The Collectivist, debt colonialism and the real Alexis Tsipras

Open Democracy News Analysis - 29. January 2015 - 16:13

As the new government’s statement on Mariupol reveals, Greece will leverage its position along a geopolitical fault-line to maximise its bargaining power. 

The Collectivist, under the heading “Proletarians of all countries unite”. Newspaper of the Greeks of Mariupol and Donetsk, 1930

Alongside the status-quo powers of Brussels and Berlin another movement has arisen, so far weak and incipient, but undoubtedly a movement that actually exists and is growing: the movement of the discontented peoples of Europe. And at the forefront of this movement stands the government of the newly elected Prime Minister of Greece, Alexis Tsipras.

Greece does not consent 

The first of many clashes between Alexis Tsipras and the status-quo powers concerns not debt restructuring and structural reforms but EU-Russian relations. A statement published on the January 27, 2015, claimed all twenty-eight leaders of the EU agreed that Russia bears responsibility for the rocket attack on Mariupol. The attack killed thirty people.

The Ukrainian city of Mariupol to which the statement refers, was originally a settlement of Greek and Tatar speaking Orthodox refugees who were encouraged to settle in the area in 1778. This resettlement constituted a central plank in the then Russian policy of undermining the economy of what, until 1783, was Tatar Crimea. Many died in the process, but the descendants of the settlers flourished, their cultural life seeing something of a revival in early Soviet times.

In the 1920s, local dialects of Greek and Tatar were promoted; a network of Greek language schools was created; works of literature and newspapers such as “Kolehtivistis” or The Collectivist were published. This renaissance ended abruptly with Stalin’s deportations of 1937. Today Greek speakers make up only a very small part of the population of the region. Still, it is precisely in the thirty or so villages where dialects of Greek and Tatar are still spoken by Orthodox populations that the war in the Donbass is currently being waged.

In this context, Alexis Tsipras’ expression of “discontent” at not having been consulted may have been justified. “The aforementioned statement was released without the prescribed procedure to obtain consent by the member states and particularly without ensuring the consent of Greece” the Greek government noted. “It is underlined that Greece does not consent to this statement”. Whether the oversight was intentional or a mix-up resulting from the transition of power in Greece remains unclear. That the new government of Greece will exert pressure in order to realign EU policies towards Russia should not however be in doubt.

Trade and expectation

Greece has many reasons to be dissatisfied with EU policies towards Ukraine and Russia.

In part these are economic. Touristic arrivals from Russia now rival those from the UK and Germany, their number having grown exponentially over the last few years. Greek exports to Russia have also increased and a number of Greek companies have invested in Russia. Compensation offered by the EU for the reduction in exports has not adequately made up for the loss of market access, reductions in production, and, inevitably, job cuts.

What is more, EU pressure contributed to the failure in the privatisation process of one of Greece’s state-owned energy companies to a Russian-backed consortium. Subsequent criticism to the effect that Greece is not privatising assets at sufficient speed have sounded hollow as a result. EU sanctions on Russia are thus directly affecting some of the few dynamic segments of the Greek economy and have contributed, albeit indirectly, to SYRIZA’s victory in these elections.

Dissatisfaction is also political. The deposition of President Viktor Yanukovich was viewed by many as an unconstitutional western-backed coup, in other words as an example of the imperialism they associate with Greek history of the post-war era.

Finally, dissatisfaction is emotional. Whereas Greece’s elites have traditionally looked to Britain and the United States for support, sympathy towards Russia and the Russians characterises much of the political spectrum. Some hark back to the “Russian Expectation”, a dominant ideology at the time of the Russian-Ottoman wars of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Others, to the values of the Russian Revolution. Thus Manolis Glezos, Greek resistance fighter and currently MEP for SYRIZA, sent an appeal to Vladimir Putin, whom he addressed as “comrade”, asking the Russian President to reconsider his decision to place sanctions on Greek farmers.

In part, as a result of blossoming economic and cultural ties, the teaching of Russian in Greece has increased dramatically over the last few years. Students are flocking to a new Department of Slavic Studies at the University of Athens. The Municipality of Thessaloniki is offering free Russian courses to the unemployed. As a student put it during a discussion in Thessaloniki last week: “learning Russian means getting a job”. And getting a job is not easy in Greece today.

That, however, is not the end of the story. It is interesting to note that the new Greek government’s policies vis-à-vis Ukraine place it at loggerheads with the position of the (primus inter pares) senior hierarch of the Orthodox Church, the Istanbul based Ecumenical Patriarch.

The implications for the Cyprus issue, Greek foreign policy’s primary focus over the last half-century, are even more significant. As was the case following Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus, Ukraine has thus far received only verbal and legal support from western powers. Over the years, however the occupation has become a millstone around Turkey’s neck, both in terms of military costs and of European Court of Human Rights decisions, compensating victims and refugees. The annexation of Crimea if legalised would represent a disastrous precedent for Cyprus itself. Yet, despite the fact that Cyprus is the most obvious parallel for the situation in Ukraine, a full comparison between Crimea and Cyprus has yet to be made.

All things considered, Alexis Tsipras is wrong on Ukraine. The fact that EU policies have had such a destabilising effect on the country, and that even today the EU is not offering anything like adequate aid, are not sufficient to justify Russia’s annexation of the Crimea and its support for separatists in the East.

Debt colonialism

In a cabinet that has more PhDs than your average university department, Professor Nikos Kotzias is Greece’s incoming Foreign Minister. His most recent monograph is entitled Greece Colony of Debt: European Empire and German Primacy. This is classic dependency theory and tallies with current discussions over whether Europe is being transformed into an empire. Reports of connections to the Russian ideologue Alexander Dugin are worrying, but still need to be corroborated. 

Whatever one’s take on dependency theory, it should be self-evident that no democratic country can support running primary surpluses of up to 5% of GDP over decades, as called for by the Memorandum, when over 25% of its population is unemployed, poverty is endemic and the productive base of the country has been ravaged. Given similarities to economic conditions during the Great Depression, the EU should consider the victory of a democratic party like SYRIZA a relief. Still, it remains a source of surprise that the EU did not move to link debt reduction to GDP growth before April of 2014, in other words before the Euro elections, when such a move might more easily have been coupled with accelerating the pace of the structural reforms that are needed to strengthen Greece’s private and public sectors. 

The EU’s deflationary fiscal policies serve as the best justification for neo-Marxist theories positing the need for class-struggle today. In the place of class, expect to hear much along the lines of the struggle of the peoples of Europe against their elites, discourses that combine both nationalism and internationalism and that tally with the concerns of other populist parties across Europe. In this context, the much repeated mantra "pacta sunt servanda" is counter-productive.

As the new government’s statement on Mariupol reveals, Greece will leverage its position along a geopolitical fault-line to maximise its bargaining power. This high risk game may include not only Ukraine/Russia but also policies towards the Balkans and the Middle East. It is already exposing Greece to criticism. But can Greece’s economy – in particular its banking sector – survive such brinkmanship on all fronts for even a short period of time?

Hungary + ?

Before pulling the plug, the EU must think carefully about the precedents for debt renegotiation, and also whether it desires another failed state on the periphery of Europe: a Hungary + situation, where the centre-left and centre-right are marginalised, with the nationalist right vying for power with the fascists over an impoverished, humiliated and angry population.

Forget human rights violations, in such a scenario parliamentary democracy itself would be at risk. And all this a stone’s throw away from Syria, Egypt, Libya and, of course, Ukraine. Even in monetary terms such a failure will be much more expensive than official sector debt renegotiation, linking repayment to GDP growth, conditional upon structural reforms.

Takis Pappas has argued that Alexis Tsipras does not have the makings of a charismatic leader with the intellectual nous of Andreas Papandreou. There is in fact a chasm between expectations he has generated and the reality of Greece’s economic condition. This chasm makes it harder for the EU and Greece to compromise, as they must.

One thing should be certain, however. The new Prime Minister of Greece will have read his Lenin. He knows that power is produced, or rather mobilised and expanded through the assimilation of new groups into a political system. Today Alexis Tsipras stands at the gates, mobilising power. The next few days and weeks should determine whether the Prime Minister and his movement have enough wind in their sails to weather the many currents stacked against them.

Sideboxes Related stories:  Putin’s 'useless idiots' or signs of a deeper pathology? Russophilia and national populism in Greece Country or region:  Greece EU Ukraine Russia Topics:  Culture Democracy and government Economics International politics
Categories: les flux rss

TTIP: EU citizens speak out, but will their voices be heard?

Open Democracy News Analysis - 29. January 2015 - 15:32

Following a public consultation on TTIP, the European Commission received 149,399 responses, of which 97% rejected investor protections or the deal as a whole. But will the EU actually listen?

Demonstration against TTIP in Madrid. Demotix/Marcos del Mazo. All rights reserved.

On January 13, the European Commission revealed the overwhelming level of public discontent concerning the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). The consultation was launched in early 2014 in response to growing public concern. The Commission received 149,399 responses; no less than 97% of these rejected investor protections or the deal as a whole. 

Taking public opinion seriously

Launching the consultation, KarelDe Gucht, former European Commissioner for Trade, said that he wanted people to “have their say”.  In fact, it is questionable whether the public consultation was ever intended for citizens: it included 13 complex questions, assumed technical knowledge and did not ask respondents whether or not they felt ISDS should be included. As a result, a group of NGOs including Friends of the Earth Europe, SumOfUs and 38 Degrees, created an online tool so that citizens could engage. Faced with the overwhelming response, De Gucht’s goodwill evaporated and he characterised it as an “outright attack”.

There is serious concern amongst civil society organisations that the majority of submissions will be ignored by the Commission. The published consultation report is vague in its description of how it weights submissions. However there is a clear suggestion the Commission will ‘take note of’ submissions facilitated by an online platform, but will ‘focus on’ those that ‘provide more specific views’.

There is particular concern regarding the UK government reaction. Over a third of the submissions (34.8%) were from the UK, the largest of any Member State. Yet even before the EC had completed its analysis, Lord Ian Livingston, Minister for Trade, wrote to the Commission stressing that ISDS must be part of the deal, ignoring the views of UK citizens and contradicting the negotiating mandate which says that it will only be included if it is clearly in the EU’s interests.

If the Commission and the UK ignore the vast majority of views, it will send a clear message that the right to private profit-making overrides the concerns of citizens.

Good reason to say no

Under the proposed Investor to State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) system, companies would be able to sue governments for millions and sometimes billions of pounds. The Commission has attempted to play down opposition to ISDS, claiming that opponents have not fully understood the issue. Yet the evidence is clear: investment protection measures have a huge impact on government right to regulate and on citizens. States are being challenged on every continent for decisions relating to everything from environmental regulation, to the provision of services and tax policy. Cases cost US$8 million on average to defend, irrespective of whether countries win. There is no limit on the level of the award: Russia was recently ordered to pay damages of US$50 billion to Yukos oil company whilst Ecuador was ordered to pay US$2 billion to Occidental petroleum.

The UK has consistently claimed that it is immune from challenge, yet recent research from Friends of the Earth Europe has shown that there are 127 known cases against EU member states, transferring billions of Euros from states to corporations.

Democratic scrutiny

Whilst the EC claims that the consultation was intended to strengthen the provision and wording of the investor protection clause, there is no opportunity for democratic oversight of this: neither MEPs nor MPs will have input, limited instead to voting for or against the deal as a whole.

On the 15th January, UK MPs debated a motion on TTIP in Parliament calling for TTIP and ISDS to be subject to parliamentary scrutiny. This is an important first step, however, there is much work to do to ensure genuine democratic scrutiny is possible in the UK. When the UK-Colombia Bilateral Investment Treaty was placed before the UK houses of parliament for scrutiny, it became apparent that there was very little that parliamentarians could actually do to influence the process: it was almost impossible to secure a debate and the kind of debate that was permitted, as well as the timing, was tightly controlled by whips.

EU citizens have made very clear their position on ISDS as well as their concern about TTIP. It would be an outrage for the EC or the UK to simply ignore these views. It is also critical that genuine democratic scrutiny and participation is possible in the development of any trade deal.

READ TJM’s submission to the public consultation here.

Sideboxes Related stories:  Does the European Commission understand NO?
Categories: les flux rss

TTIP: EU citizens speak out, but will their voices be heard?

Open Democracy News Analysis - 29. January 2015 - 15:32

Following a public consultation on TTIP, the European Commission received 149,399 responses, of which 97% rejected investor protections or the deal as a whole. But will the EU actually listen?

Demonstration against TTIP in Madrid. Demotix/Marcos del Mazo. All rights reserved.

On January 13, the European Commission revealed the overwhelming level of public discontent concerning the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). The consultation was launched in early 2014 in response to growing public concern. The Commission received 149,399 responses; no less than 97% of these rejected investor protections or the deal as a whole. 

Taking public opinion seriously

Launching the consultation, KarelDe Gucht, former European Commissioner for Trade, said that he wanted people to “have their say”.  In fact, it is questionable whether the public consultation was ever intended for citizens: it included 13 complex questions, assumed technical knowledge and did not ask respondents whether or not they felt ISDS should be included. As a result, a group of NGOs including Friends of the Earth Europe, SumOfUs and 38 Degrees, created an online tool so that citizens could engage. Faced with the overwhelming response, De Gucht’s goodwill evaporated and he characterised it as an “outright attack”.

There is serious concern amongst civil society organisations that the majority of submissions will be ignored by the Commission. The published consultation report is vague in its description of how it weights submissions. However there is a clear suggestion the Commission will ‘take note of’ submissions facilitated by an online platform, but will ‘focus on’ those that ‘provide more specific views’.

There is particular concern regarding the UK government reaction. Over a third of the submissions (34.8%) were from the UK, the largest of any Member State. Yet even before the EC had completed its analysis, Lord Ian Livingston, Minister for Trade, wrote to the Commission stressing that ISDS must be part of the deal, ignoring the views of UK citizens and contradicting the negotiating mandate which says that it will only be included if it is clearly in the EU’s interests.

If the Commission and the UK ignore the vast majority of views, it will send a clear message that the right to private profit-making overrides the concerns of citizens.

Good reason to say no

Under the proposed Investor to State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) system, companies would be able to sue governments for millions and sometimes billions of pounds. The Commission has attempted to play down opposition to ISDS, claiming that opponents have not fully understood the issue. Yet the evidence is clear: investment protection measures have a huge impact on government right to regulate and on citizens. States are being challenged on every continent for decisions relating to everything from environmental regulation, to the provision of services and tax policy. Cases cost US$8 million on average to defend, irrespective of whether countries win. There is no limit on the level of the award: Russia was recently ordered to pay damages of US$50 billion to Yukos oil company whilst Ecuador was ordered to pay US$2 billion to Occidental petroleum.

The UK has consistently claimed that it is immune from challenge, yet recent research from Friends of the Earth Europe has shown that there are 127 known cases against EU member states, transferring billions of Euros from states to corporations.

Democratic scrutiny

Whilst the EC claims that the consultation was intended to strengthen the provision and wording of the investor protection clause, there is no opportunity for democratic oversight of this: neither MEPs nor MPs will have input, limited instead to voting for or against the deal as a whole.

On the 15th January, UK MPs debated a motion on TTIP in Parliament calling for TTIP and ISDS to be subject to parliamentary scrutiny. This is an important first step, however, there is much work to do to ensure genuine democratic scrutiny is possible in the UK. When the UK-Colombia Bilateral Investment Treaty was placed before the UK houses of parliament for scrutiny, it became apparent that there was very little that parliamentarians could actually do to influence the process: it was almost impossible to secure a debate and the kind of debate that was permitted, as well as the timing, was tightly controlled by whips.

EU citizens have made very clear their position on ISDS as well as their concern about TTIP. It would be an outrage for the EC or the UK to simply ignore these views. It is also critical that genuine democratic scrutiny and participation is possible in the development of any trade deal.

READ TJM’s submission to the public consultation here.

Sideboxes Related stories:  Does the European Commission understand NO?
Categories: les flux rss

Putin’s 'useless idiots' or signs of a deeper pathology? Russophilia and national populism in Greece

Open Democracy News Analysis - 29. January 2015 - 14:06

A number of ministers in the new Greek government have already been criticised by European commentators for their supposedly pro-Russian views. What explains this unique strain of Russophilia among the Greek radical left?

Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias has been noted for his Russophilic views. Demotix/Angeliki Panagiotou. All rights reserved.

During the Ukrainian crisis, some political analysts introduced the term ‘Putin’s useful idiots’. This term has been reserved for representatives of the broader or far left in Europe. Certain columnists accused leftist parties and initiatives (e.g. Germany’s Die Linke and the Stop-The-War coalition in Britain) of being carried away by their Euroscepticism and either condoning or siding, by default, with Kremlin’s foreign policy. These political analysts used the same term when the new, SYRIZA-led, government in Greece voiced its preliminary discontent over new sanctions against Russia.

The participation of individuals with connections to the Eurasian movement in the new Cabinet of Ministers (e.g. the Foreign Minister, Nikos Kotzias) has encouraged these commentators to search for ‘Putin’s useful idiots’ in Greece’s new government. It remains to be seen in the near future whether these allegations are valid or exaggerated.

Of greater interest it would be to focus on political culture and portray latent Russophilia as a component of national populism in Greece. This will enable the reader to comprehend more adequately the manipulation of Russophile sentiments among the public by political actors in Greece and its further-reaching implications.

Defining national populism in Greece: A brief overview

Populism, as a political practice, in Greece was concretized by Andreas Papandreou in the 1980s. As part of his rhetoric, the former Greek PM had combined elements as diverse as the legacy of prominent centrist politicians (i.e. Eleftherios Venizelos and Georgios Papandreou) and the Communist-led Partisan movement (EAM) during the Second World War. In all of this, the commitment to the linear continuity of Hellenism and the cultural values of Orthodoxy were strongly emphasized. Throughout the 1980s, Andreas Papandreou verbally castigated NATO and the EEC as agents of imperialism and praised the friendship between Greece and Ortega’s Nicaragua or Ceausescu’s Romania. Meanwhile, both the Communist Party (KKE) and the Eurocommunists (KKE Esoterikou) had dismissed PASOK’s populism as a project with the aim to deceive the Greek proletariat and alienate it from its class consciousness.

Nevertheless, the weakening of proletarian internationalism as a mobilization means, since 1989, brought about considerable realignments. As early as 1990, several articles in Rizospastis (i.e. the KKE’s newspaper) called for the moderate promotion of national values as a vehicle to maintain collective solidarity in the light of the threat posed by global capitalism. Therefore, individuals with a nationalist profile (e.g. Liana Kanelli) and former affiliates of the Neo-Orthodox movement (e.g. Kostas Zouraris) were admitted to the Communist Party. Meanwhile, the new PASOK leader, Costas Simitis, endorsed a ‘third way’ approach and weakened the impact of populism in the party’s public discourse. Consequently, the more populist segment either became marginalized into back-benchers, or sought refuge in the short-lived Democratic Social Movement-DIKKI (i.e. the evolution of a splinter-group from PASOK) and, some of them, in KKE.

During the 1990s and 2000s, certain realignments also occurred in the conservative New Democracy. As result of the discontent with the stance maintained by NATO and the US in crucial questions of geopolitical concern (e.g. the Macedonian issue and Cyprus) several party-members started adopting an anti-American rhetoric (e.g. the current LAOS leader Georgios Karatzaferis and the present leader of the Independent Greeks, Panos Kammenos).

Nevertheless, throughout the Cold War era, the conservative right had continuously expressed its allegiance to Atlantic interests. Similarly, the Communists, as well as the reformist left, had embraced an internationalist agenda and strictly abstained from nationalist speech. In the light of these circumstances, a process of osmosis was put under way: The left incorporated selected elements of traditional nationalism from the right whereas the latter adopted certain aspects of the left’s anti-imperialist/anti-American jargon. Since the 1990s, Greek national populism, as a mass phenomenon, has been evolving along the following premises: (a) a brand of underdog nationalism; (b) anti-intellectualism; (c) anti-Western sentiments (often more cultural than political); (d) a subtle disposition towards authoritarianism.

Russophilia, national populism and the Greek left

Vladimir Putin’s espousal of a ‘Eurasian’ foreign policy doctrine brought about a new wave of Russophilia in Greece (2000s). Various segments across Greece’s political spectrum saw a guarantee that Western arbitrariness in Global Politics would be regulated if Russia emerged as a more potent global actor. Meanwhile, during Kostas Karamanlis’ term in office as PM, the Greek government sped up bilateral cooperation with Russia in energy issues. Of particular importance is the impact of Russophilia among the Greek left and set in context the degree to which it has adopted hybrid aspects of the Greek national populism’s discourse.

Prior to the more decisive emergence of Russophilia, the Yugoslav wars of secession (1990s) had been a crucial test for the Greek left. Croatia’s sponsorship by Germany, in combination with Franjo Tuđman’s flamboyant rhetoric and the Ustaše heritage, had led many Greek leftists to dismiss the Croatian republic as a replica of the wartime NDH. Meanwhile, a notable segment of the Greek left rushed to picture the Bosnian Serb leadership and military as the continuation of the Yugoslav partisans and the wartime AVNOJ.

Despite the long tradition of anti-Communism in the Karadžić family, the KKE-leader, Aleka Papariga, had no inhibitions to cordially receive Radovan Karadžić during his official visit in Athens (1993). Although never admitted straightforwardly, Germany’s involvement on the side of Croatia and Turkey’s on the side of the Bosnian Muslims had made KKE and other Greek leftists overlook essential realities in the former Yugoslavia.

The latest developments in Ukraine seemed like a repetition. Portals such as Iskra, left.gr and publications with an ‘avant-garde’, leftist, profile (e.g. Unfollow) were quick on their feet to portray Euromaidan as a coup orchestrated by the US, the EU, and the Ukrainian far right.

Soon after that, the unrest in Eastern Ukraine was interpreted as a war between neo-Fascists (i.e. the new Ukrainian government) and anti-Fascists (i.e. the Donbass separatists). Particular attention was paid to Senator McCain’s reckless meetings with the Pravi Sektor. However, no reference was made to the participation of green and anarchist activists in Euromaidan or to the active involvement of the Russian far right in Donbass (e.g. the cases of Aleksandr Barkashov and Pavel Gubarev).

The same publications and informative websites even propagated certain conspiracy theories, fabricated in Russia, in order to ‘bypass’ the violent suppression of the protests by Yanukovych’s security forces. In short, the frequent references to ‘Ukrainian/Banderite fascists’ and to the ‘EU/US-engineered coup’ almost echoed the coverage of these developments in kuruc.info and other pro-Jobbik websites in Hungary.

‘Useful’ or ‘useless idiots’?

Back in 2013, Aleksandr Dugin had stated that ‘in Greece, our partners could eventually be leftists from SYRIZA, which refuses Atlanticism, liberalism and the domination of the forces of global finance’. Literally, this vague statement referred to synistoses (‘premises’) such as the ‘Leftist Platform’ led by Panayiotis Lafazanis.

This is one of SYRIZA’s segments with a considerably harder Euroscepticism than the party-average. Nevertheless, the formation of a coalition government with the, right-wing, Independent Greeks has opened up new prospects. Some commentators have pondered that the disagreements in crucial areas of decision-making (e.g. military expenditures, minority issues and Balkan foreign policy) may lead to a split in the long term. Other analysts reckon that the pact with the Independent Greeks may lead to a ‘right-turn’ on the SYRIZA’s part and the consolidation of a government with more explicit features of national populism.

In case the latter speculation turns out to be more accurate, how useful could Greek national populism be as an ally to Russia’s foreign policy? At this given moment, the answer is: not a particularly useful one. In order to illustrate this assessment, a ‘bottom-up’ approach to the political culture and social psychology of Greek national populism would be needed.

Russophilia, as a mass and political phenomenon, can also be observed in other Southeast European societies. Neighbouring Bulgaria and Serbia provide two appropriate examples. However, there exist qualitative differences with the Greek case.

Bulgarian, and to a lesser extent Serbian, Russophiles possess a remarkably more extensive knowledge and experience of Russian politics, society, and culture. Moreover, a good percentage of them speak the Russian language and/or have spent some time in Russia. When it comes to public Russophilia in Greece, the actual knowledge of Russia is rather limited or elementary. Russia is primarily seen as an actor that can regulate Western influence in a multipolar world order, often coupled with feeble justifications on the basis of Orthodoxy, the Soviet heritage, or a combination of both. In short, Russia’s image among the Greek public remains that of a remote, yet not inimical, Eurasian ‘Other’.

In addition, underdog nationalism makes up a key-component of national populism in Greece. It tends to perceive the country’s trajectory through history and Greek national interests (or rights) as being under constant threat by external (often Western) antagonists and plots. However simplistic it may appear, Greek national populism has frequently employed the formula ‘my enemy’s (perceived) enemy is a friend’. Apart from Russia, numerous other ‘allies’ have been invoked during the last decades such as ‘the Serbian Orthodox brothers’ in the 1990s, the ‘victimized Arab world’ in the 2000s and, most recently, the ‘crisis-hit, fellow South Europeans’.

So far, national populism has provided a mobilization means for several political actors in Greece ranging from Andreas Papandreou all the way to Kostas Karamanlis and Alexis Tsipras. Nevertheless, its superficiality, inconsistencies, malleability and idiosyncratic behavior do not render Greek national populism a reliable partner for any external agent. Russophilia, as a component of Greek national populism, remains too ahistorical and slightly ‘Messianic’ to be taken seriously from a longer-term political perspective.

Sideboxes Related stories:  The Collectivist, debt colonialism and the real Alexis Tsipras The Cyprus-Russia connection: political culture and public attitudes Country or region:  Greece
Categories: les flux rss

Putin’s 'useless idiots' or signs of a deeper pathology? Russophilia and national populism in Greece

Open Democracy News Analysis - 29. January 2015 - 14:06

A number of ministers in the new Greek government have already been criticised by European commentators for their supposedly pro-Russian views. What explains this unique strain of Russophilia among the Greek radical left?

Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias has been noted for his Russophilic views. Demotix/Angeliki Panagiotou. All rights reserved.

During the Ukrainian crisis, some political analysts introduced the term ‘Putin’s useful idiots’. This term has been reserved for representatives of the broader or far left in Europe. Certain columnists accused leftist parties and initiatives (e.g. Germany’s Die Linke and the Stop-The-War coalition in Britain) of being carried away by their Euroscepticism and either condoning or siding, by default, with Kremlin’s foreign policy. These political analysts used the same term when the new, SYRIZA-led, government in Greece voiced its preliminary discontent over new sanctions against Russia.

The participation of individuals with connections to the Eurasian movement in the new Cabinet of Ministers (e.g. the Foreign Minister, Nikos Kotzias) has encouraged these commentators to search for ‘Putin’s useful idiots’ in Greece’s new government. It remains to be seen in the near future whether these allegations are valid or exaggerated.

Of greater interest it would be to focus on political culture and portray latent Russophilia as a component of national populism in Greece. This will enable the reader to comprehend more adequately the manipulation of Russophile sentiments among the public by political actors in Greece and its further-reaching implications.

Defining national populism in Greece: A brief overview

Populism, as a political practice, in Greece was concretized by Andreas Papandreou in the 1980s. As part of his rhetoric, the former Greek PM had combined elements as diverse as the legacy of prominent centrist politicians (i.e. Eleftherios Venizelos and Georgios Papandreou) and the Communist-led Partisan movement (EAM) during the Second World War. In all of this, the commitment to the linear continuity of Hellenism and the cultural values of Orthodoxy were strongly emphasized. Throughout the 1980s, Andreas Papandreou verbally castigated NATO and the EEC as agents of imperialism and praised the friendship between Greece and Ortega’s Nicaragua or Ceausescu’s Romania. Meanwhile, both the Communist Party (KKE) and the Eurocommunists (KKE Esoterikou) had dismissed PASOK’s populism as a project with the aim to deceive the Greek proletariat and alienate it from its class consciousness.

Nevertheless, the weakening of proletarian internationalism as a mobilization means, since 1989, brought about considerable realignments. As early as 1990, several articles in Rizospastis (i.e. the KKE’s newspaper) called for the moderate promotion of national values as a vehicle to maintain collective solidarity in the light of the threat posed by global capitalism. Therefore, individuals with a nationalist profile (e.g. Liana Kanelli) and former affiliates of the Neo-Orthodox movement (e.g. Kostas Zouraris) were admitted to the Communist Party. Meanwhile, the new PASOK leader, Costas Simitis, endorsed a ‘third way’ approach and weakened the impact of populism in the party’s public discourse. Consequently, the more populist segment either became marginalized into back-benchers, or sought refuge in the short-lived Democratic Social Movement-DIKKI (i.e. the evolution of a splinter-group from PASOK) and, some of them, in KKE.

During the 1990s and 2000s, certain realignments also occurred in the conservative New Democracy. As result of the discontent with the stance maintained by NATO and the US in crucial questions of geopolitical concern (e.g. the Macedonian issue and Cyprus) several party-members started adopting an anti-American rhetoric (e.g. the current LAOS leader Georgios Karatzaferis and the present leader of the Independent Greeks, Panos Kammenos).

Nevertheless, throughout the Cold War era, the conservative right had continuously expressed its allegiance to Atlantic interests. Similarly, the Communists, as well as the reformist left, had embraced an internationalist agenda and strictly abstained from nationalist speech. In the light of these circumstances, a process of osmosis was put under way: The left incorporated selected elements of traditional nationalism from the right whereas the latter adopted certain aspects of the left’s anti-imperialist/anti-American jargon. Since the 1990s, Greek national populism, as a mass phenomenon, has been evolving along the following premises: (a) a brand of underdog nationalism; (b) anti-intellectualism; (c) anti-Western sentiments (often more cultural than political); (d) a subtle disposition towards authoritarianism.

Russophilia, national populism and the Greek left

Vladimir Putin’s espousal of a ‘Eurasian’ foreign policy doctrine brought about a new wave of Russophilia in Greece (2000s). Various segments across Greece’s political spectrum saw a guarantee that Western arbitrariness in Global Politics would be regulated if Russia emerged as a more potent global actor. Meanwhile, during Kostas Karamanlis’ term in office as PM, the Greek government sped up bilateral cooperation with Russia in energy issues. Of particular importance is the impact of Russophilia among the Greek left and set in context the degree to which it has adopted hybrid aspects of the Greek national populism’s discourse.

Prior to the more decisive emergence of Russophilia, the Yugoslav wars of secession (1990s) had been a crucial test for the Greek left. Croatia’s sponsorship by Germany, in combination with Franjo Tuđman’s flamboyant rhetoric and the Ustaše heritage, had led many Greek leftists to dismiss the Croatian republic as a replica of the wartime NDH. Meanwhile, a notable segment of the Greek left rushed to picture the Bosnian Serb leadership and military as the continuation of the Yugoslav partisans and the wartime AVNOJ.

Despite the long tradition of anti-Communism in the Karadžić family, the KKE-leader, Aleka Papariga, had no inhibitions to cordially receive Radovan Karadžić during his official visit in Athens (1993). Although never admitted straightforwardly, Germany’s involvement on the side of Croatia and Turkey’s on the side of the Bosnian Muslims had made KKE and other Greek leftists overlook essential realities in the former Yugoslavia.

The latest developments in Ukraine seemed like a repetition. Portals such as Iskra, left.gr and publications with an ‘avant-garde’, leftist, profile (e.g. Unfollow) were quick on their feet to portray Euromaidan as a coup orchestrated by the US, the EU, and the Ukrainian far right.

Soon after that, the unrest in Eastern Ukraine was interpreted as a war between neo-Fascists (i.e. the new Ukrainian government) and anti-Fascists (i.e. the Donbass separatists). Particular attention was paid to Senator McCain’s reckless meetings with the Pravi Sektor. However, no reference was made to the participation of green and anarchist activists in Euromaidan or to the active involvement of the Russian far right in Donbass (e.g. the cases of Aleksandr Barkashov and Pavel Gubarev).

The same publications and informative websites even propagated certain conspiracy theories, fabricated in Russia, in order to ‘bypass’ the violent suppression of the protests by Yanukovych’s security forces. In short, the frequent references to ‘Ukrainian/Banderite fascists’ and to the ‘EU/US-engineered coup’ almost echoed the coverage of these developments in kuruc.info and other pro-Jobbik websites in Hungary.

‘Useful’ or ‘useless idiots’?

Back in 2013, Aleksandr Dugin had stated that ‘in Greece, our partners could eventually be leftists from SYRIZA, which refuses Atlanticism, liberalism and the domination of the forces of global finance’. Literally, this vague statement referred to synistoses (‘premises’) such as the ‘Leftist Platform’ led by Panayiotis Lafazanis.

This is one of SYRIZA’s segments with a considerably harder Euroscepticism than the party-average. Nevertheless, the formation of a coalition government with the, right-wing, Independent Greeks has opened up new prospects. Some commentators have pondered that the disagreements in crucial areas of decision-making (e.g. military expenditures, minority issues and Balkan foreign policy) may lead to a split in the long term. Other analysts reckon that the pact with the Independent Greeks may lead to a ‘right-turn’ on the SYRIZA’s part and the consolidation of a government with more explicit features of national populism.

In case the latter speculation turns out to be more accurate, how useful could Greek national populism be as an ally to Russia’s foreign policy? At this given moment, the answer is: not a particularly useful one. In order to illustrate this assessment, a ‘bottom-up’ approach to the political culture and social psychology of Greek national populism would be needed.

Russophilia, as a mass and political phenomenon, can also be observed in other Southeast European societies. Neighbouring Bulgaria and Serbia provide two appropriate examples. However, there exist qualitative differences with the Greek case.

Bulgarian, and to a lesser extent Serbian, Russophiles possess a remarkably more extensive knowledge and experience of Russian politics, society, and culture. Moreover, a good percentage of them speak the Russian language and/or have spent some time in Russia. When it comes to public Russophilia in Greece, the actual knowledge of Russia is rather limited or elementary. Russia is primarily seen as an actor that can regulate Western influence in a multipolar world order, often coupled with feeble justifications on the basis of Orthodoxy, the Soviet heritage, or a combination of both. In short, Russia’s image among the Greek public remains that of a remote, yet not inimical, Eurasian ‘Other’.

In addition, underdog nationalism makes up a key-component of national populism in Greece. It tends to perceive the country’s trajectory through history and Greek national interests (or rights) as being under constant threat by external (often Western) antagonists and plots. However simplistic it may appear, Greek national populism has frequently employed the formula ‘my enemy’s (perceived) enemy is a friend’. Apart from Russia, numerous other ‘allies’ have been invoked during the last decades such as ‘the Serbian Orthodox brothers’ in the 1990s, the ‘victimized Arab world’ in the 2000s and, most recently, the ‘crisis-hit, fellow South Europeans’.

So far, national populism has provided a mobilization means for several political actors in Greece ranging from Andreas Papandreou all the way to Kostas Karamanlis and Alexis Tsipras. Nevertheless, its superficiality, inconsistencies, malleability and idiosyncratic behavior do not render Greek national populism a reliable partner for any external agent. Russophilia, as a component of Greek national populism, remains too ahistorical and slightly ‘Messianic’ to be taken seriously from a longer-term political perspective.

Sideboxes Related stories:  Why Syriza is good news for Greece and Europe The Cyprus-Russia connection: political culture and public attitudes Country or region:  Greece
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William Blake: apprentice and master

Open Democracy News Analysis - 29. January 2015 - 14:05

While the English language is gifted with many great poets, William Blake was alone in writing so simply, and so powerfully, and so unforgettably. Now a new exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum is celebrating his visual and literary work in tandem. 

'Songs of Innocence' image via Bodleian Museum, University of Oxford

The following is adapted from two speeches given by Phillip Pullman at the launch of the William Blake Festival at the Ashmolean Museum on 18 January 2015. The exhibition will run until 1 March 2015.

The more we look into the curious case of William Blake the more curious he seems, and the more we find to discover. A great poet, undeniably; a print-maker, designer, graphic artist, of huge originality and power. A maker of vast and complex myths, and a master of the tiniest morally explosive aphorism. A religious and philosophical thinker whose insights into those fields and into human psychology are only now beginning to be fully recognised and understood.

But this is a museum. A great museum of art, and it’s not easy to put together an exhibition of thoughts and insights and myths. We need things to look at, and that’s where writers and poets are disappointing, exhibition-wise: a couple of manuscripts, a lock of hair, a pen, a walking stick that he might once have used, a tea cup that she possibly drank from—that’s the sort of thing that an exhibition devoted to most writers or poets must consist of.

But Blake! 

'Newton' image via the Philadelphia Museum of ArtHe left us a whole world of visual splendour. Images that once seen are unforgettable: the great picture known as ‘The Ancient of Days’, depicting Urizen, the embodiment of law and reason, leaning down from a cloud with his measuring compasses; the vision of ‘Albion Rose’, sometimes called ‘Glad Day’; Newton, seated on a rock, with compasses again, a version of which rendered in bronze by Eduardo Paolozzi stands outside the British Library; ‘The Ghost of a Flea’ … any of those images, or of many others, would have ensured the immortality of an artist who never wrote a word or said a memorable thing.

This image-making aspect of Blake’s life and work was so intimately bound up with the unforgettable poetry he wrote.

But the thrill of this exhibition is that it shows us how this image-making aspect of Blake’s life and work was so intimately bound up with the unforgettable poetry he wrote. They were conceived as one thing. They were printed from the same plates. The words were written—backwards—in the same varnish as the design, to stop out the areas of the copper plate that he didn’t want the acid to bite into. It was all one thing. Both the words and the design, the illumination, both together were the anvil on which he hammered out the meaning of his thoughts.

And in this marvellous exhibition we can see the stages by which Blake arrived at the extraordinary integration of word and image, from his apprentice work drawing the tombs in Westminster Abbey through his increasing familiarity with all kinds of print-making and the work of the great artists of the past whose paintings were reproduced in engravings, discovering what he favours, what he finds full of truth, clear lines, that is to say, and what he dislikes: anything fudged or blurred or obscure.

'House of Death' image via Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

It’s fascinating to look at the stages of a print emerging gradually from the first marks made on the wood or the copper, and to look at the hefty machinery involved in printing it on paper, to imagine the sheer toil involved in working at a relatively minute size, poring closely over the plate in the light that struggled in between the tall buildings outside the window, and then going through all the processes of inking the plate and putting it through the massive press and then working on it further with colours until it was ready; all that lovely physical stuff that people who do nothing but write feel such envy for. I do, anyway.

Visitors to this exhibition will go away astonished at the sheer volume of work that William Blake got through in his 70 years.

And all that is fully and richly represented here. The catalogue is a treasury of information that I know I’ll be consulting for years to come. I think that visitors to this exhibition will go away astonished at the sheer volume of work that William Blake got through in his 70 years, with all the difficulties, financial and otherwise, that crowded around him. But most of all, for me anyway, it’s a sense of the grandeur of what that extraordinary imagination conceived and brought forth. Blake is all of a piece; his enormously complex mythology wasn’t just made up at random—all the parts do fit together, and the more we see, the more we marvel at its richness and beauty and truth.

'Young Blake' image via Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

We are lucky in this country, in this Albion, with our mongrel language that is so flexible and so friendly to all kinds of utterance, to have more great poets than perhaps we deserve. But Blake was alone in writing so simply, and so powerfully, and so unforgettably. He was a friend of language: it did what he wanted it to, it fell gracefully into his hands, he had a sense for the sinews and the muscles, the bones and the structures of the language that was as sure and firmly founded as his knowledge of the structure of the human body, a knowledge formed in the course of a long and diligent apprenticeship. He knew how to draw a clear line around a figure: whatever tormented or contorted position he put it in, the figure works, the shoulders and the arms meet each other convincingly, the feet grow firmly from the legs.

And when he put words together, he did so in such a way that they are now inseparable, unforgettable: 

I wander thro’ each charterd street

Near where the charter’d Thames does flow,

And mark in every face I meet

Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

 

In every cry of every Man,

In every Infant’s cry of fear,

In every voice, in every ban,

The mind-forg’d manacles I hear. 

'Abel and the Shepherd' image via Tate Museum, London

We certainly don’t show our poets as much gratitude, or celebrate them as a smaller, poorer nation would. But here, at the Ashmolean, is our chance to pay our respects to, and wonder at, the genius of one of the greatest, and certainly one of the strangest of all the poets who’ve ever written in English; and certainly the greatest who ever drew, and etched, and printed, and coloured the illuminations that make his work unique.

The exhibition 'William Blake: apprentice and master' runs until 1 March 2015 in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. openDemocracy is grateful for permission to share these images. 

Topics:  Culture Equality Ideas Rights:  CC by NC 3.0
Categories: les flux rss

William Blake: apprentice and master

Open Democracy News Analysis - 29. January 2015 - 14:05

While the English language is gifted with many great poets, William Blake was alone in writing so simply, and so powerfully, and so unforgettably. Now a new exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum is celebrating his visual and literary work in tandem. 

'Songs of Innocence' image via Bodleian Museum, University of Oxford

The following is adapted from two speeches given by Phillip Pullman at the launch of the William Blake Festival at the Ashmolean Museum on 18 January 2015. The exhibition will run until 1 March 2015.

The more we look into the curious case of William Blake the more curious he seems, and the more we find to discover. A great poet, undeniably; a print-maker, designer, graphic artist, of huge originality and power. A maker of vast and complex myths, and a master of the tiniest morally explosive aphorism. A religious and philosophical thinker whose insights into those fields and into human psychology are only now beginning to be fully recognised and understood.

But this is a museum. A great museum of art, and it’s not easy to put together an exhibition of thoughts and insights and myths. We need things to look at, and that’s where writers and poets are disappointing, exhibition-wise: a couple of manuscripts, a lock of hair, a pen, a walking stick that he might once have used, a tea cup that she possibly drank from—that’s the sort of thing that an exhibition devoted to most writers or poets must consist of.

But Blake! 

'Newton' image via the Philadelphia Museum of ArtHe left us a whole world of visual splendour. Images that once seen are unforgettable: the great picture known as ‘The Ancient of Days’, depicting Urizen, the embodiment of law and reason, leaning down from a cloud with his measuring compasses; the vision of ‘Albion Rose’, sometimes called ‘Glad Day’; Newton, seated on a rock, with compasses again, a version of which rendered in bronze by Eduardo Paolozzi stands outside the British Library; ‘The Ghost of a Flea’ … any of those images, or of many others, would have ensured the immortality of an artist who never wrote a word or said a memorable thing.

This image-making aspect of Blake’s life and work was so intimately bound up with the unforgettable poetry he wrote.

But the thrill of this exhibition is that it shows us how this image-making aspect of Blake’s life and work was so intimately bound up with the unforgettable poetry he wrote. They were conceived as one thing. They were printed from the same plates. The words were written—backwards—in the same varnish as the design, to stop out the areas of the copper plate that he didn’t want the acid to bite into. It was all one thing. Both the words and the design, the illumination, both together were the anvil on which he hammered out the meaning of his thoughts.

And in this marvellous exhibition we can see the stages by which Blake arrived at the extraordinary integration of word and image, from his apprentice work drawing the tombs in Westminster Abbey through his increasing familiarity with all kinds of print-making and the work of the great artists of the past whose paintings were reproduced in engravings, discovering what he favours, what he finds full of truth, clear lines, that is to say, and what he dislikes: anything fudged or blurred or obscure.

'House of Death' image via Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

It’s fascinating to look at the stages of a print emerging gradually from the first marks made on the wood or the copper, and to look at the hefty machinery involved in printing it on paper, to imagine the sheer toil involved in working at a relatively minute size, poring closely over the plate in the light that struggled in between the tall buildings outside the window, and then going through all the processes of inking the plate and putting it through the massive press and then working on it further with colours until it was ready; all that lovely physical stuff that people who do nothing but write feel such envy for. I do, anyway.

Visitors to this exhibition will go away astonished at the sheer volume of work that William Blake got through in his 70 years.

And all that is fully and richly represented here. The catalogue is a treasury of information that I know I’ll be consulting for years to come. I think that visitors to this exhibition will go away astonished at the sheer volume of work that William Blake got through in his 70 years, with all the difficulties, financial and otherwise, that crowded around him. But most of all, for me anyway, it’s a sense of the grandeur of what that extraordinary imagination conceived and brought forth. Blake is all of a piece; his enormously complex mythology wasn’t just made up at random—all the parts do fit together, and the more we see, the more we marvel at its richness and beauty and truth.

'Young Blake' image via Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

We are lucky in this country, in this Albion, with our mongrel language that is so flexible and so friendly to all kinds of utterance, to have more great poets than perhaps we deserve. But Blake was alone in writing so simply, and so powerfully, and so unforgettably. He was a friend of language: it did what he wanted it to, it fell gracefully into his hands, he had a sense for the sinews and the muscles, the bones and the structures of the language that was as sure and firmly founded as his knowledge of the structure of the human body, a knowledge formed in the course of a long and diligent apprenticeship. He knew how to draw a clear line around a figure: whatever tormented or contorted position he put it in, the figure works, the shoulders and the arms meet each other convincingly, the feet grow firmly from the legs.

And when he put words together, he did so in such a way that they are now inseparable, unforgettable: 

I wander thro’ each charterd street

Near where the charter’d Thames does flow,

And mark in every face I meet

Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

 

In every cry of every Man,

In every Infant’s cry of fear,

In every voice, in every ban,

The mind-forg’d manacles I hear. 

'Abel and the Shepherd' image via Tate Museum, London

We certainly don’t show our poets as much gratitude, or celebrate them as a smaller, poorer nation would. But here, at the Ashmolean, is our chance to pay our respects to, and wonder at, the genius of one of the greatest, and certainly one of the strangest of all the poets who’ve ever written in English; and certainly the greatest who ever drew, and etched, and printed, and coloured the illuminations that make his work unique.

The exhibition 'William Blake: apprentice and master' runs until 1 March 2015 in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. openDemocracy is grateful for permission to share these images. 

Topics:  Culture Equality Ideas Rights:  CC by NC 3.0
Categories: les flux rss

The other, dark winner of the Greek elections

Open Democracy News Analysis - 29. January 2015 - 12:38

Why is nobody talking about Golden Dawn coming a sensational third in the Greek elections?

Golden Dawn supporters march in central Athens. Flickr/alba.christiansen. Some rights reserved.

Think of a party that lost approximately 10 percent of its share in the vote from the previous election ― in most people’s books, this is a bad result. Yet in the case of Greece's Golden Dawn, this was anything but.

Having enjoyed being catapulted phenomenally into the country's parliament in 2012, the far-right party quickly made international headlines with its food rallies “for Greeks only”, its orchestration of racist attacks in Athens and beyond, and eventually, in September 2013, with the assassination of anti-fascist musician Pavlos Fyssas.

In the international outcry that followed, it momentarily appeared as if Pavlos' assassination would signal the death knell for Golden Dawn themselves. Their leader, Nikos Michaloliakos, all MPs and tens of key party members are now facing justice. The mainstream media in the country was quick on a u-turn from their previously implicit (or even explicit) support of Golden Dawn and their politics. But the arrest of the party leadership did little to counter the country's institutional racism.

Months after a legal case had been opened against the party, a top party MP, Ilias Kasidiaris, revealed his secretly-recorded private conversation with the then conservative PM's chief of staff, Takis Baltakos. On the one hand, the incident revealed the depth to which racism and far-right ideology was ingrained in the Greek state apparatus. On the other, it tarnished Golden Dawn's own, self-made image of a supposedly anti-systemic force battling against the Greek political and economic elites.

The chief of staff in question resigned, and Kasidiaris followed his fellow MPs into prison. At this point, one would once again be excused in thinking Golden Dawn's exit from the political scene would indeed be as swift as its entrance, but the electoral result of January 25 perfectly revealed how systemic the far-right vote has now become in the country.

In the previous elections, approximately half of the country's police force voted for Golden Dawn; there is no reason to suspect this time round the results will paint a different picture. A dominant political culture where nationalism, xenophobia and homophobia prevail has formed fertile ground for Golden Dawn to grow, now leading to a great paradox: in spite of being excluded from the same mainstream media that had previously aided its catapulting into the spotlight, and even though it essentially ran its entire electoral campaign while its leadership was in prison, Golden Dawn still won 6.3% of the vote, overtaking even the social-democrats of PASOK and the nationalist Independent Greeks to become the country's third largest party.

An initial defence reserved for Golden Dawn voters was that they were uninformed of the party's real policies and ideology. This then shifted to the suggestion that these voters were deceived by the largely positive image painted for the party by certain national media outlets. It is difficult to see what excuse may be used this time around: just under 400,000 Greek voters backed a party whose crimes and vile ideology have now fully come to light.

This is why Golden Dawn have scored a chilling victory: they have triumphantly displayed a core of party faithful strong and determined enough to make them the new parliament's third largest party, despite being run from behind bars. It will take years to soothe the devastating effects of austerity, as well as the far-right political culture administering it, while setting the stage for the entrance of Golden Dawn.

The country's new government will have no choice but to decisively fight its natural political enemy, but if this struggle is not met by firm, widespread anti-fascist education and action on the ground, there might be little time before Golden Dawn's vile far-right ideology solidifies its position in Greek society, and before institutional racism turns truly and fully social.

Sideboxes Related stories:  Why the Irish political elite is terrified of Syriza Country or region:  Greece
Categories: les flux rss

Colombia: the year of peace?

Open Democracy News Analysis - 29. January 2015 - 11:44

The unilateral ceasefire signed by the FARC last December is a historic and positive step towards a permanent peace, but questions remain. 

Balloons released in April 2013 in support of the peace negotiations, now entering the third year, between the government and the FARC. Pablo Medina Uribe & Julián Camilo García/Demotix. All rights reserved. 

For the first time in a half-century-long conflict, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) agreed on 20 December 2014 to a unilateral and indefinite ceasefire.

The decision marks a turning point in the on-going peace talks in Havana between the government of Juan Manuel Santos and the guerrilla leaders since August 2012. Not only is the step unprecedented but it also came just three weeks after the end of a crisis which had endangered the whole peace process.

On 16 November, the FARC kidnapped a senior military figure in the armed forces, Rubén Darío Alzate, in a small municipality in the Chocó department. The event forced President Santos to halt the negotiations, only to resume them following the release of the general two weeks later.

To some extent, the ceasefire highlights a transformation in the guerrillas’ tactics, paving the way for a significant reduction of violence between the two sides. According to analysis conducted by CERAC, the FARC have not committed a single violation of the ceasefire despite continued operations by Colombia’s armed forces . A month on, violence associated with the conflict has plummeted to levels not seen since the mid-1980s.

But optimism should be carefully qualified. The ceasefire is conditional, dependent on measures that the FARC has sought from the government, including oversight of the deal by national and international bodies. It has also warned that, should government armed forces attack, the ceasefire will be dropped.

The government welcomed the announcement, claiming that it could indeed lead to a permanent peace. But Santos reinforced the state’s duty to ‘protect’ the Colombian people and deferred discussions on a bilateral ceasefire until further rounds of negotiations in Cuba. This leaves the ceasefire vulnerable and begs further questions. First, why isn’t the government willing to accept a bilateral arrangement right away?

At one level, this stems from past failures. The only bilateral ceasefire signed by the FARC and the government dates back to 1983, under the presidency of Belisario Betancur (1982-86). Neither side ceased hostilities and it only exacerbated the deterioration of the peace process, which collapsed shortly thereafter. Under Andrés Pastrana (1998-2002), the FARC was granted a demilitarised area in which the peace process took place. But this allowed for the visible training and strengthening of the guerrillas, proving fatal to the negotiations in the end.

The current negotiations could not produce either of these concessions Far from it: they were facilitated by the strength of the armed forces, which forced the guerrillas to come to an agreement with Santos in August 2012. And the government has no incentive to remove this military pressure, for fear of upsetting the balance upon which the peace process has rested.

Moreover, the multiplicity of violent groups acting inside Colombia—including the ELN, the second largest guerrilla organisation, as well as a panoply of paramilitary, self-defence and vigilante groups and organised criminal bands—would make it very difficult for the government to implement a bilateral ceasefire. Finally, should the government reduce the steady military pressure on the guerrillas, political support for the negotiations—now approved only by a slim majority of the population and the governing coalition–would be severely shaken.

Secondly, is the ceasefire likely to stand? There is scope for optimism, owing by and large to the positive record of past truces undertaken by the FARC and the Santos administration, during the Christmas and new year’s festivities of 2012 and 2013, as well as around the presidential elections in May and June last year.

But a third and rather different question follows: what will happen if either party attacks the other? The straightforward answer is the ceasefire would collapse. But very different consequences would follow, depending on the perpetrator. A FARC breach would damage the credibility of its control over its armed apparatus and represent a political defeat for the guerrillas. Should the government take the first step, however, by virtue of the FARC’s conditions the deal would be no more, and Santos would have to confront the political consequences of an attack waged by the armed forces.  

In line with the president’s own promises, the armed forces has not ceased to operate against the guerrillas. On 31 December, they attacked FARC troops in Algeciras, a municipality in the Huila department, and captured Carlos Andrés Bustos (alias Ricardo), second in command of the Teófilo Forero columna. Interestingly, while the FARC condemned the operation, as with other alleged attacks by the armed forces, the ceasefire did not come to an abrupt halt.

But then the Teófilo Forero unit has proved problematic for the FARC’s highest cadres for quite some time, so the kidnapping of one of its leaders could turn out to be beneficial in at least two ways. First, it would appear to be a contained blow against one of the guerrillas’ most troublesome divisions. Secondly, it leaves the FARC in a position to point the finger against the government’s military provocations as a major threat to its own ceasefire.

Should the armed forces disrupt the truce the FARC could effectively shift the blame on to the government, making it bear responsibility for the missed opportunity for peace and the crisis that would ensue. This would strengthen the FARC’s position within the negotiations, boosting its image as the purported defender of peace, and bring more pressure on the Santos administration from the international community­—and, perhaps to a lesser extent, the Colombian public.

But a failed ceasefire might not lead the entire peace process to collapse. Even if the truce between the FARC and the government were suddenly to break down, the peace talks in Havana would still likely progress, even if impaired, towards a final agreement between the two sides.

In his last speech of 2014, Santos wished for the Colombian people that 2015 would be the year of peace. The ceasefire still holds but the path towards a definitive peace is still laden with risks.

On 15 January Santos announced that he would be ordering the government’s delegation in Havana to begin discussing the possibility of a bilateral ceasefire with the FARC. The initial aversion towards a bilateral agreement that would entangle both the armed forces and the guerrillas appears already to have waned. But in some fundamental ways Colombia is already living under a virtual bilateral deal.

The drastic reduction in clashes between the army and the FARC has brought an easing of hostilities unlike anything in the past 30 years. The relationship between the two sides has shifted from attempted mutual annihilation to mutual avoidance. For both actors, the benefits of a decrease in violent confrontations outweigh the costs of a breakdown of the current equilibrium.  

The FARC’s decision voluntarily to renounce operations against the armed forces poses a crucial test for Santos’ government as well as the guerrillas. It has shown the latter that violence may not be as useful as it may have been in the past. The FARC cannot hope to wage a successful war against the armed forces; indeed, nor can it hope to resort to violence again without suffering a catastrophic blow to the credibility and political capital accrued through the past two years of negotiations. Yet the ceasefire will leave the onus on Santos to make the next steps—and show the true extent of his willingness to negotiate a political way out of Colombia’s conflict. 

Sideboxes Related stories:  The body of Colombian women is a battleground Back to basics for Colombia's rebels Organized crime, Colombia's peace spoiler? Uncovering Colombia's systems of macro-criminality Country or region:  Colombia
Categories: les flux rss

Colombia: the year of peace?

Open Democracy News Analysis - 29. January 2015 - 11:44

The unilateral ceasefire signed by the FARC last December is a historic and positive step towards a permanent peace, but questions remain. 

Balloons released in April 2013 in support of the peace negotiations, now entering the third year, between the government and the FARC. Pablo Medina Uribe & Julián Camilo García/Demotix. All rights reserved. 

For the first time in a half-century-long conflict, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) agreed on 20 December 2014 to a unilateral and indefinite ceasefire.

The decision marks a turning point in the on-going peace talks in Havana between the government of Juan Manuel Santos and the guerrilla leaders since August 2012. Not only is the step unprecedented but it also came just three weeks after the end of a crisis which had endangered the whole peace process.

On 16 November, the FARC kidnapped a senior military figure in the armed forces, Rubén Darío Alzate, in a small municipality in the Chocó department. The event forced President Santos to halt the negotiations, only to resume them following the release of the general two weeks later.

To some extent, the ceasefire highlights a transformation in the guerrillas’ tactics, paving the way for a significant reduction of violence between the two sides. According to analysis conducted by CERAC, the FARC have not committed a single violation of the ceasefire despite continued operations by Colombia’s armed forces . A month on, violence associated with the conflict has plummeted to levels not seen since the mid-1980s.

But optimism should be carefully qualified. The ceasefire is conditional, dependent on measures that the FARC has sought from the government, including oversight of the deal by national and international bodies. It has also warned that, should government armed forces attack, the ceasefire will be dropped.

The government welcomed the announcement, claiming that it could indeed lead to a permanent peace. But Santos reinforced the state’s duty to ‘protect’ the Colombian people and deferred discussions on a bilateral ceasefire until further rounds of negotiations in Cuba. This leaves the ceasefire vulnerable and begs further questions. First, why isn’t the government willing to accept a bilateral arrangement right away?

At one level, this stems from past failures. The only bilateral ceasefire signed by the FARC and the government dates back to 1983, under the presidency of Belisario Betancur (1982-86). Neither side ceased hostilities and it only exacerbated the deterioration of the peace process, which collapsed shortly thereafter. Under Andrés Pastrana (1998-2002), the FARC was granted a demilitarised area in which the peace process took place. But this allowed for the visible training and strengthening of the guerrillas, proving fatal to the negotiations in the end.

The current negotiations could not produce either of these concessions Far from it: they were facilitated by the strength of the armed forces, which forced the guerrillas to come to an agreement with Santos in August 2012. And the government has no incentive to remove this military pressure, for fear of upsetting the balance upon which the peace process has rested.

Moreover, the multiplicity of violent groups acting inside Colombia—including the ELN, the second largest guerrilla organisation, as well as a panoply of paramilitary, self-defence and vigilante groups and organised criminal bands—would make it very difficult for the government to implement a bilateral ceasefire. Finally, should the government reduce the steady military pressure on the guerrillas, political support for the negotiations—now approved only by a slim majority of the population and the governing coalition–would be severely shaken.

Secondly, is the ceasefire likely to stand? There is scope for optimism, owing by and large to the positive record of past truces undertaken by the FARC and the Santos administration, during the Christmas and new year’s festivities of 2012 and 2013, as well as around the presidential elections in May and June last year.

But a third and rather different question follows: what will happen if either party attacks the other? The straightforward answer is the ceasefire would collapse. But very different consequences would follow, depending on the perpetrator. A FARC breach would damage the credibility of its control over its armed apparatus and represent a political defeat for the guerrillas. Should the government take the first step, however, by virtue of the FARC’s conditions the deal would be no more, and Santos would have to confront the political consequences of an attack waged by the armed forces.  

In line with the president’s own promises, the armed forces has not ceased to operate against the guerrillas. On 31 December, they attacked FARC troops in Algeciras, a municipality in the Huila department, and captured Carlos Andrés Bustos (alias Ricardo), second in command of the Teófilo Forero columna. Interestingly, while the FARC condemned the operation, as with other alleged attacks by the armed forces, the ceasefire did not come to an abrupt halt.

But then the Teófilo Forero unit has proved problematic for the FARC’s highest cadres for quite some time, so the kidnapping of one of its leaders could turn out to be beneficial in at least two ways. First, it would appear to be a contained blow against one of the guerrillas’ most troublesome divisions. Secondly, it leaves the FARC in a position to point the finger against the government’s military provocations as a major threat to its own ceasefire.

Should the armed forces disrupt the truce the FARC could effectively shift the blame on to the government, making it bear responsibility for the missed opportunity for peace and the crisis that would ensue. This would strengthen the FARC’s position within the negotiations, boosting its image as the purported defender of peace, and bring more pressure on the Santos administration from the international community­—and, perhaps to a lesser extent, the Colombian public.

But a failed ceasefire might not lead the entire peace process to collapse. Even if the truce between the FARC and the government were suddenly to break down, the peace talks in Havana would still likely progress, even if impaired, towards a final agreement between the two sides.

In his last speech of 2014, Santos wished for the Colombian people that 2015 would be the year of peace. The ceasefire still holds but the path towards a definitive peace is still laden with risks.

On 15 January Santos announced that he would be ordering the government’s delegation in Havana to begin discussing the possibility of a bilateral ceasefire with the FARC. The initial aversion towards a bilateral agreement that would entangle both the armed forces and the guerrillas appears already to have waned. But in some fundamental ways Colombia is already living under a virtual bilateral deal.

The drastic reduction in clashes between the army and the FARC has brought an easing of hostilities unlike anything in the past 30 years. The relationship between the two sides has shifted from attempted mutual annihilation to mutual avoidance. For both actors, the benefits of a decrease in violent confrontations outweigh the costs of a breakdown of the current equilibrium.  

The FARC’s decision voluntarily to renounce operations against the armed forces poses a crucial test for Santos’ government as well as the guerrillas. It has shown the latter that violence may not be as useful as it may have been in the past. The FARC cannot hope to wage a successful war against the armed forces; indeed, nor can it hope to resort to violence again without suffering a catastrophic blow to the credibility and political capital accrued through the past two years of negotiations. Yet the ceasefire will leave the onus on Santos to make the next steps—and show the true extent of his willingness to negotiate a political way out of Colombia’s conflict. 

Sideboxes Related stories:  The body of Colombian women is a battleground Back to basics for Colombia's rebels Organized crime, Colombia's peace spoiler? Uncovering Colombia's systems of macro-criminality Country or region:  Colombia
Categories: les flux rss

The arguments against proportional representation have melted away

Open Democracy News Analysis - 29. January 2015 - 11:34

First Past the Post was designed for a previous era. We must change all of our politics - but the voting system first.

Close your eyes and imagine a democratic dystopia in which no one gets what they want. Now open them. Welcome to the politics of Britain in 2015. An election looms and whoever we vote for we wont get to save the planet, stop the inequality gap widening or end the housing crisis. If you’re a social democrat, a compassionate Conservative, an anything – forget it. It ain’t happening. Our democracy is broken – beyond repair – and the biggest irony of all is that this democracy crisis isn’t on the agenda either.

Politics no longer works like a see–saw. As one side goes down the other no longer automatically rises. The spell of the two-party duopoly is broken. It was broken on the rocks of globalization, individualization and now technology. Following the ‘big bang’ of the 1980s, power in the form of money went global while politics stayed national. At the same time the culture of consumerism and an end of deference swept the land. We no longer did as we were told or as expected. Today these twin mega trends are magnified and accelerated by the internet and social media in ways we are only just beginning to fathom. It’s left our political class stranded.

We recognise the symptoms. Westminster is hollowed out of talent because the talent knows the game is up. Instead it goes to corporations, the media, NGOs, tech start-ups – anywhere but Westminster. We look at David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg and feel at best pity, at worst fury. They appear like political pygmies compared to Attlee and Thatcher or even Ashdown and Blair. But here is the truth – all three, by some way, are the best leaders their respective parties have. There is no one better waiting in the wings. No one is coming to save us – this, under the current system, is as good as it gets.

Fixing that system is beyond policy tweak or personality trait. It can only be transformed for the 21st century through a totally new democratic architecture. Power needs to be passed up to the global level and down to the local. Direct and deliberative forms of democracy are going to have to be experimented with. But the first, and therefore foremost, we must remake our electoral system.

First past the post is strangling the life out of our democracy. With a third of the electorate refusing to vote for either of the main parties, outright power is impossible. We are in an era of NOC – no overall control, where weakness begets further weakness.

First past the post exaggerates support, in terms of seats, for the two main parties so the position is more precious than it looks. But why should either mainstream leader care how shrunken the political prize is when only one of them can lift it?

Close your eyes again and imagine waking up on 8th May. All that campaigning, all that political sound and fury and nothing, absolutely nothing will be settled. The ‘winner’ will pretend they have power – but they will have no mandate. The crown will be hollow. The economic, social, environmental and therefore political crisis will continue.

There were always two arguments for First Past the Post – it delivered strong single party government and it maintained the link between the MP and the constituent. We know it is unlikely to ever result in a single party majority again and we know too what MPs think about the link to their constituents given their rejection of the right to Recall them. Today there is no objective case for our busted voting system – just a misguided vested interest in its retention. It is so indefensible that even those who deny climate change cant deny the electoral crisis we face. Nigel Lawson, recently accepted that “First-past-the-post was well suited to the old two-party era. In the present ferment, with four parties vigorously contesting all seats, it is no better at providing a stable government than proportional representation”. (Sunday Times 16th Nov 14)

The case for a proportional voting system that matches seats to vote is now unanswerable. Indeed negotiated and systematized coalitions is the only thing that will give Britain any sense of political stability. It is time to grow up embrace complexity and a politics that is open and consensual. Only children demand that they are the centre of the universe. None of this means we stop believing in a good society or that the bonds of ideas and tribes no longer matter – but our beliefs are going to have to be negotiated, not imposed.

For the next few months we will be fed a dull diet of the least worst option. But more and more simply refuse to accept the politics of no choice. They will vote Green, SNP, UKIP, for a myriad individuals and causes – even when they know they are electorally hopeless. Or they will elect to stay at home and reject a system they know is utterly broken. And so the Westminster bubble shrinks further – but how long before it bursts?

Multi-party politics can't be squeezed into a two party straightjacket. Mainstream politicians have no incentive to change the voting system - but we do. We have the incentive of hope and the belief that progress is still possible. This must be the last election under a voting system that fails the many but not the few.

The Compass Change How? conference where all this and more will be discussed is on Sunday 8th February

 

Categories: les flux rss

The arguments against proportional representation have melted away

Open Democracy News Analysis - 29. January 2015 - 11:34

First Past the Post was designed for a previous era. We must change all of our politics - but the voting system first.

Close your eyes and imagine a democratic dystopia in which no one gets what they want. Now open them. Welcome to the politics of Britain in 2015. An election looms and whoever we vote for we wont get to save the planet, stop the inequality gap widening or end the housing crisis. If you’re a social democrat, a compassionate Conservative, an anything – forget it. It ain’t happening. Our democracy is broken – beyond repair – and the biggest irony of all is that this democracy crisis isn’t on the agenda either.

Politics no longer works like a see–saw. As one side goes down the other no longer automatically rises. The spell of the two-party duopoly is broken. It was broken on the rocks of globalization, individualization and now technology. Following the ‘big bang’ of the 1980s, power in the form of money went global while politics stayed national. At the same time the culture of consumerism and an end of deference swept the land. We no longer did as we were told or as expected. Today these twin mega trends are magnified and accelerated by the internet and social media in ways we are only just beginning to fathom. It’s left our political class stranded.

We recognise the symptoms. Westminster is hollowed out of talent because the talent knows the game is up. Instead it goes to corporations, the media, NGOs, tech start-ups – anywhere but Westminster. We look at David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg and feel at best pity, at worst fury. They appear like political pygmies compared to Attlee and Thatcher or even Ashdown and Blair. But here is the truth – all three, by some way, are the best leaders their respective parties have. There is no one better waiting in the wings. No one is coming to save us – this, under the current system, is as good as it gets.

Fixing that system is beyond policy tweak or personality trait. It can only be transformed for the 21st century through a totally new democratic architecture. Power needs to be passed up to the global level and down to the local. Direct and deliberative forms of democracy are going to have to be experimented with. But the first, and therefore foremost, we must remake our electoral system.

First past the post is strangling the life out of our democracy. With a third of the electorate refusing to vote for either of the main parties, outright power is impossible. We are in an era of NOC – no overall control, where weakness begets further weakness.

First past the post exaggerates support, in terms of seats, for the two main parties so the position is more precious than it looks. But why should either mainstream leader care how shrunken the political prize is when only one of them can lift it?

Close your eyes again and imagine waking up on 8th May. All that campaigning, all that political sound and fury and nothing, absolutely nothing will be settled. The ‘winner’ will pretend they have power – but they will have no mandate. The crown will be hollow. The economic, social, environmental and therefore political crisis will continue.

There were always two arguments for First Past the Post – it delivered strong single party government and it maintained the link between the MP and the constituent. We know it is unlikely to ever result in a single party majority again and we know too what MPs think about the link to their constituents given their rejection of the right to Recall them. Today there is no objective case for our busted voting system – just a misguided vested interest in its retention. It is so indefensible that even those who deny climate change cant deny the electoral crisis we face. Nigel Lawson, recently accepted that “First-past-the-post was well suited to the old two-party era. In the present ferment, with four parties vigorously contesting all seats, it is no better at providing a stable government than proportional representation”. (Sunday Times 16th Nov 14)

The case for a proportional voting system that matches seats to vote is now unanswerable. Indeed negotiated and systematized coalitions is the only thing that will give Britain any sense of political stability. It is time to grow up embrace complexity and a politics that is open and consensual. Only children demand that they are the centre of the universe. None of this means we stop believing in a good society or that the bonds of ideas and tribes no longer matter – but our beliefs are going to have to be negotiated, not imposed.

For the next few months we will be fed a dull diet of the least worst option. But more and more simply refuse to accept the politics of no choice. They will vote Green, SNP, UKIP, for a myriad individuals and causes – even when they know they are electorally hopeless. Or they will elect to stay at home and reject a system they know is utterly broken. And so the Westminster bubble shrinks further – but how long before it bursts?

Multi-party politics can't be squeezed into a two party straightjacket. Mainstream politicians have no incentive to change the voting system - but we do. We have the incentive of hope and the belief that progress is still possible. This must be the last election under a voting system that fails the many but not the few.

The Compass Change How? conference where all this and more will be discussed is on Sunday 8th February

 

Categories: les flux rss

My vast Siberian motherland is dying

Open Democracy News Analysis - 29. January 2015 - 11:15

Southern Siberia is dying: farms are failing, the forests have been felled, and the people are leaving – a vast area has been failed by its government.

 

Vast is my Motherland,

With many forests, fields, and rivers!
Soviet song (1936)

The Siberian town of Kalachinsk is, to all intents and purposes, a suburb of Omsk, a city of a million people. Lying 100 km to the north of Omsk, Kalachinsk may not be very big (it has some 30,000 inhabitants), but the town seems prosperous. Smoke rises from the chimney at the meat processing plant, scaffolding frames the cathedral under construction, and a new three-storey shopping mall gleams in the sun.

But only 20 minutes away the picture is very different. The wheels of my car wince as they break through the snow: the track to the village of Kiber-Spasskoe is blocked by snowdrifts. At one time, Kiber-Spasskoe was home to one of the biggest farms in the region. Now, its gloomy grey houses with their broken windows, peeling facades and drunkenly slanting roofs bear little resemblance to homes. There are no children playing in the snow, old ladies no longer sit on the benches, and you can’t even hear the sound of dogs barking.

The near wilderness

Yet people still live in Kiber-Spasskoe. There used to be 600 residents, now there are 150. Five years ago, the school was closed down and the bus service withdrawn; only the school bus remains. Kiber-Spasskoe’s only two-storey building housed a social club, a modest health centre, and library. There was a promise that the whole village would have gas by 2030. Instead, last autumn, the district administration sold the building to a businessman from a neighbouring district for a risible 347,000 roubles (£3,500). The businessman, however, has no need of such ‘assets’ and intends to sell the building off wholesale – beams, boilers, pipes, and tiles. The people of Kiber-Spasskoe lined up to form a human shield around the former school; and their appeals to various departments did eventually bear fruit: district head Friedrich Metzler promised to tear up the deal. Though neither the club, nor the health centre nor the library – nor, of course, the school – are functioning.

There was a promise that the whole village would have gas by 2030

 ‘For a long time the government has not considered us. They wrote us off,’ Nikolai Avdonin, Kiber-Spasskoe's chief advocate explains to me. ‘When I took on the farm enterprise in 1975, everyone was sent to live and work here. We were told it would be paradise, and gingerbread would rain down on us out of the sky. I had been at agricultural college in Kalachinsk and was offered a place in an engineering works looking after agricultural equipment, but the first secretary of the city council summoned me and said “Off you go, Nikolai, you take on the new farm and get it up to scratch.” So that's what I did. But what for? My wife is ill, you can't get to the doctor because taxis are expensive for pensioners. It's 700 roubles [£7] there and back, almost one tenth of our pension. I'm keeping the farm going, though looking after the cows and the pigs is hard now. But I still care for the geese. We used to have to fetch water, now there are two wells for the whole village – no thanks to the government..It was the Communists that built them.’

‘Houses are empty, many of them are falling down, pillaged for wood for repairs. Whole families are leaving, simply abandoning their homes – who would they sell them to? There are only three children left in the village. Parents take their children all the way to the main road to catch the school bus, in minus 30..’

‘There hasn't been a health worker for ages, so people die from all sorts of things There are six families here. We’re not the problem, we’re old, but what are they supposed to do if they fall ill?. They've been told they should get themselves to the hospital in Kalachinsk – as if they have their own car. So you go if you can. If you can't, you either get better – or die.’

Broken promises

The former governor of the Omsk region, Leonid Pozhelayev, often stated that if a school closes, the village will disappear. Pozhelayev was right, but that hasn’t prevented his administration from closing more than 300 schools over the past five years. The new governor, Viktor Nazarov, promised he would put everything right, but he seems to have forgotten that promise.

In the Kalachinsk district, all the primary schools have been closed. So children now have to get up at five or six in the morning to catch the bus to the next village, on terrible roads – through rain, snow, and black ice. The children get back just after three in the afternoon, and whoever has the least homework waits for the others before walking home together. They can't join any after-school activities because adapting the timetable to each and every one would be impossible.

The new governor promised he would put everything right, but he seems to have forgotten that promise

‘Closed-down schools, abandoned homes, skeleton farms, that’s what Siberian villages are now,’ says Alevtina Kabakova, a distinguished teacher and first secretary of the district Communist Party branch.

‘There are 14 villages in the district, all dying. And that’s not counting the villages that have died already. No work, no schools. The young are fleeing. The regional government never sets foot beyond the district centres, and has no desire to see real life, preferring to concentrate on the fancy life they lead. If they did come, they would see for themselves that there’s no agriculture. The Kalachinsk meat processing plant imports from China rather than using local produce. The harvest last year was not brought in, so it got covered by snow. Why? Because there’s only pensioners here, and they can’t do the work.’

Few signs of life

One exception in this picture of deterioration is the Tatar village of Great Tebendya. There is a real community here. The village has just built 30 new houses. But the men work rotation shifts in Tyumen and Khanti-Mansiisk – anywhere where there is oil 

‘Most of the men in the Muromtsevsky district [in the east of the Omsk region] go to the Far North to work, as do virtually all men who live outside the district centre,’ says Aleksandr Rakhno, a deputy in the Muromtsevsky district council and chair of the district social affairs committee. ‘I don’t know how they could live any other way. They have no rights at all – no sick leave, no holidays – but people need some kind of salary, even if it isn’t much. In the last five years, 11,000 people have left, almost half the district. We may have lots of land, but there’s no work; there are forests, but there are almost no big animals left because for years officials have come from all over the region to hunt here. It would be okay if these people looked after the forests, but they simply plunder them, and completely legally. There’s so little forest left that any announcement of increased felling will mean that in ten years the district will be stripped bare. There are no social programmes. Yet the authorities pay themselves shameful amounts of money, and are constantly increasing their own salaries. The bureaucracy just expands, taking money from the budget, unemployment is on the increase and businessmen, who might create jobs, barely make a living. 

‘In the last five years, 11,000 people have left, almost half the district’ 

One trillion roubles

As long ago as 1994, the Omsk regional economic committee produced a programme for developing an efficient labour force in the northern regions. It showed a drastic reduction in population numbers and villages. Since then, the situation has deteriorated still further, with people – just like the rest of Siberia – being drawn to the district centre, and then on to Moscow and St Petersburg.

The Russian government never stops talking about the importance of these territories, and has even promised to invest one trillion roubles in their development up to 2020.

But Igor Vyatkin, Professor of the Russian Academy of Natural History, tells me that by northern territories the government only means land where there are mineral deposits. Investments are indeed being made, but mainly into the Arctic (which promises considerable oil wealth); and it is questionable whether this will benefit the state or just a few corporations.

‘The government is investing in those areas of the Far North where there is oil and gas,’ said Vyatkin. ‘Laying roads over the marshes, building houses on the permafrost. But there’s no sun and nothing grows there. Most of the South Siberian population lives in the Near North, where there are forests, rye, farming, potatoes, flax, and wild produce such as mushrooms and berries. Land reclamation here took centuries, but there’s no promise of big money so the area has been abandoned. The area along 500-600 km of the Trans-Siberian Railway is a wilderness. There’s some sort of life around the towns, even small ones like Kalachinsk, but there are very few of them around Omsk or Novosibirsk. Mineral resources in the Far North will be exhausted in 50 years, and then living there (without oil money) will be impossible.’

‘The area along 500-600 km of the Trans-Siberian Railway is a wilderness’ 

In Soviet times, at least, there was a sensible resettlement plan. The country was divided up into economic regions, and textbook terms like ‘division of labour’ and ‘complementarity’ actually had some meaning (and funding) behind them. In the Kuzbass region of southwestern Siberia, miners dug up coal, and their wives worked in textile factories, which had been built for them. In the Tyumen region, it was oil; in Omsk, the food to feed the miners was grown. The system was not particularly accurate, but it was an attempt to distribute resources in such a way that the territories could develop. In terms of GDP, 20% went on agricultural development. Now it’s 1%. Siberia is an area of risk farming, so without government support, it cannot survive. 

A quick buck

In 2002, several international organisations (WHO, UNESCO, and the UN) published a plan for the development of the planet up to 2015. The plan contained specific recommendations to governments, one of which was that people should eat local produce, thus reducing the import and export of food (with a few exceptions to keep some diversity). 

Siberia has done the opposite: its agriculture has been destroyed. Even potatoes in the shops and canteens are not local. Until recently, vegetables came from Turkey and Israel because it is cheaper to import than to build storage facilities. 

With the Russian economy in recession, there is no money to invest in the regions. The 2015 budgets for Siberian regions are directed towards social needs – paying minimum levels of salaries, pensions, and benefits. Even then, expenditure outstrips revenue. Novosibirsk and Omsk regions are living on credit: the only difference is that, by the end of 2015, Novosibirsk’s debt will reach 40% of revenue, whereas in Omsk the figure is 70%.

‘A development strategy for the North is needed, but all I see are “quick buck” measures’

‘A development strategy for the North is needed, but all I see are “quick buck” measures,’ says Igor Vyatkin. Now everyone is talking about import substitution [because of Western sanctions], which would be excellent, but agriculture needs investment. Every year, there are tons of unpicked berries and mushrooms, but premises for processing are essential. And it would have to be government investment, because the regions are destitute and can’t do anything. People in villages are surviving, rather than living. Only the state can create the economic and social conditions for development, build an infrastructure. We have fields, forests, and rivers, but no people. They might come back, but where would they go?

‘In Finland, when they realised that half of their 6m population lives in Helsinki, they started thinking what they might do about it. Not everyone can live in capital cities, after all!' But this hasn't yet dawned on our government. What do we need so much land for? Why don't we give it up to someone else if we don't want it ourselves? If we are a state, rather than a territory, then we should take care of people’s lives, rather than just calling on them to be patriots. Our human resources are getting older and weaker, the economy has ever fewer entrepreneurs, but the government does nothing. Either it should decide to help the Near North develop, or simply wait for it to die.’

Sideboxes Sidebox: 

Russian Near North: Siberian lands lying 300-800 km from Trans-Siberian Railway. Outside the permafrost zone, so there is agriculture, forestry and some mineral deposits.

Russian Far North: lands stretching across the north of the Russian Federation, mostly north of the Arctic Circle. Extremely harsh climate, but rich in natural resources e.g. oil, gas and minerals

Siberian Federal District: Russia is divided into 9 Federal Districts headed by presidential envoys appointed personally by the President, and employed by the Presidential Administration. 

Region [Область]: the Russian Federation has 83 constituent areas divided into 22 republics, 9 territories, 47 regions and 3 federal cities (Moscow, St Petersburg and Sevastopol), as well as some smaller units

District [Район]: an administrative sub-division of a region. The Omsk region has 32 districts

Related stories:  A burning issue in Siberia The battle for the Siberian harvest Country or region:  Russia Rights:  CC by NC 3.0
Categories: les flux rss

My vast Siberian motherland is dying

Open Democracy News Analysis - 29. January 2015 - 11:15

Southern Siberia is dying: farms are failing, the forests have been felled, and the people are leaving – a vast area has been failed by its government.

 

Vast is my Motherland,

With many forests, fields, and rivers!
Soviet song (1936)

The Siberian town of Kalachinsk is, to all intents and purposes, a suburb of Omsk, a city of a million people. Lying 100 km to the north of Omsk, Kalachinsk may not be very big (it has some 30,000 inhabitants), but the town seems prosperous. Smoke rises from the chimney at the meat processing plant, scaffolding frames the cathedral under construction, and a new three-storey shopping mall gleams in the sun.

But only 20 minutes away the picture is very different. The wheels of my car wince as they break through the snow: the track to the village of Kiber-Spasskoe is blocked by snowdrifts. At one time, Kiber-Spasskoe was home to one of the biggest farms in the region. Now, its gloomy grey houses with their broken windows, peeling facades and drunkenly slanting roofs bear little resemblance to homes. There are no children playing in the snow, old ladies no longer sit on the benches, and you can’t even hear the sound of dogs barking.

The near wilderness

Yet people still live in Kiber-Spasskoe. There used to be 600 residents, now there are 150. Five years ago, the school was closed down and the bus service withdrawn; only the school bus remains. Kiber-Spasskoe’s only two-storey building housed a social club, a modest health centre, and library. There was a promise that the whole village would have gas by 2030. Instead, last autumn, the district administration sold the building to a businessman from a neighbouring district for a risible 347,000 roubles (£3,500). The businessman, however, has no need of such ‘assets’ and intends to sell the building off wholesale – beams, boilers, pipes, and tiles. The people of Kiber-Spasskoe lined up to form a human shield around the former school; and their appeals to various departments did eventually bear fruit: district head Friedrich Metzler promised to tear up the deal. Though neither the club, nor the health centre nor the library – nor, of course, the school – are functioning.

There was a promise that the whole village would have gas by 2030

 ‘For a long time the government has not considered us. They wrote us off,’ Nikolai Avdonin, Kiber-Spasskoe's chief advocate explains to me. ‘When I took on the farm enterprise in 1975, everyone was sent to live and work here. We were told it would be paradise, and gingerbread would rain down on us out of the sky. I had been at agricultural college in Kalachinsk and was offered a place in an engineering works looking after agricultural equipment, but the first secretary of the city council summoned me and said “Off you go, Nikolai, you take on the new farm and get it up to scratch.” So that's what I did. But what for? My wife is ill, you can't get to the doctor because taxis are expensive for pensioners. It's 700 roubles [£7] there and back, almost one tenth of our pension. I'm keeping the farm going, though looking after the cows and the pigs is hard now. But I still care for the geese. We used to have to fetch water, now there are two wells for the whole village – no thanks to the government..It was the Communists that built them.’

‘Houses are empty, many of them are falling down, pillaged for wood for repairs. Whole families are leaving, simply abandoning their homes – who would they sell them to? There are only three children left in the village. Parents take their children all the way to the main road to catch the school bus, in minus 30..’

‘There hasn't been a health worker for ages, so people die from all sorts of things There are six families here. We’re not the problem, we’re old, but what are they supposed to do if they fall ill?. They've been told they should get themselves to the hospital in Kalachinsk – as if they have their own car. So you go if you can. If you can't, you either get better – or die.’

Broken promises

The former governor of the Omsk region, Leonid Pozhelayev, often stated that if a school closes, the village will disappear. Pozhelayev was right, but that hasn’t prevented his administration from closing more than 300 schools over the past five years. The new governor, Viktor Nazarov, promised he would put everything right, but he seems to have forgotten that promise.

In the Kalachinsk district, all the primary schools have been closed. So children now have to get up at five or six in the morning to catch the bus to the next village, on terrible roads – through rain, snow, and black ice. The children get back just after three in the afternoon, and whoever has the least homework waits for the others before walking home together. They can't join any after-school activities because adapting the timetable to each and every one would be impossible.

The new governor promised he would put everything right, but he seems to have forgotten that promise

‘Closed-down schools, abandoned homes, skeleton farms, that’s what Siberian villages are now,’ says Alevtina Kabakova, a distinguished teacher and first secretary of the district Communist Party branch.

‘There are 14 villages in the district, all dying. And that’s not counting the villages that have died already. No work, no schools. The young are fleeing. The regional government never sets foot beyond the district centres, and has no desire to see real life, preferring to concentrate on the fancy life they lead. If they did come, they would see for themselves that there’s no agriculture. The Kalachinsk meat processing plant imports from China rather than using local produce. The harvest last year was not brought in, so it got covered by snow. Why? Because there’s only pensioners here, and they can’t do the work.’

Few signs of life

One exception in this picture of deterioration is the Tatar village of Great Tebendya. There is a real community here. The village has just built 30 new houses. But the men work rotation shifts in Tyumen and Khanti-Mansiisk – anywhere where there is oil 

‘Most of the men in the Muromtsevsky district [in the east of the Omsk region] go to the Far North to work, as do virtually all men who live outside the district centre,’ says Aleksandr Rakhno, a deputy in the Muromtsevsky district council and chair of the district social affairs committee. ‘I don’t know how they could live any other way. They have no rights at all – no sick leave, no holidays – but people need some kind of salary, even if it isn’t much. In the last five years, 11,000 people have left, almost half the district. We may have lots of land, but there’s no work; there are forests, but there are almost no big animals left because for years officials have come from all over the region to hunt here. It would be okay if these people looked after the forests, but they simply plunder them, and completely legally. There’s so little forest left that any announcement of increased felling will mean that in ten years the district will be stripped bare. There are no social programmes. Yet the authorities pay themselves shameful amounts of money, and are constantly increasing their own salaries. The bureaucracy just expands, taking money from the budget, unemployment is on the increase and businessmen, who might create jobs, barely make a living. 

‘In the last five years, 11,000 people have left, almost half the district’ 

One trillion roubles

As long ago as 1994, the Omsk regional economic committee produced a programme for developing an efficient labour force in the northern regions. It showed a drastic reduction in population numbers and villages. Since then, the situation has deteriorated still further, with people – just like the rest of Siberia – being drawn to the district centre, and then on to Moscow and St Petersburg.

The Russian government never stops talking about the importance of these territories, and has even promised to invest one trillion roubles in their development up to 2020.

But Igor Vyatkin, Professor of the Russian Academy of Natural History, tells me that by northern territories the government only means land where there are mineral deposits. Investments are indeed being made, but mainly into the Arctic (which promises considerable oil wealth); and it is questionable whether this will benefit the state or just a few corporations.

‘The government is investing in those areas of the Far North where there is oil and gas,’ said Vyatkin. ‘Laying roads over the marshes, building houses on the permafrost. But there’s no sun and nothing grows there. Most of the South Siberian population lives in the Near North, where there are forests, rye, farming, potatoes, flax, and wild produce such as mushrooms and berries. Land reclamation here took centuries, but there’s no promise of big money so the area has been abandoned. The area along 500-600 km of the Trans-Siberian Railway is a wilderness. There’s some sort of life around the towns, even small ones like Kalachinsk, but there are very few of them around Omsk or Novosibirsk. Mineral resources in the Far North will be exhausted in 50 years, and then living there (without oil money) will be impossible.’

‘The area along 500-600 km of the Trans-Siberian Railway is a wilderness’ 

In Soviet times, at least, there was a sensible resettlement plan. The country was divided up into economic regions, and textbook terms like ‘division of labour’ and ‘complementarity’ actually had some meaning (and funding) behind them. In the Kuzbass region of southwestern Siberia, miners dug up coal, and their wives worked in textile factories, which had been built for them. In the Tyumen region, it was oil; in Omsk, the food to feed the miners was grown. The system was not particularly accurate, but it was an attempt to distribute resources in such a way that the territories could develop. In terms of GDP, 20% went on agricultural development. Now it’s 1%. Siberia is an area of risk farming, so without government support, it cannot survive. 

A quick buck

In 2002, several international organisations (WHO, UNESCO, and the UN) published a plan for the development of the planet up to 2015. The plan contained specific recommendations to governments, one of which was that people should eat local produce, thus reducing the import and export of food (with a few exceptions to keep some diversity). 

Siberia has done the opposite: its agriculture has been destroyed. Even potatoes in the shops and canteens are not local. Until recently, vegetables came from Turkey and Israel because it is cheaper to import than to build storage facilities. 

With the Russian economy in recession, there is no money to invest in the regions. The 2015 budgets for Siberian regions are directed towards social needs – paying minimum levels of salaries, pensions, and benefits. Even then, expenditure outstrips revenue. Novosibirsk and Omsk regions are living on credit: the only difference is that, by the end of 2015, Novosibirsk’s debt will reach 40% of revenue, whereas in Omsk the figure is 70%.

‘A development strategy for the North is needed, but all I see are “quick buck” measures’

‘A development strategy for the North is needed, but all I see are “quick buck” measures,’ says Igor Vyatkin. Now everyone is talking about import substitution [because of Western sanctions], which would be excellent, but agriculture needs investment. Every year, there are tons of unpicked berries and mushrooms, but premises for processing are essential. And it would have to be government investment, because the regions are destitute and can’t do anything. People in villages are surviving, rather than living. Only the state can create the economic and social conditions for development, build an infrastructure. We have fields, forests, and rivers, but no people. They might come back, but where would they go?

‘In Finland, when they realised that half of their 6m population lives in Helsinki, they started thinking what they might do about it. Not everyone can live in capital cities, after all!' But this hasn't yet dawned on our government. What do we need so much land for? Why don't we give it up to someone else if we don't want it ourselves? If we are a state, rather than a territory, then we should take care of people’s lives, rather than just calling on them to be patriots. Our human resources are getting older and weaker, the economy has ever fewer entrepreneurs, but the government does nothing. Either it should decide to help the Near North develop, or simply wait for it to die.’

Sideboxes Sidebox: 

Russian Near North: Siberian lands lying 300-800 km from Trans-Siberian Railway. Outside the permafrost zone, so there is agriculture, forestry and some mineral deposits.

Russian Far North: lands stretching across the north of the Russian Federation, mostly north of the Arctic Circle. Extremely harsh climate, but rich in natural resources e.g. oil, gas and minerals

Siberian Federal District: Russia is divided into 9 Federal Districts headed by presidential envoys appointed personally by the President, and employed by the Presidential Administration. 

Region [Область]: the Russian Federation has 83 constituent areas divided into 22 republics, 9 territories, 47 regions and 3 federal cities (Moscow, St Petersburg and Sevastopol), as well as some smaller units

District [Район]: an administrative sub-division of a region. The Omsk region has 32 districts

Related stories:  A burning issue in Siberia The battle for the Siberian harvest Country or region:  Russia Rights:  CC by NC 3.0
Categories: les flux rss

Confronting racism in the US: are civil rights enough?

Open Democracy News Analysis - 29. January 2015 - 10:00

A UN committee has recommended that the United States set up a national human rights institution. But why are US government officials resisting the idea?

A UN committee’s call last fall for the United States to create an independent national human rights institution (NHRI) has taken on new meaning in the wake of recent police violence and increasing social protest. The committee’s focus was on the international convention against racial discrimination, which the United States ratified in 1994. Their argument, supported by the non-governmental US Human Rights Network, was that the American civil rights framework is insufficient to confront racism.

While the hard-fought US emphasis on civil rights targets individual acts of discrimination, it does not address the broader structural inequalities perpetuating racism. International human rights norms imply a different kind of accountability than domestic civil rights standards. They call on governments to take steps to prevent institutionalized forms of violence, or to confront social and economic inequalities.


Demotix/James Cooper (All rights reserved)

A UN committee’s call last fall for the United States to create an independent national human rights institution (NHRI) has taken on new meaning in the wake of recent police violence and increasing social protest.

This is where an NHRI enters the picture. It would serve as a body that monitors, implements and educates about any number of human rights obligations spelled out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, including economic and social rights, with which US civil rights laws do not deal. If institutions elsewhere are any bellwether, it would do so imperfectly; but the question is whether having such an institution is better than not having one at all.

Despite its conventional name, an NHRI is a term of art. It refers to an administrative, quasi-governmental body mandated to promote and protect human rights domestically. First mentioned in international documents in the late 1940s, these bodies took their cue from historical precursors like the ombudsman; nineteenth century government commissions; and ironically, inter-racial bodies in America, which appeared in the interwar period and evolved alongside the country's civil rights struggles.

Though approximately two-dozen NHRIs were created before 1990, the vast majority of the 100-plus NHRIs that exist today proliferated rapidly in a post-Cold War context, part and parcel of the global discourse on democratic governance and human rights. I trace the history, proliferation, and contested significance of NHRIs in my recent book, Chains of Justice: The Global Rise of State Institutions for Human Rights, published by the University of Pennsylvania Press.

If these institutions are so popular today, and indeed few states reject the idea of creating one, why does the United States remain a holdout? Critics are correct, after all, that NHRIs can have overly expansive mandates and mixed records. And for many governments NHRIs are externally oriented symbols more than domestic agents of change. The United States itself already has the federal Civil Rights Commission and hundreds of local and state human rights agencies. Expecting a single institution to tackle complex human rights problems, skeptics note, is unrealistic—an experiment set up to fail.

How can ongoing structures of discrimination in the United States be confronted in a hyper-legalized environment, focused on individual incidents of abuse more than the underlying conditions that normalize ongoing violence and inequality?  While understandable, these warnings overlook the potential value of accountability institutions, including NHRIs, in setting standards, documenting patterns of abuse, recommending changes and moving to prevent wrongdoing. How can the United States promote human rights abroad credibly when it clings to the discourse of civil, rather than human, rights? And how can ongoing structures of discrimination be confronted in a hyper-legalized environment, focused on individual incidents of abuse more than the underlying conditions that normalize ongoing violence and inequality?  

The US Civil Rights Commission was last reauthorized over twenty years ago, in 1994. First proposed in a 1947 report commissioned by President Truman, To Secure These Rights, and established a decade later in 1957, the Commission has a distinguished (if uneven) history in shaping civil rights laws and discourse. As I discuss in Chains of Justice, the Commission has always helped to ensure that America’s rights struggles would remain primarily a domestic concern. Fast-forward to 2015, and a re-imagined Civil Rights Commission—reconstituted as an independent human rights body—should not be out of the question.

Skeptics caution that an NHRI that promotes the ratification of human rights treaties would be an activist agency; yet human rights advocacy, they claim, should be left to non-profit organizations. Governmental agencies should enforce the law, and US law does not recognize the economic, social and cultural rights integral to international standards.

The concern that an NHRI would be advocate more than enforcer is misplaced. It suggests that human rights abuses in the United States are aberrant or exceptional, and change is unnecessary—an ethically questionable view. It is also technically flawed in assuming that NHRIs must promote all international laws. The Paris Principles, which regulate (and serve as the basis for accrediting) today's NHRIs, call on these agencies to assess compliance with "international human rights instruments to which the State is a party."  

Arguments opposing the creation of an NHRI in the United States are couched in legalized terms but reveal fear of change. To resist an NHRI because it may promote treaty ratification is profoundly undemocratic in its unwillingness to allow debate and contested viewpoints within the state. Strategic innovation in any complex organization thrives on ensuring a diversity of perspectives. Why should the regulation of human rights be any different? More fundamentally, opposing an NHRI for the United States exposes an uncomfortable truth: some US leaders and members of the public deem racial discrimination wrong, while deep social and economic inequalities seem to be acceptable, even when these systematically intersect with race, gender or other bases of discrimination.

Whether or not the United States creates an NHRI, the debate itself is significant, acknowledging entrenched racism and shared responsibility. A government that promotes human rights abroad must confront inequality at home, and these confrontations are best played out in public deliberative institutions, rather than in violent street clashes. An NHRI in the United States would not end human rights abuses, including racism, but it might help shift the terms of the debate in ways that could, over time, shape policies for the better.

Transforming the country’s Civil Rights Commission into a Human Rights Commission would be a bold step for the United States, an opportunity to join this global trend.

Sideboxes 'Read On' Sidebox: 

Related stories:  Time for the US to reaffirm its commitment to children’s rights Exposing torture - the virtue of American hypocrisy For racial healing, we need to get real about racism For jobs and freedom, 50 years on: the struggle for racial equality in the age of Obama 14 Shocking Facts That Prove the US Criminal Justice System Is Racist Privacy and security in cyberspace: right of all or luxury of the few? A truly bad idea: a World Court for human rights Doors closing on judicial remedies for corporate human rights abuse Multiple boomerangs: new models of global human rights advocacy
Categories: les flux rss

Confronting racism in the US: are civil rights enough?

Open Democracy News Analysis - 29. January 2015 - 10:00

A UN committee has recommended that the United States set up a national human rights institution. But why are US government officials resisting the idea?

A UN committee’s call last fall for the United States to create an independent national human rights institution (NHRI) has taken on new meaning in the wake of recent police violence and increasing social protest. The committee’s focus was on the international convention against racial discrimination, which the United States ratified in 1994. Their argument, supported by the non-governmental US Human Rights Network, was that the American civil rights framework is insufficient to confront racism.

While the hard-fought US emphasis on civil rights targets individual acts of discrimination, it does not address the broader structural inequalities perpetuating racism. International human rights norms imply a different kind of accountability than domestic civil rights standards. They call on governments to take steps to prevent institutionalized forms of violence, or to confront social and economic inequalities.


Demotix/James Cooper (All rights reserved)

A UN committee’s call last fall for the United States to create an independent national human rights institution (NHRI) has taken on new meaning in the wake of recent police violence and increasing social protest.

This is where an NHRI enters the picture. It would serve as a body that monitors, implements and educates about any number of human rights obligations spelled out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, including economic and social rights, with which US civil rights laws do not deal. If institutions elsewhere are any bellwether, it would do so imperfectly; but the question is whether having such an institution is better than not having one at all.

Despite its conventional name, an NHRI is a term of art. It refers to an administrative, quasi-governmental body mandated to promote and protect human rights domestically. First mentioned in international documents in the late 1940s, these bodies took their cue from historical precursors like the ombudsman; nineteenth century government commissions; and ironically, inter-racial bodies in America, which appeared in the interwar period and evolved alongside the country's civil rights struggles.

Though approximately two-dozen NHRIs were created before 1990, the vast majority of the 100-plus NHRIs that exist today proliferated rapidly in a post-Cold War context, part and parcel of the global discourse on democratic governance and human rights. I trace the history, proliferation, and contested significance of NHRIs in my recent book, Chains of Justice: The Global Rise of State Institutions for Human Rights, published by the University of Pennsylvania Press.

If these institutions are so popular today, and indeed few states reject the idea of creating one, why does the United States remain a holdout? Critics are correct, after all, that NHRIs can have overly expansive mandates and mixed records. And for many governments NHRIs are externally oriented symbols more than domestic agents of change. The United States itself already has the federal Civil Rights Commission and hundreds of local and state human rights agencies. Expecting a single institution to tackle complex human rights problems, skeptics note, is unrealistic—an experiment set up to fail.

How can ongoing structures of discrimination in the United States be confronted in a hyper-legalized environment, focused on individual incidents of abuse more than the underlying conditions that normalize ongoing violence and inequality?  While understandable, these warnings overlook the potential value of accountability institutions, including NHRIs, in setting standards, documenting patterns of abuse, recommending changes and moving to prevent wrongdoing. How can the United States promote human rights abroad credibly when it clings to the discourse of civil, rather than human, rights? And how can ongoing structures of discrimination be confronted in a hyper-legalized environment, focused on individual incidents of abuse more than the underlying conditions that normalize ongoing violence and inequality?  

The US Civil Rights Commission was last reauthorized over twenty years ago, in 1994. First proposed in a 1947 report commissioned by President Truman, To Secure These Rights, and established a decade later in 1957, the Commission has a distinguished (if uneven) history in shaping civil rights laws and discourse. As I discuss in Chains of Justice, the Commission has always helped to ensure that America’s rights struggles would remain primarily a domestic concern. Fast-forward to 2015, and a re-imagined Civil Rights Commission—reconstituted as an independent human rights body—should not be out of the question.

Skeptics caution that an NHRI that promotes the ratification of human rights treaties would be an activist agency; yet human rights advocacy, they claim, should be left to non-profit organizations. Governmental agencies should enforce the law, and US law does not recognize the economic, social and cultural rights integral to international standards.

The concern that an NHRI would be advocate more than enforcer is misplaced. It suggests that human rights abuses in the United States are aberrant or exceptional, and change is unnecessary—an ethically questionable view. It is also technically flawed in assuming that NHRIs must promote all international laws. The Paris Principles, which regulate (and serve as the basis for accrediting) today's NHRIs, call on these agencies to assess compliance with "international human rights instruments to which the State is a party."  

Arguments opposing the creation of an NHRI in the United States are couched in legalized terms but reveal fear of change. To resist an NHRI because it may promote treaty ratification is profoundly undemocratic in its unwillingness to allow debate and contested viewpoints within the state. Strategic innovation in any complex organization thrives on ensuring a diversity of perspectives. Why should the regulation of human rights be any different? More fundamentally, opposing an NHRI for the United States exposes an uncomfortable truth: some US leaders and members of the public deem racial discrimination wrong, while deep social and economic inequalities seem to be acceptable, even when these systematically intersect with race, gender or other bases of discrimination.

Whether or not the United States creates an NHRI, the debate itself is significant, acknowledging entrenched racism and shared responsibility. A government that promotes human rights abroad must confront inequality at home, and these confrontations are best played out in public deliberative institutions, rather than in violent street clashes. An NHRI in the United States would not end human rights abuses, including racism, but it might help shift the terms of the debate in ways that could, over time, shape policies for the better.

Transforming the country’s Civil Rights Commission into a Human Rights Commission would be a bold step for the United States, an opportunity to join this global trend.

Sideboxes 'Read On' Sidebox: 

Related stories:  Time for the US to reaffirm its commitment to children’s rights Exposing torture - the virtue of American hypocrisy For racial healing, we need to get real about racism For jobs and freedom, 50 years on: the struggle for racial equality in the age of Obama 14 Shocking Facts That Prove the US Criminal Justice System Is Racist Privacy and security in cyberspace: right of all or luxury of the few? A truly bad idea: a World Court for human rights Doors closing on judicial remedies for corporate human rights abuse Multiple boomerangs: new models of global human rights advocacy
Categories: les flux rss

Feminism’s undeservedly bad reputation in anti-trafficking discourse

Open Democracy News Analysis - 29. January 2015 - 5:00

The strain of feminist thinking that promotes the rescue industry and the criminalisation of sex work springs from a small but vocal community of activists. Treating it as the voice of feminism silences competing voices, especially those outside of America and Europe.

A Campaign Designed to Drop Sales/Flickr. Creative Commons.

Trafficking has been a central preoccupation in South African public discourse since 2006, when the US State Department first included it as a ‘problem’ country in its annual Trafficking in Persons (TIPs) report. This indicates that South Africa was either taking insufficient action against trafficking or that trafficking problem there was particularly severe. Fierce debate broke out about the source and accuracy of the figures following the report’s release, but nevertheless it gave rise to a significant counter-trafficking programme and the development of what has since become the Trafficking Act. The Trafficking Act set a record for the fastest piece of legislation ever to make its way through parliament, a remarkable feat given the extent of legislative change in South Africa since the end of apartheid. It however stalled, in part because of the debates I outline below, and was only passed into law in 2013.

Much of the debate centred on sex work, in part because the 2000 Palermo convention against transational organised crime (see Prabha Kotiswaran) emphasises sexual exploitation of women and girls, and in part because sex work and traffficking are frequently conflated in South Africa. Much work has been done trying to untangle these two, mostly by sex worker rights groups, but in the meantime a polarised debate has broken out between two camps of activists. One side, driven by local sex worker organisations and representatives, espouses a human rights perspective that is critical of counter-traffickig interventions and pro-decriminalisation of sex work. The other camp, spear-headed by US and occasionally European activists, has been labelled the ‘feminist’ perspective. It supports the rescue industry, the counter-trafficking campaigns associated with it, and the criminalisation of sex work.

Those campaigning under the banner of human rights have levelled a withering critique against the ‘feminist’ perspective, suggesting it is just another colonial project to rescue naïve Africans. In doing so they elide a number of very important nuances that I highlight in this article. One is that there is no one ‘feminist’ perspective. The very vocal position described above comes from a minority of activists in America and Europe, and in no way represents the positions of many other feminists either there or in South Africa itself. This critique furthermore fails to account for support within South Africa for the rescue industry with anything more than blithe dismissal. Finally, it attempts to globalise a set of ideals with little concern for local circumstances.

There is great diversity in feminist approaches to trafficking and exploitation. The position held up as ‘feminist’ is a minority position that ignores the debates within postcolonial feminism and indeed African feminism. Since Gayatri Spivak first caricatured western feminism as “white men are saving brown women from brown men,” the postcolonial feminist movement has responded to the representation of Africans as lacking agency and in need of saving from themselves. We should not allow a minority of activists to claim sole representation of the feminist position(s). This is crucial as their perspective reinforces the perception that feminism is somehow unAfrican, a very colonial idea given that it imagines African women to be so saturated in their oppression as to be unable to critique the forms of patriarchy that shape their lives. This minority perspective also silences the continent’s very active feminist movement that has very bravely challenged the growing repression of non-conforming sexualities in Africa today. In this way further power is given to the kinds of western feminism that have been unable to recognise or respect the diversity of feminist voices.

The claim that counter trafficking interventions are solely western feminist impositions also needs more thought, as it ignores the remarkable enthusiasm that South African organisations have shown for the trafficking interventions and the rescue industry. Indeed, entire organisations have sprung up in response to this discourse. Thus, notwithstanding the influence of US TIPs reports on South Africa and the similarities of the counter-trafficking industry to colonising projects, it is wrong to write off local groups as simply puppets of a western campaign. Rather, we need to engage with how global ideas about trafficking gain currency locally and with what consequences.

Post-apartheid South Africa is caught in the grip of a “moral regeneration” campaign, driven by multiple crises including the spread of HIV, the perception that families have been destroyed, growing youth unemployment and crime, and a strong Christian fundamentalism. These conditions make a ripe environment for counter trafficking campaigns, and they need to be understood and explained rather than cast off as ignorant Africans who obey the western master.

This leads me to my third point, which is that one of the consequences of a global campaign against trafficking is that it erases the nuances of context. Campaigners who insist on universal understandings of trafficking disregard local dynamics as well as local forms of exploitation when they force both victims and perpetrators into existing categories and definitions. This is dangerous, as it inexorably leads to the invisibility of some and the incorrect labelling of others. For example, when debating the Palermo convention with magistrates in South Africa, a long debate was held about whether a mother who sends her child across a border to beg on the streets is trafficking her child. Such a scenario does not fit easily into any universal definition of trafficking, and thus calls them all into question.  However, in the polarised fight between human rights and feminism, the same universal traps have been reproduced in which local debates are erased and the loudest global voices are presented as the only positions.

So in spite of feminism being presented as part of the reason why the counter trafficking campaigns have been so problematic, I am arguing that in fact what we need is a feminist analysis of trafficking. However, such analysis needs to spring from the branches of feminist thinking that refuse universal claims and allow space for individual rights.

 

Categories: les flux rss

Feminism’s undeservedly bad reputation in anti-trafficking discourse

Open Democracy News Analysis - 29. January 2015 - 5:00

The strain of feminist thinking that promotes the rescue industry and the criminalisation of sex work springs from a small but vocal community of activists. Treating it as the voice of feminism silences competing voices, especially those outside of America and Europe.

A Campaign Designed to Drop Sales/Flickr. Creative Commons.

Trafficking has been a central preoccupation in South African public discourse since 2006, when the US State Department first included it as a ‘problem’ country in its annual Trafficking in Persons (TIPs) report. This indicates that South Africa was either taking insufficient action against trafficking or that trafficking problem there was particularly severe. Fierce debate broke out about the source and accuracy of the figures following the report’s release, but nevertheless it gave rise to a significant counter-trafficking programme and the development of what has since become the Trafficking Act. The Trafficking Act set a record for the fastest piece of legislation ever to make its way through parliament, a remarkable feat given the extent of legislative change in South Africa since the end of apartheid. It however stalled, in part because of the debates I outline below, and was only passed into law in 2013.

Much of the debate centred on sex work, in part because the 2000 Palermo convention against transational organised crime (see Prabha Kotiswaran) emphasises sexual exploitation of women and girls, and in part because sex work and traffficking are frequently conflated in South Africa. Much work has been done trying to untangle these two, mostly by sex worker rights groups, but in the meantime a polarised debate has broken out between two camps of activists. One side, driven by local sex worker organisations and representatives, espouses a human rights perspective that is critical of counter-traffickig interventions and pro-decriminalisation of sex work. The other camp, spear-headed by US and occasionally European activists, has been labelled the ‘feminist’ perspective. It supports the rescue industry, the counter-trafficking campaigns associated with it, and the criminalisation of sex work.

Those campaigning under the banner of human rights have levelled a withering critique against the ‘feminist’ perspective, suggesting it is just another colonial project to rescue naïve Africans. In doing so they elide a number of very important nuances that I highlight in this article. One is that there is no one ‘feminist’ perspective. The very vocal position described above comes from a minority of activists in America and Europe, and in no way represents the positions of many other feminists either there or in South Africa itself. This critique furthermore fails to account for support within South Africa for the rescue industry with anything more than blithe dismissal. Finally, it attempts to globalise a set of ideals with little concern for local circumstances.

There is great diversity in feminist approaches to trafficking and exploitation. The position held up as ‘feminist’ is a minority position that ignores the debates within postcolonial feminism and indeed African feminism. Since Gayatri Spivak first caricatured western feminism as “white men are saving brown women from brown men,” the postcolonial feminist movement has responded to the representation of Africans as lacking agency and in need of saving from themselves. We should not allow a minority of activists to claim sole representation of the feminist position(s). This is crucial as their perspective reinforces the perception that feminism is somehow unAfrican, a very colonial idea given that it imagines African women to be so saturated in their oppression as to be unable to critique the forms of patriarchy that shape their lives. This minority perspective also silences the continent’s very active feminist movement that has very bravely challenged the growing repression of non-conforming sexualities in Africa today. In this way further power is given to the kinds of western feminism that have been unable to recognise or respect the diversity of feminist voices.

The claim that counter trafficking interventions are solely western feminist impositions also needs more thought, as it ignores the remarkable enthusiasm that South African organisations have shown for the trafficking interventions and the rescue industry. Indeed, entire organisations have sprung up in response to this discourse. Thus, notwithstanding the influence of US TIPs reports on South Africa and the similarities of the counter-trafficking industry to colonising projects, it is wrong to write off local groups as simply puppets of a western campaign. Rather, we need to engage with how global ideas about trafficking gain currency locally and with what consequences.

Post-apartheid South Africa is caught in the grip of a “moral regeneration” campaign, driven by multiple crises including the spread of HIV, the perception that families have been destroyed, growing youth unemployment and crime, and a strong Christian fundamentalism. These conditions make a ripe environment for counter trafficking campaigns, and they need to be understood and explained rather than cast off as ignorant Africans who obey the western master.

This leads me to my third point, which is that one of the consequences of a global campaign against trafficking is that it erases the nuances of context. Campaigners who insist on universal understandings of trafficking disregard local dynamics as well as local forms of exploitation when they force both victims and perpetrators into existing categories and definitions. This is dangerous, as it inexorably leads to the invisibility of some and the incorrect labelling of others. For example, when debating the Palermo convention with magistrates in South Africa, a long debate was held about whether a mother who sends her child across a border to beg on the streets is trafficking her child. Such a scenario does not fit easily into any universal definition of trafficking, and thus calls them all into question.  However, in the polarised fight between human rights and feminism, the same universal traps have been reproduced in which local debates are erased and the loudest global voices are presented as the only positions.

So in spite of feminism being presented as part of the reason why the counter trafficking campaigns have been so problematic, I am arguing that in fact what we need is a feminist analysis of trafficking. However, such analysis needs to spring from the branches of feminist thinking that refuse universal claims and allow space for individual rights.

 

Categories: les flux rss

Why the UK needs improved caretaker conventions before the election

Open Democracy News Analysis - 29. January 2015 - 0:11

In 2010, the UK’s underspecified caretaker conventions caused the “Squatter in Downing Street” controversy, when Gordon Brown remained in office after Labour’s election defeat, and the country still lacks adequate rules to govern caretaker situations.

Flickr/gordon 2208. Some rights reserved.

Caretaker periods and their attendant challenges are universal to parliamentary democracies. The government’s mandate to exercise its executive powers stems from its ability to command the confidence of parliament. However, there are points in every parliament’s lifecycle when no government can lay claim to such support - between parliamentary dissolution and a general election; after a general election and before the new government is formed; or when an incumbent government loses the confidence of parliament. During such periods a government must be in place. But in the absence of parliamentary confidence these cabinets lack democratic legitimacy, which can pose significant problems when they are called upon to make controversial and consequential decisions. For this reason, most parliamentary democracies have developed rules to govern these situations, often in the form of constitutional laws.

In the UK, the rules governing caretaker situations have historically been underspecified. As long as elections produced single party parliamentary majorities, this posed no particular problems because government formation did not typically require complex coalition negotiations. Transition periods were short: on average, government formation in the UK took just four days in the period from 1945 to 1994, compared to an average of thirty-nine days for the rest of Western Europe. However, the recently lengthened election timetable, and polls that predict a more fragmented parliament, make clear that the UK is likely to experience a more extended caretaker period in May 2015.

Inadequate caretaker conventions give rise to considerable costs and risks. As the ‘squatter in Downing Street’ episode illustrates, they can generate high-profile political controversy. As a result, parties were forced into unwisely frantic government negotiations in 2010, under tremendous public and media pressure. Moreover, poorly specified caretaker conventions can cause serious economic instability when they fail to ensure that the normal process of government continues largely unhampered. In New Zealand in 1984, for instance, a serious exchange rate crisis was triggered by unclear caretaker conventions in the context of fundamental disagreements between the outgoing prime minister, Sir Robert Muldoon, and the incoming Labour administration over the country’s exchange rate policy. The Reserve Bank was forced to suspend all currency exchange dealings to halt a run on the dollar.

Increasing Vulnerability

Two developments have increased the UK’s vulnerability to crises during caretaker situations. First, the electoral timetable has been lengthened considerably. Following recommendations by the Modernisation Committee, twelve days were added to the period between the election and the first session of the new parliament in 2010, doubling the length of that period compared to the three previous elections. The Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013 further extends the length of the general election timetable from seventeen to twenty-five days, excluding weekends and bank holidays. The anticipated cumulative effect of these changes is that ‘[t]he length of time between dissolution and the formation of the next government in 2015, and therefore the length of the caretaker/purdah period, may be considerably greater than for any other election in modern times’. (Remark made by Ruth Fox in her written evidence to House of Lords Library, LLN 2011/002: Constitutional and Parliamentary Effect of Coalition Government, 2011)

Second, these institutional changes are compounded by secular electoral trends that are making hung parliaments and the need for coalition negotiations increasingly likely. The 2010 general elections produced the UK’s second hung parliament and its first coalition since the Second World War. Longitudinal data suggest that partisan de-alignment has steadily eroded the vote share accruing to the Conservative and Labour parties in the postwar era. In the 1955 general election, the two largest parties attained a combined vote share of 96.1 per cent. A mere 8 seats went to MPs from other parties. By 2010, the electoral dominance of the two parties had been significantly eroded—their joint vote share was 65.1 per cent and fully 86 seats went to parties other than the Conservatives and Labour. Pollsters predict another hung parliament in May this year, which is also likely to be characterized by a more complex constellation of political forces than its predecessor.

The UK’s caretaker conventions and their shortcomings

The UK’s current caretaker conventions are part of the Cabinet Manual (2011). They recognise three situations in which ‘governments are expected by convention to observe discretion in initiating any new action of a continuing or long-term character’: ‘in the period immediately preceding an election’, ‘immediately afterwards if the result is unclear’, and ‘following the loss of a vote of confidence’ (§2.27). In all three situations, the same ‘restrictions on government activity’ apply. The government is expected to defer activity such as ‘taking or announcing major policy decisions; entering into large/contentious procurement contracts or significant long-term commitments; and making some senior public appointments and approving Senior Civil Service appointments, provided that such postponement would not be detrimental to the national interest or wasteful of public money’. The Manual further states, ‘[i]f decisions cannot wait they may be handled by temporary arrangements or following relevant consultation with the Opposition’ (§2.29).

However, these conventions still leave the UK vulnerable to crisis and controversy because of three major shortcomings which could easily be addressed.

First, the current rules do not fulfil the central and minimal purpose of caretaker conventions, which is to ensure that the country is never without an acting government. A key gap in the current UK caretaker conventions is the lack of provisions to prevent a caretaker government from resigning. The Cabinet Manual merely notes ‘[r]ecent examples suggest that previous Prime Ministers have not offered their resignations until there was a situation in which clear advice could be given to the Sovereign on who should be asked to form a government. It remains to be seen whether or not these examples will be regarded in future as having established a constitutional convention’ (§2.10). To date, therefore, there is no duty of the incumbent government to remain in office during caretaker periods until the next cabinet is formed.

To ensure effective governance in the transition period, it is essential that the Prime Minister and government do not resign until the next regular government has been formed. Clear expectations about the identity of the government during caretaker periods are critical in effectively managing political and economic uncertainty during those periods. The UK should therefore follow the example of other parliamentary democracies and affirm the first principle of all caretaker conventions: a caretaker government cannot resign until an alternative government has taken office because the country cannot be left without a functioning executive. If the Cabinet Manual is not the appropriate vehicle to introduce such an innovation, it could be securely established by legislation.

Second, the current conventions lack clarity about the termination of caretaker periods. The Cabinet Manual states that ‘[t]he point at which the restrictions on financial and other commitments should come to an end depends on circumstances, but may often be either when a new Prime Minister is appointed by the Sovereign or where a government’s ability to command the confidence of the Commons has been tested in the House of Commons’ (§2.30). A central feature of this guidance is its indeterminacy. In the absence of an investiture vote, there is no clear consensus as to when a government’s ability to command parliamentary support can be considered to have been tested. As the House of Commons Justice Committee concluded, the period in which the caretaker conventions apply should be carefully defined, and the fact that a caretaker period has commenced or concluded should be explicitly announced. Greater clarity would have the merit of helping to manage public expectations and market reactions during transitional periods, and would provide political actors with a clear understanding of the rules and restrictions that are in effect.

Third, the current caretaker conventions do not adequately detail the restrictions on government activity during caretaker periods. If the UK is to be well prepared for the possibility of a lengthy post-election caretaker period, more attention has to be given to the practicalities of applying the caretaker conventions. Caretaker conventions are self-policed; they are thus only effective in so far as all major parties agree in their interpretation of the general principles and accept cross-partisan responsibility for their maintenance and observance. To this end, it is important that all parties understand and agree on shared definitions of what constitutes ‘major policy decisions’, ‘large/contentious procurement contracts’ or relevant appointments, before these issues become contentious. Some Westminster systems have chosen ‘definitions revolving around the monetary value of the contract’, for example, and ‘many have codified the level of appointment [permitted without consultation during the caretaker period] with precision’ (A. Tiernan and J. Menzies (2008). Caretaker Conventions in Australasia. Canberra, ANU E Press, 2008, pp. 36–7.). Similarly critical are appropriate protocols for the consultation process between the government and the opposition, should they become necessary. One central question that requires clarification is the degree of agreement required between parties before decisions can be taken. Another question that ought to be clarified is who should participate in the consultations.

Conclusions

In sum, the UK’s caretaker conventions are inadequate and the price that the country may pay for the political and economic uncertainty that these rules may trigger is potentially high. The polls indicate that the UK is set to elect another hung parliament in May 2015. Policy makers should act now to develop more adequate caretaker rules. Moreover, they must ensure that the media, the markets and the public understand that adequate conventions allow the normal processes of government to continue largely unhampered while a new government is negotiated.

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The Great Charter Convention – an open, public debate on where arbitrary power lies in the UK today and how we should contest and contain it.

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Could students swing the general election? No, obviously they can’t – and neither can badgers.

Open Democracy News Analysis - 29. January 2015 - 0:11

The election strategies of “modernised” unions and NGOs are becoming increasingly futile. We need to create mayhem to move the ground from under politicians, not fight on their terrain.

 

For the next three and half months, the general election will dominate every area of public life. Years of strategy and planning and comical manoeuvres and blunders – along with all the social movements and demonstrations and faintly dissenting occupations of public space – will be watered down and blended together by politicians and the mainstream media into a moment which combines ideological blandness with procedural unfairness. This weekend’s hint from Labour that it might replace tuition fees with a graduate tax was a clear example of what is to come – policies undoubtedly rooted in the demands of real movements, but a pale shadow of what anyone actually wanted.

Perhaps the most tedious and futile thing about general election periods is the refusal of pretty much every charity and left-leaning NGO to recognise the broader picture, instead insisting on campaigning around the election as themselves – seeking to mobilise their own supporters over their own narrow set of objectives.

In reality, May 2015 will witness a vote about whether or not Britain’s welfare state continues to exist in any form: on one side will be the washed-up and unimaginative remnants of post-Blair social democracy, on the other a well-honed ideological vision for a privatised society. For Dominic Dyer, however – Chief Executive of the Badger Trust – it is a moment in which “Badgers [will] take centre stage”. The Badger Trust will, accordingly, be campaigning seat-by-seat for candidates which oppose the badger cull – in doing so swinging few, if any, seats, for a mixture of opposing political parties.

If all one cares about is the welfare of badgers, this kind of general election campaign can work as part of a lobbying strategy. But applied for any organisation that wants to see more than minor changes, it is a dead end. The National Union of Students (NUS) is the most glaring example: having produced a manifesto of demands ranging from free higher and further education, to ending immigration and asylum restrictions and effectively abolishing private providers in education, it is making no attempt to mobilise its members in any meaningful sense beyond the ballot box.

An accompanying toolkit for NUS’s “days of action” before the election underlines this in almost comical terms: its suggested actions include running mock car boot sales and coconut shies; direct action and occupations are not mentioned once. In fact since 2010, NUS’s only serious attempt to mobilise its membership on a national scale has been to march a few thousand students to Kennington Park in south London under the banner of ‘educate, employ, empower’ in November 2012.

Back in December, there was a flurry of news stories about the voting power of university students. The Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) published a report which seemed to back up NUS’s strategy of focussing entirely on getting students registered to vote, while quietly dismissing its somewhat ‘out there’ claim that “students could swing 200 seats” in May.

There is no particular reason to believe that students will all vote for a single party: the interests of an Eton-schooled Oxbridge student are almost as different as it is possible to imagine to those of a working class student at London Met. But where students do turn out for one party overwhelmingly (44% of them voted Lib Dem in 2010, 16% more than the general population), vanishingly few will do so because they have been told to vote in one way or another by NUS. If political parties are going to promise the abolition of tuition fees, they usually tell people about it themselves.

Even if students did vote entirely for a single party, there are just 9 ‘student seats’ in England (where students are more than 13% of the electorate) in which either the Tories or the Liberal Democrats are first and Labour second, in which the student population exceeds the majority of the incumbent party. Outside of these constituencies, any attempt to swing the seat is reliant on the population at large.

A closer look at the data reveals that students’ impact on constituencies where they are most highly concentrated is by no means straightforward. Labour should benefit overall from the student vote, but with many young Labour voters switching to the Greens, the split vote could benefit the Conservatives in some constituencies. In 2010, a similar swing from Labour to the Liberal Democrats increased a wafer-thin Tory majority in Reading East.

What if, instead of trying to swing a handful of marginal constituencies which are likely to swing anyway, NUS organised another big national demonstration, followed by a series of direct action targeted against the government, putting education funding at the top of the national agenda on the eve of the election? Many of the policies that NUS now advocates are very basic elements of social democratic consensus before Thatcher came to power – but they are now radical, outsider demands.

The only way to put free higher and further education on the political agenda – or rent controls, or a progressive taxation system –is by building a mass, combative movement. In orientating themselves so wholly towards voter mobilisation at the general election, organisations like NUS are fighting on the worst possible terrain: where the ideological consensus is far enough away that no politician of government might give them what they want unless there is external pressure, and where the number of people they can mobilise to vote will probably not make a meaningful difference to the result.

It would be irresponsible to ignore the election. In the era after the defeat of the labour movement in the 1980s, this ritual is, sadly, the closest thing that ordinary people ever get to directly deciding who runs the state. But the slick-looking, professionalised mode of election campaigning pursued by NUS and other leftwing NGOs is out of step with the need for something which many social movements identified almost as soon as the Coalition came to power: a move away from single issues and towards a broader sense of class solidarity and opposition to austerity and neoliberalism.

In the current context, it is not glossy brochures or lobbying strategies that are needed, but politically calculated mayhem. And the “outdated” trade union movement’s strategy of honestly advocating a vote for a political party, while – in theory at least – having a means of holding that party to account, seems almost refreshing, and looks like it will have far more of an impact on the election than badgers and students ever will on their own.

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