Focal Points Blog

Taming the Wild East: Bulgaria

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

Iliya Pavlov

Iliya Pavlov

Even during the communist era, Bulgaria was a center for organized crime. As Misha Glenny reports in his book McMafia, Bulgaria’s arms export firm Kintex started out in the late 1970s smuggling arms to insurgents in Africa, “but soon the channels were also being used for illegal people trafficking, for drugs, and even for the smuggling of works of art and antiquities.”

The criminality only intensified after 1989. The media tycoon Robert Maxwell, who had close ties to communist dictator Todor Zhivkov, allegedly facilitated a money-laundering operation that spirited $2 billion out of Bulgaria and into Western tax havens. The privatization of national assets was a golden opportunity for the old capitalists of the West and the red capitalists of the East to engage in corruption and graft.

Iliya Pavlov emerged as one of Bulgaria’s key red capitalists. On the surface, he was just a successful businessman, running a large corporation called Multigroup and employing thousands of people. Behind the scenes, however, Pavlov worked closely with Bulgaria’s version of the KGB to make huge profits through price-fixing. In 2003, a sniper assassinated Pavlov outside his Multigroup headquarters.

Before his fall, Pavlov was powerful enough to control Bulgarian politics. As Stefan Popov explains, “Pavlov said, ‘If the Bulgarian prime minister wants something from me, let’s talk at the table.’ Can you imagine Al Capone saying something like that about the U.S. president? That’s unthinkable, unless you’re a movie director.”

Stefan Popov is trying to change the image of Bulgaria as the Wild East frontier of the European Union. He heads up an organization called Risk Monitor, which shines a light on the more shadowy recesses of Bulgaria’s illegal economy. As a result of Risk Monitor’s work, the Bulgarian government has to face tough questions about sex trafficking and money-laundering.

Risk Monitor’s work is complicated by the high-level involvement of powerful political and economic interests. It’s not simply the intervention of a Mafia-like network from the outside.

“In a country like Bulgaria, it’s a senseless distinction between organized crime and white-collar crime,” Popov says. “Right from the beginning, the crime was white collar and had deep roots in the state and the politics of that time. It didn’t come from the outside. That makes it very difficult to manage and oppose. These are crimes that imply a close interaction or synthesis between business, politics, and criminal practices at a very high state level. That’s something very difficult to investigate.”

We talked about how someone with a philosophy degree got involved in monitoring organized crime, the choices that Bulgaria made in its early years of transition, and what can be done at this point to establish the rule of law in the country.

The Interview

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

I’d just come back from Leipzig, Germany, where I was leading a group of students in sociology and philosophy. We were in Leipzig in August and part of September. Nothing indicated that something like that would happen. And when we came back, the Berlin Wall fell, and it all started.

It was a complete surprise even though you were in Leipzig.

Yes, it was a surprise. But once it started, everyone thought that the communists were destined to lose this game. We were young. I was 30 years old.

You didn’t expect it to happen in your lifetime?

Yes, I did. I didn’t believe that it could last forever. In Leipzig, there was a mass movement that gained momentum very quickly and was, I recall, led by the famous conductor Kurt Mazur, who later became director of the New York Philharmonic. He was quite a powerful figure, very authoritative. When we heard when we were back in Sofia already that he was leading a mass movement in Leipzig, it was already a sign that something would happen. We quickly realized that, both in Germany and in Bulgaria, the world was changing. Though, a moment before, we didn’t expect it to happen.

You were a professor in the sociology department?

Philosophy and sociology.

Did you consider yourself oppositional in those days?

Absolutely. Radical opposition.

Was there a moment in your life that you took a decisive step to become part of the radical opposition?

I wasn’t participating at that time. I wasn’t an activist. But by mentality, position, attitude, for all these years I’d been on the side of what was considered the opposition, the anti-socialist, anti-communist movement and bloc of parties. But I didn’t need 1989 to realize that. I was brought up in a family that was completely against this whole regime. Although they weren’t repressed heavily, we felt like internal immigrants in this country.

Was there a point in your early memory when you felt that your life diverged into those two personae: the inner and the outer?

Right from the beginning of your conscious life, you were divided into a public life and an internal life among your circle of friends. That’s the standard truth about this social reality. But around 1986 or 1987, these two parts started approaching each other. In 1988, for instance, we had a massive strike at Sofia University, opposing not the regime per se, but the whole method of teaching and governance at the university, which is an important institution in this country. These weren’t powerful dissident movements as was the case in the central European countries. But I’m addressing the question of whether these two poles were totally divided until 1990. No, they weren’t. They started approaching each other in 1986-88.

When you were teaching, were there specific books that you recommended or gave to your students with the idea that they would open their minds?

No. Of course, we had a number of Russian dissidents and alternative thinkers in philosophy that were quite popular. But I was teaching classic modernist philosophy, mostly Kant. There wasn’t much of an opposition element to this.

Were you teaching all the way up to the point when you joined the Open Society here in Sofia?

In 1990, I left the country and went to the United States. At the New School for Social Research, I spent more than four years and received a Ph.D. in philosophy and social science in 1995-6. Then I returned to Bulgaria. In 1998, I started to work for the Open Society Institute. In 2000, I became chairman of the Open Society Fund in Sofia and had three consecutive mandates through 2006.

In what ways do you think OSI made a significant contribution to change in Bulgaria? And where do you think it came up short?

OSI was extremely helpful in terms of its principles. For a very conservative society like Bulgaria, so close to the Soviet Union and not like Hungary or Poland, the very phenomenon of an American foundation working here sent a very strong message that there is another world. For many people, for the media, it was a kind of perpetual scandal that this entity was out there, prodding us, or whatever the perception was of OSI at that time. Even the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) leaders at that time flirted with OSI to present themselves as modernizers.

That was the big thing until, let’s say, 1996-97. What we call the “revolution,” the surface-level change in Bulgaria, occurred in 1989-90. But the deep infrastructure change — like privatization, the free market, an orientation that was pro-Western, pro-NATO, pro-EU integration — started after 1997. From 1990-97, the OSI was quite a strong player.

As far as shortcomings are concerned, well, in this chaotic environment, a foundation can’t do anything other than try different things. It wasn’t very well organized. It was a very free, liberal, artistic enterprise. And then the big change at the foundation started in 1997 when Aryeh Neier came to OSI and some order and rules were implemented. I wouldn’t say that these were shortcomings. It was normal.

Do you think there were critical moments in Bulgaria when a deeper transition could have been undertaken earlier or steps could have been taken to ensure a more successful transition?

In 1990, if there had been a stronger social or civil-society basis to this transformation, it could have proceeded differently. This whole postponement of, let’s say, seven years was just a waste of time. During that time, Bulgaria not only wasted a lot of time but organized crime and big corruption, especially political corruption, grew much larger. Old powers like the former Communist Party and its different branches like the state security services had enough time to transform themselves into new economic powers. I’m not saying that this was like some world conspiracy. It just naturally happened. Because there were no well-informed citizens who could take over and lead. That didn’t emerge until later. That took seven or eight years, even more.

Could there have been any intervention from the outside to hasten this process?

Yes, but that was unrealistic to expect. For instance, a massive investment into this economy, the massive presence of big business, could have changed something. But Bulgarians should do their homework. You cannot expect anybody else to come in and save us.

We have a currency board, which means that we’re not free to print money and so on. The currency board is a kind of cage of fiscal and monetary policy. People afterwards started saying, “Why don’t we have other boards, like a board for the judicial system, a board for the parties, a board for everything?” In other words, a currency board expanded to the level of a board for Bulgaria in general. Which means: let’s become part of a larger empire. That’s a fantasy! You can’t do that. Still, the situation has become better, if only because people grow and mature through these stages of wasted time.

How did you get involved in the anti-corruption and organized crime work you’re doing now? Did you start that at OSI?

Rayna Gavrilova, who is now deputy director for international operations at OSI and was at the time the executive director of OSI Sofia, and I met with Aryeh Neier in 2003. He said, “Look, guys, I have an idea to establish a center for policies against organized crime for the entire Balkan region, a pan-Balkan think tank.” He spent two years trying to attract some other donors. Soros policy is that they give 30 percent of the funding, but the rest should be attracted from other sources. They couldn’t succeed in attracting this other funding. The idea was too exotic for western European governments.

But we in Sofia were major partners of Aryeh’s. We’d invested a lot of time, effort, and strategy; we’d sponsored conferences, small projects and so on. So, when he said that it was not realistic to establish this initiative, we said that we would continue to do it. When I left at the beginning of 2006, there was a group called Risk Monitor. It had a board. But I didn’t have anything to do with the group except some connection to the issues. When they announced the position of executive director, I applied and got the job. So it’s been five years now.

What would you say are your biggest accomplishments in this work?

I think that we opened a whole new page of developing civic expertise on something traditionally considered exclusive state activities, even secret state activities like criminal intelligence and organized crime networks and big criminal markets. Also, we made policies on how the state should counter these issues into a broader issue and challenged the notion that the state should exclusively deal with these topics. This is not only unique for this country. It’s very rare for an NGO generally to deal with the issue of organized crime.

We have three major areas of activity and expertise. One is criminal markets. The other is monitoring and assessment of institutional policies and institutional capacity. The third is transnational organized crime. In the first area, our major accomplishment is the description of the money-laundering process in Bulgaria and the organized forced-prostitution rings, which are proportionately larger than the Ukrainian and Russian ones.

Bigger than Moldova?

Yes. Bulgaria has taken the lead in prostitution in countries like Belgium, in the export of young girls and other nasty things. It’s quite an accomplishment that we produced facts and data that couldn’t be challenged by the officials in government. Our assessment shows 3-6 times higher data on everything that the government has admitted to. The different government branches — the ministry of interior, the National Investigative Service, the prosecutors’ office — have data that has been “normalized,” so to say, to be suitable for Bulgarian-EU negotiations. We revealed much higher figures for forced prostitution and trafficking in human beings, especially sex services. The government ultimately agreed with our figures. The very fact that government agencies agreed with these figures moved the discussion to a different stage.

As far as institutional expertise, we have, for instance, drafted the first-ever national strategy against money laundering. It was accepted first at the ministerial level, then in different branches of the judiciary, and finally it became an official state document of the council of ministers. We connected 12-15 different governmental branches dealing with money laundering. They didn’t talk to each other before. Just by negotiating the need for such document, we helped created a common basis for future action.

Another example: we are now in the process of producing the first-ever textbook in Bulgaria on money laundering and policies against money laundering. We’re about to help start a pioneering initiative on criminology at a Bulgarian university. We don’t have the capacity to run a whole MA program, but we are providing the expertise for this program.

For a lot of people that I talked to here, corruption and organized crime are the major preoccupations. Even if they have no data, it’s something they feel is one of the worst aspects of the situation in Bulgaria. Most of them would say that it began immediately in 1990 when there was a transfer of assets, slowly at first, but then more rapidly, from the previous elite as they changed into political and economic leaders in the new era. Is that also your perception? Is there any data to suggest that this took place? Or is it a foundational myth?

It’s difficult to say that we have specific data. These things at a very high political level are difficult to measure. We are talking about non-measurable processes and phenomena. If we speak about specific criminal markets, we can cite different data, which are publicly available and well studied. But the specifics of Bulgarian corruption are something that Western Europeans and Americans have difficulty grasping in their depth.

For instance, the American view is that the US used to have mafias like the Cosa Nostra. It came from the outside, mainly from Sicily. Then it developed in the United States, even at a federal level, expanding to the limits of the Union. Then decades after that, we found out that some corporations used similar methods, and we started to call this “white-collar crime.” The assumption here is that these external forces came in and poisoned our nice environment and our clean businesses, and we opposed them. Then, after that, we discovered some of these practices in Wall Street and so on.

That’s a wrong perception. In a country like Bulgaria, it’s a senseless distinction between organized crime and white-collar crime. Right from the beginning, the crime was white collar and had deep roots in the state and the politics of that time. It didn’t come from the outside. That makes it very difficult to manage and oppose. These are crimes that imply a close interaction or synthesis between business, politics, and criminal practices at a very high state level. That’s something very difficult to investigate. It’s not an organized criminal group. It’s not a criminal enterprise in terms of U.S. laws or UN conventions — it’s not a criminal group consisting of three subjects, having sustained existence, structure, criminal intent, and so forth. It’s very difficult for the justice system to oppose, not to speak of dismantling, such rings and practices. And they are always semi-criminal, semi-legal.

From a practical point of view, in terms of addressing organized crime and its political impact, one could argue for accepting what took place in 1990 — because as you said, it’s very difficult to make an assessment of it and address it judicially. Only at a certain point between 1990 and today, these crimes becomes actionable. Only then does the organized crime become definable and prosecutable.

At certain points in this historic period of 20-plus years, there were some points when crime within the state and within the institutions did not lead to institutional implosion or capture but led to the formation of groups that were visible, that you could describe. The most famous example is the Bulgarian company Multigroup, which is now registered in the United States as a legal business, absolutely clean. In the mid-1990s, it was notorious, known everywhere as the powerful group that it claimed to be. Its leader Iliya Pavlov was shot and killed some ten years ago. Before that, he said, “If the Bulgarian prime minister wants something from me, let’s talk at the table.” Can you imagine Al Capone saying something like that about the U.S. president? That’s unthinkable, unless you’re a movie director.

There were three major such groups in the 1990s, and the government forces eventually suppressed them because they detached themselves from the political-institutional process. But if they take root and keep their close connections to politics and business and play well within this institutional process, then it’s very difficult to go after these groups.

Al Capone couldn’t talk that way to the U.S. president. But Joseph Kennedy could, and he made his fortune in the illegal liquor business during Prohibition. And Walter Annenberg followed a similar trajectory. At a certain point in U.S. history, these illegal operations became routinized, to use the sociological term.

Yes, you had such periods in America. That’s why this distinction between organized crime and white-collar crime is shaky. But the major lesson from these examples is that something like Prohibition gives birth to criminal markets.

Looking ahead to the next couple years, what are the most likely approaches that could be instituted here that could not only address this issue of corruption and the intersection between organized crime and politics, but, almost as importantly, address public perceptions of those problems? These public perceptions seem to reduce trust in public institutions to such a low level that greater civic participation is thwarted. People think, “There are these nebulous powerful forces that stretch back in time and have accumulated such authority, so why get involved?”

I wouldn’t agree with those who say that Bulgaria hasn’t yet reached the bottom, that we are still moving downward. I think this country is a little bit on the rise toward normalization. I’m not saying that it will happen tomorrow or in five years. Maybe it will take two decades or so. But I think the darkest period was during the last decade.

Regarding organized crime, I’m a little skeptical about generalizations about organized crime. We have to look at specific processes and public risks. To me, such things like forced prostitution, human trafficking, all kinds of narcotics, these are areas where Bulgaria can do a good job in the future. The justice system, intelligence, and all these institutional forces have very low capacity, but it is slowly improving, with the decisive assistance of German, British, and U.S. expertise. It’s not just expertise, but also influence: the influence of political demands.

And money?

Maybe money.

It would seem that Bulgaria could leverage the perception that it’s a weak link in the EU, whether actual or potential. Bulgaria could say: “Unless you give us the resources to strengthen border guards and police…”

Yes, that’s something I was also about to say.

Regarding traditional criminal markets, there is some improvement in these policies. Regarding this synthesis of politics, business, and crime, that’s something I can’t imagine anything other than foreign pressure plus aggressive civic action and publicity having an effect. After all, this country is democratic. There are great deficits, it’s true, but those in power are very sensitive to public perceptions, particularly during election campaigns. During the last two or three years, we’ve seen a great number of civic actions that led the government to change its positions about secret and grey deals with large businesses. But you can’t predict an expansion of public discourse on these issues. It happens, or it doesn’t.

Can you give an example of these public initiatives?

There’s a mountain close to Sofia that was about to be given to a large business group for the building of a ski resort. The public pressure against this proposal led to the government reversing its position. There were many such cases regarding the environment, the coastline, and the business of development, which were stopped by ecological and other groups.

Our judicial system is administratively governed by the supreme judicial council. As a rule, the judicial council is always secretly managed. It has a mandate of five years. It is always appointed by some forces of the current executive. This year, because of a very active civic movement pushing for the transparency of the whole procedure, we saw an amazing result. Now, each potential member of the council was screened, interviewed many times. So that’s an improvement, and it’s irreversible. The next time it happens, the process will be even stronger.

My interpreter was involved in this last week. She said that they had to translate the whole process into English, because the EU demanded that. They did the interpretation for 12 straight hours.

They stayed the whole night. It was a public spectacle. We haven’t had that before. Once something like that happens, the executive realizes that there are limits to its actions.

Some people I talked to here are still in favor of a lustration process: opening the archives, screening all candidates for public office. Do you think that Bulgaria has passed the point at which lustration is advisable?

I think that all the archives that can be opened should be opened. This lustration could have played some practical role at the beginning of the 1990s. But that moment was missed. Now it has no practical relevance.

However, it could be presented like a moral oath: we’re not going to let former secret agents become ambassadors because that’s shameful. I wouldn’t oppose this.

In terms of unfinished business for your organization, what is at the top of the agenda?

We have to move to other criminal markets and try to describe and analyze them. That’s the more interesting part. But ensuring organization sustainability, that’s something that an executive director is always concerned about.

Otherwise, the organization is stable and has a clear public identity as a think tank. We’re a recognizable player in the civic sector. We receive considerable media coverage. After one of our last press conferences, we had 160 pages of media coverage. And that was only the third day after the press conference.

No Military Solution in Mali, Emira Woods Says

Emira Woods on PBS NewsHour

“There cannot be a military solution to this crisis in Mali,” Emira Woods said on the PBS NewsHour. “The crisis has its roots in political and also economic processes, with people in the northern part of the country feeling completely marginalized from the rest of the country.”

Woods is the co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. You may read the full transcript of her comments on the NewsHour’s website.

VIEW THE FULL INTERVIEW HERE.

“So clearly what you had was an opportunity because of the intervention, the NATO intervention in Libya, unleashing weapons, both from Qadaffi’s coffers as well as from the international community, weapons flowing from Libya, across borders of Algeria, into northern Mali, to be able to actually create a crisis, and further destabilize northern Mali,” said Woods. “So I think what you have is a situation where unilateral intervention could create complications down the road, both for civilians that could be targeted in these airstrikes, as well as for further complicating a political crisis that may not be resolved militarily.”

Orientalizing Rape

The Western press has been heavily criticized for orientalizing India’s rape culture while downplaying its own.

Damini

Since the brutal rape and subsequent death of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student in mid-December ignited widespread protests throughout India and garnered the attention of international media, the topic of sexual assault has featured prominently in recent headlines. India itself has received the bulk of this attention, with reports of subsequent attacks in Kolkata, Kanpur Dehat, and New Delhi generating widely circulated commentaries and receiving constant media attention while the case of “Damini”—the fictional name for a rape victim in India—continues to unfold.

Arising cases in other countries—which ordinarily would not have generated international coverage—have also risen to prominence in the wake of the attack on Damini, such as the filmed gang rape of a 14 year-old in Romania, the rape of a 17-year-old in South Africa, and the ongoing investigation of a 16-year-old raped in Steubenville, Ohio.

The coverage of the Damini case has sparked a lively debate about how the Western media portrays rape culture abroad. The U.S. and U.K. press specifically have each received heavy criticism for their penchant to orientalize India’s rape culture and downplay—or outright ignore—the degree to which this culture features in their own societies.

Owen Jones of the Independent was one of the first to point out this hypocrisy in Western media, observing of the Damini case that “it’s comforting to think that this is someone else’s problem, a particular scandal that afflicts a supposedly backward nation.” He goes on to highlight the problematic rape cultures of both France and Britain, where in the latter, victim blaming continues to thrive: “A third of Britons believed a woman acting flirtatiously was partly or completely to blame for being raped,” he writes, citing a 2005 survey by Amnesty International. He concludes by placing the focus on a global scale, reiterating that “There is nothing inevitable about violence against women, here or anywhere.”

As another example, take an article on rape in South Africa by Andrew Harding of the BBC, rather appallingly titled, “Will South Africans ever be shocked by rape?” It relates South Africa’s rape epidemic to India’s, claiming that South Africa seems “numb—unable to muster much more than a collective shrug in the face of almost unbelievably grim statistics—seemingly far worse than India’s.”

In addition to quickly robbing South African women’s advocates of agency, this piece underscores the problems Jones addresses with relation to Western media coverage. It almost attempts to compete with the international attention on India, to highlight a place where the rape culture is even worse and to expose the failings of that particular society. “Perhaps the only certainty is that South Africa is a violent society,” he asserts, claiming that South Africans have gotten “used to” violence and that “In many communities young women talk of how they almost expect to be assaulted—and young men grow up with a dangerous sense of entitlement,” as if such attitudes manifest singularly in South Africa instead of every nation on Earth.

Harding’s article is by no means atypical. Emer O’Toole of The Guardian builds on Jones’ criticism of Western media, labeling the coverage “uncomfortably neocolonial.”

O’Toole singles out Libby Purve’s article in The Times as being a “particularly blatant example” of this neocolonialist attitude. Purve asserts early in her article that “We in the West enjoy an image of India: industrious ambition, rising economy, colour and vigour. We romanticise it, cooing at garlands and tuk-tuks in films such as The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” rather overtly recalling a certain book (Orientalism by Edward Said) written in the late 1970s about the West’s problematic attitudes toward “Eastern” nations. But while Purve and others seek to highlight problems elsewhere, O’Toole provides rather compelling statistics to bring the argument home:

For example, this BBC article states, as if shocking, the statistic that a woman is raped in Delhi every 14 hours. That equates to 625 a year. Yet in England and Wales, which has a population about 3.5 times that of Delhi, we find a figure for recorded rapes of women that is proportionately four times larger: 9,509. Similarly, the Wall Street Journal decries the fact that in India just over a quarter of alleged rapists are convicted; in the US only 24% of alleged rapes even result in an arrest, never mind a conviction.

Of course, O’Toole and Jones are not suggesting that India’s rape culture is less significant, or that the focus should be only on Western nations by any means. Nor are they, as Cathy Young of Newsday claims, meant to suggest that “singling out non-Western cultures for critiques of misogyny is ‘colonialist’ and ‘Othering.’” What they are suggesting is that the sensationalist headlines the Western media continues to publish about violence against women in the developing world would perhaps be more meaningful if they contributed to, instead of ignored, a dialogue on these issues at home—just as Damini’s case has been able to do for India.

Leslie Garvey is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.

Nuclear Weapons Are Not Only a Threat to Our Survival, But to Democracy Itself

Most of us keep our distance from the subject of nuclear weapons. Nor is it hard to understand why. Many think that since the end of the Cold War, nuclear war has become a minor threat. Especially when compared to an economy that seems like it’s always on the brink of imploding just as the United States and Russia seemed always on the brink of exploding into nuclear war. Nor, understandably, are most who are aware that nuclear war remains a threat capable of facing what may well be a sword of Damocles hanging over their very existence, as well as their families’.

Another, less apparent, reason why most of us avert our attention from the prospect of war waged with nuclear weapons is that we believe that national-security policy, as well as warfighting strategy, not to mention the daunting technology of nuclear weapons, are above our pay grade. After all, deterrence seems to be working, doesn’t it? Perhaps, but, when it comes to weapons with the destructive power of nuclear weapons, keeping the world waiting with bated breath to make sure that war doesn’t break out is not a long-term solution.

In an oped at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists titled Democracy and the bomb, Kennette Benedict, its executive editor, points to the lack of attention paid to nuclear weapons and disarmament in the recent election as evidence that most of us feel overwhelmed by the whole subject. “Too often,” writes Ms. Benedict

… many of us lucky enough to live in democracies view elections as the only responsibility we have as citizens and leave the policy discussions to the elected and to the experts. … Political leaders and policy experts don’t always encourage a lot of participation, either; perhaps they believe that citizens are badly informed about issues and that their participation will result in poor decisions.

But

Allowing policy leaders and officials to make decisions for us, however, is at odds with the principle of equality, as Robert Dahl notes in his often overlooked essay “Controlling Nuclear Weapons: Democracy versus Guardianship.” … The principle of guardianship … holds that only a small minority of citizens is sufficiently qualified and therefore capable of making binding decisions for the nation. As Dahl observes, the political system of a modern democratic country is usually a combination of democracy and meritocracy, but, when it comes to nuclear weapons, “We have in fact turned over to a small group of people decisions of incalculable importance to ourselves and mankind, and it is very far from clear how, if at all, we could recapture a control that in fact we have never had.” We are living in a democracy based on guardianship, not equality, when it comes to nuclear weapons.

Since it combines two of our favorite subjects — nuclear weapons and voter ignorance and/or apathy — we were only too happy to go straight to the horse’s mouth and read Controlling Nuclear Weapons (Syracuse University Press, 1985), which, though Benedict refers to it as an essay, was published as a short book. Dahl, who taught at Yale University and was known as the “dean” of American political scientists, writes that the idea that only a minority of persons are competent to rule, per Plato’s The Republic, has enjoyed new life (at least as of the eighties) in democratic countries because

… the complexity of public issues challenges the assumption that ordinary people are competent to make decisions about these matters. in order to make wise decisions, decision makers need specialized knowledge that most citizens do not possess.

Furthermore

One might respond by saying that even in a democracy, after all, complex decisions like these can be delegated to experts. But suppose that most of us do not even possess enough knowledge to understand the terms on which we can safely delegate authority over these decisions to those more expert than we? Then we have not simply delegated authority. Instead, we have alienated [or given away -- RW] control over our lives to others: that is, for practical purposes we simply lose control over crucial decisions, and lose control over our lives. The more we alienate authority … the more we lose our freedom, and the more hollow the democratic process becomes. Or to put it another way, the more that we alienate authority the more the external forms of democracy clothe a de facto regime of guardianship.

Thus, the subject of nuclear weapons not only overwhelms us, but may strain democracy itself to the breaking point. As Dahl asks:

Are the institutions of contemporary democracy adequate to cope satisfactorily with the enormous complexity of public matters?

The reservation we have with Dahl’s otherwise valuable book is that he seems to think that nuclear weapons are a problem to which society needs to adjust. Dahl provides ideas for solutions for citizen participation in nuclear-weapons decisions, many of them more or less implemented in the meantime via information technology. But they seem like so much tweaking.

The case can be made that nuclear weapons are the ultimate test of democracy. But the stakes are too high if we lose. In fact, the existence of nuclear weapons needs to adjust to the needs of society by eliminating them.

We find ourselves in reluctant accord with libertarians, though while many of them believe that government is too large and complex for the average voter (as best explained by Ilya Somin for the Cato Institute in 2004) to understand, we’ll just stick with “too complex.” Nuclear weapons, with the existential questions they force us to face and their daunting strategy and technology, exponentially compound the problem. They discourage participation in democracy, at exactly the point democracy is most needed. As Benedict writes:

Once citizens no longer feel qualified to participate in decisions about their very survival, the connection between the governing and the governed is severed. It is hard to see where the democracy is in this.

History — Not to Mention Reality — Aren’t on Assad’s Side

When president Bashaar al Assad delivered his latest speech last Sunday, his first since last June, the world listened with expectations and anticipation. For those who thought that Assad would give some concessions to the opposition, or offer a some kind of political compromise, he appeared more defiant than compromising.

In his speech Assad did not acknowledge any role for the opposition. Instead, he labeled them as “terrorists” and offered to negotiate only with the Western powers whom he described as the “puppet masters” of the opposition. Assad also outlined his plan for ending the conflict in Syria by appointing a new government and writing a new constitution that will be put through a national referendum without mentioning his own role in this process. This is an indication that he will remain in power no matter what kind of settlement is reached.

Although Assad may have been defiant and projected a clever, albeit false, perception of a man who is confident and actually winning the war, history and reality, however, are running against this assumption no matter how confident and strong Assad made himself appeared to be. The conflict, which started two years ago and claimed the lives of over 60,000 Syrians has transformed itself from opposition groups demanding political reform a to full-blown armed insurgency that will not stop until Assad is toppled from power.

A 2010 study by Washington-based Rand Corporation on armed insurgencies and counterinsurgencies (COIN) showed that the vast majority of COIN operations ended up losing the conflict because of their failure to take several important measures that are critical in winning the war. Those measures include, among others, strategic communication, development, political reform, democracy, civic freedoms that will address the grievances of the insurgency, and the population.

The study titled “Victory has a Thousand Fathers” researched 30 armed insurgencies from around the world such as Turkey, Afghanistan, Iraq, Rwanda, Senegal, Croatia and Burundi. It showed that insurgents won in 22 cases, while government COIN operations won in only 8 of them.

In the case of Turkey for example, which won its COIN war against the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), the win was made possible only because the Turkish government addressed the Kurdish population demands to have its own political and cultural rights thus depriving the insurgency from its popular support. It also made deals with countries that supported the PKK insurgents. The Turkish government won the war also because it made economic development in Kurdish areas as part of its strategy to win the war against the PKK.

Similarly, the US won its COIN war against the Sunni insurgents in Iraq because it addressed the Sunnis demands and incorporated them in the Iraqi political process.

Conversely, Iraq during Saddam’s era lost its COIN operations against its own Kurds because it used repression and brutal military campaigns that ultimately failed to win its war against the Kurdish Insurgency. Iraq also failed to address the grievances of its Kurdish populations and did not seek a comprehensive political settlement for the conflict. At the end, these factors doomed not only the rule of the previous Iraqi regime but also Iraq itself.

The same is true in the case of Sudan which failed to crush its Southern insurgent movements and relied on military solutions only. Sudan ended up not only losing its war against its southern insurgents, but also lost half of its country.

Similarly, the Syrian regime is using repression and violence to crush the opposition and regularly using its heavy weapons against defenseless population. This strategy will at the end destroy the Assad regime no matter how much violence he uses against either the population or the armed opposition.

Taking into account those historic cases of armed conflicts between regimes and rebel groups it becomes quite clear that Assad is misinformed and ill-advised by the Russians, the Chinese and the Iranians who are his only international allies.

Meanwhile, the trajectory of Assad’s past behavior as evident by this speech and by the actions of his armed troops on the ground clearly shows that he is doing everything he can in order to lose the war despite winning some battles.

Assad is not showing any indication that he was interested in winning over the population and offered no plans that have real democratic governance, nor any to rebuild or address the devastation in Syrian cities.

Moreover, he is also losing the public relations and strategic communications very badly. Almost all of the regional and international media outlets project him and his regime as a bloodthirsty dictator who massacred thousands of innocent civilians as millions more fled their homes to become refugees in neighboring countries. Adding to that is the fact that his regime, is besieged by international sanctions, while many countries withdrew its diplomatic recognition of its regime in favor of the opposition. For Assad, the end might not be imminent, but, for sure, history is not on his side.

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

At Least Being Railroaded Isn’t as Bad as Being Waterboarded

You may have heard that John Kiriakou, who worked undercover and as a terrorist logistics specialist for the C.I.A. before retiring, took a plea and admitted that he violated the Intelligence Identities Protection Act. Scott Shane of the New York Times explains why. First, his family’s financial difficulties that followed in the wake of his charges

… were complicated by Mr. Kiriakou’s legal fees. He said he had paid his defense lawyers more than $100,000 and still owed them $500,000; the specter of additional, bankrupting legal fees, along with the risk of a far longer prison term that could separate him from his wife and children for a decade or more, prompted him to take the plea offer, he said.

This is only the first case prosecuted under that act since Defense Department official Lawrence Franklin was charged with leaking to AIPAC, in 2005. Shane writes:

Thus Mr. Obama has presided over twice as many such cases as all his predecessors combined, though at least two of the six prosecutions since 2009 resulted from investigations begun under President George W. Bush.

One can’t help but conclude that the charges brought against Kiriakou were, in large part, an indication of just how angry the C.I.A. and the administration were with the criticism of waterboarding that, post-retirement, he’d aired out in the media. His actual crime, meanwhile? Shane’s explanation is worth posting in its entirety.

In 2008, when I began working on an article about the interrogation of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, I asked him about an interrogator whose name I had heard: Deuce Martinez. He said that they had worked together to catch Abu Zubaydah, and that he would be a great source on Mr. Mohammed, the architect of the Sept. 11 attacks.

He was able to dig up the business card Mr. Martinez had given him with contact information at Mitchell Jessen and Associates, the C.I.A. contractor that helped devise the interrogation program and Mr. Martinez’s new employer.

Mr. Martinez, an analyst by training, was retired and had never served under cover; that is, he had never posed as a diplomat or a businessman while overseas. He had placed his home address, his personal e-mail address, his job as an intelligence officer and other personal details on a public Web site for the use of students at his alma mater. Abu Zubaydah had been captured six years earlier, Mr. Mohammed five years earlier; their stories were far from secret.

Mr. Martinez never agreed to talk to me. But a few e-mail exchanges with Mr. Kiriakou as I hunted for his former colleague would eventually turn up in Mr. Kiriakou’s indictment; he was charged with revealing to me that Mr. Martinez had participated in the operation to catch Abu Zubaydah, a fact that the government said was classified.

Yeah, I know: That’s it? Shane solicits a quote from retired C.I.A. officer (and current Brookings Institution fellow and Daily Beast columnist) Bruce Riedel, for whom Kiriakou served capably while in the C.I.A.

“To me, the irony of this whole thing is, very simply, that he’s going to be the only C.I.A. officer to go to jail over torture,” even though he publicly denounced torture, Mr. Riedel said. “It’s deeply ironic under the Democratic president who ended torture.”

On Brink of Admission to EU, Some Croatians Still Euro-skeptic

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

Daniel Bucan

Daniel Bucan

In order to get into the European Union, Croatia needs the support of each one of the current 27 members. So far, 20 countries have ratified Croatia’s EU accession treaty. As long as the other seven countries do the same, Croatia will become a member on July 1, 2013. In December, as a final sweetener, the EU added a final pre-accession allotment of nearly 50 million Euro – part of a package of nearly 1 billion Euro since 2007 – to help Croatia reach EU standards in various categories. Once Croatia enters the club, then it will have access to another pot of money, known as the Structural and Cohesion funds.

But this long-sought-after goal is by no means a done deal. In mid-December, Croatia’s sovereign debt dropped to junk bond level. The financial powers-that-be are not happy with the current Croatian government’s somewhat permissive approach to austerity. With unemployment at nearly 20 percent and the domestic economy contracting, the Social Democrats allowed the deficit to rise from 3 to 3.5 percent of GDP. This economic performance has contributed to assessments like that of the speaker of the German parliament, Norbert Lammert, who said in October that Croatia “isn’t ready for EU membership.” Germany has yet to ratify the accession treaty.

Still, a queasy economy won’t keep Croatia out of the EU; it will just put the country on par with other troubled members, like Romania and Greece.

Croatia’s long-simmering conflict with Slovenia, on the other hand, might prove to be more than a speed bump. The two countries have been haggling for years over Croatian savings in a defunct Slovenian bank. Slovenia wants Croatia to stop the lawsuits for the recovery of the money in the Croatian accounts in Ljubljanska Banka or else it might block entrance to the EU. It’s not a small sum: 172 million Euro. Croatia wants to settle the issue separately from accession.

Croatian support for accession remains high. A year ago, 66 percent of voters said yes to EU membership in a national referendum. But not everyone is enthusiastic.

“I don’t believe anymore in the European Union,” Daniel Bucan told me. “As soon as the EU tries to become a political union, it will end in a bad way. You cannot make a state out of Europe. Look at Yugoslavia, look at the Soviet Union, look at Czechoslovakia. Such multilingual, multicultural, multi-religious, multinational constructs are always kept together by force. When I say by force, I don’t necessarily mean by tyranny, but by any kind of power. The Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia were kept together by the force of the Communist Party and communist dictatorship. The EU is kept together by the power of Germany and France. No one believes that the Czech Republic or Denmark for example has the same weight as Germany or France.”

Daniel Bucan is not your usual run-of-the-mill Euroskeptic. He’s a former diplomat whose last posting was in Strasbourg, at the Council of Europe. In other words, this is someone who is no stranger to European affairs.

I met Daniel Bucan 22 years ago when he was in the ministry of information in the newly formed government of Franjo Tudjman’s Croatian Democratic Union. Much of his skepticism about Yugoslavia has translated into skepticism of Europe. We also talked about the Croatian Spring, his conversations with Tudjman, and what it means to be a Croatian nationalist.

The Interview

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

I cannot remember exactly. The only thing I remember is seeing it on TV. But let me try to remember…I was for sure in Zagreb, probably at home. Anyhow, it was a historic moment as they say, and I felt like I was witnessing a historic moment. Actually, it didn’t come as a surprise to me, but probably everybody by then knew things were going to change. I mean, there was a process building up to this point. But still, although we might have been expecting those changes, the symbolic dimension of the event was like something you read in a good novel or book of poetry. And that’s how I felt for a moment seeing this.

Did you think at all about what impact it would have here?

Of course. Especially because things had practically already started here, with Milosevic and his party coup in Serbia, what was called in Serbian dogadjanje naroda, which means “the nation is happening.” And he was changing the political elite in Kosovo and Vojvodina. He was instigating these public meetings and political demonstrations all over former Yugoslavia, especially in Croatia. They were already pledging support in Serbia for Knin and other parts of Croatia. So, things here had already been started, and I could not think that the fall of the Wall couldn’t have an impact on what was going to happen here in Yugoslavia.

As a matter of fact, I felt that the problem might be the abrupt way it was happening. There was practically no transition. That was something I felt we should be afraid of. Unfortunately, knowing Milosevic’s political agenda — to consolidate all the republics and to make a unitary state out of Yugoslavia based on the principle of “one person, one vote” — I knew that things were not going to develop in a good way. At that time, the republics had so-called national defense units staffed not by the Yugoslav army but the citizens of the republics. That meant that there was a certain amount of weapons in each of the republics. At a certain point in Croatia, these weapons were withdrawn from the republic. It was a sign to expect the worst, which later on actually happened.

Where were you working in 1989?

I was with the radio, the so-called Third Program, that specialized in culture, art, science. I entered politics because, along with all my friends, we had been dissidents. One of them was a member of the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) and a friend of Franjo Tudjman. Milovan Šibl is his name: he was also a journalist at the radio. And then immediately after the elections, when he was nominated minister of information, he asked me whether I would become his vice minister. I was reluctant, I said: “I’m not a politician, I’m not a party member, I’m not…” And then he said, “But, you know, for decades we’ve been waiting every day for this to happen, and you shouldn’t give up now.” Finally he talked me into accepting it, and that’s how I entered politics.

But I never became a politician in terms of being a member of any party. For a short period of time, I was vice minister of information, and then I joined the president’s office. Tudjman chose a number of counselors and advisors, and I was one of them. Mario Nobilo and I took care of press conferences and so on. For a short period of time everyone was doing everything, and then Tudjman asked me one day: “What would you like to do? Would you like to remain in journalism?” And I said, “You know all my life I’ve been a man of culture. I know that it’s not such a moment to…” And he said, “No, it’s okay, it’s okay! I like to have you with me, and you can, if you want, be my advisor for cultural affairs.” So I spent two years with him there.

Then when the issue of appointing the first ambassador to Cairo was raised, he remembered that I was an Arabist and that I had some experience with the Arab world. And that’s how I entered diplomacy and remained until 2008, when I retired.

So you were in Egypt…

Egypt, and after that I was in Greece. And my third post was the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. I spent probably the best five years of my life in Egypt. It was tough at the beginning because I arrived there in 1993 when the war between Croats and Muslims in Bosnia had started, and I found all the doors closed to me. I couldn’t do anything. Not having any previous diplomatic experience, I was thinking that this was my fault. It took me some time to understand that the position of ambassador depends on the position of the country, rather than vice versa. I believed at first very naively that the position of the country depends on how much the ambassador is capable. But things changed after the Washington agreement on ending the conflict between Croats and Muslims was signed , and there was a turnabout. All the doors opened to me.

I was personally very much interested in Egypt because I had been an Arabist, and I had a lot of opportunities to find books and things. Ancient Egypt was something I’d been interested in since I was a little boy. I was always imagining myself as an archeologist going down there… After that, four years in Greece was very important. While I was in Greece, Prime Minister Costas Simitis proposed to Croatian Prime Minister Ivica Racan that Croatia apply for candidacy for EU membership. So I participated in that process.

After that it was Strasbourg, which was a little bit disappointing. As I said, it took me some time to understand the position and role of ambassador in bilateral negotiations, but when I understood it, it was relatively easy. You have your country’s interests; the host country has its interests. If you can combine the two, then fine. If not, then, you know… I like this realistic aspect of bilateral relations. The Council of Europe is an organization based on values, on ideas. It’s a watchdog that sees how those ideas are being implemented in different countries in Europe. It was a disappointment because very soon I understood that this is only on paper. The principles are principles, but the practice is something else. There was a double standard regarding different countries. What Russia can afford to do, for instance, Hungary can’t afford to do, and so on

Actually, it wasn’t disappointing because by then I understood what politics is, and what international relations are. But it was difficult to be there every day sitting at the meetings and pretending that you don’t see these discrepancies. As a matter of fact, I very often pointed out such discrepancies, loudly… So anyhow, I didn’t like Strasbourg as a job, because it’s very difficult for me to say something I don’t believe in. I’m not good at it. Suddenly, I feel like I don’t have enough words to say or enough imagination to formulate the phrases.

So, I was actually looking forward to my retirement. As a matter of fact I had to ask for it. In Strasbourg you are busy from 8 in the morning until 6 in the evening, every day. There’s an ocean of meetings, and papers, and it’s not easy. And the Council of Europe is not important anymore. Even for us. It’s not a post that everybody grabs for, so they were keeping me there. If I didn’t write letters to the president, to the prime minister, maybe I’d still be there! I’m joking, of course, but that’s how I felt.

I would like to retire to freedom and live the life I would like to live in these few years that remain. For last 30 years I’ve been busy with medieval Arab philosophy. I’ve translated the books of the five or six most important Arab philosophers, including the Jewish philosopher Maimonides, who wrote his main philosophical work using the Hebrew script, but in the Arab language. And I wrote – three books on medieval philosophy. So I wanted to get rid of all of my other obligations.

I want to go back to 1989. You were a journalist working at a radio station, and at that time, if I remember correctly, there was a big scandal around Mladina, the Slovenian newspaper, and press freedom was very important at that moment. I’m curious how that influenced your work as a journalist.

I was lucky having this job on the Third Program, which was in a way an oasis of relative freedom because we tackled exclusively scientific, cultural, and art matters. There was a little bit more freedom within the media not geared to the masses. But every now and then we felt some ridiculous pressures: for example, whether we should use this or that word, whether it was a Croatian word or a Serbian word. It’s very difficult to understand for people who never experienced that part of life.

The choice of words was a very important issue during the Croatian Spring.

Yes, because language is one of the elements that constitutes the identity of a nation. Anyhow, the Mladina controversy was very much influencing not maybe the media but what was being talked about in cafes, in intellectual circles, and so on. Freedom is something that, once you get a little bit of it, you are not ready to go back. You only want to go forward and get even more freedom. There was no way to stop it. Yugoslavia wanted to be perceived as a socialist country, even a communist country, but one with freedoms: the freedom to say certain things and absolutely not say certain other things. As soon as you touched on those that couldn’t or shouldn’t be said, you had problems.

Was there a moment in your own personal life when you felt in your own mind that you were a dissident?

Of course. As a young guy, when I was 18, I became a member of the Communist Party. It was very attractive to young people, this belief that you are making history, that we are going to lead the world, and so on. I became a member of the party just before going to university. Then I came to Zagreb in 1965 after finishing my studies in Belgrade, and I found a job on radio. And there, I confronted what life really is. I understood that our society is completely different from what I thought before.

I always was very sensitive to language. That’s my talent, that’s why I’m a philologist. So, the first thing I discovered was that I was under enormous pressure not to use certain words and then, of course, not to write about certain subjects. Then I noticed that a majority of the leading people on radio and television were Serbs, local Serbs that is. Then I found out that the police is made up of 60% Serbs, although they were only 11 percent of population in Croatia, and so on… That’s how I became a dissident, and that’s how I became what they call a Croatian nationalist.

I remember one of the people who came and talked to me when I was vice minister for information, I don’t remember whether it was you or not, we had been talking like this, and then at a certain point he said, “But Mr. Bucan, I understand from what you are saying that you are a real intellectual. How can you be a nationalist?” And I said, “For me it is not an issue of nationalism. It is an issue of justice.” I mean, I am reacting to injustice. Unfortunately, the injustice has been based on nationality. If it were based on something else, then I would be something else.

So that’s how I became interested in politics.

So you were here in Zagreb during the Croatian Spring.

Actually, I was the secretary of the party at the radio at the time in Croatia. It was a period of euphoria. I was still very young. I said something at the time that almost cost me my job later on. But I didn’t lose my job.

At a party meeting at Radio Zagreb, I proposed that we change the name of Radio Zagreb to Croatian Radio. This was taken as a major sin, because we were discussing short-wave programs listened to around the world. The general director of the radio-television at that time, he was a member of the central committee, he asked me after the meeting, “Are you crazy, what are you doing?” So, with this anecdote, I just want to say that I was young, and it was a period of euphoria.

I was also writing for the Croatian Weekly and it sold 150,000 copies every issue. We felt that people were reading us, believing us, and so that felt great. One felt important. I was mingling with all these people that became friends of mine, like Vlado Gotovac, who was on TV (and before that he was on radio). I remember after Karadjordjevo, which was the end of the Croatian Spring, I wrote a text — I never published it, I gave it to some friends to read — about this defeat. I wrote that it might be a defeat for us, but it might bring victory for the next generation. We were pointing out things that were perceived wrongly in the international community. Abroad, Yugoslavia was perceived as a country of freedom, as almost an “ideal” country. For me, Croatia was something like what I said about freedom: you get a little bit of it and you cannot go back. But the defeat was terrible because a lot of people, including many of my friends, went to prison, and even more lost their jobs.

For a long time I was afraid that I would also go to prison. Years later, I heard that a friend of my father’s who had good relations with Jure Bilic, one of the Communist leaders who took over after the end of the Croatian Spring, had said, “He’s a young guy, his mother was hanged by the Ustasa, his father was a Partisan, so you shouldn’t bother him. Let him be.” It seems that that’s how I didn’t go to prison.

In any case, the Croatian Spring was like a seed planted into the ground.

Even though the Croatian Spring was defeated and many people went to jail, the 1974 constitution was a recognition of these movements — not just in Croatia, but of course elsewhere in Yugoslavia. Some people argue that the 1974 constitution was the end of Yugoslavia, because it decentralized authority in a way that was irrevocable.

That was typical of Tito. I never liked him; I don’t like him now. But he always liked to play both sides, and that’s what he did there too. But in a way, the constitution of 1974 was a return to the origins of Yugoslavia. When Yugoslavia was reconstructed in 1944 and 1945 by Tito and the Communist Party, it was a voluntary coming together of different peoples, nations, republics, and so on. That’s what we were always taught in school. But you couldn’t say it this way in a political context or you would be immediately sent to prison. The 1974 constitution allowed this political formulation, and in a way it became later on the constitutional basis for dismantling Yugoslavia.

Many people have told me how strange it was to live in Yugoslavia in the 1980s, because the country was more liberal than Czechoslovakia or Bulgaria, and so many people from the region came here on vacation, to sell /buy things. And of course many people could travel to Western Europe and work as guest workers and bring money back, and build houses. So it obviously was more liberal than some places, and yet still as you point out, there was censorship, there were people going to jail, there were limits to what you could say. I mean, how did you feel in those years when Yugoslavia was in the middle of the spectrum between the much more repressive governments of the east and the much more liberal countries of the west?

As a young guy, without the experiences and knowledge that came later, I probably wasn’t aware of all this. As I told you, I became aware of things when I started to live: when I married, when I got a job, and when I began to have problems at my workplace… It was pleasant to hear that we were perceived as “better” than some others. But when I started to live a real life, with my eyes open in the 1970s and 1980s, sometimes I thought that the situation here was worse than it was for Hungarians or Czechs or Slovaks or Bulgarians. Not worse in a real sense. But those people knew how they suffered. And we didn’t want to recognize it: we lived in a lie. We thought we were enjoying ourselves. So, it was this double-edged feeling.

When I was talking to Zarko Puhovski, he said he talked with Franjo Tudjman in 1989, because he knew Tudjman’s son, and Tudjman at the time said: “In one year I will be president.” And Puhovski thought, “This man is crazy. He’s already in his 60s. He’s a lunatic.” Then he realized one year later when Tudjman became President, that he, Puhovski, was the lunatic. Things happened so quickly in those days. Did you have any expectation that things would change so quickly with HDZ or Tudjman’s political trajectory?

I’m not sure, but I’ll say this. A few months before the elections in 1990, we were discussing political parties every day in the café: who is going to win, who we are going to vote for, and so on. And 99% of my friends had been for the Coalition of People’s Accord, organized by Mika Tripalo and Savka DabÄević-KuÄar and others who were engaged in the Croatian Spring (minus Tudjman). And I and a friend of mine said, “No, we are going to vote for Tudjman, for HDZ.” “But he’s a communist general!” they said. And I said, “Guys, you are very naive. Don’t you see that everybody is against Tudjman? The communist government is against Tujdman. It’s not against Savka-Tripalo, the Coalition. That means that Tudjman is the guy.” And that’s how I voted for Tudjman.

And many other people did the same.

The basis of Tudjman’s success was that he was saying, “We want an independent Croatia.” That was enough for the people, because everybody was thinking it, but didn’t dare say it. Besides that, frankly speaking, he had the support of parts of the secret services: the State Security Administration (UDBA). I knew that Josip Manolic, who was practically number two in HDZ, had been in UDBA. But it seems that it wasn’t only Manolic. Thanks to that fact, Tudjman had the logistics that were needed for such success. Of course he was elected freely, and he was saying what people wanted to hear. But I’m not sure that he could have been sure a year before the elections that he would be president without such support.

When you think back to your worldview at that time, in 1989-1990, is there anything that you’ve had second thoughts about? Have you changed your mind about anything?

Essentially not. Everything that happened, I was expecting to happen: even the corruption and the negative things. Look, we have the same problems as Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Slovenia — everywhere there is corruption, maybe a little bit more here or a little bit less there. It was something I was expecting, because a revolution creates a certain mentality. This revolution freed people: freedom of speech, freedom of enterprise. Everybody was thinking, “I don’t have money. I’ve been in bad shape economically because of communism. Now communism is gone, I can now live as they live in Germany, in Austria, in England. So, how should I become rich?”

The thing that I didn’t expect, frankly speaking, is the role played by the political elite in this corruption. I naively thought that people who are leading the country, especially a country which has freed itself from communism and later on from an aggression, that those people are going to have the national interest and the well-being of the people foremost in their mind. But like everybody else, they had their own private interests foremost in mind, and this is something that I didn’t expect.

So you expected corruption at a certain level, but you didn’t expect it to rise all the way to the top?

Corruption, unfortunately, is not an individual phenomenon. Rather, it’s a system. Corruption within the elite is not only in terms of wealth and money. Corruption also is when you become a minister and you give posts to your friends.

Anyway, like most people, I’m not satisfied with the way things are economically. We are in bad shape, but then today everybody is. On the other hand, we are also ready, and all the governments have been ready, to accept the pressures from the so-called international community, even in things we couldn’t oppose and did not accept happily. In a way, this is again something that is not new to me. Croatia is like an unwanted baby that wants everybody to like him, and he is ready to do anything to be loved. That’s how we behave, and it’s not a good thing for the country. But as I told you, we are ready to accept everything the “big ones” are asking, even if it goes against our interest.

If you would ask me whether I think that the last 20 years — even including the war — was worth it, I would say: “Yes.” Unfortunately, it was. There is something special about our case, about Yugoslavia. Everywhere I went — Cairo, Athens, Strasbourg — whoever I met in the diplomatic community often asked me, “But weren’t you better off within Yugoslavia, when you were all together?” And I said, “But I never heard you asking this of the Czech ambassador or the Slovak ambassador or the Russian ambassador. Why do you believe that it was better back then? If it had been better, what happened wouldn’t have happened.” Unfortunately, it happened in the most terrible way. If it could have happened like in Czechoslovakia, I would without any reluctance say that it was worth it. But even with what happened, I believe, all in all, that it was worth it.

Do you think that the war could’ve gone on a different path? Do you think that Croatia had any control over the way the war happened?

Not really, except that Tudjman artfully conducted the first months of war, trying to postpone things. He was negotiating with everybody and everyone, and he was gaining time. He was gaining both time and a certain perception within the international community. So to that extent, Croatia had some control. But not in terms of what was going on on the ground. At a certain point, almost a third of our country was occupied. But I would say that Tudjman did a very good job in those years.

One of the dominant interpretations is that Tudjman was, as you say, diplomatically very astute in those early years of the war, and that Croatia as a country had a very high reputation. But that shifted, especially those years when you were in Cairo and the doors were closed to you. That’s when Croatia’s reputation dropped considerably. I guess you felt that to certain extent when you were in Egypt.

Yes, of course.

Do you think that could’ve been avoided and Croatia could have somehow maintained its high reputation?

Since I wasn’t here at that time, I have no direct insight, unlike the first two years when I was with Tudjman in his office. At that time, I was with him every day at lunch and he liked me because I was one of the people who spoke openly. He always said, “I am going to decide, but I want you to tell me what you think.” He also liked me because I was not a politician: I was not a member of the party, I had no relations with other politicians and ministers. Every lunch, every day, I heard all of his discussions with people, and so I had direct insight.

Later on, the reason for this shift in perception of Croatia within the international community was due to the issue of Bosnia. Tudjman believed that Bosnia could not survive as it is. He said, “Bosnia is a micro-Yugoslavia. And Bosnia could exist as Bosnia only under Yugoslavia, before that under the Ottoman Empire, and for a short period of time under Austro-Hungarian Empire.” And so he believed that Bosnia couldn’t survive, and that Croats should secure their territories in Bosnia: for their own sake and for the strategic sake of Croatia. Not necessarily in terms of the dismantlement of Bosnia-Hercegovina, but in any case in terms of an “internal structural division.”

He conducted such a policy in Bosnia. He recognized Bosnia. Actually he made Bosnian-Croats vote for an independent Bosnia. But he always thought that Bosnia was going to be divided, whether in terms of giving some parts to Croatia and some parts to establish a Muslim country if it was dismantled, or to establish within the borders of Bosnia various republics or cantons or regions that have a certain independence in terms of cultural and local development policy. The international community — the United States and so on — wanted Bosnia to survive as it was. But that’s when things fell apart.

In Cairo, I was in contact with an American diplomat more or less regularly, and he told me, “Tudjman is a great man. There are no more statesmen today. He’s a real statesman. He has a sense of history.” Of course I knew that he was just trying to butter me up. This went on until the Dayton Agreement was signed. As soon as Dayton was signed, meaning they didn’t have any more need for Tudjman, the same guy began to tell me an ocean of ugly things about Tudjman. So, they accepted Tudjman when he was playing into their hands. When he started to play his own game, they rejected him.

As far as Bosnia is concerned, frankly speaking I still believe that Tudjman was right, that Bosnia should be divided in terms of political structure. I remember when I came to Zagreb from Cairo after the Dayton Agreement, I met Tudjman and I said to him, “It seems to me that the Dayton Agreement is not a good one.” “How do you mean?!” he asked. I said, “To me it seems like a division of Bosnia between Serbs and Muslims.” And he said, “You may be right, but it was the only way to stop the war, and we are not going to allow Bosnia to be divided between Serbs and Muslims.” That’s what he said. And as a matter of fact I believe that that’s what is going on, and it will be unfortunate for Bosnian-Croats.

Do you think that there was a meeting at Kardjordjevo? Not the one that you referred to before, but the later one where Tudjman and Milosevic sat down and…?

Yes, they sat down. There was this meeting, but nobody knows what they were talking about.

But probably they talked about…

I don’t know what they were talking about, but I know what Tudjman thought about Milosevic. First of all, he firmly believed that developments in former Yugoslavia depend essentially on Croats and Serbs, that the Croats and Serbs are the main players and that they should come together and find a compromise. In that way, he accepted Milosevic as a counterpart. But he didn’t believe him. I mean, everybody says that Tudjman believed Milosevic. It’s not true. But Tudjman said, “What can I do? The Serbian people elected him. He is a representative of the Serbian people, and I have to speak with him. I have to negotiate with him.” Part of this negotiation was probably only tactical, to gain time, and part was strategic in terms of finding a solution, trying to convince Milosevic that he cannot have all of Yugoslavia, including part of Croatia. But then what to do about Bosnia? I cannot say concretely what they were negotiating and discussing.

In Richard Holbrooke’s memoir of the Dayton Agreement, he talks very candidly about his discussions with Croatian top generals. He said to them, “Take as much territory as possible before the agreement, because we need pressure on Milosevic and because after the agreement it will be very difficult to rearrange the borders.” So from Holbrooke’s point of view the Croatian military was an extremely important force on the ground for diplomacy.

But still they stopped us before Banja Luka.

That’s true. Holbrooke said, “Absolutely not Banja Luka.”

So this is another indication that Bosnia was the core issue and that they wanted Bosnia to remain as it is. Or they wanted a balance between Serbia and Croatia. If you look at the trials at The Hague, there as well they are trying to establish a balance… Maybe they were afraid that the Russians were going to take over Serbia, which they didn’t want to happen. Serbia is geo-strategically important. Croatia can be bypassed, but Serbia cannot be. Once I told Tudjman, “To me, Milosevic is crazy. He has something that he could sell for great profit. But he doesn’t do it. I don’t know why he’s playing with the Russians.” Because of Serbia’s geo-strategic importance maybe, the international community didn’t want Serbia to be defeated.

Were you surprised at the indictments handed down at The Hague?

Which one? Against Gotovina?

That was the most controversial one.

Frankly speaking I was not surprised. I expected it. I firmly believe that it’s unjust, but that it’s explained by this framework of making a balance. I mean, how can you compare Vukovar and Knin? I am still sure that the Hague Tribunal is a political thing. Look at the judges that are looking into the verdict to decide at the final level. They say to the prosecution: “You cannot convict them on the grounds of excessive bombardment.” And they ask the prosecution to find something else as a basis for conviction. This is unheard of! I mean, Gotovina and Markac have been before the court for this “excessive bombardment,” the judge says they cannot be convicted on this charge, so they should be free!

There were also accusations concerning conduct in Bosnia during the Bosnian War.

I have no insight into those things except for what I’ve read in papers. But generally speaking I would say that the Hague judges don’t distinguish between the aggressor and the defender. Of course, there have been crimes on both sides, and they should be prosecuted and punished. But you cannot, for example, give Gotovina a sentence of 24 years because of Knin and Veselin ŠljivanÄanin a sentence of 10 years for Vukovar and then let him out after seven! They wanted to make both parties guilty. Why? I believe it is easier to manipulate someone who is guilty than someone who is not.

As you said, there is enormous international pressure on Croatia to abide by the rulings of the Hague Tribunal. And of course, the most important pressure point was membership in the European Union. Do you think ultimately, even if the Hague Tribunal was a bad process, or an unjust process, or a political process, was it worth it to abide by the rulings of the Tribunal in order to get into the European Union?

I don’t think so. Especially because I don’t believe anymore in the European Union. As soon as the EU tries to become a political union, it will end in a bad way. You cannot make a state out of Europe. Look at Yugoslavia, look at the Soviet Union, look at Czechoslovakia. Such multilingual, multicultural, multi-religious, multinational constructs are always kept together by force. When I say by force, I don’t necessarily mean by tyranny, but by any kind of power. The Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia were kept together by the force of the Communist Party and communist dictatorship. The EU is kept together by the power of Germany and France. No one believes that the Czech Republic or Denmark for example has the same weight as Germany or France.

Did you believe in the European Union when you got to Strasbourg?

Not anymore.

At what point did you stop believing in the EU?

I stopped believing when I saw that the reforms were going in the direction of creating more and more centralized power. This centralized power means bureaucracy, which is always a terrible thing, and it means that the strongest rule. I also started to look into how the EU functions, who is paying how much into the budget, and it seemed to me that Germany was paying for everything. How long will they be willing to pay for everything and everybody? This is a shaky foundation. I understand that the EU needs a more centralized decision-making process during this crisis. But then, if it were not for this centralizing tendency, if it were not for the Euro, the EU would probably not have this crisis.

Anyhow, I’m not sure that the EU has a bright future, and I’m not sure that we “sold” ourselves successfully. Because what we gain from the EU will depend on our capacity to exploit EU funds, and our capacity to do so is very low. And yes, we will be sitting at the same table, but we won’t have a real voice. That is, we are going to have a vote, but what does this vote mean for a country like Croatia beside the vote of France, Germany, Britain, Italy, and others?

Isn’t it better to have a small vote rather than no vote at all?

Again, it depends on our capacity. If we can be independent outside of the European Union, it would be better not to have a vote at all. But to be independent in such a context you have to have resources, and a capable leadership, and an efficient governing structure — which we don’t have. So I don’t know whether it is better for Croatia to be in the EU or outside. Theoretically speaking, I would opt for being outside, but practically speaking I’m not sure anymore.

Earlier you said that the issue is injustice, and that you were a nationalist because the issue was an imbalance of power at a national level. Croatia is now independent, more or less, and it’s a sovereign country, so do you still consider yourself a nationalist if that injustice has been removed?

I never considered myself a nationalist in terms of the definition of nationalism, either then or now. If you ask me whether I still believe that national issues are still important, I would say yes. Look at human rights. If you want to be politically correct you have to recognize the rights of all different groups, in terms of sexual orientation, national minorities, any minority. But when you start speaking about Croat national rights or Serb national rights, they are going to look at you as a nationalist, even a chauvinist. A man is defined by many things. He is defined by his sexual orientation, by his gender, by the social group he belongs to, and by his nationality in terms of his language, and so on. So why should I recognize his right as a homosexual, his right as a football player, and not his right as a Croat? In those terms, I believe that this national dimension has weight, at least as much as these other dimensions. These issues are not important in the social and political context where there is no discrimination. But if there is discrimination based on language…

Do you think that there is discrimination against Croatians?

There is in Bosnia. I remember very well at the Council of Europe we were discussing the issue of the school system in Bosnia. There had been a lot of criticism of Bosnian Croats because of the so-called “two schools under one roof.” Meaning that the curricula of Bosniaks and Croats differ in mother language and history. And then I said, “Do you remember when the issue of the reintegration of Eastern Slavonia was discussed at the Council of Europe? Both the Council of Europe and the European Union insisted on different curricula for Croats and Serbs. So how can you deny Croats the right to have the Croatian language as a subject matter, and Croatian history as a subject matter, when you insisted on exactly that in Eastern Slavonia?” Nobody said anything. And they of course acted like I’d never said anything.

So those issues are still important, in Bosnia especially. They don’t have, if I’m not wrong, any TV stations for Croats. Of course, Croats in Bosnia are a minority now. And they, at the end, will be constitutionally recognized as a minority, and there will be no problem anymore with such things. But as long as they are one of the so-called three constituent people, they should be treated like one.

What do you think about the current political situation here in Croatia? Many people have told me that they think — if you put aside the issue of corruption, which of course is always a big issue — that the political situation is more or less normal. You have two parties that are strong, and they kind of go back and forth in terms of who’s in power. The extremes are relatively unpopular, and Croatia is now a normal European country.

More or less yes. Because of this corruption issue and, maybe more so because of the economic crisis, not only are parties not popular but politicians in general are not popular. The ordinary people on the street would say to you “they are all the same,” and they would be right. I might have more or less sympathy for this or that party because of ideology, but they are all the same. And I resent that all of them — or both of them because it’s really just HDZ and SDP with their coalition partners — don’t take care of the national interest as they should. Not just in terms of relations with neighbors. They sold out everything. Croatia doesn’t own anything anymore in Croatia.

So the privatization of…

It’s not the same thing to privatize a factory and to privatize practically the whole banking system — 94%, I believe. Or the communications system. But this happened more or less everywhere. And, again, it’s something I did expect, even back in the 1990s. Because Eastern Europe, Yugoslavia included, was for practically half a century under the Communists, and everything has been destroyed in terms of a normal economy. So, when I was discussing such things with my friends, I would say, “Eastern Europe is going to be for the rest of Europe what Latin America is for the United States.” Maybe it won’t be one hundred percent similar, but close enough.

How we are going to reach the same level with Western Europe, in terms of economy, production and everything? It’s impossible if we are going to become a new kind of colony. Unfortunately, it was probably inevitable. But even as a colony you can conduct yourself in better ways and worse ways.

Because you spent so much time in Egypt, I have to ask whether you were completely surprised by the Arab Spring in Egypt, and how would you compare what happened there with this part of the world?

Again, I wasn’t surprised. Actually, if I was surprised, I was surprised that it happened only now and not before. But then it didn’t happen only in Egypt. It is happening all over the Arab World. And the notion of the so-called “Arab Spring” is completely misleading. It’s an Islamist spring, a fundamentalist spring. Why? In the mind of the average Arab citizen, whether it’s in Egypt or Libya, the alternative to the dictatorship they have been under is not democracy. They have no idea of democracy, unlike Europe. Even here in Yugoslavia we had no experience of democracy, but we had this idea of democracy before our eyes. They don’t have it. Of course, a very thin layer of society, intellectuals and so on, have this idea, but average people don’t have it. So what’s the alternative to the dictatorship of Mubarak, or Qaddafi, or Assad? It’s real and authentic” Islam.

Even politically it was structured like this. The only real political opposition was the Muslim Brotherhood and such groupings. In an article I wrote a year ago, I predicted what was going to happen in Egypt. In the first stage, the army is going to take power and guarantee the alliance with Washington. If there would be free elections in Egypt, then the Muslim Brotherhood is going to win — which happened. And it’s happening more or less everywhere, and this is, again, normal. But it might have enormous consequences globally, because it will probably change the balance of power in the Middle East, which is one of the most strategically important regions in the world.

These quantitative questions are the last ones. The first one is, on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being least -satisfied and 10 being most satisfied, when you think about all that has changed here in Croatia since 1989 until today, what would be your evaluation?

5. Because all in all, as I said, I think it has been worth it. It’s better that those changes happened, rather than not. On the other hand, I don’t think we achieved — especially in terms of economy — everything we could have, even in terms of our position within the international community or within international politics. There are things I’m dissatisfied with, and things I’m satisfied with.

Okay. Same scale from 1 to 10, same period of time, but your own personal life.

That’s tougher. I never thought about it, that’s why it’s tough. Because you live your life and you don’t think about. Well, taking into account that I spent five years in Egypt, four years in Greece, and it was great, and taking into account that I was witnessing, from the inside, a historical process, I would say 8.

Finally, looking into the near future, when you think about what will happen here in Croatia in the next couple of years here, how would you rate the prospects on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being the most pessimistic, and 10 being the most optimistic?

Probably no more than 5.

Is Hagel’s Appointment of Any Actual Use to the Anti-War Left?

Cross-posted from the Nation.

Chuck Hagel isn’t anyone I’d pick to be in a position of power. He’s a conservative Republican, a military guy who volunteered to fight in Vietnam. According to Forbes magazine, during Hagel’s tenure in the Senate “he favored school prayer, missile defense and drilling in Alaska, while opposing abortion, same-sex marriage and limits on assault guns. He voted in favor of every defense authorization bill that came up during the dozen years he served, while opposing extension of Medicare benefits to prescription drugs. Such stances earned him a lifetime rating of 84 percent from the American Conservative Union.” Forbes, of course, thinks this is all great.

Me, not so much. But okay, we’re talking about Secretary of Defense, not someone responsible for domestic and social policy. Well, first of all, if I had to choose a secretary of defense, I’d start with someone who recognized that their first requirement would be to transform the US war machine from an aggressive into a defensive institution… something it’s never been before. If we assume it had to be a member of Congress, I’d start with Barbara Lee or Dennis Kucinich, not Chuck Hagel.

But that isn’t the choice we face. The alternatives to Hagel won’t be the heroic Oakland congresswoman or the committed defender of the Department of Peace, they’ll be military bureaucrats who have never said a word outside their respective boss’s talking point boxes.

At the end of the day, this isn’t about Hagel vs. anybody. This is about what President Obama is signaling by his nomination of Hagel as Secretary of Defense—and about the political forces arrayed against him.

Hagel’s nomination engendered bitter, angry opposition from the moment it was floated as a trial balloon two weeks ago. And the fact that Obama went ahead with the nomination, despite the opposition and the threats that the Senate would never confirm Hagel, is a good indication that on at least some critical foreign policy issues, Obama is not prepared to allow either the pro-Israeli lobbies or the hard-core neoconservatives, in and outside of Washington, to determine whom he could and could not choose as secretary of defense.

The opposition was from both of those separate, though overlapping, Washington cohorts. Pro-Israel forces are outraged that President Obama might appoint someone who once had the temerity to warn that the lobby “intimidates a lot of people” in Washington. Of course, it would have been better if Hagel had properly identified the “pro-Israel lobby” rather than the sloppy “Jewish lobby” description, which ignores the huge influence of the right-wing Christian Zionism; Hagel himself apologized for the careless language. (If Israel didn’t identify itself as a “Jewish state,” with all of the resulting apartheid policies that go along with it, it might be easier to distinguish.) But whatever the language, it’s a significant exposé of the perceived power of the lobby, enough that AIPAC, the lobby’s most authoritative component, pulled back from criticizing Hagel as soon as the nomination was final, leaving the most extremist components, such as the Emergency Committee for Israel, to continue the attacks.

We should be clear, of course—Hagel is no supporter of a just solution to the Palestine-Israel conflict based on human rights, international law and equality for all. He told Ha’aretz that any solution “should not include any compromise regarding Israel’s Jewish identity.” That’s code for accepting Israel’s two-tiered legal system, which privileges Jewish over non-Jewish citizens and denies Palestinian citizens crucial rights available only to Jews. Again, we aren’t looking at a choice between supporters of international law and an uncritical supporter of Israel—but having a secretary of defense who acknowledges the danger of putting Israeli interests above those of the United States and willing to challenge the pro-Israel lobbies is a pretty interesting development. (And if Obama saw the nomination also as an opportunity to pay back Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu for his all-but-official endorsement of Mitt Romney during last year’s election, that’s likely just a bonus.)

Neocon anger at Chuck Hagel isn’t new. Some of it parallels the frustration of the Israel lobbies—Hagel’s refusal to tow the AIPAC line, particularly refusing to call for war with Iran. He warned that “military strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities would signal a severe diplomatic failure and would have their own serious negative consequences for the United States and for our allies.” Hagel has instead called for direct, bilateral negotiations with Iran, and in 2010 he warned of the consequences of attacking Iran, saying “Once you start you’d better be prepared to find 100,000 troops because it may take that.” Notorious Israel occupation-backer and Harvard law school professor Alan Dershowitz announced he would testify against Hagel on Iran, calling his nomination “a bad choice for the country.”

Hagel as secretary of defense doesn’t guarantee there will be no war with Iran—but Obama’s nomination of him, and willingness to defend him against the soft-on-Iran accusations, signals that the White House isn’t looking to move towards a military attack any time soon.

The neocons also have it in for Hagel because he was one of the first Republicans to criticize their favorite project, the war in Iraq. Of course he voted to fund it every chance he got—he’s no peace activist. But Hagel broke politically with George W. Bush and his own party, calling Bush’s foreign policy “reckless,” and called Bush’s 2007 “surge in Iraq “a ping-pong game with American lives.” He didn’t, however, express any concern for Iraqi lives, nor did he ultimately vote against the war—either in 2002 at the moment of the crucial authorize-the-war vote, or later when funding bills came before him. As David Corn wrote in 2002, Hagel “cautioned humility: ‘I share the hope of a better world without Saddam Hussein, but we do not really know if our intervention in Iraq will lead to democracy in either Iraq or elsewhere in the Arab world.’ Bottom line: Hagel feared the resolution would lead to a war that would go badly but didn’t have the guts to say no to the leader of his party.”

Would he challenge Obama—who’s not from his party—if faced with a potentially disastrous new war—in Syria, say—or escalation of the drone war in Yemen, or something else? Probably not—but there’s that slight bit of hope that it could be somehow different than appointing a Pentagon insider bureaucrat.

And then there’s the Pentagon budget. Hagel has called it “bloated,” pretty amazing for a future secretary of defense. Obama may have felt that a decorated Republican military veteran would be the best choice to convince a Republican-controlled congress that some cuts will have to be made. There’s no way Hagel will argue the realities and consequences of the whole military budget—the impact on jobs and healthcare of the $111 billion we spent this year on a failed war in Afghanistan, the million dollars per year it costs to keep just one young soldier in Afghanistan and the fact that we could bring home that one soldier and have enough money to hire her and 19 more young former soldiers at good $50,000/year middle-class union jobs. He won’t argue that.

But still—a Pentagon chief who actually believes his agency’s budget should be cut—that’s new. And ultimately, that’s probably the most important reason for the attack dogs slavering for Hagel’s skin. The Washington Post editorialized that Hagel’s willingness to cut military spending was one of the key reasons to oppose his nomination. Behind the Post, of course, are the military producers and contractors whose CEOs fortunes stand (rarely fall) on the Pentagon’s budget.

Unfortunately, military cuts of the size we really need to rebuild the economy and make our country and the world truly safer—ending the Afghanistan war quickly and entirely, stopping the drone wars, moving towards complete nuclear disarmament, closing the 1,000 or so overseas military bases—will not be on the agenda of Chuck Hagel or anyone else at the Pentagon. But still. Better someone in charge who agrees that Pentagon spending is not sacrosanct than someone who views their role to keep every last billion dollars in military hands.

The Post editorial board went on to condemn Hagel’s politics overall. Most cross-party appointments, they said, “offer a veneer of bipartisanship to the national security team.” But Hagel would be different—he would not “move it toward the center, which is the usual role of such opposite-party nominees. On the contrary: Mr. Hagel’s stated positions on critical issues, ranging from defense spending to Iran, fall well to the left of those pursued by Mr. Obama during his first term—and place him near the fringe of the Senate.”

Whatever else he is, Chuck Hagel is no leftist. Standing to the left of President Obama’s center-right military policy is not a very high bar. But again—standing up to AIPAC, the defense industry (and members of Congress accountable to them) and the still-powerful neocons makes the Hagel appointment a good move for Obama. And it gives the rest of us a basis to push much farther to end the wars, to close the bases, to cut the Pentagon funding, to tax the military profiteers.

Whither Serbia’s Future When Its Citizens Elect “The Undertaker” President?

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

The Serbian elections in May 2012 shocked many liberals in the country. They assumed that the electoral coalition that coalesced around former President Boris Tadic – the Democratic Party, the Social Democratic Party, the Christian Democratic Party, the Green Party, the League of Social Democrats of Vojvodina – would handily win the election. Instead, Tomislav Nikolic, a former ultra-nationalist known widely as “The Undertaker,” squeaked out a victory in the presidential poll while his party coalition beat out the Democratic Party in the parliamentary elections as well.

Many of the people I interviewed in Serbia in October expressed dismay at the return to power of many of the same people who had been prominent in the Milosevic era. “The middle management people, who helped the Milosevic apparatus do all those terrible things, are now back,” a prominent civil society activist told me. “The current prime minister used to be the president of the youth wing of the Serbian Socialist Party and then the spokesperson of the party. First Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic was the minister of media and propaganda for Milosevic during the late 1990s.”

Even more dismaying perhaps to liberals has been the enduring popularity of the new government. The Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), a more moderate offshoot of the far-right-wing Radical Party, can now count on the support of around 40 percent of the population, compared to only 16 percent for the Democratic Party (DS). The SNS has increased its support by 11 percent since the beginning of 2012, while the DS has lost 7 percent.

One reason for this polarization, the activist continues, has been the deep vein of disenchantment with the Democratic Party that can be found among Serbian liberals as well. “During the DS period, the government didn’t resolve the political conflict with Kosovo, and they could have done this: they controlled parliament, government, all the significant positions,” he says. “They never solved the killings of the journalists of the 1990s, like Slavko Ćuruvija. We know it was done by the secret police on the order of Milosevic or his wife. But these people are still somewhere in the structure. This is how the assassination of Djindjic happened, because these people were still in the structure. Not deconstructing the Milosevic regime — that was the biggest problem.”

The Progressive Party continues to maintain a pro-EU accession policy, to negotiate with Kosovo authorities over freedom of movement and other bilateral issues, and to placate Serbs in Kosovo with a “platform” that preserves their autonomy. It’s quite a balancing act. Somehow Serbia is trying to move closer to Europe without quite giving up its claims over Kosovo.

Meanwhile, Serbian civil society continues to push forward on its efforts to make government transparent, support grassroots initiatives, and promote people-to-people exchanges between Serbia and its neighbors. Working at a humanitarian organization with offices around the world including Belgrade, the activist works hard on all the incremental changes that take place across the election cycles. On the condition of anonymity, he spoke with me about the disturbing political continuities with the Milosevic era, the people known as the “losers of the transition,” and the achievements of civil society organizations in Serbia.

The Interview

When you look back to 1989 and everything that has changed or not changed until today, how would you evaluate that on a scale of one to 10, with 1 being most dissatisfied and 10 being most satisfied?

On a scale from 1 to 10, I’d say 2-3. It’s easy for citizens to forget what they had and to forget what has changed for the better. I don’t remember much from 1989. But I remember from the late 1990s. Since then we have achieved some kind of stability: of the dinar, of the system. These structures are devastated, obviously, but we’re building them up. We have more trust in banks, for instance, and we now have savings. In those terms, things are better.

Unfortunately, during the mandate of the Democratic Party (DS) in 2006-7, former President Boris Tadic made an agreement with the Serbian Socialist Party to reconcile with the Milosevic regime and to forget everything that happened during the 1990s. That was one of the biggest mistakes ever made. The middle management people, who helped the Milosevic apparatus do all those terrible things, are now back. The current prime minister used to be the president of the youth wing of the Serbian Socialist Party and then the spokesperson of the party. First Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic was the minister of media and propaganda for Milosevic during the late 1990s. The historical momentum is different now and they can’t do the same things, but the kind of hegemonic policy is still in place: toward Kosovo, toward Republika Srpska. That’s why I give such a low mark of 2-3.

The biggest problem is that the Serbian people never actually faced the past, never faced the role their representatives played during the wars of the 1990s. Even in 2012, if you go out on the streets and ask people about Srebrenica, a significant number of people will denounce it, but a huge number of people will say, “Even if it happened, the number of dead wasn’t that high and anyway, what does that matter in 2012?”

But it is important — because of the reconciliation process. My friends in Bosnia tell me that it’s not any more a question of if but when: when some serious incident will happen again. I doubt it will be a civil war like the 1990s. But it’s a very important indication that we’re still trapped in the 1990s.

The Serbian economy is in really bad shape. Although the government says that it’s because of the global economic crisis that resulted from the collapse of the U.S. economy, the professional economists and analysts are saying that we would be in the same position even if there were no economic problems at the world level or the European level. We are not dealing with these problems. We are only dealing with the “hot topics,” and we are creating those hot topics, like Kosovo, because the politicians are using these topics to distract attention from the main problem. Every time the government has wanted to do something controversial, like selling the oil company NIS, they raised tensions in Kosovo to shift focus away from this other, controversial issue.

Right now we’re able to watch these famous investigative reports called Insider on B92 that are now focusing on the political and corrupt mechanisms behind the Kosovo issue, especially concerning trade and the grey economy. That’s actually the bottom line of the government policy: a few people are enriched by these policies but the poor and uneducated are being fooled. That’s why we say that we don’t have an accountable government.

The Open Parliament initiative attempts to open up parliament and make parliamentarians more accountable to their constituents. But the real nest of evil is in the executive branch. Even some organizations, like the National Democratic Institute, tried unsuccessfully for years to open up the executive branch. This means that we are still preserving the same model of governance, without the participation of citizens or professional associations. The majority of processes are done just between two or three people. And there’s a big influence from tycoons, the couple of people who own everything in Serbia, from land to the processing of food to the chains of stores selling that food. Monopolies control the most important goods and services here in Serbia.

You will quite often hear that we never really had an October 6, 2000, the day after the Milosevic government fell. Why? We had a great opportunity. But the level of skepticism among citizens was pretty high. The new democratic wave ended with the assassination of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, and with that assassination was killed the opportunity for Serbia to move forward.

That saying was confirmed in 2012 with the election of Tomislav Nikolic and the victory of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) and Serbian Socialist Party (SPS). We could have followed the Croatian example. The Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), Franjo Tudjman’s party, lustrated itself and changed its policy views. At a national level, all the political parties agreed to several key issues around which they built a consensus. And HDZ made more progress toward EU accession than the SDS did. I would have been really supportive if this similar process happened here, if the SNS and SPS transformed themselves into strong, conservative European parties. But they didn’t do that. The same figures lead those political parties as they did in the 1990s. That’s why I don’t actually think they will be able to produce any change.

The only difference is that now the EU is much more involved in Serbia’s business. If something good happens here, it will be because of international pressure or EU influence. We’re waiting right now for the EU progress report on Serbia’s progress toward EU accession. It will be a bad one. It will be one of the first signals that we are not on a good path. We always make one step forward and two steps back here in Serbia.

The second quantitative question is: same time period and same spectrum, how would you evaluate the changes in your own personal life?

2 or 3.

In 1989, I was only eight years old. I graduated high school in 1999, when at least one-third of the classes couldn’t actually attend because of the situation. Only a handful of my generation actually ended up in good positions in the professions we wanted. The majority of my friends from high school or the law faculty ended up without any prospects. Some tried to go overseas or to Europe, mainly to work, not to study. Just yesterday, I heard new data on the news that the biggest Serbian export is people: our brain drain.

During the 1990s, we were in a really bad economic situation. My parents are middle-class people. My mom is a doctor, my father a lawyer. We had a decent life during the 1980s, and I’m not just speaking about financial circumstances. My father was the CEO of a huge company that had a chain of stores, like Wal-Mart, but it didn’t deal with its employees like Wal-Mart or have Wal-Mart values. But it was really big, in the third place of successful companies in Yugoslavia. It was called Angropromet, and it was centered in Kikinda, in the north of Serbia, in Vojvodina, where I come from.

But during the 2000s, my father ended up without a job because he was labeled in his small community as politically active. He’s now too old to be employed by these new companies. And his financial potential to start some office of his own was ruined in the 1990s. On the other hand, my mom reached retirement level, if we can call that success.

My father often says that he’s a “loser of the transition.” That’s a phrase we often use here to describe all the people who couldn’t find a place in the new circumstances. They didn’t want to work in businesses outside the borders of the law. They didn’t want to use the new opportunities just to make some profits. They didn’t want to join some political parties just to get jobs. He didn’t want to suddenly become an Orthodox believer and to denounce all of his beliefs just to be popular, because it’s popular to be a believer these days. All of the people who stood by their beliefs, who found it so hard to adapt, they were eaten by the dragon in the end.

Finally, looking into the near future, how would you evaluate the prospects for Serbia, on a scale of one to 10, with one being most pessimistic and 10 being most optimistic?

That’s really hard. If I give a high score, then I could be seen as giving good scores to the government, which I don’t want to do.

For the first time, I didn’t vote in these last elections, at any level. I couldn’t find a person or a group that I could actually stand behind. Actually, at some level, I wanted to see the SPS in government. To see what they can offer? No, I know what they can offer. I wanted actually to see the process of catharsis in the Democratic Party (DS). I thought, and I still think, that if the DS had won another election, it would have become even worse than the Socialists. Because the DS actually showed that it could do even worse things than the SPS did.

For instance, during the DS period, the government didn’t resolve the political conflict with Kosovo, and they could have done this: they controlled parliament, government, all the significant positions. They never solved the killings of the journalists of the 1990s, like Slavko Ćuruvija. We know it was done by the secret police on the order of Milosevic or his wife. But these people are still somewhere in the structure. This is how the assassination of Djindjic happened, because these people were still in the structure. Not deconstructing the Milosevic regime — that was the biggest problem.

I don’t think the Serbian Progressives will do any significant good for the people — on the contrary. We are now witnessing the internal elections inside the Democratic Party. We can expect some new people with some new ideas who are going to lead Serbia after these guys go away. Maybe we won’t even have the Serbian Progressive Party in power for the full four years.

So, if I need to give a number, I would give a 5, because some processes are hard to stop. They can be slowed down to the point where you can’t actually see the difference between slow and stop, and we’ve witnessed that happen. But some things can never be undone, like extraditing war criminals like Mladic and Karadzic to the ICTY. European Union accession cannot just be canceled. We cannot just turn toward the Russians, which this government is doing its best to do. From this perspective, we’ll see some micro-progress in different spheres of life and society, which is why I give it a 5, which is much better than 2 or 3.

You said you graduated from high school in 1999 and that it was a difficult period. You went directly to university. That was a great time to be at the university, because things were just beginning to change, yes?

I was at the law faculty, and I was really involved in politics in those days. There were some professors who were in line with democratic politics, and it was a good opportunity to hear those clever guys and learn something from them. But on the academic side everything was still in chaos. Our academia could not be transformed into a system to educate professionals in needed professions. We failed to transform our educational system according to the Bologna standards. We made some significant progress during the Dzindzic period. But after that, we had an awful minister of education under Kostunica who even wanted to ban computers in schools and enforce creationism as a simultaneous doctrine preached alongside Darwinism. These were tectonic differences. All the Bologna processes were wasted.

Now you have some kind of a mixture. You still finish the faculty without learning the necessary skills by graduation. And you probably won’t find a job. On the other hand, the students who are above average go away for their masters and Ph.D. studies abroad. They are getting scholarships.

What motivated you to become involved on these issues?

I was always socially active, first as an activist and then as a functionary of a political party, the League of Social Democrats of Vojvodina (LSV), the strongest regional party in Vojvodina. It’s a leftist party, with social democratic values and regional patriotism. We had a strong opponent in Milosevic. LSV was the strongest anti-war party and the strongest voice against Milosevic. It never had any secret deals with Milosevic.

Then, at a certain point in 2005 or 2006, I became disappointed with some internal party processes. I realized that a political party — all political parties but that one especially — exists just for the political benefits of a few people at the top. This is also confirmed by the fact that the leaders of all the parties have been pretty much the same for the last 22 years. The Democratic Party is different because it has had several splits in the party.

I was always in pretty good contact with civil society activists. And I was active in some initiatives led by civil society. I started to work with human rights organizations, like the Youth Initiative on Human Rights (YIHR). After a couple years there, I worked with the OSCE (Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe) in Sandzak. My job was to do monitoring activities and work with civil society. So, I was pretty much doing the same job as here, providing support and developing new projects together with civil society.

When you worked with YIHR, you were doing exchanges with Kosovo?

Yes.

You were working with a regional party in Vojvodina, with OSCE in Sandzak, and on youth exchanges in Kosovo. So you’ve been working in different regions. What was it like when you arrived in Sandzak after spending that time in Vojvodina?

It was a shock for me in those regions. In Sandzak, what I realized is that the biggest problem is that they’re forgotten. No one cares about those people. At that time in Sandzak, there was a division between the leaders of two different political parties, Rasim Ljajic and Sulejman Ugljanin. They supported different religious communities. The divisions went so deep that there were even store chains divided by political affiliation to Rasim or Sulejman. Over time, things changed, and they are now in the same government for the second time. But the central government could cultivate these divisions. If needed, it could pick a side to make whatever impact it wanted.

At the personal level, people there were very hospitable. I was well accepted there. Maybe I was lucky. But I jumped into a circle of open-minded people in Novi Pazar, a place that was witnessing all the same problems and conservatism faced by other parts of Serbia where the Orthodox Church is increasing its influence and people are dealing with religion in a populist way. Except that it’s the Islamic community in Sandzak.

Serbia introduced fiscal receipts and value added tax (VAT) for the whole country. In Novi Pazar, however, most stores didn’t have to submit their VAT receipts. Maybe something changed last year, but that was the case a couple years ago, and it was unique for Sandzak. Our IRS here in Serbia justified it as some kind of positive discrimination toward endangered people. But the fact is, we don’t treat the people there as equal citizens. The state is just not present in Sandzak. That’s what allowed the Bosnian War or the Kosovo War to happen: we wanted everything for ourselves and we didn’t want to accept other ethnic groups into the policy-making process.

Given that experience, what are your expectations of a multiethnic Serbia surviving?

It will survive because those people will survive. But if we are going to have multiethnic communities, Serbia will have to find a way to preserve those multiethnic communities. Unfortunately these days, the Serbian government is appointing only Serbs to the key positions, like the ministries of force — justice, police — especially in south Serbia. Until we see a representative of the Albanian community in some key position in government, we will not actually be a true multicultural society.

On the other hand, Rasim Ljajic has been in some important positions in past years. He was, and maybe still is, the head of the unit for cooperation with ICTY. He was at one point the head of the unit responsible for Serb-Albanian processes in south Serbia. He was in charge of the ministry of labor. He has all these difficult portfolios. But still, his people don’t see him as a unique representative of their interests. Of course, he will win elections and will have good polling numbers because he now creates jobs for a lot of people. A majority of the employees in Serbia are working for public facilities. Only an estimated 300,000 people are actually employed in some other branches of industries of the economy.

So, we really do have lessons that we can learn from. The bad part is that we never started a serious process of facing the past. We never had an opportunity to start the reconciliation processes. One of those initiatives is the Regional Conference on Peace and Conciliation (REKOM), started by the Fund for Humanitarian Law and YIHR and their peers in Bosnia and Croatia and Kosovo. This is the only organized effort to establish processes to build a sustainable peace in this area.

I doubt we’ll have any escalation of violence in Sandzak and in south Serbia. But still, the Serbian state can choose to use those tensions if it wants to.

Your institute was founded in…?

2006. The aim is to build the capacities of local groups to advocate for their own interests, to organize themselves to increase their influence, and to participate in making decisions that are now made completely without their input. We have a methodology of making change at various levels: at the level of law, process, and system. We are still at the level of small changes: in procedures, bylaws, laws. We are still far from making changes at the level of the system. But by equipping CSOs in Serbia, they will be better able to make those changes sooner rather than later.

Your partners are civil society organizations.

Exclusively.

Do you work with both NGOs and informal organizations?

We cannot work with informal groups because 95 percent of our activities implement USAID’s civil society program. We are attached to the bureaucratic process of awarding, monitoring, and reporting. By those rules, we need to work with entities that are recognized by the law so that they can make a contract, open an account, receive money, report back.

We recognize the value of supporting informal groups, which are sometimes more influential and have a bigger impact than some well-established NGOs with multi-million-dollar budgets. One of our partners — we have five partner organizations – is the Balkan Community Initiative Fund. BCIF has a re-granting component in their program, and through that we are able to support smaller initiatives.

Can you give me an example of a civil society organization that you’ve worked with to build up its capacity so that it has more impact?

That’s the goal. Unfortunately, here in Serbia, everything is tied to politics. You can work with a group of people, build up their capacities, invest the time and resource in some idea, and then you witness the shift of political parties in power and everything is cancelled. But one civic initiative, which is also one of our partners, has for years worked on building up the framework for how civil society organizations operate in Serbia. We have created the laws and bylaws that provide a clear foundation for the work of civil society organizations.

We have also worked with people who are now becoming leaders, even in governmental bodies. The Office for Cooperation with Civil Society, for instance, is led by a really progressive person. She has formed a team of really good young professionals who are adding a different color to the spectrum of colors in government.

There’s also the Open Parliament initiative. For the first time in our multi-party system, our parliamentary sessions are open to the citizens. From 1997 to today, 15 years of transcripts, 150,000 speeches, are now available to the public and to researchers. After we started to disclose that information on our website, parliament also started to put transcripts on their website, although their transcripts are not in a form that allows other organizations to download and analyze them. But these are steps. In a period of two years, we hope we’ll have a completely different situation regarding the transparency of parliamentary procedures.

One key issue is sustainability. It’s great that USAID is providing assistance to Serbian civil society. But American money will not be available forever. So what are the steps being taken to ensure financial sustainability?

Especially through a new USAID initiative, we’re trying to help organizations find alternative sources of funds. One step is to develop the culture of philanthropy in Serbia, which was really endangered by the embezzlement by some organizations of money raised for humanitarian actions. We just supported a small community foundation in eastern Serbia. We’ll see how that model functions and whether it can fundraise from the local community: from businesses, from individuals, through the Internet. We just supported a small research project on venture philanthropy. We also have a business forum of the leading international companies. Unfortunately, there aren’t many examples of Serbian companies that are socially responsible and investing in these funds and initiatives.

We are trying to find the best models to implement in Serbia in order to support the small grassroots initiatives. The bigger players will be able to fundraise from EU funds, but the small and medium-sized organizations don’t have that capacity. Obviously, many of the smaller initiatives will not continue when the donor community withdraws. But the most valuable will continue, I hope.

Most of the CSOs you work with are in Belgrade?

About 52 percent of initiatives are outside of Belgrade. A large number we support are in Belgrade, but 2 million people live in Belgrade, so that represents a large population in Serbia. One of the criteria we use to deal with the huge level of applications is to support as geographically diverse a set of organizations as possible.

Do CSOs develop outside of Belgrade and then migrate here?

There are strong leaders, and organizations built around those leaders, in key municipalities, like Novi Pazar, Nis, Novi Sad. These guys develop not just one but several organizations, and those organizations are pretty successful. I’m not seeing them move to Belgrade. They are staying in their communities. They studied in Belgrade or Novi Sad, and they realized the value of their communities and returned to fight the numerous problems there. They are the heroes of civil society, because they are working in much more difficult circumstances than here in Belgrade.

Can you give me an example of a particularly successful initiative outside of Belgrade?

In Serbia, much of civil society is funded by the state. Local governments determine cooperation with civil society organizations through a particular budget line. From that line, they’ll support Red Cross, political parties, the church, and so on. If there’s money left over, they give it to some of the organizations that are close to the ruling political party. There’s a huge movement in Serbia to change this practice.

In the city of Pozega, we succeeded in changing the way local government funds civil society organizations. The local assembly adopted a procedure for announcing a request for proposals, establishing a committee to evaluate the proposals, and then hiring a person to monitor the projects. This is unique. Now organizations in Pozega are aware of competing ideas and the fact that only the most useful ideas for the citizens will be supported. Eventually the benefit for citizens will be great.

DveriSrpski, the nationalistic organization, is also part of civil society. To what extent has there been a growth of such organizations that challenge the liberal conception that USAID has promoted?

There are a couple of those organizations, but there hasn’t been a big growth in number. Most of these organizations are tied to conservative political parties or the church. Dveri is actually funded through the faculty of philosophy, and they have close ties to the Orthodox Church. I don’t see them as a civil society organization because they are now registered as a political party and are now in the Novi Sad assembly. One local council member actually left Dveri to join the SPS in order to form the new majority in Novi Sad.

These organizations never wanted to cooperate with us or USAID because, if they did, they could no longer criticize other civil society organizations for being mercenaries that take orders from the American government. Some of these organizations should be banned because they are promoting hatred. There have been some initiatives to close some of them down, and some are still in the process of being banned. Unfortunately this is where our state shows a lack of strength to oppose these dark forces –and they really are dark forces! Because of these right-wing organizations, the pride parade was banned for the second year in a row, and that was a strong indication that the Serbian government has no capacity or will to oppose them.

To return to the issue of Kosovo, Sonja Biserko told me that the future of relations between Belgrade and Pristina depends not so much on official dialogue but on civil society dialogue between groups there and here. Do you see signs of hope at that level?

I don’t believe that the kind of initiatives that put representatives of Albanians and Serbs at the same table just because they are Albanians and Serbs will show any progress. First of all, why just Serbia and Kosovo and not Croatia and Kosovo? We should be making these exchanges more interesting. Also, unless there is interest from concrete professions and sphere of interests for cooperation, none of these efforts will be successful. Obviously the official negotiators should overcome obstacles for normal life, such as communication or travel. But unless there is actual motivation for travel and cooperation, the official negotiations will just be political and won’t directly affect people’s lives.

Is there a particular vector that looks promising in terms of cooperation?

Cultural exchanges. Academic exchanges. Obviously, economic exchanges, which actually never died out. Those links have remained, they’ve just been under the table. Also sports exchanges, though those can sometimes be a problem. The groups of fans can be fascistic. That’s true everywhere, but especially here in Serbia, and there are nationalistic elements in Kosovo as well.

Don’t Call China’s Liaoning a “Starter” Aircraft Carrier

LiaoningConsidering the often-difficult relationship between the Soviet Union and the Western Allies, it’s not surprising that the USSR, unlike several other countries, never obtained one of the surplus American or British aircraft carriers in the years after World War II. What is less obvious is why Chiang Kai-shek’s regime was unable to secure such a vessel, either before or after the retreat to Taiwan. After all, Chinese naval officers expressed an interest in aircraft carriers as far back as 1928. In any event, with the recent commissioning of the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning, international commentators and reporters have been downplaying the significance of the vessel, using phrases such as “starter carrier” and “carrier in name only.” Such assessments stem from a fundamental misreading of the strategic situation of the People’s Liberation Army Navy.

Aircraft carriers are portrayed and treated as decisive craft of paramount importance, and are usually the flagships of a task force or an entire navy. Indisputably, they can make a world of difference, but some of this exalted status is questionable, especially in recent years. In other words, aircraft carriers enable a navy to project air power around the world, but they face steep hurdles to avoid becoming, in the words of a Chinese naval officer who prefers submarines, “floating coffin[s].”

It is true that the Liaoning‘s back-story, particularly its long gestation period, raises some questions. The ship is based on a hull purchased from Ukraine in 1998. Aircraft carriers are inevitably out of action for several months each year for servicing, though this schedule can be stretched in wartime. The Chinese are apparently constructing a pair of new carriers, but as long as the Liaoning is their sole carrier, they will not necessarily be able to count on its availability during hostilities. China’s shipbuilding industry can construct very large cargo ships. Would it not be more efficient to build a pair of ski-jump equipped carriers, designed specifically to fit aircraft the Chinese already possess, and simultaneously use the years of construction to prepare the electronics and train the aircrew? Some of China’s indigenous fighter aircraft have thrust-to-weight ratios similar to planes that currently operate from similar carriers in other countries. Would this not be an adequate stopgap until the folding-winged, carrier-centric J-15 fighter is operational?

A naval task force with an aircraft carrier can launch airstrikes against enemy ships without relying on land-based aircraft, and will also have fighters to provide protection from airstrikes. Even so, the Soviets had no aircraft carriers until the Cold War was nearly over, but they had no qualms about using their submarines and warships to confront enemy carrier battle groups. The Soviets were keen on using cruise missiles to hit enemy carriers very hard, very quickly, and, in an emergency, from a considerable distance. In the Second World War, submarines from both Axis and Allied navies repeatedly sank aircraft carriers, and the Argentine Navy came close to achieving this in the Falkland Islands War of 1982.

More recently, this same scenario occurred when the U.S. Navy engaged in training exercises with the Swedish submarine Gotland. The Swedish submarine apparently proved to be a formidable adversary, “sinking” the U.S.S. Ronald Reagan on at least one occasion. Perhaps more saliently, a Chinese submarine surprised the U.S.S. Kitty Hawk and the carrier’s entire supporting battle group during maneuvers. The submarines in both of these incidents are modern diesel-electric craft, notorious for emitting little noise. Similar submarines (and many more midget subs) are also an increasingly large part of Iran’s multifaceted naval strategy, which, it should be noted, involves more potential adversaries than the United States.

An aircraft carrier can also use its planes to provide air support to ground troops, in situations where helicopters are insufficient. However, ship-borne missiles, old-fashioned shelling, and the aforementioned armed helicopters may be adequate for most such situations faced by the Chinese. Similarly, a carrier’s planes can protect an amphibious operation from air attack, if no other fighter cover is available. The British would never have been able to retake the Falklands without their two carriers and the Sea Harriers they embarked. It is possible that an amphibious task force with an extensive system of surface-to-air missiles and no fighters could be safe from air attack, and in the Chinese context this may be true, but this situation has never been put to the test.

These situations, among others, presuppose that they are relevant to China’s strategic situation, and that the Liaoning should be judged on its adequacy for these missions. As it happens, however, China’s navy is unlikely to fight an enemy in the middle of the Pacific or any other ocean, and, as noted above, they would not necessarily need aircraft carriers to do so. Access to maritime trade is highly important for China’s economy, but even so, China is not an island, and cannot be completely blockaded easily. To alleviate dependence on fuel from overseas, China has built (and is building) pipelines from their neighbors in Central and Southern Asia. Additionally, China apparently has at least some capacity to synthesize oil from their abundant supplies of coal. Without attributing malignant motives to China’s leadership, from a strategic perspective the parallels with the two largest Axis powers are obvious: the first strategy can help overcome the fuel problems, faced by Japan, while the second explicitly echoes a German strategy.

China has no overseas possessions with large populations in need of protection. It is also difficult to imagine the Chinese going to war to support any foreign, overseas regime. This simply does not fit with any pattern of Chinese policy, though in a world with changing balances of relative power, it is plausible that some elements in the Chinese military and civilian leadership might feel emboldened by the presence of the Liaoning and its successors.

In short, aircraft carriers can do some unique, extraordinary things, and the Chinese navy will gain these capabilities with the addition of the Liaoning and its successors. China’s naval skeptics are right to point out, however, that aircraft carriers have many inherent vulnerabilities and liabilities. It would be a mistake for the Chinese to plan their future naval growth strategy around aircraft carriers and the battle groups needed to support them. Likewise, it would be a mistake for foreign observers to assume that the Chinese are following the patterns of other nations by doing so.

Scott Ryan Charney received an M.A. in U.S. Foreign Policy from American University.

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