Making Room for Alternative Democracies

Posted by Florian Pantazi on 05/04/14
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The landslide success of Erdogan’s party, the AKP, and Vladimir Putin’s skyrocketing domestic popularity in the wake of the Crimean crisis are golden opportunities for a rethink of Western officialdom’s policies towards Turkey and Russia.

Unlike my counterparts in Washington, I prefer to label the Turkish and Russian political systems as “alternative democracies”. Sure, on the White House’s national security site they are unceremoniously called “authoritarian regimes”, to distinguish them from outright dictatorships. Fact is, the West has been trying for too long to impose its own views and standards when it comes to the global economy (the ill-fated Washington agenda) or to world politics (liberal democracy).

In countries like Turkey and Russia, the state and its leadership have always been paramount to their economic development and political stability. As anyone would easily agree, over more than twelve years in power both the Russian and the Turkish leader have delivered exactly that. No Turk or Russian citizen in his right mind, however, expects their leaders to be thrashed on a daily basis in the media, or the latter’s political authority to be undermined with a helping hand from the West. These countries, while not fully democratic according to Western standards, do organize regular elections, allow for a multi-party system and do respect – with some exceptions – most of the basic human rights and freedoms.

The proof is, so to speak, in the pudding. Erdogan’s party has won the 2014 municipal elections with 47 percent of the vote, compared to 38 percent in 2009. A few years ago, Putin’s approval rating was hovering around 60 percent. Today, his most recent actions meet with the approval of some 82 percent of Russians. Consequently, Western policy-makers would be better-advised to refrain themselves – in the interest of regional and world peace – from sponsoring almost weekly attacks in the international media directed against these states and their leaders, as alternative democracies have earned the right to exist alongside their older, but far less stable liberal model.

Can Ukrainians avoid a break-up of their country ?

Posted by Florian Pantazi on 23/02/14
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Saturday’s collapse of the accord brokered on Friday by the three EU foreign ministers in Kiev calls into question the wisdom of Western involvement in Ukraine. Over here we all knew that Ukraine was not only a new country on the map of Europe, but also very vulnerable to being partitioned in two by superpowers with geopolitical designs in the region. The 2004 US-inspired “orange” revolution in Russia’s “near-abroad” security zone has led nowhere. Once again, the direct involvement of the US will conceivably have similar results and the victim is going to be the Ukrainian population.

Following the events in Kiev, Russia has announced that it will suspend its promised financial assistance package to the country and, presumably, cheap gas prices are gone as well. Ukraine is facing economic ruin, social strife and an uncertain political future.

To their credit, no EU politician has supported calls for the demise of the President and the EU is not in any way responsible for the subsequent implosion of the Ukrainian political system. Nation-building is a difficult endeavor at the best of times, and Ukrainians are in desperately short supply of capable, un-corrupt politicians or specialists with statecraft skills.

If the country is to avoid partition, a few useful lessons learned by neighbouring Romania might come in handy. As Ukraine has 25 million citizens living in its pro-Russian zone, it should always elect a President hailing from that region.
In order to satisfy the aspirations of its Western, pro-European citizens, a future Ukrainian constitution should mandate that the job of prime minister be allotted to a Western Ukrainian political leader. Last but not least, executive power should be exercised equally by the President and the chosen prime minister. The former should be henceforth elected directly by the population, whereas the prime minister should be chosen by Parliament. The president of the country should be relieved of his duties only via referendum, whilst the prime minister could be replaced by a vote of the majority of parliamentarians.

These are but a few constitutional changes that might help prevent the break-up of Ukraine and improve the functioning of state institutions in the future. The rest is up to the Ukrainian people themselves.

Ukraine’s ongoing geopolitical quandary

Posted by Florian Pantazi on 31/01/14
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About four years ago I have written a post on the tense geopolitical situation affecting the internal affairs of Romania and Ukraine. I provide readers with its link below because I believe it is as relevant today as it was then, and also because a high-ranking White House official freely admits that the US and Russia have the bad habit of using Ukraine as a ‘theatre of war’ in their rivalry.


And here is a link to Mark Medish’s original article on Ukraine from International Herald Tribune :…

Davos in the Age of Geopolitics

Posted by Florian Pantazi on 26/01/14
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The 2014 annual gathering of the world’s business and financial elite in Davos was initially supposed to consider major issues of our time, such as inequality and climate change. I say consider and not debate because one cannot rationally expect a serious discussion of possible ways to tackle inequality at a conference which reunites its chief promoters.

At least equally important would have been a debate about the threat of secular (or great) stagnation, whose specter is hovering over Japan, USA and Western Europe and seriously harming the export potential of emerging countries’ economies. The polichinelle secret is that the West’s insistence on plunging  the world into fully-fledged economic and political liberalization  has backfired badly. It is now in the process of spewing instability, revolutions and regional armed conflicts around the world. Sadly, the global liberalization agenda looks today every bit as utopic as the communist blueprint had been in its time.

Instead of global economics, Davos guests have had to busy themselves with current geopolitical developments. Of course it isn’t easy to talk about a global economic recovery when only profits and share prices are on the rebound, when middle class incomes have at best remained stagnant or have at worst been drastically reduced (as in Italy, Spain, Greece, Portugal or Ireland) and unemployment is high. Global demand remains stubbornly sluggish, a sure sign that Adam Smith’s “trickle-down” effect has failed to work, yet again, in the absence of resolute government-led redistribution policies. This is why leading economists are as yet loath to call this a full economic recovery. Progressive economists concentrate their attention on recommendations for diminishing inequality, alleviating poverty and boosting aggregate demand. As always, the orthodox ones are engaged in defending austerity and low taxes, however disastrous the consequences.

The center stage at the Davos conference, therefore, was taken up by political leaders hard-pressed to deal with intricate geopolitical developments in their respective regions. The Ukrainian prime minister thus took pains to explain why the two-month unrest that followed President Yanukovych’s refusal to sign a trade deal with the European Union was about to turn ugly in Kyiv. Shinzo Abe, “the troublemaker”, did not miss the opportunity to blast China’s bellicose stance – and vice versa from the Chinese delegation’s side. In a CNN interview, the Egyptian prime minister  defended the brutal repression of the Muslim Brotherhood  and even had the cheek to compare General Al-Sissi’s potential candidacy to the presidency with those of General De Gaulle’s or Eisenhower’s. (Following his incredible televised performance, one is left wondering just when did the latter order the army to open fire on their own citizens in order to qualify for the top job ?) Syria’s elusive peace talks and potential political future were discussed by newly-elected President Rouhani of Iran, even as the peace negotiations next door in Geneva were apparently leading nowhere. Meanwhile, the civil war raging in Syria is spreading to Lebanon and Iraq. Ethnic and tribal conflicts are engulfing chunks of Africa, from Mali and Central Africa to South Sudan. For the first time in a long while, the West seems neither willing nor able to foster peace in all these regions, diplomatic and military efforts notwithstanding.

Alas, this is a far cry from the rosy “one-world ecstasy” scenario from Francis Fukuyama’s End of History best seller. For over a decade now, both history and geopolitics have been back with a vengeance to interpret how old, new or hitherto frozen conflicts are tearing countries and societies apart.


2014 geopolitical flashpoints

Posted by Florian Pantazi on 05/01/14
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The New Year begins with a myriad of tribal, ethnic, religious or state-to-state conflicts affecting large areas of the world, from Europe to Africa and Asia.

Closest to home is a long-running geopolitical confrontation between the West and Russia for the inclusion of Ukraine within their respective spheres of influence. The contest, which had started in the 1990s immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union, seems to have been won in December 2013 by Russia, street protests in Kiev notwithstanding.

Of much more serious concern for the West are developments in Africa. Libya’s oil production has diminished to some 20 percent of its pre-revolution levels, as tribal militias are trying to assert control over the country’s refineries, oilrigs and export terminals.

With the war on Islamic guerrillas barely over in Mali, the Central African Republic has become the theatre of a French-UN military intervention intended to put an end to the infighting between the country’s Islamic minority and Christian militias.

Armed confrontation has also erupted in the two-year old state of South Sudan. The tribal armed conflict was sparked by fallout between President Salva Kiir and his vice-president accused of trying to organize a coup d’état in Juba. This is generating thousands of casualties and a wave of refugees, prompting the UN to send soldiers into the country in order to stabilize the situation.

Religious warfare continues to engulf Syria, Iraq and Lebanon in the Middle East. The two-year Syrian conflict keeps on claiming the lives of thousands of civilians and is now spreading to neighboring Lebanon, where bomb explosions in the capital have become almost a weekly occurrence.

The Sunni-Shiite conflict has taken a turn for the worse in Iraq as well. As recently as two days ago, Sunni militias close to Al Qaeda have wrestled control of strategic Fallujah and the surrounding area from government troops controlled by the (Shiite) prime minister Nouri Al-Maliki.

Practically the only bright spot in the Middle East so far is the conclusion of an accord in Geneva about Iran’s nuclear installations, which could, if followed through, contribute to stabilizing Iraq and help reach a political settlement in the Syrian conflict.

The tensions between China and Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands have increased after China decided to extend its aerial strategic zone and the Japanese prime minister attended a ceremony at a controversial war memorial shrine.

These are but a few of the major geopolitical events I will be following in 2014, as well as other potential flashpoints that could develop into fully-fledged armed conflicts.


Fukuyama’s ” end of democracy “

Posted by Florian Pantazi on 25/11/13
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The political gridlock in Washington DC gave Francis Fukuyama the opportunity to attack as unworkable one of the pillars the American democracy, namely the priciple of separation of powers . According to one of his recent articles ( republished by Courrier International) Obamacare has no real chance of success because the American political system is designed in a way that gives too much veto power to the opposition, thus depriving the Administration of real clout. He calls this “vetocracy“.

In actual fact, the crisis experienced by the American political system has very little to do with the way power is allocated within it and everything to do with the economic and social difficulties experienced since the 2008 financial crisis onwards. The spillover effect has now reached the political system, which itself cannot function in the absence of a minimal bipartisan political consensus . (no democratic system could)

Montesquieu’s principle of separation of powers and checks and balances was criticised as early as the XVIII century by, among others, the physiocrats . Their leader, Quesnay, nicknamed ” Confucius of Europe ” by his admirers, believed that ” the system of checks and balances within a government is a dismal one ” ( Quesnay, Maximes générales du guvernement économoque d’un royaume agricole). Condorcet considered that ” in matters of government ,every complication is scary” ( Réflexions sur le commerce des blés ) , and the list could go on. Undaunted, the framers of the American constitution, which served the US well for over two hundred years, adopted the principle.

To be sure, the US badly needs to extend universal medical coverage to some forty million Americans in order to be considered a truly civilised Western country. The timing of the reform does seem rather unfortunate, as the US federal deficit is one of the largest in America’s history. In truth, the US politicians lost a golden opportunity to adopt such a reform during the sixities, when the country’s economic circumstances were excellent and when the political leaders were less ideological and more pragmatic than it is the case today. In other words, Obamacare is some fifty years too late to be adopted quickly and without much resistance from vested interests.

When a democracy ceases to function the way it has been intended to, that usually happens because leading political players fail to reach consensus on major issues. It would therefore be wrong to blame the malfunctioning on the core principles – like that of the separation of powers – on which the American system has been built upon. Fukuyama even argues that the Westminster system is better equipped to prevent gridlock, although it does not seem to help David Cameron be a more powerful and/or succesful leader of Britain . Moreover, the Westminster system could lead to an ” elective dictatorship“, as the development is known among political scientists. This is exactly the outcome the American framers tried to avoid when they adopted the separation of powers principle.. Nor is the French presidential system, in which the Socialist executive has more power than the American president does and the Socialist party controls both the Parliament AND the regions, in a better position to solve the country’s economic or social problems . Unemployment in France is much higher than in the States or Germany, whilst economic growth has all but stalled. Germany, a federal state, does not seem to be affected by the way power is distributed within the system. Clearly, Fukuyama’s theoretical approach to US’s political problems is not only flawed, but it is also misleading .

Geography and geopolitics during the Cold War

Posted by Florian Pantazi on 16/11/13
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Since the onset of the sovereign debt crisis, it has again become fashionable to explain southern Europe’s economic troubles in the light of the Mediterranean countries’s natural habitat, climate and lifestyle. The people of Greece, Spain and Italy, for example, are regularly portrayed in the popular press as less productive and laid back, in contrast with northern EU nationals. The latter are presented as industrious, thrifty and unlucky enough to be part of a union which makes them dip into their hard-earned savings to pay for the excesses and profligacy of southern EU members.

A heightened interest among philosophers, historians, economists and geopoliticians in the influence of geography/natural habitat over the course taken by human history or economic development is quite normal, especially during major crises. This type of intellectual inquiry happened to be the object of my research for my licence thesis in 1979 at Iasi University. Trouble was, during the bi-polar world both superpowers shared a common dislike of Geography and its potential role in human history and economic affairs. Their respective satellite-countries largely fell into line during that period, with the shining exception of France, where the research and study of Human Geography continued regardless.

Indeed, for decades both Russians and Americans all but banned academic research along these lines. The very mention of geopolitics was regarded as subversive. In a book written at the end of the ‘90s (« The Wealth and Poverty of Nations »), Harvard historian David S. Landes explains how after 1945 US authorities actually closed down the geography departments at Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Columbia, to mention but a few academic establishments. The Soviet Union also developed a powerful aversion to geography, probably because during the 1930s Stalin fell for McKinder’s well-known Heartland theory, which had led him to conclude the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with the Nazis (Pascal Lorot).

This is the reason why it took me a long time, as an undergraduate, to convince one of my gutsier professors to supervise my thesis. To make matters worse, documentation behind the Iron Curtain was painfully scarce, especially from American sources. In the background, the dean of the faculy was constantly at pains to impress upon me that we were only 25km away from the Soviet border. What would we do if my thesis incurred the wrath of the Russians ?

These days, when both geographers and experts in geopolitics are back in vogue, I think it is worthwhile remembering how detrimental the Soviet-American duopoly really was for the development of social sciences in general and that of geography and geopolitics in particular.

US foreign policy in the post-unipolar world

Posted by Florian Pantazi on 12/10/13
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Superficially at least, the ongoing civil war in Syria appears to highlight the West’s inability, unprecedented for decades, to put a stop to it. Adverse to direct military intervention, President Obama has even ruled out Kosovo-style punitive strikes without the endorsement of Congress. Premier David Cameron’s strident advocacy of military action against Syria has been silenced by a negative vote – the first such occurrence in centuries – in the British Parliament. The West’s economy is weaker than at any time in the past save the Great Depression and the increasingly assertive members of the UN’s Security Council are blocking any efforts to outlaw the slaughter of Syria’s own citizens by the Assad regime. This is surely not the unipolar world we got used to during the Clinton – Bush Jr. years.

By placing domestic concerns above military entanglements in far away places around the world, President Obama is in sync with the mood of the majority of his countrymen. Even if his foreign policy could appear to outsiders as indecisive, it is nevertheless popular at home. Like in the times that preceded the 1938 Munich conference, the West is economically distressed, tired of fighting, as well as challenged by a rising power – China – and an increasingly resurgent Russia.

The preference for diplomacy over the use of military force has become the hallmark of Barack Obama’s approach to international affairs.(During my masteral studies in international relations, I qualified Obama’s foreign policy as « Jeffersonian  with Wilsonian trappings », an assessment that I maintain today). Taking into account Iran’s dire economic situation, for instance, diplomacy is seen by Obama strategists as having a chance of succeeding where sanctions and threats of military action have not.

In Asia, the US is currently shying away from endorsing the bellicose stance of the Japanese and the Philippine leadership against China over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands or the Scarborough Shoal. Given the mayhem in the Middle East, the « pivot » strategy for Asia is being quietly put on the backburner.

A well-framed foreign policy could, however, be judged only in the light of its practical results. If the US succeeds in destroying the Assad regime’s stock of chemical weapons and finds a way of determining the Iranians to drastically reduce their nuclear ambitions, Obama’s foreign policy might just be remembered as a worthwhile contribution towards reducing international instability and ultimately to world peace.

Today’s leading entrepreneurs compared

Posted by Florian Pantazi on 05/10/13
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A feeling of déja vu. Few exceptions apart, the opulent lifestyle and the near-total absence of a social or even a moral conscience are the hallmarks of today’s leading entrepreneurs. For them, increasing the size of their company or of their profits matters much more than the material satisfaction of the people working for them. In most cases, the latter are subcontractors from Asia, Africa or elsewhere in the world where work regulations are few or inexistent and salaries are indecently low. Nor are the countries in which they happen to operate able to share into their commercial success : through a maze of off-shore companies and other creative accounting methods, corporate and sometimes even sales taxes rarely get paid and then at very low rates, to the exasperation of politicians and state bureaucracies strapped for cash.

For the common man or woman, this type of amoral and harmful entrepreneurial behavior might seem unique to our time, especially after a prosperous period like the “Golden Sixties”.( in truth, for much of the period between 1945 and 1975 corporate taxes and personal income taxes for the rich averaged 80 %) In fact, the nouveaux riches from the inter-war period were every bit as callous and selfish as their counterparts today:

“The nouveaux riches live in magnificent houses […], in somptuous villas by the seaside or in luxury apartments […] They have the best and most expensive cars and they are displaying everywhere a luxurious lifestyle […]. Before, it was a privilege of the rich to spread their good fortune around: religion and morale incited them in this direction and in so doing, they were diminishing class hatred. Most of today’s nouveaux riches are amoral beings, unable to see anything beyond their immediate interests.[…] Every day, they are deepening the divide that exists between rich and poor, thus making the bed for bolshevism”. ( Yannick Marec, as quoted by André Gueslin, Les Gens de Rien, Paris, Fayard, 2004 pp.39-40)

The « official » religion of entrepreneurs and managers from Silicon Valley a few years ago ( I do not know if it still is) was a neo-pagan cult, called “The Burning Man” ( I have given an account of “Burning Man ” gatherings and practices in an article I published in 1999, “ Myth and Reality in Economic Clintonism” in Afaceri Banat from Timisoara,Romania).

NB. Readers should not get unduly alarmed: capitalism is not about to be undone by communism. It is fatally undermined by its own financiers and leading entrepreneurs.

C’etait Mitterrand qui l’a dit

Posted by Florian Pantazi on 01/10/13
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Lors de la dispute actuelle qui oppose la France – la patrie de droits de l’homme – à la Commission Européenne, la meilleure prise de position demeure toujours celle de François Mitterrand en 1982 :

« Le combat pour les droits de l’homme est aujourd’hui un combat pour que nul ne soit exclu de leur bénéfice, ni le travailleur du tiers monde immigré dans un pays plus développé, ni le membre du quart monde où l’on est pauvre et illettré de génération en génération, ni le nomade qui tient à conserver la tradition du voyage, ni l’ancien délinquant qui cherche à se réinsérer, ni le handicapé, ni le personnes âgées trop souvent délaissées » ( François Mitterrand devant le Conseil de l’Europe, 1982, dans André Gueslin, « Les Gens de Rien », Paris, Fayard, 2004, p. 177)

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