Focal Points Blog

How Our Obsession With Iran Increases Chances of Nuclear War With Russia

It’s common knowledge that, when it comes to protecting us from a nuclear launch by a major power such as Russia or China, missile defense has been found woefully lacking. At best, it’s supposed to protect the United States and Europe from states with small nuclear weapon programs such as North Korea and Iran. (Even though it’s efficacy in those situations is questionable as well.)

Nevertheless, Moscow professes to believe that our installations in Europe are intended as a defense against Russia’s nukes. It also maintains that missile defense deployed in the United States, as well, is a cover behind which the United States could launch a first strike. Much of its counterstrike, Moscow fears, would then be deflected by U.S. missile defense, while the United States would wipe out much of Russia’s remaining land-based nuclear missiles, thus diminishing the latter’s second-strike capabilities.

Thus, according to this line of thought, the state against which a state such as the United States is seeking to defend itself with nuclear weapons is motivated to build that many more nuclear weapons and delivery systems to make up for those it would lose in the air and on the ground. That’s why missile defense is considered “destabilizing” to the balance of nuclear power.

Missile defense also cuts off our defense nose to spite its face with Iran, but in a different way. By way of prelude to an explanation comes a summary of a new Threat Assessment Brief for the Arms Control Association by Greg Thielmann titled Iran’s Missile Program And Its Implications For U.S. Missile Defense.

Although plans for expanding U.S. strategic missile defenses focus on the Iranian ICBM threat, that threat is not emerging as was previously predicted. Iran conducted no long-range ballistic missile tests in 2012 and has not flown even the larger space launch vehicle that it displayed two years ago, which could have helped advance ICBM technology. [It] continues to focus on short- and medium-range rather than longer-range ballistic missiles.

Nor, the summary reminds us, has Iran even decided to build nuclear weapons yet. Thielmann himself writes that

… although neither Iran nor North Korea has deployed ICBMs, ambitious U.S. missile defense efforts to counter them have [as explained above -- RW] helped dim immediate prospects of negotiating additional limits on the countries that potentially pose the greatest threats to the United States—Russia and China.

He expands on what I wrote above.

Although often dismissed in the West as disingenuous in expressing concerns about U.S. missile defense, Russian and Chinese security officials are not immune to the kind of “worst-case” analysis [that was] frequently demonstrated by the U.S. officials with regard to Soviet strategic missile defense capabilities throughout the Cold War.

Thus …

An understanding that the Iranian ICBM threat is less acute than previously depicted dovetails with the growing realization that U.S. strategic defense capabilities are less robust than previously portrayed. A logical response to these developments would be to suspend the deployment of a new, more advanced … interceptor in the fourth phase of the planned European [missile defense] deployment until the Iranian ICBMs against which it is directed start to materialize.

In fact …

If properly communicated to Moscow and Beijing, such a U.S. policy adjustment … could give Russia and China additional incentives to help restrain Iran’s missile program. It could also open a pathway to progress in negotiating further reductions in Russia’s excessive strategic nuclear forces and reduce the likelihood that China will substantially increase its long-range ballistic missile forces.

In other words, if the United States backed off on missile defense, it might increase Russia and China’s cooperation — setting aside for the moment that it’s in the service of a pitiless sanctions regiment — with us on Iran. As it stands now, a toxic byproduct of our obsession with Iran’s nuclear program is the increased chance of nuclear war with Russia and China.

When it comes to nuclear weapons, you have to keep your eye on the ball.

Escape From Ignorance and Chalga (Part 1)

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

Vihar Krastev

Vihar Krastev

There is a joke in Bulgaria. What are the two ways out of the current crisis?

Terminal One and Terminal Two.

Those would be, of course, the terminals at the Sofia airport. An enormous number of people have left Bulgaria since 1989. Over the last quarter century or so, the population dropped from approximately 9 million to approximately 7.3 million people. Some of the population reduction is the result of a low birthrate. But the rest just left.

In 2011, Bulgaria earned the dubious distinction of topping the list of the world’s most rapidly shrinking countries.

This outmigration is often referred to as a “brain drain,” though many people who have remained in Bulgaria naturally bristle at this phrase.

Vihar Krastev is one of the many people who left Bulgaria in the 1990s. He’s also part of the more recent and more modest wave of returnees. Not long ago, he retired from his job in Canada and now lives in a lovely house in the hills above the port of Varna, on the Black Sea. The house is filled with the beautiful weavings of his partner, Yassena Yurekchieva.

I met Vihar in 1990 when he was working at an opposition newspaper called Vek 21 (21st Century) which was affiliated with the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF), the coalition of opposition groups. At the time he was quite enthusiastic about the changes and was optimistic about how quickly Bulgaria could be turned into a westernized country. He was also about to take his first trip to the United States, to attend a journalism seminar at Tufts.

A couple decades later, he looks back at that period with no small amount of bemusement and honest self-criticism. “If I have to be more honest: some of us including myself — and I don’t know if I said this in my first interview — were in favor of shock therapy. I knew nothing about economy, about shock therapy! I must have been influenced by the Polish experience: what Walesa was talking about, the Polish leading experts. I must have been a parrot who heard something and said, ‘Oh, wow, why not?’ That’s an example of my own stupidity, ignorance, and incompetence. And that’s how the UDF lost their position with society, and that’s how people started disliking the opposition.”

Vihar Krastev has been through a lot. When I met him in 1990, I didn’t know about all the twists and turns his life had taken before he landed at Vek 21. And, of course, I could know nothing about all the subsequent snakes and ladders he would traverse after 1990. It is a powerful story, and I am grateful that he sat down for two hours in Varna to relate it to me. Below this, I’ve also reproduced our discussion from 1990.

Interview (2012)

Do you remember where you were when the Berlin Wall fell and what you were thinking?

I remember when I heard the news about the Berlin Wall being stormed and when it fell and when Berlin was no longer divided. I was driving a city transit bus along the streets of Sofia. During its last 2-3 years, the socialist-communist regime banned me from being a teacher or a journalist, jobs which I used to have. I couldn’t do anything except be a menial worker, which I did not mind, because I could talk to people.

It wasn’t a shock because I’d read about the Prague Spring, and in Bulgaria we had the Ecoglasnost movement in my native city of Russe where people were disgruntled with local policy and the thoughtless, irresponsible industrialization of both Bulgaria and Romania. So I knew that things were in the air. And we knew that in Moscow the regime was crumbling. With Reaganomics, it was clear that communism wouldn’t survive. It was clear in my mind back in 1989 that it would not be long before our wall – we didn’t have a real wall, just an imaginary wall — would fall too. It happened a little sooner than I expected. I thought it would be within one year, and it happened within a few weeks.

Did you think about what the impact would be for Bulgaria?

I did. I have to admit that there were a couple of things that I could not envision — because I was not at that time, being 22 years younger, as familiar with human nature as I am now. I knew that liberalism and liberal values were somehow vague and ill-defined, and different people view liberalism differently. And liberalism comes with different adjectives: like “welfare” and “social.” In Canada, they even had a liberal-conservative party, which is an oxymoron, but it existed. So, I was expecting that there would be some confusion in Bulgaria about the values of liberalism, and free society, and less state involvement in our lives. But I had no idea that people would feel so excessively unrestricted as to disregard the law and to disregard decency, and that there would be so much loose behavior. Yes, we have natural rights and liberties and that’s great and the sooner we have it, the better. But we still have our responsibilities at the same time.

My first awakening was the night of August 11, 1990 when the former party headquarters was set on fire. I was there….

I think I saw you there. I was there as well that night. We met again in the crowd.

As a journalist, I was running all over the place that night. Then I realized that the police were not there and that nobody feared the police any more. What I didn’t realize when the Berlin Wall fell — during that beautiful autumn when the Berlin Wall fell and made the fall even more beautiful — was that once the fear disappears, society cuts loose. Crime becomes rampant, and there’s chaos. The inherent qualities of human nature — greed, selfishness — had been more or less subdued during the authoritarian regime. Not even half a year later, there was no fear of God, because religion was exterminated in this country and this part of the world. There was no fear of government, because it was a government-less country. There was no fear of the police and no fear of the law, because there was no concept of the rule of law. There was no mechanism to control the rampant horrible qualities of human nature.

I was much more optimistic about the change. I was part of the effort to educate people about the free market economy and competition and the John Stuart Mills idea that the government should not interfere apart from preventing people from harming other people (with the one possible exception of economic competition where I can hurt you because I am better in fair competition). I thought this would happen quicker with the shock economy. I thought it would be a couple of years. But I had not anticipated, in the very first couple of weeks and months in this exhilarating expectation of faster change, I had not envisaged the tax evasion, the incompetent bureaucracy, the incompetent leadership. The failures of the transition in my view are due to incompetent managerial skills on behalf of every government that has been in power since 1989. I expected things to happen faster and in a better way. I was very quickly disappointed. That’s one of the reasons why I didn’t want to stay here.

Was there a moment when you were in university or before when you thought, “I am out of touch with the dominant politics of this society. I consider myself either a liberal or a dissident.”

There was a long period of such moments, starting in 1968 when I was 14. I was accepted at my mother’s request or insistence — she kind of begged me – into an English-language school in Russe. I knew that she wanted a better future for me. I was her only son. She knew from coworkers about this English-language school. At 14, I loved playing in the streets. I was not an excellent student by any standard. I read a lot, and I had an inquisitive mind. But I didn’t like the way things were taught at school. I wasn’t liked by my teachers, particularly in the “propaganda” subjects in the socialist curriculum like literature, where they teach you about socialist realism and the proletariat and the proletariat poets, which is bullshit, pardon my French. It wasn’t poetry. It was just about praising the workers and the working class. It was a misinterpretation of Marx, because Marx’s philosophy is not communist propaganda if you read it properly and you don’t misinterpret the economics of Marx.

Even then I had my misgivings about the world I was living in. I did not want to go to this English language school. The foreign language schools, English or French or German, were set up in mid to late 1960s throughout Bulgaria. They were elitist schools for the offspring of the communist nomenklatura, the idea being that they should learn languages and then go on to become diplomats and/or KGB spies.

The instruction there was way better, and you had more open horizons. I learned a lot from my British and American teachers. It changed my whole perspective on society. When I went to that school, I felt that the world outside was no longer my world any more. But inside the school, most of my classmates were the offspring of very special people, while my mother was an ordinary office worker in the employ of the national railroads, a working person. I didn’t belong in their society. Ever since I was 14, I felt like a tree without roots. I didn’t belong anywhere. I knew differently — not more — about the world outside of school. But at the same time, that clique of people who were my mates at school was not really and entirely my sort of people.

Come to think of it, that was basically the beginning of the end. What happened in 1989 was basically sowed in the 1960s, because the nomenklatura educated the people who were to subvert their own system. Their own children, by learning from English or foreign teachers and reading in foreign languages and listening to The Beatles and to the British invasion, were the ones who said, “We don’t want to live in this world anymore. We don’t want to represent our nomenklatura parents abroad. We want to change this world.” Most of the active people in the velvet revolutions, or whatever you want to call them in our countries, were the graduates of foreign language schools.

Then, after I graduated from university, I went to teach. I didn’t like teaching. I taught between 1980 and 1982, that’s how much I liked it! You were not required to be a good teacher. You were required to be strict and to be a good brainwasher. The other teachers were accustomed to this or didn’t want to resist, while I did. I introduced certain novelties in the schools where I taught. For instance, I refused to allow the students to call me Comrade Krastev. “If I call you by your first names,” I told them, “you should call me Vihar or Vic. And if you insist on calling me comrade, then I’ll have to call you Miss or Mister.” They couldn’t believe it!

I did two lessons in class and then the third time, I would take them out of the classroom – to a movie in English with subtitles. Or I would take them to a café. I talked to the waiters beforehand and said, “I’ll bring a group of people who don’t know much English if any, but I want you to talk to them only in English.” That really motivated the kids. They were trying to learn. It was a practical application of their limited knowledge of the English language. None of them was going to become an English teacher. They were going to be accountants or chemists. The other teachers didn’t like that. It was revolutionary. “Why are you taking kids out of the school?” they asked. “Who allowed you to do that?”

I was more liberal with grades. I gave them all As one semester. Then, at the beginning of the next semester, there was a teacher’s conference, and other teachers said in a bitter tone, “How could you have given all the girls As?” They were implying that maybe I had more than a teacher-student relationship with them. I said, “Come on, they will never know English as much as a teacher will. I’m not teaching English linguistics. They will never teach English themselves. It’s about the willingness to learn, with or without mistakes. I’m not judging their errors. I’m judging their efforts. I believe all teachers should be like that.”

We had these ideological subjects, like the history of the communist party of Bulgaria. And the way that history was taught in school, it was very nationalistic: Bulgaria versus everyone else. “There was the Russo-Turkish war, and Bulgarians were liberated, then the Turks were animals and we won, and then we won over the Serbs, and then we own Macedonia and the Macedonians, and then we beat the Romanians….” Balkan people still live in the past. They still hate each other. Like most of southern Europe, we still live with what happened in the past. We should forget about that. We should even forget about 1989 and the sooner the better. We should pay attention to what’s in front of us. Going back is not only painful, it’s counterproductive in my view. Here, when people look back, they look back in anger, with more anger than normal.

I couldn’t survive in teaching, so I became a journalist wannabe. I was working for the national TV’s local affiliate in Russe. Whatever you did in those days, even writing the local weather forecast, you had to give it to the censor – the communist party secretary — to read it. And s/he’d say, “You can’t say it’s too bright for tomorrow. It can’t be too gloomy either. It has to be just right.” It was horrible.

In the early 1980s, Solidarity emerged and grew in Poland. I began writing about it. Solidarity was, I felt, the promise of the future.

You were writing about Solidarity for the TV station in Russe in the 1980s?!

Yes, I was trying to. And for certain newspapers as well. I was about 30 years old. That wasn’t accepted very well. You couldn’t talk or write favorably about Solidarity. So I left Russe and went to Sofia. I wouldn’t have lived much longer if I kept praising Solidarity — not just Solidarity, but the winds of change, the need for “socialism with a human face,” as we called it back then. No, I was not allowed to do that. That’s why I wasted two years being the manager of pop singers.

Why do you say that you wasted that time?

It was stifling the way pop culture was used and abused, the way some of the singers and entertainers were forced to sing about socialism. They were given lyrics to make a song. It wasn’t conducive to their personal development as creators and songwriters and lyricists. They were kept on a short leash. That’s why some of the better and smarter entertainers left the country and went to work abroad. But the “creative intelligentsia” as they were called could make lots of money if they stayed and glorified the communist regime or painted pictures that were approved as socialist realism — with a factory worker next to a person from the fields, the sickle and the hammer. If they did that, the regime paid a lot of money and gave them all the goodies they wanted.

That’s why it was a waste of time for me. It wasn’t developing the culture or the aesthetics or the good taste of the young generation through the music we created or performed at concerts. I felt guilty at times. Those teenagers who crowded the concert halls were hungry for music, for entertainment, like all young kids. But we didn’t give them really good music. Most of the “hits” from back then have faded and are forgotten now. We did not produce a smart generation through the Bulgarian music of that time. That’s why Tangra and many other bands left — they couldn’t take it either. On top of that, which was the worst part, the Bulgarian version of Stasi was spying on this sector. That German movie, The Lives of Others, you’ve seen that? That tells you everything. Everyone who was in this field of writing or journalism or music or creativity would think, “I don’t know which person in this room will be telling things tomorrow.”

Who were you working for at that time?

I worked from 1984 to 1986 with twin male singers who were very popular at the time: Bratya Argiroivi (the Argirov Brothers duet). They were from Plovdiv. If you ask anyone from Plovdiv, anyone in their 40s, they’ll know this duo.

After that, I had different jobs here and there, like writing scripts for concerts to glorify the achievements of communism. I was good at it, and they paid me good money. I also worked for those large communist enterprises. They had a house of culture where workers would be entertained in the way that increased their feeling of belonging to the working class. That was an easy job to make money from.

I also worked with a folk dance ensemble that had an exchange with a volunteer folk dance club in Scandinavia. Every summer, the Scandinavians would pay to go to a particular country and specialize in the local folk dance tradition there. They came here in the summer of 1986 for a month to learn from Bulgarian folk dancers and choreographers. I was attached to the Scandinavians as their interpreter and to organize their accommodations. We toured the country.

Right after that, I was accused of being too close to the foreigners. They wanted you to work with the foreigners, but they didn’t want you to commit to them; they wanted you to be their host, but at the same time “keep your distance because they come from Scandinavia, they’re capitalists, some of them must be spies.”

In the autumn of the same year, after the Scandinavians were here, the Bulgarian folk dancers were invited to Scandinavia and I was supposed to go with them. But guess what: I was not given a passport. Freedom of movement didn’t exist back then. Even worse: I was born in Russe and I was supposed to live in Russe. Instead, I was unlawfully residing in Sofia. Nobody could live anywhere without the permission of the Communist regime. Also, travel abroad required a special passport, which I did not get — because I was told that I was suspicious and too fond of being with foreigners. They said, “We can’t risk sending you out because you probably won’t return.” That was probably September 1986 when I realized that I was not particularly liked by the regime. It might also have been the previous sin of writing about Solidarity.

Or it may have been an even earlier incident that took place in our graduating year at the English language school in Russe. Back then we were studying shorthand. At the end of the school year, we were sent to the capital city for two weeks to practice shorthand at the National Assembly and the National Radio. We watched shorthand stenographers to see how shorthand is done. On the last day, we were to travel back by train at night, and the day was given to us to enjoy in Sofia, to visit friends, relatives.

Four of us got together and wandered around downtown. The American embassy in those days was in downtown Sofia, next to the Central Bank, in a very old building. You walked along the street and in the window of the embassy you saw lots of pictures. This was June 1973. We stopped outside to look at those pictures of American reality, Apollo rockets and so on. And there was a sign that said in English and Bulgarian that the library of the embassy was open to all citizens. Curious as we were, we walked through the door. The library was in the very first hall behind the entrance doors. You didn’t even have to penetrate the embassy any further than the hallway to enter this small library. We looked at some poetry, some magazines. We spent less than an hour in there. We were kids, 18-year-olds. We talked to the Bulgarian librarian. We approached her because we were wondering whether she spoke English or Bulgarian. We were very proud of our English after four years of study. But it was rudimentary, really. We didn’t know any English at all. But when you’re young, you think you know everything.

We walked out. We were joking about maybe being taped and how do we look on camera, and so on. We walked less than a block. There was a traffic light that was red. As we waited for the light, a gentleman came up behind us and grabbed us from behind. When the light became green, we crossed the street together. It was so unbelievable. He sort of hid us in the corner of the building across the street. So, we were in the street, people passed by, but nobody realized that something was happening to us.

This person started to ask questions: “Why did you go to the embassy? You can’t go to the embassy.”

“Why not?”

“It’s the American embassy, you can’t do that.”

“But it says the library is open, it says you can do that.”

“Where did you go? Who did you talk to? Who did you meet? Who told you to go in there?”

“No one,” I told him. “I looked at this magazine, this book, I read about Apollo.”

“Let me see your IDs.”

The other three kids were either too smart or much smarter than I. They didn’t produce IDs. Back then we didn’t have ID cards. We had this funny booklet called an internal passport. I had it on me and showed it to him. The other three said they didn’t have it. I loved those guys dearly, we grew up together from 14 to 18. But all of them had fathers in the nomenklatura, I was the only one who was different. They did not antagonize me. They did not treat me as though I was different. They respected me. At that age, you mix. You’re not really aware of those caste differences, so inherently typical of socialism, that one probably enjoys later. But I felt different. I knew their parents would come in limousines for parents’ meetings. And that proved to be a critical point.

When we went back to our city a week later, we started to be called to the state security, like the Stasi. And we had to repeat the story over and over again. Eventually, the question was asked, “Who gave the idea to walk into the embassy?” And guess what: I was pointed to as the instigator.

Now, I’ve thought about it a lot, and it must have been this 1973 juvenile sin of walking into the American embassy. And then the 1983-4 sympathy for the Solidarity movement, and then this Scandinavian affair…

Was there any punishment associated with that visit to the embassy?

No. There was just a stern warning that we should never do such a thing again. There was no immediate punishment in terms of the legal system. But if you think of the methods of the communist regime, the punishment is that you don’t have any future any more. It’s a long-term punishment. Technically, you are not given a verdict. But you are deprived of a normal future. If I had attempted to study anything other than linguistics, I wouldn’t have been allowed. If I tried to travel abroad, I wouldn’t be allowed. In 1986, the Scandinavians were very pleased with the time they spent here. They insisted that I accompany the Bulgarian group on the trip to Scandinavia. They were so insistent that they wanted to cancel the trip if I couldn’t accompany them. Which made it even worse for the police: “Oh really, so that’s how important you are for them? They insisted that you have to go?” Maybe they drew the conclusion that the Scandinavians wanted me there to keep me there.

There’s an old saying: the snake bites worst when it feels that it’s dying. That was the communist regime in its last years. From the late 1970s to the collapse, those were the worst years of the state security. The events inThe Lives of Others movie took place during the same period – 1980s. They were feeling the end coming.

That happened in September 1986. I knew that I was doomed. I didn’t want to even go back and work for this cultural house. At that time, friends of mine who worked for an interpretation bureau called me and said they needed someone for 45 days. There was an American exhibit coming to Bulgaria under an agreement between the State Department and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with a Bulgarian exhibit also going to Washington. They needed someone available for 45 days to help the American manager of the exhibit as a personal assistant. For me that was wonderful. We came here to Varna in mid-October and stayed until the end of November.

I became very close with Richard Browne, the American exhibit director, who became a very good friend of mine. But I was accused again of being too close to foreigners. It was an American this time, so even worse. There was a break for the New Year, and then the exhibit was supposed to move from Varna to Sofia to reopen in February. But I was called in and told that I was not going to work with the exhibit. Actually, I was told that I couldn’t work on anything else. I was to be put on a bus and sent to Austria. I refused to do that. The other option was to have my family interned in a very small village on the Turkish-Bulgarian border. I checked: there were fewer than a 100 elderly people living in that place, with no school and no jobs. I was in my early 30s. My daughter was about nine years old. My wife was 30.

I said, “What are we going to do there? There’s no school there, there’s nothing. You’re sending me there basically to die.”

They said, “If you don’t like communism, you do whatever you want there.”

I said, “I can’t live there. If you want to kill me, do that, but don’t kill my family. Really, isn’t there something else I can do here?”

That was my first actual punishment — to answer your earlier question. They told me that I couldn’t work as an interpreter, a teacher, an editor, an intellectual, anything. They told me I could do any menial labor that allows people who are not officially residents of Sofia to work in Sofia due to the deficiency of menial laborers. “If you find a job like that,” they said, “we’ll allow you to be in Sofia.”

Militiamen were coming to the house each morning, early, waking up the family. My daughter would be horrified and would be crying. Everyone would be scared. They brought me to the 6th precinct where there was a bad cop and a good cop.

The bad copy would yell at me and say, “You’re in trouble now, really in trouble, you’re a traitor, you betrayed us. You have to sign this document that you’ll never talk to a foreigner again.”

I said, “Come on, you’ll send someone tomorrow to ask me the time in English, and someone else will see this person talking to me and then you’ll accuse me of talking to foreigners. I’m not signing anything.”

As things got desperate, the “good cop” came in and said, “Hey, he’s a good guy. Let me try. Hey son, what have you done, why are they torturing you?”

Eventually, this good cop says, “Go find a job, and let me know when you get one.”

I went out and saw this advertisement for a training course to operate electric trolleybuses in Sofia. It was probably in the middle of the week, and the ad said that there would be a training course starting the following Monday. I went to the HR hiring office. They said, “We never had a university graduate come for training. Wonderful! Come on Monday morning for the training.”

Stupid as I was, when I found this new job driving a trolleybus, I called back the “good cop” and told him that I had found this job starting Monday morning. “Excellent,” he said, “Good luck, go ahead.”

On Monday morning, there were about 15 of us. They led us to a training room. As we are entering the room, a lady pulls me to the side and says, “Unfortunately you can’t start your training today.”

“Why not?”

“I didn’t realize that you’re not a resident of Sofia.”

“But I told you this. I gave you my documents.”

“Yes, but I overlooked this. Unless you go back to your native city and get permission from the local committee of the Communist Party, you cannot start the course.”

“How about if I go to Russe today and get the permission and come back tomorrow morning?”

“Well, no, then you’ll have missed the day of training.”

Obviously they received a call. The security police were trying to force me into a corner. Even worse, they sent over to my house a classmate of mine, probably my closest friend. His father was a traffic police officer — police is police, right? – and this person was probably helped by his father to get a job with state security. They sent him to conduct surveillance on me and to talk with me. If I confessed that I had done a crime against the state, that I had been an American spy or collaborator, he told me, then they would be merciful. “We’ve been good friends,” I told him, “but if you come to my door to talk like this, I don’t want to see you any more.”

Did you ever find out what happened to him?

I’ve heard from other classmates that he left the Stasi police after 1990. He was married to a Russian woman. It was an advantage to marry a Russian if you worked for state security: they’d give you large apartment, a better job. He left the secret police and I heard from someone else that he started an import-export business with Scandinavian partners.

So, they didn’t let me drive the trolley bus. That same day, when they turned me away from the course, I was walking home and I was desperate. I didn’t call this “good cop”. I was passing by a streetcar depot. I saw at the entrance of the garage that they were hiring people to work night shifts fixing the brakes on the streetcars. I went in and asked if I could start. They said, “Sure, tonight!” So I started. Several days later, I called the guy at the police station and said that I’d been working for three days. And he said, “Why didn’t you call me?” Because I didn’t want to call you! I worked there about two months every night fixing the brakes of streetcars.

Something you learned on the job!

It’s not difficult. You just replace the disks. It’s a tough job, but it’s not difficult to learn. It’s not brain surgery. Two months later there was a training course for bus drivers. Being in the system of the transit corporation, I just moved to that. And I learned to drive a bus. From the spring of 1987 to late December of 1989, I drove busses.

You mentioned that you were part of a blockade.

In December 1989, I was the leading force organizing a strike. We bus drivers went on strike. We were joined by other city transit workers. The transit in Sofia stopped for about four or five business days.

The specific demand was….?

The specific demand was better salaries, better working conditions, and better social benefits. But it was clearly a political strike, because it happened in December when events were brewing and the Union of Democratic Forces was being formed. I assume that this enhanced the development of all those events. That was in late December, early January 1989. And then days after that I went back to journalism, toDemokratsia and Vek 21.

End Part 1.

The In Amenas Fiasco Throws Cold Water on the Algeria-U.S.-France Love Fest (Part Two)

Read Part 1.

“There are two kinds of history – the official kind, full of lies, which is taught in schools – history ad usum delphini; and there is secret history – in which we learn the real causes of events – a shameful chronicle.”
Les Illusions Perdues, Balzac

Mali: New Front of the War on Terrorism

No doubt the attack on the In-Amenas oil and gas facility in the Algerian Sahara is related to the events in Mali, where France has just landed troops in an effort to dislarge the Islamic militants who have taken over Mali’s northern regions. What are the pretexts, the deeper logic of the French Malian intervention? One would think that people wouldn’t fall for it yet again: ‘We’re just sending the troops to protect innocent lives and support democracy’ – humanitarian interventionalism. Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya.

Now add Mali to the list.

But once again, it works like a charm, long enough at least to get French troops on the ground in Mali from whence it will difficult to extract them for some time. It helps to have a weak UN Security Council resolution a la Libya which doesn’t condone sending troops but is vague enough to give a thin veil of legitimacy – the suggestion of international law at work – to cover war crimes. Combine that with some wacko Salafist radicals, a vital element in the mix, who destroy Sufi shrines and rough up women, forcing them, veiled, back in the kitchen without music on the radio and the combustible mix is complete.

Enter French President Francois Hollande, his popularity sagging at home as the French socio-economic crisis deepens. Lying with a straight face, Hollande told his nation and the world that by sending French troops to Mali with jet fighter cover that “France has no other purpose than to fight terrorism.” France only wants to help Mali ‘recover its territorial integrity’ and make sure there are “legitimate authorities and an electoral process.”

Touching.

It plays well in Paris where the Mali diversion works to make a weak and confused French president look strong and determined. The call for a French-led, secular jihad to counter an exaggerated Islamic jihad gets the French public singing La Marseillaise! in unison. If the United States led the charge in opening the first front on the War on Terrorism, France, where Islamophobia has a long and esteemed history, can provide the shock troops for the second front, the Sahara. French military intervention plays well in Washington too.

The Obama Administration has been unable, until now, to pressure its choice strategic ally, Algeria, to enter the Malian fray. With its eye on an Asian-Pacific military buildup, Washington itself is unwilling to send U.S. troops (other than some Special Forces types we have to assume are involved) to Mali. Hollande’s willingness to act as the Sahara’s Netanyahu suits the Obama Administration and its likely new Defense Secretary, Chuck Hagel.

Hollande’s Song

Missing from Hollande’s ‘We-only-want-to- help-out-the-poor-Malian-people’ scenario is France’s sorry history in post-colonial history of shamelessly supporting some of the worst African dictators in exchange for economic access, its complicity in the Rwandan genocide of 1994 and its specific historic interest going back to the 1890s to control the Sahara and its extraordinary wealth in oil, natural gas, uranium, gold and other natural resources.

The French even have a term for it: ‘Francafrique‘. Some French commentators speak of the French military incursion into Mali as the ‘return of Francafrique’, a bit misleading, as, since the independence wave of the 1960s, France never left Africa. Its neo-colonial relationship with its former colonies is an unbroken chain of cynical economic deals lubricated by massive corruption of its African client elites.

To understand the French intervention in Mali, it helps to take Hollande’s words and rework them a bit to ‘France is intervening in Mali to protect the extensive French economic interests in the region – oil, natural gas, uranium and gold’. These interests, both those in full operation and those yet to come extend across the Sahara in Chad, Niger, Mali, Algeria and Mauritania. For example. although uranium is not yet mined in Mali, it is mined in nearby northern Niger by Areva, one of the world’s largest uranium mining companies, French owned. The French get most of the profits and benefits thereof. The Sahara locals wind up with little more than polluted water tables and piles of radioactive tailings.

Pre-empting the Spectre of Chinese Influence

Under the surface, beneath the French song about promoting liberté, égalité, and fraternité in Mali with French Special Forces troops and Mirage jet fighters, one notices ‘un certain nervosite’. Yep, the French power circles are getting the shakes over the instability in Mali. The fear, like most paranoia, is vague, and while not totally imaginary, it is grossly exaggerated.

No, it is not the Algerian-trained (by the DRS) Saharan Islamicists that strike fear into the heart of the French elite…small potatoes. It’s China! Of course. Uncertainty over how the situation might play out throughout the Sahara region is at the source of French concern. Political changes in the region could jeopardize France’s sizeable uranium, petro-chemical and other strategic raw material access. For a country in which 70% of electrical power comes from nuclear power, and most of the uranium to run it comes from the Sahara, this is serious.

If this part of the scenario is accurate then there is another way to consider French military actions in Mali: little more than a pre-emptive, defensive military maneuver meant to keep China out of Mali (and Niger and Chad among other places) and for France to retain its access to the Saharan wealth on which it depends.

While uranium has not been mined yet in Mali (or in Chad), surveys done by the French in the 1950s located significant potential sources of the stuff there. Geologists also claim there could be yet more Saharan oil and natural gas throughout the Sahara region from Mauritania to the Sudan, much of which – including Mauretania, Mali, Niger and Chad – has yet to be unearthed.

But for the people of the Sahara, the French-created Saharan national boundaries mean little. Where Mali ends and Niger begins is not found on the Tuareg mental map of the region they have lived in for several thousand years. The French fear that the instability in Mali could spill over into Niger, where France has several major uranium mine, with another one about to open for business. Perhaps this gives some insights as to why France has concentrated virtually all of its African military bases in Africa, either in, or within striking distance of the Sahara. One should expect that one outcome of the current French military campaign in Mali is another permanent base somewhere, perhaps between Timbuctou and Gao, north of the Niger River.

Some Historical Considerations

Hollande’s ‘solidarity’ with Mali, his eagerness to send French troops there, is merely the latest episode in France’s 125-year effort to gain control the Sahara belt countries from the Atlantic to the Red Sea, an effort in which they were only partially successful.

French conquest of the Sahara began badly. The first mission, the so-called Flatters Mission, taken in 1881 from Algeria, was entirely wiped out by Tuareg bands. Others would proceed only with difficulty. It would take the French nearly twenty years to recover and reconvene its Sahara thrust eastward. The French march to the Red Sea was again stopped at Fashoda in 1898 when the French offensive ran into British troops which it wisely decided not to confront militarily.

The decisive military confrontation that gave France control of the rest of the Sahara took place shortly after, in 1902. A French military contingent under Lieutenant Cottenest wiped out a band of 300 Tuareg fighters in the Ahaggar region (in the Sahara by the current Algerian-Libyan border) .

There were other setbacks. Early 20th-century attempts to dominate the Fezzan (Western Libya) were checked first by the Italians and later after World War II by combined U.S. and British pressure which expelled their military missions from Libya. France had hoped to annex this region to Algeria. Shortly thereafter, in the early 1950s, oil was discovered there.

French military activity in Mali, as part of a larger plan to dominate the region and its resources, is nothing new. Twice in the 20th century, France considered creating something of an independent Saharan political unit, under French control of course first during World War One, and later, a more serious attempt in the 1950s.

The first campaign to create a ‘French Sahara’ was led by a French priest, one Father Charles de Foucauld, assassinated in Tamanrasset (in the Algerian Sahara) in December, 1916. Foucauld’s vision, which had some support in French circles of power, was to create an ethnic state, what he referred to as a ‘pan-Tuareg’ political entity in the Sahara that would cut the Algerian Sahara off from the northern part of the country, isolating the Arab North from sub-Saharan Black Africa.

Following the racist logic of French colonialism, Foucauld believed that the Tuaregs, an offshot of the Berbers, were racially close to Europeans, superior to the Arabs who represented a kind of second rung of humanity. Black Africans, whom Foucauld considered virtually ineducable, were at the bottom of his racial pyramid. According to his thinking Foucauld hoped to create an ethnically pure Tuareg Sahara that would be closely linked to France culturally and economically.

These ideas were clearly expressed in one of Foucauld’s many letters to members of the French parliament:

“How can we civilize our African empire?” he asks, the ‘burning question’ of the pre-WW I years. “Doubtless it consists of variable elements: Berbers (the Tuareg) capable of rapid progress, Arabs slow to progress. The diverse Black populations, by themselves, cannot achieve civilized status, but all should advance to the degree capable.”1

How generous and liberal a spirit!

Although Foucauld’s ideas never materialized into an all-Saharan entity that would rip off the Algerian Sahara and combine it with French colonized Saharan areas of Chad, Niger and Mali, his program resonated among certain pro-colonial and mining circles in the French Parliament, and like a phoenix these ideas would rise from oblivion in the early 1950s.

At that time the French government proposed what is referred to as “l’Organisation commune des regions sahariennes” (the Common – or Combined – Organization of Sahara Regions), its acronym – OCSR. The OCSR created a series of bureaucracies to research the region’s mineral wealth, to administer the region, to set up a communications network. It was a serious endeavor that went much further than Foucauld’s less practical colonial vision.

The Sahara and the Algerian War for Independence: 1954-1962

Not much has been written about the fact that the French had started secretly negotiating with the Algerian rebels – the FLN (Front de la liberations nationale) – as early as 1956 and that even at this early date, the French offered the Algerians a modicum of independence; but it was a truncated independence that Paris was willing to concede, one which granted independence to Algeria essentially north of the Atlas Mountains with France retaining control of the Algerian Sahara.

What figured large into the French plan was the fact that oil, oil in very large quantities, was discovered in 1956 in the Sahara. France thought of that oil as its own and was unwilling to part with it. The Algerians, for their part, were unwilling to accept a truncated independence. One probable reason for the utter ferocity of the independence war both by the French and Algerians was that oil-related economic stakes were so high.

France hoped to sever the Algerian Sahara from the north and connect it in a vast industrial, communication network zone that it would control that would be spread out over much of the region, which during the colonial period was known as French Sudan. At independence in 1960, that region would become four independent countries – from west to east: Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad. The economic integration of the Sahara itself was a part of a larger plan to link the former French colonies by roads, railway from the Congo Brazzaville further south with metropolitan France.2

In the postwar decade from 1945-1955, the region had been heavily surveyed by French geologists and geographers whose reports – still valid today – gave indications and hints of vast as yet untapped mineral and petro-chemical wealth that France was anxious to dominate. While the OCSR would formally recognize the independence of these countries, the program, a classic neo-colonial venture, was based on effective French economic, political and military control of this vast region.

Financial backing for such a large undertaking, considered essential for France’s future energy and economic security, were undertaken. There was considerable support for the idea in the French parliament and in the ruling circles in general. Much organizational infrastructure for the project, the political reorganization of the region, some infrastructural development was already underway even before 1960.

However, Algerian resistance combined with French inability to get all the newly independent political players on board stymied the formal implementation of the plan. The loss of the Algerian Sahara, a key element, made the plan unworkable in the form France had envisioned.
But France has never given up on the idea of a French-controlled Sahara zone. Unable to formally undertake the program, Paris has for the past half century, largely successfully one might add, attempted to implement the OCSR informally and that has worked better. France’s Mali military mission is little more than the latest attempt to follow through, slightly revised, of these earlier efforts to control the Sahara and its resources.

1. My translation from Andre Bourgeot. “Sahara: espace geostrategique et enjeux politiques (Niger)” Autrepart (16) 2000L 21-48. I am indebted to this author for many of the insights cited in this last section of this entry

2. Ibid

Links:

Immanuel Wallerstein. The Very Risky Bet of Hollande in Mali: The Probable Long Term Disaster.

John Pilger. The Real Invasion of Africa and Other Not-Made-For-Hollywood-Holy-Wars.

Rob Prince is a Lecturer of International Studies at the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies and publisher of the Colorado Progressive Jewish News.

Republicans Use Border Control to Obstruct Immigration Reform

On Tuesday, President Obama addressed the issues surrounding immigration reform and what he would like to see accomplished. The address came on the heels of a meeting of the bipartisan Senatorial “Gang of Eight,” which includes John McCain and Marco Rubio. There is bipartisan consensus on the need for reform, but policymakers have varying opinions on how to tackle the status of the immigrants themselves.

Obama proposes swift reform to lead the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants on a direct path to citizenship—placing the issue of immigrant status over border control. However, the Gang outlines a plan making any reform contingent upon strictly enforced border control measures. Reform supporter Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) believes that the standard set to first control the border is an impossible one. “At what point is it secure?” he asks.

Conservative and liberal media alike highlight the opposition of the president to any provision linking citizenship to a “secure” border. Despite bipartisan efforts, divisions between the two parties could hinder any resolution on future reform, with Republicans opting for border control legislation before anything else.

Sen. Marc Rubio (R-FL) spoke with Fox News Tuesday, clearly standing his ground: “If the [border enforcement] is not in place,” he said, “I won’t support it.” While his sentiment mirrors that of many conservatives, Obama stands just as firm in his position: “If Congress is unable to move forward in a timely fashion, I will send up a bill based on my proposal, and insist that they vote on it right away.”

Although the bipartisan efforts of these eight senators can be applauded, the likelihood of any swift legislation being passed is slim. Democrats and Republicans stand behind party lines—just as they have in the past—putting politics over people.

Renee Lott is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.

Salvadoran Gang Leaders Achieve a Measure of Redemption

Experts traveled to El Salvador to gain insight into how a truce between the gangs Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 led to a marked decrease in violence.

In recent years, El Salvador, like many of its Latin American counterparts, has witnessed an explosion in violence. The contentious fighting between two of the country’s biggest gangs, Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18, is largely responsible for fueling much of the carnage.

Both of these gangs trace their roots to poor neighborhoods in Los Angeles where young, marginalized Latin American immigrants clustered together to form them. When the United States started deporting convicted felons to their native countries, many MS-13 and Barrio 18 members found themselves in countries they hardly knew, including El Salvador. Driven by fear of the unknown and an instinct for survival, they gravitated to the only piece of their past that still remained—the gangs. Today, approximately 20,000 MS-13 and Barrio 18 members populate the streets of El Salvador.

Armed with an arsenal of weapons, including assault-style rifles and grenades, and saddled with a lack of economic opportunity, these gang members proceeded to slaughter each other over arbitrarily designated chunks of territory. That is until last spring, when the gang leaders met in their dungeon-like prisons and decided to enact a truce.

The results of the truce have been nothing short of miraculous. Homicides in the country have decreased by 40 percent, kidnappings have been slashed in half, and extortions have fallen by 10 percent. Hardened gang members, who at times appear to don more ink than skin, accomplished in a matter of weeks what the government failed to do in the past decade—deliver a modicum of peace to El Salvador.

Inspired by the unprecedented events in El Salvador, the Transnational Advisory Group in Support of the Peace Process in El Salvador (TAGPPES)—a coalition of experts in the fields of gang intervention, human rights, post conflict work, and economic development—traveled to the Central American country to better understand the roots of the largely unexpected peace agreement.

What the group found was that despite the strong animosity that existed between the gangs, the yearning for some sense of peaceful normality—the ability to take their kids to school without the fear of getting shot—was stronger.

The group also visited the prisons where some of the gang leaders who brokered the peace were held. The gang leaders, the coalition reported, were often troubled men who had experienced and done terrible things. Their families and friends had been vanquished by the gang war. Many of them had killed, kidnapped, and even tortured their rivals. To many onlookers, the gang leaders appeared devoid of any humanity, which is what made the peace agreement even more remarkable.

But they weren’t devoid of their humanity at all. Despite the darkness of their past and the horrid conditions of their prison cells, the gang leaders still held on to redeeming qualities that shone through their hardened exterior. They wanted a better life for their children and they wanted the opportunity to right some of their wrongs.

“I know I’ve done terrible things,” said one. “I know I’ve thrown my life away. I’m not asking for mercy. I’ll pay for my crimes. All I want is a better life for my children. That is why I agreed to the peace agreement. If I can secure a better future for them, then at least I’ll know my life was not a complete waste.”

Tupac Shakur, who coincidentally is one of the best-known “gangster” rappers, once wrote a short poem entitled, The Rose that Grew from Concrete. The poem is worth quoting at length:

Did you hear about the rose that grew / from a crack in the concrete? / Proving nature’s law is wrong it / learned to walk without having feet. / Funny it seems, but by keeping its dreams, / it learned to breathe fresh air. / Long live the rose that grew from concrete / when no one else ever cared.

If a rose can grow from concrete, then surely peace can emerge from the depths of a dark Salvadorian prison.

Javier Rojo is the New Mexico Fellow at the institute for Policy Studies.

Egyptian Protesters Eat Their Own

Remember the Tahrir Square attack on Lara Logan two years ago while she was covering the demonstrations for CBS News? It seems that women — even protestors — continue to be sexually assaulted. At the Egypt Independent, Tom Dale writes:

A woman was sexually assaulted with a bladed weapon on Friday night, leaving cuts on her genitals, in central Cairo, in the midst of what was purportedly a revolutionary demonstration. … She was one among at least 19 women sexually assaulted in and around Tahrir Square on Friday night, according to accounts collated by Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment, an activist group. … There were other attacks involving bladed weapons. Six women required medical attention. No doubt there were more assaults, uncounted.

To experience the sheer horror of one of these attacks second-hand, read this account at the Nazra for Feminist Studies website. Meanwhile, Dale again:

It is neither my place nor my wish to draw conclusions about “the revolution” from all this: I do not believe that is possible or wise. But I can say that as the familiar chants resonated in the square, the demands for justice, a new government and new constitution, I felt a little sick.

“Tahrir Square,” he writes, “is both a place in which people both demand dignity for themselves and, in some cases, violently strip it from others. … It is not inevitable that Egypt’s revolutionary street politics be undercut by a current of rape.”

Still, there’s a certain inevitability to the emergence of mob mentality. Especially with all the unemployed — and thus un-marriageable — young men in Egypt. Ideally, the perpetrators would be singled out and subjected to some form (not fatal!) of “revolutionary justice.” Still, these crimes can be classified as fallout from not only the Egyptian government’s repressive policies, but its failure to improve the economy. At Time, Tony Karon elaborates on Egypt’s foundering economy.

Youth unemployment, one of the key drivers of the revolutionary upsurge in 2011, continues to grow, with official figures revealing that 25% of economically active [not sure what that means -- RW] people ages 25 to 29, and 41% of those ages 19 to 24, are jobless.

Karon again: “President Mohamed Morsi’s plans to save Egypt’s sinking economy hinge on” — stop me if you’ve heard this one before –

… a $5 billion loan from the IMF [which] can be accessed only on the condition of implementing austerity measures that will bring a sharp spike in the economic pain suffered by millions of impoverished households.

In any event, male Egyptian protesters would do well to remember it’s not their sisters who are oppressing them. Diverting resources to policing their own while at the same time fighting the Egyptian government only slows the advance of their cause and diminishes its integrity.

The Sunday Times of London’s Odd Timing on Controversial Netanyahu Cartoon

The Sunday Times of London’s controversial Netanyahu cartoon highlighted the difficulty many experience differentiating between a political comment and a religious insult.

Netanyahu cartoonBritain’s The Sunday Times featured a controversial cartoon this past Sunday depicting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu building a bloody brick wall on the bodies of trapped, screaming Palestinians with the caption: “Israel elections. Will cementing the peace continue?”

The cartoon—drawn by veteran cartoonist Gerald Scarfe, who often utilizes blood in his work—has garnered the attention of Israeli officials and international Jewish groups who have declared the cartoon “sickening,” “anti-Semitic,” and “grotesque.”

Israel’s ambassador to Britain, Daniel Taub, demanded an apology from the newspaper, stating that “We’re not going to let this stand as it is…We genuinely think that a red line has been crossed and the obligation on the newspaper is to correct that.” Other Israeli officials have also spoken out against the cartoon, such as Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, who wrote, “For me and for other Israelis, this cartoon was reminiscent of the vicious journalism during one of the darkest periods in human history,” and that he was “shocked that such cartoons can be published in such a respectable newspaper in the Great Britain of today.”

Much of the outrage has been in response to the fact that Scarfe’s cartoon was printed on Britain’s Holocaust Memorial Day, which coincides with the International Holocaust Remembrance Day marking the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1945. Scarfe himself has stated he was unaware of the timing and publicly apologized in a statement on his website:

First of all I am not, and never have been, anti-Semitic. The Sunday Times has given me the freedom of speech over the last 46 years to criticise world leaders for what I see as their wrong-doings. This drawing was a criticism of Netanyahu, and not of the Jewish people: there was no slight whatsoever intended against them. I was, however, stupidly completely unaware that it would be printed on Holocaust Day, and I apologise for the very unfortunate timing.

Rupert Murdoch, the conservative media mogul whose company owns the Sunday Times, also publicly tweeted an apology, labeling the cartoon “grotesque” and “offensive,” adding that it “has never reflected the opinions of the Sunday Times.”

Some members of the Jewish community have come to Scarfe’s defense, however, such as Anshel Pfeffer from Haaretz, who listed four reasons why the cartoon “isn’t anti-Semitic in any way: ”first, that it is not directed at Jews; second, that it does not use Holocaust imagery; third, there was no discrimination; and lastly, that “this is not what a blood libel looks like.”

Simon Kelner of The Independent also came to Scarfe’s defense, replying to Murdoch’s tweet:

Of course it’s grotesque. Has he never seen a Scarfe cartoon before? But offensive? I can’t find any impulse, emotionally or intellectually, that causes me to be offended. Does this make me a bad Jew? Maybe it does, but I do think the world would be a better place if people were able to tell the difference between a political comment and a religious insult.

Yet for all the controversy one cannot help but wonder whose decision it actually was to print Scarfe’s cartoon on such a date, especially since it would seem that such a cartoon would have been much more timely—and a lot less offensive—had it been featured the Sunday before Israel’s elections.

Leslie Garvey is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.

Cracks in the Eritrea Edifice

Eritrea President Isaias Afewerki

Eritrea President Isaias Afewerki

The small, isolated African nation of Eritrea has received considerable scrutiny for its secretive and repressive policies since its break from Ethiopia in 1993. The socioeconomic condition of Eritrea is one of the worst in the world, leaving many citizens, including members of the military, disenchanted with President Isaias Afewerki.

This simmering discontent reached a boil last week when rogue soldiers seized the Eritrean Information Ministry, sparking worldwide attention—except within Eritrea itself, which strictly controls the flow of information.

Reports indicate that 100 to 200 dissident soldiers overtook the Ministry of Information and forced a newscaster to deliver a statement on air. Their primary demands included the release of political prisoners as well as the implementation of a constitution drawn up in 1997 that was never enforced.

Cracks are beginning to appear in Afewerki’s dictatorship, and the attempted coup may herald the crumbling of his regime in the near future. What will the impact of this event be on the already deteriorating situation in the country?

Because of the geostrategic location of Eritrea in regards to international shipping routes—particularly for oil—via the Red Sea, the world must pay close attention to what unfolds in the coming months. With tensions on the rise, the unstable Horn of Africa could be further engulfed in strife, only worsening the plight of Eritrea’s people.

But would-be interventionists should stay their hand.

For years, Eritrea funded and armed Somali militants, including the terrorist group al-Shabaab, though its support for the group appears to have waned in recent years. But with tensions now on the brink of exploding, any interference from the outside could lead Eritrea to resume its funding of al-Shabaab. The resulting escalation of violence in Somalia could well spawn a new quagmire altogether.

There are few details regarding the events that unfolded last Monday, but in an update from TIME, it was reported that the Information Ministry was off the air for an entire day—contrary to initial reports that it was off for only a few hours. For the members of the Eritrean diaspora, any news from the country is a breath of fresh air. Although a few officials “hinted” that something happened on January 21, the government did not respond to requests for information from TIME.

Renee Lott is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.

Serbia’s Strategic Ambiguity and the EU

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

Srdjan Majstorovic

Srdjan Majstorovic

Serbia this week adopted new guidelines for its talks with Kosovo. As usual, the Serbian parliament declared that it would never recognize the independence of the breakaway region. This was not a surprise. But the parliament also called for more autonomy for ethnic Serbians living in Kosovo.

On the face of it, this latter statement seems of a piece with the refusal to recognize Kosovo’s independence. But it is actually quite the opposite, for it implies two things. First, Serbia no longer harbors any hopes of asserting direct control over Kosovo. Second, the guidelines indirectly recognize Pristina’s sovereignty over the entire region of Kosovo. This acknowledgment runs counter to the hitherto popular “partition option” that would turn Kosovo into a kind of Korean peninsula, with a DMZ between the ethnic Albanian majority and the Serbian enclaves in the north.

This is a very delicate balance. The nationalist government currently in place in Belgrade does not want to go down in history for “selling out” Kosovo Serbs. On the other hand, they also don’t want to go down in history for blowing Serbia’s chance to join the European Union. Caught between unhappy bureaucrats in Brussels and unhappy compatriots in northern Kosovo, the Belgrade politicians are relying on a good deal of finesse: negotiating that which must be negotiated while kicking the rest down the road. Call it the Serbian version of “strategic ambiguity,” the same kind of opacity that has allowed Washington to maintain relations with both Beijing and Taipei.

The European Union, too, is involved in a difficult game. Brussels knows that having half the Balkans inside the EU and half outside is not a tenable situation. On the other hand, the EU is struggling with an economic crisis, and there isn’t a great deal of enthusiasm for further expansion after Croatia enters this summer. In fact, according to the head of Serbia’s EU Integration Office, there won’t be any new entrants in the next six to eight years, with the possible exception of Iceland. So, Serbia has to be both realistic about its chances and flexible in its conduct.

But for many in Serbia, the real question about EU integration is not the relationship with Pristina but what kind of state Serbia wants to be. Back in October, I talked with Srdjan Majstorovic, the deputy director of the EU Integration Office, about this issue.

“The European integration process for Serbia is, in a sense, a state-building process,” he explained, “not in the sense of building a Serbian state, which has existed for centuries, but in the sense of creating modern democratic institutions based on the rule of law that can sustain serious political pressure and threat within a democratic institutional setting. For that, we need to continue the EU integration process, because it is the most important transformative power tool in this region, and not only in Serbia. Our primary goal is to strengthen democratic institutions and make them capable of sustaining heavy and difficult political pressures. Only then can we hope for the sustainable resolution of still pending issues and the normalization of relations between Belgrade and Pristina.”

What’s quite surprising about all this is the level of support in Serbian society for the EU path – despite the length of the accession process, the entrance requirements that the EU has demanded, and the less appealing prospects for EU members given the current financial crisis. Not only has the level of support in Serbian society for EU accession remained at around 50 percent, but the pro-EU faction in the Serbian parliament has now reached 90 percent. And, Majstorovic points out, most Serbians want to pursue internal reforms regardless of EU accession.

The question remains: how much “strategic ambiguity” will Brussels and Kosovo tolerate, and for how long?

The Interview

When you look at the next couple years, how do you evaluate the prospects for Serbia?

I would put myself in the position of a cautious optimist: 6. That’s cautious enough, since the prospect is not rosy, I’m afraid. I’m not referring to political stability, but rather that Serbia and the rest of the region are facing serious economic and social challenges to which the governments should pay particular attention. Since we are already integrated into broader European, even global, economic processes, everything that happens in the EU has a direct impact on the economies in the region. In such an environment, it’s very difficult for the governments to be persistent in reforming societies, which on the other hand is a necessity. These challenges can spill over into the political sphere and into the perception of the stability of the region as well and produce a downward spiral when it comes to the eagerness of foreign investors to invest in this part of Europe. In such a complex situation, we are facing the risks of increasing political populism.

And that’s something that we must avoid if we want to stay firmly on the European integration path and reform our society. Because the reforms are necessary. The EU itself provides a model that is accepted in the majority of European countries and at the same time provides technical and financial support along with the introduction of those reforms. And that’s why the transformative power of the EU integration process itself, regardless of current crises within the EU, is so important for the stability of Serbia and the region.

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

I was a teenager. I sensed that this was something huge, a game-changer, if you will. At that time, former Yugoslavia was starting to feel that something is changing on the European continent. This period when big changes were happening left a considerable trace on my political views: stepping out of the one-party political system and into a pluralist political system based on democratic institutions and the respect for human rights and rule of law. That’s something that made a mark on one’s political ideas for life. It was a cornerstone event for my generation.

For my father’s generation, it was a bit different. He belongs to the post-World War II generation, and he felt that the event was a serious blow to the identity of the generation brought up in the era of a one-party system when the state played a large role in the everyday life of the individual. What followed after the fall of the Berlin Wall was something that his generation was not prepared for.

Unfortunately, the political elite in former Yugoslavia was not prepared for the paradigm change marked by the fall of the Wall. Instead of choosing democratization path and economic transition in the process of wider European integration, we took a dive into nationalist frenzy and an overall disintegration of society marked by wars and ethnic hatred.

There’s a perception that the current Serbian government has adopted a go-slow attitude toward European integration compared to the previous government. Would you agree with that?

I think it’s still early to say whether this is true or not. It’s still not the full 100 days of this government to assess properly what the dynamism of the EU reforms in Serbia will be. What is obvious is that the prime minister himself, as well as the first deputy prime minister and the deputy minister for EU integration, are all firm that the EU integration process is a primary goal of this government. I would stick to that and suggest holding them accountable to produce tangible results. But perhaps it is too early to assess what the dynamism of the process will be.

Mind you, this dynamism is not solely based on internal social, political and economic conditions. There is an external factor as well. Unfortunately, what’s happening inside the EU and its economy is influencing not only European-wide political debate, it’s also spilling over into the internal political debate here in Serbia. There are those saying, “Do you see what is happening inside the EU? Are we going to rush in or are we going to prepare ourselves better?”

Although political and economic issues are playing the most influential part our relations with the EU at this moment, we shouldn’t neglect reforms that are necessary to undertake in the process of EU accession. They need to be implemented no matter the tempo of our EU integration process. The important thing is that the government does not lose its goal, which is the EU integration process. Then, in open dialogue with the EU and the European Commission, we can agree on the tempo of the EU accession process, respecting the objective circumstances on both sides. But this tempo of the EU accession process should not affect in any way the internal reforms, which need to be undertaken if Serbia wants to be recognized as a successful, democratic, and modern European state.

In the media, it was presented as an expectation on the part of this government, or this government and previous government, that the discussion of EU integration and Kosovo would proceed in parallel. But in some sense, the two have collided. EU accession, it seems, has been made contingent on an acknowledgement or recognition of the independence of Kosovo. Is this the case? If so, how to resolve this?

First of all, it’s very difficult to ask Serbia to recognize something that five other EU states don’t recognize, namely Kosovo’s independence. The European integration process for Serbia is, in a sense, a state-building process: not in the sense of building a Serbian state, which has existed for centuries, but in the sense of creating modern democratic institutions based on the rule of law that can sustain serious political pressure and threat within a democratic institutional setting. For that, we need to continue the EU integration process, because it is the most important transformative power tool in this region, and not only in Serbia. Our primary goal is to strengthen democratic institutions and make them capable of sustaining heavy and difficult political pressures. Only then can we hope for the sustainable resolution of still pending issues and the normalization of relations between Belgrade and Pristina.

The reality in Kosovo is rather complex. Institutions in Kosovo are ruling this administrative area. Serbia still relies on UNSC Resolution 1244 and deems the same area as being UN administrated. The reality is that Serbia does not have the instruments to rule the territory that is, in accordance with its constitution, part of the sovereign territory of the Republic of Serbia. Nor do Kosovo institutions, which declared independence in 2008, have the instruments to rule the northern part of Kosovo populated by Serbs. So, this is a potential jumping off point for negotiations between the two sides, and there is room here for some future compromise. Both sides can agree to disagree and explore possibilities to find some way out of the deadlock, which has grave consequences on the everyday life of people living in this area.

We need a compromise, because otherwise this situation can breed very bad sentiments on both sides and become a destabilizing factor. In this volatile social and economic situation, it can produce very negative effects. There is 45 percent unemployment in Kosovo, 90 percent of which are young people. This is a social time bomb. The situation in Serbia is just a bit better, with 25 percent unemployment and 80 percent being young people. If not offered a peaceful and constructive alternative, these young people could become susceptible to populism and nationalism and other volatile ideas and ideologies.

We are now eagerly waiting to see what the platform will be for the negotiations between the two sides. The president has been saying that he would like to see this platform adopted by the parliament as well and have full democratic legitimacy to negotiate with Pristina. Then obviously the next stage would be some kind of agreement between the two sides, which will be a crucial historic moment for the start of the process of reconciliation.

We’re speaking today at the same time we are commemorating the 100th anniversary of the start of the Balkan wars, when the Balkan nations fought against Turkey. There is a lot of history in this region, as Churchill put it, perhaps too much to absorb. Such an amount of history, combined with economic and social difficulties and a lack of European perspective, can be easily misused as a legitimizing factor for some dangerous political ideas.

It sounds like the compromise would simply be maintaining more-or-less parallel discussions on integration and reconciliation.

It’s time to behave in a European way. It is necessary to engage everyone in the region in the European integration process. And on the parallel track, it is necessary to find some sustainable resolution of the Kosovo issue. But if you put this issue as a condition too early in the process, you’re just risking a prolongation of the EU integration process and the process of reforming these countries. It might provoke certain nationalistic ideas, which rise much faster in a volatile economic and social environment.

Obviously, as we draw closer to the end of EU accession negotiations, this condition will become more present and visible. But at that stage, democratic institutions and processes and actors will become capable of sustaining political pressure.

In the last week [October 2012], as if this issue weren’t enough to deal with, there was the cancellation of the Pride march here in Belgrade and at least one EU representative saying that this was unacceptable from the standpoint of EU principles. What was your reaction to that?

I was disappointed as a citizen of Serbia. I strongly believe in human rights and liberties. And if a certain right is protected by the constitution of this country, then the state should make it possible for each and every minority to express themselves freely. If we believe in the rule of law, if we believe in freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, the march should have been allowed.

But the government decided that there was a serious security risk for participants and cancelled it. It sent the wrong message, especially to those hooligans, extremists basically, who were threatening the participants of that parade. That’s not the way to fight intolerance and discrimination. Obviously there’s a lot to be done in order to raise awareness among citizens concerning the rights of especially sexual minorities and to improve the overall climate in society regarding the tolerance of those who are different. To be fair, this year’s Pride week was marked by a couple of exhibitions and public events that took place, and these should be considered a small, a very small, but still important contribution to similar events in the future.

Many Bulgarians said to me that the EU brought Bulgaria on board too quickly and missed an opportunity to use accession as leverage to push more reforms through Bulgaria. How do you feel about using EU accession as a tool?

It’s a very useful tool if you implement it properly. I’m glad that you got a realistic picture in Bulgaria. Because Romania and Bulgaria are good examples of how things should not be done. I’m not saying that Serbia would become an EU member state tomorrow. In that sense, we are aware of the lengthiness of the process ahead. But what is important is to start accession talks as soon as possible. Because each and every one of the 35 chapters that we are negotiating basically screens our capability to adopt or not the EU acquis. It provides an objective picture of your own capacities to advance. If done properly, then yes, accession is a perfect tool to improve a country’s position. But still, the accession process is just an opportunity. Success depends on the candidate’s readiness to accept the values and implement the standards of the EU.

Sometimes there’s a lack of understanding that accession is a two-sided process: political and normative. These have to go hand in hand as well and, the process is successful only when both parts are taken seriously and complement one another. There have been a couple of examples of countries acceding to the EU on the merit of a political decision rather than the fulfillment of technical criteria, which proved to have grave, long-term consequences. If a candidate does it properly, yes, EU accession is a very useful tool. But obviously you need to have first of all, political willingness within the country to engage in sometimes very difficult and serious reforms.

Second, there needs to be fully fledged dedication and administrative capacity to negotiate and properly implement all the required technical standards and rules. And then, there should be clear political will, or vision if you wish, on the EU side as well that this process needs to start as early as possible and that this process will lead to the actual accession of candidate countries to the EU. The problem is that the EU today lacks the vision and self-confidence that its appeal still has sufficient transformative power to make aspiring candidates engage in the necessary reforms.

What will be the most difficult chapters for Serbia to undertake?

This is not secret. It will be like the cases of Romania and Bulgaria. There’s judiciary and fundamental rights on the one hand, and issues related to internal affairs on the other: justice, freedom, and security. Those are going to be crucial. The quality of reforms performed in those two areas influences the quality of the overall transformation and success in the EU integration process.

Based on that, the European Commission has begun to use a new methodology in the accession talks, prioritizing these two chapters (23 and 24). This is to avoid the same mistakes that the EU made in previous waves of enlargement. The new methodology implies that, after the screening process, a new series of benchmarks will need to be fulfilled before negotiations on a particular chapter are opened. Depending on the success achieved in these two chapters, the country will move deeper into accession negotiations. If a candidate gets stuck in these fundamental chapters, it will not be able to proceed to the other chapters. This is a new system of checks and balances to assess the readiness of candidate countries regarding the importance and acceptance of the rule of law as a major EU accession condition.

Apart from those two areas, the chapters on agriculture and environment are traditionally very challenging, because these are very large and expensive chapters to negotiate and implement. And the majority of the European acquis is based in these two areas.

Another question that will determine the complexity of our accession process is what the EU will look like in the future. Even more important, what will the EU look like when Serbia is ready to join the EU? Based on the complexity of the current economic and financial situation in the EU, we can say that issues of financial prudence will be very important for the future accession candidates.

Decentralization has been a challenge for Turkey, and some people oppose decentralization there arguing that the country will fall apart if too much autonomy is given to the regions. A debate is also taking place here in Serbia over decentralization, around the issue of Vojvodina. At the same time, centralization is intensifying in Serbia, with so many people moving to Belgrade and some villages in the countryside disappearing. How do you think this debate will play into EU accession?

There is no special request coming from the EU with regard to decentralization. As you know, in the EU this particular topic is left to the competence of the member states with respect to their own tradition when it comes to the territorial division of governance. Thus, there are federal countries, regionalized countries, countries in the process of devolution and traditionally centralized countries. When I was a student, I argued that the Spanish model of autonomous provinces, for example, would have been a good model for addressing secessionist movements in former Yugoslavia, especially in the case of Kosovo back in the 1990s.

According to the constitution of the Republic of Serbia, Vojvodina and Kosovo are two autonomous provinces and as such they do have additional administrative competences. The EU doesn’t have standards on this particular issue. The EU is interested and is following developments in this particular area strictly in terms of respecting the rule of law and respecting the existing competences of the autonomous province. The recent decision of the Constitutional Court on the income of Vojvodina is going to be acknowledged in the forthcoming progress report due to be published shortly, and the two governments (the central and the autonomous province’s) will have to acknowledge that this issue should be addressed and resolved.

The second important issue with regard to decentralization and regionalization in the EU accession process has to do with development aid and policy within the EU. With regard to that, Serbia adopted a law on the statistical regions of Serbia. These are just development regions that basically gave us the opportunity to accumulate statistical data in those regions in order to draw development data and assessments. It is necessary to produce this regional statistical data in order to draw all potential development assistance in different parts of Serbia. The EU structural funds are based on the logic of supporting depopulated areas or areas facing structural problems such as industries moving out or the need for rural development. Obviously the EU integration process will have more impact, of necessity, on improving the capacities of local self-governments (municipalities) and statistical devolution rather than governance devolution.

However, there is a political party in Serbia campaigning on the issue of regionalization. So, these statistical regions could become something more than just statistical gathering areas in the future. But that’s still not a part of the political debate. And if all relevant stakeholders accept this idea the process of decentralization will have to be transparent and based on the widest possible social consensus that respects the numerous regional specificities of Serbia’s multiethnic society.

Every time I ask people here about their impression of the EU, people who are not working on this issue, they turn it around and ask me when I think Serbia will become part of the EU. And I say, “I don’t really know.” I guess there are two scenarios. In the first, accession goes relatively smoothly, with an emphasis on “relative”: the accession talks continue and Serbia enters in ten years or so. The second is the Turkey option. Turkey has been in accession discussions for something like three decades. This is obviously not just a technical question. There’s considerable political opposition in some capitals in Europe. I’m curious what you think in terms of Serbia’s timeline.

I believe Serbia can finish EU accession negotiations in five years, once they start. Perhaps an additional two years will be needed to ratify the Accession Treaty in the EU Member States. But that doesn’t mean that those five/seven years will start from now. It obviously depends on how the Kosovo dialogue ends up. It will depend on the readiness not only of the incumbent government but future governments as well to engage in sometimes very crucial, difficult, and unpleasant reforms: reform of the labor market and the pension system, to name just a few. So, if we draw the parallel between Serbia and Croatia’s EU accession process we can say that Serbia should be able to at least finish the accession negotiations if not join the EU by the end of the next financial perspective period, 2014-2020.

It will also depend on the future of the EU itself. But I don’t have a crystal ball and can’t predict how long it will take for the EU to resolve its internal issues. What is necessary is that there should be a proper political vision with regard to the broader picture of what the EU should look like in the next ten or twenty years. The accession process for the Western Balkans, not only Serbia, should be speeded up, and it should go hand in hand with a deepening of the integration of the EU Member States. That should be a sign of the clear vision, the strength, and the still existing appeal of the EU enlargement policy. Otherwise, it’s going to be even more difficult to cope with transition fatigue in candidate countries and more challenging to motivate political elites to remain dedicated to necessary reforms.

How robust is Serbian support for EU accession. We often see fluctuations in public opinion around this issue, related to economic issues or Kosovo. How large a core group of people will support EU accession no matter what?

We’ve been conducting public polls ever since 2002. You can check them out on our website. We are conducting them in line with Eurobarometer methodology, and they say that 49 percent of Serbian citizens would vote yes if a referendum on EU accession were to be held tomorrow. But this data fluctuates. In 2003, after the assassination of late Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, support was at its highest peak: 76 percent. If there is conditionality regarding Kosovo, support goes down in that particular period. If candidate status is about to be awarded, support goes up. So one can say that public opinion depends on the major paradigm that best describes the major issue in the current relationship with the EU.

What is important for us, and what shows rather the rational side of the public when it comes to the EU accession process, is that when we ask citizens about reforms that we are introducing and implementing during the course of EU accession, there is huge support (68% of citizens support reforms regardless of the prospect of EU accession). Even with doubts surrounding the prospects for EU membership, citizens tend to be very rational on this issue. They are also rational on the Kosovo issue, because the public believes it should be resolved regardless of EU membership (61%). So this is an additional element of legitimacy for the political stakeholders to continue to engage both in reforms and dialogue with Pristina.

And then there is an additional way of measuring support when you look at the number of political parties that are currently part of the mainstream in the parliament. Some 90 percent of those political parties sitting in the parliament belong to the faction of EU accession supporters.

That’s a change!

That’s a dramatic change. The best way to explore the transformative power of EU accession is to go back to 2008 when we signed the Stabilization and Association Agreement with EU and there was a debate in parliament about whether to ratify the agreement or not. That was the tipping point when the former Radical Party split. That was the game changer when it came to a political consensus on EU integration for Serbia.

So, the political consensus exists. But the social consensus needs to be strengthened. And that can be done only with the proper communication with the citizens, to explain what exactly the EU means today, what accession will bring to the citizens of this country, and how these reforms are necessary if we want to be a well-regulated and modern European society.

Belgrade, October 8, 2012

Non-nuclear Weapons States Forget How Much Power the NPT Affords Them

Back in November, at Truthout, David Krieger, president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, wrote about the nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty’s linchpin article — the infamous number VI.* He explained that it

… contains three obligations: “Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”

… It has been 42 years since the treaty entered into force, and the nuclear arms race continues. All of the NPT nuclear weapon states are modernizing their arsenals. They have not negotiated in good faith to end the nuclear arms race at an early date .

Nor have they negotiated

… to achieve nuclear disarmament.

Nor on placing nuclear weapons

… under strict and effective international control.

Krieger levels a damning indictment.

The NPT nuclear weapon states seem perfectly comfortable with their failure to fulfill their obligations under Article VI of the NPT.

But

… the prospects for a new international treaty are dim if states continue with business as usual.

Therefore the “non-nuclear-weapon states need to demonstrate to the nuclear weapon states that they are serious about the need for a new international treaty,” which is only “the means to fulfill the NPT Article VI obligations” anyway.

Because

UN General Assembly resolutions are not getting the job done. They are not being taken seriously by the nuclear weapon states, nor are exhortations by the UN secretary-general and other world leaders.

Thus

… the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation called for bold action by the non-nuclear weapon states in its briefing paper for the 2012 Preparatory Committee Meeting for the 2015 Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference.

Among the call for action’s other premises, Krieger cites:

• The understanding that even a regional nuclear war would have global consequences (e.g., nuclear famine modeling).

• The risks of nuclear war, by accident or design, have not gone away. Stanford Professor Emeritus Martin Hellman, an expert in risk analysis, estimates that a child born today has a one-in-six chance of dying due to a nuclear weapon in his or her 80-year expected lifetime.

• The understanding that humans and their systems are not infallible (e.g. Chernobyl and Fukushima).

• The understanding that deterrence is only a theory that could fail catastrophically.

Among Krieger’s examples of what constitutes bold action.

• Announcing a boycott of the 2015 NPT Review Conference if the nuclear weapon states have not commenced negotiations for a [new treaty].

• Commencing legal action against the NPT nuclear weapon states, individually and/or collectively, for breach of their NPT Article VI obligations.

• Withdrawal from the NPT as a protest against its continuing two-tier structure of nuclear haves and have-nots.

• Declaring the NPT null and void as a result of the failure of the nuclear weapon states to act in good faith in fulfilling their Article VI obligations.

You can see that David Krieger isn’t fooling around. Of course, the measures he suggests require political will and/or wise prioritizing on the parts of the non-nuclear-weapon states. They just need to remember that without them — the have-nots, largely on whose behalf the NPT was negotiated — there would be no NPT.

*Note lower-case “n” in “nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty.” Many forget that it’s the last two words that NPT abbreviates.

Page 52 of 183« First...102030...5051525354...607080...Last »