Debating the need for constitutional reform in Bosnia

Valery Perry, whose work over the years in Bosnia I very much appreciate responded to my blog (reblogged at TransConflict) on constitutional change in Bosnia. She has been key in the K143 coalition I discussed in my original post. Here is my response to her comments for TransConflict.

 

1. I agree that the two proposals are fundamentally different. The ICG proposals point to full acknowledging the consociational nature of the state and finding ways to formalise informal structures and practices. The K143 has clearly more a centripetal approach as Donald Horowitz and other advocate it, moving away from consociationalism. They both share, as I point out, the belief that such constitutional change is possible and/or do not consider the risk that debating about third entity or abolishing entities is nothing but giving ammunition to political parties who like talking about constitution, threats to national interests and such “big topics”.

2. The suggestion that I do not consider the engagement of citizens as important is clearly a misreading of my comments. I was talking about the undesirability of constitutional reform and the surrounding debates at the moment. I strongly believe that citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina deserve to have more inclusion in reform debates. However, this is exactly why I am skeptical about constitutional reform and the surrounding debates. First, they are inherently divisive and I cannot envisage a consensual cross-community and cross-entity debate on constitutional reform. Instead, constitutional reform debates benefit those who can talk about the need to protect national interests, etc. Second, the people who went to the streets in February did not focus on constitutional reforms. Their demand was not to get rid of the entities or to have a third entity, but to reduce corruption and mismanagement. Both are of course connected to the constitution, but not cannot be reduced to it. The fact that Sarajevo or Tuzla are not well governed is not a result of Dayton. I am not expecting change through elections in October and certainly have not argued this in my comment. In fact, I wrote in June that the “key question remains on how to change the incentive structure for Bosnian political elites.” Clearly this would require strong civic pressure.

3. I am quite aware of the difference between small scale, technical constitutional amendments and changes that touch on sensitive and potentially divisive issue. Thus, I can see some merit in addressing these issues. However, this makes the proposal like the ones by K143 and ICG even less relevant. It would have been more useful to identify realistic and incremental potential changes to the constitution, as the working group on the Federation did last year with support by the US embassy. What is important to note, however, is that many institutions and coordinating mechanisms (such as coordinating institutions need for EU accession do not require constitutional change.

4. I am certainly aware that change through parliamentary structures are difficult and have been unsuccessful so far, as I note in my comment. I would thus agree with Valery Perry that broader reform constituencies should be built up to keep up the pressure. My observation about the need to work through the institutions had two considerations in mind. First,there are no feasible extra-institutional venue: No “Dayton 2” will take place and there is no viable alternative to change through institutions. Thus, keeping this in mind, requires to recognise that MPs are unlikely to overturn a system that constitutes the basis of their mandate. Whether one likes it or not, they have no reason to abolish themselves—this is hardly specific to Bosnia. Fundamental institutional and constitutional change takes place in most countries very rarely and usually only in the context of significant exogenous shocks.

5. I am not suggesting that K143 or Valery Perry argue that constitutional reform is a panacea. However, prioritizing constitutional reform give it more weight than it deserve. There is no doubt that it would be desirable for Bosnia and Herzegovina to have a different constitution. Yet, the difference in perspective arises from a) the degree to which the constitution is seen as the source of the problems and b)  the realistic ability to overcome these through constitutional reform.

6. The comments I wrote were for a  briefing in Berlin, not a reflection of the discussions there. Thus, my comment does not necessarily reflect the view of other participants there and one should not deduct any official policy or thinking about Bosnia from my comments.

7. Unfortunately, Valery Perry leaves one question unanswered: How would the constitutional change be possible and how to avoid the capturing of any constitutional reform debate by ethno-nationalist elites?

Why constitutional reform will not solve the Bosnian blockade

At a meeting at the German Foreign Ministry in Berlin on the future of Bosnia with senior international officials and experts, I have had a chance to discuss the benefits and disadvantages of constitutional reform, a perennial topic for Bosnia. Here are some of the considerations I had the chance to present and discuss on why I remain skeptical of the need to prioritize constitutional reform.

The constitutional structure is often identified as the main problem of Bosnia and Herzegovina, including two recent proposals by a coalition of Bosnian NGOs K143 (drafted by the Democratization Policy Council) and the International Crisis Group. The Dayton constitution is indeed not much loved and would find few supporters in its entirety. Over the past 15 years or so, countless drafts and ideas have been floated and no self-respecting international think tank, political party and other observer would not have launched its own ideas. From abolishing the Federation (ESI), to abolishing the entities and replacing it with new multinational regions (SDP and SBiH), to creating a Croat entity (ICG) or just having strong municipalities (K143) there is hardly an option that has not been proposed. Indeed, considering the flaws of the constitution, it is easy to come up with better options. However, most proposals are unclear on one crucial question, how can such a change be brought about? A second question most proposals assume or leave unconsidered is whether such changes would unlock the country and bring about fundamental change.

Constitutional reform in Bosnia is inherently a process with a number of corollary reform needs. For examples, any reform of the state presidency to bring it in line with Sejdić-Finci ruling of the ECHR would require the amendment of a number of other laws, most notably the election law. Other constitutional reforms would require changing institutions (such as the constitutional court, parliament, council of ministers), thus constitutional reform per definition is more extensive than just changing Annex 4 of the Dayton Peace Accords.

A comprehensive approach would reach even beyond this and at its foremost reform the constitution not just of the state, but also of sub-state units, in particular the Federation and Cantons. Furthermore, it would address larger question of the link between the constitution and the Dayton Peace Agreement. Currently, the constitution is still part of the Peace Agreement and its binding version is English, not BCS. This might be a small and banal point, but it means that the constitution remains embedded in a broader peace agreement that remains in place, including the OHR and the provisions on refugee return. A comprehensive approach in regard to Dayton would address these issues, and replace or reform the constitution in conjunction with Peace Agreement. The outcome would be a final peace settlement that would transform Dayton.

Another form the comprehensive approach would be to expand the matters to include issues not part of Dayton, but rather related to current needs of Bosnia, such as EU integration or reducing patronage and corruption in the Bosnian system. Thus, the package would be more transformative than constitutional reforms can be.

Taking a step back from these options, we need to consider the reasons for opting for a comprehensive approach. The first motivation is to unlock a number of blockages in the Bosnian system and thus transform the political dynamic in Bosnian beyond the constitution. The second approach would be to increase the pie to facilitate settlement. Here, the comprehensive approach provides for additional incentives for parties to accept constitutional reform that might not be palatable for them otherwise. Here, the relevant comparison is the April Agreement between Kosovo and Serbia that provided external incentives in the form of EU accession to both parties. The two motivations for a comprehensive approach are not easily compatible as the former seeks to address the problems of Bosnia comprehensively which inherently would include clipping the power of ethnonationalist political parties and their patronage networks, while the latter approach would be about securing a buy in from all parties.

The format of such a comprehensive approach would require extensive international mediation, probably over several rounds of negotiations, as short-term negotiated settlements might be more appealing, but risk failure considering the complexity of the subject matters and the varying incentives of the political actors involved. Such a comprehensive approach has not yet been tried in Bosnia and would require consensus among key international actors (in particular EU member states, the USA and preferably the two signatories of Dayton, Serbia and Croatia). A package solution also runs the risk of holding up reforms as they are all folded into the comprehensive package. Furthermore, external incentives for political actors are hard to come by, as currently rewards in terms of faster progress towards the EU appears to have little appeal.

If a comprehensive approach, or rather either of the two presented variants, appear unlikely, the option remains whether or not a constitutional reform by itself should be pursued and if so a gradual process or through a “big bang” approach. The gradual process would see passing of several constitutional reforms over time, either negotiated by party leaders (with all the normative problems this entails) or in parliament (with all the practical problems) and build on each other. The big bang would seek a larger reform package to be passed in one go. The former has the advantage of building gradual momentum, as well as normalizing the idea of constitutional change rather than reducing it to a one off event. However, such a process might take very long and failure at each step can derail the entire process. The big bang has the advantage of settling the most pressing issue at once and also allowing for some degree of horse trading that would provide the different parties incentives to compromise. The main problem is that both approaches have failed for ten years. Gradual change has not happened and the constitution has only been changed once since Dayton to include reference to the district of Brčko. The big bang approach also failed in April Package in 2006 and the Butmir Process in 2009 and also the Prud Agreement 2008 never reached fruition. Of course, the April package of constitutional reforms failed narrowly and was a near success. However, since Bosnian politics has become more intractable and thus the likelihood of a repetition of the constitutional reforms negotiated in 2006 appears slim.

The challenge arising from this observation is the tension between the ambitions of those who have made plans for constitutional changes in Bosnia and the ability to translate them into reality. Any realistic process of constitutional reform will have to take place through the existing Bosnian institutions. Even an international conference on Bosnia will not have the legitimacy or the ability to enforce a large-scale institutional change without consent of the elected officials of Bosnia. There is no other realistic scenario of institutional change in Bosnia—even mass protests would at best create pressure on the institutions to act rather than overthrow them altogether, especially not country-wide. Thus, it is imperative to reckon with the political interest of the office holders in the country. In addition, despite evidence of significant disillusionment with the dominant political parties and the system, there is little to show that Bosnian citizens have a shared political project and consider themselves to be part of one community. Of course, if voters would bring into power parties with radically different politics, this would change, but so far there is little evidence for this.

Keeping these constraints in mind, there is no reason to believe that a comprehensive and far-reaching reform of the Bosnian constitution would be possible that would abolish the entities, as a recent proposal by K143 a coalition of Bosnian NGOs proposed, or otherwise transform the governing structure. Why would any political party from the RS agree to give up the entity veto when it provides it with an easy mechanism to block any decision at the state level? Similar questions can be raised about all major stumbling blocks of constitutional change. The only manner to which some elements of corporatist ethno-territorial control could be loosened would be through deals that offer other incentives or safeguards. Thus, increasing the number of members of the House of People would for example increase the number of MPs needed to evoke an entity veto, creating potentially higher hurdles. At best, such changes will undo some of the most egregious examples of ethnonationalist blockages or quotes, but not fundamentally transform Bosnia into a different political system. Thus, the link between territory and group identity is likely to remain strong, veto rights will exist, as will quotes. Removing open discrimination and somewhat streamlining decision-making could be achieved. This, however, neglects one key factor: Is the main problem of Bosnia’s current crisis institutional or constitutional and can re-negotiated institutions alleviating these. The answer to the first part of the question is a partial yes, the later a no. Institutions are overly complex and blocked. However, it is telling that the protests in February focused on the local and cantonal level. In particular in Tuzla, neither does power-sharing matter nor is it one of the more dysfunctional cantons. Thus, grievances with political elites cannot be obviously fixed through constitutional amendments.

In effect the discussion about Sejdić-Finci in the aftermath of the protests in February seemed like the discussion among medieval angelology about how many angles can dance on the pin of a needle, esoteric and mostly irrelevant. Of course, discrimination is not desirable and deserves to be removed, yet the state of Roma is not going to change if one of them would have the theoretical chance of joining the state presidency as a Rom, as Roma could be elected as presidents in all neighboring countries without this having any practical effect.

Surely, the strong link between ethnicity, territory and governance has caused problems that contribute to the Bosnian crisis, but constitutional reform cannot hope to overcome this, but only to reduce its impact at best. At the same time, constitutional reform discussion have been reinforcing the power of established elites, as discussions on such reforms focus on protecting national interests, entity rights, threats to identity and the other topics that are the life-blood of ethnonationalist rhetoric. Constitutional reform thus entails a trade-off between seeking to achieve modest improvements to the institutional structure while at the same time sustaining public debates on the topic that sideline the main issues of concern for BiH citizens, povery, corruption and the economy.

A procedural approach to constitutional reform would shift the focus on benefits of a having a process that seeks to build consensus and thus re-establishes Bosnia as a consensus based polity, no matter the substance of the reforms themselves. Of course, taking a too liberal view of such a procedure of substance approach would be accept even problematic „deals“, such as the „reforms“ agreed between Milorad Dodik and Zlatko Lagumdžija in 2012.

What constitutional reform (at the state and entity level) in the short and medium term at best can deliver is technical fixes to some matters that blocked decision making in Bosnia (i.e. by increasing the number of MPs in both chapters to increase the number of MPs needed to block laws through the entity clause or the formation of the House of Peoples in the Federation). This can alleviate some of the blockages that Bosnia encounters, but is more likely a recipe for further procrastination than a panacea.

 

Civil Society after the Protests in Bosnia

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I had the pleasure to be part of a panel debate yesterday at the foreign ministry in Vienna on civil society. More meaningful than just “another” panel on Bosnia was the fact that it took place at the foreign ministry and was opened by Austria’s foreign minister and included also the head of the EU delegation Sörensen in Bosnia. On the other hand,it included no politicians from Bosnia and this was no coincidence. The message of the panel and the high level engagement by Austria and the EU is that it is no longer enough to talk with the political elites, but rather civil society needs to be engaged. This is a refreshing change from an approach that focuses mostly on the leaders of the main political parties. Similarly, the panel was less about formal and established civil society organizations, but rather activists, two from plena (Ajda Sejdić and Amna Popovac), musician Damir Imamović and Aleksandar Trifunović of independent media platform Buka.  The panel was a useful reminder that civil society is more than NGOs and not just there to providing technical expertise, but articulating voices from society.

The result was a refreshing debate. Yes, the problems are old and there is little disagreement about the responsibility of political elites. Little attention centered on the constitution and the Sejdić-Finci cases, but as the February protests highlighted, the main issues are poverty, economic mismanagement and corruption. As Damir Imamović noted, these grievances highlight that Bosnia’s problems are not fundamentally different from elsewhere. Yes, they express themselves differently or are compounded by the government structures, but they are not exotic and do not make the Balkans and Bosnia exceptional.

The key question to which there is no clear answer, is how to achieve change. It seemed clear that the plena have mostly run their course. While they have helped generate ideas and continue to operate, they themselves will not generate change in Bosnia. Yet, as in other countries, protests often require multiple waves and different forms until they become successful. While some politicians resigned and some small legal changes were made,  the main success of the protests and plena was not the number of political demands fulfilled, but rather showing the possibility of citizens to organize outside the formal structures and, if briefly, giving the political elite a real scare. There was a clear sense at the discussion that there is no need for new political parties to achieve change. In essence, the choice is between new political actors emerging within the structures or, I argued, in the ability of the EU and civil society to change the behavior of political elites in power. In fact, nationalist and reluctant reforms from Ivo Sanader, Milo Djukanović and Ivica Dačić or Aleksandar Vučić have been able to switch their political priorities. This was usually based on a rational calculation based on changing demand from below (for EU integration) and pressure from outside. The key question remains on how to change the incentive structure for Bosnian political elites.

The panel suggest that some EU member states and the EU start realizing that the transformative effect of the EU accession depends on allies within the country that scrutinize political elites and thus point out the discrepancy between the talk of EU integration in the country and the reality. However, this dynamic can only become effective if the prospect for EU membership remains real and the support for civil society becomes sustained and extends beyond a few high-level events.

 

 

 

What the floods reveal: Consequences of a disaster

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The floods in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and, to a lesser degree, in Croatia brought destruction and death to large areas. Thousands of homes were destroyed, some had been painstakingly rebuilt after the war, thousands of landmines swept away to new locations, livestock killed, mass graves from the war unearthed and roads ruined. Beyond the destruction, the floods also revealed the weakness and the strengths of the countries. It is a cliché to say that moments of crisis and disaster brings out the best and the worst in people. In Bosnia and Serbia, it mostly brought out the best in people, and the worst in states.

Natural disasters test states whether they are weak or strong and their response (or lack thereof) often shatters citizens trust. When the earthquake in Haiti struck in 2010 killing a quarter of million people, it destroyed the state itself, which been weakened by decades of crisis. In New Orleans hurricane Katerina brought misery and scenes nobody would imagine could occur in the United States. The response appeared to be of a state that did not care about its poor and ready to tolerate great misery among its citizens.

The floods in Bosnia and Serbia showed that two very different states were utterly unprepared for the disaster. Both states and their local (entity, etc.) authorities responded late, with limited means and inaptly. What is important here is the similarity between the two countries. Serbia is often considered more functional than Bosnia, with a centralized state, clear lines of authority and without complicated and competing authorities as in Bosnia. Yet, both did badly. This suggests that despite all justified critique of Bosnia’s complicated institutions, the cause of the incompetence lies elsewhere. Some of it lies with political leaders who did not take the problem seriously and in politicized, hierarchical systems: if the leader does not take it seriously,neither does the state. In fact, the state and political elites sometimes blamed citizens rather than shouldering responsibility.

Informer 23 May: The hellish plan of tycoons and the Democratic Party

Informer 23 May: The hellish plan of tycoons and the Democratic Party

In Serbia, the response to the floods also shed light on the authoritarian and populist tendencies of the current government. The disaster-management populist hubris, was reflected by multiple live transmissions of government sessions in its function as emergency committee (15 May, 23 May). The sessions had little calming effect, but rather gave the message “the situation is horrible, but we will take care of it”. It fit the image of the new prime minister as the serious, always concerned leader, taking the suffering of his citizens serious indeed. The personification of the disaster response fits the emerging character of the current government, dominated by the over-towering Vučić. The government spreads panic and then offers Vučić as the savior. Whether this strategy will succeed will depend on the ability of the government to either deal effectively with the aftermath of the floods or its ability to effectively deflect criticism.

The authoritarian side of the government became visible through the censorship the government appears to have engaged in. Websites and blogs critical of the government and Vučić were taken down (see here, here). In addition, a tabloid close to the government suggested that the floods were the pretext of a plot of businessmen and the opposition to take down Vučić.

The floods have also provide for a template on which to project different ideological visions and hopes. Srećko Horvat, for example, argues that it is the neo-liberal transformation that hollowed out the state to be unresponsive and inept. Such an observation is obviously implausible as the lack of investment into public infrastructure in Serbia and Bosnia over the past twenty years is not the result of neo-liberalism or the privatization of public utilities. Little has been privatized and certainly much less than elsewhere in Europe which copes better with natural calamities and the causes are very different. The state and the local authorities in Bosnia and Serbia have been ill-prepared to deal with the floods. Thus, the failure lies with the state, not private utility companies. Now, I would not argue that this necessarily means that the state should privatize public utilities and infrastructure, but the critique of neo-liberalism misses the point. The lack of investment and maintenance of the public infrastructure that became visible through the floods has several causes: a) neglect and destruction during the 1990s that takes a long time to address the consequences; b) party appointments and favoritism has undermined the public administration and reduced professionalism; c) hierarchical power-structures contribute to slow responses in times of crisis. Altogether, this would rather suggest that the problems are not with the private sector, but with the state. This does not mean that privatization would be the solution. As the far-reaching privatization of public utilities in some countries, such as the UK, demonstrated, this in itself it can also lead to underinvestment and convoluted lines of responsibility. The central question thus how to make the state more responsive. Besides the obvious need to reduce party appointments and focus on the re-professionalization of the public administration, it would also be good to think about ways in which state-owned companies and utilities can be better sheltered from political pressure and influence to be able to act independently.

The other theme that flood revealed is that of solidarity. The failure of the states to take of their citizens brought about a great degree of solidarity between citizens. In Bosnia the plena that had emerged as a result of the February protests organized assistance where the state failed and there are many reports of citizens helping others across lines of division, be they entity or state boundaries or ethnic borders. However, it might be once more overinterpreting the solidarity as a renewed “Yugoslav community” as for example Andrej Nikolaidis does. Support and assistance comes from others well beyond the Yugoslav space, thus reducing solidarity to the people of Yugoslavia is being unfair to those assisting beyond. The key question will be how to transform the solidarity of the floods into a more lasting form of rapprochement. Here, it merits to look south, to Greece and Turkey, who experienced a breakthrough in relations as a result of “earthquake diplomacy” following devastating earthquakes in both countries in 1999. James Ker-Lindsay noted at the time in an article that the earthquake in both countries did not bring about the rapprochement by itself, yet it helped  by providing it with a momentum that brought both citizens and political elites closer together. The floods, for all their horror thus provide an opportunity, whether it will be seized and become transformative remains to be seen.

 

Drinking Coffee with the Father of the Nation. Dobrica Cosic and the Mediocrity of Evil

A few years ago, a sophisticated hoax suggest that Dobrica Ćosić won the Literature Nobel Prize. While a group of usual suspects of the Serbian did propose him for the prize,  the idea was luckily absurd. He wrote an number of novels, but they are far from the novels by better Yugoslav writers of his time. His first novels were in the dominant socialist realist style. His later novels were epic in tracing the Serbian people and their suffering in the creation of Yugoslavia. Some translations where published, his works rightful drew little interested outside Yugoslavia. When I talked to him for my research in 1998, it was less his literature I was interested in, but rather his politics.

When I stepped into the house of the friendly elderly man in his crumbling, yet still impressive villa in the Belgrade suburb of Dedinje, I thought I was meeting a man whose life and political influence was waning. Little did I know that he would live another 16 years and through his books, statements and close contacts to nearly the entire political elite maintain the aura of a national sage.

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The opportunity to meet him in May 1998 was unique, he had been reluctant to speak to Western researchers or journalists, skeptical of their intentions (rightfully so) and busy writing his own memoirs. I guess my topic–his engagement with human rights activists in the 1980s–was sufficiently innocuous, to not make him reject the conversation outright, as was the help of a friend of a friend in arranging the interview. When I went to visit him in his villa I was aware of his historical role and responsibility. He had come into conflict with Tito and the Yugoslav leadership in the late 1960s over the increasing decentralization, became a ‘dissident’ who remained in his villa close to the center of power. As a writer, he moved from socialist realism to nationalism as he endlessly described Serb suffering and began challenging the wisdom of Yugoslavia altogether. He helped bring together a group of intellectuals, some loyal to the Communist rule, other critical, to formulate Serb grievances. He became a supporter of Milošević and his President for the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1992. However, he also fell out with Milošević and was toppled by the Radical Party in the following year and was thus able to remain credible to the opposition and also the shrinking number of nationalist supports of Milošević. When I met him, he had settled into his new role, the “Father of the Nation”, an intellectual above party politics who would turn his allegiances with the wind like so many other Serbian institutions (i.e. the daily Politika). He regularly dispensed his wisdom, published his successful political pamphlets and became the mediocre sage to whom politicians of all stripes went to seek “advice.”

There was nothing striking about him. He was a friendly old man who invited us for coffee and we could discuss his role during the 1980s. There was some vanity in which he remembered the centrality of his own person during the Yugoslav period and his own role as a dissident. In fact, it became clear that he continued to see himself as a dissident, outside of the mainstream back in 1998. Although he had lost his office as president in 1993, his ideas had become mainstream, and, as fellow traveler Vojislav Koštunica noted, “Dobrica Ćosić had always connections to people who were active in the political life, although Ćosić was practically expelled from the party. He had influence and connections, which protected us.”

The significance of Ćosić arose not from any radical nationalism. Rather, he represented the quintessential path from an eager socialist Yugoslav to a Serb nationalist, a journey in which he was not alone but which few others experienced as publicly and promoted as effectively. In our conversation he claimed that he foresaw the disintegration of Yugoslavia already in 1956-7 when he realized in conversations with Edvard Kardelj , the leading Slovene member of Tito’s inner circle, working on the party program that he was a nationalist who only saw Yugoslavia a transitional construct. It seems hard to view Kardelj as a Slovene nationalist, but the gradual alienation from the Yugoslav project took hold with the fall of Aleksandar Ranković, whom he placed together with other dissidents such as Milovan Djilas. For him, and many other Serb intellectuals, the 1974 and the decentralization of Yugoslavia that preceeding it promoted nationalism of the others and oppressed Serbia. His engagement in a democratic and national critique was thus no inherent contradiction. He was eager to note that the Committee for the Freedom of Thought and Expression he helped found in 1984 defended all Yugoslavs, Slovenes, authors of the Muslim declaration, including Izetbegović and in his words also “Šiptari”, using the derogatory term Albanians. In 1983 he published a non-literary bestseller Stvarno i moguće (The Real and The Possible) which was banned after selling some 10,000 copies.  The weekly NIN called (not meant as a compliment) it for having all ingredients of a bible for Serb nationalists.

When the Serbian academy began drafting a memorandum of the state of Serbia and the Serbian nation in 1985, Ćosić was close to many members involved in its writing, but rejected the suggesting of being the initiator or main author of the text.  As we talked in his living room, he both defended and criticized the text: “It is an unfinished study, a critique of Titoism and the extraordinary hard economic, moral, political state in the 1980s. But it was critique from the socialist and Yugoslav perspective.” Despite its critique, Ćosić was eager to defend in arguing that it was neither a blueprint for ethnic cleansing (which is correct), nor that it deserved to be suppressed. However, the memorandum reflect many themes of Ćosić’s writing during this period, as well as other Serbian intellectuals. It considered not only Serbs threatened in Kosovo, but elsewhere and argued that Yugoslavia would either need to be centralized or that otherwise Yugoslavia would cease to be the best state solution for Serbs. Thus for the first time, the idea of rejecting the Yugoslav project became a (implicit) possibility.  Although Ćosić argued that his biggest mistake was to argue for Yugoslavia when others began pursuing nationalist agendas, his claim was insincere. His Yugoslavia would not have been accepted by others and the dividing line between national equality and dominance of one over others is often in the eye of the beholder .

After I ended the interview with Ćosić, I felt  uneasy. There was much I disagreed with him, yet his demeanor made him hard not to find a pleasant conversation partner. My friend who helped with the interview noted at the time that he seem like a friendly grandpa (and she was very critical and aware of his role in promoting nationalism in the 1980s and 1990s). At the time, I came to understand that dangerous ideas do not originate form raving madman, but from mild-mannered intellectuals who are harder to ignore or dismiss. It is now, with greater retrospect that I also understand that the success of Ćosić was his mediocrity. He was neither a great writer, nor a brilliant thinker. His success came from reflect opinions that were widely held by others. Being both an insider of the Communist regime and later in the Milošević era, as well as an outsider gave him access and credibility more than most others. His criticism of Titoism and Yugoslavia was more radical than many intellectuals that suffered no or fewer consequence, yet he was no Djilas. His challenge was a paradox, a return to the pre-1966 more dogmatic era, while demanding greater freedom of speech. Calling for freedom of speech, but supporting later one the repression of Albanians in Kosovo when exercising this right. His inconsistencies reflected the times and made the moderate and mediocre face of nationalism. His support for Milošević and break with him later made him respectable for the regime and for the opposition. And thus it was less his ideas as such, than his position that provided him with legitimacy. As he cultivated his image of the “father of the nation”, he tried to synthesize the different ideologies and ideas that competed over the nation and nationalism. After his death, I can only hope that he will be irreplaceable, as the area of “fathers of a nation” should better be over in Serbia and elsewhere.

 

 

 

I have written in greater detail about Ćosić in my monograph about Serbian nationalism from the death of Tito to the Fall of Milošević.

 

Amidst the floods: Launching call for a new European approach towards the Balkans

As hundreds of people flew to Sarajevo to participate in a plethora of conference and workshop that are strangely attracted to the city this year due to an unfortunate anniversary this June, rains have flooded the countryside, winds made landing at the airport nearly impossible and reminding a casual visitor that Sarajevo’s connection to the rest of Europe is at time precarious.

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A good time to present the latest policy report and briefs by the Balkans in Europe Policy Group. After meeting in Graz, Belgrade, Zagreb and Brussels over the last six months, we could finally present the paper and two policy briefs. In the paper we are looking at four scenarios in which the EU integration process might develop, one continuing along the current path, one with the process descending into stagnation and alienation of both sides, one where outside power start coercing or luring countries away from the EU and finally an option where the EU reenergizes the enlargement process, a Balkan Big Bang.

We had an interesting discussion in the framework of the AGA 2014, an annual big conference of European foundations. As one would expect, the audience was mostly from West European foundations and while some clearly had a positive view of the need for EU integration to continue or rather be accelerated, I was struck by the skepticism coming from some audience in the Q&A. The countries first have to deal with their problems and then we can talk about joining, the previous enlargements were a mistake and we first have to sort out the EU, it can’t be bothered with enlargement were three key concerns expressed by some in the audience. It just highlights that is will be an uphill struggle to convince citizens and member state to continue enlargement.

 

It ain’t so queer. The success of Conchita Wurst across continental divides.

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Some Russians shaved off their beards in protest, church officials objected and right wing (and main stream) commentators in a number of countries, including Serbia and Croatia, are offended and offensive at the success of Conchita Wurst because of her deliberate blurring of gender boundaries and sexuality.

In an insightful blog, Alan Renwick noted that while there is a clear east-west divide in terms of the overall vote for Conchita Wurst last Saturday, the variation is insignificant among the voting public, while the jury displayed greater variety. His argument might be even low-balling the small variation. There is a selection bias among those who vote for the Eurovision contest. In many Western European countries there are strong fan constituencies who enjoy the contest for its odd performances, the meeting of ‘banal nationalism’ with a European public sphere and the horrendous music. In other countries, in particular in Europe’s East, Eurovision is more serious business. States invest heavily into winning the contest and its participation is a away to afirm Europeanness (no were more so in countries whose Europeanness is challenged such as Turkey, not participating this year, Azerbajian, Georgia and Armina). Thus audience and voters are likely to be from a broader social background less than those where the viewers take a more ironic distance to event and the voting. Thus, the gap might even be smaller than the voting spread would indicate.

All of this would suggest that the opinion makers, from jury members and politicians are more homophobic and upset by the Austrian victory than the broader public. This seems not implausible. Jury member vote in public and thus in homophobic, patriarchal and authoritarian contexts might either worry about voting for an act like Conchita or might in fact be selected to represent the ‘official’ taste.

The more intriguing question is whether voting for Conchita Wurst is a sign of greater tolerance. At first glance the answer would appear to be yes. Voting for a drag queen with a beard seems hard to reconcile with stereotypical gender roles (for that there was the Polish entry to this year’s Eurovision). However, one should not jump to conclusions. Eurovision itself as a long history of giving more space to openly gay and lesbian performances than the general public in most states would accept. Dana International won for Israel already some 16 years ago. Consider also Serbia where gay pride parades have failed repeatedly and homophobic attitudes remain social acceptable, Marija Šerifović, the Serbian winner of the Eurovision contest in 2007, was not only lesbian (while she did not openly acknowledge this years later, it was not secret to tabloids) but also a Roma (and that did not stop her for endorsing the Serb Radical Party, not particularly enlightened on either groups).

More importantly, even fairly homophobic and patriarchal societies have been tolerant of gay and lesbian or gender-bending entertainers. Take two cases. Azis in Bulgaria. Azis has been one of the most successful singer of chalga music, the widely popular musical genre that combines (pseudo-)traditional music with Western pop like turbofolk (I am aware of the problems of the terminology) in former Yugoslavia or Arabesque in Turkey. Azis, who is also of Roma decent, has been playing with gender roles just as much as Conchita (see here). Similarly in Turkey has had extremely successful performers who challenged gender roles: Bülent Ersoy and Zeki Müren. Carol Silverman in her wonderful book “Romani Routes: Cultural Politics and Balkan Music in Diaspora” carefully analyses the success of Azis and his performance, playing with gender stereotypes and the image of the Roma and the oriental. To some degree the combination of the exotic and the bending of gender roles made both more easily acceptable. However, Bulgaria and Turkey remain among the countries in Europe least tolerant of homosexuality, thus suggesting a disconnect between the success of openly homosexual or transsexual performers and popular attitudes.

Not unlike elsewhere it being was ok to be gay or lesbian in the world of entertainment, but not in “normal life”. As the world of entertainment is unreal, artificial even when not playing with gender roles, there is more space for those who might not fit into the conventional societal expectations. In fact success in entertain can compound certain gender roles that perceive gays and lesbians as flamboyant, and, well, entertaining. Of course, earlier gay, lesbian and transsexual entertainers were able to flourish through ambiguity and not openly acknowledging their homosexuality, but Azis in Bulgaria became popular in Bulgaria despite open references to his homosexuality (on the boarder implications of Conchita Wurst on LGBT rights see, Catherine Baker’s blog).

What is more striking is the politicization of performance. On the one side the interpretation of Conchita Wurst’s success as a victory for diversity and tolerance, as she herself stated during the victory speech. Similarly LGBT organisations and political parties (rightfully) push for greater rights for gays and lesbians in terms of marriage and adoption (in particular in Austria after her victory was widely celebrated, including by the conservative party, but not by the xenophobic Freedom Party). On the other side is the visceral criticism and rejection by conservative and nationalist politicians, particularly in Europe’s East. This reflects a broader discovery as homophobia as a potent topic for the nationalist and conservative right in Russia (such as the law banning “homosexual propaganda”), but also in Southeastern Europe. While gay and lesbian rights used to be low on the list of issues for conservative groups to rally around more than a decade ago, the violence at Serbia’s first gay pride parade in 2001 was symptomatic for what has become an issue for the right to define itself around.

The politicization also takes on a different dimension. Not only Russian clowns who happen to be called politicians use the victory of Conchita Wurst to juxtapose their own identity with a hedonistic, sexually confused Europe. In Russia at the moment such rhetoric comes as little surprise (just as some argued that the victory of Conchita Wurst as some kind of anti-Russian statement), but also on internet fora in many countries in Southeastern Europe homophobic messages are mixed with skepticism towards the EU (along the lines of ‘this is not the kind of Europe we want’ see here, here and here).  Of course, such different views can be found in every country from the winner of Eurovision onwards, what differs is the balance between the views and their intensity. It would be important to not allow latent or open homophobia to justify views as those promoted by the populist right in some European countries (such as Wilders in the Netherlands) that use homophobia to justify their own xenophobia.

 

Forgetting Enlargement

Reblogging my post for the Balkans in Europe Blog on the risks of EU enlargement falling of the EU agenda.

Not long ago, the DG for Enlargement moved to a new address, from 200 to 15, Rue de la Loi, Brussels. What seems like a question of logistics, not policy, matters. Never in the past twenty years has enlargement fallen to such a low priority for the European Union. The old address of the Directorate General for Enlargement was the Berlaymont, the centre of the Commission—symbolizing the centrality and importance of the enlargement process for the EU. Now, it is housed in a non-descript office building a few hundred meters away. This symbolic removal from the center of EU and the Commission’s headquarters is not just a coincidence, but reflects the problem of enlargement. Although the EU is in accession talks with three countries (Turkey, Serbia and Montenegro) and four more are waiting to start talks, the DG is a shadow of its former self. The atmosphere of decline was reflected in recent months in rumors circulating that the next Commission might not have a Commissioner solely responsible for enlargement. This would be for the first time since 1999 that the EU would not have dedicated enlargement commissioner. Such a scenario seems somewhat unrealistic, considering that there is a need to have 28 Commissioners, one for each member state and thus, enlargement will probably stay on. The question is, however, whether this will be filled by a forceful commission pushing the agenda, or not. Judging the by the gradual decline of the profile of the enlargement portfolio over the past decade, the signs are ominous.

This sense of decline is also reflected in key member states. Popular support for enlargement was never particularly high and governments have pursued it despite their citizens’ skepticism. The latest Eurobarometer puts a clear majority of EU citizens against enlargement (52% over 37% for) with number around 70% against it in France, Germany and Austria.  The highest level of opposition to enlargement is in Austria with 76% against (and 16% for). While Turkey is certainly the bête noire of enlargement, opposition to having Kosovo, Albania and Serbia join are not significantly lower.

These numbers have been steady, at least since the beginning of the economic crisis. However, in recent years numbers have been particularly high and amidst broad dissatisfaction with the EU and governments due to the economic crisis, governments have been more responsive.

The Austrian coalition agreement from late 2013 for example remains committed to towards EU enlargement in the Western Balkans (as opposed to requiring a referendum for Turkish membership). In addition to the accession criteria, the new/old Austrian government emphasis the ability of the EU accept new members as key criteria for membership, a clause that can be used to easily delay further accession.

The German government has followed a similar line, keeping the door open, but while noting the ability of the EU to join, it also underlined the need to strictly enforce the member ship conditions, in effect signaling a strong monitoring by individual member states.

Beyond these mentions of enlargement, more important is the degree to which enlargement is not a central feature of the foreign policy of Germany or Austria, as these countries have been two key promoters of the enlargement process within the EU. The German government declaration at the European Council in December 2013 mostly focused on the cases at hand, Serbia and Albania, but offers no larger strategy vision or even re-affirmation of the Thessaloniki promise of full membership. The government declaration to the German Bundestag did not even mention enlargement and noted that “25 years ago the wall came down. 10 years ago we saw the beginning of the EU Eastern enlargement. Further borders in Europe could be reduced. Today, we Germans and we Europeans are unified to our fortune.”

While the statement implies that enlargement is not complete, this is not spelled out and the unification of Europe appears already done. At best, this declaration could be taken as the German government viewing the enlargement to the Western Balkans as a done deal, even if not technically completed. At worst, it is a sign that there is no real support for enlargement which continues below the radar as a low level process and is used to reward individual countries, but not as a strategic vision.

Recently the UK, conventionally a strong support for enlargement, has taken a sharp turn against enlargement. In his comment for the Financial Times, PM David Cameron threatened to veto further enlargement if labor mobility or he and the tabloids term “benefit tourism” is not restricted.

Other governments have shied away from such a populist used of enlargement, but this approach might become attractive after the EP elections when Eurosceptic Parties are likely to take a much larger share of the vote than they have to date.

Finally Greece, holding the presidency of the EU in the first half of 2014 has taken a much more subdued approach towards enlargement after having been an important member state in promoting the Western Balkans joining the EU 11 years ago. In essence, the Greek presidency program does not devote much space to enlargement and follows the general “yes, but” approach: Enlargement has been successful, but countries have to undergo the most demanding accession process yet: The accession process today is more rigorous and comprehensive than in the past, reflecting the evolution of EU policies as well as lessons learned from previous enlargements.”

While enlargement is going on as a process managed in Brussels, for most member states, it seems to be out of sight and mind, or at least at the margins. This could be seen as a pragmatic and maybe also helpful approach to keep the process ongoing when publics in the countries have grown weary of countries joining. Yet, enlargement through the back door will become tricky as citizens are ill prepared to accept the next enlargements, and as a number of countries will not need ‘just’ enlargement, but a more comprehensive EU engagement to overcome their domestic or bilateral difficulties.

As member states have become more involved into the accession process and claim their right to scrutinize the candidates independently from the Commission, there is the risk that the already slow enlargement process will be even further kicked down the road.

Although it might not be the most popular post in the new Commission (if it indeed remains one), enlargement will be a place for a Commissioner to leave a mark and revive the process. The significance might be easily overlooked now, but if the EU cannot complete enlargement and transform the countries of the Western Balkans, the credibility of its transformative power is seriously jeopardized.

What the elections mean for Serbian democracy

I am re-blogging my analysis of the Serbian elections written for the new Balkans in Europe Policy Blog.

When Aleksandar Vučić gave his victory speech on Sunday, after the resounding victory of his Progressive Party, his seriousness seemed in no proportion to his success. For the first time, since the second multi-party elections in 1992, can a single party govern the country alone. With 48.34% of the vote and 156 (of 250) seats in parliament, the party does not require a coalition partner, unless it wants a majority to the change the constitution.  There are dangers in this victory, both for the victor and for the Serbian democracy. First, Vučić and his party might have won a Pyrrhic victory. The elections were triggered by Vučić to diminish the rule of the prime minister Dačić and his socialist party. While he achieved this (although the SPS remains as strong as before in terms of votes), he cannot blame bad decisions on a coalition partner if he is to govern alone. It is thus unsurprising that despite the large majority, SNS seems to want to include some other parties in government. However, even if this were to be the case, the SNS will have a hard time bringing about early elections, as it did this time around. This technique, a favorite among incumbents in the region, (esp. in Macedonia and Montenegro) of getting re-elected when opinion polls are favorable, will not be easily available to the new government. Finally, the weaknesses of the party will become even more apparent. It failed to run a visible candidate for the mayor of Belgrade, as it lacked convincing and popular politicians, besides Vučić. If the party is to govern effectively, it will quickly need to increase its capacity, since cloning Vučić, as some satirical photomontages suggest, is not an option.

The risks for the Serbian democracy are equally apparent. A large majority, in a political system that is used to coalitions, bears its risks in the best of circumstances. However, Serbia lacks checks and balances to hold their governments under control. To some degree, coalition governments have been (flawed) alternatives to checks and balances. With few independent institutions, many loyal media outlets and two of the three opposition parties more eager to work with the Progressives than to criticize them, there is a risk that there will be too few critical voices in these institutions. The focus of outsiders on the Serbian government delivering on Kosovo has also muted external scrutiny of un-democratic practices. Not least, the elections themselves are a reflection of a problematic understanding of democratic processes. As a result, the elections do raise serious questions about the future of democracy in Serbia. It seems unlikely that the new government will become authoritarian, or step back into Miloševićs shoes, but Serbia might move away from democratic consolidation and towards a hybrid system that we can observe in other countries of the region.

In addition to this development, the elections have also highlighted the decline of the right and a general decrease of ideological differentiation in the party landscape.

The decline of the extreme right

A key feature is the continued decline of the extreme right and conservative parties in Serbia. For the first time since 2000, Vojislav Koštunica’s Democratic Party of Serbia is no longer represented in parliament. After being mocked as a “kombi party” for its ability to fit all members into a van in the 1990s, it is back at its beginnings. The opposition to EU integration and focus on Kosovo has not paid off.  Similarly, other parties, on the nationalist end of the spectrum, fared badly. The Serbian Radical Party continued its decline from 4.62% to 2% and Dveri, a more recent extreme right wing group, dropped from 4.34% to  3.57%. In addition, even smaller right-wing groups split less than one percent. This overall decline of the extreme and conservative right is an important, and easily overlooked, development in Serbian elections. It can be attributed to three factors: First, the populism of the Progressive Party itself, constituted by former radicals, has been able to absorb some of the vote. Second, the fragmentation of these parties—various talks of pre-election coalitions among Radicals, DSS, and Dveri failed—discouraged voters to choose any of them. Thirdly, the trend is part of a regional development. In Croatia, but also in Romania, the extreme right has declined in the context of EU accession. As the EU effectively rejects such parties, they become less attractive as most citizens are (skeptic) supporters of EU accession. Kosovo, and other national issues, also no longer figure into the agenda that voters care about.

Lack of Alternatives

The elections were fought among parties that all formally share the same goals and have no discernable ideological differences. All parliamentary parties want to join the EU, talk of “reforms” and oppose corruption. As a consequence, there is no reason that the incumbent would not win, when there is no alternative that is different. Besides the ideological similarities, most parties also demonstrated a willingness to form pre-election coalitions with parties whom they have few commonalities, and display, even for Serbian standards, a surprising lack of respect for democratic principles. When Boris Tadić made his comeback, after breaking with Djilas and the Democratic Party, he did not form his own party, but the Greens of Serbia were taken over by him (or offered). They changed their name to add «New Democratic Party» and voila, a green party became the election vehicle for Tadić.  The Liberal-democrats of Čedomir Jovanović used to offer a more radical reform program than the Democratic Party. However, its unprincipled coalition with a conservative Bosniak party, close to the mufti of Sandžak Zukorlić, and its continuous flirting with the Progressives discredited this claim. In effect, the only two programmatically consistent electoral lists where those of the Democratic Party of Serbia, which failed to enter parliament ,and the list of the former Minister of the Economy, Saša Radulović, „Dosta je bilo“ (Enough of this), which radically criticised the influence of political parties and the economic policies of Serbian governments in the past decade. While the consistency of the DSS is likely to lead them further into political oblivion, the list of Radulović might become more significant in Serbia. Having led a shoe-string campaign, barely managing the register of the list two weeks before the elections and facing strong attacks in the media, the 2.08 % the list achieved is no small feat.

Antipolitics?

Another way of rejecting the ideological and ethical homogenisation of Serbian party politics was a repeat of the „invalid vote“ campaign of 2012. Several activists called on citizens to go and vote, and then to reject any candidate by invalidating the ballot (see here from some examples). Altogether, some 3.17% of citizens did exactly that. While not all may have invalidated their ballot for the same reason, the high number suggests that most, probably, deliberately invalidated their ballot in protest. These numbers are lower than in 2012, when they were 4.39%, but remain remarkable. Finally, the easiest and most common manner of rejecting the current political offerings has been to simply not vote. Turnout was only 53.12%, or four percent less than 2 years ago, and the lowest for Serbian elections since the introduction of the multiparty system in 1990.

Thus, the Progressives have been able to capture the largest share of the electorate of any party since 1992, but their success is not built on energizing the electorate or changing the perception of politics, but rather as a result of citizens either resigning to the inevitable, or the irrelevant. The broader dissatisfaction with party politics will not be remedied by SNS, and thus some broader opposition, reflected in social movements or new parties, remains a distinct possibility, even as the pluralist political space might be decreasing.

The Authoritarian Temptation

Untitled

Here is the English version of a comment I wrote for the Neue Zürcher Zeitung called “The Authorititarian Temptation in the Balkans”. It draws on an article (co-authored with Irena Ristić) and a book chapter published in 2012.

The Serbian elections 16th March end a year of political speculation. These are already the seventh early parliamentary elections since 1990, they are unnecessary as there was no government crisis ahead of them being called. The coalition government consisting of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS ) of Aleksandar Vučić and the Socialist Party (SPS ) of Ivica Dačić was stable and had a solid majority . However, SNS wanted elections to translate their popularity into a large parliamentary majority. In 2012 SPS could still bargain hard to obtain the post of prime minister. Today, this is hardly imaginable. Although the SNS is unlikely to be able to govern on its own after the election, it can determine the shape of the government.  The early elections are an example of the authoritarian temptation of governing parties in the Balkans, weaken the rule of law to secure their own dominance.

The “semi- democracies” of Southeast Europe

Regular studies of the Bertelsmann Foundation and by Freedom House show, that a particular type of democracy has taken hold in South Eastern Europe: elections are democratic, the political landscape is diverse, but populist and corrupt governments hinder the consolidation of democratic structures. Most post-communist countries in Central Europe developed into consolidated democracies. In the  South Eastern Europe, however, was intermediate form dominants, the democratic formalities be observed, but at the same time, populist parties control the state through patronage structures. This is particularly evident through the dominance of political parties over the media, the state and the weak rule of law.  The election campaign had not yet begun in Serbia, as the Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Vučić saved a child stuck with its family in a snowstorm on the highway from Belgrade to Budapest. Conveniently,  the state television on hand to film it. While this ‘performance’ was quickly mocked in social networks, the message got through : Vučić rescues children, while others go campaigning.

Not only in Serbia have governing parties used their dominance to engage in a continuous election campaign.  Even when elections are not upcoming [this was written before early elections were called in Macedonia], the ruling party of Macedonia, VMRO-DPMNE constantly advertise their successes on billboards and in advertisements. Due to this non-stop campaign by governments, it is difficult for the opposition to formulate alternatives. In early elections governing parties already have a decisive edge.  A second aspect of the authoritarian temptation is reflected through control of the media. Only a few critical media of the nineties have survived the past decade. The economic crisis and the state as the most important advertiser to have resulted in a media landscape in the region in which critical voices hardly find a place. This is particularly pronounced in Montenegro, Macedonia and Bosnia. In Macedonia all important critical media, such as the private channel A1 have been forced to close done and only few journalists dare to openly criticize the government. In Montenegro, there is often to attacks by “unknown” perpetrators against independent media. In Bosnia is the businessman and media tycoon Radoncic to became security minister [he was dismissed the day the article was published], despite persistent rumors of his contacts to the underworld. In the Republika Srpska the media is local President Dodik, criticism is only aimed at against the opposition, “Sarajevo” and foreign powers. In Serbia, only few media nowadays dare to openly criticize Vucic.
Media loyal to the government, however, weaken the opposition. Allegations of corruption, often without evidence, are part of the strategy here. The tabloids in Serbia regularly accuse members of the DS government that was in power until 2012 of corruption. Even if these allegations are certainly partly justified, they are used to discredit political opponents.  In addition to accusations of corruption, government media also regularly challenging the loyalty of the opposition and suggest that it is committing treason of the state or nation, particular in Macedonia or the Republika Srpska.
A final aspect is the dominance of political parties over the state. Careers in the public administration and in government-controlled companies are usually only possible with party membership. Thus,
parties acts as employment agencies and can thus secure the loyalty of its voters. This reduces the potential for protest as public criticism may result in loss of employment.

Political, not cultural causes
the danger of populism with authoritarian tendencies is not limited to the Western Balkans. EU member states such as Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria show that with EU accession the danger is not over. The temptation is great to attribute this development to “Balkan political culture,” but it has more to do with weak states and social and economic crisis that predates the global economic crisis. Often the EU overlooks the authoritarian temptation too readily, as long as the governments
cooperate. Thus, the willingness of the Serbian government to compromise in dialogue with Kosovo helped to distract from domestic political populism. However, if the rule of law cannot take hold, this will either lead to social protests, as recently in Bosnia and Herzegovina, or to illiberal governments, which seek to preserve their power with populist means, as in Macedonia and, probably soon, Serbia.

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