Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The tough question of replacing Assad

America has long pressure that Assad must go. But Russia too has suggested that its support operation for the Syrian government does not mean that it supports Assad as a person as president. In this light there have been some suggestions that Russia's announcement of troop withdrawal might be a kind of pressure on Assad to look for a replacement.

At first sight there are good arguments for replacing Assad. The opposition doesn't trust him and considers him an inveterate liar. Corruption is widespread. His control over the army is weak: the most effective forces are the Tiger Forces who are known for their pilfering. In basic government too his track record is weak: half a year after the government conquered East Aleppo it still doesn't have water and electricity.

Yet this is tricky stuff. America's replacement in Afghanistan of Karzai by someone "more democratic" didn't turn out very well: the present government is divided and weak and losing territory to the Taliban. Karzai wasn't great, but his successors are definitely worse. During the Vietnam War too a replacement didn't turn out very well.

Dictators like Assad have also the means to sideline everyone who might be considered a suitable replacement. In that light I am a bit suspicious of the death of Zahreddine, the general who defended Deir Ezzor for several years and who had a great reputation for that.

The ideal scenario would be that Assad himself selected somebody in whom he truly believes and who is the type of hands-on strong leader that can rebuild Syria and overcome its factionalism.

On the other hand it might be wise not to be too obsessed with replacing Assad as it could blind one to other opportunities to improve the way Syria is governed.

According to Foreign Affairs Russia wants Syria to have some kind of power sharing like in Lebanon. I doubt whether that can work. The division between Christians, Sunni and Shiites in Lebanon is clearly marked and each of those groups has it own radicals and moderates. That is how Lebanon works and has worked for a very long time. But in Syria the main division is between moderate and radical Sunni's. Those groups are not clearly delineated. In fact they may be present in the same family. This is not a discussion between interest groups, it is a discussion about policy. And the solution is not power sharing but a gradual opening of the political discussion - while at the same time setting and guarding its limits.

It may be good to remember how the father of Syria's present president came to power - despite being from the Alawite minority. It had to do with the division of the Sunni commercial elite. That was divided between Damascus and Aleppo and a representative from a poor powerless minority seemed a good compromise candidate. Of course he acquired some real power. Things went really wrong with the Brotherhood uprising around 1980. This Saudi-sponsored uprising was focused on the Hama-Homs region where the Alawites traditionally live and where many still see them as the despised minority they were in the Ottoman era. In this respect you can compare this region to America's Deep South where many whites still look at blacks with the eyes of a slave holder.

You see the same dynamic still in the present uprising. Where much of the original protests focused on economic issues like corruption the focus soon shifted towards sectarian hatred of Alawites. The neighboring countries played an important role in that process: Saudi Arabia gave hate mongering clerics a podium and Erdogan openly declared that he wanted Syria to be ruled by a Sunni.

Without the harmful influence of its neighbors the logical development in Syria would be to go back to those business interests groups and to ask them to take the lead in charting how Syria should develop. However, the rekindled sectarian hatred won't make this any easier.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

The need for real EU reform

I am getting more and more convinced that the EU needs to reformed - although I am still a bit puzzled whether and how that could work out.

The first problem of the EU is that the benefits flow to a small number of countries - the most important of which is Germany. Some other countries - such as Bulgaria - become more and more marginalized. The young emigrate and real development doesn't happen. The ideology of the EU used to be that just building infrastructure would be enough to modernize these countries, but it doesn't happen. Of course this is not only a problem of the EU: America has its "fly-over country" and in some of the richter countries of the EU you see areas too where people and companies are leaving.

The main cause is the present idea of capitalism that leaves national governments very little freedom to have an economic policy and that gives a lot of power to business interests. That will need to change. Government need a lot more freedom to set their own economic policies. And please save me the complaints about "unfair competition": the present system is unfair.

The second problem is what I consider Brusselian mobsterism. Brussel has a lot of power and it isn't shy of using that in the most brutal way. The first case was when it closed the banks in Cyprus to force the Cyprus government to do its bidding. The second case when it repeatedly threatened to do the same in Greece to force it to accept its solutions for the Greek debt crisis. And now we have Brexit and we see the same behavior. Now the threat is that there will be no agreement and that one day British companies will just lose their access to the EU market. Just as with Greece EU representatives regularly refuse to negotiate - using all kinds of excuses - the most common being now that first the financial aspect of Brexit needs to be settled. Of course that is nonsense - all things are related. But this mobster behavior - that makes one ashamed to be an European - is considered normal in Brussels.

This kind of behavior makes a farce of the right to leave the EU. It basically tells everyone to do what Brussels dictates - or else... I believe that the only solution is make "Europe a la carte" a much more explicit concept. Such a concept should explicitly leave countries free to choose whether they want to be part of the eurozone and should even impose on the obligation on the EU to help countries that want to leave the eurozone to do that with as little trouble as possible. Britain should have had the right to refuse refugees - what would have taken away the need for the Brexit.

The concept should also extend to the countries that are now outside the EU. The way that the EU now uses its economic power to force countries outside its borders to do its bidding is shameful. Instead countries should be able to become part of the EU for only some aspects.

Friday, November 17, 2017

The fear for democracy in former Yugoslavia

As I have defended before, the falling apart of Yugoslavia was a crime of the "international community", quasi legalized by the Badinter Commission that claimed that Yugoslavia was "falling apart". Under this pretext the Western countries interfered in the internal affairs of the Yugoslav state and encouraged its republics to secede. The following chaos was the perfect illustration why we have international laws that forbid interference in the internal affairs of other states and that give countries near absolute power to prevent parts of their territory to secede.

To summarize: civilized society is based on laws that can only be changed according to strict rules. Once you quit that principle arbitrariness appears. In that light it was no coincidence that after they illegally had seceded we saw the excesses of the "erased" in Slovenia and the efforts by Croatian nationalists to make life so hard for the Serbs that they would leave. With the secession changes in the law had become arbitrary and some people immediately exploited the opening to impose their rather unpleasant visions.

Of course around 1990 Yugoslavia was in a state of flux anyway with the disappearance of communism. The structure of Yugoslavia (and the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia) had always been that on paper the constituting republics had a lot of freedom, but that at the same you had the Communist Party that was quite centralized and formed a kind of counterbalance. When the Party fell away that structure no longer existed and you got some juggling for power. On the one hand you saw Slovenia and Croatia that wanted their quasi-independence to be permanent and on the other side you saw the central government and many of the other republics that had to conclude that the country was almost ungovernable and that something had to be done to replace the centralizing influence of the Party. As Slovenia and Croatia resisted national direct elections for the central government you saw in the end that Milosevic took the initiative by taking over the governments of some of the republics. I think it was the closest thing to lawful change that was possible at that moment in Yugoslavia. Unfortunately it was grabbed as an opportunity for sowing chaos.

Anyway, this is stuff for historians. What we now are facing is a deadlock in Kosovo and a situation in Bosnia where all the ethnic groups contest the present constitution. The question is how to solve this.

As I see it both are cases of a kind of colonialism. In both cases the present situation was imposed with a lot of violence by the countries that call themselves the "international community". That is not a solid basis. We need to go to a situation where the local actors feel and are responsible.

We know all the excuses. Border changes in Kosovo are unacceptable because that would set a precedent for elsewhere in former Yugoslavia - particularly Bosnia. And the only change that seems acceptable to the "internationals" in Bosnia is more centralization - what is fiercely resisted by the Serbs and Croats. I consider this an unstable situation. Sooner or later the international situation will change: other countries with other insights will become more influential and even the countries who created the present situation may change their vision.

The only thing what can bring a permanent solution is when the local powers work out some compromise. Of course violence is not acceptable and the present situation will be the starting point. But from there they should be free to work out the solution that they like the best.

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

The Manafort indictment

Al Capone was caught for tax evasion. A variation on this theme is to catch some minor cog in an organization and to accuse him of anything that you can think of. And then to offer him as way out if he provides evidence against his boss.

Such tactics have been used against the mafia and such fraudulent organizations as Enron. The big question of course is: what happens if the target really is innocent? In that case both the cogs and the prosecutor will be seduced to blow things out of proportion in order to achieve a guilty verdict. Monicagate was a good example of how - when there is no real accusation - the "suspect" can still be condemned.

And let's not forget the sorry state of American justice. In this "plea bargain" paradise the chances of being acquitted are comparable to those once in the Soviet Union.

We don't know what Mueller knows. But the facts that until now have come out about Trump and Russia do in my opinion not justify the means that Mueller is now using with the Manafort indictment.

Two failing independence referendums

There are remarkable similarities between the independence referendums in Catalonia and Iraqi Kurdistan. And those don't bode very well for their success.

In both cases the local governments acted out of a kind of despair. The Catalan case is the most obvious. Its government had lived above its means. So it would soon need to apply budget cuts. And usually translates in losses at the ballot box. And given its thin majority in parliament that would be the end of Puigdemont's rule. In Kurdistan the oil price crash was still hurting. And soon the Iraqi army would be free to confront the Kurds.

In their hurry - and arrogance - both made also the same mistake of antagonizing the other ethnic groups. The Kurds have gotten a rather bad reputation for sidelining other ethnic groups. Puigdemont's disregard for parliamentary rules and the fake history that he has gotten taught in Catalan schools are lighter problems but point in the same direction. In both cases the way people try to achieve independence suggests that life will get tough for other ethnic groups if they win.

The best strategy to get independence isn't rocket science: Make your effort when your economy is flourishing and the prospects are still good. That position will allow you to be generous to the country you want to leave. Be nice to other ethnic groups: you don't want to antagonize them. If you play it smart you can even get their support: they too will profit when your rich province becomes independent. And most important: be patient. There are lots of small steps that you can take until one day the stars are aligned in the right way for your big move.

Maybe one day the Catalans and the Kurds will have independence. But we can only be glad that the rather nasty characters of Puigdemont and Barzani didn't succeed. They would very likely do a lot of harm before the situation stabilized. The independence process of Slovenia and Croatia offered frightening examples of what happens when you give in to nasty politicians who want to steal independence.

Friday, September 29, 2017

The Catalonia referendum and the art of subtlety

On 1 October Catalonia will hold an independence referendum.

A lot has been written about the dubious legality of the enterprise. The Spanish constitution doesn't allow it. And its claim to be binding - while it was only supported in the Catalan parliament by the government party that won a majority of the seats with 48% of the votes - goes against the Catalan constitution that needs a 75% majority to be changed.

But there is more than legality. There is also the enthusiasm on the streets for independence. And there is the rather hamfisted approach of the national government that is explained by many pro-independence activists as an effort to rob them of their democratic rights. Such sentiments don't look at laws. They are more responsive to demagogy and facts on the ground.

The Spanish government is going too far in its efforts to stop the referendum. They should learn from Iraq that allowed a similar referendum to take place - while being very clear about its opposition - but then punished by demanding control over the airports. Similarly Madrid could make clear that - although they don't approve - they won't take measures against voting in schools. Instead they can think up measures that could be taken later on to punish the Catalan government if it tries to implement independence.

Such an approach would have the following advantages:
- it avoids fighting a battle that you cannot win. There is no way Madrid can stop the people from voting. Losing this battle will make them look weak and embolden the separatists.
- it avoids further polarization - that works in favor of Catalan separatists whose ideology puts lots of emphasis on victimization by Madrid.
- it will make Catalans more open to arguments from Madrid.


Thursday, September 07, 2017

Hillary still doesn't get it

Hillary Clinton is about to publish a book about the election campaign. In it she complains that her positions were about the same as those of Sanders and that Sanders instead attacked her integrity by highlighting contradictions.

She still doesn't get it.

Hillary used the same opportunistic strategy as Bill: having a good look at opinion polls and taking those positions that appeal most to leftish and centrist voters. What is missing is a vision that connects those points. And that is the big difference with Bernie Sanders.

Bill Clinton lacked such a vision too and we saw the result in rightish policies like concessions to Wall Street and an aggressive foreign policy.

Both Hillary and Bill surround themselves with the 1% and have taken over much of their world view. The difference is that Bill is a more empathic person than Hillary. That gave him at least a bit of understanding of the point of view of the rest of humanity. It also helped to make him look more understanding even when he wasn't. Bill's skirt chasing didn't hurt either: it brought him in close contact with at least some people outside the 1% bubble.

Neither Bill nor Bernie are so alienated from poorer people that they would put them away as "deplorables". Let's face it: this was not a mistake. This is how Hillary thinks. If she hadn't been caught with this there might have been another incident. And even without it many of her potential voters sensed the disconnect: there were too many signs like her refusal to publish her speeches at Goldman Sachs. It was part of Sanders' strategy to highlight such signs. Trump would double down by calling her a liar.

Hillary had rather few public appearances. Her age and some kind of strategy may have played a role in this. But it may also have been that - given her large disconnect with her audience - each appearance cost her too much energy. Anyway, by taking so few opportunities to meet her target audience Hillary wasted opportunities to reconnect as each appearance is also an opportunity to get a feeling of how the audience thinks and feels.

Part of campaigning is to control what is being said about you. The best way to do that is to make the news yourself. Trump is a master at that. Wave after wave of (usually well deserved) bad publicity comes rolling in his direction and then he makes some outrageous statement that his followers like and it just disappears. Sure, waiting out a crisis of bad publicity is a time honored strategy too. But it is not very smart when other candidates have a really appealing message. And it is a risky strategy in a time of elections when the media will pick up any kind of news about you - no matter how insignificant they might consider it in other times.

"She deserves it". It was an argument that worked - to a certain extent - within the Democratic Party apparatus. Within a political party there are a lot of jobs to allocate and people will be more inclined to support an insider like Clinton than an outsider like Sanders. Even if they might sympathize with Sanders they know it is better for their career to support Clinton: Clinton can hurt or reward them: Sanders not. But for the average voter this is irrelevant. They ask "what's in it for me?" and they look at her behavior in the past and the present. When they hear Clinton fans tell them that she deserves it it mainly tells them that they don't have real arguments.

Poor Hillary. She just doesn't understand what she did wrong. She did everything according to the book and yet she was defeated by an obvious lying crook. Unfortunately her incapacity to understand is a good illustration of what she missed as a candidate: a vision that people can buy into. If she had understood that she would at least have been able to take compensating measures like choosing a vice-presidential candidate with a vision. By freezing out Sanders and his followers after she had won the primaries she did exactly the opposite.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

EU wants to centralize its capital markets even further

EU Observer brings the new that EU wants to fast-track the capital markets union. The reason is Brexit that places the main capital market of the EU (London) outside its borders.

Some quotes:

The UK's exit from the EU makes a union of the 27 national capital markets more urgent, the European Commission said on Thursday (8 June).
"As we face the departure of the largest EU financial centre, we are committed to step-ping up our efforts to further strengthen and integrate the EU capital markets", said commission vice-president Valdis Dombrovskis, who is in charge of financial services.

Dombrovskis presented a mid-term review of the Capital Markets Union (CMU), a plan launched in 2015 to increase links between EU markets and develop financial tools in order to facilitate investments and boost the economy.
Most of the proposals presented so far deal with specific financial products, such as venture capital or insurances.

"The EU needs CMU today more than ever," said the review unveiled on Thursday. It insists that Brexit "reinforces the urgent need to further strengthen and integrate the EU capital market framework”.

With 751,000 financial sector employees and the industry's gross added value of £80.935 billion (around €93 billion), the City of London has been one of the main actors and beneficiaries of the CMU so far.

The City has been necessary to provide services for the rest of the EU, such as ensuring risk-management services and providing the necessary amount of liquid cash for transactions, notes the commission's review.


I would think that the Brexit is an argument for the opposite policy. Venture capital or insurance have been around for centuries. We don't need integration for that. What Brexit shows is that centralization of such an important sector of the economy puts us all at risk. We need a spread of risk, not putting all our bets on one pony.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

The Comey show: the FBI director and the pea

Yesterday was Comey's day at the Senate. I listened to a part of it but I was not impressed.

First of all there is that ridiculous anti-Russia hysteria - including senators who lie that we here in Europe are even more obsessed about it. We have trust in our elections. It is the Americans - who allow their oligarchs to buy elections - who are worried about manipulations.

Russiagate reminds me of Monicagate. In both cases the real facts are maybe a bit embarrassing but certainly not a big deal. There are only two reasons for this circus. One is that it keeps the president for a long time negative in the news. The other is the hope that the president will somewhere during this judicial circus make a misstep and then you can persecute him for obstruction of justice or something similar.

It seemed to me that Comey was playing "The Princess and the Pea" with Trump as the bully who hurt his tender judicial aura. My impression is that something rather different was playing in their interaction. Trump was annoyed that those endless Russia investigations made it impossible for him to have a sound foreign policy. Newspapers judged everything as possible evidence that he was favoring Russia and that made it hard to make decisions based on their merits. So Trump first asked Comey whether it was possible to end this circus. Comey was non-committal. But Trump - for all his defects - is a good judge of character: he has built a television career on it with his The Apprentice show. And Trump very likely concluded that Comey was a "showboat" who liked the spectacle and would keep the issue in the news as long as possible.

Who wouldn't have fired Comey if that was the conclusion?

PS
Here is a critical article about Comey from 2013 - when he became FBI director. According to the article While Comey deserves credit for stopping an illegal spying program in dramatic fashion, he also approved or defended some of the worst abuses of the Bush administration during his time as deputy attorney general. Those included torture, warrantless wiretapping, and indefinite detention.