Monday, September 18, 2017

Sport – a useful tool of diplomacy

(Photo: Flickr amsr1)

The present geopolitical situation is significantly tense due to nuclear tests of North Korea. Even though, latest events on the Korean peninsula are topic number one at the United Nations Security Council, there is still a small chance of improving this issue via sport diplomacy. A few weeks ago, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, said that North Korea will be given time to decide whether it will take part at the Winter Olympics 2018 in South Korea’s Pyongchang or not. What is more, North Korea could be involved at the forthcoming Olympic Games although its athletes would not have met the qualification standards. Isn't it captivating that in such these comprehensive political standoffs could sport be the potential solution?

Do not be surprised – term sport diplomacy does not have any codified or comprehensive definition therefore it is hard to clearly categorize it. It is often seen as part of public or cultural diplomacy but equating them would deprive sport diplomacy of its distinct ways and peculiarities. From a political point of view, sport diplomacy can be understood as managed and targeted communication in cases where interested parties are willing to solve international problems of a political nature through sport.

What’s fascinating about sport diplomacy is that factors such as the state regime or establishment are often receded into the background. Sport visibly affects opinions on individual states in the world. In many cases, sport is apolitical force through which actors try to influence international relations.
There are several concrete examples when sport diplomacy improved relations between the states that had conflict. In 1971, "Ping-pong diplomacy" noticeably improved relations between the United States of America and China. In this case, table tennis became a starting lane for the beginning of the establishment of diplomatic relations between two mentioned states with utterly different political administrations. At that time, few months earlier, this would have been seen as infeasible. Another example is "Hockey diplomacy." This term reflects series of 8 ice hockey matches between Canada and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in year 1972, during the Cold War. Again, relations between two states with different political regimes were improved. In 2011, relations between Pakistan and India were eased also through the "Cricket diplomacy" which improved the bilateral geopolitical relations.

The examples of sport diplomacy in practical terms are also can be seen at the Olympic Games, during which politically divided nations have been marching under one Olympic flag. These were the cases of the United Team of Germany at the opening ceremonies of the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne, Rome (1960) and Tokyo (1964). Another example occurred at the Olympic Games in Sydney 2000 and Athens 2004, where teams from North and South Korea also presented themselves at the opening ceremony under the Korean Unification Flag.

In case of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) created the 10-member Refugee Olympic Team with the same status as all other National Olympic Committees. The goal of the IOC was to deliver universal message of raising the awareness of refugees in need. This was a demonstration of how sport can be used to spread human values and solidarity in society. If sport is used in the right way it can create social inclusion and ease the tension in many international situations.
Sport and politics are also mixed together. In February this year, there was the battle of leadership in the Conservative Party of Canada. During one televised debate in Edmonton (Alberta), only one amongst other thirteen candidates Rick Peterson, has been wearing ice hockey jersey with number 97 of the NHL team Edmonton Oilers. Originally it´s a jersey worn by young Canadian ice hockey star Connor McDavid. This was meant to help bring sympathies of audience and potential votes to this candidate by effort to associate himself with admired ice hockey player.

Unfortunately, link between politics and sport had also negative connotations throughout the history. Politics have been seen as either interfering with sport or as a cover-up for the political situation in the country.
In 1978, the football World Cup was held in Argentina. Although Argentinians won the whole tournament for the first time, it did not musk the severe reality of then social situation. Outside the football pitches, the military government (junta), was set up and had been causing brutal reprisals against the political and human rights.

Aside from disgusting abuse of the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin by Hitler's Nazi propaganda, there are more examples of how sport and politics were linked together during the Olympic Games. An illustration of this were events where the U. S. government has forced National Olympic Committee of the USA to boycott 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. Subsequently, the same decision was made by government of Soviet Union four years later – the boycott of the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles was declared. The real reason of boycotts was the political tension typical for Cold War bipolar world.

This summer, Hungary hosted the World Judo Championships and the International Swimming Federation championships and also tried to apply for hosting 2024 Olympic Games (the bid was later withdrawn). "Apart from the FIFA World Cup, which is another matter, there’s no major world event that is beyond Budapest’s capabilities," Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said. By year 2020, the government of Hungary will have invested quite large amounts of money for sport infrastructure (building or renovation of more than 30 football stadiums). But all magic comes with a price, in this case – the cost of approximately €709 million. Not all Hungarians share enthusiasm for spending on sport projects though and such this spending see as burden to economy. In general, engagement of the state´s government through the sport for its ambition to shaping its international recognition is perceived variously.

The matter of fact is that sport is the social phenomenon and also universal language which the whole global society is speaking with. Even against differences which are present in society, sport has a potential to solve complex problems which cross the border of one state. Complicated language of politicians and diplomats can be easily misunderstood but the feelings of victory achieved in winning match are universal and well known to almost everybody.

From what has been written I would like to make two conclusions – A single football match itself will not provide world peace. But sport can be a stepping-stone or catalyst for building the meaningful political dialogue or even for the establishment of diplomatic relations between states, where politics failed.

Mário Kvanka
GLOBSEC Policy Institute

Friday, August 18, 2017


(Photo: Open Society Foundations)

In 1995, I was 17 years old and I wanted to see the world (meaning territory behind the Velvet Curtain; one-day trip to Hradec Kralove did not count). 
When holiday time came, I jumped on the bus to Britain. After 22-hour ride (all passengers were meek and ordered; even if incidental bus stops turned out to be places without proper toilets) the whole bus went strangely quiet at the solemn anticipation of judgment at the border. Where to hide extra amounts of cigarettes so that customs do not get them? As we were getting closer to the immigration office, we passed the people with sad and disappointed faces by the side of the road. They were refused entry and were trying to hitch a ride back home. You could tell by their incongruous clothing and wild look in the eye they were Poles. I looked the same – my second-hand shop jacket and Sunday best jeans with a marble pattern appeared less fashionable in the civilised world than I originally thought.

I stepped out to face the immigration officer. At his little desk the radio was on, ironically it played the Queen’s “Heaven for everyone”:
In this world of cool deception
Just your smile can smooth my ride
These troubled days of cruel rejection, hmm
You come to me, soothe my troubled mind.

The interview was tough – detailed account of my life was needed. I had to show how much money I had (all my teenage life’s savings) as well as the invitation letter (the officer called my companion’s aunt to check if she was expecting us). I dreamed of the summer job of strawberry picker which would allow me to go to the university in Warsaw. I could not believe it but I made it. They let me though. “Are you excited to be in the UK?” one of the stern-faced officials asked. “I do.” I replied, momentarily forgetting the grammar.

What followed was sweet and sour. Britain was full of vivid colours, so different from grey post-communist Poland. Whenever asked about my citizenship, I learnt quickly it was so much better to say “Poland” with a slur, as it was so much better for your interlocutor to hear “Holland”. Jokes reflected the stereotype well...
Q: Why aren't there any suicides in Poland?
A: You can't kill yourself jumping out of a basement window.

There was a prevalent stereotype of poor, desperate, inarticulate Pole living in the shadow economy, on the margins of the Western European societies.
Q: What does it say on the bottom of a Coke bottle in Poland? A: Open the other end.

And here is another one:
Guy walks into a bar, sits down and starts to make conversation with guy at next table. "Want to hear the world's worst Polish joke?" #2 says "Sure, but before you tell it, let me tell you something. See those two bikers over there by the door? They're Polish. And those two bouncers by the bar? They're Polish too! The Bartender?? Polish!! And one more thing pal, I'm Polish too!!!  Now.... still want to tell that joke?" "Hell no," replies #1, "I don't want to have to explain it 6 times!"

I soon learnt that tasting the West can be a bit like licking the candy shop window. To run the risk and seek employment on a farm exposed you to the risk of deportation (this happened to poor Maciej; having spent a few days in the detention centre; meals at her Majesty’s cost provided), abuse from dishonest contractors or employers (Jacek got beaten up for eating some of the beans he was supposed to pick; he fled in the dead of night as his oppressor went to fetch the gun). Rough-sleeping Poles were the common sight at the Victoria Coach Station.

I took up a holiday job: I picked celery for 2 pounds an hour. It ended badly: the plants were sprinkled with some fertiliser or insecticide that gave me severe burns on the skin. I worked hand in hand with a Kurd who told me the story of his life: how Saddam Hussain killed all his family through a lethal gas attack at his village. On my way back on the ferry to France. I watched Europeans enjoying themselves, laughing and drinking.

This is a typical experience of the Pole/Slovak who came into adulthood in 1990s. This is a common fate of Belarusians and Ukrainians in Poland today. Is it so hard to see the connection between the EU and prosperity of people?

I returned home with a conviction that it would be good if Poles and fellow Central Europeans could be the EU citizens. I wanted Poles to move freely and take up employment where they wish, participate in the Socrates programme, enjoy the same status as the Dutch or Portuguese youth. I became a sceptic of Euroscepticism. I moved on to become a civil servant leading Poland to become part of the EU. My heart overflew with happiness on 1 May 2004. I started to believe my poor country would escape the curse of history – to be placed on the periphery of Europe. In the following years, the Poles enjoyed the full access to the single market; and the country was back on the map of Europe after terrible 50 years of communism. The Polish jokes were just jokes again, with Western Europeans realising Central Europeans are good people like everybody else.

It took our region over two decades to become fully-fledged members of the EU. It did not happen by itself of course – it took a lot of blood, sweat and tears on the part of bureaucrats, intellectuals, entrepreneurs or simply hard-working people. Prosperity in Central Europe increased not solely due to the EU membership, but it was not a pure coincidence that Eastern European countries which did not join the EU did not fare so well.

Today I hear voices in Central Europe that the EU is unfair (because Germans, instead of paying for the cohesion policy, want to have a say in governance of Europe), morally spoilt (because the rights of sexual minorities are guaranteed), anti-Christian (because there is separation of state and church) and living hell (because it dared to accept refugees from war-torn countries that happen to be Muslim). I do not think these complaints make a lot of sense. I do not buy politicians’ talk how evil EU bureaucracy is, how immoral or failed European Western European societies are, how big a threat to national sovereignty the EU can be.

Only the EU can guarantee freedoms on the Single Market. And do not be mistaken, when Britain eventually leaves the EU, it will make sure the movement of people between Britain and the EU will be as seamless as possible. It is the third countries which will suffer because of tightening of the immigration regime.

I have been in the antechamber of Europe before and I do not want to go back to that status. When it comes to humiliation at border checks, I have had my share.
This is a long way to say thank you to Mr Robert Fico who said several times that he wants Slovakia to be in the centre of Europe. I wish other V4 leaders followed.

Jakub Wiśniewski, PhD
Research Director
GLOBSEC Policy Institute

Monday, August 14, 2017

Stormy summer in Venezuela – what’s next?

Gone are the days when thousands of people gathered in the streets of Caracas to worship the President Hugo Chávez. The day of this charismatic and controversial leader’s funeral was probably the last day that Venezuela saw the crowd on the streets in immense proportions. “Chavez is not dead. He lives on in every one of us,” said Johnny, a mototaxi driver at the funeral. Somehow, when Chavismo lost its leader but foremost run out of money, it lost its appeal. To give a simple example, while Chavez's approval ratings accounted for 57% before he died, Mr Maduro gets only one third of it (18%) according  to (respectively) Gallup and Datanálisis, the pollsters.

Today nobody doubts that the GREAT leader and his lofty ideas died four years ago. By creating social programmes and services known as “missions” and subsidizing food and energy, people felt their standards of life improved. Additionally, his charisma and the gift of conviction made his compatriots believe that their voices are finally heard. In reality, Chávez left a largely negative legacy, including the deterioration of democratic institutions, threats to freedom of expression, high rates of crime and murder (the highest in South America), and an economic situation characterized by high inflation, collapsing infrastructure, and food scarcities.

The situation has worsened under President Maduro due to two reasons. First, the rapid decline in the price of oil (main source of national income), which now costs 49 USD per barrel to compare with 138 USD in 2008, and mismanagement of economy made it impossible to keep financing the socialist model created by President Hugo Chávez. A combination of the former plus and the lack of charisma and good oratory skills of Nicolas Maduro led to a multifaceted political, social and economic crisis. Venezuelan economy contracted by 10% last year. The IMF forecasts that by the end of this year it will be 23% smaller than in 2013. Inflation in 2017 will probably reach 1,600%. According to a study by three universities, 82% of households now live in poverty. That compares with 48% in 1998, when Chávez came to power.

Price controls and the expropriation of private firms have led to shortages of food and medicine and made people’s life extremely difficult. Grocery shopping takes approximately three hours (if there is anything you can afford to buy). To get a state-funded bag of food called “solidarity bag” (“bolsa solidaria”) from CLAP (the state funded community centres) for which one has to wait up to one month, the family has to be very cautiously screened. Bolsas solidarias are only distributed to the supporters of the regime and contain very basic ingredients such as 1l of milk, 1 kg of beans, 1l of oil, 2 kg of rice per family per month. The new study shows that over the past year 74% of Venezuelans suffer from “Maduro’s diet” and lost an average of 8.7kg in weight.

The separation of power, the rule of law and the democratic institutions are gone in Venezuela. A Constituent Assembly that was established at the beginning of August have basically erased the Parliamentary Assembly controlled by the opposition since 2015. Since Mr Maduro has lost his majority two years ago (he got 5.6m votes against 7.7m for opposition), he does everything he can to stay in power. The Constituent Assembly, which nominally serves to rewrite the constitution, is designed to legitimise President’s suppression of the opposition and to take over a legislative power.

As a consequence, more Venezuelans flee to neighbouring countries such as Colombia, Brazil or Peru. Some countries such as Chile open their doors, offering asylum to those who request it at their Embassy in Caracas. The scholars estimate that perhaps 2 million Venezuelans (out of the population of 31 million) have already fled the country in search for new home. Apart from the violent clashes between protesters and security forces (in almost four months of protests, more than 100 people have died), Venezuela has a high rate of extrajudicial killings by security forces and the highest crime  victimization and homicide rates in the region. The more people emigrate, the weaker the opposition becomes. It is already difficult to attract the crowds to the streets.

Every day, Venezuela becomes more and more isolated internationally. It is not only due to the fact that ten airlines, including Iberia, AirFrance, Delta, United Airlines, have suspended their flights to Caracas, but because the regional allies are turning their backs on Nicolás Maduro. First, Venezuela was suspended from MERSOCUR trade group. Now its main regional economic partners – Brazil, Argentina, Colombia and Mexico - are showing their discontent and do not recognise the convocation of the new constituent assembly. As for now, Venezuela can count with its ideological allies such as Cuba and China but also Russia, Bolivia, Ecuador, Salvador, Nicaragua and some Caribbean island-states.

A lot depends of course on the United States, which is Venezuela’s key trade partner (it accounts for 38% of its trade). Behind Canada and Saudi Arabia, Venezuela is the third-largest foreign crude oil supplier to the United States. If the US would cut off the oil imports from Venezuela, the country would be at risk of default. This could potentially trigger the pacted-transition, but it would also have the negative consequences. First, because it would hit the most the regular people. Second, it would be a confirmation and great excuse for President Maduro to blame the US and “devil” Western capitalism for catastrophic situation in Venezuela. The recent implications of the US military intervention in Venezuela, can unfortunately backfire by strengthening Mr. Maduro’s position.

Unfortunately, there is no good solution for Venezuela. The best option would be a negotiated transition where Mr Maduro gave up the power in exchange for instance for legal immunity for him and other senior Venezuelan officials. However, there is no sign that the regime will voluntarily surrender power. The negotiations triggered by Pope Francis in October 2016 failed. Additionally, the opposition cannot agree on a single, charismatic leader who could appeal to the crowds and confront the regime. Finally, the army seems to be in line with President Maduro, who equipped them with control over food imports and distribution, ports and airports, a bank and the mining industry. Even though some generals are fed up with the state of play, they don’t see any guarantee that the opposition would be able to run the country.

Despite this bad weather scenario, the international community should not give up on Venezuela. The USA, Latin America and the Europeans should join efforts, harmonise the the individual sanctions and pressure the government to restart the negotiations with the opposition. The alternative would be humanitarian crisis and a slide into generalised violence that would have serious consequences for the region.

Dr. Kinga Brudzińska
Senior Research Fellow
GLOBSEC Policy Institute

Friday, August 11, 2017

The Curious Summer Happenings in the Balkans

(Photo: Twitter)

On 1 August 2017 in Skopje—under an increased police presence on the streets—the governments of the Republic of Bulgaria and the Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) signed a Treaty for Good Neighbourliness, Friendship and Cooperation. While the name itself does not suggest a ground-breaking accomplishment, this Treaty has been in the making since 1999. What has changed for both countries to finally agree on a binding common text?

Bulgaria was the first to recognise Republic of Macedonia as an independent nation- state in 1992. As often in the Balkans history, traditions, culture and language are intertwined and complicated matters. Relations between Bulgaria and Macedonia has been deteriorating based on disagreements about historical events and personalities, recognition of the Macedonian language and, further, the recognition of Macedonian minority in Bulgaria and Bulgarian minority in Macedonia.

In 1999 the two governments signed a Joint Declaration of Good Neighbourliness, Friendship and Cooperation. Note that this was not a binding document—necessary to be ratified in the respective parliaments. Such agreement would not have passed through at the time. Still, the language was bold with two important concessions.  First, the Joint Declaration was signed in two original copies, one in Bulgarian language, as defined by the Constitution of Bulgaria and one in Macedonian language, as defined by the Constitution of Macedonia. In practice, the Bulgarian government did not recognise the Macedonian language, but it recognised its defined use within Macedonia. Second, in the Declaration was included the assurance that Macedonia, through its Constitution, does not seek to interfere in the internal politics of Bulgaria as it pertains to people living in Bulgaria that are not Macedonian citizens. Why was this inclusion sought after? Article 49 of the Macedonian Constitution refers to the protection of Macedonians living in Greece and Bulgaria—proclaiming the existence of Macedonian minorities. The non-binding Joint Declaration, as predicted, did not ease the tensions. Different political entities, intellectual circles, social movements and the governments themselves continued to fume over unresolved issues.

Fast forward to 2017. The current government in Macedonia is attempting to distance itself from the past politics and policies. It seeks to re-start the bids for NATO and EU membership and to strengthen (grow) its economy and increase financial flows. It also appears to work towards regaining the trust of Western institutions and investors. Macedonia was blocked in the past by Greece in their attempt to join NATO (as part of their conflict over the official name of Republic of Macedonia) and the outlook to EU accession has also been rather grim. In 2017 the government in Macedonia has changed after more than ten years (2006- 2016) in the hands of Nikola Gruevski (VMRO- DPMNE) and a year of political crisis. The new prime minister Zoran Zaev (Social Democratic Party) was chosen amid an attack on the Parliament by an angry mob (suspected to be encouraged by different domestic and foreign influences). The country found itself in the world news but for the wrong reasons, revealing a polarised society with high tensions between the ethnic Macedonians and ethnic Albanians, lagging economy and infrastructure, and political crisis.
Meanwhile, Bulgaria did become a member of NATO and the EU (even if among the poorest). Without suggesting that Bulgaria has done an excellent job—certainly it is lagging in many areas to the other EU members—the country has stayed internally stable and away from serious ethnic tensions (with 8% ethnic Turkish and 4.5% Roma population). More importantly, the Bulgarian government is preparing for the Presidency of the Council of the European Union in 2018. One of its main priorities is to deliver “tangible European perspective for all Western Balkan countries.” The government is eager to show its ability to resolve issues, without outside mediation, and the ability to be a leader. Additionally, the Bulgarian government will be pursuing during the Presidency its own national interests, including entry into the Schengen zone, entry into ERM II and favourable allocation of European funds in the new post- 2020 period. Already in July 2017, the prime minister of Bulgaria Boyko Borisov met with his counterpart Zoran Zaev in Sofia to negotiate the Treaty. Days later he was in Athens meeting with the prime ministers of Greece and Serbia to discuss closer relations on the Balkans and perhaps mediating support for Republic of Macedonia.

What is in the new Treaty? It is heavily based on the Joint Declaration from 1999. Yet, there are several important points to be noted. First, there is an attempt to address long-standing issues with the interpretation of history by both countries. The history of Bulgaria and Macedonia has been referred as “common” and joined celebrations are planned. A joint committee will be created to tackle historical questions (certain pessimism is present about the vitality of such committee). Second, the question about the official recognition of respective minorities is left unresolved. The Treaty states that each country can protect the rights of its citizens (not minorities) in accordance to the international law. Third, the Bulgarian government will officially and openly lobby for Macedonia to become a member of NATO and the EU. Fourth, several statements commit the governments to work on regional projects and toward more liberalised market. These commitments are perhaps among the most substantive in the Treaty. Both, Bulgaria and Macedonia seek improvements of their infrastructure (opportunity to receive European funds and corporate investments) and to grow their economies (freer movement of goods, services, capital and people). It is not surprising that two additional Memorandums were signed at the ceremony on 1 August. One Memorandum concerns the building of Corridor 8—an intermodal Pan-European transportation infrastructure that connects Italy, Albania, Macedonia and Bulgaria. The other Memorandum deals with possibilities in building gas connection.

So, what is next? The signing of the Treaty was not an international sensation with no mentioning on BBC or CNN, for example. Yet, Federica Mogherini’s office (High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security) was delighted to hear the news, so were the US State Department and the government of Germany. Logically, Western governments and institutions feel as Macedonia, at least for now, will not slip away under Russian and/or nationalistic influences. Some questions remain, however. Within Macedonia, the Treaty has been accepted with mixed feelings. The main disagreements regarding language and minority protections have not been resolved. Greece is also uneasy about the change of balance in relations on the Balkans, as Bulgaria is attempting to rise as a regional leader. Russia has been relatively quiet but they do not favour any further enlargements of NATO and the EU. In the end, the next year will show us if the Treaty will have a practical effect and the good intentions will not stay only on paper. If Bulgaria manages to use its Presidency wisely, regarding its commitment to the Western Balkans, then we might see indeed a renewed European interest of the region and a new regional leader. Then again, the never ending and complicated historical, cultural and linguistic disagreements on the Balkans have been time and time again serving as significant barriers to its successful development…

Vladislava Gubalova
Future of Europe Programme
GLOBSEC Policy Institute

Friday, August 4, 2017

Armenia’s Karabakh Syndrome

(Photo: Twitter)

On July 17 I drove by the Special Police Battalion Barracks on Movses Khorenatsi street in Erebuni sub-urb of Yerevan, Armenia. There was a big crowd of policemen and policewomen gathered in front of the entrance with wreaths and flowers in their hands and in parade uniforms. By coincidence, I was witnessing the commemoration ceremony for 3 police officers killed on that place exactly one year ago by a group or “armed men” called themselves “Sasna Tsrer” (Daredevils of Sasun – medieval Armenian legend), who stormed the barracks with guns blasting and held hostage several police officers for over two weeks. “Armed men” were mostly veterans of the Karabakh war from the 90s and the Armenian society became divided in those hot July days by their desperate act. One side of the divide was convinced that they were terrorists who used violence to pursue political goals. The other side – including a number of opposition leaders and activists – claimed that they were heroes living in desperate times that required desperate acts, even the use of violence.

The demands of “armed men” were immodest – the Government of Armenia should resign because it is too corrupt and crooked; President should step down because he is of the same kind; their compatriots who were being held in prison should be released and – very interestingly – Armenia should not compromise with Azerbaijan on the Nagorno Karabakh conflict resolution. “Not a square centimeter, bought out with our blood, should be given to Turks” (a pejorative for Azerbaijanis), they declared. I was in Yerevan at that time as well and stayed not very far from the barracks in Erebuni. I could hear gunshots and explosions - especially at night time. I wrote about that event in this paper.

Fast forward to Armenia in Summer 2017 – Armenian society remains to be divided in understanding of the “Sasna Tsrer” act. What paradoxically unites it, is the so-called “Karabakh syndrome”. At least that seems to be one of the outcomes of the parliamentary elections that took place on April 2, 2017. All the political parties (coalitions) that made it to the Parliament (4) were united in their approach towards the Nagorno Karabakh conflict - there should be no compromises with Azerbaijan. The only party that run for the elections with a compromise programme on the Nagorno Karabakh issue – the Armenian National Congress (HAK) - did not make it through the threshold and to the Parliament.

There were two events from 2016 that shaped the programme of most of the Armenian political parties on the “Karabakh issue” prior to the elections. One was the violent act of the “Sasna Tsrer” group. The second was the fact, that the parliamentary elections took place exactly one year after the worst clashes along the Nagorno Karabakh contact line (1. – 5.4.2016) when hundreds of soldiers on both sides were killed in a short four-day skirmish that resulted in Armenia losing two highlands to Azerbaijan. It was the first minor military victory of  the Azerbaijani forces in 22 years since they lost the War over Nagorno Karabakh (1988-94).

This military event that went down in history as “the Four-Day War of 2016naturally stirred nationalistic moods on both sides. Azerbaijan thinks that the Four-Day War broke the myth of Armenian invincibility and they got appetite for some more of the Nagorno Karabakh territory. Azerbaijan is openly unsatisfied with the current status quo and lengthy diplomatic processes trying to find a compromise solution for over 20 years now with no end in sight. The country has been threatening to solve the conflict by force for a long time and at the same time investing huge amounts of money into procurement of new weaponry. Armenia on the other hand was fine with the status quo prior to the Four-Day War as its “protégé” – (theoretically) independent yet unrecognized “Republic of Artsakh” – was holding the whole territory of the historical Karabakh (in Armenian “Artsakh”) as well as the seven surrounding regions of Azerbaijan. Following the Four-Day War, there are strong voices that Armenia should retake the two lost areas with force.

This is a quite specific situation. Both sides are preparing for war and do not believe that diplomatic negotiations that have been going on for over 23 years by now will result in an acceptable solution. The tension has been growing on the contact line. Shoot-outs have been happening on a regular basis; and both sides have reported victims every week. The casualties are mostly young and inexperienced recruits of the conscription service aged 18 – 20 who should rather be sitting in school rooms than in dirty trenches. Each of these skirmishes has a potential to grow into something bigger. Given the lack of international observers and the weakening of influence of some important global players (the US and Russia being pre-occupied elsewhere) in the conflict region, there is a major risk that the conflict could grow into a full-scale war.      

A full-scale conflict would be devastating for both countries, no matter which one is the richer. But keeping one’s own citizens under this perpetual threat of the outside enemy helps solidify regimes on both sides of the contact line. While Azerbaijan is openly a hereditary authoritarian regime (now with the First Lady being also the country’s Vice-President), in Armenia there is at least a semblance of democratic competition – there is real opposition albeit quite weak at the moment. The real power, however, rests within the oligarchic system based on corruption and personal ties.   

The “Karabakh syndrome” therefore looms over the Armenian administration. On the one hand, it helps mobilize support and loyalty against a strong external enemy. But on the other hand, it limits manoeuvring space for the Armenian diplomacy to seek a compromise solution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict that would be the a strongly preferred option by the international community (over the open conflict, obviously). This can lead to a deadly spiral with the already long process of mediated negotiations will continue to be hampered by uncompromising positions of both parties. It will lead to further frustration over the outcomes and consequently to potential further escalation of violence on the contact line resulting in more young lives perished in the process.  

No wonder that the country is preparing itself also for the possibility of war. The preparation consists not only of military exercises and drills but also preparation of the society. This includes also psychological preparation. The most interesting phenomenon I witnessed is the trending Armenian pop-music. In some of the most recent video clips of popular Armenian singers, there are usually back-up dancers dressed in Armenian military field uniforms dancing and cheering. The same pattern repeats in a number of the latest Armenian pop-music hits subconsciously glorifying soldiers and their role of “protectors of the Motherland”. 

In the meantime, arrested gunmen of the “Sasna Tsrer” are being tried in the court. The proceedings are criticized by the opposition who claims that those are political processes and amount to the mishandling of justice. Even foreign observers voiced their concerns about the fact that defendants are being beaten regularly by the court guards. On the other hand, the defendants refuse authority of the court and use the hearings for openly calling the public for another armed revolt in the streets.

Having witnessed events of the last summer first hand, every time I hear an explosion now in Yerevan in the night, I listen carefully to understand whether something is happening again or it is just fireworks. Luckily, so far it has been the latter. 

Ján Cingel
European Neighbourhood Programme
GLOBSEC Policy Institute

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Macron as an inspiration: did he provide a recipe to revive the trust in the EU?

Note of caution: the author of this blog believes that positive effects and impact of the European Union (EU) on the its member states is incontestable and thus did not deem necessary to demonstrate the importance of using and pushing for the positive EU narrative within its member states.

The trust in the EU among its citizens is comparably lower to what it was eight to ten years ago. As the autumn 2016 Standard Eurobarometer mapping the attitudes of the citizens in (still) 28 member states showed, while 48% of people trusted in the EU in the first half of 2006, only 33% did so 10 years later. Ever since 2010, the percentage of those who tend not to trust the EU has been higher than of the ones who do so (with the latest polls showing 18% difference between the two). The EU’s image has been experiencing similar trends. Although the positive image still dominates the negative, the former has declined from 46% to 35% in ten years.

In general, the reasoning is connected to the widely debated tiredness and frustration in the aftermath of crises the EU has faced and still faces today (the steepest decline in trust and image is indeed observable in 2009 and 2010). And, naturally, due to the discontent with the status quo and crises-management, the population seeks for changes. As the course of history has shown, this dynamic is not new. Likewise, it is no novelty that political leaders must respond and react to these frustrations on a constant basis. The political rhetoric in many parts of the region often seems to copy, or even cherish, the negative attitudes and criticism though. It seems as if, in many parts of the EU, the need for change or revision has only been seen as a free space for critique and blame-game. As if the only viable ways of fixing a complex machine was either pushing it manually against its own will, taking as many components out as possible to make it a simple easy-to-fix old-timer, or just turning it into a scrap.

But the story of Emmanuel Macron has shown there might still be a strong will to upgrade the machine. During his election campaign, the positive narrative about the EU was evident, emphasised and strongly put forward. Naturally, a wider mixture of factors has contributed to his success. Many have been linking it to the “fresh wind” he brought onto the French political scene. Detachment from the traditional party, younger age, relatively low prior engagement in politics (which allowed him to play on an anti-establishment card), and a well-developed skill of persuasive public speaking combined resulted in a great portion of charisma capable of intruding the French political scene and blurring the traditional left vs. right division. Nonetheless, a solid and open support for a stronger EU might have as well been regarded as the “fresh wind”. Compared to popular Eurosceptic (or at last careful) treatment of these topics in many parts of the region, Macron’s strong emphasis on the bright future in a more integrated and united EU felt quite refreshing (e.g. Europe makes us bigger, Europe makes us stronger or Leaving Europe, that's a war).

In the era of questioning of globalisation and fears that the openness might be on the retreat, the candidate in a country with strong patriotism and historical pride openly supported and advocated for openness and EU values, and refused to add up to the blame-game towards Brussels. During one of his rallies in late April, he even addressed the crowds with the words: “…once there is a difficulty, we explain it as the problem of Brussels, as the problem of Europe. No: it’s our fault because Brussels, it’s us, it’s our sovereign choice. It is, first of all, ours.”

His technique of reviving the trust in the EU’s capacities was similar to the quote above. Case by case, argument by argument, he was countering the claims building on nationalism and Euroscepticism. What is more, his strong point was not only in using factual claims refuting any misconception of the EU, its functioning and its effects on the country; he has shown ability to use them and sell them to public by provoking emotions and sentiments of hope towards better tomorrows.

His successful campaign tactic now seems to bear some fruit to the project in the near future. The question is, to what extent did a good campaign strategy, charisma and glory of an individual dominated over the thematic priorities and goals he advocated for. This will be observable in two ways. Firstly, the polls about the EU’s popularity in the following years might be giving us a hint whether there might be any possible correlation between the leader’s rhetoric and the public opinion.

Secondly, the achievement of his campaign did not keep others restless. In Hungary, a young people’s movement Momentum is planning to intrude into Hungarian politics by scrapping left vs. right divisions and bringing a new fresh “blood” onto the scene. Likewise, after being appointed a leader of Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), the current Austrian foreign minister Sebastian Kurz (became the youngest foreign minister in 2013) has announced to remodel his party by putting forward a list of independent candidates instead of the party’s constituency selection process. This also means that, in the next parliamentary election in October, the party will be presented as “The Sebastian Kurz list - The New People's Party”. Many outputs (see e.g. DW, The Guardian or The Telegraph) have been comparing the strategy to Macron. Likewise, there is a hope that Kurz could overrule the currently popular far-right FPÖ in a similar manner as Macron did with the Front National. However, whereas the latter managed to unite the country against the anti-EU party, the former is predicted to steal a portion of voters from the Eurosceptic FPÖ. That, as well as his speeches, give us a hint that his stance towards the EU will not copy Macron’s line.

Nonetheless, the now President of France has proven that the combination of the “fresh wind” together with the strong pro-EU stance is doable and the support for the EU does not have to be regarded as a narrative of the so-called “old establishment”. In any case, it will be interesting to observe whether and how the political actors will react to it – whether the actors with opportunities to bring the former will adopt the latter, and vice versa. As dynamic as the political scene can be, anything is possible. 

Dominika Hajdu
Strategic Communication Programme
GLOBSEC Policy Institute

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Caliphate At Three

(Cars burnt and destroyed by clashes are seen on a street during a battle between Iraqi forces and Islamic State militants, in Mosul. Photo: REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani)
What a difference three years make. In 2014, we saw Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the so-called “Caliph” of the so-called Islamic State, lead prayers at the Mosul’s Great Mosque. In July 2017, the same mosque is in ruins and the Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi,  “ announce[s] […] the end and the failure and the collapse of the terrorist state of falsehood and terrorism which the terrorist Daesh [Islamist State/ISIS/ISIL]  announced from Mosul.”

Of course, prime minister al-Abadi is not completely right. ISIS still controls (some) territory and its ‘capital’ of Raqqa is still holding. Nonetheless, discussions already abound as ‘what comes after ISIS.’ All seem to agree that ISIS, in some way, shape or form, will live on, and that it will probably morph into a terrorist organisation, no longer able to control territory. At the same time, many stress the fact that even its defeat, or in reality – weakening, will not solve all of the Middle Eastern, or even Iraqi or Syrian problems. Others also underscore the threat from its non-Middle Eastern members who seemingly stand ready to e.g. return to Europe and stage series of more or less spectacular terrorist attacks, while linking up with the local ISIS sympathisers. In short, things will not get much better, expect further trouble and do not rejoice.

One thing which I feel has not yet been stressed enough in these deliberations, although Peter Neumann raised this issue at this year’s GLOBSEC, is the fact that we probably underestimate the effect of ISIS on the future of global jihadism, and as a consequence, international or global terrorism. Regardless of whether the Caliphate will survive another year, it will – at least, in a skeletal form, some of its alumni, either Iraqi, Syrian or “foreign fighters,” will be the leaders of the next generation(s) of jihadists. They will be the role models, the ones to which younger followers look up to, they will act as force multipliers for different, smaller jihads around the globe, and finally, they will plot, scheme and sometimes, stage spectacular terrorist attacks. Yes, many will die in the meantime, others will be intercepted by different police forces and security services but some will survive and continue their terrorist careers in different countries or organisations. They will bring all of their expertise and especially their contacts, and networks with them. Last but not least, potentially, there are thousands of candidates for such jihadist conveyor belts, with more than 12 -15 000 foreign fighters present in the ranks of ISIS in March 2017 alone plus thousands of Iraqis and Syrians fighting for the organisation on different fronts.  

To appreciate this point, simply consider the career of one individual – the current leader of Al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri. His involvement in conspiratorial, clandestine anti-state activity dates back to the mid-1960s. He led one jihadist organisation, Egyptian Islamic Jihad which then merged with Al-Qaeda in 2001, as early as 1981. He has been leading the latter organisation for six years already. His is a life in jihad, and the jihadist milieu is full of individuals who have a peculiar tendency to re-appear or re-invent themselves after years of seeming inactivity. Perhaps, we should actually be saying that they have never become inactive (see e.g.: the case of the Frenchman, Boubaker el-Hakim, active in jihadist circles between 2002 and 2016, veteran of two Iraq wars, with a spell of imprisonment in between, associated with Al-Qaeda, and then ISIS), and are poised to come back at some point in the future.

Taking this into account, should convince us that focusing on ISIS’ longevity, and its presumed imminent doom, may not be the most effective way forward. There is no point crying over spilt milk. Let us focus on the afterlives of ISIS members, and their future careers. They will still be with us, and some might emerge as the not-so-surprising jihadi trend setters in the future. We cannot lose track of them. From a European perspective, this is far more important than whether the “Caliphate” turns four next year. Of course, it will and some of its alumni are already plotting their post-ISIS lives.

Kacper Rekawek
Head of Defence and Security Programme
GLOBSEC Policy Institute