Monday, December 20, 2004

Russia's Second Empire

History teaches us little except how little we can learn from it. Still, there is nothing new under the sun. Thus, drawing too many parallels between the environmentalist movements of the late 19th century and their counterparts in the second half of the twentieth century - would probably prove misleading. Similarly, every fin de siecle has its Fukuyama, proclaiming the end of history and the victory of liberalism and capitalism.

Liberal parliamentarianism (coupled with unbridled individualistic capitalism) seemed to irreversibly dominate the political landscape by 1890 - when it was suddenly and surprisingly toppled by the confluence of revolutionary authoritarian nationalism and revolutionary authoritarian socialism.

Yet, every ostensibly modern (or post-modern) phenomenon has roots and mirrors in history.

The spreading of the occult, materialism, rationalism, positivism, ethnic cleansing, regionalism, municipal autonomy, environmentalism, alienation ("ennui"), information networking, globalization, anti-globalization, mass migration, capital and labour mobility, free trade - are all new mantras but very old phenomena.

Sometimes the parallels are both overwhelming and instructive.


Karl Marx regarded Louis-Napoleon's Second Empire as the first modern dictatorship - supported by the middle and upper classes but independent of their patronage and, thus, self-perpetuating. Others went as far as calling it proto-fascistic.

Yet, the Second Empire was insufficiently authoritarian or revolutionary to warrant this title. It did foster and encourage a personality cult, akin to the "Fuhrerprinzip" -but it derived its legitimacy, conservatively, from the Church and from the electorate. It was an odd mixture of Bonapartism, militarism, clericalism, conservatism and liberalism.

In a way, the Second Republic did amount to a secular religion, replete with martyrs and apostles. It made use of the nascent mass media to manipulate public opinion. It pursued industrialization and administrative modernization. But these features characterized all the political movements of the late 19th century, including socialism, and other empires, such as the Habsburg Austro-Hungary.

The Second Empire was, above all, inertial. It sought to preserve the bureaucratic, regulatory, and economic frameworks of the First Empire. It was a rationalist, positivist, and materialist movement - despite the deliberate irrationalism of the young Louis-Napoleon. It was not affiliated to a revolutionary party, nor to popular militias. It was not collectivist. And its demise was the outcome of military defeat.

The Second Empire is very reminiscent of Vladimir Putin's reign in post-Yeltsin Russia.

Like the French Second Empire, it follows a period of revolutions and counter-revolutions. It is not identified with any one class but does rely on the support of the middle class, the intelligentsia, the managers and industrialists, the security services, and the military.

Putin is authoritarian, but not revolutionary. His regime derives its legitimacy from parliamentary and presidential elections based on a neo-liberal model of government. It is socially conservative but seeks to modernize Russia's administration and economy. Yet, it manipulates the mass media and encourages a personality cult.

Disparate Youths

Like Napoleon III, Putin started off as president (he was shortly as prime minister under Yeltsin). Like him, he may be undone by a military defeat, probably in the Caucasus or Central Asia.

The formative years of Putin and Louis-Napoleon have little in common, though.

The former was a cosseted member of the establishment and witnessed, first hand, the disintegration of his country. Putin was a KGB apparatchik. The KGB may have inspired, conspired in, or even instigated the transformation in Russian domestic affairs since the early 1980's - but to call it "revolutionary" would be to stretch the term.

Louis-Napoleon, on the other hand, was a true revolutionary. He narrowly escaped death at the hands of Austrian troops in a rebellion in Italy in 1831. His brother was not as lucky. Louis-Napoleon's claim to the throne of France (1832) was based on a half-baked ideology of imperial glory, concocted, disseminated and promoted by him. In 1836 and 1840 he even initiated (failed) coups d'etat. He was expelled even from neutral Switzerland and exiled to the USA. He spent six years in prison.

An Eerie Verisimilitude

Still, like Putin, Napoleon III was elected president. Like him, he was regarded by his political sponsors as merely a useful and disposable instrument. Like Putin, he had no parliamentary or political experience. Both of them won elections by promising "order" and "prosperity" coupled with "social compassion". And, like Putin, Louis-Napoleon, to the great chagrin of his backers, proved to be his own man - independent-minded, determined, and tough.

Putin, like Louis-Napoleon before him, proceeded to expand his powers and installed loyalists in every corner of the administration and the army. Like Louis-Napoleon, Putin is a populist, travelling throughout the country, posing for photo opportunities, responding to citizens' queries in Q-and-A radio shows, siding with the "average bloke" on every occasion, taking advantage of Russia's previous economic and social disintegration to project an image of a "strong man".

Putin is as little dependent on the Duma as Napoleon III was on his parliament. But Putin reaped what Boris Yeltsin, his predecessor, has sown when he established an imperial presidency after what amounted to a coup d'etat in 1993 (the bombing of the Duma). Napoleon had to organize his own coup d'etat all by himself in 1852.

The Balancing Act

Napoleon III - as does Putin now - faced a delicate balancing act between the legitimacy conferred by parliamentary liberalism and the need to maintain a police state. When he sought to strengthen the enfeebled legislature he reaped only growing opposition within it to his domestic and foreign policies alike.

He liberalized the media and enshrined in France's legal code various civil freedoms. But he also set in motion and sanctioned a penumbral, all-pervasive and clandestine security apparatus which regularly gathered information on millions of Frenchmen and foreigners.

Modernization and Reform

Putin is considerably less of an economic modernizer than was Napoleon III. Putin also seems to be less interested in the social implications of his policies, in poverty alleviation and in growing economic inequalities and social tensions. Napoleon III was a man for all seasons - a buffer against socialism as well as a utopian social and administrative reformer.

Business flourished under Napoleon III - as it does under Putin. The 1850's witnessed rapid technological change - even more rapid than today's. France became a popular destination for foreign investors. Napoleon III was the natural ally of domestic businessmen until he embarked on an unprecedented trade liberalization campaign in 1860. Similarly, Putin is nudging Russia towards WTO membership and enhanced foreign competition - alienating in the process the tycoon-oligarchs, the industrial complex, and the energy behemoths.

Foreign Policy

Napoleon III was a free trader - as is Putin. He believed in the beneficial economic effects of free markets and in the free exchange of goods, capital, and labour. So does Putin. But economic liberalism does not always translate to a pacific foreign policy.

Napoleon III sought to annul the decisions of the Congress of Vienna (1815) and reverse the trend of post-Napoleonic French humiliation. He wanted to resurrect "Great France" pretty much as Putin wants to restore Russia to its "rightful" place as a superpower.

But both pragmatic leaders realized that this rehabilitation cannot be achieved by force of arms and with a dilapidated economy. Napoleon III tried to co-opt the tidal wave of modern, revolutionary, nationalism to achieve the revitalization of France and the concomitant restoration of its glory. Putin strives to exploit the West's aversion to conflict and addiction to wealth. Napoleon III struggled to establish a new, inclusive European order - as does Putin with NATO and, to a lesser degree, with the European Union today.

Putin artfully manipulated Europe in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the USA, his new found ally. He may yet find himself in the enviable position of Europe's arbitrator, NATO's most weighty member, a bridge between Central Asia, the Caucasus, North Korea and China - and the USA. The longer his tenure, the more likely he is to become Europe's elder statesman. This is a maneuver reminiscent of Louis-Napoleon's following the Crimean War, when he teamed up with Great Britain against Russia.

Like Putin, Napoleon III modernized and professionalized his army. But, unlike Putin hitherto, he actually went to war (against Austria), moved by his (oft-thwarted) colonial and mercantilist aspirations. Putin is likely to follow the same path (probably in Central Asia, but, possibly, in the Baltic and east Europe as well). Reinvigorated armies (and industrialists) often force expansionary wars upon their reluctant ostensible political masters.

Should Putin fail in his military adventures as Napoleon III did in his and be deposed as he was - these eerie similarities will have come to their natural conclusion.

More about this topic here:

Thursday, November 04, 2004

The Roots of Anti-Americanism

The United States is one of the last remaining land empires. That it is made the butt of opprobrium and odium is hardly surprising, or unprecedented. Empires - Rome, the British, the Ottomans - were always targeted by the disgruntled, the disenfranchised and the dispossessed and by their self-appointed delegates, the intelligentsia.

Yet, even by historical standards, America seems to be provoking blanket repulsion.

The Pew Research Center published last December a report titled "What the World Thinks in 2002". "The World", was reduced by the pollsters to 44 countries and 38,000 interviewees. Two other surveys published last year - by the German Marshall Fund and the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations - largely supported Pew's findings.

The most startling and unambiguous revelation was the extent of anti-American groundswell everywhere: among America's NATO allies, in developing countries, Muslim nations and even in eastern Europe where Americans, only a decade ago, were lionized as much-adulated liberators.
"People around the world embrace things American and, at the same time, decry U.S. influence on their societies. Similarly, pluralities in most of the nations surveyed complain about American unilateralism."- expounds the Pew report.

Yet, even this "embrace of things American" is ambiguous.

Violently "independent", inanely litigious and quarrelsome, solipsistically provincial, and fatuously ignorant - this nation of video clips and sound bites, the United States, is often perceived as trying to impose its narcissistic pseudo-culture upon a world exhausted by wars hot and cold and corrupted by vacuous materialism.

Recent accounting scandals, crumbling markets, political scams, technological setbacks, and rising social tensions have revealed how rotten and inherently contradictory the US edifice is and how concerned are Americans with appearances rather than substance.

To religious fundamentalists, America is the Great Satan, a latter-day Sodom and Gomorrah, a cesspool of immorality and spiritual decay. To many European liberals, the United states is a throwback to darker ages of religious zealotry, pernicious bigotry, virulent nationalism, and the capricious misrule of the mighty.

According to most recent surveys by Gallup, MORI, the Council for Secular Humanism, the US Census Bureau, and others - the vast majority of Americans are chauvinistic, moralizing, bible-thumping, cantankerous, and trigger-happy. About half of them believe that Satan exists - not as a metaphor, but physically.

America has a record defense spending per head, a vertiginous rate of incarceration, among the highest numbers of legal executions and gun-related deaths. It is still engaged in atavistic debates about abortion, the role of religion, and whether to teach the theory of evolution.

According to a series of special feature articles in The Economist, America is generally well-liked in Europe, but less so than before. It is utterly detested by the Moslem street, even in "progressive" Arab countries, such as Egypt and Jordan. Everyone - Europeans and Arabs, Asians and Africans - thinks that "the spread of American ideas and customs is a bad thing."

Admittedly, we typically devalue most that which we have formerly idealized and idolized.
To the liberal-minded, the United States of America reified the most noble, lofty, and worthy values, ideals, and causes. It was a dream in the throes of becoming, a vision of liberty, peace, justice, prosperity, and progress. Its system, though far from flawless, was considered superior - both morally and functionally - to any ever conceived by Man.

Such unrealistic expectations inevitably and invariably lead to disenchantment, disillusionment, bitter disappointment, seething anger, and a sense of humiliation for having been thus deluded, or, rather, self-deceived. This backlash is further exacerbated by the haughty hectoring of the ubiquitous American missionaries of the "free-market-cum-democracy" church.

Americans everywhere aggressively preach the superior virtues of their homeland. Edward K. Thompson, managing editor of "Life" (1949-1961) warned against this propensity to feign omniscience and omnipotence: "Life (the magazine) must be curious, alert, erudite and moral, but it must achieve this without being holier-than-thou, a cynic, a know-it-all, or a Peeping Tom."

Thus, America's foreign policy - i.e., its presence and actions abroad - is, by far, its foremost vulnerability.

According to the Pew study, the image of the Unites States as a benign world power slipped dramatically in the space of two years in Slovakia (down 14 percent), in Poland (-7), in the Czech Republic (-6) and even in fervently pro-Western Bulgaria (-4 percent). It rose exponentially in Ukraine (up 10 percent) and, most astoundingly, in Russia (+24 percent) - but from a very low base.

The crux may be that the USA maintains one set of sanctimonious standards at home while egregiously and nonchalantly flouting them far and wide. Hence the fervid demonstrations against its military presence in places as disparate as South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, and Saudi Arabia.

In January 2000, Staff Sergeant Frank J. Ronghi sexually molested, forcibly sodomized ("indecent acts with a child") and then murdered an 11-years old girl in the basement of her drab building in Kosovo, when her father went to market to do some shopping. His is by no means the most atrocious link in a long chain of brutalities inflicted by American soldiers overseas. In all these cases, the perpetrators were removed from the scene to face justice - or, more often, a travesty thereof - back home.

Americans - officials, scholars, peacemakers, non-government organizations - maintain a colonial state of mind. Backward natives come cheap, their lives dispensable, their systems of governance and economies inherently inferior. The white man's burden must not be encumbered by the vagaries of primitive indigenous jurisprudence. Hence America's fierce resistance to and indefatigable obstruction of the International Criminal Court.

Opportunistic multilateralism notwithstanding, the USA still owes the poorer nations of the world close to $200 million - its arrears to the UN peacekeeping operations, usually asked to mop up after an American invasion or bombing. It not only refuses to subject its soldiers to the jurisdiction of the World Criminal Court - but its facilities to the inspectors of the Chemical Weapons Convention, its military to the sanctions of the (anti) land mines treaty and the provisions of the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty, and its industry to the environmental constraints of the Kyoto Protocol, the rulings of the World Trade Organization, and the rigors of global intellectual property rights.

Despite its instinctual unilateralism, the United States is never averse to exploiting multilateral institutions to its ends. It is the only shareholder with a veto power in the International Monetary Fund (IMF), by now widely considered to have degenerated into a long arm of the American administration. The United Nations Security Council, raucous protestations aside, has rubber-stamped American martial exploits from Panama to Iraq.

It seems as though America uses - and thus, perforce, abuses - the international system for its own, ever changing, ends. International law is invoked by it when convenient - ignored when importune.

In short, America is a bully. It is a law unto itself and it legislates on the fly, twisting arms and breaking bones when faced with opposition and ignoring the very edicts it promulgates at its convenience. Its soldiers and peacekeepers, its bankers and businessmen, its traders and diplomats are its long arms, an embodiment of this potent and malignant mixture of supremacy and contempt.

But why is America being singled out?

In politics and even more so in geopolitics, double standards and bullying are common.

Apartheid South Africa, colonial France, mainland China, post-1967 Israel - and virtually every other polity - were at one time or another characterized by both. But while these countries usually mistreated only their own subjects - the USA does so also exterritorialy.

Even as it never ceases to hector, preach, chastise, and instruct - it does not recoil from violating its own decrees and ignoring its own teachings. It is, therefore, not the USA's intrinsic nature, nor its self-perception, or social model that I find most reprehensible - but its actions, particularly its foreign policy.

America's manifest hypocrisy, its moral talk and often immoral walk, its persistent application of double standards, irks and grates. I firmly believe that it is better to face a forthright villain than a masquerading saint. It is easy to confront a Hitler, a Stalin, or a Mao, vile and bloodied, irredeemably depraved, worthy only of annihilation. The subtleties of coping with the United States are far more demanding - and far less rewarding.

This self-proclaimed champion of human rights has aided and abetted countless murderous dictatorships. This alleged sponsor of free trade - is the most protectionist of rich nations. This ostensible beacon of charity - contributes less than 0.1% of its GDP to foreign aid (compared to Scandinavia's 0.6%, for instance). This upright proponent of international law (under whose aegis it bombed and invaded half a dozen countries this past decade alone) - is in avowed opposition to crucial pillars of the international order.

Naturally, America's enemies and critics are envious of its might and wealth. They would have probably acted the same as the United States, if they only could. But America's haughtiness and obtuse refusal to engage in soul searching and house cleaning do little to ameliorate this antagonism.

To the peoples of the poor world, America is both a colonial power and a mercantilist exploiter. To further its geopolitical and economic goals from Central Asia to the Middle East, it persists in buttressing regimes with scant regard for human rights, in cahoots with venal and sometimes homicidal indigenous politicians. And it drains the developing world of its brains, its labour, and its raw materials, giving little in return.

All powers are self-interested - but America is narcissistic. It is bent on exploiting and, having exploited, on discarding. It is a global Dr. Frankenstein, spawning mutated monsters in its wake. Its "drain and dump" policies consistently boomerang to haunt it.

Both Saddam Hussein and Manuel Noriega - two acknowledged monsters - were aided and abetted by the CIA and the US military. America had to invade Panama to depose the latter and plans to invade Iraq for the second time to force the removal of the former.

The Kosovo Liberation Army, an American anti-Milosevic pet, provoked a civil war in Macedonia two years ago. Osama bin-Laden, another CIA golem, restored to the USA, on September 11, 2001 some of the materiel it so generously bestowed on him in his anti-Russian days.

Normally the outcomes of expedience, the Ugly American's alliances and allegiances shift kaleidoscopically. Pakistan and Libya were transmuted from foes to allies in the fortnight prior to the Afghan campaign. Milosevic has metamorphosed from staunch ally to rabid foe in days.
This capricious inconsistency casts in grave doubt America's sincerity - and in sharp relief its unreliability and disloyalty, its short term thinking, truncated attention span, soundbite mentality, and dangerous, "black and white", simplism.

In its heartland, America is isolationist. Its denizens erroneously believe that the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave is an economically self-sufficient and self-contained continent. Yet, it is not what Americans trust or wish that matters to others. It is what they do. And what they do is meddle, often unilaterally, always ignorantly, sometimes forcefully.

Elsewhere, inevitable unilateralism is mitigated by inclusive cosmopolitanism. It is exacerbated by provincialism - and American decision-makers are mostly provincials, popularly elected by provincials. As opposed to Rome, or Great Britain, America is ill-suited and ill-equipped to micromanage the world.

It is too puerile, too abrasive, too arrogant - and it has a lot to learn. Its refusal to acknowledge its shortcomings, its confusion of brain with brawn (i.e., money or bombs), its legalistic-litigious character, its culture of instant gratification and one-dimensional over-simplification, its heartless lack of empathy, and bloated sense of entitlement - are detrimental to world peace and stability.

America is often called by others to intervene. Many initiate conflicts or prolong them with the express purpose of dragging America into the quagmire. It then is either castigated for not having responded to such calls - or reprimanded for having responded. It seems that it cannot win. Abstention and involvement alike garner it only ill-will.

But people call upon America to get involved because they know it rises to the challenge. America should make it unequivocally and unambiguously clear that - with the exception of the Americas - its sole interests rest in commerce. It should make it equally known that it will protect its citizens and defend its assets - if need be by force.

Indeed, America's - and the world's - best bet are a reversion to the Monroe and (technologically updated) Mahan doctrines. Wilson's Fourteen Points brought the USA nothing but two World Wars and a Cold War thereafter. It is time to disengage.

More about this topic here:

Sunday, October 03, 2004

Burning the Oil - Development and Inter-Ethnic Tension

"Sustainable Development" is a worn out cliché - but not where it matters the most: in developing countries. There, unconstrained "development" has led to inter-ethnic strife, environmental doom, and economic mayhem. In the post Cold War era, central governments have lost clout and authority to their provincial and regional counterparts, whether peacefully (devolution in many European and Latin American countries) - or less so (in Africa, for instance). As power shifts to municipalities and regional administrations, they begin to examine development projects more closely, prioritize them, and properly assess their opportunity costs. The multinationals, which hitherto enjoyed a free hand in large swathes of the third world, are unhappy.

The outcome of this tectonic shift is a series of unrequited conflicts from Indonesia to Morocco. The former is now a federation of 32 provinces, each with its own (often contradictory) laws, taxes, and licenses. They tend to ignore promises made by the central government - and the central government tends to live and let live. Some multinationals are in denial. They confront the local authorities and the authorities, in turn, legislate to prevent them from doing business (as in the case of Cemex, the Mexican cement company, described in "The Economist"). Others adapt, collaborate with the locals, establish foundations and endowments, invest in local infrastructure and in preserving the environment. Most crucially, bribes that once went exclusively to Jakarta-based officials, are now split with local politicians.

But sometimes the consequences are more serious than the reallocation of backhanders. When a corrupt central government colludes with multinationals against the indigenous population of an exploited region - all hell breaks loose.

Consider Nigeria and Morocco.

A. Nigeria

Nigeria is an explosive cocktail of more than 250 nations and languages with different (and often hostile) histories, cultures, enmities, and alliances. It is decrepit. Its people are destitute and unemployed, the crime rate is ghastly, the army and police are murderous (as are numerous civilian "vigilante" groups), the authorities powerless, corruption rampant, famines frequent.

Most of its oil (its only important export) is produced in the Niger Delta, home to the Ogoni and Ijaw ethnic minorities. The Ijaw are also actively suppressed (and massacred) in Bayelsa state.
When the Ogoni protested against the environmental ruination wrought by oil drilling - nine of them were hanged in 1995. But this brutality did little to quell their complaints, including the fact that almost none of the $7-10 billion in annual oil proceeds was re-invested in the region's economy. This largely economic conflict (brewing since 1993) has now, inevitably, become inter-ethnic and inter-religious. It is now an integral part of the national politics of a Nigeria fracturing along ethnic and religious (Christian vs. fundamentalist Islamist) fault lines.

Multinational oil firms in Nigeria have a strong interest to maintain a functioning political center, with law, order, and a respected, multi-ethnic police force. Yet, in their efforts to stabilize Nigeria, they shot themselves in both feet, repeatedly.

All previous regimes in Nigeria - civilian and military - enjoyed the tacit support (diplomatic and financial) of the big oil multinationals, among them Agip, Mobil, Chevron, Royal Dutch/Shell, and Elf Aquitaine (now Total-FinaElf). The oil companies maintain their own armies ("security") - including helicopters and heavy armor. They rarely openly intervene in local protests and conflicts. But their pronounced silence in the face of numerous massacres, unlawful detentions, murders, beatings, and other human rights abuses by the very army and police with whom they often share their equipment and manpower, forced Human Rights Watch to issue this unusual statement: "Multinational oil companies are complicit in abuses committed by the Nigerian military and police." Oil multinationals are also a major source of corruption in Nigeria.

Moreover, many observers conclude that the multinationals' claims to have bettered their ways by applying adequate environmental protection (against frequent oil spills and dumping of industrial waste), improving public health, observing human rights standards, and developing better relations with affected communities - are nothing but elaborate spin doctoring.
The creation of the dysfunctional "Niger Delta Development Commission" by the government in 2000 only enhanced this perception. Armed guards, employed by oil companies, continue to wound, or kill young protesters. NGO's impotently complained to the World Bank about the decision of its arm, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), to establish the Niger Delta Contractor Revolving Credit Facility in conjunction with Shell. The IFC did not bother to talk to a single local community about a scheme, which is supposed to provide Nigerian sub-contractors of Shell with credit intended to relieve poverty. Shell, of course, is utterly distrusted by the denizens of the Delta.

"Essential Action and Global Exchange" has issued a seminal report titled "Oil for Nothing - Multinational Corporations, Environmental Destruction, Death and Impunity in the Niger Delta" (January 2000). They describe gas flaring, acid rain, pipeline leaks, health problems, loss of biodiversity, loss of land and other resources, malnourishment, prostitution, rape, and fatherless children. Oil companies, says the report, refuse to compensate the locals, or clean up, break their promises, lie to the Western media, finance agents provocateurs to provoke protesters and break up peaceful demonstrations.

But this may be going too far. American oil firms and Royal Dutch/Shell have collaborated fully with NGO's since the public outcry following the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa, a prominent Nigerian environmentalist and author in 1995 (though not so their Italian and French counterparts). Activists in the Niger Delta often resort to kidnapping, smashing oil installations, and even attacking off-shore rigs. Security guards are a necessity, not a luxury.

Shell alone has poured $200 million into the local economy, administered by its "development teams" in collaboration with recipient communities. "The Economist" reports that less than a third of the 408 projects have been a success. Micro-credit schemes run by women did best.

Some of the projects were the outcome of extortion by kidnappers - others dreamt up in corporate headquarters with little regard to local circumstances. But Shell is really trying hard.
The Nigerian government has asked the Supreme Court last year to rule how should off-shore oil revenues be divided between the federal authorities and the 36 states (only 6 of which, in the southeast, produce oil). The 1999 constitution calls for 13% of all onshore oil revenues to be allotted to the states. But it is mum about offshore oil (the bulk of Nigeria's production).

Northern states have already threatened to withhold agricultural produce from the south should the Supreme Court plump in favor of the oil producing states. Justice, in this case, may well provoke the disintegration of Nigeria.

B. Morocco

The ubiquitous Kofi Annan, Secretary General of the UN, is set to decide, by mid February, the fate of oil exploration off the disputed coast of Western Sahara. A US chemicals and oil exploration firm (Kerr-McGee), in conjunction with the French Total-FinaElf, have signed much derided reconnaissance agreements, pertaining to the disputed region, with Morocco in October last year.

Morocco has occupied West Sahara since 1975. It has moved hundreds of thousands of troops and civilians to the area in an effort to dilute the remaining autochthonous population. A fortified wall was constructed along the entire border and it was mined. Morocco persistently obstructs the implementation of a referendum about independence it agreed to with the Polisario in 1991. The original inhabitants of this region, the Sahrawis, have set up a government in exile in a tent city in Algeria. The Polisario, the Sahrawis freedom movement, is weakened by decades of warfare and diplomatic failure. The Sahrawi self-styled "president" wrote to UN envoy, James Baker III, and to President Bush, to warn them of the consequences of this "provocation". The Sahrawis also demanded from the EU to cancel the "illicit and illegal" contract between Total-FinaElf and Morocco.

The reconnaissance agreements are part of a concerted Moroccan policy to relieve the country of its wrenching dependence on oil imports. Morocco's annual oil bill is close to $1 billion. King Mohammed VI himself is behind this strategic move. In August last year, on his birthday, he announced a major discovery (since discredited) in Talsint, 100 km. (60 miles) from the Algerian border (he called it "God's gift to Morocco"). More than 10 exploration licenses have been granted last year alone - 25% of the total. The law has been modified to allow for a 10-year tax break and to limit the government's stake in new oil ventures to 25%.

But major finds are the exception in an otherwise disappointing quest which dates back to 1920. Spain and Morocco both claim the waters opposite Morocco's coast. The Moroccan government exchanged verbal blows with its Spanish counterpart after it granted prospecting licenses to a Spanish firm opposite the Moroccan coast.

As opposed to Morocco, Western Sahara is estimated to contain what the US Geological Survey of World Energy calls substantial gas and oil fields. "Upstream" reports that previous attempts to find oil, in the 1960's, in collaboration with Franco's Spanish government, floundered. Gulf Oil, WB Grace, Texaco, and Standard Oil withdrew as political tensions increased. Other, lesser, American firms developed tiny fields there. Later, in the late 70's both Shell and British Petroleum abandoned exploration, having reached the conclusion that extraction is justified only if oil prices climb to $40 a barrel.

The Sahrawis quote a UN resolution (A/res/46/64 dated December 11, 1991) which says that "the exploitation and plundering of colonial and non-self-governing territories by foreign economic interests, in violation of the relevant resolutions of the United Nations is a grave threat to the integrity and prosperity of those Territories."

Thus, once again, oil companies find themselves supporting an oppressive and brutal (but ostensibly "stable") regime against local communities with political and ethnic grievances. It seems to be a pattern. Oil companies cosied up to homicidal dictators in Burma, East Timor, Iran, Iraq and Nigeria, to mention but a few. As most Sahrawis are now in refugee camps in Algeria, they are unlikely to benefit from any potential find. Future oil revenues are likely to buttress Moroccan rule and enrich members of the Moroccan elite. The (undisputedly Moroccan) Talsint concession is co-owned, according to the BBC, by relatives of the King and the chief of police.

The politically incorrect Operations Manager of Lone Star, the joint American-Moroccan Talsint exploration company, is quoted by the BBC as wondering (about the internally displaced people of Talsint): "Why should the people of Talsint get more money in their pockets? It's just by chance they're living on top of what appears to be valuable oil and gas reserves."
Such sentiments go a long way towards explaining why oil firms are so hated and why they so often contribute to instability, abuses, and poverty, despite their best interests. Perhaps they better divert the millions they throw at local communities - to educating their staff. Sometimes, development is best begun at home.

More about this topic here:

Tuesday, July 02, 2002

I served as consultant to blue-chip firms in Israel, Nigeria, Yugoslavia, Russia, the Czech Republic, and as the Economic Advisor to the Government of Macedonia 1999-2002.

I wrote a weekly column for Central Europe Review (1999-2001) and am now a United Press International Senior Business Correspondent.

I maintain extensive websites regarding the Middle East, Central, East and Southeast Europe (the Balkans) as well as Central Asia - their societies, history, politics, and economies.

These are the main web addresses:

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Thank you again,


Sam Vaknin, Ph.D.

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