Monday, 28 April 2014

FYR Macedonia in political crisis

Former Yugoslav Macedonia was in a political crisis on Monday, after the Social Democrat opposition refused to recognise the result of the nation's first simultaneous presidential and parliamentary elections, both of which they lost.

“The SDSM does not recognise the electoral process,” announced Zoran Zaev, the leader of the Social Democrats, minutes before the polling stations closed on Sunday night. He said "the citizens of Macedonia have been cheated... there are no conditions for a basic electoral process. It was conducted in an uncivilised manner, and at the same time the constitutional right of the citizens was usurped.”  

The SDSM is urgently calling for an interim government of technocrats to oversee a repeat election.

With almost all polling stations counted on Monday, the ruling VMRO-DPMNE had won 42 percent of the popular vote, winning a third term in office with a strengthened majority of 61 seats versus the previous 56. It also ushered in its presidential candidate, Gjorge Ivanov, for a second five-year term.

The SDSM led the opposition parties with 24.9 percent of the vote and 34 seats, but marked a fall from the 42 seats it held. Its presidential candidate, Stevo Pendarovski, a lawyer and academic, took 44.1 percent of the vote, versus Ivanov's 55.27 percent.

Although the VMRO cannot form a government on its own, it is expected to form a coalition with one of its traditional parliamentary allies relatively easily. Chief among those is the ethnic Albanian DUI party, which also emerged strengthened with 19 seats. A ruling majority in FYROM's parliament requires 63.

Foul play or free and fair? 

The SDSM was not the only institution crying foul. After a first round of presidential voting on April 13, the Organisation for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE), cited serious problems. "A blurring of state and party activities did not provide a level playing field for candidates," it said, echoing opposition party accusations that the VMRO has used its long tenure on power to proselytise the state apparatus. 

The OSCE called the drafting of voter lists "problematic and complicated". Most seriously of all, perhaps, it takes issue with media manipulation. "Despite a large number of media outlets, many IEOM (International Election Observation Mission) interlocutors alleged the indirect of the ruling party over the media because of their dominance in the advertising market." The OSCE cited a "lack of political analyses and independent reporting... self-censorship" and "failure by the public broadcaster to provide balanced and equal coverage." 

Civil, a local grassroots organisation formed 15 years ago to monitor elections, also said it had received hundreds of reports of irregularities. "We registered a lot of cases of vote buying, threats that people will lose their social assistance if they are on disability or poor people, unemployed and so on that they will lose their opportunity to get a job or lose their jobs if they already have them," said Civil's leader, Jabir Derala. "It is clear that the entire administration is being misused in this electoral process." 

The VMRO said the elections were conducted in an entirely legal manner. "These have been the most peaceful elections so far," Anotnio Milosovski, a senior VMRO official, told Reuters. VMRO leader Nikola Gruevski campaigned on a platform of growth, job creation and infrastrucutre development. The ruling party has secured growth of 3.5 percent in the last year and kept public borrowing far below the European Union average. But unemployment remains at 28 percent and incomes at a third of the EU average. Many people here believe that this is because the VMRO tightly controls who gets jobs, loans and state contracts.  

"We are going in the wrong direction considering that the government is paying much more attention on how to control as much of the business [as possible]," said Miroljub Shukarov, a respected economist who once led the state privatisation programme. He now believes that it did not amount to true liberalisation of the economy, providing equal opportunity. 

"Most of the businesses are connected with the government directly or indirectly so employment is connected with the government, the possibilities of the growing and development, investments - everything depends on the government," he said. 

Saturday, 26 April 2014

Greece’s austerity re-opens a debate on German atrocities

This article was published by Al Jazeera English. The associated television story is also viewable. 

On June 10, 1944, three Wehrmacht units converged on the village of Distomo in Nazi-occupied central Greece. They had received reports of black market activity in the area – a hanging offence under the Nazis, who stockpiled food to supply their armies overseas, leaving the local population strictly rationed. Instead of smugglers they found a dozen resistance fighters and rounded them up.

“A representative ran off and warned the resistance that was encamped three or four kilometres from the village,” says Thanos Bouras, who was then 20. “The resistance attacked, and they mortally wounded the German commander. A woman brought him some water. He thanked her, and said, ‘the entire village kaput, but don’t harm this woman.’”

What followed was one of the worst Nazi atrocities in Greece during their three-and-a-half year occupation. Angelos Kastritis, who was eight, remembers the Germans going from house to house, bashing down doors and spraying the interior with machine gun fire.

Kastritis’ mother had told him and his father to make themselves scarce. She stayed home with her in-laws, kneading bread dough, believing that women and the elderly would not be harmed.

“When I returned I first saw my grandfather. The back of his head was gone and his brains had been splattered against a staircase. My grandmother was seated next to him [dead]. Inside the house I saw my mother. She had baked all the loaves except one. She had her hands above her head. They had killed her execution-style from behind. Her blood stretched in a line several yards long.”

Sture Linner, a Swede who had taken over as head of the Red Cross in Greece, arrived in Distomo three days later. He described what he saw in his autobiography, My Odyssey:For hundreds of yards along the road, human bodies were hanging from every tree, pierced with bayonets – some were still alive… In the village the last remnants of the houses were still burning. Hundreds of dead bodies of people of all ages, from elderly to newborns, were strewn around on the dirt. Several women were slaughtered with bayonets, their wombs torn apart and their breasts severed; others were lying strangled with their own intestines wrapped around their necks. It seemed as if no-one had survived…”

Seven percent of the Greek population at the time of the war - over half a million people – was wiped out. Four fifths of those were civilian – partly the result of mass executions and punitive massacres like that at Distomo – but the single greatest cause of death was starvation, stemming from Germany’s disastrous management of the Greek economy. Greece lost 97 percent of its exports. Agricultural production fell. Industrial and transport infrastructure was systematically destroyed (see table). A year into the occupation, Germany was so worried about a collapse of civil society that it allowed Britain and the International Red Cross to distribute food and medical assistance.

For decades, Greece’s official position - that the issue of reparations for this disaster remains an open question - has directly contradicted Germany’s, that the subject is closed. That may now be changing.

On March 6, Greece’s president aired the reparations issue during a visit from his German counterpart. “Greece never gave up its claims and a solution is needed through the opening of negotiations as quickly as possible,” said Karolos Papoulias.

A Greek foreign ministry source says that negotiations were given the go-ahead during Chancellor Angela Merkel’s last visit to Athens, on April 11.

“The [Greek] government has sent the entire dossier to the Court of Audit for a legal opinion,” said the source, on condition of anonymity. “As soon as that is delivered, talks will begin between foreign ministers Frank Walter Steinmeier and Evangelos Venizelos.”

It is still unclear, however, how much Greece will ask for. Since the Allies disagreed on how much Germany should pay in reparations after World War Two, they set up the Inter-Allied Reparations Agency to distribute amongst themselves German overseas property and what was left of movable property in Germany. Entire factories and blast furnaces were sawed to pieces and shipped.

Greece was awarded 2.7 percent of the fixed assets and 4.35 percent of the movable assets, says Hagen Fleischer, professor emeritus at Athens University and one of the world’s leading experts on World War Two reparations. “Some of this got to Greece and some didn’t.”  

Fleischer’s estimates of what Greece received will be detailed in a forthcoming book: “We might estimate that it was between 25 and 80 million dollars’ worth [in 1938 dollars],”– roughly equivalent to the share of the spoils Greece was awarded, given that “the total worth of what IARA handed out was well under $1bn.”

Also unclear is what legal basis Greece has for demanding reparations. A class action suit Distomo survivors brought in 2001 ended in defeat at the European Court of Human Rights after a series of court victories over eleven years. Hague judges ultimately accepted the premise that non-German courts weren’t fit to put the German state on trial.

Meanwhile, international treaties offer no clear indication of whether the Greek state may make demands. The country’s hopes may hang on a 1953 agreement between Germany and the allies that reparations issues would be examined at a future date, says Fleischer: “But even here, in the final declaration, things are unclear.”

Germany holds that reparations issues were settled in September 1990, a month after German reunification, when Russia, the US, Britain and France signed a settlement of outstanding issues with Germany. “All European countries hailed it, and Germany has ever since seen it as a final settlement of the reparations issue,” says Fleischer. “But it is a de facto peace treaty, not a de jure treaty.”

All this is difficult to hear for Greeks who witnessed the devastation Germany wrought. “Are German governments avenging themselves upon us because we demolished the myth of the indefatigable Axis in 1940?” asks Manolis Glezos, president of the National Council for the Reclamation of Germany’s Debts to Greece, formed in 1996.

Greece scored the first Axis defeat when, in 1940, it pushed Mussolini’s invading army through southern Albania. The morale boost from the Albanian front was such that British and American newspapers plastered the news in capitalized headlines across their front pages for weeks. Hitler postponed his invasion of Russia to deal with the rebellious Greeks.

“Is it because by pinning down 12 select divisions we helped end the war sooner?” asks Glezos. “I want the German government to answer these questions. Are they taking revenge?”

To many Greeks, the crisis has felt like a vengeful new occupation. Germany effectively took the helm of the Greek economy in 2010, when it led the EU imposition of austerity policies on the country. German officials frequently emphasised the need to cut spending, including for welfare programmes. Meanwhile the level of unemployment hit 27 percent, leaving an estimated fifth of society medically uninsured. Comparisons with 1941 inevitably surfaced, as Greeks felt their sovereignty drain away with their wealth.

Last week Eurostat confirmed that Greece did succeed in producing a primary surplus of 0.8 percent of GDP last year, but this came at a cost of more than a quarter of its economy and a third of its living standard. 

“That reinforced the view that ‘we don’t owe you, you owe us,’” says Fleisher, who is of German extraction but often speaks of Greece in the first person plural. He notes that Greek indignation during the crisis may have led to inflated expectations. The Council, for instance, sticks to Greece’s original 1945 request of $10.45bn from Germany. Inflation-adjusted, it expects reparations running into hundreds of billions of dollars. “The more we ask for, the less seriously the matter is taken in Europe,” Fleischer says.

Greece’s conservative-led coalition is careful not to put a figure on reparations, but it pursued the matter systematically from its assumption of power in 2012. This may be about more than popular pressure: Prime Minister Antonis Samaras is a self-proclaimed nationalist; his great aunt, one of Greece’s most celebrated fiction writers, famously ended her life in May 1941, a few days after the Nazis rolled into Athens.

Any settlement now would likely have to be a political rather than a legal decision. Greece’s strongest suit is to demand repayment of two wartime loans Germany forcibly extracted from the Bank of Greece in 1943, worth an estimated $238mn at the time. 

Unlike reparations, these unpaid loans are not covered by international treaties. Former finance minister, Nikos Christodoulakis, last year estimated that they could now be worth as much as $21bn.

“I think today Greece has a valid claim with this occupation loan,” Christodoulakis told Al Jazeera. “In current terms the value is more or less similar to the loan that has been given by Germany to Greece three years ago in the framework of the bailout agreement. So I think that a very fair compensation and settlement of the issue would be to count one for the other.”

If any of this money does one day transpire, it will likely be a government-to-government settlement rather than a handout to individuals. It might be earmarked for specific use, such as education or development – a subject that has been discussed among Distomo residents, says Angelos Kastritis. “They’re nice ideas, I don’t deny it,” he says. “But then again, some of us suffered by losing loved ones. I lost my mother. My father remarried. I never went to school. My life would have been different if my mother had lived. I’d like to be the recipient of the money, and I would like to be the one to give it away.” 

Greek War Losses 1941-1945*

1. Population losses

Guerrilla war during occupation
Executions and punitive massacres
Deported to forced labour camps and killed
Total deaths
Population growth lost due to negative birth rate
Total population loss

2. Infrastructure

94% of passenger ships

74% of merchant fleet

56% of road network

90% of bridges over 6m long

60% of trucks

80% of buses

93% of train engines and almost all rolling stock

100% of civilian aircraft

100% of telephone and telegraph network

3. Natural Resources & Production

40% of grain & cereals production

50-80% of livestock

25% of forests

97% of exports

88% of imports

*Source: The Sacrifices of Greece in the Second World War, official government audit, 1945