The US State Department’s annual human rights report is out and just like every March, critical voices and activists around the world rush to their own country’s section to see what’s included and what they can use openly, with the stamp of criticism by the US government.
This year, the State Department’s report on human rights violations in Bulgaria covers the usual ground and what’s publicly known. There were no surprises. The section on Bulgaria includes very prominently violence against media and journalists, and excessive use of force by law enforcement.
What the US government does not include in the Bulgaria section is the US government’s own role in the erosion of human rights and media freedom in Bulgaria through US government agencies such as the FBI, the CIA and even the US State Department. This is not something that US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, is willing to admit – at least not yet.
Ever since the US Ambassador to Bulgaria, Hero Mustafa, stepped into office back in 2019, the US Embassy in Sofia has maintained media freedom as a main theme. And what was not to like about that? Many of us over here cheered. But not so fast.
The US government construes media freedom only in the narrow sense that only speech praising the US government and going after US enemies should be free and protected. “Direct your freedom of speech against them, not us” is not freedom of speech. That’s not a rights-based approach; it’s authoritarianism. This was my first-hand experience with the US government when I was a top finalist for UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of speech in 2020. This is also my experience with the US government, as I try to spearhead the debate on the joint European position on China, and as I criticize the new US confrontational policy on China in pumping a new unnecessary Cold War with China, while expecting Europe to follow blindly. When the US is provoking China into a military and defense race at China’s own door step, while pointing to the Chinese reaction as “aggression”, hoping to draw Europe also into this, European voices have to speak up and warn about what’s coming on the horizon.
The FBI and the CIA operating under the hat of the US Embassy in Sofia make sure that independent, politically critical voices are kept under check through a variety of illegal means that the US government somehow believes it can allow itself to use on EU soil. The US State Department is happy to tag and sing along with the US intelligence agencies, here in Bulgaria. The Bulgarian authorities are also happy to help the US government in the US government’s repression against progressive, politically critical voices in Bulgaria.
The key take-away for the US government in Bulgaria has to be that the history of US human rights infringements in Europe shows that things like that only drive the transatlantic bond further away, and don’t bring it closer. This is also something that US President Joe Biden is about to learn very soon.
Geopolitics of Europe and the Third Wave
With hospitals filling up across the continent, new variants of the virus proliferating and vaccine shortages biting back, Europe can be seen to be under the third wave of the COVID crisis. This wave has been a confused sea across Europe in which some national epidemics are worsening, some are reaching their peak and some are declining. Although lockdowns have eased as vaccine drives make headway, the end of state emergency does not undermine the inevitable long-term consequences of the crisis. COVID has brought to the forefront new geopolitical dynamics and created risks for the foreign policy of the European Union on several fronts. Beyond the epidemiological challenge of the impending health calamity, economic, political and geopolitical challenges are also plenty.
The crisis has held up a mirror to the Western countries as their effectiveness in managing the pandemic has been distorted and has brought about de-Westernisation of the world. As globalisation is under strain, the crisis is bound to redraw the borders between the state and the markets in democracies such as the Member States of the EU. Such an environment is likely to emphasise on national initiatives to the detriment of international cooperation. In a post-COVID world, the EU may have to deal with its geopolitical problems with less external credibility as well as internal solidarity among its member states.
The potential geopolitical consequences of the virus can be identified by extrapolating those trends that were taking place before the onset of the virus. Amidst evolving global scenarios, there has been a constant push from the EU to establish itself as a relevant geopolitical actor to realise its global power aspirations. In this context, it becomes important to note the two areas of concern raised by the crisis consist of questions on the internal cohesion of the EU and Europe’s ability to adapt to the increasing rivalry and competition among other global powers.
The EU as a player derives its identity from its supranationalism. However, with COVID wreaking havoc on the already unequal economy of the Northern and Southern Europe, the downslides of globalisation are being highlighted. This is likely to further embolden nationalist narratives, rather than European solutions. This will lead to the fragmentation of the region into its component member-states part, threatening the very identity if the Union. This has been a challenge to the EU as the Union recognizes solidarity as a fundamental principle as per Article 2 of the Treaty of the European Union. With the EU is facing the increasingly centrifugal ‘member states first’ approach put forward by the European capitals, the European integration project is under threat.
Further, with the pre-existing tensions between US and China, the European Union has been facing heat from both the sides of the Pacific. While the EU has put forward its own Indo-Pacific Strategy in order to constructively engage with the region, it continues to be challenged by America’s confrontational foreign policies and also being apprehensive of China’s refusal to open up their markets at a time of dwindling global economies, China’s assault on Hong Kong’s independence as well as China’s growing support towards the populist parties of Europe. The EU has come to perceive China as a systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance with this perception largely being shaped by China’s revisionist challenge and its alarming nationalist narrative.
It is important to understand that coronavirus is not here to kill geopolitics. However, the European Union will have to strengthen their efforts towards ensuring that the pandemic does not kill the EU as a geopolitical force. The European Commission must step up its efforts to broker the Multilateral Financial Framework (MFF) among member states which was long pending even before the pandemic struck the continent. It would enable the Union to act collectively in funding recovery efforts in a post-COVID reconstruction of the economies. Further, the EU should focus on shortening their supply chains pursuing a policy of strategic autonomy such that EU’s external dependencies are diversified. The need of the hour is to rebuild an economically sound healthcare Europe while at the same time working towards a more geopolitical Europe. This will require EU to continue investment as a full-spectrum power in military as well as other security capabilities along with assistance and aid to the neighboring countries to rebuild their resilience in a geopolitically volatile environment.
The EU needs to defend and promote the European model which is struggling to stand amidst the global battle of narratives along with maintaining its strategic autonomy in health, economic and other sectors. At the same time, the Union needs to bolster existing and forge new alliances in order to fill the gap on multilateralism. It needs to locate a strategic edge to resist the external pressures and protect its presence in the global scene and continue being relevant in the changing global order with its extraordinary transcontinental presence of soft power.
How a Democracy Can Be Undermined: Some Lessons
Democracies have an inbuilt flaw when their own processes can be employed to undermine them. It is what has happened in Hungary in the last decade, and Hungary is not alone.
In his youth the current prime minister of Hungary, Viktor Orban, was an ardent dissident leading a youth movement, Fidesz, and in 1989 he was calling for the removal of Soviet troops and free democratic elections. Opposition to single-party socialist rule was eventually successful, and he was elected a Fidesz member of the National Assembly in 1990.
In 1998, his party won a plurality, and he served his first term as prime minister until 2002 when the socialists returned to power. However, a landslide victory in 2010 gave Orban a two-thirds supermajority, and with it the power to amend constitutional laws.
Shortly thereafter in 2011 a new constitution was promulgated which gave the Fidesz control of the judiciary, and administrative commissions responsible for elections, media and the budget. Hence Orban’s ubiquitous presence on billboards around Budapest — a consequence of a law regulating billboards that he passed driving his supporter’s competitors out of business. Opposition flyers may now be found posted on poles and trees … and good luck seeing them at a distance.
With the opposition weakened, Hungary became a democracy backsliding to authoritarianism. In 2020, the parliament passed laws that allow Orban to declare an emergency at will and then rule by decree.
All of which poses a conundrum: Anti-democratic laws passed by an elected government undermine democracy yet at the same time can be considered the will of the people, even if they infringe their rights.
If one believes the U.S. is immune, consider elected politicians gerrymandering districts to remain in power. And if we believe for an instant that all of this is a right-wing phenomenon, we just have to glance at Venezuela and Nicolas Maduro.
Freedom House’s classifications of freedom in 210 countries note that Venezuela is not free. Orban’s Hungary is now only partly free in contrast with, say, the Czech Republic, another former communist East European state which is classified free.
In their book How to Save a Constitutional Democracy, Tom Ginsburg and Aziz Z. Huq argue that forces of democratic decay often accompany the appearance on stage of a charismatic leader holding the populace in thrall. They also note three pillars supporting democracy: free and fair elections, freedom of expression and association, and the bureaucratic rule of law. The latter implies the independent functioning of bodies like the election commission, the Federal Reserve, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Emergency Management Administration and so on. This limits the power of the central executive unlike in Mr. Orban’s case.
Fortunately from the Ginsburg and Huq analysis the U.S. appears to be well insulated and employs freedom of association in particular to great effect. There can be chinks in the armor, however, as is happening in Georgia with new voter suppression laws.
Croatia Between Victory And Defeat
The first half of May in Croatia is marked by the anniversaries of two events from the end of the Second World War. With one democratic Croatia, which, if we believe its Constitution, is built on the foundations of anti-fascism (and opposite the so called Independent State of Croatia, established by the Ustasha movement, under the wings of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy) should be proud of, the other would be politically opportune not to mention at all, or keep within the limits of individual commemorations. We are speaking, of course, of Victory Day and the date of the surrender of the remnants of the Ustasha and Home Guard forces, united in the Croatian Defense Forces, on the Bleiburg field, ie the liquidation of still uncertain number od those made prisoners there.
The opposite is happening, however. Instead of being proud of the V Day, the official Croatian tries to push it into oblivion, and because it does (still) cannot, makes only certain protocol gestures. And the fact that during WW2 a Croatia existed which was on the side of Nazi-fascism existed and kept fighting to the last day, and even after that, that there was a Croatia which systematically committed war crimes against Serbs, Jews, Roma and Croats – political opponents, thus tarnishing the Croatian name, is persistently being pushed in the foreground. With a barely concealed positive context.
This is obvious not only from this year, but exactly in this, 2021. it becomes, perhaps, most clear than ever. And this presents the Republic of Croatia as a state that is dangerously turning into the waters of neo-fascism, that is, Ustashaism. Of high representatives of state, Victory Day was personally marked only by the head of State, who laid flowers at the tomb of national heroes, ie. Partisan fighters (representatives of high positioned politicians are not worth mentioning, they were really there just to satisfy form). And yes, one, the only (!) Academy was organized to mark that day by the Alliance of Anti-Fascist fighters and Anti-Fascists (and not the State!). It commemorated the Victory Day, the (almost forgotten) Day of the Liberation of Zagreb, and Europe Day, which is marked on May 9th in order to convey in this way the message that post-wEurope, and that should mean today’s Europe too, is built on the foundations of the anti-fascist struggle and on the values of anti-fascism. The current President was not present at that academy. There were two former presidents of the Republic and again – several representatives. The information about this celebration somehow found its way into the media, but that was all.
Public television marked this significant day by broadcasting one American and one Russian-Ukrainian film with a theme from the time of the Second World War. And with an unspoken message: that war in Croatia did not rage, and if by some chance it did – there are no films about it (what about some of world famous movies showing the antifascist struggle in Yugoslavia, such as Neretva or Walter defends Sarajevo?)
The other event, the surrender at Bleiburg and everything that happened after that, has been talked about for days. The state (Parliament) and the Church are maximally engaged in the organization of the commemoration of something that is as cynically as hypocritically called the memorial day for “Croatian victims in the fight for freedom and independence”. Mass celebrations and gatherings will be held in three (!) places in Croatia, and buses (even from Germany) are being organized to bring “pilgrims” to them. And what about pandemic? Everything will be, they say, in line with epidemiological measures and restrictions. They say so and they knowingly and recklessly lie, believing that the public is so stupid, or resigned, that something like this can be served to them with impunity, even on the eve of important local elections.
Since 1990, when the surrender at Bleiburg was publicly marked for the first time in Croatia (and when on that occasion the re-named Croatian Radio “shone” with a report, featuring Dinko Šakić, former commander of Jasenovac, one of about 60 concentration camps in the Ustasha state, who categorically stated that – if he lived again – he would do everything the way he did, this commemoration turned not into commemoration of those executed without trials after the surrender, but into regret over the defeat of the Ustasha para-state which, in accordance with Tudjman’s statement at the First HDZ congress, held in Yugoslav times, was “the realization of the centuries-old aspirations of the Croatian people too ”.
Austria has for years tolerated gathering on Bleiburg field, speeches that were often politically colored, highlighting of the Ustasha symbols and flags (the first white field in the Croatian coat of arms), but then – largely under pressure from Europe – denied its hospitality to the, as it was called by a reputable European medium, the largest gathering of radical right-wingers and neo-fascists on the Old Continent. Official Croatia, but also the “Church of the Croats” could not come to terms with that, so last year the “Bleiburg Mass” was held in Sarajevo (probably to remind how Sarajevo was part of the Ustasha state), while this year gatherings organized are being organized, it is worth repeating, on three locations in Croatia, the largest one in Udbina.
What message does such treatment of Victory Day and the date of capitulation of Ustasha and Home guard forces (along with other collaboraters from Yugoslavia) sends to Europe and to the whole world?
Just one thing: as far as Victory Day is concerned, we’re not sure whether it should be and how celebrated, because in the meantime we succeeded in transforming the winners into criminals and murderers, and their Supreme Commander as “one of the 10 mega murderer of the 20th century” , and are open to considering the Day of Liberation of the Croatian Metropolis as the day of the beginning of its occupation (this, under the mask of the freedom of public speech can be calmly stated today – as an explanation why the street of May 8th 1945. was abolished . On the other hand, we are very engaged in commemorating those forces and their members who, ignoring the unconditional capitulation of the Third Reich signed on May 8th in Reims and on May 9th in Berlin, continued fighting until mid-May, trying to escape Tito’s partisans, knowing that among the partisans there is hardly anyone who has not directly or indirectly felt the Ustasha terror. Official Croatia and the Chatolic church are commemorating and mourning their defeat, because they were – as it is written in a stone memorial at Bleiburg field “the Croatian army.” Were they really? And what were the Croatian partisans?
There is not a single country in the world that would organize commemorations for war criminals executed without trial or sentenced to death (and that there were such people in the Bleiburg field is an indisputable fact). Croatia is an exception – for now. And we have listed these two categories of post-war victims (if that is an appropriate term) because retaliation was not a specific feature of Yugoslavia. It took place, on a larger or smaller scale, for several weeks or several months in all the European countries occupied until then. In France, unofficial estimates list about 100,000 liquidated collaborators, while the leader of the Free Frence, who would later become the president of the Fifth Republic, General Charles de Gaulle, officially admitted 10,000, with the laconic remark : “Given what they were doing at the time of the occupation, France can live with this”.
Croatia may soon find itself in the company of several other countries, former Soviet satellites, which are well immersed in historical-revisionist waters, which allow marches of former members of SS units and which – like Ukraine – proclaims notorious collaborators (Stepan Bandera) as national heroes. But, will it mean that Croatia is on the right way by (almost) ignoring V-day and by glorifying and mourning the members of the collaborationist forces? Not at all! This will be just be another worrying indicator of the divisions within the European Union and of the abandoning, by some of its “young” members the ideas and ideals that guided those who conceived the project of a united Europe. That accepting the idea of the possibility of a new war (and the EU should have prevented it for all time) is not just a theoretical possibility, is best seen from the wholehearted adherence of part of the EU to the American policy of confrontation with the Russian Federation (even armed, military drills lasting for several months in Europe just now, demonstrate this).
And, finally, let’s go back to the name of the memorial day in mid-May, mentioned earlier. It is the memorial day for the Croatian victims in the fight for freedom and independence. What does that mean? That only Ustashas (Croatian fascists) and Home guards were fighters for Croatian freedom and independence? Given the date, such a conclusion seems only possible. But, if that is the case, then all those Croats (not to mention Serbs from Croatia) who fought in the ranks of the People’s Liberation Army were the enemies of Croatian freedom and independence. But, if somehow we “remembered” what is written in the Constitution, if today’s Croatia, democratic and independent Croatia, “generously” added Partisans to Ustashe and Home Guard, this would mean the completion and realization of morbid ideas of the first Croatian president Franjo Tudjman who wanted to bury the remains of the victims of fascism and anti-fascist fighters together with those who killed them in the area of the former Ustasha concentration camp Jasenovac. Tudjman then, under pressure from abroad (even from the USA), had to give up copying something that was realized in Spain during his long-term dictatorship by the openly pro-fascist genelisimus Francisco Franco (who in the meantime was “removed” from that memorial complex by democratic Spanish authorities). .
His successors went a step further. While Tudjman never attacked the People’s Liberation Struggle (he participated in it), nor did he utter an ugly word about Marshal Tito, they “bravely” abolished Marshal Tito Square in Zagreb (and none of the candidates for Zagreb mayor dares to say that he would return the square with that name), they tolerate and even encourage the harshest revision of history (as if learning from Serbian right-wingers, but also the current authorities who marked Victory Day with an academy with pictures of Chetnik leader Draža Mihailović and partisan leader Josip Broz Tito, claiming the resistance to fascism only for the Serbian people), they are (almost) ignoring Victory Day and glorifying the sacrifice of those who had been on the side of Nazi-Fascism throughout World War II.
Does today’s Croatia (not only the official) really has a dilemma: either to celebrate the V-day, or to mourn the surrender of quisling forces near Bleiberg, their defeat? Judging by what we are witnessing – no! And his is devastating not only for Croatia, but also for the European Union of which Croatia is a member .
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