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The Anniversary of Kosovo’s Independence: Results and Prospects

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This year marks a decade since Kosovo proclaimed its independence, and that independence has by now become a hard fact. The country has been recognized by 106 UN members (according to Serbian data, or by 114 countries according to Kosovo itself), including 23 EU members (with the exception of Greece, Cyprus, Spain, Slovakia and Romania) and all its regional neighbours (with the exception of Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina; the latter refuses to recognize Kosovo’s independence because of Republika Srpska’s position). Kosovo’s international status was further strengthened by the UN International Court of Justice, which officially recognized the republic’s independence on July 22, 2010. The court’s fairly controversial verdict reads that Kosovo’s declaration of independence does not breach international law. Brussels contributed in the form of the Stabilisation and Association Agreement between the EU and Kosovo, which was signed on October 27, 2015 and came into force on April 1, 2016. However, it will take Kosovo a long time to prove that its statehood is tenable.

The new-fangled state is facing the same old structural problems that were caused by the territory’s socioeconomic and sociocultural underdevelopment, rather than by the fact that it was not an independent state. Kosovo’s archaic economy spawns skyrocketing unemployment, mainly among the youth, which in turn nurtures socio-political radicalism, international crime and growing Islamic extremism. Getting rid of Kosovo’s established reputation as a pan-European mafia transit hub for drugs, human trafficking and contraband goods will also require huge efforts. The territory’s reputation will not benefit from the findings of the Kosovo Specialist Chambers and Specialist Prosecutor’s Office, which is starting to look in the crimes perpetrated by the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) in 1998–1999. Although Serbia, with the backing of Russia and China, has thus far refused to formally recognize Kosovo’s independence, there are many things indicating that this firm stance may not last for long.

Kosovo and Serbia

Serbia has already de facto recognized Kosovo’s independence – under Aleksandr Vucic’s Serbian Progressive Party and Ivica Dacic’s Socialist Party of Serbia, both of which are viewed as nationalist and pro-Russian parties – in accordance with the 2013 Brussels agreement on the normalization of relations. Belgrade transferred the Serb-populated northern portion of Kosovo to Pristina in order to be able to begin negotiations on accession to the European Union. All Serbia received in return from Kosovo was a promise to set up a fairly notional Community of Serb Municipalities, which never materialized.

Belgrade also made significant concessions to Brussels with regard to other aspects of its Balkan policy. Seeing as the Serbian leadership continues to make one self-detrimental compromise after another in the talks with Pristina under the aegis of Brussels, we may assume that Belgrade is prepared to do virtually everything in order to be accepted into the EU. The “intra-Serbian dialogue” on the Kosovo problem initiated by President Vucic and the draft amendments to the Constitution of Serbia (which currently describes Kosovo as part of Serbia) are aimed at dismantling the last remaining legal obstacles to Belgrade’s recognition of Kosovo. No other outcome is to be expected, given that accession to the EU is Belgrade’s declared foreign policy priority, and it is supported by both the ruling parties and the majority of the opposition. For Brussels, a legally binding treaty on the comprehensive normalization of relations between Belgrade and Pristina is a mandatory condition of Serbia’s accession. In an attempt to further stimulate Vucic to speed up the process, the EU has announced that Serbia might become a member in 2025, provided that Belgrade completes the pre-accession talks and normalizes relations with Kosovo by 2019 at the latest. The Serbian leadership will hardly have the political will and diplomatic skills required to withstand the pressure being applied by Brussels and Washington.

Many rational arguments may be offered in support of the resolution of the Kosovo issue. The preservation of de jure sovereignty over Kosovo will keep Serbia hostage to a frozen conflict in the foreseeable future, leaving it surrounded by active and potential EU and NATO members. Serbia has been unable to recover control over the territory which it effectively lost back in 1999.

At the same time, a rational analysis of the situation indicates that Serbia does not really need such an outcome due to a number of unsolvable demographic, economic and political problems. Should the territory become part of Serbia again, the high birth rate among Kosovo Albanians (a constant source of demographic expansion) would seriously threaten to change Serbia’s ethnic composition, which is something that has already happened in Kosovo itself. Kosovo, which used to be described as the most economically backward and subsidised territory in Yugoslavia, would be too heavy a burden for Serbia’s economy. Indeed, Kosovo was a constant source of ethno-political conflicts in Yugoslavia – under the royal dynasty, then during the Tito regime and finally under Slobodan Milosevic. Given the plethora of internal socioeconomic problems, Serbia does not have the capacity, need or indeed incentive to spend its limited resources on Kosovo. This much was recognized in the proposal made by Serbia during the 2007 talks on the status of Kosovo to grant the region broad autonomy – essentially independence – on the condition that this autonomy would not be enshrined in international law, and that neither Kosovo nor the Kosovo Albanians would be represented in Serbian government institutions.

It is true, however, that the idea of abandoning a relic of national history, the birthplace of the medieval Serbian state and the site of the historic Battle of Kosovo against the Turks, is extremely unpopular. It encroaches on the legend of Kosovo as enshrined in the country’s folklore, the cornerstone of Serbian mythology. The influential Serbian Orthodox Church is also extremely unhappy with the government’s policy on Kosovo, although there is no unity of opinion within the church itself. Furthermore, history demonstrates that the church leaders are not prepared to enter into an open confrontation with the state. The political forces demanding that Serbia choose Kosovo over the EU are extremely weak and represent a negligent minority in parliament.

International Repercussions

The recognition of Kosovo by a significant number of UN members, in violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1244, the fundamental documents of the OSCE and the principles declared by the EU with regard to the newly independent post-Soviet and post-Yugoslav states set an international legal precedent that could be applied in other conflict zones [1]. This precedent gives separatists forces in similar situations elsewhere in the world additional incentives, pretexts and legal grounds to either demand the Kosovo scenario or oppose it. The list of EU countries that abstained from recognizing Kosovo indicates these European states wanted to safeguard themselves against similar developments, and not without good reason.

Just as Russia had warned, the first talks about the possibility of Kosovo’s independence elicited a lively response in the “unrecognized” post-Soviet territories of Transnistria, Nagorny Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. For their part, the GUAM Organization for Democracy and Economic Development member states (Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova) were quick to declare that, irrespective of the result of the final Kosovo settlement, it must not set a precedent. The subsequent developments in Georgia and Ukraine proved that Russia had been correct in its predictions.

It would be naive, of course, to expect an automatic domino effect in all the regions in which separatist movements are present. Each separate conflict has its own causes, effects, development dynamics and unique balances of forces. Not a single separatist movement in Western Europe has used Kosovo as a precedent in its cause. The Catalan separatists find the example of Slovenia more fitting, and the Spanish government has been stressing that the Catalan case has nothing in common with Kosovo. Nevertheless, it is becoming increasingly obvious why Spain did not recognize Catalonia’s independence.

Kosovo might prove a more relevant example and, therefore, a precedent, for Republika Srpska in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and for the Macedonian proponents of a Greater Albania. Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik periodically threatens Washington and Brussels with a referendum on the republic’s secession from Bosnia-Herzegovina, and cites Kosovo as a precedent for doing so. The National Assembly of Republika Srpska issued the threat twice in 2008, in light of Kosovo’s declaration of independence. The threat was never implemented, for obvious reasons. Republika Srpska’s secession is impossible and senseless without the active support of Belgrade, something that will not happen given Serbia’s EU aspirations. For this reason, the latest escalation in such rhetoric was nothing more than a way to increase the popularity of Dodik party’s on the eve of the local elections in Republika Srpska held on October 2, 2016. The results of the election confirmed the effectiveness of the tactic: Dodik’s Alliance of Independent Social Democrats increased the number of local self-administration bodies under its control by a third. There appears to be no reason to give up on this successful rhetorical tool in the 2018 Bosnian general election. It is also the most effective instrument in the fight against restrictions on Republika Srpska’s rights and the continuing attempts to centralize Bosnia-Herzegovina. Dodik made it clear, however, that a secession referendum is not on the agenda just yet.

It would appear that the political crisis in Macedonia, which lasted for one year, created a very favourable environment for the implementation of the long-standing nationalist idea of a Greater Albania. However, the Albanian leaders in both Albania and Macedonia resisted the temptation to avail of the situation, limiting themselves to strengthening their institutional and political positions in the Macedonian political arena. Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama invited the leaders of Macedonia’s Albanian parties to visit Tirana (their positions following the snap parliamentary election held on December 11, 2016 were critical in terms of which of the two rival Macedonian parties would ascend to power). Rama consolidated these forces on a single platform, thus playing a key part in identifying the winning party in the protracted political crisis in Macedonia. Rama’s electoral motives are easy to explain: Albania was readying itself for presidential and parliamentary elections. The Democratic Party, the main rival of the ruling Socialists, had boycotted parliament since February 2017 and is threatening to boycott the elections. They followed through with the threat during the presidential election. In this situation, Rama desperately needed a success story, something that would promote him to the role of the leader of all Albanians. It was only US intervention that forced Albania’s two main parties to strike an agreement on the parliamentary election. Rama’s rhetoric abated somewhat after he won the election and in the run-up to the launch of talks on Albania’s accession to the EU.

The Political Situation in Kosovo

The forced coalition of Kosovan President Hashim Thaci’s Democratic Party of Kosovo and its main rival, Prime Minister Isa Mustafa’s Democratic League of Kosovo, was inconvenient for the former. Pressure from the radical nationalist opposition grew. Major breakthroughs in relations with the EU were looking remote (unlike its neighbours, Kosovo does not yet have EU candidate status, nor does it enjoy visa-free travel to EU countries). Brussels insisted that Pristina adhere to the unpopular commitments it had made to ratify the border delineation treaty with Montenegro that had already been signed, set up the Community of Serb Municipalities and resume the dialogue with Serbia that had been suspended by Kosovo. The upcoming Special Tribunal in Kosovo is an additional irritating factor both for Thaci, who commanded the KLA, and for his former brothers in arms. It was the ideal time for the president to strip the opposition of its monopoly on patriotism and remind everyone who was actually running the country. This required an intricate political manoeuvre: during the vote of no confidence in the government initiated by the opposition on May 10 2017, the pro-government Democratic Party sided with the opposition. The Mustafa cabinet was overthrown and a snap parliamentary election was set. Thaci’s main concern was to configure political power in such a way as to guarantee immunity to former militants who had taken part in conflicts across the former Yugoslavia. This is why the Democratic Party entered the parliamentary campaign in a so-called ‘pistol coalition’ with the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo led by the infamous Ramush Haradinaj and nominated the latter for prime minister. Haradinaj, a former field commander accused by Serbia of war crimes who has been acquitted on two separate occasions by the Hague Tribunal due to lack of evidence (witnesses for the prosecution would either be intimidated into recanting their statements or die under unclear circumstances), and who already served as Prime Minister of Kosovo in 2004–2005, is known for his harsh nationalist statements.

The snap parliamentary election held on June 11, 2017 demonstrated the population’s low confidence in the ruling political elites, and the popularity of bellicose nationalism. The ‘pistol coalition’ won 39 out of the 120 parliamentary seats. For the first time in history, the radically nationalist opposition party Vetevendosje (Self-Determination) came second with 32 seats (against 16 in the previous convocation). The Democratic League of Kosovo, which had led the previous cabinet, won 29 seats. The so-called Serb List of Belgrade-backed candidates got nine out of the 10 seats contested, gaining significant political weight in parliament. The young leader of Self-Determination, who had sided with the Democratic League, was being tipped for premiership, but the situation played out differently in the end. Haradinaj won the sympathies of the New Kosovo Alliance and offered its leader and Kosovo’s biggest businessman, Beghjet Pacolli, the post of Minister of Foreign Affairs. The Serbian government endorsed the Serb List’s support for the ‘pistol coalition’, and other nationalist minorities followed suit. Representatives of the Serb List even made it into the Haradinaj cabinet, despite the fact that mere weeks prior to that, Belgrade had demanded that Kosovo’s new prime minister be extradited as a war criminal. As a result, Kosovo received a fragile coalition majority with 61 seats in parliament and a government that can be ruined by any of the members at any moment. Under pressure from Washington and Brussels (the new prime minister was initially denied visas to the United States (US) and the United Kingdom), Haradinaj gradually began to go back on his hot-headed election campaign promises.

Kosovo and Albania

On January 22, 2014, Kosovo and Albania signed an agreement on cooperation and strategic partnership. The governments of the two countries have been holding regular joint sessions ever since (once each in 2014 and 2015, and two in 2017). The sides have voiced the intention to unite their diplomatic missions in a number of countries “for the sake of economy.” Albania has granted Kosovo Albanians and Serbian Albanians the right to apply for jobs without work permits. In April 2017, the Albanian leaders once again joined efforts to directly blackmail Brussels and Washington: Hashim Thaci and Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama were joined by the leader of Albanians in Serbia, Jonuz Musliu, to issue virtually simultaneous statements to the effect that, should the prospect of the integration of the Western Balkans into the EU continue to decline, then the possibility that Albania and Kosovo will merge into an all-Albanian state cannot be ruled out. Rama explained that his country would prefer EU membership to this Greater Albania. Nevertheless, he and other Balkan leaders have repeatedly stated that the EU’s foot-dragging on the accession issue was threatening the region’s stability. This tactic has proved effective in the past, and will certainly be resorted to in the future for the purpose of stimulating European integration processes. Even though politicians actively employ the idea of uniting all Albanians in their election campaigns, and as a way to apply pressure on their Western patrons, they are unlikely to dare implement this scenario without the approval of the US and the EU. It is clear that Washington and Brussels will be against the idea, because in such a case the integrity of Bosnia-Herzegovina would be difficult to preserve.

Kosovo and the EU

In an attempt to repair its shaky influence in the region, Brussels has been forced to revise its strategy and make EU expansion to the Western Balkans a priority for 2020–2025. Serbia and Montenegro are the primary two candidates. The other contenders, which have been watching their rivals with jealousy, will try to jump the queue. The competition is aimed at making them more loyal to Brussels, enabling the latter to manage the region more efficiently and strengthen regional stability. However, local leaders have realized by now that the threat of destabilization is an effective lever of influence on the EU. This is another reason why Kosovo will remain a weak link in terms of local stability. The pace and timeframe for European integration will be a hot topic in discussions between Brussels and the candidate countries, or between the old and new EU members. We can expect the relatively latent political confrontation to continue, with the candidates trying to persuade Brussels to expedite their accession to the EU, including by way of periodic fits of “non-EU” behaviour, which are particularly characteristic of Albanian politicians in both Kosovo and Albania. That said, the regional elites will remain firm in their commitment to joining the EU, which has sent them a positive signal in its new strategy for the Western Balkans.

The US has no plans to leave the region either. Kosovo still has much to do in order to be accepted into the EU, and there is no point in even guessing at when that might happen. However, the country may get a coveted UN seat much sooner. This would not help solve Kosovo’s fundamental problems, but there are plenty of countries in the world whose tenability is dubious.

First published in our partner RIAC

[1] Guidelines on the Recognition of New States in Eastern Europe and in the Soviet Union // Bulletin of the European Communities Commission. 1991. Vol. 24. No. 12, p. 119.

Ph.D. (History), Head of the Department of Ethno-Political Conflict at the Institute of Europe under the Russian Academy of Sciences, RIAC expert

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Smile Diplomacy: From Putin to Macron

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Photo:kremlin.ru

In the world of politics, what should be done when things don’t go according to plan? The answer of Talleyrand, the French politician of the 18th and 19th centuries, was simple: organize a conference!

Perhaps it is due to this lesson from the French politician and diplomat that Vladimir Putin held his conference under the title of “Economic Boom of the East” in the port of Vladivostok, and French President Emmanuel Macron is going to start his conference under the title of “Political Council”, Europe” next month in Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic.

Let’s talk about Putin first. No matter how we look at it, the course of things is not as intended. The war in Ukraine is practically frozen in a north-south line. The pitched battles, the use of heavy artillery, the high casualties, and the ever-increasing logistical problems are more reminiscent of the First World War, or even the Crimean War than modern 21st-century war.

Last week, the first sign of Putin’s desperation to fully win this war appeared. In a short televised address, the Russian president claimed that his goal was to preserve the “Russians” of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. In other words, it has moved away from its initial portent of removing Ukraine from the map as an independent country. Is he now calling for a limited deal that would put parts of eastern Ukraine under Russian control forever, if ever? No one knows the answer to this question, except maybe Putin himself. But, surprisingly, neither Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine, nor his American and European supporters have shown any attention to this possible retreat of Putin.

Failure in the war is not Putin’s only concern. Contrary to his claim that Western sanctions have not affected the Russian economy, it can be seen that things are not going as planned on that front either. Of course, Russia has been able to find new customers for its oil—customers like India, China, and Turkey, which have reduced their purchases from Iran and Iraq by receiving significant discounts to take advantage of the Russian auction.

However, double-digit inflation, the closure of hundreds of factories, widespread shortages of many goods, a 25 percent drop in viewership of Putin’s state television, and the flight of tens of thousands of middle-class citizens show that the sanctions are having little effect.

The Vladivostok conference was formed with the slogan “The future is from Asia”. Putin’s message was: “Asia builds the future, while the West falls.”

Of course, we heard this slogan in the 1950s, during the last years of Stalin’s rule over the Soviet Union. Stalin spoke of “Young Asia and the West of Fertut”. Today, Putin plays the same music with notes from the Tsarist Imperial Symphony added.

According to Khmiakov, the Pan-Slavist guru, Russia is a “two-headed eagle”: one head looks to the East and the other to the West.

In the beginning, the double-headed eagle was the symbol of the kings of Hayatele in Asia Minor; But after a few centuries, the Byzantine emperors usurped it. In 1471, Ivan III, Tsar of Russia, married Princess Sophia, the daughter of the Byzantine Emperor, and the symbol of the double-headed eagle was assigned to Russia. Today, Putin is bringing this symbol, which was abandoned during the Soviet Union, back to the scene.

However, an eagle facing east is nearsighted. Out of 49 Asian countries, only 17 countries appeared seriously in this game. None of the heads of Asian countries were present at Putin’s show. The highest-ranking foreign personalities were the Prime Ministers of Armenia and Mongolia. General Ming Aung Heliang, the leader of the Myanmar (Burma) coup plotters, was also present. But China was represented by Li Zhangsu, the third leader of the Communist Party. Even the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Un, did not accept the suffering of a trip to Vladivostok. Major Asian economic powers such as Japan and South Korea, or even Taiwan, were not present.

Putin’s hope is to develop the “Eurasian” bloc, which was formed years ago to compete with the European Union, but it never got anywhere. However, even if the participants in the Vladivostok conference were to join the bloc, they would collectively account for nearly 20 percent of global GDP. Currently, almost all of them are closer to the European Union and the United States than to Russia in terms of foreign trade. Russia’s own share of trade with bloc countries does not exceed 12%.

From any angle, the Vladivostok gathering is one of those shows that are referred to as “posturing” in the diplomatic dictionary. In this show, the host appears as the leader of a large group, but in reality, there is no group. The choice of Vladivostok, which means “ruler or emir of the east”, maybe a coincidental sign of Putin’s illusions to lead Asia.

It is interesting that in Vladivostok there was no mention of the war in Ukraine. None of Putin’s entourage was wearing a T-shirt with the letter Z, and his bulletproof car did not have a Z mark.

The participants of this show undoubtedly know that Moscow is closer to Berlin than Vladivostok and whatever the underbelly of history, Russia’s national and cultural orientation is to the West, not to the East. Alexander Herzen, a 19th-century Russian writer, wrote: “Russia looks to the East to remember what dangers threaten its existence, and looks to the West to find out how to neutralize those dangers.”

Currently, Putin is not the only leader who is trying to polish his political image by playing the conference game. French President Emmanuel Macron is also busy organizing Smile Diplomacy. The Prague conference for the formation of the “Political Council of Europe” is a platform for introducing Macron as a strong European leader. With Britain mired in crisis, Germany governed by a floundering coalition government, and Italy on the brink of an election with uncertain results, Macron hopes to present France as the anchor of Europe’s stormy ship.

Macron’s failure to win an overwhelming majority in the parliamentary elections has limited his possibilities to exert power in the domestic political scene. Therefore, like many politicians in a similar situation, he turns to show his power in the foreign policy scene.

But Macron’s show, many analysts believe, will not have a better result than what Putin achieved in Vladivostok. In a sense, Macron’s show may even be harmful. Trying to prevent Turkey’s participation, under the pretext that a large part of Turkey is located in Asia, can deepen the gap between Western powers and Turkey.

Turkey’s exclusion from the Prague show could help re-elect Recep Tayyip Erdogan as president. Using an anti-Western discourse and being closer to Russia along with claiming to be the leader of the Islamic world, Erdogan is trying to distract Turkey’s public opinion from its failure in economic and social fields. In the last two decades, this is the first time that Erdogan is on the verge of an electoral defeat. Macron’s anti-Turkish stance could be a bitter irony that guarantees Erdogan’s victory.

Macron’s proposal has other disadvantages as well. First, one should ask what is the need for another “conference” in Europe. Aren’t the “European Security and Cooperation Organization” and “Council of Europe” which include all countries of the continent enough? After all, didn’t Britain leave the European Union under the pretext that it does not want Europe to participate in the regulation of London’s policies? Is the “Brexit” government willing to participate in a new grouping, with unknown goals and criteria, after leaving an established union with clear goals?

Currently, a growing trend across Europe, from Poland to France, is to move away from continental groupings. Even the European Union has lost some of its legitimacy and popularity at this time. The growing trend in most European countries is towards limited nationalism within the borders of each country, emphasis on national sovereignty, and striving for self-sufficiency. In other words, the globalism of the past two or three decades is receding and bilateral relations are becoming more acceptable.

You might say that Smile Diplomacy in Vladivostok or Prague wouldn’t hurt anyway. Unfortunately, this assessment of yours is not correct. Smile Diplomacy masks the fact that Russia and Western Europe do not currently have the ability or will to emerge from the crisis caused by war, economic stagnation, inflation, and environmental threats. Smile Diplomacy offers sideshows instead of serious policies.

Dramatic games allow Putin to mask his failure on the battlefield. On the other hand, Macron and other European leaders hide their inability to stop the war in Ukraine with the Prague show. Both sides are still dreaming of “victory”. Unaware that war never has a winner, because in every war both the victor and the vanquished will be losers in the end. Zelensky seems to think that defeat is better than surrender because it at least offers the badge of hero and martyr. On the other hand, Liz Truss, the new British Prime Minister, speaks of “victory”. The demonstrations in Vladivostok and Prague prevent these irresponsible positions from being seriously discussed.

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In a Crisis-Laden World, Serbia Should Think Green

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Countries around the globe are facing persistent economic headwinds. Trade and supply chain disruptions resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine and extreme weather, have led to surging food and energy prices. Inflation is increasing at an alarming rate in many countries and economic growth is slowing. Policy makers around the world face difficult challenges and complex trade-offs. They need to maintain fiscal sustainability and rebuild economic buffers depleted during the pandemic; but also cater for the needs of the most vulnerable, who feel the impact of higher food and energy prices. As winter is approaching, countries in Europe are scrambling to secure sufficient energy supplies to keep homes warm and factories running. In this challenging context, the urgency of actively expanding renewable sources of energy, pursuing greater resource efficiency, and transitioning away from energy and emission-intensive industries is greater than ever.

Growth outlook

The World Bank expects global economic growth to slow in 2022 to 2.9 percent, from 5.7 percent in 2021. A small and open economy like Serbia will feel the impact of the global slowdown. For Serbia, in 2022, we project an economic growth rate of 3.2 percent, following a 7.4 percent expansion in 2021. Serbia is equally feeling the impact of rising inflation: the NBS expects an inflation of nearly 14 percent in the third quarter of this year.

Higher energy prices have put pressure on current account balances for energy importers around the world. Serbia has also been affected. Its utilities have incurred exceptionally high costs of importing electricity and natural gas on the wholesale markets. While the government has financially supported these companies, it has so far only partially passed these additional costs on to consumers.

Mitigating the impacts of the energy crisis remains the biggest challenge for the new government. Serbia entered the current crisis in a strong macro-fiscal position, but fiscal space is limited. Short-term measures to support households and small and medium enterprises will need to be targeted, time-bound, fully budgeted, and transparent.

Despite the pressures, it is essential that policymakers do not lose sight of structural reforms that would boost Serbia’s potential rate of economic growth over the medium-term, including steps to increase market competition, reform state owned enterprises, raise human capital and productivity, and improve the efficiency of public spending.

Green Serbia

Sustaining long-term growth and resilience also requires putting the ‘green agenda’ at the center of policymaking. The country can do more to increase energy efficiency and lessen the impact of pollution on the health of people and the environment. Staying ‘brown’ runs the risk of slowing down Serbia’s accession to the EU, compromising access to finance, creating trade barriers, limiting the take up of modern technology, and failing to boost productivity. Going ‘green’ would be beneficial on all these fronts. It would also facilitate the structural transformation of the economy through the adoption of new technologies and knowledge. All this will require measures to facilitate a ‘just transition’ for workers and communities who depend on polluting industries for their livelihoods.

Serbia is a signatory to the Paris Agreement under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, aiming for a climate neutral world by mid-century. The Government recently published its updated Nationally Determined Contribution under the Paris Agreement, pledging to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 by 33.3 percent compared to 1990.  Accompanying plans and strategies are under preparation, but the direction of travel is clear: Serbia urgently needs to boost domestic renewable energy production, increase energy efficiency, and gradually lower dependency on fossil fuels, especially coal and oil, for power generation, heating, and transport.

The World Bank is supporting Serbia’s progress on all these fronts both through financial and technical assistance.

Op-ed originally published in Kurir daily via World Bank

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Media-saturation challenges trust in European democracy

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BY KEVIN CASEY

Media is this layer that exists everywhere in our lives’, said Dr Tanya Lokot as she explained the term ‘mediatized’ to Horizon Magazine. It gives her the title of the seven-country research project she leads from the School of Communications, Dublin City University (DCU).

‘It’s not just something we do for an hour or two.’ We are drenched in media. In our personal, work, social and family lives, media has a meaningful role to play.

MEDIATIZED EU is examining the role of media in society and how it influences people’s perceptions of the EU and the European project. It does so by analysing media discourses in the EU Member States of Ireland, Belgium, Portugal, Estonia, Hungary, Spain, and non-member Georgia.

The researchers are monitoring and assessing the media coverage and conversations which mention European democracy and the European Union in the target countries of the study. ‘We wanted to investigate how people think and form beliefs about the EU. How do people become Europeanised? What does it mean to be more European or less European?’ said Dr Lokot.

‘Putting all of these countries together and looking at how different but also how similar the concerns are among policymakers, among media professionals, among the public has been really enlightening for us,’ she said.

Public conversation

When 90% of the EU’s population have access to the internet, media is ubiquitous. TV provides 75% of Europeans with their news. Altogether, taken collectively, all the media devices in the world create something intangible, a public conversation, which enables opinions to be formed and exchanged.

‘In a way, media are co-creating the space where people come to interpret what it’s like to be living in Europe, what it means to be European, to share European values and to be part of the European Union,’ said Dr Lokot.

The first step in learning to live with our media-saturated environment is to ‘acknowledge that media, not just social media but any kind of media, play an extremely important role in societies,’ said Dr Lokot.

From the research so far, the sense is that the idea of Europe is “a constant work in progress”, and perceptions of Europeanisation are shaped by media, as well as by political elites and public opinion, Lokot revealed. There is also widespread concern about the spread of disinformation. Alongside constructive discourse, the media has plenty of room for promoting extremism and polarising views.

People in every EU country have sophisticated concerns about the risks of media manipulation. ‘They understand the connection between disinformation that is being spread by malicious actors in the media and the threat to democracy,’ said Dr Lokot.

Spiral of cynicism

Populism and media manipulation can lead to a ‘spiral of cynicism’ in any media debate. As a result, even in countries with high levels of trust in media such as Ireland, Spain and Portugal, people often don’t know where to place their trust.

‘It’s because the way disinformation works has also changed,’ said Lokot. The new type of information warfare doesn’t try to persuade or convince people, but sets out to destroy public trust. It works to convince you that ‘there is nobody here who will tell you the truth,’ according to Dr Lokot.

Generating mistrust originates with outside actors but also from within the EU at times. In this climate, people ‘stop believing that a ‘European idea’ that unites people exists, and then they become lost,’ said Dr Lokot.

‘Once you stop believing in some sort of shared values, you don’t really know what else you have in common with these people who are living on the same continent with you.’

While each country has specific topics of concern, one major new trend unites them all. ‘Until Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Georgia and Estonia were much more concerned with Russian disinformation than the other countries in our project,’ said Dr Lokot.

‘Since February, concern has gone through the roof everywhere.’

The disinformation campaigns targeting Estonians and Georgians, along with their Ukrainian neighbours, insinuate that they were better off under the Soviet regime, that the EU is weak, they belong to Russia’s sphere of influence and not the European community. The conclusion of that thought process is stark.

‘Now we get to the point where not only is Ukraine, for instance, being told, you’re not a European country, they’re being told you’re not a real country at all,’ she said. ‘You’re actually part of Russia and nobody cares about you if you stop existing,’ said Dr Lokot.

‘We’re seeing such escalation of disinformation narratives across the region.’

Doomscrolling

But should people exercise personal responsibility for their media activity? Consuming the news of terrible events over endless hours of ‘doomscrolling’ has been identified as unhealthy behaviour.

The constant barrage of news and disinformation hits home for Dr Lokot who is a Ukrainian native working in DCU in Ireland for the past seven years. ‘I’m Ukrainian and I’m living in the EU. So, you know, I’ve been doing nothing but doomscrolling not just since February, but actually since 2014 because my country has actually been at war much longer than just for the past six months,’ said Dr Lokot.

A constant stream of bad news is exhausting ‘and so it’s also about how we structure media diets,’ said Dr Lokot.

Might there be a need for social media companies to make their algorithms more transparent?

Businesses like Meta who own Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp need to create a space where people can access information and exchange opinions in a healthy, constructive way, argues Dr Lokot. ‘They need to realise the impact that the media ecosystem has on people and on people’s lives,’ she said.

Online citizens

Good online citizenship where you verify sources and reserve some amount of scepticism over content is important in a democratic environment. Regulation also has a role to play with, for example, laws about transparency in political advertising.

It’s not about control or unrestricted access either. ‘We want people to understand that as citizens, they have rights, they have responsibilities, but they also have agency,’ she says.

The next step is to conduct in-depth research into the other elements of the triangle MEDIATIZED EU has identified as composed of a relationship between citizens, media, and the elites. Speaking to media editors and policy makers, as well as conducting public opinion surveys, the researchers will seek to understand the media’s role in shaping perceptions and opinions of the EU from their points of view and how everything is connected.

The research could help to inform policy makers at every level. Thinking ahead, the imaginary ideally informed EU citizen of 2035 could be living in a media environment with a more democratic flow of information – one which leaves little fertile ground for disinformation. Hopefully, ‘we will also be living in a Europe that is much less polarized than it is today,’ Dr Lokot concludes.

This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine. 

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