Rot at the top

Two Bulgarian researchers, Ruslan Stefanov and Martin Vladimirov, yesterday presented Shadow Power: Assessment of Corruption and Hidden Economy in Southeast Europe here at SAIS. Their powerpoints are here and here. Corruption is now in many ways the most important challenge in the Balkans today, as it hinders economic growth, exacerbates inter-ethnic relations, heightens political tensions, slows the pace of reforms needed to qualify for NATO and EU membership, reduces state legitimacy, and threatens instability. Corruption is second only to unemployment as a concern the public’s estimation. What the Southeast European Leadership for Development and Integrity (SELDI) has managed to do is to measure corruption pressure and practices (not just perceptions, as the Transparency International index does) as well as elucidate “state capture,” in particular in the energy sector.

The results are not edifying: corruption pressure (share of citizens reporting demands for bribes from public officials) has not improved overall since 2014 in the region and has worsened in Albania, Croatia, Macedonia, Kosovo, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, while declining in Bulgaria, Montenegro, and Serbia (notably the countries in which the European Union has arguably been most active on corruption issues). More than half of the population in these Southeast European countries believes it will have to bribe someone to get things done. In all but Montenegro, more than half the population believes corruption cannot be substantially reduced. Irregular, “hidden,” employment is one of the consequences. Another is use of the non-liberalized energy sector to extract rents for state officials.

Bosnia and Herzegovina and Macedonia, and to a lesser extent Albania and Kosovo, stand out as countries in which corruption levels are worsening. Tolerance of corruption in those four countries is also highest, and they are among the countries in which 50% or more of the population believes corruption cannot be substantially reduced. The public thinks the most corrupt officials in the region are political party and coalition leaders, members of parliament, ministers, and local political leaders. In short, what we’ve got here is deep-seated, endemic corruption, with the rot worst at the top.

What is to be done?

The report recommends “effective prosecution of corrupt high level politicians and senior civil servants,” EU Commission engagement with civil society, and independent monitoring mechanisms. That is certainly logical, but I challenged whether this was adequate after the presentation at SAIS, noting that the successful prosecution of my wartime friend and former prime minister Ivo Sanader in Croatia seems to have had the opposite impact: the “Sanader effect” has made top politicians more cautious about reforms. Ruslan wisely underlined that the prosecutions could not be one-off but rather should be sustained, as they are in the US. I can’t fault the idea of stronger EU engagement with civil society, which Ruslan and Martin thought had been much weaker than in Romania and Bulgaria, where improvements are evident.

I am however still skeptical about anticorruption bodies. The kind of civil society monitoring SELDI has done is important, but most official anticorruption agencies are ineffectual, because corruption is not an aberration of the system but rather the system itself. The opposite of corruption in these countries is not anticorruption. It is good governance. I see more promise in improving transparency and accountability, in particular in political parties. Most of them in the countries of greatest concern are run as fiefdoms of the party bosses, with little possibility of changing the guard and lots of opportunity to reward loyalists with corrupt rents. Srdjan Blagovcanin and Boris Divjak have made this point for Bosnia and Herzegovina. It seems to me likely to be valid in other countries as well.

But that point should not detract from the courageous and perspicacious work Ruslan and Martin have done. They have greatly enhanced the tools available to measure corruption and corruption pressure and offered some important suggestion of what to do about it. That these accomplishments are coming from inside the Balkans, not outside, represents real progress. Bravi!

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This election’s only fraud

Yup, it’s Donald Trump. He is currently busy fraudulently trying to convince everyone that election fraud is common. Here’s what knowledgeable people have to say about that:

He says the mainstream media refuses to give him his due, despite the heavy coverage that has given him billions in free publicity. He declares he’ll build a wall and the Mexicans will pay for it. Anyone with a brain in his head knows that isn’t going to happen. He claims to be philanthropic but gives relatively little money to charity. He promises to help the little guy, but his tax plan favors the ultrarich. His “university” defrauded its students. Let’s not even mention his promise to document wife Melania’s observance of the restrictions on her tourist visa or his pledge to release his taxes once the IRS is finished. No sign of that in her interview with CNN yesterday.

The only people who believe any of Trump’s claims at this point are his passionate supporters, disproportionately those who are white, male, and working class. They are unconcerned with his frauds, because he gives them something they figure is worth more. He has found ways to express their unhappiness with their loss of status. There is good reason for that complaint: their incomes haven’t risen in 40 years. But what makes Trump especially appealing to people with legitimate grievances is that he gives voice to the illegitimate ones: his racism and misogyny make it worth overlooking all the fraudulent claims.

What difference does all this make to international affairs?

The world is an echo chamber. We are hearing in Vladimir Putin, Nicholas Orban, Nicholas Sarkozy and other ethnic chauvinists sympathetic vibrations. Trump is not the originator of many of the ideas they share, but he gives them courage and conviction that they might otherwise have lacked. I was told yesterday that even opposition politicians in Montenegro are imitating Trump’s fraudulent claims that the elections there Sunday were rigged. What better way is there to explain a resounding loss?

The trouble is that it besmirches American democracy and weakens its appeal internationally. It is easy enough to point out that 24 American states have governors and both houses of the legislature in Republican hands. Since national elections in the US are organized at the state level, that pretty much rules out any rigging against Trump. Only 7 states are fully in Democratic control, including several where the election outcome is not in doubt. How, pray tell, would Hillary Clinton rig elections in places like Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, North Carolina?

Trumpites may respond that the real issue is the media, which favors Clinton. That is definitely true for the newspapers. Last time I heard, only one newspaper in the entire country had endorsed Trump. Even stalwart Republican papers are opting for Clinton. But radio and television, arguably much more important, are far more evenly divided, if not on balance favorable to Trump. Until recently, they bent over backwards to try to avoid calling him out for his many blatant lies. And his broadcast coverage has been far greater than Clinton’s.

What is Trump trying to achieve with his claims that the election is rigged? In addition to excusing what is looking likely to be a clamorous defeat, he is rallying his constituency for two things: to agitate at polling places November 8 against presumed non-citizens or repeat voters and to sustain the Trumpites’ interest in supporting him when he establishes his own supposedly “truth-telling” TV channel in the aftermath of the rigged election.

I doubt he’ll be successful at either enterprise. Trumpites who try to interfere with voting in the West Philadelphia district I canvassed in 10 days ago will find a community not only determined to vote for Clinton but one zealous in the defense of its rights. Even Oprah, who has really deep pockets, has had difficulty making ends meet with her own TV channel. Trump isn’t going to find it easy after this electoral loss to raise money. I’ll be amazed if anyone but his friends will still willing to give him a dime.

So be forewarned, penny-ante nationalists, racists, and misogynist: your American hero is a fraud who is going down to defeat in three weeks, whatever ugly rabbit he pulls from a hat during tomorrow’s final presidential debate. Clinton is now campaigning in solidly Republican states, having succeeded in tilting all the more competitive ones in her direction.

I admit it is sad and concerning that almost 40% of Americans will still cast a vote for Trump. But his defeat should still take some wind out of the sails of Putin and his ilk. It will also reassure America’s allies and give pause to those hoping for it to wreck its economy with protectionism and tax cuts for the rich. Liberal democratic values, on the ropes in recent years, are headed for a modest comeback.

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The best part of this election

The best part of this election may be Saturday Night Live (not that that is saying much):

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Peace picks, October 17-21

  1. Elusive Peace in Colombia: A Conversation with Ambassador Juan Carlos Pinzon | Monday, October 17 | 2:00pm – 3:00pm | American Enterprise Institute | Click HERE to Register |

    On October 2, Colombians rejected in a referendum a peace accord between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) through a national plebiscite. Proponents of the agreement said it was the only way to end the 50-year terror campaign plaguing Colombia and usher in a new era of peace and prosperity. Critics argued that it provided amnesty to human rights violators and that facilitating FARC’s political participation will invite narco influence and corruption into Colombia’s government and society.
    Join AEI for a conversation with Colombian Ambassador Juan Carlos Pinzón about what the rejection of the peace agreement means for Colombia and the US, the hopes and concerns of the Colombian people, and the post-accord challenges the country will face.

  2. National Security Law and the Legal Challenges of Terrorism | Monday, October 17 | 3:00pm – 4:00pm | Institute of World Politics | Click HERE to Register |

    Andrew McCarthy will give an overview of terrorism law and an explanation for why neither the criminal justice system nor the military system is a good fit against international terrorism. Andrew C. McCarthy III is a former assistant US Attorney for the Southern District of New York. He led the 1995 terrorism prosecution against Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman and eleven others. The defendants were convicted of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and of planning a series of attacks against New York City landmarks. He also contributed to the prosecutions of terrorists who bombed U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. He resigned from the Justice Department in 2003. He is a contributing editor of National Review and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

  3. Saudi Vision 2030: Opportunities and Challenges | Tuesday, October 18 | 12:00pm – 1:30pm | Middle East Institute | Click HERE to Register |

    Saudi Arabia’s ‘Vision 2030’ is the Kingdom’s most comprehensive economic reform package in its history. Put forward by Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, Vision 2030 aims to privatize entire sectors, raise non-oil revenues, cut subsidies, and streamline government services, among other reforms.
    But the challenges are significant, including moving Saudi nationals out of the government sector and into private employment, employing higher numbers of women, and raising taxes. In the process, the plan upends the Kingdom’s long-held social contract, which guaranteed its citizens most of their needs in return for their support.
    The Middle East Institute (MEI) and the Conflict Management Program at the Johns Hopkins University School for Advanced International Studies (SAIS) are pleased to host a discussion examining the economic and political implications of Vision 2030 with Hala Aldosari (Arab Gulf States Institute, ASGIW), Anthony Cordesman (CSIS), Fahad Nazer (AGSIW), and Jean-Francois Seznec(MEI and SAIS). Paul Salem(MEI) will moderate the discussion.

  4. Turkey and the Syrian War, an EES Distinguished Lecture with Dr. Sonar Cagaptay | Tuesday, October 18 | 6:00pm – 7:30pm | Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies | Click HERE to Register |

    The European and Eurasian Studies (EES) Program cordially invites you to join a presentation and discussion with  Soner Cagaptay of The Washington Institute for Near East Studies on “Turkey and the Syrian War” on Tuesday, October 18, 2016, 6:00-7:30pm. The session will be moderated by European and Eurasian Studies Program Director and Professor Erik Jones.

  5. A New Strategy for Iran-US Relations | Wednesday, October 19 | 9:00am | The Atlantic Council | Click HERE to Register|

    Nearly four decades since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the United States has found itself at cross-purposes with Iran throughout the Middle East. Though the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to limit Iran’s nuclear program has reopened channels of communication between the United States and Iran, new opportunities for engagement must be measured against the ongoing threat Iran poses to US partners and allies in the region. Ellen Laipson, Atlantic Council distinguished fellow and president emeritus of the Stimson Center, presents her ten-year vision for tackling these complex challenges in A New Strategy for US-Iran Relations. On October 19, Michael Connell, director of the Iranian Studies Program at the Center for Naval Analyses, Atlantic Council board director Amir Handjani, and national security correspondent for the New York Times David Sanger will join Laipson for a discussion of this first regionally focused installment in the Atlantic Council Strategy Papers.

  6. Islamophobia: Overcoming Myths and Engaging in Better Conversation | Thursday, October 20 | 11:00am – 12:30pm | The Atlantic Council | Click HERE to Register |

    Islamophobia is on the rise in non-Muslim-majority countries. It is worse today than it was in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks, with no signs of improvement. Following the recent spate of global terrorist attacks, Muslims are increasingly portrayed negatively by the media. Furthermore, some US politicians and their European counterparts have proposed an array of policies – from policing Muslim communities to controlling the flow of refugees and migrants from the Middle East.
    The role of national policy on civil rights protections is vital and now more important than ever before.
    Join us on October 20 for a public discussion at the Atlantic Council, convened in anticipation of the Smithsonian’s opening of its international exhibition, ‘The Art of the Quran.’
    Our distinguished group of panelists will address issues, including the media’s influence on shaping public perceptions of Islam and Muslims; the role policymakers can and should play in bridging the gap between Muslim and non-Muslim communities; and the role art and cultural institutions can play in shifting the narrative to a more inclusive and productive discussion. This panel will feature Karen Armstrong, author and Commentator on Comparative Religion, Vali Nasr, Dean, School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, Zainab Salbi, Founder, Women for Women International and Best-Selling Author, and TV Host. Moderated by Frederick Kempe President and CEO of the Atlantic Council.





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Jordan in the middle

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is often ignored when discussing the conflicts throughout the Middle East. However, given its central position (and its shared borders with Iraq, Syria and the Palestinian West Bank) it inevitably plays a pivotal geo-strategic role. Its close relationship with the United States only heightens its regional significance.

To address Jordan’s role in the region and beyond, a knowledgeable Jordanian spoke last week at a roundtable discussion in Washington DC, specifically about his country’s stake in the regional conflicts—namely, the civil war in Syria and the rise of ISIS.

Chaos and displacement of populations throughout the Middle East affects Jordan directly, since many refugees often seek resettlement in Jordan. The Jordanian government faces tremendous pressure to take in more and more refugees from neighboring countries. However, the Jordanian government and public are concerned with the security risk that these refugees pose, especially those migrating from areas formerly held by ISIS. Refugees admitted into Jordan go through a rigorous vetting process and are closely monitored. Amman is wary of the spread of radicalism domestically, and is concerned that refugees will encourage native Jordanians to join Islamist groups.

The refugee population has become a serious economic burden. Prior to the Arab Spring, Jordan had its economy in order—it had surfaced from the crippling debt of the 1990s and had a steadily growing GDP. The influx of refugees has forced the government to scramble to create institutions to care for these people (such as schools, hospitals, etc.). In addition to this pressure from refugees, Jordan’s tourism, transportation, and private sector haven’t been able to weather these economic blows and have been suffering recently. While they were guaranteed financial assistance from the UK and the US at the London Conference earlier this year, this assistance has not yet arrived. The official did, however, note that the US has been providing Jordan with $1.3 billion annually, which has been incredibly helpful in keeping the Jordanian economy in balance.

On Jordan’s ability to mediate between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the response was that Jordan would probably not be able to fill this role. Jordan does have a friendly relationship with Saudi Arabia—the Saudis and the Emiratis give Jordan $5 billion a year for project support, and there is talk of letting Jordan into the GCC. However, Jordan’s relationship with Iran is not strong and therefore Amman cannot serve as mediator.

Jordan has been pivotal in establishing a Free Syrian Army (FSA) “safe haven” in Southern Syria. Amman sees the southern faction of the FSA as relatively benign and capable of securing the south as a buffer zone against regime or extremist aggression.

On the US presidential election, the perception in Jordan is that Hillary Clinton has a clear and practical plan for the Middle East whereas Donald Trump is just bluffing.

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Syria’s future

It would be foolish to have much hope well into the sixth year of the Syria’s wars that Saturday’s meeting of the US, Russian, Iranian, Saudi, Turkish and Qatari foreign ministers will lead to a way out of the current impasse. But it is reasonable to ask what would make the meeting more than just one more boon to Lausanne’s luxury hotels.

The current situation is not propitious. Syria’s government is feeling confident as it rides a ferocious wave of mostly Russian and Iranian attacks on the opposition-held neighborhoods of eastern Aleppo, which it is “cleaning.” It figures the fall of Aleppo will be a tipping point leading to government victory in much of more populated Syria. The government has already negotiated an end to sieges of several areas near Damascus, transporting their populations in an effort to adjust their demography. President Assad has no intention of welcoming back the more than 7 million Syrians who have fled the country. He wants, and thinks he can get, a Syria over which he can restore his autocratic rule by violent means.

At this point, the only thing that would increase the likelihood of a negotiated diplomatic solution is a change in the military balance that threatens Assad. There are ways that might be accomplished without directly engaging Russian forces, which the Americans don’t want to do: stand-off attacks on the Syrian air force or on Hizbollah ground forces or giving more and better weapons to non-extremist opposition forces, to cite two examples. The Americans are hesitant to move in that direction for fear of hitting commingled Russians or enabling an extremist takeover. They have spent the last week or two pondering options.

Washington isn’t likely to do anything before Saturday, but if Secretary of State Kerry can go to the Lausanne meeting with an option to re-balance the military equation in his pocket he might be able to make some diplomatic progress. He needs a credible threat, one Moscow and Tehran feel they need to forestall, to get a serious cessation of hostilities. The beginning of serious talks on transition is likely a bridge too far. Iran and Russia have doubled and quadrupled down on their bets favoring Assad. They are unlikely to risk losing him, since any successor regime that is even remotely democratic would throw them out.

What happens if/when Aleppo falls? Assad will force the opposition adherents out, either leaving eastern Aleppo destroyed and deserted or repopulating it with loyalists. Will the government and its allies then turn its attention to Idlib, where there really are extremists (and infighting among them)? Or will they try to drive farther north to the Turkish border, risking clashes with Turkish and Turkish-backed groups advancing there?

Or will they be content to rest on their laurels? That seems unlikely. Many of us, including me, have underestimated Assad’s sticking power and his determination to retake territory. Now that he is on a roll, he won’t want to stop. Nor will the extremist and non-extremist forces leave him alone. I’m afraid more war rather than less is still in Syria’s future.

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