Happy and dull

I did this hangout with RFE’s Gordana Knezevic and Dzenana Halimovic, moderated by Brian Whitmore, Wednesday and forgot to post it: 

I also forgot to post this interview with Elton Trota of the Pristina-based Independent Balkans News Agency:

IBNA: How do you assess the negotiation process between Kosovo-Serbia? What are the negative and positive aspects of the talks between Prime Minister Thaci and his Serbian Counterpart, Ivica Daciq?

Serwer: I think the dialogue process has been successful in limited but important ways. I’d like to see it move faster towards what ultimately has to happen: diplomatic recognition and exchange of ambassadors. But Serbia has now accepted the territorial integrity of Kosovo and the applicability of the Kosovo constitution on that whole territory. It has also exchanged liaison officers, under a thin EU cover. Those are steps in the right direction.

IBNA: Is it possible for reconciliation to happen between Balkan nations in the near future, taking into account that it’s a demand that comes from Brussels for good neighboring relations in the region?

Serwer: Reconciliation is different from good neighborly relations. Reconciliation will take a generation, or two. Good neighborly relations are a question of political will. The governing institutions can make that happen whenever they decide to do it.

IBNA: How is Kosovo moving toward the Euro-Atlantic integration? Is this going to be a long journey for the new state?

Serwer: It will be a long journey to the EU, whose requirements are much more elaborate and demanding than NATO’s. Kosovo has the advantage of being able to build its security forces from the ground up to meet NATO requirements. It has already done that for the Kosovo Security Force that exists. It will need to continue in that direction as that is converted into an armed force. Once it has real armed forces, entry into NATO should be quick if Kosovo meets the requirements. The only political obstacle is the non-recognizers, who will need to be convinced that Kosovo in the Alliance is a much better idea than Kosovo outside the Alliance.

IBNA: How is FYR  Macedonia moving toward the Euro-Atlantic integration?  Will the disputes of this country with its neighboring country make the journey of this country toward EU and NATO accession any longer?

Serwer: The only real hindrance for Macedonia is the “name” dispute with Greece, which is really about Greek and Macedonian identity, not the name. Macedonia’s armed forces have served with distinction in Afghanistan and its governing structures meet NATO requirements, if I understand correctly. I would like to see Macedonia enter NATO sooner rather than later under the interim agreement as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. That won’t be possible for the EU, which is still a long way off in any event.

IBNA: Riots and protests took place in Bosnia and Herzegovina against the government and the current political class, is the same is expected to happen in Kosovo and FYR Macedonia?

Serwer: I’m not in the riot/protest prediction business, but neither Kosovo nor Macedonia has suffered the stagnation that Bosnia and Herzegovina has suffered for the past eight years or so. Kosovo’s agreement on the north with Belgrade removes one possible source of instability. In Macedonia, I think NATO membership would contribute a good deal to the sense that the country is moving in the right direction. The normal political process in both Kosovo and Macedonia is in much better shape than it is in Bosnia, which is handicapped with a constitution that enshrines nationalists in power and leaves little room for issue-based politics. But the citizens of Kosovo and Macedonia should watch Bosnia with interest, because it is certainly a model to avoid.

IBNA: What will be the fate of northern Kosovo?

Serwer: Northern Kosovo consists of four Serb-majority municipalities that will now govern themselves in many respects, under the overall constitutional framework of the Republic of Kosovo. Its courts and police will be integrated with the system in the rest of Kosovo, and its municipal authorities will participate in an association of Serb municipalities formed under Pristina’s aegis. With any luck, it will prosper a bit more than in the past and become a happy and dull place.

Ukraine liberates itself

Hard to tell precisely what is going on in Ukraine or predict what the outcome will be, but it seems clear enough that President Yanukovich is out after he fled from Kiev yesterday, leaving the city and the presidential palace in opposition hands.  Security forces loyal to the president have given control of the capital to security forces backing the opposition.  The parliament has removed its speaker, a Yanukovich ally, declared the president unable to perform his duties, freed opposition leader Yulia Tymshenko and called elections for May 25, more than six months earlier than provided for in yesterday’s European Union-brokered agreement.

The situation is still perilous.  It could easily degenerate into civil war, if security forces in the eastern portion of the country remain loyal to Yanukovich, who is describing the events as a coup.  Moscow could make life difficult for any successor government, either by tightening its purse strings or shutting off supplies of natural gas.  The European Union and the United States, both of which will be pleased to see the back of Yanukovich, are unlikely to ante up as quickly as President Putin will turn the screws, or as much as Moscow has offered.  The situation in Crimea, which is mostly Russian-speaking and transferred to Ukraine only in 1954, could become problematic.  Putin could try to hive off the eastern provinces and Crimea.  That after all is what he did to the Russian-speaking portions of Georgia when he got the chance, making Abkhazia and South Ossetia into supposedly independent Russian satellites. Not to mention the Trans-Dniester portion of Moldova.

There are deep divisions not only between the ex-president and the opposition, but also within the opposition, which includes right-wing nationalists as well as pro-European liberals.  Once the contest with Yanukovich is out of the way, the unity of the opposition can be expected to break down.  That is only natural.  The question will be whether they work out their disagreements with each other and with pro-Russian Ukrainians in peaceful or violent ways.  There are no guarantees on that score, especially as the security forces appear to be choosing sides.  What looks today like the happy triumph of relatively peaceful protests over a brutal proto-dictatorship, which killed demonstrators by the score, could look different in a few months.

But for the moment it is certainly tempting to celebrate.  It isn’t only the Russian hockey team that has had a bad week or so.  Putin’s effort to force all of Ukraine back into Moscow’s sphere of influence looks likely to fail.  Its citizens have reasserted their right to choose a European, as opposed to a Russian, future.  Its parliament has tried to lay a legal basis for the shift in direction and future decisions on the country’s future.  Friends in Brussels and Washington will remain sympathetic if Ukraine chooses a liberal, democratic future.

Some will wonder, if a new election can settle the issues in Ukraine, why can’t that happen also in Syria?  The simple answer is that it can, but only when Bashar al Assad joins Yanukovich in Moscow.  The notion that a free and fair election can be held any time soon in a country that has never had a competitive election and where ballots are marked with a thumbprint drenched in blood from a pinprick is delusional.  Elections will some day play a key role in Syria, but for the moment we’ll have to content ourselves with alleviating the humanitarian suffering, using the UN Security Council resolution that passed today.

Tilting the playing field

We tend to treat adversaries as monolithic, especially when they label themselves an Islamic republic and put at its apex a Supreme Leader.  So I was attracted to the launch today of the Washington Institute’s Leadership Divided by Nima Gerami, with Mehdi Khalaji commenting and Mike Eisenstadt moderating.  Germani maps out the factional differences among Iranian elites:

  • those who unreservedly support Iran’s nuclear program and believe Iran has the right to develop nuclear weapons as a credible deterrent against perceived external threats (nuclear supporters)
  • those who advocate permanently rolling back Iran’s nuclear program in favor of other national interests (nuclear detractors)
  • those who are willing to accept temporary constraints on Iran’s uranium-enrichment-related and reprocessing activities—thereby lowering the degree of nuclear weapons latency—to end Iran’s international isolation (nuclear centrists)

He also maps their influence, based on past experience:

Nuclear centrists have traditionally exerted the greatest influence when Iran is faced with increased internal and external pressures, whereas nuclear supporters have ascended to power when these threat receded. Nuclear detractors have never enjoyed influence equal to the centrists and supporters, primarily because they have been cast out or marginalized from the system as a result of political infighting.

So what, I asked, should the US do and not do to increase the likelihood of a positive outcome to the comprehensive nuclear talks (defined as pushing back nuclear breakout to a year or more)?

Germani was reluctant to respond beyond saying that understanding elite views is useful, but under pressure offered that we should be cautious about letting up on sanctions, which are vital to pushing the Iranians in the right direction (presumably because the pressure strengthens the centrists).  Eisenstadt warned that efforts to game our adversaries’ internal fissures often don’t work out well but also added that the threat of military action should be clear and credible but private.  Putting it out in public doesn’t help.

Khalaji noted that nuclear supporters are feeling pressure to justify the nuclear program as a contribution to Iran’s energy requirements.  Patrick Clawson underlined that the more Iranians know about the nuclear program, including its very large costs and risks, the less likely they are to support it, especially after the Fukushima disaster.  Public pressure may not count for much, but it has some influence on what the Supreme Leader thinks possible and not.

On other factors affecting Iranian decision-making, it was noted that the Stuxnet computer virus and assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists have discouraged some technically competent people from working in the nuclear program, presumably slowing it.  The Supreme Leader’s fatwa against nuclear weapons has not been important, both because it is ambiguous (still never written down!) and because in the Islamic Republic government authorities can overrule any religious strictures and even constitutional provisions.

So no silver bullets here.  But the Iranian nuclear challenge is in many ways the most serious national security issue we face for the moment.  It could lead to war, or a nuclear arms race in the Gulf, or to Iranian hegemony in the region and an Iranian threat to Israel.  None of that is good from an American perspective.  Tilting the playing field away from the nuclear supporters and towards its centrists and detractors could help enable a comprehensive nuclear agreement that still, however, seems far off.

What Ukrainians want

I hope this morning’s news of an agreement between demonstrators and the government pans out, but in any event it is important to stay focused on the legitimate aspirations of ordinary people. This video should help:

Something Americans will like

Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns gave a fine speech yesterday at CSIS on “A Renewed Agenda for U.S.-Gulf Partnership”  heavy on security, resolving regional conflicts and supporting “positive” transitions (you wouldn’t want to use the D word in the Gulf).  Too bad the agenda bore so little semblance to the changing reality.

The Gulf will of course remain important to the US and to the rest of the world.  Its oil resources are the life’s blood of much of the global economy.  An interruption in supply, as Bill rightly pointed out, would cause an increase in oil prices worldwide, with possibly catastrophic impacts on growth and investment.

But the political economy of Gulf oil is changing.  The United States is importing less of it, down now to about 20% coming from the Persian Gulf.  And that represents a shrinking percentage of total US oil requirements, as our own oil production is increasing rapidly.  Asia is importing more Gulf oil.  China takes the lion’s share of Hormuz-transported oil, India another big chunk.  The International Energy Agency forecasts that 90% of Persian Gulf oil will go to Asia within a generation.  Why would such a dramatic shift in oil trade not affect geopolitics? Read more…

Things are not going well

Things are not going well in many parts of the world:

  1. The Syrian peace talks ended at an impasse over the agenda.  The regime wants to talk terrorism.  The opposition wants to talk transition.  The US is looking for options.
  2. Ukraine’s peaceful protests are ending in an explosion of violence.  Russia is financing and encouraging the government.  The US is ineffectually urging restraint.
  3. The UN has documented crimes against humanity in North Korea.  No one has the foggiest notion what to do about a regime that has now starved, tortured and murdered its citizens for more than six decades.
  4. Egypt is heading back to military rule.  The popular General Sisi is jailing both his Muslim Brotherhood and secularist oppositions.  Terrorism is on an upswing.
  5. Libya’s parliament has decided to overstay its mandate.  A new constitution-writing assembly will be chosen in elections tomorrow, but in the meanwhile violence is on the increase and oil production down.
  6. Yemen’s president has short-circuited the constitutional process altogether.  He announced a Federal structure that divides the South, whose secessionists reject the idea.
  7. Afghanistan’s President Karzai is putting at risk relations with the US, because he is trying despite the odds to negotiate a political settlement with the Taliban.
  8. Nationalism is heating up in Japan, South Korea and China.  Decades of peace in Asia are at risk as various countries spar over ocean expanse and the resources thought to lie underneath.
  9. Nuclear talks with Iran are facing an uphill slog.  The interim agreement is being implemented, but prospects for a comprehensive and permanent solution are dim.
  10. Israel/Palestine negotiations on a framework agreement seem to be going nowhere.  Israel is expanding settlements and increasing its demands.  Palestine is still divided (between Gaza and the West Bank) and unable to deliver even if an agreement can be reached.

For the benefit of my Balkans readers, I’ll add: Read more…




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