Posts Tagged 'unemployment'

For Greek mainstream parties, it’s still business as usual


By Harry van Versendaal

It almost defies reason. Six years into a wrenching recession and amid heavy speculation of a snap election next year, Greece’s mainstream parties are still locked in a self-destructive business-as-usual mode.

The survival of the power-sharing government seems to depend upon support from a critical mass of disaffected – albeit moderate – middle-class voters who are wary of the implications of an anti-bailout SYRIZA administration. And yet New Democracy and PASOK coalition politicians continue to dangerously indulge in the bad old partisan habits that are, at least in part, responsible for the nation’s current woes.

“This is all path dependence. It is not really rational, but this is what they know well, what they have been doing all these years,” says Elias Dinas, a political scientist at the University of Nottingham, ahead of a Greek Public Policy Forum conference later this month on Crete which is set to discuss the impact of the euro debt crisis on national party politics and the European project.

The Greek Cabinet primarily consists of MPs who are picked on the basis of preference votes. “This creates personal obstacles for the implementation of reforms. You need a large stock of support to enter into seemingly painful negotiations with specific professional sectors,” Dinas says.

The abrupt closure of Greece’s public broadcaster ERT earlier this summer, traditionally seen as a political fiefdom of the ruling party, raised some hopes among pro-reform centrists that – notwithstanding the questionable legality of the move – Prime Minister Antonis Samaras was finally prepared to build on a clean sheet and break with a long tradition of corruption and political patronage. Those expectations were soon defeated by a number of less-than-transparent appointments at ERT’s successor, DT, and a very messy launch that has been a cause of constant embarrassment for the government.

“The logic that has prevailed in this administration is a minimum-cost logic. This is clearly a very risk-averse government, primarily aiming at maintain marginal support and sacrificing reforms that might potentially harm this fragile equilibrium,” says Dinas, an expert on the development of partisan preferences.

The government has largely shied away from much-hyped structural reforms aimed at unlocking growth and creating jobs. The most common response to pressure from Greece’s foreign lenders – the European Union and the International Monetary Fund – has been haphazard, horizontal measures designed to meet nominal staff reduction targets in the country’s sizable public sector.

Samaras, who has been premier since June 2012, has heralded Greece as a “success story,” but the numbers tell a very different one. Unemployment is stubbornly stuck above 27 percent. A stunning 58.8 percent of under-25s are out of work. Over 20 percent live beneath the poverty line. The number of live births has declined by 10 percent since 2009, while suicides have soared.

Many analysts say that it is realistic to expect the debt-wracked nation to need further support from the eurozone before it can return to the markets. It is estimated that Greece will need around 10-11 bullion euros for the second half of 2014 to stay afloat next year and in 2015 – a prospect dreaded by euro-area governments faced with an increasingly skeptical public opinion.

The big shake-up

The crisis has radically transformed the two-party political system which was established after the collapse of a seven-year military dictatorship in 1974. A long-lasting tradition of nepotism gives the impression that Greece’s fate is in the hands of the same people who created the mess.

“But we must not forget that after the May 2012 election, PASOK has seen its vote decrease to unprecedented levels while New Democracy is still a key player only because of a record increase in party system fragmentation,” Dinas says. Last year’s vote still has the record of all inter-election volatility indices among established democracies, comparable only to the very first and formative elections of new democratic regimes.

Used to sweeping more than 40 percent of the vote, PASOK is now polling around 7 percent. A Public Issue survey published last week suggested that the conservatives have slipped behind SYRIZA, although a majority of respondents still consider Samaras a more suitable premier than opposition leader Alexis Tsipras.

“I cannot see a clear solution to the crisis in the foreseeable future, which means that a SYRIZA government might at some point become inevitable,” Dinas says.

However, the big shake-up of the Greek political system came with a self-destruct button. Neo-Nazi Golden Dawn is now polling at 13 percent, almost double the figure for PASOK.

The party with the swastika-like emblem already controls 18 seats in the 300-member House after winning nearly 7 percent in the May elections. Its members have been repeatedly connected to violent attacks on immigrants, gays and political opponents. In the latest assault, nine members of the Communist party (KKE) were hospitalized last week after suspected Golden Dawn supporters wielding metal clubs and poles set upon them while they were putting up posters in Perama, near Piraeus.

The response from New Democracy – which only provided a belated and rather vague condemnation of the Perama assault – has been uncomfortably cynical. Party spinmeisters and conservative pundits have tried to play the polarization card by investing heavily in what is known as the theory of the two extremes. The idea is to discredit SYRIZA by playing up abusive language and rowdy behavior on the left and equating it with far-right violence.

At the same time, Samaras’s hard-line approach on illegal immigration combined with a political credo animated by emphasis on devotion to the nation, Orthodoxy and traditional values aspires to hijack Golden Dawn’s strongest catchment area. Studies show that four in 10 Golden Dawn voters in the May ballot came from the New Democracy camp.

Bridge building

All this polarized multipartism is unsustainable in the long run, Dinas says. One way to ease the pressure on the political system would be to reduce the number of parties in Parliament, now seven – an unlikely prospect given that all of the newly formed parties have more or less held their own since the last election. To avoid implosion, Dinas thinks, Greece’s political system must rather aim to build bridges between the pro- and anti-bailout camps, mainly by priming issue dimensions where there is room for consent, or, equivalently, potential for within-group divisions.

“This is the strategy that Abraham Lincoln used to win the 1860 US presidential election, introducing slavery as a new cleavage cross-cutting the existing cleavage structure and dividing the Democrats internally,” he says.

For Greece’s post-1974 system, the predicament is an existential one: Golden Dawn’s threat to democracy must become the glue for political action.

A lot will have to change. Until the May election, the political class was simply too busy with its own survival to grapple with the rise of Golden Dawn, as the grouping made its crucial early steps by operating as the typical local mafia branch, Dinas says, describing a protection industry that used conventional – and often illegal – means to provide services in the state’s stead.

Since then, Dinas says, the picture is similar to the contrast between guerilla and incumbent warfare in civil wars. Golden Dawn employs grassroots practices that are specifically targeted at local communities, such as – Greek-only – food handouts, blood drives and neighborhood patrols. Mainstream political parties, on the other hand, try to challenge the party through their discourse in the media. The problem, as several surveys demonstrate, is that the mainstream media – like most of the country’s other institutions – are heavily discredited in the eyes of angry voters. The elite message easily plays into the hands of the anti-systemic party.

“For Golden Dawn supporters, any criticism coming from the main parties against their own party is not going to change their sentiments; if it does, it will probably be in the opposite direction,” Dinas says.

The political system, he says, needs to adopt a different strategy – one that is built around the idea that representative democracy cannot tolerate its enemies.

“What needs to be done is to challenge Golden Dawn using its own means. You need a strong state that is prepared to take legal action against any deviation from the law in order to confront the problem,” says Dinas while also stressing the need to invest resources in creating strong social disincentives for the party’s supporters, in schools, the working environment and universities.

“One of the reasons Golden Dawn has been successful is that it provides a clear and unambiguous identity; everyone needs to belong somewhere. There is a whole socialization process,” Dinas says. For a state that managed to mobilize support for the criminal regime of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic in the 1990s, a similar anti-fascist mobilization should be a doable task, he says.

“Otherwise, Golden Dawn can only fall if it tries to embrace the political system,” says Dinas, pointing a finger at other radical right parties in Europe – such as the Freedom Party of Austria and Geert Wilder’s Party for Freedom in the Netherlands – that lost most of their appeal once they entered government coalitions.

“To be sure, this is not a prospect that we should be looking forward to.”


Local innovators try to navigate their way out of Greek mess

By Harry van Versendaal

AthensBook made a name for itself in 2009 as a free mobile phone application that served busy urbanites lost in the asphalt jungle of the Greek capital with easy-to-use, real-time location-based data: open pharmacies in the neighborhood, the cheapest gas stations and nearest on-duty hospitals — all at the tap of a touchscreen.

Three years and 145,000 downloads later, the two friends and business partners behind the project, 30-somethings Dimosthenis Kaponis and Yorgos Panzaris, are hoping to make fresh ripples in the local app ecosystem by unveiling an update that provides users with better, richer and more “social” content.

But the overall aim has not changed.

“Our goal is to provide the information people actually need while on the go,” said Kaponis from the team’s brand-new offices in Halandri, a leafy suburb in northeastern Athens. “This does not mean stuffing hundreds of mostly unused and irrelevant bits of information inside a database and serving those. Our vision lies in evaluating and providing exactly what every single one of our users needs, without them worrying too much about it,” he added.

AthensBook is available on iOS and Android, and it will soon be available in Windows 8 for tablet devices, after being selected as one of the very few companies that partnered with Microsoft in order to provide locally valuable applications for its new operating system.

Using one of those gadgets, you can now find your closest watering hole, order home delivery from the most popular pizza parlors, see what museums and archaeological sites are open, avoid traffic and even watch movie trailers with a few swipes of your finger.

Beyond the valley

AthensBook is one of an estimated 2 million apps worldwide that will be available for download by the end of 2012. A stunning 15,000 apps are released every year, far more than any other type of media — a factor that makes its success all the more remarkable.

Greece, of course, is another.

In spite of repeated pledges by politicians here to improve the notoriously hostile business environment, the country remains riddled with disincentives. Start-ups have to grapple with eye-popping bureaucracy, complex legislation and an erratic tax system. A recent report by McKinsey & Company described the Greek economy as “chronically suffering from unfavorable conditions for business.”

Kaponis puts it more mildly. “There are significant obstacles to the creation of a powerful, capable, world-class high-tech community,” he said. With the economy in its fifth year of recession, youth unemployment has skyrocketed above 50 percent.

Like many of their tech-savvy peers, the creators of AthensBook have both spent considerable quality time outside Greece. Kaponis got his M.Eng in information systems engineering from Imperial College and started a doctorate on distributed artificial intelligence at the London-based institution. He soon left his doctorate program and returned to Greece to start Cosmical Technology, providing consulting and development services to businesses. Panzaris studied electrical and computer engineering at the National Technical University of Athens (NTUA) and later turned to the humanities, getting a master’s in education from Harvard and a PhD on the history of technology from Stanford.

Add it up

The two friends, who met in the local blogosphere, came up with the idea for AthensBook in 2008. A few months later, the app was launched on an experimental basis. At the time, location-based products and services were no more than coffeehouse fodder. Similarly, location-based advertising, which relies on global positioning satellites and the triangulation of cell base stations by mobile operators to pinpoint location, was still in the offing.

“In 2008 extremely few companies were aware of mobile marketing that did not include your standard run-of-the mill SMS-based campaigns, or primitive — by smartphone standards — WAP sites,” Kaponis explained. Even advertising agencies specializing in digital media, largely Internet and mobile advertising, were just exploring the possibilities at that time, he says.

Convincing admen to take a risk on an unknown entity was an early challenge, but the two developers were fortunate to have created a pioneering service that was affordable enough for large businesses to try.

“The fact that we were bootstrapped made expanding our company harder, which in turn affected the product development rate,” Kaponis said. That probably wouldn’t have been much of an issue, he added, had they started their company in a more developed market with a better understanding of the high-tech sector.

To make matters worse, Greece was soon to be rocked by a severe debt crisis that also hit their sole source of revenue: ads. Total advertising spend has over the past three years shrunk to a small fraction of what it was in the late 2000s.

Nevertheless, “it wasn’t all bad,” Kaponis said, as web and mobile have lured a considerable chunk of ad money away from traditional media such as print, radio and television.

Personal touch

The latest edition of AthensBook features a smooth interface that connects to tens of thousands of venues including a full-featured cinema guide, restaurant guide, lists of nightlife venues, public services, museums and attractions, public transport information, taxi services, and live traffic information for the broader Athens area. To this end, the creators have made partnerships for premium, quality content like, for example, Infotrip for traffic data and for restaurant reviews.

A Thessaloniki version, ThessBook, is also available.

Apart from upgrading content, the two developers have also tweaked the nature of the app to keep up with the web’s gradual shift to more user-generated, social content. The app now offers more social and lifestyle functionality, including user reviews, tips, and ratings. “The aim is to provide a more personal, smart and useful experience, rather than the more generic, utilitarian function it originally served,” Kaponis said.

Like most young Greek entrepreneurs, the two work with an eye fixed on what is going on outside the country. Despite the growing interest, the local market is uncomfortably small, or simply unwelcoming, for Greek start-ups that have never quite produced a blockbuster hit of Pinterest or Tumblr proportions. A very small number have managed to raise capital beyond seed level. “The human capital in Greece is a mixed bag: There are many people that are talented, ambitious and willing to work hard but who are tainted by a subpar education system and the nonexistence of an industry capable and willing to absorb them,” Kaponis said.

He and Panzaris have held discussions with a number of investors and potential partners, also from abroad, with the aim of creating useful, personal guides for cities around the world. They hope to release their first non-Greek guide in the near future.

They know that success in the digital media can be uncomfortably short-lived. Much bigger companies have risen and fallen in a very short time span. Kaponis and Panzaris say they make sure they keep their feet on the ground, but still try to mix pragmatism with a healthy dose of idealism. “AthensBook is a commercial product, so commercial success is always an important part of the equation,” Kaponis said. Their passion, however, he added, has always been to provide the best possible service and product, braving the very limited resources and difficulties of doing it here. “There is a rush associated with working on a product that is innovative, and, above all, truly useful to thousands or millions of people.”

In Syntagma Square, some see the dawn of a new politics

Photo by Chris Bertsos

By Harry van Versendaal

It’s past midnight in Syntagma Square, the epicenter of Greece’s month-long anti-austerity demonstrations, and Stathis Marinos is sitting at a corner cafe overlooking the colorful tent city under the trees. Flipping a string of worry beads while sipping a frappe, the 37-year-old software engineer muses about Greece’s financial crisis.

“The memorandum is unsustainable,” he says of the loan deal signed last year between the socialist government of George Papandreou and Greece’s foreign creditors to avert default. He thinks the debt-choked country is being stifled by a mix of brutally rigid measures — and that they must be resisted. “But you cannot use the system to fight the system. You must not get caught up in this process,” he says, criticizing calls among protesters and pundits to declare the bailout agreement unconstitutional.

A few yards away, in the heart of the white marble square, a loudspeaker crackles with rhetorical din from the ongoing session at the makeshift assembly meeting. Modeled after Spain’s “Indignados” who took over Madrid’s Puerta del Sol and other public squares earlier this year, Athens’s “aganaktismenoi” (Indignants) have camped in the capital’s main square since May 25. A month after the first call on Facebook and other social media, Syntagma, or Constitution square, the starting point to the capital’s main commercial street, is playing host to a postmodern incarnation of the ancient Athenian agora.

Every evening, hundreds of people gather here to discuss anything and everything about the crisis. Speakers, who are chosen by lot, are given a two-minute time limit so as to allow for the greatest possible number of contributions. There is little of the typical booing and hissing, and audiences react mostly with hand gestures: waving their hands in the air for approval or giving a thumbs down when they disagree. Interpretations of what is happening in the square range from the groundbreaking to the delusional or just plain silly.

“This is not a movement — and it will by no means evolve into a political party. It’s more like a trend,” says Marinos, who has joined in every evening after work since day one. He has often taken part in street demos, but points out that he has never belonged to a political party. “It’s great that people familiarize themselves with the political process; they learn how to engage in dialogue with each other; how to participate in civic life,” he says of the meetings.

In the beginning, the Indignants were mostly portrayed as a non-political grouping. It was in the wake of a mass demonstration earlier this month that Greece’s mainstream parties, PASOK and the right-of-center New Democracy, came close to clinching a unity coalition deal. Talks eventually fell through and Papandreou went on to conduct a cabinet reshuffle designed to galvanize his base. He also proposed a referendum in the fall on a proposal to revise the Greek Constitution. The fact that the Indignants have put pressure on the government and the politicians, some argue, means that they have now become political.

Political animals

In fact, some analysts maintain, the movement has been political from the start. Costas Douzinas, a law professor at Birkbeck, University of London, recently penned one of the most flattering profiles of the Indignants in Britain’s The Guardian newspaper, after being invited to speak in Syntagma. For him “this is the most political movement we have had in Greece, and perhaps in Europe for the past 20 years. It is totally political and in a way it changes our understanding of what politics means,” he says.

He is not alone. Vassiliki Georgiadou, a political science professor at Panteion University in Athens, has kept a close eye on the demographics of the square. All findings so far, she says, indicate that we are dealing with a “politically active” audience. “These people are deeply disaffected and disillusioned with politicians, with the political parties and with the institutions at large,” she explains. Their reaction was not a bolt out of the historical blue. Most research shows that people’s disaffection with Greece’s social and political institutions dates back to the early 1990s. A public survey published last year found that nearly nine out of 10 Greeks are “dissatisfied with how democracy works.” The local media, which have suffered their own barrage of criticism (some of it fair) as sycophants of the status quo, like to describe the movement in emotional rather than ideological terms. “But frustration is not merely an emotional reaction. Frustration is the preamble of political protest,” says Georgiadou.

“Any kind of politics of resistance starts from a refusal. Refusal is the first step in any process of eventual political confrontation,” Douzinas says. The phenomenon seems to have a dream-come-true quality for some, and Douzinas is certainly happy to connect the dots. “Without people being in a space, taking it over and declaring their refusal of whatever it is that they want to reject, no radical change has ever taken place in history,” he says.

Skeptics, on the other hand, maintain that the memorandum is not at the root of the problem, but only a symptom. Culminating to the memorandum, they say, the trail has been one of dysfunction, waste and corruption. Writing in The Guardian last week, author Apostolos Doxiadis attacked the “charlatans” who blame the evil foreigners for our own ills and failures. Some soul-searching would instead be more appropriate, he reckons. “I know that the heart of our problem is a huge, parasitic and inefficient public sector, which EU funds, unwisely and often corruptly distributed by our politicians over the past two decades, made even bigger and less productive,” he writes.

When it comes to self-criticism and proposals to overcome the crisis, detractors say, the Syntagma folk are uncomfortably laconic. “Far form being the frontline of any kind of solid movement, the Syntagma camp-in is a confused, depoliticized, borderline-petulant response to the economic crisis,” writes Brendan O’Neill, editor of spiked website, in The Australian. He is annoyed at the absence of any serious debate about the hard stuff. Save their vociferous opposition to austerity measures, “absolutely nothing of substance is proposed,” he writes.

What virtually everyone agrees on is that Greece is a mess. Faced with bankruptcy, the country received a 110-billion-euro rescue package from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund in May 2010 but now needs a second bailout of a similar size to meet its financial obligations until the end of 2014, when it hopes for a return to capital markets for funding. International creditors have set the introduction of a painful raft of belt-tightening measures — including tax hikes, spending cuts and privatizations — as a condition for releasing more aid. A critical vote is to be held in Parliament on June 29 and 30. Meanwhile, unemployment has soared to 16 percent and crime, in what used to be one of the safest states in Europe, is on the rise. Anti-immigrant sentiment, particularly in the poorer neighborhoods of the capital, is spreading as once-marginal xenophobic groups are establishing a mainstream presence.

Square feat

Nicos Mouzelis, an emeritus sociology professor at the London School of Economics, goes as far as to draw parallels between the Indignants and the anti-globalization demonstrations in Seattle and Genoa — and, in a more far-fetched comparison, the events of May 1968. Mouzelis, a former adviser to reformist Prime Minister Costas Simitis, praises the movement’s “great dynamism, spontaneity and the rapid, widespread diffusion across all social strata.” The protests have truly brought together a very diverse crowd — but one that is not always pulling in exactly the same direction.

Browsing through the crowd massed in the square, you encounter a motley crew of leftists railing against global capitalism and neoliberalism. Posters of Che Guevara hang next to used tear gas canisters (with “Made in USA” labels) launched by police during the recent riots. The spicy fumes wafting from the assorted stands of hot-dog vendors occasionally mixes with the pungent odor of marijuana. At the assembly, people discuss the negative effects of Europe’s Common Agricultural Policy on Greek farmers before talking through some organizational issues. With time, the discourse at the meetings has become more progressive and assertive. A recent resolution called for activist-style interventions like the occupation of television stations and public buildings. For Marinos, some degree of radicalization is a “natural evolution.” “You cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs,” he says.

The Indignants’ decision to cordon off the Parliament building on June 15 to prevent lawmakers from reviewing the controversial midterm fiscal plan was widely regarded as the first break with the movement’s non-violent stance. The rally, which was also attended by thousands of union members, degenerated into violence as riot police battled with self-styled anarchists for hours. Then came the usual finger-pointing squabble over who deserves the blame for the violence. A decision to give the movement a more activist orientation, some analysts say, would most likely alienate the big mass of supporters. “Some people would like to see a fallback to traditional practices. But I am not sure that many people will want to follow,” Georgiadou says.

Interestingly, however, developments in and around Syntagma Square have thrown left-wing parties — like the Greek Communist Party (KKE) and the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) — into disarray. Early skepticism — the more sclerotic KKE went as far as to condemn the movement for not being class-driven — gradually gave way to, some say, cynical attempts to hijack the movement. They are unlikely to succeed, as most protesters view them as part of the problem. “If KKE changes, it will destroy itself,” Marinos says.

Dogs of war

Just up the steps from the assembly, in front of the illuminated Parliament building, a different group is chanting slogans and hurling insults against the “thieving politicians who destroyed Greece,” calling them to “give the money back and get the f*** out of the country.” Demonstrators make the disparaging open-palm “moutza” gesture against the House and point green laser beams — sold here by immigrant street vendors — at television crews conveniently positioned on the balconies of the Grande Bretagne luxury hotel. Mock gallows and banners taunting Papandreou as being “Goldman Sachs’s employee of the year” decorate this part of the square. Most of the acid is flung at Theodoros Pangalos, the corpulent deputy prime minister and father of the infamous “we-all-ate-the-money-together” comment. Here, in this more colorful part of the new agora, is where you are most likely to bump into Loukanikos, the famous riot dog, and manic street preacher and cult TV personality Eleni Louka yelling “repent” into a megaphone as bystanders take snapshots with their cell phones.

The rowdy behavior and nationalist overtones of the people stationed in front of the House have caused occasional spats with their left-leaning counterparts down the steps. “I don’t understand what is going on down there,” Giorgos, a young man in blue jeans and a polo t-shirt, tells me while rolling a cigarette. “I don’t have a solution to the crisis. All I know is that I am angry with all this,” he says. The blanket rejectionism and often xenophobic posturing of those upstairs conveys a sense of uncertainty, of lost bearings perhaps, in a world swept up by rapid social change.

Elias Maglinis, a writer and journalist in his early 40s who lives in the nearby Mets area, is put off by some of the crass behavior. “The gallows, the comparisons to the 1967 military coup and the slogans that the dictatorship did not end in 1973 make me angry. These people have no memory or do not know what a dictatorship or firing squad means,” he says.

At 1 a.m., the protest has petered out. About 50 people remain scattered on the sidewalk of Amalias Avenue in front of the House. Some lean over the newly installed railings to taunt the baton-wielding policemen. Two middle-aged men, beer cans in hand, chat with a police chief. A towering figure with a white mustache, the soft-spoken chief expresses his sympathy for the demonstrators. “We also are suffering,” he says pointing at his men. “My salary was slashed; I am the father of three. We are here to protect the House, not them [the deputies],” he says. Police officers, currently paid between 800 and 1,500 euros, are in for wage cuts like all civil servants. As he speaks, fireworks explode overhead as the Panathenaic stadium, the venue that hosted the first modern Olympic Games, prepares to host the Special Olympics opening ceremony.

What next?

Most analysts predict that the Indignant movement will fizzle out. “Because these movements reject any linkages to political parties, trade unions and other well-established organizations, they do not last long,” says Mouzelis. But the long-term impact on Greece’s political culture must not be discounted. “Politicians will not be able to operate ‘as usual’ anymore,” he says. And even if the hype about direct democracy in action is exaggerated, recent developments have made people realize that they can be active citizens without belonging to any particular party or trade union. “A democracy should welcome the existence of active citizens; it’s not something to be afraid of. After all, it’s better if people get together in public squares than becoming numbed couch potatoes,” Georgiadou says.

Back in the square, the assembly is voting on the resolutions proposed over the course of the day. Attendants vote in favor of organizing concerts on a daily basis, but reject a proposal to invite the country’s premier for talks. Decisions will soon be posted on the real-democracy website. Most of them dictate actions to be taken during the two-day general strike on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Ambling over to the crowd, Marinos says that what happens during the strike may well determine the future of the movement. He ponders the Marfin bank tragedy in May last year. Three employees died when the premises were firebombed during an anti-austerity rally. “Should there be human losses like then, the whole thing will die.”

Divided we stand

Photo by Mikhail Evstafiev

By Harry van Versendaal

Will Bosnia make it? Few people place much hope in this small Balkan country these days. A national vote held earlier this month has intensified pessimism about its future as it appeared to cement the political deadlock that has sabotaged Bosnia’s integration with Europe.

Fifteen years after the ethnic war that cost the lives of more than 100,000 people, the election outcome mirrored the persistent ethnic divisions inside the former Yugoslav state of 4 million people.

But there was little in the way of surprise. “The results were not unexpected given the preceding election campaign,” Stefan Wolff, an international security expert at the University of Birmingham, told Athens Plus. “Ethnic divisions will not necessarily deepen further; rather, the results reflect the existing deep divisions and these will now harden as all sides see their perceptions of the respective others confirmed,” he said.

The complexity of the election system is frustrating, even by the exacting standards of the Balkans. Voters picked the three members of their collective presidency – one from each ethnic group – along with deputies in the central, regional and cantonal parliaments. Additionally, Bosnian Serbs picked a new president and two vice-presidents as well as delegates to their own parliament.

A US-brokered deal in 1995, known as the Dayton Peace Accord, stopped the bloodshed while splitting Bosnia into two regions – a federation of Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) and Croats and a Serb-dominated Republika Srpska (RS). The two entities are relatively autonomous but they do share a joint presidency, parliament and some state institutions all based in Sarajevo. Constitutional changes, designed to undo Bosnia’s bureaucratic behemoth and unblock the country’s European path by ending international guardianship, were put on ice earlier this year amid political wrangling.

Fade to black

In a sign of hope, Bakir Izetbegovic, the son of Bosnia’s wartime Muslim leader and an advocate of ethnic reconciliation, ousted Haris Silajdzic, a hardliner, in the race for the Muslim presidency. However, Milorad Dodik — Silajdzic’s political nemesis — strengthened his grasp on power in RS after the strong showing of his party and his own convincing election as president. Dodik, who will now chose one of his close aides to replace him as premier, is the international community’s bette noir in Bosnia, as he has repeatedly called for the Serbian Republic to secede.

“Dodik – as the undisputed center of power – will ensure that the presidency of RS, which played a largely symbolic role during [Dodik predecessor] Rajko Kuzmanovic’s tenure, becomes even more prominent and assertive,” Ian Bancroft, executive director of TransConflict and a UN global expert, told Athens Plus.

Dodik makes no secret of his ambitions. “Bosnia is a mistake created during the disintegration of the old Yugoslavia,” he recently told a Serbian daily. “Bosnia cannot be, never could be, and never will be a state. That’s the only reality.” Dodik, who refuses to recognize Bosnian Serbs committed genocide in Srebrenica in 1995, predicted independence will come in the next four years. “It can be argued that the entire campaign has in a way been a referendum on RS separation,” Sara Nikolic, an expert based in Sarajevo, told Athens Plus.

In addition, many Bosnian Croats – who want the creation of their own Croat entity within Bosnia – feel disenfranchised by the re-election of Zeljko Komsic as Croat member of the tripartite presidency, apparently accomplished on the back of Muslim support due to his support for a united, multiethnic Bosnia.

There is no fast track for Bosnia, where the formation of governments usually takes four to five months. “Though optimistic estimates suggest a governing coalition could be formed by February, the persistence of such disputes and tensions will only serve to further deepen ethnic rifts as the horse-trading and political bargaining gets under way in earnest,” Bancroft said.

Analysts claim that lingering economic misery is making voters prone to nationalist tantrums. About half the population is unemployed, while growth is expected to hover this year at 0.8 percent. Despite the slew of modern shopping malls and restored mosques around Sarajevo, lack of economic development means that many of the psychological and physical reminders of the 1992-1995 conflict remain.

Still, many observers say the economy is really not the most important factor. “The deterioration of ethnic relations, which have never been very good at any rate over the past almost two decades, also has to do with the fact that nationalism remains a powerful mobilizer of people in all three of the main communities and thus is too tempting for politicians not to exploit in their quest for power,” said Wolff.

Dodik has clearly sought to benefit from the Bosniaks’ failures – a bloated bureaucracy, ineffective decision-making and poorly controlled public spending – that have left the federation on the verge of bankruptcy. “Many in RS question why they should seek closer ties with what they perceive to be a failed part of the state,” Bancroft said.

Off the radar

Western powers helped stabilize Bosnia after the war but analysts warn the region is dropping off their radar, particularly as the Obama administration is devoting most of its energies in limiting damage in Iraq and Afghanistan. At the moment, Bosnia’s security is the responsibility of some 2,000 European peacekeepers but some EU governments are calling for at least partial withdrawal. Christian Schwarz-Schilling, former international high representative for Bosnia, recently remarked that the EU and US “are not connecting on Bosnia.”

“Bosnia is in no way ready for complete Western withdrawal,” Nikolic said. Although the actual physical Western presence in Bosnia is very small, the country, which has received 15 billion dollars in foreign aid since the end of the war, is still highly dependent on economic assistance.

Wolff believes the West will not chose to ignore the troubles in its backyard. “I do not think that the West, and in particular the EU, will abandon Bosnia. It is too important for stability in Europe and as a symbol for EU crisis management,” he said.

Balkan domino

Yet again, some wonder whether there is really any point in trying to keep together a state that does not wish to continue as one. Bosnia, after all, is a country where the allegiances of a majority of its population lie elsewhere. “No amount of nation-building will help foster an overarching Bosnian identity, at least not for several generations,” Bancroft said.

But while Bosnia may lack a shared identity and a civic conception of the state, he added, it does have a largely shared orientation: EU membership. “In order to progress down that road, however, Bosnia will have to cease being a protectorate, meaning that the office of the high representative (OHR) will have to close,” Bancroft said, adding that much of the country’s woes lie with the failure to foster local ownership of the reform process. Bosnian politicians, in other words, see little reason to take on the hard stuff when they can simply blame painful and politically costly measures on outsiders.

If the past is any guide, failure to keep the fragile country together may well create even bigger problems for the region and beyond. “Another contested secession in the Balkans, after Kosovo, would be very damaging and destabilizing, as it would intensify debates on redrawing boundaries elsewhere in the region as well,” Wolff said.

Blond ambition

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

By Harry van Versendaal

Almere, a relatively new, middle-class polder city east of Amsterdam, was virtually unheard of outside the Netherlands – until last week, when it made Europe’s headlines for all the wrong reasons.

The party of Geert Wilders, by far the country’s most controversial figure, won municipal elections there. His Party for Freedom (PVV), which also came second in The Hague, the other of the two municipalities it contested, will be in control of a Dutch city for the first time. More shockingly, Wilders could be kingmaker in the upcoming general elections.

“The result is troubling but was bound to happen,” Sjoerd de Jong, deputy editor-in-chief at NRC Handelsblad, told Athens Plus. “Wilders had already shown his electoral strength in the European elections. The premature demise of the government only helped him cash his cheque.

“The Dutch electorate in general is growing tired of its traditional leaders, which is apparent in the wildly divergent election results of the last 10 or 15 years,” de Jong said of a country once the synonym of political stability for much part in the form of so-called “purple coalition” governments of Christian and social democrats.

PVV’s victory also has symbolic content emblematic of the gradual transformation of the Netherlands, a former colonial nation long seen as a bastion of tolerance and liberal values by account of its soft policy on drugs and prostitution and decades of open-door policy on immigration.

“Wilders’s message of cultural nationalism and protectionism appeals to vague but broad concerns in Dutch society, not only in the working class but also in middle-class areas and cities, like Almere,” de Jong said.

Nicknamed Mozart or Captain Peroxide for his trademark platinum-dyed hairdo, Wilders is in many ways the political heir to conservative populist Pim Fortuyn. Fortuyn, who was gunned down by a deranged animal rights activist in 2002, was the first politician to challenge the orthodoxy of the Dutch political establishment, which he liked to scoff as the “left-wing church.”

Less charismatic than the over-the-top Fortuyn, Wilders also likes to take shots at the multiculturalist model, once the sacred cow of Holland’s consensus politics. The country’s mainstream parties, long in denial of the simmering tension, failed to address popular discontent with the hard-to-integrate chunk of the nation’s so-called “allochtonen” or foreigners – tension which burst into the open following the violent murder in 2004 of eccentric filmmaker Theo van Gogh by an Islamic radical.

That someone could be killed for speaking his mind, even if that meant mocking an alien religion, was an unprecedented shock for the Dutch. If you want to live here, the new motto goes, you have to live by our values.

“Society may be becoming less tolerant of minority eccentricities, especially of religious ones. There’s always been a strong Dutch urge to ‘act normal’ – meaning ‘like one of us’ – which has gained momentum in recent years due to the uncertainties of globalization and immigration,” de Jong said.

Holland is in many ways at the frontline of a pan-European populist reaction against the established political elites, which are being blamed for allowing mass immigration and, particularly, the Islamisation of European societies. At the same time, de Jong points out, Wilders, who started out as a punk youth in the early 80s, is “typically Dutch in his bluntness,” like in his proposal of a “kopvodden-tax,” a tax on headscarves that literally translates as a “head-rag tax.”

“My supporters say: ‘At last there is someone who dares to say what millions of people think.’ That is what I do,” Wilders has said echoing Fortuyn’s famous mantra: “I say what I think and I do as I say.”

Then again, de Jong remarks, many of his followers consider Wilders too extreme, certainly for Dutch tastes. “They voted for him primarily because they wanted to send a signal to the government: We’re concerned about where this society is going and we want you to take us seriously,” he said.

The idea of a disgruntled but silent majority bound by political correctness does not go down well with many analysts.

“This is not how populism works. It’s the other way round. I think Wilders tells people what to think. He exploits people’s fears. Populist parties actually shape people’s views,” said Andre Krouwel, professor of political science at Amsterdam’s Vrije University.

Reality, political expediency or, perhaps, both have pushed Dutch governments away from the live-and-let-live approach on immigration in favor of a tougher, assimilation-oriented policy. Newcomers must now take social integration courses and pass a language test within five years after arrival or risk deportation from the Netherlands, where 6 percent of the population of 16 million are Muslim.

That won’t do for Wilders, who has said he wants a ban on headscarves for civil servants, a halt on migration from Muslim countries and a moratorium on the construction of mosques in a bid to “stop the Islamisation of the Netherlands,” which he considers a threat to freedom. “Fitna,” an anti-Islamic short movie/manifesto made by Wilders, equates Islam with Nazism.

“Wilders has a simple explanation for everything. Migrants are to blame for everything, so if you stop migration, the problems will disappear,” Krouwel said.

Although most studies show that school-dropout, unemployment and crime rates are higher among immigrants, Krouwel said, the problems should be associated with income levels, not religion.

“What Wilders does is replace a social explanation with a religious, cultural one,” he said.

Wilders’s powerful PR machine and populist tactics have certainly helped him but so has the messy political situation. The Dutch government collapsed last month after the Labor Party, the junior partner in the coalition of Christian and social democrats, refused to extend the stay of 2,000 Dutch troops in Afghanistan whose mandate ends in August. Polls ahead of the June election predict an unusually fragmented distribution of power but also a doubling of the PVV’s electoral power to 27 seats, which would make it the second biggest party and potential kingmaker.

De Jong, an experienced journalist and author, is not too pessimistic about the Wilders effect. “His party, if successful in the general elections, will meet with opposition from the established parties but also from labor unions and employers who worry about possible negative effects of his success on the Dutch economy, for instance on exports to Islamic countries,” he said.

“But of course, he will be a force to be reckoned with and one that can certainly influence the course of Dutch politics, even from the opposition.”

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