Posts Tagged 'france'

Communist structures risk fate of Ozymandias

By Harry van Versendaal

“Searching for information on something that happened in Bulgaria 30 years ago is much like being an archaeologist collecting evidence on an event that occurred many centuries ago.”

Sofia-born artist Nikola Mihov has been documenting the fate of communist-era public monuments scattered around his homeland for the last few years, amassing a growing body of images and text.

Political controversy surrounding Bulgaria’s communist years, as well as pure negligence, have ensured this is not a straightforward task.

“Many of the archives were destroyed on purpose because they were related to communism. Others were lost because the people behind them were simply not around anymore,” Mihov says.

A select few of these images can presently be seen at the Museum of Photography in Thessaloniki, part of an exhibition labeled “Recorded Memories: Europe. Southeast.”

Mihov, who currently splits his time between Sofia and Paris, was 7 years old when communism, under strongman Todor Zhivkov, came to an end. He experienced the early transitional years as a schoolboy before his mother’s job as a diplomat took the family to France. After spending five years in Western Europe, Mihov found he had to move back in 2006. His French was not good enough to gain him a place in the French university system, something which would also have bagged him a visa. “After I came back, I had this feeling of a huge gap. So I began researching,” he says.

Filling the gap

Influenced by the communist-style imagery of his childhood years, Mihov went on to capture black-and-white, mainly frontal views of these monuments. The pictures of the abandoned, derelict and vandalized anti-utopia structures resonate with the ostentatious statements of socialist realism; the grandeur of the concrete masses and statues is still there, but Mihov manages to show how they have sunken into reality.

Interest in them first came from outside Bulgaria. In the fall of 2009, a French magazine did a story on the photos and, a few months later, Mihov was selected for London’s Photomonth festival. “Bulgarians are like that. Once your name is heard abroad, then there is suddenly interest at home,” he says.

Another exhibition followed in Sofia. Mihov began to meet more and more people who were related to these monuments in one way or another. “I spent five years studying archives, meeting with architects, sculptors and construction workers who were still alive. One person would lead me to the next,” he says.

Inevitably, he also visited the House of the Bulgarian Communist Party. Located on Buzludzha, a peak in the Central Balkan Mountains, it is Bulgaria’s biggest monument and looks like a concrete Starship Enterprise. The memorial, which took seven years to build, opened in 1981. No longer maintained, it has fallen prey to vandals and time. A huge piece of graffiti painted above the main entrance reads “Forget your past.” “It was the perfect name for the project,” Mihov says.

“I do not believe that we should forget the past, and that is why I did this project,” he says. “However, I feel awkward when journalists ask me if I feel nostalgia. You cannot feel nostalgic about something you did not really experience. The new generation is not nostalgic. The problem is that there is not enough information.”

Recorded memories

The exhibition “Recorded Memories: Europe. Southeast” features works by 22 artists from 11 countries. The works, which include photographs and video footage, explore different aspects of collective memory in the region, such as landmarks, places and cultures of memory as well as the role of the image in each process.

The show, a collaboration between the Goethe Institute and the Museum of Photography in Braunschweig, Lower Saxony, has been curated by Constanze Wicke. It will remain in Thessaloniki through May 18.

Bulgaria’s communist regime came to an end in 1989. Elections held in the summer of the following year were won by the Bulgarian Socialist Party – basically the rebranded communists. Bulgaria, a close ally of Moscow in communist times, is now a member of NATO and the European Union. A recent Eurostat survey found Bulgaria is by far the most unhappy country in the bloc.

“There is all this opposition between the people who love the country’s [communist] past and those who hate it. But there are also those who just don’t know enough about it. I am part of that group, and I am trying to delve deeper and deeper,” Mihov says.

“It is not safe to generalize about the whole period – a long 45 years – and, similarly, it is not safe to generalize about the monuments. Some are ugly, some are impressive, some are unbelievable. But they are all here, and they are part of our history.”

Museum of Photography, 1st Floor, Warehouse A, Dock A, Thessaloniki Port; Army Warehouses, Dock A, Thessaloniki Port. Opening hours are Tuesdays-Sundays from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. For more information, log on to http://www.thmphoto.gr.

Taking secular values at face value

Photo by the|G|™

By Harry van Versendaal

France’s decision to ban the niqab and the burqa — the latter being a version of the full-body veil usually associated with Aghan women who were repressed by the Taliban — has naturally drawn a shower of criticism from politicians, clerics and pundits in Muslim countries. An Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman promptly complained that “any kind of ban on observance of the veil means a lack of freedom and rights of Muslim women.”

But apart from the public rebuke from Iran — an unlikely defender of women’s rights and liberties — the French move has also come under fire from Europe’s liberal-left commentariat, which has denounced the ban as a wrongheaded breach of the freedom of expression or, more cynically, a political machination on behalf of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s party, the Union for a Popular Movement, aspiring to ride the burgeoning wave of anti-immigrant sentiment in the country of 65 million people.

But even if it passed the ban for the wrong reasons — which is debatable — Sarkozy’s party may still have done the right thing. What most critics seem to miss is that France has a long tradition of strict secularism or, what the French like to call, laicite. The legacy of revolutionary anti-clericalism, this peculiarly French doctrine differs from other European understandings of liberal pluralism such as, for example, Britain’s live-and-let-live multiculturalism which revolves around allowing all different cultures flourish in a multiethnic, multireligious environment.

The French are concerned that this shrug-your-shoulders-and-move-on type of religious tolerance works against social integration because it encourages the creation of social apartheids — parallel societies living according to their own norms and principles but never really mixing with each other. For that reason, the French elites have for over a century insisted on an unflinching secularist policy designed to purge religion from public life while safeguarding the three fundamental principles of the Republic: liberty, equality, fraternity. Being French is not about the right blood, color or metaphysics, but about endorsing these key secular values which by default stand above any ethnic, racial or religious tag.

It’s an inevitably imperfect and oft-betrayed ideal, but it is still an ideal. And it’s easy to see how this uncomfortable tent-like garment that reduces visual perception of the outside world to a burqa mailslot, falls short in respect to these values; in fact, in many ways it stands at the opposite end.

A symbol of inherent inequality and male domination, the burqa is the product of a bizarre notion of sexuality: gazing at the hair or faces of women arouses sexual desires in men; and the people who must punished for that are the women. Andre Gerin, the Communist deputy who chaired the commission that examined whether there was a case for outlawing the burqa, said the full-body gear is “the tip of an iceberg of oppression,” while Algerian-born minister Fadela Amara described it as “a kind of tomb, a horror for those trapped within it.”

As defenders of the practice like to point out, there are of course exceptions as some women claim to don the garment by choice. But so long as there are women out there who are beaten, stoned or disfigured by their menfolk for not covering their face, liberal societies in the West have an obligation to defend their citizens against this jailhouse garb.

And, whether some women actually like to wear the burqa or not, it’s hard to disagree with the fact that covering your body and face signifies something else than unwillingness to integrate with the rest of society. France, a country which includes 5 million Muslims, has good reason to worry given recurring reports of Muslim men who forbid their wives from seeing a male doctor, of women who demand female-only swimming pools or refuse to participate in school sports, and of pupils who skip history classes such as those on the Jewish Holocaust.

Instead of whipping our backs while trying to accommodate the most indefensible of customs in the name of a misguided anything-goes cultural relativism, we secularist liberals should have the courage to defend the animating principles that make the open society: freedom, equality, openness. Anyone who wants to join in must, at least, have the courtesy to show us their face.

The expensive cost of cheap water

Photo by GenBug/Flickr

By Harry van Versendaal

From drinking to cleaning, from making newspapers to automobiles, water is used in ways that escape our awareness. Water, in other words, is too precious to be wasted, but this is exactly what’s happening, prompting a number of groups to promote ways of conserving it. One way, say some, is raising its price — as the argument goes, cheap water comes with a hefty price tag.

Experts meeting in Madrid late February warned that governments in the northern Mediterranean must phase out irrigation subsidies to farmers or risk a ballooning threat to the environment and food security.

“There are increasing incentives to produce more and to use more irrigation, because there is a very attractive market out there waiting for these same products,” said Kevin Parris, an economist at the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), pointing a finger at developing markets in India and China.

Growing demand, as a result of rising world populations and changing dietary habits, and the climate change wild card are putting a strain on water resources and intensifying the need for more efficient management of this, a precious albeit long-squandered resource.

Data is often fragmented, but the pattern is there. Some 47 percent of the world’s population will live under severe water stress by 2050, the OECD predicts. Meanwhile, farmers will need to produce nearly 50 percent more food up to 2030 and double output by 2050 to match soaring demand, according to the Paris-based organization.

Things will only get worse as a result of global warming. That, most scientists predict, will increase irrigation needs by 26 percent while exacerbating the consequences of desertification, deforestation and soil erosion — especially in the southern hemisphere.

Thirsty farmers

Agriculture is the main user of the world’s freshwater withdrawals, accounting for almost 70 percent. Eight percent goes to urban use. It is often missed that H2O is used to make everything from electricity to automobiles. So industry consumes about 22 percent of resources. Water demand among factories and domestic users has quadrupled over the past 50 years.

Water is a finite resource, which means there is only a certain amount of it out there. It is used, but it is never really used up. Water evaporates from the ground or transpires from foliage to become cloud before falling back to the earth as rain. Although humans have found a way to remove salt from seawater, a practice known as desalination, the technology, which is gaining ground in Spain, Israel and Australia, comes with a poor environmental record. It damages the coastline while using up big chunks of energy which adds to the greenhouse effect.

There is no easy way, it seems, when it comes to protecting the environment.

“There is not much to do on the supply side,” Parris said, adding that efforts should instead focus on curbing demand. And there is no better way to accomplish this, most experts agree, than by introducing a price for water that reflects its true cost.

Most governments provide financial support for irrigation — allowing farmers to pay far below market prices. Policymakers do so to serve social and political objectives, such as food security and regional development in poorer areas, but they remain deaf to the collateral damage caused by underpriced water.

Undercharging for irrigation water, Chris Charles, project manager of Global Subsidies Initiative (GSI), told the Madrid conference, has dire environmental and economic repercussions such as groundwater depletion and pollution, as it encourages intensively farmed and pesticide-intensive crops, while at the same time distorting international markets.

No transparency

A recent study by the GSI, which is a chapter of the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) found that Spain spends an estimated 1 billion euros a year on irrigation subsidies. Other countries in the northern Mediterranean — Greece, Italy, France and Portugal — the report said, also provide generous aid but the true magnitude is hard to determine as governments are wary of sharing too much information.

“That money could be better used in other parts of the economy,” said Charles of the Geneva-based outfit set up to monitor government subsidies and their impact on sustainable development.

In most cases, farmers only pay for the operation and maintenance costs for water, while shunning their due share of capital costs for hydro projects like dams and canals.

On top of discouraging the switch to water-wise technologies such as surge flow irrigation, low pressure sprinklers, drip-irrigation and moisture sensors, subsidies is the thick wall obstructing the eco-signal. “There is no scarcity message in the price of water,” Nuria Hernandez-Mora, president of the New Water Culture Foundation (FNCA), a Spanish non-governmental organization, told the conference.

Advocates of subsidies say that slashing state support is going to push up commodity prices for consumers and drive many farmers out of business. But those concerns, critics say, are not backed up by evidence. “The rise in water prices does not increase food prices at the supermarket,” Parris said, drawing on past experience in Australia and Israel.

Some people argue that the out-of-whack economics of the EU’s common agricultural policy (CAP), a system based on mammoth subsidies and artificially cheap exports, has not helped much toward conservation either. “Most aids go to intensive farming systems,” said Eva Hernandez of WWF Spain’s freshwater program.

CAP subsidies gobble up over 40 billion euros a year, i.e. more than 40 percent of the bloc’s budget. The biggest chunks of aid, Parris said, go to the richest farmers in the north who produce more water-intensive goods such as dairy, sugar beets and beef. “In the EU the richest farmers get the bulk of the subsidies. It’s bizarre and unfair,” Parris said.

Tampering with subsidies, of course, is always a tricky one for politicians who are wary of disaffecting their voters. Aid is systematically used as a tool to benefit specific groups of people which is why governments can be quite laconic about the allocation of handouts.

“Subsidies themselves create a pool of money out of which recipients can influence the very political process that channels money to them in the first place,” a recent GSI report notes. The problem is that, particularly in the southern European world of corruption-prone politicians, petulant unions and vested interests, government aid has come to be seen as natural. “Subsidies thus metamorphosize into entitlements and any attempt to curb them becomes politically hazardous,” the report says.

Greeks know a thing or two about entitlements. Local farmers have repeatedly blocked major highways with their tractors to press with their demands — and they have in most cases gotten away with it as governments pay the price for the salience of patron-client relations. This scene was repeated in early February when hundreds of farmers, from northern and central Greece, threatened to block the border with Bulgaria in a bid to pressure the socialist government into giving them tax-free gasoline, compensation and subsidies.

Know your rights

In recent years, alternative concepts have been put forward to improve water management. One of these plans is water trading, whereby users buy and sell water rights. The idea is to direct water toward high-value uses, and the scheme has found success in Australia where water rights are in some places transferred on a temporary or permanent basis between stakeholders. The recycling of water also holds promise, but low water prices do not make recycling very interesting to farmers.

Others advocate the introduction of a water footprint to track the amount of water that goes in the production of each good. According to calculations by Water Footprint Network, a Dutch-based non-profit foundation, an apple requires 70 liters of water, one glass of beer 75 liters, and one hamburger 2,400 liters. But numbers like these are unlikely to change our increasingly demanding dietary habits, especially as more and more people around the world rise into the middle class (2 billion people currently stand on the threshold, according to a recent Economist report). “Times have changed. My daughter these days wants to eat strawberries in midwinter,” Parris said.

To make things a bit more complicated, some people hold that water is a natural right and should thus be provided free of cost. That’s a cultural, economic and, perhaps, philosophical question. But even if water came from god, the standard counter-argument goes, it did so without the dams and the water pipes.

Those wasteful Greeks

Agriculture in Greece uses 87 percent of water resources — a staggering figure that is close to the average in developing countries. Low water prices have made local farmers shy of technological innovation (outdated sprinkler systems, often seen wetting neighboring plots of land or the asphalt road, are still very widespread) while encouraging water-intensive crops such as cotton.

Cotton farmers in Greece, one of the main beneficiaries of EU funds, have in the past been subsidized by up to four times the market value of their crop, but CAP reforms over the previous year have made things harder for freeloaders.

Management has never been the Greeks’ forte and management of water, too, leaves a lot to be desired. Agriculture is heavily dependent on groundwater and access is often ensured via illegal wells. Due to overpumping of groundwater, withdrawals are being extracted faster than they are recharged.

The excessive use of water is evident in the heavily farmed plain of Thessaly. A controversial project to divert the country’s second-longest river, the Acheloos, from Western Greece to the area was recently suspended by Greece’s highest administrative court citing environmental concerns.

An OECD report published last year put total subsidies for Greece over 141 million euros. “No significant effort has yet been made to make farmers pay for the important rehabilitation and maintenance costs,” the report said. The country’s landscape and the economic significance of the agricultural sector (the contribution to Greek GNP is one of the highest in Europe), it said, “are factors which explain the delay in implementing water pricing reforms.”

The EU water framework directive, launched about a decade ago, was designed to reform water pricing and financing policies toward full cost recovery. But it has yet to make an impact on Greece, where, according to an assessment published by the Greek environment ministry in 2008, the cost recovery level ranges between 1.78 and 56.25 percent.

Current trends are clearly unsustainable, but little can be achieved unless we all come to realize the true price of water. “If you ask how much a liter of gas costs, most people will know,” said Parris. “If you ask them the price of water, nobody knows.”

Pray as you go

By Harry van Versendaal

It’s not easy to get hold of Naim El-Ghandour these days. As the anti-Muslim sentiment in Greece grows, the 55-year-old Egyptian president of the Muslim Association of Greece has had to make a full-time job of defending the members of this heterogeneous minority against criticism – and increasingly against verbal and physical abuse.

Growing tension between natives and foreign immigrants, most of them Muslim, in the capital’s scruffy neighborhoods was catapulted onto center stage last week as Muslims meeting to celebrate Eid al-Adha in public squares around Athens were occasionally harassed by locals and ultra-nationalist activists. Meanwhile, even mainstream media that have traditionally backed the long-stalled plans for a mosque in Athens faulted the decision by the Muslim community to hold their prayer service in front of the Athens University (Propylaia) as a symbolically loaded gesture.

In this interview with Athens Plus, El-Ghandour, who has lived in Greece for the past 38 years, rebuffs criticism of the Propylaia gathering and expresses hope about the construction of a mosque in Votanikos, while pointing a finger at the failings of fellow Muslims.

There is a growing number of attacks on Muslims in Greece. Where do you attribute this trend?

It’s part of the rise of the extreme right in Europe. It’s a fashion that has caught on in Greece — but it will pass at some point. The ground is not fertile here, because Greeks are not racists.

Is the far-right surge a symptom or a cause? Do you see any economic or social factors behind the trend?

No, these are not merely economic. Islamophobia, the hatred for Islam, is not random. When the [ultranationalist] LAOS party and [extreme right-wing group] Chrysi Avgi were first established, they targeted Jews, not Muslims. This changed after 2001. I used to have a friend who was a member of the [LAOS] party and he would go on and on about the Jews. Now they have changed their tune.

What about the impact of the economic crisis in Greece? Could people be looking for scapegoats?

Smart people, educated people know all too well that the immigrants have not taken jobs away from the Greeks.

However, the attacks are not necessarily coming from smart, educated people.

These are a small minority and they do not concern us. We cannot deal with every single person out there. Everyone can have access to knowledge these days or they can choose to stay in the dark

Critics said that the recent prayer service [to celebrate Eid al-Adha, one of Islam’s main holidays] at the Propylaia was a political act, a show of force as it were.

Such criticism comes from the same people. I’ve been living here for 38 years and I’ve always prayed in open space, except when the weather was bad and we had to move to the Olympic Stadium. We would also pray at Eleftherias Square, near the US Embassy, as well as other squares. So why all the fuss this year?

Some said the Propylaia is a symbol of modern Greek enlightenment and it was an odd spot to pick for the prayers.

We had three options: Klafthmonos Square, the Propylaia and Kotzia Square. We recently held a service on Kotzia but we thought of moving closer to a metro station. Where is the problem with that? We could have held it at Syntagma Square, which is also a convenient place, but we did not want to disturb passers-by.

As for those who say this was a “show of force,” I say, a show of force against whom? The Greeks are our brothers and many of them visited the Propylaia to wish us well.

By the way, a prayer service at the Olympic Stadium once drew 18,000 people. The recent one at Propylaia drew some 4 to 5,000. Where is the show of force? Critics make money out of their criticism. They have not looked into the issue carefully. Controversy sells, serenity doesn’t.

The gathering at the Propylaia was interpreted as a reminder that Muslims who live here need a mosque.

We know that the construction of a mosque is under way. The Defense Ministry and the City of Athens have signed an agreement for the removal of the Navy base in Votanikos [to make space for a mosque]. It’s all been planned. The money has been found and things are edging forward like everything else here: slowly.

So there is no talk of taking the issue to the European Court of Justice?

No, not at all.

Do you think that Muslims who live in Greece must make a greater effort to integrate into society?

Yes, integration is a problem. To people from Bangladesh for example, and all those who walk around in supposedly religious attire, I tell them that there is no religious Islamic dress code – except for the women’s headscarf. Prophet Muhammad used to wear all sorts of clothes and colors. If he were alive today, he would probably be dressed in a suit and a tie. This is why I tell them: “Wear normal clothes like everyone else,” so that people are not intimidated when they see a different culture in front of them. We are not all the same. Some people are OK with this, some are not. At the end of the day, it’s they who came here, not the other way around. We can do this gradually, with long-term planning after we get an official imam.

Skeptics are concerned that some Muslims elevate religious law above the law of the state.

That’s rubbish.

They draw on the experience of other European countries, such as France and Holland.

Greece is not France. Those who went to France came mostly from the colonies that France had sucked the blood out of.

You mean to say that there is no vindictiveness by immigrants here?

That’s right. The Greeks never treated people like the French or the British did.

On the other hand, Muslims who live here are often not treated well either. Some might feel vengeful here, too.

It’s not like that here. Greece never asked these people to come here. And more came here [than Greece could absorb]. For every 10 jobs, there are some 100 people. That was bound to cause problems. Greeks are not to blame for this. And then there is the [economic] crisis.

Are you optimistic about the future?

I hope it will all work out in the end. This wave of hatred will abate. Many migrants are moving back to their homes. A number of programs are under way aiming to solve the problems caused by the large number of immigrants living in the center. Some will be accommodated in guesthouses that will provide food and a decent place to sleep. Some good will eventually come from the evil. Politicians will now have to implement the proposed solutions.

Unwanted masses on the move

 

Photo by Natalia Tsoukala

 

By Harry van Versendaal

Unwanted: There is no better word to describe European attitudes toward Roma communities. As France began to flatten some 400 camps hosting Roma migrants and to deport more than 8,000 back to Central Europe, President Nicolas Sarkozy became the latest prominent European figure to personify the continent’s prejudices against those forcibly nomadic people, also known as gypsies.

With his ratings shredded by unpopular pension reforms and budget cuts – a recent poll found that 62 percent of French voters do not want Sarkozy to seek reelection in 2012 – the French president is after a scapegoat. He has done it before. Unrest five years ago in the Parisian banlieues, the troubled suburban housing projects, shook the nation’s perception of itself. Sarkozy’s tough response as interior minister was hailed by conservative voters and was crucial in propelling him to power. Therefore, it was no surprise when after the July riots on the outskirts of Grenoble, Sarkozy replayed the law-and-order card that won him the 2007 election.

“The recent acceleration of expulsions and the fact that expulsions have been made more visible is part of a refocus of French policies on security, and probably an attempt to win votes from the extreme right,” Sophie Kammerer, policy officer for the European Network Against Racism (ENAR), told Athens Plus.

Because the Roma people are widely associated with petty crime, pickpocketing and aggressive begging, a police clampdown has been mostly welcomed by urbanites increasingly worried about public safety.

Also, gypsies are poor. The large number of 86 percent of Europe’s Roma live below the poverty line. Ivan Ivanov, of the Brussels-based European Roma Information Office, thinks the Roma are being targeted because the French government does not want them to be a burden on the welfare system. Their lifestyle makes them particularly vulnerable. “As Roma come in large groups and tend to live together in barracks, under bridges and in parks, they are more visible and easier to target,” Ivanov, a human rights lawyer, told Athens Plus.

Numbering some 12 million, the dark-skinned Roma are the largest minority group in the European Union. Until the EU’s eastward expansion, most lived outside the contours of the bloc – mostly in Bulgaria, Romania, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Seen as originating from northwest India, their European history has been one of slavery and persecution. About half a million Roma are estimated to have perished in the Nazi Holocaust.

Despite European laws on free movement, the expulsions were, technically speaking, legal. Most of the Roma who have been deported are citizens of Romania. As an EU newcomer, Romania  is subject to an interim deal that limits their nationals stay in France to three months, unless they have a work or residence permit.

However, group deportations are restricted by EU law. European Commissioner for Justice Viviane Reding originally attacked the Roma expulsions as an act of ethnic profiling and discrimination. “You cannot put a group of people out of a country except if each individual has misbehaved,” she said, drawing parallels to Vichy France’s treatment of Jews in the Second World War that made the French cry foul. Brussels, however, eventually decided to take legal action against France’s perceived failure to incorporate EU rules on free movement across the bloc – not on discrimination. Reding’s admission that there was “no legal proof” probably raised some malign smiles in the corridors of the Elysee.

Do as I do

The truth is France is not alone on this one. Denmark, Austria, Sweden, Belgium and, to a larger scale, Italy have also been deporting Roma immigrants. Apart from working toward stripping racism of any guilt in France – the proud home of liberte, egalite and fraternite – as well as in other nations, the clampdown by Sarkozy threatens to make the expulsion of unloved minorities official policy across the continent. “After France, other countries will try to deport Roma as well, citing all sorts of reasons but mainly the security issue,” Ivanov said. The campaign spells trouble for other minorities as well – if only for tactical reasons. “They might adopt such policies toward other minorities as well to avoid criticism that they are only targeting Roma,” Ivanov said.

Some critics say that there can be little progress unless it is first acknowledged that Roma not only suffer from but also cause problems. Writing for the Guardian, Ivo Petkovski said that higher crime rates among Roma may indeed be due to institutional as well as societal factors, such as poor education but integration into the mainstream “may mean letting go of some historical and cultural practices” – an issue often lost in the haze of political correctness.

It’s hard to disagree that a rigid patriarchal structure and controversial cultural habits, such as early or forced marriages and child labor, are out of tune with modern Western life. But the stereotype of the lawless nomads who want to keep themselves on the fringes of modern society is exaggerated.

“Let’s face it,” Ivanov said. “If the Roma have failed to integrate it is not because they do not want to. Who would choose to live in a miserable ghetto with no running water and infrastructure, such as normal roads, regular transport, shops, pharmacies and schools,” he said.

Integration is a two-way process. “Society should not wait for the Roma to integrate themselves and the Roma should not wait for society to integrate them,” Ivanov said. But although the Roma should follow the rules of mainstream society, he said, this should not take place at the price of their own culture, traditions, lifestyle and language. “Integration should not be confused with forced integration and assimilation. If they have to respect the culture and ethnic specificities of the mainstream society, theirs should be respected as well,” he said.

Kammerer agrees that, like every citizen, Roma have both rights and responsibilities. But the first step, she said, is to ensure that these people are able to fulfill these responsibilities. “If you argue that Roma parents should take responsibility for sending their children to school, you should first ensure that their children have access to school,” she said.

Blackboard politics

Empowerment is key. Roma hardly vote in elections. Education and training is the only way to offset centuries of abuse and exclusion and make sure that the Roma can integrate into the surrounding community and play a meaningful part in local life. “Without proper housing, healthcare or education, it is unsurprising that many people are forced to live a marginal lifestyle,” Nele Meyer, a Roma expert at Amnesty International, told Athens Plus.

Roma are often placed in schools for the mentally challenged – and many are not allowed to attend classes at all. Three primary schools in Thessaloniki, northern Greece, were recently shut down by parents protesting the presence of gypsy pupils in the classroom.

France has tried to persuade its eastern peers to do more to tackle the problem at home before it becomes a French problem. But it has found it hard to motivate their governments, particularly in a Europe without borders. Most rights activists, like Ivanov, are calling for a European Roma strategy. But Roma issues do not win elections – so it’s hard to see how national politicians will be persuaded.

Ivanov does not despair. He says it would be great to one day see Roma travel across the continent not as luckless nomads searching for a better life “but for pleasure, like any other European citizen.”

Liberalism and the burqa

By Harry van Versendaal

One of the most common arguments put forward against recent steps by some European governments to ban the full-face veil, known as the niqab or burqa, is the small number of Muslim women who wear it. Lawfulness, however, is not based on numbers. It is illegal to kill another man, even if only a few people wish to do so.

Of course, there are more arguments against such ban. Outlawing the burqa, opponents of the move say, is racist, intolerant and undemocratic. But it’s hard to miss the fact that the call for multicultural tolerance is coming from one of the least tolerant, mono-cultural segments of society. Interestingly, defense of the burqa has also drawn support from misguided liberals and leftist multi-culties (who seem to forget that many women in Muslim countries are still beaten, stoned or disfigured by their menfolk for not covering their faces) as well as some in the Christian right who are wary of losing their own “sacred” rights and privileges.

Leaving security concerns and the demeaning of women aside, one question that needs to be answered is why a majority should be subjected to the cultural whims of a minority? Doesn’t it make more sense for an immigrant to abide by the mores and values of the land where he or she has chosen to live rather than the other way round? And even though the West should not go down the oft-used reciprocity argument – “We must not allow Muslims to build mosques in Europe until they allow Christians to build their own churches there” – because a place like Sudan or Saudi Arabia cannot serve as standard for any modern European nation, it seems fair – in fact it is very crucial – to state that liberal states have no reason to give in to the yens of their culturally assertive minorities either. Yielding to one demand will naturally spawn further similar demands, and the list is already too long: sexually segregated swimming pools, the abolition of certain textbooks at schools, special medical treatment for women, calls for polygamy and forced marriages and so on (and, alas, we must not leave the defense of Enlightenment values to the extreme right).

Each time it gives in to segregationist demands, liberalism is effectively giving up a chunk of itself. In going out of their way to accommodate these customs, liberal states are helping to create a state within a state, a segregated society where people live in accordance with their own rules and values. For what does a woman clad in a full-face garment convey other than her willingness to separate herself from the rest of society? It’s like saying: “I am not one of you; I do not belong here; you are impure.”

Living in an open society is all about freedom, transparency and interaction – and the individuals who wish to participate in such society ought to, at least, be identifiable.

Turkey rediscovers the Middle East, but at what cost?

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

By Harry van Versendaal

Driven by growing self-confidence and a yen to impress the West, Turkey is increasingly engaging itself with the Arab world but analysts warn that too much Middle East activism could backfire.

Under the stewardship of its mercurial Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and its mold-breaking foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey has over the past several years sought a more prominent role in the lands of the former Ottoman Empire, assuming mediator status in chronic regional disputes and – somewhat paradoxically – taking a more assertive posture toward one-time ally Israel.

The true motives behind Turkey’s shift are not always easy to pin down. EU coldness over the prospect of full membership has certainly pushed the predominantly Muslim nation eastward, but analysts are not sure whether the reorientation signifies contempt about the snub or rather a desire to render itself more significant in Western eyes.

“The activism is both partly a reaction to the EU cold shower and partly an attempt to make itself more important,” said Hugh Pope, an Istanbul-based analyst for the International Crisis Group (ICG), an independent think tank that recently published a report on Turkey and the Middle East.

“Turkey has always been opportunistic in search of greater exports at times of high buying power in the Middle East, and Turkey has always been less outgoing to Israel when the Arab-Israel peace process has been stalled,” he said.

‘Zero problems’

Inspired by Davutoglu, Erdogan’s longtime foreign policy guru often dubbed the “Turkish Kissinger,” Ankara has pursued a soft-power policy of “zero problems with neighbors.” Over the past 10 years, Turkish trade with the Middle East has outgrown that with Europe. According to the ICG report, while Turkey’s total exports rose fourfold between 1996-2009, exports to the 57 nations of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) increased by seven times, reaching 28 percent of total exports in 2009.

In a major diplomatic turnaround, Turkey has made stunning improvement in ties with Syria and Iraq, long strained over water management of the Tigris-Euphrates river system and the alleged backing of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militia.

The realignment has come at a price. Relations with Israel have deteriorated. Following decades of close military and intelligence cooperation, Turkey’s public language is now more in tune with pro-Palestinian man-on-the-street sentiment. Israel’s raid on Gaza last year drew the ire of Turkish officials – most infamously Erdogan’s broadside against Israel President Shimon Peres at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. During a recent visit to Paris, Erdogan branded Israel “the principal threat to peace” in the region.

There’s more that Western powers have found hard to swallow. In a gesture prompted more by dogged pragmatism than Islamic solidarity, Turkish officials have resisted US-backed sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program. Turkey, a nonpermanent member of the United Nations Security Council buys a third of is gas exports from Iran and seeks to further reduce imports from Russia, currently at 65 percent. Recently Erdogan dismissed allegations that Tehran wants to develop nuclear weapons as “mere rumors.”

In one of his most controversial gestures up until now, the Turkish premier defended Sudanese leader Omar al-Bashir, indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes in Darfur, on the grounds that “no Muslim could perpetrate a genocide.”

Loyalty

Is Turkey drifting away from the West? Analysts are reassuring of Ankara’s loyalty.

“I don’t think it’s fair to say that Turkey is turning its back on the West,” said RAND global policy think tank analyst Stephen Larrabee. He said the switch is all about change in the post cold-war security environment as the Middle East has replaced the Soviet Union as the Number One hot spot.

“What you’re seeing is a process of diversification and broadening of Turkey’s foreign policy, which, during the cold war period, was oriented almost solely toward the West. It still wants strong ties with the West but it’s not solely reliant on those ties,” Larrabee said.

Pope agrees that Ankara’s realignment does not signify any chill toward the West. “The twin pillars of Turkey’s foreign policy remain the same: its EU convergence process and the political/military alliance with the USA,” he said. “There has been a tendency by some in Turkey to overstate the ability of its Middle East policy to take the place of these fundamental pillars. This is unrealistic. Good relations with the world’s superpower are obviously vital,” Pope said, adding that it is precisely Turkey’s ties to the West that make the county attractive to the Arab world.

The same goes for Europe. The Middle East has never taken more than a quarter of Turkey’s exports and supplies only 10 percent of its tourists, while Turkey does half its trade with Europe and gets 90 percent of its foreign investment from EU states, said the ICG expert.

Too big for its boots?

However, experts warn that an overstretched Turkey risks losing sight of its priorities, spending precious diplomatic energy and capital in the Mideast when it should be working to solve problems closer to home.

“It is certainly a risk. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is badly overstretched in terms of its capabilities, plus the record is clear: limited progress on thorny issues such as Cyprus and Armenia,” said Wolfango Piccoli, a Turkey expert based in London.

A settlement on the Cyprus issue, made less likely following the victory of hardliner Dervis Eroglu in leadership elections in the Turkish-occupied north on Sunday, is a prerequisite if Turkey wishes to keep EU convergence on track. Meanwhile, smoothing relations with Washington means that Ankara must find a way to implement the recently signed protocols with Yerevan, long at loggerheads with Turkey over the killing of Armenians in the crumbling Ottoman Empire.

Ankara has scrambled to prevent the full US House of Representatives from passing a resolution approved by a US congressional committee that has called the 1915 massacres of Armenians genocide.

EU unimpressed

Experts disagree over the extent to which Turkey’s Middle East activism could bolster its chances of joining the EU. For Piccoli, an analyst for the Eurasia Group, there is “a basic misunderstanding from the Turkish side: the belief that the EU can appreciate Turkey’s growing importance in the region and thus decide that it is an indispensable partner,” he said.

The problem is the EU has no coherent foreign policy and is not a credible actor in the international arena, especially in the Middle East. “The risk for Ankara is that those EU countries that are opposing Turkey’s bid for membership will exploit the issue to strengthen their anti-Turkey positions,” Piccoli said. EU heavyweights Germany and France have both grown allergic to the idea of full Turkish membership, offering vague talk of a “special partnership” instead.

Pope too sees a threat from skeptical European politicians playing to popular fears. “Some are exaggerating Turkey’s improved relations with the Middle East as a sign that Turkey is somehow not European. The reality is quite the other way round,” he said drawing parallels between Turkey’s policies in the Middle East – like visa-free travel and free trade – and postwar European peace-building measures.

“Turkey is trying to introduce EU-style ideas into the region like those that brought peace to Europe after the Second World War,” he said.


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