Archive for category southern neighbours

Russia-Syria: The Odd Couple

As the world awaits a possible military strike – led by the US – on Syria, the leaders of the G20 are gathering for their annual summit in St Petersburg. This time round, the issue of war is likely to overshadow discussions on the economy, finance and trade, with the meetings and media platforms of the summit being used to exchange arguments over Syria between advocates of military action and the dwindling group of friends of Bashar al-Assad.

Some Western leaders will no doubt try to persuade President Putin to alter his hitherto obstructive stance on Syria. In public, they are likely to make appeals on humanitarian grounds, arguing that the use of chemical weapons against a civilian population cannot go unpunished. In private, they will appeal directly to Russia’s rational self-interest and urge Moscow to come down on the right side of history in the eyes of the Arab world. In all likelihood, Russia will respond with lectures on the sanctity of international law, state sovereignty and non-interference in the domestic affairs of others. As a result of these two seemingly unbridgeable positions, it may well become another dialogue of the deaf.

The use of chemical weapons in Syria may have emboldened some countries in the West to take a more pro-active stance on Syria, but it does not seem to have had any real impact on the Russian standpoint. Despite frequent claims to the contrary, Russian support for Assad is not primarily motivated by the interests of arms dealers, the desire to hold on to its military base in Tartus or a cynical attempt to simply antagonise the West. Although driven by all of these concerns to varying degrees, Russian support for Syria is mainly rooted in the historical relationship of the two countries and in respective domestic political developments of the last few decades. Consequently, appeals to either humanitarian sympathies or naked interests are highly unlikely to change the Russian position. Read the rest of this entry »

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Morocco: the King’s Speech (2)

This is a continuation of the previous post on Morocco’s political system.

The 20 February movement

Speaking at an Italian restaurant in Rabat some early-twenties activists from the ’20 February movement’ are saying that ‘We do not feel represented by the existing political parties. We want a monarchy like in Holland. For now we are asking for reforms, not regime change.’ The movement is not a typical youth movement modelled on the type of Otpor in Serbia, Pora in Ukraine or Kefaya in Egypt. Actually the early-20s activists of the Moroccan movement have not even heard of Kefaya. Their movement brings together or is supported by a ragtag of young urban middle class ‘spoiled kids’, the outlawed Islamist movement Al-Adl Wal Ihsane (Justice and Spirituality) and leftists disappointed with the left-wing parties. On 20 February they brought together a few hundred thousands people on the streets of several Moroccan cities to voice their demands for greater democracy. Now they organise such big marches once a month. In the meantime they organise smaller sit-ins, flash-mobs and days of giving flowers to the police, donating blood, or supporting Libya.

The protests are not likely to lead to a revolution, yet the mosaic of the movement is potentially hugely disruptive of the Moroccan political system as we know it. For decades the crown positioned itself between the secularists and the Islamists. But these forces are now united in contesting the existing political regime. This is also one of the lessons from Tunisia and Egypt, where much has been done about the Muslim Brotherhood protesting against Mubarak shoulder to shoulder with Facebookers and Coptic Christians. The Moroccans learned the lessons. The secularists and the Islamists are (for) now united in wanting a drastic curbing of the powers of the king and the creation of a parliamentary monarchy. Read the rest of this entry »

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Morocco’s non-revolution (1)

[the first part of some of my notes from a recent research trip to Morocco]

The ‘Arab spring’ has not left Kingdom of Morocco untouched. Protesters across the country demand more limits on royal power and less corruption and clientelism around the palace. Few challenge the monarchy itself, but a wide range of forces demand a system where the king ‘reigns, but does not govern’. King Mohammed VI launched a process of constitutional reforms in an attempt to shore up the monarchy’s legitimacy and be seen as responding to the demands of the ‘Arab spring’. Morocco might not face a revolution, but the road ahead for Morocco might still be quite bumpy.

The political system

Morocco’s political system is a strange-ish hybrid. One the one hand it has a dominant monarchy with strong executive powers. The monarchy dominates political and economic life. The king reigns and governs. Yet, Morocco also has a multi-party system, holds regular elections which are judged as relatively free and fair, and has alternating governments. The parties that win most votes at the election are invited to head the government. But while elections lead to changes of government, the winning parties do not really govern. They might be in government, but they don’t govern; and whereas the political pendulum is swinging once in a while, political power did not. Read the rest of this entry »

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On ‘friendships’ in foreign policy

The notion of ‘friendship’ in foreign policy is an elusive one. It is often stereotypical, yet publics and policy-makers often think in terms of ‘friendly’ and ‘less friendly’ countries. The notion of ‘friendship’ also often hides pretty unfriendly policies. It is almost conventional wisdom that countries like Germany, France, Spain or Austria are ‘friendly’ to Russia, and countries like Poland or Lithuania are not. Looking at the southern neighbourhood, France, Spain and Italy are key advocates and friends of countries like Morocco, Tunisia etc. Yet, such ‘friendships’ consist of lots of underwater currents. Many ‘friendships’ in form are pretty unfriendly in substance, and they vary hugely from one policy sector to another. Read the rest of this entry »

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Revolutions and youth movements

One of the main stories of the 2000-2005 wave of revolutions – successful in Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine, and failed in Belarus, Azerbaijan and Egypt – were the existence of organised youth movements with names which were variations on the idea ‘enough is enough’. Otpor in Serbia, Pora in Ukraine, Kmara in Georgia, Kefaya in Egypt, Zubr in Belarus), and Mjaft in Albania became almost household names. However, I have not heard of anything ressembling Kefaya in the recent Egyptian or Tunisian revolutions. These recent revolutions were conspicuous by the absence of well-organised and well-branded youth movements. The revolutions seem to have done well enough without them.

Certainly, it is not youth movements, but authoritarian regimes and ‘ripe contexts’ that are the causes of revolutions. This sounds self-evident, but both revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries seem to often miss it (though it is impossible to know whether a revolutionary situation is ‘ripe’ before it actually happens). I still remember the avalanches of venom deployed against youth movements as ‘fifth columns of foreign powers’, not just in Russian, Azeri or Serbian media, but also in plenty of (leftish) European newspapers (the Guardian seemed to excell at that). Many of them implied that youth movements, not authoritarian mismanagement were the causes of revolutions. But it is also indicative how Kefaya failed to lead to anything meaningful in Egypt in 2005, whereas the 2011 protests toppled Mubarak without any Kefaya-like organisation. Read the rest of this entry »

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More for More in the Neighbourhood

The revolutionary upheaval in the Southern neighbourhood and the failures of reforms in most of the Eastern neighbourhood are begging for a revised EU approach to the neighbourhood policy (ENP). In March the EU presented some ideas on ‘a partnership for democracy and shared prosperity’ with the Southern Mediterranean. Some time in May the EU will present also a full review of the ENP. A central concept of the updated ENP is the idea of ‘more for more’ – the EU should give more political and financial support to those neighbourhood countries that implement more reforms and are more democratic.

‘More for more’ stands for a more meritocratic ENP. It should lay the basis for proper differentiation between neighbours, not based on geographic criteria, but based on their performance. The concept is also supposed to change the way the EU is spending its money. Currently the EU pre-allocates most of its assistance to specific neighbourhood states (almost irrespective of their reform performance) in 7-years budgetary cycles. ‘More for more’ is supposed to make it easier to shift its more EU assistance from one neighbourhood state to another depending on their reform performance. Overall, the concept the concept of ‘more for more’ is laudable and fair, but also quite slippery. Read the rest of this entry »

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EU and transition in Tunisia

This blog which is called ‘Neighbourhood’, rather than ‘Eastern neighbourhood’, makes a small step towards living up to its name… As a more substantial follow up to my post on post-revolutionary Tunisia, here is an ECFR policy brief on: After the revolution: Europe and the transition in Tunisia. Almost the same title, but more analysis and policy ideas. And two photos ftom Tunis. One  is a ministry building with ‘Thank you Facebook’ written on it (sorry, I spent quite some time trying to capture it without people passing buy, but the area was too busy). Another is an emancipation campaign poster.

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Democracy-promotion.Now what?

As the ‘post-Cold War era’ turned into the ‘multipolar world’ era, the notion of Western democracy promotion underwent similarly dramatic changes. The West became too weak to pursue democracy-promotion head-on and was seen as being forced to fall back on old-school realist approaches to democracy. But just when this realist approach to democracy-promotion seemed to almost finally become dominant, the popular wave of protests in EU’s southern neighbourhod changed everything again. Now the question is what will come next.

The Realist Consensus

For the few couple of years the realist consensus on democracy promotion seemed to be on a seemigly unstoppable (repeated) rise. It marked the end of two decades of noisy, often arrogant, but equally often concerned tough talk and action to promote human rights and democracy. The idea was that time has come to focus on achieving certain, rather quantifiable interests, such as ensuring security, fighting terrorism, expanding trade or managing migration, rather than adopting vague goals like promoting human rights and improving governance. Read the rest of this entry »

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Post-revolutionary Tunisia

Having spent most of the week in Tunisia, here are some thoughts and observations.

The mood

… is very positive. It is not the end of a president (like Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine in 2004), but the end of an era. Since independence in 1956, Tunisia had only two presidents – Bourghiba and Ben Ali who ruled for 30 and 23 years respectively. In this sense Tunisia feels a bit like Central and Eastern Europe in late 80s-early 90s.


There is a lot of optimism, but even more short term confusion. There is no clear understanding, nor agreement on what to do the following weeks and months. There are no institutions, no leaders and no united platform of dissidents, NGOs or oppositionists (like Solidarnosc in Poland or Saakshvili in Georgia) to stir the country through the next months. The interim president is unelected with little legitimacy, there is no parliament, the interim government is very weak politically, and under constant assault from protesters who want jobs, salary raises etc. So far the government had to accede to most of the demands of the protesters, since it has little power to say no. With such tempo the country can easily go bankrupt (add the outflow of tourists, uncertainties of the investors etc).

The starting point of post-revolutionary transitions in Serbia, Georgia or Ukraine were much better, and even there many of the results are mixed. Read the rest of this entry »

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