20 April, 2009

Tel Aviv at 100

Tel Aviv was 100 year's old on the 11th April. Here's an interesting post on the city's early history by Mark A. LeVine: 100 Years of Solitude: Tel Aviv's Anniversary. Like many places in the world, Tel Aviv has a somewhat fictional history, based in this case on the idea that it sprang out of the sand and grew into the modern city it is now without any Arab involvement or displacement.

I am somewhat sorry that I never made it to Tel Aviv when I was in Palesrael, everything I have ever read about it suggests that it is a bizarre and interesting place. Maybe one day, when the Israel-Palestine issue has been settled...

Where I heard about this

18 April, 2009

Communism Fail

The opening of the Berlin Wall on the 9th of November 1989 is probably the most emblematic moment in the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. A less remarked upon, but perhaps more ultimately significant, event took place twenty years ago yesterday. On the 17th of April 1989, the ruling communists in Poland agreed to hold partially competitive elections. The elections were meant to leave the communists in power, as 70 out of 100 seats in the Polish parliament's lower house were reserved for them and their allies in various front parties. When the elections were held (on the 4th of June), the communists were humiliated - they and their allies failed to win a single one of the contested seats in the lower house, while the communists only won one seat in the Senate (where all seats were contested). Although they still had a massive parliamentary majority, their political bankruptcy was exposed, and the opposition Solidarity movement was invited to form a non-communist government.

People still argue over what caused the collapses of communism in Eastern Europe. Whatever the cause, my own view is that once one of the Soviet satellites started unambiguously on the road to free elections the jig was up for the lot of them. Any one country's progress down the road to freedom made it apparent to oppositions and governments everywhere that the Soviets were not going to send in the tanks to shore up their allies. None of the communist regimes ultimately had the wherewithal to maintain themselves in power, and they all fell to the upsurge in oppositional activity triggered by developments in Poland.

Poland's history since the transition has been... interesting. Successive governments have had to grapple with the economic bankruptcy bequeathed by the communists, while the inevitable break up of Solidarity made politics somewhat chaotic. People like Lech Walesa, who were genuinely heroic in opposition, seemed somewhat less than suited for the nuanced world of democratic politics. Nevertheless, the country has made impressive progress, apparently weathering the current economic storm better than most.

Some interesting pieces on the BBC website:

How Poland became an aid donor (one of the more benign views of Poland's "shock therapy" transition to market economics).

Children of the Solidarity revolution (the human cost borne by those whose family members ultimately brought down the dictatorship)

1989: Key events in Europe's revolution (a series of pieces on the momentous events of 1989)

1989 - Europe's revolution (more on that great year)

13 April, 2009

Phantom Countries: Transnistria

Transnistria exists on territory recognised internationally as part of Moldova. It is divided from the rest of Moldova by the Dniester river (hence then name, though the variation in spelling confuses me). I understand that it is inhabited mainly by ethnic Russians (despite being separated from Russia by Ukraine), while Moldova proper is mainly inhabited by ethnic Moldovans (who may or may not be a subset of ethnic Rumanians). Moldova was part of the Soviet Union, and when the USSR broke up it became an independent state. Transnistria came into being when some local politicians decided that they would rather have their own little country. Russian troops based in the region supported their rejection of Moldovan rule. Since then, Transnistria retains its independence thanks to the ongoing presence of Russian troops. Transnistria also houses most of Moldova's electricity plants, so if the Moldovans ever get bolshy then Transnistria turns off their lights.

As far as I know, Transnistria has no external recognition, although it gets ambiguous support from Russia. Its situation is thus somewhat analogous to that of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Politically, Transnistria seems to be run by a thuggish authoritarian clique. I understand that the country functions as a kind of Soviet theme park, with its towns still full of red stars and statues of Lenin. I have also read it described as the kind of country you would not want to stay in after dark, particularly if driving in a car with Moldovan registration plates.

Image source

10 April, 2009

Phantom Countries: Puntland

Even by the standards of phantom countries, Puntland is a funny place. Like Somaliland, It sits on part of the territory of the internationally recognised country of Somalia, with Puntland occupying the Somali corner. Unlike Somaliland it is not a secessionist entity as such. Although Puntland has its own administration and has left the chaotic south of Somalia to its own devices, the leaders of Puntland have not declared independence and have not sought international recognition. Rather, they have just set up their own semi-functional administration, and declared a willingness to reintegrate into the rest of Somalia once there is a Somali state to reintegrate with.

Given the disorganised nature of the rest of Somalia, the likelihood is that Puntland will be left to its own devices for some time to come. This may be just the way its leaders like it. My understanding is that Puntland is the main base for the notorious Somali pirates, and its anomalous status makes it easy for the pirates to go about their business. In some respects, therefore, Puntland is like a giant Port Royal, with the leaders of the territory using the pirates as a handy source of foreign exchange. Perhaps in the future the leaders of Puntland, with their experience of actual administration, may stage some kind of reverse takeover of the rest of Somalia, but for the moment they will have their little kingdom to themselves.

The territory administered by Puntland's government overlaps the former border between the British and Italian Somali colonies. This is problematic for Somaliland, as part of its independence claim is based on it being a withdrawal by the former British Somaliland from unified Somalia. That claim becomes somewhat fanciful if the Somaliland government does not actually administer all the territory of the former British colony. Somaliland does nevertheless claim sovereignty over all of British Somaliland, so it finds itself claiming territory occupied by Puntland. I don't know if either Somaliland or Puntland have much in the way of armed forces, but it would be a bit ironic if the two semi-functional bits of Somalia were to find themselves locked into a border war.

Image source

08 April, 2009

What are those British bases on Cyprus for?

This is basically an adjunct to my piece on Northern Cyprus. When Cyprus became independent, Britain obliged its former colony to retain a number of British military bases on the island. As far as I know, these were granted to Britain in perpetuity. Not merely that, but sovereignty in the territory of the bases lies with the UK – Cypriot law does not apply to them, and the bases are effectively part of the UK (or part of the territory of the UK crown).

Now, normally speaking, when you get these kind of bases forced onto a host country, the owner of the base usually undertakes to provide the host with some kind of military protection. I do not know if Britain did this when Cyprus became independent, but I do know that when Cyprus was subject to foreign invasion, the British forces sat on their hands and decided that the defence of their host was nothing to do with them. The British bases on Cyprus seem to exist solely for the benefit of the former colonial master, without even the pretence that they exist to provide security to their Cypriot hosts.

07 April, 2009

Phantom Countries: Northern Cyprus

My series on anomalous and unrecognised countries returns!

The full name of this phantom country is the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. As that suggests, Northern Cyprus lies along the northern edge of Cyprus, and it is inhabited by people who have a Turkish ethnic identity. Turkey is the only country that recognises its independence. This is not entirely coincidental. Northern Cyprus was established on the territory seized from the rest of Cyprus by the Turkish army in 1974.

Cyprus had previously become independent from Britain as a unified state. Ethnic Greeks formed a substantial majority. Relations between them and the Turkish Cypriot minority were often tense. In coup brought a right-wing clique to power in Cyprus. They were committed to unifying Cyprus with the rest of Greece, then also ruled by an ultra-nationalist right-wing dictatorship. The prospects for Cypriot Turks would then have been rather poor. In response, Turkey launched an invasion of the island. Resistance was easily crushed, with the Turkish army establishing control of what subsequently became Northern Cyprus.

My understanding is that the invasion triggered a bout of ethnic cleansing. All (or almost all) Greek Cypriots were expelled from the northern zone, with almost all Turkish Cypriots moving north (freely or under duress) from the territory retained by the Republic of Cyprus. The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus was formally established in the early 1980s.

For many years after the Turkish invasion, the island of Cyprus was divided by a no-man's land patrolled by UN troops, with the capital city of Nicosia divided by a mini-Berlin Wall. The restrictions on movements between the two parts of the island have eased in recent years. Nevertheless, without the ongoing support of Turkey (which maintains a sizeable military presence on the island), Northern Cyprus would not be able to resist reabsorption into the Republic of Cyprus.

Northern Cyprus is an odd and ambiguous place, even by the standards of phantom countries. It is largely unrecognised as a state, yet it seems to have a certain tacit recognition as a de facto player in the drama of Cypriot politics (not least from the internationally recognised Republic of Cyprus, whose leaders negotiate directly with their Northern Cypriot counterparts). The region nevertheless looks unlikely to gain widespread recognition as an independent state. This does not seem to even be a key goal of the Northern Cypriot leaders - they seem to be seeking not so much wider recognition for their "state", but its dissolution. Their goal is to unify Cyprus as a confederal state, with Northern Cyprus and the internationally recognised Republic of Cyprus as sub-units. The motor for this lack of interest in Northern Cypriot nationalism is economic – Northern Cyprus has stagnated since the island was partitioned, while the internationally recognised Republic of Cyprus has motored ahead.

In 2004 it seemed as though the conflict on Cyprus was about to be resolved. Under EU & UN auspices, the leaders of the two Cypriot entities had agreed a deal that would have seen the island reunited as a decentralised state comprising two subunits. The deal failed because southern Cypriot leaders developed second thoughts and successfully urged their compatriots to reject the deal in a referendum. The EU was caught on the hop by this unexpected outcome, as southern Cyprus had been allowed to accede to the European Union regardless of the outcome of the referendum. That allows southern Cyprus to block or disrupt EU engagement with either Turkey or Northern Cyprus.

So where now lies the future for Northern Cyprus and the rest of the island? The likelihood must be that eventually some kind of deal is done that is acceptable to both parts of the island, and this will lead to the establishment of a bi-national state with Greek and Turkish sub-units. One odd thing about all this is that this is likely to be an apartheid solution, with the Greek and Turkish Cypriot populations remaining in their ethnically homogenous regions. Northern Cyprus will probably surrender substantial territories to the Greek Cypriot zone, reflecting the relative imbalance in power, wealth, and population between the two communities.

Politically, Northern Cyprus seems to be a functional representative democracy. It has semi-presidential constitution, with the president exercising more power than the prime minister.

As an aside, Northern Cyprus is one of the more readily visit able phantom countries. One can fly there, albeit with a stopover in Turkey, and my understanding is that one can now cross from the Republic of Cyprus to the TRNC. I believe Northern Cyprus to have a reasonably developed tourist infrastructure and a surprising number of sites of interest to the discerning traveller.

EDIT: see comments for fascinating semi-presidentialism related chit chat.

image source

06 April, 2009

02 April, 2009

Man Dies In Police Custody During G20 Protest

Meanwhile, the guy who died yesterday during the G20 protests yesterday has been named as Ian Tomlinson. He seems to have been someone who worked in a newsagent in the City of London. It is unclear whether he was taking part in the protests or was just trying to get home from work. Either way, he found himself caught in a "kettle", this being what the British cops call an area in which they contain protesters, preventing them for leaving sometimes for hours on end. At this stage it is unclear what caused Mr Tomlinson's death.

This "kettle" tactic of the UK cops – on the face of it, it sounds like a form of mass arrest, in that the people held in the "kettle" are prevented from leaving until such time as the police decide to let them. This imprisonment can last for considerable periods of time – yesterday the police held protesters for some seven hours. Following an earlier incident, in which a person so held challenged their imprisonment in the courts, the House of Lords ruled that this form of detention is not illegal under British law.

Ian Tomlinson image source

Three more articles (all from the Guardian):

G20: Questions need to be asked about 'kettling'

G20: The upside of 'kettling'

G20: Did police containment cause more trouble than it prevented?

EDIT: You have probably seen this by now, but the Guardian has obtained footage showing some cops walking up behind Mr Tomlinson and decking him for no obvious reason. See: Ian Tomlinson death: Guardian video reveals police attack on man who died at G20 protest

The Summit of the Spectacle

People are getting very excited about the current G20 summit. In the past, we used to have the G7 summits, where the leaders of what were then the seven largest industrial economies in the world used to get together to hold very important discussions on stuff. In the 1990s, this expanded into the G8, with Russia's leader invited along to the party. Perhaps in response to complaints that the G8 was unrepresentative, this year's event is hosting the leaders of 20 countries – the previous G8, plus a number of others recruited in a mysterious manner.

G8 Summits have always been rather inconsequential, and the G20 will no doubt be the same. Maybe they will agree some communiqué stating the need to take urgent action to address the pressing problems of the world. Or maybe they will not. Either way, things will go on pretty much as before. G* communiqués do not have the force of international law, and I do not think that any one of these summits has ever produced a major policy initiative that was subsequently delivered upon. These summits are simply talking shops, occasions for the world's leaders to get together and feel important because of all the other important people they are getting to have chit chat with.

One might ask, then, why it is that these summits are taken so seriously. In the case of the media, this is not too surprising. Whatever about the lack of substance to these events, they have a certain razzamatazz. Particularly with the USA having an excitingly charismatic new president, the whole event has the kind of glamour that easily fills column inches or nightly news bulletins. What is perhaps a bit more surprising is the vigour with which various groups take to protesting or trying to disrupt these summits. For some protesters, the media spotlight on the summits is an opportunity to publicise their own demands and proposals. For the more fundamentally anti-system protesters (people who want to, you know, overthrow capitalism and stuff) the payoff is less clear.

In conversation, some anarchists put it to me that their kind of protests serve to delegitimise the summits. I suspect, though, that they have almost the opposite effect. I do not mean that rowdy protests discredit opponents of the summits. Rather, noisy and disruptive protests make these summits appear like more significant events than they actually are. It looks to me like the anti-summit protests feed the egos of the very important people attending the summit, making them feel like their chit chat must be of great moment if people are so eager to protest against it. If the G* summits are simply a spectacular event, then the protesters are just playing their part in the spectacle's reproduction.

a man of wealth (and taste) image source

who is John Galt?

edited to remove dud picture code and associated link

01 April, 2009

Lebanon Media Unfail

I mentioned ages ago that the Daily Star, Lebanon's English language newspaper, had ceased publication. Well it seems to be back now. There seem to be parliamentary elections coming up in June, and the Daily Star has a report on the various parties' candidates.