Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Sense and nonsense about reconciliation

Reconciliation is hot. Western NGOs have spent millions in former Yugoslavia to achieve it. Put some people from ethnic groups that used to right each other together in some course or project and you can get a lot of money because it is supposed to contribute to reconciliation. As the reasoning goes: these people didn't talk to each other and now they are talking again; this must the the first step towards reconciliation.

It doesn't work always. Many of those projects in Kosovo found their end in march 2004 when Serbs saw their "project-friends" in the mobs that attacked them. And one has to wonder whether it works better in other situations.

A related concept is that of justice. Many millions have been spent on the ICTY and other courts to condemn the war criminals. But the effect has been limited. On the one hand it is good to see that some consensus arises on the facts and that for example you don't hear anymore that people deny that mass killings happened in Srebrenica. But when you hear the comments from the different parties it looks like the courtroom has become the newest battlefield. Everyone wants crimes by the other side exposed and preferably provided with labels like "genocide". And with good reason: the conflict is going on. Serbia and Croatia are still involved in a genocide case at the ICJ and in Bosnia the statuses of the Republika Srpska and the Croat majority region are ongoing sources of conflict.

South Africa is often seen as an example how to solve conflicts. But the South Africans did it very different compared to former Yugoslavia. First they found a political solution that had wide support on all sides. Many in the West think that only apartheid was abolished but the whites negotiated a deal that gave the country a very capitalistic constitution that protects them from large scale expropriations.

Only when there was a solution in which every part felt safe did the South Africans proceed to the next step: the "truth and reconciliation commission". Because of this timing justice was no longer loaded with political consequences. A second step they made was to pardon most of the crimes. In the heat of a conflict people do things that they normally wouldn't do and this was an implicit recognition of that fact. Also, because the primary aim of the commission was not to get these people convicted there was much more attention to what they thought at that time and how they came to their acts. This is a climate that produces real reconciliation.

In contrast the Western approach to Yugoslavia has been counterproductive. There has been no commitment to solutions that are seen by all sides as fair. On the contrary: a formalistic approach was chosen - encouraged by the Badinter Commission - that gave Yugoslavia's republics independence without negotiations and discarded widely shared concerns amongst certain groups as "nationalistic". And while the West has been very helpful to help those "warlike" people of the Balkans to find reconciliation it has been very unwilling to investigate its own role.

The psychology of war

I found an interesting article about the psychology of war ("why war is never rational"). It basically says that sometimes we humans can be perfectly rational and balance costs and benefits while at other times we seem to lose all rationality. The latter happens when we think that a moral issue is at stake.

Of course at a certain level science is telling here once again what we already know. But on the other hand it is good to have it explicit as through the course of history populist leaders have been very good in raising our moral indignation about things that previously didn't bother us. It is also good to realize that a seemingly innocent change in a situation can change people's view from the rational to the moral side. The article provides some nice examples both from science and the real world.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The value of peaceful protest

It is amazing how the concept of peaceful protest is eroding in the Arab world. Unfortunately that also means that its effectiveness is fading.

The original Gandhian idea of peaceful protest is to do something that is entirely within the laws of the country - no matter how repressive they are. That way the regime has no excuse for arrests or violence - unless it gives up on its own principles. And even when protests cross the borders of the law as understood by the regime they should restrict themselves to minor transgressions that normally are tolerated or just punished with a small fine.

As we can see in Libya and Syria it is impossible for protesters to win from a well-organized regime. So they shouldn't try. Instead of asking for regime change they should make reasonable demands like less corruption - including the removal of some corrupt officials - and more freedom.

The power of protesters in making a moral point strong enough that the regime feels pressured to give in sooner or later. The more disciplined and moderate the way this point is made the greater its chance for success as one of the main arguments for a dictatorship is always the supposedly undisciplined anarchic character of the masses.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

On the Greek debt

There is much noise nowadays about the Greek debt. Ferdinand Fichtner, a German economist, was one amongst many who argued for letting Greece default. I tend to support that idea but I will restrict myself here to just some thoughts about the problems:

- We should recognize that the budget limitations for the eurozone countries (the 3% rule) are a bad idea. They would be a very nice idea if they worked but in reality they are an incentive for countries to cook the books so that their debts become invisible for everyone except a few specialists. If the Greek debts had been open and clear for everyone both concerned Greeks and the foreign lenders to Greece would have become alarmed and the problem would have been noticed much earlier as it was now.

- In general it is a good idea to attack a problem as soon as possible. Japan's lost decade is generally seen as the consequence of not accepting the consequences of the collapse of the property bubble around 1990. Many companies that were de facto insolvent stayed around and they became a drag on the economy. After the crisis of 2008 the US was rigorous in accepting the losses out of fear of a "lost decade" but Europe has been much more hesitant and as a consequence it is believed that there are still much more problematic loans that keep poisoning the system.

This brings me to Greece. One has to be honest about whether Greece really will be able to repay its debts. If you think it is not - as the markets do - it is better to default today than tomorrow.

- The behavior Greece is showing now is typical of a country that no longer believes in a solution. All the discussion is about the pain and no one talks about the benefits of getting the finances back on track. With this attitude Greece may stay a problem case for a long time. You can't force a country towards a solution in which it doesn't believe and that may very well be impossible.

- Probable a default will have to be accompanied by an exit from the euro. This will be painful for many Greeks who have debts. But most of those debts are secured against properties that can be expected to keep their value in euro's. Of course it will be still painful for those people who have to pay off their debs from a reduced wage. It is quite similar to what the people in much of Eastern Europe and the Balkan experienced when their currency suddenly plummeted and it became much harder to repay their euro debts.

The reason why Greece might have to leave the euro is because its competitive position is so bad. While Ireland has nowadays an export surplus and might stay in the eurozone even if it defaulted it is dubious whether Greece can regain a competitive position without a default.

- the strategy of the europhiles is "double or quit" and they keep doubling out fear about the consequences of quitting. I think it is a stupid strategy. Greece quitting the euro won't do much to hamper European unity. The common interests that drive us towards more unity are simply too large. On the other hand might it very well be that the price of keeping Greece inside the eurozone becomes so high that it does serious harm both to the countries involved and to the process towards European unity.

I have never liked the obligation for new EU members to use the euro as soon as possible. Countries should first spend 20 or 30 years inside the EU and have found some balance before they enter the eurozone. So I would be happy if that rule disappeared as a consequence of the crisis. The eurozone has been an area of slow growth for the last decade so I don't see any reason to hurry its expansion.

In my opinion Brussels is paying too much attention to symbols like the euro and too little attention to the economic integration of Europe's periphery - the Balkan, the former Soviet Union, Turkey and the Southern Mediterranean. Whether all these areas will ever be part of the EU is unclear, but the dynamics towards one economic zone are obvious.

In my opinion Europe should strive for a circle of countries around it that have tied their coins to the euro but have not adopted the euro itself, much like the "snake" that connected Europe's coins before the euro. With such a loose connection countries can always devalue if the need arises - as is now clearly the case with Greece.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Managing the Arab Spring

The New Yorker has a nice article (The Consequentialist: How the Arab Spring remade Obama’s foreign policy.) about Obama's policy towards the developments in the Arab world.

Here are some observations of my own:

- I don't agree with Obama's policy towards Egypt. Obama got seduced by the rhetorics of the protesters that you had to be for or against Mubarak and in the end turned against him. Instead he should have focused on content. He might for example have highlighted that having a "state of emergency" for decades is ridiculous. Now after the departure we see that this focus on people is staying with much of the attention focused on a persecution of Mubarak. Focusing on people is bad for two reasons: it removes the focus from the content - meaning less reforms - and it can easily turn into a witch hunt - meaning less democracy.

- I don't agree with Obama's policy towards Libya either. It was a good idea to avert a complete defeat of the rebels. Such a defeat would probably have meant decades more of dictatorship and Gaddafi might have killed a considerable number of people to deter the population from new protests. But aiming for a rebel victory is in my opinion unwise: It can only be achieved with thousands of deaths; The rebels are very divided and will most probably offer a very incompetent government; And given the ethnic divisions in Libya it may result in the kind of instability we have seen in Iraq.

- in Syria Obama is caught in the same dilemma. Instead of picking up complaints from the protesters he again is focused on whether the regime should stay or not.

- in Bahrain the US has ignored the repression what generally has been interpreted as a silent consent. This had two harmful effects. First of all it even more undermined the protests as it now became to be seen that the US was selective in which uprisings it supported - based on its own interests. Secondly by denying the Shiite majority in Bahrain a saying the US casted the conflict between its ally Saudi Arabia and Iran as a conflict between Shiites and Sunnites instead of as a conflict between Arabs and Persians. By doing that the US and Saudi Arabia made sure that Iraq will be on the side of Iran.

An essential part of democracy is negotiation and compromises. As such revolutions are a bad way towards them as they preach the victory of one side at the cost of the others. It is no coincidence that so many revolutions degenerate in dictatorships even though their initial intention was democracy.

The focus of Obama on regime change has had as a result that the focus has shifted in the Arab world too. What was an "Arab Spring" is now an "Arab Revolution". As we seen in history revolutions seldomly succeed and so the fate of the Arab world will most probably be similar to that of the European revolutions in 1848. In contrast a focus on content might have resulted in reforms everywhere, including countries that didn't see protests.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Sign the petition against EU natura medicine law

The EU wants to introduce new legislation that forbids all natural medicine that haven't been tested anew in a long complicated bureaucratic procedure. The consequence will be that many natural medicine will become forbidden.

Sign the petition to stop this EU directive!

Monday, May 09, 2011

Europe bows to the money guys too

Regularly it reported in our newspapers how powerful the financial sector is in the US. And we like to think that Europe is doing better. After all we don't have the multi-million dollar election campaigns that are largely financed by the business community.

Two recent reports undermine this impression:
- an investigation group on "transfer pricing" (one of the most popular tricks to evade taxes in the EU) was mostly manned by people from tax evading companies and their advisors.
- the most probable candidate to succeed Trichet as president of the European Central Bank is Mario Draghi. At the moment he is head of the Italian Central Bank but previously he worked for Goldman Sachs, the most dark force in the recent financial crisis.

Europe has always been business dominated as there is little interest from the citizens. But the present domination by financial interests doesn't bode well as their interests don't align with those of the European citizens.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Sri Lanka Tamils and Kosovo Albanians

Usually minorities that want to separate are richer than the rest of the country. Think of the Basques and the Catalans in Spain and the Slovenes and Croats in Yugoslavia. They have a good reason to believe that when they no longer have to "subsidize" the rest of country they will be better off.

Sri Lanka Tamils and Kosovo Albanians are exceptions to that rule. Interestingly, when you compare them there are many similarities:
- in both cases there is a neighboring state/country (Tamil Nadu and Albania) where they dominate. Tamil Nadu is part of India but as a state it has considerable autonomy.
- in both cases they have in the past been either independent or part of that neighboring country.
- in both cases they collaborated with a foreign ruler (the British resp the Ottomans) against the majority. In that period they were the most prosperous group.
- in both cases that led to retributions after the departure of that foreign ruler.
- in both cases the national majority attempted to "majoritize" the area after they achieved power. In Sri Lanka a few years after independence in 1948 laws were adopted that made Sinhala the only official language. In Kosovo there was a not very effective policy between the World Wars that encouraged Serbs to move to Kosovo and Albanians to emigrate to Turkey.
- in both cases their recent nationalism is strongly supported both from the neighboring country and from the emigrant diaspora.
- in both cases this results in a kind of rejectionist nationalism where people refuse to learn the majority language and also in other ways isolate themselves from the mainstream economy. The resulting poverty is blamed on the majority and so one gets a self-reinforcing pattern.
- through time the situation gradually worsens with increasing mutual discrimination and violence.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Mbeki on Ivory Coast

In a previous post I discussed the problems with the Western intervention in Ivory Coast. Now Mbeki, the former South African president who served as medator in Ivory Coast has written an article ("What the world got wrong in Ivory Coast") in which he confirms my impressions. Of course he is much better informed than I am and provides much more details.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

EU sanctions for Bosnia

According to rumors, recently confirmed by Inzko, the EU is considering travel bans and asset freezes for Bosnian politicians who are blocking all reforms in the country. I am really wondering how they think to defend that for the European Court of Human Rights. This is punishment without process, violation of property rights and violation of freedom of movement.

Another proposal is the posting of an EU ambassador the posting of an EU ambassador who would have a budget of up to 108 million euro this year that could be used to 'reward' parties who pledge cooperation. I propose that the next elections they simply go the the voting booths and ask everyone which party they voted. If they voted the "right" party (from the point of view of the EU) they would receive 50 euro. It would open new perspectives in EU "democracy promotion".

On the Hungarian constitution

There have been lots of news reports about Hungary's new constitution. Complaints are that it strengthens the power of the Fidesz party and converts the constitution from a national document into something that reflects the desires of their party.

I won't discuss this aspect. Instead I want to focus on the procedure. What happens now in Hungary would be impossible in the Netherlands. In order to change the constitution the proposal has to approved twice by parliament and in between there have to be elections. The first time a single majority suffices; the second time a two-third majority is needed.

As a consequence the Dutch constitution (here is the translation in English of a prior version) is much more a simple rulebook about which everyone can agree than many "modern" constitutions. I believe this is what a constitution should be. However many "reformers" may like it a constitution is not a tool to achieve societal reforms.