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Croatia: A New Round of Instability for the Sake of Stability

NOVANEWS
Adelina Marini, Zagreb

Last fall, when snap elections took place in Croatia due to the crisis in the senior coalition partner – the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), and the collapsed coalition was repeated, but with renewed, more moderate leadership, it seemed like the former Yugoslav Republic, despite the general trends in Central Europe and the EU in general, was heading towards normalisation. The former member of the European Parliament’s foreign affairs committee and head of the Delegation for Relations with Ukraine, Andrej Plenković, assumed leadership of the HDZ and the government with a promise of moderation, rule of law, abandonment of the division rhetoric (Ustaše against Partisans) and for reforms.

Changes in HDZ, like coupled vessels, brought changes to the other big party, the Social Democratic Party (SDP), where young Davor Bernardić won the leadership. The new political force MOST of Independent Lists (MOST NL) seemed ready to play the constructive role of a balance maker and a corrective. This was welcomed with relief by society. The media also reacted positively. It seemed like Croatia would finally break away from the grip of the past and deal with the future, which is facing serious problems, one of the most important of which is the rapid brain drain from the country after the fall of restrictions for Croatian nationals in some EU countries.

Being a Brussels man, Andrej Plenković quickly introduced the European agenda in Croatian society by starting to report regularly in Sabor (the Croatian Parliament) after each European Council meeting, and his debut at a EU summit ended in the highest of Brussels standards – with a long briefing for journalists. All he had left to do was to consolidate his party and get rid of the far-right current in it, which at the very beginning showed that it would lower its head until a more opportune moment came to rise again. This current was personified by the controversial former minister of culture Zlatko Hasanbegović.

Through the minefields of Croatia

Optimism and hope did not last too long. Inherited problems in the party, which considers itself to be state-building, and around the country began forcing the prime minister into taking hasty actions in the name of consolidation of the party. This was the case with the state-owned oil company Ina. The Ina case is deeply linked to the HDZ after the party itself and its former leader and prime minister Ivo Sanader were convicted of corruption. Ivo Sanader was doing prison time on charges of taking a bribe to sell a larger share of the company to the Hungarian oil company Mol. Because of these allegations, Croatia filed an arbitration case, which it lost in December.

This led to Prime Minister Plenković’s first premature decision, which surprised many. Right on Christmas Eve he announced the government’s intention to buy back the Hungarian stake and return ownership of Ina to Croatia, an idea that had no good market and even less fiscal argumentation. In the process of sever fiscal adjustment, money for such a purchase cannot be found without this leading to an even greater increase in public debt, which is expected to fall to 81.9% this year, or else a raise of taxes. It was quickly evident that this decision was not feasible and five months later it is not even discussed. Ina, however, remains an unresolved problem that will play the role of a mine for every government to follow. Around it, there is a thin thread of geopolitical element, for Russian company Rosneft had appetites for the company at the beginning and over the years the Hungarian company has been threatening to sell its stake in Ina to the Russians.

Right into Andrej Plenković’s face blew up another mine – the one with Slovenia about the Gulf of Piran, which had also been planted a long time ago – back in 2001, when the prime ministers of Croatia and Slovenia at the time – Ivica Račan and Janez Drnovšek – signed an agreement to settle the border dispute around the Gulf of Piran, providing Slovenia with access to international waters. The agreement has never been ratified by Croatia and was one of the most serious obstacles for the country on its way to EU membership. After Slovenia blocked the negotiation process with Croatia, an agreement was reached with European Commission mediation to settle the dispute by arbitration.

In 2015, however, Croatian media revealed that the Slovenian member of the arbitration tribunal had exchanged information on the course of the case with the Slovenian foreign ministry. The government of Zoran Milanović, with the full support of all political forces in the Sabor and the media, decided to withdraw Croatia from the arbitration tribunal. Changes voted in December, agreed on with the participation of Prime Minister Plenković, in European and Schengen legislation about strengthening control at the EU’s external borders in response to the increased risks of terrorism, have led to a new cause for tension between the two countries. Slovenia stepped up border controls, which led to the formation of mile-long queues at Croatian-Slovenian border crossings. At peak times, travellers waited for hours to cross the border. The problem again was resolved with EC intervention, with the mediation of which an agreement was negotiated at the extraordinary European Council on 29 April.

Too big to survive

The cherry on the cake, however, was the near-collapse of the largest Croatian conglomerate, Agrokor, which has subsidiaries throughout the region of the former Yugoslavia, and employs more than 60,000 people. Dark clouds on the horizon emerged in January when credit rating agencies downgraded Agrokor’s credit rating due to doubts expressed by some of its biggest lenders about the ability of the group to service its debts. It is not easy to navigate the complex story of the conglomerate downfall, but there are a few things that are undoubtedly clear: Agrokor is a legacy of the ever-difficult transition from a Communist economy to a market one; the state, consciously, unconsciously, or both, has closed its eyes to the unnatural expansion of Agrokor to a conglomerate of systemic importance for the economy; throughout the whole story runs a solid geopolitical element; and an unpleasant dose of politicisation.

The mine in Agrokor was planted with the model of privatisation. The company began to absorb key monopolistic companies over the years, thus turning the state monopoly into a private one under the tacit consent of the state. The conglomerate owns Dijamant a.d., the largest producer of edible oils in Serbia, one of the largest meat processing companies in Croatia PIK, the largest salt producer Solana Pag d.d., the largest agricultural company and winemaker Belje, Serbia’s largest ice cream and frozen food company Frikom, Croatia’s largest producer of mineral, spring water and beverages Jamnica, Croatia’s largest ice-cream and frozen food producer Ledo d.d., the best selling water in Bosnia and Herzegovina Sarajevski kiseljak d.d., the greatest edible oils producer in Croatia Zvijezda d.d.

The conglomerate is also the owner of the largest chain of supermarkets in Croatia and the region Konzum d.d. The last big expansion of the company was the purchase of the Slovenian state-owned trade mastodon Mercator in 2014. Analysts believe that with this acquisition Agrokor was virtually overeating. The purchase happened a year after Croatia’s accession, when its market joined the single European market and competitive pressure grew considerably. This is always a challenge for companies with monopoly power and, in general, for countries that have failed to complete the transition to a full-fledged market economy. According to a survey from last year of the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Economic and Financial Affairs, Croatia has a large and diverse portfolio of state-owned or partially state-owned companies.

The government is a majority shareholder in 85 companies and holds minority stakes of over 25% in another 50 companies. The remaining 600 companies are identified as being under state control as they are under the control of regional or municipal authorities. According to this study, the public corporate sector has a significant share in the Croatian economy. Agrokor is a private company, but it is determined to be systemically important, that is, it employs many workers, has a dominant position on the market, many companies are connected to it, and has enjoyed privileges over the years. Its total share in the gross domestic product of the country is about 4%, with decreasing trends. This means that an uncontrolled bankruptcy of the company could lead to turbulence in Croatian economy and the region in general.

According to the latest report [in Croatian language] by the Croatian National Bank (HNB) on financial stability, the situation in Agrokor has increased the risks to the economy, despite growth in the economy and good macroeconomic indicators. In its spring forecast, the European Commission also referred to Agrokor as a source of risks to the economy. “Industrial production, however, deteriorated somewhat – particularly in the consumer goods segment. This was possibly related to the distressed food processing and retail group Agrokor – Croatia’s largest employer – which faced severe difficulties in (re)financing its liabilities earlier this year”, says in the forecast on Croatia.

Government actions in the Agrokor crisis were quick, cool and resolute. For a record time, a law on the restructuring of systemic companies was adopted, which faced criticism about being unconstitutional, but it helped avoid a disorderly bankruptcy with unpredictable effects for the entire economy, which had just emerged from a 6-year recession two years ago. That would have been a huge blow to the economy and especially to the level of unemployment, which is already high in Croatia – expected to be 11.6% this year.

The rapid mastering of the situation was also dictated by the need to avoid a geopolitical moment – again the role of Russia. The Kremlin-sponsored Sberbank is Agrokor’s largest creditor. Croatian media reported that the crisis in the conglomerate was actually provoked by Russia because of Prime Minister Andrei Plenković’s position on the conflict in Ukraine. Several publications in Croatian media have indicated that the fall of Agrokor started  the moment Russian ambassador to Zagreb Anvar Azimov declared the company unable to pay its debts. This also led to a downgrading of its credit rating.

In the very beginning, when the company began having liquidity troubles, Sberbank demonstrated its will creditors to take over the management. A possible acquisition through debt would have provided Russia with a significant presence on the Croatian and regional markets. However, the newly adopted special law requires the company to be run by a government-appointed commissioner whose role is to supervise the process of restructuring. The law also defines the order in which the debt is to be paid.

The Plenković gambit

It would have all ended beautifully, had it not been for the finance minister. The young and capable Zdravko Marić, who was finance minister all the way back in the first government of HDZ and MOST NL, led by Tihomir Orešković, was until recently one of the most positive figures. With his expertise, he managed to bring Croatian finances to stabilisation and to the exit from the excessive deficit procedure, which was announced on Monday (22 May). His problems began with being a former senior employee of Agrokor and the opposition, including coalition partners from MOST NL, saw this as a conflict of interest. They accused him of being aware of the state of the company, but not taking the necessary measures.

Thus the situation was a great opportunity for the opposition to gain points against the background of the Social Democrats’ declining rating under the leadership of Davor Bernardić. The Social Democrats and the Liberals demanded that the minister resigned. They were also joined the junior partner MOST NL.

Day X for the government was April 26, when the prime minister and almost the entire government attended an official lunch organised by the Croatian Employers’ Association (HUP) where the government’s measures to tackle the Agrokor crisis were commended. Unlike previous meetings with government officials, this time employers refrained from criticism. One of the reasons was that many of the members are suppliers to the conglomerate and hope to cash in their claims. The prime minister began by saying that the most important thing was to ensure political stability. He explained that the emergency situation required emergency measures and promised that the government would take on other vital reforms for Croatia, especially in the field of education.

On the next day, government was expected to announce its decision on Zdravko Marić’s future. Contrary to any expectations, instead of sacrificing him for the sake of political stability, Andrei Plenković decided to protect him at the cost of serious political instability. In addition, the prime minister, without blinking an eye, fired the coalition partner’s ministers, which provoked sharp reactions and accusations of authoritarian practises. The debates on the motion for Mr Marić’s resignation went on for almost 24 hours and brought considerable losses to the government. MOST NL lost its speaker position of the Sabor, and the government is in a stalemate, as it is still unclear whether they have a sufficient majority in Parliament to continue governing.

Prime Minister Andrei Plenković announced that the seats of the coalition partner in government will be filled after the local elections, the first round of which took place on Sunday. The results, however, do not give much clarity. Virtually everyone is losing. Moreover, the crisis has led to the re-opening of the HDZ division lines. The far-right stream saw a great opportunity for itself in the local elections. Zlatko Hasanbegović was supporting the nomination of the Croatian Marine Le Pen – Bruna Esih – for mayor of Zagreb. Andrei Plenković refused to take serious steps against the rebellious Hasanbegović, counting on him filing his own resignation, as he did. Bruna Esih’s results in the first round were twice higher than the HDZ candidate Drago Prgomet. She won 10.98% of the votes, and Prgomet – 5.60%.

Bruna Esih entered the Sabor in the parliamentary elections on September 11 through the HDZ list, gaining 16.77% of the votes thanks to the preference option. After her result at the local elections, Zlatko Hasanbegović announced the creation of a new party. This could lead to others with rather nationalistic views leaving the HDZ. Despite the debacle in Zagreb, the HDZ performed better than at previous local elections elsewhere in the country. The big losers in the first round are SDP, who are going to a second round in Zagreb thanks to the Liberals’ candidate Anka Mrak Taritaš. SDP claims that, thanks to their support, Mrs Taritaš has won 24.48%, but SDP results across the country tell a different story.

MOST NL has also suffered considerable losses, in its fortress in Metković at that, where their candidate goes into a second round. There she will compete with the HDZ candidate. MOST-ers lost their full majority in the municipal council, where they have 40.65% of the votes, followed closely by HDZ with 38.13%. These elections may be the beginning of the end of the party. The Eurosceptic and populist party “Living Wall” is completely obscure in these elections.

This picture shows that all parties have to seriously analyse their state and the reasons for the results at the local elections. They also show a 50/50 probability for snap elections. One needs to wait for the second round so one can better judge the prospects for new elections, which no one has any interest in so far. The HDZ remains the strongest party, but its stability is shaken, and certainly will not be able to win sufficient majority to be able to govern alone. The SDP, with its leadership, has no strength to confront the leadership of the right. Its weakness gives HNS, their permanent coalition partner, a chance to play alone and raise their price after they experienced a significant drop in support in the years of governance with the SDP (in some cases as much as 2%).

Zagreb will be decisive, as mayor Milan Bandić’s party has representatives in parliament, and if he wins in the second round he could help Plenković stay in power. Invincible Milan Bandić, who was suspected of corruption on numerous occasions, but never has enough evidence yet been gathered to accuse him, won the most votes on Sunday – 30.87%. If elected in two weeks, it would be his sixth consecutive term. A possible victory for Anka Mrak Taritaš will feed new energy into the HNS and raise the price of the party on the parliamentary stock exchange. The eventual fall of the government and new elections would mean a new cycle of uncertainty over Croatia, another postponement of vital reforms, and a boost for growth in nationalist sentiments that have become more and more noticeable over the past two years with the HDZ coming to power.

All this is followed by an increase in the outflow of Croats to richer and more settled countries in the EU. The latest hit on the music scene these days in Croatia is the Detour band song “I Choose” that best sums up the situation. “I choose you are gone, I choose not to be angry anymore. Guess where we go, when we are ruled by goons and in-laws, keeping cities hostage, building temples. So I finally cracked like a popcorn and f*ck them all money-chasers, plagiarists, wrapped in the flag”.

Translated by Stanimir Stoev

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Is Crisis in Macedonia Coming to an End?

NOVANEWS
Adelina Marini

At long last there are some good news coming from the Western Balkans, shaken in recent months by a constant rise in tensions, renewed sabre rattling, readiness for new interethnic conflicts and, of course, with Russia’s helpful role. Macedonian President Georgi Ivanov has finally handed opposition leader Zoran Zaev a mandate to form a government five months after the snap parliamentary elections in the country. Five months, marked by a violation of the Macedonian Constitution, a bloody attack on the parliament of the former Yugoslav Republic, a fuelling of interethnic hatred, and a vague attempt to renew EU presence in the country and the region in general.

Under pressure by the international community and Macedonian society, the president handed over the mandate after he received guarantees from Mr Zaev that he would work to preserve the territorial integrity of Macedonia and will respect the Constitution. The reason for demanding guarantees were the Albanian parties, who supported the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM), after signing a platform in January in Tirana, demanding full equality, in accordance with the Constitution, which included linguistic equality – that is, bilingualism – holding a debate about the flag, anthem, and the state coat of arms of Macedonia, so that they reflect the multi-ethnic character of the country. The platform also called for the adoption of a resolution in Parliament, which would condemn the genocide over the Albanian people in Macedonia in the period 1912-1956.

Among other demands in the Tirana platform is strengthening of the rule of law and the implementation of reforms related to the European integration of the country. Support is also sought for the Special Prosecutor, who is investigating the recordings leaked by the SDSM, which accuse former rulers, led by Nikola Gruevski, in a number of violations. The document also seeks to resolve the dispute with the name of Macedonia, establishing good relations with neighbours, and accelerated integration into the EU and NATO. The document has sparked sharp reactions across the region, not only in Macedonia, as it is linked to increasingly frequent statements by Albanian political officials about the creation of Greater Albania.

In an interview for the regional television channel N1 (a CNN affiliate), Zoran Zaev stated there was no room for larger countries either in Europe or in the Western Balkans region. According to him, the future of Macedonia is in the EU, where there are no borders and the freedom of movement of citizens is guaranteed. The parties which Zoran Zaev is yet to negotiate with to form a government are the Democratic Union for Integration of Ali Ahmeti, the Alliance for Albanians and Besa. Some of these parties were already part of government, only in a coalition with Nikola Gruevski’s VMRO-DPMNE. Zoran Zaev has promised that within ten days a government will be formed and it will be voted in parliament.

EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini (Italy, Socialists and Democrats) and EU enlargement negotiations Commissioner Johannes Hahn (Austria, EPP) welcomed the decision of the head of state to give Zoran Zaev a mandate as “an important step in the process of government formation”. The EU expects a swift formation of a government willing to stick to the Pržino Agreement and the reform programme. The Pržino Agreement of 2 June 2015 was negotiated with the EU’s mediation in order to put an end to the crisis, provoked by the facts revealed by leaked recordings of conversations of senior state officials, including then Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski.

With this agreement, all political parties commit to putting the country’s interests above everything else; respect democratic principles; and work to improve relations with neighbouring countries. Almost two years after the signing of the agreement, it appears that the country is ready to emerge from the crisis. The damage and the challenges, however, are great. For the past almost 12 years, ever since Macedonia was granted candidate status, the country has failed significantly in terms of democratic standards, including freedom of speech. According to this year’s Reporters Without Borders index of press freedom, Macedonia is ranked 111th. In 2005, when the European Commission granted it candidate status, Macedonia was 43rd in this ranking.

In this period, according to the The Economist Intelligence Unit‘s democracy index, the former Yugoslav Republic has taken a huge step backward – it has fallen out of the flawed democracies group and into the one of hybrid regimes. This is the last step before a full-fledged authoritarian regime. The decline raises the question of whether Macedonia still qualifies as a candidate for EU membership. The same question stands for Turkey, as euinside recently reported. The task faced by the new government, part of which will be parties that have been involved in governance throughout this

process of democratic decline, will be extremely difficult. No less challenging will be the behaviour of the now oppositional VMRO-DPMNE. In order for Macedonia to progress, it needs a national consensus on the way forward. Building such a consensus is yet to come.

It is also very important for the EU to play its role adequately. During her visit to the Western Balkan countries in March, Federica Mogherini found out first-hand how far the EU is from what is happening in the region. She tried to draw the Union’s attention to the problems, but much more needs to be done. The EU must be as committed as possible to the region and, in the case of Macedonia, to do its part. The promise of accession negotiations must be embodied by a specific commitment, one that includes Greece as well, which has not yet lifted its veto off the opening of negotiations with Macedonia. The former Yugoslav republic has experienced a severe crisis that could have a great cost to it, but also to the entire region and the EU, and now needs the full support of the Union in order to manage to get out of the political crisis for good.

The Berlin process summit, which will take place this year in the Italian city of Trieste, will be a good occasion to support Macedonia’s efforts to return to the path of European integration. But it will be a mistake if the EU decides that with the formation of a new government the challenges facing Macedonia and the region in general have disappeared. The difficult part is yet to come, especially in the complex geopolitical context in which destabilising factors are already much more than the stabilising ones. Not one of the many tasks in the region can be resolved without the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue expanding into a dialogue between Serbia and Albania, again with EU facilitation. As President Trump’s administration continues to be unpredictable, the EU is in fact alone in the challenge of coping with another rise of tensions in the Balkans.

Translated by Stanimir Stoev

Posted in Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, SerbiaComments Off on Is Crisis in Macedonia Coming to an End?

Kosovo Serbs ‘Terrified’ by Proposed Creation of “Greater Albania”

NOVANEWS
 

Fresh calls for a Greater Albania, incorporating the southern Serbian province of Kosovo, have led to an angry backlash from politicians in Belgrade.

Sputnik Radio’s Mark Hirst talked to Marko Djuric, Director of the Government Office for Kosovo and Metohija.

Such a move by Albania, if acted upon, could plunge the entire region back into a bloody and costly war on a scale not seen since the 1990s.

Marko Djuric said that Serbia will not allow the creation of a Greater Albania in its southern province and that it is not alone in opposing the idea, which stems from the times of Nazi occupation of Yugoslavia.

When asked whether this inflammatory statement by Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama was a tactical move, rather than a serious claim, Djuric said that if it was actually translated into concrete action, then it would be a blatant violation of international law.

“For us and for a large part of the international community, including the UN, Kosovo and Metohija are an integral part of Serbia. There was no kind of a democratic procedure in Kosovo’s secession from Serbia,” he emphasized.

Meanwhile, the EU, a body to which both Serbia and Albania eventually hope to join, remains silent over the Albanian prime minister’s controversial comments.

Residents of Pristina holding a new flag of the self-proclaimed republic of Kosovo

“Unfortunately, we saw silence when Pristina decided to stop the dialogue, and we don’t see a sufficient EU reaction to these claims. During the past years the Pristina authorities have failed to bring about any economic growth in the region where the unemployment rate is 65 percent and 45 percent of ethnic Albanians live below the poverty line even though the EU has invested over 60 billion euros into our southern province,” Marko Djuric continued.

He added that the local Serbs, who have suffered numerous pogroms in the past 20 years, were “terrified” by the prospect of being “swallowed” into “Greater Albania.”

“We should also bear in mind the fact that two-thirds of Kosovo’s pre-war Serbian population remain refugees and only about 120,000 still live in Kosovo and Metohija in poor economic conditions and political isolation, while over 200,000 now live in central Serbia,” Djuric pointed out.

He added that the EU was doing nothing to help the Serbs to return to Kosovo.

“The return of Serbs who were expelled from Kosovo has been an utter failure by the international community. The rate of their return is the lowest in any post-conflict zones in modern history, even lower than in Rwanda and Burundi.”

Marko Djuric added that whatever assistance the returnees get comes from Serbia, which pays monthly allowances to those who want to return.

“What we can’t provide without the assistance of the international community, however, is a political climate and access to property.

Over 80,000 houses and apartments in Kosovo are now used by other people and, together with security problems, these are the biggest obstacles preventing the Serbs’ return to Kosovo,” Marko Djuric said.

Earlier in the week, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama made a statement that Albania and the partially recognized republic of Kosovo, also inhabited by Albanians, could reach a “union.”

Soon afterward, President of Kosovo Hashim Thaci said that if Brussels “closed [the] door on Kosovo,” all Albanians in the region would unite into one state.

The Albanians are one of the Balkan peoples constituting the majority of population in Albania. However, significant numbers of Albanians live in the territories of former Yugoslavia, neighboring Albania itself, such as Kosovo and Montenegro.

A number of politicians, such as Rama, have voiced the idea of a Greater Albania in order to unify all the territories inhabited by the Albanians within a single state.

Kosovo unilaterally proclaimed independence in 2008 and is recognized by over 100 UN member states. Serbia, as well as Russia, China, Israel, Iran, Spain, Greece and some other countries do not recognize Kosovo’s independence.

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EU Is Trying To Restart the European Integration of the Western Balkans

NOVANEWS
Adelina Marini, Zagreb

There is some good news and some bad news for the Western Balkans in the past few weeks. The good news is that the European Union has finally come to realise that there is something rotten in the Balkans and has matured to a change in the narrative. The bad news is this is too late and too little. For months the region has been shaking in instability and so far just verbal conflicts, which are raising the tension to the levels of prior to the bloody disintegration of former Yugoslavia. Macedonia is imploding into a severe political crisis, which has the potential of becoming an inter-ethnic conflict, the tension between Croats, Serbs, and Bosniaks in Bosnia and Herzegovina has risen dangerously together with inflammatory rhetoric, unilateral provocative actions, and claims that Dayton is dead; Serbia is in a constant election campaign with the price constantly on the rise, thus emitting signals that inflame old wounds across the region. In addition, the campaign has a heavy geopolitical twist as well.

Montenegro is desperately trying to reach the NATO shores, but the long arm of Russia is trying to pull it back into the Russian sphere of influence through brutal interference in its domestic policy. Kosovo is a victim of its relationship with Serbia and the inability of its politicians to work in their nation’s best interest. Albanian politicians have finally realised what they need to do in order to walk out of the blockade that they themselves pushed the country in, but they got carried downstream by the geopolitical current. So, for the first time in the newest history of EU enlargement the European Council closed the year with no conclusions about candidate states. The overall global sense of insecurity is being felt much sharper in a region, which bears the label “powder keg” by no coincidence.

The Balkans can easily turn into a chess board

Tension in the region has first been noticed by the European Parliament, where Slovenian MEP Ivo Vajgl (ALDE) requested that a special debate were held in the foreign affairs committee, but it was conducted without the participation of key players. The wind of change came with the tour of the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini (Italy, Socialists and Democrats) through the six Balkan states in the beginning of March. Federica Mogherini’s goal was sending a few otherwise very important messages to the six countries, but her trip turned out to be a clash with reality and sobering up to the true problems these countries face. In Montenegro, her invitation to a debate was disregarded by the opposition, led by the Democratic Front, which has Russia’s support.

In Macedonia, her conversation with President Georgi Ivanov was long and hard, for she had to explain simple facts about what is democracy and convey a message by NATO boss Jens Stoltenberg in a similar spirit; in Serbia, on the other hand, her speech in the Skupština was accompanied by incessant shouts by Šešelj’s radicals in support of Russia and against the EU. The shouts did not cease for a full twenty minutes. The former Italian foreign minister dealt with it well undermining the performance by reminding that having been a member of the Italian parliament she is quite used to such scenes. Moreover, she said, such things are normal in other EU member states as well. “Maybe some of my interlocutors today in parliament were not ready to face the fact that I was ready to manage political relations in a complicated environment”, she said later at a joint press conference with Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić, who was apologising profusely on behalf of Serbia.

Following her return from the Balkans tour Federica Mogherini admitted that for the first time she had realised the extent to which this region is exposed to various challenges and tension. “The Balkans can easily become one of the chess boards where big power game can be played”, she said following her report on the trip’s outcome to the EU foreign ministers. She also said that she is concerned about developments there, but at the same time expressed hope that a favourable outcome is still possible. “Yes, I came back from the Balkans worried in some cases but also full of optimism and hope because whenever you meet students, the citizens, civil society but also so many political and social forces in all the region you see the enormous support and trust in the EU”.

A sizable count of ministers also expressed concern about developments in the Balkans and even admitted that over the last few years the EU had practically pulled out of the region and the vacuum is being filled by other powers. Croatian Foreign Minister Davor Ivo Stier stated that the EU needs to get more committed to the Western Balkans. He was fully concentrated on explaining to his colleagues how serious the situation in BiH is and how important it is that leaders in the country be encouraged to commit to amendments to the election code by June. “The situation in the Western Balkans is such that it requires a much more pronounced commitment by the EU. There was also talk about having states outside the EU increase their presence over the last few years. It is important that the South-Eastern Europe region is not a territory of conflict, but of cooperation”, were the words of the Croatian minister, who avoided naming Russia, despite a journalist’s concrete question.

His French colleague Jean-Marc Ayrault expressed his concern about developments in the region, especially after last year’s regular meeting with the six countries in Paris in the framework of the Berlin process, which, in his words, was very constructive. He believes there is a possible risk of escalation, keeping in mind, however, that the region is in an election period. He urged for being moderate and constructive. The most critical was Slovakian Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajčák, who is a former EU representative for BiH. “Everyone pointed out the fact that recently the EU has abandoned the region and the result we see is a weakening of pro-European forces in those states and opening up space for other players, which is not normal”, he said following the foreign ministers’ meeting in Brussels on March 6.

Lajčák  added that the ministers agreed it is necessary to bring back trust in the enlargement process. “I do believe that this will have a clear effect on the region through our political presence, through having the process be less technical and more political, through us ceasing to pretend we are offering a European perspective and the states pretending they are seriously committed to reforms. And we start being serious with each other”, urged Slovakia’s top diplomat.

Ministers hailed the change in rhetoric which Federica Mogherini suggested. In the capital cities of the six Balkan states she explained that she does not like the term “enlargement”, but prefers the term “reuniting”. Another message she sent out was that the EU is what it is now because member states have chosen cooperation after World War Two, instead of confrontation. Her third and very important message was that her visit right after the presentation of the White paper on Europe’s future by Jean-Claude Juncker (Luxembourg, EPP) represents a wish for including the Western Balkans in this debate. Something euinside has called for in many articles.

A conclusion can be drawn from her visit that in a way she has given up on Balkan politicians, so she was focused on getting her messages through to the young people and civil society. In her speeches in front of university students she sent out an appeal to the young generation and the civil society to cease being patient and tell leaders what they want. “No, I am not calling for demonstrations, not at all”, she said, but reminded during her lecture in the University of Tirana that young people are not only the future, but the present as well.

She sent out similar messages in the rest of the countries. Federica Mogherini reminded that often the feeling is created that the process of European integration is being driven from the outside, by Brussels, by the institutions, but in fact it is a mutual choice. Brussels does have things to change, but countries of the Western Balkans too have a lot to do in order to become a society, to build institutions, independent judiciaries, to introduce the rule of law. “And it is a path that we walk together. It is about shared decision and a shared journey we do together”, she said.

The EU foreign ministers have approved the change in approach and narrative. In its conclusions, the Foreign Affairs Council placed an accent on the need for a more serious approach to the region’s population through public diplomacy, a better clarification of the benefits of the European way, namely the rule of law and transforming societies in an economic and social sense.

Juncker’s message was a mistake

The Western Balkans subject made it on the agenda of the EU spring summit, held on March 9. Leaders of the 28 member states discussed the issue over dinner. This is news by itself, only showing how deeply involved the EU is with developments in the Western Balkans region. In a way it also explains why the leaders’ message was a lot softer and more general. As weird as it may sound, the most engaged leader with this subject was British PM Theresa May, who stated prior to the dinner that she intended to share with her colleagues the extent of the danger of increasing instability in the region, which represents a risk to “our collective security”.

She also stated that she will call upon the international community to do more about fighting organised crime in the region. Theresa May paid special attention on Montenegro in the context of the failed coup d’etat attempt in October. “I will call for us to do more to counter the destabilising Russian disinformation campaigns and raise the visibility of the Western commitment to this region”, was the adamant stance of the prime minister of a country, which is expected any day now (March 29) to commence negotiations for leaving the Union. In this sense, there is one more message Federica Mogherini conveyed in the six states that needs noting. She assured that although Great Britain is about to leave, the EU will not stop at 27.

Theresa May backed her words with concrete actions by stating that the next summit, dedicated on the Western Balkans, will be held in Great Britain in 2018. This year the host will be Italy. According to European Council President Donald Tusk, the situation in the region is out of control, partly due to “unhealthy external influences, which have been destabilising several countries for some time”, he said prior to the start of the Western Balkans debate. Following their conversations, defined by many as being of high quality and constructive, leaders came up with a declaration, which is considerably below expectations. In a few sentences it says that the region is unstable, that it is important to continue on the road of reforms and good neighbourly relations and regional cooperation. At the end, it reaffirms the European perspective of the countries of the region.

European Parliament President Antonio Tajani (EPP, Italy) stated that the region needs more Europe and a stronger commitment to political and Economic cooperation. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in turn had to answer the uncomfortable journalist question about his 2014 statement that there will be no further enlargement within the duration of his term in office. “I don’t think this was a mistake, when I announced back in July 2014 that there will be no enlargement during the mandate of this Commission, because, as a matter of fact, no candidate country is ready to join. We didn’t stop enlargement negotiations. I have appointed a commissioner for enlargement negotiations, Mr Hahn, and he’s doing a good job”, was his reply.

Several days later during a debate in the European Parliament Mr Juncker did however admit that his 2014 statement did in fact cause confusion in the Balkans and that the region is the most complicated in Europe. He appealed for a restart of the European integration process. Most leaders, however, concentrated on the external influence on countries of the region. According to Angela Merkel, the European perspective of the Western Balkans is there, but it is not unconditional. Currently, Russia and Turkey are trying to take advantage of the situation in the region, but the EU needs to continue with its projects. “I think it is very important that we make it clear that we as member states of EU not only take an interest in this particular region but want to draw it ever closer into the European fold”, was the message of the German chancellor.

Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni also pointed out that there is no way to overlook the “fundamental interests of geopolitical factors” in the region. He believes the geopolitical risk and increase of other risks is absolutely plausible. “The problem is not when which country will join the EU. The problem is sending a clear message that the road to accession is open”, he said following the end of the summit on March 10.

What does European perspective mean?

Actually, despite statements, the European Council again is somewhat distanced in a situation that requires much more than a confirmation of the European perspective – a vocabulary, which had some meaning back in the distant year 2003, when it was used at the Thessalonнki summit. A lot has changed since then and the bets have risen considerably. It is a fact that most countries in the region are walking along the European path, but it is also true that instability has come back and with it the destabilising external factors. Geopolitical shifts in turn have reminded the European elite how strategically important they are for the continent.

The EU blueprint for European integration does not work well in a region with so many inherited and unsolved problems, the main one being the constant pushing off of democracy and fallbacks to the past. It is also difficult to implement under such geopolitical pressure. Ten years after the Thessalonнki summit, when a full support was stated for the European perspective of Balkan states, there already was a need for restarting the process. The European enlargement commissioner at the time, Štefan Füle (Czech Republic, Socialists and Democrats), attempted to breathe new life into enlargement, for the process was practically completely stopped. His attempt turned out not to be too successful, because it was not supported loud and clear at the highest level – by the European Council, where Greece’s veto on negotiations with Macedonia brought the former Yugoslav republic to a failed state condition.

During her visit to Skopje Federica Mogherini established that the political crisis in the country could grow into an inter-ethnic conflict. A thing we all thought was avoided during the disintegration of former Yugoslavia. And now, instead of Macedonia being on the threshold of membership, or even a member already (it was supposed to begin negotiations in 2005 together with Croatia), the country is in a precarious situation. This is a lesson that could cost the EU itself dearly as well, not just Macedonian people. The EU slept through developments in Serbia as well, believing its mediation in the dialogue between Belgrade and Priština is a totally sufficient condition for dealing with the situation. However, this is a dialogue that could go on endlessly if the final goal is not talked through – recognition of Kosovo or something else? If it is something else – what would it be? Such procrastination of making a decision on an issue that is constantly fuelling the fire and being used by irresponsible politicians for gaining electoral dividends will later be paid with interest on top.

In Montenegro, the EU found itself in the uncomfortable position of choosing between a democrature with a pro-European facade and Russia. And having Kosovo be the sole problem for the EU in Serbia, the Union slept through the ticking bomb in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In this sense, closest to a real assessment of the situation was the Slovak Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajčák, who stuck a finger in the wound – we are pretending to be integrating them and they are pretending of being integrated. As this website has reported on numerous occasions, the current accession blueprint just does not work in such a complicated and geopolitically loaded environment. The EU will have to do much more than agreeing on a declaration, reaffirming the European perspective of these countries, whose leaders are using this perspective only for electoral purposes.

First off, an end must be put once and for all to the power of veto of a single member being used as a tool for resolution of bilateral issues. A second step should be the increased presence of high-ranking European officials, who are to talk in detail about what the EU is already doing for citizens. Such an attempt was made by Federica Mogherini, when she explained in the Serbian parliament what the size of European investments in the country is. Later, the Serbian PM added to her statement by saying that Germany alone is providing jobs to 33 thousand people in Serbia, Italy – 23 thousand, and Austria – 20 thousand. The EU is the most secure market, further stated Mr Vučić. The decision of Mrs Mogherini to address predominantly the young and the civil society is a good idea, which needs to be continued, but this does not discard looking for an approach towards the political elite as well.

The EU also needs to consider investing in a medium, which would have its own profile and which would be working in the local languages, similar to already existing Al Jazeera Balkans and N1. The function of this medium needs to be fighting the disinformation and Russian propaganda by providing correct information about the EU, the enlargement process in detail, European investments in these countries, the movement of local citizens towards the EU, their educational opportunities in the EU etc. This is the best way of ensuring more visibility of the EU in this region.

The EU is about to enter a new phase of discussing its future. This debate has to be carried through at the highest level in the six Balkan states as well, so that opposition forces and the civil society can be drawn into it. Lastly, European parties and political leaders need to quit supporting failed politicians and parties. This never ends well. Last but not least, the situation in the Balkans needs to be monitored on a much more regular basis than it currently is and reports are to be made to foreign ministers and leaders in the European Council at each of their meetings.

The EP foreign affairs committee is inviting high-ranking representatives of some countries more and more often, but much more can and needs to be done – plenary hearings of these countries’ leaders, the opposition, and members of the civil society following what is being done regularly for Hungary or Poland. This would allow for hearing points of view, which are being silenced by the controlled media environment in these states.

Translated by Stanimir Stoev

Posted in Europe, Bosnia, Croatia, SerbiaComments Off on EU Is Trying To Restart the European Integration of the Western Balkans

Bosnia- Herzegovina “Referendum Caravan” against NATO and Euro-Atlantic Integration

NOVANEWS
 
Bosnia and Herzegovina

Activists of the opposition political forces and public organizations from Montenegro initiated a rally from Podgorica to Brussels. According to the organizer of the action, the head of the movement “Hopeless Resistance” Marco Milachich, the activists are to declare in front of the international community about the necessity of a referendum on the country’s accession to NATO.

The event “Referendum caravan” which was launched on February 20 will end on March 3. After Belgrade the activists still have to overcome the way to the capital of Belgium through the city of Banja Luka, Zagreb, Ljubljana, Vienna, Prague and Berlin.

One of the stop on the way to Brussels was the city in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Banja Luka is the capital of one of the two national entities within the country called the Republic of Srpska (RS). The Montenegrin opposition expected to get considerable support from the Serbian population, negatively related to the prospect of accession of Bosnia and Herzegovina to NATO.

According to the official position of Sarajevo, the most important issue of Bosnia and Herzegovina external policy is to create conditions for the early entry into NATO and the EU. This policy of Euro-Atlantic integration is welcomed in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, where 50-70 percent of the people support country’s membership in NATO. In the Srpska Republic, the vast majority of the population does not support the idea of accession.

The protests against the country accession to NATO have been held in Banja Luka before. Residents of city often gather on the main square, to remind of the bloody NATO military actions in Yugoslavia in 1999.

According to the leader of public patriotic organization of the Republic of Srpska “Our Serbia” Mladjan Djordjevic, the West is actively working to maintain artificial separatist movements inside the RC. Moreover, the West is providing active support for Sarajevo, to deprive Banja Luka sovereignty and the right to resist the policy of Bosnia and Herzegovina to join NATO. At the same time, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina actually lives on external funds. The corruption reaches colossal scales, and the authorities have become puppets of the High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina.

However, despite the political pressure from the West and the official Sarajevo, the Srpska Republic, headed by its national leader Milorad Dodik, continues to protect its sovereignty and legitimacy. They actively supported the rally on February 24 in Banja Luka.

Posted in Bosnia, Croatia, SerbiaComments Off on Bosnia- Herzegovina “Referendum Caravan” against NATO and Euro-Atlantic Integration

The Battle for the EU – Liberalism vs. Illiberalism

NOVANEWS
Adelina Marini

It is again a crisis that drives the European Union towards a reconsideration of its state and towards change, as it has always been throughout its 60-year long life. Last year saw just the beginning of talks about the Union’s future after the Brits’ decision to leave it and the election of Donald Trump for US President acted as a catalyst on the debate, which is supposed to crystallise into an agreement about the future at the end of march on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome, which laid the foundations of the EU. Talks about the future began in September of last year in the Slovak capital Bratislava. There is not much time left until end-March and specific ideas are more reactive, rather than creative. Reactive towards the main challenges faced by the EU – the radical geopolitical change and the domestic political battle with populists.

At the informal EU summit in Malta on February 3 a “great degree” of convergence of opinions was announced that the EU should use opportunities, which open and close, as well as about the role, which the EU should play on a global arena following the inauguration of the new US President Donald Trump. How big is this degree of convergence and how long is it going to last is a very important question, keeping in mind that there are elections coming this spring in key EU countries – France and The Netherlands – and one should not forget that Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán openly supports Donald Trump, thus undermining European unity.

An end must be put to the synergy between geopolitics and domestic politics

Over the last few weeks activity in certain politicians, member states, or groups of countries has increased significantly. Iconic example for this was the speech of the leader of the Eurogroup, Jeroen Dijsselbloem (The Netherlands, Socialists and Democrats), whose position currently hangs entirely on the result of elections in The Netherlands this spring. The many questions pointed at him about whether he will keep his post, as well as the support of his colleagues from the Eurogroup are probably the inspiration of his January 24 speech about the future of Europe, because its first part is entirely dedicated on the elections in various parts of the EU this year.

He expressed conviction that the next Dutch government will again be a coalition of centrist or moderate parties. There is also doubt that in Germany the populist Alternative for Germany party will be a part of any coalition. Dijsselbloem was optimistic regarding France as well. “My best guess is that at the end of this year Germany, France and the Netherlands will still be governed by mainstream, sensible politicians. Then will also be a good moment to push ahead on a number of topics regarding the future of the EU and the Eurozone”, he said.

The Dutch finance minister admitted that even if his optimistic forecast comes true, this by no means hails the end of populism. “I think it is here to stay, nourishing discontent and blaming the outside world. But we mustn’t forget that the vast majority of our population still places its trust in moderate parties, left or right. These mainstream parties will have to regain trust. The trust of their people that they will provide security and economic perspectives”, is Jeroen Dijsselbloem’s recipe. He believes the new Trump administration to be one more reason (besides the Brexit) for rethinking the EU’s position. “Geopolitical issues, defence and security, tax issues, the future of international financial institutions, and off course trade are now surrounded by question- and exclamation marks. Trump challenges Europe in many ways”.

Trump appears as a second focal point of anti-European politics besides Russia with statements, which caused waves of concern in member states, which have so far been living with no worries under the United States geopolitical wing. Now, however, the world is being divided up into remnants of the current reality and the alternative reality, created by Putin and Trump’s propaganda machines, each with his own goals. Their efforts find fertile ground in more and more political formations within the EU, which feel empowered to continue with the erosion of the Union until they gain full disintegration.

Prior to the Malta summit the president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, who left the summit with a new nickname – “our Donald” described three threats faced by the EU, pointing out that the current EU challenges are “more dangerous than ever before in the time since the signature of the Treaty of Rome”. The first threat is the geopolitical situation. “For the first time in our history, in an increasingly multi-polar external world, so many are becoming openly anti-European, or Eurosceptic at best. Particularly the change in Washington puts the European Union in a difficult situation; with the new administration seeming to put into question the last 70 years of American foreign policy”.

The second threat, outlined by our Donald, is internal and it is linked to the anti-European, nationalistic, and the growingly xenophobic feelings within the EU itself. “National egoism is also becoming an attractive alternative to integration. In addition, centrifugal tendencies feed on mistakes made by those, for whom ideology and institutions have become more important than the interests and emotions of the people”. This remark has a very clear address – traditional parties and the pro-European forces, which in the eyes of our Donald have gone too far in pulling on the bowstring.

The third threat according to Donald Tusk is the mentality of pro-European elites. “A decline of faith in political integration, submission to populist arguments as well as doubt in the fundamental values of liberal democracy are all increasingly visible”, writes Donald Tusk to leaders with a call to “have the courage to oppose the rhetoric of demagogues”. Tusk warned that the disintegration of the EU would not lead to the reinstatement of “some mythical, full sovereignty of its member states”, but to real dependence on the great superpowers: The USA, Russia, and China. “Only together can we be fully independent”, believes the former prime minister of Poland, who hopes to get re-elected for a second term to the post of leader to the European Council.

Together, but in two speeds

The big surprise at the Malta summit came from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who until recently had been the unchallenged favourite to win a fourth consecutive term as Germany’s Chancellor, but now has some stiff competition in her strongly pro-European competitor in the left wing – Martin Schulz. The man, who until recently was boss of the European Parliament and managed to exalt the institution to the highest level of European politics and the decision-making process, seems to be an entirely acceptable competition for Mrs Merkel. Polls are already giving him advantage over the conservatives of Mrs Merkel, who was announced by large international media and analysts as the sole keeper of liberal order in Europe.

According to Angela Merkel, the time has now come for a multi-speed EU “in which not all member states are always at the same level of integration”. The idea of a multi-speed Union is not new by far and has long been fact, but the comment is symbolic for it shows that even Mrs Merkel has matured for the changes, which are being forced in the EU both from the outside and the inside. The statement of the German chancellor was not welcomed by everyone. Finland Prime Minister Juha Sipilä stated that a two-speed Union, in which some members will be moving faster towards integration than others, is not an answer. “We must strengthen our commitments to the EU’s common values and must find a way to proceed together at the same pace”, he said at the end of the one-day summit in Malta.

Support for a two-speed Europe were also cast by Belgium, The Netherlands, and Luxembourg, who came out with a joint statement after Malta. In it they state that the EU is more than the sum of its members and it needs to continue developing with its supranational structures and community method. The prime ministers of the three countries demand that the EU Treaties continue to be the foundation of future cooperation, which means enhancement of the four freedoms, common market, the social dimension, and a strong euro area. They want a Union, in which there is respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, and rule of law and human rights.

In their declaration the three states stress on the need to reinstate trust in the EU, which could be accomplished through fulfilling negotiated agreements and by making the decision-making process more transparent and democratic. To them it is of special importance that European law is being enforced in full, regarding rule of law in member states, because it “is critical to the internal market, the Schengen area and further development of the EU”. “Different paths of integration and enhanced cooperation could provide for effective responses to challenges that affect member states in different ways”, believe Belgium, The Netherlands, and Luxembourg.

Opposed to such an idea was the leader of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party Jarosław Kaczyński, regarded as the informal leader of Poland. He believes that a two-speed Europe will lead to a breakdown and the practical liquidation of the EU. At the same time, however, Poland is one of the states putting a brake to Union integration. Ever since the new government came to power, almost all legislative initiatives are being blocked, which provide for more integration, like the setting up of an European prosecution, which would fight against European funds’ fraud.

Europe of nations, or an European nation? No, Europe of values

Jarosław Kaczyński advocates for a looser Union, in which member states have control over all the power. Of the same opinion is Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who believes the EU wields way too much power, which needs to be returned to member states. This was the very subject of his regular summer speech in Romania. The same idea is supported by the French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, whose group in the European Parliament is called exactly Europe of Nations and Freedom. The first commitment in her election agenda is holding a referendum on leaving the euro area and the EU.

The other political current in the EU supports a deepening of integration and especially in the euro area. This is the feeling of southern member states, who met in end-January at a special summit in Lisbon. The leaders of Cyprus, France, Greece, Italy, Malta, Portugal, and Spain believe that a weakening of Europe is not an option. To them the solution lies in deepening the currency union. The prime ministers of the seven countries expect “clear proposals” for the completion of the euro area and closing of the economic divergences and asymmetries in the currency club. They also place an accent on the necessity that the EU upholds its values of freedom, democracy, rule of law, and respect and protection of human rights.

If it comes to a two-speed EU it would mean isolation of states outside the euro area, as euinside has forecasted on numerous occasions. This is also the most logical step, for integration is deepest in the Economic and Monetary Union. In times of rapid disintegration of the current world order, however, that was based on the spreading of liberal democracy and open trade, the EU is not so much facing the choice of more or less Europe, but rather what Europe. It becomes clear from official and unofficial statements made so far that the EU will split by the values line – to a liberal and illiberal part. The latter is an obstacle for the development of the former. So it may turn out that after Rome the EU will take the shape of a rocket that disengages from its first, illiberal stage. Or rather from the states it does not trust.

It is exactly trust that the leader of the European Central Bank Mario Draghi talked about in Slovenia last week. He stated that the recipe for the survival of the EU in today’s tumultuous world is following the rules. “What is preventing us from moving ahead today is, in part, the legacy of those past failures, which creates a lack of trust among countries to enter into such a new stage of integration.Trust that all countries will comply with the rules that they have set for themselves, so as to reduce their mutual vulnerability. And trust that all will enact the necessary reforms to ensure structural convergence, so that complying with those rules becomes easier, and sharing risks does not create permanent transfers between countries. Compliance and convergence, and through it growth, are the keys today to give to the integration process new impetus.”

From everything said so far the conclusion is drawn that in Rome a reckoning of trust will be done – who trusts/distrusts whom, and the decision where to and how to continue will be secondary. There is less than a month left to the anniversary.

Translated by Stanimir Stoev

Posted in Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, SerbiaComments Off on The Battle for the EU – Liberalism vs. Illiberalism

There Is a Serious Crisis of Democracy in the Western Balkans Region

NOVANEWS

A long delayed discussion took place in the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee about the tensions in the Western Balkans region, which have been growing for months now, but with the start of the new year the situation deteriorated dramatically. The discussion was initiated by the Slovenian MEP Ivo Vajgl (ALDE), who is the rapporteur for Macedonia, and was held on the day of the election of a new committee chairman. The former chairman, veteran of the European Parliament and Foreign Affairs Elmar Brok (EPP, Germany) conceded his post to another EPP MEP from Germany – David McAllister, who is the rapporteur for Serbia. A fact that was presented with a lot of hope by the Serbian media. During the hour-long debate the prevailing feeling was one of shared concern with the rising of tensions in the region, with just one differing opinion – that of the French nationalist Jean-Luc Schaffhauser of Marine Le Pen’s Europe of Nations and Freedom group.

The discussion was a very open and realistic analysis of events in the region. A thing that has long been missing at the European scene. According to David McAllister, the Western Balkans region needs to be a strategic priority for the EU, for the region is surrounded by EU member states and what goes on in it will have direct impact on the entire Union, especially in turbulent times. He read out a carefully prepared opening statement to the debate, in which he stated that the region is positioned in the heart of Europe. “In almost all countries are growing issues such as incomplete reconciliation, fragile inter-ethnic co-existence, threatening Islamic radicalisation, Russia’s growing influence, insufficient political dialogue, a lack of media freedom and socio-economic problems”.

This realistic interlude was followed by pointing out of the hot spots, breeding tension in the region: the quarrel between Serbia and Kosovo because of the train issue; the post-election situation in Macedonia, growing ethnic polarisation in Bosnia and Herzegovina; claims about a coup attempt in Montenegro on Election Day and a possible manipulation by Russia. The Bosnia and Herzegovina rapporteur Cristian Dan Preda (EPP, Romania), who has long been warning about the Russian influence in the region, was even more straight-forward and direct. “The interest that we are taking can be explained by 2 factors: we need to recognise the fact that there are serious crises of democracy in the countries across the region. The electorate continues to be attracted by what is called ethno-nationalist policies and the ethnic divides are still being fomented for electoral purposes, and campaigns would suggest that nationalist rhetoric dominates debate”, he started off.

At the same time, he went on, Russia’s influence is growing throughout the region, and in Russia itself the nationalist ethnic dimension of politics has active participation. The Romanian MEP even thinks it dominates. He warned that there is a clear and present danger that the region is quite volatile at the moment and admitted to the EU being partly to blame for that. The former Croatian foreign minister, now MEP of the Socialists and Democrats group Tonino Picula described two opposite processes, which are currently underway in the Western Balkans: their gradual progress towards European integration and the spreading of interests and values, which contradict European integration and values. He believes that the dividing lines are most of all within certain countries of the region.

“The region’s progress is visible and undeniable, but it is not such, that it is immune to being threatened by a bad development, as we have been witnessing lately. Relations between Priština and Belgrade, as well as the situation in Macedonia and BiH too are not safe enough, so that we could not witness a serious deterioration of interstate relations, which will reflect on their European integration path as well”, concluded Mr Picula.

The initiator of the discussion, Ivo Vajgl, reminded that on the Balkans a conflict could burst into flame from a single little spark. “All conflicts in this region started with verbal aggression. Hate speech and insults we hear a lot of these things currently – in the media, television, in the newspapers as well and unfortunately very prominent political figures in these countries have these comments”, he said. He believes the words of the Serbian president on the hapless train from Belgrade to Kosovska Mitrovica are capable of provoking war. Word is of the reinstatement of the Belgrade-Kosovska Mitrovica railway line for the first time in 18 years, which was however played out in a very provocative way. The train was painted on the outside in the colours of the Serbian flag and all over it, written in 21 languages, there were the words “Kosovo is Serbia”. On the inside the train was pasted with photographs of frescoes from the Eastern Orthodox monastery in Kosovo.

Due to the sharp escalation of tension the train was halted before it entered Kosovo, but let loose some militaristic rhetoric. The candidate for a second presidential term Tomislav Nikolić threatened that, if need be, he will send the military into Kosovo to protect the Serbian minority there.

The rapporteur for Kosovo Ulrike Lunacek (Greens, Austria) urged the countries of the region to concentrate on European values. “One of the essences of the enlargement process and what has made this EU strong is overcoming nationalist threats that brought to Europe in the last century the most ferocious wars we had”, she said and expressed her concern that the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States lends serious support to radical nationalists. She sees a solution to the problem in more television programmes and history textbooks, as well as in the ceasing of the politics of hate and violence.

French MEP Jean-Luc Schaffhauser, however, was outraged at this type of speaking and asked whether among European values one should also consider the recognition of Kosovo, which he named “a mafia state”. This caused some verbal discourse in the committee and forced Chairman McAllister’s warning that such attitude is inappropriate. “Please, let’s treat all European states with the same respect”, called David McAllister.

The debate was dominated by Croatian and Slovenian MEPs. Dubravka Šuica (EPP, Croatia), who got elected Vice-Chairperson of the committee, believes that the problem of the region is the conformism of leaders in those countries. “It is a fact that authoritarian tendencies and looking up at Russia present a great danger in these territories. There are authoritarian tendencies in existence, if we speak about the freedom of media in some states. Moreover, until we, as the EU, do not show willpower that we are ready to monitor political processes, the region will witness a further regress of democracy. The EU must be present much more actively in the region”, was her appeal. She believes that recent events are simply provocations, meant for domestic use and it is not likely that it will get to anything more serious, but only under the condition that the EU is more actively present in the region.

Tanja Fajon (S&D, Slovenia) warned that the region suffers from growing nationalism and brain drain. Jozo Radoš (ALDE, Croatia) reminded that, according to Serbia, the halting of the train was the provocation, not sending it. The president of Serbia stated that he was ready to go to war with Kosovo, just as he did in Croatia, reminded the MEP. “Also, the EU has not been able to resolve problems in Macedonia for a whole decade. We have representatives of Kosovo going to Albania for consultations. So, we don’t seem to be able to resolve the issues we are faced with. It seems that the political will is insufficient. Are we about to phase a new division of spheres of interest in the Western Balkans as we had in Yalta, just that we do not have the wisdom of Winston Churchill anymore”, further said Jozo Radoš.

Alojz Peterle (EPP, Slovenia), who used to be Slovenia’s prime minister just at the time of its separation from former Yugoslavia, stated that the European context has changed significantly since the time of the declarations of Zagreb in the year 2000 and Thessalonнki of 2003. “The question is whether we are satisfied with what is happening from one year to another”, he asked and requested a strong debate with the participation of the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini (Italy, S&D) and the Commissioner for Enlargement Negotiations Johannes Hahn (Austria, EPP). Romanian MEP Victor Boştinaru (S&D) explained the situation with the enlargement fatigue.

“The Western Balkans have been and will probably always be, if Europe is not wise to act, a place of confrontation among major international actors”, he said and called for EU member states of the region to have more active participation in the integration of their neighbours. “If we continue with less effective steps than other countries, I’m referring to Russia, to China and Turkey they will be there”, warned the Romanian MEP. Another Croatian MEP – Marijana Petir (EPP) – criticised the EU’s approach towards the Western Balkans. She believes it is not pro-active and, besides, double standards are being used. She gave Macedonia as an example, which had fulfilled all prerequisites for membership, but was left in the waiting room over the last 10 years. Petir called all member states to begin EU membership negotiations with Macedonia.

“At the same time, we seem to have a rather favourable approach when it comes to Serbia, irrespectively of Serbia’s continuous proofs that it is not respecting the EU values”, added the Croatian MEP.

On the same day as this debate was happening in the Foreign Affairs committee of the European Parliament, another round of the dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo took place at the highest level, in which on the Serbian side participated the Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić and President Tomislav Nikolić, and on the Kosovo side – President Hashim Thaçi and Prime Minister Isa Mustafa. Nikolić’s rhetoric remained unchanged even after that meeting, however. The next meeting of such rank is scheduled for Wednesday (February 1st). Meanwhile, the Croatian daily newspaper Jutarnji list published an interview [in Croatian language] with former Montenegro Prime Minister Milo Đukanović, in which he warns that the Balkans may be described as a potential source of tension, due to the extremely tense relations between the East and the West. “This could have catastrophic consequences for the region, especially keeping in mind that more and more countries are ethnically unstable and their once clear European perspective has become quite obscure in recent years”.

Đukanović also said that the agreement in the region, brought about by the Dayton peace accord no longer exists. “Some remnants of the pre-Dayton crises, which were supposed to be eliminated, have remained intact; several new ones have appeared, like the blocking of Macedonia’s road to integration. And now the perspective of the entire region looks quite worse and there are alternative ideas appearing already – generally already seen and proved false”, continues the former prime minister of Montenegro. He does, however, believe that the responsibility for the current state of affairs in the Western Balkans does not belong only to the international community, but also to the people living in the region. “In life, I do not like situations where I have no alternatives, but this is how it is with the Balkans. The Balkans, sadly, have no instruments of their own for self-stabilisation. If we are to reach stability – and instability with us throughout history has always meant war – we need to create these instruments by entering a community of democratic, socially and economically more advanced countries than us”, is Milo Đukanović’s recipe.

Translated by Stanimir Stoev

Posted in Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, LithuaniaComments Off on There Is a Serious Crisis of Democracy in the Western Balkans Region

A Croatian Perspective on the Bulgaria and Romania CVM Reports

NOVANEWS
Adelina Marini

“In order for the EU to be effective in the disciplining of member states, it needs to be able to sanction. Cutting of EU funds because of problems with the rule of law in some of them might be a good idea”. This is the beginning of the commentary [in Croatian language] by the correspondent of one of the most read newspapers in Croatia, Jutarnji list, Augustin Palokaj on the occasion of the tenth report by the European Commission on the progress of Bulgaria and Romania under the unique for the EU Cooperation and Verification Mechanism. This is an idea, which euinside has put forward on numerous occasions and not only regarding the case of Bulgaria and Romania. Augustin Palokaj’s text has been written before the reports were made public and rather analyses the mechanism itself and its purpose.

“Exactly ten years have passed since Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU, but these two states continue to be second grade members of sorts. The problem is not that the two are the poorest members, although Romania has gotten very close to Croatia, but in the verification and cooperation mechanism, which is a sort of monitoring by the EC, nonexistent for any other member state”, writes my colleague Palokaj, pointing out that the situation in Bulgaria is far worse than in Romania, for at the moment the country has no government and in less than a year it will take over the Presidency of the Council. “It would be truly embarrassing if the country that is presiding the Council is monitored by the EC due to insufficient results in the battle against corruption and organised crime”, continues the analysis.

Augustin Palokaj reports that the EC is preparing a scenario where the Mechanism is lifted before Bulgaria takes over the Presidency, but this will be subject to several conditions. He reminds that it was exactly because of Romania and Bulgaria that Croatia got a special monitoring levied on it prior to the membership, which saved the country from this very same Mechanism after joining in 2013. The other thing that saved Croatia was the scepticism of Germany and The Netherlands.

“Looking back from the perspective of today, such mechanisms for Bulgaria and Romania are truly useless, unpleasant, and unfair. Of course, there is a problem with corruption in these states and a serious one at that. But is there no such problem in other EU states as well?”, writes the Croatian journalist and reminds us of the words of the former Commissioner for Enlargement Günter Verheugen, according to whom, when talking about corruption, it is not Bulgaria and Romania that spring to his mind first. “And now there are more serious problems with the rule of law arising in other EU states, Poland and Hungary for example”, further writes the Jutarnji correspondent.

“Those mechanisms have grown obsolete. They did not manage to solve the problem and left Bulgaria and Romania with the feeling that they are being discriminated against, treated like second grade members. This is why it is urgent that they are removed”, ends his commentary Augustin Palokaj. He believes European institutions have the ability to affect member states when it comes to the protection of the European values. “And those values are much more threatened in some other member states, than in Bulgaria and Romania”, believes the journalist.

Translated by Stanimir Stoev

Posted in CroatiaComments Off on A Croatian Perspective on the Bulgaria and Romania CVM Reports

Chocolinda in the Balkan World

NOVANEWS
Adelina Marini

Right when the Croatian market is being shaken by findings of salmonella in the chicken and minced meat, as well as an obvious weak food control, society was scandalised by a chocolate problem. Chocolate had no other problems besides being… Serbian. On December 6th, President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović visited Dubrovnik on the occasion of the Day of Dubrovnik War Veterans, who defended the town from the Yugoslav People’s Army in the beginning of the 1990’s. In the course of her visit the president gave gifts to war veterans’ children consisting of sweets and a photograph of herself with an autograph. Instead of the latter, the scandal was caused by the chocolate bars in the packs, which turned out to be manufactured in Serbia. The parent of one of the children in the kindergarten vented their outrage on Facebook from the fact that right on the day of Dubrovnik war veterans Kolinda (as she is called in Croatia) gave the kids Serbian chocolates.

The parent’s reaction is understandable and it is not the problem. The reaction of the president of an EU member state is what is causing perplexity. Mrs Grabar-Kitarović apologised for the gaffe, explaining that she was not aware of the chocolate’s origin and was even more outraged for it turned out that the chocolates were packaged by a Croatian company in … Vukovar. She promised that those, who do not want these, will receive Croatian-made chocolates, for her role was, besides all else, to promote Croatian produce.

There are several problems with this story

The first one is that Croatia has made a commitment, restated on multiple occasions by Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović herself, to help Serbia along its way towards European membership. There are still a multitude of unresolved issues between the two states from the war for the separation of Croatia from the former Yugoslavia, which are extremely serious, and which require strong political will. It is due to some of those that Zagreb initiated the blocking the opening of negotiation chapters with Serbia. Current authorities in Belgrade have enough transgressions which need being pointed out and Croatia should get the support of its EU partners for it. Among those problems is the relativisation of crimes committed by the Milošević regime with crimes of the Ustaša regime during World War Two. Among those are also the attempts of Serbian authorities to play down the Milošević regime crimes and even allow calls for its exoneration.

Serbia still has much to do regarding cooperation with the Hague Tribunal, hate speech, unresolved property and cultural issues, border disputes, unsolved cases of Croatian nationals gone missing in action during the war, and the treatment of minorities. It is a long list and it is articulated generally in the European Commission’s annual reports on Serbia’s progress towards EU membership. And this is just regarding neighbourly relations. Serbia’s domestic political issues with the rule of law, democracy, and media freedom are a whole different story.

The second problem is that Zagreb is part of the EU common market and in this sense it is bewildering when a case of protectionism arises. Certainly, the particular cause is a different one, but the president’s reaction reveals an inclination towards protectionism. This comes in direct contradiction with Croatia’s European commitments towards the EU and countries of the enlargement process. Instead of attempting to promote Croatian-made products, the head of state should fight for raising the levels of productivity and competitiveness in Croatia, and also for having Croatian products break through on the European market. The latter, apropos, is a problem, pointed out in the economic reports on the European semester. In the end of the day, if Croatian products are more competitive they will also be demanded more not only on the domestic, but also on the European and regional markets.

Moreover, there is another perspective missing in the whole chocolate drama. If the chocolate bars were packaged by a company in Vukovar, it has probably opened X jobs, which are feeding families in one of the Croatian towns which gets abandoned the quickest. There was no mention of the share of this company’s business in the town’s economy and how could it be a problem that Serbian raw materials are being used in a town, where there are Serbs living as well. This company probably pays taxes and social security contributions.

Reaction from Serbia was one to be expected. Minister of Foreign and Domestic Trade and Telecommunications Rasim Ljajić said on the occasion of the chocolate affair that it is obvious that Serbian products are not welcome in Croatia. “The statement of Croatia’s president is undemocratic, un-European, and un-economic”, he said, quoted by Tanjug. One could often see in Serbian press the disappointment that while Serbs like Croatian products, Serbian ones are obviously problematic in Croatia. “What reconciliation could we be talking about”, was an often asked question. And a very legitimate one. If a bar of chocolate could be a problem in relations between two countries, attempting to resolve their post-war problems, as was a movie as well this year, then there is something very wrong.

Croatia served as an example for all other countries from the Western Balkans that transformation in this region is possible. Such jingoistic fussiness, however, seriously damages Croatia’s image of an intermediary between the EU and those countries, which still have a long way to go until they catch-up with the, alas ever eroding, standards of the European Union. Instead of showing that it has outgrown petty nationalism and is a truly mature European democracy and a free market, Croatia shows with such reactions that it has not stepped out of Balkan-ism. In her wish not to lose the votes of war veterans and nationalist-minded voters, the president is doing harm in the long term to the future of her country in the region and the EU in general.

Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić likes very much to say, although he is not being too convincing in proving this wish of his, that he wishes for relations in the region to be like those between France and Germany, which from warring countries turned into the engine behind EU development. To achieve this, however, it is necessary that both states – Serbia and Croatia – turn away from pettiness and everyday politics and look strategically towards each other and towards the region in general. This was done by France and Germany not only for their own good, but for the benefit of the entire continent. Croatia has shown many times how it is done, but has been failing to do so lately. Moreover, such actions only feed fuel to the engine of hate-propagators like Vojislav Šešelj, who took immediate advantage of the latest gaffe of the Croatian president, while from the beginning of autumn Croatia has been making an impression of returning politics back to the flow of normalcy. It is a pity if a chocolate bar can derail this process.

Translated by Stanimir Stoev

Posted in CroatiaComments Off on Chocolinda in the Balkan World

Chocolinda in the Balkan World

NOVANEWS
Adelina Marini, Zagreb

Right when the Croatian market is being shaken by findings of salmonella in the chicken and minced meat, as well as an obvious weak food control, society was scandalised by a chocolate problem. Chocolate had no other problems besides being… Serbian. On December 6th, President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović visited Dubrovnik on the occasion of the Day of Dubrovnik War Veterans, who defended the town from the Yugoslav People’s Army in the beginning of the 1990’s. In the course of her visit the president gave gifts to war veterans’ children consisting of sweets and a photograph of herself with an autograph. Instead of the latter, the scandal was caused by the chocolate bars in the packs, which turned out to be manufactured in Serbia. The parent of one of the children in the kindergarten vented their outrage on Facebook from the fact that right on the day of Dubrovnik war veterans Kolinda (as she is called in Croatia) gave the kids Serbian chocolates.

The parent’s reaction is understandable and it is not the problem. The reaction of the president of an EU member state is what is causing perplexity. Mrs Grabar-Kitarović apologised for the gaffe, explaining that she was not aware of the chocolate’s origin and was even more outraged for it turned out that the chocolates were packaged by a Croatian company in … Vukovar. She promised that those, who do not want these, will receive Croatian-made chocolates, for her role was, besides all else, to promote Croatian produce.

There are several problems with this story

The first one is that Croatia has made a commitment, restated on multiple occasions by Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović herself, to help Serbia along its way towards European membership. There are still a multitude of unresolved issues between the two states from the war for the separation of Croatia from the former Yugoslavia, which are extremely serious, and which require strong political will. It is due to some of those that Zagreb initiated the blocking the opening of negotiation chapters with Serbia. Current authorities in Belgrade have enough transgressions which need being pointed out and Croatia should get the support of its EU partners for it. Among those problems is the relativisation of crimes committed by the Milošević regime with crimes of the Ustaša regime during World War Two. Among those are also the attempts of Serbian authorities to play down the Milošević regime crimes and even allow calls for its exoneration.

Serbia still has much to do regarding cooperation with the Hague Tribunal, hate speech, unresolved property and cultural issues, border disputes, unsolved cases of Croatian nationals gone missing in action during the war, and the treatment of minorities. It is a long list and it is articulated generally in the European Commission’s annual reports on Serbia’s progress towards EU membership. And this is just regarding neighbourly relations. Serbia’s domestic political issues with the rule of law, democracy, and media freedom are a whole different story.

The second problem is that Zagreb is part of the EU common market and in this sense it is bewildering when a case of protectionism arises. Certainly, the particular cause is a different one, but the president’s reaction reveals an inclination towards protectionism. This comes in direct contradiction with Croatia’s European commitments towards the EU and countries of the enlargement process. Instead of attempting to promote Croatian-made products, the head of state should fight for raising the levels of productivity and competitiveness in Croatia, and also for having Croatian products break through on the European market. The latter, apropos, is a problem, pointed out in the economic reports on the European semester. In the end of the day, if Croatian products are more competitive they will also be demanded more not only on the domestic, but also on the European and regional markets.

Moreover, there is another perspective missing in the whole chocolate drama. If the chocolate bars were packaged by a company in Vukovar, it has probably opened X jobs, which are feeding families in one of the Croatian towns which gets abandoned the quickest. There was no mention of the share of this company’s business in the town’s economy and how could it be a problem that Serbian raw materials are being used in a town, where there are Serbs living as well. This company probably pays taxes and social security contributions.

Reaction from Serbia was one to be expected. Minister of Foreign and Domestic Trade and Telecommunications Rasim Ljajić said on the occasion of the chocolate affair that it is obvious that Serbian products are not welcome in Croatia. “The statement of Croatia’s president is undemocratic, un-European, and un-economic”, he said, quoted by Tanjug. One could often see in Serbian press the disappointment that while Serbs like Croatian products, Serbian ones are obviously problematic in Croatia. “What reconciliation could we be talking about”, was an often asked question. And a very legitimate one. If a bar of chocolate could be a problem in relations between two countries, attempting to resolve their post-war problems, as was a movie as well this year, then there is something very wrong.

Croatia served as an example for all other countries from the Western Balkans that transformation in this region is possible. Such jingoistic fussiness, however, seriously damages Croatia’s image of an intermediary between the EU and those countries, which still have a long way to go until they catch-up with the, alas ever eroding, standards of the European Union. Instead of showing that it has outgrown petty nationalism and is a truly mature European democracy and a free market, Croatia shows with such reactions that it has not stepped out of Balkan-ism. In her wish not to lose the votes of war veterans and nationalist-minded voters, the president is doing harm in the long term to the future of her country in the region and the EU in general.

Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić likes very much to say, although he is not being too convincing in proving this wish of his, that he wishes for relations in the region to be like those between France and Germany, which from warring countries turned into the engine behind EU development. To achieve this, however, it is necessary that both states – Serbia and Croatia – turn away from pettiness and everyday politics and look strategically towards each other and towards the region in general. This was done by France and Germany not only for their own good, but for the benefit of the entire continent. Croatia has shown many times how it is done, but has been failing to do so lately. Moreover, such actions only feed fuel to the engine of hate-propagators like Vojislav Šešelj, who took immediate advantage of the latest gaffe of the Croatian president, while from the beginning of autumn Croatia has been making an impression of returning politics back to the flow of normalcy. It is a pity if a chocolate bar can derail this process.

Translated by Stanimir Stoev

Posted in Europe, Croatia, SerbiaComments Off on Chocolinda in the Balkan World

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