Each week we bring you the ten most important pieces of news from Eastern Europe and the Western Balkans.
Compiled by: Eva Jovanova and Hristo Voynov
As Greece Foreign Minister Kotzias announced last week, the name dispute between Macedonia and Greece should be resolved before the 2019 elections in Greece, his Macedonian counterpart, Nikola Dimitrov, showed further enthusiasm and readiness for negotiations. US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Mr. Hoyt Brian Yee, saluted the mood for resolving the name dispute in both countries. Will Matthew Nimetz, the UN Special Representative who is trying to put an end to the name dispute since 1994, after 24 years at the negotiation table, finally achieve a solution?
The IPA 2016 Financing Agreement between Kosovo and the EU was approved by the Kosovo Assembly and entered into force earlier this week. This agreement will bring more than €70 million in Kosovo, which, according to the Kosovo Assembly Speaker Kadri Veseli, will be spent on innovation, judiciary, education and other fields and will help Kosovo on its European integration agenda and development. Does this imply more funding to support the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue?
The EU-Western Balkans Media days took place in Tirana between 8th and 10th of November. The opening speech was held by Mr. Johannes Hahn, Commissioner for the European Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, in which he reiterated that the role of free and independent media is a prerequisite for European integration – a phrase has become more common with the deterioration of media freedom in the Western Balkans. The President of Albania Mr. Edi Rama in his speech showed willingness to make Albanian media more objective and decisiveness to steer the country on a European path.
The Paradise Papers did not bypass the Western Balkans. Prominent politicians and business people from Serbia, Slovenia, Montenegro, Greece and Turkey were implicated by the scandal. They revealed that the pro-Russian Serbian minister without portfolio Nenad Popovic is the richest Serbian politician worth more than €75 million euros. Cries for Turkey’s Prime Minister Binali Yildirim’s resignation shake the Turkey’s politics. The former director of Slovenia’s tax authority Ivan Simic was also implicated by the papers.
Moldova has had a sudden change of ambassadors to Romania, Belgium, and Lithuania. It is believed that the Romanian ambassador was changed at President Igor Dodon’s request because of comments regarding the decision to strip Romanian ex-President Traian Băsescu of Moldovan citizenship, while the other two are unclear. With the recent split between the pro-EU and pro-Russia factions of the Moldovan parliament, the two may already be thinking a year in advance regarding the November 2018 elections. This switch may be a precursor to both sides vying for power in whatever realm they can.
Serbia and Ukraine’s diplomatic relations continue to deteriorate. Ukraine Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin called Serbia to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. He urged Serbia to make measures against pro-Russian Serbs fighting in the Donbas area. Last week, Ukraine’s ambassador to Serbia Oleksandr Alexandrovych blamed Serbia for not making any efforts to stop Serbian fighters from killing Ukrainians in the eastern part of the country. Both the Ambassador and the Foreign Minister blamed Russia for destabilizing the Western Balkans.
Serbia’s Prime Minister Ana Brnabic made a comparison between the cases of Kosovo and Catalonia this Monday and accused the world of hypocrisy. In a letter to the European Commission, she stated that there was an international law applicable to the EU members only, and a separate one for the other countries. The EC reminded Serbia on two occasions that Catalonia and Kosovo are not analogous cases and stated that the institutions in Brussels do not apply double standards when it comes to international law. The Chair of the Foreign Affairs committee of the Russian Federation Council is strongly backing Serbia and attacking the EU. Our Editor in Chief, Kristijan Fidanovski, in an article published earlier this week argued the analogy made between some Western Balkan countries and the case of Catalonia.
Kosovo’s President Hashim Thaci argued that the USA should also get involved in the Belgrade – Pristina dialogue. He stated that the US Vice President Mike Pence promised that the USA would get involved directly in the dialogue and help the creation of a Kosovo army. The EU has the leading role in this dialogue, which aims at normalizing the relations between Serbia and Kosovo.
Whereas last week, the Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic stressed the importance of a Serbo-Croatian friendship in the Balkans and announced his plan to visit Zagreb in November, this week, the relations between Serbia and Croatia diverged from that friendly tone. President Vucic’s visit has been postponed due to unknown reasons, and there is no information if a meeting between him and his Croatian counterpart, President Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic, will take place by the end of this year.
This Sunday, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that Turkey no longer wants to become a member of the European Union. Even though Turkey has been a candidate country for the EU for 12 years, this statement does not come as a surprise. Turkey has been criticizing the EU for a longer time now, a rhetoric which gained most momentum as EU heads of states banned Erdogan’s referendum campaigns in their countries earlier this year. In his State of the Union speech last month, European Commission’s President Jean Claude Juncker shared pessimism about Turkey’s EU aspirations, chiding the country for its lack of media freedom.
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny has been arrested again, this time for organizing ‘illegal gatherings’ during Putin’s 65th birthday, even though the protests he was going to attend were permitted by the city. He will be held for 20 days, which means he will miss the protests. Because of Russian law, his criminal conviction means that he is not allowed to run in the upcoming 2018 elections, even though he has publically declared his intentions to do so. Critics of this policy see it as a way of preventing popular opposition figures from running against Putin, allowing him to maintain his power in Russian society.
Yesterday, the European Commission asked all Macedonian ministries to fill out questionnaires and report for their achievements. These questionnaires were also sent to the other Western Balkan states which aspire for EU membership. This used to be an annual practice until 2005 and helped the EC draft its annual progress reports. Whereas some Western Balkan states (Serbia and Montenegro) have opened negotiations with the EU, Macedonia received its last positive recommendation to open negotiation talks by the EC in October 2014. It remains to be seen, if the governmental change in the country will help Macedonia get another positive recommendation by the EC later this year.
Each week we bring you the ten most important pieces of news from Eastern Europe.
Compiled by: Hristo Voynov and Eva Jovanova
1. The US has, after years of discussion, decided to send500 million USD worth of lethal aid to Ukraine to help it in its war against separatist forces. Previous aid was classified as not lethal, which severely limited Kiev’s ability to retake its territory from the Russian armed separatists or prevented the war from reaching catastrophic levels of violence, depending on which side you ask. Ukraine’s presidentasked for peacekeeping forces at the UN General Assembly, which appears to be inevitable but witha weak mandate limited to strictly peacekeeping as Russia has veto-power to prevent the UN from tilting the balance of power to Ukraine. This week also had the trial of 19 individuals charged for their roles in the Odessa trade union building massacre where dozens of Anti-Maidan protesters were burned alive.All 19 were acquitted, which sparked protests that escalated to the point where police used tear gas to disperse the crowd.
2. The EU scolded Serbia about its lack of respect for media freedom after a Serbian government minister called a website editor a ‘drug addict’. Earlier this week, the independent newspaper Vranjske Novine, which has been open since 1994, was forced to close. Vukasic Obradovic, the founder and editor of the newspaper, went on a hunger strike, stating that the decision to close the newspaper was political. The EU reminded Serbia that media freedom is one of the core values of European integration and stated that the situation will be monitored in terms of Serbia’s open accession negotiations. According to the Reporters Without Borders index, media freedom in the Balkans is mostly in the ‘orange zone’, meaning that there is a noticeable problem, with the exception of Macedonia and Bulgaria, which are colored red – meaning that the situation is difficult. Mr. Janjic’s argument that there can be no real stability in the Western Balkans without media freedom remains as prevalent as ever.
3. Zapad 2017 military drills remain under way in Belarus. Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenkaclaimed all Russian troops would leave following the exercises. Poland, in response, is starting the largest exercises of its own troops inDragon 2017, in which their troops fight of an invasion force. Zapad 2017’s storyline is much more detailed and interesting. It involvesconflict in three different imaginary countries. As one of the three, Veishnoria is located in the same area in which the 1994 elections results had Lukashenka’s opponent, Zianon Pazniak, perform much better than the now strongman president. The other two fictional countries control Russia’s direct route to Kaliningrad and Latvia and Lithuania, both considered weak spots in NATOs eastern flank.
4. In light of Macedonia’s local elections scheduled for October 15th , two of the main ruling parties announce support for each others candidates. The ruling SDSM with its predominantly ethnically Albanian coalition party DUI, seem eager to deepen their cooperation during the local elections, as there are no mayoral candidates by the two parties running against each other. In the city of Skopje, DUI abstained from nominating their own candidate by giving their full support for the candidate from the SDSM, whereas in other ethnically mixed municipalities, SDSM did the same for DUI. A recent survey by the International Republican Institute (IRI) concludes that 19% of the population would vote for a SDSM candidate, whereas 7% stated that they would support a DUI candidate. The survey also notes an increasing popularity of the SDSM leader, Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, but a stagnation (or a slight drop) in the popularity of DUI’s leader Ali Ahmeti.
6. Milorad Dodik, the President of Republika Srpska, an autonomous legal entity in Bosnia and Herzegovina, said a referendum on Bosnia’s state court jurisdiction over the courts in Republika Srpska is suspended. Last year, the Bosnian-Serb nationalist leader faced sanctions due to his secessionist tendencies, which collide with the internationally mediated Dayton Agreement – Bosnia’s current constitution, which put an end to the yearslong bloodshed. Last September, Dodik held a referendum on celebrating the Day of Republika Srpska, which was assessed as anti-constitutional and discriminatory by the EU and the U.S., but was praised by Russia. It remains to be seen whether Dodik learnt his lesson by the U.S. individual sanctions last year or he is only postponing the referendum.
8. Albania’s main opposition party proposes a ban on public use of Communist symbols. The leader of the centre-right Democratic Party, Lulzim Basha, condemns the current use of symbols of the long time Stalinist dictator Enver Hoxha, whoruled Albania for 45 years. Basha states that the message of the Communist symbols of Enver Hoxha’s dictatorial regime equals the message that symbols of Nazi Germany send, and therefore they have to be banned from public use. Albanian veterans annually commemorate Hoxha’s WWII front against Italy and Germany while wearing these symbols .
9. A poll conducted found that18% of Russian voters would back Andrey Semenov for President 2018. Semenov, backed by Putin, has an unusual background for a politician; he is imaginary. The Levada Center, unaffiliated with the Russian government, created him as part of their project to see how Putin’s authority affects Russian voters. This gave the Kremlin cause for celebration. Putin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, claimed that this result “only verifies the overwhelming confidence in the head of the Russian state and his human resources policy”. 10. Croatia’s Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic and his Slovenian counterpart Miro Cerar scheduled a meeting for September 27th to discuss the decadeslong disputed maritime waters. The dispute’s history is marked with arbitration processes in the Hague, court rulings, and even a Slovenian temporary blockade in Croatia’s EU negotiations. However, its resolution during the meeting does not seem very likely.
The Antemurale myth is the idea that a nation or group of people were the last or true line of defense before a certain ‘other’. It is used by nationalists to provide a sense of self-importance, worth, and unification with those that fall under the defending identity. It is commonly used within a European context, most often by those that were between Christian Europe and the Islamic Ottoman Empire or other Islamic ‘threats’. Unlike many other nationalist myths, it does not distinguish one group as superior, but instead connects it with another and gives the Antemurale group a claim to both belonging and entitlement. After the breakup of Yugoslavia, this myth was particularly useful to newly formed nations looking to escape European ideas of Balkanism, or negative stereotypes of the region in the rest of Europe, especially when they were looking to explain why they should enter or get closer to the EU. Today, the Antemurale myth has picked up new tones. In the war in Ukraine, the Ukrainian government claims to be defending Europe from further Russian aggression, while the pro-Russian separatists claim to defend Russia from encroaching Western influence. More recently, European far right parties have applied the myth to defending European values and culture from refugees. Through these two cases, we can see the development of the myth and how the discourse of a threat to Europe is affecting the region. Antemurale Christianitatis As a frontier between Christianity and Islam, many countries in the Balkans have adopted a sense of importance because of their self-perceived claim of saving Europe. Slovenia, which was the limit of the Ottomans in Europe at their peak, has the claim of being the literal last line of defense. Croatia’s claim is similar, with the noteworthy exception that the Croatians had the title given to them by Pope Leo X in 1519 for their fight against the Ottomans. These claims were turned into national myths throughout the Yugoslav Wars to control the narrative of the conflict both at home and for an international audience. One such example is shown in this excerpt from “Europe is a Whore” by Boris Buden. It was written in an appeal for assistance to Croatia during Serbian advances. Such claims were also used later by elites from both Slovenia and Croatia in an attempt to distance themselves from the Balkans and push for European integration, such as Tuđman’s campaign slogan in 1997, “Tuđman a ne Balkan/Tudjman not the Balkans” or Tuđman’s failed constitutional proposal to ban the association of Croatia with the Balkans. If European elites saw Slovenia and Croatia as historical defenders of Europe, they would be obligated to help them ‘leave’ the Balkans and reconnect with Europe. “For almost three hundred years of an uninterrupted war of defense, Croatia has acquired the honest title – antemurale christianitatis – the outer battlements of Western European Christian culture. But this title has been paid for dearly. Croatia has been reduced to the remnants of the remnants. The best evidence for it is its strange shape on the map. For three whole centuries Croatia has been bleeding on its burned and destroyed homes. Entire generations, one after the other, have been sacrificed in defence of their homeland and the whole European civilization. During these three centuries, when at that time the largest non-Christian power in the world was destroying, devastating and conquering Croatia, the western part of the Christian world has slept soundly behind its battlements and developed in every respect (…) At the end of the 20th century (…) Croatia is again in danger from the East (…) The Croats defend their home and their system of values which has been built by Western democracy. And what are Europe and America doing? Western and the other part of world are watching it with an easy conscience. No one wants to intervene actively and that is a betrayal of what they owe to Croatia.” Excerpt from “Europe is a Whore” by Boris Buden The Serbian claim to the myth lies with the Battle of Kosovo, where the Ottomans won a pyrrhic victory over Serbian soldiers in 1393, greatly slowing down the Ottoman advance. The manipulation of this national myth to stir nationalism is most visible in Milosevic’s famous Gazimestan speech, which is one of the most important precursors to the Yugoslav conflict. Such rhetoric was used again in Serbian media when putting down the Kosovo independence movement, but this time as a way of turning the conflict into a battle against Muslim fundamentalism trying to push its way into Europe. Through this, Milosevic both portrays Serbia as an antemurale christianitatis and also expresses the Serbian claim to Kosovo through such a title. “Six centuries ago, Serbia defended itself in the field of Kosovo, but it also defended Europe. Serbia was at that time the bastion that defended the European culture, religion and European society in general. Therefore, today it appears not only unjust, but even unhistorical and completely absurd to talk about Serbia’s belonging to Europe. Serbia has been a part of Europe incessantly, now just as much as it was in the past, of course, in its own way, but in a way that in the historical sense never deprived it of dignity.” – Slobodan Milosevic
Antemurale of Europe today; threat from the East
Other countries in Eastern Europe have similar national myths, most notably Ukraine and Poland because the Ottoman advances reached the Southern tip of their borders. However, their claims of defending Europe are more focused on the present than the past. Following the war in Ukraine, both Ukraine and Poland see a high possibility of a future conflict with Russia. This is creating a modern myth of Ukraine saving Europe by fighting in defense of mainland Europe, propagated by President Poroshenko himself. Poland is also preparing for a potential attack from Russia, building up its military capabilities and preparing for a war where it would potentially be tasked with stopping a Russian invasion not just of Poland but of Europe as a whole.
Because of the potential that such a myth has, pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine have been putting out similar ideas for their benefactors. Under their narrative, they are defending Russia, the Eastern Orthodox world, and any nation not already under Western domination from further Western influence and expansion , as well as from fascism and imperialism. This is seen through social programs that the rebels are hosting, such as the International Anti-Fascist conference in Lugansk, where the organizers plan to “coordinate the international antifascist movement in order to protect the world” from what they see as the final goal of the Western world, which is to “destroy and split up all remaining countries, which are not yet completely bowing to the neo-liberal agenda like Russia, Iran, North Korea and China”. This mentality is also seen in the following recruitment video for the pro-Russian rebels which claims that the rebels are fighting on the front lines of an impending conflict against the foes of humanity.
While this ideology is widely disregarded in the West, it is common within many areas formerly under USSR rule or with individuals under its ideological influence and thus has a vast and specific target audience. Such myths have also managed to convince individuals to fight, not only states. Many interviews with foreigners on both sides show influences of the antemurale myth. A Frenchman fighting for the separatists states that the Maidan revolution was organized by the West within a larger pattern of “overthrowing regimes disagreeable to NATO and the USA” and fighting this force brought him to Ukraine. At the same time, foreign individuals supporting Ukraine from throughout Europe have cited defending Europe through defending Ukraine as their motivation for entering the conflict. Whether or not one believes either of the narratives, the effect is the same. The local population has a sense of purpose and importance in not just fighting for autonomy but also in defense of a group that they feel connected to. However, the truth is that while the local population may believe the myth, those that both groups claim to defend do not always appreciate their actions or agree with their claims. The separatists are increasingly being ignored by Russia at the expense of its assistance to Syria’s Assad regime. Meanwhile, the Kiev government is trying to get closer to the EU but the EU is not interested in adding a state like Ukraine, which not only doesn’t yet meet the accession criteria but also poses a risk to the rest of the EU should the conflict flair up again. In a very similar situation to Croatia and Slovenia during the Yugoslav wars, the EU and NATO are assisting Ukraine as an ideological ally that wants to be closer to Europe. But if they truly believe that Ukraine is currently fighting for Europe’s future, their level of assistance does not show it.
Antemurale of Europe today; threat from the South
The other ‘threat’ to Europe today is much closer to the historical threat of an Islamic invasion. In only 2015, over a million refugees have left their native countries, many of which are currently in a state of war, to seek a better life in rich Western countries. However, if you ask the very vocal far right within Europe, this is an attack on European culture and values that will bring Sharia law, or religious law organized through different interpretations of Islam, to the continent unless stopped now. Nationalists from different countries often clash on issues but they have now managed to unite over the perceived threat of both the refugees and the alleged liberal compliance with their “plot” to change European demographics. European right-wing groups such as Pegida have decided to take the task of defending Europe from invaders hell bent on changing Europe’s core, or families fleeing war and destruction, depending on who you ask. A major problem with the refugee wave is that there is no clear way to stop what is happening. There have been attempts to stop the flow, but it is too early to see if such attempts will or will not work. Many of the refugees coming in are entering through the Balkans, one of the poorest parts of Europe which is having trouble closing the smuggling routes used to bring people into the region. Recently many of the land borders have been closed off to refugees, leaving many stuck in the Balkans with nowhere to go. This is what many of the richer EU states want; a curb in the flow of refugees coming from the south, which will lessen the financial burden of caring for them. However, this leaves the refugees stuck where they are and dumps the responsibility on the Balkan countries. Luckily for the Balkans, refugees are not interested in staying in the region because they want to settle in richer European countries. Refugee law is complicated and undoubtedly many of the refugees are misinformed about the entire process. It states that the refugees are to be processed as asylum seekers in the country where they decide to apply, while European refugee regulations state that an EU country can return an asylum seeker to whichever EU country they entered first. This leaves the refugees with a gamble. They can apply for asylum in a poorer country and settle down quicker or continue moving towards Germany or France where they could receive many more state benefits. But if they hold out on government assistance until in a richer coutry, they risk deportation either to the poorer countries they initially arrived in, or their home country if their application is rejected. This has led to the Balkans repeating history on a microcosmic scale and once again returning the duty of ‘defending’ Europe from a different culture and peoples. The region is again taking in an influx of foreigners and preventing them from reaching mainland Europe at their own cost. Many of the poor Southern European countries are forced into spending much to both protect their borders and care for what refugees are already there, when they could simply let the refugees continue into countries better financially prepared to deal with the crisis. A major difference is that this time the Muslims are mostly running away from war and conflict instead of being Ottoman soldiers interested in territorial expansion. While this is obviously very different, there are still valid security risks and thus many see the influx of refugees as an existential threat as opposed to a humanitarian catastrophe that needs to be solved. This has led to conflicting views within Europe that make the situation even more complicated. There are many anarchist groups that are openly defying borders and assisting the refugees in cutting through fences while there are vigilante refugee hunters such as Dinko Valev who bragged about capturing 16 Syrian refugees “with his bare hands”.
European countries are legally bound to spend money on assistance and processing of the refugees. These refugees often have little besides what they carry on their backs. Their home countries are poor and war-torn, which brought about the refugee crisis. So who is the winner in this situation? It appears to be Turkey, who has made a ‘one for one’ deal with the EU. Under this deal, one Syrian refugee in Turkey will go to the EU in exchange for one refugee in Europe that is deemed by the EU to not qualify for refugee status. This is questionably legal but drastic times call for drastic measures. This deal was signed in March but there is still debate on the finer points that have been agreed upon. In exchange Turkey is expected to receive many perks from the EU, such as visa-free travel, being seen as a ‘safe country of origin’ in future refugee cases, as well as speeding up the integration of Turkey into the EU while ignoring its numerous human rights violations that have gotten in the way of warmer relations before. This lets Turkey avoid having to go through costly transitions that other countries had to enact or are still in the process of enacting, simply because Turkey has leverage and Macedonia or Albania do not. The EU is putting up conditions for Turkey as well, but Turkey’s Erdogan is putting out signals that Turkey will not budge on EU demands. While this deal may help Europe in the short term, it has been compared to blackmail. This is especially so because Turkey has been meddling in regional conflicts, particularly in Syria, and bears some responsibility for the refugee crisis that the EU is paying it to fix. The visa- free travel condition that the EU is offering is a historic mistake. Most of the refugees are fleeing conflict and repressive regimes only to be unwanted from Europe because they are a financial burden and a perceived risk. Instead, 77 million Turks will be given the right to enter and stay in Europe. The only difference is that Turkish immigration into the EU would be with Turks that are significantly richer than many of the refugees and therefore have more to offer to Europe than just cheap labor. Instead of looking for a better solution, the EU is lowering its standards and taking the easy way out while trying to rid itself of the refugees. In the long run, this can be both lethal to the unity of the EU and a drastic change in demographics, both of which are currently seen as issues revolving around letting the refugees stay. Maybe the European far right, being the Antemurale Christianitatis of today, can take solace in the fact that if the deal works, a significant number of refugees will leave Europe for Turkey. But maybe, the refugees that are deported and given asylum in Turkey will once again return to Europe, this time legally, if they take the steps to become Turkish citizenship. Either way, the push for a solution to the refugee crisis has led to some sort of solution. However, to end this ‘invasion’ of Europe, the solution can’t come from within. It has to start with ending the conflicts and other problems that are driving people to seek a better life in the first place. Lindstrom, Nichole. “Between Europe and the Balkans: Mapping Slovenia and Croatia’s “Return to Europe” in the 1990s.” Dialectical Anthropology 27.3/4 (2004): 1-17. Petrovic, Tanja. “On The Way To Europe.” Ed. Igor Štiks. Welcome to the Desert of Post-socialism: Radical Politics after Yugoslavia. Ed. Srećko Horvat. Brooklyn, NY: Verso, 2015.