Bulgarian blockade

More than 100 MPs have been escorted out of the Bulgarian parliament after being trapped inside by protesters

Spending the night trapped at work. It is not how most people would like to enjoy their evening but for scores of MPs in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, that is exactly how they passed Tuesday night. Anti-government demonstrators besieged their building in a show of anger against what they see as their corrupt leaders.  There have been regular mass demonstrations in Bulgaria throughout this first half of the year and the protesters have already secured one major victory, as the previous centre-right government headed by the GERB party quit in February.

But times have not got any easier for the current ruling Socialists as they, too, are facing calls to leave office. The tipping point for the protests was the appointment of Delyan Peevski to lead the national security agency. A colourful media mogul, many people seem to have felt this was a shady move that illustrated the winks and nudges that they believe characterise the relationship between politicians and businessmen in the Eastern European country.

The protesters have several grievances: along with Mr Peevski’s appointment, the demonstrations are in opposition to electricity price rises and have grown into more general laments against a corrupt political class. Bulgarian politics is not usually on a news editor’s list of hot topics that will set the audience or readers’ minds alight. But what happened overnight was an interesting spin on a more widespread public anger and distrust towards their politicians. Yes, it’s a good story and there are good pictures but there will be some who simply ask…isn’t it really a case of ‘same old EU’?

Calling for your government to resign is a popular chant throughout the continent, with Greece, Portugal and Italy still wavering, leaders such as Mariano Rajoy (Spain; alleged slush fund payments) and Francois Hollande (France; plummeting opinion poll ratings) under intense domestic pressure. Moreover, the lead beacon of monetary stability, Germany, is set to induce a new nervousness across the eurozone when elections are held there in the autumn. The continent has seen two years of marching, burning, rioting (everywhere), new governments, ousted governments, planned technocratic governments (Italy, Greece), countries about to leave the euro (Greece, eternally), others joining the single currency (Latvia) and so on. When you bear all this in mind, maybe it’s no surprise and maybe it does, in fact, speak volumes about the European malaise that the barricading of Bulgarian MPs in parliament by anti-corruption demonstrators only months after previous demonstrations got rid of the previous government was a story that many people missed.

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BURMA ELECTION V – Watching and waiting

Tomorrow, on Sunday 1 April, Myanmar will hold a by-election for 45 parliamentary seatsThis blog is covering the vote live from Yangon.

Monitors from across the world have descended on the country to observe the voting process. They are in place noting the run-up to tomorrow, how the voting actually goes in practice and checking any irregularities that emerge afterwards.

Speaking to a UN observer about the vote, he reiterated the simple desire, first and foremost, to see a free and fair election. Aung San Suu Kyi is not so sure that this aim can be achieved. But even as recently as yesterday the government’s English-language mouthpiece, The New Light of Myanmar, once again reassured readers that the voting process would not fall down and would be found by the observers to have complied with all the international recommendations.

The monitor admitted that not all the scientific tools used in other electoral missions will be at hand here. He also said that the global observers had been in a bit of rush to organise the monitoring as the government in Naypyidaw only published the guest-list last week.

The observers will try to make it to all the townships where votes are taking place, for although there are several constituencies in Yangon, the voting will reach across the country, up to Mandalay and down to the Irrawaddy delta area. The UN, EU, US and ASEAN will not accept electoral fraud from any angle and the National League for Democracy and other opposition parties, such as the Democratic Party and the National Democratic Force, have to ensure they play by the rules as well.

BURMA ELECTION III – From tiny acorns

On 1 April Myanmar will hold a by-election for 45 parliamentary seatsThis blog will cover it live from Yangon. This is the third preview post on the crucial vote. (For the first build-up article, click here, and for the second, click here

There are many ways to rig an election. Falsified ballots, stuffed boxes, lost votes, added votes, removing opponents…the blacklist is long and Burma has experienced most of the tricks in the past. In 1990, the people of Myanmar overwhelmingly voted for the opposition, led by Aung San Suu Kyi. Sadly for the voters, this was not exactly the result that the government had expected. And so the officials declared the election null and void, slotted themselves into the Amyotha Hluttaw, the upper house and the Pytithu Hluttaw, the lower house, and put Suu Kyi under house arrest for twenty years.

Millions of people believe that this time will be different. This is not 1990 again – that was a general election and this is a vote for just 45 parliamentary seats – but a democratic oak could spring from this by-election acorn.

There are three major reasons why there is a more optimistic aroma in the air this time round. Firstly, the democratic activists have been allowed to campaign at a level of freedom not previously experienced. Aung San Suu Kyi has been leading the charge and drawing large sympathetic crowds. Despite this she has been taken ill with exhaustion and is, at the moment, having a few days off to recover before the big push at the end of the week. Secondly, the government seems to have changed for the better. The military still has around 160 reserved seats in both houses of parliament but this is now a country where the civilians are starting to wield the power. Finally, there has been welcome international engagement with the vote.

The government has done the right thing by agreeing to have the vote monitored. There is a long list of outsiders making their way to Burma at the moment with sharpened pencils and clipboards. The presence of the EU and US should not be dismissed but it is more important that observers from the regional bloc attend. Myanmar is in line to assume the chair of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2014 and the support and advice from its neighbours is of greatest use at the moment.

Where the officials from Washington and Brussels come in is that they have still got punitive sanctions slapped on Naypyidaw. They will be anxious for the Burmese to run a smooth vote that can be lauded loudly so that they can get rid of some of the restrictions. But most of all, and most significantly, there is agreement amongst journalists that the Burmese must monitor themselves. The public must be able to feel that they can walk proudly to the ballot boxes. The government must keep order and must respect the result.

President Thein Sein has recently come back from an official trip to Vietnam, a long-time investor in Myanmar. His country is opening up and reforming itself and will be looking for foreign investors to help re-build its economy and re-establish its place in the region and world. But there is a by-election to hold first and nothing will be certain until that passes positively and the parliament has democratic voices resounding inside.

This blog will cover the by-election live from Burma on 1 April

BURMA ELECTION II – A step on the bridge

On 1 April Myanmar will hold a by-election for 45 parliamentary seatsThis blog will cover it live from Yangon. This is the second preview post on the crucial vote. (For the first build-up article, click here

The EU, amongst many other world observers, has its eyes peeled. As we saw earlier in the year, the US and the UK both sent their foreign secretaries to laud the reforms process and signal a probable end to the long-running sanctions and the long-standing isolation of the beautiful South East Asia nation. The European Union has already eased travel bans and pumped in a new €150m health and education development package. The bloc is ready to roll back some more restrictions provided the 1 April by-election is “free and fair”.

However, the EU would also like to see all ceasefires in the country upheld and peace deals signed if there has, as yet, been no end to violence. The current situation report is not perfect. On Monday 12 March, officials admitted that a fresh round of talks between the government and rebels in Kachin state to try to reach a peace agreement had failed. The Kachin Independence Organisation leader said:

“The reason we couldn’t sign an agreement was because mutual trust still needs to be built up and has not reached a solid level yet but we hope we will have a peace deal one day.”

In response, the government chief negotiator said:

“We are determined to have eternal peace with all ethnic groups.”

The government has clashed repeatedly with many rebels for many decades but has managed to sign ceasefires with the Karen, Shan, Chin and Mon groups recently, all of whom would like some form of devolution. Outsiders will remain nervous if the unrest in the north of the country is not resolved.

China is one of the world observers that is not in as wild a celebratory mood as Western nations. It has called for work to restart on a dam in the north of the country. Construction is well underway but the government in Naypyidaw ordered a postponement recently due to complaints from local and environmental pressure groups. They argue that the lake that would be formed would cause people in five villages to relocate and that 90% of the electricity produced by the project would skip out needy villagers and whizz straight over the border to China for consumption there.

So do you stop the dam, save the villages and anger a rich next-door neighbour or do you leave them with dodgy utilities, ship the power to China but land yourself a multi-million dollar cheque at the same time? This is part of the complicated and difficult reforms the country has embarked upon. Foreign businesses will be looking to invest in a more open and democratic Myanmar if the political situation stabilises. The country is rich in oil, gas and timber and is at the Indo-China geo-political crossroads.

If the by-election is indeed ‘free and fair’ then the process will continue and outsiders will be pleased. But the internal wrangling will not be solved on 1 April. Burma is a nation of 60m people, speaking many different languages and of different ethnicities. It has been through colonialism, the isolation imposed by the military junta and is gently breaking free from the ties. These changes must not be rushed, but they must be not be halted. The 1 April by-election is crucial, but it will be a stepping-stone on the bridge, not an end in itself.

This blog will cover the by-election live from Burma on 1 April

You can’t have your pierogi and eat them

Poland is treading water at home and abroad

Sitting in the sun in the Rynek Glowny (Main Square) in Krakow a couple of weeks ago, large cheese pretzel in one hand and newspaper in the other, I revelled in the Polish summer. The young workers I spoke to, however, presented me with a slightly gloomier view. Their excitement for politics (if it ever existed) is waning. Donald Tusk, the current Polish prime minister, is also the present leader of the EU, after taking over the rotating six-month chair last month. It should be a chance for Warsaw to press home significant continental plans, especially in the security and regional development sectors. But the country is at a crossroads and unsure which road to take.

It is hard to manage being both national leader and head of the EU successfully and Mr Tusk has at least one eye on the general elections due in October. The EU is meant to be a discursive meeting-point for cross-border agreements and joint directives. Overly competitive states are often sidelined. The UK is a prime example with one foot in (membership) and one foot out (eurozone). Poland is doing the same dance at the moment: happily striding forth in the presidency but with the zloty still the only tender in its tills.

Raising the issue of the single currency brings shakes of the head and frowns among the twenty-somethings, though these negative opinions may be a snap reaction to the current financial crisis. The zloty itself is putting young Polish workers at a fork in the road of their own. Many have headed over to the UK to earn more for their work than the rates at home will offer. However, the global downturn, the following recession and subsequent US debt arguments, slow growth and eurozone crisis have led to many Poles returning home. One Polak I spoke to in London told me that public works projects and general urban construction plans in Poland are suffering – all the architects, surveyors and builders have gone to the UK. According to the UK’s Office for National Statistics, “immigration was highest in 2007 at 96,000 Polish citizens, but this declined to 39,000 in 2009”.

Mr Tusk has reassured Brussels his country will join the single currency despite that move probably being several years away. He has high European ambitions but must not neglect the opportunity to use domestic development to make Poland a regional leader. Young Poles seem bored by their politics: opposition leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski was scoffed at; Tusk himself dismissed as a lightweight; the sudden death of Andrzej Lepper came as a shock but he was seen as an outcast. Mr Tusk has the chance to be a progressive reformer driving business and education reforms at home and his energy, security and development policies in Europe but it seems that, with concern in Brussels and apathy at home, he needs to decide which side of the fence to come down on first.

Who’s your international money on?

Emerging markets have wasted their chance to come together to challenge Europe over IMF leadership

Even if Agustín Carstens is selected by the International Monetary Fund by the end of the month to become the organisation’s new chief, the celebrations would be muted. Developing countries would have been able to hold a louder party if they had rallied around a single candidate.

In the shortlist run-off the IMF is considering at the moment, Christine Lagarde holds all the aces. Amongst the cards in the French Finance Minister’s hand are the fact that she has a steady domestic economic record; she has been at the heart of the EU as it has tried to stabilise itself; and she is a woman. Mr Carstens has a reputation as a pragmatist and is currently the governor of Mexico’s central bank. He is also in a strong position as he is from a country that is outside the cosy club of economically powerful nations but still inside the wider G20 grouping.

This battle could be billed as a ‘First Division Lagarde v Second Division Carstens’ match. The leading First Division sides have all leant their support to the fellow top-flighter but, crucially, other teams in the lower leagues have not be able to decide whom to back. And even now that Mr Carstens has been selected for the play-off final he is short on patronage. He has had a lot of training and experience but this is a fight in which the judges concentrate on the strength and number of your seconds and supporters outside the ring, rather than simply the calibre of the pugilist in the ring.

Mr Carstens should be able to land a few punches on Madame Lagarde. She is representing the eurozone, an economic region plagued by budget deficits, cross-border bailouts and raging disagreements over defaulting and restructuring. But so far she has used her nous and charm and been able to dodge the weak attempted jabs. Mr Carstens would be in a much stronger position if developing nations had whole-heartedly plumped for him in the first place.

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, (a man from the cosy club), has been unceremoniously dumped from the throne of the world’s piggy-bank and this is a chance to engineer a shift away from what has been perceived as the natural order of things – having a European leading the IMF. This ought to be an opportunity to deliver a positive window to the emerging markets from which they could challenge other nepotistic hierarchies, (such as always having an American run the World Bank), but the lack of organisation points towards a defeat.

Where there’s muck there’s brass

Culture seems to be flourishing in Serbia whilst its politics still stumbles

The arrest last week of the former Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic was rightly welcomed by Europeans from across the continent. Overall, European foreign ministers have quietly agreed that Serbia has ticked one of the boxes required to join the EU. Other boxes do still need to be ticked though, including ‘capture Goran Hadzic’, another man wanted in the Netherlands on charges of war crimes. But generally the news was well received.

Serbia’s strides to present a cleaner and fairer face of itself on the international cultural stage have also been applauded. Its sports sides have enjoyed recent success: the national football side made last year’s World Cup Finals and the men’s tennis team won the 2010 Davis Cup. Tourists are starting to look past the beaches of Croatia to Serbia.

And Serbian gypsy bands such as the Boban and Marko Markovic Orchestra are at the heart of the ‘Balkan Brass’ music that is gaining popularity across Europe, with Romanian band Fanfare Ciocarlia a big rival to Markovic. ‘Balkan Brass’ calls on gypsy rhythms, Latin beats, acid jazz and big-band brass. It typifies co-ordination between different movements and feelings as bands regularly gather a dozen or more musicians on stage playing many different instruments at once. This harmony would be welcome in Serbia’s political world.

The arrest of Mr Mladic stirred large protests by right-wing Serb nationalists, a worrying sight for moderate and expansionist European politicians, and not exactly what president Boris Tadic would like to see, bearing in mind his desire to achieve full EU membership by 2018. But the rise of the right has been under way for a while now in Europe, with the success of the True Finns in the recent Finnish general election and the popularity of Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France the two main examples of this pan-continent electoral shift.

So how worried should EU expansion officials be by the reaction of Serb nationalists? The whole Balkan issue is of changing concern. Certainly, the Bin Laden-esque nature of Mladic’s capture (quiet village in remote countryside; politicians’ complicity and secrecy surrounding his location) is cause for concern. The open politics of Tadic seem friendly to outsiders but to other Balkaners, (for example Kosovars, whose independence Serbia, amongst others doesn’t recognise), it is nationalist and intimidating.

Ethnicity, language and religion have divided the Balkans for centuries but perhaps Serbia can now lead a Balkan turn to a new future post-Mladic and post-genocide. It must not be forgotten; but nor should Serbia’s history automatically preclude it from European modernisation. The government in Belgrade could do worse than calling to mind its rising cultural power and the harmony and respect inherent in ‘Balkan Brass’ to sort out political disputes. The music is gaining Serbia lots of friends on YouTube at the moment and it seems that now a few more are starting to shake hands with Belgrade on the diplomatic as well as on the musical stage.

Our lips seem to be sealed

After the arrest of seven more journalists in Turkey recently and the tightening of media laws in Romania and Hungary, advocates of press freedom in the EU are starting to sweat.

According to the Turkish Journalists’ Association, 58 reporters are currently behind bars in Turkey, and the jail sentences continue to be handed out. The arguments between the press and the politicians are intensifying. On Tuesday 15 March, the Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused the foreign media of aiding a ”defamation campaign” against him and hit out at his own press for ‘smearing his government’.

On the same day, Rupert Colville, a spokesman for Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said:

If there are genuine reasons to suppose that any journalists have committed crimes outside the scope of their journalistic work, then those reasons should be transparent to the journalists themselves, to their defence lawyers and to the rest of us.”

The EU has painted Turkey with the bright colours of ‘Muslim democracy’. But the frowning has begun over the restrictions of the press being dished out from Ankara. The government there is very wary of anything with a hint of the alleged plan to bring down Mr Tayyip Erdogan’s administration in 2003, the so-called Ergenekon plot.

The EU is worried that Turkey, its crucial link between the continent and the Islamic world, (and possible future partner), is heading down a slippery slope. Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele affirmed that

“as a candidate country, we expect Turkey to implement core democratic principles and enable varied, pluralistic debate in public space”.

But there is also concern for what is happening within the confines of the club itself. Romania has amended its broadcast law six times in the past year. Hungary recently warned during its presidency of the EU that other members should keep their noses out of Hungarian internal affairs. This came in response to the concern expressed over Budapest’s new media laws.

During a time when the economy is causing European leaders a real headache, press freedom issues must not be sidelined. Turkey is whipping up a stir with journalistic events there and this is not what the EU needs, with the country being Europe’s ‘democratic’ route into the Maghreb and the turmoil there. If it wants to continue to put Turkey on a pedestal, it needs to demand rigorous assurances from Ankara on press freedom.

Friday prayers can wait

Is the European Union stalling over policy towards the Islamic world?

Recent events in Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt have not gone totally unnoticed in Europe but there was a significant delay in releasing official reaction to the unrest which began in December. These events were occurring just across the sea, indeed the Italian island of Pantelleria lies only 45 miles or so from the Tunisian coast. And the EU is the largest trading partner for the Maghreb. Why was there no coherent policy announcement?

European ministers are dedicated at the moment to sorting out the financial crisis and trying to ensure that neither Spain nor Portugal goes the way of Greece and Ireland. Reacting to the downfall of the government in Tunisia raised confusion over how the bloc feels and eventually no clear response was issued. Whether or not to give Turkey a membership card has been relegated from the to-do list.

David Cameron has let it be known that the UK Government will be batting for the Turks but as Conservative Baroness Warsi, the UK’s first female Muslim Cabinet member, will say in a speech on Thursday 20 January, Britain has to get its national attitude towards Muslims right first before it can think about lecturing others on equality.

And this is part of the wider problem – there has never truly been a coherent, union-wide policy on this issue. Take burqas for example: should members be banning them or not? And as this blog noted last month, (‘Snow boots for Islamic fundamentalists’, 31 December 2010′), Islamic terror plots have been on the rise in Scandinavia and earlier this week a Somali man went on trial for the attempted murder of Kurt Westergaard, a cartoonist who published drawings of the Prophet Muhammad with a bomb for a turban. Should members be allowing the publication of such pictures?

Switzerland, surrounded by EU member-states, drew gasps of breath in 2009 when its parliament approved a ban on the building of minarets. There is also rising antipathy in Germany towards Muslims and Turkish inclusion in the EU. The majority of the country’s four million Muslims have Turkish ancestry and president Christian Wulff faced a particularly tough time on a state visit to Turkey last year. The EU talks at length about a common agricultural policy, a common defence policy and a common economic policy and 2011 should be the year when major steps are taken to discussing a common policy to all the issues surrounding the place of Islam in Europe.

The flight of the president

Mass demonstrations were rare in North Africa. But 2011 has begun in extremely turbulent fashion, with the Tunisian president, Zine El Abadine Ben Ali, fleeing his imploding country for the Gulf after weeks of riots left many dead and forced the army to move into the cities. The people, disaffected and finally showing it publicly, are seriously unhappy at the way their governments have been handling their economies and jobs markets.

Algeria has also been the scene of rioting and further west, the Arab winter of discontent has been continuing in Jordan, where thousands have been marching in protest at fuel and food prices. Calls for the president to fall on his sword have been ringing round the streets there too. Sectarian bombings in Egypt further along the Mediterranean coast have heightened tensions in the region.

But back in Algeria, this is how 2010 began, with national protests as Algerians were cross about the overbearing feeling of stasis pervading the country’s political psyche and forcing the pace of social development to slow to a crawl. They finished the year up in arms again but the state of the protests in the country for the moment has calmed, as its neighbour has boiled over.

Although the protests across the Maghreb began as demonstrations against rising fuel and food prices and youth unemployment, they have turned into public manifestations of pent-up hurt and stagnation at the lack of social mobility that has been perpetuated year after year by the long-serving premiers. They have been public rejections of the current politics.

The worst disturbances have been in previously mellow Tunisia. Once they started hitting the streets week after week, the police tried to match the swelling demonstrations. Yet the passion and fervour with which the strikes have been carried out snowballed as each day came and went. The protests intensified, demonstrators died, the police stepped up control measures. This is how the pattern continued until the complete meltdown of the country’s governing structure on 14 January, when the president fled, leaving the prime minister, Mohammed Ghannouchi, in charge.

The pressure is now on the AU, the EU, the US and other Arab countries to respond and act. Tunisians will feel they have played their role, in ousting the president. International mediation will be needed to ensure that the fragility of Egyptian sectarianism and Algerian and Jordanian public strife do not exacerbate or Europe will have a serious problem just the other side of the Mediterranean.