Megalomaniac Baroque Decoration. A facade for authoritarian kleptocracy

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

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

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

 

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Source: Fokus

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Florian Bieber:  Yes you can say that!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Naum Panovski: Or what can Macedonia offer to EU?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The European Challenge to Liberal Democracy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Balkans: Back on the radar?

Below is a short commentary I wrote for Turkish Weekly on how the Balkans emerged on the international agenda for the wrong reasons.

The term “Balkans route” and images of thousands of refugees crossing Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, and Croatia brought the Balkans back onto Europe’s headlines and into its policy considerations. The hundreds of thousands of people crossing the region stretched governments and their support services to maximum capacity. For fear of being “stuck” with unwanted and unwilling refugees, long-term planning was kept to a minimum with most governments acting as second-rate travel agencies, shipping refugees from their borders in the east or south to the north and west (or having private companies profit from charging refugees for the ride). A groundswell of civic initiatives compensated for government neglect. Every signal from Germany was nervously observed as affected countries contemplated whether opening or closing their borders should be the next step. In the end, the flow of refugees acted to spur the generation of bad blood among neighbors, while otherwise having a limited impact. The only elections to take place in the Balkans during the height of the refugee flow occurred in Croatia, and here the nationalist opposition, which openly called for the closure of Croatia’s borders, failed to benefit from the “crisis”.

Still, the refugee “crisis” has left its traces in the Balkan region. It highlighted a region without European leadership and without the EU as an important actor. When governments met to manage the refugee flow, they included EU and non-EU countries. The conflicts between countries involved both those that were EU and non-EU members, and there was little in the way of telling the difference. Hungary set up barbed wire fences not just on its border with non-EU Serbia but also with EU Croatia, and Slovenia equally reinforced its border with Croatia. The weakness of the EU in this instance sends a worrying signal to the region, whose main engine for reform has been the promise—however remote—of EU integration.

The impact of the war in Syria and the rise of ISIS in the Middle East has been the growth of terrorism in Europe. In Western Europe, this has led to the rising popularity of xenophobic, anti-Muslim parties and heated and often poisonous debates about the integration of immigrant populations. In the Balkans the main debate has revolved around the radicalization of young Muslims. The number of ISIS recruits from Kosovo and Bosnia has been high in comparison to the size of these countries’ populations, yet it is dwarfed by the total number of foreign fighters originating from West European countries. Despite a few incidents, in particular in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2015, these volunteers do not appear to pose a threat to regional security. However, they point to larger underlying challenges, namely the alienation of young Bosnians or Kosovars from their parents, the nation-building project, and the weakness of state and established institutions, including Islamic communities themselves.

The weakness of the state and the predatory control of political parties over state institutions remains the main risk in the region. The political crisis in Macedonia can be seen as the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Here, the opposition’s revelation of incriminating voice recordings involving the prime minister and leading party and government officials suggest massive abuse of office, including widespread corruption and the manipulation of the electoral process. It remains an odd coincidence that the shootout in the town of Kumanovo occurred in the midst of this crisis. While it raised the fear of renewed ethnic strife, the response thereto and its quick de-escalation suggest that the incident does not reflect a broader crisis in ethnic relations, but rather a distraction from the government crisis. In this case, the EU eventually hammered out a political solution for the country in the form of a transition period leading up to early elections. To date, it seems that this agreement has helped to secure the political survival of Prime Minister Gruevski, and it has certainly sent the signal that one can get away with perpetrating serious violations of democratic norms and still remain a partner of the EU.

In December 2015, Montenegro was invited to join NATO, thus constituting the first enlargement of the alliance since 2008. Together with the beginning of EU accession talks with Serbia, this could be seen as a signal that despite the multiple crises facing the Euro-Atlantic institutions, integration remains alive. Nonetheless, it is still worrying that EU and NATO institutions, as well as their constitutive member governments, have stayed relatively silent on the increasing authoritarianism in the region. In Montenegro, opposition protests have focused their attentions on NATO membership, but in effect they have actually been an effort to challenge the 25 year rule of Prime Minister Djukanović (in different functions). In Serbia, the government of Vučić has come to exhibit growing authoritarian reflexes, symptoms of which may be seen as the increased tendency towards self-censorship within the media and constant attacks by media outlets loyal to the regime on the political opposition, critical media, and independent institutions. As all of these regimes rely on informal mechanisms to consolidate their control, dissimilar to the constitutional re-designs a la Viktor Orban in Hungary, or recently in Poland, the authoritarian grip on power is less visible and difficult to quantify.

The Serbian government has been able to garner support from the West for its constructive engagement with Kosovo (while simultaneously engaging in massive campaigns against it, including that challenging its UNESCO membership) and moderate regional policies. In this context, high-profile anti-corruption campaigns complete with arrests can conveniently cover-up the lack of genuine reforms in the region. The result is a regional two-level game characterized by increasing regional cooperation on the one hand, as reflected in the successful Vienna summit in August 2015 that consolidated the “Berlin Process” bringing together the Western Balkans with supportive EU partners and the EU institutions themselves, and increasing authoritarianism at home on the other. To date, both processes have run in parallel and in fact enabled one another—the country with the weakest government, Kosovo, has also seen the most serious challenge to cooperation in the shape of the opposition’s rejection of compromises with Serbia.

However, there are structural tensions between good neighbourly relations abroad and populist-authoritarian rule at home. For now the main resource of authoritarian populists is the supposed reform and anti-corruption effort, but fear of the other can be conveniently revived when needed, and all populist governments of the region have resorted to this strategy at their convenience.

Thus, while renewed EU interest in the Western Balkans bore fruit in 2015, a way to address the structural risks facing the Balkans today has not yet been found—of course these challenges effect not only the Balkans, but other countries as well, including some EU member states.

Another unnecessary election in Serbia

 

VUCIC MIHAJOVIC STEFANOVIC GASIC MIROVIC

One man show (source N1)

Serbia has held parliamentary elections in 1990, 1992, 1993, 1997, 2000, 2003, 2007, 2008, 2012, 2014 and will hold early elections in  2016. This is not to mention the elections of the parliament of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1992, 1992/3, 1996 and 2000.

A citizen who turned 18 in 1990 thus could vote 15 times for parliament in two and a half decades, not to mention the ten presidential elections since 1990. If the frequency of elections where a standard of the quality of democracy,  Serbia would be a great democracy–it is not. Of the 11 Serbian parliamentary elections in the 26 years since the introduction of a multiparty system, 7 were early elections. Some where held because the governing coalition broke apart (i.e. 2008), but most were the result of the ruling party trying to secure an advantage by calling early elections.None of these elections is as gratuitous as the one called just now by Prime Minister Vučić. In the 2014 elections the Serbian Progressive Party secured a majority with 48.35%, greater than any party before it, including the Socialist Party under Milošević at its most successful poll in 1990. It could have ruled alone with a majority of 158 seats of 250, but decided to form a coalition with the Socialists. Its grip on power is strong and there is no conceivable reason why early elections would be necessary (I made a similar argument in 2012, sorry for being repetitive, but it ain’t me calling early elections).

Calling early elections is in the toolbox of populist rulers with an authoritarian streak. Tudjman used a similar tactic in 1995 after the military victory over the rebel Serbs and Gruevski has been calling early elections in Macedonia in the past (even the ones in April are forced by him against the oppositions will).

But why hold elections when you hold a majority in parliament? Such a step might seem risky for an incumbent. After all, one might loose power (and indeed this was the case for Milošević in 2000 and Tadić in 2012).

For Vučić, there are first strategic calculations. Using a high level of popularity and a disunited weak opposition is a good opportunity to put some more year in power “in the bank”–who knows what will be when the next regular elections are due? Furthermore, frequent elections campaigns prevent the opposition from recovering from previous defeats and perpetuates a weak opposition.

There are also more systemic reasons for early elections: As a populist incumbent, Vučić can use elections to mobilize voters and rule as a campaigner. A populist in power is always caught between speaking in the name of the people against the elite–whatever it may be–while actually establishing a new elite. This balancing act is facilitated by elections which pit us vs. them and distract from governing. Second, the current government is based on a one-man-show, Vučić. The dominance of one person of the government and country functions in the context of campaigning, but displays its weaknesses in governing, as the cadres of the party are weak and often incompetent and lack the popularity of the party leader.

It is an election year in the Balkans, besides Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia will also go to the polls in the coming months. However, so far these elections promise little progress in terms of democracy or reforms, but threaten to reaffirm semi-authoritarian rule in the region.

 

 

 

 

An ordinary week in Serbia

Serbia had an eventful week: A coup d’état narrowly avoided, a war criminal returning home, a minister of defense dismissed and the minister of interior holding a press conference with masked special police units and a prime minister taking a lie detector test to prove his innocence, followed by a gratuitous attack with the Russian foreign minister of  the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media. Oh yes, and of course EU integration and reforms in Serbia are on track.

Headline from Informer

But first things first: The coup d’état that never was, began in November when the popular tabloid Kurir ran the headline “Excuse me, Serbia” written by the owner of the media group that publisher Kurir and numerous other media, Andrija Rodić. In it, he apologized for reporting to uncritically of the Serbian government and thus triggered a major confrontation with the government. Kurir had previously belonged to the loyal media that praised the government uncritically. His very public break with the government appears to be more motivated by business deals gone wrong than by a sincere change of mind. The editor in chief of Informer, the most loyal media, cum junkyard dog of the regime, Dragan Vučicevic began talking about a looming coup against the Prime Minister and pleaded him not to travel to a summit in China. Despite headlines of Informer warning about a coup against Vučić and  [media] snipers  targeting Vučić,  nothing came of it.

Minister Stefanović with decorative policemen (source MUP)

The drama ended when Minister of Interior gave a press conference with a masked special policemen in the background in which he announced that the Prime Minster took a lie detector test and passed it when asked about whether he was putting pressure on the media (An article Psychology Today notes “From a scientific perspective, there is no rationale for administering a polygraph test”–I guess except when you want to prove something that you can’t prove otherwise). Vučić himself ended the speculation by noting in an interview that there was no coup planned and he felt save. The government won the war, the insurgents defeated. Not quite, Vučić showed that the battle wasn’t over when in short press conference with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, only one question was permitted from “Vučić’s own public service broadcaster” Pink about the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatović (Honi soit qui mal y pense). Lavrov strongly criticized her work and Vučić took the role of the Prime Minister of a small and helpless country that was subjected to unfair criticism by international actors and was enduring this injustice.

Welcome back. (Source Tanjug)

At the same time, General Lazarevic, chief of staff of Priština Army corps during the Kosovo war returned to Niš after having served two thirds of his 14 year prison sentence to which he was sentenced at the ICTY for aiding and abetting “the crimes of deportation and inhumane acts (forcible transfer)” in Kosovo. He belongs a long list of war criminals who have been released in recent years after having served part of their sentence. They also belong to the increasing number of those who return and receive a heroe’s welcome. While some were welcomed by die-hard fans, some clerics and opposition politicians, like Dario Kordić in 2014 in Zagreb, others such as Biljana Plavšić and Momčilo Krajišnik received an officials welcome reception from Milorad Dodik, president of the RS. Even Macedonia gave Johan Tarčulovski a governmental welcome in 2013. Thus, the fact that Lazarević was picked up by the ministers of Justice and Defense and welcomed in Niš by the minister of Labour and the head of the army is not that exceptional, but just part of a wider pattern of openly defying the judgements of the ICTY (it is arguably qualitatively different to support suspected war criminal than those that have been found guilty and sentenced). Lazarević had continued to make a career in the army after the fall of Milošević and was notoriously praised by Prime Minister Koštunica in 2005 for surrendering voluntarily and given a Škoda by New Serbia, Koštunica’s junior partner for his patriotic act of surrendering.

The week ends after Minister of Defense Bratislav Gašić is forced to resign by Vučić after he commented during a press conference after a female journalist had to go on her knees to make place for a camera that he “likes [female] journalists who easily go on their knees” While he officially had to resign for these sexist remarks, maybe he was just a bit too close for comfort in his views of the media for the broader government approach?

 This week was a microcosm of Serbia today: Cooperation with the EU and seeming reforms of the government, or rather Vučić (the Serbian comedian Zoran Kesić observed in his 24 minutes that the ministers of the government that are placed behind him during press conferences are like ficus trees, decoration and not be asked questions, as a journalist discovered by annoying Vučić for not asking him but the minister of foreign affairs questions) distract from Serbia becoming a mixture of a telenovela (fast pace, a new scandal and twist all the time, but the plot of last week is forgotten) and reality TV (simulated reality).

P.S. I forgot to mention the ongoing court case on the possible rehabilitation of the head of the collaborationist WW2 head of the Serbian government, Milan Nedić. But that is a different story

Montenegro in NATO

A few days ago I wrote a small piece on why I think that NATO membership for Montenegro might paradoxically help the democratization process in the country. The comment was the result of some productive conversation at a workshop organized by the Südosteuropa Gesellschaft on Civil Society in Montenegro. Now that Montenegro has been invited to join NATO, I hope that this issue will be off the agenda and thus less divisive for the opposition. Of course at first, the government is likely to use this success to win elections next year. The main challenge will be whether the opposition can re-focus on different issues.

Montenegro has experienced an unprecedented wave of protests against the government in recent weeks. Initially focused on the governments bid to join NATO the heavy-handed government response have shifted the focus to the government itself and the dominance of Milo Đukanović over Montenegrin politics for nearly 25 years.

While it is unlikely that the protests will gather the momentum (see here and here) to put the government under real pressure, the question remains, should Montenegro join NATO? A formal decision is due these days and would mark a major success of the current Montenegrin government, which is seen by many as “NATO government”, i.e. a government whose primary purpose it was to bring the country into NATO. Amidst the protests, Russia has ramped opposition to Montenegrin NATO membership in reporting of loyal media and Duma resolution. At times, it seemed like Russia was starting to engage in its own colored revolution it so much worries about. However, such a view is misleading, even though some Serb nationalist groups joined the protests and the Montenegrin government was quick to blame Russia for the opposition it faces. This argument is about as credible as the argument that the EU orchestrated the protests in Majdan in Ukraine.

Arguably, NATO membership is not going to fundamentally alter the security situation of Montenegro: Albania to the South and Croatia to the North are already members and pose no threat to the country. Bosnia and Kosovo are no conventional security concerns for which NATO membership would matter and both host EU and NATO peace keeping troops. This only leaves Serbia, which as clearly rejected NATO membership and aspires to some ill-defined neutrality. However, to claim that Serbia poses a security threat to Montenegro stretches the bounds of imagination. The last time Serbia constituted such a threat was in 1999 during the Kosovo war and this was in the context of being part of the same country (the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia) and with Milošević at its helm. Today, Serbia is an improbable threat. Of course, this does not preclude Serbian influence or even meddling in Montenegrin affairs (today the relationship between the two countries’ governments has become rather symbiotic), but nothing that could be prevented by NATO.

At the same time, Montenegro is clearly the prototype of the semi-democratic regimes that bedevil the Western Balkans and who are characterized by tight party control of the state, violations of the freedom of speech and corrupt clientalistic practices. Thus, encouraging the current government would help to send a larger message to the region that authoritarian control wedded with the talk of EU-compatible reform pays.

The logical conclusion of the combination of the non-essential nature of NATO membership for Montenegrin security and the reward it constitutes for government would be that it might be better not to invite Montenegro into NATO. However, this would be a logically fallacy.

First, the government has a track record to instrumentalize divisive issues to catch the opposition on the wrong foot and bind reformers to it who would otherwise oppose the government. By advocating NATO membership, it encouraged large parts of the opposition to oppose NATO, discouraging Western support for the opposition and occupying a monopoly over pro-Western reformist rhetoric. The longer the pro- and anti-NATO debate persists, the more the government will be able to divide the country into a pro-Western reformist wing represented by itself and an anti-Western, pro-Serb and pro-Russian opposition (even if such a clear dichotomy does not exist). Thus, if NATO membership were postponed, the government will not celebrate victory, but be able to continue talking on this issue and thus paralyze discussion about genuine reform.

Second, the rejection of the NATO-bid will be viewed a victory of anti-NATO forces within the opposition and weaken the more enlightened opposition who care more about democracy than about whether the country is in NATO or not. Thus, the balance of power in the opposition would be tilted the wrong way.

Paradoxically, giving what the government wants—an invitation to NATO—might be the best way to help the opposition in Montenegro and push for democratization in the country. This provides no guarantee that the country will democratize in the coming year, but without it, the recent protests are likely to appeal only to a few and NATO membership will enable the government to retain control for another electoral cycle as the next parliamentary elections are looming in 2016.

We need a different Europe

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

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

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

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

Help here:

UNHCR

Refugees Welcome in Germany and Austria

more ways to help, also here and here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remembering along national lines: What is going wrong with the commemoration the victims of the Bosnian war

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As the 20th anniversary of the genocide in Srebrenica has turned into a spectacle over the angry crowd towards the presence of Aleksandar Vučić at the commemoration, there is a deeper problem with the public commemoration of the Bosnian or Croatian war. All sites of commemoration remember places where members of one nation was particularly victimized, by it Potočari or Vukovar. The ceremonies, the symbols, the commemorations are national and often religious and reinforce the categories the murders imposed on their victims. People died as Croats, Bosniaks or Serbs, not for being mothers, sons, engineers or animal lovers. However, does this mean that they should be exclusively be remembered as such? The distinct religious dimension of  Potočari also makes Muslims of Muslims (as a national category) who were killed for being Muslims, but who might have been atheists or agnostics, as elsewhere across the memorial landscape of former Yugoslavia.

This has had two negative consequences. First, there is no common space to remember civilian victims killed for their ethnicity, no matter whether they were Serbs, Bosniaks or Croats. This would make it easier to find space for the shared remembering and acknowledgement. Instead, remembering one set of victims is a political statement about particular claims and thus seen as supporting one or the other narrative. Second, it has made the commemoration of victims as part of nationalist projects and narratives, thus the killing of Serb civilians in Kravica is used to downplay or relativize the victims of Srebrenica. But this is not the only example where the killing of ones own civilians serves to reinforce narratives of national innocence and victimhood.

Of course, the risk, some might argue, of a common commemoration of civilian victims might risk forgetting or downplaying that most victims in the Bosnian war were Bosnian Muslims and support a narrative of equal responsibility of all parties to the conflict. This certainly would be a mistake (according to the Bosnian Book of the Dead, of the nearly 40,000 civilian victims, around 83% were Muslims-Bosniaks, around 10% Serbs and 5.5% Croats) . There is a clear primary burden for war crimes and civilian victims with the Bosnian Serb army, but that should not preclude the ability to acknowledge the other civilian victims of the conflict of which many were also subject of ethnic cleansing.

Places like Potočari will exist and have their raison d’etre, and there is great significance and importance for honest acknowledgement of crimes committed by members of one’s own community by politicians at such event (not as Vučic did by first trying to block public commemorations in Belgrade and then opposing the UNSC resolution that led to the Russian veto). Yet, without common places of commemoration there is a risks that the remembering of the past will just reinforce divisions and accept and invigorate the categorization of victims and perpetrators into neatly defined ethnonational groups.

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.

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