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To be veiled or not to be veiled?

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2016 was one of the bloodiest years in the recent history of Europe. European states increased their security measures in order to prevent and protect their peoples from Islamic terrorists and Islamic extremism. Europe and West found a new phenomenon without precedent and now they are called to battle with it.

However, the real nightmare is not the constant fear of terrorists but the rising fear of our Muslim neighbor. How many times have you suspiciously watched a Muslim imam during the boarding time of your flight? How many times have you felt in sorrow or in anxiety about a Muslim woman wearing a niqab? How many times have you found yourself thinking that all women in Muslim countries get married before their teens or that all men beat their wives? Religion has started to set boundaries, bridge walls and bring hostile feelings into the surface: hostile feelings against our religious and cultural “unknown”.

Living permanently in Greece, I came face to face with the refugee crisis. Greece had to deal with thousands of Syrians coming from a different cultural, political and religious background. This was the breaking point where we understood the impact and the power of the Greek Orthodox Church in the Greek political and social life. First of all, in order to understand all these facts, I should mention the privileged position of the Church in the Greek Constitution. According to the Article 3, which governs the relations between the State and the Greek Orthodox Church, of the Greek Constitution (1986), the Greek Orthodoxy is the prevailing religion and the Greek Orthodox Church has the full autonomy to run all the operations related to the religious affairs. The Greek Orthodox dealt with the refugee and migrant crisis in really bad terms. Many bishops referred to them as a miasma for the Greek society and a crusade against them has to be started in order not to let them convert Christians into Islam. In September 2016, when the first refugee children would go the Greek primary schools, some Church’s representatives condemned this action and put the blame on the State that these children should not sit next to the Greek young generation. The ex-Minister of Education, Mr. Nikos Filis made an effort to change thecourse of religion in High Schools and introduce the course of World religions. The reaction of the Church led to replacement from another Minister who would follow the instructions of religious leaders and would maintain the course in the form of indoctrination as it is since the late ’50s. The specific form of the course puts in the margin, students from different religions, humanists or atheists and does not provide an inclusive school community.

Moreover, Greece is one of the countries that have not yet built a mosque for the Muslim communities. Muslim communities gather and pray in their own apartments or basements which serve religious purposes. The building of a mosque is one of the most problematic debates in Greece, especially after the pressure by the Turkish government in order to reopen the Theological School of Halki (closed since 1971).

As I already mentioned, both secular and less secular states of Europe such as Greece, are called to deal with problems and difficulties arising from religions and their embodiment in the field of politics and of human rights. This paper is going to discuss some of the most alarming issues in the current public debate related to religious expression. A special emphasis will be put on the relations between Islam and Christianity.

This article is divided in the following parts: The first part is going to examine the secular character of Europe and its challenges and consequences in a multireligious society. The second part is going to examine the issue of Muslim women veil and its ban from National Laws as well as women rights in both Muslim and Christian communities. Both primary sources and secondary sources have been selected in order to investigate the issues from various perspectives. A special attention has been paid on the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights on cases related to freedom of religion and freedom of expression.

A Secular Europe

According to the study of Pew Research Center which was conducted in 2010, Europe counted 550, 2 millions of Christians, 139,9million Non-religious and 43,3million Muslims. The prevailing religion in every single country in Europe was Christianity except for Estonia and Czech Republic where the majority of population was non-religious (59.6 % and 76.4 % respectively). Only in Albania, Islam is the prevailing religion counting 80.3% of the population. Following this study, in 2015, European Commission conducted a research related to values and European spirit. For Europeans, the most important things are the human rights, peace, life respect, individual rights and religion. Instead, they believe that the followings things represent most European Union and are less important for them: respect for other cultures, Law of the State (l’ état de droit) and democracy.

What is secularism and secular identity?

According to Casanova, secularization of Europe is an undeniable social fact. Religion does not play a key role in the fate of people and a new social model emerged in the recent decades of European history. According to Ferrari, secularization is the process where decisions affecting politics, law and economics must be based on reason, not on the faith of one or other citizen. The private and the public life are completely separated. In the era of secularization, religion belongs to the sphere of private life and public life has no room for religious affairs. Taking into account the flux of foreign minorities in Europe which carried with them new cultures and religions, secularism was the ideal solution to create inclusive societies without discrimination on the grounds of those cultural elements. To prevent the danger of a clash and to ensure the equal treatment of all religions, it is essential to ground the public sphere on a principle that is universal and neutral and therefore capable of being accepted by all people regardless of their religion: this principle is human reason. Consequently, Church and State are two different entities with different goals and different means which sometimes may cooperate for the social and common good.

Secularization has been a new and universal concept which according to Weber is a unique feature of European thought. But how has secularization emerged and prevailed in European societies? According to Linda Woodhead, there have been numerous social and political changes which favored the emergence of secularism after the 1970’s. First of all, individual rights gained ground and people determined their lives as they wished without letting anyone get involved in their decisions. Other changes such as late capitalism and consumer capitalism, tertiary knowledge open to large part of people, urbanization, globalization of economy in the post-colonial era, welleducated and skillful young people from all the social classes, women rights and women emancipation, sexual revolution and feminist movements, political emancipation constituted the fertile ground where secularism built its own building. Linda Woodhead offers two definitions for secularization. The first one is the social secularization which is the process whereby religion loses its power and influence over and within society while personal secularization has to do with the decline of individual allegiance and commitment to religion. State marginalized Church in Western states but still lays on its support in cases of emergency. Church still has impact on many people lives and its messages are strong enough even if many people decide not to follow strictly these guidelines and instructions.

A secular Christian identity

Someone would wonder how European and enlightened, secular societies are compatible with the rates of the study by Pew Research center where the majority identify themselves as Christian. As Casanova mentions, large numbers of Europeans even in the most secular countries still identify themselves as “Christian”, pointing to an implicit, diffused and submerged Christian cultural identity. According to Casanova, “secular” and “Christian” identities are intertwined in complex and rarely verbalized modes among most Europeans. However, scholars coming from different backgrounds, support the view that European secularism is selectively secular and is more friendly towards Christianity and less tolerant towards other religions and especially Islam. According to them, European secularism is a result of Christian cultural identity which still applies its standards and ignores other cultures and religions. Ferrari mentions related to that view that this secularism is double-standard secularism where the conditions of access to the secular public sphere, apparently the same for all religions, are actually more demanding for non-Christians religions whose doctrinal and organizational characteristics are less compatible with the secular profile that distinguishes the public sphere. The secular character of the current European societies has a lot been under doubt by the leaders of the Church and of various religions. The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I in his message towards the “Le Parti Populaire Européen” for its 21st Congress writes “ The history of Europe which contains some common features has been abandoned by modernity. We have to take into consideration the religious dimension if we want cohesion…and this is why our Church and PPE have started a fertile dialogue since 1995”.

Le Foulard Islamique and Women rights in Christianity & Islam

During summer 2016, mainstream and social media were full of images from arrests of Muslim women wearing burkini in French beaches. Burkini is officially banned by French Law and these arrests generated a wave of protests by human rights activists and Muslims all over the world. These protests had to do with the freedom of expression of Muslim women and Muslims in general and if finally the French secular state treats equally everybody without discrimination. On the other side, secularists talked about respect to the secular state of France and its laws of forbidding ostentious religious symbols.

France is the first European secular state where the State and Religion were separated and where the neutrality (Laïcité) of the State towards religion was applied. The Government passed the Law of 9 December 1905, installing in France a regime of Separation of Church and State which remains the current regime. The State must provide to everyone the possibility of attending at the ceremonies of his Church and of being instructed in the beliefs proper to his chosen religion. Equality between the various religions implies that there is no state religion, no “official” or dominant religion, no recognized Churches..No religion has a particular public status. Toleration must be extended to all religions, and even to unbelief. What is more, the church must be subject to political control.

These values have been reflected also on the European Convention of Human Rights and especially on the Article 9, paragraph 1 which protects the freedom of religion. The second paragraph sets the limits between the public and the private sphere where religion belongs Article 9 (2) allows governments to limit “manifestations” of religion or belief, albeit “only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or the protection of the rights and freedom of others” The wearing of veil brought initially in France a clash of cultures and traditions. As Ferrari writes, “On the one hand, immigration have brought into Europe an increasing number of people who follow religions that are not traditional in the Old continent (in particular, Islam): on the other hand an increasing number of citizens claim the right to follow publicly the tenets of their religion in matter of dress codes, gender relations, family law and so forth, and this is outside the private domain to which religion had been confined.

The veil of Muslim women reflected a symbol of oppression in European secular societies and lack of human rights. In 2004, the French National Assembly passed a legislation which makes it illegal for Muslim women to wear headscarves within French public schools. To be precise the legislation refers to the banning of ostentatious religious symbols within the secular domain of the public school system. The Jewish kippa (yarmulke) as well as “oversize” crosses are prohibited with the Muslim headscarf.The ultimate objective was the complete assimilation of these religious groups to the French values and principles and the creation of a more cohesive and inclusive society. The scarf only gradually became a charged political symbol of the presence of Islam in France. The beginning was made in 1989 where a principal in secondary school in Creil (a suburb in Paris) expelled three girls because they wore the headscarf. After this, a series of social battles in favor of the scarf or against the scarf was followed for many years. Cultural differences were brought into the surface. Muslim women who wear a hijab often being represented as agents of “fundamentalism” or “terrorism” and as indicators of the inassimilable nature of Muslims in Europe. On the one hand, people defended the cultural and religious traditions and the freedom of religious expression and on the other hand, people defended the secular values, the place of religion in the private sphere, the freedom of Muslim women from oppression, violence and patriarchal structures. Each side accused the other of ignorance or xenophobia but both sides defended human rights from a different perspective.

But what Muslim women say about this? Islam as every religion is internally diverse and has many branches with different views, more or less strict, towards human rights and women rights. In the study of Sara Silvestri, 132 Muslim women living in European countries took part in order to reach some conclusions regarding how they embody their Islamic tradition in their daily lives. Young generations are eager to access Islamic knowledge, to intellectually, spiritually and critically “own” their religion. Many women seek personal empowerment through close and conscious adherence to religious performance, by studying the Quran and Arabic independently, by attending lectures, by becoming able to challenge tradition and to dispute male leadership from within. Also, many women reject the male dominant and traditional forms of Islam and stop belonging to institutions and conservative communities. Consequently, they live their own spirituality in their own unique way even when they do not follow religious practices (non organized Islam). In the study of Nadia Jeldtoft, where she interviews people who do not belong to organized Islam, she states “ The practices have been adapted to fit into everyday life. They are spiritual because they provide interviewees with a space of their own to practice Islam on their own terms.” As Jeldtoft mentions, the nature of this form of religion is private and internalized with an individual approach. Many Muslim women believe that headscarf is a symbol of universal values and modesty and they feel better wearing it and not oppressed.

It is of crucial importance to make a short comparison with the liberty that women enjoy in Christianity. Europe has its roots in Catholicism and later some countries were led by Lutheranism and Protestantism. After the Early Christianity, the position of women got deteriorated and they became objects under the ownership of their family male members or second class citizens. Lutheranism place the male in the position of everybody’s master (paterfamilias) and women were confined in the domestic sphere with no public speech or influence. A new model of civic order where women were excluded, was promoted by Lutheran theology. Apart from their marginal role as care takers of their family, women also were depicted as devils who try to bring troubles (witch hunting).

After many centuries, women started playing a more crucial role in the Church and its operations. In a money based economy, men were absolutely interested in the profit making and women took care of charity affairs. In the last decades, modernity paved the way for Christianity. Its traditional and conservative methods were not tolerant by young people and radical measures should be taken in order to find an effective balance. Female autonomy led to the first steps for the change in the traditional typology of gender models in Christianity. In November 2016, Pope Francis extended power to priests to forgive abortion. This is the next big step of Roman Catholicism to the female reproductive autonomy which was unconceivable some years ago. Female reproductive autonomy was established as a human right in international law by the Convention of the Elimination all Forms of Discrimination against women, in force since 1981 ratified by 168 states. The Holy See, along with eight Muslim States has not signed this Convention, nor the 1952 Convention on the Political Rights of Women.

Georgia Gleoudi is a graduate of "MA in Religious Roots in Europe: in Lund University and has a BA in International Relations and European Studies from Panteion University, Athens. She is interested in Religion and State relations, faith - based diplomacy and intercultural relations

Europe

Ммm is a new trend in the interaction between the EU and Turkey:”Silence is golden” or Musical chair?

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On April 6, a protocol collapse occurred during a meeting between President of Turkey R. Erdogan, President of the European Council S. Michel and head of the European Commission, Ur. von der Leyen. Let us remind you that during their meeting in the conference room she did not have enough chair, and she was forced to sit on the sofa opposite the Turkish Foreign Minister M. Çavuşoğlu, who, according to the diplomatic protocol, occupies a lower rank. This incident (a video showing the confusion of Ur. von der Leyen and her mmm sound, which was cleverly picked up by the media) quickly spread across the media and social networks. This incident provoked not only a number of high-profile comments, but also political and economic consequences for a number of countries.

This story is a double bottom box. On the one hand, there is a protocol error in the organization of the meeting between the EU and Turkey. On the other hand, there is a sharp statement by the Italian head of state about the Turkish president.

We propose to consider this case from two points of view: violation of the protocol and bilateral interaction between Italy and Turkey.

Let’s start with the protocol. Based on the general rules of the protocol, let’s honestly answer the following questions.

1) is it right for the head of state to give up a seat opposite the national flag (respect for the symbols of the state);

2) what is more important – position, diplomatic rank or gender;

3) Who should take the “EU chair” based on the political hierarchy of the Union – the head of the European Council or the European Commission?

Note that both sides – the EU and Turkey – blame each other’s protocol service. EU protocol chief Dominique Marro responded in a statement on Thursday that diplomats were not given access to the conference room in advance because, as they were told, “it was too close to Erdogan’s office.” Turkish officials have agreed to a separate request to add seating for von der Leyen during the reception, he said.

Turkey was accused of “protocol machism.” However, the officials of the protocol services of Turkey and the EU “met before the official visit of the heads, and their wishes were taken into account,” says Foreign Minister Mevlut Çavuşoğlu.

But the shifting of responsibility continues. Brussels insisted that staff were denied a final check of the press conference room. It was soon revealed that another sensational accident was threatened during the official dinner: the table was laid for 5 people on each side, and in front there were two honorary chairs, one for Michel and the other for Erdogan, while a smaller one was reserved for von der Leyen, to the right of Michel. Two diplomatic advisers accompanied Michel to the table, and von der Leyen was left alone.

Michel  was also criticized for not standing up for her. He first wrote an explanation on his Facebook page, in which he did not apologize, but presented his vision of the situation. But as things continued to escalate on Thursday, he went on to say on Belgian TV LN24: “I deeply regret the image created and the impression of a kind of disdain for the President of the European Commission and women in general.” “At that moment I was convinced that any reaction could seem paternalistic. Perhaps it was my mistake, ”he said. “In addition, there was substantial work to be done at the meeting, and I was convinced that the response would lead to a much more serious incident that would affect relations with Turkey.” An interesting commentary by J.K. Juncker, who wrote that he also often found himself on the couch (thereby making it clear that the situation was not critical). This situation could be resolved through diplomatic channels. But, unfortunately, it has received an unusual development.

Now let’s move on to a political analysis.

According to the head of the group of socialists in the European Parliament Garcia Perez Irace, the incident is related to discrimination against women in Turkey. A few weeks ago, on March 20, the president passed a decree authorizing Turkey’s withdrawal from the 2011 Istanbul Convention against Violence against Women, which obliges the governments that have joined it to pass legislation aimed at combating domestic violence. That is, the protocol error received a political color and took on a new light from the perspective of gender politics. However, one should not forget about the cultural and religious differences between the parties to the conflict. It is curious that if Michel gave up the chair to Ursula, he could be criticized from the point of view of gender equality and even, if hypertrophied, accused of sexism. It is also worth paying attention to the absence of harsh statements from the EU, which is interested in Turkey, which restrains the flow of migrants. . Yet the crisis in terms of maritime borders with Greece and Cyprus and the agreement between Israel, Greece, Egypt and Cyprus for the construction of the EastMed gas pipeline have become such important concerns for Turkish interests that in February 2020 Ankara has re-proposed the usual blackmail and once again opening the borders with Greece for Syrian migrants, provoking an immediate European reaction. Since last December, the European Commission has tried relentlessly to mend the tear, unlocking the last tranche of aid to Ankara, equal to 780 million euros of the 6 billion promised, and opening the dialogue for future billion-dollar agreements with Erdoğan in migration theme.

The behavior of M. Draghi seems even more inexplicable. The statement by the head of the Italian government M. Draghi, where he allowed himself to call Erdogan a dictator, cost the country 70 million euros of suspended contracts (the purchase of 10 helicopters from an Italian company Leonardo). In turn, Erdogan is waiting for an official apology from M. Draghi. Whatever the situation, from the point of view of etiquette and protocol, such statements by officials are perceived as inappropriate. There are now 48 large Italian private equity companies in Turkey, such as Unicredit, Generali, Mps, Fiat, Ansaldo Energia and others.On the other hand, according to representatives of Mediobanca Securities, it is unlikely that this diplomatic incident will lead to the cancellation of the contract with Turkey. Moreover, the investment bank added: “This is a relatively small contract for Leonardo: it represents 0.5% of the group’s planned ordering for 2021”, which amounts to approximately 14 billion euros.

This is not the first crisis in Italian-Turkish relations. In ’98 the Ocalan crisis, during the D’Alema government produced violent reactions and a boycott of Italian products in Turkey, however quickly overcome by the subsequent Amato government and even more so by the Berlusconi government starting from 2001. Those were the years of the great contracts for Salini Impregilo’s new bridges over the Bosphorus, for supplies by the Finmeccanica group and the purchase of local banks by Unicredit. But, between ups and downs, the history of economic relations between Rome and Ankara came from afar, from the 1960s when large Italian groups such as Fiat, Pirelli, Cementir had focused heavily on Turkey as the ideal platform to conquer new markets in the eastern Mediterranean.

In fact, the dispute between Turkey and Italy stems from tensions in Libya and the eastern Mediterranean over gas fields. And the European Union could play a key role in supporting Rome, but at the moment none of the EU representatives supported M. Draghi’s words, only Italian populist parties supported the head of state (which had also previously expressed the idea of leaving the EU).

Against the background of all the facts sounded, the behavior of the head of Italy remains the most interesting case. Non-fatal, in its essence, the protocol incident provoked a verbal dive by Draghi and Erdogan, which could cost Rome tens of millions of euros in direct economic losses. But it is not this separate fact that is interesting, but the fact that Italian politicians have recently taken a number of drastic steps and statements that have no reliable explanation. It is appropriate here to recall the spy scandal with Russian diplomats, which could be interpreted as a decrease in the level of interaction between Italy and its longtime trusted partner. Then many assumed that this was a manifestation of the “Atlanticist course” and the rapprochement with the United States of the new cabinet of ministers. But in the situation with the chair, we are talking about a conflict with one of the active members of NATO and a key ally of Washington in the region. And here Draghi’s position evokes the very remark of W. von der Leyen – “ummm” – bewilderment that runs like a red thread through the entire incident and its consequences. What is it? An attempt to show Draghi’s political subjectivity and consistency? A demonstrative rupture of the achievements and economic ties of predecessors in order to prove their independence? Agreements with Washington pending new contracts and cooperation programs and acting in line with these hopes? Or maybe just a misunderstanding of what the Italian people expect from the next prime minister and this is an attempt to find something that will cause an increase in the level of confidence on the part of the Italian political forces? In any case, there is concern that if Draghi continues in this vein, his reign may prove even more inglorious than that of many of his predecessors.

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The Man Who Warned Us First About Climate Change

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A billboard at Piccadilly Circus pays tribute to the late Prince Philip. Garry Knight/Flickr

Among the first to warn us of global warming, he used the term greenhouse gas to describe the increasing levels of CO2 in the atmosphere.  That was in the 1960s and it was dismissed as a cranky notion.  Where he lived, he had a large study lined with books which he actually read; perhaps one reason for the mushrooming of ideas.  

The story begins in Corfu, Greece where he was born.  His very prominent family was turfed out of the country and settled in France.  After early schooling, he was sent to a private boarding school in the UK.  

Founded by German-Jewish educator Kurt Hahn in 1934, Gordonstoun School was new  with new ideas when he attended.  An equal emphasis on mind and body, it challenged students mentally and physically, the latter far more than at other such private schools.  A strapping boy who was also extremely intelligent, he loved the place — later his son was to hate it.  Hahn wrote of him that he would do very well any task assigned to him.

He went on to the naval academy and finished at the top of his class, doing the same at later naval exams and becoming the youngest Lieutenant in the navy.  Given command of a ship, he ran it like clockwork but a certain lack of sensitivity to others also came through:  the crew were driven ragged and hated serving under him.  He loved the navy and always loved the sea; indeed it was a sacrifice to give up his naval career when he married but it was incompatible in his new role for his wife was a very important personage.          

Studying in England, I could not fail to notice his frequent presence on newspaper front pages, even though my own interests then did not focus on the news of the day.  He seemed to set up awards for all kinds of excellence. He wanted British industry to shine, young people to deliver their best and so on.  And of course, he was invariably presenting awards to the winners.

A sportsman, he was also out there playing polo with his team, or at equestrian meets or playing cricket at charity events, or sailing which he clearly loved.  His uncle saw India through a hurried independence and a bloody partition.  Uncle Dickie, as he was called by the royal children, was a valued presence until killed by the IRA (Irish Republican Army) in a senseless bomb attack that lost them public sympathy.  

The country’s leaders kept him busy and he was sent to numerous countries representing the queen, most often to former colonies in an era with a rash of newly independent countries.  Yes, his name was Philip, titled Prince of Greece and Denmark, and his wife was Queen Elizabeth II.  

Prince Philip’s royal bloodline (like the Queen’s) was German — Battenberg the family last name having been changed to Mountbatten during the First World War.  His sisters married Germans and remained in Germany during the Second World War.  They were not invited to his wedding to a very much in love Princess Elizabeth.  He had been the longest serving consort of any British monarch when he died a few days ago.   

Prince Philip’s travels were also notorious for gaffes and his eye for attractive females — middle class morality be damned.  A definite lacuna in sensitivity was more than evident.  Meeting a group of Nigerians resplendent in their long colorful national dress, he remarked, “Ready for bed, are we?”  to their embarrassment.

Yet, all in all, a very full life.

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Sino-Serbian relations under the “microscope”: China’s footprint In Serbia

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Over the years, the Sino-Serbian foreign relations have straightened to a very high level, with China establishing itself as a valuable ally to Serbia. Since the recognition of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 by Yugoslavia and the formal establishment of diplomatic relations between the two states in 1955, both countries have been on warm relations that soon transformed into a strategic alliance. However, this relationship has given an uneasy feeling to the political elite in the West that sees this relationship as China’s efforts to expand its influence into the Balkan region and undermine the efforts of the EU for stabilization. On the other hand, some may argue that this uneasy feeling that the West is experiencing is due to its own failures of constant neglect and poor leadership towards Serbia, which has taken action in its own hands. Can we really say that the situation in Serbia is about Chinese imperialism, or is it a case that the West failed Serbia over and over again and now sees its diplomatic failures backfiring back to them?

Sino-Serbian relations in retrospective

The relationship between both countries has always been on a warm status, but the potential for an even stronger relationship came during the 1990s in the so-called Yugoslavian Wars. The People’s Republic of China was critical against the U.S and NATO forces bombing campaign in Serbia while it supported the decisions of President Milošević, describing them as vital decisions for preserving the territorial integrity of the Federal Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia, against the Albanian separatists and the UCK (Kosovo Liberation Army) terrorists. The opposition against NATO intensified after NATO warplanes bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, killing three Chinese journalists. Although the West saw it as a mistake, this gave a clear signal to Serbia and China that the Western aggression against them could provide them with the potential of rebuilding their relations in the 21st century, in something more than just strong diplomatic ties.

Under the presidency of Aleksandar Vučić, Serbia has seen closer cooperation with China, especially at an economic level. For years now, both countries have cooperated in various industries. Since 2012, Serbia has received at least $10bn of Chinese investment in the country, changing rapidly its economic profile. Serbia is also part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which allowed Serbia to provide an investment-friendly environment towards China without any EU regulations, making the country the largest economy in the Western Balkans. Also, China has changed the tourism industry in Serbia. Since 2017, Chinese citizens can visit Serbia visa-free. This initiative allowed the country to improve its industry with a rise of at least 36% from Chinese visitors. Also, Serbia as a hub of investments does not only concentrate on tourism. China has invested a tremendous amount of money in its infrastructure and energy sectors and projects such as the Budapest-Belgrade Railway while Chinese firms have acquired various steel plants and coal mines, such as the Smederevo steel plant and a copper mine is in Bor, east of Serbia. These actions by China have kept afloat the Serbian economy while saving more than 10.000 job positions, highlighting the reconstruction of the country and making China the most important trading partner for Serbia in the 21st century.

Politics, the pandemic, and the success of Serbia in the game of geopolitical chess

Apart from close economic ties, both countries share a common interest in the political arena. Since the 1990’s China has been a close political ally of Serbia, supporting its territorial integrity while not recognizing the pseudostate of Kosovo. On the other hand, Serbia has been supportive of China’s decisions to safeguard its interests in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Xinjiang, agreeing with the One-China policy that the People’s Republic of China has been advocating for years. The relationship between the two countries has been seen negatively by the West, with the EU being skeptical about China’s intentions in the region. A resolution from the EU parliament on the 2019-2020 Commission report on Serbia expressed the concern over the increased economic ties between the two states, and China’s questionable investments that are lacking transparency, while also pointing out that the investors in Serbia have failed to carry out important environmental assessments. “With this behavior, Serbia, a candidate country for EU accession is jeopardizing its progress”, were the statements from the EU side, that sees the growing influence of China in the region, as a threat to its own interests. However, Serbia is not bowing to the threats of the EU, as it sees the European bloc constantly neglecting Serbia’s needs and undermining its national interests.

With the inclusion of China as a major player in the Balkans, some analysts present an interesting argument that China has overthrown the Russian Federation from the position of the most important ally of Serbia. Historically, Russia and Serbia have seen very close ties, and it’s unlikely that the inclusion of China as an ally to Serbia will jeopardize that. However, news organizations and analysts from the West found an opportunity to provide an environment of division within Serbia. Understandably, Serbia seeks to improve its position in the world, and having more than one powerful allies, especially one that has the fastest growing economy in the world, will benefit the rhetoric of Aleksandar Vučić, who has demonstrated to the Serbian public that the country has drastically changed and it has overcome the previous humiliations and mistreatment from the West. It seems that the West is terrified of the potential growth of Serbia, a country that once was brutally bombarded by U.S and NATO forces, and now has the chance to dominate the geopolitical scene in the Balkans without even being part of the EU. The country represents an open door for China in Europe, allowing the country to fully take advantage of the various infrastructure and energy projects that are presented. Serbia is building a new lasting alliance, and as much as the West wants to undermine this relationship by creating political divisions about who is the biggest ally of Serbia, they miss the big point. The country now has more allies and more influence in the Balkans and feels it’s time not to take the West seriously. For years the EU, in particular, has underestimated Serbia while showing full support for the illegitimate state of Kosovo, and portraying the country as this evil entity and abuser of human rights.

Another important parameter in the evaluation of the current situation in the world. When COVID-19 spread all over the world, we witnessed a phenomenal collapse of our daily lives, with many businesses closing and the governments around the world putting an effort to recover from the virus. Serbia, unlike other countries in Europe, had a successful vaccination campaign and managed to win the geopolitical game of chess, simply by not playing the game. For Serbia, vaccination was never a political game and that’s why they managed to deal with it better. As prime minister Ana Brnabic stated: “Whether vaccines come from China, Russia, the EU or the U.S, we don’t care, as long as they’re safe and we get them as soon as possible. For us, vaccination is a healthcare issue, not a geopolitical matter”. Just by this statement, Serbia managed to understand the dangers of politicizing the vaccines and decided to focus on the health of its citizens, effectively overcoming the growing danger of the virus.

The fight is not over yet, but unlike the EU, Serbia set its priorities straight, and in a way, revealed the failed bureaucratic system of the EU, that chooses politics over the health of its citizens. Although Serbia received both the Russian vaccine Sputnik V and the Chinese Sinopharm, analysts have focused on the importance of Chinese help. For the simple reason that the help from Russia was expected, because of the historic, cultural, and religious ties between both states. The help from China was something that shifted the balance in Serbia, and the country managed to be in a better position compared to other countries in the Balkans and the EU. Both China and Serbia made it clear from the beginning that they will support each other in these harsh times. A few months ago, the Serbian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ivica Dačić, was in Beijing, declaring his support in any way possible to China. In his statement, he said: “You didn’t fear NATO bombs, my visit shows we’re not afraid of the virus”; again pointing out the importance of this alliance that dates years back. The EU might be skeptical about China’s intentions, but one thing is for sure; they did not provide help when needed, proving once again that European solidarity is a fairy tale.

The Chinese impact on Serbia: Voices from within the country

Although the government of Aleksandar Vučić has made it very clear to the Serbian public that foreign investments from China are a positive step towards the socio-economic transformation of the country, some people within Serbia have shared their thoughts about whether this can bring a positive or a negative impact for Serbia. Dragan Djilas, the former mayor of Belgrade and president of the Freedom & Justice Party in Serbia, expresses his criticism of the political decisions of Aleksandar Vučić. In his view, democracy in Serbia does not exist anymore, and there is only one man to blame, Aleksandar Vučić. Djilas also points out that the growing relationship with China has been transformed into a dependent, one-way relationship, where China acts as a colonizer. “China operates in Serbia, the same way it does in the continent of Africa. It seems that now we have a new Big Brother”, referring to the new status quo, where Russia is not seen as the only powerful ally that Serbia can rely on. For Mr. Djilas, this dependency on China will only jeopardize any potential ascension in the European Union. His point is shared by many within Serbia that see this dichotomy in society that wants to move more on the West yet again it makes agreements and treaties with a non-democratic and autocratic government, and it seems that Aleksandar Vučić follows the same path. “Our struggle is focused on Europe, which should finally realize that we want to establish a free and democratic society and end the denigrating process in Serbia established by Aleksandar Vučić”, were the words of Dragan Djilas, who sees China slowly overtaking his country.

On the other hand, Djordje Terek, an analyst at the Center for International Public Policy in Belgrade, does not see the involvement of China in the Western Balkans, especially in Serbia, as a new phenomenon. “China, similarly to Russia, Germany or the U.S., has its own interest in the Western Balkans region and it has been present there for a while”. If we view this statement from a realistic point of view, we can make sense of China’s intentions in Serbia being no different than the intentions of any other country that revolves around the philosophy of realpolitik. Also, there is an interesting mention of Serbia’s new role in the region, especially after the Belgrade Summit. As Terek points out: “Serbia, as a potential EU member state, was given a prominent role within China’s BRI initiative as it was demonstrated at the summit in Belgrade. It is the strategy based on the penetration into the EU market that China centralized around Belgrade. With that being said, Serbia is one of the compelling China’s attributes in the Western Balkans and Europe as well. In 2009, Serbia and China signed a strategic partnership agreement and in 2013, Serbia hosted a 16+1 summit in Belgrade where $900 billion infrastructure projects were promised to the region”.

However, although the government of Aleksandar Vučić is keen to demonstrate how China’s investments have been crucial for Serbia, the European Union is still by far the most crucial contributor in foreign direct investments, comprising at least 70% of FDI in the country. With this remark, some may argue that indeed China is an important ally to Serbia, but the EU is still around, reminding the country that it is still a pending member for EU accession. It seems that the presence of China in Serbia will only be positive if Aleksandar Vučić manages to balance both of his commitments to the EU and China. After all, Serbia still wants to be part of the European Union and not merge with the People’s Republic of China. In some final remarks, Djordje Terek thinks that if the government of Serbia wants any success to come out of this situation it needs to evaluate the situation delicately. “While Serbia has been actively pursuing EU membership, the current state of affairs tells us that Vučić uses the geopolitical window to further deviate from EU integrations, while continuously sitting on two chairs, and only time will show if that will be beneficial for Serbia”.

One other aspect of China’s involvement in Serbia, that has troubled the citizens of the country, are the environmental issues that have emerged since China’s increased investment in the steel factories and the mines in the east of the country. In the area of Bor, where a Chinese company has recently acquired the ownership of a mining facility, there have been reports of increased pollution in the area, with environmental agencies being concerned about the high levels of sulfur dioxide and arsenic in the air. Besides the air pollution issue, concerns have been raised about the water pollution of the area. Near the mining facility, in the village of Metovnica, locals have seen the impact of the mine activities, in shortage of water and water pollution. For analyst Djordje Terek, this increased pollution in the area rapidly plummeted in the last seven years, potentially making Serbia the global leader in air pollution. “The Chinese investments in the steel factory in Smederevo and the copper mine in Bor, have made the people in the area wear face masks even before the beginning of the pandemic. It seems that the ties of the Serbian government with China is on higher priority rather than the environmental damage”. The mayor of Bor, Aleksandar Milikic, quickly dismissed the allegations of environmental damage and characterized any kind of protest in the area regarding this subject as the work of political actors wishing to benefit from it. As for the people in Bor, they can see the damage to the environment, but many of them point out the positive aspect of the Chinese investments, where people can find a good-paying job at the mines. Given the absence of work in the area in recent years, these investments have more positives than negatives for them.

Whether we would look at the Chinese involvement in Serbia as a positive or a negative thing, one thing is for sure. The geopolitical profile of the country is changing, and Serbia can benefit from the increased investments in its country. However, Aleksandar Vučić must be careful how he handles the situation inside Serbia. The increased protests and the uneasy feeling of its citizens regarding the environment, should not be aspects that are overlooked by the government, Nevertheless, with the global pandemic devastating many countries in Europe and around the world, Serbia has demonstrated its will to improve the healthcare situation in the country by not focusing on the vaccine politics and as a result winning, one might say the political chess game that the West found itself playing. Only time will show if Aleksandar Vučić manages to hold on, on both the West and the East, in a rare situation where Serbia seems to have the upper hand as to how the country must advance now, trying to reshape the international image about Serbia.

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