Clashes in Bujumbura on May 31
Jean-Philippe Rémy

BUJUMBURA — When she goes out alone of Burundi's capital, Valerie has started wearing trousers in case she has to run or is dragged to the ground. On this day, Bujumbura is sunny with a light breeze coming off Lake Tanganyika — still her heart is beating fast.

Valerie (not her real name) is always bracing herself for the "violence and blows" she anticipates will come from security forces, just like the last protest she attended, when women who were already on the ground were kicked in the face, the back, all over their bodies.

She describes herself as a "state employee, a widow, a Catholic," and she is one of the brave protesters ready to march again against Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza's bid to seek a third term in office.

The crisis broke out in late April, when the ruling party nominated Nkurunziza to be the candidate in the election initially planned for June 26. A coalition of opposition parties and organizations who were readying themselves for the election organized the first demonstrations against a third mandate, pointing out how another term would contradict the Constitution and the Arusha Peace Agreement signed 15 years ago.

Demonstrations have continued since then, with the ongoing unrest partly responsible for the decision to postpone the election by a month.

Protest marches are happening primarily in neighborhoods where there is strongly established opposition, especially the Movement for Solidarity and Development (MSD), whose leaders are either forced into secrecy or exiled, and the Front for Democracy in Burundi (FRODEBU). Demonstrations are notably absent in towns such as Kamenge, held by the governing party, or in posh areas such as Kiriri.

The usually peaceful Lake Tanganyika — Photo: Mutua Matheka via Instagram

Valerie comes from Kinanira III, a military neighborhood close to the stronghold of those who attempted a coup last month by seizing the national TV and radio stations. In the mornings in Kinanira III, young people here can be seen rebuilding their barricades to prevent cars from circulating.

Answering with guns

Despite such occasional signs of open opposition, the movement is under siege. Security forces are firing every day, lately even at night. And they are helped by civilian supporters of the ruling party, including the much-feared Imbonerakure youth movement whose members are armed and violent.

Nkurunziza was conspicuously absent from last weekend's crisis meeting in Tanzania, where East African leaders gathered to discuss the instability his reelection bid has created. He sent two representatives instead: Willy Nyamitwe, his PR adviser who's had a leading role since the crisis began, and his brother Alain, who was recently recalled from his position as ambassador in Addis Ababa to become foreign minister.

The absence of Rwandan President Paul Kagame was also notable. He's been a vocal opponent of Nkurunziza's third-term bid and has warned that the political crisis could descend into anti-Tutsi ethnic tensions and violence. Conflict between Hutu and Tutsi were largely responsible for a 12-year civil war in Burundi that ended in 2005.

More than 40 people have been killed since this latest series of protests began, and over the past few days explosive devices have been detonated in central Bujumbura. There have been threats against the Burundian Red Cross, which has ceased to report casualty figures. A reliable source in town that collects information from hospitals says there have been more than 50 people killed and more than 500 wounded, often by gunfire. More than 800 demonstrators have been arrested, with some detained in unofficial cells.

Yet Nkurunziza stands firm. He will seek reelection, and there's no risk he'll lose.

The protest movement is no longer just about the president's eligibility to serve another term. "It's a deep crisis, and even if it's solved on the surface, it will leave marks," respected intellectual Willy Nindorera said when the tensions first began.

But since then, Nindorera, like all of his peers, has learned to hold his tongue, fearing retribution.

"I'm not sleeping at my place anymore," says demonstrator Jérémie Minani, who's wanted by the police. "There's an extreme ferocity on the part of the police. We're out in the streets, and we'll stay there. It's our only weapon."

The Catholic Church has distanced itself from the electoral commission, which saw two of its leaders flee and go into hiding. Members of the European Union's election observation mission packed their bags a few days ago.

Frédéric Bamvuginyumvira, deputy leader of the FRODEBU party, is growing increasingly worried." The Burundian administration has convinced itself that the demonstrations were not about politics but rather a Tutsi conspiracy to seize power."

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Economy

European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


-Analysis-

BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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