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Balkan powder keg

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After the NATO aggression against Serbia and Montenegro in 1999, the United States of America, having established full control over the Balkans, shifted its focus after 2000 to the Middle East. The United States continued to be heavily present in the Balkans, but indirectly through its allies, who continued their policy of expanding NATO and the European Union. The separation of Montenegro from the state union with Serbia in 2006 and the proclamation of the independence of Kosovo in 2008 definitely influenced the change in geopolitical relations in the region. Namely, by the territorial “narrowing down and economic weakening” of Serbia, the United States significantly weakened Serbian influence on the neighboring countries, thereby affecting the establishment of a regional balance. Furthermore, the third round of NATO enlargement, with the membership of Croatia and Albania in NATO in 2009, as well as with Montenegro’s entry into NATO in 2017, the United States has in a geostrategic view “rounded up” the area of the Western Balkans, geopolitically extremely important for the control of the Adriatic basin, the eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea region.

For some time it’s clear that the power of the West is weakening in the world, and these changes are also felt in the Balkans. Lately voting at the Interpol assembly showed that the political West no longer has the power it had until recently. Or, as it said Serbian Minister of Foreign Affairs Ivica Dacic, ” it turned out that it was not enough that some great powers send requests and that all fulfill and support all their demands”. For the West neither did help the open pressure towards some countries.

The West has not become military and economically weak, the budget for the military is on the contrary increased, however, in the meantime, two superpowers, Russia and China appeared. It is clear that the world slowly becomes multipolar. What is important to emphasize is that the West is losing soft power in the Balkans. And without soft power, Western policy in the Balkans shows the true face. This was best seen on October 19 in the Macedonian Parliament, when the Macedonian parliament passed constitutional changes that allowed the country to be called Republic of Northern Macedonia. To change the name, voted 80 MPs, thus reaching a two-thirds majority of 120 MPs needed to initiate constitutional changes. On which way this two-thirds majority was reach in the Macedonian Parliament, is best seen by the tweet of the Greek Defense Minister Panos Kamenos: “Who could think that in the European value system and democracy those who do not vote by the orders are arrested and voters who are obedient receive a bonus of two million euros of ‘dirty money’. I am ashamed”. This tweet of the Greek Defense Minister shows how Western diplomats achieve their goals in the Balkans. The result of this vote will be that (Northern) Macedonia will sign the NATO Membership Protocol in January 2019, after which formal negotiations on NATO accession could begin as well as the ratification process in the parliaments of all 29 member states, which could mean that (Northern) Macedonia could become a full member by 2020. And that will mean that the NATO ring around Serbia and Republic of Srpska (Bosnia and Hercegovina)  will be completely closed. Since in Serbia is the lowest support for joining NATO, it will be left as the last state to join NATO.

Pressures in Bosnia and Herzegovina have already begun. Despite the fact that Republic of Srpska voted a resolution on neutrality in October 2017, NATO recently sent Bosnia and Herzegovina an action plan for NATO membership. The realization of the First Annual National Program would increase financial obligations, from the current 1.33% of GDP, Bosnia and Hercegovina would have to allocate for defense from 1.8% to 2.2% of GDP, which would certainly be a new blow to the economy of this impoverished state union.

Today in the Balkans, there are two hot spots: Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo. In spite of the fact that many analysts consider Kosovo as the source of possible major disorders, in reality it is Bosnia and Herzegovina. There are strong international forces in Kosovo, and there can only be a minor or limited conflict. This is primarily related to the violent takeover of northern Kosovo by the Kosovo Army. But in Bosnia and Hercegovina, things are completely different. Today’s Bosnia and Hercegovina is the result of the Dayton Agreement. An agreement that ended the war, but did not offer a better future for the citizens of Bosnia and Hercegovina. What’s more, it is the reason for the permanent conflict between the constituent nations of Serbs, Bosniaks and Croats. One of the most basic principles on which the Dayton Agreement was based on is the division of Bosnia and Hercegovina (51% of the territory to the Federation of Bosnia and Hercegovina, 49% to Republic of Srpska). And Republic of Srpska is under strong pressure from the West, because of strong anti-NATO position.

Unrest in the Balkans

Recently, the leader of the Bosniaks Bakir Izetbegovic spoke about arming: “Poor neighbors spend money on expensive weapons. You see these rocket systems and planes in Serbia and Croatia, and we must keep the balance in all of this, because weakness attracts”,Izetbegovic said.

This is also indicated by the arming of Croatian armed forces in recent years. The Pentagon donated Croatia 16 OH-58D Kiowa Warrior helicopters, used for observation, utility and direct fire support. The obligation of Croatia was  to pay all the taxes and the pilot training: the price tag – 30 million dollars. Croatia also has acquired Patria armorued personnel vehicles, the self-propeled PzH Howitzers and signed a contract to buy 12 used F-16 Barak fighter jets from Israel. In the meantime, US has blocked the delivery of Israeli fighter jets because the Israelis have upgraded them. In any case, Croatia has decided to acquire a squadron of fighter jets. Apart from the above, Croatia will get from Unated Stated two tactical transport helicopters UH-60 Black Hawk, also under very favorable conditions. Also the Croatian Army has held comprehensive inter-service joint exercise of all components of the Croatian Armed Forces titled “Velebit 18 – Joint Force” which is the largest military exercise of Croatian army since the end of the war. It was conducted continuously for 72 hours from 13 to 15 October 2018 on multiple locations in the Republic of Croatia. It engaged a total of 5,500 members of the Croatian Armed Forces, including the reserve component. Croatian Army tested the attained level of capabilities pertaining  the defence of the national territory and to test the newly introduced weapons and equipment. However, bearing in mind that in NATO there is the principe of collective defense, which means that if someone threatens the security of Croatia, NATO is obliged to defend it, a logical question arises why Croatia should invest significant money in the purchase of arms as well as in serious military exercises. Especially having in mind that Croatia is at the bottom end of scale when it comes to EU countries economies. People are leaving Croatia, mostly young educated people. The answer is pretty clear, when we see that this process is done with strategic cooperation with United States.

The dramatic armament of Croatia has significantly disturbed the balance of power in the Balkans. So Serbia also began with serious equipping and arming. That could be seen on combined tactical exercise with combat shooting ”The Century of Winners 1918-2018” which was held at the Pester provisional testing range, on which Serbia marked the 100th anniversary of the victory in the First World War but also sent a clear message. It was one of the largest military exercises in the region, which included 8,000 members of the Serbian Armed Forces, with around 645 combat systems. The exercise has simultaneosly taken place in ten locations in Serbia where air force and infantry troops performed planned, training and combat activities with the engagement of 100 tanks, 100 combat vehicles, 100 artillery systems and with the ground and air defence missile systems.

Serbian Defense Minister Aleksandar Vulin stated that in 2018 Serbia has introduced in service nine fighter jets “MIG 29” and that in accordance with the agreement on military-technical cooperation with Belarus, in 2019 another four fighter jets “MIG 29” of the same type will be delivered. Agreements on the purchase of four Mi-35 combat helicopters and three transport Mi-17 B5 from Russia were concluded also. In the middle of the 2019 will be delivered the first H145M medium-sized military multirole helicopter. However, the most important will be the acquisition of the Pantsir-S missile system, a self-propelled, medium range surface-to-air missile system. Should be noted, that Serbia as the only state in the Balkans that proclaimed neutrality, is forced to have a trained and equipped army.

And that the weapons in the Balkans is not acquired just like that, shows the statement of European Union Commision chief Jean-Claude Juncker who warned at the beginning of October 2018 of a possible new war in the Balkans if Bosnia, Albania, Serbia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Kosovo do not feel the EU is serious about offering them future membership.

“If, in Europe’s highly complicated landscape, the impression arises, that we’re not serious about offering the prospect of EU membership to the western Balkans, then we might see later – and probably even sooner – what we saw in Balkans in the 1990s,’’ Juncker said in a speech to the Austrian parliament. In other words, if the West does not control the Balkans, war can become reality. In the coming period, the tensions will only grow in the Balkans, and there is a real chance that if the West can not achieve its goals peacefully, it will do it violently, as they did in Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia in the near past.  Without any doubt, pressure on Serbs will be getting stronger. That is why it requires a stronger presence of Russia in the Balkans, primarily in Serbia and Republic of Srpska.

First published in our partner International Affairs

Slavisha Batko Milacic is a historian and independent analyst. He has been doing analytics for years, writing in Serbian and English about the situation in the Balkans and Europe. Slavisha Batko Milacic can be contacted at email: varjag5[at]outlook.com

Europe

Iceland’s Historic(al) Elections

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The morning of September, 26 was a good one for Lenya Run Karim of the Pirate Party. Once the preliminary results were announced, things were clear: the 21-year-old law student of the University of Iceland, originating from a Kurdish immigrant family, had become the youngest MP in the country’s history.

In historical significance, however, this event was second to another. Iceland, the world champion in terms of gender equality, became the first country in Europe to have more women MPs than men, 33 versus 30. The news immediately made world headlines: only five countries in the world have achieved such impressive results. Remarkably, all are non-European: Rwanda, Nicaragua and Cuba have a majority of women in parliament, while Mexico and the UAE have an equal number of male and female MPs.

Nine hours later, news agencies around the world had to edit their headlines. The recount in the Northwest constituency affected the outcome across the country to delay the ‘triumph for women’ for another four years.

Small numbers, big changes

The Icelandic electoral system is designed so that 54 out of the 63 seats in the Althingi, the national parliament, are primary or constituency seats, while another nine are equalization seats. Only parties passing the 5 per cent threshold are allowed to distribute equalisation seats that go to the candidates who failed to win constituency mandates and received the most votes in their constituency. However, the number of equalisation mandates in each of the 6 constituencies is legislated. In theory, this could lead to a situation in which the leading party candidate in one constituency may simply lack an equalisation mandate, so the leading candidate of the same party—but in another constituency—receives it.

This is what happened this year. Because of a difference of only ten votes between the Reform Party and the Pirate Party, both vying for the only equalisation mandate in the Northwest, the constituency’s electoral commission announced a recount on its own initiative. There were also questions concerning the counting procedure as such: the ballots were not sealed but simply locked in a Borgarnes hotel room. The updated results hardly affected the distribution of seats between the parties, bringing in five new MPs, none of whom were women, with the 21-year-old Lenya Run Karim replaced by her 52-year-old party colleague.

In the afternoon of September, 27, at the request of the Left-Green Movement, supported by the Independence Party, the Pirates and the Reform Party, the commission in the South announced a recount of their own—the difference between the Left-Greens and the Centrists was only seven votes. There was no ‘domino effect’, as in the case of the Northwest, as the five-hour recount showed the same result. Recounts in other districts are unlikely, nor is it likely that Althingi—vested with the power to declare the elections valid—would invalidate the results in the Northwest. Nevertheless, the ‘replaced’ candidates have already announced their intention to appeal against the results, citing violations of ballot storage procedures. Under the Icelandic law, this is quite enough to invalidate the results and call a re-election in the Northwest, as the Supreme Court of Iceland invalidated the Constitutional Council elections due to a breach of procedure 10 years ago. Be that as it may, the current score remains 33:30, in favor of men.

Progressives’ progress and threshold for socialists

On the whole, there were no surprises: the provisional allocation of mandates resembles, if with minor changes, the opinion polls on the eve of the election.

The ruling three-party coalition has rejuvenated its position, winning 37 out of the 63 Althingi seats. The centrist Progressive Party saw a real electoral triumph, improving its 2017 result by five seats. Prime-minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir’s Left-Green Movement, albeit with a slight loss, won eight seats, surpassing all pre-election expectations. Although the centre-right Independence Party outperformed everyone again to win almost a quarter of all votes, 16 seats are one of the worst results of the Icelandic ‘Grand Old Party’ ever.

The results of the Social-Democrats, almost 10% versus 12.1% in 2017, and of the Pirates, 8.6% versus 9.2%, have deteriorated. Support for the Centre Party of Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson, former prime-minister and victim of the Panama Papers, has halved from 10.9% to 5.4%. The centrists have seen a steady decline in recent years, largely due to a sexist scandal involving party MPs. The populist People’s Party and the pro-European Reform Party have seen gains of 8.8% and 8.3%, as compared to 6.9% and 6.7% in the previous elections.

Of the leading Icelandic parties, only the Socialist Party failed to pass the 5 per cent threshold: despite a rating above 7% in August, the Socialists received only 4.1% of the vote.

Coronavirus, climate & economy

Healthcare and the fight against COVID-19 was, expectedly, on top of the agenda of the elections: 72% of voters ranked it as the defining issue, according to a Fréttablaðið poll. Thanks to swift and stringent measures, the Icelandic government brought the coronavirus under control from day one, and the country has enjoyed one of the lowest infection rates in the world for most of the time. At the same time, the pandemic exposed a number of problems in the national healthcare system: staff shortages, low salaries and long waiting lists for emergency surgery.

Climate change, which Icelanders are already experiencing, was an equally important topic. This summer, the temperature has not dropped below 20°C for 59 days, an anomaly for a North-Atlantic island. However, Icelanders’ concerns never converted into increased support for the four left-leaning parties advocating greater reductions in CO2 emission than the country has committed to under the Paris Agreement: their combined result fell by 0.5%.

The economy and employment were also among the main issues in this election. The pandemic has severely damaged the island nation’s economy, which is heavily tourism-reliant—perhaps, unsurprisingly, many Icelanders are in favor of reviving the tourism sector as well as diversifying the economy further.

The EU membership, by far a ‘traditional’ issue in Icelandic politics, is unlikely to be featured on the agenda of the newly-elected parliament as the combined result of the Eurosceptics, despite a loss of 4%, still exceeds half of the overall votes. The new Althingi will probably face the issue of constitutional reform once again, which is only becoming more topical in the light of the pandemic and the equalization mandates story.

New (old) government?

The parties are to negotiate coalition formation. The most likely scenario now is that the ruling coalition of the Independence Party, the Left-Greens and the Progressives continues. It has been the most ideologically diverse and the first three-party coalition in Iceland’s history to last a full term. A successful fight against the pandemic has only strengthened its positions and helped it secure additional votes. Independence Party leader and finance minister Bjarni Benediktsson has earlier said he would be prepared to keep the ruling coalition if it holds the majority. President Guðni Jóhannesson announced immediately after the elections that he would confirm the mandate of the ruling coalition to form a new government if the three parties could strike a deal.

Other developments are possible but unlikely. Should the Left-Greens decide to leave the coalition, they could be replaced by the Reform Party or the People’s Party, while any coalition without the Independence Party can only be a four-party or larger coalition.

Who will become the new prime-minister still remains to be seen—but if the ruling coalition remains in place, the current prime-minister and leader of the Left-Greens, Katrín Jakobsdóttir, stands a good chance of keeping her post: she is still the most popular politician in Iceland with a 40 per cent approval rate.

The 2021 Althingi election, with one of the lowest turnouts in history at 80.1%, has not produced a clear winner. The election results reflect a Europe-wide trend in which traditional “major” parties are losing support. The electorate is fragmenting and their votes are pulled by smaller new parties. The coronavirus pandemic has only reinforced this trend.

The 2021 campaign did not foreshadow a sensation. Although Iceland has not become the first European country with a women’s majority in parliament, these elections will certainly go down in history as a test of Icelanders’ trust to their own democracy.

From our partner RIAC

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EU-Balkan Summit: No Set Timeframe for Western Balkans Accession

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From left to right: Janez JANŠA (Prime Minister, Slovenia), Charles MICHEL (President of the European Council), Ursula VON DER LEYEN (President of the European Commission) Copyright: European Union

On October 6, Slovenia hosted a summit between the EU and the Western Balkans states. The EU-27 met with their counterparts (Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Kosovo) in the sumptuous Renaissance setting of Brdo Castle, 30 kilometers north of the capital, Ljubljana. Despite calls from a minority of heads of state and government, there were no sign of a breakthrough on the sensitive issue of enlargement. The accession of these countries to the European Union is still not unanimous among the 27 EU member states.

During her final tour of the Balkans three weeks ago, German Chancellor Angela Merkel stated that the peninsula’s integration was of “geostrategic” importance. On the eve of the summit, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz backed Slovenia’s goal of integrating this zone’s countries into the EU by 2030.

However, the unanimity required to begin the hard negotiations is still a long way off, even for the most advanced countries in the accession process, Albania and North Macedonia. Bulgaria, which is already a member of the EU, is opposing North Macedonia’s admission due to linguistic and cultural differences. Since Yugoslavia’s demise, Sofia has rejected the concept of Macedonian language, insisting that it is a Bulgarian dialect, and has condemned the artificial construction of a distinct national identity.

Other countries’ reluctance to join quickly is of a different nature. France and the Netherlands believe that previous enlargements (Bulgaria and Romania in 2007) have resulted in changes that must first be digested before the next round of enlargement. The EU-27 also demand that all necessary prior guarantees be provided regarding the independence of the judiciary and the fight against corruption in these countries. Despite the fact that press freedom is a requirement for membership, the NGO Reporters Without Borders (RSF) urged the EU to make “support for investigative and professional journalism” a key issue at the summit.”

While the EU-27 have not met since June, the topic of Western Balkans integration is competing with other top priorities in the run-up to France’s presidency of the EU in the first half of 2022. On the eve of the summit, a working dinner will be held, the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, called for “a strategic discussion on the role of the Union on the international scene” in his letter of invitation to the EU-Balkans Summit, citing “recent developments in Afghanistan,” the announcement of the AUKUS pact between the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom, which has enraged Paris.

The Western Balkans remain the focal point of an international game of influence in which the Europeans seek to maintain their dominance. As a result, the importance of reaffirming a “European perspective” at the summit was not an overstatement. Faced with the more frequent incursion of China, Russia, and Turkey in that European region, the EU has pledged a 30 billion euro Economic and Investment Plan for 2021-2027, as well as increased cooperation, particularly to deal with the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Opening the borders, however, is out of the question. In the absence of progress on this issue, Albania, North Macedonia, and Serbia have decided to establish their own zone of free movement (The Balkans are Open”) beginning January 1, 2023. “We are starting today to do in the region what we will do tomorrow in the EU,” said Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama when the agreement was signed last July.

This initiative, launched in 2019 under the name “Mini-Schengen” and based on a 1990s idea, does not have the support of the entire peninsular region, which remains deeply divided over this project. While Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro are not refusing to be a part of it and are open to discussions, the Prime Minister of Kosovo, Albin Kurti, who took office in 2020, for his part accuses Serbia of relying on this project to recreate “a fourth Yugoslavia”

Tensions between Balkan countries continue to be an impediment to European integration. The issue of movement between Kosovo and Serbia has been a source of concern since the end of September. Two weeks of escalation followed Kosovo’s decision to prohibit cars with Serbian license plates from entering its territory, in response to Serbia’s long-standing prohibition on allowing vehicles to pass in the opposite direction.

In response to the mobilization of Kosovar police to block the road, Serbs in Kosovo blocked roads to their towns and villages, and Serbia deployed tanks and the air force near the border. On Sunday, October 3, the conflict seemed to be over, and the roads were reopened. However, the tone had been set three days before the EU-Balkans summit.

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Europe

German Election: Ramifications for the US Foreign Policy

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Image source: twitter @OlafScholz

In the recent German election, foreign policy was scarcely an issue. But Germany is an important element in the US foreign policy. There is a number of cases where Germany and the US can cooperate, but all of these dynamics are going to change very soon.

The Germans’ strategic culture makes it hard to be aligned perfectly with the US and disagreements can easily damage the relations. After the tension between the two countries over the Iraq war, in 2003, Henry Kissinger said that he could not imagine the relations between Germany and the US could be aggravated so quickly, so easily, which might end up being the “permanent temptation of German politics”. For a long time, the US used to provide security for Germany during the Cold War and beyond, so, several generations are used to take peace for granted. But recently, there is a growing demand on them to carry more burden, not just for their own security, but for international peace and stability. This demand was not well-received in Berlin.

Then, the environment around Germany changed and new threats loomed up in front of them. The great powers’ competition became the main theme in international relations. Still, Germany was not and is not ready for shouldering more responsibility. Politicians know this very well. Ursula von der Leyen, who was German defense minister, asked terms like “nuclear weapons” and “deterrence” be removed from her speeches.

Although on paper, all major parties appreciate the importance of Germany’s relations with the US, the Greens and SPD ask for a reset in the relations. The Greens insist on the European way in transatlantic relations and SPD seeks more multilateralism. Therefore, alignment may be harder to maintain in the future. However, If the tensions between the US and China heat up to melting degrees, then external pressure can overrule the internal pressure and Germany may accede to its transatlantic partners, just like when Helmut Schmid let NATO install medium-range nuclear missiles in Europe after the Soviet Union attacked Afghanistan and the Cold War heated up.

According to the election results, now three coalitions are possible: grand coalition with CDU/CSU and SPD, traffic lights coalition with SPD, FDP, and Greens, Jamaica coalition with CDU/CSU, FDP, and Greens. Jamaica coalition will more likely form the most favorable government for the US because it has both CDU and FDP, and traffic lights will be the least favorite as it has SPD. The grand coalition can maintain the status quo at best, because contrary to the current government, SPD will dominate CDU.

To understand nuances, we need to go over security issues to see how these coalitions will react to them. As far as Russia is concerned, none of them will recognize the annexation of Crimea and they all support related sanctions. However, if tensions heat up, any coalition government with SPD will be less likely assertive. On the other hand, as the Greens stress the importance of European values like democracy and human rights, they tend to be more assertive if the US formulates its foreign policy by these common values and describe US-China rivalry as a clash between democracy and authoritarianism. Moreover, the Greens disapprove of the Nordstream project, of course not for its geopolitics. FDP has also sided against it for a different reason. So, the US must follow closely the negotiations which have already started between anti-Russian smaller parties versus major parties.

For relations with China, pro-business FDP is less assertive. They are seeking for developing EU-China relations and deepening economic ties and civil society relations. While CDU/CSU and Greens see China as a competitor, partner, and systemic rival, SPD and FDP have still hopes that they can bring change through the exchange. Thus, the US might have bigger problems with the traffic lights coalition than the Jamaica coalition in this regard.

As for NATO and its 2 percent of GDP, the division is wider. CDU/CSU and FDP are the only parties who support it. So, in the next government, it might be harder to persuade them to pay more. Finally, for nuclear participation, the situation is the same. CDU/CSU is the only party that argues for it. This makes it an alarming situation because the next government has to decide on replacing Germany’s tornados until 2024, otherwise Germany will drop out of the NATO nuclear participation.

The below table gives a brief review of these three coalitions. 1 indicates the lowest level of favoritism and 3 indicates the highest level of favoritism. As it shows, the most anti-Russia coalition is Jamaica, while the most anti-China coalition is Trafic light. Meanwhile, Grand Coalition is the most pro-NATO coalition. If the US adopts a more normative foreign policy against China and Russia, then the Greens and FDP will be more assertive in their anti-Russian and anti-Chinese policies and Germany will align more firmly with the US if traffic light or Jamaica coalition rise to power.

Issues CoalitionsTrafic LightGrand CoalitionJamaica
Russia213 
China312 
NATO132 

1 indicates the lowest level of favoritism. 3 indicates the highest level of favoritism.

In conclusion, this election should not make Americans any happier. The US has already been frustrated with the current government led by Angela Merkel who gave Germany’s trade with China the first priority, and now that the left-wing will have more say in any imaginable coalition in the future, the Americans should become less pleased. But, still, there are hopes that Germany can be a partner for the US in great power competition if the US could articulate its foreign policy with common values, like democracy and human rights. More normative foreign policy can make a reliable partner out of Germany. Foreign policy rarely became a topic in this election, but observers should expect many ramifications for it.

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