A Macedonian Moment for the Balkans?

2016-11-26 10.49.00 HDR.jpg

After years of democratic decline in the Western Balkans, the new Macedonian government that took office in May 2017 constituted not just the first democratic transfer of power in the region for four years, but also a apparent break with the success of autocratic rule.The results of the local elections last Sunday ratify this change of government and give it not just much needed backing, but also clarify that after a decade of increasing authoritarian rule, nepotism and nationalism, most citizens back a different political course

Is there are “Macedonian moment” and what can be learnt from it? First a warning, the electoral success of Aleksandar Vučić in 2012 was by many seen as democratic normalization and a sign of Serbia’s democracy maturing. Instead, the state of media freedom and democracy has regressed significantly since. In Albania, the success of Edi Rama helped to break the nationalist and autocratic temptations of the Berisha governments. The re­cord of the Rama government, reelected just this year, has been mixed: on one side, it succeeded in sig­nificant reforms, on the other, the dominance of a strong self-centered prime minister does bear its risks.

These recent transfers of power stand as a warning to not just focus on people and their ability to “de­liver”, but rather on structural changes that make government more transparent and accountable. To some degree the new Macedonian government holds more promise as Prime Minister Zaev cuts a less charismatic and dominant leadership figure than Vučić or Rama and his power is based less on a hierarchical pyramid of power.

The Macedonian transfer of power holds two lessons for the wider region. The first is on the transfer of power itself and the second is on the aftermath. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the buz­zword for democratic change in the Balkans and beyond was “electoral revolution”, the change of an autocratic regime through a decisive election. This helped end Meciar’s nationalist thuggishness in Slovakia in 1998, the corrupt and nationalist Tudjman regime in Croatia in 2000 and the warmon­gering Milošević in the same year. Here the focus was on a broad opposition coalition that would over­throw the incumbent in an election, monitored by civil society with strong social movements and inter­national support.

The record of these transitions has been varied. Slovakia and Croatia did relatively well, Serbia had a mixed record, but the break with Milošević was decisive and liberating. Further east, in Ukraine or Geor­gia, the outcome was less clear cut, at least after an initial fury of reforms. A new generation of au­tocrats has been able to control electoral processes better than their predecessors and have also, for the most part been less antagonistic to the West. Thus, unseating them requires a different strategy. In Macedonia, it required a nearly two year long process that not only brought the undemocratic practices of the government to light to a domestic audience, but also gradually convinced the EU and key mem­ber states that the government seized being a partner (although some members of the European Peoples’ Party continued supporting the incumbent VMRO-DPMNE until after the elections in 2016). A combination of external pressure, such as the Priebe Report, the EU mediation that set up the special prosecutor, large scale so­cial movements and protests led to a change of government that only took place after intense interna­tional pressure following the violence in parliament orchestrated by the governing party in April 2017. Thus, unseating autocratic incumbents in the region will require a similar mix of revelation, mobiliza­tion, external pressure, and a critical juncture.

Such a Macedonian moment is increasingly becoming the only path toward renewing democratic rule in several Balkan countries. Key for long term change and transforming the “Macedonian moment” into a lasting legacy requires more than a change of leadership or new parties in power. From Milorad Dodik in the Republika Srpska in 2006 to Vučić in 2012, too often the hope of Western actors was pinned on finding the next reliable, reformist partner. The result has been support­ing the current generation of strongmen, who talk of reform when it suits them, but building a highly personalized system of control. Key for sustainable change will be strengthening institutions over people and the willingness of the new Macedonian government to building professional and transparent institutions and to break the power of patronage networks that are the main transmission belts between politics and citizens across the region. It is easy to conjure up the image of a generational change, yet the autocratic incumbents are often young, from Vucic and Gruevski, both 47 years old, to Milo Djukanovic, 55 years old. All came to power in their twenties and thirties, reminding us that youth is no protection from autocracy and even less from long rule.

The biggest failure of the democrats in the 2000s across the region was the failure to build and respect institutions and rules, often with the tacit consent and encouragement from outsiders. The informal presidentialism of Boris Tadić, the dubious coalition building in Kosovo and informal power of Milo Dju­kanović, just to list a few examples, all preventing the emergence of strong institutions and rules that are not easily bent.

Making the “Macedonian moment” sustainable also will require a new type of party politics. To date, most parties in the region have been essentially interests groups focused on gaining and main­taining power with only formal adherence to European type ideological distinctions. Overwhelmingly, these differences are superficial, pro-forma and purely instrumental. The result has been that parties are deeply distrusted and joined to get a job not to pursue a political commitment. Just following an external template and focusing on the form is not going to deliver.

Thus, thinking of new types of party politics will be necessary. One promising start was the election campaign in Macedonia’s most recent parliamentary election, continued in the recent local elections where the social democratic party SDSM sought to actively court Albanian voters and included candidates from the social movements against the government. Moving beyond the still too rigid ethnic divides in politics of the region and also in­cluding civil society are opportunities, as long as both do not evolve into tokenism and mere co-option. This transformation is all the more challenging as the Western European model of political parties is it­self in deep crisis as populist groups and “movements” seek to bypass conventional party politics. The Western Balkans had their share of populists, flash-in-the-pan candidates, and nationalists. However, without parties which are based on internal democracy and shared values and programs, such easy temptations that might turn into long autocratic hangovers remain likely. Thus, the “Macedonian mo­ment” is a reminder that it is an opportunity for a much longer and more uncertain transformation that awaits not just Macedonia, but most of its neighbors. ­

An earlier version of this text was first published by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung in Political Trends & Dynamics Emerging Leadership in Southeast Europe

From Yugoslavia to Catalonia and back: Some thoughts on parallels and differences

22089221_10155779063383103_2566047969222172632_n

 

A few days ago, I wrote a few lines for Radio Free Europe (and a few other media, including AFP, N1 and UOL noticias) on the similarities and differences and the uses of the referendum in Catalonia and in the Balkans, which caused some lively debates. Here are these notes with a few points expanded.

 

Parallels and Differences

First, neither is Spain Yugoslavia, nor is Catalonia Slovenia or Croatia. Just like Istria, Vojvodina or Republika Srpska are not Catalonia. The reasoning, the dynamics and political process leading to any independence movement is specific, but each success is claimed by independence groups and each failure by states. One key difference between Kosovo and Catalonia is the violence. Despite the heavy-handed police response on Sunday, the independence movement in Catalonia cannot claim a recent history of repression as Kosovo did. Catalonia did experience a brutal repression in the context of the Spanish civil war, yet this is more than half a century past and four decades of democratic, decentralized rule in Spain are the reality and have been for a long time. In Kosovo, even before the war 1998-9, the revocation of autonomy in 1989 suggested that Kosovo could not rely on any autonomy arrangement with Serbia.

This is a key difference with Catalonia, which enjoys far-reaching self-government. Despite the stubborn and inflexible policies of the Rajoy government the difference are stark: Spain is a democracy, Yugoslavia and Serbia in the 1990s were not. There is a parallel in the fact that the more intransigent and heavy handed the centre is, the more likely people turn their support to independence. The pictures of the police violence during the referendum is the best advertisement for the independence movement. This stands in contrast with the approach taken by the UK or Canada, allowing for a referendum to be held unrestricted. Allowing for referenda to happen does reduce the all or nothing/now or never environment of referenda.

Only a few years before the respective referenda in Slovenia and Croatia in 1990, only a minority favored independence, but the heavy-handed policies of Milošević catapulted nationalists to power and secured support for putting a distance to Belgrade. Thus, independence movements are always the product of the relationship between the region or people seeking independence and the center. The Yugoslav cases suggest that repression and centralization efforts backfire.

Repercussions and Echoes in the Balkans

There are repercussions of the referendum in Catalonia for the region: The tensions between the Spanish government and the region are part of the key reasons that Spain has not recognized Kosovo. Thus, the first risk is that any confrontation in Spain over Catalonia will make Spain and arguably other non-recognizers more reluctant to consider recognizing Kosovo. Thus, we need to not only consider the effect of the crisis on independence movements, but also on state policies.

The Balkan cases, as most other independence movements live off their own internal dynamics, not based on what goes on elsewhere. However, success and failure elsewhere shape debates. There are only two real potential cases in the region at the moment, the north of Kosovo and the Republika Srpska. More historical regions, Vojvodina or Istria, have a sense of identity distinct from the Croatian and Serbian nation-state and a multi-ethnic, rather than mono-ethnic narrative of difference. Both lack strong movements for independence and lack a clear cultural distinction from the rest of the country as is the case in Catalonia (see an excellent new book by Dejan Štjepanović on this). Both the political leaders in the Republika Srpska and the North of Kosovo have articulated their policies separate from Catalonia. In the North of Kosovo, the discourse is not about independence, but rather about remaining with Serbia (echoing similar arguments made by Serb secessionists in Croatia Bosnia in the early 1990).

In the case Catalonia were successful in achieving independence, it would encourage the president of the Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik to pursue his goal. The Parliament of the Republika Srpska already stated when Kosovo declared its independence in 2008 that it reserved the right to pursue independence for the RS if Kosovo would achieve international recognition. Already Dodik has been continuously hinting at organizing a referendum. He has recently held back from pursuing a referendum on independence, largely due to international pressure, including from Serbia and Russia.

Catalonia will not cause new independence movements, just as Kosovo’s declaration of independence did not trigger a new wave of independence movements. It will serve as argument of both states and independence movement to make old claims or to counter them. A large factor is the international environment. There is generally little support for recognizing states. This is usually done only in extraordinary circumstances, either when there is an agreement with the central government, as happened in South Sudan, or if there was massive repression and a strong, violent independence movement, as in Kosovo or when the state had already disintegrated and there was no clear path to keeping it together, as it was in Yugoslavia. When Aleksander Vučić accused the international community of hypocrisy for not recognizing Catalonia, but supporting Kosovo, he is ignoring the specificity of Kosovo, which were underlined in the submissions and arguments brought to the ICJ in preparation of the 2010 advisory opinion on Kosovo’s declaration of independence. Thus, neither Catalonia not fit any of these categories of potential countries that can make a plausible claim for independence, neither can Republika Srpska nor the North of Kosovo.

 

A letter to a former colleague

Dear Gülnur,

I happened to be in Washington last week—the same time as you were there as part of Erdoğan’s entourage. I was discussing with US State Department officials how to prevent a slide towards authoritarianism in the Balkans, while you stood next to president Erdoğan as his bodyguards and supporters beat up protesters. This is no longer a matter of different perspectives on an issue: you have become an apologist for an authoritarian regime. You have called the referendum on the hyper-presidential system a “good governance referendum” when it is far from it—all key observers, including the highly respected Venice Commission, consider it a “dangerous step backwards” for democracy.

I cannot remain silent as you advise, promote and defend an autocrat. Erdoğan’s government has dismissed over 4,000 of your fellow academics since the failed coup last year (which you claim I condoned—I did not, but I worried the day it failed about would happen next. Sadly, my fears proved correct). This includes over a hundred who lost their jobs and/or have been arrested at your university, Yildiz Technical University, your department lost 14 academics (3 of them Assistant or full Professors).

I have met some of those who have lost their jobs or are living in fear. Many are excellent scholars: curious, courageous and independent thinkers. They have lost their jobs; many others have lost their freedom.

I live in a privileged academic setting, without pressure and fear. I cannot expect anybody working in an environment such as Turkey today to stand up against the regime and risk their career or freedom. But you don’t have to embrace it.  Advancing your career on the back of massive human rights violations is unforgivable. Advising and thriving under the current regime cannot be justified. One might remain silent about your choices and actions, but I cannot. We have written and worked together. We were friends, and now we are on opposite sides. For my own academic and personal integrity, I have to draw a line. I want those who read our joint article, those who know that we worked together, and most of all YOU, to know that I don’t want to remain silent about your collusion and defense of autocracy.  Your support for Erdoğan—standing by, quite literally, as his goons beat up demonstrators (you will probably call them terrorist supporters)—is unacceptable to me, and I want you to know this.

There are choices we make and they have consequences. I am deeply saddened by the choices you made.

Your former friend and colleague,

Florian

Harry Potter’s 6 rules for resistance

Lordvoldemort.jpeg

There are lessons to be learned throughout space and time on how to confront autocrats. Some are out of space and time: Harry Potter battled Lord Voldemort in his seven adventures and his story is a classic story of fighting against an overwhelming, ruthless enemy. His eventually successful struggle offer some insights for our Muggle (in the US No-Maj, non-magic) world, beyond wands, charms and magic:

1.Name him

In Harry Potter, even before Lord Voldemort returns, wizards are afraid to speak his name, using euphemisms like “You-Know-Who”, “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named”. Harry Potter is the one who speaks his name. This is how true dictatorships work, people are afraid to mention the name of the ruler for evoking his (or rather his minions’) wrath. When I spent a month in Syria in 1993, I was told in no uncertain words by Syrian acquaintances not to use the word “Assad”, no matter what I said (good or bad), as just mentioning his name creates attention by the wrong guys. Thus, naming the one responsible is essential. If you no longer can, you have crossed into the land of fear and outright authoritarianism.

2. Mock him

The charm to defend against a Boggart is the Riddikulus spell. It transforms the Bogart, the stuff of your greatest fears, into something silly. While a commentary in  The Times recently argued that comedy and satires of Trump are just leftist and liberal self-indulgence, the opposite is true. Silliness, irony and satire can challenge not just Boggarts, but also authoritarian forces, who thrive on being taking seriously.Autocrats cannot stand to be mocked (see Trump and SNL). Mocking them is their worst challenge, as Otpor in Serbia demonstrated and one of its activists, Srdja Popovic, promoted to movements challenging dictators around the world.

3. Find allies

When Harry Potter fails to share his knowledge with others, Luna Lovegood reminds him in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix “Well if I were You-Know-Who, I’d want you to feel cut off from everyone else; because if it’s just you alone, you’re not as much of a threat.” Dumbeldore’s Army was how  Harry Potter and his friends rallied together, motivated and organised and imagined resistance. Authoritarian regimes live from the fragmentation of opposition. The more there are, the more self-absorbed with in fights, the better.

4. Don’t trust the media

The Daily Prophet was the original wizarding fake news. The main news paper of the wizarding world denied the return of Lord Voldemort and instead attacked Harry Potter, so it was misleading out of fear of the power that be. Instead, The Quibbler, a publication of odd articles, conspiracy theories and discussions of imaginary creature becomes the critical voice. As the wizard Ted Tonks states: It’s not so lunatic these days, you’ll want to give it a look. Xeno is printing all the stuff the Prophet’s ignoring, …” A critical eye of the media cannot be replaced by the inflationary use of fake media and news.

5. Don’t rationalize and normalize the abnormal

The first big battle in defeating Voldemort was convincing the Ministry of Magic that the dark wizard had returned. Minister Cornelius Fudge went to great lengths to deny the obvious. The temptation to ignore and dismiss what does not fit into ones desired view of the world (‘he will not win’, ‘he will be impeached’) it great. It is easier to downplay, normalize and otherwise dismiss the threat and acknowledge it. Harry Potter and his friends persisted, yet only when deniability was no longer plausible did they succeed. Keeping a careful watch of what ‘normal’ should mean and comparing reality to it helps to not be the metaphorical frog in water slowly being brought to boil.

6. Find the Horcruxes

No, autocrats do not split their soul into multiple pieces and hide them in different objects to stay immortal. But it is a fitting metaphor. Confronting autocrats means collecting horcroxes and destroying them. Autocrats are difficult to challenge head-on, but rather their power-basis have to be weakened. These power-structures are often informal and obscure, just like the horcruxes Harry and his friends found. Thus discovering  and destroying them is a time-consuming and necessary quest to deprive autocrats of their power.

Of course all of this is a lot easier with charms, a Patronus, magical friends and all kinds of other magical tools, but muggles can make it too.

 

*I originally thought of writing these rules as six lessons on how to fight autocrats from the Balkans, but Harry Potter seemed like a more fitting and universal metaphor. Real life examples from around the non-magical world, however, are plenty.

Drumfkowsci victory has international community worried. Dispatch from Syldavia

flag_of_syldavia

Klow. As the church bells ring menacingly in Klow, the capital of Syldavia, the small Muslim minority is increasingly fearful, afraid to display their religion in public and worried about their co-religionist from seven countries not being able to enter Syldavia. In a surprise move, not even his own border guards were informed, newly-elected president Drumfkowsci banned citizens from Ishtar, Jawhar, Qurac, Agrabah, Qumar , Derkaderkastan and Qamadan from entering the country on grounds that they posed a terrorist threat. No citizens from these countries have been involved in terrorist acts in Syldavia, so the measure is widely seen as a populist measure to distract from him taking tight control of the country. Drumfkowsci promises a return to a golden age that evokes memories of radical nationalism and exclusion of minorities for some, and a promise of full employment and a more hierarchical and orderly past to others.

His narrow electoral victory only became possible due to an obscure and byzantine electoral rule, used around the world only in Syldavia, that delegates the vote of president to an obscure body names izborniki kolizzj, or “electoral college”, which bypassed the popular majority against him. The OSCE has nevertheless called the election “free and fair”. Ironically, Drumfkowsci challenged the results himself, despite his victory, claiming that hundreds or thousands Bordurians and other illegal immigrants voted for his opponent, a widely respected moderate politician.

Drumfkowsci, an erratic and corrupt tycoon and minor TV celebrity has been quick in taking control of government. After taking office, he announced that he would move to build the wall along the border with neighboring Borduria. While relations with the smaller, poorer Borduria have been good in recent years, there is a history of border disputes and migration at the border. The planned border project does not only threaten to ruin relations with the neighbor, but also prove costly. In an escalation, Drumfkowsci called for military intervention in Borduria, threatening to catch “losija covetkoia”—bad men in Bordurian.

Drumfkowsci closest confidant appears to be Stjepan Ndalimne, a radical nationalist journalist who worked previously for the rabble rousing publication “siroki bradskija”. He is together with an unprecedented number of controversial businessmen and military officers part of the inner circle around the president that bypass established institutions . While Syldavia has a checkered history with democracy and nationalism, including a string of generals who became presidents, expropriation of minority land, segregation of “Carny” minority and lynchings in the past, such days where thought to be over after decades of democratization and reforms.

Drumfkowsci declared his inauguration the “national day of patriotic devotion” and demanded from his citizens “total allegiance to the Republic of Syldavia, and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other. When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice.” His supporters, including the popular TV station “lisicia”, dismiss claims of creeping authoritarianism and point to his popularity. An NGO worker, who does not want to be named, is concerned, however “We are worried we might be called foreign agents, just like in Zubrowka.” Indeed, a well-known American philanthropist of Betonian origin has been attacked by media loyal to Drumfkowsci and echoes similar attacks on foreign supported media and NGOs in the region. On the day after taking office, he visited the headquarters of the Zentralkia Injeligancia Ajencia (ZIA), one of the dozen spy agencies of the country and threatened the independent media with menacing words: “And the reason you’re my first stop is that, as you know, I have a running war with the media.  They are among the most dishonest human beings on Earth.”

The rise to power of Drumfkowsci is even more worrisome as Syldavia is not only the first country to launch a man on the moon, but with its large nuclear arsenal in the hands of a radical and erratic nationalist poses a regional, if not global threat.

Officials of the EU express their disappointment, off the record, about the turn away from democracy in Syldavia, but besides reminding the new president Drumfkowsci of international law and standards find little leverage. Based on his behavior to date, it is unlikely to listen. Thus, Syldavia threaten to move from a regional beacon of democracy to a threat for its neighbors and citizens.

 

 

Un-Happy Birthday, Republika Srpska

c1u33qtxuaegozk-jpg_large

Mailmen for Republika Srpska. Source: Srdjan Puhalo, twitter.

Last December, I gave an interview to Der Standard on the dangerous positions of far-right candidate Norbert Hofer in the Balkans, including his support for Serbian claims to Kosovo and his endorsement of the nationalist positions of Milorad Dodik. In response, not Hofer, but the representation of the Republika Srpska to Austria complained to the newspaper and criticised Adelheid Wölfl and not me, although it interview reflect mine and her views.

The comments of the RS representation seem an appropriate subject to respond to on the 25th anniversiary of the establishment Republika Srpska today. The celebration itself is a provocation, after it has been declared unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina and an illegal referendum was held in the RS to reject the court decision. The celebration itself was designed to provoke with special police units parading with machine guns (and also the postal services of the RS).

Screenshot 2017-01-09 15.43.55.png

 

The arguments put forth by the RS office in Vienna are part of the general effort of Milorad Dodik and his party to whitewash the RS of its responsibility and to continue with the construct a quasi-state begun by Radovan Karadzic and his party. Recently, Serb historian Čedomir Antić published a History of the Republika Srpska, which was praised by RS leadership as part of the answer to the campaign against the RS. Of course without irony, the book covers the history of the RS, going back centuries, a classic exercise in retroactive nation- and state-building. The fact that around 45% of the population living on the territory of the future RS in 1991 were not Serbs is conveniently ignored.

So the RS office objected to me calling violent establishment of the RS a cause of the war, pointing out that the RS was established before the war began. However, the RS might have been declared by a Serb politicians on 9 January 1992, but it was established through ethnic cleansing and the expulsion of non-Serbs after April 1992, and this has been documented in great detail in numerous books and judgements of the ICTY.

Next, the Vienna office objected to me characterizing the rule of Dodik as using authoritarian means and talking for years about secession. As for authoritarian means,his   party has also over the years been publishing lists of enemies of the RS (see also here, here and here). These lists don’t only include names of foreign diplomats, but also Bosnian and Herzegovina NGOs, media and individuals. Such list-making of enemies and equating criticism of the party with attacks on the entities, can only be considered authoritarian practices. Furthermore, the state of the media and press freedom has been extensively noted and criticized by international organizations and NGOs (here, here and here).

Ironically, the office also objected I suggested that Dodik has been talking about secession for years, and that as a result the comment suggests that ‘he should not be taken seriously, which is damaging his reputation.’ Of course, it is ironic that main objection is that he just talks about secession not the project itself, which is of course in breach of the Dayton Agreement and UN Security Council Resolutions. Dodik and his party have been talking about independence and secession since 2006 (including a  resolution in the parliament in 2008 in response to the Kosovo declaration of independence). Klix.ba counted 30 times Dodik threatened a referendum over the years. For claims to independence, here,  see for also for 2008, 2012, 2013, 2015.

Now, of course, I cannot judge whether he really intends to pursue these threats and after more than 10 years of arguing that the RS should decide on independence and that is has the right (which it does not). Recent signs suggest that he more willing to take a chance and pursue this policy, even if it might be a hollow threat, as James Ker-Lindsay, as argued.

Finally, the RS office criticized my characterization of Milorad Dodik as nationalist. Instead, they noted that his politics are social-democratic and calling him a nationalist is damaging his reputation. Of course, they fail to mention that his party, the SNSD was expelled from the Socialist International in 2012. At the same time, the party been fostering ties to nationalist  and far-right parties, including not only the Austrian FPÖ, but also Front National which sent a delegation to “celebrations” of the RS. Dodik has personally welcomed individuals who have been sentenced for war crimes by the ICTY and been a witness of the defense of Radovan Karadžić. None of this is particularly socialdemocratic.

Why bother, the claims made by the RS office in Vienna are silly and unsurprisingly don’t withstand scrutiny? However, there are commentators who either lazily or for other reasons imitate such claims, see the argument of Timothey Less in Foreign Affairs (for an effective critique by Eric Gordy see here). Furthermore, there is a paradox in the claims by the RS leadership  , echoing what its creators in the 1990s, Slobodan Milošević, Radovan Karadžić, and others claimed, namely that they were not nationalists, while at the same time pursuing exactly nationalist, exclusionary policies.

Milorad Dodik and his leadership continue to dismantle  Bosnia. For all their claims to the contrary, they also dismantle the RS. It is only recognized in Dayton as part of Bosnia, without Bosnia, there is no RS. Downplaying war crimes, glorifying its perpetrators, suggesting that the RS can only exist  a weak or nonexistent Bosnia suggests the RS is not a salvageable political project, created through ethnic cleansing and mass murder and justified through its denial.

Here is the full text of RS office in Vienna discussed in this post

 

 

 

 

Death in Venice. European Style

There is no better place to reflect on the malaise of Europe than in one of its grandest cities, one of the continents largest  in the late Middle Ages. It’s decline has been lasting for centuries and few places have declined quite as picturesque as Venice. Today the historical Venice has fewer inhabitants than after the catastrophic plague of 1629/31, when a third of its population was killed and the epidemic contributed to the decline of the city.

Only around 55,000 people live in the historic city, some 20,000 more in the islands surrounding it. One has to go back nearly a millennium to find similar low numbers. More people visit the city every day (and half don’t spend the night) than the city has inhabitants.

dsc04486

Nighthawks of Venice

Venice has been reduced from one of the great trading and political powers of Europe to a sight that visited along a narrowly confined path, a ‘highway’ linking the main sights, without context, selling ‘Italian goods’–made in China–along the way.

Activists and scholars have long criticized the mass tourism, the large cruise ships that flood the cities like iron skyscrapers.  But what is the connection to Europe? Venice is just a stop on the Europe in 14-days itinerary for tourists from the US to China.

Just over 100 years ago, the fictional Gustav von Aschenbach, a famous writer, visited Venice:  “He did not anticipate anything else, for the city had always received him with splendor. But the sky and the sea remained cloudy and leaden, at times a fog-like drizzle fell, and slowly he accepted that he would, reaching it by water, discover a vastly different Venice from that which he had approached over land.” Aschenbach is expressing his premonition of his own demise and the discovery of decay and decline in Venice beyond  splendor obvious to the visitors’ eyes.

2016-12-31-12-40-16

Death in Venice? Closed for the Season.

Some 105 years after the publication of Death in Venice, the Hotel Excelsior still stands on the Lido in which Thomas Mann had Aschenbach stay. Closed for the season. Who wants to stay at the Lido as the sand of the beaches is covered in icy frost?

The Death in Venice was not just the story of an aging writer and his confronting death and decay, it is mirror image of a continent on the eve of its first World War, about tear itself apart. The luxury and the decline of a former grand city were the perfect backdrop for the splendor at twilight of Europe at its time.

Europe’s splendor (or squalor) at twilight could not find a better city, even if a century has passed. Venice’s decline was lasted for four centuries sot that one more is of little consequence. There presumably less splendor and more trash in today’s Venice, but even that is unsure.

dsc04296

Held together by red (and white) tape

Venice appears to be a role model for the rest of Europe: A commercial power that once dominated the world through is skillful trade and politics reduced to a site visited by thousands of selfie-stick wielding tourists with no knowledge of place or meaning of lions, domes and canals.

Europe, just like Venice in particular, has been replicated in the casinos of Las Vegas and in Chinese faux-European cities as a sanitized museum/amusement park.  The counter-project to the reduction of Europe to a tourism site has been the European Union over the past half century.Replacing the self-destruction of the continent not with sanitized picturesque sites, but with a shared project that give the continent more than Kodak moment sites.

The continued crises of the EU risk reducing Europe to the trajectory of Venice: Decline, reduction to a site, sanitized, commodified and–ironically–detached from its past (both its glory and its dark sides).

I have argued during the debates around the centenary of World War One, that 1914 should be seen as the zero-hour of Europe, not 1945. It was the moment that the old post-Napoleonic order destroyed itself, resulting in the two world wars and rise of both fascism and communism. Aschenbach anticipated in Venice the end of the old order. What would come to replace was far from clear to Thomas Mann or other astute observers of the crisis.

Over the past two decades, we have come to consider 1989, the end of the Cold War as the other big turning point, the end to the short 20th century that began in 1914, as Eric Hobsbawm argued. Maybe, Hobsbawm was premature. The turning point of 1989 creates a narrative were the post-1989 period is shaped by the absence of ideological confrontation and the victory of liberal democracy. Today, as liberal democracy is under pressure in the United States and the peace project of European integration is in crisis, the question emerges, was really 1989 the end of the 20th century, or will future histories argue that the 20th century was not so short and lasted until 2016? It is too early to tell and we are not only observing history, but also writing it.

Montenegrin Parties and the Gemino Curse. Through Balkan Politics with Harry Potter, Part 1

(

 

In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part 1), Harry, Hermine and Ron enter the vault of the vault of Bellatrix Lestrange to find a Horcrux, the Cup of Helga Hufflepuff. The vault was, however, protected by the Gemino spell, which duplicates objects when touched, in this case the treasures multiplied so frequently that they became mountains that nearly crushed the heroes.

The Gemino spell has been a curse for opposition political parties in some countries of the Balkan. Nowhere is this more visible than in Montenegro, which is holding parliamentary election on 16 October. The elections are being contested by 17 electoral lists. The two main opposition lists are in fact coalitions: The Democratic Front includes a baffling 10 parties, the Coalition Key 3 parties. In addition, there  are 8(!) Albanian parties competing (on three lists composed of 1, 3 and 4 parties respectively), 8 other parties, plus 3 appealing to Bosniak and Croat voters.Here is the list of your choices, if you are a Montenegro voters:

  • Democratic Party of Socialists
  • Social Democratic Party
  • Democrats
  • Socialdemocrats
  • Alternative Montenegro
  • Positive Montenegro
  • Coalition Key:
    • Democratic Alliance
    • Socialist People’s Party
    • United Reform Action
  • Serb Party
  • Party of Pensioners, Invalids and Social Justice
  • Party of Serb Radicals
  • Croatian Civic Initiative
  • Bosniak Democratic Community
  • Bosniak Party
  • Democratic Front
    • New Serb Democracy
    • Movement for Changes
    • Democratic People’s Party
    • Workers Party
    • Democratic Serb Party
    • Movement for Pljevlja
    • Serb Radical Party
    • Yugoslav Communist Party
    • Party of United Pensioners and Invalids
    • Resistance to Hopelessness
  • Democratic Alliance of Albanians
  • Decisive Albanians:
    • Democratic Union of Albanians
    • Albanian Alternative
    • New Democratic Power-Forca
  • Albanian Coalition
    • Democratic Party
    • Civic Initiative
    • Democratic Alliance
    • Civil Movement Perspective

Some are opposition groups, some might be either opposition or join forces with the ruling DPS, depending on the outcome of the elections. Altogether 32 parties and groups are competing for power (or one party per 16,525 voters). There is nothing new to having many parties contending, it seems likely that more than 20 parties will be represented in the next parliament. This is a long way from the early 2000s, when the number of parliamentary parties was a third of that.

The dominance of the ruling DPS has been the reason for the Gemino spell to create dozens of parties which are indistinguishable copies of one another. After every failed effort to break the dominance of Djukanović and his DPS, the opposition parties multiply. The extreme fragmentation helps the ruling party to stay in power, as it not only undermines the credibility of the alternative, but also creates a large pool of potential partners that can be co-opted  in a future government. This time, the fragmentation might have also some positive side-effects. It is clear to even the most optimistic opposition party leaders that they will not win a sufficiently large majority alone. Thus, not only have two large opposition blocks crystallized, but it also led to an agreement on post-election cooperation among the large opposition groups.

The Gemino spell is not unique to Montenegro, but rather a broader phenomena when the main function of parties is less about program and more about access to power, leadership of a party is central to power and exclusion from power is denying parties their main raison d’etre. The best example is the Democratic Party in Serbia which has fragmented or rather duplicated into dozens of copies. Of the 17 parliamentary clubs in the current Serbian parliament, 5 are off-springs of the original Democratic Party, Democratic Party of Serbia, Liberal Democratic Party, New Party, and the Socialdemocratic Party, not to mention some extra-parliamentary off-shoots (Left of Serbia), and currently ongoing processes of the Gemino spell inside the DSS and to a lesser degree the DS. So, while it is certainly not true that the Balkans produces more history that it can consume, some countries produce more parties than they can consume and Gemino spell will remain a curse as long as power is centralized in the state and the parties where every intra-party conflict and lost election triggers a new iteration of the curse.

(This is the first post with Harry Potter through Balkan politics. More to follow. If you have a favorite curse, character or scene from Harry Potter that might fit nicely, let me know)

 

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

lp_logo-cba1abe7ba582e321cc5b4315a0be1db

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.

blic

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.

199804 Jul Poster

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”.

vote2bfor2bthe2bwolf

 

%d bloggers like this: