Serbia: Kostunica would prefer not to

With three days to go before Serbia’s Presidential runoff, Prime Minister Kostunica has announced that he won’t endorse either candidate.

This is a boost to Radical Tomislav Nikolic — in the final Presidential debate last night, he thanked Kostunica for not taking a side — and a rather large slap in the face to incumbent Boris Tadic. Kostunica’s party is in coalition with Tadic’s; and when the coalition agreed to make Kostunica PM last year, part of the deal was that he’d support Tadic’s re-election. I haven’t yet been able to find what justification Kostunica is giving for reneging (or whether he’s given any at all) — if anyone knows, I’d be interested to hear.

As to why Kostunica did it… well, he hates Tadic. He endorsed him last time, but only grudgingly and at the last minute. This time I guess he just couldn’t bring himself to do it. Continue reading

Albania’s quiet President

You don’t hear much about Albania’s President, Bamir Topi.

That’s probably a good thing. Topi was a partisan politician — he was the #2 leader of current Prime Minister Sali Berisha’s Democratic Party. But since he’s been elected, he’s acted like a national and mostly nonpartisan figure.

In this, he’s followed the lead of his predecessor, Alfred Moisiu. Moisiu, an elderly former general, had been a compromise candidate for the Presidency. To everyone’s surprise he turned out to be very good — dignified, moderate, and nonpartisan, personally honest, but capable of being very sharp when Albanian officals and politicians were being blatantly dishonest or incompetent. When Moisiu finished his five-year term last summer, there was a broad movement to draft him for a second term. (He refused. He’s nearly 80, and being President of Albania is no sinecure.) Albania hasn’t produced a lot of thoughtful, diligent and more or less honest politicians yet, so having two in a row in the Presidency is good fortune. Continue reading

A European Future?

Parag Khanna has a monster screed – eight pages – in the NYT on the subject of “turning away from hegemony”. The hegemony concerned is that of the United States; the argument is that US power will decline relative to that of China, India, big second-tier powers, and Europe. This is a topic that cannot fail to elicit trolls; but it’s worth looking to, perhaps just for that reason alone.

Khanna, interestingly, bases part of the piece on demographics; Russian demographics. We’ve broached this before – it certainly looks like Russia is going to get more and more like one of the small Gulf states, an authoritarian petroleum exporter with a small population and a significant dependence on immigrants from a poor periphery. Further, we’ve also argued that Russian power is constrained by mutual dependence on the EU as a downstream market for energy and a source of investment; interestingly, a financial source of AFOE’s recently told us that he doubted the Russian sovereign-wealth fund spoke for anywhere near as much money as is sometimes claimed.

But the core of this row will probably be the US and Europe; it’s hard to imagine the US maintaining a hegemonic role in the world economy when it’s a massive importer of both goods and capital. Just as the UK’s financial hegemony didn’t make it past the First World War for the same reasons. Similarly, when Societe Generale had to dump the Kerviel overhang last week, they don’t seem to have bothered to tell the Federal Reserve; naturally, the French central bank and regulator were informed on day one (although Finance Minister Christine Lagarde seemed to deny she knew in advance on the BBC last week), and one presumes they clued-in the ECB.

Tony Karon calls it the Incredible Shrinking Davos Man. Well, their organisation is slipping; for the second year running, AFOE’s invite hasn’t turned up. But I’m not so sure, at least on the definition. If a multipolar world is going to work it’ll have to be more like, well, the European Union; all Khanna’s talk about playing by other people’s rules just drives home the point that they are rules, and rules mean institutions.

Institutions imply membership; which means the EU. Meanwhile, also at Karon’s, we see this in action. In Gaza, peaceful mass action to re-connect with the wider world has just capsized several world powers’ policy; the idea of locking up and refusing to engage with Gaza is now absurd, and it’s no surprise that it leads to concessions. If you can get out to the backbone, economically, suddenly all kinds of choices become available. It’s certainly very different from the days of George Habash, whose signature airline hijackings were directed precisely at separating from the rest of the world.

The Balkans’ most popular head of government

Who is it?

Not Serbia’s Kostunica. He’s in an interesting and difficult political position, and his political party has been losing support for a while now. He’s more respected than liked, and I wouldn’t say he’s all that respected.

Certainly not Romania’s Tariceanu. He’s lucky to still be in office, and unlikely to be re-elected next year.

Bulgaria’s quirky PM Sergey Stanishev is doing alright — he’s managed a difficult coalition better than anyone would have expected two years ago — but nobody would call him more than modestly popular. Greece’s Costas Karamanlis won a second term just a few months ago, but has seen his popularity dip sharply since; several of his ministers are embroiled in the “sex, lies and DVDs scandal”, and his party is now in a dead heat in the polls with the opposition Socialists.

Sali Berisha of Albania… no.

Who then? Continue reading

Serbia sells its energy company to Russia

“Against stupidity, the Gods themselves contend in vain.” — Schiller

So Serbia’s government has agreed to sell its oil and gas company, NIS, to Russia’s Gazprom.

By itself there’s nothing wrong with this. What’s stupid about it is the price. NIS has a market value of around $2.8 billion. The government is selling it to Gazprom for $400 million, plus the promise of another $500 million in investment over the next five years. In other words, Gazprom — a company not exactly strapped for cash — is getting a windfall of almost $2 billion, at the expense of one of the poorest countries in Europe.

Why is the Serbian government doing this? Several reasons, all of them bad. Continue reading

Taking Stock of 2007: Books

I read about as much in 2007 as I did in 2006, but I wrote far fewer reviews. One of the perils of full-time employment. It also looks like a year of consolidation, rather than a year of discovery. Having polished off the lucky thirteenth in Lemony Snicket’s set in December 2006, I reached the end of 20 books with Aubrey and Maturin in January 2007. While in the course of the year I only re-read four books, I went back to the well with a lot of authors I knew I liked. Even the Stalin biography was by the same author. And just one book in German the whole year. Schade.

Among what was new to me in fiction, Cory Doctorow and Paul Park made the biggest impression. Doctorow needs little introduction in the blog-world, but his fiction is strange and interesting, addictive and just a little unsettling. Park is fooling around with the tenets of fantasy in a way that I like, and as soon as part part three makes it into paperback, I’ll gobble up parts two and three. (If your budget runs to fantasy in hardback, don’t tell me how it ends!) The fun factor was highest in Naomi Novik’s four novels. Napoleonics with dragons, what’s not to like? A few things, but it’s a series with promise.

Many more new voices and one-offs in non-fiction. Tom Reiss, Fritz Stern (ok not completely new), David Hackett Fischer (though I do wish he’d written the promised additional volumes). The Race Beat is terrific on the civil rights struggle in the US and the crucial role of the media, which was understood clearly by both sides. Ivan’s War deserves a full-scale review, though the private Soviet soldier’s perspective is summed up in three brutal sentences: “They called us. They trained us. They killed us.” The River of Doubt captures not only Teddy Roosevelt but much about early 20th century America, exploration and Brazil.

Complete list (in order read) is below the fold. Links are to previous writing about the book or author on AFOE.
Continue reading

Serbia, Round One

So Serbia held Round One of their presidential election yesterday.

A little background. It’s only three and a half years since the last election (June 2004), but the secession of Montenegro in May 2006 caused the Serbs to adopt a new constitution. That provided for a new Presidential term, which required a new election. But the constitution wasn’t very specific as to when. A long wrangle ensued, with Prime Minister Kostunica’s party trying to put the election off as long as possible, mostly because Kostunica has come to hate incumbent President Boris Tadic a lot, and he thought later elections would get caught up in the Kosovo wrangle, putting Tadic at a disadvantage. Which is pretty much what has happened.

Meanwhile, Kostunica is ostentatiously refusing to support Tadic. This is a pretty blatant violation of the coalition agreement Tadic’s party made with Kostunica last spring, but there it is: Kostunica doesn’t think he’s bound by that sort of thing.

(If I seem a little bit hard on Kostunica, well, he’s been rather a disappointment. He’s showing a long-term pattern of festering resentment towards rivals, especially rivals who are slicker, better-spoken, more popular and/or smarter. There’s no rule that politicians have to like each other, of course, but Kostunica is bending Serbian politics to serve his personal vendettas.)

So, the first round: Tadic got 35.4%, Radical Nikolic got 39.4%, and half a dozen minor candidates split the rest.

What does it mean? Continue reading

Germany: Has a Budget Surplus

Handelsblatt reports that Germany’s preliminary budget numbers look very good indeed; they’re looking at a budget surplus of a couple of billion euros, the first since reunification (not counting the UMTS mobile phone licence auction in 2000). Real GDP growth of 2.5 per cent is forecast; most of the extra cash came from the rise in VAT and fiscal drag.

It certainly seems a great position to be in at the beginning of a downturn.

Nuclear Diplomacy – Not That Sort

It’s become a routine part of any foreign trip President Sarkozy takes that he announces the sale of a nuclear power station. On his recent visit to the Middle East, for example, the two keynote announcements from his meetings with the leaders of the UAE involved a) the sale of a nuclear power station and b) the establishment of a French military base. We’ll come to the base later; first, the nuclear, as Harold MacMillan said. Not only that, Sarkozy went on to Saudi Arabia, where he offered them a couple of nuclear power stations. Qatar had also lined one up. He’d already sold a number of them to China, and offered the possibility of one at least to Libya.

Clearly, not only is Areva a major export earner, it’s also an important part of French foreign policy. When we say that Sarko “signed” a contract for a nuclear reactor, what we mean is of course that the agreement was held over so as to be announced when he showed up; this bit him on the backside when the Indians refused to play, arguing that boosting his image was no concern of theirs.

But I would suggest that nuclear technology, as with aircraft and arms sales and even branches of the Louvre, has been restored to the sort of foreign-policy place it held in the 1950s; impress a superpower and win a reactor. That kept going until even Kinshasa University got one; one hopes Sarko doesn’t go quite that far. In this, and many other things, Sarkozy is as neo-Gaullist as they come; this symbiosis of the state, technology, and policy is a core element.

Even if his report on economic growth includes no less than 314 (told you he was like Chirac with too much caffeine) individual propositions, it appears to consist of the creation of some new educational institutions, heavy spending on R&D, pious vows about reducing labour costs, and a nod to Danish social policy. Note that the president of Areva, Anne Lauvergeon, was consulted.

Over New Year, the SNCF brought a gaggle of trains into the Grand Palais for their anniversary celebrations; the centrepiece of this Gaullist techfest was the video of the world speed record set in the spring. A large crowd of sober citizens gathered, as if to view the latest howitzer sometime in the 1910s. Sometimes, progress exists; this is something the French state understands.

So does realpolitik, though; the backstory of the UAE base is that the emirates have been trying to reduce their dependence on the US for some time, especially Abu Dhabi (which dominates the military). As well as asking the Louvre to open a branch, they bought Mirage 2000 aircraft, and now they want an EPR reactor and a French military presence.

Dutch to veto Serbia’s SAA?

Apparently the Dutch have said they won’t approve Serbia’s Stability and Association agreement unless Serbia comes up with suspected war criminal Ratko Mladic.

This comes from the excellent B92 site:

Holland will not let Serbia sign the Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) until Ratko Mladić is transferred to the Hague [said] Dutch European Affairs Minister Frans Timmermans… in an interview published by Belgium daily Le Soir today.

“We have been saying, and I repeated this clearly, that Serbia has to cooperate fully with the Hague Tribunal. This means that Mladić has to be transferred to the Hague Tribunal prison,” said Timmermans.

By the way, I went to the Le Soir site to find the interview. You know what? Everything but the front page is pay-per-view. Cripes. What is this, 2004? That just seems so very Belgian somehow…

Continue reading