The Biggest Success of the Croatian government was its fall. Interview for Lupiga

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Below is the English version of an interview I had the pleasure to give to the independent Croatian website Lupiga on the fall of the Croatian government, the state of authoritarianism in the Balkans and the consequences of the Brexit.

Last months we saw in Croatia the hard nationalist, authoritarian campaign from the government – especially from HDZ – focused on suppressing civil society and media freedoms, accompanied by historical revisionism headed by minister of culture Zlatko Hasanbegović, against whom was even a campaign started by prominent european intellectuals. At the same time, even the ambassadors of important EU-countries in Zagreb deemed it necessary to hold a special meeting on the topic of media freedoms. In your opinion, how are the German and Austrian governments seeing the developments of past months in Croatia, and the current instability in Croatia, which will probably produce a snap elections?

The instability of the government and its fall turned out to be its biggest success. The effort to take Croatia towards conservative authoritariansim as in Hungary and Poland failed. In both countries, Poland and Hungary, the ruling parties received strong popular support—even if this was rather a vote against their predecessors rather than their conservative and authoritarian agenda. In Croatia, parts of a weak government sought to do the same and failed. The speed with which the government alienated its neighbors, its partners in the EU and many citizens within the country was striking and eventually proved its undoing. The revisionism and playing on the country’s divisions is a minority obsession, not a majority view.

 Is there disappointment with Croatia’s policy towards the other Balkan states – including the recent blocking of Serbia’s EU admission negotiations? Recently the important Bundestag member Gunther Krichbaum strongly criticised Croatia because of that, but leading Croatia’s politicians derogated these critiques, portraying them as an „isolated opinion“, while foreign minister Miro Kovač stated that in the EU it is not a topic at all.

Croatia’s blockade has been a very short sighted step. There is little it could gain and it seemed to be more to prove the nationalist credentials of the government. Using ones veto power in accession talks is possible, but comes at a political price in the EU, if it is done without broad support. It looks to many EU countries, in particular Germany and Austria, as Croatia is not yet a responsible member state. This is a striking turn around to the previous government that sought to position itself as an advocate of enlargement and a cooperative policy towards the Western Balkans. The veto is both bad for relations to other EU partners and Serbia. Of course, it is particularly striking at the Croatian parliament passed a resolution that it would not obstruct the EU integration of other countries over bilateral issues in 2011, including with HDZ votes. Now this is what Croatia did. There is fateful use of the veto power (or threat), first by Italy against Slovenia, then by Slovenia against Croatia and now Croatia against Serbia. Every time the weaker country promised not to do the same, but it did in the end. Thus, if Serbia is subject to such a veto, it is more likely to also use it down the road against others.

Generally, how does the European Union see the role Croatia has played since its accession to the EU? It seems that recently Croatia is trying to align itself – especially the president Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović is trying in this direction – with the Central European states i.e. Višegrad group – but these countries are not only becoming more and more authoritarian, but often in conflict with the „core EU“-states on the number of issues?

 Croatia has not yet founds it place in the EU. Of course, coalitions are changing and depend not just on geography, but also the view of the government. I would thus expect that whatever government emerges after the next elections would again take a different line. The Visegrad countries are unfortunate partners at the moment. Not only are they moving towards authoritarian and revisionist policies, in particular Hungary, but also Poland. They are also isolated in the EU, their hostile view on migration and hosting refugees might have been popular at home, but gave officials in older EU member states a sense of betrayal. I remember a Dutch official stating that he grew more wary of enlargement after witnessing the lack of solidarity in tackling the refugee challenge in the Central European members. I am not sure that this is good company for Croatia. It certainly would benefit also to look elsewhere, either at other Mediterranean countries like Italy, or towards Austria and Germany. With the Brexit vote, the more Eurosceptic parties in the Visegrad countries on one side might be encouraged, on the other are losing partners. The Law and Justice party in Poland is in a parliamentary group with the British conservatives in the European Parliament. Who will be there partners now?

It often seems that EU is giving support to the authoritarian rule of Aleksandar Vučić in Serbia. EU Commissioner for Enlargement Johannes Hahn, once said that „we need proofs for the suppression of media“ – despite Vučić having strong control of the media, illustrated also by recent purges in the Radio-Television of Vojvodina. In Germany as well there is not much critique of Vučić. Why is that, in your opinion?

I think the EU has gotten to be more aware of these problems in the last year than earlier. The main reason is two-fold. First, much of the control of the media and public space has been indirect and without clear evidence. It is thus easy to dismiss the accusations, especially as Vučić clear does the right talk in Brussels and Berlin. Second, Vučić has delivered on Kosovo and Bosnia and is seen as moderate in the region, which is an image he carefully cultivates. The self-image of the hard-working, honest reformer is something that Western counterparts like to see and thus there is an element of the willing suspension of disbelief. The longer he is in power and as the rhetoric does not match up the deeds, I would imaging that the critique would become stronger. I would expect that Germany in particular would be more critical behind closed doors, but as Vučić plays the Russia card, he is able to scare the EU into treating him with more care than he deserves.

Vučić is often manipulating in order to get EU support, for example, by presenting the situation that, if he loses, the radical right would come to power, what is often accepted in the EU. The recent elections were in the European media commented with titles such are „the elections for Europe“ – although the elections did not have anyhing to do with the pro- or anti-EU choice. One of the reasons for this support is probably because EU officials count that he is the one who can deliver the successful completion of Serbia’s negotiations with Kosovo?

He understands that both citizens want the EU accession, at least enough that politician in power has to promise working on it and second, he has to keep up the rhetoric towards the EU. It is of course in regard to Kosovo, where his pragmatism has helped him. He is also able to present himself as the last defense against pro-Russian forces—while himself playing this role, see the declaration Marko Đurić of SNS signed with United Russia recently. As long as the opposition in Serbia is weak and divided, a comment you will hear in Western capitals is: What or who is the alternative? Of course, this view fatally reminds of Milošević during the 1990s—not to say that Vučić pursuing a disastrous policy like Milošević did, but the willingness of the West to work with an increasing authoritarian leader.

How do you see the process of Serbia’s negotiations with Kosovo and is there going to be a strict condition for Serbia to recognize its independence?

I cannot imagine that Serbia can join the EU without recognizing Kosovo. Germany has made this fairly clear and I would be certain that other EU members would insist, both because they support Kosovo’s independence and because they do not want to important unclear borders into the EU. However, it is likely that this recognition would come at the end of the accession process and thus we are talking about a decision that is still at least 7/8 years away.

 Recent events about the destruction of Savamala neighbourhood triggered strong protests in Belgrade because of its probable strong connection with the Serbia’s power centers. In your opinion, would there be any sincere pressure from the EU to investigate that case?

I am sure that the EU is putting on pressure on this issue, as it touches some key aspects of its priorities, the rule of law. Nowadays, a country cannot join, if this is not addressed appropriately,as enlargement-skeptic countries, such as the Netherlands would block any accession until this is clarified and the rule of law functions. Thus, the EU is likely to put pressure in regard to this particular issue, but on a structural level, it will look carefully during the negotiations to ensure that these are investigated. Of course, EU pressure will be closely tied to society’s reaction in Serbia. The strong protests are certainly going to make it easier for the EU to also put pressure on the Serbian government.

Macedonia is another Balkan state in serious problems. The EU was from the beginning included in an effort to solve the crisis, but its recipe – to achieve mediation somewhere in the middle between deeply corrupt and authoritarian government, opposition and repressed society – was flawed?

Yes, the EU approach has been based on the assumption that this is a problem between government and opposition, but instead it has been a problem fundamentally about a corrupt and authoritarian government. As we can see during the protests, the opposition to the government is wider than just the largest opposition party. There were good moments in the EU engagement, such as the very honest and critical Priebe report last year that identified the weakness of the government in Macedonia. However, there has not been enough pressure for reform by the EU and there is a paradox in requiring reform, while being willing to work with the leadership around Gruevski that has no interest in any reform that would threaten its power. Thus, it is simply naive to believe that rulers who risk going to jail would take such a risk in the name of the EU accession or reform. In particular, the EU leverage is very much limited, as the EU has little to offer with the Greek veto still preventing Macedonian membership, even if reforms took place. Thus, one has to recognize that not only has EU intervention been sometimes naive, its ability to act have been limited.

Interestingly, some Macedonian politicians also enjoyed support in Europe, like Gruevski who had strong links with Konrad-Adenauer Stiftung. In Kosovo, the EU is cooperating with the deeply corrupt and toxic elites. At the same time, these elites are very pro-European – you stated that „paradoxically, you can be dictator in Balkans and also being verbally pro European”. But, it seems to more of a rule than of an exception – and also that it is possible not only to be a dictator and verbally pro-European, but a dictator and an EU-partner as well?

This paradox is a product of the fact that enlargement is low on the list of EU priorities. I don’t think that many EU governments and the EU institutions would like to have Vučić or Gruevski as partners inside the EU. However, the EU knows that this process will last a long time and thus, the governments in the region might not be in power by the time enlargement comes around. Consequently, they tolerate more problematic behavior than they would have a decade or more ago. Consider Vladimir Meciar in Slovakia. When he was in power during the 1990s, there was no hope for EU accession and this message was clear by the EU. This energized the opposition and swept him from power. In the Western Balkans, there is no such dynamic. This is in part due to the fact that the European Commission is afraid of sending such a clear signal, as this would effectively kill enlargement: the two front runners in enlargement, Montenegro and Serbia have semi-authoritarian leaders, as did Macedonia and Kosovo and Bosnia are deeply dysfunctional. The situation is somewhat better in Albania, but also there the polarization of government and opposition is toxic. As a result, there are no champions of enlargement—open and democratic governments that pursue reforms and EU accession that pull society along and set a role model for the region. On the other hand, few EU governments are eager to see enlargement any time soon and in some countries referenda are looming over enlargement—especially in France and the Netherlands—and thus many EU member states are not unhappy that enlargement is remote and will take years. The reluctant reforms are in a symbiotic relationship with the reluctant enlargers.

 Could we say that, as long as the local leaders are cooperative and / or obedient – in the case of Macedonia, turning the country into Europe’s border guard, stability in the case of Kosovo and Serbia or keeping Russia out in the case of Montenegro – the EU is much less interested in the nature of the Balkan regimes, i.e. that it bases its policy towards the Balkans on its own interests – which are different than the interests of the local populations?

This is another challenge. The refugee ‘crisis’—I am putting quotation marks on the term crisis, as it is a self-made crisis, the influx of refugees was always manageable for the EU—has made the EU and some of its member states put geopolitics above norms. Both the agreement with Turkey and the closure of the Macedonian border were geostrategic decisions made inside the EU that ignored how this benefits local power structures and gives them more legitimacy.

 On one occassion you stated that we can analize Vučić, Gruevski or Đukanović, but that they are „systemic“ i.e. the products of the local system, and not a coincidence. What is the cause of that? How much is the EU reponsible for such a development? Macedonia, Bosnia and Kosovo are three countries with strong EU-involvement, yet all three could maybe at least partially be described as failed states. Can we also speak of the failure of the EU Balkan policies in general?

Of course, Vučić, Gruevski and Djukanović are not coincidences, but expressions of weak institutions and state structures. They rule through informal power structures, based on personal loyalty and party affiliation and these trump abstract rules and laws. First and foremost, this is a domestic failure and not a failure of EU policy. The reasons the EU has not been more effective and failed in part has been based first on neglecting informal politics and focusing too much on formal rules. This suits semi-authoritarian rulers who are happy to have formal rules and subvert them at the same time. Furthermore, the EU did not push enough for strengthening institutions during times when the credibility and ability of the EU to push for reforms was greater. Take Serbia: the dominance of Vucic is product of the Tadic era when a president exercised power well beyond the formal constitutional powers and everybody looked the other way.

When it comes to Kosovo, Bosnia and Macedonia, I would not call them failed states, they are difficult states with considerable challengers. They could have worked better if they had greater prospects of EU membership. The institutions are weak and there are considerable difficulties in all three, although they differ in their challenges. Yet, these are not a product of power-sharing or ethnic tensions, but the same kind of informal power structures we see in Serbia and Montenegro.

 At the moment the enlargement is not a priority at all – you wrote in this context about the implications of the Dutch voters rejection of EU-Ukraine agreement and its consequences on the Balkan states aspirations. How much are the chances of Western Balkan countries of becoming the EU-members realistic at all – in your words, sometimes it seems „like the EU simulates its enlargement aspirations, and the local countries simulate reforms“?

The prospect of joining the EU in the coming 7-8 years seem slim, only if the EU changes will enlargement become possible again. There is a risk, as I noted earlier, that referenda would be held over enlargement in France and the Netherlands and there is no reason to think that it would be positive. Thus, these are high hurdles which might worsen considering the atmosphere in the EU after the Brexit vote. The 27 EU members realize that the EU is currently unpopular and thus will not ‘provoke’ their citizens with an unpopular measure, such as enlargement. However, even if this was not the case, Serbia and Montenegro as the ‘front runners’ would not be ready to join for another 6-7 years. Thus, this is a long time, by which the EU will look very different and certainly popular attitudes will change—for better or for worse. If I were to give advice to governments in the Western Balkans, I would say, reform, pursue EU accession and be ready when the EU is ready. The bottom line is anyhow not the day of membership, but the reforms that the EU requires.

 Some experts proposed that the EU should lower the criteria significantly and accept fast admission of the Western Balkan countries, otherwise they could tire themselves of endless objectives and maybe geopolitically re-orient, while the admission would work beneficially on their societies and politics. How would you comment on that?

 While I am sympathetic to this view, it is first not realistic. Citizens in too many EU countries are skeptical of enlargement towards the Balkans and would oppose quick enlargement. There is thus no realistic chance of such an approach. The Brexit vote will make any such move even less likely. The only scenario under which such a possibility would arise, is if the EU transforms itself into a two-tier EU, with an outer ring for countries like the UK and the Western Balkans with a  lower level of integration and lower critiera. However, talking as an EU citizen, I am deeply troubled with the Hungarian and Polish government in the EU and I would certainly not want to have more governments in the EU which are undermining liberal democratic rule. I doubt that quick accession of countries ruled by Vučić or Djukanović would do the citizens of these countries any favors.

 Is there a chance that these countries will for a longer time remain a kind of impoverished external periphery ruled by local authoritarian and nationalistic leaders – who are also supported by the EU?

The risk is real and largely a function of the degree to which the EU will be rejuvenating itself. If it will stagnate and the crisis of the EU and the crisis of democracy will continue and worsen, this will be, I am afraid, be the consequence. However, if the perpetual EU-crisis will end and it will find renewed energy to focus on its values and project outwards, then this will come to an end. The nationalist and authoritarian leaders are opportunists and follow the larger European atmosphere.

The EU was and is at the same time often pushing for economic policies which do not benefit local populations. Liberal opposition in all local countries was always dreaming for the rule of law, civil liberties, etc., but the EU is willing to tolerate suppression of that even in the range of the member states, Hungary for example. If they make it into the EU, what is the EU offering Balkan nations today at all – in terms of economic and social progress?

The economic progress or the EU convergence narrative has failed in the light of the economic crisis, see Greece. The value narrative has failed in the case of Hungary, thus there is currently little the EU can offer if countries are not able or willing to follow. I don’t see any benefit for any Western Balkan country in the EU, if their politics will look like those of Hungary or their economy like Greece. This requires first and foremost a rethink in the EU how to deal with countries who diverge so fundamentally from the core understanding of the EU.

How would it be possible for the periphery countries to reform themselves in order to achieve economic prosperity? In the context of the current EU-wide economic policies, that seems hardly possible, as their only “competitive advantage” seems to be low labour costs, while – inside the common market – weakness of the domestic industry reduces peripheral countries to the market for products from more developed ones. The convergence would possibly require massive redistribution and investments from the richer countries to the poorer ones, but such a project would require a fundamental change of the principles of the EU economic policies – is that possible to imagine? Could it be said that the weak position of these peripheral economies inside the EU also contributes to the authoritarian movements?

The weakness of some peripheral economies and their lack of economic convergence is not only the result of EU policies, but to a large degree based on the inability to make effective use of EU structural funds and other resources. Thus, countries like Ireland have been effective and others like Greece have not. Of course, it seems clear that the austerity policies of recent years have been locking countries in a difficult position and this requires a more strategic rethinking of the EU policies. The difficult economic position has led to both the rise of far right parties, but also of new leftist parties, like Syriza and Podemos, which seek to offer a different approach. Both clearly highlight that the existing parties in the countries particularly hard hit by the crisis are unable to retain legitimacy. Interestingly, the crisis of established parties has moved from the periphery of the EU to its center, including Germany and France-

How would you explain the huge success of the radical right-wing in Austrian presidential election? Both mainstream candidates did not even made it to the second round, which could speak of population’s estrangement from the established elites. Some comments were pointing out of the strong support for the right in the rural regions, which miss the modernization of the urban centers. Now it seems that the chauvinism and nationalism are not any more reserved for the periphery, but that the liberal democracy is failing in its centers as well?

The success of the far right in Austria is part of the wider European and US (see Trump) rise of populism that draws on xenophobia, anti-elitism and rejection of established parties. In the case of Austria, this was reinforced by the influx of refugees that gave many citizens a fear of the unknown and seeming (not real) state weakness. The weak and changing policies of the governing parties added to the support of populists and far right parties. This is a similar dynamic as the Brexit vote in the UK. With Labor not campaigning energetically for the EU and the Conservatives divided, the defenders of the gave up the fight. In Austria, the established parties were not able to offer inspiring candidates and offer a vision.

Now that the elections have been held again, there will be an interesting question whether or not the Brexit vote will impact the result. If the Brexit discussions continue to reveal that the supporters of leaving the EU had no plan or vision, but just opposed the status quo for their own benefit, risking chaos and uncertainty, this could strengthen the forces against the far right. The message is: populist challengers have no answers and lead to chaos. If Brexit proceeds successfully, after the first ten days of chaos, then this would be a welcome signal to the far right in Austria and elsewhere. The message is: if moderate conservatives in the UK can do it, why can’t we. Austrian presidential elections are formally speaking not very important. Austria is a small country, the president as few powers. However, if the candidate of the far right would make it in Austria, it would be a water shed, encouraging the far right elsewhere. Considering that the FPÖ gathered nearly 50% of the vote here is already a shocking message. Until these elections few thought that a far right candidate could possible get the support of nearly every second voter, especially in a country that is not hit hard by economic crisis and is otherwise not in a difficult situation.

The Austrian vote, the Brexit referendum do raise fundamental challenges not just for the EU, but also for liberal democracy in Europe. As we are in the midst of this crisis, it is hard to predict which way we will head, yet I am sure that at the end, there will be no business as usual.

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