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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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




Riots of consumerism or a new kind of retail therapy

The riots (called civil unrest by Al-Jazeera) are not “criminality pure and simple” as David Cameron called it. Of course, they are criminal and I have no sympathy for those committing the looting and violence. However, characterizing them just as a crime fails to capture the context.

2011 is the year of social movements, from the Arab spring to mass protests in Southern Europe and lately in Israel and now in the UK. The social movements have their origins in the global economic crisis. They might be triggered by the hopelessness of the poor as in Tunisia, the dim prospects of the shrinking middle classes in Israel, Spain or Greece or the lack of perspective for “youth” in many parts of the UK. Of course, not all types of social movements and types of expression are equally legitimate or understandable, but they have similar origins.

Looting is in many ways the most appropriate expression of a social movement in the UK. British society has struck me as more consumer-oriented than in any country I have lived in (save possibly the US), definitely beating the rest of Europe. Shopping is the fun activity to do on Sundays. If you are feeling down, you go for “retail therapy”. If you are politically active, you do or do not buy some product or from some company. Looting is taking a social trend to the logical conclusion where there are members of a society are less and less citizens and increasingly only consumers.

The second striking feature of British society in contrast to most other European countries is the latent and often open violence and aggressiveness or a particular social group (mostly defined by age and social background), visible on Friday and Saturdays in any given British town or city. The often tense and distinctively unpleasant atmosphere in British high streets as dark falls stands in stark contrast to most European down towns. The violence in recent days of course by far exceed this everyday violence and aggression, but those provide the subtext which made the large-scale violence possible.

The riots and looting have been coupling these two trends, a consumerist violence to express an dissatisfaction of a social group which seems unable to clearly articulate either the exact nature of their disgruntlement or the cause (besides the police, the Conservatives and the state in general), but they are sure angry.

While it is a first step to recognize that an underclass exists in the UK that feels like it has little to loose and is socialized to believe that consumerism (including consumerist violence) is both a means of political expression and outlet for grievances (retail therapy of a different type). What is needed is a broader debate about social cohesion in the UK, how consumerism replaced other forms of social engagement and the manner in which public displays of aggression are more acceptable than elsewhere.

Tito as an Ottoman agent and how the earth no longer revolves around Serbia

A few days ago, Deutsche Welle ran a short story on my blog entry with funny exam answers I posted a few months ago. I guess the combination of the silliness of some of the quotes and a slow news day meant that the story was picked up by Tanjug, followed by most Serbian media (Vecernje Novosti, Blic, Danas, B92, Kurir, Politika, RT Vojvodina, and Press, including a commentary, and an interview I gave to RTS evening news), some in Bosnia (Radio Sarajevo, Dnevni Avaz, Glas Srpske), Slovenia (Radio Krka, RTV Slovenia), Croatia (Glas Istre, Vecernji List), Kosovo (Gazeta Express), Macedonia (A1,, Montenegro (Vijesti)  and Bulgaria (Vesti). The original article (unsurprisingly) dramatizes the quotes by suggesting that the students are future diplomats. While this might be true (and some, not quoted in my blog post, certainly would be good diplomats), I am rather confident that ones writing about Tito’s wig are less likely to end up in the foreign office. Of course the original post was self-selected by just listing the funniest contributions to over 400 exams over 4 years.

More interesting are the reactions to the articles in the Bosnian and Serbian press (and the comments I have received since). Of course a number suggest that it must have been my teaching which resulted in such skewed exam response. This grossly overestimates my creativity in making up the geography and history of Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Reading through the debates (most comments have been posted on the blic website), I get three different takes on my student quotes.

1. “I would not be surprised if Tony Blair studied at this department…”

The first perspective sees in my student quotes evidence that Western policy towards Yugoslavia, from Tony Blair (above) to another suggesting that the ICJ is as ignorant as the students. Another thinks that “with such students, it is no surprise that they bombed us.” It is of course a creative step from bad student exams to international judges and prime ministers, but this the self-comforting take: We always knew it, the ignorant West mistreated us, if they knew better it would all be different.

2. “For Britain we are like Turkmenistan for us. So I ask you, what we, citizens of Serbia, know about Turkmenistan? … You expect that everything revolves around us.”

A number of comments take a different point of view, as represented by the quote above. They point out that the knowledge of students in Southeastern Europe is not necessarily much better. A comment on Avaz noted that “our students of history  wouldn’t be any better if they were asked about the history of Kyrgystan or Latvia. Nobody studies marginal countries.” Similarly a dear colleague from Serbia wrote to me that some students think the same (maybe less about Algerians in Kosovo, but maybe Tito’s wig?). I think these comments raise the right question. There is strong center-periphery tendency in educational systems. The familiarity of students in Westren Europe about Central and Eastern Europe might be limited (depending of course on where you’re from), but I don’t think an average student from Serbia would know much about Romania or Bulgaria, but know more about France and the UK. I need not to point out that I have also experience rather ignorant views of the West from some students in the Western Balkans.

3.  “The one who mentioned the Ottoman Empire is a pretty clever person. Even in our country people aren’t aware that Islam is slowly colonizing us.”

Finally, a third group see in the quotes evidence of their own conspiracy theories. Thus one person on Blic points out Tito was of course an Ottoman agent by creating the Muslim nation and another concurs as he/she see Islam colonizing the Balkans–I guess confirming the above take on the ability to find confused points of view everywhere–to which a witty reader replied that also gays and aliens are colonizing the Balkans. No further comment needed.

A history of Yugoslavia and Eastern Europe according to some of my students

Click here on a post on the recent press coverage of the text below.

A history of Eastern Europe and Yugoslavia as you might not know it. From exams 2006-2010 at the University of Kent:

The History of Yugoslavia

There have been many different countries/empires which have been huge and have had a range of different cultures but have managed to stay as one country. A very important example in term of Yugoslavia is the Ottoman Empire which oversaw some of that region. It was a huge empire with millions of servants who were of different race, religion, customs and beliefs. The empire managed to stay together regardless of this issue.

Furthermore, this can be debated as Yugoslavia never really had any enemy in ancient times…

The Creation of Yugoslavia

The formation of Yugoslavia was ‘man made’ rather than inherent and formed through the same values and cultures.

Yugoslavia ….was forced together by the Ottomens and meinteined by leaders such as Tito.

After Yugoslavia was formed three dominant groups fought for power on the left the fascist Usteche who used aggressive ethnic cleansing techniques to drive non-Serbians from the land.

Yugoslavia was formed in 1929 out of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Cheks

Communist Yugoslavia

When the Ottoman Empire collapsed, Communist leaders took and expanded the idea of a united Yugoslavia.

It is true to say that Yugoslavia was a young state, before the second WW the area consisted of several kingdoms…. After Tito removed Yugoslavia from the Soviet Union & pioneered the non-aligned movements during WW2, Yugoslavia entered relative calm.

Communist rule in Yugoslavia defind the nation until 1948 and when the region detached itself from Commuism it scrambled to find an identity.

Tito was already emerging as the glue that binds this group of autonomous provinces.

Tito was almost the puppeter of Yugoslavia pulling its strings.

In the years before Tito’s death, when he was forgetful and sported a terrible wig…

In 1980, President Tito of Yugoslavia died, having ruled the state for over 10 years…

When Tito died the emperror died with him.

There were two bodies that led Yugoslavia right before it disintegrated, Tito Braz and Slobodan Milosevic.

Tito had maintained a Yugoslavia with a federal government system: again, not a typical feature of countries…if Milosevic had succeded would have made Yugoslavia a less artificial country.

The provinces of Yugoslavia include Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, , Yugoveada and others…

It consisted of eight republics and of the eight two were provinces: Kosovo and Vojvonec.

Kosovo was 95% Algerian.

Yugoslavia had been in a terrible economic climate–following the 1930 global depression and the 1973 Yugoslavian oil crisis…

…Slovenia housed a large amount of institutions that Serbia used.

The Rise of Milosevic

When right wing Serbs were making their voices heard in Kosovo Ivan Stambolic sent Milosevic to sort out the situation. Tito would have never considered this. He would have sent an armed force and destroyed them.

Yugoslavia was powerful before Slobodan Milosevic, because it wasn’t just about Serbs but it was about other places as well such as Bosnea, Macedonia, Kosovo, Croatia, Slovenia, etc.

Milosevic attempted to mobilize the people by lighting a fire under their growing concerns for nationalism.

Milosevic attempted to keep the state as cohesived as possible by introducing the masses into politics.Unfortunately, all the masses had very strong views which was one of the factores led to its demise.

Milosevic was a gruel rotten apple.

His ambitions would not stop him from attempting to take the capital of Croatia Dubronik which as 90% Croat in which he failed.

Although Kosovo had been an independent nation for over 600 years, Serbia…had pulled the nation under Serbian rule

As both Croatia and Serbia were Orthodox believers that were majority.

While Serbia is Orthodox, Croatia and Bosnia are Muslim

War and International Intervention

The international community had viewed the situation in the Balkans as a bit of a ‘so what?’ scenario.

[In 1991] NATO was a relatively new organization and was busy with the USSR… and the UN was happy to observe the looming conflict yet unwilling to act.

The EC also felt under pressure to act because of ethnic ties that they had to ‘Yugoslavians’

The Baltic States are built on blood stains, and for the UN to go in, assuming it could achieve what it set out to was naive and demonstrated it’s lack of cultural understanding.

The declaration of independence infuriated Serbia. That is why today Serbia has rejected the acknowledgement of Serbia as a nation-state, it fears for the Serbians inside Kosovo.

With Germany independently supporting Serbia and the rest of Europe condemning its actions.

Bosnians soon rose up against the Muslims …forcing them to flee.

The Baltic States have always been at least troublesome…It’s a conflict hotspot teaming with ethnic tension and racial prejudice that has built up over centuries and passed down over generations

During the 1990s Yugoslvia and most of the Baltic region witnessed some of the worst atrocities and widespread genocide the area had ever seen.

The Kosovo Rambouillet plan succeeded in invading the conflict in former Yugoslavia, but failed in the short term with the loss of lives in the war.

Communism in Eastern Europe

More than 4 centuries of Communist rule has aggravated the economic situation and the competitiveness to the West.

Eastern Europe has been under the influence of five religions, three of which are branches of Catholicism.

A case example can be seen between Afghanistan and Armenia between 1918 and 1926. Between and much throughout the interwar period, the CPSU had problems with Afghanistan.

The cold war ended in 1950 when the US and the USSR signed a treaty of peace in Yalta

The appeal of Communism was that people would no longer work for the rich, but for each other.

The richest elite in a communist society tends to be the leader. As according to Karl Marx the buorgeoisie and the ruling class in a society tend to rule and keep the state in good order.

They created what was called Goulash communism–goulash being a Hungarian dish compiled with unlikely ingredients.

Gorbachev and 1989

Gorbachev not only talked the talk but walked the walk

Gorbachev made discussions and relations to the Western states about the plan to collapse the Communist regime…The United States president then Regan also accepted his plan…

Gorbachev was the ‘golden eye’ and the hero of east Europe helping to collapse communism and began his plan since the earlier 1990s.

It seems that the madness that took hold of the people of East and Central Europe in that momentous year of 1989, was one that had been inevitable forming like a thunderous cloud on the horizon, bringing with it the winds of change.

The claim that short term …factors are key to explain Communism’s collapse in 1989 is rather reactionary and ill-judged….Long term factors are key to explaining communism collapse in 1989 as one can assess the fall of communism or its demise started from a while ago.

there was a multi-party election carried out in Romania, Czechoslovakia, East Germany and Bosnia for a more decentralized east Europe.

Countries with a single party system run the risk of slipping back into a type of authoritarian regime.

…there is still the block mentality in Eastern Europe, showing it hasn’t integrated that greatly, this is made most apparent in the Eurovision Song Contest where the East European Countries will all vote for each other. This was seen this year when the Serbian entry won, despite how crap it was, because the Eastern Europe will vote for it’s own.

What is all means for Britain

Britain now is a coalition government, the icon of the West now using democratic practices most commonly fund (found?) in Eastern Europe…

Britain looked at the whole idea [EU] of the scheme as a waste of time…under Margeret Thatcher…but [she] was eventually removed and Britain joined… after Britain had been in a huge recession and were the 3rd poorest country in Europe.

The copyright to these statements lies exclusively with the students who wrote this.

Does Serbia really want Ganic?

The arrest of Ejup Ganic in the UK has already been a big success for Serbia. Judging by the fact that I just gave an interview for a Chinese news magazine on the case, the arrest of Ganic has successfully overshadowed the beginning of the Karadzic trial.  The Prosecution in Serbia had opened an investigation into the Dobrovoljacka case in early 2009, but the timing of the arrest now is indicative: The case altogether seems political motivated to show to the domestic audience in Serbia that also non-Serbs are indicted for war crimes. The ICTY in The Hague had investigated the case and did not pursue it. There is furthermore a problem with Serbia indicting Ganic for an alleged war crime committed in Bosnia (which was internationally recognized at the time). While some of the victims were Serbs from Serbia, and Ganic is born in Serbia, the crime is primarily the responsibility of the Bosnian war crimes chamber.

The incident has already had a negative impact on relations between Bosnia and Serbia. This comes after a recent improvement following mediation by Turkey which resulted in both countries again exchanging ambassadors after relations had been managed at the level of charge d’affairs for years after Serbia rejected Bosnia’s candidates for ambassador to Serbia. It also comes after the Serbian president Tadic has reaffirmed Serbia’s support for the territorial integrity of Bosnia, which has been widely seen as an effort to reign in the nationalist statements by Milorad Dodik. Furthermore, there have been discussions in Serbia to pass a resolution in parliament to condemn the genocide in Srebrenica. Finally, the investigation and extradition request undermine the agreement on legal cooperation signed between Serbia and Bosnia just a few days ago. The argeement seeks to put an end to the ability of criminals to escape punishment by crossing the border to Serbia or Bosnia and hiding behind dual citizenship. A lot of this good will and progress created in recent months has been destroyed by the arrest.

More important might be the negative impact on Bosnia itself. The arrest and the case will be welcome ammunition in the election campaign in Bosnia–general elections are due in October: Serb politicians express their dismay at Bosnian state institutions seeking to defend Ganic, while Bosniak politicians accuse Serbia of fighting the same battles as during the war. Thus, it helps to remind of the war and incompatible political goals which will only help nationalists in the elections.

I am not certain that Serbia has the stomach or the will to really try Ganic in court.  The case is weak so either he would be sentenced in a clear mischarage of justice which would undermine internationally the domestic war crimes investigations and Serbia, or he would be released which would undermine the court domestically. Thus, if he is eventually released by the UK, or ‘extradited’ to Bosnia, Serbia has won. The authorities can once more claim that non-Serbs evade justice, but that Serbia tries all it can and that it can get to them even in the UK, not unlike the governments line of argument for Kosovo.

‘Quality control’ is the problem, not the solution

The article below was just published online with the THE. It’s a reaction to a report from a House of Commons committee recommending more standardization and control of professors and universities by the state. In fact, I have been wanting to write this type of article since being in the US in the spring, but this was a good opportunity.

3 August 2009

More of the same won’t allow us to reform the British system effectively, writes Florian Bieber


No research assessment exercise, research excellence framework, external examiners, double marking or moderation. What may sound like a dream to many academics (myself included) is the worst nightmare for higher education administrators and the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee, to judge from its report on the state of universities that was published on 2 August.

The report recommends more quality controls, more standardisation and a greater role for external examiners and the Quality Assurance Agency. However, one might ask how America’s Ivy League universities manage without much of this? The reality is that rather than boosting the quality of university education, the logic of quality control is a major source of the problems that bedevil the UK sector.

Part of this lies in the apparent confusion between quality control and standardisation. While standards can secure a minimum of quality, they can also stifle the variation, creativity and maximum quality so essential to higher education.

There are four dynamics at work here:

a) standardisation runs contrary to the logic of quality-based differentiation

b) quality control often leads to increased workloads with few benefits

c) the discussion about widening participation is not linked with quality

d) and finally, the debate is insular.

The select committee’s report – indicative of much thinking about higher education – laments the lack of uniform standards across the sector. The authors appear infuriated that the vice-chancellors of the universities of Oxford and Oxford Brookes cannot answer the “simple question of whether students obtaining first-class honours degrees at different universities had attained the same intellectual standards”.

Herein lies standardisation’s fundamental logical flaw: you cannot have better universities without worse ones.

In brief, not every university can be Oxford or Harvard. It will always be difficult to compare a graduate from a lower-rated university programme with one from a top institution, even if the degree has the same name. However, there is nothing wrong with that. Some universities will always be better, meaning that their degrees cannot be identical to others. Trying to impose a uniform standard is likely to result in a drive towards the lowest common denominator rather than the highest level of quality.

In addition, the system of external examiners, double marking and moderation is more often than not a time-consuming waste of academics’ time. These standardisation tools have in-built disincentives that often result in everybody involved going through the motions of upholding standards, spending valuable time that might otherwise be used to increase the number of contact hours with students, the low number of which the report laments. More effective complaints mechanisms, as seen in the better US universities, are likely to be fairer than a bureaucratised system based on a fundamental distrust of the judgment of teaching staff.

Another key tension that is not sufficiently acknowledged in the report is the conflict between widening participation (that is, bringing students from disadvantaged backgrounds into the university system) and quality. Many such students will excel and enrich the sector; but at the same time many will pose a challenge to maintaining certain standards of education. This is not to say it is not worthwhile, but it is potentially a trade-off that must be confronted, something best done at a much earlier stage of the education process.

Finally, the select committee report draws on a visit to the US – but not a single European country – and recommends the community college model for the UK (clearly the authors did not visit many community colleges).

The report, in common with much of the debate on higher education reform, is very insular. For instance, the Bologna reform process, which is among the key tools for creating a European higher education space, is mentioned only in the footnotes. Indeed, this reflects the lack of debate on how the UK can integrate and maybe even learn from the experience of other European countries. No doubt the challenges that the often very hierarchical university systems in the rest of Europe face are greater than those in the UK, but this does not mean that nothing can be learnt from them.

More importantly, we are already part of a European academic space through research and exchange programmes such as Erasmus and the European Union’s Framework programmes, and it is time to stop ignoring this when it comes to reform. Although the US higher education sector is often even less aware of the world beyond its doors than ours, the fact that its universities are very diverse (from Deep Springs College in the Californian desert with 26 students to Harvard with about 20,000) allows for more creative learning.

In short, to improve the UK’s universities, we must stop recommending more of the same. Instead, thinking outside the box and looking harder beyond our shores might be a good starting point.

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