Focal Points Blog

Fight for Human Rights in Bulgaria Meets With Mixed Success

Krassimir Kanev monitors and assesses human rights for minorities in Bulgaria.

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

Krassimir Kanev

Krassimir Kanev

Bulgarian politician Ahmed Dogan was in the news this weekend after surviving a dramatic assault at a party conference in Sofia. Dogan is the controversial leader of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF), an organization established in 1990 that has largely championed the rights of ethnic Turks and Muslims living in Bulgaria. Dogan was going to announce during this speech that he was stepping down as the head of the party.

It was not a clear-cut assassination attempt. The assailant, Oktai Enimehmedov, used a gas pistol, usually a non-lethal weapon though it could do considerable damage at point-blank range. But the pistol was loaded only with pepper spray and noisemakers. Enimehmedov, who is an ethnic Turk himself, was immediately set upon by members of the audience and security personnel, who punched and kicked him. The video of the dramatic scrum has gone viral.

It’s not entirely clear why Enimehmedov engaged in this half-attack on Dogan. He may simply have disliked the MRF leader and wanted the media limelight. This being Bulgaria, however, conspiracy theories abound. The most popular seems to be that Dogan orchestrated the whole affair, though this scenario makes little sense.

Ahmed Dogan is no stranger to controversy. He has long been criticized for his autocratic style and the many years he was on the payroll of the state security services prior to 1989. And the MRF has witnessed various fissures, most recently when former deputy chairman Kassim Dal broke with Dogan and later established his own party.

Despite these controversies, the MRF has achieved considerable successes, both as a political party and as a movement to advance the ethnic Turkish and Muslim community in Bulgaria. I spoke recently with Krassimir Kanev of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee. He has worked on human rights issues in Bulgaria for more than two decades and helped write one of the first reports on the situation of ethnic Turks in Bulgaria in the 1980s.

“Overall, I think that the Movement for Rights and Freedoms was quite positive in Bulgaria,” he told me. “They were able to both protect the human rights of the ethnic Turks, as well as to advance their welfare in the regions where they live — especially when the Movement was in government, which was for much of the past decade.”

“There were, however, also some negative developments,” he continued. “They created a political ghetto for the Turkish minority. If you’re an ethnic Turk, the expectation is that you vote for the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, and there has been little incentive for the other parties to work among the Turkish minority. Although some parties made some moves in that regard, it was mostly the MRF that focused on the issue.”

In addition to the rights of ethnic Turks, we talked about a current court case against 13 imams accused of promoting violence, the declining status of human rights NGOs in Bulgaria, and why Roma in Bulgaria have not replicated the success of the MRF. Below this interview, to provide a point of comparison, I have appended excerpts from an earlier discussion we had in 2007 about identity questions.

The Interview

Do you remember where you were when the Berlin Wall fell, what you were thinking, and whether you thought about its impact on life here in Bulgaria?

As with many other people in Bulgaria, it was something I sort of expected. Because I was active in the “non-formal” organizations under communism, before the Berlin Wall fell I envisaged that the political development in Bulgaria would be somewhat similar to what happened in Russia under Gorbachev. There would be more openness, more possibilities for the freedom of expression, but with certain restrictions imposed by the communist regime. In the long run I thought that communism had no future, but I thought of this perspective as long-term. And in Bulgaria, as in the other Eastern European countries, it happened quickly, this dismantling, this dissolution of the system — against the expectations of many people. At that time I was surprised, I was pleasantly surprised, but at the same time it went against my social, and personal, and advocacy strategy. So I as well as lots of people around me had to reconsider strategies in view of the circumstances.

You were here in Sofia in November 1989?

Yes, yes, I was always here in Sofia. On that day I moved to a new home, where I am still! In the evening we heard that Todor Zhivkov had been dismissed. So it was a new life and a new home, as well as something new in society.

Was there a point when you remember a clear dividing line in your life, between being non-political and being political?

That dividing line was before communism fell, certainly. I can’t think of a specific date, but it certainly happened when I was a PhD student at Sofia University. At that time, my social and political outlook was formed, and I got involved in informal politics at that time. I was sure that this was going to be my future, whether communism would last longer or fall as it did.

You did informal politics with a group of people at the university?

Yes, with a circle of people, some at the university and some outside. They were all intellectuals.

And was there anybody in your life at that time that said, “Krassimir, this is not a good idea?”

Oh, yes! My mother and father of course. They still think it’s not a good idea.

How strenuously did they try to convince you?

They were quite persistent. They thought that this was dangerous and wrong. My life should be more focused on my academic career and my family. They always thought that speaking out in public creates enemies—which is true. At that time more than now, but more or less they were always against this public activity.

At what point did human rights in the sense of monitoring and assessing the situation for minorities in Bulgaria become the focus for your work?

My involvement with minorities and with the persecution of the Turkish minority was a motivation for my initial involvement in politics. That specific period in Communist history, 1984-85 and the name-changing campaign of the Turkish minority, took place in the middle of my Ph.D. time. I was involved investigating this campaign immediately since the beginning. I published an article with several other people, an article about the campaign that was smuggled out of Bulgaria and published in the West.

I was telling Deyan Kuronov that I felt that the opposition came together around the issue of ethnic Turks and he said, “No, no, no! It was just me, Krassimir, and Dmitrina Petrova.

In this intellectual circle of people, yes. But there were of course many other people outside this circle who were involved as well. And those were mostly Turkish intellectuals and activists. There were several other groups in society who were in one way or another involved in this issue, but we were not in touch.

I got the sense from Deyan that for the opposition as a whole, as it came together in the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF) and allied organizations, the issue did not become a rallying point.

No, never. The situation of minorities has never been the focus of anybody’s political work, including the opposition. There were serious debates in the opposition. In the UDF at the beginning were people with very nationalistic outlooks and approaches. That was the reason why the Movement for Rights of Freedoms at that time was not accepted in the UDF.

Was there anything that you think could’ve been done differently at that time to link democracy with the human rights of minorities?

Yes, of course, lots of things. But there was a price to be paid. It was a society heavily indoctrinated into nationalism, under Communism but also before. This nationalism and ethnocentrism is very much part of the Bulgarian national identity. It’s how people think: “We are Bulgarians because we were enslaved by the Turks, and we emancipated ourselves from Turkish rule, and therefore these are our basic enemies.” Therefore it is very difficult to make a political issue from the rights of the Turkish minority. If you try, you will lose.

That was part of the reason why the Union of Democratic Forces could not win a majority in the first elections: because the UDF was perceived (and was made to be perceived) as people who would return the names of the Turks. Within the UDF at that time were people who refrained from taking up the issue of ethnic minorities because they didn’t think they could win on this issue. So my answer would be: Yes, lots of things could have been different, if these democratic forces had been more sensitive to the rights of minorities. But on the other hand it’s not clear what influence this opposition could have had on society.

In other words, it would have been a much better opposition in terms of its agenda, but it also might have been…

Weaker politically, yes.

That’s a common dilemma.

Also now in the United States, I guess.

Yes, unfortunately. When you think back to your perspective in 1989-1990, are there any positions that you’ve had second thoughts about? Or do you feel that your perspective is pretty much the same as it was back then?

One of the things I’ve thought that I could have done better is to go through some additional form of education, either in Bulgaria or abroad. I didn’t, I was very busy. So I made do with my education under the Communist regime. I had to self-educate a lot. I did this, I think, quite successfully, but I always regret that I haven’t taken an additional Masters, or an additional Ph.D. Not because I would have been better at what I do if I had this formal education, but because other people look at these things seriously when you start talking about human rights. This issue of whether you have a law degree always comes up one way or another, for example.

In terms of the focus of my work, I should have picked some topics in the beginning that were obviously serious. Some institutions in Bulgaria that were away from everybody’s eyes — children’s institutions — were revealed as horrible in the late 1990s and 2000s. We didn’t pick those issues at the beginning.


There are lots of children’s institutions in Bulgaria, for orphans but also for other children, children with disabilities, delinquent children.

That’s very interesting, and I appreciate your candor about those choices that you made. But I’m also interested in any change in thinking you might have had in 22 years.

Yes probably. In human rights particularly, my thought evolved with lots of issues. At that time, for instance, I might have been more inclined to think that it might be horrible to have these institutions—children’s institutions, psychiatric institutions, other types of institutions—but they could be improved by themselves. Now I’m reluctant to tolerate any type of institution for anybody. So my thoughts in that regard evolved.

My thoughts evolved on other human rights issues. In the early 1990s we used to focus predominantly on ethnic and racial discrimination, whereas subsequently we found that other types of discrimination were also worth considering. Those issues were somewhat disregarded, like for example discrimination against sexual minorities or women or people with disabilities. I only started focusing on these issues at a later stage. Other issues became more serious over time. For example, in the early 1990s we didn’t have any refugees or migrants here. This issue became more serious over time, and we had to give some more thought to this.

When I was here in 1990, among the people I talked to, the status of NGOs was very high. Since there was so little trust in government at that time, if you were non-governmental that was a plus. I’m surprised to come back and discover when I talk to people that NGOs are not always viewed so positively.

Well, this image changed a lot – for different reasons. One is that in the 1990s the funding of NGOs was more independent, and so NGOs could be more independent. They could be seen by society as something not part of the government. Now this independence is completely compromised by NGOs associated with some forms of governmental funding that comes either directly from the government, or through some European Union program that also goes through the government. Now there’s not much sense in even saying you’re an NGO if you’re taking your money from the government, one way or another.

Then some NGOs allowed themselves to be used. But that goes also hand-in-hand with funding by the government. They lost their independent image. Still, I must say that there still are NGOs that are able to preserve their status as independent, outside monitors and evaluators of governmental policies. And I believe our organization is one such organization, but there are several other groups too. There are not many, though. On paper and in reality, maybe the amount of money that goes to the NGO sector is the same as in the 1990s, maybe even more. But if you think of really independent NGOs, now there are much fewer than there had been in the 1990s.

In the realm of human rights in particular, are there any other options other than NGOs, government, and the European Union?

There were some governmental structures, like the ombudsman. We had several independent governmental bodies such as the Commission Against Discrimination that became players in this field five or six years ago. And that made a positive change. On the other hand, we had a sharp decline in NGO activity on human rights. There are very few human rights NGOs left, compared to the 1990s.

Largely because of funding?

Yes, the shift of funding negatively affected the human rights NGO world in particular.

What about the emergence of informal movements?

There has been very little development in that regard in Bulgaria, and those groups have had no influence on public policy at all.

In terms of political parties, I’m particularly interested in the Movement for Rights and Freedoms. How would you evaluate the work of the MRF over the last 22 years? Has it made a real difference in the lives of ethnic Turks?

There were positive developments and they were probably more than the negative developments. Overall, I think that the Movement for Rights and Freedoms was quite positive in Bulgaria. They were able to both protect the human rights of the ethnic Turks, as well as to advance their welfare in the regions where they live — especially when the Movement was in government, which was for much of the past decade.

There were, however, also some negative developments. They created a political ghetto for the Turkish minority. If you’re an ethnic Turk, the expectation is that you vote for the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, and there has been little incentive for the other parties to work among the Turkish minority. Although some parties made some moves in that regard, it was mostly the MRF that focused on the issue.

So, for instance, the current minister of culture…

He’s Turkish, yes. And the party now in government, GERB, also tries to reach out to the Turkish minority to some extent, with some success. The splinter group that emerged from the Movement for Rights and Freedoms is viewed as going into prospective alliance with the party now in government. The Socialist party (BSP) had some success in the Turkish regions, but very modest. So, both GERB and the BSP have reached out to the Turkish minority.

When you look at the level of prejudice in society over the last 22 years, do you think the Movement or any other efforts have succeeded in reducing the overall level of prejudice specifically toward ethnic Turks?

Oh, yes, I think so. The very fact that ethnic Turks became visible in society reduced a lot of prejudice. The research also indicates that this has happened. There’s still a lot of prejudice, but certainly not at the level that we had in 1992-93. The fact that we now have government ministers who are ethnic Turks is quite significant. This was unthinkable in the 1990s. When the Movement for Rights and Freedoms was involved in the government in the 1990s, it had to propose a Bulgarian as a government minister because at that time it would have been unacceptable to have a Turkish government minister.

Someone told me that an important cultural indication of the change is the popularity of Turkish soap operas here.

Indeed, yes. But that was a recent thing. I think that they too contributed to better acceptance of ethnic Turks.

When I talked to people in 1990, there were some people who really thought that ethnic Turks would be a fifth column for Turkey to re-colonize Bulgaria. But I don’t have the sense that those suspicions still exist.

They do exist, but at a much lower level.

Let’s move to the Roma issue. I don’t get a sense that there really has been much improvement there, but what’s your impression?

Not at all. There’s even been a decline over the past several years with this government. With the Roma, different governmental institutions adopted different papers expressing some positive attitudes towards integration, but those were largely papers. None of them were implemented in reality. And the situation of Roma remains the same as it was in the 1990s, including the level of prejudice and discrimination toward them.

At the non-governmental level, there were some developments in the desegregation of Roma education over the past 10-12 years. But this government basically attempted to put a stop to this development. There were police investigations into these projects, harassment. The local governments in many situations obstructed any effort at the integration of Roma.

The housing situation improved somewhat for those Roma who were relatively affluent. But for others it worsened, and over the past several years there were forced evictions from several cities, which never happened in the 1990s. The access to health care worsened dramatically since the health-care reform of 2001-2002. Roma were able to benefit much more from the health-care system then than they can now. The last census indicated an increase in illiteracy and in Roma children not attending school.

There hasn’t emerged anything comparable in the Roma community to the Movement for Rights and Freedoms? Do you think that there is still a possibility of a Roma party emerging?

No, it’s impossible. Because they are very diverse. They are diverse religiously, they are diverse linguistically, they are diverse in terms of regional identity. I think that a Roma party comparable to the Movement for Rights and Freedoms has no chance here.

When I ask people, “What will make a difference for the Roma community?” I get different answers, such as jobs or political power. What do you think?

There are lots of things that could make improvements in the Roma community. Measures to desegregate education, for example. Segregated education is a serious problem. This is a ghetto-type education that produces illiterate people with degrees. The housing situation can improve, and yet it doesn’t improve. In certain cases it gets worse. Most Roma in Bulgaria actually live in illegal houses. They can be evicted at any time and left on the street. Access to health care is also important. This health-care reform doesn’t work for Roma, but no one thinks of improving the way poor people are insured. And these factors — particularly education — influence employment. There’s ethnic and racial discrimination in employment, but people are also not hired because their level of education is very low.

Has there been an effort to train Roma teachers to work in schools?

There are Roma teachers, but they teach in segregated schools and that is a vicious circle.

Is there a legal basis to bring the government to court to force it to desegregate?

No, the Bulgarian justice system doesn’t work that way. You cannot expect a court to order the government to desegregate the school, as in the United States. It’s impossible here. There have been efforts to take up this issue in the courts, but all of them were so far unsuccessful.

When you talk about legal strategies, for the most part you’re talking about individual cases involving individuals, or maybe a couple of individuals?

Yes mostly. But we’re looking at these cases as a strategic issue, an issue that would affect the situation of a larger number of people. We had a case this April where the European Court of Human Rights found a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights over a situation of forced eviction. And the legal standards it came up with must be relevant not just to this small Roma community that was affected here in Sofia, but also elsewhere in Bulgaria.

In theory, this would produce a change in the legislation. The problem, however, is that we’ve had lots of such cases that uncover incompatibilities between our legislative framework and international law. But Bulgaria doesn’t execute these judgments. It just pays compensation and doesn’t do anything to prevent the reoccurrence of a similar situation.

You can only go to the European Court if you’ve exhausted…

…all domestic remedies. Which means that very often the Court will find an incompatibility between a certain national law and the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights. But the execution of these judgments is a serious problem.

Other than enforcement mechanisms connected to payment, there really is nothing the European institutions can do to force the Bulgarian government to change policy?

There’s a possibility to impose a fine. The European Union does this when you’re found in non-compliance with a certain EU directive. They impose certain penalties within, say, five months. After five months it becomes double, then triple, and so on. But the approach of the Council of Europe is different. They never fine a country for the execution of these judgments.

The case you’re working on now is connected to religious minorities.

Yes, this is a very serious problem now. There’s a case now in a regional court in Pazardzhik. Thirteen Islamic imams and muftis are on trial for propagating anti-state ideology – for propagating Shari’ah law, which the government considers to be anti-state. They’re not accused of promoting violence. They just say that Shari’ah is the supreme law, which is above the laws of the state. And not all of them, only some.

The initial reason for this trial was a massive raid by the secret police back in October 2010 in areas populated mostly by Pomaks, Bulgarian-speaking Muslims. The police went to the mosques, went to peoples’ homes, went to offices, and took 33 bags of books. And this trial of 13 people came out of this action. Back in 2010, this government was in alliance with the Ataka party, and I think this was part of the reason for the raid. They wanted to display their anti-Muslim sentiment and their anti-Muslim approach. But this was also something that Ataka provoked, and the government party wanted to keep Ataka on its side.

Ataka has always been talking about Islamic fundamentalism, extremism, and things like this. But Muslims perceive this talk as a direct attack against their Muslim religious identity. When this trial started several days ago, there was a gathering in front of the court of Muslims from all those regions, and they spoke at that gathering of a new “revival process.” The name-changing campaign back in the 1980s was officially called the “revival process.”

Are there Shari’ah courts here in Bulgaria as there are in the United States, in the UK, even in Israel?

No, we abolished them in 1938.

So there’s no informal application of Shari’ah?


So you are challenging the government on…?

Freedom of expression and freedom of religion. The defense argues that the peaceful expression of even fundamentalist religious beliefs should not be a matter of criminal prosecution. It would be another thing if you incite violence, but there was no such evidence of this. And the law actually doesn’t require that you incite violence as a condition for prosecution. The mere propagating of ideas that are anti-democratic without violence is a provision in the criminal code that dates back to the Communist period, when it was used to suppress the anti-Communist opposition. I think it is now being used for the first time since 1989 against these Muslims.

So actually it is going to be difficult with this law on the books to argue for the freedom of expression in this case.

This law was passed in 1968. After that we ratified the European Convention of Human Rights and other international treaties. So, it should be interpreted in the light of the standards that were established at that level.

So you think you can get the right judgment in the case without actually getting rid of the law entirely? And just have a reinterpretation of the law?

Yes, that’s what we’re aiming at in that case. But ultimately the law should be repealed.

But if you first have a reinterpretation, then you can use that as the basis for an argument for repeal.


And what do you think the prospects are for getting a good judgment in the case?

I would say 50/50. We’ve had very bad judgments affecting Muslims. I am now the representative before the European Court of Human Rights for two people who were convicted in 2010 for organizing a party along religious lines, the Muslim Democratic Union. They simply took the statute of the Christian Democratic Party, which was registered and legally operating—they even have municipal councils here and there—and changed “Christian” to “Muslim.” But that was considered by the criminal court in one area as a crime, and one of the people was sentenced to one year of imprisonment suspended for three years. The other one was fined 4,000 leva. So that case is now before the European Court of Human Rights. We formally have a provision in the criminal court, that again dates from the communist period, that punishes people for organizing a political party along religious lines.

I thought it was also in the Bulgarian constitution.

Yes, the constitution has a prohibition, but you can enforce that prohibition through different means, for example by refusing to register a political party. It is one thing to refuse to register and another thing to go after the person. By the way, in the constitution we have a prohibition of political parties organized around ethnic and religious lines, but in the criminal code we have a provision that punishes only for religiously based political parties. But that is a remnant from communism. They just haven’t introduced the ethnic provision in the criminal code.

Are there other cases similar to the one in Pazardzhik?

Oh, yes. We have now one case of a Muslim girl who was suspended from school for five days for wearing a hijab. That is also likely to go to the European Court of Human Rights, but it is still in the domestic courts.

Is there a law here that prohibits the wearing of the hijab?

No. The law that regulates education says that education should be secular. But that is interpreted apparently in different contexts. On the one hand, it’s secular. But on the other hand, nothing prohibits, for example, Orthodox priests from doing activities in the schools. But when you wear a hijab, then yes, you get suspended.

Has there been any attempt here to introduce the same kind of laws that we’ve seen in France, and elsewhere in Europe, explicitly prohibiting the hijab?

There’s a lot of talk about this. It would be difficult to introduce it here, but I would not be surprised.

What about mosque or minaret construction, like in Switzerland?

No. That actually is something quite positive here. Lots of people laughed about this amendment that was passed in Switzerland. Lots of people here thought that was totally ridiculous.

Well, that’s good.

Because we have 2,500 mosques.

That would be challenging.

To demolish their minarets.

Have any other religions come under legal challenge? Judaism, for instance?

For now it’s only Islam. From time to time Jehovah’s Witnesses get harassed at the personal level when they proselytize in peoples’ homes. They would have problems with the residents, and sometimes also with the government. And the Mormons. But other than those…

Now that Ataka is no longer in government, some people say that the age of Ataka is over — at least politically, as a party.

I very much hope so. But it’s not clear.

Do you think that the ideas of Ataka still are very strong, even if the party isn’t?

Yes. The age of Ataka is over because it shows very poorly in the public opinion polls. But this is because there are several splinter groups from Ataka that also score some results in the public opinion polls. And the combined percentages of all these would make as much as the percentage of Ataka from the last election. So the percentage of people who are prepared to support extremist nationalistic views continues to be quite high.

For instance, people who support VMRO…

Yes, they are now in alliance with Ataka and this will probably become formalized in the next elections. It is not clear what is going to happen.

And they are also talking about forming a kind of paramilitary—similar I suppose to Jobbik in Hungary. Do you think that’s an actual possibility? Do you think there are enough people who are interested?

Oh, yes. There are enough people who are interested in forming such a group, but it’s legally impossible now. I’m not sure that could be made possible by the government.

It’s legally impossible now because…

You are not allowed to maintain private armed militias.

But they might do it even though it’s illegal.

Oh, yes. They have these people, and they have their uniforms. They march from time to time. Every year they celebrate. In February they have a march here in Sofia. Some of them are in uniforms in that march.

We’ve been talking about relatively negative trends. But in terms of a future tolerant Bulgaria, or a future multicultural Bulgaria — if we can go that far — do you see any bright spots or positive trends?

Ethnic minorities have a better presence in public life and the government. Now this is accepted. Roma are heavily underrepresented, but their number is growing as a relative share of the population, so the prospects for them are becoming better. I don’t think that they will ever become influential as a single political party, but they might act through different political parties at the local level. It is now largely accepted that we have Turkish government ministers, something that was previously unthinkable. We never had them actually, not since the liberation!

Since 1878!

Yes! That is a very positive sign. And consecutive governments have had Turkish government ministers. Even this government, which is anti-Turkish and anti-Muslim, has a Turkish government minister! So, the acceptance of the Turkish minority in the mainstream politics seems to be going well, and that is a positive sign. The migrant population, I guess, will grow too, and will have also influence. Initially probably at the local level, but at some point maybe at a national level.

Migrants from…

We have lots of Chinese now, but we have also migrants from the other EU member states. Lots of British, for example, have settled here and bought houses on the Black Sea coast, in the mountains. We have, for example, British municipal councilors.


If they are EU citizens they are allowed to vote and be elected to municipal government.

Do they speak Bulgarian?

Some do, because they have been here for many years. Most, though, don’t study Bulgarian. They speak English and tend to communicate between themselves. But some learn, get involved in politics, and are basically well accepted by society. We have a very strong Russian community, too, on the Black Sea coast, which is growing.

The last question is about trust. I understand from talking to people, and also from an Open Society report, that there is a low level of trust in this society: trust toward the government, toward civil society, even interpersonally. And I was wondering whether that’s something you’ve also not just seen but experienced…

Oh, yes.

And what do you think is a way to build trust in society?

That has always been a problem in Bulgaria. I wouldn’t say that there has been a positive or negative trend in that area. The level of trust, interpersonal and institutional, has always been very low. Probably part of it comes from the heritage of Communism. Then there’s all these issues of organized crime, and corruption, and government involvement in corruption. This has also undermined trust in institutions. This is a very bad thing, and very un-European. It’s more American, I think, particularly with regard to trust in institutions.

The institution in which Americans have the highest trust is the military, which is very, very frightening.

Here too! But there is very little trust in anything that reminds people of a government.

Other than an anti-corruption campaign, and transparency, and an end to impunity—the usual kind of Open Society Foundation type of programs—is there anything you think can be done, at a non-governmental level, to build trust?

Trust comes with large societal reform: reducing corruption, making an inclusive government, strengthening the democratic process, and learning from the past. We’ve never re-elected a government. Every time we have an election, the party in power steps down and another party steps in. That has to do with trust too. Political parties haven’t learned from their mistakes and from the past.

Finally, some quantitative questions. On a scale of one to 10, with one most dissatisfied, 10 most satisfied, how would you evaluate what has changed or not changed in Bulgaria from 1989 to today?

Probably between 6 and 7. So, overall it was satisfying, although the expectations were higher than the result. Maybe five years ago I would have said 7.

Same period of time, 1989 to today. Same scale, 1 to 10, most dissatisfied 1, most satisfied 10. But this time your own personal life.

Around 5, let’s say.

Finally, as you look into the next couple of years here in Bulgaria, what is your feeling about what will happen, with one being most pessimistic and 10 being most optimistic?

There’s a lot of uncertainty about what’s going to happen in Bulgaria over the next several years. That would mean perhaps I should say 5 again.

Sofia, September 28, 2012

Interview (2007)


Bulgarians are the only ones proud of being Balkan, because the Balkan Mountains are here. Otherwise people are afraid of being branded Balkan.

There is a tradition here in the Balkans that we have better relations with Germany and France, and not with each other. There is a bad image of the Balkans in Europe and elsewhere in the world. Whoever can avoid calling him or herself Balkan will do their best to do so. The Serbs maybe would now accept being called Balkan, but it’s for the worst reasons: to oppose Europe, to pose Balkan against European.

There are some scholars like Maria Todorova trying to promote the view that everything bad in the Balkans is the influence of the great powers. This is more true for the Middle East and the Muslim world than for the Balkans. Very often the involvement of Europe was very positive in the Balkans.

The idea of a Balkan federation has its origins in the Ottoman Empire. It has had proponents in every Balkan country. Unfortunately, it was also promoted by the communists, and that means that it is opposed and denounced here.


There is a deep-rooted idea in Bulgarian politics of nation-building. This nation-building of Bulgaria was an attempt to establish a homogenous, ethnically-based nation on a territory that has never been homogenous. Bulgaria was more successful than some of her western neighbors, because the number of ethnic minorities here is relatively small.

There is an image here that we have lived peacefully with our minorities for centuries. This is not true. There has never been peaceful coexistence. There were lots of policies of ethnic cleansing. There were assimilation attempts. For Bulgarians, particularly after the fall of communism, there was some pride that “we managed to keep the peace in Bulgaria.” Because of this, you would hear from some that interethnic relations are harmonious. But it was because there was no ethnic conflict of the magnitude of former Yugoslavia. But this also serves as a deterrent in terms of how far it can go.

People here say, “We are not against the Turks, we are only against their political party.” Or they say, “We have nothing against them personally, but why do they build mosques?” The relationships with the Muslims in Bulgaria are probably not that problematic. They can be sorted out one way or another. This country has the highest share of Muslims in Europe on a per-capita basis. In some Western countries, the attitude toward Muslims is based on the assumption that they are not civilized, that they violate the rights of women. There is less of that here, because a Bulgarian would not value gender equality as much as a French or a Dutch would.


For some minorities in Bulgaria, the situation got better, of course. For all the smaller minorities, except the Macedonians, it got better: for Jews, Armenians, Vlachs. They were able to freely express their identity. Their schools were opened. For instance two Armenian schools opened, one in Plovdiv, one in Sofia. There’s one Jewish school in Sofia. The Karakachani registered their associations and opened an out-of-school center for studying their language.

The situation of the Turkish minority generally improved with the restoration of their right to their names. They started to study their mother tongue in public schools. Their political participation has always been strong at the local and national level, and it is improving.

For the Roma, though, I couldn’t say that there has been any improvement, except that they were able to assert their identity. They could register their associations. They could publish their Roma newspapers. But many elements of their life worsened, such as their exclusion from society. They were always excluded from society, but this process of ghettoization increased, particularly after 1990-1, particularly after they lost jobs. There is now a parallel life outside of Bulgarian society. No one pays attention to this parallel society. Mainstream society is interested in guarding itself from Roma society. Neither are the police interested in what happens in the ghetto.


The ghettoization of Roma life has increased. More Roma entered the ghetto. Some of the ghettos got larger – in Sofia and several of the big cities. People are coming from villages outside Sofia because the employment opportunities are better or at least they can try to find some work – in garbage collection and so forth. With the increased size of the ghettos has come all the consequences. The education became more segregated. And discrimination is quite severe in almost every sphere of social life, such as housing and health care. The latter particularly worsened after the introduction of the current health care reform because it is based on insurance. Before 1999, it was free health care. It was the socialist model. You go to the hospital and get the care for free. Now you have to pay. And in addition to that you have to pay a consumer tax. The Roma are not able to pay. So their access to health care has worsened dramatically.

The situation with employment has improved a little bit with the employment boom over the past several years. There are also possibilities to travel abroad, especially from the beginning of this year, to other EU member states. Many Roma were on social assistance in the 1990s. Since May, the government cut social assistance for everyone, but mostly for Roma. On January 1, the first 18 months of temporary social assistance expires. Perhaps 40,000 Roma will remain on the street. Because of the economic boom, the assumption of the government is that everyone will find employment. But that’s not true, particularly in the countryside. Anyway, the access to social assistance is conditioned on whether the person actually sought employment. If they were able to find a job, they would have found it.

With the economic boom, the price of property went up. The government started targeting Roma neighborhoods for demolition. Last year, in one Roma neighborhood in Sofia, very close to the center, all the 200 inhabitants were supposed to be removed without compensation and just left on the street. At the last moment, four members of the European parliament wrote a letter to the mayor of Sofia and he stopped the demolition. Otherwise, the courts approved that the Roma were occupying the flats illegally. But 70 percent of Roma occupy their houses illegally. They usually can only build illegally.

Since 2005, the general perception of Roma has worsened. The racist Ataka party entered the parliament in 2005. It’s not just Ataka. Their language has also been picked up by other parties as well.


The Macedonians are another group whose situation has not improved since 1990. It’s not like under communism when the dominant ideology was that everyone is Bulgarian. After 1990, minorities could publically express themselves. For the Macedonians, however, their political party was prohibited several times. They went to the European Court for Human Rights in Strasbourg, which decided in 2005 that this was a violation of freedom of association. After this decision, the Macedonian party tried to register. Twice it was turned down, the last time on August 23rd. They and the Pomaks are the only peoples whose self-expression and self-identity are not recognized by the government. The opinion of the Council of Europe advisory committee on national minorities issued last year described the situation in Bulgaria quite fairly and singled out these two minorities for mention.

No one seriously fears separatism since the Macedonians are such a small group. But this is the tradition in Bulgaria, to view Macedonia as a Bulgarian land. After the liberation from the Ottoman Empire, there was a gradual process of accession of lands that were at that time outside of Bulgaria. Then came all the wars fought to bring Macedonia under the Bulgarian government. This was the major reason why Bulgaria joined with Germany during World War II, because Germany offered Macedonia to Bulgaria. There was a period of ten years after the communists took over when the government recognized Macedonian identity. There was this dream of a Balkan federation. Bulgaria’s Dimitrov and Yugoslavia’s Tito made a formal agreement. Macedonia was supposed to be a constitutive member of this federation. But this federation failed. For a short time, Bulgaria tolerated this identity. Since Zhivkov came to power, the communist government became gradually more nationalistic and denounced Macedonian identity. But now everyone in politics considers the recognition of Macedonian identity a communist policy!

In formal relations between Bulgaria and Macedonia, there were very few agreements before 1999. Bulgaria initially refused to recognize Macedonia because the treaty was proposed in both Macedonian and Bulgarian languages. The formula in 1999 was that the Macedonian language would not be mentioned. Instead, the treaty would be concluded “in the official languages as provided for by the respective constitutions.” This situation gradually improved through mutual relations. There were a lot of factors involved. One of them was the Macedonian fear that this issue would block integration into Europe. Macedonia also has a problem with Greece and it didn’t want to create a problem with Bulgaria, too.

Macedonia sponsored a Macedonian cultural center in Bulgaria. Two years ago, they employed a Bulgarian national. He was an ethnic Macedonian, with a clear Macedonian identity that he wasn’t afraid to show. The Bulgarian government wanted this person removed. So Macedonia eventually removed him and appointed someone from Macedonia itself.


The European commission took a very schizophrenic approach to Bulgaria’s accession. Every report contained a comprehensive list of human rights problems and some of them were quite significant – torture, the situation in prisons, Roma integration, the situation of the mentally disabled. But then, in the end, the commission would say, “Nevertheless, Bulgaria fulfills the Copenhagen political criteria.” The Bulgarian government would just simulate taking some measures. But only those measures that were part of the EU Acquis were effectively taken – the adoption of an anti-discrimination law, the adoption of the data protection law. But on the desegregation of Roma education, the commission simply mentioned that education was too segregated. There were several policy papers from the Bulgarian Ministry of Education. The ministry followed up with several programs that were never fulfilled. It was just paperwork. Bulgaria took small amounts of money from the EU to improve the situation here and there. But it was on a haphazard basis and sometimes based on the political interests of particular politicians. On paper, there are plans and policy documents for the integration of Roma education. But in practice nothing happened, not one Roma child was integrated. Yes, there are several desegregation programs going on, but they are non-governmental, sponsored by the Roma education fund, the World Bank and Soros.

There was a Roma survey on education in May 2005. Roma were asked to evaluate the ongoing desegregation projects and the prospects of desegregation. Only four percent said that they would prefer their children to be in school only with other Roma children. The rest wanted their kids to go to schools with all other kids. The Roma are very much more open about being integrated with Bulgarians. It’s the Bulgarian attitudes that are the problem.

There is usually high support for European integration. Some Bulgarians would say that accession means joining a club of rich people, that it increases the prospects for better social welfare. There isn’t much understanding of a political or human rights agenda. For some ethnic minorities, the perspective is different. You hear from some Roma leaders that they would like to be part of a larger community of nations, that “we would feel more equal in that community.” Also from ethnic Macedonians, they would rely on the influence of the EU to bring their minority situation up to EU standards. But there is no public support for their position. Even in civil society, our organization is perhaps the only one with Macedonians as members.

There have not been many Bulgarians in the past who have promoted ethnic tolerance. There is a feeling of historical deprivation and this feeling is promoted in the culture. We don’t have figures like Martin Luther King, Jr. We don’t have anyone who has promoted tolerance with the Turks. One popular figure of the Bulgarian enlightment, Vassil Levski, had one sentence in his writings about the future Bulgarian republic that all the nations in Bulgaria would live together in peace. On the other hand, he created an organization in Bulgaria to fight against the Turks. Everyone in the Balkans has such contradictory traditions.


The dominant idea of America is the melting pot. It has had some bad influences here in Bulgaria. Because America is a melting pot, and everyone who goes there speaks American, therefore we should assimilate our minorities and make them speak Bulgarian and make them disappear. This is the view promoted by nationalistic circles. On one hand they hate Americans. On the other hand, they give this example of how everyone speaks English, becomes American, and renounces their previous identity. There is no understanding of Americans as a people who assert their ethnic identity. Hip-hop is popular but there is no understanding that this is an expression of a particular culture.

Who’s Degraded More: the Torture Victim or the Torturer?

We recently posted about the railroading of former CIA offer John Kiriakou on flimsy charges of violating the Intelligence Identities Protection Act. In the course of his article about the case — in which he himself was a protagonist — Scott Shane of the New York Times writes that Kiriakou

… led the team in 2002 that found Abu Zubaydah. … While he had spent hours with Abu Zubaydah after the capture, he had not been present when Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded, a fact he made clear to me and some other interviewers. But based on what he had heard and read at the agency, he told ABC and other news organizations that Abu Zubaydah had stopped resisting after just 30 or 35 seconds of the suffocating procedure and told interrogators all he knew.

In fact

… the prisoner was waterboarded some 83 times, it turned out. Mr. Kiriakou believes that he and other C.I.A. officers were deliberately misled by other agency officers who knew the truth.

Meanwhile, in 2009, at Empty Wheel, Marcy Wheeler wrote: “According to the May 30, 2005 Bradbury memo” — the same memo that revealed how many times Abu Zubaydah had been tortured — “Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times in March 2003.”

Eighty-three times? 183 times? To begin with, there’s something insidious about the neat difference of 100 in the number of tortures meted out. Other, more tangible, questions come to mind. Before moving on to the humanistic, what about the sheer logistics? Ms. Wheeler cited a memo that explained

… how the CIA might manage to waterboard these men so many times in one month. …where authorized, it may be used for two “sessions” per day of up to two hours. During a session, water may be applied up to six times for ten seconds or longer (but never more than 40 seconds). In a 24-hour period, a detainee may be subjected to up to twelve minutes of water application. … Additionally, the waterboard may be used on as many as five days during a 30-day approval period.

So: two two-hour sessions a day, with six applications of the waterboard each = 12 applications in a day. Though to get up to the permitted 12 minutes of waterboarding in a day (with each use of the waterboard limited to 40 seconds), you’d need 18 applications in a day. Assuming you use the larger 18 applications in one 24-hour period, and do 18 applications on five days within a month, you’ve waterboarded 90 times–still just half of what they did to KSM.

Next, one wonders why the victim — much as one resists casting Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in this light of a victim, can there be any doubt that our “enhanced interrogation” practices has turned him into a victim, too? — doesn’t die from the relentless assault on his body? Of course, a doctor is present to make sure he lives to be tortured another day. But how many brain cells does near-asphyxiation kill?

Also, even though interrogators were presumably vetted to weed out psychopaths, if the practice alone doesn’t suggest unbridled sadism at work, the repetition does. In — facetiousness alert! — fairness, Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed may have been extraordinarily tough as well as holding out for concessions of some sort — better conditions in jail, treatment of their families.

Or the repetition may have been a measure of the interrogator’s frustration with the perceived inadequacy of the tools of torture with which he’d been supplied: “They call this waterboarding and all we’re allowed to use is a common water bottle? Let me dunk his entire head in a tub and I’ll get answers after his first immersion.”

Perhaps, too, the more they tortured, the more they hated themselves and took out their anger on their subjects.

In any event, as Ms. Wheeler wrote:

The CIA wants you to believe waterboarding is effective. Yet somehow, it took them 183 applications of the waterboard in a one month period to get what they claimed was cooperation out of KSM.

That doesn’t sound very effective to me.

In the end — and while torture by American citizens may have ended, we may still be outsourcing the practice — the sessions described above certainly fulfilled all the requirements for the frequently cited definition of insanity (doing the same thing over and over, ad nauseam). The torturer and the government that empowers him inevitably wind up as degraded as those tortured.

Africa to the World: “Don’t Tell Us Who We Are or What To Do”

Algerian flag (albeit customized)

Algerian flag (albeit customized)

Last week, two completely different events demonstrated how sensitized Africans have become about Western attitudes toward them. In the first example, Algerian troops attacked Islamist militants holding hostages inside the Tiguentourine natural gas complex. Among the 700 hostages were Malaysian, Japanese, Norwegian, American and British citizens.

In his most upper-crust accent, British Prime Minister David Cameron told parliament, “Mr. Speaker, during the course of Thursday morning the Algerian forces mounted an operation. Mr. Speaker, we were not [my italics] informed of this in advance. I was told by the Algerian Prime Minister while it was taking place.” Cameron said that during his conversations with the Algerian PM he had emphasized the paramount importance of securing the safety of the hostages. He offered “UK technical and intelligence support” – including experts in hostage negotiation and rescue – to help find a successful resolution.

The Algerians might have posed two questions in response to PM Cameron: First, would you consult us if you had an unfolding hostage situation in England involving Algerian citizens? Second, have you forgotten, Mr. Cameron, that during the 1990s, we fought a bitter battle with Islamist insurgents within our own country? The reaction of the Algerian authorities to this attack on the gas plant was hell no, particularly with the looming possibility that the militants might try to escape across the border with the hostages. Since the vicious War of Independence from France, Algeria is prickly about getting instructions from its ex-colonial power, France, never mind the British. Firmly against intervention by Western powers, Algerians would have rejected outright the idea of foreign security forces sweeping in to liberate the hostages.

One Direction recently visited Accra.

One Direction recently visited Accra.

The second instance could not have been more different from the Algeria siege. The boy band One Direction paid a visit to Ghana on behalf of Comic Relief, a UK-based charity dedicated to alleviating poverty. Some Ghanaian readers were indignant at an article on E! that described Ghana’s capital, Accra, as an “impoverished village.” The population of Accra, a bustling, traffic-choked city, is about 2.3 million.

But that wasn’t the end of the outrage. Niall Horan, a One Direction member, tweeted of the trip to Accra: “I’ve seen the slums right in front of me! This is no joke! They really need your help! Poverty is real!” Several commentators objected to that characterization, prominent among them Ama K. Abebrese, a British actress of Akan origin. The thrust of her objection was that Accra is not one big slum, that there are beautiful and upscale areas, and that One Direction’s fans would immediately form an erroneous impression of the city. A blogger raised the question of the white savior complex or syndrome, the idea that indigenous peoples of color can do nothing for themselves until a white person arrives to show them how. Controversial rapper Wanlov the Kubolor sarcastically tweeted in response to a published photo of the boy band clapping with a group of young Ghanaian kids, “Ghana is getting worse so heaven sent 5 downcut jesuses to teach us clapping.”

Clearly, Niall meant no harm and he was probably expressing his heartfelt sentiments. In any case, since the band was in Accra for charity purposes, it would hardly have helped if he had tweeted, “Having a great time in our luxurious suite at the Mövenpick!” [or wherever they stayed.]

It is not untrue that sections of Accra such as Agbogbloshie are in appalling shape, but arguments over factual details are really quite beside the point. Ghanaians were reacting to a Westerner – a boy, no less – appearing to set Ghana’s agenda. Niall decided that Ghanaians really need help. Niall defined, in effect, that Accra was a representation of poverty. Africans are less and less willing to be defined by Westerners. As countries like Ghana steadily grow their economies, their citizens and governments feel more confident and empowered about their future, even though no one would deny that there is still a lot of work to be done.

Kwei Quartey is a physician, novelist, and Foreign Policy in Focus columnist.

Syrian Citizens Stuck Between the Regime’s Rock and the Rebels’ Hard Place

For those who have been following the bloody events in Syria in the past two years, it is clear that there is no doubt that the regime of Bashaar al-Assad is responsible for killing tens of thousands of Syrian citizens and destroying much of the country’s infrastructure. But to say that is to say only part of the story.

The different militant groups of the Syrian opposition, ranging from the Free Syrian Army, which is supported by the US and other western countries, to the Islamic Jihadists and Salafist groups that seek to establish an Islamic state in Syria, share significant responsibility for committing atrocities in the Syrian countryside, according to news reports and eyewitness accounts reported by several international media outlets.

The conflict in Syria where the government troops are fighting a losing battle against rebel groups has destroyed large parts of the modern Syrian state plunging Syrian citizens into a state of destruction and homelessness at home and in neighboring countries.

Casting some blame on the rebel groups, however, has very little traction in the pro-rebels Arabic media outlets which often report on the death and destruction caused by the regime war machine and army troops.

An Arab journalist and analyst based in Washington D.C who declined to use his name in this column, argued to me that the rebel groups that are currently fighting a war of attrition against the regime and particularly those with Jihadist bent represent a worst alternative to Assad’s regime.

Although he is not supportive of Assad’s regime and blames it for its total dependence on foreign diplomatic and military assistance in order to stay in power, he equally, however, blames the militants for their dependence on foreign military and financial assistance.

“Both parties are destroying Syria,” he said.

While the Syrian regime is mainly supported by Iran, China and Russia , the rebels are supported by the Europeans, the US and its Arab allies.

The conflict and later the war in Syria has, in reality, been transformed from peaceful protests for political and economic reform into a proxy war between regional and international powers at the expense of the Syrian people and their country.

Although different Syrian rebel groups claim to have control over large swaths of the country, especially in the countryside, there is little evidence, however, that shows stability or a sense of normalcy in the areas under their control. Life is not going back to normal in those areas according to several Arab and western news reports. Syrian opposition leaders, in addition, have yet to move back to those areas and set up their own government, a clear sign of instability in those areas.

Meanwhile, Zakariya Al Sayed a Syrian opposition activist whom I reached on the phone in Amman Jordan, told me that there is no such thing as “liberated areas” in Syria so-to-speak. This is because, he argued, the regime still maintains its ability to strike against those areas from the air. The situation in those areas is unlike the Kurdish region in northern Iraq during the US invasion of that country or in Benghazi where US and NATO provided no fly zones and air cover.

It is obvious, moreover, that the Syrian regime is still in control of the major urban cities like Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, Hama and Derra where the residents, according to the Arab journalist, worry about what would happen to them should the Jihadists take control of their areas, thus choosing in the meantime Assad’s regime over the rebel groups. This is not to say that Assad or his regime are popular in the cities — he is not, but many prefer it over the possibility of being ruled by radical and jihadist groups and with them the probability of chaos and civil war afterward.

Adding fuel to the fire is the presence of extremist groups like Al Nusra Front, which the United States designated it as a terrorist organization. Al Nusra, which is reportedly an Al Qaida affiliate, might be the best weapon the regime has, not only to scare its citizens of the alternative to its demise but also the West, which is eager not to repeat its mistakes in Iraq or Libya.

It is this quandary that makes the war in Syria very difficult to end without direct foreign military intervention on the side to the rebels, which is highly unlikely at this point, or in the absence of a rebels’ military operation that decapitates the regime without destroying the remaining infrastructure.

Meanwhile, the prevailing public opinion in the Arab World accuses the West and Israel of keeping the Syrian conflict burning this long because, as the opinion goes, keeping Syria weak and unstable will only serve those powers. As for the Syrian people who chose to brave the killing and destruction and stay or those who are living in refugee camps across the borders the future is unpredictable and bleak even when the regime eventually collapses.

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

Mali, France, and Chickens

Tuaregs“It appears the French had one of their wars going on thereabouts.”
— Charlie Marlow from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

The vision that Conrad’s character Marlow describes is of a French frigate firing broadsides into a vast African jungle, in essence, bombarding a continent. That image came to mind this week when French Mirages and helicopter gunships went into action against a motley army of Islamic insurgents in Mali.

That there is a surge of instability in that land-locked and largely desert country should hardly come as a surprise to the French: they and their allies are largely the cause.

And they were warned.

A little history. On Mar. 17, 2011, the UN Security Council approved Resolution 1973 to “protect civilians” in the Libyan civil war. Two days later, French Mirages began bombing runs on Muammar Gaddafi’s armored forces and airfields, thus igniting direct intervention by Britain, along with Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

Resolution 1973 did not authorize NATO and its allies to choose sides in the Libyan civil war, just to protect civilians, and many of those who signed on—including Russia and China—assumed that Security Council action would follow standard practice and begin by first exploring a political solution. But the only kind of “solution” that anti-Gaddafi alliance was interested in was the kind delivered by 500-lb. laser-guided bombs.

The day after the French attack, the African Union (AU) held an emergency session in Mauritania in an effort to stop the fighting. The AU was deeply worried that, if Libya collapsed without a post-Gaddafi plan in place, it might destabilize other countries in the region. They were particularly concerned that Libya’s vast arms storehouse might end up fueling local wars in other parts of Africa.

However, no one in Washington, Paris or London paid the AU any mind, and seven months after France launched its attacks, Libya imploded into its current status as a failed state. Within two months, Tuaregs—armed with Gaddafi’s weapons’ cache—rose up and drove the corrupt and ineffectual Malian Army out of Northern Mali.

The Tuaregs are desert people, related to the Berbers that populate North Africa’s Atlas Mountain range. They have fought four wars with the Malian government since the country was freed from France in 1960, and many Tuaregs want to form their own country, “Azawed.” But the simmering discontent in northern Mali is not limited to the Tuaregs. Other ethnic groups are angered over the south’s studied neglect of all the people in the country’s north.

The Tuaregs are also currently fighting the French over uranium mining in Niger.

The Gaddafi government had long supported the Tuaregs’ demands for greater self-rule, and many Tuaregs served in the Libyan Army. Is anyone surprised that those Tuaregs looted Libyan arms depots when the central government collapsed? And, once they had all that fancy fire power that they would put it to use in an effort to carve out a country of their own?

The Tuaregs are nomads and had little interest in holding on to towns like Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal in northern Mali, and after smashing up the Mali Army, they went back into the desert. Into the vacuum created by the rout of the Malian Army flowed Islamic groups like Ansar-al-Din, al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad, and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). It is these latter organizations that the French are bombing, although reports are that civilians are getting caught in the crossfire.

The U.S. is also involved. According to Democracy Now, the Obama administration is moving French troops and equipment into the area, and deploying surveillance drones. And with the war spreading into Algeria, where almost two-dozen westerners, including several Americans, were kidnapped in retaliation for the French attacks in Mali, the U.S. may end up with boots on the ground.

Why are the French once again firing into a continent?

First, France has major investments in Niger and Mali. At bottom, this is about Francs (or Euros, as it may be). Some 75 percent of France’s energy needs come from nuclear power, and a cheap source is its old colonial empire in the region (that besides Mali and Niger included Senegal, Mauritania, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Chad, Algeria, and the Central African Republic). Most of its nuclear fuel comes from Niger, but Al Jazeera reports that French uranium, oil and gold companies are lining up to develop northern Mali. Lest one think that this “development” is good for the locals, consider that, according to the UN’s Human Development Index, Niger is the third poorest country in the world.

There are other issues as well.

Like a Napoleon complex.

“The French, like the Americans, judge presidents on their ability to make tough decisions, and there are few tougher ones than to send young men into battle,” writes New York Times reporter Steve Erlanger in a story on French President Francois Hollande’s decision to intervene in Mali. Titled “Hollande, long seen as soft, shifts image with firm stance” (which makes it sound vaguely like a Viagra ad), the article quotes “defense expert” Francois Heisbourg praising Hollande for acting “decisively” and “demonstrating that he can decide on matters of war and peace.”

Actually, back in 1812 that “war and peace” thing came out rather badly for the French, though today’s new model Grande Armee won’t face much in the way of snow and ice in Mali. But Mali is almost twice the size of France—478,839 vs. 211,209 square miles—which is a lot of ground for Mirages to cover. In fact, the French warplanes are not even based in Mali, but neighboring Chad, some 1,300 miles away from their targets. That is a very long way to go for fighter-bombers and gives them very little time over the battlefield. Apparently the U.S. is considering helping out with in-air refueling, but, by any measure, the French forces will face considerable logistical obstacles. And while Mali’s geography may not match the Russian steppes in winter, its fierce desert is daunting terrain.

Lastly, Hollande would like to take some pressure off his domestic situation. There is nothing like a war to make people forget about a stagnant economy, high unemployment, restive workers, and yet another round of austerity cuts.

But this war could get very nasty, and if you want the definition of a quagmire, try northern Mali. Instead of being intimidated by the French attacks, the insurgents successfully counterattacked and took the town of Diabaly in Central Mali. If Paris thought this was going to be a simple matter of scattering the wogs with a few bombing runs, one might suggest that Hollande revisit his country’s past counterinsurgency campaigns, starting with Vietnam.

The Islamic groups appear to have little local support. Mali is a largely Islamic country, but not of the brand followed by the likes of Ansar al-Din or AQIM. But if you hand out lots of first-class fire power—which is exactly what the war to overthrow Gaddafi did—than you don’t need a lot of support to cause a great deal of trouble.

The rebels are certainly not running into any opposition from the Malian Army, whose U.S.-trained leader, Captain Amadou Sanogo, overthrew his country’s democratic government two months after the Tuaregs came storming out of the Sahara to take Timbuktu. Apparently a number of those U.S.-trained troops switched sides, taking their weapons and transport over to the insurgents.

There is evidence that the Malian Army may have provoked the Tuaregs in the first place. It appears that, rather than using the millions of dollars handed out by the U.S. over the past four years to fight “terrorism” in the region, the army used it to beat up on the Tuaregs. That is until the latter got an infusion of superior firepower after the fall of Gaddafi.

The French plan to put about 2,500 troops in Mali, but are relying on the Economic Community of West Africa (ECOWAS) to raise an army of 3,300. But the ECOWAS army will have to be transported to Mali and trained, and someone will have to foot the bill. That means that for the next several months it will be the French who hold down the fort, and that is going to cost a lot of Euros, of which France hardly has a surfeit.

The people of northern Mali have long standing grievances, but the current crisis was set off by the military intervention in Libya. And if you think Libya created monsters, just think of what will happen if the Assad government in Syria falls without a political roadmap in place. Yes, the French are very involved in Syria right now, a civil war that is increasingly pitting Sunnis against Shites and has already spread into Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq. Next to Syria’s weapons hoards, Libya’s firepower looks like a collection of muskets and bayonets.

Dominique de Villepin, the former prime minister of France and a sharp critic of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, recently wrote in the Journal du Dimanche: “These wars [like Mali] have never built a solid and democratic state. On the contrary, they favor separatism, failed states and the iron law of armed militias.”

So what do Mali and the French intervention have to do with chickens?

They always come home to roost.

For more of Conn Hallinan’s essays visit Dispatches From the Edge. Meanwhile, his novels about the ancient Romans can be found at The Middle Empire Series.

Tunisia Two Years On: The Crisis Deepens

Cross-posted from theColorado Progressive Jewish News.

Amilcar, Tunisia

Amilcar, Tunisia

The signs are everywhere ‘Place Janvier 14,’ ‘Ave. Janvier 14,’ etc. More often than not they replaced ‘Place Ben Ali’ and did so within hours after the announcement that his rule had ended.

On January 14, 2011 – a mere two years ago – Tunisian President Zine Ben Ali, his wife Leila Trabelsi and other family members boarded a jet plane that, after being refused landing rights in Paris and Rome, eventually landed in Saudi Arabia. The Ben Ali’s only found refuge in conservative Saudi Arabia, which, over the years, has housed an odd assortment of other political detritus, deposed corrupt and repressive overthrown African leaders from Idi Amin to Mengistu Haili Mariam.

Considerable debate continues as to the nature of Ben Ali’s flight, and perhaps more importantly, where the two extended family clans squirreled away some $17 billion – we’ll never know the exact sum – of the country’s wealth in Swiss, Finnish, Austrian, Channel Islands, the UAE and Canadian banks. Some speculate that Ben Ali planned only to accompany his family to safety and to return to Tunis that night. Others suggest he knew he would never return and that he was lucky to escape with his life and a hefty bank account.

Regardless, ‘it’ was over and a new era of modern Tunisian history – one filled with hope and frustration was about to unfold. As for the stolen money, two years on, less than 5% has been returned. Given the secrecy, complexity of international banking rules and greed of their managers, it is highly unlikely that beyond symbolic amounts, the money will ever be either returned, most of it forever unaccounted for. It is claimed that before leaving, in one last symbolic effort to rob the country she had milked for billions, Leila Trabelsi robbed the national treasury of as much gold and jewels as she and her assistants could carry to the departing plane, some several hundred million dollars worth.

The Tunisian Revolution Has Lost Some of Its Gloss

The ‘Tunisian Revolution’ has lost a good deal of its gloss. The rhetoric remains ‘radical,’ the reality much less so. That it was a genuine national uprising engaging virtually the entire population is beyond doubt – and as such, nothing short of a regional inspiration. That it can be characterized as ‘a revolution’ is open to question. What has changed? How many of the institutions of the old order remain in place, run in many places by the same people who have simply changed political affiliations to be a part of the new wave How many elements of the old ruling class have been integrated into the new system? And some of what has changed, has changed for the worse, not the better.

Some of the headlines of the past few days are almost surrealistic, others just downright depressing. “Headquarters of Tunisian Association in Support of Minorities Attacked” one reads – this after the association sponsored an event in which a speaker spoke of the fate of Tunisian Jews, some of whom, with the collusion of the French Vichy authorities at the time, were rounded up and sent to extermination camps in Europe. Another article, appearing at the award-winning online Tunisian investigative website,, exposes a plot on the part of one the Tunisia’s ruling parties (the one that really runs the show), Ennahda, to establish some kind of armed paramilitary wing. A third piece relates how a young couple, no more than twenty years of age, have been sentenced to two months in prison for having kissed in public. Tunisian youth responded by declaring January 13, as “National Kissing Day,” a day of a national ‘kiss in.’

In themselves these articles don’t necessary mean much. Taken together, however, they suggest a deteriorating national consensus, a nation that has been in crisis since Ben Ali’s departure. True, Tunisia has not collapsed to the point of civil war as in Syria and Libya. Still, the crisis isx deepening and dangerously so.

Rolling Back Bourguiba’s Accomplishments

The country has been on a rocky road these past two years. Besides consolidating its own power for as long as possible, the goal of the transitional government in power since October 2011 is to roll back the achievements of the country’s first president, Habib Bourguiba, where it concerns education, women’s rights and the separation of church (or in this case ‘mosque’) and state while maintaining essentially the same IMF-friendly open economy that contributed so much to the country’s recent crisis in the first place.

Not particularly important to the United States from an economic point of view, Tunisia still has strategic value. The U.S. embassy there is a major communications gathering center, a kind of information ‘lily pad’ in an otherwise unstable and unfriendly neighborhood. Tunisia’s transitional government enjoys strong support, despite its many blemishes, from the United States.

Washington considers the Tunisian political changes something of a model for what it hopes to see develop throughout the region: weak states, more easily penetrated and run by foreign capital. That they might have an ‘Islamic flavor’ (run by Islamic parties) is of no concern to Washington as long as two golden rules are followed: 1. the country remains economically open and exploitable to international capital, which it does. 2. That the country fall in line with the broader U.S. strategic goals of dominating the region (i.e., cooperating with Israel openly or covertly, maintaining the pressure on Iran, helping bring down the Assad regime in Syria by supporting the Saudi and Qatari-backed rebels).

Salafist Offensive

These past two years have been rough on the country economically, socially and politically. A hitherto virtually unknown Salafist (militant Islamic fundamentalist) movement has emerged. It has enjoyed financial and political support from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and there are suggestions that many of those formally involved in Ben Ali’s security force are involved. While not formally a part of the government it enjoys encouragement and has very close ties with the country’s leading moderate Islamic party, Ennahda, which had, up to the September storming of the U.S. Embassy, offered the Salafists shelter and support.

Tunisia’s Salafists have openly and increasingly engaged in brown-shirt tactics to impose their skewed version of Islam on the population. Their actions have increasingly and unnecessarily polarized the country’s cultural landscape. Self-appointed religious goon squads, similar to those that exist in Saudi Arabia, abound, encouraged and protected by those currently in power. They have been wreaking havoc for more than a year now, attacking cultural events (art exhibits), TV stations, journalists, movies with which they disagree. These elements have also rampaged historic Sufi monuments, attacked trade unions and Tunisian universities, with hardly a peek of criticism or police response from the authorities.

With Ennahda’s acquiescence, the Salafists have overtaken many of the country’s historically moderate mosques and turned them into bastions of religious extremism. Attacks on women’s rights abound; attempts to hijack the country’s higher education system and turn it into little more than fundamentalist madrasas have not been challenged by the authorities; growing verbal threats to the country’s tiny – but historically significant – Jewish community take place almost daily.

There is opposition to these trends but it remains generally weak and divided. But it is growing.

Frozen Economy

Two years on, Tunisia’ economy remains frozen in crisis.

The biggest failure of the past two years has been the new government’s failure to address the economic crisis. The country’s post-Ben Ali economic program is no different than the prescriptions followed in the last two decades of the dictator’s rule. Instead, the ruling coalition, little more than a cover for an Ennahda-dominated government, has been more concerned with consolidating its political power and assuring its long-term control of the country.

It is often forgotten that the conditions which triggered the national revolt two years past had very little to do with religion. That the 2010 revolt was triggered by religious considerations is a Salafist-fabricated fantasy. They were a non-factor. Instead, it was a socio-economic crisis par excellence: high rates of unemployment (ridiculously high among youth and in the rural areas); low, virtually unlivable wages for those working; a deterioration of the country’s social fabric as a result of IMF insistence on cutting government spending; the continued erosion of subsidies on basic food stuffs, medical possibilities and energy.

These factors combined with a breathtaking level of corruption – the two ruling Ben Ali and Trabelsi families controlling more than 50% of the economy – and a pervasive system of repression are what brought down Ben Ali, a favorite in Paris and Washington for his adherence to the Washington Consensus and his opposition to Islamic militantism.

And so the crisis continues.

A recent IMF report on the economic situation clearly states that the country’s current stagnant growth will do nothing to stem the country’s 17.6% unemployment rate – 40% for youth – nor address the great social imbalances between the urban and more rural areas. Typically, in exchange for offering Tunisia aid, the IMF, frozen in its structural adjustment mode of the past 30 years, prescribes ‘more of the same’ – low wages, open capital markets, greater opening of the financial sector, etc.

As these are the same prescriptions that triggered the 2010 uprising in the first place, it is highly unlikely that such policies will turn the economic situation around.

It is true that Tunisia’s economy – so heavily based upon exporting to France and Italy – is adversely affected by the global economic slowdown that has hit Europe especially hard and that there is no easy immediate solution to the country’s economic woes. Still, the lack of virtually any new economic vision is worrisome. It suggests that rather being on some kind of new economic path, the country will remain mired in the old ways.

If this is the case, it seems highly likely that another social explosion cannot be that far off.


Christopher de Bellaigue. “Did We Make The Revolution For This?

We Don’t Need a Secretary of Militarism

Cross-posted from Other Words.

The chicken hawks are out in force these days, attacking Chuck Hagel, President Barack Obama’s choice for Secretary of Defense.

He’s too reluctant to use force, they say. He favors negotiation over sanctions and sanctions over bombs, they say. He doesn’t like Israel enough; he’s an anti-Semite.

Who’s saying these terrible things about a man who, when he served in the Senate, was considered a fairly reliable conservative vote albeit one with a mind of his own?

It’s the usual suspects (plus John McCain, that rare breed: a man who has seen war but is still spoiling for a fight). William Kristol, editor of the right wing clarion The Weekly Standard, is leading the charge. This is the same Kristol, you’ll remember, who discovered Sarah Palin when she was a virtually unknown governor, sitting on her front porch in Alaska, where, as Tina Fey told us, she could see Russia from her house.

He thought she’d make a wonderful president-in-waiting of the United States some day, so he introduced her to his Republican friends, who agreed. Are we supposed to take a guy with judgment like that seriously? Do we care whom he wants for Secretary of Defense?

Or perhaps you’d prefer Elliott Abrams, an architect of the Iran-Contra scandal, who would have spent time in jail without a presidential pardon from George H.W. Bush. He’s the one pressing the anti-Semitism angle and making up stuff to do it. His good buddy in the smear campaign is Sheldon Adelson, the casino mogul who bankrolled Newt Gingrich’s quixotic presidential run.

Come on. Let me tell you about Chuck Hagel. He wasn’t my favorite senator — too conservative — but he represented Nebraska, a very conservative state.

He was, however, an intelligent, reasonable man with a reputation for honesty. In the Senate these days, that qualifies for sainthood.

He and his brother served a bloody tour in Vietnam, where they took turns saving each other’s lives. He returned home and eventually realized that war is a terrible answer to any question and should be undertaken reluctantly, as a last resort. That’s the way he thought as a senator (he was an early critic of the Iraq invasion, for example) and that’s the way he promises to think as Pentagon chief.

This drives the right wing crazy. (I sometimes think right-wingers view thoughtfulness as a character flaw.) Conservatives favor Dick Cheney’s rhinoceros-in-a-china-shop approach to foreign affairs.

Not that progressives are happy with the nomination either. Hagel is just way too right-wing for them on a variety of issues. (Progressives tend to think no one who can actually get confirmed by the Senate is worthy of public office.)

Nevertheless, Hagel, whose chief task will be to cut the military down to a more manageable, less expensive size, is an ideal man for the job.

He’s in the grand tradition of American men of war who became champions of peace later in life. It’s a line that stretches back to George Washington and claims politicians as diverse as Dwight Eisenhower, George McGovern, John Kerry, and Colin Powell.

It includes too my favorite Civil War General, William Tecumseh Sherman. While absolutely ruthless in war, he had no love for it. At the end of the war he said:

“I confess, without shame, that I am sick and tired of fighting — its glory is all moonshine; even success the most brilliant is over dead and mangled bodies…tis only those who have never heard a shot, never heard the shriek and groans of the wounded and lacerated…that cry aloud for more blood, more vengeance, more desolation.”

In other words, the Cheneys, Kristols, and Abrams of the world.

I like the idea of having a Secretary of Defense who knows war intimately. I like the idea that there is a voice in our councils saying: “Wait a minute. Let’s think this through. Maybe there’s another way.”

Hagel could be that voice.

Where Bulgaria Went Wrong

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

Ognyan Minchev

Ognyan Minchev

Bulgarians can talk at great length about what went wrong in 1989-90 and why the country didn’t immediately become economically successful and politically liberal after the end of the Cold War. Some will tell you that the politicians didn’t embrace the Western model quickly or thoroughly enough. Others will wax conspiratorial about secret Communist Party machinations.

Ognyan Minchev, a political scientist who heads up the independent think tank IRIS in Sofia, views the problem from a slightly different angle. Bulgaria’s uncritical acceptance of an outside model, in his opinion, was the original sin that contaminated the transformation.

“My perspective is that my generation, the people involved in organizing and supporting and propagating this process of change, made serious mistakes that our society had to pay for,” Minchev argues. “We were not well prepared for what happened. We took for granted the ideological schemes coming from the West. We were naive (stupid) enough to embark upon a ready-made model of change that was advocated by Western strategists. This is not to accuse the Westerners of what happened here. The Westerners (in general) could only provide us with the instruments they had available at this moment.”

The result was a strange hybrid. On the outside, Bulgarian politicians and economists mouthed all the right phrases. On the inside, the Bulgarian system managed to preserve many elements of the previous order. And, meanwhile, this hybrid beast slouched toward Brussels.

“We allowed parts of the old regime infrastructure and the old regime elite to appropriate the lion’s share of the national wealth and create a system of control of the national economy and the fragile democratic political system,” Minchev continues. “We allowed this elite to transform itself into the new oligarchy. It took us time to understand the process, to try to change the process. Now it’s much more difficult to transform this new reality, rather than if we had been adequate at the beginning.”

I met Ognyan Minchev 23 years ago when he participated in the Helsinki Citizens Assembly. On this occasion, we discussed Bulgarian nationalism, ethnic minority issues, and the mistakes that were made more than two decades ago when Bulgaria faced several paths of transition.

The Interview

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

Of course I do. The Berlin Wall fell in the late evening of November 9 and the Todor Zhivkov regime fell on November 10. So November 10 was a particularly memorable day for me. I went back home at noon, and we were usually listening to the Bulgarian transmission of Deutsche Welle at 12:30 or so. That’s how I heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall. Two hours later, we heard about the fall of Zhivkov, so that’s a particular day that I will never forget, not until the end of my life.

What was your immediate reaction?

Happy emotions. Emotions of great expectations. We were cheerful. We celebrated in the evening, a large company of friends and colleagues. That was our reaction, among the university people I’ve been related to.

Was there a point when you were growing up or in your early youth when you made a step in the direction of opposition to the government?

I was not happy with the government — in my particular way, at all different stages in my youth development. I was unhappy at school as a teenager when they insisted that we all have haircuts close to the skin. We were unhappy with the limitations on listening to Western rock-and-roll music. Later on, my colleagues and I were unhappy with the more or less visible censorship at the university. At the university this censorship was much milder than elsewhere, but still it was present. It was possible to see this censorship and understand it in the lectures of our professors and in the communications among ourselves.

A turning point in my intellectual and value system development was when I was in Poland in August 1980. I was there for one month on a so-called student brigade. It was an exchange of students in all communist countries. We worked for 3 weeks as workers, and in the last week we had an excursion around Poland. It was the time actually when Solidarity was created. That was my first direct taste of freedom – talking to ordinary people on the train and in the streets of Krakow and Warsaw. On my return, I tried to learn Polish better and read the Polish newspapers available in Sofia, even if they were also communist-censored. So, Poland of 1980 was the turning point of my so-called weltanschauung or picture of the world. From then on, whatever I could think or do or work for, I have not made significant changes in my viewpoints, at least not until the collapse of the regime in 1989.

And how did that change your viewpoint?

Until 1989, I had an explicit understanding of the system I was living in. I didn’t have a detailed understanding of how the Western system worked. I had a more-or-less liberal-positive ideological understanding: a rosy picture of the Western system. It was rosy because it was abstract.

After 1989, I had access to the West for the first time. I could communicate with the West. I had free access to any publication I wanted to read. I traveled. I spent a year at UCLA. So my understanding of the world changed because of the substance and structure of this new life I could live.

How did you get involved in the Helsinki Citizens Assembly?

It was more or less coincidental, as many things were in that period. In September 1990, I went to a Willy Brandt-sponsored social democratic conference in Vienna, because I was kind of an advisor of the newly born Bulgarian Social Democratic Party. In Vienna. I met certain people who invited me later to the founding of the HCA. Later on we established the Bulgarian chapter of the HCA, for which I personally worked for the next 5-6 years.

And what was the focus of HCA here in Bulgaria?

More or less the same as the organization in general. We were mostly preoccupied with the developments in ex-Yugoslavia. We did some work on the then-passionate dispute between newly born Macedonia and Greece. We worked on some other human rights issues as well.

Was there a particular moment after the collapse of the regime when you thought that things were not turning out as well as you thought they would.

All of us who were involved in the process in one way or another were learning by doing, and often by doing wrong. The real controversy of the process made us if not wiser than at least more realistic – or even pessimistic about the complexity of this process of transformation – at least because of the defeats we had to face (eventually we acquired a detailed knowledge of the process and a more realistic or pessimistic assessment of what was possible). The optimistic picture that we had in the very beginning changed very fast during those very first years of the process. My whole career, and my whole life, have been very much dependent on a reframing and reassessing of my views of the process that took place in those decades.

Where would you say your perspective is right now, after 22 years of reevaluation?

My perspective is that my generation, the people involved in organizing and supporting and propagating this process of change, made serious mistakes that our society had to pay for. We were not well prepared for what happened. We took for granted the ideological schemes coming from the West. We were naive (stupid) enough to embark upon a ready-made model of change that was advocated by Western strategists. This is not to accuse the Westerners of what happened here. The Westerners (in general) could only provide us with the instruments they had available at this moment.

We all know that the neo-liberal economic view was very powerful at this moment. Also, the perceptions of the Western pundits were not very well developed on how democracy could develop out of a totalitarian infrastructure. So, the advice we got was ideological advice. It was up to us to adapt that advice to our reality, which we knew better than the Western supporters of the process.

To an extent, though, we were ill prepared for that. It took us time before we could recognize the extent to which we were inadequate in dealing with the process of change. We allowed parts of the old regime infrastructure and the old regime elite to appropriate the lion’s share of the national wealth and create a system of control of the national economy and the fragile democratic political system. We allowed this elite to transform itself into the new oligarchy. It took us time to understand the process, to try to change the process. Now it’s much more difficult to transform this new reality, rather than if we had been adequate at the beginning.

What can be done at this point in terms of reframing the economy, social relations?

What can be done at this moment and in the future is step-by-step work on changing reality, on mobilizing popular support for different types of political action, which is difficult now, because people are not so ready to embrace new political platforms. It’s difficult to change an economic infrastructure that has already been set. It’s difficult to change the system of very direct influence that the Russian post-communist oligarchy exercises upon post-communist countries, particularly Bulgaria. So, few things can be changed overnight. It can be only step-by-step process.

What role did the ethnic minority issue play back in 1990-1?

I think the minority issue played an excessive role because of the specific environment in Bulgaria. Several years before the change, the communist government tried to forcefully rename Bulgarian Turks and forcefully integrate them into the Bulgarian ethnic mainstream. So, the first thing that was required after the end of the regime was to restore the rights of those people. It was a very sensitive issue. Part of the population was very much dominated by this ethnic scare, created by the ex-regime, that Turks and neighboring Turkey were a potential threat for Bulgaria. So it was very difficult to convince those people that restoring rights to our fellow countrymen is not scary or dreadful.

But step by step, this focus on ethnic rights has become an exaggerated and excessive part of the political process. The new ethnic party, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF) that was created in order to reintegrate Bulgarian Turks and Muslims into democratic political life, very easily degenerated into an authoritarian ethnic political corporation where a small elite took control of the community of Bulgarian Turks and Muslims and monopolized their votes. Politically, economically, and institutionally Bulgarian Turks and Muslims have remained within the framework of authoritarian control they lived in before the democratic changes. Instead of the Communist Party, the MRF Party took monopoly control over them.

Just recently, a group has announced that is breaking away from MRF.

We don’t know whether this group will be successful in splitting the support for the MRF or whether it is just another splinter group with almost no influence on the hearts and minds of Bulgarian Turks and Muslims. We’ll see how it works. Nevertheless, the MRF leadership continues to be quite successful, because they efficiently use scare tactics, telling people that if they don’t vote for the MRF or support the MRF, that period of the forceful changing of their identity will return. This isn’t a decent approach, but it works.

What do you think is the best way of addressing far-right ethnocentric sentiments in Bulgaria?

Ataka is the first more or less popular hard nationalist party that has emerged 15 years after the process of post-communist change in Bulgaria For 15 years, we didn’t have a sizable hard nationalist political movement in this country. There were only small sects on the periphery of the system.

The rise of Ataka is the product of two basic tendencies. The first one is that Bulgarians from the ethnically mixed regions were radicalized in their viewpoints because of the behavior of the MRF. I can’t say that the MRF behaves in an ethnically radical way even if there was some evidence of that. But the MRF behaved and continues to behave arrogantly in terms of intense corruption and abuses of administrative power. Ataka was successful to a large extent because of the counter-reactions of the ethnic Bulgarians in those intermixed regions.

Second, there was a split within the communist party after 1989. After the resignation of Zhivkov, the more liberal, more reformist wing of the communist leadership took over the party. The harder fraction was in the minority and became a kind of a second periphery of the ex-communist party. Being a minority within their own party, this elite was disappointed with the functioning of the BSP, ideologically and politically. This part of the elite never went away, of course, from the political and economic scene. They were successful, some people say with some help from Moscow, to promote Ataka as a second hand of the same elite. Ataka claimed to be on the nationalist right. But these hard nationalist movements are usually intermixed between left and right.

Those are the two causes of Ataka’s emergence in 2005. What we can see lately is that Ataka was actually a one-season dancer. It is declining very fast, and we’re not certain that it will make it into the next parliament.

But you think that the sentiment behind Ataka still exists in Bulgarian society?

Yes, but this vote is split among different nationalist formations, some bigger and successful, others smaller, but none of them bigger than 2.5 percent.

What about the Roma issue? Have you seen any improvement over the last 22 years?

No, because the Roma is not an ideological issue, not a human rights issue, not a discrimination issue. Of course, there is discrimination. There is a human rights aspect. There is a political ethnic aspect. But the Roma issue involves two basic constituents. The first aspect is the cultural adaptability of part of the Roma community. This is a diverse community, and some are more successful than others in adapting to the new system. Others are culturally much more vulnerable and fragile and incapable of adapting. So, the cultural-anthropological aspect of this process is very important and the diversity among the Roma community is very important.

The second big impediment is that Bulgaria is a weak state. In order to cope with an issue like the Roma issue, you need functioning institutions capable of promoting programs that can make a difference. Of course, analogies are only partially adequate, but I’ll make an analogy to the process of integrating African Americans in the United States, including the problems of the inner cities. It took America about four or five decades, starting with the Great Society of Lyndon Johnson, half a century, in order to integrate about 1/3 or 40 percent of African Americans into mainstream U.S. society. What we don’t have here is that kind of efficient institutional arm capable of making a difference.

Do you think the EU has lately become more of an instrument of neoliberalism?

The crisis policies of the EU, dominated by Germany and some other national elites, are neoliberal, and they are neoliberal because for a long period of time there was a process of redistribution of wealth in the EU that proved inefficient. Formulated more dramatically, the EU as a developmental instrument proved inefficient because what we thought about the EU — that while bureaucratic, at least it worked as a developmental instrument with Greece, Portugal, and Spain as the main success stories – turned out to be wrong.

Now what we see in Greece and the other countries of the south means that we have a collapse of the developmental paradigm of the EU. The question is, what’s left? Neoliberalism is more or less the answer to this myth of Europe as an efficient developmental agent.

Of course, the EU has always been an elitist endeavor. It’s never been popular or democratic. There’s never been a European demos, as Ivan Krastev wrote a few months ago. If you don’t have a coherent popular attitude capable of making democratic decisions, then you have a corporatist elitist infrastructure where democracy works at a national level and administrative autocracy works at the common European level.

The EU has always been very flexible in coping with its problems. It was flexible because it has always been cautious in terms of change. This time, the “big bang” enlargement lacked caution. That makes it difficult to predict how the EU will be able to adapt to this new reality.

When you look back to 1989 and evaluate everything that has changed since then, what number would you give it on a spectrum from 1 to 10, with one being most disappointed and ten being least disappointed?

I think this is a counterproductive reduction of a very complicated process. Some aspects of the process of change have been very positive. Others have been very negative. Others have been moderate in the middle.

A lot of people would say 5 in such a situation.

I wouldn’t say that.

Well, okay, the second quantitative question is your personal life over the same period and along the same scale.

In terms of financial status, my personal life has improved. Which is connected to my career and not just the change in the political and social system. But of course the change might have contributed to that.

Finally, when you look into the near future and consider the prospects for Bulgaria over the next couple years, how would you evaluate this?

This depends very much on whom we are talking about. This society has passed through a very intense process of reorganization with income polarization and status polarization. Large portions of society went down. Very few went up. About 10-15 percent generally improved their status as the new middle class. In the near future, I don’t presume any dramatic changes in the situation that we’ve developed over the last few decades.

Sofia, October 4, 2012

What Next for the Green Climate Fund After the Doha Dud?

Cross-posted from Responding to Climate Change.

GCFFor those of us (wonks, admittedly) interested in the fate of the Green Climate Fund – potentially the most important multilateral institution to deal with climate change in the near future – the outcome of 2012 Doha climate summit was a disappointingly mixed bag.

The 194 countries assembled there made promising statements about the importance of the fund in the international climate financing architecture and outlined their work for the year ahead.

But by refusing to make any firm commitments in Doha to deliver money over the next decade, industrialized countries threatened to relegate the GCF, at least temporarily, to irrelevance.

No new money in the mid-term

Three years ago in Copenhagen, developed countries agreed that by 2020 they would make sure $100bn reached developing countries each year to address the impacts of climate change and support their shift from dirty energy to low-carbon development strategies.

They also promised to move $30bn right away – what’s come to be known as “fast start financing.” They left unfunded the years between 2012 and 2020.

Thus commitments from wealthy countries for specific amounts and deadlines for medium-term financing became a key ask for developing countries at Doha.

Wealthy countries did not, in the end, agree to funding targets or benchmarks to ensure the delivery of climate finance from now through the end of the decade.

The Doha decision weakly “encourages” developed countries that had already pledged to provide some climate money before 2015 to increase their efforts to at least what they had promised in the fast-start period, and “urges” the remaining developed nations to make pledges “when their financial circumstances permit.”

Hardly the display of urgency or mandate for action that any of us were hoping for.

The decision document also invited (but didn’t require) wealthy countries to submit their strategies for moving $100bn by 2020, and granted a one-year extension to a process meant to help indentify pathways for scaling up climate finance in the long term.

In other words, while governments say they’re anxiously awaiting the opening of the Green Climate Fund, there appears to be little enthusiasm for making public money actually flow.

Moving forward on GCF infrastructure

Despite a lack of political will to fill the fund, there was some forward movement on building an institution worth putting money into. The following four issues are some of the most important pieces of the Doha decision that the GCF’s board will report on when nations reconvene at the 2013 climate summit.

1. Secure funding

Seeing little money materialize in Doha, the board of the Green Climate Fund was tasked with securing funds from industrialized country governments as well as a variety of other public and private sources.

The economic crisis and budget shortfalls are pushing contributor countries to call on the private sector to be more involved in climate funding – even promising to funnel money directly from the Green Climate Fund to private investors for projects in developing countries.

But while the private sector has played a significant role in providing finance to energy and other climate-related projects, experience shows that left to its own devices, the private sector often doesn’t put the needs of people at the center of its investments.

For instance, money channeled through the private arm of the World Bank – the International Finance Corporation – tends to bypass impoverished countries and marginalized people within middle-income nations.

These are the countries and communities least responsible for causing the climate crisis, but most impacted by its effects.

GCF board members will have to establish rules for effective, appropriate engagement for the private sector to make sure that projects and policies prioritize the goals of the Green Climate Fund rather than those of investors.

At the same time, leaders should harness the popular narrative of fiscal hardship to implement innovative ideas for funding national budgets – like a carbon tax or a financial transaction tax. These policies are good for the climate and financial stability, and raise revenue that can be used beyond climate.

2. Develop a ”no-objection” procedure

Calling for a ‘no-objection’ procedure was one way that the Green Climate Fund’s founders tried to ensure that both private and public investment serves the needs of impacted people.

The procedure should help ensure genuine developing country ownership of activities within its own borders by giving any government the power to nix a project or program supported by the GCF headed for their country that doesn’t meet national goals.

Also, securing “no-objection” at the national level should help people living within a country – particularly individuals and communities affected by a GCF project – reject an activity that might be well-intentioned, but could ultimately undermine their development.

If designed right, the no-objection procedure could help filter out projects that are incompatible with national strategies, conflict with better programs and projects, or impose undue harm or costs upon host communities and their environment.

3. Balance support for adaptation and mitigation

Given the emphasis on pulling private sector investors into the fund, the GCF board will need to implement clear standards to ensure that programs and policies to build resilience to climate change impacts receive the resources they need.

Investors, not surprisingly, look for a return on their investment, and as a result support for profitable mitigation and large-scale projects dwarfs that for adaptation.

According to recent studies, only 15 percent of all climate finance goes to adaptation – for private climate finance that shrinks to a mere 5 percent.

The GCF board will have to go beyond setting rhetorical guideposts for allocating finance and establish concrete directives based on the goals of the fund and the needs of developing countries.

4. Set-up the structure

In order for the fund to meet its aim of providing climate finance for a climate-conscious paradigm shift, it needs a credible and effective infrastructure.

That’s why countries attending the Doha meeting asked the board to make arrangements for a permanent secretariat to take care of the day-to-day work of the fund, and to make a plan for coordinating with the other relevant bodies of the climate convention like the technology and adaptation committees.

The board was also tasked with establishing rules for an open, transparent and competitive bidding process to find a permanent trustee so that the World Bank – now holding the interim position – doesn’t automatically fill the post.

Many developing countries and climate campaigners are calling for an alternative to the World Bank because of its history of placing policy conditions on loans, racking up developing world debt, and supporting dirty energy around the planet.

On the bright side, Doha showed that both developing and developed countries are committed to getting the GCF up and running.

But for the Fund to meet the needs of climate-impacted communities, satisfy contributor countries, and achieve basic standards of fairness and effectiveness, its members have their work cut out for them this year.

Janet Redman is co-director of the Sustainable Energy and Economy Network at IPS.

Militarizing Latin America: Four More Years

Over the next four years the U.S. will face a number of foreign policy issues, most of them regional, some of them global. Conn Hallinan has been outlining and analyzing them. His first three reports covered the Middle East, Africa, and the Asia Pivot.

This past December marked the 190th anniversary of the Monroe Doctrine, the 1823 policy declaration by President James Monroe that essentially made Latin America the exclusive reserve of the United States. And if anyone has any doubts about what lay at the heart of that Doctrine, consider that since 1843 the U.S. has intervened in Mexico, Argentina, Chile, Haiti, Nicaragua, Panama, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Honduras, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Uruguay, Grenada, Bolivia, and Venezuela. In the case of Nicaragua, nine times, and Honduras, eight.

Sometimes the intrusion was unadorned with diplomatic niceties: the U.S. infantry assaulting Chapultepec Castle outside Mexico City in 1847, Marines hunting down insurgents in Central America, or Gen. “Black Jack” Pershing pursuing Pancho Villa through Chihuahua in 1916.

At other times the intervention was cloaked in shadow—a secret payoff, a nod and a wink to some generals, or strangling an economy because some government had the temerity to propose land reform or a re-distribution of wealth.

For 150 years, the history of this region, that stretches across two hemispheres and ranges from frozen tundra to blazing deserts and steaming rainforests, was in large part determined by what happened in Washington. As the wily old Mexican dictator Porfirio Diaz once put it, the great tragedy of Latin America is that it lay so far from God and so near to the United States.

But Latin America today is not the same as it was 20 years ago. Left and progressive governments dominate most of South America. China has replaced the U.S. as the region’s largest trading partner, and Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Venezuela have banded together in a common market, Mercosur, that is the third largest on the planet. Five other nations are associate members. The Union of South American Nations and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean State have sidelined that old Cold War relic, the Organization of American States. The former includes Cuba, but excludes the U.S. and Canada.

On the surface, Mr. Monroe’s Doctrine would appear to be a dead letter.

Which is why the policies of the Obama administration vis-à-vis Latin America are so disturbing. After decades of peace and economic development, why is the U.S. engaged in a major military buildup in the region? Why has Washington turned a blind eye to two successful, and one attempted, coups in the last three years? And why isn’t Washington distancing itself from the predatory practices of so-called “vulture funds,” whose greed is threatening to destabilize the Argentinean economy?

As it has in Africa and Asia, the Obama administration has militarized its foreign policy vis-à-vis Latin America. Washington has spread a network of bases from Central America to Argentina. Colombia now has seven major bases, and there are U.S. military installations in Honduras, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, Panama, and Belize. The newly reactivated Fourth Fleet prowls the South Atlantic. Marines are in Guatemala chasing drug dealers. Special Forces are in Honduras and Colombia. What are their missions? How many are there? We don’t know because much of this deployment is obscured by the cloak of “national security.”

The military buildup is coupled with a disturbing tolerance for coups. When the Honduran military and elites overthrew President Manuel Zelaya in 2009, rather than condemning the ouster, the Obama administration lobbied—albeit largely unsuccessfully—for Latin American nations to recognize the illegally installed government. The White House was also silent about the attempted coup against leftist Rafael Correa in Ecuador the following year, and has refused to condemn the “parliamentary” coup against the progressive president of Paraguay, Fernando Lugo, the so-called “Red Bishop.”

Dark memories of American-engineered and supported coups against governments in Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Guatemala are hardly forgotten on the continent, as a recent comment by Argentine economics minister Hernan Lorenzino made clear. Calling a U.S. Appeals Court ruling that Buenos Aires should pay $1.3 billion in damages to two “vulture fund” creditors “legal colonialism,” the minister said, “All we need now is for [Appeals Court Judge Thomas] Griesa to send us the Fifth Fleet.”

Much of this military buildup takes place behind the rhetoric of the war on drugs, but a glance at the placement of bases in Colombia suggests that the protection of oil pipelines has more to do with the marching orders of U.S. Special Forces than drug-dealers. Plan Colombia, which has already cost close to $4 billion, was conceived and lobbied for by the Los Angeles-based oil and gas company Occidental Petroleum.

Colombia currently has five million displaced people, the most in the world. It is also a very dangerous place if you happen to be a trade unionist, in spite of the fact that Bogota is supposed to have instituted a Labor Action Plan (LAP) as part of the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with Washington. But since the Obama administration said the Colombian government was in compliance with LAP, the attacks have actually increased. “What happened since then [the U.S. compliance statement] is a surge in reprisals against almost all trade unions and labor activists that really believed in the Labor Action Plan,” says Gimena Sanchez-Garzoli of the Latin American watchdog organization, WOLA. Human Rights Watch reached a similar conclusion.

The drug war has been an unmitigated disaster, as an increasing number of Latin American leaders are concluding. At least 100,000 people have been killed or disappeared in Mexico alone, and the drug trade is corrupting governments, militaries and police forces from Bolivia to the U.S. border. And lest we think this is a Latin American problem, several Texas law enforcement officers were recently indicted for aiding and abetting the movement of drugs from Mexico to the U.S.

The Obama administration should join the growing chorus of regional leaders who have decided to examine the issue of legalization and to de-militarize the war against drugs. Recent studies have demonstrated that there is a sharp rise in violence once militaries become part of the conflict and that, as Portugal and Australia have demonstrated, legalization does not lead to an increase in the number of addicts.

A major U.S. initiative in the region is the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), even though it has led to increases in poverty, social dislocation, and even an increase in the drug trade. In their book “Drug War Mexico” Peter Walt and Roberto Zapeda point out that deregulation has opened doors for traffickers, a danger that both the U.S. Customs Service and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) warned about back in 1993.

By lowering or eliminating tariffs, NAFTA has flooded Latin America with cheap, U.S. government-subsidized corn that has put millions of small farmers out of business, forcing them to either immigrate, flood their country’s overstressed cities, or turn to growing more lucrative crops—marijuana and coca. From 1994, the year NAFTA went into effect, to 2000, some two million Mexican farmers left their land, and hundreds of thousands of undocumented people have emigrated to the U.S. each year.

According to the aid organization, Oxfam, the FTA with Colombia will result in a 16 percent drop in income for 1.8 million farmers and a loss of income between 48 percent and 70 percent for some 400,000 people working under that country’s minimum monthly wage of $328.08.

“Free trade” prevents emerging countries from protecting their own industries and resources, and pits them against the industrial might of the U.S. That uneven playing field results in poverty for Latin Americans, but enormous profits for U.S. corporations and some of the region’s elites.

The White house has continued the Bush administration’s demonization of president Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, in spite of the fact that Chavez has been twice elected by large margins, and his government has overseen a major reduction in poverty. According to the United Nations, Venezuelan inequality is the lowest in Latin America, poverty has been cut by a half, and extreme poverty by 70 percent. These kinds of figures are something the Obama administration supposedly hails.

As for Chavez’s attacks on the U.S., given that U.S. supported the 2002 coup against him, has deployed Special Forces and the CIA in neighboring Colombia, and takes a blasé attitude toward coups, one can hardly blame the Chavistas for a certain level of paranoia.

Washington should recognize that Latin America is experimenting with new political and economic models in an attempt to reduce the region’s traditional poverty, underdevelopment, and chronic divisions between rich and poor. Rather than trying to marginalize leaders like Chavez, Correa, Evo Morales of Bolivia, and Christine Kirchner of Argentina, the Obama administration should accept the fact that the U.S. is no longer the Northern Colossus that always gets it way. In any case, it is the U.S. currently being marginalized in the region, not its opponents.

Instead of signing silly laws, like “The Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere Act” (honest to God), the White House should be lobbying for Brazil to become a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, ending its illegal and immoral blockade of Cuba, and demanding that Britain end support for its colony in the Falklands or Malvinas. The fact is that Britain can’t “own” land almost 9,000 miles from London just because it has a superior navy. Colonialism is over.

And while the administration cannot directly intervene with the U.S. Court of Appeals in the current dispute between Elliot Management, Aurelius Capital Management, and Argentina, the White House should make it clear that it thinks the efforts by these “vulture funds” to cash in on the 2002 Argentine economic crisis are despicable. There is also the very practical matter that if “vulture funds” force Buenos Aires to pay full fare for debts they purchased for 15 cents on the dollar, it will threaten efforts by countries like Greece, Spain, Ireland and Portugal to deal with their creditors. Given that U.S. banks—including the “vultures”—had a hand in creating the crisis in the first place, it is especially incumbent on the American government to stand with the Kirchner government in this matter. And if the Fifth Fleet does get involved, it might consider shelling Elliot’s headquarters in the Cayman Islands.

After centuries of colonial exploitation and economic domination by the U.S. and Europe, Latin America is finally coming into its own. It largely weathered the worldwide recession in 2008, and living standards are generally improving throughout the region—dramatically so in the countries Washington describes as “left.” These days Latin America’s ties are more with the BRICS—Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa—than with the U.S., and the region is forging its own international agenda. There is unanimous opposition to the blockade of Cuba, and, in 2010, Brazil and Turkey put forth what is probably the most sensible solution to date on how to end the nuclear crisis with Iran.

Over the next four years the Obama administration has an opportunity to re-write America’s long and shameful record in Latin America and replace it with one built on mutual respect and cooperation. Or it can fall back on shadowy Special Forces, silent subversion, and intolerance of differences. The choice is ours.

For more of Conn Hallinan’s essays visit Dispatches From the Edge. Meanwhile, his novels about the ancient Romans can be found at The Middle Empire Series.

Page 60 of 190« First...102030...5859606162...708090...Last »