Secessionist conflicts: A new book and some thoughts on inclusiveness

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

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

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

A European Journey from Zagreb to Graz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A semi-surprising outcome of elections in Slovenia and Croatia

Ballot Paper for the Croatian elections: evil and lesser evil

A few days a ago, I had the chance to discuss the outcome of the parliamentary elections in Slovenia and Croatia (see here for the podcast). The fact that the incumbents lost the elections was no surprise. Not only is the current economic climate across Europe such that incoming governments have little chance of winning elections, no matter whether they are from the left or right, but also opinion polls in Croatia and Slovenia had predicated a resounding loss of the governing coalitions and parties. The main surprise was the victory of Positive Slovenia led by Ljubljana’s mayor Zoran Jankovic and founded only six weeks ago.

A striking feature of both elections in Slovenia and Croatia is the decline of the extreme right. Even though both elections were fought under the impression of a severe economic crisis and popular dissatisfaction, the extreme right could not benefit. For the first time since 1992, the Slovene National Party did not win a seat in parliament. In Croatia, the extreme right was represented by a confusing number of incarnations of the Croatian Party of Right, winning an all time low of one seat (the Croatian Party of Right running alone and winning no seat, the Croatian Party of Right-Ante Starcevic running with the Croatian Party of Pure Rights winning one seat and another autochtonous Croatian Party of Right). For full results see the final report of the election commission.

Of course, this does not mean that there were no populists winning elections. The ruling HDZ campaign on nationalist themes (unsuccessfully), denying national legitimacy to the opposition. It also formed a regional coalition with the populist mayor of Split Zeljko Kerum. The winner of Slovene elections is a populist, although more of the center left and the second party, the Slovene Democratic Party of Janez Jansa is heavily drawing on populist themes and seeks confrontation on classic national-populist themes.

The new centre-left governments in both countries have daunting tasks ahead of them. They have to engage in painful economic reforms and not just make few changes, but alter the very structure of the economic system. Even if Slovenia has been government mostly by centre-left governments since independence and Croatia by conservatives, there is a broad shared social support in the countries for a state that provides extensive services, be it in regard to health and social benefits or for employment. Such a state seems in both countries currently no longer sustainable. Thus “slimming down” the state will be inherently unpopular and left-wing coalitions will be forced to pursue neo-liberal reforms. This will make it likely that both new governments—if Jankovic is able to form a coalition—will quickly become deeply unpopular. Unless they are able to turn a corner in terms of economic growth quickly, they both seem likely to be replaced at the next elections, or even earlier. There is in fact a sense of deja vue in both countries. In Slovenia, the coalition seems like to be sabotaged by the abuse of referenda—the strategy employed by Jansa’s SDS in the past. In Croatia, the uncompromising position of Jadranka Kosor on election night suggests that HDZ might try to sabotage the government from the streets, a successfully strategy of Ivo Sanader’s HDZ ten years ago. Now, it might not be over war crimes, but economic cuts. While it does seem likely that the new governments will become unpopular, it remains still unclear on what the alternatives will be. Jansa’s SDS seems to be struggling to be electable to a majority of Slovenes and HDZ will have to decide between just reinventing itself or finally reforming itself, if it can.

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