Tag: European Union

Serious diplomacy needed

Turkish President Erdogan is wrong about many things: the post-coup-attempt crackdown, his flirtation with Russia, his inattention to widespread corruption, and his effort to rule Turkey without a serious opposition. Turkey has clearly moved away from the promising European path he started out on and turned instead to its Middle Eastern roots, which are much less salubrious for both its citizens and its leadership. Nationalism and despotism have bad records, even if they build nice palaces. Freedom and respect for minority rights has a far better record, even if they don’t always win elections.

That said, Erdogan is not wrong about everything. His concern about the Kurdish insurgency inside Turkey, and the assistance it gets from Syria, is well-founded. The insurgency’s main protagonists, the PKK and its PYD Syrian allies, have long frustrated the Turkish security forces and would be glad to do it again if given an opportunity. This is no peaceful uprising. The PKK is well-armed and kills lots of people. The US, as well as Turkey and the European Union, regard it as a terrorist group.

The United States has equipped and trained the PYD fighters (known as the YPG) to fight the Islamic State inside Syria, where the Kurds have been remarkably successful with American air, intelligence, logistic and other support. That fight, however, is now largely completed. The task now is to stabilize the areas taken from the Islamic State, many of which are predominantly Arab, not Kurdish. One is a particular bone of contention with Turkey: Manbij, which lies west of the Euphrates river less than 25 miles south of the Turkish border.

Secretary of State Tillerson spent the better part of the past two days talking with the Turks. He now has likely heard more about Manbij than he would want to remember, as did National Security Adviser McMaster on a recent visit. Ankara wants the Kurds out of Manbij, a mostly Arab town of about 100,000 before the war. That is what Vice President Biden promised the Turks in the summer of 2016. He said the Kurds would move east of the Euphrates and stay there, thus preventing them from moving westward to link up Afrin, a majority Kurdish enclave, with the rest of what the Kurds call Rojava, the PYD-dominated parastate that extends along the Turkish order from the Euphrates eastward.

The Turkish view is that the US made a commitment on Manbij to a NATO ally that has to be fulfilled. The American generals, to whom the President has delegated so much authority, aren’t interested in pushing too hard on their Syrian Kurdish friends, who want to control as much of Turkey’s southern border as possible. To add insult to injury, some of those Kurdish friends have been moving westward through Syrian government controlled territory to confront the Turkish forces in Afrin.

It is difficult for Americans to see Erdogan in a positive light these days, but restoring good relations with Turkey should now be a priority. Quite apart from any promises made about Manbij, the Turks are allowing the Americans to use their bases from which to fly the combat support they need in eastern Syria, including the planes that last week blunted an Iranian/Russian/Syrian attack on US forces and their Kurdish friends. Loss of access, or even new limitations on US use of Turkish bases, could change the military situation in eastern Syria dramatically.

Can we solve the Kurdish puzzle in a way that meets Turkey’s needs? We should certainly try, by getting the Syrian Kurds to leave Manbij, ending the flow of their fighters to Afrin, and extracting from them a serious commitment not to support attacks inside Turkey. The Turks would have to pitch in by ending their offensive in Afrin, which isn’t going well, re-establishing the ceasefire with the PKK, and restarting peace talks.

That’s a tall order. Tillerson needs to stop gutting the State Department and get busy trying to deliver some serious diplomatic results.

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Do it now

The German foreign minister this week gave Kosovo an early 10th birthday present (the date is February 17). Sigmar Gabriel said in Pristina:

If Serbia wants to move toward the European Union, the building of the rule of law is a primary condition, but naturally also the acceptance of Kosovo’s independence. That is a central condition to take the path toward Europe.

Everyone has known this for a long time, though Serbian politicians like to deny they have ever heard it. Dutch, Swedish and other EU diplomats have told me they have clearly and repeatedly made this point in private. Plus it is no secret that ratification of Serbian accession to the EU in the Bundestag and several other parliaments isn’t going to happen without acceptance of Kosovo’s independence.

The time has come to make the point loudly and publicly. Belgrade has already accepted that Kosovo will qualify for EU membership separately from Serbia, which certainly implies its de facto independence. But some in Serbia may still be imagining that the EU would be prepared to do what it did for Cyprus: allow a derogation for part of its “sovereign” territory. There is absolutely no European interest in doing that , but illusions die hard in the Balkans.

Now is the time to dissipate the illusion that Belgrade can continue to put off the issue, hoping it will somehow go away. It won’t. If Serbia has not yet accepted Kosovo’s sovereignty and territorial integrity by the time Belgrade is completing its negotiations for EU accession, it can expect absolutely nothing in return. All the leverage then will be with Germany and the others who insist on acceptance of Kosovo’s status as an independent state. Slovenia and Croatia have already been through that wringer, and Montenegro is preparing itself: all prospective EU members have to cede on the last remaining issues before accession.

Kosovo will still then face the Spanish hurdle. Madrid has foolishly suggested there is a parallel between Catalonia and Kosovo, an analogy that only holds up if Madrid wants its treatment of Catalonia to be seen in the same light as Milosevic’s treatment of Kosovo. But Madrid is also saying that it can accept whatever Belgrade deems acceptable. That will also be true for the four other EU members that have not yet recognized Kosovo.

The time has come for as many EU members as possible to make it clear in public: Serbia cannot become a member until it completely normalizes its relations with Kosovo, which means diplomatic recognition and exchange of ambassadorial-level representatives. Doing so now would be a major contribution to maintaining peace and stability in the Balkans.


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Frustrated expectations

Iran is in a state of upheaval. In January, a wave of nationwide anti-regime protests kept the country in suspense. These protests were more radical than prior demonstrations of discontent. They called often for the overthrow of the entire political system and occurred in areas considered to be strongholds of the regime. This challenge has upset the ruling cadre of the Islamic Republic, who reacted both with repression and confusion. The regime has brutally cracked down on dissidents, as the alleged murder of the prominent academic Kavous Seyed Emami exemplifies. Yet part of the regime has also signaled readiness for concessions, as President Hassan Rouhani’s proposal for a referendum on Iran’s political system demonstrates. A power struggle both on the streets and within the regime appears to be ongoing.

Where is Iran heading?

On February 12, the Atlantic Council’s Future of Iran Initiative hosted a panel discussion on “Iran’s Political Future” in light of the recent protests. Moderated by the Initiative’s Director Barbara Slavin, panelists Nazila Fathi, an Iranian-Canadian journalist and author, Suzanne Maloney, Deputy Director of the Foreign Policy Program at Brookings Institution, and Alireza Nader, researcher at Rand Corporation, offered their insights on the current state of affairs and prospects for political reform in Iran. (A full recording of the event can be seen here.)

Alireza Nader expects further instability in light of an increasingly agitated population but argues that the political system in Iran will remain in place. The Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) has become Iran’s key decision-maker and has a strong interest in maintaining the current order. President Rouhani, on the other hand, is weak and diminished. He is isolated among the establishment and has lost popular support, given his meager track record. Iranians are increasingly disillusioned. People are aware of widespread corruption and demand accountability as well as economic stability. The political establishment is however unable to deliver, and the deteriorating economic situation will only spur further discontent. The regime is in a “lose-lose situation” and a deeper crisis is merely a matter of time.

Nazila Fathi likewise stresses that the Iranian regime is facing a fundamental crisis. The recent protests have demonstrated that the Islamic Republic’s ruling cadre is losing its grip on even its core supporters. Corruption and mismanagement have devastated the economy and caused widespread unemployment, particularly in rural areas where strong support for the regime has  suffered. Support for the Basij and the IRGC has dropped. The regime is unable to respond to this new challenge. In its search for scapegoats, it attacks environmentalists such as Kavous Seyed Emami and uses violence to distract attention. A change of the political system is still unlikely due to the IRGC’s political, economic, and military strength. The Islamic Republic will remain, though the structure of its top leadership might see modification. Fathi believes that there will not be another Supreme Leader after Grand Ayatollah Khameini; rather, a supreme council will take over.

According to Suzanne Maloney, Iran faces a trap of unfulfilled expectations. The country’s political system cannot be reformed since the unelected institutions are unwilling to give up power. The regime has consistently advocated social justice but failed on its promise. The latest episode of this story is the JCPOA and the unfulfilled peace dividend. This has caused great frustration among ordinary Iranians. Since the political system offers no accountability mechanism, they have begun to question the legitimacy of the regime.

The panel agreed that the United States must carefully chose its response to this uncertain situation. Maloney argues that the US government should scold Tehran over human rights violations. Yet Washington should not go after the JCPOA, but rather lift the travel ban. Nader emphasizes the need for tougher sanctions on the IRGC business empire. Fathi underscores Europe’s role in exerting pressure in Iran. Only if the United States and its European allies act in concert, will Tehran change.

The recent protests in Iran have highlighted the Islamic Republic’s fragility, but the regime is crisis-tested. It was able to survive the Green Movement of 2009, widespread student protests in the late 1990s, and the turmoil surrounding Grand Ayatollah Khomeini’s succession. Iran’s current leadership has no Plan B. The downfall of the Islamic Republic would result in the demise of most of its current ruling cadre. The fight over Iran’s future is hence a battle for life or death. The regime will not give in easily. Those who expect swift or fundamental change, both in Tehran and abroad, will be frustrated.

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Completing sovereignty

Kosovo is ten years independent Saturday. It has a lot to be proud of: a functional, more or less democratic state built in less than twenty years, despite determined opposition from Serbia and Russia. Most people in Kosovo live the normal lives they were denied for 20 years prior to independence. They earn significantly higher wages than in the past, they are safe and secure in their homes and on the street, they enjoy at least rudimentary educational opportunities and health care, and they get to vote every few years for whomever they prefer. That’s the good news.

There is bad news too. While most of its citizens are pleased with independence, some are not. There are Serbs who prefer to be citizens only of Serbia and Albanians who would prefer to be citizens of a “greater” Albania rather than Kosovo. Kosovo’s political leadership too often enjoys a standard of living its salaries alone cannot support. While all vow to make Kosovo a European Union member, few are prepared to make the difficult choices required to hasten the day. Cronyism and nepotism too often determine who gets hired and contracted. Unemployment is the fate of far too many, even if some of them work in the informal sector.

The statebuilding project is still incomplete. Despite widespread bilateral recognition, Kosovo is not yet a member of the United Nations or its specialized agencies. NATO-led forces guarantee Kosovo’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. The four Serb-majority northern municipalities are not yet fully integrated with the rest of the country. International prosecutors and judges still ensure equity in Kosovo’s courts, including the special tribunal convened in The Hague to consider “crimes against humanity, war crimes and other crimes under Kosovo law which allegedly occurred between 1 January 1998 and 31 December 2000.” Pristina has so far failed to demarcate its border with Montenegro and to agree or demarcate formally its border with Serbia. Perceived official corruption is at regionally high levels.

Independence, sovereignty and statebuilding are too often confused, not just in the case of Kosovo. It is entirely possible to be independent but not fully sovereign. That is also Taiwan’s fate, since it does not even claim sovereignty but is an independent state. You can also have a state but not be independent or sovereign: witness Iraqi Kurdistan. You can also be sovereign and independent but lack a state: I’d say that is Somalia’s current fate, more or less. You can even be sovereign but not fully independent. I’d say EU members are in that category, since they adhere to a set of rules (the acquis communautaire) over which none of them have complete authority, having delegated sovereignty to the European Commission.

For Kosovo, the challenge of the next ten years is to complete its sovereignty in a way that enables the country to apply for NATO and EU membership. Anything that detracts from this goal threatens the welfare and safety of its citizens as well as regional peace and stability. In practice, this means building credible security forces that can take over the immediate defense of its territory, improving Kosovo’s judicial system so that it can equitably decide cases involving Serbs and other non-Albanian citizens, agreeing and demarcating borders, integrating the four northern municipalities, and ending impunity for corrupt and violent behavior.

I am reasonably confident all this can be done, but it will require serious commitment on the part of Kosovo’s citizens to ensure that the leadership moves in the right direction. Despite the current gloom and doom about the Balkans, Kosovo remains a singular and extraordinary achievement of international intervention combined with indigenous determination. It is hard to sustain such determination over decades, especially when Belgrade and Moscow are doing everything they can to complicate matters. But there is no substitute for citizens: they shape the state, determine what independence can achieve, and make completing sovereignty possible.

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Eyes on the prize

Republika Srpska (RS)–the Serb-controlled 49% of Bosnia and Herzegovina–is equipping its police with automatic rifles as well as reportedly initiating counter-terrorism training with Russia. Does this matter? Is it a threat to a cold Balkans peace that has lasted more than 22 years?

This news certainly illustrates the timidity of both the European Union and the United States. Brussels and Washington would not have allowed such things to happen for many of the years since the Dayton peace accords brought an end to the Bosnian war in 1995. Now they shrug it off, knowing that neither has the political will to confront RS President Dodik and hoping that it won’t really matter anyway. Some think the weapons more targeted against Dodik’s opposition in the RS, rather than posing a threat the Brcko District or the Bosnian Federation. The RS interior minister denies the Russians will provide training.

Were I a Bosniak or a Croat I would not be a happy camper. I might want to see the Federation police match the RS arms and up the ante a bit to ensure that nothing untoward occurs. In other words, what the RS has done could initiate an escalatory spiral, one that will certainly increase the likelihood of armed clashes sooner or later.

What should be done to stop this? The most important thing is to ensure that the Brcko District remains outside RS and Federation control. Without the Brcko District, the RS is split into two pieces. That’s why it was so ferociously fought over during the war and its disposition could not be decided at Dayton. Instead, an American arbitrator decided it belonged to both the RS and the Federation, which meant in essence it belonged to neither. Reintegration there has been more successful than in most of the rest of the country. That makes it the keystone that prevents Dayton Bosnia from collapsing.

The US no longer has deployed troops in Bosnia and it is doubtful Washington could be convinced to send them back. The EU does, but they are currently scattered around the country in militarily insignificant numbers, constituting a security presence (not a serious deterrent force). But if a war starts again in Bosnia, it won’t start all over the country, not least because of the ethnic separation the previous war caused. Brcko will be the center of gravity of the next war. The EU should move all of its six hundred or so troops there, making clear that neither the Federation nor RS will be permitted to take it and cause the Dayton edifice to collapse.

It’s not that I treasure that edifice. There are good arguments against the rigid ethnic power-sharing arrangements created at Dayton. But a violent collapse of Bosnia and Herzegovina would be catastrophic. What is needed is a peaceful renegotiation, one that enables the country to qualify as a candidate for EU membership.

As luck would have it, Sarajevo is planning to submit its replies to the initial Brussels questionnaire concerning Bosnia’s EU candidacy within the next few weeks. That is the right direction: the EU’s new Balkans strategy has opened the possibility of new accessions by 2025. Bosnia and Herzegovina is unlikely to qualify in time for that date, because it has been slow to adopt and implement the acquis communautaire (the EU’s accumulated legislation and regulations). But it should do everything it can to move as quickly as possible, before the window closes unpredictably.

Dodik’s automatic rifles are bad. But far worse would be failure of Bosnians to keep their eyes on the prize of EU membership.


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Kosovo’s travail

I’ve already expressed my enthusiasm for the EU’s re-opening of the window for enlargement in the Western Balkans. I don’t take any of it back. But my friends in Kosovo are upset: the final text of the plan apparently erases explicit references to Kosovo, due to Spain’s concern that it represents a model for Catalonia.

I wish that hadn’t happened, but it is far from incurable. It is still clear that the EU is opening the window and that Serbia will have to settle its issues with Kosovo completely–“normalizing relations” is the euphemism–before acceding. The Union is not willing to bring in any new members that have problems with their neighbors. That means recognition and establishment of diplomatic relations between Pristina and Belgrade. I am assured on good authority that Madrid has made it clear that once Kosovo and Serbia settle their issues Spain will go along.

What Spain has done is nevertheless a diplomatic auto-goal. By implicitly accepting the analogy between Catalonia and Kosovo, Madrid makes itself analogous to Milosevic’s Belgrade. Objectively, that is not the case. I may think some of what Madrid is doing to fight the Catalan independence movement is unwise and counterproductive, but it is nowhere near the criminal abuse that Milosevic indulged in. Spain has not chased hundreds of thousands of Catalans from their homes, and the international community has not had to intervene to stop war crimes and crimes against humanity. Nor has Catalonia been governed for the better part of a decade by an international administration entrusted by the UN Security Council with developing self-governing institutions with a view to an eventual decision on final status. Worrying about Kosovo as if it is Catalonia in disguise is foolish.

Kosovars are also partly responsible for their own fate. They have spent years now refusing to ratify a border agreement with Montenegro and months threatening to undo their agreement to a special, internationally staffed tribunal to try accusations of war-time and post-war crimes. Small countries need lots of friends. The border issue is not worth 15 minutes of high quality diplomatic time, never mind years. The special tribunal was tough for Kosovo’s politicians to swallow, but regurgitating it would be no less painful. Had Pristina proceeded with the border demarcation and avoided a new debate over the special tribunal, it would no doubt have had more time, energy, and international credit to ensure better treatment in the EU strategy.

The opening of a Balkan window for enlargement by 2025 is an extraordinary thing for Brussels to do. There is no telling when the window will close again. The only productive response is to get ready as quickly as possible by meeting the entry requirements. For Kosovo, that means border demarcation (not only with Montenegro but also with Serbia) as well as complying with whatever the special tribunal decides. The alternative is decades in purgatory, where friends are few. Kosovo’s citizens would do well to avoid that.

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