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.

Absurd Referenda

After the Brexit vote, Russia has been putting pressure on Serbia to have a vote on EU and NATO membership as early as the presidential elections next year. The notion of such a referendum is clearly intended to sabotage Serbia’s EU accession and seeks to capitalize on the EU crisis after the British vote. I wrote this commentary below for the daily Blic on the absurdities of this referendum and referenda more broadly.

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Referenda are popular tools in the hands of populists and authoritarian leaders and rarely the desired instrument of democrats. They give easy yes-no answers to complicated issues, they allow to mobilize citizens against something, anything and they can ignore values and rights that are other protected. It is thus no surprise that amidst the current democratic crisis on the European continent referenda have been proliferating. However, not just the Brexit vote shows how problematic referenda can be: In Greece last year, the government of Alexis Tsipras organized a vote on the conditions for the bailout plan, campaign against the plan and ignored the Oxi (no) vote the next day. In Britain the Brexit vote only took place because David Cameron promised it his own Eurosceptic party colleagues when he took control of the party and once Brexit one, both he and those who campaigned against the EU fled the scene without a plan. Other referenda have been launched by the opposition to sabotage the government and impose their own agenda, as conservative Janez Janša did in Slovenia or the clerical far right group «U ime obitelj» in Croatia with the vote to introduce a constitutional ban on same sex marriage.

Even in Switzerland, the home of referenda and more experienced to voting on specific policies had two highly problematic referenda in recent years. First, a vote banned the construction of minarets—never mind that this is not only absurd considering that minarets are exceedingly hard to find in Switzerland (only four were built before the ban in 2009), but also because it breaks human rights. The Swiss voted in 2014 to limit immigration, including from the EU, which broke bilateral agreements and resulted in EU countermeasures that hurt Switzerland.

It is populists with strong authoritarian leanings across Europe who argue for referenda, often against elected parliaments as a way to short circuit complicated decisions that require negotiation and compromise. While this sounds more democratic, it is so only at the surface. Referenda are rarely the instrument of citizens, but mostly tools of either governments to ratify what they want or the opposition using them sabotage a parliamentary majority.

The idea of a referendum on EU or NATO membership in Serbia at this point is particularly absurd. No country has ever voted on joining the EU before negotiations are concluded and there was a treaty to vote for or against. Similarly, no country that does not want to join NATO has voted on whether to join. It does make sense—and many countries did—of having a vote to join the EU or NATO once the deal is completed to ensure that the citizens agree with such a big decision. Voting on something that will happen years down the road and is uncertain how it will look like (what the EU will be like, the regional context and Serbia) is akin placing a bet today on the winner of the 2024 European football championship—foolish.

A referendum on NATO would be even more bizarre as neither the government, nor a majority of citizens currently want to join and there is no significant movement to join NATO. Thus, the only purpose of a referendum would appear to be to preempt a future change of heart. However, voting now on a policy in the future is locking yourself into an artificial tight-jacket that might be a convenient excuse until a future government will see it fit to ignore it.

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The idea of such a referendum does recall the famous vote Milošević imposed in 1998 against foreign mediation in Kosovo. A majority of voters followed his suggestion to reject “foreign meddling”, just to see him negotiate (not very successfully) a few months later. JUL at the time plastered the walls of Belgrade with a poster in English (!) and the slogan “We all thing the same!”

The expectation of those arguing for such a referendum now would appear to be sabotaging EU accession and preventing a future NATO membership. A vote against the EU would be easily interpreted as a vote against political and economic reform and as more than just the rejection of membership in the organization, but the values associated with it and ties with the EU. Turning the back to Europe would satisfy dictators to the East, such as Putin and Erdogan, but bring nothing good for Serbia.  The best illustration of the populist trap was a recent cartoon of two sheep standing admiringly in front of the election poster a wolf. They were happily explaining their unlikely support: “This will show the shepherd”.

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The Western Balkans after the Brexit Vote: Russia’s Gain, Europe’s Loss

Following the Brexit referendum on 23 June, I wrote a response on the scenarios for the Western Balkans for Freedom House and a brief reflection on what this might mean for Russian influence for Radio Free Europe, published here in BCS. Below is the English version.

The European Union has been crisis for years, but the Brexit vote last Thursday in the United Kingdom has been the most serious challenge to the EU in decades. Never before have citizens of an EU member state vote against remaining part of the Union. This vote of no confidence has serious repercussions not just for the United Kingdom or the EU, but radiates beyond. The EU has been the model to emulate and the club to join for countries of the Balkans. Now that a member of more than four decades rejected its membership, a question arises: is it worthwhile joining?

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The 27 members have been seeking a quick resolution, asking the UK to trigger Art. 50 of the EU treaty that would manage the process of leaving the EU. However, the British government has been reluctant to trigger this ‘clean’ way out. This put the union in a state of uncertainty. Now, it seems more likely that the formal request from the UK to leave the EU will come in the fall, if at all. This uncertainty radiates beyond the question of British membership of the EU and extends to countries which have been seeking for years to join the EU. The Western Balkans now find themselves seeking to join an increasingly unpopular club. Not only Britain, but significant parts of the electorate in many other EU members are unconvinced of the EU and are now seeking a vote. While most countries are reluctant to grant a vote on their future within the EU, the crisis of the EU is obvious and extends well beyond the EU. The vote in the Netherlands against the free-trade agreement with the Ukraine in April is just one sign of a broader sense of discomfort with the status quo.

For the Western Balkans, EU accession has been THE driving force for change in the past decade. This motivation has been declining in recent years, as the Greek crisis and general reluctance towards enlargement in many EU member states has made the EU an unenthusiastic enlarger. Now, this process is put even further on hold. The EU will be focused on dealing with its ties with the UK for years to come. No matter what will be the final decision of the British government, the relationship will be completely revised and will take most attention of the EU and the governments of key member states such as Germany and France. Enlargement will thus be an afterthought at best or at worst be considered as a function of what it offers (or doesn’t) for the EU relations with the UK.

With the EU turned westwards, the Balkans will be more vulnerable to other influences. There are no alternative models to the diverse range of economies in the EU, coupled with representative democracies. Yet, Turkey and Russia offer different way of governing. A more authoritarian system of rule is on offer from the two countries and attractive to leaders in the Western Balkans. The main driving force of the EU in the region has been its attractiveness for the citizens in the region and the desire of elites to be both popular within their own countries and to receive recognition from the EU. Both are at risk to fall at the wayside of the Brexit.

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Russia has little to offer for most of the Western Balkans besides a model for leaders and an irrational sense of solidarity for some of its citizens. Today, the Western Balkans are surrounded by the EU and NATO membership also included Albania and soon also Montenegro. Thus, in terms of economics and security, there is no realistic alternative. Yet, the weakness of the EU provides and opening for Russia. In this sense, Russia is an opportunistic actor in the Western Balkans, without a long term strategy, but able to disrupt reforms. Since the imposition of sanctions against Russia and crisis of oil prices, the ability of Russia to offer a fundamental alternative to the EU have declined. Russia is not an aspirational goal for citizens, the West constitutes a more desirable future. Yet, a crisis-ridden EU that turns its back makes Russia not more attractive, but the West less desirable. Thus, Russia influence is likely to increase not based on its strength, but on its weakness. The cooperation agreement that the dominant party “United Russia” signed with some parties in the Western Balkans recently illustrate this. “United Russia” is of course not a classic party, but just a vehicle of support for Vladimir Putin. Its partners in the Western Balkans include the Alliance of Independent Socialdemocrats, the power-base of Milorad Dodik of the Republika Srpska and the Serb Democratic Party of Macedonia, a minor partner of ruling party VMRO-DPMNE.  In Serbia, the cooperation was signed by both the ruling Serb Progressive Party and the opposition parties Dveri and the Democratic Party of Serbia. In Montenegro pro-Serb opposition parties joined.  However, such declarations are just that, declarations.

It is for the EU to lose this support. Here, EU parties have been reluctant to stand up critically to their partners in the Western Balkans and to point out the authoritarian tendencies, especially in Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro. The main risk in the Western Balkans are authoritarian leaders who will subordinate the state to party and personal influence. Russia can be both a model or a partner in this game. As Montenegro highlights, these two might not coincide. With the EU looking the other way in the coming years, the risk will increase that Russia will become stronger either as a partner or at least as a model for governments in the region. This can through a wedge into divide countries like Macedonia or Bosnia and can seriously undermine the weak state structures in Serbia and Montenegro. Thus, it is for the EU to lose its partners in the Western Balkans.

 

 

 

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.

The European Challenge to Liberal Democracy

2014_norbert_hofer_15593676298From the Baltic to the Bosporus, governments have come to power which openly reject key components of liberal democracy and EU integration: Some play by democratic rules, but play the nationalist card, such as rehabilitate or relativizing the Nazi past, as in Croatia, or raise fear of a Muslim threat, as in Slovakia; some rule with authoritarian methods, but publicly stick to a reformist liberal agenda, as in Serbia and Montenegro, others use a mixture of both, such as Hungary, Turkey or Macedonia.

Europe is facing a double challenge from authoritarian and nationalist parties. By undermining either the institutions of democracy through authoritarian practices, or the ideas of liberal democracy by exclusionary, polarizing and populist rhetoric and policies, these governments are constituting a rising threat not only to democracy at home, but also the larger liberal democratic project of the EU.

Much media attention has focused on the anti-refugee and anti-Muslim right, from Marine Le Pen in France to Viktor Orbán in Hungary, whose nativism wants to keep refugees, and especially Muslims out. The refugees arriving in Europe over the last year proved to be windfall for these parties. However, the threat to liberal democracy and European integration, does not stem only for the populist right, but from two interlocking strands of European politics. Nationalists or nativists are often authoritarian, and vice versa, but they are neither identical, nor does any party or leader need to display both to threaten liberal democracy.

In Hungary Viktor Orbán came to power in 2010 and in Poland Jarosław Kaczyński last year, both with large majorities and established center-right parties, and have since began dismantling democratic checks and balances. The anti-Muslim rhetoric is not what propelled them to power or is an essential pillar of their popularity, but a convenient fashion accessory to remain popular. In Croatia, the conservative HDZ returned to power in a coalition government earlier this year with just over a third of the seats in parliament. Yet once in power, it began promoting a nationalist and revisionist agenda, including naming for minister of culture a controversial historian, who has relativized the collaborationist Croatian regime during World War Two.

In a number of Balkan countries, like Serbia and Montenegro, authoritarian rulers have refrained from using nationalism to stay in power. Instead they claim to pursue EU integration, while subordinating the state to their personal control and setting up elaborate patronage systems. Serbian prime minister Aleksandar Vučić won nearly half of the vote in early elections in April 2016, which he called for no reason other than to secure his majority, while silencing opposition media.

Southern neighbor Macedonia is beset by a crisis for over year as the dominant conservative and nationalist ruling VMRO-DPMNE and its former prime minister Nikola Gruevski were caught on tape organizing electoral fraud, corruption and pressure on media and opposition. Despite EU mediation to secure fair earlier election, Gruevski seems determined to hang on to power with all means necessary. Gruevski had begun his career, much like Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, on the promise of reform, but both drifted towards more personalized authoritarian rule.

In other countries, such as Slovakia, the ruling SMER party claims to be a center-left party and certainly cannot be accused of being authoritarian, yet it openly rejected accepting any non-Christian refugees over the last year.

On Sunday 22 May, Austria is facing the second round of its most important presidential elections in its history. None of the candidates of the ruling parties made it to the second round—the green candidate Alexander van der Bellen is facing Norbert Hofer of the populist and nativist Freedom Party, who made a surprising win in the first round. The anti-Muslim and anti-EU rhetoric of the Freedom Party  and its candidate is nothing new, but what made many Austrians nervous was a small sentence the soft-spoken Norbert Hofer uttered during a presidential debate on how he would exercise the office: “You will be surprised.” As the formal powers of the Austrian president exceed the constitutional practice, a president from the Freedom party could go a long way in sabotaging the current (unpopular) centrist government and help bring his party to power. His little sentence was understood by many as a hint that he would use his powers much more extensively than his predecessors did.

The Freedom Party thus poses not just a risk in radicalizing the debate about migration and refugees, but also in undermining liberal democracy in the country. If Hofer succeeds in Austria, this will mark a watershed in Europe, as parties which define themselves through their nationalism and nativism, marked with distinct authoritarianism undercurrents, will break the invisible wall that still divides Europe. Le Pen and others in Western Europe will have a success story to refer to.

The threat of liberal democracy in Europe does not come in a single disguise, but in distinct shapes, authoritarian and nationalist.

 

We need a different Europe

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

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

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

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

Help here:

UNHCR

Refugees Welcome in Germany and Austria

more ways to help, also here and here

Small steps and (not so) great expectations. Notes from the Vienna Summit

This post was first published on the Balkans in Europe Policy Blog

The Viennese Hofburg makes for a grand setting for any summit. When Western Balkan governments met with EU officials and representative from some EU member states, most notably Germany and Austria, but also Croatia, Slovenia and Italy, the planned signal was to show that EU enlargement is alive, as is regional cooperation. In comparison to the first such summit last year in Berlin, the Vienna summit comes after a host of regional meetings that some have joked that the prime ministers of the region see each other more often than their own ministers. Regional cooperation has picked up steam, even if EU enlargement remains no closer for most of the region than a year ago. It is undeniable, however, that there is a slightly renewed dynamism. The refugee crisis might have dominated reporting and the official discussion, it also highlights the absurdity of the Western Balkans being outside the EU. We are witnessing tens of thousands of refugees crossing an EU and Schengen country to escape through two non-EU countries—Macedonia and Serbia—to get to another Schengen country—Hungary—that is building a fence like the one it dismantled at its Western border 26 years ago. The summit was unable to offer more than symbolic support to the countries where thousands of refugees are stranded in their parks and train stations.

The issue of refugees—mislabeled as migrants—overshadowed the summit, but as with any such summit, the key decisions and substances are taken in the weeks and months before. Thus the refugee crisis and the horrific death of some 70 refugees some 50 kilometers from the Hofburg on a highway overshadowed the summit, but did not drown it out.

The governments of the Western Balkans seemed mostly interested in infrastructure and money. The message was mixed as Serbian Prime Minister Vučić said that he did not consider the EU to be an ATM—discoving values to praise Serbia’s treatment of refugees in contrast to some EU members—Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama rather suggested that it is money from the EU he is after. Either way, both Prime Minsiters emphasised the need to support infrastructure.

There is little doubt that regional infrastructure is in need of updrading and joint projects, such as a highway linking Albanian, Kosovo and Serbia, can have a great impact. The risk is that the physical infrastructure overshadows other forms of cooperation. Here, lengthy preparation have yielded two encouraging results at the Vienna summit. The governments signed an agreement to establish a regional youth exchange system based on the German-French youth office. By next year’s summit in Paris there should be a treaty and structure ready for the formal establishment. Whith the involvements of youth ministries, committment for European and government funding, this project holds some promise for enhaning cooperation of citizens. Key will be not to crowd out already existing youth exchanges and cooperation.

Similarly the summit was unusual as civil society was involvement for the first time in such an event. Over 50 representative from regional NGOs, media, trade unions and civic activitsts meet on the eve of the conference and presented recommendations on job creation, mediea freedom and regional cooperation at the summit itself (BiEPAG and I were involved in the preperation of these events which were supported by the Erste Foundation, the Friedrich-Ebert-Foundation and the Karl-Renner-Foundation). The involvement of civil society was challenging as politicial leaders in the region are still not used to talking to civil society at eye level and civil society has come under pressure in several countries, such as Montenegro, Serbia or Macedonia. Not a single summit can change this dynamic, but at least the involvement of civil society by the Austrian Foreign ministry sent the signal that they should not be ignored.

Another important signal was the signing of a declaration on biltareral issues (BiEPAG prepared a study on bilateral issues for the Austrian Foreign Ministry and drafted the declaration). In the declaration, the Foreign Ministers committed themselves not to let bilateral issues stop the European initgration process of other countries in the region. This committment echos a similar one in the Brussels agreement between Serbia and Kosovo and a declaration of the Croatian parliament from 2011. However, for the first time, all countries of the Western Balkans signed up and also invited neighboring EU countries to join them (the message is clear, even if they are unlikely to join the committment). Furthermore, they agreed to report back on progress made at next years summit in Paris. This declaration came as Montenegro signed a border agreement with Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina on the eve of the sumit and Serbia and Kosovo agreed on key outstanding issues. The most serious bilateral issues involve EU and non-EU members (especially between Macedonia and Greece, but also the borders between Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia remain a potential source of tension) and there is no immedeate perspective of resolving them, but the declaration and the agreements signal that at least some potential sources of tensions can be settled.

The stars of the summit were Serbian and Albanian PMs Vučić and Rama who appeared together at a debate with civil society and the talk show «Okruženje». Demonstrably on a first name basis, Edi and Aleksandar played up their good ties to put pressure on the EU to deliver. This is a great shift from less than year ago when it took German intervention to get the two meet first and the abandonded Serbian-Albanian soccer game led to a war of words. However, now it appears like an elaborate game the two play in which regional cooperation is working as a distraction, especially for Vučić. As long as he delivers on regional cooperation and Kosovo, the EU and also Germany seem to avoid a second, more critcially look at how he is controling and micro-managing Serbia.

The Vienna summit could not address the creeping authoritarianism in the region, but when Gruevski scored two goals in the football game of politicians from the Western Balkans against the EU, there is certain irony and maybe symptomatic that somebody who was under strong pressure a few months ago and who clearly appears to have stretched democratic principles and rule of law can be leisurly kick a ball in the goal of the EU team in Vienna.

For a list of the final documents from the summit see here.

Gruevski does not deserve any more chances

I just published a comment for ELN with Anastas Vangeli on the crisis in Macedonia in which we are arguing that the Gruevski government has lost its legitimacy and that any solution has to involve the resignation of Gruevski. EU mediation in the crisis runs the risk of putting less pressure on Gruevski than on the opposition and ignoring the protest movements for the sake of results. Below is the full version of the comments, I am delighted to have written with Anastas, who is not only a former student of mine at CEU and who wrote about Skopje 2014 when few others had, but who is also an activist with the social movements protesting in Macedonia against the government.

Macedonia has been undergoing a durable legitimacy crisis that was further deepened by revelations about a mass wire-tapping scandal and mass anti-government protests. While the scholarly community had doubts about Premier’s Nikola Gruevski’s deeds and work for several years now, the abundance of audio-evidence (which has been confirmed authentic) puts us in a position to be firmer in our assessment. Arguably, never in the history of contemporary have researchers had so much primary source material at their disposal, that contains confidential talks among the very few individuals at the helm of a country, dealing with some of the most sensitive policy issues.

The content of the tapes reveals a comprehensive, deep, and sophisticated system of corrupt and authoritarian rule, while the conversations are marked with profanity, hate speech, slander and ethnic slurs that are unacceptable in everyday communication.

As negotiations about potential solutions of the crisis are under way behind the closed doors in Skopje, Strasbourg and Brussels, it is very important that the EU mediators and the larger international community realizes that Macedonia’s incumbent government has lost its legitimacy at home, it is increasingly unaccountable and erratic, and poses a threat not only to the national, but rather the broader regional stability.

As the negotiations between the leaders of the four biggest political parties resume, the international community and in particular, the EU mediators should take in account the following four points:

1) Legitimizing Gruevski means supporting non-democracy in an EU candidate country, and everywhere else.

Following the revelation of the tapes the Gruevski-led VMRO-DPMNE lacks electoral legitimacy. Gruevski has won three consecutive cycles of early elections through abuse of state resources, control of the media, threat and intimidation of political opponents, and various practices of rigging the popular vote – including ‘importing’ pro-government voters from impoverished areas in neighboring countries. Such allegations and remarks were highlighted by OSCE/ODIHR in the report after the electoral process in 2014, and have now been corroborated with material evidence that trumps even our darkest fantasies. On one of the tapes, we can hear the former Minister of Transport, Mile Janakieski, ordering a director of an orphanage to have any adult orphans go vote for VMRO-DPMNE. In another tape, the former Minister of Internal Affairs, Gordana Jankuloska is heard laughing while bragging how she transformed the police headquarters into a party headquarters from which all electoral operations were directed.

By allowing Gruevski to remain in power, the EU would not only legitimate a blatantly non-democratic political model. It also risks setting a precedent elsewhere. Gruevski’s rule already serves as an inspiration for other leaders in the region and beyond that are willing and able to override democratic institutions. If the Gruevski government can get away with it with EU consent, the doors are wide open for copy cats.

2) Legitimizing Gruevski means supporting a captured state, a dysfunctional political economy and recognizing economic performance based on unreliable data.

According to the official numbers, Macedonia registers small economic growth, but this growth is greatly a result of dubious statistics, generated in special economic zones where investors are subsidized by the government, and the profit remains in the hand of a tiny elite, while Macedonia is among the top poorest and most unequal countries in Europe. The tapes reveal numerous evidence overriding of legal mechanisms when arranging business deals, arbitrary arrangement of public procurements, discussion of personal business plans and ambitions, as well as instances when leading government officials are plotting destruction or takeover of property that belongs to political opponents. This partly explains why Macedonia’s income inequality has been on the steep rise in particularly after 2006 when Gruevski has come into power, accompanied by the emergence of a new super-rich elite with him, his family and aides at its center who are now colonizing Macedonia’s economy through companies based in offshore tax havens.

Gruevski, a self-proclaimed expert in attracting FDIs, in one of the tapes, plots asking for a fee from foreign investors. In practice, a number of Gruevski’s deals have either not materialized as planned, or spectacularly failed. Some of them involved scheming with transnational financial criminals, such as the Indian tycoon Subrata Roy.

In one of the tapes, the Minister of Finance, Zoran Stavrevski complains about Gruevski’s ‘insanity’ – referring to the government’s irrational spending on monuments and historic-like buildings at times of crisis. As Stavrevski famously said on the tape, ‘we are buying chocolate but in reality we cannot even afford to buy bread’. On the tapes, even ministers in the government talk how the economy is heading towards the abyss and how they have to manipulate the numbers in order to save their seats. Speaking to Stavrevski, Jankuloska sighs ‘one day we will go to prison for all this.’

Considering the centrality of the rule of law and economic governance in the EUs approach towards the western Balkans, it must stop treating Gruevski as a reformer, and treat him like many Macedonian people do – as a fraudster and an authoritarian leader. While Macedonia is not another Greece in the making, and its eventual economic collapse will not have a broader effect, it is important to act timely in order to avoid a potential humanitarian crisis. That Macedonia is not far from this scenario show the data about a staggering wave of economic emigration – roughly 5% of the population now also holds Bulgarian citizenship, more than 10% of the population moved out of the country in the past 15 years, while the number of those who file for asylum in the EU is growing every day. Should Gruevski remain in power, these numbers will undoubtedly rise.

  1. Legitimizing Gruevski means supporting a source of instability in the region and beyond.

Over the course of his rule, Gruevski has had a track record of staging or taking advantage of pre-existing tensions within the country and the region, which have affected not only the national, but also the regional stability. Gruevski’s turn to authoritarian rule has served as an excuse by Greece to deflect pressure on the infamous name issue – which he himself re-opened and exacerbated. Although on some of the tapes, Gruevski and his aides seem ready to make a bargain for the name dispute, in the domestic debate he has attempted to portray himself as a ‘savior of the name and the national identity’ and orchestrated a smear campaign against those who argued compromise is necessary.

Gruevski’s stubborn nationalism has also at times raised tensions with other neighboring countries, in particular Bulgaria. Greek and Bulgarian elites in Gruevski have found the perfect excuse to engage in their own nationalist and populist campaigns that have the potential to at least distract the domestic public from their own woes. This process as a whole, however, has brought issues of national symbols, history and identity into the equation of EU enlargement and external relations.

The Gruevski government has been equally irresponsible about domestic politics as well. Having a largely passive Albanian coalition partner since 2008 – the Democratic Union for Integration led by Ali Ahmeti – Gruevski has devised a policy of stirring ethnic tensions at will, using it as an excuse for organizing snap polls in 2011 and 2014 – and on both occasions, the VMRO-DPMNE – DUI coalition has been rekindled afterwards. The leaked tapes show how there is a mafia-like tie between the elites of both parties, and division of the ‘prey’ along ethnic party lines.

In the most recent crisis Gruevski tried and failed to play the Greek nor the Albanian card, so he resorted to a novel nationalist narrative – about the global conspiracy for dismantling Macedonian nationhood. This has been accompanied by an attempted foreign policy shift towards Russia – which by now seems a failed PR stunt. However, the violence in Kumanovo—the circumstances are suspicious, but the exact chain of events remains unclear—highlights the risk of violence associated with the current government

  1. Legitimizing Gruevski means letting down the civic movement – both the streams that are in the opposition camp and outside it – which are united in the demand for his immediate resignation.

Over the last several years, Macedonia’s political culture has undergone a profound change. While the confidence in the ruling party and in the institutions of the system has declined, the opposition party did not manage to garner significant support. At first, this expressed itself through wide-spread passivity and resignation. However, in recent years, a growing number of citizens have begun to be engaged, participating in protests, civic initiatives and social movements. The peak of the grassroots mobilization occurred in late 2014 and early 2015, when a nascent student movement had also inspired others that managed to expose Gruevski. A broader civic movement erupted on May 5, when thousands of citizens gathered in front of the government asking for resignation of the government. Met with excessive use of force, they embarked on daily self-organized protests and marches that spread across the country and diaspora.

Part of the civil society organizations and initiatives that have been on the streets for months, have joined forces with the opposition SDSM in the coalition “Citizens for Macedonia” and have established a camp in front of the government headquarters. Other movements, primarily comprised of grassroots activists, leftists and self-organized citizens, have remained outside the opposition camp, undertaking guerilla actions, protest marches and remaining a loud non-partisan anti-Gruevski voice, identifying themselves as #Protestiram (“I protest” – first person singular). Whereas there is a visible distinction between the two forces, they act as complementary actors under the consensus that Gruevski needs to go.

These movements are not a side show, but they energize citizens and have been setting the opposition agenda. The civic movements are also the main actors in the debate on the future of the country, and remain the strongest link between the people of different social strata, the political actors, and the international community. Diplomats have so far largely ignored them, but the truth is that the process that happens on the streets of Macedonia symbolizes the new politics – which is above ethnic divisions, relies on direct democratic methods, and is participatory and pluralist in nature.

The movements have spontaneously slowed down their pace once the negotiations have been opened, though they refused to just remain on the sidelines. By doing so, they have consciously given way for a top-down solution of the crisis – in which, however, they remain stake-holders. Should Gruevski remain in power, it is likely that the government would resume its repressive policies towards these movements. Moreover, if Gruevski is being legitimized by the EU, there is a risk that much of the anger of what is an open-minded group of people, might end up further disillusioned with European politics. Hence, the EU mediators need to realize that these social movenments are their allies—supporters of a open, tolerant country that wants to join the EU and become more democratic. Ignoring them will mean losing a key pillar for change in the country.

In conclusion, we underline that Macedonia’s government is no longer legitimate and has to resign as a first step for rehabilitation of the country devastated institutions and economic system. The recordings have removed any doubt regarding the reports for prevalent corruption, yet no steps to hold anybody accountable have been undertaken.

The EU is in a difficult position, its bargaining power is limited in Macedonia and its interlocutor, Nikola Gruevski has a lot to lose: for him, losing control over government is likely to land him in jail. However, it is better for the EU to abandon the current talks than force the opposition into an unsavory deal just to declare success. The immediate success would be overshadowed by the long term dangers of keeping an authoritarian leader in power, both for Macedonia and the regions were many are watching closely and will draw their conclusions accordingly.

Negotiating a Way Out of the Macedonian Crisis?

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

 

Nikola_Gruevski_(9797911705)

Nikola Gruevski (Source: EPP)

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

Zoran Zaev (Source: FOSM)

Zoran Zaev (Source: FOSM)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Johannes Hahn and Aleksandar Vučić (source: SETimes)

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

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

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

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

 

stampano_60_naslovna-informer-18-02

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

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

 

 

German original of above excerpts:

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

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

STIMME: Woher weißt du das?

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

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

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

 

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

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