[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] F [/yt_dropcap]or the last few months the western Balkans are back in the newspaper headlines. This is typically not good news. High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy/Vice-President of the European Commission Federica Mogherini paid a four-day visit to the region at the beginning of March, which was followed by a reaffirmation (renewed promise) on March 9th of the EU members that the western Balkans states will eventually join the union.
The swirling crises have stoked some fears that institutional and political crises in Macedonia, Serbia, Kosovo, but also Montenegro and Albania could descend into new ethnic and geopolitical confrontations.
A renewed EU engagement in the western Balkans is very timely. It is a reminder of the 2003 Thessaloniki promise of membership . This signals a clear effort to prevent further damage from the “reform fatigue” that is already manifested in the western Balkans, and respond to increased external influence from the East. The EU should remain the anchor power in the region, despite the “enlargement fatigue” in its own structure and the struggling internal challenges, but also the pervasive sense of pessimism that has captured the western Balkans. The prolonged transition process and the dire perspective for an eventual convergence with rich European countries have contributed to a plunge of public support for the EU, with only 39 percent of people in the region thinking that EU membership is a good thing, while a large majority (36 percent) have a neutral opinion . Albania and Kosovo are the only exceptions.
Internal structural weaknesses became glaringly evident in the aftermath of the 2009 global economic crisis that hit the western Balkans through the Eurozone finance and trade spillover effects. After battling a double-dip economic recession, the western Balkans are experiencing a sluggish recovery, weak economic performance, skyrocketing unemployment, and dangerous sovereign debts.
Things are getting more chaotic in the region, with political and ethnic divisions more entrenched than before, mainly as result of a spectrum of issues from economic underperformance and corruption to lack of opportunities and vision for the future. Democratic reforms are crumbling in the region. The vacuum of power created by instable and weak institutions and a lack of meaningful political action in the enlargement process since the 2014´s five-year moratorium, has left an ample space for new external players to exploit. The biggest challenge is the EU´s weakening appeal to deal with the unresolved issues in the region.
Russian influence in the western Balkans is increasing with the objective to project its power as a global player in the region. The geo-political rivalry with the West has grown larger. Beyond the abstract influence, Russia has strong economic interests in the region in the form of energy transportation routes, and arms control. While western attention is mainly focused on Ukraine, after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its activity on eastern Ukraine, and the saber-rattling in the Baltic countries, Russia’s meddling in the western Balkans´s affairs has increased. With the exception of Serbia, all the other countries in the western Balkans have indicated their desire to be part of the NATO alliance (Albania and Croatia are NATO members). Each of them have EU integration as their main foreign policy goal. In an attempt to weaken the ties of the region with the West, complicating, or even excluding NATO and EU membership, Russia´s main objective is the creating of a “non- alignment zone” in the region.
The Russian presence is not confined to Serbia, as its natural strategic long-time partner, but stretches across the entire region. The western Balkans is the new block in the Russian area of interest, but the strategy to achieve foreign policy goals is no different than what was used in Eastern Partnership countries. Through a mix of hybrid tools, Russia is acting as an opportunistic spoiler to achieve its influence through corruption, coercion, businesses, and state propaganda, with the objective to destabilize the region and stall its Euro-Atlantic integration.
Moscow is actively politicizing and exacerbating existing ethnic and religious tensions in the region. Russia publicly opposed Montenegro´s membership to NATO, allegedly even supporting a failed coup attempt at the end of 2016 designed to stop the process.
Macedonia, an EU candidate country since 2005, in recent months is witnessing a flare-up of political clashes. In text book fashion, Russia is openly meddling into political affairs in opposition to western partners. By exploiting the constitutional crisis in Macedonia, Moscow backed Macedonia president’s decision to block a parliamentary majority to form a government, and even accused NATO and the EU for creating the crisis. Russia is inflaming internal political tensions in Macedonia but also relations between Serbia and Kosovo through traditional propaganda themes and dangerous rhetoric of clashes between “Greater Albania” and “Greater Serbia” . There are serious concerns that this summer’s upcoming and the political elections in Albania may be the target of a disinformation campaign and cyberattacks that could manipulate the results .
Russian interference will likely undermine efforts to consolidate democratic transition in the western Balkans by supporting illiberal tendencies and the surging populist elites through promoting alternative paradigms. Some of the leaders in the western Balkans are seeking to leverage “the Russian challenge” to extract concessions from the western partners while paying lip service to reform efforts. On the other side, EU enlargement fatigue is also used as a scapegoat for not pressing with internal reforms.
European Union is the only game in town. But the European idea cannot be promoted without changing the current political habitus in the western Balkans. Mature stages in the EU integration should bring along questions about transparency and accountability of the elites.
Only a more serious commitment and higher scrutiny of the EU in the western Balkans will foster fundamental political, economic and social transformation.
(*) The views presented in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Department of Defense or the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies.
Time to Tackle the Stigma Behind Wartime Rape
The youngest capital city in Europe, Pristina, is the ultimate hybrid of old and new: Ottoman-era architecture stands amongst communist paraphernalia, while Kosovars who lived through the bloodshed of the 20th century share family dinners with a generation of young people with their sights set on EU accession.
This month, the capital’s Kosovo Museum welcomed a new force for change; Colours of Our Soul, an exhibition of artwork from women who survived the sexual violence of the Yugoslav Wars, showcases the world as these women “wished it to be.”
Colours of Our Soul isn’t the first art installation to shine a light on the brutal sexual violence thousands of Kosovar victims suffered throughout the turmoil of the conflict which raged from 1988 to 1999. In 2015, Kosovo-born conceptual artist Alketa Xhafa-Mripa transformed a local football pitch into a giant installation, draping 5,000 dresses over washing lines to commemorate survivors of sexual violence whose voices otherwise tend to go unheard. “I started questioning the silence, how we could not hear their voices during and after the war and thought about how to portray the women in contemporary art,” said Xhafa-Mripa at the time.
Victims, and their children, pressed into silence
The silence Xhafa-Mripa speaks of is the very real social stigma faced by survivors of sexual violence in the wake of brutal conflict. “I would go to communities, but everyone would say, ‘Nobody was raped here – why are you talking about it?’”, remarked Feride Rushiti, founder of the Kosovo Rehabilitation Centre for Torture Victims (KRCT).
Today, KRCT has more than 400 clients— barely a scratch on the surface given that rape was used in Kosovo as an “instrument of war” as recently as two decades ago. Some 20,000 women and girls are thought to have been assaulted during the bloody conflict; the fact that the artists whose work is featured in the Colours of our Soul exhibition did not sign their work or openly attend the installation’s grand opening is a sign of how pervasive the stigma is which haunts Kosovar society to this day.
As acute as this stigma is for the women who were assaulted, it is far worse for the children born from rape, who have thus far been excluded from reparation measures and instead dismissed as “the enemy’s children.” In 2014, the Kosovar parliament passed a law recognising the victim status of survivors, entitling them to a pension of up to 220 euros per month. Their children, however, many of whom were murdered or abandoned in the face of community pressure, are barely acknowledged in Kosovar society and have become a generation of young adults who have inherited the bulk of their country’s dark burden.
A global problem
It’s a brutal stigma which affects children born of wartime rape all over the world. The Lai Dai Han, born to Vietnamese mothers raped by South Korean soldiers, have struggled for years to find acceptance in the face of a society that views them as dirty reminders of a war it would rather forget. The South Korean government has yet to heed any calls for formal recognition of sexual violence at the hands of Korean troops, let alone issue a public— and long-awaited— apology to the Lai Dai Han or their mothers.
In many cases, as in the case of Bangladesh’s struggle for independence, the very existence of children born from rape has often been used as a brutal weapon by government forces and militants alike. Official estimates indicate that a mammoth 200,000 to 400,000 women were raped by the Pakistani military and the supporting Bihari, Bengali Razakar and al-Badr militias in the early 1970s. The children fathered, at gunpoint, by Pakistani men were intended to help eliminate Bengali nationhood.
Their surviving mothers are now known as “Birangana”, or “brave female soldier,” though the accolade means little in the face of a lifetime of ostracization and alienation. “I was married when the soldiers took me to their tents to rape me for several days and would drop me back home. This happened several times,” one so-called Birangana explained, “So, my husband left me with my son and we just managed to exist.”
No end in sight
Unfortunately, this barbaric tactic of rape and forced impregnation is one that is still being used in genocides to this day. The subjugation of the Rohingya people, for example, which culminated in a murderous crackdown last year by Myanmar’s military, means an estimated 48,000 women will give birth in refugee camps this year alone. Barring a major societal shift, the children they bear will suffer ostracization similar to that seen in Kosovo, Vietnam and Bangladesh.
Initiatives like the Colours of Our Soul installation in Pristina are not only central in helping wartime rape survivors to heal, but also play a vital role in cutting through the destructive stigma for violated women and their children. Even so, if the number of women who submitted their paintings anonymously is anything to go by, true rehabilitation is a long way ahead.
EU–South Africa Summit: Strengthening the strategic partnership
At the 7th European Union–South Africa Summit held in Brussels Leaders agreed on a number of steps to reinforce bilateral and regional relations, focusing on the implementation of the EU-South Africa Strategic Partnership. This includes economic and trade cooperation and pursuing the improvement of business climate and opportunities for investment and job creation which are of mutual interest.
Leaders also discussed common global challenges, such as climate change, migration, human rights, committing to pursue close cooperation both at bilateral level and on the global stage. A number of foreign and security policy issues, including building and consolidating peace, security and democracy in the African continent and at multilateral level were also raised. Leaders finally committed to work towards a prompt resolution of trade impediments affecting smooth trade flows.
Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission and Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, represented the European Union at the Summit. South Africa was represented by its President, Cyril Ramaphosa. EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy/Vice-President of the European Commission, Federica Mogherini, Vice-President for Jobs, Growth, Investment and Competitiveness Jyrki Katainen and Commissioner for trade Cecilia Malmström also participated, alongside several Ministers from South Africa.
President Juncker said: “The European Union, for the South African nation, is a very important trade partner. We are convinced that as a result of today’s meeting we will find a common understanding on the open trade issues. South Africa and Africa are very important partners for the European Union when it comes to climate change, when it comes to multilateralism. It is in the interest of the two parties – South Africa and the European Union – to invest more. It will be done.” A Joint Summit Statement issued by the Leaders outlines amongst others commitment to:
Advance multilateralism and rules based governance
Leaders recommitted to work together to support multilateralism, democracy and the rules-based global order, in particular at the United Nations and global trade fora. South Africa’s upcoming term as an elected member of the United Nations Security Council in 2019-2020 was recognised as an opportunity to enhance cooperation on peace and security. As part of their commitment to stronger global governance, Leaders stressed their support to the process of UN reform, including efforts on the comprehensive reform of the UN Security Council and the revitalisation of the work of the General Assembly. Leaders reiterated their determination to promote free, fair and inclusive trade and the rules-based multilateral trading system with the World Trade Organisation at its core and serving the interest of all its Members.
Leaders agreed to step up collaboration in key areas such as climate change, natural resources, science and technology, research and innovation, employment, education and training including digital skills, health, energy, macro-economic policies, human rights and peace and security. The EU and South Africa will, amongst others, explore the opportunities provided by the External Investment Plan. Linked to this, Leaders committed to exploring opportunities for investment, technical assistance including project preparation, and the improvement of business and investment climates to promote sustainable development. Leaders welcomed the conclusion and provisional implementation in 2016 of the EU-Southern African Development Community (SADC) – Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA).
Leaders also committed to find mutually acceptable solutions to impediments to trade in agriculture, agri-food and manufactured goods. They agreed to work towards a prompt resolution of these impediments.
Leaders welcomed the new Africa-Europe Alliance for Sustainable Investment and Jobs put forward by the European Commission. They exchanged views on foreign and security policy issues, addressed a number of pressing situations in the neighbourhoods of both the EU and South Africa, and welcomed each other’s contribution to fostering peace and security in their respective regions. Leaders agreed to explore opportunities to enhance cooperation on peace and security, conflict prevention and mediation.
Leaders confirmed common resolve to reform the future relationship between the EU and the countries of the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States. To this end they are looking forward to the successful conclusion of negotiations for a post-Cotonou Partnership Agreement, that will contribute to attaining the goals of both the United Nations 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development and the long-term vision for African continent – Agenda 2063.
Macron so far has augmented French isolation
French President Emmanuel Macron has recently criticized the unilateral pullout of the US from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) but at the same time expressed pleasure that Washington has allowed France and the other JCPOA signatories to stay in the Iran nuclear deal.
In an exclusive interview with the CNN, Macron said that he has “a very direct relationship” with Trump. “Trump is a person who has tried to fulfill his electoral promises, as I also try to fulfill my promises, and I respect the action that Trump made in this regard. But I think we can follow things better, due to our personal relationship and talks. For instance, Trump has decided to withdraw from the Iran pact, but at the end, he showed respect for the signatories’ decision to remain in the JCPOA.”
There are some key points in Macron’s remarks:
First, in 2017, the French were the first of the European signatories to try to change the JCPOA. They tried to force Iran to accept the following conditions: Inspection of military sites, application of the overtime limitation on nuclear activities, limiting regional activities, including missile capabilities within the framework of the JCPOA.
Macron had already made commitments to President Trump and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to push Iran to accept the additional protocols to the deal, and he pushed to make it happen before Trump left the JCPOA.
Second, after the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, although France expressed regret, they had secret negotiations with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo over the JCPOA.
The result of the undisclosed talks was deliberate delay on the part of the European authorities in providing a final package to keep the Iran deal alive. In other words, after the US unilaterally left the JCPOA, the French have been sloppy and maybe somewhat insincere about making the practical moves to ensure it would be saved.
Third, France has emphasized the need to strengthen their multilateralism in the international system and has become one of the pieces of the puzzle that completes the strategic posture of the Trump Administration in the West Asia region.
Obviously, French double standards have irritated European politicians, many of whom have disagreed with the contradictory games of French authorities towards the US and issues of multilateralism in the international community. Also, France’s isolation and its strategic leverage in the political arena has grown since the days of Sarkozy and Hollande. Some analysts thought that Macron and fresh policies would stop this trend, but it has not occurred.
First published in our partner MNA
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