Monthly Archives: March 2013

Syria: A Multi-Sided Chess game

Syria: A Multi-Sided Chess Match

Dispatches From The Edge

March 31, 2013

In some ways the Syrian civil war resembles a proxy chess match between supporters of the Bashar al-Assad regime— Iran, Iraq, Russia and China—and its opponents— Turkey, the oil monarchies, the U.S., Britain and France. But the current conflict only resembles chess if the game is played with multiple sides, backstabbing allies, and conflicting agendas.

Take the past few weeks of rollercoaster politics.

The blockbuster was the U.S.-engineered rapprochement between Israel and Turkey, two Washington allies that have been at loggerheads since Israeli commandos attacked a humanitarian flotilla bound for Gaza and killed eight Turks and one Turkish-American. When Tel Aviv refused to apologize for the 2010 assault, or pay compensation to families of the slain, Ankara froze relations and blocked efforts at any NATO-Israeli cooperation.

Under the prodding of President Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu phoned his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and buried the hatchet. The apology “was offered the way we wanted,” Erdogan said, and added “We are at the beginning of a process of elevating Turkey to a position so that it will again have a say, initiative and power, as it did in the past.”

The détente will align both countries with much of Washington’s agenda in the region, which includes overthrowing the Assad government, and isolating Iran. Coupled with a Turkish push to resolve the long simmering war between Ankara and its Kurdish minority, it was a “Fantastic week for Erdogan,” remarked former European Union policy chief Javier Solana.
It was also a slam dunk moment for the Israelis, whose intransigence over the 2010 incident and continued occupation of Palestinian and Syrian lands has left the country more internationally isolated than it has been in its 65 year history.

Israel’s apology might lay the groundwork for direct intervention in Syria by NATO and Israel. In recent testimony before Congress, Admiral James Stavridis, the head of U.S. European Command and NATO’s top commander, said that a more aggressive posture by the Obama administration vis-à-vis Syria “would be helpful in breaking the deadlock and bringing down the regime.”

According to the Guardian (UK), Netanyahu raised the possibility of joint U.S.-Israeli air strikes against Syria, which Israel accuses of shifting weapons to its ally Hezbollah in Lebanon. There is no evidence that Syria has actually done that, and logic would suggest that the Assad regime is unlikely to export weapons when it is fighting for its life and struggling to overcome an arms embargo imposed on it by the EU and the UN. But Tel Aviv is spoiling for a re-match with Hezbollah, the organization that fought it to a standstill in 2006. “What I hear over and over again from Israeli generals is that another war with Hezbollah is inevitable,” a former U.S. diplomat told the Guardian.

There is some talk among Israelis about establishing a “buffer zone” inside Syria to prevent Islamic groups becoming a presence on the border. A similar buffer zone established after Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon turned into a strategic disaster for Tel Aviv.

Admiral Stavridis’s suggested that a more aggressive posture would almost certainly not include using U.S. ground troops. According to former Indian diplomat M. K. Bhadrakumar, a more likely scenario would be for NATO air power to smash Assad’s air force and armor—as it did Mummer Khadafy’s in Libya—and “if ground forces need to be deployed inside Syria at some stage, Turkey can undertake that mission, being a Muslim country belonging to NATO.”

The Gulf monarchies—specifically Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Jordan—have increased arms shipments to the anti-Assad insurgents, and France and Britain are considering breaking the embargo and arming the Free Syrian Army. If this were a normal chess game, it would look like checkmate for Assad, Hezbollah, and Iran. But this game is three-dimensional, with multiple players sometimes pursuing different goals.

Qatar and Saudi Arabia are pouring what one American official called “a cataract of weaponry” into Syria, but the former apparently double-crossed the latter in a recent leadership fight in the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), the umbrella organization for the various groups fighting against the Damascus government. Qatar derailed Saudi Arabia’s candidate for the SNC’s prime minister and slipped its own man into the post, causing the organization’s president, Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, to resign. While most the western media reported Khatib resigned because SNC was not getting enough outside help, according to As-Safir, the leading Arabic language newspaper in Lebanon, it was over the two big oil monarchies trying to impose their candidates on the Syrians.

Qatar ally Ghassan Hitto, a Syrian-American was anointed prime minister, causing a dozen SNC members to resign. The Free Syrian Army, too, says it will not recognize Hitto.

Khatib also objected to the Qatari move to form a Syrian government because it torpedoed last June’s Geneva agreement that would allow Assad to stay on until a transitional government is formed. The Qatari move was essentially a statement that the Gulf monarchy would accept nothing less than an outright military victory.

Qatar is close to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, while Saudi Arabia favors the more extremist Islamic groups, some with close links to al-Qaida, that the U.S. and the European Union have designated as “terrorist.” Tension between extremist and more moderate insurgents broke into an open firefight Mar. 24 in the northern border city of Tal Abyad. The secular Farouq Battalions, which favors elections and a civil government, were attacked by the Jabhat al-Nusra, or Nusra Front, that wants to impose Sharia Law and establish an Islamic emirate. Four people were killed, and the leader of the Farouq Battalions was severely wounded.

The Nusra Front has also tangled with Kurdish groups in Syria’s northwest, and its militias currently control much of the southern border with Iraq, Jordan, and the Golan Heights that borders Israel. It was the Nusra Front that recently kidnapped UN peacekeepers for several days and attacked Iraqi soldiers escorting members of the Syrian military who had fled across the border. There have also been clashes between secular and Islamic forces in the Syrian cities of Shadadeh and Deir el Zour.

The Turkish government backing of the Syrian insurgency is not popular among most Turks, and that has to concern Erdogan, because he is trying to alter the Turkey’s constitution to make it more executive-centered and to himself become the next president. Although he is currently riding a wave of popularity over the Kurdish ceasefire, that could erode if the Syria war drags on.

And without direct NATO-Israeli intervention there does not appear to be any quick end to the civil war in sight. Assad still has support from his minority ethnic group, the Alawites, as well as among Christian denominations and many business groups. All fear an Islamic takeover. “If the rebels come to this city,” one wealthy Damascus businessman told Der Spiegel, “they’ll eat us alive.”

The longer the war goes on, the more the region destabilizes.

Fighting has broken out between Shiites and Sunnis in northern Lebanon, a Sunni-extremist fueled bombing campaign is polarizing Iraq, and Jordan is rent by an internal opposition that poses a serious threat to the Hashemite monarchy. Even Saudi Arabia has problems. A low-level but persistent movement for democracy in the country’s eastern provinces is resisting a brutal crackdown by Saudi authorities. As National Public Radio and GlobalPost reporter Reese Erlich discovered, some of those regime opponents are being given a choice between prison and fighting the Assad government, a strategy that the Saudi government may come to regret. It was jihadists sent to oppose the Soviets in Afghanistan who eventually returned to destabilize countries in the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa, and who currently form the backbone of al-Qaida associated groups like the Nusra Front .

Aaron Zelin, Middle East expert and Fellow at the Washington Institute told Erlich that fighters from Saudi Arabia, Libya, Tunisia, and Jordan are being funneled into Syria.

Chess with multiple players can get tricky.

Turkey wants regional influence and Assad out, but it does not want a neighbor dominated by the Gulf monarchies. It may also find that talking about Turkish “power” doesn’t go down well in the Middle East. Arab countries had quite enough of that during the Ottoman Empire.

The Gulf monarchies want to overthrow the secular Assad regime, isolate regional rival Iran, and insure Sunni supremacy over Shites in the region. But they don’t agree on what variety of Islam they want, nor are they the slightest bit interested in democracy and freedom, concepts that they have done their best to suppress at home.

The French and British want a replay of Libya, but Syria is not a marginal country on the periphery of the Middle East, but a dauntingly complex nation in the heart of the region that might well atomize into ethnic-religious enclaves run by warlords. That is not an outcome that sits well with other European nations and explains their hesitation about joining the jihad against Assad.

Even the Israeli goal of breaking out of its isolation, destroying Hezbollah, and strangling Iran may be a pipe dream. Regardless of Turkish-Israeli detente, the barriers that keep Palestinians out of Israel also wall off Tel Aviv off from the rest of the Middle East, and that will not change until there is an Israeli government willing to remove most of the settlements and share Jerusalem.

As for Hezbollah, contrary to its portrayal in the western media as a cat’s paw for Teheran, the Shite group is a grassroots organization based in Lebanon’s largest ethnic group. It is also being careful not to give the Israelis an excuse to attack it. In any case, any Israeli invasion of Lebanon would automatically rally international sentiment and Arab public opinion—Shite, Sunni, Alawite, etc.—against it.

If Assad falls, Iran would lose an ally, but Teheran’s closest friend in the Middle East is Baghdad, not Damascus. And despite strong American objections, Teheran recently scored a major coup by inking an agreement with Pakistan’s government to build a $7.5 billion gas pipeline to tap Iran’s South Pars field. The pact will not only blow a hole in western sanctions against Iran, it will play well in the May 11 Pakistani elections. “The Pakistani government wants to show it is willing to take foreign policy decisions that defy the U.S.,” says Anthony Skinner of the British-based Maplecroft risk consultants. “The pipeline not only caters to Pakistan’s energy needs but also logged brownie points with the many critics of the U.S. among the electorate.”

In the end, the effort to knock Syria off the board may succeed, although the butcher bill will be considerably higher than the current body count of 70,000. But establishing a pro-western government in Damascus and inflicting damage on Iran is mostly illusion.  “Victory”—particularly a military one— is more likely to end in chaos and instability, and a whole lot more dead chess pieces.

 

—30—

Advertisements

14 Comments

Filed under FPIF Blogs, Middle East, Syria

Egypt: A Coup In The Wings?

Egypt: A Coup In The Wings?

Dispatches From The Edge

Conn Hallinan

Mar. 18, 2013

When an important leader of the political opposition hints that a military coup might be preferable to the current chaos, and when a major financial organization proposes an economic program certain to spark a social explosion, something is afoot. Is Egypt being primed for a coup?

It is hard to draw any other conclusion given the demands the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is making on the government of President Mohamed Morsi: regressive taxes, massive cuts in fuel subsidies, and hard-edged austerity measures whose weight will overwhelmingly fall on Egypt’s poor.

“Austerity measures at a time of political instability are simply unfeasible in Egypt,” says Tarek Radwan of the Washington-based Atlantic Council. “He [Morsi] is already facing civil disobedience in the streets, protests on a weekly, if not daily basis, clashes between protestors and security—he does not want to worsen the situation.”

The “situation” consists of wide spread police strikes, particularly in the industrial city of Port Said, but also including parts of Cairo and the heavily populated Nile Delta. The police in Sharqiya have even refused to protect Morsi’s house. At its height the strike spread to half of Egypt’s 27 administrative governorates.

Microbus drivers, angered at rising diesel prices and fuel shortages, blocked roads leading into Cairo, setting off massive traffic jams. Farmers in the Delta joined them, refusing to ship crops and shutting down farm machinery.

Added to the tense political situation are rapidly shrinking foreign currency reserves, an economy that is dead in the water, and an unemployment rate that has risen to 13.5 percent, and close to 25 percent for Egyptians aged 15 to 29. The number of Egyptians living below the poverty line has increased from 20 percent in 2010 to 25 percent today. And tourism, which contributes 11 percent of the gross domestic product, has tanked.

Morsi’s Islamist government appears increasingly isolated, although the Muslim Brotherhood is still the best organized political force in Egypt. Reaching out to the opposition, however, is not its strong point. Morsi was elected with only 52 percent of the vote, and most observers think that support has eroded in the face of economic crisis and political instability. The government managed to ram through an Islamist constitution, but only 33 percent of the voters went to the polls. The government had planned on elections sometime between April and June, but a court recently overturned that decision.

The Morsi government has increasingly resorted to the use of force against opponents, including police tactics similar to those used by the Mubarak government. The government Attorney General recently caused an uproar by asking for “civilians” to arrest “lawbreakers.” The opposition charges that the call is cover for the Morsi government to set up militias dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood.

The plagues being visited upon Egypt may not be of Biblical proportions, but they are serious enough to destabilize the biggest Arab country in the Middle East. They certainly threaten the gains of the January 2011 revolution that overthrew the autocratic and corrupt government of Hosni Mubarak and sent the powerful Egyptian army back to the barracks.

They may not stay there long.

Opposition leader Essam Al-Islambouli of the National Salvation Front told Al-Ahram Weekly,  “Today, we don’t just have a convoluted political process, but we are also facing confused and disturbing economic challenges, and we are seeing the threat of citizens bearing arms against each other. We might be reaching a point at which it will become inevitable for the Armed Forces to step in.”

Mohamed ElBaradei, head of Egypt’s Constitutional Party and founding member of the opposition National Salvation Front, told Ahram Online that while he doesn’t “hope the military takes over,” it would be better to be ruled by the military than by Islamic militias.

The Muslim Brotherhood does have a paramilitary wing called the “Hawks” that surfaced in 2006 during demonstrations at Al-Azhar University, and one rumor is that the MB has as many as 5,000 soldiers. There is also a reputed pledge by Hamas to send fighters from Gaza to support the MB. But it is very unlikely that the Brotherhood has anywhere near 5,000 armed men, and Hamas official Mahmoud Al-Zahar denied that the Palestinian organization intends to interfere in Egypt, calling the rumor nothing more than an attempt to smear Hamas. Indeed, relations between Hamas and the Morsi government have recently cooled.

The puzzling thing about the IMF’s demands is that they fly in the face of a recent study by the organization’s chief economist Oliver Banchard, which found spending cuts and taxes hikes only make recessions worse. Stimulus spending are far more effective in restarting an economy.

The Morsi government was hoping the international lending organization would front it $4.8 billion to pull Egypt through the current crisis, but Cairo has delayed asking for the loan, in large part because it is afraid of what the reaction would be.  Cutting fuel subsidies would fall heavily on the poor, who use kerosene for cooking. However, without the IMF loan, loans from the U.S. and the European Union will be put on hold as well.

The Morsi government’s fear is well founded. Egypt has long been a difficult country to govern without the consent of its people unless rulers can call on a powerful army. Its population of 83 million is concentrated in a few urban areas, the Delta, the narrow strip of land bordering the Nile, and several cities in the Canal Zone.

That concentration makes demonstrations formidable, as the Mubarak government found out in 2011. The Morsi government recently discovered that fact when it sentenced 21 soccer fans to death for their part in a 2012 riot in Port Said that killed 74 people. Port Said exploded at the verdict.

With the police overwhelmed—and on strike—Morsi was forced to call in the Egyptian Army to confront the rioters, but military commanders were less than happy at being caught between the demonstrators and the government. “The Egyptian armed forces is a combat institution not a security institution,” grumbled Gen. Ahmed Wasfi, head of the Army division sent into Port Said. “No one can imagine the Army replacing the Interior Ministry.”

Defense Minister Gen. Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi warned the Morsi government not to try and “brotherhoodise” the military, and also hinted darkly that the continued unrest could bring about a possible “collapse of the state.” It was a sobering statement from an institution that has intervened on other occasions in Egypt, including during the 1952 coup/ revolution that put Gamal Abdel Nasser into power.

As long as Mubarak controlled the army, he could rule Egypt. When the army stepped back in 2011, the government fell.

It is an old story. Ancient Egypt was one of the few areas in the Roman Empire that required two full legions just to keep the peace. And the Romans found that when Egyptians got riled, it was best to back off and cut a deal. Cleopatra used the power of Egypt’s population to hold off Roman rule for more than two decades. It is a force that no government can afford to take lightly.

It is no secret that the U.S. is not overly enthusiastic about the Morsi government. During his recent visit, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry offered aid—and a modest $250 million at that—but only if the government instituted “painful” austerity measures and kept Cairo’s foreign policy consistent with Washington’s. The U.S. has the most powerful voice in the IMF—it outvotes Japan, Germany and France combined—and the fact that the lending organization demands essentially parallel those made by Kerry is hardly coincidence.

The oil-rich monarchies of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the U.S.’s major allies in the Middle East, have been telling Washington “We told you so” about Islamic governments, and GCC member Qatar, which initially pledged $4.3 billion in aid, has yet to make good on it. Qatar and other GCC nations have also reneged on an economic assistance package.

Morsi’s government is hardly radical. Its economic policies reflect its urban professional roots, and what MB business leader Hassan Malek calls “capitalism with attention to the poor,” a pledge that will be hard to reconcile with the IMF’s formula.

But Egypt has adopted a foreign policy that is not always in perfect alignment with Washington, including re-establishing relations with Iran and sharpening the criticism of Israel for its occupation of the West Bank and Golan Heights.

The U.S. has traditionally been more comfortable with authoritarian governments in the Middle East than democratic or Islamic ones, and it has influence with the Egyptian military through its $1.3 billion in yearly aid.

Are the statements by Egypt’s opposition concerning the possibility of a military takeover simply a political maneuver aimed at forcing the Morsi government to be more inclusive, or are they laying a foundation for a coup? Loose talk about an Army takeover in Egypt is a little like hand feeding a crocodile: a good way to lose a body part.

Why is the IMF ignoring its own findings on austerity to push a program that can only ignite massive resistance? And why is the U.S. piling on?

Egypt is looking at a summer of higher food prices, rising unemployment, blackouts, fuel shortages, and growing political unrest. If the country were a chessboard, it looks like a lot of pieces are lining up for an assault on the king.

 

—30—

3 Comments

Filed under FPIF Blogs, Middle East

Hugo Chavez: Lest We Forget

Hugo Chavez: Lest We Forget

Dispatches From The Edge

Mar. 8, 2013

In early December 2001, I was searching through my files looking for a column topic. At the time I was writing on foreign policy for the San Francisco Examiner, one of the town’s two dailies. A back page clip I had filed and forgotten caught my attention: on Nov. 7 the National Security Agency, the Pentagon, and the U.S. State Department had convened a two-day meeting on U.S. policy vis-à-vis Venezuela. My first thought was, “Uh, oh.”

I knew something about those kinds of meetings. There was one in 1953 just before the CIA and British intelligence engineered the coup in Iran that put the despicable Shah into power. Same thing for the 1963 coup in South Vietnam and the 1973 coup against Salvador Allende in Chile.

Chavez had reaped the ire of the Bush administration when, during a speech condemning the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, he asked if bombing Afghanistan in retaliation was a good idea? Chavez called it “fighting terrorism with terrorism,” not a very good choice of words, but, in retrospect, spot on. The invasion of Afghanistan and the subsequent Iraqi War have been utterly disastrous for the U.S. and visited widespread terror on the populations of both countries.  Upwards of a million Iraqis died as a direct and indirect effect of the war, five million were turned into refugees, and the bloodshed is far from over. Much the same—albeit on a smaller scale—is happening to the Afghans.

Would that we had paid the man some attention.

But for the Bush administration, Chavez’s statement presented an opportunity to rid itself of a troublesome voice. In came the White House’s Latin America “A Team.”

The top gun in that odious outfit was Otto Reich, assistant secretary of state for western hemispheric affairs and former Reagan Administration point man for the 1981-87 Contra War against Nicaragua. The General Accounting Office had nailed Reich during the 1986 Iran-Contra scandal for “prohibited convert propaganda,” planting false stories and opinion pieces in newspapers. A Cuban exile, Reich had helped spring Orlando Bosch in 1987 from a Venezuelan prison where Bosch was in jail for bombing a civilian Cuban airliner and killing 73 people.

Rogelio Pardo-Maurer, deputy assistant secretary of defense for western hemisphere affairs, also a Cuban exile and former chief of staff for the Contras, was the Pentagon side of the team.

While Reich met with civilian opponents of Chavez and conservative businessman Pedro Carmona, Pardo-Maurer huddled with military leaders, including Gen. Lucas Romero Rincon. Carmona and Rincon would play a key role in the April 11, 2002 coup against Chavez. The National Endowment for Democracy and United States Agency for International Development were also supporting Chavez’s opponents with money and advice, and both organizations have long histories of subversion and covert operations.

I had no special information about the possibility of a coup but it didn’t take a crystal ball to see that the armies of the night were on the move. So I wrote a column titled “Coup in the Wind” that laid out the meetings, identified the actors, and reminded readers that the U.S. has a long and sordid history of organizing and supporting coups in Latin America.

A little more than three and a half months later, the plotters struck, arrested Chavez, suspended the constitution, dissolved the legislature, dismissed the Supreme Court, the Attorney General and the National Election Commission, and fired provincial governors. We had seen this all before, and I flinched at what I thought would inevitably follow: executions, death squads, “disappeared” opponents, smashed unions, and a cowed population. But April 11, 2002 was not 1954 in Guatemala, 1964 in Brazil, 1973 in Chile, or 1976 in Argentina. Chavez had lifted millions of people out of poverty, opened schools, increased literacy, and tackled malnutrition. In vast numbers those people rose up, and, for the first time in Latin American history, a coup was overturned.

Three days after Chavez was returned to office, Martha Honey at Foreign Policy In Focus sent me an email saying she liked the coup column and would I consider writing a follow-up for the think tank? I knew all about Martha Honey and her husband, Tony Avirgan. As reporters for the Costa Rican Tico Times, they had uncovered much of the Iran-Contra plot and were legends among those of us in the alternative press. I also knew about FPIF. It is hard to write sensible things about U.S. foreign policy without it. So I did a piece called “Anatomy of a Coup,” detailing U.S. support for the plotters. Since then I have written over 200 columns, so in a way it was Hugo Chavez that landed me at FPIF.

Chavez became the president of a country where 70 percent of the population was considered “poor,” in spite of $30 billion in yearly oil revenues. It was a country where two percent of the population owned 60 percent of the land, and where the gap between rich and poor was among the widest on the continent.

Today, according to the Gini Coefficient, Venezuela has the lowest rate of inequality in Latin America. Poverty has been reduced to 21 percent, and extreme poverty from 40 percent to 7.3 percent. Illiteracy has been eliminated and, proportionally, Venezuela is number two in Latin America for the number of university students. Infant mortality has dropped from 25 per 1,000 to 13 per 1,000, the same as it is for Black Americans. Chavez’s government increased the number of health clinics by 169.6 percent, and hands out free food to five million Venezuelans. Take a moment to read “The Achievements of Hugo Chavez” by public health experts Carles Muntaner, Joan Benach, and sociologist Maria Paez Victor in CounterPunch.

Comparing the man’s accomplishments to his U.S. obits was like taking a trip through Alice’s looking glass. Virtually none of the information about poverty and illiteracy was included, and when it was grudgingly admitted that he did have programs for the poor, it was “balanced” with claims of soaring debts, widespread shortages, rampant crime, economic chaos, and “authoritarianism.”

Venezuela’s debt as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product is lower than that of the U.S. and Europe. Inflation has fallen to a four-year low. There is crime, but neighboring Colombia is far more dangerous, particularly if you happen to be a trade unionist. And more people in Venezuela are eating better than they have ever eaten in the history of the country. Over the past decade growth has averaged 4. 3 percent, and joblessness dropped from 11.3 percent to 7.7 percent. Americans would kill for those figures.

As for being an “authoritarian,” most the country’s media is venomously anti-Chavez and publishes regularly, and his opponents hold weekly rallies and protests. Want to try that in U.S. ally Honduras (or Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, etc.)?

The old Venezuelan elites—aided by the U.S.—will now attempt to turn the clock back to 1997, the year before Chavez took over. But that will not be easy. Quite literally millions of people have been brought into the democratic process and they will not cede power without a fight. Once people have better housing, schools, nutrition, jobs and health care, it is very difficult to take those things away. Chavez handed a better life to the vast majority of Venezuelans, and, as they demonstrated in April 2002, they are perfectly able to defend those gains.

“Charismatic and idiosyncratic, capable of building friendships. Communicating to the masses as few other leaders ever have, Mr. Chavez will be missed,” is the way former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva put it.

He will be missed, indeed.

—30—

8 Comments

Filed under Latin America

Italy’s Election: Lighting the Lamp

Italy’s Election: Lighting The Lamp

Dispatches From The Edge

Feb. 28, 2013

 

 

On the eve of the World War I the British diplomat Sir Edward Gray is purported to have said, “The lamps are going out all over Europe.” In the wake of the recent Italian election one might reverse that phrase: after years of brutal austerity, collapsing economies, widespread unemployment and shredding of the social welfare net, Italians said “basta!” “Enough!”

 

And lamps are going on all over Europe.

 

Slovenians just turned out their conservative government and handed the reins to Alenta Bratusek, who compared austerity to “medieval medicine.” Tens of thousands of Bulgarian demonstrators forced their austerity-addicted government to resign. Support for the ruling parties of Spain and Portugal, which have overseen higher taxes and massive cutbacks, has dropped precipitously.  German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative Democratic Union took a beating in local elections. France’s Socialist Party rode an anti-austerity program to victory, and the leftist Syriza Party in Greece is now the most popular in that country.

 

Nowhere in Europe, however, has the austerity policies of the “troika”—the European Union (EU), the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF)—taken such a thorough shellacking as in Italy. Prime Minister Mario Monte’s government of technocrats, who piled on regressive taxes, cut pensions, slashed jobs, and dismantled social programs, was crushed, while parties running on anti-austerity platforms swept the field.

 

It was an odd grouping that ran the table in Italy. The biggest vote getter was the center-left Democratic Party (29.5 %), followed by former Prime Minister’s Silvio Burlusconi’s right-wing People of Freedom Party (29.1%).  The quirky Five Star Movement, led by comedian Beppo Grillo, which ran on a five-point platform that included a jobs program and a halt to pension cuts, came in third (25.5 %). Fourth place went to the Monti’s Civic Choice (10.5%).

 

In spite of the political differences among the three top voter getters, all ran on anti-austerity programs of one variety or other. So while there is little common ground between Burlusconi, Democratic Party leader and former Communist Pier Luigi Bersani—most likely the next prime minister—and self-described “wildman” Grillo, all agreed that two years of austerity had done nothing but impoverish Italians and throttle whatever life remained in its fragile economy.

 

In Europe’s corridors of power, however, the judgment by the overwhelming majority of Italians that austerity had been tried and found wanting was greeted by an avalanche of outrage, ranging from characterizations of Italy—the third largest economy in the eurozone—as a country of “clowns” and “children” to a few outright threats should any other countries dare follow in their wake:

 

*“More than half of Italians voted for some form of populism,” complained the German newspaper Die Welt. “This amounts to an almost childlike refusal to acknowledge reality.”

 

  • German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble warned “the onus is now on political leaders in Italy to…do what the country needs, namely form a stable government that continues on the successful path of reform.” Germany’s former finance minister, Peer Steinbruck, remarked that he was “horrified that two clowns won the election,” referring to Brillo and Berlusconi.
  • “We should be serious when we discuss economic policy and not give in to immediate political or party considerations,” sniffed European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso.
  • Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo said the election was “a jump to nowhere with positive consequences for nobody.”
  • Moody’s Investors, which rates countries’ credit status, released a statement that the election “raised the risk that the structural reform movement achieved under the government of Mario Monte will stall, if not come to a complete standstill.”

 

The “successful path” and “reform” that the Monti government put into place has increased Italy’s unemployment rate to 11 percent—50% for youth—shuttered 100,000 small firms, the heart of the Italian economy, and driven a million university graduates out of the country. Growth is a negative 0.9 percent, and the country is facing it second recession in four years.

 

It is not just EU officials and the continent’s mainstream media that have closed ranks to scold Italian voters for not doing what the troika wanted them to do. The U.S. media has taken much the same slant on the election’s outcome, led by the New York Times.

 

A Times piece headlined “Inconclusive vote in Italy invites new wave of financial instability” uses phrases rarely seen outside the editorial pages: “political dysfunction,” “dashed hopes,” failure to form “a credible government,” and characterizing the anti-austerity outpouring as a “protest vote.”  It scolded “mass movements” for having “no patience for missteps or difficult reforms,” and lauded Monti as someone who had “been praised across Europe, for his steady hand and willingness to try to reform the economy.” More ominously it warned that should the Greeks have the audacity to elect a government led by the anti-austerity, leftist Syriza Party, “European leaders” would kick Greece “out of the euro.”

 

The “reforms” the Times refers to—sometimes preceded by the adjectives “difficult” or “painful”—are austerity measures from which the IMF has begun to distance itself.  A report released by the organization this past summer found that the lending organization had profoundly underestimated the negative impact that austerity programs would have on economies, particularly those in Europe. Indeed, the IMF’s chair, Christine Lagarde recently tried unsuccessfully to get the EU to moderate its austerity demands on Greece, and asked Germany to reduce the interest rate it was charging. The effort failed.

 

In a letter to the Financial Times, Emiliano Brancaccio, a professor at the University of Sannio, Italy, and Professor Guiesppe Fontana of Leeds University (UK) argued that the Italian election was “a democratic way to tell policy makers to change course.”  They go on to point out the IMF study and the finding that “countries that have imposed harsh economic measures have suffered deep economic recessions: the harsher the measures, the deeper the downturn,” and that austerity has increased debt ratios, not diminished them.

 

Those massive debts were not the result of profligate public spending—Italy and Spain had budget surpluses—but the product of bank-driven speculation that led to huge housing bubbles. When those bubbles collapsed, economies all over the continent tanked, and taxpayers were asked to bail out the financial institutions that sparked the crisis in the first place. It was this formula of a free pass for speculators and austerity for the average citizen that fueled the anger behind the Italian elections.

 

How those elections shakedown in the short run is unclear. The Five Star Party seems unwilling to join a coalition with the Democratic Party, in part because while the latter is considered center-left, it supported many of Monti’s policies. Berlusconi—well, the moniker “clown” is not far off the mark for him if one adds the word “evil” in front of it—is hardly someone with whom one would want to enter into a coalition, especially because it would include the openly racist, pro-fascist Northern League. In the end, it is possible that Italy will go back to the polls sometime in the coming year.

 

But the anti-austerity lamp is lit and putting it out will not be easy, because Italy is hardly alone.

 

“Portugal has entered a recessionary cycle that has no end in sight,” editorialized Lisbon’s leading newspaper Publico. “Social conditions are worsening and democracy is suffering…the program has failed and it has to be changed. Portugal’s economy is projected to shrink 2%, and unemployment is at 17.5%.

 

The IMF predicts that economic growth in the eurozone as a whole will fall 0.2% in 2013.

 

Even countries considered “stable”—read quiescent in the face of high unemployment, frozen economies and widening economic disparity—like Germany, Britain and the Netherlands are not immune from the spreading anger at the EU’s prescription for economic crisis.

 

Probably the clearest voice of Europe’s anti-austerity movement is Alexis Tsipras, leader of Greece’s Syriza Part. “For our part” says Tsipras, “we are opposed to everlasting austerity as means for fiscal rebalancing on both pragmatic and ideological grounds. The subjugation of democratic process to the markets was the reason why we have the crisis today…we predicted from the onset, well before the IMF admitted to its predictive failures, that austerity-based policies would backfire.”

 

The Greek economy will contract 4.5% in 2013, and the jobless rate is 27 percent, a staggering 62% for young people.

 

Tsipras concludes, “For us, economic policy ought to be inextricably linked to social policy with a view to look after the social needs of the people, of social justice, of intergenerational solidarity and of environmental balance.”

 

Most of Italy, and a growing number of Europeans, would agree.

 

 

—30—

 

 

 

 

 

 

4 Comments

Filed under Europe