Winter in Russia

Ruslana shakes her glass and gazes at the band playing just a few yards from us. She finishes her drink before saying: ‘I cannot go to jail. I have two children.’ We talk about the state of play in Russia and the options for citizens who want change, such as her. She is an attractive woman, and several men seek to grab her attention by clumsily placing their drinks nearby or interrupting us on some vague pretext. Ruslana works for an NGO in Saint Petersburg and is drawn by Europe, but she says the EU seems very bureaucratic. She asks me if it has a future.

The nightspots in these parts are ideal for talking about politics. Ruslana’s hopes are invested in the media-savvy opposition leader and blogger Alexei Navalny, whose popularity was boosted by his revelations of corruption against the prime minister, Dmitri Medvedev. But systematic restrictions and foul play deployed against opposition groups, together with the extent of state control within the media, neutralizes any real political competition. To some, however, Navalny is the first real politician Russia has had since Yeltsin, even though he is obliged to play the populist card.

Interpreting the Catalan elections

The challenge of assessing the outcome of yesterday’s regional elections in Catalonia is that several actors in this crisis can claim different forms of victory – and are doing so – from different frames (majority in terms of seats neglecting share of votes, etc.). This, uncertainty and a strong component of post-truth politics in the secessionist camp, have been the defining features of a full-fledged crisis that has seen competing narratives about democracy, rule of law and basic constitutional covenants, first and foremost among the clashing camps in Catalonia. Such diametrically opposed framing and narrative building have also shaped the political framing elsewhere in Spain and at the international level.

Given the complexity of the results, their myriad implications and the renewed uncertainty about what comes next, it is important to perhaps distinguish between big read takeaways and deeper changes in the political and social landscape in Catalonia, which are sure to condition the region and Spain as a whole.

Curtain comes down on Balkan Hague tribunals

 have only seen Ratko Mladić on television and on my computer screen, but I am well aware of his legacy in eastern Bosnia. Earlier this decade, I spent two years in Foča, a mountainous district in the Upper Drina Valley near the borders with Montenegro and Serbia.

Apart from its rugged nature, the Drina Valley is known because of what happened there during the Bosnian War (1992-95). Despite the overwhelming media attention on the besieged Sarajevo, much of the ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims was carried out in isolated rural areas, in places such as Goražde, Višegrad, Srebrenica and Foča itself.

Mladić was born there, in Kalinovik, a scruffy and isolated village on the high planes of Treskavica. And while he may be despised internationally, the “General” enjoys a hero’s standing among many Serbs in the region, as evidenced by the graffiti supporting him that I used to see when I arrived in the valley in 2010 as a human rights officer for the OSCE.

Reading the recent sentence by The Hague Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, two memories from that time come to mind: the local response to his arrest, and our work in the mass graves he and others created.

Three myths about Catalonia’s independence movement

A romantic framing of foreign crises where self-determination is involved is a common trap. The imagery of “oppressors” vs “freedom fighters” is appealing and, to their credit, the leaders of Catalonia have been successful in promoting their agenda abroad in just such terms – sometimes going as far as referencing Nelson Mandela’s struggle against apartheid.

Combined with the soft power appeal of cosmopolitan Barcelona, there is much confusion abroad on the nature of the current crisis in Catalonia, and myths and stereotypes abound – helped by the likes of Assange and similar figures.

This article seeks to test some of these myths, in order to shed light not only on the Catalonian referendum debate but on the wider issues for pluralistic democracies and the rule of law. The dynamics in the Catalan debate are similar to those at play in other European countries in the age of populism and are therefore of fundamental importance for the future of Europe as a whole.

Myth One: A legitimate and democratic referendum process unjustly constrained by the Spanish state

Voices on Ukraine, Voices of Ukraine

This is a series of interviews and conversations on Ukraine, with a special focus on the ground with Ukrainian civil society actors, politicians and other unusual voices, so as to get their views and insights on different developments in the country – from the conflict to the reform process or societal challenges.

On Our Misconceptions Regarding Modern Russia

It is well-known that relations between the EU and the West in general and Russia suffer from mutual mistrust fanned by conflicting assessments of each other’s actions and intentions in the European space and in each other’s domestic politics. The role here of propaganda and misinformation spearheaded by powerholders and spin doctors in Moscow and their allies no doubt contributes negatively to the profoundly distorted vision that many ordinary Russians seem to have on Europe and our politics – not to mention the conflict in Ukraine or Syria, or institutions, such as NATO.

Yet one thing that has struck me ever, since I became interested in Russia and the post-Soviet space, is how much our understanding on Russia is overwhelmingly dominated by a sort of geopolitical or strategic thinking prism that it leaves little room for other angles. This perspective stresses notions of power, Grand Strategy and geopolitics (e.g. Russia’s strategic interests and history as an empire, NATO’s posturing, etc.) over a more societal or, if you will, a bottom-up approach that also lays emphasis on people-to-people interaction, societal understanding, impact of globalisation on popular perceptions, etc. At least in my experience, many Western pundits and policymakers, whether they favour a rapprochement with Russia or they see it as a challenge, tend to equally fall in this conceptual trap. Further, such debates are many times suffused by a mixture of pre-conceptions, common places, and clichés that certainly do not help to better understand modern Russia.

Ukraine’s rising Euroscepticism

With a snowstorm raging outside, Olha draws a stack of banknotes from her bag and starts inserting them in the ATM. By the end of a lengthy operation she has banked some 1200 hryvnia. Yet with the hryvnia devalued over 300% since 2013, it amounts to just €40.

In her mid 30s, Olha belongs to the new generation and the professional class behind reformist forces in Ukraine. Despite a decent monthly salary of over €500 euros (the minimum wage stands at some 1600 hryvnia or €55 euro), she struggles to have anything resembling the life of a young European, while real estate property or even savings are well beyond her reach. Other social strata are obviously worse off and struggle just to pay their rising gas and electricity bills –  side effects of the macroeconomic reforms that the government has put in place over the last couple of years at the behest of the IMF, often a precondition to the loans Ukraine depends on to avoid bankruptcy.

Leaving the Square: stories from Ukraine

Vira walks on unsteady legs through the streets of Sambir. From time to time, she talks to herself as she takes short steps to dodge the hazards on pavements covered with ice and snow. It is January and the temperature has dipped below minus 20. The morning breeze slashes the lips and one can barely take one’s gloves off. On reaching us, Vira looks up and smiles faintly. Vera in Russian, her name means “faith”, though she is not a believer. She is embroiled in a lawsuit against the Ukrainian state, from which she is demanding the pension of her late father, the local boss of the NKVD, the KGB’s precursor. She rejects the pension that corresponds to her as a former civil servant in one of the dusty military institutions from the previous era, though at almost one hundred euros a month, it is not an insignificant sum amidst the country’s crisis and with a devalued hryvnia, Ukraine’s currency. She says she has been deceived by the state. Such mistrust of the state is common; historically, it has worked in favour of the ruling classes, people like Vira’s father.

Belonging to the NKVD brought respect based on terror, but also status and privileges. As in Orwell’s Animal Farm, in the new Soviet society, everyone was equal, but some more than others. Vira is one of those people whose situation became virtually frozen, like Sambir’s pipes these days, with the disappearance of the Soviet Union. Her gas and electricity have been cut off after she stopped paying the bills.

 

Srebrenica 20 años después

Fueron entre 7.000 y 8.000 asesinatos entre el 11 y el 13 de julio de 1995. La matanza de Srebrenica fue el colofón de una secuencia de actos genocidas y de limpieza étnica cometidos en los Balcanes.

Incluso para estándares balcánicos, Bosnia Este, con sus montañas, valles y bosques, es una región aislada, mal comunicada, cuyas carreteras a menudo se cortan por la nieve. Este aislamiento afecta en especial a algunas municipalidades y MZs, comunidades locales (mjesne zajednice), que hoy incluyen a gran parte de exrefugiados y desplazados internos, bosnios en su mayoría (de forma un tanto simple denominados musulmanes bosnios), que volvieron a su lugar de origen tras la guerra. El aislamiento que también es político y social, al ser hoy minoría en áreas donde antes de 1992 eran mayoría.

Continuar leyendo “Srebrenica 20 años después”

Eight inconvenient truths on Bosnia and EU policy in the Western Balkans

Predictably, Bosnia’s October general elections have so far failed to deliver the change hoped for in the wake of the protests and participatory democracy movements of earlier this year – dubbed, perhaps prematurely, the Bosnian Spring.

It is hard to set in motion a fundamental democratic transformation of the sort that Bosnia needs without a real democratic constituency and political culture. This was the inevitable impression produced in February, to the despair of grass-root activists, when they compared the throngs of people (many of them unemployed) crowding Sarajevo’s cafés and terraces from Baščaršija to Marshala Tita with the few hundreds who mobilised for “revolucija” near Ali Pasha’s mosque. As some analysts have aptly said, the disappointing results of the elections make rational sense in a rotten system defined by – with or without Dayton – contactocracy (stela) and patronage networks.