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President Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment is no coup – but Brazil’s best chance of saving itself

dhcityamFirst published in CityAM

Late on Sunday evening, the lower house of the Brazilian Congress voted by a two to one margin in support of the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, the former Marxist guerrilla who has served as the country’s President since 2011.

The proceedings, conducted against the backdrop of a spiralling public debt crisis and rising unemployment, are a stunning turnaround for a President who had enjoyed approval ratings of up to 70 per cent just two years ago. The allegations she faces centre on claims that, in the run-up to the 2014 elections, money was diverted from state-owned banks into the government’s coffers in order to bolster perceptions of the strength of the country’s economy.

With impeachment proceedings having passed the lower house, the Federal Senate must now decide by simple majority whether to progress the case. If it agrees to do so – as seems almost certain – then Rousseff will be formally suspended from office for 180 days while the Senate examines the charges against her. A two-thirds vote in favour of impeachment would see the President expelled from office.

Regardless of the outcome, the country faces a profound political crisis.

While roughly 70 per cent of the public support impeachment, a sizeable proportion of the 54m people who voted for her in 2014 buy into rhetoric that the proceedings constitute a “coup” on the part of the country’s rightist forces.

In reality, the vote was fully constitutional, conducted in plain sight of the media and with the blessing of the country’s Supreme Court – a body largely comprised of nominees from Rousseff’s own Workers’ Party. Nevertheless, millions of Rousseff supporters are expected to take to the streets in the coming days, in protests that are likely to further inflame tensions between poorer Workers’ Party voters and the country’s burgeoning middle-class.

The allegations against the President aside, her supporters have a point when they argue that many of the parliamentarians sitting in judgment over Rousseff are alleged to have committed crimes far greater than her own.

The two men who have the most to gain from Rousseff’s removal, Vice-President Michel Temer and Parliament speaker Eduardo Cunha, both face serious legal challenges. The Supreme Court has already ruled that Temer must face impeachment proceedings for the same charges as Rousseff, while Cunha is accused of accepting $5m in bribes.

Other MPs casting “yes” votes included former Sao Paulo governor Paulo Maluf, who risks falling foul of an Interpol arrest warrant for money laundering if he leaves Brazil, and Nilton Capixaba, who faces charges of misappropriating public funds designated for the purchase of ambulances.

The identity of the country’s next President – most likely Temer – is arguably less important than the nascent sense of recognition among Brazil’s political elite that the country needs political and economic reform.

If polls are to be believed, Brazilians would like to see not only a new President but fresh elections. Such a move, however, would require constitutional change – a forlorn hope in such a fractious political climate.

Instead, due constitutional process is all Brazil has. That is why, for the sake of Brazil’s democracy, impeachment proceedings against Rousseff must succeed.

That means, until 2018, a “caretaker” presidency led by Temer.

On economic issues, a Temer presidency would also represent a marked improvement from the present malaise. While part of Rousseff’s coalition, his own Democratic Movement party (PMDB) is centrist in nature and had a heartening track record of supporting tighter fiscal austerity and privatisation programmes that rescued the country’s economy in the mid-90s.

While ethically challenged, Temer is an able man and a consummate deal-maker. The vote he and his supporters orchestrated to oust Rousseff relied upon cross-party consensus – just as he would have to in government to secure his own position and avoid a further constitutional crisis.

With protests massing on the streets and a powder keg of class divisions set to explode at any time, Brazil could do a lot worse than having a creature of compromise and moderation at its helm.

Petrobras corruption is a sideshow: protectionism & profligacy are destroying Brazil’s economy

cityambrazilFirst published in CityAM

“Brazil,” Charles de Gaulle quipped in the late 1950s, “is the country of the future – and always will be”. Many a true word is said in jest.

For the past month, the country has been gripped by protests, spurred on by outrage at virulent corruption inside the state-owned oil firm Petrobras.

The corruption scandal has been wide-ranging, with prosecutors seeking the arrest of former President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva and a number of parliamentarians on charges of accepting bribes in exchange for the granting of lucrative construction contracts.

The response to the charges from the country’s technocratic President Dilma Rousseff, Lula’s former chief of staff and hand-picked successor, has been more reminiscent of Hugo Chavez-era Venezeula than of the model of democratic accountability Brazil has sought to be since the end of military rule in 1985. In a move to grant Lula effective immunity from prosecution, last week Rousseff appointed him to the post of Chefe da Casa Civil – effectively the country’s Prime Minister.

With Rousseff’s move having thrown fuel on the fire of existing tensions, few expect street protests to dissipate soon.

But corruption, while important, is a sideshow. The disastrous economic record of the ruling Workers’ Party (PT) is now being brought into sharp focus.

While Brazil had been viewed as a regional exemplar of tight fiscal policies in the late 90s, its public debt is set to reach 93 per cent of GDP this year – a move that has prompted S&P to strip the country of its investment-grade rating.

The global drop in commodities prices has undoubtedly contributed to the current malaise. External factors, though, are no excuse for the PT’s profligacy and failure to tackle a domestic business climate that discourages inward investment, frustrates startups, and stifles entrepreneurship.

There is no clear answer – other than a risky acceleration in deficit spending – as to how the PT will turn this situation around. Plans to bring about a 0.7 per cent budget surplus this year have been unceremoniously shelved.

Over the past decade, GDP per capita has rocketed from under $5,000 a year to over $11,000. Associated tax revenues more than doubled in the same period. Rather than use the proceeds of growth to fund infrastructure, however, they have been squandered on a dramatic expansion of the welfare state.

While one would ordinarily expect an emerging market to spend roughly 25 per cent of its national income on investment, Brazil’s average spend over the past decade has been less than a fifth. Rio de Janeiro may have an attractive Olympic village and refurbished Maracanã stadium, yet Brazil lacks a single inch of high-speed railway track, its roads are falling apart, and the state-owned airport system was last upgraded in the 1970s.

Brazil remains one of the highest tax economies in the world, with a corporation tax rate of 34 per cent – markedly higher than the 25 per cent rate in regional competitor Colombia.

Protectionism remains the order of the day. Crippling restrictions and tariffs are applied to 60 per cent of imports in order to prevent local firms from being undercut – a regime that has been in place since the mid-70s. As a result, consumer prices are among the highest in the world, with electronics and textiles costing roughly double what they do in the United States.

The public sector and labour market also remain unreformed. The country’s constitution limits Brazilians to a 44-hour working week and, rather opaquely, index links the value of pensions to average consumer prices. Hamstrung by the myriad far-left parties forming the governing coalition in Congress and the threats of powerful union barons, constitutional reform is currently impossible. Instead, the PT has spent the last 13 years tripling the size of the civil service while simultaneously hiking state salaries across the board.

Against a background of corruption, a stubborn refusal to address even the most pressing of reforms, and no prospect of fresh elections until late 2018, Brazil’s prospects look increasingly bleak. De Gaulle, it pains me to say, may well have been right.

2016 Serbian general election – five key observations

imageThe Serbian general election has been announced for Sunday 24th April – the eleventh such contest to take place since 1990.  Below, I offer five key observations about what the elections mean for Serbia itself, the ruling Progressive Party and its leader Aleksander Vučić, relations with Kosovo and the medium-term prospects for Serbian accession to the European Union.

1. Prime Minister Vučic is king of all he surveys

Over the next month or so, many opinion pieces will be written about the Serbian elections. None of them will be in any doubt as to the likely result: a fresh term for the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) and another four years of Aleksander Vučic as Prime Minister.

The SNS is one of the most successful and intriguing political parties to emerge in Europe in the past few years – a party of reformed (and, in some cases, unreformed) radicals that has somehow managed to keep a lid of Serbia’s predilection for ultra-nationalism, a collection of individuals who did little or nothing to oppose Slobodan Milošević’s worst excesses yet have nonetheless become cheerleaders for Serbia’s new-found EU love-in and a party of the economic liberal-right who nevertheless seem to hoover up votes in working class areas.

It is often said that, in Northern Ireland, it took former hard-liners like Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley to come to the table for real compromises to be thrashed out in order to secure lasting political change.  In the case of Serbia, the decision of now-President Tomislav Nikolić and Vučić to break with the Serbian Radical Party and their former ally Vojislav Šešelj and found the SNS as a new, pro-European force that was able to both simultaneously speak the language of frustrated Serbs and frustrated politicians in EU capitals.

The SNS administration hasn’t been perfect – but it has delivered the opening of EU accession talks, commenced a real programme of public service reform and attracted some solid foreign investment to Serbia.  Vučić has a record of achievement on which he to run.

imageThese are, however, elections he did not actually have to call.  Given that the SNS already holds 158 of the 250 seats in the National Assembly, he could easily have ruled until 2018 without any serious challenges from either the opposition or his own MPs – most of which are personally reliant upon him for their positions.

That said, his decision to call an early election isn’t a bad political call.  The opposition to Vučic and the SNS is fragmented to such an extent that is hard to identify who exactly is its “leader”.

It’s clearly not the Socialist Party leader Ivica Dacić, whose decision to accept the post of Foreign Minister in an entirely unnecessary coalition between his party and the SNS, has essentially seen his ability to differentiate he and his party from Vučić neutralised.  The country’s former President Boris Tadić would like to think he had a claim to the title, yet the fact he has been forced to form a joint electoral list this year with unpopular Liberal Democrat party leader Čedomir Jovanović in order to have any hope of remaining above the 5% electoral threshold speaks volumes as to his political appeal. One can write-off ultra-nationalists such as Vojislav Šešelj who, while popular in some smoke-filled cafes in Belgrade’s working class suburbs, are widely seen as figures of a darker, poorer past.  Finally, while the Democratic Party and their leader Bojan Pajtić, the President of the northern province of Vojvodina, make the odd aggressive noise from time to time, they have essentially become a regional party.

The issue of the economy is, as ever, an important one.  While hardly booming, it isn’t in disastrous shape – therefore, by the yardstick of the past twenty-five years, it appears rather robust to most Serbs.  The polls also show the SNS capturing as much as 60% of the vote, enough to hand Vučic and his party as many as 200 of the 250 seats in the National Assembly and a reinforced mandate to govern until 2020.  The election is essentially a risk-free option.

Serbia claims to be a Republic – but Vučić is as close to a king as Serbs are likely to get any time soon.

2. A bleak future for DS

Much of the credit for the recent decision to open formal European Union membership negotiations has gone to the SNS and Prime Minister Vučić himself.  It is, of course, only natural that the government of the day trumpets gains secured “on their watch”.

imageIn reality, Serbia’s modern, pro-western trajectory owes much to the work of the Democratic Party’s (DS) founders; chiefly the late Prime Minister Zoran Đinđić, whose reformist efforts earned him an assassin’s bullet in the head.  In a post-Milošević landscape that could easily have been shaped and dominated by the unappealing duo of the cynical Vojislav Kostunica and downright dangerous Vojislav Šešelj, their considered and thoughtful tone on the need for regional dialogue and structural economic reforms, did much to help heal the country’s wounds.

While Prime Minister Vučic and President Nikolić would likely bitterly dispute this assertion, the creation of the SNS is as much a triumph for the DS as the creation of Tony Blair and New Labour were for Margaret Thatcher.

I struggle, though, to understand how the DS will remain a political force in the Serbia of 2016 – and the polls tend to agree with me.  Outside of the northern province of Vojvodina, where Bojan Bajtić governs on the basis of support from ethic Hungarian parties, it has lost much of its political support to a surging SNS party who have adopted the bulk of its pro-west and pro-reform rhetoric.

>Polls suggest that DS will remain in the National Assembly after April 24th – but only just.  From my perspective, the jury is very much out on whether they will be able to remain a credible political force by the time of the next parliamentary elections in 2020.

800px-Zajednica_srpskih_opstina3. For the second election running, the Kosovo issue is an afterthought 

The 2014 elections were unique in recent Serbian history in that they were not, even to a limited extent, dominated by the issue of Kosovo.

In the Brave New World in which Serbia is formally negotiating European Union membership, most mainstream political leaders now appear to have adopted a form of self-censorship on the topic; refusing to be drawn into the type of nationalist rhetoric on the topic that had been a political staple for much of the previous two decades.  The only mainstream politician to deviate from this line is President Nikolić himself, whose influence is seen as (at best) of tertiary importance.

One could read this as a tacit acceptance of Kosovo independence among the Serbian political elite or evidence of the discipline with which the country’s leaders are approaching the country’s ongoing EU accession negotiations. Both perspectives have some merit.

4. The hard-right are likely to make a comeback

Despite the tremendous advances towards modernity and moderation that have been made in recent years, Serbia remains a country where hard-line political rhetoric continues to have some cache.

imageThis is born out in the latest opinion polls which show that the Vojislav Šešelj’s Radicals (SRS), who were swept out of the National Assembly in 2014, are hovering just above the 5% electoral threshold for representation.  Polls also show that a coalition between the nationalist and socially conservative Dveri party and Vojislav Kostunica’s nationalist Democratic Party of Serbia (DPP) will secure seats.

In the case of Vojislav Šešelj, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) is currently scheduled to issue its verdict in his Bosnian war crimes trial on March 31st; scarcely three weeks before polling day.  A “guilty” would no doubt galvanise the SRS voter base into action and may even see some of the party’s former voters who had defected to supporting Vučić in recent years returning to it. Unsurprisingly, the government have requested any verdict is postponed until May.

To what extent the return of hard-line and far-right MPs to the National Assembly would actually matter is up for debate.  On one level, Serbian politics has likely now evolved to such a stage as a cordon sanitaire would prevent the Radicals and Dveri-DPP from participating in government.  Nevertheless, the absence of explicitly racist, jingoistic and revanchist rhetoric from the floor of the National Assembly over the past two years has done much to aid Serbia’s efforts to present itself as a modern, mature democracy.

Watch this space.

5. 2020 vision: is Vučic promising too much?

One of the age-old problems with politics is the tendency for leaders to over-promise and then under-deliver.  This is often because politicians take the approach of making unrealistic promises that they have no intention of following through with and sometimes because of factors entirely beyond their control.  In the case of Vučić, he is running major risks on both fronts.

The entire public premise of the election set to take place next month is to provide Serbia with a solid and stable government that can shepherd the country towards EU accession in 2020.  That, regrettably, appears to be an unrealistic expectation.

imageThe European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has been explicit that there will be no accession waves before the end of his term in late 2019. The political mood music surrounding migration from the Middle East to Western Europe – much of which has taken place via transit across Serbia, has also soured perceptions of the Schengen Agreement and further enlargement.  Elections in many EU member states, most notably France and Germany where the anti-expansion Front National and Alternative for Germany are surging, risk further eroding good will towards Serbia.

The issue of Kosovo remains a significant complicating factor for its EU membership bid.  It is clear that, through the pursuit of a EU-mediated “normalisation strategy”, Belgrade is hoping to take a gradualist approach towards improving relations with Pristina.  Regrettably for Serbia, larger EU states – all of whom recognise Kosovo as an independent state – are unlikely to settle for anything other than full recognition as a precursor to accession.  While much can change in four years, it is hard to envisage domestic opinion in Serbia being ready for such a landmark shift by 2020.  Indeed, its ability to do so may also be complicated by the rise of sharply anti-Serbian movements in Kosovo such as Vetevendosje, who have vowed to violently oppose all forms of rapprochement between Pristina and Belgrade.

EU membership remains a near-certainty for Serbia but it is looking less and less likely to happen in 2020 and less and less likely to happen on the terms Vučić and the SNS desire.

The situation in Kosovo – five key observations

1. Kosovo is in crisis – but its institutions are actually proving to be quite robust

2000px-KosovoFlagMap.svgWhen writing about Kosovo, there is often a tendency for international commentators to focus on the negatives: the high unemployment, the political instability and the ongoing ethnic strife.  What is not said often enough is that the country’s institutions, which will only celebrate their eighth birthday on 17th February, are proving themselves to be relatively robust.

A key facet of being a successful state is that, when politicians throw visceral verbal barbs at one another and extremist elements threaten the violent overthrow of constitutional order, the country’s institutions hold steady – above politics and beyond interference.

Against a backdrop of violent protests on the streets of Pristina at the implementation of the government’s agreement with Serbia over the establishment of the Association of Serb Municipalities (ASM), which included the firebombing of government buildings on Pristina’s Mother Theresa Boulevard and opposition MP’s deployment of teargas canisters on the floor of Parliament in order to stifle debate, the Constitutional Court has acted responsibly and proportionately.

While the issue of the ASM remains a matter for intense debate – and the court continues to raise some concerns about its compatibility with certain facets of Kosovo’s constitution – these have been raised in a mature manner that continues to give confidence to both a perennially sceptical Serbia and international community.  This should be noted and celebrated.

2. Vetëvendosje are not going away

protest, kosovo, tear gasIt is hard to imagine a European state with a more cynical and calculating political party system than Kosovo.  The “establishment” political parties, the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) and Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), are controlled by competing business, family and regional interests and give the distinct impression of having little or no ideological basis whatsoever.

Kosovo’s proportional representation voting system means that, while not impossible, it is very difficult for a government to be formed without the two parties cutting some kind of a deal.  This is precisely what happened in December 2014 when, after six months of haggling, a deal was reached that saw the “winner” of the election, the PDK’s Hashim Thaçi surrender the Prime Minister’s office to the LDK’s Isa Mustafa in exchange for their support for his 2016 bid – a post that is awarded by Parliament.  After cutting a deal with a small breakaway party from the PDK and the numerous ethnic minority parties that are guaranteed twenty seats in the National Assembly (ten for Serbs, four for Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians, three for Bosniaks, two for Turks and one for Gorani), the PDK and LDK shared the spoils of ministerial office.

It’s not the fault of the LDK and PDK that the electoral system is structured in such a way; but perceptions of cronyism and corruption are.

Many international observers have sought to paint the recent rise of the nationalist Vetëvendosje (“self-determination”) as a response to anger at the Kosovo government “capitulating” to Serbia on the issue of the creation of the Association of Serb Municipalities, which has been painted as a back-door power-grab by Belgrade, the “surrender” of Kosovar land to Montenegro during negotiations over the demarcation of the state border and the formation of a special court to prosecute ethnic Albanians guilty of war crimes in the 1999 conflict.  While it is clear that these issues have provided the kindling and the spark for recent protests inside and outside Parliament; they are not the fuel that has turned them into an inferno.

Instead, the responsibility lies with the failure of the government to make real progress in tackling the country’s endemic economic problems.

“The young Europeans,” is a marketing line that is often used by the country – a hint at Kosovo’s status as the newest independent European state and the fact more than 50% of the population is under the age of 18 – but this is very much a double-edged sword.  A young population can only be expected to thrive where they find employment – and there is little to be found.  In the case of Spain and Portugal, many young people moved broad to find work during the recent economic crises to face their countries – yet Kosovars often find themselves hemmed-in by inflexible visa regimes.   Instead, the hopefulness and energy of the 2008 independence movement has partly given way to despondence and distrust of both the Kosovo government and the promises of international organisations.

Riding on a wave of anti-government and anti-corruption rhetoric, Vetëvendosje’s Shpend Ahmeti was elected Mayor of Pristina at the end of 2014, unseating the now-Prime Minister Isa Mustafa.   For the LDK to lose the mayoralty of the country’s largest, best educated and most cosmopolitan city was a tremendous shock.  It has not been a bad experiment, though.  While many – myself included – were suspicious of how Ahmeti may behave in office, he has largely gotten to grips with the city’s corrupt planning system and invested heavily in public spaces.  The city feels cleaner and more prosperous.

The success of Ahmeti’s spell in City Hall has allowed Vetëvendosje, whose previous public image was largely that of its leader Albin Kurti leading street protests and throwing rhetorical flame-throwers at the political class, to take on an air of mild respectability.   This is, of course, not helped by the spectacle of Vetëvendosje MPs deploying tear-gas canisters on the floor of Parliament in order to stifle debate – but, as Kurti and Ahmeti argue, there is space in their party for a Yin and a Yang.

As long as the economy remains stable and the political system remains a den of cronyism, Vetëvendosje’s progress towards the political mainstream will only continue.

3. Hashim Thaçi is still likely become President

photo_verybig_140448There have been some rumblings recently that Hashim Thaçi, the country’s former Prime Minister, and current Foreign Minister, may be at risk of losing on his long-held ambition of becoming President when the vote takes place later this year.  I do not yet share this view.

While he should be concerned by the public declaration by a number of LDK MPs that they intend to renege upon their party’s deal with the PDK to install Mustafa as Prime Minister in exchange for supporting Thaçi for the presidency, the numbers continue to stack up in his favour.

To secure the Presidency, he requires the support of either two thirds of MPs or, after three rounds of voting, a simple majority – 61 votes.   Assuming he can carry his own 34 MPs, two thirds of PDK members (18 MPs) and three quarters of the minority representatives (15 MPs), he will take the post with an absolute majority of 66 votes.

Fundamentally, the LDK have little incentive to stop Thaçi becoming President.  The job itself is very much ceremonial in nature, unlike Isa Mustafa’s current, influential post as Prime Minister.  If the party was to renege upon their deal with Thaçi and the PDK, the most likely outcome would be fresh elections – a high-risk political manoeuvre that could risk leaving the LDK empty-handed afterwards.

Finally, what is rarely said and never acknowledged by either Thaçi himself or the ethnic minority parties is the ease with which they have been able to cooperate with one another.   As Prime Minister, Thaçi worked relatively harmoniously with his Serb and Turkish Cabinet minister; apparently leaving them alone to run their own portfolios without much interference.  The ten Serbian MPs, in particular, may not be particular Thaçi fans but it is hard to see them backing a rival, Vetëvendosje-backed nominee.

4. The gulf between Serbs north and south of the Ibar is growing

800px-Zajednica_srpskih_opstinaOn 21st January, the former “leader” of the Serbian community in North Kosovo – an area physically divided from the rest of the country and home to vast ethnic Serb population – was jailed for nine years for his involvement in war crimes during the 1999 war.

The ruling has been widely greeted with derision in the north of the country, with street protests in the ethnically divided city of North Mitrovica and angry denunciations from leading politicians in Belgrade – some of whom have advocated the suspension of dialogue with Pristina.

What has been notable, however, is the relative silence of the Serbian community living south of the Ibar River.  While the sympathies of the Serbian community outside of the north will undoubtedly still lie with Ivanović, there is more than simply anecdotal evidence to suggest that these communities are beginning to develop some kind of acceptance of and accommodation within the Republic of Kosovo system.

The 2013 local elections saw the election of mayors in a number of newly-drawn, majority Serb-populated local government areas south of the Ibar; namely, Štrpce, Klokot-Vrbovac, Gračanica, Novo Brdo, Ranilug and Parteš.   With the drawing of these municipalities done in such a way as to ensure the election of ethnic Serbs to the mayoralty, this has provided a formal mechanism by which Serbs have had some latitude over local spending decisions within the Kosovo government framework.   When completed, the intention is that the Association of Serb Municipalities (ASM) will reinforce the ability of ethnic Serb areas to pursue their own health, education and cultural policies.

There is a degree of realpolitik here.

Many ethnic Serbs south of the Ibar still remain aggrieved about being separated from Kosovo, yet have a basic choice – participate in elections in areas specially drawn to elect Serbs or see another community win the mayoralty with 200 votes; accept a degree of self-governance within the Kosovo state or risk seeing their concerns swamped in a 95% ethnic Albanian state.

The same concerns simply do not exist north of the Ibar.  In the city of North Mitrovica and surrounding towns of Zubin Potok, Leposavić and Zvečan, Serbs make up more than 90% of the population.  There is simply no inducement to engage with the Republic of Kosovo state, regardless of the efforts made by both the European Union and Pristina in this respect.  In the minds of local Serbs, the ASM will make little practical difference; largely because their present governance arrangements afford more flexibility than the proposed changes.

For all the talk of Serbian unity in some nationalist corners, ethnic Serbs are probably the single most divided community in Kosovo at present.

5. MEPs are guilty of looking at Kosovo with “rose-tinted glasses”

590a174bc965ea956cc162141dcd316de61ea3d2This week, the European Parliament rubber-stamped the latest in a round of reports examining the progress that Kosovo is making towards European Union accession.

It has long been my view that many Members of the European Parliament – well-intentioned though they are – have allowed their innate passion for EU expansion and sympathy towards the significant political, social and economic challenges the country faces to cloud their perceptions of the true situation in the country.  If ever the phrase “rose tinted glasses” was meant to be used; it was for Wednesday’s debate.

While MEPs, led by the Austrian Green Ulrike Lunacek, were right to praise the progress that has been made on reaching theoretical agreements on the establishment Association of Serb Municipalities, telecoms, vehicular insurance, mutual recognition of diplomas and the “normalisation” of the situation in the ethnically-divided city of Mitrovica, little attention was actually paid to the implementation of these accords.   Yes, Serbia has lifted its preposterous objection to Kosovo receiving its own international dialling code and yes, Kosovo has agreed that it will finally end its discriminatory policy of rejecting diplomas from the Serb university in North Mitrovica – but other than that, progress has been relatively meagre.

The report also makes a rather opaque reference to the “progress has been made regarding the judiciary” and problems that exist in relation to the “slow administration of justice and the significant backlog of cases”.  To describe the administration of justice in Kosovo as “slow” is as euphemistic as describing Waiting for Godot as a play about an irksome traffic delay.  The EU needs to recognise that Kosovo’s judicial and courts system are in crisis.  The last figures I have suggest that, in the first half of 2014, 693,975 cases were in process in courts (in a country with a population of less than 2 million!), with 455,699 having been inherited from the previous year.

It would be unfair to blame the Republic of Kosovo for this.  After all, the legal system Kosovo was handed when it declared independence in 2008 forces judges to simultaneously adjudicate verdicts on the basis of the legal systems of present-day Kosovo and, in the case of historic offences, the now-defunct legal codes of Serbia and Montenegro (2003-2006), the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (1992-2003) and the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (before 1992).   Increased financial and technical support is clearly required to help unlock this logjam.

Finally, the near-comical status Kosovo’s National Assembly has taken on in recent times was largely glossed over.   While, as I have already mentioned, Vetëvendosje MPs bear the sole responsibility for the violent and unacceptable scenes that have been witnessed on the floor of the Parliament, it is not enough for a European Parliament report examining the state of Kosovo’s institutions to “call on all political actors to resume political dialogue in order to break the deadlock and find a viable solution that restores the normal functioning” of the body.   The EU is often relatively effective at adopting a “carrot and stick” approach to states aspiring to membership.  In this case, the stick – such as an explicit rejection of the proposed visa-free regime unless the political climate improves – seems strangely absent.

Kosovo has made considerable progress in recent years but the rose-tinted approach adopted by so many MEPs is neither honest nor helpful in achieving real reforms on the ground.   This needs to change.

Kosovo and UNESCO: good for Kosovo and Serbians

gracLast week, I had the pleasure of watching a Serbian wedding in full flow. The bells, the flags, the smells, the songs, the smiles, the Chanel – it was a scene as Serbian a scene as one can imagine. Standing in the courtyard of the 14th century Gračanica monastery ten kilometres east of Pristina, it was rather difficult to imagine I was in a state where ethnic Albanians constitute more than 90% and where Islam – albeit a permissive a form as is possible – dominates.

It was a rare, joyful moment for the small Serbian community struggling for survival in a country whose leaders are seem as increasingly intransigent or indeed antagonistic towards their community and its culture.

I have long been of the view that the impact of Slobodan Milošević and his murderous campaign against ethnic Albanians has resulted in an overlooking or, in some cases, excusing of the crimes committed against both Serbs as people and their religious sites.

The expulsion in 1999 of 165,000 ethnic minority residents of Kosovo (most of them Serb) from their homes and destruction of more than 150 religious sites, some of which saw their 700-year history “semtexed” to little more than piles of rubble, is one of the great, overlooked crimes of post-Second World War European history. Furthermore, it ought to be a stain on the consciousness of the international troops stationed in Kosovo that they stood by in March 2004 as thirty-four churches were burned to the ground and 935 private homes damaged.

churchThe latest flashpoint – albeit only a diplomatic one – between Belgrade and Pristina is the prospect of Kosovo’s membership of UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) whose preamble commits to the “protection of the world’s inheritance of books, works of art and monuments of history and science” and “co-operation among the nations in all branches of intellectual activity”. Predictably, this has led to a clash about the status and protection of Serbian cultural and religious history in the region.

The government of Serbia is, in my opinion, guilty of overdramatising the significance of the issue while the largely ethnic Albanian administration in Pristina has failed to communicate how and why membership could be of benefit to the defence of Kosovo’s Serbian heritage.

For Belgrade, the granting of UNESCO membership would represent yet another inextricable step towards full international recognition of Kosovo as an independent state. I would argue, though, that the reality of United States, British, German and French recognition of the country makes it a reality rather than merely a prospect – regardless of how painful that realisation may be.

Concerns also appear to exist in respect of the Kosovo Government’s commitment to “taking care” of Orthodox sites and historical interpretations as to the “true” religious identity of those who built the religious sites. I would argue that both of these fears are misplaced.

Ferizaj, Mosque and ChurchThe welfare of the four sites already identified by UNESCO as being “at risk” – the Monastery of Dečani, Patriarchate of Peć, Gračanica and Bogorodica Ljeviška Church – would arguably receive far greater attention and scrutiny by the international community when placed under the UNESCO banner than they do presently. Interpretations of history are, of course, often hotly contested in ethnic flashpoints such as Kosovo. While denial of Kosovo’s Christian heritage may exist in some quarters, there is a disconnect between feelings of febrile Vetevendosje (an extremist, pan-Albanian movement that has gained some ground in recent Kosovo elections) activists and the country’s political and academic leaders who accept the country’s Orthodox heritage.

Friends of mine should not have had to exhume relatives from graveyards in non-Serbian areas in order to be content their bodies are safe. The St Uroš Orthodox Cathedral in Uroševac/Ferizaj that stands in the same courtyards as the Mulla Veseli Mosque ought to serve as an example of Albanian and Serbian coexistence rather than being shuttered. The half-built Serbian church built in the shadow of the library of the University of Pristina and the Catholic Cathedral of Blessed Mother Teresa should be completed, rather than crumbling.

I would, with the greatest of respect, suggest to Serbia and Serbians that past examples of cruel and senseless desecration and destruction of Orthodox Serbian sites ought not to be a reason to reject a mechanism that would help protect what remains and reconstruct what’s a risk.

It is impossible for either Serbs or Albanians to turn back the clock and bring back either loved-ones lost in war or cultural heritage desecrated and destroyed over the past two decades.

UNESCO membership would, however, be a solid step towards boosting the accountability of Kosovo’s leaders. Sites judged to be “at risk” would be subject to inspection, with demands for improvements in the protection of Christian heritage elevated to the international stage. UNESCO membership takes nothing away from Serbs or Serbian culture – but instead grants protections that were not previously there.

For those reasons, Serbia and Serbians should support Kosovo’s UNESCO bid.

It’s time for businesses to fight for TTIP, the biggest trade deal in history

TTIPFirst published on ConservativeHome

Over recent months, the debate about the passage of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) has rapidly intensified. Originally conceived as a free trade deal designed to remove artificial barriers between the economies of the European Union and the United States, the debate has been plagued by misinformation and indecision – to the detriment of businesses and consumers.

A good deal for business and consumers

For British, European and American businesses, the benefits of TTIP can be distilled into four key points:

1. TTIP would eliminate custom duties on goods and services between the EU and US – a £2 billion daily trading corridor. While existing trade agreements have already ended most trade barriers, TTIP’s completion would be worth an extra £400 per year for an average British family of four.

2. TTIP would harmonise standards and regulations on goods and services between the EU and US. This would reduce secondary costs by eliminating many non-tariff barriers, and by giving firms complete access to each other’s respective jurisdictions. This would go a considerable distance towards eliminating the problem of firms being prevented from bidding for lucrative contracts in each other’s markets due to a lack of technical and regulatory convergence. European Commission estimates suggest that bureaucratic hurdles that must be overcome in order for an EU-based business to trade in the US are equivalent to a 20 per cent customs duty. Under TTIP, these hurdles would vanish.

3. TTIP would allow fair and transparent public procurement. At present, the EU’s own public procurement framework ensures a level playing field for firms inside the EU. This system disadvantages US firms, just as American procurement processes freeze out EU companies. TTIP would remove this bias towards home market firms and allow for free bidding across EU and US markets.

4. TTIP would protect investors by providing a legal mechanism (the Investor State Dispute Settlement – ISDS) for businesses to appeal and challenge government decisions which unfairly threaten their business practices and investments.

The opportunities for Britain of trading more with the United States of America,” David Cameron argued, “are clear: two million extra jobs, more choice and lower prices in our shops”.

With such compelling benefits on offer, it has come as a matter of considerable surprise to many that the debate over the agreement has been so caustic and emotive.

The chief concerns of those who oppose TTIP tend to revolve around three key areas: the extension of private sector involvement in health service provision, the weakening of environmental standards and the weakening of regulations on the banking sector. While little can be done to change the minds of those approaching matters from an avowedly socialist or anti-globalisation position, the British government has been clear in its commitment to seek an exemption for healthcare services from the final agreement, while environmental standards and banking regulations in the US are already broadly comparable with those in the EU.

Other opposition has also been felt across the EU – from the French creative industries, who feel that the deal may threaten their music and film culture, to campaigners in Italy who fear it will undermine domestic agriculture and “prestige” national food products. In each case, efforts are being made by EU negotiators to ameliorate these concerns ahead of the formal publication of a deal.

Unclear party-political positions

Over the past two decades, British political attitudes towards the EU, its policies, processes and treaty bases have been polarised between an increasingly Eurosceptic Conservative Party and a broadly pro-European Labour Party.

The issue of TTIP has proved a little more complex, however, with Conservatives seizing upon the policy as a means by which to tie the EU economy and its institutions closer to the United Kingdom, while many in the Labour Party are uncomfortable at what they perceive as the extension of American influence over public service provision and industrial relations law.

Against the backdrop of the referendum, the spectacle of the Conservative Party banging the drum for an EU policy while the Labour Party makes cautious noises from the side-lines is a peculiar one. Indeed, even many Conservatives who support Britain’s exit from the European Union have been keen to state their intention to pursue the completion of a revised form of TTIP in the eventuality that the UK does leave the EU.

The contentious debate has spilled over into UKIP. While the automatic impulse of the party’s activists is to oppose all legislative measures led by the EU, Roger Helmer MEP – the party’s leader in the European Parliament – has adopted a more nuanced line. In comments emailed to constituents last month, Helmer directly confronted the “hysterical fears” that had been raised over the prospect of the ISDS allowing for undue corporate influence over government decisions, referencing the existence of 1,400 existing European bilateral treaties and the “commonplace” nature of such dispute resolution mechanisms.

Taking a leadership role

Given the lack of a firm political consensus – even inside individual parties – clear opportunities exist for the business community to take the lead in the championing of the completion of TTIP. Time is of the essence.

The European Parliament has already demonstrated a degree of dissent towards completing the deal. Last month, a scheduled vote on the package was postponed after genuine fears that a loose coalition of centre, far-left and anti-globalisation MEPs might muster enough support to derail its passage.

The American picture is similarly complicated. While Obama has been an outspoken supporter of the deal in recent months, he does so from the position of being term-limited. Never again will he be forced to pay lip-service to protectionist US agriculture policies in order to secure the votes of Iowa farmers or advocate measures to boost America’s domestic automotive industry in order to pick up support in Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania. With an eye on re-election in 2020, an incoming President in January 2017 may not view the deal so positively.

Ongoing delays, brought about by the concerns of MEPs and powerful voices in national governments, risk forcing TTIP into the long grass and adding billions in unnecessary charges to British and European businesses.

Rather than sit on the sidelines, the business community – investment-makers, job-creators and employment-sustainers – must make a compelling case for urgent action on both a national and European level.

As David Cameron said: “we’re talking about what could be the biggest bilateral trade deal in history, a deal which will have a greater impact than all the other trade deals on the table put together”. That’s worth fighting for.

The views expressed herein are those of the author and not necessarily the views of FTI Consulting LLP, its management, its subsidiaries, its affiliates, or its other professionals, members of employees.

Montenegro’s Euro-Atlantic choice deserves Western respect

Montenegro_Kotor_BayOriginally published on TheCommentator.com

In the crowded field of discussions about key actors in global geopolitics, Montenegro is rarely mentioned. True, with a population of little more than 600,000, the country will never be a significant player in the classic military, industrial or economic sense.

It is a country, though, that is on the verge of making a significant contribution towards European security and Euro-Atlantic policy priorities.

Last month, NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg met Montenegro’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Igor Lukšić and Justice Minister Zoran Pažin in order to iron out any remaining logistical hurdles in the country’s path towards NATO membership.

With only minor issues left to resolve, the country appears likely to receive a formal membership invitation during the course of 2016.

While little has been written on the issue, Montenegro’s decision to press ahead with NATO membership is a notable one for three reasons.

Firstly, the decision essentially formalises Montenegro’s decision to pursue a full-throttled Euro-Atlantic agenda.

While neighbouring Serbia has deployed a triangulation agenda of seeking EU membership while disavowing NATO membership and ludicrously claiming to have “balanced” relations with Moscow and Brussels, Montenegro is expressly aligning itself with a pro-western policy stance that includes Washington D.C. as well as Brussels.

Secondly, its accession “seals” a maritime border around Europe, providing a collective security guarantee that stretches all the way around from Estonia’s eastern seaboard to Turkey’s northeastern borders with Georgia and Armenia, and southern frontiers with Syria and Iraq.  The only exceptions will be a fifteen-mile stretch of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, which is entirely encircled by NATO states.

This leaves mainland Europe and the United Kingdom with arguably the strongest domestic military protections in history — guarding against Russian aggression from the east, entryism from the Middle East and any future threats of hostile invasions, of whatever description, from North Africa.
Montenegrin membership will be a landmark achievement and should be viewed as a major step forward in guaranteeing the security of mainland Europe and completing the post-WWII circle.
In addition to the security benefits Montenegro’s NATO membership will provide, it is also significant from the perspective that it will essentially deny Russia the chance to construct the naval base it so passionately wants inside the Mediterranean and Adriatic region to replace their jeopardised facility in Syria.

Given the overtures made to Cyprus at the height of its financial crisis and Moscow’s offer to pay down Greece’s debts in exchange for control of the port of Thessaloniki, Montenegro’s decision is important.
Secondly, the decision to press ahead with NATO membership comes at the risk of a tremendous economic cost to the country and a personal, political risk to both Prime Minister Milo Đukanović and President Filip Vujanović.

Public opinion in Montenegro is far from “sold” on the idea of membership. Indeed, a March 2014 poll found that 46 percent supported membership as opposed to 42 percent who were opposed — a fairly even split.

To press ahead with such a landmark redefinition of a country’s foreign policy stance, from one of cautious engagement with Russia to a relationship status defined by distrust, carries both risks and opportunities.

Over the past two decades, Montenegro’s economy has largely been kept afloat by a buoyant domestic property market fuelled by buyers from the Russian Federation — a considerable number of whom have used pilfered state funds in order to make their acquisitions in the small, Adriatic state.
The relative robustness of the Montenegrin economy versus that of the rest of Yugoslavia played a contributing role in the country’s 2006 independence referendum that passed by just 0.5 percentage points, or 2,000 votes.

While many Russians buying property in the state have taken advantage of the country’s previous, “citizenship-by-investment” regime and will view NATO membership and ultimate EU accession as a positive thing, Montenegro’s general direction of travel does not favour further Russian investment.  Indeed, looking at the example of Porto Montenegro, presently the country’s largest infrastructure project which will see the construction of a luxury marina to rival that of Monte Carlo, the bulk of funding has come from Canadian investors, with no effective Russian involvement.

In connection with the general point on the economy, both Đukanović and Vujanović (who have effectively ruled the country in tandem since the late 80s) have based much of their political longevity upon their ability to steer a steady ship through difficult times — dodging the worst of the 90s sanctions on Yugoslavia, amicably divorcing the country from Serbia and attracting vast amounts of investment capital to the country to fund genuinely impressive infrastructure projects.

While it is likely that the two men have drawn the conclusion that the Russian cash cow has run out of milk in respect of the Balkans and may view an EU path as way of keeping the milk flowing, antagonising Russia is a risky move nonetheless.

In the face of opposition from both the Russian Federation and influential internal political actors, the choice Montenegro has made to pursue the path of Euro-Atlantic integration is a significant one.
The country and its government deserve the support and respect of the Western alliance as they continue to implement the reforms necessary to secure the country’s future as a stable, vibrant democracy.

Honour commitments to Georgia – or we lose the country forever

Originally published on TheCommentator.com

Ossetia-BordersLast week, Russia completed its latest land-grab in Georgia. Having interfered in, and, ultimately, illegally occupied, the province of South Ossetia since the early 1990s, Russia has gradually consolidated its position, erecting barbed-wire fencing and expensive CCTV equipment to supervise its area of control.

The most recent operation has pushed the so-called “Republic of South Ossetia” a further 300 metres (980 feet) into Georgia, splitting farms in half and bringing a kilometre-long portion of BP’s Baku-Supsa pipeline, which carries oil from Azerbaijan to the Black Sea, under Russia’s control.

Georgia’s main east-west highway is now only 950 metres from an area now securitised by the Russian army.

The strategic value to Russia of the country having such a strong hold on energy flows from the Caspian to the Black Sea, as well as holding a key vantage point over Georgia’s east to west traffic flows and troop movements, is clear for all to see.

What’s less clear, however, is why the European Union and the United States have been so muted in recent months.

Russia has not been shy in signposting its intentions. Indeed, their latest territorial incursion follows an agreement signed in March between Vladimir Putin and the breakaway region’s President Leonid Tibilov aimed at further assimilating South Ossetia into the Russian Federation and harmonising defence and economic policy between the two.

With Russia on the verge of orchestrating a Crimea-style annexation of South Ossetia, the expansion of territory makes a lot of sense to Moscow.

Rather than do all this when South Ossetia is a “formal” part of Russia, it is able to carry out its operations under the banner of the region’s separatist administration.

At the moment annexation comes about, the region will be subsumed in its entirety — formally placing occupied Georgian lands in the hands of the Russian Federation as opposed to constituting a separatist junta. This will make any attempts on the part of the Georgian government to reclaim the territory nigh on impossible.

The situation is much the same in Georgia’s other breakaway province, Abkhazia. While, for reasons of sheer population size, the Abkhazian junta have been less enthusiastic about explicit integration into the Russian Federation, their breakaway government continues to be, chiefly, bankrolled by Moscow.

A November 2014 document signed by Putin and Abkhaz President Khadzhimba established a joint Russian and Abkhaz army unit under the control of the Russian Federation — essentially securitising their hold on both the territory the junta has controlled since the early 90s, and regions seized during the 2008 war.

With the predictability of this situation in mind, it is shameful that the United States and European Union member governments have been so slow to act in order to support Georgia in securing its territory.

To date, the international presence in the areas close to the lines of occupation with Abkhazia and South Ossetia has been confined to ineffective, civilian monitoring missions.

What was — and still is — needed was a small peace-keeping mission comprised of NATO forces in order to prevent further territorial expansionism on the part of the Russian Federation.

Many in the west have been critical of those who advocate for western military involvement in Georgia — their logic being that the presence of NATO troops would somehow serve as a “provocation” to Putin that would risk worsening relations with Moscow and possibly even spark armed conflict in the South Caucasus.

Both arguments are baseless. Indeed, a NATO presence would bring a new sense of calm and security to the region, muting Russia’s confidence in its ability to press further into Georgia and allowing both parties to pursue negotiations over the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetian on an equal footing.

The presence of NATO troops in the region is clearly a step that no supporter of Georgian territorial integrity would, in an ideal world, have wished to have seen.

Indeed, it wouldn’t be necessary if the West had shown seriousness about bringing Georgia into NATO several years ago, something that would have helped in establishing clear red lines, and probably forestalling Russian aggression in the first place.

Instead, despite the fact the country has itself honoured the overwhelming majority of protocols required for prospective members, membership seems further away than ever — hamstrung by the presence of aggressive and expansionist Russian forces on its soil.

The west’s repeated failures to honour pledges made to the country on defence issues are mirrored by a lack of progress on political ties.

The signing of the June 2014 Association Agreement between Georgia and the European Union was a proud moment for many supporters of the country, yet has ultimately proved to be a great disappointment with no real achievements to speak of in relation to visa liberalisation and only a small uptick in trade flows.

Much-needed infrastructure funding to boost the country’s ailing railway and ports systems has yet to materialise.

Regrettably, the west’s habit of over promising and under delivering in the region has only given succour to sharply pro-Russian politicians in Georgia, such as Nino Burjanadze, who has a habit of ridiculing the governing Georgian Dream Coalition and the leading opposition party, the United National Movement, for the faith they place in promises from Brussels and Washington DC.

Against a backdrop of the current poor economic climate in Georgia, her repeated denunciations of the “illusion” that the country will one day join NATO or the EU have seen support for her party steadily increase.

It is not just support for pro-Russian politicians like Burjanadze that is on the increase, but also support for Russia’s chief geopolitical and economic weapon: the Eurasian Customs Union which promises almost limitless cash grants in exchange for the subjugation of national sovereignty to Moscow’s will.

In a poll taken in May, 31 percent of Georgians expressed support for joining the bloc — twice the number expressing such support in 2014 and three times as much as in 2013.

Negative trend lines aside, it is worth stressing that 68 percent of Georgians continue to express a preference for their country continuing along a path of Euro-Atlantic integration, towards membership of both NATO and the EU.

While support remains strong, the West can no longer afford to ignore indications that Georgia may be slowly backing away from the path towards Euro-Atlantic integration.

Enthusiasm and willingness on the part of both the people and government of the country to look westwards has simply not been backed up by a real commitment on the part of Western governments.

Something needs to be done.

As a starting point, the country should be handed a NATO MAP that provides for the stationing of a protective force along the lines of occupation in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

A special mechanism can and should be found to exclude the two areas from the Article 5 collective security guarantee provided to all members; only applying the provision to land presently under the control of Tbilisi.

This would stem Russia’s advances in the north of the country, secure its maritime border, and restore Georgian public confidence in western security guarantees.

Secondly, the visa liberalisation process between Georgia and the European Union should be completed. This would be a particularly important confidence-building measure between the EU and the country’s young, educated population whose freedom of movement has been largely curtailed by cumbersome regulations.

This ought to be matched by an increase in funding for ties and exchanges between US, European and Georgian higher education institutions.

Thirdly, the EU should look beyond the Association Agreement and begin the process of granting Georgia formal “candidate country” status.

The granting of such a status would not mean setting out a formal timetable for accession but it would be a clear statement to both the Russian Federation and Georgian people of the West’s long-term commitment to the country.

Inside this framework, cooperation on individual policy areas — from maritime transport links to energy security — could be gradually increased.

The ball is in the west’s court. The Georgian political establishment and people remain committed to a Euro-Atlantic path — but they cannot be expected to wait forever.

It’s time to either honour commitments made, or accept the country’s irrevocable slide back into Russia’s tawdry orbit.

Thoughts from my visit to Jaffna – the capital of Tamil Sri Lanka

3I’ve been to cities like Jaffna plenty of times before.

Bustling in the centre yet eerily depopulated a few streets away, marked by grandiose building projects yet riddled with the carcasses of burned-out buildings, in possession of beautifully-groomed parks sitting close to fields pot-marked with craters where munitions once fell and blessed with kind-hearted people who are more often than not a little too excited to see a foreign visitor.

In short, it’s a fairly normal post-conflict city – a place of contradictions, a place where black humour is competing with starry-eyed optimism to become the defining characteristic of local people and a place with a mildly conspiratorial air.

Much has been written over the last few years about the conflict between the majority-Sinhalese Sri Lankan state and the Tamil Tigers – a terrorist group advancing a separatist agenda for the country’s largely-Tamil northern provinces.  I have no wish to explore the arguments or grievances of any side in the conflict.

2Getting to Jaffa was surprisingly easy.  I had expected it to be a logistical nightmare with numerous roadblocks and impediments in my way but it was instead an easy, two and a half hour train journey from the city of Anuradhapura where I had previously been staying.  The train journey was an experience in itself, with no functioning air conditioning system to provide relief from the sweltering Sri Lankan sun.  Instead, every concievable window and door was thrown open for the entire journey, with locals taking turns to perillously hang out of the carriage doors in order to catch the breeze.

Upon my arrival in the city, it was easy enough to pick up a tuk-tuk from the stand outside the station.  Given the relatively small size of the city, I was at my hotel (the excellent Tilko City Hotel) in the central district in less than ten minutes.

5Everyone I met in Jaffna and the surrounding areas – from my tuk-tuk driver to my hotel owner – referred to the civil war in the past tense. While there may be valid grievances that exist amongst Tamils about the way in which the war was brought to an end, there is no appetite to resume a conflict which impoverished the region and saw thousands lose their lived. Discussions about relations between ethnic Singhalese and Tamils should move beyond fears of imminent conflict and forwards long-term confidence building between both parties.

Indeed, I had expected the city to be quite militaristic in nature, with a strong police presence and a noticeable number of armoured vehicles. In reality, any “edge” Jaffna may have had was wholly in my mind and former on the basis of my past knowledge of the city as a flashpoint for violence. The only police I noticed were stationed outside the city’s largest Hindu temple and their task appeared to be more to focus upon controlling traffic flows than law enforcement. It may still be the case that the Sri Lankan police and army have a strong presence in the north of the country but I did not see it myself.

6Talking to people in Jaffna and the surrounding areas, the pronounced popularity of the new President, Maithripala Sirisena was clear. Elected earlier this year over the sitting President Mahinda Rajakapse, Sirisena is widely seen as an cerebral and conciliatory man who will help Tamils move beyond the military machismo of his predecessor. Indeed, given the closeness of for margin between Rajapakse and Sirisena – it is likely he owes his victory margin to Tamil voters. From what I saw, he has made a strong start when it comes to earning their trust.

Aside from the post-conflict mindset of local people and the faith they appear to be placing in President Sirisena, it is clear that dramatic social inequalities exist between Jaffna and its surrounding areas and the rest of Sri Lanka. The overall infrastructure is weak, levels of obvious poverty on the streets are higher and prices are laughably low.

This disparity is a natural consequence of the long years of conflict but does need to be addressed as a matter of urgency. This message does appear to have gotten through on a central government level, with the widespread construction of apartment blocks and new public buildings across Jaffna and the surrounding areas. The programme of build of rebuilding and renovating war-hit railway stations across the north means the area now leads the south in this area.

1The government’s efforts cannot, however, be confined to city areas. While Jaffna is now largely free of bombed-out buildings, suburban areas of the city and their adjacent rural areas still bear the scars of war. Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremasinghe could further bolster their appeal amongst Tamils by launching a strategy to address rural poverty and the scars of war in the north.

When one considers the aftermath of war, there can be no crueller legacy than the presence of landmines.

All that is needed, even many years after the end of a conflict, is for heavy rainfall (not uncommon for this part of the world) to unsettle land enough for mines to find their way into the paths of people in areas even considered “safe” at present. The longer mines remain in the ground, the harder it will be to track and destroy them.

While I did personally see any minefield warnings, several people I spoke to mentioned that they remain a problem across the north of Sri Lanka as a legacy of both government and Tamil Tiger operations. Nothing should be allowed to get in the way of their swift removal.

On a broader level, it is a failing of Sri Lankan government that the country has yet to sign the international treaty outlawing their use. With the civil war now at an end, I hope that steps will be taken to ensure these evil weapons are never again allowed to scar the island.

Sadly, where there is poverty, opportunities all too often often exist for people to exploit people with pledges of easy salvation and quick comfort.

7With this in mind, I was saddened to see a large number of posters hanging from private homes and businesses for “Sri Sri Ravi Shankar”, an archetypal “religious” shyster (read: businessman) who I have long been aware of. Through a combination of a carefully-honed “serene” image and an aggressive global marketing campaign spearheaded by a team of Western European investment bankers (who now, of course, dub themselves we “disciples” of the great man) he has managed to build a multi-million pound fundraising operation on the back of tithes from some of the world’s poorest people.

From my experience of Shankar and his vaingloriously-titled ‘Art of Living Foundation’, his message contains nothing of God, a little about yoga and kooky breathing techniques and a considerable amount about the need to fundraise to “continue his work”. Far from being a hair-shirted bunch willing to bed down in drafty dorms at the end of a day’s work, Shankar and his henchmen favour decadent 5* hotel suites in European capitals that would make even the Sultan of Brunei blush.

He and his “advisors” are utterly lacking in any moral fibre – and I sincerely hope that not more people in Jaffna and Sri Lanka fall victim to his venal and immoral activities.

Thankfully, religion in Jaffna does not appear to be solely dominated by Shankar’s immorality. The town is home to a series of genuinely stunning Hindu temples and mosques, each of them buzzing with life and seemingly coexisting harmoniously.

8Walking through Jaffna’s bustling main streets late at night, vegetarian and Halal restaurants sit cheek-by-jowl – united in their insistence in blaring out local “hits” on over-sized speakers. As an outrider, it would seem to me that the apparently-calm relations between Hindus and Muslims – ordinarily each other’s bêtes noires in theatres of conflict – offers much hope for strengthened relations with the island’s Buddhist and Christian Singhalese.

In conclusion, the thing that made the biggest impression on me in Jaffna was the kindness and spirit of the people living in the city – both Sinhalese and Tamil, Hindu, Muslim and Christian. Rarely a smile absent from a person’s face or an offer of help far from their lips. That can only be a good thing as, in the years ahead, Sri Lanka tries to put its recent troubles behind it.

The Eastern Partnership: Raheem Kassam and UKIP are wrong

imageOver on Breitbart, Raheem Kassam has opened up a rather trad series of UKIPesque attacks on the Prime Minister and his European policy – or, more precisely, the decision to divert £20 million towards the Eastern Partnership’s Good Governance Fund.

Unlike (seemingly) most people, I actually like Raheem, have long enjoyed his mischievous observations on the state of British politics and don’t doubt the sincerity of his views, yet feel it’s important to respond to the specific attacks on the Eastern Partnership policy and explain why it isn’t merely another EU slush fund but an important part of wider western efforts to bring lasting democracy and stability to parts of the world at risk from Russian aggression.

While the policy may be being carried out under the auspices of the European Union, its aims are explicitly supported by NATO, the United States and Canada. Indeed, the suggestion that a Britain outside of the European Union would not still continue to contribute to programmes designed to boost allies in fledgling democracies and/or areas facing external security threats is fanciful.

As a global power (and I understand UKIP wishes for the UK to remain as such), it will always be in the interests of the United Kingdom to divert a portion of our tax revenues to overseas projects – political, military and humanitarian.

I’m happy to address the three specific examples of Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine – and why I think the £20 million the Prime Minister has pledged for these projects is well worth it.

In the Georgia, the country has been a long-term strategic ally and an active contributor to the ISAF coalition in Afghanistan, where the country has provided more troops per capita than any other nation to the struggle against the Taliban. On a domestic level, the internal policing and judicial reforms that begun under the Saakashvili administration and have continued apace under the present Garibashvili government have made the country a safer and more prosperous place, where British firms have found significant commercial opportunities. The country’s physical location – next to Russia, within spitting distance of Iran and on the Black Sea – make it invaluable from military and intelligence perspective.

The west has, however, made a huge number of promises to Georgia that have hitherto not been honoured – particularly in the field of NATO membership and visa-free travel to the EU. The failure to honour explicit pledges has opened up a small, yet sadly growing support base for Moscow-aligned figures such as Nino Burjanadze – who can be expected to enter Parliament at the next election. Continued British and western funding is crucial for the continuation of Georgia’s political realignment – a win for them, a win for us.

In Moldova, three successive governments have demonstrated their commitment to eschewing their past Soviet legacy and pursuing a pro-western path. The country is under the most severe pressure from Russia imaginable; with Russian agents purposefully fermenting ethnic unrest in the autonomous, ethnic Turkic region of Gagauzia and troops continuing to be stationed in the breakaway region of Transnistria which had, until recently, been enjoying a period of detente with Chisinau. Is it seriously in the United Kingdom’s interests to see the undermining of Moldova’s democratically-elected government and its replacement with a puppet administration run from Moscow that will allow the expansion of Russian military installations in the Carpathians? I would argue not – and would suggest Britain taxpayer money is wisely spent in helping to create the appropriate conditions to avoid such a situation.

The reference to Ukraine as a “buffer state” ought, to anyone who has even the slightest smidgen of belief in the power of self-determination for countries, to be met with both insult and derision.

Ukraine has an absolute right to determine its own foreign policy path, independently from both the European Union and broader western alliance and the Russian Federation. The fall of the Yanukovych government – which was removed in an entirely constitutional fashion following a free vote in the Rada – was directly caused by the President’s decision to abandon an established and accepted domestic consensus on closer EU links and pursue, at the last minute, a tawdry trade deal with Vladimir Putin.

The constitutional dismissal of the Yanukovych administration has been followed by two democratic events that have reaffirmed the country’s decision to choose west over east – the election of President Petro Poroshenko and a separate poll which installed a coalition headed by the reformist Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk. In the latter of the two polls, both the country’s far-left and far-right were shut out of Parliament and remnants of the Yanukovych clique scored only 9.4%.

Beyond the grim headlines that seem to characterise Ukraine’s global reputation at present, the country’s long-term prospects are strong. The Eastern Partnership has already had a tremendous influence in opening up trading opportunities for Ukrainian and British firms in the mining and textiles sector. Early judicial reforms have led to the arrest and jailing of scores of corrupt bureaucrats and politicians; making this country of 44 million people a more stable and attractive investment destination. Energy market reforms, forged in conjunction with Norway and the EU, will soon see the realisation of “reverse flow” technology for gas supply that will diversify the country away from its dependence on Russia for energy provision – another win-win situation for Ukraine and the west.

In reality, the work has just begun and continues to be complicated by the illegal occupation of Crimea and parts of the east. Measures such as the Good Governance Fund are a crucial part of keeping the reform process on track.

Ukraine has made its choice – and it is for a pro-western path. Talk of “buffer zones” and respecting Russian “spheres of influence” ought to be met with scorn and derision. Whatever happened to UKIP’s much-lauded commitment to self-determination?

Further to this, it appears to have become de rigueur amongst members of the UK Independence Party to allow a perfectly legitimate view that the UK ought to leave the EU to morph into a frankly bizarre sense of paranoia about the organisation’s motives in the Ukraine. The EU is, many of them claim, pursuing a “neo-colonial” agenda and “expanding its military power base” – yet they seem strangely lacking in fist-pumping indigence over Russia’s actual military incursion onto Ukrainian soil; in gross violation of just about every international law, norm and treaty going.

I would ask UKIP members – many of them decent and sincere people – to look at how preposterous they sound when they side with a former KGB official and his violent dictatorship over the EU. As ineffective, bloated, bureaucratic and out-of-touch as the EU is; Juncker isn’t Putin, Mogherini isn’t Lavrov and Tusk isn’t Rogozin.

The UK has always been an outward-looking and overwhelmingly constructive nation on the global stage. Those who believe it must remain so simply cannot allow the conspiracy theories and isolationist tendencies within UKIP to undercut programmes such as the Eastern Partnership and Good Governance Fund. This has nothing to do with the EU and everything to do with democracy.

The £20 million is a good use of British taxpayers’ money. Quote me on that. So be it.