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Macron trying to reconcile Serbs and Albanians

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A two-day visit to Serbia by French President Emmanuel Macron, which came to a close on July 16, was designed to repair the damaged reputation of Paris and the entire European Union in the Balkan settlement, particularly, in Kosovo. A meeting of Presidents of Serbia and Kosovo, Aleksandar Vučić and Hashim Thaci, with Macron and German  Chancellor Angela Merkel, which took place in Berlin at the end of April, ended without result, mainly due to differences between Paris and Berlin on the partition of Kosovo. A similar meeting scheduled for the beginning of July in Paris, did not go ahead at all due to a widening gap in the positions of the parties involved. The Balkan capitals are talking ever louder about Europe’s inability to propose to the Balkans at least some effective scenarios and  signal the need to attract the United States in securing the Balkan settlement, which would in fact mean the EU is facing a “vote of no confidence” in the Balkans.

From this point of view, the French leader and his Serbian counterpart managed to achieve some progress. The two parties agreed to gather for the next Kosovo summit in Paris in September.

Speaking of the European political scene, it is Emmanuel Macron who advocates a strong and united European Union, which adapts to the socio-economic specifics of various regions.

Contributing to such an adaptation is the concept of “Europe of two velocities” and of “zones of strong and weak euro”, which come from the transformation of a formally unified EU into a two-tier structure consisting of the financially and economically strong “core” and the weak “periphery”, which comprises, among others, the Balkans.

It is precisely this that causes current friction between France and Germany. Chancellor Angela Merkel strongly opposes any division lines in the European Union, be it political and economic ones, and is against re-considering the existing borders. The latter circumstance directly concerns the Balkans in general and Kosovo in particular, since the division of Kosovo into Serb and Albanian parts underlies a scenario that has been under discussion over the past year in Belgrade and in Pristina. It is this plan, or rather, a fierce rejection of it by Angela Merkel (Emmanuel Macron seems to be in favor of it) that, according to reports, led to the failure of the April summit on Kosovo in Berlin and became the main reason for the negotiating parties’ unwillingness to gather in Paris at the beginning of July.

“Those who listened attentively to what President Macron said, understood that they have their own debates and have their own problems to resolve, while we should concentrate on the problems of the region, achieve the best relations possible – in this case we will become stronger and more powerful”, – the Serbian President said commenting on the results of the talks in Belgrade, differences within the European Union itself, and his own vision of how to normalize relations with Kosovo. Speaking in the run-up to negotiations, Aleksandar Vucic emphasized that “Macron is one of the top two European leaders and the person of the future.” He described his French counterpart as “a hardworking and energetic person who is not always easy to deal with.”

The French president did not make it a secret from his Serbian counterpart what kind of problems he faces in the EU proper. According to the Belgrade-based Politika, during a closed meeting of the two leaders with Serbian students, Emmanuel Macron complained about the difficulties of passing any decisions in the European Union and reiterated the need to “modernize” the EU. Aleksandar Vučić, for his part, reaffirmed his commitment to a “compromise solution” on Kosovo, which, in his opinion, would lead to the normalization of relations between Belgrade and Pristina.

Simultaneously, the Serbian president made it clear that Belgrade is ready to reconsider its tough position regarding the decision of the Kosovo authorities adopted at the end of 2018 to impose 100% protective duties on products from Serbia (as well as from Bosnia and Herzegovina). Until now, Belgrade has cited this anti-Serb measure as the main reason for lack of progress in negotiations with Pristina. However, his rhetoric seems to be changing. “I think it’s time to talk anew about some things. I’d hate to slap the blame on the other party and talk about duties; let us give the great powers an opportunity to do their job, ” – said Aleksandar Vucic in the presence of Emmanuel Macron, hinting at the Serbian leaders’ readiness for new compromises. “We are witnessing an upsurge in tension and this tension at times feeds on assistance from external forces that are interested to see to it that a solution is not found,” – Emmanuel Macron remarked, implying that Serbia, Kosovo and France would be able to address the problem of Kosovo more successfully, if there were no obstacles from the outside. In the next few weeks, he said, he would make all the necessary efforts to organize a four-party meeting in Paris with the participation of leaders of France, Germany, Serbia and Kosovo in order to secure a “global and achievable solution” on Kosovo.

What could become such a solution is an agreement on the division of Kosovo with Belgrade retaining control over its northern, Serb-populated regions. Over the past year, Belgrade and Pristina have worked out two draft agreements on the normalization of bilateral relations regarding territorial claims. The corresponding maps were prepared on the basis of an agreement on the delineation of borders, which Hashim Thaci and Aleksandar Vucic reached in August 2018 at the European Forum in Austria. The document was supposed to be signed in Brussels in early September 2018 with the participation of the EU leadership. However, disagreements over the principles of demarcation, as well as protests by opposition forces in Belgrade and Pristina, disrupted the schedule.

The Pristina plan proceeds from the fact that the Serbian-Albanian delineation plan should be a “package”- based one, envisaging a comprehensive exchange of territories, including Kosovo’s Serb-populated areas, which constitute a fifth of the region’s territory, the mainly Albanian-populated Bujanovac and Presevo communities adjacent to Kosovo, and, if possible, the community of Medveda, where the population ratio is gradually changing in favor of the Albanians. That the Pristina authorities should transfer part of the territory of Kosovo to Serbian control was indicated by Hashim Thaci at the beginning of 2019, as he spoke at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. In his words, the signing of the relevant agreement with Belgrade in Brussels under the patronage of the EU will allow Kosovo to receive recognition from Serbia and join the UN: “If a minor border adjustment is the price to pay for a final settlement, this should be acceptable.” The resulting document, Hashim Tachi said, must be signed “with the support of the United States.”  Russia, he said, “seems ready to accept an agreement which will be reached” between the parties concerned.

What is meant by the above mentioned is “commitment to achieve a comprehensive peace agreement between Kosovo and Serbia, which will guarantee Kosovo a place in the UN and will enable it at the appropriate time to join NATO allies and the EU,” – the Kosovo leader explained on Twitter.

According to the latest census of Serbia’s population, Presevo is home to 89% of Albanians and 9% of Serbs, Bujanovac is populated by 55% of Albanians and 34% of Serbs, and Medveda – by 26% of Albanians and 67% of Serbs.

The proposed agreement, including in terms of relevant territorial exchanges between Belgrade and Pristina, is supported by the United States. For US President Donald Trump, international conflicts should be settled within the format of bilateral business deals, while his National Security Adviser, John Bolton, has already made it clear that Washington does not “rule out the possibility of re-drawing borders” in the Balkans if “both sides are ready for a compromise between themselves and come to agreement.”

“If Serbia and Kosovo manage to come to agreement on the re-drawing of the border, Austria will definitely not be against this,” – the former (and, most likely, the next) Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said in support of this approach.

However, the agreement in question has many opponents. Among them are not only nationalist and radical forces in Serbia and Kosovo, but also influential players on the European scene. In particular, the former UN special envoy in the Balkans, Carl Bildt, is categorically against changes of borders in the Balkans: “When you do that, you know where to stop but you don’t know how it will end. Borders are borders, they are not to be touched. Many borders in Europe are drawn with blood, and if you change them, you cannot be sure what will happen next. ”

The differences between Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel, which do make it difficult for the EU to act as an active and independent player, including in the Balkans, are likely to persist in the coming months. According to the Croatian edition Advance, “ French President, Emmanuel Macron, has been skeptical of late about further enlargement of the European Union. However, some do not share his views, ”including the Federal Chancellor of Germany. “I agree with President Macron that the mechanisms of the European Union need to be improved, but I do not associate this process with a refusal to negotiate membership in the European Union,” – Advance quotes her as saying at the recent EU summit on Western Balkans in Poland.  Advance then continues to analyze the layout of forces in the France-Germany-USA triangle: “Trump will be the last to support the expansion of the European Union. Moreover, he will seek to cut down the existing EU (Brexit and possible future “exits”) during the potential second mandate even more actively than now. Besides, Macron has already made it clear that he is ready to support Trump’s position if he finds it more beneficial (attitude towards Syria, criticism of the Iranian ballistic program, and so on). And Macron will most likely go for it, because he expects Washington to approve him in the role of the “top figure” of what is and will be known as the European Union. ”

Russia has repeatedly pointed out that it will support the agreements between Belgrade and Pristina, if they meet the interests of the Serbian side. In addition to reducing tensions in the Balkan region, normalization of relations between Serbia and Kosovo would ensure their greater participation in Russian infrastructure and energy projects, including in terms of connection to Russian gas transportation routes. In particular, this could mean stretching an export line of the Turkish Stream gas pipeline through the territory of Southern Serbia and a possible branch from it through Kosovo and further to the Adriatic Sea, with a view to plug in Italy.

 From our partner International Affairs

Peter Iskenderov, senior research assistant at RAS Slavic Studies Institute, candidate of historical sciences

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Europe

China, Central and Eastern Europe in 2021: BRI and the 17+1 Initiative during vaccine times

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When the worldwide outbreak of COVID-19 spread in March 2020, China played a crucial role in the global supply of critical medical goods such as face masks and disinfectants as their main exporter. According to UN Comtrade (2020) data, 44% of the world’s exports of face masks originated from China in 2018, whereas the next largest exporters such as Germany (7%) and the US (6%), play a comparatively minor role. Due to China´s a track record of using trade to pursue its foreign-policy goals, Beijing´s donation of medical equipment to other countries has been called as a mask diplomacy as the officials and politicians in many Western European countries as well as the European Union have viewed it as a Chinese influence-buying campaign that seeks to divide the EU.

Similar scenario is nowadays taking place under new magical keyword – a vaccine. Hungary was the only European Union member state to decide not to wait for the European Medicines Agency to approve the vaccines and began negotiating supplies of COVID vaccines from China and Russia. This so called Chinese vaccine diplomacy is no surprise. Last May, President Xi Jinping indicated that China would want to use vaccines to strengthen its position in the world. The “Health Silk Road” is together with winning the COVID-19 vaccine race one of the Beijing´s top priorities in 2021. President Xi Jinping is also expected to offer a Chinese vaccine to participants in the online 17+1 Central and Eastern European Summit on February 9.

The ninth 17+1 Central and Eastern European Summit is being postponed since the first half of 2020 where was supposed to take place before the hit of pandemic. Already before the COVID-19 outbreak, the Central and Eastern European countries have been increasingly dissatisfied with the outcome of their economic engagement with China and thus the upgrade of the economic cooperation and shaping the relations is in long-term plan. Moreover, when the U.S.-China confrontation has turned the Central and Eastern Europe into a new ground of great power competition for influence. This summit would break a deadlock over holding a meeting and show new signs in relations between China and Europe.

The transregional cooperation between China and Eastern Europe, the so-called “17+1” initiative, began in April 2012 in Poland where Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, and representatives of 16 CEE countries, including 11 EU members, hold a meeting. Wen promised investments and infrastructure development to boost the regional economies. China puts an emphasis on its connectivity with Europe and regards railways, ports and FDI as the foundation for achieving balanced development and social cohesion in Europe. For China, the region promised cheap access to European markets. The initiative was quickly co-opted into China’s wider Belt and Road Initiative, which launched the following year. When Greece joined as the 17th member in 2019, it elevated the political significance of the now 17+1 alliance even further. Before the onset of 17+1 cooperation, Chinese investment and trade were spatially unbalanced, and concentrated in north-western Europe. Because of the weak condition of transport infrastructure, the trade between China and Central and Eastern European countries heavily relied on the infrastructure networks of Germany, the Netherlands and France.

Despite voices about the decreasing power of the 17+1 Initiative, the COVID-19 pandemic does not bring an era of active Chinese engagement in the European region to the end. It contrary shows Beijing´s flexibility and adaptation to the world circumstances, including the competition imposed by U.S. interests in bilateral cooperation with the Central and Eastern European countries that could contribute to regional development as well.

References

UN Comtrade (2020), “UN Comtrade Database. Export data at country level

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EU playing a zero-sum game in Kosovo

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When it comes to Kosovo settlement, the European Union is clearly trying to regain the initiative. It was with poorly concealed jealousy and irritation that Brussels watched the delegations of Belgrade and Pristina sign an agreement to normalize their bilateral trade and economic relations in early September in Washington, and with the current change of guard in the US, is now trying to get back its levers of influence. Therefore, Brussels wants to organize a new high-level meeting between Serbia and Kosovo.

Miroslav Lajcak, the European Union’s Special Representative (EUSR) for the Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue, made this intention clear on December 2, when speaking at the European Parliament event marking the 25th anniversary of the Dayton Peace Agreement on Bosnia and Herzegovina. According to him, preparations are now underway for a new high-level meeting to be held as part of the dialogue between Pristina and Belgrade.

Tellingly, according to a report by the Albanian news agency Telegrafi, citing sources in Brussels, the upcoming talks are expected to focus on resolving property rights in Kosovo. This means that Brussels is looking for an agenda that the sides can agree on and one that would differ from what they discussed in Washington. This is all the more important now that the negotiating process has virtually ground to a halt since September. According to Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, Belgrade will not agree to have a new summit unless the Kosovar authorities are prepared to create an Association of Serbian Municipalities on the territory of their province (primarily in the north). This provision is part of the accords signed by Belgrade and Pristina in Brussels under the auspices of the EU, but since then the Kosovo authorities have actually blocked its implementation. However, because the European Union hasn’t got any really ambitious initiatives to come up with, the planned parley (if it takes place any time soon) looks bound to be less effective than the September talks in Washington. This, in turn, will deal a new blow to Brussels’ ambitions in the Balkans.

Realizing this, the EU leadership has been ramping up its criticism of the United States, essentially accusing Washington of trying to phase Brussels out of the Kosovo negotiation process. Josep Borrell, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy, recently said it loud and clear that the solution of problems in the Western Balkans is entirely the EU’s patch, and that the bloc’s global role depends on the success of its policy in this region.

“If we are unable to solve the problems in the Balkans, then we can’t be a significant global player,” Borrell said.

Russia insists that the problems of Kosovo and other Balkan disputes can only be solved on the basis of international law through talks to achieve mutually-acceptable compromises. During a December 14 visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reiterated that there is no alternative to ensuring peace and stability through political dialogue and respect for national interests, based on international law and pertinent UN Security Council resolutions.

“It is principally important to help the countries of this region settle their problems via national dialogue and avoid attempts to drag any of these countries into serving somebody else’s unilateral geopolitical interests,” Lavrov emphasized.

Interaction between Russia and Serbia is all the more important amid the ongoing negotiations between Belgrade and Pristina, as it serves as a political and diplomatic counterbalance to the Pristina- Brussels-Washington “axis.” Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic confirmed the invariable nature and timeliness of such interaction during a December 14 joint news conference in Belgrade with Russia’s visiting Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Vucic also underscored his country’s desire to expand friendly and partnership relations with Russia.

When speaking about the possible outcome of the negotiations between Belgrade and Pristina, one should also keep in mind Turkey’s growing interest in this issue. Ankara is trying to play an increasingly active role in the Balkans and the Eastern Mediterranean region. As the Serbian daily newspaper Informer rightly noted, “One thing the Turkish president can’t be denied is the consistency and frankness with which he is implementing a strategy to bring back a big and mighty Turkey on the territories once occupied by the Ottoman Empire.”

In this situation, it is in Russia’s best interests to expand its partnership with Serbia, while simultaneously working with other key international players to ensure stability and security in the Balkans and counter the nationalist and destructive forces that can still be found in the Balkan capitals.

From our partner International Affairs

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Talking Turkey With Greece: Turkey and Israel’s Marriage of Convenience

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On January 25, Graeco-Turkish talks begin, at which Turkish claims to Greek island territories will be high on the agenda. Before we briefly consider the Israeli position, herewith a spot of recent history.

Scorned countries sometimes seek out other scorned countries, for reasons of self-interest. Thus Germany, humiliated after the First World War, co-operated with the Soviet Union, first with secret military agreements, and then more openly after the Treaty of Rapallo in 1922; both countries also had problems with the same country, Poland. Both were considered international pariahs at the time, whether rightly or wrongly.

Israel co-operated closely with South Africa when the latter, under its apartheid regime, was internationally blackballed, with most of the balls being black. The co-operation was largely military, overt and covert. Links between the countries’ external security services, Boss and Mossad, were close. Both countries ignored numerous UN resolutions.

The most recent example of the scorned seeking the scorned is, or course, that of Israel and Turkey, who revived a military co-operation agreement in 1996, that goes back to the late Fifties. Again, both states are hardly a paragon of international virtue, supported only consistently by the USA and its strategic acolyte, Britain, but also by Germany, for atavistic business reasons in the case of Turkey, and a contrived feeling of guilt in the case of Israel.

Both Israel and Turkey ignore numerous UN resolutions; both fear Russia; their respective security services exchange information on Syria; and both have a common enemy, also Syria. Both countries occupy parts of other countries, illegally, Cyprus and Palestine, and Syria’s Golan Heights. An interesting quirk is that Syria has territorial claims on its former coloniser, Turkey: with the connivance of France, Hatay (Alexandretta) was stealthily ‘acquired’ by Turkey in 1939, despite the fact that Syrians were in a majority.

The question is whether this is just another ephemeral unholy alliance, an alliance of pure self-interest, that works in spite of deep-seated historico-cultural differences, or something more significant. The evidence suggests that it is more than a simple marriage of convenience. Anyone who knows about the plethora of secret meetings between the two states, that has gone on for years, of the deep-seated mutual disdain between much of the Arab world and its former coloniser, Turkey, will realise that the military co-operation agreement is but the tip of an iceberg, an iceberg being pushed by hoards of American frogmen, with the avowed objective of achieving firm control over the Middle East and eastern Mediterranean. In this way, Russian influence in the Mediterranean and the Middle East can be contained, á la Kennan, and Israel can be subtly inserted into the de facto NATO fold, with Jordan perhaps being brought into the equation for good measure, while the Turkish mercenaries continue to kill Kurds and Israel conveniently buries the Oslo accords, continuing its ethnic cleansing and illegal settlements.

The U.S. Embassy in Athens has justified Israeli-Turkish co-operation with the following words: ‘US military co-operation with Turkey and Israel is a matter of long-standing policy and practice. As a NATO ally and friend with Turkey and as a special ally with Israel, both democracies and key regional players, the United States shares core values and mutual security and political objectives in the Eastern Mediterranean. Israel and Turkey have likewise found that they share common objectives, in part from confronting the same set of neighbours which have pursued weapons of mass destruction programmes, have been sponsors and supporters of terrorism, and which have been inimical to democracy, the rule of law and regional stability.’

These neighbours are not actually named, but are obviously Iran and Syria, not to mention some others. There is no mention of Israeli terrorism at home and abroad (vis. Vanunu) or of the treatment of innocent and unarmed Kurdish villagers, no mention of Israel’s nuclear arsenal and chemical and biological weapons programmes, nor of its disregard for international law. Above all, the core values and common objectives shared by the USA, Turkey and Israel are difficult to locate, unless it is to help the U.S. contain Russia.

A few years ago the essentially pro-American Economist wrote that Syria’s concerns about Turkish-Israeli military co-operation were ‘fairly well grounded.’ The article undoubtedly embarrassed the Pentagon and angered the Turkish and Israeli governments. It represented one of those very occasional but authoritative Economist warnings that things had gone too far. The last time the Economist had said anything so risqué was just after the abortive American attempt to rescue the American hostages at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, by printing a front-page cartoon of President Carter dressed as a cowboy, with his six-guns at the ready. Cruel stuff, and exaggerated criticism, maybe unjustified, even, yet nevertheless telling.

Turkey has in the past threatened to attack Syria. Today it occupies part of it, claiming that Syria supports the Kurds in Turkey. Israel also bombs Syria periodically. In 2008, published Israeli-Turkish military co-operation involved a 1998 $ 700 million contract for Israel to upgrade 54 Turkish F4’s, a $70 million one to upgrade 48 F5’s, and joint manufacture of 1000 tanks and ‘some helicopters.’ Israel also hoped to sell Turkey an early warning system, and also used Turkish territory for low-flying exercises.

Then came a sudden deterioration in Turkey-Israel relations, with Israeli commandos killing of nine Turks on a vessel trying to break the Gaza blockade. Military co-operation between Israel and Turkey was suspended. Backstage American pressure on its two key allies, however, along with an American sponsored joint military love-in between Greece and Israel is leading to new Turkish diplomatic pirouetting: relations between Israel and Turkey could be improving. Bilateral talks are in the offing, and full diplomatic relations could be restored by March, meaning re-activating Turkish-Israeli diplomatic and military relations.

For Greece, the unholy alliance could become more than an irritant, because of Cyprus. However far-fetched it may sound, Turkey could easily encourage the Israeli air force and navy to train in occupied Cyprus, with the Pentagon publicly tut-tutting, but privately sniggering. It could even offer a home in northern Cyprus to would-be Jewish immigrants, as it did in the sixteenth century. There is even a small minority of extreme Zionists in Israel that claims Cypriot territory as part of the Jewish heritage. Thus, an already overcrowded Israel could find more Lebensraum. When one looks at the extremist elements in Turkey and Israel, such plans are not beyond the bounds of possibility.

Greece is now part and parcel of the “new” Cold War, co-operating with Israel and the U.S. militarily more than ever before, in the naïve hope that Turkey will drop its claims on Greek territory. But despite irritation with recent Turkish behaviour, the U.S. and Israel are unlikely to be of much help when it comes down to diplomatic detail: in 2003, the U.S. Embassy wrote the following to me: ‘We recognize Greece’s border with Turkey, but not all the territorial waters implications which Greece asserts. We have not taken a position on sovereignty over Imia/Kardak, in part because of the lack of an agreed maritime boundary.’

When I asked about Greece’s twelve mile nautical and ten-mile airspace limits, the reply was: ‘We recognize the six [!]-mile territorial sea claim and a claim to the superjacent air space. We do not recognize Greece’s claim to territorial air space seaward of the outer limit of its territorial sea.’ I doubt that their position has changed. Similarly, the Israel Embassy refused to answer my question about Greece’s air and sea limits.

Clever Turkish diplomacy currently involves balancing itself between the U.S. and Russia, in the knowledge that neither the U.S. nor Israel will do more than protest diplomatically – á la Cyprus invasion – if Turkey snatches a small Greek island. The U.S.’s main aim is to keep Greece in the anti-Russian camp by not agreeing with Greece’s position on its Aegean borders. For if the U.S. – and Israel – came out in support of Greece’s position, this would push Ankara more towards Moscow.

From our partner RIAC

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