Sunday, August 29, 2010

The hurdles for border changes in Kosovo

Finally the Crisis Group has found some wisdom. In their last report they discus for the first time border changes as a way to solve the Kosovo conflict. They argue that their main objection - that it might serve as a precedent for Macedonia and Bosnia - no longer applies. It is still not their favorite solution and they "forget" to elaborate on the minority situation in Kosovo as an argument for partition. But it is some progress.

The reactions are predictable. Just as when after Ahtisaari's negotiations failed the Troika for a short time opened the option of a partition both sides have refused. This is part of the nagotiation game and one can only hope that the international diplomats are this time better in handling it:
- for Serbia accepting partition would mean an implicit recognition of Kosovo.
- for Kosovo accepting partition would mean accepting that their present independence is not valid.

Besides that botb sides have other demands outside border issues. The Serbs want better (stronger) minority rights that make Kosovo's Serbs less dependent on the whims of radical politicians in Kosovo. And Kosovo needs better access to Serbia to get its economy started.

The solution has to be some package deal in which everything is solved at once. This can only work if the US and the EU are behind it. As long as the US and the EU stay put the present stalemate will continue. Even if the Albanians will do concession the Serbs will suspect that they may withdraw them later on - with Western support - while claiming that the Serb concessions mean that the Serb position is weakening.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Obama: the unpresidential president

President Obama gives me more and more the impression to be a man who doesn't know how to be a president and who - as a consequence - keeps making errors of judgment. A little overview:

- when the army asked for more troops in Afghanistan Obama let his adversaries pressure him to make a stupid promise: that the troops would be withdrawn again within a short term. Instead he should just have accepted that some people would not like him for sending extra troops. By doing concessions to them he restricted his freedom for future action in Afghanistan and he weakened the resolve of the US and its allies in Afghanistan.

- with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico we saw the same pattern. Obama let himself be pressured to forbid drilling in the Gulf and engage in anti-British/anti-BP demagogy. He would have done much better to just ask for a thorough review of oil drilling in the Gulf and how the government controls it. If he had specific points he could have asked his underlings to leak them so that his own hands stayed clean. He may have feared the same fate as Bush whose popularity never really recovered from hurricane Katrina. But Bush lost his credibility for a combination of disaster mismanagement and a lack of compassion for the victims. Obama could have shown his compassion by allocating some money for those people whose income was hit by the disaster - like fishermen and people working in tourism.

- the newest item is the mosque that should be built near the location of the old WTC that was destroyed in 9/11. Obama doesn't have any authority here so he shouldn't have interfered in the first place. Also he seemed unable to understand that - whatever the initial credibility of the project - it has lost that by now. You can't build a center for "dialogue" that is opposed by 70% of the American population. If you insist on doing that you just show that you aren't serious about dialogue.

A president should not involve himself in any conflict that comes up. Instead he should set a course and let others fill in the details. And when he involves himself it should be as the final judgment, not as just another opinion.

Nobody will like every decision that he makes, but that is ok. In the end we judge our leaders on their results and not on their individual decisions. I think Obama is showing here his lack of leadership experience. A good leader should know how to delegate to others.

The impression is that Obama interfered with the mosque to placate his left-wing supporters. But who cares about a mosque? As Clinton once said "it's the economy, stupid" and the economy is still going badly. There is some growth again but unemployment keeps rising and as the stimulus loses its effect the growth starts to stall too. As a matter of impression management Obama should have allowed the economy to tank in his first months in office: he could blame that on Bush. Then once the economy had bottomed out he would have been able to claim credit for the new growth. Now the main effect of his stimulus has been to delay and decrease the crisis. From an economic point of view this may have been wise but certainly not from a political point of view.

Given the bad state of the economy the main area where Obama could have made a good impression was the financial sector, that had caused the crisis. But he has handled this sector with kid gloves, raising the impression that he is not really different from Bush.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The impossibility of calling a spade a spade

If Serbia had been totally honest the question for the ICJ would have been something like: "is it right that a coalition of countries occupies a part of your country and then let it claim independence - in spite of an UN resolution?". But that would have been too insulting for the tender nerves of EU and US diplomats.

Now with the Serbian resolution for the UN General Assembly we see the same dilemma. The resolution says that unilateral secession is not an acceptable way to solve territorial issues. Again the fact that it is a foreign supported secession is not mentioned.

In fact this is the real issue: the Latin-Americanization of the Balkans. The same freedom of action the US has allowed itself in Latin America it applies now also in the Balkans. The destabilizing effect of such actions results then in a chaotic situation that serves as an excuse for yet more intervention. Sure, sometimes they have good intentions and sometimes these work out well, but often not.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

How Kosovo affected Abkhazia and South Ossetia

When Georgia started a war in 2008 Russia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia took the opportunity to bring Abkhazia and South Ossetia up-to-date to Kosovo standards. That meant at least three things:
- They occupied regions with a Georgian majority that until then they had left under Georgian rule. This was a reflection of the US sponsored policy on the "territorial integrity" of Kosovo. Until then it was my impression that they were prepared to give up those regions one day in exchange for recognizion by Georgia.
- They declared independence.
- They started policies aimed at forcing their Georgian minority to recognize their independence and to diminish contact between those minorities and the Georgian government.

All together the EU/US influence via the Kosovo precedent can hardly be called "civilising".

Postscript: "Georgia's Lonely Unilateralisms" is an article that discusses EU policy towards Georgia and its secessionist problems. Besides EU frustration with Georgian stubbornness it also discusses the internal contractions in the EU policy.

Postscript 2: New Blueprint Proposed For Georgia, Abkhazia, South Ossetia is an article about a proposal of Moscow Carnegie Center Director Dmitry Trenin for a solution for the two areas. He proposes independence for Abkhazia in exchange for giving up some Georgian-majority areas including Gali. For South Ossetia he proposes an Andorra-like status: semi-independent but still somewhat under Georgia rule.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

The partition of India

To analyze why partitioning has a bad name I did some study of the partition of India in 1947. In that event some 12.5 million people were displaced. Estimates of the number of death vary from a few hundred thousand to a million. No one had expected it: everyone expected just another peaceful change of an administrative border. Since then partitioning has a bad name. I think this is not really justified as there were other factors that made the partition of India so deadly.

Relations between Muslims and Hindus had become worse in the previous decades. Some like to blame British policies that made a distinction between the groups, such as the 1905 partition of Bengal and reserved seats in elections. Others blame the Muslims for demanding secession and threatening with violence. But I think the real reasons are elsewhere.

The partition of Bengal in 1905 deserves some special consideration as it was the first time Muslims and Hindu's stood on opposite sides of an issue. Bengal at that time was a very big province that included Assam and parts of Orissa and contained a quarter of India's population. The colonial administration considered it too big and wanted it partitioned. But instead of following linguistic lines - what before and after that was the usual habit in India - he cut the province in a Eastern and a Western half. In the Eastern half the Muslims had the majority (about 60%). The official explanation was that there were natural barriers between the East and the West side and few connections and so it made sense to place the border there. But many suspected (and there is good reason to believe) that the British also wanted to diminish the power of the Bengals who had become a major opposition against the colonial rule. The motor of the opposition were Hindu landlords who didn't want to live under Muslim rule. The Congress Party organized major opposition against the "division of the Bengal nation" and it is considered one of the highlights in Indian resistance against British rule. In 1911 the partition was withdrawn and a partition along linguistic lines was introduced instead.

In the decades before the war the British had a policy of gradually handing more power to the Indians. Initially this was to rather small elite groups. This basis was gradually widened but even in the last elections before independence only 10% of the population was allowed to vote. Universal suffrage only arrived after independence.

One consequence of this policy was that each change might affect the power distribution in a region. Where one day the Muslims controlled the local government the next day the Hindus might receive control - and opposite. Such power changes offered the opportunity to set things your way and to retaliate for past injustices. But the lack of stability made it difficult for people to find permanent solutions.

Another factor was that the British allowed local governments to appoint the people on the boards that settled tenancy disputes. This mixed up justice and politics and the effect was predictable: in Muslim ruled areas Hindu landlords had a hard time to collect rents from Muslim tenants (and opposite). As it are usually the rich people who finance the political parties this had a major effect on politics.

A third factor were the youth movements. In the 1930s these were very popular worldwide. Boy Scouts, Komsomol, Hitler Jugend, Young Socialists and others offered all a culture of discipline, physical fitness and exploration of the world while teaching their values. Muslim and Hindu organizations started similar youth movements. Soon this developed into "self-defense" groups and militia. The British didn't do anything to stop this as they didn't see it as a threat to their rule.

The next factor was the war (World War II). The Congress - the main political party - tried to exploit the war to force the British to concessions. As a consequence the main Congress leaders were imprisoned. This allowed smaller - and often more extremist - political parties to flourish during the war.

Over two million Indians had fought on the side of the British in World War II. Now that they came back many lent their expertise to the militia or joined them.

The next factor was the lack of clarity. The call for an independent Pakistan only arose in the 1930s and it was unclear what it meant. Many Muslims expected that a much larger part of India would go to Pakistan. Some even believed that Pakistan would mean Muslim rule over all of India. As a consequence there were very few Muslims who worried what would happen to them if they would end up at the wrong side of the border after a partition. The British or the Congress Party could have created more clarity but they didn't. Muslim leaders deliberately kept it unclear and created an atmosphere where you were traitor if as a Muslim you were against the creation of a separate Muslim state.

For a long time there were only occasionally clashes between village militias. These were usually about religious issues: building permits for mosques, the right of (noisy) Hindu processions to pass mosques where people were praying, Muslims slaughtering (sacred) cows in the village, etc. Occasionally someone died in those clashes but these stayed local issues.

Violence reached a new level with the Calcutta Killings in 1946. Jennah, the Muslim leader, had called for a National Action Day in their struggle for Pakistan. The local Muslim leaders interpreted it so that they sent a large mob of Muslims pilfering and murdering Hindus. Police didn't do anything (Bengal was ruled by Muslims) and as a retaliation the Hindu militias immediate held a counterpogrom among the city's Muslims. Some 5000 people died that day. Local governments often supported "their" people and the British resorted to collective punishment: a fine for all Muslims or Hindus in a region. This only helped to unite the local population behind the extremists.

One effect of the violence was rumors. Just like in Yugoslavia rumors about violence by the others - and its use as propaganda - often served to justify violence or extremist actions. Information was hard to find and in the information that reached the people was biased and usually painted their own group as a victim.

To understand the British one has to consider the era. They knew independence was coming and as a consequence the British government was making little new investment in the colony. It meant also that there were few new recruits for the colonial service and that many colonial officials just bided their time until it was over. It didn't help that for many the last time they had been to England was before the war. On the other side the Indians became less obedient as they had nothing to fear from the English administrators who would be gone in a couple of months. Unfortunately this diminishing of British power was not counterbalanced by an increasing power of Indian institutions, so there was a power vacuum. In fact many Indian institutions were falling apart as they underwent their own partition.

The British announced the decision for a partition on 3 june 1947. 2 1/2 month later, on 15 august, India became officially independent. So there was a very short time to arrange the partition. The definitive border was only decided on 12 august and only published on 17 august. All borders had been determined by two British commissions within 6 weeks so they didn't have the time to visit the border regions themselves. The inevitable inconsistencies would never be corrected. Rumors claimed - as did some politicians - that those staying behind might lose their political rights or worse (in fact there were decent minority rights). Some politicians encouraged "their" people to flee from areas dominated by the other group.

The government of the new Pakistan decided to settle their new capital in Karachi. This was the biggest city and a center of the British administration. But it was in the province Sindh that had its own character. As a capital it would attract many refugees of other ethnic groups in the population exchange and that gives up to the present day trouble. It would have been a much better idea to have the new capital in the Punjab - as many refugees came from the eastern Punjab.

Partition also concerned the institutions. The army was slowly split. Government employees got the choice whether they wanted to stay where they were or to go to the area of their group. As the situation escalated police and army found it increasingly difficult to stay neutral.

For a long time both new countries more or less ignored the refugees. As a consequence as long as they were on "wrong" territory they were frequently robbed or even murdered. Even trains with refugees were regularly ambushed. At the end of august 1947 the governments finally took a more active position in regulating the refugee stream. But that created its own problems as some local officials took this as a license to tell their minority community that they had to leave.

Partition meant literally partition for the provinces Punjab and Bengal. These were also the provinces where most of the violence happened. Between East and West Punjab there was a nearly complete population exchange (remaining populations < 2%). In Bengal the cleansing was less complete: Bangla Desh still has 9% Hindus and West Bengal has 25% Muslims.

Could it have been different?
There has been a lot of speculation about how things could have been different. Much blame has gone to the Muslims for their demands and the extremist language and means they used to achieve it. Blame has also heaped on Hindu extremist organizations like the RSS for their violent militias. But I like to take the extremists for granted and to look how the British or the Congress Party could have reacted differently.

Would have helped not to partition Punjab and Bengal in which case they would have gone as a whole to Pakistan? I doubt it. It might have worked. But it might also have resulted in the cleansing of all the Hindus in the whole Punjab and resulting revenge cleansings of Muslims all over India. Hindus might also have reacted by not accepting the solution in which case you would have had open war over an undetermined border.

Maintaining provincial borders was for some time popular after the dissolution of the Soviet Union where it seemed to lead to a peaceful transition. But it didn't work in Yugoslavia. And the gradual cleansing of the Russians from the Central-Asian republics, the large scale cleansing in the Caucasus and the recent events in Kyrgyzstan suggest that it didn't work in the Soviet Union as well. In fact it is hard to find ethnic relations that have not deteriorated due to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The initial quietness was just a consequence of the surprise effect. Georgia's cleansing of over a third of its minorities before it ran into real resistance in South Ossetia is a good example: it hardly reached the international news.

On the other hand the partition of India shows that just having a shotgun agreement is not enough. The Congress Party, the Muslim League and the British had all agreed to the partition plan and it had been agreed that there would be decent minority rights. But those minority rights had been badly communicated and the dynamics of violent militias creating "facts on the ground" proved hard to stop.

In my opinion it is the suddenness of the change that causes most problems. At the side of the "winners" it brings nationalist extremists in power who deal harshly with the new minorities. At the side of the "losers" it creates distrust and suspicion. According to this vision the best way to deal with ethnic conflicts is to make changes gradual.

Another issue is militia's. This was the era of fascism where radical parties had militias. This applied to both the Muslim League and the RSS. I believe militia's are very harmful on the political process. For example I never understood the lenient attitude of the Americans towards Al Sadr in Iraq.

In other ways too the strategies of Jennah were classical fascist. The way he managed to be seen as the sole representative of India's Muslims and the way he sidelined all other Muslim voices were typical.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Corruption in the West-Balkans and WAZ

WAZ EuObserver has an article by Augustin Palokaj about corruption in a.o. Serbia, Macedonia and Croatia. Interesting is the way the magazine talks about its parent's problems in Serbia.

About Serbia it says:
Serbia is a particular problem with many foreign investors complaining about long and slow bureaucratic procedures and the poor judiciary system. For some of them, it is practically impossible to get payment even when they have a court decision in their favour. Court proceedings in Serbia take an average of eight years. More than 1.5 million court decisions have yet to be enforced. This is an unacceptable situation for those wanting to invest and work with free competition rules.

About Macedonia it says:
Macedonia, meanwhile, attracted just €200 million in foreign investment in 2009, the lowest in the region. And this was despite tax incentives. There were serious problems with two investors, one from Switzerland and another from Austria. The companies complained that the government did not stick to its obligations. Both cases contributed to a worsening of the already bad investment climate in Macedonia.

About Croatia:
In Croatia, the situation is better as the country is getting closer to EU membership. Zagreb recently closed negotiations on bringing the country into line with EU rules on public procurement and opened talks in the area of competition. But EU companies can still face unnecessary informal obstacles in Croatia. Enforcing court decisions has been taking too long and problems with ownership continue to be a concern.

One negative point of the article is the way it discusses the problems that WAZ itself has with the Serbian government. It is does not explicitly mention that that WAZ is the publisher of WAZ Observer and it tries to suggest Serbia is doing things wrong without actually making any concrete complaints - confirming the shady image that WAZ Media has in the Balkans: One of the big foreign investors in Serbia, the German WAZ Media Group, has indicated it intends to withdraw from the country. The Committee of Eastern European Economic Relations, an organisation representing German business, says it regrets the planned move. "I hope that the announced withdrawal is a warning signal and leads to an improvement in conditions for investors," said Klaus Mangold, chairman of the committee. "German business is vigilantly following how such an important investor is treated."