It passed a year after the last open armed conflict in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia – FYROM (former Socialist Republic of Macedonia as one of six federal republics of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia) in May 2015 that was just an expected continuation of constant tensions between the ethnic Albanians and the Macedonian Slavs during the last quarter of century.
However, these tensions are time to time transformed into the open armed conflicts of the Albanian extremists, usually coming from Kosovo, with the Macedonian security forces. The most notable conflict incidents in Macedonia after the Kosovo War in 1998−1999, when the Kosovo Albanians started to export Kosovo revolution to Macedonia, up to 2015 are recorded in 2001 that was ended by the EU/USA sponsored Ohrid Agreement, in 2007 when on November 7th, Macedonian special police forces liquidated six armed Albanians from the neighboring Kosovo on the Shara Mt. in the North Macedonia – the region known from 1991 as the most nationalistic and separatist Albanian area at the Balkans after Kosovo and in 2008 after the parliamentary elections in June. In the 2007 case, for instance, police found a large amount of hidden arms and ammunition on one location at the Shara Mt. (brought from Kosovo). The Balkan political analytics are kin to speculate that what is happening in Macedonia after 1999 is just a continuation of the export of Kosovo revolution from 1998−1999. It basically means that Macedonia is scheduled by the Kosovo Albanian “revolutionaries” (i.e., by the political leadership of the Kosovo Liberation Army−the KLA) to be the next Balkan country which will experience a “Kosovo syndrome” that was successfully finished by the proclamation of the Kosovo independence in February 2008. It is as well as assumed that Montenegro is going to be the third Balkan country infected by the process of Kosovization.
The pre-1991 “Macedonian Question”
Macedonia always was the crossroad of the Balkans having a vital strategic position at the peninsula. The geostrategic importance of Macedonia was probably expressed the best by the German kanzellar Otto von Bismarck: “Those who control the valley of the River Vardar are the masters of the Balkans”.
A whole historic-geographic territory of Macedonia was formerly part of the Ottoman Empire from 1371 to 1912. Macedonia was the first Yugoslav land to be occupied by the Ottomans and the last one to be liberated from the Ottoman yoke. Before the Ottoman lordship, Macedonia was governed by the Byzantine Empire, Bulgaria and Serbia. A Bulgarian sponsored the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (the IMRO) was established in 1893 in Thessaloniki with the ultimate political goal to include whole Macedonia into Bulgaria. After the Balkan Wars of 1912−1913 a territory of historic-geographic Macedonia was partitioned between Serbia, Greece and Bulgaria. During the WWI Macedonia became a scene of fierce fighting between the Central Powers and the Entente (the Macedonian front). Allied forces landed at Thessaloniki in October 1915 to be soon accompanied with approximately 150.000 Serbian soldiers who escaped from the occupied Serbia. In September 1918 under the French General Franchet d’Esperey, a joint British, French and Serbian army advanced against Bulgaria and soon liberated Serbia.
After the WWI the Treaty of Neuilly confirmed the Vardar Macedonia as a part of the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, while the Aegean Macedonia with Thessaloniki remained the Greek and the Pirin Macedonia the Bulgarian. In the 1920s a large population movement transformed the ethnic composition of the population of the historic-geographic Macedonia. The crucial exchange of population occurred after the Treaty of Lausanne as some 350.000 Muslims from Macedonia were exchanged with Turkey by around 1.200.000 ethnic Greeks from Anatolia. In the interwar time a Bulgarian sponsored IMRO terrorism activity increased in the Yugoslav Macedonia seeking to destabilize the country in order to finally annex Macedonia into Bulgaria. After 1945 the Vardar Macedonia became a socialist republic within the Yugoslav federation with recognized a separate Macedonian nationality, Macedonian language and alphabet which was standardized for the first time in history. Up to 1991 the Yugoslav authorities fostered Macedonian self-identity and nationalism at the expense of the Serb and Bulgarian national interests. Therefore, for the very reason to keep a territorial integrity of the Socialist Republic of Macedonia, her Albanian minority was not granted a status of an autonomous province like the Kosovo Albanians in Serbia who had, according to the last Yugoslav constitution in 1974, their own president, government, assembly, police, university and academy of sciences – a state within the state.
The post-1991 “Macedonian Question”
During the violent destruction of ex-Yugoslavia, in November 1991 the Socialist Republic of Macedonia proclaimed independence that was firstly recognized by Bulgaria. However, Bulgaria never recognized a separate Macedonian language and ethnicity as for Bulgarians up today all Macedonian Slavs are the ethnolinguistic Bulgarians. Of course, when Skopje decided to declare independence the Macedonians decided at the same time to deal alone with the Albanian nationalism and separatism in Macedonia without help by the Serbs. The government in Skopje believed that the West will protect a territorial integrity of Macedonia and therefore yet in 1991 the NATO’s troops were invited to be deployed in this newly proclaimed independent state which became internationally recognized in 1993 but with a provisional state’s name of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia – a unique case in the world history. Nevertheless, a new Macedonian constitution, a constitutional state’s name (the Republic of Macedonia) and the state’s symbols created immediately extremely tense and hostile relationships with a neighboring Greece as Skopje developed rival (and unjust) claims to the ethnohistorical heritage of the ancient Macedonians and the Kingdom of Macedonia. Greece and the FYROM recognized each other five years after the Macedonian official proclamation of independence when Greece lifted economic blockade against the FYROM as well.
However, the crucial challenge to the post-1991 “Macedonian Question” is coming from the ethnic breakdown of the country and historical background of interethnic relations between the Macedonian Slavs and the Macedonian Albanians. The later are the biggest and most nationalistic ethnic minority in the FYROM composing today about 30% of total population. Their number increased during the Kosovo War in 1998−1999, especially during the NATO’s “a prominent example of unauthorized humanitarian intervention” against Serbia and Montenegro, as the Kosovo Albanians, formally as the refugees, came to Macedonia followed by their compatriots from Albania – a country out of any warfare at that time. Majority of those Albanian “refugees” in fact never returned back to their homeland. Interethnic tensions between the Macedonian Slavs and the Macedonian Albanians soon became increased due to both worsening economic situation and the uncompromised Albanian nationalism as an effect of the exported “Kosovo syndrome”.
The export of Kosovo revolution after 1999 as a direct outcome of the “Kosovo syndrome” to neighboring Macedonia is in direct connection with much serious regional problem of creation of a Greater Albania from 1878 up today. After June 1999 when the NATO’s troops occupied and divided Kosovo into five occupation zones, transforming this region into their colony, the West Macedonia became a stronghold for the rebel Albanian terrorist forces which in fact came from Kosovo. The Macedonian Albanian separatism backed by the KLA paramilitary troops in the area of Tetovo, Kumanovo and Gostivar in the North-West Macedonia became directly encouraged by the fact that neighboring Kosovo Albanians finally succeeded to separate Kosovo from the rest of Serbia with direct NATO’s and EU military and diplomatic support. The same or very similar scenario was drawn now and for the West Macedonia with Skopje as a capital of the Albanian independent state of the Republic of Ilirida – a state proclaimed by the local Albanian nationalists twice after the destruction of ex-Yugoslavia: in 1992 and in September 2014. Of course, an ultimate goal is pan-Albanian unification with Tirana as a capital of a Greater Albania as it was during the WWII. Here it has to be stressed that between Kosovo, the West Macedonia and Albania in fact there is no cross-border checking as it is formally controlled by the Albanians themselves, if it is controlled at all. Therefore, in practice a Greater Albania already exists. Furthermore, the traffic connections between Tirana and Prishtina are planned to be radically improved as the Kosovo Albanian government recently agreed with the government of Albania to connect their two capitals with a modern highway probably financially sponsored by the western economies.
It is clear that according to the strategy of creation of a Greater Albania the Albanian-populated territories of the FYROM between Albania’s border and Vardar river are scheduled to be next to follow the case of Kosovo separation. The original tactic by the Albanian nationalist to separate the western portion of the FYROM from 1999 to 2001 was to struggle for the territorial-national autonomy within Macedonia with obvious purpose finally to separate it from the rest of the country as they did it with Kosovo. As a first institution for such territorial-national autonomy to be established was projected the University of Tetovo as an ideological spring of an independent Republic of Ilirida in the town that is projected to be its capital. Even in this matter the “Kosovo syndrome” is clear visible: the University of Prishtina was established by the Communist authorities to be exactly the ideological-nationalistic source of the Albanian separatism in Kosovo.
Just for the very political reasons Macedonian Albanians formally accepted a concept of a multicultural society (the 2001 Ohrid Agreement) but in practice they as the Muslims fight for the division of the society according to the ethnic lines and transformation of self-proclaimed their “territory” into the Islamic Illiridastan according to the pattern of creation of Kosovostan after June 1999. No doubt that both of Illiridastan and Kosovostan finally have to become integral parts of a Greater Albania(stan) founded on the Islamic law and tradition according to the First Prizren League’s concept from 1878. The policy of ethnoconfessional separation in the FYROM is probably mostly visible in the case of country’s capital Skopje which is strictly divided on the Christian Macedonian (Slavonic) and Muslim Albanian parts. Macedonia’s Albanians following as well as “Kosovo syndrome” are silently committing a policy of ethnic homogenization in the West Macedonia especially near the borders with Albania. Their pure propaganda claims that there are already up to 40% ethnic Albanians in the FYROM has as its political aim to obtain a constitutional status for the Albanians followed by a proclamation of the Albanian language as one of two state’s languages (like bilingual Belgium). However, according to the official 1994 census under the international observation control, there were 442.914 ethnic Albanians (22.9%) out of a total FYROM’s population that was at that time 1.936.877.
The “Macedonian Question” has always been at the heart of the Balkan politics and of interest of the Great Powers. Macedonia – the small, landlocked territory at the South Balkans has been contested during the last 150 years by all its four neighbors – Serbia, Bulgaria, Albania and Greece. A Socialist Yugoslavia of Josip Broz Tito claimed to have solved the “Macedonian Question” by the establishment of the Socialist Republic of Macedonia as a part of the Yugoslav Federation from 1945 to 1991. Nonetheless, the destruction of the second Yugoslavia in 1991 reopened the issue of the future of the territory of the Vardar Macedonia – a Serbian-Yugoslav part of a geographic-historic Macedonia given to the Kingdom of Serbia by the Bucharest Peace Treaty on August 10th, 1913. A successor “Republic of Macedonia” has been proclaimed as an independent state in November 1991 but it has not received immediately universal international recognition either of its formal political independence or of its state-flag and state-name.
Basically, after 1991 up today there are three main problems in regard to the “Macedonian Question”:
1.Will Macedonian state’s territory be divided between the Slavic Macedonians and the ethnic Albanians (who are 30% of Macedonia’s population)?;
2.Will all members of international community recognize the name of “Republic of Macedonia” (according to the Macedonian Constitution of 1991) or they will continue to call this country as it is today officially named by the UNO – the “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” (the FYROM); and
3.Will the FYROM has territorial pretensions on other parts of geographic-historic Macedonia included into Greece (the “Aegean Macedonia”) and Bulgaria (the “Pirin Macedonia”) after the Second Balkan War in 1913?
The Macedonian independence from 1991 created an extremely tense relationship with the Greek government, since Macedonia developed rival claims for ethnicity and statehood. This rivalry was epitomized in a dispute about the state’s name, as Greece objected to the use of Macedonia, whose historical heritage it claimed. These two countries eventually recognized each other in 1995, and the Greek economic blockade against Macedonia was lifted.
Nevertheless, the crucial problem in this country is that the ethnic make up of the FYROM continued to change as the Albanian refugees poured in from Kosovo and Albania increasing the size of the Albanian minority de facto to 30%. Tensions were increased through the worsening economic situation, which escalated as a result of international sanctions and the war against its main trading partner – ex-Yugoslavia. As the situation in Kosovo escalated and war erupted in 1998−1999, Macedonia became an important stronghold for the moderate Albanian opposition from Kosovo, but also for the rebel KLA. Extremely encouraged by the recognition of the Albanian required rights in Kosovo from June 1999 by the West, the Albanian minority in the West Macedonia became more assertive and politically aggressive. Following violent clashes in 2001 between the Macedonian police forces and the (Kosovo) Albanian rebels, the NATO followed the plea of the pro-western Macedonian government and increased its presence in this South Balkan country. A higher scale of a civil war was narrowly avoided in 2001 when the Macedonian parliament in Skopje agreed, but under the direct western (the EU/the USA) pressure and blackmailing, great concessions granting linguistic and limited political autonomy to the Albanian minority in Macedonia. In return, the KLA rebels in Macedonia (under the official name of the Albanian National Army – the ANA) agreed to give up their arms to the NATO’s troops – a gesture that was done more for the TV screens as the main guns’ arsenal of the KLA was returned back to Kosovo to be activated in Macedonia once again on May 9−10th, 2015 regardless on the presence of the NATO’s peace-keeping troops in Macedonia which came their in the early 1990s following the plea of the Macedonian government after the violent clashes between the Macedonian police and the Albanian rebels.
The “Macedonian Question” after the 2001 KLA rebellion in Macedonia primarily was depending on solving the “Kosovo Question”. In the other words, it was logically expected that in the case of “international” (i.e., the western) recognition of Kosovo self-proclaimed and by the west sponsored quasi-independence after February 17th, 2008 the Albanians from the West FYROM (likely followed by their compatriots from the East Montenegro) will follow a Kosovo example of regional revolution for the sake of getting territorial-national independence with a final aim to be united with a motherland Albania as it was clearly noticed even in 1997 by at that time Kosovo Albanian leader (later on the “president” of Kosovo) Ibrahim Rugova and recently in May 2015 confirmed by the PM of Albania, Edi Rama. Now we are in the process of practical realization of the Greater Albania project that was designed for the first time by the Albanian First Prizren League in 1878. Or better to say, we are today dealing with the revival of a Greater Albania created by Mussolini in 1941 – a real state that existed until the end of the WWII. A difference is only that the WWII Greater Albania was sponsored by the western nazifascism while a present-day Greater Albania is backed by the western self-proclaimed liberal democracies.
The present Macedonian government of Nikola Gruevski (PM from 2006 and a leader of the VMRO-DPMNE) is punished in May 2015 by the US-led NATO’s World Order by activating the NATO’s sponsored and protected KLA in Macedonia for two reasons:
1.A Macedonian policy not to introduce sanctions against Russia.
2.A Macedonian wish to join Russia’s sponsored the “Turkish Stream” of supplying Europe with the Siberian gas.
Nevertheless, the activation of the KLA fighters from Kosovo in the area of Kumanovo in the FYROM has and the “Greek” dimension, as well. As the current Greek government is becoming more and more close to Russia the Kosovization of Macedonia can be well used and against Greece as an instrument of punishment the Greek pro-Russian policy. Namely, a summer holiday tourism is for Greece one of the most important incomes for the national budget per year. As a huge number of the European tourists are coming to Greece by the highway that is crossing Serbia, Macedonia and exactly the Kumanovo area it is quite expectable that in the case of conflict situation in the FYROM the European tourists will simply quit an idea to visit Greece taking into account two reasons:
1.They have to cross conflicting area in Macedonia.
2.The conflict in Macedonia can spill over to Greece itself and most probably to Serbia – a country also on their road to Greece.
Finally, the armed KLA rebellion in May 2015 against the state of Macedonia is used only as a pretext for the realization of the final political aim in this Balkan country: to change the government in Skopje by the Colored Revolution like in Belgrade in October 2000. Similarly to Serbia after October 2000 a new post-revolution Macedonian government is expected by its western sponsors to transform Macedonia into another client state of the post-Cold War NATO’s World Order. If this plan is going to be realized depends only on one actor – Russia.
From Davos to Munich
An overview of the views and attitudes of European officials during the Davos and Munich Conference and their comparison with each other suggests that the security, economic, and political concerns of European countries have not only not diminished but are increasing.
During the World Economic Summit in Davos, the Chancellor of Germany and the President of France both gave a significant warning about the return of nationalism and populism to Europe. This warning has been sent in a time when Far-Right movements in Europe have been able to gain unbelievable power and even seek to conquer a majority of parliaments and form governments.
In her speech, Angela Merkel emphasized that the twentieth century’s mistake shouldn’t be repeated. By this, the German Chancellor meant the tendency of European countries to nationalism. Although the German Chancellor warning was serious and necessary, the warning seems to be a little late. Perhaps it would have been better if the warning was forwarded after the European Parliamentary elections in 2014, and subsequently, more practical and deterrent measures were designed. However, Merkel and other European leaders ignored the representation of over a hundred right-wing extremist in the European Parliament in 2014 and merely saw it as a kind of social excitement.
This social excitement has now become a “political demand” in the West. The dissatisfaction of European citizens with their governments has caused them to explicitly demand the return to the twentieth century and the time before the formation of the United Europe. The recent victories of right wing extremists in Austria, Germany and…, isn’t merely the result of the nationalist movement success in introducing its principles and manifestos. But it is also a result of the failure of the “European moderation” policy to resolve social, security and economic problems in the Eurozone and the European Union. In such a situation, European citizens find that the solutions offered by the moderate left parties didn’t work in removing the existing crises in Europe. Obviously, in this situation “crossing the traditional parties” would become a general demand in the West. Under such circumstances, Merkel’s and other European leaders’ warnings about the return to the twentieth century and the time before the formation of the United Europe simply means the inability of the Eurozone authorities in preventing the Right-extremism in the West.
These concerns remain at the Munich Security Conference. As Reuters reported, The defense ministers of Germany and France pledged to redouble their military and foreign policy cooperation efforts on Friday, inviting other European countries to participate if they felt ready to do so.
In a speech to the Munich Security Conference, German defense minister Ursula von der Leyen said Europe’s countries would not be able to respond nimbly enough to global challenges if they were stymied by the need to decide joint foreign policy approaches unanimously.
“Europe has to up its pace in the face of global challenges from terrorism, poverty and climate change,” she said. “Those who want to must be able to advance without being blocked by individual countries.”
Her French counterpart Florence Parly said any such deepened cooperation would be complementary to the NATO alliance, which itself was based on the principle that members contributed differently depending on their capacities.
“The reality has always been that some countries are by choice more integrated and more able to act than others,” she said.
The push comes as Germany’s political class reluctantly concedes it must play a larger security role to match its economic pre-eminence in Europe, amid concerns that the European Union is unable to respond effectively to security concerns beyond its eastern and southern borders.
But in their deal for another four years of a “grand coalition” government, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives and the Social Democrats have agreed to boost spending on the armed forces after years of post-Cold War decline.
The deal, which must still be ratified by the Social Democrat membership, comes as Germany reluctantly takes on the role of the continent’s pre-eminent political power-broker, a role generations of post-war politicians have shied away from.
Days after U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis reiterated President Donald Trump’s demand that European countries spend more on their militaries, Von der Leyen pledged to spend more on its military and the United Nations, but called in return for other countries not to turn away from mulitlateralism.
The pledges come as the EU seeks a new basis on which to cooperate with Britain, traditionally one of the continent’s leading security players, after its vote to leave the EU.
Earlier on Friday, the leaders of the three countries’ security services said close security cooperation in areas like terrorism, illegal migration, proliferation and cyber attacks, must continue after Britain’s departure.
“Cooperation between European intelligence agencies combined with the values of liberal democracy is indispensable, especially against a background of diverse foreign and security challenges,” they said.
First published in our partner Tehran Times
Election Monitoring in 2018: What Not to Expect
This year’s election calendar released by OSCE showcases a broad display of future presidential, parliamentary and general elections with hefty political subjecthoods which have the potential of transforming in their entirety particularly the European Union, the African Union and the Latin American sub-continent. A wide sample of these countries welcoming elections are currently facing a breadth of challenges in terms of the level of transparency in their election processes. To this end, election observation campaigns conducted by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), the Council of Europe, the Organisation for American States (OAS), the United Nations Electoral Assistance Division, the National Democratic Institute, Carter Center and even youth organisations such as AEGEE and Silba are of paramount importance in safeguarding the incorruptibility of election proceedings in fraudulent and what cannot be seen with the naked eye type of fraudulent political systems, making sure elections unfold abiding national legislation and international standards.
What exactly does an election observation mission supposed to accomplish?
An election monitoring mission consists of operational experts and analysts who are all part of a core team and are conducting their assignments for a period of time varying between 8 and 12 weeks. Aside from the core team experts and analysts, there can be short-term or long-term observers and seconded observers or funded observers. Joining them, there is usually a massive local support staff acting as interpreters and intermediaries. Generally, an election observer does not interfere with the process, but merely takes informative notes. With this in mind, it is imperative of the observer to make sure there isn’t any meddling with votes at polling stations by parties and individual candidates; that the people facilitating the election process are picked according to fair and rigorous benchmarks; that these same people can be held accountable for the final results and that, at the end of the day, the election system put in place by the national and local authorities is solid from both a physical and logical standpoint. Oftentimes, particularly in emerging democracies, the election monitoring process goes beyond the actual process of voting by extending to campaign monitoring.
In practical terms, the average election observer needs to abide by certain guidelines for a smooth and standardised monitoring process. Of course, these rules can vary slightly, depending on the sending institution. Typically, once the election observer has landed in the country awaiting elections, their first two days are normally filled with seminars on the electoral system of the country and on the electoral law. Meetings with candidates from the opposition are sometimes organised by the electoral commission. Talking to ordinary voters from builders to cleaners, from artists to businesspeople is another way through which an election observer can get a sense of what social classes pledged their allegiances to what candidates. After two days in training and the one day testing political preferences on the ground, election day begins. Since the early bird gets the worm, polling stations open at least two hours earlier than the work day starts, at around 7am. Throughout the day, observers ask voters whether they feel they need to complain about anything and whether they were asked to identify themselves when voting. Other details such as the polling stations opening on time are very much within the scope of investigation for election monitors. Observers visit both urban voting centres and rural ones. In the afternoon, counting begins with observers carefully watching the volunteers from at least 3 metres away. At the end of the day, observers go back to their hotels and begin filling in their initial questionnaires with their immediate reactions on the whole voting process. In a few weeks time, a detailed report would be issued in cooperation with all the other election observers deployed in various regions of the country and under the supervision of the mission coordinators.
Why are these upcoming elections particularly challenging to monitor?
Talks of potential Russian interference into the U.S. elections have led to full-on FBI investigations. Moreover, the idea of Russian interference in the Brexit vote is slowly creeping into the British political discourse. Therefore, it does not take a quantum physicist to see a pattern here. Hacking the voting mechanism is yet another not-so-classic conundrum election observers are facing. We’re in the midst of election hacking at the cognitive level in the form of influence operations, doxing and propaganda. But, even more disturbingly, we’re helpless witnesses to interference at the technical level as well. Removing opposition’s website from the Internet through DDOS attacks to downright political web-hacking in Ukraine’s Central Election Commission to show as winner a far-right candidate are only some of the ways which present an unprecedented political savviness and sophistication directed at the tampering of the election machinery. Even in a country such as the U.S. (or Sweden – their elections being held September of this year) where there is a great deal of control over the physical vote, there is not much election monitoring can do to enhance the transparency of it all when interference occurs by way of the cyber domain affecting palpable election-related infrastructure.
Sketching ideational terrains seems like a fruitful exercise in imagining worst-case scenarios which call for the design of a comprehensive pre-emptive approach for election fraud. But how do you prevent election fraud? Sometimes, the election observer needs to come to terms with the fact that they are merely a reporter, a pawn which notwithstanding the action of finding oneself in the middle of it all, can generally use only its hindsight perspective. Sometimes, that perspective is good enough when employed to draft comprehensive electoral reports, making a difference between the blurry lines of legitimate and illegitimate political and electoral systems.
Can Europe successfully rein in Big Tobacco?
In what looks set to become the ‘dieselgate’ of the tobacco industry, a French anti-smoking organization has filed a lawsuit against four major tobacco brands for knowingly selling cigarettes with tar and nicotine levels that were between 2 and 10 times higher than what was indicated on the packs. Because the firms had manipulated the testing process, smokers who thought they were smoking a pack a day were in fact lighting up the equivalent of up to 10, significantly raising their risk for lung cancer and other diseases.
According to the National Committee Against Smoking (CNCT), cigarettes sold by the four companies have small holes in the filter that ventilate smoke inhaled under test conditions. But when smoked by a person, the holes compress due to pressure from the lips and fingers, causing the smoker to inhale higher levels of tar and nicotine. According to the lawsuit, the irregularity “tricks smokers because they are unaware of the degree of risk they are taking.”
It was only the most recent example of what appears to be a deeply entrenched propensity for malfeasance in the tobacco industry. And unfortunately, regulatory authorities across Europe still appear unprepared to just say no to big tobacco.
Earlier this month, for instance, Public Health England published a report which shines a positive light on “tobacco heating products” and indicates that electronic cigarettes pose minimal health risks. Unsurprisingly, the UK report has been welcomed by big tobacco, with British American Tobacco praising the clear-sightedness of Public Health England.
Meanwhile, on an EU-wide level, lawmakers are cooperating too closely for comfort with tobacco industry executives in their efforts to craft new cigarette tracking rules for the bloc.
The new rules are part of a campaign to clamp down on tobacco smuggling, a problem that is particularly insidious in Europe and is often attributed to the tobacco industry’s own efforts to stiff the taxman. According to the WHO, the illicit cigarette market makes up between 6-10% of the total market, and Europe ranks first worldwide in terms of the number of seized cigarettes. According to studies, tobacco smuggling is also estimated to cost national and EU budgets more than €10 billion each year in lost public revenue and is a significant source of cash for organized crime. Not surprisingly, cheap availability of illegally traded cigarettes is also a major cause of persistently high smoking rates in the bloc.
To help curtail cigarette smuggling and set best practices in the fight against the tobacco epidemic, the WHO established the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) in 2005. The first protocol to the FCTC, the Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products, was adopted in 2012 and later ratified by the EU. Among other criteria, the Protocol requires all cigarette packs to be marked with unique identifiers to ensure they can be tracked and traced, thereby making smuggling more difficult.
Unsurprisingly, the tobacco industry has come up with its own candidates to meet track and trace requirements, notably Codentify, a system developed by PMI. From 2005 through 2016, PMI used Codentify as part of an anti-smuggling agreement with the EU. But the agreement was subject to withering criticism from the WHO and other stakeholders for going against the Protocol, which requires the EU and other parties to exclude the tobacco industry from participating in anti-smuggling efforts.
The EU-PMI agreement expired in 2016 and any hopes of reviving it collapsed after the European Parliament, at loggerheads with the Commission, overwhelmingly voted against a new deal and decided to ratify the WHO’s Protocol instead. Codentify has since been sold to the French firm Impala and was rebranded as Inexto – which critics say is nothing but a front company for PMI since its leadership is made out of former PMI executives. Nonetheless, due to lack of stringency in the EU’s draft track and trace proposal, there is still a chance that Inexto may play a role in any new track and trace system, sidelining efforts to set up a system that is completely independent of the tobacco industry.
This could end up by seriously derailing the EU’s efforts to curb tobacco smuggling, given the industry’s history of active involvement in covertly propping up the black market for cigarettes. In 2004, PMI paid $1.25 billion to the EU to settle claims that it was complicit in tobacco smuggling. As part of the settlement, PMI agreed to issue an annual report about tobacco smuggling in the EU, a report that independent researchers found “served the interests of PMI over those of the EU and its member states.”
Given the industry’s sordid history of efforts to prop up the illicit tobacco trade, it’s little surprise that critics are still dissatisfied with the current version of the EU’s track and trace proposal.
Now, the CNCT’s lawsuit against four major tobacco firms gives all the more reason to take a harder line against the industry. After all, if big tobacco can’t even be honest with authorities about the real levels of chemicals in their own products, what makes lawmakers think that they can play a viable role in any effort to quell the illegal cigarette trade – one that directly benefits the industry?
Later this month, the European Parliament will have a new chance to show they’re ready to get tough on tobacco, when they vote on the pending proposal for an EU-wide track and trace system. French MEP Younous Omarjee has already filed a motion against the system due to its incompatibility with the letter of the WHO. Perhaps a ‘dieselgate’ for the tobacco industry might be just the catalyst they need to finally say no to PMI and its co-conspirators.
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