Kosovo Cries Out for Change

Kosovo is crying out for change, writes Peter Geoghegan, and, increasingly disillusioned with the political system, voters have turned to electing a comedian to office.

Are comedians the political voices for the apathetic generation? If the reaction to Russell Brand’s recent decrees is anything to go by, they could well be.

But while Brand was scribbling in the New Statesman and chatting to Paxman on Newsnight last month, in Kosovo a comic was in the process of actually getting elected to the council in the capital, Pristina.

The Strong Party campaigned on an, eh, unorthodox manifesto – legalise corruption; privatise everything; construct a Formula One racing track around Pristina and universities in every village and neighbourhood.

The party, which took around 2 per cent of the vote and a seat in Pristina, was decried as a “joke” but their message was a serious one – the ludicrous campaign promises were all either exaggerated versions of other parties’ pledges, or cleverly realised digs at Kosovo’s dysfunctional political system.

“We are a group of young people who are angry. But if you just criticise you are not doing anything new. By not opposing (other political parties), by becoming one of them we are showing how ridiculous they are,” the Strong Party’s “Legendary Chairman”, 26-year-old Visar Arifaj, told me when we met over coffee in one of Pristina’s myriad cafes, last week. The average age of the party’s 1,500 vice-chairmen is just 24.

Kosovo is the youngest state in Europe – in more ways than one. It is just five years ago since independence from Serbia was declared; half the population is under 25. For this generation, the war a dim and distant memory, the failures of the present are paramount.

“There is dissatisfaction among the young,” says Dren Pozhegu, a youthful policy analyst. Among 15-24 year olds unemployment stands at an eye-watering 53 per cent, according to statistics from the office of the Kosovan prime minister. No wonder so many have, as Pozhegu says, “lost the belief in change”.

Part of the problem is the kind of change that Kosovo has experienced since the war with Serbia was brought to an end 14 years ago.

Privatisation is a case in point. At one end of pedestrianised Mother Theresa Boulevard, Pristina’s main thoroughfare, is the hulking frame of the 13-storey Grand Hotel. Built in 1978, the 350-room Grand was once the epicentre of Kosovan high society. During the war, it housed the Serbian army and the press corps. The hotel was privatised in 2006 and now stands dilapidated and half-empty, open to guests but in no fit state to receive them.

After the war, many former US officials returned to Kosovo for the privatisation boom — in telecom, mining, or other lucrative government contracts — including US former secretary of state Madeleine Albright and James W Pardew, formerly a special envoy to the Balkans under president Clinton, who was at helm during the Nato bombing campaign against Serbia in 1999.

Kosovo’s privatisations have been “a very dubious process”, says Muhamet Hamiti, erstwhile Kosovo ambassador to London and adviser to former president and independence leader Ibrahim Rugova.

Connected to the privatisation process has been arguably the biggest problem facing the young Kosovoan state – corruption. Backhanders and payoffs have been widely seen as an almost routine aspect of awarding government contracts. The head of Kosovo’s anti-corruption task force was recently arrested – on corruption charges.

“Corruption is endemic. It is a fog that everyone can see but you can’t reach out and touch it, you can’t grasp it,” a very senior international source in Kosovo told me.

In 2010, the first governor of independent Kosovo’s Central Bank, Hashim Rexhepi, was arrested on corruption charges. But an investigation by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network found serious errors in the charges against Mr Rexhepi, amid suggestions that he had actually attempted to stand up to political interference and corruption.

Corruption, of course, is not confined to Kosovo – across the former Yugoslavia, states struggle to control graft. But in Kosovo, there is a European mission, EULEX, dedicated solely to upholding the rule of law.

EULEX has not been inactive – just last week a prosecutor indicted 15 former Kosovo Liberation Army fighters on war crimes charges – but they are widely seen as failing to get a grip on corruption and organised crime. The international community has put a premium on regional stability, making it difficult – if not impossible – to pursue charges against suspects closely connected with the government of prime minister Hashim Thaci in Pristina.

“The rule of law sits uncomfortably with the grand desire for stability at all costs,” a source told me.

An April peace deal brokered by Baroness Ashton in Brussels between Kosovo and Serbia was intended to cooper-fasten this “stability”. Under the terms of the agreement, Serbia would recognise the authority of Kosovo’s government over the police and the courts in the restive, ethnic Serb-dominated north in return for greater autonomy for Serbs across Kosovo. Successful implementation of the accord is widely seen as crucial to both Kosovo and Serbia’s European Union ambitions.

“The EU want short-term peace and stability but they don’t care how it is achieved,” opposition leader Albin Kurti said when we met in the offices of his party, Vetevendosje (Self-Determination), in Pristina.

Kurti, a former student leader, political prisoner in Serbia and adviser to the political representative of the KLA during the war, has been a vocal critic of the international presence in Kosovo and the political system they have done much to support. “Before the war we had equality without freedom. That was prison.

“Now we have freedom without equality. That is the jungle. I don’t like prison or the jungle.”

Kosovo has had successes – local elections held earlier this month were widely hailed as the freest and fairest yet (aside from in the north, where violence and intimidation marred voting, necessitating a repeat election in North Mitrovica on Sunday).

There is economic growth – just not enough of it – and Kosovans display an entrepreneurial spirit that would be the envy of any nation.

Pristina is a city teeming with creative young people – and, as the Strong Party attests, it is not just Russell Brand who is fed up with the political status quo.

Spanish eyes are on Catalan independence

While opposing factions argue over attendance figures at the Yes rally, Catalonia musters 1.6 million for the cause , writes Peter Geoghegan

EARLIER this month, I spent an afternoon outside the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. I didn’t go to admire the haunting spires of Gaudi’s unfinished masterpiece – impressive though they are – but to look at a rather different spectacle: the crowds of waving Catalan independence supporters that peaceably surrounded the cathedral as part of a massive “human chain” to mark Catalan national day on 11 September.

At 17:14, the year Barcelona fell to Bourbon forces spelling the end of Catalan autonomy, what sounded like a starter’s pistol fired. Outside the Sagrada, thousands linked arms amid chants of “In, inde, independencia”. A middle-aged man’s T-shirt carried a blunt message: “Catalonia is not Spain”. Posters, in Catalan, called for “Independence to Change Everything”. Drones flew overhead, employed not by the Spanish government but by independenistas, to photograph the “Via Catalana” as it stretched, arm-in-arm, for 250 miles from the France border to the neighbouring region of Valencia. It was a remarkable feat of logistics, organisation and political mobilisation.

How Yes Scotland must envy their Catalan cousins. A reported 1.6 million turned out in this show of separatist strength. Some flew Catalonia’s regional flag, but more waved the esteldada, the starry standard favoured by independence supporters.

Polls lend weight to the suggestion that if anywhere in Western Europe is likely to declare independence in the coming years it is Catalonia. Support for independence has risen from barely a fifth in 2007, to more than half now. Possibly more importantly, Catalan’s sense of identity seems to be shifting, too. In 2009, less than 20 per cent said they felt “Catalan only”. Now that figure is 31 per cent, according to research published by the Catalan government. The number feeling “more Spanish than Catalan” has fallen in consort.120912020406-spain-catalonia-protest-story-top

And yet Catalans can seem like reluctant independenistas. Among the throng on 11 September, and at a nationalist-led, torch-lit procession the previous evening, I met plenty who said they would settle for increased autonomy for their regional parliament. But there seems little optimism that power brokers in Madrid will acquiesce.

“If Madrid wanted to diffuse or confuse this independence movement they would immediately offer a federal package to Catalonia,” says British-born writer Matthew Tree. “But they can’t do it because they have been whipping up anti-Catalan sentiment and making political capital from it.”

Certainly the government in Madrid has given little indication that they are willing to offer a serious autonomy package to Catalonia. In May, Catalan nationalist leader Artur Mas, whose CiU party is the main player in the governing coalition in Barcelona, wrote to Spanish premier Mariano Rajoy asking for permission to hold a referendum on independence. Rajoy, who has had his hands full with a flat lining economy, a moribund banking sector and a series of corruption scandals, replied last week.

“The ties that bind us together cannot be undone without enormous cost,” he wrote, rejecting Mas’ request. “We need to work together to strengthen these ties and move away from confrontation.”

The two leaders met in secret for talks in August, but there still seems to be little sign of a deal emerging. Meanwhile, the momentum towards full independence seems to build.

Spain’s ongoing financial crisis has added fuel to the Catalan independence fire. Nationalists argue that the region, one of the country’s most economically productive, is being asked to shoulder too large a burden. Unlike the Basques, Catalonia has no real fiscal autonomy. In 2012, Catalonia’s fiscal deficit – the difference between what it pays to Madrid and, after taking some funds to pay state costs, the money it gets back – was €16bn (around 8 per cent of the region’s GDP), according to the Catalan government.

Madrid’s clumsy meddling with the language system in Catalonia’s schools has acerbated an already tense situation. Since the fall of dictator Franco more than 35 years ago, Catalan has been given priority in the region’s education system. However, last year, Jose Ignacio Wert, Spain’s education minister, unveiled proposals that all coursework in Catalan schools must be offered in Spanish and Catalan “in balanced proportions”. For many Catalans, even those with little interest in constitutional change, these pronouncements evoked divisive memories of the Spanish Civil War and their language’s suppression under Franco.

It is by no means guaranteed that Catalonia will get a vote on independence – or, even if a referendum did take place, that Catalans would say Yes – but pressure for a vote is growing. A referendum is unlikely, but a non-binding “consultation” is possible.

Some Catalan nationalists believe that holding a vote – even a non-binding one – so close to the referendum here would be a boon for them. “It would be useful for us if the world could see both referendums at the same time – one conducted in a peaceful, legal way in the UK, the other opposed by the Spanish government. That [contrast of] attitudes would be really benefit us,” Alfred Bosch, leader of the Catalan left-wing ERC party in the Spanish congress, said recently.

How Scottish nationalists, particularly the SNP, would react to a Catalan vote so close to the referendum is unclear. Formal relations between the Scottish and Catalan administrations have cooled, with the SNP reluctant to upset Madrid and Catalan independenistas wary of being closely associated with a No vote in Scotland.

One thing does seem certain: the longer Catalan calls for greater autonomy are ignored, the louder the rumble for full independence will grow. As Matthew Tree said: “If this isn’t sorted out now, it will just go on and on and on. The cat is out of the bag now”.

This piece originally appeared in the Scotsman.

Building for a better future

I use Grammarly’s plagiarism checker because I always need another pair of eyes!

Speaking to the Conservative Party faithful in Manchester last week, George Osborne declared: “We are the party of home ownership and we’re going to let the country know it.” The conference may have been festooned with messages about “hard-working people” – and dire warnings for the feckless millions unable to find work in a recession – but at the heart of the Chancellor’s speech he was appealing to a British obsession: houses.

The Conservatives, said Mr Osborne, were a “party of aspiration and home ownership”, ready, willing and able to come to the aid of those “still being denied their dream of owning their own home”.george_osborne_aga_1014479c

That the “dream” of homeownership has turned into a nightmare for so many after the sub-prime mortgage crash just six years ago doesn’t seem to concern the Chancellor unduly. Indeed, in his March Budget, Osborne unveiled a scheme that has seen the government actively involved in inflating house prices.

Under Help to Buy, prospective buyers south of the Border can avail themselves of interest-free loans worth up to 20 per cent of the purchase price. The second stage of the scheme – which began yesterday, ahead of the original schedule – will provide mortgage guarantees for buyers of properties valued at £600,000 or less with just a 5 per cent deposit. In all, the government is expected to be guarantor on around £130 billion worth of mortgages. The Scottish Government runs its own Help to Buy scheme, with a limit of £400,000 purchase price. Both schemes apply only to new-build homes.

Leaving aside for a moment the political contortions involved in a party committed to privatising everything from the NHS to the postal service putting the state on the hook in the property market, there are very real fears that Help to Buy will only serve to further inflate the UK housing market.

Business Secretary Vince Cable has warned: “We don’t want a new bubble.” But it may already be too late for that. In London, house prices are up 10 per cent year-on-year. It’s not just the south-east that is starting to look frothy: prices are up 10 per cent in Manchester, and 8 per cent in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The Bank of England announced a five-year high for mortgage approvals for August of 62,226.

What we need is more houses, not higher prices – but it has taken a man of God to say publicly what many politicians will only admit privately. “Help to Buy is like tackling a food shortage by issuing food vouchers rather than getting more crops planted,” said David Walker, Bishop-designate of Manchester, recently.

Osborne himself tacitly admitted that Help to Buy is a flawed policy when he announced recently that he has asked the central bank’s Financial Policy Committee to review the programme every year – initially this was to be every three years. But the first review is not due until next September, and by then the housing market is likely to be a whole lot boomier.

Howard Archer, UK and European economist at HIS Global Insight, has warned of a “mounting danger that house prices could really take off over the coming months, especially as a shortage of new properties for sale could be a significant factor in some areas, notably London and the south-east.” Archer cited Help to Buy as a significant factor in the escalating house prices expected over the next 12 months.

Help-to-Buy – and the wider government rhetoric on home ownership – betrays a simple, but increasingly politically uncomfortable, fact: our houses are already overpriced. And not just in the south of England.

British house prices are 31 per cent too high compared with rents and 21 per cent over-valued against incomes, according to a study by the OECD. In the decade from 1997 to 2007, UK house prices trebled. At the same time, the length of mortgages increased dramatically: between 1993 and 2000, less than 2 per cent of mortgages were for more than 25 years. Now a fifth are for 30 years or more.

As home ownership becomes the preserve of those willing to take out mortgages far in excess of income or those fortunate enough to be born to home-owning parents, maintaining rising house prices becomes a political imperative. If UK house prices were to fall (as they should, according to OECD statistics) millions would lose out in the “investment” they call home. The political imperative for policies that appeal directly to those either on the housing ladder, or those scrambling for a toehold, is clear.

Adam Posen, a former member of the Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee, has written of the economic folly of giving an incentive to “middle-class households to leverage the bulk of their savings into a highly volatile, difficult to price asset, which is subject to disaster risk both idiosyncratic (fire, tree falling on the roof) and general (flood, local industry closure), and which – based on the economic fundamentals – should return at best the average rate of local wage and population growth”.

Houses are not productive assets. In encouraging yet more investment in the property market, Osborne et al are diverting away capital that could be used to create jobs and growth in the real economy.

At the root of this lies a facile assumption that renting is “throwing money away” and a person’s house is their “castle”. This belief in the economic and existential value of home ownership is not a singularly British phenomenon, but among developed nations it is more pronounced in the Anglo-Saxon world. Home ownership in the UK and US stands at around 65 to 70 per cent, against around 50 per cent in France, Germany and Japan.

The OECD’s Better Life Index shows that no relationship exists between home-ownership levels and average housing satisfaction and quality. Germany and the Scandinavian states, in particular, enjoy a more diverse housing market, with the state playing an important role in the rental sector, and a concomitant fear of the rising house prices so lauded by British politicians and, too often, the press.

There are more creative ways, too, for government to increase revenue from property beyond the stamp duty that accrues from a booming housing market. There is much to commend a Land Value Tax (LVT) levied not on the value of a property but on the value of the land on which it sits. After all, it is not houses that are expensive but the land on which they are built: house prices reflect more the value of social goods (transport links, schools, infrastructure, location) than they do the cost of bricks and mortar. A house is scarcely more costly to build in London than Linlithgow.

The Scottish Government is working on a land and buildings transaction tax that could see aspects of an LVT subsumed within it. The idea of an LVT is not new – indeed, it found favour with one of George Osborne’s predecessors: Winston Churchill. He once said that rising land values “are derived from processes which are not merely not beneficial, but positively detrimental to the general public”.

Creative solutions to the problems in Britain’s housing market are possible. But to work they need a government willing to move away from a regressive vision of home ownership based on rising house prices. As this past week demonstrated, that is one essential building block not yet in place.

A brave new world for all sides or more of the same?

This brief analysis piece on the Hillsborough agreement appeared in today’s The Scotsman.

“This might just be the day when the political processes in Northern Ireland came of age,” Martin McGuinness said during yesterday’s press conference at Hillsborough Castle.

Only time will tell if the deputy first minister’s optimism was well-founded, but there are grounds for believing the agreement reached between Sinn Fein and the DUP could signal a new era of stability and co-operation in Northern Ireland.

The most eye-catching feature of the Hillsborough Agreement is the timetable for the devolution of policing and justice powers to the Executive at Stormont. By 12 April Northern Ireland should have control of policing for the first time since direct rule was imposed in 1972.

The symbolic import of this move should not be underestimated. Sinn Fein overturned their historic opposition to the Northern Ireland police only in 2007 – in return they demanded the devolution of policing to Stormont. The possibility of a republican in charge of justice has haunted unionists, particularly those in the DUP. But under this deal, the justice ministry should be under the control of the cross-community Alliance party.

Yesterday’s deal also purports to offer a solution to the issue of Orange Order parades, arguably the greatest stumbling block. Based loosely on proposals put forward by Lord Ashdown in 2008, the parades commission – which unionists accuse of bias towards nationalist resident groups – will be disbanded.

Due to legal constraints this will not happen until after this summer’s marching season, but starting on Tuesday a working group will meet for three weeks to outline alternative arrangements for resolving contentious parades.

Unionists believe its report will be favourable to marchers. There could be trouble if it isn’t. The report is due out just days before the cross-party vote on the devolution of policing, which takes place in Stormont on 9 March. If the report is not perceived as a victory for the Orangemen than many of the 14 DUP assembly members who rejected a draft of the Hillsborough deal earlier this week could be expected to oppose the policing vote – with potentially disastrous consequences.

Nevertheless, the Hillsborough deal is an important step forward. Finally, the main players appear to be working in partnership – though only the next few weeks will tell if the process really has grown up.

Tribal Divide Behind Racist 'Stain of Shame'

An analysis piece on the racist attacks in Belfast i wrote for the opinion pages of The Scotsman:

scotsmanOn Monday night the windows of City Church in Belfast were smashed by vandals. Attacks on religious buildings are common in Northern Ireland, but this was different: the small City Church, near Queen’s University, was where 22 Romanian families fled, under police escort, after a mob wielding bottles and shouting neo-Nazi slogans threatened their homes last week. The Romanians – members of the ethnic Roma community – had come in search of a new life but now most are leaving, scarred by a society still not at peace with itself.

In the immediate aftermath of last Tuesday’s attacks Naomi Long, the lord mayor, spoke of a “stain of shame over Belfast”. It is to their credit that politicians and churches united so quickly to provide emergency accommodation for the displaced. After a night in City Church the beleaguered Roma were moved to the Ozone leisure centre where their visitors included deputy first minister, Martin McGuinness, and the local UDA brigadier, Jackie McDonald.

Unfortunately the reaction of wider society was rather more ambivalent: on local radio shows calls and texts in support of the Roma were equalled, if not outnumbered, by those decrying Northern Ireland’s new migrants. However, on Saturday more than 500 people did attend a public rally in Belfast against the racist attacks in the south of the city.

The crowd outside city hall were told by Anna Lo, MLA for South Belfast, that the Roma were seriously considering leaving Northern Ireland: “They have no jobs, no homes, no money. They feel they may as well go home.” Many already have. Yesterday [23/6] social development minister Margaret Ritchie announced that 25 of the 115 people affected have left, with a further 75 determined to leave as soon as they can. Stormont is using emergency legislation to pay for their flights home after the Romanian consul last week dismissed calls to foot the bill.

The Roma are not alone in wanting out. A number of Eastern European families have fled the predominantly loyalist village of Moygashel, Co Tyrone following a spate of racist incidents over the weekend. Just hours after Saturday’s anti-racist protest in Belfast, three homes, one belonging to a Lithuanian family and the other twooccupied by Polish nationals, were attacked with windows broken and cars smashed. Notes left at the scene issued a grim warning: “Foreign nationals not welcome in Moygashel — one week to move”.

Such scenes are redolent of the Troubles, not the new, welcoming Northern Ireland whose image has been so carefully cultivated over the last decade. Billions have been pumped into Belfast – transforming the city centre from a eerie, empty shell into a bustling, modern, multicultural hub – but steel and concrete, no matter how shiny and attractive, cannot paper over the fact that this is a society where difference is a problem not an asset.

Most Northern Irish towns and cities remain segregated along sectarian lines. The flags, murals and painted kerbstones are not there simply to entice tourists into run-down, working-class neighbourhoods they would ordinarily never dream of entering: they are markers of territory, unambiguous declarations of who belongs – and who does not.

The war may be over – a fact acknowledged by last week’s loyalist decommissioning – but sectarianism is alive and well, especially among the young. An academic study carried out in 2007 found that 41% of 16- to 25- year olds described themselves as prejudiced, compared with 31% of the population as a whole. Dissident republicans prey on this constituency, successfully inciting nationalists youths to attack the recent Tour of the North parade in north Belfast. Elsewhere, last month’s brutal murder of Catholic Kevin McDaid by a rampaging mob of Rangers fans in Coleraine attests to the endurance of deep-seated sectarian tensions.

Dismissing these pernicious incidents as the product of a warped minority ignores the structural role sectarianism plays. The Good Friday agreement, the peace accord which ostensibly brought to a close thirty years of violence, formally enshrined the crave-up between nationalists and unionists. All members of the Stormont assembly must declare their tribal allegiance and all bills require at least 40% support from the minority bloc. The result? An executive hamstrung by vetoes and bi-partisan gridlock, where the non-sectarian designation ‘other’ is rendered as useless as it is unlikely.

It has not been all negative. In less than a decade Belfast has gone from being the UK’s murder capital to one of its safest cities, and new migration has brought to the city a much needed cosmopolitan air. The response to last week’s attacks on the Roma was generally positive; even the police, initially slow to act, stepped up their efforts, leading to three people being charged in connection with the incidents.

Arguably the biggest obstacle to progressive change in Northern Ireland are the DUP. Stormont’s dominant party has more than its fair share of climate change sceptics, creationists, and homophobes, and while it pays lip service to values like diversity and equality its level of commitment is debatable: in January of this year DUP minister Sammy Wilson publicly stated that British workers should be privileged above migrants in the Northern Irish job market.

Wilson’s ill-judged promulgation betrays an ignorance about the situation facing migrant workers, who are often underpaid, isolated and vulnerable to attack.

Last year over 700 racially motivated crimes were recorded. Tackling racism is vital but requires more than just education and wishful thinking. As long as tribal division and mutually assured destruction remain the sine qua non of Northern Irish politics, the potential for such incidents will always be there. Good Friday was a crucial first step but in a multicultural world the system it bequeathed is no longer fit for purpose.