Tag Archives: kosovo

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.


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

The lessons of failed Confederate foreign policy


I write tomorrow for The National Interest that the Confederate States of America lost the American Civil War, 150 years ago this month, in large part because its leaders failed horribly at the diplomatic level to secure allies abroad that would recognize the CSA or even provide the Confederacy with material support:USflag

Though Union forces compelled the surrender of the Confederate army in April 1865, the Confederacy forfeited, by mistake and misfortune, the one potential asset that could have turned the tide much sooner: international recognition from an initially sympathetic Europe. In that regard, the Confederacy lost the war in London and Paris as much as it lost it in Gettysburg and Appomattox.

In particular, the CSA got off to a slow start and, with no Benjamin Franklins or Thomas Jeffersons on its bench, it cycled through three secretaries of state in its first 13 months. Confederate president Jefferson Davis also erred in assuming that European merchants were so dependent on southern cotton that Great Britain and France would assist the Confederacy in its infancy — another fatal assumption.

Though few may necessarily lament the Confederacy’s demise on its sesquicentennial, its failure can still teach us important lessons about the wise conduct of foreign policy today. International diplomacy and outreach made the difference for countries like South Sudan and East Timor; conversely, lack of imagination has hampered countries like Kosovo in its early years, and has otherwise set back Palestinian statehood hopes.

You could imagine that the Tibetan independence movement would be way stronger today in the Dalai Lama hadn’t abandoned the effort in the 1970s. You could also easily imagine that Newfoundland would be an independent country today if the energetic Joey Smallwood hadn’t so strongly boosted confederation with Canada.

Catalan regional president Artur Mas, Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon and the soon-to-be-leader of the Parti québécois, Pierre Karl Péladeau, should take note.

Read it all here.

Beware Putin’s southern European, soft-power front


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

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.

* * * * *

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

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

* * * * *

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.


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

Ruling PDK and allies win Kosovo’s parliamentary elections


It’s been a relatively active spring, politically speaking, in the Balkans, what with Serbian elections in March elevating Aleksandar Vučić to the premiership, Macedonian elections in April that brought a fourth consecutive term for the center-right government, and Slovenian elections next month after the resignation of its first female prime minister Alenka Bratušek.kosovo

But on June 8, it was Kosovo’s turn, where the country held elections that, for the first time, featured the participation of the Serbian minority in North Kosovo.

Preliminary results gave the governing center-right Partia Demokratike e Kosovës (PDK, Democratic Party of Kosovo) a narrow lead of around 30.72%, to just 25.72% for the opposition center-right Lidhja Demokratike e Kosovës (LDK, Democratic League of Kosovo), which is led by Isa Mustafa, the mayor of Priština, Kosovo’s capital, between 2007 and 2014. The left-wing nationalist Vetëvendosje (Self-Determination) won just 13.51%, despite its breakthrough performance in last December’s local elections, which its mayoral candidate, Shpend Ahmeti, wrested control of the mayoral office in Priština. 

Throughout Kosovo, turnout climbed only to around 41.5%, less than the 47.8% turnout in the last election in 2010. Turnout was even lower in North Kosovo, home to the country’s predominantly Serbian minority population. Nonetheless, the Srpska lista za Kosovo (Serbian List for Kosovo) won 4.51% of the vote nationally, a marked increase in voter share, if not in seats, given that 10 seats in the 120-member Kuvendi i Kosovës (National Assembly) are reserved for the Serbian minority. Another 10 seats are reserved for additional minorities, ranging from Turks to Croats to Egyptians to Bosniaks to Romani. 

Vučić himself encouraged Serbs in North Kosovo to vote, and his government commended the increase in turnout, which was nonetheless lower than in 2013 local elections.

The likeliest result is a third consecutive term for the government headed by Hashim Thaçi (pictured above), the leader of the DPK, a former leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army, and Kosovo’s prime minister since 2008. Thaçi currently governs in coalition with a handful of small parties and the National Assembly’s ethnic Serbs. He’ll have to assemble a similar coalition again — or otherwise turn to a ‘grand coalition’ with the LDK and/or Vetëvendosje

In a narrow sense, the elections themselves were a success, given the growing Serb participation and the relatively smooth voting process, much improved from the widely panned 2010 national vote, which was marred by fraud, and the 2013 local elections, which were marred by violence in North Kosovo. Continue reading Ruling PDK and allies win Kosovo’s parliamentary elections

Gerhard Schröder: a wasted opportunity in the Ukraine crisis


If there’s anyone the European Union could have sent to Moscow on a quiet trip to de-escalate tensions with Russia in February, it was former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder.Germany Flag IconRussia Flag Icon

Schröder served as Germany’s chancellor between 1998 and 2005, when he led two consecutive governments led by his center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, Social Democratic Party).  As chancellor, Schröder cultivated strong economic ties with Russia, and in 2003, he led Europe’s opposition to he US invasion of Iraq, a cause that also found Schröder in alliance with Russia and its president Vladimir Putin, who Schröder once called a ‘flawless democrat.’

But Schröder’s comments about the growing crisis have been far from discreet, greatly angering his successor, Angela Merkel. He has criticized the European Union’s approach to Ukraine, defended Russia’s right to annex Crimea, and validated Putin’s view that the NATO military action during the 1999 Kosovo War (an action Schröder supported in his first term as chancellor):

Mr. Schroeder told a discussion forum hosted by Germany’s Die Zeit newspaper that as someone who was aware of history, Mr Putin had certain justifiable “ fears about being encircled” and that since the end of the Cold War there had been “ unhappy developments” on the fringes of what was once the Soviet Union. He also claimed that the European Union appeared not to have “the remotest idea” that the Ukraine was “culturally divided” and had made mistakes from the outset in its attempts to reach an association agreement with the country.

Mr. Schroeder accepted that Russia’s intervention was in breach of international law but compared the Kremlin’s action to his own government’s military support for the NATO bombardment of Serbia during the Kosovo crisis in 1999. “We sent our plans to Serbia and together with the rest of NATO they bombed a sovereign state without any UN security council backing,” Mr Schroeder insisted, adding that he had since become cautious in apportioning blame.

That puts his position almost entirely in line with Putin’s — and almost entirely at odds with the German government’s. Needless to say, that has also ruined whatever value Schröder may have had in soothing German and European relations with Russia.  Continue reading Gerhard Schröder: a wasted opportunity in the Ukraine crisis

Kosovo, Crimea and Putin’s ‘всех нагнули’ theory of foreign affairs


In his wide-ranging speech announcing the Russian Federation’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, president Vladimir Putin had some choice words for the West: If you don’t like what Russia did in Crimea, you only have yourselves to blame — on the basis of the precedent in Kosovo in 1999.kosovoRussia Flag Icon

Though the officially translated remarks smooth over Putin’s salty language, it appears he used the slang term ‘всех нагнули,’ which, as Masha Gessen describes in Slate, is fairly graphic:

“It was our Western partners who created the precedent; they did it themselves, with their own hands, as it were, in a situation that was totally analogous to the Crimean situation, by recognizing Kosovo’s secession from Serbia as legitimate,” said Putin. And then, as he cited American statements on Kosovo, he got more and more worked up until he said, “They wrote it themselves. They spread this all over the world. They screwed everybody—and now they are outraged!” (The Kremlin’s official translators, who are forever civilizing the Russian president’s speech, translated this sentence as “They wrote this, disseminated it all over the world, had everyone agree, and now they are outraged!” The expression Putin used, however, was “vsekh nagnuli,” street slang for having had nonconsensual anal sex with everybody, rather than for having everybody agree.)

Gessen, in an otherwise fabulous essay that starts with her own days as a war reporter in the late 1990s in Serbia and Kosovo, retells the story of the Primakov loop — a moment that Gessen argues represents a key pivot point in US-Russian relations, when the NATO governments essentially left Russia out of the loop with regarding its campaign against what was then still Yugoslavia and the regime of Serbian strongman Slobodan Milošević.

Ironically, even as the 1999 Kosovo precedent has increasingly become a flash point in the current war of words between Moscow and Washington, Serbians went to the polls on the same day as the Crimea referendum. They elected a majority government under  center-right Progressive Party leader Aleksandar Vučić, a government that will be firmly focused on accession to the European Union, which has dangled the economic incentives of EU membership to advance a political settlement between Serbia and Kosovo.

Nonetheless, to understand the Putin doctrine of the 2010s, it’s worth revisiting the origins of the Primakov doctrine of the 1990s, which defined US-Russian relations and European-Russian relations in the same ‘zero-sum game’ terms.

Yevgeny Primakov is one of the more fascinating figures to emerge out of the presidency of Boris Yeltsin.  

Continue reading Kosovo, Crimea and Putin’s ‘всех нагнули’ theory of foreign affairs

Serbian Progressives win huge victory, majority in National Council


Although everyone expected the governing Serbian Progressive Party (SNS, Српска напредна странка) to win Serbia’s parliamentary elections on Sunday, no one quite expected the Progressives to win such a stunning mandate — the first time in the post-Milošević era that a single party won an outright majority in the Serbian parliament.Serbia_Flag_Icon

Although the Progressives went into Sunday’s election with the largest bloc of seats in the 250-member National Assembly (Народна скупштина), the fluke of the previous elections in May 2012 left the Progressives stuck in coalition with the center-left, nationalist Socialist Party of Serbia (Социјалистичка партија Србије / SPS), and the Socialist leader Ivica Dačić as prime minister instead of a Progressive prime minister.


RELATED: Who is Aleksandar Vučić?  Meet Serbia’s next prime minister.


Back in 2012, the Progressives were unwilling to enter into coalition with the center-left Democratic Party (Демократска странка / DS), and Progressive leader Tomislav Nikolić had just defeated Serbian president Boris Tadić, ending eight years of Tadić-led, Democratic government.  That gave Dačić, whose Socialists finished a surprisingly high third-place in the 2012 elections, the power to decide whether he would enter government with Progressives or with the Democrats.

After weeks of negotiations, Dačić chose the Progressives.  The price for the Progressives was to allow Dačić to become prime minister.

Dačić’s record isn’t incredibly poor — he presided over the official opening of accession talks for Serbia’s ultimate entry into the European Union, his corresponding efforts to integrate Serbia into mainstream Europe have brought Serbia and Kosovo closer to a long-term settlement over Kosovo’s status (and Kosovo’s own future European integration), and the Serbian economy is doing better than it was two years ago, despite a broader push of austerity measures over the 21-month government.

But with polls showing the Progressives with such a wide lead, and with the Serbian left divided between supporters of Tadić and supporters of former Belgrade mayor Dragan Đilas, the tail-wags-the-dog world of a Socialist-led government made increasingly little sense to top SNS leaders, most especially Aleksandar Vučić, the first deputy prime minister who is now set to become Serbia’s prime minister for the next four years.  Even before the Progressives essentially demanded snap elections in January, Vučić and his young, Yale-educated finance minister Lazar Krstic were setting more government policy than Dačić.

Sunday’s election was a landslide for Vučić and the SNS, which outpolled its nearest competitor, Dačić’s SPS, by more than a 3-to-1 margin.  Đilas’s Democrats won  just 6% of the vote, and Tadić, leading the alternative center-left bloc, the New Democratic Party/Greens (NDS, Нова демократска странка — Зелени), won just 5.7% and 18 seats.

serbia NA 2014

Vučić now seems free to push through an ambitious agenda of economic liberalization, including a new bankruptcy law, a looser labor law, an anti-corruption push and accelerated privatization of state industries — with the goal of unleashing a stronger Serbian economy as well as bringing Serbia’s laws and economic policy closer in line with mainstream EU policy.  Although the Progressives will control an absolute majority in the Serbian parliament, Vučić may yet try to bring one or more of the decimated opposition parties into a wider, reform-minded coalition. Continue reading Serbian Progressives win huge victory, majority in National Council

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


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.

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


The Dayton accords ended the conflict among Bosnian Muslims, Serbs and Croats in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1995, and established a nearly unworkable tripartite system of governance for the country of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Bosnia-Herzegovina

Though the structure established by the Dayton accords was always meant to be temporary, the country is crumbling nearly 20 years later under the weight of corruption, a stagnant economy, massive unemployment and the ridiculous state of tripartite government at the national level, with another layer of governance within the two subunits that comprise the country the (confusingly named) Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, home to most of the country’s Bosnian Muslims and Croats, and the Republika Srpska, home to most of the country’s Serbs.  Within the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, arguably more political power rests within 10 sub-sub-national cantons.  Moreover, the High Representative, an internationally appointed officer designated to oversee the Dayton process, now undermines whatever legitimacy the central and subnational governments have.

Protests provide some glimmer of hope that everyday Bosnians from all ethnic groups are ready to jettison the Dayton system for a more workable model of governance.  The protests began in Tuzla earlier this month over job losses resulting from the privatization of local businesses.  But the protests took on a national character after the protests turned violent, and they’ve now moved from Tuzla and other cities to Sarajevo, the capital.  Since the protests began, at least three of the canton-level prime ministers have resigned, including in Tuzla and in Sarajevo.  Though Bosniaks (and not Croats and Serbs) are mostly leading the protests, the problems they are highlighting are just as dire for the country’s other ethnic communities.  It’s not coincidence that the current protests are taking place simultaneous to the process of the first census in the country’s post-independence history, the results of which could fundamentally shift political reality in the county.  Preliminary results show that the population fell from 4.4 million in 1991 to 3.8 million today, a significant drop.  If the Croat population falls below 10%, for example, or if it’s dispersed much beyond Herzegovina and western Bosnia, it will undermine the political status of Croatians and the possibility of a third Croat-based entity.  If Serbs comprise even more of the Republika Srpska, for example, does it mean that its leadership will push for independence?

So if any country needs a restart, it’s Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the Dayton Accords have perpetuated a system of patronage and corruption that’s effected in triplicate.

As Jasmin Mujanovic wrote last week for Al Jazeera, Bosnia and Herzegovina faces huge difficulties:

For nearly twenty years, Bosnians and Herzegovinians have suffered under the administration of a vicious cabal of political oligarchs who have used ethno-nationalist rhetoric to obscure the plunder of BiH’s public coffers. The official unemployment rate has remained frozen for years at around 40 percent, while the number is above  57 percent among youth. Shady privatisation schemes have dismantled what were once flourishing industries in Tuzla and Zenica, sold them off for parts, and left thousands of workers destitute, with many still owed thousands of dollars in back-pay. Pensions are miserly too; the sight of seniors digging through waste bins is a regular one in every part of the country, while the wages of BiH’s armies of bureaucrats and elected officials have only grown.

After the general elections in 2010, it took sixteen months for a state government to be formed, one which collapsed almost immediately thereafter. Since then, on the rare occasion that Parliamentary sessions have actually been held, the members of this body have mostly concerned themselves with calling for the ouster of their political opponents. Zivko Budimir, for instance, the president of the Federation entity, was arrested in April of last year on suspicions of corruption and bribery. He was released shortly thereafter for “lack of evidence” and has since returned to his post. As Sarajevo burnt on Friday, Budimir declared that he would resign if the people insisted – apparently refusing to look out his window as he spoke.

Since 2008, the country has struggled with low growth and contraction.  As of July 2013, the unemployment rate was 44.6%, and its GDP per capita fell behind every country in the region except Kosovo (including Albania, Serbia, and Macedonia).  ethnicity-based corruption and inefficiency plague state-owned enterprises, and when (or if) they’re privatized, it’s done in the most disruptive (and often corrupt) manner possible.  So it’s no wonder that everyday Bosnians are angry.

Two parties in the governing coalition have already called for snap elections, which were already scheduled for October of this year.

But the elections are a choreographed waltz — not unlike elections in the religion-based ‘confessional’ system of Lebanese politics —  predetermined to balance the Croat, Bosniak and Serb communities at every key level of government.  Each rung of the ladder, however, is an opportunity for corruption, inefficiency and bloat. Continue reading Will Bosnian protests be the final straw for the Dayton accords?

Serbian government pushes forward with early elections


As Serbia takes another step closer to joining the European Union, its government is headed to snap elections on March 16, with the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS, Српска напредна странка) of president Tomislav Nikolić hoping to replace prime minister Ivica Dačić with its own leader, Aleksandar Vučić, after just 18 months since Dačić took office. Serbia_Flag_Icon

Dačić and his Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS, Социјалистичка партија Србије) emerged in the May 2012 parliamentary elections as the surprisingly strong third-place winners.  That gave Dačić and the SPS the power to determine whether the new government would comprise an alliance with Nikolić’s center-right Progressives or the center-left Democratic Party (DS, Демократска странка) of former president Boris Tadić.  Nikolić, on his fifth attempt to win the presidency, edged out Tadić in the May 2012 presidential runoff, bringing Tadić’s eight-year tenure to an end.

As the kingmaker for Serbia’s next government, Dačić (pictured above, right, with Nikolić, left) decided to crown himself king — and Dačić became prime minister, though his Socialists, with 44 seats in Serbia’s 250-member National Assembly (Народна скупштина), were technically the junior partner in coalition with the Progressives, which hold 73 seats. (The Democrats currently hold 67, and three more minor parties each hold between 16 and 21 seats).

The Dačić-led government oversaw an economic recovery — a 1.7% contraction in 2012 transformed into an estimated 2.4% expansion in 2013.  In any event, there’s no doubt that the Serbian economy has marked a definite improvement.  Though unemployment remains high at around 20%, it’s fallen from a high of around 25.5% in early 2012.

Moreover, Serbia achieved significant progress on EU membership, with negotiations opening earlier this month and ongoing EU-brokered negotiations on the fragile relationship over the future status of Kosovo, despite concerns in 2012 that Nikolić and the Progressives have historically been closer to Russia than to western Europe and wary of EU accession.  The EU talks will rank among the top issues in the election campaign, including the reform program that Brussels requires as a prelude to membership, which could significantly boost the Serbian economy.

But a year and a half into government, Nikolić and the Progressives believe the time has come for Vučić to assume the premiership — and polls show that Serbians agree.  With a fresh mandate, Vučić will push forward with the EU negotiations, and there’s a chance that a new Progressive-led administration work with the IMF for a package of guarantees to reduce lending costs.

A Faktor poll last week showed that 42.1% of Serbia’s electorate support the Progressives, while just 13.9% support the Democrats and 10.5% support Dačić’s Socialists.  Two other parties achieve significant support: the eurosceptic, conservative Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS, Демократска странка Србије), led by Vojislav Koštunica, Serbia’s president from 2000 to 2003 and prime minister from 2004 and 2008, would win 6.8%; and the free-market liberal, centrist Liberal Democratic Party (LDP, Либерално-демократска партија), led by Čedomir Jovanović and several former Democratic Party members, would win 5%.

Vučić, who became the leader of the Progressive Party in May 2012, serves as the first deputy prime minister, and from July 2012 to August 2013, he also served as Serbia’s defense minister.  As the head of the largest party in government, however, he holds more de facto power that Dačić.  As the Progressive Party leader, he’s taken a strong stance against corruption, and he has played a central role in negotiations with respect to Serbia’s accession to the European Union.  As a member of the once-dominant Serbian Radical Party, Vučić served as minister of information in the late 1990s, when at the young age of age 28, he was responsible for assessing fines against journalists who criticised the government and Serbian president Slobodan Milošević — a stance he has recanted today. Continue reading Serbian government pushes forward with early elections

Bosnia-Herzegovina census highlights tripartite fractures, constitutional problems

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.srpskafederationBosnia-Herzegovina

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.

By way of background, Bosnia and Herzegovina is just one of several new countries to emerge from the former Yugoslav union at the end of the Cold War: Continue reading Bosnia-Herzegovina census highlights tripartite fractures, constitutional problems

Rice and Power bring liberal interventionism back to the heart of U.S. foreign policy


U.S. president Barack Obama will shake up his national security team today with the announcement that national security adviser Tom Donilon will be stepping down.  In his place will come Susan Rice, the current U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and in Rice’s place will come Samantha Power as the new UN ambassador (so long as Power is confirmed by the U.S. Senate). USflag

That will place Rice and Power at the vanguard of the administration’s foreign policy for the next three and a half years, and it will anoint both of them as potential U.S. secretaries of state in future Democratic presidential administrations — Rice was considered a frontrunner to succeed Hillary Clinton as secretary of state earlier this year, though she ultimately lost out to former U.S. senator John Kerry after Senate Republicans made clear that they would hold up Rice’s nomination over her role in the administration’s handling of the attack on U.S. diplomats in Benghazi.

Both women share a perspective that the United States has a role to play to boost human rights around the world, including through the use of military force.  Rice, who served in the administration of U.S. president Bill Clinton, ultimately as assistant secretary for African affairs, has often said that U.S. failure to intervene in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide and the Hutu massacre of 800,000 Tutsis was a defining moment.  Power (pictured above), a former journalist who covered the fighting in the Balkans and the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of Bosnia-Herzegovina in the early 1990s, has been even more outspoken on the role of U.S. policymaking and its impact on human rights.  Before joining the Obama administration as the senior director for multilateral affairs and human rights, Power won a Pulitzer Prize for her 2002 book, A Problem from Hell’: America and the Age of Genocide, which takes the U.S. government and others to task for standing by as genocide occurred in Armenia, Cambodia and Rwanda.

As such, Libya plays a central role in the careers of both officials who, along with Hillary Clinton, were among the proponents arguing for the Obama administration to take an active role in Libya to assist rebels trying to overthrow longtime strongman Muammar Gaddafi.  That placed them at contretemps with more traditional foreign policy realists like Donilon and Bob Gates, the U.S. defense secretary at the time.  Their success led to a NATO-backed no-fly-zone in Libya and, later, the arming of anti-Gaddafi rebels by NATO allies.  The NATO efforts accomplished the goal, and Gaddafi lost control of Libya in August 2011 and he was executed by rebels in October 2011.

In the tradition of U.S. foreign policy, party labels like Democrat and Republican often matter less than where officials fall on the line between liberals and realists (as the terms are commonly understood in international relations theory).  So as Donilon leaves the White House and Rice and Power ascend, the big story today is less about any one individual than the shift of the Obama administration much further toward the liberal IR perspective.

Though Senate Republicans will not have the opportunity to question Rice because her role doesn’t require Senate confirmation, they will have an opportunity to question Power and will almost certainly bring the discussion back to Benghazi.  But Benghazi’s relevance as a ‘scandal’ is somewhat dubious, especially when there are at least two more important fundamental issues about the administration’s approach to Libya.

The first has to do with U.S. constitutionality and the separation of powers.  Whereas the Bush administration sought a vote in the U.S. Congress authorizing its military action in Iraq back in 2002, the Obama administration controversially argued that its military engagement in Libya, at a cost of over $1 billion, never reached the level required to notify the U.S. legislature and seek congressional approval under the Vietnam-era War Powers Resolution.  Critics claim that the law required the Obama administration to obtain authorization to continue the Libya operation within 60 days of its inception.

More significantly for world politics, however, are the adverse, unintended consequences of arming the anti-Gaddafi rebels.  Some of those arms ended up in the hands of Libyan jihadists, and many more ended up in the hands of all sorts of rebels in northern Mail, including jihadists, Islamists and Tuareg separatists, triggering a crisis that toppled Mali’s government and required French military intervention to stabilize the country.  There’s a strong argument that U.S. military intervention in Libya in 2011 prioritized the short-term political rights of anti-Gaddafi rebels at the expense of the human rights of northern Malians and, potentially, the human rights of everyone within the African Sahel, which remains a precarious new security challenge.

These questions are especially relevant in light of the ongoing two-year civil war in Syria.   Continue reading Rice and Power bring liberal interventionism back to the heart of U.S. foreign policy

What can we expect from Serbia’s new Dačić-led government?

Serbia’s new government is set to take office next Monday.

It will be led by Ivica Dačić, the leader of the Socialist Party of Serbia (Социјалистичка партија Србије / SPS), the nationalist, center-left party that finished a surprisingly strong third place in May’s parliamentary elections.

The SPS is perhaps most notorious for being the party that Serbian strongman Slobodan Milošević himself founded in the 1990s.  But Dačić, who has been a fixture in Serbian politics since the post-Milošević era, and has previously served as interior minister, has worked to pull his party back into the Serbian mainstream and has vowed that his government will not mark a return to the 1990s.

His government comes after a Hamlet-esque back-and-forth in choosing a coalition partner.  Dačić’s ultimate choice was to form a rather unexpected coalition with the nationalist center-right Serbian Progressive Party (Српска напредна странка / SNS).  In the May elections, the SNS emerged as a narrow winner — it won a plurality of seats in Serbia’s parliament and its presidential candidate Tomislav Nikolić defeated incumbent Boris Tadić.  Tadić had served as president since 2004 and leads the pro-western, center-left Democratic Party (Демократска странка / DS) that has essentially governed Serbia since the fall of Milošević. Continue reading What can we expect from Serbia’s new Dačić-led government?

How will Nikolić presidency affect Serbian diplomacy with Kosovo? (and with Russia and the EU?)

With recently defeated Serbian president Boris Tadić likely to become prime minister, and with his center-left Democratic Party (Демократска странка / DS) almost certain to control the government, as it has since 2000, Serbia’s domestic policy is unlikely to change much (somewhat curiously, as I discussed earlier), despite a very different president in Tomislav Nikolić.  

But on foreign policy, Nikolić will have a more amorphous — and powerful — hand, as Serbia begins to mark the first transfer of real power from pro-Western, liberal progressive forces that have controlled its government in the 12 years since Serbia was the chief pariah state of Europe.  The one-time ultranationalist Nikolić will have won the presidency just two months after Serbia became an official candidate for membership in the European Union and just two years after Kosovo — populated mainly with ethnic Albanians, but also a significant population of Serbs in the north — declared its independence (yet to be recognized by the United Nations) in 2010.

Today, during the campaign, and really, ever since his departure in 2008 from the more nationalist Radical Party, Nikolić has emphasized that his election would result in continuity for Serbia’s European integration.  But only four years ago, as The New York Times notes in the lede of its profile on Serbia’s new president, Nikolić said it would have been better for Serbia to become a province of Russian than to become a member of the EU.

Indeed, it seems difficult to imagine that Serbia will not have a more intimate relationship in the next four years with Russia: Nikolić will travel to Moscow next week to attend the United Russia congress and to meet with newly inaugurated Russian president Vladimir Putin, a sign that’s already being seen as a rare diplomatic coup for Russia. Continue reading How will Nikolić presidency affect Serbian diplomacy with Kosovo? (and with Russia and the EU?)