Obama. Nobel.

Holy smokes. What will the man do for an encore?

From the BBC:

US President Barack Obama has won the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize.

The Nobel Committee said he was awarded it for “his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and co-operation between peoples”.

Reuters quotes from the citation (The Nobel servers are slammed and super-slow just at the moment):

“Very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world’s attention and given its people hope for a better future,” the committee said in a citation.

Wow.

Serbia and Prishtina: further and further

Here’s an interesting article that I somehow missed when it came out a few months back. It’s a dialogue between Serbian writer Vladimir Arsenijević (who we’ve met before) and Kosovar Albanian journalist Migjen Kelmendi.

If you’re interested in Kosovo, read the whole thing: it’s all good. But this is the bit that jumped out at me:

Arsenijević: [I] really don’t known anyone in Serbia who is keen to maintain regular contacts with artists in Kosovo, or who thinks that it should be done. Books by Kosovo Albanians are not being published, so we have no idea what is happening there. Each act that assumes some good intention towards Kosovo Albanians has to be explained at great length. It is not that the police ask you to come down to the station for a chat, no, that does not happen; but you have to justify yourself in the most normal, everyday conversations. The problem lies in the fact that, when it comes to the Albanians, we are filled with anger, rage and a feeling of being losers; that we act like some injured partner or spouse who has been denied something that he believes naturally to be his own. If you say: ‘There is a great writer in Kosovo, who has written a novel’, they will talk not about the novel, but about the author’s nationality.

Karabeg: Mr Kelmendi, do Albanian artists from Kosovo want to work with Serbia, to have their books translated there, to exhibit their paintings, to have a theatre perform there, or do they want artists from Serbia to come to Kosovo, to Prishtina?

Kelmendi: No. They are definitely no longer interested in Belgrade and Serbia. They are fully oriented towards Tirana and Albania. It is there that they wish their works to appear. I would say that the Kosovo Albanians have turned their backs on Serbia for good. There is not the smallest wish to know what is going on there. It seems at times that Belgrade for them is a faraway city, that Serbia is a faraway land. They do not translate books by Albanian authors. Apart from occasional individual contacts, communication has practically ended.

Arsenijević: Belgrade was not very open towards Kosovo Albanians, and now we see this being repaid by turning their backs on Serbia.

This is, unfortunately, true. Kosovo is a young society — the average Kosovar Albanian is about 25 — which means that most Kosovars have no adult memory of peaceful, friendly interaction with Serbs. The Serbs north of the Mitrovica have as little contact with Albanians as possible; the Serb communities left in the rest of Kosovo are small and insular. Continue reading

Kosovo at 62; still not unique

The Dominican Republic recognized Kosovo last week, which brings the number of recognizing countries to 62. Kosovo has been collecting recognitions at the rate of 1 or 2 per month lately — this is the tenth since the beginning of this year — and while recognition by Palau or the Comoros may not count for much, getting Malaysia and Saudi Arabia on board is no small thing.

That said, 62 is still a lot less than 192, which is the total number of UN member states. And — for reasons I went into a while back — quite a lot of UN members unless either (1) Serbia consents, or (2) the UN recognizes it. Since Russia and China are both committed to a veto of recognition, that’s unlikely to happen any time soon.

Still, there are a couple of interesting questions. Continue reading

Two Tetris’ Worth

Over at another blog, I was asked what I thought about Obama’s visit to Moscow, how it was playing in Tbilisi and what it meant for Georgia. Here are my two tetris’ worth:

Saakashvili is pleased that the only explicit area of disagreement mentioned between the US and Russia was Georgia; Obama made time in his statement to reiterate that the US supports the territorial integrity of Georgia. Obama also said that his discussions of Georgia with Medvedev had been “frank,” the next best thing in diplo-speak to “full and frank,” which generally indicates thrown crockery.

On the other hand, Obama also clearly indicated where Georgia is on the US list of priorities in his administration: after nuclear disarmament, Afghanistan, non-proliferation in re Iran and North Korea. Much as I like Georgia, that’s a sensible set of priorities for the US. I hope that Georgian authorities will have read Obama’s signals the same way.

Interestingly, there are some signs of Abkhaz discontent. Russia has apparently been high-handed in setting up the details of guarding some of the self-declared external Abkhaz border, and is also presenting a different version of where the notional Russian-Abkhaz border lies. (Not surprising, all things considered.) Anyway, not everybody who’s anybody in Abkhazia likes that approach. And as I read through the history of the region, I find that Abkhazia in particular has made its way by cozying up to one side of regional power struggles and then shifting a bit when the embrace becomes too close, eventually changing partners. I don’t think that a new dance is about to begin, but complete subservience to Russia is not necessarily what all of the Abkhaz had in mind.

Gold and Iron, by Fritz Stern

“This is a book about Germans and Jews, about power and money. It is a book focused on Bismarck and Bleichröder, Junker and Jew, statesman and banker, collaborators for over thirty years. The setting is that of a Germany where two worlds clashed: the new world of capitalism and an earlier world with its ancient feudal ethos; gradually a new and broadened elite emerged, and Bismarck’s tie with Bleichröder epitomized that regrouping. It is the story of the founding of the new German Empire, in whose midst a Jewish minority rose to embattled prominence. It is a record of events and of the interests and sentiments that shaped these events; it is a record of events and of the interests and sentiments that shaped these events; it is a record largely told by contemporaries, in thousands of hitherto unused letters and documents. It is also the story of the fragility of that Empire and its ruler, of its hidden conflicts, and of the hypocrisy which allowed a glittering façade to cover the harsh and brutal facts below. The ambiguity of wealth — its threat to tradition and its promise of mobility — is part of this record, and so is the anguished ambiguity of Jewish success, so striking, so visible, so delusive. It is a study of a society in motion, and mobility was its essence and its trauma. …”
Continue reading

Meanwhile in New York and Georgia

The Russian judge was unimpressed by both the technical merits and the artistic program of the UN resolution to extend the observation mission in Georgia’s breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. 0.0 all around, or Géorgie, nul point.

Since 1993, UN observers had worked both sides of the lines to keep tabs on troop movements and other aspects of security in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia. With local tendencies toward explosions and pot-shots (see here, here, and the end of the page here), precisely the kinds of things that preceded last summer’s war, monitoring by a reasonably neutral group gives cooler heads a chance to prevail. Their current mandate expired last night at midnight, and the resolution would have kept this function going. The Security Council vote was 10 in favor, four abstaining (including China) and Russia exercising its veto.

We need to get rid of this apparition [of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as parts of Georgia],” Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin told the council after casting the veto. “Our partners, however, prefer poison to medicine.”

Apparently that’s diplomatic language in Putin’s Medvedev’s Russia.

[Churkin] had offered to extend the mission’s mandate for one month on condition that the Security Council agree to delete all the “offensive references” in the resolution to names and sovereignty

Because Abkhazia and South Ossetia are regarded as independent by Russia and the overwhelming majority of the international community that consists of Nicaragua.

Russia has also forced the end of the OSCE observation mission in Georgia.

The only governmental monitors left are those from the European Union. EU monitors, however, do not have a mandate that gives them access across the administrative boundaries. They can peer into Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but cannot go and see for themselves.

One fewer support for stability. It’s almost as if one major player isn’t interested in stability.

Impertinent Question, 2

What’s Chinese for cultural destruction?

Over the next few years, [Kashgar] city officials say, they will demolish at least 85 percent of [the city's Old Town, a] warren of picturesque, if run-down homes and shops. Many of its 13,000 families, Muslims from a Turkic ethnic group called the Uighurs (pronounced WEE-gurs), will be moved.

A Dirty Europeanism from Beneath

I have just been reading Misha Glenny’s McMafia. It is excellent; an intelligent tour through the criminal landscape that emerged since the late 1980s, driven by a combination of globalisation, un-globalisation, technical change, and the usual things that fertilise big crime. We hear about the early history of the modern Russian mafia, how the UN Security Council created one of the world’s most effective criminal networks by trying to deny the former Yugoslavia cigarettes, and much more.

Some points that stand out:

1 – Networks

A common trend in all the criminal systems Glenny covers is a shift from hierarchical structures to decentralised ones; the four dons who controlled the Bombay underworld up to the late 1980s are replaced by a shifting confederation, mostly independent, vaguely loyal to Dawood Ibrahim in his Dubai fastness. The traditional prison gang hierarchies of Russia and South Africa are replaced by flat networks of crooks. The multi-criminal smuggling route through the Balkans, once authorised and taxed by the Bulgarian secret police, warps into a complicated weave of different ones open to every thug in southeastern Europe.

2 – The Great Shift

Everywhere Glenny went, both cops and thieves always said the same thing in the same way; in the early 1990s, they were in control and then “something odd happened”. New forms of crime; new actors; new communities; new drugs. Similarly, traditions and habits that kept things roughly in limits and facilitated both illicit and licit business were suddenly torn apart. Grand old yakuza chiefs were murdered in their beds; the harbour suddenly filled with shiny speed boats with unusually deep and thoroughly reinforced cockpits. And wham! Nothing was normal ever again.

3 – Fake Police and Police Fakes

So much of this proliferating mayhem was driven by the people who were meant to oppose it. In Russia and Eastern Europe, a major force was the sheer number of spooks and wrestlers looking for a job, and for that matter, the existing smuggling systems set up by people like East German STASI Colonel Alexander von Schalck-Golodkowski to raise hard currency. But even more important were the strategic decisions taken by world powers, which often created the legal barriers around which criminal profit grew. The economic blockade on the former Yugoslavia was one; the drugs war another.

4 – Complicity

The great spree would never have been possible if so many people hadn’t been customers, to say nothing of direct corruption. Japanese banks, during the great bubble, were delighted to cooperate with yakuza thugs; the tobacco industry saw nothing at all unusual in shipping absurd quantities of cigarettes to tiny Swiss cantons, from where they were re-exported on ex-Soviet cargo aircraft that invariably needed to make refuelling stops in Montenegro, during which the ciggies and the export papers vanished. The cigarettes crossed the Adriatic in wild-arsed powerboats into the hands of the newest Italian mafia, the Sacra Corona Unita of Puglia, and went from there to everywhere in Europe. The aircraft went on to the ex-Soviet Union, to Slovakia’s ZTS-Osos and Bulgaria’s KINTEX arsenals, and brought back arms for the Balkan wars, bought with the government’s share of the profits.

Similarly, the iconic European industrial achievement, GSM, used huge quantities of rare minerals from central Africa and the ex-Soviet Union, which arrived on some of the same aircraft, backloaded from further arms shipments after the Balkan wars were over and the region became an arms exporter again. It’s worth remembering that the secret police of Yugoslavia were well aware of arms dealing, having been a big exporter before the Balkan wars. And, more broadly, millions used prostitutes, smoked dodgy cigarettes, and took cocaine.

5 – The Boss Fallacy

So many cops Glenny quotes had the same experience; they finally caught the Big Boss, but everything got worse afterwards. Once the old sheikh was nailed, they expected the crime rate to fall, but instead something odd happened; all hell broke loose. It wasn’t just that the crooks fought among themselves, which the cops usually welcomed. It was that they competed harder, and that the rules and traditions and habits that usually constrained them were torn away with the traditional hierarchy. Suddenly there were no rules, or rather, there was a savage fight to set the new ones.

And killing the hierarchy changed things more subtly. The structure of the underworld changed; it became decentralised, federal, anarchist. The old hierarchies were repurposed to legitimise the new gangs, which meant that their mythos of leadership and of terror could be extended to anyone whose outfit joined the confederation. Arguably, the new structures were not just more survivable but more efficient and more scalable than the old ones.
On the other hand…

Looking across this shady landscape, though, there are some bright spots. There is something inspiring about the vigour of it all, the refusal to listen to the government, the company, the Big Don, or any other authority. The European Union was very keen to talk revolution in the East, much less to open the doors. But long before they were opened in 2004, unofficial Europe was working hard. And, in fact, it had been at it for years; Ameisenhändler at the Bahnhof Zoo, gastarbeiter from Yugoslavia working all over the continent, InterRailers, university system administrators hooking up X.25 and IP links. I remember that one day in 1995, cheap smokes and Czech lager and high-powered German fireworks suddenly arrived in our valley in the Yorkshire Dales, sold weekly in one of our local pubs. The bus route from Leeds to Osnabrück, a subsidised liberty-bus for BAOR soldiers, was also a clubber-transfer link before the arrival of EasyJet.

Practical Europe, of a sort. Crime is nothing if not practical. One of the telling things about McMafia, as it applies to Europe, is just what a society Europe could have been in the last 15 years with a little more courage early on. And we did pretty well anyway.

“Macedonia’s Obama”?

Macedonia will hold Presidential elections this weekend. No news there. But here’s the interesting thing: recent polls suggest that an ethnic Albanian candidate, Imer Selmani, has a decent chance of making it past the first round. If so, he’d become the first ethnic Albanian to enter the runoff for Macedonia’s Presidency.

Why is this even possible? Well, to make a long story short, all the other major candidates have managed to make themselves look like idiots. They’ve traded stupid accusations and name-calling, while Selmani has managed to remain above the fray. It doesn’t hurt that he’s young, good-looking, and speaks perfect Macedonian.

Let’s be clear: even if Selmani makes it to the runoff round — unlikely, but possible — he’s not going to become President. That would require between a quarter and a third of Slav Macedonians to vote for an Albanian. This is not going to happen. Continue reading

“One can lead a column to Prishtina every day”

Interesting when two hobbies cross-connect. One: that odd, isolated episode at the end of the 1999 NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, when a Russian unit based in Bosnia suddenly rushed through Serbia and occupied Prishtina airport just ahead of the advancing NATO troops. — It ended up being an empty gesture, but only just; the Russians were ready to funnel thousands of soldiers into the airport, and would have if Hungary and Romania hadn’t stood firm and kept their airspace closed. And it wasn’t entirely without consequence: it re-established Russia as the Great Power Protector of choice for Serb nationalists, a position it still occupies today.

Two: Russia’s problems in Ingushetia. Ingushetia is a province in the northern Caucasus next to Chechnya, and it’s just a hell of a mess. It’s full of refugees, the economy has collapsed, bombings and shootings are a constant background drumbeat. Nobody pays much attention to the North Caucasus — it’s formally part of Russia; the Chechens are quiescent at the moment; Shamil Basayev is dead, and the Beslan atrocity didn’t seem to lead to anything — but Ingushetia is a bubbling low-intensity conflict with the potential to erupt into something nastier. Continue reading