Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Romania and the European agenda for research and development

To preserve its economic position against increasing global competition the Europe Union is investing in innovation. Its main assumption is that ideas can be turned into "products and services that will bring our economy growth and jobs."

To stimulate ideas and research, the Union is deploying a vast programme, Horizon 2020, that promises generous funding to scientists from anywhere on the continent who bring evidence of scientific excellence, industrial leadership and ability to tackle societal challenges.

How appropriate is such an agenda to stimulate innovation in the Union's poorer countries, which had a later start investing in research? What kind of research does such an agenda stimulate and how does it shape the various scientific fields?

My latest article in the Romanian weekly Revista 22 discusses the position of a poor European country such as Romania with regard to the European Innovation strategy and the hierarchies within the European states and between scientific fields that this strategy could perpetuate.

Click here for the article in Romanian.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The (in)efficiency of anti-corruption policies

“It is a political vendetta.”

Defendants in corruption cases often claim that the justice system was manipulated by political rivals. Surprisingly, although the public does not contest the guilt of the defendants, it too questions the impartiality of justice. How can we explain this ambiguity towards corruption? How can we explain that according to Transparency International’s latest Barometer of Global Corruption one in four individuals acknowledge to having given bribes although they condemn corruption?

My article in the Romanian weekly Revista 22 analyzes the tensions between the paradigms of human rights and good governance that drive current anti-corruption measures and institutions at international level.

Click here for the article in Romanian.

The avatars of international financial experts. From acknowledgment to contestation

Syriza’s victory in Greece and its repudiation of the austerity measures recommended by the troika mark a threshold moment in the history of the international financial experts. Once the European governments revered the financial experts active in international loans since the 19th century. Now, Europe has turned into the site for criticism against the "money doctors."

My article published in January in the Romanian weekly Revista 22 is an overview of the history of international financial expertise and its principles since the 19th century until the Washington Consensus. 

Click here for the article in Romanian.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Balkan Smoke: Balkan history through the history of a commodity (Book review)

The Balkans have long been depicted as lagging behind the essentially European modern drive to economic development and political progress. In Balkan Smoke Mary Neuburger proposes an alternative view on Balkan modernity through the cultural history of a local commodity: tobacco.

By recreating the history of tobacco production and consumption in Bulgaria in the 19th and 20th centuries, the author set out to explain how the social life of tobacco in Bulgaria was shaped by local mores and experiences and mitigated Bulgaria’s place on the periphery of other centers of political and economic influence. (p. 2)

Smoking is, as the author suggested in the Introduction, a modern phenomenon that offers a new perspective on the complex continuities between culture and social interaction, East and West, empire and nation-state and between nation-building and ethnic exclusion that made modern Bulgaria. Two aspects appear to stand out from Neuburger’s depiction of Bulgarian modernity: the constant recreation of the Bulgarian national body and Bulgaria’s place in global consumption.
Oriental tobacco ad. From

Ever since the 18th century smoking permeated the construction of the Bulgarian identity. In Neuburger’s words, “Bulgarians learned to smoke in the multifaceted and dynamic environment of East-West interaction, commercial exchange, and cosmopolitan urban leisure.” (p. 41)  

Bulgarian religious or political groups either embraced smoking as a form of sociability that accompanied the mobilization for national emancipation or castigated it as degrading the health and moral vitality of the nation. The state too adopted a similarly ambiguous attitude toward smoking, most obvious during the communist regime that sponsored and took pride in the production of tobacco while it also deployed anti-smoking companies. 

Tobacco indeed affected the social body of the nation. The developing tobacco industry stimulated social divisions and perpetuated poverty among the peasants in as much it brought women into the labor force. In the interwar period the newly created tobacco cooperative enterprises aimed to protect tobacco farmers from middlemen. During the communist regime, the state enterprise Bulgartabak re-staffed the industry and created a more socially equitable system in which a larger percentage of tobacco profits were made available to local producers and workers, by means of payments and social services.

The history of tobacco also paralleled and intertwined with the ethnic remaking of the nation, which Neuburger carefully detailed. Just as the industry became increasingly nationalized, it also facilitated territorial revisionism and contacts between Bulgaria and Bulgarian nationalist groups in neighboring regions, assimilation of ethnic Bulgarians from  these areas and ethnic divisions in Bulgaria. 

An emblematic case was the progressive ousting of the Jews from the tobacco industry in Bulgaria. This process began as Bulgaria became the ally of Nazi Germany leading to the marginalization of Jewish tobacco industrialists. It continued with the deportation to the concentration camps of the Jewish population from the Bulgarian-occupied Macedonia and Thrace, after the Bulgarian state prevented the deportation of the Bulgarian Jews. Finally, it ended in the postwar period when the communist regime confiscated the remaining Jewish tobacco industrialists’ properties as bourgeois property. In the postwar period the Bulgarian state and tobacco industry adopted a similarly ambiguous attitude, oscillating between assimilation and exclusion, towards the Bulgarian Muslims and Turks until large numbers of these groups migrated to Turkey. 
Oriental tobacco drying
The second argument of the book is that tobacco production, accompanied by intensified social and ethnic domestic interdependencies, was “behind the forging of new networks of foreign dependency.” (p. 77) As consumers abroad became familiar with the flavorful Bulgarian tobacco and the local tobacco industry began to produce for export, Bulgaria gained leverage in its relations with international hegemons. 

Neuburger closely recorded the complex relations of power between Bulgaria and international economic agents and states during Bulgaria’s evolution to become the largest exporter of cigarettes and the eighth tobacco producer in the world in 1966. She documented how tobacco that was farmed in Ottoman Bulgaria rose to fame within the Ottoman Empire; how in the aftermath of Ottoman bankruptcy in 1875  tobacco revenues were directed to service the Ottoman Empire’s foreign debt through an international regie that monopolized local tobacco industry; how Bulgaria’s alignment with the Central Powers during the First World War brought Bulgarian tobacco to the German markets cementing Bulgaria’s relation with Germany also during the Second World War; how in the postwar period, in the context of globalizing markets and tastes, the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc became the main markers for Bulgarian cigarettes. 

This well-documented and nuanced volume in the history of tobacco and of Bulgaria is less consistent on two matters. The first concerns the discrepancy between the disclaimer in the Introduction that tobacco serves as a pretext to change perspective on modern Bulgarian history and Neuburger’s subsequent statement that “tobacco was behind the forging of new networks of foreign dependency.” This discrepancy in argumentation reflects a methodological inconsistency. The volume does not balance the roles of producers and consumers in the discussion about consumption but emphasizes the former. Thus, it tends to draw an old division between the base of economic structures and production and the (less influential) superstructure of ideas and representations, in which the base acts as predominant historical cause. 

The second issue is that of Neuburger’s understanding of modernity. The volume refers to the tastes and needs that Bulgarian tobacco served in the East and West as modern leisure, sociability and consumption. “Smoking was the quintessential twentieth-century habit, a necessary accoutrement of the modern man and woman.” (p. 5) It was also a significant component of several things modern: nation-building and nationalism; the intensification of social conflict; the two world conflagrations; global markets.  However, by placing smokers in “modern” settings the volume does not explain in what ways these tobacco consumers act as “modern” men and women. 

These concerns aside, Neuburger’s volume is a welcome addition to the literature about consumption and about the Balkans, one which is equally entertaining for the specialist and the non-specialist.

Mary C. Neuburger, Balkan Smoke: Tobacco and the Making of Modern Bulgaria, Ithaca, London: Cornell University Press, 2012, Kindle version

Friday, May 16, 2014

Online research tools about Eastern and Southeastern Europe

Today I add two more research tools to the list of free online sources from previous posts. 

Osteuropa-Dokumente Online
A joint project of several German research institutes and depositories such as the Bavarian State Library, Ostdok provides access to monographs, periodicals and theses in various fields (politics, law, history, etc.) and languages about Europe and Eastern Europe. The platform offers a search module of its collections, accessible here, as well as a thematical and regional catalog that can be accessed here.

The language of OstDok is German.

Persée is a portal for the digital publication of journals in French in the humanities. It provides access to a considerable number of articles about Eastern and Southeastern Europe
The growing collection of Persée can be searched through the catalog of its journals, accessible here, and through a search module, accessible here.

The languages of Persée are French, English and Spanish.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Conference: The Jews and the Nation-States of Southeastern Europe

University of Trieste is hosting an international conference about the Jews and the Nation-States of South-Eastern Europe from the 1848 Revolutions to the Great Depression.

The conference offers panels that deal with the status, activism and heritage of Jewish communities and issues of coexistence in Romania, Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Ottoman Empire and Italy at a time of political mobilization and nationalism.

The schedule of the conference can be accessed here.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Economy, empire and imperialism - Fritz Stern, "Gold and Iron: Bismark, Bleichroder and the building of the German Empire"

How does economy relate to imperialist expansion and how can we assess this relationship?
The question acquires new significance in the context of Russia's annexation of Crimea, which provoked Europe and the United States to threaten with economic sanctions that could ultimately damage Russian imperialist ambitions.

Imperialist expansion operates in complex ways that might not squarely fit with our ideas of how political power needs to rely on economic power. The book of Fritz Stern Gold and Iron: Bismark, Bleichroder and the building of the German Empire illustrates perfectly how economy can assist but not necessarily propel a state to becoming one of the world's leading powers.

In this volume Stern documented the "connectedness between government and capital, diplomacy and finance, public and private interests" (p. xvi) and the "penetration of economic power" in politics as it occurred in Germany in the second half of the 19th century (p. xvii). However, he also emphasized how economic power might still be "inferior to state power" and subservient to political agendas.

To uncover the mechanisms of such a complex relation, Stern studied the life-long business relationship between the Chancellor Otto van Bismarck, the archetypical figure of the Prussian noble and statesman, and Gerson Bleichroder, a businessman of Jewish origin who became the Chancellor's banker and confident, one of the major economic financiers in the Empire and a prominent member of the international Jewish community.
Gerson Bleichroder
Stern depicted Bismarck as the embodiment of the Prussian state power in both domestic and international politics. He systematically undermined the representative institutions in Prussia and the German Confederation to pursue his political agendas. At the international level, he successfully planned the rise of the Prussian empire at the expense of Austria and France to being the major power in Europe at a time when the continent was the main ground for inter-imperial competition.

Bleichroder, in his turn, represents the economic power that took shape through financial speculation and the rise of the great Jewish banking houses at the beginning of the 19th century. Notwithstanding his influence and constant sponsorship of state projects, Bleichroder's position was fragile. The state, staffed with anti-Semitic Prussian nobles, only reluctantly gave him a noble title in public recognition for his services. On account of his presence in state affairs and his Jewish origin, he became the target of anti-Semitism until "anti-Semitism was so prevalent a phobia that it no longer needed him as evidence." (p. 531)

The collaboration between Bismarck and Bleichroder for the management of Bismarck's personal financial affairs and of state finances records how economy became one of the Chancellor's chief instruments to impose his will in domestic and international politics. First, Bismarck used Bleichroder to help him circumvent the representative institutions in the procurement of funds that the executive would use discretionary to wage war against Austria (1866). Victorious Prussia managed to exclude Austria, its main counterweight, from the German confederation and assume a dominant position in relation to the other states.

Having strengthened his position in domestic politics and prevailed against Austria, Bismarck proceeded to impose Prussia's hegemony in Europe. The natural step was to defeat France that, under the rule of Napoleon III, had been the major power on the continent. Using the pretext of tensions in Spain where both Prussia and France vied for influence, Bismarck managed to provoke Napoleon III in declaring war. Prussia's military campaigns depended significantly on the activity of Bleichroder who was well connected to major players on the European capital market and diplomats.
Caricature of the Franco-Prussian war
But Bleichroder proved himself even more useful after Prussia's victory over France, as he oversaw France's payment of the large war indemnity. This indemnity was, in fact, the most important aspect of Prussia's victory, underlying its newly acquired domination in Europe. As a reward for his efforts, Bleichroder received a noble title with which he sought to enter the exclusive world of the Prussian nobility that needed his money but abhorred his presence. He also became involved in the "modern world of industry," and particularly in businesses with mining, railroads and international loans.

Domination in Europe seems to have been Bismarck's main goal. The Chancellor and Bleichroder exhibited rather marginal interest in pursuing colonial projects overseas. Bismarck entered temporarily the bid for the partition of sub-Saharan Africa in 1884 but was less motivated by economic reasoning as by the attempt to counter his opponents in German politics and to preserve international prestige at an age of colonial competition. Bleichroder too was more interested in the profits from the business with international governmental loans.

Paradoxically, economy became an instrument for Prussian imperialism in an unlikely place: Romania. This new state ruled by a Prussian prince captured the attention of Bismarck and Bleichroder just as the international powers that convened at Berlin after the Ottoman-Russian war of 1877-1878 were discussing its independence from the Ottoman Empire.

Caricature of German interests in Romania, Ghimpele, 1871
For Bismarck the question of Romania's independence was relevant in as much as Romania had offered railway concessions to companies owned by German nobles who, due to major financial problems, had to stop construction. Bleichroder, as a prominent member of the German Jewish community, was interested in the situation of the Romanian Jews, a community that had grown significantly since the beginning of the century through the arrival of Jews from Russia and whose members were denied naturalization. Hoping to enlist the Bismarck's support to end the discrimination against the Romanian Jews, Bleichroder became involved in chancellor's plan to redeem the German investments.

Thanks to the lobby of Bleichroder and involvement of Bismarck, the Congress of Berlin made the emancipation of the Jews a condition for Romanian independence. But the settlement in 1878 of the railways question between Bismarck and the Romanian government eliminated any incentive for Bismarck to survey how Romania satisfied the condition imposed at the Congress. In the end, the Romanian government emancipated an insignificant number of Jews. This was a far cry from the naturalization that Bleichroder had hoped for.

Stern's detailed analysis exposes the complex ways in which economic and imperialist agendas supported each other, leading to the emergence of one of the fastest growing and aggressive empires in modern European history. At the same time, he also convincingly suggests that sometimes economic power does not prompt but rather follows political agendas as they become successful thanks to a complex of warfare, diplomacy and circumstance.

This relation can explain how geopolitical transformations that seem unlikely eventually succeed. It can also explain how their main victims are ultimately not states but human rights, as evident from the subordination of the question of civil rights for the Romanian Jews to imperial considerations.

Fritz Stern, Gold and Iron: Bismarck, Bleichroder, and the Building of the German Empire, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977), 620 pages, Index