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.

Megalomaniac Baroque Decoration. A facade for authoritarian kleptocracy

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A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure to discuss authoritarianism in the Balkans, the far right in Europe and the crisis the EU with Naum Panovski, a Macedonian theater director and intellectual based in New York,  for the Macedonian weekly Fokus. I am posting the discussion we had in Brooklyn here in full.

Naum Panovski: We are witness today to a dangerous rise of fascism, revision of history and mass corruption all over Europe.  And it is apparent that EU is not addressing these issues in a way it should and could. It seems that Europe has not learned from its sordid past. On the occasion of Europe Day, you have pointed out that “Today Europe is weak, willing to trade its values for “security” with dictators, it is divided and it’s opponents are stronger than ever since 1950.” Is this placing EU on the dangerous track of disunity and disintegration? How do you see Europe from here, from Manhattan and from the banks of East River?

Florian Bieber: The irony is that for the past 20 years the rhetoric in Europe was there is no alternative to Europe, there is no alternative to liberal democratic reform, and this is the only way. And this was the message to the countries of Eastern Europe: There is only one way you can do it, and basically it is catching up with the West, and when you do it that way, then eventually you will be a part of the West, in a broader sense, and you will have liberal democratic system, which is stable consolidated democracy and in so doing you are part of the EU and that is the end of the story. And there is no alternative to that. But now we discover that of course there is alternative. It may be worse, but there is alternative. The alternative might be ideologically incoherent, but reality is not based on ideological coherence. And many of the Balkan countries, as well as Austria, Hungary and Poland have challengers to liberal democracy and the EU. They are not outright authoritarian or fascist, yet they threaten the pillars of the liberal democratic consensus. They all claim that they want majoritarian democracy, they talk of human rights, but they define human rights differently. And the question is how do you define human rights and democracy. So it is in a certain way the challengers are interpreting reality in different way. So for example, if you take the right-wing in Croatia, and what HDZ and Hasanbegovic [Croatian minister of culture] is doing, they are eager to rehabilitate or at least relativise the fascist past.  If we look at Orban in Hungary, he rehabilitates the Horthy regime, but he is also eager in developing his own model of rule more coherently than elsewhere. He is actually introducing a model of rule which is majoritarian,  plebiscitary, but  has very strong authoritarian dimension. It is of course still amorphous model but based on coherent  system of thought.  It is similar case with Gruveski’s  authoritarian rule in Macedonia  or Kacyinskis government in Poland, and different from more eclectic authoritarian patterns elsewhere, as in Serbia or Montenegro.

 

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Source: Fokus

Naum Panovski:  Well, when we look at what you articulated as their different interpretation of reality, I think that we have to bring here “something” that I call a their lack of humanist point of view, which is turning upside down what it is good, ethical, what is socially acceptable; what is our concern and care for the “other”, that is the idea of otherness. For example, way back at the beginning of the this century there was editorial in Le Monde, which ended in a genuinely noble and memorable manner. It says: “What menaces us all at the beginning of  the twenty-first century, in France, as in the United States, but also in  Israel, as in Palestine, in India, as in Pakistan, is the isolating of the Other in his identity-national, ethnic, or religious. . . . To  better know the Other in his own language and his own imagination is not to renounce oneself. It is, on the contrary, to accept the plurality of worlds, the  diversity of visions, and, above all, a respect for differences.”

Well keeping this mind, I think we live today in a world which is all about ME. That  is, it is ME the ruler who sets the rules and policies. I think there is a distortion of truth and distortion of reality, and what they, these modern dictators, bring to the table is in fact very distorted way of thinking. It is a fabrication and faking of truth and reality, inspired on one hand, I believe by the aggressive Tea Party ideology in this country and on the other be the revival of religion as a political entity and force.

In that sense I recognize that tested matrix practiced all over fractured Balkans, and as a result we see there today how fascism is openly marching in Croatia, or in Serbia, while in Macedonia Gruevski’s dictatorship and the brutality of his gang has devastated the entire country.  How did we come here? Why? Why we did not say, stop? Why we did not say; that is not right. That is enough!

Florian Bieber:  You have mentioned many points here which I believe  are interconnected. Ironically, the populists have become constructivists. And they are very good at it. You have to create debates which construct meaning, but in their case doing that they also disguise other intentions, other elements which are engaging and relevant.  There a number of these cultural and ideological battles in Europe. In Poland, Hungary and Croatia, the Communist period is still an important point of reference with the government dividing the society in democrats (themselves) and (post-)Communists, in some cases, as mentioned earlier, the historical reinterpretation is about World War Two. The rehabilitation of WWII collaborators with the Nazis in Serbia and Croatia is indicative. It is an irrelevant battle. A battle about which we wonder who cares about it. That is not people’s bread and butter issues. We have other existentially important issues. Yet it is a distraction, very effective  distraction,  sidelining  reality. And what is striking is that it works. It is engaging enough and the people’ discussion is taken away from the reality and more relevant topics.  In Croatia the debates keep coming back to Bleiburg and Jasenovac, how to interpret the role of the partisans and their crimes and the “Independent State of Croatia” (NDH) . This debate is highly politicized and has little to do with serious historical research, but with political score-settling. Instead, it should be historians’ discussion and in serious historical debates, this is not a relative question. There can be no doubt that both the NDH and Serbian puppet regime were collaborators and that the NDH was fascist, and hardly a state. But the fact that this is a subject of a public debate at this particular point of time is striking. In Macedonia, the government’s “antiquisation” campaign has sought to not just reinterpret the recent past, but to impose a whole new narrative of the nation. Such story-telling is of course classic nationalism, but most importantly, it is an effective distraction.

The other element here is what you call humanism, I will call empathy…

 

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Naum Panovski: Yes, we can call it empathy or as Filip David calls it, solidarity…

Florian Bieber:  Yes, yes… solidarity can be the word, but I call it empathy because it means that you are able to imagine yourself as somebody else, and this came into discussion and I thought about this when refugees came to Europe and many people lacked empathy, that is many people lacked to imagine what it is like to be refugee. And many Europeans who have never experienced  war in that way had the least empathy for the refugees because they have no sense of what it means, they have no personal narrative of that experience. And you can say that is selfish or otherwise, but on the other hand I think all of this is part of the social context, it is not individual. You as an individual are making choices based on the environment around you. People around you trigger empathy or trigger hatred, and then they can make it socially acceptable. And that is the other thing which becomes problem. In certain  societies you establish taboos of topic where you cannot say the refugees are dirty Muslims bastards who don’t need to get anything. And they are taboos that are established and they are helpful because they set boundaries in our behavior. You might think in your head but you shouldn’t let this out of your head. That endangers others.

Germany is a prefect example of this. There are of course Germans who have  extreme right and  fascist views but there are very strong social taboos on these fascist views.  These kind of social taboos are less strong in Austria fro example and again less strong in Croatia.

So it matters what the state says.  It matters what the society around you says, what taboos and social consensus exists. And seems that in the last few years in many European countries these taboos eroded. I don’t necessarily think that people changed their views or that they became more right wing, or they have changed their views, but these destructive views have taken more space of the social arena. And that is something that we have to be concerned with.

Naum Panovski: All this is, as well, very clearly visible in Macedonia: the revival of history, the sidetracking of reality and replacing it with fictive reality and phantasms. That kind of social and political environment on my opinion is very much a daily life of Macedonian citizens under Gruevski’s regime and his gang. How do you see Macedonia’s reality today?

Florian Bieber:  I think Macedonia is a prefect example of a system of rule which we see not just in Macedonia but in many countries around the region.  That system essentially is based on informal control and rule of the state by a small group of people hidden behind a party structure. And that informal control is for two purposes: either for personal gain and enrichment or for power. That is the goal. Everything else is decoration.

Naum Panovski: We are talking here about  the megalomaniac Baroque decoration?

Florian Bieber:  Of course.  In that sense I think the whole Skopje 2014 project, the whole antiquation of Macedonia is beautiful examples for such a façade… and we all know, if we knock on them, we can notice that most if it is just plaster. And of course that is what the monuments and buildings are, they are just a stage.  They decorate the stage to distract the people from the actual purpose presenting different reality so they can achieve their purpose, which is power and money, personal enrichment. The ways the regimes do this, their mechanisms, are different. But in Macedonia the government engaged in this elaborate performance which distracted from needed reforms and democratic rule.  And of course they use word reform and they all talk of EU integration and it is just a façade to do something else. In this sense, there is the façade of reform and the façade of Skopje 2014, both cover up them authoritarian kleptocracy. They are all mouthful of Europe while they produce disaster after disaster in reality. Paradoxically you can be dictator in Balkans today and also being verbally pro European.

Naum Panovski: Well, are we talking here of high-level hypocrisy, and abuse of power.

Florian Bieber:  Yes you can say that!

Naum Panovski: Recently you wrote ten rules of a Balkan Prince which are practiced by todays Machiavelli. In that, I would say very ironic and cynical “manifesto for a dictator”, you have laid out, not only the sordid nationalistic, and xenophobic reality on the Balkans, but the mechanisms of destruction of everything which was once ethic, civil, democratic, and liberal.

Do you think that the Balkan dictators with their limited intellectual capacity can take it as a real guide how to rule and remain in power?

Florian Bieber:  Ha, ha, ha, I think they have been doing it for quite while. And they have it done before I wrote it. I am afraid that I can’t take any credit for that. Well I think that they all are intelligent, but they are not coincidence of history. If you reduce it to individual, psychoanalyzing the individual, you can analyze Vucic, you can analyze  Djukanovic,  you can analyze  Gruevski, and they all have their pathologies, but it ignores the fact that they are systemic. They don’t come to power by coincidence, but there was certain precondition, which allowed them to come to power. So the question is why would you have people who have either Napoleon complex, or other pathological flaws to come to power? I think what they show us is the failure of transformation process from the old social and political structure to democracy.  If you look at many people in Macedonia who don’t like Skopje 2014, but they are in the opposition, but rather they say, “At least they did something”  “At least he built something”. Of course that is nonsense, but that shows you that it filled the void which was perceived by people. They copy-paste  the language of reform from before them,  but on the other hand they gave the people something grandiose which had a different purpose… they filled this void   “we are doing something.”  In Serbia they called it “Beograd na Vodi”  in Macedonia it is “Skopje 2014”. They are stealing, they are corrupt, but there is still this idea of “at least they are building something.”  And that is a visible representation of state and its power.  And that is what they are selling: We are powerful.

Naum Panovski: Well, I will just add few little things to this glorious distortion and abuse of power done by the Balkan Princes. As we know, Machiavelli in his well know treatise advises the rulers that in any political battle “the means justify the ends.” However, he also points out and makes reference, that his credo “the means justify the ends” applies only when the Prince is fighting on behalf of the state, not  on his personal behalf and not for personal gain. Balkan greedy and abusive, undereducated politicians, seems to me, have distorted this idea to the upmost and turned out to identify themselves with the state. Their personal well being is traded for the well being of the state. “Oh, the past gives us right to do this” these ignorants say. That attitude of course has left behind a lot of damage to the state.  In that sense their most visible sign of the destructive postmodern transfiguration of the Balkan landscape obviously is the kitch project Skopje 2014. And that is not only reconstruction of reality, it is remodeling reconstruction of the identity, not only a national but urban identity as well. And that issue is not only aesthetic, ethnic or ethic, but that is also I would say ideological.

That ideological rape of the urban aesthetics of the city, has transformed the capital of Macedonia into a place celebrating a fake line of national link to the ancient Macedonians.

And in that way they have destroyed  the very fabric of a certain ethnic group and its certain cultural environment at large.
As a response to tat rape we have today the colorful revolution on the Macedonian streets throwing pant on this fake symbols, on the distortion of identity and demanding change, freedom, and democracy? What is you perspective on this struggle today? How long this protest can last?

Florian Bieber:  I am glad to see that finally all these monuments have become a target. Always when I have visited there I was provoked and irritated by them. They are not just kitschy, they are not only ugly, they are not only wasteful, there are also a visual representation of corruption, abuse of power, terrible taste and all of that. But they are also promoting lies, they are promoting false view of history, a manipulated view of history, they are divisive, and they are deliberately divisive, not only between Macedonians and Albanians, but also among  Macedonians. They deliberately try to interpret and impose one view of the past which is  not universally accepted, with the  goal to marginalize the other. It is in a multiple ways aggressive and intrusive setting not only in the space but in the ideas. And that’s why they have come an appropriate target of the colorful revolution. And in the way it is targeted, it is in way keeping it by mocking them in making them colorful, like pop art. Coloring the monuments reveals them for what they are, not masterpiece of a monumental past, but trash that improves in meaning through color, bringing it from the imaginary past into the present. Thus the color-bombing of the monuments and facades is a sophisticated form irony and culture that the regime obviously doesn’t have.

Naum Panovski: Not only that the regime does not have it, I would say it doesn’t understand it. I think we are talking here of two opposite cultures: a turbo folk, rural one, closed and intolerant on one hand, and urban and open to the world on the other.  We can clearly recognize that in the demands as outlined by the “colorful revolution”.  Among other things in their demands for change, they have asked for the president to step down, for total withdrawal of his pardon/abolition, respect for the rule of law and the SJO, new transitional expert government.

On the other side of the street the four political parties are not working at all in a transparent process of negotiation among themselves. What do they negotiate on behind closed doors? On whose behalf? How do we act in this confusion of  hidden information  and passive  opposition coalition.  How do we deal with this kind of situation paved by hypocrisy?

Florian Bieber:  This is a point, I have been criticizing in the opposition approach since last year. First this was the main strategic mistake of the opposition parties, mostly of the SDSM, who failed to reached out enough to non party structures, the civil society. They have been somehow kind of forced to do that, but it has never been their initiative. They never built a broad coalition. If you are serious of getting rid of regime which is really not democratic, which is authoritarian, and then the only way to do it, is to build a broad coalition. The lesson of Milosevic’s  Serbia of  2000’ and his overthrow, has to be learned. If we want to remove a regime we have to have broad coalition of civil society, not just of one party.  The other problem has been the EU, which has viewed the crisis as a conflict between the opposition and the government, that has to be resolved through negotiations. Of course that is absurd, because the crisis is not between opposition and government, but it is about the lack of democracy and rule of law, and the rest of the oppressed society.

Naum Panovski: Well what is your comment then on the colorful revolution’s’ request for establishing expert government, which is non-party and above party dominance and inclusion? Do you think that that can be a  right and productive solution at his moment? What is a good solution for a peaceful resolution and way out of the crisis in Macedonia?

Florian Bieber:  I think that that the role of the colorful revolution and its activists are very important. What I learned from the earlier protests, particularly  from the protests in Serbia in 1990’s ,  is that at the beginning the protesters had a wrong demands. At first, they were  demanding that the head of the TV had to resign, then the minister of interior haD to resign, but of course it did not matter…. if Milosevic is in power it does not matter.. because he had everything under his control. This lesson also applies to Macedonia as well… the bars should be raised high and the demands should be the top of the government to resign.  So the current government should first resign and the legal process should be completed.

As of the expert government, again, it depends on who is in control and it is difficult to have an independent expert government in such a polarized environment. The suggestion that experts are just professionals is not realistic. Of course, a government of non-party experts can help to reduce the tensions and pave the way for a transition, but I would be careful not to pin too many hopes on such a government

Naum Panovski: Recently we have seen massive protest by the Macedonian Albanians extremely well organized and lead by newly formed party Besa. There were almost 15000 people which is figure which should not be underestimated. They have also publicly expressed their discontent with the current Albanian parties working in coalition with Macedonian parties in ones in Government. However their protest was not colorful at all, but dominated by one color only, that is it was significantly marked by Albanian ethnic color.

However, as a result of that protest, I don’t see them as a part of the civil society.

At the same time some Albanian intellectuals say it is time to consider redesigning the ethnic and governing balance of the state, that revision of social and political contract, which in fact a push for turning Macedonia into a federation.  Where does this kind of unilateral protest, division and exclusive demands take us?

Florian Bieber:  The best strategy for a regime to stay in power is to keep the opposition divided. The best way to divide the opposition in any country which is multi ethnic, multi national is to divide it along ethnic lines. This happened in Bosnia during the 2014 protests and more broadly, this is how it works in the Balkans for the last 30 years. And as long the opposition and the ethnic groups are not together there is no change. Period. And if you are a smart authoritarian ruler, you know that you need to divide the country, and you want to make sure that you get to fight on your terms, your terms are national ethnic religious terms, and if the others play along your way, and you won half of the battle.

In Macedonia of course the best thing which could  happen to Gruevski is to be confronted with separate Macedonian and  Albanian protests, and they have different goals, and in fact Macedonians get scared by Albanians and Albanians get scared by Macedonians, and then of course who wins? the regime. And that is the status quo, there is no change. In that sense no matter the content, any regime can survive.

Naum Panovski:   I agree with you on that issue. Divide et impera is modus operandi in the Balkans. But in this case I would like to point out  that we may agree with the newly formed Albanian party and with some Albanian intellectuals that there is a need for revision of social and political contract Macedonia. The question is on what grounds?  I believe we are just on two opposite sides of the river. Their request seems to be ethnically exclusive. They demand rights only for Albanians and their platform seem to be very nationalistic. I believe that A new political and social/societal contract is possible only if the there is no any party which is organized along the ethnic or religious  lines. But only on the principles of civil society and include ethnic mix of citizens who live in Macedonia. That is, parties which advocate the right of citizens and their communal needs, and not national or ethnic phantasms!

Florian Bieber:  A social contract inherently is social, not ethnic. Of course, the Gruevski regime has made a mockery of the Ohrid Framework Agreement (OFA), by transforming it from a viable peace plan to a tool to buy off the Albanian partners and imposed a mononational nationalist narrative on the public space. In this sense, post-Gruevski Macedonia needs to reestablish the equilibrium and bring all citizens back to feel like Macedonia is their state, which includes, but isn’t limited, to Albanians. The failure of Macedonia over the past decade was democratic, not ethnic, thus the social contract would need to be focused on making Macedonia a more inclusionary state in terms of reducing the power of parties and informal power structures in favor of democracy. The failure is thus not with the OFA and there is no reason to open this question and no ethnic re-arrangement could address the challenges Macedonia has now. I would argue that Albanian parties which now make this argument are expressing the same alienation from the Macedonian state that many Macedonians experience, just that the language and means of expressing it looks different. None of this means that there shouldn’t be an honest assessment of OFA at some point in the future, yet,  it seems to be time to focus on a function democracy and institutions which in turn will bring OFA back to life.

Naum Panovski: EU was in the past several years and more engaged in a very direct way in Macedonia. However, Macedonia is a prime example of the consequences of EU sporadic and inconsistent attention. What is needed, how to make EU influence, their European vision work in Macedonia? how to make EU vision of united and democratic, civil free EU work in Macedonia on behalf of Macedonian citizens.

Florian Bieber:  First of all the weakness of the EU weakness is always projected particularly well in its foreign policy.  We see this in Macedonia as well, the fact that Germany named a special envoy to Macedonia, a German diplomat to be a German special envoy in Macedonian crisis I think speaks volumes about EU. The idea that members of EU,  that includes Germany as well, name a special envoy was unthinkable not long ago. Three or four years ago Germany would have lobbied that EU should send a special envoy to deal with the problem. Now the situation has changed. Germany even does not bother, it goes directly and sends its own diplomats to deal with it. That really shows you the weaknesses of EU. That is one of the structural problems. The second one is of course the leverage problem. What can EU offer Macedonia?

Naum Panovski: Or what can Macedonia offer to EU?

Florian Bieber:  Oh, well, you know, it is offering to Austria to be a border guard outside at the border of the EU. This is of course I think one of the dangers when geopolitics dominates the values, then the dictator can  do the job just as well as a democrat, maybe even better.

Naum Panovski: You have touched upon one very sensitive issue. that is the border  for Austria, but border  to protect what? To protect the corrupt deals that some of its citizens have in the gambling industry  in Macedonia, or to protect them form the massive influx of refugees?

Florian Bieber: Currently the refugee crises has reignited the idea of geopolitics and of big geopolitic thinking in Europe, which was very much not a part of European thinking. Now you have Austria building alliance with Balkan countries to stop refugees coming in, pretending to do what Germany is doing on larger scale with Turkey. It is a bad copy of a larger deal by making a deal with a dictator. So you have this idea of stopping European problems at its borders and making a deal with who ever is in power, as long as they are reliable partners.

Naum Panovski: But the Macedonian government is not reliable partners we have seen so far.

Florian Bieber:  Of course it is not. However, they might deliver on short term goals of Austrian or broader EU policy, which is helping to end the influx of refugees. While Turkey is incompatibly bigger and has more resources and thus can disregard EU demands, Macedonia is also less able to act independently. So yes, authoritarian governments are terrible at delivering in the medium and long run, they are have instability built into them and are not based on certain shared norms, but on regime survival. Yet, in the current crisis mode of the EU, the short term might trump long term considerations.

Naum Panovski: But if look for example at the recent outcome of presidential elections in Austria, with a very small margin of votes for the newly elected president, can we say that there is a value crisis and identity crisis in EU? What do you think, what is the message that Austrian citizens have send to Europe and consequently to Macedonia?

Florian Bieber: There is a paradox here. The paradox is that the two countries which have been  the most strongly advocating and care the most about Macedonia are Austria and Germany. They have been most engaged and there is hardly another EU country more in favor of the enlargement than these two countries.

But public opinion is against enlargement it in both countries. And in Austria more so than in Germany. So the foreign ministry in Austria will tell you they are willing to pursue enlargement despite popular opposition, for it is strategic commitment we want EU integration of the Western Balkans. But this commitment is not written in stone. So 48.7% of the Austrians voted for the candidate from extreme right . The fact that nearly almost a half of all Austrian voters support candidate who says that Republika Srpska should have the right of self determination, who said Kosovo should not be independent, who sounds like Tomislav Nikolic on Balkan politics, who does not want enlargement, because it is not popular, is very scary thing.  Even the far right did not win the presidential elections, they still have a good chance to enter government in two year and then Austrian policy may change, and we may hear: yes Macedonia may be the guardian of the border but not inside of the border as a EU member,  but outside of the border as it is now. They can be a guardian and “antemurale christianitatis”—an Christian defense wall—but you are not in, you are out.

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.

When Austria first discovered the Adriatic: Notes from an exhibition

I am re-blogging a post I wrote a few weeks back for Total Hvar on an exhibition in Vienna that is worth a visit:

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The museum of the city of Vienna ) currently organizes an exhibition on the “Austrian Riviera. Vienna discovers the sea”  on how the Viennese and with them the upper and middle classes discovered the Adriatic in the 19th century.

While the exhibit mainly focuses on the prime destinations of the late Habsburg elite—Abbazia (today’s Opatija), the Brioni islands and the northern Adriatic, Hvar is also mentioned, especially Hygienische Gesellschaft Hvar and Hotel Elisabeth (today’s Hotel Palace).

After the Südbahn, the southern train line from Vienna to Trieste opened in 1857, a journey that took days was cut down to around 12 hours (not much slower than the same journey today). The Adriatic became for the first time accessible for a wider number of visitors from Vienna and elsewhere in the Habsburg Monarchy. The train line coincided with the beginnings of modern tourism and—as the exhibition explores—the first visitors mostly came in winter, traveling alone for health purposes, only a few decades later summer tourism emerged and upper-middle class families traveled for the summer to the Adriatic. After arriving in Trieste or later Rijeka, the tourists traveled onwards to Hvar and Stari Grad and elsewhere by steam boat. To make the new destinations attractive, they took their names from the Western Mediterranean that had already developed tourism: the Adriatic coast came to be known as the Austrian Riviera and Hvar as the Austrian Madeira.

The exhibition includes old time tables, paintings, objects, and photos. Old bathing suits and cartoons remind the viewer that women and men bathing together was controversial at the time. This is a fascinating exhibition that provides for a great journey into the past when the Adriatic was “discovered” and tourism had its beginnings. It is a pity that the exhibition did not reflect more on how this “discovery” fit into the larger identity of the Habsburg Empire. Graham Robb wrote a few years ago in his Discovery of France how infrastructure and tourism were part of the nation and state building process—train lines “shrank” the country and allowed citizens to discover “their” country. The title of the exhibition in Vienna—the “Austrian Riviera” suggests a similar process in the Habsburg Monarchy, but the main challenge here is the diversity of the country. The exhibition shows how the different traditions of Dalmatia were a source of exoticism and thus the appeal of the journey, but the growing political demands of Croats, Italians and Serbs of Dalmatia, however, were rather a threat for the Monarchy.

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Photo from the Adriatic Exhibition 1913

The timing for the exhibit is perfect: exactly 100 years ago, on the eve of World War One, Vienna celebrated the Adriatic with the Adriatic Exhibition, a kind of early theme park complete with a mini replica of Venice and the rector’s palace of Dubrovnik. Over 2 million visitors visited Dalmatian villages, steam boats, slide shows of the journey. Thus those who could not afford the trip to the South could (pretend to) escape the capital of Monarchy for the day.

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Cafe Dalmatia at the Adriatic Exhibition in 1913

There is also an impressive and very detailed catalog available accompanying the exhibition. The exhibition will run until late March 2014 at the Wien Museum (1040 Vienna, Karlsplatz 8). Further details here.

Croatia Referendum Shows Perils of Direct Democracy

Here is a comment I wrote for Balkan Insight on the recent referendum in Croatia. I have added two tables that compare support for EU membership and support for the constitutional definition of marriage as a union of a man and a woman.

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Last Sunday Croatia held its third referendum in the last 23 years. In 1991 Croatian citizens voted whether to remain in Yugoslavia, in 2012 whether to join the EU and now on whether a marriage should be constitutionally defined as a union of a man and a woman. Hardly of the same caliber as the previous referenda, it passed with nearly a two third majority. The referendum was in fact a demonstration of the risks of direct democracy. Croatia already defines marriage as such, all be it not in the constitution. Furthermore, there is no effort to move towards giving same-sex partnerships equal status to marriages. As a result the initiators of the referendum—a previously unknown ultra-conservative group “In the name of the family” (with support of the Catholic Church)—achieved a success without any great legal consequence, but political significance.

Some commentators in Croatia and outside decried the result as evidence of a conservative, backward looking Croatia. This is, however, is one-sided reading of the referendum.  Firstly, only ten European countries open marriage to same-sex couples, all of them in Western and Northern Europe. Thus, Croatia is by no means exceptional. Five other EU member states ban same-sex marriage, namely Hungary, Bulgaria, Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania. According to the Rainbow Europe index of ILGA the main European group lobbying for equal rights of LGBT communities—measuring legal protection, human rights violations and social attitudes—Croatia ranked 13th among 49 countries in Europe, at similar levels to Austria, Finland, and well above Greece, Italy and all other countries of Central Europe except Hungary. Second, attitudes in Croatia are no particularly hostile towards gays and lesbians and opposition to opening marriage to homosexual is not particularly pronounced. There are few recent Europe-wide polls on levels of support for opening marriage to homosexual couples, but Eurobarometer numbers from 2006 indicate that the levels of the referendum outcome are do not make Croatia a conservative outlier. A 2012 study of the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency of discrimination against LGBT citizens in the EU (and future members) did find that Croatia ranks as the country with high level of LGBTs who experienced discrimination and harassment (60% experienced harassment or discrimination within the previous year), only Latvia has a higher level. The levels are similar in Italy, Cyprus and Poland. Thus, Croatia belongs to the countries of the EU that are more conservative in regard to LGBT citizens, but largely reflected Central and Southern European patterns.  Third, the turnout of the referendum was low, only 37.9% voted, thus with support for the initiative at 65.87% only a quarter of all Croatian voters endorsed the initiative.

Yet, the group and its referendum were successful. (below is added to the Balkan Insight Comment). Here it is worthwhile looking the 2012 referendum joining the EU. (added to the Balkan Insight Comment). As the table below shows, the support for limiting marriage is not inversely related to support for EU across counties in Croatia. In most counties citizens supported both. The only places where we can identify a clear discrepancy are Istria and the region around Rijeka where a majority voted again the prohibition of same-sex marriage, but for the EU.

Croatian ref percent

If we look at absolute numbers, see table below, a similar pattern emerges that support for accession to the EU was not lower where support for the recent referendum was high. The only region that is striking here is Split, where in fact more people voted in favor of the ban than voted in favor of joining the EU.

Croatian ref numbers

Thus, while there is a clear regional pattern of support and rejection of the ban on same-sex marriage (with more liberal regions in Istria,around Rijeka, and to a lesser degree in Zagreb and Medjumurje and more conservative regions in Dalmatia), it would be wrong to assume a straightforward liberal-conservative divide that translates to Euroskepticism. A second point of comparison is turnout (continued from the Balkan Insight comment). Turn out at the referendum is not as low as it would seem. Turnout in 2012 on joining the EU was less than 7 percent higher, 946.433 voted in favor of the ban, some 1.299.008 voted for joining the EU. Referenda often have low turn outs as they are usually able only to mobilize voters who are concerned with the issue at stake. It would be thus a mistake to consider the turn out a failure for the church and the groups that supported the initiative. The main successes reach beyond the referendum itself. For the first time, conservative groups in Croatia were able to gain main-stream support for a social issue, rather than a national issue. While popular support for “homeland war” can be more easily generated, Croatian society, as other post-Yugoslav societies, have been overall unresponsive to social conservative initiatives and policy agendas beyond national issues (borders, veterans, interpreting the past). The referendum suggests that a conservative social agenda might gather popular support. Such campaigning is likely to be polarizing and cannot capture a majority, but can energize the conservative spectrum of the electorate. Not unlike the Tea Party in the US, such an agenda is unlikely to be sustainable in the mid-term or to gain a majority, but it can dictate the debate. Finally, this referendum opens the door to potentially other referenda. It remains to be seen how serious the threats of nationalist groups in Vukovar are to seek a referendum on banning Cyrillic, but the success provides an incentive for the opposition to by-pass representative democracy and impose a conservative agenda through referenda (or their threat). Slovenia has had some similar experiences with multiple referenda in 2010-2012, mostly initiated by opposition groups that among others blocked pension reform and a law that would have put same-sex partnerships on equal footing with marriage. The threshold for holding a referendum in Croatia is higher (10% of all registered voters), but the success of the referendum against same-sex marriage highlights the ability to reach the number of required signatures if the issue has a polarizing effect and well-organised groups stand behind the initiative.

Thus, the referendum is less the evidence of a backward and conservative Croatia, but of the risks and potential of using polarizing social issues to dictate the policy agenda.

Ready for the Homeland? Šimunić and a bit of normal fascism

After the end of the soccer qualifier for the World Cup between Island and Croatia two days ago, Josip Šimunić took a microphone and shouted “Za dom” (for the homeland) and the fans in the stadium screamed back “spremni” (ready). This is no ordinary slogan, but was the salute of the fascist “Independent State of Croatia” and has been used by extreme nationalist groups in the 1990s. It is the equivalent of shouting “Seig Heil” at a German soccer game.  After coming under fire for the incident, Šimunić defended himself, arguing that “I associate home with love, warmth and positive struggle – everything that we showed on the pitch to win our place in the World Cup… Some people have to learn some history. I’m not afraid. I’m supporting my Croatia, my homeland. If someone has something against it, that’s their problem.” Of course, it is he, who has to learn some history. While the salute has its origins predating World War Two, it is tainted by the use by the Ustaša regime. The blantant display of extreme nationalism during a sport event is of course nothing new either in Croatia or other countries of the region and maybe it forces a greater degree of dealing with the use of extremist and fascist symbols in the public space in Croatia.The response by media and most politicians was clear and condemn the incident, as did many fans on online portals. However, as columnist Boris Dežulović points out, the problem is less that Šimunić shoted “Za dom”, but that thousands shouted back “spremni”. This exchange  points to a failure of the state and society to openly deal with the past, both of World War Two and of the war in the 1990s and to build a social consensus that makes the open use of fascist symbols unacceptable. The salute is not banned and in a different case, a court found a man evoking “za dom spremni” not guilty of hate speech. Courts are also ill suited to confront flirting with fascism, as concerts by singer Thompson demonstrate. The symbolic references to the Ustaše are clear, but they do not need to be explict enough to make courts effective. It is the ambiguity on which extreme right wing politicians thrive elsewhere as well.

The main concern is that these symbols become or remain “normal” and part of the mainstream and thus using them does not put you at the margins of society. The incident in the stadium takes place in the context of polarization in Croatia over the introduction of cyrillic script on public buildings in Vukovar. While the groups that kepts smashing the cyrillic signs are marginal, they contribute to “normalise” that the use of a script is a threat to the nation or disrespectful towards war veterans. It seems like a contradiction that these incidents occur now that Croatia joined the EU and last year saw the release of Ante Gotovina from the ICTY, seemingly putting a symbolic end to the war era.

There are three ways to think about it: First, the regime of Tudjman, while officially distancing itself from fascist Croatia, began the ambigious use of fascist symbols and references, that brought it to the mainstream and it never really left. Second, just like ten years ago when the HDZ used nationalism to bring down the first post-Tudjman government through mass rallies in defense of generals accused of war crimes, nationalist incidents and protests are a resource for the opposition to weaken the government. When evoking the war, the assumption is that by setting the agenda (war and homeland rather than reform or economic isssues), it would benefit more the nationalist opposition than the government. Third, after reaching the strategic goal of joining the EU, Croatia is now just a normal, ordinary country, with high unemployment and little to no growth for five years. The everyday fascism is a way to distract from this dull reality.  Probably, it is the combination of these factors that makes such incidents possible. If this leads to a broader debate in Croatia on what symbols and slogans are socially acceptable and which ones are not, Šimunić might have done Croatia  service, but not in the way he thought.

Secessionist conflicts: A new book and some thoughts on inclusiveness

I had the pleasure to participate in a book launch last Friday at the Hungarian Institute of International Affairs, of the book “Secessionist Movements and Ethnic Conflict” by Beata Huszka. It’s nice to see this book come out after having been a member of the PhD defense at CEU where the original doctoral thesis was defended a few years ago.

This is an interesting study that makes the argument that secessionist movements have three frames in which they contextualize and mobilize for secession, an ethnic threat frame, a democracy and a prosperity frame. Depending on which frame is used, the movement is more or less inclusive. Of course, the ethnic threat frame is the most exclusive and thus not only excludes minorities, but also increases the risk of violence. As the book shows–it is based on the case study of the independence movements in Slovenia, Croatia and Montenegro–these choices are not entirely up to the secessionist movements and the context and in particular the behaviour the centre matters greatly.  As such, this book strikes a good balance in making a constructivist argument about the decision of secessionist leaders how to frame the movement and the constraints they operate in. The more oppressive the centre is  and if it seeks to encourage local minorities to resist secession, the ethnic frame is likely to dominate. While the findings are themselves not earth-shattering, it is a good book, as it not only well researched and looks at the dissolution of Yugoslavia through then lens of demands of self-determination movements, but also because it raises questions about the inclusiveness of these movements.

The ability to make an inclusive case of secession is arguably not only constrained by the attitudes of the centre, but also by the need to forge a coherent and revolutionary movement. After all, seeking a new country is a risky strategy that comes at a high potential cost. If the centre behaves violently the case is more easily made and the state quo seems less sustainable, in addition, it would seem easier to convince citizens to follow such a movement, if identity is threatened rather than just promising a better life. As a result, there appears to be a trade-off between inclusiveness and passion a self-determination movement can evoke.

Notes from Ditchley

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I returned a few ago from a very interesting conference at Ditchley on the Western Balkans. The discussions with policy makers and analysts did not raise any radical new ideas, but it was good opportunity to take the temperature on thinking about and from the region. It was also a lesson in bad metaphors. Many felt that carrots and sticks are not working, but theories why differed: People in the Balkans prefer meat to carrots or the carrot is actually a stick. Either way, the days of carrots and sticks seems to be over (nobody mentioned that the metaphor implies that the person in question is either a horse or a donkey).

There was broad consensus that overall things were heading in the right direction, but there were a number of warnings: many (but not all) thought that the state of democracy & rule of law and lack of deep rooted reforms in the economy will continue to be a source of difficulties in the years to come. There was a bit of a divide between a number of Western policy makers who felt that the EU and its member states were doing enough to bring the countries of the region into the EU and that it was up to political elites to make an extra effort and a number of analysts who thought the EU should do more and make the membership perspective more realistic. A specific suggestion was for the EU to begin accession talks with all countries of the region as soon as possible rather than wait for each country on their own to fulfill the specific conditions. Once talks begin–the symbolic year of 2014 was mentioned as start date–the negotiation process will force countries to shape up and carry out reforms in a manner that is unrealistic prior to the beginning of talks. It seemed clear that such a scenario is unrealistic at the moment with a many member states skeptical about enlargement and afraid (although unjustifiably so–see Turkey) that accession talks would lead to membership ‘on the sneak’. A problem that has become more pronounced in recent years is the use of individual member states to use the accession process to set additional conditions. This has made the accession process less predictable as the Commission cannot guarantee the next step in the process as individual countries might block whatever comes next for unexpected reasons that have little to do with accession. Of course, this also undermines the credibility of EU accession. The current approach of the Commission to launch dialogues with countries without accession talks has been a good way forward but without beefing up the DG Enlargement this cannot be expanded more broadly.

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The most encouraging signals came over the Serbia-Kosovo talks which are expected to lead to some tangible conclusions before the summer and when the current window of opportunity might close. On the other hand, Bosnia was much discussed, but there were few new ideas on how to help the country out of its current deadlock.

I found it encouraging that there is a clear sense that incrementalism is the way forward, there is not going to be a big bang, but rather small steps that will change the region and resolve the open questions. For this to be successful, one needs to overcome the dynamics of what one participants aptly called the EU member states pretending to enlarge and elites in the Western Balkans pretending to reform.

A European Journey from Zagreb to Graz

In Graz, everybody discussing Southeastern Europe, including myself, is eager to point out that Zagreb is closer than Vienna. Of course, this might be true in terms of kilometers, but not necessarily if measured by hours travelling. If you take a car, the journey for the less than 200 kilometers is a quick two hours, but if public transport is your choice (or not) things look different.  If one wants to travel directly between the two cities, there is a bus at 6 am, a train at 7.30 and finally one more bus at 23.00. These take a breathtaking four hours to Graz (average speed 50 kilometers per hour)

Those not lucky to catch these trains or buses will have to take a slightly longer journey, as I did today.

The not-too-friendly at the ticket counter give me a flyer with my connection predicting an sobering 7 hour journey. I got on the intercity “Sava” from Belgrade to Munich. I remember the cars of the Yugoslav railways, when I took them for the first time 20 years ago, back than surprisingly how new they were. How could the Yugoslav railways (the Yugoslavia which was just Serbia and Montenegro) have new cars, when everything around it was collapsing, under sanctions. Now, the cars looks appropriately worn. The Yugosphere is alive and well with exchange of crude graffiti between supporters of Delije and Ustasha in the toilets, where they belong.

At the border, the Slovenian carina official kept shouting at a hapless Bulgarian “nešto za prijaviti” and the other passengers gladly repeated after the customs official in both Serbian and Croatian prijaviti, prijaviti. The customs official got increasingly aggressive amidst his disbelief that this word could not be the same in all world languages (or at least all of the ones spoken in the Balkans). After all this, is a Schengen border, the EU begins here and displaying good old habits marking ones national sovereignty with rudeness are now Europeanised.

A friendly Serbian waiter came shouting through the car “restaurant arbeiten—restauran radi”, but not enough time before Zidani Most, a little hamlet in a valley between Celje and Ljubljana. When I first changed trains here two decades ago, I thought I had arrived in the wild gorges of the Balkans, but it is only a charming train stop at the end of the Alps. A place nicer when driving through than when stopping. Mentally preparing for an hour stay here, a train rolls into the station that my Croatian timetable kept from me. Stopping in every village to Maribor, I might even arrive earlier in Graz. Maribor is only an hour and a half away from the stony bridge and Boris Kidrič continues to welcome new arrivals.

An elderly lady sells a little knitted Slovenia map, another one offers a  little kitchy cityscape drawn (or rather burnt) on wood and as additional incentive to make the purchase, engraved on top “Maribor European Capital of Culture 2012”. A few colorful cubes mark the main squares and a two car rail bus slowly moves towards the border, Spielfeld-Strass. In order to honor Maribor become cultural capital, the train connection between Graz and Maribor, some 50 kilometers apart has been cut down to two direct trains a day (despite “EuroregionMaribor-Graz and nice headlines such as Graz and Maribor are getting closer together in the local newspaper).

At the border, the two trains approached each other like for a cold war prisoner exchange. The Slovenian train and the Austrian train meet head to head, spit out their passengers and took the ones from the other side. Nobody was left behind. So when the local train (called Wiesel or in English Weasel) pulled into Graz, it took only five and a half hours instead of the feared seven.

Thus, one year before Croatia joins the European Union, getting from Zagreb to the European capital of culture 2012 and on to Graz is a journey at an average speed of less than 50 kilometers per hour, taking not much more time than the journey did over 100 years ago. My Baedeker Austria-Hungary from 1905 tells me that it take two hours from Agram to Steinbrück (Zidani Most to Zagreb today, one and half hours ) and around three and a half hours from Steinbrück to Gratz (today anywhere between two and a half and three hours).

After the five and a half hours, four trains, three changes, and two cultural capitals, Croatia’s EU integration felt like a virtual world, far removed from the stuffy, torn up trains that make this a journey at the borders, not the centre of Europe as it should be.

When Bosnia was Divided in Graz

Only a month had passed since the beginning of the war in Bosnia when the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadžić meet with new strong man in the Bosnian Croat HDZ Mate Boban for a secret meeting at the Graz airport on 6 May 1992. At this point, the HDZ was still formally a coalition partner to the Muslim SDA in the Bosnian government, but this alliance was quickly unraveling. It was thus that this meeting was officially “secret”, even though the Austrian media, including the state broadcaster ORF, and later the international press reported extensively from this event. The content of this meeting remained silent, as there was no official announcement and the Croat delegation left the five hour meeting without speaking to journalists. Karadžić however revealed to reporters and, as the Austrian daily “Die Presse“ notes on 7.5.1992,  that the talks focused on the “cantonization of Bosnia”. Already at the time, Austrian tabloids speculated, as it turns out rightly, whether the meeting had as its goal the partition of Bosnia.

Karadzic at the Graz Airport, 6 May 1992

The meeting in Graz between Boban and Karadžić follows an earlier, better known meeting between the Serbian and Croat preisdents, Slobodan Milošević and Franjo Tudjman, in March 1991 in Titos old hunting lodge where both had already agreed on the partition of Bosnia. How much Karadžić and Boban received the backing of the two republics also became obvious as Karadžić arrived with the plan of the Yugoslav government and Boban with a car of the Croatian authorities.

So what did Boban and Karadžić agree on in Graz? Despite speculation about the partition of Bosnia by media and frequent reference to the agreement during trials at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, the content remains largely unknown. Neverthless, the Bosnian daily “Oslobodjenje“ proved to be well informed a few days after teh meeting, correctly identifying the content of the agreement. The agreement itself was later published by the Croatian politician Zdravko Tomić. Austrian journalists noticed that the Croat and Serb delegation focused on a large Bosnian map showing the demographic distribution. The Agreement indeed focused on drawing a line of division between Croat and Serb spheres of influence in Bosnia, effectively dividing the country without the third and largest community being represented at the table.

Croat and Serb representatives do not agree on all matters in Graz. While Karadžić considers the river Neretva the border between Serb and Croat territories in Herzegovina, the Croat delegation supports the border of the 1939 Croat banovina instead. In the North of Bosnia the two delegations agree on the division of territory along the strategically important Posavina corridor that connects the region around Banja Luka with Serbia. The Agreement concludes that „as a consequence of what has been agreed there is no reason for further armed conflicts between Serbs and Croats on the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina “.

Kleine Zeitung, 7 May 1992

The Agreement does not in a single word mention the Muslim population (not to mention anybody else). This is particularly absurd when dividing Mostar, the scene of intense battles between Croat and Bosnian government forces just a year later. The agreement notes that Croats claim all of the city, while Serbs see the Neretva river once more as the line of division.

During his trial at the ICTY Karadžić noted the importance of the agreement as it largely put an end to the Serb-Croat conflict. Similarly the well respected Serbian journalist Miloš Vasić noted in 1993 that the Grazer Agreement constituted „perhaps the single most important document of the Bosnian war“, as it enabled the Bosnian Serb army to focus on Muslim targets and prepared the ground for the two side war against the Bosnian government in 1993.

The maps on which the nationalist leaders drew new borders have been rolled out before Graz: The European Community represented by Portugese diplomat José Cutileiro suggest the creation of ethnically defined cantons already in February 1992 at the insistence of nationalist politicians. The division of Bosnia also had been decided already in 1991. In Graz, however, new borders were drawn for the first time and one conflict, the Croat-Serb one in Bosnia, came to an end so that the overall war would continue much longer. The consequence of the agreement was the Croat-Muslim war within the war which only came to an end in 1994 with the Washington Agreement, a prerequisite for the Dayton Peace Agreement.

What remains of the Graz Agreement? With more than three years of war with and some 100,000 victims, the borders Boban and Karadžić drew in Graz were drawn and redrawn, some changed, others remained the same. The border between the Croat and Serb dominated regions of Herzegovina is similar to the 1939 Croat banovina, as Croat negotiators in Graz had hoped. The Posavina region has remained under control of the Serb Republic, even if it is divided by the District of Brčko. More important than the maps is the idea that Bosnia should be divided along ethnic lines. Despite (or because of) the Dayton Peace Agreement and extensive international support for refugee return, most of Bosnia remains divided into ethnically largely homogenous regions. The Graz agreement is thus a reminder 20 years after its conclusion of the failure of international mediation and ruthlessness of nationalist “leaders” to divided lands without any consideration of the people living there. While Mate Boban died in 1997 and Radovan Karadžić stands trial in The Hague, their ideas, maps and plans remain alive.

(thanks to Nidžara Ahmetašević and Iva Komšić  for researching the background materials).

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