Monthly Archives: July 2013

Cleaning up the maps? Portents of unilateral partition in Syria

by Rhodri C. Williams

One of the chilling by-products of the wars in the former Yugoslavia two decades ago was the development of antiseptic terminology like ‘ethnic cleansing’, a neologism that managed to obscure the most visceral and intimate fratricide Europe had seen in decades behind a whiff of wiper fluid. Personally, I was always most disturbed by the related idea of ‘cleaning up the maps’, a notion that departed entirely from any notion of humanity (at least the cleansing was admittedly ‘ethnic’) and equated living communities with any other natural barriers that might impede the march of progress.

Map-cleaning emerged as a term of art at the time of the fall of Srebrenica, one of a number of embattled enclaves in Bosnia that presented both logistically and strategically challenging anomalies in the territorial carve-up then viewed as an essentially inevitable outcome of the war. Get everybody on the right side of defensible lines, so the theory, and the map becomes a blueprint for a durable peace. The problem, as demonstrated in Srebrenica in July 1995, is that the tidying can take the form of flight, or forced removal, or mass murder, depending on the circumstances. Whatever capacity maps may have to be tidy, wars rarely are.

For some time now, the specter of partition has hung over Syria, albeit in a context in which it was not seen as a desired option for any of the parties to the conflict. Rather, as described by Jim Muir at the BBC, de facto partition of the country is likely to result as an inevitable status quo from a situation in which no side is likely to be able to achieve a complete victory over any other. Meanwhile, commentators such as Robin Yassin-Kassab (here) and Marwa Daoudy (in Open Democracy) remain at pains to point out that the Syria conflict is only sectarian to the extent that the Assad regime has made it so in a bid to consolidate and militarize its most reliable constituencies and demonize peaceful protesters.

As described by Daoudy, this tactic may have taken on a dynamic that the regime may now no longer be able or willing to control: Continue reading

Advertisements

Democracy as a process

by Rhodri C. Williams

Democracy is on my mind this afternoon. For one thing, its July 4th and Philip Gourevich was kind enough to remind me that its about more than hotdogs and fireworks:

As our national day of celebrating our political system passes, I am also currently attending one of the most convincing exercises in homegrown open democracy anywhere in the world here in Sweden, while I simultaneously find myself preoccupied by the ongoing struggle to establish something tenable between the unattractive extremes of autocracy and people power in Egypt.

In Sweden, I am attending “Almedalen week“, an annual political gala in the picturesque seaside town of Visby. Sweden is a small enough polity that after a few years there, you recognize all the politicians and they are literally all here, from the xenophobes to the suecophiles, strolling around in their business casual uniforms, making speeches and gleefully networking. Coming from a country where the president has to cart around truckloads of bulletproof glass on foreign trips, it is a pleasant kind of shock to be this up close and personal with Sweden’s political elite, as well as a lot of leading journalists, diplomats and other functionaries.

There is plenty to find fault with in Almedalen, ranging from the way the week has morphed into a commercial free-for-all to the fact that Swedes of color are frequently notable by their absence. But for all that, Almedalen week is a remarkable experience, a sort of national pep rally for a democratic process that is deeply ingrained, civilly conducted, and fundamentally liberal (in the philosophical sense, Rush. Look it up.) Nothing much of import gets said or decided here, but everyone comes away with a fairly visceral sense of a system that is accessible and responsive.

Meanwhile in Egypt, we are seeing a brand new democratic process experience severe ructions. The commentators have been out in force, and there seems to be a  consensus that both sides are at fault, with the Muslim Brotherhood having vastly overplayed the hand it won in Egypt’s first free elections, and the opposition having responded by undermining the very democracy some of them had risked life and limb protesting for in 2011 (see the ICG’s statement here and Nathan J. Brown’s constitutional analysis here). For both practical reasons and more principled ones, there has been some reluctance to characterise what Egypt is currently experiencing as an unqualified coup. But it is undoubtedly a severe and early setback in a fragile process.

As I write this, a raucous group of Yanks (and their Swedish buddies) who are renting the guesthouse next door are doing a very poor rendition of ‘Star-Spangled Banner’. My own patriotism is feeling a bit less bruised now that I dumped this year’s load of IRS busywork into the mail (though Peter Spiro reminds that ever more US citizens abroad are unwilling to face a lifetime of pointless double-filing), and it is tempting to reflect on the progress of democracy. It is undeniably a pretty infectious idea that all those be-wigged gentlemen farmers invoked back in 1776. It certainly feels like the concept has found fertile ground here in Sweden, and it has made extraordinary progress in the last few years in the Middle East. But it is crucial to recall that it is a process, and never an entirely irreversible one.

PS – Anyone interested in watching my efforts to discuss the rule of law in Libya – in Swedish – here in Almedalen can tune in here: http://www.sommartorg.se/. The seminar will be carried live at noon, GMT+2 and will be available for streaming thereafter.

Svaka čast Croatia

by Rhodri C. Williams

And let me say how honored I am that you chose my birthday for accession to the EU! I’ve had a pretty complicated relationship with you in the past, I have to admit. On the positive side, I used to flee to you when the narrow valleys of Bosnia got me feeling fenced in and I needed to pop over that last rise after the Metkovic border crossing and let that view – the burnished expanse of the Adriatic – seep physically into me. We also used to pile out to the north, going hell for leather from Slavonski Brod along the ex-Highway of Brotherhood and Unity, anything just to hit Zagreb before the only Mexican restaurant in the West Balkans announced last call.

Beyond my personal enjoyment of your charms, I was also impressed in a grim way by your ability to stick it out as a small country in a historically tough neighborhood. The sort of existential problems you faced in the 1990s were unlikely anything I could imagine, having grown up in the protected suburban vastnesses of the 1970s US midwest. The problem, in my mind, was not (only) that you didn’t have clean hands (nobody did). The problem was that you couldn’t come clean about it. Of course, nobody else could either, but you, unlike the others, just galumphed right over your historical indiscretions like so many speed bumps on the boulevard to European integration.

So what is my beef? Well, I worked on property restitution in Bosnia. So I watched as the ‘international community’ in Sarajevo turned the screws on the Bosnians until they extended restitution to cover not only all private houses but also all socially owned apartments (with a few fateful exceptions of course). And I watched as the same international community in Zagreb gradually conceded points that we had gone to the wall over in Sarajevo and started to purge terminology like ‘tenancy rights’ from documents like EU accession progress reports.

I also worked on the OSCE and ICHR friend of the court briefs in the ill-fated Blecic case before the European Court of Human Rights, and assisted the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly’s attempt to push for uniform restitution standards in Europe. I marveled both when the ICTY condemned the uncompensated confiscation of 30,000 socially owned apartments as part of a broader plan to remove Serbs from Croatia, and when that ruling fell on a seeming technicality. And I am left to conclude that the relatively prosperous and self-confident Croatian political elite was simply not held to the same rigorous standards still being applied to their poor and less organized cousins in Bosnia.

The bottom line is that the country that declared independence in 1991 had a 12.2% Serb minority while the country that joined the EU today has a 4.4% Serb minority, and that little statistic patches over a lot of ongoing misery and unredressed violations. Now I know its still not an easy time for you what with sliding EU support and all the commentators cracking wise about how you fought your way out of one oppressive, economically troubled confederation twenty years ago only to fling yourself into another today. So I’ll say only this. It is entirely to your credit that you have entered the hallowed precincts of the EU but it is troubling that you did so with a certain number of skeletons clanking around in your luggage.

Of course, one might as easily find fault for this state of affairs in Brussels as in Zagreb. But pressuring countries that are already in to observe such niceties as the Copenhagen criteria and the rule of law is not the EU’s traditional strong suit. In any case, that is nothing that should prevent you from finding that it lies in your own best interest to engage sooner rather than later with your past. And doing so in a clear-eyed way would, at a stroke, remove many of the excuses holding back your EU-aspirant neighbors from doing the same. And maybe leave both the EU and the western Balkans in better shape as a result. So, congratulations, and good luck as part of the European project of building a future worthy of the sacrifices and suffering of the past.