Archive | March, 2008

>Bulgaria: blogged down

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Transitions Online reports on the heavy handed attitude of the Bulgarian authorities to a blogger, who promoted an ecological ‘flash’ protest on his blog. The more interesting element is less the Bulgarian state’s dislike of civic protest or being held to account that the nascent movement of bloggers claiming to be the country’s ‘real’ civil society. The political role of blogging and the internet has been endlessly hyped. I personally am sceptical that it does much more than allow well educated elite groups to talk to each other and co-ordinate a little more quickly and easily. This probably matters for the emergence of liberal minded anti-establishment challengers – the emergence of Estonia’s Res Publica party seemed to have taken place largely over email – but the real issue seems to be that, blogging or not, such forces lack the social and political weight to have much impact.

Perhaps more interesting to track, however, would be whether CEE officialdom has generated any anonymous insider blogs such as the UK’s Civil Serf (now taken down), which can shed some light in the ‘black box’ of day-to-day public administration in the region.

>Slovakia: Lecturers free to work harder

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More interesting reports in Slovakia’s Smethis time that the new Universities Law has abolished the 58 hours a week working time ceiling for the country’s lecturers. This is not intended to allow Dickensian exploitation, however but to fit with EU regulations. The restriction was originally applied to curtail lecturing in multiple subjects at multiple institutions. In future, lecturers will be governed by the general restriction on working time in the Slovak Labour Code- a normal maximum of 48 hours a week – but, in practice, will be able to work longer if they have two jobs.

>Just the ticket

>Slovak daily Sme reports plans to establish a public transport link between Bratislava and the Austrian town of Wolfstahl now that Slovakia has entered the Schengen zone. There were plans for a longer link to Hainburg, but they have been scaled back. I have heard people say that under Austria-Hungary you could get a tram from Bratislava (then Pressburg) to Vienna, but I expect that is probably apocryphal.

>Václav Havel: Uncomfortable arguments slip below the radar

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Ex-President Havel makes a rare public appearance in the media and rare public comments on current politics to argue that Czechs should agree to the stationing of the planned US anti-missile radar base – public opinion is overwhelmingly against, the main (right-wing) governing party ODS for, the left against, other parties fudging the issue. Havel argues that the US is asking little and that Czechs should agree because they have a historic debt to the US: for the foundation of Czechoslovakia in 1918 and for robust American support of dissident opposition during the Cold War. He also chucks in the argument that anti-radar elements are expressing a pacifism akin to that of the 1930s, which overlooked the threat of Nazi Germany. (Any Czech politician worth his salt will always come up with a historical analogy about Czechoslovakia’s ignominious collapse in 1938, when s/he thinks the stakes are high). Havel’s characterisation is inaccurate, however, as radar opponents are generally anti-American and/or see the US anti-missile project as a pointless and hostile gesture towards Russia and China, which is not in the Czech (or EU) interest.

More uncomfortably Havel’s arguments have strange echoes of Brezhnev’s after 1968: the Red Army’s liberation of Czechoslovakia in 1945, which Czechs and Slovak’s couldn’t quite manage themselves, required loyalty to the big protecting ally regardless of what might be in the more immediate Czech national interest or what Czechs might otherwise wish, Leonid Illich explained. A Realpolitik argument about facing up to Putin’s Russia and/or China would frankly have been more convincing, but Havel only does historical and moral so instead we get a kind of Atlanticist pastiche of Brezhnev plus a not very convincing aside about the Iranian threat ….

Meanwhile on the fringes, I see that the tiny Stalinist youth wing of the Czech Communist party, the Communist Youth Union (KSM) has been banned for having acommitment to the abolition of private property in its statues, which goes against the constitutionally embedded Charter of Human Rights. KSM previously faced the chop (quite rightly I thought) for having a phrase about the ‘revolutionary overthrow’ of capitalism its the statutes – implying violence. However, this has since been toned down to ‘revolutionary overcoming’ or, more freely translated ‘revolutionary superseding’. The Interior Ministry’s continuing support for a ban (first initiated under a Social Democrat-led government, I should note), which the Constitutional Court has just upheld seems a bit harsh. As the KSM’s main activity is doing legwork for anti-radar protests and its chance of overthrowing (sorry, that should overcoming ‘overcoming’) capitalism are about the same as a snowstorm in July, they can perhaps cry foul. On the other hand, the bleating of various neo-Stalinists in the letters page of The Guardian about anti-communist oppression in the country with the largest and most militant CP in mainland Europe was frankly too much….

The neo-fascist right (whose organisations have also been subject to periodic bans and deregistrations by the Czech Interior Ministry over the years) is also campaigning against the US radar bases (on nationalist grounds), I should add.

>Path dependence in West Sussex

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I was annoyed to discover that our local regional authority, West Sussex County Council, plans to close and block up the public footpath that leads from out street to the town centre. It is quick, traffic free and ideal for parents with small kids. Alternative routes are much longer and involve crossing roads. The reason, as I later discovered, is that part of the path cuts through a local secondary school and the head teacher, in his wisdom, had put a request for the path to be closed to the public and blocked because he thinks it ’causes’ anti-social behaviour, crime and vandalism, which – like a lot of secondary schools – his school is prone too.

This would be all very well, if true, but I don’t buy these arguments all. The school is on accessible open site near the town centre and drug dealers, vandals and burglars could easily simply walk through the car park or across the playing field to gain access to the school buildings. Indeed, I would have thought without a regular flow of regular citizens walking to the shops and back, they would probably be more likely to do so unhindered. Ironically considering it wants to keep the local community out, the school styles itself a ‘Community College’.

What’s most annoying is the secretive – or perhaps I should say ‘pseudo-open’ – nature of the whole process. You can, if you know of what is going on access the minutes of the relevant council committee meeting on the web and read how the head’s arguments about ‘security’ trumped anything else anyone could say (Why a decision about a local footpath has to be made in Chichester two hours drive away by authority responsible for 500,000 people, I don’t know, but I guess that’s another issue). I, and anyone else living locally, could theoretically even have made written and orally submission to the committee asking for path to stay open, if, of course, we had actually known about the proposal in the first place. But what normal person habitually reads county council agendas and minutes?

It would have been helpful if they could have put up a notice for passers-by to read, but that would clearly have been too transparent. Instead, very oddly the Council informed two well established and worthy bodies, the Ramblers Association and the Open Spaces Society. In an oddly corporatist twist, this is standard practice with proposed footpath closures – the RA and OSS are deemed to represent all footpath users, so wider publicity is unnecessary. They at least did have the decency to object to this closure and the OSS mentions that local people use the path to get to town, but it’s easy to imagine how they were just seen as lobby groups going through the motions, while local headteacher appeared more of real community leader . The committee minutes, it should be said do mention local councillors (it’s not clear how local, as there are three layers of local government in this part of the world: town council, district council and county council) transmitting some residents’ concern about access to their fences, but this seems to refer only to a few houses near the school. I do find it a little odd, that despite living here for two and half years and assiduously reading public notices and anything from local council or political parties that came through our letterbox, I knew nothing about it.

I found out about the in a pretty odd way – in a leaflet put through out door by the local Neighbour Watch – a government backed community crime prevention scheme. The leaflet suggested anyone concerned should email our town councillor. She actually lives in the same street as us, so I did this a week ago, but have had no reply whatsoever. This kind of suggests that she is not bothered by the footpath being scrapped and that the mention in the Neighbourhood Watch leaflet was probably inserted by someone other local person bothered about it, rather than her.

Thoroughly fed up, I made a mental note not to vote Liberal Democrat in the local elections again and wrote a letter to the local paper. God knows if this will have any effect. Local government at this level kind seems to be about various local elites agreeing things between themselves with minimal and token public consultation – and the perhaps the occasional sharp prods from central government.

As far as I can work out, footpaths have quite strong legal protection so it may still be possible to make some kind of formal appeal against the decision – please leave a comment if you do. Otherwise, I guess the kids I and will join local yobbos in skirting across the playing field to avoid whatever defences the head teacher plans to erect.

>Kosovo independence prompts pan-Slav stirrings in Bulgarian intelligentsia?

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I had assumed that Bulgaria’s intelligentsia had, by and large, had a liberal pro-Western orientation and that pan-Slavism – or perhaps I should call it pan-Othodoxy – was a sort of residual cultural baggage without the intellectual and political clout it still seems to have in Russia or Serbia. However, the framing of the open letter, signed by 30 (or in later reports 100) Bulgarian intellectuals, cultural figures and churchmen against their government’s decision (in the end) to recognise Kosovan independence, reported in the Sofia Echo, suggests otherwise. A longer report in Novinite.com does, however specify that the letter was signed by intellectuals of the left.

I lack background to analyse this properly, but I wonder whether such sentiments will feed into the electorally emergent Bulgarian radical right, which – as far as I am aware – has so far been a ragbag of populist and racist positions without much intellectual ballast. A Bulgarian student tells me that it should be regarded as a new post accession phenomenon, not one with roots in historic nationalism (like say the Slovak National Party). Interestingly, other new phenomena – Kosovan independence and the rise of Putin-era pipline politics – seem to have opened up further intellectual and political space for it.

>Romania’s election law: Everything you always wanted to know…

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.… but couldn’t really be bothered to ask.

But if you, like me, have been kept awake at night wondering how Romania’s new variant of the first-past-the-post electoral system will work, help is at hand. SSEES PhD student Dan Brett has heroically trawled the Romanian press to come up with the following explanation of the new system. I have inserted a few comments of my own in square brackets

  • The elections take place in one round only.
  • The national territory is divided into 42 electoral districts, corresponding to the 41 counties plus Bucharest.
  • Each electoral district contains a number of single member districts (SMDs) corresponding to the number of deputy/ senator seats for that district. [The new system will be used for elections to both houses of parliament]. Up to 95% of the number of mandates will be the same as in the 2004 elections, thus there will be 330 uninominal colleges [which I think is Romania political-speak for single member district] for the House of Deputies and 135 for the Senate, the rate of representation being of one deputy to 70,000 citizens and a senator for 160,000 [a provision carried over from the previous electoral system, presumably because article 62.3 of the Constitution specifies that “The number of Deputies and Senators shall be established by the electoral law, in proportion to the population of Romania.”
  • The electoral threshold for the parties is 5% (nationwide); there is also an alternative threshold which entitles those parties to enter Parliament that did not reach the electoral threshold but have winning candidates in 6 single member districts for the House of Deputies and in 3 for the Senate.
  • In each SMD a political party has the right to sign up one candidate only; the elector votes by applying the stamp on one candidate for the House of Deputies and on one candidate for the Senate.
  • The candidates who obtain in an SMD 50% plus one vote become MPs.
  • If the party they belong to has not reached the electoral threshold, they do not become MPs.
  • All the votes obtained by the candidates are added to the county and national electoral subtotal [Rom. zestrea = the dowry] of the party they belong to.

  • The remaining seats will be distributed according to the following procedure follows:

(i) in the first stage it is calculated how many seats go to each party in each electoral district [presumably proportionally?]; from this you subtract (if there are any) those seats obtained directly by the parties in that particular county through winning a SMD by a qualified majority. [This is a fairly classic mechanism used in so-called Mixed Proportional electoral systems – where the PR element functions as a compensatory mechanism for parties which do badly in SMD contests. Elections to the Scottish Parliament use this mechanism, for example]

(ii) then at the level of each district they draw up a ‘party list’ which will contain all the candidates of the respective party in the descending order of the votes obtained. [This procedure of creating a ‘party list’ by ranking individual candidates from the same party is used in Finland, I believe]

(iii) At the district level, seats are distributed to the better positioned candidates of those parties entitled to seats, but only function of the electoral quota they obtained.

(iv) It is possible that after this stage not all seats will have been distributed. Those undistributed are redistributed, function of the percentage obtained at the national level by the parties, to the best rated candidates in their parties in the respective counties. It is not possible for a MP to ‘travel’ to another district. [This additional national tier .distributing unawarded seats loosely resembles what happens in Hungary, except that in Hungary unawarded seats from regional PR lists are awarded like this, as the Hungarians have a second run-off round to sort out who is elected in SMDs]

  • For the first time, Romanians residing abroad elect – from among themselves – four deputies and two senators. [A Croatian style ‘virtual constituency’ – I am not quite sure how this will square with the population requirement given the generally low turnout of ex pat voters]
  • The Presidents of the District Councils [regional authorities] are elected by a vote in one round, the winner being the one who obtains the simple majority. [This rather controversial provision seems to have been tacked on Social Democrat deputies, but doesn’t concern national elections, as far I can work out]

The 64, 000 dollar (lei?) question is, of course, what happens to the large number of SMDs likely to be unfilled because no candidate has 50%+ of the poll and those SMDs where a candidate does win with 50%+, but his or her party is debarred from representation because it doesn’t meet the national threshold. Presumably, they will be redistributed using (using a proportional mechanism?). If so, the whole system is in fact likely to be in effect a ‘mixed’ election system with Finnish style open PR ‘lists’ with the interesting variant that the precise balance between deputies elected by SMD and those elected by PR will not be clear beforehand.

The intention behind the new system apparently is to exclude ‘independent’ local political bosses dominating the system by having a party threshold and requiring a high (absolute) majority for SMDs. Personally, however I am still a little sceptical as it does not seem too hard for half a dozen dominant local independents to band together in a ‘party’. Indeed, the 50%+ requirement for elections in SMDs seems almost an incentive for heavy duty patronage and/or vote rigging on Russian lines. My colleague Prof Denis Deletant, who knows Romania and Romanian politics better than anyone at SSEES, also points that Romanian politicians have a habit of passing framework legislation and then filling in important details at the last minute, things may turn out differently anyway and we have all been losing sleep unnecessarily. So good night and good luck.

>City slicker

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I lived in Prague for three years, from 1996 to 1999. After several years living in the Czech Republic’s second city, Brno, it was something of a relief to end up in a bigger more cosmopolitan environment of the capital. Praguers were invariably unfazed (and uninterested) by foreigners living in their midst, and even foreigners speaking Czech. So I was naturally drawn to Martin Horak’s study of city government in Prague in the decade following the collapse of communism, Governing the Post-Communist City, which promised to reveal the politics behind my daily bus journey from the high rise estate of New Barrandov past the traffic bottlenecks at the Barrandov bridge down to Smíchov Station to pick up the tram, which raced past some rather tacky shops and finally snaked its way into historic old Prague, where I would get off in the Lesser Quarter and walk past the US Embassy to the Institute for Contemporary History and sit reading my way through the Civic Forum archive and batches of newspapers from the early 1990s.

Although not exactly bedtime reading it’s an innovative and interesting book in a least two ways. Firstly, it seeks quite rightly to shift the research agenda on democracy in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) from democratic transition and consolidation – that is measuring up CEE democracies against an ideal of ‘established’ or ‘advanced’ democracy, basically an idealized composite of what exists in the West – to issues of governance and democratic quality – how well democracy works, to paraphrase Robert Putnam. High quality democratic performance in Horak’s definition is essentially transparency in policy-making, openness of policymakers to societal inputs and the long-term strategic coherence of policies adopted. Secondly, by focusing on governance in a capital city such as Prague, Horak is able to link up political, economic and social institutions in a fairly holistic way, which would be nigh on impossible for a national political system. A capital city’s political system is sufficiently small to research in depth, but large and complex enough to flag wider issues of institutional evolution and democratic governance.

The book centres on two lovingly detailed case studies: transport policy and preservation in Prague’s historic core. As quickly becomes from these policy sectors , the Czech capital scores poorly on all key indicators of democratic quality. Policy-making was opaque, piecemeal, expensive, inefficient and largely closed to the public. Such democratic failure was, however, puzzling. Prague’s city government had many prerequisites for success. It rapidly regained strong fiscal and political autonomy after 1989, had a large professional administrative apparatus and controlled sizeable tax and property resources.

Horak draws on an innovative strand in ‘historical institutionalist’ literature to explain such underperformance. The key he argues is to be found in the unevenness with which different sets of institutions developed after 1989. While new democratically elected structures of representation quickly emerged in 1990, the structures and policy-making frameworks of municipal administrators remained heavily influenced by the close technocratic practices of the late communist era, when professional planners were largely left alone by Communist Party bosses. Although emergent civic initiatives had some initial influence, inexperienced new city councillors facing multiple demands tended to opt for simple short-term solutions, drawing on existing communist-era policy frameworks or maximising opportunities for personal profit. This trend was exacerbated by the absence of strong regional structures in the right-wing Civic Democratic Party, which dominated Prague politics after 1991, but generally lacked a coherent political programme for the city.

Different policy sectors, however, exhibited different dynamics. Transport planning bodies and large formerly state-owned construction companies functioned as a powerful lobby for the exclusion of civil society groups from policy-making and the completion of communist-era motorway building plans. Civic groups quickly settled into a protest oriented strategy, enjoying some success in modifying or blocking the implementation of road building (sending costs spiralling), but were poorly equipped to feed into policy processes when invited to do so. This offers a rather interesting alternative perspective to the environmentalists-as-heroes interpretation that found in more conventional social movement based accounts such as, for example, Adam Fagan’s Environment and Democracy in the Czech Republic (Edward Elgar, 2004), where we find out a lot about protest and protesters, but politicians, bureaucrats and business are largely off stage baddies. A nice illustration of how Horak’s ‘holistic’ approach does indeed deliver new insights.

Prague’s preservation authorities shared the same technocratic culture as those of transport planners but were more open to civic groups, which, like them, generally opposed extensive commercialization of historic areas of Prague. However, preservation institutions quickly buckled and fragmented under pressure from local politicians, who blocked systematic and open policymaking in favour of closed, ad hoc decision making which facilitated lucrative relationships with developers and investors. There is little direct proof, but a mass of circumstantial evidence confirming the reputation of Prague municipal politics and administration as a cesspool of corruption. One of the more jaw dropping findings is that fully half of Prague’s elected city councillors in the late 1990s were involved with real estate companies and all but on sat on the boards of private companies of some kind. Only when the development potential of historic central Prague was exhausted and national freedom of information legislation forced greater openness was this pattern broken. Interestingly, Horak finds, there was less evidence of corruption in transport policy, presumably because construction companies and planners formed a tight and compact lobby touting for big long-term projects, which required more than the one-off buying of councillors for specific decisions.

Despite occasionally dense passages on Prague history and municipal bureaucracy, Horak has written a fine book, which skilfully interweaves documentary research with interviews with politicians, planners and civic activists, to produce a rich and subtle account of Czech politics capturing many nuances that other accounts overlook. To some extent, the specific nature of Prague as a case study limits the generalisability of the book’s findings. Its implicit view of democracy as consensus building between functional actors (business, civil society, bureaucrats and politicians), for example, would not scale up well to most national systems, where party politics is generally more competitive and interests more zero-sum. However, Horak’s central theoretical insight is original and does cut the mustard: that post-communist democratic development is a changing patchwork of overlapping institutional structures, each embodying different legacies and each liable to break open into differently timed ‘critical junctures’ when political choices suddenly matter. Indeed, his empirical analysis tends to subvert conventional historical institutionalist accounts more radically than Horak himself allows. What is most striking is how few realistic opportunities emerged for Prague’s overloaded, easily corruptible and programmatically bereft politicians to choose paths away from the flawed democratic practices so powerfully shaped by multiple communist-era legacies and rampant new business interests.

There are, inevitably, a few quibbles too over what the book might but doesn’t do. Bringing the story up to date would have given a richer more nuanced picture of the success (or not) of city government in Prague, than that furnished by the largely transitional politics of the 1990s It would also be interesting to know the impacts on Prague politics of the (much delayed) introduction of regional authorities across the Czech Republic in 2002 or EU membership. Missing too is any real sense of Prague’s place in Czech national politics – its relationships with the regions, importance as bastion of the right; and role as a harbinger for social and political change in the Czech Republic all merit some discussion. The recent rise of the Green Party not only confirms the importance of Prague as an incubator for national political leaders – Green leader Martin Bursík has a longer career behind him (in various parties) in Prague city politics, as does Social Democrat leader Jiří Paroubek – but suggests it could be seen in some ways as a harbinger of social and political change. But when all is said and done, Governing the Post-Communist City, is that rare thing, a damn good original academic book.

>Slovakia: In a right mess

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The woes of Slovakia’s centre-right Christian Democratic parties continue apace. Three deputies of the Christian Democrat Movement (KDH) have quit to found a Conservative Democratic Party (KDS), which, they say, will be more resolutely committed supporting traditional values and targeting financial support to (traditional) families. Meanwhile dissident members of the more liberal Slovak Christian and Democratic Union (SDKÚ) of ex-Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda (itself originally a breakaway from KDH) have been kicked out of the party for allegedly breaking resolutions not to air internal disputes in public. Their platform is a vaguer one of ‘generational change’ and renewal, outlined in a platform called Time for Change. The key generational change seems to be getting rid of Dzurinda, recently re-elected but seen as an electoral liability. Those expelled include several deputies and important elements of SDKÚ’s Bratislava organisation, where the party is strongest. Who know perhaps they will found a new party too? To complete the picture, we should perhaps add that Slovakia also has a further mainstream centre-right party – the electorally weak, but intellectually more influential Civic Conservative Party (OKS), which has never one parliamententary representation, who espouse a kind of Czech-style neo-con/neo-liberal fusion. The Slovak centre-right is clearly paying the price in opposition for its fragmented structure. This seem to provide cracks along which it fractures in the face of underlying strategic dilemmas: how to manage in a country with an electorate seemingly more inclined to the centre-left than centre-right; and what does being on the Christian Democratic right actually means in Slovak. The Czech right faced a rather similar situation in 2002, but with the crucial difference that the right is basically united in a single party, ODS, and that its long servingbut discredited leader Václav Klaus (finally) decided to step down.

Meanwhile, in the Slovak governing coalition things seem to have got rather jolly again. Vladimír Mečiar even recommends Prime Minister Robert Fico as Slovakia’s next president. Presumably, given the relative weakness of the Slovak presidency, Fico will resist this flattering offer. I suppose the idea of semi-presidential regime might distantly take his fancy, but he does not have the votes to change the constitution.

>CEE: Storms forecast followed by intermittent showers of clichés

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Edward Lucas offers a rather witty lexicon of Western journalistic clichés and buzzwords on Central and Eastern Europe in The Economist. They bolt together worryingly easily. My five minute effort to string them together in the shortest possible sentence(s) produces this (clichés in italic):
“Amid the dreary communist-era towerblocks and flashy new cars, anti-Western extremists seems set to replace liberal-minded reformers, whose heavy-handed attempts to stay in power and out-dated populism have lacked the steely go-ahead determination seen in the rest of the word. The result? A population whose yearning to embrace Euro-Atlantic institutions has given way to quiescent acceptance of bureaucratic cronyism and thoughts of migration”.
I couldn’t get in ‘jovial’, which apparently means drunk in quality journalese, but depressingly, this could easily be a description of Serbia you are likely to read in the next weeks – but that doesn’t seem a laughing matter. Eric Gordy’s EastEthnia blog drops its humorous edge and sets out some scenarios here and doesn’t use a single one.