Focal Points Blog

Speaking Openly in Serbia

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

Dragoslav Popovic, a lawyer who works on HIV and AIDS issues.

Dragoslav Popovic, a lawyer who works on HIV and AIDS issues.

The incidence of HIV/AIDS in Serbia is comparatively low: 0.1 percent of the population compared to 0.6 percent in the United States, 1 percent in Russia, and 25 percent in Swaziland. Nevertheless, those who live with the disease report that they are stigmatized, ostracized, and have difficulties gaining access to treatment. Some are fired from their jobs; others are kicked out of their families.

Dragoslav Popovic is a lawyer who has worked for quite a few years on HIV/AIDS issues. He reports that the situation has marginally improved for people with the disease.

“The public perception was worse than it is nowadays,” he told me in an interview in Belgrade last October. “Stigmatization and discrimination were common. From the point of view of treatment, it was even worse, because they had to pay for their treatments and nowadays it’s free. Not many people were in a position to afford that, so it was added stress for them. Even nowadays, when I’m doing consulting with them, they don’t even know their rights as a patient, such as the right to confidentiality. If you don’t confront the doctors and the medical staff, they’ll just continue to do what they’re doing. You have to stand up and tell them, ‘You’re not allowed to do that. That’s confidential information.’ So it’s better nowadays in terms of people speaking more openly, which is as important as making them stronger.”

Speaking openly has been a consistent theme in Dragoslav Popovic’s life, from his self-assertiveness in grade school to his political activism during his university days in the movement to oust Slobodan Milosevic. Speaking openly has also meant taking somewhat unorthodox positions, at least compared to other democracy activists. He has taken a dim view of the Hague Tribunal, and he views Kosovo as Serbian territory. But he has also taken strong stands against Serbian chauvinism and homophobia.

During our conversation, we talked about the assassination of Zoran Djindjic, the role of the Church in Serbia, and his attempts to change the minds of two of his friends, one a Serbian nationalist and the other a diehard follower of Milosevic’s party.

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Burma President’s Dangerous Refusal to Condemn Buddhists for Violence Against Rakhine Muslims

Buddhist monk-rakhine MuslimsFor the past year, Myanmar’s Rakhine State has been overwhelmed by rampant sectarian violence between Buddhists and Muslims. Besides fighting each other, the two communities are also battling global media outlets and the Burmese government for control over the world’s perception of the violence that is permeating their own lives.

Time magazine’s July 1 issue has been one of the most controversial attempts at framing the violence. The cover condemns Buddhist monk U Wirathu, leader of the Buddhist nationalist 969 Movement, as the “face of Buddhist terror.” In reaction, Myanmar President Thein Sein promptly banned the issue for allegedly misrepresenting Myanmar’s Buddhists and the situation in Rakhine. A closer examination of the Rakhine state violence reveals that the issue is much more complex than both Time and the nation’s president make it out to be.

The recent clashes between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims began in June 2012 with the rape and murder of a Buddhist woman by three Rohingya attackers, which initiated a violent backlash from members of the Buddhist community. Since then, around 250 people in the Rakhine region have been killed and several thousand, mostly Muslims, have been forced to flee their homes. Everyone agrees that the conflict is horrific—President Sein issued a state of emergency in the region back in March. But what remains contested is who should be held responsible for the violence. Who is really attacking whom?

Many, including Time, are pointing straight at U Wirathu, whose anti-Islamic 969 campaign has hit city streets with posters, CDs, and graffiti to advertise its disturbing platform. Wirathu dreams of a religiously segregated Myanmar and has drafted a law that restricts inter-faith marriage. Only 5 percent of the Burmese population identifies as Muslim, and yet the 969 campaign views this narrow demographic as a burden and threat to Burmese Buddhists. Wirathu’s following of Buddhist monks is growing, and his sermons seem to be inspiring hate and violence, despite the campaign’s claim to have non-violent intentions.

Other groups in Myanmar, like this purportedly Muslim Facebook group, insist it is not the Buddhists who are causing violence. However, the emerging correlation between the campaign’s increasing size and influence and an increase in anti-Muslim riots is difficult to deny. One Muslim resident expressed his fears, saying “the more we see the ‘969’ signs, the more we feel unsafe.” From the other side, Wirathu expresses concerns for his own safety. In an interview with the Irrawaddy, he claimed that Muslims “want me to be arrested, or killed. That’s why they put me on the [Time] cover, I think. … Extremists are trying to turn Burma into an Islamic country.”

In the midst of this blame game, President Thein Sein refuses to publicly choose sides. When questioned by ABC News, Sein denied that the violence in Rakhine is at all ethnic, racial, or religious, claiming that the portrayal of the violence as such only polarizes the communities further. He has also defended the campaign, calling U Wirathu “noble,” which exposes the government’s bias and excuses the hate-speech that, if not directly inspiring violence, undoubtedly encourages the further bifurcation of communities.

So far Sein’s tactic of forcibly denying the ethno-religious charge has not made situation easier to resolve. Order has not been restored to the region and hopes of reconciliation between groups recede as the violence increases. If Sein continues to support a campaign that preaches hate, he will effectively obliterate the nation’s chances of restoring peace and creating unity among its diverse peoples. We can only hope that the growing urgency of the situation will force the Burmese government to drop the act and start promoting tolerance and integration now, both for the sake of those suffering in the Rakhine state, and for the nation’s future as a transitioning democracy.

Emma Lo is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.

Poison Gas and Arabian Tales

“It is not unlike Sherlock Holmes and the dog that didn’t bark. It’s not just that we can’t prove a sarin attack, it is that we are not seeing what we would expect to see from a sarin attack.”
– Jean-Pascal Zanders, former senior research fellow at the European Union’s Institute for Security Studies

Allegations of sarin use by the Syrian government are bedeviled by chain-of-custody issues.

Allegations of sarin use by the Syrian government are bedeviled by chain-of-custody issues.

Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional detective, cracked the case of the “Silver Blaze” by concluding that a murder and theft had to be an inside job because the watchdog never barked. It would be a good idea to keep this in mind when it comes to determining whether the Syrian government used poison gas against its opponents. And since the Obama administration is citing “proof” that the chemical warfare agent sarin was used by the Syrian government as the basis for escalating its intervention in the two-year old civil war, this is hardly an academic exercise.

Like Holmes, start with the facts.

According to French, British, Israeli and U.S. intelligence services, the regime of President Bashar al-Assad used sarin on at least 10 different occasions, resulting in the deaths of some 100 to 150 people. The “proof” for this is based on tissue and blood samples—British intelligence claims contaminated soil as well—from victims of the attacks. The samples were gathered in Syria, taken to Turkey, and turned over to the intelligence services and the United Nations.

The French newspaper Le Monde also reports that one of its reporters suffered blurred vision and nausea during one of these attacks, and the paper has published photos of purported victims being treated. There is, as well, a video of insurgent fighters donning gas masks. Besides the photos and video images, no evidence has been released to the press.

What about the beast itself?

The chemical was invented in Germany in 1938 as a pesticide. It is a nerve agent—as opposed to a “blistering agent” like mustard gas—and kills by blocking the body’s ability to control the chemical that allows muscles to turn themselves off. As the Office of Emergency Management puts it, “Without an ‘off switch,’ the glands and muscles are constantly being stimulated. They may tire and no longer be able to sustain breathing function.”

You suffocate.

Sarin is a colorless and odorless liquid, and it is “volatile”—that is, it quickly turns into a gas. Even in small concentrations, it is very deadly and can kill within minutes. It is absorbed through the skin or lungs and can contaminate clothing for up to 30 minutes. The British created a far deadlier and less volatile variant of sarin called V. It was an errant VX cloud from the U.S. Army’s Dugway Proving Ground that killed some 6,000 sheep in Utah’s Skull Valley in 1968.

Many countries have chemical weapons, but some, including the U.S. and Russia, are in the process of destroying them under the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention. Sarin is considered a “weapon of mass destruction” under UN Resolution 687, although that label is a bit of a misnomer. It is certainly bad stuff. In 1988 Saddam Hussein used sarin to kill several thousand Kurds in the city of Halabja, and sarin and mustard gas were used during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88). It is estimated that gas inflicted about 5 percent of Iran’s casualties in that war.

But poison gas is generally considered more of a nuisance than a weapon capable of creating large numbers of dead and wounded. It only accounted for one percent of the casualties in World War I, and doesn’t compare with a real weapon of mass destruction. The two nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed some 250,000 people and injured hundreds of thousands more. And by today’s standard of nuclear weapons, those bombs were tiny.

While chemical weapons are scary, they are no more indiscriminate in what they kill than 1,000-lb bombs and cluster weapons, indeed much of the arsenals of modern armies. Small arms, for instance, inflict 90 percent of civilian casualties.

In any case, President Obama made the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war his “red line,” a barrier he claims has now been breached.

Has it?

Philip Coyle, a senior scientist at Washington’s Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation has his doubts, telling the McClatchy newspapers that from what he has observed of the evidence, it doesn’t look as if sarin was used.

Jean-Pascal Zanders, former head of the Chemical and Biological Warfare Project at the Stockholm international Peace Research Institute questions some of the reports in Le Monde. For instance, the newspaper reports that victims traveled a long distance for medical care, which he suggests is unlikely if sarin was used. He also points out there are no reports of medical workers dying from exposure to victims, even though sarin clings to clothing for up to a half hour. He also questions a Le Monde report that one victim was given 15 shots of the antidote atropine, a dose that would surely have been fatal.

“In a world where even the secret execution of Saddam Hussein was taped by someone, it doesn’t make sense that we don’t see videos, that we don’t see photos showing bodies of the dead, the reddened faces and the bluish extremities of the afflicted,” he says.

While the French claim they have an “unbroken chain of custody” from the attack to the lab, even experts who believe the intelligence reports disagree. Greg Thielmann of the Arms Control Association says that while his “guess” is that the poison gas was used, there is a lack of “continuous chain of custody for the physiological samples from those exposed to sarin.”

One “Western diplomat” told the Washington Post, “The chain-of-custody issue is a real issue,” in part because the “red line” speech was an incentive to “prove” chemical weapons had been used. As Rolf Ekeus, a Swedish scientist who headed the UN’s weapons inspections in Iraq, said, “If you are the opposition…you have an interest in giving the impression that some chemical weapons have been used.”

According to a report in the New York Times, samples gathered in Aleppo were carried by a civilian courier from that city to the Turkish border town of Reyhanli, “a journey that took longer than expected. At one point,” reports the Times, “the courier forgot the blood vials, which were not refrigerated, in his car. Ten days after the attack, the vials arrived at the Turkish field office for the Syrian American Medical Society.”

In short, the samples were hardly secured during the week and a half it took them to get to Turkey, and they were delivered into the hands of insurgency supporters.

Carla del Ponte, former war crimes prosecutor and currently a member of the UN Commission of Inquiry on the use of chemical weapons in Syria, says it was the rebels, not Syria, who are the guilty party.

Damascus refuses to allow the UN to test for chemical weapons inside of Syria, which certainly raises suspicions. On the other hand the UN has not exactly been a neutral bystander in the civil war. UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon has demanded “unfettered access”—an unlikely event in the middle of a war—and while sharply condemning Iran and Russia for supplying arms to Assad, has muted such criticism of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the main arms suppliers for the rebels.

There is a certain common sense factor in all this as well. Would the Assad government really “cross the red line” in order to kill 150 people?

When U.S. Special Forces invaded Syria in 2008 to attack what they claimed was a “terrorist gathering”—it turned out to be carpenters and farmers—the Syrians protested, but did nothing. At the time, Syria’s Foreign Minister told Der Speigel that Damascus had no wish to “escalate the situation” with the U.S. “We are not Georgia” he added, an illusion to Georgia’s disastrous decision to pick a fight with Russia in the 2008 Russian-Georgian war.

Nor has Syria responded to three bombing raids by Israel, knowing that challenging the powerful Israeli air force would be suicidal.

Western intelligence services want us to believe that Damascus deliberately courted direct U.S. intervention for something totally marginal to the war. Maybe the Assad regime has lost its senses. Maybe some local commanders took the initiative to do something criminal and dumb. Maybe the whole thing is a set-up.

Shouldn’t we wait until the dog barks?

For more of Conn Hallinan’s essays visit Dispatches From the Edge. Meanwhile, his novels about the ancient Romans can be found at The Middle Empire Series.

Emphasis Added: the Week in Pieces (7/5)

Taliban drug-dealing

Taliban drug-dealing

Total Surveillance Failed to Net Snowden

Except that all the national security surveillance in the world didn’t catch him before he flew to Hong Kong to meet with reporters and turn over evidence of these secret slides that document an out-of-control surveillance program. Whoops.

White suburban soccer moms love NSA surveillance!, Falguni Sheth, Salon

Must Have Missed the Fatwa About Drug Dealing

The Taliban now seem more focused on the drug trade than on fighting the enemy. “The Taliban’s new definition of jihad is making money from the drug trade,” says Abdali. The Helmand subcommander puts it this way: “We are using all of our energy protecting poppy fields, our drug interests, and convoys from government forces.” [An analyst] says he has never seen the Taliban fight so hard to protect their turf.

The Taliban’s Life of Luxury, Ron Moreau, Newsweek

They Forgot to Include Funds for Developing a Tree That Grows Money in Their Budget

According to a 2012 study by two Stimson Center researchers, U.S. spending on nuclear weapons is approximately $31 billion per year. The projected costs for maintaining and modernizing the current U.S. nuclear force will increase those costs in the coming decade.

The Navy is currently planning for 12 new nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines to carry more than 1,000 nuclear warheads into the 2070s, at a total cost of almost $350 billion. The Air Force wants a new, nuclear-armed strategic bomber that would cost at least $68 billion, as well as a new fleet of land-based ballistic missiles that would cost billions more. Current plans call for upgrading about 300 units of the tactical version and about 100 of the strategic version of the B61 nuclear warhead at an estimated cost exceeding $10.4 billion.

Renewed U.S.-Led Nuclear Weapons Risk Reduction Steps Are Necessary and Overdue, Daryl Kimball, Arms Control Today

Remember: It Was the U.S. That Flipped the Ignition Switch on This Infernal Machine

By the end of this one day, 231 people will have been killed by rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), snipers or roadside bombs. Security forces will have reported finding another 86 bodies, most of them bound, tortured and shot, “execution style,” as the reports read.

On this day, 58 home-made bombs will explode and 33 others will be defused, insurgents will fire on US troops in 61 incidents, nine weapons stockpiles will be discovered and an unknown number of people will be kidnapped in seven ambushes. At three points throughout the day, there will be a brief flash of hope that the kidnapped deputy health minister will be found alive, after all.

The 1,345th day of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Nov. 23, 2006, is a particularly brutal day in the war in Iraq, bloodier than any before it.

The WikiLeaks Iraq Logs: A Protocol of Barbarity, Der Spiegel

Thanks to WikiLeaks, Stratfor’s Credibility Shattered

A company called Stratfor was revealed has having tried to render the Lockerbie bomber out of Libya as that country was falling apart. Private companies should not have their own foreign policies. Bad things happen when they do, as I was saying to the shade of Mohammad Mossadegh just the other day.

A Marriage of Convenience, Charles Pierce, Esquire

Two Cheers for the Serbian Government

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

Danilo Vukovic

Danilo Vukovic

It’s not easy to find people in East-Central Europe who will put in a good word for government.

First there are all the traditional complaints: government is slow, inefficient, corrupt. On top of that is the residual anti-communist belief that current state structures are only cosmetically altered versions of the old system. Then throw in the more fashionable neo-liberal critique of government as too large and crippling the invisible hand of the market. Finally add all the non-governmental organizations that are devoted to demonstrating that government is not accountable, not delivering the right services, not guaranteeing human rights, and so on.

Put this all together and government is not part of the solution, it’s part of the problem. Indeed, for many people, it is the problem. This is hardly unique to the region. Anti-government sentiment is quite popular even in the United States, where we have government of, for, and by the people who dislike government.

It can also be quite difficult to disentangle the agendas of political parties from the everyday work of unelected civil servants. In Hungary, for instance, the government of Victor Orban has attracted international condemnation for pushing through controversial amendments to the constitution. But the Hungarian government also consists of the constitutional court and the office of the ombudsman, both of which have pushed back against Orban’s creeping authoritarianism. Obviously government is not just one, undifferentiated entity.

Danilo Vukovic currently works for an NGO in Serbia — the Development Initiative Group (Secons) – but he has also worked in government and with the United Nations. He has a more charitable view of the Serbian government than many of his colleagues from other NGOs.

“Because I’ve worked for the government,” he told me in an interview at his Belgrade office in October, “I don’t think it’s all black and white. When you’re in government, you also meet many people who want to do the work they’re supposed to do, but they meet obstacles. And the obstacles are not always political. It’s not that somebody wants to block you, but things are complicated and difficult, and you can’t change them so easily. If it were easy, we would probably be Switzerland at this point.”

In research projects at Secons, Vukovic has evaluated the improvements in government performance in Serbia – the training of staff, the implementation of new guidelines, the improvement of the technology and infrastructure – and identified weaknesses in decisionmaking and intra-government mobility. Challenges notwithstanding, the professionalism of Serbian officials has markedly improved since his first visit to government offices in 2002.

“But they are never as good as we would like,” he said. “Probably people living in Liechtenstein say, “Well, our government is not good enough.” On the other hand, our government is for sure better in the areas that I know than the governments in Montenegro or Bosnia. People working with the Croatian government claim that the difference with Serbia is not so big as you would imagine, considering that Croatia is about to join the EU. So, this is another sign that Serbia has a more developed administration.”

Vukovic is now focused on the legislative process in Serbia – how laws are created, influenced, and enacted. We talked in particular about social policy and its impact on marginalized populations such as the Roma, refugees, and people with disabilities. He is interested most of all in the nuts and bolts of policy: how to make what might seem to be small alterations in rules, regulations, and laws that nevertheless have a major impact on the quality of life of Serbian citizens.

The Interview

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

No. But I do remember where I was when I heard the news that Tito died, which was eight years ago before. That says something about the importance of the events for me.

Tell me about where you were when you heard about Tito’s death.

We heard about it in preschool, and people were crying. I remember going back home. My parents were there, and my aunt and uncle, and they were in the opposition in those days. They were not celebrating, but they were in a rather cheerful mood for a group of people whose leader has died. So I remember that quite well. My cousin – the daughter of that aunt and uncle — and me went to the same preschool, lived in the same neighborhood, and were the same age. We were warned at our school that we hadn’t been mourning, that we hadn’t been sad enough under the circumstances, so our parents might be called in for an interview. This is what I clearly remember, and I very often recall these events. But I can’t recall where I was or how I learned about the Berlin Wall.

It sounds like you grew up in a rather political family.

Very much.

How did you come to realize that the politics of your family was very different from the politics outside your family?

The first things were employment and housing policy. You would enter the labor market to get a job. But employment was not only the workplace. It involved various social policies. My parents rented an apartment, which was quite unusual for people of their status. They didn’t own an apartment, and they moved a lot. We moved four or five times, which was quite unusual. And my father was in a part-time job for quite a long period of time. When Sonja Licht’s husband Milan Nikolic got arrested, that was a period when politics truly and completely entered into our family life, because we went there and visited his wife and their children. They were quite close to us, and we spent a lot of time together. That’s when it all started.

Did your parents ever sit you down and say, “You have to be a little careful”? Because as you said, you had that experience at school…

No, never. They were not so politically active. They had visits from the police and stuff like that, but my father was not really arrested, nor my mother. She had a regular job at the school, so in that sense there was no real threat, as far as I can recall, apart from the various difficulties that those who do not comply with the rules of the game had to put up with at that time.

Was there a moment in your life when you felt that you became a political activist?

The first time was in the early 1990s, during my second year of high school. We were part of the first democratic movement. A friend of mine and me, and some other guys, we organized protests and we rallied the kids from the high school and took them downtown where all the students were demonstrating. We spent some time there, had a good time, and went back to school when we really had to go. Everything ended in a few days. The demonstrations didn’t last a long period of time.

And then a friend of mine got expelled from school due to his political engagement. He went to the Czech Republic and made a great management career in international corporations. A few years ago, he returned to Serbia, rich and with a Brazilian wife. He lives in Dedinje, which is the most expensive part of town where really rich people live. And now he’s a head of the public utility company dealing with electricity. And he’s cadre, as the party official of the Serbian Progressive Party. So he has closed the circle!

We had a series of radical political engagements that culminated in the most important and long-lasting one in 1996-7. Many of the people working here at this organization were part of these student protests.

Many of our friends from that period went on to political careers. One of them has reached the deputy prime minister level. Another is an MP. They are prominent figures in public life.

And these people were a part of the student movement?

Yes.

A lot of people complain about the current government. They say, “It’s the same people who were in government in the 1990s!” But as you point out, some people who were actually part of the opposition have been absorbed into the current government, or as you said, “the cadre.” So there’s a little bit more circulation of political figures than I’ve been led to believe.

I know the situation in several ministries with which I work, like labor employment, economy and regional development, social protection, and stuff like that. At that level, there has been a circulation of people.

Also there’s a tendency for academics to get involved in politics, a tradition here that goes back to the 19th century. I work at the school of law—the faculty of law at Belgrade University—and recently we’ve opened a museum that presents the history of our faculty. And there have been so many prime ministers, deputy prime ministers, and ministers that have come from the faculty. They were prominent political figures and at the same time university teachers. That’s a feature of our political life, as well as a characteristic of our academic elite. There have been some analyses of why this is the case. The academic elite, through their academic career and writing and public engagement apart from politics, did not really manage to achieve the modernization goals that they thought were important for Serbia. So they have a strong incentive to enter politics.

I don’t really think that it’s the same people in government. But you get a strong impression from the most visible figures. When you look at the Democratic Party that is now in opposition – and I counted this up in an article a year and a half ago – there’s a rather large number of high-ranking officials from 2000. And they’re the newcomers, if we’re talking about a timeframe of two decades. For the Socialists and the Progressive Party, their most prominent figures have been in high politics for two to three decades. That’s true. But they are not the whole political elite.

So you decided to go into law, get a law degree…

I have a law and society degree, so I’m not a lawyer.

Why did you decide to take that particular path?

It’s sort of the family tradition. At one point the choices were either physics or philosophy, and then I chose philosophy. I did a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and then sociology, and then a social legal studies PhD.

Did you have a particular job in mind for when you finished?

I always thought that I would be working as I do now. But there was a rather long period in between when I was engaged in the private sector. And I worked for the government in international organizations. I enjoyed it for a while, and then I ran away.

Which international organizations?

I worked for the UN here in Serbia. I had some offers to go abroad, but then I thought, “This is not my cup of tea,” and I gave it up. The offer was to be a head of the poverty unit in a big Asian country, and due to the transparency of the recommended procedure I cannot say which country it was. I would probably have been living there in a rented house with a salary of $7,000 per month, and I would be dealing with people who live on $1.8 or $2.8 per day. For me that’s no choice at all. Somebody else can do it, I can’t.

So tell me a little bit about your work here and what you’re focusing on, and how you came to work here.

I came here because a few of us gathered a long time ago, and I was one of the people who founded this organization, the Development Initiative Group (SeConS). I was never involved in the management or decision-making. My role was always to help. I’m not a full-time employee. I’m here on a project basis. But in the last year it’s been rather continuous work.

My work primarily focuses on public policy analysis. We’ve produced research and analysis of the various issues related to social inclusion. We have analyzed European and Serbian policies in this broad field and produced a book. We have also prepared a course on social inclusion. Our public policies in Serbia have been focused on poverty reduction, following the World Bank paradigm. We’ve also had researchers with different academic backgrounds focused on a more sociological approach to material inequalities, not only the lack of material resources but also the lack of cultural capital, social capital, access to services, and so on. We’ve wanted to introduce these new concepts, which are new even in the European context of the last two or three decades. We produced an online course, which has also been printed, for government officials. It’s user-friendly, with lots of short articles pointing out various data, indicators, public policy issues, and so on. And we’ve worked a lot with local self-governments on setting up indicators that attempt to measure poverty and social inclusion at that level. And then we worked with them to design their own tools and policies and measures. This is sort of pioneering work.

The second line of work—and that’s primarily what I do here—concerns the legislative process and how to translate the various social interests into laws. Within the framework of this project we’re analyzing a set of laws: how these laws were enacted, what policy networks were in place, what interests drive the laws. We’ve analyzed the process of drafting the laws and how they went through the parliament. We conducted a series of audio interviews with MPs and asked them how they got engaged, how they work on laws, how they deal with amendments, and so on. The aim has been to identify what social interests translate into law, how they translate, what social groups influence the policy-making process, and where parliament fits into this picture. We hope that, in the end, this policy-making process might be more open for relevant groups, because the research shows that some of these groups are systematically left out of the process and don’t benefit from the overall development. This applies specifically to those living in rural, underdeveloped areas: Roma, elderly, certain subgroups of women, and so on.

Have you noticed, over the course of time you’ve engaged with government people, an improvement in the professionalism of government employees?

Yes. My first interaction with government officials was in late 2002. That was actually the first time I entered a government building. In that period, the offices had few computers, and the bookshelves were roughly 70 years old, the same kind we had in our high school, which was one of the oldest in the country and which hadn’t been renovated for at least 100 years. So my impression was that time had stopped there in the 1960s.

So this is the first change, which is quite evident: adopting information and communication technology, adopting new management procedures, hiring new people (perhaps even over-hiring). There has been a huge increase in the number of government officials here, even though the size of our country actually shrank. Our government has taken over all of the former federal employees that worked in Belgrade, and the federal government was in Belgrade.

Was there a promise to hire everybody from the federal system?

I think that was just something that was understood as normal.

Was there a duplication of people from the federal level and at the republic level?

They were just merged with the institutions at the level of republic. This actually happened in a gradual way, because for 15 years we had a federation with Montenegro, and we had some limited federal government. So it didn’t happen overnight.

Let’s go back to the government. I think that the most visible progress was actually in adopting this new language. When you go there now it’s all about strategies, action plans, HR procedures. They’ve adopted all the fancy words and concepts. Their day-to-day work is thoroughly changed. That has been a great influence of international organizations. First, there was the UN, then the European Agency for Reconstruction, which was ahead of the EU here, and various international organizations like the Open Society Foundation and Save the Children. The research that we conducted shows that they have been training many people throughout the 1990s and early 2000s in new skills and paradigms in the areas of employment, education, social protection, social insurance, even local economic development. I’m not sure about other issues, like mining or public electricity.

There is a problem with the Serbian government in terms of the low mobility of staff. People get employed in a certain ministry and can end their careers there 20 years later without ever being introduced to another ministry. You have people working in the ministry of social affairs, dealing with welfare services and benefits like social assistance. They continuously overlap with the healthcare system, the employment agencies, and so on, but they never go to these agencies or ministries to spend some time there to learn what they do. That’s one problem we discovered in our research.

The other problem is that the decision-making structure is not favorable for performance. You have political figures, like the minister or the state secretary, and then you have the assistant ministers. On paper, assistant ministers are the heads of units within the ministry, and they are the ones truly in charge of the day-to-day operations of the ministry. However, in reality, these people are not powerful enough to make decisions on their own, without the consent of the minister: even not-so-important issues. This logic then transfers down to the heads of smaller units so that the decision-making process is burdened by reluctance on one side and a desire to hold all the power on the other side.

So, yes, things have improved. But they are never as good as we would like. Probably people living in Liechtenstein say, “Well, our government is not good enough.” On the other hand, our government is for sure better in the areas that I know than the governments in Montenegro or Bosnia. People working with the Croatian government claim that the difference with Serbia is not so big as you would imagine, considering that Croatia is about to join the EU. So, this is another sign that Serbia has a more developed administration.

On the question of social inclusion, I’ve noticed there is considerable poverty here and I was told that the average wage here is the lowest in the region. Low wages have proven useful in attracting foreign business, but in general it means a pretty vulnerable population. Do you see any positive signs in terms of poverty alleviation and social integration over the last couple of years?

Over the last couple of years, the situation has been getting worse, and the statistical data confirms this. The absolute poverty line has increased from roughly 6 point something percent to close to 10%. We have regional pockets of poverty that are not really just pockets anymore. Whole regions have been severely hit by poverty, structural poverty with strong historical roots. These regions — Southeastern Serbia, Eastern Serbia — have been traditionally underdeveloped. Eastern Serbia has changed in the last 20 years due to the deterioration of the industry that existed there prior to the breakup of Yugoslavia. The population in these traditionally underdeveloped regions is getting older and older, and the average household is small, with a small amount of land that they cultivate. The data say that only 20% of these households living in rural areas are producing for the market. So, the majority are subsistence farming and cannot survive on these small plots of land.

We also have something called polutan, which is a phrase describing people living in between the countryside and cities. They are not a proper working class that lives in an urban area and working full-time in factories. Rather, they are living in rural areas, cultivating land and at the same time working in factories. This has been a characteristic here even before the Second World War. This rural poverty is strongly entrenched and has strong historical roots in various agricultural and regional development policies. The position of this rural poor is getting worse and worse. And in the last couple of years there was a rise in the unemployment level. People were losing jobs, particularly those with low qualifications and those working in the sector of vulnerable employment such as part-time employees and self-employed persons. So the data show that in the last couple of years there was a decrease in economic activity, an increase in the level of poverty, and rising unemployment. On the other hand, to what extent we can really attribute this to the government or to global trends, I’m not sure whether anybody can truly say.

Some countries, like Poland, were in a better economic position to withstand the globe economic downturn.

The type of growth that we had here in the last decade did not provide a solid basis for the country to survive the crisis. Two-thirds of the annual GDP growth that we had here was attributed to the parts of the economy that do not produce for export: transport, telecommunications, construction. We actually failed to develop the part of the economy that could bring in money. Like elsewhere, we had a crisis in the construction business. There was also a crisis in the financial sector, though, as far as I understand it, it’s a different crisis than in the West. We had here a crash of big banks. Reading the newspapers you get the impression that these were state-owned banks. Actually, the state has 20% of the shares, and they were 80% privately owned. The banks crashed due to the insolvent loans that they issued. They say it’s roughly 300 million Euros in losses. That’s a lot of money for a small country like this, and it can really shake the banking sector. In that sense, sometimes I think we’re not that bad off, having in mind how vulnerable we are. But we might get into the Greek kind of situation, you never know.

How would you evaluate the actual functioning of social services for the elderly, the unemployed, people who have recently become sick?

The part of the system that deals with social services — and various benefits like social assistance, the pension system, and so on — is still functioning. In terms of social assistance, we’re strongly influenced by World Bank policy. We have a very tight budget for social assistance. It’s well targeted, so money doesn’t go to those who are not poor. And it’s not generous in terms of coverage. Good targeting, low coverage. The average amount of money that they get is really insufficient for anything. The question is, what’s the purpose of receiving social assistance? I don’t really think, in a country like Serbia, that you can have a social assistance scheme that can provide you with enough money to live the whole month.

In terms of services, over the last ten years the government has invested a lot into the development of welfare services for various groups, like the elderly, children, persons with disabilities, persons with learning difficulties, and so on. The coverage of these services depends on the level of socioeconomic development in the region. Those who live in better-off regions have more services; those who live in underdeveloped regions have underdeveloped services. In the last couple of years the government has invested more money in the underdeveloped areas to try to achieve some balance. These services are underdeveloped compared with, for instance, the United Kingdom, which has a long tradition of community-based services with large charities. On the other hand, we have a quite solid system of public institutions providing these services that exist in each municipality. They provide some sort of safety net that enables certain groups to survive. But some people are systematically left out: primarily Roma and people with rural areas. I don’t really know about healthcare, but the average life expectancy in Serbia is on the level that was achieved in Greece 40 years ago and in Norway 50 years ago.

Has it declined from the levels achieved under Yugoslavia?

It declined in the 1990s, but it’s now back, I think, to the level of that was achieved in former Yugoslavia. The decline was due to the deterioration of the healthcare system, which happened everywhere in Eastern Europe. But it’s also the fact of the wars here. You didn’t have 90-year-olds going to combat, but younger ones.

In addition to the racism directed toward Roma, I’ve heard people complain that the Roma have been receiving so much money from governments and the EU and civic organizations. Are those perceptions popular in Serbia too?

Occasionally you can hear comments of this sort, but I don’t think that’s a general impression. In general there is a noticeable social distance towards Roma, though they’re not at the very top of the list. From the point of view of average Serbs, the Albanians are the least desired neighbors, friends, bosses, wives, husbands, and so on. The Roma population now has an NGO elite like everybody else in Eastern Europe: this is good for the elite but not for their constituency. The West has learned something from the experience of post-Second World War Europe, and that’s that you don’t need to invest billions of dollars in changing the society, you just invest in the elite and then the elite will do what needs to be done. This has not happened really with the Roma population.

My experiences with Roma NGOs dates from the time when I worked with the government and I was the head of a rather large social innovation fund, which invested a large sum of money in various welfare initiatives. We also had Roma programs. The Roma groups were insufficiently qualified, not always capable of cooperating with external partners, very often incapable of creating networks and coalitions. So it was always a one-man-show sort of approach.

This was also the case, for instance, with the movement of persons with disabilities, but they managed to change this approach. I’m not sure why it didn’t take place with the Roma population. Here, for instance, the elites of the NGOs for persons with disabilities at a certain point were stuck on this idea to develop a network of personal assistants. This personal service for a person with disability would be available I don’t know how many hours a day and paid for by the government out of the state budget, which is absolutely unrealistic. From the purely financial point of view, this was simply too expensive. I participated in a few dozen discussions of this sort, and they have managed to move their movement on this issue. Now the data show that local welfare services for persons with disabilities are well developed, managed by their own NGOs, and exist throughout the country. It’s not as good as they would want, of course, but it’s far better than, for instance, services for Roma, for some groups of children, and so on.

This hasn’t taken place with Roma NGOs and groups. I don’t know why. I think it’s the issue of cultural capital and social capital as well. In the government administration, I never really witnessed a reluctance to deal with Roma issues much less a desire to stop programs that target Roma or to redirect resources to other problems. That’s my experience. On the other hand, the quality of applications and programs that competed for the government funding was never good enough. I’m not sure why they were not able to use all the resources that were available to improve their capacities. On the other hand, they were unlucky in the sense that there were divided responsibilities within the government. Probably they had the experience of going to the minister for human and minority rights and getting redirected to the minister of social affairs and then to the minister of employment. Each of those ministries has its own programs: employment programs for Roma people, assistance to facilitate entrance into the healthcare system, educational teaching assistants in the elementary schools, conditional cash transfers so that you need to send your kids to school if you want to get social assistance. But these programs were never really linked. As a result of that, as well as discrimination from the majority population, most Roma live in their own ghettos.

A few years ago, our mayor here in Belgrade initiated a program to reconstruct the main highway bridge in the downtown. Since we have only a few bridges, this one is really important for traffic. There was a huge, illegal Roma settlement beneath the bridge, living without electricity, without sewers. The mayor was under pressure from the international community to relocate this settlement and provide them with houses. He said, “We don’t have the resources for that.” After months and months of political negotiations, he uprooted them within a few days and provided them with some container housing. Research shows that one of the main reasons why he is so popular in Belgrade is that he managed to do it quickly, and to get them out of sight. They are now 25-30 kilometers from downtown in some suburb, and they are no longer involved in the recycling business. Roma would go and pick up things from the trashcans, because there was no organized recycling here. Now the city has put out these big underground containers where you put your trash and it can’t be accessed.

The Roma are not a big issue anymore. They are not on the top of the agenda.

That was my sense as well. Although I did see that there is a reality show here that features celebrities who, in this one case, went to live with a Roma family. Some of the responses were, “Why are you wasting your time working with Roma people?” But some people apparently said that they were surprised to see that Roma people were not that different from other people. Have you seen this show?

I’m not really a fan of reality shows. But a show where these guys go to live with Roma people might make sense. I see that my students, especially those living in areas without direct contact with the Roma population, have a sense that they are “dirty” and not deserving any support.

When you talked about social inclusion, you didn’t mention refugee populations or internally displaced. I’ve been told that the absolute numbers have declined considerably, with people being integrated into communities. I’m curious if that’s true and also whether the refugee community has had a political impact in the sense of their organizing as a community with common needs or common vision.

Their number has decreased. I think it’s now 70,000 registered refugees coming from Bosnia and Croatia, but I’m not really sure. When it comes to IDPs, I’m not sure about the numbers. They were very visible in the 1990s. The data then showed that they were more supportive of the right-wing parties, the Radicals, and the Socialists. The number of respondents among those refugee populations that would vote for those parties was higher than the overall population. There was, as always, this rumor that they were taking over our jobs, taking our money, and stuff like that. But they were not so numerous to be a challenge to ordinary social and economic life. They might have had some strongholds, some places where their networks were strong, but that was the case with other newcomers too.

There were urban legends—as you would say in your country—about people from Southwest Serbia, from Montenegro, the Bosnian lobby, the Herzegovina lobby. People tend to stick together, right? When they lack other social resources, they rely on their own networks: friends, neighbors, and relatives. But I think it’s really just the impression of the dissatisfied percent of the majority population. Recently, there was a clash in the Democratic Party, between the former president Boris Tadic and the mayor of Belgrade Dragan Djilas. Both of them have parents of Montenegrin origin, so all of a sudden you have, in these yellow papers, headlines like, “The Montenegrin Lobby Is Again Shaking Belgrade” and stuff like that. But I’m not so familiar with the situation with the IDPs and refugees at this particular moment, so this is all that I can say.

I’m curious whether, when you got together with various Serbian civil society activists on your recent trip to Washington, this experience of pooling your knowledge was useful?

This was a completely new environment for me. I’d never worked with these guys before. I deliberately tend to avoid all USAID projects—because I thought that the things they do here are not the type of things I want to do—until this opportunity appeared. But for me that was a refreshing experience, because I’ve changed my professional environment radically. I haven’t been an activist for 15 years. I noticed that we have different perspectives. The others on the delegation tend to be more critical toward the situation here, more anti-government. I think I’m more moderate because I’ve worked for the government, and I don’t think it’s all black and white. When you’re in government, you also meet many people who want to do the work they’re supposed to do, but they meet obstacles. And the obstacles are not always political. It’s not that somebody wants to block you, but things are complicated and difficult, and you can’t change them so easily. If it were easy, we would probably be Switzerland at this point.

And still complaining!

Yes, still complaining! But that’s also the fault of the social scientists. We always tend to look for big processes and long-lasting structures and processes, and tend to neglect the mundane issues of day-to-day politics. My work has been more focused on research and analysis of what government does, and these products don’t seem to reach many people. The academic community is small, and it’s divided into various fields. People are focused on what they work on, and you don’t have a huge audience. The international audience is not interested in these issues. They have their own agendas about us, so we are on multiple peripheries. And if we want to present what we do to the international scientific community, then we do it as they say and on the issues they identify as important.

Seeing CRTA – the Center for Research, Transparency and Accountability – with their super famous site and public actions, TV interviews in front of the national assembly, that was a refreshing experience. We’ve agreed that we will try to connect these two approaches. We will stick here to the analysis, data collection, and writing. We will not go into activism. We have people here who are natural-born activists, but we tend to hide them from other groups. We’ll probably end up with some sort of engagement around the accountability of the government—but the executive branch. When we say here “the government,” we mean the executive branch. There has been some opening up of the legislative process, in terms of making the process visible to the public and reestablishing some of the channels for public participation that existed before, like public consultation, roundtables, and so on. They existed here, but they were rarely used to substantially influence public policies and legislation.

Can you give me an example of one of these roundtable processes?

When the new law on social interaction was drafted, I knew each member of the group that prepared the law. Some of them had even sat in my office when I was their boss. And yet I was not able to get the draft law.

I would go from one person to another, and each of them would say, “I know, I completely agree. It’s not logical, but I cannot give you the draft law.”

I would ask, “Why?”

“Because we have agreed, and we have a political order from the ministry that we wouldn’t release the unfinished version.”

I said, “But it’s not your law, it’s the public’s law.”

They said, “Yes, we know that.”

I got the draft version only when it was almost done. My point is, when get a draft law, it’s done, the basic things are decided. You can make amendments and slightly change the law. But you cannot change the crucial issues. For instance, here the crucial issues regarded the procurement of services, the role of the public and private sector, and so on. In some cases, you did have public discussions. The executive branch has a legal obligation to organize public discussions. There is a 15-day time period to make the law available to everyone who wants to read it, and then to organize roundtables and public discussions where the relevant stakeholders are invited. That’s always a field of manipulation: whom do you decide is relevant, whom will you invite? Then the government is obliged to take into consideration what they have heard. They are not obliged, of course, to incorporate the comments and the ideas, but this is also a way for them to measure the level of resistance and the approval for the measures they have taken, and also to check whether it’s feasible.

On the other hand, when they prepare a draft law the government also needs to provide a regulatory impact assessment where they answer, I think, 10 questions. The first question is, “Do you need the regulation or can you solve the issue without regulation?” and the last question is an estimate of the financial costs of the law. They rarely do this in the proper way so as to provide a full, in-depth analysis. They say simply, for instance, “Yes, we need a law.” Will it have financial implications? “No!” And that’s it. So, some of these processes need to be improved.

We’re not idealistic in thinking that the public needs to influence all the laws. They have voted. But on the other hand, the public and the various groups need to be given an opportunity at least to discuss it. They cannot decide, because they don’t have the authority or the responsibility, of course. But public discussions and the mere exchange of ideas might lead government to conclude that it could be done better. So that’s how roundtables and public discussions operate, which is probably similar to the system that you or other European countries have.

We have congressional hearings that serve this roundtable function, but we have the same problems concerning who gets invited to testify in hearings. And it’s very partisan, of course, because it all depends on which party is in power and who’s in control at the particular period.

We need to fight for the opportunity to ask questions. We had changes in fiscal legislation here. One of the changes in taxation law was related to something we call an excise, which is sort of a parafiscal burden. There’s a certain amount of money you pay for a single pack of cigarettes or a single pack of candies that you sell. These taxes increased 20 percent for cigarettes and 40 percent for candies. Given the need to collect money for the budget, why should the price of candies increase more than cigarettes or alcoholic beverages? This is the kind of question we need to ask. It’s no good if we don’t have the opportunity. We need to fight for the opportunity.

When you look back to 1989 and everything that has changed in Serbia since then, how would you evaluate that on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being most dissatisfied and 10 being most satisfied?

3.

Same period of time, same scale, but your own personal life.

In terms of my personal life, I was very young in 1989. So my personal satisfaction is actually pretty normal for somebody who made the transition from being 15 to being 38. So I’m pretty much satisfied, it would probably be close to 10.

Finally, looking into the near future, when you think about where Serbia will be in the next couple of years, how do you evaluate the prospects? Again, on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being most pessimistic and 10 being most optimistic.

I would stick to 5. People usually stick to middle range answers when they don’t know the answer. I can’t really assess, evaluate, or imagine what will happen in the next 5 years. Most probably we won’t have any huge differences in terms of economic development. In terms of the political situation, it will probably be the same issues as now or as 5 years ago.

Belgrade, October 9, 2012

When American Universities Expand to China, Does Academic Freedom Suffer?

Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng

Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng

A little over a year ago, Chen Guangcheng, a blind Chinese activist and self-taught civil rights lawyer, slipped past security guards, scaled the wall of his farmhouse—where he and his family were being held under unlawful house arrest—and sought refuge at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. His miraculous escape touched off a round of tense diplomatic negotiations between the United States and China. Finally, both parties reached an agreement in which Chen would serve as a visiting fellow at New York University’s U.S.-Asia Law Institute. But the story hardly ended there, as Chen now finds himself embroiled in another media maelstrom.

In a recent feature, the New York Post suggested that NYU was forcing Chen to leave due to pressure from the Chinese government, noting that the university plans to open a satellite campus in Shanghai this fall that is heavily subsidized by the local government. Several days later, Chen released a statement claiming that NYU had asked him to leave, and that the Chinese government had exerted “unrelenting pressure” on the university as early as last fall due to his presence there.

NYU has vehemently denied Chen’s accusations, stressing that Chen’s fellowship was always a one-year arrangement. According to its chief spokesman, John Beckman, Chen’s statement “contains a number of speculations about the role of the Chinese government in NYU’s decision-making that are both false and contradicted by the well-established facts.” Likewise, Jerome Cohen, a law professor at NYU who played a critical role in arranging Chen’s stay at the university, has affirmed NYU’s unparalleled generosity to Chen, remarking that “You shouldn’t bite the hand that feeds you.” So far, no evidence has emerged linking Chen’s departure to pressure from the Chinese government, and Chen, who is now in Taiwan for an 18-day advocacy visit, has refused to elaborate on his statement.

As if that wasn’t enough controversy, NYU recently revealed that an iPhone and iPad given to Chen soon after his arrival in America had been installed with spyware that made it possible to track his movements and online communications. (NYU technicians removed the spyware from the devices and returned them to Chen.) The devices were given to Chen by ChinaAid, a Texas-based, Christian non-profit that promotes religious freedom in China. Bob Fu, the president of ChinaAid and a longtime advocate of Chen, has denied any knowledge of the spyware.

However, Cohen, the NYU law professor, accused Chen’s supporters of giving him “a kind of Trojan horse that would have enabled them to monitor his communications secretly,” branding their actions as “perfectly consistent with their desire to manipulate and control the situation and know whatever confidential advice he is getting.” Meanwhile, Fu has alleged that NYU interfered with Chen’s access to conservative activists. It seems that none of Chen’s closest advocates can agree on what actually happened—and have therefore resorted to turning against each other.

With the lack of any tangible evidence, the intrigue surrounding Chen will probably only grow. Some have suggested that Chen’s departure is most likely unrelated to NYU’s satellite campus in Shanghai, citing Cohen’s insistence on NYU’s year-long agreement with Chen and poking holes in Chen’s suspicions about NYU’s dealings with China. In contrast, human rights advocates like Desmond Tutu have chastised NYU for potentially buckling to pressure from the Chinese government. Wild speculation abounds.

Nevertheless, Chen’s latest saga does raise important questions about the growing coziness between American universities and the Chinese government. Chen’s assertion that “academic independence and academic freedom in the United States are being greatly threatened by a totalitarian regime” is not entirely unfounded. According to the New York Times, many American universities are becoming increasingly dependent on tuition from Chinese students: nearly 200,000 of them attended American universities in 2012, a 23 percent increase from the previous year. Furthermore, a growing number of universities, including NYU and Johns Hopkins, have established, or are planning to establish, overseas branches in China.

The expansion of American universities into authoritarian countries has elicited serious concern about their ability to uphold principles like academic freedom and student expression on their satellite campuses. NYU has already been reproached for appeasing officials in Abu Dhabi, the site of another overseas branch that opened in 2010 and received lavish funding from the city-state. Similarly, Yale has faced extensive criticism for its joint venture with the National University of Singapore (Yale-NUS), which is set to open this fall in a country known for curtailing freedom of expression. Opening overseas branches, especially in authoritarian countries, is a tricky and occasionally awkward process that may compel universities to compromise their academic principles. If anything, recent developments have sparked new debate over the global expansion of universities—and opponents may have found an unlikely champion in Chen Guangcheng.

Cindy Hwang is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.

Emphasis Added: the Week in Pieces (7/1)

Erdogan Rallies His Base

Mr. Erdogan, in rally after rally … sought to energize the conservative masses who propelled him to power. … His supporters represent a social class that was previously marginalized, and Mr. Erdogan has used his speeches to play on those class resentments.

“The potato-head bloke, itching his belly — this was how they regarded us for decades,” he said in a speech on Tuesday. “They think we do not know anything about politics, arts, theater, cinema, poetry, paintings, aesthetics, architecture.”

Turkish Police and Protesters Clash in Istanbul’s Taksim Square, Tim Arango, Sebnem Arsu and Ceylan Yeginsu, the New York Times

Defending Ourselves Against a State That’s Not Our Enemy With a System That Doesn’t Work

Building a costly third [missile defense] site using outdated, ineffective technology to counter a long-range missile threat that does not exist is not in the best interests of U.S. national security.

East Coast Missile Defense: A Rush to Failure, Tom Z. Collina, Arms Control Today

Emperor Hirohito’s Uncanny Ability to Compartmentalize the Suffering of His People

There are reasons to doubt the traditional story that the Emperor was horrified by the bombing of Hiroshima. The documentary evidence is thin, and if the Emperor was so moved, it begs the question: why was he moved by secondhand reports of a city destroyed in August when he was not moved by driving through Tokyo and personally witnessing the devastation of that city in March? Would it not be sensible to expect that firsthand experience would have a stronger emotional impact than a secondhandreport?

Rethinking the Utility of Nuclear Weapons, Ward Wilson, Parameters

Check Your Principles at the Door

What would be the correct kind of person to have access to videos of civilian massacres? Who’s the right kind of person to be let in the know about the fact that we systematically turned academics and other “suspects” over to the Iraqi military to be tortured? We want people who will, what, sit on this stuff? Apparently the idea is to hire the kind of person who will cheerfully help us keep this sort of thing hidden from ourselves.

As Bradley Manning Trial Begins, Press Predictably Misses the Point, Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone

Do Terrorists Understand the U.S. Government Better Than Its Citizens Do?

The argument that this sweeping search must be kept secret from the terrorists is laughable. Terrorists already assume this sort of thing is being done. Only law-abiding American citizens were blissfully ignorant of what their government was doing.

Why You Should Worry About The NSA, Richard Clarke, the New York Daily News

What Drove Michael Hastings to His Death?

With the media world still reeling from the death of journalist Michael Hastings, there has been a growing fervor to conspiracy theories surrounding the unusual circumstances of his death.

Michael HastingsThe speculation began after a longtime friend—Staff Sergeant Joseph Biggs—released an email Hastings had sent hours before his death. In the email, which Biggs described as “panicked,” Hastings revealed fears that the Feds were investigating him and said he planned to “go off the radar for a bit” due to a new story he was working on.

Hastings’ email was not the only spark for conspiracy theorists. Wikileaks released a series of tweets revealing that just a few hours before his death, Hastings had reached out to Wikileaks lawyer Jennifer Robinson and warned mysteriously this his death would have “serious non-public complications,” a confusing claim that may have suggested some sort of government involvement.

Less than 12 hours later, Hastings would die in a fiery car crash, so explosive that the car engine would be ejected and found nearly 100 feet away. Initial reports speculated that Hastings was driving at 100-plus miles per hour and lost control of his vehicle. Yet given the publicly available evidence and Biggs’ claim that Hastings “drove like a grandma,” many of Hastings’ followers are beginning to ask questions.

Most famous for penning a Rolling Stone article that led to the resignation of U.S. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, Hastings was not short on enemies, a fact that theorists have fixated on. The topic of the big story Hastings said he was working on is not yet known, but that hasn’t stopped speculation as to whether it was somehow connected to his sudden death. Contradicting earlier reports from the Los Angeles Times, Hastings’ wife recently dispelled rumors that he was researching Jill Kelley, the Florida socialite connected to the Petraeus scandal.

All of the mystery shrouding Hastings’ death has even led to suggestions that his car was subjected to a cyber attack. Former U.S. National Coordinator for Security, Infrastructure Protection, and Counter-terrorism Richard Clarke bolstered this theory when he told the Huffington Post that Hastings’ crash appeared to be “consistent with a car cyber attack.” Clarke, who worked under Presidents Reagan, Bush, and Clinton, referred to research done at universities that proved the plausibility of hacking into a car’s computer system to alter acceleration and braking abilities.

Given Hastings’ recent criticism of the NSA and its spy program, it seems only fitting that one of the major theories involves computer surveillance and cyber hacking. The FBI recently released a statement denying any investigation into Hastings—a very unusual move for the bureau, which seldom addresses rumors concerning investigations and had earlier declined to comment.

Other sources of skepticism include an eye-witness who claims to have seen sparks and flames coming from Hastings’ car prior the crash, spurring theorists to wonder about possible tampering with the car’s wiring. In his last article, which now seems quite foreboding, Hastings lauded several prominent journalists for making sacrifices and taking risks to investigate and criticize the government.

Hastings’ car crash may well have been an accident, but given the history of his work and the recent overreaching of the NSA, some questions must be asked and answers demanded.

Lizzie Rajasingh is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.

President Obama’s Anti-Nuke Sentiments a Cover for Plans to Secure Their Existence in Perpetuity

ObamaBerlinIn its most recent press release, the Los Alamos Study Group (LASG) explains how President Obama’s recent speech in Berlin reaffirming his ostensible commitment to nuclear disarmament is contradicted by plans to lock their existence in for at least the next 25 years. Many readers may not be exposed to the LASG’s work. Hence, from another one of the most eloquent series of press release you’re likely read (emphasis added).

The “$275 billion (B), 25-year plan to maintain, design, and produce new nuclear warheads and build up U.S. warhead production capacity. … eclipses all prior planning for U.S. nuclear warheads.

Among its other features the new plan would:

• Replace all current warheads and bombs – even those currently being upgraded – with several new warheads and bombs in a so-called “3+2” stockpile plan;
• Build dozens of new design, testing, and production facilities, to cost tens of billions of dollars; and
• Require ever-rising spending at warhead production sites and labs, from about $8 B today up to about $14 B annually by 2038.

But, points out LASG Director Greg Mello himself:

… the plan is silent regarding the deeply troubled relationship between the federal government and the management and operating (M&O) contractors which actually run the nuclear warhead complex and its laboratories on a for-profit, cost-plus basis.

Furthermore, he says of this “profoundly nostalgic product”:

Official protestations aside, this is a Cold War plan, one that aims to perpetuate indefinitely the prerogatives and staffing levels enjoyed by nuclear weapons contractors at the same time as it perpetuates tensions with Russia. … This plan would establish a policy of planned warhead obsolescence, creating much work where little is needed.

For

Without new warheads, the weapons labs especially would have much less work to do. This plan solves that “problem” by loading the entire warhead complex with so much work and so many ambitious, simultaneous projects that it is very difficult to imagine their successful completion. Despite its claim, the plan is very unlikely to be “executable.”

In fact

We can state confidently that the delivery systems necessary to carry all these warheads will not be built.

As for President Obama, Mello recommends that he

… “execute” this plan, fire those most responsible for it, and make another plan that is more realistic, much cheaper, and in harmony with U.S. treaty obligations, the conscience of humanity, and the realities of diplomacy today.

Finally, Mello says

Perhaps the most unfortunate aspect of this plan is not the financial waste involved but the misdirection of national attention away from our truly urgent crises.

Algeria’s Trappist Monk Massacre: The Case That Won’t Go Away

Cross-posted from the Colorado Progressive Jewish News.

The Case That Won’t Go Away

G.I.A.-Habib Souaidia-Marc Trévidic-Mohammed Samraou-Tibhirine-Armed Islamic GroupIt’s the case that won’t go away, that of the Monks of Tibhirine (Algeria), killed and then beheaded in March, 1996. Among the most gruesome killings in recent times, no U.S. administration in the past 17 years has deigned it important enough to press either Algeria or France to investigate.

To the contrary, the brutality of the Algerian government during the 1990s seems to have greatly impressed Washington policymakers. Washington might talk the talk of human rights and democracy, but the U.S. has a long and sordid list of close allies who specialize in various and demented forms of mass repression, from Pinochet in Chile and the Argentinian generals, to Mobutu of the Congo, Mubarek of Egypt, Sharon of Israel, the Shah of Iran and the ‘Kings’ of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, just to name a few of the usual suspects.

Now add the Algeria to the list.

Downplayed, but no secret, since 9/11, the United States has entered into a growing, if not solid strategic partnership with Algeria. It’s a curious alliance given the public political feuding between a North Africa government that publicly considered itself ‘anti-imperialist’ or ‘anti-colonial’ and the behemoth of modern neo-colonialism since World War II’s end, the United States.

How else to explain the silence this side of the Atlantic concerning the beheading of the seven gentle souls, by all accounts deeply appreciated by local Algerians who knew them? It could undermine the strategic hand-holding, upset the relationship vital for U.S. growing interest and strategic control of northern Africa, from Algeria to Nigeria with its extensive deposits of oil, natural gas, uranium and the like. In the same manner and for the same reasons, here in the US we tend to hear little of the Nigerian government’s human rights violation. Funny how that works!

The US-Algerian “Deal”

In today’s world, Algeria and the United States are nothing less than birds of a feather and they most definitely flock together. The US opens doors for Algeria internationally; Algeria opens doors for Bush and Obama regionally. For the United States, Algeria has become its eyes and ears in northern Africa – the Magreb, the Sahara, the Sahel – regions where frankly despite U.S satellite and drone intelligence, Washington hardly has a clue as to what is going on, on the ground. For its part, Algeria gets some communication and high-tech weaponry toys in return, but actually something far more important – international credibility, credibility that its government was fast losing as the country’s civil war of the 1990s drew to its bloody close.

Part of ‘the deal’ includes downplaying the growing voices, allegations of government crimes against the Algerian people during the 1990s and unexplained gruesome incidents like the Tihirine killings. The Algeria civil war was very low on the U.S. media radar and was hardly reported in the United States while it was transpiring. What news that did filter in reflected the Algerian government’s version of those events. Still there is something about war crimes – they don’t go away, not like their perpetrators hope. Ten, fifteen, fifty years later, the voices of victims from their mass graves, torture chambers, those dropped from helicopters into the oceans, still percolate back to the surface.

The Tibhirine Monk Massacre

So it is with the monks of Tibhirine, who were, truth be told, a tiny part of a much more extensive horror story that took the lives of hundreds of thousands of others, victims of Algeria’s dirty war. Virtually unknown in the USA, the case of the Tibhirine monks refuses to die in France and continues to haunt the ruling circles of Algeria as well, the latter dominated by the military and the country’s powerful security apparatus.

But then ‘it’ – the kidnapping, slaughter and decapitation of seven Trappist monks from the monastery at Tibhirine – was one of the more gruesome acts of Algeria’s ‘Dirty War’, the civil war which wracked the country during most of the decade of the 1990s. The Trappist monks were among the 250,000 or so killed, although the exact figure will probably never be known. Only the heads remain; neither the bodies nor their possible whereabouts have been identified. What in French is called the Groupe Islamique Armee (the Armed Islamic Group) or G.I.A claimed responsibility.

Questions remain, especially concerning the possible infiltration of the G.I.A. by the Algerian security apparatus who very well might have actually run the group and directed its activities pressing the G.I.A. to commit a series of gruesome acts, including the massacre of the Tibhirine monks, in an effort to discredit the opposition movement, make them appear like monsters that need to be exterminated, as political dialogue is out of the question.

To what degree was the Algerian government complicit in the Tibhirine killings? Did they actually direct the operation? To what degree was French intelligence that had close ties with their Algerian counterparts at the very least aware of this gruesome operation (as well as many others)? These are the questions that do not go away, and once again, emerge in the public sphere.

As reported recently in the Irish Times, in France, seventeen years after the seven Trappist monks were kidnapped and killed, their decapitated heads left smiling by a small country roadside, families of the victims have asked French President Francois Hollande to fulfill a campaign promise to press the Algerian government to cooperate with the investigation. There is an ongoing investigation of the case in France, headed up by an anti-terrorist judge, Marc Trévidic, but it has been stalled for years due to lack of cooperation from both the French and Algerian governments.

Trévidic wants to interview some 20 Algerians, among them members of the government in power at the time of the murders; he also is asking for an autopsy to determine whether the decapitations took place either at the time of the killings or afterwards. To date, Algiers has been less than enthusiastic about replying, although the ailing Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika promised to cooperate although nothing has happened since.

Up From the Grave They Arise…Again and Again

Both French and Algerian government circles would like the case to simply run out of steam and disappear. Not likely. Besides the families of the victims, still unsatisfied with the explanations given by the Algerian government, the Order of the Friars Minor – known more commonly as the Franciscans – continue to pursue the case. There have been several documentaries and books, mostly in French but also in English. Doubts continue to grow that the official version of events reflects what actually happened.

The most damning evidence – evidence that implicates both the Algerian government of the time and to a lesser degree, France – comes from two former members of the Algerian intelligence apparatus, the Departement de Renseignement et de la Securite (DRS). Habib Souaidia was an officer in the DRS’ special forces unit charged with countering Islamic terrorism who now enjoys political refugee status in France.

The other intelligence officer, Mohammed Samraoui, became the No. 2 man in the DRS’s counter-intelligence unit. He quit and sought political asylum in Germany after being asked to organize the assassination of an Algerian Islamicist living in Germany, whom Samraoui knew had nothing to do with the Islamist guerilla movement.

Of the ruthless methods the DRS would use against its opponents, real and imagined, Samraoui would write:

At least from 1994 onward, I was able to confirm that the leadership of the DRS habitually tortured and killed their fellow citizens, as if they were simple insects. Once committed to this cycle of violence, it became perfectly logical that the generals would use massacres as a tactic to regulate the political problems that befell them in 1997 (1)

In a book published slightly earlier, by Decouverte Press in 2002 (in French), La sale guerre (The Dirty War), Habib Souaidia claims that many, if not most, of the Islamic terrorist groups in Algeria in the 1990s were both infiltrated by the DRS as well as literally run by them, prime among them the G.I.A. mentioned above. Running the G.I.A. operations from his Algiers office was Smail Lamari, Deputy Director of the DRS and in charge of operations of its military wing, known as the Securite Militaire, or SM.

Many of these ‘operations’ were ‘false flag’ operations, operations secretly conceived and implemented by the Algerian government itself, with the knowledge of the ruling clique to make the country’s Islamic movement look far worse than it was in actual fact. Committing acts of brutality, in actual fact carried out by the government, but in the name of Islamic militants helped to isolate the Islamic movement at the time from its popular base, provoke intense fear among a population that would then ask for stronger security measures, i.e., a more repressive hold on the country by the state.

At the time of the Tibhirine murders, Souaidia was serving a four-year sentence on trumped-up charges of having stolen automotive material from avmilitary warehouse, but it was because of his refusal to continue to participate in the Dirty War which was the more probably cause of his incarceration. La sale guerre does not discuss the Tibhirine murders but it cast doubts over the Algerian government’s official explanation of the murders, suggesting that, like so many others, that this was some kind of false flag operation manipulated by the Algerian state itself through the DRS, in this case with the goal of undermining talks of a political settlement then taking place in Rome.

While none of this directly implicates the Algerian DRS in the Tibhirine murders, still it is suggestive of the lengths to which the Algerian counter-intelligence operation was willing to go. In the decades since other suggestions challenging the government’s official version of the Tibhirine events have surfaced, among them French intelligence complicity with their Algerian counterparts, certainly enough ‘smoke’ to suggest that somewhere there is a fire and to merit a serious investigation.

Consequences of Tibhirine

If all the details of the Tibhirine massacres remain under wraps, the consequences are not at all ambiguous. As Louis Aggoun and Jean-Baptiste Rivoire wrote of the Tibhrine tragedy in Francalgerie, crimes et mensonges d’Etats:

In attacking Christianity in its very heart and soul, the assassination of the monks traumatized France, still ‘the eldest daughter of the Catholic Church’,(1) discredited the Islamicists that much more, re mobilizing the West (France, USA, UK, Germany etc.) in support of a harder anti-Islamicist position(2) at a time when a negotiated settlement between the warring parties was being considered in Rome’.(3)

What Algeria’s generals feared most at the time was a negotiated settlement with Algeria’s Islamicists that would threaten their hold on power and the oil wealth that comes with it. Aggoun and Rivoire’s analysis, while not proving Algerian DRS management of the Tibhirine killings, still gives a viable political explanation for why the Algerian government might have acted as it did.

As has been the case, frankly for decades, a fierce, under the surface power struggle in Algeria, is unfolding, ‘the battle of the clans’ as it is often referred to although in this case, the ‘clans’ as they are called in French are more accurately called in English ‘interest groups’. The DRS and the military (although there are some differences between the two) have held the reins of power for decades, their power consolidated just before the Dirty War began and continuing until today.

On the other hand, there is the president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika and his circle who have, rather unsuccessfully it appears, tried to wrest power from the security- intelligence apparatus. Other presidents who tried were either assassinated (Boudiaf) or unceremoniously pushed aside (Zeroual) when their usefulness had run its course, or when they decided to challenge the powers that be. It is not entirely inconceivable that the Tibhirine monks’ massacre could emerge as an issue in this power struggle as the power struggle gets dirtier. It already is pretty intense.

Regardless, the case of the Tibhirine monks is essentially only kept alive due to popular pressure especially in France and Algeria. It is time the U.S. human rights movement adds its voice to the chorus demanding an explanation, justice in this case. That it might embarrass the U.S. government some, the French government more and the Algerian government most of all should have little bearing on case.

_____________

1. Mohammed Samraoui. Chronique des annees de sang. Algerie: comment les services secret ont manipule les groupes islamistes. Denoel, Paris: 2003. Back cover jacket.

2. ‘la fille ainee de l’Eglise’

3. Referred to in French as ‘l’option eradicatrice’ – or the ‘eradicating option’ – i.e., the need for the total physical destruction of political Islam in Algeria.

4. Louis Aggoun and Jean-Baptiste Rivoire. Francalgerie, crimes et mensonges d’Etats. La Decouverte. Paris, 2004. p.474

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