Megalomaniac Baroque Decoration. A facade for authoritarian kleptocracy

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

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

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

 

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Source: Fokus

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Florian Bieber:  Yes you can say that!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Naum Panovski: Or what can Macedonia offer to EU?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

The Skopje Stage: A Macedonian Tragedy

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

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].

10 Things I learned on the Balkans in 2014

1. The revolution is not dead

Even though the protests in Bosnia in February did not last and few (if any) of the demands were met, smaller protests have continued and recent large student protests in Macedonia demonstrate that even the regime in Macedonia is not immune from popular discontent after years of small-scale protests. The protests show that representative democracy in recent years has not served citizens in the Western Balkans very well. Strong control by incumbents has made change difficult.

2. A one man show remains the best show in town


Aleksandar Vučić saved children from snow storms, commanded thousands of volunteers to save Šabac and other heroic deeds, like not sleeping and work while other slack. This brought his party an unprecedented victory for any party in post-1990 Serbian politics. However, any regime relying so much on one person will be fragile. A recent poll (not sure how reliable, but surely indicative) suggests that 80 percent of potential voters for SNS for the party because of Vučić.

3. The crisis is not over


After more than six years of economic crisis, the situation is become more dire as there are no immediate prospects of improvement and governments in the regions have not been able to set a clear path for economic development after the crisis. Nowhere is this more visible than in Croatia, where the current government seems to  have hoped on EU membership to solve the economic ills, with few effects.

4. A good press is a bad press

A free press has not fared well this year. Instead, slander and insulation are doing well. Informer and others like it are good to find out whom the governments want to target, but make for bad news. Reading between the lines is getting to be more important again, as the main news are not written in the lines.

5. Silly incidents matter, because political elites make them matter

While the flag carrying drone added a new dimension to provocations in football stadiums, but it could have been managed and calmed by political elites. However, neither in Serbia and Albania did governments manage the incident well. The result became a crisis of relations that had been rather marked by their absence.

6. Anniversaries are great moments for posturing and nationalist rediscovery

 

World War One did not figure prominently in national narratives in recent year. World War Two, wars of Independence or the most recent wars overshadowed the “Great War” in terms of public interest. However, this did not stop for a lot of nationalist posturing during this year. This functioned in symbiotic relationship with the generally strongly national commemorations across Europe and rather patronizing efforts to commemorate the war in Sarajevo this year.

7. Do not discount new friends from faraway places


Businessmen from China, sheiks from the Emirates have become more visible in the Balkans. These are promising new rail links, new urban developments and air links. Much of what has failed to come from Western assistance seems like it could be accomplished from elsewhere. On what terms and whether the wild dreams will materialize remains to be seen.

8. Some old friends are not really such good friends


Russia began as a good friend to Serbia (and the RS) 2014, but after (surely not because) Putin got rained on his parade, he dropped South Stream, notifying his friends via the media.

9. Engagement continues, wedding postponed

 

While Germany recommitted itself to the Balkan enlargement, the EU approach is lukewarm. With mixed signals, enlargement is being pushed down the agenda in the EU and the region. Yes, the process continues, but whether it will remain on track remains uncertain.

10. Borders change, war in Europe

The latest war in Europe is not in the Balkans. The newest border changes are neither. They both draw attention away, yet also cast a shadow. What the repercussions might be for the region is uncertain, but is hard to imagine that it will pass it by.

The Authoritarian Temptation

Untitled

Here is the English version of a comment I wrote for the Neue Zürcher Zeitung called “The Authorititarian Temptation in the Balkans”. It draws on an article (co-authored with Irena Ristić) and a book chapter published in 2012.

The Serbian elections 16th March end a year of political speculation. These are already the seventh early parliamentary elections since 1990, they are unnecessary as there was no government crisis ahead of them being called. The coalition government consisting of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS ) of Aleksandar Vučić and the Socialist Party (SPS ) of Ivica Dačić was stable and had a solid majority . However, SNS wanted elections to translate their popularity into a large parliamentary majority. In 2012 SPS could still bargain hard to obtain the post of prime minister. Today, this is hardly imaginable. Although the SNS is unlikely to be able to govern on its own after the election, it can determine the shape of the government.  The early elections are an example of the authoritarian temptation of governing parties in the Balkans, weaken the rule of law to secure their own dominance.

The “semi- democracies” of Southeast Europe

Regular studies of the Bertelsmann Foundation and by Freedom House show, that a particular type of democracy has taken hold in South Eastern Europe: elections are democratic, the political landscape is diverse, but populist and corrupt governments hinder the consolidation of democratic structures. Most post-communist countries in Central Europe developed into consolidated democracies. In the  South Eastern Europe, however, was intermediate form dominants, the democratic formalities be observed, but at the same time, populist parties control the state through patronage structures. This is particularly evident through the dominance of political parties over the media, the state and the weak rule of law.  The election campaign had not yet begun in Serbia, as the Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Vučić saved a child stuck with its family in a snowstorm on the highway from Belgrade to Budapest. Conveniently,  the state television on hand to film it. While this ‘performance’ was quickly mocked in social networks, the message got through : Vučić rescues children, while others go campaigning.

Not only in Serbia have governing parties used their dominance to engage in a continuous election campaign.  Even when elections are not upcoming [this was written before early elections were called in Macedonia], the ruling party of Macedonia, VMRO-DPMNE constantly advertise their successes on billboards and in advertisements. Due to this non-stop campaign by governments, it is difficult for the opposition to formulate alternatives. In early elections governing parties already have a decisive edge.  A second aspect of the authoritarian temptation is reflected through control of the media. Only a few critical media of the nineties have survived the past decade. The economic crisis and the state as the most important advertiser to have resulted in a media landscape in the region in which critical voices hardly find a place. This is particularly pronounced in Montenegro, Macedonia and Bosnia. In Macedonia all important critical media, such as the private channel A1 have been forced to close done and only few journalists dare to openly criticize the government. In Montenegro, there is often to attacks by “unknown” perpetrators against independent media. In Bosnia is the businessman and media tycoon Radoncic to became security minister [he was dismissed the day the article was published], despite persistent rumors of his contacts to the underworld. In the Republika Srpska the media is local President Dodik, criticism is only aimed at against the opposition, “Sarajevo” and foreign powers. In Serbia, only few media nowadays dare to openly criticize Vucic.
Media loyal to the government, however, weaken the opposition. Allegations of corruption, often without evidence, are part of the strategy here. The tabloids in Serbia regularly accuse members of the DS government that was in power until 2012 of corruption. Even if these allegations are certainly partly justified, they are used to discredit political opponents.  In addition to accusations of corruption, government media also regularly challenging the loyalty of the opposition and suggest that it is committing treason of the state or nation, particular in Macedonia or the Republika Srpska.
A final aspect is the dominance of political parties over the state. Careers in the public administration and in government-controlled companies are usually only possible with party membership. Thus,
parties acts as employment agencies and can thus secure the loyalty of its voters. This reduces the potential for protest as public criticism may result in loss of employment.

Political, not cultural causes
the danger of populism with authoritarian tendencies is not limited to the Western Balkans. EU member states such as Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria show that with EU accession the danger is not over. The temptation is great to attribute this development to “Balkan political culture,” but it has more to do with weak states and social and economic crisis that predates the global economic crisis. Often the EU overlooks the authoritarian temptation too readily, as long as the governments
cooperate. Thus, the willingness of the Serbian government to compromise in dialogue with Kosovo helped to distract from domestic political populism. However, if the rule of law cannot take hold, this will either lead to social protests, as recently in Bosnia and Herzegovina, or to illiberal governments, which seek to preserve their power with populist means, as in Macedonia and, probably soon, Serbia.

Skopje 2014 in 2014: Mission accomplished?

Panorama of the 'new' center

Panorama of the new center

When the short video of Skopje 2014 was released around four years ago, I was among the many viewers who saw this plan as either a joke or a grandiose plan that would not (or at least not fully) see the light of day. Now, the year is here and Skopje is transformed. Not all the buildings are completed, but Skopje has been transformed in the past years: more monuments and buildings have been either built or have progressed to a stage that they are likely to be completed this year than the original video suggested. Over the past days, I had the pleasure to participate in a number of discussions on the project in Skopje, giving me the opportunity to reflect on the project. A recent survey suggests that Macedonians are divided over the project. However, it is probably too early to judge whether the project will be successful in remolding nationalist narratives. If the reconstruction–in combination with new historical narratives promoted in the media, text books and museums–is able to survive in the years to come, it is likely to take root.

New facade of the government in the making

New facade of the government in the making

One of the striking features of the project is the speed. I have witnessed few building projects pursued with such determination and speed. This is a government in a hurry: no doubt elections play a role. The quicker the project is completed, the more it presents itself as a fait accompli any subsequent government will have a hard time to reverse. In addition, there is something else at work. When building modern architecture, the process of building is an acceptable part of the process. In fact, often the building process itself is a source of reflecting on modernity, materials, techniques, etc. However, this process is about suggesting that the new cityscape is actually not new. There is something nearly shameful about the building process. The Porta Makedonija—Skopje’s arc de triomphe was a large concrete cube during its construction, in need to be covered up as quickly as possible (I was told that for the anniversary of Macedonian independence a few years back, the top portion was not yet covered so the arc was provisionally covered with a printed version of the stone ornaments). Once complete, the effect is to seem like the new is the old, and the older socialist modern architecture is the new, intruding the in the space.

Many columns, little in between

Many columns, little in between

Facade with a bit of building attached

Facade with a bit of building attached

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The project is also mostly about the façade. The buildings on the northern bank of the Vardar are grotesquely narrow. The large façade has just as much building behind it to not seem like only a façade. However, reports suggest that the internal spaces are dysfunctional, with balconies not accessible, office spaces inadequate for use. However, criticizing the buildings for this is to misunderstand their purpose. If their goal is to cover up what is behind them, the internal function is just a tool to justify the façade, not a purpose itself. In this sense, the façades fulfill their intended goal. They hide the Čaršija the old center of Skopje, making it invisible from the new center, they block the view of the minarets and they hide the modern architecture of the opera or are given as a make-over to the government complex and other socialist era buildings.

After, 2014

After, 2014

Before, 1999

Before, 1999

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One aspect critics of the project have to contend with is the blank canvas the government found when it started the project. The center of Skopje had been neglected in the post-Socialist period; this neglect provides probably the most potent justification for the project: ‘at least something is finally being done.’ This sheds light on broader social dilemma: what is the urban and also social project in post-Socialism that can structure public spaces other than nation-building. The main other project is that of an uncontrolled market economy and the privatization of the public space into malls and shopping centers, devoid of any local meaning and shaped the reproduction of an outside commercial aesthetic. Thus, the inability to provide for an alternative urban project to shape the public space (such as the one Skopje had after the earthquake), made the current urban plan possible.

A final feature that was striking during the discussions was the fear factor many noted. Besides a few protests that mobilized not many citizens and the installation of a golden toilet bowl as a protest monument in the early phases of Skopje 2014, there has been little open resistance to the project, despite its massive intrusion in the public space. Organizations critical of the project have been subject to low-level harassment by the government and its crack-down on independent media and aggressive constant campaigning have led to a serious deterioration of democracy. The center is monitored with cameras and many activists fear engaging in a public and visible critique of the project, i.e. through graffiti, such as in Bulgaria, or ‘guerrilla’ action to erect alternative monuments (with the exception of the appearance of a Tito statue, which was localized away from the official monuments and in front of a school named after Tito and home to several early commemorations of Tito). The project is thus representing coercive imposition of the government’s narrative of the past and on the urban landscape that because of its visibility requires a level of control that further undermines democracy. As such, Skopje 2014 as a project is not just an imposed, kitschy and often grotesque reconfiguration of public space, it also has large detrimental consequences for society and democracy.

Tito among the citizens of Skopje

(I have blogged earlier about Skopje 2014, including photos I took over the years, on parallels with other building projects, and the early phases of the project in 2010 here and here)

The Museum with the longest name

Among the many novelties of Skopje in recent years there is also a new museum, probably the museum with longest name in the world, called the “Museum of the Macedonian Struggle for Statehood and Independence “Museum of IMRO and Museum of the Victims of the Communist Regime”” (official website). The visit was probably the strangest and also most unpleasant museum visit I had.

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The museum with the long name is a strange reincarnation of a 19th museum. The access and the narrative is tightly controlled. You have to join a group and are not allowed to visit the museum by yourself. The tour lasts close to two hours in which the guide (in my case a friendly history student) tells a well rehearsed national story from the beginning of the revolutionary struggle to the various forms of repression by neighboring nations and finally Communist cruelty. Taking pictures is not allowed and strictly enforced. The narrative texts are very short and there is no ability to understand the museum and its story without the guide/narrator. Although the museum is poor in original artifacts (the vast majority are guns), it chooses to not use interactive tools or allow visitors to approach the items, but instead it imposes distance and supposed administration. The control suggests that the government wants to impose a narrative, but also tightly control it and avoid individuals engaging with the narrative or challenging it, in particular when it becomes controversial (here is a short summary of the exhibits). For example, the guide pointed out that an early 20th century program of the Macedonian Revolutionary Museum should not be wrongly understood to be in Bulgarian, but rather it was written in archaic Macedonian. Later, he asked whether the older Macedonian visitors had learned about a case of Serbian forces torturing a Macedonian patriot during the Balkan wars in school. When the visitors negated, it became evidence of past manipulation of history during the Yugoslav period.

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Officially, the museum describes itself as “Collection of wax 109 wax figures of prominent Macedonian revolutionaries, ideologists, voivodas, intellectuals, communist activists, politicians, and foreigners, collection of artistic paintings – 25 portraits of prominent Macedonian activists and 85 mass scenes of significant events and battles from the contemporary Macedonian history; 1500 items including weapons, documents, photographs, ambient items, newspapers, brochures, albums, etc. These collection is in constant process of enrichment through purchase of museum materials and through donations from citizens.”

The museum in parts reminds of Madam Tussaud’s chamber of horrors, we see wax figures of Macedonian heroes bleeding or hanging from the gallows as a result of torture by Bulgarian, Serbian, Communist and Greek, Ottoman fascists/nationalists/imperialists. The 85 mass scenes are large historical paintings, mostly painted by artists from Russia and Ukraine. The style evokes the romantic nationalist paintings (in German these types of paintings are appropriately known as Schinken, ‘ham’) of the late 19th, early 20th century, such as Antoni Piotrowski and his portrait of Batak–a key event in the Bulgarian national history (on the historical mythmaking see here) . The scenes and portraits are hyper-realistic, but painted over 100 years after the events, they are at best a ‘creative’ reflections on the topic by the artist and in most cases simply made up (this is not to argue that the events they portray did not happen, but their depiction is made up). As such, most of the museum is fiction, not fact.

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The narrative arch is uncreative and follows the classic structure of nationalist story-telling elsewhere. It suggests the Macedonian nation is several sentences old (so one of the few narrative texts suggests), in the 19th century the Macedonian national revolutionaries emerged, who struggled for autonomy and independence from the Ottomans, threatened and killed by the neighboring national movements. The most difficult period for the narrative is the positive view of the World War Two national liberation struggle and Communist recognition of the Macedonian nation, followed by the Communist terror and how Communist Yugoslavia incarcerated Macedonian leaders. It ends with Dragan Bogdanovski, a Macedonian exile and co-founder of the ruling party VMRO-DPMNE in 1990 (which sees itself as a direct successor to the Macedonian revolutionary movement), thus making sure that the merger between the  nation, the national movement and the governing party becomes complete. Bogdanovski’s New Jersey vanity license plate is also exhibited, it reads VMRO 1.

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