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Sofia Wants To Be Thessalonнki II but It Lacks Substance and Momentum

Adelina Marini

The Western Balkanswill be a central priority of the Bulgarian EU Council presidency, which starts on January 1st. This is both a very good and a very bad piece of news. Very good because this region is strategically very important for the Union. Very bad because the subject is too big a spoon for the Bulgarian mouth. The big event of 2018 will be the mega summit EU-Western Balkans in Sofia. On May 17, the leaders of the 28 EU member states and of the six Western Balkan countries will gather together in the Bulgarian capital. This was confirmed in the leaders’ agenda which European Council President Donald Rusk (Poland, EPP) proposed at the autumn EU summit and was approved unanimously. The ambition of the Bulgarian presidency is the May summit to provide the region with a new perspective for its European integration.

From Thessalonнki to Sofia

Such a huge event related to the Balkans’ European future has not taken place since 2003 when the Thessalonнki agenda was agreed, the main objective of which was to state loud and clear that the future of the countries in the region belongs to the EU. The approved tasks back then, alas, continue to be quite topical 14 years later, and those are: continue the consolidation of peace, stability and democratic development; progress in the European integration; fight against organised crime; economic development; reconciliation and strengthening of regional cooperation. In the agenda, a special emphasis is put on the inviolability of international borders, seeking peaceful solution to conflicts, fight against terrorism, violence and extremism no matter if it is ethnically, politically or criminally motivated.

Fourteen years ago, the EU stated clearly that it supports activities and initiatives in the region that boost social cohesion, ethnic and religious tolerance, multiculturalism, return of refugees and displaced persons, fight against regressive nationalism. After the adoption of the agenda, the leaders of the member states adopted conclusions which stated that the aspiring countries are expected to share the European values of democracy, rule of law, respect for human and minority rights, solidarity and market economy, “fully aware that they constitute the very foundations of the European Union“.

The then EU leaders hardly suspected that this issue would not only remain painfully topical for the Western Balkans but for some new EU members, who only 2 months before the adoption of the Thessalonнki agenda had signed their accession treaties. They hardly expected that the Union would be flooded by Euroscepticism, which led to the first ever exit of a member state. Nevertheless, they prophetically underlined in their Thessalonнki conclusions that the countries from the region are expected to “fully share the objectives of economic and political union” and to support the creation of a stronger Union.

Today, 14 years later, the situation in the Balkans is both different and the same. Different because the political geography has changed – Slovenia, Croatia, Bulgaria and Romania are now members of the EU; Serbia and Montenegro are actively negotiating their membership; and Macedonia only has a candidate status but does not negotiate. Bosnia and Herzegovina is in a process of filling the European Commission’s questionnaire, which is the first step toward receiving a candidate status and Albania hopes to receive such a status. In the mean time, Kosovo is already an independent state which, however, is not recognised by five EU member states, but the Union facilitates a dialogue for normalisation of relations between Belgrade and Pristina, which is part of Serbia’s accession process.

After Thessalonнki, the EU thought that the ambition of the countries in the region was irreversible and that is why it took a position of waiting for them to do their part of the work. This has proved to be a wrong approach which dumped the region in a continuous deadlock and created a fertile ground for a renewal of hostilities among the countries in the region. Currently, relations between the former room-mates in ex-Yugoslavia are at their worst condition since the end of the wars, which forced the EU to urgently start looking for ways to “return” to the region, which is a sphere of interest for big and not quite friendly geopolitical players too. Macedonia turned from a champion in 2005 to a captured state, threatened by an ethnic conflict. Bosnia and Herzegovina is again fragile with growing inter-ethnic tensions and calls for secession of the Serb entity.

Serbia is still hesitating whether it really wants to be part of the EU, trying to play the Russian card as well. To many in the EU, President Aleksandar Vucic is a pro-European leader, but this is only in words. In terms of actions, he is another one who chose the illiberal path. In the country, a process of rehabilitation of the Milosevic regime is taking place, nationalism is again in fashion in almost all the countries in the region, the rule of law is an incomprehensible concept which looks more and more impossible to plant, democracy is perceived by the local elites as a tool to consolidate power and crush opposition, progress in the European integration is only measured by the opening of chapters, and the accession process is politicised more than ever by the EU itself. In other words, the Western Balkans are a combustible region again, which needs a restitution of the Thessalonнki spirit, hoping that the effect it had back then will be repeated.

The Western Balkans are too big a bite for the Bulgarian mouth

Against this background, Bulgaria, not very reluctantly and under pressure from Germany, took the ambition to put the region under the spotlight of the EU. Each Council presidency has to have a priority of its own. Estonian presidency, for example, is focused on digital economy because Estonia is a digital champion and is known worldwide with the nickname E-stonia. Bulgaria does not have much to boast with in addition to the fact that it is blocked from further integration in the euro area and Schengen by its systemic problems with justice and the rule of law in general. Ten years after its EU accession, Bulgaria is still under special monitoring.

Germany’s motivation, as well as that of other countries, for which the region is very important, is that Bulgaria is part of it and it is presumed it has experience. The problem is, however, that the country has been very passive for decades in this region. Its external policy toward it is reduced to stating support for its European integration. Through the years, Bulgaria turned from an unconditional supporter of Macedonia’s European integration (whose independence the country was first to recognise) into another veto for its membership, putting as pre-condition the signing of a friendship agreement.

Bulgaria is not even a member of the Berlin process – the initiative of German Chancellor Angela Merkel for economic support for the region. According to well informed sources euinside spoke with, the logic of the Bulgarian diplomacy has so far been that there are two types of countries that participate in the Berlin process – donors and beneficiaries. Bulgaria neither has anything to give nor does it have anything to take, which is why it was decided to stay away. Because of the lack of serious initiatives in the region and notable presence Bulgaria is starting from a position of any other country which is not a geographical part of it.

Bulgaria only this year started trying to position itself in the region, but is doing this with a leader who is dangerously ignorant when it comes to fundamental issues of its history. The Western Balkans are in his mouth on a daily basis, but this could be as harmful as it could be useful. He is not even aware of the basic terminology for the region, which is of major importance for the messages that will be conveyed not simply by Sofia, but by the upcoming Council presidency of the EU. For example, he uses the word “package” having in mind something completely different, without taking care what a dangerous meaning it has in the context of enlargement.

In the beginning of October, Bulgaria hosted a quadrilateral summit in Evksinograd with the prime ministers of Greece, Romania and the president of Serbia. The fact that only Serbia was invited led to speculation that a Balkan four is emerging (following the example of the Visegrad four) – something Mr Borissov was quick to deny. He underscored that what brings the four leaders together is their interests in infrastructure. Borissov half-heartedly added that the format was open for the other countries in the region too – Albania, Montenegro, Macedonia – depending on the projects. The fact that he met with some and not with others is already noticed in the region. During the autumn European Council in Brussels on October 19-20 Boyko Borissov said, without being asked, that his Croatian counterpart Andrej Plenkovic asked him why does he not invite him. “And I tell him, just wait for those who are lagging behind first and then we will join“, Borissov said he told Mr Plenkovic.

The Evksinograd summit had a very bad timing too – it took place just two days after the bloody clashes in Catalonia, which strongly reminded of the Kosovo situation in the beginning of the 1990s. Despite the similarities though, Kosovo is not Catalonia and Serbia is not Spain. But to Belgrade this is a door to try and get rid of chapter 35 which covers relations with Kosovo and will be closed last. Another problem is that two of the countries whose leaders were present at the summit – Greece and Romania – have not recognised Kosovo but Bulgaria has. In such an environment, Borissov left Aleksandar Vucic to make his wrong and well known claim about the double standards the EU applies to Kosovo and Catalonia.

Wrong because the Kosovo independence was possible after Slobodan Milosevic started massive ethnic cleansing in the province which led to NATO’s intervention. The Catalan case is completely different – there is no ethnic cleansing nor repressions, which makes Serbia’s claim unjustified. The Bulgarian prime minister’s lack of good background is a pre-condition for such gaffes to happen in the future as well. And it was not necessary to wait long. Last week, the premier made several gaffes during his official visit in Sarajevo.

During a joint presser with Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Prime Minister Denis Zvizdic, Mr Borissov said that the Western Balkans will be a main priority for a series of presidencies. After the Bulgarian one comes the presidency of Austria, he said, and as if for consolation he recalled that Austria was here  before during the Austro-Hungarian empire. Words that do not sound well in a city where the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated on 28 June 1914, which marked the beginning of World War I. In an attempt to explain how stupid the historical disputes are and the conflicts based on them, Borissov asked what would happen if Bulgaria went on to remember about its territories during Tsar Simeon’s reign.

The Bulgarian prime minister’s ignorance is to some extent compensated by the fact that he truly understands how important it is to work with the Western Balkan countries. The problem is that he has no idea what to do. The quick agreement of the friendship agreement with the new Macedonian government is an excellent example of de-blocking of long lasting problems in the region. It could serve as a boost for lifting the Greek veto over Macedonia’s negotiations process and is an example of constructivism and will for regional cooperation for the rest of the region.

For the docile a date, for the naughties a horizon

Given the complicated situation in the Western Balkans, the strong geopolitical element included, the Bulgarian presidency will be a walk in a mine field with its central priority. The ambition of the presidency is the countries of the region to receive a clear commitment in Sofia on May 17. The more advanced countries in the negotiations process, like Montenegro for example, could get a concrete date for accession, whereas the rest could receive a timeframe of around 4-5 years. To Macedonia it will be a success if it receives a green light to start negotiations. Albania expects to receive a candidate status.

Bulgaria also wants to inject some practical contribution to the summit, which will be a difficult task because the Bulgarian presidency has to avoid duplicating the Berlin process. Prime Minster Boyko Borissov said he wants a significant increase of the pre-accession funds for the region. To him the significance of the May summit is “now or never”. “I feel that everyone realises that the Balkans are a place which, if we do not invest attention, including in terms of European projects or common accession projects, we will lose them. I feel in all colleagues an interest and I’m an optimist in this direction. Undoubtedly, this is the poorest region“, he said after the European Council meeting in October. His desire is Sofia to break a news, the summit to give a real perspective for the region not just end up as another protocol event.

Reefs for the Sofia summit

The situation in which the EU finds itself, the Western Balkans as well, is completely different compared to 2003. The Union is on its way to make a great jump in the deepening of its integration, but it’s no longer that united as it was 14 years ago. A multi speed Europe is no longer a taboo but a real perspective, created by the retreat of some new member states from the European system of values. That is why, it will be important the Sofia conclusions to include the text from 2003 which demands a pledge by the countries of the region to this system. Not less important is to invite these countries say what a Union they want to join – a more integrated one or a looser community.

This could give the Union an idea what can be expected of them after accession, although by the time they join governments will change and probably attitudes. The answer to this question can also hint at what compromises can be made with them.

Regional relations are a dangerous reef. This issue should be approached with care, especially against the backdrop of the developments in Catalonia which, at this stage, show that they could have an impact on the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue. Normalisation of relations between Kosovo and Serbia is included in a separate chapter of the negotiations with Serbia and certainly it will be a major obstacle for its accession, unless a solution to Kosovo’s status is found. Such a solution would also demand the EU to resolve the issue with non-recognition of Kosovo by five of its members – Romania, Spain, Slovakia, Cyprus and Greece.

Bulgaria will make a mistake if it relies only on its own self and its too weak capacity for the Western Balkans. The success of the summit in Sofia will be difficult but real if it is prepared jointly with the fellow member states from the region, like Croatia, Greece, Romania, and the direct involvement of the European Commission, High Representative Federica Mogherini (Italy, S&D) and the European Parliament rapporteurs for the countries in the region. The Western Balkans are too important to be left in the hands of a single presidency. Boyko Borissov hopes the issue will remain in the spotlight of the Union because of a series of committed presidencies. What about after? The Sofia summit has to answer this question too.

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Is Crisis in Macedonia Coming to an End?

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

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The Bulgarian Paradox – How To Stay with Russia and EU in the Same Bed

Adelina Marini

There is something rotten in the European Union and you can feel it for some time now. This feeling led to a desire in some member states to break free from the handbrake that others are pulling on their development. The rottenness is felt the strongest in those countries, which are not quite sure what they are doing in the EU. Such a state is Bulgaria. In many respects it can be defined as pro-European, but that would be a rather simplistic definition. Bulgaria is among the countries where support for EU membership is among the highest, but it does not say enough about what really matters, so that the Union can move in harmony in one direction. It says nothing about values, geopolitical orientation, the rule of law. In recent years, Bulgaria has become one of the member states where the pro-Russian wing started to become more and more vociferous and form an opinion.

One consequence of this (and not only) was the election of Rumen Radev for president last autumn. He enjoyed the support of the Bulgarian Socialist Party, whose leader Kornelia Ninova immediately after her election to the post lay flowers at the monument to the communist dictator Todor Zhivkov, and in the campaign for the snap parliamentary elections on March 26 she even said that “democracy has taken away a lot from us”. She has contradictory rhetoric – once demonstrating moderate Euroscepticism in combination with pro-Russian slogans, and other times confirms Bulgaria’s European path. In this sense, it will not be an exaggeration to say that Sunday’s vote will show whether Bulgaria will go in the way of Poland and Hungary, or will remain on its current path, which can be described as pro-European, but with many caveats.

The paradox the country is in reminds a lot of the one in Serbia, where the forces who want to be with Russia and Europe simultaneously prevail. Indicative of the internal rupture was the behaviour of President Rumen Radev at the spring summit of the European Union in Brussels on 9 and 10 March, when he tried to fight the contradictions of the EU through his own contradictions.

I will fight for CETA, but this battle is lost

Following the summit, the president held a monologue with the media which lasted over 10 minutes, during which time he managed to clash several theses. At first, he reacted strongly to reports in Bulgarian media that he had supported the conclusions about the trade agreement with Canada (CETA). He categorically rejected the idea that he welcomed CETA. Word is about the conclusions of the summit in which leaders of the 28 member states welcome the results of the vote on the agreement in the European Parliament, which it was approved by. The conclusions call for a swift adoption of the necessary proposals, which would lead to implementing of the Agreement.

Where is the problem? The text has been approved by all member states, but does not have the legally binding power of conclusions of the European Council due to a ridiculous turn of events. Poland refused to sign in protest against the reelection of former Polish prime minister Donald Tusk (EPP) to the post of president of the European Council. Although Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydło has no problem with the contents of the text, she refused to sign it. So the document was legally downgraded to conclusions by the president of the European Council. This in fact saved the Bulgarian head of state from falling in the uncomfortable position of having to explain to the party that supports him why he signed something, which the party and he himself has denounced.

According to available information, there was no leader against the text. It did not become clear from the president’s monologue whether he was going to vote against, was it not for Poland’s protest. Even with that information missing, however, the president was contradicting himself. At first he said that the question about CETA at the European level had already been decided. “It was decided by giving authority to the Bulgarian parliament and the Bulgarian government. At a meeting the government decides to sign CETA, CETA is being signed here, in October of last year the Bulgarian prime minister has voted for CETA in the European Council, CETA has been approved by the European Parliament”, he said. At the same time, however, he announced that he will refer to the Constitutional Court, because the agreement requires amendments to the Constitution

Unity means compromise

A little later, the president announced that in the name of EU unity compromises need to be made. “What I shared is that by supporting, now in the past, the decision on CETA Bulgaria is making a compromise because, in my opinion and according to analysts, CETA is a huge advantage to strong and sustainable economies. To weak and fragile economies CETA is a threat. And here the Bulgarian people and the Bulgarian state make their sacrifices in the name of solidarity and EU principles”, he said in front of Bulgarian journalists in Brussels, who had no opportunity to ask any questions.

A multi-speed Europe is our own fault

The president dedicated a large portion of his monologue to the process of drafting the declaration of Rome, which will be signed on March 25 in Rome on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Treaties of Rome which laid the foundation of the EU of today, but he fell into contradiction on this subject as well. He announced he is against a multi-speed Europe because “there is no way to have a single body in two speeds”. He believes that the draft text is full of controversy. “On the one hand we have words and phrases like ‘a consolidated union’, ‘a social union’, ‘a prospering union’, ‘a strong union at the global scene’. On the other hand we have terms like ‘some of us’, ‘different speeds when needed, when possible’, ‘the enhanced cooperation remains open for’, in other words this is the controversy”. He announced that he had requested the removal of all texts that contradict the principles of unity and solidarity and that he has requested a mandatory inclusion of a text about the continuation of cohesion policy.

At the same time, he urged Bulgaria not to look at the EU as a cow to be milked and admitted that despite the fact that over the last 10 years European funds amounted to 40% of all public investment, it never brought any social cohesion. “The effect on Bulgarians’ living standard is mere 0.8%”, he said and stuck a finger in the wound:  “A determined fight against corruption, the scamming of European funds is necessary, clear rules need to be set, work for all law enforcement and judicial authorities, serious reforms in the judiciary as well, education, healthcare, the economic sphere. If we do not do this, nobody will wait for us. Formally or informally leading states will go at their own speed”, were the words of Mr Radev. 

Then again, if there is no rule of law…

The president tried to lay the blame for the state of Bulgaria on another front as well. He criticised the investment plan of the European Commission, known as the Juncker plan, saying that it favours stronger economies and businesses in developed countries, but Bulgaria still supported it. “So we still have made our compromises.” He further stated that “Investments are wonderful – those which come to us – but the cost of labour is much lower for the same levels of effort and intelligence that our workers, engineers, etc. put in. So we pay for solidarity not with words, but with real compromises, with real actions”.

According to the report of the European Commission on the implementation of the plan from January of this year, Bulgaria is a bit below the middle on the list of countries which have benefited from this plan. By January a single infrastructure project has been approved at designated value of 150 million euro, which is expected to unlock 408 million euros in investments. Up until now ten agreements for the financing of small and mid-size enterprises have been signed to a total value of 54 million euro, which are expected to trigger investments worth of 563 million euro. 4960 small companies or start-ups are expected to benefit from this aid.

The president further stated that he will insist on a guarantee that the cohesion policy will find its place in the next multiannual EU budget as well. Such a commitment is made in the text of the draft declaration for Rome of March 20th, but there is no explicit mention of the budget, which will still be the subject of serious discussions, starting next year when Bulgaria is to take over the rotating presidency of the Council. Despite criticism towards the EU and the compromises that Bulgaria was forced to make to be a member, the president periodically bounced the ball back into the Bulgarian field, calling for structural reforms, increasing investment in the development of human capital, education, competitiveness of the small and medium-sized enterprises. “And something very important – there needs to be rule of law. It needs to be strengthened.”

Translated by Stanimir Stoev

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Commission Monitoring Mechanism Will Remain for as Long as Necessary

Adelina Marini

The EU Council of Ministers poured some cold water on all attempts of Bulgarian politicians at gaining the removal of the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM), through which the European Commission monitors the progress in creating an independent judiciary and the fight against corruption and organised crime. The conclusions adopted by ministers on Wednesday (8 March) state twice that the monitoring will remain not only until benchmarks are met, but until it is proved that the reform process is irreversible. Meanwhile, the European Commission objected to attempts at casting a shadow on the credibility of the monitoring. The reason for the objection is a question sent to the Commission by Bulgarian MEP Emil Radev (EPP), in which he stated that the mechanism is discriminatory, its results are controversial, and that annual reports contain controversial and ambiguous conclusions.

The MEP insists on moving towards a EU-wide mechanism for democracy and the rule of law that applies to all member states. He also asks how many experts are committed to working on the CVM and how much does that cost to European taxpayers. He claims that there are an insufficient number of employees working on the CVM and they are with inadequate expertise. “Realistically, you can say that two or three employees in the European Commission decide the future of Bulgaria and the way the judicial system develops, who lack the necessary knowledge and experience. No wonder that often the reports are contradictory”, is said in a press release from the office of Mr Radev.

The official reply of the Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans (The Netherlands, Socialists and Democrats) expresses strong disagreement with the allegations that the CVM is discriminatory and that its results are questionable. “The Commission underlines that the conclusions reached in its report are based on careful analysis and a fair and objective reading of the situation”. There are two permanent advisers operating on the Mechanism – based in Sofia and Bucharest respectively – and three people in Brussels who work part time on the monitoring. Not all of them are lawyers, but they have legal expertise at their disposal from colleagues in the Legal Service, the European Anti-Fraud Office and the Directorates-General for Justice and Consumers, Migration and Home Affairs, Internal Market, Regional and Urban Policy and Employment, Social affairs and Inclusion. The EC often uses external expertise from Member States as well, from judges and prosecutors.

Responding to a question by euinside, a Commission spokesperson pointed out that the Commission rejects all attacks against individual employees or against the monitoring process. “The CVM Reports are adopted by the College of Commissioners. The Commission’s methodology, the reports and their conclusions are approved by the Council each year”, added the spokesperson. The very day when euinside got this reaction, ministers in the General Affairs Council approved this year’s reports under the CVM for Bulgaria and Romania. The conclusions indicate that the mechanism can be terminated only when all the benchmarks are met in an irreversible manner.

“The Council reiterates its adherence to the values and principles of the EU. Effective implementation of reforms, focusing on sustainable results and on convincing and verifiable track records, remains essential for ensuring that citizens are enabled to benefit fully from all the opportunities offered by membership of the Union. Taking into account the last ten years of reforms in Bulgaria and Romania, the Council stresses the need of irreversible progress with the am of successfully implementing the benchmarks and achieving the final objectives. In these regards, the Council also reiterates the need for broad and unequivocal political support for such reforms and of effective implementation of the recommendations”, states the document.

Regarding Bulgaria the conclusions state: “Although the Council welcomes the political commitment expressed by the government for reforms, for the full implementation of all those recommendations it is necessary to consolidate and accelerate the overall political will and the Council expects concrete measures and tangible and irreversible progress before the next Commission report”. Bulgaria is expected to intensify the fight against corruption, especially at high levels of power, and this is to be manifested in concrete results. A new legal framework for fighting corruption is necessary to be adopted, including the swift establishment of an effective authority for battling corruption. A reform of the law on public administration is also needed, which would guarantee the strengthening of internal inspectorates.

“Bulgaria should address current weaknesses, and establish a mechanism for public reporting on progress (investigations, indictments, convictions, and enforcement) in high-level cases already in the public domain”, continue the conclusions. The situation in Romania is the one responsible for the sharpening of the ministers’ tone in the conclusions, for it is acknowledged that the so far inspiring progress of Romania is threatened by new attempts at hobbling the battle against corruption by the new government. So the document expressly states that “legal amendments resulting in the weakening or shrinking of the scope of corruption offences and which could jeopardise the fight against corruption should be avoided, as well as any measures which could challenge the independence or effectiveness of the DNA”.

“Pending the results expected from each of the two Member States in this framework, and the Council’s confirmation thereof, the Mechanism stays in place. Until then, the Council invites the Commission to continue its reporting and looks forward to its next reports on Bulgaria and Romania foreseen later this year. The Council welcomes the Commission’s intention to continue monitoring the situation in Bulgaria and Romania closely and to keep the Council regularly informed”. These words wrap up the ministers’ conclusions. This is a clear message that there will be no more political tolerating of any lack of progress or attempts at taking steps back.

Translated by Stanimir Stoev

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Hristo Ivanov: The Cooperation and Verification Mechanism Must Be Upgraded!

Adelina Marini
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Some will say “Finally!”, others – “They are late”, and yet third ones will watch in disbelief, but ten years after its accession to the European Union Bulgaria finally has its first party, whose main task is fighting corruption. The party was founded at the beginning of the year, it is named “Da, Bulgaria” (“Yes, Bulgaria”) and has the ambition to draw solid boundaries of corrupt behaviour, especially high-level corruption. The establishment of the party happened shortly before the publication of the regular report of the European Commission under the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM), under which Bulgaria and Romania slipped into the EU unprepared, as they had not completed the reforms to create an independent judiciary, which would ensure long-term and irreversible fight against corruption and in the case of Bulgaria organised crime as well.

For those 10 years Bulgaria and Romania have drifted away from each other significantly. While findings about Bulgaria have hardly changed at all, and reports constantly mark the emergence of more and more problems in various areas, in Romania a culture of intolerance to corruption emerged, due to the successful development, despite political resistance, of independent institutions which tirelessly prosecute corruption in the high-levels of power. Therefore, the moment the political class decided to take a step back, hundreds of thousands of Romanians took to the streets of Bucharest in protest. Meanwhile on the other side of the Danube Bulgarians watched with envy, while their politicians are preparing for the next snap elections in a row in which the words “reform” and “corruption” are not on the agenda of the current political players.

“Da, Bulgaria” is somewhat a party of the protest, similar to Romania. Many people, who enrolled for participation in the young formation, were among the most popular and active participants in the massive and prolonged protests in 2013, which were provoked by the attempt of the government in power at the time to appoint as head of one of the most powerful institutions in the country – State Agency for National Security (DANS) – an extremely controversial figure, considered deeply connected with political corruption and legalised organised crime. Besides, Delyan Peevski at the time was the indirect owner of a powerful media empire, which dealt with alternative facts long before Donald Trump showed up.

DaBG emerges in a time of mass distrust by Bulgarian citizens towards political elites because of repeated lies and unfulfilled promises, making the task of the new party very difficult. I spoke with the leader of the formation in Vienna, where he met with Bulgarians hungry for a new hope of having someone to vote for, and even verify whether it makes sense to return to the homeland, which in recent decades has suffered a significant brain drain. Hristo Ivanov is a former justice minister, famous for being the first one to resign because of disagreement with the political line and mostly because of the refusal of the government to carry out the promised judicial reform. In Vienna, he was in the company of one of the most prominent activists in the 2013 protests, Georgi Iliev, and the first Bulgarian tennis star Manuela Maleeva, who devoted her career outside tennis to a foundation for helping children with orthopaedic problems and to politics.

After meeting Bulgarians in Vienna Hristo Ivanov spared 30 minutes for euinside, during which he tried to explain how he intends to fight corruption, what he expects in terms of assistance from the EU, and also what sort of EU he imagines. He has some very strong messages for the European political elite. From my conversation with him I get the impression that he is a realist. DaBG has no intention of making a moral revolution, he said in response to my question of how will they deal with a problem that many say is even rooted in the mentality. He relies on his party entering parliament, where it can exercise constant and high pressure on the Prosecutor’s Office and the Interior Ministry to deal with specific issues related to corruption.

Intolerance in society towards corruption will appear only after it is evident that the reaction of the public has any meaning for someone. “When people have been expressing their intolerance for years, when for years they have shown frustration and dissatisfaction, they are scandalised, and this remains a shot into empty space because none of the political class, none of the institutions ever react, it limits terribly the ability of people to invest emotion in being scandalised”. Hristo Ivanov believes it is possible for Bulgaria to catch up with the level of Romania in 4-5 years.

The CVM will not only not be removed, but should be upgraded and deepened!

Hristo Ivanov believes that in their current form Cooperation and Verification Mechanism reports have lost their meaning. “Without a political partner in Sofia who can actually partner the EC, and not play a game of lies with it, behaving like a bad student lying to the teacher, these reports could not continue to have effect.” He expects the Commission to seriously and publicly announce its future intentions through a conversation. “The closing of this debate between Juncker and his boy Borissov, between the EPP and PES, this matter can not be closed there. We, as a society, must participate in a renegotiation of how Bulgaria within the EU can receive support and impetus for reforms”.

Former justice minister does not believe the words of the head of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker (Luxembourg, EPP) that the CVM will be cancelled by the end of his term (2019). According to him, Juncker’s words were misinterpreted, and ultimately it’s not what he would say, but what member states will. He urged to put an end to the expectations that the mechanism will be abolished. A big drawback of the mechanism as it stands is that the missions are only four times a year, last for a week, and cover too wide a range of issues. Furthermore, the reports are the subject of political negotiations and lobbying.

According to him, the CVM should start doing much more detailed reporting as was drafted by European experts on the work of the prosecution. Moreover, he insists on a closer link between these reports and the European semester, because the semester can bring sanctions for non-compliance with the recommendations which has, however, never happened so far. Currently one of four country-specific recommendations to Bulgaria on the semester is targeted precisely at the judiciary and the fight against corruption. There is a very wide range of issues that require more specialised and much more detailed inspection, said Hristo Ivanov. He also proposes a widening of the range of the CVM to include other topics, which is also hinted at in this year’s report itself. Among these topics could be the work of the Interior Ministry. “This is a topic, which hitherto the CVM has treated for years only very superficially. Without this issue, a much more serious attention to it, a much more serious analysis, much more serious recommendations, we will remain stuck. The same applies to our security agencies.”

It is time for European political parties to assume their responsibility

The former justice minister sharply criticised European political families and German political endowments for the support they offer to their failed partners in Bulgaria. He believes they need to make a much more sober analysis of their interaction with their partners in Sofia. “How much longer will there be no political price to pay for the fact that the main partner of ALDE and the corresponding endowment in Germany is DPS (Movement for Rights and Freedoms) and this being recognised as a mainstream liberal, imagine, political formation? The same also applies for GERB by the way. The same is true in some senses of BSP. This omnivorousness of European political parties and foundations, which are willing to turn a blind eye to the fact that their partners in Sofia are suspected and stained by corruption concerns and political inaction regarding corruption must be stopped if we we want to have an honest dialogue with the European political families”.

At this stage, DaBG is in no hurry to be associated with any European political family as the number one priority at the moment is building a name and trust among Bulgarian citizens. From my interview with him I am left with the impression that he relies more on Bulgaria’s internal forces to tackle corruption, rather than outside help.

For a strong and comprehensive European Prosecutor’s Office

The issue of the creation of an European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO) seems to be very close to heart for Hristo Ivanov. He spoke in detail about it during his meeting with Bulgarians in Vienna as well, and his answers to questions by euinside also show that he takes it to heart, the more so as at the time he was a minister he was involved in the negotiations on its creation. This is one of the most difficult legislative dossiers at present in the EU. Negotiations on it have been going on for four years, and just when it seemed that agreement was reached, Sweden and The Netherlands withdrew from participation, while Poland and Hungary also expressed reservations. It was decided to move towards an enhanced cooperation procedure, which allows a certain number of member states (not less than 9) to continue alone. This will slow down the creation of this body, whose task is to fight the abuse of EU funds and cross-border VAT fraud.

During the negotiations on the new body some member states, led by Italy, insisted on a strong supranational institution which covers even the fight against organised crime. Bulgaria, too, demanded this at the time of Hristo Ivanov. In fact, Bulgaria has always supported a strong European Prosecutor’s Office. Ivanov agrees that the move towards enhanced cooperation procedure will trim the wings of the prosecution. According to him, however, integration in this area is inevitable.

“I expect, including after the completion of certain domestic political democratic cycles in France and Germany, that the European political elite will look a little more seriously on the need to build solid institutions for its security, law enforcement, and intelligence services. It is inevitable, so in some sense I look at things that are currently happening more as an inbetween time, rather than something that is a clear indication of where things are going. We really are entering a new stage of development of these institutions, of the EU, of the entire European model as such. And this stage, will take time before it is formed, before its main story lines surface, it will take a long time. A new era is beginning and this never takes just a month or two”. He did sharply criticise the lack of specific priorities for the Bulgarian Presidency of the Council, which begins next year. As a number one priority he marked namely the creation of a European prosecutor’s office. Bulgaria must unconditionally participate in the enhanced cooperation procedure, and not only to participate, but also to do everything necessary to convince countries like Germany and The Netherlands that common security issues cannot be solved without such a tool. As a second priority, he pointed to a more proactive position on what the new migration policy should look like. The third priority, which he said Bulgaria must have during the presidency, is the exchange of information between intelligence agencies and security institutions. Cyber security is a huge challenge and should be placed as such.

A great problem currently is that only five member states trust each other enough to exchange intelligence information. “We boast, beat our chests, that we have access to these systems [for information sharing], but there is no real intelligence information related to security shared there”, he said and added: “That is, it is a problem of trust, because trust between the parties has one criterion and there is just one way to measure it and it is the sharing of intelligence information. If some countries are members of a club and do not share intelligence, they do not trust each other”.

The history, stupid!

The biggest problem the EU has at the moment is the lack of leaders with vision in both the EU institutions and at national level. Most leaders have a more “economic” political thinking and a little “historicality” of consciousness. “It will take years to reload a generation of leaders with, I would say, a little clearer historicality of mind, because we are now with a generation of leaders who have much more economic political thinking, much less historicality of consciousness, including historic responsibility. Awareness of history, awareness that not everything is as was written on Clinton’s wall, not everything is economics. So, the history, stupid!”, were his words.

You can see the entire interview [in Bulgarian language] with the leader of DaBG Hristo Ivanov in the attached video. 

* Some quotes from Hristo Ivanov are edited for clarity and brevity

Translated by Stanimir Stoev

Posted in BulgariaComments Off on Hristo Ivanov: The Cooperation and Verification Mechanism Must Be Upgraded!

The Battle for the EU – Liberalism vs. Illiberalism

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


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

False Promises of the European Dream: Moldova and Bulgaria Elect Pro-Russian Presidents


As the European Union continues to spiral towards an all-out disaster due to significant economic problems, the migrant crisis, cultural decay, and an overall loss of purpose, countries like Moldova and Bulgaria, which were once blinded by the false promises of the European dream, are beginning to shift course back towards the only nation in Europe today that is experiencing a remarkable renaissance – yes, Russia.

In the second round of presidential elections, both of which took place on Sunday, November 13 – the pro-Russian candidates Igor Dodon of Moldova and Rumen Radev of Bulgaria have come out victorious over their pro-European rivals.

Reuters reports:

A pro-Russian candidate for president of Moldova has won the race, preliminary results showed on Sunday, following a campaign in which he vowed to slam the brakes on seven years of closer integration with the European Union.

With 98 percent of votes counted, online results showed Socialist candidate Igor Dodon had won 54 percent, and his pro-European challenger, Maia Sandu, had just under 45 percent. Dodon’s win is in part a reflection of a loss of trust in pro-European leaders in the ex-Soviet state of 3.5 million.

In another potential blow to the European Union brand, Bulgaria – which also held a presidential vote on Sunday – elected a pro-Russian candidate by a large margin, according to exit polls.

Since joining the European Union in 2007, Bulgaria has been plagued by the same corruption, political turbulence, and stalled economy that it had hoped to escape. Bulgarian politicians and citizens once viewed membership in the EU as the end of a long march to modernity.

“This is a day of historical justice, because Bulgarians have always been Europeans in spirit and identity,” the Bulgarian president told a crowd gathered on the day of their E.U. ascension.

Instead of prosperity, however, European Union membership has led to a steady flow of young people out of Bulgaria. Many take low-paying service jobs in other countries. College-educated Bulgarians flee for advanced sectors in countries like Germany and Sweden. The European Union’s own economic outlook for Bulgaria has been dismal, with out-migration playing a role in declining tax revenues.

As for Moldova, its Association Agreement with the EU signed back in 2014 has done more damage than good for the national economy. Moldovan export goods, which include foodstuffs, textiles, and machinery, have not been given fair access to the EU markets. Meanwhile, European products have flooded the country, pushing domestic businesses towards bankruptcy.

Since the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, agriculture and industry in Moldova has been under steady decline, making up only 37% of GDP in 2015. In comparison, this figure was at 76% back in 1989. Countries of the former USSR, including Russia and Belarus, both of which are part of the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) formed in 2015, are still among Moldova’s top export partners today.

Experts believe that by forging closer ties with the EAEU and its five member states – Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Armenia – both Moldova and Bulgaria could see a significant boost to their economies. Why? Simply because all of these nations share a common (Soviet) industrial architecture that once formed a single production and supply chain with uniform rules and regulations.

A reconstruction of this chain with a modern outlook and innovative approach has the potential to significantly increase production and output in each of these counties, providing their economies with the necessary liquidity and investments to not only develop internally, but also successfully compete on the international markets.

Ultimately, neither Moldova nor Bulgaria have anything to lose from parting ways with the EU and trying something different. Today, Bulgaria is number nine on the list of top ten poorest countries in Europe. Moldova is first, followed by its neighbor – Ukraine.

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Euro-Atlanticist course fails in Bulgaria

Image result for Rumen Radev CARTOON

In Bulgaria, the country’s first direct elections in the second round of presidential elections were won by the candidate who has been called pro-Russian. General Rumen Radev won the overwhelming majority of votes.

A former chief of the Bulgarian Air Force and the presidential candidate of the Socialist Party, General Rumen Radev emphasizes his independence from both Russia and the United States. Before the second round of the elections, he said: “Until recently, I was flying a Soviet-made fighter. I am a graduate of a US military academy, but I am a citizen of Bulgaria, and Bulgaria is my main priority.”

Despite the fact that he is called the pro-Russian candidate due to his policy of lifting the anti-Russian sanctions, reality is different. Moreover, Radev supports his country gaining NATO membership and continuing close ties with the West. However, he is certainly a more advantageous president for Moscow than Tsetska Tsacheva, who represented the ruling liberals.

In Bulgaria, the president does not play a serious role. However, Prime Minister Boyko Borisov announced his resignation and the dissolution of the government over the defeat of their candidate. He stressed that he would be going into the opposition and that “there will no longer be any compromises.” The current president, Rosen Plevneliev, began to make quite sharp anti-Russian statements several days before the election.

It is premature to expect any major changes before the new government is formed. But many agree that relations with Moscow will actually significantly improve even if the new president does not initiate the lifting of the EU sanctions against Russia.

In addition, the socialist Radev’s victory comes alongside the victory of the socialist Dodon in Moldova and, of course, against the backdrop of the high-profile election results in the US. Taken together, all of these new elections and their results allow one to speak of impending global changes across the whole world.

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Bulgaria in Turmoil after PM Quits over New Pro-Russia President


(AFP) – EU member Bulgaria faced an uncertain future on Monday after centre-right Prime Minister Boyko Borisov quit following the crushing defeat of his presidential nominee at the hands of a Moscow-friendly general backed by the Socialist opposition.

Critics fear the surprise win could tilt ex-communist Bulgaria, which has long walked a tightrope between Moscow and Brussels, towards Russia’s orbit — a trend seen across eastern and central Europe amid rising euroscepticism.

Nearby Moldova also looked set to elect a pro-Russian president on Sunday.

“The results clearly show that the ruling coalition no longer holds the majority,” the premier, who was re-elected in 2014 for a second time, said on Sunday evening.

“I apologise to those who supported us. I thought I was doing the right thing.”

The announcement came shortly after projections showed that ex-airforce chief and political novice Rumen Radev had swept close to 60 percent of ballots. Borisov’s nominee ex-parliament speaker Tsetska Tsacheva obtained just over 35 percent, in what political analysts calls a “catastrophic defeat”.

“It’s a victory for all Bulgarian people. Democracy has beaten apathy and fear today,” Radev told state TV on Sunday evening.

The straight-laced Tsacheva meanwhile failed to sway voters disgruntled over the government’s perceived failure to tackle rampant corruption and poverty in the European Union’s poorest member state.

Gallup director Parvan Simeonov told AFP the outcome was a “clear protest vote”.

Despite promised reforms, graft and poverty remain rife in the EU’s poorest member state, while public anger has also grown over thousands of migrants currently stranded in Bulgaria.

“Bulgaria needs a new face, someone who defends national interests instead of always saying ‘Yes’ to the European Union and the United States,” businessman and Sofia resident Assen Dragov, 39, told AFP Sunday.

The Bulgarian president’s role is largely ceremonial but the incumbent is nonetheless a respected figure and commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

– ‘Seek dialogue’ with Russia –

Radev is due to take office on January 22 for a five-year term. His first job will likely be to call early elections in spring next year, after Borisov said Sunday he would refuse to form an interim government.

Although GERB remains the country’s top political force, opinion polls indicate it will not be able to obtain an outright majority.

National security and preventing a new migrant influx were key points of Radev’s campaign, which saw the general gaining confidence and projecting himself as a fierce critic of the conservative status-quo.

His clear support for the lifting of EU sanctions on Russia over Ukraine and ambivalent statements about the EU and NATO have prompted analysts to speculate that he could pursue closer ties with Moscow.

“General Radev’s victory represents the unfolding of a pro-Russian scenario in Bulgaria so that the country supports Russian interests in the EU and NATO,” political expert Antoniy Galabov told AFP.

In his victory speech, Radev reiterated his support for scrapping the sanctions and also praised new US president-elect Donald Trump for “seeking more dialogue” with President Vladimir Putin.

“This gives a lot of hope for reducing (the risk) of confrontation, particularly in Syria” where Russia and the US are backing opposite sides in a bloody civil war, Radev said.

His victory signals a change of direction from outgoing President Rosen Plevneliev, a strong critic of Moscow.

Plevneliev warned Sunday that Russia was trying to “destabilise Europe” by financing anti-EU ultra-nationalists in Balkan states including in Bulgaria.

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