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NO 125-126

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Helsinki Charter No. 125-126

November - December 2008



By Nikola Samardzic

Now that 2008 nears the end it is obvious that Serbia underwent a speedy process of soft putinization. Regardless of the political majority he assembled, institutionalization of President Boris Tadic's power took place outside institutions, outside the parliament in the first place. Both the opposition and tycoons were disciplined and hushed up, and the relations with all ex-Yugoslav republics sharpened. Secessionisms were renewed in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro. Anti-globalism, clericalism and chauvinism of quisling and anti-Semitic provenience were made politically correct and welcome in Serbia. Democracy and human rights were undermined also in neighborly EU member-countries - with traditionally authoritarian, Eastern-Orthodox and pre-modern cultures - such as Rumania, Bulgaria and Greece. The Serbian Parliament is stuck in obstruction and primitivism, the government is torn by ostensibly ideological conflicts, public enterprises and governmental agencies are chest high in legalized plunder, and regulatory bodies are marginalized. The government failed to keep up with its promises to citizens and partner obligations to the EU - it failed to arrest the fugitives from The Hague justice still at large and to pass legislation adjusting the administration to the requirements for free movement throughout the Schengen territory. Turning over the majority package of oil industry stocks to Russia is in sight. Evidently, that will be yet another abortive transaction followed by a new wave of ecological and mental decontamination of Serbia as a whole. Foreign policy turns anti-democratic too. Weakened democracy is usually accompanied by weakened human rights.

Instead of pursuing democratization, speeding up reform processes and engaging in Europeanization that would bring both Brussels and Prishtina closer to Belgrade, Serbia seems once again preoccupied with geopolitics - a shallow and charlatan discipline. The new international realities seem not to affect Serbia's political mentality, contaminated, probably more than it was during ex-Yugoslavia's disintegration, with anti-democratic populism permeated with mean messages of Russian and Kosovo myths.

Handcuffed by the crisis of institutions and finances, the EU is faced with limitations in its enlargement strategy for Western Balkans and is incapable of breaking with the energy dependence on Moscow and resisting the influence the latter realizes via its traditional clientele, including some new EU member-states, Serbia and Repubika Srpska. Global politics are again focused on American-Russian relationship. Whereas Russia seems to have taken all initiative in this relationship, the EU seems to be disunited and unreliable. It is only logical that the lowest ratings of the US ever contributed to such situation. Global optimism following Barack Obama's victory in the presidential run and his personal charisma primarily rely on the impression - that will turn wrong as the times go by - that his platform will end economic freedoms and boiled down American democracy to etatism, redistribution and populism.

Developments themselves speedily accumulate new questions. Is Russia intent to once again extend its borders and renew the strength and might of the Soviet empire? Will that process fuel the inner process of centralization of autocracy and deinstitutionalization, followed by more and more serious violation of human rights and freedoms?

Two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union and ten years after the "Black Monday" of August 17, 1998 Russia is again at the threshold of economic collapse but its foreign and domestic policies, resting on force and autocracy, skillfully veil the fact. After 1998 Russia managed to pull through thanks to the boom of oil and gas prices. The crisis brought about Vladimir Putin's authoritarian regime. Instead of reforms and democratization for which it was neither ready nor capable - and for that matter neither aware of - once again impoverished and humiliated nation needed a rule of a resolute individual. NATO air-raids against Serbia in 1999 made the first significant breakthrough in international relations. Motives for the campaign were not clear enough, the pictures of collateral suffering were more moving that the fate of the victims of Milosevic's regime, and the success of the intervention was limited since instead of European institutions the UN Security Council was authorized to decide the future status of Kosovo. In other words, since world politics are reflected not only globally but also at micro levels, their paradigms were repeated in Afghanistan, Iraq or Serbia - the points that would have been insignificant was there not for the general context.

In Serbia, the post-Soviet paradigm was hindering democratization and postponing transition. It was already on October 6 that the Russian diplomacy protected Milosevic from the consequences of October 5, 2000. The first democratically elected premier, Zoran Djindjic, was gunned down on March 12, 2003, against the same foreign policy backdrop. The same determinant marked reactionary and anti-Western policy of Vojislav Kostunica's two cabinets in the period 2004-2008. After his second victory in presidential elections and making of a coalition that included the parties from the Milosevic era, and by his regional policy and hindering of reformist legislation under the pretext of parliamentary obstruction by the growingly insignificant, anti-system party - subject to criminal law and lustration for its past, war crimes and violation of human rights - President Tadic abandoned European course. That happened under the influence of his nontransparent, obscure office and marketing combinatorics that imply wining over the nationalistic electorate, and in the chaos of system corruption marked by the surrender of the country's oil industry.

Putin's power rests on the weakness of his rivals in the world politics from which Russia was almost expelled, placed at its margins by the end of the past millennium. Putin also based his realism on the experience of the Second Chechen War. Massive and planned killing created a space for him in international relations and also in domestic arena since his excessive brutality in Chechnya drew public attention from the situation in Russia proper. And he was skillful enough maintain Russia in the orbit of the Western world by playing on NATO restraint and different interests of some European partners of Brussels and Washington.

After a decade of transitional humiliation marked by gangster plunder by allied nomenklatura, criminals, army and the Church, the Russian society, politically incompetent by tradition, welcomed the new autocrat's revengeful response to the West for the suffering post-totalitarian societies associate with the values of Western democracy and capitalism. And Soviet nostalgia, too, begun to bud. After 2000, seven years of economic growth recuperated the middle class but not as torchbearers of freedom and progress. Against the backdrop of system corruption and political culture of servility the middle class also looked upon the leader and his faithful elites. A new vertical architecture of interdependence and uncontrolled power was established. That made it possible for Putin to eliminate remnants of democracy and go for an aggressive foreign policy. He politically divided Ukraine, which became evident after the 2004 elections. Undemocratic regimes in former Soviet republics in the Caspian basin and Central Asia also looked upon him. Supporting South Ossetia's separatism he attacked Georgia in 2008. Though there was no analogy whatsoever between the aggression and any other intervention of the Soviet era, the attack revived the memories of Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Afghanistan in 1979. However, modalities of hegemony have considerably changed. The Soviet Russia had direct control over Eastern Europe, Caucasus and Baltic States, and was encouraging social movements and guerillas in Nicaragua, Cuba, South Yemen, Syria and Angola. Are we to be less concerned because the proportions of the Russian interventionism have shrunk?

Russian interventionism reopened the question of NATO's enlargement and role. The relations between the United States, Russia and political Islam generated one of the most complex controversies in international relations. The American administration was supporting the mujahideen in Afghanistan, the hotbed of assaults at the targets in the United States on September 11, 2001. Russian President Putin rushed to express his condolences to the White House and offer assistance in the war against Islamic extremism. However, this could also be perceived as a cynical plan to secure Western support for renewed actions against Chechen separatists. After his first summit meeting with Putin, President Bush came to the conclusion that he was a reformist, a man who "loves his wife as much as I love mine, and loves his daughters as much as I love mine."

The idyll begun to fade after American attack at Iraq in 2003. Putin's growingly evident nostalgia for the Soviet Union raised the question of renewed relations that had dominated the Cold War. Among other things, President Putin spoke highly of Yuri Andropov who had played a significant part in choking the rebellions in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Planned violation of human rights accompanied freezing of relations with the West. NATO responded by starting rocket shield negotiations with Poland and incorporating Georgia and Ukraine. Ukraine's experience of the century of Soviet and Russian domination - hunger provoked by the planned economy, interference in domestic affairs, post-Soviet skirmishes over the Black Sea fleet and intervention in Georgia - is most important. Poland has left behind deep traumas preceding the stages of its partition in the second half of the 18th century. In this context, closing of the vicious circle of thought by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is only ostensibly absurd. From a Soviet dissident to an ideologist of a new totalitarianism, authoritarian rule and Slav racism, Solzhenitsyn called for annexation of Belarus, North Kazakhstan and Ukraine, "Little Russia." Serbia's political regression - launched after the October 2000 coup by the entire, recuperated nomenklatura - took place at the same mental level.

The same level, however, limits Russia's new global strength. The collapse of the world finances and spiraling prices or oil in late 2008 laid bare its dependence on energy exports that almost boiled down to the dependence of European economies on Russian gas. Wealth of oligarchs - pillars of the authoritarian order - was melting away and instability of the new middle class, itself chest high in corruption, and overall misery of the society became obvious. That put an end to economic reasons for Russia's membership of the G8, which had been politically motivated, and reopened the question of its joining the World Trade Organization. By changing the Constitution Putin theoretically secured for himself another presidency and power till 2024. However, some major factors of Russia's new global power remained in the past. The cataclysm of Chechen wars silenced glasnost, perestroika and anyway disputable reforms. Rise of oil prices that, at a point, jumped at $140 per barrel, was curbed. It will be more and more difficult for Western leaders to justify their habitual admiration for the Russian leader by global realities - for, those realities, among other things, revealed their unforgivable lack of caution and vision. Putin's personal brutality in destroying the anyway weak opposition, chocking freedoms, closing down the media, picking up his favorite oligarchs, etc., was laid bare. The unsolved murder of Ana Politkovskaya on October 7, 2006 sent a message that was stronger than all the attempts - that also turned global - to hush it up and relativize.

Putin's global leadership and Russia's overpowering influence on anti-liberal regimes such as those in Brazil, India and China are logical outcomes of Bush administration's inability to set clear-cut foreign policy priorities. Having emerged not convincingly enough from the debris of September 11, the American foreign policy found itself stuck in Iraq and on energy dependence. There are also logical outcomes of the energy dependence of the EU that, under the pressure from extreme leftist groups, dared not resort to nuclear power plants. Moreover, the EU failed to institutionalize a common foreign policy and its leading member-states failed to simply impose it on the rest. All that was accompanied by hypocritical attitude towards partnership with the US, the real state of affairs in Russia and the leadership crisis.

The pattern marking the relationship between US, EU and Russia provided the official Serbia a clear ideological frame. Formally as of 2004, Serbia's administrations have been implementing the authoritarian model that denies the concept of integration into Europe, the rule of law, market reforms and transitional processes such as decentralization, denationalization, demonopolization and demilitarization. After 2003 Serbia has been trying to reestablish an authoritarian, post-Soviet model that had reincarnated communism in nationalism, political religion, anti-modernism and isolationism. The nomenklatura has joined hands with Church dignitaries and organized crime. It has even used the so-called gas arrangement with Russia for re-sovietization of foreign policy and economy the effects of which were marred relations with all ex-Yugoslav republics and stalled reforms and transition - meant to secure the sources of feudal partocracy and corruption.

It is crucial that this process is stopped - that's a message to Brussels and Washington. Individual pressure on members of the nomenklatura and careful observation of foreign policy activities by Rumania, Bulgaria and Greece still prone to support conservative political forces and anti-European and anti-American rhetoric would be most welcome in this context. The "gas question" is here totally irrelevant since Serbia could import through Hungarian and German agents instead of directly communicating with the Russian state, the communication that has contaminated Serbia's economy, policy and culture. Speeding up accession to the EU is an opportunity the Serb society has deserved by its very ability to differentiate tangible needs - not only material but also democratic - from anti-European values and sentiments. Such an opportunity would provide an institutional frame for further democratization the denial of which threatens to spread from official politics and culture to the domain of human rights.


NO 125-126

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