Focal Points Blog

Did Boston Marathon Bombers Choose Patriots’ Day to Cover Their Tracks?

At National Journal, Michael Hirsch wrote:

The timing of the Boston bombing, coming on Patriots Day in Massachusetts, might well suggest [a U.S. right-wing extremist group] says Jessica Stern, a terrorism expert at Harvard University. … “All these discussions about whether they’re going to take away our guns would be another reason to suspect anti-government groups. The other thing that points in the direction of right-wing nuts is the date.”

Patriots’ Day, which commemorates the battles of Lexington and Concord and is celebrated in Massachusetts on the third Monday of April, “has been for long time exciting day to be an extremist violent group,” says Stern. The Oklahoma City bombing of 1995, the Columbine high school massacre allegedly timed with Hitler’s birthday, and a more obscure incident in which authorities raided a compound occupied by a radical “Christian Identity” group called The Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord” in 1985 all occurred in April. “This whole week is a very important week for right-wing extremists,” adds Stern.

On the other hand, as Ms. Stern wrote in Time magazine, pressure-cookers packed with hardware-store shrapnel such as nails and ball bearings have

… been used around the world, including in the Mumbai attacks of 2006 [and] was recently promoted in an article titled “How to Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom” in the summer 2010 issue of al-Qaeda’s online magazine Inspire. The Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad followed the recipe, though Shahzad’s bomb would have killed many more people than the relatively small bombs in Boston.

The question arises: If the bombers were Islamist extremists, did they use the date and venue to deflect blame onto American white supremacists? Which gives rise to other questions: Would the former be aware of how important the day, week, month, and city are to the latter? More to the point, wouldn’t Islamist extremists they want to turn the violence into a statement by claiming responsibility?

Perhaps more likely though, especially since no one has yet brought the presence of Middle Easterners to our attention — except for innocent Saudis* lucky to escape with their lives and limbs — white supremacists chose the type of weapon to cast blame on Islamist extremists.

*To see how sympathetic some Saudis were to the suffering in Boston, visit the Saudi blog Riyadh Bureau.

Bands Like Laibach a Powerful Amplifier of Former Yugoslav Social Discontent

LaibachThe worlds of rock music and academia are not entirely separate. Noam Chomsky has appeared on stage with Rage Against the Machine. Poet Paul Muldoon and fellow Princeton professors play gigs as the Wayside Shrines. And, of course, plenty of students opt for courses that deconstruct Madonna, probe the historical impact of the Beatles, and so on.

But in Yugoslavia, and particularly Slovenia, a particularly close relationship sprang up in the 1970s between punks and professors. “At that time, classical political and social critique was not possible, so the political and cultural discontent and critique took the form of Rock music,” explains sociologist and politician Pavel Gantar. “Punk Rock music was a form of contestation. Later on, the State started to apply political oppression, and, as I said, intellectuals came out against this oppression. In the late 1970s, Rock music substituted for the absence of political and social criticism.”

Intellectuals came to the defense of punk rockers, and musicians expressed many of the sentiments that intellectuals couldn’t safely utter in public. The music scene in Yugoslavia soon became the envy of everyone else in the Eastern bloc, and many music fans in the West also began to follow bands like Pankrti and Laibach.

Laibach was a particularly provocative band. In Bulgaria, Zheliu Zhelev wrote a book about fascism that was in fact a veiled critique of communism. Laibach offered a much more in-your-face comparison. Adopting a totalitarian aesthetic that was equal parts communism, fascism, and futurism, it parroted the rhetoric of the Yugoslav authorities and thereby presented itself as a paragon of socialist realism. Defending Laibach, Slovenian intellectuals were also defending freedom of expression.

But by the 1980s, when Laibach appeared, intellectuals were already beginning to create the civil society movements that served as vehicles for social and political critique. Music remained a powerful amplifier of social discontent. But now there were proto-political formations that began to carve out space in Yugoslav society for alternative platforms.

When I interviewed Pavel Gantar in 1990, he was the head of the Liberal Party. The number one question in those days was the fate of Yugoslavia. Would it stay together as a loose confederation or as a more centralized federation? Or, as some began to hint at in those days, could the country stay together at all?

“We went to Belgrade and came back very disappointed,” he told me in 1990. “Rational discourse was not possible. We talked about interests and they are talking about Serbian soil and blood and fears and fights and so on. That’s why we think that Yugoslavia is probably not an option any more. But still the question remains: how to come to such solutions if we can’t stick together. Every solution is a bad solution in this game. We would stand for any solution which would not cost lives.”

Slovenia would declare its independence in June 1991. Pavel Gantar went on to join parliament and become its chairman in 2008. He was a politician for 18 years: six years as minister of environment and spatial planning, four years as minister for telecommunications, information, and technology, four years as an MP in the opposition, and then three years as speaker of the house of parliament.

When I caught up with him a few months ago, he was taking a hiatus from politics. We talked about his years supporting oppositional culture, the period he spent in government and parliament, and what Slovenia might have done differently during its transition. Below the most recent conversation is the original interview from 1990.

The Interview

Pavel Gantar

Pavel Gantar

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

I certainly remember the fall of the Berlin Wall. I was here in Ljubljana watching the direct TV transmission, and certainly, as far as I remember, we discussed this issue with our friends very closely and considered what is going to happen after that.

And what did you think was going to happen?

We believed that this was the end of the Eastern bloc, but at that time I was not quite sure how quickly the so-called reunification of Germany would come true. At that time, Yugoslavia was not a member of the Eastern bloc, but everybody knew that this would somehow stimulate the democratic processes in Yugoslavia.

At that the time you were teaching?

I was an assistant professor at the University of Ljubljana, in the faculty of social sciences. My professional area is urban sociology and urban planning. Ever since I enrolled in university, I was in involved in student politics, and later on in democratic politics. I was involved in student movements from 1968 to 1974. Then there was the period of communist oppression from 1974 until the end of the 1970s.

The different civil movements started slowly in Slovenia, basically with the rise of punk music in the late 1970s. There was a very peculiar alliance between the punk music scene and the intellectuals, who tried to justify the appearance of this punk music. Punk music was immediately attacked for being anti-socialist, obscene, pornographic, pro-fascist, and so on. Why punk music? Rock music was the only form of criticism tolerated at that time. Therefore social and political critique was spoken in the language of punk rock. There were a lot of intellectuals, including myself and Tomaz Mastnak and others, who engaged in the public media against the labels that were given to this music. And from that point on started all the different movements like the peace movement and the ecological movements.

There was a debate here on civil society based on the interesting articles of the UK scholar John Keene on why civil society matters for socialists and others, which posed the idea of taking the notion of civil society out of the prevailing conservative discourse to give it more of a socialist orientation. And this discussion of civil society was very important in Slovenia: we started with the idea of socialist civil society and then we evolved to the idea of civil society under socialism, which actually proved that, in a one-party system with limited pluralism, civil society can virtually not exist. It can only exist in private, as an alternative independent of the socialist or communist structure. These debates were the basis for the social movements.

I also became president of the culture organization called Skuc Forum, which developed different artistic forms and aesthetics through theater, music, movies, and so on. Most of the artists involved at that time were suppressed in different ways. But these men and women, who are now 30 or 40 years older, now form the core of Slovenian art. All of them have received high awards. But they started in isolation.

In the 1970s the idea emerged that if you cannot change the system you should try to organize your life independently of the system. You should develop alternative forms of socialization that express your interests, and you shouldn’t care about what happens around you in institutions. The idea of antipolitics of Gyorgy Konrad had a great impact upon us. Then there was conflict between the army and Slovenian civil society in the case of Janez Jansa. Then came the fall of the Berlin Wall and all these transformations. Slovenia had an opportunity to become independent and start a new chapter in history with a lot of good things and, of course, a lot of bad things.

I’m curious what elements of the student movement of the late 1960s proved to be enduring contributions to the debate in the alternative sector in Slovenia?

I would say, in terms of direct importance, none of them. But in the middle of the 1970s, the student movement and its serious suppression produced a very important experience for the actors in the movement. They realized that change is not so easily achieved. They understood the huge gap between the ideas of socialism and the reality of socialism. Losing these illusions was a very important experience for those who were active in the student movement and then later in the civil movement. We became more skeptical. We understood that, most likely, the change of the system was impossible. But no system is so perfect, so totalitarian, that you can’t develop your own forms of socialization. And that’s what we did. We tried to expand the area of freedom. We tried to stand up against the very orthodox aesthetic criteria of the formal culture of Party politics. In the environmental field, we stood against water pollution, the illegal and unethical conduct of some companies toward nature, and so on. We criticized the national army in connection with the anti-nuclear movements in Europe at the time.

In this way, I think the experience of disillusionment was important for those who participated in these movements and later in the civil movements. We recognized the distinction between society and state. This is very important. And it came out of the discussion of socialist civil society, which turned into a discussion how civil society can survive under socialism.

As a result of many of the protests of the 1960s and early 1970s, which were repressed in turn in each of the republics, Yugoslavia got the 1974 constitution. Many people have told me that the 1974 constitution basically met many of the demands of these movements for greater autonomy of the republics.

Yes, the issue of autonomy was certainly an issue for the student movements: autonomy of the university, autonomy of different social groups, and also autonomy of the republics. But autonomy of the republics was not itself the goal. It was more autonomy in terms of democracy. I think the federal party leadership changed the constitution because it realized that the very strong oppression of the different autonomy movements – the so-called nationalism in Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia – would not work, that they had to find a forum and formula that would in the future prevent such sort of nation-based politics in the republics. And they tried to do this by somehow easing the relations between the federal level and the republics. They were sure that they could keep this within strong institutional structures.

There was a debate in the Party about whether to allow some forms of political pluralism or to allow the more autonomous activity of the Party within the republics, and they obviously decided for the latter. Greater autonomy for the republics was basically a rejection of greater political pluralism. I don’t think they dreamed that later on this autonomy could bring about secession or the collapse of Yugoslavia. They thought they had all the serious political strings in their hands under the control of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia and the Yugoslav National Army. So they could ease up on the relations between the republics and the federation and at the same time maintain the political domination with the Party and the Army. It was a miscalculation.

It was not only a miscalculation. You’re suggesting that the choice between different types of autonomy — autonomy at the republic level versus greater political autonomy — ultimately determined how Yugoslavia would dissolve. It other words, it could have dissolved in a politically liberal way, but instead it dissolved in a national republic way.

Certainly this is true. The problem of Yugoslavia is, speaking very frankly, that Tito probably died 10 years too late. He was a sort of symbolic guarantee of the state, but at the same time he was a guarantee that nothing would change. If you look at the history of Yugoslavia, from the time it was established in 1920 up to 1990, what do we see? Yugoslavia existed as a democratic state for only for a few years—from 1920 to 1922. And then there was authoritarian rule up to the beginning of World War II. After that there was a dictatorship and the rule of the Party. Immediately when authoritarian rule started to loosen up, the so-called centrifugal tensions became stronger.

So basically Yugoslavia might have been a nice idea, but it never actually functioned as a democratic state. This was the difference between the collapse of Yugoslavia and the peaceful division between Slovaks and Czechs. Here it was much more based on nationalist ideas, particularly of the Serbs. At that time, the Serbs implicitly equated their own views and interests with the interests of the entire country. And that was unbearable.

I’m particularly interested in the punk music period. It’s so unusual for university professors to come to the defense of punk musicians.

At that time, I was a very young assistant. I started as assistant at the university during the dismantling of the student movement in the early 1970s. This dismantling encompassed all student movement institutions, including the independent community of high schools in Slovenia. Only one institution remained: Radio Student. Radio Student was the first student radio in Europe, established in 1970 as a part of the syndicalist program of the student movements. I also worked there, as a correspondent. Radio Student broadcast from noon to 3 pm, which wasn’t very much. The Communist Party considered Radio Student relatively apolitical and not a dangerous institution—so they left it alone.

But at a time when other institutions had been erased, Radio Student took on the role of expressing protest and cultural discomfort through music. They were the most important promoter of international Rock music in Slovenia. They played all the new Rock music, especially British punk music like The Clash, The Sex Pistols, and so on. This music was also broadcast immediately here, maybe with fewer administrative and political obstacles than in the UK, because here it was just foreign music and nobody cared about attacking the Queen of England.

I’m sure the Communist Party here was happy to promote music that attacked the Queen of England!

Yes. Three years ago, I had dinner with the Queen, and I recall thinking, “How nice this lady is! She really looks just like my mom. It’s very pleasant to talk with her.” And I remembered the Sex Pistols lyric, “God save the Queen, the fascist regime,” and I thought, “Maybe she didn’t deserve that!”

But back then, this punk music found its natural environment here. The people were disappointed. The young generation was without hope. There was growing tension in the economy. There was no future. Slowly some local bands were established, like the band Pankrti. The lead singer Peter Lovsin had a big interview today with the newspaper Dnevnik, where he said that he never consciously meant to be a revolutionary, that it was only by accident. But the provocative lyrics, like the ones about having no future, were absolutely critical. At that time, classical political and social critique was not possible, so the political and cultural discontent and critique took the form of Rock music. Punk Rock music was a form of contestation. Later on, the State started to apply political oppression, and, as I said, intellectuals came out against this oppression. In the late 1970s, Rock music substituted for the absence of political and social criticism.

And there was Laibach…

Laibach was post-Punk. Laibach came later, in the early 1980s. While Punk actually criticized the hopelessness of the situation, Laibach took all these development one stage higher. Laibach was actually mimicking socialism. They took socialism seriously. They held up a mirror to power, to the Party. And it was because of this that they were subversive. They didn’t say, “We don’t like this ideology.” No, they said, “We will seriously apply this ideology to music.” And the authorities were very surprised with Laibach.

And did the audience understand this?

There is always a question of whether or not you understand the music, whether or not it touches you. And of course this music touched a lot of youngsters. They made the effort. But no one can really say how it affected people’s lives. But basically Laibach fans were more or less oriented toward democratic movements. Laibach comes from a coal miner’s town in Trbovlje, where there is a strong proletarian tradition, which has both some sort of nostalgia about that time as well as criticism of the coal miner tradition, industrial society, and so on.

And in this post-punk era, was it necessary for intellectuals to come to the defense of Laibach as well?

Of course! Laibach was actually operating under the Skuc Forum. And I did a lot of activities to protect the group. This peculiar connection between Rock music of all sorts and critical intellectuals persisted all through the 1980s up to the 1990s.

I want to focus on one aspect of the 1980s and that’s the anti-politics aspect of Gyorgy Konrad’s work. As you point out, there was a point at which people said, “We will simply ignore the political reality and will create our own space.” It seemed to be two options coming out of Konrad’s understanding of anti-politics. One was that you ignore the official political sphere and you focus on the private sphere. The other was to take the Charter 77 approach and challenge the authorities not politically morally.

Yugoslavia and Slovenia at that time were, in terms of political freedom of expression, much more open than the Czech Republic or Hungary. So basically a Charter 77 movement was not really needed, because a lot of things could be said here. There were movements around the magazine Nova Revija and its famous issue number 57, where actually there was already the idea of an independent Slovenia. And there was the Trial of the Four in 1988 [that pitted the Army against the magazine Mladina], which had some resemblance to the movements in Czechoslovakia at that time. But again, Slovenia was a relatively free country in terms of expression, so political engagement took a different form.

And do you think that the anti-politics of that period still has resonance today? I find that in other countries, in Bulgaria for instance, where people still have profound suspicion of the political realm, even if it’s a different political system?

Yes, I think so. Some part of the so-called 99% movement in Slovenia, which had been camping last year in front of the national stock exchange, resembled this anti-politics, even if they were not aware of it. They were much more inclined toward the radical political ideas of the 1980s and 1990s from the United States, like David Harvey and some others, and not so much inclined to rethink the experience of the protest movements and anti-political ideas developed under socialism in 1970s and 1980s.

And when you assess the political temperament of the average person in Slovenia—not so much the activist or the 99% movement, but the average person—is there any anti-political residue from that period?

I would say there is an exhaustion with politics. There is a general non-confidence in politics. There is a general conviction that politics is something dirty, something you cannot rely on. The people are sick of politicians and politics. They tend to withdraw to the private realm. But it’s not the type of engagement used in anti-politics. It’s much more neo-corporatist, I would say, more focused on collectivities like trade unions, pensioners, teachers, and trolley drivers.

When we talked in 1990, the discussion was still about whether a confederal model was possible. And at the time I think the specific debate was whether Croatia and Slovenia should work more closely with each other or whether Slovenia should go off by itself.

This idea of a close cooperation of trade between Slovenia and Croatia was a very transitory idea. The idea of a so-called Yugoslav confederation designed on the model of the European Economic Community was much more viable, and I remember the Liberal Democratic Party (LDS) actually advocated this idea. It was represented as an idea by intellectuals in Belgrade and elsewhere, but it was rejected entirely. The intellectual movement in Belgrade demanded radical democratization: one person, one vote, and so on. But that wouldn’t have changed anything, and it would have meant the absolute predominance of Serbian politics and the centralization of the state.

You could ask, “What would have happened if Milosevic was not there?” Maybe there could have been some sort of window of opportunity to redesign the federation into a looser, more democratic community of nation states. But this may or may not have happened. You could say that it was almost inevitable that Milosevic as a movement would appear. So, we should not ask ourselves what would have happened if Milosevic had not appeared. Instead we should ask ourselves, “Why did it happen that Milosevic was the option for Serbia?”

Back in 1990 you said, “There would have been a very good possibility that Vuk Draskovic would have been in power” and that would have perhaps been even worse.

Even worse. Because he would have had a democratic legitimation at least at the beginning. So as I said, Yugoslavia was a beautiful idea. But never in its 70-year history—except for maybe two years—did it exist as a more-or-less democratic state.

Do you think that any action by any major actor at the time, between 1989 and the end of 1990, could have made a difference in terms of avoiding such a savage war? And I don’t mean simply what Slovenia could have done, or what Croatia could have done, but also what the European Union or the United States could have done.

I think everyone underestimated the potential for ethnic conflict in terms of the agreements of Milosevic and Tudjman on the division of Bosnia. This was the problem. Everybody overlooked that. What we knew in Slovenia is that we should exit. Slovenians at different levels tried also to convince some others that this was an option for them too, but they didn’t believe it. They waited too long. They should have learned their lesson earlier. The basic problem was that the disintegration of Yugoslavia was an opportunity for the nationalist idea in Croatia and Serbia. Their claims over such a large ethnic and physical territory: that was the problem. Only if Bosnia, when it declared independence, could have come under some sort of international protectorate, with the UN or the EU immediately sending forces down there. You can’t really blame European or American politicians for not doing this. Nobody probably could have done this.

It would have been unprecedented.

Unprecedented. In the end, it would have been impossible because the Soviet Union stood strongly on the side of the Serbians and Milosevic. Nobody was happy about what was happening. The European Economic Community at that time tried to keep Yugoslavia together. But it was difficult to prevent the disintegration. Only maybe if Izetbegovic had been more open to the Serbs and Croats, advocating a much more ethnically pluralist society instead of building a Bosniak party. But again I think this would not have prevented the situation.

As you point out, the discussion at Karadjordjevo between Tudjman and Milosevic had already taken place. So nothing Izetbegovic could have done would have been effective.

No, not by that time.

When you look back at the decisions that Slovenia made, after the brief war that took place and once sovereignty was established, is there anything that could have been done differently that could have ensured a better outcome?

Of course, yes, particularly two decisions. One was very bad, and this was the law on the restitution of property that had been seized and nationalized during the communist rule from 1945 to around 1957. According to this law, everything should be given back to people in terms of property, objects, and so on. And if the property was no longer available, then qualified people would get really generous payments. We’re still paying for this. It has actually produced new inequities. With the restitution in Germany, if the house was still there then you got it back. If it wasn’t there, your compensation was very small. The more you have had confiscated, the less you got back. If the communists confiscated from you 100 euros, you got 100 euros back. But if the government confiscated 1 million euros, then you only got back 100 thousand euro. But here, it has been one of the great redistributions of wealth. Many of the properties that were nationalized had mortgages. And those loans were held by companies that had been nationalized. So, if you were overburdened with loans and your property was nationalized, now you were given it back after 30 or 40 years without any debt. Or you would get compensation if your house was no longer there because it had been replaced by a highway or something like that.

So it was 100% restitution?

Almost. And particularly for the church. The archdiocese of Ljubljana was allowed to restore the ownership of large forests in some Slovenian regions. Some of these forests had been actually sold to the state in the early 1920s. Later, on the eve of World War Two, they were returned to the Church. When the Germans occupied Slovenia they renationalized these forests, and of course when the communists came to power the forests remained in state ownership.

I don’t understand that. So the Church actually sold the forest in the 1920s…

Yes, and because this had been renationalized by the German state and then the communists nationalized it again, and so then it was subject to restitution. And just recently the Catholic Church got back the only island in Slovenia, which is on Lake Bled.

So they had owned this island up until the communist period?

Yes, they owned the church on the island. Nobody had any objections that the church building goes back to the Catholic Church.

But they get the whole island?

The whole island, yeah. It’s crazy. And there’s been a reorganization of local communities and municipalities, which has been led by the conservative parties. They want to preserve as many of the municipalities as possible. We are now facing enormous costs connected to local politics. We have 210 municipalities, and some of them don’t even have a thousand inhabitants. They have more eagles than people!

When the restitution law was proposed, was there opposition to it?

There was opposition, but it was not sufficient to prevent this law. Some of the members of the opposition—particularly ex-communists and liberal democrats—didn’t vote for this. They actually abstained and thus allowed the law to be adopted.

Also, the voucher privatization was not very good. Everybody got vouchers, but of course some of them traded their vouchers as soon as possible. Later of course some of these companies were viable; some others were not. But speaking very clearly, some sort of privatization had to happen. It was not optimal here, but I would say it was much better than in Hungary or some other countries where they simply sold what they got to funds controlled by foreign investors.

Up until recently, the Slovenian model of economic reform was held up as an example

The Slovenian model, after 20 years, is at the stage when it should consider some constitutional changes to promote better development. For instance, we should make some changes concerning the referendum process, because referendums are so easily achieved that you can block any sort of legislative decision.

Can you give me an example?

For example, on pension reform. Everybody knows that we should change the age of retirement from 63 to 65, not because of the economic crisis but because we live longer. But the law, which is very mild in terms of a long transition period, had been turned back by referendum.

It passed in parliament, but it was blocked by referendum.

Yes, and there have been other laws as well.

And there’s no mechanism for parliament to overturn a referendum?

No. The referendum is the last word. It’s not that the referendum should not be allowed. But the problem is that there is no quorum. If 20% of the population votes in the referendum, this 20% of population decides. And a lot of the issues have not aroused the wider attention of the public, so the minority can control the issue through the referendum process.

Also, the election law should change, in terms of providing more competition and more equal chances in some regions. Politically Slovenia has become very polarized. Center politics has disappeared in Slovenia, and now it’s much more polarized to the left and to the right.

The polarization of politics is of course happening in many countries. What factors do you think contribute to this polarization, aside from internal factors? What do you think are the common factors that lead to this polarization?

I keep asking myself this, but unfortunately I have no answer. In the Slovenian case, I would say that when one actor, like Janez Jansa, who has personified right-wing politics, chooses polarization, it’s very difficult for the other side not to play this game. The economic crisis has also created conditions in which politicians call for clear-cut solutions, which are one-sided and polarize the people.

In Slovenia there is a historical reason as well. There is a longstanding conflict between liberals and conservatives, between the clerical politics on one side and liberal (sometimes only “liberal”) politics on the other side. This polarization has existed in Slovenia since the late-19th century.

When we talked in 1990 the central tendency in the liberal party was between those focusing on classical liberalism—the classic economic liberalism of the European tradition—and the liberalism that focused more on civil liberties, and also social benefits, or the American liberal tradition. Does that tension still exist here?

It’s not very strong. This was an issue for the liberal democrats even before they came to the power. But later on the ideas of the traditional social liberalism of the American variety has prevailed in the LDS. The so-called neo-liberal politics played only a minor role in the early stages of the LDS. Later on the neo-liberals have been located elsewhere, particularly in the Slovenian Democratic Party. In the UK and the United States too, the political expression of neo-liberal economic ideas is conservatism, so they have been much more been linked to conservative politics, not liberal politics.

You mentioned two things in terms of your own experience of being both an academic and an activist and then going into politics. You mentioned the experience of polarization and also the experience of the power of referendum. Are there other things that surprised you about the political experience?

I spent 18 years in professional politics: six years as minister of environment and spatial planning, then four years as minister for telecommunications, information, and technology, then four years as an MP in the opposition, and then three years as speaker of the house of parliament. So I have a really rich experience in politics, and a lot of things surprised me.

I was surprised until my last day of professional politics, and I’m surprised even now, by how aware we were in the first period that we were creating a new state. We were developing institutions to enable people—at least so we believed—to have a decent life. Particularly in the environment and with physical planning and urban planning, our idea was to connect Slovenia by building highways. We did that. We believed that water was one of the most important resources and should be preserved and developed. So we started a large water-cleaning program. We adopted all the legal structures according to the demands and requirements of the European Union. So, there was a sense that we were doing something to enable Slovenians to have a better life, so that they wouldn’t have to worry about the water they were drinking, and so on. And this period ended with Slovenia’s entrance into the European Union.

The following period coincided with Janez Jansa taking over the government. And this became more of a battle over who gets what out of development. This has actually brought this country to the brink of economic disaster, where we now have to apply to the European Central Bank and the European Union for help. All of this earlier awareness has been lost after entering the European Union and adjusting our institutions to the requirements of a modern democratic state. After that, there was no big goal any more. It was more like: we are where we want to be so now it’s time to get as much as possible out of it. And those who resist this approach have no political power. So Slovenia now has a very unpredictable future.

Do you think that if EU membership had been delayed a couple of years more, these challenges could have been met internally?

I don’t think so. I think that this problem has been somehow present this whole time. After we joined the European Union, we thought that nothing bad could happen to us. It’s a psychological problem. But again, I’m somehow optimistic. I believe that we will find a way out of this period. And in many ways Slovenia is not doing bad.

Are you willing to back into politics?

I don’t know. Never say “never again.” I’m very happy with my position. I’m very glad not to be around politics right now. After 20 years of democracy in Slovenia obviously this is a time of generation change in Slovenian politics.

When you think back to your own positions back in 1990 or so, have you rethought any of your positions in any substantial way?

Not really in a substantial way. I rethought some of my decisions, for sure, but not in a substantial way. So, for instance, I would have made some environmental policies more quickly.

What about your understanding of liberalism as a philosophy?

I never understood liberalism in the market way. I saw it as a complex of ideas of basically European origin plus some later American features. I still persist in believing that thinkers from the 18th or 19th century cannot really fully answer questions today. But of course, you can also see how these issues and problems have been developed during this history, and that’s useful. So I’m not a dogmatic liberal-thinking politician. I know that the liberal set of ideas is maybe the most unorganized and controversial set of ideas ever. So if someone says to me that he is liberal, then I just start to consider what he could really mean by that.

Do you think the concept of an open society—which is fundamentally a liberal conception–is under attack in a substantial way? Do you see the possibility of an actual rollback to a very dangerous time, and I’m thinking here of FIDESZ in Hungary and…

Yes, certainly, I think so. This concept of open society is absolutely essential, particularly for the kind of democracy that can evolve out of authoritarian or totalitarian rule. I was so upset when I found that in the program of the LDS about six or seven years ago there was no mention of open society. Fortunately, I redrafted some of the chapters and put it back.

This is a really important issue, because the solution that is offered, whether by FIDESZ in Hungary or the Slovenian Democratic Party and Janez Jansa here, is a closed society: keeping society under control and depriving the people of possible alternatives. That’s a very dangerous idea. Sometimes people all too easily accept this idea, because they think that they will get security. At the end of the day, however, they will have neither openness nor security.

The last three questions are, quantitative. When you look into the future, the next couple of years for Slovenia, how do you assess the prospects on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being most pessimistic and 10 being most optimistic?

Six.

When you look back into the past from 1989 until today, and you assess everything that has changed or not changed here in Slovenia, how would you rate that on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being most dissatisfied and 10 being most satisfied?

Seven.

And when you look at your own personal life over the same period, 1989 to today, same scale, 1 to 10, 1 being most dissatisfied, 10 being most satisfied?

I would say 8.

Ljubljana, October 17, 2012

Interview (1990)

Could you describe your present activities?

You should know that I am a member of the presidency of the Liberal party here in Slovenia. It is an interesting issue of how the party I belong to became a liberal party, what liberalism means for us, politically, economically. The history of this party also describes the democratization processes here in Slovenia and also the dilemmas that appeared after the first so-called free elections. If I start at the end of the story, one thing which is more or less obvious for us: the path from the one party system, basically totalitarianism, to a pluralist system, democratic elections and so on, is not such a one directional path. After the elections, we have still problems and issues with democratic institutions. Partly we are witnessing a new appearance of totalitarianism within the so-called democratic parties. We see some danger of the over-emphasis of the focusing on issues of national sovereignty which, I am speaking personally, endangers the rights of individuals.

One very important issue, to illustrate, is the question of national army. Now it is a very important issue in the so-called democratization process. Before the election, there was the idea that we should try to achieve some sort of internationally recognized status of Slovenia as a de-militarized zone, a zone where there is no army and so on. Almost all so-called opposition parties before the elections were for this zone more or less but after the elections, after Demos came into power, they very strongly changed their attitude and they see the national army as a very important attribute of national sovereignty.

The Liberal party’s view is that we should now build our economic and political future more on the formal institutions guaranteed through checks and balances so that political options should prevail in their totality and not so much on substantive issues which might be national sovereignty or the army. This liberal option is: we don’t believe in great projects. We don’t believe in socialism. Our organization has done a lot to show how to dismantle this system. We don’t believe in projects in big capital letters: Socialism, Nation, even Democracy. What we are really trying for is a sort of a actual political and economic system which would prevent any political group and any political issue from dominating all the others. And here our prime concern, therefore, is human rights. Human rights considering the citizens of Slovenia and Yugoslavia and trying particularly now in the debate centered around the new constition, we will strongly support maximum human rights guarantees, all sorts of checks and balances built into the constitution.

In the sphere of the economy, we clearly see that the so-called socialized socialist economy didn’t work. But on the other side, we see that there is no one way, no easy solution. We also know that the market economy or regulated market economy has had crucial setbacks. But nevertheless we don’t think that here we can organize an ideal economic system. What we are striving for is to create a situation which would enable people to take their initiatives in the economy with all necessary measures, particularly concerning ecology, social issues and so on. I would describe our liberalism more as human rights liberalism than economic liberalism. Although we think that we have to de-nationalize and re-privatize the economy but with some guarantees that would not allow the management and owners free disposal and so on.

The other very important topic is Yugoslavia. We also function differently on the topic of Slovenia-Yugoslavia. Before the election, the parties involved in Demos were standing for the independence and sovereignty of Slovenia as soon as possible. But we stood for cooperation which we operationalize in terms of a Yugoslav economic association which would have a common market, common elements of external politics, some financial and banking institutions. But the republics should be in other ways independent to act. Now, after the elections, Demos took this idea of cooperation. Now the situation is so that Demos will probably fight for cooperation between Slovenia and Croatia which we still don’t consider a good solution. Because good relations between two republics in which one is very small like Slovenia, various sorts of differences can come out. But now the situation concerning Yugoslavia is very different. As it looks, we went to Belgrade to see if there is some sort of possibility for restructuring Yugoslavia and then we found out quite clearly that there is not. Not because we don’t want it, but because Serbia doesn’t want it.

At the moment.

Yes, but this moment could last a very long period. Even after the elections. We talked with the opposition groups and they have the same position as the ruling party. We spoke of some sort of pact between Yugoslav nations and they were talking about war and redrawing the borders, dividing the territories – Macedonia, Bosnia and so on. So actually it is not the issue that Slovenia and Croatia are for greater independence but that Serbia is now determined that if they can’t rule over all Yugoslavia, they will advocate some sort of separatism to dominate south-eastern parts of Yugoslavia. Concerning the elections in Serbia, the opposition parties there think that Milosevic will prepare a new constitution, give the constitution to a referendum, certainly he will win a overwhelmingly majority and after that immediately organize the elections in a period of months with no chaance for the oppositional parties to prepare a fair pre-election campaign. But even if some other party comes to power, it will not display a different view on this issue. Particuarly if Draskovic comes to power. The Democrats and the Liberal Forum, whose basic ideas are close to ours in terms of liberal democracy, have no chance of coming near to power. So paradoxically if we are left to choose between confederation of Croatia and Slovenia and an independent Slovenia, we are inclined more toward independence.

What about these more democratic Yugoslav options?

This is what we were striving for. We produced this document about the Yugoslav economic association which is based on the following assumptions. All republics should have free elections. After the elections, the major political powers that come out of these elections should come together in some sort of round table and see the options. As you know, Yugoslavia’s beginning was already marked with bad marks. And that after the war, Yugoslavia was based on some rational assumptions which may work on a symbolic level but not on a level of practical political life. Its very rude what I will say, but: the fact that Yugoslavia is composed of very different cultural worlds (I’m not saying that the cultural wworld that Slovenia belongs to is higher, I’m a cultural relativist). So I’m not saying that the Serbs are in comparison to Western culture something less. Rather, I would claim quite the opposite. But the fact is that they are different worlds. The more I think of Yugoslavia, the more I believe that the causes of conflicts are based in the cultural sphere not in political or economic disagreements. But in the very differnt ways that people think that life should be organized. On the other side, the south-eastern space – from the alps to Greece – could present a terrain of mutual cooperation, but it must be based on mutual interest of the republics, of the nations. We think that Yugoslavia is possible if it is based on “a pure and rational calculation of interests.” So if every republic thinks that it will be better for it to join Yugoslavia, then Yugoslavia is possible. There are very few issues of interest: dispersion of population (Croats living in other republics) and the economy

There seems to be a basic contradiction between the ideals of liberalism (rational self-interest) and the irrational forces of nationalism that today exist within Yugoslavia. What will come of this clash

We went to Belgrade and came back very disappointed. Rational discourse was not possible. We talked about interests and they are talking about Serbian soil and blood and fears and fights and so on. That’s why we think that Yugoslavia is probably not an option any more. But still the question remains: how to come to such solutions if we can’t stick together. Every solution is a bad solution in this game. We would stand for any solution which would not cost lives.

Even if you become independent you will still have to deal with Serbia. Serbia will not suddenly become transfered to another part of the globe.

That’s the point. There are different options. But the problem is: the Serbians say “if you Slovenes don’t want to stay in Yugoslavia, you are free to go.” But that is not the situation in Croatia. 10 per cent of the population there are Serbs. Serbia are claiming historic territory including almost all of Bosnia and part of the Dalmatian hinterland. There are two possibilities in Serbia-Croatia relations: one is violent conflict, the other is some sort of agreement between Croats and Serbs. And this would allow that Yugoslavia would become some sort of confederation. But what would be the price of such an agreement? If the price would be that Kosovo goes to Serbs, and also part of Macedonia, then we would not go for such compromise. Because this was the politics before the war. Two big brothers were dealing between themselves and the smaller nations paid the price – Slovenia, Macedonians, Albanians.

Superpower relations.

Yes. Here human rights issues are involved. If we go apart, we would leave the Albanians to themselves. But if we stay in Yugoslavia, can we help the Albanians? That’s why I said that there is no good solution.

I don’t think anyone wants to see a partition solution as between Indiaa and Pakistan. That would mean population traansfers and the creation of homogenous populations. And the loss of life.

We claim that as well. Such a scenario involving moving a large section of population would be the worst for us. We are strongly in favor of ethnic minorities. They are entitled to the same rights as the majority population. And we do see them as a sort of element, abstractly speaking, which increased the variety of society. What is really boring is one nation. Sometimes we make jokes with Austrians: it’s really boring there! Yugoslavia is something you have to experience, sometimes dangerous, dynamic compared to the stagnant Austria.

In terms of Serbia, it will perhaps become more dangerous if isolated, if it feels cornered or trapped.

As I can see, Serbia is not very much interested in the Western parts of Yugoslavia. They are interested in part of Croatia, part of Bosnia-Herzogovina, and Macedonia. What we can see in Europe, tensions have been removed from East-West relations and transfered to the Balkans. If you see those Balkan countries treat national minorities you will see that Serbs are the most democratic! Compared to Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Greece, Albania. Sometimes I think that these Balkan nations are only waiting for Yugoslavia to fall apart and then they will jump for Macedonia. Part of the territory will go to Greece, the major part divded between Serbia and Bulgaria. Albania is simply too weak though it has 1/3 of the population in Macedonia.

You mentioned earlier some of the principles of classic political liberalism, checks and balances, etc. I’m wondering if you also hope to follow another liberal principle: the triangular relationship between state, business and labor developed in the U.S. in the 20th century?

Yes. I worked on this interwar period in U.S. history in my Ph.d. But Slovenia is very small and prone to corporatist solutions – in which labor and government come to some agreement, some undefinable unity. We would not be able to see how these interests are articulated. Already in the last 20 years, the Slovenian government wanted to rule the country as a big corporation with everything owned by the government. Some sort of unstructured corporate division which developed some para-governmental structure: this is what we want to prevent

Like Slovenia as a company-town.

Yes, we would like to prevent this. The other issue: precisely because we are small, the social space is very intensive. A lot more is happening in a small social space. Slovenia is in those terms a modern society. Therefore we stand for a strictly proportional system of voting which would allow that political and other preferences are presented through the institutional systems, in opposition to the majority system in which you have a reduction of interests before they enter into the institutions. But basically we do accept this scheme that social policy should be determined by these three actors: government, business and labor. But we want to see clearly defined positions. Now, the government is becoming even stronger than the last two years before the elections. Before it didn’t have the legitimacy as a one party government. Now it is a multiparty government but institutions remain the same. So it has political legitimacy and all the powers from the one party system. Which is very abnormal. On the other side, we have a business shattered by the bad position of the economy. We have a considerable industrial tradition, we don’t have big industrial cities or urban industrial working class. Aproximately 50 per cent of the working class is working farmers. Either they are employed in small industrial companies in the country or small cities or they move from the villages daily to the cities. The industrial urban working class is supposed to be the social basis for strongly organized labor either politically or in trade unions. But trade unions are not very important social factors here. Workers-farmers are culturally and politically inclined toward the country way of living and toward more rightist parties. Slovenia is not good soil for liberalism either. You had the domination of two big collectivist ideologies here: Catholicism and Communism. The urban middle class educated is very tiny.

You want to create countervailing forces without the social basis for such forces and in the face of a government clearly not interested in creating such opposition. What can you do?

The point is, as I said, when we think in these macro-sociological categories, the situation looks rather pessimistic. But I don’t really believe very much in terms of political parties and social bases. What is very charasteristic for our party, liberal intellectuals or even leftist-liberal intellectuals are certainly a minority in terms of the population as a whole but not a minority in terms of providing concepts and ideas. They have knowledge and skills of mobilizing the population. If you would order all liberal writers to stop all their writing, then the papers would simply have no articles! Right now we have 40 members of parliament out of 240 total. We are the strongest single party in parliament. That’s not so bad. In those terms, it is a question of party strategy. If it is able to organize, but not in a party way: it is chaarasteristic of liberal intellectuals not to want to belong to a party. What we do with this party is to create a supporting mechanism for the members of parliament and to make some channels for information and so on. We don’t want to be some kind of populist party with 50,000 members. We don’t need this.

One problem for liberals in the West, however, is that they often can’t win in elections because they have this faith in the power of ideas while other parties believe in the power of power.

We think that if we can manage to have some 15-20 per cent of the elected bodies, we would have a fairly good chance of providing stability. We wouldn’t say that publically: we say that we want more publically. But 15-20 percent, we think we can get that. Lawyers and professionals like that support us. Managers too. So we are not so restricted to only so-called liberal intelligentsia.

Are there major differences of opinion between branches of the party, between human rights liberals and economic liberals for instance?

We had the very same structuring in the Liberal party as characteristic in European Liberal party with this opposition of the two groups. Up to now, we don’t see this opposition as damaging to the party. On the contrary, it constitutes an internal dynamic of party life.

No Peace Dividend? Not So Fast

This blog post originally appeared on The Hill’s Congress Blog.

Obama administration’s budget included a promissory note. It will take them a few more weeks to tell us what they plan to spend next year on the Afghan War. Their intention to bring that war to an end, though, is clear.

Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and his Harvard colleague Linda Bilmes are predicting that this will produce “little in the way of a peace dividend for the U.S. economy once the fighting stops.” They base this bleak assessment on the kinds of meticulous calculations that anchored their 2008 book The Three Trillion Dollar War: on the huge sums we will and must be spending to care for wounded veterans, for example, and the money squandered when war support functions were massively and unnecessarily shifted to private contractors.

They are surely and unfortunately right that what we will save by ending these wars has already been “spent” on the future, baked-in costs of misguided decisions made during those wars. But that doesn’t mean that the prospect of a “peace dividend” is gone.

That’s because the ending of the wars is coinciding with a broader defense downsizing, propelled by the battle over the budget deficit. And the effects of automatic budget cuts known as “sequestration” on the Pentagon budget will actually produce a smaller downsizing than any of the previous postwar periods: smaller than after the Cold War, or the Vietnam War, or the Korean War.

There is more downsizing to do, therefore, on a military budget that, adjusted for inflation, climbed higher during the post-9-11 period than any budget since World War II. During this period the idea of making choices among military priorities was simply shelved. And this budget grew on top of the separate budget that has funded the post-9-11 wars. With an economy starved from lack of public investment, we need that peace dividend. Will we get one? You wouldn’t think so, from the looks of the administration’s Pentagon budget request this year, which fails even to stay within the limits set by sequestration.

Jeff Attaway/Flickr

Jeff Attaway/Flickr

But there’s better news in what the new Defense secretary has been saying. Chuck Hagel’s first major speech April 3 at the National Defense University referred to the “inevitable downturn in defense budgets.” He criticized past weapons spending programs that produced “systems that are vastly more expensive and technologically risky than what was promised or budgeted for.” Hagel has committed to a serious reexamination of his Department’s spending practices, a “Strategic Choices and Management Review,” that will actually tie our national security strategy to the budget available to pay for it.

It will identify actual priorities from among the long list of missions the Pentagon has claimed for itself in recent years. The last major Pentagon reorganization, he noted, came during the height of the Cold War, when “[c]ost and efficiency were not major considerations.” He promises that the new review will take seriously the proposition that “DoD is incentivized to ask for more and do more,” and work to change this budget-busting combination.

Will he succeed? No telling, as yet. The first Obama administration (and last Bush administration) Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, had some of the same intentions, most of them unrealized. But the post-sequester world is different. In this world we know it really is possible to shrink the Pentagon’s budget, despite the best efforts of the defense industry, its congressional allies, and much of the Pentagon staff itself to keep it climbing ever higher.

To get to a Pentagon budget that is sized for our new postwar world, the downsizing momentum needs to keep going. While the war budget declines, we need to make sure that the “regular” Pentagon budget comes down with it. This is where a peace dividend can be found. We can’t give up on that goal so easily.

Pemberton is a research fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and co-author, with Lawrence Korb of the Center for American Progress, of the Unified Security Budget for the United States.

Domestic Attacks Like the Boston Marathon Bombing Add Insult to Injury

Along with those killed in the Boston Marathon bombing, the numbers tossed around of how many will lose limbs are in the dozens. It’s tragic enough when veterans return from foreign wars with limbs missing. But, as Iraqis, Afghans, not to mention Cambodians, know, limbs lost on one’s home soil only add insult to injury.

If the Boston Marathon bombing is the result of an attack by a nation’s own citizens, it reflects poorly on that nation’s security and its civil society. If it’s the result of an attack by foreign extremists, we’re enraged by the harm that comes to innocents and humiliated that our security has been breached. If 9/11 has any small favor to thank goodness for, it’s that the lethality of its component incidents left us without many walking wounded to inflame the wound and rub our face in the security failures.

Should the Boston Marathon bombing be the work of foreign extremists, much as I personally am enraged by thought of their supporters celebrating, we need to be on guard against hate crimes and refrain from profiling. Nor should we surrender to the fear that engulfed us after 9/11 and enact yet more layers of security and measures that further limit civil liberties. Whereas those responses are on the back end — the reactive and defensive — we need to respond with the leading edge: foreign policy.

Should the suspects prove to be from the Middle East, retaliatory drone strikes or JSOC attacks will only add fuel to the fire. Meanwhile, the immediate aftermath of a tragedy is no time to interject commentary that even hints at blaming the victim. But our first line of defense is acknowledging that U.S. policies — such as stationing forces on Arab soil, failing to pressure Israel to halt their oppression of Palestinians, invading Iraq invasion, and unleashing drone attacks on Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen — stoke fires and create enemies.

Ultimately, our best defense is not a good offense: it’s keeping the number of people we need to defend ourselves against to a minimum.

Structural Adjustment: Former President Ben Ali’s Gift to Tunisia (Part One)

Cross-posted from the Colorado Progressive Jewish News.

Tunisia's Baguette Revolution, January 2011

Tunisia’s Baguette Revolution, January 2011

Faced with a deepening socio-economic crisis that has only intensified since the collapse of the Ben Ali government in January, 2011, it appears more than likely that Tunisia is about to enter into a major agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a $1.7 billion loan. As is almost always the case, the loan is conditionally based upon Tunisia fulfilling what the IMF calls structural adjustment criteria, a part of which has already been implemented – eliminating the subsidies on fuel which has increased their cost.

All this is being done in the classic IMF fashion with as little public discussion as possible either with the Tunisian government – its Constituent Assembly – or with civil society, which have had no input whatsoever into the process. For an international organization that talks the talk about ‘transparency’. its long held traditions of secrecy, especially where it concerns granting sizable loans to semi-peripheral and peripheral countries, is much more the norm.

That said, in this new post-Ben Ali era, confused and directionless as it is economically and politically, one thing that the Tunisian people have won is their freedom of speech. As a result, alas (for IMF, Tunisian Central Bank and Finance Ministry bureacrats), it has been more difficult to hide the details and conditions for this loan than in the past. A growing number of Tunisia’s talented political and economic researchers have been able to break through the traditional wall of silence to unearth the details of the loan and press the Tunisian government to do what it really seems to want to avoid – engage in a public, wide-ranging discussion on the loan itself, and more basically, on the direction of the economy itself.

Many of the revelations about the loans have appeared in Arabic, French and English at the Tunisian alternative media website, Nawaat.org, which has broken key elements of the story to the Tunisian public, enough so that government has been pressed to publicly respond. It is precisely this kind of discussion which has been missing from the Tunisian public since the Ennahda-led government came to power in the October, 2011 elections.

During the Ben Ali years in power (1987-2011), Tunisia was often cited as an IMF poster-child, i.e., IMF structural adjustment might have caused ‘problems’ elsewhere – but in Tunisia, at least according to IMF publicity, it seemed to be working. This particular illusion was blown to bits so to speak by the emergence of the massive social movement that brought down the Ben Ali government. When the mask was ripped off, it turns out that not only had IMF structural adjustment policies not helped Tunisia, they were a major contributor to the country’s socio-economic crisis. IMF statistics on Tunisia were, if not entirely fabricated, way off.

The rosy picture the IMF painted of the Tunisian economy was more hype than truth. In fact the policies failed. How interesting and typical that within the IMF there has virtually been no self-criticism for how it contributed to Tunisia’s economic crisis, as if structural adjustment had nothing to do with Ben Ali’s collapse. Worse – the policies continue. The proposed loan follows closely in the footsteps of those that came before. There is no change in the country’s post-Ben Ali economic policies from those that existed prior to his downfall.

If this hypothesis is accurate and, from everything I can tell, it is, there are consequences. As the last uprising was essentially caused by Tunisia’s embracing of neoliberal economic policies and nothing, or precisely little, has changed. Another major crisis cannot be that far off. History strongly suggests the relationship between neoliberal economic policies and political repression ‘go together like a horse and carriage’ as the lines from an old song go.

Nor has Ben Ali’s extensive repressive apparatus been dismantled; it remains largely intact, for awhile in cryonic suspension, but now coming back to life again. Having tasted the wine of freedom and empowerment – the fruit of unprecedented peaceful mass protest – it is unlikely that the Tunisian people will wait this time another quarter century before taking measures into their own hands once again. I do not write these words as some kind of ‘threat’, simply from my reading of history.

In any case, what follows is the first part of a three- (or maybe four-) part series. This first part looks at the Tunisia’s initial uneasy relationship with the IMF in the 1980s, Bourguiba’s resistance to the policies, and Ben Ali’s embrace of structural adjustment. Part Two will examine the results of Ben Ali’s neoliberal policies on Tunisia (1987-2011) and Part Three will take a peek at the current proposal, well on its way to being implemented. RJP)

Tunisia’s Baguette Revolution

For ‘outsiders’ the photo seems admittedly a little odd: a man armed with a ‘baguette,’ [i] as if it were a machine gun and not simply baked flour, pointing it at a Tunisian security force down the street on Ave. Habib Bourguiba. But Tunisians of any age understand it. The photo is from early January 2011, just before a million person march on Tunis forced the five-star kleptomaniacs, Tunisian President Zine Ben Ali and his wife Leila Trabelsi, from power.

The foreign media, including here in the USA, suggested that Tunisia’s January 2011 uprising was a ‘Twitter’ or ‘Facebook’ Revolution, but it was much more basic than that – it was about bread and roses ­– about pervasive economic stagnation, high unemployment, low wages and seething repression. At the time, no one was talking about whether women should wear veils or bare their tits, or thought the uprising was about trashing marabouts and trade union headquarters, or desecrating Jewish cemeteries.

Taking their cue from the poor man[ii] facing down Ben Ali’s security apparatus, hundreds of Tunisians picked up their baguettes and took to the streets. Symbolizing the failure of the Ben Ali years, the baguette was also reminder of the Bread Riots of 1984 which shook the country to its foundations, leading to a full scale national revolt that very nearly brought down what was then the 18-year rule of the country’s first president, Habib Bourguiba.

Tunisia Caught in the Global Crisis of the 1980s

True, the 1984 Tunisian economy was in the doldrums, although the current fashion – to blame the slowdown on the Tunisian economic model of state capitalism, with its strong social contract – misses the point.[iii] The global economy had been in the doldrums for a decade hitting the commodity, low-end manufacturing sector in the semi-periphery and periphery with a special vengeance in the early 1980s. Tunisia was caught up in the storm. In particular, the European economy, had gone through a decade of recession and high unemployment which, in turn, had a profound impact on Tunisia, as so much of the Tunisian economy was geared towards exporting to Europe (France and Italy in particular) and welcoming European tourists.

In the early 1980s, Tunisia’s economic situation deteriorated, the state’s tax base shrank. With some hesitation, the Bourguiba government was pressured to do what so many other Third World countries had to do at the same time: go begging to the IMF or World Bank for a loan. This Bourguiba did, and the IMF, being accommodating, agreed to offer Tunisia a substantial loan. But there were conditions: the usual structural adjustment conditions which have done so much over the years to widen the gap between poor and rich countries, to undermine and destroy the economic potential of many of the Asian, African and Latin American countries that accepted the deal.

Bourguiba Agrees to End Bread Subsidies; the Nation Rises in Protest; Bourguiba Withdraws the Proposal

These conditions included cutting government spending, reducing or eliminating capital controls and protective tariffs, depreciating the dinar (Tunisia’s currency). Part of the deal necessitated the Tunisian government ending its subsidies on wheat and semolina (ingredients in bread). Caught in the vice, Bourguiba agreed.

The price of bread doubled overnight. The price increase triggered two weeks of angry nation-wide protest demonstrations. As they had done once before in 1981, the security forces and military – led by then Interior Minister, Zine Ben Ali – crushed the bread riots. When it was all over, more than 80 Tunisians lay dead, hundreds wounded. Having not yet slipped into approaching senility, Bourguiba had the presence of mind to reinstate the subsidies and fired the ministers responsible for encouraging the loan. The political situation stabilized, but the economic downward spiralm, caught in the global structural crisis, continued.

Such bread riots were not unique to Tunisia. They took place all over the Third World in the 1980s as the world’s poorer countries were forced to lift subsidies on food, medicine, and education, to freeze public sector wages and benefits in exchange for World Bank/IMF loans.

For the next three years, until he was overthrown by his interior minister, Bourguiba resisted lifting subsidies. But in 1986, Tunisia ran short on foreign exchange. The crisis was triggered by plunging oil revenues (down 40%), declining tourism receipts, and a serious drought which badly affected the agricultural sector. Bourguiba grudgingly agreed to an IMF loan that required lifting subsidies on bread. With the 1984 bread riots (and a 1978 union initiated national strike) in the back of his mind, Bourguiba permitted wages to simultaneously rise to compensate some for the higher bread prices. Again people took to the streets in protest, but not with the intensity of 1984. [iv]

Enter Zine Ben Ali: ‘Our Man In Tunis’; Start of the Tunisian-IMF Love Affair

The government survived the crisis, although it was the beginning of the end of Bourguiba. Bourguiba’s successes were based upon a strong state participation in the economy, free public education, democratization of the role of women, and subsidies for basic food stuffs and fuel. As the tax base of the state eroded and the state fiscal crisis deepened, the social contract that Bourguiba had committed to for thirty years weakened and with it, the social base of his government narrowed.

Increased repression, especially against the country’s growing Islamicist movement (which itself was able to take advantage of the growing economic crisis) only narrowed Bourguiba’s support base that much further. On November 7, 1978, Habib Bourguiba was removed from power in a ‘palace coup’ on November. There was very little protest. Bourguiba was unceremoniously pushed aside with his former interior minister, the same man who had crushed the 1984 bread riots, Zine Ben Ali, took the helm.

In a matter of weeks, the new government’s attitude towards the World Bank and International Monetary Fund shifted from hostility and suspicion to a warm embrace. Using an old basketball trick – faking to the left, while moving with the speed of light to the right. At the beginning of his rule, Ben Ali promised openness and democracy. He gave Tunisia a quarter of a century of IMF structural adjustment and an increasingly repressive government, much crueler and all-embracing than anything Bourguiba had constructed. He went far to deconstruct much of the social edifice that Bourguiba had tried to build and would have done more had he had the opportunity. When finally chased from power in 2011, he left a country economically and socially polarized, half of the economy in the hands of the two ruling families (the Ben Alis and the Trabelsis), a repressive apparatus of more than 200,000 in a country of ten million, and an enormous debt burden. As is virtually universally acknowledged, much of Tunisia’s economic and social decay of the Ben Ali years lays at the door step of the International Monetary Fund.

Even before consolidating his hold on power, as one of his first acts, Ben Ali gave Washington a call and opened negotiations with the IMF for exactly the kind of structural adjustment-based loan Bourguiba had resisted.

Thus wrote Canadian political scientist Michel Chossodovsky:

Barely a few months following Ben Ali’s installment as the country’s president, a major agreement was signed with the IMF. An agreement had also been reached with Brussels pertaining to the establishment of a free trade regime with the EU. A massive privatization program under the supervision of the IMF-World Bank was also launched. With hourly wages on the order of €.75 an hour, Tunisia had also become a cheap labor haven for the European Union.[v]

In retrospect, the implementation of Ben Ali’s economic program was a classic example of what later Naomi’s Klein would refer to as the ‘Shock Doctrine’ to the Tunisian realities. In the Ben Ali case, a political coup – that by the way included the promise of greater democracy – became the pretext for a far-reaching economic restructuring of the economy. It included classic structural adjustment themes: reducing the state sector in the economy, lifting subsidies, ‘loosening’ the social contract, weakening the country’s education and healthcare system, keeping wages low, lifting capital controls, privatization of state resources, etc., etc. – all the policies that have made IMF structural adjustment the antithesis of Third World development over the past thirty years. It all happened quickly before the Tunisian public understood the degree to which their lives were about to be changed.

It was not only that subsidies would be ended and much of the country’s state-owned economic structures be privatized, the country’s entire economic model that had existed since independence was dismantled in the process. The ‘old authoritarian’ economic model instituted by Bourguiba that included state involvement in the economy, a social contract that included subsidies on basic needs, free quality education and a somewhat protectionist approach to foreign investment and involvement in the country’s affairs, came unglued. In its place ‘a new authoritarian’ model based upon classic neoliberal economic principles was immediately and aggressively implemented before the Tunisian people could fathom what was going on.[vi]

________________________

[i] A ‘baguette’ – a French long, thin loaf of bread; although Tunisians use the same term, they have fashioned their baguettes a little differently than the French versions.

[ii] Hard to tell, but from the picture he certainly doesn’t look like a Tunisian billionaire or high-tech yuppie, just a ‘pauvre type’ …like so many others in Tunisia.

[iii] That model was about to be dismantled; the main work was done by Zine Ben Ali once he came to power

[iv] Anwar Alam. “Islam, Bread Riots and Democratic Reform in North Africa”

[v] Professor Michel Chossodovsky. “Tunisian and the IMF Diktats: How Micro-Economic Policy Triggers World Wide Poverty and Unemployment”

[vi] The terms ‘old’ and ‘new’ authoritarianism are taken from Stephen J. King’s work The New Authoritarianism in the Middle East and North Africa, Indiana Series in Middle East Studies: 2009

Links:

Tunisian Bloggers Refuse IMF Loan

Fakhfakh Says Tunisia Sees $1.8 Billion IMF Loan

Emphasis Added: The Foreign Policy Week in Pieces (4/12)

Mental Illness a Prerequisite to Run for Public Office

It’s unbelievable what people would do to be in power. I know: It happens everywhere. I can’t believe that normal people in their right mind would run for elected position. There has to be something wrong in their value system to go through what they have to go through. What I saw here was much worse: so much humiliation to run for office.
– Vihar Krastev

Escape From Ignorance and Chalga, John Feffer, Focal Points

No End to Atonement in Sight

Germany apparently remains eternally wounded, dependent upon the healing power of remembrance. Germans must live with their trauma and occasionally reopen the wound to prevent it from festering. … “History or, to be more precise, the history we Germans have repeatedly mucked up, is a clogged toilet. We flush and flush, but the shit keeps rising,” Günter Grass concluded in his 2002 novel “Crabwalk.”

‘Our Mothers, Our Fathers’: Next-Generation WWII Atonement, Roman Leick, Spiegel Online

From Marijuana and Heroin in Vietnam to Anti-psychotic Drugs in Afghanistan

… there has been a giant, 682 percent increase in the number of psychoactive drugs — antipsychotics, sedatives, stimulants and mood stabilizers — prescribed to our troops between 2005 and 2011. … The data suggest that military doctors may prescribe psychoactive drugs for off-label use as sedatives, possibly so as to enable soldiers to function better in stressful combat situations.

Wars on Drugs, Richard A. Friedman, The New York Times

Iron Lady Surpasses Hitchens’s Record for Most Disrespectful Obituaries of a Brit

… when I was a child she was just a strict woman telling everyone off and selling everything off. I didn’t know what to think of this fearsome woman. … It always irks when rightwing folk demonstrate in a familial or exclusive setting the values that they deny in a broader social context. They’re happy to share big windfall bonuses with their cronies, they’ll stick up for deposed dictator chums when they’re down on their luck, they’ll find opportunities in business for people they care about. I hope I’m not being reductive but it seems Thatcher’s time in power was solely spent diminishing the resources of those who had least for the advancement of those who had most.

Russell Brand on Margaret Thatcher: ‘I always felt sorry for her children’, Russell Brand, The Guardian

Giving the C.I.A. Its Head in Pakistan

[American ambassador to Pakistan Cameron] Munter was reporting daily back to Washington about the negative impact of the armed-drone campaign and about how the C.I.A. seemed to be conducting a war in a vacuum, oblivious to the ramifications that the drone strikes were having on American relations with Pakistan’s government.

How a Single Spy Helped Turn Pakistan Against the United States, Mark Mazzetti, The New York Times

To Wolfowitz, Iraq Was Just a Chance for the U.S. to Demonstrate Its Power

Andrew Bacevich’s Letter to Paul Wolfowitz at Harper’s has been generating significant attention. Bachevich reminds us that Wolfowitz was a protégé of nuclear strategist Albert Wohlstetter, who believed states should act to prevent war, not just react to aggression. At one point, Bacevich writes

So even conceding a hat tip to Albert Wohlstetter, the Bush Doctrine was largely your handiwork. The urgency of invading Iraq stemmed from the need to validate that doctrine before the window of opportunity closed. What made it necessary to act immediately was not Saddam’s purported WMD program. It was not his nearly nonexistent links to Al Qaeda. It was certainly not the way he abused his own people. No, what drove events was the imperative of claiming for the United States prerogatives allowed no other nation.

… to unshackle American power. Saddam Hussein’s demise would serve as an object lesson for all: Here’s what we can do. Here’s what we will do.

In other words … Iraq: the demonstrator model war.

For more on the relationship between Wolfowitz and Wohlstetter, read Anthony David’s 2007 American Prospect piece The Apprentice. Also, see what may be Wolfowitz’s last extensive interview in 2003 in Vanity Fair.

North Korea’s Withdrawal From Kaesong: Cutting Off Its Nose to Spite Its Face

KaesongNorth Korea’s bellicose rhetoric of late has certainly set the international community on edge—and nowhere more so than in the U.S. and South Korea, the primary targets of such threats.

Coming after a long-range missile test in December and an underground nuclear test in February which drew international condemnation and provoked a new round of tough sanctions from the U.N., North Korea’s escalating provocations have been toeing a very delicate line between theatre and reality.

Since the U.N.’s February sanctions—which largely targeted North Korea’s elite by further restricting luxury imports—North Korea has been particularly busy in provoking the international community: it has threatened the U.S. with a preemptive nuclear strike, nullified the 1953 Korean armistice, allegedly launched cyberattacks against South Korea, announced plans to restart its Yongbyon nuclear reactor, severed all of its communication lines with South Korea, and rather overtly moved mid-range missiles to its Eastern coast.

Of particular concern, North Korea—after turning away South Korean workers from the jointly-run Kaesong Industrial Complex only a few days before—has most recently announced that it is withdrawing its some 53,000 workers from the complex and will consider shutting down the operation entirely.

The Kaesong complex, a manufacturing zone just north of the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea, has been run jointly by both North and South Koreans since 2004. It provides the North with an estimated $90 million each year—from workers’ wages—which Pyongyang collects and instead pays workers with local money. Even though the state reaps most of the benefits of the complex, Kaesong still provides a vital source of income for impoverished North Korean workers: at least one in six of the inhabitants of the nearby city Kaesong work at the complex and depend upon such steady income. Kaesong is a boon for South Korea as well, since North Korean factory workers there earn “less than one-tenth” of the wage of average South Korean factory workers.

The stability of the Kaesong operation is considered to be a bellwether for the state of affairs between North and South Korea: as of now, it is something of a last remaining symbol of North and South Korean cooperation. North Korea’s current withdrawal is only a temporary suspension on the complex—something that has happened in the past when North and South Korean tensions have run high.

It would be an unprecedented move, however, if North Korea acts on its threats to permanently close the facility. And Kaesong’s closing would not only harm workers from both the North and South: it would signal, according to the Wall Street Journal, “a heightened risk of conflict since it’s a step North Korea has never taken before” to South Korea and its allies.

Leslie Garvey is a contributor to Foreign Policy in Focus and Focal Points.

Did the Israeli Prison System Claim Another Palestinian Victim?

Maisara Abu HamdiyehPrisoners in Israel’s Ramon Prison recently rose up in protest for fellow inmate Maisara Abu Hamdiyeh, who died of throat cancer on April 2. Attributing his death to a late diagnosis and improper medical treatment, protesters are also being heard throughout Gaza, Jerusalem, and the West Bank.

Hamdiyeh originally complained of throat pain in August of 2012 and in January was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. It is unclear what sort of medical treatment, if any, he had been receiving up until his death, and reports from each side vary. Palestinians claim medical negligence, while Israelis say that adequate medical treatment was provided.

Following the announcement of Hamdiyeh’s death, prison protests prompted Israeli guards to fire tear gas on inmates in their cells—who were only guilty of “banging on their cell doors and throwing objects around” according to the BBC. This appeared to backfire however, as six guards along with three inmates were sent to the prison clinic after the teargas was used.

In solidarity with prisoners, Palestinian citizens took to the streets in protest. In Hamdiyeh’s hometown of Hebron demonstrators threw rocks at Israeli soldiers, who retaliated by launching tear gas canisters and firing rubber-coated bullets into the crowd.

Maisara Abu Hamdiyeh is the second prisoner in as many months who has died in Israeli custody, after torture victim Arafat Jaradat. Israel continues to show blatant disregard in addressing basic needs of Palestinians in the prison system, significantly increasing tensions in this already polarized society.

Who will be the next victim of the Israeli prison system?

Renee Lott is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.

Bulgaria’s Podkrepa Made the Same Mistake as Solidarity

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

Oleg Chulev

Oleg Chulev

Poland was unique in East-Central Europe for the size, strength, and pivotal role of its labor movement, Solidarity. In no other country in the region did workers take the lead in challenging the communist system. But that doesn’t mean that worker movements were not important in other East-Central European countries. In Bulgaria, for instance, Podkrepa was a key part of the opposition representing workers’ voices.

From the word “support” in Bulgarian, Podkrepa had its start in February 1989, before the spike in popular revolt. Later, as change accelerated in the country, it was a founding member of the opposition coalition known as the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF). Through “citizens committees,” Podkrepa campaigned on behalf of the UDF in the first free elections in 1990. By 1991, and the election of the first non-socialist government, Podkrepa formally withdrew from the UDF.

But those were challenging years for trade unions affiliated with the political opposition. There were fierce debates within the union over whether to be involved in formal politics. When opposition parties supported economic reforms that adversely affected workers, these debates became even more heated.

“We made the same mistake as Solidarity,” Oleg Chulev told me. “We participated in governments. I was the head of the national employment service for four years: at the time when the unemployment rate ranged around 18-19 percent. This led to shrinking membership. And the repressions at the enterprise level pushed a lot of people away.”

I met Oleg Chulev of Podkrepa back in 1990, when it was a relatively young organization. Since then he has continued to work with the union and has also participated in government, heading up the national employment office.

Our conversation focused on what workers have gained and lossed in Bulgaria over the last couple decades. “The hired labor force now has the freedom to choose what to study, where to study, what to work, where to work,” he told me. “They have the freedom to move. But this comes with a price.”

That price can be measured in different ways: “If you consider the standard of living in Bulgaria now and back then, you’ll see that people live better now. They have a higher standard of living. But there was no unemployment back then. There was so-called artificial employment for all. Now, the GINI coefficient can be felt by the man on the street even if he doesn’t know what this coefficient is. The gap between the rich and poor is much higher now in material terms than the gap between the nomenklatura and rank and file was back then. The insolence of the new rich is no way smaller than the insolence of the party nomenklatura was back then.”

Our conversation ranged from how economic reform could have been done differently in Bulgaria and the failure to create a Labor Party to labor-market policies and the impact of the European Union on the Bulgarian economy.

The Interview

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

It was the evening, and I was sitting with friends at home. And it was a big joy. But it wasn’t as unexpected as one might think. It was just a matter of time. It was already happening in our minds. We used to say that Gorbachev shouldn’t stop. But even if he did, he would only delay this process.

When did you first become involved with Podkrepa?

It was in the spring of 1989. I got in touch by phone. There was no other way to get in contact at that point. My affiliation with Podkrepa back then was personal: signing the declaration of support of Podkrepa. I joined the organization in October 1989 when we started meeting with people from other cities in Sofia. This is when we founded the teachers’ trade union as well. In November, we officially founded it, at a press conference.

You’ve been affiliated ever since?

Yes, since the beginning of October in 1989.

It is often said that the people who lost the most during the transition are workers. Do you think that’s the case?

Yes, if by workers, you also mean not just blue-collar workers but also teachers and clerks. They were lied to. Of course, they didn’t have much to lose. They lost the illusion of security, the illusion of equality. Materially, they are not worse off now. But they lost the feeling that they could do the same job in the same place for the rest of their lives. They lost the feeling that if they were qualified for a job, they could always have that job.

They also lost security in real terms. If you consider the standard of living in Bulgaria now and back then, you’ll see that people live better now. They have a higher standard of living. But there was no unemployment back then. There was so-called artificial employment for all. Now, the GINI coefficient can be felt by the man on the street even if he doesn’t know what this coefficient is. The gap between the rich and poor is much higher now in material terms than the gap between the nomenklatura and rank and file was back then. The insolence of the new rich is no way smaller than the insolence of the party nomenklatura was back then.

However, when one loses, one gains too. We often don’t know what we gain when we lose. The hired labor force now has the freedom to choose what to study, where to study, what to work, where to work. They have the freedom to move. But this comes with a price.

Are there any things you would have done differently from a trade union point of view?

Plenty of things, starting first of all, with the privatization process. Privatization was carried out unfairly. Well, fairness and unfairness are emotional characterizations. Let’s say, rather, that it was non-transparent. The winning bidders were known in advance. Enterprises were not sold so that the factories could continue working. Rather, the new owners cashed in the mortgages and took the money. There were no safeguards to preserve the workplace and the jobs.

There are so many examples. There was the sale of the national refinery to Russia’s Lukoil, which made Bulgaria dependent on this company. There was the sale of the Bulgarian national carrier, Balkan Airlines, which went bankrupt after its purchase. With the privatization of mines and metallurgical companies, the new owners, instead of modernizing manufacturing and making it more environmentally correct, squeezed out as much money as possible and then went bankrupt.

This all resulted in structural unemployment. The government kept giving bonuses to employers through tax benefits and by reducing the insurance contribution rates. They ended up creating the so-called bad debt millionaires by providing them with a state guarantee. These bonuses given to the employers didn’t go to creating jobs or higher salaries. Over the last 7-10 years, businesses failed to pay $10 billion in taxes. And instead of raising salaries, they bought yachts and Bentleys.

Plenty of things could have been done differently. The fact that we were half a trade union, half a political organization: now I can say that this was a mistake. Back then, however, this may have been necessary. Together with Fratia in Romania, we were the first two trade unions after Solidarity. Fratia consolidated with the former government trade union and lost influence in society. And now there are other strong players in Romania. Despite the errors that we recognize now in our political commitments, Podkrepa managed to preserve its influence.

Only very late did we learn the lesson that it’s not so important who is in power but how they exercise this power. Currently the members of Podkrepa do not vote for socialist parties and will not vote for the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP). But if we consider the economic claims of Podkrepa, they are much further to the left than the Socialists. It can’t be otherwise. The Socialists evolved in a weird way. The Socialist Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev, who is now the chairman of the European Socialists, introduced the flat tax in Bulgaria, something that two right-wing governments didn’t dare to do. This party, in other words, was protecting the interests of big capital. One third of the members of the BSP Executive Board, the leaders, are millionaires!

One of our mistakes during the transition was that we did not consider setting up a Labor Party. Until the mid-1990s, we identified ourselves with the party of the right wing, the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF). But within this right-wing coalition was Petar Diertliev of the Social Democrats, the Agrarian Party, and the Green Party. It was a political mistake for the UDF not to have specified its identity. Initially, it filled the whole political spectrum. It shouldn’t have identified itself as the right wing, leaving the whole left to the former communist party.

But you were in a common predicament. The former Communist Party in Poland instituted austerity communism. And Solidarity initially supported shock therapy. You may have made a political mistake, but it was not a unique political mistake.

I’m not a believer in global conspiracy theories. I don’t think anyone predetermined that these mistakes would happen. Perhaps this was just the logic of development.

Is it too late to establish a Labor Party?

Sooner or later it will spring up. But our members believe that this isn’t our business. They do not trust politicians, regardless of their party. It’s not just our members. This mistrust has resulted in a tsar being elected prime minster, which was basically a rejection of political parties. Later, after the unsuccessful mandate of the BSP, this mistrust in parties resulted in the current prime minster coming to power. He set up a party five minutes before the elections, just because he needed it for the registration. Basically, a person who doesn’t respect any parties won the elections. But this can’t go on. If voters are not swayed by extremists, such a party will eventually come into being. And then it will be natural for the two trade unions to support it. But if we invest efforts in political activities, people will not trust us.

I remember at the beginning of the transition here, Jim Baker of the AFL-CIO came to Bulgaria. He told us off the record that political democracy is beautiful but it ends at the threshold of private companies. We had no idea what private property meant back then. We had so much to do in the field of industrial democracy. We are still not on equal footing with employers. They have their own powerful representatives. Many years ago, you and I talked about the trade union lobby in parliament. Now almost all MPs belong to the lobby of capital.

When populist parties here, like Ataka, talk about economic issues, they sound left wing in their criticism of big capital and globalization.

This is why I said that if they don’t shift to extremes, people would support a Labor Party. But poverty is the problem. When the poor are marginalized, they become the social base for both right-wing and left-wing extremists, including nationalists. It’s easier to put the blame on the Gypsies, on the Jews — on the Martians, if you like! — rather than admit that you must take your life into your own hands.

Podkrepa now cooperates quite well with the former official trade union CITUB.

For 10 years now. In general, we do not have different paths though we have two different headquarters. But we do compete as rivals within enterprises. We compete for workers: who will offer more, who will do more. Usually, our demands are stronger. Maybe they are better negotiators; maybe we are better in action. For instance, during the railway strike of a year ago, their leaders were more in the front. But 75 percent of the strikers were ours. They waved the flags.

But there are two trade unions in Bulgaria, that’s a fact. They are the larger trade union. The time when Podkrepa was growing is over. We made the same mistake as Solidarity. We participated in governments. I was the head of the national employment service for four years: at the time when the unemployment rate ranged around 18-19 percent. This led to shrinking membership. And the repressions at the enterprise level pushed a lot of people away.

We do not have the financial resources that CITUB has. I’m the head of the Institute for Social and Economic Trade Union Research here at Podkrepa. Our institute doesn’t have permanent staff. It works ad hoc. The mirror institute of CITUB, meanwhile, has 15-16 staff. Nevertheless we are rivals. Our people keep working because of an idea. They do this for minimum pay. They work elsewhere and come here to support Podkrepa. I suppose that this is what holds us together: the idea.

At the same time, we developed a network of service not only for our members but for all workers. We provide legal counseling free of charge as well as assistance on labor market and assistance for professional retraining, We’ve finally been able to grow our youth network. This is very important because the workforce is aging in Bulgaria. The young people entering the labor market are more individualistic. They don’t care about trade unions. And the fact that this youth network is developing is very satisfying.

Have you had second thoughts about your four years as the head of the national employment office?

Yes. After the economic crisis of 1996-97, the situation here was terrible. The closing of workplaces was accompanied by hyperinflation: this was a huge challenge. The right-wing expert government of Stefan Sofiyansky and the right-wing government that followed of Ivan Kostov invited two trade unionists to serve: the minister of labor Ivan Neykov from CITUB and I was from Podkrepa. The national employment office at the time was not a government agency. It was a public employment agency. It had a tripartite governance. We had advisors from the U.S. Department of Labor and support from USAID for institution-building and capacity building. And I think that this reform was good. Personally, it was difficult. I had to work 10-12 hours a day. Everybody did.

At that time, we introduced labor-market policies that exist everywhere but were new for Bulgaria. And I think with scarce funding we managed to stabilize the situation. We also managed to preserve the social peace or, at least, we prevented the unemployment rate from exploding.

I now hold an expert position at Podkrepa. I provide expertise to the leaders of Podkrepa particularly on the issue of labor markets. And I represent Podkrepa in the national council for employment.

Does Bulgaria have a social safety net that is sufficient, comparable to safety nets in the region? And has the EU been helpful on this?

My reply to this is in the form of a question. Is there a European social model? Is there a social Europe?

We have the poor South and the rich North here in Europe. The difference between our standard of living and the European standard of living is huge. But there is also the difference between Spain and Portugal on the one hand and Netherlands and Sweden on the other. I’m talking here not about the phenomenon of migration but internal European mobility whereby a qualified labor force from Spain, Portugal, and Italy goes northward and we Bulgarians take their places. They engage in social dumping in the north, and we do the same in their countries. It’s quite doubtful, of course, that the Spanish will ever receive Swedish pensions or that our workers will receive Spanish pensions.

The institutions of a social safety net are there. They are more or less working. The problem, however, boils down to people’s incomes, because contribution rates are dependent on income. We have a 10 percent flat tax rate here in Bulgaria, which is unique in Europe. If I get $1000 dollars, I pay $100. Bulgarian pension system faces two problems. The first is stability. It depends on the income. The second is adequacy. Pensions fail to replace income, regardless of the European level. Health insurance fails to cover adequate services. The current government is very much concerned about stability and security, but they don’t care about adequacy.

I can give you an example. Every worker pays health and pension insurance contribution. The military, police, and civil servants, however, do not pay: the government transfers their contributions to the insurance system out of the taxes of the same employees. I’m not going to refer to this as honest and fair. It’s illogical! I said my score was 4 for the social sector. Because the institutions are in place and largely corruption-free. The sector isn’t corrupt because it doesn’t generate profits. It operates at a deficit.

My forecast for the future, however, is not very positive. Employment remains low. In its 2020 Strategy, the government set as a goal an employment coefficient of 75-76. This is the proportion of the workforce that has a job. The Europe-wide coefficient is 72. The Bulgarian government’s goal is too ambitious. Right now we are about 50! Maybe they are expecting that the next government or the government after that will achieve this goal. Brussels requires many papers to be submitted: a national strategy on this, a national program on that. We are excellent at delivering these papers. But this particular one is really a non-paper.

One policy the government takes pride in is the retention of young people. Emigration has dropped. But this is because the jobs in Europe have decreased. Our efforts should not be to convince people to stay rather than emigrate but to convince the government and the employers to increase remuneration. The average productivity of labor in Bulgaria is 43 percent of the European average and the average income is 30 percent below the average. For over 10 years, remuneration has been lagging behind productivity. In the last couple years it has gone slightly ahead of productivity. But there’s a lot to do. Our job is to fight employers at the negotiation table. Our job is to be the red light in society and to tell capital that, when there’s a crisis, it’s better to negotiate with us in order to avoid social explosions. However, the appetite of capital is insatiable.

You see what happened in Europe. When the Berlin Wall was still in place, Europe was a symbol for us: something to look up to, a colorful shop window. Workers from France and Germany came here on holidays, with loads of money. Back home they had lots of rights. They had strong trade unions. They were highly respected. That showed the advantages of capitalism. After the Berlin Wall fell, we witnessed, I won’t call it exploitation, but the intensification of labor. In the years after the Berlin Wall fell, especially lately, Western Europe was shaken by protests and strikes that it had not seen since the 1960s. It’s still going on. This is why Cyprus elected a communist president and Greece all but did as well.

Where do you think there is the greatest potential for growth in trade union membership? Are there barriers to organizing new members imposed by the government or by international circumstances? We have for instance Right to Work laws in the United States.

Something similar is attempted in Bulgaria in terms of an effort to limit collective bargaining. The Civil Service Act deprived civil servants of the right to become members of trade unions. Traditionally, trade unions were very strong in this sector. Now they have no right to collective bargaining. They have no right to strike. We lost a lot here. If this law is not amended, we won’t be able to organize in this sector.

As for prospects, that’s where the greatest obstacles lie, for instance in the banking sector. There’s not a single bank with a trade union. In the high-tech sector also there are many challenges. At the beginning of this year, we set up a chapter in a mobile operator called M-Tel (Mobitel). Young people were working there, average age of 25, with good education and language proficiency. They are confident that they are working at a good company, and they receive handsome salaries. When hired by a bank or a high-tech firm, new employees sign declaration that they voluntarily don’t want to be part of a trade union. This refusal of labor rights has no significance. But the human resources managers often refer to this declaration.

In any case, four times we tried to set up an organization within M-Tel. And four times they fired the initiators. Two years ago, the fired employees won their case in court and were restored to work. M-Tel said that it was cheaper to pay out 100,000 Euro in judicial costs and compensation rather than allow a trade union in the company. The owner was a Russian mafia guy, Mikhail Cherny, who was subsequently ousted from the firm. But we suspect that he continues to be in charge through an offshore company.

This last time, we worked underground for 6 months at M-Tel until we had 250 people. And only then did we announce the existence of the union. The managers couldn’t deal with that. But the first union was set up in the call center and in the headquarters, where they do technical support for software. It those workers were dismissed, the company would collapse. Even if they go on strike, it will be detrimental to the company. So, there is potential. It’s a matter of strategy.

One of our big allies is the anti-trade union policy. Currently, we have temporary work agencies. The companies dismiss people that have permanent contracts and hire people from these agencies at half-salaries. The notorious EU directive on Flexibility and Security in the Labor Market is all about the growth of temporary agencies, part-time workers, distance workers, and so on. In Bulgaria, this means flexibility for workers — they must be very mobile, be willing to work flexible hours — and security is only for capital.

The response to this is to make people organize. I’m observing this organizing within M-Tel. They have developed their own tactics. They are scattered around the country. They communicate by Internet. They set up meetings over the Net. New members are admitted online. This has never been done here before. One of the tasks of our institute is to observe this tactic and see the results and propose it for organizing at other companies.

The EU once represented something positive, not just for Bulgarians, but in terms of harmonizing up social welfare standards, labor standards. But more recently it seems that the EU is driven more by banks and finance. Flexibility is definitely part of that. But do you see a possibility of EU institutions strengthening trade unions or leading to the overall improvement of working conditions and compensation?

Yes. The problems that Europe faces are not unique to Europe. They are part of globalization. Workplaces were shifted to China, not only from Europe but from the United States as well. The knowledge-based economy was deployed on such a minor scale that it never was able to create new jobs to replace industrial employment.

The response to globalization is a mirror image. Trade unions have responded by unifying on a large scale. Six European trade unions in metallurgy, transportation and mines became one big union. All public sector unions – teachers and so on — united into the European Public Service Union. This response gives us more possibilities.

When we organized a strike at a Turkish company in the Bulgarian city of Targovishte, which privatized a glass factory, it was a 60-day strike. We were supported by the Turkish trade union, because they had 7,000 members in that sector, as well as the European glass factory trade union members.

Has there been cooperation among trade unions within Eastern Europe?

Yes. Interestingly, the former relations are preserved. For instance, Podkrepa maintains close relations with Solidarity. CITUB is closer to OPZZ. There is some sentimental value to these relationships. So, certain strong relations were established in the past, and they are still in place. However, some of the trade unions that we partnered with in the past are no longer influential, like Liga in Hungary, which is very very small, or Fratia in Romania.

Are there joint projects? Around organizing in companies that have enterprises in both countries?

Yes, and we use European money for joint projects and cross-border programs. It’s always best to have a Western partner so that there’s a transfer in knowhow and innovation. Some time ago, I visited Barcelona. With a trade union in Catalonia and with Polish partners, we introduced knowhow for career counseling. Up to now this service was not offered by unions in Bulgaria. We trained 70 people who will be offering this service all over the country.

This knowhow didn’t exist in Spain, Poland, or Bulgaria. The transfer of this knowhow originated in Austria. This was not a major project in terms of funding. The training, localization of materials, and translation came out to 60,000 Euro — 20,000 Euro per country – and it lasted a year. It’s a wonderful project because it provides people with a free service that would otherwise be very expensive on the market.

Do you see any prospects of “wild capitalism” being any less wild in the future?

No. It hasn’t become milder. Perhaps only a little bit more civilized. What can stop capitalism from becoming wilder is the recognition that greed may lead to social explosion. There’s the example of Greece. You don’t think that the deficit resulted from the fact that the Greek workers and pensioners simply ate this money. Money was wasted, and the budget crisis is the result of the actions of politicians and big capital. But the price will be paid by the workers and pensioners. And when they can’t pay, they go onto the street and you see what is happening there. This won’t threaten European institutions. But it can serve as a very bad example.

I saw two rallies in Barcelona in two days. One was for the independence of Catalonia. And the second was against the austerity measures. Both of these rallies were very strong. And there were Greek flags waving there.

So, there are areas in which we perform well and we can give a high score. No matter how unproductive our elections might be, we have political freedom. The right to choose is amazing. We also have the right to travel, the right to information.

I have contact with our colleagues in Russia and Ukraine. When I tell my son that they restrict the Internet over there, I think that he’s happy that he lives in Bulgaria rather than in Russia or Ukraine.

When you look back to 1989 and what has changed or not changed since then, how would you evaluate the situation in Bulgaria over that time, with 1 being most dissatisfied and 10 being most satisfied?

4. Because 40 percent of things are done.

The same period of time and the same spectrum, how do you feel about your own personal life?

6

Looking into the near future, how do you feel about the prospects for Bulgaria over the next few years?

5.5.

Sofia, October 2, 2012

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