Notes on Eurovision

eurovision

It will come as pleasant surprise that Terry Wogan will no longer comment the Eurovision song contest on BBC, but instead Graham Norton will be his replacement. After having to hear about the Eastern Block, block voting (which one of my more gifted students at Kent used in his/her final essay as evidence of the continued divided between East and West) and the need to reinstate the Berlin Wall, things can get only better. Rather than ranting about the laziness and colonial arragoance displayed towards the small peoples of the east, I have decide this year to write a few notes for Graham Norton so that they can guide his commentary–not be accused of being an academic who only criticises after it is too late:

Fact 1

42 countries participate, 22 are former Communist countires, plus Greece, Cyprus, Turkey and Israel: Western Europe is in a minority. Thus, odds of a West European country winning are just not that that good (or to be precise: 38%)

Fact 2

There is little political voting during the Eurovision (except the ethnic voting between Cyprus and Greece). And no, Armenia and Turkey are not countries who always vote in the same ‘block,’ neither are Romania and Russia, Albania and Serbia. Studies of voting patterns indicate that there are cultural patterns, which create voting regions. If a song from Armenia sounds familiar to a listener in Greece who then votes for the song, this is not block voting.

Fact 3

Performers are trying to please their potential audiances–just that the voters are not in their own country and this leads to some very entertaining ways in which some acts think they can garner votes: Montenegro this year tries to appeal to the gay community with the George Michael cum Village People dancing background in the video. Romania’s Elena on the other hand is appealing to the Balkan ‘block’ by praising the virtues of Balkan girls with lyrics written by a true poet: ‘The Balkan girls they like to party like nobody, like nobody, For crowd delight, we’ll shine all night.’

Fact 4

Some acts are useful lessons in counterfactual history: Moldova this year shows us what Eurovision would have been like, if Communism had not fallen 20 years ago and still the countries east of the Iron Curtain were participating. According to an official bio, “Despite her youth [she is one of the oldest participant in the Eurovision song contest], Nelly is the most authoritative singer in Moldova confirmed by the VIP award, offered every six years.” This winner of the morning star award and many other honors tries to convince the world that they have never seens a dance like the hora from Moldova (which looks surprisingly familar to certain dances in Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Albania, Macedonia, Ukraine etc.)…

Fact 5

Eurovision is the most successful form of Euroatlantic Integration. Forget NATO and EU, where is Belrus voting for the UK? In no organization in Europe are all countries of the continent included (except the sore loosers who no longer participate like Italy and Luxembourg) and can vote like equals. Maybe this is what might make many West Europeans unconforatble, being outvoted by these ungrateful Easterners who are all of a sudden equals. And some, like the Ukraine this year, are beating Western pop divas easily. On the other hand, the ‘Eastern’ hand in Norways song surely contributes to his frontrunner status.

Fact 6

Eurovision is silly, fun and thus to be taken seriously (or the other way around). It is rare to find such a mixture of genuine fun and playfulness with true camp and musical horrors. You can love the show and hate the music, that is the beauty of Eurovision. This mix of seriousness, kitch, camp and fun is what makes this continent such a fun place.

Do we need to worry about the Balkans? Doom, gloom and soccer

In recent weeks a number of seasoned observers have noted the increasing deterioration of the political development in the Balkans. From the Aleksandar the Great statue building government in Macedonia and the presidential elections there to the perpetual crisis in Bosnia, things don’t look up. In his recent article in the Economist, Tim Judah even mentions the risk of violence in Bosnia.

The combination of the economic crisis hitting the region, stagnating political dynamics and an EU reluctant to help out and visibly cooling down towards any rapid enlargement in the region does not bode well. The slow nomination of the new High Rep in Bosnia was a sad spectacle and enhance the already existing vacuum (I know that vacuums cannot be increased, so forgive the metaphor).

Now there are a number of encouraging developments as well: First, Bosnia won two soccer games. All joking aside and considering that the opponent was Belgium, this is a positive development. I have long argued that nothing is as likely to make Bosnia work as success. A good soccer team can go a long way in creating some state-wide cohesion–it is always popular to support winners. On a more immediate note, one chamber of parliament (HoR) has already passed constitutional amendments incorporating the district of Brcko into the constitution. This is significant for two reasons: First, it is the first constitutional revision since the constitution was imposed at Dayton. This demonstrates that the constitution can be reformed and amended. Second, the agreement of Brcko suggests that the RS does not want to secede. The entity cannot leave Bosnia without taking control of Brcko as well, as it divides the entity in two. Thus, leaving the district in legal limbo would help the RS in making claims at some point in the future were it to declare independence. Accepting and constitutionally protecting Brcko can be seen as a sign that despite all the radical talk, there is little appetite for any radical steps. Finally, constitutional talks in Bosnia are continuing and so for they have been difficult, but the experience of Brcko is encouraging.

This development, however, should be no reason for the EU to lean back. While it is understandable for the Union to deal with its internal economic problems, the ratification of the Lisbon treaty and troublesome members first, but let’s not forget that the celebrations over the Maastricht treaty were ruined by the Yugoslav wars some 18 years ago. It is time to focus on the region once more,  but without talking of the threat of violence or war, as talking of it might help the unfolding of a self-fulfilling dynamic.

A Bad Week for Socialdemocracy

It has a been a bad few weeks for Socialdemocracy in Europe. Not only did the Austrian Socialdemocrats follow the populist pressures of the NKZ to promise referenda on all future changes to the EU treaties and the accession of Turkey. The Socialist International decided to accept Milorad Dodik’s Independent Social Democrats as full members. Besides his continued statements and policies which undermine Bosnia and Herzegovina, he has also succeeded in shutting down Tranparency International in Bosnia after a campaign of threats.
I guess accepting the Socialist Party of Serbia to the Socialist International is no longer such a stretch of the imaginiation…

Pampers, Absorption Capacity and how much the EU (should) suck(s)

Pampers, Absorption Capacity and how much the EU (should) suck(s)

Now that Ireland voted against the Constitutional Treaty there is serious concern over the prospects for the EU’s ability to integrate the Western Balkans. While in recent months the EU has been repeating that there are no obstacles to the EU integration for the countries in the region, there is a risk now that new conditions might be imposed on the countries that have little to do with countries’ reforms and more with the reluctance of EU member states to push for enlargement.

After months of pampering the regions with promises of visa liberalization and the signing of the SAA with Serbia and Bosnia next week, except a lot more talk about absorption capacity and vague conditions, which will only further undermine the already rather weak position of the EU in the region.

The Borders of the European Union 2011

The Borders of the European Union
Zagreb, 1. June 2011

With big fireworks in Zagreb and along the Hungarian and Slovene border, Croatia welcomed the opening of the border to the European Union and Croatia joining the Schengen zone. While free travel to the EU was never a problem for citizens of Croatia, the abolition of border posts to Hungary and Slovenia marks a great improvement for border communities, especially those which saw the hardening of the border when Slovenia joined the Schengen area back in 2008. The president of the European Union, Jean-Claude Juncker, congratulated Croatia on this historical step.

A little east from Croatia, however, political development in recent years suggest the European Union has failed to bring stability. Ever since the illegal referendum on independence of Republika Srpska in late 2010 Bosnia has de facto ceased to exist. The referendum followed the defeat of prime minister Dodik in 2010 by the candidate of the Serb Radical Party, supported by Belgrade and the closure of the OHR in 2009. The predominantly Bosniak and Croat Federation claims to represent all of Bosnia and rejects the declaration of independence of the Serb Republic, which has to date only be recognized by Serbia and Russia.
While reforms have accelerated in the Federation, the Bosniak member of the Bosnian presidency has recently accused the Croat party of being willing to sacrifice the claim on the Serb Republic for quick entry into the EU. Some Bosniak parties have in fact altogether challenged the EU membership, suggesting that the EU wants to break up Bosnia. This statement comes after the EU insisting that only a unified Bosnia can join the European Union. Considering the strong rejection of EU membership at this point by the Serb Radical Party, in power in Belgrade and Banja Luka, such a perspective appears unrealistic.
While the electoral success of the Radical Party in Serbia itself back in 2008 did not lead to a fully fledged roll-back of reforms in Serbia, the country has been increasingly polarized and the economy has stagnated. Besides the agreement that Lada would begin building cars in Serbia’s Zastava car factor, few large foreign investments have materialized.
The proposal by the EU to establish a new partnership agreement with Serbia recently was welcomed by Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic, but rejected as long as the EU proposed agreement does not insist on either acknowledging Serbia’s authority over Kosovo or the independence of the Serb Republic.
While Montenegro, Albania and Macedonia might join the EU by 2014, the prospects for Bosnia and Serbia, as well as Kosovo, appear bleak.

Spot the difference (except that Tito is dead and Brian is alive… and the obvious age difference):

Spot the difference (except that Tito is dead and Brian is alive… and the obvious age difference):


Boring Balkans

So Olli Rehn noted today that he wants the Western Balkans to be “normal, prosperous and boring”. The last time somebody promised something similar, it was Vojislav Kostunica, promising a “normal, boring country”. I guess this is one election promise he did not live up to. So, Olli Rehn, be warned… maybe a compromise could be found, the Western Balkans slightly more boring and the EU slightly less boring

The Politics of Eurovision

So Serbia won for the first time the Eurovision contest (the last and only time Yugoslavia won with Riva in 1990, the country fell apart…). Goran‘s blog at B92 is great on the domestic debates on Marija Serifovic and the fact that she does not resemble the conventional singers who make it Serbia…
Yesterday I was able to witness Terry Wogan’s legendary commentary for the first time…and instead I got Jacques Chirac. Wogan’s view of Eastern Europe was awfully reminiscent of Chirac when he called the countries of Eastern Europe “mal élevée” (badly educated). Wogan, annoyed at the apparent block voting, even called a new wall (I shall not comment on the tastelessness of this suggestion). Teaming prejudice, his commentary displayed a great degree of ignorance. He was upset at the voting along certain geographic blocks (ex-Soviet Union, Baltics, Balkans, etc.) and apparently had particular disdain at the East European for this habit.
His commentary ignored the fact that although Western Europe might be economically more powerful, there are simply more countries in “Eastern Europe”. Of the 42 participating countries, only 16 are from ‘Western Europe’ (without Greece), so a disbalance in favor of the East should not surprise anybody (and let’s not forget that the only four countries which do not have to earn their place are… Germany, France, UK and Spain). Furthermore, the accusation of block voting ignores the real regional political dynamics. Geographic proximity often makes voting for each other more difficult. Nationalist stereotypes would suggest that it would be easier for Turkey to, let’s say vote for the UK, than Armenia. This is in fact the fascinating bit of the competition how televoting meant that politically problematic votes (like Turkey for Armenia, Croatia for Serbia) are no longer excluded by ‘politically correct’ juries. Eurovision-Citizens calling in have often demonstrated to the break some conventional animosities. When Austria supports Germany, Turkey Armenia, Croatia Serbia, etc. then this is voting despite (past) political considerations, not because of them.
Geographical patterns exist, but they are not rigid blocks but rather patterns determined not only by geography or supposed regional sympathy. Musical tastes differ across Europe and not everything will appeal everywhere, and this after all the fun of the whole spectacle.

Gloomy Balkans?

When discussing the Western Balkans with analysts and policy makers, one can notice distinct mood shifts over the years. In some cases is might be just because you are at a gathering of optimists or pessimists, in other cases it has little to do with the situation in the countries, as it might be the case of dissapointed internatioanl (false) expections or what is bad in one country does not necessarily bode ill for another.
Be this as it may, it was striking to note the worried atmosphere at a meeting last week in Paris of EU policy makers and analysts. After 2006 seemed like a year where transition from post-conflict to European integration would be more tangible, little was decided. Now 2007 might be overwhelmed by the legacy of 2006. Both the status decision for Kosovo and the shutting down of the OHR in Bosnia appears already to be too much in one go. So, local ‘ownership’, the buzzword of a few years back has fallen in popularity. It appears that the future EU mission in Kosovo will be similar to the OHR including the Bonn-powers (to dimiss officials and pass legislation) and since the current High Rep. Schwarz Schilling is leaving early and even he noted the continued need for the OHR, full souvereignty to Bosnia also seem to be not forthcoming any time soon. To a large degree, the talk of an independence referendum of the Serb Republic by Milorad Dodik is to blame. Ironically, one of the politicians the most critical of the international community and of the OHR in particular has thrown it another life-line.
Whether the OHR will remain effective and it’s decision legitimate remains to be seen. It is an emperor without clothes and if it is called on its weakness, there might be difficulties ahead. A few years back, a good part of Bosnian citizens supported an increase in the power of the OHR, in 2006 the UND early warning report notes that supporters of reducing the OHR’s competences are larger than those who would like to increase it among all three national communities. Similarly in Kosovo, there is a question whether such a type of mission will be legitimate and accepted, especially as the status solution is unlikely to satisfy anybody fully.
Finally, as there is a sense that EU enlargement might be slowed down and not because of the countries in the region, but because of the EU’s current internal crisis, the key carrot might be loosing some of its pull.
Altogether, the meeting left me thinking that despite some key decisions being taken in 2007, stability remains at risk and we might have to wait for 2008 for more courageous steps towards EU Integration of the region.

Op-ed for Washington Times

I admit that writing a letter to the editor for the Washington Times is like writing a policy brief to Rumsfeld telling him that the war in Iraq was a bad idea and hoping for change. Anyhow, I did write one following a particularly disturbing opinion piece on Bosnia, which hit on all the themes any nationalist publication in Serbia would be proad of: The Islamist-terrorist threat, the artificial nature of multiethnic states and the threat through centralization to Serbs and Croats.

The letter can be read at:

https://fbieber.files.wordpress.com/2010/06/2005-12-letters-to-the-editor-the-washington-times.pdf

The original article “Islamist State in Europe” with such memorable lines as “The Croatians are dying” is available at:

http://washingtontimes.com/commentary/20051218-125507-6951r.htm

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