Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Bulgaria is burning

I have been planning to write something about the anti-governmental protest in Bulgaria for a while - after last night's events I feel I have to get it done.

In February Sofia witnessed massive street protests against the government, initiated by expensive heating bills. The center-right-populist GERB government quickly resigned and called new elections. These elections were carried out on 12th of May. GERB got the largest vote, but was unable to form a government, thus a technocrat government was elected, dominated by BSP (socialist) and DPS (representing the Turkish minority).

When the infamous media mogul (think a teenage Robert Murdoch) Delyan Peevski, with an impressive and well known CV of murky business was appointed head of the State Agency for National Security, Sofia's streets were again filled with protesters, asking for the government to resign. Last night (23/7 2013) protestors surrounded the parliament and prevented MP's from leaving, which lead to a night of tumultuous scenes, 2 injured policemen and 15 injured protesters.

Judging from the TV scenes, it seems that the police were far from controlling the situation, and that most of those hurt were innocent bystanders or doing non-violent resistance, for example sitting down in the way of vehicles. The number of injuries would have been way higher if the crowd had not showed an impressive self-restraint.
Septemvri 1925
The protests had so far been massive, with tens of thousands of people attending, peaceful and innovative - with arty flash mobs, coffee drinking, bike- and marathon protests. They have called for the resignation of the government, amends in the election law and expressed a general disdain for the Bulgarian political class in general, and more specifically the socialists, seen as non-reformed communists, decidedly pro-Russian.

There has also been a strong emotional sentiment. I think many Bulgarians feel offended by the way the politicians did business-as-usual when appointing Peevski, at a time when Bulgarians expected a profound change for the better, and by the arrogant way the government has ignored the protest during the last month.

As a left leaning European it would be tempting to connect this eruption of popular discontent with the anti-austerity protests showing up from time to time in Spain, Greece, Portugal and Italy. (And maybe even Tunisia and Egypt...) That is hardly true. Economic grievances have not been on the agenda in these protests, and when it is it is actually pro-austerity resistance against the government's budget proposal.

On the contrary, a very vocal group among the protesters have been right wing libertarians. This has caused some bad blood and make someone like Petar Volgin, one of the very few public left wing voices in Bulgaria condemn the protests. But it is more than obvious that the belief in Ayn Rand's fairy tale world is not enough to drive so many Bulgarians into the streets for so many days. This is a people that is angry,  not a right wing coup, as some people complain.

Less leaning commentators have connected the protests with those in Brazil and Turkey, and there is probably more to that theory. Just like in these countries, the protests in Bulgaria is dominated by young, well educated, middle class people in Sofia, even if they have a far wider support. They are people who live modern lives in states less modern, who have started to demand a state that is less corrupted and more reliable.

Another all too obvious comparison is with the colour revolutions in Ukraine, Georgia etc. during the 2000's. When I lived in Bulgaria in 2007 i told people about Moldova, and the Bulgarians asked me if Moldova hadn't yet had its colour revolution. Moldova did, and now the Bulgarians find themselves in the streets shouting "maffia!" at redressed communists who enjoy the spoils of private enterprise but are less sanguine about European values, or markets that actually work.

The track record of the colour revolutions is not very inspiring - neither Ukraine, Moldova or Georgia is much closer to Europe or a real democracy now than they were in 2005 or 2000. But it is probably also a miscalculation by Bulgarians to stress the similarities between Bulgarian socialists and Yanukovich in Ukraine. Bulgaria is an EU member, and Russia could never play the role in Bulgaria that it can play in Ukraine.

Moreover, the Bulgarian socialists may be throughout corrupted, but there is hard to see anything totalitarian about Bulgaria. Bulgaria is not facing a state that owns the oligarchs, as Russian dissidents do. They face a state that is owned by private business, which is more like a perverted version of west European politics.

Due to the violence yesterday the parliament is closed today, but tomorrow it will take up work again, and some sort of protests will most likely resume. Hopefully they will continue in the peaceful vein of the first 40 days.

Will they succeed? Yes. No. And yes. I am convinced the government will eventually resign, probably after preparing their comeback with hand outs like economical benefits to the part of the electorate that is rather distanced from the protests in Sofia, that will suffer most from the next right wing government, be it GERB or some of the other parties that are more popular among the protesters.

The political culture in Bulgaria will not be much different in 2015 from what it is now. If the oligarchic model is to be challenged, the economical interests of the oligarch's must be hurt, and to do that would take a more vigilant grass root political environment, running their own parties, their own media. It will take time, but the protesters have so far shown a lot of persistence.

So yes... After these protests, Bulgaria will not be the same, even if the politicians are. Whatever happens after the resignation of the government, many of those that are currently in the streets will feel that there are more steps to be taken. Petar Volgin has lamented the lack of an intellectual left in Bulgaria, but it might just be the birth of it that we are witnessing now. In the streets people come together in a decidedly un-libertarian act of political action. They are fighting for their society, and when the first obstacle - the government, is overcome, they will continue to fight for it.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Of fiscal and other cliffs

Most likely American politicians will reach a deal that prevents the country from going over the so called fiscal cliff, and most likely they will do it as late as possible. This is all part of the political theatre. Invent a problem, describe it as a matter of economic survival, and solve it half an hour before deadline in an all night meeting with no journalists present.
Rocky Cliff with Stormy Sea Cornwall-William Trost Richards-1902
In deed, there are real problems to solve. There is climate change. A war in Syria. An economy that no one is content with. Not all world citizens have access to clean water - others still have o access to education. But "the fiscal cliff"? Unlike these other problems it does not correspond to anything happening in the real world - it is a problem invented by US politicians, it would be rather disappointing if they can not even solve that.

It is easy to criticize politicians. But maybe the problem is not that they are not doing their job, but that they are nothing but human? Maybe it is the curse of humanity that we can only solve the problems we have invented (not the one we have caused) - on an individual as well as societal scale. We are apt at resolving quarrels with friends that were not really about anything at all, but quite unable to deal with facts beyond our own making, e.g. our own death. Similarly, society is better at solving problems related to traffic - a system invented by us, than problems relating to matters beyond our control, like some historical - or environmental issues.

If so... it would mean that we can expect from politicians to solve the fiscal cliff (and maybe ask them not to invent another one), and blame them for all those kids who don't go to school. But on the other issues, clean water and climate change, we can not expect human solutions. We have no choice but trusting our faith and good luck.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

No arson on Vitosha

The Bulgarian police has investigated whether arson was behind last summer's fires on Vitosha Mountain, and found no one guilty, SEGA [Spasi Vitosha] reports.

Incendie Granville 1793
Suspicion about arson have circulated since days after the fires. The fires erupted in an area seldom visited by tourists, so it was unlikely that a visitor would have lit it by mistake. But the police have now gone through material filmed from helicopters, seeing no signs of anyone at all, even though an arsonist would need quite some time to get from the spot.

This is hardly compelling evidence, but it is still worrying. Bulgaria, as the rest of the Balkans did endure an extremely hot summer due to climate change, and if this fire erupted without human interference, more fires is a likely scenario to play out in the years ahead.

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy I would like to add that whereas climatologists are not so certain that global warming causes hurricanes, there is no doubt that global warming will lead to more draught and floods.

Also in Sweden the last summer has been discussed this week in the public radio. It was extremely wet, which made some farmers suffer, while others saw record harvests. Again - it is not proven that climate change leads to more hurricanes, but certain that it will change rain patterns.

I think this illustrate how climate change will be a very different experience in different places. To some Europeans it will mean dangerous events like wildfires and floods, to some it will mean that some places for growing potatoes will have to be abandoned for others.

The second scenario, which is more likely for Sweden is probably a whole lot easier to live with, and would so be if we ate only potatoes. But the true impact on Sweden will come not from extreme events, but from disruptions of global supply chains in other countries.

To round off, I couldn't help but laughing at this commercial, visible next to the article in SEGA.

Santa Claus in a sun chair... the airplane exhausts say "nothing's wrong". Quite a telling picture of what climate change will look like. The irony is not lessened from the fact that the ad is for an oil company - Overgas

Friday, September 21, 2012

Mocking Muhammed, mercy for Middleton

When asked about his opinions about western civilization, Gandhi is said to have answered - I think it would be a good idea. A hundred years later, I agree. We should in deed try something like that. But it is still to be seen.

The last week has been revealing about the deeply hypocritical stance he so called western world takes on freedom of speech. Whereas it is deemed a constitutional right to mock the prophet Muhammad, it is criminal to publish pictures of the English princess Katie Middleton's tits. I do think both ideas are in deed sensational and unworthy of attention - what I find provoking is the difference in how the matters are handled.

Arrivée de Mahomet à La Mecque-Ishâq al-Nishâpûrî-1581

Caricatures of Muhammad has become a quite boring tradition in western news outlets, as have the predictable response in Muslim countries. The way most people seem to deal with these caricatures is like this: It is bad taste, but the point of free speech is that bad taste is not illegal, therefore it is up to editors, not censors, to decide what to publish or not to publish. I completely agree. I do not think it should be illegal to publish caricatures of Muhammad.

But these caricatures should be discussed, as all published should. It is not really the same thing as Monthy Pyton did in Life of Brian, when Jesus was caricatured. First of all, one can notice that Monthy Pyton are quite kind on Jesus himself - what makes the film humorous is that one recognize modern power in the Romans, modern left wing extremism in the various Jewish liberation fronts etc. As all literature, it is a comment on the time in which it was written.

I guess the same is valid for Muhammad caricatures - they do comment something in the world we live in, presumably a political correctness that taboos criticism against minorities. Is there such a political correctness? I am not sure. What I see, living in a Swedish town with many Muslims, is that Muslims are discriminated against in almost everything except legislation.

There is also a rather murky side of this business. One has the feeling that there is some kind of hatred against Muslims hiding behind the freedom of speech, and sometimes such suspicions are confirmed. As when Lars Vilks, a Swedish artist mainly known for his Muhammad caricatures appeared on an extreme right convention about islamization in the US.

Still. Freedom of speech is important, and in a troubled democracy like ours it is becoming increasingly important. Therefore, Muhammad caricatures should be discussed, but not banned.

Which is why it is equally important that topless pictures of royalties are not banned. On the whole, I can not get what is so provoking with topless pictures. We all knew that Katie had tits, right? And in case she thinks it is a great deal, she does not need to go out topless on the French riviera in the first place. That is a life she has chosen, a life that includes papparazis, so live with it.

Here I feel much more alone, though. Most people seem to regard this as an issue of privacy, not free speech. And that the News of the World debacle has made the press wary. Please, it is quite different to steal phone numbers from crime victims than photographing people who have chosen a public life in situations they did not choose. It is very bad taste, of course, but then again - is not the whole point with free speech that bad taste?

I think sheds light on how our society uses different rules for different people. We like to pride ourselves of our liberalism and humanism, but the reality is, like Gandhi said, that the western world has never been able to behave in a civilized manner.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Banana Monarchy

You know it already - Sweden wanted Julian Assange extradited from the UK to charge him for sexual harassment. The UK agrees, and mr. Assange took refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy. In the background lurks the US - the charges against Assange appeared less than two weeks after Assange had published chunks of classified US diplomatic cables. The US wowed to take revenge, but since Assange is not yet imprisoned, Bradley Manning - the true hero of this story - is tortured in stead.

This afternoon Ecuador has granted Assange asylum, and moreover accused Sweden of having a politicized juridical system, which of course has caused a lot of furore in this haven of hypocrisy. Our foreign minister Carl Bildt who is known not only to bring peace to the Balkans but also to bring death and destruction to Sudan and Ethiopia through his oil business, tweeted angrily about it. Not that I take his tweet much more seriously than al Shabaab's or Dimitry Medvedev's. I bet they are all friends on Facebook.

Please note: I do not believe that Julian Assange has harassed anyone and should get away with it. I do find the allegations against him ridiculous, and I fully agree with the Ecuadorian analysis of our juridical system. Sweden is working on behalf of the US. Most countries who show this degree of dependency are called banana republics, but since are proud to sport a royal house, Sweden must be classified as a banana monarchy.

Tizian 093

According to the attorney, Assange during a brief stay in Sweden stayed in some female aquintancies' apartment, and coerced at least one woman into having sex against her wishes. A truly disgraceful behavior, true, but do not think it is illegal in Sweden, unless you are wanted by the US. There have been several cases during the last year where our highest judiciary signalizes one thing - men's violence against women is not a crime. Hovrätten is the highest juridical instance for this type of crimes in Sweden and its judgings are considered predicative.(Links below are in Swedish)

  • In February 2011 four men, four men who had been convicted at lower court for prostituting a 14 year old girl had their sentences amended - two of them were freed. The girl got no compensation whatsoever.
  • In a case from 2005 which is more similar to the allegations against Assange, a 40 year old man also got a leaner sentence in the Hovrätten than in lower courts, for sexually abusing a 13 year old girl. Specifically, the Hovrätten did not want to charge him with rape, but with sexual harassment, and lowered the compensation to the girl.
  • Earlier this year two men were found guilty of luring women from Romania to Sweden to prostitute them here, but alas the Hovrätt did not find it proper to call it trafficking. These men were sentenced with 9 months and 2 years in jail.
  • Ultimately, a patriarchal society rests on a reliable hierarchy within the family - a drunk paterfamilias attacked his woman with a Samurai sword and almost took her life. Not enough to charge him with murder, said the Hovrätt and lowered his sentence form 8 to 5 years in jail. This happened earlier this year.
  • In this context, what sentence would a crime like the one Assange is accused of get? If found guilty he would maybe have to pay a few thousand Euros in compensation - after all the victim is neither trafficked, nor under aged or anything, and he didn't use a samurai sword to get into her pants.

    The thought that any Swedish man would be searched for abroad for a crime that our judiciary finds so utterly unimportant is ridiculous. And quite frankly I would be glad if the resources spent on trying to convict Assange were spent on some other male suppressing women around him. They are not so hard to find, actually. There must be some other reason Sweden wants him extradited.

    And what reason might that be? Ask Bradley Manning, who is bearing Assange's cross. The US wants him, of course. But our media are so lame. Ecuador have publicly stated that they have asked both Sweden and the UK for guarantees that Assange is not extradited to a third part. Carl Bildt did not comment on that, and no reporter made him say if Sweden has received such a proposal, if it has denied it and why, if that is the case.

    All in all, it is a pretty nice example of the decay in morals and politics in Sweden. If Julian Assange should go to court, he should at least be allowed to do it in a country with a working judiciary.

    Sunday, August 5, 2012

    Naivities and failing empires

    While making a raspberry tartellette, I was listening to an interesting but slightly enervating discussion on the public Swedish radio about private security firms. The most (in)famous such firm is the American Academi , formerly known as Blackwater and known for doing dirty work for the Americans in Iraq. But there are several other firms, also Swedish.

    To sum up what was said in the discussion: such firms do work that the state has not resources to do, e.g. protect NGO's, which is a good thing, but they do wage violence in the name of the state beyond any political control and compete with the national armies for competent staff, which is bad. All of this is something that is almost never discussed in public.

    What struck me most about the discussion was the lack of any historical perspective, and the naivety about our democracy.
    Bashi-bazouk Ottoman Postcard
    First history. Are these firms a neo-liberal phenomenon, typical for our time? Not so much. Outsourcing violence has been, and is being done done before  in many different contexts. Who is doing the massacres in Syria? Not the Syrian army but the Shabiha militia. Shabiha is a pretty new name - a few years ago it was the Janjaweed militia that were talked about. Almost 150 years ago, when the Ottoman empire was unraveling, the Bashi-bazouk were famous for brutality against Christians on the Balkans, notably the Batak massacre in Bulgaria.

    The Wikipedia article on Bashi-bazouk notes that "Although Turkish armies always contained bashi-bazouk adventurers as well as regular soldiers, the strain on the Ottoman feudal system caused mainly by the Empire's wide expanse required heavier reliance on irregular soldiers".

    I believe this is the key insight - when states and empires crumble, as the US and Syria are today, they are forced to rely more heavily on irregular forces. When the Ottomans conquered the Balkans they did it with a very loyal force of Jannisaries, controlled directly by the Sultan. When they lost it they did it with self-sufficient Bashi-bazouks. Which of course undermines the very essence of the state - its monopoly on violence.

    Thus, the rise of private security firms, is a strong indicator of an empire in decline. And these days anyone can see that the West's grip on the world is weakening.

    So much about history. Then there was the naivety. It is true that the outsourcing of violence is a democratic problem. But it is not strange that it is not discussed. Since when do we discuss fundamental issues? When did you last see a government official including climate change and peak oil in economic forecasts? Still the same politicians will acknowledge these problems when discussing environmental policies. We live in a state of official denial about the future of civilisation, so why on earth would we discuss this matter?

    Tuesday, July 3, 2012

    When I am writing this I am aware of three areas struck with wild fires - in the US, in Spain, and in Bulgaria. I suspect there are many more that I do not know about. And for sure, there are many more to come.

    Johan Christian Clausen Dahl Waldbrand 1846

    Climate change has been hotly debated for several years, and anyone who has read an article about it will know that more, and more intense, wildfires is one out of many predictable effects of a warmer atmosphere. Other predictable effects are fiercer storms, droughts and floods.

    The key fact is that warm air holds more vapour than cold air. That means it will rain more seldom, but more intense when the rain falls. Some places are flooded, while others remain dry.

    The key insight is that weather has always been potentially extreme. On a certain location at a certain time, there is always a potential for extreme weather. A warmer climate does no bring any new events - it simply changes the likelihood of them to occur.

    But given that the world is now somewhere around 0.6 degrees warmer than it was 30 years ago, and given the immense damage caused by events like the wildfires in Colorado, it is very relevant to ask to what extent these events are due to warmer weather.

    Scientists and activists who have been saying this for years of course make this connection. And you can find journalists in regional newspapers. But you will search in vain for a discussion of climate change in connection with real world events in major news outlets like CNN or NY Times.

    This would make sense if CNN and NY Times rejected the idea that warmer temperatures affect the weather, but, alas, you can find several articles describing the effects of climate change on these sites.

    How can an article that predicts that climate change will give more wildfires, not be referred to when wildfires do appear?

    It's the politics, stupid. One could easily imagine the loathsome comments to a NY Times article about wildfires that even hinted at climate change. It would be highly controversial.

    But if we let such bigotry stand in the way of discussing climate change when it happens, how could we ever manage to deal with it? Well... it is like that. We can't.