Sunday, February 25, 2018

The "influencing the elections" madness

So the Russians have influenced the US elections... Really?

The Russians operate one or more "alternative news" operations. But so do American groups. And it is not punishable as the US has freedom of press. So instead an obscure law forbidding foreigners to influence the elections was unearthed. Of course such a law is plainly ridiculous in the internet era. What about all those newspapers and bloggers who wrote what a horrible person Trump is? Shouldn't they be persecuted too? And all those non-Americans who posted something on Facebook - or just "liked" some post regarding Trump or Clinton?

Of course there is a fake news problem. See for example this issue about how a fake claim that one of the spokesmen of the children of the Florida high school were there was a shooting was an actor. But the main problem was that Youtube promoted it so much. But the problem here is not the fake news. It is that Youtube promotes is so much. As long as Youtube - and other social media - promote anything that catches eyeballs it will stay attractive for people to provide fake news.

In the meantime Western politicians have used the fake news issue to open the attack on the freedom of media. But actually it isn't about fake news. They recognize that themselves when they accuse the Russian campaign as polarizing the US. As anyone who follows censorship issues in dictatorships knows this is one the favorite arguments of dictators too for censorship. We may be losing our freedoms.

Friday, February 02, 2018

Merkel's negotiation "strategy"

As the Independent described it, Merkel ridicules Theresa May's Brexit demand during secret press briefing.

Angela Merkel reportedly left journalists “laughing uproariously” after mocking Theresa May‘s attempts to negotiate a trading relationship post-Brexit.

The German chancellor said she had been trapped in a recurring conversation with the British Prime Minister since the EU referendum in 2016.

Speaking to a “secret” press meeting at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Ms Merkel claimed Ms May had repeatedly asked her to “make me an offer”, according to a report by ITV political pundit Robert Peston.

Ms Merkel said that when she replied “but you’re leaving – we don’t have to make you an offer. Come on what do you want?”, Ms May replied again, “Make me an offer.”

“And so, according to Mrs Merkel, the two find themselves trapped in a recurring loop of ‘what do you want?’ and ‘make me an offer’,” Mr Peston wrote on his Facebook page.

The journalists seemed to believe Merkel was right. I believe she is terribly wrong and just showing how shallow and malicious she is.

May has made proposals and Merkel has rejected them. It is no more than decent that after rejecting a proposal you make a counter-proposal. But not for Merkel. She likes to keep other people in a dependent position and keep saying "no" until they exactly "propose" what Merkel wants.

Merkel had the same "strategy" in the Greek debt crisis. It worked for her: she got what she wanted. But it certainly didn't result in the best possible solution. For that you need to talk and to exchange arguments. Not naked power plays.

Merkel is showing herself a superficial "leader" who in the end only cares about herself and "winning".

Saturday, January 13, 2018

The downsides of civil disobedience

One of the most important achievements of humankind is the state. For most people anarchy is one of the worst situations you can have and people tend to be happy when some crime boss or war lord fills the vacuum: anything is better than nothing.

Of course there have always been people who thought otherwise. The anarchists of yore and some libertarians nowadays are examples. But these are marginal groups that operate in the shadows of states. When they try to live out their ideals in some kind of community of their own it either doesn't last very long or it stays very small scale.

But there is one remarkable exception nowadays: our media have started to paint civil disobedience against dictators and even democratically elected rulers that they don't like (think of Yanukovych) as a good thing. One standard element of modern color revolutions is the occupation of the most central square in an effort to make the government look weak. And all the theatre and amusement that if offered to the protesters mocks the ruler as powerless and incompetent.

Unlike what many think this is not in the spirit of Gandhi. Gandhi's famous action against the salt tax was more a kind of tax evasion. And the days long walk they took to go to the sea was an indirect recognition of the supreme power of the (colonial) government.

This denigration of the state in the color revolutions has long term negative consequences in the form of instability. The authority of the state stays weakened long after the dictator has left. In some cases you even see that after a few years a new dictator arises to "clean up the mess".

The problem with any revolution is discontinuity. Even when considerable attention is paid to integrating the old order - like in Tunisia - the discontinuity causes long lasting friction and problems. You don't see such friction in countries like South Korea and Taiwan where the transition to democracy comes from the government. They have their own problems in the form of long lasting elements of the old order - but these tend to be less detrimental.

Another type of civil disobedience we see in Catalonia. Puigdemont may have thought that he was smart organizing a referendum but he was just using another trick where are mob is mobilized to make the state look powerless. To understand where this could lead one has to think up a scenario where the opponents of independence would simultaneously organize a similar mass mobilization in support of their case - for example painting a Spanish flag on every lamppost. The region would be on the brink of civil war. What went wrong in the Catalan case was not that the government tried to block the referendum - although you can always argue that they could have done it smarter. If the government has stayed idle Puigdemont would have continued his policy of creating "facts on the ground" and at some point Madrid would have been forced to either recognize independence or to use even more violence as many independence supporters would believe that they had already won and feel robbed.

This kind of conflict should be solved by politicians in parliaments and negotiations. It should not be solved between mobilized mobs: that is a recipe for civil war. What Madrid did wrong in this case was that waited to long to interfere. As soon as the Catalan parliament had decided to hold a referendum it should have suspended that parliament, made arrests and take other measures to prevent the referendum to take place.

Friday, December 29, 2017


According to Stripes, a US Army journal, Marine general Neller told a group of 300 Marines stationed in Norway that "a war is coming" and that Russia, the Pacific and the Middle East are the likely theaters of war.

The Marine Corps commandant told about 300 Marines in Norway this week that they should be prepared for a “bigass fight” to come, remarks his spokesman later said were not in reference to any specific adversary but rather intended to inspire the troops.

“I hope I’m wrong, but there’s a war coming,” Gen. Robert Neller told the Marines on Thursday, according to “You’re in a fight here, an informational fight, a political fight, by your presence.”

Neller was visiting a Marine rotational force near Trondheim, about 300 miles north of Oslo. The Marines have been stationed there since January. Their presence in Norway is intended to support operations by NATO and the U.S. European Command, as well as to help the Marine Corps facilitate training in cold weather and mountainous conditions.

But Neller and other Corp leaders told the force they should be prepared for a change in their peacetime mission, should the need arise. In particular, Neller predicted the Pacific and Russia to be the focus of any conflict in the future outside of the Middle East, reported.

Lt. Col. Eric Dent, a spokesman for the general, told The Washington Post Saturday night that Neller’s remarks “were intended to inspire and focus the Marines’ training.” He added the general had also told the troops none of the four countries he had referenced — Russia, China, Iran and North Korea — wanted to go to war.

“The thought of war has a way of motivating warriors to train hard and increase readiness. I cannot imagine any professional military leader suggesting to his or her Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen that we shouldn’t think that conflict is‎ pending,” Dent said in an email. “Being ready is a constant practice and refocusing. Neller and others have said, ‘If you want peace, train for war.’ That’s exactly what we want and are doing.”

As I see it an army that needs to motivate its soldiers with lies is in serious trouble.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The tough question of replacing Assad

America has long pressure that Assad must go. But Russia too has suggested that its support operation for the Syrian government does not mean that it supports Assad as a person as president. In this light there have been some suggestions that Russia's announcement of troop withdrawal might be a kind of pressure on Assad to look for a replacement.

At first sight there are good arguments for replacing Assad. The opposition doesn't trust him and considers him an inveterate liar. Corruption is widespread. His control over the army is weak: the most effective forces are the Tiger Forces who are known for their pilfering. In basic government too his track record is weak: half a year after the government conquered East Aleppo it still doesn't have water and electricity.

Yet this is tricky stuff. America's replacement in Afghanistan of Karzai by someone "more democratic" didn't turn out very well: the present government is divided and weak and losing territory to the Taliban. Karzai wasn't great, but his successors are definitely worse. During the Vietnam War too a replacement didn't turn out very well.

Dictators like Assad have also the means to sideline everyone who might be considered a suitable replacement. In that light I am a bit suspicious of the death of Zahreddine, the general who defended Deir Ezzor for several years and who had a great reputation for that.

The ideal scenario would be that Assad himself selected somebody in whom he truly believes and who is the type of hands-on strong leader that can rebuild Syria and overcome its factionalism.

On the other hand it might be wise not to be too obsessed with replacing Assad as it could blind one to other opportunities to improve the way Syria is governed.

According to Foreign Affairs Russia wants Syria to have some kind of power sharing like in Lebanon. I doubt whether that can work. The division between Christians, Sunni and Shiites in Lebanon is clearly marked and each of those groups has it own radicals and moderates. That is how Lebanon works and has worked for a very long time. But in Syria the main division is between moderate and radical Sunni's. Those groups are not clearly delineated. In fact they may be present in the same family. This is not a discussion between interest groups, it is a discussion about policy. And the solution is not power sharing but a gradual opening of the political discussion - while at the same time setting and guarding its limits.

It may be good to remember how the father of Syria's present president came to power - despite being from the Alawite minority. It had to do with the division of the Sunni commercial elite. That was divided between Damascus and Aleppo and a representative from a poor powerless minority seemed a good compromise candidate. Of course he acquired some real power. Things went really wrong with the Brotherhood uprising around 1980. This Saudi-sponsored uprising was focused on the Hama-Homs region where the Alawites traditionally live and where many still see them as the despised minority they were in the Ottoman era. In this respect you can compare this region to America's Deep South where many whites still look at blacks with the eyes of a slave holder.

You see the same dynamic still in the present uprising. Where much of the original protests focused on economic issues like corruption the focus soon shifted towards sectarian hatred of Alawites. The neighboring countries played an important role in that process: Saudi Arabia gave hate mongering clerics a podium and Erdogan openly declared that he wanted Syria to be ruled by a Sunni.

Without the harmful influence of its neighbors the logical development in Syria would be to go back to those business interests groups and to ask them to take the lead in charting how Syria should develop. However, the rekindled sectarian hatred won't make this any easier.

Postscript: yet another suspicious death. Mounir Darwish, a dissident who lived in government controlled Damascus was hit by a car on 11 January 2018 and then mysteriously died in hospital while he seemed to be recovering well.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

The need for real EU reform

I am getting more and more convinced that the EU needs to reformed - although I am still a bit puzzled whether and how that could work out.

The first problem of the EU is that the benefits flow to a small number of countries - the most important of which is Germany. Some other countries - such as Bulgaria - become more and more marginalized. The young emigrate and real development doesn't happen. The ideology of the EU used to be that just building infrastructure would be enough to modernize these countries, but it doesn't happen. Of course this is not only a problem of the EU: America has its "fly-over country" and in some of the richter countries of the EU you see areas too where people and companies are leaving.

The main cause is the present idea of capitalism that leaves national governments very little freedom to have an economic policy and that gives a lot of power to business interests. That will need to change. Government need a lot more freedom to set their own economic policies. And please save me the complaints about "unfair competition": the present system is unfair.

The second problem is what I consider Brusselian mobsterism. Brussel has a lot of power and it isn't shy of using that in the most brutal way. The first case was when it closed the banks in Cyprus to force the Cyprus government to do its bidding. The second case when it repeatedly threatened to do the same in Greece to force it to accept its solutions for the Greek debt crisis. And now we have Brexit and we see the same behavior. Now the threat is that there will be no agreement and that one day British companies will just lose their access to the EU market. Just as with Greece EU representatives regularly refuse to negotiate - using all kinds of excuses - the most common being now that first the financial aspect of Brexit needs to be settled. Of course that is nonsense - all things are related. But this mobster behavior - that makes one ashamed to be an European - is considered normal in Brussels.

This kind of behavior makes a farce of the right to leave the EU. It basically tells everyone to do what Brussels dictates - or else... I believe that the only solution is make "Europe a la carte" a much more explicit concept. Such a concept should explicitly leave countries free to choose whether they want to be part of the eurozone and should even impose on the obligation on the EU to help countries that want to leave the eurozone to do that with as little trouble as possible. Britain should have had the right to refuse refugees - what would have taken away the need for the Brexit.

The concept should also extend to the countries that are now outside the EU. The way that the EU now uses its economic power to force countries outside its borders to do its bidding is shameful. Instead countries should be able to become part of the EU for only some aspects.

Friday, November 17, 2017

The fear for democracy in former Yugoslavia

As I have defended before, the falling apart of Yugoslavia was a crime of the "international community", quasi legalized by the Badinter Commission that claimed that Yugoslavia was "falling apart". Under this pretext the Western countries interfered in the internal affairs of the Yugoslav state and encouraged its republics to secede. The following chaos was the perfect illustration why we have international laws that forbid interference in the internal affairs of other states and that give countries near absolute power to prevent parts of their territory to secede.

To summarize: civilized society is based on laws that can only be changed according to strict rules. Once you quit that principle arbitrariness appears. In that light it was no coincidence that after they illegally had seceded we saw the excesses of the "erased" in Slovenia and the efforts by Croatian nationalists to make life so hard for the Serbs that they would leave. With the secession changes in the law had become arbitrary and some people immediately exploited the opening to impose their rather unpleasant visions.

Of course around 1990 Yugoslavia was in a state of flux anyway with the disappearance of communism. The structure of Yugoslavia (and the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia) had always been that on paper the constituting republics had a lot of freedom, but that at the same you had the Communist Party that was quite centralized and formed a kind of counterbalance. When the Party fell away that structure no longer existed and you got some juggling for power. On the one hand you saw Slovenia and Croatia that wanted their quasi-independence to be permanent and on the other side you saw the central government and many of the other republics that had to conclude that the country was almost ungovernable and that something had to be done to replace the centralizing influence of the Party. As Slovenia and Croatia resisted national direct elections for the central government you saw in the end that Milosevic took the initiative by taking over the governments of some of the republics. I think it was the closest thing to lawful change that was possible at that moment in Yugoslavia. Unfortunately it was grabbed as an opportunity for sowing chaos.

Anyway, this is stuff for historians. What we now are facing is a deadlock in Kosovo and a situation in Bosnia where all the ethnic groups contest the present constitution. The question is how to solve this.

As I see it both are cases of a kind of colonialism. In both cases the present situation was imposed with a lot of violence by the countries that call themselves the "international community". That is not a solid basis. We need to go to a situation where the local actors feel and are responsible.

We know all the excuses. Border changes in Kosovo are unacceptable because that would set a precedent for elsewhere in former Yugoslavia - particularly Bosnia. And the only change that seems acceptable to the "internationals" in Bosnia is more centralization - what is fiercely resisted by the Serbs and Croats. I consider this an unstable situation. Sooner or later the international situation will change: other countries with other insights will become more influential and even the countries who created the present situation may change their vision.

The only thing what can bring a permanent solution is when the local powers work out some compromise. Of course violence is not acceptable and the present situation will be the starting point. But from there they should be free to work out the solution that they like the best.

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

The Manafort indictment

Al Capone was caught for tax evasion. A variation on this theme is to catch some minor cog in an organization and to accuse him of anything that you can think of. And then to offer him as way out if he provides evidence against his boss.

Such tactics have been used against the mafia and such fraudulent organizations as Enron. The big question of course is: what happens if the target really is innocent? In that case both the cogs and the prosecutor will be seduced to blow things out of proportion in order to achieve a guilty verdict. Monicagate was a good example of how - when there is no real accusation - the "suspect" can still be condemned.

And let's not forget the sorry state of American justice. In this "plea bargain" paradise the chances of being acquitted are comparable to those once in the Soviet Union.

We don't know what Mueller knows. But the facts that until now have come out about Trump and Russia do in my opinion not justify the means that Mueller is now using with the Manafort indictment.

Two failing independence referendums

There are remarkable similarities between the independence referendums in Catalonia and Iraqi Kurdistan. And those don't bode very well for their success.

In both cases the local governments acted out of a kind of despair. The Catalan case is the most obvious. Its government had lived above its means. So it would soon need to apply budget cuts. And usually translates in losses at the ballot box. And given its thin majority in parliament that would be the end of Puigdemont's rule. In Kurdistan the oil price crash was still hurting. And soon the Iraqi army would be free to confront the Kurds.

In their hurry - and arrogance - both made also the same mistake of antagonizing the other ethnic groups. The Kurds have gotten a rather bad reputation for sidelining other ethnic groups. Puigdemont's disregard for parliamentary rules and the fake history that he has gotten taught in Catalan schools are lighter problems but point in the same direction. In both cases the way people try to achieve independence suggests that life will get tough for other ethnic groups if they win.

The best strategy to get independence isn't rocket science: Make your effort when your economy is flourishing and the prospects are still good. That position will allow you to be generous to the country you want to leave. Be nice to other ethnic groups: you don't want to antagonize them. If you play it smart you can even get their support: they too will profit when your rich province becomes independent. And most important: be patient. There are lots of small steps that you can take until one day the stars are aligned in the right way for your big move.

Maybe one day the Catalans and the Kurds will have independence. But we can only be glad that the rather nasty characters of Puigdemont and Barzani didn't succeed. They would very likely do a lot of harm before the situation stabilized. The independence process of Slovenia and Croatia offered frightening examples of what happens when you give in to nasty politicians who want to steal independence.