Tag: Balkans

Let him try to govern

Thugs supporting the erstwhile ruling party VMRO-DPMNE broke in to the Macedonian parliament yesterday, in an apparent effort to block election of an Albanian Speaker, a prelude to the opposition (SDSM) forming a government. SDSM leader Zaev was injured in the melee. Other parliamentarians as well as journalists were also injured and taken hostage.

This is a big setback for Macedonia’s fledgling democracy as well as its ambitions to become a NATO and EU member. The country can hardly claim it meets NATO’s criteria if its parliament is unable to meet and freely choose its Speaker in an orderly fashion. Ditto the EU, which won’t be interested in pursuing negotiations with Macedonia, already stalled because of Macedonia’s “name” problem with Greece. Macedonia’s substantial Albanian population, which regards NATO and EU membership as vital to its future security and prosperity, will enormously resent the Macedonian nationalist attempted violence against the parliament.

This is not where Macedonia should be 17 years after the negotiated end of an Albanian rebellion in Macedonia.

No one is to blame but the Macedonians, first and foremost those who wear balaclavas whle attacking parliamentarians and journalists. But the broader political context is also important: for months, the politicians whom the thugs support have been claiming that Zaev and his Albanian allies are trying to steal the country from VMRO-DPMNE patriots. Never mind that VMRO-DPMNE has been deeply implicated in malfeasance revealed with the publication of embarrassing wiretaps. Or that President Ivanov made things worse when he refused weeks ago to allow Zaev to form a government because he disliked the platform his Albanian allies were bringing to the proposed coalition.

I might not like everything in that platform, or the fact that it was negotiated and agreed in Tirana rather than Skopje. But in a democracy people are entitled to organize politically wherever they want and for what they want, even if I don’t like it. That doesn’t mean they will get it. Americans know all too well how little platforms count when it comes to actually governing. Any new government in Skopje will have a narrow majority and need to move cautiously.

Sadly, it will take some bold action by outsiders–the US and EU–to fix what ails Macedonia. President Trump should ask that the US Treasury “designate” today’s rioters and their political masters, so that their assets are blocked as well as their travel to the US. While this rarely has any great practical effect, it is vital to signaling that the individuals involved are non grata to the US government. Unfortunately, the EU has no comparable mechanism, if I understand correctly, though similar moves can be made at the member state level. I would hope that as many European countries as possible would follow suit.

President Ivanov and his ilk will cry foul, claiming that we are being unfair and acting precipitously. I don’t think so. To the contrary, we’ve been far too patient. Brussels and Washington have treated Macedonia like the fragile state it is, giving it rewards before performance and hoping that will fix what ails it. But its leadership–especially President Ivanov and former Prime Minister Gruevski–seem to have decided they aren’t interested in either NATO or EU membership but prefer an illiberal democracy with a weak judiciary that lines their supporters’ pockets and guarantees they stay in power. They also enjoy and appreciate Moscow’s blessing and support.

The citizens of Macedonia deserve better. They have made enormous progress in the years since independence in 1991. Gruevski even deserves some credit for economic reform and for deployment of Macedonia’s troops to help NATO in Afghanistan under US command. But past performance is no guarantee of future results, as they say on Wall Street. The country is now stuck in a political and economic rut that will require new, more daring leadership. I’ve never met Zaev and I’m not convinced he is the right guy. But he is the guy with the majority in parliament. Let him try to govern.

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Outside influences in the Balkans

Some colleagues asked that I talk yesterday about outside influences on the Balkans, where things have gotten shaky lately, with a risk that the peace settlements of the 1990s might unravel. Here are the notes I prepared for myself: 

  1. Renewed attention to the Balkans, which has all but dropped off Washington’s priorities in recent years, is most welcome. The region has made a lot of progress, especially in the first ten years after the Bosnian war, but right now it is in trouble.
  1. I’ve been asked to talk about “outside influences”: Russia, China, Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.
  1. It is important at the outset to say that none of these countries would have much influence in the Balkans except for the decline in American engagement and the weakening of the EU.
  1. The US has tried for a decade now to get the EU to lead, as it has the main carrots for political and economic reform as well as more compelling interests in the region.
  1. The Europeans have done some good things: the Brussels dialogue has led to real improvements in Belgrade/Pristina relations, even if many specific agreements remain unimplemented.
  1. The 2014 British-German initiative for economic reform in Bosnia—undertaken to forestall a renewed U.S. initiative to change its constitution—has made little real progress, largely due to European reluctance to stick with its own conditionality.
  1. The best that can be said for EU efforts in Macedonia is that they have so far avoided the worst, with US support. The EU there seems unable to overcome a monumental level of stubbornness.
  1. But in the past two years the refugee crisis, Brexit, surging nationalism in many EU countries, and the congenital inability of the EU to speak with one voice has undermined the credibility of EU accession, which in any event won’t happen before 2020 and more likely not before 2025.
  1. That’s a long time to wait in the Balkans, where we’ve spoiled people with Stabilization and Association, Schengen visas, candidacy for EU accession, pre-accession funds, and other goodies. What we haven’t done is invest: the US and EU have risked little private money in the Balkans.
  1. Russia and Turkey—whose influence is far greater than others I’ve been asked to discuss—are moving into relative vacuums: the Russians find ethnic Serbs easy pickings and the Turks find Islamists, especially in Bosnia but also in Kosovo, friendly to their interests.
  1. The Russian influence is overwhelmingly pernicious from a Western perspective. Moscow is doing its best to make NATO and EU membership as slow and as difficult as possible, especially in Montenegro, Macedonia, Bosnia, and Serbia. Its influence in Albania and Kosovo is minimal.
  1. The attempted coup in Montenegro is just the tip of iceberg. Moscow contributes to ethnic tensions, political polarization, and regional instability in many ways: opaque financing for Republika Srpska, Russia’s so-called humanitarian center, overt military aid and investments in Serbia, support to Russophile politicians as well as media onslaughts throughout the region.
  1. Quite apart from these Slavic connections, Moscow has strong leverage over Belgrade because its UNSC veto is essential to blocking Kosovo’s General Assembly membership.
  1. Moscow’s goal is clear: to prevent Balkan countries from entering NATO and even the EU.
  1. Turkey is a different story.
  1. For more than twenty years after the Bosnian war the Turks were disciplined Western-oriented contributors to peacekeeping and development in the Balkans, trying to maintain good relations with Serbs and Croats as well as with Balkan Muslims.
  1. This has been described as a “gentle version” of the Ottoman Empire, one associated with the “no problems with neighbors” policy and aimed at the region’s Christians as well as its Muslims.
  1. Many Croats and Serbs may have been nervous about Turkish cultural inroads, as parts of the region lived for centuries under Ottoman domination, but most welcomed Turkish investment and contractors, which are evident throughout the region.
  1. As Erdogan turned in a more authoritarian direction and relations with the US strained, Turkey began a more Islamist push, especially with Bosnian Muslims and President Bakir Izetbegovic.
  1. The Muslim Brotherhood connection is a more visible and explicit one for Bakir than it was for his father, though it existed for Alija Izetbegovic as well.
  1. The recent Turkish-Russian rapprochement has had an undesirable impact with some Bosniak leaders in Montenegro. They are taking Erdogan’s hint, viewing Moscow in a more positive light and connecting with the Chechen leadership. That development may warrant monitoring, especially if it spills over to Bosnia.
  1. Turkey has also had notably good relations with President Thaci in Kosovo, but more based on commercial opportunities than religion.
  1. Iran and Saudi Arabia both have long histories in the Balkans.

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Yes, Kosovo needs stronger security forces

I spoke this morning (along with President Thaci, the American and French ambassadors  as well as Deputy Prime Minister Branimir Stojanovic) at a conference in Pristina on the future of Kosovo’s security forces (KSF), which until now have been limited. Here are the speaking notes I prepared:

  1. It is a pleasure to be back in Pristina to discuss a subject I had the privilege of working on about five long years ago: future requirements for Kosovo security forces and ways of meeting them.
  1. I would like to underline that I speak only for myself and will not address the constitutional and legal issues.
  1. A paper I was involved in writing then cited five security risks to Kosovo:
  • Continued de facto Serbian control of parallel structures in northern Kosovo and the persistence in that area of smuggling and other organized crime activities.
  • A Serbian armored incursion that seeks to establish overt control over northern Kosovo and possibly some monasteries or enclaves south of the Ibar River.
  • Political extremism that aims by violent means to change the constitutional order in a religious or nationalist direction.
  • Organized crime activities that aim to capture the state and subvert it for criminal purposes.
  • The possibility of deteriorating social and economic conditions in a young and rapidly growing population.
  1. Kosovo already has within its sovereign control the means to respond to four out of five of these security risks. Your police, courts, parliament, economic policies, and international relations are the appropriate means, though not yet always equal to the tasks.
  1. The only missing means concern number 2: a Serbian armed incursion that seeks to establish overt control over northern Kosovo and possibly some monasteries or enclaves south of the Ibar River.
  1. My friends in Belgrade—and I am pleased to say that I do have many there—will instantly say there is no need to fear that.
  1. I agree with them most days. Serbia has far more important things to concern itself with.
  1. But I can’t advise basing a security policy and the security forces entrusted with implementing it on assumptions. Sometimes things happen—as they did in March 2004—that make the unlikely possible.
  1. In the nine years since independence, Kosovo has enjoyed the privilege of not worrying too much about that, because KFOR defends the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
  1. That however won’t last forever. NATO too has other things to worry about and should not remain forever in Kosovo, which will want to become a security producer and a full member of NATO rather than a security consumer.
  1. Once NATO is gone, you will need the capacity to defend yourselves, at least for the couple of weeks it will take for your allies to respond to a contingency.
  1. This raises two issues: the process by which you get strengthened security forces and the character of those security forces.
  1. The process will require U.S. and European support.
  1. Washington and Brussels will want you to make a genuine effort to obtain Serb concurrence and participation.
  1. What Serbs need more than anything else is confidence that the Kosovo Security Force will not be used against them.
  1. The KSF role should be focused on external threats and contributions to international missions, not on law and order inside Kosovo.
  1. The question of what kind of security forces you will need depends on the threats you face. If the threat of a Serbian incursion is eliminated, Kosovo will not need forces designed to respond to it.
  1. Today however Serbian capabilities are already all too real, and Russian transfers to Belgrade of aircraft, tanks and other equipment will make them loom larger in the future.
  1. Those weapons, and the means to respond to them, are expensive. Kosovo and Serbia would be far better off without the costs of preparing for war against each other.
  1. So the question is: what could remove that threat, lessen the risk, and reduce the costs?
  1. Serbia could: by recognizing the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Kosovo, or at least allowing it to enter the United Nations, and exchanging diplomatic representatives with it.
  1. Doing so would enable Kosovo to limit the capabilities of its security forces and focus them on international missions, which is appropriate given how much the country has benefited from them in the past.
  1. With Aleksandar Vucic soon to be inaugurated as President of Serbia, it seems to me the time for a grand bargain between Pristina and Belgrade, and with Serbs in Kosovo, is near.
  1. President, I am ambitious. I’m just a professor, so I can afford to be.
  1. I would like to see resolution of all the big outstanding issues in a package deal: composition of the Kosovo isSecurity Force, UN membership and exchange of diplomatic representatives, and creation of the Association of Serb Municipalities consistent with the Kosovo constitution.
  1. That’s asking a lot, but not I think too much.
  1. Serbia at this point needs to focus on its path to the European Union. Any conflict with Kosovo would make that difficult.
  1. I am confident Serbia will not become an EU member without exchanging diplomatic representatives with Kosovo, enabling it to focus on the needs of its citizens.
  1. Kosovo likewise needs to concentrate on fulfilling the aspirations of its citizens for better and more secure lives, including candidacy for EU membership.
  1. Neither Kosovo nor Serbia would benefit from a costly arms race or from frictions that might escalate to armed conflict.
  1. To the contrary: it is time even now for your chiefs of staff to meet and begin the normal communication and collaboration that is happily standard among European countries, even countries that fought far more terrible wars than Kosovo and Serbia.
  1. You can expect to go much farther than that in the future: Serbia and Kosovo will someday be allies and fight together on foreign shores. The time to begin preparing for that day is now.
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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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Communications student makes the big time

Here is the maximum coverage Sunday’s Serbian presidential election has gotten so far in the US:

Balkan readers: what do you think? Did National Public Radio get it right?

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Peace picks March 26-31

  1. Islam in France | Monday, March 27 | 10:30-12:00pm | The Brookings Institution | Register Here | After a series of terror attacks in 2015 and 2016, security issues are among the primary concerns of French voters heading into this spring’s presidential elections. As the European country with the largest Muslim minority, the issue of Islam in France and how to tackle terrorism is particularly fraught, and it is interwoven into broader debates about immigration, nationality, identity, secularism, and social cohesion. Furthermore, with right-wing politicians across Europe eager to galvanize their electorates, they have intensified concerns, incited Islamophobia, and exploited public misunderstandings of the teachings and practices of Islam. To provide a broader portrait of Islam in France and dispel misapprehensions surrounding the fraught dynamics of mosque and state, the Paris-based think tank Institut Montaigne has recently released a data-driven report on Muslims living in France. On March 27, Brookings will host a panel discussion with Project Director Hakim El Karoui and Senior Counselor Dominique Moïsi of the Institut Montaigne to unpack the conventional wisdom and polemics about Muslims in France. The panelists will consider whether better policies can be implemented that address the root causes of radicalization in French society, such as socioeconomic marginalization and inequality, while increasing safety and security. Shadi Hamid of the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at Brookings will also provide remarks, and Philippe Le Corre of CUSE will moderate the conversation.
  2. The Russian Military in Ukraine and Syria: Lessons for the United States | Tuesday March 28 | 4:00pm | The Atlantic Council | Register Here | The recent escalation of military activities in Donetsk and Luhansk in Eastern Ukraine and military power projection in Syria demonstrate massive improvements in Moscow’s military capabilities. Russia is using hybrid warfare and conventional military operations to achieve its geopolitical goals: apply massive pressure against the democratically elected government of Ukraine, keep Kyiv from European integration, and punish Ukraine for its Western and Euro-Atlantic choices. It also has created a credible threat against the Baltic states – NATO members. In Syria, Russia-led military operations successfully buttressed the Assad regime, assured Russian military presence in strategic coastal towns of Tartus and Latakiya, and established an air base in Khmeimim. The Russian military has learned to coordinate operations with several Middle Eastern allies: the Syrian Army, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, and the Hezbollah terrorist organization. Apart from Moscow’s geopolitical objectives, these operations are designed to demonstrate the effectiveness of Russian-made weapons to potential foreign buyers, to test new Russian military capabilities, and to display new capacities to potential adversaries. Russia is now the main adversary of NATO in Europe and the second great power in the Levant – after the United States and its allies. The Atlantic Council will bring together a panel of experts to discuss Russia’s military power and the lessons learned from Russia’s military performance in Syria and Ukraine. The panelists are Evelyn Farkas, Senior Fellow at Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center, Alexander Golts, Deputy Editor-in-Chief at Yezhenedelny Zhurnal, and Brigadier General (Ret.) Peter Zwack, Senior Russia-Eurasia Fellow at the Institute of National Strategic Studies.
  3. The Baltic States in the Trump Administration: A Conversation with Foreign Minister of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania | Tuesday, March 28 | 6:30-8:30pm | Hudson Institute | Register Here | In 1991, one year after the Baltic States regained their independence, Hudson Institute hosted the prime ministers of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania at its Conference on the Baltics—the first ever such event outside the Baltic region. The United States has since developed a special relationship with each country, marked by their accession to NATO and the EU in 2004. Together, these countries constitute the easternmost members of both the EU and NATO. Now, after years of calm, the security and political situation in Europe is again at a crossroads. The Russian intervention in Ukraine and the political crises of the EU pose increasing challenges to Europe. A quarter century after the Conference on the Baltic States, Hudson Institute is honored to host the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania to discuss the view from Tallinn, Riga, and Vilnius—and the opportunities and challenges confronting each.
  4. The Inaugural Haleh Esfandiari Forum Event with Secretary Madeleine Albright | Wednesday, March 29 | 2:00-3:00pm | The Wilson Center | Register Here | Join us for the inaugural Haleh Esfandiari Forum event. The Haleh Esfandiari Forum at the Wilson Center is a series of public events focused on women’s empowerment in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. This joint initiative by the Middle East Program (MEP) and the Global Women’s Leadership Initiative (GWLI) honors Haleh Esfandiari’s commitment to promoting women’s empowerment and her leadership of MEP from its inception in 1998 through 2015.
  5. Egypt and the United States Under the Trump Administration | Thursday, March 30 | 2:00-3:30pm | Project on Middle East Democracy | Register Here | President Donald Trump has signaled a desire to build even closer ties to the Egyptian government, a policy shift that poses significant potential risks for the United States due to Egypt’s deteriorating human rights conditions. Ahead of President Sisi’s upcoming visit to Washington, join us to take stock of the situation on the ground in Egypt and examine potential changes to the U.S.-Egypt relationship. The panelists include Michele Dunne, Director and Senior Fellow of the Middle East Program at Carnegie; Bahey Eldin Hassan, Director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies; Moataz El Fegiery, Protection Coordinator of Middle East and North Africa at Front Line Defenders, and Tom Malinowski, Assistant Secretary of State of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, 2014-2017.
  6. The Yemen Conflict in Perspective: Geopolitical and Humanitarian Challenges | Friday, March 31 | 9:00-2:00pm | The Middle East Institute | Register Here | Yemen is gripped by clashes between Houthi rebels and pro-government forces, interference by regional actors, and a failure to complete the political transition following the 2011 uprisings against then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh. This instability has created an opening for the militants of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and a devastating humanitarian impact. How can international engagement take into account the domestic and geopolitical forces at work, secure a peaceful resolution of the conflict, and combat the extremist threat? What are the challenges faced by humanitarian aid organizations that operate in Yemen, and how can the international community confront the coming challenge of reconstruction and repair of the damaged country? Speakers include Amb. (ret.) Wendy Chamberlin, President of the Middle East Institute; Ismail Ould Chaikh Ahmed, Special Envoy of the UN Secretary-General for Yemen; Mohammed Abulahoum, Justice & Building Party of Yemen; E. Ahmed Awad Binmubarak, Ambassador of Yemen to the United States; The Honorable Anne Patterson, Former Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs; Nadwa al-Dawsari, Nonresident Senior Fellow at POMED; Albert Jaeger, Mission Chief for Yemen, IMF; and Nabil Shaiban, Senior Operations Officer at the World Bank.
  7. Deterring Iran After the Nuclear Deal: Report Launch and Panel Discussion | Friday, March 31 | 10:00-11:30am | Center for Strategic & International Studies | Register Here | Although the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program is working, the United States has largely been unable or unwilling to deter Iran’s incremental extension of regional power and threshold testing in the Middle East. A new report by the International Security Program at CSIS, “Deterring Iran After the Nuclear Deal,” seeks to better understand and analyze Iran’s strategy, motivations, and military and paramilitary development; explores a set of policy pathways for the United States to counter challenges from Iran; and provides a recommended Iran deterrence strategy for the Trump Administration and U.S. Congress to consider. Join us for the report launch of “Deterring Iran After the Nuclear Deal,” featuring a panel discussion on Iran’s regional activities post-JCPOA, implications for the Middle East, and policy options for the Trump administration and U.S. Congress to counter Iran’s destabilizing behavior and capability development. Panelists include Gen Charles Q. Brown Jr., USAF, Deputy Commander for US Central Command; Dr. Colin Kahl, Associate Professor, Security Studies Program, Georgetown University; Mr. Michael Singh, Lane-Swig Senior Fellow and Managing Director, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy; and Dr. Jon Alterman, Senior Vice President and Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy and Director of the Middle East Program at CSIS.
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