Bosnia’s Ghosts in Syria

Twenty years ago I spent a month in Syria. I managed to find a nice small flat in a neighborhood that extended up Mount Qasioun just north of the city center of Damascus. Past the wide boulevards on which the embassies lay the slope of the mountain became steeper and modest apartment buildings lined the streets. Here, was my apartment which a landlady in her late fifties had been renting out to students who mostly came to Syria to study Arabic. Before I could move in, I met her in her cramped apartment and discussed the rent. She was a bit puzzled by Luxembourg and where this place was and her curiosity about my home country exceeded the usual level of interest. After a while of back and forth, she just asked me outright what was on her mind: “Luxembourg has nothing to do with Yugoslavia, right?” This was not a question I expected. I could answer will all sincerity of course that Luxembourg never was a part of Yugoslavia or had nothing to do with. Her question had nothing to do with the war that was raging in Bosnia or the dissolution of the country. For her, Yugoslavia was still real and nothing good. Her previous tenants were from that country and had left the apartment in a terrible state. She swore never rent to Yugoslavs again. After I laid her concerns to rest, I received the keys and could move into my apartment. The only trace of my previous tenants were a few Panini stickers of the Yugoslav football team. I don’t remember if they were of the European championship in 1992 when Yugoslav qualified but was barred from participating due to the sanctions or whether it was from two years earlier when Yugoslavia lost in the Quarter Finals to Argentina.


It was not during my month in Syria that I ever thought of parallels between Yugoslavia and Syria, but four years later when I visited Lebanon that the parallels to Bosnia struck me. Today, after two years of war in Syria it is hard not think of the parallels to Bosnia. Of course, there are striking differences: The war came to Bosnia as the Bosnian Serb leadership rejected Bosnian independence and sought to create an “ethnically clean” statelet to join Serbia and started a war with the support of the Yugoslav army and Serbia. In Syria, the war began as a crack-down of the regime on protesters demanding a change of government that has escalated into a brutal war with the government killing protesters and opponents.

What is reminiscent of the war in Bosnia is the passivity of what is euphemistically called the international community. External intervention was never seriously on the agenda. Whether it was the blockage in the UN Security Council, difficulty of intervention (unlike in Libya), or the fear of giving weapons to the wrong side, arguments are plentiful. The result is the continuation of the war with increased brutality and more severe long-term consequences.

Big Brother is watching

Big Brother is watching

As the war continues, it turns more into a conflict over identity and the Assad regime in Syria has it wish. Originally a repression by a brutal dictatorship is turning into a war between the Sunni majority and Alavites who have been associated with the Assad regime. The longer the war drags on and as the rebels see little support for their cause to rid Syria of the Assad regime, the more this conflict becomes sectarian. Increasingly, it seems that even if the rebels were to win, this would just usher in further conflict in which the Alavite minority and other smaller communities such as Christian groups would become the target by the majority. Currently, it is hard to imagine what post-war Syria would like, but it seems certain that the two years of war have seriously damaged community relations and segregation and conflict will follow. Three and a half years of war in Bosnia also undid many ties and created a deeply divided society. In this sense, those who started the war created a new reality where the divisions they invoked became real. The longer the conflict continues, the harder it will be in peace time to undo the damage done. Not intervening will not make Syrian reality go away, but every day that the war continues, the peace will be harder. These are the parallels to Bosnia.

Coalitions of the unwilling. Or who needs a government in Belgium, Lebanon, Bosnia or Iraq?

A few countries around Europe and the Middle East have been having a harder time forming a government than most. If most Brits got nervous that there was no government formed for a few days following last years’ election, such a scenario sounds like a remote dream for Belgium, Bosnia, Lebanon and Iraq.

It took Iraq around nine months to form a government following parliamentary elections in March 2010, Lebanon had a change of premier in January, but the new premier Najib Mikati only was able to form a new cabinet a few days ago (based on support from Hizbollah and its allies). Belgium is “celebrating” a year since the parliament elections without a government and Bosnia is slowly catching up (emphasis on slowly) with Belgium, having held elections in October 2010 and only a few days ago the three member state presidency held a straw poll who might be the best candidate for the post—it looks likely that the government will not be formed before the fall. Of course, all four countries share a key feature: They are power-sharing systems, which require coalitions of the unwilling. Coalitions are between parties which have campaign against one another and which have often antagonistic views over the future of the country, not to mention its policies. Thus, coalitions are not based on securing “just” a majority, but rather on including parties representing the often deep divisions in society. With fractious and unstable party systems, forming a government is not an easy task.

It might be tempting to conclude that power sharing system which allocate power to parties claiming to represent these different ethnic, linguistic or religious groups should be done away with. Simple majority rule is, however, no alternative in the three countries. In Lebanon, Hizbollah would be able to take over the country, in Belgium Flemish nationalists would be able to dismantle the state with not consideration of the Walloon community, in Bosnia, a Bosniak parties might govern over a state that can’t govern of half of it, the Serb Republic (or alternatively, a Croat-Serb coalition would dominate at the expense of the largest population group), etc. A different alternative is the system used in Northern Ireland. Instead of lengthy coalition negotiations between parties which in all probability anyhow have to end up in government with each other, the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 just does away with complicated government formation altogether. Here the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister are elected by a double majority of both unionists and nationalists, all subsequent ministers are chosen by the D’Hondt system, which allows parties to pick ministerial posts according to their size and means that there is no need for negation between parties and all have a stake in the government. Of course, this also means that no party will be in opposition, but voting largely determines the dominance in the executive, rather than who is represented at all.

If such a solution is not possible, the question arises, does one really need a government? In Belgium, there have been protests in favor of any government (probably a first in history), a senator calling for a sex strike of the wives of Belgian’s politicians and the initiative G1000 which seeks to bring together 1000 citizens to demonstrate than in a few days of popular debate more feasible solutions and compromises can be found than after more than a year of talks among parties. Despite all the civic activism for a government, Belgium managed to hold the EU presidency, reduce its budget deficit and generally have a working country with only a caretaker government. The others’ are less lucky. Without a proper government and a budget, Bosnia was unable to draw further loans from IMF, is unable to move forward with EU integration, whereas Lebanon and Iraq were similarly paralyzed without a fully acting government. The secret to Belgium’s ‘non-governmental’ success despite its difficulties is simple, it is called the European Union and its regions and communities to which many powers are devolved. Granted, the EU lacks clear decision making structures and much of what one would expect from a government, but the Belgium experience demonstrates that it can be a crucial proxy for having a government. Monetary policy, no need. Foreign and security policy, not a big deal for a small EU member. Most laws and regulations come from the EU. What is not done by the EU in terms of everyday life is organized by the regions or communities. This leaves Belgium in the absence of a legitimate government much less exposed than Lebanon, Bosnia or Iraq. Now, of course, the problem is that some ethnic, linguistic or religious parties actually want to demonstrate just that—namely that the state is unnecessary. If citizens don’t feel the pinch of having a government, they might become less attached to the state. This is of course a fundamental dilemma, who much government does there need to be to make it worthwhile for citizens to have a state and what is the maximum of government and state some citizens can take before they support some alternative. Whatever the specific answer maybe, there are times when a country can work, even if there is no government.

First published on Nationalities Blog

Is Libya like Serbia 1999?

The Serbian football trainer Branko Smiljanić said in an interview that Tripoli today reminds of Belgrade in 1999. He went on to say that the similarities lies in the fact that life goes on largely as normal despite the bombing. A number of facebook groups have sprung up, such as the “Support for Muammar al Gaddafi from the people of Serbia” with over 32,000 ‘likes’ as of 21 March. The group also features photos from a protest in favor of Gaddafi in front of the 25 May museum and Tito’s mausoleum. The supporters of Gaddafi thus blend Yugonostalgia and the close Libyan-Yugoslav ties during the socialist period with the more recent past.

So does the 1999/2011 comparison hold? Neil Clark in the Guardian argued that March is a time of lies which lead to the UK involvement in Kosovo 1999, Iraq 2003, and Libya 2011. His argument that all three interventions are based on (potential) lies is of course simplistic and the assertion that Kosovo and Iraq were “classic imperialist ventures whose real aim was to extend western economic and military hegemony” suggest a simplistic argument based on some supposed “anti-imperial” reflex. I am not sure how and why the “West” has spread its hegemony in Kosovo or Serbia through military intervention. Just like protesters for Gaddafi, it ignores the target of the intervention amidst obsession with supposed imperialism.

So if this is not convincing, what are the similarities and difference? First, Libyan intervention in 2011 has been based on a UN Sec. Council Resolution, whereas in Kosovo such as mandate was elusive due to Russian and Chinese opposition. Intervention in Kosovo followed a conflict which began  to take a violent turn already a year earlier, in March 1998. A key difference between the two intervention is the group protected. Albanians were targeted by the Milosevic regime in 1998/9 as it considered Albanians potential supporters for the KLA and for supporting secession from Serbia. In Libya the opposition is by all indications not interested in seceding from Libya, but overthrowing Gaddafi and establishing a  democracy and a protection of human rights (even if we know very little about the actual composition of the opposition itself).

One argument put forth in 1999 was the ‘moral hazard’ argument: By supporting the KLA, the intervention rewarded the use of force for a secessionist movement. While over the past decade there is little evidence the de facto support for the KLA has emboldened secessionist groups around the world to take up arms, there is a problem associated with supporting the use of force (the main problem has been the lack of support for its non-violent alternatives). In Libya, there is no such moral hazard. It potential democrats are emboldened to overthrow dictators by the intervention, this cannot be considered problematic per se (although military intervention is likely to remain rare and it might encourage rebellion when odds of  success and intervention are both slim). The hazard would have been greater if there had been no intervention, the message would be clear to other dictators: be soft and you end up as Ben Ali and Mubarak, be brutal and you can stay in power.

Both interventions are imperfect in their own way. It is very difficult to predict the outcome and length of the conflict ensuing. Once intervention begins, it is impossible to ascertain whether the alternative of non-intervention would have resulted in fewer victims or less repression. There has been little time for planning for this intervention and besides the  UN Sec. Council resolution which talks about what needs to end (repression of human rights), and a change which reflects the will of the people, but it is unclear how to get there. In Kosovo there was little and poor post-conflict planning, leading for mass violence at the end of the war and anarchy which helped undermine legitimacy of the post-conflict peace building. At this point, the conflict in Libya is not yet a long standing civil war where a serious post-conflict intervention would be justified (and it is explicitly excluded by the resolution). As imperfect as interventions are, the ability of dictators to militarily repression opposition deserves to be curtailed, especially when they are as violent and heavy handed as Gaddafi.


Tunisia and Egypt: Lessons from 1989 and the Colored Revolutions

Before the demonstrations in Egypt gathered momentum in Egypt, I wrote a short analysis of events in Tunisia, which is published in today’s Presse. In it I argue that the likelihood the fall of the Ben Ali regime will lead to democracy depends on a number factors, including the neighborhood, the larger geopolitical environment and a shared domestic goal. In particular, the regional context matters. Democratization processes are considerably more difficult if the country is surrounded by authoritarian regimes which all hope for the experiment in democracy to fail (see esp. in Kyrgyzstan). If the whole neighborhood goes, not all countries might succeed, but the old model of authoritarianism is clearly no longer acceptable. Thus, I would argue for Tunisia to have a good shot at democratizing, it’s example needs to be emulated in the region.

League of Extraordinary Gentleman

The question now is whether the protests in the region will lead to 1989–the collapse of regimes in a domino across the region–or the colored revolutions of the 2000s when a few countries began democratizing (or rather restarted) but often remained in an undemocratic environment (Ukraine, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan). There are strong reasons to believe that what we witness is more like 1989.

First, the trigger for the protests against the authoritarian regimes is not a rigged election, as was the case in Serbia, Ukraine, Georgia or Kyrgyzstan. Instead, it is general dissatisfaction with the system. Like Communist regimes, the autocrats in the Arab world have been increasingly unable to live up to the “bargain” they had offered. Stability and moderate increases in living standards for accepting authoritarian rule. The regimes have been increasingly unable to deliver.

Second, the age factor. The average age of the leaders of the Communist leaders in Eastern Europe in 1989 was 74. The average age of some of the Arab leaders  (Ben Ali, Mubark, Saleh, Gaddafi, Bouteflika) is close to 73. They represent a petrified a political system with little prospects for internal reform. While some countries have had younger leaders through dynastic succession (Assad, King Mohammed VI, King Abdallah), they represent the failure of the systems to fundamentally change from within.

Third, the demonstration effect suggests close links between the protests in the region. A protest in one country (Tunisia) helped break the fear in others. As it is not rigged elections which triggered the protests, the circumstances have also allowed the protests to spread rapidly. Once demonstrators lose the fear to go to the streets, the options of the regimes are severely limited.

None of these similarities mean that the regime will fall automatically. There is still the Tienanmen scenario for some regimes, while others might hope for protests to fizzle out. As they do not depend on a single backer (save for the US in a number of cases), like the Soviet Union, the links between the regimes are less immediate and the dominoes might not yet fall.


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