Avoiding Balkan Black Swans

The Huffington Post
April 20, 2016
By Ariel Cohen

The Balkans have become a pivotal region in the refugee crisis that is endangering European stability and security. The flood of refugees exceeded 1 million last year, and is unlikely to recede ― despite the agreement reached by the EU with Turkey on March 18, 2016.

The mountainous Balkan Peninsula plays a key role. It is both a natural barrier and a manned checkpoint, helping prevent penetration by ISIS recruits into Europe. To manage the refugee tsunami, the West needs the countries of Southern Europe to remain stable, secure and cooperative. Unfortunately, relations between neighboring countries, such as Greece and Macedonia, are fractious at best.

Refugees hoping to get into Europe cross from Turkey to the Greek islands and are then allowed to proceed north ― to the greener pastures of Germany and Austria ― or are sent back to refugee camps in Turkey. While Greece is an EU and NATO member, it gets failing grades in handling the refugee wave. Instead of processing the asylum seekers as the law requires, Athens buses them to the Macedonian border, where they become an impossible burden that this small and rather poor country of 2.1 million cannot sustain. Nevertheless, Macedonia processed over 750,000 refugees last year, the equivalent of the U.S. processing and providing for 100 million people.

The West, including the U.S., but especially the EU, should not wait until this developing crisis becomes a “black swan” – or a black hole. The Macedonia-Greece situation needs attention, quickly – and that is not the only issue. There is an ongoing internal political struggle in Macedonia that has begun to look like a “color revolution” in the making – with encouragement from the EU and the U.S.

So-called color revolutions were named after the Orange Revolution of 2004-2005 in Ukraine. While these movements can be said to have worked when communism collapsed and in the cases of Serbia and Georgia, they did not work in Kyrgyzstan or in the Arab Middle East.

Supported by the U.S. Government, left-leaning American NGOs and rich donors, the color revolution also known as the Arab Spring resulted in a Muslim Brotherhood takeover in Egypt, and brought bloodshed and chaos to Libya and Syria. Encouraging or allowing one to develop in the Balkans in the midst of the refugee crisis would be courting disaster.

The crux of the matter is that the left-leaning, socially liberal Social Democratic Party of Macedonia and its leader Zoran Zaev were defeated in a series of elections, and are still unpopular. Instead of facing the voters, Zaev and his party are following a color revolution paint-by-numbers playbook, bringing supporters into the streets and engaging in violence. When they did this in 2015, the EU intervened and mediated, resulting in the Pržino agreement, under which the elections had to take place by April 24. As a result of of pressure from Zaev’s party, that date was moved to June 5th. Now Zaev, who was accused of involvement in doctoring secret audio tapes and prosecuted for blackmail, is trying to delay the elections further.

The most popular leader in Macedonia is former – and likely future – Prime Minister Nikolai Gruevski. Under his leadership, the country demonstrated impressive economic growth, boasting the highest 2015 GDP rise in the Balkans: 3, 7 percent. Metrics for social, health and education also improved.

Gruesvski’s party, the dominant pro-US and pro-Western VMRO DPMNE (Christian Democratic Party) is popular, has deep historic roots in the pre-communist era, and consistently outpolls the opposition. The Albanian ethnic party, the junior coalition partner, is also supporting the elections. This is important point for the ethnic peace in Macedonia between its Christian Orthodox majority and Muslim Albanian minority.

While much needs to be done to fight corruption, the Transparency International scores for Macedonia are better than the neighborhood: Bulgaria, Turkey, Albania and Kosovo all score worse. This certainly does not mean that Macedonia should be given a pass, but it should be given a chance.

The latest unrest has broke over a presidential pardon for politicians suspected of involvement in a wiretapping scandal. The Special Prosecutor’s office, that was created as a part of the Pržino agreement and has become politicized and close to the opposition, was about to hand out indictments that would have further destroyed civic peace.

While the ruling party distanced itself from the pardons, Zaev has pounced on the opportunity to get crowds into the streets that began setting fires and destroying property, including attacks on the Office of the President, a radio station, and the Ministry of Justice. Violence is hardly a prescription for democracy.

The use of these tactics is all the more cynical because it is being used as a smokescreen. Zaev’s party is polling in the teens and seems desperate to avert elections at all cost.

Neighboring countries are watching the events in Macedonia with mixed emotions. Some are fearful of the chaos and of the uncontrolled refugee flows. Others, like Greece, are gleeful, as Athens torpedoed Macedonia’s Membership Action Plan to join NATO in 2008 and is behaving in an antagonistic manner toward Macedonia -picking a fight over the country’s chosen name, which corresponds to a north Greek province and an historic kingdom – both territories hearken back to the times of Alexander the Great.

The U.S. and the countries of Europe have all been around long enough to know that democracy is a slow-growing tree. It takes time to implement reforms, and impatience is ill-advised, self-defeating and dangerous – as will be neglect of Macedonia’s troubles, both external and internal, by the EU and the US under the current circumstances. Washington and Brussels should get Greece to behave and make the June 5th election date stick.

The West cannot afford any more black swans, especially not in the Balkans.