Kosovo is one step closer to full statehood. Today, its assembly officially adopted a new constitution declaring Kosovo a democratic, secular, multiethnic state. Right from the start, the constitution makes clear that Kosovo will not be partitioned nor will it be joining a Greater Albania. From Article 1:
The Republic of
Per recommendations from U.N. Special Envoy to Kosovo Marti Ahtisaari, the constitution also includes an entire chapter spelling out the rights of and provisions for Kosovo’s minority groups, including parliamentary seat allotment. Twenty of the assembly’s 120 seats shall be reserved for minorities, each of whom are guaranteed a respective minimum number of seats as follows:
the Roma community, one (1) seat; the Ashkali community, one (1) seat; the Egyptian community, one (1) seat; and one (1) additional seat will be awarded to either the Roma, the Ashkali or the Egyptian community with the highest overall votes; the Bosnian community, three (3) seats; the Turkish community, two (2) seats; and the Gorani community, one (1) seat. . ."
Bet you didn’t know that Kosovo even had an ethnic Egyptian community.
Pieter Feith, head of the EU-led supervisory office in Kosovo, has already approved of the new constitution, but Kosovo's U.N. mission (UNMIK) has been less than eager to react. In 1999, U.N. resolution 1244 granted UNMIK the authority to administer Kosovo until the Security Council could agree on a more lasting solution. But because Russia has blocked all efforts to pass a new Kosovo resolution, UNMIK now lacks the mandate to actually hand over their authority to Kosovo’s fledgling government, new constitution or not.
It’s official: Macedonians are real, at least according to the U.S. State Department.
At a NATO Summit Foreign Press Center briefing yesterday, Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried was asked by a journalist if his use of the phrase “ethnic Macedonian” during the briefing meant that the U.S. Government has recognized “the so-called ‘Macedonian ethnicity and language."' (briefing video here, skip to 37:15)
As if Macedonia didn't have enough identity issues already, "so-called” comes in reference to the Bulgarian assertian that Macedonian, the language, is nothing more than a Bulgarian dialect written in a Serbian script.
But Fried would hear none of it:
I don't think it is so-called. Macedonian language exists. Macedonian people exist. We teach Macedonian at the Foreign Service Institute… There is also the historic Macedonian province, which is different from the country. And it's important. It's quite clear that the government in Skopje, what we Americans call the Government of Macedonia, has no claims. We recognize the difference between the historic territory of Macedonia, which is, of course, much larger than the current country.
By refusing to back down on his use of “
The former prime minister of Kosovo, Ramush Haradinaj, was acquitted Friday on charges of murder, torture, rape, and the cruel treatment of prisoners during his years as a commander in the Kosovo Liberation Army. At the end of the war in Kosovo, Haradinaj turned his military following into a political party but was indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former
On Friday, a panel of judges found Haradinaj not guilty, but on the basis of insufficient evidence. Before announcing the final verdict, the panel noted:
The Chamber encountered significant difficulties in securing the testimony of a large number of witnesses. Many cited fear as a prominent reason for not wishing to appear before the Chamber to give evidence. In this regard, the Chamber gained a strong impression that the trial was being held in an atmosphere where witnesses felt unsafe, due to a number of factors.”
And by “a number of factors,” they mean death threats, the suspicious killing of the prosecution’s lead witness (and his son and nephew), and a general sense among Kosovars that the international community is more than happy to turn a blind eye to the grimmer actions of a man it sees as a key partner in regional peace.
The Haradinaj trial and verdict point to the precarious nature of any foray into international justice. Once again it seems politics has stood in the way of justice and has done so, per usual, at the expense of those whom the court should serve: the victims.
As expected, NATO has decided not to extend an invitation to the Republic of Macedonia -- excuse me, I mean "the Former Yugoslav Constitutional Republic of Upper Northwestern Macedonia, Skopje." That's right, Greece stuck to its nationalistic guns on the name issue today, carrying out its threat to block NATO membership if Macedonia didn't agree (and it didn't) to call itself the "Republic of Upper Macedonia," the "Republic of Macedonia, Skopje," or some comparably wordy derivative.
Macedonians didn't take the rejection well. After Greece blocked accession talks, Macedonian President Branko Crvenkovski and his delegation walked out of the meeting. Antonio Milososki, Foreign Minister, told reporters:
We are [in Bucharest] today to announce that we are leaving the summit. We feel it necessary to be with our people today.”
Not a bad idea. Their people needed all the comforting they could get. Back at home, Macedonian stocks suffered a record blow, with the Macedonian Bourse Index losing 10.4 percent of its total value after it became clear that the country would not get an invite.
Acceptance into NATO carries great weight for these small, former communist countries. Neighboring President Bamir Topi of Albania, whose country did receive a coveted NATO invitation, proclaimed, "This is the most important decision in the history of Albanian people… With this decision we are definitely separated from Yalta," referring to the 1945 conference of the "Big Three" at which Stalin claimed Albania for the communist bloc.
But NATO membership is more than symbolic for Macedonia, which narrowly missed a Kosovo-style ethnic war in 2001 thanks to an EU/NATO-brokered peace agreement. The country may now decide to pull out of U.N.-led name negotiations entirely, in which case Greece will repeat its power play on the EU front. If Macedonia is knocked off its current EU accession path because of a Macedonian identity issue, the state's large, pro-EU Albanian minority will not be happy. And all we need in the Balkans is one more unhappy ethnic minority.
President Bush's bid to win NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia turned out to be a non-starter. Member states opposed admitting the countries to a "Membership Action Plan," choosing instead to merely issue a non-binding pledge to admit them some day and review their application again in December. (Albania and Croatia did get the green light, continuing the alliance's expansion into the Balkans.) Russia's ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rozogin, was quick to declare that the review would alter nothing:
I doubt very much that in less than a year Georgia can solve its territorial problems and Ukraine can change the current proportion of NATO sympathizers," he said.
While it's easy to attack the Russians' motives, he's actually quite right. Half of Ukrainians oppose joining NATO and Georgia is still grappling with decades-old territorial conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Both countries believe that NATO membership can help them resolve their internal divisions. European governments were skeptical of this approach from the beginning. Estonian President Toomas Ilves had this advice, based on his own country's experience with NATO membership:
Don't be a Marxist" he said, "and by that I mean Groucho Marx-ist". He reminded the audience of the scene where Groucho Marx walks into a bank with a gun to his head claiming that he'll take his life unless they give him all their money.
But if Georgia and Ukraine's leaders' understandable desire to join NATO makes them Marx brothers, Bush comes out looking like a stooge. It's fairly clear that the primary U.S. goals in Bucharest were gaining support for a missile defense system in Eastern Europe and cajoling the Europeans into a greater commitment in Afghanistan. Why Bush would want to distract from these goals with an initiative that was bound to fail from the start is beyond me.
U.S. Secret Service agents perform a security sweep on Ukrainian cultural performers before Ukrainian President Victor Yushchenko and U.S. President George W. Bush arrive at St. Sophia's Cathedral in Kiev, April 1, 2008.
(Hat tip: On Deadline)
Hillary Clinton and her misstated trip to Tuzla have made headlines in the United States of late, but in the Balkans, it's all old news.
Back in early January, a former member of the Bosnian presidency, Kresimir Zubak, was reported to have called her story of her arrival in the Bosnian city, sniper fire and all, completely false (article here if you read Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian).
Clinton's Tuzla trip came under further attack by the Bosnian Serb political leader Mladen Ivanic -- although Ivanic had a different account of Hillary's motivations than did the Obama camp. He explains (text in Serbian):
Given that the world, and especially America, associate the activity of snipers shooting at innocent civilians exclusively with Serbs as 'the bad guys,' Hillary Clinton has sent a clear signal as to kind of foreign policy she would hold towards this part of the Balkans. The Serbs would still be 'the bad guys,' while the Bosniaks and the Croats would be 'the good guys.'"
It's no surprise a Bosnian Serb would beat Sinbad to the punch on this one. After all, it was Clinton's husband who led the push for NATO's 1995 airstrike on Bosnian Serb targets. But these Balkan denouncers were so quick to jump on Clinton's story that they seem to have gotten a few facts wrong themselves. Zubak argues that Clinton did not actually arrive in Tuzla until December 22, 1997. According to Clinton's official schedule for March 25, 1996, released by the National Archives, Clinton did in fact visit Tuzla in 1996 -- just in time to meet an eight-year-old Bosnian girl and a 7th-grade class adopted by Germany.
Last week, Serbia announced it would refrain from placing an embargo on Kosovo, whose economy has already suffered under eight years of undefined status.
Despite the announcement, legal trade between Kosovo and Serbia has dropped by an estimated 50 percent since Feb. 17, a noticeable loss as Serbia has otherwise remained Kosovo's biggest source of imports over the last 8 years.
High on the list of goods in short supply are the tasty, strangely addicting, Serbia-made treat known as the Plazma cookie. Plazma cookies and other goods have reportedly disappeared from Kosovar markets due to strict product label requirements. Since independence, Kosovo has required all products distributed in Kosovo to say "Republic of Kosovo." This is a problem under Serbian law:
A company, Serbian or foreign, can face fines of up to 1.0 million dinars ($19,000) if it mentions Kosovo as a separate territory on labels used on products sold in Serbian stores. Terms allowed are 'UNMIK/Kosovo', referring to the United Nations mission that took over the province in 1999 after NATO expelled Serb forces, 'Kosovo, Serbia' and 'Kosovo/1244', the number of the Security Council resolution that put Kosovo under U.N. administration."
According to Reuters reporters Ivana Sekularac and Shaban Buza, such discrepancies send a message of market uncertainty, curbing trade and regional investment. But Plazma has found a solution. The cookie company has simply opted to list the Kosovo distributor as in
Plazma are one of the most wanted and best-selling Serbian products, people really like them," said Tahir, an employee at a big supermarket in Pristina. "We tried with some similar Italian cookies, but in the end sold only two packs."
Not too surprising -- I bet the Italian cookies don't have quite the same effect.
Tensions in Kosovo between minority Serbs and U.N. peacekeepers turned violent Monday when a peaceful protest in the Serbian controlled northern half of Kosovska Mitrovica got ugly (think Molotov cocktail ugly). The clash left one U.N. police officer dead and more than 130 people injured. And despite today's calls for an end to the violence from U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, riots have only continued.
You may be wondering: Why is it so important for Kosovo to keep this little town within its newly declared borders? Ask an Albanian Kosovar, and he'll tell you it's not. Mitrovica is a sad little town, once ravaged by war and now home to a bunch of scared, isolated Serbs. And the same can be said for many small towns situated between Kosovo's northern border with Serbia and the Ibar River.
So why not just let them go? After all, if Albanian-majority Kosovo can just leave Serbia, why can't Serb-majority Mitrovica leave Kosovo in turn?
Because, for the last eight years, the West has toed the "partition is not an option" line, and with good reason. In a region already teeming with disputed boundaries drawn around ethnically cleansed communities (fruits of the wars of the 1990s), partition could only make things worse.
Looking at Kosovo alone, partition would be tough. More than half of Kosovo's Serbs live south of the Ibar. To only partition the northern enclaves would only half address the issue, and even moderate partitioning would indirectly legitimize the population swapping that turned so bloody back in 1999. Regionally speaking, partition would also only add fuel to separatist flames, sending the wrong message to Serbs in Bosnia's Repulika Srpska and Albanians in Macedonia.
So even as the U.N. withdraws its forces from the north, the West will keep up its "no partition" mantra. Good thing, too. The last thing Europe needs right now is a precedent for the creation of endless mini ethnic states.
Dmitry Medvedev's Sunday win in Russia came as no surprise, but it appears the Kremlin was concerned about one possibility: low voter turnout. Fifty percent turnout was needed to validate the election, according to Russian electoral law, and officials were determined to avoid an embarrassment for Vladimir Putin's heir.
Prior to the election, Putin called on Russians to get out the vote, and the Kremlin predicted a turnout of at least 70 percent. But despite their public confidence, officials nonetheless resorted to non-traditional means in order to ensure desired numbers.
In Moscow, voters were lured to polling places with promises of grocery store discounts, and in Nizhnevartovsk and Nizhni Novgorod (Russia's third largest city) they were given lottery tickets offering a chance to win Volgas and brand new apartments. Elsewhere, election officials were simply instructed to guarantee high turnouts, even if that meant tapping into the local psychiatric ward.
And in Sochi, future host of the 2014 Winter Olympics, voters were offered double the fun: Vote for the next president and for the Olympic mascot. Amongst the choices –- a torch-bearing Father Christmas, a polar bear, a snow flake, and a skiing dolphin -– the dolphin came out on top. In striking resemblance to the presidential contest, however, the mascot race may be largely for show. Dima the baby mammoth is already the predicted winner of the 2011 decision.
Protests against what looks like a stolen election in Armenia turned ugly over the weekend, with riot police cracking down harshly on demonstrators. Eight people died and more than 130 were wounded in the clashes, and the government has declared a state of emergency. But among the chaos, Sabrina Tavernese of the New York Times found some absurd moments:
The officers withdrew from the crowded areas toward midnight, leaving strange scenes in the moonlight. An elaborately decorated cake was atop an upside-down car; loaves of bread spilled out of an open trunk of a car on its side. Drunken men gobbled up expensive chocolates.
"The owner of this store is a very bad person," said Arsen Sarkisyan, 20, who was walking out with a bag of sour cream containers.
Greek prime minister Costas Karamanlis said today that his country will block
So what’s wrong with “
Speaking between rounds of negotiations between Skopje and
I want to be very clear on this. The intransigence of our neighbor is dashing its ambitions to join NATO and the European Union. If there is no settlement, the neighboring country cannot aspire to join NATO. Our position 'no solution-no invite' is clear."
On Tuesday, U.N. envoy Matthew Nimetz proposed five name alternatives: Constitutional Republic of Macedonia, Democratic Republic of Macedonia, Independent Republic of Macedonia, New Republic of Macedonia and
Clearly, these choices were not satisfactory to Macedonians because riots broke out on Wednesday over the prospect of tampering with the country’s constitutional name. With Greece still hung up on a name from the third century B.C., Serbia's 1389 claim to Kosovo suddenly seems more reasonable.
Before declaring independence, Kosovo's Prime Minister Hashim Thaci announced that 100 countries would quickly recognize its sovereign status. It seems he may have been a bit too optimistic.
Currently, 25 countries have or are in the process of recognizing the
The list of recognizing countries includes big names like the United States,
Even if Kosovo does hit the 100 country mark, that's still barely half the countries in the world. Though, I suppose fewer recognizing countries does mean fewer thank you notes.
During the chaos, one
The video, posted on Youtube as "Kosovo for sneakers," has been a huge hit among Serbian speakers. With more than a million views before it was taken down and resubmitted, it has drawn thousands of comments from Serbs angry at the behavior demonstrated in downtown
The video has also spurred on a series of mock Kosovo/Nike ads such as this one that is making the e-mail rounds:
The top reads "Kosovo is
Serbs may have a rocky future ahead of them, but at least they haven't lost their sense of humor.
For more than a decade,
Also for more than a decade, Radovan Karadzic (shown at right) -- one time president of the Bosnian Serbs, now indicted by the U.N.'s International Criminal tribunal for genocide and crimes against humanity –- has remained at large, making a mockery of the court's attempt at international justice. (For anyone who’s seen The Hunting Party, you know the story).
Now, Bosnian officials have reported that the actual original copy of the signed peace accords is missing from the presidential archives. And who do they think has it? None other than Radovan himself. Vladimir Lukic, former prime minister of the Serbian half of
I suppose the document was given to the President of the Republika Srpska (Karadzic) for safe keeping."
The latest news on the Kosovo recognition front is that Bolivia has decided not to recognize the country's independence. President Evo Morales compared Kosovo to the four eastern Bolivian states that are pushing for greater autonomy, a situation we wrote about in December. Morales's ally Hugo Chávez will not recognize Kosovo, either.
The scenes on CNN today of Serbian political and religious leaders holding candles at a vigil to protest Kosovo's independence, as well as the rogue protesters setting fire to the U.S. embassy in Belgrade, bring to mind Graham Fuller's January/February FP cover story, "A World Without Islam." In the piece, Fuller cautions Islam's critics not to assume that a Middle East dominated by Orthodox Christianity would be any more accepting of Western influence than today's Middle East. With Serbian Christians now fighting to retain what they they view as their religious homeland, maybe he was on to something:
The culture of the Orthodox Church differs sharply from the Western post-Enlightenment ethos, which emphasizes secularism, capitalism, and the primacy of the individual. It still maintains residual fears about the West that parallel in many ways current Muslim insecurities: fears of Western missionary proselytism, a tendency to perceive religion as a key vehicle for the protection and preservation of their own communities and culture, and a suspicion of the “corrupted” and imperial character of the West. Indeed, in an Orthodox Christian Middle East, Moscow would enjoy special influence, even today, as the last major center of Eastern Orthodoxy. The Orthodox world would have remained a key geopolitical arena of East-West rivalry in the Cold War. Samuel Huntington, after all, included the Orthodox Christian world among several civilizations embroiled in a cultural clash with the West.
Whatever you think of Fuller's characterization, it certainly seems noteworthy that the United States and the EU are about to go the mat with Russia for a Muslim country at the expense of a Christian one. If the rift between an increasingly religious Russia and the West continues to grow, can it be long until the op-eds start appearing on "The Orthodox Threat" or "The Failure of Political Orthodoxy"? "Orthofascism" doesn't quite have the same ring, does it?
Smoke billowed from the U.S. Embassy in
The violent demonstration came at the end of a state-sponsored rally held under the banner "Kosovo is
The embassy was already the site of a major demonstration that took place just hours after Kosovo announced its independence on Sunday. And its location made it a very easy target in today’s gathering -- it sits just blocks from both the Parliament building where the protest began and the Serbian Orthodox temple where the protest concluded.
Yet despite its obvious vulnerability, the Serbian officials who called the rally apparently did not plan any police protection for the building. When the fires broke out, not one police officer could be found on the scene. And it took more than an hour and a half before 200 riot police finally made an appearance.
By leaving the embassy unguarded today, Serbian officials reverted to a favorite technique of the late Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic -- call in the crowds and let the mob mentality do the rest. In doing so, they did manage to grab international attention, but only to demonstrate just how little Serbian democracy has progressed.
If self determination based on ethnic homogeneity becomes the basis of nationhood, every nation in
It's still an open question, though, as to what kind of control over Russia's foreign policy Putin will have once he steps down as president and becomes prime minister. His protégé and successor, Dmitry Medvedev, just might turn out to have some ideas of his own.
Kosovar Prime Minister Hashim Thaci (shown at right) gave an interview for Friday's Haaretz in which he professes admiration for Israel and stresses that his majority-Muslim proto-country (which is expected to declare independence any minute now) will not be an Islamic state:
At a time when in Turkey, which also wants to join Europe, the battle over the religious character of the state is heating up, Thaci promises: "Kosovo is going to be a democratic and secular state of all its citizens, and the freedom to exercise religion without any hindrance is granted by the Kosovo Constitution."
This assertion is significant since many Israelis fear that an independent Kosovo, or a potentially unified "Greater Albania" could serve as an Islamist beachhead in southern Europe that relies on Iranian and Saudi support, an argument that Thaci said "does not even deserve comment." It was this concern that lead then Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon to break with most of the international community in 1999 and support Slobodan Milosevic during the NATO bombing of Serbia. Nevertheless, Thaci describes Sharon as a "great leader."
Many also see parallels between Kosovo's struggle for independence and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and worry that a precedent may be set. This is but one of the many domino-effect scenarios that have emerged in recent weeks. Thaci argues in response that Kosovo is "a unique case" and "should not represent any precedent." The rebel leader-turned-politician clearly hopes Israelis will think of Kosovars as kindred spirits. Haaretz, at least, is already calling him "the Ben Gurion of Kosovo."
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With six days left in the auction, there's still plenty of time for you to assemble some cash.
Kosovo's impending independence has sparked great international debate, mostly around questions of legal and political precedent. But perhaps the real question is one of economics: Will an independent Kosovo be financially viable?
Judging by statistics from the World Bank, the answer would appear to be: not very.
Kosovo is one of the poorest economies in
Europe, with per capita income of an estimated $1,600 per annum in 2005… Approximately 37 percent of the population live in poverty (below $2.07 per day); and 15 percent in extreme poverty ($1.35 per day).
Youth unemployment will present one of the biggest problems for Kosovo's future independent economy. Last year, during a trip to Pristina -- Kosovo’s dusty, provincial capital -- I met two young Kosovar Albanians, ages 24 and 25. Neither had a job, but neither seemed too concerned about it. Most people don't work, they told me (unemployment is actually 44 percent). One of the two wasn't even looking for employment. He lived off remittances from his brothers who were working in
For a generation that has grown up with little opportunity and, in turn, little motivation, adjusting to a self-sustaining economy will likely prove a long and painful process. As of now, the U.N. is holding Kosovo's economy somewhat together, and the EU will increasing take over that role. But if Kosovars are serious about independence, they're going to need to back up their coming declaration with a real plan for keeping their tiny new country afloat.
By most accounts, Kosovo will declare independence on February 17th. The province's leadership claims that 100 states are ready to recognize it, and experts are even selecting a new flag. It's not an easy business.
[D]esigns based on Albania's flag, the black double-headed eagle on a red background that flutters above graves of Kosovo Liberation Army guerrilla fighters throughout the breakaway province, would not be considered. The flag is synonymous in Kosovo with the Albanian community and is the first choice of many Kosovars....But officials were adamant that Kosovo's flag would not resemble Albania's. "We will not have the flag of any other country," said Fadil Hysa, the government adviser tasked with heading the Symbols Commission. "It cannot have an eagle," he added.
At least Kosovo gets to choose its own flag. Poor Bosnia had its flag chosen by international bureaucrats.
Pro-Europe candidate Boris Tadic narrowly beat out his opponent Tomislav Nikolic in the second round of Serbia's presidential election, held on Sunday.
EU High Representative Javier Solana declared the results a sign that Serbian citizens want to "resume the European path." But Serbian democracy is not out of the woods. Its democratic coalition, led by both Tadic and Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, is on shaky ground. Kostunica did not endorse Tadic prior to the elections and is now opposing efforts to sign a cooperation agreement with the European Union.
Despite the importance of Sunday's elections, it was not the only presidential race on the minds of Belgrade's Serbs. I visited the Serbian capital between its first and second rounds of voting and found students there more interested in U.S. politics than in their own. Demonstrating a global trend mentioned here earlier, the students I spoke with were closely following the U.S. primary season. A bit skeptical of the hubbub, they found the state by state run-offs both frivolous and fascinating. All were intrigued by the prospect of an African-American or female U.S. president, but several told me, with a classically Serbian cynicism, that they thought the Obama-Clinton battle was all for show—that, in the end, "the Man" (the white man) would prevail. I guess that's a vote for McCain?
India and Bulgaria have both declared 2008 "The Year of Russia" (putting Russia up there with its beloved tuber).
For India, the celebration has meant little more than a Russian-themed World Book Fair. But in Sofia, Bulgarian leaders rang in the Russian year with the signing of a controversial energy deal that allows Russia to build both a nuclear power plant on the shores of the Danube and a gas pipeline across Bulgaria, linking the Caspian basin to European markets.
Russia's presence in Bulgaria's energy market is nothing new, but it should not be overlooked. In a country already covered in Russian Lukoil gas stations, Bulgarian analyst Ognian Minchev says:
There is a danger not only of a monopolization of the energy sector, but also a potential for direct geopolitical influence over the decisions of Bulgaria's future governments."
Bulgaria's current government is still controlled by the Bulgarian Socialist Party, the successor to the country's pre-1990 Communist Party. Bulgarian voters will likely reject this Cold War relic in next year's elections, but Russia is keen to insure that any change in government leadership don't lead to much in the way of policy change.
If the pipeline goes through, Bulgaria's energy deal will have repercussions outside the former Soviet satellite state. For more than a year now, European countries have been flushing out plans for the Nabucco pipeline, which would bring Middle Eastern gas to European consumers, also via Bulgaria. Its successful completion would give the EU an alternative to Russian oil, but according to The Economist the completion of the Russian pipeline would render Nabucco – a nearly $7.4 billion project – "uneconomic."
In a sweeping New York Times Magazine essay this Sunday on the new global order, FP contributor Parag Khanna dismisses growing Western fears about an aggressive Russia, noting that "some E.U. officials say that annexing Russia is perfectly doable" and dissing the country as an "increasingly depopulated," second-world "swing state." That may be so, but if Russia completes this new pipeline, its swing will be a little mightier.
Why won't leading Russian presidential candidate Dmitri Medvedev debate his opponents? It would take too much time away from pressing the flesh, say his handlers:
Senior United Russia member Vyacheslav Volodin said Medvedev was meeting ordinary citizens in an extensive campaign across Russia and that television debates would disrupt his schedule. "The most important thing for us is real deeds, meeting people and solving actual problems, not wrangling in a TV studio," Volodin was quoted as saying by Russian news agencies.
Why debate your political opponents when you can simply pretend they don't exist? Soon enough, after all, they may not.
Serbia may be a shrinking country, but international eyes are keeping a close watch on its presidential elections, scheduled for Feb. 3. This Sunday, voters will be asked to choose between pro-European candidate Boris Tadic and Russia-leaning candidate Tomislav Nikolic.
Much is at stake in the elections. The next president must navigate Serbia's path to EU accession and respond to a likely declaration of independence from Kosovo, Serbia’s Albanian-majority southern province. William Montgomery, former U.S. ambassador to Serbia and Montenegro, says about Sunday's election:
[It] will determine whether Serbia continues on a path (slowly or rapidly) towards integration into 'Europe' or alternatively, becomes a 'Belarus of the Balkans,' belligerently looking East instead of West and in some state of confrontation with the EU, the United States and its new 'neighbor,' Kosovo."
But with Serbian voters facing a choice between Europe and Russia, it is American icons that are getting all the attention. For over a month now, images of great U.S. presidents—George Washington, Abe Lincoln, and JFK—have appeared on Belgrade's billboards, along with quotes from presidential speeches, tweaked to support Kosovo as a part of Serbia. For instance, beside the face of George Washington appear the following words (in Cyrillic):
'The time is near at hand which must determine whether we are to be free men or slaves.' Kosovo is Serbia!”
Hollywood stars have been sucked into the Kosovo debate, too. Last week, Serbian news outlets claimed that George Clooney, Sharon Stone, Richard Gere, and Sean Connery all stood in opposition to an independent Kosovo, even crediting Gere with poignant statements such as this:
There must be something in that Kosovo, if they will fight for it so hard."
The Hollywood stars have denied making such claims, but the occasionally sensationalist Serbian newspaper Blic claims to know better: Just as Serbia has a been a pawn of Western powers, Clooney too has succumbed to international pressure, denying his statement against independence for Kosovo only after "the UN exerted pressure on the actor."
Sometimes, a tree is not just a tree.
In the Moldovan capital of Chisinau, the pro-Russia communist President Vladimir Voronin (shown at left with Russian President Vladimir Putin) removed a Christmas tree put up by pro-Europe Mayor Dorin Chirtoaca, an advocate for strong ties with neighbor and new EU member Romania. Voronin said the tree should not be displayed until after the New Year, the traditional time for Russian Orthodox. But Chirtoaca fought to display the tree at a traditionally European time.
In a victory for the pro-European mayor, a Christmas tree now stands in Chisinau, about 300 meters from government buildings. But it raises the larger question encountered by members of the Commonwealth of Independent States during this holiday season: Are they to be Russian and abandon the freedoms of the EU, or tilt toward Europe and risk falling victim to the wrath of Putin?
Autocrats rejoice! The nasty spat between Russia and Belarus—so disheartening to those longing for a Soviet revival—has been patched up. Belarus gets cheap gas, and Russia gets support against American missile defense. (Still, revanchists didn't get everything they wanted: there had been speculation that Putin would announce a Russia-Belarus "union state", with Putin as its president.)
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