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.
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.
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).
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→
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.
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.
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.
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?→
Until this summer, the conservative Hrvatska demokratska zajednica (HDZ, Croatian Democratic Union), fresh off a convincing victory in the December/January presidential election, seemed assured of its victory in Croatia’s parliamentary elections, enjoying a lead of more than 10% in most polls.
Then something changed.
But it wasn’t that the HDZ was losing votes. Instead, leftist voters were abandoning their flirtation with a new left-wing party, Održivi razvoj Hrvatske (ORaH, Sustainable Development of Croatia), formed in October 2013 by former environmental minister Mirela Holy. At the height of its popularity in autumn 2014, ORaH was winning nearly 20% of the vote in polls, most of which came at the expense of the governing Socijaldemokratska partija Hrvatske (SDP, Social Democratic Party of Croatia).
Over the course of 2015, as ORaH’s support plummeted, those voters returned to the SDP and its governing allies that comprise Hrvatska raste (‘Croatia is Growing’) coalition, the largest member of which, by far, is the SDP. In Sunday’s election, ORaH’s vote share collapsed so completely that it failed to win a single seat in Croatia’s unicameral parliament, the Sabor.
That, in part, explains why the SDP did so well on November 8. Nominally, the SDP won just 56 seats, while the HDZ won 59 seats. But three of the HDZ’s seats come from Croatian voters abroad, many of whom are ethnic Croats living in Bosnia and Herzegovina or elsewhere in the Balkans. Moreover, the SDP’s governing coalition can informally rely on a small regional party, the Istarski demokratski sabor (IDS, Istrian Democratic Assembly), which holds three seats, as well as eight additional legislators who represent national minorities, bringing the governing SDP to a more realistic base of 67 seats (just nine shy of the majority it would need for a new term in the 151-member Sabor).
Not atypically, the Social Democratic Party performed best in the Croatian heartland and in Istria in the north and the west, while the Croatian Democratic Union did best along the Dalmatian coast stretching southward and in the far eastern Slavonia.
Ironically, it was the unexpected rise of a reform-minded centrist party, Most nezavisnih lista (Bridge of Independent Lists), that probably hurt the HDZ by drawing away reform-minded centrists. Barring the unlikely formation of a ‘grand coalition’ between the HDZ and the SDP, two parties with very different cultural and political traditions, it will be Most, a new party that formed only in 2012, and its 19-member caucus, that will now decide which of Croatia’s two dominant parties will form the next government. Continue reading Reform-minded ‘MOST’ party set to play kingmaker in Croatia→
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.
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.
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.
Nearly a week after the European elections, the reverberations are still shaking the entire continent, on at least two levels — the consequences of the historic level of eurosceptic parties elected across Europe and in terms of the growing battle between the European Parliament and the European Council over electing the next European Commission president.
In the first part of a Suffragio series examining the results of the May 25 European parliamentary elections, I focused on the five most populous countries in the European Union: the United Kingdom and France, where eurosceptic parties won the greatest share of the vote; Germany, where chancellor Angela Merkel won another strong victory; Italy, where prime minister Matteo Renzi won a near-landslide mandate just three months into his premiership; and Spain, where both traditional parties lost support to a growing constellation of anti-austerity movements — so much so that Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, the leader of the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE, Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party), Spain’s traditional center-left party, resigned.
In the second part, I examined the results in nine more countries — Poland, Romania, The Netherlands, Belgium, Greece, the Czech Republic, Portugal, Hungary and Sweden.
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.
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.→
It hasn’t been an incredibly distinguished first six months for the European Union’s 28th member.
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.
You won’t find it on any election calendar, but the census that ended today in Bosnia and Herzegovina amounts to the most important election in the country’s history since emerging from the brutal war that resulted from the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.
The current governing structure of Bosnia and Herzegovina is a mess — the country remains divided largely on the lines of the Dayton Agreement from 1995, and a tripartite government more or less guarantees power to each of the country’s three main ethnic groups — Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats — even while the country itself remains divided between the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina (51% of the country) and the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska (49% of the country).
That governance framework effectively ended the gruesome fighting and ethnic cleansing that upended not only Bosnia and Herzegovina, but the entire former Yugoslavia two decades ago. But it’s a governing structure that has inhibited the country’s political and economic development to the point that the Dayton-era mechanisms have been denounced by the European Court of Human Rights and EU leaders are demanding fundamental constitutional changes in order to begin talking seriously about the accession of Bosnia and Herzegovina to the European Union.
Into this volatile mix comes this month’s census, which began on October 1 and will officially conclude today. The census attempts, for the first time in over two decades, to provide an accurate count of the country’s various ethnic groups — not just its Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats, but the country’s other minorities as well, including the country’s Jewish, Roma, Albanian, Hungarian, Montenegrin, Ashkali, Slovenian, Slovakian and so on.
In the last census taken in 1991 (just before the Yugoslav breakup) the population of Bosnia and Herzegovina, then just part of the greater Yugoslav federation, broke down as follows:
That represented nearly a complete reversal from 1948, when Serbs numbered around 44% and Muslims numbered around 30%.
The current census, which was originally scheduled to be conducted in 2012, asks each person to identify three attributes — their ethnicity, their language and their religion, each of are highly correlated in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Ethnicity in the country breaks down largely on religious lines — Bosniaks are predominantly Muslim, Serbs are predominantly Serbian Orthodox and Croats are predominantly Roman Catholic. A 2008 estimate by the Bosnian-Herzegovinian state statistics office found that 45% of the country is Muslim, 36% is Orthodox and 15% is Catholic, setting a baseline for what we might expect the 2013 census to establish more formally in terms of ethnicity. While all three ethnic groups essentially speak the same, mutually intelligible Serbo-Croatian language, there are standard ‘Bosnian,’ Croatian,’ ‘Serbian,’ and ‘Montenegrin’ varieties of the language.
That means that political leaders from within each of the country’s three dominant ethnic groups are pushing hard to maximize turnout, lest one group’s numbers fall behind with constitutional reform likely to come in the years ahead — ethnic leaders want to enter constitutional negotiations from as strong a standpoint as possible vis-à-vis the other ethnic groups. Even Croatia’s government has taken an aggressive interest in the survey by urging Bosnian Croats abroad to vote.
Furthermore, the choice for Bosnian Muslims is even more difficult, who are weighing what it means to be ‘Bosniak’ versus simply ‘Bosnian’ or even ‘Muslim’:
The new census will be the first time the country’s Muslims will have the opportunity to identify themselves as “Bosniaks,” an ethnicity that some Serbs say does not really exist. “For the first time, Bosniaks will be able to declare themselves as Bosniaks speaking the Bosnian language,” says Sejfudin Tokic, the coordinator of a project called It Is Important To Be Bosniak. “This is a historic census — from the Austro-Hungarian period when they were forced to declare themselves as Muhammadans or during the Kingdom of Yugoslavia when a Bosniak identity was not acknowledged, or during Communist Yugoslavia when Bosniaks were forced to declare themselves as Serbs or Croats practicing Islam. In this regard, this is a historic census.”
Between 1974 and 1993, Bosniaks in Yugoslavia were permitted to identify their ethnicity as “Muslim.” After the war broke out, they adopted the term “Bosniaks,” a historic name dating back to Ottoman times. But many Bosniaks are themselves wary of the Bosniak tag, which they see as overly politicized. Some have said they will answer “Muslim” or “Bosnian” when asked about their ethnic identity, a prospect that has alarmed Bosniak political parties.
Bosnia and Herzegovina featured the highest percentage of people who claimed ‘Yugoslav’ as their ethnicity in the 1991 census, which means that a large percentage of the country’s population could simply describe themselves as ‘Bosnian’ this time around. That could be especially true among the younger generation that wants to put the memory of the Bosnian war firmly in the past, even as bullet holes still scar the urban landscape and land mines still dot the rural, mountainous countryside.
Croatia on Monday becomes the 28th member of the European Union, marking a historical transformation for a country at the crossroads of central Europe, the Balkans and the Mediterranean.
The second former Yugoslav country to join the European Union (following Slovenia, also a eurozone member), Croatia declared its independence in 1991, an event that led to the breakup of the union of Yugoslavia, an event that the United Nations and the European Union may have hastened in 1992 Croatia’s independence when they provided international recognition to a sovereign Croatia. At the same time, the Croatian War of Independence broke out between Croat forces loyal to the newly independent Croatia and the Serb-controlled Yugoslav People’s Army and local Serb militia, the latter determined to prevent Croatia from breaking away. Between 1991 and 1995, when the conflict finally ended,more than 20,000 people had died and much of the country was destroyed.
Croatia, however, has marked major progress since the mid-1990s. Successive Croatian governments have edged closer (albeit, sometimes with a gentle nudge from Brussels) to the European Union and the country formally applied for membership in February 2003. A year later, the European Commission endorsed its application, and the European Council granted Croatia candidate status. Enlargement negotiations proved difficult — not least because Slovenia, already an EU member state since 2004, had insisted that certain border disputes be resolved before Croatia could be accepted as a member. The Slovenian veto stalled the negotiations for 10 months in the late 2000s before finally the two former Yugoslav nations agreed to settle border issues bilaterally. Yet the extradition of Croatian citizens to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia proved to be a far thornier issue dominating the EU-Croatia enlargement talks. The United Nations established the Tribunal in 1993 to deal with war crimes that took place during the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s. Croatia’s full cooperation with the Tribunal (reluctant at times) was a prerequisite for EU membership.
2013 is a year of contrasts for the EU enlargement process — arguably one its most successful policies, and one of the reasons that the European Union received the Nobel Prize for Peace last year. Aside from Croatia’s pending membership, the European Union is set to open negotiations with Serbia and possibly sign a Stabilisation and Association Agreement with Kosovo after those two countries signed a landmark agreement in April normalizing relations between Belgrade and Pristina after almost two decades of hostilities. Continue reading From Dublin to Dubrovnik: Reflections on 40 years of EU enlargement→