Cripes, it’s been a while, eh? I am overworked and underloved, but I’m still trying to keep on top of the news of the world. So let’s just skip the excuses and get down to what’s been happening.
Perhaps the biggest political hotbed of the last month or so, Serbian politics has been consumed (as usual) by the issue of Kosovo, and the region’s separation from the rest of the Republic.
As I blogged about last year, Kosovo is a small province located in the southern region of Serbia, and is considered to be the “historic capital” of Serbian national culture and history. Problem is, it’s no longer very Serbian at all. 90% of the population now consists of Albanian Muslims, who are hated and dislike by Serbia’s orthodox Christian majority.
On January 8 Hashim Thaci, a former anti-Serbian guerilla leader who is now head of Kosovo’s largest pro-independence party, was sworn in as Prime Minister after winning 37 of 120 of seats in the provincial parliament, and forming an anti-Serb coalition government.
But then, two weeks later, on January 20, Tomislav Nikolic won the plurality of the vote in the election for Serbian President. This was greeted with a great deal of horror in the west, and understandably so. Mr. Nikolic is an ultra-nationalist radical who once served in the government of the genocidal Yugoslav dictator Slobodan Milosevic. And indeed, the whole reason d’être of Serbian nationalists is to keep their country unified and pure, no matter how many people need to be ethnically cleansed along the way. After having been part of a government that waged an active war against Kosovo’s nationalist ambitions in the mid 1990’s, there were fears that history could soon repeat itself, should Nikolic assume the post that Milosevic himself once held.
But luckily Serbia is one of the many European countries that does two rounds of voting in presidential elections, to ensure that the winner gets elected with a majority. So on February 3 Mr. Nikolic faced a run-off against runner-up Boris Tadic, Serbia’s incumbent, moderate president. Tadic narrowly won (51% to 49%) and everyone gave a sigh of relief.
But Serbia is much like Quebec, in that even the so-called moderate politicians are quite intense in their nationalism. President Tadic opposes Kosovo separation too, but he’s ruled out violence as a way to deal with it.
On Sunday, February 17, The Kosovo parliament passed a motion unilaterally declaring independence from Serbia, something everyone had seen coming a mile away. The United States and European Union welcomed the world’s newest country, but Russia and Serbia remain angrily opposed.
It’s unclear what will happen now. Russia and Serbia say they will not accept the so-called independence of the so-called Kosovo Republic, and will fight to prevent the country from getting a seat in the UN, the World Bank, the Red Cross, or anything else.
But still, compared to what we’ve seen in the past, a war of uppity passive aggression against Kosovo still marks tremendous progress for the Balkan region.
On January 14 Senior Alvaro Colom was sworn in as President of Guatemala. He is the latest lefty to assume control of a Latin American country.
Guatemala holds the dubious title of presiding over one of Latin America’s longest-running civil wars, which began in the late 1950’s and only formally ended in 1996, after the signing of a peace treaty. As in most cases, the war was generally fought between a right-wing military government and Marxist guerillas, both of which slaughtered each other with reckless abandon.
Since 1990 the country has been more-or-less democratic, though there was a coup in 1993 (though it was one of those mild coups where the army just forces the president to resign and backs a new civilian coming to power).
Today, with this new president in charge, Guatemala has now achieved another historic first. The last time a leftist ruled Guatemala was back in 1951, when Jacobo Arbenz was president. He was overthrown in a CIA-backed coup after certain wealthy fruit companies in the United States duped President Eisenhower into believing Arbenz was a Communist. I realize it’s very faddish to go around declaring CIA-backed this and CIA-backed that, but the Arbenz coup is really one of the most brazen cases in which the US government quite properly did actively depose a foreign leader. Eisenhower himself admitted as much in his memoirs.
But President Colom is no Arbenz, who although not an out-and-out communist, was at least quite a radical socialist. A career businessman and bureaucrat who only recently got into partisan politics, Colom sees himself as much more of a pragmatic moderate, eager to befriend both Bush’s America and the Chavez-and-friends fringe bloc. As one of the poorest countries in the neighborhood, Guatemala needs all the help it can get, be it cheap oil from Venezuela or easy visas to the US.
CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC
The Central African Republic is one of my favorite countries. When I was fairly young I read a great book about the place called “Dark Age” by Brian Titley, and I’ve followed their political developments closely ever since.
Originally a colony of France, the country was ruled by a number of French-backed dictators after achieving independence in 1960. The most absurd of these was of course the infamous Jean Bokassa, a jolly cannibal who proclaimed himself emperor in 1976 and blew about a third of his country’s GDP on a coronation ceremony.
The French invaded and deposed him in ’79, and the country very slowly began to embrace democracy in the aftermath. A coup in 2003 brought the current president, General François Bozizé, to power, and though he continues to rule as a dictator he has brought in free and fair parliamentary elections, increased the rights of citizens, strengthened the legal system, and reformed a lot of the country’s other stagnant political institutions. But he remains an uneducated general in charge of an extremely poor country, so his life is still pretty hard.
There have been a number of strikes in the last month crippling two of the countries’ major employers- government bureaucracy and mining. In response to a worsening domestic situation, General Bozizé fired his prime minister on January and installed an unknown math professor named Faustin-Archange Touadera in his place. Despite democratic advancements, the CAR is still run largely as a cliquey oligarchy at the executive level, in which the president surrounds himself with random flunkies he appoints on personal whim with little regard for what parliament wants.
The CAR is one of several countries that are unlucky enough to share a border with the Sudan. In a situation that is rather similar to what is going on in Chad right now, Sudanese soldiers and refugees are presently streaming back-and-forth across the Darfur-Central African Republic border, which has the CAR government worried about their own political and social stability. There is talk that the European Union might send some peacekeepers to help the country secure its borders.
I hope they get this Sudan thing solved soon. The fact that the ever-Darfur situation is increasingly pulling other countries into its orbit just goes to show how very few conflicts are ever truly “isolated” in this day and age.
ITALY In first world news, Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi resigned for the second time in his short one-and-a-half year tenure on January 24, after losing a vote of confidence in the parliament.The left-wing Prodi had faced a similar crisis of confidence last February, but was persuaded to stay in office a bit longer and tried to cobble together a new coalition of support from Italy’s badly multi-divided parliament.This new coalition broken down in January of 2008, when one of the political parties backing Prodi dropped out. Prodi then asked for a vote of confidence, and of course he didn’t get one, so he resigned. When one reads the history of his recent political moves, it seems rather like Prodi wasn’t particularly interested in being Prime Minister anyway. After this latest defeat, he has said he is now finished with being Prime Minister and will not run again.
In response to Prodi’s resignation, the President of Italy, who is supposed to act as a referee in times of instability in the Italian political system (and is thus a very busy guy) appointed Franco Marini, the head of the Italian Senate to be the new interim PM. But Marini said that there’s now way he can govern the country in this current era of polarization and turmoil, so he stepped down as well.
The President has now dissolved parliament and called for new elections.
Belize is a small, narrow country on the eastern coast of Central America. It’s an interesting place, historically, because it was one of the only nations in Latin America to be colonized by the British, instead of the Spanish. Until 1974 it was called by the name of “British Honduras,” and Elizabeth II is still head of state to this day.
In contrast to their more rambunctious Latin American neighbors, Belize has been a very stable democracy for most of its independence.
Their most recent parliamentary election was on held on February 6, and resulted in a massive majority for the center-right United Democratic Party, which won 25 of 31 seats. Their leader, Dean Barrow, was sworn in as Prime Minister two days later.
Mr. Barrow is a career politician and longtime cabinet minister of the sort that is common in British parliamentary systems. He’s also the country’s first black Prime Minister. Belize is a pretty ethnically diverse country, and past PMs have been white, Latino, and mixed race.
It will be interesting to see how Prime Minister Barrow gets along with President Colom, who we met earlier. Guatemala and Belize remain trapped in a weird 17th Century style land dispute with each other, with Guatemala claiming to own most of Belize’s territory (they only recognized that Belize was even an independent country in 1993).
Fun trivia fact! Prime Minister Barrow’s son, Jamal Barrow, is the American rap star “Shyne.” A former ally of P.Diddy, he is currently serving 10 years in the Woodbourne Correctional Facility of New York on an attempted murder charge. Shyne maintained he was just trying to protect J-Lo from some haters.