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Europe’s Macedonian Intervention, Part 1: Assessing EU Behavior

By Chris Deliso

-The work of independent media is crucial for good governance and a properly functioning democracy. Johannes Hahn, EU Enlargement Commissioner

-Fuck the EU. Victoria Nuland, US Assistant Secretary of State

Although the EU has been heavily invested in negotiating Macedonia’s so-called ‘political crisis,’ it has been relatively ineffective. The bloc’s failure has frustrated Washington and Berlin, which in mid-May appointed its own special envoy, Ambassador to Austria Johannes Haindl. Despite statements to the contrary, this decision indicated the EU is perceived as having failed.

Introduction to the Latest Failure

Some might say that EU intervention since February 2015 has failed because of diplomatic arrogance, poor analysis, lack of predictive capabilities, and an inability to understand local realities, including cultural and behavioral differences and political preferences. All of these factors are to some extent correct.

The EU’s bureaucratic character is another major factor in the Macedonian malfunction. As the (overt) lead actor, it has reacted unsurprisingly: by crafting expert reports, demanding urgent reforms, throwing around money, and making incongruously idealistic affirmations. The essential predictability, inflexibility and non-accountability of Brussels diplomacy have allowed local and foreign actors to influence and manipulate EU decision-making and operations.

Perception and Reality in the Macedonian Pressure Chamber

While EU representatives have talked tough since February 2015 in public, behind the scenes they have felt threatened, frustrated and even terrified by events that constitute a crisis for them more than for most locals. As such, the crisis has shown how easily EU bureaucracy and operations can be paralyzed. This exposes the key vulnerability of a bloc aspiring to be a global player.

Numerous informed sources attest that EU officials in Skopje and Brussels have been pressured heavily by member states, intelligence agencies, political parties and ideological activists. Within the Skopje Delegation itself, some 40 of a total 70 staff are local, allowing rich possibilities for foreign and local infiltration. In a country built on rumors, the EU is the leakiest vessel in the harbor.

As such, in Macedonia perception is often treated more seriously than reality, and it actually influences official behavior and decisions. Thus, since fall 2014, even before the crisis began, scandals and perceived scandals associated with European involvement have severely limited the capabilities of Johannes Hahn’s Enlargement Commission and the Skopje EU Delegation, led (for a little while longer) by Aivo Orav. These men have been forced to cover for other people’s problems, while other dueling interests also brought them personally into the crisis as time passed, chronically paralyzing the EU’s communications systems.

Indeed, Macedonia will not be an enviable assignment for the man tipped to replace Orav in August, Samuel Zbogar, with whom we discussed local realities earlier this month. Good luck to him.

A Note Regarding EU Influence on Our Publication Timing

Our current series would have appeared in some form long ago, had it not been for chronic poor cooperation from the EU in Skopje, and to a lesser extent the Hahn cabinet in Brussels. By virtue of this inaction, the EU has both worked against media freedom and reaffirmed the delusional paranoia its representatives have exhibited throughout the crisis.

The current introductory analysis, therefore, chronicles EU communications paralysis during the crisis. This factual context is critical to understanding our coverage of the EU’s Macedonian misadventure since February 2015, which we will analyze in depth throughout this series.

Critical Players and Critical Restrictions

During the crisis, EU and US diplomats have been united when dealing with local politicians and media. The more interventionist-minded European powers, special envoys, and dangerously incompetent supranational organizations like the OSCE have also gotten involved. All of these have been long penetrated by local and foreign political and intelligence interests, which have acted as subterranean drivers of the crisis.

“[Avoiding this penetration risk] is probably why Russian embassies, unlike us, generally do not hire local staff,” a representative of the US State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security told Balkanalysis.com last summer during a special visit to Skopje. It was a logical point. Speaking highly of the Bureau, one retired US diplomat tells us that “they are the cops. They are the investigators.” It is unclear whether the EU, as a 28-nation bloc, can utilize a similarly robust and unified internal investigations mechanism, but certainly due to its multinational construction, the EU is more prone to failures with disastrous results, as this week’s coverage will show.

Both on the surface and beneath it, Commissioner Hahn and Ambassador Orav have been criticized relentlessly and often unfairly by all sides (even ‘friendly’ ones). For example, on 8 June 2015, at a key period in crisis diplomacy efforts, Hahn was criticized in an EU Observer article penned by Nikola Dimitrov (a former Macedonian diplomat) and Erwan Fouere (Orav’s direct predecessor as EU Delegation chief in Skopje).

Fouere’s preference for the leftist opposition SDSM was always clear. In the years preceding the crisis, his statements and actions contributed to negative perceptions of the EU in a fairly conservative country. Indeed, the significance of Western diplomatic attitudes between 2009 and 2012 in alienating the public cannot be overstated when trying to understand the crisis. What the EU somehow still does not seem to understand is that for the past decade, its chief representatives have been perceived as politically subjective and out of touch with local values. As such, the EU’s own diplomatic behavior locally has killed its credibility as an overall institution for many Macedonians. Its handling of the crisis has only confirmed pre-existing suspicions.

But Hahn and Orav have at least tried to remain objective, unlike their recruited random Belgian, Peter Vanhoutte, who enjoyed a nebulous but well-paying role as EU mediator. Vanhoutte never hid his personal preference for the SDSM over conservative rival VMRO-DPMNE, and his perceived subjectivity further increased anti-EU sentiment domestically.

Indeed, Vanhoutte’s approach antagonized VMRO-DPMNE so much that it ultimately chose to stop working with him, on 21 February 2016. The party announced that from then on, he would be “no more than a tourist” to it because of his insulting attitude towards party negotiators and his tendency “to belittle the people and the Republic of Macedonia.” The Belgian became briefly semi-famous for his mocking cat memes on Twitter. Such behavior reinforced public opinion that the EU was an arrogant and disrespectful player whose diplomatic overtures were not to be taken seriously.

Currently, sources close to Hahn attest that he has become frustrated with Macedonia, and would prefer the whole situation disappear. Meanwhile, Orav, who had until recently been seen regularly at press briefings with American counterpart Jess Baily, has all but vanished. We will discuss the reasons for this later on in the series.

EU Self-Defense Mechanism 1: Funding Friends and Extremists

The EU talks a lot about the need for greater media freedom, transparency and access to information in Macedonia. Yet it itself does precisely the opposite. The bloc excels at covering its vulnerabilities in several ways.

The first is perpetuating cash-and-access patronage networks, in which EU (and member-state and other) funded media and NGOs enjoy access to high officials and institutions. In a sympathetic March 2010 feature on Hahn, Politico noted his instinct even then for solving problems with money. “Hahn intends to continue the new practice of making funds available to regions in every EU state. Questionable as this may be from an economic perspective, it could prove politically shrewd. As one lobbyist says, ‘If money is available to everyone, nobody is going to protest,’” stated the article.

Of course, the cash-and-access scheme was firmly in place in Macedonia long before Hahn became Enlargement Commissioner in 2014. And these tactics are of course used by sundry governments and interests around the world. In the Balkans, the patronage network system guarantees that those who enjoy EU (and other foreign) largesse will stand by their patrons, perpetuating the fatal illusion that the majority of local people also support the EU’s policies and approach.

The patronage scheme has also sustained parallel networks in the Balkans, often through ‘civil society’ groups connected with political parties. Such groups can be mobilized for (sometimes, violent) policy purposes, as has occurred with the latest artificial Macedonian protest movement (the so-called ‘Colorful Revolution’). The EU is hardly the only supporter of the movement, which has become the sharp end of the spear in a quixotic and violent campaign to impose foreign political goals.

However, Macedonians know that such protest movements are not endemic, and would simply evaporate without foreign funds. The EU’s failure to criticize recent destructive behavior, damage to public property, violence against police and even protesters blocking people from getting to the hospital has only increased the majority perception that the EU is acting against state (and basic human) interests.

Yet this patronage scheme has actually harmed EU reform goals over time in other ways. Over the past decade, the scheme has sustained a perverse symbiotic relationship, in which the continued popularity of what civil society activists condemn as a ‘totalitarian’ and ‘fascist regime’ perpetuates their own funding cycles and overall raison d’être. The self-imposed exile into civil society of intelligent, liberal-minded young people has actually contributed directly to the lack of qualified personnel in the opposition ranks. “I know Macedonia needs a strong opposition,” then-Prime Minister Gruevski admitted a few years back, according to one former US diplomat in Macedonia. “But I can’t make them improve themselves.”

EU Self-Defense Mechanism 2: Evade, Avoid, Escape

Like most diplomats, EU personnel may make decisions based on their own expected duration in a country or on a project. In controversial situations, such as in Macedonia recently, their choices are thus conditioned by temporal expectations as well as by any engagement’s perceived rate of risk. Our experience illustrates precisely how the EU’s evade and avoid, escape defense mechanism works in practice.

As stated, the EU in Skopje and in Brussels have been largely uncooperative with our information requests throughout the crisis. This has impacted in two ways: first, it has proven detrimental to EU interests and increased their paranoia levels; second, it has significantly slowed down our research. By deliberately avoiding transparency, the EU has actually made a bad situation much worse.

EU Media Engagement during the Macedonian: The Two Media Policies in Action

As said, our research has been affected by official EU communications failure. Our timeline of crisis-period communications is as follows.

In a group email to journalists of 19 June 2015, Aivo Orav wrote: “please let me sincerely apologise for being late at yesterday’s ceremony for awarding the EU Investigative Journalism Award… without trying to make any excuses and explanations, I would simply like to apologise and promise that we will do our best to avoid similar situations happening again.”

Assuming that such statements indicated Mr Orav’s eagerness to assist media, we wrote to a Skopje Delegation spokesman on June 28, 2015 to ask for further information regarding the EU’s (then recent) Expert Team and general activity in the crisis. There was no reply.

On July 15, 2015 we wrote directly to Orav, noting that we had sent “two messages to the responsible spokespersons in the EU mission and EEAS mission in Skopje, but not heard back, unfortunately.” Again, there was no reply. Then, on 20 July, a spokesman simply wrote: “please note that the ambassador will not be giving interviews in the next period.” However, over the “next period,” Orav was constantly active in public life; it appears the EU has different policies for different media.

In fairness, there was some internal confusion over when Orav would actually leave; several diplomatic sources state that it depended partly on the crisis resolution, which has proven slower than expected. This still does not explain the Delegation’s lack of cooperation, however.

We tried writing the Delegation again on May 5, 2016. Finally, a meeting was planned for 13 May. However, Orav managed to escape at the last minute, as a meeting with the incoming German special envoy was more pressing. After another request, on May 16 a spokesman replied: “I have alerted the ambassador twice about the need to meet with you. Believe me, we are doing our best to get to him. I have asked his secretary to contact you directly as soon as she has a reply.” Of course, there was no reply. We again requested meetings in writing on May 20 and May 28.

While Orav has not cooperated with our media requests over almost an entire year, he nevertheless has managed to find time to make public addresses for the cash-and-access crowd. Of course, he is just doing the job that Commissioner Hahn and his predecessors have ordered.

For example, on December 14, 2015, Orav spoke at a Skopje event for the 2015 Jean Monnet Prize for journalism. Four days later, he spoke at an event for the “further development and financial sustainability of the civil society,” according to a press release. This was to inaugurate the next generation of multi-million euro grants for Western parallel networks in Macedonia.

Then, on April 7, 2016, Orav addressed the follow-up of the Speak Up conference. At the event, “recently started EU-funded projects supporting freedom of expression and freedom of media” would, according to a press release, “be officially promoted.” Then, on 5 May, Orav addressed the “official launch of EU-funded project ‘Network of journalists for press freedom.’” Most recently, on May 27, Orav spoke at the “EU Investigative Journalism Award”, an activity launched by the Enlargement Commission.

This final award has a clear policy objective, as a press release revealed. “The EU award regional scheme for investigative journalism in Western Balkans and Turkey is established by the European Commission, DG Enlargement, following the EU Enlargement strategy which recognizes strong need for ensuring freedom of expression in the media, and for support to investigative journalism to monitor the reform processes and to keep the historical momentum toward the EU accession. The EU award for investigative journalism was established in 2015 and will be given each year in the period of three years.”

The political preferences of the EU cash-and-access schemes for media were clearly attested in another contemporaneous press release. It announced that from January 2016 through January 2019, the generally pro-SDSM Association of Journalists (ZNM) “will implement the project ‘Network of Journalists for press freedom’ funded by the European Union with almost 200,000 EUR. The objective of the project is to foster the development of a favorable environment for the rights of journalists and to improve the reporting of journalists according to professional and ethical standards. The Association of Journalists also participates in one of the EU-regional projects “Western Balkan`s Regional Platform for advocating media freedom and journalists` safety“, budgeted with almost 1.2 million EUR.”

According to the EU, “the objective of this action is the establishment of a regional Early Warning and Prevention System Network as a mechanism of joint advocacy for implementation of EU standards in the field of media and prevention of malpractice, through capacity building, networking and exchange of knowledge between six regional journalists’ associations.” All in all, EU support for so-called “media reforms” equals 2.7 million EUR.

ZNM’s domestic rival, the Macedonian Association of Journalists (MAN) is viewed negatively by the EU, as being ‘pro-VMRO.’ The purpose of the funding and preferences is – as clearly stated – network development for ideologies in line with the EU’s regional agenda- ideologies which however are not shared by large majorities of local populations. Therefore, while EU largesse has made a small group of people very rich, it has failed to change the worldviews of the affected countries.

To mark the occasion on 27 May, an official Commission press release provided the following uproarious comment from Hahn himself: “the work of independent media is crucial for good governance and a properly functioning democracy. The EU awards for investigative journalism reflect the priority we give to freedom of expression and media in the enlargement process.”

A Cabinet Engagement

Given Aivo Orav’s incredible disappearing act, we decided to directly contact the Hahn Cabinet’s communications people, on 5 May 2016. After some discussions, we received written answers on 20 May, which were indeed informative and will be noted later in this series. However, on the same day we replied that key questions had not been clarified. After some back-and-forth, we were reminded that “only the spokespersons are entitled to give “on the record” statements on behalf of the Commission.”

Thus on 3 June we contacted Maja Kocijančič, the Cabinet’s spokeswoman, and Commissioner Hahn himself, once again extending the invitation to discuss the issues personally with Orav. She replied, “send us your questions and we will do our best to get the replaces [sic] to you ASAP.” We therefore sent what was described as a ‘first round’ of questions on 6 June, but received no reply. On 11 June, we informed the two that they had still two days to come up with some responses before publication. Thus after waiting for eight days without a reply, we have arrived at today’s (long-delayed) initial publication.

Critics of the EU often note its bloated bureaucracy in the context of wasted money. But this structure also plays a critical role as a self-defensive mechanisms. Commissions hire so many random ‘communications experts’ in part to shield the Commissioner to the greatest extent possible from having to engage with the public. In the end, 28 unelected civil servants can enjoy being treated as heads of state (and tend to regard themselves thus), despite having no such rank or function.

A Curious Silence

It would be hard to believe that Johannes Hahn was not made aware of our request for more information about the EU role in Macedonia’s crisis last summer. In the improbable case that he was somehow not informed then, there is no question that he was informed in early May 2016, as we wrote him directly.

Fortunately, throughout the crisis Balkanalysis.com has been able to speak with many other people, including some who have been at the very heart of the EU’s engagement, as this series will show. So in the end, the reticence of the EU Delegation and Commission to speak has been self-defeating. It only further cements their legacy as failed institutions in the Macedonian crisis.

Unanswered Questions Regarding Media Requests to the EU

The failure of Kocijančič and Hahn to answer, for eight days now, specific follow-up questions indicates that our research has hit a nerve in the EU apparatus. Perhaps some of the relevant themes will be reconsidered later on this series, whether or not they have received official clarification. As for the current article, the most significant (and probably related) unanswered questions left regard the EU’s lack of cooperation since July 2015.

For example, when presented with the representative communications events in the above-stated timeline, Kocijančič did not respond when asked whether the Commission had ordered Orav not to speak with us during the short but vital pause between 15-20 July 2015, or why at that time we were told Orav would no longer be giving interviews, when he quite clearly was very active in the following period. Similarly, there was no response when we asked whether Orav had been ordered to avoid meetings this May, despite the written notification we received from a spokesman that attested “we are doing our best to get to him,” and that his secretary had been instructed to reply to us directly.

This is important not as some point of pride, but for historical accuracy: in order to correctly analyze all of the granularities of the crisis, it would be useful to know whether the Commission has chosen as a policy, or Orav as an individual, to meet or not meet specific analysts.

Again for the sake of historical accuracy, it would be useful to know to what extent Hahn and Orav have been pressured (other than in the media and public sphere) during the crisis, as this could conceivably have affected their decision making- and thus the trajectory of the whole crisis.

The EU’s Expert Report (the Priebe Report, which we will discuss in detail tomorrow) noted that foreign diplomats had been wiretapped in Macedonia. There has been intense speculation and media coverage since the very beginning of 2015 that some diplomats have been blackmailed by political and intelligence structures. Maja Kocijančič did not respond, however, when we asked whether Commissioner Hahn had ever been threatened by political actors during the crisis.

Considering that there are some indicators of subterranean manipulations that would indicate intimidation of diplomats, we may return to this theme at another time as The Great Unraveling continues.

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