Focal Points Blog

Will the Next Pope Embrace Liberation Theology?

Cross-posted from the Dissent Magazine blog Arguing the World.

Will the next pope embrace liberation theology? The conventional answer would be: fat chance. However, without going too far out on a limb, one could also answer in the affirmative. In their own ways, both responses will likely be correct.

The chances that a true radical will be selected as Pope are next to nil. That’s because none are in the running. Technically, any baptized male Catholic can be elected to the post. But, in practice, the pope is selected from the church’s cardinals under the age of eighty. At this point, all the eligible cardinals were appointed to their positions either by Pope Benedict XVI or by Pope John Paul II. Both men vigilantly stacked the deck with cardinals whose views range, in the words of one religion professor, from conservative to ultraconservative.

Liberal theologian Hans Küng gives a harsh assessment of Benedict’s selection of Vatican personnel. “Under the German pope, a small, primarily Italian clique of yes-men, people with no sympathy for the calls to reform, were allowed to come into power,” Küng stated. “They are partly responsible for the stagnation that stifles every attempt at modernization of the church system.”

The most brilliant suggestion I’ve seen for a candidate who would decisively break with established traditions (and who would need to come from outside the current pool of cardinals) was penned by E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post. In a recent column entitled, “The best choice for pope? A nun,” Dionne argued that “An all-male hierarchy adopted policies to cover up the [sex abuse scandal plaguing the church] and seemed far too inclined to put protecting the church’s image ahead of protecting children.” He added, “Throughout history, it’s not uncommon for women to be brought in to put right what men have put wrong.”

Since that’s not going to happen, we can at least hope for a church leader who recognizes and validates the critical social justice work carried out largely by nuns, rather than spending his time reprimanding women religious.

One of the candidates considered to be among the frontrunners in the papal conclave would appear, at first look, to fit that bill: Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana. Not only would Turkson, as an African, break the European stranglehold on the papacy, he would come to the office straight from serving as president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. In this capacity, Turkson oversaw the release of a 2011 document that gave a fairly stinging critique of the international financial system. It blasted speculative trading, reiterated previous church warnings against “idolatry of the market,” and argued, “No one can in conscience accept the development of some countries to the detriment of others.” This is what has led some commentators to suggest that liberation theology may make a comeback if Turkson becomes pope.

But as Naunihal Singh explains at the New Yorker, Turkson has a strong conservative side. He is notably homophobic, even by church standards, having defended anti-gay legislation in Africa and having linked the Catholic Church’s pedophilia scandals to cultures that are permissive of homosexuality (rather than to an internal institutional culture that prizes secrecy, hierarchy, and obedience). Turkson also caused a scandal last year by showing a fear-mongering and discredited anti-Muslim video to a meeting of church officials. The British Independent has dubbed the cardinal “Conservatism’s Cape crusader.”

While they may seem incongruous, Turkson’s seeming contradictions speak to a wider point: in order to understand the Vatican’s response to liberation theology, one must appreciate how individuals such as Turkson can be considered conservatives within the church and nevertheless produce statements strongly critical of neoliberal capitalism.

It is widely noted that, before he became Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger headed the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, formerly known as the office of the Inquisition. There he earned the nickname “God’s Rottweiler,” leading the effort to silence creative and non-conformist voices within Catholicism. During Ratzinger’s tenure as doctrinal enforcer, the church is said to have officially rejected liberation theology.

But this is only true in part. The Vatican did object to liberation theologians’ use of Marxist sociological analysis, and it rejected their challenges to the centralized authority of Rome. Yet, at the same time, it affirmed many of the central doctrines of liberation theology, especially those relating to poverty, inequality, and economic justice. Most notably, the “preferential option for the poor,” the once-radical idea that God takes sides and identifies with the oppressed and impoverished, has been mainstreamed as Catholic theological doctrine.

To this extent, if not necessarily in the overall orientation of his ministry, the next pope is almost certain to carry forward the liberationist tradition.

Under each of the last two popes, the church has released statements about the global economy that take cues from liberation theology’s teachings. John Paul II condemned “the resurgence of a certain capitalist neoliberalism which subordinates the human person to blind market forces.” And it is worth remembering that Pope Benedict gave Gustavo Gutiérrez, one of the founders and leading lights of liberation theology, a place of honor at anAsh Wednesday mass in 2007. Religion & Politics editor Tiffany Stanley notes that Ratzinger’s current replacement as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, German Archbishop Gerhard Müller, “is said to be sympathetic to liberation theology and even co-authored a book with Gutiérrez.”

Likewise, it’s fascinating to read the reflections of prominent Brazilian liberationist Leonardo Boff, who was famously silenced for a year in 1985 and who ultimately left the priesthood in 1992. Boff is critical of Benedict. But he was also on friendly terms with Ratzinger, and he cites occasions upon which the former cardinal referred favorably to his books.

As for the upcoming conclave, probably the best candidate one can hope for from the perspective of liberation theology is another Brazilian, Cardinal Cláudio Hummes, the former archbishop of São Paulo. Hummes has shifted towards the center in recent decades and, like Turkson, has taken some controversial and reactionary stances (in his case, opposing the use of condoms to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS in Brazil). That said, he has significant progressive bona fides.

Preaching in working-class areas in and around São Paulo in the 1970s, Hummes supported Worker’s Party dissidents organizing against the country’s military junta. As Anna Flora Anderson of the Dominican School of Theology in São Paulo explained to the BBC in 2005: “The military would quickly shut down any union meeting. So one of the great things Claudio did was to open up the smaller churches [to activists]—so the unions could meet without interference.”

Hummes is a personal friend of former Brazilian president and Worker’s Party leader Lula da Silva. He has defended the land occupations of the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra. And he has long been regarded as an ally of the grassroots “base communities” that put liberation theology into practice throughout Brazil. As the Washington Post reports, on his first day on the job as archbishop of São Paulo, in 1998, Hummes “attacked the spread of global capitalism, saying the privatization of state companies and the lowering of tariffs had contributed to the ‘misery and poverty affecting millions around the world.’”

Much more than the many yes-men in the conclave, Hummes would open the door for the revival of social justice ministry in the Catholic Church. Unfortunately, you should only put your money on the Brazilian to become the next pope if you like betting on long shots. As of this writing, the odd-makers have him at 50-1.

Mark Engler is a senior analyst with Foreign Policy In Focus and author of How to Rule the World: The Coming Battle Over the Global Economy (Nation Books, 2008). He can be reached via the website Democracy Uprising. You can follow Mark at his Facebook page.

Nuclear Weapons Have Outlived Their Usefulness — if They Ever Had Any

Five Myths About Nuclear WeaponsLong awaited by many of us in the arms control and disarmament communities, historian Ward Wilson’s book, Five Myths About Nuclear Weapons, was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in January. It doesn’t fail to deliver. What at first seems like a short book soon becomes a distillate of years of the author’s thinking, to which the expansive footnotes and lengthy bibliography also attest.

Wilson is a senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies of the Monterey Institute of International Studies. For years unaffiliated, though, with either academy or a foundation, his writing style can be characterized as plain speaking and congenial, accessible to the general public as well as policymakers, strategists, and historians.

Sixty-eight years after the Trinity test, the first detonation of a nuclear weapon, arms control moves in fits and starts and total disarmament is considered unrealistic — unattainable to its advocates, inadvisable to most. Meanwhile, those members of the public who aren’t too frightened by existential issues or too distracted to face them view global warming as more urgent than nuclear weapons. Others operate under the illusion that the end of the Cold War has diminished the nuclear threat to the point where we can live with it.

Besides, the primal logic of deterrence — discouraging an attack by your ability to respond — makes perfect sense to many. But, nuclear weapons may not lend themselves to deterrence as well as conventional thinking holds. In fact, the idea that “nuclear deterrence works in a crisis” is one of Wilson’s myths — as is even the proposition that they keep us safe.

Actually, deterrence is the second pillar of faith in nuclear weapons. The first was erected when their detonation at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II supposedly forced Japan to surrender. It’s also the first myth that Wilson attempts to debunk: “Nuclear weapons shock and awe opponents.” For one cannot stand without the other. As he wrote in a 2008 article (The Myth of Nuclear Deterrence) for Nonproliferation Review that helped put him on the map as a nuclear-weapons historian: “The collapse of the Hiroshima case undermines one of the cornerstones of nuclear deterrence theory.”

Turns out, as Wilson writes in Five Myths, “Japan’s leaders consistently displayed a lack of interest in the [conventional] bombing that was wrecking their cities.” To them, it was the Russian invasion of Manchuria and Sakhalin Island upon which the war hinged. With Russia also planning to invade Hokkaido, the northern-most of Japan’s islands, Japan realized it could not fight a war against both Russia and the United States-led Western powers. Wilson then turns the question around.

Proponents of nuclear weapons who claim that Japan was forced to surrender because of the bombing of Hiroshima face a difficult question: Why would Japan’s leaders have been motivated to act by an event that was not strategically decisive?

The main piece of evidence that Wilson uses to build his case against the efficacy of nuclear weapons is the Cuban missile crisis, about which you’ve no doubt already seen much revisionist history in commemoration of its fiftieth anniversary last year. Wilson, though, instead of concentrating on why our nukes didn’t deter Russia, focuses on why Russia’s nuclear threat didn’t deter President John Kennedy from blockading Cuba and demanding that nuclear missiles be removed from Cuba. “So why did,” Wilson asks, “nuclear deterrence fail? And why did Kennedy take steps that seem to meet [a] definition of reckless lunacy?” (Author’s emphasis.)

In still more picturesque language, he rephrases the question directly.

In the most dangerous nuclear crisis the world has ever known, one leader saw the nuclear deterrence stop sign, saw the horrifying image of nuclear war painted on it, and gunned through the intersection anyway.

In other words, fear of Russia’s nuclear weapons didn’t keep President Kennedy from putting the pedal to the metal. Wilson again:

One way that proponents of nuclear weapons explain Kennedy’s willingness to risk nuclear war is by arguing that U.S. nuclear superiority made the risk of nuclear war negligible.…But most of the senior participants and Kennedy himself said, either directly or indirectly, that nuclear superiority had had little to do with decisions made during the crisis.…by the late 1950s both sides had the ability to inflict significant damage in the event of a war, even after absorbing a nuclear strike.

Another approach that helped lend Wilson credibility early in his career was to forbear attacking nuclear weapons from the point of view of morality and, instead, hold them accountable on the basis of their actual usefulness as weapons.

The problem with nuclear weapons is that there is no way to concretely verify the claims that are made about their importance. There is really only one data point — Hiroshima — determining their cash basis. The danger is that we have overinflated their value by misinterpreting that one event.

Confident that he’d win, it’s as if Wilson agreed to cede the home-court advantage to the arrayed forces of national defense: “Body count aside, will nuclear weapons win wars?” (My words, not his.) More to the point, will bombing cities, known as area bombing in World War II, prove decisive in winning wars? Wilson writes:

People often talk about nuclear weapons’ ability to create destruction as if it were an accepted fact that destruction and military effectiveness are the same thing. But.…destruction does not win wars.

Among the instances he cites besides Hiroshima and Nagasaki are the siege of Stalingrad during which the Wehrmacht destroyed the city with bombing and artillery. Soviet soldiers clung to the ruins and eventually outlasted the German assault. Wilson concludes:

Destroying cities and killing civilians is large beside the point in terms of military strategy.

Each of the five myths transitions to the next. Wilson pulls this off exceptional gracefulness when, at the end of Five Myths About Nuclear Weapons, he addresses the subject of the nuclear genie — the idea that nuclear know-how and technology can’t be un-developed, as it were, and stuffed back into the bottle. Connecting the circle, he writes that obsolescence will obtain when it’s shown that nuclear weapons are no longer viewed as useful in winning wars.

Reconciling Displaced Libyans and Their Neighbors

While this month marked the second anniversary since the start of Libya’s uprising, the country is still struggling with the ramifications of its upheaval and the difficulties of reconciliation following its violent conflict. Thousands of Libyans remain internally displaced by ethnic tensions unleashed by the revolution.

The city of Tawergha is perhaps the most poignant example of the exile many Libyans have experienced: it is now a veritable “ghost town,” its residents forced to take refuge elsewhere following the catastrophic battles between loyalist and rebel forces that occurred in the area. Tawergha’s estimated 30,000 to 40,000 displaced residents continue to be prevented from returning to their homes due to safety concerns. The few who have tried to return have supposedly been stopped by Misratan brigades who “threatened to kill them and burn the remains of their houses,” according to the Libya Herald.

Tawergha lies along the road between the central coastal city of Sirte—Muammar Gaddafi’s last stronghold and the city where he was both born and killed—and the northwestern city of Misrata, a rebel stronghold that rose up in rebellion in February 2011. As a result of its proximity, Tawergha was occupied by Gaddafi’s forces and used as a base for loyalist military operations against the neighboring Misrata.

Tension between the two cities remains high, as residents of both Tawergha and Misrata have experienced the fallout from the violent clashes between loyalist and rebel forces. Misratans accuse Tawerghans of siding with Gaddafi, participating in his military operations against Misrata, and committing war crimes such as rape and looting. There is also a racial element to this tension, since Tawerghans typically have noticeably darker skin, and many of Gaddafi’s forces were comprised of African mercenaries as well as Libyans.

The reprisal for Tawerghans was swift after Gaddafi’s fall, with Misratan forces launching a series of attacks on the city that Amnesty International characterized as ethnic cleansing. The town’s infrastructure is considerably damaged—even uninhabitable—as a result of the rebel capture of the town in August 2011, which precipitated widespread fires, gunfights, and NATO airstrikes. Tawergha was later looted and pillaged by anti-Gaddafi forces, and the green sign to the city has been vandalized with “Misrata” graffiti.

Libya’s Deputy Prime Minister Awad Barasi has recently announced plans to address these internally displaced citizens, meeting with ministers to discuss solutions to the problem. Without state support, there is little chance that reconciliation or lasting peace can be achieved between these displaced groups and their neighbors.

Leslie Garvey is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.

Bulgaria: The Next Generation

Bulgaria’s younger generation carries the past more lightly.

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

 Nevena Milosheva-Krushe

Nevena Milosheva-Krushe

My current project focuses on re-interviewing the people I talked to in East-Central Europe in 1990. But if I restricted my interviews to this group of people, I’d get a rather skewed picture of the region today. After all, I’d miss out on an entire generation of people that was too young to participate in the changes or was born afterwards.

To ensure that I have a more balanced picture, I thought it would be interesting to interview the children of the original interviewees. Nevena Milosheva-Krushe, the daughter of Mariana Milosheva-Krushe, is the first of these interviews.

Like many people of her generation, Nevena has no direct experience of the communist era. She was only two years old in 1989. She remembers the stories that her elders told her. But 1989 is as far away in time for her as the 1960s were for my generation (it took me a long time, for instance, to realize that Woodstock was something other than a character in the Peanuts comic strip).

Nevena works in one of the multinational companies with an office in Sofia. She is rather optimistic by temperament, a trait she shares with her activist mother but which is sometimes a sentiment in short supply in Bulgaria. And because of her contact with other ethnic groups and her own time spent abroad, she highly values multiculturalism.

“Since I was little, I had contacts with different groups through my mother,” she told me. “And then in the university we had people from different ethnic groups and also different countries, mostly from the Balkans. And in Amsterdam, we had people from very different places. I really don’t like generalizations that all people from this group are such and such. I experienced the same thing in Amsterdam: ‘You’re a Bulgarian and this means that you are not hard-working and so on.’”

It is perhaps this awareness of the outer world – and how the outer world perceives Bulgaria – that distinguishes the younger generation from those who lived during the communist period. From an early age the post-communist generation has travelled outside of Bulgaria and/or has had access to all sorts of global media. They carry the past more lightly and are often bemused by the intense arguments that still rage over what took place before they were born.

Of course, young people in Bulgaria are all over the map, literally as well as ideologically. There are young neo-fascists and young farmers and young populists and young drug addicts and young rock musicians and many many young people who are living outside of Bulgaria. Many of these young people share little in common except for the generation gap that separates them from their dinosaur parents. But that gap doesn’t seem very large in the case of Nevena and her mother.

The Interview

When did you first realize that you were living in a country that was completely different before you were born?

There were many things that were different compared to other countries. For instance, I remember the stories of when we had only one kind of chocolate or standing on line for bread. One of my first memories, when I was younger than 8 years old, is my grandmother telling me about the fall of the Berlin Wall. When I was 8, I traveled for the first time abroad and the difference was huge. We went to Switzerland.

Ah, well the difference between Switzerland and most countries is huge! Your mom said that you got a business degree. Where did you get that?

In Amsterdam. It was my master’s degree. My bachelor’s was at the American University in Bulgaria.

How was that experience at the American University?

Very interesting. Our educational system is much worse than the Western European and American education. But I wanted to be in Bulgaria, so that was my choice.

Were all the classes in English?


Was your English pretty good when you graduated high school?

I studied some subjects in English in high school. But I needed to study quite a lot more: to learn business terms and so on.

You were interested in business early on in life?

No, actually, I wanted to study politics. I started with politics at the university. But then I wanted to stay in Bulgaria and honestly I didn’t feel like going into politics in Bulgaria. I took a business course and it was very interesting. But I also studied journalism as a second degree.

You said you wanted to stay in Bulgaria. Why?

Because I am more optimistic than most people. Many things have improved a lot here, even though people are quite negative about everything around here most of the time. Many things continue to improve regardless of what specific party is ruling.

A lot of your classmates didn’t stay in Bulgaria. Did you have arguments trying to persuade them to stay or did they try to persuade you to go?

Yes, we had arguments. But to be honest, then I went to Amsterdam for a year for my masters. What was most different there was that it was more organized. It can be quite tempting to stay somewhere else. But again, I have my family and friends here.

You weren’t tempted to stay in Amsterdam?

A little bit. But finding a regular-level job there was much more difficult than finding one here.

It was easy to find a job here when you got back from Amsterdam?

Yes. I got a job at a company called Shevana. We deal with service departments for employees traveling around the world.

What are your responsibilities?

I’m in marketing and sales. We do different campaigns, communicating with different kinds of customers.

Customers just in Bulgaria?


That’s why you have to speak English.


You’ve seen Amsterdam. You’ve studied business. How would you evaluate the business climate here in Bulgaria? Is the workplace here basically the international standard? Or are there some things that are really frustrating?

I think it’s getting better and better. Many international companies have offices here by now. Most of the bigger ones and some smaller ones. Of course we’re a good destination. The salaries can be lower but at the same time the work standard is good. In Amsterdam, the salaries would be quite higher.

Can you give an example of something that was frustrating that is no longer frustrating?

At the beginning many companies were not paying maximum health benefits. For the past five years, this has been much better.

You said at one point that you decided not to do politics. Do you think the political situation has improved?

I think there’s some improvement. For example, it might sound strange, but now we have a subway line. Of course we also have more traffic. On social issues, I think it’s getting a bit better. There’s more tolerance of differences than some years ago. Of course, there’s still some problems, many problems, but I think it’s improving a bit. More foreigners are visiting the country than before.

In your free time you mentioned that you do volunteer work?

I haven’t had a lot of time for it, but I’ve helped my mother on some of her projects. But I’d like to help children, orphans, in my free time.

She mentioned that your friends and colleagues are also interested in volunteering.

For example, I have one friend working in a bank for seven years who also feels like doing something in his free time, because business gets a little tiring. You need to not just sell products but help people, without any salary. Most people are not doing a lot. But there is a desire to do more. But then we also have to stay at work quite late.

Have you gotten involved in any of the big environmental actions?

I’ve heard about them. But I’m more interested in topics connected to children or discrimination. I have a friend who works for this type of organization. I’m thinking of helping her.

On the issue of tolerance, you’ve said that the situation on the street is a little better and there are more visiting foreigners. But there’s also the anti-Roma sentiment. How do you explain these two things?

In other countries also, there’s been these tendencies after the collapse of the communist regimes: prejudice but also some improvement in tolerance. Before, we had the same Ataka type of thing, but it was not public. These people had the same views.

They just didn’t open their mouths in public?

Yes. And they didn’t have such a political party.

How much contact did you have with other Bulgarians of different ethnicities when you were at school or growing up?

Since I was little, I had contacts with different groups through my mother. And then in the university we had people from different ethnic groups and also different countries, mostly from the Balkans. And in Amsterdam, we had people from very different places. I really don’t like generalizations that all people from this group are such and such. I experienced the same thing in Amsterdam: “You’re a Bulgarian and this means that you are not hard-working and so on.”

In the business community here, is it mostly ethnic Bulgarians?

Mostly. But there are different people. The companies are international and for them it’s only important whether you do your job.

On the Roma issue, I’ve talked with people about three different policy directions: good jobs, good education, and political power. Which do you think is most important?

Education. But at the same time, in order to to start with education and get to political power we need to be more tolerant. In schools, for instance. Most Bulgarians are not very nice to other ethnicities.

Can you give some examples?

I remember in my first to fourth grade school, we had two Roma kids and they were mostly not treated in a nice fashion. That was not okay with me. We should start by understanding each other’s cultures.

Was there any Roma information in your textbooks or your classes when you were growing up?


Ethnic Turkish culture?

Only from the history textbooks about when we were enslaved by the Ottomans. But that was a long time ago. We should now just look at people as people.

What about at the American University? Were there classes about Roma or ethnic Turkish culture?

Nothing specific.

In the United States, the civil rights movement went hand in hand with a change in textbooks. It’s hard to have a change in people’s attitudes without that change in education. You were lucky to have your mother.

You’re right about education. We need to learn more about their culture. That would help people understand each other better. We can start with that.

You were more pessimistic about the future than you were in your assessment of the past.

Yes, but my view of the future was more optimistic than most people’s.

Yes, but why didn’t you say 8 about the future?

I think we are going to develop further but at a slower pace than other countries.

What do you think about the overall economy in Bulgaria? A lot of people tell me that they go abroad or don’t come back because of the lack of jobs. Is that something you hear among your friends?

Very often. But actually, I think things are getting a bit better than before. It’s as hard as in other countries. Before you go and live somewhere for a year, you can’t know what it’s like. Many people think that Western Europe is great, all well organized and arranged. But you’re still a foreigner over there. And it’s as hard to find a job as here. The salaries are low here. But our living standard is lower too. The minimum wage is quite low. And the pensions are really a big problem. I don’t think any grandparents can live by themselves without anyone helping them. That’s a problem.

When you hear the word NGO, what do you think?

People who help society but not related to profit.

So you have a positive association. I’ve heard that people here have negative associations with NGOs.

Yes. They feel like NGOs are not doing enough. But I think it’s because they are doing things for the long term. You have to be patient for the change they’re working for to come. Of course, I communicate with business people. They are thinking in terms of short-term profit. So, that’s a different mindset.

What do you think will happen in the next Bulgarian elections in the fall? Let’s say there are two scenarios: the one you want to happen and the one you don’t want to happen.

All the times that I could vote, I wasn’t voting for a scenario I wanted to happen but for the least-worst scenario.

Because your scenario wasn’t available.

Yes. I don’t think there’s any party that’s perfect, that I want to vote for now and forever. But of course, everyone has pitfalls. And everyone is trying to do something. Even the current government.

When you say that they’re trying to do something, did you have anything in mind? Other than the new subway.

The financial situation is not so bad in the context of the global economic situation. It could be quite worse.

Why haven’t young people come together to form a political party?

I think there’s quite a lot of fear. And people are not that active in civil society, including young people. They are trying some stuff like, as you said, on the forest issue. But still we need more activity. People focus on their job, their business, and that’s it.

What do you think of when you think of Europe?

The continent.

Does the continent include Bulgaria?

Yes, the whole continent includes Bulgaria. The EU also includes us. But we’re a new member, so there are certain restrictions.

Do you think the overall experience of joining the EU is a good one


Any negative aspects?

I don’t think so. We are a very small country, and we need to somehow to join the others. Of course the situation of the EU right now is not the best. We don’t have the Euro, and for the first time it’s a good thing that we are a little backward.

Yes, hooray for the leva!

Yes, exactly.

Do you see yourself living in Bulgaria for the rest of your life? When you talk to your friends, what do they think in terms of the future?

More people are staying here and wishing to stay here. Maybe five years ago, I knew many more people who wanted to leave. And now, many people want to stay.

When you look back to 1989, when you were two years old, and all that has changed or not changed, how would you evaluate that on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being least satisfied and 10 most satisfied?


Same scale, same period of time: your own personal life?


When you look into the next couple years, what do you expect for Bulgaria, on a scale of one to 10, with one being more pessimistic and 10 being most optimistic?


Sofia, October 2, 2012

Did Arafat Jaradat Die Under Interrogation?

On Saturday, Palestinian prisoner Arafat Jaradat died from wounds suffered while being held in an Israeli prison. Israeli officials claimed Jaradat died from a heart attack but now say the autopsy evidence is inconclusive. Palestinian officials determined his death was the result of torture.

Arafat Jaradat

Arafat Jaradat

Described as being in good health by his family and friends, it seems unlikely that 30-year-old Arafat would succumb to a heart attack. An autopsy revealed a slew of bodily injuries incurred during Jaradat’s five-day incarceration. These include: six broken bones in the neck, spine, arms, and legs, severe bruising on the back and chest, broken ribs, muscular wounds to the shoulder, chest and right hand, and facial bruising with bleeding from the lips and nose. Jaradat’s heart was healthy with no signs of damage.

The UN Security Council and UN Middle East peace envoy, Robert Serry, have called for an “independent and transparent investigation” to establish the cause of death in this case. The inquiry presents a likely catch-22 for these investigating bodies.If the report finds prison authorities complicit in the torture of Jaradat there could be an outbreak of unrest. If authorities are not found responsible Palestinians will likely say the investigation is swayed in Israel’s favor, generating significant outcry.

The back-and-forth only deepens the escalating tensions that have come to a head in past weeks. Thousands of prisoners have been participating in widespread hunger strikes to protest Israel’s administrative detention policy and bring attention to their plight. The death of Arafat Jaradat only swells the anger and outrage felt by Palestinians that could soon boil over.

The upheaval comes as President Obama is set to visit the region in the coming weeks. Israeli Defense Minister, Amos Gilad, is already claiming that Palestinian medical officials are jumping to conclusions to “stir things up” in advance of the president’s visit. But thus far Palestinians have only called for justice and fairness for detained prisoners, to avoid another tragedy like the death of Arafat Jaradat.

Emphasis Added: The Foreign Policy Week in Pieces

As always, emphasis added.

Credibility: The Only Thing People Value More Highly Than Their Credit Rating

So why do so many smart people keep embracing an approach to Iran that is internally contradictory and has consistently failed for more than a decade? I’m not entirely sure, but I suspect it has a lot to do with maintaining credibility inside Washington. Because Iran has been demonized for so long, and absurdly cast as the Greatest National Security Threat we face, it has become largely impossible for anyone to speak openly of a different approach without becoming marginalized. Instead, you have to sound tough and hawkish even if you are in favor of negotiations, because that’s the only way to be taken seriously in the funhouse world of official Washington (see under: the Armed Services Committee hearings on Chuck Hagel).

On Iran, try backscratching, not blackmail, Stephen Walt, Foreign Policy

Netanyahu’s Alarmist Tachometer

So if we are looking for real “red lines,” the obvious trip-wires should be either the expulsion of IAEA inspectors or the detection of diversion of nuclear material to non-peaceful uses – not some artificial red line drawn by a non-NPT member state.

How close is Iran to nuclear weapons?, Yousaf Butt, Reuters

Nuclear Disarmament on the Sly

… the administration continues to keep secret the current size of the stockpile, which, among other effects, forces officials such as Dr. Cook to be unnecessarily vague about the extent to which the United States continues to make progress on reducing nuclear weapons in compliance with its obligations under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. [Because] the unilateral retirement of roughly 500 warheads from the stockpile since 2009 – an inventory comparable to the total stockpiles of China and Britain combined – is political dynamite (no pun intended) because conservative Cold Warriors in Congress (and elsewhere) vehemently oppose unilateral reductions of U.S. nuclear weapons.

(Still) Secret US Nuclear Weapons Stockpile Reduced, Hans Kristensen, FAS Strategic Security Blog

What Would the Supreme Leader Do Without the U.S.?

Reaching a lasting deal with Khamenei has never been about Iran’s nuclear program but rather the political legitimacy — and thereby survival — of the Islamic regime. … Mindful of threats to his power by rival conservative and reformist factions, Khamenei has nearly always undermined efforts by any one of these groups to resolve Iran’s long-standing disputes with Western powers. … Simply put, normalization of relations between Iran and the United States would deprive Khamenei and the deeply invested cohort of radical ideologues around him of a powerful justification for their arbitrary rule.

Why Iran says no, Hussein Banai, The Los Angeles Times

A war against a name is a war in name only”

Last September, Matthew Olsen, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, testified to Congress that “core Al Qaeda”—the original, Arab-led group, whose surviving members, hiding mainly in Pakistan, are thought to number in the dozens or low hundreds—is at “its weakest point in the last ten years.” Yet, to explain the White House’s policy, he and many other counterterrorism analysts warn of a resilient threat posed by Al Qaeda “franchises” … Each group has a distinctive local history and a mostly local membership. None have strong ties to “core Al Qaeda,” … A franchise is a business that typically operates under strict rules laid down by a parent corporation; to apply that label to Al Qaeda’s derivative groups today is false. … If Al Qaeda is not coherent enough to justify a formal state of war, the war should end.”

Name Calling, Steve Coll, The New Yorker

Organizing the Public in East-Central Europe

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

Mariana Milosheva-Krushe

Mariana Milosheva-Krushe

The transformations of 1989 began in the streets as people protested their governments in Leipzig, Prague, Bucharest, and Sofia. The agents of change were popular movements like Solidarity, Civic Forum, and the Union of Democratic Forces. Gradually the protests receded, and these popular movements turned themselves into parties. Many activists, however, didn’t want to join formal politics. And so was born the new era of the NGO in East-Central Europe.

Non-governmental organizations proliferated throughout the region in the 1990s as part of the institutionalization of civil society. They often received support from foundations and governments in Western Europe and the United States. Exchange programs brought staff for training sessions in Washington and London and Paris. NGOs became increasingly important in addressing social issues – poverty, inter-ethnic tensions, trafficking – as the governments in the region downsized. In this way, NGOs devoted to public works were paradoxically part of the wave of privatization that swept the region. What governments no longer had the money to do, private organizations stepped in to help out.

In the early days, NGOs enjoyed a rather high reputation in part because of the legacy of “anti-politics” from the earlier period. Newly enfranchised citizens viewed government and the official political realm with a degree of suspicion just as they dismissed the communist governments as the playthings of the nomenklatura.

Today, however, NGOs don’t meet with such universal acclaim. “Of course there is a certain frustration about the lack of progress in the region,” Mariana Milosheva-Krushe explained to me over coffee at the Archaeological Museum café in Sofia back in September. “So, who do they blame? NGOs.” NGOs are often perceived as well-funded entities that don’t in the end produce anything of enduring value. Although some NGOs certainly fit this description, others have achieved sustainable results with relatively modest means.

Mariana Milosheva-Krushe has been working with NGOs in Bulgaria and throughout the region for more than two decades. She first encountered community organizing in the United States in 1993 and was impressed with this grassroots approach to political and economic development. She brought that spirit back to Bulgaria to democratize the NGO sector. Deeply involved in this sector, she is nonetheless critical of the bad habits of civic organizations.

“Change depends on people in the community,” she told me. “I learned my lesson in Stolipinovo. We raised some money from an outside donor to pave some of the streets there. An old man was sitting and watching me. He said, ‘Pave the street over there too.’ I said, ‘Come on, it’s your street.’ And he said, ‘It’s your project!’ And he was right. He was very wise. I was coming with this money and we were creating a consumer culture.”

In addition to the evolution of NGO culture, we talked about working on Roma issues in Bulgaria, the rebirth of the chitalishte cultural centers, and political polarization.

The Interview

Do you remember when the Berlin Wall fell and what you were doing and how you reacted?

Yes. I was having a sandwich and walking to the office I was working for here in Sofia. I just dropped the sandwich. I couldn’t believe it. I was just stunned. So, this is a very vivid memory.

Where were you working at the time?

At the Institute of Modern History. It was very boring, very politicized. I couldn’t find a job as an ancient historian, as an archaeologist. I had to do something.

Did you think about the implications for Bulgaria? Or was it just an event happening on a distant planet?

Of course, something was going to happen. You had a feeling that everything was changing.

When perestroika started in the Soviet Union, at some point we began looking for Russian magazines to see what was happening. I had three exams in Russian/Soviet history and I knew nothing about it, only the official things we were studying. So, it was a real exciting time. These magazines were not easy to find: they were too alternative for us here. The Soviet Union was moving faster than us, which has not always been the case. So, It was already in the air that we might see some changes in our lifetime.

Was there a specific moment in your life in Bulgaria when you realized, ah, something is changing?

Yes: when I saw the completely stunned face of Todor Zhivkov. He just couldn’t believe that he had to go. That was the visual moment I remember.

For me, personally, probably the most exciting thing was to meet people who survived from the old political establishment, like Dr. Petar Dertliev and Dr. Atanas Moskov, who were Social Democrats. Meeting them was a great opportunity for me to see that not only can the system change, but there are ways to change it. I worked with them. This was the best school for me in terms of participation, elections, campaigns. I was the director of their foundation, the Yanko Sakazov Foundation at the Bulgarian Social Democratic Party. I started as a secretary then became director.

Do you remember in 1990 the conflict between groups that were willing to have some political compromise with the former Communist Party and those who weren’t, like the people in the City of Truth?

Yes, the City of Truth took place right over there. It was very exciting. We all were enthusiastic that things could change. But others were also denying everything. If you cook under pressure and you try to open the pot too fast, it can explode. I guess these different trends were trying to keep from exploding.

When my daughter was very little, I would walk her in the park. There was one column of people walking and screaming UDF (Union of Democratic Forces), and the other column walking and screaming BSP (Bulgarian Socialist Party). It was too polarized. Maybe that’s normal. But it was also generational: in most cases, the older generation, the people who were called the “red grannies,” supported the status quo because they were afraid of change. So in a way complete denial was not the best, but neither was compromise. Change was very much needed.

Do you think there was a point at which this political polarization disappeared? Or has an element of that initial polarization continued?

I don’t know. Right now, I don’t see very much passion and polarization. We don’t have a real opposition. We have the ruling party GERB (Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria). It calls itself a citizens’ movement, but it’s really a party. There’s the Movement for Rights and Freedoms and the Bulgarian Socialist Party. Unfortunately the UDF lost, and that’s kind of sad.

This development has taken place over the last 10-12 years since King Simeon came here. This was for me the first sign that populism — in our sense, not in the American sense – had overwhelmed politics. People just wanted immediate benefits. They were frustrated with the slowness of change, and they couldn’t see any direct benefit to their income or wellbeing. The king’s slogan was: Trust me. People voted for that! Without anything more concrete. But perhaps that’s normal.

I’m worried that whenever frustration grows like this, it always touches on the ethnic issue, especially Roma, and that’s really bad. I like talking with taxi drivers: they’re my focus group. Whenever you mention Roma, they say, “They’re dirty, they cheat, they do nothing, they have no potential.” Sometimes the sentiment is against the Turks, the Muslims. This is our supposedly tolerant Bulgaria! Sometimes I wonder what we’ve done for the last 20 years, with all our preaching about human rights and equal opportunities for people. I still don’t see enough mixed schools or different colors on television. Bulgaria is monochromatic.

Do you remember the campaign against the ethnic Turks in 1988-89? What was your impression of that? How did your circle of friends react?

I was at home on maternity leave. My daughter, who was born in 1987, was very little. I was living near the Palace of Culture. There were these orchestrated demonstrations against the eksursianti – that’s what they called them, people who go on excursions. None of my friends supported this. “What if they rename me?” they worried, “Or tell me where to live?” This was the stupidest thing that communists did. This is what gave birth to all the anti-regime groups, this and the environmental movement, like the Club of Mothers in Russe.

It also gave birth to the Movement for Rights and Freedom. It generated a lot of controversy. Number one, the constitution said you couldn’t have a party based on religion. Number two, Ahmed Dogan was a very controversial figure. And number three, it was the third largest party, so it played a major pivotal role in determining coalitions.

It continues to do that.

I’m curious about your analysis of the MRF and its evolution.

The idea was good, because you need a certain self-organization. No matter what, when people say that Turks were represented in other parties, they weren’t. However, like all parties, the MRF was copying the old totalitarian model of party organizing, especially Dogan. He’s very smart, an amazing politician, but he’s really totalitarian in my book. But they also had some good people in that party. They had systematic strategy for growth in their cadre. And the whole idea was based not on ethnic principle but to defend all rights and movements. This should have cut across the platforms of all parties, but it didn’t happen that way.

So there hasn’t been any attempt by BSP, the UDF, the king’s party, or GERB to to address issues of ethnic Turks?

There have been some attempts, usually around elections, with all parties buying the votes of Roma and ethnic Turks. It’s ugly. I don’t think the parties consciously care about those issues. Individual politicians, yes, but these issues were missing from the party platforms. That’s why I decided to work for civil society. It’s not enough to have elections and demonstrate that you care about the issue by buying votes or supporting the issue the day before elections. What’s important is what you do in between elections.

But I’m afraid that the political culture here was not consciously integrating the necessity of rights. That includes the MRF. We were doing community projects in the Rhodope Mountains, and ethnic Turks talked about being suppressed by their own party members. Using fear, threats to the family – the MRF was not practicing what they were established to do. Individuals within the party, yes, but not the party itself.

You worked in community development organizations in Baltimore and North Carolina.

I had an internship there for six weeks in 1993. I had several different opportunities to go to the United States on internships to learn about civic organizing, non-profit management, community foundations and the evaluation process. The first time I was in the United States was in 1991 or 1992, on an exchange. People were laughing at me in the States because I was saying, “Ah, this is the model!” And they said, “There is no model. You have to adapt whatever model you find.” I am so grateful to all the people, all the community organizers I met. I learned so much.

You started out in ancient history and archaeology. What motivated you to turn to community development?

I was bored with history. I couldn’t find work, and it was boring to dig under the ground. We were creating history! That’s why I joined the Yanko Sakazov Foundation in 1990, because it was so exciting to organize elections. I’m not an extreme person. I’m always trying to be moderate, to find the balance. I think I was closer to the Social Democrats. But unfortunately that party doesn’t exist any more. The BSP absorbed all the rhetoric, but not the actual principles.

I was working at the national level, assisting fundraising for people to do campaigns locally. But campaigns don’t resolve issues. They need to be ongoing. That’s why I decided to continue in civil society. First we created the Access association. I had a passion was for community organizing, especially in ethnically mixed communities. I was responsible for the program for community change. If you can do community organizing in a Roma neighborhood where there’s extreme poverty, then it can happen anywhere. At the same time, there’s something lost in other communities, such as the bonds between the extended family.

I was also a technical organizer of an Anne Frank exhibition. We wanted to link the messages of the exhibition to the current situation, so we included an exhibition on Roma in Bulgaria. I was shocked by the reaction of the young students coming to the exhibition. They could understand the messages of Anne Frank, what had happened in the past, and they were open to different tolerant thinking. But whenever they saw pictures of Roma, it was immediately a very negative reaction.

I talked to a Roma poet. She said that the problem was not with the beggar children sniffing glue: it’s with poverty and growing economic issues. “You should go to learn from the communities,” she said. So, I just learned from going to the Roma neighborhoods and talking to people. I’d been excited by what I saw in Baltimore, in Washington, DC, where I saw some direct work in housing projects in poor neighborhoods. As a result, in 1995 we created CEGA – Creating Effective Grassroots Alternatives — which developed effective community development projects and grassroots alternative.

What surprised you the most from your experiences in Roma communities?

It’s a completely different culture. And if you don’t understand it and respect it, you’re just lost. This was the biggest problem of most “projects” of different donors: they remained projects. In many cases they had a kind of “drive-through” approach. You need to work with people inside the community so that they start self-organizing. The big word “empowerment” means for me that individuals open their eyes, then they open up the eyes of other people, and they get together to do things. Nobody can do it from the outside.

We did a great job, I think. We worked with more than 40 organizations in different parts of the country. I still maintain contact. I do evaluations. But we are far from resolving the issues, right? We were trying to do things, to cultivate people, and at the same time, the situation was changing completely. Economically there was no opportunity. This was the biggest mistake: no one did anything for income generation. Generations of people never worked; generations of people did not study very much. It went very deep. A lot of good people who were activists got burned out. That’s normal. If you live in the neighborhood, you work 24 hours a day: if you’re real and you’re not just working for the money. You do it because you care

Some people had an opportunity to go abroad, and they said, “No, I’ll stay here.” They were committed. Some of them succeeded in really bringing Roma kids back to school. For instance, in Lom, at the Roma Lom foundation, 10 years ago they had only one or two students at university. Now they have over 25. That’s amazing!

Can you give an example of community development that has worked in Bulgaria, a flagship example so to speak?

There are different flags: one flag does not fit all. One of the examples is the Roma organization in Lom, but of course it’s not just Lom.

Another example is the chitalishte. I was evaluating a program done by UNDP, and the woman working there was so excited about these chitalishte, these cultural centers established in the 19th century as a vehicle for national revival. They were in every community: more than 3,000 all over the country. During communism, they were nationalized and became a controlling structure in the system of culture. The UNDP program decided to revive them and restore their real meaning. They did a great job. But they needed to develop assisting organizations for these chitalishte. That’s what Agora (Active Communities for Development Alternatives) does, funded by the America for Bulgaria foundation. This is community development. It’s out of the project culture. It’s just getting people involved on the issues they care about. It’s making people into active citizens.

Change depends on people in the community. I learned my lesson in Stolipinovo. We raised some money from an outside donor to pave some of the streets there. An old man was sitting and watching me. He said, “Pave the street over there too.” I said, “Come on, it’s your street.” And he said, “It’s your project!” And he was right. He was very wise. I was coming with this money and we were creating a consumer culture.

There were some great donors who were open to supporting crazy ideas. I love this spelling mistake my colleague in Romania made — these “democrazy projects,” she called them. In such projects, there’s space to grow so-called ownership. I hate these words already. They’ve become buzzwords. But still, people must own the ideas. It’s a different pace from the project pace. Projects are rhythmic: you have to spend on time and report on time. Otherwise you’re in trouble. But sometimes community development — activating people, linking them together — might go at a different pace. The biggest lesson is the pace of change. When I read all these announcements of “fast-track projects,” it sounds like McDonald’s! It doesn’t work this way. It might take years, and the development might not be linear.

What makes me pessimistic is that it was our dream to join Europe. But European Union membership came with a certain spice. It’s completely blocking community development and civic participation and democracy culture. EU funding is not accessible to small groups because of the very heavy technical requirements. And the bureaucracy in Brussels is then retranslated through our bureaucracy. This money is supposed to help municipalities and civil society. But I haven’t seen this happen.

I visited the Mercy Corps office in Tuzla in Bosnia. To get EU funding, Bosnian organizations had to partner with EU members. Many small organizations decided not even to try to get EU funding because of the reporting requirements. But the Mercy Corps office in Tuzla was extremely well organized. They had a wall full of boxes filled with the reports. And I thought: you have to be a very special organization to work the European system to get that money.

I know the European programming well. Sometimes it’s so rigid. But the intentions are good. I advise colleagues who apply to keep focused on what their organization is for, no matter what. If necessary, hire someone to do the reporting, but continue to focus on working with people. There are some good organizations doing this. But something is wrong with this system, and these bureaucrats don’t care.

One option is to reform the European system. That’s a pretty ambitious goal, and Bulgaria is a pretty small country. What other options are there? What about developing a national system that supports small organizations and community foundations?

There have been some attempts to do this, in Romania, for instance. But it’s being done by alternative donors, not the EU. The Civil Society Development Foundation gives giving small grants, supported by the Trust for Civil Society and the Romanian-American Foundation.

We’re lucky here in Bulgaria to have a colleague from the NGO community on the structural fund. He’s great. And some other people work in this system. NGOs make many suggestions about changes, but it depends on effective advocacy at the national level and the EU level. We have members in the European Parliament, and they should put forward changes to some of the ridiculous rules.

At the same time, I’m optimistic because of the involvement of young people. It’s outside the NGO community. It’s through Facebook or through humanitarian initiatives. They are acting in their own way. My daughter is 25. She grew up traveling with me to visit civic projects in the Roma community. But she decided to study business administration, and most of her friends are in the business community. Some of them say, “We want to do something else. We want to be involved in something that gives us social meaning.” That’s a good sign.

The Bulgarian Donors Fund is developing a platform for emerging donors. They are trying to stimulate a new culture of giving. We need to develop more philanthropy, more involvement of people who are donating. The Charles Steward Mott foundation did a lot on this. It applied a matching approach — if you raise this money, we’ll match it. If all the grants were like this, everyone would think about raising support. Yes, it’s very difficult, especially for minority issues, but it’s not impossible.

What is the future of informal initiatives in Bulgaria? Has the NGO experience in Bulgaria reached a certain limit in terms of its effectiveness, reach, attractiveness to young generation?

It depends on the NGO and the way it works. I can’t generalize. Of course there is a certain frustration about the lack of progress in the region. So, who do they blame? NGOs. Also, the donors needed boxes into which to invest money, and the NGOs were those boxes. Again, it was a kind of McDonald’s approach. The trick is not to serve your own self-interest. My computer used to be very creative in spelling, giving me suggestions while I was typing. When I was typing NGO, it was suggesting EGO. If you get beyond the EGO, the NGO is more broader based.

Are NGOs over? I don’t know. You need a form of self-organization, and sometimes you need well-structured forms. Governments will not listen only to informal movements. At the European level, you need a platform, you need to mirror the existing bureaucracy because bureaucracy talks to bureaucracy or organized structures.

Sometimes networking is “notworking”. I’d like to see more linkages and joint work among organizations. The National Children’s Network here in Bulgaria is very good. It brings together 80 organizations from all over the country. They have a platform, they go to the government, and they are listened to. They are lucky to have the support of a Swiss foundation and UNICEF. It’s also very active on Facebook. NGOs need to keep pace with what’s happening. They need to use new technologies to attract young people.

The environmental movement also gets people excited. Some issues excite people. With other issues, like rights and diversity, it’s more difficult. Everyone here is brought up with more or less prejudice. It’s much easier to mobilize against something, however, like racism. The new social media also can serve for negative mobilization, something that triggers your frustration, rather than positive issues.

Let me ask about the organizing on the other side of the political spectrum: the populist xenophobic rightwing movements here in Bulgaria like Ataka

What a shame that they have a TV channel! What’s shocking is that it’s supported by well-educated people.

Why has this become so much more popular in Bulgaria? Is it simply because of the economic crisis and the need to blame it on another group?

When people are frustrated and unhappy, when they have an inferiority complex, it’s easy to manipulate them. They need something to feel like they are someone. Here in Sofia, some people say, “All these newcomers come here because they can’t do anything in the communities they come from.” You can mobilize this type of inferiority complex into a platform. That’s what happened in Germany in the 1930s: lumpenization.

We need to activate educated people too. We need civic education classes all over the country. If people are not growing up with these ideas, it’s very difficult for them to get it from just reading a newspaper or seeing a campaign clip on TV. It has to be part of the curriculum. There have been lots of attempts: the Step by Step program, the Debates Program of the Open Society Institute.

People are very busy with their families. They have to survive. My daughter works from 9 am to 9 pm. That’s how it is in the business world. In the NGO community, it’s 24 hours. Because of all these busy people, children grow up without this supportive system within the family. When they’re with their parents, they absorb their negative sentiments, their frustrations with life. But it’s not only here. It’s all over Europe. You can see this type of xenophobic, nationalist attitudes in Holland, in Germany.

The paradox is, the German economy is doing quite well. They’ve dealt with the financial crisis quite successfully. They’re a creditor nation. And yet still there’s this xenophobia.

The perception there is that these foreigners are coming and taking their jobs.

Even though these are jobs that Germans generally don’t want.

It doesn’t matter. It’s the same in Holland: it’s a prosperous country yet people feel vulnerable and are becoming protectionist. It’s the same in the States. No one likes immigrants flooding into their country.

Having civic education throughout the system would be useful. An improvement in the overall economy would be useful. Anything else that would be useful in terms of overcoming this xenophobia?

Investing in individuals is great: individuals from those groups that are being scapegoated. Equal opportunities can bring out the best, no matter your origin. This is what’s missing in the region. We talk it, we don’t walk it. Roma should be more visible – in the media, working in the banking system. So that people see them and say, “Hey, they’re the same person as me.” In Lom, one of the kids there who studied in London is now working in parliament. People in Lom know this and say, “Wow, it can happen, he was my neighbor!”

In Hungary, Roma journalists were working on many different shows, not just shows on Roma issues. There were Roma in government: brilliant people, spoke English, came from the NGO community. Unfortunately the new government fired most of them. But still the investment in those individuals is worth it, because they are now working in different sectors, or at the European level, or they go to other countries. When you have examples in communities, people try to follow it. It might take generations, but it’s worth it.

The investment in people is worth it. But that leads me to the topic of the brain drain. A lot of people, especially young people, have left Bulgaria. Do you think that might be coming to an end?

First, it’s not a brain drain because not all the smart ones left the country. Some of the smart ones decided to stay, me included! I could have left. Since 1992, I had opportunities to do so, and I know other people in the same situation. My daughter’s generation, many of them very good English speakers, they’ve decided to stay here. She studied in Holland for a year for her master’s degree. She said, “No, I want to be here. If we all leave, who will make things happen?”

It’s freedom of movement, and I love it. Because I couldn’t travel before. Come on, it’s not feudal times or communism, when we had to be registered in particular places.

There’s a perception that the Bulgarian government is backtracking on liberal principles. Obviously we’ve seen it more intensely with Viktor Orban and Fidesz in Hungary. I’m curious about your impression of the general trajectory of the current government in Bulgaria?

It’s a joke. But I still vote, otherwise I can’t bitch. If I have to be honest, there are a lot of professionals in this government. But it’s such populism. People like it. The government is popular.

Why is it popular?

Because the prime minister speaks a simple language. People get it. He’s doing some stuff, like repairing roads. He’s responding to the popular culture. People don’t want to hear intellectual talk.

Is that why the UDF has failed?

I think there are many reasons. The leadership is responsible. They had many supporters. Most of the people working for change supported the UDF. But it was incapable of fighting corruption. It couldn’t demonstrate that it was an alternative. It became arrogant too.

I’m afraid of what happened a couple years ago with Ataka. If there’s something positive about GERB, it’s that they took some of the more moderate supporters of Ataka and absorbed them into a more civilized alternative. Eventually there will be new movements more oriented toward what we all strive for: greater democracy.

Have you seen actual policies based on the rhetoric of Ataka or the cleaned-up version in the current government? Or has it stayed in the realm of the rhetoric?

We have anti-discrimination legislation. We have all the tools to control this negative trend. But the traditional NGOs are needed to shine the lamp on this implementation. If we don’t have strong local organizations, municipalities can do whatever they want. All parties were buying minority votes. There were cases of threats and beating people. This should be exposed. This should be in the media. But these accusations are only used by one party against another. Active citizens can be troublesome, but it’s much better than having manipulated citizens.

Have you seen any successful anti-corruption initiatives here in Bulgaria?

There were big projects on this, and some of them were good. However, I think that corruption depends on the individual level. I would never give a bribe. When they ask me, I say no. If everybody says no, then… Back in the past, you had to pay under the table to get anything done. But there are new generations now, and the generation of my daughter won’t give. They think, ”Hey it’s your job, and you’re supposed to do it.”

I was recently stopped for speeding. He didn’t ask me for a bribe. He just wrote me a ticket. He did not even hint at it. Is that a good sign? A friend said, “Maybe they knew who they were talking with.” But I just look like a normal driver. It’s not written across my forehead that I’m an anti-corruption activist.

The government tried to arrest people, but of course they were just small fish.

As you look ahead, in your work evaluating civic groups, what excites you the most?

I’m excited that I’ll be working with the organization Amalipe for half a year on organizational development. Amalipe is a Roma NGO in Bulgaria. They work all over the country. It’s a small project but it’s exciting because we’re finding the best way for them to develop as an organization. Sometimes it can be very depressing doing evaluation: just assessing and not saying how you think things should done.

Just a couple last quantitative questions. When you think about the changes that have taken place since 1989, how would you evaluate them on a scale of one to 10, with one being most disappointed and 10 being least disappointed?


Same scale, same period of time: how do you feel about your own life?


Looking forward into the near future, how optimistic are you?

6. I should also tell you my favorite joke. The optimist and the pessimist are talking. The pessimist says “It can’t be worse,” and the optimist says, “It can happen.”

Sofia, September 25, 2012

The Forgotten Oscar: “Argo” for Best Propaganda

Argo is more tone-deaf to the Middle East than Zero Dark Thirty.

Cross-posted from The New Context.

Argo, a suspenseful tale portraying America’s favorite bad guys, Iranians, as angry gun-toting religio-fascists, just won the Best Picture Academy Award for 2012. Ben Affleck’s directing is better than his acting, but this was not a character driven movie—it was made because it was based on true events. During the Iranian student takeover of the US Embassy in 1979, six embassy workers escape to the Canadian ambassador’s home and eventually make it onto a commercial plane with the help of the CIA and the Canadian government. The remarkable story is pumped full of cinematic and narrative steroids to create a marketable movie.

This is not a critique of Argo per se—as everyone seems to agree, it was well-made. This is a swipe at the lack of vision from its left-leaning, politically active celebrity actor-director (Affleck, who also produced along with George Clooney, could have gotten a more relevant and risky movie made) and the Academy’s rewarding of Americana, disguised in the beginning but glorified by the end. It is also an admission that studying international relations and the sins of the United States can cause one to see unchecked pro-US propaganda everywhere. But at a time when our government continues to train its citizens to see Iran as nothing more than a hostile enemy, do we need a film like Argo further demonizing its people—while championing the CIA!? Not to downplay the hostage crisis at the embassy, but no one suffered as dramatically and totally as the Iranian people following the Ayatollah’s revolution. (After all the hostages were freed, Washington then backed Iraq’s Saddam Hussein as he began a devastating eight-year war with his neighbor.)

Django Unchained gave some historical context (read: horrors of slavery) to Lincoln, and Zero Dark Thirty,which also has a conflicted CIA agent as protagonist, provides a similar contrast to Argo. Both are inspired by documented acts of US foreign policy and hyperfocused on the specific results of high-level government decisions, providing a rare insight into top-secret procedures. The similarities diverge as Argo slowly extracts the storybook silver lining, complete with its white male hero, out of an epic US-led catastrophe. The 1953 Mossadegh coup and the American coddling of the corrupt, authoritarian Shah were touched upon in an odd historical film reel at the start but promptly dismissed. The film ignores the overall hostage-crisis context and offers the Orientalist concept of the most easily palatable villain, the Other. Zero’s complexity underscores Argo’s safe, historical cherry-picking.

While it is true that many parts of Iran were unstable and marked by violence during and immediately after the revolution, almost no effort is made to provide sympathetic Iranian characters. They are all fanatics and Iran is a giant prison of armed guards and angry mobs—a necessary cinematic conceit to create claustrophobia and tension. The movie only works if the audience is afraid of Iranians—even women in their all-black chadors have guns—and that is a problem.

Where Zero eschews the W. Bush–era Manichean West vs. Middle East template and instead highlighted the moral vagaries on both sides of any extended interstate conflict (cold and hot), Argo celebrates a shaggy bureau bum version of James Bond and the universal appeal of Hollywood, which comes to the rescue. Though Zero has the natural pro-Western biases of any movie made for Western audiences, the hubbub over the efficacies of torture proves that the film is not only relevant, it is an unapologetic assertion that America’s warrior class do not hold the moral high ground. Argo has been touted as illustrating that clever nonviolent solutions can work in terrible situations—a message that would have been much clearer if the story were set against the military’s disastrous helicopter rescue attempt (given a brief mention). But to its credit as a movie, the script is tight and doesn’t allow for subplots. Yet in the last ten minutes, that compactness unravels into a triumphal score introducing a sentimental denouement—and backslapping at Langley that mocks the long-list of atrocities committed by the CIA in the region from the 1950s on. The Agency comes out smelling sickly sweet.

Of course movies are primarily entertainment and do not require high-brow takeaways or disturbing, relevatory truths. But awarding the Best Picture Oscar to a movie that serves to justify the US’s belligerent stance toward Iran, only the most simplified and misunderstood of Washington’s many Frankenstein’s monsters, can certainly be seen as propaganda (as well as self-idolization by the same old Hollywood voters that chose The Artist for 2011 Best Picture).

Argo serves to reinforce stereotypes of Iranians as nothing more or less than America’s most reliable foes. It is Miracle—the Olympic feel-good film that vilified the Soviet Union to lift our spirits during those dark times before Ronald Reagan saved America (Rocky IV offered a less one-sided perspective)—without ice skates or character development, but with the same happily ever after.

Michael Quiñones is the editor of The New Context, an online journal of international affairs at the New School .

Human Rights in Serbia

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

People commit crimes, and they get away with it. These are usually powerful people, like Iliya Pavlov, the head of Multigroup and Bulgaria’s wealthiest individual until a sniper took him out in 2003. If successful people break the law without paying any penalty, lots of people want to get in on the act.

Milan Antonijevic

Milan Antonijevic

In the Belgrade office of the Lawyers’ Committee on Human Rights (YUCOM), I found a pamphlet from an organization called Impunity Watch. The Netherlands-based organization has run programs on impunity with local partners in Guatemala, Sri Lanka, and Burundi. And it has partnered with YUCOM and other organizations in Serbia to address the culture of impunity that has made it difficult to establish the rule of law in the post-Milosevic era. In that brief period after the assassination of Zoran Djindjic, the liberal standard bearer who briefly served as Serbian prime minister, the Serbian government cracked down on organized crime. But it was a short-lived commitment.

I talked with Milan Antonijevic, the director of YUCOM about the continuing human rights problems in Serbia, including the issue of impunity. “For example, let’s talk about a trial that is lasting for six years and they have all the evidence,” he told me. “I’m not talking about war crime trials. I’m talking about the burning of a mosque in Belgrade. You have police cameras on the ground; you have all the evidence. But the judiciary is the weakest link in the whole chain of protection, and that’s where the impunity is coming from.”

He continued, “On the other side, you don’t have the political will. I don’t know why we’re still speaking about political will to punish those who committed war crimes or other crimes, but unfortunately this is still happening in Serbia. We didn’t have the climate for arresting Mladic for 10 years, or Karadzic. And it’s something that’s really blocking all the trials, it’s blocking all the evidence collection, it’s blocking the prosecutor’s office. And it’s something that is unfortunately on the political side.”

Antonijevic agrees that civil society organizations have managed to achieve some successes in improving the human rights situation in Serbia. But major problems continue for Roma, sexual minorities, and others. There is still a strong link between political power and organized crime. And judges are still responding to political pressures.

With Belgrade eager to meet the benchmarks established by the European Union, Serbia will soon have to address these human rights problems more seriously. But the pressure is not only coming from Brussels. Watchdog organizations are applying pressure much closer to home. Civil society organizations like YUCOM and its partners are fighting on behalf of the powerless and the disenfranchised. The status of these social groups will ultimately determine the strength of Serbian democracy and whether, substantively rather than formally, it has fully joined Europe or not.

The Interview

When you think back to what has changed here in Serbia since 1989, on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being most disappointed and 10 being least disappointed, how do you feel about the changes?

If I had to quantify it, I would say it’s in the middle. You can pass at the university with a 7, so that’s where Serbia is at the moment. If you compare it with 1989, the year of Milosevic’s rise, Serbia has really changed.

I deal with human rights. If you compare today with what was happening in Kosovo at that time, with the dismantling of Yugoslavia, with all the human rights violations that occurred, Serbia is now completely changed. Serbia changed itself. The people running Serbia also changed it a little bit. So, all parts of society really gave Serbia a push forward. We no longer have Milosevic. Some parts of his political party are now saying they want nothing to do with atrocities, nothing to do with the war crimes that happened, and nothing to do with Milosevic himself – that’s a positive sign.

We still have problems. Here in YUCOM, the Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights, we are dealing with torture cases. There are incidents here and there in police stations, in prisons. But this was occurring on a daily basis in 1989. Before, ethnic Albanians were in jail for political reasons, and that’s now impossible. I really can’t imagine that Serbia will ever again fall into the kind of human rights that occurred 20 years ago.

Along the same scale, how do you feel about your own life since 1989?

To be honest, I was at that time much more patriotic. I changed at the beginning of the 1990s. As a kid, we were all influenced by this nationalistic wave. At the beginning of the war, when I was a kid, only 15 years old, I drew a map of Serbia just to see where all the Serbs lived and where the borders of Serbia should be: a map of greater Serbia. We were kids, and we were under media pressure constantly to see Serbia as a separate entity. Nobody thought that when you draw a border, there are people on one side and people on the other. This is something I really can’t imagine anyone doing today. So it’s something that personally really changed for me. I’m not ashamed of those things: I was young. But it was really overwhelming for all the kids in my high school and at the beginning of university.

We were able to travel. That was one of the assets of Yugoslavia. Until the beginning of the sanctions, everything was really open. So, all kids could get some kind of exchange experience with their fellows around the world. It was common for us to travel to Austria, to Italy, to France, or further abroad. It was something that all my friends did until the age of 18. Now it’s a little bit different, and I really don’t envy kids who have never been to any other European countries because of the lack of money or the lack of visas. A whole generation became more closed, more patriotic in a negative sense. They didn’t understand the real value of being open to surrounding countries, open to all ideas. So this is something that has changed.

At that time, people were absorbing this Serbian nationalist rhetoric that the media were serving up to us. And if you were more politically active, then you would be even more on this side. My parents in the first elections voted for the candidates of the democratic forces, not for Milosevic. But most people were under the influence of this Serbianism, this belief that Serbia can be a country that stands on its own, that we are modern enough, that we can really close ourselves off.

But now, fewer people are willing to talk that way — even in the Serbian Progressive Party, the new party that emerged out of Seselj’s Radical Party. I spoke with some representatives who are now members of the parliament. A few months ago, they said to me before the elections, “There are more and more of us who are normal in our political party.” They were very sincere. Their rhetoric and their ideas don’t reflect common European values, and they know it. But they said that there are more and more people in the party that are open to the ideas of multiculturalism, of an open society, of anything that really links Serbia with its surroundings.

I’d love to hear someone from the Progressive Party say something like that. But I don’t know if they would say the same thing to me that they said to you.

It was, I think, a split second kind of thing, a moment of sincerity that I don’t expect to return. But I like to retell this story because it was a moment when somebody felt secure enough to reveal how he really feels about his political party, and the past of the party. Those are members of the parliament. As for the rest of the party…

For example, we were doing research on gender balance in the parliament, and we spoke with two recently elected MPs from the Progressive Party. But they needed consent of the party to speak with us about gender issues, which are really not a political issue in Serbia. We were not speaking about Kosovo. We were not speaking about gross human rights violations. We were speaking about gender issues with two female MPs. But they had to ask for permission for a month to speak with us. So, the party is still a bit more hierarchical, and I’m not sure that anyone can speak openly.

But where along the spectrum would you say you feel personally about how your life has changed since 1989?

Personally, there is a positive change. But at that time I was able to travel as I can now. My parents brought us everywhere and we were open to everything. During this period we could go to museums around the world, and I could really see things that I wanted to see. So, that didn’t change.

But on the level of ideas, many things improved. When you’re 14 or 15 years old and you’re under attack by the media, you don’t have the strength to question things. That changed, especially after 1989. It didn’t take long for me to really start questioning things. You look at the map you were drawing and you see that some people were really left out, that crimes took place. I’m really personally attached to this human rights work. I became interested during university and started working on these issues. I went from someone with a lawyer’s background to someone interested in protecting human rights. But I don’t know how to quantify that change. My life was at that time pretty good. We were living in pretty secure surroundings. The background of my family was pretty high. So, the quality of life has been the same, measured by context and the possibility to explore and inquire.

Well, it sounds to me, if I had to give you a number, I would say probably an 8. In some sense you’re satisfied in that your opportunities are more or less the same, because you can travel now as you traveled then. But in some sense your intellectual freedom is greater. So I would give you an 8.

Yes, thank you. You’re a professional!

And the final quantitative question: as you look into the near future for Serbia, and again it’s from 1 to 10, how optimistic are you about this situation? 1 being least optimistic and 10 being most optimistic.

Again, I think that there have been steps forward, so it is again around 7. This optimism is, I think, pretty high compared to the current situation and the economic crisis. Serbia will soon have benchmarks to meet and things that we really have to do as a society. I’m speaking about the EU negotiation process. The start of the negotiations will really give us concrete steps where we should improve and in which areas. As you know, the EU process applies to all realms of life. It will really provide opportunities. Serbia missed these opportunities, and this really has to change. And there are young people who will be leading in some of these areas. Maybe I’m a bit too optimistic, but if NGOs and civil society can change the country a little bit, then we can change things even more. I don’t see us going backwards, even though some figures appearing in our political life are bringing back some bad memories. But if they are sincere in what they are saying, then I’m pretty optimistic.

Was there a moment, either when you were in university or starting law, when you had a kind of revelation experience about the importance of human rights?

Yes, pretty soon, because I had friends who were not Serbs, and I heard their stories. I can’t say there was a revelation moment. But you have people around you, and you have your parents who are traveling to all the ex-Yugoslav countries, and you have friends all around Yugoslavia. And then you see that you will be cut off from some of your friends who are Croats, or Slovenians, or Macedonians. At that time we didn’t speak of Albanians. My father was in Kosovo working as an economist. And he spoke about his experience pretty positively because he was really welcomed in Albanian homes and what they said they would do in economic transactions they did. So when you realize that those borders will really make you distant from people you love, or where you have personal stories….

As a kid, every summer I spent in Croatia, in the city of Rovinj in Istria. This is where you mix with all nations from ex-Yugoslavia, where you mix with people who are coming from European countries, from all around the world, because it’s really a lovely city. When I was drawing that map when I was 14, I didn’t put any of this on that map. But then you are drawing a map that cuts Croatia in half, which means that your friends in Zagreb, they will be in another country. Unfortunately this realization didn’t happen in the heads of our politicians. They didn’t realize that they would lose the possibility to cooperate.

I remember the beginning of sanctions, the Yugoslav sanctions against Slovenia and Croatia, and the rhetoric about not buying Slovenian or Croatian products. By that time I was no longer under that type of influence.

Tell me a little bit about the situation for minorities today in Serbia. Apparently there is still some discrimination going on at schools, in the workplace. So what are some of the most worrisome situations?

We did research a half-year ago with high school kids who will soon be going to universities. According to the data, 85% of them witnessed discrimination against other national minorities, sexual minorities, or others. This really raises alarms that something is really wrong in this part of society and the state has to react. Because of the lack of reaction, I’m not that optimistic about the possibility of really changing the situation.

We were doing research in Vojvodina and also in southern Serbia, where you have different minorities and where Serbia would have to do a lot to overcome the discrimination there. In a multiethnic society, policy has to be done the correct way and nobody is dealing with that. We tried to influence the ministry of education to go deeper into these questions and to set up some kind of process. I know that punishing people who discriminate is not the only way, but the state really has to come up with some kind of procedure to start the process, to be active.

Were there any particular stories that came out of this research that exemplify this kind of discrimination?

Nearly all the high school kids talked about this distance toward ethnic minorities living in Serbia, such as Albanians. A large percentage of them didn’t really see the possibility of cooperating with Albanians: to talk with them, to sit together on a bench, something like that. So this is what struck us most. Only a small number of cases of discrimination are reported.

Is there a process in place in the educational system to deal with discrimination? Can you deal with the problem within the educational system without having to go, for instance, to a lawyer or an NGO?

There is a process. There’s an educational inspector and an educational adviser: they’re the first line of defense when discrimination occurs. But we did trainings with them, and unfortunately they do not understand all the terms or the need to react on every occasion. It’s a nuance for them, but it means a lot for the people who are discriminated against. And there are a lot of other issues in their portfolio. They aren’t dealing only with discrimination. They are dealing with all the problems within the schooling system. They see discrimination as something that either is not occurring or that has to be tolerated because we are a society in transition and it’s not a priority during an economic crisis.

In terms of negotiating with the EU, where do you think the greatest difficulty will be to meet the EU standards on minority questions?

Discrimination will be a major issue. The Bulgarian minority is asking for a different set of rights, and nobody is reacting to that yet. For example, doing research on some of the courts in southern Serbia close to Bulgaria, we spoke about using the Bulgarian national language in court. The head of the court told us, “But nobody is using the Bulgarian language in the court. Why should we give this service?” So, they don’t see the need, even though it’s written in the law. They obey it in a certain sense. They put up signs in the court in the language of the national minority, but they don’t understand why it is needed. They don’t see the need to have translators, to have all the different mechanisms to support the identity of a national minority, so something is wrong within the system.

A lot of things have to be changed. At the level of the laws, some things have changed and there is progress, but at the level implementation, that’s what we are all pushing for. Implementation is really lacking. From that point of view, Serbia will first have to prove that all the mechanisms are in place for the protection of the rights of national minorities: on the ground and not just on paper.

Also, the Constitution should be once again checked to see whether some of the solutions can be improved and not only related to minorities. And to remind you, this is the Constitution from 2006 and yet today, only six years from its enactment, we are thinking about all the gaps in it,.

Let me ask specifically about Roma, because that often is the most challenging situation in countries in this region. Has there been any improvement? When I was here before, the discrimination against Roma was pretty severe, but that was a while ago. Has there been any improvement on the economic side, such as access to healthcare or access to housing, or on the political-legal side?

The only improvement happening now is the possibility to be registered. In Serbia, we had a large number of Roma that were out of the system. Without an ID, they have no possibility to access healthcare and other services. Where Roma do get health care, the level of quality is not as high as others are receiving. So, there is still a high level of discrimination in the healthcare system.

In the educational system, measures have been taken to make it more inclusive, to make sure that Roma are going to regular schools. We had a situation two years ago where Roma were mostly going to special schools for people with disabilities. This was being done systematically. They gave these tests to young kids who didn’t know the Serbian language, and when they failed the tests, they ended up in special schools. The law was changed. In practice, though, the Roma kids are enrolled in regular schools—because this is what the ministry of education measures—but then at some point they’re either transferred or not given substantive knowledge in order to go further in their education. There is a big dropout rate for Roma. And it’s hard to collect the data on transfers from regular schools to special schools because the ministry is not interested in doing that. They’re only interested in the numbers of Roma enrolled in first grade. There are supportive measures, such as the placement of personal assistants in the schools specially to deal with Roma. But there’s not enough money in the Serbian budget to meet the need.

Housing rights are at a really poor level. Evictions are happening. There are a large number of NGOs really trying to support people who are being evicted from different parts of Serbia—especially in Belgrade where these big highway and bridge projects are causing a large number of evictions. There is some improvement on this, but the quality of the settlements offered to Roma is very poor if they’re in Belgrade. There are also Roma who don’t have IDs registered in Belgrade. So if they are registered, for example, in Nis and they are evicted from a home in Belgrade, they will be transferred to Nis directly. Nobody is thinking about freedom of movement. Nobody is thinking about the acceptance of Roma families in other parts of Serbia. For example, after the evictions from the Belville section of Belgrade, where I think 700 families were evicted, the majority of them sent to other parts of Serbia. There was no normal housing offered to them in some of the cities. They were just transferred to cities without any further support.

In Belgrade, the last eviction was a little bit more organized. The Roma were given these so-called container settlements. The conditions there are really terrible. The containers don’t have normal heating or anything like that. It’s really not something for decent lives. The city said it wasn’t permanent, that they would offer social housing to the Roma. But the percentage of Roma receiving such housing is very low, below 1%. So, this program is not meant to solve the issue of Roma and housing.

And at the same time, the housing issue is challenging in general in Serbia because there’s been such a huge number of internally displaced and refugees and they also have been living in containers.

But the number of those camps for refugees and IDPs is now smaller. I’d have to look at the data again, but even in 2011-2012, the number is one third what it was. Every year they are closing. Social housing is provided, and it’s heading toward a solution. There are some regional donor initiatives to resolve finally the housing problems for all the people who lost their homes in ex-Yugoslavia. This program could really close the whole chapter. Hopefully the issue of the property of Serbian refugees from Croatia will also be solved.

They’ve been promising that money for a really long time.

Yes, I know. But as far as I know, the EU is willing to invest a little bit in the region. But the number of refugees and IDPs is smaller and smaller. The number in urgent need is now in the thousands in Serbia, not the hundreds of thousands as in the 1990s.

What about cases of violence against Roma, have those continued?

Yes. We have before the courts some cases concerning police torture of Roma. There’s a case in one police station where a Roma was beaten, and the reporting system completely failed. Even the structures on the municipal level that were supposed to be on the side of the victim were completely opposite. The people dealing with Roma on the municipal level wanted to persuade the victim not to report the abuse. Hopefully better contact with the police will solve some of the problems, but we will see.

And are there advocacy organizations formed by Roma, with Roma emerging as their own advocates, both in the informal sense, as in an NGO, but also in the formal sense, such as Roma lawyers and professionals?

It is emerging, but unfortunately it’s still slow. It’s the task of civil society to support smaller NGOs who would like to deal with Roma rights and are coming from Roma background. There are some active NGOs but on a really small scale. They are in Kragujevac and elsewhere around Serbia. But the strong advocates on Roma issues are not unfortunately there. For example, we had a Roma lawyer who wanted to volunteer, to dedicate some time to human rights. We tried to boost his energy to start this work and to form some kind of legal clinic for Roma rights. But it didn’t end well.

Let me ask about Vojvodina, the question of decentralization. Help me understand the issue, because I know that on the one hand accession to the EU requires acceding to certain EU rules of decentralization. The EU promotes the giving of greater authority to municipalities and regional structures. So that’s coming from the EU. Then Vojvodina itself has asked for greater authority. It wants to have its office represented in Brussels for instance. My understanding is that the EU itself has seen Vojvodina as more developed in some sense and therefore can access EU funds more quickly than other parts of Serbia. So is that something that your organization has worked on?

Where we are active now is the question of the Constitution, which I already mentioned. We see presently, after the decision of the constitutional court, that the Constitution is blocking the authorities of Vojvodina rather than opening up chances for regional structures to have some influence. It’s a bit ambitious to open the debate on the Constitution, but it is something that’s needed as soon as possible. So we opened this debate. And it’s not just a question of Vojvodina. The Constitution is blocking the progress of Serbia in other ways too

So, for instance, the Constitution would have to be changed simply for EU accession to take place.

Yes, there must be a provision allowing Serbia to enter a structure such as the EU. At the moment we don’t have such a normal procedure or an article allowing Serbia to join the EU. So, some things in this area have to be changed. Also the supremacy of international law is not defined well. Many scholars are giving a lot of examples why this constitution is far from perfect and preventing Serbian progress.

How willing is the parliament and the ruling party to reform the constitution?

The parliament is still new, elected in 2012, so we really have to open the debate again. We’ve gotten negative responses from all the political parties, even in the previous period. But it is not impossible. There must be strong advocacy for changing the constitution. And if the politicians now ruling Serbia really want to deal with the issues that they’re talking about, they will have to change the constitution.

Will a change in the constitution require a referendum?


By what percentage? A majority?

Majority. Our constitution is a really strong one. It’s meant to last a long time, so it’s very hard to change. It would require a vast campaign on a national level – first by all the politicians in the parliament and then by referendum. Even changes to the sections on human rights need to be put to referendum. From our point, as human rights advocates, it’s really amazing that improving the standard of human rights needs a referendum.

Do you have any concerns that if there is the discussion of changing the constitution, there might be some parties or political formations that want to change it in a different direction?

I do not see it as a concern. At the moment only a few percent of Serbian parliament are speaking about lowering the level of human rights or lowering the level of democracy. So it’s not something that can change overnight without major turbulence on the political scene.

I noticed that Impunity Watch had a program here in Serbia as it did in Guatemala. What do you think are the major questions that have to be resolved before Impunity International no longer needs a program here in Serbia?

For example, let’s talk about a trial that is lasting for six years and they have all the evidence. I’m not talking about war crime trials. I’m talking about the burning of a mosque in Belgrade. You have police cameras on the ground; you have all the evidence. But the judiciary is the weakest link in the whole chain of protection, and that’s where the impunity is coming from.

On the other side, you don’t have the political will. I don’t know why we’re still speaking about political will to punish those who committed war crimes or other crimes, but unfortunately this is still happening in Serbia. We didn’t have the climate for arresting Mladic for 10 years, or Karadzic. And it’s something that’s really blocking all the trials, it’s blocking all the evidence collection, it’s blocking the prosecutor’s office. And it’s something that is unfortunately on the political side.

And this is because you still have a judicial system that’s a carryover from the previous period? You have judges that are old-fashioned in their political thinking? Are judges the problem?

The problem starts with the prosecution. A judge cannot accomplish something without decent work from the prosecutor’s office. You can’t get a sentence without all the necessary elements. So, the reason lies on both sides. It’s not just the old-fashioned judges. But judges are unfortunately listening to the politicians more than they should. It’s not just direct pressure but it’s also sensing what the political moment is. It’s very hard to prove. But if no trial emerges during a long period of time, and for several years a case that should be a priority goes nowhere, then what else can you think? It’s some kind of auto-censorship by the judges.

Judges are appointed?

Yes, by the Serbian parliament. The High Judicial Council, as an independent body, recommends a group of candidates, and parliament chooses and appoints them.

Is there a problem with political influence through this process?

Yes, but it’s really hard to prove. Judges should be elected to full appointments. But there is still a probation period for newly appointed judges. That’s where the judges can be influenced because they fear what might happen during this probation period. There is still no solid ground for the evaluation of their work, and the criteria for their reelection is completely unclear.

Tell me about the mosque case. The mosque here in Belgrade was burned six years ago, and you said all the evidence was collected. The culprits were…?

We were monitoring this trial for a while. There was a police officer stating that the entire burning of the mosque was filmed by police camera. But then he says that he doesn’t remember anything, because so many years have passed, everything has become blurry. He says maybe something happened, maybe not, he is not certain. So, the police are not giving substantive evidence for the trial. Many circumstances have blocked the process, and that’s why the trials have produced so little.

We also have the trial for burning the American embassy, which ended just few days ago. The sentence was one year of jail for just stealing a few things from the embassy. Even if the punishment had been more severe, I don’t think that it would change anything, because it’s only a few people from a larger number who were responsible. Those who really gave the orders, they were not caught and not brought to trial. We have simply found a victim to sacrifice and lifted the responsibility from higher authorities.

Just prior to his assassination, Djindic launched a very big anti-corruption campaign. After his assassination, that campaign continued and there was some political will behind this anti-corruption effort because of his assassination. How do you feel about that process today? Was that generally successful, in terms of breaking the power of organized crime? Have they recovered their power to a certain extent?

Those links between government and organized crime are still strong. Only a small number of cases end with a verdict. This is also one of the areas where we can speak about impunity. We’re monitoring some of the trials before the court and trying to distinguish between the indictments of major political figures and just petty corruption. We have indictments and verdicts in media, and people are judged by the general public as guilty. But it’s not proven in court. And nobody is really paying attention to this process and how it really damages the whole fight against corruption.

It’s good to have a shift in political power because it can really bring some of these things to light. I don’t like political revanchism, but if it provokes a real fight against corruption then it’s unstoppable. You can’t say it’s limited to only one political party, but it must go through all the political spheres and deal with corruption at all levels.

I’m interested in the rise of the right wing populism, and I’m curious how you evaluate the situation here in Serbia.

Where this right wing is really strong is against minorities, especially against LGBT minority. Their support is not vast, but it still is enough to spread violence on the streets of Serbia. If they really can collect a few thousand people to be violent on the streets of the Gay Pride Parade or any other incident, then this needs to be addressed with special care.

They’re now in the Vojvodina parliament. They’re sitting in municipality assemblies around Serbia, such as Arandjelovac, Mladenovac, and so on. They’re now emerging in regular political life. It’s hard to link them with crimes. They can be linked to the church in certain cases. For example, there were some organizations using church premises in Novi Sad without paying. So, some parts of society are supporting these groups. In the 1990s, the state was always using, and misusing, these groups to spread violence. So, again, we can see that the system did not change in all respects. And this is something that is very worrisome.

Let me ask about LGBT issues, because I just saw that the Gay Pride parade has been canceled.

In 2011, the government was speaking about having the data on the groups that were planning violence during the Pride march. If you, as a state with all the powers you have, say that there are groups that are planning atrocities and violence in the street, then you have to act. You can’t just sit there with no process, no prosecutor’s office working on these issues. The only proof for us that there is such violence is the arrest of the people who planned it. Whether they committed the violence or not, it’s enough reason to start the process. If they’ve collected weapons or they have bigger plans, it’s something that the state must address. The state can use this as an excuse to cancel the event, year after year. But to demonstrate that it has the will to deal with these issues, the state has to put pressure on the groups that are planning violence and really make arrests.

Do you think that the LGBT community will go ahead with the parade anyway?

Pride Week will happen. As far as I know the whole week is not canceled: the conferences, the events all around Belgrade.

Do you see in terms of society more generally a greater acceptance of LGBT issues, even if the parade itself is canceled?

There is, I think, a certain level of softening on this topic, so the overall pressure is having an effect on society. But you will always have a small percentage of people who want to be violent on various issues, including LGBT issues. It’s not something that can be stopped completely – in any country – but the question is how organized the violence is and whether it receives support from the state. That’s what distinguishes a country developing in the right way and a country developing in the wrong way.

Belgrade, September 24, 2012

Latest Smoking Gun on Iran’s Nuclear Program Just Another Misfire

At the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Yousaf Butt lays waste to the magnetic-ring-sign-of-Iran-nuclear-expansion theory.

On February 13 Joby Warrick reported for the Washington Post that “Iran recently sought to acquire tens of thousands of highly specialized magnets used in centrifuge machines, according to experts and diplomats, a sign that the country may be planning a major expansion of its nuclear program that could shorten the path to an atomic weapons capability.” More:

Purchase orders obtained by nuclear researchers show an attempt by Iranian agents to buy 100,000 of the ring-shaped magnets — which are banned from export to Iran under U.N. resolutions — from China about a year ago, those familiar with the effort said. It is unclear whether the attempt succeeded.

Or as the ISIS report Institute for Science and International Security that Warrick sited concluded:

This large potential order by Iran in late 2011 for 100,000 ring magnets ready for use in IR-1 centrifuges implies an Iranian intention to greatly expand its number of these centrifuges.

Not so fast. Yousaf Butt of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute for International Studies explains.

The magnets in question have many uses besides centrifuges and are not only, as Warrick describes them, “highly specialized magnets used in centrifuge machines.” … Why ISIS does not offer alternate and more plausible applications of these unspecialized magnets is a puzzle. … For instance, one vendor outlines some of the various possible uses in speakers, direct current brushless motors, and magnetic resonance imaging equipment.

Even more damning to the report…

As others have already noted, it seems to make little sense to order ceramic magnets that are, as ISIS describes, “almost exactly” the right dimensions. If one is intending to purchase 100,000 ceramic ring magnets for critical high-speed centrifuge applications, why not order them exactly the right size? Ceramics are almost impossible to machine due to their brittle nature and are generally ordered to the precise specifications desired.

Also fairly embarrassing…

The alleged inquiry states, “Dear Sir We are a great factory in south of Iran and for our new project we need 100.000 pcs Ferrite Barium strontium ring magnet . … we would like buy from you [sic] company. We should be glad if you supply this magnet for us.” Presumably, an attempt to source 100,000 parts related to Iran’s controversial and often secretive nuclear program would not be conducted quite so openly. [It’s] also at odds with procurement best-practices, for several reasons. First, such a large order would likely drive up the market price and perhaps even signal to the supplier to choke off the supply, in hopes of obtaining a better price later.

I’ve saved the worst for last.

The apparent manufacturer or supplier of the magnets in question, Ferrito Plastronics, is evidently a “tiny firm in a dark alley in Chennai’s electronic spare parts hub on Meeran Sahib Street.” According to the Times of India, “the Chennai firm does supply magnets. But these, avers company proprietor Bala Subramanian, are the ones used in loudspeakers, coils, and medical equipment. Besides these, there are decorative magnets for fridges.”

In other words, if you haven’t figured it out yet…

Such a firm would seem unlikely to be the optimal source for 100,000 high-quality centrifuge ring magnets.

We’ll give Professor Butt the final word.

… reporters and editors should raise the bar for the evidence underpinning stories of alleged Iranian nuclear weapons-related work.

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