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.

When a defendant must be convicted

One of the most famous books from Dutch literary history is "Max Havelaar" by Multatuli. The book was written in 1860 and starts with a short theater piece "Barbertje must hang". Below my translation.

Barbertje must hang
Court servant: Mr. Judge, there is the man who killed Barberje
Judge: The man must hang. How did he do that?
Court servant: He cut her to small pieces and salted her.
Judge: He did very wrong. He must hang.
Lothario: Mr. Judge, I did not kill Barbertje! Ik nourished, dressed her and took care of her. There are witnesses who will declare that I am a good person and not a killer.
Judge: Man, you must hang. You aggravate your crime by vanity. It doesn't fit for someone who is accused of something to pose as a good man.
Lothario: But judge, there are witnesses who will confirm my words. And as I am now accused of murder...
Judge: You must hang! You cut Barbertje in pieces and salted her and you are vein... Three capital crimes! Who are you, woman?
Woman: I am Barebertje
Lothario: Thank God! Judge, you see that I didn't kill her!
Judge: Hm... yes...soo! But the salting?
Barbertje: No judge, he didn't salt me. He did on the contrary much good to me. He is a noble person!
Lothario: You hear it, judge, she says that I am a good person.
Judge: Hmm... The third point still stays. Court servant, bring the man away, he has to hang. He is guilty of vanity. Clerk, cite in the notes the jurisprudence of Lessings's patriarch.

The book was written against colonial abuses and it would be easy to believe that such excesses only accur in exceptional circumstances. But what about Al Capone, who was convicted to 12 1/2 years of prison because of tax evasion? And even that was hardly proved as all his possessions were on his wife's name. The problem was that he was seen as guilty from the beginning. The government considered it a shame that such a high profile mafioso was walking around freely and for that reason they wanted him in jail. Something similar can also be seen in the US after 11 september 2001 where the philosophy seems to be that you can better condemn 10 innocents than free one terrorist.

A similar "he must be convicted" attitude can be seen in the processes of high profile Serbs like Milosevic and Plavsic. Milosevic was accused of facilitating nearly everything that had gone wrong under his rule. Yet - even in the face of a lack of evidence and Milosevic's health problems - the court refused to shrink the indictment. Milosvic was too important to miss a chance to get him convicted. Compare this with Nasir Oric who was only indicted for a small part of the excesses for which many people held him responsible. The Plavsic verdict shows another side of this policy: she was not directly responsible for any war crime, but was convicting for "embracing, supporting and contributing to" them. Again, such indirect responsibility was not applied to people like Oric.

A few days ago I saw mr. Nice - the Milosevic prosecutor - on television. He claimed that one of the reasons Oric and Haradzinaj were set free was because they had top lawyers, while Milosevic by defending himself missed many chances to rebut evidence against him. This is a very nice theory, but I think that mr. Nice misses the point that Milosevic was just like Al Capone a man who had to be convicted no matter what because some people considered that necessary. In that aspect his case was fundamentally different from that of Oric and Haradinaj.

I am not stating here that the court is partial. It is something more subtle: no one wants to go in the history books as the (wo)man who made the mistake that let Milosevic escape justice. And so everyone tends to err on the safe side - and that is not the side of Milosevic. But this ends up with Milosvic having a much smaller chance of being acquitted than an Oric for the same amount of evidence.

In that light Milosevic's self defence was not so self defeating. It looks like he partially gave up on the court and instead focussed on his reputation with the general public. And this he did quite well. Even here in Holland I found many people who were impressed by his court performance. And these were people without much interest in the Balkan who just read the local newspapers and watched the local television.

Some people believe that Milosevic just abused his freedom in the court to make propaganda. But I think that there is more than that. A court is about establishing the truth and gagging Milosevic would not have helped the truth. Instead the court should focus on telling its version of the truth. If Milosevic had survived he would very probably have been convicted. However, nobody would have understood for what. The Muslims, Croats and Albanians would just have used the verdict to tell the Serbs once again that they are bad but hardly a Serb would have been convinced.

Now we have the same questions with Karadzic wanting to defend himself. I would like to hear comments on this.

Postscript 1: John Laughland, author of a book on the history of political trials, criticized the international courts and believes they aren't fair and should be abolished.