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.

With the help of some (expensive) friends

Past foes, future business partners. Blair and Vučić in 2014, Source: inserbia.info

When the former Austrian deputy prime minster Michael Spindelegger was named to head the new Ukrainian “Agency for the Modernisation of the Ukraine“ many in Austria thought it was a bad joke. He had resigned from government and the head of the junior coalition party, the conservative Peoples Party, in 2014 after disputes with his coalition partner over tax reforms. His resignation in Austria was sign of his inability to pursue modernization in Austria. How would he be qualified to advise on it now in Ukraine many in Austrian wondered?

However, becoming an adviser to foreign governments has become a lucrative business for former politicians in Western Europe. In Serbia, a whole line of former (mostly social democratic) politicians have been recruited by the SNS government: Alfred Gusenbauer, former Austrian chancellor, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former chief of the IMF, and now Tony Blair (he already visited Vučić in June 2014).  In fact, it is not without irony that Blair is now advising both Albanian PM Edi Rama and Serbian Aleksandar Vučić who famously did not get along recently (also reportedly relations have improved). The irony that it was Blair who was key to advocating the bombing of Serbia in 1999 (when Vučić was minister for information) was already noted by the satirical web portal njuz.net with the headline: “Blair advises Vučić to bomb Serbia.”

Blair and Gusenbauer have displayed a rather pragmatic approach by also advising the authoritarian government of Kazakhstan, together with former Italian prime minister Romano Prodi, former Polish president Aleksander Kwaniewski and others.

Long-time Kazakh president Nasarbajev surely did not seek their advice on improving his rule over Kazakhstan or how to build up Social Democracy in his country. The purpose of these foreign advisers is to open Western doors, to get access to their phone book. As ministers, presidents and prime ministers, these former politicians can help, so the theory goes, with their extensive contacts in the world of business and politics.

Besides the fact that some of these former politicians do not seem to care too much whether they advise dictators or democrats, there are other problems with these arrangements. First, their main job is not about domestic reforms, for this experts which have time are required, not fly-in-fly-out former politicians with a busy schedule and little technical expertise. Instead their advice is about the international contacts, but contacts for what? Is their role to promote the country or the government? The external promotion of Serbia or any other country easily becomes just lobbying for the interests of a government, even if it doesn’t act in the interest of the country. Thus, unsurprisingly, the Kazakh opposition criticized the decision of Blair to lobby for the government. The suggestion by Blair that he would help nudge reformers in the country seems either insincere or naïve.

Second, it is hard to tell whether this engagement is actually effective and provides return on the money a government spends. Vučić claimed that Blair’s advice is free and doesn’t cost Serbia a ‘dinar’, but reports suggest the funding might from other sources, liked to UAE investments in Serbia, doubtlessly with strings attached, not surprising considering Blair’s reported connections to UAE.

Phone books are quickly dated and it is hard to tell how much these former politicians really can or do push for their client. Like the tourism videos of countries promoting themselves on CNN, BBC World and elsewhere, they are part of “nation branding” and “government branding”. However, independent judgment and critical advice are more likely to make a difference in foreign perception and policy than guns for hire. Of course, the irony is even greater considering that Blair is advising the reviewer (he also presented the book at it’s launch in 2006 together with ) of the classic book by Vojislav Šešelj “Engleski pederski isprdak Toni Bler” (The English Faggy Fart Tony Blair), but that is the ultimate sign of pragmatism.

A  shorter version of this text will be published in Serbian in Vreme (19.3.2015)

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].

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.

What the floods reveal: Consequences of a disaster

Floods_in_Bosnia_12

The floods in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and, to a lesser degree, in Croatia brought destruction and death to large areas. Thousands of homes were destroyed, some had been painstakingly rebuilt after the war, thousands of landmines swept away to new locations, livestock killed, mass graves from the war unearthed and roads ruined. Beyond the destruction, the floods also revealed the weakness and the strengths of the countries. It is a cliché to say that moments of crisis and disaster brings out the best and the worst in people. In Bosnia and Serbia, it mostly brought out the best in people, and the worst in states.

Natural disasters test states whether they are weak or strong and their response (or lack thereof) often shatters citizens trust. When the earthquake in Haiti struck in 2010 killing a quarter of million people, it destroyed the state itself, which been weakened by decades of crisis. In New Orleans hurricane Katerina brought misery and scenes nobody would imagine could occur in the United States. The response appeared to be of a state that did not care about its poor and ready to tolerate great misery among its citizens.

The floods in Bosnia and Serbia showed that two very different states were utterly unprepared for the disaster. Both states and their local (entity, etc.) authorities responded late, with limited means and inaptly. What is important here is the similarity between the two countries. Serbia is often considered more functional than Bosnia, with a centralized state, clear lines of authority and without complicated and competing authorities as in Bosnia. Yet, both did badly. This suggests that despite all justified critique of Bosnia’s complicated institutions, the cause of the incompetence lies elsewhere. Some of it lies with political leaders who did not take the problem seriously and in politicized, hierarchical systems: if the leader does not take it seriously,neither does the state. In fact, the state and political elites sometimes blamed citizens rather than shouldering responsibility.

Informer 23 May: The hellish plan of tycoons and the Democratic Party

Informer 23 May: The hellish plan of tycoons and the Democratic Party

In Serbia, the response to the floods also shed light on the authoritarian and populist tendencies of the current government. The disaster-management populist hubris, was reflected by multiple live transmissions of government sessions in its function as emergency committee (15 May, 23 May). The sessions had little calming effect, but rather gave the message “the situation is horrible, but we will take care of it”. It fit the image of the new prime minister as the serious, always concerned leader, taking the suffering of his citizens serious indeed. The personification of the disaster response fits the emerging character of the current government, dominated by the over-towering Vučić. The government spreads panic and then offers Vučić as the savior. Whether this strategy will succeed will depend on the ability of the government to either deal effectively with the aftermath of the floods or its ability to effectively deflect criticism.

The authoritarian side of the government became visible through the censorship the government appears to have engaged in. Websites and blogs critical of the government and Vučić were taken down (see here, here). In addition, a tabloid close to the government suggested that the floods were the pretext of a plot of businessmen and the opposition to take down Vučić.

The floods have also provide for a template on which to project different ideological visions and hopes. Srećko Horvat, for example, argues that it is the neo-liberal transformation that hollowed out the state to be unresponsive and inept. Such an observation is obviously implausible as the lack of investment into public infrastructure in Serbia and Bosnia over the past twenty years is not the result of neo-liberalism or the privatization of public utilities. Little has been privatized and certainly much less than elsewhere in Europe which copes better with natural calamities and the causes are very different. The state and the local authorities in Bosnia and Serbia have been ill-prepared to deal with the floods. Thus, the failure lies with the state, not private utility companies. Now, I would not argue that this necessarily means that the state should privatize public utilities and infrastructure, but the critique of neo-liberalism misses the point. The lack of investment and maintenance of the public infrastructure that became visible through the floods has several causes: a) neglect and destruction during the 1990s that takes a long time to address the consequences; b) party appointments and favoritism has undermined the public administration and reduced professionalism; c) hierarchical power-structures contribute to slow responses in times of crisis. Altogether, this would rather suggest that the problems are not with the private sector, but with the state. This does not mean that privatization would be the solution. As the far-reaching privatization of public utilities in some countries, such as the UK, demonstrated, this in itself it can also lead to underinvestment and convoluted lines of responsibility. The central question thus how to make the state more responsive. Besides the obvious need to reduce party appointments and focus on the re-professionalization of the public administration, it would also be good to think about ways in which state-owned companies and utilities can be better sheltered from political pressure and influence to be able to act independently.

The other theme that flood revealed is that of solidarity. The failure of the states to take of their citizens brought about a great degree of solidarity between citizens. In Bosnia the plena that had emerged as a result of the February protests organized assistance where the state failed and there are many reports of citizens helping others across lines of division, be they entity or state boundaries or ethnic borders. However, it might be once more overinterpreting the solidarity as a renewed “Yugoslav community” as for example Andrej Nikolaidis does. Support and assistance comes from others well beyond the Yugoslav space, thus reducing solidarity to the people of Yugoslavia is being unfair to those assisting beyond. The key question will be how to transform the solidarity of the floods into a more lasting form of rapprochement. Here, it merits to look south, to Greece and Turkey, who experienced a breakthrough in relations as a result of “earthquake diplomacy” following devastating earthquakes in both countries in 1999. James Ker-Lindsay noted at the time in an article that the earthquake in both countries did not bring about the rapprochement by itself, yet it helped  by providing it with a momentum that brought both citizens and political elites closer together. The floods, for all their horror thus provide an opportunity, whether it will be seized and become transformative remains to be seen.

 

Drinking Coffee with the Father of the Nation. Dobrica Cosic and the Mediocrity of Evil

A few years ago, a sophisticated hoax suggest that Dobrica Ćosić won the Literature Nobel Prize. While a group of usual suspects of the Serbian did propose him for the prize,  the idea was luckily absurd. He wrote an number of novels, but they are far from the novels by better Yugoslav writers of his time. His first novels were in the dominant socialist realist style. His later novels were epic in tracing the Serbian people and their suffering in the creation of Yugoslavia. Some translations where published, his works rightful drew little interested outside Yugoslavia. When I talked to him for my research in 1998, it was less his literature I was interested in, but rather his politics.

When I stepped into the house of the friendly elderly man in his crumbling, yet still impressive villa in the Belgrade suburb of Dedinje, I thought I was meeting a man whose life and political influence was waning. Little did I know that he would live another 16 years and through his books, statements and close contacts to nearly the entire political elite maintain the aura of a national sage.

Dobrica_Cosic

The opportunity to meet him in May 1998 was unique, he had been reluctant to speak to Western researchers or journalists, skeptical of their intentions (rightfully so) and busy writing his own memoirs. I guess my topic–his engagement with human rights activists in the 1980s–was sufficiently innocuous, to not make him reject the conversation outright, as was the help of a friend of a friend in arranging the interview. When I went to visit him in his villa I was aware of his historical role and responsibility. He had come into conflict with Tito and the Yugoslav leadership in the late 1960s over the increasing decentralization, became a ‘dissident’ who remained in his villa close to the center of power. As a writer, he moved from socialist realism to nationalism as he endlessly described Serb suffering and began challenging the wisdom of Yugoslavia altogether. He helped bring together a group of intellectuals, some loyal to the Communist rule, other critical, to formulate Serb grievances. He became a supporter of Milošević and his President for the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1992. However, he also fell out with Milošević and was toppled by the Radical Party in the following year and was thus able to remain credible to the opposition and also the shrinking number of nationalist supports of Milošević. When I met him, he had settled into his new role, the “Father of the Nation”, an intellectual above party politics who would turn his allegiances with the wind like so many other Serbian institutions (i.e. the daily Politika). He regularly dispensed his wisdom, published his successful political pamphlets and became the mediocre sage to whom politicians of all stripes went to seek “advice.”

There was nothing striking about him. He was a friendly old man who invited us for coffee and we could discuss his role during the 1980s. There was some vanity in which he remembered the centrality of his own person during the Yugoslav period and his own role as a dissident. In fact, it became clear that he continued to see himself as a dissident, outside of the mainstream back in 1998. Although he had lost his office as president in 1993, his ideas had become mainstream, and, as fellow traveler Vojislav Koštunica noted, “Dobrica Ćosić had always connections to people who were active in the political life, although Ćosić was practically expelled from the party. He had influence and connections, which protected us.”

The significance of Ćosić arose not from any radical nationalism. Rather, he represented the quintessential path from an eager socialist Yugoslav to a Serb nationalist, a journey in which he was not alone but which few others experienced as publicly and promoted as effectively. In our conversation he claimed that he foresaw the disintegration of Yugoslavia already in 1956-7 when he realized in conversations with Edvard Kardelj , the leading Slovene member of Tito’s inner circle, working on the party program that he was a nationalist who only saw Yugoslavia a transitional construct. It seems hard to view Kardelj as a Slovene nationalist, but the gradual alienation from the Yugoslav project took hold with the fall of Aleksandar Ranković, whom he placed together with other dissidents such as Milovan Djilas. For him, and many other Serb intellectuals, the 1974 and the decentralization of Yugoslavia that preceeding it promoted nationalism of the others and oppressed Serbia. His engagement in a democratic and national critique was thus no inherent contradiction. He was eager to note that the Committee for the Freedom of Thought and Expression he helped found in 1984 defended all Yugoslavs, Slovenes, authors of the Muslim declaration, including Izetbegović and in his words also “Šiptari”, using the derogatory term Albanians. In 1983 he published a non-literary bestseller Stvarno i moguće (The Real and The Possible) which was banned after selling some 10,000 copies.  The weekly NIN called (not meant as a compliment) it for having all ingredients of a bible for Serb nationalists.

When the Serbian academy began drafting a memorandum of the state of Serbia and the Serbian nation in 1985, Ćosić was close to many members involved in its writing, but rejected the suggesting of being the initiator or main author of the text.  As we talked in his living room, he both defended and criticized the text: “It is an unfinished study, a critique of Titoism and the extraordinary hard economic, moral, political state in the 1980s. But it was critique from the socialist and Yugoslav perspective.” Despite its critique, Ćosić was eager to defend in arguing that it was neither a blueprint for ethnic cleansing (which is correct), nor that it deserved to be suppressed. However, the memorandum reflect many themes of Ćosić’s writing during this period, as well as other Serbian intellectuals. It considered not only Serbs threatened in Kosovo, but elsewhere and argued that Yugoslavia would either need to be centralized or that otherwise Yugoslavia would cease to be the best state solution for Serbs. Thus for the first time, the idea of rejecting the Yugoslav project became a (implicit) possibility.  Although Ćosić argued that his biggest mistake was to argue for Yugoslavia when others began pursuing nationalist agendas, his claim was insincere. His Yugoslavia would not have been accepted by others and the dividing line between national equality and dominance of one over others is often in the eye of the beholder .

After I ended the interview with Ćosić, I felt  uneasy. There was much I disagreed with him, yet his demeanor made him hard not to find a pleasant conversation partner. My friend who helped with the interview noted at the time that he seem like a friendly grandpa (and she was very critical and aware of his role in promoting nationalism in the 1980s and 1990s). At the time, I came to understand that dangerous ideas do not originate form raving madman, but from mild-mannered intellectuals who are harder to ignore or dismiss. It is now, with greater retrospect that I also understand that the success of Ćosić was his mediocrity. He was neither a great writer, nor a brilliant thinker. His success came from reflect opinions that were widely held by others. Being both an insider of the Communist regime and later in the Milošević era, as well as an outsider gave him access and credibility more than most others. His criticism of Titoism and Yugoslavia was more radical than many intellectuals that suffered no or fewer consequence, yet he was no Djilas. His challenge was a paradox, a return to the pre-1966 more dogmatic era, while demanding greater freedom of speech. Calling for freedom of speech, but supporting later one the repression of Albanians in Kosovo when exercising this right. His inconsistencies reflected the times and made the moderate and mediocre face of nationalism. His support for Milošević and break with him later made him respectable for the regime and for the opposition. And thus it was less his ideas as such, than his position that provided him with legitimacy. As he cultivated his image of the “father of the nation”, he tried to synthesize the different ideologies and ideas that competed over the nation and nationalism. After his death, I can only hope that he will be irreplaceable, as the area of “fathers of a nation” should better be over in Serbia and elsewhere.

 

 

 

I have written in greater detail about Ćosić in my monograph about Serbian nationalism from the death of Tito to the Fall of Milošević.

 

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

Untitled

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.

Options without Choice in the Serbian Elections

The upcoming early Serbian parliamentary elections are going to be contested by at least 10 parties and coalitions and likely a few more and the differences have rarely been so hard to detect. The last elections in 2012 where the first elections in which the largest parties did not differ fundamentally about the direction of the country. The consensus on EU integration and a pragmatic approach on Kosovo made the victory of the progressive party possible and removed the main cleavage of politics in Serbia during the 1990s and 2000s (Vreme offers a good timeline of all previous elections with slogans and results). As lines of division became blurred, the political scene in Serbia lacks clear defining markers and only few parties, such as Koštunica’s Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) do not share this overall consensus.

If there are increasingly fewer distinguishing characteristics between parties in Serbia, strange bedfellows emerge. When Liberal Democrats (LDP) formed a pre-election coalition with the Bosniak Democratic Community of Sandžak (BDZS), it raised some eyebrows. The BDZS is the outfit of the ambitious Mufi of Sandzak, Muamer ef. Zukorlić (Not to be confused with the BDZ, another wing of the same original party that plans to run jointly with other minority parties). Besides his apparent preference for white BMWs with personalized license plates (‘Mufty‘) he has been a polarizing figure in Sandžak, defending a conservative agenda and being hostile to liberal NGOs, hardly compatible with the platform of the LDP.

In addition, nearly every coalition in the elections has a party claiming to be social democratic or socialist on its list (the fitting slogan of the SPS in 1993: ‘Kad bolje razmislimo, svi smo mi pomalo socijalisti’–we think about it, we are all a bit socialist): LDP included the small Socialdemocatic Union (SDU), the Progressive Party, itself ostensibly a centre-right group, included the Socialdemocratic Party of Rasim Ljajić–the ultimate survivor of Serbian politics and in government uninterrupted since 2000–and the Socialist Movement, a one man show of Aleksandar Vulin, who was  an activist in Mira Markovićs JUL and now combines defending Kosovo with Che Guevara. Then there is the Socialist Party of Serbia, and the New Democratic Party of Boris Tadić, running with the League of Socialdemocrats of Vojvodina (LSV). Finally, the Democratic Party (DS) is a member of the Socialist International.

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Vision for Serbia–The slogan of the New Democratic Party (considering Tadić’s 8 years as president it somewhat rings hollow)

A final way of looking at the jungle of parties running for elections is Democratic Party itself. Since its founding in 1990, it has never been able to change leadership without a split: as a result, four parties running stem from the original DS, including Koštunica’s Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) that split in 1992, the LDP founded in 2005 and the New Democratic Party that former president Tadić established just a few weeks ago (technically it is not  a new party, Tadić took over the small green party to avoid the time consuming and costly process of registering a new party). The New Party (NS) lead by former PM and DS official Zoran Živković ended up in a pre-election coalition with DS rather than taking the risk of running independently.

Another survivor is Vuk Drašković who began his political career with Vojislav Šešelj and later the Serbian Renewal Movement that was a leading opposition group in the 1990s. He managed to hang on through pre-election coalitions with New Serbia in 2003, with the DS in 2008, with the LDP in 2012 and today with the Progressive Party.

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‘I know whom to trust’ Apparently the answer is DSS.

The fragmentation (luckily) also extended to the right of the party spectrum. Despite efforts to form a pre-election coalition between the DSS, the Radical Party and Dveri a more recent extreme right wing outfit, the talks failed and they all run separately, as does another right-wing group called the Third Serbia (TS) and also the movement 1389 announced it would independently. As a result in opinion polls, only DSS is likely to enter parliament among these groupings.

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Dačić. A rather short slogan (the other one for Belgrade elections is ‘Belgrade are people’)

The confusing party landscape is largely facilitated by the election law. With a five percent threshold and no higher threshold for coalitions, larger parties see an interest in linking up with smaller groupings to increase their vote and small parties can enter parliament although their support would certainly be well under five percent. As voters cannot select candidates and the entire country is one electoral unit, there is also a strong bias towards candidates from Belgrade with the rest of the country underrepresented. Furthermore, it leads to oddities, such as Boris Tadić being the main visible poster boy of the New Democratic Party, but not being on the list of candidates.

Amidst all this confusion, there is likely to be one clear winner, the Progressive Party of Aleksandar Vučić. While opinion polls are often biased, several polls (see here, here and here) suggest that the party and its partners will gain around 45 percent of the vote. The fragmentation of the Democratic Party between the current party led by Dragan Djilas and the New Democratic Party of Tadić help contribute to the strength of the party, but in essence the elections were triggered by the SNS to translate its popularity into seats and to marginalise PM Dačić, who has become a prime target in the pre-election campaign.

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It’s time. It has been the time before (in at least two previous elections this was the main slogan of a party)

At this point, it is not yet clear whether SNS will be able to govern on their own (if they would this would be a first in recent Serbian politics). If opinion polls are correct, Vučić’s party will only need a few more votes to form a government and it currently has a number of options with whom to form a government. Unlike in 2012 when it relied on the socialists, it will be able to choose among multiple partners and thus drive the price down these can extract. Currently, the Liberaldemocrats of Ćeda Jovanović seem like the most attractive partner. The party, if it enters parliament, will be fairly small to extract much influence and help the SNS with a reformist image. It is thus no surprise that candidates from the SNS have been careful not to critizise Jovanović although he used to be the main target of criticism on the right. The other wild card is Boris Tadić. His return to active politics after his electoral defeat in 2012 and losing power in the DS afterwards has polarized. Either way, the elections will seal the dominance of SNS and leave behind a fragmented and weak opposition that is currently shaped by infighting. It thus seems that the SNS will a number of years ahead in which it can govern with a safe majority. The main weakness of the party will come from within, as it continues to lack qualified people to meet Serbia’s challenges.

Frivolous Elections and a Heroic Super First Vice President

Late in 2013 three singers calling themselves the “three piggies and the bad wolf zahar” performed the song “the first vice prime minister” for the ever popular/awful entertainment show grand parada, the Serbian version of the Musikantenstadl. What might sound cryptic to an outsider is clear to anybody following Serbian politics: the Prvi Potpredsednik (or short just PPV, V stands for Vlada , government) is a title that formally does not exist, but the job Aleksandar Vučić currently holds. The composer Milutin Popović Zahar claims it to be a humorous tribute to Vučić and judging by his previous ‘tributes’, he is talented in telling from where the wind blows. Among the 2,500 compositions, there is Živela Jugoslavija (Live Yugoslavia!) from the 1980s and more recently Vidovdan.

The musical tribute is just one of the sillier aspects of the growing personality cult surrounding Vučić, who after a year or so of discussions whether early elections should be held, finally announced parliamentary elections for 16th March (officially called by President Nikolić). Just a few days later, as a snow storm blocked the highway Belgrade-Subotica, the new super hero jumped into action. Together with the other Serbian ‘saint’, tenis player Novak Djoković, he himself went to the blocked highway to savee passengers stuck in the snow. This PR stunt in best Putinesque style, unleashed a flurry of mockery on-line, including the above-pictured photos and a number of videos. However, the message in Serbian tabloids was clear.

kurirVučić and Djoković are heroes, while Tadić and Daćić are secretly meeting in Munich (also signaling that the current PM is fair game). For good measure, Kurir also listed what ten public personalities did instead of saving children (such as drinking, watching TV, featuring Čedomir Jovanović, Saša Radulović who recently resigned as minister for the economy and has since been viciously attacked by the media loyal to the governing SNS and, for good measure, Roger Federer).

This is just the beginning of the election campaign for these superfluous parliamentary elections. Serbia has had  more than its fair share of elections over the past 24 years. In addition to three Yugoslav parliamentary elections (1992, 1996, 2000), 10 Serbian presidential elections (1990, 1992, 4 rounds in 1997, 3 failed rounds in 2002, 1 failed round in 2003, 2004, 2008, 2012), Serbia held nine parliamentary elections. Thus, excluding local elections, Serb citizens had the ‘opportunity’ to vote in 22 elections in 24 years. In fact, of all the parliamentary elections since the first ones in 1990 (1990, 1992, 1993, 1997, 2000, 2003, 2007, 2008, 2011) only three were regular elections (1997 and 2007, 2012). The others were called early because governing coalitions broke down (2003, 2008), or because the ruling party hoped to improve its chances (as in 1992 and 1993), as is the case today.As some earlier parliamentary  elections, the forthcoming elections serve no obvious purpose besides consolidating the SNS political dominance. The current governing coalition is not in crisis and the despite the continuous talk of early elections, this had little to do with bad relations between parties in the coalition or some political difference in terms of substance or style. It is only clear that the junior partner, the Socialist Party (SPS) is likely to be pushed aside after new elections. Being the only party able to form a coalition with both large parties (DS and SNS) last time around, Dačić was able to negotiate a disproportionally large share of political power and this is coming to haunt him now, as Vučić apparently no longer wants to be just PPV, but take over the primeministership. Even though it seems unlikely that his Progressive Party will be able to governing without partners, there is no shortage of potential coalition partners. In fact, candidates are lining up. Thus, last time around the SNS had very few potential coalition partners that could drive up the price for forming a coalition, now SNS will be able to drive down the price and bargain hard. In addition to allies such as Rasim Ljajić’s Socialdemocrats, the Liberal-Democrats have signaled their willingness to join a coalition, as have some minority parties in addition to the Socialists and their partners.

To some degree, it seems merely logical that the most popular party should govern and also lead the government. The construction of the current government has been awkward and meant that for crucial decisions, such as negotiations with Kosovo, not only the prime minister, but also the PPV had to be fully included. The popularity of the SNS is compounded by the weakness of the opposition and thus, a resounding victory seems appropriate. However, the attacks by media close to the SNS on the opposition, the populist reflexes of Vučić and calling for elections when there is no other justification than maximizing power, the risk of Serbia moving towards a populist “demokratura” is real. Already in Macedonia and Republika Srpska, the combination of constant campaigning, the instrumental use of early elections (in Macedonia), reducing space for critical media and the social and nationalist populism of the government has seriously eroded the democratic system and its institutions. If Serbia moves this way, it is important for outsider to look more carefully. So far the temptation for the EU and other outsiders has been to ignore such trends over the government’s willingness to compromise over Kosovo.

 

 

 

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