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The Fate of the Gray Area in Europe

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There is a considerable territory between Russia and the European heartland. It runs from the Scandinavian peninsula in the north to the Black Sea in the south. These lands include Finland, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova and the South Caucasus states, and can be provisionally called a “gray zone”: lands where Russia and Western/Central European states have clashed militarily for hundreds of years.

If we look at the history of last several centuries, those clashes were often conditioned by military goals: Russia did not want Western states be influential along its borders or Western states, fearing Russia’s size, tried to prevent the Slavic state’s domination over Central Europe.

However, though these military confrontations are indeed important, they overshadow economic developments on the ground in the “gray zone”.

Let us for a minute take a look at the global context. European civilization, once it attained economic and most of all technological superiority, started to export it to other continents via the oceans. France, Great Britain, Spain, Portugal and others did little to extend their influence to the “gray area”. There was the invasion of Russia by Napoleon in 1812 or the Crimean War (1853-1856) when the western Europeans were operating along the Russian borders, but their interest was mostly military – to contain Russia – rather than the spread of economic influence.

For the westerners, the lands which today constitute that gray zone were not interesting economically and were very hard to reach geographically. Moreover, their geopolitical focus was elsewhere, across the oceans, in Africa and Asia. As a result, Russia, for centuries, was able to operate quite successfully from Finland to the Black and Caspian seas.

Only with the creation of unified Germany, did Russia see a real economic threat to its western territories. And this matters a great deal, as in the long term Germany’s economic power will make a difference.

But with the two world wars, where western Europe, along with Germany, lost its pre-eminence, they started to think about unifying Europe. There was also a change in the geopolitical outlook: moving eastward. This involved systematic attempts to spread economic influence in the gray area, particularly seen since the break-up of the Soviet Union. Western European economic influence was soon reaching deep into what Moscow considers as its sphere of influence.

While these days many Russian politicians and their western counterparts view the battle in the “gray zone” a military one, on the ground it is economy which matters. As long as direct military conflict is unlikely to happen, populations even in the most pro-Russian countries, such as Belarus, are starting to gradually move away from the Russian world.

In summary, the late 20th century, the world saw a fundamental change in Europe’s geopolitical outlook. For centuries, the continent had been extending outwards via the oceans, to various territories in Africa and Asia. Little if anything was done to attain economic predominance in Eastern Europe, where the border with Russia was. This process is now reversed: it is clear that the only geographic avenue for Europe’s projection of power is in the Easternmost parts of the continent: the very gray area I mentioned above. There might be troubles along the way, such as we see nowadays, when talks on enlargement of the European Union are effectively stalled.

However, it is likely to be only short-lived: in an age when the US still dominates the world’s ocean, the only route for Europe to gain larger economic and military say lies eastwards – the route which is also geographically convenient as it passes over the East European plain to the Ural mountains.

This explains why Russia is unable to withstand the European pressure. Poor economic capabilities minimize Russia’s chances to retain even culturally close Ukraine. Some signs of Moscow’s inability to control Belarus are also visible.

From this perspective, there are historic opportunities for Georgia. For centuries, Georgian kings were active in searching for European economic and military support for the country. Most of those attempts failed, beaten back by western European disinterest. But with this geopolitical reorientation in Europe, there are a lot of opportunities for having European economic and military structures spread to Georgia. This will take years if not decades, but it is important to view the whole process from a long-term perspective.

Author’s note: first published in Georgia Today

Emil Avdaliani specializes on former Soviet space and wider Eurasia with particular focus on Russia's internal and foreign policy, relations with Iran, China, the EU and the US. He teaches history and international relations at Tbilisi State University and Ilia State University (Georgia).

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French Senator Allizard: Mediterranean – Theatre for future Europe

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On the historic date of March 08th – International Women’s Day, a large number of international affairs specialists gathered for the second consecutive summit in Vienna, Austria. This leg of the Vienna Process titled: “Europe – Future – Neighbourhood at 75: Disruptions Recalibration Continuity”. The conference, jointly organized by the Modern Diplomacy, IFIMES and their partners, with the support of the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna, was aimed at discussing the future of Europe and its neighbourhood in the wake of its old and new challenges.[1]

Along with the two acting State Presidents, the event was endorsed by the keynote of the EU Commissioner for European Neighbourhood and Enlargement, Excellency OlivérVárhelyi. The first, of the three-panel conference, was brilliantly conducted by the OSCE Sec-General (2011-2017), current IFIMES Euro-Med Director, Amb. Lamberto Zannier. Among his speakers, the first to open the floor was French Senator Pascal Allizard, OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Vice President (and its Special rapporteur for Mediterranean issues). Discussing regional issues of the southern Europe, its relations with the black sea and with North of Africa, this is what Senator outlined in his intervention:

As 2021 is the ten-year anniversary of the Arab spring, Senator Pascal highlights that a decade later, the events of the Arab Spring are crucial to the problems of today. Europe should reevaluate the region through European lens. Excellency Alizard criticizes Europe, due to the fact that it tends to take a step back from the region of the North African affected area of the Arab Spring conflict as there is an abundance of issues which are unlikely to be solved with ease. One must still do its duties difficult or not to question the region. Turning a blind eye to the problems there is something that Senator says Europe tends to do to elevate their consciousness.

However, one must look at the problems head-on. The biggest concern is that there is an explosive growth in population, a rise in radicalism and the Black Sea is what separates that northern conflict region of Africa and the Mediterranean coast of Europe.

The Mediterranean Sea is known to be one of the most crucial routes to transport illegal cargo such as drugs, hydrocarbon and human trafficking into Europe, specifically through Spain and Italy. It’s crucial for Europe to have a discussion and plan for this region as it is a necessity to keep Europe safe. The different countries along the Mediterranean must come together to create a cohesive, inclusive yet firm diplomatic strategy to answer all the challenges. The region along the Mediterranean Sea is a strategic area for Europe as there are many ships that come from around the world into those ports.

Senator Pascal proceeded by stating that the eastern Mediterranean region escalated after the discovery of significant oil and gas reserves. It is also the ongoing war in Syria, and the destabilization of the region with yet unsettled situation in Libya (with presence of multiple external players which generate instability).

Senator reminded the conference audience that Europe must also mention the actors in the Mediterranean on the European side;

‘’The European Union is a leading player, at least for the display of its normative ambitions, also for its diplomacy of the checkbook and its discourse on human rights. However, the EU is not a power in the state and sovereign sense of the term, and it systematically curbs the sovereign aspirations of its own member states. The EU does not yet project itself sufficiently as an international actor capable of implementing a foreign policy. The EU appears, I believe, seen from the Mediterranean at most as a soft power which, in word, watches over the balance of power in the region. And the hopes placed in EU policy dedicated to the Mediterranean have been in vain, to the extent that they do not seem effective, neither economically nor politically, at least from my point of view, insufficiently. And if on the northern shore a few countries are interested in the Mediterranean area, we can see that this is not the center of European concerns and that no common vision is really emerging.’’

Unification of that region is vital, because if the Mediterranean nations do not collaborate as a union and show their strength, control of that area could fall into the hands of Turkey, Russia and China. Turkey walks bold on the so-called Exclusive Economic Zone in Euro-Med, which would – if accepted – project its power in the Mediterranean, giving it a more prominent regional political role. Russia, which is once again becoming a key player in the Middle East, in the Black Sea area, in the Mediterranean and even in Africa walks bold too. Lastly, China which mainly projects itself through its trade, investments, and its bilateral agreements is pressing on maritime space too. Lately, Chinese military navy can be also seen.

The navies of the regions are preparing for a hardening of relations at sea in a strategic area where world trade flows, but also now, for the exploration, the exploitation of hydrocarbons. This is why questions of sovereignty are once again emerging, naturally in the sense of our concerns.

Hopefully the new US administration will also pay attention to the Mediterranean Sea and not just the Indo-Pacific. 

The only way to establish more of a grip in the Mediterranean theater is cooperation. This is also the key to success for all the European nations gathered around unified code of conduct and rule of law.

Concluding, Excellency Pascal stated that the European Union must recognize realities of unresolved conflicts that are interwoven, as well as to understand the new challenges that can threaten the very fabrics of the Union: security, demography, unregulated immigration. If not equal to these challenges, the universalist European model might lose its grounds beyond point of return – warned Senator.

*the above text is based on the informal French language transcript as per conference recordings, which may have no intentionally caused minor omittances or imprecisions in the reporting.


[1]This highly anticipated conference gathered over twenty high ranking speakers from three continents, and the viewers from Australia to Canada and from Chile to Far East. The day was filled by three panels focusing on the rethinking and revisiting Europe and its three equally important neighbourhoods: Euro-Med, Eastern and trans-Atlantic (or as the Romano Prodi’s EU Commission coined it back in 2000s – “from Morocco to Russia – everything but the institutions”); the socio-political and economic greening; as well as the legacy of WWII, Nuremberg Trials and Code, the European Human Rights Charter and their relevance in the 21st century.

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Vienna Process: Re-visiting and Re-thinking the Euro-MED

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On the historic date of March 08th – International Women’s Day, a large number of international affairs specialists gathered for the second consecutive summit in Vienna, Austria. This leg of the Vienna Process titled: “Europe – Future – Neighbourhood at 75: Disruptions Recalibration Continuity”. The conference, jointly organized by the Modern Diplomacy, IFIMES and their partners, with the support of the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna, was aimed at discussing the future of Europe and its neighbourhood in the wake of its old and new challenges.[1]

Along with the two acting State Presidents, the event was endorsed by the keynote of the EU Commissioner for European Neighbourhood and Enlargement, Excellency OlivérVárhelyi. The first, of the three-panel conference, was brilliantly conducted by the OSCE Sec-General (2011-2017), current IFIMES Euro-Med Director, Amb. Lamberto Zannier. Among his speakers were academics, government and IGO representatives of different yet complimentary backgrounds. Following is the brief, yet not conclusive, overview of the discussed. 

Although not new, the EURO-MED cooperation matter remains a distinguished area where the field of possibilities is immense, and where progress vis-à-vis this transregional collaboration would tremendously impact all involved parties’ crisis management abilities. Thus, re-discussing EURO-MED with, if necessary, a novel overall geometry is rightfully referred to as a both compelling and heat-on point of the agenda by the conference panellists.

Admittedly, the Barcelona Process of 1995 and PEM Convention having entered into force in early 2012 were remarkable initiatives aiming notably at introducing institutional frameworks and promoting deeper economic integration based on the “rules of origin” concept. However, the initiatives did not blossom as was hoped, and this is due to several reasons that keynote speaker Monika Wohlfeld (German Chair for Peace Studies & Conflict Prevention) and Ettore Greco (Vice-President of the Institute for International Affairs) have touched upon during the 8th March international event. Given that our awareness and understanding of the lack of prosperity having surrounded those first initiatives is key to re-thinking, re-calibrating and, in turn, re-engage in an auspicious direction, this piece will be taking you back to the salient message vehicled by Wohlfeld and Greco respectively.

First, Monika Wohlfeld took the floor and opened up by acknowledging the past attempts at reaching cooperation security agreements as well as their relative deficiency up until now. Equally as important to recognize are the causes of such failings: actually, little traction was brought on following the emergence of the first initiatives due to, notably, an absence of lasting peace climate and old relational patterns within the involved regions. The context having been set, she moves onto the juicy bit: the inherent inadequacy of the multilateral approach whose prints are all over the 90s and 2000s proposals. What is more, she brings to the table a counter-approach as the path to engage in: minilateralism.

The aforesaid concept offers an alternative cooperation modus that is more selective, flexible and mostly more conscious of, and focused on, the fact (or rather the reality) that States can participate in various ad-hoc frameworks with fluctuating membership. The latter would then be assessed through case-by-case interests, shared values and pertinent capabilities. In that sense, by contrast to a multilateralist angle, a minilateralist attitude would be oriented towards the sub-regional rather than the international; would be a voluntary undertaking rather than a binding one; would concern fragmented but specialized fields of application rather than general comprehensive ones; would tend to be multi-stakeholders rather than State-centric; and would proceed from a bottom-up thinking rather than top-down. Monika’s suggested shift in approach answers an important need, backed-up by local expert voices, which is that of the serious taking into account of sub-regional diversity in the process. By doing so, the odds of reaching cooperation agreements with MED countries – and moreover the chances of those agreements panning out – would be extremely favourable.

As a matter of fact, Ettore Greco endorsed a consubstantial view in his intervention during the conference. More specifically, he believes that a looser approach based on an empowered co-ownership and greater attention to actual regional dynamics and situational constraints ought to be adopted.

Drawing on the Barcelona Process experience, which rendered apparent its shortcomings and the recent state of deadlock having affected the EURO-MED coop, Greco equally provides alternate lines of thinking. What is clear to him is that the integrationist approach and the idea according to which cooperation should equate to structural convergence makes for an unworkable avenue. Indeed, he also pointed out that one main issue encountered with regard to earlier cooperation models (whether in the Barcelona Process or even in the ERANET Project of 2013) was the transfer and, by way of symmetry, the reception of Western policies in the Middle-East and North Africa. This cannot help but to ring an old bell; that of Watson’s concept of the ‘legal transplant’ and related limits. His famous metaphor of the mountain plant being uprooted and planted back in the desert, incurring changes to the plant’s nature remains particularly striking and timely. This goes to show, or rather to remind some, that purely transplanting policies that are specific to a certain ethos without adjusting to the new local particular context can often prove inefficient.

Consequently, is it well-advised that the EU places more emphasis on, and deploys more energy towards, stability and resilience as goals set out for the cooperation in lieu of democratization along with institutional reforms. That being said, Greco concedes that in the absence of profound transformation – and hence, reforms, to some extent – stability in itself is seldom achievable.

Setting aside the MED inner conflict dynamics over which the EU has very little if no control over, new forms of partnerships should be relentlessly explored and promoted in a world where the concurring, mutually-reinforcing challenges can only be optimally addressed through wider pan-regional operative frameworks. In that spirit, Ettore Greco, as emissary for the IAI, lays out some ground requirements we need to achieve as a roadmap to making successful advances. These are:

  • The promotion of a comprehensive concept of security. That is, one more inclusive and of broader scope – and thereby more realistic.[2]
  • The creation of better synergies between the different cooperation frameworks (NATO-MED dialogue, OSCE MED partnership, Union of the MED) and clarification of each initiative’s own added-value.
  • The involvement of valuable non-EU actors such as Russia or the United States of America.

Those guidelines, whether proposed by Monika Wohlfeld or by Ettore Greco, prove that the re-thinking of the EURO-MED cooperation is a breeding ground already being cultured. Besides, this political activation or mobilization towards re-shaping a functional and tighter cooperation scheme can be observed across the board of regional and sub-regional players directly affected by the issue. But mostly, there is one common thread in the discourses of those airing opinions to lead the best way: acknowledgement of the omnipresent diversity and pluralism at play. Only by factoring in the diversity of the partners and their sub-regions can there be beneficial arrangements and progress be made. This, of course, has to be understood as a central remark directed to the European side of the table. All and any relic of hegemony need be completely done away with, so as to fully respect and integrate the diverse identities in the process. And in fact, this shouldn’t be hard to comprehend and assimilate from a EU perspective considering the various cultural bundles interacting within the EU block itself. What is more, the European Court of Human Rights is King as revering and upholding the national particularism of its Member States – it makes it a point of honour in the crushing majority of its judgements whenever harmony flirts too close with a homogeneity requirement that comes short of negating a region’s tradition.


[1]This highly anticipated conference gathered over twenty high ranking speakers from three continents, and the viewers from Australia to Canada and from Chile to Far East. The day was filled by three panels focusing on the rethinking and revisiting Europe and its three equally important neighbourhoods: Euro-Med, Eastern and trans-Atlantic (or as the Romano Prodi’s EU Commission coined it back in 2000s – “from Morocco to Russia – everything but the institutions”); the socio-political and economic greening; as well as the legacy of WWII, Nuremberg Trials and Code, the European Human Rights Charter and their relevance in the 21st century.

[2] On that, see the OSCE model proposal

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U.S government’s own negative impacts in eroding human rights and media freedom in Bulgaria

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The US State Department’s annual human rights report is out and just like every March, critical voices and activists around the world rush to their own country’s section to see what’s included and what they can use openly, with the stamp of criticism by the US government.

This year, the State Department’s report on human rights violations in Bulgaria covers the usual ground and what’s publicly known. There were no surprises. The section on Bulgaria includes very prominently violence against media and journalists, and excessive use of force by law enforcement.

What the US government does not include in the Bulgaria section is the US government’s own role in the erosion of human rights and media freedom in Bulgaria through US government agencies such as the FBI, the CIA and even the US State Department. This is not something that US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, is willing to admit – at least not yet.

Ever since the US Ambassador to Bulgaria, Hero Mustafa, stepped into office back in 2019, the US Embassy in Sofia has maintained media freedom as a main theme. And what was not to like about that? Many of us over here cheered. But not so fast.

The US government construes media freedom only in the narrow sense that only speech praising the US government and going after US enemies should be free and protected. “Direct your freedom of speech against them, not us” is not freedom of speech. That’s not a rights-based approach; it’s authoritarianism. This was my first-hand experience with the US government when I was a top finalist for UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of speech in 2020. This is also my experience with the US government, as I try to spearhead the debate on the joint European position on China, and as I criticize the new US confrontational policy on China in pumping a new unnecessary Cold War with China, while expecting Europe to follow blindly. When the US is provoking China into a military and defense race at China’s own door step, while pointing to the Chinese reaction as “aggression”, hoping to draw Europe also into this, European voices have to speak up and warn about what’s coming on the horizon.

The FBI and the CIA operating under the hat of the US Embassy in Sofia make sure that independent, politically critical voices are kept under check through a variety of illegal means that the US government somehow believes it can allow itself to use on EU soil. The US State Department is happy to tag and sing along with the US intelligence agencies, here in Bulgaria. The Bulgarian authorities are also happy to help the US government in the US government’s repression against progressive, politically critical voices in Bulgaria.

The key take-away for the US government in Bulgaria has to be that the history of US human rights infringements in Europe shows that things like that only drive the transatlantic bond further away, and don’t bring it closer. This is also something that US President Joe Biden is about to learn very soon.

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