Small steps and (not so) great expectations. Notes from the Vienna Summit

This post was first published on the Balkans in Europe Policy Blog

The Viennese Hofburg makes for a grand setting for any summit. When Western Balkan governments met with EU officials and representative from some EU member states, most notably Germany and Austria, but also Croatia, Slovenia and Italy, the planned signal was to show that EU enlargement is alive, as is regional cooperation. In comparison to the first such summit last year in Berlin, the Vienna summit comes after a host of regional meetings that some have joked that the prime ministers of the region see each other more often than their own ministers. Regional cooperation has picked up steam, even if EU enlargement remains no closer for most of the region than a year ago. It is undeniable, however, that there is a slightly renewed dynamism. The refugee crisis might have dominated reporting and the official discussion, it also highlights the absurdity of the Western Balkans being outside the EU. We are witnessing tens of thousands of refugees crossing an EU and Schengen country to escape through two non-EU countries—Macedonia and Serbia—to get to another Schengen country—Hungary—that is building a fence like the one it dismantled at its Western border 26 years ago. The summit was unable to offer more than symbolic support to the countries where thousands of refugees are stranded in their parks and train stations.

The issue of refugees—mislabeled as migrants—overshadowed the summit, but as with any such summit, the key decisions and substances are taken in the weeks and months before. Thus the refugee crisis and the horrific death of some 70 refugees some 50 kilometers from the Hofburg on a highway overshadowed the summit, but did not drown it out.

The governments of the Western Balkans seemed mostly interested in infrastructure and money. The message was mixed as Serbian Prime Minister Vučić said that he did not consider the EU to be an ATM—discoving values to praise Serbia’s treatment of refugees in contrast to some EU members—Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama rather suggested that it is money from the EU he is after. Either way, both Prime Minsiters emphasised the need to support infrastructure.

There is little doubt that regional infrastructure is in need of updrading and joint projects, such as a highway linking Albanian, Kosovo and Serbia, can have a great impact. The risk is that the physical infrastructure overshadows other forms of cooperation. Here, lengthy preparation have yielded two encouraging results at the Vienna summit. The governments signed an agreement to establish a regional youth exchange system based on the German-French youth office. By next year’s summit in Paris there should be a treaty and structure ready for the formal establishment. Whith the involvements of youth ministries, committment for European and government funding, this project holds some promise for enhaning cooperation of citizens. Key will be not to crowd out already existing youth exchanges and cooperation.

Similarly the summit was unusual as civil society was involvement for the first time in such an event. Over 50 representative from regional NGOs, media, trade unions and civic activitsts meet on the eve of the conference and presented recommendations on job creation, mediea freedom and regional cooperation at the summit itself (BiEPAG and I were involved in the preperation of these events which were supported by the Erste Foundation, the Friedrich-Ebert-Foundation and the Karl-Renner-Foundation). The involvement of civil society was challenging as politicial leaders in the region are still not used to talking to civil society at eye level and civil society has come under pressure in several countries, such as Montenegro, Serbia or Macedonia. Not a single summit can change this dynamic, but at least the involvement of civil society by the Austrian Foreign ministry sent the signal that they should not be ignored.

Another important signal was the signing of a declaration on biltareral issues (BiEPAG prepared a study on bilateral issues for the Austrian Foreign Ministry and drafted the declaration). In the declaration, the Foreign Ministers committed themselves not to let bilateral issues stop the European initgration process of other countries in the region. This committment echos a similar one in the Brussels agreement between Serbia and Kosovo and a declaration of the Croatian parliament from 2011. However, for the first time, all countries of the Western Balkans signed up and also invited neighboring EU countries to join them (the message is clear, even if they are unlikely to join the committment). Furthermore, they agreed to report back on progress made at next years summit in Paris. This declaration came as Montenegro signed a border agreement with Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina on the eve of the sumit and Serbia and Kosovo agreed on key outstanding issues. The most serious bilateral issues involve EU and non-EU members (especially between Macedonia and Greece, but also the borders between Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia remain a potential source of tension) and there is no immedeate perspective of resolving them, but the declaration and the agreements signal that at least some potential sources of tensions can be settled.

The stars of the summit were Serbian and Albanian PMs Vučić and Rama who appeared together at a debate with civil society and the talk show «Okruženje». Demonstrably on a first name basis, Edi and Aleksandar played up their good ties to put pressure on the EU to deliver. This is a great shift from less than year ago when it took German intervention to get the two meet first and the abandonded Serbian-Albanian soccer game led to a war of words. However, now it appears like an elaborate game the two play in which regional cooperation is working as a distraction, especially for Vučić. As long as he delivers on regional cooperation and Kosovo, the EU and also Germany seem to avoid a second, more critcially look at how he is controling and micro-managing Serbia.

The Vienna summit could not address the creeping authoritarianism in the region, but when Gruevski scored two goals in the football game of politicians from the Western Balkans against the EU, there is certain irony and maybe symptomatic that somebody who was under strong pressure a few months ago and who clearly appears to have stretched democratic principles and rule of law can be leisurly kick a ball in the goal of the EU team in Vienna.

For a list of the final documents from the summit see here.

When Austria first discovered the Adriatic: Notes from an exhibition

I am re-blogging a post I wrote a few weeks back for Total Hvar on an exhibition in Vienna that is worth a visit:


The museum of the city of Vienna ) currently organizes an exhibition on the “Austrian Riviera. Vienna discovers the sea”  on how the Viennese and with them the upper and middle classes discovered the Adriatic in the 19th century.

While the exhibit mainly focuses on the prime destinations of the late Habsburg elite—Abbazia (today’s Opatija), the Brioni islands and the northern Adriatic, Hvar is also mentioned, especially Hygienische Gesellschaft Hvar and Hotel Elisabeth (today’s Hotel Palace).

After the Südbahn, the southern train line from Vienna to Trieste opened in 1857, a journey that took days was cut down to around 12 hours (not much slower than the same journey today). The Adriatic became for the first time accessible for a wider number of visitors from Vienna and elsewhere in the Habsburg Monarchy. The train line coincided with the beginnings of modern tourism and—as the exhibition explores—the first visitors mostly came in winter, traveling alone for health purposes, only a few decades later summer tourism emerged and upper-middle class families traveled for the summer to the Adriatic. After arriving in Trieste or later Rijeka, the tourists traveled onwards to Hvar and Stari Grad and elsewhere by steam boat. To make the new destinations attractive, they took their names from the Western Mediterranean that had already developed tourism: the Adriatic coast came to be known as the Austrian Riviera and Hvar as the Austrian Madeira.

The exhibition includes old time tables, paintings, objects, and photos. Old bathing suits and cartoons remind the viewer that women and men bathing together was controversial at the time. This is a fascinating exhibition that provides for a great journey into the past when the Adriatic was “discovered” and tourism had its beginnings. It is a pity that the exhibition did not reflect more on how this “discovery” fit into the larger identity of the Habsburg Empire. Graham Robb wrote a few years ago in his Discovery of France how infrastructure and tourism were part of the nation and state building process—train lines “shrank” the country and allowed citizens to discover “their” country. The title of the exhibition in Vienna—the “Austrian Riviera” suggests a similar process in the Habsburg Monarchy, but the main challenge here is the diversity of the country. The exhibition shows how the different traditions of Dalmatia were a source of exoticism and thus the appeal of the journey, but the growing political demands of Croats, Italians and Serbs of Dalmatia, however, were rather a threat for the Monarchy.


Photo from the Adriatic Exhibition 1913

The timing for the exhibit is perfect: exactly 100 years ago, on the eve of World War One, Vienna celebrated the Adriatic with the Adriatic Exhibition, a kind of early theme park complete with a mini replica of Venice and the rector’s palace of Dubrovnik. Over 2 million visitors visited Dalmatian villages, steam boats, slide shows of the journey. Thus those who could not afford the trip to the South could (pretend to) escape the capital of Monarchy for the day.


Cafe Dalmatia at the Adriatic Exhibition in 1913

There is also an impressive and very detailed catalog available accompanying the exhibition. The exhibition will run until late March 2014 at the Wien Museum (1040 Vienna, Karlsplatz 8). Further details here.

Croatia Referendum Shows Perils of Direct Democracy

Here is a comment I wrote for Balkan Insight on the recent referendum in Croatia. I have added two tables that compare support for EU membership and support for the constitutional definition of marriage as a union of a man and a woman.


Last Sunday Croatia held its third referendum in the last 23 years. In 1991 Croatian citizens voted whether to remain in Yugoslavia, in 2012 whether to join the EU and now on whether a marriage should be constitutionally defined as a union of a man and a woman. Hardly of the same caliber as the previous referenda, it passed with nearly a two third majority. The referendum was in fact a demonstration of the risks of direct democracy. Croatia already defines marriage as such, all be it not in the constitution. Furthermore, there is no effort to move towards giving same-sex partnerships equal status to marriages. As a result the initiators of the referendum—a previously unknown ultra-conservative group “In the name of the family” (with support of the Catholic Church)—achieved a success without any great legal consequence, but political significance.

Some commentators in Croatia and outside decried the result as evidence of a conservative, backward looking Croatia. This is, however, is one-sided reading of the referendum.  Firstly, only ten European countries open marriage to same-sex couples, all of them in Western and Northern Europe. Thus, Croatia is by no means exceptional. Five other EU member states ban same-sex marriage, namely Hungary, Bulgaria, Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania. According to the Rainbow Europe index of ILGA the main European group lobbying for equal rights of LGBT communities—measuring legal protection, human rights violations and social attitudes—Croatia ranked 13th among 49 countries in Europe, at similar levels to Austria, Finland, and well above Greece, Italy and all other countries of Central Europe except Hungary. Second, attitudes in Croatia are no particularly hostile towards gays and lesbians and opposition to opening marriage to homosexual is not particularly pronounced. There are few recent Europe-wide polls on levels of support for opening marriage to homosexual couples, but Eurobarometer numbers from 2006 indicate that the levels of the referendum outcome are do not make Croatia a conservative outlier. A 2012 study of the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency of discrimination against LGBT citizens in the EU (and future members) did find that Croatia ranks as the country with high level of LGBTs who experienced discrimination and harassment (60% experienced harassment or discrimination within the previous year), only Latvia has a higher level. The levels are similar in Italy, Cyprus and Poland. Thus, Croatia belongs to the countries of the EU that are more conservative in regard to LGBT citizens, but largely reflected Central and Southern European patterns.  Third, the turnout of the referendum was low, only 37.9% voted, thus with support for the initiative at 65.87% only a quarter of all Croatian voters endorsed the initiative.

Yet, the group and its referendum were successful. (below is added to the Balkan Insight Comment). Here it is worthwhile looking the 2012 referendum joining the EU. (added to the Balkan Insight Comment). As the table below shows, the support for limiting marriage is not inversely related to support for EU across counties in Croatia. In most counties citizens supported both. The only places where we can identify a clear discrepancy are Istria and the region around Rijeka where a majority voted again the prohibition of same-sex marriage, but for the EU.

Croatian ref percent

If we look at absolute numbers, see table below, a similar pattern emerges that support for accession to the EU was not lower where support for the recent referendum was high. The only region that is striking here is Split, where in fact more people voted in favor of the ban than voted in favor of joining the EU.

Croatian ref numbers

Thus, while there is a clear regional pattern of support and rejection of the ban on same-sex marriage (with more liberal regions in Istria,around Rijeka, and to a lesser degree in Zagreb and Medjumurje and more conservative regions in Dalmatia), it would be wrong to assume a straightforward liberal-conservative divide that translates to Euroskepticism. A second point of comparison is turnout (continued from the Balkan Insight comment). Turn out at the referendum is not as low as it would seem. Turnout in 2012 on joining the EU was less than 7 percent higher, 946.433 voted in favor of the ban, some 1.299.008 voted for joining the EU. Referenda often have low turn outs as they are usually able only to mobilize voters who are concerned with the issue at stake. It would be thus a mistake to consider the turn out a failure for the church and the groups that supported the initiative. The main successes reach beyond the referendum itself. For the first time, conservative groups in Croatia were able to gain main-stream support for a social issue, rather than a national issue. While popular support for “homeland war” can be more easily generated, Croatian society, as other post-Yugoslav societies, have been overall unresponsive to social conservative initiatives and policy agendas beyond national issues (borders, veterans, interpreting the past). The referendum suggests that a conservative social agenda might gather popular support. Such campaigning is likely to be polarizing and cannot capture a majority, but can energize the conservative spectrum of the electorate. Not unlike the Tea Party in the US, such an agenda is unlikely to be sustainable in the mid-term or to gain a majority, but it can dictate the debate. Finally, this referendum opens the door to potentially other referenda. It remains to be seen how serious the threats of nationalist groups in Vukovar are to seek a referendum on banning Cyrillic, but the success provides an incentive for the opposition to by-pass representative democracy and impose a conservative agenda through referenda (or their threat). Slovenia has had some similar experiences with multiple referenda in 2010-2012, mostly initiated by opposition groups that among others blocked pension reform and a law that would have put same-sex partnerships on equal footing with marriage. The threshold for holding a referendum in Croatia is higher (10% of all registered voters), but the success of the referendum against same-sex marriage highlights the ability to reach the number of required signatures if the issue has a polarizing effect and well-organised groups stand behind the initiative.

Thus, the referendum is less the evidence of a backward and conservative Croatia, but of the risks and potential of using polarizing social issues to dictate the policy agenda.

Ready for the Homeland? Šimunić and a bit of normal fascism

After the end of the soccer qualifier for the World Cup between Island and Croatia two days ago, Josip Šimunić took a microphone and shouted “Za dom” (for the homeland) and the fans in the stadium screamed back “spremni” (ready). This is no ordinary slogan, but was the salute of the fascist “Independent State of Croatia” and has been used by extreme nationalist groups in the 1990s. It is the equivalent of shouting “Seig Heil” at a German soccer game.  After coming under fire for the incident, Šimunić defended himself, arguing that “I associate home with love, warmth and positive struggle – everything that we showed on the pitch to win our place in the World Cup… Some people have to learn some history. I’m not afraid. I’m supporting my Croatia, my homeland. If someone has something against it, that’s their problem.” Of course, it is he, who has to learn some history. While the salute has its origins predating World War Two, it is tainted by the use by the Ustaša regime. The blantant display of extreme nationalism during a sport event is of course nothing new either in Croatia or other countries of the region and maybe it forces a greater degree of dealing with the use of extremist and fascist symbols in the public space in Croatia.The response by media and most politicians was clear and condemn the incident, as did many fans on online portals. However, as columnist Boris Dežulović points out, the problem is less that Šimunić shoted “Za dom”, but that thousands shouted back “spremni”. This exchange  points to a failure of the state and society to openly deal with the past, both of World War Two and of the war in the 1990s and to build a social consensus that makes the open use of fascist symbols unacceptable. The salute is not banned and in a different case, a court found a man evoking “za dom spremni” not guilty of hate speech. Courts are also ill suited to confront flirting with fascism, as concerts by singer Thompson demonstrate. The symbolic references to the Ustaše are clear, but they do not need to be explict enough to make courts effective. It is the ambiguity on which extreme right wing politicians thrive elsewhere as well.

The main concern is that these symbols become or remain “normal” and part of the mainstream and thus using them does not put you at the margins of society. The incident in the stadium takes place in the context of polarization in Croatia over the introduction of cyrillic script on public buildings in Vukovar. While the groups that kepts smashing the cyrillic signs are marginal, they contribute to “normalise” that the use of a script is a threat to the nation or disrespectful towards war veterans. It seems like a contradiction that these incidents occur now that Croatia joined the EU and last year saw the release of Ante Gotovina from the ICTY, seemingly putting a symbolic end to the war era.

There are three ways to think about it: First, the regime of Tudjman, while officially distancing itself from fascist Croatia, began the ambigious use of fascist symbols and references, that brought it to the mainstream and it never really left. Second, just like ten years ago when the HDZ used nationalism to bring down the first post-Tudjman government through mass rallies in defense of generals accused of war crimes, nationalist incidents and protests are a resource for the opposition to weaken the government. When evoking the war, the assumption is that by setting the agenda (war and homeland rather than reform or economic isssues), it would benefit more the nationalist opposition than the government. Third, after reaching the strategic goal of joining the EU, Croatia is now just a normal, ordinary country, with high unemployment and little to no growth for five years. The everyday fascism is a way to distract from this dull reality.  Probably, it is the combination of these factors that makes such incidents possible. If this leads to a broader debate in Croatia on what symbols and slogans are socially acceptable and which ones are not, Šimunić might have done Croatia  service, but not in the way he thought.

Secessionist conflicts: A new book and some thoughts on inclusiveness

I had the pleasure to participate in a book launch last Friday at the Hungarian Institute of International Affairs, of the book “Secessionist Movements and Ethnic Conflict” by Beata Huszka. It’s nice to see this book come out after having been a member of the PhD defense at CEU where the original doctoral thesis was defended a few years ago.

This is an interesting study that makes the argument that secessionist movements have three frames in which they contextualize and mobilize for secession, an ethnic threat frame, a democracy and a prosperity frame. Depending on which frame is used, the movement is more or less inclusive. Of course, the ethnic threat frame is the most exclusive and thus not only excludes minorities, but also increases the risk of violence. As the book shows–it is based on the case study of the independence movements in Slovenia, Croatia and Montenegro–these choices are not entirely up to the secessionist movements and the context and in particular the behaviour the centre matters greatly.  As such, this book strikes a good balance in making a constructivist argument about the decision of secessionist leaders how to frame the movement and the constraints they operate in. The more oppressive the centre is  and if it seeks to encourage local minorities to resist secession, the ethnic frame is likely to dominate. While the findings are themselves not earth-shattering, it is a good book, as it not only well researched and looks at the dissolution of Yugoslavia through then lens of demands of self-determination movements, but also because it raises questions about the inclusiveness of these movements.

The ability to make an inclusive case of secession is arguably not only constrained by the attitudes of the centre, but also by the need to forge a coherent and revolutionary movement. After all, seeking a new country is a risky strategy that comes at a high potential cost. If the centre behaves violently the case is more easily made and the state quo seems less sustainable, in addition, it would seem easier to convince citizens to follow such a movement, if identity is threatened rather than just promising a better life. As a result, there appears to be a trade-off between inclusiveness and passion a self-determination movement can evoke.

Notes from Ditchley


I returned a few ago from a very interesting conference at Ditchley on the Western Balkans. The discussions with policy makers and analysts did not raise any radical new ideas, but it was good opportunity to take the temperature on thinking about and from the region. It was also a lesson in bad metaphors. Many felt that carrots and sticks are not working, but theories why differed: People in the Balkans prefer meat to carrots or the carrot is actually a stick. Either way, the days of carrots and sticks seems to be over (nobody mentioned that the metaphor implies that the person in question is either a horse or a donkey).

There was broad consensus that overall things were heading in the right direction, but there were a number of warnings: many (but not all) thought that the state of democracy & rule of law and lack of deep rooted reforms in the economy will continue to be a source of difficulties in the years to come. There was a bit of a divide between a number of Western policy makers who felt that the EU and its member states were doing enough to bring the countries of the region into the EU and that it was up to political elites to make an extra effort and a number of analysts who thought the EU should do more and make the membership perspective more realistic. A specific suggestion was for the EU to begin accession talks with all countries of the region as soon as possible rather than wait for each country on their own to fulfill the specific conditions. Once talks begin–the symbolic year of 2014 was mentioned as start date–the negotiation process will force countries to shape up and carry out reforms in a manner that is unrealistic prior to the beginning of talks. It seemed clear that such a scenario is unrealistic at the moment with a many member states skeptical about enlargement and afraid (although unjustifiably so–see Turkey) that accession talks would lead to membership ‘on the sneak’. A problem that has become more pronounced in recent years is the use of individual member states to use the accession process to set additional conditions. This has made the accession process less predictable as the Commission cannot guarantee the next step in the process as individual countries might block whatever comes next for unexpected reasons that have little to do with accession. Of course, this also undermines the credibility of EU accession. The current approach of the Commission to launch dialogues with countries without accession talks has been a good way forward but without beefing up the DG Enlargement this cannot be expanded more broadly.

The most encouraging signals came over the Serbia-Kosovo talks which are expected to lead to some tangible conclusions before the summer and when the current window of opportunity might close. On the other hand, Bosnia was much discussed, but there were few new ideas on how to help the country out of its current deadlock.

I found it encouraging that there is a clear sense that incrementalism is the way forward, there is not going to be a big bang, but rather small steps that will change the region and resolve the open questions. For this to be successful, one needs to overcome the dynamics of what one participants aptly called the EU member states pretending to enlarge and elites in the Western Balkans pretending to reform.

A European Journey from Zagreb to Graz

In Graz, everybody discussing Southeastern Europe, including myself, is eager to point out that Zagreb is closer than Vienna. Of course, this might be true in terms of kilometers, but not necessarily if measured by hours travelling. If you take a car, the journey for the less than 200 kilometers is a quick two hours, but if public transport is your choice (or not) things look different.  If one wants to travel directly between the two cities, there is a bus at 6 am, a train at 7.30 and finally one more bus at 23.00. These take a breathtaking four hours to Graz (average speed 50 kilometers per hour)

Those not lucky to catch these trains or buses will have to take a slightly longer journey, as I did today.

The not-too-friendly at the ticket counter give me a flyer with my connection predicting an sobering 7 hour journey. I got on the intercity “Sava” from Belgrade to Munich. I remember the cars of the Yugoslav railways, when I took them for the first time 20 years ago, back than surprisingly how new they were. How could the Yugoslav railways (the Yugoslavia which was just Serbia and Montenegro) have new cars, when everything around it was collapsing, under sanctions. Now, the cars looks appropriately worn. The Yugosphere is alive and well with exchange of crude graffiti between supporters of Delije and Ustasha in the toilets, where they belong.

At the border, the Slovenian carina official kept shouting at a hapless Bulgarian “nešto za prijaviti” and the other passengers gladly repeated after the customs official in both Serbian and Croatian prijaviti, prijaviti. The customs official got increasingly aggressive amidst his disbelief that this word could not be the same in all world languages (or at least all of the ones spoken in the Balkans). After all this, is a Schengen border, the EU begins here and displaying good old habits marking ones national sovereignty with rudeness are now Europeanised.

A friendly Serbian waiter came shouting through the car “restaurant arbeiten—restauran radi”, but not enough time before Zidani Most, a little hamlet in a valley between Celje and Ljubljana. When I first changed trains here two decades ago, I thought I had arrived in the wild gorges of the Balkans, but it is only a charming train stop at the end of the Alps. A place nicer when driving through than when stopping. Mentally preparing for an hour stay here, a train rolls into the station that my Croatian timetable kept from me. Stopping in every village to Maribor, I might even arrive earlier in Graz. Maribor is only an hour and a half away from the stony bridge and Boris Kidrič continues to welcome new arrivals.

An elderly lady sells a little knitted Slovenia map, another one offers a  little kitchy cityscape drawn (or rather burnt) on wood and as additional incentive to make the purchase, engraved on top “Maribor European Capital of Culture 2012”. A few colorful cubes mark the main squares and a two car rail bus slowly moves towards the border, Spielfeld-Strass. In order to honor Maribor become cultural capital, the train connection between Graz and Maribor, some 50 kilometers apart has been cut down to two direct trains a day (despite “EuroregionMaribor-Graz and nice headlines such as Graz and Maribor are getting closer together in the local newspaper).

At the border, the two trains approached each other like for a cold war prisoner exchange. The Slovenian train and the Austrian train meet head to head, spit out their passengers and took the ones from the other side. Nobody was left behind. So when the local train (called Wiesel or in English Weasel) pulled into Graz, it took only five and a half hours instead of the feared seven.

Thus, one year before Croatia joins the European Union, getting from Zagreb to the European capital of culture 2012 and on to Graz is a journey at an average speed of less than 50 kilometers per hour, taking not much more time than the journey did over 100 years ago. My Baedeker Austria-Hungary from 1905 tells me that it take two hours from Agram to Steinbrück (Zidani Most to Zagreb today, one and half hours ) and around three and a half hours from Steinbrück to Gratz (today anywhere between two and a half and three hours).

After the five and a half hours, four trains, three changes, and two cultural capitals, Croatia’s EU integration felt like a virtual world, far removed from the stuffy, torn up trains that make this a journey at the borders, not the centre of Europe as it should be.

When Bosnia was Divided in Graz

Only a month had passed since the beginning of the war in Bosnia when the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadžić meet with new strong man in the Bosnian Croat HDZ Mate Boban for a secret meeting at the Graz airport on 6 May 1992. At this point, the HDZ was still formally a coalition partner to the Muslim SDA in the Bosnian government, but this alliance was quickly unraveling. It was thus that this meeting was officially “secret”, even though the Austrian media, including the state broadcaster ORF, and later the international press reported extensively from this event. The content of this meeting remained silent, as there was no official announcement and the Croat delegation left the five hour meeting without speaking to journalists. Karadžić however revealed to reporters and, as the Austrian daily “Die Presse“ notes on 7.5.1992,  that the talks focused on the “cantonization of Bosnia”. Already at the time, Austrian tabloids speculated, as it turns out rightly, whether the meeting had as its goal the partition of Bosnia.

Karadzic at the Graz Airport, 6 May 1992

The meeting in Graz between Boban and Karadžić follows an earlier, better known meeting between the Serbian and Croat preisdents, Slobodan Milošević and Franjo Tudjman, in March 1991 in Titos old hunting lodge where both had already agreed on the partition of Bosnia. How much Karadžić and Boban received the backing of the two republics also became obvious as Karadžić arrived with the plan of the Yugoslav government and Boban with a car of the Croatian authorities.

So what did Boban and Karadžić agree on in Graz? Despite speculation about the partition of Bosnia by media and frequent reference to the agreement during trials at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, the content remains largely unknown. Neverthless, the Bosnian daily “Oslobodjenje“ proved to be well informed a few days after teh meeting, correctly identifying the content of the agreement. The agreement itself was later published by the Croatian politician Zdravko Tomić. Austrian journalists noticed that the Croat and Serb delegation focused on a large Bosnian map showing the demographic distribution. The Agreement indeed focused on drawing a line of division between Croat and Serb spheres of influence in Bosnia, effectively dividing the country without the third and largest community being represented at the table.

Croat and Serb representatives do not agree on all matters in Graz. While Karadžić considers the river Neretva the border between Serb and Croat territories in Herzegovina, the Croat delegation supports the border of the 1939 Croat banovina instead. In the North of Bosnia the two delegations agree on the division of territory along the strategically important Posavina corridor that connects the region around Banja Luka with Serbia. The Agreement concludes that „as a consequence of what has been agreed there is no reason for further armed conflicts between Serbs and Croats on the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina “.

Kleine Zeitung, 7 May 1992

The Agreement does not in a single word mention the Muslim population (not to mention anybody else). This is particularly absurd when dividing Mostar, the scene of intense battles between Croat and Bosnian government forces just a year later. The agreement notes that Croats claim all of the city, while Serbs see the Neretva river once more as the line of division.

During his trial at the ICTY Karadžić noted the importance of the agreement as it largely put an end to the Serb-Croat conflict. Similarly the well respected Serbian journalist Miloš Vasić noted in 1993 that the Grazer Agreement constituted „perhaps the single most important document of the Bosnian war“, as it enabled the Bosnian Serb army to focus on Muslim targets and prepared the ground for the two side war against the Bosnian government in 1993.

The maps on which the nationalist leaders drew new borders have been rolled out before Graz: The European Community represented by Portugese diplomat José Cutileiro suggest the creation of ethnically defined cantons already in February 1992 at the insistence of nationalist politicians. The division of Bosnia also had been decided already in 1991. In Graz, however, new borders were drawn for the first time and one conflict, the Croat-Serb one in Bosnia, came to an end so that the overall war would continue much longer. The consequence of the agreement was the Croat-Muslim war within the war which only came to an end in 1994 with the Washington Agreement, a prerequisite for the Dayton Peace Agreement.

What remains of the Graz Agreement? With more than three years of war with and some 100,000 victims, the borders Boban and Karadžić drew in Graz were drawn and redrawn, some changed, others remained the same. The border between the Croat and Serb dominated regions of Herzegovina is similar to the 1939 Croat banovina, as Croat negotiators in Graz had hoped. The Posavina region has remained under control of the Serb Republic, even if it is divided by the District of Brčko. More important than the maps is the idea that Bosnia should be divided along ethnic lines. Despite (or because of) the Dayton Peace Agreement and extensive international support for refugee return, most of Bosnia remains divided into ethnically largely homogenous regions. The Graz agreement is thus a reminder 20 years after its conclusion of the failure of international mediation and ruthlessness of nationalist “leaders” to divided lands without any consideration of the people living there. While Mate Boban died in 1997 and Radovan Karadžić stands trial in The Hague, their ideas, maps and plans remain alive.

(thanks to Nidžara Ahmetašević and Iva Komšić  for researching the background materials).

The surprising-unsurprising “Yes” for the EU in Croatia

The referendum on EU accession of Croatia gave a resounding “Yes” in favor of joining the EU. According to the final results, 66.27% of citizens who turned out voted in favor. The No vote got only  a third of the vote. Striking is that every county of Croatia voted in favor of joining the EU, even the most Eurosceptic region of Dubrovnik-Neretva stilled voted 56.93% in favor. The regional variation is thus not very great and there is no clear regional pattern except for the two southern regions of Split and Dubrovnik being more skeptical. Support was great in towns close to the EU, such as Varazdin and Cakovec, but also in poorer towns and regions like Slavonski Brod or Gospic. This suggests that the reasons for support were multiple. Opponents of the EU did not do well, even in strong-holds of more nationalist parties, such as in Slavonia where the HDSSB did well in parliamentary elections. Ironically, it would seem that the Euroskeptics did best on the Dalmatian islands of Brac and Hvar. For example in the two municipalities of Jelsa and Stari Grad on the Island of Hvar, support for EU accession was just above 50% (51.16% and 51.79% respectively). This would also suggest that rejection of the EU is less based on the nationalist arguments heard in the referendum campaign, but possibly on the sense of some tourist destinations that membership will not bring an tangible benefits. The few Bosnian Croats that voted (just over 6000, or 2.3% of eligible voters) endorsed EU membership with 87.85%.

The turn out in the diaspora was low, but so was it in Croatia itself. This somewhat puts a dent into the referendum results. Only 43.68% of eligible citizens voted. The low turn out is not unique to Croatia: elsewhere similar referenda often had an equally low turn out. Now it could be argued that the result is no surprise. No significant parliamentary party campaign against joining and even Ante Gotovina in custody at the ICTY endorsed the vote, undermining nationalist argument against accession. So no surprise? Well, there might not have been no surprise now, but only a year ago, Euroskepticism was high. Protests last year in Zagreb burnt the EU flag, even if protestors agreed on little else. For years prior, Croatia had become by far the most Euroskeptic country in the region. In 2009, according to the Gallup Balkan Monitor, only 26.2% of Croats thought the EU was a good thing, nearly half of the runner-up Serbia, in 2010 the number dropped to 24.8%. So were the numbers wrong? The referendum suggests two things about support for EU accession in the Western Balkans: First, citizens might be growing weary of the EU as negotiations drag on, once they are concluded, it is easier to warm up to the EU. Second, many citizens might not “love” the EU, but they consider it the least bad option. Thus among many “Yes” voters in Croatia today are surely also those who rather not take any chances, especially as the alternative remained unclear and potentially risky. Thus, even if support for accession is likely drop in the other countries of the region–as it so often dues in the accession process–this does not suggest that citizens will vote against membership at the end.

A semi-surprising outcome of elections in Slovenia and Croatia

Ballot Paper for the Croatian elections: evil and lesser evil

A few days a ago, I had the chance to discuss the outcome of the parliamentary elections in Slovenia and Croatia (see here for the podcast). The fact that the incumbents lost the elections was no surprise. Not only is the current economic climate across Europe such that incoming governments have little chance of winning elections, no matter whether they are from the left or right, but also opinion polls in Croatia and Slovenia had predicated a resounding loss of the governing coalitions and parties. The main surprise was the victory of Positive Slovenia led by Ljubljana’s mayor Zoran Jankovic and founded only six weeks ago.

A striking feature of both elections in Slovenia and Croatia is the decline of the extreme right. Even though both elections were fought under the impression of a severe economic crisis and popular dissatisfaction, the extreme right could not benefit. For the first time since 1992, the Slovene National Party did not win a seat in parliament. In Croatia, the extreme right was represented by a confusing number of incarnations of the Croatian Party of Right, winning an all time low of one seat (the Croatian Party of Right running alone and winning no seat, the Croatian Party of Right-Ante Starcevic running with the Croatian Party of Pure Rights winning one seat and another autochtonous Croatian Party of Right). For full results see the final report of the election commission.

Of course, this does not mean that there were no populists winning elections. The ruling HDZ campaign on nationalist themes (unsuccessfully), denying national legitimacy to the opposition. It also formed a regional coalition with the populist mayor of Split Zeljko Kerum. The winner of Slovene elections is a populist, although more of the center left and the second party, the Slovene Democratic Party of Janez Jansa is heavily drawing on populist themes and seeks confrontation on classic national-populist themes.

The new centre-left governments in both countries have daunting tasks ahead of them. They have to engage in painful economic reforms and not just make few changes, but alter the very structure of the economic system. Even if Slovenia has been government mostly by centre-left governments since independence and Croatia by conservatives, there is a broad shared social support in the countries for a state that provides extensive services, be it in regard to health and social benefits or for employment. Such a state seems in both countries currently no longer sustainable. Thus “slimming down” the state will be inherently unpopular and left-wing coalitions will be forced to pursue neo-liberal reforms. This will make it likely that both new governments—if Jankovic is able to form a coalition—will quickly become deeply unpopular. Unless they are able to turn a corner in terms of economic growth quickly, they both seem likely to be replaced at the next elections, or even earlier. There is in fact a sense of deja vue in both countries. In Slovenia, the coalition seems like to be sabotaged by the abuse of referenda—the strategy employed by Jansa’s SDS in the past. In Croatia, the uncompromising position of Jadranka Kosor on election night suggests that HDZ might try to sabotage the government from the streets, a successfully strategy of Ivo Sanader’s HDZ ten years ago. Now, it might not be over war crimes, but economic cuts. While it does seem likely that the new governments will become unpopular, it remains still unclear on what the alternatives will be. Jansa’s SDS seems to be struggling to be electable to a majority of Slovenes and HDZ will have to decide between just reinventing itself or finally reforming itself, if it can.


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