Absurd Referenda

After the Brexit vote, Russia has been putting pressure on Serbia to have a vote on EU and NATO membership as early as the presidential elections next year. The notion of such a referendum is clearly intended to sabotage Serbia’s EU accession and seeks to capitalize on the EU crisis after the British vote. I wrote this commentary below for the daily Blic on the absurdities of this referendum and referenda more broadly.

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Referenda are popular tools in the hands of populists and authoritarian leaders and rarely the desired instrument of democrats. They give easy yes-no answers to complicated issues, they allow to mobilize citizens against something, anything and they can ignore values and rights that are other protected. It is thus no surprise that amidst the current democratic crisis on the European continent referenda have been proliferating. However, not just the Brexit vote shows how problematic referenda can be: In Greece last year, the government of Alexis Tsipras organized a vote on the conditions for the bailout plan, campaign against the plan and ignored the Oxi (no) vote the next day. In Britain the Brexit vote only took place because David Cameron promised it his own Eurosceptic party colleagues when he took control of the party and once Brexit one, both he and those who campaigned against the EU fled the scene without a plan. Other referenda have been launched by the opposition to sabotage the government and impose their own agenda, as conservative Janez Janša did in Slovenia or the clerical far right group «U ime obitelj» in Croatia with the vote to introduce a constitutional ban on same sex marriage.

Even in Switzerland, the home of referenda and more experienced to voting on specific policies had two highly problematic referenda in recent years. First, a vote banned the construction of minarets—never mind that this is not only absurd considering that minarets are exceedingly hard to find in Switzerland (only four were built before the ban in 2009), but also because it breaks human rights. The Swiss voted in 2014 to limit immigration, including from the EU, which broke bilateral agreements and resulted in EU countermeasures that hurt Switzerland.

It is populists with strong authoritarian leanings across Europe who argue for referenda, often against elected parliaments as a way to short circuit complicated decisions that require negotiation and compromise. While this sounds more democratic, it is so only at the surface. Referenda are rarely the instrument of citizens, but mostly tools of either governments to ratify what they want or the opposition using them sabotage a parliamentary majority.

The idea of a referendum on EU or NATO membership in Serbia at this point is particularly absurd. No country has ever voted on joining the EU before negotiations are concluded and there was a treaty to vote for or against. Similarly, no country that does not want to join NATO has voted on whether to join. It does make sense—and many countries did—of having a vote to join the EU or NATO once the deal is completed to ensure that the citizens agree with such a big decision. Voting on something that will happen years down the road and is uncertain how it will look like (what the EU will be like, the regional context and Serbia) is akin placing a bet today on the winner of the 2024 European football championship—foolish.

A referendum on NATO would be even more bizarre as neither the government, nor a majority of citizens currently want to join and there is no significant movement to join NATO. Thus, the only purpose of a referendum would appear to be to preempt a future change of heart. However, voting now on a policy in the future is locking yourself into an artificial tight-jacket that might be a convenient excuse until a future government will see it fit to ignore it.

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The idea of such a referendum does recall the famous vote Milošević imposed in 1998 against foreign mediation in Kosovo. A majority of voters followed his suggestion to reject “foreign meddling”, just to see him negotiate (not very successfully) a few months later. JUL at the time plastered the walls of Belgrade with a poster in English (!) and the slogan “We all thing the same!”

The expectation of those arguing for such a referendum now would appear to be sabotaging EU accession and preventing a future NATO membership. A vote against the EU would be easily interpreted as a vote against political and economic reform and as more than just the rejection of membership in the organization, but the values associated with it and ties with the EU. Turning the back to Europe would satisfy dictators to the East, such as Putin and Erdogan, but bring nothing good for Serbia.  The best illustration of the populist trap was a recent cartoon of two sheep standing admiringly in front of the election poster a wolf. They were happily explaining their unlikely support: “This will show the shepherd”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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