What happened in 2021 in the Balkans, while the World and Bulgaria looked Elsewhere
Thousands of protests, crises, attacks against (or in defense of) metropolitans and patriarchs, a complete change of the political map, a sharp and forced rupture of the umbilical cord between the mafia and the government...
What else is there for the Western Balkans to do in order to impress the world? That is not enough in the year in which the Taliban regained Afghanistan, the West and Russia returned to an unprecedented escalation, and hopes of a speedy end to the pandemic were dashed.
There have been few Balkan episodes that have successfully "competed" with these issues.
Bulgaria, although a neighbor in the region, was no exception. Even in its relations with North Macedonia, it was guided by a position understandably based on decisions in national and sovereign bodies, but turned Skopje’s statements related to Sofia into the only vector of its Balkan viewpoint. Sofia does not seem to be a participant with care and vision for the region - at first glance because there was no regularly elected government for a long time, but the difference in approach from last year, when there was, is not great.
The following are three examples that have finally worried the world and should worry Bulgaria as well.
The Genie came out of the bottle in Bosnia and Herzegovina
The great panic in the Balkans began with a signature.
The document urging Bosnian Serbs to question the integrity of their country belonged to the international community's High Representative, Valentin Inzko, who resigned days later.
He prompted Bosnian Serb presidency member Milorad Dodik to declare not only that he does not recognize his successor, Christian Schmid, but that Republika Srpska is withdrawing from Bosnia's main institutions - the revenue agency, some courts, and especially the army.
Competences such as the general army are not in themselves enshrined in the constitution, but renouncing them once the constituents have adopted them is unconstitutional. However, the problem is far from just legal. The creation of the armed forces was of particular concern to all those remembering the wars in the former Yugoslavia and the fact that clashes between Serbs, Bosniaks, and Croats killed 100,000 people in the 1990s.
The tension was fueled from the outside. Moscow has once again shown support for Dodik, Europe and the United States - support for Bosnian integrity. US envoy to the Western Balkans Gabriel Escobar embarked on a tour of capitals during which the Bosnian crisis was a central theme. He threatened Dodik with new sanctions before and after hearing that Banja Luka will not back down for now.
The exhortations of the West did not bear fruit. Finally, on December 10th, the Republika Srpska parliament voted in favor of drawing up a plan to withdraw from the institutions and repeal 100 national acts, and reject the High Representative's decisions. This came despite assurances from Dodik and the leading party, the Union of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD), that there is room for concessions if the country is restructured, and that an independent Republika Srpska is not the desired scenario. Dodik spoke of "the demilitarization of Bosnia" as an alternative and left himself an option to step back.
Does the current crisis really push Bosnia to disintegration, does it really create a risk of ethnic confrontation? Signals from Republika Srpska's rulers are mixed, according to Adnan Cerimagic of the European Stability Initiative. However, the discrepancy described above, he said, is not a cause for reassurance:
"If implemented, the plan would lead to a complete collapse of the country's institutional and constitutional architecture and stagnate foreign trade, transport, travel, and ruin Bosnia's economy, with regional and European consequences."
The EU, the United States, and Britain, as well as some EU members such as Germany, have called for sanctions as a measure against impunity: the rejection of common structures already agreed between Sarajevo and Banja Luka is unconstitutional. However, both the voice of Hungary, which opposes sanctions and that of EU Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Varhei, who is in favor of changing the law to deny genocide, were heard in the debate.
Cerimagic also cites Hungary, which has openly spoken out against sanctions, but also "some other EU countries" that are "against" sanctions. At the same time, there is another hope: if national institutions and the international community manage to put pressure, the other parties needed by the SNSD for a majority (five more in the Bosnian parliament) can reconsider their position if legislation is proposed and voted on. "I would not be surprised if Hungary changes its position, as it will feel the effects of destabilizing Bosnia and Herzegovina."
What Russia will say is also important. Moscow "gave a wind in Dodik's wings to the Security Council, although Dodik did not receive support from President Alexander Vucic for denying the High Representative," said Banja Luka analyst Tanja Topic. She adds, however, that Republika Srpska cannot count on support from Russia, in which it "has never been generous"; it advocates only a policy of chaos and escalating ethnic tensions so that Bosnia does not become a member of NATO.
"But propaganda in Republika Srpska speaks of steely friendship and support from Russia as Russia seeks to settle accounts with the EU in the Western Balkans. Republika Srpska politicians swear allegiance to Russia while opening the door for citizens to leave and especially in hateful Germany. "
Dodik reacted angrily to criticism - in May, the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, with which Topic works, had to defend her after he called her a "collaborator, enemy of the state and agent of the German intelligence services".
After all, the most serious political crisis in Bosnia since the 1990s may not unleash the dark scenario. At the same time, the catastrophe is already a fact: the spirit has been released from the bottle, Dodik has come close to the dream of unilateral autonomy, and from it, he can constantly wave the threat of independence and hold Bosnian politics hostage. This will affect not only the hypotheses for future EU membership in the EU but also the democratic and economic development of the country, as well as relations in society.
The shake-up in Serbia
In Serbia, the year began with a report from Belgrade that President Aleksandar Vucic and his relatives had been wiretapped (more than 1,500 times). A month later, this escalated into allegations of conspiracy to assassinate him. The media quickly saw a connection between this story and the arrest of famous figures from the underworld, so far associated with the government, led by leader Velko Belivuk. The president's son, Andrej Vucic, was seen in the company of their representative around last year's election; this prompted Prime Minister Anna Bernabic to call the media reporting on the topic - "swamp".
Serbia, meanwhile, has become world-famous in another way: Europe has thousands of vaccines and the Balkan country has millions. The doses came mainly from China and allowed Beijing to deploy powerful vaccination diplomacy that inspired Serbia to do the same for neighboring Balkan countries.
China has only increased its influence over Serbia. The consequences can be seen in Smederevo, where a Chinese corporate giant's plant is causing heavy pollution and protests, or in Zrenjanin, where a Linglong tire factory is hiring Vietnamese to be Chinese labor law officials (something the European Parliament also drew attention to in a recent resolution ).
However, the drop that spilled over the glass was not Chinese, but British-Australian. Mining giant Rio Tinto wants to extract lithium from a huge deposit in western Serbia, and as authorities pave the way for a solution, two prepared laws sparked protests in Belgrade and elsewhere. The mine plan was withdrawn and Vucic relinquished the law. So far, this has not stopped anti-government demonstrations led by green movements four months before the elections in early spring.
In practice, Vucic is already in the campaign: this vote is both presidential, early parliamentary and local. The stakes for the latter are particularly high - Vucic convened it nearly a year and 10 months after the last election, which saw only pro-government parties in parliament due to an opposition boycott. The opposition does not believe the vote can be fair.
Whether the green protest movement, which gained strength in the spring and summer, will continue and grow until the election remains to be seen. The opposition remains weak and fragmented, and it is not known whether the discontent channeled by thousands of Serbs in the streets over their country's transformation into a dilapidated yard will spread to the ballot box. Commenting for Dnevnik, Tena Prelec of Oxford University and the BiEPAG think tank expects him to "try again to portray the opposition as divided and a huge threat to the country's economy and security."
And in this episode, China emerged, claiming that Huawei phones were used to record participants in environmental protests, who later received fines without being checked by police. The "steel friendship" between Beijing and Belgrade has borne much fruit in recent years, and facial recognition software, including hundreds of Chinese cameras from the telecommunications giant and a future smart city project, is just an example. Unlike Rio Tinto's unfulfilled plans, the impact of Chinese projects on the environment, democracy and labor standards is already palpable.
However, Vucic always holds more than one trump card in his hands. In Moscow, he negotiated in November with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, for a serious discount on gas prices (the other pre-election gift was Putin's wishes to win) as the energy crisis rocked Europe. A week later, an opposition publication wrote about a Russian-Serbian conspiracy to fight the "color revolutions".
And all this - with assurances to Brussels and Berlin that Serbia remains committed to its European future, despite criticism from the West for the party's and those close to it, and neighbors - that the "Serbian World" project has been reactivated.
According to Prelec, strong ties between the Serbian and Chinese leaderships are expected to continue. According to her, Vucic may try to calm down protesters and critics, such as those from the European Parliament, but he will continue to co-operate with China, along with Serbia's seemingly "changing" foreign policy.
“Vucic keeps a series of partners (East, West, and others) as part of his portfolio and uses them to serve his policies depending on where the wind blows. So we should not look too much at the "friend of the day" or "the year" Serbia is constantly changing. However, Russia and China have undoubtedly raised their stakes in their autocratic practices at home and abroad in recent years, and co-operation with Serbia is taking an increasingly strange turn."
He cites the cases of facial recognition and color revolutions as examples of the latter. He expects Vucic to continue to highlight the alleged "success" of the Serbian economy under his leadership, and "assistance" from partners such as China and attempts by Serbia to become a regional leader with projects such as Open Balkans are part of the equation.
For Sofia, what is happening in Skopje was interesting mainly in connection with the dispute and the veto. In fact, North Macedonia had other problems. The coronavirus stressed the country's need for allies: Serbia, Russia, and China came to the rescue at first glance. Belgrade extended a hand at a time when Bulgaria had promised so.
The census, postponed several times (because of the election, then because of the coronavirus) and failed for 20 years, caused tensions in early 2021, but shifted again to September instead of April. Only the first bits of data are available from it, but they are surprising.
Despite the efforts of the West, including the United States, there was no change in Bulgaria's position. This contributed to Prime Minister Zoran Zaev losing the local elections and reshaping the political map before his eyes; not even the first campaign of his power, unequivocally based on anti-Bulgarian, saved him.
As a result, he resigned as both prime minister and leader of the Social Democrats. Before resigning, he managed to revive the party's disintegrated majority. Dimitar Kovachevski, named as his successor, has been described as pragmatic, but a timeline is pending. Zaev did not retire just for Bulgaria; the reasons are also domestic, as will the factors in resolving the dispute between Sofia and Skopje. The stagnation in European integration has called into question both reforms and direction.
There are many other examples that can either worry or make you think. In Montenegro, the change of power at the end of last year and the clash between the "new" and the "old", "pro-Serbian" and "pro-Western" rulers found expression in tensions over a clash between two churches - the Serbian and Montenegrin. Podgorica is about to face severe financial problems over a controversial Chinese project.
In Albania, Edi Rama has established himself not only as one of the drivers of the Serbian-Albanian-Macedonian Open Balkans project, which sets an example of Serbia's geopolitical ambitions or an instrument that allows leaders to earn points at home. It has weakened the opposition so much that former Prime Minister and President Sali Berisha has managed to lure some of its structures into open war with leader Lulzim Basha months after he was sanctioned by the United States.
"Politicians in the Balkans have learned that when they have internal problems that are difficult to solve, it is easiest to take the nationalist map," Vessela Cherneva, deputy director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, told Dnevnik last month.
"Until years ago, whether our partner loved or hated the EU, it was about them. It's been a trend lately, and it's become particularly clear that the EU has lost its leverage. The main loss comes from the fact that the European perspective seems very unrealistic. It started with the French veto two years ago, now it continues with the Bulgarian veto and it seems that jumping over one obstacle does not open the way, but leads to another."
There were also good signs.
In Kosovo, the ruling elite has changed completely. The results are not unequivocal, and yet the country has managed to impress Europe. Several times - including the last - there have been fair and free elections, such as those in neighbors such as Albania or Serbia. In Serbia, for example, a BiEPAG survey found that only 25% of respondents believe in the possibility of changing the government through elections (compared to an average of 53% in the region).
However, this is a very small step in a region for whose politicians - the European integration is, according to Vessela Cherneva, a complex process. "Their mandates are short, while integration is a long process. The reward will probably come after two, three, or more governments. But now not only do they not want to talk about it, but people have somehow realized that the EU is not just an open door. And for us who are in the Balkans, this will really be a big problem," said Vessela Cherneva.
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