Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Croatia's border disputes

Javno has an article about border conflicts in former Yugoslavia. If you thought that the see borders between Croatia and Slovenia and the border between Kosovo and Macedonia are the only problems you are wrong. There are many more problems:
- Croatia with Montenegro: teh sea border and the Prevlaka peninsula
- Croatia with Slovenia: the Piran Bay, the border on the Mura river and Sveta Gera.
- Croatia with Bosnia: the border on the Una river near Kostajica, the border near Zeljave (Bihac), and near Martin Brod.
- Croatia with Serbia: the disputed points on the Danube river, and near Principovac near Ilok.

These are only Croatia's problems. Other borders won't be much better. The problem is that natural borders and the different registries do not always match.

As the article notes: first Italy blocked Slovenia over the border, now Slovenia is passing the same treatment to Croatia. If - as can be expected - Croatia will pass the favor on when it becomes an EU member we can expect a lot of political mayhem. I am puzzled why the EU still hasn't forced the ex-Yugo countries to sign an agreement that they won't block each others access to the EU.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Escalation in Bosnia

With the Republika Srpska suing 9 people including US representative Raffi Gregorian for “conspiring against Republika Srpska” Bosnia seems to face a new crisis. Lajcak, Bosnia's top international envoy, immediately chose the old international strategy of parrying Serb actions with threats, saying "We don’t have to go back too far into the history to see how defying the international community usually ends up".

I think mr. Lajcak is missing the point here. This is not about ethnic conflicts - at least it should be. This is about the borders between a criminal investigation and a political abuse of judicial powers. The rude reaction of mr. Lajcak suggests that he may very well be on the wrong side of the fine line between those two positions:
- If anything, the Federation in Bosnia is considered more rather than less corrupt than the RS. This raises the question why we hear only about such investigations regarding the RS.
- Parliamentary democracies generally know legal immunity for top politicians. Now, in the rather unsettled situation of Bosnia Dodik is not officially on the top level but he is the leader of one of the main political currents in the country, so some judicial restraint is justified. Specially from foreigners.

That doesn't mean that corruption shouldn't be addressed. But it does imply that care should be taken not to confuse the fight against corruption with politics. There are many ways to achieve that.

Will this restraint harm the fight against corruption? I don't think so. On the contrary, it prevents the fight against corruption from becoming politicized. Such politization only increases corruption as the focus comes on a few high-profile cases and politicians start to see the fight as a political tool rather than as a good cause.

As for Dodik, the main goal should be to have him behave more honest, not on getting him behind bars or out of office. He is a politician for a part of Bosnia's Serbs. They should decide when he has to give up his position. The international community should instead focus on the monetary aspect. They have given money to Bosnia and if Dodik is wasting some of that they should insist that transactions are turned back or money is paid back.

Friday, December 19, 2008

The mysteries of the financial 40 pct profit share in the economy

One of the aspects of the financial crisis that still gets little attention is how big the financial sector has become. According to this lecture (See the pdf for graphs)from Kemal Dervis:

In the early 1980s the share of the financial sector in both, corporate value-added and profits in the American economy, was about 5 to 6 percent. The share of financials in value added has steadily increased and has reached about 8 percent in 2006-2007. The share of profits, however, climbed to reach an extraordinary 40 percent and more!


If you see the graph (page 9 in the pdf) you will see that historically that share of the profits has been about 15% and that it has been growing for decades, but in a very irregular way. The big question is:
how can a sector that is not really productive produce 40% of the profits?

Some ideas:

  • The financial boom started with the Reagan-Thatcher financial deregulation. In a time when it was difficult to find venture capital it seemed like an obvious solution. The same argument is still repeated nowadays allthough the problem is no longer there. Easy credit helps also good ideas.
  • The financial sector is protected. Financial loses are often covered by government. See LCTM in 1998 and the present bailouts. See also the way in which the IMF pressures countries to extreme savings when they default on loans.
  • Bubbles have created a casino mentality with investors. They may have lost with the Dot-Com bust but that they know that many others who stepped out in time make a lot of money. Just like gamblers investors tend to think that they are able to beat the average.
  • More and more sectors of the industry become target of the financial "wizards". Two of their tactics are the Leveraged Buy Out and the deregulation of traditional sectors of the economy, like energy. As these sectors are usually too important too fail they have considerable leeway to extort money from other parties (labor consessions, higher tarifs, government support, etc). The high leverage of these investments makes it possible to score enormous profits when things goes well. For the investors it is no problem to take irresponsible risks: what counts for them is only the chance for big gains.
  • The consumer is the victim. Easy credit may sound very attractive. But in the end the effect was that the prices rose and it was nearly impossible to buy a house without taking a huge mortgage.
  • The money gives the financial sector power as a presure group. We see ever more pressure for the creation of new "investment opportunities". One of the targets at the moment is financial deregulation in developping countries. In this demand in the context of the GATS free trade negotiations the Western countries ask for deregulation of the financial sectors over there. They wouldn't even be allowed to ask that foreign banks keep local reserves.


My expectation is that the present crisis will not enough bleed the financials to stop them. After things get back to normal they just will go on to create the next bubble. Until we have finally a crisis that is too big...

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The harmful effects of America's Iran boycot

Boycotting other countries is a popular policy in the US, where politicians can score with fomenting hatred towards other countries. Remember the "freedom fries" or the recent anti-Russian fever when a Georgia's US-sponsored raid went wrong? However, the sanctions against Iran stand out among those boycotts because they have got some international support. Unjustified support.

An important factor in the Iran sanctions has been lobbying by AIPAC.

The sanctions started right after the 1979 revolution. And have since repeatedly been sharpened. By 1987 the import of Iranian goods into the United States had been banned. In 1995, President Clinton issued Executive Order 12957, banning U.S. investment in Iran's energy sector, followed a few weeks later by Executive Order 12959 of May 6, 2000, eliminating all trade and investment and virtually all interaction between the United States and Iran. The most recent move was in 2007. Under the pretext of harming Iran's regime a boycott of its financial sector was anounced.

We know from Serbia that the boycott brought the country financial ruin, while the environment of Milosevic enriched itself. Something similar is happening in Iran, where the mafia around the leaders is enriching itself while the private sector withers. The possesion of oil and the fact that most of the world has not follow the lead of the US means that the effects are not as strong as in Serbia. But they are still considerable. Much more than many people think:
- under US pressure many international banks have broken their connections with Iran
- High tech is out of reach for the Iranians. No European firm will work together with them as they might loose access to US technology and patents.
- Iranian academics are not allowed to publish in US academic journals. As US journals dominate in many fields this cuts them off from the scientific community.

The effect is that the economic power that Iran's rulers have because of the oil is even more increased because nearly all businesses are dependent on the rulers for permits and allocations. Many alternative routes to achieve economic goals have been cut off.

Those attacks against the Iranian population are defended with the argument that it might turn the population against the regime. In fact no international sanctions have worked this way. It didn't work in South Africa, Birma, Iraq or Serbia. The effect is usually the opposite: the sanctions give the regime an excuse for their failures and they position the opposition as traitors. And the whole country knows that they are in a double bind: if the regime worsens the sanctions worsen. But if the regime shows improvement it is claimed that it has now been shown that the sanctions work and the sanctions will worsen too.

Instead of relying on independent forces (that it destroys instead) the US promotes its own people as opposition. Their ideal is the way change was brought to Serbia, Georgia and the Ukraine in the US financed "color revolutions". Problem is that nowadays countries like Iran are well aware of what happened on those occasions and that they will make sure that it doesn't happen to them.

The main factor in the end of the Apartheid regime in South Africa was the international public opinion. In a world of affirmative action Apartheid simply was no longer salonfähig. As the human rights violations of the Iranian regime are not considered aceptable by many too it would be a much better policy to keep our channels with Iran open:
- remove every sanction that hinders the development of an independent business community in Iran. Independent businesses will diminish the grip of the regime on the country.
- keep trade contacts open. They are personal contacts that tell the Iranians how the rest of the world thinks.
- remove sanctions that promote massive smuggling. The smuggling enriches and strengthens the regime.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Georgia's forgotten Ossetian exiles

Many newspapers have mentioned that Georgia still has some 200,000 refugees from the 1992-1995 conflict in Abkhazia. However, those same newspapers nearly always forget to mention the 55,000 Ossetians who were driven out of Georgia in 1991.

Before 1990 Georgia contained about 170,000 Ossetians. 70,000 lived in the South Ossetia and the remaining 100,000 lived in cities like Gori and Tblisi and in an area south of Gori. There Ossetians south of Gori had gone there in the 19th century. When Georgia passed from the Turkish and Persian to the Russian sphere of influence around 1800 the Persian emperor evacuated Georgia's Muslims. This left many areas empty that were filled by immigrants: the Ossetians were part of a broader immigration wave. The Ossetains in South Ossetia have lived there for many centuries.

at the end of the 1980s Georgia saw a fierce nationalism. The fact that Georgians formed only 70% of the population and that the Georgians themselves are divided between four different nations with different languages (Georgian, Mingrelian, Svan and Laz) would have suggested a federal state, but instead they took a centralized government. The first president, Gamsachurdia, campaigned under the slogan "Georgia for the Georgians" and one of his acts was to abolish the autonomy of South Ossetia - under the pretext that it hadn't had autonomy in the short time that Georgia was independent (1918-1920). The Ossetians didn't accept this and instead declared independence. Next the Georgians occupied Tskhinvali. A war followed and although there was no fighting in the Georgian cities or the area south of Gori the Georgians took the opportunity to cleanse many of the Ossetians who lived there. Since then it has been impossible for them to return as they cannot get their properties back. Those properties have been usurped by Georgians and the Ossetians are required to go to the court of law to get it back. This results in never ending procedures.

Many of the exiled Ossetians have been resettled in the Vladikavkaz region in North Ossetia.

The 1991 war was ended with an armistice that gave an important role to Russian peacekeepers. But when Saakashvili came to power in 2004 he promised to bring South Ossetia (and Abkhazia) back under Georgian control. This resulted in a flurry of actions that polarized the conflict. Georgia installed rivaling government for both Abkhazia and South Ossetia and increased harassment. There were some distracting actions, like a Georgian property restitution law for which no money was set aside, so it looked like the West was supposed to pay off the cleansed Ossetians. A few Ossetians were set up in a kind of Potemkin village by the Georgian government.

However, real refugee returns never got from the ground. I think that alone should be enough reason for the West not to support Georgian efforts to take control of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Otherwise we support ethnic cleansing.

It should be noted that the cleansing of the Ossetians happened before the Georgians were cleansed from Abkhazia. I think a proper solution for those Ossetian refugees will be crucial in establishing a climate of trust in which the Abkhazian conflict can be solved.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

The Mumbay attacks and Pakistans army

One organisation that is hardly discussed regarding the Mumbay attacks is Pakistan's army. It is a parasitic state within the state that owns lots of land and other wealth. The main reason the Pakistani state is so weak is exactly because it doesn't have effective control over the army.

As the ISI is a part of the army establishment the Pakistani army is very much responsible for the Mumbay attack. Not that the army is a monolithic organization that stands as a whole behind the attack. It is rather a divided organization that is united by common army interests. From that point of view any conflict is welcome - as it will bring more money and power to the army.

The challenge to both the US and India is that it is in their interest to make Pakistan a normal country with a less prominent role for the army. Yet their actions risk to have the opposite effect. An indiscriminate Indian attack might unite Pakistan behind its army. US military aid may bring some action against the Taliban. But at the same time it strengthens the army as a whole. And as a whole the army has no interest in seeing the Taliban or the Kashmiri and Islamic terrorist organisations disappear.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Old hawks wrong for US foreign policy

As many have noted already, Obama seems to have adopted with Hillary the aggressive foreign policy of the Clinton administration. Mary Ellen O'Connell - an international law professor at the University of Notre Dame - wrote an article against this trend. It shows that Hillary is not the only hawk in the new administration, but one of many. It looks like little will change in US foreign policy when Bush leaves.

See also the following articles: Barack Obama criticised for failure to signal change in foreign policy and Obama's Uninspiring National Security Team.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

The price of ignoring Somaliland

In all the news about the piracy near Somalia journalists generally assume that the piracy is the product of the anarchy there. Yet one of the main harbours for the pirates is Somaliland - an area where it is quiet.

Somaliland is an area in the north of Somalia. The clan that lives there has more or less separated the area from the rest of Somalia and is in close control. As a consequence Somaliland has stayed quiet while the rest of Somalia fell in anarchy.

The international community has largely ignored Somaliland. After the 1999 Kosovo War the international community did its best to give Kosovo access to the rest of the world, so that it wouldn't be hurt by its lack of statehood. A similar effort has lacked in the case of Somaliland.

It now looks like the leaders of Somaliland have enough of it and have taken resort to piracy to fuel the local economy. One can criticize them for this. But at the same time one has to ask oneself whether it isn't immoral to keep an area excluded from the rest of the world in this era of globalization. It is very difficult to live in our world when one hasn't easy access to international banking, telephony, visa, air traffic, development aid, etc.

I believe that the international community should do more to engage Somaliland. This doesn't need to be some formal recognition. But just as with Kosovo one has to find practical solutions. This would also give us the leverage to ask Somaliland to do something about the piracy originating on its territory.

For those interested in Somalia, read also this article that claims that Somalia has been better off in its present anarchy than under the Siad Barre disctatorship. When reading this one should take in consideration that Somalia receives a lot of UN food aid.

Don't get me wrong. I do not advocate recognition of Somaliland's independence. I am aware that not all its clans support the independence and that Somaliland has territorial disputes with Puntland. But for lack of a central authority I think we should work together as good as possible with local authorities. And I think that when Somalia gets a new central government it will do go to give strong autonomy to the regions.

Postscript: Foreign Policy had an interesting article about Somalia. It is a kind of short history of Somalia in the last two decades - including the mistaken Western interventions. The article describes Indirectly they support my position in this post when they advocate an decentralised Somalia and the international community working with lower levels of government instead of imposing yet another central government.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Organized crime in Croatia

I don't follow Croatia very much, but I always thought it was a little closer to Europe than Serbia. So my surprise when I read this article:

Yet a Croatian panelist, Natasha Srdoc from the pro-free-market Adriatic Institute of Public Policy, denounced the "very soft report" published by the European Commission earlier this month on the progress of her country.

She criticised the perspective of concluding negotiations by the end of 2009 - a schedule suggested by enlargement commissioner Olli Rehn, and denounced the recent contract killings of critical journalists, and the "widespread corruption" noted in the commission report.

She also warned of the strength of organised crime in the country, saying there was a "much stronger underground network than in Serbia, [and this] includes the intelligence services."

"There is not enough pressure now to reform before accession to the EU and NATO. Once a country is in the EU, the chances for reforms are lost," Ms Srdoc said, demanding "international monitoring" of Croatia, as the authorities were, in her view, incapable of dealing with these challenges.


Is this just an extreme view? Let me know your opinion!

Friday, November 14, 2008

Optimistic about Kosovo???

New Kosova Report has a report from a discussion in London. It has an upbeat tone about the situation in Kosovo. I quote:

However one refreshing theme emerged. Daut Dauti's final word on the subject was 'hope'; Tim Judah elaborated. He reminded his listeners of the dire forecasts made this time last year of what the world could expect as a result of a declaration of independence: lines of Kosovo's Serbs on tractors heading for the border, enclaves wiped out, churches destroyed, and Serbian politics dominated by the far right. It hasn't happened.

The upbeat tone surprised me. When I had read Judah's book Kosovo: war and revenge I had found it a bleak analysis of the cycles of Serb and Albanian ascendancy in Kosovo and the apparent inevitability of these cycles. This view is perhaps another way of articulating Anna Di Lellio's concept of Kosovo's 'permanent transition'. I hadn't wanted to believe that these cycles and transitions would repeat endlessly.

But how could the last 10 years be considered different from any other period of Kosovo's bloody history? My optimistic answer would be because of this and that. This, the internet. That, the debate at LSE and what it represents. Through electronic media, widely if not universally available, and through other contact with people from beyond the Balkans, today's Kosovars - Serb, Albanian, and others - are more aware than any generation before them, of the world outside Kosovo. Kosovo has witnessed an unprecedented exchange of peoples and ideas in this decade, through the international community which has come to Kosovo and the experience of Kosovars and the countries where they sought asylum.


I don't share this optimism. I never shared the the expectation that Kosovo's Serbs would leave en masse on tractors. It was based on the belief that Serbs had left the Krajna and Sarajevo in 1995 without reason. In my view that was simply wrong. The Croats had a long track record about how they treated the Serbs in the areas that they conquered and Krajna's Serbs had no reason to believe that they would be treated differently. Bosnia's Muslims used different methods to make the Serbs feel unwanted but they were just as effective. In Kosovo this scenario that the "others" would take over and change everything at once isn't possible. The international peacekeepers guarantee against sudden changes for the worse.

But all reports point to a worsening of the situation of Kosovo's Serbs. The number of departures is increasing. Interethnic tensions is rising. And with Albanian cops in Serb villages we have a scenario that doesn't fit basic minority rights. It looks like the go-slow ethnic cleansing is continuing.

The idea that it is now quiet because of the internet is a misperception about how we got the violence in the first place. It was because the international community seemed totally unaware of how revolutionary it is to declare provinces independent without negotiations. Giving one side everything in an ethnic conflict is a sure way to inflame a conflict - even more so when the other side has the military means to resist. (For me Badinter is still the greatest war criminal of all in former Yugoslavia.) Nowadays the international community is doing everything very slow while it keeps a small army ready for the case that something goes wrong.

The expectations about the rise of Serbia's extreme right is based on misperceptions too. Nikolic had built the Radicals from a small racist party into the main opposition party. He had done this by paying attention to populair social-economic themes like corruption and poverty. When he recently broke with the Radicals and founded his own party the "old" Radicals went back to the 10% of the electorate they had under Seselj. So the belief that 30% of the Serb voters supported Seselj's extreme ideas was simply a misconception about the functioning of politics in Serbia.

But is there reason to optimism? I doubt it. The slow exodus keeps going. With one Serb family leaving at a time it doesn't get the headlines. But in the end it is just as much ethnic cleansing as the queue of tractors. And it will have long term effects on the relations between Kosovo and Serbia.

How it works? I think this quote from a report by Victoria Hayes gives the best impression:

I would like to see Kosovo less as a national Kosovo-Albanian state, but I understand that given the country’s past it is difficult for people, Albanian, Serbian, and others both in and out of the region, to refrain from viewing it as such. It seems that it will be impossible to ever view Kosovo as anything but an Albanian nation, despite attempts to include minorities in the country’s activities. I think a lot of these attempts are nothing more than words; in general, it did not appear that anyone was truly interested in including Serbians, or the Romas, Ashkalis, Egyptians, or any other minority group. I say this because many people, who claimed that they would really like to see a better representations of the Serbian population in the government, police, etc., would attribute the lack of Serbians in these areas to laziness, stubbornness, or some other undesirable characteristic of the Serbians. There is so much underlying anger on each side that even people who I considered extremely intelligent would make ethnically-biased comments about the Serbian population in Kosovo.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Corruption in Kosovo

The American Chamber of Commerce in Kosovo has published a report about coruption in Kosovo and its impact of the busisness community. Unfortunately it is only the result of a questionnaire among businesses. It misses individual observations that would have given taste to the dry figures.

Most interesting I found the differences between Serb and Albanian businesses. Serb businesses have much more problems with the KEK (40%) and the Cadastre (30%), allthough the KEK is impopular with the Albanians too. But no institution get complaints of more than 15% of the Albanians.

Update: New Kosova Report has an elaborate interview with Avni Zogiani from the anti-corruption NGO COHU. He comments on the findings by saying that corruption is invisible because it is mainly in the political arena. All the checks and balances that should keep politics honest are simply not there.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

International Monetary Fiddling

Tough times for developping economies. The Ukraine hass seen its currency sink 20%, it stock exchange fall 70% and seen its trade deficit explode because the demand for steel (a major export product) is falling fast. The government spent $2.9 billion buying hryvnas to support the currency in october alone.

Now the IMF has come to the "rescue" by lending $16.5 bln. The conditions are not yet clear but wil include a balanced budget and support for banks.

The question is whether this is any better than past IMF conditions that often nearly destroyed the economy of the receiving nations. I think not.

The Ukraine (and many other rising economies) had an economy driven by foreign investment. This foreign investment financed a hugh trade deficit that allowed a florishing consumer economy. It led to an artificially high currency that was detrimental to autonomous export-led growth.

Now foreign investment and foreign credit has stopped abruptly and the currency is falling fast. Many local companies that had lent in foreign currencies find themselves in trouble and put pressure on the government to support the local currency. The government is complying and spending a lot of money on this. I think it is wasted money.

Nonody knows how long the economic crisis will take. But very probably it will take years before foreign investment in the Ukraine and the other developping countries picks up again. There is no chance that the local governments can keep up supporting their currencies that long at levels that are untenable given the economic fundamentals like the trade balance. So for the local companies it is just a delay of the inevitable. In the mean time the government is wasting money by subsidizing speculators.

In my opinion it would be a much better option to drastically lower the currency at once and spend the money that would be spent on supporting the currency instead on supporting those local companies with foreign debts that get into trouble. It will be a shock for the local consumers, but it is the only way to position the economy for a fast recovery.

Unfortunately the IMF is supporting exactly the opposite policy.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The economic crisis in developing economies

The financial crisis is not restricted to the US and the EU. Developing economies suffer even more as they are often dependent on foreign finance. The NY Times notes that the Ukraine has asked the IMF for 14 billion US$ while Hungary just got 5 billion euro from the European central bank.

The Balkan will not be spared either. Business Week this week published a list of 10 countries in the danger zone. Among them are Serbia and Romania.

Reuters has some economic facts about the Serbian economy. The current account deficit is 18 percent (IMF advice: les than 10%). Foreign investment is artificially keeping the exchange rate high so that there is much more import than export. But of course this is borrowed money that one must be paid back. The Ukraine is already suffering from the hangover of foreign-investment led growth. Serbia may well follow if it doesn't take measures to decrease its trade deficit.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

HLC: 13500 deaths in Kosovo in period 1998-2000

The Humanitarian Law Center has published a list of victims of the Kosovo conflict between januari 1998 and december 2000. According to B92 they have so far registered 13,472 victims — 9,260 Albanians and 2,488 Serbs. I have to refer to B92 for these data because the data on the HLC website are very concise. HLC will publish their complete data in januari 2009.

Excavations after the war brought about 3000 bodies and about 2000 more are reported missing by the Red Cross. Admiitedly that is for the war only while the HLC list spans a 3 year period and it is not yet clear how many of them were killed in the war. But it stills brings us thousands of names of people whose family for some reason didn't bother to report their death of disappearance. This raises important questions about the reliability of the Red Cross missing list. It raises also the question how complete the HLC list is: even in 2007 they added 3193 names. And what kind of methods do they use to find so many new names?


Postscript 2: I encountered an article on the Slobodan Milosevic website that claims that most victims were killed by NATO or the KLA.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

US State Department hires - but whom?

Two months ago I wrote about America's lack of diplomats. The article I referred to must have been tipped by the State Department because since then the State Department has decided to hire 1100 new diplomats.

The question is whether the people that it hires will be the right people. Foreign Policy had an article by Andrew Curry about the hiring process at the State Department. He decided to to the test for the first step in the hiring process. He came away pessimistic. It looks like the State Department cares more that you can manage the embassy cook than that you know something about international relations.

Here is another article about the hiring by the State Department. This one has much attention to how the work is organised and paid.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Ahtisaari wins the Nobel prize

Ahtisaari won the Nobel prize. I have written previously about him and I won't repeat that. Here is a good article about his "result-oriented" style of negotiating.

I think that this result-oriented style has been his undoing in Kosovo. His main strength is that he is well-connected in international diplomacy and is in a position to assure himself of support from the main powers in the world. But this diplomatic orientation has a price in that those powers may pose their own demands. In the case of Namibia and Atjeh this didn't provide problems as those countries weren't very interested in the subject. In the case of Kosovo because of the Kosovo War some countries were more or less parties in the conflict and as consequence very partial pro-Albanian.

In previous conflicts Ahtisaari had had a very open style of negotiation. "nothing is decided until everything is decided" was one of his slogans to discourage the parties from claiming partial victories in the negotiations. This flexibility was absent in his Kosovo negotiations where he immediately went to Belgrade to tell Serbia that it wouldn't get control back over Kosovo and could only negotiate about minority rights for Kosovo's Serbs.

It looks like in Kosovo Ahtisaari had become somewhat lazy after his earlier diplomatic successes. I saw him in a meeting answering questions and I got the strong impression that he had never really studied the position of Kosovo's Serbs. His proposals for autonomy totally ignored the specific problem of refugees who hadn't been able to return for many years and the continuing unsafety.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Burrel family denies organ harvesting allegations

As mentioned before, Carla del Ponte wrote in her book the accusation that kidnapped Serbs from Kosovo had been transported to Albania where they had been killed and their organs sold.

Now the Spiegel has gone to Albania to have a look for themselves. They describe the house in Rribe near Burrel (and show a picture) and talked to the owner and his children. The family denied everything and complained that they had had to sleep outside for two nights (in februari!!) when Del Ponte came investigating. The Spiegel notes some inconsistencies in their story. But they also note that the witnesses from 2004 have disappeared and that at that time nothing had been done to safeguard evidence.

It should be noted that organ trade is nothing new to Albania: see these reports. So if Serbs were transported to Albania for using their organs there would be networks ready to "process" them. Very probably those networks are still there and connected at a very high level in Albania's establishment.

Postscript (6 nov 2008): Several media report that two Kosovar doctors have been arrested for organ trade. The name of the doctors had also been mentioned in the case of the abducted Serbs.

Postscript (15 nov 2008): B92 is doing some investigations now. There are also investigations for Serb patients from a Kosovo psychiatric hospial who went missing and the story that UNMIK will investigate the Burrell house.
Postscript (25 nov 2008): The Guardian went to the Burrel house with a camera. The article shows a 3 minute interview with the Katuci familt who lives in the house.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Harassment, departures and defiance in Gracanica

Below the translation from an article in a Dutch newspaper with the title "Pas op, fout nummerbord" about Gracanica.

Take care! Wrong number plate

By: Mitra Nazar
Date: tuesday 16 september 2008 22:12

Inhabitants of the Serb enclave Gracanica try to find their place in the new, independent Kosovo. That is not easy.

If it wasn't so serious you would almost maugh. Ethnic violence in Kosovo, between Albanians and Serbs, doesn't happen often anymore. But the populations are still involved in a number plate war. "Driving with a wrong number plate can cost you your life" tells the Serb Viktor from Gracanica.

In 2006 a British couple who had rented a car in Belgrade drove alongside an Albanian wedding in Kosovo. The celebrators recognized the BG on the number plate and started to shoot. The Brits escaped unharmed. But because of this danger nearly all Serbs in Kosovo have a second number plate in their trunk. A KS sign guarantees a safe journey. Victor however refuses: "I don't recognize the independence so I don't drive with a Kosovar license". His license starts with NP: "Novi Pazar is a city in Southern Serbia were both Albanians and Serbs live. So nobody knows my real parentage."

More than a half year ago Kosovo became independent from Serbia. Unilateral independent, because Belgrade opposed it. The few Serbs who still live in Kosovo still don't resign. The new constitution makes the Albanians stronger than ever before. "They have everything, we have nothing. Now they want to Kosovise us, but we don't want forced integration". Victor is quiet, but in his heart a patriot. "I will tell my children later where the real borders of Serbia are. This is Serb territory."

Greetings from Serbia

Gracanica, where Viktor lives, isclose to the capital Pristina. The Serb village counts about 13.000 inhabitants. Billboards With decayed election posters and the blue-white Serbian flag dominate the scenery. The cyrillic characters on the billboards are clear enough too: Gracanica ís Serbia. Exchange offices change eu'ro's into dinars and the Serbian provider Telenor makes good business. With a Kosovar provider the signal is weak.

A small shop sells Serbian memorabilia. But there is not much demand for coffee mugs with "greetings from Serbia" and T-shirts of famous Serb basketball players, tells the owners. "KFOR-soldiers are our only customers." These NATO troops try already since 1999 to maintain peace in Kosovo.

Gracanica is almost dead. Many Serbs had already left after the 1999 war when the Albanian refugees returned. Since the independence declaration in 17 februari again a large exodus of Serbs has started. It has been forcasted that within ten years not a single Serb will be left in the enclave. For young people there is no future. They go en masse to North Kosovo or Serbia for education and work.

No power

Igor Popovic is founder of a local Serb NGO. The battle he wages for the recognition of the Serb community in Kosovo becomes increasingly difficult. "We can't count on the protection of the police anymore". After 17 februari the Serb policemen resigned en mass in protest against the independence. The KPS (Kosovo Police Service) in Gracanica is nowmostly composed by Albanian cops. "They arrest Serbs without reason, just to provocate", tells Igor. He isn't very happy with the international presence either: "We didn't notice anything of NATO protection. UNMIK too never cared about us."

Specially power is a big problem. Allthough it is a problem for the whole of Kosovo, in the enclave it is even more so.

In the Sportska Kafé it is rather dark, on the toilet there is a lonely candle. The coffee machine doesn't work and the beer is warm. "Since februari is has become worse and worse" tells owner Uros. "Today I am already five hours without power". According to the entrepreneur the Serb power plant just outside Gracanica has been under construction for months. "The Kosovo government wants the Serbs to pay six years arrears of electicity bills."

Uros however stays where he is. "I was born here and I will enter here my grave. This is my country. I won't flee." Recently the pub owner was arrested by the police. "They took the number plate from my car and threw it away", he tells angrily. "They told me to take a Kosovar license".


For other reports from the enclaves see here, here, here or this 6 part BBC series. Here is a report about Velika Hoca near Prizren.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Serbia's economy in trouble

It looks like Serbia's economy is in for some trouble. With imports of 18 bln US$ and exports of only 9 bln it is things look a bit out of balance - even if you take into account that Serbia is fastly developping. Half of the hole is plugged with foreign investment, aid and transfers of emigrant, but the other half is not covered and might on the long term result in the same kind of meltdown that happened in Argentina in 1999.

The IMF has asked Serbia to "adopt a restrictive 2009 budget to prevent the widening of its current account gap". But the cutting the government budget in order to correct the balance of payments is a very indirect method that only the Friedman-style neo-liberals advocate. Unfortunately they still dominate the IMF. They hate every kind of government involvement in the economy. On the other hand they don't care if an economy crashes (like Argentina did in 1999) because it gives them the tools to pressure for more privatisations.

A more sensible approach in such circumstances is lower the exchange rate. Velimir Ilic is advocating this and I think he is totally right to say that Serbia needs a more export driven economic growth model. Unfortunately he packs his ideas in some anti-EU rethorics what may cause some people to overlook them.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Liberals and conservatives

In this post I discuss the campaign speeches of Obama and McCain. I saw these speeches on video. To save time I had to quote them from memory. So the quotes may not always be exact.

Not everybody has the same kind of moral. Psychologists have thought up questions like "is it ok to cook and eat your dog after it has died in a traffic incident?" to show this. It appears that liberals and conservatives have a different reaction to such questions that are also very visible on brain scans. Conservatives find the idea disgusting, while liberals are more moderate and reason that nobody is harmed. This article is about how the liberals and conservatives differ in morals (based on the article "What makes people vote republican" by Jonathan Haidt) and how that works out for the presidential campaigns.

Liberals (in the American meaning of progressives) base their morality on two pillars: fairness/reciprocity and harm/care. So they believe in justice and helping and protecting the destitute. Both values are individualistic.

Conservatives however have three additional pillars: ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect and purity/sanctity. These are group values. The last one is not only about religion but can also manifest itself in for example an aversion against homosexuals or eating your deceased dog.

While conservatives usually understand liberals (but find them superficial) liberals have serious difficulty understanding conservatives (and find them just irrational with their religion and other "values"). Group values just don't have a place in their thinking.

This can nicely be translated to the American elections. Kennedy with his "Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country" was a liberal who did understand. In the beginning it looked like Obama understood it too with his background as a social worker. But he has been unable to generalize his experience and nowadays allows the McCain campaign to cast him as an egoist who has done everything he did just for himself and his career.

I checked the acceptance speeches of the two candidates and noticed a few differences in style:
- as usual, McCain tells about his experience in prisonship in Vietnam. But it is a personal story and he tells about it as a turning point in his life. Obama doesn't have any similar personal story.
- McCain creates more of a "we" atmosphere: "we have to ..", ".. my friends".
- McCain positions himself unashamed as the leader, summing up (and exegerating) his experience. This very probably wouldn't work for Obama.
- McCain puts things in black and white. He devotes a whole section of his speech to comparing Obama's policies and his like "Obama wants to raise taxes; I want to lower them". He does this in an almost ritualistic way: Obama wants ...; I want ... Obama wants ...; I want ..., etc., etc.. He isn't always very truthful but it works in creating an us-versus-them atmosphere. Obama applies the typical liberal trick of describing someone else as unlogical. For example (about fighting poverty) "it is not that McCain doesn't care. He just doesn't get it".
- McCain takes more effort to give his talk a personal style. He not only thanks people at the beginning, but also thanks a fellow prisoner in Vietnam when he mentions his name in his biographical story. Sometimes it looks rather artificial. Where Obama talks in general about the people from New Orleans or people who can't afford medical care McCain names one specific person (with name and state) who lost his farm in the real estate crisis and one in another position. McCain is positioning himself in this way as a leader who knows and understands his followers, while Obama positions himself more as the rather anonymous leader who voices the opinion of his followers.

So the largest difference seems to be in leadership. Where McCain emphasises his own responsibility ("I want"), Obama hides behind the collective and logic ("he doesn't get it"). This gives McCain more authority and he exploits that by making broad and often inaccurate statements about Obama's position. Obama's academic reactions mean that most people will remember McCain's position better. Take the example of Palin's statements about war with Russia. If Obama's running mate had made such a statement McCains campaign would have stated that Palin wants World War III. Obama's campaign seems unable to exploit the issue.

The Georgia War was a good example of how weak a leader Obama can be. When McCain made a more anti-Russian statement than him he changed his own statement to become more anti-Russian too. This was not only a misjudgement of the situation. It was also a missed chance: Obama needs a case where he can say flatly to McCain that McCain is wrong and this was a good opportunity.

If Obama wants to win the election he needs the support from some of the people with a conservative frame of mind. So he will have to show himself a leader who stands for his points and who doesn't hide behind some common opinion.

For who wants to check. Here are the acceptance speeches of Obama and McCain


Postscript 1: Here and here are other scientific article about another differences between liberals and conservatives. According to the first article "Subjects who had expressed a high level of support for policies "protecting the social unit" showed a much larger change in skin conductance in response to alarming photos than those who didn't support such policies. Similarly, the mean blink amplitude for the socially protective subjects was significantly higher, the team reports in tomorrow's issue of Science". It seems that there is a strong heriditary element involved.
According to the second article are more likely to like classical music and jazz, conservatives, country music. Liberals are more likely to enjoy abstract art. Conservative men are more likely than liberal men to prefer conventional forms of entertainment like TV and talk radio. Liberal men like romantic comedies more than conservative men..

Postscript 2: According to a Gallup poll: "Republicans are significantly more likely than Democrats or independents to rate their mental health as excellent".

Postscript 3: Classical mutual descriptions: "a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged" and "a liberal is a conservative who's been arrested".

Postscript 4: Here is Jonathan Haidt on television. The page also shows an internet discussion.

Postscript 5: George Lakoff is another scientist with a theory about the difference between liberal and conservative. He notes that "strict parenting" is not supported by science and sees it as a kind of abuse that is transmitted over the generations.

Postscipt 6: Some Harvard studies showed that conservatives are more easily disgusted.

Postscript 7: Red vs. blue family in black and white is a book by Naomi Cahn and June Carbone that deals with the issue. Some quotes:
In blue states, families tend to be well-educated, have high-paying jobs, be tolerant of diversity and be politically liberal. They marry later in life, have children in wedlock and are dedicated co-parents.

Red-state families, however, seem to be stuck in a time warp — they tend to be more strict in their religious beliefs and aspire to abstinence until marriage and marriage for life. But they often fall short of these goals: Red states have high rates of teen births, young ("shotgun") marriages and divorce. Red-state families are also less likely to be college graduates, get top jobs or create households where husbands and wives share equally in parenting and chores.

This shows that "blue" families have adjusted to the evolution of America's family culture, while "red" families have not, Ms. Cahn and Ms. Carbone said.

"The blue paradigm is the other end of the sexual revolution. Its families have been remade and the remaking is a huge success," they wrote. But red families are still trying to live in bygone times, and when children fail to live up to lofty aspirations, these families bear the consequences.


Postscript 1: This article about the algoritm of the dating site Match.com mentions that Conservatives are far more open to reaching out to someone with a different point of view than a liberal is." That is, when it comes to looking for love, conservatives are more open-minded than liberals..

Postscript 2: "Politics, Odors and Soap" by Nicholas D. Kristof discusses how liberals and conservatives differs in values. According to the book “The Righteous Mind” by Jonathan Haidt for liberals morality is largely a matter of three values: caring for the weak, fairness and liberty. Conservatives share those concerns (although they think of fairness and liberty differently) and add three others: loyalty, respect for authority and sanctity. The consequence is that conservatives are capable of understanding liberals but that liberals often have great difficulty understanding conservatives.

Postscript 3: Also nice is Can Drinking Make You Conservative? (and Other Questions About the Political Brain). It discusses a scientific study that asked people to consent or dissent to some political statements like "private property should be abolished". It found that the more alcohol people had consumed the more conservative their opinion - independent of their normal political orientation.

Postscript 4: The disadvantage of smarts is an interview with Satoshi Kanazawa on intelligence. He claims that man originally is conservative and that only in our modern society intelligence has become more important. As he sees it it has lead to liberalism, atheism and consumption of alcohol and drugs. But he thinks it doesn't help - and may actually harm - with traditional human activities like making friends, raising a child and finding a partner.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Progress on the ICJ case and the Alexander Borg-Olivier question

Inner City Press has an article about how the Serbia's ICJ case is going at the United Nations. They seem optimistic that many countries will support it - even the US hasn't decided yet to vote against it.

BTW: does anybody know the exact text of the Serb resolution?

Another item is Alexander Borg-Olivier. This man lobbied as UN employee with the Malta government to recognize Kosovo: a direct violation of UN neutrality. He also oversaw the (illegal) transfer of money from the privatisation office to the Kosovo government (the money should be used to pay ownership claims but until now virtually nothing has been paid). Even worse: he is now advising the Kosovo government. This again goes against UN rules. As he is now paid by the EU this puts the EU in a questionable position.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

The Georgia War is not over yet

Reading the Western press one can easily get the impression that the war in Georgia is over and that we only have to wait if and when the Russians will leave. Only the Russian accusation that the US ships bring not only humanitarian aid but also weapons suggest that some trouble may still be brewing.

A New York Times article "Georgia Eager to Rebuild Its Defeated Armed Forces" mentions that the US probably has not yet decided whether to support rebuilding Georgia's army, but that the (non)performance of the Georgian army in the war is a strong argument against rearming and NATO membership. But such a rebuilding is for the long term.

More troubling fro the short term is what I read read on Exercises in Translation, a website that translates articles from the Russian and Georgian press. Some quotes:

Georgia continues to carry out provocations in South Ossetia. According to the president of the republic Eduard Kokoity, a Georgian special forces team was recently disarmed by divisions of the Ministry of Defense. "They were going to carry out a diversionary strike in the village of Аrtseu [Арцеу] under the guise of being Georgian policemen," stated Kokoity.

[...] He noted that activity had been observed among the Georgian forces and that the command of the Georgian Armed Forces continues to restore the fighting capacity of its divisions.

Based on reports from troops on the ground, Nesterenko spoke of an incident last night that took place not far from a peacekeeping post in the Karaleti region. As Nesterenko explained, Georgian forces carried out provocative actions directed against the Russian peacekeepers. He assumed that the incident was specially organized. The representative believes that such actions do not help to stabilize the situation in the region.


It looks like Georgia doesn't want to resign to the present situation.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Georgia, Kosovo and sugardaddies

Tara Bahrampour wrote in the Washington Post an article about her experiences in Georgia. One part of the article deals with the political culture in Georgia:
The Georgians are afraid of [the Russians], but they are also intertwined with them. Russia has been Georgia's savior and tormenter, its subjugator and protector. The Soviet Union kept them in bondage, but it also supplied them with food, jobs, education, a market for their goods. And it freed them from responsibility.

"We always had sugar daddies," my colleague Giorgi said as we sipped strong Turkish coffee one spring day in the school cafeteria. "They would come, kill, rape, take over the land, but you always had a shepherd, always had an overseer, someone who decided for you. So in a way we're not grown up. We are like 17-year-olds who cannot operate in real-life settings -- you know, you move out, and you find that life is not fair, the outside world doesn't necessarily love you the way your family does. So what's the solution? As soon as we lost one shepherd, we started looking for another. So the U.S. is like a substitute for Moscow."


It could have been about Kosovo.

This dependent behavior works very well in Washington as both Kosovo and Georgia get loads of aid (Georgia already under Shevardnadze). Both have also been very active (and successfull) in lobbying the US government. But the price of the aid is keeping the conflict with the big neighbor going. People like Saakashvili and Thaci understand very well that if you are out of the news your aid package will shrink very fast. So they keep finding excuses to keep the conflict going. This is not in the long term interest of their citizens as it precludes normal development.

In both areas politics is in essence clan-based. As a consequence they are highly corrupt (Saakashvivli reduced this somewhat). In Georgia (under Shevarnadze) only 10% of the population paid for its electricity. This was even worse than Kosovo.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

The road to war in Georgia

NOTE: the OSCE has published a reaction in which it takes distance to the Spiegel article. It is my impression that the Spiegel article is the fruit of a talk with someone from OSCE and that that talk includes both own observations and hearsay. However, for some of what he said there was no hard evidence and for that reason the OSCE takes a distance. There may be more trouble for the OSCE: South Ossetia is making the reproach that it should have reported the Georgian attack preparations. On 25/9 the Spiegel wrote an update

Der Spiegel has an article about the road to war in Georgia. According to the article - that is mainly based on OSCE sources - the Georgian attack was well-prepared and was based on a plan made in 2006. Georgia had amassed 12,000 soldiers at the border before it attacked and hoped to easily conquer the 500 Russian and 500 Ossetian soldiers in the Tskhinvali area and occupy the whole of South Ossetia in 15 hours. The article is not very clear why this failed but it notices that the Georgian soldiers were unexperienced (what should also explain the high civilian death toll), Russian air superiority and the speed with which the Russians got reinforcements. Also problematic was that the Georgian attack was led by the Interior Ministry (instead of Defense).

On the diplomatic front the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin tried to phone Saakashvili on 7 August. When Saakashvili couldn't be reached he called Daniel Fried in Washington who told him that "Washington was doing its best to get the situation under control". Fried said later that he told the Georgians that they couldn't win from Russia.

There is one claim in the article that bothers me: it claims that the Russians "The soldiers destroyed key bridges, railroad lines and roads" while retreating. In fact the Russians seemed eager to save the infrastructure. Two bridges were destroyed but the Russians deny that they did it and in both cases it may very well have been done by the Georgians in order to hinder the Russian army. This makes me wonder how accurate the remainder of the article is.

Postscript: on 6 november the NY Times published an article "Georgia Claims on Russia War Called Into Question" that confirms the Spiegel reports.

Postscript: in this article from 2011 it is confirmed on basis of the Wikileaks documents that the US knew Georgia was lying about how the war started.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Russia and its neighbours

Quite a few articles I recently read about Russia talk about Russia being nostalgic for its empire and trying to get it back. Yet I don't see any sign of that in Russia's foreign policy. Rather I see a Russia that is concerned about the Russians and Russian citizens outside its border.

This is in line with how other former empires behave:
- After its borders had been set in World War I Turkey didn't fight to expand them (they got Hatay peacefully in 1939), except when it felt that Turkish citizens on Cyprus were threatened.
- Similarly when Yugoslavia broke apart Serbia only fought were it believed its ethnic group to be threatened.
- Hungary didn't even have the power to fight for its ethnic group after World War I as it was too small.
- Germany took on the case both of its own former citizens and the Germans from the Habsburg Empire after World War I. In the end things got out of hand with Hitler. But Hitler's empire was something new, not a restoration of the Habsburg Empire.

We live in the time of the nation state. Having other ethnic groups inside your border only gives trouble. So it should come as no surprise that those former empires don't wish to restore their old borders.

In this light the Western support to Georgia is very harmful. Even if the Georgian attack had succeeded it would have done nothing to stop "Russian imperialism" for the simple reason that there is no more Russian imperialism. What it did was greatly increasing Russia's worries about its citizens in the other republics. About 1700 were killed and the West basically supported this. The only result is a more nervous Russia that next time may take preventive action.

Having a big former empire as neighbour is not always fun. Specially not when it claims to speak for some of your minorities. Old reflexes may occasionally arise: the former empire may feel superior and the small neighbour that was formerly ruled by the empire may feel intimidated. But when the smaller countries try to form alliances against the former empire that mainly hinders the development of normal relations. We have most recently seen that in former Yugoslavia. External interference in conflicts usually leads to grandstanding and a lack of desire to compromise.

For that reason I think we should not Russia's crying semi-neighbours too seriously. I can understand that Estonia feels a bit uneasy after the Russian military action in Georgia. It will make them conscious of their adversarial policy towards their Russian minority. But I don't think that there is a need to give them extra assurances.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Russia recognizes South Ossetia and Abkhazia

To the surprise of many - me included - Russia has recognized the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

During the fighting in Georgia Russia already regularly used Kosovo to denounce Western criticism of its role in the war in Georgia as hypocritical. Now it has taken the ultimate step.

On the short term it won't make much difference as few - if any - country will probably recognize it. I write "probably" because if Russian diplomacy would really devote attention to it they might be able to get some recognitions.

Some people will see this as just revenge for Kosovo. But I think that it mainly a warning to the other republics not to organize a Krajna-like ethnic cleansing with Russian citizens. For Russia with its many citizens who live as minority in other republics this is a major worry.

Another theory has it that the Russians are nostalgic for their empire and try to get it back. I don't see that. I see Russia rather like Turkey after the end of the Ottoman Empire and Serbia after the end of Yugoslavia. Both didn't care much about the lost areas on itself but were (and still are) very nervous about the treatment of "their" ethnic group in the new states. In that light I find the expansion of NATO in the former Soviet states ill-considered. If there comes a conflict it will very likely be about that state cleansing Russian citizens and NATO would be obliged to defend ethnic cleansers.

Regarding Kosovo the recognition will have some interesting consenquences for Serbia's effort to get an opinion from the ICJ:
- When the ICJ now will give an opinion over Kosovo it will implicitly be about Georgia too. Given that the ICJ sometimes is not above a bit pro-Western inconsistency (they declared Serbia UN member in the Bosnia genocide case but no UN member in Serbia's case against the Kosovo War) this will force them to more objectivity.
- Georgia now will have to consider whether to protest the Russian move at the ICJ. If it doesn't it weakens its claims on the territories. But if it does it means that the ICJ will give a verdict on a case that is very similar to Kosovo. If Serbia might not succeed in getting enough votes in the UN for asking amn ICJ opinion this would be some kind of alternative.
- it will also be interesting to see whether Russia will maintain its support for Serbia regarding Kosovo in the Security Council and with what arguments.

One can only hope that the West finally awakens and realises that its recognition of Kosovo is not the way these things should be done. A compromise and still is very well possible. The West's rather silly attitude in the Kosovo War was that one side was good and the other bad. Unfortunately this same attitude made and still makes Western diplomacy in this conflict a farce.

The Western "solution" for Kosovo and Russia's "solution" for Abkhazia and South-Ossetia have the same problems: one ethnic group is disadvantaged and ends up partially cleansed. Only really negotiations can bring a solution that helps both sides.

Monday, August 25, 2008

About the economic crisis

The present economic crisis reminds me of the 1970s. Then too we had oil peaking followed by an economic dip. And people were talking about Japan at that time in a very similar way they talk about China now. Even the word stagflation seems to come back again.

In both periods the West is spending suddenly much more in other countries (more expensive oil; more imports). My feeling is that it takes some time for our economic system to realize that we have less to spend. So we keep spending while we also get investment and purchases back from the countries that get the extra money. So for some time we have a boom... And then we get a painful adjustment. Extra painful because it is retarded.

Georgia's story investigated

It is clear by now that what happened in Ossetia was no new Operation Storm. It was too chaotic. But as I can't imagine that the trainers did not discuss how to retake the secessionist areas the question remains.

But this time my focus is on the Georgian version of what happened. It looks like propaganda but it is good to analyse it:
- before 8-8-8 there was a gradual increase in Ossetian attacks. Just before the date you saw heavy shelling of some ethnic Georgian villages in South Ossetia that seemed intended to drive the villagers out.
- some days before 8-8-8 Ossetians started to leave Tskhinvali - suggesting that they had been warned of an imminent attack.
- Russian troops started to enter Ossetia before the Georgian attack.
- Shortly after Saakashvili's infamous promise on television of negotiations and no war he was confronted with US satellite images of the Russian invasion. This made him change his mind.
- The attack on Ossetia was meant to form a defense line just above Tskhinvali. It was a desparate measure as there was no time to send additional troops.
- The Georgian also attacked the Kurta bridge just north of Tskhinvali at 6 a.m. on 8-8-8 to stop the Russians. The attacks destroyed the bridge but the Russians managed to repair it quickly. The presence of Russian troops at that time suggests they had been underway for some time.

The first question is what the Russians planned to do. If the Georgian scenario is true the most probable scenario is that they intended to help the Ossetians take control of those areas of South Ossetia that they don't control. It is very improbable that they intended to invade Georgia proper. I heard also reports that at least some of the Russian troops drove straight from Chechnya to Gori (in 4 days). This suggests improvisation.

Then there is the Georgian inconsistency. In the first week we heard mainly the familiar voices about Georgia's territorial integrity and their right to retake the seceded territories. The action was presented as a Georgian action to retake territory - not as an action to stop the Russians. On the contrary: the Russians were presented as those that reacted - faster than expected. Only when the Russians went deeper into Georgia did they change their story.

Also it was Russia that first went to the Security Council. They proposed a simple (3 sentences) resolution that called the parties to stop hostilities and renounce the use of force. The US, the UK, France and Georgia opposed the resolution because they didn't like the "renounce the use of force" part. This sounds like Operation Flash in Croatia when the US blocked a SC condemnation.

The US satellite images raise many questions:
- No American official ever confirmed the story about the satellite images. One should expect Bush to be current and to react in such a situation.
- The obvious reaction would have been to seek publicity. If you can't win with the army you need the moral pressure of the world to prevent more Russians to enter South Ossetia. If Georgia had first presented Russia as the aggressor and then had taken some military action it would have had a much stronger position. Now it was the clear aggressor.

The alleged departure of the inhabitants of Tskhinvali raises also many questions:
- the Georgian attack seems not the most logical answer. That raises the question why the Ossetians should expect a devastating Georgian attack.
- that raises the possibility that there were Georgian war plans that included such an attack. If there were the Russians - who have a good intelligence - probably would know.
- in this respect I am sorry that the Western observers in Tskhinvali don't tell anything about what they saw.

The Georgian attack is presented as an effort to do at least something in order to keep the Georgian claims on the area intact. But that raises many questions:
- Given their military weakness and strategic position in the hills around the city it seemed more logic for the Georgian troops to stay where they were. It seems more logical to concentrate on parts of Ossetia where the Georgian army had a strong position - like the south-east.
- Starting a fight that you can't win in an ethnic conflict is a rather sure way to get your citizens cleansed. Specially in a ethnically mixed area as that around Tskhinvali.
- The bombing of Java in the north of the South Ossetia by Georgia suggests a wider agenda.
- Only a month ago Georgia cut off the water supply. This suggests escalation from the Georgian side.

All together I doubt that things went exactly the way the Georgians present them. If it really went that way the Georgians would have been extremely incompetent. The Russian blogosphere too doesn't see any reason to doubt that the Georgians started. Only Pavel Felgenhauer defends that Russians had planned their actions. But he doesn't provide the level of detail that would make his position credible. He is also the author of the articles on Jamestown.

Postscript 1: This article gives an overview of Georgian propaganda claims and prove that the claim were false.
Postscript 2: Here you have another pro-Georgian conspiracy theory. This time by Andrei Illarionov, who is presented as former economic advisor to Vladimir Putin. Since 2005 he works at the Cato Institute in the US. He says that Russia was planning a coup in Georgia and that Saakasshvili's attack prevented this.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Operation Storm in Georgia?

It is amazing to read the news about Georgia's new little war. Article after article has the same pattern: they mention many instances of Georgian aggression and duplicity. But in the end they seem inable to take the final step: to see Georgia instead of Russia as the main aggressor.

It is clear that Georgia started the war with the attack on the capital of South-Ossetia. Georgia tries to avoid the blame by saying that they were shelled from Ossetian territory. One source points out that the Ossetians might have liked to provoke a major Georgian attack. But for violations of an armistice you have procedures that Georgia didn't follow. Also the occurrence of the attack on the opening day of the Olympic Games suggests that Georgia had planned this long before. Besides that: this source (Jamestown Foundation) is closely related to the CIA and the articles don't even pretend to be neutral. A more balanced account of the the run-up to the war gives this article.

We see also the same Western attempts to mediate that somehow don't seem to be totally sincere. Specially as at the same time the conflict is painted as a classical east-west fight with Russia as the bad guy.

The big question is the US role. There are many US military trainers in Georgia and I suspect that they not only knew about the imminent attacks but actually were and are involved behind the screens - just like in the Krajna. The same strategy (burning of houses of the minority and driving them out while claiming "this is our land") is used in both places. Some sources mention black soldiers and uniforms that might be from US military contractors like Blackwater.

It looks that Russia - unlike Serbia - doesn't let it happen. That may be a disappointment for the Georgian government. But I have the feeling that they have calculated this. First of all this seems an opportunity for the US to test Russia's military capabilities. For Georgia with its inferiority complex a few symbolic victories (like the shooting of some planes) will be enough for Saakashvili to claim some kind of victory. And we will be bombed with propaganda about those pitiful Georgians - propaganda aimed to isolate Russia and bring Georgia closer to NATO membership.

Some neo-cons try to paint the present conflict as the next phase in a long history of Russian aggression. But somehow they always forget to tell that the Chechen rebellions were supported from Georgian territory. That is also a reason that a Georgian NATO membership is taboo for Russia.

Russia has now invaded Georgia proper. Their aims are not totally clear. But without doubt they want to teach Saakashvili that his military adventurism is no longer acceptable and should stop.

A few months ago Georgia amassed troops in order to attack Abchazia. Russia thwarted this by increasing its number of troops and by shooting down a unmanned plane. In my opinion this was a moderate and justified answer to the challenge. Yet despite this Russia became the target of fierce American criticism. It looks like Russia has concluded from that episode that it doesn't matter how they behave: this will be criticized anyway when Washington feels hindered in its expansionism.

During discussions in the UN Russia proposed a 3 line resolution that asked all parties to renounce violence. But Georgia opposes giving up this "right" and instead wants to a resolution that only stresses Georgia's territorial integrity. The US, the UK and France supported Georgia and defeated the Russian resolution.

A final question is why the US would support such an attack and at this moment. There are at least two options:
- the heating up of the Cold War might help McCain in the presidential elections. McCain's top foreign policy advisor Randy Scheunemann worked at the same time for McCain and for Georgia.
- this may be a maneuver to keep Russia busy while the US prepares a boycott (or more) of Iran. Many US warships are at the moment sailing to Iran.

For news about Georgia see here and here.

Postscipt 1: The Messenger - a Georgian newspaper - reports reports about senior US military commander Bantz J. Craddock visited Georgia on 21 august, holding a joint briefing with President Saakashvili.
Postscript 2: Asian Times discusses what the US administration knew of the Georgian attack.
Postscript 3: The Georgian version of the story keeps changing. Here and here is the latest version.
Postscript 4: Here is a map showing which areas of South-Ossetia were controlled by Georgia before the war.
Postscript 5: According to the Russian blogosphere the death count of 2000 for the Georgian offensive seems a reasonable estimate. And yes, they did interview the doctor that HRW spoke to.
Other englishlanguage Russian blogs of interest are Russian Navy Blog, Exercises in translation.
Postscript 6: Putin has accused the US that it orchestrated the Georgian attack. As evidence he mentioned that US military advisers had been in the border zone with South Ossetia.
Postscript 7: This story is by Georgian artillery men. They are very proud of the effiency of their bombing of the Russians in South Ossetia and they claim that Russia burnt the woods in Georgia in order to find artillery weapons that were hidden there.
Postscript 8: For a general overview over the military side see here. This article discusses the performance of the Russian air force. And this one that of the Russian and Georgian navy.
Postscript 9: The title of this article speaks for itself: How I became a soldier in the Georgia-Russia cyberwar.
Postscript 10: My dinners with Misha shows another side of Saakashvili.
Postscript 11: "This article gives a good overview of Georgia's relationship with Israel. Here another article with more links and discussion from an Israeli newspaper.
Postscript 12: The site Osetinfo gives the Ossetian view, including a casualty list. At the moment of writing it contained 365 names.
Postscript 13: This site describes a travel from Tskhinvali to the Roki tunnel.
Postscript 14: As Centralized Rule Wanes, Ethnic Tension Rises Anew in Soviet Georgia is a NY Times article from 1991 about how Gamsakhurdia drove out many Ossetians.
Postscript 15: According to this article Joseph R. Wood, Cheney's deputy assistant for national security affairs, was in Georgia shortly before the war began. Cheney claims Wood was just preparing a visit by Cheney ...
Postscript 16: Johnson's Russia List
Postscript 17: On 28 october the BBC published an article claiming that it had evidence that Georgia had committed war crimes by massively attacking a civilian building. With the article is a movie from Georgia and Ossetia.
Posscript 18: The South Ossetian leader blamed the OSCE for not warning them for the Georgian attack. In an interview with OSCE observer Ryan Grist he agreed that the OSCE had failed in this respect. According to him the observers on the ground sent a warning, but it was ignored in the higher levels of the organisation. Here is an audio track with an interview with Grist (item 741) on 9 august when he was still optimistic. Grist later resigned from the OSCE for unknown reasons. In this light South Ossetia's criticism of the OSCE mission seems justified.
Postscript 19: On 10 november Business Week had an article summing up the evidence so far.
Postscript 20: The article "Georgia: a danger to itself and Transcaucasian stability" by George Hewitt provides a nice overview of the Georgian and Western folly that led to the war.
Postscript 21: MPRI, the US defense contractor that trained the Croat army for Operation storm, was active in Georgia too.
Postscript 22: Circassion World is an interesting blog.
Postscript 23: Here an Amnesty International report published on 7 august 2009

US foreign policy understaffed

In his blog on the New York Times Nicholas D. Kristof points out that the US diplomatic service amploys only about 6500 people and has a 1000 vacancies. He concludes that the US would be better off when it invested more in diplomacy instead of the army. As an extreme example he mentions that until recently US diplomats were not even allowed to talk with Iranians.

But as one of the commentors on the NYT says: with more diplomats you cannot compensate for bad policies; it was not the State Department that got the US in Iraq.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Corruption and the role of the state in Kosovo

I came along an interesting article about Kosovo in the London Review of Books by Jeremy Harding under the title "Saved and Depoliticised at One Stroke". Much of the article is will sound familiair to people who read more about Kosovo. But his musings about how corruption damages the society and whether the US/UK libertarian ideology isn't too much state-bashing for an area that needs state-building make it an interesting read. Below is an extract from the middle of the article.

Agani has misgivings about what’s happened in Kosovo since 1999. ‘We’ve lost the feeling of responsibility for each other. In the 1990s we discovered something really important. We didn’t know what to call it, but I think it was democracy. Rugova’s parallel structures served everybody, rich and poor. Since then we’ve sacrificed democracy to liberty . . . Tocqueville saw this in America and you can see it here.’ He is uncertain, too, about the ‘ruthless liberalisation’ he identifies: a result, no doubt, of the campaign in Kosovo having been spearheaded by the great exponents of liberal market ideology, the US and Britain, but in any case a process affecting all post-Communist ‘transition’ economies, among which Kosovo is just a latecomer. Partly because of the Milosevic years, but partly, as Agani believes, because of longstanding attitudes in Albanian society, there is only a dim sense of the purpose served by the state or public institutions. ‘We lived outside the state for years,’ he asserts, ‘and became very good at subsistence. Statehood is not a skill we’ve had.’ Dissent and resistance among Albanians were always framed in terms of the national question. There were few anxieties about wealth discrepancies; that some did better than others was a fact of life, ‘in the nature of things’, as Agani put it.

The word ‘nature’ seems to matter here: it was, after all, part of the Serbs’ view of Albanians that they were naturally backward and ill-prepared for life in a modern polity. (‘Backwardness was on our side,’ Agani told me, alluding to the Albanian birth rate, so much higher than that of the Serbs.) Now this nature is reimagined as a brake on majority-Albanian public institutions. At the same time, conveniently enough, it suggests a predisposition to the neoliberal ideal of an unregulated economy. Despite the deadweight of the UN, perhaps as a result of it, Kosovo expresses something of that ideal, but it is, in the words of one Albanian critic, ‘a market without an economy’, a case of unevenness without development, jolting between extremes of poverty and wealth.

People have a good idea where the new money comes from. Lately, it’s said, human trafficking has gone into decline in Kosovo: according to the OSCE, Serbia proper, once a ‘transit country’, is increasingly a ‘country of origin’. The drugs trade is also said to be waning, though an officer I spoke to in the Kosovo Police Service had made a bust involving 15 kg of heroin that morning. Ordinary cross-border smuggling is a profitable business and a trade in small arms is bringing in revenue for the syndicates in charge: according to Krenar Gashi, a journalist in Pristina, there are thousands of hunting rifles, fraudulently licensed or plain illegal, in Kosovo; one UN estimate puts the number of hand-guns at 400,000. Steady earnings from low-level impropriety can be rewarding too. Building permits left pending for years, civil cases gathering dust in the courts, medical treatment – all these can be expedited with cash, and the pocket money adds up. Pristina, meanwhile, is a chaos of haphazard development, its outskirts extending in disjointed fashion from the centre: it’s obvious, with several thousand illegal buildings already standing, that sums have changed hands simply to circumvent the planning regulations.

Every indigenous administration that’s governed since 2001 has been more or less corrupt. Procurement, public tenders and privatisations have been the main sources of temptation, setting local politicians and civil servants on a collision course with wealth opportunities from which they’ve failed to veer away in time. Ministry budgets begin to look baggy at close range, with rich pickings for contractor and client. Pharmaceutical companies have been asked for kickbacks by the Ministry of Health in return for a signature. Hospital equipment assigned to the health service has ended up in private practice. Sharp conflicts of interest hover over the future of public services – in telecoms and energy especially – where policy formulation is prey to decision-makers with one perch in the public domain, or indeed the privatisation office, and another on the arm of a company with much to gain from deregulation.

Public funds alone cannot resurrect the remains of the state sector and the rules drawn up for privatisation under the auspices of the Kosovo Trust Association, an EU-run component of the UN mission, are painstakingly thorough. One of the trust’s principles is that no privatisation can go ahead without management and workers being consulted. But according to Hasan Abazi, the deputy head of the Kosovo trade-union confederation, there’s nothing to stop the government preparing the ground by approving a new privatisation-friendly management team. The sale of Kosovo’s duct-pipe factory last year under KTA supervision was a variation on this theme. The old Belgrade management had been chased out in 1999 and the business commandeered by Albanians. Abazi says the company, barely functioning, was sold off for 3.5 million euros. The land alone, he reckoned, was worth three million and stocks about two million; he put the value of the machinery at 20 million.

A couple of days later I met Abazi’s son, who’d grown up by the factory. The orchards and fields that were part of the property, he said, had been deliberately run down to force a low sale and the factory’s output had fallen by 85 per cent since 1999. There was also the matter of outstanding compensation for Albanian workers cleansed from the factory in the old days: an adjudication which the KTA has sought to overrule and which the present management is in no hurry to honour. In several privatisations, the KTA’s insistence that workers receive 20 per cent of the value of the sale has got tangled up in the question: which workers exactly?

In one of the biggest privatisations overseen by the KTA, Kosovo’s ferronickel complex, badly bombed in 1999, was acquired by a subsidiary of the Eurasian Natural Resources Corporation, a large Kazakh mining and energy enterprise, for around 35 million euros. It’s well known in Kosovo that some of the workers there do not receive the minimum wage and that the superannuated grid has been selling electricity to the company at cut-price rates. Avni Zogiani, a journalist who now works as a corruption monitor for a Kosovo NGO, estimates the loss to the energy sector – and thus to the public purse – at 20 million euros a year.

One enterprise, the Trepca mining and smelting conglomerate, is so vast and dishevelled, its financing and foreign debt under Milosevic so arcane, that the internationals and the government cannot agree what to do with it. It was once regarded as Kosovo’s great earner and its lead-zinc extraction component still has real potential. But whoever takes on Trepca will be inheriting a total debt of at least 80 million euros, including unpaid workers’ pensions and payroll taxes from the Milosevic era, and a constellation of derelict plant.

Kosovo Serbs are suspicious of plans for this and other privatisations: even though Serbia is encouraged to put in claims for ownership and investment prior to 1989, they’ve tended to argue that privatisation is a form of plunder. But Kosovo Albanians are not so keen either. The Kosovo government wants to hold onto some of the Trepca complex, for example, even though it might cost 20 per cent of the annual budget, over several years, to put them in order. There are fears, too, that Serbian businesses will use privatisation to get control of Trepca and reservations about the policy of privatisation as a whole, so that the general wish to hasten foreign investment coincides with a growing edginess about the bargain-basement atmosphere in which public or ‘socially-owned’ assets will be going under the hammer.

Almost pointless, in this climate, to talk about workers’ rights and the role of trade unions, but that is Abazi senior’s job. (He was seriously assaulted after auditing the Kosovo TUC and exposing high levels of misappropriation.) By Abazi’s count, the labour laws drafted by the Kosovo assembly have been sent back six times with criticisms by Unmik’s head office. He isn’t sure whether it’s the UN itself raising the objections or an interested party in the wings – the State Department say, or the IMF – but he is tired of the UN failing to pull its weight when it’s required and sticking its oar in when it isn’t. Unmik’s 27-point programme on workplace practice, the only recourse he has in the absence of proper law, is inadequate to deal with his caseload of unfair dismissals, payment below the minimum wage, injury claims and illegal contracts.

In Kosovo every scam and indignity, from the protection of ex-KLA war criminals down, is common knowledge. The street is so alert and the journalists who matter so dogged in the face of intimidation that very little falls quietly into oblivion. The difficulty arises at the point of legal accountability. Big men may well be disgraced, and in Kosovan society dishonour is a sort of accounting. But it’s only in the last year that they’ve begun to face material consequences, including imprisonment, for their actions. In Kosovo the law is not an ass so much as a mule: a shambling hybrid of old Yugoslav law and Unmik decrees. Judicial interpretation, since the intervention, has been one of the great humanitarian mysteries, whether a judge is a local – and possibly loathed for his association with the ancien regime – or parachuted in under the ‘police and justice’ rubric of the international presence. Often when a case is agreed to be important, the Kosovan judiciary are elbowed out so that a foreigner, harder to bully or threaten, can do things properly.

After the events of 2004, Human Rights Watch decided to test the health of the justice system by monitoring the convictions that might reasonably have followed, with 56 cases of serious ethnic crimes under investigation. Of these, by 2006, two were pending, 29 were still at the pre-trial stage, a dozen had been dismissed and only 13 had resulted in convictions, with the minimum sentence handed down in several. In March, a month after Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence, HRW published an update. There were by now 35 convictions, most of those convicted receiving fines or suspended sentences.