The Balkans: Back on the radar?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another unnecessary election in Serbia

 

VUCIC MIHAJOVIC STEFANOVIC GASIC MIROVIC

One man show (source N1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

With Benedict Anderson on the Schlossberg

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Benedict Anderson (Verso)

A bit more than  four years ago, Benedict Anderson visited Graz for a talkWhy We Believe Our Nation Is Good“at the university. As luck would have it, I was not going to be in town and very much regretted my absence. However, it turned out that none of the organizers were available to give him a tour of the city and thus on sunny Wednesday mid-October 2011 a Luxembourger, who had just come to Graz a year before, set out to show Benedict Anderson around. Of course, this is strictly speaking illegal as tour guides have to officially certified by the city of Graz, but then again my description of Graz was hardly a competition to those of the professionals.

We took a delightful stroll through the center of town and I was struck by having a highly observant on my side. As he later noted, he enjoyed “seeing Lust und Laune  against Law and Order”–a graffiti we spotted in the pedestrian zone.

Up on the Schloßberg, the view was not only magnificent, but also the numerous monuments to the nation seemed a fitting setting for our walk: we saw the Hackher-Löwe, glorifying Habsburg resistance to Napoleons army in 1809, and among others the monument to the “Kärnter Abwehrkampf”–the Carinthian “resistance” to Yugoslav claims to the region after World War One, a nasty little monument erected in 1980.

To quote a reflection on this walk I wrote two years ago, Anderson “remarked poignantly that it is probably only scholars of nationalism that notice these monuments, whereas ordinary citizens walk past and ignore these monuments to an era that seems of little relevance today.” He was right, of course, the tourists and visitors on the Schlossberg paid little attention to this or most other monuments and so it is all over the world (thank god). Monuments are often forgotten–they are the frozen manifestation of the past and that only resonates in particular moments–either if this past is important and-or the present seems to require such an interpretation.

I was struck by Benedict Anderson’s humbleness in this throwaway comment. Here, one of the most important scholars of nationalism mocked his own and our perceived self-importance. Of course, he was very much aware that nationalism matters and continued to matter, he modest attitude was engaging.

When I read his book some two decades earlier, I had no idea that I would get a chance to ever meet him. Together with two other grand scholars of nationalism Ernst Gellner and Eric Hobsbawm, his book transformed the field of research and helped to emergence of countless research that is informed by his toughts and insights. As any brilliant turn of phrase, the one of the “immagined community” has also become a curse. Too often, the word imagined has led the casual and lazy readers to conclude that nations are just an “imagination” or less real–instead, the idea that they are imagined does not deprive them of their persistence and reality.While all three, Hobsbawm, Gellner and Anderson come from different disciplines and made their careers in different institutions, they did not only share their connection to England, but more importantly their personal biographies that were complicated and did not fit neat nation categories. Thus, not only their intellectual background, but also their personal biography contributed to looking behind the state of nationalism and helping open a new field of inquiry, a note that I can personally relate to.

As a researcher who has been part of this field in one way or another and Benedict Anderson has made a tremendous contribution and while I am saddened by the loss, I am glad to have had those few hours in Graz to show my appreciation for his work.

 

An ordinary week in Serbia

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

Headline from Informer

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

Minister Stefanović with decorative policemen (source MUP)

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

Welcome back. (Source Tanjug)

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

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

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

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

Montenegro in NATO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We need a different Europe

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Between January and August 2015 alone, some 2,500 refugees have died trying to reach Europe. Aylan Kurdi is just one more statistic. It is easy to be cynical about the reaction the image of a dead child evoked as so many others have been conveniently ignored. When I first saw the picture of dead Aylan Kurdi, it was hard to control my emotions, it seemed wrong to see this. I thought long about whether to share the photo on facebook, but Peter Bouckaert from HRW provided a good explanation why to remind ourselves and others (for a good counterargument see here). The little boy, dead on the beach, also reminded me of my son. Sometimes one image can be more powerful than a number–2,500. The real moral dilemma is not whether to share a heartbreaking picture, what to do next.

Our failure, the failure of our governments, is enormous. We live in a fortress, where fellow human beings die after paying thousands of Euros or Dollars in freezer trucks and boats. Where refugees are escorted by police like prisoners, where refugees cut themselves to cross our fences. Their deaths lie on my, on all our conscience, for it is not due to people smugglers that these refugees have died, but because we erected barriers and tolerated the death at our borders.  This is a defining moment for Europe. Now, this sounds pathetic, but if the counties of the EU do not change their policy, not just our governments, but us as the ones that elect them, will be responsible for more deaths.

I have been encouraged to see the help many fellow Europeans have been providing from Serbia to Germany. Yes, we need to help, to welcome refugees, to provide for them in their need, but we also need to send a clear message to our governments that we want a different Europe: one which provides shelter, that is a safe haven so that nobody will die trying to escape. While achieving this will not be easy, the goal has to be clear. Lebanon with just 4.5 mio inhabitants hosts 1.3 million refugees, while the EU, more than 100 times larger, claims to be struggling with fewer. However, it is not just a question of humanity, but also what kind of Europe we want. Those who talk about the threat of foreigners, about “swarms” of refugees or the threat to ‘Christianity‘ have been screaming louder, but I don’t want to live their Europe. I fully agree with Max Fisher who noted that “If we want Syrian children to stop dying in the Mediterranean and washing up on Turkish beaches, we have to start with examining ourselves, our sense of our own cultural identities, and why we feel it’s so important to exclude foreign refugees in order to protect those identities. That’s a really difficult thing to do.” Yes, we have to a discussion of what kind of Europe we want. I want one which welcome people who are different than we are, not one governed by fear, fear of mosques, fear of people looking different. In many different ways, we need to be loud, make this message clear.

Please join in signing a petition to EU governments to secure safe and legal entry to Syrian and other refugees here.

Help here:

UNHCR

Refugees Welcome in Germany and Austria

more ways to help, also here and here

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.

Remembering along national lines: What is going wrong with the commemoration the victims of the Bosnian war

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As the 20th anniversary of the genocide in Srebrenica has turned into a spectacle over the angry crowd towards the presence of Aleksandar Vučić at the commemoration, there is a deeper problem with the public commemoration of the Bosnian or Croatian war. All sites of commemoration remember places where members of one nation was particularly victimized, by it Potočari or Vukovar. The ceremonies, the symbols, the commemorations are national and often religious and reinforce the categories the murders imposed on their victims. People died as Croats, Bosniaks or Serbs, not for being mothers, sons, engineers or animal lovers. However, does this mean that they should be exclusively be remembered as such? The distinct religious dimension of  Potočari also makes Muslims of Muslims (as a national category) who were killed for being Muslims, but who might have been atheists or agnostics, as elsewhere across the memorial landscape of former Yugoslavia.

This has had two negative consequences. First, there is no common space to remember civilian victims killed for their ethnicity, no matter whether they were Serbs, Bosniaks or Croats. This would make it easier to find space for the shared remembering and acknowledgement. Instead, remembering one set of victims is a political statement about particular claims and thus seen as supporting one or the other narrative. Second, it has made the commemoration of victims as part of nationalist projects and narratives, thus the killing of Serb civilians in Kravica is used to downplay or relativize the victims of Srebrenica. But this is not the only example where the killing of ones own civilians serves to reinforce narratives of national innocence and victimhood.

Of course, the risk, some might argue, of a common commemoration of civilian victims might risk forgetting or downplaying that most victims in the Bosnian war were Bosnian Muslims and support a narrative of equal responsibility of all parties to the conflict. This certainly would be a mistake (according to the Bosnian Book of the Dead, of the nearly 40,000 civilian victims, around 83% were Muslims-Bosniaks, around 10% Serbs and 5.5% Croats) . There is a clear primary burden for war crimes and civilian victims with the Bosnian Serb army, but that should not preclude the ability to acknowledge the other civilian victims of the conflict of which many were also subject of ethnic cleansing.

Places like Potočari will exist and have their raison d’etre, and there is great significance and importance for honest acknowledgement of crimes committed by members of one’s own community by politicians at such event (not as Vučic did by first trying to block public commemorations in Belgrade and then opposing the UNSC resolution that led to the Russian veto). Yet, without common places of commemoration there is a risks that the remembering of the past will just reinforce divisions and accept and invigorate the categorization of victims and perpetrators into neatly defined ethnonational groups.

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.

New notes for the Balkan Prince and his opponents

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

Dear Balkan Prince,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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