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.

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Italy’s Economic Problems Under The Spotlight

As Manuel points out in the accompanying post, Romano Prodi’s resignation as Italy’s Prime Minister is a rather sudden and dramatic, but scarcely unexpected, development. The immediate political crisis may be resolved as rapidly as it appeared, but again as Manuel indicates it may only serve as a prelude for further things to come, and the fragility of any government coalition which may be put together only underlines the difficulties Italy will almost certainly have in addressing what are important ongoing economic problems. The present post will simply attempt to outline some of the main economic problems Italy faces, in order to contextualize the political problem a little.
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A Crisis is Born in Italy

Well as almost everyone must surely know by now, Romano Prodi’s government resigned earlier in the week. The present situation is still far from clear, with President Giorgio Napolitano holding urgent consultations with the various interested parties even as I write. Since my interest in Italy is largely an economic one (see accompanying post to follow this) and since I do not consider myself to be any sort of expert on the Italian political process, I asked Manuel Alvarez Rivera (who runs the Election Resources on the Internet site) and who is a political scientist with detailed knowledge of Italian politics for an opinion. Below the fold you can find what he sent me.

At the same time anyone inside or outside of Italy with a different take or perspective please feel free to add something in the comments section.
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Five Germanys I Have Known by Fritz Stern

Fritz Stern was born in what was then Breslau, Germany, grandson of Jews who converted to Christianity, son and grandson of physicians and researchers, at a time when medicine was truly becoming a science and Germany was leading the way. His godfather and namesake was Fritz Haber, who discovered how to fix atmospheric nitrogen, won a Nobel, led research into poinson gas as a weapon, and died shortly after his forced emigration from Germany.

Stern emigrated with his family to the United States in late 1938, in the proverbial nick of time. He rejected Einstein’s advice to stay in the family business of medicine and became a distinguished historian of Germany and Europe. Along the way, he also became an active participant in transatlantic relations, always retaining his liberal perspective.
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Bosnia: Exit the Doctor

Here’s the short version. Bosnia has this thing called a “High Representative”. The High Rep is not a Bosnian. He’s a European charged with overseeing implementation of the Dayton Peace Agreement (the 1995 treaty that has kept the various Bosnian groups from each others’ throats), and also with “representing the international community” in Bosnia.

The High Rep is much more than a diplomat. He’s really more like a colonial governor. He can pass laws and fire Bosnian politicians. If he flexes his muscles, he’s really the final authority in the country. You might think this is strange in what’s nominally a sovereign European state, but Bosnia is a strange place.

For four years, 2002-6, the High Rep was a British fellow named Paddy Ashdown. Paddy took his job seriously and did not hesitate to use his powers. He didn’t like nationalist politicians and he wanted Bosnia to act like a real country. So he banged some heads and stepped on a lot of toes.

Many, both in Bosnia and in the international community, did not like this. Paddy was accused of being an old-fashioned imperialist, high-handed, divisive. Furthermore, said many, he was stunting the political growth of the Bosnian state. As long as Paddy was there to twist arms, the Bosnians would never learn to solve their own problems.

So when Paddy left, the job was given to an elderly, mild-mannered German politician, Dr. Christian Schwarz-Schilling. Dr. Schwarz-Schilling made it clear in advance that he did not plan to use the powers of the High Rep’s office. In fact, he saw his job as overseeing the position’s liquidation. He “didn’t believe in colonialism for Bosnia,” said the good Doctor. The High Rep’s office would gradually ramp down, aiming for a complete shutdown within a year or two. The Bosnians would assume responsibility for their own destiny. Polite clapping all around.

That was a year ago.
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North Sea neuroses

Matthias Matussek, once London correspondent of Der Spiegel and now its culture editor, not to mention brother of top diplomat Thomas Matussek, has a book out. Wir Deutschen: warum die anderen uns gern haben können is meant to be a call for a renewed German patriotism and pride in culture. This would usually suggest a very dull book, but I enjoyed it immensely. Not for the right reasons, though.

Matussek’s approach is idiosyncratic, not that there is anything wrong with that, and the book is really a collection of essays, on topics ranging from Heinrich Heine and Angela Merkel to Britain, Britain, the German economy, Vergangenheitsbewältigung, the World Cup, Britain, Danish cartoonists, the East after reunification, and Britain. In fact, an obsession with Britain runs through this book like letters through a stick of rock-hardly a page passes without comparing some German institution, writer, company, statesman or building to one in Britain, and no chapter is complete with a volley of snark directed roughly westward.

Now, it is a truism that Britain and Germany share a mutual obsession. But this would be less interesting if it wasn’t for the sheer wordcount devoted to complaining about the British obsession with Germany. There is a complete chapter on Anglo-German relations, which I looked forward to-the possibilities are immense. Would he dig into the pre-1914 closeness that gave Bradford a Little Germany (and its own Nazi, Ernst-Wilhelm Bohle, born there in 1903 and later Rudolf Hess’s right hand) and Leeds a Dortmund Square, Robert Graves a relative on the Oberste Heeresleitung?

Nah. Instead, most of the chapter is dedicated to the results of a trip to Germany for some schoolteachers his brother’s embassy organised, and a pleasant but uninformative weekend in the country with John Le Carré.
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Dutch elections: preliminary round-up/impressions

The 2006 parliamentary elections in The Netherlands have produced some interesting results. Another centre-right coalition of CDA, VVD and D66 (before the latter blew up that very same coalition, see comments) seems to be off the table and the formation of a new coalition will prove to be very difficult what with the votes spread out more evenly over the main parties. There are now four major contenders instead of three. Prime Minister Jan-Peter Balkenende, who will probably continue to be Prime Minister, will now have to consider forming either a left-leaning coalition or risk an unworkable monster coalition. From The Guardian:

The Netherlands is facing political deadlock after the governing Christian Democrats scraped an unconvincing win in yesterday’s election and parties on the hard left and right performed well enough to impede their ability to form a government. As political leaders braced themselves for weeks of horse-trading to form a coalition, the outgoing finance minister delivered a blunt assessment of the result.

“It’s chaos,” Gerrit Zalm, a member of the Liberal (VVD) party was quoted by Reuters as saying. “The real winner is the only party that actually did not participate, which is the party of the anarchists.”

A summary round-up of the results can be found below the fold.
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Virtual politics and real bullets

The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, renowned for her reporting on the North Caucasus wars, was murdered yesterday in an evident assassination (three shots, two to the chest and one to the head) in the lift leading to her home. It was the birthday of the Russian President, and just after the birthday of the Russian-appointed prime minister of Chechnya, who she was about to accuse of torture. After a week of rising hysteria in the Russian media and state, with a wave of goon-squad assaults on Georgian businesses and the collection of sinister lists of Georgian-sounding schoolchildren – what, pray, is the purpose of this? – this ought to inter any lingering myths of Russian democracy. It is time to grasp that we are sharing a continent with a very large tyranny, in fact, that we never ceased to do so.

Exactly what will happen next is unclear, but the worst must be assumed. The reaction of Europe so far appears to be deafening silence. See the BBC report above for a tasty quote from the secretary of the Council of Europe, Terry Davis, suggesting she was killed by “self-appointed executioners”. Self-appointed? I don’t think his Midlands constituents lost very much when they voted him out back in 2004. No Baltic gas pipelines were involved, so German silence is a given, France will presumably continue to find Russian support on the UNSC useful, and Britain will probably shut up – hasn’t Tony Blair prided himself on his personal relationship with Putin? (Personal politics, the great delusion of the last hundred years.)

If you need any convincing, I recommend Andrew Wilson’s book Virtual Politics: Faking Democracy in the Post-Soviet World. This is a truly impressive march through a morass of deceit and state-sponsored bullshit, whose central thesis is simply that most of Russian politics, as it was marketed both to the Russians and also to the western politicians, businessmen and bureaucrats who funded it through the 1990s, does not exist. Parties do not have members, policies, or constitutions, and do not represent real interest groups. Even when, like the Communist Party, they actually do exist, they are frequently not actually trying to win the elections-sensationally, Wilson quotes a senior Communist as being horrified how close the party came to unwanted victory in 1996.

Instead, parties, movements and politicians are usually prepared from whole cloth for specific political projects, and created in the public mind by a barrage of TV advertising for the mass and outrageous web propagandists for the elite. It is possible to buy an entire political party, tailored to one’s specifications, from $100,000.
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The new great game

Our next anniversary guest post is written by the the great Jonathan Edelstein.

It’s starting to look like the season of referenda in the near abroad.

On September 17, less than a week from today, voters in the unrecognized republic of Transnistria, located between Moldova and Ukraine, will be asked to vote on whether to “renounce [their] independent status and subsequently become part of the Republic of Moldova” or “support a policy of independence… and subsequent free association with the Russian Federation.” The option of “free association” with Russia, which is widely considered a prelude to outright annexation, is reportedly backed by a large number of Russian-financed business and political organizations, some with long-standing presence in Transnistrian politics and others apparently formed for the occasion. In the meantime, South Ossetia, which had earlier explored the possibility of petitioning Russia’s constitutional court for annexation, has just announced its own referendum for November 12, and although Abkhazia currently denies similar plans, there are rumors that a plebiscite may be in the works there as well.

The referenda, which are rather transparently supported by Moscow, represent something of a change in policy for the Russian Federation. It’s certainly nothing new for post-Soviet Russia to attempt to maintain its influence over the countries comprising the former Soviet Union, and it has at times used Russian citizenship to cement the “soft” annexation of neighboring territories; for instance, at least 90 percent of Abkhazians and South Ossetians now hold Russian passports. Nevertheless, up to now, it has soft-pedaled the issue of de jure territorial expansion. The forthcoming vote on whether Transnistria should become a second Kaliningrad suggests that policymakers in Moscow are at least starting to think seriously about taking formal responsibility for the territories that have broken away from other former Soviet republics.

At first glance, it’s hard to see why Russia would push such a policy at the present time. All three of the breakaway republics have substantial minorities who oppose union with Russia; Transnistria is almost evenly divided between ethnic Russians, Ukrainians and Romanians, and despite post-Soviet ethnic cleansing, South Ossetia and Abkhazia retain Georgian minority enclaves. The recent wave of terrorist bombings in the Transnistrian capital of Tiraspol may well be linked to the referendum, and Russian annexation of the Georgian breakaway republics would only intensify border conflicts such as the Kodori Gorge. Nor would successful plebiscites lend a veneer of legitimacy to a Russian annexation; indeed, given the current international attitude toward non-consensual secessions from recognized states, this would only make Russia’s legal position worse by transforming it into an occupying power.

In other words, the referenda seem like a recipe for stirring up ethnic conflict within the breakaway republics, making Moldova and Georgia even more alarmed over Russian political ambitions than they already are, and creating new diplomatic and legal problems for Moscow. Which leads naturally to three questions: why now, what does Russia stand to gain in compensation for these risks, and how much should the rest of the world (and particularly Europe) care?
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Vienna: The End of the Beginning

So the latest round of talks on Kosovo begin in Vienna today.

There have already been seven rounds of talks since February. The result: the two sides have utterly failed to reach any agreement on anything whatsoever.

But this is not just an eighth round. No, this is a new “phase” of the talks. Now, instead of special negotiating teams, the political leadership of both Kosovo and Serbia will be coming in. On the Serb side will be President Tadic, Prime Minister Kostunica, and Foreign Minister (sort of) Draskovic. On the Albanian side, President Sejdiu and Prime Minister Agim Ceku will lead a team that includes representatives from all major Albanian political parties.

What will this accomplish?

Almost certainly nothing.
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