Focal Points Blog

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

Cross-posted from 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?


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.


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.

A Focal Points Roundtable: Is the Taliban Losing?

TalibanRecent coverage of Afghanistan by Newsweek-slash-the Daily Beast has been illuminating. On December 30 Sami Yousafzai and Ron Moreau wrote:

“A shroud of anxiety hangs over the coming year in Afghanistan. It’s not only the country’s war-weary civilians who are beset with trepidation and uncertainty—even the Taliban are uncharacteristically worried. … To be sure, the Afghan insurgents unabashedly welcome the impending U.S. troop drawdown. Maybe now they can start to regroup and regain some of the momentum they’ve lost over the past three years. At the same time, however, they’re acutely aware that their ranks have been decimated, while the Americans have worked overtime to transform the Afghan National Army into a credible fighting force. The Taliban’s propaganda department keeps claiming that the ANA is a laughably hollow threat, unable to fill the vacuum left by the departing Western troops. But privately, the guerrillas in the field aren’t sure which side is stronger now.”

Also …

… powerful former warlords are hastening to rebuild and rearm the private armies they commanded during the 1990s, preparing to fight the Taliban—and quite likely each other—once again.

Before that, on December 12, Yousafzai had asked Will the Taliban Destroy Itself?

A serious power struggle has broken out among the Afghan Taliban’s top leaders. … the two top-ranking members of the Afghan insurgency’s ruling council, the Quetta Shura, are battling each other for control. … Some insurgents blame [top-ranking members] Mansoor as well as Zakir for the Taliban’s setbacks. Both men have failed to gain territory in the southern Afghan provinces of Kandahar and Helmand. On the contrary, they have lost control of former Taliban strongholds. “… they’ve started pointing fingers at each other,” says [a] former cabinet minister. … To make the situation worse, he says, none of the other current leaders have any outstanding abilities as military commanders or as leaders.

A former Culture Ministry official told Yousafzai: “Pakistan is sharpening its knife to remove the Taliban like a cancer from its body.”

As one who doesn’t follow Afghanistan as closely as he should, the idea that, once the United States and NATO leave it, Afghanistan will revert to Taliban rule was received wisdom. For added perspective on whether or not that prognosis has been upended, I enlisted the aid of a few colleagues.

Robert Naiman, Policy Director of Just Foreign Policy:

U.S. officials have been cited (not quoted) in the press as saying that when the U.S. leaves, it is de facto ceding control of Taliban-dominated areas to the Taliban. I don’t see how you can credibly call that “losing” for the Taliban. Of course, you can move the goalposts, and say that the Taliban lose if they don’t take Kabul. That the Taliban can be prevented from taking over the whole country seems like a very plausible goal; after all, the Taliban didn’t control the whole country before the U.S. invasion.

Mark Safranski, historian and proprietor of ZenPundit:

The Taliban controlled 95% of Afghanistan before the US invasion.

That was a different Taliban though than what exists today.

The Taliban has several strategic problems, if their goal is ruling Afghanistan as an independent government:

1. They are deeply dependent on the ISI for support, training, intel, safe houses, supplies, etc. Far more so than in 2001. They have not been able to move in large-formation units in open combat as they did against the Northern Alliance in years and most commanders with such experience are long dead. Shaking free of Pakistani Operational control will be very difficult.

2. They remain a radical Pushtun movement. … They are also unpopular and feared which will come to the fore when America withdraws.

3. Without very generous foreign aid, the economy of Afghanistan is going to rapidly implode by orders of magnitude. Resulting in widespread destitution and likely, unrest and militarization of the population as groups scramble to grab what dwindling resources they can from whomever has or will offer any. Only some kind of negotiated settlement will keep the international aid flowing on which the economy of Afghanistan depends. A Taliban victory by force of arms will end that aid, or most of it.

Steve Hynd, editor of the Agonist:

The unstated question is whether preventing the Taliban winning is the same as a victory worth the name. We’re talking about a reset back to the immediate post-Soviet civil war — I wouldn’t call that a win for anyone.


I agree that the situation has changed since before the US invasion. My point was simply that to the extent that the goal is to keep the Taliban from controlling all of Afghanistan, that’s a very realistic and modest goal, because it was true before even the US invaded. There are a whole bunch of folks who don’t want the Taliban to control all of Afghanistan who have the power and willingness to do something about it and have demonstrated that power and willingness in the past: armed Tajiks, India, Russia, Iran, for example. If in addition to everything they had before, they now have US airpower, and if the US accomplished anything in the last 10 years, it stands to reason that the Taliban are going to have a hard time taking back the 95% of Afghanistan they had before.

So, to the extent that some people in the Taliban think that they can restore the pre-US invasion status quo, they are likely to be disappointed. People can call that “losing” if they want. To the extent that their goal is to drive the US out, they can claim victory to the extent that the US leaves. Studies of the insurgency have indicated that fighting the Americans/the foreigners has been a prime motivation for many insurgents. To the extent that that is true, it stands to reason that if the US withdraws, some people are going to say, ok, I accomplished my goal, I defeated the Americans, now there’s no reason for me to die fighting fellow Afghans. In that sense, a US withdrawal will weaken the insurgency, but I don’t think this is the kind of “victory” that the Pentagon originally had in mind.

People in Afghanistan are talking about what happens when the US leaves. That’s good. It causes fear, and that’s not good, but it also makes people talk more realistically about the future. A similar dynamic happened in Iraq when people started to believe that the US was really leaving: they started to focus on other problems. The Taliban will likely come to accept that they can’t control all of Afghanistan; people in Afghanistan who don’t like the Taliban will likely come to accept that the Taliban, in some form, are a permanent feature of the Afghanistan landscape, whether they like it or not. Hopefully, people on both sides who want to live in a unified country in some sense will at some point decide that they prefer accommodation to continued war. It’s beyond of the power of the West to decide when that point will be, but it’s more likely to occur the more the West withdraws its ground troops.


I believe Yousafzai is dead wrong about Pak intentions re: the Taliban. What they’ve been doing is spreading money around with the Pak Taliban to get them to stop attacking Pak assets and ditto for trying to bring the Afghan Taliban back under their full control as a proxy force. Anyone who thinks the Pak military and ISI are going to excise the Taliban like a cancer is either a subject of Kayani’s Jedi mind tricks or smoking Afghan hashish. They’re too valuable a potential proxy — mostly to deny Indian influence, to act as a training ground for other proxy groups and to enable/allow Pakistani strategic maneuvering space in Afghanistan in the event of an Indo/Pak war — and that calculus has not been significantly changed by a decade of US involvement.


I’m not privy to the internals, but common sense broadly supports Steve’s view. If you believe that the ISI and Pakistani military have been pursuing this proxy policy to the extent that they could get away with it for the last 10 years, why would one expect them to cut off the Taliban now? It doesn’t make any sense. Particularly, given that the US is now “leaving,” and that the US recently has made noises in the direction of accommodating Pakistani concerns and trying to bring Pakistan onside in its “reconciliation” plans. If I’m Pakistan, I’m thinking: my policy has been vindicated. Now is not the time to cut; now is the time to play through. To cash in chips Pakistan needs to keep the Taliban as close as they can, not cut them loose. Pakistan’s main value to the US in all this now is not helping the US kill Taliban leaders but helping push Taliban leaders towards a deal.

We’ll give the final word to Naiman:

As for unstated questions, my favorite is: how is the deal that the US can get with the Taliban now better than the deal it could have gotten from the Taliban in 2006? Who considers that difference justified by the additional bloodshed of the last six years?

Bulgarians Wear Their Pessimism as a Badge

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

Bulgarians are proud to be pessimistic. Many of the people that I recently interviewed in the country spoke with pride of the various polls that bore out this depressing conclusion. So, for instance, in a 2009 Gallup poll, Bulgaria ranked at the very bottom of the world in their view of what life would be like for them five years hence. Incredibly, Bulgarian pessimism outperformed that of Iraqis and Afghans. Given the huge rate of emigration from Bulgaria, it’s also possible that all the optimists simply up and left.

If you look at more recent polls, it would seem that Bulgaria has been robbed of its dubious distinction. A quick Google search reveals that Greece has become the world’s most pessimistic country. But looked at more carefully, the most recent Gallup poll reveals that, thanks to the sovereign debt crisis, Europeans have all become a little bit Bulgarian. The pessimism index shows that Denmark and Poland now rank at the same level as Bulgaria. And even lower down the list are France, Germany, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Austria, Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Greece. Pessimism is becoming a European disease.

What distinguishes Bulgarian pessimism from the garden-variety strain, however, is that Bulgarians are gloomy regardless of the economic situation in their country. This paradox prompted a group of distinguished researchers to conduct an anthropological investigation back in 2003.

Their report, Optimistic Theory about the Pessimism of the Transition, points out that Bulgarians, even young people, measure their sense of relative wellbeing from 1989, rather than the economic crisis of 1997. Large portions of the population – pensioners, the unemployed, the poorly educated, public sector employees – believe that they have not profited from the transition out of communism. The reinforcement of negative attitudes in the media also contributes to the prevailing pessimism, particularly in creating the impression that “the few” have prospered because of their “connections” while “other people” are not doing well at all – regardless of how the respondent feels about his or her own life. Moreover, this research bears out the conclusion that Bulgarians generally don’t appreciate the virtues of democracy while forgetting the vices of communism.

But perhaps the most compelling source of pessimism is neighbor envy: “An enduring sense of frustration arises from the considerable difference between economic conditions in Bulgaria and the developed countries. As a result, society focuses its attention on the country’s lagging behind ‘the developed countries’ rather than on the relative improvement from earlier, more unfavorable economic periods. Contrasted with those countries, the Bulgarian nation views itself as a systematic loser.”

Maya Mircheva works at the Open Society office in Sofia, helping with exchanges between people living in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. She was still in kindergarten in 1989, yet she has all the pessimism of her elders. She has said goodbye to many of her friends who have left the country. She has watched the emptying out of the countryside. She has witnessed the entrenched corruption and apathy.

“For my generation and the generation that has come after us, I’d say that it’s a lost generation,” she told me in Sofia back in October. “We had the misfortune, if I could put it this way, to grow up in a vacuum. For me, this whole period of transition, well, they say ‘transition,’ but I don’t see the end of it coming. It’s been 20 years. It’s the longest transition in history! I can see that young people are very disillusioned. They lack this spark. They don’t feel that anything depends on them or that they can do anything to change the world.”

As the interview progresses, however, she indulges in a bit of cautious optimism. “Of course, I’m not saying that everything is doom and gloom, even though I might sound like this. I’m Bulgarian after all. There are also some things that give you hope and optimism. It gives me hope, for example, to see these grassroots movements emerging little by little. That people are engaging, though on a limited level, in some form of activism is also a very good sign.”

The Interview

So, I understand that the level of pessimism in Bulgaria is very high?

It’s among the worst in the world, which is really surprising. This study was done back in the early 2000s, and they looked at your economic circumstances and how happy you are with your life. It turned out that they’re not really that interrelated. Bulgaria has improved its economic conditions compared to the 1990s. But actually people’s satisfaction has gone down, which is an interesting thing to explore. Also, when they asked people, “What do you think about the situation in Bulgaria in general,” people are more optimistic. When they asked people about their own personal situation, it was much worse. It doesn’t make much sense if you think that society as a whole is on the right track but your own life is getting worse!

Okay, time to apply the test to you. If you look at the situation for Bulgaria since 1989 until today, how would you evaluate it on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being most dissatisfied and 10 most satisfied?


And then your own person situation since 1989, when you were six years old?


Then, if you look at the next couple of years, how optimistic are you?

3. I’m a stereotypical Bulgarian!

Let me ask you first about 1989. You were telling me two stories, one about scarves and another about cartoons.

In 1989, I was still in kindergarten. I went to first grade at 6 years old, which was somewhat unusual back then. Children usually go rather late to first grade, at age seven. But since I was somewhat sickly, I didn’t stay very long in kindergarten, so my mother sent me to first grade. In 1989, the children from first to third grade wore blue scarves, and the Pioneers were the ones who wore the red ones. My brother got to wear both because he went to school before 1990. I was really looking forward to this as well when I got to first grade. But it was exactly 1990, and we didn’t get any of these.

Actually, when I was five or six, I was a bit of a poet. I wrote little poems. When I look at them now, there were 2-3 dedicated to that time, including one about my being very excited about this scarf. The other one was my expressing frustration with all the demonstrations going on every day. Apparently I was very much influenced by what I was seeing on TV. There were a lot of people on the streets. In the first days and weeks and months, people were so excited about the changes, so they were demonstrating, not against something, just letting themselves be seen, letting their new views be known. They were going on the streets for these freedom parades. For me apparently, as I said, it was a bit of a nuisance, because it disrupted my normal life up to then. These are my earliest memories.

And you mentioned that these parliamentary discussions interrupted your cartoons.

They canceled the cartoons! I was very disappointed.

Do you remember at what point you came to understand what took place in 1989-1990?

Maybe it was not until I was in seventh grade. It coincided with the period of the end of the 1990s, with the big economic crisis, around 1996-7. This was when I was a little bit older and it started to dawn on me a bit that things were not exactly as they should be. Until then, and actually after then, I really didn’t care much about politics.

When I look back at that time, the things I miss are the things from everyday life, like certain kinds of food that we had back then that we don’t have any more. For example, we had these pastry bars, these confectioners, called sladkarnitsa. They sold this sort of pastry made of dough and lots of sugary syrup called tolumbichki. You couldn’t get Coke, but you could get boza. You know boza? It’s a very typical drink. It’s still very popular. I don’t really like it that much now, because I’m not used to drinking it any more. But I liked it back then. It’s made from some fermented grain. It’s sweet and thick. Things like this were the peak of people’s gourmandise at the time. Now you have Burger King and McDonalds.

Another thing I miss from that time is the way my grandmother’s village once was. My grandmother lives in a small village that since the 1990s has really deteriorated in terms of all the businesses that have closed down. There was a local cinema, a library, and now everything is closed down. In the village, it’s 89 percent old people, more than 90 percent Turkish. All the young people, like my mother, migrated to the cities. When I was younger, when I went to my grandmother’s village, I could go to the library and borrow some books. I can no longer do any of that when I go there now. It’s just a dead place. That’s one of the bad things about the transition for me. For some reason, everything that’s outside the capital, the provinces, has been very negatively affected.

When you were in high school, as you were getting ready to go to university, what was the average conversation you had with your friends about life in Bulgaria? You said that the whole country was pretty pessimistic. Were you enthusiastic about going to school? Or were people just making plans to go abroad?

In the case of my high school, everyone was making plans to go abroad. I went to a high school with a very intensive teaching of foreign languages. I went to a German-speaking high school where we learned German very intensively and also languages like English. While in high school, we had this option to undergo an even more intensive training at the end of which we could receive a language certificate that gave you the right to study in Germany without passing an aptitude test. Even I passed this. Most of my class did this, and two-thirds went to study in Germany, and very few came back.

I was one of the few who decided not to go, mostly for personal reasons because I didn’t feel ready. For me at the time it was a big step. I’d only been abroad just once. That generation of young people had been all over Europe. But for me, the first time I went abroad was in 2000, when I was in the eighth grade. We went to Austria. Bulgaria wasn’t an EU member back then, so we had to apply for a visa. It was a totally different experience for me, this first time abroad. Maybe that’s why, when I graduated, and I had to decide whether to go abroad and study that I decided to stay here.

We Bulgarians, and this is something very different from America, have very strong family ties, especially parents with their children. Even today, my mother feels that she has to take care of me even though I’m almost 30! But this is normal in our social circumstances. So, I didn’t go abroad because I thought I wasn’t ready and I would be homesick and miss my family.

But most of my friends went abroad. In the conversations we had during high school, they talked about their intention to go abroad. It wasn’t something they decided to do on a whim. Even back then, the situation was like that.

When they talked about going abroad, did they intend to stay or eventually come back?

I mean, who goes abroad with the intention of coming back? Very few of my friends came back. The people who came back were the ones who failed, who didn’t finish their studies. In Germany the tuition fees are very low, but still they have to work to support themselves. The studies are very hard, not like here in Bulgaria, so you have to study hard. And it’s difficult to work and study at the same time. So most ended up dropping out of school and just working. In the end, either they lost their jobs or decided to come back. Most graduated and stayed there. Some got really nice jobs. Of course, I wouldn’t blame them if they don’t come back. That’s how it is.

Do you regret staying here?

I can’t say that I’m here forever. Who knows, maybe I too will go abroad if the opportunity arises. I didn’t do my BA abroad, but I did two masters overseas, plus an exchange year abroad, so I did get around quite a bit. I already see myself as not tied to this country.

There are some Bulgarians who are, well, maybe not patriotic, but they claim to miss Bulgaria when they are abroad. They emigrate, but all the time they are abroad they miss Bulgaria. They don’t come back because they know they’re better off over there.

I’m not one of these. It’s true that I’ve not been abroad for more than a year at a time, but I never actually felt homesick. And I always managed to integrate really well. I actually enjoy being in a multicultural environment, something that I miss here in Bulgaria because we’re such a homogenous society. I don’t get to communicate much with foreigners in my daily life, which is something that I really enjoyed when I was a student. So I don’t think it would be a problem for me. I don’t feel like I missed out on it completely. Someday, I will go somewhere, though I don’t know whether it will be permanent or not.

Where did you do your master’s degrees?

I did one in the Netherlands in Maastricht, a small city near the border with Belgium and Germany. The second one I did in Belgium, in Bruges.

You’re working at Open Society, and you do a lot of work with the East-East project.

That’s my major job at the moment.

The program encourages exchanges within the region but also Bulgaria and other parts of the world.

Not the whole world. Basically only southeast Europe and Central Asia. It has certain ambitions to go global. But the global work of East-East is still very much in a pilot stage. There was some research linking continents, like South America and Europe. But I don’t think any organizations from Bulgaria participated in that.

Does that satisfy at least a little your desire to be in touch with other countries?

That’s one part of my job that I really enjoy doing. And I’m grateful for this opportunity. I have a background in European studies. I studied a lot about Europe, the EU. But I didn’t really know very much about the neighboring regions, the Caucasus, Central Asia. Or even other Eastern European countries, because European Studies is still very much focused on the West. You look to the West and the core of the EU like some kind of example. Even though you’re in the region here, you’re oblivious to the other countries around you. That’s a shame.

I felt very much ashamed when I began working here. I realized that I didn’t really know much about the region. I felt very happy to participate in these annual meetings of coordinators in the East-East network, where we convene each year in a different city in the network. We don’t see each other much in person. We just communicate by email. During these meetings, I don’t just have a chance to meet these people but we have conversations and exchange ideas about situations in our countries. For me, this is what I enjoy most about this work. It really broadens your horizons.

What’s your attitude about Bulgaria’s entrance into the EU? It was such a dream for many people in this country for so long. But how do you feel, having your entire life framed by the desire to be part of Europe and then ultimately becoming part of Europe? And then of course your studies…

Although we are part of the EU, it doesn’t mean that we feel ourselves part of the EU. Or that we have the ability to really subscribe to EU values. Here’s an example that’s very funny. Maybe you haven’t used any public transport here?

I’ve taken the tram.

Then you know what I’m talking about. On many trams there is a sticker on the window with a Bulgarian flag and an EU flag and a caption that basically urges people not to litter. It says, “Please be Europeans. Don’t litter and don’t destroy the vehicle.” This really tells you something about Europe and us not being part of Europe. Europeans are civilized, the ones who behave. And we are still barbarians. This is how Bulgarians think of Europe.

I don’t really think we’ve internalized being EU members. Europe is not seen as a package of rules and obligations that you have to adhere to. It’s just a donor and you have to figure out ways to get money from Europe one way or another.

You know about this cooperation and verification mechanism, the monitoring of our judicial system. This is an example of once we’re in the EU, the EU loses its teeth, loses its ability to influence internal reforms. During the process of applying to EU, the conditionality was much stronger — if you don’t comply, you’re not in. But once you’re in, they don’t have as much influence. It’s not just a problem with Bulgaria but with all other EU member states. Look at the situation in Spain and Italy, and I’m not just talking about the financial crisis. I heard on the news yesterday that because Bulgaria has failed to comply with regulations concerning the use of renewable energy — not surprisingly — we are threatened by the European commission with an infringement procedure. It’s not just Bulgaria. Almost all EU countries have been subject to the same infringement procedure.

Once you’re in the EU, when you’re part of the club, suddenly you no longer feel under pressure to comply like you did when you were trying to get in. It’s a matter of developing your own political and administrative culture and developing the political responsibility to become a well-governed country. The EU or some other organization can’t force you to do this if you’re not willing to do it yourself.

That’s an interesting tension between the need for a country to do it on its own and an external set of pressures. Right now, I guess that Bulgaria is in the middle of that.

Do you feel as if there is a missing generation here in Bulgaria? So many people of your age have left Bulgaria. Do you feel that as a palpable lack? When you get together with people of your own age, is there any sense of pride about being here in Bulgaria instead of somewhere else.

I definitely feel that there is a big lack, that all these people are no longer here. This is one of my major concerns. This brain drain is one of our biggest problems. People of all sorts emigrate, of course, but especially the most educated ones are mostly likely not to come back. I’ve read that there’s a trend of more and more people coming back, especially people from the first emigration wave of the early 1990s when the borders opened. Opportunities for doing business here are relatively better now than before.

But for my generation and the generation that has come after us, I’d say that it’s a lost generation. We had the misfortune, if I could put it this way, to grow up in a vacuum. For me, this whole period of transition, well, they say “transition,” but I don’t see the end of it coming. It’s been 20 years. It’s the longest transition in history! I can see that young people are very disillusioned. They lack this spark. They don’t feel that anything depends on them or that they can do anything to change the world. There are very few idealists who have the potential to become leaders and do something. Most young people have this passive attitude toward life. They live life from day to day. They believe that there is no future for them, without realizing that they are the ones who make their own future.

Of course you cannot just generalize. There are also many people who stay here on a matter of principle and may feel proud of this. But I don’t think that the majority of young people feel very optimistic about the future here. Maybe it’s because, as I said, at the time when they grew up there was also this value shift that came with the changes. The old values are no longer there. But also the new values are still very unsettled. The beginning of the 1990s was a time for these shady millionaires. For a long time, even today, many young people believe that the reason for living is to get rich very quickly. This is all they care about.

I don’t know if you’re aware of this phenomenon of chalga. If you want to study Bulgaria, this is something you need to look into. I call it a social cultural phenomenon. It’s a kind of music. But it’s more than just music for me. This music became very popular during those years. On the face of it, it’s pop music. It’s a mixture of Balkan styles: Serbian and Greek melodies with a pop feeling. I find this music horrible and tasteless. That’s just my personal opinion and the opinion of many other people, with taste. But there are a lot of people who love this music.

They don’t just love the tunes. They subscribe to the whole culture, the whole concept that this music is transmitting. When you look at the videos of these songs — the style of the singers, the lyrics — then it gets pretty obvious. Because they sing about money, about sex. It’s kind of subtle. Actually it’s not so subtle! It’s a social phenomenon as well. A lot of young people listen to it. They don’t just listen to it. They behave like it. Girls like to dress like these singers. They’re role models.

The dress is folk style dresses?

No, how to put it, they dress in a sexually provocative way.

It has some relationship to Serbian turbo folk?

Yes, it’s very similar. It’s a phenomenon of these years. It was unheard of before, of course. It’s interesting to ask why it suddenly became so popular.

When you talk to people who are basically my age and older, 50 and above, do you ever feel like they just don’t understand, based on their own experience, and you just want to shake them and say, “Look, Bulgaria is not the same any more!” Do you ever get that frustrated feeling?

The generation gap is a big issue. Also, in our case. some people still say that Bulgaria will never get out of its transition until the generation who lived at that time dies out. It’s partly true. There’s still a nomenklatura who is part of both politics and business. These people still follow the old ways. And all the problems that we’ve had with corruption — really, the whole mentality that is not European or modern — many of these people have lived this for so many years, they’re not going to change, even after 20 years. If they lived in the old system for most of their lives, and they managed to achieve a certain position under the old regime, they’re going to continue to live this way and work this way. I don’t know what can be done to change this.

Working in an institution like this, I still have some faith that things are changing, even though very slowly. It’s just a matter of constant work in making society understand that things can be done differently. On the personal level, on an individual level, it’s a very tough thing to do. I don’t know if it’s at all possible to do.

Is there anything you’ve seen recently that makes you optimistic? It could be small. Near my hotel, for instance, I saw bike paths. I’ve never seen those before here in Sofia. And also the metro…

Ah, the metro is amazing. It’s brand-new. That’s why it looks so nice.

I was impressed with the displays of the stuff that was found in the archaeological digs.

Yes, in Serdica station. I was also impressed.

Of course, I’m not saying that everything is doom and gloom, even though I might sound like this. I’m Bulgarian after all. There are also some things that give you hope and optimism. It gives me hope, for example, to see these grassroots movements emerging little by little. That people are engaging, though on a limited level, in some form of activism is also a very good sign.

Also, some people do return from abroad. There’s this organization that I admire: the Teach for All network. They have an organization here in Bulgaria. The director, the founder of it here, is a very young woman, in her early thirties, a Harvard graduate who worked at McKinsey, but who still decided to come back and work on this very idealistic goal of making schools better. And they do have some amazing results, as far as I know.

So, people like this exist. I really hope that after a few years they’re still in Bulgaria!

Mali: After the Intervention

Despite the recent UN Security Council resolution authorizing a military intervention in Mali, the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Libya regrettably remains the dominant story on U.S. policy in Africa. Meanwhile, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Ansar al-Sharia – the jihadist coalition linked to the American deaths in Libya– are rapidly consolidating power and Libyan arms in northern Mali. Instead of fodder for retroactive condemnation, the attack in Libya should provide an important reminder to the U.S. and international community that UN-authorized military action alone is not sufficient. A coherent, well-orchestrated plan for disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration of rebel forces and extremists must also accompany any intervention in Mali.

Mali is a landlocked nation in the Sahel region of northern Africa, an area that stretches across the southern border of the Sahara Desert from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea. Mali is most famous for its music and Timbuktu, a centuries-old center of Islamic scholarship and crossroads on trading routes across this region. Today, Timbuktu risks becoming yet another haven for terrorist activity as militants seize control over the northern two-thirds of the country and implement a debilitating version of Shari’a law that calls for amputations, bans on music, and public stonings.

On December 20, the UN Security Council passed a resolution authorizing the African-led International Support Mission in Mali, known as AFISMA, to take “all necessary measures” to restore peace and security. Such authority derives from Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which the Council also invoked to accelerate the end of the 2011 Libyan revolution through a NATO-led intervention. In Mali, necessary measures under Chapter VII include the pursuit of a political solution prior to intervention, the rebuilding of Mali’s security forces, support for the recapture of territory in the north, protection of civilians, and security stabilization activities.

Political, military, and humanitarian solutions are, no doubt, integral to the resolution of the escalating conflict. History demonstrates, however, that security stabilization activities are also essential for long-term stability. In Libya, despite a successful UN-backed intervention last year, security remains the primary challenge due to the proliferation of weapons and prevalence of armed militias. As part of its mandate, AFISMA must therefore establish a clear strategy for stabilization measures – such as disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration of Mali’s divided factions – to secure a safe and successful return to democracy.

For instance, AFISMA, Malian troops, and international partners should implement development-driven incentives to encourage individuals to trade in weapons. Although certainly not a panacea for disarmament, such programs present a viable method for future progress and discourage a culture of violence. Incentives may include distribution of basic resources, including tools and food, in exchange for weapons, as Mozambique did with success following its civil war. They may also incorporate lessons learned from the 1990s disarmament program used in Mali itself, in which fighters could swap weapons for loans to start development projects. Yet, incentives that lack a focus on long-term stability – such as the distribution of IPads and televisions in Libya – may prove ineffective.

AFISMA and its allies can also develop a strategy to separate the extremists from the Tuareg rebels. The UN Security Council’s insistence on continuing the political process, in part through negotiations with groups committed to the cessation of ties with terrorists and the possible use of sanctions against those refusing to cut ties, is a step in the right direction. Such dialogue needs to complement a military intervention.

Additionally, AFISMA, Malian troops, and international partners must ensure that Tuareg rebels and those renouncing their terrorist ties reintegrate into society. Reintegration can include extensive job training, development projects that spur employment opportunities, and psychological counseling. Legal reform focused on improving protections for Tuareg and minority rights might also address some of the Tuareg’s grievances regarding marginalization. The UN Security Council resolution rightly suggested that transitional authorities in Mali should address the “long-standing concerns” of groups in the north.

Prevention is paramount. Failure to tackle the long-term security situation up front may encourage a resort to weapons as a means of conflict resolution. The international community must therefore implement stabilization measures alongside political solutions, military intervention, and humanitarian aid. Otherwise, violence may expand far beyond Mali’s crown jewel, the distant land of Timbuktu.

Annie Castellani is a fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit law firm, the Public International Law & Policy Group, where she focuses on transitional justice, constitution drafting, and civil society development in Libya and other post-conflict nations. Her
views are independent.

Magnitsky Act and Dima Yakovlev Bill Revive Cold War

On Friday, Dec. 27, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a bill prohibiting future adoptions of Russian children by American citizens. At the New York Times, David Herszenhorn and Erik Eckholm explained that it

… was drafted in response to the Magnitsky Act, a law signed by President Obama this month that will bar Russian citizens accused of violating human rights from traveling to the United States and from owning real estate or other assets there. The Obama administration had opposed the Magnitsky legislation, fearing diplomatic retaliation, but members of Congress were eager to press Russia over human rights abuses and tied the bill to another measure granting Russia new status as a full trading partner.

Nor are Russian concerns devoid of legitimacy. In the Washington Post, Olga Khazan reports:

Several high-profile cases of abuse also haven’t helped. Russian policymakers named the bill after a high-profile Russian adoptee, Dima Yakovlev, a toddler who was adopted by a Virginia couple and died after being left in a hot car for nine hours. And after a 7-year-old Russian boy was returned alone to Moscow in 2010 by his Tennessean adoptive mother, the outrage was so great that a Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson temporarily announced a suspension of all U.S. adoptions.

Putin, in turn (the Times again) said that instead he would sign

… a resolution also adopted Wednesday that calls for improvements in Russia’s child welfare system. “I intend to sign the law,” Mr. Putin said Thursday, “as well as a presidential decree changing the procedure of helping orphaned children, children left without parental care, and especially children who are in a disadvantageous situation due to their health problems.”

Whether or not he’ll follow up is another matter. Meanwhile, the Dima Yakovlev Bill could have been avoided if the United States hadn’t passed the Magnitsky Act, which amounted to poking a stick at the Russian bear. Russia also kicked the United States Agency for International Development out of the country.

The Russian government had made no secret of its unhappiness with some programs financed by the Agency … like Golos, the country’s only independent election-monitoring group, which helped expose fraud in disputed parliamentary voting last December.

Meanwhile, Russia’s termination of Nunn-Lugar may also be a result of U.S. insistence on deploying missile defense systems in Eastern Europe. It claims, however, that it has enough money of its own to continue to perform the services Nunn-Lugar had been funding. But, as with caring for underserved children, it remains to be seen if Russia will follow through.

Blame Russia, for, in both instances, cutting off its nose to spite its face. But, in fact, it had been seeking to save that face when confronted by the United States with the Magnitsky Act, perceived interference by the Agency for International Development, and missile defense.

How Will Obama’s Reconfigured National Security Team Approach the Middle East?

While President Obama has been battling the Republicans in Congress over the looming fiscal crisis, his new administration and national security team are taking shape with diverse consequences especially on US foreign policy in the Middle East. President Obama has nominated veteran Senator John Kerry to be his secretary of State to replace Hillary Clinton. It is also reported that Obama is considering former republican Senator Chuck Hagel to head either the department of defense or the CIA. Both men, if confirmed, will be important in shaping the president’s foreign policy and are aligned with his political vision for America and its role in the world especially its relation with the new emerging Arab World.

UN ambassador Susan Rice who had withdrawn her nomination for the Secretary of State position over the Bengazi controversy, and was Obama’s first choice for the job, will either keep her current job as the US ambassador at the UN, or as many Washington insiders point out will get the National Security Advisor post as a consolation prize.

Kerry, Hagel and Rice are known to be proponents of using Smart Power, which has been the hallmark of the first Obama administration, and that used a combination of hard and soft power by utilizing diplomacy, capacity and coalition building, political pressure, and the projection of military power to achieve US policy objectives.

Choosing Senator Kerry to head the State Department means that President Obama will not depart from the basic tenets of his foreign policy especially in the Middle East. Senator Kerry, with over 30 years of foreign policy experience at the Senate, is known to advocate negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program and his views on this subject do not include using the US military war machine as an instrument of foreign policy. In addition, Kerry’s views on the Arab Israeli conflict are not far off from those of the president.

In fact Kerry’s stature in Washington will lend President Obama a much-needed political cushion to deal with his nemesis Israeli prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and to jump start the so called “peace-process”.

An indication of a new approach of the US policy in region was evident when Mr. Obama sent Secretary Clinton to the Middle East during the latest Gaza war last November in order to stop the Israeli planned ground invasion in its tracks.

During the war in Gaza, President Obama, feeling much more confident after his reelection for a second term, made sure to deliver a humiliating defeat to Netanyahu by forcing him to stop his planned ground invasion of Gaza.

To do that, President Obama along with his senior advisors first made public statements and pronouncements supporting Israel’s position and its right to defend itself against Hamas and its missiles. No word was mentioned during this brief war about the plight of Palestinians or about the brutal Israeli bombardment of Gaza that took the lives of scores of innocent Palestinian civilians.

In this approach Obama first fortified his domestic standing as being unequivocally pro-Israel and better silenced his would-be critics, including Netanyahu himself, than had he charted a more balanced course that spoke of both sides of the conflict instead of Israel alone. With his domestic front is safe and secured, President Obama sent Secretary Clinton to forcefully prevent Netanyahu from acting on his threats to invade Gaza which would have inflamed the Arab World, especially the new Egypt against the US.

This quiet and clever strategy seemed to have worked better for Obama than his former approach of appearing to be publicly pressuring Israel to give up its illegal settlement-building in the Palestinian territories and pressuring it to engage in meaningful peace talks with the Palestinians.

Although it is unclear whether president Obama will push for a Palestinian-Israeli direct or indirect talks in 2013 or later given the weakness of the Palestinian side and the instability in the two most important Arab states, Egypt and Syria.

In the meantime, the reported choice of former Nebraska republican Senator Chuck Hagel, who is known to criticize Israeli policies in the region and also criticized its lobby in Washington, to be his Secretary of Defense will likely solidify the president’s positions on Iran, and Palestine-Israel by choosing his security team with strong Washington experience and not afraid to speak their minds. That said, however, Mr. Obama is facing his first test on the Middle East as the right-wing pro-Israeli groups are mounting a vicious campaign the thwart the nomination of Mr. Hagel on the grounds of his past remarks regarding Israel, Hamas, and Iran. In 2006 Hagel described in a newspaper interview a “Jewish Lobby” that is “intimating a lot of people.”

The final piece in Obama’s national security team is ambassador Susan Rice who is very close to the president and is expected to be rewarded with the National Security Advisor post. Rice put her own political future on the line by defending the president on the Bengazi terrorist attack while the Obama reelection campaign was entering its dangerous close-race zone. Rice is known to be a proponent of using smart power that will utilize the use of the entire components of US national power — diplomacy, military, scientific and cultural — to achieve the US strategic objectives around the world.

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

Is Israel Proof That an Armed Society Can Work?

At the Tablet on December 17, Lial Lebovitz attempts to explain (in a piece titled) Why Israel Has No Newtowns. First, he notes that, in the United States

… astute thinkers tried to look past their indignation and heartbreak in search of sensible policy alternatives. Not surprisingly, they often ended up looking to Israel. … A popular statistic spread like wildfire on Facebook and Twitter: Only 58 Israelis were killed by guns last year, compared with 10,728 Americans. … Assault rifles are banned, registration is necessary, and a whole system of checks and requirements is in place to keep weapons out of the wrong hands.

But, Lebovitz points out that, while assault rifles are banned in Israel, it’s surprisingly easy to obtain a handgun. (In particular, note what I’ve italicized.)

Security guards, obviously, are permitted their guns, but so are men and women who work in the diamond industry, or who handle valuable goods or large sums of cash. Anyone who lives or works in an “entitled residency”—code for a high-risk area, meaning the settlements—is permitted a weapon, no questions asked. Retired army officers can easily obtain a license, as can anyone who has inherited a gun from a friend or a relative. [Bad pun alert. -- RW] The upshot: Anyone can come up with an excuse to legally own a gun.

“How, then,” Lebovitz asks, “to explain Israel’s relatively low rate of gun-related deaths?” His argument now becomes familiar. He quotes Lior Nedivi, who he describes as an “an independent firearms examiner in Jerusalem and the co-author of a comprehensive report comparing Israel’s gun laws and culture to that of the United States.”

“An armed society,” Nedivi wrote, quoting the science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein, “is a polite society. Manners are good when one may have to back up his acts with his life.

Lebovitz adds:

When everyone has a gun, guns are no longer seen as talismans by weak, frightened, and unstable men seeking a sense of self-validation, but as killing machines that are to be handled with the utmost caution and care.

He fails to explain, though, exactly why said “weak, frightened, and unstable men” no longer turn to guns for “a sense of self-validation.” What follows is equally familiar.

… ever more stringent gun control is bad policy: As is the case with drugs, as was the case with liquor during Prohibition, the strict banning of anything does little but push the market underground into the hands of criminals and thugs. Rather than spend fortunes and ruin lives in a futile attempt to eradicate every last trigger in America, we would do well to follow Israel’s example and educate gun owners about their rights and responsibilities, so as to foster a culture of sensible and mindful gun ownership.

It’s the old deterrence argument. When applied to nuclear weapons, those of us in the disarmament community know that deterrence is, at best, a short-term solution. In fact, it’s the epitome of a fragile peace. But, I’m forced to admit that the implications for an armed civil society are not nearly as dire, since one mistake won’t result in the destruction of large portions of the world, as with nuclear weapons. Neither is civil war in the United States, Israel, or Switzerland (another heavily armed society) likely. Thus, it’s left to those of us in favor of steeper gun regulation to present arguments and data refuting the belief that gun possession is an effective form of deterrence.

In the interim, though, it’s difficult to disagree with what Jill Lepore wrote in her outstanding April 2012 New Yorker article on the history of gun control in the United States.

When carrying a concealed weapon for self-defense is understood not as a failure of civil society, to be mourned, but as an act of citizenship, to be vaunted, there is little civilian life left.

Bulgaria’s Educated Among Those Most Likely to Discriminate Against Roma

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

Much has changed in Eastern Europe over 22 years. But one group that has seen relatively little improvement in its fortunes over this period has been the Roma. Unemployment levels among Roma remain high. Access to decent education, health care, and other social services is limited. Representation in politics and business is minimal. And discrimination remains pervasive.

In interviews and casual conversations in the four southeastern European countries I visited this fall, I heard the same stereotypes about Roma repeated over and over again. And many of the people who trafficked in these stereotypes were highly educated, the people who are expected “to know better.”

Maria Metodieva was, until recently, in charge of Roma issues at the Open Society Institute in Sofia, Bulgaria. She confirmed for me this most depressing fact. “We’ve done research on the type of people who are more likely to be discriminatory,” she said. “The most educated people, in terms of higher education, discriminate the most. This is ridiculous. Once you have a good education, it means that you’ve been studying in a mixed environment, and you know much more about diversity and cultural pluralism.”

But alas, there isn’t as much cultural pluralism in Bulgaria as one might hope. The effort to desegregate schools and ensure that Roma and non-Roma mix in the classrooms has encountered pushback. Economically, Roma continue to be marginalized, often living in crowded conditions in poor neighborhoods in cities like Plovdiv. Some successful Roma, borrowing a page from African-American history, “pass” as non-Roma if they can get away with it, which does little to upend common stereotypes. And even very successful Roma who openly proclaim their heritage, like TV anchorwoman Violeta Draganova, have experienced the same, maddening discrimination that their less famous brothers and sisters face.

Here’s another depressing fact. The OSI program has been quite successful in placing Roma interns in businesses in Bulgaria. But that success has been almost entirely in multinational businesses, Maria Metodieva reports, not with Bulgarian businesses. Roma don’t just face a glass ceiling – they face glass walls.

Europe is currently more than halfway through the Decade of Roma Inclusion. There have been conferences and studies and documentaries and political lobbying. And millions of Euros have been allocated to closing the gap between Roma and the rest of Europe. There have been some notable achievements, particularly in terms of the greater visibility of Roma issues. But it’s easy to get discouraged when you come face to face with persistent discrimination. On the other hand, the modern civil rights movement in the United States was at it for more than two decades before achieving the Voting Rights Act in 1965, and the election of an African-American president more than four decades later still doesn’t mean that racism has been flushed out of the American system.

But many Roma, as they struggle against injustice and attempt to build a truly multiethnic democracy, keep their eyes on the prize. Maria Metodieva talked with me about OSI’s programs on Roma and what has worked and hasn’t worked in terms of policy approaches. She now works at the Trust for Social Achievement, which focuses on education, jobs, and capacity-building for marginalized communities in Bulgaria.

The Interview

How would you evaluate the change in the situation for Roma between 1989 and today, on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being most disappointed and 10 least disappointed?

3, which is quite close to 1. Unfortunately after the changes, the living conditions for Roma deteriorated. And Roma became more marginalized compared to the period of the socialist regime.

How do you feel about your own personal situation over the same period and along the same spectrum?

Considering the fact that I was very young in 1989, I would say 6.

Looking into the near future, 1-2 years, how do you feel about the prospects for Bulgarian society, with 1 being most pessimistic, 10 most optimistic?

Considering the political context and the economic situation, I would give a 3 again, because I think that one or two years is too short a time for any significant change in regard to economic or political stability.

Please tell me a little bit about the Roma-related programs here at the Bulgarian office of Open Society.

I’m managing a bunch of projects that range from small-scale to really large-scale. They are mainly on issues related to the Decade of Roma Inclusion, the initiative led by George Soros and the World Bank. The priorities we work on are health, employment, and housing. We also do some work on education, mostly through the provision of scholarships to Roma studying medicine. Most of our projects are research. We try to assist in the adequate formulation of evidence-based policies by the government at a national, regional and local level.

We have some interesting action projects. One of them is a project we call Bridging Roma and Private Business in Bulgaria. We place qualified and highly motivated Roma in internships in multinational and national companies in Bulgaria. The hidden objective of this program is to place the interns in permanent employment. This appears to be the most successful Roma initiative.

We have some other projects that are large-scale and related to research. We try to identify the position of Roma in the labor market. We try to follow trends in terms of social distance toward Roma in mainstream society.

You said the placement of interns in multinational companies was successful. Can you give some examples?

We have a girl named Desi. She’s a lawyer by vocation. She applied to the program. We placed her at TNT, a logistics company. She was placed as an intern to the general manager of the company here in Bulgaria. This was three years ago. After the three months, she was offered a year-long contract. Then she was retrained to take another position in lower management in the company. Now she is still working for TNT. I believe that her life changed. Actually she’s one of the best practices, if we can use that phrase, because she managed to change the stereotypes and the attitudes of her colleagues. She was Roma in an environment that is completely Bulgarian, without any other ethnic minority representatives. Now she feels very comfortable within the company.

We had another example of Bozhidar, who was interested in alternative energy resources. We placed him in an electricity supply company here in Bulgaria, EVN, a Bulgarian-Austrian company. He worked there for a year and a half. Nowadays he is paid partly by EVN to do a master’s degree in the United States. I think these are the two of the most successful that we’ve had in this program. In general, we have a really good success rate for interns that were placed and are still working.

But your evaluation of the situation for Roma was 3, which suggests that there remain significant challenges. Can you tell me about the most significant challenges that your programs face?

Negative attitudes and discrimination. Affirmative action, something that’s quite popular in the United States, this is not something that would happen or be acceptable in Bulgaria. It wouldn’t work. The bridging project actually is a kind of affirmative action program, but it works only with multinational companies, not with the Bulgaria companies. This is another sign that something is really wrong. So, the first challenge is the hostile environment.

We have also witnessed the rise of far-right-oriented political parties, which have had huge support from Bulgarian citizens, and that’s why they have managed to enter the Bulgarian parliament. So, this is another thing that has been a great challenge to our programs.

Otherwise, I’d say that it’s mostly human resources that is lacking on behalf of the Roma community: people who are willing to work and be dedicated to the cause of improving the life of Roma in Bulgaria. This lack of human resources is connected to the lack of education, the lack of access to quality education.

Some people have told me that there’s been some improvement over the last five or six years in terms of attitudes about Roma, in part because of the success of some Roma in Bulgarian society. Others have told me that there has been movement backward. I talked to someone about a program with Bulgarian journalists. The only thing they were able to able to achieve was the change in the descriptive word, from Gypsy to Roma, but the actual attitude of people didn’t change. What do you think, has there been some improvement or movement backward?

I’ll give you an example. You see me now. If I go to New York, do you think that anyone would turn to me and call me a Gypsy?


I have a son. He’s four years old. Two weeks ago, we were traveling with my husband to visit his parents in the village. On the way back, we stopped at a gas station. The gas station has a playground. So my son, said, “Mommy, can I go and play a bit at the playground.” And I said, “Of course, you can.” There were a few kids, ages 6 to 9. When my son approached, they said, “Go away, you dirty Gypsy.” This is the situation now in this country.

I interviewed the Roma journalist Violeta Draganova and she told me a very similar story involving a swimming pool. She also said she likes to go to Brussels, because people there think she’s Spanish and she doesn’t have to deal with negative stereotypes. At an individual level, the discrimination continues. Do you see any indications of improvement at the larger, societal level?

Unfortunately, no. Because there are some preconditions that have to be taken into consideration. Some factors impede the acceptance of Roma as equal citizens of Bulgaria. First of all, the government, even though it recognizes there is a problem with Roma, doesn’t speak aloud about it. They think that if they speak publicly they won’t win the next elections. The other problem is the media. Even though it uses politically correct terminology, the media still publishes articles with content that is abusive. The media is the main channel that transmits the messages of negative attitudes about Roma in Bulgaria.

Right now, we have this interesting reality TV format called Big Brother. We have a young Roma singer, an artist who’s invited to take part in that program. She’s been very active on mainstream issues, as active as any other participant. But at the same time there are these comments on the online forums and by the other participants on the show that she’s Roma and therefore she’s stupid. Or that she’s not good enough to be on this Big Brother reality show. This is the common opinion of the average Bulgarian.

In addition to that, we’ve done research on the type of people who are more likely to be discriminatory. The most educated people, in terms of higher education, discriminate the most. This is ridiculous. Once you have a good education, it means that you’ve been studying in a mixed environment and you know much more about diversity and cultural pluralism. The illiterate, not having even primary education, are not supposed to know much about these things. This is an interesting phenomenon that has to be researched to identify the reasons.

There is a similar reality show in Serbia in which celebrities live with ordinary families. And they had a show in which a famous person lived with a Roma family. The negative reactions were similar to those in Bulgaria. On the other hand, however, there was a whole set of positive reactions, like “I never saw how Roma lived before” and “It was interesting to see a Serb that we know interacting in a positive way with Roma.” Are such positive responses possible here in Bulgaria?

Yes, but on a very personal level. The mass attitudes are influenced by stereotypes. But if you follow individual cases, then you see the possibility for change in this type of attitude.

I’ll give you another example. A colleague of ours recently left our office. She went to work for a multinational company. When we interviewed her for the position here, she was clearly informed that it was a Roma-related program. And she was honestly interested in the program. Then suddenly during the implementation of the program, she became so frustrated with the beneficiaries of the project. In a way she revealed her stereotypes of the Roma, that Roma are not good.

So, on the one hand, there’s a real interest on behalf of different representatives of society to learn more and to hear more about the Roma community. On the other hand, many people are raised with the notion that Roma are bad, are illiterate. At some point these people try to prove these stereotype for themselves.

The Movements for Rights and Freedoms (MRF) was supposed to deal with not just the rights and freedoms of the ethnic Turkish community, but of all ethnic communes. Do you think that MRF has represented Roma issues over the last 20 years? We’ve also seen the development of some Roma parties, like EuroRoma. Can any of those parties serve the same kind of function that MRF has served for the ethnic Turkish population?

I think that this particular political movement has not been openly serving this function for the Roma community, but still this issue is on their agenda, and they use it for their own profit. We’ve had local mayors and actual Roma representatives involved in local municipalities and authorities around the country from this particular party. Basically, there is a dialogue between Roma community leaders and the MRF.

On the second question, Roma political parties, there have been many attempts. The politically correct answer is that due to the diversity of the Roma communities in Bulgaria, it is difficult to find and identify a compromise that unites them politically. Bulgaria is a unique example, not found anywhere in Europe or in Central-Europe Europe, where Roma cannot work together. Roma leaders can’t do anything together. And it’s not because they’re diverse. It’s because their agenda is completely different. There are also large levels of corruption among the Roma leaders. But this is not the politically correct answer.

Ataka has become a more powerful political force. Do you think that this is just temporary, the result of the economic conditions in Bulgaria? Or are you more pessimistic?

The influence of Ataka and the passion it has generated are vanishing. It’s not the kind of factor today that it was four years ago. I don’t think they have any chances for the next parliamentary elections. There are private interests behind Ataka. If anyone dares to disclose information about the founding resources, it would be very interesting.

Why do you think that Ataka’s popularity has declined?

Because the current government GERB (Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria) is no longer interested in Ataka as a partner. This might change for the next elections. Obviously, Ataka has lost a part of its audience because of the internal challenges facing the party in terms of governing, corruption, and everything else. This is part of the reason why I believe that Ataka is losing support.

If GERB tries to make a coalition for the next election, it won’t be with Ataka. But it may form a coalition with that other crazy man, Yane Yanev, from RZS (Order, Law and Justice). It’s another small formation. But the government uses Yanev to shut the mouth of the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) with corruption scandals. I have to be honest. We are witnessing a very interesting and challenging political life after the changes in 1989. Not that I’m not familiar with what happened before that. I’ve read historical books. It seemed quite boring during the time of Todor Zhivkov.

The Chinese have a curse: may you live in interesting times.

Obviously, we are cursed!

The ruling party is not, you mentioned, interested in working in coalition with Ataka. Do you think that GERB has absorbed some of Ataka’s message and made its right-wing populism into a more politically acceptable form in Bulgaria?

I can’t say that. At the same time, we have a high-ranking official, the vice prime minister responsible for the Decade of Roma Inclusion who is also the minister of interior. At a public forum, he dares to say that the major target group of his ministry are Roma. They are the most marginalized and criminalized people in the country, and he’s obliged to undertake appropriate measures to reduce the rate of Roma perpetrating crimes. So, it’s part of the government’s rhetoric. But I don’t think that they’re as oriented toward the kind of discrimination that Ataka was proclaiming during the elections.

The EU has put some funds into Roma issues. Have they made a difference?

It’s too soon to tell. We became a member of the EU just recently, in 2007. Five years is not sufficient time for achieving any success. In addition to that, there is a lack of capacity and human resources in the government to absorb funds related to Roma. Increasing the capacity of the government to implement this kind of policy would be the best-case scenario.

At the same time, there is a lack of decision about whether the government will implement targeted policies for Roma or whether they will implement mainstream policies funded by the EU. This hesitancy and lack of understanding has led to a total confusion around spending money. They spend without a clear vision about the final product or the beneficiaries.

Are there programs in the region directed at Roma, or with Roma or by Roma, that you can point to and say, this is a great program, this is something that can serve as an important model?

I think that what works best is a mainstream policy that has an impact on socially vulnerable or challenged people. I’ve seen an example of social housing in Spain that has worked well both for Roma and for socially vulnerable groups. For me, this project would work anywhere because it is a mainstream program and it won’t lose support from Roma or mainstream society.

I’ll give you another example. We had a Roma-targeted policy funded by EU funds in Burgas here in Bulgaria. The municipality applied for the funds and the project was approved. The main goal of the project was the construction of social housing for Roma. But suddenly, the local community in Burgas opposed this construction and forced the mayor to withdraw from the project. So, basically, Roma-related projects won’t work in Bulgaria.

When I worked with the American Friends Service Committee, I worked on an exchange that brought American civil rights leaders to this region to meet with Roma. During these meetings, three different approaches came out: a civil rights approach by Roma that was more confrontational, a community development approach, and a top-down approach with EU and government funding. Which approach do you think is best?

There has to be a mixture of all these approaches. Therefore, we are trying to convince the government that an integrated approach is needed to solve the problems of Roma. There has to be a dual process. On the one side there are Roma. On the other side, there are ethnic Bulgarians and other ethnic minorities. At some point, these two groups have to meet somewhere. The problem is that neither of the groups is moving. We are at some kind of a dead end. And we have to find another way to make these groups move forward toward each other.

Unfortunately to make groups move, we have not only to secure funding, public support, and adequate government with an adequate message. We also have to talk to people on the community level, people who live together with Roma and Bulgarians as well as Roma who live only among Roma. Everyone feels comfortable in their own situation, and they don’t want to change it.

2012 in 16 Stories

fpif-best-of-2012Every year around this time, pundits and prognosticators set about the task of divining what the last year meant. What did we learn about the world? And what grand narrative can condense a year’s worth of news into a single story we can all share in?

It’s an unenviable task. From incomplete revolutions in the Middle East to a worsening climate crisis all over, 2012 seemed ill-suited to grand narratives from the outset. The work continues, if more urgently than before.

But when it comes to granular narratives, those little stories that thread through the lives of every person on this planet, any FPIF reader will know that the year 2012 has been as bountiful as any. From drugs to drones, budgets to bases, and Syria to Sandy, FPIF continues to cover the human impacts of policy at home and abroad, always affording a special place to scholars and activists committed to changing it for the better.

In that spirit, I’ve collected 16 of our biggest stories from 2012—those global vignettes that readers like you read, shared, and talked about the most. Brought to you by a diverse cast of talented contributors, these tales cover a host of issues in nearly every region of the world. I hope you’ll enjoy revisiting them while you do your own musing about the past year.

And, if you like what you read here, I hope you’ll support FPIF with an end-of-the-year donation today. As an independent, non-profit progressive outlet, FPIF survives by your support alone.

Best wishes for a safe and happy new year. With your help, we’ll be there with you.

FPIF: Best of 2012

ben-affleck-argo-review“Argo” and Hollywood’s Muslim Problem
Fouad Pervez
While well-intentioned, Ben Affleck’s Argo failed to promote a more nuanced view of U.S.-Iranian relations, falling into the common Hollywood trap of making Muslims into a monolithic Green Menace.

drones-double-tappingAttacks on First Responders Transform Criminality of Drone Strikes to Sadism
Russ Wellen
The term “double-tapping,” or the practice of firing on the first responders to a drone strike, fails to capture the sociopathic nature of the tactic.

why-chavez-wonWhy Chavez Won Again
Danny Glover
Actor and activist Danny Glover was in Venezuela for its October elections, where he met with members of the marginalized groups who were key to President Hugo Chavez’s reelection victory.

hawaii-head-of-tentacled-beastHawaii: Head of the Tentacled Beast
Jon Letman
The sooner Hawaii recognizes that it would be better off with a drastically reduced dependency on the military, the sooner it can begin to move toward a healthier, safer, and more secure future.

six-global-issues-debatesSix Global Issues the Foreign Policy Debates (Didn’t) Touch
Sarah Anderson, Phyllis Bennis, Peter Certo, Miriam Pemberton, Sanho Tree, and Daphne Wysham
IPS scholars kept a host of neglected foreign policy issues in the conversation throughout a presidential campaign that ignored them.

tpp-quiet-coup-investor-classThe TPP: A Quiet Coup for the Investor Class
Hilary Matfess
The Obama administration’s trade negotiators have been quietly assembling a massive trans-Pacific trade agreement as reactionary as anything Mitt Romney’s team would have proposed.

unscientific-drug-control-regimeOur Unscientific Drug Control Regime
Felipe Umana
When it comes to determining which drugs are more harmful than others, the international drug control regime has historically favored religious and ideological prejudices over scientific data.

reinforcing-washingtons-asia-pacific-hegemonyReinforcing Washington’s Asia-Pacific Hegemony
Joseph Gerson
The Obama administration’s “Pacific Pivot,” a massive diplomatic and military mobilization against China, is sure to escalate tensions in a crucial global region.

california-assembly-stifle-debate-israelCalifornia State Assembly Stifles Debate on Israel
Stephen Zunes

A resolution passed this year in California casts such a wide net over “anti-Semitism” that it could curb the free speech rights of student groups in the state who criticize Israeli policies.

sectarian-jihad-syria-made-usaSectarian Jihad in Syria: Made in the USA?
Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed
By the summer of 2012, Syria was not so much in the throes of civil war as it was a theater for much broader geopolitical conflictsa phenomenon the U.S. played no small role in facilitating.

art-arab-awakeningArt and the Arab Awakening
Nama Khalil
Often overlooked by international coverage, the Arab world’s artists have helped foster a more vibrant civil society in the wake of the Arab Spring, pointing the way to more durable democratic institutions.

deporting-adult-adopteesDeporting Adult Adoptees
Jennifer Kwon Dobbs, Caitlin Kee, and Kristin R. Pak
Because of a quirk in U.S. immigration law, many adult adoptees in the United States have been kicked out of the country they were legally brought to as children.

spanish-austerity-savageSpanish Austerity Savage to the Point of Sadism
Conn Hallinan
The bailout package negotiated by Spain’s government earlier this year was yet another witches’ brew of cutbacks, layoffs, and austerity measures.

noam-chomskys-occupyNoam Chomsky’s “Occupy”
John Feffer
Veteran writer and activist Noam Chomsky was not one to watch the unfolding Occupy movement from the sidelines, evidenced by this collection of the dissident’s exchanges with the movement.

why-kony-2012-failsWhy Kony 2012 Failed
Matthew Kavanagh
The Invisible Children campaign’s now notorious viral video about Joseph Kony provided a Twitter-like view of Uganda, political history, and U.S. foreign policy.

carbon-blood-money-hondurasCarbon Blood Money in Honduras
Rosie Wong
Violence playing out between peasants and landowners in Honduras shows the dark underbelly of the international carbon credit trade, which has created new financial incentives for violent grabs.

Peter Certo is the Acting Editor of Foreign Policy in Focus.

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