March 16, 2015 2 Comments
When the former Austrian deputy prime minster Michael Spindelegger was named to head the new Ukrainian “Agency for the Modernisation of the Ukraine“ many in Austria thought it was a bad joke. He had resigned from government and the head of the junior coalition party, the conservative Peoples Party, in 2014 after disputes with his coalition partner over tax reforms. His resignation in Austria was sign of his inability to pursue modernization in Austria. How would he be qualified to advise on it now in Ukraine many in Austrian wondered?
However, becoming an adviser to foreign governments has become a lucrative business for former politicians in Western Europe. In Serbia, a whole line of former (mostly social democratic) politicians have been recruited by the SNS government: Alfred Gusenbauer, former Austrian chancellor, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former chief of the IMF, and now Tony Blair (he already visited Vučić in June 2014). In fact, it is not without irony that Blair is now advising both Albanian PM Edi Rama and Serbian Aleksandar Vučić who famously did not get along recently (also reportedly relations have improved). The irony that it was Blair who was key to advocating the bombing of Serbia in 1999 (when Vučić was minister for information) was already noted by the satirical web portal njuz.net with the headline: “Blair advises Vučić to bomb Serbia.”
Blair and Gusenbauer have displayed a rather pragmatic approach by also advising the authoritarian government of Kazakhstan, together with former Italian prime minister Romano Prodi, former Polish president Aleksander Kwaniewski and others.
Long-time Kazakh president Nasarbajev surely did not seek their advice on improving his rule over Kazakhstan or how to build up Social Democracy in his country. The purpose of these foreign advisers is to open Western doors, to get access to their phone book. As ministers, presidents and prime ministers, these former politicians can help, so the theory goes, with their extensive contacts in the world of business and politics.
Besides the fact that some of these former politicians do not seem to care too much whether they advise dictators or democrats, there are other problems with these arrangements. First, their main job is not about domestic reforms, for this experts which have time are required, not fly-in-fly-out former politicians with a busy schedule and little technical expertise. Instead their advice is about the international contacts, but contacts for what? Is their role to promote the country or the government? The external promotion of Serbia or any other country easily becomes just lobbying for the interests of a government, even if it doesn’t act in the interest of the country. Thus, unsurprisingly, the Kazakh opposition criticized the decision of Blair to lobby for the government. The suggestion by Blair that he would help nudge reformers in the country seems either insincere or naïve.
Second, it is hard to tell whether this engagement is actually effective and provides return on the money a government spends. Vučić claimed that Blair’s advice is free and doesn’t cost Serbia a ‘dinar’, but reports suggest the funding might from other sources, liked to UAE investments in Serbia, doubtlessly with strings attached, not surprising considering Blair’s reported connections to UAE.
Phone books are quickly dated and it is hard to tell how much these former politicians really can or do push for their client. Like the tourism videos of countries promoting themselves on CNN, BBC World and elsewhere, they are part of “nation branding” and “government branding”. However, independent judgment and critical advice are more likely to make a difference in foreign perception and policy than guns for hire. Of course, the irony is even greater considering that Blair is advising the reviewer (he also presented the book at it’s launch in 2006 together with ) of the classic book by Vojislav Šešelj “Engleski pederski isprdak Toni Bler” (The English Faggy Fart Tony Blair), but that is the ultimate sign of pragmatism.
A shorter version of this text will be published in Serbian in Vreme (19.3.2015)