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Albanian EU membership? Not so fast.

imageOn Tuesday, European foreign affairs ministers voted to grant Albania formal EU “candidate country” status. A final vote will take place amongst heads of government during the summit taking place today and tomorrow (26th and 27th June), yet most expect the South East European country’s newfound status to be rubber-stamped.

News of the granting of “candidate country” status has rightly and understandably been lauded in Tirana as a tremendous step forward for Albanian EU membership. The country’s (relatively) new centre-left Prime Minister Edi Rama has presented the development as a vindication of his frenetic shuttle diplomacy around EU capitals. Former Prime Minister, President and centre-right opposition leader Sali Berisha has also sought to muscle in the announcement; presenting it as a “natural continuation” of the previous government’s work.

Amidst the euphoria, however, a dose of basic realism is needed. Albania is not on the verge of EU membership. Indeed, as the experience of Turkey – a formal “candidate” for integration into the Brussels institutions for the best part of a decade – proves, the term represents little more than semantics.

Albania is not ready to join the European Union. Indeed, it’s nowhere near meeting the basic, minimum membership criteria.

On a political level, while sixteen EU states lobbied in favour of Albania receiving “candidate” status, the governments of the United Kingdom, France and Germany lobbied against the proposal. While each government has a number of internal sensitivities to navigate in respect of potential Albanian membership, the chief motivation for their concerns are crime and corruption-related.

Albania has an image problem. Regrettably, perceptions of excessive criminality in Albania are widespread in many EU member states. These perceptions have been repeatedly reinforced at an institutional level; most recently in the European Commission’s communication to the Council of Ministers which included a number of scathing passages criticising Albania’s record on tax evasion and money laundering, the efficiency of police investigations and public prosecutions and human trafficking.

It’s not all doom and gloom, however.

Unlike a number of other EU “candidate” countries in South Eastern Europe, Albania has not attempted to pursue a quixotic strategy of trying to balance relations with Brussels and Moscow. Albania has neither been held back by the emotional links to Russia that Serbia has nor the economic pressures substantial Russian domestic investments in Montenegro bring.

Albania’s existing status us a NATO member – and therefore a country with clear aspirations to play an active role in Euro-Atlantic cooperation – will rightly be viewed as a significant factor in the country’s favour.

Through accepting “candidate” country status, Albanian leaders have demonstrated to EU leaders that they are willing to accept the challenges that increased scrutiny of its judicial and business climate and public administration processes will bring. Indeed, it is often said that sunlight is the best disinfectant – and increased scrutiny will be either the making or the breaking of Albanian EU membership aspirations.

As already discussed, the first key milestone for the Rama administration will be remedying concerns relating to crime and corruption. While one could embark upon a detailed discussion of what measures should be taken – from deeper cooperation with Interpol to the need to make examples of high profile public officials with their hands in the till by throwing them in gaol – the fundamental point is that nothing short of zero tolerance on this matter will be enough.

When it comes to its member states, the EU professes to loathe instability and immaturity in the democratic process. With its hands full dealing with the Ukraine crisis – for which there is no end in sight – the last thing it wishes to deal with is internal political crises in Albania.

The Commission’s 2013 report on Albanian progress towards “candidate” status was explicit in stating that “constructive and sustainable dialogue” was required between the government and opposition on EU-related matters. To date, the burlesque circus show operated daily by Rama and Berisha on the floor of the National Assembly gives little confidence in the maturity of Albania’s democracy. Both men need to demonstrate increased maturity in their political discourse.

Just as the EU wishes to avoid political instability, Angela Merkel – who would be more accurately described as Germany’s Prime Minister and Europe’s Chancellor – wishes to avoid further economic meltdowns of the type witnessed in Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain. The German public are simply unwilling to foot the bill any longer.

As such, the fact that Albania’s budget deficit and external debt continues to increase year-on-year and the statutory debt ceiling of 60% of GDP has been ridden roughshod over inspires little confidence.

If Albania is to convince EU leaders it is a suitable candidate for membership, two things need to happen. Firstly, the Albanian people must be willing to swallow savage cuts in public spending and an overhaul of their social security system. Secondly, Albanians will have to start actually paying their taxes rather than engineering schemes to shirk them.

Both of these actions require decisive government action and could prove politically toxic. They are, however, the only practical ways through which to engender the kind of economic credibility EU leaders are looking for in new member countries.

In being handed formal “candidate” status, Albania and Albanians haven’t been handed an overnight deliverance from the country’s many problems. The perception in Brussels and EU member states remains that Albania is a corrupt and unreliable state.

Instead, Albania has been given an opportunity to show that bold promises and the rhetoric of reform can be backed up with real achievements.

So Albania, the EU is watching.  But are you serious?

Happy Kosovo

Happy” is not the word most people would use to describe the divided city of Mitrovica in Kosovo.

Despite an EU brokered agreement, the city remains ethnically split between Serbs living on the northern bank of the River Ibar and Albanians on the south.

The worst of the clashes between the two communities have gradually dissipated over the last few years but tensions – many of them exacerbated by cack-handed policies handed down by foreign governments and international organisations with little practical knowledge of the reality of the situation on the ground - remain very much in evidence.

Against that backdrop, it’s surprising to see an amusing video coming out of North Mitrovica put together by young people who live in the town:

As my friend Milos said on Twitter last night, “finally, something positive from North Mitrovica“…

I’m sure it won’t take long for someone to allege that the video has “secret nationalist overtones” or that its creators have a “hidden agenda“ - but I think they’re looking for something that simply isn’t there.

Kosovo elections and ethnic Serb participation – the real challenge is North Kosovo

eulex_kosovo-ethnic-1The past months have seen a marked shift in external perceptions of the relationship between Kosovo and Serbia.

These changes have been largely brought about by efforts by the government in Belgrade to temper the more bellicose language used by its officials towards Pristina and a willingness of Kosovo Prime Minister Thaci’s administration to compromise on judicial and policing matters in order to strengthen the hand of the minority Serb community.  For both nations, the prospect of EU membership is no longer a pipe-dream but a genuine possibility.

The present period of relative détente between the two parties does, however, remain fragile.  While confidence-building measures have improved relations between the two sides, little trust exists.

The local elections scheduled to take place on November 3rd are one big confidence-building measure in themselves.

Traditionally, the vast majority of Serbs in Kosovo have refused to participate in the institutions of the independent Kosovo.  This refusal has been based upon two factors – firstly, personal anger at what some Serbs saw as an ethnic Albanian “power grab” when Pristina declared independence and secondly, because of the urging of Belgrade officials to boycott the polls.

The increased levels of cooperation between Belgrade and Pristina have precipitated a thawing in Serb opposition to the elections – largely as a result of realpolitik.  Serbs living in Kosovo realise that independence is now an irreversible reality for Kosovo and that non-participation in the election process is tantamount to handing power to the ethnic Albanian community.

On a visit to the Serbian enclave of Gracanica yesterday, Serbian Prime Minister Dacic said: “it is in their [the Albanians] interest to have as few Serbs as possible vote in the elections… we have to do something that does not suit them, and that is to take power and use it for our own interest”.

The two leading candidates for the office of Mayor of the Serbian portion of Mitrovica, Krstimir Pantic and Oliver Ivanovic are also urging Serbs to participate in the elections.

In an interview with InSerbia.com, Pantic said: “these will not be just local elections, and the vote does not mean the Serbs will recognize Kosovo independence… on the contrary, [we] will finally get institutions recognized by the international community and institutions that the Albanians will have to respect”.   Ivanovic added: “we have the option to maintain a good relationship with Serbia or stay all alone. We have no relations with Pristina, we have not had relations with Brussels for a long time, and in the event that we refuse to turn out, we will be left on our own, and that is bad, and disastrous”.

It’s a curious turn-around on the part of both Belgrade and figures formerly views as anti-Pristina “hard-liners”: rather than accuse Serb participants in the elections as traitors as in the past, leading Serbian politicians are instead urging their community to vote for positive, patriotic reasons.

From the perspective of anyone wishing to see stability in the region, the Serbian government is right to urge Serbs in Kosovo to participate in the elections.   Many Serbs in Belgrade are, however, too far removed from the day to day reality of life in Kosovo to understand that Kosovo Serbs are far from being a monolithic block.

Take the case of Gracancia, where Prime Minister Dacic made his comments urging Serbs to participate in the elections.   Gracanica is no more than fifteen minutes from the centre of Pristina and entirely surrounded by ethnic Albanian areas.   As pleasant as the village is with its stunning monastery and clutch of delicious small bakeries, it’s far from a metropolis.

For the Serbs that live there, interaction with the administration in Pristina isn’t an option but rather a reality if they wish to access healthcare, pensions and, for young people, a quality education.  They realised at the last round of local elections that the votes of their community could buy lasting political power in the area whereas non-participation would hand control of local government to Albanians.

The same is not true for the Serbian communities of North Kosovo that are largely physically divided from the rest of the country by the Ibar.

If one looks beyond the pile of rubble on the bridge separating north and south Mitrovica and the odd ultra-nationalist mural in the pretty town of Zvecan, there is very little difference between life in North Kosovo and the towns just over the border in Serbia proper.   For the citizens of North Kosovo, the institutions of the Serbian state remain in very much place – from schools and universities to pension offices to health clinics.   Serbian music still fills smoky cafes from Zubin Potok to Leposavic and knowledge of the Albanian language is, at best, threadbare.

While international troops continue to roam the streets, the residents of the north feel largely “safe” from the administration in Pristina that few trust and even fewer wished to see declare independence from Serbia.

Many Serbs in the North see the recent Pristina-Belgrade accords as having threatened their sovereignty and jeapordised their passionate wish to return to direct control from Belgrade.  Why, they ask, should they participate in elections they see as Pristina-led when they are already largely in control of their own destiny?  What, they wonder, is the real agenda of politicians in both Belgrade and Pristina?  Is Belgrade sacrifyincing them, they wonder, in order to pursue a greater EU dream at the expense of its own citizens?

Here is where the challenge lies in respect of the November 3rd.

Serb participation in the local elections south of the Ibar will, of course, be seen as a great success for both Serb and Kosovan EU ambitions.  But it might not be enough to satisfy EU power-brokers.

These elections can only be judged to be a success of the 75,000 Serbs of North Kosovo can be persuaded that participation is in their patriotic interests.

With less than two weeks to go until Election Day, the word on the ground is that participation on the North is unlikely to exceed a disastrous 20%.

The last months have heralded significant improvements in Pristina-Belgrade relations.  The next challenge is how to go about improving trust between Belgrade and North Kosovo.

Time to sever our Kremlin links and forge a new alliance

This article first appeared on ConservativeHome.

Since his arrival in Downing Street in May 2010, David Cameron has been an indefatigable advocate for human rights.

The government’s staunch support for the Arab Spring, culminating in the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, the holding of free and fair elections in Tunisia and sweeping constitutional reforms in Morocco are a testament to its record on this issue. David Cameron’s personal leadership in bringing about tougher sanctions on Europe’s last dictatorship in Belarus and the increasingly unstable regime in Tehran are a testament to his personal commitment to realising democracy around the world.

Fifty years ago, the Council of Europe was established as a formal means by which to forge voluntary cooperation on issues such as technical and legal standards, democracy and human rights issues. Included within the CoE is the Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) which brings together MPs from all member countries to discuss topical issues of concern to citizens across Europe. Human rights issues are ordinarily top of the agenda.

While its legislative and political influence has been gradually eroded by the rapid development of Brussels-led supranationalism, the fact that the organisation’s membership stretches beyond the borders of the EU means that the Council of Europe remains an effective means by which Western European countries can share legislative experiences and build relationships with political figures in Turkey, the Ukraine, Serbia and emerging democracies in the South Caucasus.

Throughout Britain’s membership of the Council of Europe, the party has sat in the European Democratic Group (EDG), a technical group comprised of a range of conservative and nationalist parties either ideologically opposed to the EPP’s federalist polices or unwelcome in its ranks. Originally comprised of respectable parties such as the British Conservatives and its allies from Scandinavian states, the group’s work has become increasingly dominated by representatives from Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party.

In recent times, United Russia members of the group have demanded the EDG vote to stifle debate over press and media freedoms in Russia, to block the so-called Magnitsky Act designed to bring prosecutions against those involved in the violent torture and murder of Russian human rights lawyer Sergei Magnitsky and to pass motions on Abkhazia and South Ossetia that are contrary to the British government’s position in respect of Georgian territorial integrity.

It is clear we have reached a point where our continued membership of the EDG has ceased to be a means by which to build links with emerging democracies and become both an embarrassment to those who believe passionately in the values of human rights and democracy and a blunt tool with which our opponents can beat us.

The British Conservative cannot – and must not – allow itself to be associated with the unacceptable positions advocated by United Russia or its puppet master Vladimir Putin.

Before the Conservative Party’s split with the European People’s Party group in the European Parliament, party members were all too familiar with the poor ideological fit between our own market-liberal, anti-federalist party and the Christian Democrat EPP.

The divorce between the British Conservatives and the EPP was a torturously drawn-out and complex one, yet it resulted in the creation of both the European Conservatives and Reformists Group (ECR) in the European Parliament and the establishment of a new, pan-European political party, the Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists (AECR).

While less is known in the UK about the AECR than the ECR, its membership base is substantial; including parties from other EU countries such as the Czech Civil Democrats and Polish Law and Justice alongside allies from Georgia and Iceland.

Prior to the formation of the ECR and AECR, an argument could be made that British membership of the European Democratic Group has necessary in order to avoid the party sitting in splendid isolation in the Parliamentary Assembly. This is no longer the case.

It is only now logical, given both the development and maturity of the AECR, that the group organises in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe under the “European Conservatives and Reformists” banner.

Aside from existing AECR members that would join the group are MPs from the Turkish Justice and Development Party led by Prime Minister Erdogan as well as plenty of others from the Balkans, Caucasus and elsewhere in Europe.

Just as the EPP held the Conservative Party’s pursuit of policies opposed to European federalism back, the pro-Kremlin EDG restricts the party’s ability to speak with a credible voice on the European stage on human rights and democratisation issues. Just as the establishment of the ECR group in the European Parliament gave the Conservative Party the ability to pursue our own, anti-federalist agenda, the creation of an ECR group at a Council of Europe level will give our party both the platform and the credibility to fight for democratic change in Moscow, Kiev and Minsk.

There can be no excuse for the party not implementing this change at the earliest possible opportunity.

Kosovo: cultural ghetto?

There’s a piece in today’s English-language version of Deutsche Welle which examines the challenges faced by Kosovan artists in promoting their work internationally.  Rather provocatively, the piece describes Kosovo as “Europe’s cultural ghetto“.

While it is true that many young Kosovars working in the creative industries are currently struggling to participate in international film festivals and art exhibitions as a result of the fact a significant number of countries including Russia, China and Brazil do not recognise Kosovo’s 2008 unilateral declaration of independence and will not issue visas to those living in the country.  In the case of those countries that do recognise Kosovo (including the United States, UK, France and Germany), the visa regime for Kosovar nationals is complex and inaccessible.  While all other states in South East Europe now enjoy visa-free travel to countries in the Schengen Area, Kosovars remain isolated from the rest of Europe.

So, until Kosovo’s culture can come to us, I’d urge you to go to Kosovo.

As anyone who has visited will tell you, Kosovo is a country of contrasts; from the chaos of Pristina’s central market and their soundtrack of Turkish Europop to the quiet solemnity of rural Istok and historic Prizren.  While the pluri-religious nature of Kosovo has taken a serious knock in the years following the late 90s conflict, the influence of both the Serbian Orthodox Church and Sunni Islam lives on; most notably in the southern city of Uroševac where an imposing church stands only a stone’s throw from a mosque.

Give Kosovo a go.

Annoyingly, British Airways has cancelled its direct flight from London to Pristina as a result of a fuel dispute with the airport’s Turkish owners – but flights routed through Zagreb and Budapest continue to be cheap at roughly £250 return and take less than five hours, including changes.  Direct flights remain in place from Brussels, Geneva and most large German cities and cost no more than £150.

Accommodation in Pristina can be expensive but I find the Hotel Begolli close to the main market to be an affordable, comfortable and immaculately clean alternative to the Tito-era monstrosity that is the Grand Hotel, which was once the hang-out of Serbian war criminal Arkan who rather perplexingly served as one of Kosovo’s Members of Parliament in the 1990s.

Anyone considering a visit to the country should start by reading the excellent WikiTravel article on Pristina which contains some excellent tips on things to do when in town.  My number one piece of advice, however, is just to grab a map of the city and go for a wander.  You’ll get lost in the city’s winding streets but you’ll never be unsafe at any time of the day or night, with the city’s residents being amongst the friendliest of any on earth.

From a “tourist” perspective, you can see Pristina in a day or two, taking in famous sites such as the golden statue of Bill Clinton and mosques on Nazim Gafurri Street while sampling the city’s excellent coffee shops and surprisingly good restaurants (Pi Shat on Qamil Hoxha Street is a must if you want to try some traditional Albanian food).

Pristina is undoubtedly an interesting city, buzzling with life and populated by permanently-smiling people – but it’s not a beautiful one.  If you want to sample the best in Kosovan architecture, then take the bus from Pristina two hours south to Prizren where you can visit scores of historic mosques, a historic castle and the town’s impressive main piazza.  At the top of the hill you can visit the remains of the Serbian quarter, most of which was sadly destroyed in the 2004 uprising against Serbs.

Around an hour north of Pristina is the town of Mitrovica, a place often described by the press as “Europe’s most dangerous city“.  While most of the rest of Kosovo is almost-entirely populated by Albanians, Mitrovica remains ethnically divided with Albanians living the southern part of the city and Serbs in the north, the two communities divided a bridge over the River Ibar.

While occasional violence flares up between Serbs and Albanians (often sparked by cross-bridge taunting about each other’s sporting defeats), both areas are safe for foreigners to visit.  Those living in the south of Mitrovica will tell you the north is too dangerous to visit – but feel free to ignore they warnings.

Travelling from Pristina’s main bus station, you’ll be able to take a bus to the Mitrovica’s main square and will then have to walk across the bridge, passing a mass of Serbian flags and graffiti of the ultra-nationalist variety.  You can also take a taxi right up to the bridge (just ask for “Mitrovica mosh’t” and the driver will understand where you’re after) for about €25.  After a few days in Pristina, you’ll immediately feel as if you are in an different country in terms of language, music and  architecture. (On a political level, I’ve long argued that the northern parts of Kosovo should be partitioned and transferred to Serbia).

If, as is likely, your time in North Mitrovica is limited, simply follow the road up to the imposing Orthodox church on the hill for some of the best views of the Albanian and Serb parts of the city.  If you have time to stop for food, you’ll find a range of excellent restaurants serving a range of Serbian and Western food and scores of friendly bars and coffee shops.  Do spend a few moments speaking to local people you come across, most of whom speak excellent English.  They have a very different take on political issues to those living south of the Ibar but are endlessly courteous and welcoming of foreigners.

Kosovo isn’t a typical tourist destination – but it is a fascinating and rewarding one.  And it’s not a cultural ghetto.

Correction – Petrit Selimi, Kosovo’s Deputy Foreign Minister has been in touch to say; “Brazil and China do issue visas to Kosovars as they have recently recognised Kosovo passports. Indeed, a young Kosovo film director Arzan Kraja just participated in a festival in Rio, supported by joint project supported by British Council Kosovo and Kosovo’s MFA. One can also travel with a tourist visa to China with Kosovo passport (ironically, its easier for Kosovars to travel to Beijing nowadays then Bruxelles).”