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Restructuring diplomacy in the Republic of North Macedonia



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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Indo-European rapprochement and the competing geopolitics of infrastructure



Current dynamics suggest that the main focus of geopolitics in the coming years will shift towards the Indo-Pacific region. All eyes are on China and its regional initiatives aimed at establishing global dominance. China’s muscle-flexing behavior in the region has taken the form of direct clashes with India along the Line of Actual Control, where India lost at least 20 soldiers last June; interference in Hong Kong’s affairs; an increased presence in the South China Sea; and economic malevolence towards Australia. With this evolving geopolitical complexity, if the EU seeks to keep and increase its global ‘actorness’, it needs to go beyond the initiatives of France and Germany, and to shape its own agenda. At the same time, India is also paying attention to the fact that in today’s fragmented and multipolar world, the power of any aspiring global actor depends on its diversified relationships. In this context, the EU is a useful partner that India can rely on.

Indo-European rapprochement, which attempts to challenge Chinese global expansion, seeks also to enhance multilateral international institutions and to support a rules-based order. Given the fact that India will hold a seat on the UN Security Council in 2021-22 and the G20 presidency in 2022, both parties see an opportunity to move forward on a shared vision of multilateralism. As a normative power, the EU is trying to join forces with New Delhi to promote the rules-based system. Therefore, in order to prevent an ‘all-roads-lead-to-Beijing’ situation and to challenge growing Chinese hegemony, the EU and India need each other.

With this in mind, the EU and India have finally moved towards taking their co-operation to a higher level. Overcoming difficulties in negotiations, which have been suspended since 2013 because of trade-related thorny topics like India’s agricultural protectionism, shows that there is now a different mood in the air.

The Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, had been scheduled to travel to Portugal for  a summit with EU leaders, but the visit cancelled because of the Covid-19 pandemic. As a result, the European Commission and Portugal – in its presidency of the European Council – offered India to hold the summit in a virtual format on 8 May 2021. The talks between these two economic giants were productive and resulted in the Connectivity Partnership, uniting efforts and attention on energy, digital and transportation sectors, offering new opportunities for investors from both sides. Moreover, this new initiative seeks to build joint infrastructure projects around the world mainly investing in third countries. Although both sides have clarified that the new global partnership isn’t designed to compete with China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the joint initiative to build effective projects across Europe, Asia and Africa, will undoubtedly counter Beijing’s agenda.  

The EU and its allies have a common interest in presenting an alternative to the Belt and Road Initiative, which will contain Chinese investment efforts to dominate various regions. Even though the EU is looking to build up its economic ties with China and signed the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investments (CAI) last December, European sanctions imposed on Beijing in response to discrimination against Uighurs and other human rights violations have complicated relations. Moreover, US President Joe Biden has been pushing the EU to take a tougher stance against China and its worldwide initiatives.

This new Indo-European co-operation project, from the point of view of its initiators, will not impose a heavy debt burden on its partners as the Chinese projects do. However, whilst the EU says that both the public and the private sectors will be involved, it’s not clear where the funds will come from for these projects. The US and the EU have consistently been against the Chinese model of providing infrastructure support for developing nations, by which Beijing offers assistance via expensive projects that the host country ends up not being able to afford. India, Australia, the EU, the US and Japan have already started their own initiatives to counterbalance China’s. This includes ‘The Three Seas Initiative’ in the Central and Eastern European region, aimed at reducing its dependence on Chinese investments and Russian gas. Other successful examples are Japan’s ‘Expanded Partnership for Quality Infrastructure’ and its ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy’. One of the joint examples of Indo-Japanese co-operation is the development of infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Bangladesh. The partners had been scheduled to build Colombo’s East Container Terminal but the Sri Lankans suddenly pulled out just before signing last year. Another competing regional strategy is the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC), initiated by India, Japan and a few African countries in 2017. This Indo-Japanese collaboration aims to develop infrastructure in Africa, enhanced by digital connectivity, which would make the Indo-Pacific Region free and open. The AAGC gives priority to development projects in health and pharmaceuticals, agriculture, and disaster management. 

Undoubtably, this evolving infrastructure-building competition may solve the problems of many underdeveloped or developing countries if their leaderships act wisely. The newly adopted Indo-European Connectivity Partnership promises new prospects for Eastern Europe and especially for the fragile democracies of Armenia and Georgia.

The statement of the Indian ambassador to Tehran in March of this year, to connect Eastern and Northern Europe via Armenia and Georgia, paves the way for necessary dialogue on this matter. Being sandwiched between Russia and Turkey and at the same time being ideally located between Europe and India, Armenia and Georgia are well-placed to take advantage of the possible opportunities of the Indo-European Partnership. The involvement of Tbilisi and Yerevan in this project can enhance the economic attractiveness of these countries, which will increase their economic security and will make this region less vulnerable vis-à-vis Russo-Turkish interventions. 

The EU and India need to decide if they want to be decision-makers or decision-takers. Strong co-operation would help both become global agenda shapers. In case these two actors fail to find a common roadmap for promoting rules-based architecture and to become competitive infrastructure providers, it would be to the benefit of the US and China, which would impose their priorities on others, including the EU and India.

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The Leaders of the Western World Meet



The annual meeting of the G7 comprising the largest western economies plus Japan is being hosted this year by the United Kingdom.  Boris Johnson, the UK Prime Minister has also invited Australia, South Korea, South Africa and India.  There has been talk of including Russia again but Britain threatened a veto.  Russia, which had been a member from 1997, was suspended in 2014 following the Crimea annexation.  

Cornwall in the extreme southwest of England has a rugged beauty enjoyed by tourists, and is a contrast to the green undulating softness of its neighbor Devon.  St. Ives is on Cornwall’s sheltered northern coast and it is the venue for the G7 meeting (August 11-13) this year.  It offers beautiful beaches and ice-cold seas.

France, Germany. Italy, UK, US, Japan and Canada.  What do the rich talk about?  Items on the agenda this year including pandemics (fear thereof) and in particular zoonotic diseases where infection spreads from non-human animals to humans.  Johnson has proposed a network of research labs to deal with the problem.  As a worldwide network it will include the design of a global early-warning system and will also establish protocols to deal with future health emergencies.

The important topic of climate change is of particular interest to Boris Johnson because Britain is hosting COP26  in Glasgow later this year in November.  Coal, one of the worst pollutants, has to be phased out and poorer countries will need help to step up and tackle not just the use of cheap coal but climate change and pollution in general.  The G7 countries’ GDP taken together comprises about half of total world output, and climate change has the potential of becoming an existential problem for all on earth.  And help from them to poorer countries is essential for these to be able to increase climate action efforts.

The G7 members are also concerned about large multinationals taking advantage of differing tax laws in the member countries.  Thus the proposal for a uniform 15 percent minimum tax.  There is some dispute as to whether the rate is too low.

America is back according to Joe Biden signalling a shift away from Donald Trump’s unilateralism.  But America is also not the sole driver of the world economy:  China is a real competitor and the European Union in toto is larger.  In a multilateral world, Trump charging ahead on his own made the US risible.  He also got nowhere as the world’s powers one by one distanced themselves.

Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen is also endorsing close coordination in economic policies plus continued support as the world struggles to recover after the corona epidemic.  India for example, has over 27 million confirmed cases, the largest number in Asia.  A dying first wave shattered hopes when a second much larger one hit — its devastation worsened by a shortage of hospital beds, oxygen cylinders and other medicines in the severely hit regions.  On April 30, 2021, India became the first country to report over 400,000 new cases in a single 24 hour period.

It is an interdependent world where atavistic self-interest is no longer a solution to its problems.

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Revisiting the Bosnian War



Genocide is not an alien concept to the world nowadays. However, while the reality (and the culprit) is not hard to profile today, history is ridden with massacres that were draped and concealed from the world beyond. Genocides that rivaled the great warfares and were so gruesome that the ring of brutality still pulsates in the historical narrative of humanity. We journey back to one such genocide that was named the most brutish mass slaughter after World War II. We revisit the Bosnian War (1992-95) which resulted in the deaths of an estimated 100,000 innocent Bosnian citizens and displaced millions. The savage nature of the war was such that the war crimes committed constituted a whole new definition to how we describe genocide.

The historical backdrop helps us gauge the complex relations and motivations which resulted in such chaotic warfare to follow suit. Post World War II, the then People’s Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina joined the then Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia. Bosnia-Herzegovina became one of the constituent republics of Yugoslavia in 1946 along with other Balkan states including Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia. As communism pervaded all over Yugoslavia, Bosnia-Herzegovina began losing its religion-cultural identity. Since Bosnia-Herzegovina mainly comprised of a Muslim population, later known as the Bosniaks, the spread of socialism resulted in the abolition of many Muslim institutions and traditions. And while the transition to the reformed Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1963 did ease the ethnic pressure, the underlying radical ideology and sentiments never fully subsided.

The Bosniaks started to emerge as the majority demographic of Bosnia and by 1971, the Bosniaks constituted as the single largest component of the entire Bosnia-Herzegovina population. However, the trend of emigration picked up later in the decades; the Serbs and the Croats adding up to their tally throughout most of the 70s and mid-80s. The Bosnian population was characterized as a tripartite society, that is, comprised of three core ethnicities: Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats. Till  1991, the ethnic majority of the Bosniaks was heavily diluted down to just 44% while the Serbian emigrants concentrated the Serbian influence; making up 31% of the total Bosnian population.

While on one side of the coin, Bosnia-Herzegovina was being flooded with Serbs inching a way to gain dominance, the Yugoslavian economy was consistently perishing on the other side. While the signs of instability were apparent in the early 80s, the decade was not enough for the economy to revive. In the late 80s, therefore, political dissatisfaction started to take over and multiple nationalist parties began setting camps. The sentiments diffused throughout the expanse of Yugoslavia and nationalists sensed an imminent partition. Bosnia-Herzegovina, like Croatia, followed through with an election in 1990 which resulted in an expected tripartite poll roughly similar to the demographic of Bosnia. The representatives resorted to form a coalition government comprising of Bosniak-Serb-Craot regime sharing turns at the premiership. While the ethnic majority Bosniaks enjoyed the first go at the office, the tensions soon erupted around Bosnia-Herzegovina as Serbs turned increasingly hostile.

The lava erupted in 1991 as the coalition government of Bosnia withered and the Serbian Democratic Party established its separate assembly in Bosnia known as ‘Serbian National Assembly’.  The move was in line with a growing sentiment of independence that was paving the dismantling of Yugoslavia. The Serbian Democratic Party long envisioned a dominant Serbian state in the Balkans and was not ready to participate in a rotational government when fighting was erupting in the neighboring states. When Croatia started witnessing violence and the rise of rebels in 1992, the separatist vision of the Serbs was further nourished as the Serbian Democratic Party, under the leadership of Serb Leader Radovan Karadžić, established an autonomous government in the Serb Majority areas of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The vision and the actions remained docile until the ring of independence was echoed throughout the region. When the European Commission (EC), now known as the European Union (EU), and the United States recognized the independence of both Croatia and Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina found itself in a precarious position. While a safe bet would have been to undergo talks and diplomatic routes to engage the Serbian Democratic Party, the Bosnian President Alija Izetbegović failed to realize the early warnings of an uprising. Instead of forging negotiations with the Bosnian Serbs, the Bosniak President resorted to mirror Croatia by organizing a referendum of independence bolstered by both the EC and the US. Even as the referendum was blocked in the Serb autonomous regions of Bosnia, Izetbegović chose to pass through and announced the results. As soon as the Bosnian Independence from Yugoslavia was announced and recognized, fighting erupted throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The Bosnian Serbs feared that their long-envisioned plan of establishing the ‘Great Serbia’ in the Balkans was interred which resulted in chaos overtaking most of Bosnia. The blame of the decision, however, was placed largely on the Bosniak president and, by extension, the entire ethnic majority of the Bosniaks. The Bosnian Serbs started to launch attacks in the east of Bosnia; majorly targeting the Bosniak-dominated towns like Foča, Višegrad, and Zvornik. Soon the Bosnian Serb forces were joined by the local paramilitary rebels as well as the Yugoslavian army as the attacks ravaged the towns with large Bosniak populations; swathing the land in the process. The towns were pillaged and pressed into control whilst the local Bosniaks and their Croat counterparts were either displaced, incarcerated, or massacred.

While the frail Bosnian government managed to join hands with the Croatian forces across the border, the resulting offense was not nearly enough as the combination of Serb forces, rebel groups, and the Yugoslavian army took control of almost two-thirds of the Bosnian territory. The Karadžić regime refused to hand over the captured land in the rounds of negotiations. And while the war stagnated, the Bosniak locals left behind in small pockets of war-ravaged areas faced the brunt in the name of revenge and ethnic cleansing.

As Bosniaks and Croats formed a joint federation as the last resort, the Serbian Democratic Party established the Republic Srpska in the captured East, and the military units were given under the command of the Bosnian-Serb General, Ratko Mladic. The notorious general, known as the ‘Butcher of Bosnia’, committed horrifying war crimes including slaughtering the Bosniak locals captured in violence, raping the Bosniak women, and violating the minors in the name of ethnic cleansing exercises. While the United Nations refused to intervene in the war, the plea of the helpless Bosniaks forced the UN to at least deliver humanitarian aid to the oppressed. The most gruesome of all incidents were marked in July 1995, when an UN-declared safe zone, known as Srebrenica, was penetrated by the forces led by Mladic whilst some innocent Bosniaks took refuge. The forces brutally slaughtered the men while raped the women and children. An estimated 7000-8000 Bosniak men were slaughtered in the most grotesque campaign of ethnic cleansing intended to wipe off any trace of Bosniaks from the Serb-controlled territory.

In the aftermath of the barbaric war crimes, NATO undertook airstrikes to target the Bosnian-Serb targets while the Bosniak-Croat offense was launched from the ground. In late 1995, the Bosnian-Serb forces conceded defeat and accepted US-brokered talks. The accords, also known as the ‘Dayton Accords’, resulted in a conclusion to the Bosnian War as international forces were established in the region to enforce compliance. The newly negotiated federalized Bosnia and Herzegovina constituted 51% of the Croat-Bosniak Federation and 49% of the Serb Republic.

The accord, however, was not the end of the unfortunate tale as the trials and international action were soon followed to investigate the crimes against humanity committed during the three-year warfare. While many Serb leaders either died in imprisonment or committed suicide, the malefactor of the Srebrenica Massacre, Ratko Mladic, went into hiding in 2001. However, Mladic was arrested after a decade in 2011 by the Serbian authorities and was tried in the UN-established International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia (ICTY). The investigation revisited the malicious actions of the former general and in 2017, the ICTY found Ratko Mladic guilty of genocide and war crimes and sentenced him to life in prison. While Mladic appealed for acquittal on the inane grounds of innocence since not he but his subordinates committed the crimes, the UN court recently upheld the decision in finality; closing doors on any further appeals. After 26-years, the world saw despair in the eyes of the 78-year-old Mladic as he joined the fate of his bedfellows while the progeny of the victims gained some closure as the last Bosnian trail was cased on a note of justice.

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