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.

Gruevski does not deserve any more chances

I just published a comment for ELN with Anastas Vangeli on the crisis in Macedonia in which we are arguing that the Gruevski government has lost its legitimacy and that any solution has to involve the resignation of Gruevski. EU mediation in the crisis runs the risk of putting less pressure on Gruevski than on the opposition and ignoring the protest movements for the sake of results. Below is the full version of the comments, I am delighted to have written with Anastas, who is not only a former student of mine at CEU and who wrote about Skopje 2014 when few others had, but who is also an activist with the social movements protesting in Macedonia against the government.

Macedonia has been undergoing a durable legitimacy crisis that was further deepened by revelations about a mass wire-tapping scandal and mass anti-government protests. While the scholarly community had doubts about Premier’s Nikola Gruevski’s deeds and work for several years now, the abundance of audio-evidence (which has been confirmed authentic) puts us in a position to be firmer in our assessment. Arguably, never in the history of contemporary have researchers had so much primary source material at their disposal, that contains confidential talks among the very few individuals at the helm of a country, dealing with some of the most sensitive policy issues.

The content of the tapes reveals a comprehensive, deep, and sophisticated system of corrupt and authoritarian rule, while the conversations are marked with profanity, hate speech, slander and ethnic slurs that are unacceptable in everyday communication.

As negotiations about potential solutions of the crisis are under way behind the closed doors in Skopje, Strasbourg and Brussels, it is very important that the EU mediators and the larger international community realizes that Macedonia’s incumbent government has lost its legitimacy at home, it is increasingly unaccountable and erratic, and poses a threat not only to the national, but rather the broader regional stability.

As the negotiations between the leaders of the four biggest political parties resume, the international community and in particular, the EU mediators should take in account the following four points:

1) Legitimizing Gruevski means supporting non-democracy in an EU candidate country, and everywhere else.

Following the revelation of the tapes the Gruevski-led VMRO-DPMNE lacks electoral legitimacy. Gruevski has won three consecutive cycles of early elections through abuse of state resources, control of the media, threat and intimidation of political opponents, and various practices of rigging the popular vote – including ‘importing’ pro-government voters from impoverished areas in neighboring countries. Such allegations and remarks were highlighted by OSCE/ODIHR in the report after the electoral process in 2014, and have now been corroborated with material evidence that trumps even our darkest fantasies. On one of the tapes, we can hear the former Minister of Transport, Mile Janakieski, ordering a director of an orphanage to have any adult orphans go vote for VMRO-DPMNE. In another tape, the former Minister of Internal Affairs, Gordana Jankuloska is heard laughing while bragging how she transformed the police headquarters into a party headquarters from which all electoral operations were directed.

By allowing Gruevski to remain in power, the EU would not only legitimate a blatantly non-democratic political model. It also risks setting a precedent elsewhere. Gruevski’s rule already serves as an inspiration for other leaders in the region and beyond that are willing and able to override democratic institutions. If the Gruevski government can get away with it with EU consent, the doors are wide open for copy cats.

2) Legitimizing Gruevski means supporting a captured state, a dysfunctional political economy and recognizing economic performance based on unreliable data.

According to the official numbers, Macedonia registers small economic growth, but this growth is greatly a result of dubious statistics, generated in special economic zones where investors are subsidized by the government, and the profit remains in the hand of a tiny elite, while Macedonia is among the top poorest and most unequal countries in Europe. The tapes reveal numerous evidence overriding of legal mechanisms when arranging business deals, arbitrary arrangement of public procurements, discussion of personal business plans and ambitions, as well as instances when leading government officials are plotting destruction or takeover of property that belongs to political opponents. This partly explains why Macedonia’s income inequality has been on the steep rise in particularly after 2006 when Gruevski has come into power, accompanied by the emergence of a new super-rich elite with him, his family and aides at its center who are now colonizing Macedonia’s economy through companies based in offshore tax havens.

Gruevski, a self-proclaimed expert in attracting FDIs, in one of the tapes, plots asking for a fee from foreign investors. In practice, a number of Gruevski’s deals have either not materialized as planned, or spectacularly failed. Some of them involved scheming with transnational financial criminals, such as the Indian tycoon Subrata Roy.

In one of the tapes, the Minister of Finance, Zoran Stavrevski complains about Gruevski’s ‘insanity’ – referring to the government’s irrational spending on monuments and historic-like buildings at times of crisis. As Stavrevski famously said on the tape, ‘we are buying chocolate but in reality we cannot even afford to buy bread’. On the tapes, even ministers in the government talk how the economy is heading towards the abyss and how they have to manipulate the numbers in order to save their seats. Speaking to Stavrevski, Jankuloska sighs ‘one day we will go to prison for all this.’

Considering the centrality of the rule of law and economic governance in the EUs approach towards the western Balkans, it must stop treating Gruevski as a reformer, and treat him like many Macedonian people do – as a fraudster and an authoritarian leader. While Macedonia is not another Greece in the making, and its eventual economic collapse will not have a broader effect, it is important to act timely in order to avoid a potential humanitarian crisis. That Macedonia is not far from this scenario show the data about a staggering wave of economic emigration – roughly 5% of the population now also holds Bulgarian citizenship, more than 10% of the population moved out of the country in the past 15 years, while the number of those who file for asylum in the EU is growing every day. Should Gruevski remain in power, these numbers will undoubtedly rise.

  1. Legitimizing Gruevski means supporting a source of instability in the region and beyond.

Over the course of his rule, Gruevski has had a track record of staging or taking advantage of pre-existing tensions within the country and the region, which have affected not only the national, but also the regional stability. Gruevski’s turn to authoritarian rule has served as an excuse by Greece to deflect pressure on the infamous name issue – which he himself re-opened and exacerbated. Although on some of the tapes, Gruevski and his aides seem ready to make a bargain for the name dispute, in the domestic debate he has attempted to portray himself as a ‘savior of the name and the national identity’ and orchestrated a smear campaign against those who argued compromise is necessary.

Gruevski’s stubborn nationalism has also at times raised tensions with other neighboring countries, in particular Bulgaria. Greek and Bulgarian elites in Gruevski have found the perfect excuse to engage in their own nationalist and populist campaigns that have the potential to at least distract the domestic public from their own woes. This process as a whole, however, has brought issues of national symbols, history and identity into the equation of EU enlargement and external relations.

The Gruevski government has been equally irresponsible about domestic politics as well. Having a largely passive Albanian coalition partner since 2008 – the Democratic Union for Integration led by Ali Ahmeti – Gruevski has devised a policy of stirring ethnic tensions at will, using it as an excuse for organizing snap polls in 2011 and 2014 – and on both occasions, the VMRO-DPMNE – DUI coalition has been rekindled afterwards. The leaked tapes show how there is a mafia-like tie between the elites of both parties, and division of the ‘prey’ along ethnic party lines.

In the most recent crisis Gruevski tried and failed to play the Greek nor the Albanian card, so he resorted to a novel nationalist narrative – about the global conspiracy for dismantling Macedonian nationhood. This has been accompanied by an attempted foreign policy shift towards Russia – which by now seems a failed PR stunt. However, the violence in Kumanovo—the circumstances are suspicious, but the exact chain of events remains unclear—highlights the risk of violence associated with the current government

  1. Legitimizing Gruevski means letting down the civic movement – both the streams that are in the opposition camp and outside it – which are united in the demand for his immediate resignation.

Over the last several years, Macedonia’s political culture has undergone a profound change. While the confidence in the ruling party and in the institutions of the system has declined, the opposition party did not manage to garner significant support. At first, this expressed itself through wide-spread passivity and resignation. However, in recent years, a growing number of citizens have begun to be engaged, participating in protests, civic initiatives and social movements. The peak of the grassroots mobilization occurred in late 2014 and early 2015, when a nascent student movement had also inspired others that managed to expose Gruevski. A broader civic movement erupted on May 5, when thousands of citizens gathered in front of the government asking for resignation of the government. Met with excessive use of force, they embarked on daily self-organized protests and marches that spread across the country and diaspora.

Part of the civil society organizations and initiatives that have been on the streets for months, have joined forces with the opposition SDSM in the coalition “Citizens for Macedonia” and have established a camp in front of the government headquarters. Other movements, primarily comprised of grassroots activists, leftists and self-organized citizens, have remained outside the opposition camp, undertaking guerilla actions, protest marches and remaining a loud non-partisan anti-Gruevski voice, identifying themselves as #Protestiram (“I protest” – first person singular). Whereas there is a visible distinction between the two forces, they act as complementary actors under the consensus that Gruevski needs to go.

These movements are not a side show, but they energize citizens and have been setting the opposition agenda. The civic movements are also the main actors in the debate on the future of the country, and remain the strongest link between the people of different social strata, the political actors, and the international community. Diplomats have so far largely ignored them, but the truth is that the process that happens on the streets of Macedonia symbolizes the new politics – which is above ethnic divisions, relies on direct democratic methods, and is participatory and pluralist in nature.

The movements have spontaneously slowed down their pace once the negotiations have been opened, though they refused to just remain on the sidelines. By doing so, they have consciously given way for a top-down solution of the crisis – in which, however, they remain stake-holders. Should Gruevski remain in power, it is likely that the government would resume its repressive policies towards these movements. Moreover, if Gruevski is being legitimized by the EU, there is a risk that much of the anger of what is an open-minded group of people, might end up further disillusioned with European politics. Hence, the EU mediators need to realize that these social movenments are their allies—supporters of a open, tolerant country that wants to join the EU and become more democratic. Ignoring them will mean losing a key pillar for change in the country.

In conclusion, we underline that Macedonia’s government is no longer legitimate and has to resign as a first step for rehabilitation of the country devastated institutions and economic system. The recordings have removed any doubt regarding the reports for prevalent corruption, yet no steps to hold anybody accountable have been undertaken.

The EU is in a difficult position, its bargaining power is limited in Macedonia and its interlocutor, Nikola Gruevski has a lot to lose: for him, losing control over government is likely to land him in jail. However, it is better for the EU to abandon the current talks than force the opposition into an unsavory deal just to declare success. The immediate success would be overshadowed by the long term dangers of keeping an authoritarian leader in power, both for Macedonia and the regions were many are watching closely and will draw their conclusions accordingly.

The Skopje Stage: A Macedonian Tragedy

I was walking through Skopje to discover the latest monuments and buildings I had not seen since being in town last year. The stroll through downtown took me down the main pedestrian stretch to the old train station, looking for the new head quarters of the ruling party. Down a side street I glanced at a new old building. Walking towards it, I was overwhelmed by the large columns of the building, the ministry of finance. Approaching the building, I went up to the columns and touched them, they felt too massive to be be true. And they were not. Knocking on them, they were hollow, made of plaster. DSC00180 And then it dawn on me, what I have been watching over the years visiting Skopje is not a giant process of reconstructing the city, changing its cityscape, but the government has been building a stage. Like in a theater play, these new buildings are new architecture, looking old, but they are a backdrop of a play, a tragedy. Wherever you look, the buildings are shallow, they cover up older, more modern architecture, like the Archeological museum hiding the modernist opera. DSC00172 Even the new pompous building of the ruling VMRO, just a few meters away from the ministry of finance, is only a few windows deep (for now). Unlike at the ministry, here the columns are made of real stone. Is it telling that the ministry is adorned with plaster columns, the state is fake, but the party is real? DSC00188This is the stage–and considering the quality of many of the buildings–it is temporary on which the current Macedonian tragedy is set: the government, the opposition as the main actors and a chorus of international actors. While Greek tragedies contain a catharsis as its integral part, we don’t know yet whether this play will provide for it. The government might survive, outlive the accusations of corruption and abuse of office, or it might eventually falter amidst the accusations, mobilization of opposition, defection from within or external pressure (not discernible at the moment). Whatever the outcome of the crisis (I have written up some thoughts of how to overcome it), the stage will remain. Will it decay and be a reminder of a 7 year folly and a warning what a government without scruples and obsessed with nation building on speed does or will it continue to be a prop for a new national narrative that extends from buildings to textbooks, to public discourse? The fake columns suggest at least that this stage will require continuous maintenance to sustain itself, and this gives some hope.

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 (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.



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].

10 Things I learned on the Balkans in 2014

1. The revolution is not dead

Even though the protests in Bosnia in February did not last and few (if any) of the demands were met, smaller protests have continued and recent large student protests in Macedonia demonstrate that even the regime in Macedonia is not immune from popular discontent after years of small-scale protests. The protests show that representative democracy in recent years has not served citizens in the Western Balkans very well. Strong control by incumbents has made change difficult.

2. A one man show remains the best show in town

Aleksandar Vučić saved children from snow storms, commanded thousands of volunteers to save Šabac and other heroic deeds, like not sleeping and work while other slack. This brought his party an unprecedented victory for any party in post-1990 Serbian politics. However, any regime relying so much on one person will be fragile. A recent poll (not sure how reliable, but surely indicative) suggests that 80 percent of potential voters for SNS for the party because of Vučić.

3. The crisis is not over

After more than six years of economic crisis, the situation is become more dire as there are no immediate prospects of improvement and governments in the regions have not been able to set a clear path for economic development after the crisis. Nowhere is this more visible than in Croatia, where the current government seems to  have hoped on EU membership to solve the economic ills, with few effects.

4. A good press is a bad press

A free press has not fared well this year. Instead, slander and insulation are doing well. Informer and others like it are good to find out whom the governments want to target, but make for bad news. Reading between the lines is getting to be more important again, as the main news are not written in the lines.

5. Silly incidents matter, because political elites make them matter

While the flag carrying drone added a new dimension to provocations in football stadiums, but it could have been managed and calmed by political elites. However, neither in Serbia and Albania did governments manage the incident well. The result became a crisis of relations that had been rather marked by their absence.

6. Anniversaries are great moments for posturing and nationalist rediscovery


World War One did not figure prominently in national narratives in recent year. World War Two, wars of Independence or the most recent wars overshadowed the “Great War” in terms of public interest. However, this did not stop for a lot of nationalist posturing during this year. This functioned in symbiotic relationship with the generally strongly national commemorations across Europe and rather patronizing efforts to commemorate the war in Sarajevo this year.

7. Do not discount new friends from faraway places

Businessmen from China, sheiks from the Emirates have become more visible in the Balkans. These are promising new rail links, new urban developments and air links. Much of what has failed to come from Western assistance seems like it could be accomplished from elsewhere. On what terms and whether the wild dreams will materialize remains to be seen.

8. Some old friends are not really such good friends

Russia began as a good friend to Serbia (and the RS) 2014, but after (surely not because) Putin got rained on his parade, he dropped South Stream, notifying his friends via the media.

9. Engagement continues, wedding postponed


While Germany recommitted itself to the Balkan enlargement, the EU approach is lukewarm. With mixed signals, enlargement is being pushed down the agenda in the EU and the region. Yes, the process continues, but whether it will remain on track remains uncertain.

10. Borders change, war in Europe

The latest war in Europe is not in the Balkans. The newest border changes are neither. They both draw attention away, yet also cast a shadow. What the repercussions might be for the region is uncertain, but is hard to imagine that it will pass it by.

The Authoritarian Temptation


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.

Skopje 2014 in 2014: Mission accomplished?

Panorama of the 'new' center

Panorama of the new center

When the short video of Skopje 2014 was released around four years ago, I was among the many viewers who saw this plan as either a joke or a grandiose plan that would not (or at least not fully) see the light of day. Now, the year is here and Skopje is transformed. Not all the buildings are completed, but Skopje has been transformed in the past years: more monuments and buildings have been either built or have progressed to a stage that they are likely to be completed this year than the original video suggested. Over the past days, I had the pleasure to participate in a number of discussions on the project in Skopje, giving me the opportunity to reflect on the project. A recent survey suggests that Macedonians are divided over the project. However, it is probably too early to judge whether the project will be successful in remolding nationalist narratives. If the reconstruction–in combination with new historical narratives promoted in the media, text books and museums–is able to survive in the years to come, it is likely to take root.

New facade of the government in the making

New facade of the government in the making

One of the striking features of the project is the speed. I have witnessed few building projects pursued with such determination and speed. This is a government in a hurry: no doubt elections play a role. The quicker the project is completed, the more it presents itself as a fait accompli any subsequent government will have a hard time to reverse. In addition, there is something else at work. When building modern architecture, the process of building is an acceptable part of the process. In fact, often the building process itself is a source of reflecting on modernity, materials, techniques, etc. However, this process is about suggesting that the new cityscape is actually not new. There is something nearly shameful about the building process. The Porta Makedonija—Skopje’s arc de triomphe was a large concrete cube during its construction, in need to be covered up as quickly as possible (I was told that for the anniversary of Macedonian independence a few years back, the top portion was not yet covered so the arc was provisionally covered with a printed version of the stone ornaments). Once complete, the effect is to seem like the new is the old, and the older socialist modern architecture is the new, intruding the in the space.

Many columns, little in between

Many columns, little in between

Facade with a bit of building attached

Facade with a bit of building attached











The project is also mostly about the façade. The buildings on the northern bank of the Vardar are grotesquely narrow. The large façade has just as much building behind it to not seem like only a façade. However, reports suggest that the internal spaces are dysfunctional, with balconies not accessible, office spaces inadequate for use. However, criticizing the buildings for this is to misunderstand their purpose. If their goal is to cover up what is behind them, the internal function is just a tool to justify the façade, not a purpose itself. In this sense, the façades fulfill their intended goal. They hide the Čaršija the old center of Skopje, making it invisible from the new center, they block the view of the minarets and they hide the modern architecture of the opera or are given as a make-over to the government complex and other socialist era buildings.

After, 2014

After, 2014

Before, 1999

Before, 1999








One aspect critics of the project have to contend with is the blank canvas the government found when it started the project. The center of Skopje had been neglected in the post-Socialist period; this neglect provides probably the most potent justification for the project: ‘at least something is finally being done.’ This sheds light on broader social dilemma: what is the urban and also social project in post-Socialism that can structure public spaces other than nation-building. The main other project is that of an uncontrolled market economy and the privatization of the public space into malls and shopping centers, devoid of any local meaning and shaped the reproduction of an outside commercial aesthetic. Thus, the inability to provide for an alternative urban project to shape the public space (such as the one Skopje had after the earthquake), made the current urban plan possible.

A final feature that was striking during the discussions was the fear factor many noted. Besides a few protests that mobilized not many citizens and the installation of a golden toilet bowl as a protest monument in the early phases of Skopje 2014, there has been little open resistance to the project, despite its massive intrusion in the public space. Organizations critical of the project have been subject to low-level harassment by the government and its crack-down on independent media and aggressive constant campaigning have led to a serious deterioration of democracy. The center is monitored with cameras and many activists fear engaging in a public and visible critique of the project, i.e. through graffiti, such as in Bulgaria, or ‘guerrilla’ action to erect alternative monuments (with the exception of the appearance of a Tito statue, which was localized away from the official monuments and in front of a school named after Tito and home to several early commemorations of Tito). The project is thus representing coercive imposition of the government’s narrative of the past and on the urban landscape that because of its visibility requires a level of control that further undermines democracy. As such, Skopje 2014 as a project is not just an imposed, kitschy and often grotesque reconfiguration of public space, it also has large detrimental consequences for society and democracy.

Tito among the citizens of Skopje

(I have blogged earlier about Skopje 2014, including photos I took over the years, on parallels with other building projects, and the early phases of the project in 2010 here and here)

The Museum with the longest name

Among the many novelties of Skopje in recent years there is also a new museum, probably the museum with longest name in the world, called the “Museum of the Macedonian Struggle for Statehood and Independence “Museum of IMRO and Museum of the Victims of the Communist Regime”” (official website). The visit was probably the strangest and also most unpleasant museum visit I had.


The museum with the long name is a strange reincarnation of a 19th museum. The access and the narrative is tightly controlled. You have to join a group and are not allowed to visit the museum by yourself. The tour lasts close to two hours in which the guide (in my case a friendly history student) tells a well rehearsed national story from the beginning of the revolutionary struggle to the various forms of repression by neighboring nations and finally Communist cruelty. Taking pictures is not allowed and strictly enforced. The narrative texts are very short and there is no ability to understand the museum and its story without the guide/narrator. Although the museum is poor in original artifacts (the vast majority are guns), it chooses to not use interactive tools or allow visitors to approach the items, but instead it imposes distance and supposed administration. The control suggests that the government wants to impose a narrative, but also tightly control it and avoid individuals engaging with the narrative or challenging it, in particular when it becomes controversial (here is a short summary of the exhibits). For example, the guide pointed out that an early 20th century program of the Macedonian Revolutionary Museum should not be wrongly understood to be in Bulgarian, but rather it was written in archaic Macedonian. Later, he asked whether the older Macedonian visitors had learned about a case of Serbian forces torturing a Macedonian patriot during the Balkan wars in school. When the visitors negated, it became evidence of past manipulation of history during the Yugoslav period.


Officially, the museum describes itself as “Collection of wax 109 wax figures of prominent Macedonian revolutionaries, ideologists, voivodas, intellectuals, communist activists, politicians, and foreigners, collection of artistic paintings – 25 portraits of prominent Macedonian activists and 85 mass scenes of significant events and battles from the contemporary Macedonian history; 1500 items including weapons, documents, photographs, ambient items, newspapers, brochures, albums, etc. These collection is in constant process of enrichment through purchase of museum materials and through donations from citizens.”

The museum in parts reminds of Madam Tussaud’s chamber of horrors, we see wax figures of Macedonian heroes bleeding or hanging from the gallows as a result of torture by Bulgarian, Serbian, Communist and Greek, Ottoman fascists/nationalists/imperialists. The 85 mass scenes are large historical paintings, mostly painted by artists from Russia and Ukraine. The style evokes the romantic nationalist paintings (in German these types of paintings are appropriately known as Schinken, ‘ham’) of the late 19th, early 20th century, such as Antoni Piotrowski and his portrait of Batak–a key event in the Bulgarian national history (on the historical mythmaking see here) . The scenes and portraits are hyper-realistic, but painted over 100 years after the events, they are at best a ‘creative’ reflections on the topic by the artist and in most cases simply made up (this is not to argue that the events they portray did not happen, but their depiction is made up). As such, most of the museum is fiction, not fact.


The narrative arch is uncreative and follows the classic structure of nationalist story-telling elsewhere. It suggests the Macedonian nation is several sentences old (so one of the few narrative texts suggests), in the 19th century the Macedonian national revolutionaries emerged, who struggled for autonomy and independence from the Ottomans, threatened and killed by the neighboring national movements. The most difficult period for the narrative is the positive view of the World War Two national liberation struggle and Communist recognition of the Macedonian nation, followed by the Communist terror and how Communist Yugoslavia incarcerated Macedonian leaders. It ends with Dragan Bogdanovski, a Macedonian exile and co-founder of the ruling party VMRO-DPMNE in 1990 (which sees itself as a direct successor to the Macedonian revolutionary movement), thus making sure that the merger between the  nation, the national movement and the governing party becomes complete. Bogdanovski’s New Jersey vanity license plate is also exhibited, it reads VMRO 1.


Pictures from Skopje (2009-2013)

A colleague recently asked me about the photos I have been posting on facebook of Skopje over the years of the Skopje 2014 project. I thus decided to upload the best photos from a four year period (2009-2013).

Copyright for all photos with Florian Bieber. If you would like to reproduce the photos, please contact me.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 4,270 other followers

%d bloggers like this: