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Should NATO and Europe seek to contain or cooperate with Russia?

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Over the history, Russian-West relations have been distinguished with various kinds of factors. From the standpoint of the western policymakers, Russia has never been the West and will never be West in the whole periods of history due to different behaviors and a huge gap of misunderstanding between Russia and West.

It is mentioned: “We have not only utterly different understandings and behaviors but also variety of goals, morals and traditional values that cannot coincide with each other, therefore we are unable of doing direct conversation about our differences, thus, because of these different approaches and misinterpretations, in a broad term, the glaring sense of cultural alienation, antagonistic maneuvers have taken a dominant role upon them over time. ”

Generally, 2014 cannot be considered as a successful period for Russia and West due to the Russian annexation of Crimea, instead, it can be characterized the beginning of a new era marked by rivalry and competition between not only Russia and United States but also Russia and the European Union. Before moving on to taking approaches toward Russia by NATO and EU, it is crucial to trace back to the last years and recent periods in order to state in a few words, the main pivot of Russian assertively political actions and attitudes in international system concerning Georgian-Russian war, Ukrainian-Russian war, frozen conflicts of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Nagorno Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan and the annexation of Crimea.

During recent years, Russia has devastated the image of a stable, safe and economically healthy Europe that guided NATO and the EU strategy for two decades. In the meantime, the Russian actions in the region have not been left unanswered. The US, mainly NATO and EU responded with the tools of coercive diplomacy namely economic sanctions on Russia and other conventional military measures. During the past 10 years, Kremlin’s attitude toward EU has changed significantly and today, Russia no longer regards Europe as a model in the international arena. One crucial fact is that after the first year administration of Vladimir Putin, Russian media considered his policy by stating the famous sentence from Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita: You should never ask anyone for anything, never, especially not from those who are more powerful than you”, then Bulgakov’s next sentence: “They will make the offer and they will give of their own accord” From this sentences, everything has shown itself on the example of Georgian and Ukrainian War, especially, the annexation of Crimea and other political alteration.

The five-day long disastrous Georgian War and the conflict over Abkhazia and South Ossetia ignited mass havoc and put the situation in the jeopardy in the region. Although the parties have met many times in Geneva in order to analyse the politically arduous situation and gain achievements concerning the disputes over two territories, but efforts on the ground remained bleak. When it comes to the Nagorno-Karabakh problem, the security of this territory impedes somehow Azerbaijan’s accession to NATO and EU. After Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, the pendulum has swung back to the reassertion of the idea of territorial integrity. The Ukraine crisis in 2014 caused the deterioration of Russian-West relations and thereby, the situation got much worse.

Consequently, all of these political events raise some questions how and through which ways or strategies West can make a mutual deal or and an engagement with Russia in the shadow of cultural alienation, though? How the West can be able to change its political moral and regards towards Russia? – First of all, NATO and the EU should have to take the Russian keen attitudes and intentions into account in advance and persuade Russia to get rid of zero sum approach. The essay will investigate the possible solutions and give main ailments in order to make a mutual deal or decisive collaboration with Russia at later periods.

The implementation of smart diplomacy: avoiding winning the East, and beating Russia. From the historical course, it is ostensible that NATO and the EU interests have collided with Russian genius affinities in the region. Although the EU has geographical proximity with the partner countries to influence these countries constantly, however, this closeness does not mean that the EU has a strong and balanced capability of meddling into the region sufficiently. Furthermore, geographical nearness is a weak indicator to take decisive actions towards region countries compare to Russia. Therefore, opting for containment strategy rather than engagement toward Russia is more likely to be very costly for the EU. Take an example of EaP programme; The EU should have to understand its possible interests in these countries and why the EU established EaP programme and what do partner countries mean for it. Yet, there is a potential danger that in some way, the EU has launched the Eastern Partnership programme to involve these countries into the Union and isolate Russia away from the region. In some way, the EU has used the Eap programme as a strategy against Russia and today, it has to avoid using this programme as a strategy against Russia. It is a fact that during the onset of ENP, Russia had also a huge enthusiasm to join in it, however upon the commencement of EaP programme; Russia began to demonstrate assertive and intense actions against the EU, and saw it as a threat to its interests in the region and as a response to the EU, launched the Eurasian Economic Union in 2011 by involving Armenia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan. Therefore, Russia yet does not want to give all oily sides of meat to the EU even to NATO in terms of partner countries. So, what is a major solution for the reengagement of Russia is to choose positive sum strategy rather than a zero-sum game.

First and foremost, the EU policy should be shaped around major challenges and obstacles stemming from these countries rather than the Russian factor. As mentioned in Riga summit, the EU external policy toward the Eastern European countries does not have to be against anyone and bearing in mind that should not irritate Russia. Second of all, the West (EU and NATO) should not create the chance of choice with Russia that partner countries have to make a choice between Russia and the EU. It is more likely away from reality. The real thing is that if the EU and NATO takes a choice strategy, it put high cost on them, the reason is that Eastern countries (mainly post-Soviet countries) understand well that getting away from Russia and choose only the West can cause high price for them in face of Russian intense action that it threatened trade sanctions, energy supply interruptions, and security retaliation against these countries. Another point is to select engagement rather than containment towards Russia in the region. Hence, it put demands on the EU to change its role theory and strategy toward Russia. Russia can be a reliable partner for the EU and NATO rather than a regional antagonist. According to the strategy of diplomacy by Hans Morgenthau, diplomacy is a technique to take into consideration not only the interests of one side but also another side, by doing so is to make a possible deal between them. By taking into account this paradigm, both the EU and NATO has a broad potential to make an engagement with Russia in the region and should have to avoid using their policy mechanisms against Russia. If the West again does not keep a meat on bones, Russia will absolutely expose its antagonist actions and maneuvers against them, and it is less likely to be beneficial for both the West and partner countries. Even, after the presidential election in the US. new president-elect Donald Trump mentioned that he will mainly concentrate on closing the ties with Russia in different kind of areas including military, economic, and social spheres. This step can lead to the weaken the Western-dominated international order and to strengthen the relations between Russia and the West in order to achieve their shared interests. Consequently, the EU and NATO needs to not only do opt for smart diplomacy and values-oriented version of geopolitics but also to continue to engage with Russia through effective offers of regional collaboration and inclusive trade arrangements in order to persuade it to overcome its zero-sum approach.

The strategic change: Focusing more on the involvement of Russia rather than Eurocentric impression and lofty objectives. The one of the main reason of shortcomings in the EU policy premises on its technocratic approach toward Russia. (it can also include other neighborhood countries). This bureaucratic attitude gives little chance of participation and engagement with different communities in Russia. The major false engenders from the merely focussing on the enlargement policy of EU that does not give an extensive place for the countries to be involved in the strategic thinking.

A technocratic aspect of the EU foreign policy is less likely to improve its broad thinking in the way that prevents the EU from achieving the cooperation with Russia. In order to make an engagement, first and foremost, the EU need to solve the coherence problem, otherwise, its eurocentric attitude will prevail over Russia and hinder the progress of cooperation between Russia and the West. Before the inception of ENP, European Commission president Romano Prodi stated that the EU would share “everything but institutions… Major false comes from this approach. Thereby, the EU should have to remove its lofty objectives and Eurocentric attitude towards Russia. (Note: it also relates to the partner countries) and pave the way for Russia to involve and engage in the implementation of different projects with the EU.

Development of civil society. The most effective policy to re-engage Russia is the development of civil society could boost the reengagement policy in Russia. Currently, the major obstacles are dealing with the less development of a civil society that impedes the progress and leaves them behind in foreign policy issues. The progress of civil society concerning on civil and political society dynamics is the optimal chance for the West to reset and then strengthen their cooperation with Russia. Therefore, the creation of a cooperation environment is tied to people’s ability to evaluate cultural values which, in turn, is closely tied to the growth of a civil society and a mutual compromise between the West and Russia. The development of civil society can bring many benefits for both sides and give them an impetus to be involved in deep engagement on the economy, business, cultural activities, tourism, exchange programs. At later stages, the development of relations can lead to phase out visa restrictions over ordinary Russian citizens and will give them to benefit from a visa-free regime as well. So, this not only will reset a good image of the EU, but also create a better environment for the EU in the east.

In conclusion, nowadays, the challenges that the West faces is unavoidable. In order to tackle the problems that the EU is facing first and foremost, it should have to undertake crucial responsibilities and duties concerning the rational arrangement or the strengthening of relations with Russia. Over the history, relationship between Russia and the West has undergone many ups and downs. However, there is a clear reality that their effective partnership might give them an opportunity to tackle the problems. Thus, the transition from competition to collaboration can give them benefits and gain them a “win-win” position in different kind of fields including energy, free trade and visa liberalization, economy, military, tourism, healthcare and education and related areas. Hence, in any cases, the collaboration is much more beneficial than the competition. Collaboration or engagement (less assertive) stands on the “win-win” proposition and is inclined to the mutual perceptions of the parties. However, the competition (more assertive) mainly focuses on the success of only one party and does not give a chance to another one and evokes the antogonistic maneuvers. Therefore, the relationship between Russia and the West should have to be characterized from the prism of the collaboration rather than competition, because both of them have a huge potential in order to participate in and get “win-win” position within international system.

Ms. Nargiz Hajiyeva is an independent researcher from Azerbaijan. She is an honored graduate student of Vytautas Magnus University and Institute D'etudes de Politique de Grenoble, Sciences PO. She got a Bachelor degree with the distinction diploma at Baku State University from International Relations and Diplomacy programme. Her main research fields concern on international security and foreign policy issues, energy security, cultural and political history, global political economy and international public law. She worked as an independent researcher at Corvinus University of Budapest, Cold War History Research Center. She is a successful participator of International Student Essay Contest, Stimson Institute, titled “how to prevent the proliferation of the world's most dangerous weapons”, held by Harvard University, Harvard Kennedy School and an honored alumnus of European Academy of Diplomacy in Warsaw Poland. Between 2014 and 2015, she worked as a Chief Adviser and First Responsible Chairman in International and Legal Affairs at the Executive Power of Ganja. At that time, she was defined to the position of Chief Economist at the Heydar Aliyev Center. In 2017, Ms. Hajiyeva has worked as an independent diplomatic researcher at International Relations Institute of Prague under the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the Czech Republic. Currently, she is pursuing her doctoral studies in Political Sciences and International Relations programme in Istanbul, Turkey.

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Fostering Tolerance in Europe: Issues of Migration and Populism in Italy

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Authors: Maxim Sigachev and Elena Elena*

Tolerance remains a complicated issue in the West and Russia alike. The challenge, though, remains in the need to account for the connection between the notions of tolerance, social security, and the development of the society. The West tends to adopt a broader perspective on tolerance when compared to Russian practices. In Europe, the notions of ‘tolerance’ is informed by ‘active cooperation’ rather than merely ‘patience’, as is the case in Russia.

There are at least four dimensions to this issue in Europe:

  • that of the EU’s regulatory programs;
  • that of local communities;
  • that of European societies at large;
  • that of populism and Euroscepticism, which is believed to be the source of intolerance towards migrants and refugees.

This article is devoted to the problem of the social and political crises in Italy, which have been caused by pan-European problems (i.e., migration, anti-EU attitudes of the public) and strengthened by the national Italian conflicts (the gap between the Northern and the Southern regions, debates between the Left and the Right opposition, the rise of the populist parties etc.).

Social and political discrepancies in Italy

As a part of the EU, Italy has to get through the complex processes of adaptation to a life in a supranational union, which includes profound transformations in socio-economic, cultural, and even religious spheres. If we analyze the election agenda used by the Italian populist parties in the European elections 2019 campaign, we will notice the strong anti-EU discourse and a deep disappointment in the EU politics. Being part of the EU is conceived as a loss of independence. Further, we can notice the increasing deficit of tolerance in many spheres: religious, sociocultural, ethnic, ideological.

Research on the contemporary European political parties notes that Eurosceptical spirit is strong in developing economies and advanced economies (as is the case with Germany and the UK) alike[1]. Thus, Italy’s crises are not necessarily unique but can be found across the Western world as well.

The crisis of Western world order manifests itself on, at least, three levels:

  1. the supranational level: the rise of the Euroscepticism, which is represented in the lack of tolerance and mistrust towards the European Union as an institution.
  2. the national level: the rise of the national populism, which identifies the crisis of multiculturalism in the European nations, zero tolerance to immigrants (the European migrant crisis or refugee crisis of 2015–2018) and refugees as bearers of alien culture, a so-called exclusive nationalism.
  3. the economic level: further strengthening of social populism movements, which signify the end of the European welfare state.

The European societies are characterized by a growing alienation between the rich and the poor, the elites and the people, the establishment and the middle class.

The idea of social and political divisions was first proposed by Stein Rokkan, who studied the existing divisions between political parties that are caused by cleavages between the center and the periphery, the city and the village, etc.

Rokkan’s theory was developed by Paul Lazarsfeld, who studied electoral behavior and stated that “people vote not only for their own social group but also in favor of it”[2].

According to S. Rokkan, the European party system was developed on the foundation of existing social conflicts. Rokkan also formulated the basic lines of conflicts such as “center—periphery”, “state—church”, “employee—employer”, “city—country”. The social discrepancies of the Lipset-Rokkan theory were built on by French political scientist D.-L. Seiler in the work Whether it is possible to apply the clivages of Rokkan to Central Europe?

We can use this theory to explain the stability of the European political systems in the second half of the 20th century and electoral behavior of the Europeans.

Among the notable works on the cleavage theory are R. Rose and D. Urwin Persistence and Change in Western party systems since 1945 [3] S. Wolinetz The Transformation of Western European Party System Revisited [4]M. Abrams, R. Rose and R. Hinden[5], G. Evans and S. Whitefield The Evolution of Left and Right in Post-Soviet Russia [6].

Russian scientists rarely study the Italian political system and electoral behavior in the frameworks of the cleavage theory, as they usually study the different aspects of the political life in their research papers. There are some fundamental works that attempt to analyze facts and knowledge of Italian political thought from the perspective of the communist ideology. Cecilia Kin divided the liberal political thought into purely liberal and catholic in her work Italy at the turn of the century. From the history of social political thought, K.G. Kholodkovsky and I.B. Levin compared the Italian Socialist and Communist parties.[7]

The basic factors of social political crisis in contemporary Italy

The basic factors of the social political crisis in modern Italy can be divided into two groups. The first group includes socio-political divisions of a more historical, traditional character, whereas the second group consists of relatively new, contemporary collisions.

The North-South Divide

The contemporary socio-political crisis in Italy originates from the long-term and unfinished division between the North and the South, which has not been overcome since the Italian Risorgemento (unification) in 1861. Historically less developed Southern Italy has always faced serious difficulties. The process of modernization in Southern Italy is ongoing, the standard of living still pales in comparison to wealthy Northern regions. According to the Soviet-Russian researcher K.G. Kholodkovsky, Italy still suffers from the fact that different parts of the country existed as separate states for centuries. The most important consequence of this Italian historic disunity is economic and cultural gaps between the North and the South[8].

Polarization between the Left and the Right

The ideological conflict between the Right-wing and the Left-wing political forces also has historically contingent roots and goes back to the period of Risorgimento. In 19th century, the two leading political movements—republicans and monarchists—vied for leadership of a newly unified Italy.

One group of politicians led by Giuseppe Mazini tried to establish a Republican Republic, which was supported by the socialist-utopist Carlo Pisacane. Their ideas became the ideological basement for the Italian republicanism. The second group advocated for a monarchy and was led by Camillo Cavour who would later become Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Italy. Those advocating for monarchy provided a base for conservative right-wing sentiments/ideology.

In the 20th century, there was a divide between fascists and anti-fascists. Those who supported Mussolini espoused conservative views. The anti-fascist coalition united a broad spectrum of political movements including democrats, socialists, and communists.

Today it is impossible to claim that the contemporary Italian Left and Right are descendants of that original opposition, but ideological divides are still a prominent feature of Italian politics.

It would be more correct to divide the Italian parties not only along their preferences of political system but along their attitude toward traditional values as well. Today, political parties on the Right tend to be more nationally oriented and Eurosceptic. They typically advocate for traditional values and greater autonomy from EU Commission directives. They are also staunch opponents of high levels of migration from outside the EU.

The Left is more loyal to the EU and the benefits provided to Italy by its institutions. They also support more progressive economic and family policies. A key difference between left and right in Italy is migration. The left tends to be more tolerant of migrants and refugees and advocate for the integration of migrants into Italian society.

Thus, while the division between the Left and the Right has weakened, it certainly still remains intact. Due to the particularities of the national election law, it is difficult to get the majority of the vote needed and enough seats in the Italian Parliament to form the Cabinet of Ministers. Subsequently, this problem forces the Italian parties to create different coalitions to secure seats in the Parliament. These coalitions are often characterized by the ideology of party members (center-right, right-wing, etc.). This changed in 2013 when a new political party, the 5 Stars Movement, uprooted the traditional political spectrum. Now, there is no pure center-right or center-left coalition. Coalitions have become more volatile as ideological divides become deeper as compared to the situation of ten years ago. For example, the right-wing coalition which included Forza Italia! (S. Berlusconi), Fratelli d’Italia (G. Meloni) and the Northern League (M. Salvini) won the parliamentary elections of 2018. Despite this result, the far-right League abandoned its ideological partners to form a Coalition Cabinet with the Five Stars Movement which cannot be defined as entirely Left or Right-wing.

New collisions

Recently (in the last decade of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st century), new collisions emerged: Eurosceptics vs. Eurooptimists, populists vs. traditional political parties, the supporters of migrants vs. opponents of mass immigration (as well as the division between migrants and local communities).

Eurosceptics vs. Eurooptimists

The growth of Euroscepticism in Italy can be attributed to a crisis in relations between the European Union and Italy as well as disappointment from the Italian society in the EU.

Since 1957, Italy has been a strong advocate for greater European integration, however, recently Italy has begun to transform into one of the Euroscepticism centers. According to the sociological data of Eurobarometer, about 50 per cent of the Italian society is disappointed with the European Union.

The question about the relation between Euroscepticism and populism is an intellectual challenge. On the one hand, Eurosceptics are mainly populist movements: not only the anti-immigrant League but also The Five Star Movement. On the other hand, Euroscepticism has been typical for classical Italian communists—the heirs of the Communist party of Italy. Besides, old populism of Berlusconi is more euro-optimistic than the new populism of Salvini.

Particularities of the relations between Italy and the European Union are based on a disagreement in two key issues: immigration policy and the social economic policy.

Populists vs. Traditional Political Parties

One of the results of this political crisis is the growth of social and political populism. Weinstein noted that there are a few approaches to the phenomenon of populism. According to these approaches, a hybrid phenomenon seems to exist in different dimensions: as an ideology, as a specific style of politics, and as a specific form of political organization.[9] The Italian populism started with Silvio Berlusconi coming to power in 1994. Berlusconi is perceived as the founding father of Italian populism, who managed to unite center-right forces. K.G. Kholodkovsky underlines that “populism has in new conditions become a complex of sense and values, uniting many Italians in being connected with the illusion of personalistic overcoming of the gap between authorities and citizens. The breaking of the barriers between the authorities and the people has found its personification in the figure of the uniter of the center-right forces Sylvio Berlusconi”[10] As noted previously, the rise of Berlusconi came against the background of the collapse of Christian Democratic and the Communist parties. This fact reflects an important feature of populism:

  1. Populism is a consequence of the crisis of the traditional party system, the disappointment with classical parties and party leaders.
  2. Populism has overcome the traditional division between the Left and the Right.
  3. Populist parties are often reliant on a strong leader with a distinct character.

Pro-migrants vs. Anti-migrants

The migrant crisis manifested itself most significantly in Southern Italy, since the coast of the Italian South is the closest to the North Africa. From a geographical perspective, this fact has turned the Southern part of Italy (especially the island of Lampedusa) into a gate from Africa to Europe for immigration. The immigration issue is not a new one for Italy. There were several waves of internal migration from the Southern to the more economically developed Northern regions. This process fostered resentment between citizens from different parts of the country. However, the European immigration crises as well as burgeoning crowds transformed this internal cleavage into an external one.

The intensification of the migrant crisis in Italy and in the European Union has been reflected in public opinion. According to Eurobarometer, about half of Italians consider immigration as the most important problem for the European Union, whereas another half of the Italian society cites terrorism as the most important dilemma. This fact also demonstrates that Italians are anxious about the consequences of the immigration crisis, because illegal immigration is one of the factors of the growing terrorist threat. According to the Eurobarometer spring 2016 data, 44% of Italians pointed immigration as the most important problem of the European Union. By autumn 2016, this number rose to 49,1%, by spring 2017—fell to 40%, then in autumn 2017—fell again to 38%, by autumn 2018—rose to 41%.

The growth of anti-immigrant sentiments in the Italian society has led to the emergence of the new nationalism, which is typical not only for the poorer regions but also for the richer ones. The figurehead of new nationalism in Italian politics is the League, formerly the League of the North, which has changed its name to appeal to broader segments of Italian society.

Thus, the migrant crisis has added a new collision between migrants and Italians. The problem of illegal migration became an accelerator of the existing Italian conflicts rather than an entirely new phenomenon. Illegal immigration has essentially accelerated these already-existing Italian conflicts.

Conclusion

Economy and culture are the two principal ingredients of the Italian mindset and are sources of intense socio-political divisions, as economic reasons lead to a rise of new divisions, as well as feeding traditional ones.

Economic crises lead to social and political crises. Nowadays, Italian voters are disillusioned with the existing political order giving way to new and less ideologically driven parties. Yet, these parties’ first years in power have demonstrated their weakness in taking action to overcome the existing crisis.

For example, under Giuseppe Conte’s First Cabinet, known as “yellow-green government of change” (due to the colors of the League and the Five Star Movement), inter-coalition conflict between Salvini and Di Maio led to a significant political crisis, creating a weaker position for the Five Star Movement and the ambitions of the League’s leader Matteo Salvini for domination. On September 5, 2019, Conte’s Second Cabinet was formed, usually referred to as the “yellow-red government”, because it was supported by the “yellow” M5S and the center-left “red” Democratic party.

The internal political situation in Italy remains unstable, which also results in instability of its foreign policy. Irrefutably, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has contributed significantly to the Italian political crisis. On February 13, 2021, the dilemma peaked when Prime Minister Guiseppe Conte stated he would resign from office. Pro-European technocrat Mario Draghi became the newest Prime Minister of Italy in the wake of Conte’s resignation. Draghi leads a unity government consisting of mainstream political parties and populist parties such as the League and M5S. This government only failed to garner support of the far-right Brothers of Italy.

Although Draghi has enjoyed widespread support throughout the coronavirus crisis, in the post-covid world there are long-term prospects for conflict between Italy and the EU and between Italy’s internally divided political system.

*Elena Elena, PhD student at the Institute of Socio-Political Research under the Russian Academy of Sciences (ISPR RAS)

From our partner RIAC

  1. Kranert M. Populist elements in the election manifestoes of AfD and UKIP, Zeitschrift für Anglistik und Amerikanistik 67 (3), XXX–XXX. DOI: 10.1515/zaa-2019-0023
  2. Akhremenko A. S. “Social delimitations and structures of the electoral space of Russia” – Social Sciences and the Present, 2007, № 4.
  3. R. Richard, D. Urwin. Persistence and Change in Western party systems since 1945, Po-litical Studies, v. 18 Issue 3, September 1970.
  4. Wolinetz S. The Transformation of Western European Party System Revisited. – West European Politics, 1979, v. 2, №1.
  5. Abrams M, Rose R, Hinden R. Must Labor Lose? Harmondsworth, 1960.
  6. Evans G., Whitefield S. The Evolution of Left and Right in Post=Soviet Russia. – Eu-rope=Asia Studies, 1998, v. 50, № 6, p. 1023-1042.
  7. Kholodkovsky K. G. Labor movement in Italy (1959 – 1963). Moscow, 1969. (In Russ.) / Levin I. B. Labor movement in Italy. 1966-1976 Problems and trends of the strike struggle. Moscow, 1983. (In Russ.)
  8. Kholodkovsky K. G. The changing political image of Italy. – Italy at the beginning of the 21st century (collection of articles following the conference). Moscow, 2015. (In Russ.)
  9. Weinstein G.I. Populism – Identity: Personality, Society, Politics. Encyclopaedic Edition. Moscow, 2017. (In Russ.)
  10. Kholodkovsky K. G. The changing political image of Italy. – Italy at the beginning of the 21st century (collection of articles following the conference). Moscow, 2015. (In Russ.)

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American diplomacy’s comeback and Bulgaria’s institutional trench war

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Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

Even though many mainstream media outlets have not noticed it, US diplomacy has staged a gran comeback in the Balkans. The Biden administration chose Bulgaria as the stage on which to reaffirm America’s hold on the region. Putting strong sanctions on Bulgarian oligarch, Washington is signalling not-so subtly to Russia that its reach goes far and wide. But there are sensible implication for the little South-Eastern European country’s future as well. Perhaps, the fight against systemic corruption is finally reaching its apogee. Could this be the end of misgovernance?

A corrupted country — Introduction

Many argue that corruption in Bulgaria and South-Eastern Europe is but a remnant of national Communist Parties’ half-century long rule. Thus, the EU’s threat to metaphorically swap the carrot for the ­­stick should have favoured a thorough clean-up. Instead, it merely yielded some short-term successes for anti-corruption campaigners, activist judges and specialised procurators. Yet, State capture and malpracticesremain endemic for one reason or another amongst post-socialist countries inside and outsidethe Union. More specifically, these efforts were vain and Bulgaria was still ill-equippedwhen it joined the Union on January 1, 2007. Hence, Brussels allowed in a deeply corrupted country where hidden interest behold even those occupying the highest echelons of power.

If not membership in the European Union, at least internal politics could have helped the country fend off endemic maladministration. Yet, the status quo has preserved itself intact despite calls and promises to root out corruption having been getting louder. In a sense, corruption’s pervasiveness is a feature and not a bug embedded in Bulgaria’s imperfect liberal free-market democracy. These conservative – and, in a sense, perverting – forces have found their embodiment in Prime Minister Boyko Borisov and his associates. Therefore, governmental agencies, political parties, courts and the entire extant structure of power contribute to prevent any change.

The wind of change: Popular unrest and institutional trench war

That notwithstanding, the proverbial ‘wind of change’ may have begun to lash across Bulgaria in summer 2020. After having taken to the streets against the party of power’s abuses and failures, voters abandoned Borisov in the April 2021 elections. Conversely, new parties and loose coalitions of civil-society organisations, formed shortly before the contest, won a relative majority of preferences. And, as many analysts noticed, these newcomers do not share much besides the desire to “dismantle the Borisov system”.

Nonetheless, these new actors failed to form a governing coalition due to the heterogeneity and inherent negativity of their agendas. Thus, President Rumen Radev scheduled new elections on July 11 and appointed a caretaker government.

Political reconfigurations

Indeed, there is an institutional custom prescribing such cabinets to limit their activities to managing current affairs. Nonetheless, these technocrats – many of whom supported Radev in his feud with Borisov – started an extensive review of past governments. In the process, the cabinet reshuffledbureaucracies, suspended Sofia airport’s concession and halted other public tenders for suspected irregularities. More importantly, the ministry of interior has confirmed prior suspects that Borisov-appointed officers may have illegally wiretapped opposition politicians.

In a word, President Radev’s ministers are endeavouring to tear apart the ‘Borisov system’ before the next elections. However, simply ousting most – or even all – of the previous government’s men in key positions within State apparatuses is uncomplicated. Especially when pushing such an agenda is the President,with the palpable backing of an absolute majority of the population. But the Borisov system has also an economic component. In fact, the party of power has set up a tentacular network of supportive oligarchs funding and favourable media coverage. Putting them out of the game is equally, if not more, important than firing bureaucrats — but also much more difficult.

Chasing the oligarchs

In other words, undoing the Borisov system’s appointments and putting trustworthy officers in those posts in just the first step. But real change requires leaving the wealthy individuals and organisations benefitting from the status quo clawless and teethless. Such a task entails deep economic transformations that would surely evoke immense opposition from powerful pressure groups. Evidently, there is not enough time before Bulgarians vote again and their representatives pick up a new executive. But the caretaker government is powerless in front of Bulgaria ‘s condemnation to persistent corruption no matter what.

On the contrary, the government has endeavoured to chase and derail some of these Borisov-connected oligarch. For instance, the finance minister appointed an Audit Committee with the task of reviewing the Bulgarian Development Bank’s (BBR) activities. As a result, the public discovered that oligarchs had steered the BBR away from its mandate of supporting small companies. In fact, eight large private companies have received more than half of the BRR’s total credits or ca. €473 million. On average, each of them has borrowed almost €60mln — and “this is not a small and medium business. In addition, these companies borrowed against a 2% rate instead of the average 5–7%. Following this leak, the Minister of Finance fired the entire board of the BBR. He also instructed the Bulgarian National Bank (BNB) to appoint a new directorate.

The US strike back

Quite surprisingly, the United States has just given Radev and his government a valuable assist. On June 2, the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctioned several “individuals for their extensive roles in corruption”. In first instance, the sanctions target Vasil Bozhkov, a Bulgarian businessman currently hiding in Dubaito escape an arrest warrant for accusation of bribery; Delyan Peevski, prominent figure of and former member of the Parliament for the predominantly Turk Dvizhenie za Prava i Svobodi as well as the owner/controller four of the companies involved in the BBR’s scandal;  and Ilko Zhelyazkov, former appointee to the National Bureau for Control on Special Intelligence-Gathering Devices. Secondarily, the US have sanctioned “their networks encompassing 64 entities” with which no transaction in dollars is possible.

The US chose to hit Bulgaria, a NATO ally, with “the single largest action targeting corruption to date”. On the one hand, this falls within the boundaries of the current administration’s effort to restore America’s moral stewardship. More to the point, one may interpret the sanctions as a not-so/veiled message to Russia — which heavily influences Bulgarian politics. Still, those who had been looking at US-Bulgaria bilateral relations should have expected a similar decision. After all, the sanctions came after US ambassador Herro Mustafa’s reiterated criticisms of pervasive corruption in the country. Mustafa has also refused symbolically to meet Chief Public Prosecutor Ivan Geshev, who embodies systemic corruption in Bulgaria.

Consequently, the game has scaled up to a whole new quality now. The BNB barred all Bulgarian banks to entertain commercial relationships with people under US sanctions. Moreover, the BNB had already froze some of Peevvski’s, Bozhkov’s and Zhelyazkov’s deposits, means of payment, and assets earlier. However, after the OFAC’s decision, the block extended to their entire network of affiliates and related entities.

Conclusion: The US are reclaiming the Balkans, and it may not be bad for Bulgarians

Officially, corruption’s malign influence on democracy provides the US with a moral justification to sanction any corrupt individua. Namely, the Treasury argues that it

undermines the values that form an essential foundation of stable, secure, and functioning societies; ha[s] devastating impacts on individuals; weaken[s] democratic institutions; degrade[s] the rule of law; perpetuate[s] violent conflicts; facilitate[s] the activities of dangerous persons; and undermine economic markets.  

Surely, the soon-to-come meeting with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin also played a role in this decision.

Yet, the sanctions’ timing suggests that there might be other forces at play. Rather, it seems that Washington decided to pick a side in the ongoing institutional trench war between Presidency and Government.

From Bulgaria’s perspective, even though most American media have not noticed it, the impression is quite clear. To quote President Biden: “America is back, diplomacy is back”. Specifically, this resurgence has a special meaning in the Balkans, a region of immense relevance for Europe’s energy security. Concretely, the US is taking the lead in the West’s effort to keep China, Russia, and Turkey out.

True, whether this external support will suffice for Bulgaria to finally eradicate corruption is debatable. Nevertheless, the US’s return may spur a positive competition dynamic in which Washington and Brussels compete for limited normative power. If this was the case, increase international pressures on Bulgaria to limit corruption may reach a breaking point relatively soon. At which point, either a fundamental shift will take place; or Bulgarian elites will entrench further

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Indo-European rapprochement and the competing geopolitics of infrastructure

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Current dynamics suggest that the main focus of geopolitics in the coming years will shift towards the Indo-Pacific region. All eyes are on China and its regional initiatives aimed at establishing global dominance. China’s muscle-flexing behavior in the region has taken the form of direct clashes with India along the Line of Actual Control, where India lost at least 20 soldiers last June; interference in Hong Kong’s affairs; an increased presence in the South China Sea; and economic malevolence towards Australia. With this evolving geopolitical complexity, if the EU seeks to keep and increase its global ‘actorness’, it needs to go beyond the initiatives of France and Germany, and to shape its own agenda. At the same time, India is also paying attention to the fact that in today’s fragmented and multipolar world, the power of any aspiring global actor depends on its diversified relationships. In this context, the EU is a useful partner that India can rely on.

Indo-European rapprochement, which attempts to challenge Chinese global expansion, seeks also to enhance multilateral international institutions and to support a rules-based order. Given the fact that India will hold a seat on the UN Security Council in 2021-22 and the G20 presidency in 2022, both parties see an opportunity to move forward on a shared vision of multilateralism. As a normative power, the EU is trying to join forces with New Delhi to promote the rules-based system. Therefore, in order to prevent an ‘all-roads-lead-to-Beijing’ situation and to challenge growing Chinese hegemony, the EU and India need each other.

With this in mind, the EU and India have finally moved towards taking their co-operation to a higher level. Overcoming difficulties in negotiations, which have been suspended since 2013 because of trade-related thorny topics like India’s agricultural protectionism, shows that there is now a different mood in the air.

The Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, had been scheduled to travel to Portugal for  a summit with EU leaders, but the visit cancelled because of the Covid-19 pandemic. As a result, the European Commission and Portugal – in its presidency of the European Council – offered India to hold the summit in a virtual format on 8 May 2021. The talks between these two economic giants were productive and resulted in the Connectivity Partnership, uniting efforts and attention on energy, digital and transportation sectors, offering new opportunities for investors from both sides. Moreover, this new initiative seeks to build joint infrastructure projects around the world mainly investing in third countries. Although both sides have clarified that the new global partnership isn’t designed to compete with China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the joint initiative to build effective projects across Europe, Asia and Africa, will undoubtedly counter Beijing’s agenda.  

The EU and its allies have a common interest in presenting an alternative to the Belt and Road Initiative, which will contain Chinese investment efforts to dominate various regions. Even though the EU is looking to build up its economic ties with China and signed the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investments (CAI) last December, European sanctions imposed on Beijing in response to discrimination against Uighurs and other human rights violations have complicated relations. Moreover, US President Joe Biden has been pushing the EU to take a tougher stance against China and its worldwide initiatives.

This new Indo-European co-operation project, from the point of view of its initiators, will not impose a heavy debt burden on its partners as the Chinese projects do. However, whilst the EU says that both the public and the private sectors will be involved, it’s not clear where the funds will come from for these projects. The US and the EU have consistently been against the Chinese model of providing infrastructure support for developing nations, by which Beijing offers assistance via expensive projects that the host country ends up not being able to afford. India, Australia, the EU, the US and Japan have already started their own initiatives to counterbalance China’s. This includes ‘The Three Seas Initiative’ in the Central and Eastern European region, aimed at reducing its dependence on Chinese investments and Russian gas. Other successful examples are Japan’s ‘Expanded Partnership for Quality Infrastructure’ and its ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy’. One of the joint examples of Indo-Japanese co-operation is the development of infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Bangladesh. The partners had been scheduled to build Colombo’s East Container Terminal but the Sri Lankans suddenly pulled out just before signing last year. Another competing regional strategy is the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC), initiated by India, Japan and a few African countries in 2017. This Indo-Japanese collaboration aims to develop infrastructure in Africa, enhanced by digital connectivity, which would make the Indo-Pacific Region free and open. The AAGC gives priority to development projects in health and pharmaceuticals, agriculture, and disaster management. 

Undoubtably, this evolving infrastructure-building competition may solve the problems of many underdeveloped or developing countries if their leaderships act wisely. The newly adopted Indo-European Connectivity Partnership promises new prospects for Eastern Europe and especially for the fragile democracies of Armenia and Georgia.

The statement of the Indian ambassador to Tehran in March of this year, to connect Eastern and Northern Europe via Armenia and Georgia, paves the way for necessary dialogue on this matter. Being sandwiched between Russia and Turkey and at the same time being ideally located between Europe and India, Armenia and Georgia are well-placed to take advantage of the possible opportunities of the Indo-European Partnership. The involvement of Tbilisi and Yerevan in this project can enhance the economic attractiveness of these countries, which will increase their economic security and will make this region less vulnerable vis-à-vis Russo-Turkish interventions. 

The EU and India need to decide if they want to be decision-makers or decision-takers. Strong co-operation would help both become global agenda shapers. In case these two actors fail to find a common roadmap for promoting rules-based architecture and to become competitive infrastructure providers, it would be to the benefit of the US and China, which would impose their priorities on others, including the EU and India.

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