Power & Energy in Central Asia: An Interview with Casey Michel

Casey Michel is a journalist, Central Asia analyst, and MA candidate at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute. Recently, Michel has been at the center of a storm of controversy that has once again raised questions about the growing importance of Central Asia in global politics. With all eyes on Syria and Ukraine, how long will the relative calm in the area last? A space of competing American, Russian, and Chinese interests, I spoke with Mr. Michel about the confluence of international and local actors shaping Central Asia today. You were at the center of a recent incident at Columbia University, when Dr. Brenda Shaffer of the University of Haifa took exception to your question(s) at an event she was speaking at regarding her affiliation with the Azerbaijani state-energy conglomerate SOCAR. The exchange seems to have touched a nerve in the media more broadly. What was your exchange about and why did it become such a story, in your opinion? My line of questioning centered on Dr. Shaffer’s work as an adviser for strategic affairs with SOCAR, Azerbaijan’s state-backed energy firm, and her prior and current work in which she did not disclose this relationship. At the event in question, Dr. Shaffer claimed that she was a moderator for a discussion on the role of Azeri fuel in European gas security – but she was identified as an academic, rather than an adviser with the same energy firm featured in that day’s discussion. Further, both the New York Times and Washington Post have been forced to issue corrections/clarifications on her op-eds on the region, pointing out her relationship with SOCAR. When I asked Dr. Shaffer to comment on the New York Times clarification, she instead decided to begin asking me about who pays my tuition bills, and what my cholesterol count was – in a public, on-the-record setting, in front of dozens of on-lookers. It was easily one of the most bizarre back-and-forths I’ve been involved in, but helps point to a larger reality. Post-Soviet hydrocarbon states – Azerbaijan, Russia, Kazakhstan – have put forth strong, and largely under-studied, efforts to purchase influence in Brussels, London, and Washington D.C. That’s not to say that there was anything undue about Dr. Shaffer’s work with SOCAR; rather, her lack of disclosure about that relationship fits within the growing narrative of post-Soviet states looking for ways to sway both policy and academic support in the West. Tony Blair, for instance, was hired by Kazakhstan three years ago as an “adviser,” claiming he was brought aboard to aid in privatization efforts and reform. It’s since become clear, however, that the only ones who have benefited from Blair’s presence have been those within the president’s inner circle – as well as those closest to Blair. Not only has Kazakhstan hired a PR firm run by Blair’s former PR chief, but Kazakhstan’s also hired one of Blair’s own companies in its image-buffing efforts. Moreover, in the three years of Blair’s presence in Astana, Kazakhstan has experienced the greatest civil rights backslide it has known since independence. Blair’s presence in Kazakhstan has been, by almost any measure, an abject failure – and he’s now been brought aboard the consortium seeking to bring Azeri gas to Europe. This combination of carbon-based revenue, kleptocratic influence, post-Soviet civil rights collapse, and a distinct hypocrisy from Western actors – in addition to a continued lack of disclosure among certain parties – continues. And when it’s questioned, it can make for a fantastic story. So, we’re talking about geopolitics and energy, then. You’re suggested that there’s a confluence of interests here, something Ben Judah has also argued. Tony Blair aside, there’s a whole roster of Western leaders, academics, and experts, who have gone on to have very lucrative careers for some very questionable regimes. It’s difficult not to be cynical but in all the commotion about “selling out,” we’ve missed “the rise of Central Asia.” That is, how at least a handful of these former satellite states have become significant regional players on the back of their energy stockpiles. The real question now is what kinds of regimes will these be? And how can, or ought, the West promote the democratization of what are, on the face of it, some fairly recalcitrant autocracies? In a sense, the West missed out largely through a willingness to allow security concerns to trump democratization efforts or human rights movements. This was seen most acutely in Uzbekistan, in which militaristic concerns have outweighed calls for democratic efforts through almost the entirety of the Afghan War. The Central Asian regimes – in Uzbekistan, in Tajikistan – have managed to adroitly play up the threat of Islamist, terroristic instability, which policy and lawmakers in the West have been more than eager to support. The latest issues with the Islamic State are simply a continuation of that narrative. While the actual threat IS poses to the region remains very small, these regimes have been more than willing to hype the threat time and again – further excuse, they say, to continue clamping down on what little civil rights remain in the region. Even Kyrgyzstan, the region’s best and brightest attempt at post-Soviet democracy, has seen a significant slide away from democratic principles recently – mimicking, and even sometimes surpassing, the civil rights clampdown seen already in Russia. As it pertains to democratization efforts, there seems little room for optimism in the region at the moment. However, both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the two most essential nations in the region, stand set for imminent succession. While there exists the (very real) possibility for instability during the transition period, such neo-patrimonial systems also present opportunities to re-address democratization efforts with successor regimes. There is, of course, no guarantee that successors would be any more receptive to democratization discussions than their predecessors – but when it comes to moments of optimism in Central Asia, you have to grab them when you can. Much has been made of the notion that Central Asia is at the heart of a kind of “war of position” between the US, Russia, and China, with important regional powers juggling patrons essentially. What’s at stake here, what’s being contested? While the recent “New Great Game” terminology has been overwrought, this current competition for influence in Central Asia certainly has echoes from the 19th-century contest for influence between imperial Britain and tsarist Russia. Central Asia has long been perceived as a pivot, whether seen in ancient Silk Road routes or in Mackinder’s concept of a “Heartland.” But much of the recent attempts at vying for regional interest and influence stems from different perspectives and purposes. For the West, an emphasis on democratization and security – especially as it pertains to Afghanistan – has stood at the forefront. For China, energy, trade interests, and Xinjiang-related stability have propelled interests. And while security also plays a role for Russia, Moscow’s interests are far more imperial. In presenting itself as a regional hegemon to both a domestic audience and its “Near Abroad,” Russia believes it deserves the predominance of influence in Central Asia. And between cultural and linguistic links, there’s certain ample room for influence to be found. But Russia’s moment has passed. Due to its blinkered economic and energy policies, Russia has ceded the upper hand to China, which has slowly begun turning Central Asia into resource outposts. (The West still maintains a nominal presence, but with the wind-down in
Afghanistan comes a concurrent decrease in regional interest.) China is not only the largest trade partner in the region, but has managed to wrest Central Asian hydrocarbons from their former route to Russia. On the one hand, this was perhaps expected – China presents both a far larger market, and far larger energy demand. But Russia’s autarkic policies and revanchist efforts have convinced Central Asia that Moscow cannot be trusted to act in good faith – all the more as the recent sanctions have begun harming Central Asian economies – and is interested namely in retaining an imperialistic image. Central Asia is China’s to lose, and the region will only continue gravitating toward Beijing more and more in the foreseeable future. Thinking about US policy in the region, the period immediately after 9/11 was arguably one of tremendous (re)engagement. That appears to have changed now, at least, during the tenure of the Obama administration. The “pivot to Asia,” in short, doesn’t seem to include the heart of the continent. Is the US conceding Central Asia as a de facto Sino-Russian sphere? Or is it, in fact, an attempt to drive a wedge between Moscow and Beijing? You’re exactly right – the “pivot to Asia” would be more aptly termed the “pivot to East Asia.” (Aren’t Afghanistan and Iraq both in Asia, after all?) As I mentioned above, the US’s standing in Central Asia, through a compendium of factors, has waned considerably since it first re-engaged the region in the early ‘00s. Part of this, again, is simply due to the winding-down in Afghanistan. But much of this is self-inflicted. In Kyrgyzstan, for instance, the US’s perceived coziness to the prior regime – one of the most thuggish, corrupt regimes you could find – cost the Americans their
base in Bishkek. Likewise, the perception of America’s inability to remain constrained to international law, and a distinct willingness to overthrow regimes very similar to those in Central Asia, made certain actors in the region more than willing to decrease the US’s presence. As to a wedge between Moscow and Beijing, that will likely not come from Washington’s doing – that will come, rather, on its own. From a purely realist perspective, Russia and China would seem destined for a clash in Central Asia at some point in the future. Russia, more than any point in the past, stands as China’s junior partner. However, Russia still maintains a stronger security presence in Central Asia. The question remains: At what point will China demand that its security presence in Central Asia match its economic hegemony? What would spark this demand? And how will the Russians react? As Moscow continues its slow-motion implosion, it can only maintain – fiscally, infrastructurally – this security card for so long. And China is aware of this reality as much as anyone. As a final question, you’ve made an effort to keep the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) in the headlines. Is this project dead in the water now for Moscow? Or should we expect a reset-in-launch of the initiative in 2015? Ah, the EEU. A wonderful notion, on paper, for a region that has seen perhaps less regional integration than anywhere else in Eurasia. Unfortunately, where Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev – who originally posited the EEU – envisioned a union of equals, Russia saw fit to morph the organization into a vehicle for its neo-imperialistic policies. Instead of a union pushing economic integration, Russian President Vladimir Putin has staked his foreign policy credentials to the EEU – and to maintaining Russian predominance, and chauvinism, throughout. Time and again, Kazakhstan has pushed back against Russian intentions and proposals within the EEU – against a common currency, against a Eurasian parliament, against a common foreign policy. Indeed, the EEU has actually sparked the first notable instances of Kazakh nationalism. Kyrgyzstan, too, has seen its economy hit by growing closer to the Eurasian Union; in pledging to join the EEU, the Kyrgyz president described it as the “lesser of two evils.” Hardly a ringing endorsement. Though it only goes into effect on 1 Jan 2015, the EEU may well be dead on arrival. There’s every indication the purported customs union will remain on paper – customs checkpoints likely won’t be set up with Nagorno-Karabakh, and will likely remain between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. All the while, Russia will continue to subsidize efforts to prop it up – to the tune of $5.2bil/year, at last check – and recruit the unrecognized statelets on its border. Moreover, without Ukraine, there’s really no point to the EEU. Without the Ukrainian market and industrial capacity, the EEU is simply Russia and a handful of disgruntled satellite states – some of whom now see China as a far more attractive partner. The EEU, again, could have been a veritable, viable supra-regional entity in a region that needed one. But due to the Putin regime’s short-sighted economic policies, to say nothing of its obvious willingness to disregard international borders, it’s cut any potential import the EEU could have maintained. Which makes the EEU just another empty post-Soviet organization that falls far, far short from what it could have been. Interview by Jasmin Mujanović | @JasminMuj

The Balkan Floods: Humanitarianism & Politics

This is a EDI Blog guest post by Zhikica Zach Pagovski. During May 13-18, 2014, the Southeast Europe went through a difficult period, and this time it was not initiated by the human factor. Serbia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, and Croatia experienced the heaviest rainfalls in the past 120 years that caused devastating floods and landslides. While more than 60 people lost their lives, the material damage was determined to even exceed that of the Yugoslav Wars. These floods also refreshed the dark memories of the Bosnian War by disturbing landmines left over from the region’s 1990s conflicts. Besides the humanitarian, economic, and environmental implications, these floods created, or reinstated an interesting political phenomenon for the region. Regardless of all political, territorial, and religious disputes, the Balkan states were very cooperative and supportive during flooding disaster. While it took a significant time for the EU and U.S. emergency relief to come to their doors, the people from the less affected Southeast European countries immediately mobilized themselves to help the victims. Official governmental support such as rescue units and equipment had arrived from Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Slovenia mainly to Serbia and Bosnia & Herzegovina. Even though the floods also hit Croatia, its government significantly helped relief efforts in neighboring Bosnia & Herzegovina and Serbia. Another positive example was the $65,000 donation from the Macedonian Orthodox Church for flood victims in Serbia, regardless of its ongoing political and religious dispute with the Serbian Orthodox Church. An exception from this was the case where Kosovo offered to Bosnia & Herzegovina and Serbia rescue teams, but both governments refused this support. This example unfortunately reaffirmed the notion that sometimes politics can still trump humanitarianism in the Balkans. However, most interesting to observe was the actions by the grassroots of these Southeast European countries. Many local, regional and national non-governmental organizations organized initiatives and activities to raise awareness of the floods and collect material support. Hundreds of volunteers from Macedonia, Montenegro, and Slovenia also went to the affected regions in Serbia and Bosnia & Herzegovina to help directly. Financial contributions were collected overnight though mobile phone donations, bank transfers, and through other means. Many individuals used the social media to organize actions, portray the gravity of the problem, and to offers the tools of engagement available to people who wanted to help. Concerts, art events, and other types of humanitarian actions were also organized around the Balkan countries in order to collect funds for the victims. The various Balkan diaspora communities also organized joint events and fundraisers to draw attention to events overseas. This interesting phenomenon has certainly challenged the conventional belief that humanitarian assistance has always been a highly political activity, influenced by the political economy of recipient countries and the political considerations of donor governments. The strong support that came from the grassroots in the Southeast European countries clearly shows that political, religious, and territorial problems do not prevent these populations from helping each other, and that when it comes to saving human lives, they can all stand together. The main issue that arises here is why the national elites are still unable to resolve some of the old political issues, mainly resulting from the Yugoslav Wars, while the peoples of these states have expressed such a high level of solidarity towards each other during a time of humanitarian disaster. There are several important messages here but the most important one is that the humanitarian cooperation and response especially among the ex-Yugoslav nations was astonishing, given the events of the war(s) some 24 years ago. The political elites should certainly consider this solidarity and openness for cooperation of their peoples as a positive example for softening their political positions towards the neighboring countries. This solidarity should create a solid basis for resolution of some of the practical and the ‘imagined’ political problems that still exist in the region. Moreover, the floods have shown that in times of natural crisis, the nations of Southeast Europe can stand united. Those same nations should also be united in times of absence of such overt crises. By using similar types of functional cooperation, Balkan countries can generate common projects that can help improve joint economic prospects and address some of the common problems that those nations all face, such as the high unemployment rates or the huge emigration and brain drain patterns. Lastly, the governments in the region should learn that they are not immune to natural disasters, and should start working on developing joint plans and strategies for cooperation in any future crisis or emergency situations. Zhikica Zach Pagovski holds a Masters of International Affairs from the American University’s School of International Service. He currently lives and works in Washington, DC.

A Century of Lessons in Bosnia? An Interview with Dr. Marko Attila Hoare

Dr. Marko Attila Hoare is an Associate Professor of Economics, Politics and History at Kingston University in London, UK. The author of four books on Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH), his most recent text, The Bosnian Muslims in the Second World War, is now available from Oxford University Press. His first book, How Bosnia Armed, is arguably the most significant study of the military-political aspects of the Bosnian War and has regained critical currency today because of events in Ukraine—ones bearing striking (and deeply troubling) similarities with the Bosnian experience. A leading commentator on Balkan and global affairs more generally, Dr. Hoare has developed a reputation as a preeminent scholar and historian of the region. In the run up to a month-long series of commemoration around Europe and BiH of the anniversary of the beginning of the First World War, I spoke with Dr. Hoare about the on-going contest of histories and narratives in the former Yugoslavia and the continued, slow-moving catastrophe of contemporary EU and US policy towards BiH. Various commemorations of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and the beginning of World War I will be marked throughout the month of June in BiH. The origins of the war, the role of Gavrilo Princip and his connections with the Serbian secret service at the time have, as a result, become a hot topic. But most of the accounts and debates we are seeing play out in the local media have very little basis in actual historical research or analysis. What is their function then, do you think? The legacy of the Sarajevo assassination is still a politically controversial topic, and history continues to divide people in the former Yugoslavia. Many Bosniaks and Croats, in particular, view the assassination as a terrorist act whose consequences – the outbreak of World War I, collapse of Austria-Hungary and establishment of the Yugoslav kingdom – amounted to a disastrous, historic wrong turn for the peoples of Bosnia-Hercegovina. Whereas for many others – including many Serbs, those who still identify with Yugoslavia and many outside observers – Princip and his fellow assassins are viewed more sympathetically, as reacting against an unjust imperialist occupier. This division of opinion relates to whether the goal of Bosnia-Hercegovina’s unification with or annexation to Serbia, and Serbia’s military effort during World War I, are viewed positively in terms of national liberation and unification or negatively in terms of Serbian expansionism. Much commentary on the assassination and outbreak of war is likely to be motivated by the desire to uphold one or other of these competing narratives. As a historian then, is there anything about this particular moment that can help us think about BiH in the one hundred years since then? Is there anything other than a purely symbolic connection between 1914 and 2014? At one level, the assassination formed one act in the long history of Serbian attempts to expand westward into Bosnia-Hercegovina, and of the desire of some Bosnians to unite with Serbia. And it was a decisive act, because the chain of events it set in motion resulted in the establishment of the Yugoslav state, which changed the rules of the game. The establishment of Yugoslavia ended neither the struggle for Bosnian self-rule nor the struggle of Serb and Croat nationalists to annex Bosnia-Hercegovina to Serbia and Croatia respectively, but it did mean that these struggles were fought on a different basis. And they became more bitter. The catastrophes that befell Bosnia-Hercegovina’s peoples since then, culminating in the Ustasha and Chetnik genocides of World War II and subsequently the Bosnian genocide of the 1990s, can be traced back to the flawed form of Yugoslav unification of 1918-21, which in turn arose out of World War I. The Bosnian question, and the Serb and Croat questions within Bosnia-Hercegovina, are very much alive today, and we do not know how they will be resolved. But we cannot understand the form these questions take today unless we understand their historical background, and that includes what happened in 1914. A few months ago you gave an interview to the Dnevni Avaz newspaper in which you argued that the “experiences of 1992-95 should have taught Bosnians that they can never count on the West” and that “the EU and US have lost the will to push for the reintegration of Bosnia and are once again appeasing the separatism of the RS leadership.” Since then we’ve witnessed significant protests in BiH, the emergence of civic assemblies and something of a panicked response on the part of the international community to account for this popular anger. Do you now see any signs of a potential change in policy on the part of the EU or the current US administration when it comes to BiH? Unfortunately not. The EU and US will be content above all if Bosnia-Hercegovina remains quiet and does not become once again a source of regional and European instability. The present phase in Western politics is one of exceptional small-mindedness. Expansion fatigue or outright opposition to expansion is strong in the EU; Euroscepticism, Islamophobia and hostility to immigration are driving the far-right forward; and the Obama administration in the US is pursuing an exceptionally timid conservative-realist foreign policy involving a retreat from global leadership and responsibility. In these circumstances, Western policy toward Bosnia-Hercegovina is unlikely to change unless a compelling reason arises for self-interested, risk-averse Western statesmen to change it. Short of a new crisis erupting in the region that seriously jeopardises European stability and Western security, it is difficult to imagine that happening. The protests in Bosnia-Hercegovina have not assumed a scale significant enough to qualify. Protests brought about significant change in Ukraine, but only after the president had been driven from office. Speaking of policy, what is actually at stake in BiH for the EU and the US? The lack of sustained engagement on the part of Brussels and Washington would seem to suggest that they believe BiH’s geopolitical significance to be marginal. Is this so? Yes. Bosnia-Hercegovina is not strategically important for the EU and US, which explains the failure of intervention in 1992-1995 and the failure to re-establish a functioning Bosnia-Hercegovina since then. Bosnia-Hercegovina is less strategically important than Kosovo and Macedonia, where a serious conflict could potentially drag in NATO states Greece and Turkey on opposite sides. The West perceives its principal interest in Bosnia-Hercegovina in terms of keeping the country quiet so that it does not become a source of regional and European instability. Bill Clinton’s US ultimately intervened to force the Bosnian Serb rebels to accept a peace agreement in the summer and autumn of 1995, because the conflict was seriously damaging its relations with its European allies and the President’s political standing at home. If Bosnians want the outside world to take an interest in them again, they need to rock the boat. Since we’re on the subject of flashpoint regions, in your first book, How Bosnia Armed, you describe in striking detail how difficult it was for the Sarajevo government to organize the defence of the then Republic of BiH in the early days of the war, as much for the lack of arms as for a slew of high profile defections. To a certain extent, one cannot help but see the parallels with the situation in Ukraine. Is there anything Kiev can learn from BiH’s experience in the 90s? Yes. The Bosnian experience should teach Ukraine that it can only rely on its own national strength and effort to defend its independence and territorial integrity; that it should on no account rely on or trust the West to defend it or its interests; and that it should avoid any negotiations over constitutional change or regional autonomy that might encourage Russia and its separatist rebels to fragment the country further – as the Lisbon Agreement and Vance-Owen Plan encouraged Milosevic and Karadzic. The Bosnian experience should teach Ukraine that the West is likely to reward the unreasonable and punish the weak, so Kiev should never, under any circumstances, restrain its own military and political effort at self-defence for the sake of appearing reasonable. Biti bezobrazan [being insolent or brazen] – that’s the way to defend one’s country. Interview by Jasmin Mujanović | @JasminMuj

Four Policy Suggestions for Renewed International Efforts in Bosnia-Herzegovina

On January 27th, 2014, Reuf Bajrovic of the Emerging Democracies Institute (EDI) spoke to a packed audience at the Harriman Institute at Columbia University in New York City. While primarily focused on the general elections scheduled for Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH) in October of this year, Bajrovic’s talk also examined more broadly the effects of the Dayton constitutional order on the country’s politics and BiH’s shifting position in European and American foreign policy. Columbia Professor Tanya L. Domi introduced and chaired the presentation. Bajrovic began by noting that going into the 2010 elections, there were few expectations of change as the Social Democratic Party (SDP) had suffered a colossal defeat four years earlier and the dominant nationalist blocs seemed poised for another sweep. Yet despite a non-sectarian campaign message that flew in the face of conventional, Western accounts of BiH politics as dominated by ethno-nationalists, the SDP came out of the 2010 as the largest vote-getter in the country. In the post-election period, however, SDP leaders appeared unable or unwilling to resist the lure of power and entered into a series of convoluted coalition governments at the state and entity level. In the process, the party increasingly began shifting its focus away from recognizable social-democratic principles and, instead, towards securing government posts and making deals with the nationalist hardliners. Bajrovic, who had joined the SDP in 2007 as a campaign advisor, left the party as a result in 2011, as did many others, including the SDP’s representative in the BiH State Presidency, Zeljko Komsic. Komsic, the single most popular politician in the country, has since gone on to form his own party, the Democratic Front (DF) and, according to Bajrovic, seems poised to absorb the majority of the left-progressive vote in BiH that the SDP had formerly dominated. But the experience of the 2010 elections also revealed a deeper truth about the political system in BiH. Namely, that the Dayton system had created a network of essentially reactionary incentives that discouraged the formation of multi-ethnic parties which, in turn, has promoted the emergence of a deeply chauvinistic, provincial and corrupt political culture. The very “ultra-consociational” principles of the Dayton system which were meant to create a functioning apparatus of government after the end of the war have now become a barrier to the country’s further progress. As an example, Bajrovic cited the current Sejdic-Finci negotiations. Here, a case which concerned the inability of “non-constitutive peoples” in BiH (e.g. Roma, Jews) to stand for many elected offices, has been transformed into a near hostage situation, as the Croat nationalist HDZ, a party which won less than 10% of the total vote in 2010, now demands a constitutional guarantee for fully 1/3 of the power in the state for itself. A similar situation, moreover, played out during the recent census, the first BiH had conducted since 1991. After a trial run of the census, as well as numerous polls, had shown that somewhere between 20-35% of the population would declare themselves as “Bosnians and Herzegovinians” rather than Bosniaks, Serbs or Croats, representatives of the nationalist blocs began making concrete efforts to legally and practically compromise the data that would be collected—especially as it concerned questions of “identity,” which they ensured would become as charged as possible. In the end, the citizens’ actual responses were undermined by such transparent violations of privacy, with evidence of rampant tampering with the forms and data collected, that Bajrovic believes the numbers, whatever they purport to show in the final tallies, will be essentially unusable. Summing the matter up, Bajrovic commented during the question period that Dayton’s ethno-territorial structure and institutional incentives were perhaps best understood as a terrible mixture between the Ottoman millet system and Stalin’s nationalities policy. The disastrous situation in BiH, he continued however, was also in no small part the responsibility of the international community and its failures to insist on the implementation of established democratic and human rights norms by the political establishment in BiH, who, in any case, absolutely depend on the international community for their financial and political welfare. The structural problems of the Dayton constitutional system were in large part offset by robust international engagement in BiH between 1996 and 2005/6 but as the international community has progressively withdrawn from BiH, the glaring flaws of the Dayton order have been exposed. Bajrovic also drew special attention to the shift in European Union (EU) policy post-2005, after the election of Angela Merkel in Germany, which all but completely froze serious efforts to help guide countries like BiH into the Euro-Atlantic community. Croatia’s ascension in 2013 notwithstanding, after the perceived failures of Bulgaria’s and Romania’s entry into the Union, German policy makers, in particular, remain deeply suspicious of substantive efforts to bring the remaining Balkan states into the EU fold. As it concerns BiH’s immediate neighbours, Bajrovic noted that Serbia’s policy has essentially remained unchanged from the 1990s, arguing that its insistence on playing the “defender” of Serbs in neighbouring states has normalized what is otherwise an egregious violation of international norms, namely, the interference of foreign states in domestic affairs. It was Zagreb’s return towards a similar policy, however, that most concerned Bajrovic. While the Mesic administration had taken great strides towards distancing itself from Franjo Tudjman’s policies in BiH, the Josipovic administration has since reversed many of these changes, in turn, and once again become a tacit supporter of Croat nationalist objectives within BiH. Despite all this, looking ahead to the 2014 elections, Bajrovic insisted that there existed some room for optimism. He expected “new facts on the ground,” first because Milorad Dodik’s SNSD was likely to come out of the polls severely weakened if not outright defeated. Regardless of whether the SDS is able to form government itself in the Republika Srpska (RS), it looks likely that the Serb nationalist bloc will be split and thus severely weakened. Moreover, the emergence of civil rights associations like the “1st March” Coalition, who have gone on a massive voter registration push, could see as many as 2 or 3 non-Serb nationalist MPs elected in the entity, further creating the possibility of concrete movement with respect to the near constant obstructionism currently representative of Banja Luka’s politics at the state level. Secondly, Bajrovic likewise believes that similar changes will take place in the Federation, where he expects the DF to emerge as a major new political player. On this point, however, he stressed a desire to see the party first establish itself as a principled opposition lest a decision to form or join government too soon take it the route of the SDP. Thirdly, evidence of renewed interest on the part of Washington to reengage with the region, Bajrovic believes, has the potential to add substantive dimensions to what are currently lifeless international efforts, as dominated by the EU. On this point, Bajrovic drew his discussion to a close by noting the four concrete policy objectives he has consistently stressed to policy makers in D.C. and BiH:

  1. It is imperative that the German position on BiH and EU expansion be altered by the Obama administration. Berlin’s recalcitrance on this point has empowered secessionist and chauvinist forces in BiH and jeopardized the very essence of the country’s peace.
  2. The expectations and commitments of the international community, especially with respect to the Office of the High Representative (OHR), must be made clear. The OHR cannot and will not leave until BiH’s constitution has been reformed and brought into line with European democratic and human rights norms. Also, OHR’s adjudicating role must be transferred to a BiH Supreme Court or given to the existing Constitutional Court.
  3. BiH must be defended from and supported in her efforts to repel the near constant efforts of its neighbour’s and their domestic allies to endanger the country’s institutions. Belgrade and Banja Luka must be prevented from holding further “joint sessions” of its respective executive bodies and Zagreb’s insistence on dismantling of FBiH likewise curtailed.
  4. International policy makers must cease treating party leaders in BiH as the only local partners, especially with regards to constitutional reform questions like the Sejdic-Finci case, and must instead engage the relevant Parliamentary bodies.

A substantial Q & A session followed with still further discussions after the event had formally concluded. In all, the night provided for a stimulating exchange of ideas on BiH’s fate in its second post-war decade. – Jasmin Mujanović | @JasminMuj

Croatia Recycles Its History: A Cautionary Tale for the European Union

Tanya Domi and Reuf Bajrovic

When Croatia became the newest member of the European Union on 1 July 2013, its entry—the first ever by a single country—was hailed by overwhelming majority of observers as an important step in the democratic consolidation of the Western Balkans. The prevailing narrative was that Croatia would export democratic values to the region and that its success would act as an inspiration for its neighbors to move past the burdening legacy of the wars of the 1990s.

Less than six months into its membership, it seems that Croatia is not the next Estonia but the next Hungary of the European Union.

The outcome of Croatia’s December 1st ballot initiative that proposed a constitutional amendment to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman places Croatia in the company of Hungary and four other EU members—Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland—all former Communist states, as well as countries like Belarus and Ukraine in effectively banning same sex couples from civil marriage.

The overwhelming support for the amendment shocked the established political class. The ad-hoc conservative group “In the Name of the Family” led by right-wing businesswoman, Zeljka Markic, blindsided the ruling parties with more than enough signatures to get the referendum onto the ballot. Joining forces with a far-right political party, Markic repeatedly issued a conservative trope to voters, indicating the referendum’s aim was to “protect children and families.”

Strong conservative and traditionalist political beliefs remain deeply embedded within the Croatian electorate and throughout the region. Rights of homosexuals are particularly opposed by super majorities throughout the Western Balkans according to the 2010 Gallup Balkan Monitor Survey data report.

In that sense, Croatia is not much different from its neighbors. But other disturbing developments make this referendum a more troubling event.

Efforts by conservative veterans’ associations and other right-wing groups to ban the use of Cyrillic letters in the eastern city of Vukovar—the symbol of the country’s war 1991-1995 for independence—are sending a disturbing message to Croatia’s minority Serb population. As it stands now, right-wing groups seem to have collected enough signatures to organize a referendum on the use of Cyrillic letters.

To add insult to injury, Croatia’s national soccer team’s recent qualification for the World Cup was celebrated by tens of thousands of fans chanting “For the homeland, ready”—a salute of the World War II era pro-Nazi regime which ruled Croatia and collaborated with Hitler’s Third Reich and was also used by extreme nationalist groups during the 1990s war.

The situation escalated when the Croatian police decided to ‘call in for questioning’ Matija Babic, the country’s leading journalist and owner of the most read news portal index.hr and a vocal critic of Croatia’s increasingly nationalist tendencies. Protesting the recent developments, Mr. Babic and Index.hr published an authentic Nazi-era photograph of the Croatian Catholic Church priests using the Nazi right hand salute, as well as a photo superimposing a swastika on the Croatian flag. The State Prosecutor now wants to punish Mr. Babic for breaking the country’s law on the flag.

But it is not just Croatia’s domestic affairs that are a cause for concern. Its foreign policy is once again focused on Bosnia and Herzegovina at a time when this troubled neighboring country is trying to address its own war legacies. The European Union has conditioned Bosnia and Herzegovina to change the discriminatory aspects of its Constitution under which Jews, Roma and all other citizens who refuse to identify with any of the three major ethnic groups cannot seek the highest elective offices in government. But instead of concentrating its efforts on helping Bosnia and Herzegovina’s disenfranchised groups secure equal treatment under the law, Croatia’s efforts in Brussels are consumed by the narrow priorities of two Bosnian Croat nationalist political parties.

All this smacks of the 1990s and rolls back democratic gains made under previous president Stjepan Mesic, who once made Croatia a role model for aspiring EU members in the Former Yugoslavia.

Precedents for these troubling trends are unfortunately present elsewhere in Europe. Hungary is a case in point.

Following his election in May 2010, Prime Minister Viktor Orban of the conservative Fidesz party lurched rightward when he rolled back media laws and protections to journalists. In the face of strong criticism by the international community, Orban only doubled down in 2012 by adopting a new constitution that stripps some 300 faiths and religious institutions of their legal status. The constitution and related new laws also limit the scope of the constitutional court and violates the independence of judges, the central bank and the governments’ data-protection agency. Even the EU had no choice but to act, issuing a 30-day warning to Hungary to amend several controversial laws to avoid being taken to the European Court of Justice.

Against this backdrop, the extreme right Jobbik Party has escalated its use of hate speech, recently calling Jews a “security risk” and recommending that all Jews living in Hungary should be registered. Jobbik’s numbers of elected officials have more than doubled since 2006, making it Hungary’s third largest party.

Britain, France, and Austria have also been challenged by the growing popularity of the far-right movements, exposing minorities to escalating hate speech and attacks.

The response of the official Brussels to this troubling pattern across the EU has not been very vocal. The whole world has suffered greatly in the last century every time Europe went down the path of self-destruction. Older members of the EU might think of themselves as stable democracies in a stable neighborhood. But the troubling developments coming from its newest member may be a good reason for some much-needed self-reflection. Else the message sent to minorities is that their rights are protected for as long as an aspirant needs to demonstrate its EU worthiness. Once it enters, all bets are off.

Tanya Domi is an adjunct professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute

Reuf Bajrovic is the President of the Emerging Democracies Institute in Washington, D.C.