WASHINGTON IS ENABLING A NEW BALKAN CRISIS
Janusz Bugajski, April 2020
While the coronavirus pandemic preoccupies Washington, the Trump administration is inadvertantly stoking a new conflict in the Balkans. In a hastened effort to forge a settlement between Serbia and Kosova the White House could unravel many Western achievements and incite new regional rivalries.
Kosova is in the midst of a political crisis as the coalition government fell apart because of disagreements over responses to the pandemic. But the real battle has pitted President Hashim Thaci, who has secretly discussed Kosova’s partition with Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic, against Prime Minister Albin Kurti, who opposes any border changes. Washington has evidently sided with Thaci in the forlorn hope that it can quickly settle the Serbia-Kosova dispute.
The core problem is Belgrade’s refusal to recognize Kosova as an independent state. This paralysis hinders Serbia’s ambitions to enter the EU and freezes Kosova’s entry into international institutions. Instead of agreeing on steps toward bilateral recognition, Thaci and Vucic seem to believe that an exchange of territory will be a magic wand in normalizing relations.
The fall of the Kurti government provides an opportunity for Thaci to bypass government and parliament in making deals with Belgrade. The swirling rumors in Prishtina about U.S. supported land swaps even forced the State Department to issue a statement denying that there is any secret plan. But the wording of the statement did little to assuage growing fears that Thaci and Vucic are negotiating with Washington’s blessing.
If a land swap is considered by some officials to be such a great deal then one wonders why it has only been discussed in secrecy and is regularly denied. If Washington supports territorial changes it should be clear how exactly this will occur with full democratic legitimacy. A credible land exchange would require several preconditions: Serbia and Kosova recognizing each other as independent countries; popular approval through a parliamentary vote or public referendum; necessary constitutional amendments; and assistance to citizens affected by the land swaps during their voluntary relocation.
Without such a comprehensive package, three immediate threats will surface: domestic, regional, and international. Border alterations will create even more conflicts in both Serbia and Kosova. Without plebiscites and parliamentary approval, deals struck behind closed door will accelerate feelings of grievance. In Kosova this will intensify political battles especially if the country does not benefit from UN membership. And in Serbia, the loss of any more territory could inflame nationalism if the deal does not culminate in EU accession. Such disputes are more likely to turn violent during times of economic disruption, fear, and uncertainty that the pandemic has unleashed.
Regionally, border changes approved by the U.S. will encourage separatists and irredentists to interpret them as legitimizing national homogenization. With the principle of multi-ethnicity evidently jettisoned, demands for mono-ethnicity can escalate and potentially unravel several countries. Western institutions and NATO forces may find themselves woefully unprepared for the wave of instability that could engulf the region. Calls for several hundred American troops to be withdrawn from the vital NATO mission in Kosova will add fuel to the flames.
Territorial revisions in Kosova could raise support for unification with Albania. Such momentum could spread to North Macedonia where at least a quarter of the population is Albanian. Threats to North Macedonia’s territorial integrity could potentially bring both Bulgaria and Albania into an expanding conflict. The Serb entity in Bosnia-Herzegovina will demand the application of the Kosova precedent in splitting from Bosnia, likewise with the Croat population in western Herzegovina and the Bosniak population in Serbia’s Sandjak region.
Internationally, the prospect of land swaps adds another dimension to Moscow’s divisive plans in the Western Balkans and establishes usable precedents elsewhere. Moscow is well aware that various Balkan nationalists will pounce on the prospect of territorial acquisitions and can be encouraged to pursue even more ambitious irredentist claims. Russian officials can simultaneously offer regional settlements and inject themselves as mediators.
Kremlin support for Balkan land exchanges also establishes valuable precedents, particularly for its own partition of Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, and other targeted states. Moscow’s coerced border changes can be depicted as legitimate moves that mirror Western support for ethnic homogenization in the Balkans. This could reduce calls for economic sanctions against Russia for carving up its neighbors’ territories. Instead of pushing back on Moscow’s subversion and destabilization of the Balkans, U.S. supported border changes could turn out to be a gift for President Putin.
BALKANS STRUGGLE WITH PANDEMIC
Janusz Bugajski, March 2020
No country is immune from the coronavirus pandemic, but poorer regions with inadequate health care systems and bad planning will be most affected in the long term. Although the epidemic has thus far been limited in the Balkans a wave of infections is projected to sweep through the region until a sufficient percentage of the population can build up immunity.
Over 4,000 recorded infections and over 70 virus-related deaths have been recorded until now in the entire Balkan peninsula, and the numbers are growing. Despite the medical warnings, not all political leaders initially acknowledged the severity of the threat and few have been willing to put aside their partisan disputes during the crisis.
Kosova is the most glaring example where the Prime Minister and President failed to put aside their differences as the pandemic threat escalated. The short-lived government of Prime Minister Albin Kurti lost a no-confidence vote in parliament and the country now faces further months of political turmoil.
Potential elections at a time of national crisis will not only disable a concerted response to the pandemic, it will furtherundermine public trust in Kosova’s politicians and institutions. This will provide ammunition to Kosova’s adversaries that the country has no legitimate government. It may also revive the rumored deal between Thaci and Vucic to exchange territories.
Curfews and lockdowns have been uneven across the region and have led to suspicions, as in Albania, that the government is using emergency measures against the pandemic to stifle political opposition and strengthen its controls over national institutions. A proposed law in Croatia allowing authorities to monitor the communications devices of people undergoing self-isolation has outraged the public.
Every government should have a clear message in combating the virus and allow health experts and epidemiologists to explain the facts without any political bias. It also needs to be consistent in imposing any restrictions. Without accurate, truthful, and up-do-date information, the public becomes confused and even more frightened. And fears about pandemics can trigger political, social, and ethnic conflicts.
A potential new influx of refugees from Syria when combined with a pandemic explosion could provoke violence in several states. This will be exacerbated by the likelihood that the West Europeans will no longer accommodate refugees and they will be stuck in the Balkans. The prospect of a new wave of Middle Eastern refugees may have also convinced Berlin and Paris to cooperate more closely with the transit states and finally allow Albania and North Macedonia to start EU accession talks.
The economic impact of the virus could prove devastating not only for employees and companies but also for state budgets. Each government needs to implement a comprehensive rescue package for the public at a time of economic slowdown to prevent potential social conflicts. The Balkans can expect a major economic downturn through falling GDP (Gross Domestic Product), higher budget deficits, lessened investments, and rising unemployment. The launch of accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia will enable both countries to access the EU Solidarity Fund to gain direct assistance in combating the impact of the virus. However, with EU economies also facing contraction because of the pandemic there will be no substantial economic benefits for the region in the near term.
Claims that the EU has not helped Balkan countries to deal with the virus are misleading. Such assertions enable China to improve its tarnished image for covering-up the virus threat by sending assistance to several European states. After President Vucic claimed that EU members have not helped Serbia with medical equipment, the EU approved 7.5 million euro for Belgrade to combat the crisis and dispatched cargo planes to deliver necessary supplies. In the case of Albania, it remains unclear whether countries outside the EU, including Turkey, will actually deliver any equipmentdespite initial promises.
Growing fears about a Chinese offensive of economic acquisition in Europe may be lessened because of the pandemic scare. Beijing may find itself in a weaker economic position to develop its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) across Eurasia or its 17+1 program with countries in south eastern Europe. Additionally, host countries may be less willing to enter into unpredictable economic contracts with China. Nonetheless, such an outcome will not benefit the poorer European states who have looked toward China for new investments and have limited alternatives. The economic storm is yet to come.
AMERICA’S NATIONAL EMERGENCY
Janusz Bugajski, March 2020
The United States is in the midst of an unprecedented crisis precipitated by an invisible enemy that has infected the world. President Donald Trump has declared a national state of emergency to contain the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, which threatens the country’s economic, social, and political stability. Officially, over 13,000 people have already been infected and 200 have died, but the real figures will prove much larger.
Three problems have been exposed by the escalating crisis – preparedness, leadership, and response. The country wasclearly not prepared for a nationwide emergency and too much time was wasted between detection and action to combat and protect people from COVID-19. An office in the National Security Council that was tasked with monitoringand providing early warning of global health threats was actually disbanded by the Donald Trump administration.
President Trump’s leadership has also proved inadequate and unsuited for a national crisis. In the critical early weeks of the spreading pandemic, during January and February, the White House downplayed the threat, while his supporters and the pro-Trump media lulled the public into a false sense of security. The emergency was politicized – at one point Trump’s backers claimed that the danger of the virus was a hoax perpetrated by the Democrats and the “fake media.” Trump has also failed to mobilize international solidarity and has cast the blame primarily on China and Europe for spreading the virus.
The domestic responses in containing the contagion have been slow and uncoordinated. Several weeks of delay by the federal government has cost lives and magnified the spread of infections. This has been evident in a lack of equipment for testing and an inadequate number of hospital beds, respirators, and other essential supplies. Poor technical and organizational planning has been exacerbated by a lack of coordination and guidance at the federal level. This has led several states and city governments to undertake their own initiatives and horizontal cooperation in acquiring necessary medical equipment.
There is no vaccine on the horizon and experts believe it will take up to eighteen months to fully test and approve any remedy. Hence, the urgent task is to contain the virus within numbers that do not overwhelm the U.S. health service. The federal government’s top infectious-disease experts asserted that a complete two-week national shutdown was necessary, but the White House believes this would be too disruptive. Instead, each state has pursued its own measures to contain the virus and California just imposed a state-wide lock-down.
Health officials, politicians, and business leaders are pushing for “social distancing” to encourage people to stay at home as much as possible and avoid any public gatherings. Schools, restaurants, and bars have been closed in most states and sports events cancelled.
A recent epidemiological study predicts that without major actions, COVID-19 could lead to more than a million deaths in the United States. The majority of casualties would be older people or those with weak immune systems.
The federal government has been slow to mobilize the military, including the army corps of engineers to build temporary hospitals and other facilities to test and treat patients. However, members of the National Guard have been called up by governors in over fifteen states to help deal with the crisis by distributing food and sanitizing public areas.
America faces three other looming dangers: economic, social, and political. The country is on the verge of economic recession similar to the 2008 financial crash, evident in the volatility of the stock market. The best-case scenario is that the economic shock will be sharp but short, with growth recovering later this year as stores and businesses reopen. But economic pessimists warn about more long-term damage, including mass unemployment and bankruptcy of small business necessitating enormous state aid that will further balloon America’s massive debts.
The prolonged social dangers could lead to panic-buying of grocery staples, looting, and rioting, curfews, and police enforcement. As fear of social disorder intensifies, gun stores are reporting a surge in weapons sales as some citizens prepare for potential violence. Planning is also taking place for the possible introduction of martial law in case civilian government is incapacitated or there is social breakdown in some major cities.
The political dangers can also be grave if the pandemic intensifies through the summer months. If the November presidential and congressional elections are postponed in a highly polarized political climate this can exacerbate partisan disputes and undermine the legitimacy of the political process and even the presidency itself. In times of crisis it is important not to stoke fear but one must also be prepared for all worst-case consequences.
Janusz Bugajski, March 2020
As the number of coronavirus cases continues to grow around the globe, the dangers of conflict and violence also expand. Fear and self-protection can spark social, ethnic, religious, and inter-state conflicts that can escalate in several parts of the world.
Economists calculate that the health emergency can spark a global recession as severe as the one in 2008, unless the virus is contained in the next few weeks. Stock markets have become widely volatile and China’s economy, the second largest in the world and a major exporter, has taken a severe blow. Global business is suffering because of disrupted supply chains amidst predictions that consumer demand may collapse and eradicate over one trillion dollars in value off the global economy.
The coronavirus pandemic is already driving an economic downturn that can trigger various forms of domestic and international instability. In poorer countries, shortages of food, medicine, and consumer goods can fuel social clashes and feed ethnic and religious divisions. Restrictions and attacks have been reported against Chinese people living abroad and this could spread to other targeted groups. India is already a huge tinderbox, as Hindu-Muslim clashes continue over a new citizenship law that discriminates against Muslims. A possible pandemic that results in shortages and scapegoats would severely enflame the conflict. Other countries in Asia and the Middle East are also susceptible to conflicts that will be exacerbated by fears of pandemics.
Refugee outflows and conflict spillovers can lead to border closures and potential inter-state clashes over resources and trade. In Europe itself, the EU will need to prepare for possible violence. With the persistent war in Syria between Turkish and Syrian/Russian forces, about one million people have already been displaced. Turkey has taken in almost four million refugees from Syria and decided to lift its border restrictions with the EU because of frustration over lack of sufficient humanitarian support from Brussels.
Ankara’s decision opens the door to a new influx of refugees into the Balkans, something that all Balkan governments have feared since the mass refugee movements across the peninsula in 2015. This fear is exacerbated by the likelihood that Germany and other West European state will no longer accommodate refugees and they will be stuck in the region. The additional anxieties over the coronavirus epidemic can fuel public anger and animosity toward migrants, while governments do not want to lose popularity or provoke instability by loosening border controls or trying to integrate refugees.
Bulgaria has deployed about 1,000 troops and military equipment to the frontier with Turkey to prevent illegal crossings. The government in Sofia has asserted that it would not allow in any refugees at a time when it is stepping up preventive measures against the coronavirus, with new cases reported almost daily in the region. Greece has also announced tighter border controls and has blocked thousands of refugees from crossing the land border with Turkey.
Fear of disease is a ripe arena for disinformation campaigns that can provoke conspiracies, anti-government protests, and social conflicts. Ambitious powers can exploit such vulnerabilities to destabilize or intervene in neighboring states. Moscow is systematically spreading disinformation about the origins of the coronavirus. Its media outlets, trolls, and agent of influence disseminate conspiracy theories that the virus was developed in CIA laboratories and released in China in order to weaken the Chinese economy. Similar bio-terrorist disinformation was promulgated by the Soviet KGB in the 1980s when the CIA was accused of developing the HIV/Aids virus.
If the pandemic spreads in Europe, Moscow can also claim that vulnerable Russian-speaking minorities are being ostracized, quarantined, and repressed by neighboring government. This provides new inroads for promoting domestic conflicts or even staging interventions cloaked as humanitarian assistance to defend allegedly endangered populations.
Paradoxically, growing fears about a Chinese economic offensive in Europe may be reduced because of the pandemic scare. If vaccines are not soon developed against coronavirus then Beijing may find itself in a weaker economic position to develop its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) across Eurasia or its 17+1 network with Europe’s east. And host countries may be unwilling to enter into unpredictable economic contracts with China. Nonetheless, such an outcome will not benefit the poorer states of South East Europe, which have looked toward China for investments. They will now find themselves with fewer options at a time when EU economies may also contract because of the pandemic scare.
DANGER OF ANOTHER RUSSIA RESET
Janusz Bugajski, February 2020
With U.S. presidential elections fast approaching, the specter of another “reset” with Putinist Russia threatens Washington. Regardless of who wins in November, in the hope of rebuilding relations with Moscow the new American administration may try to accommodate Russia’s European ambitions instead of defending the security interests of the U.S. and its NATO allies and partners.
President Barack Obama’s “Russia reset” ten years ago proved an abject failure and gave Moscow the green light to new aggression. Another rapprochement would be premised on three erroneous assumptions: that Russia has legitimate interests and does not pose a threat to the West; that NATO has lost its importance in the current era; and that Washington can forge a productive partnership with Moscow.
The notion that Moscow has legitimate interests in obtaining a stake in Europe’s security architecture challenges NATO’s rationale and disguises Russia’s revisionism. Such a scheme was evident in the European Security Treaty drafted by Moscow after its invasion of Georgia in 2008. It claimed that Russia itself could guarantee the security of its former satellites. The Treaty was rejected but the primary goals of Kremlin policy have remained unchanged: rolling back NATO and limiting America’s role.
A second false assumption among the “reseters” is that NATO is becoming redundant and that Russia’s policies are equivalent to those of the West. In reality, Russia’s neighbors voluntarily seek close ties with NATO and the EU in order to consolidate their independence and to boost their economies. Western institutions do not impose themselves on aspirant states that vigorously petition for entry as protection from Russia’s imperial designs.
Moscow has sought to impose its control by attacking and dismembering Georgia and Ukraine and it may be poised to forcibly absorb Belarus. Russia’s often touted “legitimate interests” are barely disguised claims to control the foreign, security, and alliance policies of neighbors that were once part of the Tsarist or Soviet empires. Moreover, the relentless campaign of political, social, economic, and informational subversion is a strategic calculation to dismantle Western institutions that challenge Kremlin ambitions.
The thirty years since the collapse of the Soviet empire have demonstrated that there is no viable alternative to NATO in guaranteeing the national security and territorial integrity of members. American forces are deployed in Europe to protect U.S. interests and to detect, deter, and defeat adversaries who threaten any ally. Hence, the large-scale Defender 2020 exercises in Europe this spring are designed to test Allied readiness and capabilities in the event of a Russian assault along NATO’s eastern frontier.
The third mistaken assumption among “reseters” is that Washington can work productively with Putin’s Kremlin in confronting global challenges. In reality, in almost every suggested arena of cooperation, Moscow actively cultivates conflicts from which it gains strategic advantage and undermines America’s influence. The Kremlin supports regimes and terrorist groups across the Middle East that are sworn enemies of the U.S. It undermines Europe’s energy security and pursues supply monopolies. Its constant threats against NATO allies along the eastern flank necessitates an enhanced Western deterrence force. It nurtures armed conflicts in Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, and Azerbaijan to keep neighbors off balance and outside Western institutions. And its interventions in the Western Balkans contribute to stirring ethnic and inter-state disputes that Washington and Brussels struggle to resolve.
Western “reseters” operate on the misguided premise that Moscow follows international rules once it has signed an agreement. From the Kremlin’s perspective the purpose of any negotiations is to trick the adversary into conceding ground for its previous aggression. The Putinists have continued Bolshevik negotiating methods designed to extract maximum concessions and issue fake guarantees. The unimplemented Six Point Peace Plan in Georgia, the broken agreement to withdraw troops from Moldova, and the violated Budapest Memorandum, which guarantees Ukraine’s territorial integrity, are among the numerous examples of Moscow’s deception.
The Kremlin will appeal to the next U.S. administration by proposing geopolitical agreements that raise Russia’s influence and facilitate America’s withdrawal. It will focus on lifting economic sanctions on oligarchs and state enterprises embroiled in Moscow’s anti-Western offensives. Washington must not sacrifice American and allied security in the forlorn hope that Russia can become a trusted partner. The last “reset” with Moscow lowered Western defenses and culminated in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Another toothless agreement with Kremlin will simply encourage renewed aggression against another neighbor that asserts its independence.
TIME FOR AN INFORMATION WAR IN RUSSIA
Janusz Bugajski, February 2020
As the 2020 election season begins, the Donald Trump administration must warn Russia that interference in America’s democratic process will have serious consequences. But admonitions without actions will not discourage damaging intervention by the Putinist regime and other hostile actors. Instead of another reactive defense and years of pointless indignation, a pro-active strategy is essential to check Kremlin ambitions.
The 2016 U.S. elections provided an unsupervised laboratory for Russia’s intelligence officers, oligarchs, and hired trolls. Evidence is now abundant that Moscow has also prepared cyberattacks and influence operations for 2020. It is uncertain which presidential candidate the Kremlin will ultimately favor, but the primary objective will be to widen divisions in American society, deepen distrust in the democratic process, and weaken the legitimacy of the President.
To counter this shadow war against American democracy, Russia itself must experience a sustained information offensive, but one that is based on facts about the country’s dire condition. The artificial Russian Federation is afflicted by many more economic, social, political, ethnic, religious, and regional vulnerabilities than the U.S. These domestic fragilities need to be thoroughly exposed as Russia enters a period of presidential transition.
Factual information will help empower Russia’s citizens in confronting the Putinist dictatorship and it can encourage power struggles inside the ruling stratum. Western sources through a multitude of media and social platforms can disseminate poignant data and analysis about Russia that are avoided by the state media, particularly its economic deterioration. This is evident in growing poverty, rural depopulation, crumbling infrastructure, environmental disasters, government corruption, demographic decline, and spreading regional unrest.
U.S. intelligence services can also access and leak compromising material about Vladimir Putin and his inner circle. This should include both official and private communications from the Kremlin, government ministries, parliament, and key oligarchs. Detailed revelations about financial abuse and opulent lifestyles among officials while living standards plunge for the masses will demonstrate the government’s disdain for ordinary citizens.
Disclosures about greed and backstabbing within the ruling elite can also generate uncertainty in government circles and expose the regime’s political weaknesses. The promotion of internal power struggles can help divert the Kremlin from its unchallenged disinformation war against Western democracies. Suspicion and distrust between officials will raise fears of political purges or state expropriation of oligarchs and factional infighting can become aggravated.
Participation in social internet platforms is soaring among Russia’s young people. The West needs to target youths, democrats, ethnic and religious minorities, regionalists, and other disaffected groups to help inspire the emergence of anti-Kremlin movements. Russia is not immune from the anti-establishment populism that has swept through Europe and the U.S. in recent years and from which the Kremlin has benefited in trying to disassemble the West. This populist boomerang, fueled by the yawning gap between rich and poor amidst rampant official corruption, can be manifest in various anti-government actions.
Some U.S. policy makers will caution that information offensives against Moscow would be too provocative and could escalate bilateral disputes. But from the Kremlin’s perspective it is precisely the absence of an effective informational counter-attack that invites even more intensive intervention against American democracy and ongoing assaults on NATO allies and partners.
Successful U.S. policy toward the Soviet bloc under the Ronald Reagan administration should serve as a poignant lesson for returning to core principles in dealing with Putin’s Russia. It must be anchored in promoting genuine political pluralism, democracy, decentralization, and federalism. Just as President Reagan endorsed the transmission of facts to the captive nations to counter persistent Soviet fabrications, Washington must now support all efforts to inform the Russian public about the Kremlin’s failures and deceptions.
It is in America’s national interest to encourage the transformation of an authoritarian and hostile Russia into a democratic state and a genuine federation, and if this fails Washington must focus on managing a peaceful dissolution similar to that of the defunct Soviet Union. Only a democratic and decentralized Russian state will curtail its attacks on Western democracies and could even become a dependable international partner.
RUSSIA’S REGIONS IN REVOLT
Janusz Bugajski, January 2020
While President Vladimir Putin celebrates his twenty years in the Kremlin and poses as a powerful world leader, his Russian Federation is showing increasing signs of fracture. Although a Ukraine-type revolution in Moscow to overthrow a corrupt authoritarian regime seems unlikely, a revolt of Russia’s diverse regions against a despised central government is gathering momentum.
Winston Churchill’s memorable insight about Russia at the outset of World War Two – that its actions are “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” – needs updating. President Vladimir Putin’s Russia is a declining state, camouflaged in external aggression to disguise its internal fragility.
Russia’s economy has been stagnating for several years, living standards continue to decline, and poverty is increasing. Demographic statistics reveal a shrinking population with high mortality, low fertility, and rising emigration. Russia’s population has dipped from 148 million after the breakup of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s to about 142 million today. This total will fall to around 128 million by 2050 and an increasing percentage will be neither ethnic Russian nor Orthodox Christian.
Although Russia defines itself as a federation, in reality it is a centralized neo-imperial construct that unlike Britain or France has failed to dismantle its empire and develop a modern civic state. The Federation consists of 85 federal subjects (including the illegally annexed Crimea and Sevastopol), of which 22 are republics representing non-Russian nationalities, including the Middle Volga, North Caucasus, and parts of Siberia, northern Russia, and the far eastern provinces. Even in regions where ethnic Russian predominate a growing number of residents feel alienated from Moscow and are consolidating their unique local identities.
Despite Western hopes, Russia’s urban democrats are unlikely to transform the country. Instead, it is regionalists, autonomists, and pro-independence groups who are increasingly challenging Putin’s authoritarian and colonial rule. Regional restlessness is based on an accumulation of grievances, including economic stagnation, official corruption, exploitation of regional resources, attacks on language rights, and threats to eliminate or merge federal units. Instead of pursuing decentralization to accommodate regional aspirations, the Russian government is downgrading their autonomy.
The federal structure primarily benefits a narrow elite of political police, bureaucrats, oligarchs, and regional governors appointed by the Kremlin. Moscow extracts maximum resources from the regions with minimal investment in a crumbling local infrastructure. Without regional autonomy, investment, and local control of resources, the federal structure will become increasingly unmanageable and public resistance will mushroom.
During the past year, mass protests have grown in size and frequency, whether against dumping Moscow’s trash in the northern Arkhangelsk and Komi regions, economic exploitation and curtailment of the national language in Tatarstan and other republics, the building of Orthodox cathedrals in Siberia’s Krasnoyarsk region, the falsification of elections in Buryatia, the appointment of outsiders as governors in Kalmykia and other republics, the arbitrary changes of borders between Chechnya and Ingushetia, or growing ethnic tensions in Dagestan fueled by unpopular government decisions. Almost any issue can trigger demonstrations against Moscow’s rule and accelerate demands for autonomy and even separation.
A process of awakening is evident in Siberia, the Urals, the Far East, and the Far North where there are growing distinctions with Muscovites even among people viewed as Russians but who settled generations ago and developed distinct local identities. Several of Russia’s federal units possess the natural resources and favorable location to become independent economically once they terminate their exploitation by Moscow. Trade and investment from neighboring European and Asian countries can significantly develop regions such as Kaliningrad, Karelia, Tuva, Sakha, Magadan, and other parts of Siberia and the Far East.
Activists who began their protests with a focus on a single issue such as pollution or corruption are broadening their agenda and increasingly challenging the foundations of the centralized Putinist system. As regional turbulence escalates, local governors could be swept out of power unless they commit themselves to strengthening their republics or regions. In the next stage of resistance, dozens of Russia’s regions could coordinate their demands and push toward autonomy or independence. Simultaneous actions by numerous federal units would weaken Moscow’s attempts to extinguish each movement, as happened during the dismemberment of the Soviet Union.
Washington needs to remind the Kremlin that the West possesses much stronger social and national bonds than Russia because they are based on democratic choice not enforced uniformity. While Moscow seeks to divide the West and foster political conflicts in each democratic state, Washington has the ability to respond much more effectively by supporting regional and ethnic self-determination inside the Russian Federation. This would send a powerful signal to a belligerent but ultimately fearful Kremlin that the West will prevail over Russia’s subterfuge, sabotage, and subversion.
CORRUPTION DESTROYS DEMOCRACY
Janusz Bugajski, February 2020
The new Transparency International (TI) corruption perception index reveals that the Balkan countries continue to decline in global rankings with Albania among them. The results indicate there is a close correlation between state corruption, democratic regress, and economic stagnation, and with the growing potential for domestic violence.
The TI index ranks 180 countries by their perceived levels of public sector corruption, according to local experts and business people. Its recently released index for 2019 demonstrates that countries in Southeast Europe are either making no progress or going backwards in combating corruption.
Albania and North Macedonia scored worst in the region by tying for 106th place. Albania declined in the rankings since last year when it finished 99th and even Kosova ranked above Albania in 101st place. Serbia, fell to 91st place, while Montenegro slightly improved to 66th place. Even EU members Hungary and Romania came in 70th place and Bulgaria 74th. As a region, the Balkans scored worse only than African countries.
The index is not the only measure of Balkan corruption, as the World Bank periodically issues papers that paint a bleak picture in most of the region. All such reports confirm that corruption corrodes and destroys the three pillars of a healthy state – the political system, the economy, and the social structure.
Systematic corruption among government officials, a politicized public administration, and a bribery-prone judicial system deform states such as Albania. Public sector corruption takes many forms, whether in failures to disclose the sources of party campaign funding, unregulated flows of private and foreign money to government officials, kickbacks from awarding government contracts to favored businesses, and the politicized allocation of the state budget. Just as professional criminals are usually one step ahead of the police, corrupt officials try to avoid detection by finding novel ways to channel illicit fund to their cronies and relatives.
The political system is also damaged by a clampdown on the free media, threats against journalists, and limitations on civic society organizations that monitor government corruption. A corrupt government always seeks to preserve its rule so officials can continue to benefit from the state treasury and a new administration does not conduct legal procedures against them. In the worst case scenario, corruption results in “state capture” and consolidates one party rule.
Government corruption undermines developing economies through a distorted form of crony capitalism. It impedes investment, as foreign businessmen avoid extortion and uncertainty. This has serious consequences on economic growth and job creation. The World Bank has clear evidence that countries systematically confronting corruption through legal means attract more investment and grow more rapidly.
Social bonds also suffer under prolonged corruption. The communist system was underpinned by corrupt privileges in return for unswerving loyalty. In a developing democracy like Albania’s, corruption erodes public trust in the government. This is especially damaging in polarized states where corruption perpetuates inequalities and discontent can lead to extremism and violence.
During the last year, anti-corruption movements across the globe gained momentum with millions of people stagingprotests in various capitals. In many countries citizens experience petty bribery on a daily basis where access to basic public services such as health care and education is often blocked. Growing frustration erodes confidence in political leaders, elected officials, and in democracy itself.
The United States is certainly not immune from corruption. It dropped to 23rd place in the TI Index, its lowest score in eight years. According to the Pew Research Center, trust among American citizens in their elected representatives is at an all-time low. The country faces challenges to democratic checks and balances between the three branches of government. It is also corroded by special interests and the use of anonymous shell companies by corrupt politiciansto hide illicit funds.
Although Donald Trump campaigned on a promise of “draining the swamp” and checking the privileges of Washington insiders and political elites, numerous executive resignations and scandals over unethical behavior indicate that corruption may have become more entrenched. This feeds into public perceptions that the political elites ignore citizens and rich people basically buy elections.
Despite its problems America has antidotes to outright corruption, including a free media, independent civic organizations, an uncorrupted legal system, and the possibility of electing candidates who are not beholden to large donors. The American experience demonstrates that democracy cannot be taken for granted but must be constantly guarded. And young democracies such as Albania’s need particular defending so that corrupt authoritarian temptations do not prevail.
KOSOVA’S DEADLOCK IS DESTABILIZING
Janusz Bugajski, January 2020
Kosova is heading toward a political and economic crisis if a new government is not formed soon. Almost four months since the general elections the dispute over government positions continues. If it cannot be resolved the resultingnational instability will retard the country’s international integration and benefit Kosova’s adversaries.
The constant jostling for official positions ignores the will of the electorate and frustrates young people in particular who voted for a new party that promised to shake up the status quo and root out pervasive corruption. The stalematealso freezes Kosova’s institutions, its budgeting process and legislative work, and may ultimately undermine the country’s statehood.
If a new coalition government is unable to function for several more months then Kosova may face increasing public unrest and potential economic chaos. This will give ammunition to outside powers that dispute Kosova’s final status as an independent and integrated state. A similar process has unfolded in Bosnia-Herzegovina over the past decade when the central government is paralyzed.
If agreement between Vetevendosja (VV) and the Democratic League of Kosova (LDK) cannot be reached, then either the LDK will attempt to form another government with the Democratic Party of Kosova (PDK) or new elections will be called. The return of the “old guard” will anger a sizeable part of the electorate and the new government may have limited public trust. Alternatively, another round of elections will further delay any new administration and paralyze necessary economic and diplomatic initiatives.
Observers wonder who stands to benefit from protracted delays or possible new elections in Kosova. One explanation is that members of the established political elite, which has largely controlled the government since Kosova gained independence, are sabotaging a new coalition accord. Former officials may be fearful that VV and Prime Minister Albin Kurti will try to deliver on the promise to bring corrupted politicians to justice.
An alternative explanation for the delays is that VV itself is holding back on forming a government calculating that it will gain advantages from any ensuing public unrest. The LDK, PDK, and other parties can be accused of deliberately undermining the process because they want to cling to power and money. This could result in protest actions especially if civil servants and other workers are not paid because the state budget expires in February, and increase support for VV in the next elections.
An additional concern is how the political standoff in Prishtina will affect the stalled negotiations with Serbia. It is difficult to see any talks with Belgrade restarting until both countries have new governments in place. Serbia itself faces elections in the spring and may bring to power an even more intransigent government now that the country’spath to the EU, and those of other Western Balkan states, has been obstructed by French President Emmanuel Macron.
There is also growing frustration in Washington that talks are not on the horizon between Serbia and Kosova. President Trump’s special envoy Richard Grenell visited Prishtina and Belgrade this week to urge both sides to resume negotiations. The White House is seeking successes in U.S. election year and although the Balkans are not a national security priority in terms of threat they are a high priority for conflict resolution.
Incessant delays in talks with Belgrade can damage Kosova’s international credibility, particularly if there is no functioning government or if new elections further postpone the process. Serbian nationalists and Russian imperialists will increase their propaganda campaign claiming that Kosova is a failed experiment in statehood and that Kosova’s final status needs to be revisited by the international community.
The absence of an elected government in Prishtina will also obstruct necessary legal and economic reforms and make Kosova even less attractive to potential foreign investors. The perception of crisis can further damage the country’s reputation and performance. In order to stimulate economic development and business interest a predictable political and regional climate is essential.
Croatia’s six-month European Union presidency would be a valuable opportunity for Kosova to pursue its European agenda. Zagreb has placed enlargement as a top priority and will focus on trying to lift the blockage of accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania. It will also be open to new initiatives to expand the enlargement agenda. But without a functioning government and a credible program to develop closer links with the EU, Prishtina will be unable to benefit from Croatia’s presidency.
THE IMPORTANCE OF FREE MEDIA
Janusz Bugajski, January 2020
In the age of corruption, disinformation, and creeping authoritarianism the existence of a free and independent media is critical for any democracy. If the mainstream media becomes simply the voice of politicians and individual business interests then the public is in effect disenfranchised and the struggle for democracy is seriously damaged.
Despite the constant attacks by President Donald Trump on alleged “fake news” that criticizes him, the United States remains the beacon of an independent and professional press. This does not mean that specific media outlets do not sympathize with one of the two major parties. For instance, Fox News clearly leans toward the Republicans and NBC toward Democrats. However, in all professional media outlets there is a distinction between news and opinion.
To be credible, news must be impartial, objective, and based on legitimate sources. It cannot be selective and skewered toward a political preference. The most professional outlets are news agencies such as Reuters and the Associated Press that have consistently professional reporters, knowledgeable sources, and legitimate information. Several other media channels employ experienced investigative journalists who consistently uncover important stories.
Opinion and commentary must be separated from raw news, otherwise the credibility of the outlet may be questioned. Opinion and commentary columns are themselves varied. Some are clearly partisan and aimed to promote a particular politician or party. But the most effective columnists are committed to depicting objective reality and offering constructive recommendations for governments regardless of their ideology.
If television channels regularly mix news and opinion, this can confuse the audience and raise accusations of fraudulent or manipulated information. Hence, when investigative journalists do reveal some important and controversial facts their outlet may be dismissed by officials as biased and partisan. This occurred when genuine information was uncovered by several outlets about President Trump pressing the Ukrainian President to find negative information on his major political rival. Ultimately, the facts of the story could not be suppressed and they led to Trump’s impeachment.
A professional media that reports objective facts and does not simply parrot government talking points is even more essential in countries that are still consolidating their young democracies, including Albania and Kosova. Without media outlets that are trusted by the public the party in power can manipulate news to reverse democratic developments and further its ambitions to enshrine a party monopoly.
There are three major threats to objective information in the Western Balkans and elsewhere in Europe’s east: imperious national governments, social networks, and foreign disinformation. For parties seeking to subdue any significant opposition to their rule, a free press that criticizes their policies is often labeled as the “enemy of the people.” This is especially evident when journalists uncover specific cases of official corruption and other scandals that can turn public opinion against the administration.
State leaders can no longer apply the communist policy of arresting and murdering owners, distributors, and journalists. However, officials can employ a variety of methods to pressurize media outlets to desist from negative reporting. In addition to denouncing specific media outlets, administrative pressures can include persistent lawsuits, bureaucratic harassment, and attempts to cut off funding sources.
A standard tactic is to compel private businesses to stop advertising in the targeted media outlet or face negative consequences such as the denial of government contracts or tax complications. Businesses that agree to such illicit schemes ultimately damage their own interests and the principle of free competition. They may also be blacklisted by a future government.
A second threat to full and accurate information are digital social networks posing as “social media.” Rather than supplementing credible journalism and providing important and accurate new data, much of the “social media” contains a mixture of village gossip, unverified rumors, and deliberate disinformation. Unfortunately, large segments of the public are susceptible to simplistic sensationalism and absurd conspiracy theories. And some governments exploit these networks to strengthen their influences and disparage the credible media.
And third threat is foreign disinformation. It thrives when politics is highly polarized and much of the public has lost trust in its national leaders. Russian and other hostile trolls and influencers establish fraudulent news sites and distribute disinformation through social networks and corrupted media outlets. Their purpose is to weaken the principles and achievements of democracy. By attacking and curtailing the free media an incumbent government actually assists foreign adversaries in undermining a country’s national independence.
RUSSIA IS SUBVERTING NATO FROM WITHIN
Janusz Bugajski, January 2020
Unable to prevent NATO enlargement, Moscow is intensifying its campaign to subvert Alliance members from within. President Vladimir Putin views NATO as the main threat to Russia’s expansionism and calculates that soft power sabotage is a cheaper and more effective means to undermine Western unity than a military confrontation that would expose Russia’s weaknesses.
The Kremlin has threatened numerous European states not to join NATO, fearing that this enhances America’s presence in defending Europe. It has also developed a parallel strategy to neutralize Allied governments. Joining NATO certainly enhances state security, but it does not guarantee immunity from sub-military disruption, especially if some national leaders calculate that they can profit politically or personally from Moscow’s interventions.
For Russia, there are three categories of NATO states: the vulnerable, the exploitable, and the resisters. The vulnerable states are small countries bordering Russia or new members that are susceptible to pressure. The three Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are more exposed than any other NATO members and Russian officials combine disinformation and direct threats to pacify their governments and limit their engagement with the U.S. and other allies.
Fraudulent stories through official media and social networks are intended to delegitimize Baltic independence, stir inter-ethnic conflicts, and depict their governments as neo-fascists repressing hapless Russian minorities. Much of this propaganda is aimed at Western governments to convince them that the three countries are not worth defending in the event of confrontation with Russia.
NATO members in the Western Balkans are also vulnerable to Russian pressures. After failing to prevent Montenegro’s entry into NATO by using Serbian nationalists to overthrow its government, Moscow continues to support the anti-NATO opposition and disrupt the country’s progress toward EU accession. The Kremlin also failed to obstruct North Macedonia’s NATO entry but continues to inflame inter-ethnic tensions and incite nationalist extremists.
The exploitable states are mostly West European countries that can be penetrated through business, media, or political corruption. Germany, France, and Italy serve as classic examples, where a former Chancellor (Gerhard Schroeder), the leader of a major opposition party (Marine Le Pen), and a former Deputy Prime Minister (Matteo Salvini) have reportedly been financially recruited to serve Kremlin interests. Moscow’s penetration reaches deep into the political elites.
Some new NATO members have also proved vulnerable to Moscow’s influences. In Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Bulgaria personal connections have been developed with presidents or prime ministers to dissuade them from applying sanctions for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and to lobby for developing economic relations with Moscow. Questions are also raised about the commitment of each state to defend vulnerable neighbors in the event of a Russian attack.
Croatia has become a recent Kremlin target to curtail the development of energy projects that would challenge Russia’s monopolistic ambitions in regional gas supplies. Zagreb is also useful for Russia in keeping Bosnia-Herzegovina off balance by raising demands for a Croatian entity that mirrors Serb pressures on the fragile country.
The third category of states are the resisters, which have proved to be more impermeable to Russia’s manipulation. Poland and Romania are the two key examples, where politicians across the political spectrum have no illusions about Moscow’s neo-imperialism and where societies are largely immune to Russian state disinformation. They value NATO as an essential security structure that guarantees their independence and territorial integrity. With limited success, Moscow has tried to isolate both countries on the international arena by portraying them as perpetual anti-Russian troublemakers.
Putin is escalating his campaign to weaken NATO in order to pursue his attacks on Ukraine, to divide Georgia and Moldova, and to annex Belarus. In reaction, the Alliance must be better prepared to detect and combat Moscow’s infiltration especially by prosecuting state-sponsored corruption and countering disinformation. Above all, the tables must be turned on the Russian Federation where ethnic and regional cleavages driven by deteriorating living standards are challenging Moscow’s authoritarian rule.
Washington needs to return to core principles that accompanied the collapse of the Soviet Union by supporting democratization, pluralism, minority rights, decentralization, and genuine federalism in Russia. While Moscow seeks to divide the West and fracture NATO, Washington should promote regional and ethnic self-determination inside the Russian Federation. This would send a strong signal to a belligerent but ultimately fearful Kremlin that the West is fully capable of reacting effectively to its subterfuge, sabotage, and subversion.