Sunday, 15 April 2007

ELDR Council, Zagreb, Croatia

To Zagreb and back in less than three days for the ELDR Council to which I was elected last year (thank you, by the way, if you voted for me). Got up in the small hours, took the night bus to Heathrow, departed a little late due to fog, changed planes at Vienna. On the second plane I was given a traditional Croatian sweetmeat; the message on the wrapper conveyed a touch of Croatian self-satisfaction at having their country to themselves at last - a veiled triumphalism about the outcome of the vicious wars that convulsed this region only a few years ago?
Colleagues arrived on a slightly later plane and we all piled into taxis and away to the conference hotel - a glorious place, built in 1924 for travellers on the Orient Express and refurbished beautifully.
To work immediately: a pre-Council meeting over sandwiches on the sun-soaked terrace. Then off to the Council for the afternoon.
There was discussion of the worsening conditions for opposition parties in Russia, which include Yabloko, a member party of ELDR. Legislative changes raised the hurdles for opposition parties and restricted still further their already limited ability to criticise the regime. And Yabloko's candidates in St Petersburg were debarred by a dirty trick, as it seems to me, from standing in the recent local elections. This is an important straw in the wind, as this December there will be parliamentary elections in Russia and next year, presidential elections. The Russian people seem never to have had a chance for real democracy. The aims and objects of Yabloko, which I have read, are unthreatening: they want the things that are the fundamentals of a modern liberal and democratic state, and which I have no doubt that most ordinary Russian people would like; yet to judge by events in St Petersburg, corrupt electoral authorities are manipulating the system shamelessly to prevent the people from having that choice. Why? If President Putin is as popular as we are told, what has his regime to fear from free and fair elections? Are they not able to compete successfully in the marketplace of ideas? A mentality seems to pervade the ruling regime that manipulation and intimidation are preferable instruments to reasoned debate and discussion. Is their aim simply retention of power for its own sake? They can hardly seriously believe this results in good government. It is not a thing that thoughtful and reasonable people find easy to understand.
To friends and colleagues in Russia: I salute your courageous efforts. I hope you will overcome the obstacles to free and fair elections. I hope the people of Russia will, despite the regime's control of the media, find out the truth about these manipulations of the system and express their disapproval by voting for you.
After the item on Russia the ELDR Council discussed the proposed theme for the Autumn congress (to be held on 18th and 19th October in Germany). Then we voted for admission of a Moldovan party to the growing family of Lib Dem and Reform parties of Europe.
Then away to a dinner hosted by HNS, the Croatian liberal party. It was held in a sculpture gallery near the cathedral that dominates the city. (The cathedral, I found out, was once the easternmost outpost of Christianity and still has fortifications to show for it.) Then back to the hotel where some of us sampled the local plum brandy, sljivovica - powerful stuff. Slept very well.
Next morning a much reduced delegation attended a conference on the EU and Southeast Europe, in which Croatian political leaders shared their experiences of the process of accession negotiations. After that, a session on Serbia and the status of Kosovo, addressed by, among others, Ambassador Rohan, UN Deputy Special Envoy for Kosovo. This issue is extremely important for the stability of the region. I was impressed that despite the horrific events of the last decade or so there was some cause for hope that shared liberal democratic principles might enable political forces to emerge within and across the borders of Serbia and Kosovo that might end the cycle of confrontation and chaos in the area. In this regard ELDR is very clearly a force for good.
Than a few hours at leisure exploring Zagreb. I managed to see two museums and was almost the only visitor in each. Clearly the citizens had better things to do - it was glorious weather, and everyone seemed to be lounging about in cafes and bars, or buying and selling fruit and veg in the market, or at Mass in the cathedral.

No comments: