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A Clear View Eastwards: Russia and Germany

Source: regnum.ru

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Politik ist, wenn man Gottes Schritt durch die Weltgeschichte hört, dann zuspringt und versucht, einen Zipfel seines Mantels zu fassen.”[1]Otto von Bismarck (1815–1898)

Specialist in geopolitical issues, doctorate from Sorbonne Nouvelle University;

speaker and guest lecturer on geopolitical, economic and political issues related to China, the EU and the United States, focusing on Jacques Ancel’s geopolitical vision of “the identity of the heart”.

Author of articles published on moderndiplomacy.eu and worldscientific.com, and author of the book Les relations Chine-Europe à croisées des chemins, published by L’Harmattan, Paris.

Katjais the descendant of ancestors who lived inEast and West Prussia. Her family on her mother’s side had to flee from Königsberg in East Prussia in January 1945 and, on her father’s side, from Schneidemühl in West Prussia. She increasingly connects the topics of identities and bordersin her geopolitical views.

A very personal view: seeing Prussia without complexes – family roots and core identity

Roots, earth and homeland – these are difficult topics for my parents’ and grandparents’ generations, but I and other members of my generation are much more relaxed about our family histories. Experiencing home and family roots on my trip to my parents’ birthplaces in Prussia – and thus my return to my own family roots – made me realise that identity is more than what is written in my passport. Identity is complex and has many layers that need to be uncovered. As a result, revealing family roots, protecting them and living one’s identity of the heart without prejudice is the source of life’s harmony – a harmony that is needed now more than ever.

My Prussian roots are the core of my identity. Walking through the streets of my parents’ hometowns –Schneidemühl and Königsberg– I discovered the vastness, openness and beauty of my homeland in East and West Prussia. I unearthed the deepest part of my family history and, at the same time, German history. With that uninhibited view of my Prussian roots, new perspectives for seeing the world have finally been revealed.

National players versus transnational players

Our world is going through a decisive moment in its history. Not only are relations between China and the rest of the world disrupting the geopolitical order, but numerous economic, political and social crises are causing a widespread feeling of insecurity and powerlessness in light of current events and their complexity. The world and therefore we, humankind, have lost our compass.

Beyond the relations, whether cooperative or conflictual, between the European Union (EU), China and Russia, we should question the durability of power –values versus mercantilism, democracy versus dictatorship, capitalism versus communism, and the growing geopolitical clout of transnational players, whose sphere of influence is increasingly gaining ground against national players, the nation-states. Neither the EU, China, the US nor Russia is an isolated paradise, and no country can claim to know the absolute truth. Violence, increased global competition (for natural resources, food, water, etc.) and, above all, international terrorism are forcing us to face up to current realities, to abandon any ideology driving various ideas, such as the European project, socialism with Chinese characteristics, the Russian state order, and the ideology prevalent in the United States, which styles itself leader of the free world (Banik 2016, 2019).

In fact, the conflict between different ideologies distracts our attention from the real battle that has been going on for a long time. The battle for world domination is not the one between different states, e.g. the US and China, or between different political systems, democracy and dictatorship, but the struggle between national players–the nation-states –and the transnational players– the international organisations, such as the EU institutions; the World Trade Organisation (WTO);groups and associations representing various interests and industries; lobbyists; and the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Due to globalisation, these transnational players often act across borders and beyond any national legal framework, and are thus conquering geopolitical space without waging war in the traditional sense. We have to reconcile all our differences, ideologies and clichés and move towards a new and more humane global governance, living our identities, creating “nations of the heart” in keeping with the geopolitical vision of Jacques Ancel (Ancel 1938; Banik 2016).

Everything is geopolitical

Geopolitics is the study of the relationship between space and power. It is a multidisciplinary reflection that encompasses economic, political, cultural, historical and social dimensions. The term “space” refers to land, sea and cyberspace (Banik 2016). Jacques Ancel’s geopolitics provide a vision that complements German geopolitics, specifically that of Friedrich Ratzel (1869–1904), who sees states as organisms “determined by the people and the territory”, “kein Staatohne Boden”(Ratzel 1941).

Klaus Haushofer (1869–1946) added the topics of living space and pan-ideas to this German geopolitical concept. In other words, he emphasised the potential solidarity of a population scattered around the world in order to justify the extension of a people’s living space. Complementary and not in opposition to Ratzel’s perception of the world, Jacques Ancel focused on the human being as creator – of global governance and identities and, subsequently, of borders.

More precisely, this means “human groups that reach a harmonious balance and end up recognising borders due to a common memory, history, culture and language”. It is a“nation of the heart in itself, not rational(Ancel 1938, Gauchon 2011, Banik 2020).

Man creates borders. Today, this human dimension and the use of human values and identities are decisive elements in our ever changing world. According to Ancel, the concept of nation-ideas or a nation of the heart is the crucial element for achieving a more humane and harmonious global governance in the future. It is therefore imperative that we revitalise Ancel’s geopolitical views. The world is not rational. Human beings are guided by their feelings. Consequently, we are all either victims or perpetrators of propaganda.

According to Ancel, internal factors, i.e. human factors, must also be taken into account. The process of transnationalisation and deterritorialisation inevitably brings us back to the issues of borders, identities and nationalities. Nationality is defined as the legal bond that connects an individual to a country or territory (Gauchon 2011, Banik 2020). As with the return to my family roots, we should be aware that every identity is made up of various layers and primarily determined by human factors.

The cruel question today is how to ensure a peaceful return to our roots, to our sources and to achieving a balance of power. How to create a new governance based on cooperation, one that is more equitable and stable, more in harmony. How can we be unique and identity-based within unity?

According to Ancel, “human groups (that) reach a balance in harmony thus end up recognising borders deriving from a common memory, history, culture and language. It is therefore important to create strategic alliances, alliances of proximity, and overcome ideologies by leaving propaganda behind.

One answer – which would be in Germany’s interest in particular, but also in the EU’s – is the peaceful integration of Russia by creating a great pan-European space, while at the same time taking advantage of China’s BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) as a link encompassing the Eurasian region.

But first, let us accept the following realities:

No change in political system through trade

China has never given up communism. The “red forces” are still shaping the strategy behind its domestic and foreign policy. The communist identity is the source and thus the root that determines the solidity and solidarity of Chinese society and, subsequently, its economic strength. China continues to pursue its “China first” strategy, which includes its determination to have more economic independence.

“Les États n’ont pas d’amis, ils n’ont que des intérêts”[2]

We need to break out of the EU’s post-war narrative. There are no real common European policies, no single voice is possible for the EU, which is a union of shared interests. Economic intersections and interests exist, shared by some member countries. The important thing is to recognise the presence of these different political, economic and strategic interests, to respect and cultivate them. The future of Europe lies in the strength it derives from being a union of European nation-states.

No global supremacy by one country, no rivalry of political systems

The world’s various ideological propagandas are fuelling the conflicts and thus diverting us from the real source of struggle. That is, the competition for world supremacy between nation-states and transnational forces, including international institutions and organisations, all of which stem from the post-war narrative. It is a narrative that makes us believe that only the nation and identity arethe unique cause of all wars.

Nothing is unlimited and nothing can be controlled

Our prosperity and global economic growth are neither linear nor unlimited. Thus, our planet’s natural resources are limited. Although globalisation has created prosperity for a very large part of the world’s population, it has, at the same time, created regions of winners and losers. Poverty and inequity persist; injustice is growing as a result. Transnational forces are increasing their spheres of influence, often acting beyond national laws and consequently increasing injustice.

No enemies, no rivals

The illusion of having enemies must be overcome. Neither China nor Russia is an enemy or ideological rival. All political, economic and social challenges are global. Strategic cooperation is the only solution.

Globalisation reinforces the need to return to one’s roots

The flows of globalization do not erase borders, countries, regions, territories or places” (Zajec 2016). On the contrary, the more the world is linked, the more the debate about identities and borders plays a key role in any geopolitical concept. In the whirlwind of globalisation, we need to remain ourselves, to have roots and a cultural base in order to ensure a harmonious societal solidity.

Let’s stay vigilant

We must stop propaganda based on ideology and disseminated through media, along with political moralism, political correctness and the purging of language. We are all unique. We all have deep within us an identity of the heart that is unique toeach of us. And this identity is free and beyond all judgements.

The cruel challenge is how to ensure a peaceful return to our roots, to our sources and the logic of geography. How to create a more equitable and stable governance based on cooperation – how to be unique and identity-based within unity without being divisive. The solution is to allow the strength of geographical proximity to prevail, the creation of strategic alliances in order to achieve “a balance in harmony, due to a common memory, history, culture and language”, in keeping with Ancel.

Russia and the big pan-European house

According to this logic, the priority for Europe should be the reintegration of Russia into the big Pan-European house. Especially for Europe, Russia is an important link for connecting the Eurasian region with China in order to create a new global political order.

Germany holds the key to integrating Russia. According to Ancels logic of “regained harmony, the fixed national consciousness, and, even without borders, the Nation [that] exists”. The path to this harmony leads us to an uninhibited view of our own history and thus a reconciliation of the past. A path that I have chosen by uncovering my family roots.

Russians, Poles and Germans have a common history. This history is a strength and not a weakness. According to Jacques Ancel’s vision, these three countries are at the crossroads of arbitrary borders and borders of civilisation.

Ancel differentiates mainly between two characteristics. On the one hand, there are so-called arbitrary borders. These are more tense, more strategic borders stemming from military pretensions. Treaties draw these borders, which are temporal and purely based on the national interests of the different states.

The borders of civilisations, on the other hand, are more permanent. These borders are based on a common memory, history and language created by a human group in balance. The borders of civilisations are “nevertheless more complicated because they are subject to numerous political and commercial interpretations”. Even if the commercial justifications are aimed at “clearing a path” and not “enclosing” as the military justifications do (Ancel 1938, Banik 2020), for Russia, Poland and Germany, reconciliation of the past means “clearing a path in harmony” towards the strength offered by their common history.

The balance of power

And what are the tools for establishing this new policy of global cooperation and peace based on the principle of non-interference? For the most part, we already have them at our disposal. At the human level: listening, communicating, respecting the interests of others without judging them and, above all, building trust.

At the institutional level, we simply need to reactivate the spirit of trust that led to the Helsinki Accords of 1975, the Charter of Paris for a New Europe of November 1990 and, finally, the NATO-Russia Council of 2002 (Teltschik, 2019), thereby avoiding any re-creation of two blocs but pursuing instead the path towards a new multipolar global governance.

The window of opportunity has been wide open since the Charter of Paris was signed on 21 November 1990 (Teltschik, 2019). Indeed, in the spirit of cooperation, this charter was endorsed by 34 countries, including the Warsaw Pact countries. In the context of German reunification and the fall of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe, Helmut Kohl and Mikhail Gorbachev thoroughly supported this vision of the “common European home”.  Yet this opportunity was not seized, as mistrust prevailed.

Ultimately, it is the Russians and Chinese who share the same vision of “a strategic balance of power in which no country interferes in the internal affairs of other countries”(Habahbeh, 2020). According to Russia, the US is acting outside its own sphere of influence. However, the geopolitical approach of the US is still reflective of Zbigniew Brzezinski’s vision, meaning it does not accept that a region will be dominated by a single country (Brzezinski, 1998).

The US is still pursuing its containment strategy mainly in Europe and Asia in order to hinder the spread of communism. The propaganda around “democratisation” and “defence of the liberal world order” are used to justify the US’s extension of its sphere of influence, particularly in the Eurasian region. On the other hand, Russians are exercising control over their sphere of influence through “the desire to protect Russian identity and broader Slavic identity through their belief that they have the right to regional dominance for divine and ethnic purposes”. (Habahbeh, 2020). Thus, the geopolitical conflict between these two powers is a conflict between the “ideology of the liberal world” and the “moral ideology”.

Oblast Kaliningrad-Königsberg: at the heart of German-Russian cooperation

The BRI is a spatial security device that can be used as a means of strategic cooperation between Germany, Europe, Russia and China.

Although the BRI is, according to China, a “geostrategic-military” initiative, since it combines civilian and military interests under the topic of “security”, it is a vehicle that conceptually encompasses the intertwined interests of political and economic actors in China, but also in all the other participating countries (Banik, Lüdert 2020). The BRI vision thus mobilises the Chinese nation by safeguarding China’s unity, stability and harmony at the national level and beyond (Banik, 2019). It is an ideology for maintaining internal order.

This undoubtedly “China first” approach,  however, should not hinder Europe and especially Germany from using the infrastructure project to strengthen economic relations and the geopolitical link between Russia and Germany. Eurasia is a region of high importance, both economically and geopolitically. Moreover, it is precisely the Kaliningrad enclave, formerly Königsberg, that is at the heart of German-Russian cooperation. The oblast Kaliningrad lies between Poland and Lithuania and has an important port of strategic interest in the Baltic Sea, since it is accessible even in winter. This is a key hub for goods arriving by rail via the BRI, destined for shipment by sea to Germany and Scandinavia.

Since 2011, the EU and Russia have signed agreements to facilitate border movements and exempt goods in transit between Kaliningrad and Lithuania from customs duties. Basically, the oblast is a highly significant link between Russia and the EU.

BRI: Trans-Eurasian Railway Routes

Source: http://rtsb.group/belt-and-road-initiative/

Although resources transiting through the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad are relatively new, the number of trains and thus the volume of freight is constantly increasing. The big advantage is that the busy border crossing between Poland and Belarus at Brest is avoided.

As a result, RZD, the Russian railway company, has recorded a strong increase in the flow of intermodal freight between China and Europe since 2019. Intermodal traffic amounted to 387,900 TEU between January and September 2020, “more than of 1.6 times the same period in 2019” (Railway Journal 2020). In particular, maritime transport from the port of Kaliningrad has increased more than tenfold compared to 2019, reaching about 6,900 TEU in September 2020 alone (Railfreight, 2019).In this context, it is important to highlight the regular maritime service between the port of Kaliningrad and the port of Hamburg.

Revealing roots and back to our origins

Returning to one’s family roots is not a dead end in the past, but, on the contrary, a valuable opportunity for considering future cooperation between Russia and Germany, cooperation that goes beyond ideologies and judgements.

A border is, according to Ancel, “a political isobar which fixes, for a certain time, the balance between two pressures: mass balance and balance of forces” (Ancel 1938).The real problem is not related to the question of borders. Borders will always exist, even in the globalised world. “There are no border problems. There are only problems of Nation”(Ancel 1938).

The world is at a crossroads. It is therefore necessary to lay aside ideologies and preconceived ideas. It is up to us, humankind, to think “out of the box” by living up to our identities while respecting the uniqueness of countries, cultures and identities.

As we have already seen, Jacques Ancel focuses on the human being as creator. The important thing is to recognise and calmly accept the feeling of belonging to a country, to a region– that is, the need for identity. And identity is much more complex than what is written in a passport. The identity of the heart goes beyond any ideology. The identity of the heart has deep roots and requires no justification or explanation.

Ancel’s geopolitical vision should be revitalised since “one does not revise borders, except by force, one changes minds”(Ancel 1938; Lomnica 1938 foreword).

Thus, with my uninhibited view of my Prussian roots, new perspectives are being created, especially for the strengthening of German-Russian cooperation.

                                                                          Back to the roots

 ………to be continued

Author’s Note: The paper was previously published by the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC)

References (selected works)

  • Acte final d’Helsinki (1975): OSCE, www.osce.org
  • Ancel, Jacques (1938):  Géographies des frontières, Gallimard, Paris
  • préface de André Siegfried, avant-propos de Tatranská Lomnica.
  • Banik, Katja (2016): Les relations Chine-Europe: à la croisée des chemins,L’Harmattan, Paris.
  • Banik, Katja (2019):  Europe, China and the G-zero world, China and the World: Ancient and Modern Silk Road, Vol. 1, No. 4, 1–9, World Scientific Publishing Company.
  • Banik, Katja (2019):  Europe and China in a globalized world. The geopolitical impacts of Beltand Road, www.worldsientific.com 
  • Banik, Katja, Jan Lüdert (2020): Assessing Securization: China’s Belt and Road Initiative, E-International Relations, www.e-ir.info
  • Boniface, Pascal (2017): La Géopolitique, Eyrolles, Paris.
  • Brown, Kerry (2019): China’s rise: The three key things everyone needs to know, TEDx Thessaloniki.
  • Brzezinski, Zbigniew (1998): The Grand Chess Board, Paperback.
  • Charte de Paris (1990): www.osce.org
  • Conseil OTAN-Russie (2002): NATO, www.nato.int
  • Eurotransport.de (2020): https://www.eurotransport.de/artikel/mukran-als-drehkreuz-nach-china-neue-seidenstrasse-startet-in-ruegen-russland-rotterdam-schiene-gueterbahn-11172438.html
  • Foucher, Michel (2019) : L’Europe doit venir au monde,www.diploweb.com
  • Gauchon, Huissoud (2008): Les 100 mots de la géopolitique, Presse Universitaires de France, Paris.
  • Habahbeh, Lawrence (2020): A state of flux in the World Order, https://diplomatist.com/2020/05/07/a-state-of-flux-in-the-world-order/, dipolomatist.com
  • Marshall, Tim (2015):  Prisoners of Geography, Elliot and Thompson Ldt., London.
  • Nida-Rümelin (2017): Über Grenzen Denken: Eine Ethik der Migration, Körber-Stiftung, Hamburg.
  • Overholt, William (2018): China and America: The Age of Geoeconomics.
  • Railfreight(2019):
  • https://www.railfreight.com/beltandroad/2018/06/27/utlc-celebrates-1000th-train-on-new-silk-road-in-kaliningrad/
  • Rail Journal (2020) https://www.railjournal.com/freight/rzd-exceeds-2019-china-europe-freight-figures/
  • Ratzel, Friedrich (1941): Erdenmacht und Völkerschicksal, Alfred Kröner Verlag, Stuttgart.
  • Teltschik, Horst (2019): Russisches Roulette: vom kalten Krieg zum kalten Frieden, CH Beck, München.
  • Zajec, Olivier (2016) : Introduction à l’analyse géopolitique, Éditions du Rocher, Monaco.

[1]“Politics is hearing God striding through history and leaping to grasp a corner of his cloak”inTeltschik (2019).

[2]States have no friends, they only have interests”, Charles de Gaulle (1967).

Dr. Katja Banik, since 2017, has been a speaker/guest lecturer on geopolitical and economic issues related to China, Europe and the USA and on different global governance scenarios. She is Membre Associé à Titre Secondaire at Intégration et Coopération dans l’Espace Européen — Etudes Européennes (ICEE), Université Sorbonne Nouvelle Paris 3, and a Member of GIS Réseau Asie et Pacifique/GIS Études Asiatiques in Paris. Katja Banik is the author of Les Relations Chine-Europe: À la Croisée des Chemins published by L’Harmattan (Paris) in 2016. Further, she is the Editor-in-Chief of PwC’s China Compass. Katja Banik has senior management expertise in the logistics (Shanghai and Hong Kong) and she is the founding member of ilkmade.com. http://www.katjabanik.com/

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Europe

The Man Who Warned Us First About Climate Change

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A billboard at Piccadilly Circus pays tribute to the late Prince Philip. Garry Knight/Flickr

Among the first to warn us of global warming, he used the term greenhouse gas to describe the increasing levels of CO2 in the atmosphere.  That was in the 1960s and it was dismissed as a cranky notion.  Where he lived, he had a large study lined with books which he actually read; perhaps one reason for the mushrooming of ideas.  

The story begins in Corfu, Greece where he was born.  His very prominent family was turfed out of the country and settled in France.  After early schooling, he was sent to a private boarding school in the UK.  

Founded by German-Jewish educator Kurt Hahn in 1934, Gordonstoun School was new  with new ideas when he attended.  An equal emphasis on mind and body, it challenged students mentally and physically, the latter far more than at other such private schools.  A strapping boy who was also extremely intelligent, he loved the place — later his son was to hate it.  Hahn wrote of him that he would do very well any task assigned to him.

He went on to the naval academy and finished at the top of his class, doing the same at later naval exams and becoming the youngest Lieutenant in the navy.  Given command of a ship, he ran it like clockwork but a certain lack of sensitivity to others also came through:  the crew were driven ragged and hated serving under him.  He loved the navy and always loved the sea; indeed it was a sacrifice to give up his naval career when he married but it was incompatible in his new role for his wife was a very important personage.          

Studying in England, I could not fail to notice his frequent presence on newspaper front pages, even though my own interests then did not focus on the news of the day.  He seemed to set up awards for all kinds of excellence. He wanted British industry to shine, young people to deliver their best and so on.  And of course, he was invariably presenting awards to the winners.

A sportsman, he was also out there playing polo with his team, or at equestrian meets or playing cricket at charity events, or sailing which he clearly loved.  His uncle saw India through a hurried independence and a bloody partition.  Uncle Dickie, as he was called by the royal children, was a valued presence until killed by the IRA (Irish Republican Army) in a senseless bomb attack that lost them public sympathy.  

The country’s leaders kept him busy and he was sent to numerous countries representing the queen, most often to former colonies in an era with a rash of newly independent countries.  Yes, his name was Philip, titled Prince of Greece and Denmark, and his wife was Queen Elizabeth II.  

Prince Philip’s royal bloodline (like the Queen’s) was German — Battenberg the family last name having been changed to Mountbatten during the First World War.  His sisters married Germans and remained in Germany during the Second World War.  They were not invited to his wedding to a very much in love Princess Elizabeth.  He had been the longest serving consort of any British monarch when he died a few days ago.   

Prince Philip’s travels were also notorious for gaffes and his eye for attractive females — middle class morality be damned.  A definite lacuna in sensitivity was more than evident.  Meeting a group of Nigerians resplendent in their long colorful national dress, he remarked, “Ready for bed, are we?”  to their embarrassment.

Yet, all in all, a very full life.

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Sino-Serbian relations under the “microscope”: China’s footprint In Serbia

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Over the years, the Sino-Serbian foreign relations have straightened to a very high level, with China establishing itself as a valuable ally to Serbia. Since the recognition of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 by Yugoslavia and the formal establishment of diplomatic relations between the two states in 1955, both countries have been on warm relations that soon transformed into a strategic alliance. However, this relationship has given an uneasy feeling to the political elite in the West that sees this relationship as China’s efforts to expand its influence into the Balkan region and undermine the efforts of the EU for stabilization. On the other hand, some may argue that this uneasy feeling that the West is experiencing is due to its own failures of constant neglect and poor leadership towards Serbia, which has taken action in its own hands. Can we really say that the situation in Serbia is about Chinese imperialism, or is it a case that the West failed Serbia over and over again and now sees its diplomatic failures backfiring back to them?

Sino-Serbian relations in retrospective

The relationship between both countries has always been on a warm status, but the potential for an even stronger relationship came during the 1990s in the so-called Yugoslavian Wars. The People’s Republic of China was critical against the U.S and NATO forces bombing campaign in Serbia while it supported the decisions of President Milošević, describing them as vital decisions for preserving the territorial integrity of the Federal Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia, against the Albanian separatists and the UCK (Kosovo Liberation Army) terrorists. The opposition against NATO intensified after NATO warplanes bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, killing three Chinese journalists. Although the West saw it as a mistake, this gave a clear signal to Serbia and China that the Western aggression against them could provide them with the potential of rebuilding their relations in the 21st century, in something more than just strong diplomatic ties.

Under the presidency of Aleksandar Vučić, Serbia has seen closer cooperation with China, especially at an economic level. For years now, both countries have cooperated in various industries. Since 2012, Serbia has received at least $10bn of Chinese investment in the country, changing rapidly its economic profile. Serbia is also part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which allowed Serbia to provide an investment-friendly environment towards China without any EU regulations, making the country the largest economy in the Western Balkans. Also, China has changed the tourism industry in Serbia. Since 2017, Chinese citizens can visit Serbia visa-free. This initiative allowed the country to improve its industry with a rise of at least 36% from Chinese visitors. Also, Serbia as a hub of investments does not only concentrate on tourism. China has invested a tremendous amount of money in its infrastructure and energy sectors and projects such as the Budapest-Belgrade Railway while Chinese firms have acquired various steel plants and coal mines, such as the Smederevo steel plant and a copper mine is in Bor, east of Serbia. These actions by China have kept afloat the Serbian economy while saving more than 10.000 job positions, highlighting the reconstruction of the country and making China the most important trading partner for Serbia in the 21st century.

Politics, the pandemic, and the success of Serbia in the game of geopolitical chess

Apart from close economic ties, both countries share a common interest in the political arena. Since the 1990’s China has been a close political ally of Serbia, supporting its territorial integrity while not recognizing the pseudostate of Kosovo. On the other hand, Serbia has been supportive of China’s decisions to safeguard its interests in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Xinjiang, agreeing with the One-China policy that the People’s Republic of China has been advocating for years. The relationship between the two countries has been seen negatively by the West, with the EU being skeptical about China’s intentions in the region. A resolution from the EU parliament on the 2019-2020 Commission report on Serbia expressed the concern over the increased economic ties between the two states, and China’s questionable investments that are lacking transparency, while also pointing out that the investors in Serbia have failed to carry out important environmental assessments. “With this behavior, Serbia, a candidate country for EU accession is jeopardizing its progress”, were the statements from the EU side, that sees the growing influence of China in the region, as a threat to its own interests. However, Serbia is not bowing to the threats of the EU, as it sees the European bloc constantly neglecting Serbia’s needs and undermining its national interests.

With the inclusion of China as a major player in the Balkans, some analysts present an interesting argument that China has overthrown the Russian Federation from the position of the most important ally of Serbia. Historically, Russia and Serbia have seen very close ties, and it’s unlikely that the inclusion of China as an ally to Serbia will jeopardize that. However, news organizations and analysts from the West found an opportunity to provide an environment of division within Serbia. Understandably, Serbia seeks to improve its position in the world, and having more than one powerful allies, especially one that has the fastest growing economy in the world, will benefit the rhetoric of Aleksandar Vučić, who has demonstrated to the Serbian public that the country has drastically changed and it has overcome the previous humiliations and mistreatment from the West. It seems that the West is terrified of the potential growth of Serbia, a country that once was brutally bombarded by U.S and NATO forces, and now has the chance to dominate the geopolitical scene in the Balkans without even being part of the EU. The country represents an open door for China in Europe, allowing the country to fully take advantage of the various infrastructure and energy projects that are presented. Serbia is building a new lasting alliance, and as much as the West wants to undermine this relationship by creating political divisions about who is the biggest ally of Serbia, they miss the big point. The country now has more allies and more influence in the Balkans and feels it’s time not to take the West seriously. For years the EU, in particular, has underestimated Serbia while showing full support for the illegitimate state of Kosovo, and portraying the country as this evil entity and abuser of human rights.

Another important parameter in the evaluation of the current situation in the world. When COVID-19 spread all over the world, we witnessed a phenomenal collapse of our daily lives, with many businesses closing and the governments around the world putting an effort to recover from the virus. Serbia, unlike other countries in Europe, had a successful vaccination campaign and managed to win the geopolitical game of chess, simply by not playing the game. For Serbia, vaccination was never a political game and that’s why they managed to deal with it better. As prime minister Ana Brnabic stated: “Whether vaccines come from China, Russia, the EU or the U.S, we don’t care, as long as they’re safe and we get them as soon as possible. For us, vaccination is a healthcare issue, not a geopolitical matter”. Just by this statement, Serbia managed to understand the dangers of politicizing the vaccines and decided to focus on the health of its citizens, effectively overcoming the growing danger of the virus.

The fight is not over yet, but unlike the EU, Serbia set its priorities straight, and in a way, revealed the failed bureaucratic system of the EU, that chooses politics over the health of its citizens. Although Serbia received both the Russian vaccine Sputnik V and the Chinese Sinopharm, analysts have focused on the importance of Chinese help. For the simple reason that the help from Russia was expected, because of the historic, cultural, and religious ties between both states. The help from China was something that shifted the balance in Serbia, and the country managed to be in a better position compared to other countries in the Balkans and the EU. Both China and Serbia made it clear from the beginning that they will support each other in these harsh times. A few months ago, the Serbian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ivica Dačić, was in Beijing, declaring his support in any way possible to China. In his statement, he said: “You didn’t fear NATO bombs, my visit shows we’re not afraid of the virus”; again pointing out the importance of this alliance that dates years back. The EU might be skeptical about China’s intentions, but one thing is for sure; they did not provide help when needed, proving once again that European solidarity is a fairy tale.

The Chinese impact on Serbia: Voices from within the country

Although the government of Aleksandar Vučić has made it very clear to the Serbian public that foreign investments from China are a positive step towards the socio-economic transformation of the country, some people within Serbia have shared their thoughts about whether this can bring a positive or a negative impact for Serbia. Dragan Djilas, the former mayor of Belgrade and president of the Freedom & Justice Party in Serbia, expresses his criticism of the political decisions of Aleksandar Vučić. In his view, democracy in Serbia does not exist anymore, and there is only one man to blame, Aleksandar Vučić. Djilas also points out that the growing relationship with China has been transformed into a dependent, one-way relationship, where China acts as a colonizer. “China operates in Serbia, the same way it does in the continent of Africa. It seems that now we have a new Big Brother”, referring to the new status quo, where Russia is not seen as the only powerful ally that Serbia can rely on. For Mr. Djilas, this dependency on China will only jeopardize any potential ascension in the European Union. His point is shared by many within Serbia that see this dichotomy in society that wants to move more on the West yet again it makes agreements and treaties with a non-democratic and autocratic government, and it seems that Aleksandar Vučić follows the same path. “Our struggle is focused on Europe, which should finally realize that we want to establish a free and democratic society and end the denigrating process in Serbia established by Aleksandar Vučić”, were the words of Dragan Djilas, who sees China slowly overtaking his country.

On the other hand, Djordje Terek, an analyst at the Center for International Public Policy in Belgrade, does not see the involvement of China in the Western Balkans, especially in Serbia, as a new phenomenon. “China, similarly to Russia, Germany or the U.S., has its own interest in the Western Balkans region and it has been present there for a while”. If we view this statement from a realistic point of view, we can make sense of China’s intentions in Serbia being no different than the intentions of any other country that revolves around the philosophy of realpolitik. Also, there is an interesting mention of Serbia’s new role in the region, especially after the Belgrade Summit. As Terek points out: “Serbia, as a potential EU member state, was given a prominent role within China’s BRI initiative as it was demonstrated at the summit in Belgrade. It is the strategy based on the penetration into the EU market that China centralized around Belgrade. With that being said, Serbia is one of the compelling China’s attributes in the Western Balkans and Europe as well. In 2009, Serbia and China signed a strategic partnership agreement and in 2013, Serbia hosted a 16+1 summit in Belgrade where $900 billion infrastructure projects were promised to the region”.

However, although the government of Aleksandar Vučić is keen to demonstrate how China’s investments have been crucial for Serbia, the European Union is still by far the most crucial contributor in foreign direct investments, comprising at least 70% of FDI in the country. With this remark, some may argue that indeed China is an important ally to Serbia, but the EU is still around, reminding the country that it is still a pending member for EU accession. It seems that the presence of China in Serbia will only be positive if Aleksandar Vučić manages to balance both of his commitments to the EU and China. After all, Serbia still wants to be part of the European Union and not merge with the People’s Republic of China. In some final remarks, Djordje Terek thinks that if the government of Serbia wants any success to come out of this situation it needs to evaluate the situation delicately. “While Serbia has been actively pursuing EU membership, the current state of affairs tells us that Vučić uses the geopolitical window to further deviate from EU integrations, while continuously sitting on two chairs, and only time will show if that will be beneficial for Serbia”.

One other aspect of China’s involvement in Serbia, that has troubled the citizens of the country, are the environmental issues that have emerged since China’s increased investment in the steel factories and the mines in the east of the country. In the area of Bor, where a Chinese company has recently acquired the ownership of a mining facility, there have been reports of increased pollution in the area, with environmental agencies being concerned about the high levels of sulfur dioxide and arsenic in the air. Besides the air pollution issue, concerns have been raised about the water pollution of the area. Near the mining facility, in the village of Metovnica, locals have seen the impact of the mine activities, in shortage of water and water pollution. For analyst Djordje Terek, this increased pollution in the area rapidly plummeted in the last seven years, potentially making Serbia the global leader in air pollution. “The Chinese investments in the steel factory in Smederevo and the copper mine in Bor, have made the people in the area wear face masks even before the beginning of the pandemic. It seems that the ties of the Serbian government with China is on higher priority rather than the environmental damage”. The mayor of Bor, Aleksandar Milikic, quickly dismissed the allegations of environmental damage and characterized any kind of protest in the area regarding this subject as the work of political actors wishing to benefit from it. As for the people in Bor, they can see the damage to the environment, but many of them point out the positive aspect of the Chinese investments, where people can find a good-paying job at the mines. Given the absence of work in the area in recent years, these investments have more positives than negatives for them.

Whether we would look at the Chinese involvement in Serbia as a positive or a negative thing, one thing is for sure. The geopolitical profile of the country is changing, and Serbia can benefit from the increased investments in its country. However, Aleksandar Vučić must be careful how he handles the situation inside Serbia. The increased protests and the uneasy feeling of its citizens regarding the environment, should not be aspects that are overlooked by the government, Nevertheless, with the global pandemic devastating many countries in Europe and around the world, Serbia has demonstrated its will to improve the healthcare situation in the country by not focusing on the vaccine politics and as a result winning, one might say the political chess game that the West found itself playing. Only time will show if Aleksandar Vučić manages to hold on, on both the West and the East, in a rare situation where Serbia seems to have the upper hand as to how the country must advance now, trying to reshape the international image about Serbia.

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Vienna Process: Minilateralism for the future of Europe and its strategic neighbourhood

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

Along with the two acting State Presidents, the event was endorsed by the keynote of the EU Commissioner for European Neighbourhood and Enlargement, Excellency Olivér Várhelyi. The first, of the three-panel conference, was brilliantly conducted by the OSCE Sec-General (2011-2017), current IFIMES Euro-Med Director, Amb. Lamberto Zannier. Among his speakers was a former Deputy Director of the OSCE Conflict Prevention Center Ms. Monika Wohlfeld. Discussing pan-European and regional issues of the southern Europe, this is what Dr.Wohlfeld outlined in her intervention:

The list of global and regional challenges that affect the Euro-Med region is too long to discuss here in depth. Clearly, the region experiences soft and hard security challenges and conflicts over ‘territorial claims, the proliferation of weapons, terrorist activities, illegal migration, ethnic tensions, human rights abuses, climate change, natural resources disputes, especially concerning energy and water, and environmental degradation’.[2] The Covid-19 pandemic lay bare and enhanced many of these challenges, in social, political and economic as well as security realms. The Euro-Med region is also not well equipped to tackle these problems and difficulties in a cooperative and coordinated manner, despite the existence of some common organizations, institutions and agendas.

So how to foster dialogue and a cooperative approach on addressing common challenges in the region? I will focus largely on security in a broad sense and the notion of cooperative security.

The OSCE (or rather its more unstructured predecessor, the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe) has in the recent decades been presented as a possible example for co-operative security arrangements in the Mediterranean region. The idea of a Conference on Security and Co-operation in the Mediterranean (CSCM) did not get a lot of traction in the region so far. It has been argued that such a project must succeed and not precede cooperative regional dynamics it seeks and that the conflictual patterns of relations, which exist across the Mediterranean, therefore do not lend themselves to cooperative security frameworks. The absence of a comprehensive, just, and lasting peace would preclude parties in the region from applying cooperative security methods that have proved effective in the framework of the CSCE/OSCE.

An additional difficulty is that this possible example for cooperative security arrangements focuses largely on the interaction of states while it is increasingly clear that civil society and its organizations may have a necessary and constructive role to play in this respect.

Nevertheless, the notion of cooperative security framework(s) has been supported by many analysts, not only from the northern shore, but from also southern shore of the Mediterranean. Abdennour Benantar, in his discussion of possible security architectures for the Mediterranean region, analyses the security situation in the region and asks whether the concept of cooperative security, as developed in the European context, could be transposed or applied in the Mediterranean.[3]Benantar argues in favour of creating a regime of security cooperation in the Mediterranean, while taking into account the sub-regional diversity of the Mediterranean region.

One key conclusion of the discussion of CSCM is that not extending existing European models, or exporting models of cooperative security to the Mediterranean region, but rather using such models as sources of inspiration and support to subregional or regional cooperative security efforts is likely to be more successful[4] in establishing cooperative security principles and frameworks in the Mediterranean.

Another key finding is that with multilateralism under pressure globally and regionally, new concepts deserve attention. One such concept is minilateralism or selective and flexible cooperation, currently being developed in the context of the problems faced by multilateralism globally. As Stewart Patrick explains, ‘states increasingly participate in a bewildering array of flexible, ad hoc frameworks whose membership varies based on situational interests, shared values, or relevant capabilities. These institutions are often ‘minilateral’ rather than universal; voluntary rather than legally binding; disaggregated rather than comprehensive; trans-governmental rather than just intergovernmental; regional rather than global; multi-level and multistakeholder rather than state-centric; and ‘bottom-up’ rather than ‘top down’.[5] Thus, while multilateralism is under pressure, there are possible ways of bottom-up, smaller in terms of numbers of states involved and flexible approaches.

A Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung strategic foresight exercise for the MENA region in 2030 suggests there are opportunities for common approaches and co-operation on long-term challenges that affect all states of the region. Thus, there are key risks and opportunities that might enhance cooperation. ‘With this as a starting point, through building single-issue institutions and multilateral trust, other chapters for cooperation might open up.’[6]

This observation could benefit from being placed in the perspective of the concept of minilateralism, presented above. With multiple, flexible layers of such minilateral cooperation, cooperative security approaches can be introduced into various regional formats in the Mediterranean. They deserve the political and financial support of all state or non-state actors that engage on behalf of multilateralism and cooperative security.

Before closing, few words about the Mediterranean Academy of Diplomatic Studies, which  is a regional institution, funded by the governments of Malta, Switzerland and Germany. It trains diplomats and more recently also civil society activists from the Euro-Med region who work and live together for the duration of the Master’s degree, accredited by the University of Malta. The Academy thus functions as a regional confidence-building measure, per se

In 2009, when this author joined the Academy, a course on security studies has been developed, which emphasizes non-zero sum game approaches, cooperative security and conflict prevention and conflict resolution aspects. Twelve cohorts of students later, using their written assessments of the impact of the course as well as conversations with alumni (many of whom are reaching top jobs in their countries), it changed the way they view security issues and conceptualize solutions to common security challenges.

It could be giving hopes. There is increased emphasis on youth and confidence building in the Euro-Med region, and strong interest and support from Northern African countries in the academic training the Academy provides. However, the pandemic and the economic situation in the region do not bode well for prospects of projects such as the Academy. One very recent positive development I can share though is that the German Federal Ministry for Foreign Affairs has renewed its funding for the German Chair for Peace Studies and Conflict Prevention at the Academy for the next two years.

This is the author’s main take on the situation: It will take support, time and patience to advance minilateralism and also multilateralism as a way of addressing common challenges in the Euro-Med region. We need all hands on deck for this, especially during the difficult moments the region experiences currently.


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

[2] Stephen Calleya, Security Challenges in the Euro-Med area in the 21st Century. Routledge: London, 2013, p. 9-10.

[3]Abdennour Benantar, Quelle architecture de sécurité pour la Méditerranée ?.Critique internationale2015/4 (69), https://www.cairn.info/revue-critique-internationale-2015-4-page-133.htm

[4]IstitutoAffariInternazionali, ‘Towards “Helsinki +40”: The OSCE, the Global Mediterranean, and the Future of Cooperative Security’, Documenti IAI 14 08 – October 2014.  https://www.new-med.net/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/iai14081.pdf

[5] Stewart M. Patrick, Making Sense of ‘Minilaterialism’: The Pros and Cons of Flexible Co-operation’, CFR Blog, 5 January 2016. https://www.cfr.org/blog/making-sense-minilateralism-pros-and-cons-flexible-cooperation

[6] Mediterranean Advisory Group, MENA 2030: A Strategic Foresight Exercise. KAS Med Dialogue Series, June 2019, p. 11. https://www.kas.de/documents/282499/282548/MAG+MENA+2030+A+Strategic+Foresight+Exercise.pdf/1ebaaba2-7457-9c67-e7a4-2121326d4c51?version=1.0&t=1562234211698

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