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Chinese Economic Cooperation in the Balkans: Challenges and Future Expectations

Balkanalysis.com editor’s note: this new analysis covers China’s current economic focus in the Western Balkan countries, and includes links to our other coverage of similar topics in the last few years. For additional (and earlier) coverage of China in Greece, see our 2014 report here.

By Antonela Dhimolea*

Relations between China and the Balkan countries have been developing swiftly in recent years, with the establishment of the new platforms such as “The Initiative of Cooperation between China and 16 Central and Eastern European Countries”, “One Belt, One Road”, as well as annual summits, further specialized forums and seminars, and perspective for an upsurge in investment and trade cooperation.

The Initiative of Cooperation between China and Central and Eastern European Countries was established first with the Warsaw Forum on April 26, 2012. The initiative for this had come from the Chinese Prime Minister, Wen Jiabao. The goal of this Chinese initiative is to use the CEE countries as “the gateway” to enter the European market.

Similarities and Differences: China’s Developing European Partners

For this reason, China is trying to revive its political dialogue with 16 member countries, as well as to promote the extension and intensification of economic, trade, agricultural, energy, infrastructure, cultural, education, and human cooperation with them. It is an interesting fact that 11 of the member states of the platform 16+1 are EU member states, while four of them (Serbia, Montenegro, Albania and Macedonia) are EU candidate countries.

In order to implement her ambition, China has chosen CEE countries. considering them as not only a community having a common history and values, but an easy way to penetrate the European market.

In reality, the differences between the EU countries, which are member of the platform 16+1 and Balkan countries (including Croatia and Slovenia) are significant in many respects. These include level of development, size, historical experience, culture and religion. The only shared characteristic among the latter countries would be the degree of socialist government before 1989; still, these forms differed quite significantly. Similarly, all these countries have experienced the transformation of their economic, social, and political systems, although again with different strategies and degrees of success.

Background on the Chinese 16+1  Initiative of Cooperation: a ‘Work in Progress’

The new Chinese platform was launched during the global financial crisis, which mostly affected EU countries such as Greece, Italy, Spain and France. The initiative  was highly appreciated by CEE countries, which were eager to cooperate with China. In the framework of the Initiative of Cooperation 16+1, five Summits have been held, including economic, cultural and transport forums, as well as several meetings of National Coordinators.

The First Leader’s Summit, held in 2012 in Warsaw, approved the final document of the Initiative of Cooperation composed of 12 points on the mutual benefits and concrete collaboration on economy, tourism, infrastructure, renewable energy, culture, education and so on.

The Initiative of Cooperation included also the establishment of Secretariat China – CEE Countries which coordinates the overall cooperation. Apart from the Secretariat, some centers covering different fields such as agriculture, tourism, business, transport etc are being established in CEE countries, including Balkan countries.

The main pillars of the platform are: economy and trade; infrastructure and transport (aiming to improve the road and marine interconnections between China and European countries); the green economy (supporting projects on hydro, solar, wind and nuclear energy with high technology); financial cooperation and local government cooperation (twinning projects); cultural cooperation (organizing forums on culture and education, encouraging interaction among young politicians, expert groups, media and so on).

The other potential field of cooperation is agriculture. The Chinese market’s need for meat, dairy and high quality wine products would increase trade exchanges between China and CEE countries. The agriculture products of Balkan countries are highly appreciated in China.

Recently, the Chinese project has also started to focus on cooperation in industry, manufacturing, connectivity, telecommunication and infrastructure. In the field of transport, the focus is on railway connection (containers shipping, industrial parks and distribution centers), and also on roads, marine and air infrastructure in the framework of regional networks. In this way, the Initiative of Cooperation is serving the larger project “One Belt, One Road” which will connect Asia with Europe.

However, the quality and efficiency of this cooperation should be improved. The further success of the platform will depend on the commitment and dedication of each member country and their choice of cooperation fields.

In order to succeed, CEE countries must try to better understand Chinese intentions and expectations, while China has to be clearer in introducing the two projects “the Platform 16+1” and “One Belt, One Road.”

Furthermore, CEE countries highlight that the platform 16+1 has to follow EU rules and will be conducted under the EU-China framework cooperation. They also are approaching this platform as a useful channel for their bilateral relations with China.

Chinese Investment Activity with Balkan Countries: Serbia as the Key Player

China’s most important regional relations are with Serbia. The two countries are working to raise their strategic partnership to a new level. In the framework of the Initiative of Cooperation 16+1, among the Balkan countries, Serbia was chosen as the host country for the Summit of Leaders in 2014. During the Summit, Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang also paid an official visit to Serbia. He was the first Chinese Premier to visit the country in 28 years.

Apart from this, the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping attracted significant public attention. After his official visit to the Czech Republic, in June 2016, he visited Poland and Serbia. These visits aimed to boost Chinese economic and trading relations with both countries and to increase China’s presence in the Balkans and Europe.

This, the first visit by a Chinese head of state in more than 30 years was justly deemed “historic.” During this visit, President Xi visited the Chinese-owned steel plant at Smederevo, and signed 22 cooperation agreements. Most of them were focused on the economy, investment, infrastructure, energy and cultural exchanges. These results were considered of great importance in Serbia, where economic difficulties and high unemployment have been concerns. Serbia is also hoping to attract Chinese investments for the privatization of state enterprises. A closer relationship with China will also bring more cash into Serbia’s economy, and help to improve the country’s infrastructure.

Serbia has signed the trilateral agreement on the construction of its part of the Hungary-Serbia rapid railway (€800 mn in Serbia out of the total €1.5 bn). The contract for the construction of a the E763 highway in Western Serbia (total cost €900 mn) has also been signed, as has the contract for the construction of the bridge over the Danube in Belgrade (€170 mn).

Formerly, the Mihajlo Pupin Bridge (China’s first major infrastructure construction project on the European continent), became the second bridge over the Danube River in Belgrade when it was completed in July 2014. Additionally, Phase II of the motorway E763 has been completed.

In the field of energy, Chinese companies are involved on the revitalization of the Kostolac power plant (total cost €700 mn) and the reconstruction of the Kolubara A power plant. China also intends to participate in the construction of the Kolubara B power plant. In July 2016, Belgrade’s Smederevo steel plant, which was founded in 1913, was officially taken over by the Chinese firm Hesteel, for a total of 46 million euros ($51.2 mn).

More recently, in January 2017 the Bank of China opened its first Balkan branch, in Serbia.

China and Bosnia-Herzegovina

Here, areas of interest for cooperation with China are infrastructure, construction materials, energy, culture and education. Bosnia has signed the contract for the construction of a Banja Luka-Split motorway (total cost €600mn). In the field of energy, China and Bosnia have signed the contracts for the construction of MW unit at Tuzla thermal power plant (total cost €786mn), 350 MW Banovici thermal power plant (total cost €400mn) and 300 MW Stanari thermal power plant (total cost €350mn), which was opened in September 2016.

China and Croatia

The year 2015 marked the 10th anniversary of the establishment of the Strategic Partnership between Croatia and China. China intends to expand bilateral relations in the construction of the railway network, higher education and scientific research, renovation of ports and construction of industrial parks.

Croatia has introduced several projects to the Chinese in the maritime field (such as port renewal), infrastructure and nuclear energy. In October 2014, Croatia signed a contract with CMBM Chinese Company for the modernization of a terminal port in the south of the country.

China and Montenegro

In the framework of the platform 16+1, Montenegro has benefited from loans from China’s Exim Bank, signing contracts for the construction of the Podgorica-Kolasin highway (total cost €809.6 mn), the renewal of the ship fleet of Montenegro (total cost about  €100 mn) and the construction of the Bar-Boljare highway (total cost €689 mn).

Investors in various energy projects potentially also include China’s Poly Group Corporation and Norinco. Both have been interested in developing major energy projects in Montenegro, such as the construction of hydropower plants on the rivers Moraca and Komarnica. Chinese companies were also interested in the new unit at Pljevlja thermal power plant. China Machinery Engineering Corporation (CMEC) was one of two companies that submitted offers in a recent tender, however unsuccessfully.

For more on China’s economic activity in Montenegro, see this August 2016 report from Podgorica.

China and Macedonia

Macedonia has benefited from the Exim Bank loans for the construction of the Kicevo-Ohrid highway (€580mn) and the Miladinovci-Stip highway ($306mn). The interest rate will be 2 percent annually and will be paid over the next 20 years.

China intends to build some hydropower plants on the Vardar River, which is on the key Corridor 10 that is anticipated to comprise the main Silk Road route from the Aegean Sea to Central Europe.

China and Albania

Albania has not yet benefited from an Exim Bank loan. Last year, however, two big Chinese companies entered Alban,ia: the Everbright Company purchased the Tirana International Airport, while Geo-Jade Petroleum Company purchased Banker’s Petroleum, one of the biggest  foreign investors in Albania. (See this 2012 Balkanalysis.com analysis for further context on Banker’s and offshore energy projects in Albania at the time).

Some Chinese companies are also operating in the mineral sector in Albania. For more information on general Chinese activity in Albania, see this Balkanalysis.com article from June 2016.

The Blue Corridor Motorway: A Potential Project for Albania and Montenegro

Albania and Montenegro have also signed an MoU with the Chinese company Pacific Construction Group, which opens the way for the construction of the Blue Corridor motorway project. The Blue Corridor, or the Adriatic-Ionian motorway, is a project that will stretch along the entire eastern shore of Adriatic and Ionian seas, from Trieste in Italy to Greece via Croatia, Montenegro and Albania. The route is seen as a matter of national importance for both Albania and Montenegro.

The Future of China in the Balkan Region

China’s economic expansion in the Balkans is inevitable. China is using all diplomatic strategies available to achieve her European ambitions. First, China introduced the platform 16+1 and through the Exim Bank, and then worked hard to seduce the Balkan and CEE countries with $10 billion of loans for projects in different sectors. China succeeded in the Balkans because the countries (except Albania and Croatia) benefited from the loans, and signed several contracts in the fields of infrastructure and energy.

After unveiling the 16+1 initiative, China introduced its main project, the “One Belt, one Road.” This ambitious trade corridor also involves China’s infrastructural investments in Southeast Asia, North Africa, and Central and Western Europe. The project “One Belt, One Road” is an important instrument for China’s global strategy geo-politically as well.

The rationale of the project is global connectivity. “One Belt, One Road” will deepen China’s infrastructural, economic, institutional and cultural connectivity with key parts of the globe. Projected investments are estimated to benefit 4.4 billion people in 65 countries. In financial terms, according to some estimates, the project could be more than 12 times bigger than the Marshall Plan created by the US to aid Western Europe after WWII.

Besides infrastructural investments in ports, high-speed rail, power generation and other utilities, China is offering some private-sector investment opportunities in real estate, telecoms, e-commerce, finance, tourism, education, the creative industries and green technologies. According to the Chinese approach, “One Belt, One Road” is not a one-way street of China’s outbound investments but also represents a huge export potential for Western products, technologies and services to enter China.

The EU has expressed constant concerns about the Chinese entrance into Europe through the 16+1 Initiative of Cooperation, and the “One Belt, one Road” project. The EU presumes China as a new economic threat in Balkan. While China considers the 16+1 platform as a part of larger China-EU relations, the EU does not agree with this perception. Brussels is conscious that the Chinese projects have found support in Balkan countries, because their economies are fragile and the unemployment figures are high. In order to prevent the Chinese expansion in the0 Balkans, the EU is trying to observe the relations between China and Balkan countries as well as with other CEE countries.

In any case, China cannot replace the EU’s overall influence in Balkan countries, because these countries seek to join the bloc. Therefore they cannot challenge the EU’s political approach and regulations. Recently, China has been exploiting all diplomatic channels to gain the support of Balkan countries for the South East China Sea issue, but these countries unanimously approve the EU stand on this issue. This indicates that politically, the perspective of Balkan states remains geared towards EU integration. At the same time, however, they remain keen to explore the economic potential of being China’s “gateway” to European markets.

……………………………….

*Antonela Dhimolea is an expert in Asian and Balkan issues, and has worked for many years as an Albanian diplomat. She holds a Master’s Degree in Diplomacy from the University of Malta’s Mediterranean Academy of Diplomatic Studies, and has attended training courses in international relations and diplomacy, at La Sapienza University in Rome, the Diplomatic Academy of Croatia, the Diplomatic Academy of Poland, as well as the Diplomatic Institutes of India, Montenegro and Egypt.

This analysis represents the author’s personal assessment, and does not necessarily represent the official views of the Albanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Exclusive: White House, NSC neither Knew nor Approved of Ambassador Baily’s Controversial Decision in Macedonia

By Chris Deliso

Neither the White House nor the National Security Council had previously been informed that Ambassador to Macedonia Jess Baily was planning to recognize a new ‘speaker of parliament’ during a chaotic session marred by protests on Thursday night, Balkanalysis.com can report.

With Obama-era Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Hoyt Yee arriving Sunday to back Baily by giving official blessings to the US-proclaimed ‘speaker,’ this revelation raises very serious concerns about who – if anyone – is running US foreign policy, at a time when the Balkans is ready to explode amidst rising nationalism driven by unending foreign political interference. It also raises very serious questions about the damage Baily has being to American diplomacy in the country since the crisis began in early 2015.

An Embassy Gone Rogue?

The Trump White House was “taken by surprise” by the US Embassy’s decision, and the powerful NSC was not happy with the result either, high-level American officials have confirmed. Other senior sources from Europe and the US have provided valuable input that cumulatively suggests a high likelihood that Baily – the most unpopular American to ever set foot in Macedonia – has gone rogue, working in lockstep with a very small number of Obama-era State and USAID holdovers.

To date, the US Embassy has not satisfactorily replied to our queries regarding who authorized Baily’s decision – or who is responsible for DAS Yee’s imminent visit. These official written questions have gone unanswered by Embassy communications personnel. In the absence of such a response, we hope to be able to bring up the issue directly with DAS Yee during his Skopje visit on Monday.

Baily’s Controversial Coronation Announcement

The carefully-coordinated events of Thursday night saw American and European diplomats immediately congratulate the ‘election’ of Talat Xhaferi, an ethnic Albanian former UCK member nominated on 27 March by the leftist SDSM party for the speaker of parliament role- the first step required to form a government that would be weak at best. The farcical proceedings occurred by voice vote, with no written record, while a few sung Albania’s national anthem at one moment. According to local law, the speaker of parliament becomes national president in the case that the president is deposed or killed. It is not impossible that SDSM will try to impeach President Ivanov to make such a result occur. The president controls the armed forces and foreign intelligence agency.

Many local sources present during the event suspect that both the timing and provocative actions of the SDSM and Albanian parliamentarians was calculated to provoke a violent response that would then make them appear as righteous victims. The ploy, modeled on a much smaller similar event in December 2012, worked.

For Baily, sustained Macedonian pacifism had been a major irritant. The 60-day For a United Macedonia evening rallies had been completely peaceful, in contrast to last year’s USAID-directed and funded ‘Colorful Revolution’ of pro-SDSM activists. But this year’s ralliers had long threatened it would enter parliament if the opposition tried to elect a speaker without renouncing the Tirana Platform (a post-election set of maximalist ethnic demands drafted in the office of Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama). This warning provided a perfect opportunity for Baily and comrades to create a scenario that would guarantee a violent outcome- and thus discredit the authentic and peaceful public protest movement.

However, it remains unclear as to who committed what violence, with partisan rivals and media presenting different scenarios and evidence. However, the international media – which largely ignored the two months of peaceful protests – have overwhelmingly endorsed SDSM’s depiction of events. And every single Western power condemned the violence, insinuating that it was a blow against democratic procedures and implying VMRO-DPMNE was guilty.

In addition to this perception management tactic, the commotion has helped misdirect scrutiny from the actions of the US Embassy under Ambassador Baily before, during and after the drama.

 Who Authorized Baily’s Decision?

With no official reply from the Embassy, it is impossible to know who – if anyone – instructed Baily to act as he did and when he did with the Xhaferi recognition process. There was no great emergency to elect a speaker, as the country has remained peaceful and negotiations are ongoing as a procedural filibuster continued. But for whatever reason, Baily was determined to obtain a result.

Balkanalysis.com informed the Embassy communications staff in writing that if there was no response from their side it would have to be assumed that Baily made the recognition choice of his own will. To date they have not stated otherwise,

The Mysterious DAS Yee Announcement

One possible reason for Baily’s bravado was the looming visit of DAS Yee, which the US Embassy announced in a 10:51am tweet on April 26. That was the day right before the parliamentary decision and, in the opinion of Macedonian protocol experts, extremely unusual as such visits are usually decided well in advance.

In this tweet, the Embassy announced that “DAS Hoyt Yee will travel to Macedonia on May 1 to engage political leaders on government formation, bilateral relations & reforms.” This means that as of that date, a specific scenario was already in place. Yet the Macedonian authorities were too incompetent or too timid to consider this seriously.

In addition to the protocol aberration, the wording makes the planning for Yee’s visit especially mysterious. At the time in Skopje, there was no great expectation that a government would be formed soon, due to VMRO-DPMNEs ongoing procedural filibuster, though SDSM leader Zoran Zaev had threatened he would nominate a speaker soon. There was thus no reason to expect that suddenly on May 1 Macedonian parties would be discussing forming a government with a visiting American bureaucrat.

This Embassy tweet thus helps confirm the suspicion that Ambassador Baily pre-planned the stunt at parliament to occur just in time for his immediate superior to swoop in and justify his decision.

However, with the US Embassy refusing to answer who and when at State authorized Yee’s current trip to Macedonia, it remains unclear as to whether a higher-up at State sent him- or whether Baily himself invited the caretaker bureaucrat to come and provide political cover for the controversial decision.

If no one higher than Yee himself authorized his visit, then the acting DAS is essentially coming as a tourist, and his political opinions are just that- opinions.

A State Department Understaffing Crisis and Baily’s Self-Entrapment Problem

One major criticism of the Trump Administration’s foreign policy is the unusually slow pace at which State positions have been filled, with numerous vacancies remaining. This is reportedly due in part to new Secretary of State Tillerson’s desire to restructure the department, and possibly merge USAID into it.

As the old saying goes, when the cat is away, the mice will play: the current controversial activities of the US ambassador in Macedonia may simply reflect a lack of oversight. With so many vacancies (not to mention much bigger issues like Russia, Syria and North Korea), it is understandable that senior US leaders do not have time to regulate diplomatic activities in small but volatile countries like Macedonia. But they should at least be informed of them in advance.

Interestingly enough, ranking above Mr. Yee is a very short list of current State functionaries in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs (see official hierarchical list here). Ambassador Baily is subordinate to these officials and therefore must follow their policy instructions. Under the Obama administration, this was no problem, as the Democrat-led administration had an openly pro-leftist orientation. The situation is currently more confused due to a new Republican-led administration still finding its feet.

Baily’s problem, should he try to justify his authorization to act Thursday night by recourse to this list, is that if he cites one particular name, he will cause himself a much greater, and probably career-ending scandal. Unfortunately for him, Baily has chosen to trap himself in a lie regarding his own interaction with superiors that would automatically delegitimize his entire ambassadorship. He will thus probably avoid the question as much as possible out of fear for his own career.

Tactical Measures while Under Fire

With the Embassy and local USAID mission already under Senate and Congressional investigation for misuse of public funds, not to mention a Judicial Watch lawsuit against State and USAID, Baily’s only solutions are two: more violence to create further misdirection from himself (which is bad for US interests), and political cover from Yee. With allies like former State spokesman Mark Toner now gone, it will become more difficult for Baily and the Embassy to get pro-leftist endorsements from Washington regarding actions that have infuriated and alienated the majority of Macedonians since the beginning of the crisis in January 2015.

Since the election of Donald Trump, Baily has come under withering assault from local Macedonians – many, but not all, supporters of the conservative VMRO-DPMNE – and has become much less vocal than before. The Trump election reportedly terrified Baily, firstly for his own career and secondly for potential policy changes in Macedonia. However, the slow staffing at State has given him breathing room and he apparently still feels he can act with impunity.

Nevertheless, Baily has become much quieter since November 2016 and relied on ever-faithful European allies, NATO and OSCE officials, and pro-leftist media to speak for him. With the USAID investigation in Washington, Baily and the local mission have tried to utilize a feel-good campaign drawing attention to nice things the Embassy has done. This online PR exercise (dubbed “this is civil engagement” has been mocked by Macedonian critics.

Itinerary of Hoyt Yee’s Visit as a further Indicator of Political Transition Planning

The official Embassy press release regarding Mr Yee’s visit on April 30 and May 1 indicates that at least himself, Baily and their crew expect that they will be creating the conditions for a new government led by the unpopular SDSM and a collection of ethnic Albanian parties- all of which are fractured themselves. Such a government would be lucky to last six months, and would probably deepen the crisis up to the point of civil war.

There are sides which look forward to such an outcome with delight, but that is a story for another time. For now, concentrating on Yee’s itinerary reveals which power players and influencers the DAS hopes to get in line to fulfill Baily’s vision for a new and improved Macedonia. Here is the official statement from the Embassy, released on April 29 at 1:11pm:

“Hoyt Brian Yee, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, will visit the Republic of Macedonia April 30 and May 1, 2017.  Deputy Assistant Secretary Yee will meet with President Gjorge Ivanov, Speaker of Parliament Talat Xhaferi, political party leaders Nikola Gruevski, Zoran Zaev, Ali Ahmeti, Bilal Kasami, Vesel Memedi, and Menduh Thaci, as well as with representatives from the civil society and diplomatic communities.  Together they will discuss the status of government formation, bilateral relations, and the reforms needed for Euro-Atlantic integration.

Deputy Assistant Secretary Yee will give a statement to the media in the afternoon of Monday, May 1.  Please contact the U.S. Embassy Public Affairs Section by telephone at 070 343 304 or 070 233 145, or by email to ahmetil@state.gov or vrenezizj@state.gov for additional details.”

Dangerous Outcomes for US Interests and Regional Stability

From this wording, it is very clear that the embassy in Skopje is proceeding as if nothing unusual has happened, by considers Thursday’s debacle a fait accompli. By referring to Xhaferi as the official ‘speaker of parliament,’ the Embassy is putting the State Department – and, by extension, a White House and NSC that were never informed – behind a political transition conducted outside of all parliamentary procedure and in violation of Article 82.1 of the Macedonian constitution (regarding the president’s obligation to uphold the unitary character of the state and its territorial integrity).

Thus, the outcome will either be that Baily pulls off his palace coup and leaves for a bigger and better posting, or is told to reverse course by higher-ups. It is inconceivable that, having invested his entire diplomatic efforts for three years straight to putting SDSM in power by any means possible that Baily will easily back down now. To do so would require a very strong message from the Trump Administration and be received as a total humiliation by an already humiliated and vengeful career diplomat.

The stage is thus set for either a refresh and new negotiations, or a dysfunctional, Frankenstein government that will not only fail to operate, but which will damage US relations with Macedonia and regional stability. Neighboring countries like Greece, Serbia and Montenegro are growing increasingly concerned by Albanian leaders’ demands for a ‘Greater Albania’ at their expense.

The great tragedy of such an outcome would be that it is still entirely avoidable. But unless cooler heads prevail, and popular demands for new elections and a (long-deferred) population census are met, the crisis is likely to intensify. And the US will have no one to thank but its own rogue diplomats.

 

Between Eidomeni and the Brenner Pass, Part 2: More Details on Italian Activists and Anarchists in spring 2016

Balkanalysis.com editor’s note: exactly one year ago today, the Greek-Macedonian border was attacked by migrants at Eidomeni. This, the second part of our analysis of that event, draws on exclusive new interviews with Italian pro-migrant activists present there at the time. (The first part of the analysis, which reveals the specific Italian anarchist and activist groups that actively supported the migrant cause, is available here).

By Elisa Sguaitamatti

In early spring 2016, Albania and Italy strengthened security measures regarding migration in the Balkans. Their increased initiatives and force deployment was done in case migrants tried to go via Albanian territory (north by land or west by sea to Italy). This occurred after the closure of the main Balkan Route from Greece to Macedonia.

By blocking a possible Albania corridor, the action contributed to factors that left the central and main Balkan Route crossing at Eidomeni the major one for migrants hoping to get to Northern Europe. The latter would erupt for the second time in a month on April 10-11, 2016, when angry migrants stormed the border, battling Greek and Macedonia, creating what looked temporarily like a war zone along the border fence separating the two countries. It would be the largest single attempt to breach the Balkan Route to date, but failed due to strong policing on the Macedonian side.

Cooperation between Italy and Albania to Patrol Borders

Before moving to cover that central event, we will first consider the peripheral but important efforts made further east under Italian direction, on the Adriatic coast.

In March 2016 Albania intervened along its border with Greece thanks to a deal stipulated by Angelino Alfano, then-Italian Interior Minister and his Albanian counterpart, Sajmir Tahiri. The deal comprised a set of border management, control and patrolling stations in the most sensitive areas along the Greek-Albania eastern border. Albanian officials decided where Italian forces needed to be deployed, up to a few kilometres from the borderline.

Around 450 Albanian border agents were deployed to carry out patrolling operations together with Italian policemen, according to a preventive strategy meant to control and if necessary to contain migration flows. Among the Italians, there were police instructors and anti-terrorism experts who brought modern tools for control and surveillance. Further, Italy would help record biometric data of migrants entering the country and to electronically share information on their identities. This cooperation was considered particularly significant, as Italy feared illegal infiltration by radicalised individuals. The Trans-Adriatic Route had been already well known for many years for contraband smuggling, and the main Italian priority was to ensure it not become a migrant one as well.

Italian State Actor Involvement on the Main Balkan Route Corridor

This operation raises the more general question of Italian state involvement in troubled areas of the Balkans during that period. Italian officials had already been in the field for quite some time, most probably since the end of 2015. As the migration crisis intensified, with more and more refugees getting stranded in Greece, Italian officials specifically studied the situation at the border with Macedonia to better understand what could happen if the Balkan Route was closed, for national security reasons.

Tommaso Gandini was one of the most prominent Italian activists present in the Balkans for a long time during the period in question. In a new interview for Balkanalysis.com, Gandini affirmed that there had been a rumour that Italian Frontex troops had been spotted near the border. However, he added that he had no way to confirm this as fact.

Regarding the same issue, an Italian official with contacts close to the Ministry of Defence commented for Balkanalysis.com that the main reason for the Italian presence in the border area was the perceived importance of the region for Italy, as Rome’s interests were to keep the area stable and safe.

“The Balkans is still a fragile and fragmented area,” the Italian official stated. “Furthermore, lately it has been the breeding ground for many foreign fighters and home to some dormant jihadi cells which could potentially spill over into Italian territory.”

“Adding to this fear, in spring 2016 there was an ongoing refugee crisis,” the official noted. “Therefore, despite being unapproved, the visit by Italian officials and security experts was a commissioned study of a critical area to later outline possible outcome scenarios.”

From the Italian perspective, one worrying scenario at the time was the possible diversion of uncontrolled flows of migrants to Italy and its already overcrowded reception facility centres, our source confirmed. (Although he did not mention it by name, the ‘commissioned study’ was no doubt the Impressione di Macedonia revealed by Balkanalysis.com last summer).

The ‘March of Hope’ River Crossing (15 March 2016) and German Activism

After the first week of March, the Balkan Route was no longer accessible to migrants following the decision of Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia and finally Macedonia to close their borders. It was a coordinated policy officially accepted by the EU (with support from Austria and the V4 countries, despite opposition from some EU countries and political blocs). Thousands of people coming from the Greek islands via Athens began piling up at Eidomeni, creating a chaotic make-shift camp along the Greek-Macedonian border.

On 15 March, a migrants’ ‘march of hope’ was triggered not only by the deteriorating conditions at the camp but also by an Arabic-language leaflet which urged refugees to illegally cross the Greek-Macedonian border. The document, supposedly distributed by some activists on Monday 14 March, provided a map and instructions on how to best reach an unfenced part of the border, delineating a river crossing (the Suva Reka, or ‘Dry River’ in Macedonian, near Eidomeni). However, while the flyer promised the river was dry, it was actually very full and three migrants drowned while trying to cross it.

According to The Guardian, German activists had been behind the flyer. German newspaper Bild added that it had been signed by Kommando Norbet Blum- the name of Germany’s former Labour Minister, who spent a week at the camp in ‘solidarity’ with refugees. There were also some activists and journalists who documented this act of defiance and who were later stopped by Macedonian authorities, but soon released and sent back to Greece. Among them there was Paul Ronzheimer, author of the Bild article, who published a video on social media showing the crossing of the river.

Italian activist Tommaso Gandini was not physically present at Eidomeni on that day, but many of his Italian friends were. Based on the accounts of that day available on the MeltingPot.org blog, around 1,500 migrants decided to cross the river as they hoped it would be a good moment to tempt fate.

One goal was to reunite some of the migrants with their families. They had been warned by some people providing aid that the attempt would be dangerous and useless, but they nonetheless tried to cross the border. However, the Macedonian police soon stopped them and sent them back to the Greek police.

According to the blog post, the flyer indicated the way to illegally get into Macedonia, adding that “those who remained at Eidomeni would be deported to Turkey.” Italian activists there tried to persuade refugees that the crossing was a bad idea and that they could be arrested or detained, but they were determined to try as they had nothing to lose. Therefore, volunteers, activists and journalists finally helped these migrants in their impossible mission.

On behalf of his friends who were in the field then, Gandini confirmed for Balkanalysis.com that the flyers, which put thousands of lives in jeopardy, were in fact handed out by some German activists who had arrived at the camp a few days earlier. After that episode, they soon left the site, he added.

This German involvement was strongly condemned by those providing aid at the camp, including the British association Aid Delivery Mission. As proof of this, the press release written by Aid Delivery Mission clarified that after the drowning of 3 Afghans, volunteers had tried to dissuade migrants from crossing the Suva Reka and informed them about the dangers of the illegal crossing.

However, when volunteers realised that the flow of refugees could not be stopped, they followed the march on mountain paths and formed a human chain to make their crossing safer.

Italian Activists and Other Groups at Eidomeni: #overthefortress and the Lawyers from Bologna

One initiative that Italian activists from the #overthefortress group took was to create an ‘info tent’ structure at the centre of the camp. They did this to inform migrants of the general situation in Greece. They also informed migrants about how to make an asylum application in order to be moved to other countries in a reasonable period of time.

At the tent, an Italian legal team from the Bologna-based Associazione Interculturale Le Mafalde soon started cooperating with #overthefortress activists and the ‘info tent’ so that their legal knowledge and expertise was at the disposal of migrants. This legal team consisted of women only, more precisely, three lawyers and two translators of English and Arabic.

After receiving an update from other humanitarian operators regarding how legal cases were normally dealt with at the camp, the Italian lawyers took responsibility for disseminating information and answers at a jurisdictional level, such as the right to family reunification. The lawyers clarified (in a video interview on MeltingPot.org) that they were also the point of reference for some serious cases.

For example, in one case, 24 migrants had tried to cross the border to get to Macedonia but soon reckoned it was not a good idea, and decided to call the police, who brought them back. On this occasion, one man went missing and his wife asked for help from the Associazione Le Mafalde, which went to 4 police stations in Macedonia to report the missing person. However, according to that interview, ‘they turned a deaf ear,’ said an Italian lawyer by the name of Alba.

Therefore, the Italian lawyer got in touch with the Italian Embassy in Skopje, and the Greek police to report the disappearance. Eventually (the lawyer named Alba said), the deputy at the Italian Embassy in Skopje contacted the lawyers from the Milanese association to say the person had been stopped for specific enquiries but that he would soon be released.

Without the support of the association, this would have never been possible, the report said. (Since Alba did not specifically name the Italian Embassy deputy, it is not clear whether he was in fact the then-deputy Filippo Candela, already discussed last summer by Balkanalysis.com in relation to AISE activity in the country).

A ‘Cultural Centre’ and other Ventures at Eidomeni

However, #overthefortress members were not alone at the camp, as there were other groups providing migrants with support and assistance, carrying out activities in which they were specialised. This was occurring even as the general living conditions continued to deteriorate sharply amidst bad weather and overcrowding.

One of them was a group of Spanish bomberos (firemen) which managed to build an independent makeshift hospital facility, offering medical care and aid to those in need. Spanish, German and Italian activists and volunteers also decided to ‘found’ a ‘cultural centre’ where they could teach in an improvised school for children and adults too.

Like many such facilities, this was a structure that acted independently. One #overthefortress member explained that “independent volunteers were those most attacked by the governments which considered them as instigators of migrant’ protests, to finally isolate them and to deny them access to the camps where only NGOs were allowed to operate.’

Finally, a Wifi area (installed by Italians) allowed a certain Mustafa and other Syrians to manage a communication program called Refugees.tv. It also had a Facebook page which recounted facts about life in the camp, problems and protests there, both in Arabic and English, in order to make refugees’ voices heard.

Another Italian Witness from the Eidomeni Camp

Another Italian activist on the field was Luca Mistrello, who wrote about his experience. This is an excerpt of his story: “the very first day that we got there some operators of UNHCR recommended that ‘not under any circumstance should they ever tell migrants that the border was going to open again,’ which was something that we never affirmed anyway.”

On the contrary, they said that the border would never reopen and that the only way migrants could survive was to accept being moved to other camps being organised by the Greek government, with the promise that within 2 months they would be relocated elsewhere in Europe.

“However, many wanted to stay at Eidomeni because at least in that place their condition was in the spotlight and volunteers, journalists and NGOs were speaking about them. Had they been in other informal camps in the inland they would have been forgotten,” Mistrello noted.

Eidomeni Escalation of Tensions (10 April 2016)

As previously reported in the first part of this analysis, on 10 April 2016 many migrant families were the protagonists of a sit-in protest against both Greek and Macedonian officials. Refugees had gathered in front of the Greek police barricade at the Eidomeni border crossing to Macedonia by 9 a.m. on Sunday. Those at the front held up paper placards with peaceful-sounding slogans as they faced down a Greek police deployment. For the first couple of hours, the protests were calm.

Tommaso Gandini is one of the most prominent Italian activists of the #overthefortress march, was present at Eidomeni for a long period (between February and May 2016). He also took part in the Brenner Pass demonstration on 3 April that was covered in the first part of our report.

Gandini recounted his experience there for Balkanalysis.com and clearly expressed his point of view. “The attempted criminalisation of activists and volunteers is a constant phenomenon of the last few years, from Eidomeni to Athens and from Udine to Ventimiglia,” he stated.

“On 10 April I wasn’t there [at Eidomeni], but I know exactly and personally who organised the protest,” he says. “They were all Syrians, and not only did I speak to them, I also saw various videos that showed the reality of the facts. Thousands approached the border and a delegation of migrants had a dialogue with the police: ‘we would like to enter and we are going to enter today. We will remove these fences of barbed wire and thus enter, but we don’t want to hurt anyone. Please let us in, we don’t wish to hurt anyone,’ they said.”

Gandini made a further claim- that there were no international activists there who intervened, but only some journalists documenting the facts. For this reason, he concluded, “this means that there are no elements to say that the protest was coordinated or prompted by activists. It was completely self-organised.”

Further Italian Activist Testimony Regarding the April 10 Border Attack

With regards to this episode, another Italian activist of the #overthefortress campaign – who was actually at Eidomeni on that day – wrote on the activists’ website that on 9 April rumours were spreading all over the camp that migrants would organise a peaceful sit-in against the authorities on the following day.

However, the young Italian student-activist denied that Italian activists informed migrants to break through the border on 10 April (neither by flyers nor by word-of-mouth). He also denied that these Italians could somehow have been involved in prompting migrants to act against Macedonian officials.

On the contrary, he said that the main reason for defying Macedonian authorities was the increasing frustration of migrants. They were angered over the worsening conditions at the Greek camp, and the closure of the Balkan Route. He and his other colleagues (named Andrea, Carmen and Sandro) also recorded the events live, documenting the unrest on Twitter and Facebook.

A seeming confirmation of this appeared on an Italian anarchist website called Hurriya (in Arabic, ‘Freedom’), which used the Italian slogan ‘senza frontiere, senza galere’ (‘without borders, without jails’).

The website reported that after the EU-Turkey deal, protests of migrants soared in many parts of Greece and everyday people expressed their intention to break through the border at Eidomeni and Evros (the Greek-Turkish border region). On 10 April, after weeks of latent anger, many of them were determined to break through the razor wire fence to get to Macedonia.

According to the website, the Greek government and the mainstream media considered that the uprisings were fostered by flyers handed out by volunteers and activists. Similarly to what had occurred in Calais at the ‘Jungle’ migrant camp, the website argued that “this is the way in which the media wanted to convey the distorted idea that migrants were ‘piloted’ by solidarity groups and volunteers.”

Hurriya also explained that in the wake of the tensions of 10 April, surveillance and controls were stepped up by Greek police towards aid groups and activists over the following days. On 12 April, the Greek police stopped 17 people (among them Germans, Austrians, Portuguese, Greeks, Swedes, one Palestinian and one Syrian) near a river bridge.

Towards the end of April and beginning of May, tensions skyrocketed and concern about repression was widespread among migrants. Those seeking to leave the camp had three possibilities. The first one was to go by bus to an inland-located militarised camp organised by the Greek government, even though they would not know in advance what the destination was. Alternatively, people from Eidomeni could try to cross the Macedonian border illegally by paying a smuggler. This would involve walking through mountainous pathways for hours- with a good risk of being spotted by police and sent back to the encampment. The third and last possibility was going back to Turkey, with all the uncertainties which that entailed.

Conclusion: The Invisible Bridge between Eidomeni and The Brenner Pass

When asked about the connection between Eidomeni and the Brenner Pass, and thus activists’ presence in those places, Gandini made this comment for Balkanalysis.com: “Eidomeni and the Brenner both represent the unwillingness of Northern-Central European countries to take charge of migrants. Both borders were indeed closed because Austria, with its border closure caused a domino effect. Countries like Croatia and Slovenia had no problem letting migrants pass, as nobody wanted to stay in those countries anyway,” he said.

“However, with the closure of the Austrian border they worried about dealing with thousands of people stranded on their territory,” Gandini stated. “Austria is not the root of all evil, but it had to take decisions for all the other countries of Northern-Central Europe.”

The clear connection of the northern border pressure points in Greece and Italy in the activists’ minds made it seem logical for them to thus carry out provocations at both places almost simultaneously during spring 2016. This had a tactical, but also propagandistic aspect.

After being at Eidomeni, and operating as at the Brenner Pass, activists and volunteers made their voice heard. Their permanent presence in Greece existed along with their operation at the Brenner Pass, and their determination break through both borders.

Judging by their determination and solidarity effort, this was particularly important in their relationship with migrants, to instill in them the awareness that the activists were there not only to help them survive, but also to ensure that they were ‘fighting against the system’ and the mechanisms that closed the borders.

Although all of the details concerning the turbulent attempts to attack Macedonian and Austrian borders in spring 2016 may never be known, two important details emerge from this collective testimony. The first was that these cases (like many similar ones) were perceived and presented in a manner typical to the left-wing activist and anarchist movements, as a means of resisting state power and controls. This is a very old motivation for such groups, and the migrant crisis has thus represented another opportunity (or even, excuse) for such groups to mobilise.

The second important aspect of the activist-migrant encounter in spring 2016 was that it had the effect of further emboldening desperate people who were already angered by poor living conditions, EU political decisions, and a general impatience to reach the ‘promised land’ of Northern Europe. By instilling a sense of false hope in the trapped migrant population at Eidomeni, the perhaps well-meaning but irresponsible activists influenced a highly volatile situation in which migrant violence created a genuine security concern for affected states, while damaging relations between European states, parties and blocs.

In conclusion, we can say that while the history is still being written, the historic presence of migrant activists and anarchists played a key role in influencing political processes and security reactions that, while seemingly temporary in nature, will have effects for a long time to come.

Between Eidomeni and the Brenner Pass: Italian Activists and Anarchists in spring 2016

Balkanalysis.com editor’s note: exactly one year ago, the Greek-Macedonian border was increasingly becoming a security risk due to the presence of thousands of migrants who refused to leave the impromptu Eidomeni camp, following the closure of the Balkan Route. Violent actions in March and April 2016 were interwoven with other security and political events. The present analysis examines the largely unknown role of the specifically Italian anarchist and activist contingent who played a key role in supporting the migrant cause.

By Elisa Sguaitamatti

In the aftermath of the 2015 migrant crisis, an invisible bridge linking seemingly distant places was formed: it connected such place as the former Eidomeni migrant camp on the Greek-Macedonia border, and the Brenner Pass on the Italian-Austrian border. This human chain consisting of some Italian activist groups involved in solidarity campaigns like #overthefortress. Further, anarchists’ actions were documented by websites such as GlobalProject and MeltingPot where ideas and facts were and are spread, with on-the-spot experiences also being shared.

Some Information about the GlobalProject.info Website

GlobalProject.info website reports that it is an Italian multi-media platform created by the collective effort of activists of the multifaceted GlobalProject, which includes individuals coming from different walks of life as well as those living in social centers, especially in the Northeast of Italy.

“The idea of creating this virtual space was born out of the desire to react to the events that the world was going through like the era of expansion of neoliberalist globalisation and the arrival of world capitalist crisis,” it noted. In this context, GlobalProject chose to spread ideas on the internet, “using spaces, resources and know how, becoming independent from all those things that are controlled, manipulated and dominated. GlobalProject 2.0 is working to refuse this unjust world and believes that social struggles are legitimate and right.”

On the website, there is a dedicated section for no-border activists’ communications and events. Further, a significant part of the website is specifically tailored for marches and initiatives, such as the solidarity campaign #overthefortress to Eidomeni refugee camp that took place from 25 to 29 March 2016.

Information about the MeltingPot.org Website

MeltingPot.org is another website which chose to dedicate its cause to the MeltingPot Project for Europe and the organization of the #overthefortress campaign.

This campaign, according to the website, is “a collective action of monitoring and inquiry in and outside the Fortress Europe.” It started off as a series of “handovers of relay” trips and visits in August 2015, all along the most vulnerable spots of the Balkan route and sensitive paths used by migrants wishing to get to the north of Europe.

#Overthefortress Activists in the Balkans and Greek Islands in 2015

For example, #overthefortress activists were in the Balkans just a few weeks before the construction of the wall between Hungary and Serbia, then Vienna, Eidomeni and the Greek islands.

The MeltingPot website quotes some of the comments made by activists involved in their visits: “we have known and told our story directly describing reality. We held hands [with] hundreds of women, children and elderly on the move. We listened to them and their reasons for leaving, we understood their needs and desires and actively supported them in Eidomeni until the day the camp was dismantled.”

Moreover, last year this solidarity campaign was also present at the Brenner Pass, Calais and Thessaloniki before leaving for a journey of inquiry in the south of Italy to visit reception facilities, to assess the conditions of overcrowded places where migrants were living.

Who Are the Anarchists?

Most Italian anarchists are non-violent people seeking to pursue their cause as well as their full personal realization and sense of belonging to a group. In recent times, more and more adherents have been younger ones who could be mistaken for college students seeking a cause, like members of any other movement. The same phenomenon has long been noted in Greece as well.

Of course, there is also a minority represented by the mobilizers, some of whom have used more violent behaviour. Often this is used to conjure the image factor that makes it ‘important’ to be considered an anarchist. In the migration context, they normally all go under the same umbrella name of “no-borders” and their actions are in line and cooperation with the initiatives of other foreign anarchists’ movements working for a “a global struggle against every border and barrier.”

The #Overthefortress Solidarity Campaign March (25-29 March 2016): From Ancona to Eidomeni

The MeltingPot Project for Europe sponsored a solidarity march from Ancona to Eidomeni from 25 to 29 March 2016 in which nearly 300 people participated, including activists, students and volunteers.

The #overthefortress campaign was born from the effort and determination of many realities. The aim was twofold: bring and deliver necessary goods and aid from Italy to Eidomeni and the surrounding camps; and, on the other hand, to express a firm opposition to the idea of a Fortress Europe which was resorting to nationalism and starting to build walls and barbed-wire barriers.

Only 10 days after the closure of the Greek-Macedonian border (which obliged migrants to stay at Eidomeni in precarious conditions) on 18 March a deal between Turkey and the EU was signed which was considered bad by activists. The reason for this was that, in their opinion, it would create discriminations and chaotic situations to the detriment of asylum-seekers, who would be pushed back to Turkey where they would live in “inhumane conditions.”

Participants in the #Overthefortress March

The website MeltingPot quoted all the associations that adhered to the march: activists from social centers of the north of Italy. These included Agire nella Crisi, Carovana Migranti (Torino), Art Lab Occupato (Parma), Adl Zavidovici (Brescia), LGBTI Antéros (Padova), as well as social centers from the Le Marche region such as Ambasciata dei Diritti Marche (Ancona, Jesi, Macerata) and Ya Basta! Marche and finally, Amici del Baobab (Roma).

Secondly, there were some students’ associations from all over Italy participating. These included: Lisc (Venezia); Refresh (Trento); Polisportiva Clandestina (Trento); Anti-racist Forum (Palermo); Laboratory ParaTodas (Verona); Lab Insurgencia (Napoli); Spam (Padova); Polisportiva S. Precario (Padova); Chiesa Pastafariana; the Italian schools Liberalaparola (Marghera) and Liberalaparola (Padova); Anti-racist group Assata Shakur (Ancona); AlternataSilos (Guidonia), and the welcome project Friendly House (Rieti).

Moreover, some Italian Committees and social cooperatives also gave their contribution. These Committees included: Comitato No Mous/No Sigonella; Catanese anti-racist network; ASD RFC Lions Ska Caserta Antirazzista; Center for Peace Studies or Centar za Mirovne Studije and Welcome!-Dobrodošli! from Zagreb, Croatia. Further, participants in cooperatives came from some cities in Northern Italy. These included: Azienda Easy Promo (Cittadella PD); Cooperativa Caracol (Marghera); Cooperativa Città Invisibile (Padova-Vicenza); Cooperativa El Tamiso (Padova); Ufficio Stampa Propapromoz (Milano) and Sherwood Festival (Padova).

Finally, it is noteworthy to point out that there were also two important delegations from Munich and Prague belonging to the Federation of Young European Greens (FYEG) and activists of Interventionistische-Linke from Nurnberg.

The Road to Eidomeni: Departures by Ship

Approximately 300 activists left from Ancona port on 25 March 2016, together with two smaller delegations from the south of Italy leaving from Bari and Trieste, heading to Greek ports and the Eidomeni camp on the Greek-Macedonian border.

The campaign determined a social activation all over Italy, creating “a common political space of action to break the barriers that separated bodies from necessities and desires,” read one announcement. Thanks to crowdfunding, hundreds of people contributed to the collection of items of clothing, food and medicine to be delivered to the encampment. Eidomeni was “a symbol of the struggle for freedom of movement on the borders of Europe,” the Italian activists said.

The activists described this as “a call for international solidarity and outrage under the slogan #overthefortress.” This rhetoric defined the migrant-crisis experience for them, and the Eidomeni camp represented the perfect example of the convergence of migrant, activist and anarchist cooperation, which Balkanalysis.com had predicted four months beforehand.

Who Were the Volunteers and Activists?

There was an exceptional presence of young Italians going to Eidomeni. One of them, a leader of the solidarity march was Tommaso Gandini, a 21-year-old student, originally from Bologna, but living in Bolzano where he was attending university. Despite his young age, Tommaso was already an experienced activist. Together with some social centres from the northeast of Italy, Le Marche region and other “single units” of Agire nella Crisi network, Gandini had already taken part in initiatives of #overthefortress, and on the platform MeltingPot he documented his experiences live from Eidomeni camp.

Other prominent activists included Chris and Filix who belonged to Interventionistiche Linke (Germany), and Giulia and the group from Rome who were attending a course for legal operators in international protection to look into the situation after the implementation of EU-Turkey deal. Veronica from the association Amici del Baobab in Rome was another prominent Eidomeni activist, as was Sabrina Yousfi of the non-profit association Silos, who believed the march was the first of many actions that would connect all those willing to help migrants in Europe.

Day 1: A Meeting between Italian and Greek Activists and Volunteers

Having arrived at Igoumenitsa harbor, the Italian groups met with Greek activists and some representatives of the Federation of Young European Greens who followed the Italian buses on the road to Eidomeni. They travelled across Epiros and to the camp, north of Thessaloniki on the main border corridor that runs from the Aegean port to Central Europe. This event was less than two weeks after 3 migrants had drowned in a river at the border crossing, being encouraged to travel illegally by activists at Eidomeni.

Not far from the tents of Eidomeni, they came across Greek police forces blocking the road to the camp, deployed in anti-riot gear. After some hours and meticulous controls of all the buses, #overthefortress volunteers and activists reached the makeshift camp and delivered aid, food and clothes.

In the meantime, young Greek activists explained and updated the newly arrived Italians on the situation there: Eidomeni was just the tip of the iceberg, a place where Greek authorities divided refugees by their nationality (stranded refugees usually were Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis, Pakistanis and Kurds). However, they warned Italians of the facts that on the territory there were many other informal camps that needed help and were visited by small delegations of Italians. The first day went by smoothly and there were no tensions in and around the camp.

Day 2: Life Inside the Camp

The #overthefortress group was living together with NGOs operators in the headquarter of Polykastro camp, a village 20 km away from Eidomeni. On the second day, the Italians managed to spend a lot of time inside the camp itself. They managed to accomplish some ‘technical missions’ as they defined them on their virtual platforms.

One of these ‘technical missions’ was to create an information point to explain the rights of refugees in Europe, as well as some infrastructure to establish an internet connection and install a power generator. This was because, as Tommaso Gandini explained in an interview for an Italian newspaper, “the only way migrants have to apply for an asylum request is to book an appointment for an interview with Thessaloniki government officials by a Skype call but the number is always busy. There I saw a lot of uncertainty and little hope.” Other groups were dedicating their time and effort to talk to people, play with children and document with photos and video the conditions of the camp.

Day 3: A March to Thessaloniki

On 28 March, the #overthefortress group carried out its march, reaching Thessaloniki. There, together with other local activists of the student’s network called Antarsya and the hospitality of people of an anarchist-occupied orphanage, they organised a protest in front of the Prefectural building. It was a peaceful popular mobilization to express disappointment regarding the recent European policies in matters of immigration: the closure of the Balkan route, the introduction of the immigration quote system and the approval of EU-Turkey agreement.

Activists and volunteers waved banners reading “EU-Turkey: no deal with whom tramples human rights,” “Solidarity with the Kurds,” “No border, no nation, stop deportation. If you don’t want to listen, we will make you listen,” Another sign read “Next stop Sunday 3 April Brenner Pass Against the Borders.” It was clear that the activists had an organized plan for rapid activities in two countries by that point.

Demonstration at the Brenner Pass by Italian Activists and Anarchists (3 April 2016)

The Brenner Pass is one of Italy’s most important transit routes– for trade, tourism and, during the crisis, for thousands of migrants on their journey towards Northern Europe. At the end of March 2016, the GlobalProject website reported that some Italian activists from the Agire nella Crisi network (a local group from Trentino region) staged a flash mob and a press conference in front of the Tyrolean Parliament presenting an action plan of their march on 3 April.

The Brenner demonstration came after an Austrian plan to restrict access, “channelling people” through the Brenner Pass, through a new fence at this Alpine crossing between Italy and Austria.

The Agire nella Crisi network criticised the militarization of borders and claimed the creation of safe human corridors in Europe to welcome migrants was necessary. Although it started off as a peaceful mobilization, the event turned violent. Local police in Tyrol, Austria said over 600 protesters showed up to the third violent demonstration at the Brenner Pass in just over a month.

Other Actors Involved

On that day, hundreds of pro-refugee activists were gathering for a rally at Brenner train station to protest “against the borders of Fortress Europe.” There were anti-racist and anti-fascist movements from Trentino region, representatives of some social centers of Milan and Naples as well as centers of the Italian region Le Marche.

More generally, no-border adherents from Trento, Vicenza, Venezia, Ancona and some from Sicily were also represented.

Further, there were some volunteers who had participated in the campaign #overthefortress that had witnessed the situation of Eidomeni camp a few weeks earlier, and some people from civil society groups.

Among the international groups of activists there were the Federation of Young European Greens and delegations of Interventionistische-Linke, who were all present at Eidomeni.

Remarkably, there was also a representative of the Kurdish community in Bolzano who, in a video interview, declared that “we, the Kurds, are here today at the Brenner to express our dissatisfaction with Europe that, instead of providing migrants with assistance, decided to give its funds to that dangerous Sultan that is Erdoğan. Welcoming and opening frontiers in Europe represents a fight against the fundamentalism of Daesh.”

Although there is no clear number of people who took part in the march (approximately between 8000 and 1000), it is evident that they were united in their cause. Groups of protesters welcomed the call made by the local Trentino movement Agire nella Crisi network, to firmly oppose the closure of the Italian-Austrian border. Agire contro i confini dell’Europa fortezza (Acting against the borders of Fortress Europe) was the second phase of a political campaign that started from the masses claiming a Europe without barriers, operating in solidarity and friendliness.

Phases of the March “Against the Borders of Fortress Europe”

The parade started moving from Brenner station while people at the front were carrying a big banner that said: “With our bodies we eliminate barriers. Open the borders.”

Revealing the impact of their recent Greek experience, the volunteers of #overthefortress were holding blue tents which were symbolic of Eidomeni camp. They were also claiming the necessity to open the borders against Europe that made deals with Turkey under Erdoğan, a “killer regime than represses Kurds and often attacks dinghies.”

Activists marched across the Brenner Pass into Austria: they stationed at the Austrian frontier and wrote “Welcome” on the wall, crossing out the sign indicating Republic of Austria. For the first time an internal border had been violated to claim the freedom of movement of people by activists.

However, soon after Austrian policemen blocked the road lined, up in riot gear. As protesters tried to break the police lines chanting “no border, we are all illegal migrants,” while throwing bottles and stones at officers, Austrian security forces reacted with shields, pepper spray and batons. Demonstrators could be seen lighting flares, throwing life jackets at police, while shouting “we are all refugees” and carrying banners reading “refugees welcome” and “no more Fortress Europe.”

In the meantime, a group belonging to the more extreme and violent wing of the anarchist circle of Agire nella Crisi managed to get back to the station, causing scuffles along the railway lines while opening blue tents to remid people of the Eidomeni camp.

Further, right before the deployment of security forces, activists wrote “no borders” in capital letters, and “Refugees, Welcome to EU” on the ground. At the end of the demonstration some activists and leaders of the march were stopped, interrogated and soon released by local police.

Eidomeni Escalation of Tensions and Illegal Border Crossings (9-10 April 2016)

Between 9 and 10 April, the MeltingPot website published photos, videos and stories written by young Italian witnesses of #overthefortress campaign reporting the worsening of the situation at the encampment, as well as the escalation of tensions between migrants and Greek and Macedonian authorities.

As the warmer spring season had arrived, the conditions at the camp were deteriorating while the railway station had been blocked for more than ten days to avoid departures of migrants. In addition, aid and services offered by UNHCR and other NGOs were becoming increasingly insufficient, and hence the atmosphere of anger and frustration was mounting.

On 10 April, many Afghani and Pakistani migrant families collected their possessions and tents; they gathered at the exit of Eidomeni camp and started protesting in a sit-in against Greek police.

Enzo Infantino, independent Italian volunteer at the Eidomeni camp explained to the press agency Agenzia Agi that Afghans and Pakistanis were the ones who mainly fuelled tensions and clashes in the camp,  as “they know very well that it will be almost impossible for them to get refugee status [unlike] the case with Syrians. Therefore, they create tensions- otherwise nobody would ever speak of them. On the other hand, Syrians try to keep the situation calm as they are waiting to receive their refugee status.”

Some young #overthefortress leaders assisted at the scene and recorded what was happening live thanks to the No Border-Wifi system they had installed some days earlier. As more and more migrants arrived and assaulted the railway line, others attempted to enter Macedonia, breaking the barbed wire that separated the border. Macedonian police reacted dispersing the crowds with rubber bullets (according to the activists, but denied by police), tear gas and smoke bombs. This was just one of the many episodes of escalation of tensions, before Eidomeni camp was finally dismantled.

Conclusion: More Challenges Ahead

Despite the geographical distance, there is a strong link that will always bond Eidomeni and the Brenner Pass. It is, again, an invisible bridge through which hundreds of Italian activists and anarchists crossed borders, overcame fences and barriers and wrote a small chapter in regional history. These were the identities and activities of the so called “no-borders” activists at the beginning of spring 2016, when the refugee crisis was still hitting Europe in a serious way.

A year on, as the good weather season begins, we are likely to bear witness to more flows of migrants. Notwithstanding the closure of the Balkan route and the efforts of some European countries to build fences, migrants will continue to arrive in Europe by different means. Similarly, there is a likelihood that activists and anarchists will continue their activities, possibly converging with similar forces of other countries, at times fuelling unrest and tensions at the most sensitive areas.

As of March 2017 – a year on from the dangerous rioting at two key migration chokepoints – it seems clear that immigration waves won’t stop, and hence Europe should be more ready to grapple with the defining issue of immigration and related challenges in future. In this light, in addition to the typical humanitarian and logistical concerns, it will also be necessary for European governments to observe the activities of anarchist and activist groups that may pose temporary threats to public order and security.

Romania’s Winter 2017 Protests: Behind the Power Struggle of the Secret Services, Politicians, and Soros NGOs

Balkanalysis.com editor’s note: George Soros’ web of intrigue is coming under increasing scrutiny, from America to Eastern Europe. Yet while it is commonly believed Soros only supports leftist causes, the case of Romania shows that his political support can change to match his unclear interests.

This exclusive analysis reveals how, while retaining his traditional method of infiltrating the judiciary and government through NGOs, Soros in Romania is also active in politics and the deep-state struggles in which officials, secret agents, businessmen and anti-corruption interests converge.

By Elena Dragomir

In the beginning of 2017, Romania witnessed a series of anti-government protests. These were generally depicted as manifesting civic opposition to a corrupt government trying to end Romania’s fight against corruption.

A closer investigation, however, reveals that this thesis does not seem to stand and a new hypothesis is more likely; this would suggest that Romania’s recent protests actually represent a fierce struggle for power between the state secret services and Romania’s president, Klaus Johannis, on the one side, and the political coalition that won the last parliamentary elections in December 2016 (PSD-ALDE), on the other. The political and secret service-supported protests were also fueled by persons and entities close to various NGOs associated with Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros.

Further, the political dimensions of the protests also reveal that George Soros retains strong influence in Romania, even though here he is not on the “side” he usually plays (i.e., the left-wing parties). As elsewhere in Eastern Europe, it thus seems that the billionaire has allied with elements of the Romanian secret services and prosecution – key actors in the country’s ‘deep state’ – for his own unclear purposes.

We will discuss the protests and this activity towards the end of this analysis. But first it is necessary to outline the structural problems affecting the Romanian secret services and especially, the role of the state bodies investigating corruption cases.

A Structural Problem: No Democratic Control over the Secret Services of Romania

Despite some public debate, in its 26 years since the collapse of the socialist system, Romania could not reform its secret services, which continued to grow unabatedly, outside of any real democratic control.

During the last years, more and more controversies have occurred publicly with regard to the secret services’ involvement in media, businesses, politics and the judicial system. While the current Romanian legislation forbids the secret services from having any interference in politics and judiciary, no law is actually broken when media is infiltrated or when the Romanian Intelligence Service (SRI) establishes its own covert commercial companies, NGOs, foundations or associations.

Although not illegal, as Adrian Țuțuianu, the president of the current parliamentary commission for the control of the SRI recently declared, the presence of undercover agents in newspapers offices was often linked to the SRI’s involvement in politics and press freedom limitations. In 2012, for instance, one of the four chief-editors of the Romanian newspaper Jurnalul Național was uncovered as an SRI agent whose mission was not only to monitor what happened in the newspaper’s office, but to gather information on the sources of documentation used in ‘sensible’ articles and to influence its editorial policy.

A Recent Scandal

A recent scandal seemed to confirm rumors and speculations that some media have claimed for years. Sebastian Ghiță and Elena Udrea, two very controversial members of the former Romanian parliament, publicly declared that SRI systematically acted to control newspapers and to pull down TV stations that were critical of particular politicians (specifically, of former president Traian Băsescu). According to these two, the main instrument used to take down political adversaries was through the so-called anti-corruption fight, carried out by the National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA), working very closely with the SRI.

Sebastian Ghiță, now on the run, was often accused by the media of being an undercover SRI agent himself, or at least an SRI agent of influence. He was a member in the former parliamentary commission for the control of the SRI, and the owner of several companies- allegedly, SRI covert businesses. It is, however, legal for SRI to own and operate its covert commercial companies, as it is legal to own covert NGOs, associations, foundations. In 2013, ten MPs from the National Liberal Party initiated a law for the abolishment of all commercial companies, NGOS, associations and foundations owned by the SRI, in part or entirely, directly or through intermediaries.

Three parliamentary commissions opposed the proposal then. Now, Sebastian Ghiță has disappeared, being accused of corruption by the DNA in several criminal cases. He was also involved in a series of revelations that ended in January 2017 with the suspension and investigation of general Florian Coldea, First Deputy Director of the SRI.

Romanian Deep State- Spies in Parliament

As already noted, different MPs were suspected of being if not secret agents, at least agents of influence of the SRI. Such MPs were supposed to block laws and initiatives unwanted by the SRI, limit or block any democratic control by the parliament over the SRI, support political groups favored by the SRI, increase the SRI’s annual budgets and so on. Journalists emphasize that the SRI’s agents infiltrated not only the media or the Parliament, but also governmental agencies, such as the National Agency for Fiscal Administration.

Such accusations have been repeatedly denied by the SRI and, given the secrecy that inherently characterizes the secret services sector, it is very difficult to have access to reliable evidence and information. Still, in this house of mirrors, there are some very clear facts, including the one that no post-communist parliament or government has ever initiated an effective reform within the security sector. Thus, the question ‘who’s controlling who’ has never been convincingly answered.

Reasons for the Current Situation

Media often speculate that politicians seem to be terrified that they could be criminally investigated by the DNA, should they pass laws that might displease the SRI or the DNA. The same fear also seems to affect the judicial system, according to some reports pointing to judges being arrested by the DNA when they ruled against it.

In this context, several professional organizations of magistrates have asked more than once for “clarifications” on the involvement of the secret services in the judicial system. They have pointed, for instance, at how the SRI is illegally used during criminal investigations, or at the existence of secret agents illegally infiltrated among magistrates.

A (Not So) Democratic and Transparent Fight against Corruption

Every year, the DNA proudly reports tremendous success in its fight against corruption. The more politicians and judges arrested and imprisoned, the better for the fight against corruption.  In 2016, for instance, Laura Codruța Kovesi reported that DNA obtained, the previous year, convictions in over 90% of its cases and that DNA in 2015 filed complaints and indicted one prime minister, five ministers, 67 deputies, five members of the Senate, 97 mayors and deputy mayors, among others.

International media, as well as American and European institutions, all seem to gullibly believe such numbers and reports. They consider Kovesi a ‘crusader against corruption’- despite the fact that such a high percentage should raise considerable suspicions. On 23 February 2017, DNA reported that in 2016 it had indicted 1,270 defendants, of which one-quarter were charged with abuse of office, with a total damage of $260m.

Dana Gârbovan, however, the president of the National Union of Judges in Romania, argues that such numbers are greatly exaggerated while the methods used to reach them remain highly problematic.

 Foreign Perceptions of Corruption

A widely spread public perception, both domestically and abroad, is that Romania was and is the most corrupt (Eastern) European country. Therefore, its European and American partners have constantly asked Romania for more and more proof of its commitment to the anti-corruption fight; presumably, this fight cannot look genuine and successful, unless the DNA reports thousands of arrests and convictions. However, in this context, new threats seem to take form:

  • the fight against corruption appears to have been carried out, far too often, through illegal, unconstitutional means, with little respect for human rights;
  • the anti-corruption crusaders seem to have their own very dark spots;
  • the Romanians’ trust in the DNA and the judiciary in general is constantly decreasing.

Any honest person looking at this picture will see more questions than answers. Are all criminal cases under DNA’s investigation genuine cases of corruption, or is the anti-corruption narrative being used as a pretext to put down adversaries, including or especially political ones? Is Romania, with its politicians and institutions, as corrupt as the DNA reports, or does the DNA itself have a less visible agenda? How does this fit into the mainstream narrative of Romania’s corrupt past, present and future?

The Struggle against Corruption, Sometimes Fought with Illegal Means                     

Examples exist to suggest that illegal methods have been used by the Romanian authorities in order to pursue corruption cases. In January 2017, the National Union of Judges in Romania published the point of view of the Department of the National Security within Romania’s Presidential Administration with regard to the SRI’s activity in the judicial system and to the fight against corruption.  According to this document, the Presidential Administration admits that during the last 12 years the Supreme Council of National Defense in Romania (CSAT) made (secret) decisions that allowed, facilitated and enlarged the implication of the secret services in the fight against corruption, outside the existent legal framework.

Arguing that the laws of the security sector were too old and outdated and that corruption was a matter of national security, CSAT ‘completed’ the current legislation with secret decisions. Thus, as cjr.ro reports, since 2005, the fight against corruptions has been fought by quasi-legal means and without sufficient transparency, while the legislation in the anti-corruption field was de facto adopted outside the legal framework, in secrecy and independently of the laws in force.

There is an apparent striking contradiction here. On the one hand, Romania had a series of Parliaments which during the last two decades were unable, unwilling or simply not allowed to reform the security legislation in the country while, on the other hand, Romania’s security structures complain of the existing outdated legislation. This perceived lack, they say, requires the issuing of additional secret rules within CSAT.

A second example illustrating how extra-legal means are used involves a recent meeting of the Supreme Council of Magistracy, Romania’s General Prosecutor, Augustin Lazăr admitted that a secret protocol was concluded between the SRI and DNA, according to which joint teams of DNA prosecutors and SRI agents have investigated together criminal cases; the law, however, explicitly forbids such practices.

The DNA has repeatedly denied such accusations, while the SRI declared that there is no protocol between the SRI and the DNA. There are, however, perfectly legal protocols that have been concluded between the SRI and other institutions, the SRI’s spokesman said. The website luju.ro, however, continues to present evidence suggesting that such a protocol did exist, being concluded on 4 February 2009.

A third example of this trend involves a decision made by Romania’s Constitutional Court from March 2016, which admitted that SRI illegally intercepted people’s conversations. The Court ruled that such a practice might end and that the DNA cannot base its criminal cases on such evidence that was illegally obtained by the SRI and provided by the SRI to the DNA.

The Anti-corruption Crusaders Have Their Own Problems

Laura Codruța Kovesi served as Romania’s Prosecutor General between 2006 and 2012. Since 2013, she has been chief prosecutor at the DNA. She was caught up in an odd sort of European scandal that is not taken as seriously in other countries: plagiarism. She was accused of plagiarizing her PhD dissertation in Law, a charge that resulted in an inconclusive finding by a Ministry of commission. It decided that just 4% of the whole thesis was lifted, though the scientific quality of the work was sub-par. For many Romanians, it was ironic that such an individual was also a crusader in the fight against corruption.

Moreover, the results of the DNA do not seem so spectacular at a closer investigation. As Cotidiaul.ro reported, 60% of the convictions obtained by the DNA in 2015 were in fact suspended sentences, while 10-12% of its criminal cases in that year ended with acquittals in court. According to luju.ro, in 2016, DNA managed to reach the counter performance of getting 109 acquittals in 51 days, most of which were due to a lack of evidence. Moreover, many of the DNA criminal cases were based on abuse of office or other charges which are rather vaguely defined by the current legislation.

More than once, CEDO reversed decisions by Romanian courts in DNA cases. One recent example is that of the mayor of Râmnicu Vâlcea. He had been accused by DNA of bribery and was sentenced to three years and six months of prison. In 2016 this mayor, Mircea Gutău, was acquitted by CEDO on the grounds that his right to a fair trial was not respected. This DNA case was based on a transcript which CEDO dismissed as falsified by the DNA investigators.

The DNA relies extensively on wiretapping and covert filming. Thus, far too many times, the DNA was accused of abusive or illegal investigative methods and of infringing on human rights, including people’s presumption of innocence. Suspects in corruption cases are paraded in front of the TV cameras in handcuffs, publicly accused and compromised. Their carriers are ruined as are their families, and after many years of trials, a court rules that there is no evidence supporting the DNA accusations and the case ends with an acquittal. Given the examples above, one additional question arises: is the war against corruption a form of corruption itself, if or when it is waged by illegal means?

How Corruption Insinuations Affected the New Head of State

This general trend and practice has also manifested in political life. Klaus Johannis himself was unable to convincingly explain the source of his fortune. In 2015, Rice Project revealed that “most of the real estate property owned by the family of Romanian President Klaus Iohannis was obtained as a result of property restitution based on forged documents”. After a trial that lasted 15 years, in February 2017, a Romanian Court of Appeals ruled against the Johannis family, which irrevocably lost the property obtained through forged documents. How does this personal experience fit into Johannis’ anticorruption narrative? 

A Weak and Fluid Political Class

While the mainstream narrative (especially abroad) sees the DNA as Romania’s only non-corrupt entity, much of the result of the last parliamentary elections on 11 December 2016 can be explained by the people’s increasing lack of trust in the DNA and its investigative methods against corruption, as well as by the people’s suspicions towards the involvement of the SRI in their lives.

The elections resulted in a 39.44% turnout, with the Social Democratic Party (PSD) obtaining 45.48% of votes and the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE) 5.62%. PSD and ALDE formed a parliamentary majority and after some delay caused by President Johannis, the Sorin Grindeanu cabinet was sworn in on 4 January 2017. The opposition parties obtained the next-best results in elections: the National Liberal Party (PNL) with 20% of the votes, the Union Save Romania (USR) with 8.87%, and the People’s Movement’s Party (PMR) with 5.35%.

On 18 January 2017, president Johannis publicly announced the cabinet’s alleged intention to pass in secret two emergency ordinance bills – one designed to change the Penal Code in relation to the decriminalization of abuse of office, and the other in relation to granting pardons to thousands of convicted criminals. The Minister of Justice published the bills on its website and sent them to several judicial institutions for consultation.

A Problem of DNA

The DNA, as well as the High Court of Cassation and Justice, the Superior Council of the Magistracy and the Public Prosecutor’s Office issued negative opinions, a result that may or may have not been influenced by public pressure. President Johannis publicly argued that the bills were the attempt of a corrupted political party to dismantle the fight against corruption and to release from prison its convicted members. In reaction, protests were sparked around the country; international media presented it as the largest in Romania’s history, numbering between 25,000 people (in its first day, 18 January) and 500,000-600,000 people (at its peak, on 5 February). The move by the Grindeanu Cabinet was criticized, both in Romania and abroad, along the following lines:

This narrative was presented in a series of Romanian and international mainstream (online) newspapers and news agencies, such as Hotnews.ro, Ziare.comAdevarul.ro, Reuters, Time.com, The Guardian, New York TimesDeutsche Welle etc. In short, this narrative says that a corrupt government (backed by a corrupt parliament) tries to secretly change the legislation in order to avoid its own criminal prosecution for acts of corruption and to pardon criminals already convicted for corruption.

Legal Debate, the Need for Reforms and Protests

The legal debate regarding the real meaning and the legal consequences of these two bills got fierce. The cabinet argued that such accusations were false and more or less great specialists in law debated for both sides.

On 5 February, under the pressure of the continuous protests, the cabinet revoked the original ordinance, and on 8 February the minister of justice resigned.

A reform of the penal legislation in Romania is badly needed. The PSD-ALDE coalition won the election, but seemed to be unable to govern, for reasons involving both its intrinsic weaknesses and the pressure (if not control) exercised by some covert forces.

The appointed head of the parliamentary commission for the control of the SRI, Adrian Țuțuianu declared that the commission aims to eliminate the public perceptions that the members of the commission were merely spokesmen for the SRI, and to bring evidence to the public that the commission actually controls the SRI. In the light of this declaration it seems that there is no danger for this commission to convincingly investigate the SRI’s alleged illegal working relationship with the DNA, its alleged illegal activities and their impact on human rights, its involvement in politics or in the judiciary. It seems also rather unlikely for this parliament to be able to reform the security sector, to control and limit the SRI or the DNA’s reported abuses, and to reestablish the supremacy of the law and of human rights.

 What about the 2017 Anti-government Protests?         

Despite the mainstream narrative, there is consistent evidence supporting the idea that the protests were political in nature and that the secret services and the DNA may have not been completely innocent as far as the protests were concerned.

During the protests, the DNA publicly announced that the Grindeanu bills undermine the anti-corruption fight, as they were intended to release from prison convicted criminals and to cease ongoing criminal investigations involving corrupt politicians. According to Romanian law, the government is entitled to issue emergency bills but, arguing that the measures taken by the Grindeanu Cabinet ‘were not opportune’, the DNA opened an investigation into how the bills were adopted. Since then, different ministers of the cabinet have been summoned to the DNA headquarters to give explanations in this regard. On every such occasion they are paraded in front of the TV cameras.

On 27 February, Romania’s Constitutional Court (CCR) ruled that the DNA had exceeded its constitutional restrictions with the investigation of the legality and opportunity of the Grindeanu Cabinet’s ordinance bill. DNA breached the separation of powers principle, according to the CCR’s ruling. By 1 March, an anti-CCR campaign was already launched. A small but increasing part of the online media says that the CCR ruling is ‘controversial’, ‘strange’, and designed ‘to protect as much as possible the any-Justice attempt’ by the Grindeanu Cabinet. There are also voices trying to compromise the judges of the Romanian Constitutional Court, looking for so called evidence of their corruption and dubious links with the PSD.

Different Facebook accounts announced protests around the country for the evening of 5 March, against the CCR’s ruling in support of the DNA and its anticorruption crusade. For Bucharest, the protests were announced to take place in front of the government and parliament buildings. Thus, it seems that the allegation that there is no institution able or capable of limiting, amending, correcting or punishing the DNA abuses is just about correct. Anybody that attempts to state or correct the DNA’s misconduct ends up being accused of being corrupt, of opposing the DNA’s anti-corruption struggle and of being hand in hand with the PSD.

SRI Denies Involvement

The media speculated as well on the SRI’s involvement in the anti-governmental protests, pointing to the fact that the secret service has the right to own covert NGO’s, for instance. But the SRI denied any involvement. It has been also speculated that SRI supported the USR, during the election, while the USR was one of the political parties that instigated the protests to take action against the cabinet. USR is led by Nicușor Dan, former head of the NGO Save Bucharest (an association financed by George Soros).

The speculations were similarly denied by both the SRI and the USR. Speculations have been voiced regarding the SRI’s role in Klaus Johannis’ election as Romania’s president in 2014, against the PSD candidate Victor Ponta. Such speculations were also rejected. After the election, prime minister Ponta was indicted by the DNA, charged with falsifying documents, tax evasion and money laundering.

Political Protests as an Extension of Election Defeat

The political character of the protest was clearko. The leaders of the parliamentary opposition parties (PNL, USR) have been repeatedly seen among the protesters, asking for the bills to be revoked, for the resignation of the entire cabinet and even for snap parliamentary elections. Members of the former technocratic cabinet headed by Dacian Cioloș (which supported the PNL during the election campaign) were also repeatedly seen in Victoriei Square, among the protesters, as was Romania’s President Klaus Johannis on 22 of January. All of the above participants incited people to protest against the allegedly corrupt government and parliament.

The presence of the parties that lost the 2016 elections in Victoriei Square, as well as their request for the resignation of the cabinet and for snap elections prove the political character of the protests, in the opinion of many. Moreover, according to an opinion poll, 83% of the protesters against the Grindeanu Cabinet did participate in the 11 December election, while over 80% of them placed themselves on the right and center of the political spectrum.

The same opinion poll indicated that the protesters perceive the PSD as the most corrupt political party. This suggests that the majority of the protesters voted during the elections with the current political opposition and that the protests were a delayed reaction to losing the elections in December 2016.

While the international media pointed to the anti-corruption and pro-justice slogans chanted during the protests, around the country many slogans were political. Protesters asked for the imprisonment of the entire government and parliament, for the DNA to ‘come and take’ them all, as they were all ‘thieves’, they also uttered terrible obscenities to the government and parliament members, but especially to the PSD and its leaders. The PSD was also called ‘the red plague’ – as an indication to its alleged links with the communist past older demographic. All these are elements pointing not only to the political character of the protests, but also to their anti-PSD nature.

As Horațiu Pepine convincingly puts it, the protests seem to have been a delayed reaction to the victory of the PSD in the 11 December elections, a delayed mimicking of the anti-Trump protests in the USA, but also a movement of the young generation, while the Grindeanu bills represented just an occasion, not to say a pretext. Moreover, in the context of the last elections being won by the PSD, the rather young protesters (22 to 39 years old, according to the above mentioned opinion poll) fear that the country will champion a less liberal economic policy.

NGOs, Social Media and the Protests: the Soros Connection

Thus, these protests were not as civic, apolitical and spontaneous as some reported. As already mentioned, on the one hand, there were political parties and leaders that urged and organized people to protest. On the other hand, there were a series of NGOs involved in this process. And both used to a great extent the online social media (especially Facebook) to reach their goal.

The following example reveals to some extent the implication of some NGOs in the organizing of the protests. For instance, in the preparation of the protests on 29 January, over 200,000 people received an email from the owner of the online platform de-clic.ro, announcing protests both in Romania and in the diaspora.

According to Eugen Dinu, this platform was created with the financial support of the ‘Foundation ONG Romania’ which is operated by the Foundation of the Development of the Civic Society (FDSC). In 2016, FDSC, whose president is Ionuț Sibian, received over $1.1mn from George Soros. Between 2006 and 2012, FDSC received another over $1mn from The Trust for Civil Society in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE Trust), led by Soros. Sibian’s NGO was also linked to the fall of the Victor Ponta PSD cabinet in late 2015, as was President Johanis.

Soros in Romania since the End of Communism

Between 1990 and 2014, George Soros financed in Romania projects of about $160mn through a network of NGOs and cultural centers– many of which have been involved in the monitoring of the Romanian justice system and human rights.

Many of the Romanian foundations financed by Soros were very vocal and active in the anti-corruption fight arena, such as Foundation of the Development of the Civic Society (Ionuț Sibian), Apador CH (Monica Macovei), the GDS (Andrei Cornea), Freedom House (Cristina Guseth), Save Bucharest Association (Nicușor Dan), as well as Expert Forum (Sorin Ioniță and Laura Ștefan).

Some of these activists are very vocal outside Romania too. Monica Macovei is already famous for her stance on Romania’s alleged corruption in the European Parliament, while Laura Ștefan was interviewed on the theme by Al Jazeera, to give only two examples. Laura Pralog, councilor of the Romanian president Klaus Johannis – and also representative of the Open Society Foundation in Romania – was also one of the anti corruption activists financed by Soros.

The Romanian Center for European Policies, an NGO run by Critian Ghinea  was also financed by George Soros. According to some reports, since 2012, Ghinea’s NGO received hundreds of thousands of euros from the Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to represent Romania’s interests in Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine in connection to NATO’s policy there. Ghinea was also Romania’s Minister for European Funds in the Cioloș Cabinet.

Conclusions

Some commentators saw not only a significant link between Soros and the protests in Romania, but also significant and suspicious similarities between the involvement of such NGOs in the protests in Romania in 2017 and the implication of similar NGOs’ in protests in Belgrade or Kiev.

In the middle of the speculation about Soros’ connection to the 2017 Romanian anti-government protests and in the general contexts of the global scandal involving Soros, in February 2017, the Romanian branch of the Soros Foundation was closed.

There were, however, also ordinary people taking part in the protests, genuinely convinced that Romania’s anti-corruption quest was at stake. Secretly, the protests were supported, guided, organized and encouraged by NGO’s, by the political opposition, by the Romanian president, and by the DNA. In this context, the conclusion of Roger Boyes in The Times seems just about right:

“Romania’s deep, ­secret state (…) has used the issue of corruption to settle scores with its enemies, erode basic rights and institutionalise a sinister connection between the judiciary, the ­secret police and the anti-corruption units.”

 

 

 

The Iranian MEK in Albania: Implications and Possible Future Sectarian Divisions

Balkanalysis.com editor’s note: in 2013, the Obama Administration convinced Albanian authorities to take in the MEK, a former Marxist terrorist group that had been in open combat with the Islamic Republic for years. In 2016, under cover of the migration crisis and with help from the UNHCR, several hundred more of these Iranian dissidents were brought into Albania from Iraq. What could possibly go wrong? In this exclusive new analysis of a little-discussed security subject, Albanian counter-terrorism expert Ebi Spahiu analyzes the potential for future sectarian divisions and domestic and international orientations towards Albania’s newest population.

By Ebi Spahiu

In 2013, the Obama Administration struck a deal with the government of Albania to offer asylum to about 250 members of Mohajedeen-e-Khalq (MEK), an Iranian “dissident group” exiled from Iran to Iraq during the early years of Khomeini’s regime. The group was once labeled a terrorist organization by the international community due to its track record of orchestrating bombing campaigns in Iran – often targeting American offices, businesses and citizens – as well as other military operations in an attempt to oust the newly established Iranian Islamic regime in the 1970s.

Since 2013, the Obama Administration and Albanian government have extended the agreement, consequently increasing the number of asylum seekers to somewhere in the range of 500-2,000 MEK members. During the summer of 2016, Tirana received the largest contingent of about 1,900 people- an operation managed by the UNHCR.

Although most local media portray the operation and Albania’s willingness to offer assistance to the dissident group as a humanitarian mission, little discussion has been made regarding the potential implications that MEK’s presence may have for Albania in the long run, and for religious balances that have already been thrown off by Wahabbi and Salafi presence among moderate Muslim communities in recent years.

Sectarian Identities and Divides in the Context of Wahhabi Activism and Syria

Sunni-based Islamist supporters and organizations have a history of operating in Albania and throughout the Western Balkans via funding that often streams from Gulf countries which have exported Wahabbi and Salafi Islamic values and traditions, ones that were previously foreign to Albania’s majority Muslim population which still follows the Hanafi-based teachings inherited by the Ottoman Empire.

According to a Pew Research Center analysis on Albania’s Muslim population, this religious composition is reflective of centuries of religious influences, including Sufi and Shi’a traditions, attested in practices and rituals to this day. It is mainly from this long history that six in ten Muslims do not distinguish their religious affiliation in a sectarian form, such as Shi’a or Sunni, rather simply identify as “just Muslim,” according to findings by Pew.

Despite these historical legacies that have strengthened relations between religious communities, the presence of Wahhabi and Salafi groups over the years has implanted a sectarian identity regarding which most Albanian Muslim practitioners were oblivious in the past. Since the outset of the conflict in Syria, about 150 Albanian citizens and over 500 ethnic Albanians from Kosovo and Macedonia have joined terrorist organizations in Syria and Iraq, alongside then-Jabhat Al-Nusra and later IS.

Even though the number of foreign fighters has drastically decreased since 2015, threats persist from non-violent agitations and divisive narratives that continue to dominate some religious landscapes, including negative portrayal of local Bektashi communities and sectarian rifts which are becoming more pronounced among popular religious leaders.

The MEK in Albania and Sectarian Divides

Since its inception in the 1960s, the MEK has embraced Marxist ideologies and Shiite-centric Islamic values; this has distinguished the group from other Islamist terrorist organizations which have remained more focused on their sectarian identity.

Most people in Albania know little about the MEK, nor the list of other names the group has used to identify itself as a resistance group against Khomeini’s theocratic rule, not to mention their activities following the Iranian revolution and their exile to Iraq, where Saddam Hussein offered his support in exchange for their capacities to threaten the Iranian regime.

Over the years, the MEK has renounced all violence and developed closer relationships with officials from the American government, which later removed the group from its official list of terrorist organizations. Despite their engagement with the West, however, the group’s history of violence remains an important question often raised by Iran observers and policy-makers, who cast doubt on the group’s pledge to have renounced all forms of violence while achieving political objectives.

In 2013 this was apparent when many countries that were approached by the US government to host MEK members refused to do so, out of concern for security implications. Romania is believed to have been the US’ preferred host for the MEK, but the Romanian authorities immediately refused. Albania was therefore not the first choice for MEK relocation, but accepted due to its close relations with the US.

The type of security implications their presence may bring is yet to be assessed by Albanian policy-makers, with some speculating that the MEK will establish a base in the country’s capital, similar to that of Camp Liberty and Ashraf in Iraq, where they can access weapons and restart their political activities to bring down Iran’s regime.

Even though most MEK asylum-seekers seem to lead a quiet life in their new homes, recent events and discussion regarding the potential death of the exiled MEK leader, Massoud Rajavi, suggest that the MEK seeks to regain its political standing in opposition to Iran, and sees its members’ relocation to Albania as an opportunity to reengage as a resistance movement against Khameini’s regime, but this time away from the direct threat that Iranian proxy groups posed for them in Iraq.

The Paris Event, Albania and Possible Foreign Interests in the New Arrangement

Since their arrival in Albania, the group appears to have ramped up support in the midst of Albania’s political elite, which was highly celebrated during a congress organized by the National Council of Resistance of Iran, held in Paris this past July.

Pandeli Majko, a current Socialist MP and former Prime Minister of Albania during the war in Kosovo, accompanied by over 20 political representatives from Albania, gave an impassioned speech at the Free Iran gathering in Paris where he pledged his support for the refugees currently staying in Albania, as well as the group’s struggle to succeed in changing the regime in Iran. This has certainly angered Iranian officials who insist that the MEK seeks to exploit Albania’s geographical position in order to form a new camp there.

While Iran’s traditional rivalry with Israel might seem to indicate further activity in Albania involving the MEK, available information does not suggest any significant Israeli activity. However, a potential greater concern involves another traditional Iranian adversary – Saudi Arabia – which has been reported as giving help to the MEK. During the event in Paris, several important international figures attended and (as was reported in some anti-Western media) a Saudi government representative made a speech that pledged commitment to help out the movement in bringing down Iran’s regime.

Possible Repercussions for Albania: Sectarian Divides and Local Controversy More Likely than Larger Threats

These developments may have serious repercussions for Albania and Albanian policy-makers who may not foresee the long-term consequences of being involved in the issue, and in expanding their role on foreign policy issues beyond the small Balkan nation’s traditional reach.

Since the MEK has renounced all violence, the group does not represent an immediate threat to national security in Albania. However, it does remain an existential threat to the Iranian regime, which over the years has supported significant raids via Hezbollah and other Iranian-backed proxy groups in Iraq to destroy the organization and kill key MEK leaders. It should be remembered that the MEK was brought to Albania under agreement with the Obama Administration directly from Iraq, not from any third country.

Considering these factors, more involvement should be expected from Albanian authorities, even though there are no clear signs that Iran’s presence is increasing. It would be significantly harder for Iran to hit MEK in Albania than in its neighboring country of Iraq, though it is still possible.

Of more concern is that the MEK presence poses a risk of inflaming sectarian divides in smaller communities, a phenomenon still in its latent state among Albanian Muslims.

Several online sermons from Sunni-based religious leaders warn their followers of a Shiite presence under NGO programs that aim at recruiting young men and women to follow Quranic teachings and study programs in Iran, but there is never a mention of MEK’s presence in Albania and the role they may play.

While a serious sectarian war is farfetched at this point, there is a sectarian narrative to the issue which could be a matter of concern for the future, depending on how strong existing Islamist factions become. These include not just ISIS supporters, but also Turkish and Muslim Brotherhood supporters.

One test will be how well the government manages the MEK, their needs and political objectives. Many Albanians are worried about whether the MEK poses any immediate risk, but nobody is actually talking about Iran’s historic and cross-borders feud with the MEK, and how threatened Iran still feels by the group.

Whether Albania is prepared enough to inherit a long-standing struggle between a major regional Middle Eastern power and a cult-like former terrorist organization is yet to be seen, but given Albania’s continued struggles with endemic corruption and organized crime, and the slow emergence of religious radicalization as a regional security threat, sectarian rifts may add to the list of challenges facing Albania’s political standing. One point of controversy that has already occurred domestically is that the agreement itself is very vague; there has thus been plenty of criticism domestically over a perceived lack of transparency on the terms agreed between Albania and the US.

 

Visegrad Group Migration Policy and the Balkans: Cooperation Expected to Continue in 2017

Balkanalysis.com editor’s note: this new report from Poland considers the distinct character of V4 engagement with migration and assesses it in terms of 2016 policy statements, with the expectation that V4-Balkan attitudes and cooperation on the issue will continue during this year in an increasingly turbulent and divided Europe.

By Antonio Scancariello

Despite the formal closure of the Balkan route last spring, the influx of refugees trying to reach EU Schengen Zone borders has not stopped. For future policy trends and decisions, it is necessary to take into account the role of the Visegrad Group (V4) countries, which have already been active in influencing EU policy since 2015. In the year ahead, their policies might affect the Western Balkans as much as the general dealing with the migration crisis itself.

Early Policy Formation

These countries – Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary – have become as important for the solution of the migrant crisis as their Western European counterparts, especially after their disagreement about the so-called migrant quota scheme became clear.

The first stages of the crisis mainly involved Greece and Macedonia, in 2015 and early 2016, which were then followed by Hungary, with the latter becoming “the first to erect a fence to keep migrants away from the country’s borders. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán rejected the quota mechanism from the very beginning, advocating the protection of the EU’s external borders instead,” reported EurActive recently.  “This led to unprecedented numbers of detections of illegal crossings at Hungary’s and Croatia’s borders with Serbia,” as a FRONTEX report explained in a press release of 9 January 2017.

Since the beginning of the crisis, migrants have most often sought to continue towards other EU countries, mainly Germany. However, FRONTEX also noted that “the record number of migrants arriving in Greece in 2015 had a direct knock-on effect on the Western Balkan route,” which has led the V4 countries’ role to gradually grow in importance. The Greece-Macedonia-Serbia migrant corridor “led to unprecedented numbers of detections of illegal crossings at Hungary’s borders with Serbia.”

The Visegrad Approach and the Balkans and Greece in 2016

The V4 attitude toward migration has fundamentally differed from that of several Western European countries which, being overwhelmed by the influx of refugee, have accused the East of being a bloc lacking in solidarity by refusing to take people in, as a 2016 report from Visegrad Revue noted.

Therefore, their approach to solving the crisis has been mainly based on calls for strengthened external EU borders; this was the core message of the joint statement on migration released by the V4 in early 2016.

Gathering in Prague, in the presence of the President of the Republic of Macedonia and the Prime Minister of the Republic of Bulgaria, the prime ministers of the four countries voiced their concerns and proposed their solutions by expressing “their full support for measures adopted at the European Union level with the aim of a more effective protection of the external borders, including reinforced cooperation with third countries while repeating their negative stance on automatic permanent relocation mechanism,” in an official joint statement of 15 February 2016.

This would also benefit the Western Balkans, an area in which stability is needed if the EU is keen in tackling the refugee crisis, the statement added. At that meeting, the V4 leaders also confirmed their support for Greece, the role of which has been considered pivotal in the management of the migrant flow.

Focus on Polish Views

An interesting insight into how the V4 may help in solving the migrant crisis, and the consequences this would have on the Balkans, is provided by Poland. At the February event, Polish Interior Minister Mariusz Błaszczak said that Poland would do its part through helping countries of origin. This policy was reaffirmed in May 2016. These views (which were confirmed by the Presidency of the Visegrad Group in the document) have been developed by Poland, which explains its will to help migrants’ countries of origins. The purpose of this policy was to “deepen the cooperation with them in order to tackle the root causes of the current migratory pressure.” In their estimation, this would in turn ease the pressure on European borders and the Western Balkans, considered by the V4 as a valuable partner in the protection of EU external borders.

The Polish stance is unlikely to change to a more EU- and Germany-oriented one in the foreseeable future, due to the recent constitutional crisis and the prolonged clashes between its government and the EU itself. These statements become even more important following the renewed, huge presence of refugees on Serbian soil, which questioned the alleged closure of the Balkan route. At least 8,000 migrants remain in Serbia, according to La Repubblica. The Italian newspaper states that this is due to the opposition raised by Hungary and the border closures of other nearby countries, like Croatia.

Slovenia, Austria and Possible Outcomes

The obstruction of Slovenia and Austria will also play a factor at the upper edges of the ‘Balkan route.’ The latter is close to the V4’s negative stance regarding migrant quotas, while the former is toward the crisis could deteriorate the overall situation. Slovenia’s government, as recently reported by Balkan Insight, “backed an amendment to the existing Aliens Act on January 5, proposing tougher procedures towards asylum seekers and refugees for a trial six-month period – with a possible extension for another six months.”

Under this scenario, the police can refuse entry to most asylum seekers on the border, the same source stated. Moreover, this could cause the countries close to the Balkan route – Greece, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia and Hungary – to adopt the same measures, argues the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Nils Muiznieks. However, it is too soon to know whether this is realistic of just alarmism as the individual dynamics in each country differ tremendously.

Therefore, in conclusion, it can be said that the migration challenges faced by the EU since early 2015 have brought new factors and characters into play. The Western Balkans, due to the migrant crisis, is one of them. Although there are no easy solutions available, the region may well benefit from the strengthening of the existing diplomatic ties or the creation of new ones with the V4 countries. This could help Balkan states to address issues of internal stability, as well as with others linked to future EU inclusion.

 

EU Financial Legislation, Hawala Banking and the Migrant Crisis: Developments and Implications

Balkanalysis.com editor’s note: while world media have covered in depth the European Union’s approach to the migrant crisis, little attention has been paid to ongoing financial-sector EU legislation, and its ability – or lack thereof – to control possibly illicit international transactions, using alternative methods such as the Hawala system, favored by many Muslim migrants. (A basic explanation of how the system operates is available here on Wikipedia).

In the following analysis, Bulgarian banking expert Gergana Yordanova explains the relevant EU legislation and the discrepancies with the Hawala system- as well as the implications could have for EU security and financial policing.

By Dr. Gergana Yordanova, PhD.

Today’s historic migrant crisis is creating new risks and threats to the EU, and not only in terms of security and social services. They also include risks to the economic and financial security systems of the migrant-hosting states. In many states, this has involved the ‘net settlement’ of funds via the ‘Hawala’ system of informal Islamic banking. Despite cumulative volumes and financial scale, these settlement operations remain out of the scope of the EU’s new regulatory framework on payment and remittance systems infrastructure. This framework was created after the adoption of the 4th Anti-Money Laundering Directive and the Regulation on information accompanying transfers of funds in 2015.

There is thus a significant new security threat involving latent potential for money laundering and terrorist financing activities, on both the national and cross-border levels. The latter requires an active reframing process of the remittance systems mechanisms, and a holistic, risk-based approach in order to protect society from crime, and to ensure the proper functioning of the EU financial system when confronted with threats like money laundering and terrorist financing.

The New EU Financial Legislation in Context

In 2015, the European Council adopted two key points of legislation: a Directive regarding money laundering and terrorism financing; and a Regulation on information accompanying transfers of funds.

The first is officially known as Directive (EU) 2015/849 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 20 May 2015 on the prevention of the usage of the financial system for the purposes of money laundering or terrorist financing amending Regulation (EU) No 648/2012 of the European Parliament and of the Council, and repealing Directive 2005/60/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council and Commission Directive 2006/70/EC. The official text is available here.

The second is known as Regulation (EU) 2015/847 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 20 May 2015 on information accompanying transfers of funds and repealing Regulation (EC) No 1781/2006. The official text is available here.

The approach of the new Directive (also known as the Fourth Anti-Money Laundering Directive) was based to a greater extent on risk analysis over measures for anti-money laundering activities and the prevention of terrorist financing. It established stronger requirements for customer due diligence checks. This was done to ensure that certain customer and transaction categories would not be exempt from the requirements for enhanced customer due diligence measures. The obliged entities would also have to apply a risk assessment level before deciding whether customer due diligence checks would be required.

The new Regulation is also closely related to the objectives of the Directive. It strengthens the existing legal requirements and obligations related to combating money laundering, terrorist financing and the financing of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, in terms of value transfers and remittance systems related to it. These provisions also take into account the standards developed in the field (the revised Recommendation No 16, former SRVII) on Wire Transfers, and the revised interpretative note for its implementation of the revised Financial Action Task Force – FATF Recommendations).

This refers to the 2012 FATF Recommendations and International Standards on Combating Money Laundering and the Financing of Terrorism & Proliferation. The official text is available here.

It also includes requirement for increasing the full traceability of funds and payments transfers. It does this by obliging payment/funds transfer service providers to supply the competent national authorities with information, both on the payer and the payee.

The new legislative aspects of this EU regulatory framework provide an instrument ensuring that the competent national authorities have effective tools in combating money laundering, terrorist financing and the financing of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. In particular, it concentrates on the misuse of the financial system by criminals who act as money launders and their associates.

These changes and reforms are considered by the EU as proper and effective results of a long-term process of identifying various weaknesses in the European financial and banking system.

The Migrant Crisis and Hawala Banking as a Challenge to the New EU Regulatory Framework

The development of a dynamic situation involving a large-scale migrant influx, however, shows that by 2016 – only a year after the adoption of the new regulatory framework, and a year before its entering into force (the new regulatory framework shall apply from 27 June 2017) – these measures had already risked becoming irrelevant. This was due to the sudden increase in persons with experience, and preferences, for informal alternative remittance systems, such as the Hawala system.

This risk is partly due to the fact that the new Regulation does not apply to transfers under 1,000 euros. Also, EU Member States should be able to apply lower thresholds as well as additional general limitations on the use of cash and other stricter provisions by law. This is subject to Article 2 (4) (5) of Directive (EU) 2015/849 and Article 2 (5) |c| of Regulation (EU) No 2015/847).

The use of alternative financial systems such as Hawala banking could thus become a potential threat to the economic and financial security of the EU, insofar as exclusion from the monitoring mechanism could damage the integrity, stability and reputation of the financial sector, its growth and market capitalization and threaten both the internal market and international development.

Directive (EU) 2015/849 : Risk Assessment Requirements

With the above-cited Directive, the EU acquis communautaire, the EU Commission must prepare a report identifying, analyzing and evaluating money laundering and terrorist financing risks that could affect the internal market, and also relate to cross-border activities. The imposed deadline for drawing up this report is 26 June 2017.

Thereafter, the Commission is required to update it every two years, or more frequently if appropriate; this is specified in Article 6 (1) of Directive (EU) 2015/849). The report would cover the areas of the internal market that are at greatest risk in terms of money laundering and terrorist financing. Risks assessed are associated with each relevant sector and based on the revised FATF Recommendation No 1 and the FATF Immediate Outcome 1.

This is also in accordance with Article 7 (2) of Directive (EU) 2015/849), as well as a list of the most common means by which criminals launder illicit proceeds.

It is clear that the settlement mechanisms for Hawala funds transfer should be added in the EC’s report, in the part related to the most common means of laundering illicit proceeds. This risk assessment should be conducted regardless of the scale and volume of funds thus transferred, without taking into account the benchmark subject to Article 2 (4) (5) of Directive (EU) 2015/849 and Article 2 (5) |c| of Regulation (EU) No 2015/847).

In broadening this implementation, an effort would be made to track all the financial flows generated by the migrant waves from the Middle East and North Africa. Moreover, it would preventively interrupt any potential schemes of money laundering or terrorist financing via the ancient informal Arabian alternative remittance system.

Customer Due Diligence

The new EU Directive also foresees the gradual elimination of secret banking, financial and credit arrangements, by establishing strict prohibition of anonymous accounts or passbooks for clients of credit and financial institutions. This is in accordance with Article 10 (1) of Directive (EU) 2015/849. This requires the execution of two types of customer due diligence: one simplified and the other, enhanced, in accordance with Article 13 of Directive (EU) 2015/849. The following measures are required:

  1. identifying the customer and verifying the customer`s identity based on documents, data or information obtained from a reliable and independent source;
  2. identifying the beneficial owner and taking reasonable measures to verify that person’s identity;
  3. assessing and, as appropriate, obtaining information on the purpose and intended nature of the business relationship;
  4. conducting ongoing monitoring of the business.relationship including scrutiny of transactions undertaken throughout the course of that relationship to ensure that the transactions being conducted are consistent with the obliged entity’s knowledge of the customer.

The identities of migrants and refugees in Europe could also hypothetically be identified by customer due diligence with the new Directive, though this is admittedly more difficult in the cases of many newcomers lacking documentation. Thus, a priori it would help to identify persons among the criminal contingent and their associates, as well as people against whom there have been charges or some reasonable assumptions have been made for acting as money laundering, terrorism financing and organized crime agents.

Beneficial Ownership Information

Customer due diligence is directly related to the new aspect in identifying the legal beneficial owners of corporations and other for-profit legal entities. Thus, the information regarding beneficial owners will be delivered by public central registers, in accordance with Article 30 (3) of Directive (EU) 2015/849 and Article 3 of Directive (EU) 2009/101.

The Register should ensure timely and unrestricted access by the competent financial intelligence authorities. Moreover, the information stored could help authorities in gaining a clearer picture of the scale and volumes of various “black and gray” business activities such as: Islamic Hawala finance (in case of any available book-entry transfer orders or payment and cash deposit statements as written evidences), various types of global offshore banking schemes, different clearing houses, central depositories/repositories or central counterparties, large fund transfers to countries or jurisdictions classified as tax havens, as well as political corruption. The last can include acts of nepotism, undue influence-peddling and business relations of politically exposed persons who entrust prominent public functions, their family members and persons known to be close associates. Among the above-mentioned activities and functions, possibilities exist for cases of money laundering, terrorist financing and the financing of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

New EU Obligations on Payment Systems Providers and the Hawala System

In relation to the information accompanying funds transfers, the new Regulation obliges the payment system provider in accordance with Article 3 (Definition 5) and Article 4 of Regulation (EU) No 2015/847.

This requirement is meant to ensure that funds transfers are accompanied by the information on the payer related, as follows: both the names of the payer and of the payee; their payment account numbers; address; official personal document number; customer identification number or date and place of birth for the payer. These conditions are specified in accordance with Article 3 (Definitions 3 and 4) and Article 4 of Regulation (EU) No 2015/847.

However, the Hawala system`s modus operandi precludes these obligations and requirements for informational and data provision of transfers of funds. In Hawala system settlements, the anonymity of both counterparties is its primary principle of not declaring any verified identity. Moreover, there are no payment or accounting documents (such as deposit and withdraw cash receipts, transfer orders, bills, statements etc.) for any Hawala transaction. Thus, no book-entry (de)materialized form is the second principle of Hawala Banking.

Under the new EU Directive, transfers that exceed 1,000 euros (whether within or outside the Union), require the payment system provider to make available at least the names of the counter-parties, their payment account numbers (in accordance with Article 3 (Definition 7) of Regulation (EU) No 2015/847) or the unique transaction identifier, if applicable (in case of Article 4 (3) of the Regulation, in accordance with Article 3 (Definition 11) of Regulation (EU) No 2015/847).

Notwithstanding these new regulatory requirements, it is obvious that they do not include the Hawala system’s transfers of funds and settlement of remittances. This Eastern transfer system is already very widespread among Muslim communities in Europe, and will continue to be illegal in terms of the new EU acquis communautaire until the adoption of a criteria and mechanisms for its monitoring by relevant national authorities.

Until that time, Hawala banking will remain a fast, convenient and reliable way of transferring funds the origins of which could be illegal and could generate a number of penalty provisions concerning money laundering activities, terrorism financing and the financing of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. This means that to each payment service or related instruction/order for execution of a payment risk assessment and analysis would be required for signs of illicit activity for each payment transaction, under Article 9 of the Regulation. Any suspicious one would then have to be reported to the national or regional financial intelligence unit (in accordance with Article 9 of Regulation (EU) No 2015/847). However, given the nature of Hawala banking, this is clearly impracticable.

EU Obligations on Intermediary Payment Systems Providers regarding Transaction Data

A set of various effective risk-based procedures for determining information on the payer and the payee within the remittance, messaging or payment and settlement system used to affect the transfer of funds are necessary in order to execute it. Such an obligation on the intermediary payment systems provider is in accordance with Article 3 (Definition 6) of Regulation (EU) No 2015/847.

This requires the implementation of effective procedures. Where appropriate, these include ex-post monitoring or real-time monitoring to determine whether any of the information on the payer and the payee is missing.

These obligations are difficult to meet with the Hawala system. It does not allow delivery and record retention of payer and payee information. Therefore, to comply with the law, the intermediary payment systems provider would have to take into account the missing information and establish effective risk-based procedures for determining whether to execute, reject or suspend each Hawala transaction, and whether it is to be reported to the national or regional financial intelligence unit (in accordance with Article 9 of Regulation (EU) No 2015/847).

Conclusion: Challenges and Opportunities from the Hawala System

The European Union’s continuing reforms of financial transaction controls have overlapped with an unprecedented migrant crisis, one which has brought alternative payment and settlement methods into increasing use in Europe. While Hawala and other alternative payment schemes were in use in Europe for many years before the migrant crisis, and indeed before the legislative amendments of 2015, the difficulty of bringing them under the scope of the law is a systemic and probably impossible task.

As we expect the migrant economy’s use of Hawala banking to only increase in years ahead, this will pose new challenges for EU lawmakers, banking and financial officers- but also new opportunities for experts and firms specializing in analyzing and monitoring alternative payment methods in an increasingly globalized Europe.

………………………

Note: This analysis has been adapted from a conference paper, entitled Reframing of Remittance System Mechanism of the EU in Liaison with the Migration Flows: the Hawala System Case, which was initially presented by the author at the Cross-Border Cooperation and Development Policies on the Balkans Conference, held from 17-18 November 2016 at Ss. Cyril and Methodius University of Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria.

New Information Surfaces on Killed Terrorist Anis Amri, as Italian Investigation Continues

 

Balkanalysis.com editor’s note: the Berlin Christmas Market terrorist attack this past week came as the clearest example yet of the deadly mix of modern events and policies that have allowed Europe to become a new terrorist target. This exclusive report from Milan – where the fugitive terrorist was killed by police – brings together what is known until now with details from Italy that have not yet been reported, and anticipates future actions.

By Elisa Sguaitamatti and Chris Deliso

Anis Amri, the suspect in the deadly terrorist attack on a Christmas market in Berlin this past week, was killed by the Italian police in a shootout  outside Sesto San Giovanni railway station (on the outskirts of Milan) around 3 a.m on Friday 23 December. A reward of 100,000 euros had been offered for information leading to his capture. Speaking later in Berlin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel thanked the Italian police. ISIS has also released a video of the young Tunisian pledging his allegiance to leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, explaining his actions as vengeance against “those who bomb Muslims every day.”

Anis Amri’s Escape Route to Italy, and Possible Motives

Having fled the crashed truck in Berlin, the terrorist managed to cross three borders – a fact that critics of the Schengen Zone are sure to bring up – before reaching Milan. It is still unclear how he left Berlin. French investigators have just opened an inquiry to understand the precise route that Amri took, after Italian authorities confirmed that he had entered their country from France.

After getting out of Germany, the terrorist had purchased a Chambéry-Milan ticket in Chambéry station. From Chambéry to Turin he was traveling alone. He left the French station at 5:15p.m. on 22 December and arrived in Turin at 8:18 p.m.. Italian newspaper Repubblica reports that (according to one important Italian anti-terrorism investigative source) the only possible reason why Amri would have decided to get off the train in Turin would be that he came across someone like a Polfer agent (the train station police) doing a routine ticket check. By 22 December, his photos had become widespread online. Anti-terrorism officials are now investigating whether Amri used the three hours he stayed in Turin to look for shelter, or if he was contacting someone in Milan.

Italy’s General Investigations and Special Operations Division (DIGOS), coordinated by the Milanese counter-terrorism chief, Alberto Nobili, had also stated that Amri arrived in Italy from France, and added that surveillance cameras in Milan train station recorded Amri’s movements around 1a.m. on 23 December.

However, a point of detail that most foreign media have missed is that it is still unclear how he managed to get to Sesto San Giovanni (by around 4 a.m) as there is a 7-kilometer distance between the two places. “How he traveled there and what he was doing there are subject to delicate investigations,” Antonio De Iesu, director of the Milan police, said. “We have to understand whether he was in transit or was awaiting someone.” The final results will be communicated only after accurate and probably lengthy in-depth analysis carried out by the intelligence services.

The most likely current hypothesis for Italian investigators is that Amri had arrived in Milan lacking any pre-planned safe house, and thus decided to spend the night looking for someone who could help him within the historic Tunisian Islamic community.

A second, but less probable motive would be that, in a desperate and irreversible decision for martyrdom, Amri had chosen Milan as his final destination, as a place for vengeance against a country that he had grown to hate and in whose jails he had felt humiliated. This (for now, less likely) scenario would have seen Amri attempt another attack in Italy. In whatever case, his behavior even before the Berlin attack marked Amri as a very dangerous individual, so it was great luck that the police managed to find him, almost completely by accident.

New Details from Italian Security Officials

In a formal note, Interior Minister Marco Minniti made it very clear that details of the operation cannot be discussed as investigations are still underway. At a press conference in Milan, Police Chief Antonio de Iesu and Gen. Tullio del Sette, the commander of the Carabinieri, tried to clarify facts and information.

According to the very first account provided by Mr de Iesu, Amri was standing alone on a piazza in Sesto San Giovanni, next to the northern terminus of the M1 subway line, when the officers stopped him and asked for identification. Amri was “aggressive, firm and determined” with the officers, Mr. De Iesu said.

Amri was carrying a small knife and a few hundred euros, but no cellphone. He apparently responded to police – in good Italian, with a North African accent – that he was not carrying any documents with him. They asked him to empty his pockets and backpack. That is when he pulled out the pistol.

“It was a regular patrol, under the new system of intensified police checks on the territory,” Mr. De Iesu said. “They had no perception that it could be him, otherwise they would have been more careful.” Amri is said to have shouted ‘police bastards,’ in Italian, after he was shot.

Items Gathered and Varying Identities

The police have announced finding on Amri the train tickets (only from Chambéry to Milan), euro notes, shower gel, a tooth brush and tooth paste, and a 22-caliber pistol. Repubblica.it added today that when killed, Amri was wearing three pair of trousers one on top of the other. This curious combination of items tends to support the likelihood of a relatively spontaneous and sudden attack in Berlin, and that he had planned to live after escaping.

Investigators are also looking into the Tunisian’s ‘digital life.’ Italian TV channel Rai News 24 has just said that he had 7 different Facebook profiles with fake identities but with the same family members and friends among his contacts.

A History of Violence and Evasion in Europe’s Migrant Detention System

Now investigations are underway to understand why Amri chose Italy and whether this was his final destination to seek refuge. If so, investigators are trying to determine whether he was trying to reach someone he knew. Otherwise, they are trying to determine whether Amri could have considered Italy as only a transit country.

His past link to Italy is apparent, making the former more likely. He left Tunisia in 2011, during the ‘Arab Spring,’ arriving on Italian shores. During his stay he was held responsible for burning down a reception center for migrants in Sicily.

Later, Amri was detained for four years in six Italian jails (Enna, Sciacca, Agrigento, Palermo and Caltanissetta). He was housed at the identification and expulsion center, judged as “a dangerous and violent inmate.” In his native Tunisia, Amri’s brother said earlier this week that he and his family were “shocked” by his alleged involvement in the attack. After coming out of the expulsion center, however, the deportation mandate was never carried out and Amri crossed into Germany in July 2015. He applied for asylum, but was rejected in July 2016.

Amri should have been deported from Germany after his asylum request was denied. He was even in police custody after being caught with fake papers. But he slipped through the hands of German law enforcement, and now officials are asking how that happened.

Further Indications of a Probably Spontaneous Attack Decision

One of Amri’s phones was found in the truck that he crashed in Berlin and the two SIM cards – according to the information coming from two important Italian investigative sources – appear to have not been in use at that time. This is another indicator that neither the Berlin attack nor the escape that followed were pre-planned. In this case, Islamic State may have been looking for a propaganda victory and had only a broad association with the terrorist- a much different situation than with its involvement in the Paris attacks of November 2015. Regardless, for the general public the result is still the same: more panic and fear about potential attacks.

Likelihood of the Terrorist’s Development in Migrant Centers and Jails

According to the reconstruction of facts made by the daily newspaper La Stampa it is very likely that Amri had previously made friends with radical Islamist prisoners in the Agrigento jail; authorities noticed “suspicious behavior conducive to radicalization.” In January 2015, he was transferred to the Ucciardone prison in Palermo, due to “serious and valid security reasons.”

Another Italian newspaper, Il Corriere della Sera, reported that Amri’s behaviour was pointed out by the penitentiary prison administration department which soon informed the Anti-terrorism Strategic Analysis Committee; this body includes members from the judiciary, police and the intelligence services.

Further Radicalization in Germany?

Therefore, while in prison, Amri could have possibly been affected and influenced by the activity of proselytizers. However, Amri later established contacts with “the most important representative of ISIS in Germany,” Abu Walaa, an Iraqi preacher who was arrested only last month. German authorities claim that Abu Walaa was guilty of recruiting fighters for ISIS. Also, Amri had been ordered to be deported back to Tunisia, but bureaucratic obstacles prevented the authorities from following through on this. Further, last September the authorities stopped electronic monitoring of Amri, even though he had been identified as a security risk.

Recently, Italian media have also reported that German investigators believe that Amri also had another mentor among Walaa’s group: Boban Simeonovic, a 36-year-old Serbian-German from Dortmund (Westphalia), considered to be very radical. Simeonovic, arrested for terrorism last November together with Walaa, had provided direct links with different German members of the Islamic State in Syria.

CNN has added to the story now by referencing the focus placed on all three men in a 345-page German security report from November, when Simeonovic was arrested. “Anis spoke several times about committing attacks,” said CNN, citing a police informant who told this to German investigators, according to the files. “The informant said Simeonovic and another member of the network “were in favor of that and gave him a place to hide. Members of the Abu Walaa network also discussed driving a truck full of gasoline with a bomb into a crowd, the police informant told investigators, according to the documents.”

It thus seems likely from all the data available to us that Amri was personally and spontaneously carrying out a specific attack plan that his cell had generally discussed carrying out, before it was partially disbanded by German authorities. Therefore, while probably a ‘lone wolf’ attack, the Berlin attack has aspects of an organized jihadist operation, rather than simply the personal decision of one deranged individual.

Security Precautions in Milan Increase amidst Public Fears

Currently anti-terrorism efforts in Milan have increased. The Duomo Square (Piazza del Duomo) has been cordoned off by anti-truck barriers made of concrete to protect the Christmas markets and to increase the general level of security in the city.

The turbulence has affected public perception regarding local security too. The Sesto San Giovanni area is mostly a residential one, and people living there have a general perception of fear and insecurity, fearing that Lombardy could become soon an operational basis for “sleeper cells.”

ROS Carabinieri are indeed looking into a sleeper cell that could exist with links in Lombardy and bases in Bergamo, Lecco and Varese. In this area the control of the territory and the work of intelligence led to the expulsion and arrest of four radicalized people affiliated to ISIS in recent years. (Balkanalysis.com has already reported on some Northern Italy-based networks, in November 2015 and again in December 2015).

Furthermore, in the Sesto San Giovanni area the biggest mosque in northern Italy is under construction. It has been at the center of huge criticism lately. The local Islamic community there strongly condemned the attacks and dissociated with Amri’s behavior.

Yesterday, Milan mayor Giuseppe Sala planned to sign the already-agreed “Pact of Milan;” this 650-million-euro investment in urban security includes stepping up military and police staff in sensitive spots.

Moreover, while the Monza Prosecutor is investigating the shootout, the Milan Prosecutor opened a case to understand why the Berlin killer was in Italy at all, after crossing the borders of three countries without being recognized or stopped. According to the very first indiscretions, no hypothesis can be excluded, above all the possibility that he had some accomplices and support in Lombardy.

The Italian police are currently focusing on Amri’s life in Italy over the last few years and the radical contacts that he established once he entered Germany. It seems that he was not an Islamic extremist before coming to Europe, and that the idea of terrorist attacks only came later when he was in Germany, after being in contact with jihadi-Salafist members and mentors.

Possible Support Networks and Other Concerns

TGR Lombardia TV has announced that authorities are now investigating any possible support network that would have been prepared to help and offer shelter to Anis Amri. This network could be specifically located between the two cities of Sesto San Giovanni and Cinisello Balsamo. The reason for this is that Italian authorities confirmed that the Polish-owned truck that crashed into Berlin’s Christmas market on 19 December had departed for Germany from the Italian city of Cinisello Balsamo.

Another concern is officer safety from possible revenge attacks. The Interior Minister disclosed the names of the two young policemen who had to confront and kill Amri. This, together with the images of the two men spread widely in the media, raised criticism among the public and the security forces that their identities could potentially put their lives in jeopardy in future.

The Italian newswire Ansa quoted an excerpt from a new document released by the Head of State Police, Franco Gabrielli, which claimed that “after this shootout episode, much more attention must be paid, as actions in retaliation against policemen and state authorities cannot be excluded.

Finally, the website Il Sole 24 ore.com it has just published an analysis by Middle East expert Alberto Negri, who attests that some parts of Milan and Lombardy have become logistic and recruiting bases for potential jihadists. Evidence cited for that includes arrests and inquiries last August, which dismantled important jihadi cells. Italy has been considered for a long time as the entry point towards Europe; the country has so far prevented jihadists from carrying out attacks locally. But, as the case of Anis Amri shows, luck is very desirable, but not something that can be counted on to tackle a persistent and constant threat.

Conclusion

The horror of the Berlin Christmas market attack, in the larger context of a Europe confronted by major political polarization over border, security and immigration policy, will have effects both for policing and larger political events. The use of a vehicle as a weapon of terror is hardly a new one, but the brazen attack on a crowded public space is going to cause a rethink for urban planners and leaders across Europe, as they grapple with emerging security threats.

Secondly, even if it is not followed by other similar events, the terrorist attack and its dramatic, cross-Continental end, are sure to affect the upcoming elections in France, Germany and other countries, intensify existing debates over border policies, and further create conditions for violent confrontations between rival political blocs on the far left and right, in which it can expected that migrants and Islamist actors will also play a part. If 2016 was an unpredictably dangerous year for Western Europe, it is likely that 2017 will be even more turbulent.

EU External Border Management and the Current Situation in Italy and Greece: an Overview

By Elisa Sguaitamatti

Migration is a defining issue for Europe and its institutions and it is likely to remain so for a long time. According to the International Organisation for Migration, as of 19 October 2016, 340,972 migrants have arrived in Europe since the beginning of 2016, either by land or by sea. If we take a closer look at the issue, we can certainly note different and various waves of migration, both in scale and in scope.

The first type of migration is due to safety and security reasons, and it mainly includes Middle East and North Africa, bringing an influx of refugees of mostly Muslim origin escaping from war-ravaged countries, unstable or failed states. Another form of migration is caused by a mix of economic and climate reasons, encompassing most of Africa. Millions are fleeing their homelands due to precarious political conditions or natural calamities such as drought and famine. By leaving the continent they are generating a slow but steady flow towards Europe.

The current debate suggests that we are facing unprecedented flows of migration. Although it is undeniable that we are experiencing a rare intensity in inflows in a very short span of time, the truth is that migration is – and has always been – a global and systemic phenomenon, hence it is nothing new especially in the case of European history.

Statistical Increases and Worsening Regional Conditions

What is striking and very different from the past is the involvement of many Central and Eastern EU Member States. All of them were caught off guard and therefore struggled to manage the emergency from the onset, which soon became a migration crisis. Moreover, a new aspect is the regional nature of migration routes. These entail entire regions of Southern Europe reached either by land (the Balkans and Turkey) or by sea (the Adriatic, Aegean and Mediterranean Seas).

Currently, it looks like numbers are increasing in absolute terms as mixed migratory flows continue relentlessly. Based on UNHCR data, nowadays 65.3 million people are forced from their homes, 21.3 million are refugees of whom over half is under the age of 18, plus another 10 million of individuals considered ‘stateless.’ Additionally, displaced populations experience other displacements owing to the deterioration of the quality of asylum and the incapacity of states to provide essential services. Figures are growing at a much faster pace because of the fragmentation and the derailment of the whole Middle Eastern and Sub-Saharan Africa region. In particular, in the Middle East we are witnessing an unprecedented number of simultaneous crises.

Terrorism Concerns

Another hot topic is that of terrorism which is nothing new but now, much more than in the past, poses a threat to security, to the values of democracy and the rights and freedom of all European citizens. The European Council recently declared that between 2009 and 2013 there were 1,010 attacks (either failed or successful) in EU Members States. As more migrants of Muslim origin come to Europe, the alarmism over potential attacks in European cities has skyrocketed, spreading fears that terrorists can be mistaken for migrants or refugees when disembarking in external border countries.

Also, the terrorism threat in Europe has been often linked to the failure of past integration and social inclusion policies targeting different cultural groups. In particular, Muslims of the second and third generation are experiencing an identity dilemma, as they feel they belong neither to their country of origin, nor can they identify with the European values of their adopted country. Therefore, in many analysts’ opinion, they resort to violence and terrorist acts as it is – in their eyes – the only way to take out their frustration and disappointment.

Recent To Secure EU External Borders at a European Level

As one of the main areas of focus for the EU to stay alive is its external borders, external action is a key component of the EU strategy to handle the migration challenge while the main drivers of flows are here to stay. The short term imperatives are saving lives, breaking the business of smugglers and controlling irregular flows. On the other hand, the long-term objective is to develop structural actions that help states better manage migration in all aspects rather than work on crisis situations.

Ever since June 2016, the EU has been working on a comprehensive multi-layered strategy to enhance security in Europe in the fight against terrorism and strengthening of external borders. In detail, a European coordination and cooperation plan aimed at improving shared border management and rescue operations at sea and in the main ports of the South Mediterranean. Secondly is a new international plan building on the European Agenda on Migration, namely the Partnership Framework, which includes the long-neglected African countries for the first time.

In this way, African partners are not only part of the problem but they can become part of the solution too, in the EU’s thinking. The goal is to frame relations through “compacts”, tailor-made deals. Finally, looking beyond the emergency relocation scheme, a further and thorough plan is needed to help external border states such as Italy and Greece. This refers to the support of EU agencies providing expertise, advice and physical backing too.

Moreover, the Commission called for the reinforcement of Europol’s counter-terrorism capabilities so that it will become an intelligence hub for dismantling criminal networks along the Southern Mediterranean route. Europol’s Operational Centre comprises operational teams from the European Counter Terrorism Centre, the Cybercrime Centre, the Migrant Smuggling Centre, as well as the Internet Referral Unit (IRU) and national liaison bureaus.

EU Actions and Efforts in the Mediterranean Sea

As far as rescue and emergency operations at sea are concerned, in 2016 the European Union has tripled its presence in the Mediterranean and Aegean Sea. The Frontex Operations Triton and Poseidon, as well as Operation Sophia, have saved over 400,000 lives since the beginning of 2015, and disrupted smugglers’ and traffickers’ networks. To further reinforce and enhance external border management, in September 2016 the EU Commission presented three innovative mechanisms. The first one is an accelerated process in handling rescue operations and identity and security checks thanks to the European Border and Coast Guard; then, for the longer term, the implementation of a EU Entry-Exit System and the European Travel Information and Authorisation System.

The European Border and Coast Guard

During the State of the Union Address in September 2016, EU Commission President Juncker stated that Europe will defend borders with the new European Border and Coast Guard, legally operational as of 6 October -just 9 months after the formal proposal- thanks to the common joint effort of Member States and EU institutions.

The decision to create a new EU border management agency came after the acknowledgement of the shortcomings of the former EU border agency, Frontex, which so far has limited its field of activity. Among these are the fragmentation of the effort, the lack of consistency in border control and resources as well as shortfalls in the staff. Frontex has always relied on Member States contributions and staff, and could only act for returns and border management operations after the formal request of a Member State. Despite all this, Frontex (in its new Agency form) is still crucial to restore border management, especially in Italy and Greece. At the moment 700 Frontex officers are deployed in Greece, 177 in Bulgaria, 514 in Italy and 152 in the Western Balkans.

On the other hand, the new agency will ensure shared management of EU external borders based on EU standards, proper identity and security checks, addressing emergencies in hotspots as well as carrying out monthly risk analyses and compulsory vulnerability assessments. The European Border and Coast Guard can count on a reserve pool of people and equipment. It will have, for the first time, rapid response capacity on a permanent footing – at least 1,500 border guards and technical equipment in order to deploy them in a timely manner. One important aspect of innovation is the fact that it will be tasked to intervene directly on the territory of a Member State, even without its request. It will have a mandate to envoy liaison officers and launch operation with neighbouring countries too.

In an effort to prevent and detect cross-border crime such as migrant smuggling, trafficking in human beings and terrorism, the Coast Guard will be also able to collect specific information -vehicle identification numbers, telephone numbers or ship identification numbers- to analyse migrant routes and methods. Precious information will be shared with the authorities of EU Member States and Europol, working closely to launch investigations.

The EU Entry-exit System

The EU entry-exit system (EES) was proposed by the Commission on 6 April 2016 even though it is likely to become fully operational only in 2020. This mechanism would improve the management of the external borders and reduce the amount of irregular immigration to Europe. Hence, it will directly contribute to the fight against terrorism and serious crime within the EU in two ways: dealing with visa oversharing and collecting particular figures, travel document and biometrics to register non-EU citizens having a 90-day permit for entering or exiting the Schengen area.

The European Travel Information and Authorisation System (ETIAS)

The European Travel Information and Authorisation System would offer a great deal of control over visa exempt travellers as it would be able to determine the eligibility of all visa-exempt third country nationals to travel to the Schengen area regularly based on pre-established criteria.

Operation Sophia/ EUNAVFOR Med in the Mediterranean Sea

As a consequence of the terrible migrant shipwreck off Libya in April 2015, the EU launched the European Union Naval Force Mediterranean (EUNAVFOR Med), also known as Operation Sophia, to conduct surveillance and interdict refugee smuggling routes in the Mediterranean. The military operation EUNAVFOR Med consists of three phases: surveillance and assessment of human smuggling and trafficking networks; search and diversion of suspicious vessels, finally the disposal of boats to stop traffickers and smugglers. More than 13,000 migrants have been rescued from the sea in the course of the Operation. In June 2016, the Council of the European Union extended Operation Sophia’s mandate by adding two tasks: the training of the Libyan coastguards and navy as well as the implementation of UN arms embargo on the high seas off the coast of Libya.

Recent European Initiatives with ‘Third Countries’: a New Partnership Framework

In June 2016, the Commission made a proposal for a new Partnership Framework aimed at deepening cooperation – for the first time – with non-EU member countries of origin, transit and destination. In the long term, this will mean adopting a concerted approach for investments in tackling the root causes of migration, and promoting sustainable development and stability. This of course entails a specific partnership with each third county as different are the political, economic and social contexts.

A key element of this Framework is the change of approach of the EU in addressing the migration issue by introducing the concept of “compacts”. These compacts are a political framework for guaranteed operational cooperation to develop a comprehensive partnership with third parties. It provides African states with instruments, tools and leverages in an effort to deliver clear and full commitment. The real novelty of the compact approach is that it bypasses the long technical negotiations that normally occur before a formal agreement and it offers a tailor-made delivery instead. As the understanding of mutually beneficial elements in migration management with each state grows, new compacts will be operationalised. These “packages” will then represent the driving force for the delivery of already agreed common objectives.

This mechanism needs a joint EU approach to be successful, which involves political engagement as well as practical support to third countries. This mechanism also requires a real understanding of EU and African countries interests so that interests and priorities can be used to work on mutual benefits. To this end, EU took the first step identifying Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Mali and Ethiopia as priority African states in need of compacts. After months of major political and diplomatic efforts, Niger has taken action to fight against migrant smuggling and has set up a framework to manage migration dialogue with the EU. Strengthened operational efforts and cooperation are now happening in Senegal and Mali, especially as the identification of smugglers and standard operating procedures are concerned. Nigeria, the most populous African country now facing security and terrorism threats, is now negotiating a readmission agreement with the EU.

The first results can now be seen in a new momentum in the dialogue between the EU and its partners as well as in the progress made on return and readmissions, unblocking cases where returns were not possible because of a lack of staff trained for these missions. Standard operating procedures for identification and return are about to come into force, and EU financial assistance and targeted support is being deployed to help communities where migration and smuggling is common to try and address delicate issues. A further contribution has come from EU Member States which recruited European migration liaison officers to be posted in key third countries- acting as contact points to cooperate with EU partners and work for the delivery of more tangible results.

European External Investment Plan

In September 2016, the Commission presented a new External Investment Plan – a newly-created approach focused on EU support to sustainable development, inclusive growth, social development and regional integration mainly outside Europe. At the same time, this Plan is going to address the root causes of migration right in the countries of origin to specifically stop the flow of economic migrants. This plan will work on job creation, sustainable employment, investment opportunities in the partner countries and will be finalised before the end of 2016, most likely in December.

Efforts at the National Level: the Italian Case

As an external border country, lately Italy has come up with some proposals to handle the migration crisis. Italy has long been calling for the involvement of the whole international community in managing the migratory phenomenon, as it has been on the front line of the migration crisis in the Mediterranean for years, with its search and rescue operations, saving more than 75,000 people in 2015 and more than 60,000 so far this year, but still never adequately supported at the European level.

The Italian point of view emerged during the UN Summit on Refugees and Migrants in late September 2016 when Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Paolo Gentiloni delivered his speech. Mr Gentiloni explained that European countries have to invest in Africa to tackle the root causes of migration, primarily economic and demographic inequalities. This is the so-called “Migration Compact”. He once again called for the spirit of solidarity and full commitment to address migratory flows as it is -and always has been- a European problem, not only an Italian one.

The “Migration Compact” project’s goal is to reduce the flows along the Mediterranean route thanks to partnerships with origin and transit countries. However, this initial Italian proposal was much more detailed than the Framework Partnership recently approved by the EU. For Italy, the EU and African countries would have to cooperate on shared border control and fight against crimes, on migrant access to the European labour market and finally on the resettlement scheme to distribute asylum seekers in more countries.

For their part, African countries would have to be fully committed to the reduction of flows in cooperation with the European Border and Coast Guard; to cooperate on repatriations when asylum seekers applications are rejected; to build reception and identification centres on African soil and finally, to fight against smugglers in joint police operations. In addition to that, the EU would have to make some development aid conditional, delivered only if African countries are willing to accept readmission of migrants whose applications have failed. Italy has also promoted a resettlement program, the “humanitarian corridor” project, aimed at saving the most vulnerable among migrants: women and unaccompanied children who could end up in the hands of smugglers more easily. The Italian government still hopes that the “humanitarian corridor” project can be taken up as a best practice at the European level.

All Italian hopes seemed to have been dashed at the Bratislava Summit on 16 September -the first one without Britain. It spread disillusionment among Italian authorities because there was no great relaunch or ambitious plan after the Brexit shock. Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi was overtly dissatisfied with the meeting after being excluded from a joint press conference by Chancellor Merkel and French President Hollande. Mr Renzi bitterly stated in a subsequent interview with the daily newspaper Corriere della Sera: “since I represent Italy, one of the countries that donates more money to the EU, I have the duty to defend the national interest. The European summit in Bratislava did not produce great results. We had to revive ourselves after the Brexit shock, but for the moment much promise, little delivery. I don’t know what Merkel is referring to when she talks about the ‘spirit of Bratislava’. If things go on like this, instead of the spirit of Bratislava we’ll be talking about the ghost of Europe“.

One month after tensions in Bratislava over the Italian “Migration Compact” proposal, French and German Ministers eventually gave the green light to use 500 million euros to fund a reviewed version of the project, much less ambitious than the Italian idea. Allocated funds will be employed to accomplish three objectives: first, improve the living conditions of locals; second, convince governments to dissuade migrants from crossing the national borders to get to Libya and then Europe; third, finalise deals for repatriations for those who reach Europe illegally.

Activities on the High Seas and Arrival Points for Migrants in Italy

However, the migration crisis on Italian shores is not over yet. Italy has now overtaken Greece as the main point of entry for migrants trying to reach Europe, according to figures from International Organisation for Migration getting to 145,381 migrants so far (compared to 154,000 in the whole of 2015). “Migrants arriving by sea to Italy are actually the main problem faced by the European Union in its efforts to stem mass immigration to the bloc”, said Fabrice Leggeri, head of the European Border and Coast Guard. EU officials say that by all accounts, some 90 percent of arrivals in Italy began their trip on smugglers’ boats in Libya. The rise in the number of rescues may be due to the EU stepping up the Operation Sophia mission. Leggeri reassured that his agency would get more involved in efforts to reinforce returns to African countries and to help Italy, especially where migrants disembark.

Migrants are usually rescued in international waters in the Central Mediterranean Sea. The main points of disembarkation are in the south of Italy – where most identification and reception centres are located are Augusta, Pozzallo, Catania, Palermo, Messina, Trapani (in Sicily), the island of Lampedusa, Reggio Calabria, Crotone, Vibo Valentia, Corigliano Calabro (Calabria) and the Southern Apulia shores.

Redistribution Points and Policies

Nigerians are statistically the first declared nationality of arrivals, followed by Eritreans, Gambians and other nationalities of Western Africa. Asylum-seekers are forced to leave the reception centres when receiving their permit (refugee status, humanitarian or subsidiary protection) and are relocated according to the national quota distribution system to different regions on Italian territory, to the main cities which sometimes divert them to the hinterlands.

Lately, major Italian cities have borne the brunt of this emergency because they have got more charity associations willing to help refugees as well as more than one hot spot and reception facility nearby railway stations. This is the case in Lombardy and in particular Milan. Milan had overcrowded reception centres near the Central Station for the whole summer. Similarly, other cities in Lombardy such as Como, or in Ligury, Piedmont and Veneto region were in the same situation. Northern Italy cities are preferred by migrants since they are more connected to exit points towards neighbouring countries such as France, Switzerland and Austria – whose borders are now almost totally closed, with border guards pushing migrants back to Italy. Migrants reported in centres and informal points in Ventimiglia are around 800, around 400 in Como and 400 in Bolzano. As the winter approaches, the number of homeless people has risen substantially in Milan and other major cities like Turin, Bologna and Rome.

On the other hand, the European emergency relocation system to assist Italy and Greece has been in place ever since 2015. Individuals in need of protection with a good chance of having their applications processed positively are relocated to other Member States. If the applications are successful, the applicants are allowed refugee status and hence residence in the Member State to which they were relocated. As of 19 October, out of 6,243 individuals relocated, more than 1,300 people departed from Italy and almost exclusively reached Finland, France, Netherlands, Portugal and Switzerland, the IOM reported. Based on information from the Italian Ministry of Interior, most of the relocated migrants were Eritrean and Nigerian nationals.

The Greek Case

Like Italy, Greece is an external border country that throughout the years has been on the front line to rescue and welcome hundreds of thousands asylum seekers and migrants coming from the Near East. And, exactly like Italy, it has been long calling for solidarity and common responsibility sharing to handle the most massive migration flows that Europe has been experiencing since World War Two.

The Greek point of view on migration emerged during the 71st United Nations General Assembly, when Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras delivered his speech. Among his remarks, there was the fact that millions of people are on the move and that immigration is a global challenge that no state can face on its own. He reminded how Greece had to handle 1.2 million migrants while all Eastern Europe unilaterally decided to close their borders. “The challenges in Greece are many, including strengthening the protection of borders and enhancing asylum procedures. But they can only work on the basis of shared responsibility and solidarity”. Therefore, the Greek proposal for handling migration is akin to the Italian one, which aims at dealing directly with origin and transit countries thanks to agreements on returns and readmissions as well as concentrating all efforts on a collective joint EU response that will deliver durable solutions.

At the national level, this position on migration came after the national Helleniko system, which was dependant on the Southern Greece reception centres in and around Athens, turned out to be inadequate to welcome the huge numbers. Hence, some initiatives were adopted and fostered by national authorities to establish other hot spots and facilities to be distributed both on the mainland and the archipelago’s islands. Greece’s Immigration Policy Minister Yiannis Mouzalas conceded that the government has now overburdened certain municipalities in Northern Greece.

Most migrants reaching the islands were slowly but surely moved to the mainland, even though so far only unaccompanied children have been transferred. The main problems regarding the burden of migrants coming via the Turkey-Greece route remain: Greek islanders have been struggling with overpopulation and lack of resources and funds, being incapable of coping with the major fluxes counting only on their own forces.

On the EU side, operations and initiatives were strengthened to help Greece deal with flows. On 18 March 2016, EU Heads of State or Government and Turkey agreed to stop irregular migratory flows from Turkey. According to the EU-Turkey Statement, all migrants or asylums seekers whose application is rejected must be returned to Turkey. Thanks to this, Greece has been able to return 587 irregular individuals so far and to slightly reduce the number of arrivals on its shores in comparison to last year. However, according to data presented by the Greek coordinating body handling the crisis, a new route has now been discovered by the latest migrants, passing through Greece via the Evros border river between Greece and Turkey, thus likely to escape the security and border checks.

EU Commission Activity and Greek Relocations to Europe

EU Commissioner for Migration Dimitris Avramopoulos was also optimistic over the EU emergency relocation system to alleviate the burden of the refugee crisis in Greece and Italy. Thanks to this EU initiative, 4,852 individuals have been relocated from Greece mostly to Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Portugal, Romania and Spain. Based on information from the Greek Ministry of Interior, the majority of the relocated migrants was represented by Syrian and Afghan nationals.

The Commission is also assisting Greece with expertise and critical advice while coordinating the support provided by other EU agencies. In particular, Frontex has got 700 EU officers in Greece, deployed on the islands, including 675 officers for the implementation of the EU-Turkey Statement. Also, Europol has sent 8 specialists to the Greek border to carry out investigations against migrant smuggling and another 10 officers from EU Member States to do security checks in the hotspots.

However, figures by the North Aegean Regional Police are still dramatic: the number of asylum applicants trapped on the islands of the North Aegean as for October 2016 reached 10,840 individuals and the total of refugees and migrants believed to be stranded in Greece only is 60,629.                 National authorities estimate that 7,618 people are housed in alternative accommodation, whereas 8,700 are now living outside accommodation facilities. Further, based on information collected by the International Organisation for Migration, there have been 171,185 arrivals to Greece so far out of 340,000 in the whole of Europe and based on data collected by the Hellenic Coast Guard, more than ten incidents have been registered in the Aegean Sea. As is the case, Greece has been coping with the fourth largest number of asylum applications in Europe.

Conclusions

Given the complexity of the phenomenon and considering that the root causes are multi-faceted and context-specific, different strategic responses are required. Therefore, to address the migration issue there is a host of possible solutions. At the end of the day what really matters and concerns the whole of Europe is the real effectiveness or ineffectiveness of all EU efforts being taken to handle migration flows, to fight against smugglers and traffickers as well as to prevent new terrorism episodes on the European territory. The collective hope is that plans will be feasible in reasonable time and will be as realistic as possible. This actually means delivery of timely results and durable solutions. With regards to this, however, there are three aspects to consider which could compromise the effectiveness of all EU efforts.

One potential factor that could undermine the effectiveness of the various measures comes from the results of a Europol investigation. Europol uncovered that there’s been a shift in smuggling techniques – which have turned out to be very flexible and adaptable – and in routes which now are mostly off the beaten track, away from the normal cross border roads and for that matter highly risky. Smugglers are believed to adapt quickly to strict border control and soon find new ways and modus operandi to escape law enforcement rules.

As has already happened in Greece and Italy, more and more smugglers are asking customers to pay thousands of euros for false documents and passports as well as for carrying out irregular cross-border trips. These trips often departure from Patras or Northern Greek harbours, where migrants are carried together with cargo, under trucks or hidden in the back of cars. These inhuman and degrading conditions are the same experienced by some migrants who, out of desperation decide to pay large sums to smugglers get to their destination, perpetuating the vicious circle.

A second problem that could hinder the EU initiatives is represented by the lack of a long-term spirit of solidarity and willingness to cooperate. In the long run this means being reluctant in burden-sharing support and acceptance of a fair share of migrant quotas. The immigration issue has already created deep divisions between Member States and shown the limits of collective efforts while populist movements have taken advantage of the common fears. Their opponents argue that solidarity needs to be resumed and to stay alive in order to jointly address common problems and come up with a single effective solution.

This was the case for the EU and NATO, which have held together geographically distant states which had nonetheless a common response to difficulties. Europe has been guided by different and often diverging national interests, translated in fragmented and diverging policies. Egoism and national interests have always had the upper hand on the long-term objective of improvement of international policies on delicate international issues.

A third obstacle in handling migration could be the cumbersome slowness of EU institutions in the joint approval, agreement and finally implementation process of all the new mechanisms. By the time they truly become operational and work effectively, up to 4-5 years sometimes passes. Meanwhile, Europe will have to cope with ongoing and relentless flows of migrants and refugees as it is a structural global phenomenon unlikely to stop in the medium or long term. It is thus fundamental to adopt a different foreign policy approach and, in particular, to revive the political initiatives in the Middle East and Africa region. So far European foreign affairs approach has been hesitating, divergent and sometimes contradictory because the policies of EU Member States have been like that too. Therefore, every action makes sense only if there is a political plan of regional stabilisation. This could be translated in post-conflict stabilisation procedures, institution building and tailor-made policies to give answers to local and regional crises.

Since the European Council of June 2016, the EU has built a new architecture in handling migration which now is at the heart of the EU external policy priorities.

In the short term, what seems likely to follow is a “war” between multilateralism and sovereignty. High-income countries, which are most attractive to migrants and refugees, will change their position depending on two variables. First, whether the mixed flows of migrants either seeking humanitarian protection or enhanced livelihoods continue apace. Second, whether the widespread instability in the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa is brought under control or is further compounded.

In the longer term, the Partnership Framework as well as the EU Border and Coast Guard system and other joint EU initiatives could possibly be extended to other countries as long as are available the adequate resources to do so. However, it is still crucial to look for alternative policies and tools to eventually get to a stable pathway to legal migration and eradicate the root causes leading to this. If comprehensive multilateral as well as national engagement is maintained, the EU will have put in force a migration and mobility policy bringing deep change for both external borders and Europe itself.

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