A potent symbol

Montenegro’s Prime Minister Djukanovic is in DC today (and yesterday) to plump for his country’s NATO membership.  His talking points were good (extrapolated from what he said):

  • Montenegro has prepared well and meets the membership criteria, even if its population is still more or less evenly divided on the proposition;
  • an invitation to NATO at the September Summit in Cardiff will have a positive impact on Balkans regional stability, including by encouraging Bosnia and Serbia to move in the same direction;
  • the Alliance needs to send Russia a strong message about its willingness and ability to expand and defend its members in response to the Ukraine crisis.

The trouble of course is that Montenegro is tiny (Google says 621,081).  However meritorious its candidacy, it is hard to see Montenegrin membership in NATO as a serious response to Russian malfeasance or even to regional instability.

Cardiff requires a broader vision , with an invitation to Montenegro as one component.  How to frame this broader vision is the issue.  Here are some possibilities:

  1. the Alliance could explicitly state its intention to invite, when they are ready, all the remaining Balkans non-members (Serbia, Kosovo, Bosnia and Macedonia in addition to Montenegro) to join;
  2. the intention could be broadened to all European democracies, including not only the Balkans but also Moldova, Sweden and Finland as well as Ukraine and Georgia;
  3. it could even include some non-European democracies, like Colombia, which cooperates closely with the Alliance.

3. is a stretch.  2.  risks provoking further Russian reaction in what it regards as its “near abroad,” even if much of it has been said before.  It would also potentially saddle NATO with members whose defense would be difficult (especially Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia).  In this era of constrained resources and retrenchment, the Alliance should be looking for members whose net contributions will be positive, not negative.  I’d plunk for 1., which is neither a stretch nor likely to provoke the Russians, who will campaign against NATO membership for Serbia and Bosnia (as they are already doing in Montenegro) but can do little more than that.

The Balkans owe their current democratic institutions to NATO action.  Kosovo in particular sees things that way.  More than ninety percent of its population supports NATO membership, which isn’t possible right away because the six-year-old country is just now beginning to build its armed forces.  The Albanians of Macedonia are likewise heavily in favor of NATO membership, which they regard as a guarantee of Skopje’s continued adherence to democratic norms (and decent treatment of its Albanian citizens).  The ethnic Macedonians are not far behind.  The only thing that holds Macedonia back is Greek refusal to accept it as an Alliance member.  Bulgaria’s echo of Greek objections will fade quickly if Athens changes its mind.

Serbia and Bosnia are more equivocal.  NATO bombed Serbs in both countries–notably Bosnia towards the end of the war there and Serbia in the 1999 conflict over Kosovo.  Nevertheless, the current leadership in Belgrade seems to be ready to at least start down the path towards NATO.  Membership for Montenegro would encourage them to do so.  Once Serbia embarks, it will make no sense for the Serbs in Bosnia to hold back, especially as the Serb units of the Bosnian army are reputedly highly professional and won’t want to suffer exclusion from the club.

So far as I am aware, Montenegro and Macedonia are the only fully qualified NATO aspirants at the moment.  Macedonia would have to enter as The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, as provided for in a 1995 interim agreement between Athens and Skopje, whose applicability to NATO membership has been confirmed by a decision of the International Court of Justice.  The merits of the case aside, getting The FYROM into NATO will require some heavy political lifting by the United States and Germany, which will need to convince Athens to drop its objection.

In addition to stating its intentions, the Alliance should add substance to its vision by advancing each of the Balkans aspirants as far as possible along the path towards membership.  What this means for each country would vary, but the clever bureaucrats at NATO headquarters can figure it out.  If Sweden or Finland wants to take some additional steps towards membership, that would be icing on the cake.

A substantial Balkans/Scandinavian move towards NATO would shore up the Alliance’s flanks.  It would be a serious diplomatic blow to Moscow, one for which it has no ready diplomatic or military response.  All the countries involved would be net contributors to the Alliance.  The move would help stabilize the Balkans and give Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia hope for the future.  It would demonstrate that aggression in Ukraine has real costs and give contemporary substance to traditional US sloganeering about “Europe whole and free.”

Montenegro is tiny, but wrapped in the right package it could become a potent symbol of an alliance prepared to pursue its ideals, come what may.

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No tempest in a teapot

I did this piece based on my visit to Erbil last week for the Middle East Institute, which published it today under the title “Erbil, Baghdad and Implications of the Oil Dispute”:

The Erbil cityscape, with the citadel to the right.

Erbil—the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan—was once a chaotic and dusty backwater. Today, it is well on its way to becoming an attractive and orderly commercial and government center. A decade ago there were virtually no trees, as they had all been cut down for firewood to heat Kurdish hearths during the 1990s wars among Kurds and between Kurds and Saddam Hussein’s army. A magnificent wooded park now graces the mile or so from the high-rise hotel district to the Kurdistan Regional Government’s parliament and offices. The ancient citadel—the current signs claim it was settled as early as 6000 BC—is being tastefully restored with UNESCO help. The once shambolic souk still needs work, but it is a lot more organized than a decade ago. Wide avenues outside the center are sprouting shopping centers, restaurants, offices, hotels, and apartment buildings.

The security presence is high near government offices, but mercifully light elsewhere. Al-Qa‘ida attacks still occur, though rarely. The peshmerga forces associated with what were once the two main political parties, which fought against each other in the 1990s until the United States mediated a peace pact, have been partially merged. More than a dozen public and private universities have been established in the last decade. Health conditions have improved.

All of this is the result of a deliberate, sustained effort by the Kurds of Iraq to use their share of Iraq’s oil revenue to build a Kurdish state, one that is constitutionally part of a sovereign Iraq but with broad self-governance in many areas.

At the moment, a caretaker government is in place, because the now three biggest political parties—one party split and has found itself in third place behind its rebel portion—have been unable to agree on how to slice the patronage pie. Parliament functions as in most other countries, though Kurdish sources tell me the media is far from independent and corruption is a big problem.  Kurdish politics can be a rough sport, though nowhere near as deadly as politics in the rest of Iraq.

The vital revenue to support this burgeoning state comes mainly from oil. The Kurdistan Regional Government receives 17 percent of Iraq’s overall oil income, minus deductions for Baghdad expenses that are supposed to benefit Kurdistan. The real amount comes to more or less 14 percent, but that approaches the large sum of $15 billion.

The trouble from the Kurdish point of view is that Baghdad controls the flow of the money, and an increasingly authoritarian Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki controls Baghdad. A recent dispute over Kurdistan’s oil production prompted Baghdad to reduce and eventually to end the revenue stream, leaving Erbil without the funds needed to pay its employees. The dispute concerns Kurdistan’s production and export of oil without Baghdad’s permission. One and a half million barrels of Kurdistan crude is currently sitting in storage tanks in Turkey, exported via a pipeline that Baghdad does not control.

This may seem like a tempest in a teapot. But it has broader implications than Kurdistan. Iraq has vast oil and gas reserves. It currently produces over three million barrels per day but has potential for much more. Kurdistan produces about one-tenth that amount, but also has potential to produce much more. Once Kurdistan production passes 500,000 barrels per day, Erbil would be better off receiving 100 percent of its own oil revenue rather than 14 percent of Iraq’s, if Iraq’s production does not increase.

The amounts are important, but so too are the directions in which the oil is exported. As things stand today, Iraq sends about 90 percent of its oil through the Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz, under the threat of Iranian guns. If more Iraqi oil were exported to the west (via Jordan to Aqaba) and to the north (through Turkey), Iraq would be tied much more definitively to Europe and the West. Its gas, still largely undeveloped, could eventually be a serious alternative to Russia’s, also reinforcing ties with the West.

Thus it is the geopolitics and geoeconomics of Kurdistan’s oil and gas that make it important. This is why an American diplomat, Brett McGurk, has been shuttling between Baghdad and Erbil, trying to resolve their current dispute. It is also why Turkey and Kurdistan have gone to great lengths to settle their differences. Today, Turkey is a major investor and trading partner for Kurdistan.

As goes oil, so goes Iraq. If Baghdad and Erbil can settle their current differences and reach the long-anticipated agreement on a law regulating production and export of oil and gas as well as distribution of the revenue, Iraq will stay in one piece. But if Kurdistan decides it would be better off to go it alone, calling the referendum President Massoud Barzani never fails to mention to visitors who call at his Saddam Hussein-era palace outside Erbil, Iraq will come apart, and not likely in two neat pieces.

Erbil and Baghdad have never settled their disputes over which territory should be governed by one and the other, including oil-rich Kirkuk. Nor are the Sunnis of western Iraq likely to stick around in an Iraq that without Kurdistan might be 80 percent Shi‘a. Their provinces are already in rebellion against Maliki. A messy dissolution of Iraq, with uncertain borders and ready availability of Sunni extremists from Syria, would be a formula for violence, further realignment of Baghdad and its vast oil reserves with Tehran, and a haven for terrorists in Iraq’s western provinces.


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On Kagame, you decide

I won’t pretend to know anything about Rwanda.  So on this 20th anniversary of initiation of the genocide, I point to what President Kagame has to say, as well as Philip Gourevitch’s commentary (his 1999 book We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families is indispensable reading):

On the critical side, Anjan Sundaram contributes a scathing piece in Politico.  Tony Blair however has little other than praise to offer.

You decide.

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Peace Picks April 7 – 11

1. Political Parties and Nigeria’s Electoral Process

Monday, April 7 | 10am – 12pm

2nd Floor Conference Room, Center for Strategic and International Studies; 1616 Rhode Island Ave. NW

Join us for a discussion of the critical roles and responsibilities of Nigeria’s political leaders, candidates, and party supporters in laying the foundations for peaceful, credible elections in 2015.  We will hear from the leaders of the two main parties about their plans for the primary contests, and their strategies for enforcing good conduct among candidates, promoting issue-based rather than personality-driven campaigning, ensuring a tone of moderation in the debates, and encouraging respect for the election outcome. This conference is part of an ongoing series, supported by the Ford Foundation, bringing Nigerian officials, civil society activists, and opinion leaders to Washington, D.C. to engage with U.S. policymakers and Africa experts on how best to ensure that Nigeria’s 2015 elections are free, fair, and peaceful.

Read more

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Prime Minister of Shiastan

I don’t generally write about elections in advance, since whatever you say is bound to be dated (and more than likely wrong) once the votes are counted.  But the Iraq parliamentary election April 30 is important enough to merit some comment.  And it is far enough in advance that I can write off any mistakes to things that occurred after the post.

The current expectation is that Prime Minister Maliki will do well in his campaign for a third mandate.  He may not match the 90 seats his State of Law got in 2010, but the prevailing consensus of both his supporters and opponents is that 80-90 is well within reach.  A plurality seems assured.  This is a bit surprising, given the challenge to his rule Sunnis have been mounting in Anbar and Ninewa, where Al Qaeda has taken over substantial areas.  But Maliki’s belligerent stance towards the Sunni gives him credibility with Shia, who are fed up with extremist Sunni attacks and will want to express their view at the polls.  Even 60-70 seats would put Maliki in the driver’s seat after the election, because changes in the electoral law (provincial electoral districts and open lists) have ensured that smaller parties have a good chance of doing better than in the past, thus fragmenting the opposition.  The Iraqiyya list that beat him last time by two votes has been evaporating.

Some think government formation might take a long time, as it did last time around.  That is certainly a possibility, but if Maliki gets the largest number of seats for his own State of Law and manages to hold the Shia alliance together he can hope to shortcircuit the process by coopting smaller parties and independents as well as taking on board some more moderate Sunnis.  The Kurdish parties would then have no choice but to hop on board, before the train leaves the station.

What might upset Maliki’s apple cart?   Two things:  Iran and Najaf.   Both want the Shia united.  But Tehran has become concerned that Maliki is getting too strong.  Iran has suffered in the past from a strong executive in Iraq and is therefore not wedded to Maliki.  Najaf, that is the marjariya (Shia religious authorities) are thought not to be keen on Maliki either, as he has failed to deliver services to the Shia poor, or most others for that matter.  If either Najaf or Iran decides that the Maliki cannot unite the Shia block, they might defenestrate him and manage it with someone else.  Maliki himself last time around set a precedent by forming a government without having the largest number of seats (he assembled his coalition post-election).

That however is unlikely.  Maliki, who has proven himself a master at political maneuver, will more likely keep the Shia united, pick off some Sunnis and present the Kurds with a virtual fait accompli.

The trouble is government formation in this fashion might be the end of Iraq.  The Kurds, who are resentful of Maliki’s failure to keep promises they say he made last time around, might well take the occasion to conduct a referendum on the status of Kurdistan, especially if there is no settlement of their oil disputes with Baghdad.  Independence would pass overwhelmingly.  If that happens, the Sunnis will not be sticking around:  there would be a giant uprising in Anbar, Saladin and Ninewa.  Maliki would react by trying to crack down on both Kurds and Sunnis, but there is no reason to believe the Iraqi security forces would be able or even willing.  A big election victory for Maliki would thus become Pyrrhic.  He would become prime minister of Shiastan.

Even if Iraq does not break up as a result of a third Maliki mandate, the sectarian and ethnic strains will be dramatic.  Maliki’s inclinations are to centralize power.  That is precisely the wrong direction to go in if something like democracy is to survive in Iraq.

A more favorable outcome would require a cross-sectarian, interethnic alliance of major Shia blocs (other than State of Law) with Sunnis and Kurds, backing an alternative to Maliki.  This is unlikely, since it would require a quick and definitive choice of a speaker of parliament, president and prime minister, one of each flavor, then a quick distribution of ministerial slots, with Maliki and his plurality trying to block the effort at every turn.  Unlike political leaders in more mature democracies, he cannot expect a quiet retirement, or a turn in opposition.  He has chased several Sunni leaders out of power and into Kurdistan, where people told me last week they would be happy to welcome Maliki as well.  From his perspective, that’s not an attractive proposition.

Sarah Chayes writes that the election in Afghanistan today may bring neither the stability nor the transition the West wants.  I fear much the same might be said about Iraq.  Both countries are in need of national dialogue and reconciliation.  But in Iraq the election definitely does matter, while in Afghanistan Sarah suggests that will not be the case.

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Who is at risk?

SAIS student Stephen Pritchard, wo has cleared mines, reminds me that today is the United Nations’ International Day for Mine Awareness and Assistance in Mine Action. He also provided this powerful short film:

You and I are at risk, that’s who.

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