Saturday, May 04, 2013

Croatia, Albania, Macedonia and EU Accession: The View from Brussels

Category: News

By Sam Vaknin
Author of “Malignant Self-love: Narcissism Revisited”

Croatia on the Verge of EU Accession

From our window in the iconic, art deco, recently renovated, and surprisingly affordable Hotel Regent Esplanade in Zagreb, Croatia’s increasingly chic capital city, my wife, Lidija, and I watch the swelling police presence centred on the august establishment’s regal entrance. Serb footballers are slated to arrive and confront their Croat counterparts in a historic match: benign echoes of the rabid and gory war that tore these neighbours apart two decades earlier. Croatia’s imminent accession to the European Union (EU) is supposed to erase these bitter memories and restore a sense of safety and stability to this beautiful country. Membership would confer no other immediate benefits as the ailing supranational club is preoccupied with one economic crisis after another.

Yet, to its visitor, Croatia presents a duality that is hard to reconcile. Figures like Cardinal Aloysius Stepinac, Zagreb’s pro-Ustashe Archbishop during the country’s Nazi-leaning period and Franjo Tudman, its controversial first President after it seceded from Yugoslavia are extolled and celebrated. Veterans of paramilitary police units which committed atrocities in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina are venerated and installed in offices in centre town. In contrast, the city is an epitome of the best qualities of both old-fashioned Europe and its new, more youthful incarnation. Croat youngsters are largely apolitical and tech-savvy. Amidst a culinary big bang, a cultural-historical cornucopia, and a varied and cosmopolitan shopping experience, Zagreb is joining Dalmatia, Croatia’s breathtaking beachfront, as a tourist destination.

Luxury hotels like the immaculate and ornamental Esplanade are re-orienting themselves to cater to families, honeymooners, and even the occasional backpacker with differential pricing, special packages and offers, and a warm, and impeccably welcoming atmosphere. Corporate business still constitutes the bread and butter, though, as more than 90% of Croatia’s 11.5 million annual tourists (with c. 60 million nights) migrate to the sunny and sea-ridden islands to the east.

Albania, NATO member and EU aspirant

The imposing Italian-Fascist architecture of Tirana fails to mask the merry and, at times, ominous chaos that is Albania. Street hawkers huddle conspiratorially as they peddle smartphones and watches of dubious provenance while policemen idle, visibly bored with the hair-trigger traffic and the stinging drizzle. The city pulses vitally night and day: a sempiternal carnival of lights and sounds and smells in the throes of a construction frenzy gone amok. Still, poverty is evident and all-pervasive and the rule of Law is largely an empty slogan. Shady economic and political interests may have receded to the background, but they still control the levers of power. The roads, where they exist, are in a mind-boggling state of disrepair and it is not uncommon to come across posses of masked men in mysterious black uniforms manning checkpoints and roadblocks. The situation is rumoured to be different in the south where massive investments in tourism infrastructure are creating a new Riviera, replete with modern hotels and hospitality services.

Amidst this vortex, a new breed of intellectuals asserts itself: an unbridled explosion of music and prose and poetry. Speech is surprisingly free and daring. EU membership is perceived by this vanguard as a guarantee of a better future, not only economically, but politically as well: the local breed of unruly and often criminalized politicos can be tamed only by an external, unrelenting, impartial force, such as the European Commission.

Albanian hopes of importing from the outside values which Albanians seem to lack inherently, such as work ethic and respect for the Law, are bound to be frustrated. The very clannish, exclusionary, and patriarchal structure of this society needs to be dismantled before Albania joins the family of modern nations. It is a tall order, but not an impossible one.

Macedonia: Solipsism and Megalomania

It is common today to read state-sanctioned interviews in the tame and manhandled local media with crackpot “scholars” and “analysts” of domestic and foreign issue. These explain why Macedonia should not join the sick men of Europe, how the European social model is bound to fail, and why Macedonia’s alleged historical and cultural heritage is unsurpassed and unique. This is part of a growing trend of navel-gazing, cognitive dissonance, and compensatory megalomania that finds its ultimate expression in a wasteful and grandiose clutter of construction projects strewn across the congested and less-than-clean capital city of Skopje.

With NATO and EU accession blocked by a belligerent Greece, the future looks bleak. Apartment prices are declining, unemployment is stuck at an unsustainably high level, poverty is stark and widespread, foreign direct investment dried up, and the brain drain is rampant. Internecine political bickering brought the country to a virtual standstill. The government employs one quarter of the workforce and its budget amounts to more than half of the country’s GDP, one fifth of which consists of remittances from abroad and other unilateral transfers.

The Albanians of Macedonia want out, no longer content to let the ethnic Macedonians steer the ship of state. Violent clashes are a weekly occurrence. The international community is busy elsewhere and pays only lip service to Macedonia’s integration in the EU. Things are bound to get a lot worse before they get somewhat better.

The European Union wishes for an ever closer union between Macedonia and its neighbour Kosovo. Such integration would alleviate the latter’s inglorious isolation and provide a natural outlet for Macedonian products and the pent-up entrepreneurship of Albanians in western Macedonia. It would also counter Serbia’s disruptive influence. But this is a perilous strategy as it is often misinterpreted by the natives as a tacit nod and wink at their not-so-latent irredentism.