Russian Elections, Ukrainian Government

Cards shuffled in the EU’s most important eastern neighbors. The orange parties in Ukraine have reached a coalition agreement that will put Yulia Timoshenko back in the prime minister’s office. Let’s hope she lasts longer this time.

Meanwhile to the north, the party supported by Russian president Putin is expected to win a crushing victory in parliamentary elections on Sunday. Observers from the OSCE will not be attending — for the first time since there have been post-Soviet elections in Russia. Gary Kasparov, former chess champion and sometime candidate for president of Russia, will be attending — fresh from five days in jail on rather dubious charges related to opposition to Putin’s party. Boris Nemtsov, one-time mayor of Nizhny Novgorod and leading reformer in the early post-Soviet period, will presumably also be attending — despite publicly comaring Putin to Lukashenka at a press event marking Kasparov’s release.

Soon we will know the players in the inevtiable next round of wrangles over energy supplies, prices and politics in Central and Eastern Europe.

Croatia and Economic Sustainability in Eastern Europe

The IMF is not amused, or at least better put, the IMF is not amused with Croatia. The reasons for their lack of amusement are many and various, but in particular they are displeased by the rising level of consumer and corporate indebtedness, and doubly so due to the fact that the debts are either contracted-in or indexed-to a foreign currency (mainly the euro, but the Swiss Franc is also used). They are also not unduly thrilled by the sustained and rising current account deficit, the existence of a fiscal deficit, the slow pace of structural reform and the relative lack of “greenfield site” FDI . According to the latest IMF staff report on Croatia:

Notwithstanding that the financial sector is healthy and much progress has been made in improving supervision, rapid credit growth and the possibly widespread exposure of households to currency risk remain vulnerabilities. Compounding these vulnerabilities, the current account deficit widened to about an estimated 8 percent of GDP in 2006, and the external debt ratio to 84 percent.

Sound familiar? It should do, at least to those of you with an interest in economics it should, since this profile is very typical of one we have seen extending itself right across Central and Eastern Europe in country after country in recent months. Claus Vistesen has already extensively covered (in this post) the issue of what is called “translation risk” (or what might get “lost in translation” if the effectively “euroised” currencies like the Croatian Kuna need at some point or other to come off their near-pegs with the euro – to tackle, for example, the problem of the lack of export competitiveness which results from the combination of the rapid rise in the value of the euro and the ongoing above-par inflation which is currently being sustained in many Eastern European countries).

However, despite a lot of talk about the dangers of a hard landing here, and overheating there, there is very little in the way of substantial analysis available at the moment which explains why this rapid growth/high inflation spiral should be taking place in Eastern Europe, and why it should be taking place precisely now. That is what I will attempt to do in this post now, and I will attempt to do it taking Croatia as an example, although we could be talking about Latvia, or Estonia, or Lithuania or Romania, or Bulgaria or poor old Hungary, at the end of the day the underlying issues are very, very similar.

What follows below the fold is a reduced version of a much longer posting (accompanied by data driven charts to back up the case) that I wrote for Global Economy Matters to accompany Manuel Alvarez’s detailed election coverage. Continue reading

Kosovo: then what?

Okay, so Kosovo is likely to declare some sort of independence in the near future.

“Some sort” covers a lot of ground, but it will be something formally unacceptable to Serbia, and thus to Russia. The negotiations have another three weeks to run, but it’s clear they’re going nowhere; the Kosovar Albanians want independence, and Serbia will never agree to that. So, at some point the knot will have to be cut.

Okay, what happens next?

Former US Ambassador to Serbia William Montgomery has some ideas. I disagree, and I’m willing to stick my neck out a little.

Some fisking follows. If you’re not interested in Serbia and Kosovo, jump now! Continue reading

Administration of Torture by Jameel Jaffer and Amrit Singh

Early 2004 photos emerged in the media showing Iraqi prisoners allegedly being abused and tortured by American soldiers at the Abu Ghraib detention facility in Iraq. The impact was devastating and the Bush administration, already under fire by critics for the way it handled the Iraq war, was faced with yet another serious public relations problem. America, the leader of the free world, the winner of hearts and minds, the liberator of people from oppressive regimes was seen to engage in the very same “evilness” it had denounced and gone to war for. The fact that the American abuse took place in the very same prison where evil dictator Saddam Hussein used to torture his own prisoners made the contrast even more poignant. Of course, the Bush administration had to respond and protect the image of their America. On June 22nd 2004 president Bush stated:

Let me make very clear the position of my government and our country. We do not condone torture. I have never ordered torture. I will never order torture. The values of this country are such that torture is not a part of our soul and our being.*

To cut a very long explanation short, the abuse was done by “rogue soldiers”, aberrational and not a matter of official US policy. The narrative was picked up and expanded upon by various actors in the public arena. The harshness of the various interrogation methods used at Abu Ghraib, and elsewhere, was heavily debated in, among others, the blogosphere. Both domestically and, yes, internationally people asked questions like: “Do loud music and bright lights really constitute torture?” Even vice-president Cheney chimed in when he called waterboarding “a no-brainer”. He proceeded to invoke “the terrorist threat” as a valid excuse for using controversial interrogation techniques and reiterated the official line that “we don’t torture”.

Between 2004 and now a lot has been written about the subject and the issue of torture and prisoner abuse continues to haunt the current US administration, especially in view of the upcoming US presidential elections, as evidenced by this recent article in The New York Times in which senator McCain chastises Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani for the latter’s failure to call waterboarding torture. About a week ago international media found the issue interesting enough to report that the “whistleblower website” Wikileaks had published the Camp Delta Standard Operating Procedure, an outdated copy of the manual for prisoner treatment at Guantanamo Bay. And, naturally, the issue IS interesting. But what did really happen? What are the ramifications, both politically and morally, of what happened, and may very well continue to happen in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo Bay? What is the opinion of the experts, of people who actually deal with the interrogation of prisoners instead of laymen chattering about it on the internet? And what is it that sets this US Administration apart from others before it when it comes to the issue of torture?

With these questions I can introduce to our readers a truly remarkable book published by Columbia University Press, Administration of Torture, that answers all of them and is written by Jameel Jaffer and Amrit Singh, two lawyers working for the American Civil Liberties Union.

Administration of Torture starts with an intriguing introduction in which ACLU lawyers Jameel Jaffer and Amrit Singh build their case that the current US Administration did condone torture, that the abuse of prisoners was indeed systemic, that senior government officials, like Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, were personally involved, probably for the first time in US history, in determining which interrogation techniques were to be used and that those techniques were possibly illegal and even unconstitutional bordering on war crimes.

The text of the introduction in which these allegations are made, 52 pages long, is corroborated by over 300 footnotes pointing directly to official documents that are reproduced in the book over 374 pages. The true scope of the enormous investigative work done by Jaffer and Singh becomes clear when you know that over 100,000 of these official pages have been released to the ACLU and its partners under the Freedom of Information Act.

I have to admit that the prospect of wading through even 374 pages of official documents seemed a bit daunting at first. Especially since I am not a lawyer myself. But my initial reticence, and even scepticism as to the importance of this book when the whole issue of torture was already well-discussed elsewhere, was quickly overcome when I actually started to delve into these documents myself and when I discovered how easy it is to justify illegal actions with legal “loopholes”, how it was not really torture itself that was seen as a problem, but the way it could tarnish the reputation of the country or put at risk the career of certain people, how cynical and bureaucratical the whole issue was dealt with. And all of this on the basis of real, official documents and testimonies from and by people who were directly involved. In any case, the whole issue is explained extensively and clearly in the introduction to Administration of Torture, which handily serves as a manual to correctly interpret all those documents.

In the introduction, or the indictment of the Bush administration, if you will, Jaffer and Singh demonstrate, among many other things, how the US administration managed to deviate from previously established rules and practices, how it managed to reinterpret laws “in a way that would allow government personnel to engage in interrogation methods that violate both domestic law and also international law”**. One very telling example and quote:

In Januari of 2002, then White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales opined that the war on terror had “render(ed) obsolete Geneva’s strict limitations on the questioning of enemy prisoners,” and he recommended that the president deny al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners the protection of the Third Geneva Convention to “preserve flexibility” and “reduce the threat” that administration officials and military personnel would later be prosecuted for war crimes. Stating that the war against terrorism had “usher(ed) in a new paradigm,” President Bush formally endorsed this policy in a memorandum issued on February 7.”

The opinion of Gonzales and the February memo of Bush are both reproduced in full in the book.

Jaffer and Singh also demonstrate how various government officials and agencies, who deal with interrogations as a part of their job, have expressed doubts about the efficiency of the recommended interrogation methods. Even within the military similar doubts had been raised. This alone blows to smithereens the whole argument that harsh interrogation techniques are by definition necessary to protect the average American from the “terrorist threat”. One example and quote, talking about aggressive interrogation tactics, with the corresponding FBI memo reproduced in the book:

Not only are these tactics at odds with legally permissible interviewing techniques used by U.S. law enforcement agencies in the United States, but they are being employed by personnel in GTMO who appear to have little, if any, experience eliciting information for judicial purposes. The continued use of the techniques has the potential of negatively impacting future interviews by FBI agents as they attempt to gather intelligence and prepare cases for prosecution.”

Remember, this memo was written by people whose job it is to gather intelligence.

Furthermore, we learn that many detainees have either “been arrested by mistake” or “were of either no intelligence value or were of value but innocent and therefore should (…) not have remained in captivity”. We learn of interrogations ending with the death of detainees, we learn that the interrogation techniques used in Abu Ghraib were also pervasive in other US detention facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay and that abuse was endorsed by senior officials as a matter of policy. Torture, in other words, did not happen in spite of policy but because of it. All of these allegations are backed up by official documents.

In Administration of Torture Jaffer and Singh present enough evidence of illegal abuse and even war crimes committed by, among others, senior US government officials to warrant at the very least a thorough Congressional investigation no matter what your personal stance on the use of torture is. If it is against the rules, it is against the rules. Like any other ordinary citizen government officials are accountable and have to operate within the limits defined by law. Since the authors include official documents in this book, among which testimonies of people on the ground, we get a better understanding of how devastating even “soft techniques” like loud music, bright light, stress positions and isolation can be when used too extensively, as seems to have been the case. We learn therefore that, apart from moral reasons, there are also practical reasons for limiting the use of certain interrogation techniques. Some of them are plainly counter productive. We learn that in the absence of clear guidelines, or deliberate obfuscation of them, the slippery slope theory can quickly degenerate into reality, etcetera.

So, even when so much has already been said about the subject, I would highly recommend Administration of Torture, not only because it is a formidable example of investigative journalism, not only because it shows that torture is not by definition the way to go, not only because of its historic value in documenting a very important part of American history, not only because of its current “political value” since it could form the basis of a legal investigation into possible war crimes committed by an American administration, but because, to all of us, it demonstrates the way power can and will corrupt if it is allowed to go unchecked.

As a matter of fact, regardless of all those freedom speeches made by George W. Bush in the past years, I would consider the very existence of this book as the prime example of the true free spirit of the American people. I do believe, as evidenced by this American book published by Americans, that the values of their country are such that torture is not a part of their soul and their being.

So, yes, Administration of Torture is a serious indictment of the Bush administration warranting further investigation. But it is also, and foremost, proof that the American democracy is still alive and kicking and that we can still look to America as an example of true freedom. That is why, in these often dark and insecure times, this very book can and must serve as a beacon of hope and as an example to all those, even here in Europe, who seek to curb constitutional freedoms in the name of the war against terrorism. We should all be better than our enemies.

*The Bush quote is taken directly from the book.
** This quote in between brackets is taken from an interview with Jameel Jaffer and Amrit Singh from the Columbia University Press podcast series, also accessible through the book’s webpage at Columbia University Press.

Cartoons? I see no cartoons!

OK, so Denmark’s conservatives are delighted; they won a snap election convincingly. But they are now faced with a probby; a new party has appeared on the scene, and they are considering the desirability of forming a coalition with it.

However, it’s headed by a Palestinian refugee; as the BBC says, a coalition with their far-right friends and this lot might be unstable. Well, yes; the New Alliance’s publicly declared aim is to oppose the DPP’s influence wherever it raises its head. The Guardian memorably described them as a damp squid, but I suspect they didn’t mean a sinisterly intelligent tentacled horror from the deep about to tear the political establishment’s head off.

But, well, another liberal party is much to be welcomed, and there’s something nice about the idea of joining the coalition in order to counterbalance it.

A Credit Crunch in Europe?

Is Europe currently facing a widespread credit crunch, or are the problems currently being experienced in the banking sector (aka “the financial turmoil of last August”) only a US phenomenon? Reading many of the articles which have been appearing in the financial press recently you could be forgiven for thinking that the latter was the case, but in fact it isn’t, and the problems which are emerging in the European banking system are every bit as important as those which are to be found in the United States, a detail which was highlighted by Bank of England governor Mervyn King’s statement earlier this week that the Bank is now preparing to cut interest rates several times over the next year in an attempt to reduce the knock-on effects which the banking sector problems will almost certainly have on the real economy.

Or again we could take our lead from the statements which are to be found in the November Edition of the ECB Monthly Bulletin – released yesterday – to the effect that the central bank is in the process of monitoring “very closely” all current developments in the eurozone banking sector and is, in particular, ready to act on interest rates as and when necessary, drawing attention to the fact that “risks to the outlook for growth are judged to lie on the downside”. Or the rather ominous “as regards the financial markets, the governing council will continue to pay great attention to developments over the period to come.” Of course many observers when they read “ready to act on interest rates” naturally genuflect towards the evident current problems in short term inflation and thing about them being moved up, but cutting through the dense undergrowth of “central- bank-speak” what such phrases really are an attempt to communicate is the idea that they take everything that is happening very seriously indeed, with the mention of “downside risk” being a pointer intended to edge expectations along in the direction of accepting any eventual rate reductions which may prove necessary.

Thus it seems a little strange, to say the least, to have to note that at one and the same time as all this growing “vigilance” is being exercised, and in the precise moment when the dollar has been hard at it “slipping and a sliding” under the very weight of these selfsame problems, the euro, in contrast, has continued to rise and rise in almost vertiginous fashion, as if tomorrow would never come. And this has been taking place despite the recent warning from Jean Claude Trichet – who seems to have expressly emerged from virtual hiding for the occasion – that “brutal (foreign exchange) moves are never welcome.” So what exactly is going on? Continue reading

Serbia is stable and associated! (Bosnia, not so much)

So Serbia will get a Stability and Association Pact with the EU (SAA). The pact was initialed last week; barring a catastrophe, it will be formally signed in January.

An SAA is the step before formal EU candidacy, so this is good news for Serbia. It looks like Brussels is trying to strengthen the “liberal and Western” strain of Serbia’s politics before December, when problems are likely to arise with Kosovo. (The current round of Kosovo negotiations is likely to expire on December 10.)

The big loser here, of course, is Carla del Ponte. The SAA was supposed to wait until Serbia had “cooperated fully” with the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia (ICTY). Serbia’s cooperation has been slow, reluctant, half-hearted, and in no sense “full”; Ratko Mladic is going to die comfortably in bed, and the current leadership of Serbia is good with that.

Back in March, I noted that the Belgians (backed by the Dutch) had put a freeze on candidacy negotiations because they wanted to see real cooperation with the ICTY. Well, eight months is a long time in politics. Apparently the Belgians and Dutch were argued around. The current paralysis of the Belgian government may have had something to do with this.

Albania got its SAA last year, and newly-independent Montenegro a few months ago. Bosnia thus becomes the only country in the region without one. Bosnia’s goverment just formally collapsed this week, and they may well be going back to the polls in January or February. So, it looks like they won’t get their SAA initialed until next year at the earliest. Continue reading

Bosnia’s government collapses

Well, sort of. Bosnia’s government is still run according to the Dayton Plan, which settled the war back in 1995. So it’s really complicated.

Short version: the representative of the Serb entity, the Republika Serbska (RS), has resigned from the Council of Ministers. The Presidency (which is really a council composed of three Presidents, one from each ethnicity) accepted his resignation today. Officially this means the government has fallen, and elections can ensue, but since this is Bosnia they’re going to slip first into a long period of “consultation” in an attempt to make this un-happen.

Why did the Serb reprsentative resign? Well, because the RS leadership isn’t happy with Europe’s new colonial governor — sorry, High Representative — and his ideas for moving forward beyond the Dayton Agreement. There’s some connection here to the ongoing Kosovo wrangle, because the Bosnian Serbs are getting enthused by Russian support for Serbia; some of the wilder commenters are talking about the RS being swapped to Serbia “in exchange for” Kosovo. This is not going to happen, but there’s definitely something in the air.

Since this is Bosnia, the complications are fractal. Here’s the short version: the Bosnians have 30 days to form a new government, which might happen but probably won’t. If they don’t, then at some point they’ll have to hold elections. Which, since this is Bosnia, will probably not change much.

No, I don’t know what the answer is either.

“Porque no te callas?”

Well, that was interesting:

SANTIAGO: Spain’s king Juan Carlos I told Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez to “just shut up,” bringing an Ibero-American summit to end in spectacular fashion on Saturday.

Spain’s monarch stormed out just before the scheduled end of the forum, visibly furious at Chavez’s description of his former PM as a “fascist” and for launching a wide-ranging tirade that could not be stopped.

The dispute was a dramatic finale for the 17th meeting of the heads of state and government of Spanish and Portuguese-speaking countries in Latin America, and Spain, Portugal and Andorra, which started on Thursday.

[Chavez’s] description of Spain’s former conservative PM Jose-Maria Aznar as a “fascist” prompted current PM Jose-Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, a socialist, to call on Chavez to show more “respect.” But Chavez forged on, and on Saturday he repeated the contentious f-word in relation to Aznar, adding: “A fascist isn’t human, a snake is more human than a fascist.” An irate king Juan Carlos then stepped in, demanding of Chavez: “Why don’t you just shut up?”

Aparently Chavez was talking over (current, Socialist) Spanish PM Zapata in a wide-ranging attack on (former, conservative) Spanish PM Jose Aznar. There was an attempt to turn off his microphone, but you don’t stop Hugo Chavez when he’s on a roll.

The King’s comment may have been (if I understand correctly, and maybe I don’t) more insulting in Spanish Spanish than in Venezuelan Spanish, because he used the “tu” form. In much of Latin America that’s no big deal, but in Spain (I’m told) it’s only used for close friends, children and animals. So “porque no te callas” is very much de haut en bas.

Unsurprisingly, the Venezuelan media has lined up behind Hugo, and the Spanish — even the leftish El Pais –behind the King; around the world, conservatives are high-fiving, while socialists are fuming that Chavez is a democratically elected leader, who should not be shushed by a hereditary monarch.

Comment threads on this tend to spiral into “Chavez is a dictator!” “No he isn’t!” and “You know, the King was chosen by Franco, but he actually helped end fascism in Spain.” So let’s take the first two as not being very useful, and the last as given. Is this just an amusing break in Iberian good manners, or is there anything deeper here?