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Montenegro’s turnaround: Outcomes and prospects

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Montenegro is entering a new chapter of its political history. For the first time in the past 30 years the Democratic Party of Socialists, backed by incumbent President Milo Dukanovic, has suffered a defeat in the recent elections. If the winning opposition forces manage to come to agreement on the formation of a ruling coalition, the country’s domestic and foreign policies could undergo dramatic changes. For this to happen it would be necessary to guarantee a consensus among former opposition members and remove from office Montenegro’s all-time leader Milo Dukanovic, who has no intention of ceding power, among other things, for fear of losing his financial well-being and judicial immunity.

The elections, which took place on August 30, saw a fairly high turnout of 76,65%, which came as a result of mass anti-government rallies which swept the country in the past few months and the participants of which demanded resignation of the ruling coalition and radical improvement of relations with Serbia and Russia. And even though the Democratic Party of Socialists has won again, gaining 35,06%, the three opposition alliances that came on its heels mustered support substantial enough to form a parliamentary majority. The coalition “For the Future of Montenegro” got 32,55%, the alliance «The World is Our Nation” – 12,53% and «United Reformist Action», – 5,53%. In total, the opposition earned 50,61% and 41 of 81 seats in parliament.

Although the next presidential elections in Montenegro are scheduled for 2023, the opposition is planning to bring them closer. Milo Dukanovic won a convincing victory in the very first round of the 2018 elections, gaining more than 50% of the votes. However, the alignment of forces has changed considerably since then.

In the course of their election campaign opposition forces accused the incumbent government of corruption, plans to destroy the single cultural and religious space of Montenegro and Serbia, and of pursuing an openly pro-western foreign policy by joining NATO and the anti-Russian sanctions of the European Union. The law “On the Freedom of Religion or Belief and the Legal Status of Religious Communities”, which came into effect at the beginning of 2020, obliged the country’s religious communities to prove their right to own property they possess. First and foremost, the law concerned the Serbian Orthodox Church, which has firm positions in Montenegro. It de facto deprived the Church of its historical ownership of several hundred Orthodox churches and monasteries, including one of the major Serbian Orthodox shrines – the Monastery of Ostrog. Thousands-strong rallies demanding abolition of the anti-Serbian law contributed to the consolidation of opposition forces and, judging by reports, enabled them to garner the support necessary to win in this year’s parliamentary elections.

Another key point of the program put forward by the Montenegrin opposition is the demand that the president and government should refuse anti-Russian sanctions. The leader of the coalition “For the Future of Montenegro” Zdravko Krivokapic says that he deems EU sanctions against Russia a mistake, which inflicted a substantial financial and economic damage on the country.

According to reports, the damage sustained by the Montenegrin economy because of anti-Russian sanctions is estimated at no less than 2 billion euros.

A similar opinion has been voiced by the President of the Democratic People’s Party Milan Knezevic, who said that Montenegro’s future government, to be formed by the winning opposition, will speak in favor of reconsidering sanctions against Russia. Saying that now “comes the era” of good relations between Moscow and Podgoritza, Milan Knezevic underscored that even though membership in the EU remains a foreign policy priority, the new government is interested in fostering relations with the country’s traditional allies – Serbia and Russia.

Milan Knezevic points out that representatives of opposition alliances have agreed to “build a new government together”. “During the election campaign, we, representatives of opposition alliances, indicated that we would keep together after the elections. I expect representatives of the Muslims and Albanians in Montenegro to join us as well”, – he said, adding that the new Cabinet could be formed 10-15 days after the elections.

However, the Montenegrin Constitution empowers Milo Dukanovic to prevent the formation of an anti-presidential coalition in parliament. Before forming a Cabinet, the incumbent president must grant a political mandate to the new parliamentary majority. According to reports, he is considering refraining from such a move citing irregularities during the elections and the fragile majority of the newly formed coalition. So far, the coalition can count on 41 mandates in the 81-seat parliament, which means that the loss of only one deputy mandate automatically deprives it of parliamentary majority. Simultaneously, the president and his entourage plan to use administrative and other measures to win over the undecided deputies, which could block the start of the new parliamentary season and give Milo Dukanovic enough grounds to dissolve parliament and appoint new elections. The opposition coalition is “very fragile”, particularly since Milo Dukanovic remains president, and the opposition has yet to beat him in the presidential elections, – Stevan Gajic, expert of the Belgrade-based Institute of European Research, says.

For this reason, the opposition forces that won in the elections are trying not to focus on political issues. Instead, they accentuate the key points of their social and economic program, relevant for most Montenegrins. ”The changes Montenegro aspires for after 30 years of Milo Dukanovic’s rule are related to economic growth. Given that Montenegro is currently in deep crisis, the new government is expected to steer the country out of this crisis”, – Milan Knezevic points out.

The head of the Council of Federation’s Committee for International Affairs Konstantin Kosachev is cautious about the prospects of Montenegro’s foreign policy change. He believes that changes in relations between Montenegro and Russia should be expected if the new government heeds the voice of the society. In the meantime, he says, it is important to keep a cautious eye on the situation in the country, as everything will depend on the extent of stability of the winning coalition: «For now, I am not inclined to overestimate the importance of what is happening to believe that Montenegro will become a driver of Russian interests in the West. Russia expects qualitative, rather than radical, changes in bilateral relations with Montenegro».

Finally, while estimating further relations between Russia and Montenegro, one should not overestimate the autonomy of the future government and even the new president (in case he is re-elected to replace Milo Dukanovic). Being a member of NATO and set on joining the EU, Podgoritza is de facto deprived of the foreign policy manoeuvre enjoyed by neighboring Serbia. «If the opposition succeeds in forming a majority, relations with the EU are unlikely to change, since all Balkan countries want to become part of the EU. Speaking about relations with Russia and Serbia, I think that the opposition will reconsider these issues in favor of warmer relations with these countries», – Balkan expert Zivan Jovasevic predicts.

According to more than fair remarks by the French Le Point, Montenegro «is trying to play the Russian card against Europeans to attract Russian investments without re-paying a backlog of debts to Moscow», while at the same time, trying to secure membership in the European Union.

Given the situation, Russia should keep a close eye on the twists and turns of the Montenegrin domestic policy and manoeuvrers on the Montenegrin political scene, considering that Milo Dukanovic and his supporters maintain control of the situation and that a change of government in Montenegro is likely to yield economic and investment, rather than political, benefits.

From our partner International Affairs

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

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Geopolitics For Giants And Dwarfs

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PHOTO: Office of the President of the Republic of Croatia / Marko Beljan, NATO

Authors:  Zlatko Hadžidedić and Adnan Idrizbegović

June 2021 was far more than just dynamic in terms of global politics: President Biden’s inaugural foreign visit was organized as a coordinated gathering of the most relevant Western institutions, from G7 to NATO, to which he added the introductory meeting with the leader of the American main  geopolitical adversary, Vladimir Putin. President Biden devoted the first months of his mandate to the healing of wounds inflicted to the American society by the previous Administration of President Donald Trump, and the June campaign was practically his first foreign policy step. Given the fact that the participation of the G7 countries in the world economic output has dramatically shrinked from the 80% to 40% in only a couple of decades, which has eventually led to the decline of cohesion forces amongst the NATO allies, it becomes clear that Biden’s effort was meant to be no less than a rehabilitation of the entire Western enterprise. In the context of the Chinese economic surge and geopolitical expansion, perceived by the US foreign policy establishement as a lethal threat, the G7 and NATO summits were no less than an attempt to forge a new strategy of containment, potentially far more important to the West than the original one against the Soviet Union. At the same time, the meeting with the Russian President served to restore the previous Cold War security settings and reinstate Russia as a global power, so as to stimulate the latter to refrain from active participation in the West’s forthcoming collision with China. In this collision, the boundaries between economic clash and military conflict are becoming blurred and fade away, which suggests that these summits and meetings should be perceived as a single event. And, by its magnitude and strategic importance, this event can be compared only to the historic 1943 Tehran Conference between Roosevelt, Churchhill, and Stalin.

When the traditional policies have become worn out and the revolutionary ones proposed by President Trump have proved to be a failure, and when a decisive reshuffling of long-term strategy is being made, no degree of discord is allowed among those who aspire to remain on the Western side of the world: consensus is the only mode of operation. And, a consensus among the G7 and NATO members is what President Biden came to rebuild, since it had been disrupted by centrifugal geopolitical trends, such as America First, Brexit and Neo-Ottomanism. After Trump’s “America first!“, Biden’s “America is back!“ clearly represents a U-turn and puts the US back at the pedestal as the indispensable leader of the “Free World“. A lack of enthusiasm amongst the European countries for the renewed American leading role was also as transparent as Biden’s intentions: during the Trump era, the Europeans enjoyed in a self-made image of their own importance as a global player, despite the obvious lack of courage and ability to act as an independent factor. Therefore, Biden had to demonstrate the will and power to execute the new American strategy, whatever the Europeans may think of that. Simply, at the moment of new geopolitical positioning, when the “US versus Them“ becomes the only available model again, there is no place for nominal allies to play their own game. Now, it is the West that cannot afford duality or pluralism: monolithic unity is obligatory, as it once upon a time was proclaimed in the East, by the old communist regimes, now with the US as the “avantgarde“ and the European countries as the “satelite states“ within the system of “limited sovereignty“. It is not a surprise that Biden had no choice but to come up with such a vision of the world in this very moment; and it is not a surprise, either, that the Europeans had no choice but to eventually submit to it: having promoted China into a “systemic adversary“, one that successfully exploits the current neoliberal system to its own advantage, the West had no choice but to start changing the rules of the system, and such a gigantic operation could only be performed with absolute unanimity within the Western world. Preferably, with a relatively neutral Russia in between two future economic systems – the Chinese-led neoliberal one and the US-led yet-to-be-defined one.      

So, a new geopolitical and geoeconomic mapping of the world had to be tailored under the condition of unanimity. For that purpose, all G7 and NATO members had to liquidate their mutual disputes, including those countries which were engaged in ‘eternal conflicts’, such as Greece and Turkey. And then, on the stage set for a consensus and closing the ranks, enter Zoran Milanović, president of one of NATO’s latest and least powerful newcomers, Croatia. According to the official website of the Office of the President of the Republic of Croatia,  

After the NATO Summit, President Milanović gave press statements, saying that he was satisfied with the meeting, but also worried because of what took place with the closing statement and the paragraph on Bosnia and Herzegovina where – until the intervention by Croatia – the General Framework Agreement for Peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina, better known as the Dayton Agreement, was not mentioned. “We will have to check what is behind that, and how come that some members undermine and overtly obstruct efforts to make mention of the Dayton Accords in the paragraph on Bosnia and Herzegovina, an integral part of the final document, as if that were something toxic,” said President Milanović, adding that he managed to ensure the insertion of this reference at the last moment. “That is a warning sign. Had I failed to do that, we would have had a statement which would look like as if it had been written by an advocate of the so-called civic Bosnia and Herzegovina, and that cause is ostensibly noble but is actually a hoax,” he said.  Asked by reporters whether the Republic of Croatia can be satisfied with the changes in the document, President Milanović reiterated: “We managed to incorporate the need for electoral reform in Bosnia and Herzegovina into the communiqué. It wasn’t there. To exclude this rather manipulative reference to all the citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which in any other context would sound very noble and well-intentioned, but not in this context, and yes, to finally force them to insert in the text the General Framework Agreement for Peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina. And none of that was there until yesterday afternoon,” he said. “Why is it important that the Dayton Agreement is at least mentioned in the statement? Because otherwise there are no Croats in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Now we come to the question of whether that is important. It is to me,” said President Milanović. (…) “What interests me in Bosnia and Herzegovina as a whole and a country with its territorial integrity, which I never bring into question, is the destiny and the fundamental voting rights and citizens’ rights of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Croats, of whom the lion’s share are citizens of Croatia. This is a fact that was politically and legally known to both NATO and the EU at the time of our accession to these associations. It’s not a hoax. It’s simply a burden or pearls with which we entered these organizations, it depends how one looks at it. That is a political, legal, historical fact – 500,000 citizens of one NATO member, the Republic of Croatia, live in Bosnia and Herzegovina. As far as we are concerned, they should stay there, but they are Croats and there is dialogue here and compromise,” said the Croatian President.

Thus Milanović, yes, finally forced NATO to insert in its joint declaration his reference to the General Framework Agreement for Peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina, because it is important to him. One should bear in mind that Croatia, just like Serbia, signed this Agreement in 1995 as a party which fought the war on the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina from 1992 to 1995. Having signed the Agreement, whose author, guarantor and enforcer is the United States, both Croatia and Serbia took an obligation to refrain from violating the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Bosnia and Herzegovina and from interfering with its internal affairs. However, according to his official website, the President of Croatia says that he is particularly interested in “the fundamental voting rights and citizens’ rights of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Croats, of whom the lion’s share are citizens of Croatia“. He also explains that “500.000 citizens of one NATO member, the Republic of Croatia, live in Bosnia and Herzegovina“, and that “this is a fact that was politically and legally known to both NATO and the EU at the time of our (Croatia’s) accession to these associations“.

A number of questions logically arise from this statement. First, how can citizens of Croatia have the right to vote in Bosnia and Herzegovina? Do these citizens of Croatia pay taxes in Bosnia and Herzegovina, or in Croatia? Do they have the right to vote and be elected in both Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina? If they vote in Bosnia and Herzegovina, do they – as citizens of Croatia – promote interests and execute the policy of Croatia? If these 500.000 citizens of Croatia occupy the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina, do they act as an occupying force of Croatia in Bosnia and Herzegovina? Does the promotion of Croatian citizens’ right to vote in Bosnia and Herzegovina represent a violation of the very Agreement signed in 1995 by Croatia, of non-violation of sovereignty of Bosnia and Herzegovina and non-interference in the latter’s internal affairs? Finally, one should ask: what principles does NATO stand for and promote, if it accepts Croatia into its membership, knowing that Croatia’s policy of granting its citizenship to 500.000 citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina stands against all the principles of political theory and constitutional and international law upon which all NATO members – other than Croatia – are built? What makes Croatia so special as to be exempted from the basic NATO and EU principles, and what gives Croatia’s President the power to fracture the consensus that was painfully shaped at the NATO Summit in June 2021 and to force NATO to eventually accept his vision of inter-state relations? True, there was an attempt by NATO’s Secretary-General, Jens Stoltenberg, to persuade Milanović in a direct phone conversation to refrain from imposing his own conditions on NATO as a whole; yet, according to Milanović’s website, Stoltenberg failed in that effort.  

If one puts Milanović’s statement into a broader historical context, it should also be noted that his vision of ‘mother-country’s care’ for its ethnic brethren within the borders of other states strongly resembles Hitler’s vision of Germany’s ‘care’ for Germans in the Sudetes and Alsace-Lorraine and Milošević’s vision of Serbia’s ‘care’ for Serbs in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo. Again, the question is to what extent such visions can be compatible with the principle of defence of sovereignty and territorial integrity, upon which NATO was founded? Moreover, Croatia’s policy advocated by Milanović is practically identical with Putin’s policy of granting Russian passports to ethnic Russians who are citizens of Ukraine and live in the Donbas region. Whereas Putin’s policy was quickly proclaimed “a new act of aggression against Ukraine“ by NATO officials, they have patiently ignored Croatia’s long-term policy of granting its passports to citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina, even though – as Milanović confirms it – this fact was “politically and legally known to both NATO and the EU at the time of our (Croatia’s) accession to these associations“.

From a geopolitical perspective, both Ukraine and Bosnia and Herzegovina are countries that aspire to become NATO members. In these efforts, Ukraine is being undermined by Putin’s strategy of making it a permanently fractured state, with one of its parts being directly controlled by Russia through the policy of granting passports to ethnic Russians in Donbas and making them Russia’s Trojan Horse in the Ukrainian territory. Bosnia and Herzegovina has been put in the same fractured position by Croatia’s permanent undermining of its sovereignty, including the policy of granting Croatia’s passports to ethnic Croats in Herzegovina and using them as Croatia’s Trojan Horse in the Bosnian territory. No doubt, NATO is willing and able to confront Putin in his policy against Ukrainian sovereignty and its accession to NATO. The question is why it is not willing and able to confront Milanović, a president of its member-state, even when he is promoting his policy against Bosnia and Herzegovina’s sovereignty and accession to NATO through his publicly advertised blackmailing of NATO?

Given the intimate relationship between Russian capital and Croatia’s economy and their business oligarchies, it is not unlikely that Putin has already taken Milanović’s advice in the process of shaping the strategy against Ukraine’s accession to NATO. However, perhaps even Xi Jinping would find it useful to learn from Milanović how one can break NATO’s consensus and impose his will instead.          

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Fostering Tolerance in Europe: Issues of Migration and Populism in Italy

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Authors: Maxim Sigachev and Elena Elena*

Tolerance remains a complicated issue in the West and Russia alike. The challenge, though, remains in the need to account for the connection between the notions of tolerance, social security, and the development of the society. The West tends to adopt a broader perspective on tolerance when compared to Russian practices. In Europe, the notions of ‘tolerance’ is informed by ‘active cooperation’ rather than merely ‘patience’, as is the case in Russia.

There are at least four dimensions to this issue in Europe:

  • that of the EU’s regulatory programs;
  • that of local communities;
  • that of European societies at large;
  • that of populism and Euroscepticism, which is believed to be the source of intolerance towards migrants and refugees.

This article is devoted to the problem of the social and political crises in Italy, which have been caused by pan-European problems (i.e., migration, anti-EU attitudes of the public) and strengthened by the national Italian conflicts (the gap between the Northern and the Southern regions, debates between the Left and the Right opposition, the rise of the populist parties etc.).

Social and political discrepancies in Italy

As a part of the EU, Italy has to get through the complex processes of adaptation to a life in a supranational union, which includes profound transformations in socio-economic, cultural, and even religious spheres. If we analyze the election agenda used by the Italian populist parties in the European elections 2019 campaign, we will notice the strong anti-EU discourse and a deep disappointment in the EU politics. Being part of the EU is conceived as a loss of independence. Further, we can notice the increasing deficit of tolerance in many spheres: religious, sociocultural, ethnic, ideological.

Research on the contemporary European political parties notes that Eurosceptical spirit is strong in developing economies and advanced economies (as is the case with Germany and the UK) alike[1]. Thus, Italy’s crises are not necessarily unique but can be found across the Western world as well.

The crisis of Western world order manifests itself on, at least, three levels:

  1. the supranational level: the rise of the Euroscepticism, which is represented in the lack of tolerance and mistrust towards the European Union as an institution.
  2. the national level: the rise of the national populism, which identifies the crisis of multiculturalism in the European nations, zero tolerance to immigrants (the European migrant crisis or refugee crisis of 2015–2018) and refugees as bearers of alien culture, a so-called exclusive nationalism.
  3. the economic level: further strengthening of social populism movements, which signify the end of the European welfare state.

The European societies are characterized by a growing alienation between the rich and the poor, the elites and the people, the establishment and the middle class.

The idea of social and political divisions was first proposed by Stein Rokkan, who studied the existing divisions between political parties that are caused by cleavages between the center and the periphery, the city and the village, etc.

Rokkan’s theory was developed by Paul Lazarsfeld, who studied electoral behavior and stated that “people vote not only for their own social group but also in favor of it”[2].

According to S. Rokkan, the European party system was developed on the foundation of existing social conflicts. Rokkan also formulated the basic lines of conflicts such as “center—periphery”, “state—church”, “employee—employer”, “city—country”. The social discrepancies of the Lipset-Rokkan theory were built on by French political scientist D.-L. Seiler in the work Whether it is possible to apply the clivages of Rokkan to Central Europe?

We can use this theory to explain the stability of the European political systems in the second half of the 20th century and electoral behavior of the Europeans.

Among the notable works on the cleavage theory are R. Rose and D. Urwin Persistence and Change in Western party systems since 1945 [3] S. Wolinetz The Transformation of Western European Party System Revisited [4]M. Abrams, R. Rose and R. Hinden[5], G. Evans and S. Whitefield The Evolution of Left and Right in Post-Soviet Russia [6].

Russian scientists rarely study the Italian political system and electoral behavior in the frameworks of the cleavage theory, as they usually study the different aspects of the political life in their research papers. There are some fundamental works that attempt to analyze facts and knowledge of Italian political thought from the perspective of the communist ideology. Cecilia Kin divided the liberal political thought into purely liberal and catholic in her work Italy at the turn of the century. From the history of social political thought, K.G. Kholodkovsky and I.B. Levin compared the Italian Socialist and Communist parties.[7]

The basic factors of social political crisis in contemporary Italy

The basic factors of the social political crisis in modern Italy can be divided into two groups. The first group includes socio-political divisions of a more historical, traditional character, whereas the second group consists of relatively new, contemporary collisions.

The North-South Divide

The contemporary socio-political crisis in Italy originates from the long-term and unfinished division between the North and the South, which has not been overcome since the Italian Risorgemento (unification) in 1861. Historically less developed Southern Italy has always faced serious difficulties. The process of modernization in Southern Italy is ongoing, the standard of living still pales in comparison to wealthy Northern regions. According to the Soviet-Russian researcher K.G. Kholodkovsky, Italy still suffers from the fact that different parts of the country existed as separate states for centuries. The most important consequence of this Italian historic disunity is economic and cultural gaps between the North and the South[8].

Polarization between the Left and the Right

The ideological conflict between the Right-wing and the Left-wing political forces also has historically contingent roots and goes back to the period of Risorgimento. In 19th century, the two leading political movements—republicans and monarchists—vied for leadership of a newly unified Italy.

One group of politicians led by Giuseppe Mazini tried to establish a Republican Republic, which was supported by the socialist-utopist Carlo Pisacane. Their ideas became the ideological basement for the Italian republicanism. The second group advocated for a monarchy and was led by Camillo Cavour who would later become Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Italy. Those advocating for monarchy provided a base for conservative right-wing sentiments/ideology.

In the 20th century, there was a divide between fascists and anti-fascists. Those who supported Mussolini espoused conservative views. The anti-fascist coalition united a broad spectrum of political movements including democrats, socialists, and communists.

Today it is impossible to claim that the contemporary Italian Left and Right are descendants of that original opposition, but ideological divides are still a prominent feature of Italian politics.

It would be more correct to divide the Italian parties not only along their preferences of political system but along their attitude toward traditional values as well. Today, political parties on the Right tend to be more nationally oriented and Eurosceptic. They typically advocate for traditional values and greater autonomy from EU Commission directives. They are also staunch opponents of high levels of migration from outside the EU.

The Left is more loyal to the EU and the benefits provided to Italy by its institutions. They also support more progressive economic and family policies. A key difference between left and right in Italy is migration. The left tends to be more tolerant of migrants and refugees and advocate for the integration of migrants into Italian society.

Thus, while the division between the Left and the Right has weakened, it certainly still remains intact. Due to the particularities of the national election law, it is difficult to get the majority of the vote needed and enough seats in the Italian Parliament to form the Cabinet of Ministers. Subsequently, this problem forces the Italian parties to create different coalitions to secure seats in the Parliament. These coalitions are often characterized by the ideology of party members (center-right, right-wing, etc.). This changed in 2013 when a new political party, the 5 Stars Movement, uprooted the traditional political spectrum. Now, there is no pure center-right or center-left coalition. Coalitions have become more volatile as ideological divides become deeper as compared to the situation of ten years ago. For example, the right-wing coalition which included Forza Italia! (S. Berlusconi), Fratelli d’Italia (G. Meloni) and the Northern League (M. Salvini) won the parliamentary elections of 2018. Despite this result, the far-right League abandoned its ideological partners to form a Coalition Cabinet with the Five Stars Movement which cannot be defined as entirely Left or Right-wing.

New collisions

Recently (in the last decade of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st century), new collisions emerged: Eurosceptics vs. Eurooptimists, populists vs. traditional political parties, the supporters of migrants vs. opponents of mass immigration (as well as the division between migrants and local communities).

Eurosceptics vs. Eurooptimists

The growth of Euroscepticism in Italy can be attributed to a crisis in relations between the European Union and Italy as well as disappointment from the Italian society in the EU.

Since 1957, Italy has been a strong advocate for greater European integration, however, recently Italy has begun to transform into one of the Euroscepticism centers. According to the sociological data of Eurobarometer, about 50 per cent of the Italian society is disappointed with the European Union.

The question about the relation between Euroscepticism and populism is an intellectual challenge. On the one hand, Eurosceptics are mainly populist movements: not only the anti-immigrant League but also The Five Star Movement. On the other hand, Euroscepticism has been typical for classical Italian communists—the heirs of the Communist party of Italy. Besides, old populism of Berlusconi is more euro-optimistic than the new populism of Salvini.

Particularities of the relations between Italy and the European Union are based on a disagreement in two key issues: immigration policy and the social economic policy.

Populists vs. Traditional Political Parties

One of the results of this political crisis is the growth of social and political populism. Weinstein noted that there are a few approaches to the phenomenon of populism. According to these approaches, a hybrid phenomenon seems to exist in different dimensions: as an ideology, as a specific style of politics, and as a specific form of political organization.[9] The Italian populism started with Silvio Berlusconi coming to power in 1994. Berlusconi is perceived as the founding father of Italian populism, who managed to unite center-right forces. K.G. Kholodkovsky underlines that “populism has in new conditions become a complex of sense and values, uniting many Italians in being connected with the illusion of personalistic overcoming of the gap between authorities and citizens. The breaking of the barriers between the authorities and the people has found its personification in the figure of the uniter of the center-right forces Sylvio Berlusconi”[10] As noted previously, the rise of Berlusconi came against the background of the collapse of Christian Democratic and the Communist parties. This fact reflects an important feature of populism:

  1. Populism is a consequence of the crisis of the traditional party system, the disappointment with classical parties and party leaders.
  2. Populism has overcome the traditional division between the Left and the Right.
  3. Populist parties are often reliant on a strong leader with a distinct character.

Pro-migrants vs. Anti-migrants

The migrant crisis manifested itself most significantly in Southern Italy, since the coast of the Italian South is the closest to the North Africa. From a geographical perspective, this fact has turned the Southern part of Italy (especially the island of Lampedusa) into a gate from Africa to Europe for immigration. The immigration issue is not a new one for Italy. There were several waves of internal migration from the Southern to the more economically developed Northern regions. This process fostered resentment between citizens from different parts of the country. However, the European immigration crises as well as burgeoning crowds transformed this internal cleavage into an external one.

The intensification of the migrant crisis in Italy and in the European Union has been reflected in public opinion. According to Eurobarometer, about half of Italians consider immigration as the most important problem for the European Union, whereas another half of the Italian society cites terrorism as the most important dilemma. This fact also demonstrates that Italians are anxious about the consequences of the immigration crisis, because illegal immigration is one of the factors of the growing terrorist threat. According to the Eurobarometer spring 2016 data, 44% of Italians pointed immigration as the most important problem of the European Union. By autumn 2016, this number rose to 49,1%, by spring 2017—fell to 40%, then in autumn 2017—fell again to 38%, by autumn 2018—rose to 41%.

The growth of anti-immigrant sentiments in the Italian society has led to the emergence of the new nationalism, which is typical not only for the poorer regions but also for the richer ones. The figurehead of new nationalism in Italian politics is the League, formerly the League of the North, which has changed its name to appeal to broader segments of Italian society.

Thus, the migrant crisis has added a new collision between migrants and Italians. The problem of illegal migration became an accelerator of the existing Italian conflicts rather than an entirely new phenomenon. Illegal immigration has essentially accelerated these already-existing Italian conflicts.

Conclusion

Economy and culture are the two principal ingredients of the Italian mindset and are sources of intense socio-political divisions, as economic reasons lead to a rise of new divisions, as well as feeding traditional ones.

Economic crises lead to social and political crises. Nowadays, Italian voters are disillusioned with the existing political order giving way to new and less ideologically driven parties. Yet, these parties’ first years in power have demonstrated their weakness in taking action to overcome the existing crisis.

For example, under Giuseppe Conte’s First Cabinet, known as “yellow-green government of change” (due to the colors of the League and the Five Star Movement), inter-coalition conflict between Salvini and Di Maio led to a significant political crisis, creating a weaker position for the Five Star Movement and the ambitions of the League’s leader Matteo Salvini for domination. On September 5, 2019, Conte’s Second Cabinet was formed, usually referred to as the “yellow-red government”, because it was supported by the “yellow” M5S and the center-left “red” Democratic party.

The internal political situation in Italy remains unstable, which also results in instability of its foreign policy. Irrefutably, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has contributed significantly to the Italian political crisis. On February 13, 2021, the dilemma peaked when Prime Minister Guiseppe Conte stated he would resign from office. Pro-European technocrat Mario Draghi became the newest Prime Minister of Italy in the wake of Conte’s resignation. Draghi leads a unity government consisting of mainstream political parties and populist parties such as the League and M5S. This government only failed to garner support of the far-right Brothers of Italy.

Although Draghi has enjoyed widespread support throughout the coronavirus crisis, in the post-covid world there are long-term prospects for conflict between Italy and the EU and between Italy’s internally divided political system.

*Elena Elena, PhD student at the Institute of Socio-Political Research under the Russian Academy of Sciences (ISPR RAS)

From our partner RIAC

  1. Kranert M. Populist elements in the election manifestoes of AfD and UKIP, Zeitschrift für Anglistik und Amerikanistik 67 (3), XXX–XXX. DOI: 10.1515/zaa-2019-0023
  2. Akhremenko A. S. “Social delimitations and structures of the electoral space of Russia” – Social Sciences and the Present, 2007, № 4.
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Europe

American diplomacy’s comeback and Bulgaria’s institutional trench war

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Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

Even though many mainstream media outlets have not noticed it, US diplomacy has staged a gran comeback in the Balkans. The Biden administration chose Bulgaria as the stage on which to reaffirm America’s hold on the region. Putting strong sanctions on Bulgarian oligarch, Washington is signalling not-so subtly to Russia that its reach goes far and wide. But there are sensible implication for the little South-Eastern European country’s future as well. Perhaps, the fight against systemic corruption is finally reaching its apogee. Could this be the end of misgovernance?

A corrupted country — Introduction

Many argue that corruption in Bulgaria and South-Eastern Europe is but a remnant of national Communist Parties’ half-century long rule. Thus, the EU’s threat to metaphorically swap the carrot for the ­­stick should have favoured a thorough clean-up. Instead, it merely yielded some short-term successes for anti-corruption campaigners, activist judges and specialised procurators. Yet, State capture and malpracticesremain endemic for one reason or another amongst post-socialist countries inside and outsidethe Union. More specifically, these efforts were vain and Bulgaria was still ill-equippedwhen it joined the Union on January 1, 2007. Hence, Brussels allowed in a deeply corrupted country where hidden interest behold even those occupying the highest echelons of power.

If not membership in the European Union, at least internal politics could have helped the country fend off endemic maladministration. Yet, the status quo has preserved itself intact despite calls and promises to root out corruption having been getting louder. In a sense, corruption’s pervasiveness is a feature and not a bug embedded in Bulgaria’s imperfect liberal free-market democracy. These conservative – and, in a sense, perverting – forces have found their embodiment in Prime Minister Boyko Borisov and his associates. Therefore, governmental agencies, political parties, courts and the entire extant structure of power contribute to prevent any change.

The wind of change: Popular unrest and institutional trench war

That notwithstanding, the proverbial ‘wind of change’ may have begun to lash across Bulgaria in summer 2020. After having taken to the streets against the party of power’s abuses and failures, voters abandoned Borisov in the April 2021 elections. Conversely, new parties and loose coalitions of civil-society organisations, formed shortly before the contest, won a relative majority of preferences. And, as many analysts noticed, these newcomers do not share much besides the desire to “dismantle the Borisov system”.

Nonetheless, these new actors failed to form a governing coalition due to the heterogeneity and inherent negativity of their agendas. Thus, President Rumen Radev scheduled new elections on July 11 and appointed a caretaker government.

Political reconfigurations

Indeed, there is an institutional custom prescribing such cabinets to limit their activities to managing current affairs. Nonetheless, these technocrats – many of whom supported Radev in his feud with Borisov – started an extensive review of past governments. In the process, the cabinet reshuffledbureaucracies, suspended Sofia airport’s concession and halted other public tenders for suspected irregularities. More importantly, the ministry of interior has confirmed prior suspects that Borisov-appointed officers may have illegally wiretapped opposition politicians.

In a word, President Radev’s ministers are endeavouring to tear apart the ‘Borisov system’ before the next elections. However, simply ousting most – or even all – of the previous government’s men in key positions within State apparatuses is uncomplicated. Especially when pushing such an agenda is the President,with the palpable backing of an absolute majority of the population. But the Borisov system has also an economic component. In fact, the party of power has set up a tentacular network of supportive oligarchs funding and favourable media coverage. Putting them out of the game is equally, if not more, important than firing bureaucrats — but also much more difficult.

Chasing the oligarchs

In other words, undoing the Borisov system’s appointments and putting trustworthy officers in those posts in just the first step. But real change requires leaving the wealthy individuals and organisations benefitting from the status quo clawless and teethless. Such a task entails deep economic transformations that would surely evoke immense opposition from powerful pressure groups. Evidently, there is not enough time before Bulgarians vote again and their representatives pick up a new executive. But the caretaker government is powerless in front of Bulgaria ‘s condemnation to persistent corruption no matter what.

On the contrary, the government has endeavoured to chase and derail some of these Borisov-connected oligarch. For instance, the finance minister appointed an Audit Committee with the task of reviewing the Bulgarian Development Bank’s (BBR) activities. As a result, the public discovered that oligarchs had steered the BBR away from its mandate of supporting small companies. In fact, eight large private companies have received more than half of the BRR’s total credits or ca. €473 million. On average, each of them has borrowed almost €60mln — and “this is not a small and medium business. In addition, these companies borrowed against a 2% rate instead of the average 5–7%. Following this leak, the Minister of Finance fired the entire board of the BBR. He also instructed the Bulgarian National Bank (BNB) to appoint a new directorate.

The US strike back

Quite surprisingly, the United States has just given Radev and his government a valuable assist. On June 2, the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctioned several “individuals for their extensive roles in corruption”. In first instance, the sanctions target Vasil Bozhkov, a Bulgarian businessman currently hiding in Dubaito escape an arrest warrant for accusation of bribery; Delyan Peevski, prominent figure of and former member of the Parliament for the predominantly Turk Dvizhenie za Prava i Svobodi as well as the owner/controller four of the companies involved in the BBR’s scandal;  and Ilko Zhelyazkov, former appointee to the National Bureau for Control on Special Intelligence-Gathering Devices. Secondarily, the US have sanctioned “their networks encompassing 64 entities” with which no transaction in dollars is possible.

The US chose to hit Bulgaria, a NATO ally, with “the single largest action targeting corruption to date”. On the one hand, this falls within the boundaries of the current administration’s effort to restore America’s moral stewardship. More to the point, one may interpret the sanctions as a not-so/veiled message to Russia — which heavily influences Bulgarian politics. Still, those who had been looking at US-Bulgaria bilateral relations should have expected a similar decision. After all, the sanctions came after US ambassador Herro Mustafa’s reiterated criticisms of pervasive corruption in the country. Mustafa has also refused symbolically to meet Chief Public Prosecutor Ivan Geshev, who embodies systemic corruption in Bulgaria.

Consequently, the game has scaled up to a whole new quality now. The BNB barred all Bulgarian banks to entertain commercial relationships with people under US sanctions. Moreover, the BNB had already froze some of Peevvski’s, Bozhkov’s and Zhelyazkov’s deposits, means of payment, and assets earlier. However, after the OFAC’s decision, the block extended to their entire network of affiliates and related entities.

Conclusion: The US are reclaiming the Balkans, and it may not be bad for Bulgarians

Officially, corruption’s malign influence on democracy provides the US with a moral justification to sanction any corrupt individua. Namely, the Treasury argues that it

undermines the values that form an essential foundation of stable, secure, and functioning societies; ha[s] devastating impacts on individuals; weaken[s] democratic institutions; degrade[s] the rule of law; perpetuate[s] violent conflicts; facilitate[s] the activities of dangerous persons; and undermine economic markets.  

Surely, the soon-to-come meeting with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin also played a role in this decision.

Yet, the sanctions’ timing suggests that there might be other forces at play. Rather, it seems that Washington decided to pick a side in the ongoing institutional trench war between Presidency and Government.

From Bulgaria’s perspective, even though most American media have not noticed it, the impression is quite clear. To quote President Biden: “America is back, diplomacy is back”. Specifically, this resurgence has a special meaning in the Balkans, a region of immense relevance for Europe’s energy security. Concretely, the US is taking the lead in the West’s effort to keep China, Russia, and Turkey out.

True, whether this external support will suffice for Bulgaria to finally eradicate corruption is debatable. Nevertheless, the US’s return may spur a positive competition dynamic in which Washington and Brussels compete for limited normative power. If this was the case, increase international pressures on Bulgaria to limit corruption may reach a breaking point relatively soon. At which point, either a fundamental shift will take place; or Bulgarian elites will entrench further

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