Macedonia’s mess

Slobodan Tomic, a Macedonian journalist, asked me some questions. I replied:

1. The Prime Minister of Macedonia, Nikolas Gruevski has denounced an attempted coup d’etat against the country. The former head of intelligence Zoran Verusevski has been arrested. A network of nationals working in the security apparatus of Macedonia has been caught working for a foreign intelligence apparatus aimed at destabilizing the country. The PM said on February 25 the espionage was carried by professionals of high caliber who were highly trained in such activities “According to our information, obtained by the Interior Ministry, a foreign intelligence service, used as their main operative the person identified as Z.V. to set up a group of agents in Macedonia.” The PM specified that the powerful intelligence service spying on the Government of Macedonia was “from abroad.” The PM also revealed that the head of the opposition Zoran Zaev tried to blackmail the government and the PM personally telling him he had received video and recording material by a powerful foreign intelligence service and he, Zaev, would publish it if the elected government was not replaced by a “technical government that included Zaev. Instead Mr Gruevski called a press conference revealing to plot.

What’s your opinion on this attempted coup in our country? In your opinion who is behind this operation?

A: I don’t know who is behind this story. Zaev I understand has said that the recorded material came from within the Macedonian state security apparatus. We’ll have to wait for the court case against Verusevski to see whether he is the source. I know nothing for sure about foreign involvement.

2. Mr. Janusz Bugajski of the Center for European Policy analysis in an editorial (Moscow Applauds Greece-Macedonia Drama) argues that the publication of the illegal material by Zoran Zaev contributes to the alienation of Macedonia from NATO….Could you comment on this analysis?

A: There is no question but that Athens is deepening ties to Moscow and Moscow is opposing NATO and EU membership for Balkans countries. I have no idea however whether Zaev is somehow consciously serving those interests. I hope not.

3. Greece has been opposing the right of Macedonia to choose its name. In the recent Putsch attempt, one of the main conspirators, Ms. Verusevska, the wife of former Intelligence official Zoran Verusevski, works for Stopanska bank that is owned by the National Bank of Greece. Material found in her possession at the moment of her arrest is reported to be extremely revealing concerning the connections between the agents in Macedonia and the foreign intelligence and electronic espionage agency that has targeted our country. Do you think Greek intelligence could be active in undermining Macedonian institutions and in planning a division and a domestic confrontation?

A: I am not convinced there was a coup attempt.

All sorts of things are possible. Greece is not Macedonia’s friend. But I don’t know that what you say is true.

4. Do you see any danger that the Albanian intelligence services could get activated in this situation to push for a dismemberment of Macedonia?

A: I doubt it. But Albanians in Macedonia definitely want to see Macedonia in NATO and will be disappointed if this incident damages that prospect.

5. As you know, Macedonia is a friend of many countries in the West, East, North and South and Macedonia has a treaty of technical agreement with the US. Macedonia, however is not formal part of any alliance. In your opinion, will the US keep an official position as an “observer” or they will act according to the signed Technical Agreement between the two countries. Many sources are saying that the US is behind this attempted coup. Do you think the US is interested in destabilizing Macedonia or to defend its stability?

A: I don’t know what “technical agreement” you are referring to. Macedonia’s army has fought under US command in Afghanistan. We may not have a formal alliance agreement, but that makes for a very close military relationship. I am confident the US has no interest in destabilizing Macedonia, and I am also convinced it isn’t interested enough in Macedonia to be involved in wiretapping thousands of people. Greece and Russia have far more reason to be interested, but I don’t know for sure that they are involved in the wiretapping.

6. Do you see a danger of ethnic confrontation in the next future? A danger of an ISIS or ISIS-like attack against our country? Do you think in such a hypothetical situation the US will take a position?

A: There are extremists in many countries. I can’t rule out that there are some in Macedonia, as there have been occasionally in the past. But I don’t see ethnic confrontation as the issue here. This is a confrontation between two Macedonians: Zaev and Gruevski. The Albanians are bystanders who aren’t sure what to do.

7. The popularity of Prime Minister Gruevski party according to a very recent poll is 8 times that of the SDSM opposition. Still some analysts see an attitude of support by the US for the opposition despite their leadership have been involved in an attempted coup. Why is that?

A: I have no idea why anyone would think that. Washington favors democracy and NATO membership for Macedonia. It will support whoever comes to power there democratically. It will also support the democratic system in Macedonia.

8. Secretary of State John Kerry stated in Congress two days ago that Macedonia was one of those countries “on the line of fire” between US and Moscow. This seems to be a very threatening statement. Could you comment?

A: The threat is from Moscow, not Washington.

9. Some analysts are saying that the electronic espionage was organized by and through the American embassy in Skopje. Do you think this is possible?

A: I think it unlikely. The Americans just aren’t that interested in Macedonia. Greece and Russia are, but I don’t know they are responsible.

10. Many are worried about the consequence of a destabilization of Macedonia. Possible ethnic explosions could take place especially if supposed and fed by outside forces. Some even talk of a snowballing effect in the Balkans, leading to a general conflict. Hopefully nobody want to think that WWI started not far from here in June 1914, But do you see a potential danger of war?

A: No, I don’t. There are precious few military resources left in the whole region. The ones that exist are all being reformed and most aim for NATO membership. The danger is destabilization, not world war. Macedonians and Albanians have been wise enough to keep their country out of the worst kinds of conflict in the past. I trust they will be wise in the future too.

11. The project for a “Turkish Stream” (the gas pipeline that will transport the Russian gas from Turkey to Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, Austria and so on) is very much in the mind of government in the Balkans and Europe, The Turkish stream has taken the please of the South Stream, that was canceled by Russia after the EU advanced several requests that were considered impossible to meet. Is it possible that the US administration is displeased with this project and see the countries involved as possible target to be convinced to change their position?

A: I don’t know the official US position on Turkish stream. Best to ask a US government official. I think it important that the Balkans find alternatives to Russian gas, which comes with political strings attached.

My bottom line is this: Macedonia belongs in NATO. But it has to get its own house in order to continue to be qualified for membership

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Unprofessional and misleading

I am grateful to readers of for pointing out that the Serbian media has published accounts of my post on Serbia: media and government |, clearly attributed to a “knowledgeable friend,” as my own view. This is unprofessional and misleading.

Worse: the Serbian press is suggesting that I said “Mediji nisu u službi premijera Vučića” (D. Serwer: the media is not in the service of Prime Minister Vucic). That attributes to me views that are not mine and is at best a distortion of my friend’s views. The author never said there is no censorship. The piece tries to explain how and why the media is pro-Vucic, not that it isn’t. The author gives several reasons: most people, including in the media, think the prime minister is doing the right things, and some people in the press are sychophantic towards the government because of opportunism or cowardice, including fear of losing government advertising. He also says media conditions are nowhere near as bad as they were under Milosevic.

You are entitled to wonder, what do I think? Do I agree with my friend?

One of the reasons I asked my friend’s opinion is the difficulty in forming my own. Beyond “kako ste” and “dobro dan,” I am not a Serbian speaker. I read the Serbian press mostly through Googletranslate and on B92’s English service, which is an eclectic mix that I find useful but not necessarily representative. My friend’s response was more nuanced and interesting than a lot of the commentary on press freedom in Serbia that I see in English-language media, so I thought it interesting enough to put in the public domain, even though it had to be published anonymously. It tried to explain the several mechanisms that make the press pro-government, rather than simply blaming ill-defined censorship. Whether I agreed or not was not an issue in deciding to publish it.

The Serbian press reaction and abuse of this blogpost is a true reflection of the state of the Serbian media, as one of my correspondents suggested today. It was unprofessional to attribute the views in the post to me personally. It is also inaccurate to suggest that the post exonerates the Serbian government.

As I see it, there is a tendency in Serbia, as in other transition countries, for the authorities to attack the messenger rather than respond to the message. This happens occasionally in mature democracies–President Obama a year or so ago was sharply critical of Fox News–but it is relatively rare. The press is doing its job in a democratic society when it reports unsavory facts or uncovers what it thinks is malfeasance. The right response 98% of the time is to the facts or the allegations, not to attack the media.

The situation is complicated in Serbia and elsewhere in the Balkans because some of the media more critical of the government and more willing to report what it regards as malfeasance is supported internationally. This can be unsettling to politicians, who are too often inclined to think the money is explicitly aimed at discrediting them. The “Sanader effect” (Ivo Sanader was a pro-EU prime minister of Croatia who has gone to prison for malfeasance) makes politicians in the Balkans particularly sensitive.

I can’t speak for the European Union, but I know that when US government money goes to support foreign media it is intended to support professional and accurate reporting, as well as a wide range of views. Even government-owned Voice of America aims for professionalism and accuracy. In my hundreds of interviews with VOA, RFE/RL and other government-supported outlets no one has ever tried to tell me what to say. Years ago I was present when Vice President George H.W. Bush, upset with something VOA had published about him, ordered a US embassy official to fire the correspondent. The diplomat had to tell the vice president that could not be done.

Of course this doesn’t mean that either I or the outlets that carry my interviews are 100% correct or in some absolute sense unbiased. I have colleagues who believe they are not asked to give interviews by VOA because their views diverge too much from those of the US government. There is no absolute purity in the media business. Influence is exercised in many different ways, not only in Serbia but also in the United States.

That said, there is a big gap between the relatively independent press in mature democracies and the kind of shabby and sycophantic coverage my blogpost on the Serbian government and media got this week. There will always be some media that toe government lines. But I like to hope that things will evolve in a more professional and mature direction. I’ll be amused to see if the Serbian press publishes an accurate account of this, my followup post.

And no, I don’t think things are worse today than under Milosevic. Nor do I think things were better in the Balkans in Tito’s time, as so many in the seven countries derived from Yugoslavia like to say. These invidious comparisons fail to give credit where it is due: things have improved and I hope will continue to improve, even if I am among those who would like improvement to come faster.

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The emperor’s new clothes, again

I’ve read and reread the “written commitment” agreed by the presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, signed by the leaders of 14 parliamentary parties and endorsed by the parliament last week. The European Union is treating this as an important step toward the reforms required for eventual membership. It includes a commitment to creating an “efficient and effective” coordination mechanism for the many levels of governance in Bosnia.

Give credit: the statement includes a substantial list of serious economic and social reforms. It says the right, though vague, things about rule of law, corruption, organized crime and terrorism. It doesn’t drop the constitutional reform required to implement the European Court of Human Rights Sejdic-Finci decision, but it postpones it to a later stage. Then there is fairy dust: “measures to accelerate the reconciliation process.”

That’s the giveaway. This is not so much a commitment as it is a wishlist. The wishes are Brussels’, not Bosnia’s. That’s why it took the better part of a month to push it through parliament. What actually happens to implement the commitments will depend on what the European Union presses, not on initiative from the Bosnian side. We can expect the Bosnians to continue to be passive, and sometimes passive aggressive, as Milorad Dodik was during the month it took to get this wishlist approved. Don’t hold your breath for him or other Bosnian leaders to get around to accelerating the reconciliation process.

The coordination mechanism, though it sounds good, is a disturbing idea in practice. Bosnia needs a central government that can negotiate and implement the acquis communitaire. That was the heart of the “April package” constitutional amendments, which died in the Bosnian parliament nine years ago two votes short of the two-thirds majority required. A coordination mechanism is less than half a loaf. It allows the country’s two entities, one district and ten cantons each to veto the necessary reforms. There is no way to make such an object either effective or efficient.

I suppose deft wielding of the EU’s substantial carrots and sticks might make up for these shortcomings. But we rarely see that happen. EU commissioners are far more comfortable bestowing gifts than withholding funds. There are rarely consequences of much import for defying Brussels, and quite often there are substantial rewards. No one suffered consequences for the failure to implement the Sejdic-Finci decision. Once the negotiation had failed, the Commission restored a lot of cash that had been withheld.

The EU is applauding the emperor’s new clothes. But we’ve seen this parade before. It’s not pretty, if you dare to look.

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Boycott Bibi

I more often resist comment on Israel than I give in to it. I am a Jew and only too well aware of the baggage that identity carries, both for me and for others. I cannot be indifferent to the security and welfare of fellow Jews and may be tempted to exaggerate the threats. We have suffered far too much to run the risks of another attempt to obliterate us.

But I cannot keep silent when a Prime Minister of Israel decides to bring his election campaign to the US Congress and tries to narrow the options of the US Administration in its effort to block Iran from getting nuclear weapons. I am also an American, of the second generation born in this country. I see no contradiction at the current juncture between my Jewish and American identities: both want to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons.

What Prime Minister Netanyahu wants is different. He wants Iran to give up all its nuclear capability, or at least its enrichment and reprocessing technology. He knows this is impossible. The technology is in the heads and hands of Iranians. There is no way to get rid of their capabilities, even if Tehran were so inclined. But Bibi figures insisting on it will help his re-election bid.

Netanyahu has also made it clear during this election campaign that he opposes giving up the West Bank. He is convinced that doing so will provide a haven for terrorists. This is entirely consistent with his family history, which includes a father who opposed partition of Palestine in 1948 because he believed all the land west of the Jordan River belonged by biblical right to the Jews. Bibi’s father wanted the Palestinians just to evaporate. Bibi wouldn’t mind that, but he more realistically wants them to accept second-class status within an explicitly Jewish state whose eastern border is de facto (if not de jure) the Jordan River.

This combination of unrealistic demands–of Iran and of the Palestinians–is antithetical to American and Israeli interests. It pushes Israel into political isolation with unrealistic goals and leaves Washington with a stark choice: join Israel in defying the rest of the world or abandon the close ties with Israel in favor of settling big issues with the Iranians and Arabs.

Netanyahu’s speech in Congress March 3, if it comes off, will be his opportunity to make his unrealistic demands, cloaking them in claims that Israel is America’s most important ally in the Middle East and the only functioning democracy there. Those claims may be true, but they are also misleading. An Israel that takes Netanyahu’s approach to Iran and the Palestinians will drag the US into an impossible situation. And Israel’s claim to being democratic depends on getting its friends in the US to ignore its treatment of Arabs, both inside and outside the country’s still unsettled borders.

Netanyahu has refused to meet with vigorous Israel-supporting Democrats during his March visit to DC. This makes things easier. For those who disagree with Netanyahu and disapprove of his conniving with John Boehner for an invitation to address the Congress shortly before an election, the right response is to boycott his speech. Let him preach to the converted.



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Still more on Free Syria

Dylan Clement, a Syria Program Assistant at the International Republican Institute, asked some good questions in responses to my pieces advocated Free Syria on protected areas inside the country. Here are his questions and my answers:

Q: Through its usage of chemical weapons, the regime has proven its willingness to break international norms and in particular defy the United States. With that in mind, how would the regime react when faced with the possibility an alternative Syrian government taking hold in these de facto no fly zones?

A: The regime would certainly test the will of those who say they will protect them. We would need to be prepared to respond with proportional force against whatever applied the test. The problem will be that the artillery, mortars or aircraft concerned may disappear, or be parked next to mosques or schools. Then we need to be prepare to widen the circle of targets. This might well lead to escalation that we would have to be prepared to match.

The elimination of the bulk of the regime’s chemical weapons is perhaps a better indicator of its response to threat than its continued use of chlorine.

Q: I’m not sure the opposition structures that exist, ie the SOC/SIG, are competent and cohesive enough to provide actual governance alternatives in these free areas inside the country…

A: I don’t think the SOC/SIG would in the first instance be responsible. It would have to be local councils. Their connections to the SOC/SIG are tenuous at best. It is their connections to local liberated communities that are important.

Q: What if [Jabhat al] Nusra takes refuge in these areas as well? Given the level of cooperation between Nusra and ‘moderate’ rebel groups up to this point (and the lack of precedent for civilian opposition leaders in denouncing al Qaeda), a situation may arise whereby the US is providing air cover for Nusra’s attacks against the regime. That would be awkward.

A: This is a serious question, as a successful protected area would necessarily attract Nusra or other extremists. The Syrian forces responsible for protection on the ground would have to take care of that issue. My understanding is that the US-trained forces are prepared to oppose Nusra and the Islamic State, and their logistic and financial train presumably provides the US with leverage to insist.

But we have to be careful. Treating all Islamists as enemies would only make things worse, and there is necessarily an area of ambiguity: is the guy with the beard who disapproves of women appearing in public Nusra, Islamic State or just a devout Muslim with conservative social views? There will be no way to avoid issues of that sort as things unfold in Syria.

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Authorizing military action against ISIL

Matt Melino, a master’s student in my post-war reconstruction and transition class at SAIS, reports:

The Woodrow Wilson event Monday on authorizing military action against ISIL focused on geography, strategy and unanswered questions.

Jim Sciutto: Chief National Security Correspondent, CNN

• Lt. General David Barno: Former First Commander for Combined Forces Command-Afghanistan and currently Senior Fellow, Center for New American Security
Jane Harman: Director, President and CEO, Woodrow Wilson Center
Jeffrey H. Smith: Former General Counsel, CIA and currently serves on the Department of Defense Legal Policy Advisory Board

Harman opened the discussion by emphasizing that it is the clear constitutional obligation of members of Congress to declare our wars. But since Vietnam four wars that have gone undeclared. With the president recently submitting a draft authorization for the use of military force (AUMF), Harman offered two pieces of advice for Congress. First, don’t duck – playing the blame game is bad policy and bad politics is hurting the reputation of the US. Congress has to face this issue head on, debate it, and vote on it. Second, avoid groupthink. This point as the major problem with the war in Iraq.

The language of the proposed AUMF includes the phrase “enduring offensive ground operations.” Sciutto noted that the President’s intention behind such a vague phrase is to avoid another Afghanistan or Iraq war, where the US deploys 150,000 troops to a major land war in the Middle East. He also noted there is a lot of leeway, because it is unclear what terms such as “enduring,” or “offensive” mean.

Barno added that the broadness of the phrase is helpful for military commanders who find it useful to have parameters set wide and guidance not too narrow. But  Smith believes the phrase is mischievous. The President is clearly trying to capture the sentiment of the US people who do not want another large ground war, but it is unnecessary because the President himself said he would not embark on such an operation. The vague language signals to our adversaries that we do not have a clear plan. Harman agreed that the President is trying to please a large majority of people, but the vagueness of the language displeases people who feel that a clear plan is lacking.

Sciutto asked the panel to comment on the fact that the President did not sunset the 2001 AUMF, which grants him authority to attack al-Qaeda and its associates. Smith thought it curious that the President did not recommend this. The President wants congressional approval on an ISIL authorization but also wants to hold on to the 2001 AUMF as justification for his ongoing actions if the new AUMF is not passed.

Harman wants Congress to come up with an authorization that replaces the 2001 AUMF. Barno argued that the President wants to achieve two aims that are difficult to combine. First is support from Congress and the American people to conduct military action against ISIL. Second is to retain the ability to attack al-Qaeda and its associates in the future. It will be difficult to win the support of Congress if he folds these two into a single AUMF.

Who is the target? Sciutto explained how difficult it is to answer this question because ISIL is spreading and many groups are simply rebranding themselves as ISIL without operational ties. Smith, quoting Senator Tim Kaine, defined ISIL associates as, “individuals and organizations fighting for, on behalf or, or alongside ISIL or closely related successors.” The President added the phrase, “in hostilities against the US or coalition partners.” The President is expanding the groups he can go after without naming them.

Smith believes there should be some mechanism to inform Congress of which groups he is going after. When those groups are named, they should be announced publically. This clarity is crucial because other countries will react to what we do, particularly the Russians and the Iranians. Harman added that the US needs to send a signal to the world that this country is united on a single mission and not just a vision described by President Obama.

Can Congress have the necessary debate to come up with a reasonable settlement considering the current political environment? Barno thinks an AUMF focused on ISIL has a reasonable prospect of agreement. Both sides of the aisle believe this is a serious threat that is getting worse. Harman is hopeful. She believes Congress cannot duck this issue because it affects everyone and it involves valuable resources, notably blood and treasure. Smith is cautiously optimistic but concerned about the fallout of failing to come to an agreement. Will the President go on with his current actions? If he does, what does that say about the authority of the President and Congress?

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