Blog Books Eastern Europe Featured Non-Fiction


Now out from Zed Books. Available here.

A quarter of a century after the fall of communism, novelist and journalist John Feffer returned to Eastern Europe to track down the hundreds of people he spoke to in the initial atmosphere of optimism as the Iron Curtain fell. Aftershock is the sensational account of that journey. Revealing the broken dreams of a remarkable cast of characters, this is the epic story of a region that against great odds is still fighting for a brighter future.



Marta Figlerowicz, Boston Review, February 28, 2018: “In Aftershock, the novelist, journalist, and political scholar John Feffer attempts to view these stories from a middle distance: a point of view broader than a participant’s, if also less aerial than a professional historian’s. Through interviews with Eastern Europeans from all walks of life—politicians, activists, academics, blue-collar workers, clerks, and Ikea managers—he pieces together an affective and cultural history of post-communism. Aftershock gives its reader a panoramic view of the fantasies and hopes through which recently post-communist societies interpreted their ongoing transformations to themselves.”


Paul Hockenos, International Politics and Society, February 23, 2018: “A searching, analytical work that tries to make sense of where the former East bloc countries are today and why they arrived there. The lucid, gripping narrative is a joy to read.”

Paul Rosenberg, Salon, January 21, 2018: “Feffer’s book is so important. Compared to the rest of the world, Eastern Europe is a relative success—and the same can be said about America, even after the election of Donald Trump. If the first half of Aftershock can be read as a warning of what might befall us in the years ahead, then the second half can be read as an inspiration about what we can do to prevent it.”




‘John Feffer is our 21st-century Jack London.’
Mike Davis, author of Planet of Slums

‘John Feffer brings to this story a traveller’s eye, a rich store of experiences, and a wise perspective. His thoughtful book is a reminder that few nations, anywhere, easily throw off the heritage of tyranny.’
Adam Hochschild, author of Spain in our Hearts and King Leopold’s Ghost

‘Both a merciless political history and a compassionate political psychology of central and eastern Europe’s post-Cold War transformation.’
Miklos Haraszti, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Belarus

‘An essential account of our post-liberal times.’
Padraic Kenney, author of A Carnival of Revolution: Central Europe, 1989

‘A brisk, vivid and wide-ranging survey of a region in the grip of neoliberalism. As Feffer makes clear, this is hardly just a book about Eastern Europe, as the challenges there now seem to be spreading throughout the world. Feffer’s sense of the future evinces both pessimism of the mind and optimism of the will.’
Lawrence Weschler, author of Vermeer in Bosnia and Calamities of Exile

‘A breath-taking whirlwind tour through the transformations of eastern Europe over the past 30 years. With its account of the travails of contemporary capitalism, it is also astonishingly relevant for understanding pressing political problems in the United States as well.’
David Ost, author of The Defeat of Solidarity: Anger and Politics in Post-Communist Europe

Articles Blog Eastern Europe Europe Featured

Things Fall Apart

Democracy can be messy. In the northeast corner of Spain this week, democracy was downright chaotic.

Catalans went to the polls on Sunday to vote in a referendum on whether to stay in Spain or go their separate way. The Spanish authorities, however, declared the vote illegitimate and sent in the national police to disrupt the referendum.

In many locales, as the police swept into the polling station to seize the ballots, the Catalans merely hid all the voting paraphernalia. When the police left, the Catalans set up again to register voter preferences, and lines reformed outside.

Such Keystone Kops scenarios would have been amusing if not for the outright violence of the Spanish police, which beat voters with batons and fired rubber bullets into crowds. In The Independent, Hannah Strange and James Badcock write:

Video footage showed officers from Spain’s national police — 4,000 of whom had been brought in by the government to help quash the ballot — fighting with elderly voters, some of whom were left bleeding, and dragging young women away from polling stations by their hair.

The Spanish government has been monumentally stupid. Its case for unity is much stronger than Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont’s case for independence. The Spanish constitution of 1978 speaks of the country’s “indissoluble unity,” while also according Catalonia considerable autonomy. “The Catalan government claims the right to self-determination,” The Economistpoints out. “But international law recognizes this only in cases of colonialism, foreign invasion, or gross discrimination and abuse of human rights.” None of those conditions applies to Catalonia.

Sure, the relatively wealthy Catalans are aggrieved that a portion of their economic success is redistributed elsewhere in Spain. But that’s a fundamental element of the modern state. New Yorkers subsidize New Mexicans, London subsidizes Leeds, Germans subsidize Greeks. Catalans can certainly challenge the terms of the economic arrangement — after all, the poorer Basque region doesn’t share much of its tax revenues with Madrid — but neither Spanish law nor international law allows them to gather up all their marbles and go home.

Meanwhile, the very process by which Puigdemont rammed through the referendum doesn’t reflect well on his democratic credentials. Writes Yascha Mounk in Slate:

The government rushed the necessary legislation for the referendum through the Catalan Parliament without giving deputies adequate time to discuss it. It passed the legislation in a late-night session even though the opposition was absent. It vowed to secede from Spain even if a majority of the population stayed away from the polls. And, taking a page from Trump’s playbook, it has been smearing everybody from opponents of secession to judges doing their jobs as enemies of the people.

With only a 42 percent turnout for the referendum, the Catalan authorities have no authoritative mandate for a declaration of independence. Many people who opposed secession simply refused to vote. On the other hand, the Spanish government’s reaction may well have pushed more people into the independence camp. On Monday, thousands of protesters poured into the streets of Barcelona to protest the Spanish government’s actions and assert their popular sovereignty. On Tuesday, unions called a general strike for the same purpose.

Ultimately the Catalan crisis boils down to consent — whether the Catalans continue to agree to be part of the larger Spanish nation. In an 1882 essay on nations and nationalism, the French philologist Ernest Renan famously wrote that the nation is a “daily referendum.” He meant that the nation is a matter not of inviolate borders or ancient history. Renan continued:

A nation is therefore a great solidarity constituted by the feeling of sacrifices made and those that one is still disposed to make. It presupposes a past but is reiterated in the present by a tangible fact: consent, the clearly expressed desire to continue a common life.

If a majority of Catalans no longer consent to be part of the larger Spanish nation, then the specifics of the Spanish constitution are largely irrelevant. The people will force a change. Given that the younger generation favors independence, demography is on the side of the secessionists. The more polarized the situation becomes in Spain, the less room there will be for the sensible middle option of greater autonomy for Catalonia.

In the past, secessionist movements represented not a challenge to the nation-state system, but its ultimate expression. After all, rebellious provinces or peoples want nothing more than to become nation-states themselves. If every nation deserves a state, then how can the international community deny the Slovaks, the Slovenes, and the East Timorese? Secessionist movements were simply the continuation of a process interrupted by historical anomalies like the Soviet, Yugoslav, or Czechoslovak federations, or the often arbitrary border delineations of colonial administrators.

But the Catalan case suggests a different kind of future. In this future, economics, geopolitics, and technology all point toward what I’ve called in my latest book: the splinterlands.

Catalonia and the EU

The architects of the European Union imagined that their new entity would solve the challenge of endless division on the continent.

Europe has always been a patchwork of different peoples, all striving for sovereignty over their own territory. People of varying histories, cultures, languages, and religions have been mixed together in a way that has defied any easy drawing of borders. Order has usually come over the centuries by force of arms. In the last century, two world wars were fought to upend those orders, and a third war beckoned.

The EU was supposed to change all that by pointing toward something beyond the nation-state.

Not only did the EU weaken the powers of the state by appealing to the benefits of something larger — economies of scale, a unified foreign policy voice, greater individual freedoms to travel and work — it also appealed to a “Europe of regions.” According to this project, regions could deal directly with Brussels, bypassing their national governments, and also cooperate horizontally with one another: Provence with Basque country, Bavaria with Lombardy, and so on. Secession would be rendered moot, for Catalans could get what they wanted if not from Spain then from Brussels or other European entities.

Alas, it was not to be. Writes Anwen Elias back in 2008, “Regionalist or autonomist parties who saw in the EU an opportunity for organizing political authority on a post-sovereigntist basis were also forced to recognize that, in practice, Europe was still dominated by sovereign states and sovereignty-based understandings of politics.” Even in Europe, the nation-state held onto its privileged position. Attempts to revive the “Europe of regions” to accommodate pressures from below, particularly after the last Catalan referendum in 2014, came up hard against the growing Euroskeptical movements, the continued problems in the Eurozone, and ultimately Brexit.

The problem of consent, in other words, has infected the EU as well. Many citizens of wealthier European countries don’t want to subsidize the citizens of less-well-off countries. Europe-firsters have been unenthusiastic about the influx of immigrants that the EU as a whole embraced. Though others threatened to do so, the British have been the first to withdraw their consent entirely.

If the Catalans withdraw from Spain, they are also withdrawing from the EU, which would amount to a second defection in so many years. The decision could prove even more costly for Catalonia than Brexit is proving for the UK, since it doesn’t have an economy the size of England’s, hasn’t preserved a separate financial system (and currency), and doesn’t have the same international profile (for instance, Catalonia is not a member of the World Trade Organization).

Of course, would-be countries are often prepared to take an economic hit for the sake of independence.

But the Catalans have perhaps not factored in just how big a hit they’re going to take, naively thinking that the small bump up in revenues not turned over to Madrid will make the difference. They’re also disgusted, and rightly so, with the economic austerity measures that the EU has imposed on Spain. But little Catalonia will have even less power to resist these forces after independence.

Now that the “Europe of regions” has faded into irrelevance, Europe faces more fracture points. As a result of the Brexit vote, Scotland is once again reconsidering its commitment to the United Kingdom, though public opinion polls suggest that a second referendum on independence would fail by a narrow margin just like the first. In Belgium, the largest political force is a nationalist party, the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), which supports Flemish independence. Of course, the Flemish are the majority in Belgium, and Flanders is doing much better economically these days than Wallonia, but Belgian unity remains a fragile thing. Other regions of Europe are also restive — Basque country, northern Italy, Corsica.

Although the Catalan vote isn’t likely to unravel the tapestry of Europe quite yet, other forces are at work in Europe — and not just Europe.


Kurdishstruggle / Flickr

Kurdistan, Finally?

Kurds have wanted their own states for centuries. They’ve attempted to carve out autonomous regions in Turkey, Iran, and Syria. Last week, the Kurdish territory in Iraq held a non-binding referendum on independence, which garnered overwhelming support.

Surrounding states all took measures against the would-be new state of Kurdistan. Iran declared a fuel embargo, as did Turkey. Both countries moved troops to their borders for joint military exercises with Iraq. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called the referendum “illegitimate.”

Baghdad, too, rejected the non-binding vote. But unlike Madrid, the Iraqi authorities did not attempt to stop the vote from happening. Iraq banned flights to Kurdistan airports and imposed sanctions on Kurdish banks. But it didn’t send in troops. The Kurdish government has announced new elections for November 1, and Baghdad seems to be waiting to see what the Kurds’ next move will be. Neither side wants war.

As in Catalonia, the referendum wasn’t simply a transparent bid for independence. Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani used the vote as a way to boost his own popularity and that of his party, as well as to make a stronger bid for Kirkuk, a disputed oil-rich area that Baghdad also claims. Regardless of Barzani’s motives, however, independence is clearly popular in Kurdistan.

Indeed, it’s hard to imagine the Kurds dialing back their ambitions in Iraq. They’ve been running a de facto state of sorts for years. They thought, not unreasonably, that they could trade their extraordinary efforts against the Islamic State for a shot at real, de jure sovereignty. They’ve even embraced a rather ruthless realpolitik to their ethnic brethren across the borders. Kurdistan has maintained strong ties toward Turkey — despite President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s crackdown on Turkey’s own Kurdish population — and have been cool toward the de facto Kurdish state of Rojava in northern Syria.

But there’s still a huge difference between de facto and de jure. Just as Catalonia can be the string that unravels the European tapestry, Kurdistan can be the string that unravels the Middle East tapestry. Turkey, Iran, Syria, and Iraq all fiercely defend the unitary nature of their states, and the Kurds represent a strong threat to that structure.

Moreover, the region is as much of a patchwork as Europe. Yemen and Libya have already effectively fallen apart. Palestinians have been thwarted for decades from having their own state. Turkmen, Shia (in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain), and others might lobby as well for a piece of their own pie.

But what if they get their slice just when the pie has become stale and inedible?

Slouching toward Splinterlands

What’s happening in Europe and the Middle East is part of a larger pattern.

The global market has been eroding the power of the nation-state for several decades, as transnational corporations flit around the world to get the best tax deals and the cheapest labor, international trade deals remove key points of leverage that national governments once had over various economic actors, and global financial authorities impose conditions on all but the largest economies that governments must meet or face default.

The global market has delegitimized states. No wonder, then, that subnational units are taking advantage of this weakness.

Technology has amplified this trend. Communications advances make this global market possible, and the transfer in microseconds of huge amounts of capital in and out of nation-states renders national economic policy increasingly illusory. The Internet and social media have broken the monopoly on national media, providing civic movements (along with global disrupters like the United States and Russia) the means to challenge the once authoritative narratives of the nation-state. What happened in the Arab Spring to authoritarian governments is now happening to democratic governments as well (witness the Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s victory).

Finally, in the world of geopolitics, the overarching reasons for ideological unity are gone. The West no longer faces a “Communist threat,” while the East no longer huddles together against the “Yankee threat.” Sure, there’s the Islamic State and its ilk to worry about. But all nation-states see these non-state actors as a threat. The “war on terrorism” hasn’t forced states to give up a portion of their sovereignty for the cause — only citizens to give up a portion of their civil liberties.

In the 1950s and 1960s, utopians dreamed of a world government even as dystopians feared a global Big Brother. Today, when the international community can’t even come together to stop climate change, the prospect of world federalism seems impossibly quaint. A much grimmer reality presents itself in places like Libya and Somalia and Yemen: failed states and the war of all against all.

Today the world faces a crisis of the intermediate structure. The EU is under siege. The power of nation-states is eroding. If this trend continues, with the world continuing to splinter, the only entities left with any global power will be corporations and religious organizations, a world where frightened people pray to Facebook and the gods of Google that the fierce winds of nationalism and the rising waters of climate change and the random fire of lone gunmen will stay away for one more day.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, October 4, 2017

Articles Blog Eastern Europe Featured Russia and Eastern Europe

The Anti-Corruption Revolution

During rush week, aspiring frat boys endure all manner of indignities.

They all want to join the exclusive club, and they’re willing to pay the steep initiation fee of risk and embarrassment. One day, they too will be­ seniors who can haze the newbies all they like. Such are the perks of following orders, rising through the ranks, and waiting one’s turn in the hierarchy of power.

In autocracies, aspiring functionaries endure all manner of indignities. They must pay deference to the country’s leader. They must mouth all sorts of propagandistic nonsense. But they know that they, too, will eventually benefit from the system. The riches that the autocrat is extracting from the country will some day flow to these underlings as well, as a reward for their loyalty.

In democracies, corruption works in a similar way.

The opposition slams the ruling party for all the ways it uses the levers of government power to benefit its clientele. But then the opposition takes over and all that past criticism disappears. Suddenly, the former opposition discovers the perks of power. It has its own clientele to satisfy. These rules apply to both the illegal (outright bribery) and the legal (the revolving door of the “swamp”). And so the cycle continues.

Currently the world is experiencing a wave of illiberal leaders, elected democratically but ruling autocratically: Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Hungary’s Viktor Orban, the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro, India’s Narendra Modi, Japan’s Shinzo Abe, and of course the United States’ Donald Trump.

They all want to hold on to power as long as possible and build political dynasties that endure when they finally age out of office. Such dynasties secure not only political legacies but economic gains as well.

Some of these illiberal leaders may flame out — like Trump, who may prove so inept and unpopular that he doesn’t even serve out his first term. But the others will try every conceivable means — constitutional changes, territorial grabs, massive crackdowns on the media — to cling to power.

Some resort to these methods even as they maintain quite high levels of popularity. Putin has an approval rating just north of 80 percent while Duterte enjoys a voter satisfaction level of 66 percent. Good luck trying to dislodge them at the polls.

But illiberal democrats all have an Achilles’ heel. The corruption that solidifies their base and provides money for their electioneering coffers is also what might bring them down. It informs the fight going on today in Venezuela. Anti-corruption activists have taken to the streets in Moscow, Bratislava, and Bucharest. Japan’s Shinzo Abe has been hobbled by successive corruption scandals.

Will an anti-corruption revolution usher out the current era of right-wing populism and herald a new stage of democratic politics?

Latin American Mess

At the bottom of the list of 176 countries on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions index are failed or near-failing states: Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Somalia. But at #166, tied with Iraq but below Haiti, Zimbabwe, and Eritrea, is Venezuela. The only other Latin American country that comes close is Nicaragua at #145.

Venezuela should be a wealthy country. As recently as 2008, it enjoyed on paper the highest GDP per capita in all of Latin America. This prosperity has been built on oil, lots of it, and Venezuela is the third largest supplier to the U.S. market. So, why is the country now facing widespread food shortages, skyrocketing inflation, and the largest peacetime contraction of an economy since World War II?

In part, it’s a function of very low oil prices. Also, foreign corporations are steering clear of investing in what by all accounts is a dysfunctional economy. And anyone who can is leaving Venezuela: For the first time Venezuelans now top the list of asylum-seekers in the United States.

But at the heart of the problem is corruption. Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro calls his system of governance “socialist,” and mainstream newspapers dutifully follow suit. But Venezuela is actually a corruptocracy. According to the National Assembly’s Comptroller’s Commission, corrupt officials have looted public institutions to the tune of $70 billion. That includes $11 billion from the lucrative state oil company. Other analysts suggest the figure is much higher — as much as $350 billion diverted from public coffers to private hands.

If anti-Semitism is the socialism of fools, corruption is the socialism of the greedy.

Maduro and his cronies are not just economically greedy. They apparently crave total political control as well. This week, Maduro pushed through a referendum creating a new legislative body composed of nothing but government supporters. Perhaps inspired by Trump’s inclusion of his daughter and son-in-law in the White House, Maduro tapped his wife and son for the new assembly. This super-Congress, which displaces the democratically elected legislature, can change Venezuela’s constitution and send the country in any direction Maduro likes.

Venezuela is the worst-case example of corruption in Latin America. But protesters have taken to the streets to chase one corrupt government after another around the continent. In Brazil in 2016, millions of people demonstrated in 326 cities all over the country against the government of Dilma Rousseff, which was dealing not only with an economic recession but the biggest corruption scandal the country had ever seen. The previous Brazilian president, Lula, was sentenced last month to nearly a decade in prison for similarly corrupt relations with the state oil company. And the current president, Michel Temer, stands accused of accepting $152,000 in bribes (and expecting millions more) for promising to obstruct, you guessed it, a corruption investigation.

In a spillover from the Brazilian corruption probes, all three Peruvian presidents from the last 15 years are now being investigated for graft. Odebrecht, the same Brazilian construction that bribed Brazilian officials, also ensnared Peruvian presidents Alejandro Toledo, Alan Garcia, and Ollanta Humala. It’s not inconceivable that Peru will soon have all their recent former presidents in prison.

In Guatemala, both President Otto Perez Molina and Vice President Roxana Baldetti were ousted from office in 2015 and jailed over corruption charges. Last year, investigations by the country’s attorney general Thelma Aldana revealed an even more disturbing picture of how the state had been captured:

Ms. Aldana said that at least 70 people in the country’s political and business elites have been implicated in money-laundering and bribery schemes that bankrolled Mr. Pérez Molina’s party and his cronies. Investigators are poring through more than two million seized documents as they continue to map out what Ms. Aldana described as a state that had been “co-opted” by crooks.

More disturbing still: It seems that these jailed corruptocrats still wield power over their criminal enterprises from their jail cells.

Major corruption scandals have hit the leaders of Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, Honduras, Panama, and Mexico. Citizens throughout the continent are beginning to make the connection between corruption and a deterioration in their own standard of living. As Simeon Tegel writes in U.S. News and World Report:

The price is awful public services, from transport and education to law enforcement and health care, as state coffers are ransacked while appointments and contracts are awarded as favors rather than on merit. Corruption also brakes economic growth and fuels poverty, most economists agree.

That in turn could pave the way for authoritarian strongmen as citizens grow frustrated with elected leaders. According to the 2016 regionwide Latinobarómetro study, just 34 percent of Latin Americans are satisfied with democracy.

In their dissatisfaction with democracy, Latin Americans might turn to authoritarian populists. But they would then be embracing an even more toxic version of corruption.

Protesting the Corruptocracy

Globally, the current role model for illiberal democrats is Vladimir Putin.

The Russian president has been in power for an astonishing 17 years. He has rebuilt the Russian economy in ways that benefit himself and his extended entourage. He has partially restored Russia’s geopolitical influence. But he wants more. He aspires to fatally weaken the liberal democratic values that threaten his governance and spark an illiberal revolution that can spread westward through such vehicles as Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France.

With his currently high approval ratings, Putin would seem to have a lock on power.

In June, however, thousands took to the streets in Moscow and other Russian cities to decry the extraordinary wealth accumulated by Putin’s corruptocrats. Opposition leader Alexei Navalny released a video detailing the wealth of Dmitri Medvedev, including yachts, a vineyard in Italy, and an 18th-century palace in St. Petersburg. At a time of economic recession, Russians are focusing their ire on Medvedev.

It may only be a matter of time before Putin, too, becomes vulnerable for the wholesale transfer of the state’s resources to his own pockets and those of his cronies. American businessman William Browder, who once made a fortune himself in Russia before running afoul of Putin, estimates that the Russian leader is the richest man on earth, with $200 billion of assets stashed all over the world.

U.S. sanctions threaten Putin’s economic empire — no wonder he’s worked so hard to get them repealed, even to the point of interfering in the U.S. election to produce a more amenable president (or at least, a sufficient degree of political chaos that renders Washington a less powerful geopolitical player).

Anti-corruption is a powerful mobilizing sentiment. It fuses anger over economic inequality, lack of political accountability, and frustration over breaches of the rule of law. It expands street protests beyond a handful of committed activists.

So, for instance, when the Romanian government announced in January that it would suspend ongoing corruption investigations and also decriminalize corrupt practices of less than $48,000, hundreds of thousands of Romanians took the streets in the largest demonstrations since the fall of Communism. They succeeded in forcing the government to reverse itself. It’s no surprise that Romanians have a low tolerance for corruption. They’d already witnessed their former prime minister, Adrian Nastase, jailed for four years for taking bribes. The Romanian protests also inspired Slovaks to do the same thing by massing in the streets and demanding the resignation of long-serving Prime Minister Robert Fico.

The populism that has produced leaders in Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Russia, Turkey, and other parts of Eurasia is all about the clientelism. Insurgent populists rail against outsiders buying up domestic factories or controlling the financial sector (a legitimate concern) and argue that the national wealth should be in local hands (a legitimate proposal). What they don’t say is that those “local hands” are in fact their own.

It doesn’t matter whether the new populists engage in privatization or nationalization. They don’t have an economic theory. They only have an economic goal: the collective enrichment of their cadre.

Anti-corruption fights aren’t just about injecting more transparency into the existing system. They’re not just about re-establishing the rule of law. Increasingly, these struggles are about the deeply flawed nature of the current system of political economy.

The pushback against Putin, Erdogan, Abe, Maduro, and yes, even Trump, points toward a new kind of politics and a new kind of economics. Illiberal democrats imagine that they are the most advanced species in the evolution of democratic capitalism.

Anti-corruption campaigns may not only prove them wrong by sending them to jail but lead to new, revolutionary ways of organizing society to divorce, once and for all, wealth and politics.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, August 2, 2017

Articles Blog Featured US Domestic Policy

The Gunman

Every era has its representative figure. The Neolithic era had the Farmer. The avatar of the Middle Ages was the Monk, bent over an illuminated manuscript. For the period before and after 1492, the Explorer captured the global imagination. During the Industrial Revolution, the Worker embodied the age of manufacturing.

And now we have the Gunman.

The Gunman is everywhere. He is a soldier. He is a policeman. He might be a right-wing extremist or a caliphate-inspired jihadi. He might be a survivalist atop a well-stocked bunker or a settler in occupied territory. He might be a maniac with no motivation other than mayhem. Or he might just be the middle-class dad next door who wants to protect his family. But he’s usually a guy. Reports of a surge in U.S. women owning guns are largely anecdotal: Gunmen still outnumber gunwomen three to one.

Shortly after the Orlando shootings, I was driving to a neighborhood Chinese restaurant with my wife’s high school friend when I made a passing comment about the need to ban assault rifles. To my surprise, this otherwise liberal fellow begged to differ. Then he pointed out that he had three guns in the back of his MINI Cooper. Everyone is coming out of the closet these days, so why not gunmen?

Guys with guns dominate the headlines. Young armed men are dispensing death in public places in service of any number of philosophies (racism, homophobia, the Islamic State, misanthropy). Meanwhile, the American police force has been conducting a veritable waragainst African-American men: 248 black men died last year at the hands of the police, 36 of them unarmed. Also last year, 42 police officers died by gunfire, a 14 percent decline over the previous year. This year, however, the numbers are rising. Including last week’s shooting in Dallas, 26 police have been shot and killed in 2016. Overall, there were 372 mass shootings in the United States in 2015, and an astonishing 13,286 people died by gunshot.

In this war on the American streets, it can be difficult to know who is on what side. In Dallas last week, when Micah Johnson killed five cops, he wasn’t the only civilian with a gun in the vicinity. According to the Dallas mayor, more than 20 men in camouflage gear with rifles started to scatter when Johnson opened fire. Texas, after all, is an open-carry state.

Instead of implementing gun control measures in the wake of Dallas and Orlando and all the other recent outbreaks of firearm violence, Congress has deadlocked on the mildest of reforms. Gun sales, meanwhile, are up.

The number of households possessing guns has actually declined to around one in three, but not the overall number of guns in circulation. The average gun owner now possesses eight guns, twice as many as 20 years ago. The United States ranks number one in the world in per capita gun ownership: an astounding 112 guns per 100 residents. The next closest is Serbia at 75 (engulfed by war in the 1990s), followed by Yemen at 54 (engulfed by war today).

Guns have become the new smartphone: an indispensable accessory for the modern age. I fear that one day a pop-up window will appear in my browser advertising the new iFirearm (iGun is already taken).

Apple’s latest creation will come loaded with apps, like one that tells you all the establishments that welcome customers who are packing heat. Siri will inform you from a little speaker in the handle about the nearest location of an active shooting — and you can decide whether to run in the opposite direction or head toward the bloodshed waving your firearm.

I can even envision a deadly new reality series based on that app: Who Wants to be a Hero?(Of course, despite the exhortations of Donald Trump, the NRA, and others to add rather than subtract guns from a mass shooting, the police recommend that if you have a firearm and you’re at the scene of a shooting, you should keep it holstered — or else the police will take youfor the gunman.)

I used to think that the United States was backwards when it came to gun control, that we still lived by an archaic frontier ethos of Lawman versus Outlaw. Some day we would grow up, put away our childish things, and join the civilized world of the Europeans and Japanese.

But perhaps they are the anachronisms. Perhaps it will soon become as futile to resist the spread of guns as it was to ignore Facebook and Twitter. Even Europe is not immune from the trend. The Gunman has turned up in Norway (Anders Breivik) and England (Thomas Mair). Gunmen have terrorized France and Belgium. So far in 2016, according to Vice, mass shootings have taken place in Serbia, Cyprus, Austria, Italy, Portugal, Germany, and multiple times in Russia.

Of course it’s worse elsewhere. Some countries have completely succumbed to the lawlessness of the frontier — Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Iraq, Somalia — where everyone “guns up” in order to survive. Africa and Latin America are home to numerous “murder capitals” such as Caracas, San Salvador, and Cape Town. Just like at the OK Corral, the Lawman battles the Outlaw in these violent lands.

Having intervened militarily in the crescent of crisis stretching from Central Asia to North Africa, the United States has fancied itself the Lawman upholding the principles of international law. But in reality, Washington has more frequently acted as the Outlaw, squeezing the trigger in extrajudicial executions (through drone strikes), causing the collateral damage of civilian deaths, and invading countries on dubious pretexts.

During previous wars — in Korea, in Vietnam — the Gunman at home and the Gunman abroad were involved in two separate enterprises. Today, however, the two worlds are beginning to collide.

The War at Home

Micah Johnson, a product of the JROTC program, enlisted in the Army Reserve in 2009. His engineer brigade deployed to Afghanistan in 2013. He received an honorable discharge as a result of a deal involving a sexual harassment charge. He apparently didn’t see any combat in Afghanistan, but he continued to conduct his own military training stateside, becoming an expert marksman.

Angered by the recent spate of police killings of African Americans, he set up in a location overlooking a Black Lives Matter protest in downtown Dallas and killed five police officers.

Two of the five officers had also served overseas in the military, while a third had worked for a private military contractor. This is not exactly a coincidence. Police forces in the United States are the logical employment for ex-soldiers. It’s hard to find precise statistics, since police departments don’t release this information. But The Dallas Morning News reported in 2015that hundreds of Dallas police officers are military veterans and 119 are active reserve members (out of approximately 3,600 officers), which tracks with the 15-20 percent of each academy class who are former soldiers.

Over the last few years, large numbers of combat troops have returned from Afghanistan and Iraq and are looking to return to civilian life. The federal government decided to address high unemployment among veterans and the staffing needs of police forces by directing resourcesto the preferential hiring of former military in law enforcement.

The convergence of the war abroad and the war at home is not simply one of overlapping personnel. Police departments increasingly resemble the U.S. military. SWAT teams look like invading forces. Surplus military equipment, like grenade launchers and armored personnel carriers, has transformed police officers into battlefield warriors. Even robot-controlled bombs, like the one that killed Micah Johnson, threaten to turn the terrain of American cities into something more closely resembling Baghdad.

It’s not the military veterans, however, who are necessarily behind the more gung-ho attitude among police. Writes one officer:

I worked with a lot of guys who were combat veterans from the Vietnam era, and they certainly didn’t have anything to prove to anybody. They were probably less likely to get involved in violent confrontations than the types of cops I see nowadays, most of whom do not have a military background, and some who are acting out, at least to some degree, video game fantasies about being a bad ass.

If you throw together a large number of combat-hardened veterans with cocky video-game-trained recruits, add a new array of firepower, and round it out with training programs designed by former military contractors, it’s no surprise that our police forces have begun to operate as if they’re in a war zone. SWAT teams conduct raids like they’re breaking down doors in Afghanistan — tens of thousands of them every year. The police approach young black men as if they are potential terrorists with concealed weapons and intent to kill.

From a statistical standpoint, it’s a mystery why police departments believe that bulking up is necessary. Violent crime in America has not simply declined, but declined dramatically (by half between 1991 and 2013). Of course, the federal government has made it practically freefor municipalities to get all this war gear, which they would need, if at all, only in worst-case scenarios.

But the real reason for this arms race is fear.

The Fear

The war abroad and the war at home are both fueled by the same fear of encroaching chaos. In an invaluable New Yorker article by Evan Osnos, here’s how David Grossman, the author ofOn Combat, describes his post-apocalyptic vision:

He predicted that terrorists will detonate a nuclear weapon on a boat off the coast of the United States, and that they will send people infected with diseases — “suicide bio bombers” — across the border from Mexico. Then he said, “I’ll tell you what’s next, folks: school-bus and day-care massacres.” Eventually, he wound his way to the solution: concealed carry. “There is a time, in the first five to ten minutes in every one of these events, when one or two well-trained people with a concealed weapon can rise from the entire pack.” Americans, Grossman told us, must accommodate to a future of “armed people everywhere.”

Armed people everywhere: Talk about self-fulfilling prophecies. The NRA is selling guns to people worried about “armed people everywhere” and thereby creates its own worst nightmare (or perhaps its own largest potential membership).

But note how closely Grossman links terrorists attacking the U.S. homeland with the worst fear of American families: They will go after our children. Grossman knows that parents will do practically anything to defend their children, who have nothing but stuffed animals and schoolbooks to defend against men with assault rifles. But parents can’t be there all the time.

With that in mind, gun manufacturers have been marketing firearms to youth in an effort to arm the next generation. Well, it took a while for smart phones to reach the pre-teen set. If assault weapons indeed form an indispensible part of making America great again, then why wait for kids to vote or drink before they start training to take out potential enemies?

These fears of attack have always contained an undercurrent of racism, a suspicion that those with brown or black skin (from the Middle East, from over the border, from the ghetto) want “what’s ours.” The initial spike in gun sales in the United States for something other than hunting dates back to 1992 and the aftermath of the Rodney King verdict, according to former gun salesman and economic historian Mike Weisser:

“It was the first time that you could see a live riot on video while it was going on,” Weisser said. “They had a helicopter floating around when a white guy pulled up to the intersection. These black guys pull him out of the truck and are beating the shit out of him right below that helicopter.” The new market for self-defense guns was born, Weisser said, and it was infused with racial anxiety.

The marriage of racism and guns has necessarily generated its own armed response. During the civil rights movement, as a number of recent books have documented, anti-racism activists often resorted to carrying and using firearms to protect themselves and fight back against a determined and armed adversary.

Akinyele Omowale Umoja took the title of his book We Will Shoot Back from Charles Evers, who replaced his murdered brother Medgar as the state field secretary of the NAACP: “We made up our minds…that if a white man shoots at a Negro in Mississippi, we will shoot back.” Charles Cobb traces a much longer tradition of bearing arms in This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible: “Armed self-defense (or, to use a term preferred by some, ‘armed resistance’) as part of black struggle began not in the 1960s with angry ‘militant’ and ‘radical’ young Afro-Americans, but in the earliest years of the United States as one of African people’s responses to oppression.”

As long as the police continue to kill young black men, the People’s New Black Panther Party’smessage — “We want every black man and woman throughout the country to legally arm themselves,” according to the Dallas chapter head — will resonate with anyone familiar with this historical tradition. Without radical reform, the police will lose the trust of the community. Loss of faith in governance over all will surely follow.

Gun Versus Computer

The avatars of earlier eras — the Farmer, the Monk, the Explorer, the Worker — represented the cutting edge of society. They heralded a powerful social transformation. They each sparked a revolution.

The comparable figure for our era should be the software engineer. Computers have indeed transformed the way we live.

But the gun, a much older technology, threatens to turn back the clock. The NRA and criminal cartels and the Islamic State are all pushing for their own revolution that will put guns in the hands of everyone. If they succeed, governance will end, and states will fail. In a war of all against all, the Gunman will take law into his own hands.

And we human beings, who started out as hunters and gatherers so many millennia ago, will end up in this benighted age as hunters and hunted.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, July 13, 2016

Articles Blog Europe Featured

The Hangover (British Version)

It’s the morning after. The British have woken up, dazed and woozy.

They’re not exactly sure what happened a few days ago. But one thing is clear: Their political environment is a shambles. Some things are mysteriously missing, like leadership and a whole lot of money ($3 trillion from the stock market). Other things are just as mysteriously present, such as international ridicule.

The poor British have a vague memory that someone might have spiked their drinks at a party last week, someone who looked a lot like Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party, and in retrospect it was a very bad idea to have drunk that intoxicating Kool-Aid. Certainly a lot of really stupid things were said. But it’s the really stupid thing that was done that so many people would dearly love to forget ever happened.

And now begins the madcap adventure in which the British try to retrace their steps and figure out how they can either undo all the damage or live uncomfortably with the consequences. Welcome to the British redo of that inexplicably popular 2009 film, The Hangover.

Referendum Reset?

The nation, the French historian Ernest Renan famously said, is a daily plebiscite.

He meant that the nation must affirm itself continuously in acts both minor and major. In its recent plebiscite, the UK engaged in a major act of national affirmation: It would henceforth define itself as an ex-EU member. As with many such affirmations — wedding vows, military enlistment, participation in an Iron Man triathlon — at least some British are having second thoughts.

Take, for instance, Mandy Suthi, who says that she didn’t expect Prime Minister David Cameron to resign and now regrets her vote for Brexit. On Twitter, others have expressed dismay at the plummeting pound, the misinformation from the Leave campaign, and their own dismaying ignorance (see #regrexit). On Google, countless others have decided to learn about the European Union only after the vote. Information at our fingertips has not ultimately made us smarter, it seems. Our intelligence has been uploaded to our phones, where it functions like one of those apps we rarely access.

Even some of the biggest cheerleaders of the campaign — like Sun columnist Kelvin MacKenzie — are now expressing “buyer’s remorse,” even though they were the ones doing the selling. A petition to hold a second referendum is making the rounds — initiated by, of all people, a Leave supporter who had been fearful of an initial close loss. But it’s hard to know how many of the 2-million-plus signatories in the UK (minus all the fraudulent ones from North Korea and Vatican City) either voted to leave or didn’t vote in the first place.

The referendum was only advisory, so it’s possible that the British parliament will ignore the results and opt for a second referendum. David Cameron has already announced that he’ll leave the decision to initiate the break with the EU to his successor. No wonder Boris Johnson, the former London mayor and Leave booster who is favored to take over from Cameron, looked rather dyspeptic at what should have been a celebratory news conference. The next prime minister faces the lose-lose proposition of supporting an economic disaster or failing to respect the public will.

This was not a referendum that suffered from low voter turnout. Nearly 75 percent of eligible voters went to the polls. Nor can anyone complain that the media didn’t highlight the worst-case scenarios, including precisely the results that so flummoxed the second-thoughts camp. And yet millions apparently treated the vote as no more important than choosing the next Britain’s Got Talent winner.

“In dreams begin responsibilities,” wrote the Irish poet W.B. Yeats. Now that the British have woken up from their dream, they’ve discovered the hangover of responsibility — and it doesn’t look pretty.

Elites and Reality

Journalist Ron Suskind reported in The New York Times a now-infamous exchange with an aide to then-president George W. Bush in 2002:

The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality judiciously, as you will we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

Perhaps 9/11 was the moment when the path of history forked.

Those of us who believe in the “judicious study of discernible reality” continued on our way, shaken by the events of that day, but still confident in our reality-based assumptions. The leaders of the U.S. empire, however, went merrily down another path, which led through the looking glass. This group ignored a variety of irrefutable facts — Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction, most of the 9/11 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia, torture doesn’t produce reliable intelligence — in order to create their own reality of the invasion of Afghanistan, the occupation of Iraq, and the tortures of Abu Ghraib.

It’s a well-worn path that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney took. “History’s actors” who have followed similar trajectories include such inglorious statesmen as Mao, Hitler, and Caligula.

The leaders of the Leave campaign also showed considerable contempt for the “reality-based community.” They dismissed the warnings of the “elites” — economists, political experts — as propaganda. They appealed to the worst instincts of the electorate (immigrants are bad, foreign bureaucrats are unconscionable, let’s stick it to the French and Germans whom we never much liked anyway). When all the warnings turned out to be true — and, worse, that the impact of Brexit would hit its supporters the hardest of all — they began to wake from the hangover.

The same holds true for what I’ve called America B, the large group of people who have not benefited from the economic changes of the last 25 years. America B has an innate contempt for the elite because the elite, quite frankly, abandoned them.

Liberal, conservative — it didn’t matter: Virtually all political and economic leaders sided with the one percent. The elite can fact-check Donald Trump’s speeches all they want. His supporters are not interested in such “reality-based” assessments. They’re voting from the spleen. In a year of magical thinking, it’s no surprise that voters are taken with a magician who can pull facts and figures out of unexpected places.

Hillary Clinton is the EU of American politics: stolid, respectable, a little too cozy with vested interests. She and the Democratic Party should be careful to listen to the anger out there in America, or else face a morning after just like Britain’s.

EU Reform

The British hangover is an EU wake-up call. The leadership in Brussels should immediately set to work to make the EU a more responsive institution.

The first task is to give people more of a voice in the workings of the EU. Participation in European Parliament elections is notoriously low. The last election, in May 2014, hit a new low at 42 percent (down from 62 percent in 1979). Some countries barely make it to the polls at all (18 percent in the Czech Republic, 13 percent in Slovakia).

One set of reforms would be to reduce the costs and increase the transparency of the European Parliament. Much of the price tag for European democracy involves translation into 24 languages. The UN only has six official languages: Surely the EU can cut those interpretation bills in half by making fluency in one of 12 languages a requirement for office. The parliament also works in three different places (Strasbourg, Luxembourg, and Brussels), which ups the travel and building costs. And members don’t even have to submit receipts for their expenses.

Another set of reforms would encourage a greater sense of European identity by promoting Europe-wide parties. Imagine if voters in Poland and Portugal could vote for the same Social Democratic, Conservative, and Green parties, with their own distinct Europe-wide platforms.

One chief criticism of the EU is regulation. Of course the EU has a committee looking into this. But a more public effort to reduce red tape would improve the EU’s reputation.

I am a big supporter of the free movement of people. And the EU is currently pressing the UK to accept open borders as part of any deal preserving its access to the EU market. Even as it deploys this stick, however, Brussels might consider a carrot or two. Providing national governments with a bit more control over their borders — short of compromising the open borders policy — may prevent future exits.

In some ways, of course, this is all just tinkering at the margins. The EU must recapture the energy and enthusiasm of its early years when it offered a grand bargain to the peoples of Europe: the comparative advantage of the larger market (which satisfied business) and the redistributive power to lift the economically disadvantaged (not only people but entire countries). In recent decades, this package deal has tilted more in favor of moneyed interests.

What the EU needs more than anything else is a new grand bargain that can serve as a powerful response to the far right and its nostalgia for a pre-EU paradise. Sure, there were some nice things about Europe 100 years ago. But the reality of Europe 1916 was World War I. And that is the logical endpoint of an unraveling EU that fails to recapture the imaginations of its citizens.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, June 29, 2016

Articles Blog Eastern Europe Europe Featured

Eastern Europe: Return to Normality?

IT HAS BEEN THE FATE of Central and Eastern Europe — that wedge of territory between what was once the Soviet Union to the east and the European Community to the west — to wrestle with its own “abnormality.” For nearly five decades, the region experienced varying degrees of Soviet-style Communism, from the relatively liberal version enjoyed in Hungary to the more Stalinist model endured in Romania. After 1989, the region celebrated not only a joyful “return to Europe,” through its accession to the European Union, but also, as Andrei Shleifer and Daniel Treisman argue in a recent Foreign Affairs article, an even more liberating “return to normality.”

One of the indicators of that “normality” is near-invisibility. Central and Eastern Europe, once on the front pages of the international press for various uprisings against Soviet-sponsored regimes, rarely achieve headline status these days, except on anniversaries — such as those of the initial revolutions of 1989, the wars and breakups that convulsed parts of the region in the 1990s, and (occasionally) the economic and political reforms that accompanied the often difficult transitions. When The New York Times Magazine addressed the region in one of its issues this summer, the article tellingly focused on the efforts of a Czech libertarian to create his own minimalist state on a spit of unclaimed land between Croatia and Serbia. The region has become so uninteresting to American readers, or so the Timeseditors imply, that only something literally off the map (and truly off-the-wall) is worth devoting more than a couple column inches to.

If part of the price for living in a “normal” country is the indifference of newspaper editors and media consumers in the United States, most people in the region would surely welcome the bargain, especially those cursed with living through the “interesting” times of the 1990s, when the region was wracked by high levels of unemployment, escalating ethno-religious tensions, and (in former Yugoslavia) the return of genocide and ethnic cleansing. Like a celebrity recovering from a media scandal, East Central Europeans are eager to get on with their lives away from the glare of the TV cameras.

But the notion that East and Central Europe has become “normal” is a peculiar one. Though inflation and unemployment rates have largely fallen to more conventional levels, the region remains economically dependent on its richer, Western neighbors. In part because of thwarted expectations of greater economic success, a backlash against Western-style liberalism has swept through the region, nowhere more prominently than in Hungary, once a bastion of that same liberalism. Large segments of the population in almost every country confess nostalgia for the Communist period they resolutely rejected in 1989 — even in Romania, despite the nearly impossible-to-romanticize hardships under Nicolae Ceausescu. And parts of the region remain in geopolitical limbo, either in the halfway house of EU accession (like Serbia), in a situation of contested sovereignty (like Kosovo), or in a perpetual state of incoherent governance (like Bosnia).

This gap between the declarations of normalcy by some authoritative observers and the anything-but-normal reality on the ground has not attracted much attention from foreign correspondents, most of whom have migrated to more “interesting” beats. Nor are there many mass market books examining these trends, though publishers are now interested in what’s happening just beyond the frame in Ukraine, Greece, and Turkey.

The field is clear, then, for the more patient analysis of academics. The last decade has witnessed a quiet explosion of scholarly essays, monographs, collections, and book-length treatments of the economic, political, and social trajectories of East Central Europe. The four books under review here go well beyond the binary stereotypes of the region — East verus West, liberal versus authoritarian, nationalist versus cosmopolitan — in their interrogation of what constitutes normalcy for a group of diverse countries with overlapping historical experiences and the frequent misfortune of being stuck between larger, more ambitious powers.

Wrapping Communism

It is very difficult to imagine large numbers of Germans becoming nostalgic for the Nazi period, and German advertisers using Nazi imagery to tap into this nostalgia for marketing purposes. But nostalgia for the Communist period persists and, in some places, continues to grow more intense.

In their edited collection Remembering Communism (Central European University Press, 2014), Maria Todorova, Augusta Dimou, and Stefan Troebst focus on how Southeast Europe has wrapped and unwrapped its Communist experience. Ostalgie — nostalgia for the old German Democratic Republic (GDR) — has been popularized in the West through such films as Goodbye, Lenin and tourist attractions like the GDR Museum. Lesser known are the comparable nostalgias in the rest of the region. In Bulgaria, for instance, the Coca-Cola Corporation used the positive memories their potential consumers retain for that period to sell a product deeply associated with the capitalist West. As contributor Milla Mineva writes about the company’s 40 Years Together campaign, “It restored to the public eye socialist interiors, clothes, and famous pop songs.” Coca-Cola was contributing to a wave of Bulgarian sotz-nostalgia (nostalgia for socialism) that revived older brands of chocolate and tomato-pepper relish, the reputations of pop singers like Lili Ivanova, and even to a certain extent the political platforms of previously despised political figures like Communist kingpin Todor Zhivkov.

In her contribution, Simina Badica argues that “communism is fashionable again in Romania and all over Eastern Europe. Not its ideology, its leaders, nor its ‘achievements,’ but its visual wrapping.” If it were just a matter of pop songs and fondly remembered comfort foods, Badica would be right. But the longing runs deeper.

For instance, in a fascinating essay on the “brigadier movement” in Bulgaria, Tsvetana Manova quotes alumni of the movement — which mobilized 193,000 young people in 1947 and endured for more than four decades — who fondly remember the friendships, the shared purpose, and the overall solidarity of the period. Nostalgia for that period encompasses oppositional culture as well, for rarely has intellectual engagement been so highly valued as in East and Central Europe in the years before 1989. Sly jokes and a non-traditional structure made the play Improvisation, by Radoi Ralin and Valeri Petrov, so popular in Bulgaria in 1962 that tickets for performances functioned like an alternative currency — until the Party shut down the production. Quite a few writers from the region who had no love for Communism wistfully remember when the government, the people, and the foreign media paid much closer attention to their words.

Of course, the flip side of these nostalgias are the unpleasant memories of Communism — of repression and state surveillance and collaboration and economic want. For some, the dismalness of the past has produced a welcome amnesia. Others, who have labored over the last 25 years to bring the torturers, prison camp officials, and leading state security functionaries to justice, risk ending up as fixated on the past as those who remember only the positives of the period.

But it’s not surprising that people in the region continue to look backward. “It took a whole generation in post-Franco Spain after 1975 to reach the climactic moment of opening mass graves in 2000 and putting the issue on the table,” Maria Todorova reminds us in her introduction to the volume, “not to mention the lag of a generation and over two decades for the Germans to begin to come to terms with their legacy, a process that is still incomplete.”

A defeated Germany, of course, was able to close the wealth gap with the rest of Europe within a decade of the end of World War II. Prosperity helped much of the population turn their backs on the past. But 25 years after the 1989 revolutions, East Central Europe has still not closed the wealth gap with Western Europe. The Czech Republic has done the best with a per capita GDP at 84 percent of the EU average, in 2014, while Bulgaria has managed to reach only 45 percent.

The Radiant Future, Recast

Nearly everyone I interviewed in Central and Eastern Europe in 1990 told me that they expected to live like the Austrians or the French within five or 10 years. The method the region intended to use to span the wealth gap was membership in the European Union, which functioned in the early 1990s as a “radiant future” that replaced the utopian promise of Communism. Accession did come for most of the region, with most countries joining in 2004, Bulgaria and Romania in 2007, and Croatia in 2013 (leaving out only parts of former Yugoslavia). But full and equal membership in the EU continues to be a work in progress. Although certain sectors of society clearly benefitted from accession, significant portions of the population were left behind: unskilled workers, pensioners, the Roma minority. For these constituencies, the past was a refuge and socialism was not simply a brand. It signified substantive equality and provision of government services to all, however imperfect (and imperfectly remembered) these services might have been.

The region didn’t simply replace its “backward” Eastern European traditions with “forward-looking” EU norms. There “were rarely clashes of civilization,” write Janos Matyas Kovacs and Violetta Zentai, the editors of Capitalism from Outside? (Central European University Press, 2012). Rather, the “process of negotiation” produced a variety of hybrid outcomes.

This process often yielded surprising results. Eva Kovacs writes, for instance, of small vineyards in Hungary that modernized their wine production to produce French or Italian quality wine — often served in traditional ethnic German garb to Japanese tourists — but without becoming subsumed by larger European conglomerates.

Other efforts at reconciling East and West generated less felicitous results. After 1989, Poland and Hungary emerged as the most promising reformers in the region, based in part on their prior experience of extensive tinkering with the Communist system. But it was precisely this status as early adopters that “translated into a considerable amount of pride and honor among highly ranked members of state administration,” write Katalin Kovacs and Petya Kabakchieva in the same volume. When it came to implementing EU programs to upgrade agricultural and rural development, Polish and Hungarian officials took umbrage at the arrogance of EU representatives, who sometimes trashed reports that required months of patient work by frustrated researchers. In Bulgaria and Romania, meanwhile, officials were so delighted to be included in the accession process that they eagerly adopted whatever the outsiders presented.

Occasionally, the flow of knowledge went the other way. “One of the most successful workshops on traditional Bulgarian craftsmanship was structured around the rebuilding of an old house,” write Haralan Alexandrov and Rafael Chichek in their chapter.

At first, the foreign experts were convinced that the best solution would be to pull down the old shack and build it anew from scratch. The Bulgarian masons, however, started to work and over a couple of days demonstrated how it could be repaired. The foreigners were deeply impressed, acknowledged the virtuosity of the local masters, and volunteered to learn from them. This was an extraordinary experience of intensive cultural exchange in the language of art — the masons were “speaking with their hands.”

This story of the Bulgarian house resonates, perhaps precisely because it is so rare. Time and again, the negotiated compromises between East and West tilted in favor of the latter. The money, the decision-making power (over accession), and even the culture flowed out of Western Europe. The nostalgia for the Communist era can be read, then, as less an enthusiasm for socialism and more a longing for an earlier era of sovereign control, however illusory, over politics, economics, and culture. To join the EU and to integrate into the global economy — to become “normal” in political and economic terms — meant that East Central European countries had to subsume their national prerogatives within larger structures. It’s no surprise that this assimilation process has generated its own nationalist backlash against a variety of targets — the Brussels bureaucracy, multinational corporations and banks, the Roma minority, and most recently the refugees escaping war-torn countries in the Middle East and hoping to find sanctuary in the EU.

But the greatest nationalist backlash in the region against federal structures took place before any of the countries managed to win membership in the EU.

From Best to Worst

Before 1989, Yugoslavia qualified as the most “normal” of all the countries in East and Central Europe. It was considered the most likely candidate for membership in the European Community. It had the most diverse economy and the freest culture. Romanians risked their lives swimming across the Danube to defect to their Communist neighbor. Yugoslavia had also become normal in the modern European sense by laying to rest the nationalist demons of the 19th and 20th centuries. In creating an era of “brotherhood and unity,” Josip Broz Tito forged a successful supranational Yugoslav identity, but this also required both an amnesiac approach to the past and the often quite ruthless suppression of nationalist outbreaks in each of the constituent republics in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The descent of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s into ethnoreligious bloodshed — in this most advanced country of Eastern Europe — sent scholars scrambling to understand how the continent could take such a great leap backwards. Most would agree that an understanding of the history of genocide and ethnic cleansing in the region is indispensible to any explanation of what happened during the 1990s. Paul Mojzes, in his 2011 study, Balkan Genocides (Rowman and Littlefield, 2011), tries to sort through the claims and the counter-claims to arrive at least close to the truth concerning the casualty figures in southeast Europe in the 20th century. These are not simply academic questions. What the Croatians did to the Serbs during World War II, what the Communist partisans did to the Croatian and Slovenian and Bosnian collaborators (not to mention Yugoslavia’s ethnic Germans) as the war came crashing to an end, and what the newly independent countries that emerged from former Yugoslavia did repeatedly to each other remain highly sensitive issues in the region today.

As Mojzes writes, Tito never permitted an open inquiry into the bloodletting that took place in Yugoslavia, particularly during and after World War II. The battles between Serbs and Croats that broke out in 1991 were prefigured by disputes between historians arguing over the number of deaths at Jasenovac, the concentration camp complex established by the fascist Croatian government during World War II. Franjo Tudjman, who would later lead newly independent Croatia, argued in the mid-1980s that only 20,000 Serbs died at Jasenovac — compared to the 600,000 that many Serbs claimed (Mojzes settles on a figure in the middle). Such sharply divergent views of the past translated into equally polarized interpretations of Serb-Croat relations as they deteriorated in the early 1990s. The disintegration of Yugoslavia was part of an extended score-settling that stretched back to World War II and even earlier.

Mojzes concludes that what tore apart Yugoslavia in the 1990s were “religious wars fought by irreligious people.” These crusades were led by crafty politicians, populist leaders, and paramilitary fighters who used religion — the key factor that distinguished Serbs, Croats, and Bosnians — to pursue their own will to power.

Other scholars look for answers elsewhere. In Debating the End of Yugoslavia (Ashgate, 2014), edited by Florian Bieber, Armina Galijas, and Rory Archer, a number of academics from both inside and outside the former Yugoslavia evaluate the various theories put forward for why a seemingly normal country descended so rapidly and so violently into abnormality.

These explanations boil down to three categories. Those who subscribe to the “single man theory” blame the destruction of Yugoslavia largely on Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian politician who rose to prominence in the 1980s by exploiting the tensions between Serbs and Albanians in the autonomous region of Kosovo. His actions, which stimulated a rise in ethnic nationalism among his compatriots, in turn caused a comparable nationalist backlash throughout the country, particularly in Croatia.

Milosevic died before the Hague Tribunal could rule on his complicity in war crimes and genocide during the four wars that swept through the former Yugoslavia (in Slovenia, between Serbia and Croatia, in Bosnia, and between Serbia and Kosovo). But in her chapter, Sabrina Ramet argues that the evidence was clear. Milosevic was “paying the salaries of the officers in both the Croatian Serb Army and the Bosnian Serb Army” and “making key decisions about the mobilization and deployment of Serb forces.”

Meanwhile, according to the “outsider theory,” the international community deserves a lion’s share of the blame, either for intervening in the case of Germany’s recognition of the newly independent states of Croatia and Slovenia, or for not intervening when violent clashes first broke out in 1991. Many adherents of this view tend toward the conspiratorial. They are looking for puppet masters: the Germans, the Vatican, Washington, even Islamic fundamentalism. Of course, outsiders did play a role, but they were often guilty of sins of omission rather than commission, as in the American reluctance to get involved in a “European matter” in the early 1990s.

Most of the contributors to Debating the End of Yugoslavia generally emphasize a third factor: the role played by elites in the various republics. Nebojsa Vladisavljevic, for instance, fingers “the diffusion of nationalist ideas from narrow circles of dissident intellectuals to the masses, amplified with the sudden availability of the organizational resources of the party-state, as its officials adopted nationalist strategies in search of new sources of legitimation.” These elites were able, in a very short period of time, to delegitimize Yugoslavia’s fairly robust “supra-ethnic identity,” which prompted a majority of people surveyed throughout the country as late as 1990 — with the exception of Kosovo and, possibly, Slovenia — to oppose the establishment of new national states.

In areas outside Serbia where large concentrations of Serbs lived, these elites quickly took charge, even pursuing trajectories that Milosevic himself eventually found uncomfortable. In Bosnia, for instance, the Serbian elite purged virtually all non-Serbs from professional jobs in Banja Luka (the capital of what would become Republika Srpska). The Bosnian Serbs rejected the Vance-Owen peace plan, despite intensive lobbying from Milosevic to accept the compromise.

In the end, Yugoslavia suffered from what scholars Andrew Wachtel and Christopher Bennett, in an essay in another collected volume on Yugoslavia’s dissolution, term “multiple organ failure.” Prior to the 1990s, more astute observers identified the warning signs: the failure of any politician after Tito’s death who could successfully promote “brotherhood and unity,” the increasingly dysfunctional economy, the growing ethnic tensions in Kosovo, and the resentments of the richer republics of Slovenia and Croatia over subsidizing the federal center and the poorer regions of the country. These factors converged after 1989 to bring down an increasingly fragile state.

The EU could not have designed a more compelling worst-case scenario than Yugoslavia’s unraveling to emphasize the obvious virtues of joining a secure, supranational entity. Still, there were many in the region who wondered aloud if they were merely exchanging Moscow for Brussels. And the same resentments that ate away at Yugoslavia began to affect the EU as well: that of the richer subsidizing the poor, the weaker becoming dependent on the stronger, and the federal center dictating policy to everyone. Populist leaders like Slobodan Milosevic — as well as Vladimir Meciar in Slovakia, Viktor Orban in Hungary, and the Kaczynski twins in Poland — could find political leverage in widespread disgruntlement.

This, then, is the supreme irony for East and Central Europe. Just as they achieve “normal” status by joining the EU, the European federation is threatening to split apart because of economic differences (between Germany and Greece, for instance), escalating Euroskepticism (particularly on the extreme Right), arguments over the fate of Ukraine and the trajectory of Russia, and disagreements over how to handle the current refugee crisis. Having wanted nothing more than some peace and quiet (and a measure of prosperity), the people of Central and Eastern Europe are now thrust into the middle of a continent-wide debate on the very nature of Europe itself. In the end, then, East Central Europe continues to be interesting — to the delight of scholars and to the chagrin of its residents.

Los Angeles Review of Books, October 13, 2015

Articles Blog Eastern Europe Featured US Foreign Policy

The Middle East’s New Nakba

After midnight on August 15, 1947, India and Pakistan became separate countries.

What should have been a joyous occasion — a celebration of independence from three centuries of British colonial rule — quickly turned into one of the greatest tragedies in modern history. By the end of 1948, after an exodus of Muslims from India and a comparable hemorrhaging of Hindus from Pakistan, between 1 and 2 million people were dead. Extremists in both nascent countries had set out to create ethnically pure spaces by ruthlessly eliminating those that didn’t “fit in.”

“Gangs of killers set whole villages aflame, hacking to death men and children and the aged while carrying off young women to be raped,” Nisid Hajari writes in his new book Midnight’s Furies. “Some British soldiers and journalists who had witnessed the Nazi death camps claimed Partition’s brutalities were worse.”

The history of population transfers is not a pretty one.

During World War I, the subsequent collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and an ensuing three-year conflict between Turkey and Greece, as many as 1.5 million Greeks living in Anatolia died in a horrific campaign of ethnic cleansing. The official population transfer of 1923, unlike what happened later during the partition of India, was an attempt to avert further horrors rather than cause new ones. As a result, Turkey expelled much of its Christian Greek population (1.5 million) and Greece kicked out its Muslim population (500,000). Though the scale of death during this exchange was lower than in India, the human suffering was still immense, and communities of ancient lineage disappeared overnight.

The South Asian and Balkan population exchanges were largely based on ethnicity and religion. But occasionally ideology has compelled people to flee in one direction even as other people are running in the other. After the Russian Revolution in 1917 and the victory of the Red forces in the subsequent civil war, the losing Whites left in droves from the Soviet Union, as more than a million people established large émigré communities throughout Europe. The revolution also attracted people who wanted to experience life in a communist state, though the inflow was much smaller in comparison.

Today, the Middle East is witnessing a large-scale population transfer, the third major one in the region over the last century. Religion and ethnicity play a significant role in the displacement. But ideology also has a hand in it. Whatever the precipitating factors, the upheaval is a costly one. People are dying, borders are being redrawn, and the dragon’s teeth of discord are being sown for generations to come.

Remapping the Middle East

During the modern era, the Middle East has experienced three distinct waves of remapping and population transfer.

The first came at the end of World War I with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the creation, from its corpse, of the modern state of Turkey and a jumble of colonial mandates. The second wave came with the withdrawal of the European powers in the 1930s and 1940s, which produced the modern versions of Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. And in 1948, the creation of the state of Israel out of what had once been a British protectorate drew millions of Jews from around the world to the new country and at the same time dispossessed millions of Palestinians in the Nakba (the “catastrophe”).

Today, the entire region is experiencing a Nakba as the third major remapping of the Middle East in modern times gets underway.

The states that we have taken for granted for so long — Iraq, Syria, Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia — are being transformed. The chain of events set into motion by the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq is inexorably reaching its logical conclusion — not the consolidation of democratic, secular states but the disintegration of multi-ethnic and multi-confessional entities. Nationalist forces have squared off against religious extremists over not only who controls the states of the region, but the very nature of the state institutions. Meanwhile, outside powers have poured arms and money into the region in quixotic attempts to influence the outcome.

Many people aren’t sticking around to see who will win. They’re voting with their feet.

Millions of refugees, mostly from Syria but also from Afghanistan and Iraq, are pouring into neighboring countries. The shortfall in funds available to manage this refugee flow — and the resulting lack of food and health care in the refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon — has precipitated a follow-on wave of emigration, mostly to Europe. The states of those strife-torn countries have failed their denizens, so they’re seeking out places where the state provides at least partial shelter from everyday violence and uncertainty.

In an equally startling development, tens of thousands are going in the opposite direction.

The Islamic State has attracted nearly 30,000 people in the last two years. Given an inflow of 1,000 new recruits each month, the entity is able to maintain its fighting strength of 20,000-30,000 zealots, despite having absorbed 7,000 air strikes and suffering an estimated loss of 10,000 members (or perhaps because of these well-publicized martyrdoms).

Although the recruits all subscribe to the same version of Sunni Islam, their decision to flock to ISIS is more like the earlier, more ideologically motivated migration to the Soviet Union. After all, if they simply wanted a more fundamentalist version of Islam, they could have gone to Saudi Arabia. Rather, they’re drawn by the ISIS promise to fuse religion and state authority in a new caliphate. At the same time deeply conservative and thoroughly revolutionary, ISIS promises to change the world by plunging it back into a Dark Ages of beheadings and Twitter.

The current refugee crisis is the most visible sign of this Middle East remapping. But it’s not the only one.

Enclaves Besieged

Both the United States and Russia are committed to bolstering unitary states in the Middle East. They just happen to support different ones.

Russia has long backed the government of Bashar al-Assad. It’s recently attempted to portray the Syrian regime as the best chance for defeating ISIS. Russian President Vladimir Putin has sent advanced jet fighters and a contingent of soldiers to battle a force that’s already declared its own satellite state on Russian soil in the northern Caucasus. This week, Russia conducted its first aerial attack on ISIS in Syria.

President Obama, at the UN summit this week on countering ISIS, has pushed for a “hearts-and-minds” strategy to counter violent extremism at the source. But the United States is also bombing ISIS, supporting opposition fighters like the Kurds, and trying to train “moderate” fighters to insert into the conflict (a dismal failure to date). The likely outcome of this strategy will be an accelerated fragmentation of Syria. The Kurds, Druze, Sunnis, and Alawites are spinning apart in the country’s centrifuge of violence, and the efforts of the U.S.-led coalition to oust Assad and defeat ISIS will drive the wedges even further between these communities.

Meanwhile next door, evidence of the failure of this strategy is on display in Iraq. Years of war have not produced peace or eliminated extremism. The Obama administration has tried to keep Iraq together through an ill-advised patchwork of alliances that have only compromised the country’s immune system, giving rise to the potentially terminal illness of ISIS. And Washington continues to look the other way in Iraq as Shi’ite militias engage in their own form of ethnic cleansing, using ISIS as an excuse to go after any and all Sunnis in the country.

Syria and Iraq are not the only countries drifting toward a terrifying homogeneity. The Christian population of the region has declined to a mere 4 percent — from 1.5 million in Iraq to 500,000 today, from a strong majority in Lebanon to a mere 34 percent. Sectarian violence has also threatened Coptic Christians in Egypt and Libya. If ISIS takes root in these countries, countless other minorities would be at risk as well.

Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, has a significant minority population of Shi’ites, somewhere between 10 and 15 percent, who have faced persistent discrimination. The most recent case involves Ali al-Nimr, whom the Saudi authorities arrested four years ago when he was 16 for his participation in protests against anti-Shia discrimination. The Saudi government plans to behead him and then crucify the body as a warning to others. Who needs enemies with friends like these?

And then there’s Israel, which has done as much as possible to isolate Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and treat its Arab population as second-class citizens. The situation inside Israel has become so toxic that even Sayed Kashua — the most successful Palestinian writer in Israel — moved his family to Champaign, Illinois. A two-state solution that finally accords Palestinians their own functioning state is to be welcomed — but it’s also a sad recognition of the inability of Israelis and Arabs to live in a multiethnic society together.

Finally, with the fall of Kunduz to the Taliban this week, Afghanistan too is on the verge of following Iraq and Syria into a nation-state death spiral. A city of 300,000 people, Kunduz is the first urban area that the Taliban have seized since their defeat in 2001. If the Taliban retake power, expect the country to surpass Syria and once again become the world’s leading exporter of people, with minority populations suffering disproportionately.

A New Compact

Russia has already assembled a coalition with Iran, Iraq, and Syria to share intelligence for the purposes of battling ISIS. If the United States and Russia were to put aside their differences to pursue a political solution to the problems facing Syria in particular, it would go a long way toward achieving the consensus necessary to address what ails the Middle East. But it’s not enough.

The problem of the Middle East is not something that outsiders can fix. The essential problem involves the nature of the state.

The various state models on offer in the region are just not working. Authoritarian Arab nationalism, represented by Assad in Syria and al-Sisi in Egypt, is a human rights nightmare. The theocratic alternatives on display in Saudi Arabia and Iran are equally unpalatable, though at least some democratic procedures are in place in the latter. The sultanates of the Gulf States depend on cheap foreign labor and a caste system to keep the ruling families in place.

Israel, too, has created an apartheid system to keep itself afloat in a largely hostile environment. Lebanon’s confessional system has been paralyzed for years. Iraq was supposed to be the model that all post-9/11 countries in the region should follow, but it’s barely a state at all given the autonomy of the Kurds, the secession of ISIS, and the murderousness of the Shi’ite militias.

Turkey once offered great hope as a compromise between the religiously observant (the Justice and Development Party), the secular nationalists (Kemalists), and the minorities (particularly the Kurds). But that model has broken down because of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s desire for power.

Outsiders can’t impose a state system, as the colonial powers attempted to do after World War I or the Bush administration tried in Iraq after 2003. But they can help reduce the amount of violence in order to create space within which the critical discussions over what kind of state is appropriate can take place.

President Obama spoke once again at the UN about the importance of political solutions. Fine: Let’s stop focusing on the one (Assad) and refocus on the many (the refugees). Sit down with Russia, Iran, the EU, and others to work out a political solution in Syria that can stop the ongoing population transfer and avert an even greater tragedy.

World Beat, September 30, 2015

Articles Blog Eastern Europe Europe Featured

The New Middle Passage

Peter, a Sierra Leone migrant living in Hungary, is one of the lucky ones. He has a job. He has a supportive community of friends. After seven years in the country, the Hungarian government approved his application for asylum. He started a very successful NGO devoted to helping other migrants make a new life in Hungary.

I interviewed Peter in Budapest two years ago. It was not exactly the best of times to be a migrant or someone working on migrant issues in Hungary. The right-wing government of Viktor Orban and his Fidesz party had turned a cold shoulder to the influx of newcomers from the global south. Two migrant rights organizers I interviewed at the time refused to allow me to publish our conversation for fear of government reprisals.

Little did we know that the situation two years ago was halcyon compared to today.

Hungary is the epicenter of a new wave of migration hitting Europe. In 2011, about 7,000 migrants arrived in Hungary. Now the country is experiencing as many as 3,000 per day.

It’s no surprise, then, that Hungary has become even less hospitable to these new arrivals, most of whom are heading north from the Middle East through Greece and then Macedonia and Serbia. This year, the Hungarian government has granted asylum to only 278 of the 148,000 people who applied. And Fortress Hungary is constructing a new 109-mile fence across its southern flank to dissuade others from arriving.

Most of the migrants who make it to Hungary, unlike Peter, see it as just a stop on the way to more welcoming countries, like Germany. But it’s not easy to complete that journey. Smugglers charge exorbitant rates. And the trip can be just as dangerous by land as on the rickety boats that routinely capsize in the Mediterranean.

On the road between Budapest and Vienna, a truck was discovered last week with 71 corpses rotting in the back. These unfortunates, hoping for a new life in Austria, suffocated in unspeakable conditions and then were abandoned by their Bulgarian and Afghan smugglers. They’d already made it on the first leg of their journey — out of their country and into southeastern Europe — and they were hopeful that the final leg would bring them from amigrant-processing center somewhere in the European Union to an apartment, a job, and a life of safety.

But these middle passages are often the most treacherous.

A Crescent of Crisis

During the slave trade, which forcibly transferred 12.4 million Africans from their homeland between the late 15th and 19th centuries, as many as 1.8 million died during the infamous “middle passage” to Europe and the Americas — a casualty rate of around 15 percent.

The conditions on the slave ships were horrifying. People were stacked practically like firewood, and many died of malnutrition and dehydration. Sharks followed the ships to feed off all the bodies thrown over the side. “Human ‘wastage’ was simply part of the business, something to be calculated into all planning,” writes Marcus Rediker in his book The Slave Ship.

Today’s migrants are not slaves. They’re coming to Europe voluntarily. Indeed, they’re desperate to leave their homelands and find even the lowest-paying jobs in Europe. The countries they’re abandoning — Syria, Afghanistan, Mali — have become death traps, so they’re willing to risk everything to bring themselves and their families to safety.

But between the horrors of their home countries and the security of Europe lies a middle passage that all too often resembles the terrible transit experienced by enslaved Africans long ago. More than 2,300 people have died so far this year trying to cross the Mediterranean. Over 3,200 died last year.

Meanwhile, the number of people trying to get across by boat from Africa to Europe hasjumped 40 percent since 2014. The casualty rate is lower than during the slave trade — approximately 1 percent versus 15 percent — but this comparison should not make Europeans sleep any better at night.

The deadly middle passage doesn’t only involve Europe.

In 2014, 307 people died trying to get from Mexico into the United States (down from 445 in 2013). Since 2000, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that 40,000 people have died trying to cross borders around the world. “The true number of fatalities is likely to be higher, as many deaths occur in remote regions of the world and are never recorded,” according to the 2014 IOM report Fatal Journeys. “Some experts have suggested that for every dead body discovered, there are at least two others that are never recovered.”

No doubt the smugglers responsible for many of these deaths also calculated “human wastage” as part of their business.

Since Europe is the closest safe haven for people trapped in a crescent of crisis, which stretches from Ukraine through Afghanistan to Iraq and Syria and into northern Africa, it must deal with the surge in migration. Eliminating the push factor by ending the civil conflicts in the crescent of crisis is the only sustainable solution to the current migration problem. But Europe can’t wave a magic wand to make Afghanistan, Syria, and Eritrea into safe and stable countries.

As an interim measure, then, Europe must find a way of reducing the horrors of the middle passage as well as providing a safe haven at the end of the journey.

Never Again?

Europe wasn’t always such a stable, peaceable place. During the Fascist takeover of the continent in the 1930s, large numbers of Europeans were fleeing certain death in Germany and Austria. In 1938, 32 nations met in Evian, Switzerland to discuss the growing refugee crisis.

“The outcome of the meeting was clear: Europe, North America, and Australia would not accept significant numbers of these refugees,” writes UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein. “In the verbatim record, two words were uttered repeatedly: ‘density’ and ‘saturation.’ The European countries were already beset with population ‘density’ and had reached a point of ‘saturation’ — in other words, there was simply no more room at the European inn.”

The world’s nations will again meet to discuss a large-scale refugee problem, this time in New York at the United Nations, in an emergency session convened by Ban Ki-moon for later this month. EU ministers will gather two weeks before that to work out their own strategy. The early signs suggest a replay of Evian 1938. As I wrote earlier in Our Refugee World, rich countries have simply not stepped up to the plate.

Germany is the major exception. Here is a country, at least, attempting to learn the lessons of its own history. Chancellor Angela Merkel recently decided to allow thousands of Syrian refugees to apply for asylum in Germany. The country now expects to take in 800,000 refugeesthis year, four times the figure from 2014.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Economic Affairs and Energy Minister Sigmar Gabriel write that “the response so far does not meet the standards that Europe must set for itself. The EU cannot put this off any longer — we need to act now. We must therefore pursue a European asylum, refugee, and migration policy that is founded on the principle of solidarity and our shared values of humanity.”

Their 10-point plan focuses on establishing more consistent and humane Europe-wide policies, a fairer distribution of refugees, more money for countries on the front lines like Greece, and a more concerted marine rescue effort. Presumably Germany will bring this plan to the meeting of EU ministers and then to the UN.

The German plan is necessary if still insufficient. But even this modest initiative is generating backlash within Europe. “Germany’s neighbors are reluctant,” The New York Times reports. “The leaders of the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, and Hungary are scheduled to meet ahead of the European Union ministers’ meeting to oppose any quotas on accepting migrants.” They too will probably talk of “density” and “saturation.”

The reluctance doesn’t just lie to the east. Britain, for instance, has taken in just 216 Syrian refugees — roughly equal to the poor showing of the United States on this issue — and Prime Minister David Cameron promises that the number won’t go above a thousand. Home Secretary Theresa May, meanwhile, even wants to cut back on legal migration from other EU states! Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Nils Muižnieks writes that “in Denmark — where asylum applications have not increased significantly compared to 2014 — the parliament approved a cut in refugee benefits, with the declared intention of making the country less attractive to refugees.”

Addressing the Rising Tide

This is no time to give into the rising xenophobia and racism of the anti-immigration forces in Europe (which feeds on and into comparable sentiment in the United States). Here are three more suggestions to add to Germany’s 10-point plan.

1) Beef up law enforcement where it can be most effective. There’s no military solution to the refugee crisis, though some governments would like to call in troops to restore order. There is, however, a role for law enforcement: to break up the smuggling rings and prosecute the coyotes. These are the people in charge of the monstrous middle passage, and they have to be run out of business. Punish the ruthless opportunists, not the refugees.

2) Provide more funds to the countries even closer to the source. Turkey has taken in 1.6 million Syrians at a cost of over $4.5 billion. The EU should provide Turkey with more resources to handle the issue — along with Lebanon and Jordan and other frontline countries. This should reduce the burden on Greece, Italy, Macedonia, Serbia, and Hungary.

3) Create a Europe-wide jobs program. Europe is still struggling with high unemployment rates — around 10 percent in the EU. The exception to the rule is Germany, where the unemployment rate is under 5 percent. But Germany, as the country most opposed to deficit spending and priming the pump, should realize that high unemployment and elevated rates of immigration are a volatile mix. This is the time for Europe as a whole, led by its German bankers, to create a jobs program that can employ both new arrivals and native workers who have been out of work for months or years.

Back in Hungary, my friend Peter is doing just that. His NGO provides computer training for new migrants so they can get jobs and become productive members of Hungarian society. Think of how much more could be done if the Hungarian government, with EU funds, provided jobs to the graduates of the migrant training program — as well as all the disgruntled unemployed Hungarians who resist the arrival of anyone else from the global south.

Yes, there’s a rising tide of refugees in Europe. But with some smart policy corrections, the EU can ensure that a rising tide lifts all boats.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, September 2, 2015

Articles Blog Eastern Europe Europe Featured US Foreign Policy

Greece, Iran, and the Rules of the Game

Alexis Tsipras had a choice. As the leader of the fledgling Syriza government in Greece, he could have told the European Union to stuff its austerity plan. He could have taken the risk that the EU would offer a better deal to keep Greece in the Eurozone. Or, failing that, he could have navigated his country into the uncharted waters of economic independence.

But he chose to “follow the rules” by accepting the EU plan. Greece is getting its financial bailout, Greeks are tightening their belts, and the Eurozone will survive more-or-less intact. Tsipras learned what happens when you challenge the rules of an elite club. Once in a while, the club changes the rules. Most of the time, the club issues an ultimatum: suck it up or move on.

Hassan Rouhani had a choice. As the leader of a new reformist government in Iran, he could have told the international community to keep its nose out of his country’s business. He could have kept adding to Iran’s civilian nuclear program, arguing all the time that it was not in violation of any international agreements. He could have tried to chip away at the international sanctions regime by concluding economic agreements with willing countries.

But he chose to negotiate with the permanent five members of the UN Security Council — plus Germany — and bring Iran into full compliance with International Atomic Energy Agency requirements. By “following the rules” in this way, Rouhani is hoping that the windfall that comes from the lifting of sanctions will provide enough capital to turn around the Iranian economy and boost the prospects of his political cohort.

In Hollywood movies and on TV, the rule breakers usually triumph. I can’t begin to count how many films and shows feature CIA operatives, FBI agents, and police officers that must defy the chain of command in order to do the right thing and collar the bad guys.

But in the real world, breaking the rules usually comes with big penalties. Of course, it all depends on who sets the rules and who dares to defy them. Sometimes the outlaws face a lifetime behind bars. And sometimes they not only break the rules with impunity but win the proverbial jackpot as well.

Nuclear Outlaws

The history of nuclear non-proliferation is checkered, to say the least. As soon as the United States ushered in the atomic age, the proliferation of scientific knowledge ensured that other countries, beginning with the Soviet Union, would barrel their way into the nuclear club. By the time the international community negotiated the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1968, three other countries had qualified for membership: China, France, and the United Kingdom.

Although a few countries have given up their programs — Belarus, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, South Africa — the treaty has not served as a sufficient deterrent to other determined aspirants. Both India and Pakistan, locked in a sub-continental wrestling match, decided that the enemy was close at hand and the international community far away. They both endured global censure when they crossed the nuclear threshold, but they eventually found their way back into the good graces of the international community. They were too strategically important to keep semi-permanently in the time-out corner.

North Korea, sanctioned up the wazoo since the Korean War, didn’t think it had anything to lose by building a nuclear deterrent. It flirted with the United States and the other four parties in the Six Party Talks to get a good deal in exchange for freezing its nuclear program. It never got what it wanted — lifting of sanctions, normalization of diplomatic relations, or even some light-water nuclear reactors — so officially went nuclear in 2006.

Israel is not a declared nuclear power. But, like North Korea, it’s pledged to do just about anything to survive in a largely hostile region, maintaining its 100 or so nuclear devices as a trump card should its neighbors threaten its existence. Israel has always considered “playing by the rules” with skepticism, for it believes the rules are skewed against it. India felt the same way about the NPT and the way it locked in privileges for early adopters.

Iran faces some of the similar problems as other powers contemplating the nuclear option. It has hostile neighbors (Iraq, Israel, the Gulf States). It has incurred the wrath of key nuclear powers (particularly the United States). And it sees nuclear power as a signifier of status.

Moreover, Iran was well aware that not having a nuclear weapon could be seen as an invitation to invasion. Look what happened to Libya, which famously traded its nuclear program for a ticket back into the international community and then suffered an aerial assault from that same international community less than a decade later. Look what happened to Ukraine, which gave up its program after the collapse of the Soviet Union and two decades later watched Russia gobble up Crimea and support secessionists in the eastern part of the country. And would NATO have bombed Serbia in the 1990s if Slobodan Milosevic had, however improbably, acquired a nuclear deterrent?

So, given these push and pull factors, why did Iran decide to play by the rules?

The leadership in Tehran made a sensible calculation that it would benefit much more from playing by the rules than defying them. North Korea has served as a cautionary tale of what happens to the internationally isolated: They can take a great leap backward. In North Korea’s case, parts of the country jumped nearly back to the 19th century. Iran, by contrast, is a country on the verge of economic breakout. It has a strong middle class, a well-educated workforce, and a range of productive industries. With enough capital and enough global connections, Iran could not only dominate the region economically but become a significant global player as well.

In that context, adhering to the rules of the game was a no-brainer. By the same logic, it’s unlikely that Iran will cheat — unless it doesn’t get the benefits it’s been promised.

Economic Outlaws

Most successful economies have outlaw pasts. Go back far enough and you’ll find that all the great powers — the United States, Great Britain, Germany — defied the conventional economic wisdom of their age in order to succeed.

More recently, in the 1960s and 1970s, South Korea challenged the laws of comparative advantage and won. The largely agrarian country was supposed to focus on what it did best in the global economy — subcontracting for the Japanese, growing vegetables, and so on. Instead it created globally competitive steel and shipbuilding industries practically from nothing. By refusing to listen to the orthodox economists, South Korea leapfrogged from the level of a sub-Saharan African country in 1960 into the ranks of the most developed nations in one generation. China has done something similar by continuing to adhere to a state-led industrialization model.

Argentina thumbed its nose at the international financial community, defaulting on its loans, and ultimately paying back creditors at a much-discounted rate. The immediate consequenceswere devastating, with rising unemployment, rising inflation, and a contracting economy. But Argentina devalued its currency, invested heavily in education and health, took advantage of rising commodity prices (particularly soybeans), and enjoyed steady economic growth after 2003 (though it has more recently cooled).

So why didn’t Syriza do the same thing for Greece? As a leftist party, it was certainly comfortable making unorthodox economic decisions.

But Greece is a small country. By IMF statistics, the size of its economy is just a shade ahead of Iraq and Algeria. Its population is only 11 million (Argentina, by contrast, is 41 million). It also doesn’t have the kind of leverage that South Korea enjoyed during the height of the Cold War, when the United States needed an ally in Northeast Asia and looked the other way at Seoul’s myriad political and economic indiscretions.

Equally germane is Greece’s membership in the European Union. “Being pro-Europe means common rules and regulations that you commit to and implement,” Finnish Finance Minister Alexander Stubb said rather stiffly. “It’s anti-European not to stick to the rules and regulations. That might be a slightly Calvinistic approach, but that’s how I see it.”

Greece made its decision to join the European Union back in 1981. At that time, the EU was the smart choice, and Greece received considerable help to close the gap with fellow members. But that was then. The EU has morphed from an institution committed to equity to an institution committed to austerity. Having taken the EU path, Greece faced the costs of jumping to a different path (much as a PC user incurs costs for switching to Mac). The costs multiply even more when the other path is not a clearly worked-out alternative. In some ways, Greece is a victim of what economists call path dependency.

And the sorry truth is that things could get worse for Greece. Over the past few years, the country has taken a remarkable tumble in per capita GDP. Once just behind Italy and Spain, it has fallen below the Baltic countries of Lithuania and Estonia, below Slovenia, below the Czech Republic. Greece has moved firmly into Eastern Europe. And it could fall even further.

Sure, by leaving the EU, Greece could theoretically become the next Argentina. It could devalue its resurrected drachma and force creditors to accept a haircut on the debt. But given the size of its economy and its relative lack of export industries, Greece would more likely become the next Albania, no matter how sensible Syriza’s economic alternatives might seem on paper.

By staying with the EU and the Eurozone, Greece avoids both extremes and will probably stay more or less in the same relative position. If enough Syriza-like parties win in European elections, there’s even a remote chance that they will band together to change the rules of the EU game in a more Keynesian direction.

Who Gets To Be an Outlaw?

It’s no surprise that the powerful both set the rules and break the rules with impunity. The world system isn’t presided over by Miss Manners.

The nuclear club established the rules of the NPT, which included a pledge to reduce their nuclear arsenals — a stipulation they’ve largely ignored. The United States established the rules of the global economy, and the dollar as the currency of choice, and has largely escaped the fate of austerity economics despite our not inconsiderable annual deficit and mounting government debt.

For small countries like Greece, there’s not much room for maneuver between the regulations of the EU and the general parameters established by globalization. There isn’t much room for democracy either, as Greek citizens discovered when they voted in Syriza and attempted to vote out austerity in the more recent referendum. Democracy is a mainstay of the nation-state. But the EU and the global economy have trumped the parochial concerns of democracy.

Iran, a larger country that plays a strategic role in the Middle East, has considerably more room for maneuver than does Greece. But it too cannot unilaterally remake the rules of the game. It can only negotiate the best deal it can. In the end, it must open itself up to the kind of inspection regime that more powerful countries would never tolerate. It is, of course, the height of hypocrisy for Israel, which refuses to disclose whether it has a nuclear program at all — much less permit access to its secret sites — to insist that Iran open up virtually every corner of the country to a highly intrusive verification regime.

But the rules of the game are changing. The model of “international community” that we’ve been driving is more than 65 years old, and its engine is starting to conk out.

All the major rule-setting institutions reflect the balance of power that reigned in the immediate aftermath of World War II. The World Bank was founded in 1944, the IMF and United Nations in 1945, and the European Coal and Steel Community (which served as the cornerstone of the future European Union) in 1951. But what will happen as Germany and France exert less control within the EU, as China builds new international financial institutions, as the UN finally tackles the problem of reforming the Security Council? What will happen as U.S. relative power in the world continues to decline?

New rule-makers mean new rules. Get ready: A new world is not only possible, it’s just around the corner.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, July 21, 2015
Articles Blog Eastern Europe Featured Human Rights

Refugee World

To paraphrase William Gibson, the post-apocalypse is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed.

Many of our post-apocalyptic stories — Mad Max, The Road, World War Z — feature desperate people on the move in a friendless and resource-poor environment. The world hasn’t ended quite yet, but these modern nomads have nearly lost hope. Something terrible has happened in the past, and the future looks no less bleak. They are propelled, often without volition, from tragedy to tragedy. It’s an endless series of frying pans and fires.

That’s “reality” at the Cineplex. Unfortunately, it looks a lot like the reality of a refugee.

Like the movie denizens of the dystopian future, today’s refugees are fleeing the end of their worlds and hoping to find safe haven somewhere else. The odds are long. Just ask the border guards.

According to the latest UN report, we face an unprecedented refugee crisis. Nearly 60 million people are now classified as refugees, more than at any time since such records have been kept. Perhaps our civilization won’t end with a bang or a whimper. We’ll all simply become, failed state after failed state, refugees in a heartless world.

The Depressing Numbers

Every day, 45,000 people slip into the post-apocalyptic world of refugeedom. Every month, the equivalent of a San Diego joins the surplus army of the dispossessed. In 2014 alone, 14 million people became refugees. More than half of all refugees are under the age of 18. I can’t think of better way to prepare the next generation of angry, anti-state terrorists.

Here’s the most depressing statistic of them all. Of the 14.4 million people displaced from their countries, only 126,800 of them returned to those countries in 2014. That’s less than 1 percent, the lowest percentage of return in over 30 years.

The nearly 60 million refugees include the internally displaced, but not economic migrants or those who fled because of natural disaster. War and the collapse of states have been the primary sources of the crisis. According to The Washington Post:

The four-year-old war in Syria has been the single biggest driver of the surging numbers. Last year, 1 in 5 displaced persons worldwide was Syrian. The country in 2014 became the planet’s largest source of refugees, displacing Afghanistan, which had held that dubious distinction for three decades.

Syria is the epicenter of the crisis. But it’s by no means the only problem region. There are still nearly 3 million internally displaced people in Iraq. The Rohingya are streaming out of Burma. Nearly a million Ukrainians have left their country and over a million more are internally displaced. There are 6 million internally displaced in Colombia. Nearly 300,000 Pakistanis fled their country for Afghanistan. South Sudan witnessed the internal displacement of 1.5 million and an outflow of half a million.

If refugees formed a country, it would be the 24th most populous in the world, between South Africa and Italy.

Poor on Poor

Refugees usually make it into the headlines only when they try to storm the ramparts of the developed world. Only when hundreds of thousands of refugees have tried to bust their way into Europe, by boat across the Mediterranean, does the continent acknowledge a crisis — and then only begrudgingly.

Even though the refugee statistics for 2013 were almost as overwhelming as those of 2014, the issue didn’t hit the media in a big way until the EU engaged in an epic fail. French journalist Sylvie Kauffman describes the tragedy as it developed this spring:

Finding land borders locked, refugees had taken to the sea. Overwhelmed and frustrated by a lack of European solidarity, Italy had ended its Mediterranean rescue mission in December. Suddenly, the human tragedy was there for all Europeans to see: rickety boats capsizing every day; refugees drowning by the hundreds. So far this year, at least 1,868 people have died or disappeared in the Mediterranean, compared with 448 in the same period last year.

But as the UN report makes clear, the burden has not fallen on Europe or the United States. Consider the example of Syrian refugees. The United States, since the war began in that country, has taken in 700 unfortunates out of approximately 4 million. No, that’s not a typographical mistake. The Obama administration is willing to push the number up to 2,000 by this fall. But, according to The Washington Post, “the plan is stirring pushback from Republican lawmakers in Congress, who are increasingly vocal about the fear that terrorists may sneak in with the refugees.”

The rich have not stepped up to the plate. Rather, it’s largely the poor who shoulder the responsibility of dealing with refugees. The developing world hosts 9 out of 10 refugees. The top host countries, in terms of the number of refugees per capita, are Lebanon, Jordan, Nauru, Chad, Djibouti, South Sudan, Turkey, and Mauritania. Only when you get to the ninth place on the list does a truly rich country appear: Sweden.

For all the xenophobic invective from politicians in Europe and the United States, their countries only dip their toes into the crisis. In general, it’s the tired, poor, and wretched who are taking care of the tired, poor, and wretched. Emma Lazarus would weep.

Post-apocalyptic films reflect a collective anxiety that the developed world can fall easily into the pell-mell war of all against all. We’re all just one natural disaster away from hell on earth — just ask the denizens of New Orleans during the Katrina crisis or the Japanese near the site of the Fukushima meltdown. First comes the taste of internal displacement. Then comes the breakdown of all order. The poor and the war weary can tell us all about it.

Enter the Pope

Refugees don’t vote. What little money they once had has gone to pay the coyotes and the traffickers that facilitated their escape. With no power or voice, they elicit little interest from the economically and politically powerful. They are truly the most disenfranchised people on earth.

It’s no surprise, then, that Pope Francis has singled them out for special attention.

In 2013, in his first official trip outside Rome as the new pope, Francis visited Lampedusa, a tiny island off of Sicily. There he held a mass to call attention to the thousands who had died in attempting the crossing from Africa to Europe. He railed against what he called the “globalization of indifference.”

In his latest encyclical devoted to the dangers of climate change, Pope Francis made sure to address the impact of the growing environmental crisis on refugees:

There has been a tragic rise in the number of migrants seeking to flee from the growing poverty caused by environmental degradation. They are not recognized by international conventions as refugees; they bear the loss of the lives they have left behind, without enjoying any legal protection whatsoever. Sadly, there is widespread indifference to such suffering, which is even now taking place throughout our world. Our lack of response to these tragedies involving our brothers and sisters points to the loss of that sense of responsibility for our fellow men and women upon which all civil society is founded.

At some point, the number of refugees fleeing drought, soil erosion, rising waters, and the like will rival the refugees of war. But the refugees of war can go to peaceful countries and hope that one day the conflicts in their own countries will subside. In a world transformed by climate change, where can the environmental refugees go?

Searching for Solidarity

We take care of our own, or so the saying goes. The luckiest refugees have families to welcome them in. Sometimes the dispossessed can find refuge among fellow nationals: in the Syrian community in Turkey, the Somali community in Kenya, the Ukrainian community in Poland. Co-religionists provide shelter through churches, synagogues, mosques.

But the current refugee crisis has overwhelmed these traditional bonds of solidarity. Family, nation, and religion no longer provide sufficient sanctuary. Indifference, as the pope has stressed, is global. Solidarity must similarly go global. The richer half of the globe must open its doors at least to the extent that the poorer half already has. Simply put, we have the resources to do so. We just don’t have the will.

It goes without saying that to reduce the number of refugees in any significant way will require addressing the roots of the crisis: the wars, the persecutions, the unchecked climate change. But that’s a function of money, diplomacy, and policy.

The pope is getting at something else — our loss of responsibility for our neighbors irrespective of who they are and how they might relate to us. They are humans, the pope reminds us. That’s all we need to know.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, June 24, 2015