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Balkan spring

Slavisha Batko Milacic

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Anti-government protests have continued over the weekend in Serbia, Montenegro and Albania. While the protesters in Albania once again clashed with the police, Saturday evening marked the first time that preventive force was used against the participants of Belgrade demonstrations, who entered the building of the country`s public broadcaster.

Protests in all three countries are aiming to overthrow the ruling parties led by President Aleksandar Vučić, Prime Minister Edi Rama and President Milo Djukanovic respectively. The regimes are accused of corruption, suppression of democracy and media freedoms as well as for bad economic situation.

Serbia

On 16 March, dozens of demonstrators lead by opposition politicians Bosko Obradovic and Dragan Djilas, entered the headquarters of Radio-Television of Serbia (RTS), bypassing the security and demanding an opportunity to address the viewership live. Since the protests have begun in early December, none of the organizers has been invited to RTS, which is still the most watched television channel in the country.

There were no acts of violence, and the police managed to remove the citizens from the building after several hours, with some accusations of disproportionately harsh treatment.

President Vucic announced that he will be addressing the incident during an extraordinary press conference on Sunday afternoon. Breaking from the traditional protest walks on Saturday, the organizers announced in return that they will be staging protests in the front of the Presidency at the same time, demanding Vucic`s resignation.

Earlier this week, the parties gathered in the Alliance for Serbia, the country`s strongest opposition coalition, gave Vucic and other high state officials a month to resign from their offces, or face demonstrators from all across Serbia who will gather on 13 April in Belgrade if the demands are not met by then. This is the first protests explicitly organized by the opposition politicians, who have started to address the attending citizens more and more every week, taking the role from the popular public figures and representatives of civic initiative.

Albania

At the same time, protests in Albania have been openly organized by the opposition from the start. Democratic Party MPs, along with several other opposition parties, have resigned from their parliamentary posts in February. DP`s leader Luilzim Basha has been at the forefront of the demonstrations from their start.

On the 16 March, protesters in Albania once again tried to storm the offices of Prime Minister Rama, and then the national parliament. They were stopped in the latter attempt by the police, who threw tear gas and used water cannons to disperse them. At least one protester was incapacitated. Police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse the crowd, but many of protesters were prepared with gas masks. Protestants threw stones and smoke bombs at police, pulling down security fences that were erected ahead of the demonstration. The rally drew thousands of protesters from across the country. Opposition Democratic Party leader Lulzim Basha was cheered when he appeared in the crowd, leading them on a march to the Office of Prime Minister Edi Rama, where police were already positioned.

Basha announced that various forms of citizen`s resistance will be held across the country. Both US Embassy and EU delegation to Albania condemned the violence, and urged the organizers to prevent it from escalating during future protests.

Montenegro

From the most massive protest “Resist 97,000” so far, which were joined also by students, which was held on 16 March at the Independence Square in Podgorica, was announced that the government privatized the state and protesters again requested the resignation of top officials. Students, academics, civic activists who say they are not affiliated with any political party, marched through the center of Podgorica chanting “We are the state”, “Rebellion” and mostly “Milo thief”. Opposition parties support the protests which started in early February but their leaders have distanced themselves of taking prominent role in the organization or addressing the crowd. An informal group of NGO activists, academics, journalists stand behind the protests. Beside the resignation of President Djukanovic, who has ruled for almost 30 years, the protesters demand the resignation of the Supreme State Prosecutor Ivica Stankovic, and the Chief Prosecutor for Organised Crime Milivoje Katnic. They accuse senior law officials of ignoring evidence and not prosecuting widespread corruption in the country. Saturday`s protest was the fifth in a row. It follows the revelation of footage and documents that appear to implicate top officials in obtaining suspicious funds for the ruling Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS). A video clip from 2016 aired in January showed Dusko Knezevic, chairman of the Montenegro-based Atlas Group, appearing to hand the then mayor of Podgorica, Slavoljub Stijepovic, an envelope containing $100,000, to fund a DPS election campaign. Knezevic, who is in London, has since than told the media he had been providing secret cash to the DPS for the past 25 years.

At the protest on Saturday, were more than 15,000 people, which is a big figure if we take into account that the official population of Montenegro is 620, 000 people and in reality due to emigration significantly lower. Gathering to demand the resignations of the most senior state officials, beginning with the President Milo Djukanovic, who has been in power since 1991. The demonstrations have been sparked by the numerous affairs that have revealed the extent of corruption in the ruling party. They are taking place every Saturday, and the next ones are announced for 23 March.

Conclusion

Recent years in the Western Balkans have been shaped by stabilocracies. Governments that first of all fulfill the geopolitical goals of the West. And because of that, by the West, as a reward they have the possibility of human rights violations, corruption and crime, full control of the media. Current protests are the answer to the stabilocracy.

In Albania, corruption and crime are out of control and the demands of the protest are completely legitimate. On the wave of fighting crime and corruption, along with promises for a better future, Edi Rama also come to power. However, the United States of America and the European Union are opposed to protests and for them Parliament is the place where all political solutions need to be found. However, in Parliament as well as in elections, nothing can change in Albania, primarily because of corruption. Because of corruption and crime, which are strongly rooted in Albania, as well as with bad economic situation, the emigration rate is high. Since Albania toppled communism in 1991 untill the end of 2018, more than 1.4 million Albanians, nearly half the current population of this Balkan country, have emigrated mostly to neighboring Italy and Greece and less to the Britain, Germany and the United States. The study, led by Rusell King of the University of Sussex and Albanian researcher Ilir Gedeshi, found that the country’s potential migration had grown from 44 percent in 2007 to 52 precent in 2018.

In Montenegro, the organizers of the protest are the biggest problem. Since the beginning of the protest, they are not conducted professionally, which lead to indignation in a part of the citizens. Protest organizers have offered the opposition parties an “Agreement about future“ which is more likely an ultimatum, in which there is an item that foreign policy of current Government, would not change. The document is submitted to the opposition on principle – take it or leave it. That’s why Dusko Knezevic spoke. Dusko Knezevic made an announcement and made it clear to the protest leaders that he will not allow them to make struggle on the opposition, but to fight against president of Montenegro Milo Djukanovic.

Certainly, the situation in Serbia is most interesting for monitoring, given that it is the most powerful state of the Western Balkans. In the West, it is clear to everyone that Vucic is hated among his people. Aleksandar Vucic put all media under his control, so the opposition is rarely seen on television. While Aleksandar Vucic is over-represented in the media, which causes frustration among the citizens. In addition, the poor economic situation and the constant false promises that it will be better reinforce dissatisfaction. Additionally Aleksandar Vucic “wants to solve the issue of Kosovo” by demarcation, which means that 90 percent of Kosovo would belong to Albania. Because of all of the above massive protests take place in 100 cities in Serbia.

The situation in Serbia is clear to the West, but there is no reliable pro-NATO alternative in the opposition, and the priority work of surrendering Kosovo to “Greater Albania” is not yet completed. West is afraid that protests in Belgrade and in 100 cities in Serbia are not going in the right direction. For this reason, they are forced to endure current Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic, who not only fulfills the requirements of the West, but in good terms anesthetizes Russia by saying exactly the words Moscow wants to hear: that Serbia will never impose sanctions to Russia, that Serbia will never enter in NATO, and that he is pro-Russian. Of course, according to agreements with NATO signed during the time of Vucic’s authorities and some other details, it is obvious that his affection for Moscow is a lie. Aleksandar Vucic persistently refuses to grant diplomatic status to the Russian Humanitarian Center in Nis, and if Russia repeatedly asked for it. At the same time, cooperation with NATO has been strengthened and NATO soldiers in Serbia have a diplomatic status. At the moment of a potential “delineation” satisfied with Vucic’s words, when Kosovo enters NATO, Vucic will probably say that “changed circumstances” force Serbia to reconsider its neutrality. Serbia would become NATO member, and of course, impose sanctions against Russia, given that it is a request of the European Union, and entering in the European Union is a strategic goal for Vucic. Russia already has an example of Vucic’s close friend in Montenegro, Milo Djukanovic, who in his time was close friend of Russia, but later introduced sanctions against Russia, against the will of the people in Montenegro, pulled the country into NATO, and even blamed Moscow for engaging in a fictitious coup against him.

One of the opposition leaders  in Serbia Vuk Jeremic, speaks openly that official Brussels and Washington made it clear to him that they are against the protests until Vucic does not solve the issue of Kosovo. It is precisely the geopolitical interests of the West that can disturb the success of protests in Serbia. All in all, in the Balkans, something similar to the Arab spring can not happen, because all the governments in Balkans are pro-Western. But certainly these protests will bring more freedom to the Balkans.

 First published in our partner International Affairs

Slavisha Batko Milacic is an analyst at a Moscow journal "International Affairs", which is the official journal of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Slavisa Batko Milacic can be contacted at email: varjag5[at]outlook.com

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EU chief prosecutor Laura Kovesi needs media freedom to do her job

Iveta Cherneva

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Last month, Laura Codruta Kovesi, the former chief prosecutor of Romania’s National Anti-corruption Directorate, was officially confirmed as the first ever EU chief prosecutor to head the newly created European Public Prosecutor’s Office. Her team will start work in the end of 2020. 

Kovesi will shake things up. She has a lot of hurdles to overcome. Among the main ones is the silencing and stifling of journalists across Europe, including in Bulgaria. The lack of media freedom will make it exceptionally difficult for Kovesi to do her job and uncover crimes involving EU funding.

As soon as the news hit that Kovesi was to become EU’s top prosecutor, anti-corruption activists across Europe applauded loudly. One could hear the applause also in Bulgaria where we face issues with EU funds misappropriation and theft but also complaints regarding the freedom of the press – a place where Kovesi’s work is much needed.

Defined institutionally, Kovesi’s mandate is “to investigate, prosecute and bring to judgment crimes against the EU budget, such as fraud, corruption or serious cross-border VAT fraud”. The EU’s top prosecutor is tasked with the tough job of going after crimes involving EU money. 

It might sound as a disappointment to many, but Kovesi will not have the institutional competence to address everything that is wrong with a country or a sector. Corruption and fraud are covered by the EU prosecutor’s mandate only as long as they are related to EU funds.

So if Kovesi won’t be a see-it-all, do-it-all messiah, where does this leave media freedom then and why am I talking about it in the context of her job?

Well, bringing to justice crimes related to EU funds is almost impossible without the leads on the ground – work often done by a functioning free media and hard-hitting  investigative journalism that uncovers fishy deals and contracts. It is journalists that sometimes lead the way. Often media investigations chart a course for criminal investigations. The media is a key ally in uncovering crimes involving EU funds. This is particularly true of a service such as the EU’s prosecutor office that will operate from EU headquarters and will rely on leads and allies on the ground.

We can’t expect that an EU service will get all the intricate, hidden local information on its own or through cooperation with the state authorities in question. This is where media and journalists come in. 

Bulgaria – as sad I am to say this – gives a clear illustration of why Kovesi’s job could prove to be especially tough. The country ranks 111th in the world in terms of media freedom, according to Reporters without Borders. 

To illustrate the situation, one should look no further than the current scandal involving the nomination of Bulgaria’s own chief prosecutor and the simultaneous firing of a seasoned journalist who has been critical of the only candidate for Bulgaria’s top prosecutor post.

As reported by Reuters, the national radio journalist Silvia Velikova was fired for allegedly being critical of the work of the deputy chief prosecutor Ivan Geshev, who has already been selected to become Bulgaria’s next chief prosecutor. Bulgaria’s President Rumen Radev vetoed the appointment last week, so now the country is facing judicial uncertainty and protests such as the ones from today. 

Among the reasons why the chief prosecutor’s appointment has been controversial – to say the least – is the sacking of the Bulgarian Radio journalist Silvia Velikova. Her ousting caused protests by Bulgarian journalists which I have been attending, while the capital Sofia saw thousands of protesters marching in the streets against Geshev’s nomination in September, October and now, after the presidential veto.

Where the story gets interesting or horrific – or both – is that as many as four unnamed individuals made phone calls in September to the Director of the National Radio, allegedly asking for the journalist critical of the prosecutor candidate to be fired, or at least to be silenced until Geshev’s selection as chief prosecutor. The journalist Velikova was subsequently fired. She was reinstated to her post after Prime Minister Boyko Borisov spoke in her defence. And the Director of the National Radio was himself fired for stepping over by a media oversight organ.  

In Bulgaria, a persistent complaint is that journalists who ask the inconvenient questions can be removed in a heartbeat, after so much as a phone call. The suspicion remains that shady dealings – not merit – continue to play a significant role in the firings and hirings of Bulgarian journalists.

One should look no further than the stories of investigative journalists Miroluba Benatova and Genka Shikerova. They are both known as hard-hitting investigative journalists that ask the tough questions and uncover corruption and mismanagement. They are both out of job after being pressured to quit a mainstream media. 

Genka Shikerova faced severe intimidation over the years, as her car was set on fire not once but twice, in 2013 and 2014, in relation to her work on Bulgaria’s significant anti-government protests during these years.

Miroluba Benatova, on the other hand, caused massive waves with her recent revelation that she has become a taxi driver – only to surprise foreign tourists about how politically astute and knowledgeable Bulgarian taxi drivers are. “The service in Bulgaria has improved greatly”, told her a German tourist assuming he was being driven by just a regular taxi driver.

So, how is this related to Kovesi?

It is unlikely that by driving a taxi Benatova will be coming across many leads about EU funds theft, to assist Kovesi. Such a waste of talent, and also funds.

The media across Europe has a key role to play in supporting the work of the new EU prosecutor. As long as journalists in countries like Bulgaria lack the freedom to do their jobs, crimes involving EU funding will go uncovered. If Laura Kovesi wants to succeed in her new job, she will have to take context into account and recognize that in many EU states, including Bulgaria, journalists are often not allowed to do their jobs and ask the hard questions. And that’s a shame because Kovesi will not be able to do it alone. 

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Why German car giant Volkswagen should drop Turkey

Iveta Cherneva

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War and aggression are not only questions of ethics and humanitarian disaster. They are bad news for business.

The German car giant Volkwagen whose business model is built on consumer appeal had to stop and pause when Turkey attacked the Kurds in Syria. A USD 1.4bln Volkswagen investment in a new plant in Turkey is being put on hold by the management, and rightly so.

Unlike business areas more or less immune from consumer pressure – like some financial sectors, for example – car buying is a people thing. It is done by regular people who follow the news and don’t want to stimulate and associate themselves with crimes against humanity and war crimes through their purchases. Investing in a militarily aggressive country simply is bad for an international brand.

As soon as the news hit that Turkey would be starting their military invasion against the Kurds, questions about plans for genocide appeared in the public discourse space. Investing over a billion in such a political climate does not make sense.

By investing into a new plant next to Turkish city Izmir, Volkswagen is not risking security so much. Izmir itself is far removed from Turkey’s southern border — although terrorist attacks in the current environment are generally not out of the question.

The risk question rather lies elsewhere. Business likes stability and predictability. Aggressive economic sanctions which are likely to be imposed on Turkey by the EU and the US would affect many economic and business aspects which the company has to factor in. Two weeks ago the US House of Representatives already voted to impose sanctions on Turkey, which now leaves the Senate to vote on an identical resolution.

Economic sanctions affect negatively the purchasing power of the population. And Volkswagen’s new business would rely greatly on the Turkish client in a market of over 80mln people.

Sanctions also have a psychological “buckle-up” effect on customers in economies “under siege”, whereby clients are less likely to want to splurge on a new car in strenuous times.

Volkswagen is a German but also a European company. Its decision will signal clearly if it lives by the EU values of support for human rights, or it decides to look the other way and put business first.

But is not only about reputational damage, which Volkswagen seems to be concerned with. There are real business counter-arguments which coincide with anti-war concerns.

Dogus Otomotiv, the Turkish distributor of VW vehicles, fell as much as 6.5% in Istanbul trading after the news for the Turkish offensive.

Apart from their effects on the Turkish consumer, economic sanctions will also likely keep Turkey away from international capital markets.

There is also the question of an EU company investing outside the EU, which has raised eyebrows. It is up to the European Commission now to decide whether the Volkswagen deal in Turkey can go forward after a complaint was filed. Turkey offered the German conglomerate a generous 400mln euro subsidy which is a problem when it comes to the EU rules and regulations on competition.

The Chairman of the EPP Group in the European Parliament, Manfred Weber filed a complaint with the EU competition Commissioner about the deal, on the basis of non-compliance with EU competition rules. Turkey’s plans to subsidize Volkswagen clearly run counter EU rules and the EU Commission can stop the 1bln deal, if it so decides.

In a context where Turkey takes care of 4mln refugees — subject to an agreement with the EU — and often threatens the EU that it would “open the gates”, it is not clear if the Commission would muster the guts to say no, however. In that sense, the German company’s own decision to pull from the deal would be welcome because the Commission itself wouldn’t have to pronounce on the issue and risk angering Turkey.

While some commentators do not believe that Volkswagen would scrap altogether the investment and is only delaying the decision, it is worth remembering that the Syria conflict is a complex, multi-player conflict which has gone on for more than 8 years. Turkey’s entry in Syria is unlikely to end in a month. Erdogan has communicated his intention to stay in Syria until the Kurds back down.

In October it was reported that the Turkish forces are already using chemical weapons on the Kurdish population which potentially makes Turkish President Erdogan a war criminal. For a corporate giant like Volkswagen, giving an economic boost for such a state would mean indirectly supporting war crimes.

As Kurdish forces struck a deal for protection with the Syrian Assad forces, this seems to be anything but a slow-down. Turkey has just thrown a whole lot of wood into the fire.

Volkswagen will find itself “monitoring” the situation for a long time. There is a case for making the sustainable business decision to drop the risky deal altogether, soon.

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The future of Brexit: Where will Boris Johnson’s “fatal strategy” lead Britain to?

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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will attempt to negotiate a new deal with the EU on Brexit in the course of early parliamentary elections in the UK scheduled for December 12. If the Conservatives take upper hand, then, according to Johnson, Great Britain will leave the EU no later than January 31.

How will the upcoming elections affect Brexit? How Boris Johnson’s agreement with the European Commission could be assessed? The answers to these questions were provided by the participants in an expert discussion at the Valdai Club.

Stewart Lawson, member of the Board of Directors of the Russian-British Chamber of Commerce, head of UK Business Center in Moscow, Ernst & Young, has said that the current situation in the UK can be described as a scene in a bar where an Englishman, a Scot and an Irishman drink to forget the concept of Brexit “. Lawson made it clear that leaving the European Union without conditions would be a disaster. Nevertheless, the expert said that the UK had managed to avoid a situation in which there would be no deal at all, and also, with the arrival of a new agreement which Boris Johnson has reached with the EU, the situation has improved. “This deal is the best option for now,” – the expert remarked. However, he said, Brexit seems to be a story with no end and what is happening around it now is not even its first chapter yet.

Brexit continues to produce uncertainty, which, Lawson said is a big problem. In his opinion, the persisting uncertainty in connection with the UK leaving the EU affects business. On the one hand, the expert said, although Brexit will set Great Britain free from the US control, on the other hand, it will greatly affect the business climate, which continues to suffer amid the political uncertainty. The expert mentioned Nassim Taleb’s concept of the “black swan” according to which any forecasting may not take into account random, unknown factors. “We live in a world in which there are factors unknown to us. So it is necessary to have sufficiently flexible organizations capable of responding to situations that are in the process of development, ” – Lawson emphasized.

According to Alexander Kramarenko, Director of Development at the Russian International Affairs Council, Boris Johnson’s new agreement on Brexit is a major achievement for the British Prime Minister. Kramarenko attributes the success of Boris Johnson to his choice of a “fatal strategy” which allowed him to keep the stakes high until he won. With the help of this strategy, he managed to “cut open” the agreement on Brexit which had been signed by Theresa May. In addition, the “fatal strategy” has prompted the EU to concede on several issues.

The failure of Theresa May’s strategy is attributed to the fact that the former prime minister was a staunch supporter of a policy which required satisfying both parties, the UK and the EU. It was necessary to look for ways out of the EU instead of trying to stay there. “You cannot leave the EU and at the same time remain in the EU. And her agreement boiled down to just that, ” – Kramarenko said.

According to Theresa May’s agreement, by leaving the EU formally, Great Britain would lose the right to vote. Boris Johnson said that such an agreement perpetuates the “vassal” dependence of Great Britain on the European Union. “For a country with such a history as Great Britain, a position of this kind is not suitable. Either the UK is a member and takes part in all decisions, or it comes out and agrees on  something special. As argued by Boris Johnson, this special agreement is a free trade agreement of varying range of coverage, intensity and depth, but it would be an agreement of sovereign Britain, ” – Kramarenko emphasized.

First and foremost, Johnson’s agreement solves the problem of maintaining the status quo on the land border of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The fact is that under the agreement, Northern Ireland, as part of the United Kingdom, is to withdraw from the EU, while Ireland remains part of the European Union. Thus, the UK’s withdrawal from the EU and the establishment of a clear-cut border between Northern Ireland and Ireland would jeopardize the Irish peace process. The EU, the UK and the Irish Government pledged to maintain this border under a deal that ended the civil war in Northern Ireland. The EU insisted that Britain remain in the Customs Union until this situation is settled. This would de facto keep Britain within the EU.

Under a new agreement proposed by Boris Johnson on which he secured the approval of the European Union, the UK will have to leave the EU’s Customs Union, and the customs border between Britain and the EU will pass via the Irish Sea. However, this threatens the unity of the country and could be an important step towards unification of Ireland, the expert believes.

Boris Johnson’s strategy has led to serious concessions from the European Union, Kramarenko said. Exiting the Customs Union will also allow the UK to clinch trade agreements with third countries. Moreover, the provision on “equal conditions of competition” will no longer be valid in the future, since it was moved from the text of the agreement to the Political Declaration, which is not binding.

What creates a major obstacle to Brexit is the current state of the British constitutional system of government, the expert said. “The opposition has deprived the government of the majority, thereby stripping it of the opportunity to rule the country or adopt new laws,” – Kramarenko said. Johnson’s achievement is precisely due to the fact that despite the opposition, he was able to cope with the opponents and postpone the date of Britain’s exit from the EU. “Now there is a significant degree of confidence that Brexit will take place and, perhaps, it will come as a gift for the New Year,” – Kramarenko said.

From our partner International Affairs

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