Sunday, April 22, 2007

Slovakia silent as Ukrainian crisis deepens

With President Victor Yuschenko's decision to disband parliament and hold early elections, a new political crisis began. Now it has entered its second week, foreign diplomats and well-wishers have travelled to Kiev offering to help broker a solution. Surprisingly absent from this group is Slovakia, despite having declared Ukraine its foreign policy priority in 2004. No official government statements on the unrest have been issued either. Why?

As interested as I am in the politics of country I live and work in there are some things its government does that is more surprising than what I see the President in my native country doing. So, for my Slovak readers and my American friends this is what has been going on.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, whom Yuschenko accuses of trying to oust him, met on April 12 with Lithuanian Prime Minister Gediminas Kirkilas and reassured him that the crisis would not affect Ukraine's foreign or economic policy--the country is a major transit route for natural gas to European markets--while a group of European Parliament members was also in Ukraine on a mediation mission, with EP deputy speaker Marek Siwiec urging European lawmakers to pay more attention to what he described as "a power struggle".

If these names sound familiar that is because these two, Yuschenko and Yanukovych, are old foes from Ukraine's 'Orange Revolution' in 2004, when Yuschenko won a repeat presidential vote after Yanukovych's victory in the first round was found to have been accompanied by massive election fraud. Last month defections of some MPs in the Ukraine parliament to Yanukovych's ruling coalition, made Yuschenko accuse the government of trying to gain enough support to impeach him, and shut the legislature down. Paranoia or not, the parliament has continued to meet, however, while Yuschenko insists new elections will be held on May 27.
Siwiec has said that the European Parliament and the European Union should change their attitude to what is happening in Ukraine, since if we allow the crisis to escalate it could threaten European interests and Ukraine's European ambitions. Wise words considering the geographical significance of the country. Even former Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski has been on hand to mediate between the two Ukraine leaders. Kwasniewski played a major role in brokering an agreement during the Orange Revolution.

However, in Slovakia, Foreign Ministry spokesman Ján Škoda said his ministry would not comment on a situation it regarded as an internal matter of Ukraine. Telling the The Slovak Specator "We are monitoring the situation on a daily basis, and of course we support all democratic forces in Ukraine, what we are doing is adequate for the situation. We cannot compare what is happening to the Orange Revolution."

This is odd considering the previous government statements over the past few years.
Following Yuschenko's victory over Yanukovych in early 2005, then-Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda mentioned how Slovakia would offer Ukraine all of its experiences gained from reform. The country was praised for its engagement on Ukraine by US President George W. Bush during his speech in Bratislava at the Bush-Putin summit in February 2005. High-level contacts with Ukraine have continued under the new Fico government, including visits by Fico and Foreign Minister Ján Kubiš this year and Defence Minister František Kašický and Speaker of Parliament Pavol Paška in late 2006.

In trying to answer my own question of why I remember Foreign policy analyst Alexander Duleba comments that it was too early to tell what the nature of Slovakia's interest in Ukraine would be under the new administration, basically meaning business, or Ukraine's democracy and Western integration. This is a part of the puzzle, as is the fact that there has been no public pressure, no demand for the Slovak Foreign Ministry to respond. It is understandable that Kwasniewski is in Ukraine since it is part of Poland's internal domestic discourse, but why has there been no public discourse on Ukraine in Slovakia. We have had debates on Turkey and Kosovo? This is particularily strange since it was Kubiš along with Kwasniewski who had played a key role in resolving the 2004 crisis.

Action is needed. Slovakia has a unique opportunity to be the leader within Central Europe and help pull Ukraine closer to the E.U. The closer Kiev gets the farther away from Moscow and that is what is important if European integration is going to work.

Until next time

Saturday, April 14, 2007

France's presidential election

For the past quarter-century the French seem to have accepted a sort of unwritten, profoundly conservative pact with their politicians. It goes something like this: we agree to elect you, the political class—all trained at the same post-graduate college, the Ecole Nationale d'Administration—and we will tolerate high unemployment as the price of the protection you guarantee for the rest of us. In return, you agree not to undermine that protection, and to preserve the system as it is. Recently, however, this deal has been strained to its limits. The French no longer trust their politicians to shelter them, and are furious about it. They rejected the EU constitution in a referendum in 2005, partly in protest against an enlarged Europe that threatened to suck jobs out of France and which their politicians could do nothing about. When rioters set light to the banlieues in 2005, the French were reminded that high unemployment has a searing social cost: the failure to integrate ethnic minorities.

So as the French prepare to go to the polls to elect a new president, they have every reason to feel perky. The top 40 companies on the Paris bourse have been pulling in record profits. The TGV, France's homegrown high-speed railway train, has just reached the dazzling world-beating speed of 575 kph (357 mph) on the new line from Paris to Strasbourg. And after 12 ‘interesting’ years under 74-year-old Jacques Chirac, voters are about to hand power to a fresh, dynamic younger generation. However, as the French head to the voting booths for their two-round poll, on April 22nd and May 6th, they do so in a collective funk. They are fed up and fearful. Fearful that their jobs will disappear abroad, that their children will not find work, that the banlieues will explode again, that their welfare system will collapse. They are also tired of politicians who seem neither inclined nor capable of doing anything about it. Not all of this declinism is justified. Elements of the methodically planned, generously financed French system still serve the country well. For example, France's public hospitals are first-rate. Free nursery schooling has helped to boost birth rates to among the highest in Europe. With such success also underlines a system that has undermined risk-taking, and braked economic growth. The past five years, has seen GDP growth in France below the OECD average. No greater concernation for French pride is to see Germany's economy take off, again, while France's has stalled: in the fourth quarter of 2006, on a year-on-year basis, GDP grew more slowly in France than in any other European Union country except Portugal.

There are many reasons for this underperformance, in particular, the fragile industrial middle. But the single biggest problem is that not enough people work, and when they do, they do not spend enough time on the job. France's 35-hour work week is one of the shortest in the world; the employment rate for the over-55s one of the lowest; and unemployment has not dipped below 8% for 25 years. Over-protected jobs prompt employers to recruit temporary staff, thereby entrenching the very insecurity that protected job contracts are meant to prevent, cutting off employment growth of minority communitites that have lead to the recent rioting.
Into all this steps three very different, very electiable canditates. The upstart Socialist outsider Ségolène Royal, a mother of four, whose partner, François Hollande, happens to be the party boss, and it does not hurt that she also seems to embody modernity. She talked unlike any leader on the French left, admiring Tony Blair's employment record and using taboo phrases like “labour flexibility”. She has proven internet-savvy, and promised a new “participatory democracy”. At last, it seemed, here was a leader who could modernise the French Socialists. Then there is Mr Bayrou. A former education minister repackaged as a provincial farmer from the south-west, Mr Bayrou promises to “bridge the left-right divide”. His programme is a mix of fiscal prudence and old-style interventionism. He is admirably bold about curbing public debt, and promising to spend only what the state can afford. He hopes to encourage job creation, by allowing each company to hire two workers free of payroll charges. He wants to lower France's wealth tax by broadening its base.Although his surge in the polls has levelled off lately, he remains a contender, drawing those disillusioned both with the palaeo-Socialists and Mr Sarkozy on the right. Finally, there is Nicolas Sarkozy.

His economic program defies classification. On industrial policy, he is an unapologetic interventionist. He is proud of having rescued Alstom, an engineering firm, from bankruptcy with taxpayers' money when finance minister, in 2004. He says it was “a mistake” to have sold Arcelor, a steelmaker taken over by Mittal last year. Three elements of Mr Sarkozy's program, however, are of more liberal inspiration. First, he understands the need to remove obstacles to job creation. He plans to liberalise the 35-hour week by exonerating all overtime from payroll charges and income tax. Second, he believes in minimising taxation. He wants to lower the overall personal tax rate from 60% to 50%; and he promises, optimistically, to cut the overall tax burden by four percentage points over ten years, and public debt to 60% of GDP by 2012. Sarkozy is also ready to confront France's bastions of conservatism. He promises to give universities more autonomy, letting them compete to recruit staff and students. He says he would break the big five unions' statutory stranglehold on representation in companies. He intends to introduce a law that will guarantee “minimum service” on public transport during strikes. And he wants to reform the special pension regimes for railway drivers and other state employees that enable them to retire early on full pension.

These are the reasons that Sarkozy is the only candidate who seems both to have understood the urgency of reform and to have the abrasiveness to stand a chance of carrying it out. A political outsider, who fought his way to the top of the Gaullist party through hard work and cunning, he remains fearless in the face of opposition. For all of Europe, France’s presidential election is important. Central and Eastern European countries new to the European Union and those still benefiting from the labor flexibility that such ‘western’ european countries have provided their citizens who wins the first round is important, but who wins the second is vital not only to the next 50 years of this European Union, but France’s relationship to the world.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

The Gulf 15

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced today that the 15 British sailors and marines who were captured in the Gulf last month are to be released "immediately". Speaking at a press conference to mark the Iranian New Year, he maintained the military personnel had "invaded" Iran's territorial waters and described their release as a "gift". Meanwhile, the Iranian state news agency Irna reported that an envoy was being given access to five Iranians detained by the US military in Iraq since January. This was done shortly after Mr. Ahmadinejad gave medals to the Iranian naval officers who had taken the 15 sailors.

This seems to be a happy ending. But as Phillip Jacobson stated in his article Chronicle of a Kidnapping Fortold “Iran's Supreme Leader warned publicly that the Islamic regime intended to retaliate in kind for "illegal measures" he claimed had been taken against Iran by the international community. In a tub-thumping speech to mark the Iranian New Year, Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Khamenei electrified a crowd in Mashad with a defiant declaration that "we can also act against the law and we will do so". Some experts on Iran interpreted this as proof that Khamenei had already given the nod for a strike against the West in response to the international community's opposition to the controversial Iranian nuclear program. If this is true then a new angle to this how crisis is reveled.

So, if engagement instead of confrontation does indeed prove correct (let us wait till the news cameras show those sailors on British soil) then it could set a useful precedent. Moderates on both sides could then point to this crisis and accurately say that talks with the west can yield results, giving fresh impetus for negotiations on Iran’s nuclear plans.