The Balkans: Back on the radar?

Below is a short commentary I wrote for Turkish Weekly on how the Balkans emerged on the international agenda for the wrong reasons.

The term “Balkans route” and images of thousands of refugees crossing Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, and Croatia brought the Balkans back onto Europe’s headlines and into its policy considerations. The hundreds of thousands of people crossing the region stretched governments and their support services to maximum capacity. For fear of being “stuck” with unwanted and unwilling refugees, long-term planning was kept to a minimum with most governments acting as second-rate travel agencies, shipping refugees from their borders in the east or south to the north and west (or having private companies profit from charging refugees for the ride). A groundswell of civic initiatives compensated for government neglect. Every signal from Germany was nervously observed as affected countries contemplated whether opening or closing their borders should be the next step. In the end, the flow of refugees acted to spur the generation of bad blood among neighbors, while otherwise having a limited impact. The only elections to take place in the Balkans during the height of the refugee flow occurred in Croatia, and here the nationalist opposition, which openly called for the closure of Croatia’s borders, failed to benefit from the “crisis”.

Still, the refugee “crisis” has left its traces in the Balkan region. It highlighted a region without European leadership and without the EU as an important actor. When governments met to manage the refugee flow, they included EU and non-EU countries. The conflicts between countries involved both those that were EU and non-EU members, and there was little in the way of telling the difference. Hungary set up barbed wire fences not just on its border with non-EU Serbia but also with EU Croatia, and Slovenia equally reinforced its border with Croatia. The weakness of the EU in this instance sends a worrying signal to the region, whose main engine for reform has been the promise—however remote—of EU integration.

The impact of the war in Syria and the rise of ISIS in the Middle East has been the growth of terrorism in Europe. In Western Europe, this has led to the rising popularity of xenophobic, anti-Muslim parties and heated and often poisonous debates about the integration of immigrant populations. In the Balkans the main debate has revolved around the radicalization of young Muslims. The number of ISIS recruits from Kosovo and Bosnia has been high in comparison to the size of these countries’ populations, yet it is dwarfed by the total number of foreign fighters originating from West European countries. Despite a few incidents, in particular in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2015, these volunteers do not appear to pose a threat to regional security. However, they point to larger underlying challenges, namely the alienation of young Bosnians or Kosovars from their parents, the nation-building project, and the weakness of state and established institutions, including Islamic communities themselves.

The weakness of the state and the predatory control of political parties over state institutions remains the main risk in the region. The political crisis in Macedonia can be seen as the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Here, the opposition’s revelation of incriminating voice recordings involving the prime minister and leading party and government officials suggest massive abuse of office, including widespread corruption and the manipulation of the electoral process. It remains an odd coincidence that the shootout in the town of Kumanovo occurred in the midst of this crisis. While it raised the fear of renewed ethnic strife, the response thereto and its quick de-escalation suggest that the incident does not reflect a broader crisis in ethnic relations, but rather a distraction from the government crisis. In this case, the EU eventually hammered out a political solution for the country in the form of a transition period leading up to early elections. To date, it seems that this agreement has helped to secure the political survival of Prime Minister Gruevski, and it has certainly sent the signal that one can get away with perpetrating serious violations of democratic norms and still remain a partner of the EU.

In December 2015, Montenegro was invited to join NATO, thus constituting the first enlargement of the alliance since 2008. Together with the beginning of EU accession talks with Serbia, this could be seen as a signal that despite the multiple crises facing the Euro-Atlantic institutions, integration remains alive. Nonetheless, it is still worrying that EU and NATO institutions, as well as their constitutive member governments, have stayed relatively silent on the increasing authoritarianism in the region. In Montenegro, opposition protests have focused their attentions on NATO membership, but in effect they have actually been an effort to challenge the 25 year rule of Prime Minister Djukanović (in different functions). In Serbia, the government of Vučić has come to exhibit growing authoritarian reflexes, symptoms of which may be seen as the increased tendency towards self-censorship within the media and constant attacks by media outlets loyal to the regime on the political opposition, critical media, and independent institutions. As all of these regimes rely on informal mechanisms to consolidate their control, dissimilar to the constitutional re-designs a la Viktor Orban in Hungary, or recently in Poland, the authoritarian grip on power is less visible and difficult to quantify.

The Serbian government has been able to garner support from the West for its constructive engagement with Kosovo (while simultaneously engaging in massive campaigns against it, including that challenging its UNESCO membership) and moderate regional policies. In this context, high-profile anti-corruption campaigns complete with arrests can conveniently cover-up the lack of genuine reforms in the region. The result is a regional two-level game characterized by increasing regional cooperation on the one hand, as reflected in the successful Vienna summit in August 2015 that consolidated the “Berlin Process” bringing together the Western Balkans with supportive EU partners and the EU institutions themselves, and increasing authoritarianism at home on the other. To date, both processes have run in parallel and in fact enabled one another—the country with the weakest government, Kosovo, has also seen the most serious challenge to cooperation in the shape of the opposition’s rejection of compromises with Serbia.

However, there are structural tensions between good neighbourly relations abroad and populist-authoritarian rule at home. For now the main resource of authoritarian populists is the supposed reform and anti-corruption effort, but fear of the other can be conveniently revived when needed, and all populist governments of the region have resorted to this strategy at their convenience.

Thus, while renewed EU interest in the Western Balkans bore fruit in 2015, a way to address the structural risks facing the Balkans today has not yet been found—of course these challenges effect not only the Balkans, but other countries as well, including some EU member states.

Another unnecessary election in Serbia

 

VUCIC MIHAJOVIC STEFANOVIC GASIC MIROVIC

One man show (source N1)

Serbia has held parliamentary elections in 1990, 1992, 1993, 1997, 2000, 2003, 2007, 2008, 2012, 2014 and will hold early elections in  2016. This is not to mention the elections of the parliament of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1992, 1992/3, 1996 and 2000.

A citizen who turned 18 in 1990 thus could vote 15 times for parliament in two and a half decades, not to mention the ten presidential elections since 1990. If the frequency of elections where a standard of the quality of democracy,  Serbia would be a great democracy–it is not. Of the 11 Serbian parliamentary elections in the 26 years since the introduction of a multiparty system, 7 were early elections. Some where held because the governing coalition broke apart (i.e. 2008), but most were the result of the ruling party trying to secure an advantage by calling early elections.None of these elections is as gratuitous as the one called just now by Prime Minister Vučić. In the 2014 elections the Serbian Progressive Party secured a majority with 48.35%, greater than any party before it, including the Socialist Party under Milošević at its most successful poll in 1990. It could have ruled alone with a majority of 158 seats of 250, but decided to form a coalition with the Socialists. Its grip on power is strong and there is no conceivable reason why early elections would be necessary (I made a similar argument in 2012, sorry for being repetitive, but it ain’t me calling early elections).

Calling early elections is in the toolbox of populist rulers with an authoritarian streak. Tudjman used a similar tactic in 1995 after the military victory over the rebel Serbs and Gruevski has been calling early elections in Macedonia in the past (even the ones in April are forced by him against the oppositions will).

But why hold elections when you hold a majority in parliament? Such a step might seem risky for an incumbent. After all, one might loose power (and indeed this was the case for Milošević in 2000 and Tadić in 2012).

For Vučić, there are first strategic calculations. Using a high level of popularity and a disunited weak opposition is a good opportunity to put some more year in power “in the bank”–who knows what will be when the next regular elections are due? Furthermore, frequent elections campaigns prevent the opposition from recovering from previous defeats and perpetuates a weak opposition.

There are also more systemic reasons for early elections: As a populist incumbent, Vučić can use elections to mobilize voters and rule as a campaigner. A populist in power is always caught between speaking in the name of the people against the elite–whatever it may be–while actually establishing a new elite. This balancing act is facilitated by elections which pit us vs. them and distract from governing. Second, the current government is based on a one-man-show, Vučić. The dominance of one person of the government and country functions in the context of campaigning, but displays its weaknesses in governing, as the cadres of the party are weak and often incompetent and lack the popularity of the party leader.

It is an election year in the Balkans, besides Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia will also go to the polls in the coming months. However, so far these elections promise little progress in terms of democracy or reforms, but threaten to reaffirm semi-authoritarian rule in the region.

 

 

 

 

An ordinary week in Serbia

Serbia had an eventful week: A coup d’état narrowly avoided, a war criminal returning home, a minister of defense dismissed and the minister of interior holding a press conference with masked special police units and a prime minister taking a lie detector test to prove his innocence, followed by a gratuitous attack with the Russian foreign minister of  the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media. Oh yes, and of course EU integration and reforms in Serbia are on track.

Headline from Informer

But first things first: The coup d’état that never was, began in November when the popular tabloid Kurir ran the headline “Excuse me, Serbia” written by the owner of the media group that publisher Kurir and numerous other media, Andrija Rodić. In it, he apologized for reporting to uncritically of the Serbian government and thus triggered a major confrontation with the government. Kurir had previously belonged to the loyal media that praised the government uncritically. His very public break with the government appears to be more motivated by business deals gone wrong than by a sincere change of mind. The editor in chief of Informer, the most loyal media, cum junkyard dog of the regime, Dragan Vučicevic began talking about a looming coup against the Prime Minister and pleaded him not to travel to a summit in China. Despite headlines of Informer warning about a coup against Vučić and  [media] snipers  targeting Vučić,  nothing came of it.

Minister Stefanović with decorative policemen (source MUP)

The drama ended when Minister of Interior gave a press conference with a masked special policemen in the background in which he announced that the Prime Minster took a lie detector test and passed it when asked about whether he was putting pressure on the media (An article Psychology Today notes “From a scientific perspective, there is no rationale for administering a polygraph test”–I guess except when you want to prove something that you can’t prove otherwise). Vučić himself ended the speculation by noting in an interview that there was no coup planned and he felt save. The government won the war, the insurgents defeated. Not quite, Vučić showed that the battle wasn’t over when in short press conference with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, only one question was permitted from “Vučić’s own public service broadcaster” Pink about the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatović (Honi soit qui mal y pense). Lavrov strongly criticized her work and Vučić took the role of the Prime Minister of a small and helpless country that was subjected to unfair criticism by international actors and was enduring this injustice.

Welcome back. (Source Tanjug)

At the same time, General Lazarevic, chief of staff of Priština Army corps during the Kosovo war returned to Niš after having served two thirds of his 14 year prison sentence to which he was sentenced at the ICTY for aiding and abetting “the crimes of deportation and inhumane acts (forcible transfer)” in Kosovo. He belongs a long list of war criminals who have been released in recent years after having served part of their sentence. They also belong to the increasing number of those who return and receive a heroe’s welcome. While some were welcomed by die-hard fans, some clerics and opposition politicians, like Dario Kordić in 2014 in Zagreb, others such as Biljana Plavšić and Momčilo Krajišnik received an officials welcome reception from Milorad Dodik, president of the RS. Even Macedonia gave Johan Tarčulovski a governmental welcome in 2013. Thus, the fact that Lazarević was picked up by the ministers of Justice and Defense and welcomed in Niš by the minister of Labour and the head of the army is not that exceptional, but just part of a wider pattern of openly defying the judgements of the ICTY (it is arguably qualitatively different to support suspected war criminal than those that have been found guilty and sentenced). Lazarević had continued to make a career in the army after the fall of Milošević and was notoriously praised by Prime Minister Koštunica in 2005 for surrendering voluntarily and given a Škoda by New Serbia, Koštunica’s junior partner for his patriotic act of surrendering.

The week ends after Minister of Defense Bratislav Gašić is forced to resign by Vučić after he commented during a press conference after a female journalist had to go on her knees to make place for a camera that he “likes [female] journalists who easily go on their knees” While he officially had to resign for these sexist remarks, maybe he was just a bit too close for comfort in his views of the media for the broader government approach?

 This week was a microcosm of Serbia today: Cooperation with the EU and seeming reforms of the government, or rather Vučić (the Serbian comedian Zoran Kesić observed in his 24 minutes that the ministers of the government that are placed behind him during press conferences are like ficus trees, decoration and not be asked questions, as a journalist discovered by annoying Vučić for not asking him but the minister of foreign affairs questions) distract from Serbia becoming a mixture of a telenovela (fast pace, a new scandal and twist all the time, but the plot of last week is forgotten) and reality TV (simulated reality).

P.S. I forgot to mention the ongoing court case on the possible rehabilitation of the head of the collaborationist WW2 head of the Serbian government, Milan Nedić. But that is a different story

Montenegro in NATO

A few days ago I wrote a small piece on why I think that NATO membership for Montenegro might paradoxically help the democratization process in the country. The comment was the result of some productive conversation at a workshop organized by the Südosteuropa Gesellschaft on Civil Society in Montenegro. Now that Montenegro has been invited to join NATO, I hope that this issue will be off the agenda and thus less divisive for the opposition. Of course at first, the government is likely to use this success to win elections next year. The main challenge will be whether the opposition can re-focus on different issues.

Montenegro has experienced an unprecedented wave of protests against the government in recent weeks. Initially focused on the governments bid to join NATO the heavy-handed government response have shifted the focus to the government itself and the dominance of Milo Đukanović over Montenegrin politics for nearly 25 years.

While it is unlikely that the protests will gather the momentum (see here and here) to put the government under real pressure, the question remains, should Montenegro join NATO? A formal decision is due these days and would mark a major success of the current Montenegrin government, which is seen by many as “NATO government”, i.e. a government whose primary purpose it was to bring the country into NATO. Amidst the protests, Russia has ramped opposition to Montenegrin NATO membership in reporting of loyal media and Duma resolution. At times, it seemed like Russia was starting to engage in its own colored revolution it so much worries about. However, such a view is misleading, even though some Serb nationalist groups joined the protests and the Montenegrin government was quick to blame Russia for the opposition it faces. This argument is about as credible as the argument that the EU orchestrated the protests in Majdan in Ukraine.

Arguably, NATO membership is not going to fundamentally alter the security situation of Montenegro: Albania to the South and Croatia to the North are already members and pose no threat to the country. Bosnia and Kosovo are no conventional security concerns for which NATO membership would matter and both host EU and NATO peace keeping troops. This only leaves Serbia, which as clearly rejected NATO membership and aspires to some ill-defined neutrality. However, to claim that Serbia poses a security threat to Montenegro stretches the bounds of imagination. The last time Serbia constituted such a threat was in 1999 during the Kosovo war and this was in the context of being part of the same country (the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia) and with Milošević at its helm. Today, Serbia is an improbable threat. Of course, this does not preclude Serbian influence or even meddling in Montenegrin affairs (today the relationship between the two countries’ governments has become rather symbiotic), but nothing that could be prevented by NATO.

At the same time, Montenegro is clearly the prototype of the semi-democratic regimes that bedevil the Western Balkans and who are characterized by tight party control of the state, violations of the freedom of speech and corrupt clientalistic practices. Thus, encouraging the current government would help to send a larger message to the region that authoritarian control wedded with the talk of EU-compatible reform pays.

The logical conclusion of the combination of the non-essential nature of NATO membership for Montenegrin security and the reward it constitutes for government would be that it might be better not to invite Montenegro into NATO. However, this would be a logically fallacy.

First, the government has a track record to instrumentalize divisive issues to catch the opposition on the wrong foot and bind reformers to it who would otherwise oppose the government. By advocating NATO membership, it encouraged large parts of the opposition to oppose NATO, discouraging Western support for the opposition and occupying a monopoly over pro-Western reformist rhetoric. The longer the pro- and anti-NATO debate persists, the more the government will be able to divide the country into a pro-Western reformist wing represented by itself and an anti-Western, pro-Serb and pro-Russian opposition (even if such a clear dichotomy does not exist). Thus, if NATO membership were postponed, the government will not celebrate victory, but be able to continue talking on this issue and thus paralyze discussion about genuine reform.

Second, the rejection of the NATO-bid will be viewed a victory of anti-NATO forces within the opposition and weaken the more enlightened opposition who care more about democracy than about whether the country is in NATO or not. Thus, the balance of power in the opposition would be tilted the wrong way.

Paradoxically, giving what the government wants—an invitation to NATO—might be the best way to help the opposition in Montenegro and push for democratization in the country. This provides no guarantee that the country will democratize in the coming year, but without it, the recent protests are likely to appeal only to a few and NATO membership will enable the government to retain control for another electoral cycle as the next parliamentary elections are looming in 2016.

New notes for the Balkan Prince and his opponents

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

Dear Balkan Prince,

you read my previous notes (and you had access to a version in your mother tongue), then you engaged some foreign advisers to make yourself look good internationally and then you hired some domestic advisers to show you how to play dirty. However, you never called and offered me a possibility to provide you with more assistance.

I have thus decided to provide some advice for those who might be seeking to replace you. As I wrote back then, your job is dancing on the edge of a volcano. Good luck to those who seek to replace you and hopefully will not become just another prince:

1. It is difficult. It is harder than challenging classic authoritarian rule. Srdja Popović provides some good and humorous advice on toppling today’s dictators, but much of it does not work in removing the Balkan prince.

2. Getting them caught. The “eleventh” rule for the Balkan prince is “Don’t get caught” (see here) is a key lesson for those seeking to remove them. Much of the mechanisms of staying in power rely on everybody knowing them, suspecting them, but lacking hard evidence beyond personal anecdotes. Hearing your Prince and his aids talking about citizens like cattle, manipulating elections, courts, media and threatening the opposition is potentially destabilizing.

3. The Balkan prince is often quite popular and thrives on mobilizing a supposed “silent majority”. The prince will often use populism to make sure that he has strong backing and he will campaign continuously. To challenge him, you need to show the citizens that he does not have the “silent” majority behind him. Just basing opposition on one group (i.e. students, city dwellers), will not be sufficient to build a strong movement.

4. Reclaiming the public. The Balkan prince will control the media not through direct censorship, but subtle pressure (controlling media through advertisement, targeted pressure). To challenge the prince, you need to create a public sphere, and the internet wont do, as its reach does not get to the citizens who are the most loyal voters.

5. Challenge  external support for the Balkan prince. The power of the Balkan prince rests on external legitimacy. As long as external actors, such as the EU, remain silent or lack a clear language (here and here), the power  of the prince to claim of external legitimacy will help him. In fact, he might use this to discredit the opposition and present himself as the only guarantor of stability and Euro-Atlantic integration.  To challenge the Balkan prince, make sure to secure external backing, but careful to much backing might make you vulnerable to accusations that you are  foreign agent.

6. Offer an alternative. The Balkan prince will be happy with the message that everybody is the same, equally corrupt, power-hungry. As long as citizens believe that there is no fundamental difference, why chose new leaders, they will steal even more than those who already have stolen enough.

7. Don’t accept his terms of the debate. He will seek to convince the public that he is more patriotic than you and more reformist and more European than you. Don’t try to be more patriotic (i.e. nationalist) then him. Change the framework to one you can win (unemployment, poverty).

8. Pick winnable and popular battles. As Srdja Popović notes, it is important to pick a battle (here, and here) with the prince you can win and that can energize the public.

9. Win elections. The only credible place to defeat the Balkan prince is elections. As their rule claims to be democratic, it is difficult to challenge them in social protests alone. Without an electoral challenge, they can wait out protests and win elections. While the prince has made it harder to defeat him, he still has to win them and has limited leeway in manipulating them.

10. Block the ethnic card. Balkan princes will want to play the ethnic card, antagonize and polarize to shift attention away from the real issues. You need to challenge the ethnic card, not trump it. This means building cross ethnic coalitions and recognizing that most citizens don’t are much about ethnicity, given a chance.

To the challengers of the Balkan prince, good luck, and don’t forget to not use the powers you might inherit for your own advantage, they are tempting. If you do, you will become just another Balkan prince.

Negotiating a Way Out of the Macedonian Crisis?

Here is a brief comment I wrote for a Macedonian website on the possibilities of the EU to mediate in the Macedonian crisis:

 

Nikola_Gruevski_(9797911705)

Nikola Gruevski (Source: EPP)

As the political crisis in Macedonia has escalated in recent weeks, several EU officials, including Commission in charge of enlargement, Johannes Hahn and Federica Mogherini, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy have urged the government and the opposition to negotiate and suggested the EU as a mediator. Yet, is negotiation the way out of the crisis? While the government has accused the opposition leader Zoran Zaev of espionage and planning a coup, the opposition has realized a number of audio recordings that suggest substantial abuse of office, the control over the judiciary and media and the manipulation of elections by the ruling party. Considering the severity of the allegations, the prospects for a negotiated agreement appear increasingly slim. However, it is less the prospects that should make on weary of mediation. First, the nature of the allegations is not a matter of mediation, but of investigation. If the tape recordings are even only partially correct, they indicate a scale of abuse that is incompatible with a democratic government. In addition, the wire taps effect not only the government and the opposition, but all of society. Thus, reducing a resolution on two parties falls short of including those affected.

Zoran Zaev (Source: FOSM)

Zoran Zaev (Source: FOSM)

Two very different efforts by the EU to mediate in past conflicts in former Yugoslavia come to mind, both 18 years ago. In 1997, the mediation in Serbia between the opposition and government of Slobodan Milošević following protests over massive electoral fraud in local elections. The result was a partial concession by the regime which then continued to rule for another three years and engaged in a horrific war in Kosovo. Nearly at the same time, the EU also mediated after the collapse of the Albanian state following the authoritarian rule of the first Berisha government and the collapse of the pyramid schemes in the country. Here, the goal was a negotiated transfer of power, resulting in a new constitution and elections that led to a change of power. These two cases are instructive. Mediation by the EU should not just aim at resolving the difference, even if this were possible, but at a structural way out. Considering the severity and founded nature of the claim, a negotiated agreement would have to include an independent (not just in name) investigation of the claims and an expert government leading to new elections. With the current government in place, a free and open investigation appears hard to accomplish and even then it will be a challenge considering the evidence of control the ruling party exerts over the state. The EU is faced with two challenges in accomplishing this. First, its leverage is severly restrained. With the Greek veto it has little to offer and credibility in Macedonia. Second, the stakes are high. Either side views the conflict as a zero sum game with little to loose. If the allegations are true, the leadership of the ruling party would end up in jail. Thus, the incentives for any open investigation appear to be limited.

Arsonists and the EU: A European Commissioner on Serbia and Macedonia

In Fire Raisers (Biedermann und die Brandstifter), a classic play by Swiss writer Max Frisch, Herr Biedermann, a wealth producer of hair tonic, and his wife Babette allow the shady character Schmitz  to settle in their attic through a combination of his charm and threats. This happens while there is an arsonist on the loose, setting houses on fire. Babette is suspicious, but Herr Biedermann rejects any suggestion that Schmitz might be an arsonist. Early on, Biedermann asked Schmitz “Please promise me this: You are not really an arsonist.” Schmitz just laughs.

Babette remains nervous and has doubts to which Biedermann replies “for the last time: He is no arsonist.” Upon which a voice, presumably his wife asks: “How do you know?” Biedermann: “I asked him myself… and anyhow: Isn’t one able to think about anything else in this world? It is madding, you and your arsonists all the time.” Later Schmitz is joined by Eisenring who start moving oil drums and fuses to the attic. Biederman remains indignant about any accusation:

“One should not always assume the worst. Where will this lead! I want to have my quiet and peace, nothing else, and what concerns these two gentlemen–asides from all the other worries I have…”

In the end, Biedermann hands the arsonists the matches to set his house on fire. After all, if they were real arsonists, they surely would have matches…

Johannes Hahn and Aleksandar Vučić (source: SETimes)

In recent days, Johannes Hahn, EU commissioner visited Macedonia (together with Kosovo) and spoke on Serbia, addressing two arsonists, who have been playing with democratic principles and media freedom. When asked about declining media freedom in Serbia, Hahn noted  “I have heard this several times [concerns about media freedom] and I am asking always about proof. I am willing to follow up such reproaches, but I need evidence and not only rumours.”

In Skopje, the press release following the visit of Commissioner Hahn noted “the EU’s serious concern at the current political situation and urged political actors to engage in constructive dialogue, within the parliament, focusing on the strategic priorities of the country and all its citizens. All leaders must cooperate in good faith to overcome the current impasse which is not beneficial to the country’s reform efforts.” Of course, the claim of Prime Minister Gruevski that the head of the largest opposition party is guilty of treason and planing a coup d’etat (backed up by two arrests and a criminal investigation of the prosecutor) are hardly the type of confrontation addressed by ‘constructive dialogue’. In addition, the charge by the opposition of massive wire-tapping by the government of 20,000 citizens and the evidence contained therein also would provide little basis for a ‘constructive dialogue’. Of course, the note also outlines the need for a an investigation of the claims and rule of law. Considering the explosive nature of the case and suggestion of recently released recordings that the government party exerts considerable control the judiciary, such a call sounds like a pious wish.

The concept that the crisis in Macedonia is a result of insufficient dialogue between government and opposition downplays the increasingly authoritarian government and engages in suggesting equal responsibility for the political crisis. This is not to suggest that the opposition is without flaws, but “dialogue” reverses the burden from the stronger to the weaker.

In Serbia as well, the suggestion that additional evidence is required to identify a decline in the media environment and press freedom in Serbia flies in the face of reality. Both independent journalists (see also here, here), as well as a number of international observers (here, here, here, here, here)   have pointed out the considerable evidence on the declining press freedom. The head of the EU delegation, Michael Davenport can also provide some evidence of pressure on the media, when PM Vučić called BIRN liars and accused them of being sponsored by “Davenport”, i.e. the EU.

 

stampano_60_naslovna-informer-18-02

Generously providing evidence of the declining media and the degree to which media are used is the Serbian daily Informer, a mouthpiece of the government also contributed to clarifying the issue. In its Wednesday 18 February issue, it headlines with “Perversion. The EU hires a Šešelj man to prove censorship” and “Attack on Vučić from Paris. Legion of Honor this year for Olja Bećković [journalist and talk show host whose show was cancelled after criticism by Vučić] and Saša Janković [the Serbian Ombudsman].” (next to headlines such as ‘Nele Karaljic fears balija [a derogatory term for Bosniaks” and “Šiptars [derogatory term for Albanians] lynch Serb”).

While the EU seems far away from inviting the arsonists in to the EU (there is already Orban), the weak statements are reminiscent of Biedermann seeking to avoid conflict until it is too late. However, when Vučić called Johannes Hahn an honorable man (“častan covek”) for his demand for evidence, it might be time to get worried.

 

 

German original of above excerpts:

BIEDERMANN: Sie versprechen es mir aber: Sie sind aber wirklich kein Brandstifter

BIEDERMANN:—zum letzten Mal: Er ist kein Brandstifter.

STIMME: Woher weißt du das?

BIEDERMANN: Ich habe ihn ja selbst gefragt…Und überhaupt: Kann man eigentlich nichts anderes mehr denken in dieser Welt? Das ist ja zum Verrücktwerden, ihr mit euren Brandstiftern die ganze Zeit.

BIEDERMANN: Man soll nicht immer das Schlimmste denken. Wo führt
das hin! Ich will meine Ruhe und meinen Frieden haben,
nichts weiter, und was die beiden Herren betrifft—ganz
abgesehen davon, daß ich zur Zeit andere Sorgen habe…

Excerpts taken from Max Frisch, Biedermann und die Brandstifter. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1981. All translation by myself.

 

[an earlier version stated that Hahn visited Serbia, but he visited Kosovo and Macedonia, his statement on Serbia was made in Brussels].

The meaning of Klaus Iohannis’ victory in Romania

Klaus_Iohannis_campaign_in_Bucharest_2

The election of Klaus Iohannis, the mayor of Sibiu as president of Romania has been remarkable for a number of reasons. Not only did he lag behind in the first round of elections by 10 percent (30.37 to 40.44%) to Victor Ponta, the prime minister, but also few of the opinion polls expect his victory that turned out to be fairly decisive (for official results see here) after a close run at first, leading 10 percent over Ponta. However, it is less the election arithmetics that are striking as background of the victorious candidate and the type of politics of his opponent.

Klaus Iohannis (or Johannis to use the German spelling of his last name), is a member of the tiny German minority of Romania. He has been mayor of Sibiu for 14 years as a candidate of the German minority organisation, the Democratic Forum of Germans in Romania. The fact that he won the election in 2000 and subsequently with a large majority, desping Germans constituting only a small minority in Sibiu (less than 2%) suggest a broad appeal transcending classic minority politics. His victory at the national level, now as candidate (and president) of the conservative PNL confirms this. The switch from minority to main stream political parties is difficult in most European countries and the election as president as a member of a minority is quiet extrodinary. Several media attacked Iohannis for his minority background and in particular to him not being a member of the Orthodox church and Ponta himself made use of this theme in a convoluted comment“It’s nothing bad about Mr Iohannis being a German ethnic, but no one can accuse me of being a Romanian ethnic. We live in Romania after all and I am proud to be Romanian. The same about religion. It’s nothing bad about Mr Iohannis being a neo-protestant, but no one can reproach me with being an Orthodox”. Considering the close link of religion and national identity makes the victory of Iohannis more important. In a region where minorities have been included in parliaments and in governments, but the distinction between minority and majority has remainded salient, his victory is important. While Macedonia had a Methodist president, Boris Trajkovski, he was still clearly identified with the Macedonian majority and Slovakia had Rudolf Schuster as president (1999-2004), who is of German and Hungarian background, but this was not a feature of his political career and he was not a minority representative, but rather a former Communist who had joined the democratic opposition in 1989. The victory of Iohannis highlights the potention of minority politician become national politicians and that starting a career representing a minority does not preclude a broader appeal, in fact without it, Iohannis would have never been able to represent the German minority effectively. A caveat is in place here, the fact that Iohannis hails from the small German minority, associated with Germany and thus the EU and ‘the West’ makes him more able to transcend the majority-minority divide than if he had been a member of the much large Hungarian minority or a socially stigmatized group, such as the Roma.

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The second level at which the victory of Iohannis is striking is in the defeat of Victor Ponta. In recent years, Ponta has been on the way to emulate the emerging pattern of soft semi-authoritarian rule in Central and Southeastern Europe, as Hungary under Viktor Orban, Macedonia under Nikola Gruevski, Milorad Dodik in the RS in Bosnia, Milo Djukanovic in Montenegro and recently also Aleksandar Vučić in Serbia. A combination of populism and clientalism has been able to combine control using undemocratic practicies with EU membership (or integration). These elections demonstrate that it them that are the archiles heel of these regimes. While they can manipulate and use state resources to their advantage, they still have to win on election day. A strong social media campaign and highly motivated Romanian voters abroad helped to undermine these practices. Of course, Ponta remains in office as Prime Minister, but complete control over politics in Romania remains elusive for him (unlike Orban). After Dodik suffered an important setback in Bosnian elections last months, it shows that these regimes might have been enduring, but also are weak.

The victory of Iohannis might thus have a demonstration effect on other countries in the region.  While some observers have warned of excessive optimism, in particular in terms of addressing the economic and social ills of society, it does send two clear messages to neighboring countries: First, a member of a minority can become a president and soft semi-authoritarian regimes can be broken, through elections.

What the elections mean for Serbian democracy

I am re-blogging my analysis of the Serbian elections written for the new Balkans in Europe Policy Blog.

When Aleksandar Vučić gave his victory speech on Sunday, after the resounding victory of his Progressive Party, his seriousness seemed in no proportion to his success. For the first time, since the second multi-party elections in 1992, can a single party govern the country alone. With 48.34% of the vote and 156 (of 250) seats in parliament, the party does not require a coalition partner, unless it wants a majority to the change the constitution.  There are dangers in this victory, both for the victor and for the Serbian democracy. First, Vučić and his party might have won a Pyrrhic victory. The elections were triggered by Vučić to diminish the rule of the prime minister Dačić and his socialist party. While he achieved this (although the SPS remains as strong as before in terms of votes), he cannot blame bad decisions on a coalition partner if he is to govern alone. It is thus unsurprising that despite the large majority, SNS seems to want to include some other parties in government. However, even if this were to be the case, the SNS will have a hard time bringing about early elections, as it did this time around. This technique, a favorite among incumbents in the region, (esp. in Macedonia and Montenegro) of getting re-elected when opinion polls are favorable, will not be easily available to the new government. Finally, the weaknesses of the party will become even more apparent. It failed to run a visible candidate for the mayor of Belgrade, as it lacked convincing and popular politicians, besides Vučić. If the party is to govern effectively, it will quickly need to increase its capacity, since cloning Vučić, as some satirical photomontages suggest, is not an option.

The risks for the Serbian democracy are equally apparent. A large majority, in a political system that is used to coalitions, bears its risks in the best of circumstances. However, Serbia lacks checks and balances to hold their governments under control. To some degree, coalition governments have been (flawed) alternatives to checks and balances. With few independent institutions, many loyal media outlets and two of the three opposition parties more eager to work with the Progressives than to criticize them, there is a risk that there will be too few critical voices in these institutions. The focus of outsiders on the Serbian government delivering on Kosovo has also muted external scrutiny of un-democratic practices. Not least, the elections themselves are a reflection of a problematic understanding of democratic processes. As a result, the elections do raise serious questions about the future of democracy in Serbia. It seems unlikely that the new government will become authoritarian, or step back into Miloševićs shoes, but Serbia might move away from democratic consolidation and towards a hybrid system that we can observe in other countries of the region.

In addition to this development, the elections have also highlighted the decline of the right and a general decrease of ideological differentiation in the party landscape.

The decline of the extreme right

A key feature is the continued decline of the extreme right and conservative parties in Serbia. For the first time since 2000, Vojislav Koštunica’s Democratic Party of Serbia is no longer represented in parliament. After being mocked as a “kombi party” for its ability to fit all members into a van in the 1990s, it is back at its beginnings. The opposition to EU integration and focus on Kosovo has not paid off.  Similarly, other parties, on the nationalist end of the spectrum, fared badly. The Serbian Radical Party continued its decline from 4.62% to 2% and Dveri, a more recent extreme right wing group, dropped from 4.34% to  3.57%. In addition, even smaller right-wing groups split less than one percent. This overall decline of the extreme and conservative right is an important, and easily overlooked, development in Serbian elections. It can be attributed to three factors: First, the populism of the Progressive Party itself, constituted by former radicals, has been able to absorb some of the vote. Second, the fragmentation of these parties—various talks of pre-election coalitions among Radicals, DSS, and Dveri failed—discouraged voters to choose any of them. Thirdly, the trend is part of a regional development. In Croatia, but also in Romania, the extreme right has declined in the context of EU accession. As the EU effectively rejects such parties, they become less attractive as most citizens are (skeptic) supporters of EU accession. Kosovo, and other national issues, also no longer figure into the agenda that voters care about.

Lack of Alternatives

The elections were fought among parties that all formally share the same goals and have no discernable ideological differences. All parliamentary parties want to join the EU, talk of “reforms” and oppose corruption. As a consequence, there is no reason that the incumbent would not win, when there is no alternative that is different. Besides the ideological similarities, most parties also demonstrated a willingness to form pre-election coalitions with parties whom they have few commonalities, and display, even for Serbian standards, a surprising lack of respect for democratic principles. When Boris Tadić made his comeback, after breaking with Djilas and the Democratic Party, he did not form his own party, but the Greens of Serbia were taken over by him (or offered). They changed their name to add «New Democratic Party» and voila, a green party became the election vehicle for Tadić.  The Liberal-democrats of Čedomir Jovanović used to offer a more radical reform program than the Democratic Party. However, its unprincipled coalition with a conservative Bosniak party, close to the mufti of Sandžak Zukorlić, and its continuous flirting with the Progressives discredited this claim. In effect, the only two programmatically consistent electoral lists where those of the Democratic Party of Serbia, which failed to enter parliament ,and the list of the former Minister of the Economy, Saša Radulović, „Dosta je bilo“ (Enough of this), which radically criticised the influence of political parties and the economic policies of Serbian governments in the past decade. While the consistency of the DSS is likely to lead them further into political oblivion, the list of Radulović might become more significant in Serbia. Having led a shoe-string campaign, barely managing the register of the list two weeks before the elections and facing strong attacks in the media, the 2.08 % the list achieved is no small feat.

Antipolitics?

Another way of rejecting the ideological and ethical homogenisation of Serbian party politics was a repeat of the „invalid vote“ campaign of 2012. Several activists called on citizens to go and vote, and then to reject any candidate by invalidating the ballot (see here from some examples). Altogether, some 3.17% of citizens did exactly that. While not all may have invalidated their ballot for the same reason, the high number suggests that most, probably, deliberately invalidated their ballot in protest. These numbers are lower than in 2012, when they were 4.39%, but remain remarkable. Finally, the easiest and most common manner of rejecting the current political offerings has been to simply not vote. Turnout was only 53.12%, or four percent less than 2 years ago, and the lowest for Serbian elections since the introduction of the multiparty system in 1990.

Thus, the Progressives have been able to capture the largest share of the electorate of any party since 1992, but their success is not built on energizing the electorate or changing the perception of politics, but rather as a result of citizens either resigning to the inevitable, or the irrelevant. The broader dissatisfaction with party politics will not be remedied by SNS, and thus some broader opposition, reflected in social movements or new parties, remains a distinct possibility, even as the pluralist political space might be decreasing.

The Authoritarian Temptation

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Here is the English version of a comment I wrote for the Neue Zürcher Zeitung called “The Authorititarian Temptation in the Balkans”. It draws on an article (co-authored with Irena Ristić) and a book chapter published in 2012.

The Serbian elections 16th March end a year of political speculation. These are already the seventh early parliamentary elections since 1990, they are unnecessary as there was no government crisis ahead of them being called. The coalition government consisting of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS ) of Aleksandar Vučić and the Socialist Party (SPS ) of Ivica Dačić was stable and had a solid majority . However, SNS wanted elections to translate their popularity into a large parliamentary majority. In 2012 SPS could still bargain hard to obtain the post of prime minister. Today, this is hardly imaginable. Although the SNS is unlikely to be able to govern on its own after the election, it can determine the shape of the government.  The early elections are an example of the authoritarian temptation of governing parties in the Balkans, weaken the rule of law to secure their own dominance.

The “semi- democracies” of Southeast Europe

Regular studies of the Bertelsmann Foundation and by Freedom House show, that a particular type of democracy has taken hold in South Eastern Europe: elections are democratic, the political landscape is diverse, but populist and corrupt governments hinder the consolidation of democratic structures. Most post-communist countries in Central Europe developed into consolidated democracies. In the  South Eastern Europe, however, was intermediate form dominants, the democratic formalities be observed, but at the same time, populist parties control the state through patronage structures. This is particularly evident through the dominance of political parties over the media, the state and the weak rule of law.  The election campaign had not yet begun in Serbia, as the Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Vučić saved a child stuck with its family in a snowstorm on the highway from Belgrade to Budapest. Conveniently,  the state television on hand to film it. While this ‘performance’ was quickly mocked in social networks, the message got through : Vučić rescues children, while others go campaigning.

Not only in Serbia have governing parties used their dominance to engage in a continuous election campaign.  Even when elections are not upcoming [this was written before early elections were called in Macedonia], the ruling party of Macedonia, VMRO-DPMNE constantly advertise their successes on billboards and in advertisements. Due to this non-stop campaign by governments, it is difficult for the opposition to formulate alternatives. In early elections governing parties already have a decisive edge.  A second aspect of the authoritarian temptation is reflected through control of the media. Only a few critical media of the nineties have survived the past decade. The economic crisis and the state as the most important advertiser to have resulted in a media landscape in the region in which critical voices hardly find a place. This is particularly pronounced in Montenegro, Macedonia and Bosnia. In Macedonia all important critical media, such as the private channel A1 have been forced to close done and only few journalists dare to openly criticize the government. In Montenegro, there is often to attacks by “unknown” perpetrators against independent media. In Bosnia is the businessman and media tycoon Radoncic to became security minister [he was dismissed the day the article was published], despite persistent rumors of his contacts to the underworld. In the Republika Srpska the media is local President Dodik, criticism is only aimed at against the opposition, “Sarajevo” and foreign powers. In Serbia, only few media nowadays dare to openly criticize Vucic.
Media loyal to the government, however, weaken the opposition. Allegations of corruption, often without evidence, are part of the strategy here. The tabloids in Serbia regularly accuse members of the DS government that was in power until 2012 of corruption. Even if these allegations are certainly partly justified, they are used to discredit political opponents.  In addition to accusations of corruption, government media also regularly challenging the loyalty of the opposition and suggest that it is committing treason of the state or nation, particular in Macedonia or the Republika Srpska.
A final aspect is the dominance of political parties over the state. Careers in the public administration and in government-controlled companies are usually only possible with party membership. Thus,
parties acts as employment agencies and can thus secure the loyalty of its voters. This reduces the potential for protest as public criticism may result in loss of employment.

Political, not cultural causes
the danger of populism with authoritarian tendencies is not limited to the Western Balkans. EU member states such as Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria show that with EU accession the danger is not over. The temptation is great to attribute this development to “Balkan political culture,” but it has more to do with weak states and social and economic crisis that predates the global economic crisis. Often the EU overlooks the authoritarian temptation too readily, as long as the governments
cooperate. Thus, the willingness of the Serbian government to compromise in dialogue with Kosovo helped to distract from domestic political populism. However, if the rule of law cannot take hold, this will either lead to social protests, as recently in Bosnia and Herzegovina, or to illiberal governments, which seek to preserve their power with populist means, as in Macedonia and, probably soon, Serbia.

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