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American support for democratization in Southeast Europe: The case of Romania

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With the dramatic collapse of communism in Southeast and Eastern Europe, the newly democratically elected governments had to face the harsh reality of being unable to properly run their countries based on a liberal democratic political system. Also, neither the governments nor their productive sector was able to cope with the rising private enterprise, which was based on supply and demand, fruitful competition, and quality of products. As a result, promoting the essence of democracy and free markets, fell into the hands of the U.S, which for years tried to find a way to make its presence in the region clear. The response of the U.S government after the fall of communism in 1989 and the dissolvement of the Soviet Union in 1991, was swift and methodical. With the signing of a series of legislative acts in the period of 1989-1995, known as the Support for East European Democracy (SEED) Act of 1989, and their implementation through the United States Agency for International Development, the U.S has managed to leave its footprint in the region and establish a network of democratic support to all the former Warsaw Pact country members, as well as the country members of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance.

The SEED Act and America’s objectives in post-communist Eastern Europe

The Support for East European Democracy (SEED) Act of 1989, was part of a series of legislative acts that passed by Congress in the period 1989-1995. The laws were passed under the presidency of both George H.W Bush and Bill Clinton. The legislation was passed as a response to the growing demand for international help in post-communist countries. It is regarded by many as the most successful policy act towards Central and Eastern European countries. While initially the focus of this policy was targeted towards Hungary and Poland, with the growing request from other nation-states in the region, the U.S encompassed more countries such as Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania, Albania e.t.c, and later on, after the end of the Yugoslavia wars, it managed to include more countries from the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

The primary goal of the SEED is to promote the establishment and enhancement of democratic institutions and help transit the economies of the respected countries that are part of this act, into a free market economy, that will allow any of those countries not only to overcome the centralized bureaucratic communist system but also to become more productive, reliable and trustworthy members of the greater Transatlantic community like their fellow Western democracies. At first, this legislation was focused on Poland and Hungary allowing the U.S to designate two private, nonprofit organizations such as the Polish-American Enterprise Fund and the Hungarian-American Enterprise Fund to promote the development of the Polish and Hungarian private sectors. With that being said, the initial thought of the American side was to not recreate a full-scale of the Marshall Plan, simply because the crushing budget deficits of those countries provoked little interest for the U.S. Instead through the SEED, the U.S government managed to establish different assistance programs, that over time, managed to assist more countries in Central and Eastern Europe and later on, in the Balkan region. These programs were focused on stabilization assistance, development assistance, technical assistance, and political conversion. Also, the aid that would come from the U.S would be directly focused on the agricultural sector, the private sector, educational and cultural programs, as well as scientific programs.

The core message that was expressed through the SEED was the fact that, although at the beginning, any sort of financial aid would be minimal, there would be a possibility of a change to this tactic, only if the fledgling democracies that were undergoing a massive transformation would agree to adopt the ways of Western Europe and the ways that the U.S was proposing for the. In other words, this meant that, if by any chance any of the countries that wished to benefit from the SEED Act, had to fulfill some pre-requirements. For the financial assistance to be implemented, the interested countries had to remove trade restrictions while fully liberalizing the investment and the capital of the country, including foreign investment, while allowing any interested U.S investors to export their profits from these countries. Also, there had to be an increased focus on the development of the capital financial markets that would allow privatization of any public assets. Throughout the years, the SEED Act, allowed the U.S to leave a footprint in the countries that got rid of communism and further help them through other independent agencies such as the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), which is responsible for administering foreign aid and development assistance. If we provide an analysis as to why the U.S is so keen on the development of the post-communist countries, we can identify the two main reasons as to why the U.S was and still is so interested in the democratic and free-market development of the region. The first reason was the fact that if the U.S would financially assist these countries, then it will manage to increase its economic transactions with more countries while also boosting its trading and the uninterrupted free flow of capital profits back to it. The second reason has to do with the geopolitical aspect of the SEED act and the role of the USAID.

If we examine this from a realistic point of view, the U.S has managed not only to increase its economic capital but also establish close diplomatic and military ties with the respected countries in an effort to counter any foreign interest coming from Russia or China. Also, this means that, once the U.S has assured the economic development and establishment of democratic institutions in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, then their accession to the NATO and eventually their incorporation into the European Union, would allow the U.S to maintain close ties in the region and add to its already large military cooperation with third countries. Out of all the countries that the U.S has managed to assist, Romania is one of those interesting cases in Southeast Europe, and it has proven itself as a reliable strategic partner for the United States of America.

The case of Romania

The bilateral ties between Romania and the U.S were always more or less on warm status, but both countries built a strong bilateral relationship after the Romanian Revolution of 1989. The U.S was focused on the legal and fair transition of power in Romania. In 1990, right after the end of the revolution, Secretary of State James Baker expressed the concern of the U.S towards the unfair discriminatory treatment of opposition parties in the May elections in Romania and made it clear that the U.S would not support an undemocratic Romanian government. The Romanians quickly realized that if they wanted any support from the U.S they would have to incorporate more Western democratic values in their country. As a result, in 1992, Romania conducted fair parliamentary and presidential elections. Encouraged by the fair democratic results, Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger visited Romania in 1992. It was a symbolic visit because it allowed the Romanians to demonstrate their commitment to fully implement Western democratic values in their country. The same year, both countries signed a bilateral investment treaty (BIT), and one year later, in 1993, Romania returned to the status of Most Favored Nation (MFN). These agreements allowed Romania to completely transition its economy, allowing for American investment in energy, manufacturing, telecommunications services, consumer products sectors, and information technology.

With that being said, it was clear that Romania was managing step by step to take substantive steps toward institutionalizing political democracy and economic pluralism, the sole requirement of the SEED act. Besides that, the USAID had a critical role in Romania. In a span of 17 years, until Romania’s “graduation” from the program in 2008, the socio-economic profile of the country has changed for the better. The USAID has managed to fund and establish various NGOs that focus on the rapid decrease of children in orphanages and improving the condition in the remaining institutions for these kids. Also, the civic organizations in Romania, have managed to establish sustainable partnerships with the public and private sector and improve transparency and fairness in both sectors. Last but not least, the private businesses in Romania have managed to become an established feature of Romania’s civil society by gaining sustainable funds from the USAID that are directly invested in the tourism, agriculture, food processing, and the industrial sector that allow Romania to flourish as a stable economic power in Southeast Europe.

Apart from the socio-economic factors, the U.S has contributed to the enhancement of the military treaties between itself and Romania. On March 29, 2004, Romania joined NATO and established itself as a reliable ally of the U.S in Southeast Europe. A year after that, in 2005, Romania and the United States signed the Defense Cooperation Agreement, the framework for any future military engagements of both countries. With Romania joining NATO, the U.S managed to gain a foothold in Southeast Europe, close to Russia, and demonstrated its capabilities in creating and sustaining reliable military alliances, helping Romania avoid any influence from the East, while protecting its national interests in the region. With Romania joining NATO, the road towards a future integration in the EU was clearer. With the help of the U.S, Romania managed to meet the requirements for an EU integration. Some of those requirements were focused on reforms that would help Romania become more Western, such as the acknowledgment of respect for human rights, the commitment to personal freedom of expression, having a functioning free-market economy e.t.c. Romania joined the European Union on January 1st, 2007 and according to the European Commission, the country is set to join the Eurozone sometime in 2024. Some may argue that Romania has to be thankful to the U.S for the tremendous progress that has been made, and this will not be far from the truth, since until today both countries enjoy strong military and economic ties.

Democratization or Americanization of Romania?

However, there are always some voices from within Romania that see this whole progress with skepticism. Some argue that although Romania is a democracy, it does not have a democratic society. There are reports of high levels of corruption and nepotism in the public sector. According to Transparency International, Romania is the fourth most corrupt country in the EU, after Hungary, Greece, and Bulgaria. Besides that, the standard of living in the country has not changed significantly since the end of communism, and there is a strong demographic collapse that is connected with the so-called “brain drain” of the country, with high levels of labor export towards Western Europe. There is some criticism towards the U.S, that points to the fact that the changes in Romania have benefited the American side more than the Romanian one, and there is a feeling that Romania is still stuck in the past.

Although any sort of criticism should be reviewed thoroughly, one can argue that the U.S is not to be solely blamed. After all, the aid that was sent to Romania and the efforts of the U.S to westernize the country were always focused on the national and economic interests of the United States. It is safe to say that the U.S was applying a realistic aspect in its policy towards Romania, realizing the strategic geopolitical position of the country and the important economic outcomes that would come if Romania became a close ally of the United States. The alliance between the two countries and their ties are relatively strong even today, and although there are corruption problems in the country, Romania seems to have benefited more than any other post-communist country regarding aid from the United States. In a way, the policy of the U.S towards Romania was a success as both countries remain close allies, and Romania is enjoying a better socio-economic and political situation within its borders.

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Europe’s relations with Africa and Asia are on the brink of collapse, and Russia is benefiting

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Image source: twitter @EmmanuelMacron

More than one year since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, the world remains caught in the middle. Against a backdrop of high energy and food prices, ravaging inflation, social unrest and fears of another global recession, Western and Russian blocs are once again vying for support from nations of the developing world.

Emmanuel Macron, Olaf Scholz, Sergei Lavrov, Qin Gang, and Anthony Blinken are just some of the names that have made high-profile visits to Africa in the last 12 months. All have largely focused on cooperation and trade, yet each has done so with a discourse reflecting a kind of Cold War reboot, with Ukraine as one of its most prominent symptoms.

Each in their own way, armed with their respective propaganda, these superpowers wish for nations of Africa and Asia to pick a side. Yet, unlike the previous century, those nations cannot so easily be made to choose, nor should they have to. Russia understands this. The West does not.

It’s no secret that Africa has been reluctant to overtly condemn Russia’s actions in Ukraine, or to participate in Western efforts to sanction and isolate the warring country. Instead, African and Asian nations have continued to welcome these longstanding partners with open arms – widely condemning the war, but not Russia.

In Malawi, for instance, Russia’s deliveries of tens of thousands of tonnes of fertiliser amidst global shortages are seen as a gift from heaven by struggling farmers. Malawi’s minister of agriculture shook hands with the Russian ambassador, describing Russia gratefully as “a true friend”. Russia’s announced plans to send 260,000 tonnes of fertiliser to countries across Africa, is certain to spread similar sentiments.

In my country Congo-Brazzaville, the government signed five major cooperation agreements with Russia in the midst of its war with Ukraine, including for the construction of a new oil pipeline and to enhance military cooperation.

This charm offensive, prominently led by Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, who has visited South Africa, Eswatini, Angola, Eritrea, Mali, Sudan and Mauritania just since January, is already nourishing pro-Russian sentiment throughout the continent, and stands in sharp contrast to the damp squib that was President Emmanuel Macron’s recent African adventure.

In his press conference with Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) President, Felix Tshisekedi, in what was perhaps the most deaf-tone faux pas of his entire trip, President Macron was repeatedly asked to condemn Rwanda’s support for M23 rebels causing havoc in eastern DRC – a situation that closely resembles Russia’s covert support for Donbass separatists in recent years. For all intents and purposes, he failed to do so.

Instead, when a French journalist quizzed him on former Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian’s disparaging mention of an “African-style compromise” in relation to President Tshisekedi election in 2019, Macron proceeded to lecture the Congolese President on freedom of the press – much to the disbelief of those witnessing the scene.

Despite President Macron’s effusive rhetoric about ‘new relationships’ and ‘new starts’, his outburst was yet another bitter reminder of Europe’s longstanding paternalistic and dissonant attitude towards the continent. This is the same attitude whereby decades of European political and military influence on the continent have failed to generate meaningful progress when they did not actively undermine those efforts. Africans are wise to this and refuse to take it anymore, as evidenced by the growth in anti-French sentiment in West Africa. Russia, China and others, though far from being without reproach, are merely seizing the presented opportunities.

Just as the share of EU aid going to Africa has declined significantly, similar problems are afoot with Europe’s relations in Asia. Its share of Southeast Asian merchandise trade, excluding China, fell by over a third over the last two decades. Western Europe was the destination for less than a tenth of Malaysian, Singaporean, South Korean and Taiwanese exports in 2021. Russia is again moving fast to fill the gap, adopting China as its main trading partner, and consistently exporting oil and gas to eager Asian buyers, rather than to the West. When Russia suspended its double taxation treaties with “unfriendly” countries around the world in mid-March, most Southeast Asian countries were exempted from this measure.

Moreover, Russia has over the last decade become the largest arms supplier to the region, recently running joint naval exercises with the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN). Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia have all rejected imposing sanctions on Moscow, whilst Malaysia signed a memorandum of understanding with Russia to improve agricultural trade earlier this year.

One cannot fault these nations for engaging in partnerships and cooperation with international partners, in the interest of addressing their most urgent societal priorities. Nor can one fault African and Asian countries for taking with a pinch of salt a discourse on international values and change, when this supposed change stems not from recognition of current flaws, but from the impositions of emergent global trends.

What lessons can be given about territorial integrity and justice, when the events of 2011 in Libya, as well as their enduring consequences, remain traumatically fresh in African minds, or when the posture of African countries relative to the war in Ukraine is almost identical to that of Europe relative to the conflict in the eastern provinces of the DRC?

What lessons should be drawn from European courts proceeding to the seizure of Malaysian assets and properties worth $15 billion – including lucrative oil and gas assets – based on a questionable arbitration authorised by a Spanish arbitrator facing criminal prosecution from the Spanish authorities? And who will really benefit, given that this claim on sovereign territories, derived from a mid-nineteenth agreement between a long-vanished Sultanate and a colonial-era British company, is funded by unknown third-party investors?

The willingness of European courts to confiscate the resources and assets of a sovereign Asian nation on such flimsy grounds is not lost on observers in Africa and across the developing world.

Whatever the answer to these questions may be, it is evident that relations between the old and new worlds will continue to strain as long as underlying assumptions and beliefs do not evolve. Specifically, change is needed in those attitudes that continue to consider developing nations as oblivious to the many contradictions of rhetoric and practice that characterise the world as we know it – whether in terms of: a system of aid and trade that nourishes the imbalances and ills it purports to address; a discourse on international law and values that crumbles in the face of past transgressions and current drives for reforms; or even negotiations on climate finance in which urgency stops when economic interests begin.

The Western world can only reverse this trajectory by seeking out a genuinely new footing in its relations with the countries of Africa and Asia – challenging its own assumptions and understandings about what a respectful partnership between equally legitimate nations truly means. This is not about paying lip-service to ideals struggling to remain convincing, nor is it about entirely conceding these ideals on the altar of economic pragmatism.

Rather this means accepting a due share of responsibility for the current state of affairs, understanding expectations for the future, being willing to make real concessions, and aligning discourse with dollars and deeds. In doing so, the Western world will reassure those of us that continue to believe in the promises of the UN Charter and Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that these were not merely pretences to maintain hegemony in the face of existential threats, but rather an enduring vision for a better world that remains worth fighting for today.

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A Muscular U.S. Foreign Policy and Changing Alliances

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Imagine a country rich in fossil fuels and another nearby that is Europe’s premier industrial power in dire need of those resources — is that a match made in heaven?

Not according to Joe Biden who quashed it as if it was a match made in hell.  Biden was so much against any such rapprochement that to end all prospects of a deal, he ordered the bombing of the Nord Stream pipelines.  Two out of four lines were severely damaged, about 50 meters of them and Russia chose not to conduct repairs.  Instead,it is pumping its gas up through Turkey.

So far, Russia has not responded to this act of war but a leader can not afford to lose face domestically or internationally, and one may not be surprised if an American facility or ship suffers an adverse event in the future.

In the meantime, Russia has become fast friends with China — the latter having its own bone to pick with Biden.  China, a growing industrial giant, has almost insatiable energy needs and Russia stands ready to supply them.  An informal deal has been agreed upon with a formal signing ceremony on March 20, 2023.

So who won this fracas?  Russia gets to export its gas anyway and China, already generating the world’s highest GDP on a purchasing-power-parity basis, has guaranteed itself an energy source.

Of course there is Ukraine where Biden (like the US in Vietnam) is ready to fight to the last Ukrainian.  Despite a valiant resistance, they are not winning, for Russia continues to solidify its hold on Ukraine’s east, most recently by taking Soledar and capturing parts of the transport hub Bakhmut itself.

And then there is Saudi Arabia:  hitherto a staunch U.S. ally, it is now extending a hand of friendship to Iran, which its previous king used to call the snake in the Middle East.  But Saudi Arabia is keenly aware of the vassal-like manner in which the U.S. has treated Germany, its ally with the largest economy in Europe, over its desire to buy cheap gas from Russia.  The deal was nixed and observers estimate it cost Germany a couple of points of GDP growth.  Such a loss in the U.S. would translate to almost zero growth.

India used to be a neutral country between the great powers.  In fact, its first leader after independence, Jawaharlal Nehru, was a leading figure in the non-aligned movement.  It is now being tugged towards the US.

The latest tug is ICET or the initiative on Critical and Emerging Technologies.  Its purpose is to find ways to engage through “innovation bridges” over the key areas of focus.  This coordination between the two countries is to cover industry, academia and government.

On the other hand, India’s arch rival Pakistan used to be in the US orbit for decades.  Now it is virtually a Chinese client state even though for a time, particularly during the Afghan war, it was a source of much help for the US.

Such are the vagaries of alignments in a multi-polar world, particularly when under pressure from major powers.

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Adoption of the controversial pension reform bill in France



Image credit: Roland Godefroy via Wikipedia

On Thursday, 16th March 2023, the senate adopted the pension reform bill with 193 senators voting for the project and 114 senators voting against it. A few hours later, after many meetings of key figures of the government and the Renaissance party –the governing party – , it was decided that the National Assembly was not going to vote for the bill but rather the government would use the famous 49.3, an article of the 1958 constitution which allows the prime minister to have a bill adopted into law without a vote. The Senate and the National Assembly – through a joint committee – had agreed on a compromise text of the bill the day before the crucial vote in the Parliament. The project was so important to President Macron that he threatened to dissolve the National Assembly if the project did not go through. Some analysts saw this threat as way of inducing members of the National Assembly to adopt the project rather than put into jeopardy their political careers. Politicians like Christian Estrosi, mayor of Nice, a staunch republican, claims members of the National Assembly had to vote the bill because they should be convinced that it is the best thing to do right now for a sustainable pension system in France.

When President Macron was elected in 2017, he pledged to change the pension system in France for he believed that it was unjust and that it would be difficult to sponsor it in the years to come since more people will be going into retirement. It is believed that those aged 65 will be more than the under 20 come the year 2030. Macron did not carry out the reform in his first term in office after meeting with different resistance like the one of the Gilets Jaunes; he probably feared it may cost him the second term. Once the first term was over, he was most probably determined to carry on simply because he is not scared to lose, his second term being the last one. The pension reform has been heavily contested, with polls in February 2023 suggesting that 65% of the French people are against it.

The reform moves the retirement age from 62 to 64 years. The change will be carried out progressively with 3 months added each year to make it two years in total in 2030. To have fully contributed to the retirement insurance one will have worked 43 years. People working in relatively hard industries like the police, firefighters, garbage collection will still be able to retire early. However, those who entered the career late like those who had long studies will have to work until 67 years. Disabled people could still go on retirement at the age of 55 while those who have suffered disability along the way could retire at the age of 60.

With the new bill having become a law, those who will have a complete career (43 years) will not receive less than 85% of minimum wage (i.e. 1200 Euros gross salary). Furthermore, the government believes it will be able to save 17.7 billion Euros by 2030 with the new pension system. According to the government, increasing the retirement age was the fairer way than increasing taxes especially that people are believed to live longer than in the past.

The left parties (La France Insoumise LFI, Les Socialistes, Europe Ecologie-les Verts) have made it difficult for the bill discussion especially in the National Assembly by proposing thousands of amendments to delay the voting process and even derail it. This is probably why the government feared to lose the vote and decided to invoke 49.3. The government doesn’t have the outright majority and has had to rely on the right party (les Républicains LR) to have the reform bill voted in the Senate but some of Renaissance members of the National Assembly were reluctant to vote for the bill and some LR members had said they would abstain, leaving the ruling party with no other choice than to use 49.3. The Prime Minister suggested that “the reform is necessary” and she was taking responsibility by invoking 49.3.

The reform bill was so unpopular that there have been protests for months spearheaded by the Union of workers who mobilized workers across many industries (i.e. energy, transport) and public institutions (e.g. education). Millions of people have been on the street, a reminiscence of 1968, when students spearheaded strikes in which 10 million of people took to the street to make request which resulted, inter alia, in the 35% increase of minimum wage. The objective of protestors against pension reform bill had been to make the government withdraw the entire project because they believe it is unjust to ask people to work two years more, considering that their career is long enough. President Macron seemed not interested to receive the Unions and had no intention to withdraw the project.

As a result of strikes, the city of Paris and some other cities in France have seen the bins fill up along the streets and residents are said to hold their noses as they pass by. For some this is not the image to show to the world for a city that is hosting Olympic games in 2024 let alone for health reasons but for others this is the price to pay for the actions of a government that does not hid the voices of the people. Transport on the road as well as in the air has been heavily disrupted. Those who don’t participate in strikes are generally said to support the actions of the protesters. However, it is unclear if they will keep supporting them if the movement lasts long.

Using 49.3 always comes with the risk that the opposition would present a censure motion, in which the government itself runs the risk of being forced to resign and the text of the bill being rejected if the censure motion is adopted. Before the Prime Minister announced that the government had chosen to use 49.3 to adopt the pension reform bill, she was not allowed to speak for a few minutes. Ivan Rioufol, a journalist at CNews believes that this moment is not just a big moment for the 5th Republic but also a historical moment. For now, the government has triumphed and one of the most contested reforms of French modern politics has become a law– at least if the censure motion does not bring down the government and along with it, the newly-adopted law.

Nonetheless, despite the bill being adopted into law by the Senate and through 49.3, unions have vowed to keep protesting until the law is suspended. In a recent BFMTV poll, 62% French people would want the strikes to continue if the bill passes. Now that it has passed, it is not clear whether the resistance will make the government change anything. Neither is it clear whether the movement itself will be able to resist long since the longer workers strike the more money they lose from the salary. With the inflation and conditions of life that have been hard due to Covid-19 and the war in Ukraine it will be hard to sustain the strikes. What is clear is that the repercussions of this reform will linger on for many years to come. One anonymous political scientist even claimed that this could open the narrow door to the extreme right to come into power.

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