successful than individual countries. It sounds like a paradox. But in fact both because of our internal reasons, because of economic exchange, but also because of outside political pressure, we have established visible and not so visible regional ties including in the very sensitive fields of security, police cooperation, and the fight against organized crime, which is unfortunately very powerful still. This cooperation in fact makes us a more successful region than as individual countries. This paradox breeds optimism because it means that we have some potential.

If I remember correctly, you are originally from Vojvodina. What is the future of Vojvodina? In two years, what do you think will be the resolution of the current conflict over decentralization in Serbia?

They will have to come to a compromise. Vojvodina is a different story than anywhere else. In Vojvodina, more than 65 percent of the population is of Serbian background. Anything that would broaden the gap between Belgrade and Novi Sad would be in fact so unacceptable to the citizens that it would simply fail. After all, we are a democratic country, despite all the problems and the huge gaps in our democratic structure. Elections are a pillar of democracy, so whoever would try to really broaden that gap would definitely fail in the next elections.

But we do have a major issue: how to find a form of decentralization — genuine decentralization with full respect for the subsidiarity principle — that would allow for development as well. In general, Vojvodina is unique, not only in Serbia but also in Europe, as one of the remnants, if not the only remnant of a multiethnic and multicultural Austro-Hungarian empire. Vojvodina is a multicultural, multiethnic island. I believe that we all have to put a lot of energy into preserving that island.

Vojvodina is at the same time the most developed part of Serbia, together with Belgrade. It is an agricultural area. And we know how much agriculture is becoming a strategic resource. So it has a lot of features that can make it a vehicle for the development of the whole country. On the other hand, there is also huge development gap between Vojvodina and the rest of the country. With the help of the EU programs and funds, we have to bridge this gap, because those gaps in such a small country like Serbia create a problem. I know that there are still some who dream of greater Hungary, of greater Austria, of greater Serbia. There is again a role here for Brussels to oversee these processes.

My firm opinion is that Vojvodina is not going to become a problem. The good news is that also some of the minority communities, including Hungarian, which is the largest, understand very well that the future is in cooperation. My own institution works with a number of minority councils. We have very good cooperation with the Hungarian minority council. And the largest Hungarian party, with the leadership of Istvan Pasztor, is proving to be a very mature political player.

By the way, our deputy prime minister for European integration was asked about Vojvodina’s representation in Brussels, and she said that it will be absolutely okay, that no one questions the need for Vojvodina to have an office there. The question is how it will work.

With all the lessons we have learned, are we really ready to make major disputes out of such questions? If we do, then it means that we deserve to be unsuccessful and very unhappy once again. But I don’t think that people can be that stupid.

Interview (1990)

Can you begin by describing to me the situation here in Yugoslavia?

It is very difficult in a short time to summarize the situation in Yugoslavia. I would say first of all that politically it is very bad. It is very bad economically as well. Politically it is bad because as you know nationalism is really becoming very bad, it is becoming the main framework of even everyday life, not simply political life. The elections were already held only in Slovenia and Croatia. On a formal level, we can say that the situation there is much better because of this fact. On a substantial level, it is unfortunately not true. Because especially in Croatia, nationalist forces are very strong and it is even very difficult to talk about the beginning of a genuine democracy because this Croatian Democratic Union is so much stronger than anyone else that one can even talk about one party rule which is no longer Communist in essence, but nationalist. Of course, there are quite a number of former Communists in this party. They don’t really have a strong economic program at all. They have a strong national program and this is a very unsophisticated one: the sovereignty of Croatian people over everything else.

On the other hand, in other parts of Yugoslavia, especially in Serbia, there is still a situation without elections. We are waiting for elections and will probably have them quite soon. But I really must tell you: I am very doubtful that it will change anything. Right now, it looks like this will not be a normal election, not a fair election. The new draft of the electoral law is absolutely unsatisfactory. It is done by the former Communist and now so-called Serbian Socialist Party. They want to adopt the same majority system as in Croatia. Which means, not proportional, but two circles: those who gain the majority in the first circle go on to the second circle. Now you can use something like that in France or Britain quite easily. You can say that it is not too fair but it will not change too much in the system. Of course when you have the first elections after fifty years, this kind of electoral system can really give you a parliament that will not represent the will of the people. But even if you put aside this system, there are many other things in the draft of the electoral law. Such as, the campaign will last only one month and that the electoral conditions will not be made up by people of different parties, but by judges, 98 per cent of whom belong to the previous system.

Even with fair elections, I don’t believe we would have a good political situation in Serbia. The Nationalist Bloc is the strongest one. That includes the Socialist party itself and a number of far right nationalist opposition parties, conservative, primitive, with the main idea that first of all Serbia needs to be united, to be safe as Serbia, and we will see about democracy afterwards.

By united you mean…?

United in terms of the two autonomous regions. All of the nationalist parties are against any autonomy for Kosovo. And in such a situation, you cannot speak about solving the internal situation of Serbia. The internal situation of Serbia right now is very bad. We almost have a civil war in Kosovo. It is still under some control. First of all, it is right now under control of the Kosovo Alternative (that’s how the official side calls the Kosovo opposition parties) who have decided on a Gandhian way of resisting the repression of the Serbian government. But, first of all, how long this will last? Second, right now, there are two extremist positions. One is the position of the Serbs themselves: the party in power and most of the opposition parties. The other one is of the Albanians. It is clear that in Serbia they will never agree to the solution that Kosovo attains the status of a republic. And on the other hand, the Kosovo opposition doesn’t want to make any more compromises any more on this issue.

Even if you take a broad-minded position on the question of self-determination, it is still a question: can a minority have the right of self determination to secession? You can say, OK, Slovenians are a constituted nation of Yugoslavia. The same is true for all the other republics. What can we do with the status of Albanians? They insist that they would have to have this status of a constituted nation. But, having in mind that they have their own state, the neighboring state of Albania, I think on the level of international relations this is a big problem. Tomorrow, the Hungarians can have the same claims in Romania, to say that they are a constituted nation of Romania and they want their own republics. And so on and so on, you can go further all over Europe.

What is the percentage of Albanians in Kosovo?

Very high. Kosovo, around 90 per cent. It is used to be after the war, 55-60 percent. It’s clear that this very high percentage cannot be a result of a completely natural process. There was a pressure to make an ethnically clean Kosovo. On the other hand, the problem is not so much only with Kosovo. There’s something like 30 per cent of Albanians already in Macedonia. And a very high percentage of Albanians in Montenegro and southern Serbia. So the issue is: what is going to be the republic, only Kosovo or something else as well? Also, if Kosovo secedes from Serbia or Yugoslavia, that’s the end of Yugoslavia itself as well. Because it will not stop at Kosovo. Macedonia would be next. As you know, the rights of Macedonians in Bulgaria are not accepted at all: they are not recognized as a separate nationality. And because of this whole very strong separatist movements all over Yugoslavia, even in Serbia itself, there is a separatist movement which is nationalist as well coming out in the south. They are coming out with the idea of a Greater Macedonia which of course would mean the changing of borders with Greece and Bulgaria and so on and so forth.

I used to say quite often that Yugoslavia is not a problem only for itself. Yugoslavia can really become a very huge problem for a good part of Eastern and Central Europe. Who are touched by the future of Yugoslavia? Bulgaria, Greece, Romania, Hungary, Albania, and even Italy and Austria. So it is all our neighbors, not to mention other international relations, which would be shaken up by this part of Europe. And if they will be shaken, then much more will be at stake. Something like the dissolution of Yugoslavia will not happen without a civil war and make things much worse in this part of the world. I say this because it is not only the problem of Kosovo. One can imagine that Slovenia can secede without a very huge problem. But as soon as we come to Serbian-Croatian relations–which used always used to be the most difficult problem–we come to the changing of the inner borders of Yugoslavia. Even when we talk about confederation. What will happen with Bosnia? Bosnia has consisted of Muslims, Serbs and Croats. Both sides claim that it belongs to them. This is the first issue they will fight over.

As you probably know, we had a very dangerous situation with the so-called referendum of the Serbs living in Croatia which happened quite recently. There are many hypotheses that this was also provoked by Serbia–which is probably true at least in part. But there is a very strong pressure in Croatia on everyone who is not Croatian. I got a telephone call from a friend of ours from Split. He called out of his mind. He said, “if I go into the city, I see young kids with tattoos of swastikas and the new symbols of the Croatian state.” He said that he was sorry that the telephone line was not so good because you could hear right now people walking on the streets and shouting slogans, this well-know slogan from World War: Hang the Serbs from the trees. There was a genocide as you know in Croatia: something like half the Serbian population was killed. Of course, those people are full of memories and probably their leader was right when he said “These people are not normal.” The Serbs are now talking about these holes. The Ustasa [Croatian puppet government allied to Nazis during WWII] used to kill people and put people in these big holes in the mountains. Of course, many people remember these things. The worst thing is that the nationalists are manipulating with these things in the worst possible way.

This is going on all over Yugoslavia. The nationalist parties are the strongest ones: Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Kosovo. Even in Vojvodina, which used to be a model place of a multinational community living in relatively good understanding. I grew up in Vojvodina and I know: it was a model place of Central Europe. People were living together: Hungarians, Serbs, Croats, Slovaks, Romanians, Ukranians. This is not propaganda, I grew up there. This worked until to the 1960s. When the Communist regime was losing its legitimacy, it tried different things: self-management and self-government, the limited market economy. They all failed because they were so limited they couldn’t work. Then they found out that there is still one thing they hadn’t tried: nationalism. Although there are many historical reasons for what is happening now, I must say that I am convinced that the most important reason is the Communist dictatorship. I must say that they really used these feelings in the worst possible way. On the other hand, they destroyed any social space for any normal way of life. They made people become very authoritarian. In such a state of affairs, nationalism is very good ideology: it is one-dimensional, easy to understand, blud und boden and so on.

This is altogether a very pessimistic view. There are some options but the question is: how strong are they? First let me mention the option of the Yugoslav federal government led by Ante Markovic which is trying to overcome the situation with a substantial economic reform. They do have some good ideas. They do have, I would say, a good will. They did some miracles, as with stopping that awful inflation of the last year. On the other hand, the main side effects of this politics were, first of all, a very strong slowing down of the economy: a recession. Which of course is not simply a Yugoslav specialty. Everybody is attacking Markovic because he is trying to do something with the Yugoslav option. I must tell you that I’m almost completely convinced that, although I don’t believe too much in monetary miracles, he is not really the one to be blamed for this. There were some good projects: as far as I understand, no one is helping him. Those who are attacking him–the Serbian, Croatian, Slovenian governments and so on–are really not doing anything but attacking him. They are promising new steps but…It is very clear in Slovenia. They did have a democratic election. They are the strongest Yugoslav republic, the most developed one. They are very dissatisfied with Markovic but they themselves couldn’t do anything up to now. Of course, it is a very short time to do anything serious. But it seems that what they are doing is moving things backward, not forward. So, Markovic is one of the options. He decided to form a political party–the Union of the Reformist Forces. Whether he wants to make a real party or he simply wants to make a symbolic gesture that there are people who are very much interested in the Yugoslav option–this is another story. He is trying very hard to come out of this deadend situation.

Then there are the options of the Yugoslav left parties. I say left only in comparison with the nationalists. Like the Association for the Yugoslav Democratic Initiatives. Like the Social Democratic Union of Yugoslavia which I am a member of and my husband is the preside3nt of the Serbian section of the party. Such as the Greens. Such as the women’s movement which is getting stronger and which has succeeded, thank god, to stay out of this nationalist euphoria. I don’t know for how long and I’m not sure the part in Kosovo is succeeding. The others are, up to now. I have to add something else, to show how complicated the situation is. We decided at the beginning of the year to form an Independent Union of Women in Zagreb. We did not even add the term “Yugoslavia” insisting that it is transnational, transparty in its structure. A typical umbrella organization without any hierarchy. It is so unhierarchical that maybe it’s bad (I don’t hear anything from other members of the coordinating board for sometimes months). It is the loosest thing you can imagine. The women’s groups in Slovenia refused to become part of the Union because they are afraid that such an umbrella organization will make some pressure on them, in a centralized unitary way. So you see it is very difficult to do anything on the Yugoslav level. Because you have the Slovenians who are afraid of anything on the Yugoslav level. I think this will change quite soon, but right now, this is the situation. It is similar in Macedonia. Many of these groups in Macedonia are also afraid of anything with the word “Yugoslavia” in its title.

The Greens are organized, the women are organized. There is the weak but still existing Helsinki Committee for Human Rights which is also on the Yugoslav level. I don’t insist that the Yugoslav option is the only option for the opposition concerning the nationalists: there are also inside the republics some forces opposing the wild nationalism. But these are not succeeding. It is something like an iron law. I would like to give you an example from Serbia. Even those parties which were formed as democratic, as parties close to the Free Democrats in Hungary, after a while, they slip into this nationalism. It seems that because this nationalism is so strong, they just can’t exist if they want to stay in the political arena. So there are two forces: the nationalists and the others. The others try to organize on the Yugoslav level because this is their main field of excellence. But this is also why there are very weak.

There is the Social Democratic Union of Yugoslavia. But there are also national Social Democratic parties which are not in our unions and they couldn’t resist nationalism either. Couldn’t or didn’t want–that’s another story. Because it is also clear that the nationalists are doing everything they can do to fill up the whole political space and not leave any space for anybody else. Some of those who call themselves social democrats are really nationalists who just want to confuse the public opinion.

There is a new initiative from the Liberal party of Slovenia to discuss with some others who are close to the liberal point of view about the future of Yugoslavia. Now, everyone who is concerned about the future of Yugoslavia is opening up this dialog. The nationalists speak about confederation but without any dialog and without any definition about what they mean about confederation. Those who are not nationalists are really trying to think over this option as well but are trying to open up a dialog.

As far as Yugoslavia is concerned, in this phase of development, nationalism is a regressive force. It cannot help this country to go further in a normal democratic direction. All the stories that nationalism is an integrating force for democracy don’t work. I think it is very important for our Western friends to understand this. I know all the misconceptions. When I was in the States in 1988-89, I had a long series of discussions about it. People were not ready to talk about it. They were looking at Lithuania and Poland and trying to convince me that nationalism is really a liberating force. I think they will understand very soon that even there, this won’t work. I think the most important feature of these nationalisms, putting aside everything else, is that they’re not democratic. They are authoritarian by their very nature. To have a new authoritarian stage of development after this totalitarianism, it will be a disaster. That’s the simplest formula that one can use. In Eastern Europe and in Yugoslavia, it is important to go back to simple formulas. There are these very developed ones and they just don’t work.

For example, I myself am very interested in the position of minorities and minority rights. I came to the conclusion that when I define a minority, I define it in a statistical way. A minority consists of those who are in a minority versus the majority. And I was very glad to find that the Commission of Democracy through Law constituted by the European Council gave the same definition. They made a set of principles on minorities in Europe and they came up with the same definition. They made this Council because they are also coming to understand that this is an important issue.

I think right now we are facing a very long and troublesome period. I don’t exclude the possibility of civil war. Things will not start to work out as long as Milosevic is in power in Serbia. I don’t want to say that he is the only one to blame. But he started this very dangerous process and the others more or less responded to it. He is a remnant of the old period and if he wins the elections in Serbia we’ll have an even worse situation than in Serbia.

He seems enormously popular here in Serbia.

It’s not so enormous as it was. There’s a lot of manipulation with his popularity as well. But there is still a possibility that he would win a fair election. And since we probably won’t have fair elections, the possibility of his winning is that much bigger. He succeeded for quite a while to manipulate with this Serbian nationalism and with Kosovo and now with the position of Serbs in Croatia. But others are taking his flag as well. I don’t want to say that I would be happier if Draskovic comes to power. In a way, he is worse. He advocates a very primitive nationalism. I think he’s a crook and he might be worse. But it would be the beginning of the end of nationalism. The price we would have to pay, I don’t know.

Senator Dole came here yesterday with a number of Senators and Congressmen. And they went to visit the Yugoslav President Jovic who is a nobody by the way. And of course he gave them the old story: they have to compare the rights of the Albanians to other minorities in Europe. Of course they have these rights but de facto everybody knows what is happening. Albanians gathered in front of the hotel in Pristina [in Kosovo], something like 10 o’clock. In the meantime, the police made a riot against them, came with tanks and so on. They were fighting the police and the police was fighting back. And the police succeeded in cleaning up the space. Now Dole arrived in such a situation. What kind of image is Serbia giving with this? My question is: what would happen if they left these 5-6000 people to stay there and shout? I saw a million times pictures of Bush receiving someone at the White House and there are demonstrators standing and shouting. Dole came and there was already this police riot against Albanians. He met with representatives of the Albanian Alternative Union with the presence of journalists. Then he met with the representatives of the Serbian groups there. I know those people: they are the most extreme types that you can imagine. Of course, they came to the conclusion that these groups cannot have dialog with one another and that’s it. But, the image with which he left was the worst one. My question is: what is the Serbian government doing, what does Mr. Milosevic have in mind? Do they want to isolate Serbia from the rest of the world.

There was another Senator here who gave an interview to our newspaper Borba, endorsing what is happening in Croatia and Slovenia and putting the whole blame on Serbia. (That’s not the American approach, I know it very well.) That’s not the whole picture. On the other, Serbia and Milosevic are doing everything possible to ensure this picture is made. They are stimulating a very bad state of mind: that everybody is against us and we can only fight for our national pride and so on.

We must resist this. It is difficult, maybe even dangerous. We are already treated as traitors to the Serbian nation. The deputy editor in chief of Borba told me, “I’m thinking about an editorial in which I endorse all the traitors. And say that what Serbia needs now first of all is traitors.” When somebody like him is ready to write such an editorial, it is clear how far the situation has deteriorated.

Not to continue on this pessimistic way, I must say that more and more people are understanding that this is not the right way. When I say more and more, I mean urban population, young people, in intellectual professions. Not so much for the others, who are the majority. As far as young people are concerned, who are by the way my only hope, they are at a very strong level of apathy, they are not interested in anything, they are trying to stay out of this whole story. Some of them are poisoned with nationalism in a semi-conscious way. A huge number of them are just running away from the whole thing. When you tell them, “look you can’t run away,” they say, “if there’s a civil war, I’ll go away, I’ll go anywhere, I’ll do anything, I’ll just leave.” That is the general feeling among students, young professionals. Of course, what I would like, is to see them engaged in the whole thing.

On the 9th of September, there will be a demonstration against a draft of the electoral law. Six parties from the Nationalist Bloc made a joint demand concerning the change of the draft and were received by the Deputy President of the Serbian parliament. These talks were a complete failure. So they decided to make a demonstration. The first demo of this kind was in June. I didn’t go there because I knew it would be nationalistic. Now I am getting so nervous about Milosevic and this whole electoral law. I told my husband yesterday that I will go to the demonstration on the 9th. And he said, “You know what will happen. You will go there and they will begin with the extreme nationalist songs and slogans. In five minutes you will become sick and so desperate and upset that you will have the feeling that you have no space whatsoever in this world.” And he’s right.

What about trade unions?

The official trade union is trying to catch the last train. They didn’t even change their name. But they’re hectic in speaking out. In Serbia, they are taking a stand close to Milosevic; in Croatia, close to Tudjman. But there is some change. They are taking more and more the stand of the workers. Now the workers themselves don’t believe anymore in the official trade unions. There is a movement to organize unofficial trade unions but it is still weak. The workers are in such an awful economic position. First of all, they are frustrated. At the same time, contrary to the Polish situation, you still have big differences between different industries: those with salaries with very low and those, even within the same factories sometimes, salaries are high. There is therefore a problem with solidarity. It is interesting that the first independent trade unions were organized by intellectuals–the same as in Hungary.

And in Bulgaria.

We just had an awful mining accident. There is no independent trade union of the miners. Calling for the resignation of all those in charge is not enough anymore. It is not the problem of this or that minister. We have at least one mining catastrophe in Yugoslavia each year. It’s not the human factor. The reason is that the mines are old, the technology is old, the whole thing is done as in the Middle Ages. We have more mining catastrophes than in Poland. The only way out for them is to organize their own trade unions and really to change things. You know there was a strike in the very same mine, 14 days before. One of the suspicions is that the something went wrong. It seems that they didn’t control so well the devices and the security. Those who were in charge did not inform the miners who were side by side the ones who eventually died. They left them there to work until the end of the shift. That was 250 people. You wonder why anyone goes down anymore! ButBorba said today that of the 180 miners who died, 165 were married, and only 5 wives were employed. These were very poor people in a poor region.

I was almost sure if you had asked me as year ago, that these independent trade unions would have developed much faster. One of the main reasons it hasn’t, again, is the nationalism.

We do have a women’s movement right now that is stronger than anywhere else in Eastern Europe and is getting stronger and stronger every day especially in Ljubljana, Zagreb, Belgrade.

Is the movement organized around particular issues?

There is one initiative, the SOS telephone, to help women endangered by violence and this is working very well. The other issue is abortion because there is a strong campaign against abortion by the nationalists. This movement is stronger in Slovenia and Croatia because there is Catholicism combined with nationalism. But here in Serbia as well. We organized this initiative quite quickly and got good coverage in the media. Then there is the question of unemployment of women.

Now we organized together with the Feminist Group something that is called the Women’s Lobby where we have representatives of different parties and independent and feminist groups as well. Only the Greens and the Social Democratic party sent their representatives. Even the Democratic party said that they don’t have anybody to deal with this problem.

The ecological movement is quite strong, all over Yugoslavia. Because of the disastrous situation of the rivers and so on. But this is having success in different fields. It was a spontaneous anti-nuclear movement against power plants, organized after Chernobyl. It succeeded, in fact was the first movement to succeed, to push the whole issue in front the Federal parliament and the parliament banned the construction of new nuclear power plants until the year 2000. Which is a great success. It is the only East European country to have made such a decision. Six of them were planned. We have one and they planned six more. It was a spontaneous movement. In Serbia, a kid started the movement among high school students: he got something like 700,000 signatures. It was really well done.

Which doesn’t mean that there aren’t accidents. It was a big scandal when the Greens found that the nuclear waste was burned in a copper mine close to the Romanian border. They still say that it is not true. But the Greens came out with the whole story (there was a very high level of radiation in Belgrade last August, for example).

This Week in OtherWords: 12-12-12

This week in OtherWords, columnist Jim Hightower and cartoonist Khalil Bendib lampoon the latest in airline abuse. If you’re planning to board a plane to celebrate this holiday season with family or friends, I hope that your voyage is as stress-free as possible.

And speaking of this holiday season, please consider making a year-end tax-deductible contribution to OtherWords. Our service is free for newspapers, new media outlets, and engaged citizens. But professional editing, proofreading, and concerted efforts to get new outlets to run these bold opinions requires at least a modest budget. Any amount you can give will be used wisely and effectively to help us expand our nationwide reach. You can make a one-time or a recurring donation on our website or mail a check payable to OtherWords to this address: Institute for Policy Studies; 1112 16th Street, NW, Suite 600; Washington, DC 20036.

For contributions of $100 or more, we’ll send you or someone you designate a copy of columnist Sam Pizzigati‘s latest book: The Rich Don’t Always Win. For contributions of $150 or more, we’ll also include our cartoonist Khalil Bendib‘s latest collection: Too Big to Fail. Both make great gifts.

Scroll down to see this week’s lineup and please subscribe to our weekly newsletter if you haven’t signed up yet.

  1. Ripe for Reduction / Miriam Pemberton
    The pending budget deal must include long-overdue military spending cuts.
  2. Our National Failure to Commit / Don Kraus
    The Senate hasn’t approved any major multilateral treaties since 1997.
  3. Jobs or the Environment? / Lee Ballinger
    Soon it will be too late and we’ll have neither.
  4. Billionaires with No Skin in the Game / Jason Salzman
    If the top two percent is up in arms about losing their Bush tax cuts, why aren’t they generating any street heat?
  5. In Fact, Fairly Taxing the Rich Won’t Scare Them Away / Sam Pizzigati
    Recent research debunks some of the most common arguments against raising taxes on the richest Americans.
  6. The Airline Industry’s Fee-for-All / Jim Hightower
    Nearly every airline these days is addicted to fees.
  7. Our Health Care System is Still Sick / William A. Collins
    The health industry is about making money, not healing.
  8. Fly the Stingy Skies / Khalil Bendib cartoon
Fly the Stingy Skies, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

Fly the Stingy Skies, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

President Obama Stands Poised to Reward Assad’s Biggest Supporter

Cross-posted from the United to End Genocide Blog.

The situation in Syria is grave. Fears of the use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Assad reached new heights last week. The United Nations (UN) is pulling more than 1,000 staffers from Syria due to intensified fighting near the capital. Additionally, a 48-hour Internet blackout has made communications with critical staff impossible.

For nearly two years, Russia has intentionally blocked action to save innocent lives in Syria, even as it remains the main weapons supplier to the Syrian regime. Diplomatically, they have vetoed three UN resolutions for a peace settlement and militarily, they’ve supplied the Assad regime with attack helicopters, advanced defensive missile systems and munitions.

This past summer, a Syrian government plane returned home from Russia with 200 tons of “bank notes,” providing Syria with valuable currency as the United States and others imposed trade sanctions, weakening the Syrian economy. By supplying the murderous Assad regime with currency, weapons and blocking UN resolutions aimed at ending bloodshed in Syria, Russia has become an important lifeline for the brutal Assad government.

As the civilian death toll continues to climb in Syria, President Obama is about to lift Russian trade restrictions that have been in place for 40 years. The Senate voted last week to lift the Cold War-era ban that would normalize trade relations with Russia, to which President Obama responded, “I look forward to receiving and signing this legislation.” Ironically, this will formally make Russia a “most favored nation” of the United States.

Russia’s role in the slaughter of 40,000 people is not what is driving this policy shift. Guess what is? Lawmakers hope that the legislation will boost U.S. exports by giving U.S. businesses increased market access. U.S. exports to Russia could double in 5 years. “Our manufacturing sector needs every boost it can get,” said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry.

Human rights champions in the House and Senate noted that the bill included another Act – the Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act – that targets Russian human rights abusers. The law blacklists Russians connected to the death of Magnitsky, whose crime was working for American law firm in Moscow when he discovered a $230 million tax fraud being carried out by Russian police. He died in police custody. The law will also authorize the blacklisting of those responsible for other gross human rights violations, prohibiting entrance to the United States and use of its banking system.

Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), one of champions for the Magnitsky bill, said “Today, we open a new chapter in U.S. leadership for human rights.”

Maybe so, but what about the human rights of the innocent people of Syria who are being slaughtered by their government? Rewarding Russia with economic perks and declaring it “most favored” while the Russian government provides the murderous Syrian regime with arms and diplomatic cover is wrong.

The United States has appealed for Russia to reverse course on its support of Assad and has condemned Russian intransience with words. But, money talks. By dolling out economic perks and trade deals to Russia – even as people die in Syria – the U.S. is sending precisely the wrong message at the worst possible time.

Tell President Obama that Russia should not be awarded perks while it aids and abets mass murder in Syria. Ask him to stand with the Syrian people by keeping trade restrictions on Russia in place.

Tom Andrews is the President of United to End Genocide.

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: aliyounes98@gmail.com 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.

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