In the light of the frequent disagreements witnessed nowadays in the transatlantic Western community as concerns the NATO Alliance and its relevancy, especially as it concerns Russia’s intentions toward the Baltic countries, the question arises: does the idea of the West include a community of values and if so which are they?
Could it be that the disagreements arise out of ignorance as to what those common values might be? One of them is undoubtedly the idea of democracy which goes back to the ancient Greeks. Why then the vehement disagreements and misunderstandings? Let us briefly explore the issue searching for historical data, theory and practice.
Geographically speaking it cannot be asserted that Europe as a whole has always been or is now a community of values. During the Cold War any nation in Europe East of the Iron Curtain was designated at East. Those included nations who formerly were historically part of the West; countries such as the three Baltic states, Poland the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary. After the Cold War seven of the eight Eastern European countries would join the EU. Those on the West side of the Iron Curtain were designated as the West. But some, such as Turkey and Greece were not part of the historical West which in Medieval times comprised the land of the Holy Roman Empire of Charlemagne. Most of them were democratic and were members of the Atlantic Alliance named NATO. So, at first glance it would appear that democracy was the common glue or the common value. But things are not that simple.
What comprises the historical West? It was the part of Europe that throughout the Middle Ages looked to Rome as its spiritual center. That is to say, the old West was the part of Europe that belonged to the Western church. Only that part of Europe, knew of pre-modern forms of power separation, that is to say, the separation of spiritual and temporal power. That part of Europe also experienced, the late medieval and early modern emancipatory movements dubbed the Renaissance and the Reformation, humanism and the Enlightenment. The domain of the Eastern church, that of Byzantium and, later, of Moscow, followed a very different trajectory. It experienced the subordination of spiritual to temporal power and did not know the system of reciprocal fealty between lords and vassals known as European feudalism. It knew nothing of the Investiture Controversy, of the revolution of of Gregory VII as the first European revolugion resulting eventually in the victory of the temporal over the spiritual power which took place in Western Europe. This dualism of temporal and spiritual power may be considered the beginning of the West’s spirt of individualism, it planted the seeds of freedom which may be considered the West’s distinguishing characteristic. That distinction, to be sure, is already in nuce in Christ’s reply to the Pharisees: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” That, if anything is, is a rejection of theocracy and the announcement of secularization, or the refusal to concede to religious authority secular powers, considered autonomous. Neverthless, a secular brotherhood without any kind of fatherhood is also incongruous. So, it appears that religion, or more specifically Christianity who posits a God who is our father, is also a glue needed to give substance to the concepts of brotherhood, liberty, and equality. That glue needs to be analyzed, independent of one’s religious beliefs.
Montesquieu, a French Enlightenment thinker, argued that moderate government was far more compatible with Christianity, while a despotic government was more compatible with Islam. “It is a misfortune to human nature when religion is given by a conqueror,” affirmed Montesquieu. Like Christ Montesquieu appeals to the original separation between the spheres of God and the emperor: “We ought not to decide by divine laws what should be decided by human laws; nor determine by human what should be determined by divine laws.” Leaders must be measured by such a yardstick.
The modern separation of legislature, executive, and judicial powers developed by Montesquieu in The Spirit of Laws continued the process that began with the pre-modern separation of spiritual and temporal, and princely and estate powers. Montesquieu was in fact the first classical thinker to grant the judicial branch the status of an autonomous “third” power. He did not live to see the birth of the country in which his views on the separation of powers would appear: the United States of America. In the Federalist Papers, a series of articles by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison drafted at the Philadelphia Convention in 1787, Montesquieu was by far the most cited author. To be sure Montesquieu himself had drawn from the ancient Greek historian Polybius, of the second century- B.C. who had promoted the concept of a mixed constitution. Polybius saw in the Roman Republic an ideal combination of monarchic, aristocratic, and democratic virtues—a combination, so he believed, that shielded Rome from the dangers inherent in the pure forms of monarchy as well as pure forms of aristocracy or democracy. This idea would be called in the US “checks and balances,” as first mentioned by John Adams in 1787 in the preface to his A Defense of the Contitutions of Government of the United States; that is to say, all parts of the government would keep an eye on each other to prevent abuses and corruption.
The Constitution was followed by the first ten amendments, the Bill of Rights, which appeared in 1791. Hence the claim of the United States that it is the birth nation of individual rights. The Virginia Declaration of Rights from June 12, 1776, began its catalogue of basic rights, the first comprehensive catalogue of its kind, with these words: “That all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.” Three weeks later, on July 4, 1776, the delegates of the Constitutional Congress approved the Declaration of Independence.
The declaration combines a concept of human rights with a consequent principle of popular sovereignty to form a single but momentous sentence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed, by their Creator, with certain un-alienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” With this sentence, the Declaration of Independence brought together millennia worth of experience and insights, making self-evident truths into a project to change the
world and the American Revolution into history’s first modern revolution. Like John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and many of the other signers, Jefferson drew on an intellectual tradition shared by natural rights philosophers since the Stoics, by the teachings of more recent thinkers such as Locke and Montesquieu, and by the general Americans’ ideas about the necessity of religious and political tolerance. But the question persists: why had the idea of inalienable rights arisen in America at the level of constitutional articles? Could religious freedom as a human inalienable right be the roots of the idea rather than the French Revolution? Here too things are not so simple as invoking the French Revolution as the beginning of individual rights.
To be sure, most of the fathers of the US Declaration of Independence were not pious observing Christians like the Puritans but they believed in the likelihood of a God, or some higher being, capable of reward and punishment, though not all of them believed in the divinity of Jesus or in the Trinity. Properly speaking they were deists and not opposed in principle to the ideas of the champions of religious freedom such Roger Williams and William Penn. What obtained in America was something unique: a sort of marriage between the secular Enlightenment and extensive reading of the classics on constitutional law and religious freedom. This was indeed uniquely American, not French, not European. Consequently the Declaration of Independence proclaimed that inalienable rights are bestowed on individuals “by their Creator,” thus expressing more than a mere credo that enlightened deists and devout Christians could agree on. For indeed the very idea of an individual dignity common to all originates from the Judeo-Christian belief in one God who created human beings in His image and who loves all as his children.
Historically, therefore, the declaration of the equality of all individuals before the law presupposes the equality of all individuals before God. There is indeed an historical link between Christian religion and the Western idea of freedom which could develop because there existed in the historical West a tradition separating spiritual and worldly temporal power looking askance at state religions. The American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, wrote in his 1952 The Irony of American History that the two major religious and moral traditions that shaped early American life—the Calvinism of New England (Puritanism) and the deism of Virginia—arrived at conspicuously similar conclusions about the meaning of America’s national character and the intended purpose of the United States: “Whether our nation interprets its spiritual heritage through Massachusetts or Virginia we came into existence with the sense of being a ‘separated’ nation, which God was using to make a new beginning for mankind.” A new beginning for mankind, indeed it must felt that way in the Athens of four centuries BC.
This identification of the roots of the rights of individual citizens in Puritanism and Deism contradicted of course France’s assertion that it alone was the original pioneer of individual rights. Indeed, it is historically undeniable that the American declarations of rights passed by Virginia and other former British colonies in North America had done much to shape the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen adopted by the National Constituent Assembly on August 26, 1789 during the French Revolution. The idea of passing such a declaration before writing a constitution was first proposed on August 11 by Marquis de Lafayette, who had fought for the American revolution, with the active assistance of Thomas Jefferson who was at the time US ambassador to France.
During his trip to America at the beginning of the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville was surprised to observe that in the United States two otherwise sharply opposed elements had interpenetrated and connected with one another in a marvelous way: the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom. Even today, parts of American society tend to derive political freedom from religion, underestimating the contributions of the Enlightenment to human rights, the constitutional state, and democracy. In Europe, by contrast, there is a tendency to neglect the fact that Western values and Enlightenment ideas are embedded in their own tradition, one depending just as much on Jewish and Christian values as on ancient ones. Both views are one-sided and require correction: they must recall what connects the “old” European West with its “new” American counterpart. This may go a long way in explaining the current misunderstandings mentioned at the beginning of this essay. Knowledge of the historical record may go a long way in correcting those biases.
After the Declaration of Independence, over four decades elapsed before the United States as a whole became comfortable with the concept of democracy, no longer perceiving it to contradict their deliberately chosen representative system. Political progress seemed assured but slavery, for its part, existed for nine decades of US history and its eradication in the south required nothing less than a bloody civil war in 1860. It took another hundred years before an energetic and successful movement (The Civil Rights movement) arose against the racial discrimination of the slaves’ descendents.
As mentioned, Europe tends to neglect that Western ideas depend on Jewish and Christian values. There is an unfortunate tendency to forget what connects the “old” European West with its “new” American counterpart. The Declarations of the Rights of Man of the late 18th century were the result of transatlantic collaboration. Together, both sides laid the groundwork for the political project of the West. To forget that fact is to end up in anti-Americanism which is usually a caricature of that the US is all about, or anti-Europeanism, disparagingly dubbed “Old Europe” at times.
The American revolution was modern history’s first revolution but it was not connected to the defeat of any particular class and so there were never any antidemocratic sentiments after independence. The revolution was never against the principles of traditional English constitutional law, but rather it was a protest against their infringement by England. That was not the case with the French Revolution which because of the excesses of the Jacobins produced an anti-revolutionary right-wing. In Great Britain, it took 30 years for a parliamentary monarchy to establish itself after the Glorious Revolution of 1688. In Germany it took Nazi dictatorship, and Germany’s second defeat on the 20th-century global stage to undercut the antidemocratic biases still harbored by elites and large portions of the general population. Moreover, when the opportunity to learn from the failed Weimar Republic and to create a functional parliamentary democracy finally came after 1945, not all Germans were able to take advantage of it—just those who lived in the western occupation zones, the future Federal Republic of Germany. The other Germans belonged to the East or the Soviet dominated part of Europe, hardly democratic.
When Germany was finally reunifies it promptly joined the Atlantic alliance. Moreover, eight East European states, which had been under Communist rule, joined the European Union. In some way the reunification of the West was accomplished. All the countries that had belonged to the West were back in the West after 1989. As Willy Brandt put it a day after the fall of the Berlin Wall: “now what belonged together could finally grow together.” Indeed, with the reunification, what “belonged together” could finally “grow together” but as mentioned above this was not a mere European political phenomenon, it was based on common values which were transatlantic and even global.
After World War I, democracy was not able to take firm root in most countries of Eastern Europe, including Germany. In West Germany, it took four decades after the end of World War II before a public figure like the philosopher Jürgen Habermas could declare that “The unreserved opening of the Federal Republic to the political culture of the West is the major intellectual accomplishment of the postwar era, of which my generation in particular can be proud.”
It was this “unreserved opening to the political culture of the West” that would become the criterion used by the European Union to measure both its members and those nations that wanted to become members. For a country to open itself to the political culture of the West, it does not need to be a part of the historical political West. This was the case neither with Greece, which joined the European Union in 1981, nor with Romania and Bulgaria, which joined in 2007). But values and political cultures have their history; those who profess the Western values embodied by the 1993 Copenhagen criteria for EU membership must know that history and accept its legitimacy. The political culture of the West is pluralistic, which means that it must tolerate and foster a culture of debate and free speech. A pluralistic democracy depends, practically in its very existence, on political differences being dealt with peacefully. In that sense an authoritarian country like Russia which partly European geographically speaking, is hardly Western. In fact what Putin emphasized in his search for the lost greater Russia is that Russian civilization is different from decadent Western civilization, and it is in fact superior to it.
A pluralistic democracy thus requires both: on the one hand, a non-controversial sector of state and society, a “codex of values generally accepted as valid,” on the other, a controversial sector that needs regular deliberation and approval. The question we asked at the outset of this analysis returns: can the West be considered a community of values, but one in which the political consequences of those values remain—indeed, must remain—in dispute? After all, it can hardly be denied, unless one is hopelessly afflicted by historical amnesia that Western values are the product of a transatlantic experience and viewpoints that are subject to change.
The common grounds of the West become especially noticeable in comparison with other societies and cultures. The European Union and the United States do not need to invent a common foe to remain together. It would be enough to know the history of democracy and the history of its religious tenets. And then all that would remain to be done is to defend the values and institutions of the West against all threats and attacks; even promote them around the globe. But there is a caveat here: a policy that aims to spread Western values and forms of life by force and coercion or by CIA covert operations is doomed to fail. The United States, Great Britain, and France were successful in helping West Germany rebuild a democracy because they were able to tap into the free, constitutional, and democratic traditions that German history had already brought forth. On the other hand a country like Iraq simply lacks the historical experience necessary to become a Jeffersonian democracy while one like Turkey, on the other hand, may possess enough of it to be able to perfect it.
What we need to keep in mind is that democracy is much more than majority rule. A Western- type democracy is predicated on a pluralistic civil society that agrees to adhere to inalienable human rights and the rule of law. The laws referred to are both written and unwritten and include the the nomoi ágraphoi of the ancient Greeks and the norms of Christian and Enlightenment natural rights. Sadly, what we have today in the EU Parliament are parliamentarians on the extreme right who have been elected democratically but basically envision a non democratic future. That is an abuse of democracy and free speech. Indeed, time and again, the West has blatantly violated the very values it claims to profess. The West cannot afford to not forget its history of racism, colonialism, and imperialism, and the sad consequences of that history—not if it wants to stand by its professed values with any kind of credibility. Some US founding fathers, by retaining slaves, did not help their democratic cause. To profess ideals and values only in theory and not in practice is to run the risk of being branded a hypocrite.
Today Western achievements like the constitutional state, the separation of powers, and democracy have already been adopted by many non-Western societies. At this point in history the West no longer dominates the world. It merely represents one form of life and political culture among many. However, the claim of inalienable human rights remains a universal value. Since it would be contradiction to implement those rights by force, the West can do nothing better than adhere to its own values, promote them, and, where possible, to oppose their most crass violations with all means, including humanitarian intervention and perhaps even military intervention. Consequently, the West must strongly support the reform of the United Nations and the reworking of its charter. Yet, as mentioned above, the West is far from having sufficient unity and insight into the importance and cohesive power of non-material interests to take decisive action. If NATO is there merely to defend economic interests it would indeed be an irrelevant institutions. The West can certainly learn from its own history; perhaps the non-Western parts of the world can also learn from that history. But the project of the West on human rights remains incomplete; it can be perfected and advanced not by empty slogans but by building a community of values which are taken seriously and are not a cover-up for crass political-economic agendas. Those values are not geographical; they are not valid because they are European, or American, or Australian, or Canadian, but because they are universal. They can historically be characterized as Western but doing so only increases the responsibility of Western countries to lend them validity by their loyalty to them.
Belgrade and Pristina: Will a territorial exchange really happen?
The European Union is dialing up pressure on Serbia and Kosovo in an effort to convince Belgrade and Pristina to sign an agreement on normalizing bilateral relations. This would allow Brussels to seize the initiative in the Balkans from the United States, which has previously managed to get the two sides clinch a similar deal on trade and other economic issues. Moreover, the EU is even ready to break from its previous policy and give a nod to a territorial exchange between Serbs and Albanians, which was categorically rejected, above all by Germany. However, while the Serbian leadership largely welcomes the idea, the Kosovo Albanians’ radically-minded leaders rule out any territorial concessions to Belgrade, thus deepening the Kosovo impasse.
Albin Kurti, the leader of the radical Vetëvendosje (“Self-Determination”) movement, who has regained the Kosovo premiership, categorically rejected the idea of any territorial exchange with Serbia, proposed by the EU’s High Representative for International Affairs Josep Borrell.
“I do not think that we should give anything away.” … “This is pressure from Serbia. They want us to give in,” Kurti said.
That being said, the former Kosovo president, Hashim Thaci, actively lobbied the idea of a territorial exchange, even more than others. Back in August 2018, he and his Serbian counterpart Aleksandar Vucic reached a preliminary agreement on this when meeting on the sidelines of the European Forum in Alpbach, Austria. Thaci and Vucic voiced their intention to double down on signing a comprehensive deal, and invited the EU to act as its mediator and guarantor.
“We have a small window of opportunity,” Hashim Thaci said at the time. The planned agreement was supposed to be inked in Brussels already in September 2018, with the participation of the EU leadership. However, the whole process immediately hit a snag due to disagreements over border delimitation and opposition protests in both Belgrade and Pristina.
According to the plan, devised by Hashim Thaci, the delimitation issues should be discussed as a “package” and provide for a complex exchange of territories, including both the Serbian-populated North Kosovo communities of Leposavic, Zvecan and Zubin Potok (roughly one-fifth of the territory of Kosovo), and the southern Serbian communities of Buyanovac, Presevo and, preferably, Medvedja, adjacent to Kosovo, populated mainly by ethnic Albanians. The Kosovar leader argued that a territorial exchange whereby regions with a majority Albanian population would end up in Kosovo, and those with a predominantly Serbian population – in Serbia, would help ease tensions between Belgrade and Pristina.
According to the latest census in Serbia, about 90,000 people live on the territory of the three southern Serbian communities: in Presevo, 89 percent are Albanians and 9 percent are Serbs; in Bujanovac, 55 percent are Albanians and 34 percent are Serbs; in Medvedja, 26 percent are Albanians and 67 percent are Serbs. Thus, Albanians already make up the majority of the population of Presevo and Bujanovac. In Medvedja, their share has also been steadily rising.
While President Aleksandar Vucic generally agrees to the partition of Kosovo with the return of control over the province’s northern regions to Belgrade, he is still against the idea of extending the “package” exchange to include the southern Serbian communities of the Presevo Valley.
There is no unity on this issue outside the Balkans too, with Germany and France initially rejecting the idea of territorial exchanges as such, arguing that this could fire up tensions in North Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
“The territorial integrity of the Western Balkan states is already a hard fact and cannot be changed,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said.
Austria has been foursquare behind the partition of Kosovo as a means of normalizing relations between Belgrade and Pristina.
“If Serbia and Kosovo agree on a border correction, the agreement will have our support,” Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said.
The EU’s Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighborhood Policy Johannes Hahn equally favored the upcoming agreement. He urged his EU colleagues not to obstruct the deal between Pristina and Belgrade, even if it involves changing borders. Such an agreement, if it is reached, will be a one-off affair though and “should not be used as an example for solving other problems,” Hahn said at the end of August 2018.
The US administration backed the upcoming deal, with President Trump’s national security advisor John Bolton going on record saying that “Our policy, the US policy, is that if the two parties can work it out between themselves and reach agreement, we don’t exclude territorial adjustments.”
The agreement on the exchange of territories, drawn up in 2018 never came to fruition though. Responsibility for this failure lies with radical nationalist forces in both Belgrade and Pristina, not interested in any compromise solutions that won’t sit well with their own political intentions. While Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic is still in power and has not changed his position, Vjos Osmani, who replaced Hashim Thaci as President of Kosovo, is less inclined to accept any compromises with Belgrade.
This situation adds to EU and US headaches with Barack Obama’s de facto foreign policy team, now back in power in Washington, being eager to strengthen the position of the United States in the Balkans through more active military and political activity and pressure (not trade and economic scenarios and proposals, as was the case under Donald Trump). The EU and the US now have two options to choose from – either to ramp up pressure on Serbia in order to force it to recognize Kosovo without any territorial exchanges (which is more to the Joe Biden administration’s liking), or to convince the Kosovar leaders to accept territorial compromises (more preferred by the EU).
And here we should not forget about the Bosnian factor, since any changes to the status and borders of Kosovo will inevitably reflect on the domestic political situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina and, in particular, on the position of the Bosnian Serbs. When briefing reporters a few days ago, the chairman of the Presidium of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Milorad Dodik, said that in any case he would insist on the implementation of the concept of “peaceful divergence,” that is, the disintegration of the country, which, according to him, is already happening. He stated that the integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina cannot be maintained, and this is something that has increasingly been discussed by the international community.
“We are waiting for the moment when a peaceful gap becomes real,” Milorad Dodik noted, adding that he was not a warmonger and was only offering a way out of the current situation, which he described as unstable.
The EU too appears ready to “reformat” Bosnia and Herzegovina. When, during a visit to Sarajevo in early March of this year, Slovenian President Borut Pahor informally asked members of that country’s collective leadership whether a “peaceful divergence” was a possibility. Bosnian Muslim Shefik Jaferovic and Croat Zeljko Komšić responded that this was impossible, while Milorad Dodik, for his part, said that it was a likely scenario.
The current situation of “unstable equilibrium” around Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina is serious enough to prod all the disputing parties to more actively seek Russia’s mediation. Serbia and Republika Srpska maintain partner relations with Moscow. Meanwhile, the disagreements between the EU and the United States could make the other participants in the discussions more accommodating, including the Kosovar Albanians, who are interested in normalizing relations with Belgrade and implementing large-scale regional projects.
From our partner International Affairs
A leaderless ship: The Bulgaria’s political crisis and the storm to come
Internal and international tensions
Politics tends to develop in a complex conundrum in all Balkan countries. Thus, never can observers take their eyes off the ball, investors feel completely safe or international partners express enduring satisfaction. In effect, this is the case also for bits of the region that have joined the European Union in the last decade. Recently, Bulgaria has been the most interesting hearth of, popular outrage, institutional instability and international tensions amongst the latter countries.
Actually, the atmosphere began simmering back in Summer 2020, when thousands of people took to the streets for several weeks. Arguably, the combination of the umpteenth high-echelon corruption scandal involving andthe pandemic-induced recession was only the most immediate cause. Swiftly, dissatisfaction led to vigorous calls for the Prime Minister’s and the Attorney General’s resignation and early election. Even the President of the Republic, Rumen Radev, broke with his supposed non-partisanship and joined the protestors gathering vast support. However, the winter suppressed street protests and Boyko Borisov, the Prime Minister, exploited the pandemic to justify his indifference.
In the meantime, the cabinet embroiled Bulgaria in a dispute which the country had refrained from ever since 1991. The so-called ‘Macedonian question’predates the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’s independence, but only then turned into a crisis. Indeed, the hardest-fought issue was that surrounding the use of the name ‘Macedonia’, which Greece opposed until the Prespa Agreement. But the newly named Republic of North Macedonia has failed to acknowledge the deep historical and cultural connection with Bulgaria. Eventually, the former’s lack of real cooperation led Sofia to veto the opening of negotiations on EU membership. Thence, scholars have criticised the country’s government while foreign politicians tried to persuade Borisov to lift his veto.
Against the background of such a delicate, multifaceted domestic and international circumstances Bulgaria celebrated regular election on April 4. The country needed everything but being left leaderless, but this is exactly what happened.
Election results: Who to form a cabinet?
The most recent elections speak volume about the difficulty in understanding Bulgarian politics and understanding what the popular sentiment is. For a start, GERB, Borisov’s party, lost about 300,000 votes falling from 33.65%in 2017, to 26.18% this year. Moreover, the nationalist collation United Patriots, GERB’s reliable allies, split up and failed to clear the 4% threshold. Thus, with his 75 MPs in the 240-seat Parliament Borisov had no more a majority and desperately needed a partner.
At the same time, the elections produced an unusually hostile environment for GERB. In fact, a number of new leaders and formations emerged — all of which declared GERB a “most toxic party”. Still, opposing Borisov’s “model”, as they use to say, was not enough to form a government. Neither the protest party There is such a people (ITN) nor the establishment Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) even tried. Therefore, the two smaller protest parties – Democratic Bulgaria (DB) and Stand Up! Bastards Out (ISMV) – and the Muslim Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) had to accept new elections in July.
In effect, once the elections results became clear, no one nurtured many hopes for a stable government. The BSP had offered it external, conditional support to an ITN cabinet as the DPS and even GERB did. Perhaps, members of DB and ISMV could have joined the project to ensure wider representation. But all attempts failed in front of ITN’s leader, the showman-turned-politician SlaviTrifonov, display of “political fearfulness”. The ultimate result of these developments was the shortest parliamentin Bulgaria’s two-century history.
What the parliament produced
Without a fully-functioning political government and with a lame-duck Parliament, Bulgaria is traversing a difficult period. The legislature has yet to approve the Recovery and sustainability plan towards which the EU has granted €6bln ($7.3bln). Without these funds, it will be harder for the country’s economy to rebound after the last recession. At the same time, no one is in charge of managing the ongoing feud with the Republic of North Macedonia. Hence, Sofia can neither substantiate its claims and pretences vis-à-vis Skopje nor backtrack and let membership negotiations start. Finally, in the last weeks tensions between Bulgaria and Russia have risen with mutual expulsion of several high-ranking diplomats. In fact, Czech authorities have found out about a “Bulgarian connection” in the incidents allegedly blamed on Russian security services.
On the offense: ITN, DB and ISMV against GERB
Yet, the parliament has found not time to address any of these really pressing issues. As it often happens after the elections, foreign policy has disappearedfrom the order of the day. There was no discussion of either the bilateral relations with Russia nor the North Macedonian issue.
Representative from ITN, DB and ISMV wrapped up the Recovery plan into their wider attempt to publicly discredit GERB. Thus, they refused to let the competent executive official introducing the bill and pretended Borisov himself did it.
Meanwhile, the three parties and the BSP also forced a vote on the cabinet’s resignation. Hence, the government is officially in charge only of managing current affairs: it cannot update the budget or adopt new economic measures. The opposition also blocked the automatic renewal of key concession for Sofia’s airport and some highways to Borisov’s closest allies.
So-called ‘Protest parties’ also formed a parliamentary commission to investigate Borisov governments’ misdeed. However, the legislature will soon dissolve, so nothing will come out of it besides some gossipy kompromat. The only real change is a new electoral law,remedying to some of the previous legal framework’s most evident fallacies. The hope is that it will curb the purchase of votes and other instances of fraud.
Wait-and-see: Borisov’s unkind defence
Borisov’s loyalists in the government, in the Parliament and, more importantly, in the media are repelling this frontal assault vehemently.
Figure 1 Acting Prime Minister Boyko Borissov called the Parliament “a show” in a video on his Facebook page.
Acting foreign minister Ekaterina Zakharieva has spoken out against the supposed attempt to make 850,000 GERB voters ‘disappear’. The chair of GERB’s parliamentary group, Desislava Atanasova, accused other parties of having “failed to fulfil society’s interests”. Borisov himself went out for the biggest prey: President Radev.On Facebook he declared
I hope that Radev is not proud [of the result of last year’s protests …]: This parliamentary show costs 19 million [leva, €9.5mln] a day. It is better that they closed it because we would have gone bankrupt.
The opposition motto offers no way forward behind the idea that “What GERB did must be cancelled”. Yet, GERB is not less destructive in its agenda. Currently, Borisov’s clique is challenging both the moratorium of concessionsand the electoral reformin front of the constitutional court. According to many experts, the justices could strike down or rescale at least one of these two measures. Hence, all hopes for a real democratic change will likely evaporate as long as GERB holds the levers of power.
Forecast: A leaderless ship in a stormy sea
Some have been talking about the rebirth of parliamentarism. But partisanship, anger and personal hatred currently dominate Bulgaria’s politics. Thus, a disenchanted observer could only see the dismaying polarisationand personalisation of the mainstream political discourse. At this time, Bulgaria is like a ship whose crew has mutinied, but whose captain refuses to jump off. Fortunately, the peaks of the economic and sanitary crisis seem over — for now. But the international setting conspires against the vessel. A storm is mounting from the East and the West. Winds of reprisal spire from Russia, whereas the EU is increasingly discontent with Bulgaria’s management of the North Macedonian issue. Assuming that the next elections will produce a working government, either the mutineers or the old captain will be just in time to manage the gale. But should this not happen, the country may soon regret the current lull.
Geopolitics of Europe and the Third Wave
With hospitals filling up across the continent, new variants of the virus proliferating and vaccine shortages biting back, Europe can be seen to be under the third wave of the COVID crisis. This wave has been a confused sea across Europe in which some national epidemics are worsening, some are reaching their peak and some are declining. Although lockdowns have eased as vaccine drives make headway, the end of state emergency does not undermine the inevitable long-term consequences of the crisis. COVID has brought to the forefront new geopolitical dynamics and created risks for the foreign policy of the European Union on several fronts. Beyond the epidemiological challenge of the impending health calamity, economic, political and geopolitical challenges are also plenty.
The crisis has held up a mirror to the Western countries as their effectiveness in managing the pandemic has been distorted and has brought about de-Westernisation of the world. As globalisation is under strain, the crisis is bound to redraw the borders between the state and the markets in democracies such as the Member States of the EU. Such an environment is likely to emphasise on national initiatives to the detriment of international cooperation. In a post-COVID world, the EU may have to deal with its geopolitical problems with less external credibility as well as internal solidarity among its member states.
The potential geopolitical consequences of the virus can be identified by extrapolating those trends that were taking place before the onset of the virus. Amidst evolving global scenarios, there has been a constant push from the EU to establish itself as a relevant geopolitical actor to realise its global power aspirations. In this context, it becomes important to note the two areas of concern raised by the crisis consist of questions on the internal cohesion of the EU and Europe’s ability to adapt to the increasing rivalry and competition among other global powers.
The EU as a player derives its identity from its supranationalism. However, with COVID wreaking havoc on the already unequal economy of the Northern and Southern Europe, the downslides of globalisation are being highlighted. This is likely to further embolden nationalist narratives, rather than European solutions. This will lead to the fragmentation of the region into its component member-states part, threatening the very identity if the Union. This has been a challenge to the EU as the Union recognizes solidarity as a fundamental principle as per Article 2 of the Treaty of the European Union. With the EU is facing the increasingly centrifugal ‘member states first’ approach put forward by the European capitals, the European integration project is under threat.
Further, with the pre-existing tensions between US and China, the European Union has been facing heat from both the sides of the Pacific. While the EU has put forward its own Indo-Pacific Strategy in order to constructively engage with the region, it continues to be challenged by America’s confrontational foreign policies and also being apprehensive of China’s refusal to open up their markets at a time of dwindling global economies, China’s assault on Hong Kong’s independence as well as China’s growing support towards the populist parties of Europe. The EU has come to perceive China as a systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance with this perception largely being shaped by China’s revisionist challenge and its alarming nationalist narrative.
It is important to understand that coronavirus is not here to kill geopolitics. However, the European Union will have to strengthen their efforts towards ensuring that the pandemic does not kill the EU as a geopolitical force. The European Commission must step up its efforts to broker the Multilateral Financial Framework (MFF) among member states which was long pending even before the pandemic struck the continent. It would enable the Union to act collectively in funding recovery efforts in a post-COVID reconstruction of the economies. Further, the EU should focus on shortening their supply chains pursuing a policy of strategic autonomy such that EU’s external dependencies are diversified. The need of the hour is to rebuild an economically sound healthcare Europe while at the same time working towards a more geopolitical Europe. This will require EU to continue investment as a full-spectrum power in military as well as other security capabilities along with assistance and aid to the neighboring countries to rebuild their resilience in a geopolitically volatile environment.
The EU needs to defend and promote the European model which is struggling to stand amidst the global battle of narratives along with maintaining its strategic autonomy in health, economic and other sectors. At the same time, the Union needs to bolster existing and forge new alliances in order to fill the gap on multilateralism. It needs to locate a strategic edge to resist the external pressures and protect its presence in the global scene and continue being relevant in the changing global order with its extraordinary transcontinental presence of soft power.
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