Greater Surbiton

The perfect is the enemy of the good

Popular protest in South East Europe bolsters the democratic world

otpor1Idealism is the new realism, it has been said. Nowhere has the adage proved more pertinent than in South East Europe, where socially fired popular protests against despotic regimes have consistently worked to strengthen the position of the Western alliance and the democratic world generally. It was, of course, thanks to the great wave of democratic revolutions in 1989, culminating in the overthrow of Nicolae Ceausescu, that the two East Balkan countries of Romania and Bulgaria – not so long ago bastions of the worst kind of Communist tyranny – are today members of NATO and the EU. Serbia’s turn toward the West began with the revolution of October 2000 that overthrew Slobodan Milosevic; though this turning point turned out to be less sharp than was first imagined, Serbia’s evolution into a democratic state with credible ambitions to EU membership has been steady, if not exactly smooth, since then. Georgia and Ukraine, too, turned westward with the Rose and Orange Revolutions of 2003 and 2004.

Some might be inclined to view this through Cold War lenses, and to say that such upheavals are to be desired when directed against hostile regimes, but less so when directed against those that are our allies. Yet this would be to fail to grasp the political realities of the late 2000s. For there is a very good case to be made that states today that are less than democratic are necessarily less than perfect as allies, and that being subject to democratic change can only improve them in this regard. This is because authoritarian regimes tend inevitably to present pressure for democratic change in occidentalist, nativist terms, as part of an alien, Western imperialist, possibly Jewish assault on the nation. And rhetoric of this kind inevitably serves to undermine any alliance we may have with them, even if purely geopolitical factors should work in favour of such an alliance. Conversely, genuine democrats in non-democratic or democratising states will usually look to the US and EU as beacons of light.

This may be demonstrated by a look at the southern flank of South East Europe – Turkey and Greece. Both countries have been committed members of NATO for many years, but anti-democratic tendencies in both have rendered them less than model allies. Turkey’s brutal suppression of its Kurdish population, and the resulting war between the Turkish security forces and Kurdish PKK rebels, has persistently spilled over into northern Iraq, further undermining stability in that already barely stable country. Turkey is a strategically crucial member of the Western alliance, yet its human rights abuses, its restrictions on free speech and its military’s interference in politics have helped to keep it out of the EU. Turkey’s gradual democratisation in recent years, under the guidance of the moderately Islamic, pro-EU Justice and Development Party (AKP), has ironically, according to some sources, led extremist elements from the ranks of the secular Turks to begin closing ranks with the Turkish Islamists on an anti-democratic, anti-Western basis. It is the democratising elements that look westward, while their opponents seek to defend the nation and/or faith from corrupting Western influences.

As for Greece, though its restrictions on democracy and human rights abuses are not on the scale of Turkey’s, as an ally of the West it scores much lower than its eastern neighbour – precisely because it is not a mature democracy. Greece’s disgraceful role in regional politics; its past support for the Milosevic regime; its undermining of the fragile states of Macedonia and Kosova – all are the result in large part of a Greek ultranationalism that also hates the West as the mortal enemy of the Orthodox East, as Greek journalist Takis Michas has brilliantly described. Greece is, furthermore, among the most anti-Semitic countries in Europe, something that the Greek media’s reaction to the Gaza conflict has only confirmed.

Both Greece and Turkey are, however, countries whose internal politics are very much in states of flux. Greece has in recent weeks been the scene of a huge explosion of social anger on the part of youth and workers, directed against the very government of Costas Karamanlis that has been proving such a menace to regional stability. The protests have included riots, vandalism and assaults on police officers, something that can only be condemned without reservation. But the violent element cannot obscure the large numbers of Greeks who have been protesting and striking peacefully. Although the protests have now passed their peak, the social struggle in Greece is not over; Greek farmers are currently blockading roads and border crossings in Greece in protest at the low prices of farm produce. It would be a mistake to see these protests purely in social terms; as was the case with the Romanian revolution of 1989 and the Serbian revolution of 2000, the Greek protests, fired as they are by social grievances, may have positive political effects. There is every reason to hope that these protests will hasten the end of the Karamanlis regime and contribute to a political rejuvenation of Greek politics, resulting in a country more at peace with itself and with its neighbours.

There was a time, perhaps still not completely past, when radical socialists would see in every wave of social protest the harbinger of the overthrow of capitalism, and many members of the conservative right would fear such protest for the same reason. Yet saner heads today know this is false: ordinary people are fundamentally conservative with a small ‘c’. They do not want the overthrow of capitalism, or revolution for revolution’s sake, but engage in social protest defensively, when the system seems to be letting them down. What they want is stability, prosperity and the pursuit of happiness – things that liberal democracy is better able to offer than any other political system. For all the Cassandras’ talk of how recognising Kosova’s independence in February 2008 would drive the Serbian people into the arms of the extreme nationalists, most Serbian people are fundamentally less interested in Kosova than they are in feeding themselves and their families – as was proved when pro-European elements won the Serbian parliamentary elections that followed soon after international recognition of Kosova’s independence. Bread and butter issues will, in the last resort, trump nationalist pipe-dreams; Turkish Cypriots abandoned the unrealisable goal of an independent Turkish Cypriot state when in 2004 they voted overwhelmingly in favour of Cyprus’s reunification on the basis of the Annan Plan, because they wanted to enjoy the benefits of EU membership. Greek students who had a better chance of finding decent jobs and pursuing more promising careers after graduating would be less likely to go out on to the streets to fight the police. Thus, the ordinary people of the Balkans, like the rest of us, have an interest in the spread of stable, post-nationalist liberal democracy. 

Quieter, but perhaps ultimately more significant than the social explosion in Greece, is the movement to apologise for the Armenian genocide currently under way in Turkey; more than 28,000 Turkish citizens to date have signed a petition drafted by a group of Turkish intellectuals apologising for what happened to the Armenians in 1915. Turkish state prosecutors have announced they will not take action against the organisers of the petition. This campaign, the work of entirely mainstream Turkish academics, journalists and others, marks a tremendous step forward for Turkish democracy; a step toward a Turkey that will, it is to be hoped, enjoy normal relations with neighbours like Armenia, Cyprus and Iraq, and whose commitment to, and sharing of the values of, the Western democratic bloc will be unquestioned. Yet this process of democratisation depends entirely on the initiatives of brave individuals, such as the organisers of the apology petition.

No southeast European nation is a stauncher friend of the West than Kosova. Here, a particularly active protest movent exists, directed against the international administration of the country but catalysed by social discontent, and spearheaded by Vetevendosje. Given the dismal record and stupendous corruption of the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) and the pusillanimity of the EU in resisting Serbian efforts to destabilise Kosova, the frustration and anger that have spawned this movement can only be described as entirely legitimate and justified. The people of Kosova are as deserving of full democracy as any other nation, and full democracy requires full international independence. If we allow the international administration of Kosova to drag on indefinitely, without any meaningful progress on the reintegration of the Serb-controlled areas, we shall only have ourselves to blame for any future popular explosions in Kosova in which the international administration finds itself on the receiving end.

We can, at the very least, learn something from the Russians about how not to treat one’s allies. After the Russians cut gas supplies to the Balkans in the course of their dispute with Ukraine, citizens of Russia’s supposed ‘ally’ Serbia, in the industrial city of Kragujevac, burned a Russian flag earlier this month in protest at being left without heat during the winter. And as one elderly Belgrade resident was quoted as saying, ‘Russians always gave us nothing but misery. They should never be trusted, as this gas blackmail of Europe shows’. Resentment of Russia is not limited to Serbia, but has spread across eastern Europe. In the words of one elderly citizen of Bulgaria, another country frequently described as traditionally pro-Russian: ‘This is a war without weapons in which Russia has used its control of energy supply to flex its muscles in front of the world… I am cold and angry. We have always been dependent on Russia, and this crisis shows that the situation hasn’t changed. Instead of bombs or missiles, they want us to freeze to death.’ In the Bulgarian port of Varna, residents demonstrated in front of the Russian consulate, holding banners that read ‘Stop Putin’s gas war’. Moscow’s mistake has been to wage its gas war indiscriminately, without taking into account the effect this would have on South East Europeans upon whose goodwill its geopolitical ambitions ultimately depend.

The biggest advantage that the democratic world has over its enemies is that its governments govern with the consent of the people. We must never forget this, as we strive to deal with the difficult set of problems facing us in South East Europe.


This article was published today on the website of the Henry Jackson Society.

Wednesday, 28 January 2009 Posted by | Balkans, Cyprus, Former Soviet Union, Former Yugoslavia, Georgia, Greece, Kurds, Macedonia, NATO, Russia, Serbia, Turkey | 1 Comment

Freedom of information on trial at The Hague

NETHERLANDS/ Florence Hartmann on trial at The Hague

By Antoine Garapon, Louis Joinet and Emmanuel Wallon

The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) must try war criminals, not journalists. Its credibility is at stake.

Partial and misguided justice involved in a biased trial: such is the image public opinion could retain of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) if its judges persist in their intention to prosecute Florence Hartmann, the former spokesperson for the Prosecutor Carla Del Ponte (from October 2000 to October 2006).

Could the French journalist have perpetrated in the Balkans one of those very crimes against humanity that this jurisdiction is in charge of punishing? If not, what misdeed could she have committed to appear in The Hague amongst the instigators and perpetrators of « ethnic cleansing », incurring a penalty of up to seven years in jail or a € 100,000 fine? Is she hiding a secret so terrible that her judges would be well founded in requiring the hearings to be held in closed sessions ? The former Le Monde journalist is indeed charged with ‘contempt of court’ for having allegedly infringed on a confidentiality order. The indictment of August 27, 2008 argues that she ‘knowingly and wilfully disclosed information in knowing violation of a Court order’.

Florence Hartmann did not violate rules of non disclosure related to an ongoing investigation neither did she disclose the names of protected witnesses. She only discussed the motivations of judges who decided to restrict access to Belgrade archives, including on the part of victims. The writings over which she is charged are contained in her book Paix et Châtiment. Les guerres secrètes de la politique et de la justice internationales (Flammarion, 2007) and in her article entitled Vital Genocide Documents Concealed, which was published on the website of the London-based Bosnian Institute on 21 January 2008. The facts that she is charged with exposing, long after she left the Court, had in fact been a matter of public debate since 26 February 2007.

A decision by the International Court of Justice (ICJ), a judicial body of the United Nations which settles disputes between States and is also based in The Hague, argued that Serbia had not participated in a conspiracy to commit the crime of genocide, nor incited the committing of genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina between 1992 and 1995. The ICJ conceded that Serbia had violated the 1951 convention, which obliged it to prevent genocide in Srebrenica in July of 1995 and to bring its main perpetrator, General Ratko Mladic, to justice by transferring him to the ICTY. But it exonerated that State of any other responsibility, arguing that the Court had no knowledge of material evidence of its involvement in the crime.

There is overwhelming indication that such evidence existed, sitting among exhibits in the boxes of the ICTY, in the vicinity of the ICJ. Indeed in 2003, after a long judicial battle during the Milosevic trial, the ICTY had obtained the archives of Serbia-Montenegro’s Supreme Defence Council. From the opinion of attorneys who have had access to them, the archives, even with their most incriminating parts redacted, reveal Serbia’s involvement in the crimes of ethnic cleansing as well as in the Srebrenica massacre.

Two ICJ judges put this argument forward, in their dissenting opinions: the Algerian Ahmed Mahiou and the Jordanian Shawkat Al-Khasawneh, Vice-President of the Court. But, under strong pressure from Belgrade – and probably from other European capitals – the ICJ did not ask for these archives, and the ICTY decided on its own initiative not to send it to the ICJ. The ICTY judges have since acknowledged that a confidentiality agreement in the name of ‘vital national interest’ had been improperly granted to Belgrade.

Thus the Serbian state escaped a verdict which would have exposed it to many demands for financial compensation. Several legal experts think that ICJ did commit a mistake in law with heavy consequences by issuing a decision that prevents the victims or their families from filing legal complaints for compensation. Considerable sections of public opinion were outraged by this judgement, which was rendered without proper consideration of the decisive elements.

Feeling abandoned, the victims wanted to understand why an institution created to give them justice had spared the interests of their executioners’ patrons. In the spring of 2007, they heard from various sources that Carla Del Ponte herself had agreed to grant Belgrade immunity in exchange for the coveted archives.

Florence Hartmann’s investigation shows that this rumour was unfounded. The ICTY judges, although well acquainted on the matter, abstained from denying these allegations as long as they were not directly aimed at them. But once their own role in concealing the documents was mentioned, they raised the charge of ‘contempt’ and made it clear that their deal with the Serbian government was not to be discussed.

Therefore Hartmann did not initiate the public controversy about the minutes of the Supreme Defence Council. She was by no means the first to publicise the fact that the ICTY had put the seal on evidence which would have led to Serbia’s conviction if it had been made available to the ICJ, as well as establishing Slobodan Milosevic’s guilt, if his death had not prevented his trial from reaching its conclusion. By underlining the political motivation behind the court’s decision, she exercised her rights as a citizen; and she did her duty as a journalist by investigating the ins and outs of a public cause. She fought against the premium given to impunity that would have represented the concealment of major facts concerning genocide. The authority of her arguments does not lie in her past proximity with the case; it follows from the professionalism of her work as a journalist.

Must she be punished for providing logical and competent analysis? And should one forbid anyone from commenting on a decision of a court whose rulings cannot be appealed elsewhere? On the contrary, we believe that international justice, whose mission we have always been in favour of, will be stronger in its struggle against impunity if it allows in-depth thinking about its role and functioning. Its credibility is at stake. The poor decision by The Hague magistrates to judge Florence Hartmann behind closed doors may well publicly spread the notion that the international tribunal is one of those special jurisdictions that do not grant the accused the right to due process through a public and contradictory trial.

If it wants to respond to its opponents during the final and crucial period of its mandate, the ICTY must fully endorse the principles of transparency for which freedom of the press is the ultimate warrant. Before the new International Criminal Court takes over the difficult task of trying crimes against humanity, ICTY judges have better things to do than muzzling free press. Public opinion expects that they conduct the Radovan Karadzic trial in an exemplary way and that they obtain Mladic’s arrest sooner rather than later. By such actions, they will insure their reputation in history better than by striking down a woman who only did her job of reporting news.

Antoine Garapon is a judge and teaches at the Institute for Higher Judicial Studies in Paris. Louis Joinet, a retired attorney and judge, former adviser to the French Presidency, has been an independent expert for the UN on human rights. Emmanuel Wallon is a professor of political sociology at Paris West-Nanterre University. This article was originally published in French in Le Monde on 28 December 2008 under the title ‘Mauvais procès à La Haye’.

Monday, 26 January 2009 Posted by | Balkans, Bosnia, Former Yugoslavia, Genocide, Serbia | 1 Comment

Germany threatens to block Poland’s entry to the EU

hitchamThe EU has warned Poland that a negotiated and mutually acceptable solution to its dispute with the neighbouring state of Nazi Germany must be reached before it can start accession talks. Adolf Hitler, Fuehrer of the Third Reich, has made it clear that Berlin will veto Polish membership of the EU unless Poland agrees to cede to Germany the so-called ‘Polish Corridor’, change its name to the ‘General Government’ and place its Jewish population in ghettoes.

Berlin fears that if Poland were to join the EU before a settlement to the border dispute were reached, it would prejudice the outcome for Germany. ‘The Reich has reservations concerning seven (EU accession) chapters, since the documents presented by Poland could prejudge the common border’, the Fuehrer told journalists. Berlin also opposes Poland’s use of the name ‘Poland’, claiming it implies a territorial claim to German territories in Prussia, which were once part of medieval Poland. ‘Our demand that Warsaw resolve the name dispute is backed by NATO and the United Nations. It is not true that we are stubbornly rejecting a compromise or reacting sentimentally. But a compromise is important to the security and stability of the region’, Joachim von Ribbentrop, the Reich Foreign Minister, said in a recent interview.

Neville Chamberlain, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, which currently holds the EU Presidency, has admitted that Poland might face hurdles in beginning accession talks. ‘There are some conditions that need to be met which are not completely in the remit of the EU institutions’, Mr Chamberlain said. Diplomats say Poland’s EU bid is also weighed down by slow reforms of the judiciary, public administration and economy and the lack of concrete results in the fight against corruption and crime. ‘Maintaining good neighbourly relations, including a negotiated and mutually acceptable solution on the border and name issues, remains essential,’ said a draft final statement from a meeting of EU leaders.

The Fuehrer nevertheless made clear that serious efforts were being undertaken to find a solution for Poland’s EU negotiation documents that would dispel any concerns about the Reich trying to prejudge the border and name disputes. ‘If such a solution is found – and Germany together with the British presidency is striving for this – then the Thousand Year Reich will probably not see any obstacles or problems in supporting a continuation of negotiations between Poland and the EU’, Mr Hitler explained following a meeting with European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso.

Greater Surbiton News Service

Saturday, 24 January 2009 Posted by | Croatia, Greece, Macedonia, Slovenia | Leave a comment

Is Israel today like Serbia in the 1990s ? An exchange

gaza3I received today a critical response to my post yesterday about the conflict in Gaza from my friend Jasmin Ademovic, who is an intern at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and is from Srebrenica in Bosnia. With Jasmin’s permission, I am publishing his letter along with my response to it.


Hope all is well. I just read your blog article on the Palestine-Israel issue, and felt that I had to comment, something I rarely do on websites such as the Guardian, New Statesman etc because ignorance or the belief of righteousness can rarely be defeated. Perhaps I’m just too cynical.

However, reading your article disappointed me, probably because it was from you. It seems that you’re willing to go further in condemning the Serbs in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo than you are in relation to the Israelis, which is somewhat upsetting because I see a level of similarity between the Republika Srpska and Israel, i.e the creation of an entity (with the hope of eventual statehood through policies of attacks and non-refugee return) and the state of Israel which has expanded over 60 years to what it is now. This has been achieved through ethnic cleansing; Ilan Pappe and my own former personal tutor Oren Ben-Dor describe it as genocide. However, after my dissertation I’m not as convinced as they are about this because of the difficulty in law in defining it.

Anyway, we can all agree on Hamas rocket attacks being probable war crimes and pointless. Personally I hope for the Palestinians to become more like the Black South Africans in terms of violence/non-violence as a tactic. However, saying that ‘given the equal justice of both…causes’ does not seem to be accurate – in 60 years’ time if Bosnian Muslims were firing rockets at the RS I would not be saying that the Serbs had a ‘just cause’ and neither would you.

And as far as the Hamas rejection of Israel – they have said they would recognise them (because it would be practical and necessary to do so) if they fulfilled certain criteria. Considering Israel always wants its criteria fulfilled before it ‘talks’ about ‘peace’ why should it be any different for the Palestinians after 60 years of aggression, repression and war crimes ?

I could go on forever, do another dissertation on this etc, so I’ll stop here. Hopefully you can make out some valid points, as I feel that was more of a rant.

All the best.



I do understand where you’re coming from, and I used to feel that way about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict myself. But I think there are important reasons why one should be more even-handed with regard to Israel and Palestine than with regard to Serbia and Bosnia or Kosova.

Firstly, nobody in Bosnia or Kosova denies the right of Serbia to exist as a state, or denies the legitimacy of the Serbs’ national existence. Nobody is threatening to wipe Serbia off the map. By contrast, what makes the Israeli case unique is the way that wide sections of the Arab and Muslim worlds have linked the Palestinian cause with rejection of the legitimacy of Israel as a state and nation, and a belief that Israel ought rightfully to disappear

Secondly, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict isn’t just about the Israelis and Palestinians. The international campaigns in defence of Bosnia and Kosova were for the most part benevolent, progressive and democratic. By contrast, while one section of the pro-Palestinian movement is indeed progressive and democratic, the Palestinian cause has unfortunately been to a considerable extent hijacked by some extremely poisonous elements: anti-Semites, Islamists and other members of the extreme right and extreme left in the West; people who hate the US and liberal democracy, and interpret the Palestinian struggle against Israel in anti-Western terms.

Very often, these are the same people who have supported Milosevic and the Great Serbian cause for the same anti-Western reasons. This is an entirely negative and reactionary category of people. By contrast, I feel I have a lot in common with liberal Zionists who support a two-state solution; many liberal Zionists have been staunch defenders of Bosnia, and opponents of the genocide in Darfur.

Thirdly, whatever the faults of the Izetbegovic regime, it was not on a par with Hamas, which is an explicitly fundamentalist, anti-Semitic organisation. Izetbegovic favoured Muslim coexistence with non-Muslims in Bosnia; Hamas would like to wipe out the Jews or drive them into the sea. Its rocket attacks on Israeli civilians have to be seen in this context.

I agree that there are some parallels between the Republika Srpska and Israel, but ultimately the differences greatly outweigh the similarities.

Firstly, the Serbs before 1992 already had their own national state – Serbia – and an independent multinational Bosnia was an entirely reasonable compromise solution to the Bosnian Serb national question. Bosnian Serbs had traditionally viewed Bosnia as their homeland and supported Bosnian autonomy, and a part of them did, indeed, accept Bosnian independence in 1992. But the Jews have no national state but Israel, and there was no realistic alternative for the fulfilment of their national aspirations; a bi-national Jewish-Arab state in Palestine was not a serious possibility.

Secondly, whereas it was the Serb nationalists who rejected the moderate option and started the war in 1992, it was the Arabs who rejected the UN partition plan of 1947, which was the most reasonable compromise solution. After losing the Israeli war of independence, the Arabs then refused to make peace with Israel or recognise it. They thereby ensured that the Palestinian refugees would remain refugees, and their implacable hostility led directly to the war of 1967, which resulted in the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Of course one should condemn the Israeli ethnic-cleansing of Palestinians in the 1940s and Israeli settlement building in the West Bank, but it is ultimately the Arab side that bears the greater blame for the outbreak and persistence of this conflict.

Finally, there is a practical reason for being even handed: the world is bitterly divided over the rights and wrongs of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; international efforts to resolve it will only be effective and have legitimacy in the eyes of the world if pressure is put on both sides. But as for your point about the desirability of Palestinian resistance evolving to be more like Nelson Mandela’s black South African resistance; I entirely agree.


Thursday, 15 January 2009 Posted by | Anti-Semitism, Balkans, Bosnia, Former Yugoslavia, Genocide, Islam, Israel, Jews, Kosovo, Palestine, Red-Brown Alliance, Serbia | 2 Comments