The Crisis Machine

Over the past 15 years, every new crisis seems to be the biggest crisis since Dayton. As sure as it is that each one fades into the background, the next one will follow like clockwork. The permanent state of emergency, of crises, has become normal and everyone seems to get used to this. The crises are not the unfortunate by-product of political disputes, but the crises are the goal in themselves. As such, Bosnia and Herzegovina has become a crisis producing machine for the current political elite.
Bosnia and Herzegovina is not unique in this. Leaders in the region, think of Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić or his Montenegrin counterpart Milo Djukanović, are masters of producing crisis—and then offering to solve them. They live off the crises they produce. They do this for a number of reasons.
First, each crisis is a performance, a show on the stage. As all eyes, of citizens and international actors are on the stage, it gives time and opportunity to take care of other matters in the backstage area. These are corruption, consolidating authoritarian control over the institutions and many other little steps to make sure that those in charge privatize the state.
Second, each performance helps to build the nation, it creates a sense of threat and reinforces over and over the same story, simplistic but effective of being under threat, misunderstood and to find only protection in the community.
Third, the performance worries internationals, who hurry to meet with the leaders to “solve” the crisis. They are relieved and the leaders moderate their position, take a step back and deescalate.
Fourth, the crisis makers live of polarization. They are not seeking to build consensus or respect for other opinions. In this sense, they need to remind everybody of the dividing line, reinforce them. The crises do that, they are deepening the polarization.
These crisis performances are what is central to ethnonationalist autocrats and populists, from the AfD and FPÖ in Germany and Austria to Vučić, Dodik and other Balkan “strongmen” (and they are usually, but not always, men). These politics of emergency make normal, democratic governing impossible, as every crisis suspends normal rules of a functioning democracy, compromise, decisions based on expertise and respective for difference.
In all this, Bosnia and Herzegovina is not exceptional. What makes the country specific is how the state and its institutions have become little else than crisis producing machines. Their sole purpose and main use by elites has been to generate crises. There is no easy way out of this trap. Ironically, discussions about constitutional changes and changing the institutional set up of the country, see the latest discussions about electoral reform, are best at producing crisis, as they can be framed as threatening the community.
The best drafted constitution for Bosnia, and there is no such ideal constitution for any country, does not work, as it is the dysfunctional Annex 4 that serves elites better. So it seems like a trap. Trying to get out just triggers new crises and offers fresh opportunities for self-serving elites. Looking in the neighborhood, even a functional constitution does not offer immunity from self-serving elites and authoritarianism.
These destructive dynamics does not mean that Bosnia and Herzegovina is trapped in a destructive perpetual motion machine. Two dynamics can change this. First, external actors can change their approach. Rather than being willing helping hands in the crisis machine, they can establish clarity rather than endless appeasement and negotiations with those who use the machines to generate crisis and their own power. Sanctions, exclusion and all the tool that Dayton grant them. If the crisis makers want a Dayton Bosnia, they will have to live with all of it, including the powers of the Peace Implementation Council and the High Representative. Rather than the muddle, there should be a clear process of concluding the peace agreements obligations and restraints on Bosnia. The closure of the OHR should be linked to a consensual new constitution that provides for functional institutions and also includes a permanent internationally security guarantee for the state. Until this is achieved, the peace agreement is not implemented, and the High Representative has a role to place according to the peace agreement. Second, and more importantly, change will have to come from within. Clarity by external actors can help demystify the crisis “show”, yet the end will only come through protests, resistance, and alternatives from within. Unlike others, I don’t consider national identity a type of Marxist ‘false consciousness’ that people will realize one day being false. It is too real to just disappear, but protecting national identity does not require ethnic cleansing, segregation, and the current nationalist myths. Nationalism is, for better or worse, a powerful feature of our world and will shape Bosnia and Herzegovina. Thus, whatever joint resistance is unlikely to change this fundamental reality, but it can moderate it, supplement it with civic and cooperative dimensions that the country lacks.
Getting out of the crisis trap is far from easy and requires fortunate timing and alignment of the right ‘stars.’ The first step is pulling the curtain and realizing that it is the crises themselves are not accidental, but central to the Bosnian and Herzegovinian political system and help preserve the destructive and degenerative status quo.

This article was first published in a special supplement of Oslobodjenje on 20-21.11.2021 on online in English here.

The False Attraction of Orban’s Europe

Ahead of every EU-Balkan summit in recent years, the same struggle, Sofia in 2018, in Zagreb last year and in Brdo last week, EU member states are haggling how to call the thing that they are offering the countries of the Western Balkans, enlargement, a “European perspective“ or even less. Once more, in Brdo, the future of the region was based on a last-minute compromise, calling for a “European perspective” and the “enlargement process”, as if the process is more important than the outcome. In the end it is a semantic exercise that cannot disguise the fact that enlargement is no longer a common project of the EU member states as it was 18 years ago when EU membership was offered to the countries of the region membership at the famous summit in Thessaloniki. Today, the EU seems to be divided between the supporters of enlargement, such as Germany, Austria, Italy and Hungary and the sceptics including France and the Netherlands. However, the narrative of sceptics and supports is misleading. Some supporters have become the biggest obstacles. While Bulgaria pushed for enlargement during its presidency in 2018, it has sabotaged not just accession talks with North Macedonia (and by extension Albania), but also discredited the Commissions claim that the accession process would be merit based. By bringing in identity questions and insisting that the Macedonian government acknowledges a Bulgarian nationalist view of history, it undermines pro-EU forces in North Macedonia send the message that no matter what problems countries in the Western Balkans might solve, they can be derailed by petty nationalist positions of a member state.

On the other side, some critics, such as France, have now supported accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia, despite misgivings about membership. Finally, Germany under Chancellor Merkel und Commission president van der Leyen have supported enlargement, but hurt it, but not sending clearer messages to the region and its leaders when they visit the Balkans. Just recently during her visit, von der Leyen praised Vučić for „a strong focus on fundamental reforms. I commend you for the steps you have taken. This is enormous. You have done a lot of hard work. This hard work pays off. It is amazing to see the progress.” Considering developments in Serbia, this seems either insincere or misguided, either way, it sends the message that the EU will continue to provide uncritical photo opportunities for autocrats and hardly helping to keep up the pressure to take accession seriously.

The European politician, who seems to have been the steadiest supporter of enlargement in recent years is Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. In a recent ad published in some European newspapers, Orban outlined his vision for Europe, point 7 demands that Serbia join the EU. A recent BiEPAG poll suggests that Orban is the third most popular foreign politician in Serbia after Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, ahead of other EU leaders such as Angela Merkel or Emmanuel Macron.

Olivér Várhelyi, the EU Commissioner in charge of enlargement and Orbans candidate, turned out to be following Orbans model rather than the EU approach. A recent Politico article suggest that Várhelyi has been shaping and influencing internal EU documents to downplay problems with the rule of law in Serbia and diverging form the position of the Commission and his department.

None of this helps Serbia. Instead, Orban has become a false friend of enlargement. Nobody can more effectively bury the EU prospects for Serbia and the resto f the region then him.
Orban is promoting Serbian membership for two reasons. The first one is migration, as Orban himself stated in Bled in August 2020: “The first of these tasks is that we must unhesitatingly admit Serbia to the European Union as soon as possible, because without Serbia Europe’s security structure is not complete. There is a gap in the system. To give you a tangible example, this is also where migrants are coming through.” This reflects his focus on refugees and would shift the external border of the EU away from Hungary. More importantly Is the second reason. Serbia under Vucic is governed a lot like Hungary und Orban. A strong leader who disregards rule of law, systematically undermines media freedom and marginalises the opposition. More autocrats in his style would give him greater leverage in the EU and shelter him.

For Serbia, this vision of Orban’s Europe, run by nationalist, anti-migrant autocrats is bad news for Serbia. This vision of Europe does not require Serbia to be democratic, or based on legal certainty, as long as it guards European borders. Second, by promoting Serbia, is closing its door to the EU. Orban has some allies, such as Janez Janša and the Polish government, but mostly he is isolated. His partial ally Andrej Babiš just lost power in the Czech Republic and Janša might not last long as prime minister, his party stagnates at less than 30% support, even if it is the single largest party. The next German government is likely to be more critical of Orban and also Austrian Prime Minister Sebastian Kurz, who has the closest support among European conservative PMs next to Janša is out of office. At home, his power is also fragile, as for the first time, the opposition appears to manage to coordinate a joint candidate and polls put the united opposition slightly ahead of Fidesz, with parliamentary elections due next year. In a year from now, Orban and his close ally might be out of office.

Even if this does not happen, Orbans support is a “Medveđa usluga” a disservice, as it only reaffirms the opposition from enlargement skeptics to any country joining the EU. France and the Netherlands, two of the most skeptical countries agreed to the new methodology, yet untested, as it would allow for reversibility in the accession process and closer monitoring. Orban’s—and with it Várhelyi’s—support for Serbia is the opposite, not based on the criteria, uncritical and thus certain to trigger opposition by France and other sceptics at some point. Serbia’s future in the European Union looks more uncertain than ever with Orban has its supporter. This might suit Vučić, who has been systematically reducing support for EU membership among the population due to the anti-EU campaign by pro-regime media for years. As a result, citizens of Serbia are least convinced about joining the EU. Only 53.2% are mostly or fully in favour of joining the EU in a poll over the summer by IPSOS, commissioned by BiEPAG, whereas in the rest of the region, the numbers are between 78.5% in North Macedonia and 93.7% in Albania. The low numbers are thus not a result of the long wait or unfair treatment, North Macedonia beats Serbia on both, but due to government spin.

The combination of the false promise of Orbans path to the European Union and the anti-European spin of the Vučić government are helping to bury the prospect of enlargement, more so than the countries that are sceptical about new countries joining the EU.

The text was published in Serbian as Лажна привлачност Орбанове Европе in NIN on 14.10.2021

With Handke to the Balkans

2019-10-21 21.45.30.jpgTwenty-three years ago, I sat with anticipation in the Vienna Akademie Theater to hear the reading of Peter Handke’s “Eine winterliche Reise zu den Flüssen Donau, Sava, Morawa und Drina oder Gerechtigkeit für Serbien”. The theater was packed. Having read Handke and admired his writing, it was hard not be excited. I was also anxious. I had begun to travel to Croatia and Serbia three years earlier, made friends, read, studied the Yugoslavia and sought to learn what had happened. The refugees and debates in Vienna were a steady reminder of the wars. My travels had made me weary of the same lazy and stereotypical reports prevalent in the media that provoked Handke to write his essay, published earlier in the Süddeutsche Zeitung. However, when I read the text in a book before the reading, I was disspointed and disturbed. He responded with sometimes simplistic explanaitions of the wars with his own version, no better and often much worse. For him, Serbia under sanctions, isolated and inward looking became a fantasy of the anti-West, how world could be. His unreflected nostaligia toward the old Yugoslavia made him  fall for Milošević’s false claim to be the true heir to the country. Even modest curiosity would prove that claim to be a sham. But this was not just the trap into which many unreflexives leftists fell, the trap anybody who claims the anti-imperialist label is good, anybody demonised by the West must be a hero. Instead, he visited Serbia and saw a false idyll of rural calm where people could not drive a car because gas was scarce and that was reduced the basics. He transformed the hardship into one that was both only caused by the West and that was at the same time transforming Serbia into an antithesis of the West. This was not the Serbia I had seen, a country humiliated by its leaders, isolated and drive to crime, full of people who could not effort to indulge in the Western phantasies of an authentic people, but who wanted to live.

If Alain Finkielkraut  found his pet nation among Croats, Handke found his among Serbs. However, these were not real Serbs, but a mythical people, as defined by the nationalist visions of Karadžić, Milošević and their intellectual forefathers. Handke accepted the claim of the ‘leaders’ to represent the nation and indulged in collectivities, in a way no self-respective intellecutal would have talke about ‘the Germans’ or ‘the French’.

Following his reading, any critical question he was asked he responded with an insult (“Stecken Sie sich Ihre Betroffenheit in den Arsch!”) so that I walked away from the performance as a second installment of Publikumsbeschimpfung,  Offending the Audience, his 1966 play. His insults gave insight into a person who did not want to understand, but rather to mis- or rather un-understand. He was provoked by the wars and the reporting in the West, but his response was not to understand or respond with emphathy, to challenge the Western view that too easily accepted the national lense. Instead, he response was to endorse the logic of the nationalism and orientialism, he liked the orient that did not exist and was convinient for war mongers and western commentators alike. He liked to provoke, but with it dehumanized those who suffered and sought to understand.

Few events have helped me more to contiune traveling, understanding and learning in and about Yugoslavia than that reading in March 1996, not for the insight, but for the deliberate willfull ignorance I experienced that night.

(Much of what makes Handke a shamful winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature has been written by writers with greater witt and skill than myself, such as Aleksandar Hemon, Saša Stanišić or Jagoda Marinić. )


Drawing Borders

The following text was first published in the Serbian weekly NIN in the 23 May edition.

When the Serbian Minister of Defense (former ally of Mira Marković, Slobodan Miloševićs recently deceased wife) Aleksandar Vulin asks for an “as urgently as possible and secure creation of a border with Albanians” (using the derogatory term for Albanians: „za što hitnije i što sigurnije razgraničenje sa Šiptarima,“) he is just the most offensive of many regional politicians who like to talk about ethnic bounderies. From the beginning of discussing border changes between Serbia and Kosovo, as launched by Vučić and Thaçi to the world last year, it was not just about changing borders, but the entire framework of borders in the region. The terminology used by its proponents in Serbia has been to describe a border not between Serbia and Kosovo, but between Serbs and Albanians. For all the denial that these borders would not be ethnic or create homogenous territories, the language of “razgraničenje” between Serbs and Albanians is clear. On the other side, both Albanian and Serb politicians have been downplaying existing borders that separate nations. This includes talk by Vučić of some “sprski etnički prostor” and Rama’s Albanian nationalism and policy of abolishing the border with Kosovo.



Serbian-Russian co-production Balkan Line


This idea of “Balkanska Medja“ or line is just like the Russian-Serbian propaganda film an alternative reality or rather a dangerous phantasy. The main premise of the agreements that ended the wars in the 1990s was to promote refugee return and preserving minority and other collective rights. This has not always worked, but to abandon the idea in favor of ethnic territories is a dangerous phantasy. It is also the logic of Europe’s far right. For example, the Austrian Freedom Party in its handbook for members talks about the ‘failure of dreams of multicultural phantasies” and demand for ‘self-determination of Balkan people’.  The problem of “self-determination” has been with us for a century when Woodrow Wilson made it a key pillar of his vision for Europe after World War One. Already back then, skeptics were wondering where to draw the ‘lines’ and indeed many of the lines drawn after the war left people on the wrong side. To create ethnic spaces and divided them by borders is a phantasy that can only be realized through expulsion or oppression. The creation of homogenous nation-states has included the forced assimilation or expulsion of those who do not fit the nation. The war criminals and ‘ethnic cleansers’ of the 1990s sought to conduct a violent and quick creation of new nation states. They partly succeeded, as most regions are more homogenous and territories are more linked to the dominance of one nation than before the wars. However, they also failed, as the new states were not clear nation states and these states have to offer extensive minority rights. Europe’s far right and nationalists, including in the Balkans, are still obsessed with homogeneity and territory. This fixation dangerous, especially for minorities who don’t have ‘territory’. Just like Milošević never cared much about Serbs in Croatia who lived in the big cities (and later not for any Serbs in Croatia), today they don’t care about Serbs in Štrpce or Gračanica or Albanians in Medvedja or where they don’t offer territory as a dowry for the pure nation-state.


former FPÖ official Johann Gudenus explaining the word Glock (an Austrian gun manufacturer) in Russian

Those border phantasies also care little about what happens within the “ethnic spaces”. Just like the Austrian Freedom Party dreams about ending multinational states, its (former) leader HC Strache also dreams about controlling the media Orban style, giving deals to (fake) Russian oligarchs, taking illegal money for his party in exchange for deals, as everybody could hear in the secret tapes revealed last week. His ambitions fit well to the reality of his Balkan partners. The imagination of ethnic spaces thus is not really about self-determination. Of course, populists from Trump to Strache and Salvini, but also Vučić and Dodik like to claim to speak in the name of the “people”. A defining feature of populists is that they claim to be the only legitimate representative of the people against a bad elite, be they inside the country or outside. At the same time, this very idea that only they are legitimate, whereas all other parties are speaking for foreign interests, makes them anti-pluralistic. Their understanding of politics is Manichean, good versus evil, with them being the only force of good. Of course, such a view denies the very idea of legitimate political pluralism. The election results in Northern Kosovo thus are the best reflection of such a worldview. When Srpska Lista wins elections with over 90 percent of the vote, there is no pluralism and it is telling that the only potential political opponent, Oliver Ivanović, was murdered a year ago and still no arrests have been made.

The deeply anti-democratic understanding of politics that dreamers of ethnic boundaries have, means that they suggestions will not “solve” problems (which mostly don’t exist), but create new problems they can then offer to resolve to impatient outsiders and their own population.

The tragic consequence of this talk is that it does not only distract from the real problems, but also that it sucks up the oxygen for those political actors who want to confront these issues and instead encourage those who offer bigger and better ethnic spaces. The attempt by Germany with the help of France to put the genie of ethnic borders back in the bottle a couple of weeks ago has only been partly successful. While negotiating border changes might be off the table, for now, the alternative continues to be weak. As long as Kosovo citizens don’t get visa free travel, if North Macedonia (and Albania) don’t get to negotiation their EU accession and as long as the EU does not clearly reprimand serious problems with rule of law and democracy in the ‘front runners’ Montenegro and Serbia, the feeling of being stuck will remain. The regional stabilocrats will like this, as the talented and motivated leave, others are tied to them in bondage that is only visible when they need as ‘vox populi’ to vote for those in power to keep their jobs or to show their loyalty, with sandwich and bus ride included.




Das Ende von FYROM

Folgender Text wurde unter dem Titel “Es ist vollbracht: Nordmazedonien” am 25.1.2019 in Der Presse eröffentlicht


Am Freitag ist das Wort “Jugoslawien” als Staatsnamen Geschichte geworden. Auch wenn das Land selbst seit fast drei Jahrzehnten nicht mehr besteht, gab es noch die “Ehemalige jugoslawische Republik Mazedonien.” Die Republik Mazedonien konnte nur unter diesem Namen 1995 den Vereinten Nationen beitreten. 28 Jahre stritt Griechenland dem Land den Namen ab, so dass es international oftmals diesen sperrigen Namen tragen musste.

Am Freitag hat das griechische Parlament die letzte Hürde überwunden, damit das Land nun Republik Nord Mazedonien heißen kann. Eine knappe Mehrheit von 153 von 300 Abgeordneten stimmte am Ende für das Abkommen. Im Vorfeld haben sich mehrere Parteien gespalten. Die rechts-populistische  Partei ANEL verließ die Regierung  wegen des Abkommens mit Mazedonien, doch einige Minister und Abgeordnete blieben Tsipras treu. Auch die liberale Oppositionspartei To Potami zerfiel über die Namensfrage. Die konservative Oppositionspartei Nea Demokratia lehnt das Abkommen offiziell ab, hinter vorgehaltener Hand jedoch ist die Partei und ihr Vorsitzender, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, jedoch erleichtert, dass die Namensfrage abgehakt ist. Nachdem die Partei damit rechnet die bevorstehende Parlamentswahlen zu gewinnen, will sie nicht  die ungelöste Namensfrage erben.

Im Juni letzten Jahres hatten der griechische Premier Tsipras und der mazedonische Premier Zaev am Grenzsee Prespa ein Abkommen unterzeichnet, dass den Namensstreit beilegt. Die komplexe und nicht ganz leichte Ratifizierung zeigt, wie schwierig es ist den Ballast des Streits abzulegen. Nationalisten in Griechenland demonstrierten zu zehntausenden im letzten Jahr und erneut vor wenigen Tagen gegen das Abkommen. Für sie ist ein Ausverkauf nationaler Identität. Auch kommt die Frustration mit dem Sparprogramm der Regierung und dem Druck der EU in diesen Protesten zum Ausdruck. Die Nationalisten in Makedonien machten ähnlichen Druck. Hier waren die Demonstration weniger gut besucht, stattdessen blieb ein beratendes Referendum über die Namensänderung aufgrund zu niedriger Wahlbeteiligung ungültig. Die notwendige zwei Drittelmehrheit im Parlament kam nur knapp zusammen. Die ehemalige Regierungspartei VMRO-DPMNE lehnte den Kompromiss strikt ab,  ist aber so tief in Korruption und Machtmissbrauch verwickelt, dass einige Abgeordnete doch zustimmten, in der Hoffnung damit ihre Chancen auf Straffreiheit zu erhöhen.

Für Mazedonien ist der Preis höher, das Land musste die Verfassung ändern um sich einen neune Namen zu geben, während die Albanischen Abgeordneten auch Zugeständnisse einforderten, so wurde Albanische die zweite Staatssprache. Dafür sind auch die Vorteile größer.

Vor kurzem meinte eine hochrangige Regierungsvertreterin im Gespräch, dass mit dem neuen Namen Nord Mazedonien das Land jedenfalls eine Mitgliedschaft im Nordischen Rat ansuchen solle. Auch wenn in Nord Mazedonien nicht skandinavische Verhältnisse einkehren werden, ist die Mitgliedschaft in NATO und der EU die wichtigste Motivation einen Kompromiss einzugehen.  Mit dem neuen Name wird Griechenland sein Veto gegen die mazedonische Mitgliedschaft  aufgeben. Die Einladung zur NATO steht bereits und ein Beitritt ist dieses oder nächstes Jahr realistisch. Auch der EU Beitritt soll voran kommen, Mazedonien wurde gemeinsam mit Albanien in Aussicht gestellt, dass es im Juni 2019 mit Beitrittsverhandlungen rechnen kann.

Die Ratifizierung des Prespa Abkommens ist nicht nur ein positives Signal für Mazedonien, sondern auch eine Ermutigen für die anderen Staaten des Westbalkans bilaterale Konflikte zu lösen. Der positive Domino-Effekt kann jedoch nur gelingen, wenn die EU und NATO nun die Lösung belohnen.


Self-Entrapment of the Eternal Leader: Milo Djukanovićs imminent return as Montenegrin President


After months of speculation, former president, party leaders, president Milo Djukanović declared his candidacy for the Montenegrin presidential elections just one before the election.

If (about as hypothetical as “if there is East this year”) elected president, Milo Djukanović will at the end of his presidential term have been in power in Montenegro for more than three decades: twice as president, six times as prime minister and twice as “just” the grey eminence at the head of the ruling party. No country in Europe has been ruled and dominated by a single person for so long, not Putin, not Lukashenko, not even Bavaria).

So why return to office today? Of course, there are many explanations, including the claims of his party that the opposition are all a bunch of traitors, anti-Montenegrin forces and the president must remain in safe hands. Yes, the opposition is divided and parts of it are compromised by their pro-Russian and Serb nationalist rhetoric. However, the return of Milo Djukanović has nothing to do with this.

Over three decades, he built up a system in which the fusion between state and party was never ruptured as it was in other post-Yugoslavia republics. The ruling DPS has become a catch-all party without a discernible program. Granted, it supports the Euro-Atlantic integration, but has been a pioneer of fake and shallow reforms that is now a model for most governments in the Western Balkans. The ruling party and its model of rule, based on clientalism, and state control, hinges on one person holding the system together–Milo Djukanović. Thus, there is little space for him to retire. Without a popular and able successor to hold the system of power together, the dominance of the party is likely to wane. Only the weakness of the opposition, fragmented into a dozen parties with conflicting priorities and programs, lead by politicians running against the government for nearly 20 years, eases the rule of the Democratic Party of Socialists.

Nevertheless, Djukanović is trapped in the system he built himself. Passing on the patrimonial system he created will either lead to a new leader who will have to sacrifice Djukanović sooner or later or one who will seek genuine reform and transformation and will also need to rid him-or herself-from the strongman. Thus, it would appear that Djukanovič and Montenegro will remain intrinsically linked for years to come. However, the inability of the ruling party to move beyond Djukanović might help it to gain elections in the short run, but will be eventually its downfall, unable to re-generate itself.

An earlier version of this comment was first published by Radio Free Europe

Now is the time for Serbia to accept the Kosovo reality


Screenshot 2018-03-10 17.23.54

After eight years of talks between Serbia and Kosovo, the EU, Serbia and Kosovo seem to be gearing up for finding a comprehensive settlement. This is good news, neither can Serbia join the EU without clarifying its relations with its neighbor, nor can Kosovo move forward to the EU without an agreement that would also pave the way for recognition by the EU’s non-recognizers. The Brussels dialogue has lost a lot of its initial dynamism from earlier years, and it is a good time to be more ambitious. It is also a risky moment, as the stakes are higher and the risk of tensions and spoilers increases. In Kosovo, any compromise with Serbia will be strongly challenged by the opposition, most of all Vetevendojse. In Serbia, the opposition is too weak to mount a challenge; the risk is more that some in the government hope to drive a hard bargain and make a good “deal” with Kosovo.

While President Aleksandar Vučić has been hinting that any normalization would require some unnamed benefits for Serbia, his coalition partner and Foreign Minister Ivica Dačić has been suggesting for years that border changes would be the best solution. However, such a solution would be dangerous and irresponsible. The only form of border changes that would be imaginable would be consensual, if both Kosovo and Serbia agree, as unilateral border changes would not be acceptable and close the door to EU integration and other forms of partnership. However, even an agreed border change would be a source of problems. First, it is hard to image that any government in Kosovo would agree to a border change without compensation, such as Preshevo. However, drawing new borders in Serbia would be a major problem and certainly that most Serbs in Preshevo would not want to join Kosovo. If there was no compensation, opposition in Kosovo to any compromise would be strong, with negative consequences. Most Serbs in Kosovo live South of the Ibar and would not live in Serbia, no matter how the border is redrawn. These Serbs are mostly horrified of border changes: They would become a smaller minority in Kosovo and one that might be easily more resented again if borders are changed. The Kosovo government agreed to the far reaching minority rights, because it was able to declare independence and it included the entire territory. It would be hard to maintain this level of minority rights, if the size of the Serb minority would be reduced by more than a third. This will put Serbs in the South in a more vulnerable position and would in effect be Serbia trading territory for supporting its minority. In a partitioned Kosovo, voices calling for unification with Albania will be strengthened. While it seems currently difficult to imagine a merger of the two, the constitutional guarantee that Kosovo gave at independence not to join Albania would be more easily abandoned in the case of border changes. It is needless to say that a small Serb minority in Gračanica, Štrpce and other towns and villages in Central Kosovo would become completely marginal in such a scenario. Thus changing the borders might be what benefits the Serbs in the North of Kosovo, but not most Serbs of Kosovo. Furthermore, Serbia would emerge with a few more square kilometers and a few more thousand Serbs living in it, but it would jeopardize its ability to be a constructive and partner for other countries in region, as it would be seen as a bully seeking to gain territories from its neighbors, if they are (eventually) coerced to consent.

It is the worry for broader regional repercussions that the EU and the governments have excluded such as an option. Redrawing borders, even if agreed, would encourage others to redraw borders, from Macedonia to Bosnia and this would be destabilizing for the region. The idea launched by Milorad Dodik that Serbia should support his cause in exchange for a deal on Kosovo is even more ridiculous. The territorial integrity is guaranteed by the Dayton Peace Agreement and the only reason the RS exists is because of Dayton. Abandoning Dayton effectively challenges the existence of the RS. A change of borders in Bosnia will trigger a conflict and the 200,000 Croats and Bosniak in the RS will overwhelmingly reject leaving Bosnia. Thus, changing Bosnian borders is a recipe for deasaster. Not least, the district of Brčko is a separate unit of Bosnia, recognized in the constitution (with the support of the RS) and thus, the RS is divided in two parts. No change of the borders could take place here in a peaceful and legal manner.

Thus, opening the question of borders is one of great risks, major moral problems, offering not more, but less stability, including for Serbs. Only the reckless would take this road.

So what “compensation” is possible for Serbia? The idea that Serbia should be rewarded for normalization is already a flawed premise. Serbia rejected Kosovo independence more than a decade ago, yet the far reaching autonomy and minority rights protection of Serbs that was offered in the Ahtisaari Plan was still implemented. Then in the Brussels agreement, Serbia gained additional influence in Kosovo and Serbs achieved additional protection. Thus, Serbs in Kosovo gained extensive rights, especially considering their small size, despite Serbian intransigence. Now it is time for Serbia to embrace the reality of Kosovo. At the end of the day, the live of Serbs in Kosovo will improve most, if Kosovo and Serbia co-exist as two friendly states where they are not forced to choose loyalty or hedge their bets. As the murder of Oliver Ivanović showed, it is also the best interest of Serbs in the North, if the lawlessness of North disappears and rule of law emerges that protects citizens from criminals. All of this can only happen through normalization–meaning Serbia living with an independent Kosovo, not trying to stop its effort to join international organizations and making petty and rather silly celebrations out of stopping Kosovo were it could. This has been the biggest flaw of the Brussels dialogue: despite the agreements, there has been no rapprochement. Of course, the responsibility lies with both, but Serbia would do well to accept that Kosovo as a country is an irreversible reality and that a prosperous and successful Kosovo is in Serbia’s best interest. What an agreement can achieve is to formalize the main agreements set between the countries over the past decade and also to establish links between the countries and formalize cross-border relations, like the bodies established between Northern Ireland and Ireland after the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, when the Republic of Ireland in exchange removed its claim to the entire island from the constitution. The only way real normalization will emerge in a way that opens the door to EU accession is to move beyond the zero-sum game, where every loss for Kosovo is gain for Serbia. Only if both governments start seeing their future relations in these terms, is there room for a genuine agreement.

This article was first published in NIN, 8.3.2018


Half-empty or half-full? Gaps in the New EC Strategy for the Western Balkans


After years of neglect, the EU has re-discovered the Western Balkans last year. The crisis in Macedonia, increased Russian involvement, often destructive, and the unresolved relations between Serbia and Kosovo highlighted for the EU that the laissez-faire approach it took in recent years has been destructive. Having left the series of crises of recent years behind, from economic to Euro, Greek, migration and Brexit, it could also focus more on the Western Balkans.

This renewed interest is reflected in the new Commission strategy and stronger rhetorical commitment of the Commission and its president Juncker, such as his recent visit to the region.

Much of this shift is rhetorical. When Juncker took office he stated that no enlargement under his mandate would take place, now the magical date discussed is 2025. While the former was taken interpreted by many as a rejection of the Western Balkans, 2025 is now seen as a promise for the region. Of course, both timelines are the same. Juncker will not be in office in 2025, nor will his commission. So in fact, the main difference is that Juncker said a few years ago the glass is half-empty, now he says the glass is half-full.

Rhetoric matters and there is no doubt that the EU is more interested and willing to support enlargement now than two or three years ago. The strategy puts its finger on the most serious problem in the region, namely that the “countries show clear elements of state capture”. This suggests that all countries of the Western Balkans display this. Of course, the term “elements of” is a bit misleading. The concept of state capture suggests that the state is serving the interests of individuals and groups, not society at large and that political parties or other networks are in control. “Elements of state capture” is a term that is akin to describe “acts of genocide” (rather than genocide) or being a bit pregnant, either the state is captured, or it is not.

Furthermore, the strategy rightfully identifies the need to overcome the legacy of the past, a clear reference to addressing the contested legacies of the wars of the 1990s and ending bilateral disputes.  The diagnosis is thus correct, but a bit timid. However, what is mostly lacking is a remedy. The Commission has offered some new tools, like special rule of law missions. These appear to be modeled on the so-called Priebe Report for Macedonia, which identified the weaknesses in the rule of law under the previous government clearly and publically. However it is not clear if they will be public and as high profile as their model in the Macedonian case where. Thus, Juncker and others have not found the resolve (yet) to be more blunt and public in identifying state capture in the region: It is the autocratic tendencies of many ruling parties and their leaders that constitute state capture, state capture has names and leaders and is not a passive process that happens by itself.

When it comes to the legacy of the past, the EU offers little new: Of course, the main initiative has to come from the countries, including adopting the REKOM initiative, but there is a need for more, such as a mechanism to resolve bilateral disputes, as was started at the Vienna summit of the Berlin Process, but without follow-up, as well as addressing the legacies of the wars in the public debate and education. Here, the steps have been going backward. In Serbia, convicted war criminals are given a prominent place in events by and functions of the ruling parties, including most recently Vinko Pandurević. Here, clearer condemnation by the EU would be important to send the message that giving an official voice to war criminals is unacceptable.

If then the EU is not able to be more open and direct in identifying the problem, the date of 2025 might turn out to be just another mirage along the long path to EU accession. After all, the member states will have the final word on new members and many will look very careful to avoid importing another problem into the EU.

This article was published in the context of the Kopaonik Business Forum (see video of discussion there), by the Serbian daily Danas . For a more detailed analysis on the strategy see here.

A Controversy that Favors Nationalists and Extremists. Why solving the Macedonian Name Dispute matters.


Protests in Athens, 4.2.2018, including Golden Dawn supporters.  Source: Al Jazeera

The following article was published on 4 February by the Greek To Vima in which I have tried to lay out arguments why a resolution of the name dispute with Macedonia is also in Greece’s interest.

Next to the absurd conflict over a bit of water and the fish contained in it between Slovenia and Croatia, the name dispute between Greece and its northern neighbor belongs to the open questions in the Balkans that have perplexed outside observers. For a quarter of century, this conflict has held both countries hostage. For one of the two–hopefully soon formerly known at the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia–it has not only prevent membership in NATO and the EU, it also led to a lost decade under the authoritarian and nationalist rule of former prime minster Nikola Gruevski. His “antiquization campaign” was trying to both deliberately provoke Greece and to built up a new variant of the national identity few citizens believed in. For Greece, it has undermined its legitimacy in becoming a key player in the Western Balkans and damaged its position in the EU. I have witnessed more than once–behind closed doors and in public events–diplomats from the EU and member states rolling their eyes as the Greek representative duly sought to ‘correct’ the name of its northern neighbor.

Now is the best opportunity to end the dispute after more than 25 years. Both governments seem serious about resolving it and there are good reasons for tackling it finally. The government in Skopje is committed to addressing it: It has no sympathy for the claim that the citizens of today have any link to ancient Macedonians and rejects these historical or any territorial claims. Instead, it wants both to improve relations with Greece and join NATO and the EU. A stable, prosperous neighbor in the same political, economic and security structures as Greece must also be the country’s national interest. This would create more stability for Greece. Furthermore, it would allow the country to emerge as a more important actor in the Western Balkans: During the years of crisis in the EU, the Western Balkans have been neglected, which has triggered a rise of authoritarianism,  a stronger role of Russia and other outside actors in the region. Now, the EU seems to be re-engaged as the European Commission is planning a new strategy for the region, the Bulgarian and Austrian presidency of the EU want to focus on enlargement and there is a general re-commitment to the region and its future in the EU. Resolving the name dispute now would allow Greece to become one of the drivers of change in the region, together with Bulgaria and Austria, as three of the biggest supporters of the Western Balkans inside the EU.

The risks are great, if the resolution of the dispute is sabotaged by nationalists in either country. If a compromise is derailed in Greece, it would not only reinforce the image of the country as a spoiler, blocking a reformist and pro-EU government, but it would also diminish its leverage in the Western Balkans. If anything, not resolving the name dispute with the current government would strengthen the forces that nationalists in Greece claim to be a threat: nationalist parties and groups would benefit in its northern neighbor, who seek to overthrow the government. For the government in Skopje, it would struggle to stay in power and loose a lot of momentum for reform, with NATO and EU membership slipping further away.

The current moment is a reminder that this dispute, as many others, does not pit one nation against another, but moderate, pragmatic citizens and politicians against nationalists and radicals in both countries.

There is no serious group making territorial claims on Greece north of the border (unlike some radical groups in the diaspora) and there is no reason why the name “Macedonian” cannot be used for both Greeks in the North of Greece and its northern neighbors. A failure to settle will letter to bitterness, especially in the smaller, weaker country that has more to loose.

Settling the name dispute will always be only the first step of a new type of relations between the two countries. The fear of irridentism or a monopolistic claim over the name “Macedonia” or the history can never be addressed by blocking the northern neighbor from using the name it calls itself. Confronting these worries cannot be achieved through pressure, but rather dialogue. Thus, any settlement should include a process of that includes different forms of dialogue between civil society, between historians and politicians to build trust, and confront mutually hostile claims. Nobody says this will be easy, but 2018 provides for an opportunity. Keeping the status quo on the other hand, is going to increase tensions and contribute little to improve the security or concerns of either Greece or its northern neighbor.

Serbian version of top secret Star Wars synopsis leaked: Waiting for Rey’s return?


Since the release of the latest instalment of Star Wars, The Last Jedi, has been released, an early draft for the final episode has leaked in Serbia. It is unclear it origin or veracity. It might be just the intro for the for the next film.


Kylo Ren took over the First Order and is increasingly managing his temper by a forcing the tips of his both hands together in an ancient Jedi gesture. Rey has disappeared and the resistance is leaderless. The resistance remains at the margins of the galaxy and while many planets are suffering, it has little success in attracting more members.  The resistance has fragmented into several wings, unable to draw on broader popular support. Most inhabitants of the galaxy are discouraged and passive:

The dominant resistance is known as the democratic resistance, although others are frustrated with its corrupt leaders and would like to see a clean break from the old authoritarian resistance ways. This includes the movement of free resistance, and the people’s resistance. They are often shaped by infighting and the challenge to form a united resistance.

In addition, there is the Enough of the First Order! which keeps its distance from other resistance groups and mostly criticizes the intransparent financing of the armaments of the First Order. There is also the Knights of the Resistance which is a marginal resistance group mostly obsessing with the “white plague” of people not having enough children, claiming to defend some ancient traditions.

In addition, there have been a number of groups allied to the First Order emerging. These include old elements of the Empire, which are now junior partners. There is also the small radical resistance that pretends to be a resistance group, but is in effect led by Jabba the Hut and is siding with the Empire and now the First Order.

With Kylo Ren firmly in control and the resistance divided, Rey is nowhere to be seen. Few inhabitants of the universe even know about the resistance and those who do are shaped by the First Order Department of Propaganda. Both Kylo Ren and various resistance groups all claim to represent the legacy of Luke Skywalker.  There are meetings of different resistance groups, but they are not met by success. It is unclear whether to wait for Rey or to cooperate together to bring down the First Order. Will they wait for the return or find a way to confront Kylo Ren?


Star Wars Intro courtesy of Star Wars Intro Creator

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