Friday, March 31, 2006

Not so sure Villepin isn't a populist

In the previous post below, Lorenzo says:

"France has to choose between a stagnant job market with a lot of protection for few people, and a more flexible market with less protection but more opportunities." Since the fist branch of the alternative is evidently not acceptable, we are forced to choose the second one.

This is Villepin's argument which Lorenzo adheres to. I find it a bit rhetorical to not say "populist". It seems that in reality things aren't so simple. First, not every one agrees with high protection = few jobs and no protection (or "lots of flexibility" as they like to put it) = lots of jobs. Also the flexibility has to be right on target and Villepin who never took time to consult with the economical actors is off the mark. Very many employers have already stated that this new contract does nothing for them.

Lorenzo is quite optimistic about Villepin when he says:

"For once, I am with Villepin, the prime minister who wants the statute so badly. In order to do so, his popularity is clearly collapsing. This is in a way a very good sign: Villepin is not a populist. Whether he's right or wrong, this is another issue."

I have some respect for Villepin; he is one of a kind with his romantic vision of politics and himself. However I have to disagree with the idea that he isn't a populist. When he came into power he said he would put the economy right back on its tracks in 100 days. That type of promise reminds me of... Berlusconi. Both these guys are desperate: they have very little time to persuade, Berlusconi because the elections are upon us and Villepin because Sarkozy 's popularity is very very high. In his race against the clock Villepin has to give all he's got. He is very disliked by the members of Parliament of his own party (he cost them their job in 1998 and was never one of them - he was always an advisor of Chirac and stepped in the political light only recently). So he said that he would change every thing in 100 days in an effort to appear even more efficient than Sarkozy. As a result of his precipitation he consulted nobody (not event the minister of labour) and pulled the CPE out of his hat. It didn't work as planned as he and his advisors never saw the student protests coming. Now he's got two possibilities: 1) he abandons the bill, 2) he sticks with it.

If he chooses solution 1) what benefit can he get out of it ? People will say: he was reasonable put he should've been more cautious in the first place and prevent the protests etc. In any case any benefit he gets out of it will never be sufficient to reach Sarkozy's level of popularity.

If he chooses solution 2) and sticks with his plan no matter what, two things can happen. a) The crisis gains in intensity (pretty soon many students will have nothing to lose as they will consider this semester to have been sacrificed...) and leads to a very problematic, probably violent situation, for which he will be held partly responsible. Or scenario b) can take place in which the protests die out during the school break in a little more than a week. The benefit he would get from this would be very important, people will say how courageous he is, how he's not a populist, how only he was able to reform in a country that doesn’t accept change etc. In this case, and in this case only, can he hope to supersede Sarkozy in the opinion poles in view of the next presidential elections.

So you see, if Villepin wants to be the next President of the Republic he is constrained to chose solution 2) and hope for scenario b) to happen.

I don't think it can be disputed that he indeed wants to sit on Chirac's throne. After all, he does think that France is like a pretty young and shy lady that wants to be taken by a flamboyant man such as himself (it isn't the exact citation but it goes something like that). It is no secret really that he doesn’t believe "the dwarf", as he calls Sarkozy, to be great enough for the task, and he'll do anything it takes to get in his way. Even if it means bargaining with his popularity.

Villepin may be right about the french job market..

The French Constitutional Council has found constitutional the statute creating a more flexible job market for young people, called in France CPE (Contrat premier emploi/ contract first job). You can read the decision here, if you read french.

The ball is now in the end of the President of the Republic, who has to sign the statute to make it enforceable. Needless to say, trade unions and a large chunk of the civil society is pleading against the signature.

The argument is the following: to enforce that statute would merely increase the social conflict that has plagued France for the last two months.

For once, I am with Villepin, the prime minister who wants the statute so badly. In order to do so, his popularity is clearly collapsing. This is in a way a very good sign: Villepin is not a populist. Whether he's right or wrong, this is another issue.

I personally believe that the job market is badly in need of a reform. France has to choose between a stagnant job market with a lot of protection for few people, and a more flexible market with less protection but more opportunities.

A sacrifice of some sort is needed, and the choice is not immediately clear. But given the present context of economic crisis, and gap between old and young generations, Villepin's choice is probably the best option.

Having said that, I am skeptical as to whether the statute will yield results quickly enough to make french people change opinion as to the necessity of some needed reforms. But if the reform does not work now, it will have to be much more radical in few years. Look around in Europe: Germany itself, the most powerful engine of European economic integration, is struggling with much needed reforms.

The darker side of this story is that the right wing contestant of Villepin, Mr Sarkozi, may be unduly strenghtened by the little popular initiative of Villepin.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Vladimir Luxuria for President!

Vladimir Luxuria is probably our favourite politician on the italian scene, as Srdjan already pointed out in a previous post .

Luxuria, an italian transexual, is a breath of fresh air in a landscape dominated by two old dynosaurs like Prodi and Berlusconi. Firstly, Luxuria is always sharp and ironic, something that few italian politicians can be proud of. Secondly, Luxuria is a strong response to a conventional morality dominated by the presence of the Vatican. Left and Right wing coalitions are the same on this point: highly deferential to the magisterium of the pope. Luxuria, luckily enough, encapsulates a more varied image of Italy.

The strength of Italian politics, beside all the weaknesses listed in previous posts, lies in its original actors, like Luxuria, who have an immediate media impact and can hopefully redress a highly impoverished moral culture.

Luxuria is the way forward. Berlusconi and Prodi the past.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

The Point of Italian Elections

This post is not about my ideological preferece for the centre-right or the centre left coalition. It is For Love of My Country, to put it in Republican terms.

In the last 10 years, Italy saw relatively stable governments. From 96 to 2001, the centre left governed. From 2001 to 2006, it was the turn of the centre right. Stability, I believe, is an essential precondition of governability. In other words, the country needs continuity in order to shape efficacious policies. These two are different things, but deeply related.

The point of these elections is to make sure that what we gain (stability) is not lost. Italy is in desperate need of being a normal country, with a plain bipolar system {tripolar is also a possibility, although it is obviously less stable).

Prodi and Berlusconi are not the point of these elections. Both represent the past of the country. Both have achieved something and did some less than great things. Berlusconi, on top of that, did quite badly in the last five years, in my opinion. But this is something that each italian can evaluate for himself.

Berlusconi and Prodi stand in the way of a new, reformed, italian politics. They did their fair bit in the past, and both contributed to the relative stability of the country. But now, we have to use stability to move Italy forward.

Unfortunately, these elections saw the electoral law changed. From a rather straightforward majority rule we move back to a proportional system, which is likely to strengthen the role of small parties and undermine stability.

So the point and the future of Italy is a bit of a dilemma. Prodi and Berlusconi represent a stable Italy without much content. 'New forces' represent a new political horizon, but at the same time more instability on the political scene.

I'd like to get rid of Berlusconi and Prodi, but I urge everyone who will come after the present leaders to cherish some of their heritage and to build, together, in a discoursive, but not always confrontational way, a new and better dream for Italy.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Can American Political Discourse Be Elevated?

In an editorial in Sunday’s Washington Post Katrina Vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of the Nation, decried the habit in American political dialogue of equating an opposing person or belief with some monstrous dictator or ideology from recent historical memory. These pejoratives invariably invoke one of the two major discredited ideologies of the 20th century, Communism and fascism. On one level Ms. Vanden Heuvel’s argument is deeply satisfying (if not uncommon). When Hugo Chavez is compared to Adolf Hitler or George Soros to Joseph Goebbels, it is tempting to conclude that American political discourse is unacceptably vicious. What we need, Vanden Heuvel pleads, is to discuss political differences in more sober, accurate terminology. While understandable, her argument is misplaced on two counts. First, extreme language is endemic to American political discourse. Even George Washington, often seen as having been above reproach and immune to the give and take of trench-warfare politics, was vilified in the strongest terms by the end of his Presidency. To urge Americans to discuss political differences in more moderate tones is a bit like urging them to stop viewing themselves and their country in idealistic, city-on-the-hill terms. They always have done and always will do. Second, when public figures invoke such silly, overdrawn historical allusions they often do so intentionally. American public discourse is raucous and filled with participants and observers with short attention spans. Often, the only way to gain the spotlight is to shout louder and more crudely than your neighbor. Hence, nuanced discussion is usually lost in the crowd. It is also beyond the understanding of most Americans, who are not necessarily stupid or ignorant, but have neither the time nor the inclination to absorb complex, detailed discussions. Instead, basic, recognizable terms and ideas - like those from Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, America’s most famous vanquished foes - are used as proxies for more precise analysis. It is tragic that names like Stalin and Hitler lose some of their horror through repeated, inaccurate usage. However, this is an inevitable byproduct of democracy in a country as diverse, populous and populistic as the United States. Public figures would fail to reach a majority of their target audience if they held forth in terms understandable only to elite segments of society. Like fast food and shopping malls, this type of political discourse developed to suit fundamental aspects of American culture. That elites dislike it is understandable. But calling for it to change is a waste of time.

Friday, March 24, 2006

What do the student protests in France mean ?

More than two weeks ago, the Parisian University La Sorbonne was occupied by around 200 students over 24 hours before the police was able to throw them out. The images seen on TV of police forces charging students naturally drew about parallels with the spring of 1968.

The events of that night represented the climax point of a movement which slowly started over a month ago in some French universities (Rennes, Toulouse, Montpellier, Aix-Marseille…) against the Contrat Première Embauche (CPE). This new type of labour contract is a specific implementation of a wider policy of the Government that (crudely stated) aims at deregulating labour law so as to offer more flexibility to the employers and therefore encourage them to create more jobs. As a result of the student movement, Universities are paralysed to different degrees: some are closed for security reasons (the administrators fearing violent encounters betweens the students on strike and the others who wish to attend their classes), others have voluntarily shut their doors when a majority of the employees of the University joined the movement, while most Universities are still open but unable to function properly as students on strike bloc access to some buildings.

Presidents of several Universities asked the Prime Minister Villepin to change his bill and open a wide debate on the subjects of access the job-market and its relationship with higher education. Many employers of large and small companies have criticized Villepin’s reform. Progressively, High school students have joined the movements and the different marches, all over the country, which took place on three different days last week have drawn more and more participants. Next week the inter-professional Unions will join forces with the students. In the meantime the Socialist Party finally, but very cautiously, entered the battle by asking the Constitutional Council to strike down the bill. Opinion polls are showing that evryday a greater number of people want the Government to back down.

But Villepin who values holding a position against all odds, has yet to show signs of a real intension to negotiate on the crucial aspects of his policy. Frequently now the marches lead to scenes of violence with the police forces (most of the images seen on TV last week showed radical groups from the left-wing taking on the police or right-wing radicals – amongst which some football Hooligans).

The events of the past weeks, when put in perspective with Lionel Jospin’s failure to make to the second round of the Presidential election in 2002 (leading to Le Pen’s candidacy), with the rejection of the European Constitution last spring and the urban riots of last fall reveal a now salient point of the current French political scenery. While the majority of the population may still be conservative (in the sense that it votes for the right-wing parties and adheres to their ideas) a very large number of citizens (well over 15 %) who, without being radicals, are partisans of an active welfare State, have no longer any institutional means of representation. Neither labour-unions nor left-wing political parties offer a platform of ideas corresponding to the aspirations of this part of the population. Violence is the result of this. The concrete manifestations differ but the violence is always the same: voting against a Socialist government at the risk of sending a far-right candidate to the second round of the presidential elections; rejecting the Constitution at the risk of compromising a the future and the past of European construction; burning the neighbours’ cars or preventing fellow students to attend their classes.

The failure of the Socialist party to express the will of its natural voters is becoming recurrent in ordinary political life, leaving the responsibility of action to members of the social society. For example it is law professors that contested the bill on the State of Urgency, declared last fall during the riots ; associations, professors, and journalists that initiated the movement against the law relative to the “positive aspects of colonisation”.

It would be a big mistake to think that the events in the Universities concern only the students, that the riots concerned only children from the urban ghettoes (or worst only Muslims), that the rejection of the European Constitution concerned only racist anti-Europeans and members of a spoiled middle-class. The people concerned represent a large and plural part of the population. Many of the people who will no longer rely on the left-wing parties to express their ideals voted for Mitterrand, twice, and then voted for the Maastricht Treaty, the majority of this part of the population is therefore surely not composed of typical radicals. It is the current lack of political offer which makes them so. There is a striking contrast between the apathy of the left-wing political class and the ideological engagement of the population.

The type of ideological awareness of the population displayed in the last few weeks is a source of hope for any democrat. It is a great thing to see young students feeling so concerned ; not only those fighting the reform of labour law but also those in favour of this policy. Debates were organized by students and professors alike (for example the ones that took place in my University) engaging in often constructive dialogue (and unfortunately redundant violence). With its positive and its negative aspects, French Universities have become the most political places in the country, like they once were.

False and Impotent ‘Friends’

Today, seven years ago, the forces of NATO bombed Serbia and Montenegro. The war lasted 78 days. The balance of the war is couple of thousand death and billions of dollars of destroyed property.

Russian federation gave lip service to the defiant attitude of Slobodan Milosevic towards the rest of the international community but never managed (or wanted) to offer his regime full support he wanted. June 1999 show-seizure of the Pristina airport by the Russian troops from Bosnia ended in pitiful retreat and acceptance of the minor role to play in the post-war international governance in Kosovo. Many Serbs who greeted Russian as protectors and saviours had to leave the province because of the impossible security situation in which they were left to live. Once again Russia demonstrated that its actions in the Balkans or, respecting the geopolitical reality go completely along the policy of the US and NATO, or consist in show-actions feeding the dream of cold war grandeur aimed at its own anti-Western public opinion.

Despite occasional protests against the independence of Kosovo (that simply have the effect of feeding irrational expectations of parts of the Serbian public) it now seems clear that Russia will not vote against granting Kosovo some form of independence in the UN Security Council. Due to its lack of substantial power, but even more importantly due to its lack of political influence among the democratic political elites in this part of Europe, Russia is forced to retreat. Economically Russia can play a positive role, however, even this is under a question mark due to its extremely bad ties to the current Serbian political elite. Politically, however, Russia has to realize that, it is no longer the ‘protector’ of the Slavic Orthodox Populations living under the Ottoman Empire (if it ever was), Russia has definitely lost the power and leverage it had in the past. Instead of playing a politically constructive role, it decides to remain present and play the role of a spoiler. After all Russia is still a nuclear power. Recent tacit support to the efforts to create the theory of conspiracy around Milosevic’s death, and a rather distasteful meddling in the internal political affairs of Serbia (Russian army generals parading in uniforms in a foreing country on a unofficial visit, actually during the opposition rally-funeral and the fact of providing a diplomatic vehicle for Milosevic’s son) are an illustrative example of this. Moreover, Milosevic’s family (wife) is hiding from justice in Russia, as well as at least one person indicted in the ICTY, and Russia does nothing to acknowledge this.

The sad truth is that, besides geopolitical impotence, Russia lost all power of cultural expansion. Russia has almost no substantial political influence over the current Serbian democratic elite. More increasingly Russia emerges as a protector of dictatorial and corrupt regimes. It is enough to look at the support given to Lukashenka’s electoral fraud and to Milosevic’s allies in Serbia. A famous Serbian writer and politician, now a Minister of foreign affaris, describes in one of his books the following situation: During the Second World War, in 1942, Serbs fighting against the German and Croatian Nazis in Bosnia eash night burned tires on a large mountainous field. The purpose of this was to signal the Russian Red Army paratroopers where to land. This was done despite the fact that there was no such intention on the part of the Soviets. Blind faith in 'mother Russia'. The sad truth for the Russian foreign policy is that there are less and less Serbs who feel this way, between the two cultures there is an ocean of ignorance. Russia definetely lost an ally while Serbia luckily becomes more mature when foreign policy making is concerned.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Blair's foreign policy speech

Tony Blair has made the first of three speeches defending the UK's foreign policy during his premiership. The full text is available here. It is, in many ways, precisely what we have come to expect from the Prime Minister, particularly when talking about the War in Iraq (or that on Terror), which, naturally enough, are the main focus of the speech. It is an entertaining, and really quite provocative piece: Blair is not mincing any words. However, it is also, for me at least, deeply unsatisfying in the final instance. There is some new stuff here, but mostly it is more of the same: the same reductive dichotomisations that seek to shame us into agreement; the same loosely reasoned anecdotes that look to get us off guard; the same search for a sound-bite that will simplify the issues, and place right firmly on his side, and absolve him from the blame of even those small errors to which he has admitted.

Thus, in noting (correctly) that the Iraq conflict has caused some "political cross dressing", with the traditional battle lines between right and left becoming blurred, he suggests that the real argument in Iraq is between those who think intervention is the way forward, and those who prefer a more comfortable, 'laissez-faire' approach to international relations. In a passage worth quoting, I think, at some length, he argues that only a genuine international community, with a set of shared values, can succeed in promoting a robustly ethical approach

I want to stress why this concept of an international community, based on core, shared values, prepared actively to intervene and resolve problems, is an essential pre-condition of our future prosperity and stability.

It is in confronting global terrorism today that the sharpest debate and disagreement is found. Nowhere is the supposed "folly" of the interventionist case so loudly trumpeted as in this case.

Here, so it is said, as the third anniversary of the Iraq conflict takes place, is the wreckage of such a world view. Under Saddam Iraq was "stable". Now its stability is in the balance. Ergo, it should never have been done.

This is essentially the product of the conventional view of foreign policy since the fall of the Berlin Wall. This view holds that there is no longer a defining issue in foreign policy. Countries should therefore manage their affairs and relationships according to their narrow national interests.

The basic posture represented by this view is: not to provoke, to keep all as settled as it can be and cause no tectonic plates to move. It has its soft face in dealing with issues like global warming or Africa; and reserves its hard face only if directly attacked by another state, which is unlikely.

It is a view which sees the world as not without challenge but basically calm, with a few nasty things lurking in deep waters, which it is best to avoid; but no major currents that inevitably threaten its placid surface. It believes the storms have been largely self-created.

This is the majority view of a large part of western opinion, certainly in Europe. According to this opinion, the policy of America since 9/11 has been a gross overreaction; George Bush is as much if not more of a threat to world peace as Osama bin Laden; and what is happening in Iraq, Afghanistan or anywhere else in the Middle East, is an entirely understandable consequence of US/UK imperialism or worse, of just plain stupidity.

Leave it all alone or at least treat it with sensitivity and it would all resolve itself in time; "it" never quite being defined, but just generally felt as anything that causes disruption.

This world view - which I would characterise as a doctrine of benign inactivity - sits in the commentator's seat, almost as a matter of principle. It has imposed a paradigm on world events that is extraordinary in its attraction and its scope.

I cannot help but wonder how many of those who criticised both the decision to go to war and its subsequent conduct, on both ethical and legal grounds, before, during and after the event, recognise themselves in Blair's summary of their position. All those who opposed the Iraqi invasion are basically the direct progeny of Carl Schmidt and Hans Morgenthau, and the "realist" paradigm of international relations theory. This, it must be said, will come as something of a surprise to many.

The assumptions, reductions and simple untruths in the above passage are manifold. It is not, for example, the dominant opinion that "stability" in Iraq was all that mattered, above any ethical goals. The main point is a more complex one: many agreed that something should be done about Hussein, but felt that action that would lead to the deaths of as many, if not more, Iraqi civilians as he managed during his reign, and that would leave conditions of life worse for those that survived, could not be morally justified. There was also significant concern over the business interests involved in the decision to go to war and the restructuring infrastructure. Blair mentions neither of these. We are either with him, and (nearly) all he has done, or we think that States should pursue their own interests, narrowly defined, only in international affairs.

Nearly all that he has done. He admits to some mistakes. Hardly a dramatic mea culpa, however; each of these admissions is almost immediately undermined by a contextualisation or a counterclaim. So, for example, Blair acknowledges that the charge that "de-Baathification went too quickly and was spread too indiscriminately" is "arguable", although insists upon inserting, "in parenthesis, the real worry, back in 2003 was a humanitarian crisis, which we avoided, and the pressure was all to de-Baathify faster". Then, in altogether more crass fashion, Blair notes, in his examination of the propaganda that fuels that radical Islamic mindset, that "every abuse at Abu Ghraib is exposed in detail; of course it is unacceptable but it is as if the only absence of due process in that part of the world is in prisons run by the Americans". Again, something short of a full recognition of the catalogue of extremely serious errors (not to mention human rights abuses) that he and his ally have presided over.

The last quote is also a recurring theme: how unreasonable is our distrust of the Americans. At these moments more than any other in the speech, Blair seems to abandon, or perhaps lose, reason, preferring instead baffling anecdotes or suspect historical generalisations to get his point across. One example, in terms of the both, is provided by Blair's recounting of a recent visit to Slovakia:

A couple of weeks ago as I was addressing young Slovak students, one got up, denouncing US/UK policy in Iraq, fully bought in to the demonisation of the US, utterly oblivious to the fact that without the US and the liberation of his country, he would have been unable to ask such a question, let alone get an answer to it.

Not only is this very deeply patronising to the young Slovak in question, it is simply a glaring non-sequitor. Even if we were to accept the historical implication that the US was somehow directly responsible for the liberation of Slovakia from Communism - which many historians would, I suspect, find problematic - we are still left wondering what bearing this supposed past heroism has on the rights and wrongs of US/UK policy in Iraq. At points like these, Blair's erudite facade really starts to crack, and he begins to display his own largely unreasoned bias towards Bush's America.

All of this is perhaps simply par for the course. As I mentioned, there are one or two things that are perhaps novel in the speech. One is his willingness to present, in some detail, his own analysis of Islam and the historic conditions that led to its radicalisation (it's own fault, it should be noted; somehow, after a period leading the world in terms of science and ethics, it fell behind after Europe's renaissance, reformation and enlightenment, and became, by the 20th century, insecure and defensive. There then occurred a kind of internal dialectic between political and religious radicalism within Islamic States, in which "the sorry state of Muslim countries" was seen as symptomatic of "the sorry state of Islam", "so that many came to believe that the way of restoring the confidence and stability of Islam was the combination of religious extremism and populist politics. The true enemies became 'the West'". Once again, we seem to have played no significant role in this). Another is his shift in emphasis away from the debate over the legality of the Iraq invasion. He acknowledges it as ongoing, but immediately undermines this by noting that, since May 2003, the Multinational Force has been operating under a UN resolution. The implication here is clearly that the debate is now historical and academic, the action having been legitimated ex post facto. Another interesting passage is his acknowledgement of just how deeply embedded radical Islamic discourse is in many countries around the world.

As is clear from the lengthy passage quoted above, Blair seeks to bring scorn on his critics by reducing their complex and varied positions to a kind of Kissinger-esque realism. This move, however, is not completed until near the end of the speech, even although it is set up at the very beginning. And it is forcefully completed by his choice of soundbite for the piece:

This is not a clash between civilisations. It is a clash about civilisation. It is the age-old battle between progress and reaction, between those who embrace and see opportunity in the modern world and those who reject its existence; between optimism and hope on the one hand; and pessimism and fear on the other.

Blair at this point really lays on heavily the language of values - even, as he, I'm sure, is fully aware, the much-maligned vocabulary of the old colonial adventures (with, of course, a twist on Huntingdon's formula to bring it up to date). However, from what was said at the beginning, it seems clear that not just the Islamic radicals and terrorists, but also many if not most of Blair's critics, fall firmly on the side of the forces of darkness. The world-view of "benign inactivity" is here cast as pessimistic, reactionary, without hope. They too are on the wrong side in Blair's "battle for values and progress", which must be won.

Like I said then, fairly classic Blair. The speech is thoughtful at points, almost always eloquently written and occasionally surprising; however, a little closer analysis removes much if not all of its apparent lustre. The usual reductions, generalisations and half-truths are present, and all are still seeking to serve the same justificatory function. The trouble, in terms of classic Blair, as Polly Toynbee noted in the
Guardian today, is that nobody's buying it any more.

Milosevic’s legacy: the curse of the victim- nation

Much has been written in the last couple of days on the personality and historical role of the ex-Serbian and Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. One is certain that Milosevic was a major, and extremely negative, player in the ex-Yugoslav wars.

Several interesting articles have been written in this regard, most interesting in the Economist and the regional press. These article present the readers with a less superficial view in regard to the political and historical role of Milosevic. Namely, they do much more than to call him ‘The Butcher from the Balkans’, the ‘last’ Serbian dictator (lets hope so that he is the ‘last’, I am generally sceptical and scared of these ‘End of History’ type conclusions).

Milosevic’s funeral is over, and as much as the mobilization of his supporters might have seem important, this event is not likely to have a significant impact on the Serbian politics. More than anything else it served to bring the divisions among the current Serbian political elite out on the open and to expose the nature of the Serbian government and politics in general to the International audience.

Certainly, offering inadequate medical treatment to Milosevic will certainly not help increase the legitimacy of International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. ICTY was already extremely unpopular among the Serbian population and the parts of the political elite, and just when it seemed that the Serbian government will continue the positive trend of collaboration with this tribunal started in 2004 and finally conclude on the case of the indicted General of the Army of the Republic of Srpska Ratko Mladic it now seems that there will be more complications on this field.

What was Slobodan Milosevic’s role in the years that followed the break-up of the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia?

The Economist justifiably asks, “Given that he was such a dark, malign personality, why did so many people, in Serbia and further afield, tolerate him for so many years?” The Economist answers that Milosevic had many ‘supporters’ apart from the Serbs, for one the late Croatian President Franjo Tudjman and the Kosovar Albanian political leadership.

Concerning the Croatian President the Economist argues, “once they had stopped fighting one another (and reinforcing each other’s nationalist fury), the Serb and Croat leaders colluded to carve up Bosnia.”

As far as the Kosovar Albanian political leadership the Economist argues, “…some Kosovar leaders openly said they preferred to have Mr Milosevic in Belgrade rather than any other softer Serb politician: the tyrant’s ugliness lent weight to their cause. Indeed, the Kosovars could have voted him out by ending, just for a day, their boycott of Serb politics, but they left him be.”

The article also blames the International Community for strategically using Milosevic as a ‘problem solver’ in the region. The article does well to state that not only that policy of using dictators (Sadam Hussein and Milosevic) in such a way, is morally wrong but has serious strategic deficiencies in the long run, “In a diabolical world, you may have to sup with devils some of the time. But don’t sit too long at the table, or offer too many tasty dishes – especially if you expect to fight them one day.”

There were indeed so many missed opportunities to help bring down his regime by the International Community: large anti-regime demonstrations in Belgrade 9th March 1991 (tanks and blood on the streets of Belgrade), 1996-1997, more than hundred days long opposition and students demonstrations against Milosevic’s electoral fraud, how many avoidable wars; how many missed opportunities?

Furthermore, in the Economist, 18th March 2006 obituary, the conclusion perfectly describes the nature and the driving force behind Milosevic’s politics, “His true objective, to remain in power, was achieved to the expense of his enemies and of those he said he championed. Every war he fought left the Serbs worse off – impoverished, shorn of territory, excluded from international society and smouldering among rekindled enmities. Yugoslavia had no right to expect a Nelson Mandela in 1989. But all it needed was a leader with decent instincts and abilities. Instead it got a monster.”

William Montgomery, Ex-US ambassador to Zagreb and Belgrade, a man with great experience and knowledge in the region, in an article he wrote for the Serbian daily ‘Danas’ (18-19 March 2006) puts it in a more poetic way, “What Yugoslavia desperately needed at the end of 1980s and beginning of 1990s was a moderate leader, greater than life, like Mikhail Gorbachev or Nelson Mandela. In their countries there was also a potential for widespread violence in the time of transition and instability…The biggest damage Milosevic inflicted to the Serbian people is that he used their legitimate interests and fears for his own political benefit…” Another Serbian political analyst, in the daily ‘Politika’ advances an interesting argument, “Milosevic did something new for the Serbian national memory: he made us used to defeats. To perpetual defeats, that he always, and very convincingly, elaborated through victorious rhetoric.”

Serbs had the theoretical right to ask for territorial autonomy in Croatia and Bosnia. The memory of second world war genocide was still very much alive to assure peacefull life in the centralized Croatian state. A moderate politician in Serbia could use the situation to his favour. Serbs in Bosnia and Croatia could embark on a political alley of peaceful resistance and even if the nationalistic Croatian President Franjo Tudjman reacted in a violent manner, it was likely that the international community would react to stop the violence. The outcome would have been that the Croatian government would have to reckon with the fact that there is a significant number of Serbs living in Croatia and that they want territorial autonomy of some sort and the Constitutional recognition of the minoriy status.

Instead what Milosevic did was he facilitated conflict. One can justifiably argue that without Tudjman and to an extent Izetbegovic in Bosnia, Milosevic would not ‘exist’. However, one could also claim that, without Milosevic, or a leader of a similar psychological stature, there would have been no wars.

Possibly Milosevic did a something to help the maturity of the Serbian people. For the first time in their modern history, Serbs can hardly convince themselves (although many still try hard), that they are the victims (although irresponsible conduct of the bureaucratic machinery of the ICTY helps this victimization). If not completely, then at least one can argue that Serbs are one the way towards political maturity of the nation where victimization increasingly losses the propensity of playing the role of an efficient political mobilizator. The only positive outcome of Milosevic’s rule is that the Serbs are on the way out from the greatest curse of all times, the aura of a victim nation. Nations have to learn that there are no victim-nations but just individual victims or a collection of individual victims. The painful historical experience such as the Holocaust, the Croatian genocide against the Serbs, Jews and Roma during the Second World War, the Serbian Srebrenica massacre, if not managed carefully by the political elites of a country, will certainly facilitate that the victim-nation commits crimes in the future.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Post-Iraq American Foreign Policy

The Bush administration has embarked on yet another public relations campaign to bolster public support for its Iraq policy. This is not surprising in light of a recent Washington Post poll which shows that two-thirds of Americans believe that the administration has no coherent strategy for successfully ending its presence in Iraq. Administration officials continue to present their Iraq policy in sober, optimistic terms. They dismiss the widely-held view that Iraq is in the midst of a low-grade civil war. Vice-President Dick Cheney said yesterday of insurgents in Iraq, "What we've seen is a serious effort by them to foment civil war, but I don't think they've been successful." The inaccuracy of this position is obvious to all but the most partisan of Bush supporters. However, it is difficult to see how the administration could present things otherwise. After all, public opinion ratings rarely surge after admissions of incompetence. Also, the President’s place in history will depend largely upon the fate of American involvement there. Yet vital questions arise in the wake of this continued, almost surreal insistence that things are much better than they seem. For, though the Bushies are stubborn in their refusal to face (or at least publicly acknowledge) the fact that Iraq will likely go down as a substantial foreign policy blunder, eventually the Republican Party will distance itself from this policy. In fact, with mid-term elections approaching in the autumn, many Congressional Republicans have begun to do just this. It is still unclear, however, what direction Republican foreign policy goals will take. Has neo-conservatism, the intellectual wellspring of the American invasion, been permanently discredited? Will American voters draw back from the Jacksonian, assertive nationalism that Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld espouse? One recent opinion poll indicates that Americans are more inclined to a less active foreign policy at any time since the end of the Vietnam War. Is this a temporary trend or something more permanent? What will come of Democratic foreign policy? By adopting Wilsonian language (after the fact) of spreading freedom to justify the invasion of Iraq, the President has stolen a traditional foreign policy theme from his Democratic counterparts. They have yet to articulate a coherent, post-September 11 foreign policy. Finally, what direction will America’s Middle East policy take? Oil, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Iran, to name just a few issues, will ensure that the Middle East remains a central concern for American policy makers. Failure to ensure a stable Iraq will have important repercussions for all of these issues. Yet no one has begun to even speculate as to what American foreign policy will take if Iraq does, in fact, descend into full-scale civil war. It is far too soon to offer answers to these questions, and Iraq may, against the odds, emerge as a stable state. However, this looks unlikely, and America needs to begin to plan for a substantially destabilized Middle East. The sooner that the Democratic and Republican Parties comprehend this the sooner they can begin to plan for what will likely be America’s next great foreign policy challenge.

The Human Rights Council

A post from a guest blogger: Georg Sommeregger. The author is currently working as Human rights advisor at the Austrian permant mission to the United Nations in Geneva. All opinions expressed are of the author in his private capacity only"

"Pax vobis,

This is a short message to draw your attention to an exciting development in the international human rights field currently on-going at United Nations level in New York and Geneva.

Last Wednesday, March 15, 11am New Yorker and 17pm Geneva time, the General Assembly of the United Nations voted and adopted by 170 votes in favour and four against Resolution A/60/L.48 establishing the Human Rights Council. This new body was created in order to replace the 60 year old Commission on Human Rights, which had been under heavy criticism in the last years.

This vote, immediately qualified as historic, was the culminating point of a months-long series of negotiations for the establishment of this new organ. Negotiations were tough and until the last day it looked as if the United States would stick to their negative evaluation of the draft resolution proposed on 23 Feb by General Assembly President Eliasson (Sweden). The EU had struggled but managed to find a common, positive position on the draft. Because of the US opposition, personified by US Ambassador to the UN, M. Bolton, it was not sure whether President Eliasson would proceed to a vote on the resolution at all. So the last three weeks were intense diplomatic efforts to make the US shift position. In the end, United States still voted no, but declared their readiness to cooperate and participate in the workings of the new Council. As A. Clapham framed it in a first reaction, this can be seen as a "soft no" (in contrast e.g. to the US position on the International Criminal Court).

The proceedings in New York, from December through to March, had of course an impact on the preparations and actual form of the planned 62nd session of the Commission on Human Rights (CHR), scheduled to start in Geneva on March 13, for six weeks. It was common opinion that the creation of the Human Rights Council (HRC) would take away the reason for having a substantial six-weeks long CHR, and only make a procedural session necessary, in which most importantly transfer of mandate would be taken care of. (There is different opinions on that, to this later). This seems to be the state we are at now.

Last Monday, the CHR opened with its shortest convention in history: after a three minutes statement by Chair Rodríguez Cuadros (Perou), the Armenian ambassador introduced rule 48 of the rules of procedures suspending the session for one week. This modus operandi had been agreed on in the days before (Cuba needed to be lengthily convinced that it does not introduce any other procedural step in opposition to that), and after 7 minutes the session was over.

Today, Monday 20, the session will resume.

As to the new HRC: negotiations as to who will be the new members, and how the rules of procedures are going to be, are starting as of now, the first session of the Council to be foreseen for June of this year already. Election of members is scheduled for May.

Here are some links which can fuel other debate - I hope we will have one!

Presse on the vote of March 15.

Info on the human rights council.

Current Commission on Human Rights.


Sunday, March 19, 2006

Of Dying Animals

The Dying Animal, this is the only appropriate name for the italian prime minister, is very close to his own death.

In dire crisis, he now thinks that raising his voice will convince italians of the truths of which he is a prophet: Italy is doing very well economically and politically, those who say the contrary are liars and very dangerous for the democracy!

I am afraid, everyone sees that Italy is itself in a dire crisis. I do not think that this is a surprising statement. I think that this is a mere realistic interpretation of where we stand and where we do not want to be.

The Dying Animal is close to extinction. Whether he dies now or later on, however, does not make much difference. Italy has to move beyond confrontational, personalised, politics. The Dying Animal has highjacked the debate once more. Last time, this strategy allowed him to win. This time round, he is losing the support of the majority of the country.

The vatican, Confindustria (The organisation of italian buisiness men), Moderate Newspapers, and many other influential lobbies, have made it clear that they do not want the Dying Animal anymore (they supported him in the last election).

What is left? I hope that Italy will wake up from the Dying Animal Nightmare. At this point in time, it does not matter who rules, provided that it is not the Dying Animal.

Friday, March 17, 2006

“Farewell to the Hague fellow-fighter”

Many detainees of the ICTY signed, this time, a true obituary, to Slobodan Milosevic, the people who signed it belong to different warring factions in the Balkan conflict. One of them is the recently arrested Croatian general Ante Gotovina (He dennies having signed it arguing that he only expressed his condoleances to Milosevic's family "as a good Catholic". The obituary says, “Farewell to the Hague fellow-fighter Slobodan Milosevic”.

How is one to interpret this expression of solidarity, as a grotesque absurdity or a curiosity that could be of interests to students of prisoner psychology?

Gotov je! He’s cooked!

This was the OTPOR (RESISTANCE-Serbian resistance movement against Milosevic) Slogan to mark the end of Milosevic's bloody rule.

Today, an anonymous source has send an SMS all over Serbia and Belgrade, the SMS has the following content:

"Saturday 18.3.2006 15:00 Square of the Republic Spring three days earlier. Come that we all wish together that Milosevic never happens to us again. Sign of recognition, a balloon. Forward this SMS."

[This square is in Belgrade-this is also the date of Milosevic’s funeral in his home town of Pozarevac, his coffin will also be exposed in Belgrade in front of the Federal Parliament on Saturday morning]

The spirit of OTPOR lives on even though the organization no longer exists.

Farewell to the Bloody Dictator 2

Another one in the Serbian Daily Politika,

"Thank you for all the deception and fraud, for every drop of blood that thousands spilled for you, for fear and uncertainty, for failed lives and lost generations, for dreams that never came true, for horrendous wars that you lead in our name without bothering to ask if we agreed, for all the weight that you placed on our backs. We remember the tanks on the streets of Belgrade and blood on its pavements. We remember Vukovar. We remember Dubrovnik. We remember Sarajevo. We remember the bombings. We remember Kosovo and the memories and bad dreams will only intensify. We remember all the lives that you have destroyed. We remember the death, wounded, refugees. We remember our lives that you have destroyed. Citizens of Serbia will remember: Nada, Srecko, Zivko, Sloboda, Vesela and Mile Curcic."

Farewell to the Bloody Dictator

Most of Serbia does not really care about Milosevic's death, in their eyes he is long time gone. It is for this reason that Milosevic's supporters come to the forefront these days. Many Milosevic's supporters publish obituaries to honour the death of their beloved leader. Some Serbs, however, decided to express their opinion in this issue. This obituary was published by a group of famous artists, poets from Novi Sad (in the North of Serbia). The obituary says,

"All those that suffered because of the politics led in Serbia from 1987-2000, rest in peace"

Thursday, March 16, 2006

More on the future of Italy

A reader commented as follows to my previous post :

"70% of italians want Berlusconi to go home"

I wonder how did you calculate this percentage. According to the last suervey published in "la Repubblica" the center-right coalition is @ 47% and Berlusconi's party is @ 22% (the first party in Italy). Do you mean that among this 47% there's a 17% who "wants Berlusconi's home"? If they want this result and they vote for the center right colaition, whose leader IS Berlusconi, I agree your concerning about the future of a country which has a 20% of schizophrenic electors

Taking his data as a starting point, I am going to reiterate my point.
22% of the italians vote for Berlusconi's party. This means that they are clearly behind Berlusconi, and that's fair enough.

The question now is to know wheteher those italians that vote for the centre-right coalition but not for Forza Italia (Berlusconi's party), are still happy with Berlusconi as a Prime Minister.

My interpretation is that both Casini (head of the Christian Democrats) and Fini (head of Alleanza Nazionale) would prefer a different centre right coalition, without Berlusconi as a prime minister. Have a look at the most recent interview given by Fini, just after the Prodi-Berlusconi clash. In this interview Fini says that he hopes to be prime minister

This means that, at least covertly, the best option for part of the centre-right is to replace Berlusconi. Of course, the second best is to win the elections with Berlusconi. But this is a separate issue.

If you therefore add the centre-left voters to the non-forza italia centre right, at least those who understand Fini and Casini's message, you come up with a figure which is roughly around 70%! In other words, 30% of the italians still want Berlusconi as a prime minister, but the rest does not want this, at least under ideal conditions.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Italy Tomorrow

The prime minister is preparing his luggage!
Following the televised debate between Prodi and Berlusconi, the only meaningful information that we can draw is that Berlusconi is struggling like a dying animal in order to keep himself in power.

On top of this, we have to stress the fact that more than 70 % of italians want Berlusconi to go home. The figure is not exaggerated. Bear in mind that the electors of the centre right coalition that support other parties than Berlusconi's would be very happy to see him lose against their favourite, Fini or Casini.

At this moment of time, the main thing I wish for Italy is to go on with his shabby politicians ranging from left to right, bar Berlusconi. I am not one of those who believe that Berlusconi is evil. Berlusconi is simply the best product of a corrupt system that we want to leave behind. Once and for all.

Let him go, poor old chap. He will be 70 in september, and he deserves a retirement. Maybe in one of his off-shore paradises where his money are sleeping comfortably.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Past Posts for the Future Elections

Since the beginning of this blog, we commented some events related to Italy.
To prepare our reader to the forthcoming elections, I will direct you to some of our past posts in the days to come.

Today, have a look at the magisterial failure of the italian nominee to the European Commission, Rocco Buttiglione. Nobody had failed in the past, so this was a pure moment of the commedia all'italiana! Rocco, the Pope-Boy, confesses that he is homofobic in front of the interviewing panel of the European Parliament... the rest is known. Berlusconi's famous diplomatic touch, was slightly dismissed in that occasion.

Buttiglione in Europe: the failure of Christian values, please read here and here

Friday, March 10, 2006

What is an anti-Semitic murder?

A few weeks ago a young man was kidnapped near Paris and retained hostage over 10 days while his family was asked to pay a large amount of money. One morning he was found agonizing, unable to speak and he died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. He had suffered knife wounds to the neck and 80 % of his body was severely burnt. A few days later the police was able to identify and arrest most of his kidnappers. It appears that the kidnappers formed an amateur group of which the leaders had tried over the last few years to ransom several individuals identified by them as being “rich”. It is believed that a mix of amateurism, stupidity, cruelty and fear on the part of the group’s members brought about the death of their victim. However, the initial intention seems to have been financial.

The victim was Jewish. While the group was still being dismantled a large part of the French Jewish community manifested its pain through spokesmen of important associations and organized a march in Paris. Some of the previous victims of the criminal group were Jewish as well and a part of the Jewish community now believes that the death of the last victim was the result of anti-Semitism. The judges that are instructing the case have so far adopted that point of view as well.

This has raised a debate about what anti-Semitism is. In this affair, the criminals have explained that they chose their victim because he was Jewish, believing that a Jew would probably be rich and that even if he wasn’t, coming from a united religious community, his family would be able to collect the money. It is very clear that they acted on the belief that Jews are rich. However it hasn’t been shown that their cruel behaviour had anything with him being Jewish. In other words, according to them at least, they would have behaved the same with any man believed to be rich. Of course it should not be ruled out that for instance they didn’t feel bad being cruel because he was a Jew; it would not be surprising. But it can’t be assumed either.

The reaction of a part of the Jewish community is in my opinion easily explained by the anti-Semitic climate we have in France. I don’t want to discuss the reaction which is probably the result of the feeling that racism against the Jews, amongst others, is surely growing.

What I find troubling is the idea, dominating in the media, that the sole fact that the victim was chosen on account of his Jewish identity is in itself anti-Semitism. It is surely stupid to think that Jews are rich and I’m well aware that this idea traditionally played an important role in anti-Semitism. It is also still a broadly shared idea in French society as a whole, one that people assert all the time without thinking about it. In my mind it fits in the same category as saying that black people have rhythm in their blood, that somehow it is easier for them to dance. It’s the same as believing that southerners are rednecks, or (a common one in France) that Americans are hillbillies, or (a common on in the US) that French people are pretentious. Stereotypes are one of the bases of racism and they can hurt in themselves as people act on them every day, saying things, interpreting behaviours etc. But it is a different thing however to deliberately try to hurt someone for the sole reason that the individual belongs to a given group: refusing to rent an apartment to an individual because he is Muslim, refusing to shop in a store because its owned by an homosexual, insulting someone because he is a Jew, putingdown a person because she is a woman or even fighting a hostile takeover because it will benefit a foreign company.

I think that every one understands the difference between thinking with stereotypes and hating individuals that are seen through those stereotypes. It can be said that stereotypes are racist in themselves, but then we must make a distinction inside racism between the one that is stupid and the one that is stupid and hateful.

However broadly accepted this distinction seems to be forgotten in the context of the tragic death I began with. In the media the stereotype used by the criminals is associated with the worst type of racism when it may well belong to the plainly stupid one. In my mind we shouldn’t be more severe with people who say that Jews are rich than with people who say that blackmen have larger sexes. In this case what needs to be punished are the crimes not the stereotypes, the criminals should pay because they killed a man not because, just as a large part of the French population, they believe Jews to be rich. What should be punished is cruelty not stupidity.

France: A Crisis Area?

The International Crisis Group, a worldwide think tank specializing in the area of conflict prevention, wrote a report on France and 2005 suburb riots. It is rather peculiar, but far from inappropriate, that this well-known organization concentrates on France since one of its principal goals is to concentrate on the areas of crisis in the World (most of its report is devoted to the Balkans, Caucasus, Great Lakes District in Africa etc).

In its report on France ICG argues, “France faces a problem with its Muslim population, but it is not the problem it generally assumes.” Explaining the root of the problem in France, the ICG report, repeats the established opinion that the French integration model is increasingly unable to face with the heterogeneity of the French society, however, there is more to it in this report.

Differently than many other analytical pieces that claimed that the French riots simply follow the world trend where the Muslim population is organizing in Islamic political parties and groups and that the problem lies in such political organization, ICG report argues that the problem is not in “the threat of a Muslim world mobilised by political Islamism” but in the lack of political mobilisation and activism of the French youth from the suburbs. ICG report states, “Yet the opposite is true: paradoxically, it is the exhaustion of political Islamism, not its radicalisation, that explains much of the violence, and it is the depoliticisation of young Muslims, rather than their alleged reversion to a radical kind of communalism, that ought to be cause for worry. “

The Union of Islamic Organisations of France (UOIF) gradually abandoned its strategy of political opposition and was slowly involved into the mainstream, this meant increased clientelism and decreased legitimation among the Muslim population, argues the ICG report. The political vacuum was filled by the Salafist movement that called for concentration on religion and so to speak abandonment of politics. French Muslims were left, says the ICG report, with Salafist Jihadism and uncoordinated riots.

In order to overcome this situation ICG came out with several recommendations:

The French government should, “Reduce the state’s coercive presence in underprivileged neighbourhoods” and “reduce social discrimination” as well as Reform the modes of political representation of the Muslim population, and in particular, abandon the idea that institutionalising Islam as a religion will thwart the jihadist temptation etc. The French government should do its best to “Revitalise the associational movement”. As far as other actors are concerned, ICG thinks that National Political Forces must strengthen their presence in underprivileged suburban neighbourhoods, Activists of the Immigrant Communities and of Underprivileged Neighbourhoods should increase opportunities for young Muslims to be active and mobilised through political parties and local associations, as a means of competing with the salafi and jihadi trends.

The 'French report' makes one think that it would be more than welcome if ICG concentrated on other parts of the liberal democratic world which are themselves not immune to crisis and that have the potentiality, if not monitored, to decrease the level of political stability of the Democratic World and, as a consequence, lead to a period of global turmoil. Many of the liberal democratic countries demonstrate a worrying inability of the state to control and countenance social and natural processes and the involvement of international think thanks such as ICG might help improve the situation and appropriately focalize the state's response to crisis. The world in which we live is still relatively speaking 'safe', which does not mean that it is to remain such in the years to come. In order to control the negative political processes within nation states involvement of international non-governmental and non-profit organizations such as ICG can help. It would be interesting to see the reaction of the French government to this report.

The Vatican and Muslim religious education

The Vatican 'graciously' granted the right to be imparted one hour muslim religious education to muslim children in italian school; see a report here

The problem, however, is different. It is not about accepting that muslim people be exposed to the teachings of their religion. Rather, the whole point is to be able to distinguish between different types of islamic religion, and select accordingly the teachers, and the scope of the teaching.

Thanks again to the Vatican for its pluralism and tolerance...

Better Fascist Than Gay...

...this is what Alessandra Mussolini, Benito Mussolini's grand daughter,
recently said on italian television during the sadly hilarious political campaign
leading to the April 9 elections.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Bush's Commendable Agreement with India

In an editorial yesterday the New York Times criticized President Bush’s recent agreement to supply India with nuclear technology in return for opening most Indian reactors to international inspection. Much as I hate to defend the President’s foreign policy, the Times editorial is wrong and Bush showed political courage in signing this agreement. True, the administration’s anti-proliferation policy is a joke. They scold other countries for seeking to develop nuclear capabilities while simultaneously seeking to upgrade and maintain American nuclear capability. This not only violates the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, it renders efforts to encourage regional powers like Iran and North Korea to forgo nuclear capability hypocritical and futile. However, Bush’s agreement with India is commendable on two counts: it acknowledges reality and it is in the American national interest. First, in opening India’s reactors to some inspection, he recognizes that Indian nuclear power is a fact and ushers them, at least partly, into the legitimate nuclear club. Also, unlike their neighbor Pakistan, the Indians have been a responsible nuclear power and deserve to be treated as such. By offering American technology, it offers an incentive to continue this responsible behavior. Second, judging from Prime Minister Singh’s excitement, this is an important step for the Indians. Anything the U.S. can do to improve its sometimes uneasy relations with Asia’s largest democracy and a vital emerging market is a good thing. Of course, the U.S. needs to develop a new, coherent policy on anti-proliferation. Until that comes, however, this is a sensible bilateral agreement.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

On populism

This blog entry presents a reflection on an interesting discussion on Populism I had with our guest blogger Zoran Oklopcic (see his article on the concept of a nation). The discussion concentrated on Ernesto Laclau’s “On Populist Reason” and on the positions considering populism as being an essential component of politics.

When we talk about populism which is evidently strongly present in the political systems of contemporary liberal democracies we ask ourselves is it actually a sign of decline of politics, or as Laclau likes to think of it, “the arrival at a fully political era” (On Populist Reason, p. 222). For Laclau populism is “the very essence of the political”. Populism, according to many, represents the only way, to challenge the hegemonic system of the globalized market and the national political elites that essentially support it and play by the rules of this system. According to such views there seems to be indeed such a think as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ populism. Arguably, ‘good’ populism being the later and ‘bad’ populism being the populist rhetoric espoused by the rulling actors in the hegemonic order aimed at strengthening their policies, take for example the rhetoric of Bush's “war on terrorism” and so on. There is of course a neutral understanding of populism, that understands populism as the “critical fulcrum upon which our understanding of contemporary politics is based” rather than an aberration or a “demagogical monstrosity”. Some think that, “the ontological structure of populism sketched by Laclau doesn’t carry with it any necessary political direction” and that it can capture both “progressive or socialist movement” as well as “an incipient fascist state”(see).

The problem is how to draw a line (if one thinks this should be done) between legitimate and illegitimate populism, and what is to represent this overarching legitimacy if indeed something should do it? Is Nader’s populism justifiable and Bush’s not? Is the populism of some radical French left wingers more justifiable than Le Pen’s? Is one to look at the result to find the answer about the legitimacy of political action and if this is so, are we saying that “the end justifies the means”…but what is the end…Communists had their own…today’s political actors have their own…are they all legitimate despite the fact that they make the voters decide on the basis of “empty political signifiers”…are we simply to accept populism as a manifestation of the deficiencies of our political system (democracy) without trying to reach an arguably impossible goal of deciding on its legitimacy? Do we indeed have an alternative? Can we improve our democracies as to render them more resistant to populist kidnapping, if this is kidnapping after all? Read Laclau.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Ireland and Unionism

The weekend before last, the first Unionist Orange Order march in the republic of Ireland, since the foundation of Ireland as an independent state, was due to take place on O' Connell Street in Dublin. O' Connell Street is home to the GPO (the General Post Office). It is famous for being at the epicentre of the 'Easter Rising', an event that proved the main catalyst behind Irish independence. A Unionist march taking place on this thoroughfare would therefore be of no little symbolic import. The march has given rise to a substantial amount of controversy in the Irish media. Though the march was given the go ahead, it was eventually frustrated by fairly large scale rioting and civil disturbance. These events, coming after the cartoons controversy, have prompted commentators in Ireland to reflect on the failure to guarantee the civil liberties of the Orange marches to parade in the centre of Dublin (the stated object of the parade was to highlight the plight of the Unionist victims of the conflict in Northern Ireland). Relatedly, it has also promted questions about whether the events have tarnished or will have perceived to have tarnished, Ireland's modern image as a secular, tolerant and multicultural society that has 'moved on' from its troubled past. Other commentators have highlighted the possibility that the rioting was more the expression of social alienation of certain sectors of Irish society (and also it seems economic migrants) who have not benefited from the affluence generated by the 'Celtic tiger'. What this complex set of events arguably shows is that abstract rights like 'freedom of speech' and 'assembly' are problematic entities to defend and advocate outside of the specific contexts in which they are employed. The events in Ireland bring home these complexities for those of us aware of more of the relevant contextual factors in a way that perhaps cannot necessarily be the case in so far as the parallel 'cartoons' controversy is concerned.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Montenegro Referendum 21st May 2006

The Independence referendum in Montenegro will be held 21st May 2006. The citizens of Montenegro will vote on the following question, “Do you agree that Republic of Montenegro becomes an independent state with a full international legal subjectivity”?

For the outcome of the referendum to have legal validity more than 50% of the voters need to vote at the referendum. Moreover, the EU imposed the following condition on the Montenegrin political elite, only if more than 55% of those who voted vote YES in the referendum will Montenegro have the right to exercise its right to self-determination. It remains ambiguous as to whether there is a requirement that the Montenegrin Parliament needs to confirm the referendum outcome by a 2/3 majority vote?

Pro-independence parties were not happy by the EU imposed condition of 55%, still they accepted to play by these rules. They are pointing out that it is not acceptable that 54.9% majority is denied the right to acquire independence. This, however, seems somewhat of a demagogical argument. Montenegrin society is split on this issue and it would not be prudent to proceed with independence with a simple majority only, as a politicians from the region voted, “we are not voting here to change municipal boundaries in somewhere in Montenegro we are voting on the very future of the state and it is for this reason that we need a clear majority”. Arguing that 55% requirement does not correspond to the best practices in the democratic world is also weak because this condition is comparable to other countries in Europe. Furthermore, Serbia and Montenegro is among the very few countries in the world (Austria) that allows secession so it is logical that the condition is harsher than in other places where this eventuality is not formally proscribed. The proof that this decision of the EU was good is the fact that the opposition is also included in the referendum process and it is not calling for boycott as originally planned.

How will the Montenegrins vote? It is very difficult to predict. At this point it seems most likely (if something revolutionary does not occur) that the overall majority for independence will fall short of 55% majority. In this case we are likely to face a political stalemate in this country, one that would lead towards parliamentary elections due to be held in autumn. Pro-Independence Montenegrin parties are already announcing that they will cause political crisis that would lead to the fall of the Federal government if they lose at the referendum. It is also very likely that Djukanovic will suffer the first electoral defeat in autumn, one that would force him to leave power for the first time, since 1980s. In such a situation both sides are going to be forced to renegotiate the currently dysfunctional Union agreement, independence will most probably not be completely off the political agenda but it is likely that it will, for the first time in a decade, leave space for other, arguably more important, political, social and economic issues.

Pinocchio Berlusconi Goes to America

In a previous post, I tried to guess what Berlusconi would say before the Congress. I thought that he would declare his love to the US, but I also thought that he would voice some doubt/problem/proccupation concerning the war in Iraq.

I don't think I could be more wrong than that! My mistake was to credit Berlusconi of the ability to make a political discourse (I know I am too naif). Berlusconi instead played his ultra demagogic role and possily went beyond that. (read a report here)

He is a puppet. He is an overoptimistic puppet with fake hair, fake tan, fake smile. Pinocchio, a compatriot, would be frightened by the ability to make it all up demonstrated by the italian prime minister.

Well done, Silvio, you are a freedom fighter!

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

"Berlus-cronyism" - It's contagious, it seems...

It may be interesting to bring to the attention of those who absolutely don't follow the UK press that a certain disease, once thought endemic to Italy, in fact appears to be more contagious than at first thought. The pathology of the disease is often bafflingly complex; however, in layman's terms, it seems to infect the body politic, turning it rotten from the inside out. We might call it Berluscronyism, and we have just had the first reported case from the United Kingdom.

That it has been reported, but not confirmed, for some days now should not surprise anyone: it is a disease that functions by covering its own tracks, veiling its own progress behind an often bewildering array of complicated financial transactions, profoundly unlikely-sounding excuses and shrill accustations of shabby leftist conspiracies. The British strain, if it is to be proved so, has, as yet, only exhibited the first two of these techniques.

So it is that the husband of the UK Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell - the lady in charge of bringing London the olympics and charged with making it an success - stands accused of accepting a bribe from Berlusconi in exchange for giving false or misleading evidence on his behalf during an Italian investigation into alleged corruption charges. The sum involved is not negligible - in the region of at least 350,000 Sterling - and Mr. Mills (Jowell's husband), who is often characterised in the press as an "international lawyer", although I confess to not knowing exactly what that means in this context, seems to have brought these problems on himself by an act of astonishing indiscretion.

He apparently gave his accountant a letter, which mentioned a sum paid to him by the "B"(Berlusconi) people, who told him he could treat it as either a loan or a gift. The letter underlined that the transaction had had to be carried out "discretely", noting that Mills had

Kept in close touch with the "B" people... they also knew quite how much about the way in which I had been able to give my evidence (I told no lies, but turned some very tricky corners, to put it mildy) had kept Mr B out of a great deal of trouble I would have landed him in if I had said all I knew.

Mills at first told Italian investigators that the letter was "a debt of gratitude" being repaid by Berlusconi. He has, however, since retracted that statement, claiming instead that the money was paid by another client entirely, with no links whatsoever to the Italian Prime Minister, and that he had invented the Berlusconi scenario in the letter to the accountant in order to get some tax advice without having to explain the truth of where the cash had come from. A profoundly unlikely-sounding excuse...

Stories have also since emerged about the first symptom of Berluscronyism, and these have caught up Jowell herself in the scandal. A series of financial transactions, including mortgages on properties which involved the UK Culture Secretary, have been linked to the "processing" of alleged bribe, raising questions of, if not her criminal complicity, then at least of her having contravened the ministerial code of conduct. These transactions have been described by one investigator as "the craziest, most complex network I have ever seen". We are currently waiting for the outcome of an inquiry by the Cabinet Secretary into Jowell's role in this.

The story does not end there, however, because today's newpapers are full of the news of suspicions that another - indeed, perhaps the paradigmatic - symptom of Berluscronyism has been detected within the UK Government: the subversion and abuse of official rules and procedures for personal and professional gain. The inquiry, then, has been extended to the role played by the Home Office in allegedly interfering with Italian attempts to have Mills extradited to face charge. It remains to be seen whether this is mere tabloid wishful thinking, or whether any serious wrongdoing has occurred; more and more, however, this saga does seem to be bearing all the peculiar hallmarks of the Italian Prime Minister.

It is to be hoped, then, that Lorenzo's frequent posts below on Berlusconi are accurate, and that his tenure is coming to a somewhat sticky end: perhaps the only way to prevent this disease - which is, of course, only a particularly virulent and public strain of a very old illness - from spreading any further is to stamp it out at source. Even that, however, may well be too little, too late - almost certainly so, in terms of Tessa Jowell's career at least...

When Silvio Meets Georgy-Boy Bush

Berlusconi is visiting George-Boy these days. We have seen him having a chat with the President in the White House. And we will see him deliver a speech before the whole congress of the USA today.

Berlusconi is quite concerned about this speech. He has already visited the Congress and performed a huis clos, that is in complete loneliness, just to feel the room.

God only knows what he is going to say. What Berlusconi does not seem to know is that the whole world is laughing at him, at his conflict of interests, and the awkward situation flowing from it.

God only knows whether this forthcoming performance will improve Silvio's chances to win the April elections. Italians have never been happy with the war in Iraq, and those who have seen the 'Pace' (Peace) flags displayed by private citizens can confirm this impression.

So, my guess is that Berlusconi will deliver a pro-american kind of speech, in general, but in particular he will voice a criticism of the war. If this was correct, it would be interesting to see how far that criticism can go.

Needless to say, any criticism will have to be put within the elections framework. Berlusconi, if I know him well, is not expressing a principled view, but only a very instrumental speech to convince undecided italian people that he has always been against the war...

Nothing could be more hilarious than that