Month: December 2012

Serbia’s new year

Publication of my reflections on Kosovo’s new year made me wonder why I hadn’t done a comparable piece on Serbia.  So here it is.

Serbia struggled through 2012, which saw the fall from power after more than 10 years of its Democratic Party and the defeat in the May election of its incumbent president, a tougher line from the European Union and the United States on dismantling Belgrade’s governing structures in Kosovo and continued weak economic growth.  Belgrade’s success in slowing recognition of Kosovo has not translated into anything positive for Serbia, which seems to be running a foreign policy based on inat (spite), or at least on delaying the inevitable.  This has driven it in showy but unproductive directions:  the Non Aligned Movement and Russia are far from the European aspirations of most of Serbia’s citizens.  Former Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic’s presidency of the General Assembly keeps Serbia’s profile high but has produced few concrete results.  His announced intention to hold a debate on the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, which has acquitted several high-level indictees of alleged crimes committed against Serbs,  promises more of the same.

Relations with Kosovo have nevertheless improved, with implementation of some of technical agreements progressing and political-level talks begun.  Serbia’s platform for the talks was prepared late.  I welcomed it with my version of a Bronx cheer.  It may be revised, but more likely ignored.

This is how Njuz, Serbia's version of the Onion, viewed the platform.
This is how Njuz, Serbia’s version of the Onion, viewed the platform.

According to the platform, Belgrade continues to claim sovereignty over all of Kosovo and aims at separate governance of the Serbs there, including those south of the Ibar river who have already integrated to a significant degree in Pristina’s institutions while enjoying the autonomy the Ahtisaari plan provides.  Serbia’s campaign against recognition of Kosovo by other states has been moderately successful, but recognitions continue (13 in 2012).  Belgrade failed in its concerted effort to prevent Kosovo from joining the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

Serbia faces two big problems on the domestic front:  its slow economic growth since 2009 and its rapidly aging population.  Combined, they are straining the country’s finances, causing the dinar to depreciate and inflation to rise, while unemployment remains high.  Per capita income is now at about the same level as Kosovo’s, which used to be much lower.  The global economic environment is not positive, in particular in Europe.  “Doing business” conditions have improved and foreign direct investment has been a big plus.

Serbs are already enjoying visa-free travel to the Schengen area of Europe and Serbia has achieved the status of candidate for European Union membership.  It does not, however, yet have a date to begin negotiations.  Brussels, reluctant to open the door to further enlargement, will be exacting not only in the eventual negotiations but also in agreeing to a date for their start.

The still fairly new president and government in Belgrade have yet to solve the equation that stumped their predecessors.    Serbia’s European ambitions require modernization and reform.  But Serbia is still attached to ideas about state legitimacy, the role of religion in the state and the relationship of Serbs to non-Serbs that are backward-looking.  It is not surprising that President Nikolic and Prime Minister Dacic think it natural that they visit Banja Luka before Sarajevo, a move that presumably foreshadows their intention to continue their predecessors’ habit of favoring relations with Republika Srpska over relations with Bosnia and Herzegovina, the hastily arranged visit of the foreign minister to Sarajevo notwithstanding.

The American role vis-a-vis Serbia has declined significantly.  The Europeans have most of the leverage.  Berlin has the biggest say in how they use it, though London, The Hague, Ljubljana and eventually Zagreb will also insist on reform and modernization while Paris, Rome, Stockholm and others try to win Belgrade’s affections with softer approaches.  In the end, though, it takes consensus of all the EU members to decide on membership.  Serbia will get there, but the road is going to be long and difficult.

In 2013, the key issue will be a date to begin negotiations.  That depends on improving relations with Pristina.  A solution for the Serb-controlled north seems far off, but I hope it will be found.  Serbia needs to declare independence from Kosovo.

PS:  There is a translation (thank you Milan Marinkovic!) into English of the picture here.

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Kosovo’s new year

Kosovo Sot, a Pristina paper, likes to hear from me once a year.  Here is what I sent ten days ago for publication today:

As the end of the year approaches, I find myself more hopeful about Kosovo and Serbia than I anticipated at the beginning.  The high-level political dialogue that started this fall holds more promise than the technical dialogue begun in 2011.  The technical dialogue focused on practical issues:  boundary/border controls, mutual recognition of diplomas, return of the civil registries taken by Serbia at the end of the war, electricity trade and telecommunications.  Edita Tahiri carried it as far as it could go.  It reached the limits of what it was able to achieve without running into political problems.  Until recently, implementation has been minimal, especially on the Serbian side.

Talks on the political level, which began in October between the prime ministers with Lady Ashton as facilitator/mediator, came at the right moment.  Germany had made it clear to Belgrade over the summer that the parallel Serbian administrative structures in northern Kosovo could not remain in place if Serbia wants a date to begin accession negotiations to the EU.  Serbia this fall and winter faces dramatic fiscal constraints.   The Serbian platform for negotiations published recently was not promising, but more important is what Belgrade does and says at the talks.  Attenuating the economic burden of Kosovo should be welcome in Belgrade.

Pristina also needs a positive outcome, in order to improve its relations with the EU and establish itself as a serious contender for the visa waiver and a Stabilization and Association Agreement.  First priority is to finalize implementation of the technical agreements, including the Integrated Border Management and the Cadastral Records Agreement.  If that doesn’t happen, Thaci will be in a bad spot for upcoming elections either in 2013 or 2014.

The end of supervised independence in September by the International Civilian Office was a step forward, but some supervision continues. Even if the International Civilian Office has disappeared, EULEX and a variety of internationally appointed officials remain.  Kosovo’s security still depends on KFOR.

There is nevertheless a new spirit in Kosovo, manifest in the willingness to admit political level dialogue is necessary.   Only two summers ago I encountered many Kosovars who did not want to admit that good relations with Belgrade were important for Pristina.  Today that is well understood.  People are feeling the responsibilities of sovereignty and independence.  They recognize that the Serbian campaign against recognition has unfortunately been successful in constraining acceptance of Kosovo into the UN.

Kosovars are looking for a changed, more mature relationship with Belgrade.  Eventually this has to include diplomatic recognition and exchange of ambassadors.  The first step toward this new relationship is an end to the campaign against recognition.  Thaci will find it hard to continue to attend meetings if Dacic is sending (unsuccessful) demarches to dozens of capitals trying to prevent Kosovo from becoming a member of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

Kosovo will be entitled to armed forces in the middle of 2013.  It will take at least another five years before they reach full capability.  How big an armed force Pristina will need—and how it should be equipped—to protect its territorial integrity and sovereignty depends on the threat Kosovo faces.  With Serbian security forces already in northern Kosovo and KFOR anxious to leave, it is hard to argue that there is no threat.  Kosovo’s armed forces will in turn be seen as a threat in Belgrade and perhaps Skopje as well.  All three countries would be better off if they can agree to lower the mutual level of threat, but they must act quickly to make the necessary diplomatic arrangements.

There are real possibilities for successful political-level dialogue.  Dialogue is necessary not for dialogue’s sake or even for confidence-building, but because it’s the shortest path to allowing both Kosovo and Serbia to embark on the still long road to EU accession.

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It is not too early

UN special envoy for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi said Friday in Moscow of the Russian Foreign Minister:

I think Sergey Lavrov is absolutely right that the conflict is not only more and more militarized, it is more and more sectarian…And if we are not careful and if the Syrians are not careful, it will be a mainly sectarian conflict.

The day was a particularly bloody one:  more than 200 people are said to have been killed in Homs.

The fear of sectarian conflict is well-founded.  No matter how many times Syrians tell me that their revolution is not sectarian and aims at a civil state and open, democratic society in which all citizens are equal, the normal mechanisms of violent conflict lend themselves to increasing polarization along sectarian lines.  I am afraid, so I seek safety where I can find it, which for Alawites and some other minorities is with the government while Sunnis seek protection from the Free Syrian Army.

Of course there are Sunnis who fight for the Syrian government and minorities who fight for the rebels, but there will be fewer and fewer as time passes.  Then when Assad goes, individuals will try to recover property and seek revenge for the harm done to themselves and their families, even if the more organized and disciplined military units on both sides remain disciplined.  Revenge killing spirals quickly, polarizing people further and driving them into the arms of their family, tribe, sect or ethnicity.  Building a state on the ruins of a fragmented society is far more difficult than anyone imagines in advance.

That’s why I also welcome something else Brahimi said:

Perhaps a peacekeeping force may be acceptable. But it must be part of a complete package that begins with peacekeeping and ends with an election.

This is the first I’ve seen the obvious mentioned at his level:  peacekeeping forces are going to be needed in Syria.  They will be needed not only to protect minorities but also to support the post-war state-building effort.  We’ve seen in Libya what happens when the new state does not have a monopoly on the means of violence.  Extremists of all sorts, including Al Qaeda franchisees, set up shop.  State-building without a monopoly on the means of violence becomes a dicey proposition.  There will be more than two armed forces in Syria at the end of the civil war:  Syrian army, local militias, regime Shabiha, Free Syria Army, Jabhat al Nusra and other jihadi extremists.

The issue in Syria is where peacekeeping troops can be found.  Even if they are needed, that does not mean they will be available.  The obvious troop contributors have all been protagonists in the proxy war of the past two years:  Russia, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey.  The Turks and Russians may be willing, but won’t trust each other.  The Americans will not want to put troops into Syria.  Nor will the Europeans.  China now has experience in 20 UN peacekeeping operations and might like to extend its reach into the Middle East, if the Americans and Russians will allow it.  Iran is out of the question, though it will likely stir up trouble using some of the regime militia forces left over.  There are lots of other possibilities, but few I can think of that meet the full panoply of desirable criteria:  impartial, Arabic-speaking, experienced and self-sufficient in peacekeeping operations, available for deployment abroad.  Algeria and Morocco?

A related question is who would authorize and supervise a peacekeeping operation.  The UN is one possibility, but the divisions in the Security Council over the past two years hardly suggest it could act decisively.  The Arab League is another.  Still another is an invitation from a new Syrian government, which would have the advantage of picking which countries to invite and directing where they deploy.  But that could defeat the whole purpose of inviting in a more impartial force.

If–against the odds–an international peacekeeping force is somehow put together and somehow properly authorized for Syria, it is important to remember Brahimi’s caution, written before he took up his present position:

Even if such peacekeepers are well-armed and well-trained, however, they will be no match for much larger and well organized forces intent on destroying the
peace or committing mass atrocities. It has to be said upfront that the military forces, civilian police, human rights experts and international aid workers will not provide security, protection, justice, social services and jobs for all of the millions or tens of millions of inhabitants of the country.

A solid political solution is a prerequisite to a peacekeeping deployment.

Syria is going to be a very difficult post-war operation.  It is not too early to be thinking about who will conduct it and under what mandate.


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Hussein Saleh, you are not alone

My journalist (McClatchy) friend and fellow Haverford graduate Roy Gutman tweeted this moving short video about a Yemeni International Committee of the Red Cross worker, Hussein Saleh:

I Know Where I’m Going from Intercross on Vimeo.

It reminded me of what I know: most of the people who work for humanitarian and other organizations, nongovernmental and governmental, in conflict zones are host country nationals.  They take enormous risks and get killed at an accelerating rate:   they are most of the more than 300 humanitarian workers killed last year worldwide.

My first encounter with what the State Department now calls “Foreign Service nationals,” that is citizens of the country in which a U.S. government facility is located, was with Danilo Bracchetti, who worked in U.S. embassy in Rome from the late 1940s until retirement sometime after I left in 1993.  When he started, Rome had no garbage collection, because no one threw anything out.  He was the only Italian I ever met who admitted to having been in a fascist youth organization (virtually everyone was of course).  By the time I came along in the late 1970s, Italy was still in the throes of the Red Brigades, so working for the Americans was not without risk.  He never betrayed the slightest hesitation.  So far as Danilo was concerned, working for the Americans was an honor and a privilege, one I’m sure he was proud of to his premature dying day.

I’ve met other “host country” nationals in more dangerous situations.  Iraq was particularly challenging.  The U.S. Institute of Peace employees there did not always tell their families for whom they were working.  In 2006/7 especially, they lived in risky conditions.  One of our security contractors–an Iraqi Kurd–was killed then in a militia hit.  A number of our employees and collaborators later applied for and got visas to come to the U.S., on grounds that they were in danger if they remained.  Others fled to Kurdistan, which is still relatively safe from the sectarian violence that plagues other parts of Iraq.

A number of the key players in Afghanistan’s bureaucratic upper crust these days spent the Taliban years working for international relief organizations, some of which were active even then.  It is amazing how well acclimated they are to Western habits, even though they conserve their Afghan roots.  It was no small thing to deliver international aid during the years in which the Taliban ruled.

In Syria today virtually all the people distributing substantial amounts of international humanitarian assistance during the civil war are Syrians. The risks they face every day are unimaginable.  Or, depending on how you look at it, all too imaginable.

Despite the very real risks they run on behalf of Western governments and organizations, these host country nationals are largely invisible in today’s world.  But talk to any journalist, aid worker or diplomat.  They will recount tales of their heroism and devotion.  The host country (and third country) nationals run risks every day.  As the year comes to a close, I hasten to express what so many of us have felt:  deep appreciation and respect for the commitment they demonstrate and the sacrifices they make.  Hussein Saleh, you are not alone.

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This is bad

Egypt’s President Morsi has given an all too clear response to the State Department’s plea that he reach out to his opposition:  the country’s top prosecutor ordered a judicial investigation of the opposition National Salvation Front’s three most prominent leaders, all one-time competitors of Morsi in the first round of the presidential election.  They stand accused of trying to overthrow Egypt’s new regime.

The State Department had a different idea.  President Morsi, it said,

has a special responsibility to move forward in a way that recognizes the urgent need to bridge divisions, build trust, and broaden support for the political process. We have called for genuine consultation and compromise across Egypt’s political divides.

This was very much the right thing to suggest.  The question now is what to do about Morsi’s failure to follow the advice.

Readers will of course note the parallel between the polarization in Egypt and the situation in the U.S. Congress, where there is also an urgent need to bridge divisions, build trust and broaden support for the budget process.  Driving into a political cul-de-sac is a bad idea in Washington, as it is in Cairo.

Even paranoids have enemies. It is true that the National Salvation Front opposes the new Egyptian constitution, both on procedural and substantive grounds.  They would like to see it scrapped and a new one written.  They are entitled to that view. What Morsi is afraid of is that they will organize street demonstrations and try to overthrow him, as they did Mubarak.  That is precisely what some of them would like to do, but there is no sign they can mobilize a serious mass movement at this point.  Mounting a judicial investigation is far more likely to precipitate the demonstrations he fears than quell them.  If he wants a dialogue with the opposition, it would be better for him to hold back from  provoking them and sound a note of welcome.

If he is not going to do that, Washington needs to begin to tighten the screws.  Any sign that arrest and prosecution of the opposition leaders would be acceptable needs to be avoided.  Egypt is in desperate financial condition.  Implementation of its $4.8 billion stand-by arrangement needs to wait until Morsi gives a clear signal that he is willing to talk with his opposition without the threat to prosecute them hanging over their heads.

At the same time, American diplomats need to have a sit down with members of the opposition.  They need to begin playing by the new rules of the game, even if they don’t like them.  Some of them would like to sit out the upcoming parliamentary elections (presumably to be held in February, 60 days after the coming into force of the constitution, though I won’t be surprised if that slips).  Few secularists I am told feel like taking on the expense and trouble of running, as they believe the Muslim Brotherhood will cheat, as it is claimed they did in the constitutional referendum.  If the new parliament lacks a serious secular opposition, it will give Morsi five years to install an Islamist system in Egypt.

An Egyptian friend of the secularist variety sent me this video by Sheikh Imran Hosein, a Trinidadian who suggests that what Morsi did with the constitution and the referendum is distinctly un-Islamic.  Unfortunately the sheikh damages his credibility at the end by suggesting that the “Zionists” approve of what Morsi is doing because they are looking for an excuse to go to war with Egypt.  This is nonsense. With their hands full of issues with Syria, Lebanon (Hizbollah in particular), Palestine and Iran, the Israelis want the peace with Egypt to hold.  In Islamic discourse it is important to proving your point that somehow your opponent is helping “the Zionists.” But the first part about Mohammed in Medina and its relevance to the constitution in Egypt is well done for my American ears:

PS:  I’m assured the Sheikh is unknown in Egypt.

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Fin de regime

My guess is that we are finally in the waning days of the Asad regime in Syria.  UN envoy Brahimi was in Damascus yesterday and will talk with the Russians this weekend.  His is sounding like a last ditch effort.  Moscow has made it clear that it will no longer prop up Asad.  Now they have to be convinced to give him a shove in the right direction.  It shouldn’t be all that hard.  Bashar’s military police chief has famously absconded, joining his foreign ministry spokesperson.  The regime is cracking, though not yet crumbling.

This is a delicate moment in which a great deal is at stake.  The devil is in the details.  Brahimi is still pressing for a solution that jibes with last June’s Geneva agreement, which Moscow and Washington both endorsed, on formation of a fully empowered government with Bashar still in place.  I doubt the revolutionaries will accept it.  They want him out before agreeing to a ceasefire.  Provided that condition is met, a negotiated transition of power to some sort of “unity” government (which means it would include a “remnant” of the Asad regime) with a guarantee of a future transition could be a good thing, provided it genuinely puts Syria on a democratic path and extracts it from the violence now on going.  But it could also sell the Syrian revolution short by putting a new autocrat in place and creating conditions for renewed violence.

There will be precious little real international support for a true transition to democracy.  The Saudis and Qataris, who have provided the bulk of the arms and money to the revolutionaries, are not much interested in anything beyond getting Asad out and installing a Sunni (preferably Islamist) regime, democratic or not.  The Russians, Iranians and Iraqis will fear that outcome and want to preserve a secular regime, whether democratic or not.  The Americans and Turks will want a secular democracy, but they are not in a position to insist on it.   The Americans have been reluctant to get too involved.  Only if Turkey decides to put its boots on the ground inside Syria will it have the kind of clout required.  Even then, it may fail to get what it wants.

The Syrians hold the key to the outcome.  But of course they point in many different directions.  There are lots of Syrians who would prefer a secular democracy, but they are stronger among the nonviolent protesters than among the revolutionary military forces deciding the outcome.  The Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, now recognized internationally as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, is trying to project a unified and moderate image.  But the results so far are rudimentary:  a few press statements, not always on the most pressing issues.  There is still no transition government.

Jabhat al Nusra, a leading Islamist group among the fighters, is producing more substantial results.  Rejecting the Coalition, it is anti-Western, Islamist, socially conservative and hard-fighting.  The United States has designated it a foreign terrorist organization.  Washington’s primary concern is its links to al Qaeda in Iraq, which Jabhat al Nusra denies.  But I’ve also heard that the designation was done in part to please the Russians, who are genuinely (and justifiably) concerned with Syria becoming a source of Islamist extremism that could infect parts of Russia.  Baghdad is also worried about a Sunni extremist regime in Syria that would try to counter Prime Minister Maliki’s increasingly Shia (and autocratic) drift in Iraq.

Few in Syria want the state to collapse or divide territorially.  The revolution has not been fought on ethnic or sectarian grounds, even if it has exposed ethnic and sectarian divisions.  Only Syria’s Kurds lean in the direction of federalism, inspired and supported by their confrères in Iraq.  But I see no real plan on the horizon to prevent revenge killing, despite the very real likelihood it will happen.  If there is extreme violence against the Alawites or other minorities thought to have supported the regime, collapse and division become more likely.

All decisions that depend on the will of a single individual, as Bashar’s to step aside does, are inherently unpredictable.  There is of course the possibility he will refuse and hang on for a while, even defying the Russians to do so.  A Google search for “fin de regime” turns up a lot of hits concerning Syria, in 2011.  The longer this goes on, the worse it will be in the end.

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