Focal Points Blog

Deregulation and Free Trade a Win-Win for Mexican Narcotraffickers

DrugWarMexicoThe past decade has not been kind to Mexico. Since officially transitioning from one-party rule in 2000, the country has witnessed the perverse effects of neoliberal economic policies, the striking rise in power of locally based drug traffickers, state-sponsored violence that has left tens of thousands dead and countless others victimized by human rights abuses, and a political system riddled with corruption. For many observers unfamiliar with Mexico, especially those next door in the United States, these developments have come as something of a shock.

As Peter Watt and Roberto Zepeda argue in their excellent new book, Drug War Mexico, however, the recent security crisis in Mexico hardly emerged from nowhere. The authors convincingly demonstrate that the country’s current troubles result from the confluence of long-standing factors, not least the economic interventions of outside powers, which have been exacerbated and reinforced by the government’s heavily militarized fight against Mexican narcotraffickers. The consequence, according to the Watt and Zepeda, is a country characterized by violence and ever deepening inequality.

I recently spoke with one of the book’s authors, Peter Watt, Lecturer in Hispanic Studies at the University of Sheffield, about the origins and development of the Mexican drug trade, the intersections between neoliberal economic policies and the American-sponsored “war on drugs,” the prospects of continued democratization in Mexico, and what the new presidency of Enrique Pena Nieto might possibly hold for the country moving forward. This is the first in a two-part series.

One of the great features of the book is its insistence on shattering the “state vs. traffickers” dichotomy that characterizes a lot of writing on the Mexican drug wars. Instead, you argue that traffickers benefit from the state and that state actors benefit from the drug trade. Can you talk a little about what this looks like, how it has developed, and how it can be understood in the current context of Mexican politics?

The mutually beneficial relationship between smugglers of contraband and the political and economic elites goes right back to the beginning of the twentieth century. During the Mexican Revolution, central government was preoccupied that the internal turmoil and instability of the conflict would allow for an invasion by the United States. This they viewed as a real possibility given that Mexico had lost more than 40 percent of its land to the United States in the mid-nineteenth century. At the same time, the government was equally concerned about the growing insurrection in the northern states and the influence and popularity of anarchist figures like the brothers Ricardo and Enrique Flores-Magón. In this context, President Carranza granted quasi-autonomous powers to states like Baja California in order to offset the danger of rural insurrection. From the outset, then, a certain leniency was afforded to organised criminal activities, while dissent and activism were harshly punished. The northern states were still cut off from the metropole because of distance and because of the remote terrain and mountains, despite the fact that capitalist development in Mexico had invested heavily in building 10,000 miles of new railroad prior to the outbreak of the revolution.

The then governor of Baja California, Esteban Cantú, also a military general, takes advantage of the fact that central government is essentially leaving the north to get on with things, so long as they prioritise quelling rebellions and staving off incursions by the US army. Cantú forbids the use of Mexican currency, printing his own instead, and raises his own taxes. Using his power with near complete impunity, he makes a personal fortune from prostitution, extortion, gambling and smuggling contraband into the United States. Governors like Cantú actually favored the prohibition policies, not for the same reasons that Nancy Reagan preached “Just Say No,” but because prohibition virtually guaranteed that the price of opium and heroin would rise. For those in power who could abuse their positions with few or no legal consequences, it was a way to get rich quickly.

Both Mexico and the United States ban the sale of narcotics in the 1910s and 1920s, pushing what ultimately is an issue of public health into the black market and the informal economy. When alcohol sales are outlawed in the US between 1919 and 1933, Mexican smugglers step in to satisfy the appetite for illicit booze. And again, prohibition assures enviable profit margins for those involved in smuggling. The United States Border Patrol is created in 1924, but the border is so massive—some 2,000 miles in length—and most of the terrain remote, it’s impossible to police efficiently. Combined with impunity for official involvement, corruption within the political system and plenty of poor people as a labor force, these factors allow for the smuggling of contraband operate relatively unhindered.

But the systematic control of the drug trade by the political elites really takes shape during the rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), in power from 1929 to 2000 (and which returned to power in 2012). Between 1938 and 1939 the Mexican federal narcotics reserve, a branch of the department of health, proposes establishing a government monopoly on the drugs trade. The US government responded by instituting an embargo on medical drugs to Mexico and thus the plan was abandoned. Yet while the formal and legalised monopoly of the drugs trade proved impossible, informal and tacit arrangements took their place throughout the eight decades of PRI rule.

Following the war, in 1947, with encouragement and backing from the US government, Mexico creates its own secret police force, modelled on both the FBI and the CIA. The newly formed DFS is an organization charged with political spying, maintaining what the PRI refers to as political ‘stability’, and punishing and quelling oppositionary social movements. The PRI can’t stay in power for 71 years without monitoring and either co-opting or punishing dissenters, and the DFS is one of the best weapons in its armory. The DFS is allowed to operate with complete impunity and is lavished with enormous sums of money. A system develops in which the DFS spies on and takes out subversives, Marxists, Communists, student activists and guerrillas, but also acts as a go-between between organised crime and the political elite.

In order for traffickers to operate they end up needing the permission, aid and wherewithal of the DFS. Under the PRI, the system comes to be known as la plaza, or “town square” in English. Having permission to work a plaza means having privileges—granted by the police, military, mayors, state governors, the DFS—to smuggle drugs in a certain area without interference from the authorities. In fact, in order to guarantee immunity, a number of traffickers, like Pablo Acosta, were given DFS badges and guns in order to fend off unwanted attention from the law. In return for such freedoms, traffickers would make monthly payments to the authorities. When they failed to make payments they ended up arrested or assassinated in the latest sting against narcotraffickers, something which always made for good stories in the media.

Because these arrangements were mutually beneficial to trafficking organisations and the political system, the violence was less widespread than it is today and the Pax Mafiosa which characterised the PRI years was due in large part to the fact the many criminal organisations were essentially tacit employees of the political system. Everyone understood who was in charge and only the most foolhardy defied the DFS and the politicians. That’s not to say that it wasn’t violent—it was, but the levels of violent conflict we’re witnessing today are unprecedented.

There are a couple of causal factors and critical junctures the book focuses on which you suggest are central to understanding the evolution of Mexican drug trafficking. One is neoliberalism. Can you discuss the significance of neoliberal policies on the Mexican economy and the development of the drug trade?

There’s an argument that beginning in the 1980s, PRI hegemony begins to break down. The party experiences a crisis of legitimacy as the population begins to view the PRI dinosaur as an eternal, yet corrupt, political institution which now serves only its own interests. From the 1930s to 1982, Mexico had one of the most protectionist economies in the region and among the largest public spending programs. Insufficient as they were, there were at least some social safety nets afforded to society’s most vulnerable. And then there was the land reform which had to an extent democratised ownership in the wake of the revolution.

Beginning in 1982 the PRI abandons its national revolutionary project in for the neoliberal model of privatization which demands the retreat of the state from public responsibilities in favor of market forces. And the profile of those at the top of the political system changes significantly. Previously, the elite of the PRI comprised those who had served for years in the party machine and had experience of the political system. By the 1980s, however, it’s clear that this has changed—now the party is run by moneyed technocrats educated at Harvard, Princeton, and Oxford who have essentially bought themselves into political power. Some members of the old guard, like Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, the son of President Lázaro Cárdenas, one of the architects of the post-revolutionary state, are expelled for being too left-wing.

In addition, the Partido Acción Nacional (PAN) makes serious headway in the elections and holds governorships in a number of states, meaning that organised crime doesn’t just have to negotiate with the PRI anymore.

There are several other important factors too, all of which contribute to a perfect storm. One is that when Ronald Reagan launches a campaign against Colombian narcotraffickers smuggling narcotics through the Caribbean and into Miami, the Colombians move their business westward to Mexico. That way they avoid the heat of Reagan’s South Florida Task Force in the Caribbean with the added advantage that the Mexicans will perform the most dangerous stage of the operation: transporting drugs into the United States. And now it is the Mexicans, not the Colombians, who risk lengthy jail terms in the United States. At first the Colombians take the lion’s share of the profits, but increasingly, the Mexicans, who have their own distribution networks in the US, are able to manage things on their own terms. As a result, Mexican cartels become richer and more powerful.

A further contributory factor to the growth of cartels aided by the active complicity of the political system is Reagan’s other war, the one in Central America. In order to rid Central America of the “communist cancer” once and for all, the CIA used the Contras to attempt the overthrow of the Sandinista government of Nicaragua. As stories in the international press emerged that the Contras were committing systematic human rights abuses, terrorising the civilian population and purposefully destroying the country’s infrastructure, the US Congress reduced the funding available to train and arm the Contra army. For Colonel Oliver North and the CIA, however, that simply wasn’t good enough. So they sold arms to Iran in order to raise funds that would then be diverted to the Contras to overthrow the Sandinistas, who, as Reagan claimed, were intent on invading the United States. That a country of three million impoverished peasants with no naval fleet and a tiny military had neither the intention nor the capacity to invade the most powerful economic and military power in world history was lost on the US media.

Also lost on the American media was that in order to circumvent the lack of funds available to overthrow the democratically-elected Sandinistas, now the CIA was using the Guadalajara cartel and the DFS to ship money and arms to the Contras. In return, these traffickers, with DFS assistance, were essentially given free reign of cities in the US Southwest and California, having been granted a green light by the CIA. One also wonders to what extent this intensified the explosion of crack cocaine in US inner-cities in the 80s. Such a policy inevitably contributed to the growth of organised crime in Mexico. The one person in the US media who reported this, Gary Webb, was completely marginalised for doing so and the San José Mercury News, where he had published the investigation, eventually let him go after intense political pressure.

And then there’s NAFTA.

The neoliberal programme accelerated significantly when President Salinas signs the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993, coming into law in 1994. What did the planners of the neoliberal program expect to happen with a massive transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich? The Clinton government knew full well that an immediate effect of NAFTA in Mexico would be massive internal displacement and an increased migration to the United States. In the same year, the US government stepped up its militarisation of the border with its Operation Gatekeeper, something which pushed undocumented migrants to ever remoter and more dangerous areas, vulnerable to extreme climatic conditions, thirst, hunger and the activities of criminal gangs poised ready to profit on the latest expansion of human misery.

During the negotiations for NAFTA, members of the DEA and the US Customs Service raised concerns which should have been obvious to anyone who gave the potential repercussions of the treaty any thought. They were worried—correctly, it turns out—that deregulation and free trade would be a win-win situation for drug trafficking organizations. But both Presidents George HW Bush and Bill Clinton explicitly prohibited them from raising the subject publicly. I doubt they actively wanted drug cartels to flourish. It’s just that it was an external or secondary concern to pushing through free-market policies.

NAFTA exacerbated problems already existent in Mexico. What we do in the book is question the validity of the neoliberal project and discuss some of its most destructive attributes. You have to be a real ideologue to still believe that the free-market somehow equals democracy. But unfortunately the falsehood that the market takes care of all ills is still a widespread piety—which is one of the reasons we dedicated much of the book to taking it apart. And it’s not just in Mexico that this is happening—it’s all over the place.

Can you discuss some of those attributes?

One of the key components of NAFTA is an attack on Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution. Land reform had been very much the crowning achievement of the 1917 document, which was pretty radical for its time. Communal land rights, for the first time since the Revolution, come under attack with NAFTA in a move to sell off more of Mexico’s resources to foreign investors and private interests. That’s one of the reasons that the Zapatista insurrection becomes publicly visible on January 1, 1994. They see NAFTA—rightly in my view—as a selling off of public and natural resources to Mexican elites and multi-national corporations.

As part of the structural adjustment programmes accelerated by NAFTA, the government removes subsidies to small-time farmers and on foodstuffs for the poor. And at the same time, the prices of basic foodstuffs like milk and tortillas increase.

What are some of the results of these changes? Mexico, which in the 1960s had been largely food self-sufficient, by the NAFTA period is orienting its produce to the export market. At the same time, the market is flooded with cheap foreign products, like corn. As the stringent measures imposed on Mexican farmers have not been imposed on their US counterparts—for US agriculture continues to receive taxpayer subsidies while these are cut back in Mexico—the mountain of US corn finds a market in Mexico, effectively denying millions of agricultural producers a living. So in the first six years of NAFTA, two million farmers leave the land. And they migrate to the ever-expanding metropolises, the sweatshops, or maquiladoras, in the north or to the United States. Thus, in the late 1990s and the early 2000s the number of people illegally crossing into the United States reaches an unprecedented level, some 500,000 annually, becoming the largest migration of people across a border on the planet.

While neoliberalism rewards Mexico’s rich with ever greater entitlements as the number of billionaires increases dramatically, the gap between rich and poor reaches new levels as the few social safety nets available to society’s most vulnerable get cut back. So as well as migrating, as you might expect, growing numbers of people are obliged to seek work in the informal economy. By the mid-2000s, this could be as much as half of the economically active population.

Now, with the fluctuation of prices for basic foodstuffs destined for the export market, it should be no surprise that some producers turned to crops that always wielded a stable and more profitable return. Growing poppies and marijuana had the advantage of fetching a higher price than corn, vanilla and beans. Neoliberalism in Mexico had the effect of pushing people towards the informal sector; there are now probably more people working in the illicit drugs trade than in the petroleum industry. If policy makers are serious about reducing the traffic of drugs passing through or originating in Mexico, the first and most crucial step is to alleviate poverty and reduce the perverse distribution of wealth which sees Carlos Slim, the world’s richest man, acquire $27 million every day, while over half the population has to make do with $2 a day.

During his presidency, Carlos Salinas privatizes more public assets than any of his predecessors. Many of these companies are sold off to friends in the economic and political elite, moneyed supporters and contributors to the PRI, a fact that kind of undermines all that religious zeal about the free market and competition. Many of these people have interests in the narcotics trade for the simple reason that they’re out to make money, and there are few easier ways of making money fast than trafficking drugs. So they buy up public assets and end up using these companies as places to launder the illegal proceeds from narcotics. Another key component of all this is that Mexican banks—many of which had been nationalised in 1982 as a result of the economic crisis—are privatized again in the 1990s. Again, it’s not that they’re sold off to those individuals and sectors which are particularly good at banking—instead they go to millionaire friends and supporters of Salinas. Privatization thus becomes a way for the rich to become some of the wealthiest people in the world. Just look at Forbes magazine’s list of the richest people in the world. Many of them are Mexicans and one is Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the leader of the Sinaloa cartel.

Anyway, the deregulated banking sector is virtually unaccountable and is now able to launder billions of dollars of hot money more easily on behalf of organized crime. Carrying a million dollars around in a briefcase is not like in the movies—it can’t be done. You can get about $250,000 in denominations of $50 dollar bills in one case. But the cartels are earning billions every year. Amado Carrillo Fuentes is by the mid-1990s bringing in plane loads of drugs from Colombia. They called him El señor de los cielos, or Lord of the Skies, because he had a fleet of Boeing 727s which he used to collect cocaine in Colombia, flying it up to Mexico every week, apparently without any of the authorities or politicians noticing. Well, what does one do with billions of dollars of illicit money? It’s risky to move it around in trucks. So you set up accounts at Bank of America or Citibank under aliases. Or, you do what Raúl Salinas, the brother of the president, was accused of by Swiss investigators and move it to offshore tax havens. All this helps make the cartels very powerful indeed—it’s difficult to see how they could have grown without somewhere to launder and keep all that cash. And it allows the banks in Mexico, the United States and the United Kingdom to have access to billions of dollars in liquid assets every week.

To be continued.

President Obama Might Be Time’s Person of the Year, But Not the Middle-East’s

Time Magazine’s selection of President Barack Obama as Person of the Year for 2012 should not come as a surprise, after all, Obama’s presidency is by all measures a historic one.
From an American perspective, Obama’s rise to power as a man of color and a minority represents deep social, cultural and demographic changes in American society without which Obama’s presidency would still be a dream.

As Time editors noted in their report, Mr. Obama garnered the majority of the minority vote which was the decisive factor that put him back in the White House for four more years. President Obama’s might deserve his new title for many reasons here at home, but from an Arab perspective, he does not deserve the title. For his perceived negative inaction exceeds his positive actions.

Until two years ago, change in the Arab World seemed almost impossible if it wasn’t for a street vendor in Tunisia named Mohammad Bouazizi who, by setting himself alight, ignited a revolution that swept several countries in the Arab world. It is true, moreover, that Bouazizi was the catalyst for the Arab Spring, but it was, much like Obama’s America, the deep social, economic changes that occurred in the Arab world that were its true causes. It was mainly economic deprivation, lack of freedom and hope that needed Bouazizi’s spark to set the Arab Spring in motion.

The election of president Obama in 2008 was perceived as a sign of relief and great hope in the Arab World. The idea, it was thought then, was that a man with Obama’s background might be able to right America’s historic tilt against the Arab causes as far as its support for Arab dictators and its bias toward Israel. This was especially true after eight long years of the President George W. Bush administration that embarked on a foolish mission of “nation-building” in the Middle East but ended up destroying one of its most ancient and its most modern nations, Iraq.

Obama’s record in the Arab world is mixed at best. This is despite that he started off his first presidency with high hopes that he would achieve a breakthrough in the Arab Israeli conflict. But his efforts in that direction did not pan out after he realized that, when it comes to pressuring Israel, even the president of the United States might find himself with very limited power.

But the biggest disappointment in Obama’s presidency, from an Arab perspective, was his lackluster support for the revolting Arab citizens particularly in Egypt and Syria. At the beginning of the Egyptian revolution, Obama’s administration seemed hesitant as to whether it should support the demonstrators or back America’s long-time ally and dictator Hosni Mubarak. Even though Obama eventually supported the Egyptian revolution, it was viewed then as a disingenuous move that was made only to support U.S. interests.

The same dynamics exist today as many Egyptians suspect that the Obama administration is backing the Muslim Brotherhood government of President Mohammad Mursi, who is the first ever democratically elected president of Egypt. Much like Obama’s first term, President Mursi is presiding over a divided country in transition, but without the benefits of the strengths and stability of the American political system. Ironically, President Mursi made Time’s short list of the person of the year, but his inability to steer Egypt to safety after his election and his perceived divisive decisions cost him the venerable title.

Moreover, the bloody conflict in Syria also did not win Obama any points in the Arab World. The raging conflict that cost tens of thousands of innocent Syrian lives did not compel the Obama administration to move beyond economic sanctions against the regime of Bashaar al Assad and encourage its Arab and European allies to support the opposition with some military assistance.

Despite misgivings about the United States Middle East foreign policy, especially its limitless backing of Israel at the expense of Palestinians and its Arab allies, Arabs still look at the United States for guidance, support and backing against their dictators.

But if it wasn’t for the wrong timing, had the Arab Spring started during the presidency of George Bush, it would have been the perfect opportunity for the Bush administration to get rid of the dictatorial Arab regimes and support Arab revolutions and would have avoided destroying America’s image in the Arab World.

As a result, President Obama came to power with a mission to change America and to undo Bush’s greatest mistakes in the Middle East, mainly the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Obama’s political philosophy, in addition, was to end America’s military interventions in the Middle East and dump the nation-building project as well as improve America’s image abroad while direct his energies to improve the devastated US economy.

Therefore, the Arab Spring did not find strong backing in Washington, not because Mr. Obama was not interested in supporting freedom and democracy in the Middle East — he does — but because the Middle East is no longer a priority in Washington.

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

Pakistanis Pay Price for CIA Use of Doctor as Asset in bin Laden Raid

At the New York Times, Declan Walsh and Donald G. McNeil write about Islamist extremists targeting Pakistani women who work for the UN administering polio vaccines.

After militants stalked and killed eight of them over the course of a three-day, nationwide vaccination drive, the United Nations suspended its anti-polio work in Pakistan on Wednesday. … Militant commanders have been criticizing polio vaccination campaigns … since 2007 when Maulvi Fazlullah, a radical preacher on a white horse. … claimed that polio vaccines were part of a plot to sterilize Muslim children, but in recent years Taliban commanders in the militant hub of North Waziristan have come up with a more political complaint: they say that immunization can resume only when American drones stop killing their comrades.

Compounding matters

Suspicion of vaccination has also intensified since the C.I.A. used a Pakistani doctor, Shakil Afridi, to run a hepatitis B vaccination scheme in order to spy on Osama bin Laden’s house in Abbottabad in 2011.

In fact

Heidi Larson, an anthropologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine who analyzes local support for vaccines in different countries, believes the C.I.A.’s use of Dr. Afridi has hurt the polio drive more than the Pakistan government or the eradication campaign itself will admit.

As with Malala Yousafzai, the 15-year-old education activist that members of the Taliban shot in the head and neck, they’re demonstrating that “they consider women to be legitimate targets.” On a side note, this amounts to a declaration that, in fact, the Taliban are less concerned with theological credibility — 50 Islamic clerics subsequently issued a fatwa against the attackers — than in enforcing their whims.

Another victim of Pakistans’ use of Dr. Afridi is the doctor himself. Matthieu Akins reports at GQ. Pakistan’s ISI, its main intelligence agency

… arrested him as he was driving home in Peshawar on May 23, and as they say in Pakistan, “he was disappeared.” Afridi was taken to a secret prison, leaving unanswered the question of what exactly happened that day in Abbottabad.

The $25,000,000 reward for bin Laden was left unclaimed.

Maybe David Brooks Could Teach Gen. Petraeus and the Kagans a Thing or Two About Humility

On Tuesday, December 18, at the Washington Post, Rajiv Chandrasekaran revealed that, while he was top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus relied on the advisory services of prominent conservative think-tankers and military historians Frederick and Kimberly Kagan. He seems to have allowed them near-total access.

Provided desks, e-mail accounts and top-level security clearances in Kabul, they pored through classified intelligence reports, participated in senior-level strategy sessions and probed the assessments of field officers in order to advise Petraeus about how to fight the war differently.

But

The Kagans’ proximity to Petraeus, the country’s most-famous living general, provided an incentive for defense contractors to contribute to Kim Kagan’s think tank.

The Kagans had hoped to head off appearances of conflict of interest by working for free.

“There are actual patriots in the world,” Fred Kagan said. “It was very important to me not to be seen to be profiting from the war.”

Ah, the humility. Wait — I’ve got an idea. It was just revealed that conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks is teaching a course during the spring semester at Yale titled “Humility.” Apparently, he’s spoken and written about the subject before.

Brooks told New York magazine via email: “The title of the Humility course is, obviously, intentionally designed to provoke smart ass jibes, but there’s actually a serious point behind it.” From the course description: “The premise that human beings are blessed with many talents but are also burdened by sinfulness, ignorance, and weakness.”

Then why not invite Fred Kagan to sit in and learn a thing or two about humility? Then, should Brooks choose to follow up his spring course with one on the fall titled “Hubris,” he could invite Gen. Petraeus himself as a guest lecturer.

Disability Treaty Opponents Succumb to UN Black Helicopter Conspiracy Theories

Cross-posted from Other Words.

America is suffering from a failure to commit. Just ask Bob Dole.

While the former GOP presidential candidate and decorated veteran watched from his wheelchair on the Senate floor, all but eight of the Republicans in that chamber shamefully voted down the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

It’s hardly a radical pact. To date, 126 other countries have ratified this treaty. Dole, who served as Senate Majority and Minority Leader for more than a decade, had championed it. So did veterans groups, disability rights organizations, and even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The treaty simply took our own Americans with Disabilities Act, and “expanded that kind of rights to people all over the world who don’t have them today,” explained Senator John McCain of Arizona, another former Republican presidential nominee and veteran with a disability.

But it takes two-thirds of the Senate to ratify a treaty, and even with all 53 senators in the Democratic caucus supporting it, too few Republicans got on board for it to pass.

The treaty’s opponents seem stuck in a partisan twilight zone of UN black helicopters and conspiracy theories that undercuts U.S. influence in global affairs. They’ve perfected a method of defeating virtually every treaty that comes along. Since controversial treaties never pass in the Senate, opponents make any unobjectionable agreement divisive by inventing a big lie.

That global women’s rights treaty? Too pro-abortion. The International Criminal Court? A kangaroo court out to get American service members. The Convention on the Rights of the Child? Kids could sue their parents. The UN Law of the Sea? An excuse to slap unfair global tax on Americans. An arms trade treaty? A ploy to deprive Americans of their right to bear arms.

To sabotage the disabilities treaty, Senator Mike Lee, a Utah Republican, joined forces with former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania. Together, they crafted a ludicrous excuse for Republicans to rally around. Lee falsely claimed that the treaty would allow “a foreign body based in Geneva, Switzerland” to decide “what is best for a child at home in Utah.” They used this big lie to mobilize vocal opposition from the home-school movement.

These ploys generate enough angry messages from constituents to block the requisite approval for the United States to become a party to the treaty. In fact, the Senate hasn’t approved any major multilateral treaties at all since it endorsed the Chemical Weapons convention in 1997 — a year after Dole retired from Congress.

The Senate’s habitual failure to commit threatens our nation. It erodes U.S. global leadership. It limits our ability to express our collective values and blocks the development of worldwide agreements to address very real challenges that can decimate our civilization, including climate change and nuclear proliferation.

Fortunately, there’s a simple way to defeat big lies. It’s called the truth.

Barack Obama, like all presidents who serve two terms, has a big incentive to leave a foreign-policy legacy. Here’s my suggestion: He should lead a national dialogue on global agreements, followed by a special Senate session devoted to clearing the backlog of multilateral agreements the United States has failed to approve.

A majority of U.S. voters support adopting each one of the above-mentioned treaties. Business, labor, civil society, and national security leaders are behind them too. The only thing missing is leadership and a serious discussion of the consequences of this national failure.

Ratifying these treaties would do little or nothing to ramp up U.S. spending but it would go a long way toward rebuilding the nation’s global credibility. We’d gain international respect and increase long term security by taking strides towards solving big global challenges like climate change and nuclear proliferation — problems that can’t be resolved by any one nation, no matter how powerful.

Americans understand that international cooperation is essential to build a more secure world. It’s high time that the Senate did something about it.

Don Kraus is the president and CEO of GlobalSolutions.org, a groundbreaking movement of Americans who support a cooperative and responsible U.S. role in the world.

Does Pakistan’s National Pride Hinge on India Considering It a Threat?

Michael Stimson, co-founder of the Stimson Center, has written a valuable paper Pakistan’s Nuclear Strategy and Deterrence Stability, in which he concludes:

Pakistan’s [nuclear-weapons] stockpile is likely to grow as long as key constituencies within the country view their nuclear programs as a success story, domestic critics can be easily dismissed, relations with India remain contentious, and the sense of Pakistan’s international isolation grows.

As for India …

The central purpose of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, as defined by those who set nuclear requirements, is to protect Pakistan from a predatory neighbor that seeks either its demise or its submissiveness. … This widely held view within military circles remains fixed, even as Pakistan has become increasingly peripheral to India’s national ambitions. To acknowledge that a “hegemonic” neighbor has more pressing interests than to punish Pakistan would only magnify a sense of Pakistan’s national decline.

Indeed …

Indian elites resent being compared to Pakistan because, by almost every indicator, Pakistan is receding in India’s rear-view mirror.

Let me get this straight. Pakistan maintains and expands its nuclear-weapons program out of a need to believe that it’s a priority of India to invade, or at least retaliate with harsh measures, for extremist attacks, such as Mumbai, that Pakistan has failed to prevent? In other words Pakistan has locked itself into enacting this charade that’s not only prohibitively expensive but threatens its own existence because the bottom might drop out of its national pride if it wasn’t foremost in the minds of India as a threat?

That’s a high price to pay for a case of low self-esteem.

Both the Muslim Brotherhood and Egyptian Opposition Act as If They’re Playing a Zero-Sum Game

When Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi announced his constitutional declaration last November granting himself unchecked powers, as well as announcing his intentions to go ahead with plans of enacting an Islamist-backed constitution, he was in effect undermining his own legitimacy in the eyes of those who oppose him. Meanwhile, the Egyptian opposition of secularists, nationalists, women groups, minority groups and those who just hate the Muslim Brotherhood went back to Tahrir Square demanding to have their way or no way. As a result both sides entrenched in their respective positions and engaged in a war of elimination, which led the economy to go from bad to worse and sharply polarizing and dividing the Egyptian society.

President Morsi was elected fair and square in the only democratic election Egyptians ever experienced in the modern era, and he deserves to have his chance at governing. That said, however, he should not treat this as a license to undermine the very democracy Egyptians, had sought for decades.

At the same time the Egyptian opposition groups are trying to wrest power from Morsi by forcing him to cancel his controversial decrees that pertain to the constitutional referendum scheduled to take place this coming Saturday. But the manner through which the opposition groups are fighting this battle especially by appealing to foreign powers to intervene on their side is troubling. This kind of divisive political warfare resulted in pushing president Morsi and with him the Muslim Brotherhood into a bunker mentality and equally ready for a drawn-out, yet unnecessary, fight.

The core problem in Egypt is that no one seems to be interested in giving democracy a chance or the time to work or even willing to accept the idea that in a democracy winners and losers can still work together. What’s happening in Egypt today is that every group, whether the governing Muslim Brotherhood party or the opposition of all colors and persuasions, are engaged in a zero-sum game or winner take all.

President Morsi is mainly accused of being more interested in consolidating his and the Muslim Brotherhood powers at the expense of others and acting as if he was elected for forty not four years and behaving as if his name is Mohamad Hosni not Mohamad Morsi.

Adding to the problem is that Arab political culture, Egypt included, is still authoritarian and dictatorial despite the trappings of democracy in the post Arab Spring era. This is because politics in the Arab World revolves around the “charismatic leader” who should save the nation even though he often times ends up destroying it. The Arab world needs good presidents, not Messiahs.

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

U.S. Guilt Over Rwanda Will Only Lead to More Guilt

Rwanda President Paul Kagame.

Rwanda President Paul Kagame.

At the New York Times, Helene Cooper writes about Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and candidate to become the next secretary of state.

“… critics of the Obama administration’s Africa policy have focused on the role of [Rice] in the administration’s failure to take action against the country they see as a major cause of the Congolese crisis, Rwanda. … Ms. Rice’s critics say that is the crux of the problem with the American response to the crisis in Congo: it ignores, for the most part, the role played by [Rwanda President Paul] Kagame in backing [Congolese rebel group] M23, and, as it happens, risks repeating the mistakes of the genocide by not erring on the side of aggressive action.”

Ms. Cooper obtained a quote from Tom Malinowski, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch, who, she writes, “has worked closely with Ms. Rice both in the Clinton administration and after.”

I fear that our collective regret about not stopping the Rwandan genocide, felt by all of us who worked for the Clinton administration, led to policies that overlooked more waves of atrocities in the Congo, which we should equally regret.

There must be a psychological term for this. It’s the exact opposite of the response that’s called for in the wake of a genocide that one failed to help prevent or bring to a conclusion. You’re kidding yourself if you think that giving a pass to a victim of that genocide who is now himself enabling slaughter will alleviate your guilt. That can only be accomplished by thwarting more slaughter, no matter how psychically indebted you are to the perpetrator.

Turning to Israel, it’s doubtful that the attitude of most Americans toward it is motivated by guilt. After all, not many know that, during World War II, for various reasons, the Roosevelt administration failed to allow Jews to emigrate to the United States in substantial numbers. Thus, it’s unlikely that guilt makes us disposed to indulge Israel in its treatment of Palestinians.

But, out of sympathy for Jewish victimization and stirred by Israel’s creation story, we enable Israel in its heavy-handed retaliation against what it perceives as threats. As with Rwanda, no matter how much a people has been victimized in the past, once they become victimizers, they’ve forfeited the right to sympathy for — and guilt about — their pasts.

UPDATE: At Daily Beast, John Prendergast, who worked with Susan Rice, writes:

… some believe that quiet diplomacy with Rwanda will move the region closer to peace, while others contend that punitive measures against Rwanda would hasten a solution. Honorable people can disagree over strategy and tactics. But the implication that Ambassador Rice—who continues to work diligently on the Congo issue—is somehow motivated to protect President Kagame because of guilt over the genocide or other theories is insulting.

The Oracle of Belgrade

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

Sonja Licht.

Sonja Licht.

When I sat down with Sonja Licht in Belgrade in 1990, it was like visiting the Oracle at Delphi. And her predictions of the future were not bright at all.

I’d met Sonja earlier that year through the Helsinki Citizens Assembly (HCA), which she would eventually co-chair with British activist and academic Mary Kaldor. HCA was a radical re-envisioning of Europe. In the late 1980s, before the Berlin Wall fell, activists from both sides of the Iron Curtain planned to meet together to proclaim a new Europe committed to peace and human rights. This exercise of “détente from below” was designed to crack open the bloc system and create the conditions for democracy and freedom in Eastern Europe.

Someone, however, pushed the fast forward button on history. By the time 1990 rolled around, the dissidents in the East had witnessed a dramatic reversal in their fortunes. Vaclav Havel became president of Czechoslovakia, Adam Michnik joined the Polish parliament, and other dissidents were just getting used to life in the limelight. HCA retained its vision of a new kind of Europe, but it recalibrated its short- and medium-term goals. Now, citizens from east and west could work together, without fear of repression, to create new institutions that resolved inter-ethnic disputes, created new kinds of representative structures, and explored different economic models.

The first assembly of HCA was set to take place in Prague in October 1990. Everyone I talked to in the region connected to HCA was excited about the imminent event and eager to establish national chapters.

Although she was looking forward to this first assembly, Sonja Licht was not optimistic about the future. Significant disputes had arisen among the different HCA chapters in Yugoslavia. A long-time civil society activist in Serbia, she anticipated worse to come.

“Yugoslavia is not a problem only for itself,” she told me back in September 1990. “Yugoslavia can really become a very huge problem for a good part of Eastern and Central Europe. Who’s touched by the future of Yugoslavia? Bulgaria, Greece, Romania, Hungary, Albania, and even Italy and Austria. So it is all our neighbors, not to mention other international relations, which would be shaken up by this part of Europe. And if they will be shaken, then much more will be at stake. Something like the dissolution of Yugoslavia will not happen without a civil war and make things much worse in this part of the world.”

No one else I talked with in Yugoslavia at the time was quite so dire in their predictions. But I was persuaded by Sonja’s analysis. When I returned to the United States, I repeated her Delphic predictions. But in 1990, Americans still thought of Yugoslavia as a cheap vacation spot and Sarajevo as nothing more than the location of the 1984 Winter Olympics. “Serbs and Croats? Aren’t they pretty much the same people?” I was asked. “They speak the same language, right?”

When I interviewed Sonja again in Belgrade this September, she didn’t take any pleasure in having been right about the tragedy of Yugoslavia. “I was already convinced in 1990 that we would not avoid a war,” she told me. “I was carefully watching what was happening around us. I saw that there was no internal countervailing energy, and this is why I sounded so pessimistic. I also saw something else. The world couldn’t care less. They simply didn’t understand. First of all, the European Community, but the Americans as well; they didn’t understand how serious this whole thing was. They had their own priorities. Iraq was in those times very present on their agenda. They were busy rearranging the post-Cold War world.”

Now, Sonja Licht is worried about the future not just of the Balkans, but of the entire continent: “As I was worried about the future of my own country in 1989, I am extremely worried about Europe. I hope that you and I don’t meet in 20 years and talk about how we are worried about the planet in the same way. ”

Below the recent interview, I’ve included the transcript of our discussion from 1990.

The Interview (2012)

How would you evaluate all that has happened here in Serbia from 1989 until today on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being most dissatisfied?

In these kinds of places that went through so much, I think it is extremely difficult to quantify. I must at least divide it into two parts. From 1989 to 2000, I would say it’s 1. Our worst nightmares came true. From 2000 until now, I could say that it would be between 4 and 5. By the way, today, September 24, is the anniversary of the democratic elections in 2000 when the Milosevic regime was defeated in an electoral way. Since similar processes happened in a number of countries, some of my colleagues, for example Pavol Demes from Slovakia, have called it an electoral revolution. Whatever we call it, democratic revolution or electoral revolution, our expectations were of course probably irrationally high. We were obviously in the world of wishful thinking. If I want to be very positive about this period after 2000, I would put it between 4 and 5.

How would you evaluate all that has happened to you personally from 1989 until today on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being most dissatisfied?

As a very social person, as a person who cannot divide her private life from her social life, I can say that the answer is similar to the previous question. We were extremely unhappy in the 1990s. And I really think that I could survive it as a more or less normal person because of my husband, who was all the time on my side, and my family. Otherwise I don’t know how I could have survived it and remained normal, whatever “normal” means.

At the same time, during that calamity, I was lucky, first and foremost because of George Soros and the foundation. I had been leading the foundation from 1991 until 2003. I had a tool in my hands to fight the consequences of the war. The most difficult moment in my life was in the summer of 1991 when it became clear that Yugoslavia would collapse. That was the worst moment of my life, after Croatia and Slovenia declared independence and the war de facto started. I was never in such a mood as then. Of course we were trying before that happened, with all forms of anti-war initiatives, to prevent the war. And of course we failed. I say of course we failed because I don’t know one single example in recent history when any movement managed to prevent a war from breaking out if the warmongers decided to start a war. And then the country broke apart.

Thanks to my activist nature, at that time I was co-chair of the Helsinki Citizens Assembly together with Mary Kaldor, I managed with activism to come out of a very difficult suicidal moment in my life, the only suicidal moment of my life. We organized a conference here in Belgrade on July 7, 1991, a huge conference, with participation by Adam Michnik, Milovan Djilas, Ernest Gellner, and many others, devoted to the disintegration of Yugoslavia and the integration of Europe. Already at that time we put it in that framework.

The 1990s were a time of tremendous activism for me, most of it within the Soros Foundation. I mention George Soros first because I don’t know how I could have survived the 1990s without an active interaction with the consequences of the war and trying somehow to make things a little bit better. The foundation managed to address the plethora of consequences, such as the needs of children, especially refugee children. We had a huge humanitarian program for refugees and the local population.

On the other side, we were helping emerging civil society, helping intellectuals no longer able to do their work because of a lack of resources or a lack of outside support. Against all odds, including the sanctions, we were able to provide artists, as well as people in the fields of academic research, culture, and education, with the means to travel, to go to scientific meetings and conferences, and to maintain the communication they had in their previous lives. I used to talk about the necessity to build think tanks and civil society. At one point, one of my good friends evaluating the foundation’s work said, “The most important thing you did was to save people. You saved some creativity and intellectual curiosity in people.” Someone else would say something different, but this statement struck me very much.

That was the 1990s. So, of course we were also very involved in the democratic changes. We supported independent media, Otpor, thousands of different civic as well as independent cultural and educational initiatives. Some were very local, very small; others were large. B92, for example, which at that time was a movement and not just media, was one of our flagship projects.

That brings us to 2000. My personal life, I would put on the scale even higher, especially in those first months of the democratic change. Suddenly I had a feeling that everything I was wishing for came true, and we were heading toward a decent, democratic, and normal society. Then of course in 2005, very personally, my grandson was born and that brought a completely new energy and light into my life, which is still there. And whenever it’s very tough I just have to think about him for a moment and everything gets better.

But then lots of disappointments began again. My life from 1989 to today is a roller coaster. We should all be quite satisfied that we are still alive and still kicking. I left the Soros foundation in 2003 and created the Belgrade Fund for Political Excellence. I have a real problem talking only about myself. I love working with young people, some of whom have aged along with me, and I am satisfied that I obviously know how to choose these great young people.

The Belgrade Fund for Political Excellence organized just a few days ago the second Belgrade Security Forum with extremely rich debates. People left the conference in such good spirit even though everything we were talking about was very difficult: from the crisis of the Eurozone to the major challenges that women are facing in this crisis, also security-wise. On our last panel we had wonderful women including two coming from Libya and Bangladesh. It was fascinating to listen to these women, especially a young woman from Libya and suddenly to realize how similar the risks and the challenges are when compared with women from the United States, Western or Central Europe, and how empowering her thinking is and her action. And she lived her whole life, from age 4 to today in Libya. She talked about how the role of women changed during what she called the revolution. For the first time ever, Libyan women were working in certain fields they never did before. They were going to the gas station to fill up their cars — yes, they were driving, and usually men did that – all the way up to working in the factory. I was sitting beside Mary Kaldor and I said, “Remember World War II in Great Britain and America?” Then the men came back, some of them wounded, some with PTSD. And then of course women were pushed out of power. At one point they controlled their lives, and now they don’t. Do we know this story? Yes, we do. It could be a completely different culture with a different tradition, but the story is so well known. And her main message was: “Please be very careful and don’t impose. We want democracy, but the only way we in Libya can fight for it is for us to come to our own way of fighting for it.”

With the wonderful, gifted and committed young people I am working with I am able to generate this kind of event in Serbia. We did this because we want Serbia to be part of the world and part of the most advanced debates. We manage to be part of the world because these young people have so much commitment to making Serbia part of that world. Yes, a lot of people who came to this meeting also came from different parts of the world, especially Europe because I have had intensive communication with them for more than 20 years. But the event would never succeed without my young colleagues putting in their heart and soul.

And when you look into the future, how would evaluate the near-term prospects for Serbia, on a scale from one to 10 with one being most pessimistic and 10 most optimistic?

I would put the number between 4 and 5.

When I interviewed you in September 1990, you provided the most accurate and the most pessimistic evaluation. Do you remember being so pessimistic at that time?

I remember being very afraid, very frustrated. I’m a born optimist. I was born an activist. The two things don’t go together, pessimism and activism. I remember that I was trying to do all kinds of things, such as organizing women, for example. However, I was already convinced in 1990 that we would not avoid a war. I was carefully watching what was happening around us. I saw that there was no internal countervailing energy, and this is why I sounded so pessimistic.

I also saw something else. The world couldn’t care less. They simply didn’t understand. First of all, the European Community, but the Americans as well; they didn’t understand how serious this whole thing was. They had their own priorities. Iraq was in those times very present on their agenda. They were busy rearranging the post-Cold War world.

I remember that in the period 1989-91 we had so many conferences in different parts of the world, and yet so many wrong forecasts. People didn’t think the Soviet Union would fall apart. They were so short-sighted. They were so impotent. What made me so pessimistic was that I did not see a readiness for preventive action. Unfortunately that turned out to be true.

We should remember that it was also a time of great excitement. The Berlin Wall fell. We all hoped that these countries in Eastern Europe would develop strong democracies with a human face, including social justice and solidarity. Unfortunately, and this is a long story, the dissident movement, with its quest for freedom and democracy, ran into the wall of neoliberalism, which became the model for transition. The neoliberal view as the only one possible, promoted by the Francis Fukuyamas of the world after the end of the Cold War, simply took over as the only game in town. First privatize, then build institutions: and that’s what we have until today.

Of course my part of the world faced not just this kind of challenge but a worse one: the falling apart of the country, ethnic hatred, and all the worst instincts coming from individuals but also from collectives, communities. I’m still convinced that the communist leadership together with the intellectual elite tricked people into this nationalist fever. So the political elite and other parts of the elite are most to be blamed. I was very worried. I saw nationalism instead of democracy taking over: the rights of my people against the rights of every individual. Unfortunately, instead of one country with many problems — a country whose size and human capital would make it quite credible in Europe — we got many small states. Even when very successful — like Slovenia used to be until recently since it had become the model among the new EU members — these small states after a while fall into traps that are the legacy of the dissolution of Yugoslavia. So instead of reforming Yugoslavia into a democratic federation, we managed to destroy it. And I don’t see that anything better came instead.

Now of course we all have another common denominator in the whole region, a common dream, and this is to become part of the EU. I believe that that is our only comparative advantage next to other post-conflict regions. This is why the Balkans could become a successful story after all. We have this common dream, and others don’t. What will happen to our dream is another question. I am a great Europhile because I am a strong supporter of the idea that the EU is the most successful political and peace project in the world. As I just said to a French gentleman, the editor of the journal Le Banquet, whom I met last week, “I survived somehow the dissolution of my own country, but I don’t think I can survive the dissolution of the EU.” It would be too much even for such a stubborn, already aging person like myself. The falling apart of Europe as a project would be a major catastrophe for the whole world, not only for Europe.

Do you anticipate that this will happen?

I don’t. But that’s a fear of people who are smarter than me, people like George Soros. The problem is, and I’m going to quote Mary Kaldor from two days ago who stated at the Belgrade Security Forum: we need more Europe not less Europe as the only way out of this crisis. I’m afraid the statesmanship potential of European leaders is so weak that it can be a serious impediment to our hopes that there will be more Europe. I am going to quote Mary again. People are going to the streets not because of the austerity measures, she said. That they can understood. They are taking to the streets to occupy Wall Street and occupy Hyde Park because they are frustrated with the lack of leadership. And they are afraid because they don’t see who is going to be the one — not one person, of course — who will lead us out of this crisis.

This still very much alive neoliberal model is the third worst thing that has happened since the beginning of the last century. We had of course the huge tragedy of Stalinism. Then we had the huge tragedy of fascism. And I’m afraid that this third thing, this neoconservative, neo-liberal imposed model will be the third huge tragedy. It has brought out such egoism in each society, in people, in states. The whole idea that the market is enough as a mechanism, that everything will fall into place with competition, that through competition we will become a better society, is such a dangerous model. I fully subscribe to the views of people like Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Krguman, Amartya Sen, and others. Sen has been saying these things in a much smarter way than me for I don’t know how many decades. These thinkers even receive the highest prizes, such as the Nobel Prize in economics. And yet they are not taken seriously. The behavior of the leading powers is completely different. And we are now seeing the result. And of course the periphery is much more endangered than the center. Since we are the periphery of Europe we see it very well here.

I know that we live in a multipolar world. And I am fully aware that Europe is not the center of the universe. But at the same time I know that this model that we are tailkng about – the European Union — is the best we’ve had so far. Here I’m quoting a dear woman from Uganda, with whom I was at a huge women’s conference at Guadalajara in 2002. We had a discussion the two of us, a long chat, and she said to me that she’s very hopeful that the EU will succeed according to all the ideas that were at that time on the table. I said, “Why is it so important for you in Uganda?” She said, “Because this is the best model that exists in the world. If we in Africa don’t adopt something similar, I don’t think Africa will survive as a continent.” This was one of the most convincing and at the same time striking statements I ever encountered. By the way, two days ago, when I was giving a closing address at the Belgrade Security Forum, I quoted her.

My dear friend Mary asked me, “Are we ready for a new movement for Europe?” And I said, “of course you can count on me.” I know it sounds a little crazy. I’m 65. But as long as I will bleed, I will fight for this idea. Yugoslavia is a dead idea — gone, finished. I’m never nostalgic. That’s a losing of precious time. But I’m a deep believer in regional cooperation. I believe that by cooperating in our region, by building new forms of confidence-building and working and living together, we can in fact convince ourselves and then we can convince everybody else that this region, despite all the very difficult history we went through, can learn the necessary lessons and can generate something new and creative for ourselves. And maybe we can be a model for others.

In the New York Review of Books, George Soros was very pessimistic about Europe. In some sense, he was saying that the idea of Europe has changed. It’s not just a question of more Europe or less Europe, but the very idea of Europe is changing in a neoliberal direction. In part because of a lack of leadership — he called on more leadership from Merkel. A new division in Europe is emerging between the creditor and the debtor nations and even within societies in Europe. And this will be a very dangerous division, a new kind of Cold War division of Europe. If the nature of Europe itself is changing, maybe the question is not more or less Europe but different conceptions of Europe?

When Mary was talking about more or less Europe, she also mentioned redistribution. As you know, this is the taboo word. You can talk about anything but redistribution. I was never into that. I don’t believe that this planet can survive if we don’t go into a serious questioning of the growing gap of haves and have-nots. This is another way of talking about redistribution, but not only of wealth, also of responsibilities. Helmut Schmidt, who is 90-something and the last great statesman in Germany, said last year in his speech at the Social Democratic Party congress that Germany is in surplus because the great part of Europe is in deficit. He dares to say this. And then he analyzes what it means. You need people like Schmidt and Joschka Fischer to say that something is wrong here, and not just in Germany. Germany is just acting according to the same neoliberal concept, and Germany doesn’t have another Helmut Schmidt.

I’m sure that Europe, like other places in the world, has very smart people. It can’t be that smart people or people with vision have just disappeared! But somehow they’re not in politics. They’re somewhere else. We need that type of people in science, in economy. But we need them first and foremost in politics, in decision-making positions. In Serbia and elsewhere, there is this public assumption that only bad, dishonest, and crooked people go into politics. In my opinion, this is an extremely dangerous assumption. After all, these are the people who are still making decisions about our present and our future. This is by the way why I started this Belgrade Fund for Political Excellence — to try to change the mindsets of politicians as much as possible through the process of education. My role model for this was Elena Nemirovskaya, founder and director of the Moscow School of Political Studies. When I first went to see Lena, when I was invited to speak at her school I knew that this was what I wanted to do.

Lena’s School wouldn’t survive without Soros’ help. I don’t want to say that George Soros is the only bright figure in the world. But in my life, in different ways, he played an extremely important role. Although sometimes we had our differences of opinion, I admire him for being so visionary in understanding what this part of the world means and how you make people aware of the need to fight for the principles of open society. At the same time I admire him because he refused to be part of this neoliberal crap. He made his fortune within that system, but he has consistently refused to be part of it intellectually and morally. I remember, in 1995, at the London School of Economics when he gave his first lecture about market fundamentalism and the fact that the new capitalist societies are not open societies. I told him, “George you added today a lot of new enemies to your list.” He was aware and very proud of that.

George is even more pessimistic than I am. I had a few very pessimistic characters at the conference last week. Some people said that there is no way out. I can’t buy into that — it’s against my nature. But as I was worried about the future of my own country in 1989, I am extremely worried about Europe. I hope that you and I don’t meet in 20 years and talk about how we are worried about the planet in the same way.

You mentioned that Yugoslavia is dead as a concept. You don’t have any Yugonostalgia these days?

Even if I do, I am pushing it aside.

I’m curious about the Helsinki Citizens Assembly — not just as an institution but as an idea — and whether you think there was a moment when something other than the neoliberal model could have triumphed in this part of the world. To a certain extent, HCA represented a different path. Was there a moment when there was a fork in the road and inevitably the countries in this region moved into neoliberalism and there was a moment when it could have been different? Or was it preordained after the fall of Berlin Wall because of where money was, where political power was, that it would move along this path?

I think that possibly there were some moments. I wonder what would have happened if Gorbachev had stayed, at least for a while. I wonder what would have happened if glasnost and perestroika — which were anything but ideal, but which were an opening in even that society — would have been immensely supported.

And then there was the HCA. The HCA was an idea of how to integrate Europe from below. The HCA was trying in a way to integrate all those very different initiatives, movements, and organizations that were really mushrooming after the Wall collapsed. The HCA also had a very strong current of peace organizations. But I’m afraid that the HCA didn’t have a chance because there was always a very organized indifference toward everything coming from below. Even when some dignitaries would sit down with us, the meetings were not substantial. They pretended to care about what civil society says and does. We were going here and there and visiting different important institutions. But I never had the feeling that they were substantially interested in what we had to say and were doing.

The integration of Europe from below meant integrating European citizens into the idea, bringing the idea to them and making them stakeholders. This was not really accepted, and I believe that this is one of the problems today. You see it in all this Euroskepticism. Citizens were never seriously encouraged to be proud Europeans. They were proud Germans and French and Belgians (whatever that means) or Brits or Albanians or Serbs. Being a proud European was simply not there.

Without those top-down and bottom-up approaches meeting and embracing each other, it is extremely difficult for Europe to respect one of its main slogans — unity in diversity. One problem is the European crisis. The other problem is that we don’t know how to live together. You remember how proud we were of that main slogan of unity in diversity. And it is lost because we are stopping people from coming into Europe. According to very serious estimates coming from European think tanks, a workforce of 100 million people will be needed in EU countries by 2050. Yet we are doing everything — letting them get lost in the Aegean or drown in the Mediterranean — just to prevent them from coming.

Last May at the Sofia Forum, there was a lady from Tunisia who said, “Look, you are asking us now how can Europe help. And we don’t really take that question seriously. If Europe was not able to host 20-40,000 Tunisians — many of them very educated, French-speaking Tunisians — and make them into a bridge between Tunisia and Europe, then I won’t take seriously that you want to help.” If maybe Europe would be sensitive and smart enough to open up to the 20-40,000 Tunisians, political Islam wouldn’t have become so prominent in Tunisia. I don’t know. I don’t know these countries and societies enough. But I have enough experience to dare to think this way.

The project of a united Europe carried the potential for a different Europe, not more, not less Europe, but a Europe ready to provide leadership in a world facing tremendous challenges, from global warming to the arms race to problems of migration. Is Europe ready to come out with a new type of thinking about economy that could be strong enough to challenge the model that is basically falling apart in front of our eyes?

Was there a point when you thought that the HCA was not going to work? You talked about when you met with elites and they weren’t interested in your perspective. Was there a moment when you thought, “As much as I love this project, as much as I believe in these principles, it’s just not going to happen”?

I’m not sure if there was a single moment. I think there was a series of moments. I was extremely hopeful when we had the constituent assembly in Prague in October 1990. A thousand people came from all over, and it was like a celebration of a new type of freedom, a new type of communication among those who had never communicated. Then we had our first regular assembly in Bratislava in April 1992. Then we had our second in Ankara in December 1993. Already in Bratislava and especially in Ankara — and by the way, the topic in Ankara was Where Does Europe End? — I already felt that something very important was missing, that we were losing the moment.

For example, in Ankara, I was chairing a huge session that lasted for five-and-a-half hours about the Turkish-Kurdish relationship. I was struck by how totally insensitive some people coming from the core European countries were in facing those issues. In fact, they almost messed up everything. There was a Green representative from Germany who brought that meeting — the first meeting of that kind to take place in a semi-open way — almost to collapse. Probably that was the moment when I started wondering about who are the partners for this project in general, and whether HCA could be a real catalyst for building a partnership between Turkish and Kurdish activists and the Green activists in Germany, for example. That was our basic idea, to bring everyone together and build a new community of those who care and dare to fight for a different Europe. I didn’t believe that we could change everything, but I thought we could have a serious impact. Unfortunately, already in December 1993, I saw that this was simply not happening.

We were holding probably some of the first conciliatory meetings between the Macedonians and the Greeks, the Kosovars and the Serbs, the Azeris and the Armenians — you name it. We knew that this is a long, painful process, and you need devoted people, people who will do it out of commitment, out of conviction. It’s okay if they also want to gain credibility or if this helps their vanity, that’s all okay, as long as we have a positive result. But I realized that unfortunately things are much more difficult than we thought when we were dreaming to create a Europe of communities and not just of nation-states. You can see the results today. This is why we don’t have a fiscal union, why we don’t have European bonds. Yes, the European Union is the most successful political and peace project. But it has not managed until now to become a political community. That is what we need. And again, we need to remember that we are a diverse community and this kind of diversity must be maintained. We can’t be a different Europe within a Fortress Europe model.

I remember in those first preparatory meetings before the first Assembly, there were big arguments over the structure of HCA and the question of Yugoslavia was also brought into that. Do you think that was a cleavage point for HCA?

The first huge argument we had in Budapest — at the first serious preparatory meeting — was about the place and visibility of the LGBT population at the first, founding Assembly. Our Slovenian friends insisted that their role must be visibly mentioned in the program. And the Czechs partners said, “Out of the question. If we put that into the program, we will immediately lose a huge potential constituency.” On one hand, you had the conservative, more patriarchal Eastern European attitude and on the other hand you had the more alternative, more progressive Slovenian attitude. For me, that discussion was very important because it was clear that we have very different worldviews in the same basket.

There were other debates, a few months later, about the structure. But at that time, you also had these debates very much overshadowed by what was happening in Yugoslavia. That was the first real-life challenge to HCA. All kinds of things happened. For example, some of our Slovenian friends suddenly out of the blue started supporting the Slovenian leadership, started to make normative statements like “they are the aggressors and we are the victims.” If we weren’t in such a challenging environment, this would have been maybe a normal debate. As I think back, some of them were for Yugoslavia without an army, Slovenia without an army, and then suddenly Slovenia becomes independent, and some of them became advocates of Slovenia having a huge army. Some of them could not resist this call.

We were not fully aware that we were living through history in the making. On the one hand, there was the fall of the Berlin Wall and the building of a democratic order. On the other hand, there was a country falling into pieces where one kind of autocratic order was being changed by another kind of autocratic order. It was maybe too complicated to understand what was happening at the moment. But HCA also suffered from many different problems including the fact that probably it didn’t have the best possible structure. A group of people was leading the whole process and then there were the national branches, which were sometimes really great at generating all kinds of creative and daring civic ideas and actions. In between were these assemblies every 18 months, which became weaker, weaker, and weaker. We didn’t have the resources for more assemblies, and we probably needed more structure. You see something similar with the Occupy Movements: they have a lot of potential but they have a major problem reaching out to and influencing the decision makers. For this you need structures and for this you need resources.

By the way, I think that the European Council of Foreign Affairs, which I was asked to join a few months ago, is one of those efforts to try to rethink Europe. But I’m afraid that it’s not enough. We must also act. We must do both processes at the same time: rethink the concept and act to save the existing one. If we don’t save the existing one there will be no space for the new one to come.

In 1990, you felt that nationalism had overwhelmed the political discourse in Serbia. Where are we today? We have a new government in Serbia. Some people say that it’s nationalist, it’s reversing some of the promising reforms of the Tadic years. That’s at the top, with the government. But we also have these nationalist formations coming more or less from below, populist movements like Dveri Srpske. There’s obviously a relationship between top and bottom here. Are you fearful of this? Or do you think that Serbia is basically heading in the right direction?

I think that nationalism in Serbia has basically exhausted itself as an overwhelming power. It exhausted itself, and most people understand that it is a dead end. This is why, when you look at the figures in a comparative perspective in the region, hardcore nationalism is much higher in some countries in the region other than in Serbia: Hungary, Bulgaria, not to mention Greece. Unfortunately in Greece there has been the revival of the worst kind of nationalism, which is really scary. And we know why: because of the economic crisis and the problem of migrants. The two things go together.

This doesn’t mean that this nationalism can’t come back in Serbia. But I don’t think that this is our immediate future. In terms of this new government, the majority is coming from the nationalist forces that were active also in the 1990s: the Socialist Party and the Progressive Party (which basically at that time was part of the Serbian Radical Party). But they are acting in completely different circumstances. I’m not worried so much about nationalism but about whether the government has the knowledge and skills to lead this very complex process that Serbia faces: on one hand European integration and on the other hand how to normalize the situation between Serbia and Kosovo.

Many serious analysts here, and also in Europe, believe that this government will have more maneuvering space than the previous government because they are understood as nationalists. These analysts cite De Gaulle and Nixon as examples of conservatives who were more successful than liberals in solving major challenges facing their nations. We’ll see. This government could be part of the solution if it manages to enhance its competence and if it has the right mixture of pressure and support coming on one hand from within the country, from the political opposition and civil society, and on the other hand, from the EU, from all those capitals that really count. For example, the first necessary step is to open the accession negotiations for Serbia, and for all the countries of the Western Balkans, as soon as possible since only through this process we have a chance to build our democratic institutions, rule of law and hence the necessary political culture.

Serbia is in a pretty challenging situation. First and foremost, as with all the other countries in the neighborhood and beyond, this is because of the economy. If the economy collapses in a major way, and there are some reasons to believe that this might happen, then of course we don’t know which way we can go. But this is not unique for Serbia. We saw it in Greece. The situation in Romania and Bulgaria doesn’t look so promising either. I believe that the safeguard here is again the European integration process. I think that it is extremely important that the major European capitals understand this, not only for Serbia but for the whole region. It is difficult to talk only about Serbia. We are so closely dependent on each other in the region: economically and in all other ways.

I think the European Union and the European Commission should have an even more serious regional policy than they do. When I say regional, I mean the enlargement policy. I’m advocating the need to have a very active, very thoughtful task force that would connect different parts within the European Commission, which would deal with the opportunities for how the region can go forward. This is not because I believe that the Balkans is the only important place in the world, but because I believe that the progress of this region could provide stronger institutional recognition for the Commission itself among the member states of the EU and even beyond.

When Berlin, Paris or London make their decisions individually and collectively, they don’t really take the Commission as a decisive factor. I know that this is not pleasant for the Brussels bureaucrats to hear, but this is the truth. In gaining success in the Balkans and in neighboring countries such as Ukraine, for example, or Moldova, they could prove to these capitals that without them the situation will become more serious on the periphery of Europe. They could institutionally strengthen themselves by helping us to become more successful.

It is true that support for immediate European integration in Serbia has fallen to around 50 percent. But 2/3 of Serbian citizens say in the same polls that we need European-type reforms. I think that this proves that there is a serious maturation of the citizens, that they understand that reforms are necessary. They understand that strengthening institutional infrastructure and rule of law is necessary. We have to build on this. This is where I see that Serbia made a huge step forward from the beginning of the 1990s.

Of course, I was hoping personally that we would manage to have stronger institutions over the last 12 years. This institutional weakness is something that worries me deeply. Then if you have in mind that the European Commission is always saying that the Serbian institutional and administrative capacity is much stronger than in other parts of the region, that worries me even more. But I also agree with Ramzi Lami from Albania, one of the most outstanding thinkers and activists from Albania and from the region, who said at our conference two days ago that the region is more successful than individual countries. It sounds like a paradox. But in fact both because of our internal reasons, because of economic exchange, but also because of outside political pressure, we have established visible and not so visible regional ties including in the very sensitive fields of security, police cooperation, and the fight against organized crime, which is unfortunately very powerful still. This cooperation in fact makes us a more successful region than as individual countries. This paradox breeds optimism because it means that we have some potential.

If I remember correctly, you are originally from Vojvodina. What is the future of Vojvodina? In two years, what do you think will be the resolution of the current conflict over decentralization in Serbia?

They will have to come to a compromise. Vojvodina is a different story than anywhere else. In Vojvodina, more than 65 percent of the population is of Serbian background. Anything that would broaden the gap between Belgrade and Novi Sad would be in fact so unacceptable to the citizens that it would simply fail. After all, we are a democratic country, despite all the problems and the huge gaps in our democratic structure. Elections are a pillar of democracy, so whoever would try to really broaden that gap would definitely fail in the next elections.

But we do have a major issue: how to find a form of decentralization — genuine decentralization with full respect for the subsidiarity principle — that would allow for development as well. In general, Vojvodina is unique, not only in Serbia but also in Europe, as one of the remnants, if not the only remnant of a multiethnic and multicultural Austro-Hungarian empire. Vojvodina is a multicultural, multiethnic island. I believe that we all have to put a lot of energy into preserving that island.

Vojvodina is at the same time the most developed part of Serbia, together with Belgrade. It is an agricultural area. And we know how much agriculture is becoming a strategic resource. So it has a lot of features that can make it a vehicle for the development of the whole country. On the other hand, there is also huge development gap between Vojvodina and the rest of the country. With the help of the EU programs and funds, we have to bridge this gap, because those gaps in such a small country like Serbia create a problem. I know that there are still some who dream of greater Hungary, of greater Austria, of greater Serbia. There is again a role here for Brussels to oversee these processes.

My firm opinion is that Vojvodina is not going to become a problem. The good news is that also some of the minority communities, including Hungarian, which is the largest, understand very well that the future is in cooperation. My own institution works with a number of minority councils. We have very good cooperation with the Hungarian minority council. And the largest Hungarian party, with the leadership of Istvan Pasztor, is proving to be a very mature political player.

By the way, our deputy prime minister for European integration was asked about Vojvodina’s representation in Brussels, and she said that it will be absolutely okay, that no one questions the need for Vojvodina to have an office there. The question is how it will work.

With all the lessons we have learned, are we really ready to make major disputes out of such questions? If we do, then it means that we deserve to be unsuccessful and very unhappy once again. But I don’t think that people can be that stupid.

Interview (1990)

Can you begin by describing to me the situation here in Yugoslavia?

It is very difficult in a short time to summarize the situation in Yugoslavia. I would say first of all that politically it is very bad. It is very bad economically as well. Politically it is bad because as you know nationalism is really becoming very bad, it is becoming the main framework of even everyday life, not simply political life. The elections were already held only in Slovenia and Croatia. On a formal level, we can say that the situation there is much better because of this fact. On a substantial level, it is unfortunately not true. Because especially in Croatia, nationalist forces are very strong and it is even very difficult to talk about the beginning of a genuine democracy because this Croatian Democratic Union is so much stronger than anyone else that one can even talk about one party rule which is no longer Communist in essence, but nationalist. Of course, there are quite a number of former Communists in this party. They don’t really have a strong economic program at all. They have a strong national program and this is a very unsophisticated one: the sovereignty of Croatian people over everything else.

On the other hand, in other parts of Yugoslavia, especially in Serbia, there is still a situation without elections. We are waiting for elections and will probably have them quite soon. But I really must tell you: I am very doubtful that it will change anything. Right now, it looks like this will not be a normal election, not a fair election. The new draft of the electoral law is absolutely unsatisfactory. It is done by the former Communist and now so-called Serbian Socialist Party. They want to adopt the same majority system as in Croatia. Which means, not proportional, but two circles: those who gain the majority in the first circle go on to the second circle. Now you can use something like that in France or Britain quite easily. You can say that it is not too fair but it will not change too much in the system. Of course when you have the first elections after fifty years, this kind of electoral system can really give you a parliament that will not represent the will of the people. But even if you put aside this system, there are many other things in the draft of the electoral law. Such as, the campaign will last only one month and that the electoral conditions will not be made up by people of different parties, but by judges, 98 per cent of whom belong to the previous system.

Even with fair elections, I don’t believe we would have a good political situation in Serbia. The Nationalist Bloc is the strongest one. That includes the Socialist party itself and a number of far right nationalist opposition parties, conservative, primitive, with the main idea that first of all Serbia needs to be united, to be safe as Serbia, and we will see about democracy afterwards.

By united you mean…?

United in terms of the two autonomous regions. All of the nationalist parties are against any autonomy for Kosovo. And in such a situation, you cannot speak about solving the internal situation of Serbia. The internal situation of Serbia right now is very bad. We almost have a civil war in Kosovo. It is still under some control. First of all, it is right now under control of the Kosovo Alternative (that’s how the official side calls the Kosovo opposition parties) who have decided on a Gandhian way of resisting the repression of the Serbian government. But, first of all, how long this will last? Second, right now, there are two extremist positions. One is the position of the Serbs themselves: the party in power and most of the opposition parties. The other one is of the Albanians. It is clear that in Serbia they will never agree to the solution that Kosovo attains the status of a republic. And on the other hand, the Kosovo opposition doesn’t want to make any more compromises any more on this issue.

Even if you take a broad-minded position on the question of self-determination, it is still a question: can a minority have the right of self determination to secession? You can say, OK, Slovenians are a constituted nation of Yugoslavia. The same is true for all the other republics. What can we do with the status of Albanians? They insist that they would have to have this status of a constituted nation. But, having in mind that they have their own state, the neighboring state of Albania, I think on the level of international relations this is a big problem. Tomorrow, the Hungarians can have the same claims in Romania, to say that they are a constituted nation of Romania and they want their own republics. And so on and so on, you can go further all over Europe.

What is the percentage of Albanians in Kosovo?

Very high. Kosovo, around 90 per cent. It is used to be after the war, 55-60 percent. It’s clear that this very high percentage cannot be a result of a completely natural process. There was a pressure to make an ethnically clean Kosovo. On the other hand, the problem is not so much only with Kosovo. There’s something like 30 per cent of Albanians already in Macedonia. And a very high percentage of Albanians in Montenegro and southern Serbia. So the issue is: what is going to be the republic, only Kosovo or something else as well? Also, if Kosovo secedes from Serbia or Yugoslavia, that’s the end of Yugoslavia itself as well. Because it will not stop at Kosovo. Macedonia would be next. As you know, the rights of Macedonians in Bulgaria are not accepted at all: they are not recognized as a separate nationality. And because of this whole very strong separatist movements all over Yugoslavia, even in Serbia itself, there is a separatist movement which is nationalist as well coming out in the south. They are coming out with the idea of a Greater Macedonia which of course would mean the changing of borders with Greece and Bulgaria and so on and so forth.

I used to say quite often that Yugoslavia is not a problem only for itself. Yugoslavia can really become a very huge problem for a good part of Eastern and Central Europe. Who are touched by the future of Yugoslavia? Bulgaria, Greece, Romania, Hungary, Albania, and even Italy and Austria. So it is all our neighbors, not to mention other international relations, which would be shaken up by this part of Europe. And if they will be shaken, then much more will be at stake. Something like the dissolution of Yugoslavia will not happen without a civil war and make things much worse in this part of the world. I say this because it is not only the problem of Kosovo. One can imagine that Slovenia can secede without a very huge problem. But as soon as we come to Serbian-Croatian relations–which used always used to be the most difficult problem–we come to the changing of the inner borders of Yugoslavia. Even when we talk about confederation. What will happen with Bosnia? Bosnia has consisted of Muslims, Serbs and Croats. Both sides claim that it belongs to them. This is the first issue they will fight over.

As you probably know, we had a very dangerous situation with the so-called referendum of the Serbs living in Croatia which happened quite recently. There are many hypotheses that this was also provoked by Serbia–which is probably true at least in part. But there is a very strong pressure in Croatia on everyone who is not Croatian. I got a telephone call from a friend of ours from Split. He called out of his mind. He said, “if I go into the city, I see young kids with tattoos of swastikas and the new symbols of the Croatian state.” He said that he was sorry that the telephone line was not so good because you could hear right now people walking on the streets and shouting slogans, this well-know slogan from World War: Hang the Serbs from the trees. There was a genocide as you know in Croatia: something like half the Serbian population was killed. Of course, those people are full of memories and probably their leader was right when he said “These people are not normal.” The Serbs are now talking about these holes. The Ustasa [Croatian puppet government allied to Nazis during WWII] used to kill people and put people in these big holes in the mountains. Of course, many people remember these things. The worst thing is that the nationalists are manipulating with these things in the worst possible way.

This is going on all over Yugoslavia. The nationalist parties are the strongest ones: Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Kosovo. Even in Vojvodina, which used to be a model place of a multinational community living in relatively good understanding. I grew up in Vojvodina and I know: it was a model place of Central Europe. People were living together: Hungarians, Serbs, Croats, Slovaks, Romanians, Ukranians. This is not propaganda, I grew up there. This worked until to the 1960s. When the Communist regime was losing its legitimacy, it tried different things: self-management and self-government, the limited market economy. They all failed because they were so limited they couldn’t work. Then they found out that there is still one thing they hadn’t tried: nationalism. Although there are many historical reasons for what is happening now, I must say that I am convinced that the most important reason is the Communist dictatorship. I must say that they really used these feelings in the worst possible way. On the other hand, they destroyed any social space for any normal way of life. They made people become very authoritarian. In such a state of affairs, nationalism is very good ideology: it is one-dimensional, easy to understand, blud und boden and so on.

This is altogether a very pessimistic view. There are some options but the question is: how strong are they? First let me mention the option of the Yugoslav federal government led by Ante Markovic which is trying to overcome the situation with a substantial economic reform. They do have some good ideas. They do have, I would say, a good will. They did some miracles, as with stopping that awful inflation of the last year. On the other hand, the main side effects of this politics were, first of all, a very strong slowing down of the economy: a recession. Which of course is not simply a Yugoslav specialty. Everybody is attacking Markovic because he is trying to do something with the Yugoslav option. I must tell you that I’m almost completely convinced that, although I don’t believe too much in monetary miracles, he is not really the one to be blamed for this. There were some good projects: as far as I understand, no one is helping him. Those who are attacking him–the Serbian, Croatian, Slovenian governments and so on–are really not doing anything but attacking him. They are promising new steps but…It is very clear in Slovenia. They did have a democratic election. They are the strongest Yugoslav republic, the most developed one. They are very dissatisfied with Markovic but they themselves couldn’t do anything up to now. Of course, it is a very short time to do anything serious. But it seems that what they are doing is moving things backward, not forward. So, Markovic is one of the options. He decided to form a political party–the Union of the Reformist Forces. Whether he wants to make a real party or he simply wants to make a symbolic gesture that there are people who are very much interested in the Yugoslav option–this is another story. He is trying very hard to come out of this deadend situation.

Then there are the options of the Yugoslav left parties. I say left only in comparison with the nationalists. Like the Association for the Yugoslav Democratic Initiatives. Like the Social Democratic Union of Yugoslavia which I am a member of and my husband is the preside3nt of the Serbian section of the party. Such as the Greens. Such as the women’s movement which is getting stronger and which has succeeded, thank god, to stay out of this nationalist euphoria. I don’t know for how long and I’m not sure the part in Kosovo is succeeding. The others are, up to now. I have to add something else, to show how complicated the situation is. We decided at the beginning of the year to form an Independent Union of Women in Zagreb. We did not even add the term “Yugoslavia” insisting that it is transnational, transparty in its structure. A typical umbrella organization without any hierarchy. It is so unhierarchical that maybe it’s bad (I don’t hear anything from other members of the coordinating board for sometimes months). It is the loosest thing you can imagine. The women’s groups in Slovenia refused to become part of the Union because they are afraid that such an umbrella organization will make some pressure on them, in a centralized unitary way. So you see it is very difficult to do anything on the Yugoslav level. Because you have the Slovenians who are afraid of anything on the Yugoslav level. I think this will change quite soon, but right now, this is the situation. It is similar in Macedonia. Many of these groups in Macedonia are also afraid of anything with the word “Yugoslavia” in its title.

The Greens are organized, the women are organized. There is the weak but still existing Helsinki Committee for Human Rights which is also on the Yugoslav level. I don’t insist that the Yugoslav option is the only option for the opposition concerning the nationalists: there are also inside the republics some forces opposing the wild nationalism. But these are not succeeding. It is something like an iron law. I would like to give you an example from Serbia. Even those parties which were formed as democratic, as parties close to the Free Democrats in Hungary, after a while, they slip into this nationalism. It seems that because this nationalism is so strong, they just can’t exist if they want to stay in the political arena. So there are two forces: the nationalists and the others. The others try to organize on the Yugoslav level because this is their main field of excellence. But this is also why there are very weak.

There is the Social Democratic Union of Yugoslavia. But there are also national Social Democratic parties which are not in our unions and they couldn’t resist nationalism either. Couldn’t or didn’t want–that’s another story. Because it is also clear that the nationalists are doing everything they can do to fill up the whole political space and not leave any space for anybody else. Some of those who call themselves social democrats are really nationalists who just want to confuse the public opinion.

There is a new initiative from the Liberal party of Slovenia to discuss with some others who are close to the liberal point of view about the future of Yugoslavia. Now, everyone who is concerned about the future of Yugoslavia is opening up this dialog. The nationalists speak about confederation but without any dialog and without any definition about what they mean about confederation. Those who are not nationalists are really trying to think over this option as well but are trying to open up a dialog.

As far as Yugoslavia is concerned, in this phase of development, nationalism is a regressive force. It cannot help this country to go further in a normal democratic direction. All the stories that nationalism is an integrating force for democracy don’t work. I think it is very important for our Western friends to understand this. I know all the misconceptions. When I was in the States in 1988-89, I had a long series of discussions about it. People were not ready to talk about it. They were looking at Lithuania and Poland and trying to convince me that nationalism is really a liberating force. I think they will understand very soon that even there, this won’t work. I think the most important feature of these nationalisms, putting aside everything else, is that they’re not democratic. They are authoritarian by their very nature. To have a new authoritarian stage of development after this totalitarianism, it will be a disaster. That’s the simplest formula that one can use. In Eastern Europe and in Yugoslavia, it is important to go back to simple formulas. There are these very developed ones and they just don’t work.

For example, I myself am very interested in the position of minorities and minority rights. I came to the conclusion that when I define a minority, I define it in a statistical way. A minority consists of those who are in a minority versus the majority. And I was very glad to find that the Commission of Democracy through Law constituted by the European Council gave the same definition. They made a set of principles on minorities in Europe and they came up with the same definition. They made this Council because they are also coming to understand that this is an important issue.

I think right now we are facing a very long and troublesome period. I don’t exclude the possibility of civil war. Things will not start to work out as long as Milosevic is in power in Serbia. I don’t want to say that he is the only one to blame. But he started this very dangerous process and the others more or less responded to it. He is a remnant of the old period and if he wins the elections in Serbia we’ll have an even worse situation than in Serbia.

He seems enormously popular here in Serbia.

It’s not so enormous as it was. There’s a lot of manipulation with his popularity as well. But there is still a possibility that he would win a fair election. And since we probably won’t have fair elections, the possibility of his winning is that much bigger. He succeeded for quite a while to manipulate with this Serbian nationalism and with Kosovo and now with the position of Serbs in Croatia. But others are taking his flag as well. I don’t want to say that I would be happier if Draskovic comes to power. In a way, he is worse. He advocates a very primitive nationalism. I think he’s a crook and he might be worse. But it would be the beginning of the end of nationalism. The price we would have to pay, I don’t know.

Senator Dole came here yesterday with a number of Senators and Congressmen. And they went to visit the Yugoslav President Jovic who is a nobody by the way. And of course he gave them the old story: they have to compare the rights of the Albanians to other minorities in Europe. Of course they have these rights but de facto everybody knows what is happening. Albanians gathered in front of the hotel in Pristina [in Kosovo], something like 10 o’clock. In the meantime, the police made a riot against them, came with tanks and so on. They were fighting the police and the police was fighting back. And the police succeeded in cleaning up the space. Now Dole arrived in such a situation. What kind of image is Serbia giving with this? My question is: what would happen if they left these 5-6000 people to stay there and shout? I saw a million times pictures of Bush receiving someone at the White House and there are demonstrators standing and shouting. Dole came and there was already this police riot against Albanians. He met with representatives of the Albanian Alternative Union with the presence of journalists. Then he met with the representatives of the Serbian groups there. I know those people: they are the most extreme types that you can imagine. Of course, they came to the conclusion that these groups cannot have dialog with one another and that’s it. But, the image with which he left was the worst one. My question is: what is the Serbian government doing, what does Mr. Milosevic have in mind? Do they want to isolate Serbia from the rest of the world.

There was another Senator here who gave an interview to our newspaper Borba, endorsing what is happening in Croatia and Slovenia and putting the whole blame on Serbia. (That’s not the American approach, I know it very well.) That’s not the whole picture. On the other, Serbia and Milosevic are doing everything possible to ensure this picture is made. They are stimulating a very bad state of mind: that everybody is against us and we can only fight for our national pride and so on.

We must resist this. It is difficult, maybe even dangerous. We are already treated as traitors to the Serbian nation. The deputy editor in chief of Borba told me, “I’m thinking about an editorial in which I endorse all the traitors. And say that what Serbia needs now first of all is traitors.” When somebody like him is ready to write such an editorial, it is clear how far the situation has deteriorated.

Not to continue on this pessimistic way, I must say that more and more people are understanding that this is not the right way. When I say more and more, I mean urban population, young people, in intellectual professions. Not so much for the others, who are the majority. As far as young people are concerned, who are by the way my only hope, they are at a very strong level of apathy, they are not interested in anything, they are trying to stay out of this whole story. Some of them are poisoned with nationalism in a semi-conscious way. A huge number of them are just running away from the whole thing. When you tell them, “look you can’t run away,” they say, “if there’s a civil war, I’ll go away, I’ll go anywhere, I’ll do anything, I’ll just leave.” That is the general feeling among students, young professionals. Of course, what I would like, is to see them engaged in the whole thing.

On the 9th of September, there will be a demonstration against a draft of the electoral law. Six parties from the Nationalist Bloc made a joint demand concerning the change of the draft and were received by the Deputy President of the Serbian parliament. These talks were a complete failure. So they decided to make a demonstration. The first demo of this kind was in June. I didn’t go there because I knew it would be nationalistic. Now I am getting so nervous about Milosevic and this whole electoral law. I told my husband yesterday that I will go to the demonstration on the 9th. And he said, “You know what will happen. You will go there and they will begin with the extreme nationalist songs and slogans. In five minutes you will become sick and so desperate and upset that you will have the feeling that you have no space whatsoever in this world.” And he’s right.

What about trade unions?

The official trade union is trying to catch the last train. They didn’t even change their name. But they’re hectic in speaking out. In Serbia, they are taking a stand close to Milosevic; in Croatia, close to Tudjman. But there is some change. They are taking more and more the stand of the workers. Now the workers themselves don’t believe anymore in the official trade unions. There is a movement to organize unofficial trade unions but it is still weak. The workers are in such an awful economic position. First of all, they are frustrated. At the same time, contrary to the Polish situation, you still have big differences between different industries: those with salaries with very low and those, even within the same factories sometimes, salaries are high. There is therefore a problem with solidarity. It is interesting that the first independent trade unions were organized by intellectuals–the same as in Hungary.

And in Bulgaria.

We just had an awful mining accident. There is no independent trade union of the miners. Calling for the resignation of all those in charge is not enough anymore. It is not the problem of this or that minister. We have at least one mining catastrophe in Yugoslavia each year. It’s not the human factor. The reason is that the mines are old, the technology is old, the whole thing is done as in the Middle Ages. We have more mining catastrophes than in Poland. The only way out for them is to organize their own trade unions and really to change things. You know there was a strike in the very same mine, 14 days before. One of the suspicions is that the something went wrong. It seems that they didn’t control so well the devices and the security. Those who were in charge did not inform the miners who were side by side the ones who eventually died. They left them there to work until the end of the shift. That was 250 people. You wonder why anyone goes down anymore! ButBorba said today that of the 180 miners who died, 165 were married, and only 5 wives were employed. These were very poor people in a poor region.

I was almost sure if you had asked me as year ago, that these independent trade unions would have developed much faster. One of the main reasons it hasn’t, again, is the nationalism.

We do have a women’s movement right now that is stronger than anywhere else in Eastern Europe and is getting stronger and stronger every day especially in Ljubljana, Zagreb, Belgrade.

Is the movement organized around particular issues?

There is one initiative, the SOS telephone, to help women endangered by violence and this is working very well. The other issue is abortion because there is a strong campaign against abortion by the nationalists. This movement is stronger in Slovenia and Croatia because there is Catholicism combined with nationalism. But here in Serbia as well. We organized this initiative quite quickly and got good coverage in the media. Then there is the question of unemployment of women.

Now we organized together with the Feminist Group something that is called the Women’s Lobby where we have representatives of different parties and independent and feminist groups as well. Only the Greens and the Social Democratic party sent their representatives. Even the Democratic party said that they don’t have anybody to deal with this problem.

The ecological movement is quite strong, all over Yugoslavia. Because of the disastrous situation of the rivers and so on. But this is having success in different fields. It was a spontaneous anti-nuclear movement against power plants, organized after Chernobyl. It succeeded, in fact was the first movement to succeed, to push the whole issue in front the Federal parliament and the parliament banned the construction of new nuclear power plants until the year 2000. Which is a great success. It is the only East European country to have made such a decision. Six of them were planned. We have one and they planned six more. It was a spontaneous movement. In Serbia, a kid started the movement among high school students: he got something like 700,000 signatures. It was really well done.

Which doesn’t mean that there aren’t accidents. It was a big scandal when the Greens found that the nuclear waste was burned in a copper mine close to the Romanian border. They still say that it is not true. But the Greens came out with the whole story (there was a very high level of radiation in Belgrade last August, for example).

President Obama Stands Poised to Reward Assad’s Biggest Supporter

Cross-posted from the United to End Genocide Blog.

The situation in Syria is grave. Fears of the use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Assad reached new heights last week. The United Nations (UN) is pulling more than 1,000 staffers from Syria due to intensified fighting near the capital. Additionally, a 48-hour Internet blackout has made communications with critical staff impossible.

For nearly two years, Russia has intentionally blocked action to save innocent lives in Syria, even as it remains the main weapons supplier to the Syrian regime. Diplomatically, they have vetoed three UN resolutions for a peace settlement and militarily, they’ve supplied the Assad regime with attack helicopters, advanced defensive missile systems and munitions.

This past summer, a Syrian government plane returned home from Russia with 200 tons of “bank notes,” providing Syria with valuable currency as the United States and others imposed trade sanctions, weakening the Syrian economy. By supplying the murderous Assad regime with currency, weapons and blocking UN resolutions aimed at ending bloodshed in Syria, Russia has become an important lifeline for the brutal Assad government.

As the civilian death toll continues to climb in Syria, President Obama is about to lift Russian trade restrictions that have been in place for 40 years. The Senate voted last week to lift the Cold War-era ban that would normalize trade relations with Russia, to which President Obama responded, “I look forward to receiving and signing this legislation.” Ironically, this will formally make Russia a “most favored nation” of the United States.

Russia’s role in the slaughter of 40,000 people is not what is driving this policy shift. Guess what is? Lawmakers hope that the legislation will boost U.S. exports by giving U.S. businesses increased market access. U.S. exports to Russia could double in 5 years. “Our manufacturing sector needs every boost it can get,” said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry.

Human rights champions in the House and Senate noted that the bill included another Act – the Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act – that targets Russian human rights abusers. The law blacklists Russians connected to the death of Magnitsky, whose crime was working for American law firm in Moscow when he discovered a $230 million tax fraud being carried out by Russian police. He died in police custody. The law will also authorize the blacklisting of those responsible for other gross human rights violations, prohibiting entrance to the United States and use of its banking system.

Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), one of champions for the Magnitsky bill, said “Today, we open a new chapter in U.S. leadership for human rights.”

Maybe so, but what about the human rights of the innocent people of Syria who are being slaughtered by their government? Rewarding Russia with economic perks and declaring it “most favored” while the Russian government provides the murderous Syrian regime with arms and diplomatic cover is wrong.

The United States has appealed for Russia to reverse course on its support of Assad and has condemned Russian intransience with words. But, money talks. By dolling out economic perks and trade deals to Russia – even as people die in Syria – the U.S. is sending precisely the wrong message at the worst possible time.

Tell President Obama that Russia should not be awarded perks while it aids and abets mass murder in Syria. Ask him to stand with the Syrian people by keeping trade restrictions on Russia in place.

Tom Andrews is the President of United to End Genocide.

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