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”

Campus Europe Goes BalkansPolitics & The World

by Ivan Šuklev

July 25th, 2015. Five thousand refugees are desperately trying to enter the city of Gevgelija, a city that lies on the border of Greece and Macedonia. Their goal is to continue their long journey from the hells of Syria to their final destination, the paradise of Germany and Western Europe. On their way stands more than 2000 km of road, police brutality, negligence, President Orban’s well known stance and… corrupted Balkan politicians.

In the news nowadays, people can hear a lot about the Syrian refugee crisis that has hit Europe. How they escaped in order to live, how General Assad is killing his own people with his politics, how some of them may be terrorists in disguise sent from ISIL, how precarious their journey is (hint: remember the boy that drowned?) and how their arrival to Germany is a dream come true. But let me tell you a story that you won’t find in any of the news stations. Let me tell you a story in which you will understand just how this crisis has helped some of the politicians in the Balkans get rich, and not a single one of the Western European news agencies reports about this. After all, everyone knows that it’s all about the money, right?

As a guy who was born in the city of Gevgelija, I am well familiar with the ways of public transport. A bus ticket to Skopje (70 km from the Serbian border) is about 7 €. A train ticket costs even less, 3 €. This is because of the fact that Macedonia is a country that has a very, very low living standard (minimal pay check: 180 €/month) and ergo, the prices for public transport are very, very cheap. Except for refugees.

Several days ago, reports have surfaced which said that Macedonian police has acted upon the refugees stationed in the camp of Gevgelija with brutality. As a guy who is highly sceptical of every news agency, I decided to talk with some people who live closely to the railway station in Gevgelija (the refugee camp in Gevgelija is about 1-2 km from the railway station) and also to some local taxi drivers. What I found out was absolutely stunning.

The taxi drivers expressed their disgust towards the police and the local authorities in Gevgelija because the police was stopping them to transfer refugees from Gevgelija to the border with Serbia. This statement seemed pretty absurd to me, because after all, in the news reports every Balkan politician has said that they want to help the refugees to get to Germany. So, why did the local taxi drivers  come up with this frankly ludicrous accusation?

And yet again, the answer was – very simple. Money. Unknown to me or to the rest of Western Europe apparently, the prices for public transport are different if you are a refugee. Bus ticket to Skopje? 30 €. Train ticket? 25 €. Maximum capacity of a bus – 50 to 70 people, depends on the type of the bus. An actual bus filled with refugees – 100 people! Maximum capacity of a train with wagons – 400 to 500 people. An actual train filled with refugees – 800 people! And the local taxi drivers have also said that they witnessed how the police has boarded the refugees on the trains using police brutality and force. I insisted on seeing these busses with my own eyes. When I arrived at the railway station, I saw at least 20 busses parked, from 20 different firms, and not a single one was a public transport company. Not a single one has ever before showed up at the bus station and not a single one has ever made a transport from Gevgelija to Skopje. Then it all added up.

The Macedonian politicians from the government (a government widely known to be an authoritarian and in some instances even totalitarian) had sent these busses and trains because they saw an opportunity of a tax-free material gain. According to the local taxi drivers, at least 4 trains part from Gevgelija every day filled with refugees. That’s about 3200 refugees. A ticket costs 25 €. Daily, that’s about 80.000 euros. No receipts are being issued for the tickets, so these numbers are just speculative. They could be much, much higher. Daily, about 5-6 busses part from Gevgelija to the Serbian border. Roughly about 500-600 refugees. Around 15.000 to 18.000 euros per day.

And this continues on a daily basis. The local taxi drivers are stopped of doing what they are supposed to do (some were even beaten by the police for trying to stand up to them) and their hopes of getting actually paid to do what they are supposed to do – shattered. A taxi driver that looked resignedly at his fate told me in his final sentence: ‘That is just the way things happen around here. Not much we can do about it.’

So next time when you hear a report in the news in which it is stated that many refugees entered Germany or any other country in the EU, think about the fact that around 90% of them passed through Macedonia. Think about the money that went into the pockets of the corrupted Macedonian and Balkan politicians (Serbian and Croat politicians are accused of using a similar transporting scheme). Think about the horrors that the refugees had to endure. Think about the fact that in the Balkans, they had to survive a hell not much different from the one they escaped from.


Image by Fotomovimiento, taken from flickr

Campus Europe Goes BalkansVideos

After long-time EU member Slovenia and cosmopolitan Liberland, we have finally made it to Serbia, the heart of former Yugoslavia! Still the unequaled cultural hub of the Balkans, and with a fascinating historical and political landscape, this is were things went wild.

Our trip led us from the autonomous province of Vojvodina and its capital Novi Sad in the North, to the white city of Belgrade – often called the “Berlin of the Balkans” – and down to the famous trumpet festival in a remote village called Guca.

So be prepared for an episode with too much of an overarching concept, throwing together all we experienced in the Serbia. From minority rights and politics to partyparty, crazy Balkan music traditions, and much more!

Campus Europe Goes BalkansVideos

Just few months ago, Czech politician Vít Jedlička has declared his own state on a little strip of land somewhere between Croatia and Serbia – Liberland. Profiting from border disputes between the two states, he used the unclaimed “Terra Nullius” on the shores of the Danube for the creation of a new libertarian micro-state.

Yet, there are still many problems so far – for example the fact that the Croatian police forbids the Liberland settlers to set foot on the country they claim. To find out what was really going on with Liberland, Campus Europe visited the Liberland Settlement Association, which is active on the ground to make the settlement of Liberland happening.

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.”