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Europe’s youngest country turns 10 next month. Can it turn itself around?

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As Kosovo gets ready to celebrate a decade’s worth of independence this February, signs don’t suggest that it has much to cheer about. GDP per capita is the lowest in the region at $3,660 per person, 57.7% of under-25s are unemployed, and territorial disputes with its neighbours continue unabated. These woes were further compounded on January 16th, when a prominent Kosovo Serb politician, Oliver Ivanović, was assassinated outside his party’s office in the divided city of Mitrovica. But while the tragedy threatens to shatter the fragile peace between Kosovo and Serbia, it could also, paradoxically, be an opportunity for the pair to bury the hatchet.

In broad daylight

An ethnic Serb, Ivanović was proficient in Albanian and committed to promoting coexistence between the two nations. He frequently failed to toe the line on certain loaded issues, causing him to quarrel with Serbian politicians, his fellow Kosovo Serb lawmakers, and Pristina. Most importantly, he did not share his nation’s belief that northern Kosovo should be reclaimed by Serbia – a stance which caused some Serbs to label him a traitor.

“If you were looking for someone who could build bridges, it would be him, which is why neither the government in Pristina nor the government in Belgrade liked him,” said Dusan Reljic, a specialist from the German Institute for International Affairs and Security (SWP).

Since Ivanović’s death, both Kosovar and Serb politicians have traded the blame over who was responsible, with no definitive proof over the identity of his assailants.

Oliver Ivanović

A spanner in the political works

Not surprisingly, the murder has indefinitely paused EU-mediated talks between Serbia and Kosovo aimed at normalizing bilateral relations – talks that had been scheduled to recommence on the same day that Ivanović was shot. Political tensions had already been running high following top Kosovar politicians’ efforts to derail the Specialist Chambers, a court tasked with prosecuting Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) members who were responsible for violence against Serbs, other ethnic groups, and political adversaries during and after the 1998-1999 war.

Serbia sees Kosovo’s attempt to suspend the court as an outright betrayal and a shirking of responsibility, while Kosovo is disgruntled that the only criminals on trial will be those from the KLA. The U-turn has earned a swift rebuke from both Brussels and Washington, with the head of the EU’s office in Kosovo saying that bilateral relations will suffer if the court collapses.

And therein lies the rub: if Kosovo and Serbia want to bring the perpetrators behind Ivanović’s murder to justice, the two bickering governments will have to come back to the negotiating table. Indeed, the lack of collaboration has been a major cause behind both sides’ failure to tackle rampant lawlessness within their borders. As things stand now, Kosovo is not a member of Interpol or Europol, and Serbia refuses to cooperate when Kosovar criminals wanted by Interpol are hiding within their borders. As a result, over the years, a number of convicted criminals have managed to evade punishment – often by simply crossing the border.

For instance, many lawbreakers have managed to avoid imprisonment simply by leaving the country and waiting for the statute of limitations to run out.

Criminals from Serbia, too, have a history of evading jail time by hiding in Kosovo’s northern, mainly ethnic Serb region, because Belgrade does not tend to issue extradition requests due to its refusal to recognize Kosovo internationally. In just one example, the Interpol arrest warrant holder Predrag Vulicevic, a Serbian citizen, was arrested in 2015 in Mitrovica but later released since Belgrade never made an extradition request.

The stalemate between Pristina and Belgrade has thus culminated in the creation of an essentially lawless border zone, fueled by the gangs operating in the Balkans. Were Serbia and Kosovo to find an agreement on criminal cooperation, it could very well serve as a guiding light for the countries in the region, themselves hotbeds of organized crime.

For example, Montenegro is a particularly egregious case. According to a report from Serbia’s Crime and Corruption Reporting Network, over the past five years, law enforcement authorities in Serbia and Montenegro have only solved four out of 83 likely gang-related murders.  According to the data, these murders have been increasing since 2012 and investigations into them have been painfully slow. As crime expert Dobrivoje Radovanovic explained, most of the murders have not been solved because that organized crime interests are woven into the very fabric of state security and judicial institutions.

Indeed, former Prime Minister Milo Ðukanović – who wants to return to power following elections this April – has a long history of nurturing illegal activity in the country. Among other charges laid at his door are a highly-profitable, highly-illegal cigarette smuggling operation, money laundering through the privatization of a state bank and rampant nepotism with the country’s coffers.

Of course, the dire state of rule of law in the region is no reason for Kosovo and Serbia to give up on efforts to combat the crime flowing across and within their borders. Rather, they should use the tragedy of Ivanović’s death as a springboard to reconcile their differences, commit to combatting lawlessness, and improve cross-border collaboration. The EU, in particular, has a critical role to play in prodding both sides to bring Ivanovic’s killers to justice and end the stalemate. If successful, they will not only do justice to the memory of a politician committed to bridging divides. They will also make Kosovo’s next anniversary something to truly celebrate.

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The return of a “political wunderkind”: Results of parliamentary elections in Austria

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At the end of September, the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), led by the former Chancellor – the 33-year-old “political prodigy” Sebastian Kurz – once again came out on top in snap parliamentary elections. According to a preliminary count, to be finalized on October 16, the ÖVP secured 37.5 percent of the vote, and will take 71 of the 183 seats in the National Council (lower house of parliament).

Political commentators still predict serious problems Sebastian Kurz may face in putting together his new Cabinet. What consequences will the outcome of the September 29 vote have for Austria and for Europe as a whole?

The snap general election in Austria followed the publication of secret recordings in May, which led to the collapse of the ruling coalition of the conservative, center-right Austrian People’s Party and the “far right” “nationalist” Freedom Party (FPÖ). In the July 2017 video, published by the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, the leaders of the Freedom Party are heard promising government contracts and commercial preferences to a woman, posing as the niece of a Russian oligarch on Ibiza, Spain. As transpired later, the hidden camera recording had been arranged by journalists dissatisfied with political gains, made by the FPÖ.

The results of the September 29 vote showed that while the “Ibiza scandal” had seriously undermined the Austrian voters’ support for the “ultra-right,” it simultaneously bolstered the positions of the ÖVP, which won nine more parliamentary seats than it did in the 2017 election. The center-left Social Democrats (SPÖ), who have dominated much of the country’s postwar politics, fell to their worst ever result with 40 seats – 12 short of their 2017 result. The Freedom Party suffered massive losses ending up in third place, losing 10 percent of the vote and winning just 31 parliamentary seats – 20 less than in 2017. The Greens (Die Grüne Alternative), previously not represented on the National Council, won 26 seats, and the liberal NEOS/New Austria party won 15 mandates, thus adding five seats to their previous number.

The People’s Party thus confirms its status as the country’s leading political force, winning a second back-to-back election for the first time since the 1960s. Most observers believe that the conservatives owe much of their electoral success to Sebastian Kurz, a young politician who, already as a former foreign minister, led the ÖVP in the spring of 2017, amid the growing popular discontent with the “triumph of political centrism.”

According to Fyodor Lukyanov, the chairman of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, just as the traditional parties kept promising their supporters “even more stability and predictability of the whole system,” the people were getting increasingly worried about the watering down of “the very essence of politics as a clash of views and mindsets.” Meanwhile, Europe has been grappling with crises, ranging “from debt to migration.” Voters were losing faith in the ability by the traditional parties, with their predilection for reaching consensus even at the cost of emasculating the proposed solutions, to find adequate answers to the new domestic and external challenges facing the EU. This is what the People’s Party, one of Austria’s two “systemic” parties, looked like when Sebastian Kurz took over as its chairman, as it tried to move even further away from ideological certainty and advocate “all things good against everything that is bad.” As a result, it was only losing the confidence of its onetime supporters.

According to the London-based weekly magazine The Economist, two factors were critical in Sebastian Kurz’s rapid political ascent. First, Kurz filled an empty “niche” among the center-right supporters of tough refugee policies. In 2015-2016, Austria found itself at the heart of the European migration crisis – in per capita terms, the small Alpine republic had taken in more migrants than any other EU country, except Sweden. Kurz, then foreign minister, gave up his previous, quite liberal view of migration issues, embracing a hard line that envisaged closing borders and limiting asylum opportunities. Together with the governments of a several Balkan countries, Kurz has done a lot to cut off routes of illegal migration.

Secondly, many Austrians now saw Sebastian Kurz as the answer to their request for “fresh blood” and new ideas in politics. Before very long, the young leader managed to reshuffle the party leadership, including on the ground, and implement new approaches and methods of working with voters. His arrival breathed new vigor in the conservative party which, although respectable, had lost political initiative and the ability to generate fresh ideas. To the frustrated electorate, he projected an image of an energetic politician with a fresh look on the problems of Austria and Europe. During his first term as chancellor, Sebastian Kurz managed to convince a large segment of the Austrian population in his ability to successfully combine in the government the bureaucratic skills of the establishment with the ambitious and uncompromising, at times even exceedingly so, agenda of the “populists.” Kurz himself lists moves to reduce taxes and public debt among the achievements of his first government.

The outcome of the September 29 vote underscored the support the People’s Party enjoys among all sectors of the Austrian society, save, of course, for the Vienna liberals. The young politician, “who was widely viewed as a defender of the interests of the wealthy elite, can now be considered the choice of the entire people.” His electoral base continues to swell – Kurz remains the country’s most popular party leader. For his supporters, he epitomizes the political will for change, which they believe the majority of former ÖVP functionaries and the Social Democrats have lost a long time ago. And still, the traditional Austrian and European political establishment remains wary of Kurz, primarily because of his desire to team up with the ultra-right when forming his first government in late 2017. The collapse of the ruling coalition last May in the wake of the “Ibizagate” scandal with the SPÖ leaders seemed to have only confirmed these fears. However, many experts state that as Chancellor, Sebastian Kurz has proved himself as an able administrator who has “effectively deprived” the “right-wingers” of their ability to make many key policy decisions, including in the field of foreign policy.

Voters now expect him to respond to “changing expectations,” which many observers describe as historical and geopolitical pessimism. Many in Europe are worried by the weakening of the EU’s positions against the backdrop of an ongoing competition between the global powerhouses. Meanwhile, most observers believe that putting together a new Cabinet won’t be easy as there are three options for forming a majority (at least 92 mandates): a grand coalition, a renewed coalition with the FPÖ, and the so-called “dirndl government” (“turquoise-green-pink” – the colors of traditional Alpine clothing) with “greens” and liberals from NEOS. The first option could dishearten Kurz’s backers, who supported him precisely because they were fed up with a decades-long succession of governments made up of either one of the two leading parties, or both. Moreover, Kurz has “fundamental differences” with the Social Democrats on many social and economic issues. As for the new attempt to rejoin forces with the FPÖ, it is fraught with scandal that could undermine Kurz’s reputation in Europe. Finally, an alliance with the Greens and Liberals will most certainly lead to serious differences on migration, environmental and social policy.

There is an intense debate currently going on in Europe about the institutional arrangements the EU needs to resolve internal contradictions and meet external challenges. The participants in this fundamental dispute are pulling no blows, and the “Ibizagate” scandal that resulted in the collapse of Kurz’s previous government is a graphic example of that.  Meanwhile, the young and ambitious politician wants to secure a bigger role for his country in European affairs. Throughout his term as chancellor, he demonstrated a strong commitment to the political values of the “European mainstream.” He watched very closely the political processes going on in Europe, and provided maximum support for the reforms being put forward by French President Emmanuel Macron, even though he didn’t share many of Macron’s proposals for Eurozone reform, leaning more toward Germany’s more cautious stance. During his first term as Chancellor, Sebastian Kurz convinced his FPÖ coalition partners to reject the idea of Austria’s withdrawal from the EU. Now that “populists” have been on the retreat in a number of European countries – in Italy, perhaps Hungary, as well as France, where the “Yellow Jackets” movement is on the wane, few expect Kurz to brand himself as a “populist in a centrist’s skin.” The young Austrian, who has reached political heights thanks largely to his clear and unwavering stance on migration could inspire new hope in Europeans, reeling from half-hearted decisions so characteristic of the Brussels bureaucracy.

One should also keep in mind the fact that Kurz owes the notable increase in popular support to those who used to vote for the Freedom Party. And, according to the more realistically-minded people, the two political organizations still have much more in common than Kurz is willing to admit in public. Well, Kurz may have managed to solve the problem of opposing the “populists” by embracing, albeit in a softer form, some of the ideas espoused by Eurosceptics and “sovereignists.” The result, however, has been a Conservative shift “to the right.” And no matter how much Kurz and his associates insist on their firm commitment to “centrism,” it is a very different “center” – that is, a dangerous trend of the entire political spectrum of Austria and Europe gravitating “to the right.”

“Populists” may have “retreated” somewhere in the European Union. However, the third place won by the Freedom party in parliament, which still gives it an “arithmetic” chance of participating in the government, is a clear sign of the party’s potential for political survival.

The Austrian elections seem to confirm the trend that made itself so clear during the May elections to the European Parliament: fortune usually favors the political forces that do not quibble – firm supporters of “strengthening sovereignty.”

Future will show whether Sebastian Kurz’s return to power leads the way to the renaissance of “new-look” European centrists amid the gradual retreat of “nationalists” and “populists.” And also if it is a sign of the gradual adaptation of the European political establishment to the voters’ request for  a more balanced course, combining protection of the sovereign rights and national interests of EU member states and the EU’s objective need for greater federalization and centralization of common political institutions.

From our partner International Affairs

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EU to mount decisive summit on Kosovo

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The European Union is planning to hold an important summit on Kosovo in October this year with a view to get Belgrade and Pristina to normalize bilateral relations. French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel will pose as guarantors of the deal. Reports say a senior US official may take part in the Paris summit as well. The participation of the American side was strongly advocated by the authorities in Kosovo, headed by President Hashim Thachi.

If this scenario goes ahead, Serbia may face pressure from both the USA and the EU. The West plans to require Belgrade to not only de facto recognize Kosovo but to confirm the course for European integration – which, according to Brussels, means departure from a comprehensive partnership with Russia and from the signing of a free trade agreement with the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) scheduled for the end of October.

Given the situation, Serbian leaders are set on consolidating Belgrade’s position in the forthcoming talks by reducing international support for Pristina. To this end, Belgrade is trying to persuade countries that previously recognized Kosovo’s self-proclaimed independence to reconsider their positions and withdraw their statements. Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic has already announced in wake of consultations on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly that the number of countries that recognize Kosovo’s independence will dwindle by the end of this year. According to Dacic, such countries will make up less than half of the world community.

According to the Serbian Foreign Minister, the Serbian delegation led by President Aleksandar Vucic succeeded in holding talks in New York with representatives of about a hundred states on withdrawing recognition of Kosovo’s independence. “The President spoke with representatives of some states about strategic issues, about a dialogue with Pristina, but there were also many meetings dedicated specifically to the status of Kosovo and Metohija. As the president announced, our citizens can be sure that in the near future the number of countries that will withdraw or “freeze” their recognition of Kosovo will increase,”- Ivica Dacic said.

In recent years, the number of countries that recognize Kosovo’s independence has decreased, though so far mainly due to small American and African states. Among them are the Comoros, Dominica, Suriname, Liberia, Sao Tome and Principe, Guinea-Bissau, Burundi, Papua New Guinea, Lesotho, Grenada.

The persistency with which the US and the EU is trying to “press” for the normalization of relations between Belgrade and Pristina and force Serbia to cut down on its active cooperation with Russia has yet again pushed the Serbs into streamlining their national foreign policy priorities. According to available data, Brussels is ready to slap more conditions on Belgrade, including the most painful of the Balkan issues, not only on Kosovo, but also on Bosnia and Herzegovina. For one, as Serbian Minister of Technological Development and Innovation Nenad Popovic said,  one of the conditions for Serbia becoming a member of the EU could be recognition of the “genocide” in Srebrenica.

This is confirmed by Zoran Milosevic, an expert at the Institute for Political Studies in Belgrade, who sees the new condition as nothing unexpected, since some EU member states, and also Switzerland, have passed a law that envisages criminal liability for the denial of the so-called “genocide in Srebrenica.” Some  European countries are already following suit having drafted the relevant bills to be submitted to parliament. “Something of this kind was proposed by the High Representative of the international community in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Valentin Inzko. What is the point of adopting laws in defense of this counterfeit on the genocide in Srebrenica if they do not make a condition for Serbia’s membership in the EU?” – Zoran Milosevic points out. The mere word “condition”, he says, signifies that Serbia “is treated as a minor who needs to grow to perfection and fight tooth and claw to enter the EU”. Serbia “accepted this burden of its own free will” the day its parliament passed a resolution according to which the country’s strategic goal is European integration, ” – said the Serbian expert.

He also made it clear that it was by no means accidental that Brussels never announced the full list of conditions for Serbia’s membership in the European Union: “If they did, it would tie the hands of pro-Western Serbian politicians. So they release more and more conditions gradually, one after another. First, it was about recognizing Kosovo – whether this is a condition for EU membership or not. It turned out that it is. Now it is about the recognition of “genocide” in Srebrenica. It is said that Serbia’s entry into NATO will also be a condition for joining the European Union. And, as in the previous cases, we are wondering if such a condition exists or not. As a result, it will turn out that there is. ”

Where Brussels’ pressure on Belgrade is particularly noticeable at present is Serbia’s intention to sign a free trade agreement with the EAEU at the end of October. According to the Minister of Trade of Eurasian Economic Commission (EEC) Veronika Nikishina, negotiations between the EAEU and Serbia on the creation of a free trade zone are over with the parties involved preparing to sign the agreement on October 25. Nikishina says the document will be signed in Moscow by the prime ministers of the five member states of the EAEU, the Prime Minister of Serbia Ana Brnabic and the Chairman of the EEC Board Tigran Sargsyan. Even though Serbia has agreements on a free trade zone with three of the five EAEU members – Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, the transition to a common free trade regime has several advantages, emphasizes Veronika Nikishina: “Three bilateral deals that were signed earlier and were not fully identical are being harmonized, giving Armenia and Kyrgyzstan the opportunity of preferences in preferential trade. ”

Also, a trade agreement provides access of the EAEU members to the Serbian market: “For example, it concerns certain kinds of cheeses, some strong alcoholic drinks, and cigarettes from Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, which could not enter the Serbian market under the free trade regime. And it also spreads on various types of engineering products that have also been removed from bilateral agreements.” “In other words, we give a fully-fledged free trade status to Kyrgyzstan and Armenia and improve the existing bilateral free trade arrangements for Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia,”  – the Minister for Trade of the EEC emphasizes.

According to Serbian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Trade, Tourism and Telecommunications Rasim Lyayic, an agreement with the EAEU may allow the country to increase its export volumes by nearly 1.5 times. According to the minister, in 2018 Serbia’s trade turnover with the EAEU countries amounted to about 3.4 billion dollars, of which 1.1 billion accounted for exports, mainly to Russia. Exports into the EAEU will increase to $ 1.5 billion within a few years after the agreement comes into force, the Serbian Deputy Prime Minister predicts.

According to the Bruegel International Analytical Center, in 2016, 62% of all Serbian imports came from EU countries, 8.3% from China, 7.9% from Russia. 64% of the republic’s exports go to the EU, 17.8% to other Balkan countries, 5.3% to Russia.

Naturally, the EU is more than concerned about Serbia’s trade and economic policy following a different direction. Brussels has already warned the Serbian government that a free trade agreement with the EAEU could harm integration with the EU. “You can’t follow several directions at once,” – said Slovakian Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcak, thereby warning Belgrade and expressing the position of his counterparts in the European Union: “If you are serious about Europe, you must make decisions that bring you closer to it, but this move is totally out of line. ”  

Meanwhile, Serbia maintains composure and has no intention of giving up on the plans. Explaining his country’s decision to conclude an agreement with the EAEU, Rasim Lyayic said that it follows economic agenda alone: “It is not about politics, but about trade.”

According to the minister, a refusal to sign an agreement with the EAEU would call into question a free trade agreement with Russia.

The EAEU is calm about warnings addressed to Serbia, – Veronika Nikishina says: “Until Serbia becomes a full-fledged member of the European Union, it has full autonomy in its trade policy. “In our agreement there are no obligations on the formation of a trade regime between Serbia and the European Union, which is absolutely impossible to imagine.” Nikishina made it clear that until Serbia joins the EU, “we are trading with it in a regime we consider appropriate, and we will upgrade this regime.” As for Serbia entering the EU (which is a matter of remote future), in this case “all agreements of this kind, including our agreement, naturally, will have to be terminated,” – Veronika Nikishina says.

Nevertheless, there is no doubt that pressure on Belgrade, both in terms of recognizing Kosovo and in connection with relations with Russia and the EAEU, will boost considerably in the coming weeks. In these conditions, the Serbian authorities will obviously have to assume a more determined position with regard to the country’s list of national priorities. 

From our partner International Affairs

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EU politicians turn to “ball of snakes” to make own careers

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Some of EU politicians are very successful in making their careers using the weak points of the European Union member states.

Current tensions between Russia, China, Iran, North Korea and NATO (including EU countries) lead to the development of many expensive programs and projects that European taxpayers have to pay for.

Current security situation provides a huge space for ambitious politicians. Those, in turn, involve the population of European countries in an arms race, trying to achieve personal goals at the expense of frightened citizens.

Thus, such statements as: “we’re at war”, “Russia and China threaten Europe and the Word”, “we need to increase defence spending” are populist in nature and distract attention of people from more pressing social issues. The more so, loud statements let such experts be in the centre of attention in European politics.

Thus, new European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has flagged her ambition for political weight to take more responsibility for defence programs and projects.

“That’s likely to trigger turf wars with EU national governments, NATO and the United States over who should be in charge of European military cooperation and the West’s lucrative defence industry,” writes Paul Taylor, a contributing editor at POLITICO and a senior fellow at the think-tank Friends of Europe.

Franco-German efforts to press EU countries to buy European military equipment rather than U.S. vehicles and weapons have not been successful yet. But taking into account the pertinacity of French and German politicians in the EU governing bodies it could become a reality. Though the Baltic countries, the Netherlands, and Poland, are suspicious of such plans.

“They simply want the best value for money and quality for their limited defence budgets. The Poles and Balts believe they get an unspoken extra level of bilateral defence insurance if they buy U.S. equipment beyond NATO’s mutual defence clause.” explains Paul Taylor.

This is one of the few cases when small Baltic States oppose European influencers – France and Germany. On October, 2 in his interview to Europäische Sicherheit & Technik, Raimundas Karoblis, the Minister of Defence of the Republic of Lithuania said that he hates even the subject of European military autonomy. He totally relies on NATO.

So, in this fight for decision making in the European Union only one side will loose – people of the countries who will pay for NATO or European defence projects.

People are only the tools of satisfaction of political ambitions. In case of peace in Europe they will pay for excessive amount of military equipment and foreign personnel deployment. In case of war they will be the targets of missiles.

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