Grand coalition

Kosovo daily Tribuna is publishing this interview with Deputy Foreign Minister Petrit Selimi, on the occasion of the formation of a “grand coalition” involving the country’s two largest political parties. This follows five months of stalemate since the June parliamentary election. peacefare.net would be happy to publish comments or replies from those opposed to the grand coalition.

Tribuna:  The coalition agreement was signed between the two political parties PDK and LDK, ending the political stalemate. Immediately after the signing, there was a debate on whether Isa Mustafa is mandated to form the new government? What is the format of the new agreement?

Selimi:  The important thing is that an agreement of a great political reconciliation between the two main political parties of Kosovo was reached. It was not easy for either side and neither party has won maximum of the requirements but on the other hand, this coalition is not against anyone but pro-economic development, pro-European integration and pro-good governance. The exact architecture of senior positions will be determined by the working groups in the coming days, but it is clear that there are three vacancies: the position of the Assembly Speaker, the Prime Minister and the President after President Jahjaga’s term ends. This triangle will define the roles of the leaders of the two parties. More important is that together with the minorities, this government will have a stable majority close to 90 MPs and as such it represents an enormous potential for the completion of many economic and political priorities.

Tribuna:  How come that Prime Minister Thaci managed to enter a coalition? For a long time it seemed that entire opposition is united against PDK and Thaci? Does this new coalition now have support of Kosovo Serbs?

Selimi:  Well, PDK was a clear winner of national elections and was about to start the creation of institutions, when opposition united in an agreement to stop PDK from third mandate. But this blockade had problems. Firstly, this post-election agreement was not constitutional as Kosovo Constitution guarantees the Speaker of the Parliament to the winning party. Secondly, the opposition agreement also failed to provide guarantees of continuing the dialogue in Brussels, which is one of the most important tasks that awaits the future government of Kosovo.

So, we found ourselves in a stalemate where one party won the elections and had the legal right to initiate creation of institutions but the other parties refused to talk to PDK for 5 months. In the end, rationality prevailed and compromise solution was found between two biggest parties in Kosovo which are now in a grand coalition, just like in Germany. This coalition consists of parties that both support dialogue, privatization and economic reforms, fight against corruption and organized crime. It’s a good coalition as it ensures that both LDK, with origin from Rugova’s pacifist policies and PDK, which is led by the pragmatic and pro-European Hashim Thaci who led guerilla movement, are now together. This is a very good news for internal cohesion of Kosovo as well as for the process of reconciliation between Kosovars of Albanian and Serbian origin.

Tribuna:  There is still distrust in the respective parties against this agreement. Political analysts call it immoral while in LDK there are voices that do not support this coalition?

Selimi: This election cycle and the political stalemate have proven that many so-called analysts are partisans with subjective agendas. It is natural that PDK and LDK have people who are critical of the agreement because both parties are massive and have a variety of voices within. It is important that the absolute majority of the General Councils of PDK and LDK supported the coalition and the principles that would move the country forward. This coalition and this new government have a broad popular support, a strong international support and a democratic mandate for tough reforms. As far as morals and politics, I think this coalition and the new agreement are much more moral and easily understood than the failed agreement of VLAN, where something called Balkan “inat” and personal attacks were driving force behind the failed agreement. This being said, we are neither imams nor priests but politicians who should work to achieve our programmatic objectives.

Tribuna:  However, you agree that PDK should thank LDK for its political life extension and a new term gained?

Selimi: Both parties have to thank each other for the vision and courage. It was not easy to stretch the hand to another for the good of the country, but if Kosovo can talk to former foes in Serbia it is clear that the talks between the Albanian parties should be fundamentally easier and more pragmatic. If we look at the human resources of both parties, it seems like FC Barcelona is joining Real Madrid and maybe to someone the political league of Kosovo will become boring with the absence of large opposition block, but I think it is a powerful message for Kosovo to have such a super-team for the good of country and the international competition for development, recognition and integration into EU and NATO.

Tribuna:  Now you have the Serbian List controlled by Vucic. Vetevendosje (Self-Determination) has accused you that you will be subordinate to this List and their demands for autonomy?

Selimi:  The opposite is true that only the PDK-LDK coalition has guaranteed that the government will not be held hostage by minority parties or Albanian nationalists who refuse dialogue and consequently the European path. But I do not agree that we should see politics as a process of hijacks. We should be glad that the Serbian List is participating in the institutions and respecting the Constitution and that it has ended the mental blockade that lasted for 15 years to integrate into our society. I absolutely think that PDK and LDK can and will find a common ground with the Serbian List for the good of all citizens in Kosovo. For years we have sought integration of northern Kosovo institutions and this is being achieved.

Tribuna:  What are the priorities of the new government?

Selimi:  They are clear: to adopt a package of legislation that will probably require constitutional changes such as the Special Court for war crimes, then the law on fighters abroad, final decisions on the visa liberalization roadmap, the budget and some other laws such as the Armed Forces of Kosovo. With this parliamentary majority we can work on electoral reforms and address some shortcomings of the Constitution that have been identified in recent months. But I believe that the citizens of Kosovo have a priority out of all priorities such as the economy and the creation of new jobs, and this should be the main objective. The bottom line of the privatizations of Brezovica, Power Plant “Kosova e Re” and several other projects could have been some immediate steps to bring confidence in the economy of Kosovo. This coalition provides optimism and offers guarantees that the processes of market economy will have a stable majority in the parliament and not repeat the failure such as in the case of the privatization of PTK last year.

Tribuna:  Do you know how has LDK made such a dramatic turn? Was it the decisive role of the US Embassy?

Selimi:  I do not think that LDK has made a dramatic turn, but I am not the party’s spokesperson. They have always emphasized that they are institutionalists and this agreement is as such – it provides guarantees for stable institutions. Nor do I think the US Embassy had any direct or indirect role, but it is clear that all our allies support an agreement that produces progressive governance. This government is a native product of a native agreement between Kosovo parties and that’s why I think that Western governments will warmly welcome the new government when voted into parliament.

Tribuna:  When will the new government be voted? Why haven’t you convened the parliamentary session yet?

Selimi:  The parliamentary session will be convened in a few days when the working groups define programmatic priorities and allocation of senior positions. We waited nearly six months. It is important that we do not make mistakes in a rush. Kosovo will have a functional government, an approved budget and a clear government program during 2014 so that next year we enter with clear objectives.

Tribuna:  You are rumored to be one of the people who have worked on the election campaign of the “PDK – New Mission.” Is the promise of the creation of 200,000 new jobs realizable or is there anything from the program that can be realized?

Selimi:  No electoral promise is empty, but they are based on numbers and empirical data and projections. Politics is the art of the possible – a cliché perhaps but that shows that we should aim for optimum realization. Neither President Obama nor President Hollande nor Chancellor Merkel nor Prime Minister Cameron have realized even close to 100% of their electoral promises, but voters know how close we can get and whether there is justification for eventual failures. People voted us because our campaign looked like a glass half full – with the shortcomings and failures but also have touched the lives of hundreds of thousands of citizens. Therefore, we received the vote of confidence and now together with LDK we will invest in this electoral capital to realize the optimum of the promises.

Peace Picks November 24-28

  1. The Future of the Kurds in the Middle East | Monday November 24th | 12:00 – 2:00 | Rethink Institute | REGISTER TO ATTEND | The threat of ISIS and the Kobane crisis have led to interesting developments in the region. Turkish government declared that it gives Peshmerga forces a passage to Kobane as a response to Washington’s approval of arms transfers to PYD. For the first time, White House publicly stated that PYD is different from PKK, and thus, not considered as a terrorist group by the United States. Recently, PYD and Syrian Kurdish parties reached a settlement in Dohuk in the presence of KRG President Massoud Barzani, reminiscent of the Erbil agreement two years ago. Will the United States support an autonomous Kurdish region in Syria? Is Dohuk agreement going to be effective under the pressure of ISIS threat? What is the stance of Turkish government toward PYD’s future? The speakers are Michael Gunter, a professor of political science at Tennessee Technological University and has authored 11 books on Kurds in the Middle East, Vera Eccarius-Kelly, a professor of Comparative Politics and Associate Dean at Siena College and is the author of The Militant Kurds: A Dual Strategy for Freedom, and Sezin Oney, a columnist for Taraf daily in Turkey. The moderator is Mustafa Gurbuz, a fellow at Rethink Institute and a policy fellow at Center for Global Policy at George Mason University.
  2. Jihadist Movements in Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq: Inevitable Rise or Policy Failure? | Monday November 24th | 3:30 – 5:00 | Carnegie Endowment for International Peace | REGISTER TO ATTEND | The growth of jihadist movements in the Middle East has fueled regional instability and captured global attention. Adam Baczko, Gilles Dorronsoro, and Arthur Quesnay will address their emergence in Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq. Based on extensive fieldwork, they will assess the failure of U.S. policy to anticipate current developments and suggest new orientations. They will analyze the similarities and differences between the Taliban and the Islamic State regarding military strategy, governance, and engagement with Western countries, as well as compare the respective levels of sectarian violence in Iraq and Syria with Afghanistan. Frederic Wehrey will serve as a discussant, and Frederic Grare will moderate.
  3. Iran-P5+1 Nuclear Negotiations: the Road Ahead | Tuesday November 25th | 10:30 – 12:00 | Brookings Institution | REGISTER TO ATTEND | A year of negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 partners based on the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA), adopted in Geneva in November 2013, has produced significant progress, but a comprehensive deal has so far proved elusive. With important differences reportedly remaining but with the parties actively engaged in the run-up to the JPOA’s current deadline of November 24, the outcome of the current phase of negotiations is uncertain—although the parties may well be headed for another extension. Brookings will host a panel discussion to evaluate where the negotiations stand, to consider prospects for the period ahead and to discuss how the U.S. Congress, key Iranian audiences and other interested parties may react in the current situation. The speakers are Gary Samore, Executive Director of Research at The Belfer Center, Harvard University, David Albright, Founder and President of the Institute for Science and International Security and Edward Levine, National Advisory Board Member at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. The moderator is Robert Einhorn, Senior Fellow at Brookings.
  4. Corruption, Constitutionalism & Control: Implications of the 4th Plenum for China and U.S.-China Relations | Tuesday November 25th | 3:00 – 4:30 | Woodrow Wilson Center | REGISTER TO ATTEND | The recently concluded 4th Plenum of China’s 18th Communist Party Congress focused on “governing the nation in accordance with law.” Reforms described in plenum documents seek to strengthen the institutional bases for economic and social reforms laid out at the 2013 plenum, and to build trust in the Communist Party’s ability to behave righteously and govern justly. Standards of righteousness and justice, however, like the meaning of “in accordance with law” and the status of the constitution, remain vague. The pace and direction of legal reform and the scope and methods of anti-corruption efforts, moreover, remain the sole province of the CCP, within which General Secretary Xi Jinping now exercises a singular influence. How will China’s attempts to rectify the Party and strengthen the legal foundations of its governance shape the nation during Xi’s tenure, and how should American leaders, corporations, and other institutions analyze and respond to Xi’s reform program? The speakers are Donald C. Clarke, Research Professor of Law at The George Washington University Law School and Andrew Wedeman, Professor in the Department of Political Science at Georgia State University.

Punt and rethink

Having failed to reach an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program by today’s deadline, the P5+1 (US, UK, France, Russia, China and Germany) and Tehran have decided to punt.  The new deadlines are March 1 for a framework political agreement and July 1 for the definitive agreement. Iran continues to get access to $700 million per month with the current Joint Plan of Action (JPA) extended. That’s a lot of money, but nowhere near enough to compensate for Iran’s loss of oil revenue due to the recent sharp fall in prices.

The interesting question is how this punt will be received politically in the US and in Iran.

With the Republicans taking over control of the Senate, there is a real possibility of new sanctions being passed, whether the Administration wants them or not. My guess is that something along those lines will happen, possibly new sanctions to be triggered if the March 1 deadline is missed. These would likely focus on the Iranian financial system, making transactions with the rest of the world far more difficult than they are today.

In Iran, the JPA restrains the overt nuclear program from dashing towards accumulating the material necessary to build a nuclear weapon, but Tehran has still not clarified the possible military dimensions of some of its past nuclear activity. With the Majlis likely to amplify its belligerence, there will be internal pressures there to accelerate any clandestine activities and to ensure maximum development of enrichment capacity consistent with the JPA. The punt gives Iran time to try to move the goal posts before the game starts again.

Meanwhile, the war against ISIS in Iraq has Iran and the US fighting on the same side, to support the Shia-led government in Baghdad, while it puts them at least nominally at odds in Syria, where Tehran supports Bashar al Asad’s minority Alawite regime while the US supposedly supports the Syrian opposition. But President Obama is doing nothing militarily to harm Assad’s forces and has said that he is not trying now to remove Assad, presumably in order to avoid disrupting the nuclear talks with Iran.

It is high time for Washington to reconsider its position in Syria. Would the nuclear talks go worse if Bashar al Assad were under more immediate threat, or would they go better? If Washington were to accept the Turkish proposal to create a protected area within Syria in which the opposition could govern, would the nuclear talks go worse or better? The answers to these questions are unclear, but it is arguable that a more robust American position in Syria opposing Assad and supporting the opposition would give Tehran something to worry about and increase American leverage on the nuclear issue, not decrease it.

Washington needs also to reconsider whether it is wise to give absolute priority to the nuclear talks in their current configuration. If the JPA is the best the P5+1 are going to get, it might make sense to accept the limited time it puts between Iran and a nuclear weapon (less than six months?) and refocus on possible military dimensions. There really is little precedent for a country using facilities safeguarded by the International Atomic Energy Agency to gain nuclear weapons. Clandestine facilities are the far greater threat.

With the resignation of Secretary of Defense Hagel, President Obama has an opportunity to use the appointment of his replacement as a way of signaling what he plans to do on Iran, the nuclear talks and Syria. Some rethinking is in order. Let’s hope it gets done.

Lame duck flies again

Like just about everything else in Washington today, how you feel about the President’s action on immigration depends on how you feel about the President. He has become the political touchstone for everyone.

Dislike him? You are likely to think it is a mistake for him to act without Congress, he doesn’t have or shouldn’t use the authority needed, and the Republicans in Congress should teach him a lesson by holding up confirmations or screwing with the budget, maybe even causing a government shutdown, suing the bastard or impeaching him.

Like him (as I do), you are likely to think it is a good move, both politically and administratively. We are never going to be able to deport five million people, the Congress has failed to act, and this move will solidify the Democrats’ link to the Hispanic and Asian communities. If Republicans don’t like it, they can up the ante in the next session, when they will have majorities in both houses.

So we are at loggerheads one more time. Unlike most others, I’m not prepared to bemoan that. It seems to me immigration is an important issue that should be subject to the full force of political contestation. Who is allowed into the country does determine who we are.

The outcome of the political debate is of course uncertain, but I am betting that the Republicans in Congress will up the ante. They cannot afford to have the Democrats walk off permanently with the lion’s share of Hispanic, Asian and Silicon Valley votes, as they did during the Roosevelt era with black votes.

A lot of people are going to be surprised if the Republicans turn around and offer a path to citizenship (which the President’s action will not). But it is their best political move, provided they can gather enough of their own party’s votes to back it.  When you have lemons, make lemonade.

In the wake of the drubbing the Democrats got earlier this month in the mid-term election, it has become popular to pronounce their inevitable decline. I’ve been through too many cycles of that media trop with both parties to believe it likely true this time. But keeping the President and his views under wraps during the last election did nothing to help the Democrats stem the tide of Republican success. Getting him out front and firm about what he believes in and what he wants to do strikes me as more likely to fix the Democrats’ ailing fortunes.

Polarization may not produce the paralysis everyone expects. On immigration, Atlantic and Pacific trade, the response to the Islamic State, preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, engaging with China and other truly priority issues there are large measures of agreement and strong pressures for serious progress. A lame duck president is also a free-wheeling president. He did well in Asia last week. This week looks good too. The lame duck flies again.

In the long term…

Proceedings kicked off at Thursday’s Middle East Institute conference with a panel on A Middle East in Flux: Risks and Opportunities. Moderating was peacefare’s Daniel Serwer, presiding over a star-studded panel consisting of Juan Cole, professor at the University of Michigan, Robert Ford, former US ambassador to Algeria and Syria, Paul Salem, vice-president for policy and research at the Middle East Institute, and Randa Slim, director for Track II initiatives at MEI.

The panel focused on long-term forces and factors in the Middle East and North Africa. Cole drew attention to the youth bulge, low investment, lack of jobs, and the effects of climate change on the region. The population is growing as resources are shrinking. Dwindling water supplies will create immense social pressures, and may lead to mass migrations and regional tensions, including over water supplies. Sea level rises will inundate the low-lying plains in southern Iraq, areas of the Nile Delta, and other inhabited areas.

This will happen as hydrocarbon production levels off and even declines, squeezing countries made rich by petrodollars. The region needs sustainable development, Cole underlined, which means a shift towards solar and wind power and a big increase in technological capacity.

Agreeing on the importance of resource and economic constraints, Salem underlined the collapse of already weak and corrupt institutions in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen. With the failure of the Arab uprisings in these countries, the region has lost its sense of direction, as well as any semblance of regional governance. There is no real alternative to accountable, inclusive and ultimately democratic governance, but it is difficult to see how the region will get there from the disorder into which it has fallen. It needs high-value exports that it is unable to produce today.

The currently oil-rich region must adapt now, before it is left without options. Ford predicts that the Middle East will become a major food-importing region. To generate the revenue needed to pay for this food, the region will need to attract investment. Businesses will want to see fair and honest rule of law before sinking money into the region. Failing to develop economies producing more than commodities risks condemning the region to an impoverished and unstable future.

The panel considered the role of religion in the future of the Middle East, but it said notably little about sectarian or ethnic strife, which is more symptom than cause. Ford hopes that Islamists will be pulled towards the center of the political spectrum, as political Islam cannot provide the answers to all the socio-economic problems faced today. But this only applies to those Islamists actively engaging within the political system. There will be no single solution. With the region in such a dramatic state of flux, Salem cautions that there is a developing contest for defining the region’s cultural identity. Sheikhs, militias, and jihadists are competing to define the future of society and culture in the Middle East. The cacophony risks drowning out more moderate reformers and democrats.

Slim underlined the importance of Iran’s trajectory for the region as a whole. Whether a nuclear deal is reached and the choices Tehran makes about support for its allies in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Bahrain and Palestine will affect Iran’s relations with its neighbors in the Gulf and with the West. There is great potential for improvement, but also serious risk of deterioration if those in Tehran who want a nuclear deal have to pay for it by giving others a free rein to do what they want regionally.

The West must engage better in the battle for hearts and minds. For Slim, the key battle ground is online and across smart phones. ISIS releases thousands of propagandistic tweets, videos and online messages every day. Jabhat al-Nusra has a similarly slick media operation. Media literacy in the Arab world is high. The West should not let extremists be the only voice in cyberspace. Twitter and Facebook are theatres in the war against violent doctrines just as much as Kobani.

But the ideological battle cannot be won only through convincing words and media campaigns. Robert Ford recalled the warm reception he had received at a university in Algeria, which had a link with a university in the US. The few graduating from the program had all found employment. The result was goodwill from an much wider section of the local population. Providing quality education, developing human connections , and working to build the skills that  bring employment and prosperity are vital in combating ideologies that preach hatred.

The path to long-term success and stability in a region facing increasing chaos can be summed up by two 1990s political catch phases. Bill Clinton’s “it’s the economy, stupid”, and Tony Blair’s “education, education, education.” Military campaigns against threats such as ISIS may sometimes be necessary, but in the long term the region’s future will be determined by other factors:  demographic  and climate pressures, the search for dignity, institutional strength and economic success or failure. The US and its allies cannot determine the outcome. They can only encourage and support local actors as they seek to achieve stability and prosperity.

End the Iranian occupation of Syria

Last week, the Middle East Institute hosted Faoud Hamdan, Founder and Executive Director, Rule of Law Foundation and the head of Naame Shaam, a project dedicated to researching Iran’s role in the Syrian conflict. Since its launch early this year, the organization has been involved in a number of initiatives such as a peaceful protests in European cities where Iranian officials and ministers have conducted meetings, an open letter to the Syrian opposition, as well as producing in-depth reports and analysis on Iran’s military and economic role in fuelling the war in Syria.

One of their most in-depth reports, “Iran in Syria: From an Ally of the Regime to an Occupying Force,” provides

numerous examples and case studies of human rights violations, war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by Syria by Iranian controlled militias and forces.

This report finds Iranian involvement in the ‘crisis cell’ assassination in July 2012 in which 6 of Bashar al-Assad’s highest-ranking members were killed. In addition, the report claims the Ghouta chemical massacre near Damascus in August 2013 involved the Iranians.

The Naame Shaam report also concludes that Iran is an occupying force in Syria. It presents legal arguments for addressing the war in Syria as an “international conflict that involves a foreign occupation…as defined by the 1907 Hague Regulations and the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949.”  Other key findings in the report suggest that the influence of the Iranian regime will endure past the fall of Assad due to “Iranian-backed and controlled militias fighting on behalf of the Syrian regime, including Hezbollah Lebanon and various Iraqi Shiah militia.”

The question remains of the rational for Iran’s heavy involvement in Syria. Naame Shaam asseses that there motivation is driven

first and foremost by the strategic interests of the Iranian regime in keeping shipments flowing to Hezbollah in Lebanon via Syria, so as to keep Hezbollah a strong deterrent against any attack on Iran’s military nuclear program.

According to the report, the Iranian regime has also been providing the Syrian regime with “financial loans and credit lines worth billions of dollars.” Without Iran’s military and financial support, Naame Shaam claims the Assad regime would already have collapsed.

The Naame Shaam conclusions are far reaching:

  1. Iran should be held responsible for “complicity in war crimes and crimes against humanity”
  2. No lifting of economic sanctions
  3. No extension of nuclear negotiations

In addition, the United States and the European Union

  1. should “demand that the Iranian regime orders Hezbollah Lebanon to disband and integrate into the Lebanese army”
  2. work to end the conflict in Syria by supporting moderate Syrian rebels
  3. should give the Iranian regime a “clear ultimatum” to pull “Sepah Pasdaran, Hezbollah Lebanon and other foot soldiers out of Syria.”
  4. put forth a UN Security Council Resolution under Chapter VII “imposing safe and unhindered humanitarian access to conflict zones and people in need throughout Syria.”

In case of a veto by China and Russia, the US and EU as well as their allies should “act unilaterally by securing areas held by the moderate Syrian opposition, imposing no-fly zones.”

Naame Shaam wants the international community to halt the role of Iranian influence and occupation inside Syria.

The full report is available here.




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