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The Politics of Difference: Italy’s Nationalist Turn and the Struggle between “New” and “Old” Italians

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Nationalism has permeated Italian politics more than other Western European countries. In all the elections that have been held since 2018 the right-wing nationalist parties of Lega Nord (Lega) and Fratelli d’Italia (FdI)have significantly increased the number of their voters. However, Italy’s nationalist turn has not only concerned parties of the right but also from the left. This article illustrates the way in which the proliferation of nationalism affects the mobilization of Italian citizens with non-Italian backgrounds. For mobilization I intend all the efforts of right-wing and left-wing parties and media to either involve or marginalise Italian citizens with non-Italian backgrounds. I argue that, although they might differ in their scope, both right-wing and left-wing political agents promote politics of difference through communication strategies that serve to mobilize Italian citizens with non-Italian backgrounds. In this context the term “politics of difference” primarily refers to policies that are meant to track and exploit arbitrarily defined distinctions between citizens based on their “origins”.

The right-wing political parties and their attacks on Italians with non-Italian backgrounds

Legaand FdI are officially members of the coalition of the center-right, but they have endorsed political attitudes that are closer to the tradition of the post-World War II Italian far-right parties. They have founded their propaganda on the exaltation of the Italian national identity in opposition to several external and internal “others”.Lega’s slogan Prima gliItaliani (Italians First) was firstly used by the fascist ideology-inspired party Casa Pound. FdI leader Giorgia Meloni started her political career as a member of Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI), which was the first Italian neo-fascist party. In her social media communication Meloni uses the word Nazione(nation, with a capital ‘n’) to refer to Italy instead of using the term “state” as most of her Italian colleagues would do.

The leaders and the activists of Lega and FdI have generally shown a hostile attitude toward Italian citizens with non-Italian backgrounds. Congo-born former Integration Minister Cécile Kyenge, who was in office between 2013 and 2014, received all kinds of insults from Lega activists because of her origin. In January 2019 the court of Bergamo sentenced current vice-president of the Senate Roberto Calderoli with eighteen months of prison for saying in a public meeting that Kyenge looked like an orangutan. During the electoral campaign in Sardinia in February 2019, the president of a local Lega club Giovanni Barbagallo posted pictures of the Partito Democratico (PD) and Liberi e Uguali (LeU) candidates on his Facebook page, asserting that they were foreigners and that he hoped that at least they knew the Italian language. However, both candidates owned the Italian citizenship since it is mandatory to participate in the electoral process.

Salvini has always displayed a scornful attitude toward Muslims and Roma people, independently of their citizenship. In a radio show in June 2018, the then Minister of Interior Salvini claimed that he planned to make a statistic of Roma people in Italy. He also added that all foreign Roma nationals needed to be expelled from the country except those with an Italian citizenship, that “unfortunately we have to keep (…)”. In a public speech held in August 2019, Salvini defended his right to use the racial slur zingaraccia against a Roma woman who had said that he deserved to be killed. The controversial Decreto Sicurezza(safety decree) that Salvini promulgated when he was Minister of Interior introduced a norm that enabled the state to deprive individuals of non-Italian background of their citizenship if they were found guilty of terrorism.

Lega and FdI accuse the government to take more care of foreigners’ needs instead of focusing on Italians. In spring 2019, the FdI and other far right circles of Rome organized public protests against the allocation of state-owned houses to Roma families. Tensions arose especially in Casal Bruciato where an Italian family that had squatted a municipal flat, was forced to leave so the legitimate beneficiaries could move in. A Roma family with Italian citizenship moved inside the house escorted by police who protected the family from an angry mob that had rallied outside the building. The FdI section of the 4th Municipality of Rome wrote on the Facebook account that the Mayor gave houses to “nomads” instead of the Roman families that needed them.

Some exponents of FdI tried to normalize the idea that every citizen of foreign origin could be harassed in the privacy of his/her domestic environment if s/he was suspected of receiving benefits that the state did not provide for Italians. In November 2019, FdI members Marco Lisei and Galeazzo Bignami filmed the names of alleged “foreign” families that lived in state-owned houses in Bologna. The video was posted on Facebook in order to argue that the local administration gave houses to foreigners and not to Italians. However, as argued by the online newspaper nextquotidiano.it on November 12, 2019, nothing in the video proved that these families were not Italian. The video was deleted when the public prosecutor of Bologna opened a case for possible infringement of privacy laws.

Salvini emulated the act of the FdI exponents in his own Padano style. While the leader of Lega was touring the “Pilastro” neighbourhood in Bologna a lady in her sixties told him that she knew where a family of foreign drug dealers lived. Without verifying the information Salvini went to the doorstep of the building where the family of presumed drug dealers lived and pressed the buzz. A person answered the intercom and Salvini asked whether it was true that they were selling drugs. It turned out that the person that was indicated as the main pusher of the house, was a 17-year-old Italian citizen, born in Italy from an Italian mother and a Tunisian father. He did not have any criminal records and was not at home when Salvini went to his door. The exploit of the Lega leader drew harsh criticism. The vice-president of the Tunisian parliament Osama Sghaier claimed that Salvini was a racist and that his attitude undermined relations between the two countries. The former president of the Italian Constitutional Court Gustavo Zagrebelsky declared that Salvini’s act brought to memory the Kristallnacht. Salvini has now deleted the video because the boy that he accused of drug-dealing reported the former Interior Minister for privacy violation. It was recently discovered that the lady who gave this false information to Salvini had been introduced to the Lega staff by a carabinieri marshal. The Carabinieri Force has now opened a case to determine whether the officer infringed his institutional duties.

Despite the continuous provocations shown toward Italian citizens with non-Italian backgrounds, FdI and Lega have always rejected accusations of racism and xenophobia and both parties count activists with non-Italian backgrounds among their party members. For instance, Nigeria-born Toni Iwobi had been a member of Legafor nearly 25 years when he was elected member of the senate in 2018. The exponent of FdI Paolo Diop was born in Senegal and moved to Italy at a very young age. He used to support CasaPound and in a 2015 interview he declared that he admired Salvini, that he was a nationalist and a fascist, and that he preferred people to call him negro – the equivalent of the English word “nigger” – rather than being labelled as a person di colore – literally “of colour” – as the politically correct phrasing would put it. Ironically, in April 2018, Paolo Diop and his girlfriend were victims of a racist aggression by a group of people who insulted Diop calling him negro. This unfortunate event did not make Diop change his political convictions.

The “New Italians” and the search for “italianness”

Nationalism is not a prerogative of the right, and the left has also claimed its historical and cultural connection to this ideology. In July 2018, current Liberi e Uguali (LeU) member (former PD) Stefano Fassina published an article on the Huffington Post in which he announced the formation of the party “Fatherland and Constitution” (Patria e Costituzione). According to Fassina, it is necessary to return to the anti-fascist ideal of fatherland that is inscribed in the Italian Constitution to avoid the negative impacts of liberalism and extreme nationalism. The leftist circles often employ the term NuoviItaliani(New Italians) to refer to the generation of citizens that have non-Italian backgrounds. In the 2013 electoral campaign, PD pompously announced the inclusion of NuoviItalianiin the party’s list of candidates. The term has perhaps been coined to provide a positive image of Italians with non-Italian backgrounds. But the “New Italians”appear as a category of people marked by different cultural backgrounds and the overall Italian population is conceptualised as if it was composed of two main ethnic bodies: The “old”, autochthones and purest Italians who are simply Italians and the “new” culturally-hybrid Italians who are Italians but also something else and consequently something less.

The left-right competition over who endorses the authentic values of the Italian identity, has pushed people to question their degree of belonging to italianità (italianness) – an increasingly popular term – and that of others. Individuals with non-Italian backgrounds are trying to subvert the prejudices that have been constructed on their account because of their alleged different “origins”. Their voice reaches the mainstream through political organizations such as Cara Italia, media (television, newspapers, blogs and social media) as well as various art forms, music and sports. Several known and less known Italian-speaking trap and reggaeton artists describe their personal experience of italianness against a context that refuses to consider them as part of the national body. Unlike fifteen years ago, national discourses are now fashionable and national identity seems to be a fundamental part of the construction of one’s personal and collective self. Journalist Oiza Q. Obasuyi has published several articles about the way in which she and other citizens with non-Italian backgrounds feel stigmatized in their everyday life because of their “origins”. In her view people find it difficult to either accept or understand that one could be plainly Italian if s/he has a different skin colour or place of birth. In February 2019, she noted the absurdity of a question that a journalist made to pop singer Mahmood who won the most prestigious music competition in Italy, Sanremo. Mahmood was born in Italy and his father is Egyptian. Although he had never visited his father’s country, a journalist asked him which was the thing that he missed the most of his “country”, that is Egypt.

Journalists of either right or left political orientation are equally contributing to spread the idea that citizens with non-Italian backgrounds are somehow different from the rest of the population. The 17-year-old boy that Salvini accused of drug-dealing was asked in an interview whether he was Italian. The question was irrelevant and it shows that the journalist accepted the idea that being a foreigner is perceived as an aggravating factor for any crime or presumed crime that one has committed. In an article published on November 22, 2018, the online left-oriented newspaper nextquotidiano.it commented sarcastically on the fact that Paolo Diop had joined FdI. The journalist assumed that his non-Italian origins were not compatible with his political ideas and cynically exposed his non-italianness by stating that his original name was not Paolo but Talla.

Italian athletes are particularly subjected to journalists’ endeavours to make citizens with non-Italian backgrounds declare their allegiance to the Italian identity. Few years ago former football player Thiago Motta who is born in Brasiland who played for the Italian national team was asked to illustrate his mixed national feelings. Motta answered puerile questions such as whether he preferred pasta or churrasco and if he would rather dance samba or tarantella. When the Italian women 4X400 relay team won the gold medal at the Mediterranean games in July 2018, politicians and medias from the right and the left depicted the team as a symbol of diversity which can contribute to the development of the Italian nation. Roberto Saviano claimed that the four athletes represented the dream of a multicultural Italy that would not have been hindered by Lega’s racism. More recently, the press praised the “multi-ethnic” character of the Italian women’s volleyball team and designated it as a model for the society that Italy should try to build. In both cases journalists fail to see that by depicting the team and the athletes as “multi-ethnic” or “multi-cultural”, they build a narrative in which the athletes and the category of people that they are haphazardly called to represent have different “ethnicities” or “cultures” and are different from “usual” or “old” Italians.

The athletes know that their image is exploited for political purposes and are also aware of the essentialist ideology that informs the discourse on their “origins”. In an interview with Corriere della Sera volleyball player Paola Egonu was asked how she felt about the fact that “Italy” fell in love with the “multi-ethnic” character of the team. She replied that she was surprised of this reaction, because all players were Italian and it was normal to have different origins. Egonu implicitly told the journalist that origins are irrelevant to one’s degree of national belonging. Paradoxically, her opinion mirrors Giorgia Meloni’s comment on the picture of the Italian relay women’s team. The FdI leader commented the image of the four athletes holding the Italian flag stating that “The only thing the radical chic see in this picture is black athletes to politically exploit. I see the Italian flag waving. Long live our girls”. Meloni used the image of the girls to attack her opponents and therefore her act was not free of exploitative intents. However, she emphasised the symbol that makes the athletes simply Italian rather than their “origin” that makes them differently Italian.

Overcoming the Italian identity crisis

The idea that “origins” can establish a person’s degree of affiliation to a nation is absurd and its application would lead to the ontological dissolution of the Italian project. Italy was formed in 1861 and this means that every inhabitant of the peninsula has non-Italian origins if we look seven generations back. The myth of the “origins” is a politics of difference implemented in order to create a distinction between “old” and “new” Italians at the benefit of the former. In the framework of a nationalist political discourse, the narrative on one’s own past is always conceived to mediate the degree of his/her national belonging in the present and in the future. However, as Egonu’s words suggest, in everyday face-to-face relations, belonging and loyalty to a given collective entity is not conditioned by one’s putative origins, but rather depend on the way one decides to structure her/his self in the social, political, economic and cultural environment that s/he inhabits.

This article has shown how left-wing and right-wing Italian politicians and media deploy a politics of difference in order to mobilise citizens with non-Italian backgrounds. On the one hand, the right-wing parties Lega and FdI refute accusations of racism, fascism and xenophobia but on the other hand they are accustomed to racial and ethnic slur, they marginalize Italian citizens with non-Italian backgrounds, contend their italianness, and ignore their privacy and other basic civil rights with gestapo-type behaviours. They mobilise these citizens not simply as Italians but rather as foreigners or as “Italians of foreign origins” who for this reason may not always be considered as entitled to enjoy full political rights. This politics of difference, that is the emphasis on the distinction between old and new Italians, reflect the fear of competition between Italians and migrants, a fear that was spread by right-wing propaganda and that has generated a myth of “substitution”. The myth says that “foreigners” or citizens with non-Italian backgrounds and non-Italian cultures will outnumber and therefore substitute the original ethnic component of the country. The presence of activists with non-Italian backgrounds in the ranks of Lega and FdI does not reduce their liability and that of other party members who have stigmatized citizens with non-Italian backgrounds.

The politics of difference carried out by political and media agents through the emphasis of their different “origins”, “cultures” or “ethnicities” mobilises individuals with non-Italian backgrounds in the form of a dialectical positioning toward other citizens. Citizens with non-Italian backgrounds will be mobilised not as purely Italians but as a category that oscillates between the internal and the external otherness. The parties of the left, and in particular PD and LeU, are fighting the hard nationalism of the right with a soft nationalism of the left. In analogy to the policies implemented by the rightist circles, the exaltation of the national identity by the left and the discourse on origins that they propagate generates a contradictory effect on the mobilization of citizens with non-Italian backgrounds. The promotion of a “multi-ethnic” society leads to the formulation of ethno-building discourses. Ethnic identities – like religious identities – tend to become catalysts for political violence and marginalization as soon as political and economic problems emerge. Citizens should be granted full political rights whichever their backgrounds are and should not either be forced into assimilation nor be given the opportunity to ghettoize. More than that, one should not preclude the possibility that a citizen can embrace a given set of ideas or ideologies only because his/her “origins” seem to contradict his/her political choices.

The nationalist turn that has characterised Italy in the last years does not stem from the necessity to express a consolidated sense of belonging to the Italian nation, but rather the opposite. The search for italianness in the self and in the others shows that those who are conducting this search – right-wing and left-wing politicians and journalists, Italian citizens and “foreigners” who aspire to become Italians – have either lost or are scared to have lost not as much the character of italianness that they are looking for but rather the economic and symbolic assets that it gave them. Until fifteen or twenty years ago, there was no need for mainstream politicians and journalists to frantically look for who was Italian and who was not, because the question of what it meant to be Italian did not appear problematic. There were infinite modalities of being Italian which were validated by the possession of the Italian passport and/or by the possession of a permanent residency permit in the country. The crisis of the EU and the decade-long economic crisis have shifted the function of the Italian identity from a tool that allowed people to project their ambitions and lives in a trans-national horizon, to a ticket that individuals use to claim assets in a context with scarcer resources. The endorsement of an Italian identity has become an opportunity for political subjects who used to repudiate the Italian project and claim independence from Rome, such as Lega. The history of Lega that is now arrogating the right to decide who deserves to be Italian, show how national identities are constructed and dismissed according to the symbolic and economic assets that they offer. It is nonetheless impossible for any of the seekers of italianness to determine which aspects define italianness and who represents them better.

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The 30th Anniversary of the Visegrád Group: The Voice of Central Europe

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The Visegrád group or V4 is a cultural and political union created in 1991, during a conference in the city of Visegrád in Hungary. V4 has been a symbol of Central Europe’s international activity and a new way of coordinating regional cooperation. Czechia, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia’s location in the Central European region provides shared cultural and intellectual roots, which they wish to, preserve and further strengthen.

The aim has been clear since the beginning of the cooperation: to eliminate the remnants of the Communist bloc in Central Europe and to accomplish the necessary transformation to further European integration. V4 accessed the EU membership together on May the 1st 2004. Once the goal – EU and NATO membership – had been reached, the Visegrád group did not disappear, as it was and still is also a way for those 4 countries to have a bigger voice by cumulating their strengths. However, some uneasiness and gloom can now be felt in this axis connecting the Baltic, the Adriatic, and the Black Sea.

Relationship with the EU

The construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which is being opposed by several central and eastern Europeans as well as the United States, is a contentious subject for the V4. Its completion would bypass the V4 region, causing economic and geopolitical harm. It’s not only about falling income from gas transit fees to Western Europe; it’s also about the overall “geopolitical rent” for the Central European area, which would dwindle correspondingly as the present gas pipelines’ relevance decreases.

In Brussels, “Europe” usually means Western Europe. Yet V4countries are, in terms of national progress, becoming the equals of, and even superior to, France and Germany—two EU founders and its two largest, wealthiest members. Recent statistical measures of economic growth, employment, and terrorism all show that four ex-Soviet satellites on the EU’s eastern frontier demonstrate better performance than France or Germany in almost every benchmark metric.


The gross domestic product (GDP) of the V4 grew an average of 4.3 percent in 2018, compared to 1.6 for France and Germany. In both Hungary and Poland, the growth of GDP was 5.1 percent, more than three times the average rate for France and Germany. The worst growth rate among the V4—Czechia’s 3.0 percent—was still double Germany’s growth rate. Given Germany’s stellar reputation as Europe’s economic powerhouse, this is significant. Yet inflation remained mild across all four Visegrád countries, ranging from 1.7 percent in Poland to 2.9 percent in Hungary.


Western Europe still sports larger economies, higher incomes, and longer life expectancies, but these represent a fading legacy of decades of prosperity and peace that was denied to the EU’s eastern members. The indicators, in which some CEE states still lag, like corruption or pollution, are similarly an inheritance of ex-communist rule. Pre-pandemic economic and social progress looked very good for Czechia, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia, and troubling for Germany and France. If these trends resume—and there is no reason to think they won’t—the East will soon outshine the West.

Despite the fact that Germany is the largest net contributor of EU funds, its economy has benefited the most under the euro, gaining €1.9 trillion from 1999 and 2007, or about €23,000 per German. Berlin’s economy benefits from the EU’s euro zone in many ways, according to Bertelsmann Stiftung, a respected German think-tank. By 2025, the benefits could amount to €170 billion more for Germany. Observers often refer to the V4 as “two plus two,” because of their differing attitudes to European integration. Czechia and Slovakia are more Europe-friendly than Poland and Hungary, which are far more eurosceptic.

Conclusion

The V4 do not share the post-World War II view of the EU embraced by dominant decision-makers in Western Europe, such as France, and Germany. Hungary and Poland’s authorities have generated front-page headlines in recent months for disregarding EU regulations. Their vision for Europe is for a robust and strong nation-state. The V4 has emerged as a non-institutional organization but is increasingly present as a separate agent in European and global politics. The upcoming year, with all its challenges, will certainly reveal more about this partnership. Central Europe needs to be strong within the European Union, and this requires a functioning Visegrád, and the willingness to find common results.

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EU: The stalemate in negotiations brings Serbia ever closer to Russia and China

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Serbia has been waiting since 2012 for the European Union to respond to its application to become a full member of the EU.

In spite of exhausting negotiations, this response is slow in coming and the main cause of the stalemate has a clear name: Kosovo. Before accepting Serbia’s application for membership, the EU requires a definitive solution to the relations between Serbia and that region that broke away from it after the 1999 conflict – when NATO came to the aid of the Kosovo Albanians – and proclaimed its independence in February 2008.

Serbia has never recognised the birth of the Kosovo Republic, just as many other important countries have not: out of 193 UN members, only 110 have formally accepted the birth of the new republic, while the rest, including Russia, China, Spain, Greece and Romania – to name just the most important ones – refuse to recognise the independence of the Albanians of what was once a region of Serbia.

The European Union cannot accept that one of its members is in fact unable to guarantee control over its borders, as would be the case for Serbia if its membership were accepted.

In fact, since the end of the war between Kosovo and Serbia, there is no clear and controlled border between the two countries. In order to avoid continuous clashes, Kosovo and Serbia have actually left the border open, turning a blind eye to the ‘smuggling economy’ that thrives on both sides of the border.

In this situation, if Serbia were to become a full member of the European Union, it would create a gap in the borders of the entire Schengen area, as anyone passing through Kosovo could then move into all EU countries.This is not the only obstacle to Serbia’s accession to the European

Union: many European chancelleries are wary of Serbian foreign policy which, since the dissolution of the Yugoslav Federation, has maintained a privileged relationship with Russia, refusing to adhere to the sanctions decided by Europe against Russia after the annexation of Crimea to the detriment of Ukraine.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, Serbia even agreed to produce the Russian vaccine ‘Sputnik V’ directly in its own laboratories, blatantly snubbing EU’s vaccine offer.

For the United States and some important European countries, Serbia’s formal accession to the European Union could shift the centre of gravity of Europe’s geopolitics towards the East, opening a preferential channel for dialogue between Russia and the European Union through Serbia.

This possibility, however, is not viewed unfavourably by Germany which, in the intentions of the CDU President, Armin Laschet, the next candidate to succeed Angela Merkel as Chancellor, has recently declared he is in favour of a foreign policy that “develops in multiple directions”, warning his Western partners of the danger resulting from “the interruption of the dialogue with Russia and China”. In this regard, Laschet has publicly stated that ‘foreign policy must always focus on finding ways to interact, including cooperation with countries that have different social models from ours, such as Russia, China and the nations of the Arab world’.

Today we do not know whether in autumn Laschet will take over the leadership of the most powerful country in the European Union, but what is certain is that Serbia’s possible formal membership of the European Union could force Europe to revise some of its foreign policy stances, under the pressure of a new Serbian-German axis.

Currently, however, Serbia’s membership of the European Union still seems a long way off, precisely because of the stalemate in the Serbia-Kosovo negotiations.

In 2013 Kosovo and Serbia signed the so-called ‘Brussels Pact’, an agreement optimistically considered by European diplomats to be capable of rapidly normalising relations between Serbia and Kosovo, in view of mutual political and diplomatic recognition.

An integral part of the agreement was, on the one hand, the commitment of Kosovo’s authorities to recognise a high degree of administrative autonomy to the Kosovo municipalities inhabited by a Serb majority and, on the other hand, the collaboration of the Serbs in the search for the remains of the thousands of Kosovar Albanians presumably eliminated by Milosevic’s troops during the repression that preceded the 1999 war.

Neither of the two commitments has so far been fulfilled and, during the meeting held in Brussels on July 21 between Serbian President Alexander Vucic and Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti, harsh words and reciprocal accusations were reportedly exchanged concerning the failure to implement the ‘Pact’, to the extent that the Head of European foreign policy, Josep Borrel, publicly asked the two parties to ‘close the chapter of a painful past through a legally binding agreement on the normalisation of mutual relations, with a view to building a European future for its citizens’. This future seems nebulous, to say the least, if we consider that Serbia, in fact, refuses to recognise the legal value of degrees and diplomas awarded by the Kosovo academic authorities also to members of the Kosovo Serb minority.

Currently, however, both contenders are securing support and alliances in Europe and overseas.

Serbia is viewed favourably by the current President of the European Union, Slovenian Janez Jansa, who is a supporter of its membership because “this would definitively mark the dissolution of the Yugoslav Federation”. The vast majority of European right-wing parties, ranging from the French ‘Rassemblement National’ to the Hungarian ‘Fydesz’, also approve of Serbia’s membership application and openly court the Serbian minorities living in their respective countries while, after the years of US disengagement from the Balkans under Presidents Bush, Obama and Trump, the Biden administration has decided to put the region back on the list of priority foreign policy commitments, entrusting the ‘Serbia dossier’ to the undersecretary for European and Eurasian Affairs, Matthew Palmer, an authoritative and experienced diplomat.

With a view to supporting its application for European membership, Serbia has also deployed official lobbyists.

Last June, Natasha Dragojilovic Ciric’s lobbying firm ND Consulting officially registered in the so-called EU ‘transparency register’ to promote support for Serbia’s membership. ND is financed by a group of international donors and is advised by Igor Bandovic, former researcher at the American Gallup and Head of the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy, by lawyer Katarina Golubovic of the ‘Committee of Human Rights Lawyers’ and Jovana Spremo, former OSCE consultant.

These are the legal experts deployed by Serbia in Brussels to support its application for formal European integration, but in the meantime Serbia is not neglecting its “eastern” alliances.

Earlier this month, the Head of the SVR, the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, Sergey Naryshkin, paid an official visit to Belgrade, a few weeks after the conclusion of a joint military exercise between Russian special forces (the “Spetznaz”) and Serbian special forces.

In the Serbian capital, Naryshkin not only met his Serbian counterpart Bratislav Gasic, Head of the ‘Bezbednosno Informativna Agencija’, the small but powerful Serbian secret service, but was also received by the President of the Republic Alexander Vucic with the aim of publicising the closeness between Serbia and Russia.

The timing of the visit coincides with the resumption of talks in Brussels on Serbia’s accession to the European Union and can clearly be considered as instrumental in exerting subtle diplomatic pressure aimed at convincing the European Union of the possibility that, in the event of a refusal, Serbia may decide to definitely turn its back on the West and ally with an East that is evidently more willing to treat the Serbs with the dignity and attention that a proud and tenacious people believes it deserves.

A piece of news confirming that Serbia is ready to turn its back on the West, should Europe continue to postpone the decision on its accession to the European Union is the fact that China has recently signed a partnership agreement with Serbia in the field of pharmaceutical research, an agreement that makes Serbia one of China’s current largest commercial partners on the European continent.

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NATO’s Cypriot Trick

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UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

When the Soviet Union collapsed and the Warsaw Pact died, there was much speculation that NATO would consider itself redundant and either disappear or at least transmogrify into a less aggressive body.

Failing that, Moscow at least felt assured that NATO would not include Germany, let alone expand eastwards. Even the NATO Review, NATO’s PR organ, wrote self-apologetically twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin wall: “Thus, the debate about the enlargement of NATO evolved solely in the context of German reunification. In these negotiations Bonn and Washington managed to allay Soviet reservations about a reunited Germany remaining in NATO. This was achieved by generous financial aid, and by the ‘2+4 Treaty’ ruling out the stationing of foreign NATO forces on the territory of the former East Germany. However, it was also achieved through countless personal conversations in which Gorbachev and other Soviet leaders were assured that the West would not take advantage of the Soviet Union’s weakness and willingness to withdraw militarily from Central and Eastern Europe.”

Whatever the polemics about Russia’s claim that NATO broke its promises, the facts of what happened following the fall of the Berlin wall and the negotiations about German re-unification strongly demonstrate that Moscow felt cheated and that the NATO business and military machine, driven by a jingoistic Cold War Britain, a selfish U.S. military-industrial-congressional complex and an atavistic Russia-hating Poland, saw an opportunity to become a world policeman.

This helps to explain why, in contrast to Berlin, NATO decided to keep Nicosia as the world’s last divided city. For Cyprus is in fact NATO’s southernmost point, de facto. And to have resolved Cyprus’ problem by heeding UN resolutions and getting rid of all foreign forces and re-unifying the country would have meant that NATO would have ‘lost’ Cyprus: hardly helpful to the idea of making NATO the world policeman. Let us look a little more closely at the history behind this.

Following the Suez debacle in 1956, Britain had already moved its Middle East Headquarters from Aden to Cyprus, while the U.S. was taking over from the UK and France in the Middle East. Although, to some extent under U.S. pressure, Britain was forced to bring Makarios out of exile and begin negotiating with Greece and Turkey to give up its colony, the U.S. opted for a NATO solution. It would not do to have a truly sovereign Cyprus, but only one which accepted the existence of the Sovereign Base Areas (SBAs) as part and parcel of any settlement; and so it has remained, whatever the sophistic semantics about a bizonal settlement and a double-headed government. The set of twisted and oft-contradictory treaties that have bedevilled the island since 1960 are still afflicting the part-occupied island which has been a de facto NATO base since 1949. Let us look at some more history.

When Cyprus obtained its qualified independence in 1960, Greece and Turkey had already signed, on 11 February 1959, a so called ‘Gentlemen’s Agreement’, agreeing that they would support Cyprus’ entry into NATO.1 This was, however, mere posture diplomacy, since Britain—and the U.S. for that matter—did not trust Cyprus, given the strength of the Progressive Party of Working People (AKEL) and the latter’s links to Moscow. The Ministry of Defence (MOD) wrote: ‘Membership of NATO might make it easier for the Republic of Cyprus and possibly for the Greeks and Turks to cause political embarrassment should the United Kingdom wish to use the bases […] for national ends outside Cyprus […] The access of the Cypriot Government to NATO plans and documents would present a serious security risk, particularly in view of the strength of the Cypriot Communist Party. […] The Chiefs of Staff, therefore, feel most strongly that, from the military point of view, it would be a grave disadvantage to admit Cyprus to NATO.’2 In short, Cyprus was considered unreliable.

As is well known, the unworkable constitution (described as such by the Foreign Office and even by David Hannay, the Annan reunification plan’s PR man), resulted in chaos and civil strife: in January 1964, during the chaos caused by the Foreign Office’s help and encouragement to President Makarios to introduce a ‘thirteen point plan’ to solve Cyprus’ problems, British Prime Minister Douglas-Home told the Cabinet: ‘If the Turks invade or if we are seriously prevented from fulfilling our political role, we have made it quite clear that we will retire into base.’3 Put more simply, Britain had never had any intention of upholding the Treaty of Guarantee.

In July of the same year, the Foreign Office wrote: ‘The Americans have made it quite clear that there would be no question of using the 6th Fleet to prevent any possible Turkish invasion […] We have all along made it clear to the United Nations that we could not agree to UNFICYP’s being used for the purpose of repelling external intervention, and the standing orders to our troops outside UNFYCYP are to withdraw to the sovereign base areas immediately any such intervention takes place.’4

It was mainly thanks to Moscow and President Makarios that in 1964 a Turkish invasion and/or the island being divided between Greece and Turkey was prevented. Such a solution would have strengthened NATO, since Cyprus would no longer exist other than as a part of NATO members Greece and Turkey. Moscow had issued the following statement: ‘The Soviet Government hereby states that if there is an armed foreign invasion of Cypriot territory, the Soviet Union will help the Republic of Cyprus to defend its freedom and independence against foreign intervention.’5

Privately, Britain, realising the unworkability of the 1960 treaties, was embarrassed, and wished to relieve itself of the whole problem. The following gives us the backstage truth: ‘The bases and retained sites, and their usefulness to us, depend in large measure on Greek Cypriot co-operation and at least acquiescence. A ‘Guantanamo’6 position is out of the question. Their future therefore must depend on the extent to which we can retain Greek and/or Cypriot goodwill and counter USSR and UAR pressures. There seems little doubt, however, that in the long term, our sovereign rights in the SBA’s will be considered increasingly irksome by the Greek Cypriots and will be regarded as increasingly anachronistic by world public opinion.7

Following the Turkish invasion ten years later, Britain tried to give up its bases: ‘British strategic interests in Cyprus are now minimal. Cyprus has never figured in NATO strategy and our bases there have no direct NATO role. The strategic value of Cyprus to us has declined sharply since our virtual withdrawal from east of Suez. This will remain the case when the Suez Canal has reopened.8

A Cabinet paper concluded: ‘Our policy should continue to be one of complete withdrawal of our military presence on Cyprus as soon as feasible. […] In the circumstances I think that we should make the Americans aware of our growing difficulty in continuing to provide a military presence in Cyprus while sustaining our main contribution to NATO. […]9

Britain kept trying to give up the bases, but the enabler of the Turkish invasion, Henry Kissinger, did not allow Britain to give up its bases and listening posts, since that would have weakened NATO, and since Kissinger needed the bases because of the Arab-Israel dispute.10

Thus, by the end of 1980, in a private about-turn, Britain had completely succumbed to American pressure: ‘The benefits which we derive from the SBAs are of major significance and virtually irreplaceable. They are an essential contribution to the Anglo-American relationship. The Department have regularly considered with those concerned which circumstances in Cyprus are most conducive to our retaining unfettered use of our SBA facilities. On balance, the conclusion is that an early ‘solution’ might not help (since pressures against the SBAs might then build up), just as breakdown and return to strife would not, and that our interests are best served by continuing movement towards a solution – without the early prospect of arrival [author’s italics]11.

And so it is today: Cyprus is a de facto NATO territory. A truly independent, sovereign and united Cyprus is an anathema to the U.S. and Britain, since such a scenario would afford Russia the hypothetical opportunity to increase its influence in the Eastern Mediterranean.

From our partner RIAC

[1] Ministry of Defence paper JP (59) 163, I January 1960, BNA DEFE 13/99/MO/5/1/5, in Mallinson, William, Cyprus, a Modern History, I.B. Tauris (now Bloomsbury), London and New York, 2005, 2009, 2012, p.49.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Memorandum by Prime Minister, 2 January 1964, BNA CAB/129/116, in ibid, Mallinson, William, p.37.

[4] British Embassy, Washington, to Foreign Office, 7 July 1964, telegram 8541, BNA FO 371/174766, file C1205/2/G, in ibid.’, Mallinson, William, p. 37.

[5] Joseph, Joseph S., Cyprus, Ethnic Conflict and International Politics, St Martin’s Press, London and New York, 1997, p. 66.

[6] In 1964, Cuba cut off supplies to the American base at Guantanamo Bay, since the US refused to return it to Cuba, as a result of which the US took measures to make it self-sufficient.

[7] Briefing paper, 18 June 1964, BNA-DO/220/170, file MED 193/105/2, part A. Mallinson,William, Kissinger and the Invasion of Cyprus, p. 127.

[8] ‘British Interests in the Eastern Mediterranean’, draft paper, 11 April 1975, BNA-FCO 46/1248, file DPI/515/1.

[9] Cabinet paper, 29 September 1976, in op. cit. Mallinson, William, Kissinger and the Invasion of Cyprus, p.134.

[10] Mallinson, William, Britain and Cyprus: Key Themes and Documents, I.B. Tauris, London and New York, 2011, and Bloomsbury, London and New York, 2020, pp. 87-121.

[11] Fergusson to Foreign Minister’s Private Secretary, minute, 8 December 1980, BNA-FCO 9/2949, file WSC/023/1, part C.

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