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Stranger Document: Is the EU Losing its Grip On the Western Balkans?

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Followers and fans of Balkan politics were startled by the news that Slovenian PM Janez Janša has delivered a non-paper to the European Council, advocating the repartition of Bosnian-Herzegovinian territories between Serbia and Croatia, and the union of Albania with Kosovo. Janša denied any link with the matter and journalists from the Balkans and abroad expressed opposing views on the authorship and the place of origin of the document. On April 15, the Slovenian website necenzurirano.si, published the full version of the document titled “Western Balkans – A Way Forward”.

After some initial comments following the publication of the non-paper, the whole affair is now fading in the depths of the cyberspace from where it came without causing much regret for the unsolved mysteries that it is leaving behind. Western European media pay attention to the Balkans as long as they are a source of sensational facts such as a secret border exchange between former “enemy” countries. In the Balkan media, border exchange is usual business and the news did not create much turmoil. In this article I will take a closer look at the details of the document in order to understand the logic of the policies that it prescribes. The analysis of the non-paper enables a reflection on the popularity of the EU in the Western Balkans (WB) and allows to explore current political tendencies in the region.

A Way Forward?

Unless it turns out to be an internet meme, the content of non-paper clearly shows that it was addressed to the highest ranks of EU diplomacy. The authors of the document outline a strategy for the EU to reinforce its influence in the WB. In the first part, titled “Situation”, the document claims that the main political setbacks in the region are linked to the national issues of Serbs, Albanians, and Croatians. The Dayton Agreements of 1995 and the tense situation between Serbia and Kosovo are considered the main obstacles for the EU integration process. Turkey is designated as EU’s main competitor because of its extended influence in the region, particularly in Bosnia-Herzegovina and North Macedonia.

The second part of the document titled “Solutions”, is divided in six paragraphs (from a. to f.) and provides a series of objectives aimed at accelerating access to EU and NATO memberships (f.). According to the program, the first and seemingly easier objective would be to unify Kosovo and Albania (a.). The authors claim that 95% of Kosovo wants to unite with its “Albanian nation of origin” and that the situation is similar in Albania. The data is certainly not extrapolated from statistical evidence, but by the transposition of the accepted figure of the Albanian population in Kosovo which is above 90%. The passage “want to unite with their nation of origin” is quite bizarre because it seems as if Kosovo Albanians were not from Kosovo but migrated from present day Albanian territories.

The non-paper (b.) promotes the annexation of the territory of Republika Srpska to Serbia. This process will hypothetically sort out the “Serbian national issue” and will lead Belgrade to accept the union of Kosovo and Albania. The solution of the “Croatian national issue” is open to different options (c.). The authors recommend either to unite predominantly Croatian cantons of Bosnia-Herzegovina with Croatia; or to grant a special status to the Croatian part of Bosnia-Herzegovina, similar to the one that South Tyrol enjoys in Italy. South Tyrol, which is also indicated as a model for the status of the “Serbian part” of Kosovo (a.), is probably mentioned to provide the readers with a familiar example. Bosniaks should accept the dismemberment of their state for the sake of EU interests. They would thereby “gain” (d.) an independent state and would have to organize a referendum in order choose “between EU and non-EU (Turkey)”. The authors believe that this solution will prevent the spread of further Turkish influence and radical Islam.

State-building based on national or religious grounds is against the sense of the EU integration process and is probably conceived to put an end to it. The formation of a Bosniak independent state based on a “national” principle would (legitimately)lead Bosniaks to claim the Sanjak territories in Montenegro and in Serbia. National and religious tensions will increase Turkey’s influence in the region. The union of Serbia and Republika Srpska would bring eurosceptics living on both sides of the border to join ranks, thus hindering the region’s integration in the EU. Similar outcomes would be generated by the union of Albania and Kosovo where eurosceptics have become more numerous in the last years.

With and Against the EU

The document is anonymous, but its content allows us to make a hypothesis on its commissioner. In the penultimate paragraph of the “Solutions” section, the authors lay down the areas of intervention on which the EU should focus in order to increase its influence in the Balkans. In their view, the EU should launch a “comprehensive economic programme for the stabilisation, better infrastructure and energy connectivity of the region, and environmental rehabilitation.” The authors believe that the EU should not act alone, but with the support of regional actors such as the Three Seas Initiative (3SI). The 3SI was founded in 2015 in view of enhancing collaboration between EU member states of Central and Eastern Europe. One of their official papers argues that the organisation aims at reducing the “civilisation gap” that separates Eastern from Western European countries. In order to fulfil this objective, the 3SI has devised a series of projects for improving the mobility, energy and digitalisation infrastructure of the region on a vertical axis that runs from North to South.

The policies recommended by the non-paper for the WB seem at least in part inspired by the objectives of the 3SI. For instance, the endeavour to achieve a “better infrastructure and energy connectivity of the region, and environmental rehabilitation”, falls in the organisation’s commitment to improve energy security (objective number 3) and reach climate goals (objective number 6). The 3SI and the non-paper share some conceptual analogies. The 3SI documents use the historically controversial term “nation” to refer to European states. A nation-centric perspective informs the authors of the non-paper who believe that regional problems will be solved by supporting nationalist drives instead of opposing them. WB countries which are not members of the 3SI are cited as partners in a series of projects for the development of the transport, digitalisation and energy infrastructure that were discussed during the organisation summit in Slovenia in 2019.

The non-paper and the 3SI pay attention to political stability and economic growth, but they do not seem very concerned by issues related to the rule of law, human rights and corruption, which are at least formally at the core of the EU action in the area. In the third and last section of the document, titled “Steps”, the authors draw out the strategies through which the “Solutions” can be reached. In their view, the plan should be checked and carried out with international and regional decision-makers in a “silent procedure”. According to the document, it seems that the partition of Bosnia-Herzegovina and the union of Kosovo and Albania could be achieved without popular vote. The non-paper expects the EU to endorse a project that will radically alter the borders of the region without taking into consideration the will of the communities that will be affected by the changes.

Return to the Old Path

The non-paper was perhaps never received by the office of the European Council. However, the mere fact that it was addressed to the EU shows that the latter is exposed to the lobbying of groups operating in contradiction with the EU agenda in the Balkans. Rather than consolidating EU interests, the non-paper exploits EU diplomacy to the benefit of its commissioners. The3SI – like the non-paper- promotes a top-to-bottom governance approach that aims at attaining political stability and economic growth at the detriment of democracy and justice. This old political strategy is the outcome of a widespread feeling of distrust in the future of the EU.

The constitution of the 3SI is a sign of this feeling. Another manifestation of this political course is the mini-Schengen initiative that was started by Serbia, Albania and North Macedonia in 2019. Both 3SI and mini-Schengen are presented as complementary to the EU. But they might also become alternatives or competitors to the EU, especially for non-member states that do not want to have too close links with Russia or/and the Atlantic Alliance. The EU is one of the main investors in the connectivity sectors in the WB, but it is not the only partner available to regional politicians who are constantly on the lookout for financial assets. Many citizens of the WB believe that their countries have no chance to access the EU in the next decade. Their opinion toward the EU has been negatively conditioned by the euroscepticism in Eastern and Western European neighbouring states. The inability of the EU to conduct a common vaccination program has also damaged its image of in the eyes of regional actors.

The EU is facing a credibility crisis that is turning former EU-enthusiast countries such as Albania into eurosceptics. Local politicians have promptly exploited this mood. In a recent interview on Vizion Plus, Albanian PM Edi Rama spoke about the EU membership of the country with realistic tones. Rama affirmed that the matter does not depend on Albanians, but on the attitudes of the European politicians who are conditioned by the public opinion of their countries. He cited the case of Bulgaria’s veto on the accession talks of North Macedonia in order to claim that Sofia’s decision was determined by internal pressures. Rama affirmed that Albania can enter “Europe” by either improving its infrastructure, economy, and digitalisation or by doing its “homework”. However, according to the Albania Premier, doing “homework” is not a guarantee of success because Albania will be subject to the incoherent judgment of EU politicians. Rama, who hopes to win the imminent general elections and obtain the third mandate in a row, praised the works undertaken by his government to improve mobility infrastructure such as airports and touristic and commercial harbours.

The policies advocated by the non-paper and by the 3SI circles that might have commissioned it reflect the overall course of WB politics. Regional actors aim at changing the configuration of the area either by redrawing the state territories or easing border regimes. However, they still want to preserve and even reinforce the idea of “nation” and the cultural boundaries that it entails. Balkan politicians are less and less concerned with inequalities, corruption and human right protection, which are the cause of some of the biggest issues in the region. The top-down strategies adopted for improving the connectivity sectors do not always take into account the ecological impact, notwithstanding the formal declarations about the protection of the environment. The way in which investments will affect the economy is uncertain because foreign and regional speculators are likely to profit from them at the detriment of small and medium local businesses and communities. The conceptual frame that is guiding WB politics and connectivity projects, suggests that the EU might be destined to a more marginal role in the area if it’s not able to regain its lost charisma.

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Is European humanity skin deep?

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At the border crossing between Ukraine and Moldova at Palanca, refugees stand in line. © UNICEF/Vincent Tremeau

When talking about security the most common line of thought tends to be war and the actors involved in the attack, however, all the people who had regular lives within those territories that are jeopardized are as important. With the increasing tensions and armed conflicts happening within the Twenty First Century, the movement of people searching for shelter has increased. More asylum seekers leave their home countries every single day and contemporary politics is still struggling to find a way to catch up. Europe, history wise, is the zone of the world that deals with more refugees wanting to enter the continent due to different factors: geography, proximity, democratic systems, level of development and more. Nevertheless, with the Russia-Ukraine conflict, true sentiments towards refugees are now being put on display.

Even though all refugees are fleeing their countries because their lives are in mortal danger, authorities and government officials do not seem to care. Processes to apply for the refugee status are getting harder and harder. In Europe, to apply for a refugee passport, people are asked for identifications, online questionaries and many other unrealistic aspects that if not answered correctly, the whole process is cancelled. It is ridiculous to believe that when people are scaping in order to stay alive, they will take under consideration all these requirements to receive help, sometimes even from neighboring countries. Which inevitably leads to the following question: why are refugees accepted based on the legality of their applications and not of their status?

By 2016, nearly 5.2 million refugees reached European shores, which caused the so called refugee crisis. They came mainly from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq: countries torn apart by armed conflicts. Similarly, with Russia’s invasion over the Ukraine in 2022, only few days deep within the fighting,  874,000 people had to flee their homes. Nonetheless, the issue seems to be that, for Europe, not all refugees are the same. When the refugee crisis in 2015 was declared, the European Union called for stopping and detaining all arriving refugees for around 18 months. There was a strong reluctancy from Europeans towards offering them shelter. On the contrary, countries such as Poland and Slovakia have said that Ukrainian refugees fleeing will be accepted without passports, or any valid travel documents due to the urgency of the situation. Therefore, stating with their actions, that Ukrainian refugees are more valuable or seem to be more worthy of help than refugees from Asia, Africa, or the Middle East.

Correspondingly, it is true that not all countries inside Europe deal and act the same way towards refugees, be that as it may, with the current refugee crisis it has been proved that they all share strong sentiments of xenophobia and racism. For instance, Hungary is a country that refused to admit refugees coming from outside Europe since 2015. In 2018, Prime Minister Viktor Orban described non-European refugees as “Muslim invaders” and “poison” to society, in comparison with Ukrainian refugees who are being welcomed without hesitation. In the same way, Jarosław Kaczyński, who served as Prime Minister of Poland and is the leader of the Law and Justice party, in 2017 said that accepting asylum seekers from Syria would be dangerous and would “completely change our culture and radically lower the level of safety in our country”. Furthermore, Germany in 2015 with Chancellor Angela Merkel in charged said that they would accept one million of Syrians. Although, as time passed, Europe’s solution was to make a deal with Turkey, who is not part of the European Union, to close the migrant route. Moreover, the promise of letting refugees integrate into German society was not fulfilled since. Seven year later, an impressive amount of refugees are still in camps and centers, with their lives frozen in time. Sadly, most European governments gambled towards the idea of sending them back once the armed conflict was over, without caring for the aftermath of war’s destruction.

The common narrative until now pushed by leaders, politicians, and mass media has been that Ukrainians are prosperous, civilized, middle class working people, but refugees coming from the Middle East are terrorists, and refuges from Africa are simply too different. Despite, refugees are all people who share similar emotions and struggle to grasp the fact that their lives may never be the same; having lost their homes, friends, family and so much more. Plus, being selectively welcomed based on their religion, skin color or nationality by the continent which’s complete rhetoric is universal rights, just adds another complex layer to the issue. Conjointly, the displacement of people due to war displays how regular individuals are always the ones who suffer the most in consequence to the interests of the few that represent larger powers. Hence, greed, envy, and cruelty are stronger than recognized, even in a developed continent such as Europe.

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What Everyone Should Know About Preventing Ethnic Violence: The Case of Bosnia

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Image source: srebrenica.org.uk

When the Balkans spiraled into violence and genocide in the 90’s, many wondered what caused this resurgence in militant ethnic nationalism and how a similar situation may be countered.

***

The 1990’s were a vibrant decade, that is unless you were living in the Balkans. 1995 was especially bad, as the 11th of July of that year marked the Srebrenica Massacre, which saw Serbian soldiers murder over 8,000 Bosnian Muslims over the span of two weeks. This shocked the world, as it was the first case of a European country resorting to extreme violence and genocide on ethnic lines since World War II. After World War II, the idea that a European country would resort to genocide was unthinkable. As Balkan nations continue to see the consequences of the massacre after over 25 years, it is increasingly evident that more needs to be done to curb ethnic violence.

We must first investigate key causes of ethnic violence. According to V.P. Gagnon, the main driver of ethnic violence is elites that wish to stay in power. Ethnic nationalism is easy to exploit, as creating a scapegoat is extremely effective for keeping elites in power. This is exactly what happened in Yugoslavia, which had previously seen high levels of tolerance and intermarriage in more mixed areas that saw the worst violence during the war. Stuart J. Kaufman argues that elites may take advantage of natural psychological fears of in-group extinction, creating group myths, or stereotypes, of outgroups to fuel hatred against them. While they may take different approaches to this issue, Gagnon and Kaufman agree that the main drivers of ethnic violence are the elites.

David Lake and Donald Rothchild suggest that the main driver of ethnic conflict is collective fears for the future of in-groups. Fear is one of the most important emotions we have because it helps secure our existence in a hostile world. However, fear can easily be exploited by the elites to achieve their personal goals. In a multiethnic society such as Yugoslavia, the rise of an elite that adheres to the prospects of a single ethnic group could prove dangerous and sometimes even disastrous. The destruction of Yugoslavian hegemony under Josip Broz Tito and the resulting explosion of ethnic conflict at the hands of Serbian elites in Bosnia underline this because of the immense fear this created.

Regions with high Serb populations in Bosnia sought independence from the rest of the country when they found themselves separated from Serbia by the dissolution of Yugoslavia. Republika Srpska was formed by these alienated Serbs. The leadership and elites in Serbia riled up the Serb population of Republika Srpska by stereotyping and demonizing Bosnian Muslims as “descendants of the Turkish oppressors”. This scared the Serbs in Bosnia so much so that they obeyed the elites of Serbia in supporting and fighting for the independence of Republika Srpska by any means necessary. As was seen in Srebrenica, they were not opposed to genocide.

We know how the elites fuel ethnic tensions to secure power as well of the devastating effects of these tensions reaching their boiling point. But what could be done to address ethnic conflict? David Welsh suggests that a remedy for ethnic conflict could be the complete enfranchisement of ethnic minorities and deterrence towards ethnic cleansing. This means that we must ensure that ethnic minorities are able to have a say in a democratic system that caters to all ethnicities equally. Fostering aversion to genocide is also vital toward addressing ethnic conflict because it is the inevitable result of unchecked ethnic conflict.

There is also the issue of members of ethnic groups voting for candidates and parties on ethnic lines. For example, in the United States, White American voters have shown to prefer White candidates over African American candidates, and vice versa. Keep in mind that the United States has a deep history of ethnic conflict, including the centuries-long subjugation of African Americans by White Americans.

Ethnic violence is horrifying and destructive, but it can be prevented. The first measure would be the establishment of a representative democracy, where members of all ethnicities are accurately represented. Another measure would be to make ethnic conflict and ethnic stereotyping taboo so that the average person would not resort to genocidal behavior once things go wrong. Lastly, making people feel secure is the most important step towards preventing ethnic conflict. If the people feel secure enough, they will not even need to think about ethnic violence. In short, while it is important to consider the differences of the various ethnic groups in a multiethnic society, it is vital that each group is kept represented and secure, free of any fears of subjugation.

While the case of Bosnia was extremely unfortunate, it provides an integral view into what could happen if perceived subjugation and fear of eradication reaches a breaking point. As was seen in Bosnia, ethnic violence can be extremely violent, resulting in untold suffering and death. That is why we must take necessary steps towards de-escalation and remediation of ethnic conflicts. These measures can, quite literally, save millions of lives.

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French Presidential Election 2022 and its significance for Europe

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Eugene Delacroix’s infamous painting “la liberté Guidant le Peuple” reminds the whole world of the July Revolution of 1830 that toppled King Charles X of France. The lady in the centre of the painting with the French tricolour still symbolizes the concept of liberty and reminds the whole world of revolutions and sacrifices made for freedom. France indeed has a long journey from revolting against “if they have no bread, let them eat cake” in 1789 to establishing a modern democratic society with the principles of “liberty, equality and fraternity”.  

France and the United States are rightly considered the birthplace of modern democracy. The French revolution taught the whole world lessons about revolution, freedom modern nationalism, liberalism and sovereignty. In 2022, France celebrates the 233rd year of Bastille Day which led to a new dawn in the French political system. From establishing 1ere Republique (1st Republic) in 1792, France has evolved and is currently under the 5eme Republique (5th Republic) under the constitution crafted by Charles de Gaulle in 1958.

Today, France is holding its presidential elections. As the French believe, ‘You first vote with your heart, then your head’, the first round of voting was concluded on Sunday 10th April and the Presidential debate on 20th April 2022. While the whole world waits for the 24th of April’s second round of elections and their results, this article attempts to understand the French electoral system and analyze Why French Presidential elections are important for Europe?

French electoral system

France is a semi-presidential democracy; the president is at the centre of power and Prime Minister heads the government. The president of the French republic is elected by direct universal suffrage where all French citizens aged 18 and above can vote, whether residing in France or not. In France, there is a two-round system in which voters vote twice on two Sundays, two weeks apart. This two-round system is widely practised in central and eastern Europe as well as Central Asia, South America and Africa.

In order to apply, a candidate needs 500 signatures of elected officials and they should be at least from 30 government departments. A candidate can be an independent or he or she can represent a political party. There is no limit to how many candidates can run for presidential elections. For instance, in 2002 there were 16 candidates, in 2017- 11 and in 2022 there are 12. While all the candidates have the right to equal media presence, the amount of spending on campaigns is also monitored; for the 1st round, the spending must not exceed 16.9 million euros and for the second round, it has been limited to 22.5 million euros.

This year, the 1st round of voting was concluded on 10th April while the second one is scheduled to be held on 24th April 2022. In the first round, all 12 candidates were eligible but for the second round, only two candidates who got the maximum votes are qualified for the second round.

A brief overview of French presidential candidates

Emmanuel Macron, five years ago at the age of 39, became the youngest French president of the French republic. In 2017, he broke the dominance of the two major French parties- Republicans and Socialists- by running a campaign “neither left nor right”. During the tenure of Emmanuel Macron, a hardcore centrist, France has witnessed a 7% GDP growth, unemployment dropped by 7.2% and the crime rate has fallen to 27%.

A far-rightist, Marine Le Pen is the other presidential candidate who succeeded her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, as leader of the National Front (later National Rally) party in 2011. She was also contesting against Emmanuel Macron during the 2017 elections and before that in 2012, against Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande. While she embraced the party’s anti-immigration stance, she rebranded the party’s Euroskepticism as French nationalism.

This year, in the April 2022 elections, the current President of France, Emanuel Macron and far-right leader, Marine Le Pen are the two candidates with Macron running ahead with a lead of 4.7 per cent votes (Emmanuel Macron-27.8% & Marine Le Pen- 23.1%).

Why French Presidential elections are important for Europe?

While European defence is primarily assured by the US-led NATO military alliance, of which most EU states are members, French president Macron said,  “Europe needs to finally build its own collective security framework on our continent…”, advocating for a ‘European Security’ framework amid tensions with Russia over Ukraine.

On the other hand, Le Pen’s party has been looked upon suspiciously that it might have received financing from a Russian bank connected to the Russian President Putin. In an interview with French public radion, Le pen said, “It will be necessary diplomatically, when the war [in Ukraine] is over, when a peace treaty has been signed, to try to avoid this tie-up which risks being the largest danger of the 21st century for us,” she even further added, “Imagine … if we let the first producer of raw materials in the world — which is Russia — [create an alliance] with the first factory of the world — which is China — to let them perhaps constitute the first military power of the world. I believe that it’s a potentially great danger.” These statements only further reinforce the claims that Le Pen is more pro-Russia.

While Macron is anti-Brexit, Le Pen, on the other hand, has been known for her ‘Frexit’ plan, meaning, that she wanted France to leave the EU and abandon the euro. However, during the 2022 elections, it appears that Le Pen has softened her stance on Frexit. Another important issue pertaining to immigration has been significant not only for France but the whole of Europe. This issue of immigration is directly linked with the “economic and cultural concerns” which raises an important worry about immigrants’ socio-political and economic integration into the French society and abiding by the principle of laïcité (secularism with French characters).

As for Macron, he wants to create a “rapid reaction force” to help protect EU states’ borders in case of a migrant surge and is also pushing for a rethink of the bloc’s asylum application process. Macron also said that he urges the EU to be more efficient in deporting those refused entries. On the other hand, Marine Le Pen during her campaign stated, “I will control immigration and establish security for all.” It is pertinent to note that Macron has introduced strict laws pertaining to immigration and controlling Islamic radicalization. For instance, he introduced the bill to ban foreign funding to mosques.

What is more interesting to mention is the concerns about ‘energy’ in the presidential election. Evidently, the ongoing conflict in Ukraine has gained more attention on the economic and geopolitical consequences of existing national and European energy supply chain choices. In France especially, there is a major rift between the pro and anti-nuclear power fractions. Interestingly, France has the second most nuclear power stations in the world after the United States.  Besides, in the last week of the elections, Macron has been attempting to win the hearts of the French voters with his proposal for a “complete renewal” of his climate policy. He has also promised to build up to 14 nuclear reactors by 2050 and regenerate existing plants. Meanwhile, Le Pen has promised to build 20 nuclear plants and aim to have nuclear power provide 81 per cent of France’s energy by 2050. While the current president Macron and far-right candidate Le Pen have both committed to the 2015 Paris Agreement to limit global warming, it is evident that their approaches differ particularly on energy. Since France is Europe’s second-biggest economy, France’s climate policy could echo right across the EU.

Besides, in light of the ongoing Russia-Ukraine crisis, Macron has played a significant role as he is the bridgehead for Russia and the US. He has also negotiated talks between Washington DC and Moscow and has also condemned the crisis by making the statement, “Russia is not under attack, it is the aggressor. As some unsustainable propaganda would have us believe, this war is not as big as the battle against, that is a lie.” Indeed, he has played the role of Europe’s de-facto leader vis-à-vis the Ukraine crisis. Nonetheless, with a marginal win in the first round against Marine Le Pen, winning the 2nd term is not as easy as it was five years ago.

More importantly, it is pertinent to note that France has the 2nd strongest military and 2nd biggest economy in Europe, further the 5th biggest economy in the world. France is not only the most visited country in the world but also ranks 1st in the global soft power index. It is also the founding member of the United Nations Security Council, North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union which makes it an important player in European politics. Consequently, the policies of the French leadership not only direct the political, social and economic lives of the French but also reverberate in Europe.

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