Tag Archives: balkans

Croatian conservatives win elections in repeat from last November

Andrej Plenković, a former diplomat, is likely to become Croatia's next prime minister. (Facebook)
Andrej Plenković, a former diplomat, is likely to become Croatia’s next prime minister. (Facebook)

As global politics takes its strongest lunge towards ultranationalist populism in the postwar era, Croatian voters on Sunday delivered a fresh (if narrow) mandate to a conservative party now headed by a moderate and technocratic former diplomat.croatia

In a repeat of last November’s elections, the conservative Hrvatska demokratska zajednica (HDZ, Croatian Democratic Union) placed first but short of the absolute majority that it needed to govern alone.

Just as after last year’s elections, it will now look to form a coalition with Most nezavisnih lista (Bridge of Independent Lists), a reformist and centrist party formed in 2012 that fared slightly more poorly in the September 11 parliamentary election than last year. Nevertheless, Most continues to hold the margin of power for the next Croatian government, and it’s very likely to join an HDZ-led coalition.  Together, the HDZ and Most are just two seats short of a majority, which they might pick up from independents MPs.

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Andrej Plenković, a mild-mannered diplomat, is the HDZ’s fresh-faced leader, and he’s part of a rising generation of Croatians who came of age, politically speaking, long after Yugoslavia’s breakup. Though he leads the Croatian right in what has become an increasingly nationalist moment, Plenković’s career is rooted in foreign policy and diplomacy, not populist politics. A longtime member of the bureaucracy in Croatia’s ministry of foreign and European affairs, Plenković served for five years as deputy ambassador to France, then as secretary of state for European integration from 2010 to 2011, shortly before Croatia acceded to the European Union. Since 2013, he has also served as a member of the European Parliament (after a brief two-year stint in the Croatian national parliament).

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RELATED: Reform-minded Most party set to play kingmaker in Croatia

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Yet as the aftermath of the 2015 election showed, coalition agreements are easier conceived than executed. After 76 days of negotiations, the HDZ and Most agreed in January 2016 to form a coalition headed by a non-partisan prime minister, Tihomir Orešković, a dual Canadian national and pharmaceutical businessman. Tasked with a nearly impossible project to boost GDP growth and cut Croatia’s debt, the government seemed to be on track to meet its goals. Continue reading Croatian conservatives win elections in repeat from last November

Serbian election kicks off tumultuous year for Balkan politics

Serbian president Tomislav Nikolić met with European Council president Donald Tusk in December as part of ongoing EU accession negotiations. (Facebook / Aydemir Dursun)
Serbian president Tomislav Nikolić met with European Council president Donald Tusk in December as part of ongoing EU accession negotiations. (Facebook / Aydemir Dursun)

This weekend, Serbia’s prime minister Aleksandar Vučić finalized a four-year consolidation of power in early parliamentary elections that delivered a landslide victory for his center-right Serbian Progressive Party (SNS, Српска напредна странка), giving him the mandate and the support to advance political and economic reforms that he hopes could one day result in Serbia’s accession as a member-state of the European Union.Serbia_Flag_Icon

In results late Sunday night, the SNS a wide lead over its nearest competitor, the center-left Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS, Социјалистичка партија Србије), which currently serves as the government’s junior coalition partner. The Socialist leader, Ivica Dačić, a former prime minister, currently serves as Vučić’s foreign minister. Several parties of the fragmented center-left and hard-right ultra-nationalist parties trail far behind in single digits. With just under 50% of the total vote on Sunday, the SNS can expect to have an absolute majority in Serbia’s unicameral, 250-seat National Assembly (Народна скупштина).

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Vučic called the snap elections earlier this year, fully knowing how well his party was doing in the polls. Like it or not, Vučic and the former SNS leader Tomislav Nikolić, currently in his first term as president, will be directing Serbian policy through the end of the decade.

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RELATEDVučić set to consolidate political power in Serbia
with 3rd consecutive win

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But Serbia is far from the only country in the Balkans that will vote this year, and Sunday’s vote kicks off what could become a season of electoral change across the region.

Unlike Serbia, where voters were happy to deliver Vučic the broad mandate he wanted, voters in the rest of the western Balkans are far less sanguine about their elected officials. Opposition politicians in Montenegro nearly ousted their long-serving prime minister earlier this year, though fresh elections are due before October. The twists and turns of a wiretapping scandal in Macedonia have reached fever pitch this week, with protesters marching against the government in Skopje, and a June 5 parliamentary election date is currently in doubt.

A region that still dreams of EU accession

(Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty)
(Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty)

The western Balkans are the last major region of Europe that has not yet been integrated into the European Union. With the possible exception of Turkey, it’s the final frontier of EU accession. Among the six (or seven, if you count Kosovo) countries that emerged out of the former Yugoslavia, only two of them have won EU member-state status, Slovenia and Croatia. They join only Albania in representing the western Balkans in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

The remaining Balkan states are in varying stages of their quests for accession:

  • Macedonia was granted candidate status back in 2005, but democratic and economic backsliding have stalled its membership push, not to mention its long-running spat with Greece over the name, ‘Macedonia,’ which Greeks consider to be an inaccurate appropriation of Greek culture and history.
  • Montenegro gained candidate status in December 2010, and negotiations are ongoing, though Montenegro has fully implemented just two of 33 chapters of the acquis communautaire, the body of EU law required for all member-states.
  • The European Union granted Serbia candidate status in March 2012, negotiations kicked off in 2014 and Vučic is eager to conclude accession by the year 2020, though that remains incredibly optimistic.
  • Albania won candidate status in June 2014, and though its negotiations have yet to begin, prime minister Edi Rama, a former artist who charged to power in 2013, is an energetic center-left figure who’s worked closely with former British prime minister Tony Blair to develop a package of EU-friendly economic and political reforms.
  • Bosnia and Herzegovina applied for membership status in February 2016, but the European Union hasn’t yet granted it candidate status.
Albania's pro-European, pro-reform prime minister Edi Rama met with US president Barack Obama last week. (Facebook)
Albania’s pro-European, pro-reform prime minister Edi Rama met with US president Barack Obama last week. (Facebook)

Given the existential threats that the European Union faces, hardly anyone outside the Balkans seems to have the stomach for what promises to be a difficult round of accession. The June 23 referendum in the United Kingdom on whether to leave the European Union remains too close to call, but its passage would be a major blow to the notion of ‘ever closer union.’ Much of southern Europe, most especially Greece, have still not recovered from the eurozone crisis that stretched the limits of EU financial, economic and monetary policy and that brought into question the future of the single currency. Meanwhile, the most acute refugee crisis in Europe since World War II has weakened the Schengen agreement by undermining the free movement of people within the European Union and the eradication of internal EU borders.

For current EU members, then, it may look like there’s precious little benefit in EU accession. But for the Balkan states, there remains enthusiasm that EU membership will force the kind of reforms that could reduce the crippling corruption that is, on general, worse in the Balkans than in the rest of Europe:balkans CPI 2015

Balkans populations also hope that EU membership will also clear the path not only for reforms, but for the kind of funding that could allow them to catch up to the higher EU standard of living, which, not surprisingly lags far behind: 
Balkans GDPWith eventual EU membership — and the promise it brings of greater incomes and opportunities — dangling as a carrot, it’s no surprise that Vučic has amassed so much political power in Serbia and an impressive amount of respect among European leaders. But it’s that same dynamic that could lead to massive changes throughout the rest of the region, most notably in Montenegro and Macedonia.

Wiretaps and pardons

Macedonian prime minister Nikola Gruevski is facing protests on the streets of Skopje after the dismissal of an inquiry into a wiretapping scandal. (Facebook)
Former Macedonian prime minister Nikola Gruevski’s government is facing protests on the streets of Skopje after the dismissal of an inquiry into a wiretapping scandal. (Facebook)

Eleven days ago, Macedonia’s president Gjorge Ivanov pardoned 56 people, all of whom were implicated in a wide-ranging wiretapping scandal that forced the country’s powerful prime minister, Nikola Gruevski, to resign in January. Beginning in the early 2010s, Gruevski and his government were found to have wiretapped illegally up to 20,000 Macedonians, opposition figures, journalists and even diplomats.  macedonia

Ivanov, who announced a decree that would end all investigations into the wiretapping scandal, set off a constitutional crisis from what had already been a crisis of governance and the rule of law, and his announcements met with sharp disapproval from EU officials and Macedonia’s political opposition.

Gruevski’s ruling VMRO-DPMNE (Внатрешна македонска револуционерна организација – Демократска партија за македонско национално единство; Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization – Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity) has been in power since 2006. It easily won a fourth consecutive term in April 2014, though the election was hardly a fair fight.

Gruevski has spent much of the past decade stoking nationalist sentiment, which has antagonized Greece; for example, he erected an 11-foot high statue of Alexander the Great in Macedonia’s capital of Skopje. While the spat with Greece helped Gruevski, in part, to rally domestic support, it has only hardened Greek determination to block Macedonian membership not only in the European Union, but NATO as well. Meanwhile, the VMRO-DPMNE’s government has done little to introduce reforms to stem corruption or promote liberalization.

Macedonia opposition leader Zoran Zaev stands an excellent chance of winning power in elections that may still be held on June 5. (Facebook)
Macedonia opposition leader Zoran Zaev stands an excellent chance of winning power in elections that may still be held on June 5, if he doesn’t boycott them. (Facebook)

Macedonians now seem fed up with Gruevski’s empty promises and hollow rhetoric, to say nothing of the wiretapping shenanigans and his attempts to persuade Ivanov to pull the plug on the ongoing investigations.

Elections were set for June 5, but the government, fearing a rout, may try to postpone them. A meeting scheduled earlier today in Vienna among EU leaders and Macedonia’s political leaders was cancelled, even as the intensity of Macedonia’s protesters increases.

Zoran Zaev, Macedonia’s opposition leader and the head of the center-left Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM, Социјалдемократски сојуз на Македонија), was instrumental in revealing the extent of the wiretapping scandal, though only after Gruevski tried to have Zaev jailed for allegedly attempting to illegally toppling the government.

For years, Zaev has opposed Gruevski’s nationalist showmanship and denounced the government’s flashy development projects as wasteful vanity spending. Now, with Ivanov’s announcement to suspend the wiretapping scandal that Zaev himself helped to reveal, the opposition leader has joined the front lines of the protesters. There’s a sense that he could soon be leading the country, though he pledged earlier this month to boycott elections without additional reforms to guarantee political freedom and a free and fair electoral process. An original plan to hold elections in April has already been postponed once to June and could well be delayed again.

Negotiations over the conduct and timing of the Macedonian elections are just the beginning of what could become an even more tumultuous year. If Zaev and an opposition coalition forces VMRO-DPMNE from power, no one knows exactly how willingly Gruevski and his allies will concede. Moreover, from day one, a Zaev-led government would be locked in a high-stakes battle with Ivanov to reinstate the wiretapping investigation.

Đukanović’s last stand?

Montenegro's prime minister Milo Đukanović has dominated politics for a quarter-century, but his time may soon be running out. (CDM)
Montenegro’s prime minister Milo Đukanović has dominated politics for a quarter-century, but his time may soon be running out. (CDM)

Though it officially won its independence from Serbia only in June 2006, Milo Đukanović has controlled Montenegro like a personal fiefdom since 1991, when he was first elected prime minister. Đukanović has held power, on and off, ever since.montenegro

Polls show that Đukanović and his Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS, Demokratska Partija Socijalista Crne Gore) hold a wide lead in elections that have to be called within the next six months. But that belies the frustration that’s built for a quarter-century with Đukanović and his family, whose opponents argue that they run Montenegro as their own personal duchy of corruption.

As in Serbia, Montenegro’s opposition is even more split today than it was in the last election. The conservative opposition Democratic Front (Demokratski front) did poorly in the 2012 parliamentary elections, and its leader Miodrag Lekić narrowly lost the 2013 presidential election. Last year, however, Lekić left the party to form Democratic Alliance (DEMOS, Demokratski savez), a competing center-right party.

In December, however, Đukanović only narrowly survived a vote of no confidence in Montenegro’s unicameral, 81-member parliament (Skupština Crne Gore), following widespread protests that began in October over longstanding suspicions of Đukanović’s corruption. Protesters demanded his resignation and a transitional government; Đukanović himself spent half of the 2000s fending off a criminal inquiry into corruption from an Italian prosecutor. Đukanović’s long-time allies, the Social Democratic Party (Socijaldemokratska Partija Crne Gore), left government for the first time since 1998.

Đukanović has hoped that Montenegro’s relatively strong economy and a general trend toward liberalization will distract from his critics’ worst allegations. Moreover, Montenegrins will go to the polls as he pursues the country’s accession to NATO after formally opening talks in February. It’s a step that has appalled Moscow, which still holds plenty of economic and cultural power in the western Balkans, despite the region’s aspirations to integrate further with the rest of Europe.

Đukanović, who is only 54 years old, seems unlikely to take the opportunity of 2016 elections to step down. But it’s not inconceivable that, despite Montenegro’s more successful strides toward NATO and, eventually, EU accession, he too will face the kind of popular wrath that is now greeting Gruevski across Macedonia.

Vučić set to consolidate political power in Serbia with 3rd consecutive win

Serbia's prime minister Aleksandar Vučić hopes to renew a four-year mandate in Sunday's snap elections. (Facebook)
Serbia’s prime minister Aleksandar Vučić hopes to renew a four-year mandate in Sunday’s snap elections. (Facebook)

On Sunday, Serbians will go to the polls nearly two years before the current government’s term ends.Serbia_Flag_Icon

The results are hardly in doubt.

Prime minister Aleksandar Vučić is basically guaranteed to return to power by a wide margin, according to nearly every poll taken since the last election. His party, the center-right Serbian Progressive Party (SNS, Српска напредна странка), already leads a coalition that enjoys a firm majority in Serbia’s unicameral National Assembly (Народна скупштина).

Originally due by March 2018, Vučić called snap elections in March in a bid to build an even more powerful majority. Vučić argues that a fresh mandate will give his government the space to push Serbia ever closer toward European integration; critics argue that’s a fig leaf to disguise a Vučić power grab, an attempt to squeeze the Serbian political opposition into powerlessness.

Despite problems with self-censorship in the press, Reporters without Borders ranks Serbia 59th in its 2016 press freedom rankings — that’s better than EU members Croatia, Hungary and Italy. Neighboring countries fare far worse — Kosovo ranks 90th, Montenegro ranks 106 and Macedonia ranks 118, just higher than Afghanistan.

With increasingly illiberal figures like Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán thumbing their nose at European Union leaders, Vučić’s rise isn’t without its anxieties.

That’s especially true for the United States and Europe, both of whom have an interest in a country of 7 million that remains, economically and culturally, the anchor of the Balkans region, though Serbia itself shares an alphabet, similar language and a religion with Russia. Serbia is dependent upon Russia for natural gas, as well as a market for exports. In recent years, Vučić has shown that he’s willing to turn to Moscow and other surprising allies, such as the United Arab Emirates, for help when European leaders proved too slow.

That means that the European Union, despite its existential troubles, can’t afford to keep Serbians waiting indefinitely for membership.

Regardless, if polls are correct, Vučić will complete a four-year, three-election cycle that brings the SNS the most powerful domestic government in Serbia’s history following the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

Regionally, the Serbian vote takes place in the context of a year of explosive potential as Macedonia and Montenegro are also set to go to the polls amid tense political climates.

A pathway to Serbian political dominance

In July 2012, the SNS narrowly defeated the center-left, liberal Democratic Party (DS, Демократска странка) by a margin of 24.1% to 22.1%, following eight years of Democratic Party dominance in Serbia that smoothed the country’s transition from war-torn pariah to EU aspirant.

At the same time, Serbia’s two-term president Boris Tadić also lost his office to SNS leader Tomislav Nikolić. Once more sympathetic to Russia than to the rest of Europe, Nikolić and his acolyte, Vučić, quickly embraced the cause of EU accession. They made a deal with the nationalist, center-left Socialist Party of Serbia (Социјалистичка партија Србије / SPS) to take power, even though that meant making the SPS’s leader, Ivica Dačić, once a protégé of strongman Slobodan Milošević (who founded the SPS), Serbia’s new prime minister.

What is past is always present in politics. But that’s especially acute in the case of Serbia, because Nikolić, Vučić and Dačić all began their political lives on the ultranationalist right. Today, however, the three Serbian leaders have (so far, at least) transcended the bitter wars of the 1990s, using the reward of EU accession as a rationale not only to implement IMF-style economic reforms but to make genuine efforts to extradite suspected war criminals from the 1990s and to pacify relations with neighbors, most especially Kosovo, whose independence Serbia does not recognize.

The government performed adequately, however. Neither Nikolić nor Vučić made a harsh turn away from the strong EU relations that the Democratic Party nurtured, nor did Dačić suddenly revert to 1990s era ultranationalism. Dačić led the push to open formal negotiations with the European Union for Serbian accession. However begrudgingly, the Dačić government engaged Kosovo over talks about the breakaway region’s international status.

In early 2014, Vučić, then minister of defense, saw an opportunity for the SNS to take power in its own right, and he essentially forced Dačić to call early elections.

It wasn’t a difficult decision, politically, because it instantly made Vučić the most powerful figure in Serbia.

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The SNS won easily with 48.4% of the vote and 158 of the 250 seats in the unicameral National Assembly. The second-placed SPS, which would continue in coalition as a junior member, with Dačić serving as Vučić’s new minister of foreign affairs, won 13.5%. The Democratic Party, suffering from a divide between its new leader, former Belgrade mayor Dragan Đilas and Tadić, the future president, who ultimately left to form a new party, the Social Democratic Party (SDS, Социјалдемократска странка). The divide was fatal to Serbia’s democratic center-left, however, because the Democratic Party won just 6.0% and the Tadić-led SDS won just 5.7%.

Bracing for an even larger mandate?

Former prime minister Ivica Dačić, who has been happy to serve since 2014 as foreign minister, is shown here meeting US secretary of state John Kerry in Belgrade last year. (Facebook)
Former prime minister Ivica Dačić, who has been happy to serve since 2014 as foreign minister, is shown here meeting US secretary of state John Kerry in Belgrade last year. (Facebook)

Again, for the next two years, the government performed adequately. Low GDP growth was still strong enough for the unemployment rate to continue declining (though it’s still precariously close to 20%), and Vučić nuzzled ever closer to EU advisors with the hope of advancing negotiations one step closer to EU membership. For now, Vučić hasn’t particularly weakened Serbian democracy on his own, with the kind of anti-liberal steps that Hungary or Poland have taken, though the internal troubles of the opposition may make it seem otherwise. Indeed, Serbia has welcomed refugees in the face of a deluge of Syrians and others on European shores, the largest wave of migrants to Europe since World War II.

Then, at the height of his power, Vučić called fresh elections. Continue reading Vučić set to consolidate political power in Serbia with 3rd consecutive win

Will Melania Trump make Slovenia great again?

Melania Trump could become the most influential Slovenian-born figure in American history. (Facebook)
Melania Trump could become the most influential Slovene-born figure in American history. (Facebook)

Donald Trump’s campaign to ‘Make America Great Again’ may be associated with halting immigration from Mexico or making deals with China, Russia or Japan. But a Trump administration might bring another country to the forefront of international relations. USflagslovenia

That’s because his wife, Melania Knauss Trump (in Slovene, Melanija Knavs) would be only the second First Lady born outside the United States.

Louisa Adams, the wife of the sixth president, John Quincy Adams, was born in England. Teresa Heinz Kerry, a Mozambican-born American, the wife of US Secretary of State John Kerry, would have also been a foreign-born First Lady, had Kerry won the 2004 presidential election.

With a staggering victory in Florida’s Republican primary on Tuesday, Trump has amassed around 673 delegates to July’s Republican convention in Cleveland — more than half of what he’ll need to reach 1,237 and the nomination, and much to the horror of a shellshocked Republican Party that’s watched Trump attack Mexican immigrants as racists, called for a blanket ban on Muslims entering the United States, threatened to sue journalists and encouraged physical violence at rallies.

So, even as Trumpmania sweeps right-wing voters across the United States, is the country ready for a Slovene-born supermodel in the East Wing?

For a candidate whose approach to presidential politics is anything but ordinary, Melania Trump’s approach to the campaign trail has been equally unorthodox in a race pitting her against former US president Bill Clinton for the title of ‘first spouse.’

If Bill Clinton’s role in a Hillary-led White House remains something of a mystery, so does Melania Trump’s. She hasn’t identified any particular key issues that she would champion as First Lady, such as Laura Bush’s focus on education and literacy or Michelle Obama’s focus on childhood obesity and fitness. But that’s also because she is raising a 10-year old son, Barron, the youngest of Donald Trump’s five children across three marriages. There’s more than a murmur of talk that Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka, would fulfill more of the traditional roles of the First Lady.

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Regardless, Melania Trump would certainly bring a level of elegance to the White House unseen since perhaps the 1960s when Jacqueline Kennedy lived there. As American voters focus on a general election showdown between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, Melania Trump’s most important role could be humanizing and softening her husband’s image — he would enter the general election as the most unpopular major-party candidate in recent US history.

Born in 1970 in the small town of Sevnica in southeastern Slovenia, the 45-year-old Melania Trump, is the daughter of a fashion designer, which propelled young Melania’s own modeling career in Milano and Paris and, finally, New York City. She first met Donald Trump at fashion week in the autumn of 1998, and they married in 2005. To date, it’s been Donald Trump’s longest and, seemingly, most successful marriage. Although she became a permanent resident of the United States in 2001, she obtained her citizenship a decade ago in 2006.

But the 45-year-old supermodel, who has graced the cover of Vogue and GQ but not Time, is not exactly a ubiquitous presence on the campaign trail. She rarely makes speeches or gives interviews, though that has changed as Trump’s candidacy gained traction. The rapid transition from supermodel to campaign trail spouse hasn’t been incredibly easy. Most potential first ladies spend a lifetime in politics becoming just as savvy in politics as their spouses. Melania Trump, whose first language isn’t English, has had exactly nine months.

Moreover, when she has ventured into the media, she’s faced tough questions about her husband’s statements about women and his strong anti-immigration stands. In particular, she has faced criticism that as a European model, her path to American citizenship, which involved a special kind of H1B visa, has been far easier than most immigrants. In a debate earlier this month, Donald Trump appeared to soften his stand against the kind of H1B visas available to workers in high demand (including models), only to harden his stand again a day later.

(GRID-Arendal)
(GRID-Arendal)

But the nature of the modern presidency means that Trump’s nomination or, especially, a Trump victory in November, will bring Slovenia squarely into the center of American consciousness for, let’s face it, probably the first time in US history. It would be a surprise if many Americans could even place Slovenia on a map or even know that it’s part of what used to be Yugoslavia.

Television news crews have already started descending on Sevnica, a trickle that is likely to turn into a flood by the time of the July convention or, despite the terror of Democrats and more than a few Republicans, next January’s presidential inauguration.

More importantly for Slovenia, the rash of attention means that even if the Trump candidacy somehow fades this spring or falls short of 270 electoral votes in November, interest in Slovenia, including tourism from the United States, could skyrocket for years to come. Since 2012, The New York Times has published just four items in its travel section on Slovenia. It’s a smart bet that will change as the Trump narrative dominates headlines in 2016 and the American electorate gets to know Melania Trump and her background.
Continue reading Will Melania Trump make Slovenia great again?

Croatia turns rightward in electing Grabar-Kitarović president

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While the rest of Europe focused on the Paris march following last week’s terrorism attacks, Croatia attended to the business of electing a new president.croatia

Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, who is associated with the center-right opposition, the Hrvatska demokratska zajednica (HDZ, Croatia Democratic Union), defeated incumbent president Ivo Josipović, nominally an independent but associated with the governing, social democratic Kukuriku coalition, an electoral group of four center-left parties.

That Josipović won the first-round vote on December 28 and only closely lost Sunday’s vote to Grabar-Kitarović is a testament to his popularity, not to the weakness of the HDZ. But for a party that believes it’s on the verge of returning to power — Croatia must hold parliamentary elections no later than February 2016 — it might have expected to do better. Grabar-Kitarović narrowly won by a margin of around 20,000 votes, many of which came from Croats living abroad in neighboring Bosnia and Herzegovina. In the first round, she won over 77% support among Croats abroad, and she made promises to support the Bosnian Croat population.

The HDZ easily defeated the Kukuriku coalition in last May’s European parliamentary elections, and polls give the HDZ a lead of between 6% and 9% in advance of the next national elections. One new party, the Održivi razvoj Hrvatske (ORaH, Sustainable Development of Croatia), is attracting increasing support, however — it was formed only in October 2013 as a green, leftist alternative to the current government by former environmental minister Mirela Holy. Social Democratic prime minister Zoran Milanović, who took office in 2011, has faced the wrath of an electorate weary, like the rest of southern and central Europe, of poor economic conditions, despite the fact that he presided over Croatia’s accession as the 28th member-state of the European Union in July 2013.

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Nevertheless, the HDZ will be happy enough to have installed Grabar-Kitarović as Croatia’s first female president, a role that is essentially ceremonial though, like in most European parliamentary democracies, Grabar-Kitarović plays a role in foreign affairs and defense policy and she is technically in charge of appointing the prime minister following elections. In the context of the Balkans, however, the president can play an important diplomatic role for a region just two decades removed from war. Josipović, for example, made a controversial speech in Sarajevo during his presidency when he expressed deep regret for Croatia’s involvement in the Bosnian civil war. (Note that Atifete Jahjaga, elected in 2011 to the presidency by Kosovo’s parliament, is the first female head of state in former Yugoslavia, as a region).

No one should expect Grabar-Kitarović to make any apologies during her term. She is, somewhat controversially, a fan of Croatia’s first post-independence leader, Franjo Tudjman, an often autocratic and nationalist president throughout the turbulent 1990s and founder of the HDZ. During the campaign, Grabar-Kitarović promised to ‘return’ to where Tudjman stopped, raising some eyebrows.

Grabar-Kitarović served as European affairs minister between 2003 and 2008 and became, in addition, its foreign minister from 2005 to 2008, laying much of the groundwork for the country’s accession to the European Union, only the second Balkan country to achieve member-state status (after Slovenia). From 2011 to 2014, she served as NATO’s assistant secretary general for public diplomacy.

Beware Putin’s southern European, soft-power front

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Russian president Vladimir Putin travel to Belgrade on Thursday with a warm welcome from Serbian prime minister Aleksandar Vučić (pictured above, left, with Putin) with  parades and fanfare.Russia Flag Iconbulgaria flagSerbia_Flag_IconHungary Flag Icon

Even as a shaky ceasefire between the Ukrainian government and pro-Russian eastern separatists limps forward, US and European policymakers continue to keep a wary eye on the Baltic states and Ukraine. Just over a month ago in Tallinn, US president Barack Obama disabused Putin that NATO would flinch in its response to any Russian attack against any of the Baltic states.

Russian aggression may have nudged Latvian voters into reelecting a center-right government otherwise unpopular after a half-decade of economic malaise and budget austerity, and Russian relations are certain to play a vital role in Ukraine’s snap parliamentary elections in less than two weeks.

Nevertheless, Western strategists may be overlooking Putin’s ability to undermine both EU and NATO resolve through the Achilles’ heel of southeastern Europe by leveraging economic, political and cultural influence in Bulgaria, Hungary and Serbia. While it’s hard to believe that Russia would assume the economic burdens of annexing large swaths of eastern Ukraine and even harder to believe that it would risk World War III by invading Russian-majority territory in Estonia, Russia could easily, quietly and gradually maximize its influence within southern Europe, a region that continues to suffer inordinately from the fallout of the global financial and eurozone debt crises.

Earlier this month, Bulgarian voters went to the polls for the second time in just 17 months. They elected a fragmented National Assembly, though the former pro-European, center-right prime minister Boyko Borissov is likely to return to power with a minority government. One of the first decisions he will have to make is whether to proceed with the South Stream natural gas pipeline, which would carry Russian energy through Bulgaria and to Austria, Hungary and elsewhere in southern Europe. The pipeline is one of the reasons, in fact, that the previous center-left coalition government fell earlier this summer. Continue reading Beware Putin’s southern European, soft-power front

Bosnia set for elections at all levels of government

mostarPhoto credit to Brittany Ann of brittlichty.blogspot.com. Mostar in 2011.

Bosnia and Herzegovina’s election system might not be the world’s most complex, but it vies with highly fragmented countries like Belgium and Lebanon for the honor.federationsrpska
Bosnia-Herzegovina

The difference is that Belgium is a wealthy country, and Lebanon, believe it or not, has an economy more than twice as large as the Bosnian economy ($45 billion versus around $17.5 billion) and a much higher GDP per capita ($10,000 versus around $4,600).

The country of Bosnia and Herzegovina quite literally cannot afford its system of government, which was always designed as a temporary structure as part of the Dayton accords that ended its civil war in 1995. More than two decades later, the country is staggering behind even its relatively poor Balkan neighbors, with a ridiculously high unemployment rate of 43.8%. Only Albania and   war-forged Kosovo, which hasn’t even achieved universal recognition as a sovereign state, have lower standards of living.

Slovenia has been a member of the European Union for a decade and a eurozone member for five years, while Croatia gained EU membership last July. Serbia and Montenegro are in negotiations for EU accession, and Albania and Macedonia are at least official candidates, Bosnia and Herzegovina joins Kosovo (and Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia) as a merely potential candidate.

Bosnia’s not a hopeless cause. The Bosnian metal industry was the pride of the former Yugoslav republic, and its capital, Sarajevo, hosted the 1984 Winter Olympics. The country’s beauty, with the right infrastructure, could also yield greater tourism interest. Travelers shunning the well-worn path of tourist hotspots like Dubrovnik and Split (not to mention overcrowded Adriatic beaches) could turn to the Sarajevo’s nightlife or to untrammeled mountains and rivers.

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RELATED: Bosnia-Herzegovina census highlights tripartite fractures and constitutional problems

RELATED: Will Bosnian protests be the
final straw for the Dayton accords?

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The paralysis of Bosnian government should be apparent in the daunting series of elections that the country will endure on October 12.

Its national government is fragmented into a tripartite system, whereby each of the country’s three dominant ethnic groups each choose a president. Though it’s mostly ceremonial, the presidency ‘rotates’ every eight months. It’s important insofar as it elects to chair of the Council of Ministers, the day-to-day executive body of the country.

But it’s even more complex in the Bosnian context, because the two major subnational ‘entities’ of the country, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (populated chiefly by Bosniaks and Croats) and the Republika Srpska (populated chiefly by Serbs) each has its own president and parliament. Furthermore, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina is further subdivided into 10 cantons, each of which will elect separate assemblies.

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Each of the three ethnic groups has its own political parties that appeal to ethnic constituencies, in the same way that Flemish regional voters choose from among Flemish parties, not Belgian ones, or that Lebanese Maronite Christians or Sunni Muslims choose from among competing Maronite and Sunni factions.

In all three countries, that means that a truly national politics can never really emerge, and no truly national leaders can direct a coherent vision for economic, political and social policy.

Continue reading Bosnia set for elections at all levels of government

EU rewards Rama, Albania with candidate status

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Maybe the decision to hire former British prime minister Tony Blair as an advisor to Albania’s new government was an astute move after all.albania

The European Council will formally name Albania as a candidate for eventual EU membership at its summit this weekend, following a decision by British prime minister David Cameron to allow Albania’s candidacy to move forward on its fourth attempt to win candidate status since 2009. As the EU membership negotiations unfold for Albania, as well as for other Balkan countries such as Serbia and Montenegro, Cameron is expected to seek carve-outs that make it more difficult for laborers from new EU member-states to enjoy free movement throughout the EU single market.

The move follows a largely successful parliamentary election in June 2013 and aggressive steps by Albania’s new, energetic prime minister Edi Rama (pictured above, left, with Blair, right) to stamp out corruption and organized crime. Albanian police moved last week, for example, to subdue Lazarat, a village in southern Albania that’s known as a chief source of marijuana throughout Europe, with an estimated annual production of €4.5 billion. Continue reading EU rewards Rama, Albania with candidate status

Bratušek, Slovenia’s first female prime minister, resigns

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It’s been a busy season for politics in the Balkans this year — Croatia began the year for the first time as a member of the European Union, Serbia’s snap elections in March returned a resounding victory for Aleksandar Vučić and his center-right Progressives, protesters in Bosnia and Herzegovina are calling for new conditions to longtime economic and political stagnation, and Macedonia’s center-right government recently won a fourth consecutive term in power.slovenia

Now it’s Slovenia’s turn.

Alenka Bratušek, the country’s first female prime minister, resigned on Monday, calling into question whether the shaky Slovenian economy will avoid an international bailout that Bratušek worked to avoid in her 13-month government.

Bratušek’s resignation follows internal upheaval within her own party, Pozitivna Slovenija (Positive Slovenia), still a relatively new center-left political party. With voters fed up with the two dominant parties, Positive Slovenia burst onto the political scene in the most recent December 2011 parliamentary elections. It won the largest bloc of seats (28) in Slovenia’s 90-member, unicameral national assembly, the Državni zbor.

In the 29 months since the last election, Slovenia has now had both a center-right coalition government and a center-left coalition government, and both have fallen. That means that Slovenia likely faces snap elections this summer or early in the autumn, and Bratušek, 44, has suggested that she will form her a new party of her own to contest to them.

Bratušek (pictured above) was never the driving force within the party, however, whose founder is Zoran Janković, a former retail businessman who served as the mayor of Ljubljana, the Slovenian capital, from 2006 until 2011, and against since 2012 following his failure to become Slovenia’s prime minister.

Janković returned to the leadership of Positive Slovenia late last month after engineering a putsch ousting Bratušek as leader. That, in turn, unraveled the coalition that Bratušek built in February 2013.  Continue reading Bratušek, Slovenia’s first female prime minister, resigns

The most important EU success story you’ve never heard? Serbia.

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The global media’s attention this weekend will be fixed on Crimea, where a status referendum is almost certainly likely to result in its  annexation into the Russian Federation.European_UnionSerbia_Flag_Icon

But the world’s attention should be on Serbia, which is holding snap elections on March 16 — the same day as the Crimean referendum.  Serbia’s parliamentary elections come just two months after formally opening negotiations to join the European Union, a landmark step in what’s been a decade-long push for greater Serbian-EU integration.

When political commentators tell you that Ukraine is the frontier of the European Union, they’re right that European policymakers have both an economic and security interest in Ukraine’s stability.

But the true frontier of the European Union is the Balkans, and no country is more vital to the future political and economic stability of the region than Serbia, home to over 7 million residents, the most populous of the Balkan states.

Polls show that the outcome of Sunday’s election is almost certain — a wider majority for the center-right Serbian Progressive Party (SNS, Српска напредна странка), which as a member of the current coalition government, is working to tackle corruption, liberalize and privatize sectors of the Serbian economy and bring Serbian budget closer to balance — all while the country faces unsteady economic growth and an unemployment rate of 20%.

Notwithstanding the real economic pain today in Serbia, none of that matters as much as the fact of Serbian continuity with respect to European integration.  Though Serbia’s formal accession may take up to a decade, Serbia seems certain to become either the 29th member (or the 30th member, following Montenegro) of the European Union.  What’s more, the most significant fact of Serbian political life in the past two years has been the durability of the national commitment, across all major political parties and ideologies, to Serbia’s eventual EU membership.

Think back to the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991.  Or to the ‘ethnic cleansing’ that marked the civil war among Croats, Bosnian Muslims and Serbs between 1992 and 1995 in Bosnia and Herzegovina.  Or to the Serbian aggression over Kosovo that led to  NATO military action against Belgrade in 1998-99 and the emergence of the semi-independent Kosovo today.  Or to the dictatorship of Serbian strongman Slobodan Milošević from 1987 until 2000, with full-throated support from Moscow.

Though it’s something that we take for granted in the year 2014, it wasn’t always a foregone conclusion that Serbia today would be so united in its push to turn economically and socially toward Europe.

It wasn’t even so clear in 2012.

Nikolić and Dačić: an unlikely pair of EU champions

In the last parliamentary elections in May 2012, the SNS won the greatest number of seats (73) in Serbia’s 250-member National Assembly (Народна скупштина), and the SNS’s Tomislav Nikolić, running for the fifth time, narrowly won the Serbian presidency over incumbent Boris Tadić, whose center-left Democratic Party (Демократска странка / DS) had governed Serbia since 2004.  Tadić, throughout the 2000s, laid the groundwork for greater cooperation with the European Union.

When Tadić lost power in July 2012, no one knew whether Nikolić and the Serbian Progressives would pursue EU cooperation with the same zeal as the Democrats had.  Nikolić (pictured above, right, with EU foreign affairs high representative Catherine Ashton, middle, and prime minister Ivica Dačić, left) long favored Russia over the European Union, and his first trip abroad as president was to Moscow, where he declared in September 2012, ‘The only thing I love more than Russia is Serbia.’   Continue reading The most important EU success story you’ve never heard? Serbia.

Who is Sebastian Kurz? Meet Austria’s new 27-year-old foreign minister.

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While most of Europe was watching the birth of Germany’s latest grand coalition government last week, Austria’s grand coalition also finalized its government platform.austria flag

Austria, which has an even stronger tradition of cozy coalition politics between the center-left and the center right, will continue to a coalition that’s comprised of its main center-left party, the Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs (SPÖ, Social Democratic Party of Austria) and its main center-right party, the Österreichische Volkspartei (ÖVP, Austrian People’s Party).

There was very little unexpected news about the coalition deal, which will continue the broadly centrist course of center-left chancellor Werner Faymann’s government.

But the decision to elevate the hunky 27-year-old Sebastian Kurz as Austria’s new foreign minister was something of a shock.  Michael Spindelegger, the ÖVP leader and deputy chancellor, who previously served as foreign minister between 2008 and 2013, will become the government’s new finance minister.

The decision leaves Kurz (pictured above) as one of the world’s youngest political leaders in such a high policymaking role.

So who is this whiz kid?  Kurz became involved in politics at age 10, and by 2009, he was the leader of the youth wing of the Austrian People’s Party.  In 2010, he was elected to the city council of his native Vienna, running under the slogan, ‘Schwarz macht neil‘ (‘Black is cool,’ referring to the color most associated with the People’s Party) in a campaign Hummer that quickly gained the nickname as the ‘Geilomobil‘ (which translates roughly to ‘Horny-mobile’), befitting Kurz’s growing reputation as somewhat of a party animal.  Before you judge him too harshly, however, remember that it was part of a wider push to make the ÖVP more attractive to young voters. And just four months ago, two competing leaders of the Austrian far right both posed shirtless in public.

But by 2011 he was already serving as state secretary for integration, where he impressed skeptics by working to ease the path for the growing number of immigrants to Austria, including through the institution of an extra year of pre-school for immigrant children to learn German.  He helped spearhead a new immigration law in May of this year that clears a path to citizenship for some immigrants within six years.

It was a controversial move on Spindelegger’s part, but it paid off, and Kurz was elected to the Nationalrat (National Council), the chief house of the Austrian parliament, in the September 29 parliamentary elections with a higher number of votes than any other candidate. 

His approach contrasts with that of the more xenophobic approach to immigration of Austria’s far right.  In  September, the Social Democrats won 27.1% and the Austrian People’s Party won 23.8%, but the anti-immigrant, anti-EU Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPÖ, the Freedom Party of Austria) won 21.4%, a strong third-place finish.  But a Dec. 12 Hajek poll showed that if the elections were held over today, the Freedom Party would emerge as the leading party with 26%, followed by the Social Democrats with 23% and the Austrian People’s Party at 20%.  A new free-market libertarian partyDas Neue Österreich (NEOS, The New Austria), which entered the National Council for the first time in September’s elections, would win 11%.

The Freedom Party’s relatively young and charismatic leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, wasted no time in criticizing Kurz for his inexperience:

“When Mr Kurz becomes foreign minister without any diplomatic experience, you have to be amazed. This is the continuation of Austria’s farewell to foreign policy,” right-wing leader Heinz Christian Strache told parliament on Tuesday.

Kurz… took the blows.  “It’s true, of course. Due to my age I have limited experience and of course hardly any diplomatic experience. But what I bring is lots of diligence, energy and the desire to contribute something,” he told Reuters.

But Kurz emphasized the international nature of his previous role with respect to integration, and he argued that his relative youth and high media profile would allow him to make an immediate impact.  Though Austria, with just 8.5 million people, has a less dominant voice on European matters than Germany, it plays a key role in the Balkans, where Serbia and other former Yugoslav countries are hoping to begin accession talks to the European Union early next year. (If your German skills are up for it, here’s an interview with Kurz in Der Standard earlier this week).

Kurz’s appointment also means that he will likely take a key role in the upcoming European Parliament elections by convincing Austrian voters not to turn to euroskeptic parties like the Freedom Party or Team Stronach, the conservative movement of Austro-Canadian businessman Frank Stronach.  Spindelegger was criticized during his tenure at the ministry for being a ‘half-time foreign minister’ in light of his duties as the ÖVP leader and deputy chancellor. Continue reading Who is Sebastian Kurz? Meet Austria’s new 27-year-old foreign minister.

Was it a mistake for the European Union to admit Croatia earlier this year?

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It hasn’t been an incredibly distinguished first six months for the European Union’s 28th member.croatia

Croatia, which entered the European Union on July 1, is only the second state to do so from the former Yugoslav union, but it’s already proving to be somewhat of a problem child — as some Europeans feared openly before its accession.

Most of those fears relate to economics and, given the eurozone’s economic crisis over the past four years, you might have thought that Croatia’s growing pains would be economic in nature, but that’s not the case.

Instead, Croatia’s difficulties have more to do with social issues and historical legacies — in its first six months of EU membership, Croatia caused a showdown almost immediately with EU leaders over the potential extradition of Josip Perković, the former Yugoslav-era director of Croatia’s secret police, and it signaled to the world its relative intolerance for LGBT freedom by conducting a referendum that resulted in a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage at a time when much of Europe is embracing equal marriage rights for LGBT individuals.

Those experiences could shape future EU appetite for further expansion in the Balkans, at a time when the European Union has deftly dangled the carrot of EU membership in exchange for a more permanent peace between Serbia and Kosovo, and at a time when EU membership might be the only thing that can save the triple-fractured union of Bosnia and Herzegovina, while also integrating smaller countries like Macedonia and Montenegro into the global economy.

The most serious rupture began three days before Croatia even joined the European Union when it passed the ‘Perković law,’ which purported to prevent the extradition of anyone for crimes committed before August 2002.  That caused an almost immediate backlash against Croatia from EU leaders and the other 27 EU member-states, and by September — less than 90 days after Croatia had joined the European Union — EU justice commissioner Viviane Reding, was threatening economic sanctions.  Germany, in particular, is interesting in extraditing Perković in relation to his role in the assassination of Croatian defector Stjepan Đureković, who was killed in 1983 in what was then West Germany.

Ironically, it’s the center-left government of Zoran Milanović, who leads the four-party Kukuriku coalition and its largest member, the Social Democratic Party of Croatia (SDP, Socijaldemokratska partija Hrvatske), that dug in its heels over the Perković law, not the more conservative, nationalist opposition party, the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ, Hrvatska demokratska zajednica), which governed Croatia through much of the EU harmonization period, from 2003 through the December 2011 election.  The HDZ, as well as several top government officials opposed the law from the beginning, including Croatia’s foreign minister and deputy prime minister Vesna Pusić, the leader of the second-largest party in the Kukuriku coalition, the Croatian People’s Party/Liberal Democrats (HNS, Hrvatska narodna stranka/liberalni demokrati).

Milanović and the Croatian government eventually backed down in late September by amending the law in a way that complied with EU requirements, but only after Reding instituted formal EU proceedings, needlessly undermining Croatian credibility almost immediately after its EU accession.

Yet almost as soon as the extradition crisis ended, Croatia found itself embroiled in another difficult debate in holding the December 1 constitutional referendum on same-sex marriage.   Continue reading Was it a mistake for the European Union to admit Croatia earlier this year?