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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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Iceland’s Historic(al) Elections

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The morning of September, 26 was a good one for Lenya Run Karim of the Pirate Party. Once the preliminary results were announced, things were clear: the 21-year-old law student of the University of Iceland, originating from a Kurdish immigrant family, had become the youngest MP in the country’s history.

In historical significance, however, this event was second to another. Iceland, the world champion in terms of gender equality, became the first country in Europe to have more women MPs than men, 33 versus 30. The news immediately made world headlines: only five countries in the world have achieved such impressive results. Remarkably, all are non-European: Rwanda, Nicaragua and Cuba have a majority of women in parliament, while Mexico and the UAE have an equal number of male and female MPs.

Nine hours later, news agencies around the world had to edit their headlines. The recount in the Northwest constituency affected the outcome across the country to delay the ‘triumph for women’ for another four years.

Small numbers, big changes

The Icelandic electoral system is designed so that 54 out of the 63 seats in the Althingi, the national parliament, are primary or constituency seats, while another nine are equalization seats. Only parties passing the 5 per cent threshold are allowed to distribute equalisation seats that go to the candidates who failed to win constituency mandates and received the most votes in their constituency. However, the number of equalisation mandates in each of the 6 constituencies is legislated. In theory, this could lead to a situation in which the leading party candidate in one constituency may simply lack an equalisation mandate, so the leading candidate of the same party—but in another constituency—receives it.

This is what happened this year. Because of a difference of only ten votes between the Reform Party and the Pirate Party, both vying for the only equalisation mandate in the Northwest, the constituency’s electoral commission announced a recount on its own initiative. There were also questions concerning the counting procedure as such: the ballots were not sealed but simply locked in a Borgarnes hotel room. The updated results hardly affected the distribution of seats between the parties, bringing in five new MPs, none of whom were women, with the 21-year-old Lenya Run Karim replaced by her 52-year-old party colleague.

In the afternoon of September, 27, at the request of the Left-Green Movement, supported by the Independence Party, the Pirates and the Reform Party, the commission in the South announced a recount of their own—the difference between the Left-Greens and the Centrists was only seven votes. There was no ‘domino effect’, as in the case of the Northwest, as the five-hour recount showed the same result. Recounts in other districts are unlikely, nor is it likely that Althingi—vested with the power to declare the elections valid—would invalidate the results in the Northwest. Nevertheless, the ‘replaced’ candidates have already announced their intention to appeal against the results, citing violations of ballot storage procedures. Under the Icelandic law, this is quite enough to invalidate the results and call a re-election in the Northwest, as the Supreme Court of Iceland invalidated the Constitutional Council elections due to a breach of procedure 10 years ago. Be that as it may, the current score remains 33:30, in favor of men.

Progressives’ progress and threshold for socialists

On the whole, there were no surprises: the provisional allocation of mandates resembles, if with minor changes, the opinion polls on the eve of the election.

The ruling three-party coalition has rejuvenated its position, winning 37 out of the 63 Althingi seats. The centrist Progressive Party saw a real electoral triumph, improving its 2017 result by five seats. Prime-minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir’s Left-Green Movement, albeit with a slight loss, won eight seats, surpassing all pre-election expectations. Although the centre-right Independence Party outperformed everyone again to win almost a quarter of all votes, 16 seats are one of the worst results of the Icelandic ‘Grand Old Party’ ever.

The results of the Social-Democrats, almost 10% versus 12.1% in 2017, and of the Pirates, 8.6% versus 9.2%, have deteriorated. Support for the Centre Party of Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson, former prime-minister and victim of the Panama Papers, has halved from 10.9% to 5.4%. The centrists have seen a steady decline in recent years, largely due to a sexist scandal involving party MPs. The populist People’s Party and the pro-European Reform Party have seen gains of 8.8% and 8.3%, as compared to 6.9% and 6.7% in the previous elections.

Of the leading Icelandic parties, only the Socialist Party failed to pass the 5 per cent threshold: despite a rating above 7% in August, the Socialists received only 4.1% of the vote.

Coronavirus, climate & economy

Healthcare and the fight against COVID-19 was, expectedly, on top of the agenda of the elections: 72% of voters ranked it as the defining issue, according to a Fréttablaðið poll. Thanks to swift and stringent measures, the Icelandic government brought the coronavirus under control from day one, and the country has enjoyed one of the lowest infection rates in the world for most of the time. At the same time, the pandemic exposed a number of problems in the national healthcare system: staff shortages, low salaries and long waiting lists for emergency surgery.

Climate change, which Icelanders are already experiencing, was an equally important topic. This summer, the temperature has not dropped below 20°C for 59 days, an anomaly for a North-Atlantic island. However, Icelanders’ concerns never converted into increased support for the four left-leaning parties advocating greater reductions in CO2 emission than the country has committed to under the Paris Agreement: their combined result fell by 0.5%.

The economy and employment were also among the main issues in this election. The pandemic has severely damaged the island nation’s economy, which is heavily tourism-reliant—perhaps, unsurprisingly, many Icelanders are in favor of reviving the tourism sector as well as diversifying the economy further.

The EU membership, by far a ‘traditional’ issue in Icelandic politics, is unlikely to be featured on the agenda of the newly-elected parliament as the combined result of the Eurosceptics, despite a loss of 4%, still exceeds half of the overall votes. The new Althingi will probably face the issue of constitutional reform once again, which is only becoming more topical in the light of the pandemic and the equalization mandates story.

New (old) government?

The parties are to negotiate coalition formation. The most likely scenario now is that the ruling coalition of the Independence Party, the Left-Greens and the Progressives continues. It has been the most ideologically diverse and the first three-party coalition in Iceland’s history to last a full term. A successful fight against the pandemic has only strengthened its positions and helped it secure additional votes. Independence Party leader and finance minister Bjarni Benediktsson has earlier said he would be prepared to keep the ruling coalition if it holds the majority. President Guðni Jóhannesson announced immediately after the elections that he would confirm the mandate of the ruling coalition to form a new government if the three parties could strike a deal.

Other developments are possible but unlikely. Should the Left-Greens decide to leave the coalition, they could be replaced by the Reform Party or the People’s Party, while any coalition without the Independence Party can only be a four-party or larger coalition.

Who will become the new prime-minister still remains to be seen—but if the ruling coalition remains in place, the current prime-minister and leader of the Left-Greens, Katrín Jakobsdóttir, stands a good chance of keeping her post: she is still the most popular politician in Iceland with a 40 per cent approval rate.

The 2021 Althingi election, with one of the lowest turnouts in history at 80.1%, has not produced a clear winner. The election results reflect a Europe-wide trend in which traditional “major” parties are losing support. The electorate is fragmenting and their votes are pulled by smaller new parties. The coronavirus pandemic has only reinforced this trend.

The 2021 campaign did not foreshadow a sensation. Although Iceland has not become the first European country with a women’s majority in parliament, these elections will certainly go down in history as a test of Icelanders’ trust to their own democracy.

From our partner RIAC

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EU-Balkan Summit: No Set Timeframe for Western Balkans Accession

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From left to right: Janez JANŠA (Prime Minister, Slovenia), Charles MICHEL (President of the European Council), Ursula VON DER LEYEN (President of the European Commission) Copyright: European Union

On October 6, Slovenia hosted a summit between the EU and the Western Balkans states. The EU-27 met with their counterparts (Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Kosovo) in the sumptuous Renaissance setting of Brdo Castle, 30 kilometers north of the capital, Ljubljana. Despite calls from a minority of heads of state and government, there were no sign of a breakthrough on the sensitive issue of enlargement. The accession of these countries to the European Union is still not unanimous among the 27 EU member states.

During her final tour of the Balkans three weeks ago, German Chancellor Angela Merkel stated that the peninsula’s integration was of “geostrategic” importance. On the eve of the summit, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz backed Slovenia’s goal of integrating this zone’s countries into the EU by 2030.

However, the unanimity required to begin the hard negotiations is still a long way off, even for the most advanced countries in the accession process, Albania and North Macedonia. Bulgaria, which is already a member of the EU, is opposing North Macedonia’s admission due to linguistic and cultural differences. Since Yugoslavia’s demise, Sofia has rejected the concept of Macedonian language, insisting that it is a Bulgarian dialect, and has condemned the artificial construction of a distinct national identity.

Other countries’ reluctance to join quickly is of a different nature. France and the Netherlands believe that previous enlargements (Bulgaria and Romania in 2007) have resulted in changes that must first be digested before the next round of enlargement. The EU-27 also demand that all necessary prior guarantees be provided regarding the independence of the judiciary and the fight against corruption in these countries. Despite the fact that press freedom is a requirement for membership, the NGO Reporters Without Borders (RSF) urged the EU to make “support for investigative and professional journalism” a key issue at the summit.”

While the EU-27 have not met since June, the topic of Western Balkans integration is competing with other top priorities in the run-up to France’s presidency of the EU in the first half of 2022. On the eve of the summit, a working dinner will be held, the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, called for “a strategic discussion on the role of the Union on the international scene” in his letter of invitation to the EU-Balkans Summit, citing “recent developments in Afghanistan,” the announcement of the AUKUS pact between the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom, which has enraged Paris.

The Western Balkans remain the focal point of an international game of influence in which the Europeans seek to maintain their dominance. As a result, the importance of reaffirming a “European perspective” at the summit was not an overstatement. Faced with the more frequent incursion of China, Russia, and Turkey in that European region, the EU has pledged a 30 billion euro Economic and Investment Plan for 2021-2027, as well as increased cooperation, particularly to deal with the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Opening the borders, however, is out of the question. In the absence of progress on this issue, Albania, North Macedonia, and Serbia have decided to establish their own zone of free movement (The Balkans are Open”) beginning January 1, 2023. “We are starting today to do in the region what we will do tomorrow in the EU,” said Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama when the agreement was signed last July.

This initiative, launched in 2019 under the name “Mini-Schengen” and based on a 1990s idea, does not have the support of the entire peninsular region, which remains deeply divided over this project. While Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro are not refusing to be a part of it and are open to discussions, the Prime Minister of Kosovo, Albin Kurti, who took office in 2020, for his part accuses Serbia of relying on this project to recreate “a fourth Yugoslavia”

Tensions between Balkan countries continue to be an impediment to European integration. The issue of movement between Kosovo and Serbia has been a source of concern since the end of September. Two weeks of escalation followed Kosovo’s decision to prohibit cars with Serbian license plates from entering its territory, in response to Serbia’s long-standing prohibition on allowing vehicles to pass in the opposite direction.

In response to the mobilization of Kosovar police to block the road, Serbs in Kosovo blocked roads to their towns and villages, and Serbia deployed tanks and the air force near the border. On Sunday, October 3, the conflict seemed to be over, and the roads were reopened. However, the tone had been set three days before the EU-Balkans summit.

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German Election: Ramifications for the US Foreign Policy

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Image source: twitter @OlafScholz

In the recent German election, foreign policy was scarcely an issue. But Germany is an important element in the US foreign policy. There is a number of cases where Germany and the US can cooperate, but all of these dynamics are going to change very soon.

The Germans’ strategic culture makes it hard to be aligned perfectly with the US and disagreements can easily damage the relations. After the tension between the two countries over the Iraq war, in 2003, Henry Kissinger said that he could not imagine the relations between Germany and the US could be aggravated so quickly, so easily, which might end up being the “permanent temptation of German politics”. For a long time, the US used to provide security for Germany during the Cold War and beyond, so, several generations are used to take peace for granted. But recently, there is a growing demand on them to carry more burden, not just for their own security, but for international peace and stability. This demand was not well-received in Berlin.

Then, the environment around Germany changed and new threats loomed up in front of them. The great powers’ competition became the main theme in international relations. Still, Germany was not and is not ready for shouldering more responsibility. Politicians know this very well. Ursula von der Leyen, who was German defense minister, asked terms like “nuclear weapons” and “deterrence” be removed from her speeches.

Although on paper, all major parties appreciate the importance of Germany’s relations with the US, the Greens and SPD ask for a reset in the relations. The Greens insist on the European way in transatlantic relations and SPD seeks more multilateralism. Therefore, alignment may be harder to maintain in the future. However, If the tensions between the US and China heat up to melting degrees, then external pressure can overrule the internal pressure and Germany may accede to its transatlantic partners, just like when Helmut Schmid let NATO install medium-range nuclear missiles in Europe after the Soviet Union attacked Afghanistan and the Cold War heated up.

According to the election results, now three coalitions are possible: grand coalition with CDU/CSU and SPD, traffic lights coalition with SPD, FDP, and Greens, Jamaica coalition with CDU/CSU, FDP, and Greens. Jamaica coalition will more likely form the most favorable government for the US because it has both CDU and FDP, and traffic lights will be the least favorite as it has SPD. The grand coalition can maintain the status quo at best, because contrary to the current government, SPD will dominate CDU.

To understand nuances, we need to go over security issues to see how these coalitions will react to them. As far as Russia is concerned, none of them will recognize the annexation of Crimea and they all support related sanctions. However, if tensions heat up, any coalition government with SPD will be less likely assertive. On the other hand, as the Greens stress the importance of European values like democracy and human rights, they tend to be more assertive if the US formulates its foreign policy by these common values and describe US-China rivalry as a clash between democracy and authoritarianism. Moreover, the Greens disapprove of the Nordstream project, of course not for its geopolitics. FDP has also sided against it for a different reason. So, the US must follow closely the negotiations which have already started between anti-Russian smaller parties versus major parties.

For relations with China, pro-business FDP is less assertive. They are seeking for developing EU-China relations and deepening economic ties and civil society relations. While CDU/CSU and Greens see China as a competitor, partner, and systemic rival, SPD and FDP have still hopes that they can bring change through the exchange. Thus, the US might have bigger problems with the traffic lights coalition than the Jamaica coalition in this regard.

As for NATO and its 2 percent of GDP, the division is wider. CDU/CSU and FDP are the only parties who support it. So, in the next government, it might be harder to persuade them to pay more. Finally, for nuclear participation, the situation is the same. CDU/CSU is the only party that argues for it. This makes it an alarming situation because the next government has to decide on replacing Germany’s tornados until 2024, otherwise Germany will drop out of the NATO nuclear participation.

The below table gives a brief review of these three coalitions. 1 indicates the lowest level of favoritism and 3 indicates the highest level of favoritism. As it shows, the most anti-Russia coalition is Jamaica, while the most anti-China coalition is Trafic light. Meanwhile, Grand Coalition is the most pro-NATO coalition. If the US adopts a more normative foreign policy against China and Russia, then the Greens and FDP will be more assertive in their anti-Russian and anti-Chinese policies and Germany will align more firmly with the US if traffic light or Jamaica coalition rise to power.

Issues CoalitionsTrafic LightGrand CoalitionJamaica
Russia213 
China312 
NATO132 

1 indicates the lowest level of favoritism. 3 indicates the highest level of favoritism.

In conclusion, this election should not make Americans any happier. The US has already been frustrated with the current government led by Angela Merkel who gave Germany’s trade with China the first priority, and now that the left-wing will have more say in any imaginable coalition in the future, the Americans should become less pleased. But, still, there are hopes that Germany can be a partner for the US in great power competition if the US could articulate its foreign policy with common values, like democracy and human rights. More normative foreign policy can make a reliable partner out of Germany. Foreign policy rarely became a topic in this election, but observers should expect many ramifications for it.

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