Politics & The World

The Olympic Games are over and somehow I cannot get rid of the feeling that I just watched the real life version of Suzanne Collin’s The Hunger Games. In short, the story takes place in the fictional universe of Panem that consists of one wealthy capitol ruling twelve deeply poor districts. Every year, the capitol organises an annual pageant called The Hunger Games. The participants of the games, called tributes, are one boy and one girl from each district, who are forced to fight each other to death in an arena until one participant is left – the nostalgic winner. In order to make the games as entertaining as possible, the capitol employs a game changer, who influences the games as he wishes. On the one hand, the purpose of the games is to entertain the capitol. On the other hand, and most importantly, the games are a reminder for the districts of the capitol’s authority and power.

Now, I discovered two frightful similarities between this fictional story and our real life version: first of all, this game’s arena was the host city Rio de Janeiro, also called cidade maravilhosa (the wonderful city). This arena changes from competition to competition, which is decided upon by the game changer: the International Olympic Committee (IOC). In this case, the game changer not only decides on the specific venues, but also who participates in the games and who does not, e.g. the Russian federation. It masks its questionable choices and the negative media coverage by raising awareness for global political concerns such as climate change and the refugee crisis. This leads to my second observation. The capitol is very much reminiscent of the global political community, which can let the districts compete against each other and burnish its image. Therefore, while the Olympic Games are meant to transcend political difficulties, the event as such very much accentuates these political problems. At the end of these Olympic Games, it became clear to me that this event is, and has always been, a mirror of the contemporary international relations and politics.

Let me just point out a few examples inspired from David Goldblatt’s remarkable book The Games: A Global History of the Olympics to underpin my statement: at the first modern Olympic games in Athens in 1896, all athletes were all male and all white, reflecting the conservatism of IOC founder Pierre de Coubertin. This conservatism in the IOC prevails until today. In 1936, during Hitler’s concerted Berlin Olympics, the torch carriers became blonder the closer they got to the stadium illustrating the links between success and nationalism. Other examples of nationalism-inspired Olympics followed soon with the Black Power Salute in Mexico City in 1968 and the massacre of Israeli athletes at Munich in 1972. Turning to today’s examples, in 2008, the Olympics in Beijing forced millions of people out of their homes for the sake of constructing the ‘arenas’. Last but not least, Russia has not been excluded from the 2016 Olympics despite the clear-cut evidence of systematic, state-sponsored doping among Moscow’s athletes.

All these examples are tolerated by the IOC and the international political community. Now, one can close one’s eyes on these socio-political complexities and watch the Olympics as an honourable competition between athletes. But let us not be surprised when news comes up that the IOC is involved in some sort of corruption scandal similar to its equally evil twin, the FIFA. Because the bid for the Olympic Games is nothing different than the bid for the FIFA World Cup. The candidate cities hand in their dossiers to the IOC. Thereafter, the committee chooses the eventual host city according to rather non-transparent criteria, guided by political and financial motives. Therefore, I believe that this selection procedure is the essential glue that holds the IOC and the international political community together.

The bottom line is that the power to select the Olympics’ host city is actually the only political leverage the IOC still has. In fact, without the power to choose the venue for the next Olympics, the IOC remains the governing body of world sports it is supposed to be. One concrete solution to erode this political leverage would be a permanent home for the Olympics. This is not a completely new idea. And it might only be a matter of time until this solution becomes reality with another financial crisis lingering ahead. The IOC has to face the fact that the days are gone when people were happily embracing the games as a unique opportunity for their countries. Western cities, such as Berlin, Hamburg, Boston, and Munich, particularly its citizens, refuse to host the games as they are doomed to end in an economic disaster. Soon, also the citizens in the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) do not want to see their global competitiveness being reduced due to the games. The blocked torch relay in Rio is just one example to illustrate this development. Now it is up to the international political community to take up this topic and find sustainable solutions – or let time simply do its job… I would suggest the proactive way.

Rio 2016 is over and the cariocas (citizens of Rio) may return to their daily lives but the IOC should not. For the IOC, Rio 2016 maybe fulfilled its contract despite the athlete’s complaints about the food in the Olympic village, the horrendous water conditions and some minor public transportation issues – just to name some. Nevertheless, the IOC as the global sport’s governing body should make progress as an institution and with the games. It is time to act in the spirit of to the Olympic values and end the end the political Hunger Games.


Goldblatt, D., (2016). The Games: A Globl History of the Olympics. W.W. Norton

image from:


A Diary From the Eastern FrontSpecials

by Phil Rambousek, Pyshevyk.

Finally, we set off for the front. Specifically, for the town of Pyshevyk, which now serves as the main border crossing between the rebel-held territories and Ukraine in the south of the front. It is used daily by hundreds of civilians, and so both sides have reached a sort of understanding of a ceasefire – to an extent. The checkpoint still comes under occasional artillery fire, and the Ukrainian forces have dug a number of bomb shelters in the area.

The Ukrainian side of the checkpoint is full of administrative huts and queues of cars.The local forces showed us the painstaking procedure that anyone entering Ukraine from the rebel-controlled territories has to undergo, including sniffer dogs and other various checks. It was obvious that they had done this many times for the media before.  

We walked on from the administrative area to the edge of the Ukrainian line. Before the war, the area was defined by its surrounding fields. The few houses in the area happen to be located in what is now a buffer zone between the administrative and waiting area, and the edge of the Ukrainian territory.

DSC_0191We knocked on the door of a old house, and spoke with its eighty-five year old inhabitant. To me, this woman represented the incredibly tragic history of Ukraine and the Soviet Union. The woman was born in Chernobyl, Belarus, in 1931 and as ten year old, was old enough to experience the full might of the German invasion of the USSR in 1941. Aside from being in the way of the front line twice, first moving eastwards and then, when the Germans were retreating, westwards, she obviously also suffered under the Nazi occupation. She lived through Stalinism and the height of Soviet oppression. Then, in 1985, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster happened; again, she was close enough to see it first hand. The Soviet authorities moved her to eastern Ukraine, what was to become to front line some thirty years later. When we spoke to her, accompanied by a soldier, she looked at him and begged him to stop the war, go away, and leave her alone. She certainly knew better than anyone.

Our armed escort refused to come any further, but we went on, and crossed the line into the rebel territory. We were warned not to go too close to the trees on the horizon a few metres away, as then we would be in serious danger.

Keeping an eye on the ever-present minefield signs, we were surprised to reach a fully-functioning bus stop, with civilians waiting to be taken back to Donetsk. Hearing my guide’s Ukrainian accent, they were reluctant to speak with us at first, but soon enough our shy attempts to interview them turned into a fight, with civilians, mostly old women collecting their pension in Ukraine, screaming at one another. They complained they are forced to stand in the sun for hours without water or shelter, and said that the Ukrainians were doing this purposefully to punish them. When we told the soldiers on the Ukrainian side what we had heard, they shrugged their complaints off. These old women collect their pensions from the Russians in Donetsk, and then they come here for a second round, they said, and it was clear that felt little sympathy for them.

DSC_0170Before leaving, we sat around smoking and casually talking to the soldiers. We found that the Canadians were the only ones who have offered any help (‘I heard about a guy who was given a Canadian helmet’, said the soldier I was speaking to), and when I asked how certain they are that they are actually facing the Russians, the soldier paused, looked me in the eye, and literally burst out laughing. ‘They don’t even bother sewing off the Russian flag from their uniforms anymore’, he exclaimed.

Just as we were leaving, an OSCE car drove past. The soldiers muttered insults directed at these observers, and I found out that the reputation of the OSCE is to stay in a nice hotel well beyond the front line, drive a bit closer – but still safe – once month to make an appearance, and then disappear. More seriously, the soldiers said that more than half of the local OSCE observers are Russian, and they are certain that they provide information about the Ukrainians to the Russians. ‘When the rebels are close enough, we can see them get out of their fancy armoured cars and hug each other’, they said.

We shook hands, and got ready to leave. ‘You are going to Shyrokynne tomorrow?’, the soldier asked, and I nodded. ‘Well, you’ll enjoy that. This is a kindergarten compared to Shyrokynne’, he said. ‘I hope so’, I said, praying that our plans of finally getting close to the action, on our last day, wouldn’t fail.    


Politics & The World

by Fabien Segnarbieux

On December 2nd, 2015, Montenegro officially received its invitation to join NATO as the 29th member. Stirring anger not only in Russia but also in the country itself, the NATO question reveals the problems faced by the young Balkan state.

Trying to avoid an escalation of violence as it occurred in Ukraine, US ambassador to NATO Douglas Lute tried to play down such invitation: ‘This is not designed as a message to Russia. It is not about Russia’ but this was in vain, as demonstration broke out in Montenegro itself.

On December 14th, several thousand people took to the streets in Podgorica to denounce the invitation. Violent demonstrations had already taken place in the Montenegrin capital against the government but also against NATO integration the previous October.

Taking a walk on “the West side” is however nothing new for Montenegro, as this invitation is the crowning of its mid-term policy. Montenegrin officials have been trying to enhance their national identity and sovereignty especially vis-à-vis its Serbian bigger brother.

Key elements such as language (the official language is Montenegrin and not Serbian), the alphabet (Montenegrin mostly uses Latin instead of Cyrillic) and religion (Montenegro has its own church) show a commitment to an independent Montenegrin national identity.

With 22 out of 35 chapters of negotiations open, the country is farther ahead in its European integration process than Serbia. Unlike Serbia, Montenegro also backed EU economic sanctions against Russia. Thus, the Montenegrin desire to join NATO can be seen as a diplomatic tool to increase national consciousness. While Serbia does not wish to join the alliance yet, Montenegro is turning its back on Serbia and Russia, therefore affirming its sovereignty.

Yet behind this top-down process orchestrated by Montenegrin officials lie issues that explain the current controversy in Montenegrin society.

Firstly, Russia is a heavy-weight investor in Montenegro. Russia counts for nearly a third of foreign direct investment (1.1 billion in 2013) while western European countries account for less than 5 % on an individual basis[1]. In a country where tourism stands for more than 20 % of GDP[2], 30 % of nights in hotels are booked by Russian tourists[3].

Secondly, the burden of history still prevails. Russia has been an ally for several centuries and supported Montenegro (at that time Former Yugoslavia) during the 1999 NATO air strike. For a country in which 30 % of its citizens declare themselves as “Serbs”, the country’s turning away from Russia is especially hard to swallow.

Likewise, a recent poll showed a totally divided public opinion on the question with 36.3 % in favour, 37.3 % against and 26.1% unsure[4]. The government is however unwilling to hold a referendum to bring an end to this quarrel and is determined to maintain is top-down approach

Having been in power for 25 years, the Montenegrin Prime Minister Milo Đukanović has set up a political-mafia system[5] that stirs anger in all parts of society. Confusion between NATO integration and rejection of Đukanović’s system is likely to occur in case of a referendum, and this explains the reluctance of the Prime Minister to play all in on such a crucial question.

This is therefore where the Montenegrin “West Side story” stands, Behind NATO integration lies Đukanović’s system. On one hand, to force NATO integration would be to exacerbate the divisions in a society that could react violently. On the other hand, to hold such a referendum would put the current political system in Montenegro at risk. More than a journey to the West, the NATO question reveals all the divisions of the young Balkan state, making its near future very unpredictable.

Image by Defence Images, taken from flickr


[1] http://www.forbes.com/sites/kenrapoza/2015/11/30/despite-montenegros-westward-ho-russian-investment-unlikely-to-dissipate

According to the Central Bank of Russia, total direct investment to Montenegro hit $1.1 billion in 2013 and 32% of that came from the registered foreign companies that call Russia home. Russia is Montenegro’s biggest investor, followed by neighboring Serbia (15.69%), Ukraine (6.56%) and China (4%).

[2] http://www.balkaneu.com/montenegros-tourism-year-contributed-20-gross-domestic-product/

[3] http://www.economist.com/news/europe/21683967-montenegros-accession-fills-one-few-remaining-gaps-western-alliance

[4] http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/montenegro-mps-to-debate-nato-membership-resolution-08-19-2015#sthash.DlLAII3e.dpuf

[5] https://www.occrp.org/personoftheyear/2015/index.html

The OCCRP (Organization Crime and Corruption and Reporting Project) has elected him criminal of the year 2015 for the building of “one of the most dedicated kleptocracies and organized crime havens in the world”

Politics & The World

by Fabien Segnarbieux

Inheriting decades of Yugoslav non-alignment policy, Serbia is trying to follow a neutral diplomacy that satisfies its two biggest partners: The European Union and the Federation of Russia – but for how much longer? Indeed, this balance is endangered by the conflict in Ukraine that may force Serbia to take a side.

Despite being an official candidate country for EU accession, Serbia has refused to join European sanctions against Russia. The reason resides in the “special relationship” existing between Serbia and its Russian older brother. Before becoming an EU member state, Serbia still has a long way to go and questions are raised concerning the viability of such a diplomacy. Serbia is sitting between two chairs at the same time.

Based on a shared culture linked to orthodox Christianity, Russia and Serbia have been allies for several centuries. Already during the times of Ottoman rule on the Balkans, Russia´s stance was clear – the defence of Orthodox Christianity in the region. Beyond this humanist principle however, there was also a geopolitical incentive: maintaining a double pressure on the Ottoman Empire. Firstly by defending Orthodox Christians and fuelling the opposition, and secondly by frequently waging wars to destabilize Ottoman borders and to get direct access to the Mediterranean Sea.

In these ways, Russian diplomacy held a key influence in the foundation of a Serbian state. It freed Serbia from the Ottoman rule in the 1830s, before allowing the establishment of a modern state of Serbia after the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-1878.

More recently, Russia condemned the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia during the Kosovo war and does still not recognize Kosovo’s independence. Furthermore, a free trade agreement between both states has been in effect since 2000, and Russia frequently backs up Serbian economy by allowing loans with low interest rates.

Thus, ties between the two states are strong and important; Serbia needs Russia and its support on many sensitive issues such as the Kosovo, whereas Serbia remains the main ally of Russia in the Balkans. Without overestimating the importance of this relation, there exists a special relationship and one should know that any EU integration process will be confronted to that situation de facto.

Likewise, the European Union has always been the main economic partner of Serbia. Today, almost 90% of all Serbian exports go to Europe; joining the EU is thus a key national interest of Serbia. On the other hand, having Serbia as a member state is a key step for achieving and maintaining pacified Balkans, and would spread EU influence further across the region.

A clear « ménage à trois » is happening currently, and it is in each actor’s interest to achieve a « Russia friendly » integration of Serbia within the European Union. However, all the events happening in Ukraine are not only endangering that trio but making it more and more difficult to maintain.

Firstly, Crimea’s annexation raised concerns in the Serbian camp because it was a strong reminder of the Kosovo issue. What made things worse, Putin directly mentioned Kosovo as a « precedent » that led to Crimea. Consequently, Serbia was concerned by this; it could affect Russian support for the Serbian position on Kosovo, and help legitimize Kosovo’s independence.

Secondly, the EU voted in favour of sanctions against Russia and officially asked Serbia to join them. Unfortunately, European officials had underestimated a cold fact: it is hard to ask a country to back up sanctions if it has endured them itself in the past. If we add the fact it would have been against their Russian « brothers », we can deem this request either risk-taking or ideological, but in every way inconsiderat.

Finally, the cancellation of the South Stream project has economically harmed Serbia and has scrapped the energy cooperation with Russia. Serbian PM Alexandar Vucic clearly stated that “Serbia has been investing in this project for seven years, but now it has to pay the price of a clash between the great [powers].”

But what if the decision-makers where from the grass-roots level, the citizens of Serbia? In late 2013, Nova srpska politička misao had carried out a survey regarding EU integration and cooperation with Russia, and the results may raise concerns over Serbians’ real willingness to join the EU:

“70 percent of the Serbian population favour close relations with Russia, while 50 percent support Serbia’s accession to the European Union. Only 30 percent see a contradiction in this, declaring that they decidedly support close relations with Russia instead of joining the EU”

In the end, although Serbia is “caught between two chairs”, the best solution would be to maintain the situation. However, the real question is whether this is actually a realistic goal? An alternative solution would be to put the question of foreign policy harmonization aside for a while. Unfortunately, this is unlikely to happen.

Indeed, the first draft of a resolution on Serbia prepared by European Parliament reporter David McAllister has leaked and was clear: “We invite Serbia to align its foreign and security policy with the EU’s, including the part referring to Russia, with a regret that Serbia did not join restrictive measures [imposed] on Russia.”