In the Company of Wealth

“Now, working elbow to elbow with billionaires, I was a giant fireball of greed.” –Sam Polk


BREAK it down: Obscenely rich people from 2013 meet in Davos, Switzerland, to discuss how to get ludicrously rich in 2014; Japan’s Abe reminds Western leaders that a new [Sino-Japanese] arms race in East-Asia could jeopardize their wealth; American companies don’t get rich fast enough in China, blame the government; and old Europe is kind of history.

Meeting of the “bosses”

For a couple of days, the world was held hostage by the wealthy notables of our species: The World Economic Forum has turned into the world’s biggest fete for greedy business elites, power-savvy political leaders, and hundreds of globally recognized public intellectuals who take the Davos Forum as serious as actors do the Academy Awards. Under this year's motto 'Reshaping of the World' “more than 1,500 business leaders from the Forum’s 1,000 Member companies took part,” says the website; and it continues: “more than 2,500 participants, including over 30 heads of state or government” attended the 44th World Economic Forum Annual Meeting. So, what did they talk about?

Japan is back, thanks to China

No one wanted to talk too much about the US, except about those unnecessary military campaigns and the surveillance of its friends, partners, and European allies. And if they had to comment on US economics, analysts did so in reference to China, as if they had to justify their shortcomings. But the true center stage of the World Economic Forum was taken by Japan. The third largest economy in the world seems to be only nation that has had enough of 'Socialism with Chinese characteristics' (that's how China calls its political and economic model) and urged the world community to stand up to China or else face dire consequences. Abe’s boldness might be remembered in the near future. So far, no other great power today, letting alone those tinsel nations of Europe, has had the confidence to openly confront China. Especially the Europeans fear that political pressure will cost them valuable market shares. China, meanwhile, has lost at least some respect for "tiny" economies. The People's Republic has already more billionaires than Germany, Britain, and France combined, but still counts itself as "developing country." Now, that's a scary thing, no?

China is the world’s greatest phenomenon

When Davos men talk about the future, it’s about 90% Asia. Have we finally come to an all-important transitory age when Asia returns to the center of the world? It is funny how the number of ‘China experts’ reached 50% of all economists attending. Just having visited Beijing, Shanghai, or Hong Kong once or twice, or having done business with a Chinese entrepreneur, will apparently qualify most Western CEOs and directors these days to make a bold statement about the past and future of the Chinese people. Being associated with China suddenly is a great prestige.

Europe declassed as “emerging country”

Your author truly felt sorry for the middle powers at Davos. The now have two superpowers that bully them around and take no orders. To make things worse, the Co-Chair of the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting jokingly demanded to “de-classify” Europe as “an emerging country.” Not in the history of the world since Nietzsche's contempt for Europe's "self-dwarfing" have we witnessed such spiritlessness. The Economist magazine even quoted a corporate chief calling Europe the “land of the living dead.”

In the aftermath of Davos

In two days (Jan 31) China will celebrate its New Year: The ‘Horse’ symbolizes impulsivity , performance, and stubbornness. The Economist, The World Street Journal, and The New York Times have already started a huge (synchronized?) media campaign against China, echoing Washington’s great frustration with the sages of Beijing. Apparently, competition with home-grown entrepreneurs got so fierce in the Chinese market (with unforeseen cultural obstacles such as language barriers, erratic consumer behavior, code of conduct, or just Chinese being smarter than Mr. Smith thought), that many Western companies (like Google and Facebook, etc.) took offence and blame the absence of democracy or the rule of law. In reality, of course, China wants to build its own champions (like Baidu and Weibo, etc.), with great successes. Alibaba, the internet market place, is already bigger than Amazon and eBay combined, reports US Businessweek.

What does 'Reshaping of the World' even mean?

Despite the hospitality of the "Swiss civilization" and the rare opportunity of buying a original Rolex, Cartier, or Breitling watch, the Swiss Alps can feel very cold and isolated from the rest of civilization. The gathering of so much privilege and power talking about the reshaping of our world makes the experience all the more surreal.

Image credit: Marc Herrmann/Shutterstock.com

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The death of Old Yugoslavia

Image: public domain

United Yugoslavia on a CIA map from 1990.

Wars are harder to finish than to start. Take for instance the Yugoslav Wars, which raged through most of the 1990s.

The first shot was fired at 2.30 pm on June 27th, 1991, when an officer in the Yugoslav People's Army took aim at Slovenian separatists. When the YPA retreated on July 7th, Slovenia was the first of Yugoslavia's republics to have won its independence.

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Image: Ijanderson977, CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Map of former Yugoslavia in 2008, when Kosovo declared its independence. The geopolitical situation remains the same today.

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So when was the last shot fired? Perhaps it wasn't: it's debatable whether the Yugoslav Wars are actually over. That's because Kosovo is a special case. Although inhabited by an overwhelming ethnic-Albanian majority, Serbians are historically very attached to it. More importantly, from a legalistic point of view: Kosovo was never a separate republic within Yugoslavia but rather a (nominally) autonomous province within Serbia.

Kosovo divides the world

Image: public domain

In red: states that recognise the independence of Kosovo (most EU member states – with the notable exceptions of Spain, Greece, Romania and Slovakia; and the U.S., Japan, Turkey and Egypt, among many others). In blue: states that recognise Serbia's sovereignty over Kosovo (most notably Russia and China, but also other major countries such as India, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa and Iran).

The government of Serbia has made its peace and established diplomatic relations with all other former Yugoslav countries, but not with Kosovo. In Serbian eyes, Kosovo's declaration of independence in 2008 was a unilateral and therefore legally invalid change of state borders. Belgrade officially still considers Kosovo a 'renegade province', and it actually has a lot of international support for that position (2).

The irony is that on the longer term, both Kosovo and Serbia want the same thing: EU membership. Ironically, that wish could lead to Yugoslav reunification some years down the road – within the EU. Slovenia and Croatia have already joined, and all other ex-Yugoslav states would like to follow their example. Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia have already submitted an official application. The EU considers Bosnia and Kosovo 'potential candidates'.

Kosovo is the main stumbling block on Serbia's road to EU membership. Even after the end of hostilities, skirmishes continued, between the ethnically Albanian majority and the ethnically Serbian minority within Kosovo, and vice versa in Serbian territories directly adjacent. Tensions are dormant at best. A renewed outbreak of armed conflict is not unthinkable.

Land for peace?

Image: BBC

Mitrovica isn't the only area majority-Serb area in Kosovo, but the others are enclaved and fear being abandoned in a land swap.

In fact, relations between Kosovo and Serbia have deteriorated spectacularly in the past few months. At the end of November, Kosovo was refused membership of Interpol, mainly on the insistence of Serbia. In retaliation, Kosovo imposed a 100% tariff on all imports from Serbia. After which Serbia's prime minister Ana Brnabic refused to exclude her country's "option" to intervene militarily in Kosovo. Upon which Kosovo's government decided to start setting up its own army – despite its prohibition to do so as one of the conditions of its continued NATO-protected independence.

The protracted death of Yugoslavia will be over only when this conflict is finally resolved. The best way to do that, politicians on both sides have suggested, is for the borders reflect the ethnic makeup of the frontier between Kosovo and Serbia.

The biggest and most obvious pieces of the puzzle are the Serbian-majority district of Mitrovica in northern Kosovo, and the Albanian-majority Presevo Valley, in southwestern Serbia. That land swap was suggested previous summer by Hashim Thaci and Aleksandar Vucic, presidents of Kosovo and Serbia respectively. Best-case scenario: that would eliminate the main obstacle to mutual recognition, joint EU membership and future prosperity.

If others can do it...

Image: Ruland Kolen

Belgium and the Netherlands recently adjusted out their common border to conform to the straightened Meuse River.

Sceptics and not a few locals warn that there also is a worst-case scenario: the swap could rekindle animosities and restart the war. A deal along those lines would almost certainly exclude six Serbian-majority municipalities enclaved deep within Kosovo. While Serbian Mitrovica, which borders Serbia proper, is home to some 40,000 inhabitants, those enclaves represent a further 80,000 ethnic Serbs – who fear being totally abandoned in a land swap, and eventually forced out of their homes.

Western powers, which sponsored Kosovar independence, are divided over the plan. U.S. officials back the idea, as do some within the EU. But the Germans are against – they are concerned about the plan's potential to fire up regional tensions rather than eliminate them.

In principle, countries consider their borders inviolate and unchanging, but land swaps are not unheard of. Quite recently, Belgium and the Netherlands exchanged territories so their joint border would again match up with the straightened course of the Meuse river (3). But those bits of land were tiny, and uninhabited. And as the past has amply shown, borders carry a lot more weight in the Balkans.

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