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From the Velvet to the Rose Revolution

In this introduction to TOL's 2003 Annual Survey, we take a fresh look at the year's key political, economic, and societal events and trends in the transition states from Central Europe to Central Asia. by Andrew Gardner 17 April 2004 2003 brought two milestones on the road to transition: Georgia's "rose revolution" and the effective end of Central Europe's "velvet revolution." Elsewhere, too many countries went backwards, went nowhere, or merely inched ahead.

The year 2003 started with some fundamental geopolitical questions on the table. What should be done about Iraq (and North Korea)? And would the eight post-communist applicants to the EU keep to the unwritten social contract agreed upon after 1989 and vote to join the EU, or would they tear up the contract? Here was a year that offered a test of values and of geopolitical loyalties--and ultimately a definition of where governments stood in relation to the United States and the EU.

It also became clearer where some towering figures stood in relation to their populations. Russian President Vladimir Putin revealed his true colors, and the vast majority of Russians liked those colors--though not, in many cases, enough to vote. In Serbia, the population showed at Zoran Djindjic's funeral what it felt about a prime minister better loved in death than in life. But ultimately, 2003 will probably be remembered most as the year of Georgia's revolution, the year when the "wily fox" of the Caucasus, Eduard Shevardnadze, was ousted. It was a reminder to the region, 14 years after the first wave of communism's collapse, that revolutions do not always proceed from the barrel of a gun, and that a geopolitical foxtrot--however artfully danced--can be tripped up by neglect of the economy, of state institutions, of people, of the social contract that a government must deliver or face the consequences.

Whether other governments, such as Ukraine's and possibly Moldova's, will be unseated because of their neglect of economic and political reform--their failure to manage transition--will be one of the key questions of 2004.


With Iraq and North Korea at the top of the international agenda, Russia inevitably occupied the headlines early in the year. Much had been made of Russia's rapprochement with the West and of U.S. President George W. Bush's rapport with Putin. Bush's stated passion for Putin remained mostly undimmed--in September 2003, he told journalists: "I love him [Putin], believe it or not"--but it had already become clear in the run-up to the war in Iraq that this was a one-way affair. Russia may not be strong enough to create a bipolar world, but the war prompted Moscow to talk up the notion of a "multipolar" world, with Russia, a Franco-German axis, and China forming the alternative poles to the United States.

Still, Putin took the "love" that Bush offered and similar, though less profuse, sentiments from Britain's prime minister, Tony Blair, making high-profile trips to the United States in September and to Britain in June. The trips seemed testament that Bush was following the post-Iraq advice of U.S. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice to "punish France, ignore Germany, forgive Russia."

Russia had been less venomous in its opposition to the war in Iraq than France and less principled than Germany, so perhaps Russia's exemption was no surprise. But there was more to it than that: The U.S. attitude also symbolized Russia's rise to the top of the oil-producing league alongside Saudi Arabia (Russia became the world's top producer in September). And the U.S. and British governments appeared anxious to discourage Russia from developing a "triple alliance" with Germany and France over the Iraq crisis. Russia is clearly a revived power on the global stage.

That power is, however, limited, as the twin crises of Iraq and North Korea demonstrated. Russia may never have had any chance of dissuading the United States from an attack on Iraq, but the conflict also seemed to show that Russia has only limited influence in the Arab world. A key Soviet sphere of influence was now one in which Russia had very little sway. In North Korea, the attempts at mediation produced only a snub: Pyongyang would, it insisted, talk only with the United States. It might be too much to expect anyone to influence a regime as willful as North Korea's, but the diplomatic failure of Russia's peace plan made plain that while close economic ties with North Korea may have brought some cash (along with heavy North Korean debt), they have given Russia very little in the way of geopolitical capital.

If anything showed that Russia remains a huge power on the world scene, however, it was perhaps not its sparring with the United States, its attempts to create a multipolar world, or its stock of nuclear weapons and nuclear experts (who were controversially deployed to help boost Iran's nuclear-power capacity). It was its economy--or more precisely its oil, gas, and electricity. By June, the financial meltdown of 1998 seemed a world away. It was also a presidency ago. In the intervening years, Russia has leapt to near the top of the world's oil-producing league and, in a few key companies, the gap in governance and practice between it and the West seemed to be narrowing. Putin's presidency has become associated with economic growth and relative prosperity (or, at least, stability) and, for that, much of the nation has reason to be grateful. In 2003, 27.8 million people reportedly still lived below the poverty line (roughly $70 a month), but many Russians feel they owe their thanks to Putin.

Russia's re-emergence as an energy superpower seemed to be symbolized by the signing in June of a mammoth, $6.15 billion deal in London between British Petroleum and Russia's Tyumen Oil Company to create one of the world's 10 largest oil companies. But less than a week after what could have been a moment of national pride came an event that threw everything into question. In early July, prosecutors began to fire off a battery of accusations against representatives of Yukos, the country's largest private oil company--charges of murder, of tax evasion, of embezzlement. In October, they threw Yukos boss Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia's richest man, into prison. A merger between Sibneft and Yukos, which would have created Russia's largest oil company, collapsed in November.

What did this all mean? Was Putin riled by and anxious about Khodorkovsky's political ambitions? Was this the result of a clash between rival clans in the Kremlin? Was it an attempt to seize some of the Communists' electorate ahead of the December Duma elections? Or was it a matter of control over national resources?

There may have been elements of all of those and, by the end of the year, the answer was still unclear. Still, the Yukos affair will surely prove to be one of the defining moments of the Putin presidency, possibly the defining moment. Previously, Putin sometimes had seemed to be all things to all men--a Russian leader able to deal with the West without allowing NATO and EU enlargement to blur his vision, authoritarian yet respectful of the constitution, a KGB man with some reformist inclinations, a man who looked to his siloviki--strongmen--but who was surrounded by proteges of his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin. Observers could pick and choose the Putin they wanted. The Yukos affair makes doing that much harder.

It may still be too early to know what type of system will emerge. It is easier to discern what type of man is emerging: one who is comfortable with the security services, uncomfortable with inquisitive types (such as the media and opinion polling companies, one of which came under tighter state control in 2003). One who is a product of the great Soviet transformation of Russian society--who is aware that the world has changed and who is willing to take steps to adapt to the changes, but who is not willing to stray too far from Russia's well-trodden authoritarian path.

But what will such a man do on the world stage? For Russia's neighbors, its "near-abroad"--and perhaps the world--the answer probably lies in Russia's energy and the size of various debts it is owed.

Anatoly Chubais, the father of Russian privatization and head of the electricity monopoly Unified Energy Systems (UES), talked about Russia as a "liberal empire." Others may not have spoken in terms of an empire or anything resembling liberalism, but during the year the contours of an empire did become clearer.

To the west, the picture remained blurred. Russia wanted to buy Belarusian energy assets; Belarus refused. Tensions over Belarusian debts led to a partial turning off of the taps. In Ukraine, Russia's attempt to seize control of the island of Tuzla, an apparent bid to control traffic into the Sea of Azov, suggested that Russia is now even more prepared to use what leverage it has. A more Western-oriented Ukrainian government could find itself facing difficulties. And in the Baltics, the Yukos affair raised fears that Mazeikiu Nafta, the region's only oil refinery, might become what the Lithuanians had always sought to avert--an asset of the Russian state. Still, west of Moscow, Russian self-assertion remained more a fear than a reality.

Russia's energy giants did, however, gobble up assets in the south. Georgia ceded much of its energy network, and Armenia handed over control of its nuclear power plant (and other assets) in exchange for a writedown of its debt. In Central Asia, the prickly Uzbeks signed an important partnership agreement with Gazprom, the Russian gas-producing giant. Chubais suggested that his very well capitalized company would next try to buy electricity generators and distributors in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan (as well as Armenia, Belarus, Moldova, and Ukraine).

In Mongolia, a huge writeoff of (questionable) debt brought the prospect of warmer political relations and a further increase in Russia's already sizable economic interests there (Russia is Mongolia's key supplier of oil and gas, the joint operator of its national railway system, and the market for 50 percent of its exports).

So Russia's economic empire may be expanding, but what is liberal about it? Chubais never quite explained how national interests--oil, gas, and electricity--could be turned into a national value called "liberalism." In any case, by the end of the year, Chubais was alone with his form of "liberalism." The more typically liberal Yabloko party refused to join forces with Chubais' SPS for December's Duma elections. In any case, the liberalism of Yabloko and the SPS was obliterated in the elections: Nationalists and pro-Putinites triumphed.

For economic imperialists such as Chubais, the pressing question is whether Central Asia and the Caucasus can really—economically, politically, or, preferably, both--be brought within this Russian energy-based empire.


Russia certainly has a crucial friend in the region. Of all the countries in Central Asia, the stan with the closest relationship with Russia is Kazakhstan--which also happens to be the region's economic power. Its economy continues to boom, new oil fields continue to be found, and workers from elsewhere in the region pour into the country despite reports of slave-labor-like conditions.

Kazakhstan was also critical in the attempted revival, in September, of the seemingly moribund Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), when Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan tried to give the organization a more efficient core by agreeing to create a "single economic space" without trade barriers. In addition, along with Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan decided to sign a bilateral agreement with Russia about the division of assets in the Caspian Sea.

Elsewhere in Central Asia, Russia's relationships remain strong. Turkmenistan may have squabbled with Russia about dual citizenship, but that did not get in the way of a gas agreement. Kyrgyzstan offered Russia a military base for 15 years. Russian troops continue to patrol the borders of Tajikistan. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, China, and Russia--all members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO)--held joint military exercises for the first time. Even Uzbekistan, which did not take part in the exercises, improved relations with Russia, through oil and closer cooperation with the SCO (Tashkent is the base for a new regional anti-terrorist organization).

That independently minded Uzbekistan edged closer to Russia might suggest a change in the geopolitical balance in Central Asia in Russia's favor. But ties with Russia remain delicate, and regional initiatives within the former Soviet Union have a long record of failures and a short list of successes. The continued inability of Central Asia's governments to cooperate on issues such as water management highlight how paper-thin many CIS agreements were and remain.

Of course, there is now more than one player on the Central Asian stage; there is again a "great game." Uzbekistan's gestures to Russia may have been part of a balancing act--the United States now has a base in Uzbekistan, and Western interest in Central Asia as a whole continues to grow. There is also China, which invested heavily in Kazakh oil during the year and expressed fears of terrorism in "east Turkestan," a statement perhaps fueled in part by concerns over separatism in its Muslim region of Xinjiang and perhaps underpinned by a desire for a greater say in its neighbors' affairs.

But the joker in the pack in such geopolitical games may be more fundamental, difficult issues such as poverty and alienation.

Always there as a stark, miserable reminder of how things can go wrong is Tajikistan. Six years after its civil war ended, it remains poor, its infrastructure devastated, its population susceptible to speculative bubbles such as the great bead mania of 2003 that convinced many Tajiks that the way to a fortune was by platting beads and clever marketing.

For Tajikistan's President Imomali Rakhmonov, the road to a brighter future is the one trodden by his regional peers. By 2003, Tajikistan had stabilized enough for Rakhmonov to feel able to copy his neighbors, in June amending the constitution to give himself a longer term in power (if he sees out his two additional terms he will have been in power from 1992 to 2020).

Turkmenistan's President Saparmurat Niyazov had already declared himself president for life (and immortal, to boot). Uzbekistan's Islam Karimov had changed the Uzbek constitution. Kazakhstan's Nursultan Nazarbaev had altered the Kazakh constitution to grant himself immunity (though that might not, ultimately, protect him from U.S. courts, which are prosecuting a case of bribery over oil concessions in Kazakhstan). In 2003, Kyrgyzstan's Askar Akaev did the same. Akaev's case in particular offers authoritarians hope. In 2002, Kyrgyzstan, which is still relatively free, was wracked by political and regional tensions and demonstrations; by mid-2003, Akaev felt able to alter the constitution.

But was Rakhmonov right in thinking that this is really the path to stability?

The year's events highlighted issues that the region's countries face when trying to answer that question. Some may have gas and oil, which makes the elite wealthy, but will it satisfy the poor? There is increasing evidence of growing poverty in oil-producing areas in Kazakhstan and an expanding gap between the rich and the poor. For those countries without such assets and with natural obstacles to prosperity, such as a mountainous terrain, what can be done to reduce poverty? The mass migration of Tajiks shows that very few answers are being found. The social tensions that troubled Kyrgyzstan in 2002, which had much to do with poverty, remained in 2003.

In any case, can there be economic progress without political reform? Answers to that may vary, but the question is potentially putting the region's governments on a collision course with those who can provide the most financial help. Take Uzbekistan. Throughout the year, human rights made headlines. That's what happens when prisoners are tortured and boiled alive. Such incidents may have led to increased tensions with the international community, but, as yet, there has been no major collision. Indeed, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development held its annual gathering in Tashkent despite complaints that the decision would provide legitimacy to an authoritarian regime. But there have been minor collisions: Britain's ambassador, Craig Murray, shook Uzbek officialdom (and, some reports suggest, British officials) with his very outspoken criticisms.

So could poverty and lack of freedom ultimately undermine the Central Asian presidents and elites enough to overthrow them? For answers--or at least food for thought--the region's leaders could look to the Caucasus.


Central Asia and the Caucasus do share some generic problems. In all three Caucasian states--Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia--corruption remains endemic. So does poverty. Oil may continue to fuel the growth of Azerbaijan's economy, but many ordinary Azeris doubt they will benefit. Armenia again reported bumper growth, but the rewards are felt by only a few. In Georgia, the story was a little more evenly balanced: a poor population, and poor results.

Such problems could have justified across-the-board changes for the region in an election year, with presidential elections in Azerbaijan, parliamentary elections in Georgia, and both in Armenia. But for democrats, the year got off to a bad start. Armenia's presidential elections were marred by the type of fraud and use of "administrative means"--the powers of office--that should give any president a bad name. Tanks had to be called onto the streets, though they were not used. The bad name of Armenian politics merely worsened. The conveniently close parliamentary elections (in May, right after two rounds of presidential balloting in February and March) gave President Robert Kocharian's supporters the votes they needed. In such circumstances a stronger opposition might not have made much difference, but opposition leaders still should have fought a more unified battle. Their travails were only to increase: In November, two politically charged murder cases ended with results that could be seen as good for the government. Meanwhile, the leading voice of objectivity in the country, the television station A1 , saw its repeated efforts to regain its TV license foiled again and again.

If Armenia's elections were worse than flawed, what to say about Azerbaijan's? Perhaps only that the elections produced little in the way of politics and only sham democracy. There was politicking, with the opposition squabbling and pro-government figures deliberately inflaming passions. But there was little about policy, and precious little democracy. In the wake of the elections, several people were killed during protests over the results.

Still, the year produced political change: A very public heart attack had already forced President Heidar Aliev to withdraw from politics, setting in motion a carefully choreographed political dance that ultimately brought his son to the presidency. An era had ended.

Another was soon to end. By the time Eduard Shevardnadze sat beside Azerbaijan's new president, Ilham Aliev, at Heidar Aliev's funeral in December, Shevardnadze was a president no more. To blame was a Georgian version of the kind of elections seen in Azerbaijan. How much Shevardnadze can personally be faulted for the rigged parliamentary elections is unclear, but, as president for the best part of a decade, ultimately he has to be held accountable for the state of a country in which such things can happen.

And Georgians did hold Shevardnadze to book. Outside his palace, crowds gathered. Looking for fresh allies, he eventually discovered that the only one was a man who had always wrestled against him--the head of the semi-independent region of Adjara, Aslan Abashidze. That was not enough. When Shevardnadze stopped on his route between Tbilisi and the Adjarian capital of Batumi, Shevardnadze found that villagers, too, were opposed to him. Still, he pressed on, calling together the new parliament. But before he could induct it, the crowds forced him out of the parliament and, eventually, out of office. The "rose revolution" was over--true to its name, without a casualty.

For Shevardnadze, the consequence of political sins and long-term neglect was political death.


Where will the wages of neglect next be levied? In the immediate aftermath, attention turned to Ukraine and to Moldova, with crowds of up to 50,000 coming out onto the streets of Chisinau in December to call for the Communist government to step down after it came close to signing a Russia-friendly agreement over the final status of Transdniester.

Moldovans certainly have plenty of reason for unhappiness. Many have already shown, in months of daily street demonstrations back in 2002, that they are angry enough to protest publicly over the government's efforts at centralization, its promotion of Russian in schools, its backing of a new version of Moldovan history, and its brand of national identity. Then there are the 49 percent of Moldovans who voted for the Communists in 2001. Most are poor. Like most of their countrymen, they may not feel that the new government is any more corrupt than its predecessor. But when a Communist government cannot even provide cheap bread--and it couldn't, after 2003's disastrous harvest--then even supporters have reason to question what their government has done for them. Remittances from Moldova's migrant workers provide some economic buffer for the government, but the run-up to elections in February 2005 may prove long and painful for the Communists.

Ukraine's economy, in contrast, seems to be doing fairly well. It expanded by 8.5 percent during the year. Surely, the good times (by Ukrainian standards) are beginning to roll. Why then the political uncertainty, why then the single-digit popularity ratings for President Leonid Kuchma? Perhaps partly because the growth seems to be despite, rather than because, of the government. Indeed, the only serious attempt at reform undertaken during the year by Ukraine's leader was not economic, but political--and that reform was a sham. Throughout the year, Kuchma and his supporters pushed a constitutional reform that could, arguably, improve Ukrainian democracy in the long run. The president's powers would be reduced, the parliament's enhanced, and the risk of electoral fraud cut. But the devil was in the details--details that would give Kuchma two extra years in office and pass the right to vote for the president from the public (which mainly supported the opposition in 2002's parliamentary elections) to the parliament (in which Kuchma's elite holds the most power). The changes could leave in place a political elite that has never dispelled suspicions that it was involved in murder, illegal arms trafficking, and--of course--widespread corruption. By the end of the year, the judiciary had backed Kuchma's plans. But by then, the real political battlefield may already have been moving away from constitutional reform to election campaigning. A hard year lies ahead: By late 2003, it had already become clear that the campaign for the October 2004 presidential election will be marked by intimidation, heavy government control, and the lack of a free press.

Belarus' President Alyaksandr Lukashenka also faces a tough year. That might seem an odd assertion. After all, this is a president with a rubber-stamp parliament, total command of the economy, control of the military, and--just in case--his own praetorian guard. But the weakness lies in what was once his greatest political asset: his public popularity.

Lukashenka has for years been hugely popular, a man who knows how to take from the countryside and give to the city, yet, through a delicate redistribution of income, keep the rural masses happy. But the signs of weakness are beginning to increase. Even in a parliament boycotted by the traditional opposition, he now finds opposition in the form of the Respublika party. But most critically, perhaps, his core support is waning: For the first time, backing for Lukashenka in the countryside is down, with 40 percent saying they would like to see a different president after the next elections. That may not pose a challenge for Lukashenka in the parliamentary elections in 2004, and he may possibly change the constitution to allow a third term in office, but an authoritarian whose feet were firmly planted in popular support may be finding that the ground is slowly beginning to shift beneath him. And all the while, his relationship with Russia continues to become more troubled. Lukashenka's balancing act--domestically and internationally--is becoming harder to maintain.


It is highly questionable whether there will be any repeat of Georgia's revolution in the western edges of the former Soviet Union. But after eight post-communist states voted in 2003 to join the EU, there can be no doubt about one thing: Ukraine, Moldova, and Belarus are now becoming a frontline challenge for Europe, countries that the EU will be forced to pay more attention to.

The country most likely to take up the gauntlet is Poland. Its politicians have set out to become the key formulators of the EU's eastern policy. In 2003, Poland's efforts on its eastern front were not high profile. The most prominent effort was more basic--to try to deal with the past, by commemorating (with Ukraine) World War II massacres in the border region of Volhynia.

So, instead, for Poland, the rest of Central Europe, and the Baltic states, 2003 was mainly a year to define their relationship with their Western neighbors and partners, through the Iraq crisis, EU referendums, and the EU constitution. The easiest proved to be the EU referendums. By 20 September, when the votes in the last referendum—Latvia's--were counted, each of the eight post-communist candidates had given a resounding "yes" to EU membership. Poland, long seen as the most problematic, scored 77 percent. The pattern in preceding years had been for the EU's popularity to fall. But ever since 1989 there has, in effect, been a social contract between the region's governments and their peoples that they should sign up to EU membership; when the time came, the majority had put aside its doubts.

But what type of EU should there be? That had partly been answered early in the year, by the war in Iraq. The populations may have largely opposed the war, but the politicians felt that the Euro-Atlantic alliance was at risk and they set their face against the French and the German stance. Was this a "new Europe," in the words of U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld? Whatever the flaws in terminology, it did seem that the region's governments, reflecting on their countries' own pre-1989 experiences, had come up with different answers to the crisis than the war's staunchest opponents. The conflict produced a clash of values--but also a clash of authority, shown all too evidently when France's President Jacques Chirac cast aside all the usual courtesies of diplomacy by saying that the candidate countries had lost "a good opportunity to shut up."

But if they disagreed about values, geopolitics, and authority within the EU, could the EU's members-to-be agree on a constitution that would help determine what type of union they would join? In the end, most could, but not Poland. The road to a draft constitution had been hard enough. Even getting a representative of the region into the presidium that set the agenda of the convention proved difficult; in the end, one Slovene joined the 12-member group. Tensions between the presidium and the conventioneers were such that, according to former Czech Foreign Minister Josef Zieleniec, the delegates sometimes behaved as if they were at "a hockey match, banging on the table … and almost whistling off Giscard d'Estaing," the chairman of the presidium. Poland was vexed by the omission of a reference to Christianity, prompting even its agnostic president, Aleksander Kwasniewski, to call for its inclusion. Slovakia, too, was concerned, though the fraught, fretful, and sometimes furious mood ahead of September's visit by Pope John Paul II to Slovakia indicated that, while the country may be strongly Catholic, political Catholicism will not be allowed to set the agenda without a major challenge.

Ultimately, though it was the presidium's belated decision to revise the Nice Treaty that meant the constitution remained a draft. In the run-up to June's EU referendum, Poland's pro-EU political elite had sold the idea of EU accession to the people with the promise that Poland would enjoy almost the same voting clout as Germany, France, Britain, and Italy. But then the presidium suggested the voting system should be revised to make it mathematically simpler to reach decisions in the Council of Ministers, the EU's ruling body, by introducing a double-majority system (requiring a simple majority of member states and 60 percent of the EU's population). The result: Poland's power would be reduced. With some Polish politicians howling "Nice or death," Prime Minister Leszek Miller rose from a hospital bed to attend the summit and, along with Spain, to veto the constitution.

It may have been a matter of principle and a matter of national interest that led to the veto, but by the end of the year the fissures that emerged over Nice, over subsidies, and over Iraq appeared to have deepened into a chasm within the EU. As the year drew to a close, the talk was increasingly of France and Germany forming an inner core in the EU. Accession had been the region's dream since 1989. Fifteen years later, with membership months away, it looked as if Central Europe and the Baltics might join a very different club than the one they had envisaged.


If the character of the EU is forced to evolve, it may be due not just to the different attitudes and agendas of Central Europe and the Baltics, but to pressing strategic and economic issues in the Balkans. And Croatia's uninvited application for EU membership--and Macedonia's similar plans--suggest that willingly or unwillingly, Brussels may find itself increasing pressed to consider the Balkans. Both Croatia and Macedonia had been advised that their applications were unwelcome so early; both decided to apply nonetheless. (Macedonia's application came in March 2004.)

Croatia's and Macedonia's international agenda is integration as fast as possible into Western institutions. Both of them--along with Albania--are also pushing for NATO membership and will be looking for signs of progress when NATO meets in a grand set-piece in Istanbul in June 2004.

So, while it may happen only slowly, a look at the geopolitical map suggests that Yugoslavia--which was renamed Serbia and Montenegro during the year--is the object of a pincer movement of EU integration. Until 12 March, it appeared that the Serbian government would welcome the encirclement with open arms. Its efforts may not have satisfied Carla del Ponte, the head of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), but the troupes of politicians and generals sent to The Hague made it transparently clear that the government of Zoran Djindjic was actively cooperating with efforts to bring war criminals to justice. It did not make him popular at home--the trial of former President Slobodan Milosevic pulled in viewers and shaped popular attitudes in a quite unintended way, giving Milosevic a fresh injection of popularity. Still, Djindjic was well liked in the West and courted its money.

Then came 12 March and Djindjic's assassination. Serbia was plunged into genuine mourning, and its neighbors and the rest of Europe into deep apprehension. The apprehension was swiftly lifted by Djindjic's successor Zoran Zivkovic, who seized on the tragedy to deepen the purge of the military and security services. At times, up to 10,000 people have been held by police. A nest of intertwined vipers--such as the secret service's combat unit and the country's strongest criminal gang--was dislodged, and some of the vipers beheaded.

Crimes that had literally been buried were uncovered. The body of former Serbian President Ivan Stambolic, a onetime mentor of Milosevic, was found and exhumed. He had been shot in the head. The remainder of the Milosevic family fled, his daughter to Montenegro and his wife and son probably to Russia. Western Europe was pleased with Zivkovic's efforts and westward-looking policies: Serbia achieved the unique distinction of joining the Council of Europe at a time when the country was in a state of emergency.

But what of course could not be lifted was the uncertainty over the future of Serbian politics. The Zivkovic government may have capitalized on the wave of anger after Djindjic's assassination, but the crusade against criminal elements was mixed with vindictiveness. Old battles were fought on a new battlefield. The dangers that brought became clearer at the end of the year, when the 28 December parliamentary elections returned a winner that the West did not want: the ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party (SRS), whose leader is on trial in The Hague. It was perhaps a Pyrrhic victory, as the SRS could not itself form or lead a government. Moreover, the elections could be viewed as positive, ringing the death knell for many parties in Serbia's overpopulated political system, a system that had given Djindjic and then Zivkovic the almost impossible task of managing an 18-party ruling coalition. Still, the unquiet ghost of Milosevic's politics ensured that the country--and the West--went into 2004 wondering whether Serbia would look westward or backwards, or find a new route forward with a mix of nationalism and reform.

Optimists could look to Croatia, albeit very tentatively. There, too, old ghosts returned to stalk the political scene when the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) emerged victorious from elections held on 23 November. This was the party of General Franjo Tudjman, Croatia's strongman answer to Milosevic in the 1990s. But to form a minority government, the HDZ had to rely on two parties representing the ethnic Italian and Serbian minorities. In the early months of the HDZ government, it seemed that the efforts of Prime Minister Ivo Sanader to reform the HDZ had had an effect. But Croatia's makeover stopped short at one critical point: The country remained unwilling to hand over war criminals, chief among them retired General Ante Gotovina. And it is a truly critical point: Cooperation with the ICTY is the EU's No. 1 demand for Croatia. Second is the issue of the right of return for refugees, mainly Serbs.

For the international community, then, dealing with the political and social legacy of the Balkan wars remains the chief concern. For impoverished populations of the Balkans, it is the economy that is perhaps the determining influence on the public mood. Growth rates may look positive--ranging from modest to sizable--but the region is littered with towns whose industries have collapsed and that have been emptied by migration, while agriculture has run to seed and villagers have turned to their allotments, to the towns, or to work abroad.

In the two former war zones run by the international community--Bosnia and Kosovo--the international community is discovering just how hard it is to make both political and economic progress even when it is in the seat of government. In Bosnia, efforts at reform continued on many fronts and levels, but the driving force--the coercive force, in many instances--continued to be the international community, in the form of High Representative Paddy Ashdown. Indeed, Ashdown's role brought into sharper focus during the year what the limits of the international community's presence should be.

In Bosnia, attempts to unify Mostar encapsulated the complexities of Yugoslavia's dramatic demise and the limits and contradictions of international intervention in the region. Kosovo's Mostar was Mitrovica, where two communities coexisted with little contact, divided by a bridge, separated by a (relatively small) international force, supported economically by subsidies, but with little political progress that would lay the foundations for real change. There were, of course, continued efforts to establish political institutions in Kosovo, but the example of Mitrovica and the continuing low-grade violence against Serbs underscored the fact that, in the absence of a final status for the region, the status quo in Kosovo is unhealthy and explosive.

So, by the end of the year, neither Serbia, nor Bosnia, nor Kosovo looked much closer to measuring up to outsiders' yardsticks of normality. And the millstones that hang around their necks--war and its political, social, and economic effects--also continue pull down Macedonia and Croatia, despite the progress the two have made.

Albania's huge economic problems and the aspirations of ethnic Albanians in Macedonia and Kosovo will continue to have an unsettling effect, while in Bulgaria and Romania economic failure and limited reform (particularly in Romania) promise a torrid 2004 as the governments prepare for elections (Romania in November 2004, and Bulgaria in early 2005). With Bulgaria and Romania possibly set to join the European Union in 2007 and the western Balkans pushing for membership, Brussels will find its agenda increasingly filled with questions of economic aid and a security strategy for the Balkans.


By 31 December, a year that had initially turned on geopolitical questions had become increasingly domestic in focus. The revolution in Georgia and elections in Russia, Serbia, and Croatia all came in the last weeks of the year.

Each case suggested that ultimately, geopolitics begins at home. That was true too for Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova, which all found that domestic policies or domestic tensions left them isolated internationally.

However, there were some that found that a democratic deficit does not necessarily lead to isolation. Indeed, geopolitics means that Central Asia and its autocratic regimes are less and less isolated.

Perhaps paradoxically, those governments that are unquestionably democratic and that made their countries most geopolitically secure during the year--the EU members-to-be--were the ones that found their grip on power weakest. There was barely a country in Central Europe and the Baltics that was politically stable: As the year ended, the Polish, Slovak, Czech, and Latvian governments were hanging by a thread and Lithuania's president was being impeached. Even Hungary's nearly two-year-old government saw support fall sharply. Estonia's young government may have fared better, but Estonian governments live short lives, and the existence of many Estonian parties is almost as fleeting. With EU membership around the corner, these countries' transition might seem almost over. The life expectancy of their governments, the weakness of their parties, and the relatively low level of public contentedness suggests, though, that the transition still has some way to go.
Andrew Gardner is TOL's managing editor and chief editorial writer.
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#PragueMediaPoint Conference for journalists, media professionals, and scholars

​The 2019 edition of Prague Media Point will highlight these types of inspiring examples and more. We will offer a mix of scholarly presentations, including keynote addresses; sessions with innovators explaining their solutions; and networking opportunities to promote the exchange of know-how. As in years past, the conference will have a special regional focus on Central and Eastern Europe, though we look forward to covering cases and trends from other parts of the world. – WHAT’S WORKING





Moldovan diaries

The Moldovan Diaries is a multimedia, interactive examination of the country's ethnic, religious, social and political identities by Paolo Paterlini and Cesare De Giglio.

This innovative approach to story telling gives voice to ordinary people and takes the reader on the virtual trip across Moldovan rural and urban landscapes. 

It is a unique and intimate map of the nation.


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