BALKAN BUTTERFLIES

by Dimana Trankova; cartoon by Vladimir Kazanevsky

Southeastern Europe after European parliamentary elections: not so green, not so radical, not so red but as problematic as ever

Vladimir Kazanevsky.jpg

The flap of a butterfly's wings in the Amazon jungle may set off a tornado in the Pacific, but the citizens of the EU proved that they do not believe in the chaos theory and the ability of small actions to bring about big events. In a record low turnout, only 43.42 percent of the people living in the member countries cast their vote in the European parliament elections.

However, the elections will have a greater impact on people's lives than many would have thought. The question is whether the Balkans will be in the eye of the storm or on the periphery. The area is traditionally one of the most sensitive parts of Europe and the last few years have not changed this particularly. Bulgaria and Romania, the two latest and most problematic EU members, are Balkan countries. In September, they anticipate a critical report by the European Commission in the area of justice and internal affairs. Several days before the European elections on 5 June, the Dutch Minister of European Affairs, Frans Timmermans, wrote to Jacques Barrot, the European commissioner responsible for justice, freedom and security, asking him to consider imposing safeguard clauses against Bulgaria and Romania.

The issue of Turkey's accession is among the main opinion splitters in the EU. Bulgaria's European parliament representatives are no exception. The Ataka nationalist party advertised its MEP candidates as the "Bulgarians who will say NO to Turkey in the EU."

The Balkans were also the venue for the most recent war on European territory. The remnants of Yugoslavia's disintegration are now at differing stages on their way into the EU – from Croatia, which is negotiating its accession, to the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia, whose application is blocked because of the dispute over its name.


Naturally, we should not forget the global economic crisis either. Bulgaria has now officially entered a period of recession and the clouds on the horizon look darker than ever.

And so, what will the Balkans look like after these European parliament elections and what will the European parliament look like? The policy brief "Elections at a Time of Economic Crisis or Elections in Crisis: The Score of the European Elections in the New Member States" by Martin Lessenski from EuPI, the European Policies Initiative of the Open Society Institute, Sofia, a Bulgarian think tank, focuses on the new member states in general, but provides some of the answers to the question too. You can read it at www.eupi.eu.

Lessenski shows clearly that the two "problem children," Bulgaria and Romania, are actually part of the general European trend. The elections in both countries were won by centre right parties.

However, in Greece the Socialists did well – and so did their colleagues in Denmark and Sweden. Why? "The left is traditionally very strong in Greece, but even the mainstream left did not have an overwhelming victory," Lessenski comments. "Actually, if you look closer at the election results, in both Greece and Romania they brought head to head the traditional centre left and the centre right with identical scores. The Greek Socialist PASOK got 8 seats and 8 seats went to the centre right New Democracy. In Romania, where there is an uneasy left-right governing coalition, the Social Democratic Party (PSD) received 11 seats, and so did the Democratic Liberal Party, and they were joined by one independent candidate, Elena Băsescu. There were other parties that tipped the overall political balance – in Greece, it was the far left Coalition of the Radical Left (or Communists) with 3 seats; and in Romania, it was the centre right Hungarian Alliance that moved the country more to the left or to the right."

What enlargement policy will the new European Parliament follow? "The overwhelming success of the centre right during these elections, in combination with the growing importance of the European Parliament will definitely play a key role in the enlargement process," Lessenski predicts. "They will certainly make it much more difficult for all candidates, with stricter observation of the rules." But the devil is in the details. "It also depends which 'centre right' you are talking about. The group of the European People's Party, dominated by the German centre right, is currently against Turkey's accession. The other centre right group – the Movement for European Reform – is dominated by the British Tories, who firmly support Turkey's membership."

The same goes for all the Balkan nationalist parties. They are radical but in a different way. "The Economist already noted that, in comparison to their Balkan counterparts, the Western nationalists look tame... But the paradox is that, while the nationalists rejoice in each other's successes in the elections and look forward to forming a joint group, they have conflicting agendas. Will Ataka and Greater Romania join Geert Wilders' call to expel Bulgaria and Romania from the EU for being less European?" Lessenski's policy brief points out one encouraging trend. In the new European Parliament the radical MEPs from the new EU member states are half those in the previous one – 12 compared to 24 before.

But this is not a cause for relief. What should we expect? "Extreme nationalism is not a monopoly of the post-Communist countries. For starters, the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia is in trouble, as the Popular Orthodox Rally of Greece has entered the parliament and one of their main points is no recognition of any name referring to 'Macedonia.' And the above mentioned party was involved in anti-Semitic statements. And certainly the Greater Romania party and Bulgaria's Ataka representatives will be raising controversies. To that group one can add the Hungarian Jobbik party (though not in the Balkans proper), with another anti-Roma and anti-Semitic agenda."

Not all the new faces from the Balkans attract attention with nationalist rhetoric. Elena Băsescu, for example, won her seat in the European Parliament as an independent candidate despite – or perhaps because of – her notoriety as the Paris Hilton of Romania. The 28-year-old daughter of Romanian President Traian Băsescu has made more verbal gaffes than George W. Bush, and her penchant for partying and former career as a model make her look rather frivolous for her new post. Yet, she is going to Brussels. Can we regard Elena as the collective image of the new Balkan politicians who are leaving for the parliament? "While her candidacy raised many eyebrows, Ms Băsescu is still the more sympathetic face of populism," Lessenski says.

The Balkans may be radical and even have a red tinge, but they are certainly not green. The only country in the region which elected an MEP for the Green Party was Greece. "None of the new member states has a representative in the group of the Greens, with the exception of a member of a regional party from Latvia, who has a completely different agenda," Lessenski adds. Why? "It's a fact that the agenda and behaviour of such a party is still limited to a relatively compact group of people with similar characteristics. It may be called a new 'minority.' Secondly, I think the environmental agenda concerns more people but they have decided to give their vote for a multi-issue party that they think would cover a wider range of issues. Thirdly, there is the concern that voting for a party that won't make the threshold will disperse their vote and 'their' ballot will go to the wrong party."

But what acts as the thorn in Europe's flesh is the level of democracy in Bulgaria and Romania. The European parliament election in Bulgaria on 5 June, which was unanimously regarded by political parties and analysts as the "dress rehearsal" for the general election on 5 July, was marred by vote-buying allegations. Parties such as Napred, or Forward, which are openly under the control of business people, narrowly failed to gain their own MEP.

As a result, the OSCE, the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, has sent observers to Bulgaria to monitor the general election. "The current OSCE mission is to monitor the election, reportedly because of a certain, hopefully limited, regression in democracy. Unfortunately, there is a strong opinion among a host of older member states that Bulgaria and Romania were not mature enough to enter the EU as early as they did," Lessenski says. In his view, the problem about the lack of democracy lies elsewhere. "The underlying problems may not be the lack of some agency or law. These are relatively easy things to fix and, in fact, proliferation of government structures and strategies – for fighting corruption, organised crime or the embezzlement of funds – not only does not solve the problem but may conceal the real problems. But not for long – as the dust settles and problems become visible with time. It is a fact that high level political corruption and a democratic deficit reinforce each other. One does not have to look further than the elections this year – the non-transparent funding of most parties, the vote buying and the controlled votes. When these special interests enter the legislature or government they expect to literally get a return on their investment."

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