Friday, October 14, 2011

Trading Freedom. A Balkan List of Bad Practices.

By Harald Schenker, Balkan Insight

The last few weeks bombarded us with bad news from the Balkans.

It seems that the dream of so many people to have a good life in freedom and prosperity has moved a few steps further into the realm of the unreachable. But hold on – is it really the dream of many? Prosperity – sure.

There even was a political party in Macedonia with the cryptic name that none of their members could ever explain to me: “Party for Democratic Prosperity”. I say was, because the insignificant leftovers that form it today are hardly worth mentioning… But that is another story. Bottom-line is - everybody wants to live in prosperity.

But freedom? Of course one of the biggest misunderstandings about it comes from a German - Rosa Luxemburg, who wrote in 1920 that “freedom is always the freedom of dissenters”. Nice and wrong.

Let me give a few recent examples from the region, in which freedom is traded for another, greater good (usually profit), or in which it is utterly disregarded, usually for the same greater good. Maybe it is time to think about taking it back.

• In an utterly sultanesque event, Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan paid a visit to Macedonia, where he was greeted as a great friend and by some as a savior. I saw a woman on TV news saying that Erdogan is “the man, the first and maybe the last one”. Whatever that may mean, it certainly sounds like a slightly religious touch sticking to the man, aureole included. It was a bit ridiculous, but harmless.

What followed was anything but harmless and a major faux pas, which either went unnoticed or was willingly accepted by the Macedonian hosts. Erdogan’s visit to Tetovo ended in a mass event in the Arabati Baba Tekke.

It is the location that has been taken by force from its rightful owners, the Bektashi dervish order. And when I say force, I mean armed force. The Bektashi temple was destroyed, desecrated and turned into a mosque. All this was done by a group around the Tetovo mufti, in the name of Sunni Islam. And in the name of more considerable profit from using the Tekke location.

This is of course no incidental event. By organising the visit in the Tekke, Tetovo’s Sunni muslim community managed to send out a clear signal of intolerance and of disregard towards deviant religious views. In Recep Tahir Erdogan they found the perfect ambassador.

Needless to say that the Bektashi stand for the opposite of all that: tolerance, open-mindedness and gender equality. But that never counted.

What is even more discouraging is the fact that not a single journalist brought the issue up. Not a single critical voice at the visit of the man who has created the atmosphere which led to the killing of their colleague Hrant Dink, just to pick one prominent example. Obviously, it is good enough if he ridicules Greece. That will do to satisfy national needs. The rest is insignificant details. Freedom? Irrelevant.

• Speaking of surrendering. By banning the gay pride parade in Belgrade, the Serbian authorities have delivered the perfect material for a case study in applied populism. What they probably miscalculated are the repercussions this decision will have on their country.

First, it would be outrageous if this didn’t seriously impact on Serbia’s bid for EU candidate status. But even more important is the internal damage. The government has brought the police into a position of zero credibility.

The institution whose primary duty it is to protect citizens from any harm done to them and to their fundamental rights and to guarantee the free exercise of those fundamental rights, has become the laughing stock of a fascist mob.

A mob that should be the object of police work; that should be crushed with all means available to a democratic state, because it stands with its very existence against all principles of democracy. This is where freedom should end. Instead, this scum is about to become mainstream.

But no, Serbia’s ever uninspired political class decided differently. The freedom of a small group was sacrificed on the altar of alleged safety. But whose safety are they talking about?

That of the policemen, who chose a career, which implies the lack thereof? Or is it the safety of the fascist mob, which can be mobilized whenever needed? Or is it the safety of the righteous citizens, who feel threatened by the existence of homosexuality? Or could it maybe be the safety of an utterly bankrupt political elite that has no answers to Serbia’s problems?

Be it as it may, it was a sombre day for freedom in Serbia. And interior minister Ivica Dacic’s attempt to portray himself as the defender of Serbian national interest against the gay lobby in Brussels has an after-taste. Flavour: totalitarian. Category: cheep.

• The Bulgarian obsession with Roma being blamed for everything short of bad weather (although I’m not sure about that, either) is not new. Clashes are not new. Close ties between politicians, policemen, the church and the raging mob are not new there as they are the case in Serbia and a few other countries.

The recent Roma hunt in Bulgaria may have surprised in its dimension. But in the end, it is just an escalation of what is happening every day in Bulgarian society. And what is the reaction to that? Also not really new. Lip service. And nothing will change in the short run.

Not with the populist turn that the Bulgarian political scene has taken already a good few years ago. What remains disappointing is the lack of tools within the EU to sanction such behaviour. Sleep tight, European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights. And freedoms. Or not.

• Next stop Kosovo. Or rather Germany. Or both. The suicide of witness X in the case of Fatmir Limaj. Also there, the signal is clear. You are free to live your dream of prosperity, as long as you don’t get in the way of those who have the larger share of the cake.

Don’t ask how they got it, head down, nothing will happen to you. Obviously the famous Albanian pride and strive for freedom ends at the entrance to the court building. Beyond, it is omertá and clan allegiance. Or suicide. Haradinaj, Limaj. How many more until people realise who is hijacking their freedom, their future and eventually their prosperity?

• Last stop census. The only real reason to have an all out census every ten years in the 21st century? My guess is because it has always been the case. Rationally, this good old Roman practice had better be shelved and put to rust next to the SPQR insignia of the empire.

In small countries especially, it might prove much more efficient to opt for a combination of alternative techniques, making use of registered data and sampling it with results of smaller or targeted surveys, e.g. on municipal levels or on a specific set of topics (agriculture, use of energy, etc). There are dozens of models available and already implemented. Take Israel or Norway as examples.

Instead, institutional inertia and lack of knowledge are unavoidably producing conflicts. In the Balkans, the census exercises have degenerated into ethnic muscle-flexing and boycotts by a variety of ethnic groups put the result of the efforts in question.

The politicisation of ethnic data won’t be avoided if this practice is held up. Unhelpful actions like imams calling for boycott or NGOs calling for the Diaspora to return to the motherland and be counted will continue to be part of the census folklore.

The impact on people’s freedom of choice is undeniable, as ethnic and religious groups – or rather self-styled saviours of identity will continue to exercise pressure on individuals to declare themselves, the division into “us” and “them” will continue, and personal identities will continue to be pressed into national matrices.

As for prosperity – a census which is not based upon real data is useless. A census is a snapshot and a planning tool and not a political instrument. A large number of politicians and an even larger number or their constituents fail to acknowledge that. This will continue to lead to flawed resource planning and to small, localised crises whether it is about energy supplies or the quality of roads. Time to think about alternatives.

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