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Staying On the Right Side of History: Lessons in Politics

Saurabh Malkar

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The intellectual and cultural iconoclasm of Vienna in the late nineteenth century shaped much of the West and provided the progressive nidi that would give it a competitive advantage over its peers across the globe. From music to architecture and statistics to psychoanalysis, the Viennese mavericks started a new era in intellectual and artistic inquiry; a foray that was scoffed at the time, but one that provided the breast milk that would nurture many an intellectuals in the later period.

But the fertile environment didn’t last too long. With rising ethno-nationalism, anti-Semitism, and totalitarianism, many intellectuals took flight to find safe havens in the United States and the United Kingdom.

Lessons learnt from the rise and fall of great civilizations, like Rome, and societies like late nineteenth century Vienna might aid the current ‘empires’ of the West to realize and forestall present-day circumstances that bear semblance to the events that led to the ruination of their ancestors.

Personal opinions and views notwithstanding, it ought to be the official and moral duty of the head of state to protect and uphold the highest law of the land. It is a total bonanza if the law of the land dovetails with Lockean liberalism, which adds an extra dollop of solemnity in upholding the law. This seemed to be the operational tenet of Joseph Franz, the ruler of Vienna, during the height of its intellectual revolution. A traditionalist and an admirer of neo-baroque architecture, Franz couldn’t bear the sight of the Looshaus structure across the Michaelerplatz Square so much so that he would leave the drapes on his windows drawn to avoid accidently catching a glimpse of the architectural carbuncle. He, nonetheless, let it be constructed and remain standing.

The above is a stark contrast from the threats President Trump has wielded towards the media, at least on three occasions: opening up libel laws, revoking licenses, and suggesting that outlets should pump out balanced coverage of him and the Republicans. Not only does this clash with freedom of press – a tenet enshrined in the first amendment – it also places disproportionate power in the executive office. Power imbalance has led to the downfall of many an empires and emperors.

The Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, on the other hand, outdid his American peer and decided to take on NGOs critical of his administration and political work under the pretext of sabotaging India’s economic growth by bringing in a liberal western agenda.

Such words and actions by heads of state are disconcerting to say the least, as a liberal society, an anomaly, is always a few steps away from turning into an authoritarian debacle.

Globalization has led to an uptick in movement of labor across international borders. People all over the world are moving in much higher numbers and over larger distances in search of employment, business opportunities, and education. In addition, there is also a steady stream of refugees and asylum seekers moving across the globe.

Vetting, an essential pre-requisite to immigration, is a tricky process and requires cooperation from sender nations. Also, vetting doesn’t reveal the cultural compass of the immigrants. In other words, it doesn’t indicate the probability of immigrants assimilating into the host culture and enriching it.

One of the lessons we could draw from the Viennese intellectual revolution is that of shared understanding and social cohesion. Vienna of the late nineteenth century was a multi-ethnic venue, drawing in people from all corners of Europe. Intellectuals of the time showed a keen interest in studying the common denominators of human behavior and psychology, trying to look under the hood and, in the words of Otto Wagner, ‘show modern man his true face.’ It’s as if the entire movement was an endless pursuit of universalizing commonalities of human nature, thus, attempting to create a universal sense of belongingness, despite ethnic and linguistic differences, to advance social cohesion. Thus, people of different stripes could find a spot in this shared culture and transform what had started as a salad bowl into a melting pot.

This multi-ethnic and culturally cohesive society began to unravel, as separatist forces from within besieged it. The superlative success of Jews came to be despised and anti-Semitism became a political platform to campaign on. The Germans’ discontent with their lot started pouring out in to the streets in the form of violent riots and hatred for other nationalities. There developed a groundswell of support for an ethno-nationalist state exclusively for the Germans, a movement that segued into Nazism.

The Roman Empire faced similar cultural issues, which contributed to its decline and eventual collapse. During its period of ascent, Rome had taken under its control peoples from all over the Mediterranean, the British Isles, North Africa and the Middle East. The new entrants were granted citizenship, spoke Latin and were treated as Roman citizens. They would assimilate into the Roman traditions and identify themselves as Romans, leaving behind their previous affiliations.

This assimilation was greatly absent towards the end stages of Rome and new entrants would pledge loyalty to their commanders and would spend years without any association with Rome. A fractious society, with a lack of loyalty and commitment to a shared identity, poisoned Rome from the inside.

Western nations, on balance, attract more immigrants and refugees than any other quarter on the planet. The importance of cultural assimilation is paramount, if these nations endeavor to remain culturally intact and confident to defend their Western values. A divided society with little allegiance to the national identity can be dangerous, especially, if seeds of host-hatred find fertile grounds.

President Trump’s beefing up of vetting and support for economically-salubrious immigration doesn’t take into consideration cultural compatibility. While the former two are commendable amendments, the latter serves to preclude societal divisions along ethnic and religious fault lines leading to the formation of ethnicity-specific special interest groups and caucuses. It would be desirable if every immigrant group were to assimilate like the German-Americans.

Angela Merkel’s open-border ‘all are welcome’ policy for refugees has not only backfired, but it has come at the cost of her reputation and popularity. European nations are facing the socio-cultural and economic burden of a large influx of people from a culture radically different and anachronistic from theirs.

Immigration should be followed by mandatory assimilation and vetting should also include assessment for cultural compatibility, lest these nations want to turn up like Rome. Multiculturalism and identity politics are the death knell of any civilization. Infighting among a nation’s demographic can leave it susceptible to foreign assailment, particularly, of the cultural variety. 

One of the other reasons Rome was emaciated was the economic quagmire it had gotten itself into with debt, inflation, and high taxation. The Empire couldn’t maintain its cities and its armies and a flagging morale coupled with despondency lead to an exhausted people; a people who were defeated well before being conquered by the northern barbaric hordes.

The US national debt in 2017 crossed the $20 trillion mark and in 2016, the debt was 106.18% of the GDP. The last time the debt-to-GDP ratio was this alarming was in 1946, when the US was coming out of the Second World War. Add to this, a growing enthusiasm for socialized medicine and education, which will, at any rate, require higher taxes across the board. Taxation and debt have an insidious creep on a population, as they saddle future generations and stifle growth.

This might seem as an opportune moment for countries like the US to return to classical liberalism and an important ideal of the founding fathers – small and restricted government. The sooner this is done, the lesser the damage control needed down the line.

The last lesson comes yet again from Rome, and while it seems obvious, it’s also strangely elusive to achieve – separation of religion and politics. With the administrative capital moved to Byzantium, Emperor Constantine, in an effort to consolidate the Empire, used the then growing and pervasive religion of Christianity and made it the official religion. Centuries later, Christian figureheads wielded extraordinary influence in policy-making and governance, leading the once great Empire awry.

Modern day examples of a marriage between state and religion leading to disastrous consequences can be found in Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and in much milder, yet creeping form, in India in Modi’s term and in Turkey under Erdogan’s hegemony.

While religion has its merit, it’s best to silo it from the political pulpit. History hasn’t been kind to those who wedded the two and this separation is one that needs to be reinforced as vehemently as one ever can.

Great ideas and values are easy to conceive in the mind but terribly expensive to achieve. Their careful sustenance, however, comes at an even bigger premium. The difficult work doesn’t end with establishing a liberal society; it, on the contrary, starts with it. Despite the cliché, history has a habit of repeating itself. And insofar as we refuse to learn from the view in the rear-view mirror, we certainly multiply our chances of ending up as an artifact in the wistful image in the mirror.

An ex-dentist and a business graduate who is greatly influenced by American conservatism and western values. Having born and brought up in a non-western, third world country, he provides an ‘outside-in’ view on western values. As a budding writer and analyst, he is very much stoked about western culture and looks forward to expound and learn more. Mr. Malkar receives correspondence at saurabh.malkar[at]gmail.com. To read his 140-character commentary on Twitter, follow him at @saurabh_malkar

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Election Monitoring in 2018: What Not to Expect

Alina Toporas

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This year’s election calendar released by OSCE showcases a broad display of future presidential, parliamentary and general elections with hefty political subjecthoods which have the potential of transforming in their entirety particularly the European Union, the African Union and the Latin American sub-continent. A wide sample of these countries welcoming elections are currently facing a breadth of challenges in terms of the level of transparency in their election processes. To this end, election observation campaigns conducted by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), the Council of Europe, the Organisation for American States (OAS), the United Nations Electoral Assistance Division, the National Democratic Institute, Carter Center and even youth organisations such as AEGEE and Silba are of paramount importance in safeguarding the incorruptibility of election proceedings in fraudulent and what cannot be seen with the naked eye type of fraudulent political systems, making sure elections unfold abiding national legislation and international standards.

What exactly does an election observation mission supposed to accomplish?   

An election monitoring mission consists of operational experts and analysts who are all part of a core team and are conducting their assignments for a period of time varying between 8 and 12 weeks. Aside from the core team experts and analysts, there can be short-term or long-term observers and seconded observers or funded observers. Joining them, there is usually a massive local support staff acting as interpreters and intermediaries. Generally, an election observer does not interfere with the process, but merely takes informative notes. With this in mind, it is imperative of the observer to make sure there isn’t any meddling with votes at polling stations by parties and individual candidates; that the people facilitating the election process are picked according to fair and rigorous benchmarks; that these same people can be held accountable for the final results and that, at the end of the day, the election system put in place by the national and local authorities is solid from both a physical and logical standpoint. Oftentimes, particularly in emerging democracies, the election monitoring process goes beyond the actual process of voting by extending to campaign monitoring.

In practical terms, the average election observer needs to abide by certain guidelines for a smooth and standardised monitoring process. Of course, these rules can vary slightly, depending on the sending institution. Typically, once the election observer has landed in the country awaiting elections, their first two days are normally filled with seminars on the electoral system of the country and on the electoral law. Meetings with candidates from the opposition are sometimes organised by the electoral commission. Talking to ordinary voters from builders to cleaners, from artists to businesspeople is another way through which an election observer can get a sense of what social classes pledged their allegiances to what candidates. After two days in training and the one day testing political preferences on the ground, election day begins. Since the early bird gets the worm, polling stations open at least two hours earlier than the work day starts, at around 7am. Throughout the day, observers ask voters whether they feel they need to complain about anything and whether they were asked to identify themselves when voting. Other details such as the polling stations opening on time are very much within the scope of investigation for election monitors. Observers visit both urban voting centres and rural ones. In the afternoon, counting begins with observers carefully watching the volunteers from at least 3 metres away. At the end of the day, observers go back to their hotels and begin filling in their initial questionnaires with their immediate reactions on the whole voting process. In a few weeks time, a detailed report would be issued in cooperation with all the other election observers deployed in various regions of the country and under the supervision of the mission coordinators.   

Why are these upcoming elections particularly challenging to monitor?  

Talks of potential Russian interference into the U.S. elections have led to full-on FBI investigations. Moreover, the idea of Russian interference in the Brexit vote is slowly creeping into the British political discourse. Therefore, it does not take a quantum physicist to see a pattern here. Hacking the voting mechanism is yet another not-so-classic conundrum election observers are facing. We’re in the midst of election hacking at the cognitive level in the form of influence operations, doxing and propaganda. But, even more disturbingly, we’re helpless witnesses to interference at the technical level as well. Removing opposition’s website from the Internet through DDOS attacks to downright political web-hacking in Ukraine’s Central Election Commission to show as winner a far-right candidate are only some of the ways which present an unprecedented political savviness and sophistication directed at the tampering of the election machinery. Even in a country such as the U.S. (or Sweden – their elections being held September of this year) where there is a great deal of control over the physical vote, there is not much election monitoring can do to enhance the transparency of it all when interference occurs by way of the cyber domain affecting palpable election-related infrastructure.

Sketching ideational terrains seems like a fruitful exercise in imagining worst-case scenarios which call for the design of a comprehensive pre-emptive approach for election fraud. But how do you prevent election fraud? Sometimes, the election observer needs to come to terms with the fact that they are merely a reporter, a pawn which notwithstanding the action of finding oneself in the middle of it all, can generally use only its hindsight perspective. Sometimes, that perspective is good enough when employed to draft comprehensive electoral reports, making a difference between the blurry lines of legitimate and illegitimate political and electoral systems.

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Can Europe successfully rein in Big Tobacco?

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Photo by Mateo Avila Chinchilla on Unsplash

In what looks set to become the ‘dieselgate’ of the tobacco industry, a French anti-smoking organization has filed a lawsuit against four major tobacco brands for knowingly selling cigarettes with tar and nicotine levels that were between 2 and 10 times higher than what was indicated on the packs. Because the firms had manipulated the testing process, smokers who thought they were smoking a pack a day were in fact lighting up the equivalent of up to 10, significantly raising their risk for lung cancer and other diseases.

According to the National Committee Against Smoking (CNCT), cigarettes sold by the four companies have small holes in the filter that ventilate smoke inhaled under test conditions. But when smoked by a person, the holes compress due to pressure from the lips and fingers, causing the smoker to inhale higher levels of tar and nicotine. According to the lawsuit, the irregularity “tricks smokers because they are unaware of the degree of risk they are taking.”

It was only the most recent example of what appears to be a deeply entrenched propensity for malfeasance in the tobacco industry. And unfortunately, regulatory authorities across Europe still appear unprepared to just say no to big tobacco.

Earlier this month, for instance, Public Health England published a report which shines a positive light on “tobacco heating products” and indicates that electronic cigarettes pose minimal health risks. Unsurprisingly, the UK report has been welcomed by big tobacco, with British American Tobacco praising the clear-sightedness of Public Health England.

Meanwhile, on an EU-wide level, lawmakers are cooperating too closely for comfort with tobacco industry executives in their efforts to craft new cigarette tracking rules for the bloc.

The new rules are part of a campaign to clamp down on tobacco smuggling, a problem that is particularly insidious in Europe and is often attributed to the tobacco industry’s own efforts to stiff the taxman. According to the WHO, the illicit cigarette market makes up between 6-10% of the total market, and Europe ranks first worldwide in terms of the number of seized cigarettes. According to studies, tobacco smuggling is also estimated to cost national and EU budgets more than €10 billion each year in lost public revenue and is a significant source of cash for organized crime. Not surprisingly, cheap availability of illegally traded cigarettes is also a major cause of persistently high smoking rates in the bloc.

To help curtail cigarette smuggling and set best practices in the fight against the tobacco epidemic, the WHO established the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) in 2005. The first protocol to the FCTC, the Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products, was adopted in 2012 and later ratified by the EU. Among other criteria, the Protocol requires all cigarette packs to be marked with unique identifiers to ensure they can be tracked and traced, thereby making smuggling more difficult.

Unsurprisingly, the tobacco industry has come up with its own candidates to meet track and trace requirements, notably Codentify, a system developed by PMI. From 2005 through 2016, PMI used Codentify as part of an anti-smuggling agreement with the EU. But the agreement was subject to withering criticism from the WHO and other stakeholders for going against the Protocol, which requires the EU and other parties to exclude the tobacco industry from participating in anti-smuggling efforts.

The EU-PMI agreement expired in 2016 and any hopes of reviving it collapsed after the European Parliament, at loggerheads with the Commission, overwhelmingly voted against a new deal and decided to ratify the WHO’s Protocol instead. Codentify has since been sold to the French firm Impala and was rebranded as Inexto – which critics say is nothing but a front company for PMI since its leadership is made out of former PMI executives. Nonetheless, due to lack of stringency in the EU’s draft track and trace proposal, there is still a chance that Inexto may play a role in any new track and trace system, sidelining efforts to set up a system that is completely independent of the tobacco industry.

This could end up by seriously derailing the EU’s efforts to curb tobacco smuggling, given the industry’s history of active involvement in covertly propping up the black market for cigarettes. In 2004, PMI paid $1.25 billion to the EU to settle claims that it was complicit in tobacco smuggling. As part of the settlement, PMI agreed to issue an annual report about tobacco smuggling in the EU, a report that independent researchers found “served the interests of PMI over those of the EU and its member states.”

Given the industry’s sordid history of efforts to prop up the illicit tobacco trade, it’s little surprise that critics are still dissatisfied with the current version of the EU’s track and trace proposal.

Now, the CNCT’s lawsuit against four major tobacco firms gives all the more reason to take a harder line against the industry. After all, if big tobacco can’t even be honest with authorities about the real levels of chemicals in their own products, what makes lawmakers think that they can play a viable role in any effort to quell the illegal cigarette trade – one that directly benefits the industry?

Later this month, the European Parliament will have a new chance to show they’re ready to get tough on tobacco, when they vote on the pending proposal for an EU-wide track and trace system. French MEP Younous Omarjee has already filed a motion against the system due to its incompatibility with the letter of the WHO. Perhaps a ‘dieselgate’ for the tobacco industry might be just the catalyst they need to finally say no to PMI and its co-conspirators.

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Bureaucrats’ Crusade: The European Commission’s Strategy for the Western Balkans

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The European Commission set a target date of 2025 for some of the Balkan countries to join. However, Brussels sees only Serbia and Montenegro as actual candidates. The door formally remains open to Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo and Macedonia, but these countries have been put into a grey zone with no time frames and road maps. They have been put on hold with no tangible prospects for membership, left without any explanation of what makes them less valid candidates than Serbia and Montenegro, with these two being as poor, illiberal and undemocratic as the remaining four.

With a dose of instant cynicism, one might conclude that Serbia and Montenegro have been rewarded for their military aggressions on Bosnia and Kosovo, and Serbia’s permanent pressures on Macedonia, whereas the latter ones have been punished for being the former’s victims. However, a more careful look at the population structure of the four non-rewarded countries reveals that these, unlike Serbia and Montenegro, have a relative excess of Muslim population. So far, there have been dilemmas whether the European Union is to be regarded as an exclusive Christian club, bearing in mind the prolonged discriminatory treatment of Turkey as an unwanted candidate. After the European Commission’s new strategy for the Balkans, there can be no such dilemmas: the countries perceived by Brussels bureaucrats as Muslim ones – regardless of the actual percentage of their Muslim population – are not to be treated as European.

The resurrection of this logic, now embodied in the actual strategy, takes Europe back to its pre-Westphalian roots, to the faraway times of the Crusades or the times of the Siege of Vienna. It also signals the ultimate triumph of the most reactionary populist ideologies in the contemporary Europe, based on exclusion of all who are perceived as „others“. It signals the ultimate triumph of the European ineradicable xenophobia. Or – to put it in terms more familiar to the likely author of the strategy, the European Commissioner for European Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, Johannes Hahn – the triumph of Ausländerfeindlichkeit.

Now, what options are left to the practically excluded Balkan countries, after so many efforts to present themselves as valid candidates for EU membership? There is a point in claims that some of their oligarchies, particularly the tripartite one in Bosnia-Herzegovina, have never actually wanted to join the EU, because their arbitrary rule would be significantly undermined by the EU’s rule of law. It is logical, then, that the tripartite oligarchy welcomes the strategy that keeps the country away from the EU membership, while at the same time deceiving the population that the strategy is a certain path to the EU. Yet, what about these people, separated into three ethnic quarantines, who believe that joining the EU would simply solve all their political and economic problems, and who refuse to accept the idea that the EU might be an exclusive club, not open to them? What are the remaining options for them?

They cannot launch a comprehensive revolution and completely replace the tripartite oligarchy by their democratic representatives. Still, they can press it to adopt and conduct a multi-optional foreign policy, oriented towards several geopolitical centers: one of them may remain Brussels, but  Washington, Moscow, Beijing, Ankara, Tehran, and others, should also be taken into account. For, a no-alternative policy, as the one which only repeats its devotion to the EU integrations without any other geopolitical options, is no policy at all. In this sense, the presented EU strategy has clearly demonstrated the futility of such a no-alternative approach: regardless of how many times you repeat your devotion to the EU values, principles and integrations, the EU bureaucrats can simply tell you that you will never play in the same team with them. However, such an arbitrary but definite rejection logically pushes the country to look for geopolitical alternatives. And it is high time for Bosnia-Herzegovina’s people and intellectual and political elites to understand that Brussels is not the only option on the table, and that there are other geopolitical centers whose interests might be identified as convergent with the interests of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Still, all of them should first demonstrate the ability to identify the interests of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which means that they should first recognize it as a sovereign state with its own interests, rather than someone else’s proxy.

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