Black cloud over the Balkans

The status of Kosovo was supposed to be the last obstacle to solving the problems of the Balkans. Fa

Most people in the Balkans have seen the Kosovo train wreck coming for the past two years. But now that it is upon us, apart from some dark warnings, few have been able to spell out what the failure of talks on Kosovo's final status actually means.

The international significance of a debacle that reflects poorly on all participants is, by contrast, very clear: Russia and the United States have combined to humiliate the European Union. "They are clearly trying to undermine the EU - of that there is no doubt," a senior Brussels official told me recently.

For several months, both Russia and the US have in effect supported the maximalist demands of their chosen proxies in the Balkans: Serbia and Kosovo. This neutered the most recent negotiations of the US-EU-Russia troika, which were a last-ditch attempt to hammer out a compromise between Belgrade and Pristina. Serbia knew Russia would block Kosovo's independence in the United Nations, while Kosovo was secure in American support for a unilateral declaration of independence. Neither side had any incentive to compromise, and the EU was exposed again as incapable of managing a political crisis in its own backyard, while its taxpayers will be compelled to clear up the resulting mess.

Over the past decade, Brussels has channelled incalculable diplomatic and financial resources into the Balkans (far more money than either Washington or Moscow). The reasoning behind this expenditure is eminently sensible: as a consequence of the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s and the troubled transition from communism, the entire region has suffered from stunted development. This has enabled corrupt economic interests, chiefly from within the Balkans, but also from the EU and Russia, to turn the region into a playground for asset-grabbing, money laundering and other criminal activities.

By offering the inducement of huge infrastructural and financial support, the EU has persuaded the new leaderships in the Balkans to embark on far-reaching economic and political reforms. The EU's commitment has already had a stunning transformational impact on its two Balkan members, Romania and Bulgaria, not to mention Slovenia, the former Yugoslav republic that is now almost indistinguishable in character from Austria.

But the Kosovo crisis is casting a big black cloud over the hope that the remaining former Yugoslav territories would follow Slovenia's smooth passage into the EU. Croatia is likely to slip in before the door shuts. But the constitutional mess of Kosovo and Serbia may well keep that door closed, probably temporarily but perhaps for many years, as the crisis reverberates in Bosnia and Macedonia, and less directly in Montenegro and Albania.

So what happens now? In the long term, the question keeping EU officials awake at night concerns Serbia's membership of the EU. The enlargement commission and several key European foreign ministries have believed for some time that Serbia's admission is crucial for long-term stabilisation of the region, given its situation at the geographical heart of the Balkans.

Nonetheless, the major EU member states feel they have no choice but to follow Washington in recognising the UDI that Pristina is preparing. But most of them are doing so reluctantly - they know that, privately, UN officials in Kosovo predict that some 50,000 Serbs living south of the Ibar River will head to northern Mitrovica, the Serb enclave in Kosovo bordering on Serbia that is in effect governed from Belgrade; and that the recognition of an indep endent Kosovo will also result in the territory's de facto partition.

The sight of impoverished peasants throwing their worldly belongings on to the back of carts and trucks will make for an unedifying spectacle to accompany independence. But, though all sides in this dispute have long understood that partition would be a consequence of almost any solution, diplomatic cowardice has ensured that nobody has been prepared to articulate this clearly in public. So the independent state will be divided, with Belgrade retaining absolute control in the northern enclave.

Inelegant though a divided Kosovo might be, both sides can probably live with it. The epicentres of potential political earthquakes lie elsewhere. Zone one is Bosnia-Herzegovina, where the rule of a series of omnipotent European high representatives has disguised the profound weakness of the state fashioned in Dayton, Ohio. At stake is the very viability of Bosnia.

The most depressing symbol of the Bosnian Federation, which joins Catholic Croats and Muslim Bosniaks, is Mostar, the capital of Her zegovina. After 12 years, the two communities on either side of the Neretva River have nothing in common except a high school that Croat children attend in the morning and Bosniaks in the afternoon.

Meanwhile, the leadership of the Serbian entity in the east and north, Republika Srpska, reacts with open hostility to attempts by the current EU Special Representative, the Slovak Miroslav Lajcák, to centralise in anticipation of transferring more power to the government in Sarajevo. Serbia's prime minister, Vojislav Kostunica, is encouraging this intransigence as well as contributing to the outbreak of Putin-mania in both Serbia and Republika Srpska. The dour face of the Russian president stares down from kiosks throughout the two territories as the presumed new saviour of Serbia's interests.

The Bosnian state will feel the strain of Kosovan independence as Serbia, backed by Russia, toys with demanding the same rights of secession for Republika Srpska as the west has granted Kosovo.

What neither Kostunica nor other Serbs care to mention too often is how Russia was the main international sponsor of another "betrayal" of Serbian interests - the recent independence of Montenegro. Renamed Moscow-on-Sea by local wits, Montenegro has invited Russian oligarchs to replace cigarette smuggling as the profoundly corrupt state's main source of income. According to the Podgorica weekly magazine Monitor, Oleg Deripaska, Russia's aluminium king, now owns 40 per cent of the new country's indust rial capacity.

But apart from becoming the new money-laundering paradise of the Balkans, Montenegro presents fewer potential problems than southern Serbia and Macedonia. Here we must wait to see whether Kosovo's independence further discombobulates the fragile relationships between large Albanian minorities and the Slav majorities. Despite being an EU candidate member, Macedonia is coming under renewed pressure from Greece in the ludicrous dispute about the former country's official name. The argument may be arcane, but with Greece administering a veto on Macedonia's progress towards European and Nato integration, the implications are very serious.

And in Kosovo itself? The great headache is the economy - under UN and EU administration, the province has experienced a precipitous decline in GDP and frightening levels of un employment. This is a dismal record that underlines the hopeless inadequacy of the west's post-intervention policies. The territory is now thoroughly criminalised as a consequence, and it is hard to see how independence will change this in the short term.

Two to three years ago, the EU was on the way to solving the fundamental problems of the Balkans. Kosovo's status was the final, albeit very complex, obstacle to circumnavigate. The collective failure to do so has cast the region back into uncharted, choppy waters, where lie several concealed rocks.

This article first appeared in the 10 December 2007 issue of the New Statesman, How New Labour turned toxic

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View from Paisley: How the Conservatives are wooing Labour's Scottish heartlands

Not so long ago, Conservative activists in Paisley could expect doors slammed in their faces. A referendum has changed that.

Tony Lawler, a Labour activist, was recently knocking on doors in the Scottish town of Paisley, when he came across a disgruntled resident. “I’m really disappointed in Douglas Alexander,” the potential voter complained. “I haven’t seen him. He used to be in Morrisons.”

Douglas Alexander, of course, has gone. He was the longstanding Labour MP and onetime International Development secretary who lost his seat in 2015 to a 20-year-old rival, the Scottish National Party’s Mhairi Black. He does not plan to stand again. But when I visit Paisley, a short train ride from Glasgow, I find that memories of him linger on. 

Two years after Alexander’s defeat, I meet Lawler and other local Labour activists in Morrisons, where Alexander used to hold his surgeries. As checkouts beep and trolley wheels roll over linoleum, they point to an empty table in the corner of this hallowed ground: “He used to sit just there.”

In 2015, the SNP’s victory in this former manufacturing town seemed to epitomise the earthquake in Scottish politics. But as the Labour activists know too well, no political fortress is undefeatable. And in Paisley, the home of one of the oldest workers’ festivals in the world, the party with the most to gain is one that previously never dared to canvass in the high street – the Conservative party. 

The town the Brexiteers forgot

In 1988, the historian Sylvia Clarke reflected on Paisley’s lost industries, wondering what was next for the former weaving towns. “Paisley as a tourist centre?” she wondered, in Paisley: A History. “Paisley as a place for visitors to come to, rather than a send-out of goods and emigrants?” 

For all Paisley’s industrial decline, it’s a pretty place. The town is in the running for the 2021 City of Culture, and has the second biggest number of listed buildings after Edinburgh. When I visit in the middle of April, blossom floats on the trees, and a river meanders through a neighbourhood of old, stone houses. It takes a moment to notice weeds tightening their grasp on the window frames. When I try the door of the ancient Paisley Abbey, it’s locked.

Perhaps if Paisley had been located the other side of the border, in Sunderland or Northumbria, it would be voting Leave and flirting with Ukip. But in the most deprived areas here, Labour activists tell me the EU referendum tally was still almost 50-50, and overall the town voted Remain.

There is a view that Brexit is an English concern. “We haven’t picked up anything about the EU referendum,” says Lawler of his doorstep conversations. “What people are talking about is the independence referendum, Jeremy Corbyn and the kids’ ward.” Scotland’s health secretary, Shona Robison, is due to make a decision on whether the specialist ward should be moved to a large hospital in the First Minister’s Glasgow constituency, against the wishes of many Paisley residents. The hospital in question is nicknamed “the Death Star”.  

Another concern, reminiscent of small towns across the UK, is the decline of the high street. When I walk down the historical shopping area Causeyside Street, I find mother and daughter Kate and Linda Hancy packing up what remains of The Pattern Café and Gift Shop. The wallpaper is a glorious Paisley print, but the scented candles are in boxes and a spray soap bottle hangs from a chair. After two years of trying, they are closing down.  

“People just don’t have money to spend,” Kate says. “A lot of people have been on the same wage for more than five years.”

Linda chimes in: “The cost of living going up but wages aren’t the same. I work in a supermarket, and people come in and say ‘How did I spend this much money?’ A lot of people are paying by credit cards.”

The Hancys voted to remain in the UK, and the EU. Although they knew Alexander, they have never met Mhairi Black, and feel devolution, if anything, has made politicians less accountable. “Why are we picking 1,2,3,4,” demands Kate, referring to Holyrood's voting system, which rejected first past the post. “Why can’t we pick one like we used to?”

Without the EU to blame, the most obvious culprits for Paisley town centre’s decline are the out-of-town shopping centres, where cinemas are opening just as historical ones in town close their doors.

Gavin Simpson, owner of Feel the Groove, a new record shop, remembers the 1980s, when a new release would have shoppers queuing round the block. However, he believes the town is over the worst. (As we speak, a customer comes in to reserve such a record and cheerfully warns Gavin that “even if I ask for my money back, don’t give it to me.”)

One thriving business is the longstanding butchers, Wm Phelps. Manager James Peacock tells me it is down to the trustworthy Scottish produce, which is carefully tracked and labelled. But the business has also embraced globalisation.  After noticing a large number of South African customers, Peacock began selling boerewors and biltong.

The other referendum campaign

If Paisley has been spared the divisions of the EU referendum campaign, its “buddies” – as residents are known – are still reeling with the repercussions of an earlier referendum, that on Scotland in the UK. In 2014, the town voted for independence, although the county overall opted to stay in the UK. 

The town is home to a particularly brash strain of indyreffers, including the “Smith Commission burners”, three SNP councillors who gathered in front of the council headquarters to burn a copy of the report setting out new powers for Scotland. One of them, Mags MacLaren, went on to manage Black’s constituency office.

But if the Paisley independence movement has been well covered, less is known about its opposite - the rise of pro-unionism. 

Of the three mainstream parties opposed to independence, it is the Scottish Conservatives, with their unconventional leader Ruth Davidson, who have most effectively capitalised on the pro-union message. In the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections, the Tory Jackson Carlaw captured the West of Scotland constituency of Eastwood, which had been held by Labour since its creation. 

In Holyrood, the Scottish Tories benefit from proportional representation, which allows voters to choose a constituency MSP but also rank parties. 

According to Paul Masterton, the Tory candidate for East Renfrewshire, and the secretary of the Renfrewshire and Inverclyde Scottish Conservative Association, the Conservatives are now getting huge numbers of first preference votes, including in neighbourhoods like the suburb of Ralston, where both Black and Masterton are from. So who are these voters? Masterton describes them as “New Labour voters who were happy with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown but didn’t like Jeremy Corbyn and get tied up into knots by [Scottish Labour leader] Kezia Dugdale flipflopping on the union stance".

The 2016 election saw the Scottish Conservatives surge to second place in Scotland – a superb comeback for a party once ridiculed as being rarer than pandas. The next electoral test is the local council elections. In Paisley, even Labour activists acknowledged the Conservatives were likely to be the most notable winners.

“For a long time we simply didn’t go out in Paisley," says Masterton. "We were written off and we allowed ourselves to be written off.”

But the referendum has changed this. “What I found was that last May, people weren’t shutting the door in your face," he adds. "Once you started the conversation they were far more receptive to that.” 

Like the Labour activists, Masterton argues that the constitutional question matters more than Brexit. “When Theresa May said ‘now is not the time’, I think a lot of people across Paisley did a small quiet fist pump,” he says of a second independence referendum.  

Ironically, after the early election is called, the Scottish Conservatives do everything they can to mention the prospect. “Don't mention the 'i' word,” crows a recent press release about the “SNP indyref ban”. Davidson tweets: “Nicola doesn't want to stand on her record. She knows the country doesn't want her #indyref2.” A Panelbase survey commissioned by The Sunday Times Scotland published shortly after the early election was announced finds support for the Conservatives at Scotland at 33 per cent, 18 percentage points higher than in 2015. 

What you stand for

For now, Paisley remains a Scottish National Party stronghold. George Adams, the MSP with an office off the high street, proves elusive – Labour activists confirm his reputation as a hardworking local. Black’s aide turns down my request for an interview for similar reasons, but I bump into her that evening at a protest against cutting child tax credits in Glasgow’s George Square.

Black, an admirer of the left-wing Labour figure Tony Benn, once said she feels "it is the Labour party that left me". I ask her if she, like her Labour predecessor, holds surgeries in supermarkets. Black says she’d considered it, but given the sensitivity of some of the issues, such as benefit problems, she thought her constituents might appreciate a more private space. “The main thing that crosses the door in my offices is Universal Credit changes,” she explains. She says she has raised her concerns about the children’s ward.

As for the independence debate, she argues that the Scottish government have been “incredibly compromising” since Brexit, but adds: “A lot of folk want another chance at the question.”

Black is standing for re-election. With a majority of more than 5,000, and neither of her previous challengers in the running, she’s likely to keep her seat, even if buddies' discontent over local issues rumbles on. 

Still, as I have discovered, the 2014 referendum continues to reverberate in towns like Paisley. It has divided friends and neighbours on constitutional lines, galvanised new strains of politics, and brought a Labour heavyweight crashing down, with no appetite to return. 

The Tories believe their unionist message is enough to flip seats like East Renfrewshire, once Conservative, then Labour, and now an SNP marginal. As the SNP's shine wears off, could Paisley, with its long tradition of the left, one day follow? It no longer feels implausible. “The one thing about the Scottish Conservatives - and this is true whatever you like us or not,” says Masterton. “You know what we stand for.”

 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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