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  • Letter from Dublin: The Price of Modernity (November 2006)

  • Letter From Israel: The "Peace Process" Is Dead (June 2006)

  • Letter from Montenegro: A Balkan Intrigue (July 2005)

  • Letter from Prague: Perils of United Europe (August 2004)

  • Letter from Germany: A Discrete Little Drang (May 2004)

  • Living the Good Life in Serbia (August 2003)

  • Letter from England: Blair vs. Chirac (October 2002)


The socialist-conservative coalition led by Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer, which collapsed on July 7, 2008, had been faltering for months. When I arrived in Vienna two days later, the only surprising element in what appeared to be a mundane story concerned its immediate cause. Eighteen months of endless bickering over Austria’s economic, fiscal or social policy could be managed, it now appears, but discordant reactions to the defeat of the Lisbon Treaty at the Irish referendum (June 13) could not.

The Treaty was duly ratified by the Austrian Parliament on April 9, but the Supreme Soviet-style majority favoring ratification (151 deputies, to only 28 against) did not reflect the mood of the nation: opinion polls consistently show that Austrians are among the least fervent “Europeans” in the EU. In Austria—the heart of Europe geographically as well as culturally—the gap between “Europe” as an ideology and a project, and “democracy“ as a system and a process can no longer be ignored.

Aware of that gap and uneasy about its political consequences, Gusenbauer unexpectedly announced in an interview to the popular Kronenzeitung that his Social Democrats (SPO) would submit any future major EU treaty to a referendum. In brief, he said, he is hoping that the tide of Euro-skepticism may be stemmed by reconnecting the Project with the people.

Coming from a solidly pro-EU leftist party whose deputies supported ratification without a single dissenting vote, the announcement caused an uproar. Gusenbauer’s coalition partner, the “conservative” yet ultra-Euro-federalist People’s Party (OVP), was horrified. Like the rest of the European elite class, OVP leaders believe that the goal of an ever-closer Union is too important to be subjected to the fickle will of hoi polloi. Foreign minister Ursula Plassnik thus accused Gusenbauer of pandering to “those who create fear of the EU” and acting in a manner unworthy of a responsible politician. On July 7 OVP’s leader, Deputy Chancellor Wilhelm Molterer, announced that his party was leaving the coalition.

Gusenbauer’s party colleagues, while claiming to support his promise of future EU referenda, are privately unhappy with what some see as an unnecessary commitment recklessly made. Their unease is understandable. The party has alienated many of its supporters by making concessions to the OVP in early 2007 that violated its earlier commitments, e.g. by dropping opposition to the Euro-fighter program and by agreeing not to abolish university tuition fees (which are symbolic anyway). Socialists are not attracting fresh blood among students and yuppies, while among its natural blue-collar constituency the SPO is losing support due to its fanatical multiculturalism. As Vienna’s once impressively tidy and safe public housing blocks descend into the maelstrom of Third World degradation—overwhelmingly Muslim, of course—the SPO is endlessly “reaching out” to the leaders of unassimilable multitudes. It subscribes to all the usual tenets of self-destruction and acts accordingly, e.g. by drafting a jihadist imam as its advisor on Muslim affairs. In the meantime, its natural constituents are forced to flee their old neighborhoods. Those ethnically-cleansed natives often have a family tradition of voting “red,” but their endurance has limits and for many those limits have been reached.

Openly Euro-skeptic Austrian Freedom Party (FPO) of Heinz-Christian Strache is expected to be the only winner come September 28 and to increase its share of the vote from 17 to over 20 percent. Routinely described as “far-right” in the mainstream media, Strache has outlined tough conditions for entering any future coalition government. Topping his list is the deportation of long-term unemployed immigrants, a popular demand that Vienna’s bien-pensants are misrepresenting as proof of his “extremism.” He is also insistent that Austria should reassert her sovereignty vis-à-vis Brussels.

The Freedom Party first entered government as OVP’s junior partner under Strache’r predecessor Joerg Haider after a stunning success at the 1999 general election. In view of Haider’s somewhat checkered history EU leaders decided to isolate Vienna diplomatically and threatened to invoke Article 7 of the Nice Treaty which allows EU member states, voting by a qualified majority, to suspend the rights of a country in case of “a serious and persistent breach of fundamental rights.” Under pressure from within his own ranks Haider stepped down as the party chairman in 2000, bringing an end to Austria’s diplomatic isolation, and went on to found the Federal Future Party of Austria (BZO).

Strache, known to friend and foe as “Ha-Tse” (H.C., pronounced German style), claims to have no preference for either the Social Democrats or the People’s Party as a coalition partner. At the same time, he says that he would not want to enter government with a party that “sold” Austria to the EU and refused a referendum on EU treaties, which would seem to exclude the OVP. For their part, leaders of both major parties have said they do not want a coalition with the FPO. In the end they may have no choice: the only alternative is yet another socialist-conservative combination. That would be deja-vu all over again.

The center-right will suffer a major blow. My friend Peter, a middle-aged, soft-spoken, British educated gentleman-farmer type in his 50s, looks like a natural OVP voter. He is unhappy with the People’s Party however, for a variety of familiar reasons similar to those that make American conservatives unhappy with the Republican Party. He is uneasy about Strache—a populist, he says, far from brilliant, rather unpolished, etc.—but he is thinking about Strache as an option. Only a few years ago that would not happen.

Even more worrying for the OVP is the evolution of Elisabeth, a party loyalist of some two decades’ standing. She sees immigration, culture, identity, and opposition to the EU, as Austria’s most pressing issues and she says the People’s Party does not offer a solution to any of them:

I’ve been a conservative all my life. Even though I never agreed with everything the OVP stood for, I considered them the lesser evil. However, having joined the counterjihad movement, having become EU-critical, I have now found that I no longer feel at home in the conservative party. There is simply no room for an EU critic and skeptic in their midst. They are not addressing the immigration issue with enough fervor. They are dhimmis through and through. There is only one other party that does address my worries and listens to my concerns; that stands for upholding Austrian and European values; that understands the nature of Jihad.

Three hundred and twenty five years ago Vienna saved Europe from the “prophet’s” hordes. A century ago Vienna went rogue, demolishing tried old certainties and offering seriously worse alternatives (Freud, Alban Berg, Kokoschka . . . ). Today it has an opportunity to correct the error of those ways. It is still one of the most pleasant and civilized cities in the world. Its Euro-skeptics and patriots have an opportunity to act before alien erosion along the edges—aided and abetted by the betrayal inside the walls—accomplishes what no janissary assault could accomplish on 9-11, 1683.

Letter from Dublin: The Price of Modernity

November 22, 2006

On my last visit here 22 years ago, Ireland looked and felt pre-modern. It is a vastly different place today. Late-model BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes glide past my hotel window (metallic silver is de rigueur). Georgian terraced houses across the street are immaculate outside, remodeled inside, and sell for three million euros apiece. The term “economic miracle” is entirely appropriate to the Celtic Tiger’s performance over the past decade – a fortuitous  mix of low corporate taxes, low wages, good public education, Anglophone culture, US economic strength, foreign investment, stable national economy, prudent budget policies, and EU membership.

Economists are still debating the relative importance of each of those factors, but taken together they have interacted to transform Ireland into an economically vibrant, rich modern country. In 1987 Irish GDP was a mere two-thirds of the EU per-capita average; it is 140 percent today. Unemployment fell from one-fifth of the population in the mid-1980s to 4 percent – one twenty-fifth – in 2003; and government debt shrank from 112% of GDP to just over 30 percent today. Ireland’s per capita income exceeds that of Great Britain – a feat unimaginable a generation, let alone a century ago.

The cultural price of prosperity could be predicted with mathematical precision.  Between 1975 and 1995, Ireland’s fertility rate declined from 3.55 (Europe’s highest at that time) to well below replacement level of 1.87. This represented a decline of almost 50 percent within one generation, comparable to what happened to Spain and Italy in the 1970s and 1980s. The freefall is still continuing, and – unless checked – will halve the country’s already ageing population in the next four decades.  Ireland’s rapid decline in birth rates was the net result of dramatic changes in social mores. Marriages and marital fertility rates are collapsing, with over a third of all Irish babies born out of wedlock. The Church, having grown stale and complacent after decades of state patronage, is unable or unwilling to address the challenge of multiculturalist mammonism. When Pope Jon Paul II died, even Castro declared three days of mourning – but Ireland had none. The business community opposed it because of the cost of a day’s idleness, while the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) opposed it on cultural grounds, declaring that Ireland was no longer a Catholic but a multicultural society. 

Yes, Ireland is just another post-modern country now, and that includes high-speed internet in my room (so you get these musings in real-time), as well as collapsing birth rates, dysfunctional families, rising crime, ubiquity of global mass-cultural uniformity. The number of unassimilable immigrants and “asylum seekers” is rising rapidly – their influx inevitably coupled with the imposition of ideological and legal mandates of “diversity”, multiculturalism and anti-discriminationism by the elite class. In the meantime, Irish culture is fast becoming a relic, either neutered  a la “Riverdance” and relegated to heritage, or else condemned as retrograde.   

"Plucky little Ireland” is no longer on the periphery of Europe or the world. It has joined the global mainstream, economically, culturally and spiritually, and it has done so with gusto. Like the rest of the Old Continent, it seems hell-bent on birth-controlling and multiculturalizing itself to death. The process has reached the point where even this diagnosis is rejected by those who might be expected to combat its consequences. Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin, the apostle of a “humble, listening church,” revels in the “radical newness of the gospel” that leads us “along paths that we may not have expected to tread” and “away from traditional ways":

“It may lead to appreciate methods of evangelisation which we had earlier found not always to our liking. It will lead to overcome prejudices. The radical newness of the Gospel must be brought into dialogue with the culture in which we live. At times that radical newness will lead us to appreciate the signs of the times, as they can be discerned through the major currents of thought of contemporary humanity and its searching.” 

On balance, an American who likes to feel at home when away from home should not have any qualms about coming to Ireland. It has become one of us.


The “Peace Process” Is Dead  

As we leave Tel Aviv’s crowded beaches and cafes for the cooler air of Jerusalem, Israel looks and feels like any “normal” postindustrial society. The World Cup in Germany preoccupies people more than another home-made Kassem rocket that has fallen on an Israeli village just south of Gaza. In the meantime, as Leon Hadar has noted, the affairs of the Middle East follow their customary up-and-down, manic-depressive pattern—except that there has been no “up” for a long time. We’ve had a bout of optimism after Oslo, and another one—far shorter—when it looked like Camp David II may yield a treaty; and there was a fleeting glimmer of hope after Arafat’s death. We’ve also had a lot of gloom in-between.

The “Oslo Process,” as conceived by those who initiated it, has come to an end. This is a diagnosis, not an opinion. The political principle of Oslo was an ongoing trade-off of various items in bilateral negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians working jointly toward a final, permanent peace agreement. This principle has broken down completely: there are no negotiations on final status, there are no talks on interim agreements, and there is no cooperation and coordination on security related issues. The process has collapsed and each party has chosen to go its own way. Israel is taking unilateral steps. It has withdrawn from some parts of the occupied territory—notably from Gaza last August—or intends to do so soon, and it obviously intends to treat the rest as being within its eventual final borders. But is this a sound strategy? This is the first question we put to Mordechai Nisan of the Rothberg International School at Hebrew University on Mt. Scopus.

Q: If the strategy of unilateral withdrawal is not sound, as you have stated in your writings and public utterances, is there a better one?

NISAN: Withdrawals without any reciprocity and without any consent or approval from the international community is a policy without any rationale, as we saw in the aftermath of Sharon’s disengagement from the Gaza strip and northern West Bank in August 2005. This Israeli withdrawal has produced only greater Palestinian inclination to terrorism, it has reduced Israel’s deterrent capacity against violence, and it has gained no approval of the international community. Israel’s political decision to make such withdrawals, known as “disengagement,” or Prime Minister Olmert’s “convergence” plan, is a policy—in my judgment—of flight from reality, not just from the occupied land.

Q: What would it take for the negotiating process to be brought back to life, and who would be your interlocutor? For as long as it refuses to recognize the right of Israel to exist presumably Hamas cannot be one?

NISAN: The Palestinian side cannot and will not give Israel anything concrete or authentic by way of an agreement. The Palestinians will not end their, as they would call it, armed struggle, or “national uprising,” or “war against Israeli occupation,” or whatever it’s termed; nor will they alter the educational, religious, and cultural themes that animate the warfare. There was never any juxtaposition of shared aims, or commonality of aims. Negotiations in the cultural and political context in which we live here carry no real meaning.

Q: Would you say that the metaphysical-religious dimension is an even greater obstacle to peace than the “nationalist” one?

NISAN: There are two themes that are intermeshed. One is that the entire Palestine is the home of the Arab-Palestinian people, and that having suffered injustices and loss they have to recover that land and put it in the hands of the Arab-Palestinian people. This is the national-tribal notion of territorial rootedness in the land that has made the Palestinians unwilling or unable to concede that Palestine in part has been inhabited by and ruled by the Jews since 1948. This is something that the national memory in the Palestinian narrative cannot swallow. So, regardless of religion for the moment, there is this notion of “Palestinian recovery,” or “liberation of Palestine from Zionist occupation.” In addition, the “national struggle” of the Palestinians is now spirited by the teachings of Islam. The spirit of Palestinian nationalism has a militant and violent Islamic element that provides a prescription for the continuing struggle against Israel. The religious aspect cannot be treated in separation: religion is part of the Palestinian culture, and its importance is growing. Islam has always been there, but it is increasingly important as a means of mobilization of the Palestinian society, as we see with the young Palestinian children in their summer camps and their school plays, generating hatred and combativeness against Jews. Islam is a primary identity and theme in the Palestinian society, but it is a natural part of that society, giving them the catalyzing force that they lacked somewhat in the past. Although there is tension between Fatah, the national movement, and Hamas, the Islamic movement, yet they consider each other brothers and much of their fighting is not based on any ideological or political grounds but on neighborhood fights and turf battles that go on in Gaza. They do not necessarily define the nationalist and religious camps as such.

Q: So you don’t think that focusing on Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority President, and helping him build his authority and strength vis-à-vis Hamas, would be useful in terms of the overall prospects for peace?

NISAN: Israel’s basic error in 1993 was the signing of the Oslo accords. It was based on the assumption that Yassir Arafat, the head of Fatah, was more moderate than Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, who headed Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, at that time. The “Road Map” was a continuation and an exaggeration of that mistake, by giving the Palestinians recognition to have a state, while seemingly never having to perform or fulfill their obligations that were included in the plan: dismantling terrorist movements, collecting illegal weaponry and so on. Likewise today, to contrast Mahmoud Abbas a.k.a. “Abbou Mazen,” Arafat’s successor, against Ismail Hannieh, the head of Hamas, by claiming that the former is a moderate and the latter extreme and irrevocably hostile to any accommodation with Israel, is in my opinion a fundamental error. It would mean repeating the error we’d made with Arafat. There is no basic difference, politically and ideologically, between the two, between Hamas and the PLO. They are both committed, in their souls and political agenda, to expelling Israel from the Territories, to the return of Palestinian refugees from 1948 in order to swamp Israel demographically and undo the Jewish statehood.

For these and other reasons and factors there is no credible Palestinian moderate with whom Israel can make a reasonable, satisfactory, permanent agreement. To put it in more simple political terms, the most minimal and temporary Palestinian objective—shared by all the Palestinians—is an Israeli withdrawal to the June 4, 1967, border. That is to say, their minimal demand is the complete Israeli withdrawal from all of the West Bank and Gaza, including the dismantlement of all the Israeli settlements there. That minimal and temporary—I emphasize—objective of the Palestinians is something to which Israel cannot and will not agree. Therefore there is no basis for any peace agreement between Israel and Mahmoud Abbas, and therefore strengthening him—with European money, or with Israeli, Egyptian, or Jordanian guns—would strengthen an element that is not supportive of accommodation and peace, but of political and armed struggle.

Q: But there are some Israelis who would say that, with the exception of East Jerusalem, the June 1967 borders may in fact be the ultimate deal that would exclude the return of refugees, the only deal that any leader on the Arab side could ever sign. When you say “Israel cannot and will not accept,” is it based on the strategic importance of holding on to the Jordan river valley, or is it because of the need to maintain the larger settlements such as Ma’ale Adumim, or for some other reason?

NISAN: Very much so! Jordan Valley should and must be kept for security reasons. The large residential towns across the Green Line like Ma’ale Adumim—the home to over 30,000 Israeli residents just 10 minutes’ drive from Jerusalem—cannot be given up. There are Israeli voices on the far Left fringes that propose ideas that are not at all close to the national consensus. The mainstream, middle-of-the-road Israeli thinking is that under no circumstances would the future map of Israel exclude Ma’ale Adumim, for example. That means that Israel is not withdrawing to the June 4, 1967, line; and that Israel is not dismantling all of the settlements. That means that no Palestinian will sign an agreement, if he doesn’t get all of the territories. In other words, there is no political basis for the agreement. The entire political exercise at Oslo was misconceived, that is the political reality. It has to be declared politically dead, which means that the Palestinian Authority as a governmental institution has to be dismantled. Its establishment under Arafat in 1994 legitimized and then organized Palestinian terrorist power to pursue war against Israel.

Q: If that is indeed so, is Israel capable of managing this unstable status quo in perpetuity?

NISAN: Israel has proven over the long haul, and virtually since the day of its founding in May 1948, that it has the will and capacity to content with the security problems facing the country. It is a remarkable feat, that this small country under attack from within and from without, has developed the means in military-security terms, and the national will—at least the requisite dose of national will—to contend. I don’t see any sign of Israel’s will or capability diminishing below the level needed for survival and managing these affairs. This is demonstrated by the political history of Israel until today. Every day the Israeli Army is active on the borders, within the country, in trying to provide the necessary security for the people.

At the same time we have seen a great deal of resilience on the Arab side as well. Israel has proven capable and willing to endure, but we have to emphasize at the same time that the Palestinians, the Arabs, the Muslims, have also demonstrated enormous determination to endure, to pursue the open-ended struggle against Israel. We are looking at the situation in which there are ups and downs in the level of violence and turns of events. I am suggesting that we examine the conflict over time, be it the conflict with fedayyin, Palestinian terrorist infiltrators in the 1950s, or the example of the attack on Kiryat Shmona in the 1970s, or the example of Gilo, a southern neighborhood of Jerusalem, attacked from near Bethlehem a couple of years ago, or the current rocket attacks from Gaza on Israeli settlements which are within the pre-1967 border in the Negev… these are series of events at the of which Israel deploys a military response to resolve the problem.

Without dismantling the Palestinian Authority as an institution, without expelling its leaders—both the PLO and Hamas—and without destroying or expelling the armed Palestinian elements, who now number many tens of thousands, there is no basis for any quiet and tranquility here, no matter what we do in the wider neighborhood. I assume that this will happen sooner or later. It will probably be triggered off by violence.

Q: Short of a life-altering catastrophe, would it be possible to create the necessary consensus within Israel for what amounts to the re-occupation of the entire West Bank and Gaza, and the return to the situation of 15 years ago?

NISAN: No, you’re quite right, there would have to be some major catastrophic event of whatever proportions in order for Israel to take radical action and dismantle the entire apparatus of the Palestinian regime. It would have to be de-Islamicized, from the educational system to the media, to the government, the police force, in order to purify that society. There will be no peace until then. Israel has been willing to absorb Palestinian attacks for all these years without carrying out any major policy change. In 2002, after the attack on the Park Hotel in Natanya, Sharon sent the Israeli Army back into the Palestinian cities in the West Bank, but this was not a political change of any kind. It was merely a military operation, and we need a political policy that would cut the umbilical cord to the Oslo process. We need to say, “it is finished, and everything that was born out of it must now be eliminated.” Israel is continuing to perform militarily, but its political performance has been abysmal from 1993 until now.

Q: There are some voices from the Israeli Right expressing some concern not so much about the current level of national will to continue managing the threat and responding in kind to terrorist attacks, but about certain underlying cultural trends among the Israeli youth that correspond to the general post-modern, post-national spirit of global times. They say that such trends make it uncertain whether this will, this spirit, can be perpetuated indefinitely. Isn’t the spectacle of countless gay couples openly holding hands on Tel Aviv’s beachfront indicative of the existence of a new, hitherto unseen “stimmung” in the Israeli youth culture?

NISAN: There are certainly some signs of decay in the Israeli youth culture. At the same time, among our youths there is sufficient—and probably more than sufficient—commitment to the country, to military service, which will be able to sustain the country’s needs in an unlimited timeframe and far into the future. There is something about the nature of the Jewish people that animates what I am saying, something of the intrinsic talents and capabilities and resources, which have allowed the Jewish people throughout history to pursue their national existence and to preserve their vision over millennia. These resources have not dried up even though they may not always be too visible, or easily tabulated, quantified or researched. But through the prism of Jewish history and Jewish peoplehood, there is no reason to think that these resources are dwindling, let alone dissolving.

When all is said and done, what stands between Israel and the abyss is the Israeli Army—not the Israeli Opera, the Israeli university, or the Israeli beach. That army has proven its ability to mobilize the youth, maintain the elite infantry units that conduct the basic serious warfare, and to maintain the high levels of performance in all key areas: the tank corps, the air force, the intelligence, and so on. We have to have a sense of Israel, and it is not easy to get it. Even many Israelis don’t get it. Tel Aviv isn’t Israel, just like New York isn’t America. You have to go into the hinterland to discover the excellent youth we have. The future of any country is dependent on the commitment of its youth to the survival and welfare of their society, and in Israel that commitment is strong and undiminished.

Q: If there is no Palestinian leader or structure, in your estimation, that Israel can meaningfully work with, what should it do in the wider neighborhood to manage more successfully this status quo?

NISAN: The environment in particular includes Iran, Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the Palestinian elements. The context is the one in which the United States, since 2001, has been trying to confront and change matters vis-à-vis the first three, and the Palestinians to a lesser extent. In relation to Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah, America has been only marginally successful: the only success, and a partial one at that, is the withdrawal of the Syrian army from Lebanon in April-May 2005. All three of the above are linked to the Palestinians, Iran religiously and by trying to provide money and weapons, Syria by providing sanctuary to the leaders from Hamas, Islamic Jihad and similar groups located in Damascus, and Hezbollah with its encouragement, inspiration, and assistance to the Palestinian intifada from the year 2000. These three elements, anti-American and obviously anti-Israel, are a party to the ongoing ability of the Palestinians to sustain and pursue warfare against Israel.

We are in the middle of certain scenarios the end of which cannot be predicted. Iran has not abandoned its revolutionary Islamic agenda, Syria has not abandoned its commitment to radical politics, and Hezbollah is still committed to resistance against Israel in general and maintaining the border with Israel as a hotbed of instability in particular. The question is if diplomacy and/or military methods will be effective in dealing with these three parties. So far diplomacy has been unsuccessful, and therefore—just as I’ve argued regarding the Israeli-Palestinian equation—it may be that only force can effectively deal with those three parties. Iran is unwilling to cease its nuclear program, Syria is unwilling to cease its support for Palestinian violence and attempts to destabilize Lebanon, and Hezbollah is unwilling to disarm although it is the call of the communities of Lebanon and the mandate of the international community.

Q: And yet it could be argued that Iran and Syria, let alone Hezbollah, do not belong to the same class of problems, that their magnitude and the difficulty of resolving them are not really comparable. Is Bashir Assad really in the same league as Ahmadinejad? Perhaps Bashir has not been offered a juicy enough plum to come to terms. Some experts argue that he is hoping that such an offer is yet to be made, and that his overtures on the anti-terrorist front indicate some readiness to come to terms…

NISAN: . . . but the fact is that Syria that we know has not prevented, and perhaps has sponsored, Sunni attacks against American and coalition forces in Iraq. America has been soft on Syria not necessarily because Syria has not taken actions that are not conducive to American interests, but because America is preoccupied with other areas. President Bashir al-Assad walks a very narrow political line. If there is not going to be a direct American military intervention in Syria that would undermine the regime, then the question is whether the regime might be destabilized or overthrown from within. It could be that neither scenario is realistic, not because Bashir is not a worthy target but because there is not enough effective force targeting him. For the time being he may survive by virtue of being a second-rate threat.

Q: But instead of Bashir you may get the Ikhwanis in power in Damascus—it’s the general problem of “democratizing the Middle East. Likewise, instead of Mubarak you may get the Muslim Brotherhood, and instead of Saddam we got Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani. Is it advisable to pursue further “regime changes” even at the risk of creating ever greater scope for an explicitly Islamic form of militancy, as opposed to the Ba’athist variety?

NISAN: It depends on the prism through which we look at the politics of the Middle East. There is an inexplicit assumption, especially in the United States, that when we are looking at the Middle East we are looking for a way towards stability and peace. Whatever is perceived as contributing to “stability and peace” is ipso facto positive, and whatever contributes to turmoil or violence is ipso facto bad, o whatever contributed to “extremism” by way of ideological positions or motifs is bad. That is only one way to look at it. From the political-strategic point of view, I want to suggest the opposite regarding Syria. If, indeed, the Muslim Brotherhood somehow overthrows the Ba’athist regime, the fundamentalists take power, and they establish Sharia and start purifying the culture of secularism on behalf of Islamic principles, what happens thereafter? Those that are allied with the fallen Ba’athist regime will suffer the same fate as the regime itself, which is to say the Palestinian leaders who had found sanctuary in Syria under the umbrella of first Hafez al-Assad and then under his son Bashir, would have to go. That would be good. Then we have the question of Hezbollah and Syria’s involvement in Lebanon. Would that continue under an Islamic regime in Damascus? Not necessarily: perhaps there would be tensions between Sunnis in Damascus and Shi’ites of Hezbollah. You imply that the situation would get worse, but it’s not too good to start with. Would there be an outbreak of war between the Islamic regime in Damascus and Israel because of broader ideological issues? Not necessarily. Iran declares that Israel has no right to exist, but the Iranians are yet to fire a bullet at us. Teheran could fire a missile, but they haven’t done so. An Islamic regime in Damascus would not go to war against Israel the next day because it is not militarily feasible for them to contend with the Israeli Army. With the coming to power of these populist religious elements, the political situation would be changed. It would be clarified, but it would not necessarily create any problems that are greater than those we have now.

Q: That may be so in the short term. In the long term, however, is it not easier to talk to someone who is not religiously, fundamentally opposed to Israel’s existence, like Bashir who still may be amenable to a deal, than to a Muslim Brotherhood regime that may not in the short term contemplate drastic action, but whose leaders will be looking for the replacement of Bashir’s Palestinians with a new, possibly even more unsavory lot?

NISAN: By referring to a “deal” yet again you are returning to the prism of “peace-making,” which is not a crime but is a mistake. Israel has no need of any “deal” with the Syrians. Israel has no national interest that requires a political treaty with the government in Damascus, whatever its composition. Israel has certain problems with Syria, but these problems are not going to be resolved by a deal that would presumably have to include Israeli willingness to return the Golan Heights to Syrian sovereignty and rule. This is not likely to be on the cards. It is not impossible but it is unlikely. The Israeli public perceives the Golan Heights as an integral part of Israel, perhaps more so than any other area that Israel captured during the Six-Day War, including East Jerusalem, both for security reasons and because there is no Arab population living there. The notion that a “deal” may be made with Bashir al-Assad more easily than with some Muslim Brotherhood leader is in the realm of theory, but it is irrelevant in terms of the situation on the ground.

Q: Would you also say that no “deal” is either possible or likely with Iran? And how would you de-claw it without risking an unsustainable escalation in Iraq with the reaction of the Shi’ites and an economic crisis of global proportions with the barrel hitting $150 or more?

NISAN: Both the American President and the Israeli Prime Minister have declared, repeatedly, that it is unacceptable for Iran to acquire nuclear weapons. If we consider those statements to be serious, credible, then Israel and the United States will act to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear capability. If diplomacy fails to bring about the resolution of this issue, then only force remains. It may sound narrow and simplistic, but that’s how I see it.

Q: But we need to look at “diplomacy” first, and the definition of “fails.” Would you say that Secretary of State Rice’s statement of May 31 has changed the climate of diplomatic discourse regarding Iran’s nuclear program?

NISAN: It is an error to believe that her statement and the accompanying proposal will change the political state of play. Statements… in the Middle East we have the sense of the use of language to hide and cover and deceive, to win time, to tire your opponent, to confuse him. That is what the Iranians have been engaged in for the past year and a half or so. They’ve been confusing the West, saying things that Europe wants to hear at times, making promises that were not fulfilled. It’s the “Iranian bazaar,” part of the culture that entails the use of language not to convey intentions and facts but to create a rhetorical environment of mixed signals without any intention to bring about a political resolution of the problem. The underlying pattern we have here is the Iranian refusal to give up the ability to acquire nuclear capability in whatever form. Where we started our conversation, we can begin to end it now by closing the political circle. I have made the point that agreements with the Palestinians are worthless because they have no intention to observe them, and likewise Iran is unwilling to make a binding commitment and fulfill it. We have to be aware that diplomacy, language, words, formulae, agreements, can be seen as one level of obfuscation, and then we have the facts on the ground, the political and military facts on the ground which define the “real reality” we live in. This gives us a better handle on what has happened so far and what is likely to happen in the future.

Q: In view of the demographic weakness of Europe that may well result in a Muslim-dominated Old Continent within the next three or four decades, what does that future have in store for Israel in the medium to long term?

NISAN: It didn’t have to happen to Europe, and it still does not have to happen. It’s like you’re looking at a patient who has been smoking for a long time, he develops lung cancer, the doctor says “if you can stop smoking now it’s possible you’ll be cured!”—and he can’t stop smoking! It is not objectively necessary that he cannot stop smoking. There is something admittedly sick in his inability to stop, but it is not “inevitable.” The abandonment of will, the loss of self-confidence, the loss of self-pride in the European civilization is at the root of this illness. There are those who believe that Europe will inevitably succumb to Islamization, dhimmitude, and Arabization, and that the game is over, but it’s an awesome thought.

At the same time, it’s an awesome thought that the Jewish return to the historical and Biblical homeland of the Jewish people will not survive. I am not sure which is the more awesome thought, that Europe will succumb or that Israel will succumb, and I am not sure which would be the more astounding or tragic. It remains my conviction that Israel will not succumb.


Intrigue in Podgorica (July 2005)

When Ambassador James Bissett, Professor Ronald Hatchett, and I accepted an invitation to give public lectures in Montenegro as guests of the Movement for the Common State of Serbia and Montenegro, we knew that what we had to say would not be welcomed by the separatist government of Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic. Knowing that passions are running high in this deeply divided land, we were careful to make sure that what we say is reasonable and true.

Arriving in the wake of countless foreign “experts” who had supported the cause of Montenegrin separatism, we believed that it was both proper and necessary to present an alternative point of view. In four hectic days (July 3-6), we and our colleagues from Greece and Russia presented a total of seven panels, in Podgorica (twice), Niksic, Budva, Bar, Kotor, and Herceg Novi.

Ambassador Bissett’s focus was on the Canadian legislation for any future referendum on the independence of Quebec. In a normal place, and within a normal debate, his detailed account of Canada’s Clarity Act would have been welcomed by all parties as a valuable contribution to the issue of who should have the right to vote in a referendum, what exact question should be asked, and what constitutes a “clear majority.”

Professor Hatchett’s parallel between various dangers facing an independent Montenegro, and the sobering experience of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia in the first decade of its independence, was based on an informed and insightful analysis of the dynamics that are at work in both places. In particular Dr. Hatchett pointed out that the threat of greater Albanian chauvinism—which has already turned one-third of Macedonia into an area effectively ungovernable from Skopje—would not spare Montenegro. If the state of Texas, with its 24 million people, a powerful economy, and the legal right to secede, realized the peril of independent statehood in an uncertain world—Dr. Hatchett concluded—then it would be advisable for the tiny Montenegro, with its 650,000 people earning $200 a month on average, to think twice before separating.

My own presentation was focused on the experience of two small but culturally and historically important European nations that inhabit clearly defined countries but do not enjoy sovereign statehood. Neither Catalonia nor Scotland is deprived of any element of meaningful nationhood by virtue of being in a common state with other nations that share similar geopolitical and economic interests. The dynamics of their social, economic, and political development are not impeded from Madrid or London, which is proven by the failure of separatists to capture a significant segment of the vote in either country. I was also careful to point out that the intention of the Montenegrin government to exclude its citizens resident in Serbia for the referendum—one third of the electorate!—was unacceptable under international democratic standards, most recently exemplified by the participation of French and Dutch citizens resident abroad in the referendum on the European Union’s constitution last May.

The reaction of the controlled media in Podgorica to our efforts was depressingly predictable. To give you some flavor of the place, on only one day (July 6) the leading pro-government daily “Vijesti” compared us to a bunch of Mein Kampf-reading thugs in a Munich beer hall in the early 1930s; the semi-official “Pobjeda” daily accused us of performing for a small fistful of dollars; while Prime Minister Djukanovic himself stated that he did not mind our visit because, in his view, our musings would only strengthen the cause of independence.

Someone did mind, however, and the scandalous article described by Tom Fleming in his post was published only one day after our departure from Podgorica.

Contrary to Tom’s advice, however, and that of many other friends and associates, I am going back to Podgorica tomorrow (July 12) to hold a press conference and challenge the authorities to arrest me, or else to admit that the allegations are false. I have already sent a letter to Djukanovic inviting him to denounce the allegations, especially since he is now implicated thanks to the incriminated article claiming his Cabinet as the source of the forged letter. A more stringent demand was made in a letter sent to Djukanovic by Ambassador Bissett:

“If it is true that the existence of this forged letter was leaked to the media by members of your Cabinet—as claimed by the paper that has published it—then I would further respectfully ask that you order an immediate investigation to uncover those of your subordinates responsible for such an outrage. Your reputation and that of your Government stands to be condemned by Western governments, institutions and media if your personal intervention is not forthcoming.”

Dr. Trifkovic opposes the separation of Montenegro from Serbia, Bissett wrote, “but he has always been forthright and honest in his opposition and has done so through reasoned argument and peaceful discourse”:

“The accusation contained in the forged letter is not only monstrous, it is ridiculous. That any responsible newspaper would publish such unadulterated and vicious fiction reflects poorly not only on the newspaper concerned but also on Montenegro itself. As Prime Minister, and since you have become personally implicated, it is only proper that you take steps to publicly condemn this forgery and bring those responsible for its publication to justice.”

In view of another paranoid article that appeared in the semi-official “Pobjeda” daily on Saturday, July 9, claiming that a detailed plan to instigate violence in Montenegro is being masterminded from Chicago, it is obvious that the accusations against me are not a red herring: they reflect a sustained campaign the like of which does not exist anywhere in Europe, and even world-wide may find a rival only in Pyongyang.

Hell-bent as I am now to get this matter sorted out once and for all, I have engaged a foremost Podgorica lawyer to sue the paper. I have also spoken to the American Embassy in Belgrade and to the U.S. Consulate in Podgorica, pointing out that the Montenegrin press is effectively accusing the United States of harboring terrorists and would-be assassins. An official at the Consulate, T.J. Grubisha, told me that the U.S. will not comment on the affair at this stage, but he has reiterated the view of the State Department that my colleagues and I have engaged in a legitimate public debate on certain issues that are of interest beyond the borders of Serbia and Montenegro.

The debate is sorely needed, and the government of Montenegro is doing its best to stifle it by means that reflect its nervousness, even panic. On this form it is not fit to be accepted into “Europe,” or any other institution that claims to uphold democracy and human rights. I would still welcome a frank but respectful debate with the proponents of Montenegrin separatism. So far I have not encountered any willing interlocutors, however. Perhaps they do exist, but for as long as they allow the upholders of thuggery, muggery, and buggery to dominate the public discourse in Podgorica, their cause will remain tainted by lies and criminality.

On July 11, I made the decision to go to Podgorica and hold a press conference about the accusations against me that were printed there over the weekend. In spite of many well-meaning friends and associates suggesting otherwise, I trusted the publicity surrounding the case to provide the needed protection. I knew that the slanderers did not expect me to turn up and would be caught flat-footed. I also knew that nothing short of my turning up in Podgorica and throwing down the gauntlet would get sufficient media coverage to shut them up, once and for all.

The invitation to the press conference was circulated by the Movement for the Common State between 1 and 2 P.M. on Monday. Between 3 and 4 P.M., while writing my previous News & Views posting at the Bishop’s office in Trebinje, I received a call on my cell phone (ID witheld, of course) with a short but clear message: “Trifkovic, you may come to Montenegro, but you won’t get out of it!” They were getting either desperate or desperately serious, but this call merely caused a surge of inat that made my decision to go irreversible.

The trip went without a hitch. At 10 A.M., before a room packed with the entire press corps of Podgorica, I read a statement that went as follows:

“I am addressing you today to refute scandalous allegations which we all know to be untrue. By printing what it has printed, the Weekly Journal (Nedjeljni zurnal) has earned for itself the distinction of being the most noxious publication in today’s Europe. There is nothing comparable to it; for similarities we’d need to look several decades back, to the Voelkische Beobachter or Zeri i Populit. Perhaps there is a paper equally bad to be found in Pyongyang, or Khartoum, or Riyyadh, I don’t know.

“I am especially concerned that the Nedjeljni zurnal and the Pobjeda daily have had the audacity to accuse my homeland, America, of harboring would-be assassins and terrorists. If such plans to murder the Prime Minister of Montenegro emanate from Chicago, as the Nedjeljni zurnal alleges, if an elaborate conspiracy to cause destabilization and instigate violence in Montenegro are being hatched there, as Pobjeda claims, and the FBI and other services tolerate such behavior and fail to arrest the culprits, this is a serious accusation against the authorities of the United States, an accusation that must be supported by evidence or else admitted to be fabricated.

“By slandering America, by accusing it of tolerating terrorism, those two publications have tried to bite more than they can chew. I sincerely pity those journalists who, to keep body and soul together, have to work for them. Theydeserve better, as well as the Montenegrin public, which is in dire need of media decontamination. I hope that the legal proceedings, which I am instigating against the Nedjeljni zurnal, will provide at least a modest contribution to this long overdue decontamination.”

I also read my letter to Prime Minister Djukanovic of July 11, inviting him to deny that the information on my alleged threat to him came from his cabinet. I pointed out to him that he would be tainted with the same brush as the Nedjeljni zurnal if he did not do so.

Reports of my press conference, including extensive video clips of the statement, were carried by all three main TV channels in Montenegro in their evening news broadcasts on Tuesday—even by the state-run TVCG1, which had viciously attacked me and my colleagues Ron Hatchett and Joe Bissett only a week earlier. The dailies reported the statement prominently on Wednesday; with the notable exception of the rabidly separatist Vijesti. Even the semi-official Pobjeda did so without any attempt to soften the blow through editorial creativity.

After the press conference, I went to the Security Center of Podgorica to report the threat I received on Monday. The chief of uniformed police, Milos Radulovic, was friendly and helpful; so was Det. Djuro Maras, who took my statement. They both indicated that it was highly unlikely they’d be able to trace the source, however. They also thanked me for making the report and assured me that they take such threats seriously.

The last item of the day was to sign the power of attorney for Milorad Ivanovic, Podgorica’s foremost lawyer and former Secretary-General (i.e., chief legal counsel) of the Yugoslav federal government. He will sue the Nedjeljni zurnal for slander, defamation, and all the rest of what the Montenegrin penal code provides for in these circumstances. I have a good mind to take them to the cleaners, or close them for good.

I returned to Trebinje just in time for the SS Peter & Paul evening liturgy at a cave church in the hills above Trebinje. A six-mile hike there and back, crowned by a spectacular sunset, was followed by a dinner with Bishops Grigorije and Atanasije at the nearby monastery. The evening was fresh, after a hot but dry day. The air was fragrant with lavender and rosemary. The wine was deep ruby red, the food simple but hearty, the life was good. The first good night’s sleep in days was ahead of me.

 * * * * *

 Letter from Germany: A DISCRETE LITTLE DRANG (May 2004)

I happened to be in Berlin on the day eight Central-East European (CEE) countries—Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania—joined the European Union, as well as Cyprus and Malta. There was no outward sign that, literally overnight, the capital of Germany had made a major step to becoming the geographic, political, and economic center of the E.U. There was equally no doubt that this has happened. “A discrete little Drang,” commented a veteran English journalist, “but a Drang nonetheless.”

Expansion has increased the Union’s population by a fifth to 450 million, and the size of the internal market by a quarter. And yet GDP in the expanded E.U. will rise by barely 5 percent. The combined GNP of all ten accession countries corresponds to that of The Netherlands, which has one-fifth of their population. The benefits of membership are more uncertain for the new members than used to be assumed. The old belief that “Europe” meant the removal of barriers, economic, physical and cultural, is now mixed with the alarm at bureaucratic meddling from an over-centralized Brussels. It is feared that the imposition of a myriad of E.U. regulations will prove detrimental to the cash-starved, low-cost, lower-tech producers east of the Oder-Neisse.

Standards of food production, for example, reflect stringent E.U. rules in the “core” countries, such as Benelux, France and Germany, because manufacturers can absorb the cost of those regulations in the price their home customers are able to pay. Central and East European consumers, on the other hand, cannot afford higher prices that would include the cost of introducing and maintaining those standards. According to E.U. estimates, only 100,000 of Poland’s two million private farmers will remain on their farms once the country is absorbed into the E.U. In Slovakia 3,000 employees in the dairy industry have already lost their jobs because their employers lacked the capital necessary to meet the E.U. standards of production. Furthermore, new members are subjected to stringent production quotas. The end result may lead to German-processed foodstuffs on East European supermarket shelves.

The survival of many small and medium-sized industrial companies in CEE is also uncertain as they struggle to comply with the Union’s environmental and safety regulations that will cost the new members some 12 billion dollars this year alone. As thousands of Central and Eastern Europeans lose their jobs, they will continue to be denied access to the job market of the old E.U. “core” for years to come. Their prospects will be grim, if the former East Germany is an indicator. The German government’s annual transfers to the former GDR, with its 17 million inhabitants are in the region of 60 billion dollars, and yet unemployment in eastern Germany remains twice as high as in the West. Some 75 million people in the E.U.’s new members cannot hope for a tenth of that level of support from Brussels.

Cui bono, then? Germany, of course. Its Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, as a leftist, sees the enlargement primarily as a means of “overcoming nationalist ideologies and confrontations” in the East which, if left to their own devices, could threaten the stability of Western Europe itself. But Germany’s business community is primarily interested in the more tangible benefits. Since the fall of the Wall the Federal Republic has become the largest trading partner in Central-East Europe, accounting for an astonishing 45 percent of the trade volume between the E.U. and its 10 new members. The German Economic Institute in Cologne estimates that the share of German exports to CEE (9.2 percent) has now almost equalled the country’s exports to the United States (9.3 percent). Its direct investment in the eight new members are 36 billion dollars, with half of the capital going to the processing sectors such as automobile and chemical industries. The Volskwagen-owned Skoda thus accounts for ten percent of the Czech Republic’s exports, while a single VW plant in Bratislava accounts for over a fifth of Slovakia’s foreign trade. VW, Siemens and other German concerns are taking advantage of labor costs for a skilled worker in CEE that are just one eighth of the equivalent figure for a worker in Germany.

As the historian Hannes Hofbauer notes in his new book (Vom Drang nach Osten zur peripheren E.U.-Integration—"From the push to the East to peripheral E.U. integration") German businesses will continue to benefit disproportionately from the combination of big outlet markets and cheap labor in the “new” E.U. as they are already well established in the region. Hofbauer detects in the latest E.U. enlargement a degree of continuity with previous attempts to unite Europe and notably with the German attempts to expand since 1871. “A break after 1945,” Hofbauer says, “did not take place, either regarding the persons or the content of the project.”

If looking for continuities, we may detect in contemporary German thinking the old fashioned notion of “three rings of control” that is reminiscent of the late 1930s. In its modern form the concept entails an inner ring of not-quite-equal E.U. members (Poland, Bohemia, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia), followed by the middle ring of more distant new and future members (the Baltics, Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia) and an outer ring of “intermediate” non-E.U. members providing a cordon sanitaire around Russia (Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus).

Such views are not limited to the old-fashioned German Right. The deputy chairman of the largest parliamentary group, Gernot Erler of the ruling Social-Democratic Party (SPD), thus declared on May 5 that Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova needed to “solidify” their relations with Europe. To gain acceptance as partners (albeit not as E.U. members) the countries of “this region of intermediate states between Russia and the expanded European Union” should display willingness to follow “recommendations” from the E.U. He singled out Ukraine’s President Kuchma as a leader who
needs to do better. Polish authorities are well suited to keep order along the border of the intermediate states, Erler added, in view of their “ethnic proximity” to the intermediate region, “which could and should be utilized in the organization of the E.U.’s external frontier.”

Bismarck would approve of Herr Erler’s concept; so would the Kaiser, and a few less pleasant figures from Germany’s more recent past. His old-fashionedly frank blueprint for a clearly German (rather than “European”) Ostpolitik illustrates Lord Acton’s cliché that nations have neither permanent friends nor permanent enemies, but only permanent interests. Continuities in geopolitical ambitions, cultural preferences and economic apetites of the great powers exist, and guide their actions.

Germany’s behavior in the Mitteleuropa, the Danubian basin and points further east is not based on a conspiratorial grand design (although its policy in the Balkans has been mendacious for years) but on those continuities. Germany is an economic powerhouse that would dominate its weaker eastern neighbors regardless of its leaders’ intentions or planning. Even in the early 1940s, post-World War Two planning was a major theme in various elements of the Nazi power structure, but in the end all they had in common was only a vague notion of the “rings” of control radiating from Berlin and extending eastwards and southeastwards. It is reassuring in principle, and somewhat discomforting in this particular case, to know that some things never change.


Letter from Prague (May 2004): PERILS OF “UNITED EUROPE”

A visitor to Prague in the immediate aftermath of the Czech Republic’s formal entry into the European Union will find few outward signs that something rather momentous has taken place. Your documents are still checked at the border crossing as you drive into the country from Germany, the Koruna (crown) is still the legal tender, and the gold-and-blue EU logo does not adorn any Czech license plates as yet.


There are other, more important visible distinctions. Compared to most of its West European partners in the Union, Bohemia is still remarkably mono-ethnic and mono-racial – which may help explain the fact that Prague is one of the safest and cleanest capital cities in Europe. Unlike those of Rome or Paris, its magnificent squares are mercifully free of the street “merchants” from Lagos and pickpockets from Tirana.  


This may change soon, however, says Michal Semin, Executive Director of the Civic Institute. I met this youthful looking father of five when I came to Prague as a guest of the Institute to attend its conference “Can the West Be Defended?” (on which we shall report separately), and found in Mr. Semin an Euro-skeptic who sees no reason for celebration. He predicts that the new, post-Communist members of the EU will no longer be the masters of their own borders and won’t be able to control who will settle in their own lands:


We will have to adjust completely to the immigration policy dictated from Brussels, as immigration is one of the areas over which member-countries will have no veto power. The new members will have to have the same immigration policy as, say, Germany or France, and in the long term the results will be similar. Right now we have a very small number of Muslims and they do not present a problem in the Central European societies. This will start changing soon. At the moment we have some immigration, mostly from the countries of the former Soviet Union, specifically from the Ukraine, but that is acceptable because easily adapt. They have a similar language; many of them are practicing Christians. But these people are not what those EU immigration dictators have in mind when they speak about the need to create a more ‘multicultural’ society here. What they mean is that we will have to accept immigration from other parts of the world.


Semin notes that an early sign of Prague’s loss of its freedom of action in the post-communist period came in March 1999, when the Czech Republic joined NATO’s war against Serbia as a consequence of its membership in the North Atlantic Alliance:


Under NATO we were bombing Yugoslavia, which I consider a crime. The Czech government at that time very reluctantly, under the pressure from NATO, joined other member countries in the bombing. This was related to the fact that NATO had reformulated its principles and its objectives. It is not any more a defense organization against Soviet communism, it is part of the structure exporting secular humanism all over the world as ‘humanitarian interventions.’ Just look at the people who took over the people who took over the European and Atlantic organizations! Basically the Cold War was ended by the generation of the 60’s, by the Frankfurt School, by people like Lord Robertson who under Thatcher was campaigning for unilateral nuclear disarmament, by Xavier Solana, Joschka Fischer and other people of the Left. This generation had inherited all of the post-World War II Western institutions. That is why I don’t expect any recovery of the old communism, because it is not useful to the Left any longer. The Left has different means to achieve its goals now: communism is discredited, but now they have all these institutions at their disposal.


In Semin’s view, the European Union is an even more important tool of radical change for the Left than NATO, and a far more dangerous one. It imposes secular humanism from the top to the bottom, he says, through an array of bureaucratic-administrative, legal, and financial instruments. This had been concealed from the Czechs as they were about to vote in a referendum on joining the Union, he says. Those working in favor of the European Union were working hard to conceal the fact that the people were effectively voting for the acceptance of the European Constitution – the whole framework of unified Europe – together with its very important Charter of Fundamental Rights, even though that key document had not even been finalized at that time:


Nobody really knew what kind of organization we were going to join. Now it’s clearer to those who read the Draft of the European Constitution, including the Charter. This is a dramatic shift towards centralized power within the EU. The Czech Republic will have only 2.4 percent of the influence, and between 70 and 80 percent of its legislation will come from the European Union. The Czech Parliament will not even formally approve those laws: they will be incorporated directly into the national legal code. There is no possibility, there is no legal or political mechanism, to block that. Any such attempt would result in punishment. In the near future Czech politics will be just a charade, nothing else. No important matters will be decided domestically. The centralization of power is linked to the fact that the veto power is going to be abolished in most policy areas. The majority is going to decide for the whole of ‘Europe,’ which obviously will create tremendous tensions.   


Semin stresses that the Charter will promote the post-modern concept of ‘rights’ and ‘non-discrimination.’ It will insist on an array of minority rights based on race, gender, and sexual orientation. There is no acknowledgement of the traditional marriage as a life long bond between a man and a woman in the Charter, but a Catholic school may have to accept a Muslim teacher of history if it is to receive any state funding at all. This approach may also raise the issue of exclusively male priesthood in most Christian denominations, which the proponents of the Charter already call discriminatory. Their strident demand that women be allowed into the monastic communities of Mt. Athos, says Semin, is only an indication of what is yet to come. He warns that the judges of the European Court in Luxembourg will interpret the Constitution – and the Charter it contains – and it will have no other court above it: "The decisions of the judges will set precedents obligatory for the whole of the European Union. Whatever they decide, there will be no judicial authority in the member-states that will be able to overrule that decision. By the decision of those judges we may have to legalize homosexual ‘marriage’ here in the Czech Republic, although this has been rejected already four times in our Parliament."


Semin derides the argument of some Czech pro-Europeans that “it is better to belong and have a voice than to stay out and not have a voice” as absurd. By joining the Czechs have one-fortieth of the influence and one-hundred-percent responsibility to obey. Had they stayed out they would not have been under the EU jurisdiction of the organization and would not have needed any “voice” in the first place. But he notes that most Czechs who voted for the Union did so with an air of resignation, and there was no jumping with joy: the fear that the European Union would crush the country economically if it were to stay outside was the main motive for most people who decided to vote in favor for purely pragmatic reasons. There was, and there still is, a minority of ‘Euro-optimists,’ and finally there are the true enthusiasts who are few in numbers but yield influence – such as ‘Pan Europa,’ which has propagated the EU especially in Christian circles, although it has strongly Masonic roots. Another pro-EU group, the one that has talked of its ‘spiritual dimension,’ is the Czech Bishops’ Conference:


They meet occasionally to discuss ‘the Spirit of Europe.’ That’s a big thing now: we as Catholics have to acknowledge that the Union cannot be just an economic free trade area, that ‘Europe’ has a deeper meaning, and therefore it has to have a ‘spirit.’ There is nobody who has defined what that spirit is, there is only a general ‘spirituality’ that puts together all the creeds in a deistic way. At the level of the European Union Commission there is a department that deals with these questions. They were given this task to define the ‘Spirit of Europe.’ On their Board are Catholics, Protestants, the Orthodox, the Jews, the Muslims – and even ‘the Freemasons of Europe’!   


Michael Semin has been with the Civic Institute from its earliest days, from 1991, but he has worked with the founders of the Institute even longer – as a teenager in the underground anticommunist movement and the “Underground University” in the 1980s. People were meeting in private flats to discuss philosophy, theology, and political thought. Then the Wall fell and they were free to organize legally:


The Civic Institute came into being in 1991 as a sort of neoconservative outlet in Central Europe. In the years that followed the orientation of the Institute was changing, however, reflecting the degree to which we were discovering the false tenets of neoconservatism. We were starting to re-think the basic ideas, although until today there are disagreements within the Institute. I’d probably be considered the extreme Right-wing traditionalist reactionary nut [laughs]. To the credit of my colleagues we still work together and I am free to express my views. We work on many projects, some of them related to the defense of the traditional family. We are among the founders of the Czech pro-life movement and the home-schooling movement in the Czech republic, which later established itself into an independent organization that focuses on home education.        


With the impeccable credentials of a dissident against communism from a very early age, Michael Semin finds it ironic that the new totalitarianism of the secular-liberal kind is proving to be in some ways more dangerous for the survival of a healthy society than the oppression under the Comrades:


We have to divide the communist era into two parts. From the Czech prospective the 1950s were very hard. A real attempt was made to destroy the traditional family, to put the mothers into factories and children from the earliest age into government-run daycare programs. This changed during the 60s and in the following decades of ‘communism’ the family was one of the bastions where people could keep the vestiges of a civilized life. Yes, abortion was allowed, although not as liberally as it is today. There was no pornography and many other signs of decay were not so rampant, at least regarding family life. What communism did not destroy is being destroyed now by the liberalism coming from the West, which I consider more dangerous than communism. In fact they are twins of the same parents, but liberalism is much more insidious. People think they are really ‘liberated’ if they never marry, if they kill their children in their wombs, if they have access to pornography. In all family-related indicators the situation is worse now than before. There is less surgical abortion, but much more birth control and chemical abortion by the ‘morning-after’ pills. 


It may be the time, Semin warns, for people who reject this trend – and who are being marginalized by the dominant liberal elite – to go back to the samizdat culture, to a new “underground university”: "It is almost impossible to do programs that really, seriously address these problems, and to do so on the official level. It is getting less and less possible. Probably the only difference would be that we are not jailed yet."


Michael Semin nevertheless remains hopeful that not all is lost. The only meaningful change for Europe would come with a miraculous religious conversion back to Christianity, says he, which then might affect the whole architecture of the Old Continent. For now, however, he sees no serious political movement that could undermine the currently dominant political equation. Unwittingly repeating what a Russian Orthodox thinker, Igor Shafarevich, had told a visiting Rockford Institute team in Moscow some years ago, Semin says that there may be no rational scenario for such momentous change – but that, as a Christian, he knows that miracles do happen, and hopes that one may yet save Europe from itself.


Living the Good Life in Serbia (August 15, 2003)

An English romantic poet has said that we should not revisit the haunts of our youth, and that we should be especially careful in avoiding those that elicit sweet memories. Being close to fifty I realize how wrong he was: nearing the end we increasingly cherish the sights, smells, sounds, and other memories of many decades ago. Our passions are never more genuine than we are young, our taste buds never more responsive, our hearts never more tender. The minds grow presumably wiser, but the wise know that the mind is the least reliable part of who we are.

The setting of all that early turmoil marks us for life, and I was fortunate that mine was provided by an ancient city at the confluence of the Sava and the Danube that refuses to succumb to its rulers and defies its destroyers. Belgrade was ruled by Josip Broz Tito—an inveterate Comintern agent of uncertain Hapsburg parentage—for five long decades, and bombed by the Turks in 1867, by Austria-Hungary in 1914, by the Luftwaffe in 1941, by the USAF in 1944 and again in 1999. Its ability to remain itself is miraculous, and heartening to all upholders of real communities and real traditions. I long for it ever more acutely with each passing year, even as I realize that I can never come back to it.

Its charm eludes depiction. It is not the architecture: Prague is more stunning, Budapest more Panonian, Istanbul more oriental, and Athens more ancient. Some travel writers plunge into platitudes, describing Belgrade as being on the border between counterpoised worlds, Eastern and Western, Northern and Southern, Orthodox and Catholic, Christian and Muslim, Balkan and Central European, etcetera… but they miss the point of the city’s focus on good life, rather than stones, bricks, or self-definition. They seek to untangle the “meanings” and they miss the substance of the last metropolis in Europe that refuses to be multiculturalized and Americanized.

A few perceptive outsiders get it perfectly. They grasp that Belgrade is not about architecture, or imagined cultural contexts, but about some good people and about very good living. Belgrade’s skyline is underwhelming but its cuisine is heavenly. Its cars are rickety but its girls are divine. Rebecca West, writing almost seven decades ago, remembered “too large a lunch as is apt to be one’s habit in Belgrade, if one is man enough to stand up to peasant food made luxurious by urban lavishness of supply and a Turkish tradition of subtle and positive flavor.” Three generations later the soups, stews, and meats are just as good. Here’s Eve-Ann Prentice, the former Times of London Belgrade correspondent, musing poetically in last Sunday’s Observer (August 10):

Most people grimace or laugh scornfully when I suggest that Serbia is great for a holiday. Surely it is still full of war criminals, a place of dark deeds, mafiosi and communist-style backwardness? Sitting in the Dacha restaurant in Belgrade, surrounded by Serbian folklore icons and wall-hangings, eating and drinking some of the purest organically produced food and drink available on the planet, it is tempting to believe I am having the last laugh. Especially when the bill for a hungry gathering of 12 comes to less than £70 [$100], including tip. No GM or processed food here; economic necessity means that almost everything is home-grown—and it tastes that way. With a penchant for locally smoked ham, grilled meat, stuffed vegetables, specialist breads, salads, pickles and soft Kajmak cheese, most Serbs eat enormous amounts and yet stay enviably slender.

It is past midnight, and if you are weary of after-hours jazz, or in no mood for a dose of home-grown Chieftains sound-alikes (and these “Orthodox Celts” will instantly transport you to Dublin), you are old—or you may be just jet-lagged and ready to follow my wife and me on a tour of the Old City starting at 3 a.m. It is perfectly safe: there have been over a hundred unresolved murders here over the past decade, but only a few victims have been innocent bystanders to the many mafia hits. Random muggings are unheard-of, which may change if and when Serbia joins the European Union and is forced to adopt its immigration and asylum laws. In the meantime you are safe to venture out at any time of day and night.

The early-dawn life consists of courteous, apparently sober young people drinking espressos and beer in street cafes near the Cathedral, or next to the Prince Michael Street. There’s the obligatory cigarette smoke and quiet conversation everywhere, people having a good time without having an attitude. These are the veterans of the night before, the insomniac remnant of the routine which—regardless of whether it’s weekend or not—entails going out, meeting friends, and having “a good time.” Here this simply means being alive, explains Ms. Prentice:

Spectacularly beautiful young women who look as if they have stepped from the fashion pages of Cosmopolitan, students, young men in sports clothes, musicians and writers link arms in camaraderie as they wander the cobbled streets of the nineteenth-century Skadarlija Bohemian quarter, the pedestrianised Knez Mihailova Street teeming with luxury shops or Republic Square with its dozens of pavement cafes. Most Serbs go out for the evening after 10 pm and most nightspots are open until at least 2 am—yet there is rarely any sign of drunkenness or offensive behaviour… Last winter I slipped on ice in an unlit back street in Belgrade at gone two in the morning. Most Serbs can spot a foreigner a mile off (and know we are Croesus-rich by comparison), so I was unnerved when several huge, crew-cut young men emerged from the shadows and rushed towards me. I needn't have worried—they were solicitude personified, lifting me to my feet and ensuring I was not hurt. Far from snatching my handbag, they carefully picked the bag and its scattered contents from the pavement and handed it back to me.

Don’t tell any of this to anyone: we don’t want the cat out of the bag. Belgrade is the ideal destination for those keen on adventure that is safe yet challenging, for those who love meeting the real locals who stubbornly refuse to be multiculturalized, rather than the gaudy paid performers; but it will cease to be so if the word gets out.

To stop the squeamish, here are the negatives. There are very few fast-food joints as Americans know them. The four remaining McDonalds restaurants—one of them obscenely situated in a 19th century stately home—are going quietly bankrupt, and their local real-meat, real-taste competitors are flourishing. Imported wine, Scotch whisky, bourbon and cognac are prohibitively expensive. You have to settle for the Montenegrin red and the Fruska Gora white, coarse and earthy as they are. As for the spirits, you’re stuck with the plum brandy, sliwowitz. It is the obligatory Serbian eye-opener with your morning Turkish coffee, strong—50% by volume—and rough to the uninitiated. It gives you a bad hangover if you are careless. It gives you a good one, curable with a double shot first thing in the morning, if you are not.

No, Belgrade is not for a Yuppie seeking a Western-standard “city break.” Many hotels—such as the centrally positioned Palace—have seen better days, what with a decade of sanctions and six decades of communism. They are nevertheless scrupulously clean, comfortable and friendly. The horror of similarly priced but dubious Italian or French establishments is unknown here. “It is a bit like going on a hen or stag party weekend to Dublin with an extra dash of zaniness thrown in,” says Ms. Prentice, and she seems to know both cities. For the young there’s also the shopping that defies belief.

My eldest daughter Aleksandra (23) and her next sibling Natalija (18) love Serbia for all kinds of reasons, but in Belgrade a highlight of their stay was the enthusiastic purchase of top-quality, recent release CDs and DVDs at $1.50 apiece. Their makers may have been in violation of copyright laws of some foreign countries—that we’ll never know—but we’ve been assured otherwise. You can also have a genuine Versaci tank-top for $25, a pair of Blahnik shoes for $59, or a Cartier watch for $99: no lay person will ever tell the difference, they say.

Yes, life is good in Belgrade—unless you belong to one of its many inhabitants eking out a living on a pension or salary of three hundred dollars a month or less, and with many prices not much below those at your local WalMart (with the notable exception of housing). Even poverty is tolerable in good company, however. On a steamy summer night you may decide to stay at home but you are likely to end up hosting an impromptu party for unannounced friends and family. Such nocturnal happenings, with dzezva-fulls of strong coffee, with dozens of burning Lucky Strike cigarettes, and a bottle or two of home-made booze, are commonplace at all social levels.

Go to Serbia’s heartland, and you are in for more surprises. Guca (Goocha) is a small, neat market town of three thousand in central Serbia, situated amidst the rolling hills, pastures and orchards. The landscape is reminiscent of central Pennsylvania or the Lower Austrian foothills. It has a main street with cafes, shops, a bank and a municipal office. It has a neo-Baroque church with two marble plaques bearing the names of hundreds of local boys and men killed in the Great War. It also has a farmers’ market, a comfortable small hotel—and the central square dominated by the larger-than-life bronze figure of a man in traditional Serbian peasant attire blowing a trumpet.

The trumpet makes Guca different from every other place in Serbia, or anywhere in the world. Once a year, in August, this sedate but apparently boring place undergoes a massive transformation. Its church yard and playing fields are invaded by huge catering tents, its sidewalks are taken over by beer and barbequed meat vendors, and every remaining square foot of its space is taken over by up to three hundred thousand celebrants of Serbia’s traditional brass band music. As a New York Times reporter put it two years ago, “If you thought ‘wild celebration’ and ‘brass band music’ sounded like a contradiction in terms, think again. Brass band music, Serbian style, is often a trumpet-driven high-energy explosion, prompting frenzied dancing on tables.”

Most visitors are here only for a day, mercifully, or else the movement would be impossible. The standard routine is to go from one tent to another and listen to different bands, to eat the famed Wedding Feast Cabbage (sauerkraut, smoked pork and lamb slow-cooked on charcoals in massive earthen pots), and to have a couple—or a dozen—steiners of fresh, unpasteurized beer along the way. Unlike the best performances at normal music festivals, here they take place offstage, as bands work the crowd. Several dozen-men brass orchestras play different tunes simultaneously, within twenty yards from each other, competing for attention and tips. Banknotes are stuffed into their instruments, and some ostentatious revelers will part with a few coveted hundred-euro bills to be musically accompanied to their cars or hotel rooms.

The feast of eating, drinking and dancing is crowned each night with a massive kolo of youngsters in the central square, around the statue. Returning from such events in the early-morning hours my Western-born and educated daughters enthused that this is better than Woodstock: traditional, not created; rooted, not globalized. The trumpets have understated patriotic credentials: they were introduced to Serbia in 1804, during Black George (Karadjordje) Petrovic’s uprising against the Turks, and have taken root as a defiantly domestic instrument in time of adversity and joy alike. “Where else can you see sex bombs, punk-rockers, shepherds and politicians dancing hand in hand as if they had known each other for ages?” asked a French diplomat who made the three-hour drive from Belgrade for the weekend.

Go and rent Emir Kusturica’s “Underground,” or “Time of the Gypsies,” available at your local Blockbusters and in many public libraries. Listen to that haunting, frantic, sublime sound of horns and trumpets, and you’ll understand. Listen and imagine two-dozen such bands competing for the coveted “Golden Trumpet” award, or playing simultaneously in adjoining impromptu restaurants. It is insane, intoxicating, defiant, and wonderful.


Letter from England: Blair vs. Chirac (October 2002)

Leicester, The Midlands—In the old days the annual British Rail strike had the quality of a coreographed ritual, half Chinese opera, half Rumsfeld press conference. Escalating rhetoric by craggy-faced TGWU and ASLEF union chiefs, BR bosses and government junior ministers culminated in a few days of utter misery for the commuters and spectacular roadway congestion. The strike would end in an improved offer to the railwaymen, reluctantly offered and accepted with bad grace.

Now that the joys of radical privatization are with us--the track and rolling stock and all main lines having been sold off to such unlikely bidders as Richard Branson's Virgin--the strikes are gone. What 60 million Britons have instead is a mismanaged system in which cost-cutting leads to corner cutting and results in deadly accidents for the luckless few (like the one at Potters Bar last year that killed my former boss at the BBC World Service, Austin Kark), and in huge delays for the rest. Those delays are caused by such unpredictable events as autumn leaves falling on tracks, or electric points freezing on wintry nights.

Having spent twice as long on assorted trains from Heathrow to the predominantly Muslim city of Leicester (100 miles) last Tuesday as on the plane from Belgrade to London's premium airport (1,200 miles), I am in no mood to take at face value the excuse that England was hit by a gale last Sunday. If that was bad, the lands south of the Mason-Dixon line should be paralyzed half the time. The pretext was nevertheless offered, so lame that you almost felt sorry for the poor lass pretending to be a sharp, seasoned PR pro: "Wet leaves get crushed by train wheels to form a hard, Teflon-like surface on the track. This creates a danger of sliding, so that trains with water cannon and grit have to clean the track."

After almost two centuries of railroading you'd think the English had resolved the problem; but if you buy the Teflon story you'll also buy the claim that (a) Saddam is a real and present danger to the entire civilized world; and (b) Britain is an essential ally of the United States in the intended proceedings. Both claims are routinely made by Prime Minister Tony Blair (whose lack of mental balance is no longer doubted even by many loyal Labourites) and blithely parroted by the Tories, whose ongoing self-destruction seems irreversible--a painful sight for this student activist of the Conservative and Unionist Party, as it was still known a quarter of a century ago.

First Blair, who subscribes to the traditional Churchillian-Thatcherite dictum of "Love America, Bash France"--so much so that, as Simon Jenkins put it in The Times, "If Genghis Khan were in the White House Mr. Blair would be praising his leadership qualities." Mr. Blair's dabbling in such Francophile pursuits as frequenting bistros, drinking wine, and eating Brie notwithstanding, he was indignant at a complicated $30 billion EU farm subsidy deal made behind his back by France and Germany (we'll spare you the boring details). Britain would not have been affected much by Chirac's attempt to shelter French farmers from the pending reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), but Blair's beloved Third World commodity producers would.

The "disinterested" morality of the issue was enough to make the Prime Minister sanctimonious and indignant, trembling voice and all, about the Perfidious Gaul. The resulting verbal outburst by Mr. Blair in a committee room of the European Council in Brussels prompted France's President Jacques Chirac to complain that he had "never been spoken to like this before." (No mean feat, this, considering his wife's reputed bossiness).

After M. Chirac's unprecedented public complaint the French may have expected London to be apologetic, but No. 10, Downing Street gleefully confirmed the facts of the incident. It even leaked the details of Mr. Blair reading the relevant paragraphs from the 1999 Berlin summit minutes to prove the Frenchman "plain wrong" and to embarrass him in front of other leaders. Since Britain has the most focus-group-driven leader outside Washington D.C., this nonchalance means that Mr. Blair was counting on his people's latent phobias rooted in history ("Wogs start at Calais") to prop up his ratings in the run-up to the Iraqi escapade.

There will be no replay of Agincourt or Crecy any time soon, but the tiff has brought relations between Britain and France to an unexpected low: Paris has even formally cancelled the December summit between the two leaders at Le Touquet: "We need some time on both sides in order to ensure the good preparation for this important meeting," the French statement said acidly. But for M. Chirac, of all people, to feign injured innocence is hilarious: his ploy with Herr Schroeder essentially sought to keep a third of CAP's agricultural subsidy in French coffers, enabling les paysants to keep adding to the mountains of unwanted beef and butter and to the lakes of unsold wine at European taxpayers' expense. In view of his own problems with Washington, following an election campaign critically dependent on anti-American rhetoric, the German Chancellor was in no position to resist French mischief.

Decent people have no horse in this race. Mr. Blair may be irritating and often ridiculous, but M. Chirac is a deeply unattractive man accurately described as "a liar and a thief" by Jean-Marie Le Pen. The late President Mitterand said of his then-Prime Minister "This man is mad"; but there is method in his madness: it is power. Alain Madelin, ex-Finance Minister, declared that Chirac was "so keen to respect his promises that he makes the same ones at every election." (The famous "pocket-sized Napoleon" quip by Joerg Haider was unfair: Chirac is considerably taller than the famed Corsican.)

The French President is too thick-skinned to mind all that, of course, but he is seriously upset that, in the aftermath of Mr. Blair's outburst, Herr Schroeder has decided to run for cover: it is irritating that Blair was rude, but it is unforgivable that he was apparently successful in torpedoing the farm subsidy ploy. Thirty billion is a lot of money even at today's prices, and the many zeros explain the scene worthy of the great days of the Paris-Berlin Axis under de Gaulle or Giscard d'Estaing.

Our European cousins are not to be envied on having to make their choice between Blair and Chirac, but they'll have to chose nevertheless, what with the Iraqi thing coming early next year and the debate on the bigger EU heating up. Facing an equally unpleasant midterm choice next week, many Americans will understand their dilemma.