Kosovo Cries Out for Change

Kosovo is crying out for change, writes Peter Geoghegan, and, increasingly disillusioned with the political system, voters have turned to electing a comedian to office.

Are comedians the political voices for the apathetic generation? If the reaction to Russell Brand’s recent decrees is anything to go by, they could well be.

But while Brand was scribbling in the New Statesman and chatting to Paxman on Newsnight last month, in Kosovo a comic was in the process of actually getting elected to the council in the capital, Pristina.

The Strong Party campaigned on an, eh, unorthodox manifesto – legalise corruption; privatise everything; construct a Formula One racing track around Pristina and universities in every village and neighbourhood.

The party, which took around 2 per cent of the vote and a seat in Pristina, was decried as a “joke” but their message was a serious one – the ludicrous campaign promises were all either exaggerated versions of other parties’ pledges, or cleverly realised digs at Kosovo’s dysfunctional political system.

“We are a group of young people who are angry. But if you just criticise you are not doing anything new. By not opposing (other political parties), by becoming one of them we are showing how ridiculous they are,” the Strong Party’s “Legendary Chairman”, 26-year-old Visar Arifaj, told me when we met over coffee in one of Pristina’s myriad cafes, last week. The average age of the party’s 1,500 vice-chairmen is just 24.

Kosovo is the youngest state in Europe – in more ways than one. It is just five years ago since independence from Serbia was declared; half the population is under 25. For this generation, the war a dim and distant memory, the failures of the present are paramount.

“There is dissatisfaction among the young,” says Dren Pozhegu, a youthful policy analyst. Among 15-24 year olds unemployment stands at an eye-watering 53 per cent, according to statistics from the office of the Kosovan prime minister. No wonder so many have, as Pozhegu says, “lost the belief in change”.

Part of the problem is the kind of change that Kosovo has experienced since the war with Serbia was brought to an end 14 years ago.

Privatisation is a case in point. At one end of pedestrianised Mother Theresa Boulevard, Pristina’s main thoroughfare, is the hulking frame of the 13-storey Grand Hotel. Built in 1978, the 350-room Grand was once the epicentre of Kosovan high society. During the war, it housed the Serbian army and the press corps. The hotel was privatised in 2006 and now stands dilapidated and half-empty, open to guests but in no fit state to receive them.

After the war, many former US officials returned to Kosovo for the privatisation boom — in telecom, mining, or other lucrative government contracts — including US former secretary of state Madeleine Albright and James W Pardew, formerly a special envoy to the Balkans under president Clinton, who was at helm during the Nato bombing campaign against Serbia in 1999.

Kosovo’s privatisations have been “a very dubious process”, says Muhamet Hamiti, erstwhile Kosovo ambassador to London and adviser to former president and independence leader Ibrahim Rugova.

Connected to the privatisation process has been arguably the biggest problem facing the young Kosovoan state – corruption. Backhanders and payoffs have been widely seen as an almost routine aspect of awarding government contracts. The head of Kosovo’s anti-corruption task force was recently arrested – on corruption charges.

“Corruption is endemic. It is a fog that everyone can see but you can’t reach out and touch it, you can’t grasp it,” a very senior international source in Kosovo told me.

In 2010, the first governor of independent Kosovo’s Central Bank, Hashim Rexhepi, was arrested on corruption charges. But an investigation by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network found serious errors in the charges against Mr Rexhepi, amid suggestions that he had actually attempted to stand up to political interference and corruption.

Corruption, of course, is not confined to Kosovo – across the former Yugoslavia, states struggle to control graft. But in Kosovo, there is a European mission, EULEX, dedicated solely to upholding the rule of law.

EULEX has not been inactive – just last week a prosecutor indicted 15 former Kosovo Liberation Army fighters on war crimes charges – but they are widely seen as failing to get a grip on corruption and organised crime. The international community has put a premium on regional stability, making it difficult – if not impossible – to pursue charges against suspects closely connected with the government of prime minister Hashim Thaci in Pristina.

“The rule of law sits uncomfortably with the grand desire for stability at all costs,” a source told me.

An April peace deal brokered by Baroness Ashton in Brussels between Kosovo and Serbia was intended to cooper-fasten this “stability”. Under the terms of the agreement, Serbia would recognise the authority of Kosovo’s government over the police and the courts in the restive, ethnic Serb-dominated north in return for greater autonomy for Serbs across Kosovo. Successful implementation of the accord is widely seen as crucial to both Kosovo and Serbia’s European Union ambitions.

“The EU want short-term peace and stability but they don’t care how it is achieved,” opposition leader Albin Kurti said when we met in the offices of his party, Vetevendosje (Self-Determination), in Pristina.

Kurti, a former student leader, political prisoner in Serbia and adviser to the political representative of the KLA during the war, has been a vocal critic of the international presence in Kosovo and the political system they have done much to support. “Before the war we had equality without freedom. That was prison.

“Now we have freedom without equality. That is the jungle. I don’t like prison or the jungle.”

Kosovo has had successes – local elections held earlier this month were widely hailed as the freest and fairest yet (aside from in the north, where violence and intimidation marred voting, necessitating a repeat election in North Mitrovica on Sunday).

There is economic growth – just not enough of it – and Kosovans display an entrepreneurial spirit that would be the envy of any nation.

Pristina is a city teeming with creative young people – and, as the Strong Party attests, it is not just Russell Brand who is fed up with the political status quo.

LRB Blog: In Tirana

The Palace of Culture in Tirana has housed Albania’s national library, opera and ballet companies for almost 50 years. Khrushchev laid the first stone, in May 1959, during what one American newsreel described as a ‘lengthy visit with mysterious overtones’. These days the ground floor of the opera is a count centre during national and local elections. At around 10 p.m. on Sunday, 23 June, three hours after polls closed in parliamentary elections, a queue of officials carrying clear plastic ballot boxes snaked up the steps outside the opera. Policemen in wide-brimmed hats formed a porous cordon around the votes. Party loyalists, with pens and notepads to tally the votes as they were counted, hovered on the terrace, waiting for the lobby to open. Counting had been scheduled to start at eight.tirana-4

One of the tallymen was Erad, a 25-year-old economics graduate. ‘I could be here for two days, maybe three,’ he said, lighting a cigarette. What mattered was that his party, the recently formed nationalist Aleanca Kuq e Zi (Red and Black Alliance), won enough seats to be kingmaker in the new parliament. ‘I think we will do well. If we get three or four seats I’ll be OK,’ he said.

Horns blared from the cars on Skanderbeg Square. Young men festooned with flags for the ruling Democratic Party leaned out of windows and shouted: ‘Sali Berisha, Sali Berisha!’ Berisha, a prominent figure in the Albanian Party of Labour under Hoxha and president of the republic in the mid-1990s, was aiming for a third straight term as prime minister. ‘Corruption is our biggest problem. The system is corruption and corruption is the system,’ Erad said. Transparency International ranks Albania 113 of 176 countries in its corruption perceptions index.

Counting started at 4 a.m. on Monday. Later that morning I returned to the opera. Screens relayed scans of every ballot to around fifty tallymen and women. They looked like punters at a greyhound track. I found Erad leaning against the wall at the far end of the room . ‘How’s it going?’ I asked. ‘Keq,’ he said. Bad. His page was almost blank. He looked exhausted. I asked why he didn’t sit down. ‘I am more vigilant if I stand up.’

The opposition Socialist Party disputed the results of the previous general election, in 2009, boycotting parliament for 18 months and claiming Berisha had stolen the vote. In January 2011, four protesters were shot dead in Tirana. Later that year, in the capital’s mayoral elections, the Socialist incumbent, Edi Rama, lost by 81 votes. He had been declared the winner, but it was then decided that ballots that had been placed in the wrong boxes could be included in the final total. Ahead of this year’s election, one Albanian activist told me he expected the result in ‘a week or two, maybe more’.

Polling day had begun inauspiciously. In the north, an opposition activist was shot dead and a ruling party candidate seriously injured in a gunfight outside a polling station; a TV crew were attacked, their equipment destroyed. But the rest of the day passed in relative peace, and, despite numerous reports of vote buying, especially in crucial marginal constituencies, the OSCE declared the vote ‘quite fair’. By Monday afternoon it was apparent that Rama was on course for a crushing victory.

I paid a final visit to the opera that evening. A fug of smoke hung heavy in the lobby; there were men sleeping on the floor, surrounded by discarded pizza boxes and empty Red Bull cans; someone was running his fingers over the piano. I found Erad where I had left him, still tallying the Red and Black Alliance’s invisible votes. The previous night he had been exuberant – offering to get me ‘whatever I wanted, girls, drugs, guns’ – now he was silent. His friend was also counting for the Kuq e Zi. I asked if I could see his notebook. The thin dashes in the Socialist column outnumbered those for the Democrats by almost two to one. I asked Erad if he would leave Albania. ‘That is a hard question… In 1991, everyone just left. They went anywhere. But things are different now.’

Albanian politics certainly looks different. On 26 June, Berisha publicly conceded defeat, taking full responsibility for his loss. Rama will be the next prime minister: his coalition won 84 seats out of 140. There was no violence, only more cars, this time decked out in Socialist purple, circling Skanderbeg Square. The Red and Black Alliance, like most of the 60-plus parties that contested the election, won no seats. The European Commission is expected to recommend EU candidate status before the end of the year.

Arguably the biggest winners were not the Socialists, who gained only one seat, but their junior coalition partners, the Movement for Socialist Integration (LSI). Until April, when they joined forces with the Socialists, the LSI were in government with the Democrats. The fatal demonstrations in 2011 were sparked by a video of the LSI leader (and former Socialist prime minister), Ilir Meta, appearing to discuss accepting a bribe. His career looked as if it might be over. But he was acquitted of corruption, and now leads a party whose representation has jump from 4 to 16 seats.

As the count closed at the opera in Tirana, I fell into conversation with Besar, a young man tallying for the LSI. He told me that he supported Meta’s party ‘because they support me’. As we talked, a hard-faced man came over and tugged on Besar’s shoulder. ‘He told me to watch closely,’ Besar told me when the man had gone. ‘To stay focused. Not to miss any chances.’

– See more at: http://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2013/07/15/peter-geoghegan/in-tirana/#sthash.k0EJlHyR.dpuf

Albania: Can one of Europe’s poorest countries change its ways?

HAJMEL, Albania — Wine production has a long history in the northern region of Zadrima: The first recorded planting of its signature grape Kallmet took place in 1555.

Today, rows of well-tended vines filling the neat fields around this small village bask under a hot sun. It feels as if nothing has changed for centuries.

But appearances are deceptive.

Under the old hard-line Communist regime, the authorities ordered these lush vineyards 45 miles from the capital Tirana be ripped up for planting tobacco and wheat.

After the Communists were toppled in 1991, huge collective farms were split into hundreds of thousands of tiny individual holdings. But they have struggled under Albania’s ineffective, corruption-addled politics.

Last week, however, Albania’s Socialist opposition led by the colorful former Mayor of Tirana, Edi Rama, won a landslide victory in parliamentary elections, ousting the government of Prime Minister Berisha, who had dominated politics for two decades.

That gave people here high hopes that one of Europe’s poorest countries may finally change its ways and put itself on a path toward coveted European Union membership.

Among them is Zef Pashuku. A farmer under dictator Enver Hoxha, he emigrated to Greece before returning in 2000 to take over the family farm.

He quickly realized its success would depend on something that still makes Albanians wary these two decades since the communist collapse: going into business with his neighbors.

The farms are too small to make it on their own, but “if we join together, we can compete,” he says. That led Pashuku to establish Albania’s first post-communist cooperative farm in 2005, with the help from the British charity Oxfam.

Now he hopes Tirana’s new government and the promise of kick-starting a stalled drive toward EU accession will be a boon for his and other fledgling cooperatives.

With a membership of around 60 farmers across three villages, the Zadrima collective specializes in wine and oil olive sold locally and internationally.

Sharing equipment enables farms to maximize productivity, Pashuku says, liberally topping up his interviewer’s glass of 2011 vintage Kallmet, which retails at around $4 a bottle.

albaniaAlthough cooperatives make sense here, where the average income is the equivalent of $330 a month, convincing people of their value has been difficult.

“A few years ago, people used to say that sounds like communism,” says Pashuku’s son Jurgen, who is studying agricultural economics at Tirana University and hopes to follow in his father’s footsteps. That’s now changing, he adds.

Agriculture is important here.

It contributes a quarter of GDP to Albania’s struggling economy, according to official statistics. And with almost 50 percent of the population of 2.8 million living in rural areas, encouraging small-scale farmers to form cooperatives is vital, says Geron Kamberi of Quodev, a social enterprise program in Tirana that’s the successor to Oxfam’s mission in Albania.

“Working together as a single unit is really important,” he says.

However, changing mindsets will be only part of the task if new ways of cooperation are to flourish. The government, which passed a new law on cooperatives only recently, has been slow to encourage collaboration.

Last week’s elections made news when a political activist was shot dead in Lac, near Zadrima, as polls opened. Still, the vote was by far the most peaceful since Albania emerged from Communism.

Conceding defeat on Wednesday, Prime Minister Berisha stepped down as leader of the Democratic Party — the first smooth change of power in the divisive, often violent world of Albanian politics.

Although the country has been a NATO member since 2009, political strife following the previous elections the same year has suspended EU hopes. Last year, the European Commission said fair and democratic elections this time around were a sine qua non for granting the country candidate status.

The EC could now recommend Albania for candidate status as early as December, which would bring significant funds, and, many believe, impetus for reform.

There’s much to be done. Endemic corruption has hollowed out institutions. Bribes are common, particularly in higher education. Few believe that the legal system is fair and transparent. And jobs are nearly impossible to find without money and connections.

“Joining the European Union is our last hope,” Jurgen Pashuku says, taking time out from tending vineyards at the farm at Hajmel. “Even if we know it’s a risk.”

Paradoxically, the ongoing euro zone crisis has helped Albanian farmers. Many of those who emigrated to nearby Greece and Italy are now coming home, bringing new expertise. Cooperatives have recently opened in Saranda in the south, and near the northern city of Shkodra.

For Zef Pashuku, the contrast with life under Communism already couldn’t be starker. “Before I didn’t have a shirt to wear and this field was abandoned,” he says. “Now everything is changing.”

This piece originally appeared on the Global Post. 

Polls to test turbulent Albanian democracy

Tirana, Albania – Under the secretive Communist regime of Enver Hoxha, Blloku was the most restricted district in Albania. Only high-ranking apparatchiks in the ruling Party of Labour were allowed to reside in the tight grid of tree-lined streets located in the centre of the capital, Tirana. In the middle of “the Block” stood Hoxha’s own private residence, an opulent Italianate villa with a swimming pool in the garden, completely at odds with the poverty that most Albanians lived in.

More than two decades after the fall of the hardline Communists, Blloku has been transformed into the busiest location in this picturesque Adriatic state. Formerly austere government buildings are now shopping emporia and luxury flats. Hoxha’s old house is still there – but now it’s a popular open-air bar.

Currently, Blloku features something else unimaginable in Comrade Enver’s authoritarian time – election paraphernalia. And lots of it.

Coalition politics

It’s hard to walk more than a few metres in Blloku without coming across a poster for the ruling Democratic Party, a billboard for a the small LSI party, or even a stencil in support of the main opposition, the Socialists, spray-painted on a wall.

On Sunday, June 23, Albanians go to the polls in parliamentary elections for the first time since a contentious vote in 2009. The choice is essentially the same as four years ago: incumbent Prime Minister Sali Berisha and his Democratic Party – in power since 2005 – or the Socialist party led by the former mayor of Tirana, Edi Rama.

Electoral coalitions are the norm in Albanian politics. Rama is leading the “Alliance for a European Albania”, which includes the Socialists, LSI, a Greek minority party and four small Communist groups. Berisha’s “Alliance for Employment, Welfare and Integration” – led by the Democratic Party – includes the Republican Party and a party for the Chams, a group of Albanians originally from near the Greek border. Most polls put the Socialist alliance ahead – but the result is far from certain.

‘Everything we need’

“This government needs to change,” said architect Lindito Ziu, as she waited for a friend less than a hundred metres from Hoxha’s former home. “In eight years, they haven’t invested anything in this country.”

Edi Rama is the leader of the Albanian opposition and Socialist Party candidate for the Prime Minister post [EPA]

Earlier this month, Berisha cut the ribbon on a new highway linking Tirana and the industrial city of Elbasan to the south. An hour and a half journey on dangerous mountain roads has been cut down to just 40 minutes. But Ziu is not impressed. “They say they have done the roads but they will only last a year or two. They were not built properly,” she said.

Not everybody is dissatisfied with Berisha. A little further down the street, shopkeeper Fatos Kume said he will be voting for the craggy-faced northerner and former cardiologist who has dominated Albanian political life for more than two decades. “Everyone can see the difference he has made,” he said.

Originally from the southern city of Vlore, Kume contrasts the bustling shop he has run for the past seven years with life under the Communist regime. “Under Communism, a man had just one suit – and even that he would have to borrow. When I got married I borrowed my brother’s suit,” he recalls. “When I first went to Tirana with my wife, I bumped into my sister-in-law and she recognised me by her husband’s suit.”

“Now it is different. Now we have everything we need.”

Competing platforms

Many Albanians are not so fortunate. Average monthly salaries are around $330 dollars. Unofficially, unemployment is around 30 percent. The economy has avoided recession but is struggling to grow, while public debt has risen sharply. In February, the World Bank criticised the Berisha government for breaking a self-imposed public debt ceiling of 60 percent. Corruption is a fact of daily life.

Rama has attacked Berisha for his failure to tackle Albania’s economic problems and the endemic corruption. “We are in a deep economic crisis, with high unemployment, bad services, (and) a very poor social situation, especially in suburbs and rural areas. Corruption and crime are big problems,” the Socialist party leader told Al Jazeera.

“The core problem of Albania has to do with the fact that our economic model has exhausted itself. It has been based for many years on wild exploitation of resources, on constructions and on the remittances of emigrants, no job creation and no productivity. It is time to turn the page and build a new economic model,” Rama said.

Both the Democrats and the Socialists have committed to creating upwards of a quarter of a million new jobs. Berisha’s party plans to attract more foreign direct investment by establishing a 10 percent flat rate on all personal income and corporate taxes. Rama has promised to lower taxes for low-and middle-income employees at the expense of higher income earners.

“In terms of substance, it’s a fiscally irresponsible campaign,” said Lutfi Dervishi, executive director of Transparency International Albania. “They promise pie in the sky – raising salaries, raising pensions, reducing taxes – but where is the money coming from?”

“The economic issue is the elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about.”

There has been little thought given to how “Albania is going to face these turbulent economic times”, said Dervishi.

A muddled election process

As is often the case in Albanian elections – and those elsewhere – the campaign has been dominated more by personalities than policies. Berisha and Rama have a long and acrimonious history. After the 2009 vote, the Socialists boycotted parliament, accusing Berisha and the Democratic Party of stealing the election. Two years later, four people were killed in Tirana when police opened fire on protesters at an opposition demonstration.

The beleaguered country also has a chequered election history. Previous votes have been marred by allegations of vote rigging, violence and intimidation. This time around there have numerous reports of vote buying, particularly in the key marginal districts that will decide the outcome of Sunday’s vote.

“We have reports coming from poor citizens of being offered money in exchange for their vote, or young voters who are thrown parties and [offered] excursions by candidates to win their favour,” said Aranita Brahaj, project coordinator for ZaLart, a website which collects reports about alleged electoral fraud from across Albania.

The economic issue is the elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about.

Lutfi Dervishi, Transparency International Albania

Brahaj said that, in the Kamza district of Tirana, voters were being offered anything from $30 to $100 for their ballot. Elsewhere in the country there have been reports of voters being offered food, money, and even cows in exchange for their votes.

“I think it is not a democracy, as some citizens cannot have a vote because they are poor,” said Brahaj.

There are question marks, too, over whether the result can be verified after Sunday’s vote. Following a split in Berisha’s ruling coalition in April, the Central Elections Committee (CEC) has only four sitting members – one fewer than the five required to declare the result of the election.

“There is no clean way for the results to get out, which doesn’t look good,” said Skye Christensen, an international election consultant. “You could find a way to get around it but you would have to break the law. The question is who breaks the law and where.”

All the main parties support membership of the European Union. But the accession process has stalled badly in recent years and the EU has warned that it will be watching Sunday’s vote closely. The election must be “in line with international and European standards”, Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, said in April.

Given Albania’s turbulent electoral history and the machinations around the Central Elections Committee, few are expecting a quick result.

“Albanian elections are interesting not prior to the election but the day after,” said Dervishi. “It’s a question of political will whether both parties want to proceed at speed [with the count and declaration] or put the brakes on the election process. It could take a while.”

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera. 

Croatians divided over EU accession

Zagreb, Croatia – As Croatia prepares for its accession to the European Union on Monday, many in the capital say they are hopeful the move will revive a moribund economy, but others aren’t optimistic ordinary citizens will benefit.

Croatia’s capital recently hosted a volunteer week to encourage people to get involved with groups that assist those in need.

In Strossmayer Park, a band in colourful traditional dress belted out Croatian songs, cheered on by a crowd of about 200 onlookers. Along the park’s well-maintained walkways were wooden stalls belonging to a raft of volunteer-based organisations, from associations representing lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender teenagers, to photography classes for the elderly.

Strossmayer Park, near Zagreb’s centre, is named in honour of Josip Juraj Strossmayer. A prominent 19th century Roman bishop, Strossmayer firmly believed that all the southern Slav nations in Europe should be unified – a dream eventually realised after his death with the creation of Yugoslavia.

I am glad we are joining the European Union, not because I think it is very great, but because I don’t think we have any other options. It would be worse without the European Union.Tajana Stamenkovic, psychology student

In the 1990s, Yugoslavia disintegrated in violence and ethnic conflict, leading to thedeaths of more than 100,000 people, and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of others. The wars also led the the country’s break-up. Now Croatia is set to join once again in a political union, this time not with its Slavic neighbours but its European cousins.

On Monday Croatia becomes the European Union’s 28th member, after two-thirds of Croatians voted “yes” in a referendum on joining the bloc. Among those in Strossmayer Park, opinion was divided on what life in the EU might bring for the Balkan state.

“I am glad we are joining the European Union, not because I think it is very great, but because I don’t think we have any other options. It would be worse without the European Union,” said psychology student Tajana Stamenkovic, a volunteer at an association dedicated to helping young people with behavioural problems.

Young people, many of them jobless graduates for whom volunteering is the only way to gain experience, man most of the stands in Strossmayer Park. In Croatia, unemployment is about 18 percent, according to data released by Eurostat in April. Among the under-25s, more than half are without a job.

Unemployment woes

“You have people with academic degrees, with masters degrees, and they can’t find any work,” said another volunteer, Vanja Pavlovic. “If you want to work you have to volunteer for no money, and after you finish your year of volunteering you have have no job for at least five to 10 years. It’s horrible.”

Like many young Croatians, Pavlovic wants to leave the country to find work abroad.

Dejan Jovic, a lecturer in politics at Zagreb University, described unemployment among the young as “the biggest problem” facing Croatia.

Jovic said he envisages some initial economic challenges as Croatia leaves the Central European Free Trade Agreement (CEFTA) – a trade bloc with various non-EU states, including former Yugoslav republics Serbia, Bosnia, Montenegro and Macedonia.

But he said he believes membership in the European Union will ultimately lead to increased investment, economic growth, and eventually jobs.

A Croatian war veteran holds a sign with pictures of former generals Ante Gotovina (L) and Mladen Markac [AFP]

“In the long term, we hope to be beneficiaries of the new situation, in which it should be easier to become part of a large European market. The main Croatian companies have already prepared themselves for leaving CEFTA. So we expect some initial set-backs in terms of export to these countries, but on the whole the impact will be positive,”Jovic said.

Europe ‘slowing down’

Not everyone is as hopeful about Croatia’s future in the European Union. Mihelin Ninoslav is a former drug addict now volunteering at an outreach programme for people with substance abuse issues. He said he sees little value in Croatian EU membership.

“I am a sceptic,” said Ninoslav. “Young people want a better life in Europe, but Europe is slowing down. It’s not like a couple of years ago. Before I was in favour [of Europe], but not now.”

The ongoing economic crisis in the eurozone is a concern, as is a fear that Croatia, which only became independent in 1991, could lose some of its identity. “It is not for me, Croatia is Croatia, it is not Europe,” said Ninoslav.

But professor Jovic said worries about the country losing its cultural identity are misplaced. “This has not happened to others, and thus it will not to Croatia either. These fears are part of conservative view on what makes ‘national identity’. Basically, this is fear for tradition.”

Croatian support for joining the EU remains reasonably strong. An opinion poll conducted this month found 61 percent in favour of membership. Most people “accept that membership in EU is good for Croatia, since it will mean more freedom, more security, and the end of a complicated transition from the 1990s”, Jovic said.

But he also noted it remains to be seen how the transition will benefit people here. “Research on Euro scepticism in Croatia shows that they are not sure whether they will personally live better or worse, since there is uncertainty over prices and increased competition for jobs. This is the biggest fear some people have.”

Healing the past?

European Union membership could also provide an opportunity to heal some of the festering wounds from the chaos that tore Yugoslavia apart two decades ago. Relations with neighbouring Serbia, with whom Croatia fought a brutal war, remain strained. Ethnic Serbs make up about four percent of Croatia’s population of 4.4 million.

“Croatian accession to the EU will improve the position of Serbs,” said Nataša Kandi, a human rights activist and the founder of the Humanitarian Law Center, an organisation campaigning for reconciliation in the former Yugoslavia.

Minorities will have more mechanisms to exercise their rights, the Serbs to return the property, and Roma will have more access to the public good.Nataša Kandi, founder of the Humanitarian Law Center

The European Union’s legal frameworks will make it easier for the 200,000 ethnic Serbs who were forced to leave their homes in Croatia during the conflict to reclaim property, said Kandi. It will also improve the situation for other minorities who regularly face discrimination, such as the Roma.

“Minorities will have more mechanisms to exercise their rights, the Serbs to return the property, and Roma will have more access to the public good,” said Kandi.

Joining the European Union has been portrayed as a pivotal moment in Croatia’s post-Yugoslav history marking the country’s transition from war and ethnic strife to peace and stability.

But not everyone agrees with this line of thinking. Sreko Horvat is a Croatian philosopher and the director of the Subversive Forum, an annual anti-globalisation, pro-peace conference held in May in Zagreb.

“From this perspective, Croatia is just a part of the Balkans, the mythical space where neighbours just can’t wait to kill and rape each other, and by joining the EU, Croatia will become a ‘stabilised’ and ‘civilised’ country,” said Horvat.

“The problem is, of course, that the EU is already ‘balkanised’. It is enough to look at Switzerland where the mosques are banned, or to France and its protests against gay marriage. Look at Greece where the public TV was just shut down, or Ireland where you even have drones surveilling protesters against the G8. These are the problems Croatia will face soon as well – not to mention even higher unemployment.”

Horvat also expressed concern about a deepening of Croatia’s already-advanced privatisation process. But he said there could be some unintended benefits with greater European integration.

“Maybe the only good thing with Croatia’s entrance to the EU is precisely the possibility of more cooperation between different progressive movements all around Europe, because we are all in this together,” said Horvat.

This piece originally appeared on Al-Jazeera.

On eve of EU accession, Croatia cautiously optimistic

During the recent local elections in Zagreb, almost every candidate was keen to stress their pro-European Union credentials. In the city’s Cvetni Trg, or Flower Square, some councilors handed out bumper stickers with the EU’s starry logo to passing shoppers. Others appeared on platforms festooned with Croatian and European flags.

Croatia is not yet a member of the European Union but it soon will be. On Monday, the Balkan state of just over 4 million people will become the 28th country to join the EU, and only the second from the former Yugoslavia – Slovenia joined in 2008.

croatia“I am looking forward to joining the European Union. As a young person, I personally think it is the best option for Croatia,” says Danijel Bicanic, a recent psychology graduate working in Zagreb.

Most Croatians agree: Last year, two-thirds voted “yes” to joining the European Union, and a majority still support that decision according to recent surveys.

Europe’s ongoing economic and political difficulties do raise some concerns in Croatia – which is suffering its own economic woes. But many believe that membership in the EU will help reinvigorate Croatia’s economy and tackle its corruption.

“I am not really concerned with the problems that are now in the European Union, because there are also so many internal national problems. I am more concentrated on those,” says Mr. Bicanic.

Tight times in Croatia

Croatia certainly has its fair share of local problems. The economy, which has scarcely grown since 2008, is back in recession and is expected to shrink by 1.5 percent of GDP this year. In March, unemployment stood at 21.6 percent.

Croatian politicians have been keen to stress the benefits of being part of the world’s largest trading bloc, but are playing down expectations that EU membership will bring an overnight reversal in the country’s fortunes.

“We are very aware that the European Union will not solve all our problems,” says Andrea Zlatar-Violic, Croatia’s minister for culture. “But it is very useful for us not to be one closed society, one closed state but to be open and without frontiers.”

Although any expansion of the EU in the Balkans is unlikely in the foreseeable future, Ms. Zlatar-Violic believes Croatia has an important role to play as a standard bearer for the region in Brussels.

“We really don’t want to be a wall between the Balkans and the European Union. We want to be completely open,” she says, “to organize a new Balkan space, a new public space, for all our experiences.”

New markets

EU accession will have a significant effect on the Croatian economy, says Vuk Vukovic, lecturer in political economy at Zagreb School of Economics and Management.

Clustering, where groups of inter-related industries are encouraged to locate close together and collaborative, has been a popular economic strategy in Croatia. But Dr. Vukovic says that businesses that have not adapted to entry into the European Union by forming clusters”will experience great difficulties and most likely go under.”

“On the other hand,” he adds, “there is a possibility that the new increased competition from the EU will encourage new innovative solutions among Croatian entrepreneurs and thus contribute to more wealth creation.”

A number of EU members – including Britain, Germany and the Netherlands – have placed restrictions on Croats traveling to work. Despite this, many in Croatia are worried about rising emigration, especially among young people, in the wake of the increased freedom of movement that EU membership will bring.

Vukovic believes that such a rise in emigration might actually help Croatia’s labor market – at least in the short term. Young people leaving for jobs in the rest of the EU would reduce unemployment in Croatia and lead to an increase in remittances sent back home. However, with an aging and diminishing population, Croatia can ill afford to lose its best and brightest for good.

Still, it might not come to this, says Vukovic. “The poor labor market situation across Europe may after all keep the people at bay.”

Arguably Croatia’s greatest asset is its 1,100-mile Adriatic coastline, peppered with spectacular islands. Hopes are high that EU membership will be a boon for the country’s tourism sector, although there are fears that increased numbers of foreign visitors will put prices – and particularly land values – beyond the reach of most locals.

‘A chance to move on’

Opposition to EU membership has risen since the eurozone crisis, but most Croatians still support joining the EU. The Associated Press reported earlier this month that according to recent surveys, some 60 percent of the population are in favor of entry, though only 49 percent believe that their country will benefit.

Some Croatians cite the EU’s role in strengthening transparency in Croatia and tackling the corruption that flourished after independence.

In 2012, former Prime Minister Ivo Sanader was convicted of accepting bribes. The onetime head of Croatian Democratic Union is still on trial facing further corruption charges. “Without outside pressure, the people feel this would have never been revealed,” says Vukovic.

Back on the streets of Zagreb, Bicanic typifies the cautious optimism that characterizes many Croatians’ attitudes toward EU membership. “Europe is our chance to move on” from the past, he says.

“It’s a chance to develop our society, to meet new people. I am really trying to look forward and not look back, because there is no sense to doing that.”

This piece originally appeared on the Christian Science Monitor.

After smoothing tensions in Slovenia, PM Bratusek seeks to win over Europe

If a week is a long time in politics, then two months can feel like an eternity. That has certainly been the case for Slovenian Prime Minister Alenka Bratusek.

Ms. Bratusek, the country’s first female premier and the telegenic leader of Pozitivna Slovenija (Positive Slovenia), only took office in late March. But she has spent the short weeks since attempting to negotiate passage between the Scylla of a European Commission that demands solutions for Slovenia’s ailing banks and the Charybdis of a public with limited stomach for further austerity.alenka_bratusek--621x414

And while Brussels’ verdict on Slovenia’s proposed reforms is expected tomorrow, she has already won plaudits at home for her handling of Slovenia’s biggest crisis since its secession from Yugoslavia in 1992.

“So, so far, so good,” a leading Slovenian economist says of the new premier’s performance. The economist, who is close to the government, was not authorized to speak and so asked not to be named. “[She] has a nice public appearance ,and she hasn’t antagonized the public in the way the former premier always did. Working in her favor is also the fact that she is a completely new figure in our politics,” the economist told The Christian Science Monitor.

Financial crisis

The immediate cause of Slovenia’s current travails is a familiar problem across the eurozone’s struggling periphery: undercapitalized and struggling banks. Slovenia, a nation of 2 million tucked in between Austria, Italy, Croatia, and Hungary, has been in recession since 2011.

After independence – and particularly after membership of the European Union in 2004 and the euro in 2007 – Slovenian banks extended generous credit lines to the “managers” of many formerly state-run companies to purchase controlling stakes in these businesses. These so-called “management buyouts” were politically popular, as they ensured that Slovenian industry remained in national hands.

But questions have been raised about the probity of these management buyouts. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and the tightening of credit globally, many of the loans made to fund these purchases are underwater, taking Slovenia’s once-formidable banking sector with them.

Further, the bursting of a construction bubble that grew from 2004 to 2008 has left empty properties across the country, particularly in Ljubljana, and tens of thousands of unemployed. Anecdotally, emigration has increased.

Corruption

On the streets of Slovenia, frustration with the economy has been compounded by the corruption that has dogged Slovenian politics in recent years.

Bratusek only became leader of Positive Slovenia when former President Zoran Jankovic was forced to resign earlier this year. A state anti-corruption commission found that he failed to report fully €2.4 million ($3.1 million) of assets accrued during his six years in office. (He remains mayor of the capital, Ljubljana.)

The same anti-corruption commission also found then-Prime Minister Janez Janša guilty of systematically violating law on the reporting of assets. A coalition headed by Mr. Janša’s center-right Slovenian Democratic Party fell in February, to be replaced by a new coalition with Bratusek and Positive Slovenia at its apex.

Janša’s downfall was also fueled in part by protests that began last November in Maribor, the country’s second-largest city. Tens of thousands protested against Mayor Franc Kangler, also accused of corruption. Here, for the first time since independence, Slovenian riot police used tear gas on protesters.

Mayor Kangler was forced to step down in December, but not before the protests had spread across Slovenia.

Staving off a bailout

The fallout from the corruption probe left the relatively unknown Bratusek as an unexpected beneficiary. But while Bratusek might be a new face on Slovenian television screens, she has a relatively long political pedigree.

Although only elected to the Slovenian parliament in 2011, for six years she was head of the directorate of the state budget at the ministry of finance under the former Liberal Democracy of Slovenia (LDS) administration that ruled from independence until 2004. That has helped her navigate the tricky political maneuvering currently required in Slovenia, where Europe and the public are pulling in opposite directions.

“If the politicians are too tough, they are out at home. If they are too soft, they are out from Brussels,” says Primoz Cirman, a leading economics writer for the Slovenian newspaper daily Dnevnik. “Right now [the government] are trying find out where the equilibrium is.”

Earlier this month, Bratusek announced a series of measures aimed at convincing the European Commission that Slovenia, the most developed economy in the former Yugoslavia, can plug a multibillion-euro hole in its banks’ balance sheets and stave off a eurozone-led bailout.

Proposals include the creation of a “bad bank” to allow the banking sector to offload non-performing debts; a 2 percent increase in VAT; and the sales of 15 publicly-owned businesses including Telekom Slovenia and national carrier Adria Airways.

Smaller protests

Bratusek’s presence has softened the country’s ongoing demonstrations, whose size and frequency have decreased in recent months.

In Metelkova, a former barracks of the Yugoslav National Army in Ljubljana that has been home to squatters since 1993, Anej Korsika from the nascent Initiative for Democratic Socialism explained that the change of government has taken some of the sting out of the protest movement.

“The struggle under Janša was much easier,” he says. “[Janša] called the protesters ‘Communist zombies’ and ‘leftist fascists’ and all these things which really infuriated people and really mobilized them to go onto the streets in bigger numbers than they would otherwise.”

Slovenia prepares for summer of discontent

Ljubljana, Slovenia – In Slovenia, few traits are as highly prized as gospodariti, literally the ability to manage finances prudently. Gospodariti was often cited to explain Slovenia’s emergence as an industrial motor of Marshal Tito’s Yugoslav system during the Cold War. As Yugoslavia collapsed in bloody fratricide,gospodariti again came to the rescue, helping a newly independent nation of just two million people to fashion a flourishing economy on the edge of a warzone.

Two decades later Slovenia’s cherished reputation for fiscal rectitude has, like the status of its government bonds, been reduced to junk.

On May 29, the European Commission told Slovenia that its heavily indebted banking system would require an independent review. The same report gave Slovenia until 2015 to bring its budget deficit below the European Union threshold of 3 percent of gross domestic product.
ljubljana-slovenia
The Commission also called on Prime Minister, Alenka Bratusek, to push forward with a package of fiscal proposals announcedlast month. These measures include the sale of fifteen publicly-owned businesses, a 2 percent increase in Value Added Tax (VAT) and the creation of a “bad bank”.

Slovenia appears to have staved off the short-term threat of becoming the sixth Eurozone member to receive a bailout — but everything is far from green in this picturesque Alpine state.

Difficult transition

Ljubljana, Slovenia’s compact capital, is peppered with empty apartment blocks and unused retail units. Across the country, emigration is on the rise. Unemployment, historically low even after communism, stands at over 13 percent. Lack of infrastructure investment has terminally weakened a once powerful manufacturing sector.

Slovenia has twice been in recession since 2009. This year the economy is expected to shrink by around 2 percent. Prospects for growth are “weak even in a quite long medium term horizon,” a leading Slovenian economist who spoke on condition of anonymity, said in Ljubljana, the capital. “We have a contracting domestic sector and an exporting sector that is slowly losing momentum.”

When Slovenia gained its independence in 1991 it was by far the most developed of the former communist economies of Eastern Europe. Tito’s 1974 reforms of Yugoslavia’s socialist system helped open the country up, socially and economically. Taking advantage of its industrial workforce and its location between Central Europe and the Balkans, international companies such as Bayer and Renault built factories in Slovenia.

We are now in the state of shock that Slovenia avoided 20 years ago. Maybe our story is proof that you can’t change systems without a shock.

Primoz Cirman, economics writer,

“We had communism which was not as severe as in other countries,” said Primoz Cirman, an economics writer for Dnevnik, a leading Slovenian newspaper daily newspaper. “The fist was not as iron as it was in other countries, it was more mellow.”

In the early 1990s Slovenia’s first generation of post-independence leaders looked to consolidate the country’s economic strength within its borders, rather than follow the privatisation drive in much of Eastern Europe. “For the first time in our history we were the masters of our own property. We thought ‘let’s not waste it, let’s privatise slowly,” said Cirman.

The roots of Slovenia’s current crisis lie in this uneasy transition from socialism to the free market. Many of Slovenia’s best companies remained in the hands of the state and a new generation of ‘managers’. Many of these managerial executives took out huge loans to buy controlling stakes in the businesses they ran.

Slovenian banks relied on the cheap credit that flowed in the wake of joining the European Union in 20004 and, particularly, the Euro currency three years later to fund these managerial buyouts. When the credit crunch hit in 2008 loans stopped performing.

Attempts by Slovenian bank to plug the gap in their finances by tightening lending to the national economy has contributed to the slowdown in Slovenia but not solved the country’s banking crisis. Its two leading banks, Nova Ljubljanska Banka and Nova Kreditna Banka Maribor, are badly in need of recapitalisation. Last month, Nova Ljubljanska Banka’s Chief Executive Officer Janko Medja said that the bank would transfer €1.3bn ($1.69bn) of non-performing loans to the new “bad” bank.

“Slovenia’s problem was not the (global) economic crisis it was the naivety of the banking sector,” said Igor Luksic, a professor of politics at Ljubljana University and president of the opposition Social Democrats. “There was a great appetite for real estate and the great appetite of managers who wanted to buy their companies. That made the crisis of the banking sector.”

‘State of shock’

The crisis has also laid bare the close connections between business and politics in Slovenia. Earlier this year, Prime Minister, Janez Jansa, was forced to step down after a report from a national anti-corruption agency identified irregularities in his tax returns. Ninety-four per cent of Slovenians consider bribes to be a normal practice in business, according to a recent study by Ernst & Young.

It is not all bad news for Slovenia. At 56 percent, public debt is well below the EU average. The Slovenian banking sector is just 1.6 times GDP. There are some success business stories, especially in technology. But with an export-led economy and a paucity of lending at home, there is no end in sight for the Slovenia’s economic travails, despite Wednesday’s cautious green light from Brussels.

“The economy has collapsed. We have a corrupted political class and a managerial system,” said Franc Trcek, professor of sociology at the University of Ljubljana. “People have said that they have enough. At the same time half of the people will go and vote for the old parties. The other half are in apathy.”

On the streets of Slovenia, apathy has given way to frustration. Last autumn, a series of protests broke out over the decision to introduce speed cameras in Maribor, a once prosperous industrial city near the border with Austria. Thousands took to the streets in what became known as the “Maribor Uprising”.

For the first time since Slovenia’s independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, riot police fired tear gas on its citizens. Maribor’s mayor, Franc Kangler, was forced to step down, but not before the protests had spread across Slovenia, contributing to the downfall of the Jansa government in Ljubljana.

The demonstrations have died down, for now, but journalist Primoz Cirman believes they could reignite again. “The fire is out but the fuel is still there,” he said as a summer shower pours down on the outdoor market on Petkovsek Embankment in Ljubljana.

As for Slovenia, Cirman said that the current crisis shows that the country didn’t manage the transition from communism to capitalism as well as it – and the rest of the world – had thought. “We are now in the state of shock that Slovenia avoided 20 years ago. Maybe our story is proof that you can’t change systems without a shock.”

This piece originally appeared on Al-Jazeera