Browsing articles in "Europe and Russia"
Feb 11, 2014

Sochi 2014

International Olympic President Thomas Bach with Russian President Vladimir Putin, at the opening ceremony of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic Games (from The Guardian)

International Olympic President Thomas Bach with Russian President Vladimir Putin, at the opening ceremony of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic Games (from The Guardian)

Last Friday, the 2014 Winter Olympic Games opened in the Russian town of Sochi. The celebration of a major sports event such as the Olympics or the soccer World Cup offer a unique opportunity for the world to look inside the host country because of the unusually large media attention it receives before and during the contests. Or, from other perspective, these events offer the chance for local authorities to show a new face to the world.

In the previous months there was a vast array of critiques to the hosts of the Olympic Games, implicitly questioning their integrity. Three were the lines of criticism. The first one was related to limits to freedom of expression, which clash with Olympic ideals of peace and brotherhood. The exemplary cases were members of the punk band Pussy Riot and businessman Mijail Khodorovsky, who were imprisoned some years ago in relation to protests or actions against President Vladimir Putin. They received high international media attention, and were labeled as unjustified, excessive, or mere political revenges. Weeks prior to the Olympics, the people involved was released. This action could have been interpreted as part of an “Olympic Truce”, coming to terms with political opponents within the Olympic spirit. Yet, there are fears that political controls might resume once competitions are over, plus the fact that many other detainees for political motives whose stories are not well known abroad remain in jail.

Second, there are security concerns. Sochi is relatively close to the Caucasus, scenario of large-scale and long-lasting ethnic conflicts. Worries were reaffirmed with bomb attacks to the public transportation system in the north of the country in the weeks leading to the Olympics. Some interpreted these acts as a sign that the government was not going to be able to provide sufficient security during the competitions. However, since decades ago, terrorism has been a major item in the agenda of the organizers of these competitions, and host countries usually invest a substantial part of their budget in security. Yet, at least in this occasion security controls might be playing against the image of the games. The relative absence of public in the venues during the first days of events has been attributed to tight revisions of attendants, similar to those found in international airports. Because of the long time it takes to go through these checkpoints, contests are over before people can make it to their seats.

Third, there is an almost universal critique against Russia’s treatment of homosexuals, again opposite to what Olympic values would dictate. Putin and the organizers have tried to explain that they do not repress gays and lesbians, but that they prohibit the “publicity” of such preferences. Several companies and national delegations of athletes have shown their rejection to the Russian government’s posture by displaying the colors of the homosexual movement flag in their logos or uniform, or by threatening to boycott the Games by not participating in them. Organizers responded by saying that the anti-homosexuality regulations would not be applicable in the premises of the Olympic Village. But, as in the limits to opposition to Putin, it is expected that once the event is over regulations on this subject are fully resumed.

Notwithstanding those concerns, it could be thought that they would be erased the minute the event started with its festive environment and an expected good organization. On the contrary, international journalists and some athletes have documented several problems. Most of them are not directly related to the organizing committee, as they are found in hotels, where water is dirty, restrooms are inadequate, or employees are rude. Plus, the fact persists that these are the most expensive Olympic Games in history at USD$51 billion. It has been argued that most of this money went to build practically from scratch all the infrastructure necessary to adapt a beach resort to host winter sports competitions. The reported feel of “simplicity” or austerity has generated suspicions of corruption.

Practically none of the critiques surrounding Russia in occasion of the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi was new. And also it is very questionable the extent to which the government was interested in showing a new face to the world. Although problems of attacks to plurality, corruption, and security are well documented in Russia, authorities did not try to conceal or nuance them. Possibly they knew it would be futile because they are already well divulged. In the face of such information, authorities feel confident and secure in their position. If any, that could be the message and image they wanted to share: Russia and its government are strong, and there is no sound reason to believe it should be different anytime in the near future.

Feb 6, 2014
Erika Hernandez

Carlos Moedas in Georgetown

The Politics and Economics of an Adjustment Program – The Case of Portugal

By Carlos Moedas
Secretary of State to the Prime Minister of Portugal

Carlos Moedas is an engineer, economist, banker and politician who is currently the Secretary of State to the Prime Minister of Portugal. In this capacity he oversees ESAME, the agency created to implement and control the program of structural reforms to which Portugal agreed to pursue with the European Commission, European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

Friday February 7, 2014
McGhee Library
3rd floor of the ICC
Georgetown University

  Organized by: Department of Government; BMW Center for German & European Studies; MA in Democracy & Governance ; Luso-American Development Foundation


Jan 17, 2014

Cuba and the European Union – Moving Ahead

This week the European Union announced the decision to begin the process of ending with its “common position” of suspending relations with Cuba. Proposed in 1996 by then Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar, the objective was to create some pressure on the island to foster democratic change. After twenty years of this policy and apparently much more for pragmatic reasons than for having achieved, even partially, its goal, the tentative date to normalize relations is 2015.

The EU common position is a rare tool in European foreign relations. Within its framework, all EU members adopt a single stance in relation to a specific issue or country. Common positions have been notably used for Congo, Zimbabwe (both of which have ended), and Cuba. Somewhat similar to the embargo imposed by the US, the EU common position had diplomatic and economic components. On the one hand, there wereare no bilateral agreements which would serve as a framework for any kind of relation between Cuba and the EU or its individual members. On the other hand, investment and business opportunities practically came to a halt.

Since some years ago, members of the EU (among those Spain) noticed the ineffectiveness of the agreement. They relied on a number of arguments. First, aside from Cuba, the EU common position was only used for Al-Qaeda. For some European foreign ministers, it was inadequate or exaggerated to place in the same category a Communist country and a terrorist organization. Second, they witnessed some, albeit arguably superficial and selected, changes in the island. The replacement of Fidel Castro by his brother Raúl as the president of the country, the relaxation of some controls (such as those related to international travel, for instance), and the release of more than seventy prisoners identified by the EU as political were taken as symbols that some things were occurring in Cuba. They are clearly far away from a full respect to the human rights of Cubans and from the openings that are conductive to a democratization, but they were enough for some to assess that the situation was not the same when the common position began. Thirdly, there were some instances in which the common position was ignored. For example, the release of political prisoners took place after a dialogue between Spain and Cuba, which should not have taken place because the policy did not allow for bilateral dialogues of any kind. As well, there were reports about visits between members of the Cuban and European Catholic Churches, which, again, were prohibited under the common position.

Spain successfully pushed for an ending of the economic embargo against Cuba in 2003 (its negotiation token was the release of the political prisoners). Ten years later, the Spanish newspaper El País mentions that the EU is the first foreign investor in Cuba, and that the EU is Cuba’s second foreign trade partner, after Venezuela. So, there was a material benefit to extract from finishing with the economic component of the common position. With the elimination of the diplomatic part, agreements could be reached between the two parts to improve their economic relations.

However, there are some caveats to ending with the European policy. For instance, Poland and the Czech Republic have notoriously insisted on the inclusion of a human rights observation clause in any bilateral agreement with Cuba, still to be negotiated. It remains an open question how the Cuban government reacts to this and, eventually, how it will be enforced. Additionally, members of the Cuban opposition have requested the EU to have a broader vision of its relation with Cuba. Blogger Yoani Sánchez criticized that in his visit to Cuba last week, Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans had meetings only with government representatives and not with the dissidence, who have many human rights and democracy projects that also need assistance from Europe.

The ending of the EU common position towards Cuba can be taken as an example of pragmatic foreign policy. Although its maintenance could have had some relevance in the discourse and in ethics (democracies not having relations with a non-democratic regime), the EU came to terms with the reality that the common position was not serving its objectives and that ending with it could yield material benefits. The European experience can thus be added to the list of cases of embargoes failing to promote democracy or which were surpassed by another set of goals.

Jan 14, 2014

Human rights, solution, and peace

Protestors in Bilbao showing their support for ETA members (from ABC).

Protestors in Bilbao showing their support for ETA members (from ABC).

Last Saturday, a massive manifestation took place in the streets of the Basque city of Bilbao. Under the motto of “human rights, solution, and peace”, citizens marched in support of detainees related to the terrorist group ETA. They wanted to show their despise to the government because of its continuation of detentions, what they say is an inadequate response to the organization’s announcement of disbandment. The rage against national authorities increased when a federal judge cancelled the authorization for the march given by one of his colleagues, alleging that one of the organizers was the group Herrira, whose activities were suspended last year due to supposed links to ETA. How can justice be done at the same time for ETA members and victims?

In principle, the answer should not be that difficult. Following a due process of law, criminals are expected to receive a prison sentence according to the rules dictated in a penal code. Spain, unlike other states undergoing similar justice processes (such as Guatemala, where the former president Efraín Ríos Montt went through a trial for genocide against thousands of indigenous people during his rule in the 1980’s; although he was found guilty, the inconsistency of the court’s actions suggested to some that it was nothing but a show), enjoys a reliable judicial system. There would be little reason to doubt that the process of law will be respected. The problem, however, seems to lie in the attitudes of the government in relation to ETA members (from the point of view of ETA members, relatives and some Basque politicians) and in the expectations of ETA detainees and their supporters (from the point of view of ETA victims and their relatives).

On the one hand, ETA members and their relatives argue that the government is not contributing to the reconstruction of peace but, on the contrary, maintains a punitive attitude. Since 2011 and in the course of the previous months, ETA members have rejected violence for good and announced the dismembering of the organization. Thus, they comment they expect to forge a new Basque country by institutional means. Their expressed desire to have many of their “exiled” members (accused of several crimes in Spain) and to reintegrate into normal life implies a suggestion to have a fresh start. Nonetheless, they complain that their farewell to arms and their commitment to institutions has been met by more detentions, some of which viewed as unjustified (last Wednesday four intermediaries between ETA detainees and other free members of the organization were arrested; this detention was the trigger for the demonstrations of this Saturday), and by human rights abuses against those arrested (like putting in different jails members of a same ETA cell, preventing a coordinated defense, or not allowing detainees to enjoy prison-term reductions or other benefits in jail). From this perspective, the government is not observing a due process.

On the other hand, the Spanish government wants terrorists and their collaborators to pay for the crimes they committed, regardless of their new spoken allegiance to institutions. Not surprisingly, authorities receive large pressure from ETA victims and their families to ensure that those offenses are not left unpunished. Furthermore, calls for peace and reintegration have been made rather from the ETA side, without much, if any, echo or enthusiasm from the government (although parties related to ETA or to local nationalism enjoy substantial influence in Basque politics). From this point of view, terrorism is a gross crime and its perpetrators or facilitators must receive a penalty.

It could be said that both parties are partially right: the government must refrain itself from strange treatment of ETA detainees (such as their “dispersion” through different jails) and ETA members must realize that arguments requesting any kind of amnesty are not sound. Although the government could improve its attitudes towards detainees, it is very unlikely that ETA supporters will change their views. If justice for ones (ETA victims) is understood as offenses for others (ETA members, or vice versa), some resentments will remain and the episode of the terrorist group will not be definitely closed.

Dec 16, 2013

The Catalonian State?

Artur Mas, President of Catalonia, announcing the celebration of a referendum to decide the independence Catalonia. He is accompanied by representatives of the parties that form his coalition government (from El País).

Artur Mas, President of Catalonia, announcing the celebration of a referendum to decide the independence Catalonia. He is accompanied by representatives of the parties that form his coalition government (from El País).

Last week, the President of the Catalonian government, Artur Mas, announced the questions that will be included in a referendum scheduled for November 2014 in relation to the creation of a Catalonian state and its eventual independence. Is Catalonia heading towards sovereignty?

The current trend for full autonomy in Catalonia appeared in 2011 as a reaction against the national government’s budget cuts on appropriations to local administrations in the midst of the financial crisis. Artur Mas used sovereignty as one of his re-election campaign banners in 2012. Although it is not possible to know if the determining factor was the financial issue, Mas and his Convergence and Union (CiU) Catalonian nationalist party won. However, they got just 30% of the vote, and were forced to negotiate with other parties the formation of a coalition government.

As 2013 came to an end, Mas was unable to get his budget for next year approved. As in other countries in crisis, the question was to find some kind of balance between more taxes and more cuts without affecting citizens up to the point that the government could fall down. In the last weeks, Mas struck a deal with the Catalonian Republican Left (ERC): more taxes to the rich, confirmation of cuts in health, welfare and education done in previous budgets, privatization of public assets, and a re-allocation of public spending. The first two features of the budget were damaging for Mas and CiU’s support. In exchange for this, they required that no additional cuts were included and that the banner of sovereignty was relived and formally supported by ERC. It was then that Mas, accompanied by other members of his coalition government, announced the two questions for the referendum (“Do you want Catalonia to become a state?”, “If so, would you like it to be independent?”) and its proposed date.

Mas’ statement was not an entirely unexpected event for the national government, as that had been his campaign banner and he had made reference to the topic throughout the year. At the same time, his determination was rather surprising for the Spanish government because, in contrast with the Scottish devolution, there is no agreement of any kind between local and national authorities. Even more, Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish Prime Minister, was quick to say that the referendum would not take place because it was illegal (the process for having a legal referendum is lengthy, requiring, among other things, the approval of the Supreme Court and the King). In addition, Hermann von Rompuy, President of the European Council, commented that if Catalonia seceded it would have to build from zero its relation with the European Union, as none of the benefits that Spain has with the EU would be translated to an independent Catalonia.

As well, many analysts are skeptical about the referendum. First, there have been some critiques to the possibility that it is just a recourse used by Mas to strengthen his coalition government and to prevent losing support from its allies or Catalonian citizens. Although he could truly believe in the idea of an independent Catalonia, the rush with which the referendum was announced, even though he is aware of the legal requirements he is violating, could strengthen the thesis that, at this point, sovereignty is more a tool of discourse and coalition-making than a sound project. Furthermore, others have looked at the proposed questions, noticing that some people could associate “independence” with more administrative autonomy instead of sovereign statehood, which would complicate the interpretation of whatever result of the exercise.

The critiques to the referendum have led many to think that the referendum will not take place. Mas himself, for instance, has mentioned that if the national government takes action to stop the referendum from being carried out, he will desist in it. As any other politician, Mas has an array of resources to defend his goals, among which staying in power and maintaining the ruling coalition together could be paramount. However, as other historical experiences show, using nationalist feelings for political purposes can turn out to be a very risky bet whose consequences are not easily controlled.

Founded in 2004, Democracy and Society is a biannual print journal published by the Center for Democracy and Civil Society at Georgetown University. The D&S Blog provides web-only content, including special reports and investigative series, on issues relating to democracy and development.

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