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Archive for the ‘Europe’ Category

Lessons learned from the past

In Democracy, Europe, NATO, Russia on September 14, 2009 at 8:02 am

A friend of mine passed along a link to The Iron Curtain Diaries, a project undertaken by journalists, photographers, and a cartoonist who travelled along the former “iron curtain,” interviewing people about their feelings of the past and their prospects for the future. I’m usually not a big fan of flash sites, but this one is well designed and very informative. Plus it’s very easy to access media content, such as interviews, video and text and it’s all streamlined. It’s definitely worth a look and a showcase in how the internet can create an interactive experience and give museums a run for their money.

But bouncing on that, it seems academia has been in an old “Eastern Europe” kick. It probably has something to do with the fact that the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall is right around the corner, but regardless it’s useful to point out a few articles to spark your interest, in case any of you has or wish to have some knowledge on the subject.

The first is an article straight out of Foreign Policy by Edward Lucas. Edward Lucas is one, if not the lead scholar of the region formerly known as the Soviet Union, which is illustrated by the fact that he’s a regular contributer to the Economist. He has a new book out called The New Cold War, which seems to be getting some good reviews and I did put it on my “to-read” list. The article outlines many of the problems that the Baltic states, (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) are facing in terms of large amount of government debt, corruption, and a tourist industry that is nearly collapsing. The article is very informative, and goes beyond politics and economics and brings to light some interesting cultural tidbits about the countries. First, these states were considered to be the “winners” of the post-Cold War who were able to quickly transform their economies from one driven by a strong, central government to a market economy. This was no easy task, and, as Lucas outlines, some of the Baltic countries were more successful than the others. Unfortunately they were hit very hard by the financial crisis, exposing their high government debt and had to quickly rely on a partial bailout from the European Union. The second point is that with their collapse and fear of them becoming failed states, it would be quite easy for Russia to regain a strong foothold in the region and bully them away from the West. Yes they are in NATO and the European Union, but, here my last point, it surprises me that more attention hasn’t being given to the state of affairs in the Baltic states, as they not only have a high strategic geopolitical importance, but could serve a precedent of a country, or countries, failing in the EU. If they do fall and are gobbled up by an aggressive Russia, what message could this send to other states who view the European Union as a given to ensure their national security? What about new states that are currently entering the mix, like Croatia (Slovenia has finally dropped its stance of blocking any chance of it entering) or the rest of the former Yugoslavia who view the road to the EU as a guarantee for prolonged peace? Second, the thesis of the article seems to be that these countries are disappearing. Not literally of course, but no-one seems to be paying any attention to them or taking into account the seriousness of the situation. Whether it’s NATO who, Lucas argues, never really took to providing the Baltic states a competent military presence in face of a Russian threat or tourists who seem to have abandoned the region (apparently it’s so bad, that employees in the service industry decided not to show up for work), it seems as if the region is in danger of disappearing.

To be sure, the old Eastern bloc has come a very long way since 1989. Many have transitioned to market led economies, are democracies, follow (more or less) the rule of law, and are success stories. However, it is a fickle thing as the financial crisis has demonstrated and it is easier to destroy than to create. The EU has its hands full to be sure. Hungary has proven to be very insolvent and is in deep financial trouble. The Czech Republic and Poland have their troubles, but from the material I’ve read and at least from what I’ve seen, it doesn’t seem to be as dire as what Lucas portrays in the Baltic region.

What impresses me the most and makes me very hopeful for the current state of the world, is that if one lesson I have learned from these accounts of success and stories form the Iron Curtain Diaries, it is that there exists a possibility to put aside differences and high points of tension that are historic and culturally deep. The Economist singles out the relations between the Ukraine and Poland being very close and productive, despite both of their turbulent histories and the autocracies they have committed against each other. They managed to create a dialogue, acknowledge what happened, and are moving forward together.

This proves that it’s worth being hopeful and something we should think about as the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall approaches. Despite war or societies being cut off by oppressive regimes, there is still hope. Not for it to end, but for the time afterwards, when all is said and done and the smoke has been cleared from the battlefield. It is possible to rebuild and heal any scars.

Russia’s most dangerous threat

In Civil Society, Europe, European Union, Foreign Policy, International Organizations, Russia, The United States on September 1, 2009 at 3:23 am

The BBC titled article, Africans ‘under siege’ in Moscow, reflects a grave problem that Russia is experiencing at the moment, such a degree of gravity in fact that this issue has surprisingly garnered very little international attention.

I remember being exposed to the problem through a New York Times article I read in 2004 or so. I remember a picture of an African, his head resting in his hands, while the article described his struggle for survival, or having to deal with constant death threats of being lynched, as well as witnessing his friends being brutally attacked openly in the streets. The police just ignored it.

Working in the study abroad office, we were delicately trained to warn African-Americans, or even students of a dark skin color, who were interested in studying abroad in Russia of the consequences they may face. I remember one such encounter of complete disbelief. His interest in Russian history spurred his interest to learn the language. The natural next step was to study abroad. I remember feeling as if I were transported back in time, and having to tell him that we only had one position for a man of his stature on the collegiate basketball team, and it was already filled.

The situation in Russia cannot be termed ‘latent’ racism, rather it is violent, bloody, and anyone that appears to be ‘non-Russian’ is susceptible. I found a two year old Times Magazine article, depicting how college students placed a bomb in a small café, and killed many “non-white foreigners.”

Surprisingly, even with the new Obama administration, there has been little, if hardly any, condemnation by a President of the United States on levels of racism that are happening right now. Instead, dialogue is focused on realist, or geopolitical concerns, such as the Missile Defense Shield, NATO’s expansion, Iran acquiring nuclear arms, and decreasing the number of nuclear arms between the two countries. Though all these issues are important, the United States however has a great opportunity to control the rising of a dangerous form of nationalism, which is even more important. Though Georgia was swiftly defeated by Russian forces last year, the conflict however revealed the poor shape Russia’s military is in. Its weapons systems are outdated, and despite talks from Medvedev on Russia’s desire to further modernize its forces, it will take decades, not to mention large amounts of cash to be on the same par as the United States or even Europe. Thus, if history has taught us anything in the past 100 years, it is that nationalism can be an even more dangerous force than any military or weapon. Just as Nazism transformed the most democratic regime that Europe ever had into a militant, racist regime that systematically murdered ethnic minorities, if Russia does not put a stop to these violent acts of racism, nationalism could once again acquire a stranglehold in the region and change the nature of the continent.

Europe is also in a good position, if not better, to influence Russia positively. Russia is already a member country of the Council of Europe, an organization that promotes human rights and the rule of law and from which the European Union took its flag. Unfortunately, just as is the case with the U.S., the EU’s major efforts with Russia are in terms of securing its energy, and dissuading Russia from “turning the valve,” just as it has done in the past with Ukraine, a major transit country of natural gas into the rest of Europe. With the United Kingdom being the obvious exception, as well as some of the former Eastern European countries, continental Europe only resorts to crude language and warnings that are not usually followed. Instead, politicians seem more willing to accommodate Russia out of fear of waking up the next morning and not having any hot water.

To be sure, this is by far not an easy task. Russian politicians are using this emergence of nationalism to further their own domestic goals, as well as promoting an aggressive Russian foreign policy. A desire to return to the days where Russia was the other superpower, a Russia that could act freely in its own spheres of influence, is strong among the Russian public and elite.  However, every country must have some form of immigration. Immigrants are able to fill in certain gaps, by filling jobs that were traditionally occupied by ethnic Russians. Moreover, as the United States is a primary example, if Russia reforms its higher education institutions it will be able to attract highly advanced workers, such as engineers and doctors, and take advantage of its geographic location next to China. If it continues to allow such rampid, horrifying acts of violence against immigrants, it won’t have a chance in this era of globalization, and Russia’s economy will only worsen, as energy prices seem to be stabilizing and may further decrease in the future. Though Russia’s foreign policy seems aggressive if not militant, domestically it faces severe problems that could destabilize the region. Both the Obama administration and the EU need to work together and take a unified stance and work with Russia in combatting violent racism. Most importantly, both actors must put this issue on the table, and acknowledge the threat that nationalism poses, outside of strategic, geopolitical concerns.

German elections – 2009

In Elections, Europe, Germany on August 31, 2009 at 1:59 am

For those of you who missed it, elections are well underway in Germany.

Alex Harrowell over at Fistful of Euros, has a good description of what the heck is going on, as well as a good overview of how the election process works in the country, in terms of coalition building.

I will just shed a little light on a few interesting tidbits.

In the eastern realm of the country, there always exists a pretty good turnout for die Linke (“The Left” – the old communist party of yore) and the NPD (the NSDAP, or so one could argue, in its current form). These elections hold true so far. Die Linke is showing a strong performance in both Sachsen and Thüringen, and also, which is always an interesting case study, in Saarland, giving the SPD a run for their money. The NPD are making an appearance in the election results in Thüringen and Sachsen, which shows that they are garnering enough votes to be counted in the results. This will without a doubt be comparable to the other Bundesländer in the east.

The financial crisis has hit Germany very hard because its economy is mainly focused and driven on exports. Therefore, the rather poor performance of the SPD mirrors the troubles that they are having in terms of identity. The CDU has been leaning left, and it seems the German population views them to be doing it a lot better than the traditional workers’ party.

Local European elections always sort of mirror the main issue on the continent today, or rather two issues at present. The first is immigration and the second is of course the financial crisis. There have been talks of a fortress Europe systematically emerging, which is a debate in its own right, but the fact is that Europe is having a lot of difficulty with integrating its large immigration population. Being a social-welfare state, government institutions are just not built to allow easy movement of peoples between various classes, and social mobility for immigrants is rather low, compared to the United States whose institutions are founded upon it, though they are obviously not perfect.

There have been comments that globalization is the United States, and globalization is Americanization, to use it in the negative sense. Immigration policy is a major reason why the U.S. has benefited quite a lot. It still attracts the brightest students from abroad, and still dominates the globe in terms of advanced education, (though the U.S.’ secondary education is in a dire state) which is a major drive for entrepreneurship that increases its ability for innovation. Though after 9/11 there have been major setbacks in this endeavor, and any non-U.S. citizen wanting to work or reside in the country for longer than three months will be able to attest to the rigorous (and outright embarrassing) application process, nevertheless Europe has a tougher job. It has to reform itself entirely from a country that is based on homogeneous principles, to accepting those who become naturalized citizens, who have newly acquired a European passport, to also be German, British or Italian.

Read Harrowell’s article. But in essence, the SPD and CDU (Angela Merkel’s party)  are going to lose a few seats, but the latter will still be the dominant party. The biggest winner will be the FDP, Germany’s “catch-all” party, which really shows confusion and a bit indifference regarding the state of affairs in the country. Without the SPD being able to fully capitalize on the financial crisis, which truthfully makes it difficult to point the finger at the other party that they happen to be in a grand coalition with, the status quo will be more or less upheld. What is important is how many votes the FDP will acquire, and what sort of direction they will take when the time comes to build a coalition.

Die Zeit is keeping a tally on the scores for the Bundesländer, in which voting is underway. You don’t need to have a knowledge of German to understand the graph and the results.