Sunday, December 22, 2013

Princess Palace Update -- We are Getting There!

Dear readers: the flat renovations are nearing completion (knock on wood)!  The pictures below are from mid-December to last Friday.  As you can see, the place is shaping up nicely.  We (and by we, I mean me) are very happy! Several brick walls are now exposed in the living room, kitchen and bedroom.

The brick walls look amazing (pictured below prior to fixing and polishing).


View of the living room from the bedroom.

The bathroom is obviously still in a primitive state.  Yet to be constructed: a built-in shower, a built-in reclaimed cast iron tub, and reclaimed sink (see below). Plus the paint and tile... Also, it later turned out that the window below was rotted on the outside, so it could not be saved, sad to say...

The view from the bedroom into the kitchen/dining area (the brick holding wall newly exposed).

View of bedroom into the bathroom; the idea was a modified open plan for the apartment overall, plus sliding door for the bathroom.

This is Levi, the housepainter (and dystopian artist!), enjoying an espresso during break.  He will be painting the regular walls and fixing the brick walls...


Now to the sink...a couple weeks ago, I told my architect and main contractor that I wanted the bathroom sink built out of a reclaimed antique dresser, in a rustic shabby chic style.  So last Saturday, Gabor (the contractor) took me, Levi (above), and friends, Karl and Deniz to the Esceri market, one of the biggest flea markets in Central Europe, to find an antique dresser with which to fashion a bathroom sink.  Most of what we found was NOT an awesome antique dresser. Selected items on offer are pictured below:


Random racist knick-knack.

Military swag.

Ram's head for the breakfast nook?

Deniz and I enjoying the market (but also freezing, it was COLD).

Tada!! The antique dresser (soon to be reclaimed bathroom sink), for which I paid 175 USD. The trim will be reworked by a carpenter and a sink basin built into the top :)

More very soon...

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Why the GOP "Can’t Quit" its Nativist White Base

In 1987, in the run-up to U.S. presidential elections, the New York Times ran an article entitled “GOP Ponders an Appeal to Minorities” that began thusly:

“WHEN Bob Dole, the Senate Republican leader, stared down at an audience of young Republicans the other day, he was struck not so much by what he saw as what he did not. ''I'd like to see 50 wheelchairs in this audience,'' he said, ''I'd like to see 50 black faces, 50 Hispanics, 50 Asian-Americans.'' The problem with the Republicans, he said, is that ''we're sort of a hard-hearted party, the upper crust.

“Representative Jack Kemp, who is also running for the Republican Presidential nomination, has made the opening up of the party to members of minority groups something of a private crusade. Vice President Bush has signed on blacks both in the Vice Presidential office and in his Presidential campaign.”

Twenty-five years later not much has changed. At a time when the United States has become ever more racially and ethnically diverse, the Republican voting bloc is nearly as white today (89 percent in the 2012 elections) as it was when it captured the southern Dixiecrat vote decades ago (96 percent in the 1972 elections).  Meanwhile, Republican leaders have continually bemoaned its overwhelmingly white base.

Cue today's Republican hand-wringing. Says Colin Powell:

“[H]ere’s what I say to my Republican friends: the country is becoming more diverse…you say you want to reach out, you say you want to see if you can bring some of these voters to the Republican side. This is not the way to do it.”

Powell is far from the only Republican pol who has read the electoral tea leaves and forecast a grim future for the GOP.  After Romney's 2012 loss, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said the GOP was "not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term."  Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal likewise warned that Republicans must stop "being the stupid party.”

Okay, so…change the message, right?  Use more inclusive language to “Bring in some of these voters to the Republican side.” The Republican Party "autopsy" report noted that the GOP has lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections:

 "We need to campaign among Hispanic, black, Asian, and gay Americans and demonstrate we care about them, too. We must recruit more candidates who come from minority communities. But it is not just tone that counts. Policy always matters."

The problem is that non-whites are not really buying what the GOP is selling.  The GOP is also losing their support among seniors, and it turns out that minorities may be no more socially conservative than the population as a whole (and do not vote on gay rights or abortion anyway).  

The more fundamental problem is that today's Republican base is (almost uniformly) white social conservatives.  As Donald Rumsfeld put it during the Iraq War, you go to war with the army you have, not the one you want.  The folksy late columnist Molly Ivins put it like this: “you got to dance with them what brung you.” The upshot is that the GOP is terrified of losing its dedicated white conservative base in a possibly vain effort to appeal to non-traditional GOP voters.

Possibly inadvertently, Republicans have struck a multi-generational contract with an army of socially conservative (increasingly southern and/or rural) white Christians who are deeply suspicious of the “plantation mentality” of African Americans.  Who believe that Mexicans are taking away the jobs of native-born whites. Who distrust or despise liberals, intellectuals, artists, feminists and foreigners.

Truth is: the current denizens of the GOP tent don’t much care for creating a bigger tent—and this is as much true today as it was twenty-five years ago.  The 1987 article reckoned that the GOP might (already then) be running up against the “limits of conversion,” which was the very real fear that it was fearful that “too overt an appeal to blacks would endanger gains among whites.” Better a bird in the hand than two in the bush, as they say...

This is why the vaunted (and often mocked) Republican “outreach” to minorities, youth, students, and women is probably just hot air.  Today, as decades ago, the GOP’s Achilles Heel is its reliance on a single demographic group (Southern and/or rural white conservatives), who will only countenance outreach on their terms.   Said Kim Messick:

Because of [the GOP’s] demographic weakness, it is more beholden than ever to the intensity of its most extreme voters. This has engendered a death spiral in which it must take increasingly radical positions to drive these voters to the polls, positions that in turn alienate ever larger segments of the population, making these core voters even more crucial — and so on. We have a name these days for the electoral residue produced by this series of increasingly rigorous purifications. We call it “the Tea Party.”

In fact, many Republican voters believe the problem is their leaders are not conservative enough.  A New York Time blog cited a recent Pew poll suggesting that a majority (54 percent) of self-identified Republicans believe that the party needs to become more conservative and more inflexible in Congress; only 41 percent felt they needed to be more moderate.  Any movement to capture the median American voter is doomed to failure if the GOP still aims (as it must in order to win primary elections) to maintain the support of their (largely deluded) base. 

Despite proclamations by Jindal, Priebus and others that the GOP had learned its electoral lessons and was learning to reach out to minority communities, these efforts do not resonate with the Republican base.

On immigration, 74 percent of GOP voters feel the party’s position is “about right” or should be “more conservative”; only 17 percent believe the GOP leadership should be more “moderate” on immigration (meaning that they should make sure that the path to citizenship for undocumented workers is not too accessible).   

 What does this add up to?  Basically, today's Republican Party has poor chances at the national level, at least for the next few electoral cycles.  Their dilemma is clear to anyone who cares to look.  The GOP voting base is so homogenous that it is easy for firebombers to hijack local or primary GOP elections--dooming the election chances of anyone who has a half-way reasonable shot at attracting majority vote at the national level.  For years, the most important opinion leaders on the Republican side--Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter, and the denizens at Fox News--have been singularly focused on nursing their viewers' primal rage over Democrats, secularists, feminists, and the like.  There is very little like "outreach" going on in the conservative media.
For these reasons, the GOP has assumed a largely neo-confederate approach to governance: obstructionism at the national level, policy transformation at the local level.  A few geographical snapshots illustrate the point: Republican legislatures and governors have gone to town on abortion clinics in the past few years--using numerous legislative tactics to restrict womens' access to reproductive rights.  

They have also implemented legislation to make voting more difficult (aimed at poor people, seniors, minorities, immigrants, students...who are disproportionately Democratic).  

Of course, the GOP is nothing if not massively pro-business, and have restricted the rights of workers to unionize in numerous (mostly Republican) states under so-called right-to-work laws, which incur an average "wage penalty" of 6.5 percent for workers in those states.  This is because RTW laws weaken unions' leverage in collective bargaining over wages and benefits. 

At the national level, the GOP does appear to be in a death spiral.  Perhaps death comes before rebirth.  In the meantime, the GOP focuses its energies on creating pro-business, social conservative havens at the state level.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Princess Palace Update -- Post-Apocalyptic Bunker Stage

There is news on the flat renovation front,  dear readers.  After a lengthy bidding process, I finally settled on a team that agreed to renovate my 1940s Bauhaus flat in the palace quarter of downtown Budapest (inner eighth district).  The price is a very reasonable 7.7 million Hungarian forints (nearly $35,000).  It is a full renovation, including a completely new floor (with concrete foundation and solid oak Swedish floors), underfloor heating in the bathroom, a custom-made shower, completely new heating, plumbing, and electricity systems, refinished and painted walls, a wardrobe (without shelves), bathroom floor tiles, sliding inner doors, a new bathroom wall and an enlarged bedroom door, three new windows, new French doors that open onto the terrace (replacing the entrance doors), and a new entrance door (which will replace a window).

Not included in the price is the kitchen, a bathroom sink and built-in tub (which will be custom-made from reclaimed materials), shelves throughout the flat, electricity sockets, taps, and additional carpentry and furniture.  

Under the contract, the team (hailing from Transylvania) have two months to finish with penalties for late completion.

Less than two weeks after signing the contract, I checked up on the place with my architect, Szabi, who admitted that he was "very impressed" with their progress; they are nearly done with debris removal and removing old floors, and have stripped the walls (including the holding wall that runs down the center of the flat, which will be exposed brick--see below).

If all goes as planned, I should be able to move in in early January once the kitchen and sink is installed and I get some basic appliances and furniture.

Needless to say, it looks like some horrific WWII bunker or post-nuclear holocaust fallout shelter.

(to prove my point about the WWII bunker thing, I've stashed a pic of a WWII bunker below--can you tell which one it is?) 


Kitchen/dining area...

Bathroom area...

Exposed brick wall in the kitchen area (pre-sanded)...

The bedroom (below) with salvaged cast iron tub that will go in the bathroom.  That black stuff on the floor is iron-ore slag--which they apparently used for insulation in some of these older buildings.

Szabi, my architect, on the far right and Gabor (the head of the reconstruction team).

From the living room looking into kitchen/dining area.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Reflect on Your Life...and Be Satisfied

...Reflect on your Life
Time isn't Real
How Much Time Can you Kill?...

I promise this blogpost isn't going to be corny (okay, not too much).  It isn't even about stuff that happened to me this summer and the cheesy lessons I learned from it (cf., my last post).  Instead, it is about things I learned (which just so happened to be during the summer) second-hand through the interwebs.

The topic: the science of happiness.

It turns out that researchers know a great deal about what doesn't make us happy, including money (at least above the magical 75K/year that basically protects you from the misery and uncertainty of poverty, but see here), lots of possessions, life achievements or other objective measures of success and status (although it turns out that movie stars who win academy awards (or scientists who win Nobel prizes) live longer than those who were simply nominated, so there may be some psychological payoff to professional recognition).

There is also much that researchers know about what does make us happy.  There is, first of all, the unsettling fact that some people are simply born happier than others; so yeah, there is a genetic component to all of it that you can't do a goddamn thing about.  There is also social contactmarriage (although this works better for men than women), as well as pets.

Then there is the biochemical component, which is also to a great degree biologically determined.  However, this turns out to be something you can do something about through the use of drugs (namely, SSRIs, as well as certain supplements) that can increase the amount of serotonin (happy brain chemicals) that sticks around in your neural synapses and gives you a nice biochemical boost. (Coffee and other stimulants, plus sunshine and a range of other things also make people, especially women, somewhat less prone to depression.)

The good news is that there are things you can do to change biological destiny short of drugs--things that can actually change your brain nonetheless.  Turns out that how good we feel has much to do with how we reflect on our lives from one moment to the next.  

This is the essence of cognitive therapy, which I read about in a recent issue of the Stanford alumni magazine (my mom keeps these around for me to read whenever I visit).  I learned that a psychologist, a Stanford alumnus, had discovered through decades of practice that actively monitoring and logically countering the unrealistic negative automatic thoughts that we have on a daily basis was actually more effective than drugs in helping people with mild to even the most severe depression.  And it helped people immediately.  His book is literally a classic in the self-help genre:  Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, just fyi.

What the book comes down to is deliberately, painstakingly recalibrating one's processing of daily experiences so that our interpretations of events has a (1) neutral, (2) realistic, and/or (3) positive spin.  Further, this recalibration is continuous until it becomes automatic.  At its core, the book suggests that we should be calmer about everything.  It also suggests we should be grateful, focus our energy outward, and not act like an entitled jerk.

It was easy to recall stories of extremely happy people with a habit of doing this.

One was featured in a recent episode of This American Life, a syndicated National Public Radio show.  The person in question, Emir Kamenica, is a brilliant young economist who began his journey as a poor son of refugees from the 1990s Bosnian War.  He tells his story as one of unbelievable good fortune, where he and his family had been brought to the U.S. where he was enrolled in a under-performing public school that doomed its pupils to failure.  The only thing that saved him--sending him to Harvard and ultimately University of Chicago where he now teaches economics--was a student teacher who had come to believe he was brilliant because of an essay assignment that he had plagiarized from memory.  On the strength of his plagiarized essay, he recalled, she pulled strings to get him into a fancy private school tuition-free, setting him on the path to success.

The radio show producers then tracked down the teacher, and her story turned out to be at odds with the one told by her former student.  She explained that her pupil's success had nothing to do with the plagiarized story--that all of his teachers had discerned his brilliance and plotted to get him moved long before the story in question (which she barely remembered). She also averred that he would have succeeded regardless of where he had gone to school.  When confronted with this alternative version of events, the man refused to believe it, choosing instead to believe that his success was based on good fortune and the kindness of strangers (here, the substitute teacher).

The TAL host observed that his attitude was probably at the heart of the economist's extraordinary happiness.  Emir was grateful for everything that he had received in life.  He felt that merit had little to do with his success, and this conviction made him very, very happy.  He says that his current life is far more wonderful than he ever even imagined it could be when he was a child.

The second story is a PBS documentary from Bill Moyers that showcased two American families that have fallen on hard times in the Milwaukee area over the past two decades.  Both families had lost the single breadwinner unionized job that had sustained them in the 1980s.  With such jobs now in short supply, both parents in each family had to go into paid work--substituting two low-wage jobs (with few or no benefits) for the now-extinct union jobs.

Over two decades, both families struggled mightily, but, while the first couple divorced (the husband even leaving his family), the second couple persevered through it all.  What struck me was a scene in a church (the husband was also an ordained minister who led a small congregation on the weekends, in addition to his regular paid work).  In this scene in church, the man preached emphatically that you might lose your job, your health care, even your home, but you had to thank the Lord anyway. 

This is profound, it really is.  It is not to say you should minimize life's problems or live in denial.  It's saying the harder your life, the more grateful you have to be for the things that are going right.

By the end of the documentary, the second family was no less poor than the first family, but they were much much happier. and they were together.  This is at least partly because they continually gave thanks to God for the many things that they did have.

This story has lessons for secular folk as well--whatever happens in your life, you must be grateful for your good fortune, for everyone is fortunate in life, one way or another.

For inspiration...

Sunday, September 8, 2013

My Greyhound Trip to California: Adventures in the Underclass

I am continuing a recent trend, dear readers, toward blogging in the first-person.  I find it is one thing to write about a social problem using impersonal facts and quite another to write about the same problem using experiences--however short and superficial.  My topic is poverty, and the experience is a 12-hour Greyhound bus trip to California.

I recently went on an overnight bus trip from Tacoma, Washington to Weed, California to renew my California driver license (you have to renew in person if you’ve done it twice by mail). Turns out that getting a Washington driver license is expensive and time-consuming if you let your out-of-state license lapse.

The back story:

Washington state partially privatized its DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles) last year, ostensibly to reduce the time you have to wait in line to get a license.  I doubt many would agree the system is better today.  Starting this year, you must pay the WA DMV $80 (rising from $45 in 2012) to apply and get a new license; you must also go to a private “driving school” in your area to take the written and driving tests--costing an additional $65 or more (as much as tripling the cost of new WA licenses). This is in line with the general trend toward privatizing public services across the country—for a premium, you may get a slightly more convenient/upgraded interface with the government for vehicle licensing, parking, police and fire protection, and so on...just as often, however, the service stays the same or gets worse.  Either way, it is more expensive.

Back to my bus trip.

I figured the entire amount of getting a WA driver license (around 145 USD) would be about the same (ok, a little less) as taking a Greyhound bus overnight to the first Greyhound stop in California that has a DMV.  There, I could get my CA license renewed for 32 USD, and then get right back on the next northbound bus to Portland, Oregon, where I planned to visit my cousin.  Plus…adventure!!!

Here was my bus itinerary:

Okay, this is not my trip itinerary, nor it is even a Greyhound bus route--it's the Amtrak Coast Starlight route (rail)--Greyhound does not even publish route maps on the interwebs and their website is a mess.  BUT it (more-or-less) shows the Greyhound route I took from Tacoma, WA to Weed, which is a tiny pit-stop between Dunsmuir and Redding, CA.  Leaving at 7:40 p.m. on Weds., arriving at 8 a.m. on Thurs.--a little over 12 hours.

For those who have never taken a Greyhound bus across state lines, it is an adventure, and you will definitely have stories to tell your friends once you get there.  Especially if you happen to attract really out-there folks who feel they have a cosmic electro-magnetic connection with you.  

Today, the people who take long-haul Greyhound rides are a
motley crew.  Granted, many passengers are "jus folks" who like adventure or need to travel long distances but are cost-conscious or broke (buses being significantly cheaper than planes or even trains).  But many, so many, are itinerant folks who are some combination of (borderline) homeless, mentally ill, drug-addicted, or victims of abuse.  Just a few years ago, a Greyhound passenger stabbed, decapitated and began to eat a fellow passenger in Western Canada.

Greyhound buses were not always the favored transportation of the most marginal in society.  The famed national bus service emerged in the interwar period out of the efforts to consolidate regional services by a Swedish immigrant.  Greyhound weathered the Great Depression, only to embark on a long slow decline after World War II when cars emerged as the preferred mode of long-distance travel.  The decline accelerated in the late twentieth century with the emergence of budget air travel.  Greyhound is today owned by a British corporation, which has introduced a number of subsidiaries to compete with regional low-cost buses (think the Chinatown bus from Manhattan to Boston).  Meanwhile, Greyhound buses have cut their services to small rural towns in favor of express services between major cities and commuters who travel between (sub/ex)urbs and metropolitan areas.  According to Loring Lawrence, editor of Bus Industry Magazine, Greyhound cut its stops from 5,851 in 1977 to 2,300 today. 

Greyhound bus stations have also taken a turn for the worse, with dedicated stations either disappearing or downsizing; in some cities Greyhound now shares space in Amtrak train stations.  This was the awesomely retro Greyhound station in Tacoma, WA back in the day:

And this is the Tacoma Greyhound bus station today where I waited for my bus a few days ago:

You can't even tell it is a bus station from the sad.

As run down and poorly serviced as they are, these buses are the only thing small towns have left, since trains rarely service them (Amtrak, too, has cut back passenger stops, turning many passenger train stations into thoroughfares for trains carrying freight from cargo ships to Big Box stores all across the country).

In bigger cities, class determines ridership.  With the middle and upper classes driving or taking planes or trains, long-haul Greyhound buses are mostly for the poor--often the really poor.  On my trip to Weed, CA, I had interactions with four separate passengers--two street kids on their way to Redding and Oakland, CA; a likely schizophrenic guy with a ticket that hit just about every Greyhound stop in the lower 48 (putting him in New York about 3 1/2 days later); and one older gentleman who had a questionable relationship with reality.

Along that 12-hour ride, I got to hear from one passenger about a war among demons over the throne of Hell (Hades had stepped down four days ago, and the passenger himself was a participant); the vision of another passenger wherein Jesus Christ had saved his life by reprimanding two black Cobras that had been menacing him; a third passenger who spoke of 8-12 dimensions wherein demons and angels alike walk amongst us; and the "scientifically proven" fact that many world leaders are lizard people (including, apparently, the Queen of England and Barack Obama).  (Fun fact: 12 million or 4 percent of Americans believe that lizard people run the country.)  And believe me when I say that these were just the highlights...

Oh, I was also groped twice--once by the elderly Vietnamese bus driver with whom I had a picture taken in Weed upon arrival, and once on the way back by my Native American seatmate, who had been (unconvincingly) feigning sleep.

My experiences in Weed, CA were another adventure in the American underclass.  Weed (originally named after a lumber mill owner rather than the substance) is a de-industrialized Northern Californian town of 3,000 residents situated in the shadow of Mt. Shasta.  It is set in a gorgeous natural environment, but the residents have long since lost their good-paying lumber mill jobs in favor of service jobs (the tourism sector is an important part of the local economy) that pay less than half what the mill paid when it closed.  According to one resident (whose assessment seemed plausible based on casual observation), many locals were addicted to drugs and on varying forms of public assistance.  I didn't take many pictures of the people I saw in Weed.  I did, however, see a number of people who resembled the Appalachian poor, in varying states of hygienic disrepair--a few wearing no shoes, and one dude openly smoking weed at a bus stop with a fresh-looking leg stump on display.

The whole trip may sound pretty awful, but actually I loved the people I met on the way to Weed and back.  I'm not sure I'm ready for another 12-hour bus ride across two state lines any time soon, but it was really great to get to know such warm people who thought nothing of sharing food they could barely afford, offering a coat to a stranger to use as a blanket, or making small gifts from the few possessions they had.  I think about the people I met along the way and wonder about their lives.  I hope that Derek, JC and Eddie have each found nice beds to sleep in with a roof over their heads and (hopefully, hopefully) other good people to help them along their travels.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Reflections on my Trip to Kosovo and Macedonia

I recently spent ten days in the Western Balkans to do some final interviews for my book on how the European Union, the United States, the UN and NATO have influenced ethnic relations in these countries over the past decade.  Such a fascinating trip, I thought I might post a few of my initial impressions.  

(I don't have awesome photographic evidence of this, but believe me when I say that cafes, bars, streets--granted this is Kosovo where people are Muslims and it was Ramadan, and not in the capitol city of Pristina--was mostly populated by dudes.  A conservative estimate would be 80-20.)  

The first map shows the main ethnic bone of contention in both Kosovo and Macedonia--the size and concentration of a politically active Albanian diaspora in Kosovo (around 90 percent) and Macedonia (around 25 percent).  In practice, this means that Kosovo is in the hands of Albanians with Slavs in the minority, and Macedonia in the hands of Slavs, with Albanians in the minority.  This is THE MOST IMPORTANT ISSUE driving the domestic politics of both countries.  There has been an upsurge on ethnic "incidents" and nationalist sentiment in Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia in recent years--basically revolving around the status of Albanians in these countries, their links across borders and their status of Albanians in the region as a whole.

In Kosovo, ethnic relations are most fraught.  The Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), organized and funded by the Kosovo Albanian diaspora in Switzerland and elsewhere, began a war of guerrilla resistance against the Serb state in 1998.  Their cause was taken up by NATO air forces in 1999, which expelled Serb forces from the province in a 3-month bombing campaign.  From the UN resolution 1244 that declared an international protectorate in 1999 until Kosovo's declaration of independence in 2008, the province was run by the international community with the 92 percent Albanian majority since left in charge of the state.  Many Serbs fled or were driven out during the war, and many more left Kosovo for Serbia in the ensuing years.  

Meanwhile, the remaining 8 percent Serb minority is mostly concentrated in the northern region (north of the Ibar River), which borders on Serbia, and in a few scattered enclaves in the south.  The status of these communities has been in dispute ever since the end of the 1999 NATO war.  Kosovo declared independence in 2008, and by now over half of the world's states have recognized Kosovo statehood (important exceptions include China and Russia).  Earlier this year, a major agreement brokered by the EU mandated that Serbia dismantle its “parallel structures” which had been used to maintain influence over (and even control of) the land occupied by Serbs in Kosovo, particularly in the north.  With the agreement now in the process of implementation, Belgrade-controlled police stations, courts and so on are being dismantled in the north, thus hastening the day when the Serb minority will be fully integrated with the Albanian-dominated Kosovo state.

In neighboring Macedonia, ethnic relations are perhaps an order of magnitude calmer.  With the exception of a brief war in 2001, triggered by remnants of KLA fighters from Kosovo who pushed over the border, the NATO-brokered agreement ending the war appears to have ushered in a period of ethnic calm (in spite of ongoing ethnic tensions and segregation).  Relations remain fraught between the Macedonian majority and ethnic Albanian minority (25 percent of the population largely concentrated in the northeast, near Kosovo border).  However, there has always been a minority Albanian party in the ruling coalition, and the ethnic majority has always been committed to developing a multi-ethnic multi-cultural Macedonian state since its independence in 1991 (although this point is debatable today, given the current nationalist government--more on this below).  There has been a turn for the worse in ethnic relations since the 2008 NATO summit when Greece successfully vetoed Macedonia's accession to NATO over its dispute concerning Macedonia’s name.  Membership in both NATO and EU has stalled pending a successful resolution of a dispute with Greece over the new country’s name.

The above facts are fairly well established.  Now come my own initial impressions, randomly catalogued in bullet-pointed format:

(1)   My biggest take-away was that Macedonian elites (and even the public) are generally far more relaxed concerning minority/ethnic issues than in Kosovo.  

As one former Macedonian intelligence officer told me, when the Albanian resistance surged across the country and approached the capital in early 2001, the government couldn’t find enough young Macedonians to fight the resistance, their attitude being: “all they want is more places in public administration, why should we fight them?” 

In fact, my interviewees in Macedonia were so reasonable (from all parties!) that they even came up with reasons for why they were so reasonable, compared to their counterparts in Kosovo.  First, their minority had never tried to divide the state territorially (although this might have occurred had the international community not stepped in so quickly).  Also (maybe more important), Macedonia had never been bombed by NATO, nor had they lost any of their territory (as happened to Serbia in the 1999 war, when they lost Kosovo).  AND there was a far more significant history of ethnic repression in Kosovo than in Macedonia.

STILL, if the United States were facing an armed insurgency by a minority, what are the chances that Americans would be so philosophical and understanding?  No, American politicians would go ape, and you can rest assured that the government would have no trouble drafting people to fight the insurgency.  Just think of the Minuteman Project, a voluntary association of wackos who since 2005 have camped out on the U.S. southern border to defend against border-crossers from Mexico--their targets undocumented workers who merely want to work in the U.S. for substandard wages.  Just imagine if the border-crossers were armed with territorial ambitions...

Now consider Kosovo.  Here, the Albanian majority considers Serbs to be basically hostile to the Kosovo state, which is not far from the truth. The Serb minority believes Kosovo is still rightly Serbian territory and the repository of Serbian nationalism.  In Mitrovica, a divided city in the north (Serbs on the north side of the Ibar River, Albanians on the south side), I interviewed two young Serb lawyers about recent developments in the north.  They had been involved in one of the working groups on dismantling Belgrade’s institutions in northern Kosovo.  They told me that Serbia had been “tricked,” “betrayed,” “fooled” into giving up Kosovo territory.  And that Belgrade would regret this decision, which had been pushed on them by Germany’s Angela Merkel, as a condition of getting into the EU.  Serbian leaders’ lust for the EU is seen as the main reason for “betraying” their ethnic kin in Kosovo, and Kosovo’s Serbs (particularly in the relatively autonomous north) feel the betrayal bitterly.

The way I make sense of this difference is the continuing involvement of Serbia in stirring up tensions in Kosovo.  Serbs (particularly in northern Kosovo) have received services, salaries, pensions, and voting privileges from Serbia; this makes them highly unwilling to integrate into the Kosovo state.  The international community has been lackadaisical in restraining Serbia and inducing ethnic Serbs to integrate into the state, leaving northern Kosovo basically a no man's land between Kosovo proper and Serbia proper.   Finally, the Albanian-led government have not exactly cultivated an attitude of compromise with the minority Serbs, nor do they acknowledge the fears and sense of injustice and humiliation felt by Serbs (in Serbia and Kosovo) for having lost territory to a new de facto Albanian state.

Albanian nationalism can be seen in the use of flags, where the Albanian state flag is used informally by the Kosovo Albanians as their own national flag (with obvious inflammatory implications).  When Kosovo declared independence in 2008, a competition was held for a new flag, and the flag on the right is the result; the stars represent Kosovo's six major ethnic groups (Albanians, Turks, Bosniaks, Gorani, Roma and Serbs).  Its similarities to the EU flag are no accident... throughout the country, the two flags are often flown together.

(2) The U.S. is seen as THE number one important actor in both countries, despite the fact that it is gradually pulling out of the region and relegating ever more authority to the EU.

This has already happened in Bosnia, where the U.S. pulled out its forces and the EU has largely taken over from both the U.S. and the UN.  Similar trends can be seen in Kosovo, where EULEX has taken over from UNMIK (a UN mission).  The EU has a much larger formal role than the U.S. in Macedonia, where there is an entire government department dedicated to fulfilling the EU accession criteria, necessary for gaining admittance to the EU.

Despite all of this, the U.S. remains the biggest (often shadow) player in the two countries, with the biggest influence according to all sides.  Numerous interviewees in both countries noted that the EU is important for providing the carrots for good behavior (e.g., promises of admission into the EU club--offering access to EU structural funds, among other things).  However, my informants gave me to believe that when the U.S. says “jump,” they say “how high”?  Parenthetically, more than one interviewee noted that the EU was somehow “easier to trick,” because they believed in diplomacy, rules, and dialogue.  If the government says they will do something, then EU officials tend to take them at their word.  By contrast, U.S. officials (while often idealists at heart) are less likely to take any of these guys at their word and has no problem dispensing threats if they believe it is needed for maintaining political stability.

(3) What the hell is going on with Macedonia's clownish urban renewal project?

What does it mean to be Macedonian?  A country whose ethnic majority identifies with Greece? A country that has more in common with Bulgaria, which has a very similar language?  A country that shares a long history with Serbia of belonging to the same state (nearly 100 years)?  The confusion is evident in the controversial urban renewal project, Skopje 2014, which is dedicated to erecting classicist buildings commemorating the country's national ties to ancient Macedonian figures such as Philip II of Macedon and of course Alexander the Great.  The project has many critics who compare it to Disneyland or Las Vegas (not to mention criticisms over the cost of the project (between 80 and 500 million euros during a time of record high unemployment and economic hardship).  According to Artist Aleksander Stankoski

"Everybody was confused by what was going on: Classicism coming after Modernism? In art history, it is hardly possible, but we are doing it: a bourgeois version of Social Realism, with Art Deco touches!"  He predicted that Impressionism was next.

Artist Matej Bogdanovski quipped, "...the wave has swept over us all and today we're swimming in a murky swamp full of Baroque facades, Antique Columns, Classicism, warriors horses, bronze, marble, a glorious past, an undefined future...while the world is laughing."

Indeed.  Assuming the world knew of it.

Why are they doing this?  Opinions vary, but most certainly it was cooked up in the wake of the NATO summit in Bucharest in 2008, in which Macedonia expected to get an official invitation to NATO, only to be blocked by Greece's threatened veto--the country that has objected to the Macedonian name on grounds that they were appropriating Greek national symbols and might even make claims on the territory of northern Greece.  Why Greece can't be persuaded to drop its objections given its current weakness is an interesting question.  

Bringing this around full circle, the renewal project is seen variously as a strategic play against Greece's blockage of Macedonia's membership in NATO and, alternatively, as retaliation.  More likely, the new-ish nationalist government is making a play to appeal to the increasing nationalism in the country due to the failure of the IC to push past Greece's veto.  Also, it is a black eye to Albanians who have been clearly written out of this history, as they have no myth of a Classical past.  This, and bubbling nationalist rhetoric coming out of Albania last year, has contributed to a spate of inter-ethnic violence in the country in 2012; tensions are still riding high.

(4) The story of Northern Kosovo is super fascinating.  And the role of Berlin in pushing a resolution to the crisis might herald a more muscled EU with Germany at its helm.

A divided city with two separate currencies (Serbian dinars in the north, euros in the south), where Albanians never go to the north and Serbs never go to the south?  Where the Serbs in the north blocked passage over the main bridge linking the two sides with a giant pile of dirt? Who can resist such a story? 

 (In the map of Kosovo above, the white line is the Ibar River, the yellow majority Serb municipalities, and the enlarged area is the divided city of Mitrovica.)

Bottom-line: Northern Kosovo is the ultimate enclave, where Belgrade has basically claimed de facto sovereignty in the region since the early 2000s, with the international community declining to enforce the terms of the peace agreement in the north.  The bridge was originally patrolled by the self-appointed Serb nationalist "Bridgewatchers" (now defunct), who themselves incited violence with Albanians more than once over the years, in an attempt to prevent Albanians from traveling into the north.  

The violence that has been seen in Kosovo (since the 2004 riots) has been concentrated in the north, and particularly along this explosive national fault-line between Serbia and Kosovo.  Till the recently EU-brokered Brussels agreement this spring, the Serbs have had parallel government structures financed by the north, allowing them to avoid integration into the greater Kosovo state.  In the past few years, the international community (particularly NATO) has taken the lead in breaking this down, but the local Serb leaders have maintained their resistance, particularly the main power players, the "four mayors" of north Kosovo municipalities.

The four mayors (pictured below) basically make all the important decisions with respect to the region's relationship with Belgrade versus Pristina.  The vaunted Assembly of Municipalities in the North doesn't matter nearly as much as these mayors, who have (until recently) stated that they will not comply with Serbia's recent decision that they cooperate with the Albanian-led state.

Here comes Berlin swinging a bat.  Apparently, it's one thing to get Serbia to agree to defund the parallel structures (seen as critical in integrating the north with the rest of Kosovo).  According to the lawyers I interviewed in north Mitrovica, Berlin told Serbia in no uncertain terms that if they don't go the extra step and get the local Serbs to vote in the upcoming Kosovo elections (it is worth pointing out that Serbia previously ordered the minority to boycott such elections), then Serbia may not gain admission to the EU.  Belgrade has responded by engaging with Kosovo Serb leaders to try to get them to participate.  Thus, local Serbs grumble that Belgrade has sold them out... They are understandably unhappy with EULEX, the EU-led rule of law mission in Kosovo that is taking the lead in this process.  Such scrawled protests (below) were on more than one building in North Mitrovica.

Despite all of this, I think things are likely to improve in both countries for the future.  Of course, prospects are considerably better if the international community (EU, UN, U.S., NATO) are clear and consistent about the standards that must be met to get the two countries into the Euro-Atlantic clubs--not to mention standards that must be kept post-accession to ensure that they gain access to various funds.  This is complicated by the problem that the IC's attention is no longer focused on the Balkans, for the problems there (though serious) do not threaten genocide, civil war, or even serious minority repression.  However, there are precedents for worsening domestic politics in troubled societies when the IC averts its gaze, no matter how well-justified.  Let us hope that the EU picks up any slack created by U.S./NATO withdrawal from the region.