India and Pakistan – Illusion of dialogue

Historical and current reasons are preventing the dialogue from taking off – and neither side has interest in changing thestalemate
The history of International Relations is – and has always been – characterized by deep and solid friendships, like that between the United States and Great Britain, and also by threatening and unsolvable enmities, like that between India and Pakistan.
Divided by a mortal rivalry emerged with the collapse of the British Raj in 1947, India and Pakistan are the neighbors whose bilateral relationship follows an exhausting and apparently endless cycle. Clashes along the border, steps towards an opening to dialogue, impossibility (and at times unwillingness) of finding points of agreement, collapse of the dialogue, mutual accusations, return to border clashes.

No surprise, then, when this cycle repeated in late August, in the occasion of a dialogue between the security advisors of the two countries on which Modi and Sharif had agreed in Ufa months back. Once again in fact (repetition of what had already happened as early as last November) a few days before the meeting Pakistan stated its intention to meet Kashmir’s separatist leaders, and India reacted setting a red line on the issue. What followed after that (when no one was longer hoping that the meeting could move on) was that Pakistan refused India’s ultimatum, saying that a meeting limited to discussing terrorism would be futile. And everything went up in smoke as we are used to seeing it go.
Little hope, then, that the meeting between the Indian Border Security Force and Pakistan’s Rangers, held in Delhi between the 10th and 12th of September, can lead to an actual and long-term arrangement on such a delicate issue as the common border is. In fact, despite both sides stated at the end of the meeting their commitment to increase cooperation through renewed CBMs in order to avoid clashes along the border and violations of the 2003 ceasefire, it is difficult to believe such an entente will be durably respected once back to the reality of the tough and tense coexistence in Kashmir.

And though, looking back and around us, it is clear that two neighboring countries always have more to gain from a peaceful coexistence than from hostility (be it covert or open). This because their shared border implies the existence of shared interests, and is therefore more than a mere point of geographical contact. France and Germany, for instance, understood this more than 60 years ago, when in the dispiriting environment of post-war Europe they moved towards a solid cooperation through the Schuman Declaration and the ECSC.
And despite the distance between France and Germany in the ‘50s and India and Pakistan today, cooperation is still the best card two neighbors have to play in the game of their bilateral relations, and not even Delhi and Islamabad can escape this plain truth. In fact, if for a while we removed from the picture the historic rivalry between the two countries, it would be quite difficult to deny that reasons for cooperation – in the current political, security, and trade dynamics – do exist.

So why is dialogue and cooperation between the two South Asian countries such a chimera? What is that makes it so difficult for them to seat and work to find – of course through considerable efforts and with no little time – agreements that they are sincerely (and not just rhetorically) disposed to be bound by?

The fundamental problem is that we are talking of a dialogue none of them wants.

Born out of the painful process of partition in 1947, Pakistan has always legitimated its birth, its raison d’être, and its later survival in an anti-India perspective. Born as a territorial and political entity distinct from the one under New Delhi, born as a pure Muslim country distinct from the majoritarian Hindu neighbor, it has since the dawn of its existence as autonomous reality adopted an anti-India political identity and an anti-Hindu religious identity (identities that paradoxically can only survive thanks to the existence of an “Indian enemy” to oppose).
In Pakistan’s case – somewhat differently from what happened in most cases of secession in the XX century, where people were fighting to build their own state on the basis of a strong common identity – the process of identity building (that came after a secession the common people had never really planned) was structured more than around what Pakistanis were, around what they were not: non-Indians and non-Hindus.
Quite evidently, from an identity conceived in such terms it couldn’t but stem a political view centered on the opposition to India (view that has always allowed those who detain power to legitimize any use they make of it as long as aimed at contrasting the neighboring enemy); centered on the objective of gaining a strategic depth that could threaten India’s position in the region (and this has indeed been the major driver of Pakistan’s approach to Afghanistan since the ‘70s); centered on the perception that India is a real existential threat for Pakistan (a distorted view that has always been used by the Pakistani army as a pretext for assertiveness).
The opening to dialogue with India would cancel all this. It would cancel the way in which Pakistan has perceived itself and its role in the region during its 68 years of life, and it would make it necessary to define a new identity, to find a new legitimacy to its existence, elaborate a new foreign policy, and carve out a new regional role to play. Changes that Pakistan’s political and military elites are today not ready for.

Moving to the other side of the border, it is necessary to reckon that here too (though India has an autonomous and independent national identity that finds its roots in a millennial history of which 1947 is just the latest chapter) the political discourse has been characterized for 68 years by an anti-Pakistan rhetoric that has never faded and that – on the contrary – any clash along the border (and beyond it) and any collapsed dialogue do ignite and deepen. Thus, for an Indian population that has always regarded the western neighbor as its main enemy, the reasons that in economic, political and security terms could be adducted for a re-approach to Pakistan appear to many simply not enough to justify an opening to dialogue with a country they think they just can’t talk with. The demonization (at times understandable, at times pretentious) Pakistan was – and largely still is – subject to in India has produced a general mood of suspicion and closure that makes it difficult for Modi (or anyone else in his place) to collect enough support for a dialogue. Let alone for concessions, and let alone on Kashmir.
Even more important though – or at least element that has become ever more so in the last year – is the constant growth of India’s power. Indeed, the implications such a rise has on the Pakistani issue are that the more Delhi presents itself (and gets recognized by others) as a solid economic power, the more it widens its alliances with both old and new partners, the more it diversifies the areas of intervention where to exert its influence, the more it gets involved in extra-South Asian dynamics, the more it emerges as an autonomous, coherent and confident actor of the international arena, and the more it perceives Pakistan and the easing of relations with it as a non-priority of a foreign policy agenda that moves on regardless of what Islamabad does or does not.

In conclusion, unless Pakistan embarks on the process of defining its own autonomous identity and regional role, and unless India sees how it is precisely to increase and defend its great power status at the eyes of the world that it should make of the stabilization of relations with Pakistan a priority, there are no economic, security and political advantages that cooperation can promise capable of successfully stopping and breaking that vicious, decade-long cycle that dooms dialogue to failure even before it starts or as soon as parties are back home.


The lesson Bahrain (and others) should learn from Iraq

The role played by Maliki’s sectarian policy in leading Iraq to chaos should warn against the risks of sectarianism, and leave no doubt on the advantages that integration brings to both populations’ security and governments’ stability

The Arab Spring – occurrence that has changed forever our perception of the Middle East, of Islamism and perhaps of democracy itself – first reached Bahrain on 14th February 2011, when the capital’s streets got crowded by Bahraini Shias and Sunnis asking for greater political rights and freedoms. They were advancing those demands in one voice – testimony of how the Sunni-Shia divide is not always and not everywhere a clear-cut line of separation and hostility.

But those days were to be for Bahrain the last in which a single Sunni-Shia voice could be heard, the last in which being and feeling Bahraini came before being and feeling Sunni or Shia.

Such shifts in the perception of one’s identity are generally the consequence of some external pressure, and Bahrain made no exception. With protests going on and demands for change becoming more pressing, the country’s regime did what all non-democratic and non-liberal regimes do: ignore people’s demands, try to break the opposition’s cohesion putting one group against the other, and create the justification for a crackdown. In the specific, Bahrain’s government did so by denying that those protests were national and political (as they actually were) and tagging them instead as sectarian and religious. More precisely, as Iran-backed Shia uprisings. In this way, not only did the government create among Sunnis a certain suspicion against Shia protesters, but also justified the perseveration of its anti-Shia policy.

The al-Khalifa regime’s discrimination towards Shias (who though making up 70% of the population occupy no relevant positions) is indeed nothing new: it has always tried to marginalize them – economically, politically and socially – by encouraging conversions to Sunni Islam; by rigging elections in favor of Sunni candidates; by fuelling anti-Shia propaganda; and by preventing Shia professionals from holding high level positions. Since 2011 on, though, not only have all those measures intensified, but also new ones have been adopted – among which the most infamous and worrying is undoubtedly the control of citizenships. It means in fact that the government has the power to revoke Bahraini citizenship to those Shias (159 since 2012, and 128 in 2015 alone) accused of radicalism, terrorism, or of being Iran supporters, and to give instead Bahraini citizenship to Sunnis coming from various Arab countries – hoping to alter in this way the country’s demographics.

No surprise, then, that such a sectarian policy has exacerbated sectarian divisions within Bahrain. On the one hand, in fact, there is the Sunni minority that – increasingly suspicious of the Shias due to the government’s propaganda – fears their aim is to shape Bahrain on the Iranian model. Such a government-inducted fear has led many Sunnis to adopt an ever tougher stance towards non-Sunni compatriots and to support the government’s sectarianism – seen by many as the only way to avoid that the ayatollah’s influence reach Manama. On the other hand, there is the Shia majority, that feels (not without reasons) increasingly oppressed and discriminated against. Such a feeling of oppression and marginalization has led to the emerging of new Shia groups that no longer consider effective moderate stances and look for more aggressive actions – something that, in a vicious spiral, contributes to make Sunnis even more suspicious and unsympathetic towards Shias.

Such status quo has over the last years been strengthening the Sunnis’ position at the expense of Shias:

power, influence, wealth, opportunities and jobs mainly belong to Sunnis, and even those Shias who have managed to build themselves a career tend to be marginalized. So why should the regime change its policy and why should Sunnis want to share their privileges with Shias?

Not too far from Bahrain’s shores lies Iraq. If the al-Khalifa family stopped for a moment its anti-Shia senseless obsession and paid attention to Iraq’s tragic last years, it could realize how it was precisely Baghdad’s sectarian policy that dragged the country into a mortal vortex so serious, that it is now rising doubts on Iraq’s possibility to survive as united entity in the map of the Middle East.

Survived the destruction and death sewn by internal terrorist groups, and survived the brutal war triggered by OIF, what eventually condemned Iraq to disintegration was paradoxically (though not surprisingly) the element that had worried the least the international community: Nouri al-Maliki’s sectarian agenda. It was indeed his sectarian approach to government – that finds a worrying reflection in al-Khalifa’s current rule over Bahrain –  that inevitably created an internal axis of division that spread outrage among the Sunni population, put into question the legitimacy of the government in Baghdad, and created a fertile soil of resentment that a terrorist group like ISIS could easily exploit to gain support.

Instead of using his powers to lead Iraq towards a future of democratic stability, to bring peace to an Iraqi population prostrated by years of war, and to create a climate of trust in the government, Maliki made the mistake of focusing on the short-term only. He failed to understand that if he wanted to hold on power and to create a permanent favorable environment for Shias, the only option was to build an open, inclusive, and legitimate political system. Through sectarianism, in fact, he only obtained short-term gains: he strengthened his own power and that of the Shia community but at the same time – through that same policy – he created the conditions and ignited the forces that would make the whole system collapse.

Had he paid more attention to the long-term, he would have made his government a credible institution (instead of a source of social disruption) and would have made Iraq a secure country (instead of a prey for terrorists).

Now al-Maliki is gone and Iraq is hoping to shred off his legacy.

But al-Maliki’s mistakes are not an isolated case, as they are shared by many regimes who lack a rational, long-term lecture of what the political and social reality is, and of how it tends to develop and react.

Al-Maliki’s mistakes are indeed the same that, made by Hadi, contributed to lead Yemen’s Houthi-Sunni divide to reach the point of non-return. And they are the same mistakes that are now threatening Bahrain.

But Bahrain can still learn from Iraq’s collapse and realize how integration is critical for everyone’s survival (even for those who today seem the strongest). If Shias are integrated in the country’s social, political and economic life in the same way – and to the same extent – Sunnis are, then Bahrain can not only enjoy stability and security but also retrieve and strengthen its national identity. And this feeling of being a nation, of being a same entity within the same reality, is the most powerful means a country has to save itself from mortal divisions.

It’s time for Middle East’s regimes to face the reality that sectarianism – like the mermaids who with their melodious chants attracted Ulysses’s companions just to eventually kill them – gives the illusion of power but is actually nothing more than an open door to civil war.

Opening the Doors of Fortress Europe

In European history 2015 will be remembered as the year we revealed our incapacity of dealing with the biggest migrant crisis of the last 70 years.

For a continent that as early as 1950 drew up the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, and in 2000 restated those values with the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, last months’ events are a blatant contradiction. A perfect case – as if the world needed another one – of verbal commitmentconcrete action gap.

Since January 2015, 350,000 asylum seekers reached Europe’s shores and more than 2,600 died trying to. And though, we still lack a sustainable and realistic strategy and there are still people and States that would rather close Europe’s door and look the other way, until migrants find another place to bother with their tragic stories and with their unwanted asylum applications.

The emotional involvement each of us may or may not feel in front of people forced to leave their roots by events they can’t control, forced to undergo desperate journeys in conditions that would inspire Primo Levi’s verses on the mortification of human dignity, and who are risking everything to find refuge in our countries, is a private matter I won’t dig into. But those who wish to raise higher walls around Europe’s borders might be interested to know that hosting migrants can bring benefits to us too. Economic, social and political.

No one will fall from the seat reading that Europe’s population is constantly ageing. According to the EU Commission official data, by 2025 more than 20% of Europeans will be over 65.

We Europeans are always proud when referring to our continent as old Europe, but being old Europeans is another matter – and one that should worry us. All European States, in fact, are now in the tough situation in which the number of retired workers to pay pensions to is exceeding the number of active workers who should cover those expenses. A ratio, this one, that threatens the stability of our societies, the labor market’s functioning, and that made necessary reforms such as raising the retirement age and cutting pensions.

But a hope of reversing the problem exists, and it is here that migrants come to help us. Migrants, in fact, are generally in their 20s, 30s and 40s – which means in the most active period of their life. If hosted in our countries, they could become part of the labor force – something they generally aspire to, as the majority of them reach Europe with families to take care of – and thus help our societies to bring the burden of an ageing population.

It might seem too easy to be realistic, but this is what has been going on for decades in the United States: Americans are getting older as we are, but thanks to the constant flow of migrants – who conversely tend to be young and to have more children – the labor market there is in better shape than in Europe.

The other positive contribution migrants can give to our job market has to do with job offer and demand.

In European countries, in fact, with more and more youngsters studying and getting their university degrees, competition for qualified jobs in the cities is dramatically increasing – while the number of people with manual skills or looking for traditional professions in rural areas is decreasing.

It is here that migrants come again to save us. It is true that there are many cases of migrants who have college degrees and years of qualified work experience behind them. But it is also true that the majority of them are people who come from countries where education is still a privilege of few, where manual skills are the most widespread, and non-qualified jobs the ones in which people have more chances to build their expertise on. Most migrants, thus – coming from regions whose labor markets have given them skills that in this moment we are lacking – could help us to address the offer-demand gap that many traditional fields are suffering from.

At this point, though, many Europeans argue that with migrants coming and job offer increasing, wages will drop. True. But we shouldn’t either forget that, with offer increasing, competition among workers is stimulated – and workers who have to compete to obtain and maintain a job tend to work harder and better. Secondly, a country where more people work, earn, and pay taxes has more money to invest in public services – so that the slight decrease in personal wages would be compensated for by the access to better services that make it possible for families to save money. In fact, if thanks to higher public funds state hospitals provide everyone with cures and public schools give all children a solid education, then families do not need to go to private clinics or to look for costly private schools.

But immigration can also bring socio-cultural benefits to our countries.

It is human history itself that shows us how it has always been contacts between different peoples that enabled development at any level. Contacts between Alexander’s Empire and the Indian subcontinent, between the Romans and the Chinese, between Arabs and Europeans and the most recent ones between developed and poorer countries are just few of the milestones that mark that path of human development that since its start has been made of intercultural contacts and exchanges. So that a society where more groups live together tends to be a richer one – where there is an exchange of ideas, skills, knowledge, traditions, and where kids grow up in an inclusive environment that will turn them into tomorrow’s liberal and open-minded adults. Those kind of adults that an increasingly interconnected world and increasingly multicultural societies desperately need.

On the political level, then, learning to live in contact with other cultures and peoples helps us to better read the world around us, its crisis, its problems, and to better understand how we can play a positive role in it. And this understanding can lead to the elaboration of a more coherent and considerate foreign policy (something a region such as the Middle East hasn’t always seen us do). Moreover, immigration gives us the opportunity to deepen bilateral links with the countries of origin of migrants – links that can impact positively on our economies, trade relations, and diplomacy (just think of the role played by Mexican and Irish migrants to foster the special relationship that exists between Washington and Ciudad de Mexico and between Washington and Dublin).

Coexistence is undoubtedly far from easy, but closing our door only incentives illegal immigration (as people who are fleeing wars and famines won’t easily let go the dream of reaching our continent); makes harder coexistence with those migrants who already live in Europe, as they now feel outraged by our dealing with the migrant crisis; and portrays among the international community a negative image of the European Union that doesn’t reflect the values we built our common identity on.

Instead of closing our door and making fortress Europe an unreachable place that only a small European elite can live in, we should make it a model of inclusion, defense of human rights, and a place everyone can have the chance to call home as long as disposed to actively contribute to its growth.

But of course, to do that in a way that doesn’t end up being a burden on a few countries only (those like Italy and Greece that are the first to be reached, and those like Germany and Sweden where most migrants go to) a single European strategy is necessary. The best direction is that – proposed and supported by some politicians led by Angela Merkel – of abandoning the Dublin Regulation and adopting instead a quota scheme to distribute migrants on the EU territory according to their country of origin, to their eventual family needs, and to the social and economic characteristics of our countries. The same relocation scheme should then be applied within each country to avoid internal discrepancies and the emergence of ghettoized areas.

But we can do this only if we understand that immigration – if addressed coherently, jointly, on the basis of humanitarian principles and practical considerations – can bring us benefits. And the problem is that while the number of refugees increases, too many European leaders still have to realize that a common scheme is the only way to address this challenging and inevitable new chapter of Europe’s history.