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.
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 . 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
 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.
Why German car giant Volkswagen should drop Turkey
War and aggression are not only questions of ethics and humanitarian disaster. They are bad news for business.
The German car giant Volkwagen whose business model is built on consumer appeal had to stop and pause when Turkey attacked the Kurds in Syria. A USD 1.4bln Volkswagen investment in a new plant in Turkey is being put on hold by the management, and rightly so.
Unlike business areas more or less immune from consumer pressure – like some financial sectors, for example – car buying is a people thing. It is done by regular people who follow the news and don’t want to stimulate and associate themselves with crimes against humanity and war crimes through their purchases. Investing in a militarily aggressive country simply is bad for an international brand.
As soon as the news hit that Turkey would be starting their military invasion against the Kurds, questions about plans for genocide appeared in the public discourse space. Investing over a billion in such a political climate does not make sense.
By investing into a new plant next to Turkish city Izmir, Volkswagen is not risking security so much. Izmir itself is far removed from Turkey’s southern border — although terrorist attacks in the current environment are generally not out of the question.
The risk question rather lies elsewhere. Business likes stability and predictability. Aggressive economic sanctions which are likely to be imposed on Turkey by the EU and the US would affect many economic and business aspects which the company has to factor in. Two weeks ago the US House of Representatives already voted to impose sanctions on Turkey, which now leaves the Senate to vote on an identical resolution.
Economic sanctions affect negatively the purchasing power of the population. And Volkswagen’s new business would rely greatly on the Turkish client in a market of over 80mln people.
Sanctions also have a psychological “buckle-up” effect on customers in economies “under siege”, whereby clients are less likely to want to splurge on a new car in strenuous times.
Volkswagen is a German but also a European company. Its decision will signal clearly if it lives by the EU values of support for human rights, or it decides to look the other way and put business first.
But is not only about reputational damage, which Volkswagen seems to be concerned with. There are real business counter-arguments which coincide with anti-war concerns.
Dogus Otomotiv, the Turkish distributor of VW vehicles, fell as much as 6.5% in Istanbul trading after the news for the Turkish offensive.
Apart from their effects on the Turkish consumer, economic sanctions will also likely keep Turkey away from international capital markets.
There is also the question of an EU company investing outside the EU, which has raised eyebrows. It is up to the European Commission now to decide whether the Volkswagen deal in Turkey can go forward after a complaint was filed. Turkey offered the German conglomerate a generous 400mln euro subsidy which is a problem when it comes to the EU rules and regulations on competition.
The Chairman of the EPP Group in the European Parliament, Manfred Weber filed a complaint with the EU competition Commissioner about the deal, on the basis of non-compliance with EU competition rules. Turkey’s plans to subsidize Volkswagen clearly run counter EU rules and the EU Commission can stop the 1bln deal, if it so decides.
In a context where Turkey takes care of 4mln refugees — subject to an agreement with the EU — and often threatens the EU that it would “open the gates”, it is not clear if the Commission would muster the guts to say no, however. In that sense, the German company’s own decision to pull from the deal would be welcome because the Commission itself wouldn’t have to pronounce on the issue and risk angering Turkey.
While some commentators do not believe that Volkswagen would scrap altogether the investment and is only delaying the decision, it is worth remembering that the Syria conflict is a complex, multi-player conflict which has gone on for more than 8 years. Turkey’s entry in Syria is unlikely to end in a month. Erdogan has communicated his intention to stay in Syria until the Kurds back down.
In October it was reported that the Turkish forces are already using chemical weapons on the Kurdish population which potentially makes Turkish President Erdogan a war criminal. For a corporate giant like Volkswagen, giving an economic boost for such a state would mean indirectly supporting war crimes.
As Kurdish forces struck a deal for protection with the Syrian Assad forces, this seems to be anything but a slow-down. Turkey has just thrown a whole lot of wood into the fire.
Volkswagen will find itself “monitoring” the situation for a long time. There is a case for making the sustainable business decision to drop the risky deal altogether, soon.
The future of Brexit: Where will Boris Johnson’s “fatal strategy” lead Britain to?
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will attempt to negotiate a new deal with the EU on Brexit in the course of early parliamentary elections in the UK scheduled for December 12. If the Conservatives take upper hand, then, according to Johnson, Great Britain will leave the EU no later than January 31.
How will the upcoming elections affect Brexit? How Boris Johnson’s agreement with the European Commission could be assessed? The answers to these questions were provided by the participants in an expert discussion at the Valdai Club.
Stewart Lawson, member of the Board of Directors of the Russian-British Chamber of Commerce, head of UK Business Center in Moscow, Ernst & Young, has said that the current situation in the UK can be described as a scene in a bar where an Englishman, a Scot and an Irishman drink to forget the concept of Brexit “. Lawson made it clear that leaving the European Union without conditions would be a disaster. Nevertheless, the expert said that the UK had managed to avoid a situation in which there would be no deal at all, and also, with the arrival of a new agreement which Boris Johnson has reached with the EU, the situation has improved. “This deal is the best option for now,” – the expert remarked. However, he said, Brexit seems to be a story with no end and what is happening around it now is not even its first chapter yet.
Brexit continues to produce uncertainty, which, Lawson said is a big problem. In his opinion, the persisting uncertainty in connection with the UK leaving the EU affects business. On the one hand, the expert said, although Brexit will set Great Britain free from the US control, on the other hand, it will greatly affect the business climate, which continues to suffer amid the political uncertainty. The expert mentioned Nassim Taleb’s concept of the “black swan” according to which any forecasting may not take into account random, unknown factors. “We live in a world in which there are factors unknown to us. So it is necessary to have sufficiently flexible organizations capable of responding to situations that are in the process of development, ” – Lawson emphasized.
According to Alexander Kramarenko, Director of Development at the Russian International Affairs Council, Boris Johnson’s new agreement on Brexit is a major achievement for the British Prime Minister. Kramarenko attributes the success of Boris Johnson to his choice of a “fatal strategy” which allowed him to keep the stakes high until he won. With the help of this strategy, he managed to “cut open” the agreement on Brexit which had been signed by Theresa May. In addition, the “fatal strategy” has prompted the EU to concede on several issues.
The failure of Theresa May’s strategy is attributed to the fact that the former prime minister was a staunch supporter of a policy which required satisfying both parties, the UK and the EU. It was necessary to look for ways out of the EU instead of trying to stay there. “You cannot leave the EU and at the same time remain in the EU. And her agreement boiled down to just that, ” – Kramarenko said.
According to Theresa May’s agreement, by leaving the EU formally, Great Britain would lose the right to vote. Boris Johnson said that such an agreement perpetuates the “vassal” dependence of Great Britain on the European Union. “For a country with such a history as Great Britain, a position of this kind is not suitable. Either the UK is a member and takes part in all decisions, or it comes out and agrees on something special. As argued by Boris Johnson, this special agreement is a free trade agreement of varying range of coverage, intensity and depth, but it would be an agreement of sovereign Britain, ” – Kramarenko emphasized.
First and foremost, Johnson’s agreement solves the problem of maintaining the status quo on the land border of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The fact is that under the agreement, Northern Ireland, as part of the United Kingdom, is to withdraw from the EU, while Ireland remains part of the European Union. Thus, the UK’s withdrawal from the EU and the establishment of a clear-cut border between Northern Ireland and Ireland would jeopardize the Irish peace process. The EU, the UK and the Irish Government pledged to maintain this border under a deal that ended the civil war in Northern Ireland. The EU insisted that Britain remain in the Customs Union until this situation is settled. This would de facto keep Britain within the EU.
Under a new agreement proposed by Boris Johnson on which he secured the approval of the European Union, the UK will have to leave the EU’s Customs Union, and the customs border between Britain and the EU will pass via the Irish Sea. However, this threatens the unity of the country and could be an important step towards unification of Ireland, the expert believes.
Boris Johnson’s strategy has led to serious concessions from the European Union, Kramarenko said. Exiting the Customs Union will also allow the UK to clinch trade agreements with third countries. Moreover, the provision on “equal conditions of competition” will no longer be valid in the future, since it was moved from the text of the agreement to the Political Declaration, which is not binding.
What creates a major obstacle to Brexit is the current state of the British constitutional system of government, the expert said. “The opposition has deprived the government of the majority, thereby stripping it of the opportunity to rule the country or adopt new laws,” – Kramarenko said. Johnson’s achievement is precisely due to the fact that despite the opposition, he was able to cope with the opponents and postpone the date of Britain’s exit from the EU. “Now there is a significant degree of confidence that Brexit will take place and, perhaps, it will come as a gift for the New Year,” – Kramarenko said.
From our partner International Affairs
Bulgarian far-right to shut down largest human rights NGO in Bulgaria
“Why don’t they defend those who get robbed? Why are they only defending those that have trouble with the police? Why are they defending minorities? Do you know how many policemen are being investigated because of them?”
This is what you hear when the Bulgarian Deputy Prime Minister, Krasimir Karakachanov and others speak about the human rights organisation, The Bulgarian Helsinki Committee. It is the largest and oldest human rights organisation in Bulgaria.
And now it is facing the threat of closure after the deputy prime minister – who is also Bulgaria’s Minister of Defense – called this week for the shutdown of the NGO. Members of his party, the Bulgarian National Movement (IMRO) – a Far-Right party participating in the ruling coalition – have filed a request with the Bulgarian Prosecutor General for a review of the activities of the human rights NGO, asking for it to be closed down.
Make no bones about it. This is an attack on our freedom.
This is why I have notified the relevant authorities at the United Nations about what is taking place in Bulgaria. Activities of this type directed against human rights defenders have no place in a rule of law state, let alone an EU state. As a prominent government official, Krasimir Karakachanov has a particular obligation to respect human rights defenders.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch criticised his and his party’s actions this week. Over 70 Bulgarian NGOs stood by the Helsinki Committee, having sent a public letter of support condemning the attack on the NGO.
While my signal to the UN is currently being looked at, it is worth discussing why the deputy prime minister and others have such a huge problem with the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, and organisations of this type.
The concept of human rights – by its very definition – protects citizens against the State and its organs, including policemen. That is one of the issues for Karakachanov. Well, welcome to the 21st century, Minister.
Policemen being investigated for misconduct is something we have to applaud, not something which shows how far things have gone. Bulgaria, with its post-communist baggage, has had a police system which traditionally has gone over and beyond what is allowed by law. Things of course are changing but you’ll always have policemen who abuse their legal limits. It happens in virtually every country. That’s why we need human rights organisations to watch for these things. And that’s a good thing.
When policemen catch an alleged criminal, they don’t get to beat them up or lock them up indefinitely. Period. These are the kind of cases that human rights NGOs like the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee look into. And they, by definition, will be focused on the actions of policemen and the State. That’s the name of the game; that’s what human rights are about. This is a concept that Karakachanov is not comfortable with; why should anyone be allowed to criticise the police forces? This to him is rather unpatriotic.
“Why don’t they instead look at and help the victims of robbery?” Well, human rights are not about the victims of robbery — if only it was that convenient. They protect citizens from their own state when that state violates their rights. Policemen do not get investigated for no reason, without any evidence of wrongdoing. Defending human rights is a very uncomfortable task because – by definition – the NGO has to go against the State. And for some, like Karakachanov, that shouldn’t be done because it leads to punishments for policemen when they step over.
Working for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights where I reviewed human rights complaints from around the world, I learnt that every country violates human rights – only the scale and extent differ. This is why it is crucial to have human rights defenders like the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee who can help victims on the ground. Having international organisations like the UN is not enough.
Let us turn now to the request to the Prosecutor General to look into the activities of the human rights NGO, with a view to closing it down for allegedly “interfering in the judicial system.” Interference with the judicial system is what lawyers and prosecutors both do, by definition. By presenting facts to push their own case, the judicial system is a place of interference. Justice is not static. Of course, human rights defenders advocate for, interfere, push for and defend their clients. This is their job. Karakachanov’s Far-Right party is uncomfortable with such a strong voice for human rights in the process. Prosecution is prosecution; human rights defense is, well, interference.
Next, we should discuss the role of the Prosecutor General who would have to opine on the request for the close down of the NGO. Euronews readers should be told at this point that Bulgaria is facing a scandal with the selection of the next Prosecutor General. Ivan Geshev, who is currently the number two in the Prosecutor’s Office, is nominated to become Bulgaria’s next chief prosecutor. The capital Sofia witnessed protests by thousands of people marching on the streets against Geshev’s selection as chief prosecutor, because among other things, he is the only candidate in the process. That is never a good sign. Questions are also raised about which oligarchic power circles Geshev would be serving.
Geshev, the deputy in the Prosecutor’s Office, is important in this case because his attitude towards this human rights NGO is well known. When he receives the annual report about the human rights situation in Bulgaria penned by the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, he famously sends back literary works about the Bulgarian struggle for independence, in my view trying to educate the NGO about being pro-Bulgarian. Of course, criticising the system does not make an NGO anti-Bulgarian. The job of patriots is not to shut up.
A similar reaction has been noted by the current Prosecutor General who will be looking at the case. When he receives the human rights report about the situation in Bulgaria, he simply sends it back. The message by both is clear: they see no value in a report that reviews the shortcomings of the system. And they are the people who will be deciding whether this human rights organisation is closed or not.
Human rights violations are uncomfortable. They push officials to take a look at themselves and their colleagues, often loudly pointing out the injustices. Human rights are not about robberies; if only it was that convenient. Human rights are about what is wrong with the system. And the current top prosecuting duo are not interested in that.
Living in Bulgaria, I don’t want to see the country follow the example of Hungary where human rights NGOs and universities are pushed so hard by the authorities that they have to close and move. That is not the right path to follow.
The closing down of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee would be a blow to Bulgarian leadership and its human rights record. This will be not only a test for the Prosecutor’s office, but for Bulgarians and the EU.
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