Goodbye Saigon!

30 april 2005

It’s 30 years since a North Vietnamese tank crashed through the gates of the Presidential Palace in Saigon in what was then South Vietnam.

It was the symbolic end of a long and painful war, and a humiliation in the extreme for the United States. That war had cost the US armed forces 58 000 dead, but its opponent had lost 1,4 million men, and its South Vietnamese allies 250 000 dead.

Who was right and who was wrong in that war that dominated so much of the discussions in the West during the 1960s’s and early 1970’s?

In one fundamental sense, it is obvious that the United States misread the entire situation.

Looking through the lenses of the day, they saw the Communist insurgence in the South of the divided Vietnam as an expression of a wave of monolithic Communist domination that would risk sweeping through Southeast Asia and beyond if not stopped.

These were the days of containment, and that strategy made it necessary to take a stand wherever what was seen to be an expression of either Soviet or Communist Chinese power tried to advance.

In a way, the escalating involvement in Vietnam was the concrete expression of the famous words of John Kennedy in his inaugural speech 1961 that the United States was ready to ”pay any price, bear any burden… support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty.”

In retrospect, it is obvious that the United States was up against the forces of indigenous nationalism far more than the forces of creeping communist imperialism.

Since the fall of Saigon in 1975, Communism hasn’t made any advances in the region. On the contrary, we have seen the policies of capitalism creeping into the societies that once proclaimed that they were going to do something entirely different.

When visiting Saigon – everyone said Saigon, hardly anyone Ho Chi Minh City – a decade ago I sometimes wondered who really had won the war. It was a bustling city, eager to open up to the world, commercial in the extreme and certainly looking for its models and ideals in the United States more than anywhere else.

But if the United States turned out to be wrong in warning for the dangers of dominoes falling to Communism all over the region, the propaganda from the other side looks equally hollow with the distance of the decades.

Those marching the streets of the West in those days declared their support for a democratic South Vietnam, said it had nothing to do with Communism and denied there was any direction or involvement from Hanoi.

But in the end it was the divisions of the regular North Vietnamese army that in its rapid offensive in the spring of 1975 caused the sudden collapse of the regime in Saigon. No less than 13 divisions of the NVA took part in the final assualt on Saigon.

And immediately after taking power, it was obvious that it was Hanoi that was in command, that democracy was distinctly not on the agenda, that a unification under the leadership of the North was going to be enforced and that a Communist dictatorship should be extended over the entire country.

It did not last long until we started to see the boats with desperate people trying to flee the repression and poverty of the Vietnam. Suddenly, the Communist take-over presented the world with a huge refugee crisis as people did whatever they could to get away from ”re-education camps”, repression and economic collapse that followed the imposition of socialist policies in the South.

In the immediate years after 1975, approximately one million people risked the dangereous waters of the South China Sea to seek a new future in other parts of the world.

At the same time as a million people fled, those faces of the former National Front for Liberation that had been so active in drumming up support in the outside world disappeared. There was no room for the democrats of the South when the communists of the North took over.

Vietnam remains a Communist dictatorship today, although hardly one trying to extend its reach. Its regime still struggles with the question of far it dares to reform and open up, but at the end of the day knows that it hasn’t much of an alternative.

A period of reform in between 1985 and 1996 has been followed by a period in which the more dogmatic forces have called the tune. The old men in Hanoi are still trying to restrict the forces of reform, thereby significantly reducing the possibilities of the talented and charming people of Vietnam to reach its potential.

Communism has been a tragedy in Vietnam – North and South – in the same way as it has been in the rest of the world.

The United States is looking back on the war in Vietnam as a gigantic mistake, driven by the logic of the Cold War.

But those that marched in the streets of the West during the years of the war – speaking about their support for liberation, national self-determination and democracy – were in many ways equally misguided and mistaken.

Putin and the History and Future of Russia

27 april 2005

President of Russia

I’m sitting high over a sunny Siberia – on my way from from Beijing to Vilnius – reading the speech that Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered to the Federal Assembly in Moscow April 25. It was his annual policy address – rather like the State of the Union speech in the United States.

It is – as usual – an interesting document. It contains much that is both good and sensible and needed. In important respects, it is undeniably a reform document.

But the problem is that the credibility of what’s good in the speech is undermined by a number of statements that just flies in the face of the truth, and others which reveal a mind-set that has too many Soviet remains to be entirely comfortable.

He sets out by saying that “we should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century.”

Well, others certainly see that somewhat different.

Ask the Poles or the Lithuanians or the Georgians or the Ukrainians or the Germans or – for that matter – all those Russians that had to do imperial service in countries were they were not welcome.

Somewhat later in the speech, he naturally addresses the upcoming celebration of the 60th anniversary of the final defeat of Hitler’s Germany.

That this defeat was a result to a very large degree of an enormous sacrifice by the people of Russia is a clear a fact as it is that Hitler was able to launch his war on the rest of Europe due to his infamous Pact with Stalin in August of 1939.

Putin describes what happened 60 years ago like this:

“Very soon, on May 9, we shall celebrate the 60th anniversary of victory. This day can deservedly be called the day of civilisations triumph over fascism. Our common victory enabled us to defend the principles of freedom, independence and equality between all peoples and nations.”

This is a bit rich, to put it mildly.

The Soviet armies that rolled into Tallinn, Warsaw, Budapest or Berlin certainly drove the armies of Hitler away and ended Nazi tyranny. But they were certainly not the armies of the principles of freedom, independence and equality between all peoples and nations.

For these nations and other nations, these armies represented the transition from one nightmare to another. One regime of repression and occupation was replaced by another regime of repression and occupation.

It is when one reads phrases like this that one understands the debate that the question of participation in the May 9th celebrations have caused, for example in the Baltic countries.

They don’t want to see their own painful history violated. And it is surprising that Vladimir Putin and his staff isn’t more sensitive to both historical truth and national feelings among peoples that did suffer gravely under the booth of Soviet power.

The incomprehension that I’m certain will meet these parts of the speech might be magnified by another attempt by Putin to do a rather major rewriting of Russian history:

“Above all else Russia is and will, of course, be a major European power. Achieved through much suffering by European culture, the ideals of freedom, human rights, justice sand democracy have for many centuries between our society’s determining values.”

Freedom? For many centuries? Russia’s determining value?

Wasn’t there this Joseph Stalin? And for all the achievements of the Imperial Russia under the Tsar’s, to say that freedom and human rights were the determining value of Russia under them flies in the face of almost everything.

The Russian peasants laboured with hardly even the right to their own lives for centuries. Serfdom was the reality for much of Russian even through most of the 19th century.

And even a great reformer and great European like Peter the Great is extremely difficult to describe in terms of democracy and human rights.

One might say that it doesn’t make much of a difference what Putin has to say – everyone knows what history was really like.

But what’s disturbing with phrases like this is that they indicate that words that for us have a very real meaning have nothing of the sort for the Kremlin.

And when Putin then says that he considers “the development of Russia as a free and democratic state to be the main political and economic goal”, it is unavoidable that his use of important words like freedom and democracy here is judged in the light of how he uses them in relation to history.

He reduces – even eliminates, I’m sure some would say – his credibility.

Of some contemporary significance is also a phrase that follows shortly after his radical reinterpretation of centuries of Russian history:

“Also certain is that Russia should continue its civilizing mission on the Eurasian continent. This mission consists in ensuring that democratic values, combined with national interests, enrich and strengthen our historic community.”

Now, here some clarifications would clearly be in order.

Who is it that today needs to be civilized by Russia on the Eurasian continent? And which are the steps have the Putin regime taken in this direction?

Could the blatant and failed attempts to manipulate the Ukrainian election be part of this civilizing mission? Is the effort to share up the Lukashenko dictatorship in Belarus part of it? Or is it just the war in Chechnya that should be seen as an expression of this civilizing mission?

In other sections of the speech, Putin shows real awareness of the challenges Russia is facing and the policies that are necessary in order to address them.

That concerns in particular the need to rein in a tax police that is actively harassing many businessmen and to necessity of creating a climate in which also foreign investment can contribute to the necessary development of the country in the decades ahead.

As I’m passing over the low mountain ridge over the Urals, thus leaving Asia, I’m certainly agreeing with Putin when he’s sating that Russia has always been and remains an important part of Europe.

We Europeans all have an enormous interest in the success of its reforms and its integration with the rest of the world.

Then it’s a pity that a speech as important as this is so loaded with phrases and thoughts that are leading away in completely different directions.

Spend more, dare more, do more

27 april 2005

Spend more, dare more, do more

We have to take the debate about the competitiveness of the European economy more seriously than what still seems to be the case in many circles.

The world is changing – fast! – and we need to do the same.

In the International Herald Tribune today I argued for a change in many of the policies we are pursuing at the moment.

Most Important Visit since Richard Nixon

26 april 2005

People’s Daily Online — KMT chairman arrives in Nanjing for mainland visit

Today, the Chairman of the Kuomintang party in Taiwan Lien Chan, heading a 70-person delegation, started an 8 day long visit to mainland China.

In my opinion, it’s the most important visit here – I’m in Beijing at the moment – since Richard Nixon came here in 1972 and broke the ice in the relations between the United States and the People’s Republic of China.

I have spent the last few days in Chongqing – then Chunking – where the last meeting between the leaders of the Communist Party and Kuomintang took place in 1945. When Lien Chan comes to Beijing to meet the today leaders of the Communist Party, it will be the first meeting since then.

The meeting in 1945 did not succeed in averting a civil war. That the Nationalist lost that war was – in retrospect – hardly surprising. They were seen as corrupt and had seriously mismanaged the economy. Hyperinflation destroyed them as much as the Soviet-armed peasant armies of Mao Tsetung did.

Chiang Kai-Shek and the Nationalist army had to flee to Taiwan in 1949, and since then the civil war was been continued, although with political and diplomatic means rather than military.

But both parties have changed profoundly. Since 1978, the Communist Party has lead China on a path that most would see as far more capitalist than communist, although it remains a solid one-party dictatorship.

And Kuomintang was the key force in taking Taiwan from a military-dominated dictatorship to what today is a vibrant Chinese democracy – in addition, of course, to the spectacular economic success of Taiwan.

Both parties agree strongly on one subject – there is only one China. They disagree, however, on who should run it, and how it should be run.

I have been surprised over the years by the discreet respect for the KMT that can be found around ”Red China”. They are the standard-bearers of the 1910 revolution that started the process of modernising China and of introducing Western ideas in a very old-fasioned society. Sun Yat-Sen, who’s mausoleum Lien Chan vill visit tomorrow, is honored by Nationalist and Communsts alike.

If the Communist and Nationalist parties – the two dominating political forces in the past century of China – can now start talking it will be the true end of the civil war and the start of something profoundly new.

It will be most interesting to watch the amount and type of coverage the visit is given by the Chinese media during the coming 8 days. One can be certain that this is something that will be decided at the very top of the pyramid in Beijing. It will be an important signal for the future.

My belief is that we will be seeing eight days that will change the politics of this region in nearly the same way as Richard Nixons historic visit did.

On a different note I might just add that this comment of mine in all probability will have no readers at all in China. This blog belongs to the part of the Internet that is being blocked by the authorities in China. For some reason one way of posting messages to the blog had however not be blocked.

There are always ways around the restrictions on freedom.

Go East! – or, as an exception, West!

22 april 2005

Normally, my message is – Go East, that’s were the action in the decades to come is likely to be.

The East of Europe and the East of Asia. That’s were the European and global economy is being reshaped.

But in the next few days my message will be Go West!. But it’s the West of China that is at the centre of this.

In Chongqing by the mighty Yangtse river in the the very southwest of China there will be a major meetings of central and regional government officials as well as foreign investors of different sorts in order to highlight the potential of western China.

The motives are numerous. One is to try to relieve some of the overheating in the crowded coastal and southern cities. What is developing there is starting to look like a classical bubble economy.

Another motive is of course to offer better possibilities to the less developed inner regions of China. This is important in order to prevent different social and political tensions from building up too strongly.

Chongqing and the app 30 million people that live in that region already has an impressive industrial record. I’m told – but has yet to check – that most of the Japan-branded motorcycles we see around the world actually have their origin there. And I would not be surprised to find a couple of Swedish brands among the producers there as well.

But there are also major problems. Pollution from old heavy industries is one. The shortage of different raw materials and consequential upwards pressure on prices another. Add to this all the uncertainties of corruption and lack of the clear rule of the law that remains one of the hallmarks of China.

I’ll be there to speak about the role of China in the rapid changes we are now seeing in the global economy.

And from there I return to my more familiar slogan Go East.

Then I’m heading to Vilnius in Lithuania to speak about the transformation of the three Baltic countries from slaves under Soviet occupation to tigers in the changing new European economy.

Visions from Vilnius

22 april 2005

The New York Times > International > Europe > At NATO Talks, Accord and Discord for U.S. and Russia

More or less on the doorstep of Sweden, NATO has just held the spring meeting of its foreign ministerns in Vilnius in Lithuania.

It was an important event in that it marked the careful upgrading of the relationship between NATO and Ukraine following the profound changes in that important country.

”Intensified dialogue” is the official phrase for the new phase the relationship has now entered.

That doesn’t mean that the door is wide open for Ukraine to enter NATO immediately. Such a step would have profound implications in a number of areas, and neither NATO nor the Ukraine is yet ready for it.

But the signal from Vilnius is that a movement in that direction has been initated. That’s important in itself.

US Secretary of State Condolezza Rice ame to Vilnius directly from her talks in Moscow, and she made a point in meeting in Lithuania with the opposition leaders from ”Europe´s last dictatorship” in neighbouring Belarus.

That’s important. The Lukashenko dictatorship is an embarrasement to all of Europe and an aggression to the peoples of Belarus itself. After the changes in Kiev, there is certainly a need to put the question of democratic change in Belarus on the international political agenda.

The NATO meeting in Vilnius contributed to this. Excellent.

The Soap Opera of Sweden

21 april 2005

Coming home to Stockholm after more than a week on the other side of the Atlantic is coming home to something that more and more resembles a soap opera.

It’s all centered on the ruling Social Democrats and its Prime Minister Göran Persson. But it also covers the ethical standards of the way in which that party has been fostering its coming elites.

The Persson story is the daily story of it, when and how he intends to resign.

And it really is a daily story. One day the PM is saying that he doesn’t really know, but it might by this autumn. The next day the same PM is saying that he certainly does not intend to resign, and anyhow certainly not now.

He alludes to ”powerful interests” that are interested in the continuation of the soap opera over the issue, but abstains from naming them.

Wisely so – everyone knows that practically everyone else in the Social Democrat party is plotting different schemes to secure a change in the leadership prior to the September elections next year.

The crux is, of course, that there is no successor in sight.

European Commissioner Margot Wallström has – correctly – said that she can not be a candidate since she has an important position that she can’t just simply abandon. The position as European Commissioner must never be seen as a holding position awaiting the outcome of some domestic battles.

But increasingly she is the dream of all the plotters. She seems to be everything that Persson is not – and they seem to want something that is as different as possible. Whether that is enough as a criteria for political leadership is a matter that isn’t even discussed.

With her firmly in Brussels, it’s only the junior minions of the Persson immediate entourage available on the scene. And most of them are obviously seen to be in the same class of attractiveness as the average East German local party hacks used to be. Not a good way to electoral success in the age of media politics.

To all this should be added the rolling scandal of how the different functionaries in the Social Democratic youth organisation seems to have falsified membership numbers over the years in order to get more subsidies from the state.

This now involved a substantial part of the members of the government, including the Finance Minister. There are now no fewer than seven different police investigations against differents parts of SSU for different degrees of fraud.

It’s of course very bad in itself, but even worse as an illustration of the ethnics that is implanted in those being trained to lead the Social Democratic party. They seems to treat the state as theirs – to be cheated in order to get more money.

So it’s not only a soap opera that seems to just go on and on. It’s also a deeply troubling story about ethics in politics and morality in public office.

Bad. Very bad.

History as Weapon against Future

19 april 2005

People’s Daily Online — China, Japan agree to view ties from ”strategic perspective” amidst tensions

The last week has seen a deterioation of relations in East Asia as a wave of ”popular” protests against Japan has swept over China.

The overt reason is that new Japanese schoolbooks tend to gloss over war crimes committed by Japanese forces in China during the 1930’s. It’s only some books, used in some schools, but is nevertheless by China seen as a step back from the Japanese side.

The real reasons are probably more complicated. It is of course inconceivable that major street demonstrations or massive Internet campaigns can be organized in China without some sort of appropval – at the least – by the authorities.

It’s in all probability an attempt to motivate stopping Japan from getting a permanent set at the UN Security Council as a result of the reforms now being discussed.

But it’s a high-stake game. Playing the nationalist game is always possible, but it carries consequences. Japanese investments remain very important for the Chinese economy -providing jobs that are desperately needed.

More generally, it once again demonstrates that history count. Some of the emotions seen on the streets of China are no doubt genuine – but they have been let loose and tolerated by the authorities.

But the problem is that of China can mobilize nationalist sentiments, others in the region can do the same, including a further development in Japan.

This should be in no ones interest. The region need to move further together – not dramatically apart.

Will a Non be a Yes to Instability?

18 april 2005

Practically all of my French friends are now telling me that it looks as if the referendum on May 29 is going to result in France saying ”non” to the constitutional treaty of the European Union.

That might be a premature conclusion – it’s still more than a month to go – but still makes it highly relevant to discuss which might be the consequences of a no in France. If there is a no in France, it seems likely that there will be the same result in the referendum in the Netherlands three days later.

Then, it will effectively be the end of this suggested Constitutional Treaty of the European Union.

It has often been said that there is no Plan B for this contingency, but then a Plan B would very rapidly have to be put in place. The June meeting of the European Council under the presidency of Luxembourg will be highly important.

The first casualty of a French no might well be the future of the process of enlargement. The issue of Turkey is already one of the major issues in the French campaign, along with a general sense of malaise over the rapid enlargement of the European Union in recent years.

The EU is supposed to start accession negotiations with Turkey on October 3rd. Although in a formal sense this is hardly affected by a failure of the ratification process, the reality is likely to be a different one.

There will be voiced raised in favour of a pause of reflect on the new situation. And even if the accession negotiations are in face started as planned, there will be a clear perception that they will be on a distant back burner for years to come.

But it’s not only a question of Turkey. As has been argued elsewhere, there is an acute need for the EU to send a new message of commitment to enlargement to all of the countries of what is nowadays referred to as the Western Balkans. And there is also Ukraine, which also needs to know that the process of enlargement will move forward, eventually enclosing the lands of the Dnjepr and beyond.

If there is a no to the Constitutional Treaty, there is a very acute risk that all of this will suddenly be seen to be in doubt.

The consequences are unfortunately not too difficult to predict.

There will be an immediate slow down of the Europe-oriented reform process in all of these countries and regions. That’s bad in itself.

But there is a corresponding risk that this will be associated with a further rise in nationalist sentiment in these regions already so exposed to the destructive effects of aggressive nationalism. Without a clear European perspective for the future, there is an obvious risk that those forces dreaming of a return to a nationalist past will gather in strength.

Together, these likely effects are likely to lead to increased both short- and long-term instability in the ”near abroad” of the European Union.

Not a good result – mildly speaking.

A New Wind of Change?

18 april 2005

A New Power Rises Across Mideast (
In a Washington where the cherry blossoms are out and spring is as it is when it’s at its best, Wasington Post published this article – the first in a series of two – on the new winds of change that – perhaps, perhaps – are starting to sweep through the Arab world.

It’s still too early to tell, there is a very long way to go, and there might well be dramatic set-backs – but there is no doubt that there are new winds starting to blow.

New Balkan Beginnings?

13 april 2005

The time when the Balkans can be on the back-burner in terms of policies is fast coming to an end. It’s no longer enough just to handle the crisis of the moment, but necessary to deliver a strategy for the entire region that is comprehensive, clear and credible.

For too long, the talk was mainly about devising an exit strategy for NATO, when the key task is really to develop an entry strategy for the European Union. Increasingly, there is the realisation that without such a strategy the tactics of dealing with the individual challenges from Macedonia to Bosnia will simply not succeed.

This might not be the best of times to talk about starting bringing new members into the European Union. There is a noticeable enlargement fatigue in many of the existing EU members. At the same time, it is obvious that several of the countries in the region are at a considerable distance from meeting the Copenhagen criteria of readiness for membership negotiations.

But ten years after the peace in Bosnia, and more than five years after the end of the war over Kosovo, it is as obvious that only European integration can bring the peoples of Southeaster Europe along the road of reconciliation as it once was for the peoples of France and Germany. It’s a leap into the unknown, for sure, but the unknown brings hope of something better, while the known unfortunately brings very little.

The recent report of the International Commission on the Balkans does recognize the necessity of both dealing with the painful and unresolved status issue of Kosovo and of devising a coherent European strategy for the region and sees the intimate link between the two. It’s only within the framework of the later that the former can be handled.

There are obvious risks in the Kosovo situation. At the moment we see the economy declining at the same time as frustration is building up. It makes little sense to make the UN the scapegoat – the UN mission was set up for failure when the key powers for years simply refused to deal with the status issues. As has happened before, the UN was ordered to implement a policy that just as well could have been devised by an ostrich as by the Security Council.

Seen in isolation, we might well be on our way towards setting up a failed state in Kosovo. There is talk of it as a centre of organized criminality, and in view of the absence of honest alternatives for the rapidly growing population this would hardly be surprising. The political system seems to be driven by an unhealthy tendency towards revenge for real or imagined events in the past.

Nevertheless, there aren’t very many other alternatives than to continue along the path of state-building in Kosovo, and in the view of the European perspectives of the region, the aim ought to be that Kosovo gets the its full independence as it enters the framework of interdependence of the European Union.

In the meantime, the present holding operation of the UN should be replaced by a more focused member state-building operation under the direction of the EU, although still with the authority of the UN.

There will also have to be a far more effective effort at integrating all the economies of the region – irrespectively of if they met the political criteria for become candidates for membership or not – with both each other and the European Union. The extension of the customs union of the EU to the entire region, certainly including also Kosovo, could be as positive for its economy as it proved to be for Turkey during an earlier stage of its road to Europe.

Serbia and Croatia remains the most significant countries of the region, and it is only to be hoped that their leaderships can sort out their remaining issues with the Hague war criminal tribunal so that both of them can proceed on their European paths. A customs union arrangement for the region would make the earlier membership of Croatia into more of a possibility than a problem for the region, and create better possibilities for Serbia to speed up its progress.

If Serbia and Croatia moves forward along a European path, this should easy the situation for Bosnia as well. As it approaches the 10th year anniversary of the Dayton agreement, it is high time to close down the Office of the High Representative and hand powers to the elected representatives of Bosnia, making them responsible also for the new constitutional deals that may be necessary to move the country towards its European destination.

There are no easy or fast solutions to the remaining issues on the table. But if Kosovo status issues and customs union arrangements are sorted out during the period of this European Commission and Parliament, a fast track for membership for those ready for it should be perfectly realistic during the coming five-year period.

It was in the summer of 1914 in the Balkans that a long period of relative prosperity and peace for Europe come to its end, and we entered the horrible 20th century of wars, dictatorships and genocide. It should be in the summer of 2004 – with perhaps the possibility of also most of the peoples of the Balkans having the possibility of electing their representatives to the European Parliament – that Europe can finally but those horrors behind itself.

It’s possible, but it requires far-sighted and determined policies – and it requires them now.

Which Europe?

13 april 2005

There are wildly different versions of where Europe is heading in the two most lively political dramas of Europe at the moment.

In France, it seems as if the opposition to the Constitutional Treaty has definitely gained the upper hand in the run-up to the May 29 referenum. The latest 11 opinion polls all show a lead, although a small one, for the no side.

A dominant theme in the negative campaign – apart from the issue of Turkey – is the complaint that the Constitutional Treaty takes us towards a ”neo-liberal” furure fundamentally incompatible with social ideals dear to the French and others.

Across the Channel, it all sounds very different. In sofar as the issue is there in the campaign for the UK election on May 5 – there seems to be a tacit agreement to concentrate on other issues – it’s there in forms of complaints that the Constitutional Treaty would impose a straight-jacket of regulation on any attempts to run a decent liberal economy.

Although political cultures are always different, the difference is still striking. Are they talking about the same Constitutional Treaty? Are they talking about the same Europe? Simply speaking – they can’t both be right.

I guess the thruth is that neither of them are really talking about the Constitutional Treaty at all. They are just using their usual laundry list of prejudices to project on the issue of Europe in order to gain support.

It’s rather depressing. Politics at its worst. And hardly the leadership that Europe needs in times like this.

Sweden – by the way – is hardly better. Debate and discussion on these issues is virtually non-existent.

Twenty Years of Collapse and Reform

13 april 2005

This April, it is 20 years since Mikhail Gorbachev was elected General-Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

A series of old leaders had just died, and Gorbachev managed to take over as a representrative of a somewhat younger and less ossified generation of Soviet leaders.

The rest – as they say – is history. History still in the making, I would add.

The greatness of Gorbachev rested on his fundamental misunderstanding of the Soviet system. He genuinely believed that it could be reformed and modernized, and that it accordingly was not only wrong but also unnecessary to call out the tanks when the system was seen to be under threat.

The previous generations of Soviet leaders had certainly not been under that illusion – as witnessed dramatically in East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, not to speak of the massive use of repressive force within the Soviet Union itself.

Some time after having achieved his position, Gorbachev started to talk about ”perestroika” – openness. And that unleashed a stream of calls for changes that eventually were to unravel the entire Soviet Union, its socialist system and its decades-long empire in Europe.

It’s doubtful that Gorbachev ever understood what was really happening. But his greatness was that – with some exceptions, primarily in the Baltic countries – at each stage of the dissolution of the system, either resisted or was reluctant to endorse those that more or less openly advocated a return to the old methods of repression to defend te system.

Accordlingly, the collapse just continued, eventually to destroy the position, power and prestigre of Gorbachev himself. The more dedicated and aware reformer Boris Yeltsin simply took over when Gorbachev had lost it all.

Since then we have seen a decade of Yeltsin reforms and Yeltsin decay, and a term of Putin stability followed by the present term of Putin stagntion.

There are increasing question marks over where Russia is heading. Away from democrcy – certainly. Less of the necessary economic reforms – also fairly obvious. But the picture remains a very mixed one.

Dimitri Trenin recently pointed out that Russia is more than the stagnation and de-democratization of Putin:

”The millions of consumers exercising their right to choose in the rapidly growing supermarket chains; the planeloads of business travelers converging on London, Zurich and Frankfurt daily; the holiday-makers who, having lost the Crimea, have rediscovered the Mediterranean — all are part of a Russia beyond Putin’s Russia, one that will grow and develop even when Putin is history.”

This is also part of the new Russian reality, and the key question remains whether it is the old statist and centralists tendencies now dominating much of the Kremlin, or the dynamism of a new Russian generation as well as of parts of the economy that we are also seeing, that will dominate the coming one or two Russian decades.

Old Suspicions Remain

13 april 2005

Opinion & Analysis

The visit by Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao to India, as well as the different agreements signed, was undoubtedly of major importance. We should – as I have noted earlier – take note.

But old suspicions don’t die that easily. This comment in the main Indian business newspaper – Business Standard – shows that there is a healthy dose of sceptisism over how far the rapprochement can really go.

Both India and China have ambitions to be treated as the major power in the region.

Whether China really supports Indias ambition to get a permanent seat at the UN Security Council is doubtful.

An Indian permanent seat would come as part of a package in which also Japan gets such a seat. Suddenly, there would be three rather than one permanent Asian members of the UNSC, although China would remain as the only one with veto powers.

And recent popular outbursts in China has certainly highlighted the old suspicions against Japan that can still be found – and not only in China.

We certainly see economic and industrial relations in Asia booming – and the potential for Indian-Chinese cooperation here should be substantial – bur we also see how the old suspicions are still remaining.

Seismic Shifts

10 april 2005

Beyond the headlines of the European media, Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao is now paying an extended visit to India.

It’s a first in many respects. The two countries went to war in 1962, and the border issues over whjich that war was fought haven’t yet been resolved. Relations between the two giants of Asia have been characterized by an odd combination of ignorance and suspicion.

But now both of them are entering the global economy at a breathtaking speed, anmd they are starting to see not only that they can learn from each other but that they might even be able to work togethjer on specific issues.

It was highly symbolic that Wen Jiabao started his visit not in the capital of Delhi but in the busting IT center of Bangalore in the dynamic South of the country. While China clearly has the lead in different areas of manufacturing, there is no doubt that India is well ahead in terms of sophisticated services and software. Wen Jiabao has a lot to learn in Bangalore.

And the rest of us have every reason to note what’s happening. Together, China and India represent a third of humanity, and a very high proportion of the dynamism in the global economy of today.

While China is developing as the production superpower, India develops as the service superpower. But both of them need to sort out their remaining problems – the border – and they are also likely to talk about their common hunger for energy.

Their exports of goods and services, and their hunger for oil and gas, will be among the key drivers of global economic developments in the years to come.

Poll Tracker for UK Election

09 april 2005

BBC NEWS | Election 2005 | Poll Tracker

As the drama of the UK election campaign unfold in the days and weeks prior to May 5th, the BBC Election Site gives the possibility of following how the different polls measure the support of the competing parties.

Two words of caution are necessary, however.

One is that the track record of opinion polls in predicting actual election results is less than stellar. Not the least the UK has seen some spectacular failures. But they are generally good in showing how the battle evolves during the course of a campaign – until it’s the voters that make the decision.

Another is that the UK election system makes the translation of support in terms of percentage of the electorate to seats in the House of Commons much less direct than in any other system.

So the polls should be read with these rather major reservations in mind.

Danish Training

08 april 2005

Berlingske Tidende

For those that haven’t bruished up their Danish lately – here is a link to a possibility.

It’s an OpEd by me in the leading Danish daily Berlingske Tidende on the occasion of also Denmark getting a think-thank devoted to advancing the debate on key policy issues.

I’m on its Advisory Board in the same way as I’m on the Advisory Board of its Norwegian think-thank brother – or sister? – Civita.

We need to widen the horizons of the political debate in the North of Europe – and these are important contributions to this.

Dramatic European Spring

08 april 2005

It will be a dramatic political spring in Western Europe. What will happen during April and May will set the pattern for a long time to come.

First, there is the general election in the United Kingdom on May5th.

Tony Blair and his Labour party has been widely tipped to win a record consequetive new term in office. But recently the Conservatives under Micael Howard has been doing markedly better, and opinion polls are suddenly starting to predict a much closer race.

Still, Labour should win. With the first-past-the post system and the way support for the different parties is distributed, there is at the moment an obvious bias in the system in favour of Labour. But the unthinkable – a defeat of Tony Blair – is no longer entirely unthinkable.

The Conservatives are certainly advocating sound economic policies as well as necessary reforms of the public sector, but their European policies are bordering on being neanderthal in inspiration, and their playing on anti-immigrant feelings are on the verge of being xenophobic.

Then, there is the election on May 22nd in the German state of Nordrhein-Westphalen. It happens to be the largest of the German Länder, is the only one still ruled by a Red-Green coalition after the debacle in Schleswig-Holstein and has been politically in the hands of the Social Democrats of SPD more or less for ever.

Trends for the SPD are not good, and it is perfectly possible that a defest for them there will leave the Red-Green coalition in Berlin even more vulnerable facing the general election in September of next year.

After that comes, of course, the referendum in France on the Constitutional Treaty of the European Union on May 29th. And three days later, on June 1st, the corresponding referendum in the Netherlands.

If in the past French support for the uropean Union was automatic, the last few years have seen the situation change. While in the past the EU was seen as a vehicle to project French influence over Europe, increasingly the public now seems to be seeing it as a vehicle to impose foreign influence on France.

In a Europe that has moved well past the original six members of the then European Economic Community, France no longer has the automatic commanding role it used to have in the past, and adjustment to this new fact of life in Europe has come rather slowly.

Much of the opposition in France seems to be focused on issues that have very little to do with the substance of the Constitutional Treaty, notable the imminent opening of accession negotiatgions with Turkey. But this reflexts the Angst – to use a German expression – that large segments of French opinion seems to have over Europe at the moment.

Many of them want a French Europe – but not necessarily a European France.

We’ll see. The real campaign is yet to come, and it might well turn out that France will overcome its hesitations and vote for the Constitutional Treaty. If they do, it seems likely that the Dutch will as well. If they don’t, the Dutch referendum might even be cancelled, and in any event is likely to have a negative result.

A Conservative victory in the UK and a No in France will fundamentally change the political situation in the West of Europe. But even just a No in France will have profound effects. One likely such will be that the process of enlargement – notable the opening of talks with Turkey – will come to a halt.

It will take time to pick up the pieces, and it’s not immediately obvious from where the leadership that will have the responsibility to do it will come.

Freedom for the Arab World

05 april 2005

In its third Arab Development Report, a group of Arab scholars under the auspicies of the UNDP analyses the state of freedom in the 22 countries of the Arab world.

The picture the report presents is a depressing one – although one where there is some reason for hope.

There has been some genuine advances. Apart from elections in Palestine and Iraq, the report notes legislative elections with women voters and candidates in Oman, competitive multiparty presidential elections in Algeria, the formation of Human Rights Commissions in Egypt and Qatar and the adoption of a new family law safeguarding women’s rights in Morocco

But overall, most reforms so far have been embryonic and fragmentary. The report notes that a State of Emergency has been continued since decades in Egypt, Syria and Sudan.

Nevertheless, the report states that ”we are moving with greater confidence in a new direction now, and there is a strong awareness of the irreversibility of change – change driven by the Arab street, not change adopted from afar.”

It could be worse – in fact, it used to be far worse.

A Remarkable Man – John Paul II

03 april 2005

Pontificate – John Paul II
There is no doubt that John Paul II was one of the most remarkable and important men of our time.

My own dealings with him were not extensive. But I had the opportunity of meeting with him when he come to Sarajevo in 1997 and I was still the High Representative there.

He was determined to come to Sarajevo and nowhere else in Bosnia.

Some of the more hard-line Catholics were not entirely satisfied, since they wanted him to come to areas were they were dominant. And we were very much aware that some of the hard-line Muslims saw his visit there as offensive. On the Orthodox side, it all boiled down to all the suspicions against Rome dating back, at the least, to the Fourth Crusade and the sack of Constantinople in 1204.

But he wanted to come to Sarajevo. It was the symbol of a multi-ethnic Bosnia, although the reality at that time was a somewhat different one.

And he did come. We stood and waited for him at the airport. And at the same time we had to deal with very real security threats. A massive sets of remotely-controlled explosions had just been detected under one of the bridges he was supposed to pass on his way from the airport into town.

We recommended him to go by helicopter instead of by car. We had not had the time to do the additonal searches we wanted along the route as we wished. The pattern of those trying attacks is that that normally have one main option and one backup. We we had not detected the backup – and we were afraid of it.

But the Pope – frail already at that time – did not want to hear the objections. He was there to see the people – not to fly in helicopters.

All went well – although we were nervous. He met the leaders of the Muslim, the Orthodox and the Jewish communities. And went on to the big mass in the main stadium in Sarajevo. It was as full of people as could be.

It was a remarkable event. The Pope was the first one to come to Sarajevo after the war are dare to utter the world ”forgive”. Not to forger – but to forgive. The word hang in the air of the stadium of Sarajevo for minutes before people took it in.

No one but him could have said it. And Bosnia could never move on if it wasn’t said.

I did not see him again until this last Christmas, and then at a distance. He was delivering his traditional Urbis et Orbis on the square outside St.Peters in Rome on Christmas Day. I was standing with the diplomatic community on the roof of the Vatican looking down on the very frail person with the strong voice and the determined will as he read his message about peace and human dignity in the world.

It was a rainy and cold day. Not a day for frail men to deliver speeches outside. But his determination was there, and it was to carry him to the end. That Urbis et Orbis turned out to be the last he was able to deliver himself.

He was a modern man in a medieval dressing. I noted that day that his message was main news on all global news challenge. He was more than just a Pope for the Catholics. He was seeen as a moral voice in a time often devoid of moral values.

He was a true European that reached out to the other parts of the world. His nine-day visit to his native Poland in June of 1971 was truly epoch-making. Witout him, Solidarnosc migh not have been possible, and without Solidarnosc, much in Europe might have turned out differently.

He dared to confront the communist idealogy, the communist state and the communist idea. And he explicitly supported the idea of Europeans coming together to overcome their past.

The Poles are certainly right in honouring him as one of the truly great men of their history – in all probability the greatest of them all.