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The Politics of Difference: Italy’s Nationalist Turn and the Struggle between “New” and “Old” Italians

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Nationalism has permeated Italian politics more than other Western European countries. In all the elections that have been held since 2018 the right-wing nationalist parties of Lega Nord (Lega) and Fratelli d’Italia (FdI)have significantly increased the number of their voters. However, Italy’s nationalist turn has not only concerned parties of the right but also from the left. This article illustrates the way in which the proliferation of nationalism affects the mobilization of Italian citizens with non-Italian backgrounds. For mobilization I intend all the efforts of right-wing and left-wing parties and media to either involve or marginalise Italian citizens with non-Italian backgrounds. I argue that, although they might differ in their scope, both right-wing and left-wing political agents promote politics of difference through communication strategies that serve to mobilize Italian citizens with non-Italian backgrounds. In this context the term “politics of difference” primarily refers to policies that are meant to track and exploit arbitrarily defined distinctions between citizens based on their “origins”.

The right-wing political parties and their attacks on Italians with non-Italian backgrounds

Legaand FdI are officially members of the coalition of the center-right, but they have endorsed political attitudes that are closer to the tradition of the post-World War II Italian far-right parties. They have founded their propaganda on the exaltation of the Italian national identity in opposition to several external and internal “others”.Lega’s slogan Prima gliItaliani (Italians First) was firstly used by the fascist ideology-inspired party Casa Pound. FdI leader Giorgia Meloni started her political career as a member of Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI), which was the first Italian neo-fascist party. In her social media communication Meloni uses the word Nazione(nation, with a capital ‘n’) to refer to Italy instead of using the term “state” as most of her Italian colleagues would do.

The leaders and the activists of Lega and FdI have generally shown a hostile attitude toward Italian citizens with non-Italian backgrounds. Congo-born former Integration Minister Cécile Kyenge, who was in office between 2013 and 2014, received all kinds of insults from Lega activists because of her origin. In January 2019 the court of Bergamo sentenced current vice-president of the Senate Roberto Calderoli with eighteen months of prison for saying in a public meeting that Kyenge looked like an orangutan. During the electoral campaign in Sardinia in February 2019, the president of a local Lega club Giovanni Barbagallo posted pictures of the Partito Democratico (PD) and Liberi e Uguali (LeU) candidates on his Facebook page, asserting that they were foreigners and that he hoped that at least they knew the Italian language. However, both candidates owned the Italian citizenship since it is mandatory to participate in the electoral process.

Salvini has always displayed a scornful attitude toward Muslims and Roma people, independently of their citizenship. In a radio show in June 2018, the then Minister of Interior Salvini claimed that he planned to make a statistic of Roma people in Italy. He also added that all foreign Roma nationals needed to be expelled from the country except those with an Italian citizenship, that “unfortunately we have to keep (…)”. In a public speech held in August 2019, Salvini defended his right to use the racial slur zingaraccia against a Roma woman who had said that he deserved to be killed. The controversial Decreto Sicurezza(safety decree) that Salvini promulgated when he was Minister of Interior introduced a norm that enabled the state to deprive individuals of non-Italian background of their citizenship if they were found guilty of terrorism.

Lega and FdI accuse the government to take more care of foreigners’ needs instead of focusing on Italians. In spring 2019, the FdI and other far right circles of Rome organized public protests against the allocation of state-owned houses to Roma families. Tensions arose especially in Casal Bruciato where an Italian family that had squatted a municipal flat, was forced to leave so the legitimate beneficiaries could move in. A Roma family with Italian citizenship moved inside the house escorted by police who protected the family from an angry mob that had rallied outside the building. The FdI section of the 4th Municipality of Rome wrote on the Facebook account that the Mayor gave houses to “nomads” instead of the Roman families that needed them.

Some exponents of FdI tried to normalize the idea that every citizen of foreign origin could be harassed in the privacy of his/her domestic environment if s/he was suspected of receiving benefits that the state did not provide for Italians. In November 2019, FdI members Marco Lisei and Galeazzo Bignami filmed the names of alleged “foreign” families that lived in state-owned houses in Bologna. The video was posted on Facebook in order to argue that the local administration gave houses to foreigners and not to Italians. However, as argued by the online newspaper nextquotidiano.it on November 12, 2019, nothing in the video proved that these families were not Italian. The video was deleted when the public prosecutor of Bologna opened a case for possible infringement of privacy laws.

Salvini emulated the act of the FdI exponents in his own Padano style. While the leader of Lega was touring the “Pilastro” neighbourhood in Bologna a lady in her sixties told him that she knew where a family of foreign drug dealers lived. Without verifying the information Salvini went to the doorstep of the building where the family of presumed drug dealers lived and pressed the buzz. A person answered the intercom and Salvini asked whether it was true that they were selling drugs. It turned out that the person that was indicated as the main pusher of the house, was a 17-year-old Italian citizen, born in Italy from an Italian mother and a Tunisian father. He did not have any criminal records and was not at home when Salvini went to his door. The exploit of the Lega leader drew harsh criticism. The vice-president of the Tunisian parliament Osama Sghaier claimed that Salvini was a racist and that his attitude undermined relations between the two countries. The former president of the Italian Constitutional Court Gustavo Zagrebelsky declared that Salvini’s act brought to memory the Kristallnacht. Salvini has now deleted the video because the boy that he accused of drug-dealing reported the former Interior Minister for privacy violation. It was recently discovered that the lady who gave this false information to Salvini had been introduced to the Lega staff by a carabinieri marshal. The Carabinieri Force has now opened a case to determine whether the officer infringed his institutional duties.

Despite the continuous provocations shown toward Italian citizens with non-Italian backgrounds, FdI and Lega have always rejected accusations of racism and xenophobia and both parties count activists with non-Italian backgrounds among their party members. For instance, Nigeria-born Toni Iwobi had been a member of Legafor nearly 25 years when he was elected member of the senate in 2018. The exponent of FdI Paolo Diop was born in Senegal and moved to Italy at a very young age. He used to support CasaPound and in a 2015 interview he declared that he admired Salvini, that he was a nationalist and a fascist, and that he preferred people to call him negro – the equivalent of the English word “nigger” – rather than being labelled as a person di colore – literally “of colour” – as the politically correct phrasing would put it. Ironically, in April 2018, Paolo Diop and his girlfriend were victims of a racist aggression by a group of people who insulted Diop calling him negro. This unfortunate event did not make Diop change his political convictions.

The “New Italians” and the search for “italianness”

Nationalism is not a prerogative of the right, and the left has also claimed its historical and cultural connection to this ideology. In July 2018, current Liberi e Uguali (LeU) member (former PD) Stefano Fassina published an article on the Huffington Post in which he announced the formation of the party “Fatherland and Constitution” (Patria e Costituzione). According to Fassina, it is necessary to return to the anti-fascist ideal of fatherland that is inscribed in the Italian Constitution to avoid the negative impacts of liberalism and extreme nationalism. The leftist circles often employ the term NuoviItaliani(New Italians) to refer to the generation of citizens that have non-Italian backgrounds. In the 2013 electoral campaign, PD pompously announced the inclusion of NuoviItalianiin the party’s list of candidates. The term has perhaps been coined to provide a positive image of Italians with non-Italian backgrounds. But the “New Italians”appear as a category of people marked by different cultural backgrounds and the overall Italian population is conceptualised as if it was composed of two main ethnic bodies: The “old”, autochthones and purest Italians who are simply Italians and the “new” culturally-hybrid Italians who are Italians but also something else and consequently something less.

The left-right competition over who endorses the authentic values of the Italian identity, has pushed people to question their degree of belonging to italianità (italianness) – an increasingly popular term – and that of others. Individuals with non-Italian backgrounds are trying to subvert the prejudices that have been constructed on their account because of their alleged different “origins”. Their voice reaches the mainstream through political organizations such as Cara Italia, media (television, newspapers, blogs and social media) as well as various art forms, music and sports. Several known and less known Italian-speaking trap and reggaeton artists describe their personal experience of italianness against a context that refuses to consider them as part of the national body. Unlike fifteen years ago, national discourses are now fashionable and national identity seems to be a fundamental part of the construction of one’s personal and collective self. Journalist Oiza Q. Obasuyi has published several articles about the way in which she and other citizens with non-Italian backgrounds feel stigmatized in their everyday life because of their “origins”. In her view people find it difficult to either accept or understand that one could be plainly Italian if s/he has a different skin colour or place of birth. In February 2019, she noted the absurdity of a question that a journalist made to pop singer Mahmood who won the most prestigious music competition in Italy, Sanremo. Mahmood was born in Italy and his father is Egyptian. Although he had never visited his father’s country, a journalist asked him which was the thing that he missed the most of his “country”, that is Egypt.

Journalists of either right or left political orientation are equally contributing to spread the idea that citizens with non-Italian backgrounds are somehow different from the rest of the population. The 17-year-old boy that Salvini accused of drug-dealing was asked in an interview whether he was Italian. The question was irrelevant and it shows that the journalist accepted the idea that being a foreigner is perceived as an aggravating factor for any crime or presumed crime that one has committed. In an article published on November 22, 2018, the online left-oriented newspaper nextquotidiano.it commented sarcastically on the fact that Paolo Diop had joined FdI. The journalist assumed that his non-Italian origins were not compatible with his political ideas and cynically exposed his non-italianness by stating that his original name was not Paolo but Talla.

Italian athletes are particularly subjected to journalists’ endeavours to make citizens with non-Italian backgrounds declare their allegiance to the Italian identity. Few years ago former football player Thiago Motta who is born in Brasiland who played for the Italian national team was asked to illustrate his mixed national feelings. Motta answered puerile questions such as whether he preferred pasta or churrasco and if he would rather dance samba or tarantella. When the Italian women 4X400 relay team won the gold medal at the Mediterranean games in July 2018, politicians and medias from the right and the left depicted the team as a symbol of diversity which can contribute to the development of the Italian nation. Roberto Saviano claimed that the four athletes represented the dream of a multicultural Italy that would not have been hindered by Lega’s racism. More recently, the press praised the “multi-ethnic” character of the Italian women’s volleyball team and designated it as a model for the society that Italy should try to build. In both cases journalists fail to see that by depicting the team and the athletes as “multi-ethnic” or “multi-cultural”, they build a narrative in which the athletes and the category of people that they are haphazardly called to represent have different “ethnicities” or “cultures” and are different from “usual” or “old” Italians.

The athletes know that their image is exploited for political purposes and are also aware of the essentialist ideology that informs the discourse on their “origins”. In an interview with Corriere della Sera volleyball player Paola Egonu was asked how she felt about the fact that “Italy” fell in love with the “multi-ethnic” character of the team. She replied that she was surprised of this reaction, because all players were Italian and it was normal to have different origins. Egonu implicitly told the journalist that origins are irrelevant to one’s degree of national belonging. Paradoxically, her opinion mirrors Giorgia Meloni’s comment on the picture of the Italian relay women’s team. The FdI leader commented the image of the four athletes holding the Italian flag stating that “The only thing the radical chic see in this picture is black athletes to politically exploit. I see the Italian flag waving. Long live our girls”. Meloni used the image of the girls to attack her opponents and therefore her act was not free of exploitative intents. However, she emphasised the symbol that makes the athletes simply Italian rather than their “origin” that makes them differently Italian.

Overcoming the Italian identity crisis

The idea that “origins” can establish a person’s degree of affiliation to a nation is absurd and its application would lead to the ontological dissolution of the Italian project. Italy was formed in 1861 and this means that every inhabitant of the peninsula has non-Italian origins if we look seven generations back. The myth of the “origins” is a politics of difference implemented in order to create a distinction between “old” and “new” Italians at the benefit of the former. In the framework of a nationalist political discourse, the narrative on one’s own past is always conceived to mediate the degree of his/her national belonging in the present and in the future. However, as Egonu’s words suggest, in everyday face-to-face relations, belonging and loyalty to a given collective entity is not conditioned by one’s putative origins, but rather depend on the way one decides to structure her/his self in the social, political, economic and cultural environment that s/he inhabits.

This article has shown how left-wing and right-wing Italian politicians and media deploy a politics of difference in order to mobilise citizens with non-Italian backgrounds. On the one hand, the right-wing parties Lega and FdI refute accusations of racism, fascism and xenophobia but on the other hand they are accustomed to racial and ethnic slur, they marginalize Italian citizens with non-Italian backgrounds, contend their italianness, and ignore their privacy and other basic civil rights with gestapo-type behaviours. They mobilise these citizens not simply as Italians but rather as foreigners or as “Italians of foreign origins” who for this reason may not always be considered as entitled to enjoy full political rights. This politics of difference, that is the emphasis on the distinction between old and new Italians, reflect the fear of competition between Italians and migrants, a fear that was spread by right-wing propaganda and that has generated a myth of “substitution”. The myth says that “foreigners” or citizens with non-Italian backgrounds and non-Italian cultures will outnumber and therefore substitute the original ethnic component of the country. The presence of activists with non-Italian backgrounds in the ranks of Lega and FdI does not reduce their liability and that of other party members who have stigmatized citizens with non-Italian backgrounds.

The politics of difference carried out by political and media agents through the emphasis of their different “origins”, “cultures” or “ethnicities” mobilises individuals with non-Italian backgrounds in the form of a dialectical positioning toward other citizens. Citizens with non-Italian backgrounds will be mobilised not as purely Italians but as a category that oscillates between the internal and the external otherness. The parties of the left, and in particular PD and LeU, are fighting the hard nationalism of the right with a soft nationalism of the left. In analogy to the policies implemented by the rightist circles, the exaltation of the national identity by the left and the discourse on origins that they propagate generates a contradictory effect on the mobilization of citizens with non-Italian backgrounds. The promotion of a “multi-ethnic” society leads to the formulation of ethno-building discourses. Ethnic identities – like religious identities – tend to become catalysts for political violence and marginalization as soon as political and economic problems emerge. Citizens should be granted full political rights whichever their backgrounds are and should not either be forced into assimilation nor be given the opportunity to ghettoize. More than that, one should not preclude the possibility that a citizen can embrace a given set of ideas or ideologies only because his/her “origins” seem to contradict his/her political choices.

The nationalist turn that has characterised Italy in the last years does not stem from the necessity to express a consolidated sense of belonging to the Italian nation, but rather the opposite. The search for italianness in the self and in the others shows that those who are conducting this search – right-wing and left-wing politicians and journalists, Italian citizens and “foreigners” who aspire to become Italians – have either lost or are scared to have lost not as much the character of italianness that they are looking for but rather the economic and symbolic assets that it gave them. Until fifteen or twenty years ago, there was no need for mainstream politicians and journalists to frantically look for who was Italian and who was not, because the question of what it meant to be Italian did not appear problematic. There were infinite modalities of being Italian which were validated by the possession of the Italian passport and/or by the possession of a permanent residency permit in the country. The crisis of the EU and the decade-long economic crisis have shifted the function of the Italian identity from a tool that allowed people to project their ambitions and lives in a trans-national horizon, to a ticket that individuals use to claim assets in a context with scarcer resources. The endorsement of an Italian identity has become an opportunity for political subjects who used to repudiate the Italian project and claim independence from Rome, such as Lega. The history of Lega that is now arrogating the right to decide who deserves to be Italian, show how national identities are constructed and dismissed according to the symbolic and economic assets that they offer. It is nonetheless impossible for any of the seekers of italianness to determine which aspects define italianness and who represents them better.

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Political Impacts of a Second Wave of Covid-19: Looking at Past Health Crises

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Undoubtedly, a  significant number of  governmental reports, academic articles  and op-eds about the Covid-19 and its likely future impacts in the world societies and economies have already   been   published.   Though   useful   for   planning,   anyone   attempting   to   establish prospective post-pandemic scenarios should – above all – be aware that this effort is filled with uncertainty as the repercussions of any contagious diseases are always dynamic. Namely, its reliance on constant evolving factors, is causing persistent shifts in its impacts principally for those of economic and political nature.

With  this  thought  in  mind,  and  as  the  doubts  shrouding  a  possible  second  wave  of  this pandemic slowly  erode, it seems important to look at historical instances of uncontrollable transmission  of  disease  and  to  understand  how  deeply  it  can  politically  impact  human societies, albeit contextualizing the obvious differences brought by time and different social and technological backgrounds. Still, having these aspects in consideration, it should be noted the common denominator that the current pandemic has with other historical health emergencies: the absence of medical countermeasures that can truly eliminate the disease.

In fact, the failure to produce an “effective, no side effects” Covid-19 vaccine so far, led Governments to implement quarantines, which from the Black Plague to the SARS epidemic, proved to be of the one of the few historically effective methods to slow the spread of disease. A report, published by the WHO in 2006, characterized the use of quarantines in the SARS 2003  epidemic  to  be  “old  fashioned  and  labour  intensive”  although  effective  as  “these measures slowed the virus’ spread, and, in the end, contributed to its containment”. This lesson proves to be of particular importance in a time where the  economic and  social pressure to end lockdowns have succeeded in coercing Governments to ease the implemented containment measures, even if any positive outcomes of the latter are yet to be seen.

As stated by a report of the “Konrad Adenauer Center for International Relations and Security Studies”  (KACIRSS) on  the  diseases’ impact    on political  stability, “a  high level of virulent infectious diseases may even destabilize politically stable and economically strong countries, like European or North-American countries”, making relevant any effort of anticipating the reactions of the masses in the midst of a health emergency, so to contain any negative effects brought by it.

One of the most significant signs of political disruption caused by a pandemic event is the depletion of trust in elected leaders, as they seem unfit to tackle the challenges, which, if uncontained, may constitute as a prequel to a larger erosion of confidence in political institutions. This absence of trust leans on factors such as “high morbidity and mortality rates, a lack of medical knowledge and effective treatment options, and general unfamiliarity with the disease” that unchecked, could lead to higher “destabilizing effect of the disease as the population’s perceived (and real) risk increases.”

Case in point, as the plague in Athens, during the Peloponnesian War, took its toll on its population, historians reported a detrimental effect on  Pericles leadership and other elements of the Athenian society, leading to  anarchy and, ultimately, the  end of its democracy. Similar conclusions  could  be  drafted  from  the  Black  Plague,  which  had  a  significant  impact  on monarchical authority in Europe and  other surrounding regions.

Taking these historical episodes into considerations, as we witnessed statements of political leaders downplaying the full impact of Covid-19, solely to later advocate – sometimes  against scientific advice – a quick resumption of economic activity, it is important for these high dignitaries  to remember that an unprepared society  for  a second wave will likely  not be forgotten  by  its  voters.   Furthermore,   this  sort   of  impact  should  speak  volumes  for governments whose leaderships are near the end of their mandates or are based upon parliamentary coalitions that may no longer be viable within an unstable political context. Worse, in a time where social media and fake news are highly influential, this absence of political trust could be seen as an opportunity for populist political movements, as well as extremist groups, to gain momentum and harvest additional supporters for their causes. To this equation, we need to add profound  financial repercussions that the Covid-19 pandemic is expected to have on international economies and, consequently, in the population’s discontentment, considering possible signs of lockdown fatigue if a return to status quo ante is required.

Consequently, a second Covid-19 wave, converged with an economic downturn, could carry another political effect, namely in terms of a State’s potential political regime change. Already mentioned examples of how the Athens plague undermined its democracy or how the Black Plague may have impacted feudalism in Europe need to serve as a testimony to democratic leaderships of how disease infested societies, if unchecked, may provoke/accelerate structural modifications in political regimes. Hopefully, recent decisions taken by a Central European government, still  a  formal  democracy,  may  constitute  only  a  temporary  exception to the witnessed democratic progresses the world has seen during the past three decades.

Historical epidemic occurrences may also hold valuable lessons for the European Union (EU). Notwithstanding the obvious differences between the Catholic Church of the 14th century and the EU of today, both share the common denominator of being transnational entities with significant  political  influence  on  countries  in  Europe.  Much  has  been  written  on  the detrimental impact that the Black Plague had over the Catholic Church political influence in 14th century Europe, as the members of the clergy were unable to provide any answers to the needs of Europeans faced with rising casualties, causing a “decline in their confidence (…) of the institution of the Church”.

Less than seven centuries later,  polls published by the European Parliament’s Public Opinion Monitoring Unit clearly state that “In Spain, 90% of respondents consider that the EU is helping “a little” or “not at all” to resolve the situation caused by pandemic” while “88% of Italians feel that the other EU countries are not helping Italy and 79% think the same of the EU institutions. Still, a relative majority (42,6%) do not want to leave neither the EU nor the Eurozone”. Given these numbers, it is becoming increasingly discernible that citizens of some Covid-19 hardly stricken  countries  questioned  the  EU’s  lack  of  leadership  or  solidarity  to  support  their Member-States when in dire situations. Doubts could also be raised on the possible political effects of a second Covid-19 wave on the EU – Member-States relationship, if health and financial consequences remain unaddressed.

But even though the real impact of this coronavirus crisis on the Italians’ opinion towards EU remains to be seen, the  apologetic letter written by the President of the EU Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, in an attempt to justify the initial paralysis of the European institutions while staring at the Italy’s health system collapse, appears to be a good omen. Furthermore, the  EU  leaders  approval  of a  recovery fund to mitigate  the  deep  financial  and economic impacts of the pandemic are also vital steps, especially if the approved measures are proportionally beneficial to the affected Member-States and particularly their citizens, as otherwise a hypothetical second Covid-19 wave may prove to be more than just another obstacle in the path to Europe’s unity.

Finally,  considering  the  profound  international  impacts  of  Covid-19,  it  is  difficult  not  to envisage on how  terrorists might be inspired by the detrimental effects of disease on societies and how deadly pathogens could provide a significant boost for their propaganda necessities. Even though bioterrorism, and its contributing factors, has been substantially addressed by academia and official reports, it is still important to understand that several of the technical barriers preventing the terrorist use of pathogens have decreased over the last two decades, so new approaches are in dire need.

In  2015,  I  co-authored  an  article  with  Anne-Yolande  Bilala  that  addressed  the  possible beneficial effects brought by the implementation of a “Bioterrorism Prevention Initiative” for the mitigation of this particular threat. Regardless of any merits embedded in this proposal, it would be of crucial importance if initiatives with similar desiderata could see the light of day in a post Covid-19 security context, so to decrease any risks of nonstate actors producing, acquiring and/or disseminating biological agents.

The above mentioned historical events may also provide important lessons, in terms of a future pandemic preparedness, for Governments to grasp, the most notable being that Biodefense  needs to  become  a de  facto  priority, while  adopting  and investing in a more preventive posture towards biological menaces, so to anticipate emergencies of global and catastrophic nature. Case in point, regardless of the  billions of Euros invested on healthcare every year, “global postures remain  primarily response-driven and reactive to a dynamic and volatile  emerging  disease  landscape.  New  epidemics  are  often  met  with  an  emergency response, after-action reviews and a promise to rethink prevention.”

Serving as an additional testimony on the absence of structural changes over the last years, it is also important to remember the already mentioned WHO post-SARS report that concludes that  “communicable  diseases  had  been  given  insufficient  attention,  with  doctors  more interested in high-tech fields such as neurosurgery and molecular biology. Awareness levels were low and infection-control procedures had become slack. In sum, public-health systems were simply not ready for what happened.” A preventive posture to avoid the same scenario would entail, for example, improved synergies between health and military research facilities, and  a  substantial  increase  of  financial  resources  for  the  latter  institutions  as  well  for universities, research centers, and the private sector so to monitor and develop new solutions aiming to tackle emerging diseases.

Finally, the preventive posture could also result in the formalization of a dual-use for national industries. One of the most positive aspects emerging from this pandemic episode was the ability for some industries and services to adapt their assembly lines in order to produce ventilators, masks and other PPE production. Although very commendable, the majority of these  decisions  were ad hoc and solely  based  on goodwill. A  future  proactive/preventive approach, in which Biodefense is a strategic cornerstone, will likely require that local industries– either within a national or regional context – have a pre-designated role for future pandemic episodes.

This “dual-use” purpose would likely require that Governments leverage lessons learned from the current pandemic, in order to anticipate needs, and negotiate with local industries what their future roles could be in a posterior health crisis. Such negotiation would call for exceptional skills in terms of planning, besides constant updates, as some companies may go bankrupt or transfer their facilities to another country. Nonetheless using a long term perspective to define the blueprints for the role of the civil society in a pandemic scenario may prove to be a fruitful exercise, as, when necessary, societies will be better prepared for a next catastrophic biological event.

When looking back in History to find other examples of epidemics, one could argue that the dimension of human fatalities was much larger or that the available scientific know-how to deal with the latter did not give societies sufficient countermeasures to tackle the disease. Both present valid points, but more important than lethality rates is the threat perception of the affected populations, the de facto origin of political instability, which in an age where information instantly travels across the globe and when efficient medical countermeasures against Covid-19 are still lacking, tends to be even more palpable.

As political leadership in democracies has, over the years, become a little more than a voters’ expectations management exercise, political stability in a time of pandemics is likely to be more  dependent  on  how  fast governments  implement  mitigation  measures  coupled  with communication  transparency  by  leaderships  and the  fact-based  science  behind unpopular decisions, instead of finger pointing/social dividing speeches that, ultimately, will only lead to ghastlier public health scenarios and to a widespread of social turmoil.

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The spirit of “Greater Albania” acquires Brussels substance

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image source: interaffairs.ru

A meeting of Serbian and Kosovo leaders which is scheduled to take place in Brussels in September may result in the signing of an agreement on the normalization of relations. According to reports, the EU leaders, who act as mediators in the Belgrade – Pristina dialogue, have prepared a draft agreement. Serbian and Brussels sources say the draft provides for recognition of the self-proclaimed independence of Kosovo by Belgrade in exchange for Serbia’s membership in the EU.

However, even if Belgrade chooses to sign the above-mentioned agreement, – such a step will do nothing to secure normalization in the Balkans. On the contrary, it could open a new chapter in the political and administrative “reformating” of the region. What comes as a key factor here is activization on the part of Albania, which is using the Belgrade-Pristina deal for its own purposes, and these purposes are infinitely far from what the leading European capitals count on. It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that a full-blown international and legal recognition of Kosovo’s independence (which is supposed to result from the agreement prepared in Brussels on the normalization of bilateral relations between Belgrade and Pristina) will become a prologue to more active efforts on the part of Albanian radicals to establish “Greater Albania”, which would incorporate Albania proper, most of Kosovo, Presevo Valley, parts of Macedonia, Montenegro, and, possibly, Greece, with a total population of up to 10 million.

Statements in support of creating such a state have come recently from many high-profile political and public figures in Kosovo, who maintain close ties with the Albanian community abroad and with influential American and European politicians.  One of them is Azem Vlasi, who headed the regional branch of the Union of Communists of Kosovo and was a member of the Central Committee of the Union of Communists of Yugoslavia in the 1980s. He doubts that the recent talks in Brussels on the division of Kosovo will produce an agreement.  In his opinion, the authorities in Pristina are not prepared to give up control of the entire territory of the region. Besides, it’s Kosovo that could become a center of the “collection” of Albanian lands in the Balkans.

The main guidelines to methodologically justify the program of creating “Greater Albania” were presented in the 1990s, by one of the most outstanding of Albanian intellectuals, Recep Chosja, who pointed out that «Albania has never accepted its present borders, always trying to remind international circles that its present borders are unfair, as they divide Albanian territory into two parts. These borders run across the very heart of Albanian people».

The official position of neighboring Albania, which is same nationality with Kosovo, is the acknowledgment of inviolability of the existing borders. In 1992 the head of government from the Democratic Party of Albania Sali Berisha said in an interview that «the idea of creating “Greater Albania” is alien to Albanian ruling circles and political forces».

Nevertheless, in May 2011, member of the Presidium of the Democratic Party of Albania, Azgan Khaklai, openly demanded that all Albanian territories should be united to form one state, while the incumbent head of government Edi Rama has been indicating that unification of Albania and Kosovo is Tirana’s Plan A and should be regarded as such in connection with the agreement between Pristina and Belgrade.

Public opinion polls conducted among the Albanian population of the Balkan countries suggest that the program of creating “Greater Albania” has been acquiring ever more popularity among the Albanian population of the Balkan countries. The idea of making Albania’s borders “ethnic” has already won the support of more than 80% of the population of Kosovo, over 70% of residents of Albania, and of more than a half of Macedonian Albanians. About one half of respondents in Kosovo and 40% in Albania believe that Greater Albania with its widest ethnically conditioned borders will come into being in the near future.

Meanwhile, at the end of 2006 a similar study conducted by experts of the UN Development Program found that only 2,5% of Kosovo Albanians considered unification with Albania the best solution, whereas 96% wanted Kosovo to become independent within the existing borders.

Such a situation may force leading world powers and international institutes to reconsider their recent policies, which focused on a state rather than on a territory and which envisaged that each Balkan country should search for a solution of its problems by itself. «A territory-focused policy regards the Balkan region not as a community of established countries, but as a system of territories that stay in dynamic balance and are thus capable of reformatting. «A carve-up of regional borders on the ethno-linguistic and religious principles may acquire fresh impetus in the course of current talks between Belgrade and Pristina. Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic has expressed readiness to recognize Kosovo in exchange for territorial concessions, while his counterpart Hashim Thaci hopes to invite to his country Serbian Albanians», – points out Le Monde diplomatique, emphasizing the situation in Presevo Valley, which borders on Kosovo.

Another potentially explosive “hot spot” covers three South Serbian communities (Bujanovac, Medveja and Presevo). According to the last census conducted in  Serbia, about 90, 000 people live on the territories of these three communities. The ratio of Serbs and Albanians is as follows: in Presevo  – 89% Albanians and 9% Serbs, in Bujanovac – 55% Albanians and 34% Serbs, in Medveja – 26% Albanians and 67% Serbs.

Chairman of Presevo community and leader of the Democratic Party of Albanians in Serbia Ragmi Mustafa has spoken in  favor of “exchange of territories” between Belgrade and Pristina, underscoring that all three communities “should join Kosovo” while “northern Kosovo should join Serbia”. In his words, the relevant proposal should be presented at the Brussels talks: «I think that this is the future of our region».

According to leaders of Presevo Albanians, the international community should make the Serbian government “refrain from impeding the expression of the freewill on the part of the population of the Presevo Valley».

Such a position echoes the program of the radical Kosovo movement “Self-Determination”, headed by former Prime Minister Albin Kurti. Kurti believes that Kosovo and Albania “should coordinate their actions and simultaneously streamline their legislation with a view to prepare for two referendums, in Albania and Kosovo,  on the outcome of which Kosovo will unite with Albania”. “I think that  this meets the interests of our people in the economic sphere and in the sphere of security”, – Albin Kurti points out, saying that after the  referendum the time will come to “solve pan-Albanian issues, in the first place, in Macedonia, Eastern Kosovo [Presevo Valley], Montenegro and Greece”. In the opinion of the “Self-Determination” leader, Kosovo authorities ought to hold talks not with Belgrade, about the  division, but with Tirana, about the unification.

Given the situation, there are grounds to expect activization of efforts on the part of both Kosovo authorities and Albanian  leaders in other Balkan countries and territories with a view to build up their military and political might. In fact, this process is already taking place. Deputy Director of the Information and Press Department of the Russian Foreign Ministry Aleksei Zaitsev has made a statement to this effect drawing public attention to the fact that the United States has begun to supply Pristina with military hardware. According to the diplomat, the US is thus openly undermining international efforts oriented at ensuring peace and stability in the Balkans.

Pristina has also stepped up efforts to establish military cooperation with Germany. All this testifies to the escalation of conflict in the Balkan Region amid the ongoing activization of the “Albanian factor”.  

From our partner International Affairs

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Europe

Legacy of antifascism for the common pan-European future

Manfred Nowak

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The post WWII architecture is a strong and decisive reaction to the Great Depression, the rise of fascism, the horrors of WWII and the Holocaust. The United Nations, created in San Francisco on 26 June 1945, are built on three main pillars: Freedom from fear and violence, freedom from want and poverty, human rights and respect for human dignity. For the first time in human history, war has been prohibited in international law with only minor exceptions, namely the right of States to self-defence and the collective security system under the guidance of the UN Security Council. For the first time in human history, the promotion and protection of human rights were acknowledged as a legitimate goal of the international community and international law. For the first time in human history, the main perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity had been brought to justice before international military tribunals in Nuremberg and Tokyo. And for the first time in human history, economic and social development, prosperity and the eradication of poverty have been defined as goals of a new world order. These ambitious aims and objectives were only possible thanks to the antifascist consensus among the allies, which at that time seemed to be even stronger than the differences between capitalism and communism. When the UN Human Rights Commission, the predecessor of the current Human Rights Council, drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights between 1946 and 1948, this antifascist consensus was still strong enough to achieve a synthesis between the Western and the Socialist concepts of human rights. The Universal Declaration, solemnly adopted in Paris on 10 December 1948, contains civil and political rights together with economic, social and cultural rights and with the vision of a new “social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized” (Article 28).

As soon as the Human Rights Commission started to transfer this historic compromise between liberal freedoms and social security into a legally binding universal convention on human rights, the United States and its allies in 1951 forced a decision in the UN General Assembly to split human rights again into two categories, which dominated the ideological debates during the time of the Cold War. The International Bill of Rights, which was finally adopted after long negotiations in 1966, was divided into the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, favoured by the West, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, favoured by the Soviet Union and its allies. Civil and political rights and freedoms were conceived as immediately binding State obligations to respect and ensure the rights to life, personal liberty, privacy, security and integrity, freedom of expression, religion, assembly and association and the right to participate in democratic decision making processes. Economic, social and cultural rights to work, fair, equal and healthy working conditions, social security, the rights to food, housing, health, education and an adequate standard of living, on the other hand, were conceived as mere “programme rights” to be achieved step by step through progressive implementation.

As WWII had started as a European war between fascist and democratic States, Europe felt a particular responsibility to prevent another war and catastrophe like the Holocaust through economic and political cooperation and the protection of human rights. While the European Communities of the 1950s aimed at preventing another war through economic integration, the Council of Europe was established already in 1949 as a political organization based upon human rights, pluralistic democracy and the rule of law. The Council of Europe was a Western European organization, which defended these “European values” against any form of totalitarianism, whether fascism (as practiced at that time in Spain and Portugal) or communism (as practiced in a growing number of Central and Eastern European States).By adopting the European Convention on Human Rights(ECHR) in 1950, which only contained civil and political rights, the Council of Europe left no doubt that it was a Western organization, which did not feel bound by the indivisibility and interdependence of all human rights, as expressed in the Universal Declaration. Economic, social and cultural rights played and unfortunately still play in the Council of Europe a subordinate role. The European Convention with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, which decides in a legally binding manner on tens of thousands of individual applications per year, is the light-tower of human rights protection in Europe, while the European Social Charter of 1961 and its monitoring system is much weaker and very little known to the public. Nevertheless, this is the time when the social welfare state, based on the economic policies of John Maynard Keynes, was developed in Western Europe, North America and other industrialized nations. The architects of the social welfare state or a market economy with a human face were, however, not even aware that they were implementing economic, social and cultural rights, as these rights were primarily associated with the Soviet Union and its allies.

During the Cold War, human rights were the subject of fierce ideological battles between Western and Communist States, and to a lesser degree, the newly independent States of the Global South. Nevertheless, this was the time when human rights were codified at the universal and regional level. In addition of the two Covenants of 1966, the United Nations adopted a number of universal human rights treaties, such as the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination of 1965, the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women of 1979, the Convention against Torture of 1984 or the Convention on the Rights of the Child of 1989. These core human rights treaties are today almost universally ratified. On the regional level, the two most important treaties, which were largely based on the European Convention, are the American Convention on Human Rights of 1969 and the African Charter of Human and Peoples’ Rights of 1981.

With the implosion of the Communist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe and the velvet revolutions of 1989, which quickly led to the fall of the iron curtain and the end of the Cold War, a historic window of opportunity opened for a new world order based upon human rights, democracy and the rule of law. The 1993 Vienna World Conference on Human Rights and the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action promised a new era, based upon the equality, universality, indivisibility and interdependence of all human rights, spear-headed by the newly created Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. For the first time, the collective security system of the UN Charter was applied in practice and led to new generations of peace-building missions with human rights components and peace-enforcement actions, which also tackled some of the worst human rights violations. Two ad-hoc international criminal tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda were established by the UN Security Council as the first ones after the Nuremberg and Tokyo military tribunals and led to the creation of a permanent International Criminal Court in 1998. In the same year, the 11th Additional Protocol to the ECHR entered into force and transformed the European Court of Human Rights into a full-time court which since then has delivered thousands of judgments every year, most of them in relation to the newly admitted former Communist States in Central and Eastern Europe. In 2000, the EU adopted a Charter on Fundamental Rights, and the United Nations adopted Millennium Development Goals, which promised a better future, above all for the poor and marginalized communities in the Global South. Despite the genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia and Herzegovina, which happened before the eyes of UN peacekeepers, one can conclude that never before were human rights advanced in such a quick, innovative and forceful manner than during the 1990s.

Let’s go back to 1989, which was a truly remarkable year in human history. In addition to the velvet revolutions, the world wide web was created, and with the “Washington Consensus”, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund agreed to adopt the neoliberal economic policies of privatization, deregulation and minimizing the role of the State, which had been advocated for many years by the Chicago School of Economics, thereby replacing the more interventionist economic policies of John Maynard Keynes. This meant that the rapid digitalization and globalization of our world were driven by neoliberal economic and financial policies. As a consequence, the historic opportunity of implementing a new world order inspired by universal human rights, democracy and the rule of law wassoon replaced by a new world order driven by transnational corporations and global financial markets. On the one hand, these policies led to an unprecedented economic growth and global digitalization, which contributed to more prosperity and a significant reduction of poverty, above all in China, India and other Asian States. On the other hand, these policies led to a dramatic increase of economic inequality, which is undermining the social coherence and democratic values of our societies. Radical policies of privatization, which had started already in the US and the UK during the 1980s, include even core State functions, such as the military, intelligence, police, justice and prisons (rise of private military and security companies), as well as providing social security, pensions, health care and education. The policy of minimizing the role of the State, which is often imposed on governments by the international financial institutions, result in drastic reductions in social security and social welfare and undermine the obligation of States to protect and fulfil economic, social and cultural rights, but also civil and political rights. In this context, we observe the rising phenomenon of failed and fragile states, which lead to insecurity, armed conflicts, the rise of organized crime and terrorism. Finally, the deregulation of global financial markets led to unprecedented speculations, tax evasion, money laundering, corruption and the undermining of the banking system, which directly resulted in the global financial and economic crisis of 2008. There can also be no doubt that the neoliberal economic policies contributed significantly to the current climate crisis, the ruthless exploitation of nature, deforestation and the destruction of our environment. The slim neoliberal state has no longer the power and the political will to regulate and control transnational corporations and global financial markets, and international organizations, such as the United Nations, the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization or the European Union, which would have the power by concerted efforts to regain political control over global markets, are either at the forefront of neoliberal economic policies themselves or are increasingly undermined by nationalistic and populistic politicians. The Brexit, attacks by the Russian Federation against the Council of Europe, the sidelining of the United Nations in relation to the armed conflicts in Syria, Libya and other regions, and open attacks by the United States against the United Nations, its specialized agencies, such as the World Health Organization, or against the International Criminal Court are only a few symptoms of the current crisis of multilateralism.

The world was in disarray when the Corona virus appeared on the global agenda at the beginning of a new decade, and when the COVID-19 pandemic led to an unprecedented lockdown of the global economy, a fundamental restructuring of our daily life and drastic restrictions of our most cherished human rights. Our world was certainly not well prepared to deal with this pandemic, which has caused already more deaths worldwide than the tsunami as the worst disaster of the 21st century. The most neoliberal States, such as the US, the UK and Brazil, which happen to be governed by politicians, who are used to “solve” crisis situations by spreading fake news and searching for scapegoats, seem to be hit most severely. In Europe, States which had cut down their public health and social security systems most radically, such as the UK, Italy and Spain, encountered much more serious problems to contain the spread of the virus than States, where the public health and social security systems had somehow survived neoliberal policies. Even politicians, who for many years had preached that free markets are much better equipped to solve problems than governments, realized that we need strong and well-functioning States to take the necessary measures and that we should listen to experts rather than populists, fake news and social media in order to cope effectively with this pandemic. It is too early to draw far-reaching conclusions since we are still in the middle of this health crisis and do not know how the coming months will develop. Nevertheless, there is a growing awareness among the people, irrespective of their political opinions and political party alliances, that there is something fundamentally wrong with the way how we are living and that we need to drastically change our economic, political and social world order if we wish to ensure the survival of our planet and a healthy and satisfactory life for our children and future generations.

Where does this leave us with respect to the topic of this conference? What can we learn from this short historical overview for a pan-European future, built upon antifascism as a European confidence building block, mutual trust and good neighbourly relations? One conclusion is obvious: In order to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic and other global challenges, such as the global climate crisis, growing economic inequality or global migration, we need to strengthen, rather than weaken, the regulatory functions of States and of international organizations, both at the global and regional (European) level. Secondly, we need to replace the neoliberal economic politics by a new and more social market economy “with a human face”, which is more responsible towards nature, towards economic equality and solidarity with the poor and marginalized sectors of our societies, at the national, regional (European) and global level. This also means that politics need to regain its power to control and regulate the economy, as has been well illustrated during the COVID-19 pandemic. We need to use this new confidence in a responsible regulatory power of politics to also tackle other global threats, such as the climate crisis. At the same time, we need to strengthen the EU by transferring certain powers in the field of social justice, public health, environmental protection, asylum and migration policies from the member States to the EU institutions. The EU, which, despite the Brexit, is still a major global economic and political player, shall further be entrusted by its member States to pursue and strengthen these socially and ecologically sustainable politics also at the global level, above all in the international financial institutions and the WTO.

With respect to the Council of Europe, which is a truly pan-European organization with currently 47 member States and a pioneer in international human rights protection, we need to introduce economic, social and cultural rights on an equal level with civil and political rights and try to overcome the deep distrust between the Russian Federation and Western European States. This requires confidence-building from both sides. The Council of Europe, as a Western European organization, had quickly opened its doors after 1989 and invited the former Communist States to join. Many States used the Council of Europe as an entry door for quick EU and/or NATO membership, which was not always properly coordinated with Moscow and led even to armed conflicts in Georgia and the Ukraine. Many “frozen conflicts” in Europe, such as Nagorno Karabakh, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Tansnistria, Eastern Ukraine, Kosovo and the Republika Srpska, can only be solved if the Russian Federation is again better integrated into European politics. The Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), provide the necessary diplomatic platforms, but the political will for mutual confidence-building is still lacking. Antifascism is no longer a meaningful basis for a pan-European confidence block, and in fact it had played this role only for a few years immediately after WWII. If the Council of Europe, with the active support of the EU, would be able to build a pan-European social welfare system, which is based on the indivisibility of all human rights rather than on neoliberal economic policies, then it would resume its pioneering role as a political organization that is uniting Europe on the basis of common European values.

(Exclusive speech for the Conference at the DAW, Vienna, 1 July 2020)

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