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The Hardest Word to Say

It’s hard to say sorry, but it’s even harder to say you’re sorry for a genocide. The word just sticks in the throats of those who should be saying it, as the Turks have been demonstrating for the past hundred years in the case of the Armenians of eastern Anatolia. And the Serbs have just shown themselves to be just as tongue-tied in the case of the Bosnian Muslims slaughtered at Srebrenica.

Saturday was the 20th anniversary of the murder of between 7,000 and 8,000 people when Srebrenica was taken by Bosnian Serb forces in 1995. The town’s population was swollen by refugees who had fled there to escape the “ethnic cleansing” that was being carried out against Muslims elsewhere in eastern Bosnia, because it was a United Nations-designated “safe area” defended by NATO troops. Or rather, not defended.

When the Bosnian Serbs, having surrounded Srebrenica for three years, finally moved to take it in July 1995, the UN and NATO commanders refused to use air strikes to stop them. And the Dutch troops who were there to protect the town decided they’d rather live and let unarmed civilians die.

So all the Bosnian Muslim men and boys between the ages of 14 and 70 were loaded onto buses – the Dutch soldiers helped to separate them from the women and children – and driven up the road a few kilometres. Then they were shot by Serbian killing squads, and buried by bulldozers. It took four days to murder them all.

The crime has been been formally declared a genocide by the UN war crimes tribunal for former Yugoslavia. Both the Bosnian Serb president of the time, Radovan Karadzic, and the Serban military commander at Srebrenica, General Ratko Mladic, are awaiting verdicts in trials for directing genocide. You would think that even the Serbs cannot deny that it was a genocide, but you would be wrong.

There are certainly some Serbs, like journalist Dusan Masic, who are willing to call it what it is. His idea was to have 7,000 volunteers lie on the ground before the National Assembly in Belgrade on Saturday, symbolising the approximate number of Muslim victims at Srebrenica. “On July 11, while the eyes of the whole world are on the killing fields near Srebrenica”, he said, “we want to send a different picture from Belgrade.”

“This will not be a story about the current regime, which has failed to define itself in relation to the crime that happened 20 years ago,” he continued, “or about a place where you can still buy souvenirs with images of Karadzic and Mladic. It will be a story about…a better Serbia.” But the better Serbia has not actually arrived yet.

Serbia’s interior minister, Nebojsa Stefanovic, didn’t like the picture Masic wanted to send. When right-wing groups threatened to disrupt the demonstration last Thursday, Stefanovic banned it in order to guarantee “peace and security in the whole of Serbia.” And the Serbian government had already asked Russia to veto a UN Security Council resolution describing the Srebrenica massacre as a “genocide”.

Russia was happy to oblige, and vetoed it on Wednesday. Maybe Moscow was just sucking up to the Serbs, whom it would like to steer away from their current ambition to join the European Union – but maybe President Vladimir Putin was also thinking that he didn’t want any precedent for some future attempt to describe what he did during the second Chechen war in 1999-2002 as a genocide.

Words matter. Serbia’s Prime Minister Aleksandr Vucic, who seems to have changed his mind about Srebrenica since his early days in Serbian politics, still cannot bring himself to use the word “genocide” when he talks about it.

Back in 1995, Vucic was a radical nationalist who declared in the Serbian National Assembly, only a few days after the Srebrenica massacre, that “If you kill one Serb, we will kill 100 Muslims.” By 2010, however, he was saying that a “horrible crime was committed in Srebrenica.”

Vucic even traveled to Srebrenica on Saturday to take part in the commemoration of the events of 20 years ago, a brave gesture for a Serbian prime minister who must contend with an electorate most of whom do not want to admit that Serbs did anything especially wrong. But he still doesn’t dare say the word “genocide”. The voters would never forgive him.

Most Serbs would acknowledge that their side did some bad things during the Balkan wars of the 90s, but they would add that every side did. They will not accept the use of the word “genocide” – whereas that is the one word Bosnian Muslims have to hear before they can believe that the Serbs have finally grasped the nature and scale of their crime.

That’s why, when Vucic was at Srebrenica paying his respects in the cemetery, some Bosnian Muslims started throwing stones at him. His glasses were broken, and his security detail had to hustle him away.

It was a stupid, shameful act, and the Bosnian Muslim authorities have apologised for it. But like the Turks and the Armenians, the Serbs and their neighbours will never really be reconciled until the Serbs say the magic word.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“Serbia’s…genocide”)

Standing Up to Russian Aggression

Just before he sat down to a traditional Bavarian meal of sausages and beer with German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the start of the G7 summit on Sunday, US President Barack Obama told the media that one of the meeting’s priorities would be discussing ways of “standing up to Russian aggression in Ukraine.” Which begs the question: what kind of aggression are we talking about here?

There are unquestionably Russian troops in the rebel provinces of eastern Ukraine, and that is certainly an act of aggression under international law. (The Russian troops there are definitely not just volunteers lending the rebels a hand while they are on leave, as Moscow maintains. How can we be sure? Because soldiers on leave do not take their tanks and artillery with them.)

But is this a prelude to a Russian invasion that would take over all of Ukraine, as Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko recently alleged? If it is, it would require a whole different level of response, and the result could easily be a new Cold War.

Is it also the first step in a Russian campaign to take back everything that used to be part of the Soviet Union, and before that of the Russian empire, as many in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Georgia and other former “Soviet Republics” fear? If so, “standing up to Russian aggression” would be an even bigger task, involving a major NATO troop build-up in Europe and probably a new nuclear arms race.

Might Russian President Vladimir Putin actually be the next would-be world conqueror, out of the same mould as Napoleon and Hitler? In that case, get ready for the Third World War, because it’s unlikely that anything less would stop him. So exactly what kind of aggressor Putin is matters quite a lot.

Here’s a clue: Putin was first elected president of Russia in 1999, and for his first fifteen years in power he didn’t attack anybody. (He responded very toughly to the cretinous Georgian attack on Russian peacekeeping troops in South Ossetia in 2008, but he didn’t start that war.) On the whole, would-be world conquerors don’t wait fifteen years before making their first move. They get started as soon as possible, because it’s a big job.

After three months of non-violent demonstrations against Ukraine’s pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, in the winter of 2013-14, and after a day of shooting on Independence Square (the Maidan) in Kiev that killed at least fifty protesters and three policemen, Putin agreed to a deal on 21 February that promised new elections in Ukraine within a month.

It was always puzzling why the demonstrators went out onto the square and spent three bitterly cold months there demanding that Yanukovych quit right away, given that elections were due in Ukraine within a year. Why not stay warm at home and vote him out next year? He couldn’t do anything irrevocable in the meantime.

Never mind that. The representatives of the protesters definitely did agree to the deal hammered out by Russian and EU negotiators on the evening of 21 February 2014. Yanukovych was to resign and there would be new elections IN ONE MONTH. Yet only hours later the demonstrators attacked the presidential administration buildings and Yanukovych had to flee. Why couldn’t they wait even one month?

Maybe because they were afraid that they would lose the election. Kiev is in western Ukraine, where most people are strongly pro-Western and would like to join the European Union, even NATO if possible. It certainly looked to people watching it on television as if all Ukrainians wanted Yanukovych out.

But Yanukovuch had won the 2010 election fair and square with a 52 percent majority, thanks to the votes of eastern Ukrainians. Their ancestors had lived in the Russian empire for more than three centuries, unlike those of western Ukrainians. Most eastern Ukrainians speak Russian, share the Orthodox religion of Russians, are actually pro-Russian in general.

What’s more, eastern Ukraine is the home of almost all of the country’s heavy industry, and it was Russia that bought most of the coal, steel and industrial goods produced by eastern Ukrainians. It was their votes that elected Yanukovych in 2010, and there was no reason to believe that they would vote differently in 2014. There really was a coup in Kiev in 2014, and Putin was quite right to feel deceived and betrayed.

He was wrong to respond as he did, taking back the province of Crimea (which had an overwhelmingly Russian population but had been bundled into Ukraine in a Communist-era decision in 1954). He was very wrong to back the rebellion in the eastern Ukrainian provinces of Donetsk and Lugansk. If he actually encouraged them to rebel (which is not clear) he is even more in the wrong. It is all being done in defiance of international law.

But he is not setting out down the path of world conquest. He is not even planning to take over Ukraine. “Standing up to Putin” is an invigorating moral exercise, but it is not strictly speaking necessary.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 6. (“Is it…race”; and “Here’s…job”)

Greece: The Never-Ending Crisis

“The Greek government would be well-advised to act quickly – for the Greek banks, it is five minutes to midnight,” said Andreas Dombret, an executive board member of the German central bank, last weekend. And everybody whose memory extends back a few years goes: “That again? Somebody has been saying that every three months or so since 2010. Why should we believe it this time?”

The answer is that you probably shouldn’t. The ability of the European Union to dodge the issue and kick the can down the road another few months is unparallelled. But it’s the wrong question. The right one is: why is this crisis still going on five years after it began?

Normally, when a country spends itself into near-bankruptcy like Greece did, the whole cycle of crisis, default (or a tough International Monetary Fund bail-out), and recovery takes much less time than that. Whereas there’s still no end in sight for Greece, although its economy has shrunk by a quarter since 2010. But then, Greece is not a normal country. It’s a member of the European Union.

When an independent country runs out of money to pay its debts and cannot borrow any more, it has normally has two options. One is to make a deal with the IMF: in return for IMF loans to tide it over, the government promises to restructure the economy (stop subsidising favoured groups and businesses), balance the budget (collect more taxes and cut spending) and, above all, devalue the currency.

Greece has done all of that – except that it cannot devalue its currency, because it does not control it. It is locked into membership of the pan-European currency, the euro, which means that its costs stay high and foreign investment doesn’t flow in as it would after a devaluation.

There is another route out of the trap: default. If the government cannot possibly pay back all its debts, just repudiate them. You’ll be locked out of the international markets for some years, but you can only borrow at an exorbitant interest rate already, so what have you lost?

So long as the government can still raise enough in taxes to cover its own domestic spending commitments, it’s still in business. And after some years, you offer to pay all the creditors you stiffed ten cents on the dollar, they take the deal because something is better than nothing, and you can start borrowing internationally again.

A default is not necessarily a disaster. Greece has defaulted seven times before in its history, and almost every default was accompanied by a devaluation that put the economy on the road to recovery. But it has not defaulted this time, because that would almost certainly mean giving up the euro, which Greeks see as proof that they are a serious member of the mainstream European community.

Greece should never have been allowed to join the euro in the first place, but the Greek government concealed the scale of its debts and the European Union turned a blind eye to them. Then subsequent Greek governments, equally corrupt and irresponsible, exploited their euro membership to borrow a great deal more.

European banks, especially German and French ones, recklessly ignored the risk in lending to a country that was so obviously living beyond its means, because they reckoned that the central banks would bail Greece out rather than let a member of the eurozone default. There’s plenty of blame to go around, and the debt-fuelled binge went on for years, until the crash of 2008 brought the party to an end.

Greece’s debt now amounts to 175 percent of Gross Domestic Product. No other developed country has ever reached that level of debt in peacetime without eventually defaulting. But the EU goes on feeding Greece just enough money to prevent a default – and 90 percent of that money goes straight back to German, French and other European banks in debt repayments.

There is no way that Greece can ever repay its debts. Either its creditors cancel at least half its debt, or it must eventually default. Anything else is simply stretching Greece’s agony out. Indeed the Greek economy is already so badly damaged that there is some question as to whether the government could now raise enough income from domestic sources to maintain essential services after a default.

The Greeks have suffered a great deal of hardship already to stay in the euro, and they seem prepared to suffer some more. The European Union is prepared to cut them enough slack to keep them from defaulting, because its members fear the future of the euro itself if it becomes clear that countries can actually leave. However, the EU will not make enough concessions to put Greece on the road to recovery.

So this unbearable status quo will continue for a while – and eventually the Greeks will say “enough”. But it will still be five minutes to midnight for some months, and quite possibly even into next year.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“Greece…end”)

The Traditions of the Sea and the EU

Late last year, the governments of the European Union, having refused to share the cost of a very successful operation called Mare Nostrum in which the Italian Navy rescued tens of thousands of refugees from sinking boats in the Mediterranean, replaced it with a much smaller operation called Operation Triton. Its purpose (though they didn’t put it exactly that way) was NOT to rescue the refugees, because then they ended up in the European Union.

Triton was a “coastguard” operation, with a third of the budget of Mare Nostrum and orders only to patrol Italian and Maltese coastal waters. They could save any boatloads of refugees that made it that far, but they were not to do “search and rescue” operations off the Libyan coast, which is where most of the overloaded boats actually founder.

Inevitably, the death toll from drownings in the first five months of this year was thirty times higher than in the same period last year: at least 1,750 human beings. The losses were so shocking that an emergency EU meeting in late April boosted Triton’s budget back up to the level of Mare Nostrum – but they didn’t change its “mission”. It was still only supposed to operate in EU coastal waters.

But then something odd happened. Last weekend, ships from the Italian, British, German and Irish navies rescued more than 4,000 people in two days – the vast majority of them just off the Libyan coast. The EU has not condemned the operation, but it wasn’t really the EU’s plan. What drove it was the sheer reluctance of the navies to stand by and let people drown.

The European politicians face a huge demand from their electorates to stop the seemingly endless flow of “migrants” (the preferred term for refugees, since it elicits less sympathy) across the Mediterranean. 170,000 people made it across last year, and it could be double that number this year unless lots and lots of them drown. But the voters (or most of them) don’t want to hear about that, and most of the politicians are not very brave.

So the politicians did what the voters wanted. At some level they must have understood the consequences of stopping the search-and-rescue operation, but they found ways of lying to themselves. First of all they said that all these life-saving operations were just encouraging more people to risk the crossing. Stop saving them, and they won’t come.

Ridiculous: these are desperate people who have already faced many big risks to get as far as Libya. They kept coming, and the horrendous death-toll this spring got the media so excited that the politicians had to do something – but not, of course, anything that would actually result in more people arriving in Europe. So they gave more money to Operation Triton, but they still didn’t give it a life-saving role.

Instead, they came up with some nonsense about saving the refugees from drowning by destroying the people-smugglers’ boats on the shores of Libya before they went to sea. It’s the “new slave trade,” and we’re just saving the refugees from themselves. Of course, the EU hasn’t actually destroyed any boats (which would be an act of war against Libya).

What they didn’t reckon with was their own navies, who come at this from a very different angle. The sailors don’t have to worry about the voters, and on the whole they are not terribly fond of the politicians, but they certainly do know about the sea. And one of the oldest traditions of the sea is that you do not leave people to drown.

Everybody who has spent much time at sea knows that it is an intrinsically hostile environment. Alone and unsupported by technology (including flotation gear), you will survive in the water for a matter of minutes, or at most, if you are very fit and lucky, for an hour or two. So when you see somebody in the water, you do everything you can to save them – because another time, it could be you.

When I was in the navy we were once first on the scene of a collision in which a tanker had exploded in flames. There was little chance of survivors, as oil had spilled and the sea was on fire around the stricken ship, but we searched all night and into the next day anyway. Nobody questioned why we were doing it, nobody even discussed it. There is no higher priority in a peacetime navy.

I was not on the warships attached to Operation Triton to overhear the conversations of the people on the bridge, but I am sure that they were outraged by their orders. So they gradually pushed out beyond the appointed bounds of Operation Triton to the places where the people were actually dying, and none of the politicians dared to expose themselves as heartless bastards by telling them to come back.

Eventually it has become the new de facto policy of the European Union – just like the old Mare Nostrum policy, before the European governments got at it.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 11. (“Instead…Libya”; and “When…navy”)

NOTE: If you think that “heartless bastards” will upset your readers, you may substitute “gutless cowards”, or even “craven opportunists”.