‘Spring Cleaning’ in Balkans Politics

Politics in the Balkans witnessed some “spring cleaning” from its extreme north to the south. One government collapsed, a new one emerged and a new president was elected. However, no new leaders have surfaced from the electoral dust, but some of the old are promoting dynamism and new ideas.

Posted on 05/26/14
By Hajrudin Somun | Via Today's Zaman
(Via Google maps)
(Via Google maps)

One government collapsed, a new one emerged and a new president was elected. And all of this happened last April (in the Balkans). However, in all cases, the same people and similar politics remained in the game. No new leaders have surfaced from the electoral dust, but some of the old are promoting dynamism and new ideas. Judging solely through personal observation, one can imagine that the “odious” times of communism have not yet passed.


Slovenian Prime Minister Alenka Bratusek, after losing her party leadership, was forced to resign, but she will lead the government at least until early elections in the fall. Macedonia re-elected President Gjorge Ivanov, and he will soon offer a mandate to incumbent Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski as well. In Serbia, former Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic became the prime minister and he gave the foreign minister’s position to former Prime Minister Ivica Dacic. Bosnia and Herzegovina will have elections in October, but it is expected that the same politicians and the same parties will remain in power as well.


Borut Mekina and other local commentators have used the words “total political crisis” or derivatives of the term “anarchy” to describe the current political vacuum in Slovenia. Zoran Jankovic, the mayor of the Slovenian capital Ljubljana, defeated the charming Bratusek to govern the Positive Slovenia Party’s congress. In any normal democratic procedure, Jankovic would become the new prime minister. However, due to several unfinished criminal investigations against him, three Positive Slovenia Party center-left coalition partners said they would not remain in a government led by Jankovic. To make things more complicated, Janez Jansa, the head of the opposition center-right Slovenian Democratic Party — the main political opponent of both Bratusek and Jankovic — also hasn’t been able to count on nabbing a role in the current crisis. Jansa, a former Slovenian prime minister and well-known anticommunist dissident from the 1980s, was convicted of bribery in a 2006 arms deal and, just last week, the court rejected his appeal and decided he must go to prison for two years.


Slovenia’s economic crisis

Things started moving in a bad direction for this beautiful mountainous country of 2 million when it was hit by an economic crisis — which took place over the past few years. No one expected it, particularly those of us from former Yugoslavia who have been admiring and were even jealous of the way Slovenians were making their federal unit of Yugoslavia the country’s most developed region.


Many workers from Bosnia and Serbia went to Slovenia to look for a better job, and Slovenians used to call these people, rather pejoratively, “Southerners.” Slovenia had continued on the same path after achieving independence in 1992, and it was the first Western Balkan country to join NATO and the EU. I am not familiar with the financial issues, but from a recent article in The Economist saying “Slovenia was among the last of eurozone members to begin cleaning up its banks” and that it “is now in the process of selling off a significant number of assets to cover the bill for bailing out the banks,” I have understood that there is still an unsolved dispute between the former state-owned and free market economies.


It was estimated that state-owned assets in Slovenia account for up to 60 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP). There are some recovery signs of the deep fiscal crisis that peaked late last year. However, some facts showing that, out of all the countries accepted into the EU over the last decade, Slovenia was affected the worst by negative consequences of its EU membership have increased the number of Euroskeptics in countries that still seek to join the alliance.


In marked contrast to Slovenia, Macedonia has inherited not only an economic mentality from the socialist phase but a political one as well. While Slovenia showed some signs of Western democracy when it was part of the former Yugoslavia, Macedonia was closer to the authoritarian socialism seen in other Eastern European countries. It is not significantly different today.


The April parliamentary and presidential elections have again demonstrated the strength of Macedonian populist and nationalist politics. The right-wing conservative party VMRO-DPMNE that has ruled the country since 2006 got another term in office. It twice won the presidential elections and has won the parliamentary elections four times. Re-elected President Ivanov has mostly ceremonial duties, but the real party boss is Gruevski, who expects to be formally offered a new mandate to form the government. It is widely believed that Gruevski, a former amateur boxer, theater actor and minister of finance, has already turned the government to authoritarian rule.


Igor Micevski, a researcher from the School of Journalism and Public Relations in Skopje, believes that Gruevski contributed mostly to the situation in which “state nationalism was fortified in a most bizarre way — it claimed national continuity with the antiquity and Alexander the Great.” Then, he says, “the ruling party achieved an iron grip on the media sector,” and finally “VMRO-DPMNE mastered to perfection the skill to efficiently use and widen its ‘clientelistic’ base.”


Macedonian “state nationalism” might be partially understood due to the unfriendly environment and name dispute with Greece that, from year to year, blocks the country’s accession to the EU and NATO. However, the authoritarian tendencies are not totally attributable to the conservative VMRO-DPMNE party and its boss. It is a wider regional tendency inherited from the socialist era. After all, Gruevski grew up and was educated in a communist society, as was his predecessor Branko Crvenkovski, who served as prime minister three times and as president once. His successor, Zoran Zaev, as president of the Social Democrat Party (SDSM) lost the last elections to the more nationalist Gruevski, but Crvenkovski still casts a long shadow over the party and its head. Thus, Macedonia will continue to be ruled by populist, nationalist politicians, for whom remaining in power is more important than solving the vital problems of the country, which has 30 percent unemployment and social and economic inequalities that are growing at a rate faster than in most states in the region.


The new government in Belgrade is being followed with the utmost attention by people in the region and in Europe. On an individual level, there is nothing especially new. Former Prime Minister Dacic (Socialist Party of Serbia [SPS]) and Deputy Prime Minister Vucic (Serbian Progressive Party [SNS]) have just renewed their parties’ coalition partnership and still hold some of the most important positions. They have long belonged to the same Serbian nationalist, even extreme nationalist framework. The former was very close to the late “Balkan Butcher” Slobodan Milosevic and the latter to the head of radicals Vojislav Seselj, who is still awaiting the verdict for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague.


Vucic’s new dynamism

On the practical level, however, Vucic (pronounced Vuchich, a derivative of the word wolf) coming to the head of the government has brought in the new energy that he had already shown as the number two. Just a few years ago, the region was regarding Dacic as a new Serbian strongman, comparing him with his former boss Milosevic. Boldly achieving some important points, however, Vucic has been climbing the political scene quickly, and he soon overshadowed Dacic with his own style and popularity. Under his baton, the government launched an energetic campaign against corruption, arresting some previously untouchable top businessmen.


In the EU-brokered historic agreement on Kosovo he had been welcomed from the Serbian side. He was the first high official who dared to go to Kosovo’s north and convince local Serbs there to accept a compromising formula. Besides, the Kosovo agreement was the major condition for opening the EU-accession negotiations last January. Intending to make deep transformations in the Serbian economy, he made some trips abroad to attract new foreign investors, including from Abu Dhabi and Qatar. He got encouraging congratulations from major European countries. Indicatively, the warmest of congratulations, received from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, inspired some people to consider the new Serbian prime minister as “a German man.” On his general approach to politics, Jelena Milic, director of the Centre for Euro-Atlantic Studies (CEAS), wrote recently for the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) that “Vucic’s Serbia is manifesting all the classic characteristics of Putinization.”


Vucic has already shown that he is a man of practice and pragmatism. What is now important is to prove to Serbia’s neighbors, much more than to his compatriots, that he is sincere while asking everybody to get rid of the past and look straight to the future, as he personally does. At his age, 44, it is still a worthy thing to try and do. He demonstrated such an intention in the first week of his premiership, deciding to make his first official visit abroad to Bosnia and Herzegovina.


Contrary to all his predecessors, who would first go see the Bosnian Serb leadership in Banja Luka, he went to Sarajevo, the country’s capital, and stressed his respect for Bosnia and Herzegovina’s integrity. His vision for Serbia’s relations with Bosnia deserves special comment, but for the time being it is enough to note that his changing attitude was welcomed in Sarajevo. Asked by reporters who the “real” Vucic is — the one who was a nationalist in the 1990s or the one who said in Sarajevo that nothing can destroy Bosnia and Herzegovina — he replied that many people have failed to realize what changes have occurred in the world and the region. If someone reminds him of his engagement in Serbia’s war against Bosnia, he reiterates, “Let us forget the past.” Many Bosnians, however, might forgive, but they won’t forget what he said in July 1995, just days after the Bosnian Serb army massacred 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the UN-protected enclave of Srebrenica: “You kill one Serb and we will kill 100 Muslims.”


Hajrudin Somun is the former ambassador of Bosnia and Herzegovina to Turkey. This article first appeared in Today’s Zaman, a leading Turkish daily.

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