Authors: Ekaterina Entina, Dejan Novakovic, Georgy Engelhardt
President Putin’s visit to Belgrade on January 17, 2019 was a significant domestic political event for Serbia, and an “empty” one for Russia in terms of its prospects in the country, given the events of 2018 and the content of the meeting itself.
A Simplified Approach to Assessing the Results of Putin’s Visit
The arrival of the President of the Russian Federation did allow Aleksandar Vučić to demonstrate that he enjoys the support both of Washington (which in many ways is doubtful) and Moscow, a city beloved by a large part of the Serbian population. In terms of domestic politics, this position guarantees that the ruling party will score a convincing victory in the snap parliamentary elections, which could be held as early as this spring. The slogan being used to promote Putin’s visit was “one in 300 million” (a reference to a popular Serbian saying that translates “The Serbs and the Russians, there are 300 million of us, but without the Russians, barely enough to fill half a bus”), which turned into a direct response to the opposition’s phrase “1 in 5 million” (which came about in December 2018 as a reaction to the careless statements of the Serbian leader about the opposition’s rallies) and could be used as a “banner” during the election campaign in the country.
On the other hand, the scale of the open part of the visit clearly did not match the qualitative component. In terms of the size and emotional intensity, Putin’s visit to Belgrade had all the trimmings of a grand performance. Seven hundred journalists, 5000 security service officers, a good part of the Russian cabinet, a squadron of Serbian MiGs to accompany the President’s plane in Belgrade, 120,000 Serbs on the square in front of the Church of Saint Sava chanting “Putin! Putin!” and even two small but indispensable additions to the main program – the timely revelation of an attempted assassination and the free Tsarsky bread in the Maxi shops.
At the same time, the main results of the visit were the streamlined statements about TurkStream, the 21 agreements that will be worth a total of 660 million euros in the future (five of which are concerned with providing electricity to Serbian cities) and the Russian leader’s assertion that the “the resolution of the Kosovo issue should be handled by Belgrade and Pristina, but within the framework of UN Security Council Resolution 1244.”
The following outlines what may at first appear to be the main results of Putin’s visit to Belgrade.
Putin’s visit to Belgrade, dare we say, was an historical event. It will take some time before we see its effects – either as a solid result in the Balkans or as the end of Russia in the region. Why is that?
Following the 2000 October Revolution in Yugoslavia, which led to the overthrow of Slobodan Milošević, fierce debates raged in Serbia over why Moscow did nothing to prevent the change of power in Belgrade. They also brought up the fact that Russia “did nothing” in 1995 when Milošević visited Moscow. Just like now, the expectations of ordinary Serbs back then (regardless of what social group they belonged to) were off the charts, and the Serbian leaders wanted to use Moscow to further its own domestic agenda. And, as we all know, there is nothing worse than disappointed expectations.
To be sure, it can be stated that, despite its pomposity, Putin’s visit went off without any global breakthroughs or prodigious gestures. Yet there were many fears about it: that attempts would be made to get Russia to achieve an agreement on the recognition by Belgrade of Kosovo’s independence; that the Serbian side would try to draw Putin into the country’s domestic confrontation; or, more importantly, that the whole deal could undermine pro-Russian sentiments within Serbian society.
The Russian leader managed to avoid the main traps rather skilfully. Putin did say that “Russia is in favour of Belgrade and Pristina achieving a viable and mutually acceptable solution,” words that Aleksandar Vučić had longed to hear, but continued by reiterating Moscow’s position that this should be done “within the framework of UN Security Council Resolution 1244.” This is precisely what Vučić’s opponents in Serbia are demanding, including the Kosovo Serbs, who fear that “bold and creative” solutions will actually turn out to be a banal form of capitulation and, instead of appeasement, the benefits of European integration will only lead to further crises and the split of the country.
Putin was equally skilful in his refusals to engage in the domestic political struggle in Serbia. Presenting Vučić with the Order of Alexander Nevsky and praising him for his personal contribution to the development of bilateral relations (which is certainly fair, as Serbia is the only European country that does not display a hint of anti-Russian sentiment at any level), Putin made note of other Serbian greats who had the honour bestowed upon them in the 19th and early 20th centuries – the founder of independent Serbia Miloš Obrenović and the famous Prime Minister Nikola Pašić. However, Putin politely refused to take part in a mass rally organized by the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SPP) led by Vučić. The SPP chartered hundreds of buses to bring in activists and employees of government-funded organizations from across the country, attempting to use the meeting with the most popular foreign leader in Serbia to offset the mass protests organized by the opposition. Despite Vučić’s persistence, as well as the fact that Putin’s participation in the rally had been announced a week before his visit to Belgrade, the Russian leader merely thanked the people for their friendly attitude towards Russia. Refusing to support either of the sides in the domestic political confrontation helped prevent any damage being done to the Russophile portion of the opposition. It would seem that, in terms of its positions, Moscow did not lose anything from Putin’s Belgrade visit. But did it win anything? That is the question.
In order to answer this question, it is important to understand the regional context in which the official visit took place.
The Regional Dimension
The Macedonian parliament recently passed a vote on changing the country’s name to the “Republic of North Macedonia,” opening the way to NATO and EU membership. The Hellenic Parliament has not yet voted on the issue. It will do so on January 25, 2019.
Two days before Putin’s visit to Serbia, the U.S. administration addressed the request to lift the customs barriers imposed on goods from Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina to Kosovo Albanians. The pressure on the Kosovan authorities to take part in the hearings on the atrocities of the 1990s is thus increasing. Such actions, as well as the developments of the past six months, demonstrate that Washington sees itself as the main arbiter and future guardian of the agreement between Serbia and Kosovo. Donald Trump was candid about this in his December 2018 letters to President of Kosovo Hashim Thaçi and his Serbian counterpart Aleksandar Vučić.
At the same time, the Kosovan and Albanian authorities bilaterally abolished the border regime between the two countries and implemented joint control over crossings, meaning that the two countries have de facto entered the final stages of the “Greater Albania” project. It would seem that such steps would logically put the issue over other “great” countries (for example, Serbia and Croatia) on the agenda too. But we should not count on this right now, as, unlike the Albanians, Belgrade and Zagreb do not have great power behind them.
The only thing that is new in Serbia–Croatia relations are the reasons for the tensions. Tensions themselves are part and parcel of the relationship between the two countries.
In this context, symbolism surrounded the Russian President’s visit to Belgrade. Aleksandar Vučić presented Putin with a Šarplaninac (also known as a Yugoslavian Shepherd Dog, a Macedonian Shepherd Dog and a Kosovan Shepherd Dog). Does it mean he presented Kosovo to Moscow? Probably not. However, it was almost certainly an invitation to step up efforts and an attempt to shift part of the responsibility for the outcome of the negotiations regarding the region onto Russia.
What is more, in the context of the regional trends mentioned above, Putin’s visit can be interpreted not only and not so much as Russia demonstrating its support for Vučić and Serbia, but rather as a meeting with all the region’s Serbian leaders (the leader of the Serbs in Bosnia and Herzegovina Milorad Dodik, the leaders of the Montenegrin opposition Andrija Mandić and Goran Danilović, and the leader of the Serbs in Macedonia Ivan Stoilković). For the first time ever, Putin, albeit it in passing, touched upon the issue of the fragmentation of the Serbian people across a number of states: “There was an attempt to pull the Serbian people about and scatter them across different states, but these decisions are unlikely to be durable if they are not fair.”
What Can Russia Get out of Putin’s Visit?
On the one hand, everything we have mentioned so far can be used to marginalize Moscow’s role in the region.
The ruling party in Serbia will, through the state-controlled media, paint the visit as support for its efforts to cut the “Kosovan knot” and one of the main trump cards for possible parliamentary elections in the future. In this sense, it will tear out a part of the pro-Russian opposition’s program, which is actively participating in the “Union for Serbia” movement, and also deprive it of its main argument that “the government pursues the treacherous policy of recognizing Kosovo and acceding to both the European Union and NATO.” In reality, while Aleksandar Vučić consistently rejects the prospect of Serbia joining NATO, it is clear that the pressure on Belgrade continues to grow. Before Putin’s arrival, the Ministry of Defence of the Republic of Serbia reported that negotiations on the second phase of the Individual Partnership Action Plans (IPAP) with NATO had been successful.
Both a final solution to problem of Macedonia’s name and NATO pressure on Bosnia and Herzegovina indirectly point to the Alliance strengthening its positions in the region. The only recourse available to Belgrad would be either joining NATO or secession of Republika Srpska and work for the creation of the so-called “Great Serbia” as the Albanians do.
The pompousness with which the President of the Russian Federation was received will, from a moral point of view, allow European bureaucracy and the western media to double down on its campaign to stigmatize Russia in the region and accelerate the integration of the Balkans into NATO. At the same time, the economic results of the visit, which have been described by the well-known saying “the mountain gave birth to a mouse,” open the way to marginalizing Russia’s role in the economic structure of the region and the pedalling of this fact on the part of the European Union. We must admit that Aleksandar Vučić covered all the bases here: in the run-up to the visit, he assured all the European ambassadors that Putin’s arrival in Belgrade was in no way connected to Serbia’s main desire – to become a member of the EU. The fact that Russia and Serbia have not yet managed to complete technical negotiations on the creation of a free trade area between the latter and the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), which were launched back in 2015, is further evidence of this.
At the same time, the absence of economic breakthroughs indicates that the visit was needed primarily by Belgrade, which had fought so hard for it to take place. The contractual agreements that were reached do, however, demonstrate that Russian business has an interest in the Serbian market. Also, while “digitalization” is seen by many in both countries as a “modern toy of the authorities,” the agreements give IT companies certain opportunities: Russian companies will gain access to the Serbian market and Serbian developers will be involved in Russian projects.
Most importantly, the visit clearly demonstrated to the West that, politically speaking, Russia has no intention of leaving the Balkans, that it understands the intricacies of the domestic political situation and uses them elegantly. Through Serbia (and not only Serbia, like in Slovenia), Russia has influence and weight in all the countries in that region. And the main thing (in terms of it going against the Western concept of economic dominance) is that Russia’s lack of economic influence in the region continues to be compensated quite easily by its historical power and the psychological and emotional communality shared by the Russian and Serbian peoples. It is possible that such a timely visit from the Russian patriarch to the region could bridge the financial void in the Russia–Serbia story.
However, in the short term, all of this default potential may sink into oblivion if Russia does not find a way to become actively involved in the resolution of the Kosovo issue, and in the ethnic issues in the region as a whole. It would be wise for Moscow to include a number of questions on the agenda:
- Why do the European Union and NATO tolerate this kind of Balkans (stagnating politically and economically, and thus combustible and living exclusively in the past)?
- Why does the inclusion of the United States and the United Kingdom in the negotiations on Kosovo does not mean inclusion of Russia?
- Why do both the United States and the European Union turn a blind eye to the growing tension in the region (the emerging split between the Orthodox Church and the radicalization of the Islamic environment)?
Moscow should then propose searching for answers to these questions within the framework of a new international conference on the Balkans.
*Dejan Novakovic President of the Adriatic Council (Belgrade, Serbia), Georgy Engelhardt Institute of Slavic Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences
First published in our partner RIAC
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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