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Is There Any Hope for Montenegro’s New Government?

Image source: balkaneu.com

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Like for many countries in the Western Balkans, the last few years have been a rollercoaster for Montenegro. The year 2020 started in uproar with protests against the new Law on Freedom of Religion, seeing tens of thousands of people march in protest in support of the Serbian Orthodox Church, the largest religious community in the country (Kajosevic, 2020). This was then followed by even more protests in late December 2020 by those who opposed the new governments amendments to the Law, as well as fresh protests in April against a new Citizenship Law with calls that it could “erase the Montenegrin state and national identity” (Kajosevic, 2021A). All of this occurring in the background of the coronavirus pandemic which has left the country in a dire economic situation, with estimates from the OECD (2021) suggesting that country’s GDP has fallen by -12 to -14.9%. The new government, which came to power in 2020 defeating the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) for the first time in 30 years, has much on its plate; and many doubts have arisen concerning the government’s intended path and whether it will be able to release Montenegro from its current state of intrinsic stagnation in areas such as corruption and speed up the process of European integration.

New government, old problems

The ousting of Milo Đukanović and the DPS can be seen as a milestone for Montenegro. Despite his pro-European and pro-Atlantic approach which saw Montenegro become a member of NATO in 2017, his tenure in power has been marked by widespread corruption, state capture of key institutions and a crackdown on press freedom. Montenegro suffers from an undeveloped democratic system which has allowed semi-autocratic leaders to strongly influence political processes and paved the way for widespread patronage networks to emerge. As a result, the judiciary, as noted by the Montenegrin think tank Institut Alternativa, is controlled by the DPS, which has led to questionable results in the area of investigations in cases of high corruption. In many instances, the Agency for Prevention of Corruption did not even pursue an investigation (European Western Balkans, 2021). There have been several affairs which have shone light on the independence of the judiciary; however, the “flats” affair particularly shook the public’s confidence. In 2019, the government revealed that it had been giving loans and flats on very favourable terms to a number of senior judges (Marović, 2021). As a result, 57.3% of Montenegrins believe that the judiciary fails to protect the rights of its own citizens. On paper, Montenegro has done much in order to fulfil the demands required of an EU candidate country in order to combat corruption and strengthen the legal and institutional framework. However, the amendments taken and laws passed are limited in scope, and their implementation has been insufficient. The country still lacks an effective framework for the fight against corruption and the action plan formed to fulfil Chapter 23 of the association negotiations which covers anti-corruption measures is outdated and has only been updated once which was in 2015 (Marović, 2019).

In addition to the boundless corruption scandals, tarnishing the reputation of the small state, the country, according to Reporters Without Borders, has one of the worst press freedom environments in the whole of the Western Balkans with only Bulgaria having a lower score (Reporters Without Borders, 2021)—a figure, which ultimately jeopardises the country’s EU accession process and has caused much concern from Brussels. A case against the newspaper Vjesti is particularly striking as, even though the paper has been under constant attack since 2011 with five vehicles to date having been burnt and various reporters beaten, the police have not managed to resolve any of the issues and not one person has been accused, hinting at the possible support by the judiciary or the DPS (Beiber & Kmezic, 2015). Smear campaigning is also a problem which threatens the health and well-being of reporters belonging to the free press. A recent example was the smear campaign used to attack journalists who were critical of the government in the run up to the 2020 parliamentary elections, calling the journalists “collaborators of the Serbian secret services” as well as providing personal information about them (Reporters Without Borders, 2020).

It is in the background of this democratic decay in which the new government finds itself, with most of the power, even though not formally, belonging to the DPS. Đukanović has already stated that he will not sign proposed changes to the law governing prosecution appointments. A change that, although has been criticised by the Venice Commission, is necessary in order rid the prosecution office of corruption and loyalists of the DPS. However, the agenda of the new government itself is largely unknown, and whether it will survive the full four years is an even bigger mystery as the current government only holds a very slim majority of one Member of Parliament. At the current moment, the three parties are united in their fight against the DPS and the rule of Đukanović; however, the strings may soon become loose and divisions may start to appear within the coalition. At face value, the new government has much technical experience, however for some including the prime minister himself, politics is something completely new and navigating through the complex waves of Balkan politics is something that not everyone is gifted with. Despite their brief time in power, the government has had to deal with many problems, most notably the pushback from the Law on Religion and the proposed government debates on the Law of Citizenship (Dragojlovic, 2021), less to mention the rifts which are already beginning to show, damaging the alliance with the largest party, The Democratic Front, recently boycotting parliamentary procedures and accusing the prime minister of working with the DPS (Kajosevic, 2021B).

A European future?

The new government, which has been described as pro-Moscow and pro-Serb was quick to reassure the international community that Montenegro’s future lies in Europe and Montenegro will not deviate from the path to EU accession. Montenegro is already the front runner in the process and, according to the results of a public opinion poll conducted in November and December 2020 on behalf of the Delegation of the European Union to Montenegro, 77.6% of Montenegrin citizens have a positive attitude towards the EU and the country has opened all chapters with three provisionally closed (European Union External Action Service, 2021). Furthermore, the country, together with Albania, is the only country to have consistently aligned themselves with 100% of the EU foreign policies decisions.

However, like other states in the Balkans who are aspiring to join the EU, Montenegro is faced with a similar problem that is beyond its control; EU expansion fatigue. The bloc is still yet to put a date on the opening of accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia after Bulgaria’s veto (in the case of North Macedonia) and there are many voices within the bloc, most notably France, who are against further accession. It was France, together with the Netherlands, who first blocked the opening of accession agreements with the two countries in 2019, and it does not seem that this hard stance by President Macron is likely to change in the near future as he is looking to appease the right-wing voters of the country who are mostly against further immigration in the run-up to the Presidential elections in 2022 (Crowcroft, 2021). The effects of the coronavirus pandemic and Brexit have also shifted attention away from the region, with expansion no longer being a priority for the EU.

If there is one thing that is clear, it is that the transition of power is not going to be instantaneous and the DPS is not going to relinquish power without a fight. The party is deeply rooted within the parliament and the judiciary and getting rid of them is not going to be easy. A task made all the more challenging with the recent protests and the effects of the pandemic. As the recent religious protests have shown, Montenegro is still a deeply divided nation with a lot of the politics fuelled by ethno-nationalism and made worse by politicians who play the ethnic card in order to achieve short term gains. In such environments, it does not take much for the spark to be ignited leading to violence based on ethnic grounds. With this in mind and taking into account the coalition’s unstable footing, Đukanović will do much in order to entice the smaller parties in the coalition to leave, triggering new elections where he would still have a good chance of being re-elected. Although there is hope that the ruling coalition will be able to muster up more support and achieve its aims, at the moment it is looking unlikely that it will survive.

From our partner RIAC

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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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