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To get a sense of what Russia wants in the Balkans look at what Russia does: Tentative dialogue with prof. Hadzidedic

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On 14 February, Modern Diplomacy published “What Russia Wants In The Balkans” by Prof. Zlatko Hadzidedic. Whilst the esteemed professor stops short of providing a definitive answer to this question, his piece seeks to surreptitiously score a few points. First, it makes a masquerade of Balkan history by describing Russia’s regional influence as entirely simulated. Secondly, it tries to associate Moscow and Ankara to then exploits the inveterate ‘fear of the Turks’ to cast this “castrated” Russia as an existential menace to the geopolitical status quo in Europe. To be fair, prof. Hadzidedic does not conclude its piece claiming to have a definitive answer to this question. Yet, his entire argumentation hints in a rather specific direction, suggestion a rather maladroit reading of the facts. The purpose of this response is to start a respectful dialogue around this issue, as the writer finds some short-comings in his argumentation that might seek to progress the debate on geo-politics and geo-economics in the Balkans.

Introduction, or what’s the fuss about?

Needless to say, “What Russia Wants In The Balkans” seems to bite off more than anyone can chew. In a sense, the text’s inconclusiveness suggests that the author himself is well aware of it. After all, no analyst – and, probably, not even policymakers themselves – can pretend to know what Russia’s endgame in the region is. To be fair, prof. Hadzidedic does not conclude its piece claiming to have a definitive answer to this question. Yet, his entire argumentation hints in a rather specific direction, suggesting a rather maladroit reading of the facts.

Figure 1 Retired Serbian army men showing their support for Russian President Vladimir Putin during his visit to Serbia in January 2019 © Radio Sarajevo

The two parts of this essay address some of the least consensual points of that column. First, §1 takes a historical look at alleged ‘Western’ attempts to throw sand in Russia’s eyes in the Balkans. The, §2 addresses the issue of Russia’s alleged “simulation of influence” over Serbia. Based on (arguably wrong) historical assumptions, the Author leads the reader to worry about the risk of Russia’s quest for real control over the region leading to a disastrous new war. Finally, §3 debunks the possibility that, with Russia’s condescendence, Turkey may destabilise the regional order and affirm itself as a major power in the Western Balkans by using Bosnia and Albania as proxies.

The century-old anti-Russian plot

Hadzidedic argues that ever since the 19th century, Russia has put vain efforts in steering Balkan politics towards a certain direction. In reality, London – with Paris’s and, later, Washington’s support – deceived Moscow by acting as the “true patron” of local elites in the pivotal moments of independence struggles and the wars of the 1990s.

Figure 3 On the eve of Tsar Nikolay I Pavlovich’s death, the Russian Empire extended over more than 20 million square kilometres. He had helped Greek independence, defeated the Ottoman Empire in a long war and conquered parts of Armenia and Azerbaijan in the Caucasus. The attention he and his successors paid to the region was not inconsequential for the Balkan Wars of the 1910s (left-hand side) and if the 1990s (right-hand side).© F. A. Telarico

Independence struggles in the 19th century

On independence movements, Hadzidedic’s stance can be summarised with a few quotations. First, Russia has never had any real influence in the region. It was the strategic interest of “West European powers” that determined the course of history.

True, France and England wanted to expand their colonial empires on Ottoman lands. But they had little reason to seek Austria-Hungary’s ruin. On the contrary, Britain had somewhat of a preference for Vienna in its confrontation with Moscow over the Balkans.

Figure 4 Map of Crimean War (in Russian) ЧерноеМоре = Black Sea, РоссийскаяИмперия = Russian Empire (green), АвстрийскаяИмперия = Austrian Empire (pink), ОсманскаяИмперия = Ottoman Empire (dark grey) Despite their desire to colonise the lands of the Ottoman Empire in the Levant and North Africa, France and England supported the sultan in its fights against the Tsar in what became known as the Crimean War.© Yuri Koryakov via Wikimedia Commons

Meanwhile, Russia was set to gain from the fall of both Istanbul’s and Vienna’s empires. The Russians fought countless small wars against the Ottomans to gaining control over the Caucasus, free access to the Mediterranean Sea as well as acquired territories on the Caspian and Black-Sea basins— which Austria also aspired to. Moreover, Moscow craved at least a harbour on the Mediterranean, a scenario London never accepted. Hence, it was pitted against Austria in the Balkans and against Britain in the Mediterranean.

Figure 5 Austrian archduke and heir to the throne, Franz Ferdinand, aspired to federalise Austria-Hungary as a way to stabilise its many nations and pave the way for further southward expansions.© DeviantArt via Pinterest

The dissolution of Yugoslavia

Hadzidedic’s bases his account of the Yugoslav Wars on this assumed lack of any reality behind Russia’s standing in the region. Consequently, his analysis of Serbia’s war crimes and their impact on regional stability are dubious at least. Assuming that France and the UK are the only key actors, the Author underlines the “continuous support” they had secretly offered Serbia. True, England and France had opposed Germany’s attempt to recognise Croatia’s independence as long as they could. Izetbegovic, Milosevic, Tudjman bear responsibility. And, so do the thousands of fighters recruited from all parties in conflicts. From the war criminals of Vukovar and Musala to the authors of massacres during OperacijaOluja, in Srebrenica and Križančevo. Yet, those “gigantic campaigns of ethnic cleansing” are blamed on no in particular, making it seem likely that external interference alone made war atrocities possible — with a surely-unintended exculpation of local political and military leaders.

Meanwhile, Hadzidedic gives a much distortive account of the “narratives” around the Yugoslav Wars in which Russia’s support for Serbia and the Islamist presence in Bosnia become focal points. Thence came the image of “clashing ‘civilizations’,” as Huntington would have put it. True, western media played a key role in consolidating these frames by characterising “all Bosnians, whatever their religion, as ‘Muslims’,” and prof. Hadzidedic is right to remind it once again. But such a practice was far from an instrument of psycho-warfare. On the contrary, accounts of chaos, disruption and confusion overwhelmed Western imaginariesfrom the White House to the suburbs of Western Europe. Most media clearly presented reports of war crimes being committed by Bosnian Serbs against Bosnian Muslims. One can argue whether this distinction casted the former apart from the rest of the Bosnian polity, thus reproducing divisions. Still, that is a different issue. If there was a ‘clash of civilisations’-sort of narrative, it was fraught with incomplete and imperfect reports. Clear-cut distinctions failed to materialise in a collective subconscious dominated by the idea of unjustifiable Rwanda-like, mass violence.

Yeltsin’s Russia

Finally, it is untrue that Yeltsin’s foreign policy generated “a public image of Russia as a promoter of pan-Orthodox ideology.” As eminent scholars have argued, Moscow’s foreign policy in this period was rather trendless. Yeltsin was trying to bring Russia back to ‘Europe’ while failing to understand that ‘its’ idea of Europe had died. Hadzidedic also supposes an “Anglo-American strategy of drawing Russia into inter-religious conflicts in Central Asia, in line with Huntington’s theory”. Yet, the facts argue against such a theory. If anything, “the refusal of the West to help Chechnya during the war” reveals the opposite intention. Some may have auspicated for Russia to remain ‘weak’ for years to come. But no one wanted the former-Soviet nuclear arsenal to fall in the hands of unknown local feudatories and extremists.

The Balkans are not a playground

In Hadzidedic’s narrative, “it is highly questionable how influential Russia really is in Serbia, despite its public support for it.”Actually, one can agree with the premise of this statement (and only partly so), but not with its corollary. True, Moscow’s backing for Belgrade’s rather adversarial stances vis-à-vis its neighbours has not bought much loyalty. Hence, acute observers agree that Russia has little actual effect on Serbia’s international policies Yet, what Hadzidedic misses on is both Balkan States’ own initiatives and China’s looming shadow. In fact, the region faces a metaphorical geostrategic crossroad summarisable in the trilemma: (1) Russia, (2) NATO and the EU or a (3) risingChina ?

Here the determining variable is perceived national interest and/or local leaderships’ self-interest. These two principles inform the oftentimes incoherent, indecisive and volatile outcomes of Western-Balkan countries’ foreign policy. In this sense, analysis striving to be up-to-date in the 2020s must acknowledge that, in the Balkans, the ‘great game’ is turning multipolar. Thus, medium-sized States in the region enjoy an in viable degree of freedom. As shown below, multipolarity makes each external actor more vulnerable to local contingencies and leaders’ changeable orientations.

Russia

Regarding Russia, one thing is clear:

The symbolic gestures and pro-Russian exhortations many Serbian politicians overindulge in mean very little when the reality is that the [Serbian government elites] have signed a number of agreements with NATO over the past few years […].

Therefore, there surely is a simulation of influence on Russia’s part. However, contrarily to what Hadzidedic argues, the hyperbolic accentuation of the Russo-Serb friendship is not a show set up to deceive the US. More than a mere Russian tactic, this narrative is a double*edged sword that regional actors can use to play all sides of the trilemma against each other.

Figure 8 People waving symbols of Russian-Serbian friendship at a rally of the ruling Serbian Radical Party in Vidovdan Square (Belgrade), on June 28, 2015.
© srpska.ru

For instance, the scarecrow of Russia’s incursions in the region exacerbates concern that the EU may be losing ground. In Montenegro and Macedonia, this mechanism has led to a flood of EU funds which local elites appreciated.

The EU and NATO

Hadzidedic downplays EU integration as a slow, but steady and inevitable mechanism working in the background. In his view, former-Yugoslav countries’ accession to the EU looks a bit like an ineluctable leap of faith “driven by national interest.” After all, in non-EU countries citizens’ welfare should benefit from joining the Union. Yet, the EU is becoming unpopular amongst large popular strata. Thus, it is not surprising at all that the enlargement process has become more unpredictable and its outcomes unreliable.

To oil the gears of the enlargement machinery, the EU resorts to ‘buy’ local consensus bestowing billions in grants. Furthermore, Brussels has also exploited the pandemic to pull non-EU States closer by granting more money and free vaccines. Thus, Sofia has promised vaccines to Skopje; Athens to Skopje and Tirana; Bucharest to Chisinau; and the Commission to Bosnia, Kosovo and even Ukraine.

China

Finally, China’s rise in the region is what Hadzidedic’s analysis completely omits. In effect, Central- and South-Eastern European countries exploited the pandemic to widen their room for manoeuvring between the poles of the trilemma. Hence, non-EU and EU member States in Eastern Europe are reaping this opportunity to enlarge the wedge between external powers. For instance, Hungary has just received 500,000 doses of Chinese Sinovac’s vaccines against the EU’s advice. It is not random that the same country recently signed a new contract with RosAtom — Russia’s State-owned nuclear-energy conglomerate.

Meanwhile, the EU has failed on multiple levels with its non-member neighbours. First, it did not manage to impose its political conditionality on Serbia in exchange for the transfer of vaccines. On the contrary, Serbia outperformed the EU in vaccination per capita “thanks to the Chinese and Russian vaccines.” Brussels’ ineptitude has led to an increase in Russia’s and China’s political and economic clout due to their ability to make good on vaccine delivery. These are the cases, besides Serbia, of Bosnia, Moldova and Montenegro. Meanwhile, Serbia more than fulfilled Bulgaria’s failed promise of delivering vaccine doses to North Macedonia. In doing so, it is shifting away from Russia’s preferred stance of principled hostility towards neighbours. At the same time, Belgrade is rowing against Brussels’ desiderata and becoming a reliable regional partner that does not bow to the EU’s normative power.

The limits of Russia-Turkey cooperation

In the last paragraph, Hadzidedic poses a question that finally reveals his preoccupation with the region’s future. Overall, the Author seems worried about the possible consequences of Russia’s imagined change of heart in the Balkans. He fears that Moscow might trick Serbia into igniting pre-extant tensions, plunging the region into another calamity.

The intervening variable that should explain the causation of these catastrophes is the alleged “tacit strategic alliance between Russia and Turkey.” Thus, it is necessary to debunk this quasi-conspiratorial theory by tackling its implicit assumptions: (i) Russo-Turkish military cooperation; (ii) peer-to-peer relations; and (iii) Turkey’s ability to pursue a proactive foreign policy.

The military history of a non-alliance

True, Moscow was not overly supportive of Armenia during the last war with Azerbaijan. Yet, in building a comparison between Nagorno-Karabakh and Kosovo, Armenia should be placed in the EU’s shoes — not Serbia’s, and by far. Moreover, searching for similarities between the two cases is a misguided quest.

In addition, a fairly strong argument could be made that Libya and Syria disprove the existence of such an “alliance.” After all, neither Russia nor Turkey have a real long-term plan to enact after the civil war subsides in these two countries.

Ankara is not as ‘great’ of a power as Moscow is

For these reasons, instances of bilateral dialogue have not “elevated Turkey to the status of a great power.” Nor could they do it, since Moscow does not boast the international stature to raise Ankara to that status. Actually, Russia is already punching above its weight on the international stage, and its dwarf economy shackles the country to the rank of co-primary actor beside the US and China, the two real superpowers.

Turkey’s looming economic crisis

Finally, standing on the verge of bankruptcy, Turkey is facing a difficult phase of its trajectory under Erdogan. It is highly unlikely that in such dire budgetary conditions Ankara would stage a large-scale subversion of the international order. Furthermore, Turkey cannot stand on the international stage with the resolve Russia can rightfully claim thanks to its nuclear arsenal.

Thus, any worry of Kosovo being absorbed into Albania with Turkey’s placet and Russia’s condescendence is vain: Pristina is not another Sevastopol.

Forecast: great-power competition in South Eastern Europe beyond former Yugoslavia

Against this background, whatever Russia does or does not do, peace in the region will not depend on it. There are many countries in the Balkans. A few of them have limited chances of pursuing a truly autonomous foreign policy, even despite international recognition. EU membership poses strong constraints on others’ ability to do so, while the dependency on EU funds fetters many. Serbia may look to be an exception since it has managed to float somewhere in the middle without fully relying on the West, Russia or China. Yet, its foreign policy cannot but adapt to its partners’ and neighbours’ policies.

Concerns for the future of the region are rarely unwarranted and it is hard to overstate them. But this is where Hadzidedic’s piece exceeds most measures of caution. First, it fails to understand the Balkans as a region that goes beyond former Yugoslavia. Then, it adopts a monolithic view of politics in which great powers play pool while everyone else is a ball. This rigid framework bulldozes nuances and details, degrades the region to a playground and revives the ghosts of a (recent) bloody past.

Many challenges lie ahead. Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece and Romania are struggling to navigate the pandemic. Bosnia and Kosovo have to deal with uncertain statehood while sharing with North Macedonia, Montenegro, Moldova and Serbia an oligarchic and backward economy. Albania and North Macedonia are waiting on the EU’s doorstep with no real assurance of effective membership. Yet, each of these risks hide a correlative opportunity. Publications like Modern diplomacy should contribute to laymen’s and investors’ knowledge of the region to emphasise those key, realistic focal points. This is the effort to which this piece wants to offer a contribution.

Acknowledgement

The Author thanks Dr. Fabio Bettanin, Professor of Contemporary Russian and Eastern-European History at the University of Naples “l’Orientale” for his valuable contributions to this article.

Fabio A. Telarico was born in Naples, Southern Italy. Since 2018 he has been publishing on websites and magazines about the culture, society and politics of South Eastern Europe and the former USSR in Italian, English, Bulgarian and French. As of 2021, he has edited two volumes and is the author of contributions in collective works. He combines his activity as author and researcher with that of regular participant to international conferences on Europe’s periphery, Russia and everything in between. For more information, visit the Author’s website (in English and Bulgarian).

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Belgrade and Pristina: Will a territorial exchange really happen?

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The European Union is dialing up pressure on Serbia and Kosovo in an effort to convince Belgrade and Pristina to sign an agreement on normalizing bilateral relations. This would allow Brussels to seize the initiative in the Balkans from the United States, which has previously managed to get the two sides clinch a similar deal on trade and other economic issues. Moreover, the EU is even ready to break from its previous policy and give a nod to a territorial exchange between Serbs and Albanians, which was categorically rejected, above all by Germany. However, while the Serbian leadership largely welcomes the idea, the Kosovo Albanians’ radically-minded leaders rule out any territorial concessions to Belgrade, thus deepening the Kosovo impasse.

Albin Kurti, the leader of the radical Vetëvendosje (“Self-Determination”) movement, who has regained the Kosovo premiership, categorically rejected the idea of any territorial exchange with Serbia, proposed by the EU’s High Representative for International Affairs Josep Borrell.

“I do not think that we should give anything away.” … “This is pressure from Serbia. They want us to give in,” Kurti said.

That being said, the former Kosovo president, Hashim Thaci, actively lobbied the idea of ​​a territorial exchange, even more than others. Back in August 2018, he and his Serbian counterpart Aleksandar Vucic reached a preliminary agreement on this when meeting on the sidelines of the European Forum in Alpbach, Austria. Thaci and Vucic voiced their intention to double down on signing a comprehensive deal, and invited the EU to act as its mediator and guarantor.

“We have a small window of opportunity,” Hashim Thaci said at the time. The planned agreement was supposed to be inked in Brussels already in September 2018, with the participation of the EU leadership. However, the whole process immediately hit a snag due to disagreements over border delimitation and opposition protests in both Belgrade and Pristina.

According to the plan, devised by Hashim Thaci, the delimitation issues should be discussed as a “package” and provide for a complex exchange of territories, including both the Serbian-populated North Kosovo communities of Leposavic, Zvecan and Zubin Potok (roughly one-fifth of the territory of Kosovo), and the southern Serbian communities of Buyanovac, Presevo and, preferably, Medvedja, adjacent to Kosovo, populated mainly by ethnic Albanians. The Kosovar leader argued that a territorial exchange whereby regions with a majority Albanian population would end up in Kosovo, and those with a predominantly Serbian population – in Serbia, would help ease tensions between Belgrade and Pristina.

According to the latest census in Serbia, about 90,000 people live on the territory of the three southern Serbian communities: in Presevo, 89 percent are Albanians and 9 percent are Serbs; in Bujanovac, 55 percent are Albanians and 34 percent are Serbs; in Medvedja, 26 percent are Albanians and 67 percent are Serbs. Thus, Albanians already make up the majority of the population of Presevo and Bujanovac. In Medvedja, their share has also been steadily rising.

While President Aleksandar Vucic generally agrees to the partition of Kosovo with the return of control over the province’s northern regions to Belgrade, he is still against the idea of extending the “package” exchange to include the southern Serbian communities of the Presevo Valley.

There is no unity on this issue outside the Balkans too, with Germany and France initially rejecting the idea of territorial exchanges as such, arguing that this could fire up tensions in North Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

“The territorial integrity of the Western Balkan states is already a hard fact and cannot be changed,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said.

Austria has been foursquare behind the partition of Kosovo as a means of normalizing relations between Belgrade and Pristina.

“If Serbia and Kosovo agree on a border correction, the agreement will have our support,” Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said.

The EU’s Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighborhood Policy Johannes Hahn equally favored the upcoming agreement. He urged his EU colleagues not to obstruct the deal between Pristina and Belgrade, even if it involves changing borders. Such an agreement, if it is reached, will be a one-off affair though and “should not be used as an example for solving other problems,” Hahn said at the end of August 2018.

The US administration backed the upcoming deal, with President Trump’s national security advisor John Bolton going on record saying that “Our policy, the US policy, is that if the two parties can work it out between themselves and reach agreement, we don’t exclude territorial adjustments.”

The agreement on the exchange of territories, drawn up in 2018 never came to fruition though. Responsibility for this failure lies with radical nationalist forces in both Belgrade and Pristina, not interested in any compromise solutions that won’t sit well with their own political intentions. While Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic is still in power and has not changed his position, Vjos Osmani, who replaced Hashim Thaci as President of Kosovo, is less inclined to accept any compromises with Belgrade.

This situation adds to EU and US headaches with Barack Obama’s de facto foreign policy team, now back in power in Washington, being eager to strengthen the position of the United States in the Balkans through more active military and political activity and pressure (not trade and economic scenarios and proposals, as was the case under Donald Trump). The EU and the US now have two options to choose from – either to ramp up pressure on Serbia in order to force it to recognize Kosovo without any territorial exchanges (which is more to the Joe Biden administration’s liking), or to convince the Kosovar leaders to accept territorial compromises (more preferred by the EU).

And here we should not forget about the Bosnian factor, since any changes to the status and borders of Kosovo will inevitably reflect on the domestic  political situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina and, in particular, on the position of the Bosnian Serbs. When briefing reporters a few days ago, the chairman of the Presidium of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Milorad Dodik, said that in any case he would insist on the implementation of the concept of “peaceful divergence,” that is, the disintegration of the country, which, according to him, is already happening. He stated that the integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina cannot be maintained, and this is something that has increasingly been discussed by the international community.

“We are waiting for the moment when a peaceful gap becomes real,” Milorad Dodik noted, adding that he was not a warmonger and was only offering a way out of the current situation, which he described as unstable.

The EU too appears ready to “reformat” Bosnia and Herzegovina. When, during a visit to Sarajevo in early March of this year, Slovenian President Borut Pahor informally asked members of that country’s collective leadership whether a “peaceful divergence” was a possibility. Bosnian Muslim Shefik Jaferovic and Croat Zeljko Komšić responded that this was impossible, while Milorad Dodik, for his part, said that it was a likely scenario.

The current situation of “unstable equilibrium” around Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina is serious enough to prod all the disputing parties to more actively seek Russia’s mediation. Serbia and Republika Srpska maintain partner relations with Moscow. Meanwhile, the disagreements between the EU and the United States could make the other participants in the discussions more accommodating, including the Kosovar Albanians, who are interested in normalizing relations with Belgrade and implementing large-scale regional projects.

From our partner International Affairs

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A leaderless ship: The Bulgaria’s political crisis and the storm to come

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Internal and international tensions

Politics tends to develop in a complex conundrum in all Balkan countries. Thus, never can observers take their eyes off the ball, investors feel completely safe or international partners express enduring satisfaction. In effect, this is the case also for bits of the region that have joined the European Union in the last decade. Recently, Bulgaria has been the most interesting hearth of, popular outrage, institutional instability and international tensions amongst the latter countries.

Actually, the atmosphere began simmering back in Summer 2020, when thousands of people took to the streets for several weeks. Arguably, the combination of the umpteenth high-echelon corruption scandal involving andthe pandemic-induced recession was only the most immediate cause. Swiftly, dissatisfaction led to vigorous calls for the Prime Minister’s and the Attorney General’s resignation and early election. Even the President of the Republic, Rumen Radev, broke with his supposed non-partisanship and joined the protestors gathering vast support. However, the winter suppressed street protests and Boyko Borisov, the Prime Minister, exploited the pandemic to justify his indifference.

In the meantime, the cabinet embroiled Bulgaria in a dispute which the country had refrained from ever since 1991. The so-called ‘Macedonian question’predates the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’s independence, but only then turned into a crisis. Indeed, the hardest-fought issue was that surrounding the use of the name ‘Macedonia’, which Greece opposed until the Prespa Agreement. But the newly named Republic of North Macedonia has failed to acknowledge the deep historical and cultural connection with Bulgaria. Eventually, the former’s lack of real cooperation led Sofia to veto the opening of negotiations on EU membership. Thence, scholars have criticised the country’s government while foreign politicians tried to persuade Borisov to lift his veto.

Against the background of such a delicate, multifaceted domestic and international circumstances Bulgaria celebrated regular election on April 4. The country needed everything but being left leaderless, but this is exactly what happened.

Election results: Who to form a cabinet?

The most recent elections speak volume about the difficulty in understanding Bulgarian politics and understanding what the popular sentiment is. For a start, GERB, Borisov’s party, lost about 300,000 votes falling from 33.65%in 2017, to 26.18% this year. Moreover, the nationalist collation United Patriots, GERB’s reliable allies, split up and failed to clear the 4% threshold. Thus, with his 75 MPs in the 240-seat Parliament Borisov had no more a majority and desperately needed a partner.

At the same time, the elections produced an unusually hostile environment for GERB. In fact, a number of new leaders and formations emerged — all of which declared GERB a “most toxic party”. Still, opposing Borisov’s “model”, as they use to say, was not enough to form a government. Neither the protest party There is such a people (ITN) nor the establishment Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) even tried. Therefore, the two smaller protest parties – Democratic Bulgaria (DB) and Stand Up! Bastards Out (ISMV) – and the Muslim Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) had to accept new elections in July.

In effect, once the elections results became clear, no one nurtured many hopes for a stable government. The BSP had offered it external, conditional support to an ITN cabinet as the DPS and even GERB did. Perhaps, members of DB and ISMV could have joined the project to ensure wider representation. But all attempts failed in front of ITN’s leader, the showman-turned-politician SlaviTrifonov, display of “political fearfulness”. The ultimate result of these developments was the shortest parliamentin Bulgaria’s two-century history.

What the parliament produced

Without a fully-functioning political government and with a lame-duck Parliament, Bulgaria is traversing a difficult period. The legislature has yet to approve the Recovery and sustainability plan towards which the EU has granted €6bln ($7.3bln). Without these funds, it will be harder for the country’s economy to rebound after the last recession. At the same time, no one is in charge of managing the ongoing feud with the Republic of North Macedonia. Hence, Sofia can neither substantiate its claims and pretences vis-à-vis Skopje nor backtrack and let membership negotiations start. Finally, in the last weeks tensions between Bulgaria and Russia have risen with mutual expulsion of several high-ranking diplomats. In fact, Czech authorities have found out about a “Bulgarian connection” in the incidents allegedly blamed on Russian security services.

On the offense: ITN, DB and ISMV against GERB

Yet, the parliament has found not time to address any of these really pressing issues. As it often happens after the elections, foreign policy has disappearedfrom the order of the day. There was no discussion of either the bilateral relations with Russia nor the North Macedonian issue.

Representative from ITN, DB and ISMV wrapped up the Recovery plan into their wider attempt to publicly discredit GERB. Thus, they refused to let the competent executive official introducing the bill and pretended Borisov himself did it.

Meanwhile, the three parties and the BSP also forced a vote on the cabinet’s resignation. Hence, the government is officially in charge only of managing current affairs: it cannot update the budget or adopt new economic measures. The opposition also blocked the automatic renewal of key concession for Sofia’s airport and some highways to Borisov’s closest allies.

So-called ‘Protest parties’ also formed a parliamentary commission to investigate Borisov governments’ misdeed. However, the legislature will soon dissolve, so nothing will come out of it besides some gossipy kompromat. The only real change is a new electoral law,remedying to some of the previous legal framework’s most evident fallacies. The hope is that it will curb the purchase of votes and other instances of fraud.

Wait-and-see: Borisov’s unkind defence

Borisov’s loyalists in the government, in the Parliament and, more importantly, in the media are repelling this frontal assault vehemently.

Figure 1 Acting Prime Minister Boyko Borissov called the Parliament “a show” in a video on his Facebook page.

Acting foreign minister Ekaterina Zakharieva has spoken out against the supposed attempt to make 850,000 GERB voters ‘disappear’. The chair of GERB’s parliamentary group, Desislava Atanasova, accused other parties of having “failed to fulfil society’s interests”. Borisov himself went out for the biggest prey: President Radev.On Facebook he declared

I hope that Radev is not proud [of the result of last year’s protests …]: This parliamentary show costs 19 million [leva, €9.5mln] a day. It is better that they closed it because we would have gone bankrupt.

The opposition motto offers no way forward behind the idea that “What GERB did must be cancelled”. Yet, GERB is not less destructive in its agenda. Currently, Borisov’s clique is challenging both the moratorium of concessionsand the electoral reformin front of the constitutional court. According to many experts, the justices could strike down or rescale at least one of these two measures. Hence, all hopes for a real democratic change will likely evaporate as long as GERB holds the levers of power.

Forecast: A leaderless ship in a stormy sea

Some have been talking about the rebirth of parliamentarism. But partisanship, anger and personal hatred currently dominate Bulgaria’s politics. Thus, a disenchanted observer could only see the dismaying polarisationand personalisation of the mainstream political discourse. At this time, Bulgaria is like a ship whose crew has mutinied, but whose captain refuses to jump off. Fortunately, the peaks of the economic and sanitary crisis seem over — for now. But the international setting conspires against the vessel. A storm is mounting from the East and the West. Winds of reprisal spire from Russia, whereas the EU is increasingly discontent with Bulgaria’s management of the North Macedonian issue. Assuming that the next elections will produce a working government, either the mutineers or the old captain will be just in time to manage the gale. But should this not happen, the country may soon regret the current lull.

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Geopolitics of Europe and the Third Wave

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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. 

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