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Restructuring diplomacy in the Republic of North Macedonia

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Reasons to care — In lieu of an introduction

Many European leaders look hopefully at the Republic of North Macedonia’s (RNM) endeavours to improve relations with its neighbours. But local elites have constantly ignored the fact that the country’s future and its very existence depend on diplomacy. On the contrary, both right- and left-leaning leaderships have jeopardised bilateral relations for domestic political gains. Even the bi-decennial name dispute with Greece seems not to have taught the RNM to appease rather than pretend. As of now, a breakthrough in bilateral relations would surely improve the country’s chances to join the EU quite soon. However, a stall may cause EU enlargement to halt altogether leaving the RNM’s tandem partner, Albania, out of the Union. Even if Brussels decouples Tirana, the damage to the Union’s credibility and the Western Balkans’ regional stability may be immense.

Diplomacy: A game the RNM has not played well

The great game of international relations is not only difficult to master, but expensive to play. Moreover, the experience of the Cold War shows that foreign policy is more effective when it rests on internal consensus. All these factors – expertise, resources, and unanimity – are missing the RNM for structurally and historically determined reasons. As a matter of fact, the country is deeply divided along at least two focal cleavages.

On the one hand, there is an ethnic divide between Albanian and Slav populace. This fracture has already led the country on the brink of a civil war once, in 2001. On the other, the ethnic Slav majority is polarised between the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) and the VMRO. The SDSM has been the main opposition to Nikola Gruevski, head of the VMRO, rather authoritarian government for years. In 2016, the SDSM ousted Gruevski despite losing the elections due to the popular outarge fro allegations of widespread wiretapping. Since then, Prime Minister Zoran Zaev and the SDSM, has been governing owing to a slim parliamentary majority. The cabinet holds on a mere 52-to-48 majority thanks to the support of two Albanian parties.

The SDSM has promised to accelerated the RNM’s integration in the EU and NATO. But the Prime Minister’s and his party have proven inept to consolidate any diplomatic gain.

A step forward: Reaching NATO membership

During his tenure Zaev has made some steps forward in resolving the RNM’s longest rows with a neighbour. The quarrel dates to 1991, when the poorest Yugoslav republic declared independence after breaking away from Serbia’s deadly embrace. Back then, Greek authorities refused to recognise the new-born State, imposed an embargo and supported Serbia in the Yugoslav wars. Indeed, the reason is quite simple: Athens feared claims on the homonym Greek region and on Alexander the Great’s legacy.

Retorting to Greece’s hostility, the VMRO government began alleging a direct connection between the Slav majority and Ancient Macedonians. To substantiation this claim, Gruevski started a policy known as antiquisation with the aim to appropriate Alexander’s legacyin 2006. A decade later, Zaev terminated antiquisation not to anger Greece further and opened the door to new negotiations. Finally, in 2018, Zaev struck a deal with his Greek counterpart – the leftist Alexis Tsipras – normalising Greek-Macedonian relations. Albeit controversial, the Prespa Agreement gave the FYROM a proper name putting an end to the name dispute with Greece.

In March 2020, shortly after the parties ratified and implemented accord, Zaev’s government scored an important point: NATO membership.

Continuing on the right track: Towards EU membership

The first years of Zaev’s tenure yielded some positive results for those who were looking forward to Euro-Atlantic integration. However, the biggest prey was still out there, waiting for someone to chase it down: EU membership. Overall, the RNM was already quite aheadin adopting the reforms needed to join the EU under Gruevski’s rule. In fact, according to the European Commission, in 2015 the FYROM was

at a good level of preparation in developing a functioning market economy. The country benefits from a stable macroeconomic environment, supported by sound monetary policy, favourable conditions for market entry, and a sound legal system.

Moreover, “some progress was made […] on strengthening administrative capacity” and reforming bureaucracy.

As such, inducing the EU to officially designate the RNM as a candidate country was not a difficult task. True, reforms had to proceed and there was still much to do before the RNM could actually join. But candidate status – and the annexed financial benefits – were essentially at hand’s reach.

Two steps back: Antagonising Bulgaria

The only thing that Zaev’s government needed not to do was to enflame patriotic ressentiment in another EU-member neighbour. In fact, the EU opens negotiations to the countries with which it discusses serious membership prospects. However, this is not a decision that the grey technocrats sitting on the Commission can take on their own. This faculty in on member States’ representatives gathered in the so-called European Council, each of whom has veto powers.

Despite understanding that there were outstanding unresolved issues with Bulgaria, Zaev decided to call a snap election before the Council. Zaev seemed persuaded he could have won a larger majority only if he siphoned some of the VMRO’s nationalist voters. Thus, the SDSM decided to adopt reckless electoral tactics whichhave sored anti-Bulgarian sentiments. Predictably, the Bulgarian government seized the opportunity to score points in upcoming elections by vetoing the RNM’s accession.

Rearrangements at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs: Building a national foreign-policy consensus

In a word, the RNM does not find itself in the European region with the friendliest neighbourhood relations. Surely, Greece and Bulgaria are not be as tolerant as Austria Czechia and Slovakia were in the 1990s. Yet, Skopje has arguably invoked his neighbour’s ire this time — and needlessly so.

At the moment, no political force in Bulgaria argues for a softening of positions vis-à-vis the RNM. Hence, the two bordering countries are heading off for a diplomatic clash fought with soft power, cohesion, and sheer stubbornness. In view of this inevitable runoff, the RNM’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) is undergoing a deep renewal. The hope is to retain the expertise developed in the thirty years since independence and building a national consensus. According to Minister Bujar Osmani his decennial foreign-policy strategy has three founding. First, extensive consultations with civil society actors and stakeholders. Second, a series specialised thematic conferences to elaborate new tactics. Third, the Minister a ‘Strategic Council on Foreign Policy’ (SCVP).

The SCVP is probably the most interesting of the three elements Osmani mentioned. In fact, it may offer a solution, together with the thematic conferences, to the lack of expertise. At the same time, it may enhance the effectiveness of wide consultation in building a national foreign-policy consensus.

The SCVP will include some high-profile figures associated to Gruevski and the VMRO. Amongst them:

  • Valentina Bozinovska and Srdjan Kerim, former VMRO deputies;
  • Marian Gyurovski, former UN General Assembly President;
  • Nano Ruzin, former Ambassador to NATO;
  • Denko Malevski, former Foreign Minister;
  • Marko Trosanovski, head of a think tank;
  • Ivana Tufegdzic and Gordan Gorgiev, SDSM deputies;
  • Lazar Elenovski and Zhivko Mukaetov, businessmen;
  • Viktor Gaber, former diplomat;
  • Aydovan Ademovski, President of the Macedonian-Turkish Chamber of Commerce.

In effect, according to former Ambassador to NATO Nano Ruzin, the Osmani’s choice was deliberate. In addition to cumulating expertise, Osmani is attempting to coalesce the “different thoughts, which constantly creates excitement in foreign policy.”

Conclusion: The RNM is finally taking diplomacy seriously

The composition of the CSVP shows that Zaev’s government is now ready to take foreign policy seriously. The decision to include former Gruevski associates whom the public has no love lost for is a sign of maturity. In the RNM diplomacy seems to be moving closer to the centre stage and becoming more consensual. The inclusion of a few businessmen and the President of the Macedonian-Turkish Chamber of Commerce is also telling. There seems to be acknowledgment of the fact that diplomacy is not just a fine form of political communication.

It is legitimate to expect that there will not be grand diplomatic pushes due to the lack of sufficient funds. Nonetheless, the RNM’s diplomacy is becoming more active and multifaceted. One should expect Skopje to begin engaging the EU and Turkey more intensely. And not just on political topics, but also in the economic, cultural, and social spheres. In a wat, diplomacy may also become a tool to ‘attract foreign investments with other means’. People close to the circles of power point at promoting tourism and lobbying as profitable diplomatic activities for the country.

The jury is still out on the Bulgarian-Macedonian dispute, but the former’s political instability already hints at a winner. Perhaps, the EU will have 29 members sooner than many expect.

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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Europe

Europe tells Biden “no way” to Cold War with China

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Amidst the first big transatlantic tensions for the Biden Administration, a new poll shows that the majority of Europeans see a new Cold War happening between the United States and China, but they don’t see themselves as a part of it.

Overwhelmingly, 62% of Europeans believe that the US is engaged in a new Cold War against China, a new poll just released by the European Council on Foreign Relations found. Just yesterday US President Joe Biden claimed before the UN General Assembly that there is no such thing and the US is not engaging in a new Cold War. So, Europeans see Biden’s bluff and call him on it.

The study was released on Wednesday by Mark Leonard and Ivan Krastev at the European Council on Foreign Relations and found that Europeans don’t see themselves as direct participants in the US-China Cold War. This viewpoint is most pronounced in Bulgaria, Hungary, Austria, Portugal and Italy, according to the study. The prevailing view, in each of the 12 surveyed EU member states, is one of irrelevance – with respondents in Hungary (91%), Bulgaria (80%), Portugal (79%), and Austria (78%) saying that their country is not in a conflict with Beijing.

Only 15% of Europeans believe that the EU is engaged in a Cold War against China. The percentage is so low that one wonders if there should even be such a question. It is not only not a priority, it is not even a question on the agenda for Europeans. Even at the highest point of EU “hawkishness”, only 33% of Swedes hold the view that their country is currently in a Cold War with China.  Leonard and Krastev warn that if Washington and Brussels are preparing for an all-in generational struggle against China, this runs against the grain of opinion in Europe, and leaders in Washington and Brussels will quickly discover that they “do not have a societal consensus behind them”.

“The European public thinks there is a new cold war – but they don’t want to have anything to do with it. Our polling reveals that a “cold war” framing risks alienating European voters”, Mark Leonard said.

The EU doesn’t have the backing of its citizens to follow the US in its new Cold War pursuit. But unlike the views of the authors of the study, my view is that this is not a transatlantic rift that we actually have to be trying to fix. Biden’s China policy won’t be Europe’s China policy, and that’s that, despite US efforts to persuade Europe to follow, as I’ve argued months ago for the Brussels Report and in Modern Diplomacy.

In March this year, Gallup released a poll that showed that 45% of Americans see China as the greatest US enemy. The poll did not frame the question as Cold War but it can be argued that Joe Biden has some mandate derived from the opinion of American people. That is not the case for Europe at all, to the extent that most of us don’t see “China as an enemy” even as a relevant question.

The US’s China pursuit is already giving horrible for the US results in Europe, as French President Macron withdrew the French Ambassador to the US. The US made a deal already in June, as a part of the trilateral partnership with the UK and Australia, and stabbed France in the back months ago to Macron’s last-minute surprise last week. Max Boot at the Council on Foreign Relations argues that it is Macron that is actually arrogant to expect that commitments and deals should mean something: “Back in February, Macron rejected the idea of a U.S.-E.U. common front against China. Now he complains when America pursues its own strategy against China. What’s French for chutzpah?” What Boot does get right is that indeed, there won’t be a joint US-EU front on China, and European citizens also don’t want this, as the recent poll has made clear.

The US saying Europe should follow the US into a Cold War with China over human rights is the same thing as China saying that Europe should start a Cold War with the US over the bad US human rights record. It’s not going to happen. You have to understand that this is how ridiculous the proposition sounds to us, Europeans. Leonard and Krastev urge the EU leadership to “make the case for more assertive policies” towards China around European and national interests rather than a Cold War logic, so that they can sell a strong, united, and compelling case for the future of the Atlantic alliance to European citizens.

I am not sure that I agree, as “more assertive policies” and “cold war” is probably the same thing in the mind of most Europeans and I don’t think that the nuance helps here or matters at all. Leaders like Biden argue anyway that the US is not really pursuing a Cold War. The authors caution EU leaders against adopting a “cold war” framing. You say “framing”, I say “spin”. Should we be in engaging in spins at all to sell unnecessary conflict to EU citizens only to please the US?

Unlike during the first cold war, [Europeans] do not see an immediate, existential threat”, Leonard clarified. European politicians can no longer rely on tensions with China to convince the electorate of the value of transatlantic relations. “Instead, they need to make the case from European interests, showing how a rebalanced alliance can empower and restore sovereignty to European citizens in a dangerous world”, Mark Leonard added. The study shows that there is a growing “disconnect” between the policy ambitions of those in Brussels and how Europeans think. EU citizens should stick to their sentiments and not be convinced to look for conflict where it doesn’t exist, or change what they see and hear with their own eyes and ears in favor of elusive things like the transatlantic partnership, which the US itself doesn’t believe in anyways. And the last thing that should be done is to scare Europeans by convincing them they live in a “dangerous world” and China is the biggest threat or concern.

What the study makes clear is that a Cold War framing against China is likely to repel more EU voters than it attracts, and if there is one thing that politicians know it is that you have to listen to the polls in what your people are telling you instead of engaging in spins. Those that don’t listen in advance get the signs eventually. At the end of the day it’s not important what Biden wants.

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Germany and its Neo-imperial quest

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In January 2021, eight months ago, when rumours about the possibility of appointment of Christian Schmidt as the High Representative in Bosnia occurred for the first time, I published the text under the title ‘Has Germany Lost Its NATO Compass?’. In this text I announced that Schmidt was appointed to help Dragan Čović, the leader of the Croatian HDZ party, to disrupt the constitutional structure of Bosnia-Herzegovina and create precoditions for secession of the Serb- and Croatian-held territories in Bosnia and the country’s final dissolution. I can hardly add anything new to it, except for the fact that Schmidt’s recent statements at the conference of Deutsche Atlantische Gesellschaft have fully confirmed my claims that his role in Bosnia is to act as Čović’s ally in the latter’s attempts to carve up the Bosnian Constitution.

Schmidt is a person with a heavy burden, the burden of a man who has continuously been promoting Croatian interests, for which the Croatian state decorated him with the medal of “Ante Starčević”, which, in his own words, he “proudly wears” and shares with several Croatian convicted war criminals who participated in the 1992-1995 aggression on Bosnia, whom Schmidt obviously perceives as his ideological brethren. The question is, then, why Germany appointed him as the High Representative in Bosnia? 

Germany’s policy towards Bosnia, exercised mostly through the institutions of the European Union, has continuously been based on the concept of Bosnia’s ethnic partition. The phrases that we can occassionaly hear from the EU, on inviolability of state boundaries in the Balkans, is just a rhetoric adapted to the demands by the United States to keep these boundaries intact. So far, these boundaries have remained intact mainly due to the US efforts to preserve them. However, from the notorious Lisbon Conference in February 1992 to the present day, the European Union has always officially stood behind the idea that Bosnia-Herzegovina should be partitioned along ethnic lines. At the Lisbon Conference, Lord Carrington and Jose Cutileiro, the official representatives of the then European Community, which has in the meantime been rebranded as the European Union, drew the maps with lines of ethnic partition of Bosnia-Herzegovina, along which the ethnic cleansing was committed, with 100.000 killed and 1,000.000 expelled, so as to make its territory compatible with their maps. Neither Germany nor the European Union have ever distanced themselves from the idea they promoted and imposed at the Lisbon Conference as ‘the only possible solution’ for Bosnia, despite the grave consequences that followed. Nor has this idea ever stopped being a must within their foreign policy circles, as it has recently been demonstrated by the so-called Janša Non-Paper, launched a couple of months ago, which also advocates the final partition and dissolution of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Such a plan is probably a product of the powerful right-wing circles in the European institutions, such as Schmidt’s CSU, rather than a homework of Janez Janša, the current Prime Minister of Slovenia, whose party is a part of these circles, albeit a minor one. To be sure, Germany is not the original author of the idea of Bosnia’s partition, this author is Great Britain, which launched it directly through Lord Carrington at the Lisbon Conference. Yet, Germany has never shown a will to distance itself from this idea, nor has it done the European Union. Moreover, the appointment of Schmidt, as a member of those political circles which promote ethnic partition as the only solution for multiethnic countries, testifies to the fact that Germany has decided to fully apply this idea and act as its chief promoter.

In this process, the neighbouring countries, Serbia and Croatia, with their extreme nationalist policies, can only act as the EU’s proxies, in charge for the physical implemenation of Bosnia’s pre-meditated disappearance. All the crimes that Serbia and Croatia committed on the Bosnian soil – from the military aggression, over war crimes, ethnic cleansing and genocide, up to the 30 year-long efforts to undermine Bosnia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity – have always had a direct approval and absolute support of the leading EU countries. During the war and in its aftermath, Great Britain and France were the leaders of the initiatives to impose ethnic partition on the citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and now Germany has taken up their role. In such a context, the increasing aggressiveness of Serbia and Croatia can only be interpreted as a consequence of the EU’s intention to finish with Bosnia for good, and Schmidt has arrived to Bosnia to facilitate that process. Therefore, it is high time for the citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina to abandon any ilussions about the true intentions of the European Union and reject its Trojan Horse in the form of the current High Representative.  

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Should there be an age limit to be President?

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The presidential elections in Bulgaria are nearing in November 2021 and I would like to run for President of Bulgaria, but the issue is the age limit.

To run for President in Bulgaria a candidate needs to be at least 40 years old and I am 37. I am not the first to raise the question: should there be an age limit to run for President, and generally for office, and isn’t an age limit actually age discrimination?

Under the international human rights law standard, putting an age limit is allowed in the context of political participation under the right to vote and the right to run to be elected. Human Rights Committee General Comment No.25 interpreting the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states that an age limit has to be based on objective and reasonable criteria, adding that it is reasonable to have a higher age requirement for certain offices. As it stands, the law says that having an age limit for president is not age discrimination, but is 40 actually a reasonable cut-off? National legislations can change. We need to lower the age limit and rethink what’s a reasonable age for President, and not do away with all age limits.

We have seen strong leaders emerge as heads of state and government who are below 40 years of age. Sanna Marin, Prime Minister of Finland, became Prime Minister at 34. Sebastrian Kurz, the Prime Minister of Austria, was elected at 31. Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand, assumed her position at 37. So perhaps it is time to rethink age limits for the highest offices.

The US has plenty of examples where elected Senators and Congressmen actually beat the age limit and made it despite the convention. The age limit for Senator in the US is 30 years old. Rush Holt was elected to the US Senate at 29. In South Carolina, two State Senators were elected at 24 years old and they were seated anyways. The age limit for US president is 35 years old.

In Argentina, the age cut-off is 30. In India, it is 35. In Pakistan, it is 45 years old. In Turkey, it is 40 years old. Iceland says 35 years old. In France, it is 18.

Generally, democracies set lower age limits. More conservative countries set the age limit higher in line with stereotypes rather than any real world evidence that a 45 year-old or 55 year-old person would be more effective and better suited to the job. Liberal countries tend to set lower age limits.

40 years old to be a President of Bulgaria seems to be an arbitrary line drawn. And while it is legal to have some age limits, 40 years old seems to be last century. Changing the age limit for president of Bulgaria could be a task for the next Bulgarian Parliament for which Bulgarians will also vote on the same date as they vote for President.

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