From Yugoslavia to Catalonia and back: Some thoughts on parallels and differences



A few days ago, I wrote a few lines for Radio Free Europe (and a few other media, including AFP, N1 and UOL noticias) on the similarities and differences and the uses of the referendum in Catalonia and in the Balkans, which caused some lively debates. Here are these notes with a few points expanded.


Parallels and Differences

First, neither is Spain Yugoslavia, nor is Catalonia Slovenia or Croatia. Just like Istria, Vojvodina or Republika Srpska are not Catalonia. The reasoning, the dynamics and political process leading to any independence movement is specific, but each success is claimed by independence groups and each failure by states. One key difference between Kosovo and Catalonia is the violence. Despite the heavy-handed police response on Sunday, the independence movement in Catalonia cannot claim a recent history of repression as Kosovo did. Catalonia did experience a brutal repression in the context of the Spanish civil war, yet this is more than half a century past and four decades of democratic, decentralized rule in Spain are the reality and have been for a long time. In Kosovo, even before the war 1998-9, the revocation of autonomy in 1989 suggested that Kosovo could not rely on any autonomy arrangement with Serbia.

This is a key difference with Catalonia, which enjoys far-reaching self-government. Despite the stubborn and inflexible policies of the Rajoy government the difference are stark: Spain is a democracy, Yugoslavia and Serbia in the 1990s were not. There is a parallel in the fact that the more intransigent and heavy handed the centre is, the more likely people turn their support to independence. The pictures of the police violence during the referendum is the best advertisement for the independence movement. This stands in contrast with the approach taken by the UK or Canada, allowing for a referendum to be held unrestricted. Allowing for referenda to happen does reduce the all or nothing/now or never environment of referenda.

Only a few years before the respective referenda in Slovenia and Croatia in 1990, only a minority favored independence, but the heavy-handed policies of Milošević catapulted nationalists to power and secured support for putting a distance to Belgrade. Thus, independence movements are always the product of the relationship between the region or people seeking independence and the center. The Yugoslav cases suggest that repression and centralization efforts backfire.

Repercussions and Echoes in the Balkans

There are repercussions of the referendum in Catalonia for the region: The tensions between the Spanish government and the region are part of the key reasons that Spain has not recognized Kosovo. Thus, the first risk is that any confrontation in Spain over Catalonia will make Spain and arguably other non-recognizers more reluctant to consider recognizing Kosovo. Thus, we need to not only consider the effect of the crisis on independence movements, but also on state policies.

The Balkan cases, as most other independence movements live off their own internal dynamics, not based on what goes on elsewhere. However, success and failure elsewhere shape debates. There are only two real potential cases in the region at the moment, the north of Kosovo and the Republika Srpska. More historical regions, Vojvodina or Istria, have a sense of identity distinct from the Croatian and Serbian nation-state and a multi-ethnic, rather than mono-ethnic narrative of difference. Both lack strong movements for independence and lack a clear cultural distinction from the rest of the country as is the case in Catalonia (see an excellent new book by Dejan Štjepanović on this). Both the political leaders in the Republika Srpska and the North of Kosovo have articulated their policies separate from Catalonia. In the North of Kosovo, the discourse is not about independence, but rather about remaining with Serbia (echoing similar arguments made by Serb secessionists in Croatia Bosnia in the early 1990).

In the case Catalonia were successful in achieving independence, it would encourage the president of the Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik to pursue his goal. The Parliament of the Republika Srpska already stated when Kosovo declared its independence in 2008 that it reserved the right to pursue independence for the RS if Kosovo would achieve international recognition. Already Dodik has been continuously hinting at organizing a referendum. He has recently held back from pursuing a referendum on independence, largely due to international pressure, including from Serbia and Russia.

Catalonia will not cause new independence movements, just as Kosovo’s declaration of independence did not trigger a new wave of independence movements. It will serve as argument of both states and independence movement to make old claims or to counter them. A large factor is the international environment. There is generally little support for recognizing states. This is usually done only in extraordinary circumstances, either when there is an agreement with the central government, as happened in South Sudan, or if there was massive repression and a strong, violent independence movement, as in Kosovo or when the state had already disintegrated and there was no clear path to keeping it together, as it was in Yugoslavia. When Aleksander Vučić accused the international community of hypocrisy for not recognizing Catalonia, but supporting Kosovo, he is ignoring the specificity of Kosovo, which were underlined in the submissions and arguments brought to the ICJ in preparation of the 2010 advisory opinion on Kosovo’s declaration of independence. Thus, neither Catalonia not fit any of these categories of potential countries that can make a plausible claim for independence, neither can Republika Srpska nor the North of Kosovo.


A letter to a former colleague

Dear Gülnur,

I happened to be in Washington last week—the same time as you were there as part of Erdoğan’s entourage. I was discussing with US State Department officials how to prevent a slide towards authoritarianism in the Balkans, while you stood next to president Erdoğan as his bodyguards and supporters beat up protesters. This is no longer a matter of different perspectives on an issue: you have become an apologist for an authoritarian regime. You have called the referendum on the hyper-presidential system a “good governance referendum” when it is far from it—all key observers, including the highly respected Venice Commission, consider it a “dangerous step backwards” for democracy.

I cannot remain silent as you advise, promote and defend an autocrat. Erdoğan’s government has dismissed over 4,000 of your fellow academics since the failed coup last year (which you claim I condoned—I did not, but I worried the day it failed about would happen next. Sadly, my fears proved correct). This includes over a hundred who lost their jobs and/or have been arrested at your university, Yildiz Technical University, your department lost 14 academics (3 of them Assistant or full Professors).

I have met some of those who have lost their jobs or are living in fear. Many are excellent scholars: curious, courageous and independent thinkers. They have lost their jobs; many others have lost their freedom.

I live in a privileged academic setting, without pressure and fear. I cannot expect anybody working in an environment such as Turkey today to stand up against the regime and risk their career or freedom. But you don’t have to embrace it.  Advancing your career on the back of massive human rights violations is unforgivable. Advising and thriving under the current regime cannot be justified. One might remain silent about your choices and actions, but I cannot. We have written and worked together. We were friends, and now we are on opposite sides. For my own academic and personal integrity, I have to draw a line. I want those who read our joint article, those who know that we worked together, and most of all YOU, to know that I don’t want to remain silent about your collusion and defense of autocracy.  Your support for Erdoğan—standing by, quite literally, as his goons beat up demonstrators (you will probably call them terrorist supporters)—is unacceptable to me, and I want you to know this.

There are choices we make and they have consequences. I am deeply saddened by the choices you made.

Your former friend and colleague,


The Return of Geopolitics in the Balkans


Just over 100 years ago, in 1908 the latest of many crisis of the great power system that shaped Europe for a century leading up to 1914 featured the Balkans. In Britain the magazine Punch depicted the Balkans as a poisonous snake, encircled by the great powers embodies as preying eagles.

Today, the Great Game seems to have returned with force to the Balkans. Stories coming from the Balkans seem to be given the return of geopolitics credence: from an allegedly Russian-supported coup attempts in Montenegro in October 2016, to Russian media supporting mobs entering the Macedonian parliament to beat up opposition politicians, Western commentators proposing to re-draw Balkan borders and Serbian tabloids evoking the threat of war on a daily basis.

After a decade of little attention in the international media, the Balkans are back. Together with references to the larger geopolitical struggle are metaphors of the region as a powder keg and how World War One began in Sarajevo. Besides the stereotypes these views perpetuate, they miss the point. The main challenge to stability in Balkans is a serious decline in democracy over recent years. Autocrats, who are only marginally constraint by formal democratic rules, increasingly dominate the region, from small Montenegro, governed by the same party for over a quarter century, to Serbia and Macedonia. The autocrats win elections, like Aleksandar Vučić in Serbian presidential elections with 55 percent of the vote, yet they dominate the media through dubious ownership structures, state pressure and informal censorship. The state apparatus is dominated by ruling parties and party membership is the best guarantee for finding a job.

The regions autocrats thrive on crisis “management”. By creating and channeling crises, they engage in a classic bait-and-switch strategy. They won elections initially offering reforms and EU accession. By producing crises, they are able distract from more pressing and difficult economic and political reforms. Take the Serbian train, bearing the message “Kosovo is Serbia” in multiple languages sent to northern Kosovo in January without consent of the Kosovo government. Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić stopped the train shortly before the border after the Kosovo police threatened to intervene. The crisis helped to shore up nationalist sentiment, distract from economic and other policies and towards the EU, he sought to present himself as pragmatic, avoiding direct confrontation.

The EU has been accepting democratic backsliding as a willing suspension of disbelief. The governments continued talking the EU talk and remain formally committed to joining the EU, despite the crisis of the Union itself. Voters in the Balkans still want to join the EU as a way to escape the periphery, economic and political, the region is stuck in. In addition, the governments have been useful enforcers for the EU and its members. In exchange for closing the border with Greece to refugees, the nationalist and conservative ruling Macedonian party received outside support, despite serious allegations of abuse of office and subverting democratic institution. While the EU Commission called the country a victim of state capture, the Austrian foreign minister Sebastian Kurz joined an election rally of the party mostly responsible in December 2016.

The result has been regimes that stay in power by bending democratic rules and receiving Western support for the supposed stability they embody, a type of Balkan stabilitocracy.

The decline of democracy of course offers little stability. Strong men in the Balkans, and they are all men, rule through crises and seek to play off external powers one of against the other. While Russia has been engaging in the Balkans in recent years, it did because it has been easy. The US and the EU have been disengaging and local rulers have taken the advantage. There is no indication that ethnic tensions are increasing in the region, but rather autocrats deliberately seek to stir up tensions. When a violent mob stormed the Macedonian parliament on 28 April, its defenders justified it as a legitimate protest over the opposition coalition electing Talat Xhaferi, an Albanian who had been involved in the 2001 insurgency, as speaker of parliament. The mob was clearly directed and organized by the ruling party and framed its violence in ethnic terms. This is a product of the media under control of the ruling party describing the opposition as traitors and selling out to the Albanian minority. This is merely shifting attention from the crisis of democracy to interethnic tensions. An earlier manufactured crisis, a shoot out in the town of Kumanovo in May 2015, involving an Albanian armed group, at the first peak of anti-government protests, did not trigger a wider interethnic tensions and most citizens have not taken the bait. The consequence is thus not to redraw the boundaries of the region or to accept the logic that supporting local autocrats helps defend against pernicious external actors. Instead, it is weak institutions and strong rulers have become the key problem in the region, one that can be addressed by shedding support for stabilitocracy.

Orbans Kampagne gegen CEU

veröffentlicht in Der Falter, 19.4.2017



Die Vertreibung ist für die Central European University (CEU) nichts Neues. Nur fünf Jahre nach ihrer Gründung mit drei Standorten in Warschau, Prag und Budapest musste sie 1996 die tschechische Republik verlassen. Der damalige tschechische Ministerpräsident Vaclav Klaus die Universität aus Prag verbannt. Was damals mehr wie ein persönlicher Konflikt zwischen Klaus und George Soros, Miliardär und Universitätsgründer, erschien zeichnete die Entwicklung vor. Klaus sollte sich zu einem euroskeptischen rechtsnationalen Politiker entwickeln, der heute sowohl die Politik der FPÖ, als auch Viktor Orbans lobt. Damals war die Universität noch in Ungarn willkommen. Soros war und blieb jedoch eine Schreckgespenst für nationalistische Politiker in Osteuropa. Seine jüdische Herkunft und sein finanzieller Erfolg machten ihn zu einem idealen antisemitischen Feindbild. Zudem machte seine Unterstützung für Zivilgesellschaft und soziale schwache Gruppen, wie Roma, ihn zum Gegner für Anhänger autoritärer und staatsgläubiger Rechte und Linke in der Region. Von Miloševićs Serbien bis zu Putins Russland war er immer wieder das Inbild des liberalen, subversiven Westens.  Absolventen der CEU wurden immer wieder Schikanen ausgesetzt: Mal wurden ihre Diplome nicht anerkannt, mal wurde ihnen andere bürokratische Hindernisse in den Weg gelegt. Auch Neid spielt mit hinein. Die Universität arbeitet mit einer Ausstattung und auf einem Weltklasse-Niveau, mit dem kaum eine Unis im post-kommunistischen Europa mithalten konnte.  Die Person Soros, die liberale, kritisch-hinterfragende Ausbildung und die Bedrohung hierarchischer Bildungsstrukturen machte die CEU zu einem beliebten Feindbild.

Auch nach Viktor Orbans Machtübernahme 2010 schien CEU in Budapest sicher, während er langsam, aber zielsicher die liberale Demokratie in Ungarn demontiert. Die Universität wirkt in erster Linie über die Grenzen Ungarns hinweg. Aus einer Universität für Studenten aus dem post-kommunistischen Europa war längst eine internationale Institution mit Studenten aus über 100 Ländern geworden. Studenten aus Ungarn sind nur eine kleine Minderheit der rund 1.500 Studenten. Diese stellen selbst mit der besten Phantasie kaum eine Bedrohung für Orban und sein national-konservatives Ungarn dar. Auch wenn an der Universität immer wieder auch Kritik zu Regierung Orbans geäußert wurde, hielt sie sich mit einer direkten Konfrontation zurück.

Der 8. November 2016 war der Wetterwechsel, der die Konfrontation zwischen Orban und CEU einleitete. Bis dahin konnte sich die Uni, die sowohl in Ungarn, als auch in den USA registriert ist, amerikanischer Rückdeckung sicher sein. Einen Eingriff in die Universität war für die USA eine “red line”, die Orban nicht überqueren durfte. frei. Mit der Wahl von Trump, der ähnlich wie Orban in seinen politischen Gegnern Feinde sieht, für internationale Kooperation Zusammenarbeit nur Spott übrig hat,  schien die Zeit für Orban gekommen, gegen CEU vorzugehen.

Auch wenn das “Lex CEU” scheinbar unerwartet Ende März von der Regierung in nur einer Woche durchgepeitscht wurde, lag es in der Luft, dass Orban den Macht- und Paradigmenwechsel in den USA als Anlass nehmen würde, gegen CEU vorzugehen.

Was Orban und seine Partei bewegte im Eilverfahren binnen einer Woche per Gesetzesänderung die Arbeit der CEU unmöglich zu machen kann nur spekuliert werden. Alle offiziellen Gründe, von der Behauptung, dass es sich nur um eine formale Änderung handelt, bis hin zu Angriffen auf die Universität als betrügerisch wiedersprachen einander und waren kaum glaubwürdig. Tatsächlich ist CEU Opfer Orbans national-konservativer Politik, die jegliche “Einmischung” von Außen ablehnt. Nicht zuletzt die suggestive Volksbefragung “Stoppt Brüssel” zeigt, dass neben Soros auch die EU Ziel seiner Politik ist. Bisher hat Orban es geschafft im Land zu regieren, wie man es von rechts-nationalistischen Parteien, wie der Front Nationale in Frankreich erwarten würde, ohne auf zu viele Kritik und Ausgrenzung durch die EU, andere Staaten und auch die europäische Volkspartei (EVP) zu stoßen. Gerade die EVP, der konservative Parteien aus der EU, so auch die ÖVP, angehören, hat sich immer wieder aus machtpolitischen Gründen vor einen offenen Abgrenzung von Orban geziert. Somit konnte Orban in Ungarn sehr viel weiter gehen, als Kaczyńskis Partei “Recht und Gerechtigkeit” (PiS) in Polen, die nicht der EVP angehört.

Das Lex CEU könnte jedoch eine Kehrtwende bedeuten. Erstmals kritisiert die EU Führung, sowie auch führende Mitglieder der EVP die Entscheidung offen und kaum eine andere repressive Entscheidung der Regierung seit 2010 hat so viel internationale Aufmerksamkeit auf sich gezogen, wie den Versuch CEU zu schließen. Die wird kaum Ausreichen, die Macht Orbans in Ungarn zu brechen, für ungarische Wähler ist die CEU unwichtig, aber der Konflikt kann ihm wichtige internationale Rückendeckung kosten.

CEU wird nicht schließen. So viel hat der Rektor Michael Igantieff, ein angesehener kanadischer Intellektueller, erklärt. Gerade heute schient Budapest der ideale Ort zu sein, die Mission der Universität zu erfüllen. Orban hat durch das Gesetz der Universität ihre Daseinsberechtigung bestätigt und sie aus der Defensive geholt. Nie zuvor hat die CEU soviel internationale Aufmerksamkeit erhalten, und nie zuvor war ihre Bedeutung so sichtbar wie in den letzten Wochen.

Ob die Universität auch nach der Unterzeichnung des Gesetzes durch den ungarischen Präsidenten Adler dazu in der Lage sein wird, ist unklar. Die Angebote von zahlreichen Städten, so auch Wien, die CEU beherbergen zu wollen sind großzügige Gesten der Unterstützung gewesen, doch letztlich ist die Universität dort am besten aufgehoben, wo sie unbequem ist.

Die Aleksandar Vučić Show in der Krise

Vucic inauguration Photo by Anadolu

Man würde glauben, so sieht ein Sieger aus: Aleksander Vučić hat seit 2012 vier Wahlen gewonnen. 2012 wurde seine Fortschrittspartei stärkste Kraft er tritt in die Regierung ein, zwei Jahre später wird er Ministerpräsident, dann 2016 erneut wiedergewählt und nun am 2. April in der ersten Runde zum Präsidenten Serbiens gewählt. Sein überwältigenden Sieg mit 55,02 Prozent der Stimme machte eine 2. Runde überflüssig. Einen solchen klaren Sieg gelang das letzte Mal vor 25 Jahren, Mitten im Bosnienkrieg 1992, damals siegte Slobodan Milošević gegen den gemäßigten Oppositionskandidaten Milan Panić. Der größte Wahlerfolg Vučićs stellt sich jedoch als seine größte Krise heraus. Seit Tagen ziehen Tausende durch Serbiens Städte um gegen den Wahlsieg zu protestieren. Die Zahl ist noch nicht groß, doch die Demonstranten zeigen ein Beharrungsvermögen, obwohl sie in den regierungsnahen Medien todgeschwiegen werden.  Es gab im letzten Jahr bereits Proteste gegen den illegalen Abriss von Häusern im Belgrader Savamala Bezirk, doch die jüngsten Demonstrationen sind die Ersten, die spontan und durch Serbien gegen die Dominanz Vučićs protestieren und seinen Rücktritt fordern. Als Ministerpräsident, zukünftiger Präsident und Vorsitzender der größten Partei des Landes, laufen alle Fäden bei ihm zusammen. Sein Kontrollwahn ist legendär und innerhalb seiner Partei und Regierung hat er systematisch alle Konkurrenten ausgeschaltet. Sein größter innerparteilicher Widersacher war Tomislav Nikolić, der bisherige Präsident, der unter Druck Vučićs nicht nochmals antrat. Sein größter Konkurrent in der Regierung ist Außenminister Ivica Dačić, Vorsitzender der Sozialisten (SPS), der unerwartet und wohl auch auf Vučićs Druck hin nicht bei den Wahlen antrat.

Die Dominanz Vučićs ist auch Ausdruck seiner Schwäche: Er wurde weniger Präsidentschaftskandidat, weil er Erdoğan oder Putin nacheifert ein Präsidialregime zu etablieren, sondern da ihm eine Alternative fehlte. In seiner Partei kann niemand so souverän die Wahlen gewinnen wie er. Seine Partei hat nun etwa so viele Mitglieder für die Kommunisten in ihren besten Zeiten und 2016 errang sie einen Sieg, von dem selbst Slobodan Miloševićs Partei nur träumen konnte. Doch alles häng von ihm ab. Seine Parteigänger sind loyal, aber selten kompetent und noch seltener beliebt. Keiner von ihnen hätte die Präsidentenwahl so klar gewinnen können. Staat, Regierung und Partei werden somit zu einer Vučić-Einmannshow.

Seine Übermacht wurde wenige Tage vor den Wahlen überdeutlich, als die Titelseiten aller Tageszeitungen von einer ANzeige für Vučić überdeckt wurden. So zeigt man Macht. Nur die liberale und kleine Qualitätszeitung Danas blieb ohne Vučić–und findet sich nun unter starkem finanziellen Druck nachdem viele Anzeigenkunden unerwartet gekündigt haben. Im heutigen Serbien ist es schwer Vučić zum umgehen, er blickt nicht nur von den Titelseiten der Zeitungen, er ist im Fernsehen, Radio und Internet omnipräsent und mit der Ausnahme von kleinen unabhängigen Internet-Portalen immer nur im besten Licht präsentiert. In den wichtigsten Fernsehsendern bekam er mehr Aufmerksamkeit als alle Oppositionskandidaten zusammen.

Diese Dominanz Vučić wird von der EU gerne übersehen. Bereits am 3. April schickten Kommissionspräsident Juncker und EU Präsident Tusk eine öffentliche Gratulation an Vučić und nannten seinen Sieg ein Vetrauensvotum für den europäischen Weg. Kritik an dem Abbau demokratischer Rechte, die eingeschränkte Meinungsfreiheit und Dominanz Vučićs konnte man bestenfalls zwischen den Zeilen lesen. Nur wenige Tage vor den Wahlen wurde Vučić in Berlin und Moskau empfangen und so konnte er sich mit Bildern mit Merkel und Putin im Wahlkampf schmücken. Auch wenn er sich von Merkel sicher Kritik hinter verschlossenen Türen anhören musste, so konnte er sich an der Öffentlichkeit weiter als Garant für Stabilität und Reformen präsentieren.

Nicht nur Serbien entwickelt sich Zunehmens zum autoritären System. Neben dem EU Staat Ungarn, herrschen in anderen Balkanstaaten starke Männer, die sich nur wenig um demokratische Prinzipen scheren: Von Nikola Gruevski in Makedonien, bis zu Milo Djukanović in Montenegro–beide nicht mehr Ministerpräsidenten–versuchen jedoch weiterhin die Geschicke der Länder zu lenken. Von Milorad Dodik in der serbischen Teilrepublik Bosniens zu Hashim Thaçi, dem Präsidenten des Kosovo, die Region ist bestimmt von starken Männern, die wenig Interesse an demokratischen Institutionen, Medienfreiheit und Reformen haben, sondern in erster Linie um die eigene Macht. Anders als Orban oder  Erdoğan haben sie sich keiner Ideologie verschrieben, sondern nur Machtwillen. Somit können sie sich jederzeit als EU-willige Reformer präsentieren, und gleichzeitig diese Reformen durch informelle Machtstrukturen untergraben.  Die EU hat somit auf dem Balkan unsichere Schönwetter-Partner, je schwächer die Perspektive auf Mitgliedschaft ist,  desto mehr werden Vučić und co. von Reformen abrücken.

Als vor 20 Jahren Zehntausende monatelang in Serbien gegen Milošević demonstrierten, so war seine Macht noch nicht gebrochen, noch sollte drei Jahre Serbien in den Kosovo Krieg und weiteres Leid führen, doch sein Bann war gebrochen und er konnte seine Macht nur mit zunehmend autoritären Mitteln erhalten. Die Proteste seit den Wahlen in Serbien, zeigen, dass Vučić trotz seiner Übermacht in Medien und Parlament, und Unterstützung durch die EU, nicht allmächtig ist. Die größte Gefahr besteht nun darin, dass die EU sich dem falschen Partner verschrieben hat und die Demonstranten die Union als Teil des Problems, nicht der Lösung für die Demokratisierung des Balkans sehen.

Gefangen in der Ethno-Falle

(Veröffentlicht in der Kleinen Zeitung, 1.3.2017)


2017-03-21 17.43.58

Glitzernde neue Einkaufszentren in Sarajevo ersetzen die Ruinen des Krieges. Es scheint als ob alle paar Monate ein neuer Konsumtempel die Pforten öffnet. Die Läden in den luxuriösen Passagen mit futuristischen Fassaden sind die gleichen wie in Zagreb, Belgrad oder Graz. Auf der Oberfläche scheint es Bosnien besser zu gehen. Die Kriegsfolgen am Stadtbild, nicht nur in Sarajevo, werden jedes Jahr unsichtbarer. Doch sobald man den Fernseher einschaltet, kommt der Krieg zurück. Bilder von Zerstörung, von Kriegsverbrechern, Beschuldigen sind allgegenwärtig: der Kampf um die Erinnerung an den Krieg, und die neuen Bedrohungen durch die Anderen übertönt den Dialog. Die Einkaufszentren Sarajevos und die Kriegsgerede der Medien, sie sind die beiden Facetten oder besser Fassaden Bosniens heute.

Vor einem Vierteljahrhundert, am 29. Februar und 1. März 1992 stimmten 99.7% der Bürger Bosniens für die Loslösung von Jugoslawien. Das Referendum war für die Europäische Gemeinschaft die Bedingung um Bosnien anzuerkennen.

Doch das Votum hatte einen schwerwiegenden Schönheitsfehler: Die Wahlbeteiligung lag bei 63,4%. Die Mehrheit der Serben boykottierte die Abstimmung auf Anweisung der Serbischen Demokratischen Partei. Diese hatte bereits Monate vorher, im November 1991, ein Referendum für einen Verbleib bei Jugoslawien organisiert zu dem nur Serben zugelassen wurden.

Die beiden Referenden war der Auftakt zum Krieg: Viele Serben wollten bei dem geschrumpften Jugoslawien verbleiben, die meisten Muslime und Kroaten wollte sich nicht der serbischen Dominanz unter der Ägide von Slobodan Milošević unterordnen. Die nationalistischen Parteien des Landes interpretierte diese Kluft als Grund einen Krieg zu riskieren, begonnen wurde er einen Monat nach dem Referendum im April 1992 durch die serbische Führung mit Unterstützung Belgrads.

Heute,  nach einem Krieg mit mehr als 100,000 Toten und 2 Millionen Vertriebenen und mehr als zwei Jahrzehnter labilen Friedens ist erneut die Rede von Referenden. Im September 2016 stimmten sagenhafte 99,81% (Wahlbeteiligung 55,77%) der Bürger in der serbische dominierten Entität, der Republika Srpska, für ihren „Nationalfeiertag“ und gegen eine Entscheidung des bosnischen Verfassungsgerichtshofes. Milorad Dodik, der unumstritten Machthaber in der Republika Srpska, droht dass dieses Votum nur die Generalproblem für ein Referendum über die Loslösung von Bosnien ist. Wie bereits 1991-2 dienen Referenden nur dazu, die Pläne der politischen Eliten zu ratifizieren. Die Mehrheit ist ihm genauso gewiss, so wie das Gewaltpotential, die eine solche Entscheidung mit sich bringt.

Gemeinsam in der Ethno-Falle

Bosnien scheint sich im Kreis zu drehen, gefangen in der Ethno-Falle. Heute gibt es keine nennenswerte Partei, die in ihrem Programm oder Wählerschaft wirklich Bürger verschiedener ethnischer Herkunft ansprechen kann. Es gibt keine gesamtbosnischen Medien, außer einigen Internetportalen. In den Schulen lernen Kinder einander nicht kennen, stattdessen lernen sie drei unterschiedliche Nationalgeschichten, die sich ausschließen.

Vor 25 Jahren lebten die meisten Serben, Kroaten und Muslime (heute Bosniaken genannt), sowie Jugoslawen, gemeinsam. Mit wenigen Ausnahmen waren alltägliche Kontakte, Freundschaften und Beziehungen über ethnische Grenzen hinweg normal und wurden meist auch nicht als „interethnisch“ wahrgenommen. Heute sieht es anders aus. Viele haben zwar keine Berührungsängste, aber es gibt schlicht kaum Gelegenheiten einander kennenzulernen. Mord und Massenvertreibungen während des Krieges wirken bis heute nach. Somit sind die Gräben heute tiefer als vor einem Vierteljahrhundert. Anders als damals fehlen jedoch der Wille und die Mittel zum Krieg.

Der Frieden von Dayton, der nach 3 1/2 Jahren den Krieg beendete war die Quadratur des Kreises. Bosnien konnte weiterbestehen, die Flüchtlinge durften zurückkehren. Gleichzeitig erkannte der Friedensvertrag die ethnischen Säuberungen an und schuf einen verschachtelten Staat, in dem die Blockade vorprogrammiert ist. In ihm wurde die Trennung zementiert.

Der komplizierte Staat mit seinen 14 Regierungen und über hundert Ministern ist jedoch nicht die Ursache der bosnischen Malaise, sondern dessen Ausdruck.  Wie auch vor 25 Jahren herrscht keine Übereinkunft, wie und ob Bosnien bestehen soll. Dayton hat diese Unterschiede dürftig zusammengeflickt, nicht jedoch die Strukturen geschaffen, die auf der Zustimmung aller beruhen. Der Status Quo ist eher ein negativer Konsens. Jede Alternative ist für die Vertreter zumindest einer Nation weniger attraktiv als der jetzt-Zustand.

Enttäuschte Hoffnung EU

Vor einem Jahrzehnt war die Hoffnung, dass die EU und der Beitrittsprozess Bosnien funktionieren lassen würde. Immerhin teilen die Bürger und die politischen Eliten (diese zumindest rhetorisch) dieses Ziel. Heute jedoch ist die EU bosnischer als Bosnien europäisch. Weder konnte die EU Perspektive Eliten dazu bewegen, von ihrem ethnischen Null-Summen-Spiel abzurücken, noch ist der Beitrittsprozess in Anbetracht der Krisen der EU zurzeit glaubwürdig.

Somit dümpelt Bosnien vor den Toren der EU planlos vor sich hin. Die politischen Eliten leben gut von Status quo: In den Medien ist die Rede vom bösen Nationalismus der Anderen, der Krieg ist immer wieder präsent und zugleich geht es Politikern dabei prächtig. Mit dem Staat als wichtigsten Arbeitgeber sind die Parteien quasi Jobagenturen. Die Rede von nationalen Interessen sind meist Fassaden, hinter denen sich Parteien Macht und Einfluss absichern. Stimmen werden gekauft, entweder durch Jobversprechen, durch Druck oder für Kleingeld.

Somit wächst die Frustration der Bevölkerung, die Wahlbeteiligung bei den letzten Wahlen lag knapp über 50 Prozent und die Massenproteste vor drei Jahren haben die Unzufriedenheit sichtbar gemacht. Doch Wandel ist schwierig: Es gibt nicht einen Diktator zu Stürzen oder einen korrupten Politiker abzuwählen, sondern ein ganzen System, das alle politische Konflikte in nationale Spannungen ummünzt.

Nun, da die EU mit ihren filigranen Ansätzen in der Krise ist und mit Trump und Co. einfache Lösungen zu komplexen Problemen hoch im Kurs stehen, ist wieder die Rede von simplen Auswegen: So schlug ein Artikel in der angesehenen amerikanischen Zeitschrift Foreign Affairs vor, auf dem Balkan neue Grenzen zu ziehen und Bosnien zwischen den Nachbarstaaten aufzuteilen. Solche Allmachtphantasien von neuen Grenzziehungen gab es bereits während des Bosnien-Krieges. Doch mit solchen Mitteln lässt sich das Problem Bosnien nicht lösen. Die Folge wäre nicht nur die Belohnung jener, die vor 25 Jahren mit Mord und Vertreibung Territorien unter den Nagel gerissen haben, sondern auch eine neue Welle von Gewalt.  Somit wird Bosnien ein kompliziert Staat bleiben müssen, doch wird ein „new deal“ brauchen, der jedoch nicht auf neuen Grenzen, sondern neuen Eliten beruht. Mehr als zwanzig Jahre internationale Intervention zeigen, dass ein solcher Wandel  von ihnen kommen muss. Die EU und anderen Staaten können bestenfalls dabei helfen.


Harry Potter’s 6 rules for resistance


There are lessons to be learned throughout space and time on how to confront autocrats. Some are out of space and time: Harry Potter battled Lord Voldemort in his seven adventures and his story is a classic story of fighting against an overwhelming, ruthless enemy. His eventually successful struggle offer some insights for our Muggle (in the US No-Maj, non-magic) world, beyond wands, charms and magic:

1.Name him

In Harry Potter, even before Lord Voldemort returns, wizards are afraid to speak his name, using euphemisms like “You-Know-Who”, “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named”. Harry Potter is the one who speaks his name. This is how true dictatorships work, people are afraid to mention the name of the ruler for evoking his (or rather his minions’) wrath. When I spent a month in Syria in 1993, I was told in no uncertain words by Syrian acquaintances not to use the word “Assad”, no matter what I said (good or bad), as just mentioning his name creates attention by the wrong guys. Thus, naming the one responsible is essential. If you no longer can, you have crossed into the land of fear and outright authoritarianism.

2. Mock him

The charm to defend against a Boggart is the Riddikulus spell. It transforms the Bogart, the stuff of your greatest fears, into something silly. While a commentary in  The Times recently argued that comedy and satires of Trump are just leftist and liberal self-indulgence, the opposite is true. Silliness, irony and satire can challenge not just Boggarts, but also authoritarian forces, who thrive on being taking seriously.Autocrats cannot stand to be mocked (see Trump and SNL). Mocking them is their worst challenge, as Otpor in Serbia demonstrated and one of its activists, Srdja Popovic, promoted to movements challenging dictators around the world.

3. Find allies

When Harry Potter fails to share his knowledge with others, Luna Lovegood reminds him in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix “Well if I were You-Know-Who, I’d want you to feel cut off from everyone else; because if it’s just you alone, you’re not as much of a threat.” Dumbeldore’s Army was how  Harry Potter and his friends rallied together, motivated and organised and imagined resistance. Authoritarian regimes live from the fragmentation of opposition. The more there are, the more self-absorbed with in fights, the better.

4. Don’t trust the media

The Daily Prophet was the original wizarding fake news. The main news paper of the wizarding world denied the return of Lord Voldemort and instead attacked Harry Potter, so it was misleading out of fear of the power that be. Instead, The Quibbler, a publication of odd articles, conspiracy theories and discussions of imaginary creature becomes the critical voice. As the wizard Ted Tonks states: It’s not so lunatic these days, you’ll want to give it a look. Xeno is printing all the stuff the Prophet’s ignoring, …” A critical eye of the media cannot be replaced by the inflationary use of fake media and news.

5. Don’t rationalize and normalize the abnormal

The first big battle in defeating Voldemort was convincing the Ministry of Magic that the dark wizard had returned. Minister Cornelius Fudge went to great lengths to deny the obvious. The temptation to ignore and dismiss what does not fit into ones desired view of the world (‘he will not win’, ‘he will be impeached’) it great. It is easier to downplay, normalize and otherwise dismiss the threat and acknowledge it. Harry Potter and his friends persisted, yet only when deniability was no longer plausible did they succeed. Keeping a careful watch of what ‘normal’ should mean and comparing reality to it helps to not be the metaphorical frog in water slowly being brought to boil.

6. Find the Horcruxes

No, autocrats do not split their soul into multiple pieces and hide them in different objects to stay immortal. But it is a fitting metaphor. Confronting autocrats means collecting horcroxes and destroying them. Autocrats are difficult to challenge head-on, but rather their power-basis have to be weakened. These power-structures are often informal and obscure, just like the horcruxes Harry and his friends found. Thus discovering  and destroying them is a time-consuming and necessary quest to deprive autocrats of their power.

Of course all of this is a lot easier with charms, a Patronus, magical friends and all kinds of other magical tools, but muggles can make it too.


*I originally thought of writing these rules as six lessons on how to fight autocrats from the Balkans, but Harry Potter seemed like a more fitting and universal metaphor. Real life examples from around the non-magical world, however, are plenty.

Drumfkowsci victory has international community worried. Dispatch from Syldavia


Klow. As the church bells ring menacingly in Klow, the capital of Syldavia, the small Muslim minority is increasingly fearful, afraid to display their religion in public and worried about their co-religionist from seven countries not being able to enter Syldavia. In a surprise move, not even his own border guards were informed, newly-elected president Drumfkowsci banned citizens from Ishtar, Jawhar, Qurac, Agrabah, Qumar , Derkaderkastan and Qamadan from entering the country on grounds that they posed a terrorist threat. No citizens from these countries have been involved in terrorist acts in Syldavia, so the measure is widely seen as a populist measure to distract from him taking tight control of the country. Drumfkowsci promises a return to a golden age that evokes memories of radical nationalism and exclusion of minorities for some, and a promise of full employment and a more hierarchical and orderly past to others.

His narrow electoral victory only became possible due to an obscure and byzantine electoral rule, used around the world only in Syldavia, that delegates the vote of president to an obscure body names izborniki kolizzj, or “electoral college”, which bypassed the popular majority against him. The OSCE has nevertheless called the election “free and fair”. Ironically, Drumfkowsci challenged the results himself, despite his victory, claiming that hundreds or thousands Bordurians and other illegal immigrants voted for his opponent, a widely respected moderate politician.

Drumfkowsci, an erratic and corrupt tycoon and minor TV celebrity has been quick in taking control of government. After taking office, he announced that he would move to build the wall along the border with neighboring Borduria. While relations with the smaller, poorer Borduria have been good in recent years, there is a history of border disputes and migration at the border. The planned border project does not only threaten to ruin relations with the neighbor, but also prove costly. In an escalation, Drumfkowsci called for military intervention in Borduria, threatening to catch “losija covetkoia”—bad men in Bordurian.

Drumfkowsci closest confidant appears to be Stjepan Ndalimne, a radical nationalist journalist who worked previously for the rabble rousing publication “siroki bradskija”. He is together with an unprecedented number of controversial businessmen and military officers part of the inner circle around the president that bypass established institutions . While Syldavia has a checkered history with democracy and nationalism, including a string of generals who became presidents, expropriation of minority land, segregation of “Carny” minority and lynchings in the past, such days where thought to be over after decades of democratization and reforms.

Drumfkowsci declared his inauguration the “national day of patriotic devotion” and demanded from his citizens “total allegiance to the Republic of Syldavia, and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other. When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice.” His supporters, including the popular TV station “lisicia”, dismiss claims of creeping authoritarianism and point to his popularity. An NGO worker, who does not want to be named, is concerned, however “We are worried we might be called foreign agents, just like in Zubrowka.” Indeed, a well-known American philanthropist of Betonian origin has been attacked by media loyal to Drumfkowsci and echoes similar attacks on foreign supported media and NGOs in the region. On the day after taking office, he visited the headquarters of the Zentralkia Injeligancia Ajencia (ZIA), one of the dozen spy agencies of the country and threatened the independent media with menacing words: “And the reason you’re my first stop is that, as you know, I have a running war with the media.  They are among the most dishonest human beings on Earth.”

The rise to power of Drumfkowsci is even more worrisome as Syldavia is not only the first country to launch a man on the moon, but with its large nuclear arsenal in the hands of a radical and erratic nationalist poses a regional, if not global threat.

Officials of the EU express their disappointment, off the record, about the turn away from democracy in Syldavia, but besides reminding the new president Drumfkowsci of international law and standards find little leverage. Based on his behavior to date, it is unlikely to listen. Thus, Syldavia threaten to move from a regional beacon of democracy to a threat for its neighbors and citizens.



Un-Happy Birthday, Republika Srpska


Mailmen for Republika Srpska. Source: Srdjan Puhalo, twitter.

Last December, I gave an interview to Der Standard on the dangerous positions of far-right candidate Norbert Hofer in the Balkans, including his support for Serbian claims to Kosovo and his endorsement of the nationalist positions of Milorad Dodik. In response, not Hofer, but the representation of the Republika Srpska to Austria complained to the newspaper and criticised Adelheid Wölfl and not me, although it interview reflect mine and her views.

The comments of the RS representation seem an appropriate subject to respond to on the 25th anniversiary of the establishment Republika Srpska today. The celebration itself is a provocation, after it has been declared unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina and an illegal referendum was held in the RS to reject the court decision. The celebration itself was designed to provoke with special police units parading with machine guns (and also the postal services of the RS).

Screenshot 2017-01-09 15.43.55.png


The arguments put forth by the RS office in Vienna are part of the general effort of Milorad Dodik and his party to whitewash the RS of its responsibility and to continue with the construct a quasi-state begun by Radovan Karadzic and his party. Recently, Serb historian Čedomir Antić published a History of the Republika Srpska, which was praised by RS leadership as part of the answer to the campaign against the RS. Of course without irony, the book covers the history of the RS, going back centuries, a classic exercise in retroactive nation- and state-building. The fact that around 45% of the population living on the territory of the future RS in 1991 were not Serbs is conveniently ignored.

So the RS office objected to me calling violent establishment of the RS a cause of the war, pointing out that the RS was established before the war began. However, the RS might have been declared by a Serb politicians on 9 January 1992, but it was established through ethnic cleansing and the expulsion of non-Serbs after April 1992, and this has been documented in great detail in numerous books and judgements of the ICTY.

Next, the Vienna office objected to me characterizing the rule of Dodik as using authoritarian means and talking for years about secession. As for authoritarian means,his   party has also over the years been publishing lists of enemies of the RS (see also here, here and here). These lists don’t only include names of foreign diplomats, but also Bosnian and Herzegovina NGOs, media and individuals. Such list-making of enemies and equating criticism of the party with attacks on the entities, can only be considered authoritarian practices. Furthermore, the state of the media and press freedom has been extensively noted and criticized by international organizations and NGOs (here, here and here).

Ironically, the office also objected I suggested that Dodik has been talking about secession for years, and that as a result the comment suggests that ‘he should not be taken seriously, which is damaging his reputation.’ Of course, it is ironic that main objection is that he just talks about secession not the project itself, which is of course in breach of the Dayton Agreement and UN Security Council Resolutions. Dodik and his party have been talking about independence and secession since 2006 (including a  resolution in the parliament in 2008 in response to the Kosovo declaration of independence). counted 30 times Dodik threatened a referendum over the years. For claims to independence, here,  see for also for 2008, 2012, 2013, 2015.

Now, of course, I cannot judge whether he really intends to pursue these threats and after more than 10 years of arguing that the RS should decide on independence and that is has the right (which it does not). Recent signs suggest that he more willing to take a chance and pursue this policy, even if it might be a hollow threat, as James Ker-Lindsay, as argued.

Finally, the RS office criticized my characterization of Milorad Dodik as nationalist. Instead, they noted that his politics are social-democratic and calling him a nationalist is damaging his reputation. Of course, they fail to mention that his party, the SNSD was expelled from the Socialist International in 2012. At the same time, the party been fostering ties to nationalist  and far-right parties, including not only the Austrian FPÖ, but also Front National which sent a delegation to “celebrations” of the RS. Dodik has personally welcomed individuals who have been sentenced for war crimes by the ICTY and been a witness of the defense of Radovan Karadžić. None of this is particularly socialdemocratic.

Why bother, the claims made by the RS office in Vienna are silly and unsurprisingly don’t withstand scrutiny? However, there are commentators who either lazily or for other reasons imitate such claims, see the argument of Timothey Less in Foreign Affairs (for an effective critique by Eric Gordy see here). Furthermore, there is a paradox in the claims by the RS leadership  , echoing what its creators in the 1990s, Slobodan Milošević, Radovan Karadžić, and others claimed, namely that they were not nationalists, while at the same time pursuing exactly nationalist, exclusionary policies.

Milorad Dodik and his leadership continue to dismantle  Bosnia. For all their claims to the contrary, they also dismantle the RS. It is only recognized in Dayton as part of Bosnia, without Bosnia, there is no RS. Downplaying war crimes, glorifying its perpetrators, suggesting that the RS can only exist  a weak or nonexistent Bosnia suggests the RS is not a salvageable political project, created through ethnic cleansing and mass murder and justified through its denial.

Here is the full text of RS office in Vienna discussed in this post





Death in Venice. European Style

There is no better place to reflect on the malaise of Europe than in one of its grandest cities, one of the continents largest  in the late Middle Ages. It’s decline has been lasting for centuries and few places have declined quite as picturesque as Venice. Today the historical Venice has fewer inhabitants than after the catastrophic plague of 1629/31, when a third of its population was killed and the epidemic contributed to the decline of the city.

Only around 55,000 people live in the historic city, some 20,000 more in the islands surrounding it. One has to go back nearly a millennium to find similar low numbers. More people visit the city every day (and half don’t spend the night) than the city has inhabitants.


Nighthawks of Venice

Venice has been reduced from one of the great trading and political powers of Europe to a sight that visited along a narrowly confined path, a ‘highway’ linking the main sights, without context, selling ‘Italian goods’–made in China–along the way.

Activists and scholars have long criticized the mass tourism, the large cruise ships that flood the cities like iron skyscrapers.  But what is the connection to Europe? Venice is just a stop on the Europe in 14-days itinerary for tourists from the US to China.

Just over 100 years ago, the fictional Gustav von Aschenbach, a famous writer, visited Venice:  “He did not anticipate anything else, for the city had always received him with splendor. But the sky and the sea remained cloudy and leaden, at times a fog-like drizzle fell, and slowly he accepted that he would, reaching it by water, discover a vastly different Venice from that which he had approached over land.” Aschenbach is expressing his premonition of his own demise and the discovery of decay and decline in Venice beyond  splendor obvious to the visitors’ eyes.


Death in Venice? Closed for the Season.

Some 105 years after the publication of Death in Venice, the Hotel Excelsior still stands on the Lido in which Thomas Mann had Aschenbach stay. Closed for the season. Who wants to stay at the Lido as the sand of the beaches is covered in icy frost?

The Death in Venice was not just the story of an aging writer and his confronting death and decay, it is mirror image of a continent on the eve of its first World War, about tear itself apart. The luxury and the decline of a former grand city were the perfect backdrop for the splendor at twilight of Europe at its time.

Europe’s splendor (or squalor) at twilight could not find a better city, even if a century has passed. Venice’s decline was lasted for four centuries sot that one more is of little consequence. There presumably less splendor and more trash in today’s Venice, but even that is unsure.


Held together by red (and white) tape

Venice appears to be a role model for the rest of Europe: A commercial power that once dominated the world through is skillful trade and politics reduced to a site visited by thousands of selfie-stick wielding tourists with no knowledge of place or meaning of lions, domes and canals.

Europe, just like Venice in particular, has been replicated in the casinos of Las Vegas and in Chinese faux-European cities as a sanitized museum/amusement park.  The counter-project to the reduction of Europe to a tourism site has been the European Union over the past half century.Replacing the self-destruction of the continent not with sanitized picturesque sites, but with a shared project that give the continent more than Kodak moment sites.

The continued crises of the EU risk reducing Europe to the trajectory of Venice: Decline, reduction to a site, sanitized, commodified and–ironically–detached from its past (both its glory and its dark sides).

I have argued during the debates around the centenary of World War One, that 1914 should be seen as the zero-hour of Europe, not 1945. It was the moment that the old post-Napoleonic order destroyed itself, resulting in the two world wars and rise of both fascism and communism. Aschenbach anticipated in Venice the end of the old order. What would come to replace was far from clear to Thomas Mann or other astute observers of the crisis.

Over the past two decades, we have come to consider 1989, the end of the Cold War as the other big turning point, the end to the short 20th century that began in 1914, as Eric Hobsbawm argued. Maybe, Hobsbawm was premature. The turning point of 1989 creates a narrative were the post-1989 period is shaped by the absence of ideological confrontation and the victory of liberal democracy. Today, as liberal democracy is under pressure in the United States and the peace project of European integration is in crisis, the question emerges, was really 1989 the end of the 20th century, or will future histories argue that the 20th century was not so short and lasted until 2016? It is too early to tell and we are not only observing history, but also writing it.

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