Day: April 3, 2017

What to do with a big win

Acting Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic has won the presidency in Serbia with a convincing margin over a fragmented opposition in the first round. The question now is what he will do with his overwhelmingly dominant position in Serbian politics.

In foreign policy, Vucic has straddled the yawning gap between European Union ambitions and close relations with Putin’s Russia. Conditioned by decades of non-alignment, Serbs have good reason to like this: they play one side off against the other, getting arms from Russia and lots of money from the EU while refusing to go along with Ukraine-related EU sanctions. So long as US policy on Russia remains in limbo, this straddle is workable. If Trump eventually gets his way and cozies up to Putin, Belgrade will be relieved of any discomfort it may feel from keeping one leg in the West and one in the East. If things go in the other direction, Vucic could come under intensified pressure to join the Ukraine sanctions and align Serbia more completely with Western policy.

Domestically, Vucic also tries to straddle. He claims to be a true democrat and reformer, while outside observers see him as leaning heavily towards illiberal politics: the Serbian press rains praise on him and opprobrium on his competitors, the courts are far from independent, and the ballyhooed corruption investigations rarely touch those close to him. Vucic’s popularity is real, but he lacks a serious political opposition. His closest rival in the presidential poll–former Ombudsman Sasa Jankovic, who has a good reputation–had fewer than one-third the front runner’s votes. The third candidate was a literally a youthful jokester who satirized Serbian politics.

What about the future? It seems to me a new president should keep his focus on longer-term issues–that means at least the five years of his term if not the ten he likely hopes to serve–and not get bogged down in daily events. I’d cite three of particular significance:

  • Opening the media space so that a viable opposition can form and thrive.
  • Building an independent judiciary that is capable of sharply reducing corruption.
  • Moving Serbia definitively towards membership in the European Union, including reaching agreements with Kosovo on difficult outstanding issues.

That is asking a lot. Politicians don’t rise above the fray easily. Certainly Boris Tadic, one of Vucic’s predecessors (2004-12), spent too much of his time managing daily issues of governance. The result was that he achieved little, especially in his second term. Current President Tomislav Nikolic had no choice because Vucic as prime minister was strong enough to keep him out of a lot of issues. So he focused on maintaining relations with Russia and was reasonably successful at that longer-term game, shifting Vucic significantly in that direction.

Vucic likes to say, both in public and in private, that he is not straddling and that he has made a definitive choice to take Serbia into the EU, while maintaining (as many European countries try to do) good relations with Moscow. That is difficult: Moscow last year sponsored a coup attempt in Montenegro, whose accession to NATO it wanted to block, using people and resources that came in part from Serbia. Vucic helped to block Moscow’s move, which targeted Montenegrin Prime Minister Djukanovic for assassination. How do you stay on good terms with people who plot a violent coup against a friendly neighbor?

A big win merits a big move in the direction Vucic really wants to go. We’ll be looking for further signs of his bona fides.

PS: “Anti-dictatorship” protests were held in Belgrade this evening:


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We Exist!

This admirably brief and cogent policy statement by a consortium of 25 Syrian nongovernmental humanitarian and human rights organizations merits consideration, especially in light of the Trump Administration’s acceptance of the continuation of Bashar al Assad in power:

Policy statement for the Brussels Conference on supporting the future of Syria and the region

Brussels 03/04/2017

On 4th and 5th April, the European Union, United Nations, Germany, Kuwait, Norway, Qatar, and UK host the Brussels Conference on Supporting the future of Syria and the region. The Brussels Conference will tackle a range of issues impacting on both immediate life-saving humanitarian priorities as well as longer-term efforts to resolve the conflict. As the violence worsens inside Syria, and political efforts to resolve the conflict prove highly contentious, preparations towards the Conference have been fraught with controversy over if and how ‘reconstruction’ might feature on the agenda, and the political implications of this. The question of how civil society can participate at the Conference, or influence the decisions made, has also been controversial.

In this context, the We Exist! coalition of Syrian civil society organisations makes the following recommendations:

1. Facilitate meaningful participation by independent Syrian civil society groups at the Brussels Conference and follow-up processes – Unfortunately, the experience to date has been that local civil society has generally been the last to get invited into international policy processes on Syria that will impact on their work and the lives of the communities they directly serve. The co-hosts of the Brussels Conference, as well as the preparatory meetings hosted by the UN Office of the Special Envoy Stefan De Mistura and the High Representative Federica Mogherini, ECHO and DG NEAR, should take steps to ensure that diverse Syrian civil society organisations can participate and contribute to the process. In addition, they should ensure effective and inclusive participation in the follow-up process to implement, monitor and evaluate outcomes from the Conference, the Civil Society Chamber meetings and the other side events.

2. Affirm the protection and inclusion of civil society in the substantive commitments and outcomes agreed at the Conference – The Conference should issue a strong call its final declaration as well as in statements by individual governments for the protection and inclusion of independent local civil society organisations in all aspects of the international, national and local response to the Syrian crisis. Attacks on civil society activists and the criminalization of independent civil society groups that has spiraled over the past six years should cease. Respect of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights norms should be strongly reaffirmed and accountability for violations by all parties to the conflict promoted. Parties to the conflict have fostered and manipulated social and other community differences to serve their political and military objectives. As such, support to civil society should embody principles of inclusion, with steps taken to ensure that marginalized groups can engage and diversity in terms of gender, age, political, social and other relevant factors.

3. Rethink Reconstruction – Reconstruction cannot just be about bricks and
concrete, it must address the political, social and economic root causes of the
uprising and subsequent violent conflict. The political transition from violence
towards sustainable peace should be inclusive and representing the aspirations of
the Syrian people for freedom and dignity. Reconstruction should be for all of Syria
and all Syrians, and not determined by the imperatives of conflict or political
violence. As such, it should only start and be funded after credible steps toward a
genuine transition. Accountability and justice are necessary for this to happen –
without these, reconstruction efforts risk becoming new fronts in forced
displacement, the dispossession of property, human rights violations and further
rounds of violence. Donors and the UN should not conflate ‘early recovery’ with
premature involvement without the political conditions for reconstruction being in
place. Furthermore, the important role of independent Syrian civil society
organizations should be affirmed in the political track of negotiations on conflict
resolution inside Syria as well as in any eventual ‘reconstruction’ efforts following a
political settlement. They have a central role to play in promoting human rights,
justice, accountability, peace and reconciliation.

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