Arxivar per Novembre 2007

Saakashvili: make or break

Novembre 17, 2007


As the Soviet Union approached breakdown, its borders became inflamed with former republics trying to find their place in the new political scenario, some struggling to escape from Russian surveillance-Baltic Republics-, others conspiring with it to seek greater independence-South Ossetia, Abkhazia-. This was particularly true for the Caucasus, a region of major strategic importance that has been a constant focus of destabilization and unrest during the last three centuries where it has served as battleground for confrontation between Russia, former Ottoman Empire and the West. Among the bloodiest recent conflicts, the carnage of Chechnia, a dramatic and brutal showdown that Vladimir Putin eventually sorted out by shattering the region to pieces with little distinction between civilians and combatants. In Georgia, transition has been smoother so far: a corrupted government led by former Soviet Union Foreign Affairs minister Edward Shevernadze collapsed in 2003 and a new young leader emerged from the Rose revolution, the pro-western and urbane Mikhail Saakashvili. After a landslide victory in general elections in 2003 (96.2% of the vote), he built up a government of extremely young ministers and officials determined to root out widespread corruption and embarked on a series of liberalizing reforms that have yielded impressive, sustained double digit growth during last years -though unevenly distributed and with inflation getting out of hand. That is why news from last week came as a shock: after six days of massive demonstrations organized by all opposition parties in the capital Tiblisi (estimates of more than 50.000 in a country of less than 5 millions), Saakashvili imposed state of emergency and shut down private TV stations, on grounds-not yet proved- that opponents backed by Russia were plotting a coup. The day after, he called for early elections on the 5th of January.

What brought Georgia to this point? How can a president take office with overwhelming support and end up being forced to clampdown demonstrators and to modify his agenda in order to content the opposition, barely 4 years later ? It all started with a government cabinet rearrangement in 2006. Irakli Okruashvili ,then Minister of Defense and originally a close ally of Saakashvili, was appointed Minister of Economic Development, resigning a week afterwards. He then founded a new political party, heavily criticizing the president and his practices, but in 2007, he was arrested on charges of extortion, money laundering and abuse of office while Georgia’s Minister of Defense. Okruashvili, a controversial character, has been playing with fire retracting and unretracting from heavy accusations against Saakashvili: he has accused him of planning to murder the Georgian Tychoon Badri Patarkatsishvili, now a possible candidate in elections next January. But this crossed fire, together with growing divide between rich and poor, seem to have helped gathering non negligible support against Mr.Saakashvili, erupting in the demonstrations last week.
Why does Mikhail Saakashvili, already an arch-rival for Moscow, have so many powerful internal enemies? Russia does not seem to have much to do with it all, at least until the contrary is proven. In fact, if a new president emerges from the opposition campaign, chances are that he will not be Pro-Russian. Just to give an example: after the ominous and shameful-because unjustified and evidenceless in a global scale- Russian ban on Georgian wine and water in 2006, Georgia admitted some falsified wine had been exported in the past to Russia, but not to other countries-which never complained of low standards-, because, then Defense Minister Okruashvili stated, some producers “were able to export wine there which would never be sold, for example, in Europe because even if you export – excuse me for this expression – feces to Russia it can be sold there”. Anti Russianism seems to be a cohesive force rather than a dividing drive in Georgia.

Saakashvili’s task is surely no easy one. Leading a country under constant strain to escape long-lasting Russian interference, while at a time having to quell internal centrifugal turmoil from breakaway regions as Abkhazia-where about 200,000 Georgians are waiting to return home after civil war in the nineties, see outrageous demographics – and South Ossetia, in addition to pushing through an ambitious agenda of economic reforms, can be too much even for the stakanovist, ambitious, multi lingual current president. The mystery, even after reading western-minded reports, is why and how he managed to generate such a fierce opposition in so short a time, and why so many people believe the apparently dodgy Okruashvili. A close analysis of Mr.Saakashvili recent statements may help shedding light on it: he has repeatedly insisted that one of the main principles of his life is the fight against corruption. It is notorious that leaders or officials who make the uprooting of corruption their first priority often risk ending up tearing the country in two-like in Italy, for instance-, and even more dangerous, winding up themselves into privileged ruling and enclosed radicalism and sectarianism. This web page makes no secret it considers battle against corruption one of the most important and decisive tasks in politics, one of those driving principles applicable everywhere, every time. The problem is, as ever, how to better tackle the issue: there approaches may vary quite significantly. Fighting against corruption –especially in countries transitioning from controlled markets to free ones-always involves structural elimination of old, die-hard habits which might have convened a significant part of the society. The funambulist’s skills are much required in convincing or forcing this old guard to step down, but also in deterring new tycoons from proliferating like locusts seeking for quick enrichment. It is the task of a responsible governor to make this transition as smooth as possible while, at a time, showing sufficient assertiveness to be able to push through actual, measurable reform.
Also the fact that Saakashvili’s government was constituted from the very beginning with extremely young members may have played an important role: ambition is known to itch harder among people who have yet to face major defeats throughout their political life and are still seeking their limits, and it is also often incompatible with patience and moderation. A 96.2% victory is necessarily dictated by temporary euphoria and it should not be forgotten that Shaakasvili was elected as consensus candidate for all opposition parties after the Rose revolution.
Europe again, pushing in favour of Georgia’s candidacy to NATO-top priority in Saakashvili’s foreign agenda-, could give a hand. Russia is essential in terms of energy policies-and therefore many in Europe do not want to anger it too much-, but also moral principles should be at the core of the strategy.

The president must have felt the breath of his opponents very close, according to the aggressive response he inflicted to demonstrators. He must have had the impression that the situation was getting out of hand and this is indeed a worrying precedent.Also Human Rights issues are far from being fixed -but let us remember that Saakashvili started his career as a Human Rights lawyer. Decolonization processes -Russia has still military basis in Georgia- are never solved in just one political term, and reforms necessarily anger those who do not directly benefit from them and rather feel their downsides. Saakashvili needs to build greater consensus around his presidency: on one hand such early election may limit the opposition’s ability to campaign properly; on the other too divided a vote may weaken the country’s ability to operate in such troubled waters. What sometimes Western Countries fail to grasp is the sheer complexity of breaking away from assertive colossus like Russia, obsessed with the constant weaving of security webs around its borders, regardless of the methods employed –like issuing a massive number of Russian passports to citizens of breakaway regions-. In such scenarios, skilful and moderate, transition-minded leaders are certainly needed, but at a certain point, courage and determination become the paramount ingredients, in order to get through as the decisive gamble with history approaches.

PSC: aïllat sobre el tema equivocat

Novembre 17, 2007

El Parlament de Catalunya ha votat amb el suport del 72% dels diputats una resolució que demana al President Zapatero la dimissió de la ministra de Foment Magdalena Alvarez.  L’únic absent era el President Montilla i l’únic partit que hi va votar en contra, el seu.
Crec que aquesta votació irrellevant, com tantes altres al Parlament, versa sobre un tema equivocat. Catalunya ha estat la única regió perjudicada per aquesta ministra, que és cert que sembla tenir escassa competència. Però el Principat no pot exigir unilateralment la dimissió d’un ministre d’Estat.
La única bona noticia, és que el PSC s’ha quedat aïllat (per primera vegada crec). Aquest partit, de magra capacitat propulsiva com ja vem argumentar, necessita estar contra les cordes per reaccionar, per prendre decisions que no siguin ‘anar fent’. Esperant que algun dels seus dirigents aclareixi d’una vegada quina estratègia tenen per aixecar el país i assegurar la seva viabilitat futura, només lamentem que hagin estat derrotats sobre un tema sense cap mena de conseqüència política i purament simbòlic i electoralista. Els temes veritablement importants, aquells que defineixen els recursos disponibles per a l’acció de govern –materials i de decisió-, hauran d’esperar.

The long journey towards Democracy

Novembre 4, 2007

Sulhattin Onen is or was a Kurdish citizen of the Republic of Turkey and used to own a mini-bus in the eastern province of Diyarbakır . He was sentenced to 9 months in prison in 2002 on charges of having repeatedly played a Kurdish popular song in his mini-bus in 1999, after a brief 20 minutes journey from Cinar to Amed in which his last remaining passenger turned out to be a non commissioned Turkish official. In fact, in order to make up a proper trial, the judiciary cooked up an alleged and unspecified support of Mr.Onen to the PKK, the Kurdish Party of Workers, an armed organization who has recently killed several Turkish soldiers along the inflamed border with Iraki Kurdistan, prompting the Turkish Parliament to pass a resolution to give free way to military operations across the border. This was actually also a reaction to another resolution the House of Representatives of the USA had just passed the week before branding the slaughter of more than 1 million Christian Armenians in between 1915-1923 as Genocide, which according to a UN declaration of 1948 stands for “to destroy in whole, or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group”. In this ominous cataclysm of history, a non negligible chunk of the atrocities was undoubtedly carried out by soldiers of Kurdish ethnic adscription, the very same as that of our Sulhattin, who became unemployed after having to sell his bus for getting entangled with Turkish officialdom. But asking for recognition of the facts of 1915 can get you far more than unemployed: Hrant Dink, a Turkish-Armenian journalist, was assassinated by a ‘solitary’ ultra-nationalist in Istanbul last January for his ceaseless effort in campaigning to unveil the truth. We should not be that surprised: Article 301 of the current Constitution of the secular Republic of Turkey ( dictated by the generals after their last coup in 1980) states the following:

1.A person who publicly denigrates Turkishness, the Republic or the Grand National Assembly of Turkey, shall be punishable by imprisonment of between six months and three years.
2.A person who publicly denigrates the Government of the Republic of Turkey, the judicial institutions of the State, the military or security organizations shall be punishable by imprisonment of between six months and two years.
3.In cases where denigration of Turkishness is committed by a Turkish citizen in another country the punishment shall be increased by one third.
4.Expressions of thought intended to criticize shall not constitute a crime.

Rather staggering. There are also other men, still alive, who have dared challenging these statements: most of them in exile, like Taner Akçam, who escaped prison and fled to Germany in the seventies, where he became an acknowledged historian. In a six-hours long debate in Turkey in front of a nationwide audience-an incredible event -, a couple of years ago, he stated: “If you can’t bring yourself to describe it as a genocide, call it a massacre…”. This is not the kind of stuff one can easily hear against Turkishness on TV. The problem with history, is that we have to rely on historians, but the ‘general idea’ -precisely the one absorbed by society- is often imposed by officialdom and establishment, who decides what to remember, what to forget, and what to interpret. This is the very idea on which Robert Fisk wrote his The Great War for Civilisation: a collection of articles related to the Middle East in which he embarks on a constant condemnation of how facts are changed and easily forgot. The most moving one is undoubtedly the one devoted to the Armenians: Fisk visits in Beirut the last survivors to the holocaust, that were all less than ten years old when darkness descended. The book is outstandingly interesting precisely because Fisk knows too much and has no establishment to protect: that’s why after the reading is over one gets the impression he is against everybody and everything who has had the thinnest slice of power, regardless of their background or location. That is probably how things end up being when one knows way too much but has no power to take a single political decision.
However, should one compromise when one country is suspicious of Genocide? How far can human kind stretch its capacity of negotiating on grounds of general interest and strategic stability? Does memory really matter, or only if it does not bother any major player in the global arena? Are there really people and cultures who deserve full attention and others who can just be forgot because they do not have powerful enough lobbies around the world to promote laws in parliaments? Is the recognition of a Genocide really a matter of lobbying?
On the other hand, is it sensible to pass the law that denounces the Genocide the Turks have never admitted precisely at the very moment where Turkey is threatening with an invasion of northern Irak, fearful of the unleashing of freedom in one region of the always denied Kurdistan? How should adult and responsible countries treat those who obviously still behave like angry children in a gang, still nowadays relying on blackmailing to achieve its goals? Or is it no blackmailing to tell a country that wants to recognize what almost all serious historians have no doubts about, that if they do so then all armament contracts will go lost as it has already happened to France several times? Or that access to military bases will be denied, after profiting for decades of military help from the United States? Why does almost everybody in this world know about the Nazi concentration camps but Armenian slaughtering is still matter of debate and maybe only the consequence of massive deportation? So, even assuming this appallingly wrong misinterpretation, if you die in gas chamber , then it is worse that if you starve to death in your forced way to the deserts of Syria and Irak where you never on earth had wanted to go to? Have we not already waited way too long to start fixing this issue, now that there are no more living witnesses and therefore Turkey will have more room for the old trick of dirtying the facts on the grounds that nobody knows for sure since nobody is there anymore to tell the truth? And the most terrifying question of all, how does the writer of this article-certainly very interested in history, but by no means a proven historian at all, as it is not Mr.Fisk either-know that the Jewish Holocaust was real and also the Armenian? Or maybe was it just the first? And why not just the second? Let us remember our old friend Richelieu once again, in Testament Politique (here in English translation):”In politics, he who has the power often has the right, and he who is weak can only with difficulty keep from being wrong in the opinion of the majority of the world”

But let us try to settle down ideas, since what ultimately matters is to find a decent solution for this living shame from the last century. I believe that Europe should try its best to get Turkey in the Union provided this implies Turkey will abandon all its totally unacceptable behaviours and hypernationalism. This does not mean of course to start playing with ultimatums: such tactics very rarely work. The Economist hinted on a recent article on the matter that it should be up to the Turks themselves to come to terms with the past horror: but, as they themselves suggest, with Article 301 still applicable on Constitutional basis, it is hard to imagine that light can be shed on the Turkish educational system to gradually bring hystorical awareness to surface. It is more than clear the Turkish officialdom is looking for compromise so that popular belief regards the Genocide as inevitable tragedy due to war conditions. I firmly believe that if eventually this is the agreed solution it will be a major blow for Democracy in the European Union. It may work for a while, so that the potentially powerful neighbour does not get upset and Europe can take advantage of new prosperous markets, but in the end it will lead to new tragedy, inevitably, as it always happens when countries do not come to terms with their past wrongdoings, and therefore grow arrogant and threatening. But this does not mean Turkey has to be put to its knees: remember the Versailles agreements in 1919, which might have been fair from a moral point of view, but that actually accelerated the path towards new and vaster annihilation. I think, unlikely as it may seem, that the new political agenda in Turkey can lead to positive debate that eventually helps the country become a truly democratic place-at least as truly as in Western Europe, where we acknowledge there is still a long way forward to reach ‘real democracy’ as well. Abdula Gul, the new president, although extremely firm in his irate reaction against the House of Representatives decision, could lead a moderate, gradual process towards a less hawkish, more open-minded Turkey. Sometimes the most difficult task in politics is start to believe in those that may make the change possible, even if they currently look tremendously far from acceptable standards. I believe it is Europe’s duty , with its modernizing pressure, to make this happen. It is a bold gamble, I admit: we live through a unique period of history, especially inside European Union, in which internal conflict seem to be frozen forever, because of the still vivid memories of WWII and the massive destructive power of new weaponry, both acting as consistent deterrents. But especially for the first, nobody knows for how long its shadow is going to be felt accross the continent, once its last survivors will not be there anymore . Especially if we are dealing with a country that up to very recently has shown firm belief in military, unilateral solutions for cohabitation problems, dismissing any negotiated solution. That is why partial solutions are so dangerous: Turkey needs to open itself to the world, and stop seeing enemies everywhere, both inside and outside. This is not a task for impatients: it is again a long haul strategy, and Europe cannot afford to leave Turkey ashore.

The saddest thing of it all, however, is that a mere 4% of Armenian citizens believe that recognition of the Genocide of their people almost one century ago is among the major problems the country faces, as a recent poll showed. On the contrary, this seems to be top priority on the agenda of the Armenian diaspora, precisely the offspring of those whose families were massacred, but also people mostly not brought up under brain-washing Soviet Union. As ever, with very few exceptions, extreme poverty and despair push people to focus on immediate needs, leaving moral issues for better off times. Precisely because of this, countries which have so far managed to develop sufficient welfare as to have enough time to debate moral issues should take their share of responsibility more than ever