The Online Investment Forum on 4th June, 2020 was another occasion when Greek government’s determination for an unfaltering commitment to cooperation with China was made building on their successful cooperation in Piraeus port. This was made clear by the address of the Greek Development and Investment Minister, Adonis Georgriadis when he said that “We are very happy with the Chinese presence in Greece, very proud of our cooperation in Piraeus port. We want to go forward with the master plan of the upgrade of Greece’s largest harbour.” He further added that “We continue even faster and stronger than before to make our ties stronger.” The Minister remarked that the pandemic and their common response have strengthened their cooperation further. The Chinese ambassador to Greece, Zhang Qiyue complemented the tune of cooperation that Greece is the important BRI partner and both sides have a strong desire to strengthen the cooperation for the mutual benefits of people of the two countries.
The pandemic diplomacy is deepening the threads of cooperation. Huge loads of medical supplies around 18 tons arrived Athens on 21st March. “Greece is in constant contact with China, cooperating closely to address the common challenge of the new coronavirus pandemic” said the Alternate Minister of Foreign Affairs, Miltiadis Varvitsiotis. He further added that Greece will continue with this strategic partnership in the future as well.
The policy of “Golden Visa” is a unique step of the Greek government to encourage investment in the country. The programme was launched in July, 2013 which grants a five year residency visa in return for an investment in real estate. It does not require minimum stay and children upto 21 years are included in the family applications. The visa can be renewed every five years without any minimum stay condition and citizenship can be granted after seven years of residency only. The Chinese investors have used the policy in a large scale. As per the statistics of the Greek Ministry of Migration and Asylum, some 86 percent of Golden Visas issued in the year 2019 was availed by the Chinese up from around 40 percent two years ago. The related new additional changes like 22 percent reduction in property tax and a 50 percent reduction on renovation tax and a new flat tax by cutting the global tax as they have become local tax resident have made more attractive. Thus the visa policy has created a convenient condition to get ‘citizenship by investment’ by extension EU residency and citizenship as well. There is considerable rise among the Chinese investors in Greece and expect a prosperous decade of 2020s.
With the economic problems, Greece is in serious consideration to remain in the European Union as the poorest country using the Euro and highest unemployment rate of the bloc. However, its EU membership works as an incentive to the Chinese to gain the European Residency by getting the Greece Residency. Gradually, the issue has attracted the concerns of the EU authorities about security risk involved in the programme. The issue was raised by the European Commissioner for Justice, Didier Reynders in his address to the European Parliament and warned against the risky investors availing the residency or citizenship.
For centuries, port Piraeus has played pivotal role in economic prosperity of Greece. With the Chinese control of the port after 2016 (51 percent stake and can be raised upto 67 percent) the port has soon become the second-biggest container port in the Mediterranean and the biggest passenger port of Europe. The China Ocean Shipping Company (COSCO) investment is considered as a winning option among the Greeks as it has retained the previous employees and thus it has managed to boost the employment. For the Chinese, Piraeus represents the Mediterranean hub of its global geo-economic strategy based of its Belt and Road Initiative. However, it faces the opposition and scrutiny of the United States and its allies in Europe who perceive it as an extremely worrisome Chinese foothold and its subsequent expanding influence tentacles in the West.
The responses in Greece are also not unanimous. There are numerous forms of opposition and voices of scepticism to criticism regarding increasing Chinese relation with Greece and their implications. In Aril 2019, a powerful obstacle to the Chinese expansion plan in Piraeus to add warehouses, expensive cruise-ship terminal and luxury hotels came from the Central Archaeological Council and Museum when it declared the area an archaeological site. The additional investment of around $880 million was therefore stalled. Thus the amount remained frozen under the Left wing Sryiza (Synaspismos Rizospastikis Aristeras/ Coalition of Radical Left) government. Along with the Central and Eastern European countries, Greece has become the part of 17+1 (the 1 represents China) which has rung the alarm bell both in Washington and the EU headquarter, Brussels. Greece remains part of EU and has received huge sum of European bailout money. Some media reports suggest therefore that the announcement of archaeological body is purely political, an action to satisfy the concerns of the US and EU. The concern appears to be obvious with the remark of Johannes Hahn, the EU commissioner for Budget and Administration that Europe has to be careful of Chinese “Trojan horses” which Beijing has been creating by its economic clout through its investments to have political sway over European countries. Back in 2017, the European Union failed to pass a statement condemning the persecution of dissidents by the Chinese government as Greece blocked that resolution.
The coming of the New Democracy party under the Prime Ministership of Kriakos Mitsotakis has turned Greece once again favourable to China. To highlight the convergence of interests in maritime trade, at the China International Import Expo in Sanghai, the Greek Prime Minister, Mitsotakis said on 5th November, 2019 that “We are a nation of seafarers” and therefore our cooperation seem to be natural. He further added that the relationship is mutually beneficial and reinforcing. To address the concerns of the EU and US very tactfully he highlighted that “If Chinese are doing this, then the American can also do it, the French, the Germans, the Swiss, the Italians can do it.”
The central concern of the EU is that its members should not be sucked into a superpower geopolitical rivalry of the US and China. The dominant argument emphasises the need of having their own collective and independent policy and position towards China. But this understanding has failed to develop necessary agreement of members so far. The EU foreign policy Chief, Josep Borrel called the current state of China policy of the EU as ‘Sinatra Doctrine’. Way back in 1989,then Soviet foreign Ministry Spokesperson, Gennadi I. Gerasimov called the Soviet policy towards Warsaw Pact nations as ‘Sinatra Doctrine’-they can do things their way. The origin of this euphemism goes back to the song written for Sinatra by Paul Anka, “I did it my way” a big American pop hit in early 1969. Given the political trend in Greece and its economic exigencies the Chinese are there to stay and grow for sure. The EU lacks the necessary political cohesion and economic strength which seems to have further been accentuated with the ambivalence in US commitments and NATO squabbles. However, a sincere analysis makes it apparent that the concern in Europe lingers on given the asymmetry between China and Greece.
A leaderless ship: The Bulgaria’s political crisis and the storm to come
Internal and international tensions
Politics tends to develop in a complex conundrum in all Balkan countries. Thus, never can observers take their eyes off the ball, investors feel completely safe or international partners express enduring satisfaction. In effect, this is the case also for bits of the region that have joined the European Union in the last decade. Recently, Bulgaria has been the most interesting hearth of, popular outrage, institutional instability and international tensions amongst the latter countries.
Actually, the atmosphere began simmering back in Summer 2020, when thousands of people took to the streets for several weeks. Arguably, the combination of the umpteenth high-echelon corruption scandal involving andthe pandemic-induced recession was only the most immediate cause. Swiftly, dissatisfaction led to vigorous calls for the Prime Minister’s and the Attorney General’s resignation and early election. Even the President of the Republic, Rumen Radev, broke with his supposed non-partisanship and joined the protestors gathering vast support. However, the winter suppressed street protests and Boyko Borisov, the Prime Minister, exploited the pandemic to justify his indifference.
In the meantime, the cabinet embroiled Bulgaria in a dispute which the country had refrained from ever since 1991. The so-called ‘Macedonian question’predates the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’s independence, but only then turned into a crisis. Indeed, the hardest-fought issue was that surrounding the use of the name ‘Macedonia’, which Greece opposed until the Prespa Agreement. But the newly named Republic of North Macedonia has failed to acknowledge the deep historical and cultural connection with Bulgaria. Eventually, the former’s lack of real cooperation led Sofia to veto the opening of negotiations on EU membership. Thence, scholars have criticised the country’s government while foreign politicians tried to persuade Borisov to lift his veto.
Against the background of such a delicate, multifaceted domestic and international circumstances Bulgaria celebrated regular election on April 4. The country needed everything but being left leaderless, but this is exactly what happened.
Election results: Who to form a cabinet?
The most recent elections speak volume about the difficulty in understanding Bulgarian politics and understanding what the popular sentiment is. For a start, GERB, Borisov’s party, lost about 300,000 votes falling from 33.65%in 2017, to 26.18% this year. Moreover, the nationalist collation United Patriots, GERB’s reliable allies, split up and failed to clear the 4% threshold. Thus, with his 75 MPs in the 240-seat Parliament Borisov had no more a majority and desperately needed a partner.
At the same time, the elections produced an unusually hostile environment for GERB. In fact, a number of new leaders and formations emerged — all of which declared GERB a “most toxic party”. Still, opposing Borisov’s “model”, as they use to say, was not enough to form a government. Neither the protest party There is such a people (ITN) nor the establishment Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) even tried. Therefore, the two smaller protest parties – Democratic Bulgaria (DB) and Stand Up! Bastards Out (ISMV) – and the Muslim Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) had to accept new elections in July.
In effect, once the elections results became clear, no one nurtured many hopes for a stable government. The BSP had offered it external, conditional support to an ITN cabinet as the DPS and even GERB did. Perhaps, members of DB and ISMV could have joined the project to ensure wider representation. But all attempts failed in front of ITN’s leader, the showman-turned-politician SlaviTrifonov, display of “political fearfulness”. The ultimate result of these developments was the shortest parliamentin Bulgaria’s two-century history.
What the parliament produced
Without a fully-functioning political government and with a lame-duck Parliament, Bulgaria is traversing a difficult period. The legislature has yet to approve the Recovery and sustainability plan towards which the EU has granted €6bln ($7.3bln). Without these funds, it will be harder for the country’s economy to rebound after the last recession. At the same time, no one is in charge of managing the ongoing feud with the Republic of North Macedonia. Hence, Sofia can neither substantiate its claims and pretences vis-à-vis Skopje nor backtrack and let membership negotiations start. Finally, in the last weeks tensions between Bulgaria and Russia have risen with mutual expulsion of several high-ranking diplomats. In fact, Czech authorities have found out about a “Bulgarian connection” in the incidents allegedly blamed on Russian security services.
On the offense: ITN, DB and ISMV against GERB
Yet, the parliament has found not time to address any of these really pressing issues. As it often happens after the elections, foreign policy has disappearedfrom the order of the day. There was no discussion of either the bilateral relations with Russia nor the North Macedonian issue.
Representative from ITN, DB and ISMV wrapped up the Recovery plan into their wider attempt to publicly discredit GERB. Thus, they refused to let the competent executive official introducing the bill and pretended Borisov himself did it.
Meanwhile, the three parties and the BSP also forced a vote on the cabinet’s resignation. Hence, the government is officially in charge only of managing current affairs: it cannot update the budget or adopt new economic measures. The opposition also blocked the automatic renewal of key concession for Sofia’s airport and some highways to Borisov’s closest allies.
So-called ‘Protest parties’ also formed a parliamentary commission to investigate Borisov governments’ misdeed. However, the legislature will soon dissolve, so nothing will come out of it besides some gossipy kompromat. The only real change is a new electoral law,remedying to some of the previous legal framework’s most evident fallacies. The hope is that it will curb the purchase of votes and other instances of fraud.
Wait-and-see: Borisov’s unkind defence
Borisov’s loyalists in the government, in the Parliament and, more importantly, in the media are repelling this frontal assault vehemently.
Figure 1 Acting Prime Minister Boyko Borissov called the Parliament “a show” in a video on his Facebook page.
Acting foreign minister Ekaterina Zakharieva has spoken out against the supposed attempt to make 850,000 GERB voters ‘disappear’. The chair of GERB’s parliamentary group, Desislava Atanasova, accused other parties of having “failed to fulfil society’s interests”. Borisov himself went out for the biggest prey: President Radev.On Facebook he declared
I hope that Radev is not proud [of the result of last year’s protests …]: This parliamentary show costs 19 million [leva, €9.5mln] a day. It is better that they closed it because we would have gone bankrupt.
The opposition motto offers no way forward behind the idea that “What GERB did must be cancelled”. Yet, GERB is not less destructive in its agenda. Currently, Borisov’s clique is challenging both the moratorium of concessionsand the electoral reformin front of the constitutional court. According to many experts, the justices could strike down or rescale at least one of these two measures. Hence, all hopes for a real democratic change will likely evaporate as long as GERB holds the levers of power.
Forecast: A leaderless ship in a stormy sea
Some have been talking about the rebirth of parliamentarism. But partisanship, anger and personal hatred currently dominate Bulgaria’s politics. Thus, a disenchanted observer could only see the dismaying polarisationand personalisation of the mainstream political discourse. At this time, Bulgaria is like a ship whose crew has mutinied, but whose captain refuses to jump off. Fortunately, the peaks of the economic and sanitary crisis seem over — for now. But the international setting conspires against the vessel. A storm is mounting from the East and the West. Winds of reprisal spire from Russia, whereas the EU is increasingly discontent with Bulgaria’s management of the North Macedonian issue. Assuming that the next elections will produce a working government, either the mutineers or the old captain will be just in time to manage the gale. But should this not happen, the country may soon regret the current lull.
Geopolitics of Europe and the Third Wave
With hospitals filling up across the continent, new variants of the virus proliferating and vaccine shortages biting back, Europe can be seen to be under the third wave of the COVID crisis. This wave has been a confused sea across Europe in which some national epidemics are worsening, some are reaching their peak and some are declining. Although lockdowns have eased as vaccine drives make headway, the end of state emergency does not undermine the inevitable long-term consequences of the crisis. COVID has brought to the forefront new geopolitical dynamics and created risks for the foreign policy of the European Union on several fronts. Beyond the epidemiological challenge of the impending health calamity, economic, political and geopolitical challenges are also plenty.
The crisis has held up a mirror to the Western countries as their effectiveness in managing the pandemic has been distorted and has brought about de-Westernisation of the world. As globalisation is under strain, the crisis is bound to redraw the borders between the state and the markets in democracies such as the Member States of the EU. Such an environment is likely to emphasise on national initiatives to the detriment of international cooperation. In a post-COVID world, the EU may have to deal with its geopolitical problems with less external credibility as well as internal solidarity among its member states.
The potential geopolitical consequences of the virus can be identified by extrapolating those trends that were taking place before the onset of the virus. Amidst evolving global scenarios, there has been a constant push from the EU to establish itself as a relevant geopolitical actor to realise its global power aspirations. In this context, it becomes important to note the two areas of concern raised by the crisis consist of questions on the internal cohesion of the EU and Europe’s ability to adapt to the increasing rivalry and competition among other global powers.
The EU as a player derives its identity from its supranationalism. However, with COVID wreaking havoc on the already unequal economy of the Northern and Southern Europe, the downslides of globalisation are being highlighted. This is likely to further embolden nationalist narratives, rather than European solutions. This will lead to the fragmentation of the region into its component member-states part, threatening the very identity if the Union. This has been a challenge to the EU as the Union recognizes solidarity as a fundamental principle as per Article 2 of the Treaty of the European Union. With the EU is facing the increasingly centrifugal ‘member states first’ approach put forward by the European capitals, the European integration project is under threat.
Further, with the pre-existing tensions between US and China, the European Union has been facing heat from both the sides of the Pacific. While the EU has put forward its own Indo-Pacific Strategy in order to constructively engage with the region, it continues to be challenged by America’s confrontational foreign policies and also being apprehensive of China’s refusal to open up their markets at a time of dwindling global economies, China’s assault on Hong Kong’s independence as well as China’s growing support towards the populist parties of Europe. The EU has come to perceive China as a systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance with this perception largely being shaped by China’s revisionist challenge and its alarming nationalist narrative.
It is important to understand that coronavirus is not here to kill geopolitics. However, the European Union will have to strengthen their efforts towards ensuring that the pandemic does not kill the EU as a geopolitical force. The European Commission must step up its efforts to broker the Multilateral Financial Framework (MFF) among member states which was long pending even before the pandemic struck the continent. It would enable the Union to act collectively in funding recovery efforts in a post-COVID reconstruction of the economies. Further, the EU should focus on shortening their supply chains pursuing a policy of strategic autonomy such that EU’s external dependencies are diversified. The need of the hour is to rebuild an economically sound healthcare Europe while at the same time working towards a more geopolitical Europe. This will require EU to continue investment as a full-spectrum power in military as well as other security capabilities along with assistance and aid to the neighboring countries to rebuild their resilience in a geopolitically volatile environment.
The EU needs to defend and promote the European model which is struggling to stand amidst the global battle of narratives along with maintaining its strategic autonomy in health, economic and other sectors. At the same time, the Union needs to bolster existing and forge new alliances in order to fill the gap on multilateralism. It needs to locate a strategic edge to resist the external pressures and protect its presence in the global scene and continue being relevant in the changing global order with its extraordinary transcontinental presence of soft power.
How a Democracy Can Be Undermined: Some Lessons
Democracies have an inbuilt flaw when their own processes can be employed to undermine them. It is what has happened in Hungary in the last decade, and Hungary is not alone.
In his youth the current prime minister of Hungary, Viktor Orban, was an ardent dissident leading a youth movement, Fidesz, and in 1989 he was calling for the removal of Soviet troops and free democratic elections. Opposition to single-party socialist rule was eventually successful, and he was elected a Fidesz member of the National Assembly in 1990.
In 1998, his party won a plurality, and he served his first term as prime minister until 2002 when the socialists returned to power. However, a landslide victory in 2010 gave Orban a two-thirds supermajority, and with it the power to amend constitutional laws.
Shortly thereafter in 2011 a new constitution was promulgated which gave the Fidesz control of the judiciary, and administrative commissions responsible for elections, media and the budget. Hence Orban’s ubiquitous presence on billboards around Budapest — a consequence of a law regulating billboards that he passed driving his supporter’s competitors out of business. Opposition flyers may now be found posted on poles and trees … and good luck seeing them at a distance.
With the opposition weakened, Hungary became a democracy backsliding to authoritarianism. In 2020, the parliament passed laws that allow Orban to declare an emergency at will and then rule by decree.
All of which poses a conundrum: Anti-democratic laws passed by an elected government undermine democracy yet at the same time can be considered the will of the people, even if they infringe their rights.
If one believes the U.S. is immune, consider elected politicians gerrymandering districts to remain in power. And if we believe for an instant that all of this is a right-wing phenomenon, we just have to glance at Venezuela and Nicolas Maduro.
Freedom House’s classifications of freedom in 210 countries note that Venezuela is not free. Orban’s Hungary is now only partly free in contrast with, say, the Czech Republic, another former communist East European state which is classified free.
In their book How to Save a Constitutional Democracy, Tom Ginsburg and Aziz Z. Huq argue that forces of democratic decay often accompany the appearance on stage of a charismatic leader holding the populace in thrall. They also note three pillars supporting democracy: free and fair elections, freedom of expression and association, and the bureaucratic rule of law. The latter implies the independent functioning of bodies like the election commission, the Federal Reserve, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Emergency Management Administration and so on. This limits the power of the central executive unlike in Mr. Orban’s case.
Fortunately from the Ginsburg and Huq analysis the U.S. appears to be well insulated and employs freedom of association in particular to great effect. There can be chinks in the armor, however, as is happening in Georgia with new voter suppression laws.
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