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.
Tackling migration crises: Fighting corruption may help
Twenty-three-year-old Mohamed Rasheed was at a loss after returning to Iraq from a grueling failed attempt to cross the Belarus-Polish border. “There’s no life for us here. There are no jobs; there is no future,” he told a Washington Post reporter.
Another man, who had just disembarked from a repatriation flight from the Belarus capital of Minsk to Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan, frowned and obscured his face with a scarf, according to the reporter, as he responded to a question about why he had left.
“Those words cannot leave my mouth. Who dares to tell the truth here?” the man said.
The two men were returning to a country whose population has largely been excluded from sharing in the benefits of its oil wealth. Youth unemployment hovers at about 25 per cent. Public good and services are poor at best. Security forces and militias crackdown on and fire live ammunition at protesters demanding wholesale change.
Mohammed and his fellow returnee could have been from Lebanon, a middle-income country in which three-quarters of the population lives under the poverty line thanks to a corrupt elite unwilling to surrender vested interests irrespective of the cost to others.
In fact, they could have been from any number of countries in the Middle East, North Africa, and their African and Asian peripheries.
Almost half of the youth from non-Gulf countries in the Middle East and North Africa want nothing more than to leave in the absence of opportunities and prospects. They are exasperated with corrupt, self-serving elites.
This is a part of the world where devastating wars have wracked Syria, Yemen, and Libya. More recently, these countries were joined by Ethiopia while others in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel reel from jihadist violence that feeds on social and economic grievances.
To primarily hold responsible for the migrant crisis, human traffickers and cynical authoritarian leaders like Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, who are willing to play power games and turn a profit on the back of innocent men, women, and children is swatting at symptoms of a problem that goes to the root of instability in the Middle East and North Africa.
To be sure, Mr. Lukashenko and the traffickers are part of the problem. Moreover, many Middle Easterners on the Belarus-Polish border appear to be economic, not political refugees with a legal right to asylum.
One could argue that the European Union’s refusal to take in the refugees on humanitarian grounds led to their repatriation to Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan, which may have shortened their ordeal. Many risked being ultimately rejected, even if they had been granted entry to the EU because they were not political refugees.
The jury is out on whether the refusal will serve as a warning to the many in the Middle East and North Africa contemplating ways to get to Europe by hook or by crook.
All of this describes the immediate aspects of a dramatic crisis. The danger is that the focus on the immediate will obstruct badly needed thinking of ways to prevent or reduce the risk of future such crises and human suffering, aggravated by the willingness of governments to fight their battles on the backs of the least protected.
The framing of the crisis as a security rather than a political, economic, and social problem further takes away from the development of policies and tools to tackle the root causes of repeated migrant crises – economic mismanagement; political, economic, and financial corruption; nepotism; and loss of confidence in political systems and leadership.
“Addressing population challenges, the youth bulge, and refugee and migration pressure from natural or man-made crises will require measures to promote sustainable economic growth and enhanced educational and healthy capacities,” said George M. Feierstein, senior vice president of the Washington-based Middle East Institute and a former State Department official with multiple postings in the Middle East and North Africa.
Acknowledging that a broader US policy focus is likely to prove more challenging than one narrowly concentrated on security, Mr. Feierstein argued that the United States could “bring assets to the table that could potentially enhance its role in the region and strengthen its position as the preeminent outside power.” The former diplomat was referring to big power rivalry with China and Russia in the Middle East and North Africa.
Adopting Mr. Feierstein’s policy prescription would involve greater emphasis on regional approaches to global challenges, including climate change and public health; conflict management and resolution efforts to safeguard populations and minimize internal displacement and migration; and institutional capacity and resilience building; all backed by greater US private sector engagement.
Kyrgyzstan has potentially emerged in what could provide evidence that a de-emphasis of the security aspects of the migration crisis would not automatically surrender real estate and /or leverage and influence to China and Russia.
Part of a Central Asian world sandwiched between Russia and China on which the United States has seemingly turned its back with its withdrawal from Afghanistan in August, Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov is using his election pledges to fight corruption and offer financial rewards to whistleblowers to lure the US back.
Mr. Japarov’s proposition, designed to rescue Kyrgyzstan from the clutches of Russia and China, is the central theme of a document that he has sent to the US State Department. The document outlines proposals to revive a broad political, economic, and civic engagement with the US bolstered by anti-corruption measures and affirmation of democratic freedoms.
S. Frederick Starr, founding chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, suggested that Mr. Japarov is providing a template for US reengagement with Central Asia and Afghanistan. In fact, the Kyrgyz president is offering a formula equally relevant to the Middle East and North Africa.
If adopted by the Biden administration, Kyrgyzstan “would become ‘The Mouse that Roared’ to cite the title of the droll 1959 British film. This time, however, the lesser power will have advanced its cause not by threatening military action…but with a sensible proposal by which a great power—the United States—…can once more become a serious presence in a major part of Asia that lies on China’s and Russia’s doorstep,” Mr. Starr said.
In contrast to Central Asia, the United States remains the dominant power in the Middle East and North Africa. But it’s a power seeking to redefine the role it wishes to play going forward in a region struggling to come to grips with an uncertain but changing US approach.
Kyrgyzstan could be showing the way for both United States and the Middle East. However, to make it work and reduce, if not stop, migration flows, the United States and its Western partners would have to prioritise confronting corrupt elites who will stop at nothing, including displacing populations, to preserve their illicitly gained privileges.
An election, another one, and yet another one: Will Bulgaria finally have a functioning government?
As of November, Bulgarian voters headed to the polls four times this year. Therefore, the news of a new election evokes little surprise — almost like in Israel before Netanyahu’s ousting. In both countries, the tension kept rising while expectations became more and more modest with each successive electoral round. However, the contests that took place on Sunday 14th were of the utmost importance for the country; and not only. In fact, Bulgaria is the EU’s and NATO’s south-eastern bulwark and hosts a tract of the South Stream gas duct. Moreover, Sofia is currently blockingthe next round of EU enlargement negotiations over North Macedonia’s disrespect of extant bilateral obligations. Finally, the Biden administration has manifested the US’s renewed interest in the Bulgaria’s internal politics and international orientations. Thus, the result of the vote has wider implication for the European and Euro-Atlantic political and geo-strategic stability.
Background — Two failed elections
April 2021: How the parties ‘hung’ the parliament
Last April, Bulgarians voted to renew the sitting parliament in the general elections. However, after a summer-long wave of protests against the Prime Minister and the Attorney General, established parties looked rather weak.
According to most experts, this new season of contestation has mobilised new voters, previously disenchanted about politics. As a result, the parties and the leaders who casted themselvesas supportive of the protests increased their votes. In particular, the neo-liberal coalition Democratic Bulgaria (DB) got the support of the well-educated and those residing in bigger cities. Meanwhile, the personal parties Stand Up! Bastards Out! (ISMV) and There is Such a People (ITN) fished across the board.
But they cannot persuadePM Boyko Borisov’s supporters that his removal from office is a precondition for societal improvement. Thus, despite the many corruption scandals involving Borisov’s cliques, all polls forecasted his party, GERB, would have won the election.
Or, to be more precise, GERB won the ballot count — but without a majority (see Figure 1). Moreover, the indignation did not spare the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), which sometimes vents sympathies for GERB despite its corruption. In addition, the elderlies are overrepresented amongst the BSP’s voters, the party suffered from Covid’s increasing morbidity during the spring. Hence, the main traditional opposition party lost votes in favour of the abovementioned ‘protest parties’, weakening the wider anti-Borisov front.
Against this background, there was absolutely no chance of seeing a cabinet get through a vote of confidence. In fact, GERB won 75 seats and the DPS, an ethnic-Turkish party closely associated with GERB, got other 30. Meanwhile, the so-called “parties of the protest” had only 93 representatives on the 121 needed to form a government. True, the BSP managed to hold on to 43 seats — enough to make the protest parties’ eventual confidence motion pass. But DB and ITN refused to engage in serious negotiations with the socialists, forcing the parliament to disband.
The President scheduled new election in July.
July 2021: How politicians (did not) made it through another hung parliament
Most Bulgarian parties and their leaders failed to understand the real meaning of the election results in July. In fact, for the first timesince its appearance in 2009, GERB failed to win the most votes. In part, this could be explained arguing that a large share of GERB’s constituency does not vote ideologically. On the contrary, researchers hypothesise that support for Borisov’s party stems chiefly from the networks of clienteleshe has established. Thus, it was relatively uncomplicated for the President-appointed caretaker government to disincentivise practices such as vote buying and controlled voting. Either way, subsequent sociological analyses and available data show that GERB’s voters demobilised more than other parties’ supporters in July.
Conversely, the so-called ‘parties of the protest’ were the main beneficiary of the disengagement of GERB’s voters. True, most of the ITN’s, DB’s and ISMV’s voters were not ideologically committed to their party of choice either. Nevertheless, the results showed that protest voting can be powerful enough of a force to uproot an already-destabilised party system. In fact, all three parties increased their share of the vote and number of seats (see Figure 2). In addition, ITN’s votes increased in absolute terms by 92,000 units despite an eight-percent reduction in turnout.
After having seen the results, Borisov’s adversaries, especially President Radev, imagined the parties could agree on a new cabinet. In fact, GERB and the DPS lost 13 seats. Meanwhile, the so-called “parties of the protest” had as many as 112 representatives and the BSP was left with 36. Eventually, strong of its 65 deputies, ITN came up with the offer for DB, ISMV and the BPS. Essentially, ITN would form a minority “cabinet of experts” following an agenda agreed amongst the four parties. In other words, ITN came up with a confidence-and-supply arrangement which would have denied its partners any post. However, the populist reason which drives ITN’s strategy led to a massive failure although there was a draft government programme. Namely, according to several rumours, DB requested to rediscuss some of the cabinet members’ nomination as part of the agreement. Predictably, ITN’s preconceived denial to negotiate on the names caused DB’s rebuttalof the entire confidence-and-supply mechanism. Obviously, the BSP and ISMV opportunistically abandoned ITN’s wretched locomotive before the egregious failure of its government in pectore.
The President scheduled new election in November.
Yet another parliamentary… and finally a cabinet?
Considering the previous two votes’ result, it is unsurprising that few analysts tried to call the last electoral round. Indeed, much of this unpredictability stemmed from the decision of two President-appointed caretaker ministers to form a new party. Actually, the names of former finance minister Kirill Petkov and former economy minister Asen Vasilev were little known until May. However, the former’s intense public activity in the revealing the corrupt practicesof Borisov’s administration made him very popular. Moreover, Petkov’s rhetoric emphasises, unlike that of most other Bulgarian political leaders, dialogue, trust and teamwork— especially with Vasilev. Lastly, Petkov and Vasilev made a wit choice in calling their party We Continue the Change (PP). In fact, the name underlines continuity with the caretaker government’s activity and suggests a connection with its appointer, President Radev. After all, the President remains the most popular Bulgarian politician and PP benefitted from his informal blessing (Figure 3).
Overall, the results are surprisingto say the least (Figure 4). Although the turnout fell again to slightly less than 40% of eligible voters, PP achieved a convincing lead over GERB. At the same time, the entire political panorama changed dramatically virtually overnight. After a months-long decline, ISMV failed to clear the four-percent threshold to enter the parliament and risks disappearing. Evidently, the BSP continued its decline, ranking fourth – even after the DPS – and losing 54 seats on its pre-2021 level. Interestingly, PP seems to have syphoned offso many votes from the protest party par excellence, ITN, to shrink it to 25 seats. The same dynamic drove votes from PP to DB, whose leader admitted the two parties’ self-evident ideological affinity recently. Finally, a nationalist ‘protest’ formationmanged to elect 13 deputies, remedying nationalists’ failures in April and July: Văzrazhdane (‘National Revival’).
Looking at the mere numbers of seats in the parliament, one would reach a simple conclusion. And some already say that the Bulgarians will soon have to deal with a new cabinet, with Petkov as PM. However, the most refined analysts have noted that the parties may fail to form a government for the third time.
Conclusion — What to look for in the next weeks and months
The most fascinating aspects of Bulgaria’s current election cycle is not new to those who follow Israeli politics, for instance. In fact, as it happened in Tel Aviv after Netanyahu’s failure to form a government, many feel changes coming. However, in Sofia like in Tel Aviv, there are still many unknown quantities to deal with in politics’ general equation.
Obviously, the reference is most directly to Văzrazhdane — this absolute newcomer to parliamentary politics. First, the party has adopted rather ‘atypical’ stances on, amongst other topics, Bulgaria’s NATO and EU membership. Curiously, most of the party’s propaganda material is freely and easily accessible online through social networksand Văzrazhdane’s website. Besides the fact that the majority of its activists and candidates are open to have an online chat with anyone. Hence, it is reasonable to expect that at least part of Văzrazhdane’s 127,568 voters is well aware of its ideals. Nevertheless, it may not be able to coalesce with a strongly pro-EU, neo-liberal and verticalized party as PP without denaturing. Second, the party’s modest success may be more sustainable in the medium to long term than that of PP. Differently from PP, ITN, ISMV and otherBulgarian leader-driven political projects, Văzrazhdane has been growing up for year. In effect, a few sociologists and analysts were already singling out the party’s positive trajectory in July. Thus, its ideas may turn into a long-lasting destabilising factor for Bulgaria’s usually dull foreign policy in the coming years.
Furthermore, one can argue at length on what these results say on the state of Bulgaria’s liberal democracy. Sure, neither PP nor GERB are a serious threat to democracy as a procedural rule involving elections. However, both parties pose an unmistakable menace to the country’s already fledging liberal institutions. In fact, both Borisov and, in his short tenure to nowadays, Petkovhave shown little appreciation of parliamentarism. Moreover, Petkov embraces a brand of neoliberalismwhich implies a few carrots(e.g., raising pensions) and much more stick. In fact, he has only criticised entrepreneurs whom others have already associated with Borisov and promised not to raise taxes. In addition, he has an open feud with the Constitutional Courtover his dual citizenship — which invalidated his ministerial appointment. Finally, Petkov and his associated have approached the pandemicas a common-sense matterdespite the ongoing compression of citizens’ freedoms.
Therefore, the future remains unpredictable. Especially assuming that a Petkov cabinet would have the support of both the EU and the President. In fact, left unconstrained by Brussels in the name of stabilitocracy and supported by Radev to finish off his archenemy, Borisov, Petkov and his associated may end up rewriting the rules of Bulgarian politics in an elitist way. After all, they have already done it by violating all constitutional customs on caretaker governments’ self-restraint. Why not to try again?
Engaging Morocco: A Chess Game Spain Does Not Want to Lose
In a game of chess, each player knows the type of game they are playing and takes turns moving the pieces. In addition to the relative advantage of making an opening consistent with your objectives, you must anticipate your opponent’s moves and plan accordingly.
Morocco moved pieces on May 17 and 18, 2021, when it let in 8,000 immigrants in the city of Ceuta, a Spanish territory in Africa and external border of the European Union. It did so without warning, neglecting its functions as border guardian and allowing the entry of a mass of migrants amounting to 9.5% of Ceuta’s population.
This episode is of unprecedented character: it occurred in the context of a geopolitical change in the Maghreb, within an unparalleled worsening of Rabat-Madrid relations, and it was of an unmatched magnitude. The particularity of the event demands an assessment of the relations between both countries and of Spain’s strategy towards Morocco. Does Madrid know that it is playing chess with Rabat? Is it capable of reading the moves of Morocco in advance? Does it have an effective strategy?
This act takes place during a period of dramatic change in the Maghreb area. Namely, hostilities over Western Sahara broke out again in 2019. Further, Morocco’s relations with Algiers have drastically deteriorated, while its relations with Europe have become more strained following the CJEU rulings in 2021 and conflicts with France and Berlin. Washington has increased its support for Morocco, recognizing its sovereignty over Western Sahara and providing arms supplies and military cooperation. In parallel, Rabat is making a pivot to Africa, strengthening ties with the Sahel and extending its diplomatic contacts with Nigeria, Senegal and other West African countries. These changes enhance the importance of Morocco’s movements and highlight the relevance of its interactions with its only European neighbor: Spain.
Relations between Spain and Morocco have always been conflictive and prosperous in equal parts. In addition to the positive aspects of trade relations, economic complementarity and cooperation in the fight against terrorism, there are also problematic aspects: territorial claims over Spanish possessions in Africa, maritime delimitation issues and immigration. Morocco’s rejection of the principle of Uti possidetis juris, seeking to change the borders inherited from colonialism, has brought conflict to its relations with its neighbors. With Spain, this is evident in events such as the Ifni War (Morocco-Spain), the Green March, the Perejil crisis and the events in Ceuta in May of this year.
In the media, relations between the kingdoms of Spain and Morocco are shaped by conflicts, such as the Perejil Crisis in 2002 and 2010-2011 without a Moroccan ambassador to Madrid. These confrontations, usually involving Spanish territories in Africa or issues of great public sensitivity such as migration or the Western Sahara, are short-lived and normally quickly resolved. As a result, relations between Madrid and Rabat are cyclical in nature and form part of Spanish domestic politics. This conditions that the high points in their relations never last long and that Spain’s responses in discussing the Sahara, Ceuta and Melilla publicly are avoidant rather than assertive. Within this framework, the events in Ceuta 2021 can be understood as a new setback in the development of complex relations.
These conflicts contrast with Spain’s deeply intertwined economic interaction with Morocco. Sectors such as automobiles, textiles and agriculture form part of the same value chain. Morocco is Spain’s second largest non-EU partner while Spain has overtaken France as the main supplier to Morocco. This responds to the concept of the “cushion of interests” put forward by Spain in the 1990s. The core idea of this strategy is that increased economic interdependence will reduce political tensions. According to this theory, since Morocco’s economy is more dependent on Spain than Spain is on Morocco, Rabat would be constrained in its political movements. However, given the frequency of conflicts between the two kingdoms, this liberal approach is of doubtful effectiveness.
The combination of frequent misunderstandings and growing economic interaction is not the only paradox to be noted in the relations of the two kingdoms. On the political level, the synchronization between the countries’ royal houses (mainly between Juan Carlos I and Hassan II in the past but also between Mohamed VI and Felipe VI at present) stands in contrast to the six years without the annual high-level meetings required by the Treaty of Friendship between the two countries. Moreover, Prime Minister Sanchez has broken with the Spanish tradition of paying the first foreign trip to Morocco, in place since the 1980s.
In short, the problems between Madrid and Rabat are cyclical and greatly affect Spanish domestic politics. Neither the strength of the commercial interaction nor the closeness between their kings are enough to smooth relations between the two countries.
The axes of the relationship between Spain and Morocco
The complexity of the relationship between Spain and Morocco revolves around six axes: migration, terrorism, energy, Sahara, Ceuta and Melilla, and the European Union. Each axis generates a series of opportunities and vulnerabilities for Spain, and it is the confluence of these axes that determines the ups and downs between the two countries.
The first of these axes is migration. Due to its sustained omnipresence in the media, it is the one that most concerns Spanish domestic policy. Sub-Saharan and Moroccan immigrants arrive to Spain through two different routes: by sea (to the peninsula and the Canary Islands) and by land (through the Spanish cities in Africa of Ceuta and Melilla). Since 1992, Madrid has increased cooperation with Rabat in this area.
Currently, the border externalization system is present in the repatriation of immigrants, the joint maritime police patrols, the joint police stations, the raids against massive assaults on border fences, and the construction and control of the Nador fence in Morocco. These projects are financed by European funds, which Morocco would like to see increase. This collaboration is asymmetrical: Morocco has sole control of the border, and Spain depends on its goodwill. Rabat, aware of this, does not hesitate to instrumentalize the issue.
The second axis is anti-terrorism and security cooperation. Collaboration in this area originated with the terrorist attacks in Madrid on March 11, 2004. Cooperation now extends to police, judicial and intelligence cooperation. In addition, with the aim of controlling radicalization, Rabat appoints part of the imams in Spain. Here again, the asymmetry is in favor of Morocco. The Moroccan imams could position themselves in favor of the interests of their country of origin. Moreover, anti-terrorist cooperation is essential for Spain’s national security, and its potential loss would put Spain at risk.
The third axis is energy. The Spanish presence in this field is extensive, with participation in Morocco’s solar and wind power development and in its combined cycle power plants. In addition, Spain exports electricity to Morocco through two interconnections with the Iberian Peninsula, which accounts for 20% of the Moroccan demand. Spain used to be dependent on the Maghreb-Europe gas pipeline, which passed through Morocco. Its closure in November 2021 has reduced this dependence but has posed a problem to guaranteeing gas supplies to Spain. In this field, Spain has the upper hand: it has vetoed the Mediterranean Solar Plan in Morocco (to avoid competition with Spanish renewable production) and has rejected a 3rd electricity interconnection requested by Morocco.
The fourth axis is that of Western Sahara. This former Spanish colony is of visceral importance to Morocco. In the heart of its territorial claims, the conflict remains ongoing since it began in the 1970s, and Rabat lacks international support on its position. Moreover, it is a topical issue, around which Morocco has recently won American support, French and German rejection, and on which it has declared that it will not sign trade agreements that do not include Western Sahara.
Spain faces a dilemma since it must choose between its public opinion (sensitive to the Saharawi cause) and its trade relations with Morocco. As a result, it maintains a dual position. Officially, Spain supports a solution through the UN, sends humanitarian aid to the Saharawi refugee camps in Tindouf, recognizes the Polisario Front as representative of the Saharawi people and rejects Moroccan claims to Canary Islands waters on the grounds that Rabat has no sovereignty over Western Sahara.
Nevertheless, it applauds the autonomy project proposed in 2007 by Morocco (which does not envisage independence), rejected the US initiative to extend MINURSO’s mandate to human rights monitoring in 2013, and defends Morocco’s interests (and its own) before the judgments of the CJEU on trade agreements involving Western Sahara. The complexity of this axis, which forces Spain to walk in two directions at the same time, is a threat to any constructive relationship with Morocco.
The fifth axis is Morocco’s claims over the autonomous cities of Ceuta and Melilla and the Spanish islands off the Moroccan coast. Rabat’s endeavor to re-establish its “authentic” borders does not end in the Sahara, further extending into these Spanish territories, over which it has a permanent claim.
These territories have four problems.
- Economically, they are dependent on Moroccan trade and on Spanish subsidies,
- demographically, the growth of the population of Moroccan origin causes changes in the social structure that can be a source of conflict,
- international protection is relative, since the Spanish territories are not explicitly protected by NATO, and although they are part of the EU and the Schengen Area, they are not within the Customs Union,
- the islands do not appear in the Spanish Constitution nor in the Spanish territorial organization.
Taking advantage of these weaknesses, Morocco has used different strategies to strengthen its claims: economic blockades, vetoes against further integration into the EU, a rhetoric of colonialism, and comparisons to Gibraltar, and even the Perejil crisis in 2002, in which a small group from the Moroccan navy occupied one of the Spanish islands. This axis has a latent presence in the relations between both countries: although Madrid avoids its public mention, Rabat’s claims may end up in direct confrontation Spanish national interests.
Finally, the sixth and last axis is the European Union. Spain´s relationship with Morocco is based on the European Neighborhood Policy and on the Union for the Mediterranean. Besides, this relationship currently revolves around the provision of funds to Morocco for the externalization of borders, the agriculture and fisheries trade agreements, and the rulings of the CJEU on these, which since 2015 have complicated Brussels’ relations with Rabat. Indeed, Morocco has changed its attitude towards the EU since 2008, reducing its concessions, increasing its demands and adopting a more pragmatic discourse. In the framework of Madrid-Rabat relations, the EU has acted as an appeaser, reducing bilateral conflicts. However, Spain is limited within the multilateral structure, since it cannot impose its preferences and its power is confined to blocking initiatives (as it did with agricultural liberalization for example). Moreover, the judgments of the CJEU have poisoned the bilateral relations between Spain and Morocco.
What nowadays is cooperation in migration, security and energy, due to conflicts around the Sahara or Ceuta and Melilla may one day become an undesirable dependency. Too many issues related to Spanish national security are subject to Rabat’s goodwill. That is why the disagreements between the two countries cause so much commotion in Spain, even if they do not always revolve around each of the 6 axes described above.
Ceuta 2021 — Another crisis or a point of no return?
This article begins with the events of May 18, 2021, when Morocco loosened its border controls and allowed more than 8,000 undocumented migrants, mostly young Moroccans, to enter the city of Ceuta. The figure is unprecedented, around 10 times higher than what used to be received until then. It is worth asking whether this event is a simple downturn in the cyclical relations between Morocco and Spain, or whether it implies something different.
When the Ceuta crisis in 2021 is put into context, an extraordinary deterioration of relations between Morocco and Spain is observed, enhanced by unilateral actions by Rabat. In 2018, Morocco closed the commercial border with Melilla. In 2019, it toughened the fight against smuggling in Ceuta, hindering the border crossing and prohibited its officials from entering Ceuta or Melilla. To this day, this has subjected both cities to an unprecedented economic asphyxiation. In 2020, Morocco vetoed the entry of Moroccan fish into Ceuta and revived the dispute over the delimitation of maritime borders in Canary waters. In 2021, it installed a fish farm in Spanish waters near the Chafarinas Islands without permission. In recent years relations between the two countries have worsened gradually, camouflaged behind the Covid-19 pandemic and around issues of relative relevance, which only indirectly affect the 6 axes above mentioned.
In contrast, the Ceuta crisis is relevant in almost every aspect.
- Morocco is instrumentalizing immigration, leaving aside its obligations as border guardian.
- The Western Sahara conflict lingers in the background: the crisis was a form of protest by Rabat against the hospitalization in Spain of the Polisario Front leader Brahim Ghali, organized in an opaque manner by Madrid.
- Despite Rabat’s attempts to keep the crisis within the bilateral framework, it escalated to the European Union, where Spain received the support of the European Commission, the European Parliament (which issued a condemnation for violation of children’s rights against Morocco), and even of France.
- The crisis was followed by the reactivation of territorial claims over Ceuta and Melilla: The Moroccan Prime Minister compared the situation to Western Sahara.
Faced with the numerous and unusual vectors of this crisis, Spain must identify what objective Morocco is pursuing, and what its next steps will be. Rabat is obviously trying to capitalize on the momentum provided by the U.S. recognition of its sovereignty over the Sahara and its vigorous relations with some of its African neighbors.
Moreover, the deterioration of relations has coincided with a deterioration of Spanish domestic politics, while Morocco is taking advantage of independence, government instability, COVID-19, etc. Is Morocco pursuing a strategy against Spain? That is what the Spanish intelligence presumes, without knowing very well what strategy it is. In fact, the CNI considers the Ceuta crisis not to be an immigration problem, but an invasion that can be repeated again. Rabat could have taken the conflict into a gray zone, in which case it would be establishing the environment, waiting for opportunities.
The current situation is not part of the cyclical pattern that characterizes its relations with Morocco. Ceuta and Melilla are suffocating, Spanish intelligence fears losing anti-terrorist collaboration with Morocco, Rabat is in a strong position, and Madrid is unable to recognize what Morocco’s next step will be, limiting itself to trying to put an increasingly entrenched relationship back on track. The impetus with which Rabat is pushing for the recognition of its sovereignty over the Sahara, and its extrapolation of this to Ceuta and Melilla, suggests that the disagreements with Spain are not over.
In all this, Spain’s strategy towards Morocco is ineffective. The liberalism of the cushion of interests has failed. It was based on elements that were of national interest for Spain (migration, terrorism, etc.) but not for Morocco. The only sphere where Madrid has an advantageous position is energy: Spain exports electricity to Morocco, continues to refuse to establish a third electricity interconnection, and is receiving Moroccan requests for Spain to re-export Algerian gas. Moreover, Spain has learned that Morocco fears losing its reputation with the European Union and is trying to prevent the EU from getting involved in its bilateral relations. Thanks to the EU intervention, Morocco made a misstep during the Ceuta crisis this year.
However, everything suggests that Madrid is confident that the ups and downs will continue to prevail in its relations with Rabat and it accepts Mohamed VI’s invitation to inaugurate an unprecedented stage in the relations between the two countries. It is foreseeable, therefore, that Spain will keep Morocco as one of the two pilot countries of its Focus Africa 2023 plan, giving it and Senegal unparalleled attention in the development of constructive relations, and will export this experience to other African countries. In a game of chess, each player knows the type of game he is playing and takes turns moving the pieces. Spain knows that it is playing, but it has not realized that the game has changed, and that the chessboard is different. It has skipped several turns and, for too long now, its pieces have been sitting immobile.
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