We need a different Europe


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:


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


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.

The Skopje Stage: A Macedonian Tragedy

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

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)

Negotiating a Way Out of the Macedonian Crisis?

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



Nikola Gruevski (Source: EPP)

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

Zoran Zaev (Source: FOSM)

Zoran Zaev (Source: FOSM)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Johannes Hahn and Aleksandar Vučić (source: SETimes)

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

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

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

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



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

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



German original of above excerpts:

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

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

STIMME: Woher weißt du das?

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

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

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


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

Rebel with a Cause: Greece’s Chicken Game


In a classic scene in “Rebel without a Cause” Jim , played by James Dean is racing with Buzz  towards a cliff, whoever jumps out first is the chicken, the looser. Jim jumps out on time, while Buzz gets caught in the car door and drops down the cliff with his car.

This scene is not only popular with movie buffs, but also with scholars. Scholars of game theory, like Yanis Varoufakis, the new Greek minister of finance. This “chicken game” is about driver’s drive towards each other on a collision course (an alternative version of heading for the cliff). One of the two must swerve, or both might die. However, who gets out of the way first is a ‘chicken’. Varoufakis in his writings about game theory uses the alternative term of ‘hawk and dove’.

Key to winning this game is to signal to the other side that you are more determined or more crazy than the other. If you are convincing, the other side will swerve first. You can signal by expressing your determination or–more drastically–by pulling out the steering wheel and giving yourself no choice but to stay on course. There are two ways in which you can loose. You can send signals that you are willing to swerve or you can forget to signal to the other that you pulled out the steering wheel and thus you precluded the option to swerve without letting the other side know. This is what happened in Kubrick’s Dr. Stranglove or: How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb. Here the Soviet Union built a doomsday machine that would annihilate the earth if the Soviet Union was attacked, but forgot to tell the US about it.

The new Greek government is currently playing a game of chicken with the EU (while some have characterized this as a gamble, I would consider the term game, in this understanding more useful). When Varoufakis says that there is no plan B, he is telling the EU and the GFKT (group formerly know as the troika) that he and his government are not going to swerve. As a game of chicken, it is a gamble, will the other side swerve first? Greece since the elections is signaling that it will not move, but so have some key EU actors, including Germany. The gamble is that Greece has less to loose than the EU. Even if Greece would have to leave the Eurozone, the cost would be high for Germany and other countries, so there is no scenario in which Greece would be the only looser.

The current government will have only one shot at this game, and it seems to be serious about it now. While a recent comment in the FT argues that Varoufakis would be overplaying his hand, one could also see it as astrategy of brinkmanship. It also has the advantage of a clear majority in parliament and a population supporting a shift from the status quo. On the other side, the EU is a much more complicated ‘driver’. The likelihood of somebody being a ‘chicken’ seems greater here.




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