Friday, June 28, 2013

Croatia Joins the European Union

99 years ago today, on June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Austrian-controlled Bosnia and Herzegovina by a Serbian nationalist, Gavrilo Princip. The killing in Sarajevo didn't really start the war in the Balkans, which had been going on for some years as Ottoman control over its over-extended empire collapsed, but it managed to spark a much larger fight across Europe and gave birth to the "short 20th Century." After that ended in 1989-1991, Yugoslavia collapsed for the second time into five and then six and seven countries, hundreds of thousands of people died, and towns were ethnically cleansed before NATO operations brought a tenuous peace. Since then, the countries of the Western Balkans have watched as their neighbors to the north, including former Yugoslav Slovenia, joined the European Union, with all the economic advantages it brings, in 2004, followed by Romania and Bulgaria in 2007.

A few years ago, some optimists in Serbia were hoping to join the EU on the centenary of the assassination. That won't happen, but on Monday, Croatia will become the Union's 28th member in the first enlargement since 2007, before I started my serious study of European political affairs. Enlargement has been Brussels' most effective foreign policy and the accession process is hugely helpful for the European countries still outside the Union. But the policy has looked moribund for a few years, between well-known blockages of candidates Turkey and Macedonia, the EU's extremely serious problems, and the lack of progress on reforms across the region. Today, things are looking up. The EU has just agreed to open accession talks with Serbia, a candidate country since 2011-12, in December or January. It will finally open talks on a Stabilization and Association Agreement with Kosovo, a first step. Even more significantly (since those decisions were based on prior progress) Albania just had a breakthrough election with a peaceful transfer of power to former Tirana mayor Edi Rama and his Socialist Party, a needed solidification of Tirana's democratic credentials which should lead to candidate status.

Croatia will be the last new member for several years, but it must not be the last. During the break-up of Yugoslavia, newly reunified Germany made its first bold unilateral and slightly alarming foreign policy move in recognizing the Western Christian breakaway republics, Slovenia and Croatia, ahead of the rest of the EU and international community. The EU has four Orthodox countries as members, but its signalling about who can belong to Europe has often been daft, for example when it granted visa free travel to everyone in the Balkans except Albania, Bosnia and Kosovo, the three countries with Muslim pluralities. Turkey has been granted candidate status and indeed Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus are granted at least potential candidacy by the Treaty of Rome, which states "Any European State may apply to become a member of the Community." Particularly in a multi-speed European Union, which appears to be destined by developments in the euro crisis response and the Europhobia of the British public, there should be room for any geographically European country which meets the political and economic accession criteria. A revival of the accession process for Turkey is the most effective way outsiders can check the autocratic tendencies of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and support the aspirations of Turks for a democracy that goes deeper than elections. An accession prospect for Ukraine is the only way in the long term to keep Kyiv from slipping into the Eurasian Union which Vladimir Putin is constructing.

Meanwhile in the Western Balkans, tiny Montenegro should lead the pack and Albania is also a relatively straightforward case, both simply need to follow the path to readiness that Croatia took, toughened after many thought Bulgaria and Romania were let in too early. Albania is already a member of NATO (which for the moment also has 28 member states, 22 in common with the EU), which has traditionally come first, Montenegro is likeliest to become NATO's 29th member. Macedonia has been stuck at the starting gate since 2005 over its stupid name dispute with Greece, and it has become more of a basket case, bingeing on the construction of monuments summoning a glorious past rather than reforming for a future in the EU; the name problem must be solved for the country to have a future that is anything but dim. Bosnia and Herzegovina has serious constitutional problems and must transform politically into a more unified state at some point, hopefully peacefully; it will not get into the EU with the present state of affairs. Serbia is the most attractive member in the Western Balkans after Croatia for the EU because of its size and transport opportunities along the Danube Valley and it is also in many ways the most ready in terms of reform; it is also the most repulsive because of its crimes in the 1990s, the persistence of an ugly nationalism, and the Kosovo problem, which has not yet been solved despite progress. Kosovo itself, hobbled by a limbo status of recognition by only half the world, is years behind Serbia in readiness, but they should only join the EU together, with Belgrade along with Madrid, Athens, Bucharest, Bratislava and Nicosia recognizing the full sovereignty of Prishtina. The Germans, thankfully, seem to understand this and they also seem to be leading Brussels' Balkan policy and doing it more responsibly these days. When all six countries have joined the EU, it will be a great accomplishment for the peoples of the region and for Europe as a whole. Until then, congratulations to Croatia.

Oh, and out in the north Atlantic, candidate country Iceland isn't going to join. The euro looks less attractive to them these days and Beijing, interested in increasing its footholds in the Arctic, is waving too much money around.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Don't Expect Big Changes in U.S. Middle East Policy, Until the Reckoning with Iran Arrives

I've got a short article giving an overview of the Obama's administration Middle East policies on Aspenia Online, the website of the Italian branch of the Aspen Institute. I wrote it before Obama's trip to Israel and Jordan. While there were some positive developments in Israel (good speech from Obama trying to keep the two-state solution on the table, the reconciliation he brokered between Israel and Turkey) and there appears to be increasing pressure for the administration to do more in Syria (and there is a bit more military aid from the U.S. to the rebels going on covertly), I think the basic points stand. 

Friday, February 22, 2013

Best Picture

I've got my cinephile hat back on these days, so I appreciated how good a year 2012 was for movies. Ahead of this weekend's Oscars, I've seen 7 of the 9 Best Picture nominees, which is certainly the first time I've reached a ratio like that since they blew up the field three years ago. Living in the United States helps too. We'll do this as a countdown. There are spoilers.

Honorable Mention: I enjoyed myself at Les Miserables. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter arrived just in time to keep the movie from sinking under the weight of its melodic tragedies. But my uneducated take (on a film adaptation of a musical I hadn't seen based on a book I haven't read) boiled down to a good film adaptation of a mediocre musical based on a good book. Sacha's The Dictator was disappointing, although it had one of the best trailers of the year. Bill Murray made a good, amusing Franklin Roosevelt in Hyde Park On Hudson, Olivia Williams as Eleanor was even better, but the movie was a bit lightweight. I watch a ton of foreign films at home but I'm mostly catching up on 2011 (great films like In Darkness, Bullhead, Once Upon A Time in Anatolia, A Separation, and The Turin Horse). Still I managed to see two of the national Foreign Language Film submissions, Germany's Barbara and Greece's aptly titled Unfair World. Both are worth seeing but didn't quite make my top 12. 

12. The Master. I had looked forward to Paul Thomas Anderson's latest as with few films (I've been a big fan since Magnolia), and I was ready for it not to be an expose of Scientology but a more complex piece about a man coming home from World War II. And I really enjoyed the film for the most part. Philip Seymour Hoffman's performance was the best I've seen from him. But I found Joaquin Phoenix's character hard to relate to, and the ending didn't do it for me.

11. Beasts of the Southern Wild. A cute, creative film, with a great performance from a young child actress. Don't have too much more to say.

10. Skyfall. There have been great and terrible Bond movies since GoldenEye introduced the series to me. This one wasn't the reinvention of Casino Royale, but it was very solid. In fact, I thought it might be a great conclusion to the series after 50 years. Don't think that's going to happen though.

9. Silver Linings Playbook. I tend to enjoy David O. Russell's films (see Flirting with Disaster if you haven't!).  It's pretty bizarre that this is the first movie in decades to receive acting nominations in all four categories. But it's an original and memorable romantic comedy that will probably be thought of more highly if it doesn't win too many awards. Can't begrudge Jennifer Lawrence anything though.

8. Anna Karenina. I saw this adaptation because I felt like seeing a movie one day and had already seen most of the ones I'd meant to see. Then the Russophile within me stirred and I decided to check it out. I was surprised how great it was. The director's highly stylized adaptation turns a very long Tolstoy novel into something more like a Shakespeare play (of which there are many stylized adaptation, I took a whole course on them at Bowdoin). The acting is good, but this is Joe Wright's triumph. Sadly mostly shut out in the awards.

7. The Dark Knight Rises. Christopher Nolan made a stunning follow-up to the superhero movie about terrorism which won Heath Ledger his posthumous Oscar. But because of what happened in Aurora, it won't ever be just another movie.

6. Django Unchained. I wasn't sure about seeing this, but I'm a Tarantino fan, and when I did, I quite liked it. Can't wait for the third installment of his counterfactual revengers' trilogy. 

5. Lincoln. Daniel Day-Lewis makes America's most beloved leader come to life as a flesh and blood, conflicted, funny, complex man. He absolutely deserves an Oscar for the performance. The movie is quite good too. But it's a bit Spielberg-by-numbers. 

4. Argo. I may have enjoyed Argo more than any other movie I saw in theaters, it's a credible Best Picture of the year. The true story is fantastic. I hoped Ben Affleck would win Best Director for summoning the atmosphere of revolutionary Tehran and the 70s. But I rank a few other ahead of it. Honestly, I saw Argo too long ago to make these judgments solidly, and it's now the heavy favorite for Best Picture, and I have trouble rooting for favorites. But the ending escape is a little too adjusted in a contrived manner, with the storyboards showing the power of movies (Hollywood loves nothing more) to get the escaping diplomats onto the plane just in time. Dramatic license allowed, but still.

3. Moonrise Kingdom. The movie most robbed by the Academy might be Wes Anderson's best yet. Troubled children run away on the coast of Maine in a storm. "What kind of bird are you?" Excellent supporting work by Edward Norton and others. I might have cast my ballot for this for Best Picture. If it was nominated. And if I had a ballot.

2. Rust and Bone. You didn't think the list would finish without a foreign language film, did you? I knew Matthias Schoenaerts from the excellent Belgian crime drama Bullhead, Marion Cotillard from small roles in several films, had heard good things about director Jacques Audiard, but it was the intense drama involving an orca that pulled me into theater for this one (I love orca drama... the 1977 film Orca, the thinking man's Jaws with Richard Harris as a guilt-ridden accidental whale-killer, Charlotte Rampling as a sexy scientist, and Will Sampson, the Indian from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Next... Neko Case's "People Got A Lotta Nerve,"... no, not Free Willy). It did not disappoint. A very emotionally and physically raw romance and social realist film. Cotillard deserves Best Actress, except she already one. They do a great job vanishing her legs, completely believable. 

1. Zero Dark Thirty. The early favorite, but attacked by politicians in the press before it was released. Zero Dark Thirty's problems come from it being too potentially important a film. Osama bin Laden was snuffed only 20 months before the film hit theaters. Most of the facts are classified. The debate about whether the United States' use of "enhanced interrogation techniques" aided in the gathering of actionable intelligence that helped get bin Laden is not settled. A movie could not settle that debate. But it bothers me that in all this debate there is a conflation between whether torture is acceptable and whether torture works. Of course it will work sometimes, just as it will also give dangerously misleading information sometimes. The liberal position, which I support, is that torture is unacceptable, regardless of whether or not it ever works. The only character in the film that seriously questions torture is presidential candidate Barack Obama on a television. Zero Dark Thirty is far from a perfect film and this is one of its problems. The film leaves too much important material out for us to be comfortable. That is because Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal focus tightly on one character, the based-on-a-real-person CIA agent Maya, and her experience spending years hunting for bin Laden, doing nothing else, seeing men tortured at her command, seeing her friends killed, being shot at, and eventually triumphing. The film is uncomfortable, as it should be. It may not be as true as one would want, but how could it in 2012 with the information available? Based on reportage, the filmmakers told one story. It's not a satisfying story, it might be deeply unsettling, but the story of America's response to 9/11 and prosecution of the war on terror is indeed unsatisfying and deeply unsettling. Even if this movie is dangerous, there's enough truth in it for me to award it Best Picture. Movies shouldn't just entertain us, they should make us think. Hard. That said, I haven't fully made up my mind about the movie. Many take-downs have been published by people wiser than me, Steve Coll's is definitely worth a read. George Washington University also has a treasure trove of raw material relating to the hunt for bin Laden and the film. If I actually got to vote for the Oscars, I would read up a little more and watch the movie again before making my decision.