Friday, July 31, 2009

Some progress in Afghanistan

There is some progress in Afghanistan. The US and Britain have finally attacked Helmand. Helmand is the most important source of Afghan heroin and as such a major source of Taliban finance. It find it amazing that the US left it so long alone. The other news is that the US has finally decided to use UAVs (unmanned planes) against the Taliban. Until now they used them only against Al Qaeda. Problem is that they don't have enough of them at the moment. But as they are cheap that won't take long. Read here how UAVs helped the US to conquer Sadr city in Iraq.

But the biggest problem stays: Afghanistan's government. I wonder whether this sudden attention to Karzai's incompetence covers a push to have a new president after the coming elections. It is my hunch that the decision to create a strong central government in Afghanistan was wrong. Afghanistan never had a strong central government. The country is nearly evenly divided between two big groups (Pashtuns and Tadjziks) and a couple of small ones. It might be better to have locally elected provincial governors responsible for a local police force.

Peacekeeping and blackmail

B92 reported from Strpce, Kosovo about the struggle to get electricity restored there: Mihajlović blames foreign KEK managers from the U.S. embassy for the situation, claiming that they are putting new conditions to the Serb side every time a general agreement is reached. The struggle is specially about a building from the Serb electricity company that the Kosovo electricity company KEK wants to get transfered into its possession.

Peacekeeping is about restoring trust between ethnic groups. Unfortunately blackmail - such as by not providing electricity has exactly the opposite effect. It creates distrust and resentment at the losing side while it gives the winning side the feeling that they are above the law. Of course American KEK managers are not peacekeepers but they should be aware that they are undermining the peacekeeping done by other Americans.

It is a bit like the torture discussion. The law is clear but somehow people with the power to do it have a tendency to think that their case is different.

We have seen this from the beginning of the Yugoslav conflict. International and Yugoslav law was clear that a negotiated solution was needed. Lord Carrington worked on it but Germany thought they had a "special case" and started the road to war by recognizing Slovenia and Croatia.

In Bosnia we see the same process: Brussel keeps making new demands: police reform, central passport emission, etc. Everything is presented as necessary for Bosnia becoming an EU member while in fact many are not necessary at all and for the others there work-arounds could easily been found. Kosovo's independence was also presented as needed for Kosovo's welfare. It is no coincidence that it is always the Serbs who have to give in. In their core these "reasons" are just excuses for a partial policy. Similar demands on the other side would never be made. A good example is the discussion about "reforming" the Dayton Agreement that claimed that the RS should be abolishhed because it made Bosnia inefficient. When the discussion shifted to the inefficiency and impossible structure of the Federation (that were worse than the RS) the call for reform fell silent.

I can understand these people. They have been raised on newspaper articles claiming that the Serbs are the bad guys and the others the good guys. So what's the problem with helping the others a bit?

Problem is that you can't be two things at the same time. You cannot be both an ally of one side and a neutral peacekeeper. If you want to be a neutral peacekeeper you have at some point to take a distance and tell both parties that you are done. If neither party wants to give in that will result in a frozen conflict. If that happens: so be it. As a neutral peacekeeper you will guard that neither party resorts to forcefull methods but you won't interfere.

The Friedrich Ebert Stiftung wrote in its recent report "Der Kosovo nach der Unabhängigkeit" that (my translation from German) "The deep contrasts between the Albanian majority and the Serb minority harden increasingly into an institutionalized "frozen conflict"". This reflects a deep fear of "frozen conflicts". Unfortunately that same fear perpetuates the conflict as it tells one side that they don't have to do concessions as you will always be there to support them if the other side doesn't give in. That is how the international community has operated in former Yugoslavia from the beginning of the conflict in 1991. The result is that there hasn't been for a second a really frozen conflict in which the parties had time to negotiate while there were lots of "hot" conflicts.

A similar fear to let go can be seen in a recent ICG report: "Worse, a party that values a particular EU reward less can use a veto threat to extract unrelated concessions from the others.". At best this sounds hopelessly naive to me. Trading unrelated subjects is an essential part of reaching solutions.

The international community should give up its fear of a frozen conflicts and recognize that the local players will only solve their conflicts when the internationals stop taking sides. In Bosnia this recognition seems slowly to take root with vague plans to close the OHR office, but in Kosovo it may take considerably more time. Dayton offers the balance of power that makes negotiation possible. Ahtisaari's independence puts the internationals in an uneasy position between being neutral and supporting this independence.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Trading insults with North Korea

Hillary Clinton has been trading insults with North Korea:
- first Clinton on ABC news "What we've seen is this constant demand for attention, And maybe it's the mother in me or the experience that I've had with small children and unruly teenagers and people who are demanding attention: Don't give it to them, they don't deserve it; they are acting out."
- then a spokesman for the foreign ministry in Pyongyang: Clinton "is by no means intelligent, We cannot but regard Mrs. Clinton as a funny lady, as she likes to utter such rhetoric, unaware of the elementary etiquette in the international community. Sometimes she looks like a primary schoolgirl and sometimes a pensioner going shopping."
- Clinton's answer contained the claim that North Korea "has no friends left".

For more about the long history of North Korean insults see here.

A little analysis:
- comparing NK's leaders with children undermines their self-important attitude. The big question is: what does Clinton want to achieve with it? This looks more aimed at "regime change" than at solving problems.
- NK repays in kind. It sketches a caricature of Clinton that is close enough that some of it may stick.
- Clinton's conclusion that NK has no friends left looks rather silly. If it is really so they will find out for themselves.
- as so often: trading insults hurts both sides.

"Regime change" is a violation of international law - for good reasons - and I don't understand why the US keeps trying. What makes these half-hearted efforts at "regime change" even more ridiculous is that South Korea and the US are actually afraid of the fall of the North Korean regime as a unification could cost a lot.

I would prefer a different policy: give up on "regime change" and set out a path along which North Korea could grow towards a modern society. Give North Korea the option to join. But make at the same time all preparations for a sudden re-unification for the case that the North Korean leadership might implode. Prepare the South Korean population that it may become their "patriotic duty" to support such a re-unification. Let the US promise financial assistance. Get also full Chinese and Russian support - including the guarantee that refugees from the north from now on will no longer be sent back and can migrate to South Korea. These actions should not be misunderstood: they are not supporting actions for a US driven regime change. They should get minimal attention in the media and should not be used as a basis to threaten North Korea. It should also be added that such unification might both happen through an agreement with the NK regime and through a collapse of the regime. The implicit message to the NK leaders should be that its citizens have alternatives: both individually and collectively.

Recently both South Korea and the US have announced huge aid programs for North Korea - provided that they cooperate. For the moment North Korea has rejected the offers and said that the 6-party negotiations are over. But it was predictable that it would take time to convince them that the offers are real and that North Korea won't see the usual backpedaling once the West has to deliver.

The other side of the equation is less well developed. China has cooperated with sanctions in the Security Council but their actual behavior at the border may be different. Preparation for unification is nowhere.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Some thoughts on Bosnia

In a recent opinion piece William Montgomery criticizes Western Balkan policy:

This is because we continue to insist that it is possible, with enough pressure and encouragement, to establish fully functioning multiethnic societies in Bosnia and Kosovo with no change in borders. And we have consistently ignored all evidence to the contrary and branded as obstructionist anyone who speaks openly about alternative approaches.

The reality is that no amount of threats or inducements, including fast membership in the European Union or NATO, will persuade the Bosnian Serbs to cede a significant portion of the rights and privileges given them under the Dayton Agreement to the central government, as the Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks) and the international community are determined to bring about. The Bosnian Serbs are determined to have full control over their own destiny, and fear that if they continue to transfer authority to a central government, the more numerous Bosniaks will end up in control.

The end result is continued tension between the two Bosnian entities, a dysfunctional country, and the prospect of many more years of efforts by Western politicians — like Vice President Joe Biden on his recent visit — to pound a square peg into a round hole.

Regarding a solution he writes: a solution probably involves shaping a different relationship within Bosnia and permitting the Republika Srpska, the Serbian portion of the divided country, to hold a referendum on independence. This would have to include a lot of guarantees about future relationships, and be done as a complete package led and implemented by the international community..

I am glad to see a more realistic policy. But I would like to see a more realistic view of a multi-ethnic society: a multi-ethnic society can only exist when the rights for all ethnic groups are guaranteed. One can discuss about the situation before the war, but just after a war it is ridiculous to assume that the Serbs will not be discriminated if Muslim politicians get the chance. Just study the history of American South after the civil war. So there is a need for iron guarantees like the existence of the RS. The RS is not part of the problem; it is part of the solution and a similar solution for Bosnia's Croats is necessary.

Inzko recently has used his Bonn powers to veto a decision by RS parliament to take back the powers it had ceded to Bosnia's central government. Parliamentarians later claimed that their resolution was meant symbolic. What I totally miss is the ideological perspective in Inzko's reaction. The implicit message in the Serb resolution is "we have given up enough; now it is up to the other side". Inzko should either prove this message incorrect or come up with some Muslim concession to get things going again.

In a more recent article from Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso Senad Pećanin, director of the news weekly Dani, gives three reasons why Bosnia should stay united:
- the division of the country would not be just. It would represent a reward for ethnic cleansing and genocide.
- the division would not happen in a peaceful manner; that would be absolutely impossible. It is something which could not be done without a new war. The part of BiH with a majority Croat population would want to have the same rights as the Serbs, that is, to also secede and eventually join Croatia.
- a sort of European Gaza would be created for the Bosnian Muslims. This would be a clear message for radical Muslims; a confirmation for those who say that the international community, for three and a half years, did nothing to stop the war, the mass killings and the deportations of hundreds of thousands of people because, in reality, it was all a big conspiracy of Christians against Muslims.

This requires an answer:
- the reward of ethnic cleansing argument is an old one. But it ignores that ethnic cleansing happened on all sides. Ethnic cleansing is not only ethnic cleansing when it happens violently. This fact that it happened on all sides makes it practically impossible to turn the clock back and let everyone return. Sooner or later one will have to recognize this as the new reality.
- the ethnic cleansing argument also ignores that already before the war there was a demand by the Serbs (and to a lesser extent the Croats) to have institutionally guaranteed minority rights. Yugoslavia had offered such guarantees. When denied such rights the Serbs started a cruel war to get them the only sure way: a clearly demarcated area where they were the majority. But those rights should not have been contested in the first place.
- the war threat: I think a split of the Federation is inevitable. I find it rather stupid that this opportunistic war alliance now dictates a highly inefficient configuration of Bosnia. For the rest - as Montgomery writes - it is a matter of profound negotiations. Negotiations that should have been held in 1991 or 1992.
- I find the last point the most problematic. When Bosnia secedes from Yugoslavia or Kosovo secedes from Serbia it is considered normal, but when a Christian area wants to secede from a Muslim area it would be considered a big conspiracy of Christians against Muslims. Sounds like nonsense to me.
- Before World War II many countries had territorial claims. It was a heritage of the colonial expansion when there was enough for everyone to grab in Africa and Asia. Countries that missed the colonial tried it closer to home. Germany became obsessed with Lebensraum and contracts for minerals from the Balkans. Italy "needed" South Tirol for defense. Czechoslovakia "needed" (and got) Sudetenland for wealth and defense. Many countries thought that they didn't have enough and made trouble with their neighbors (Yugoslavia suffered from this as Bulgaria, Hungary and Italy were financing terrorism among its Croats and Macedonians). And so on. After World War II it was decided that this was a very bad way to deal with each other. Free trade and open borders were offered as better solution. And now Pećanin tells us that the Muslims somehow "need" the territory of the Serbs and the Croats. Sounds rather strange to me. If he somehow claimed that the Muslims didn't get a fair share of Bosnia it would be worth considering, but this is absurd.
- Would a split-up of Bosnia bring radical Muslims to power as the article claims? I don't think so. There nothing evil in giving everyone his share. And what would converting to radicalism help the Bosniaks?

In fact I believe that it is one of the first things we should do with Bosnia: talking about a split as an acceptable solution for a country that never really existed. Just as Montgomery says, a split would need extensive negotiations and international guarantees. But removing the taboo is an essential need for solving Bosnia's problems. It even increases the likelihood that Bosnia will stay together because negotiations will finally involve give-and-take from both sides instead of one-sided pressure on the Serbs.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Does technology make us narcissists?

Computerworld asks "Does mobile tech breed narcissism?". According to the article technology makes it more and more possible to interact only with the people we like. Think of people talking on their mobile to some friend while ignoring those around them. The article quotes a research according to which yearly tests among fresh students has shown a steady increase in narcissism. It also believes that narcissism is an explanation why the young generation doesn't like Twitter: on Twitter anyone can react to your messages. The young generation prefers Facebook where only the only friends can react - and if someone is not nice enough you can throw him out. As a consequence nearly all reaction on Facebook are - often very - positive.

When reading the article it is good to remember that "increasing narcissism" can also be explained by the rise of individualism. It is caused by smaller families, urbanization, higher education that makes people pay attention to books instead of each other, longer travel times to work, people moving from one place to the other - cutting of their local ties, social security - that makes us less dependent on each other, psychology - that sets individual instead of social happiness central, etc.

Friday, July 17, 2009

On the death of Natalia Estemirova

With Natalia Estemirova yet another Russian human rights fighter in Chechnya has been killed. As usual there is no clue who did it, but human rights activists pointed to the prime minister of Chechnya, Kadyrov:

Lev Ponamaryov, a human rights activist, said the pattern of attacks on critics of Mr Kadyrov appeared to answer questions over who could be to blame.

“When they kill three people in a row in a short space of time who worked on the same subject, then all questions disappear,” he said. “Politkovskaya, Markelov and now Estemirova, they were all investigating abuses by law enforcement and the killings of peaceful citizens in Chechnya – and all these people have been killed . . . It is absolutely clear.

“This is either former or current security services or people connected to Kadyrov’s regime.”

Oleg Orlov, chairman of Memorial, the rights group where Estemirova had worked for a decade documenting abuses by law enforcers in Chechnya, had claimed that Mr Kadyrov, a former rebel turned Kremlin loyalist, was behind the killing.

“I know, I am sure of it, who is guilty for the murder of Natalia. His name is Ramzan Kadyrov,” Mr Orlov said in a statement on the Memorial website. “Ramzan already threatened Natalia, insulted her, considered her a personal enemy.”

I don't expect a speedy departure of mr. Kadyrov. But I think that the last sentence offers a clue how to start: threats and insults should not be tolerated from a politician. Enforcing that would be a big step to normalize Russia and its unruly Chechnya-

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The dirty effects of the white Schengen list

It has always been my position that the EU has played an important role in tearing Yugoslavia apart. And although the EU had its share of active harmful policies (for example the recognition of Croatia and the Bosnia "police reform") most of it was passive. If leaving Yugoslavia could bring you sooner in the EU: who could resist the temptation?

Now it looks like Schengen will have similar unintended harmful effects. People from Serbia will be allowed visa-free travel into the EU from 1 januari 2010 but people from Kosovo with a Serb passport not. But what will that mean for the refugees from Kosovo who live in Serbia? That they can better stay in Serbia? And what for the Serbs in Kosovo: that it is more profitable to take refuge into Serbia?

For Kosovo similar harmful effects apply. One of the reproaches is that Kosovo doesn't control its borders well enough. It sounds like the Kosovo version of the Bosnian police reform. Bosnia itself gets the same treatment: a dispute between the entities about issuing passports is one of the reasons for not allowing on the white Schengen list. In my opinion the EU is behaving in these cases as a manipulative third world dictator. It should allow the ethnic groups in those countries to find solutions for their own problems. The EU should offer a bit of flexibility in solving those problems. Take Bosnia: as long as it provides adequate procedures, what is the problem with two entities proving passports? This is just the EU doing the kind of grandstanding that made the Yugoslav conflicts so difficult to solve.

It is still a proposal and the final approval will only be in november. But I am curious how much the EU will be able to avoid of those pitfalls.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

An US hand in Xinjiang?

According to F. William Engdahl at Global Research the US might have something to do with the Uygur riots in Xinjiang. He points to NED funding of the main Uygur organizations in the US. I find his arguments a bit weak: it concerns 200,000 dollar. But Global Research has a good reputation so it is certainly worth paying attention to.

But what to think of the riots? China traditionally has relied on assimilating its minorities. In places like Urumqi, where the Chinese have the majority that seems to work reasonably well. But in the south-west of Xinjiang where there are few Chinese (and no oil to seduce them to come) that doesn't work. It were people from the south-west who made the riots. But even when assimilation works there is discrimination. All the good jobs go to the Chinese and Chinese employers don't want to do anything with Uygurs who they often see as terrorists. A final factor is the scripture. You have to learn Chinese scripture from your childhood - otherwise you will never really learn it and you very easily forget it characters. This means that the Uygurs are functionally illiterate for Chinese society and are condemned to jobs that require little or no literacy. China has tried to remedy this by introducing a law in 2002 that forces the Uygur to have education in Chinese. Obviously that will generate its own problems - specially for the Uygurs in remote regions who can't pick up some Chinese words on the streets. It doesn't help either that China is nervous about religion.

I would like it if the Chinese gave the Uygurs and Tibetans their freedom. But - given the minerals, oil and national pride involved - am pessimistic about that. Assimilating those people - as China's government wants - will be a hard struggle.
Since 2002 China has introduced that Uygur children will be educated in Chinese. It will help with the language, but on other fronts it may work alienating.

With massive immigration China is trying to make the Uygurs and Tibetans minorities in their own area. It may work for China in the short run. But on the long run it may hurt China just as the fate of the Indians keeps damaging the reputation of the US.

Some newspapers talk about the Xinjiang as if it would endanger the unity of China. I don't believe so. 10 million Uygurs and 5 Million Tibetans are nothing in a country of 1.3 Billion. When China has fallen apart in the past it was always because the central government was weak and provincial rulers made themselves (semi-)independent. Ethnic divisions didn't play a role in that. China does have have different ethnic groups and languages among the Han Chinese and that has occassionally led to war, but those occasions were rare.

Postscript 1: The NY Times has an article about Chinese immigrants in Xinjiang. They live in a kind of army city that has also defense purposes.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Propaganda for beginners

Newsweek has an article about how to sell the Israeli settlements in the Westbank in the US. It quotes from a report written by a polster for the lobby group The Israel Project (TIP). Newsweek also has the full report - titled "The Israel Project's 2009 Global Language Dictionary" - that was leaked to the press.

Among the tips: the traditional arguments don't work; talk instead about ethnic cleansing and compare the settlements with Arab villages in Israel. Everything has been tried out with focus groups.

Netanyahu is already applying the lessons.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

One-and-a-half-party democracies

A year old post on the News from Serbistan blog has a critical approach of Tadic and at one point calls him Serbia's Putin. It made me think that just as in Russia Serbia's opposition has been thoroughly demonized by the Western press:
- Just imagine how horrible it would be if the communists in Russia came back to power! Never mind that communists did come back to power in Poland and they proved quite able administrators who reformed more and ruled better than their liberal collegues.
- Probably even worse - the Radicals winning the Serbian elections! But we will never know how bad it really would have been. Having to rule might just as well had a positive effect on both the party and the electorate.

Both countries have now a situation where it is unimaginable what would happen if the voters got tired of the government and wanted something else. In this respect their democracy is not that different from that of Iran. They may use more refined means to prevent the unthinkable. But what all three have in common is a lack of faith in humanity. In my opinion that faith is the basis of democracy.

But what about the NSDAP, Hitler's party that won the elections and used its position to abolish democracy? I think that this kind of parties are very rare. After World War II you saw communist parties rising to power in Eastern Europe and then abolishing democracy - but this was led and coordinated by Russian troops. We will never know whether the FIS in Algeria would have really been so bad as it was painted in 1991 and it is hard to imagine that it would have been worse than the 160,000 casualties civil war. Turkey's Islamists had been painted in similar terms but since they rule the perception seemed to have changed. When Haider in Austria became in involved in government it caused a big upheaval in Europe. But in hindsight one has to ask what was the problem.

It regularly happens that democratically elected leaders become dictators. But usually they have rather midstream ideas and it is greed and love of power - not some absolutist ideology - that makes them cling to power.

What made Hitler special was that he had his own militias that he used to attack his opponents. I think it is very dangerous when a democracy allows some people to have military power outside state control. Iraq's Al-Sadr is an example. His militia has now been tamed a bit, but if he had gotten enough votes in the elections a few years ago I doubt whether Iraq's democracy would have lasted. With the help of their militias people like Hitler and Al-Sadr already exert power outside the democratic structures. Getting control over the government allows them to combine the two sources of power and take over everything.

I think that as long as we make sure that there are independent centers of power (like the army and the justice system) we shouldn't worry too much about radical parties getting some government power. And to be sure we should focus on building the foundations of a democratic state like an independent judiciary.

This does not mean that I condone extremist policies (of whatever type). But I believe we should fight primarily the policies - not the people. Of course one should avoid having ministers making racist slurs, but often that is possible.

Saturday, July 04, 2009