Merkel Praises Macedonia, EU Struggles to Influence Romania

Angela Merkel
German chancellor Angela Merkel answers questions from reporters in Brussels, June 28, 2012 (Bundesregierung)

German chancellor Angela Merkel has praised judicial reforms in Macedonia as well as steps to improve transparency and resolve the former Yugoslav republic’s name dispute with Greece.

“In the last ten years, the solution has not been as close as now and it would be wonderful if the remaining difficulties can be bridged,” she said during a news conference with her Macedonian counterpart, Zoran Zaev.

It would, but the dispute with Greece is only one of the many obstacles to the Balkan nation’s EU accession.

The EU has nevertheless set a target date of 2025 for the remaining states of the Western Balkans to join, fearing that otherwise Russia might take advantage. Read more “Merkel Praises Macedonia, EU Struggles to Influence Romania”

Despite Historical Ties, Moldova Unlikely to Follow Romania’s Path

Unlike my colleague and friend Irina Staver, my culture and native language are not Romanian. I am an expatriate living in the neighboring Republic of Moldova, a country with close cultural and historical ties to Romania.

Yet I have observed with great interest the parallel evolutions of these two countries. A number of similarities thus spring to mind, so that I might be able to draw from the current Romanian context a few lessons for Moldova. Read more “Despite Historical Ties, Moldova Unlikely to Follow Romania’s Path”

Watching from Across the Border as Romania Awakens

As an active political journalist in the Republic of Moldova, I have been closely following the street protests in neighboring Romania, which are the largest of its kind since the fall of communism.

I was born after the Revolution of 1989, so I can’t know what that movement must have felt like. What I do know is that Romanians united then to bring down the totalitarian regime of Nicolae Ceaușescu and they are rallying now to rid themselves of another “red plague”, namely the Social Democratic Party.

The largest in the country, the party currently rules in coalition with the center-right liberals. One of the first acts of this new government when it came to power in January was to pardon non-violent offenders and decriminalize low-level abuses of office in cases where the damages were less than 200,000 leu, or €44,000.

The measures would have made a mockery of anti-corruption efforts in the EU member state. Read more “Watching from Across the Border as Romania Awakens”

Romania Rising: Populism by Different Means

The tale of 2016-17 has been of anti-neoliberal populists hijacking great parties and great states, forcing policy change down the throats of elites who believed they had arrived at a permanent consensus. They have largely been the harbinger of an uglier form of politics, giving breath to nationalists, racists and irrational bigotry that are a strain on the powers of their states.

Romania is not immune to the winds of populism. But unlike the rest of the European Union, here the rising is by those who are demanding more rational, more efficient government. It is still populism, but without the ugliness.

Since February 1, Romanians have been braving frigid winter temperatures to call for the resignation of their two-months old government. For their new government is up to the tricks of their old one and for many Romanians that is a bridge too far. Read more “Romania Rising: Populism by Different Means”

Satellite Geopolitics in Eastern Europe

President Barack Obama speaks with Bob Carr, Australia's foreign minister, as Russian president Vladimir Putin opens an afternoon plenary session of the G20 summit in Saint Petersburg, September 6, 2013
President Barack Obama speaks with Bob Carr, Australia’s foreign minister, as Russian president Vladimir Putin opens an afternoon plenary session of the G20 summit in Saint Petersburg, September 6, 2013 (White House/Pete Souza)

During the past year, the primary focus of the American-Russian rivalry has centred around Iran. The United States put an end to Western sanctions against Iran and also chose to keep American troops in Afghanistan, who support, among others, many of the tens of millions of Afghans who are Shiite Muslims or who can speak Farsi (as opposed to the Taliban, who are Sunni and typically Pashto-speaking). Russia, meanwhile, intervened to aid Bashar al-Assad in Syria, whose survival diverts Sunni attention away from Iran’s Shiite allies in Iraq.

With Russia now withdrawing most of its forces from Syria and the United States hoping to do so from Afghanistan, the focus of the American-Russian rivalry could revert, perhaps, to Ukraine. By comparison to the Middle East, Ukraine has appeared to be quite quiet of late.

Russia may have dialed back the conflict there partly in order to shift the West’s focus to the Middle East. This of course has not been very difficult to accomplish, given Europe’s influx of Syrian migrants and America’s election-season rhetoric on issues like ISIS, the conflict in Libya and Donald Trump’s proposal to ban, for an unspecified amount of time, all Muslims from traveling to the United States.

If the American-Russian focus does move back toward Eastern Europe, one can perhaps guess the rough outlines of any geopolitical contest that may occur there. Read more “Satellite Geopolitics in Eastern Europe”

Russia Unmoved by European Missile Shield Adjustment

Aerial view of Moscow, Russia, January 19, 2010
Aerial view of Moscow, Russia, January 19, 2010 (Andrey Belenko)

A change in American plans to build a missile defense shield in Europe will not prompt Russia to abandon its opposition to the system, a senior ruling party lawmaker said on Sunday.

Alexei Pushkov, who chairs the Russian parliament’s foreign relations committee, told the Reuters news agency it would be “premature” to reassess the nation’s opposition to the missile shield. “The United States is readjusting the missile defense system due to financial and technology issues; issues not related to the Russian position,” he argued.

Chuck Hagel, the American defense secretary, announced earlier in the week that the United States will not deploy missile interceptors in Poland and Romania as part of a NATO defense system for Europe. $1 billion will be allocated to add fourteen such interceptors to the 26 already deployed in Alaska instead to defend against a possible North Korean attack.

Hagel insisted on Friday that the change was made for financial reasons and to bolster the United States’ own defenses. He also said that construction of the rest of the European missile shield would go ahead as planned.

If the change was in fact made to appease the Russians who have opposed the missile shield from the start because, they say, it would undermine their own deterrent, it does not appear to have had that effect.

President Barack Obama first canceled parts of the system, proposed by his Republican predecessor to protect NATO allies from Iranian missile attacks, as part of an attempt to “reset” relations with the Kremlin when he withdrew plans to build a radar installation in the Czech Republic in 2009. He also replaced missile interceptors that were supposed to be placed in Poland with less potent systems that could not threaten Russia’s defenses. Late last year, he was overhead promising his Russian counterpart more “flexibility” on an issue that has frustrated American-Russian relations throughout his first four years in office.

Shale Gas Search Divides Romania

Recent discoveries of natural gas deposits have become a disputed issue in Romania. After years of economic slowdown following the collapse of the Soviet Union, many look to the discovery of energy resources as a potential economic boom. Others are hesitant to embrace the news. Critics are concerned about the possible environmental ramifications of such a discovery, specifically in regard to the use of the controversial extraction method known as hydraulic fracturing.

A large percentage of Romania’s energy currently comes from neighboring Russia. Those supportive of domestic gas drilling see this as a means to push the nation toward energy independence. Read more “Shale Gas Search Divides Romania”

European Southern Gas Corridor Shifts Focus

The purpose of Europe’s Southern Gas Corridor was previously clear — to get Azerbaijani, Iraqi and Turkmen gas to Western Europe where demand is soaring and countries want to decrease their dependence on Russian gas imports. But increasingly, the energy security of Southeastern Europe is a factor to be reckoned with.

European energy commissioner Günther Oettinger, addressing a gas forum in Brussels last week, hailed the prospective Trans Adriatic Pipeline which is supposed to deliver gas from the Greek-Turkish border to Italy. “TAP’s plan, in order to work, will however require that someone else proves trustworthy in delivering the Azerbaijani gas to the Greek-Turkish border,” he pointed out.

There are different contenders. The Nabucco pipeline, financed by a consortium of Central European and Turkish energy companies, is perhaps the most viable option for transporting gas from Turkey to Austria, across Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary.

The Trans Caspian Pipeline is supposed to circumvent Iran and Russia in delivering gas from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan, enabling Europe to buy gas cheaply from the Caspian region where Total, in September, made a huge gas discovery. The state oil company of Azerbaijan reported at the time that the newly discovered field could contain up to 350 billion cubic meters of natural gas and 45 million metric tons of gas condensate.

The Shah Deniz gasfield, still the largest natural gasfield off the coast of Azerbaijan, produces some seven billion cubic meters of natural gas per day and is estimated to contain the equivalent of 3,000 million barrels of oil.

Nabucco would traverse Southeastern Europe but the commission is worried that the region could still be left in the cold. “Without a leader developing new infrastructure in the region, I’m afraid Southeast Europe will not benefit from new gas coming to the region,” said Oettinger. He reminded his listeners of the infamous Russian-Ukrainian gas disputes of 2009. “Diversified gas supplies also will make gas a more attractive source of energy,” added Oettinger, encouraging countries to move away “from old and dirty installations for electricity generation or domestic heating.”

The commissioner promised that Brussels will help energy providers if they agreed to invest in Southeastern European energy security. “We will do this through our continued focus on strict application of EU Internal Energy Market legislation in these countries and generous regulatory support.”

Existing intergovernmental agreements allow Azerbaijani gas to be delivered to Turkey’s borders with the European Union — i.e., Bulgaria and Greece. Azerbaijan now has to decide whether to go for the Nabucco route and focus on the core European market or do business with companies that deliver gas to Southeastern Europe — which seems to be the preference of the European Commission — from whence it could be transported to other European countries through the internal market.

Bulgarian, Romanian Workers Still Not Welcome

The European Parliament’s civil liberties committee on Monday green lighted the entry of Bulgaria and Romania to the union’s border-free Schengen Area. Yet as many as ten Western European member states will keep their borders closed for Bulgarian and Romanian workers until 2014.

All countries that belong to the European Union are required to implement the Schengen Agreement which eliminated border patrols and custom checks between member states in 1999. Ireland and the United Kingdom are exempt as are the overseas territories of Denmark, France and the Netherlands. Iceland, Norway and Switzerland, although not part of the EU, do belong to the Schengen Area.

Bulgaria and Romania, which both joined the European Union in 2007, have met the necessary conditions for entry. Key to their ascension is their ability to protect Europe’s outer borders. The European Parliament will vote in plenary session on the matter next June after which government leaders are supposed to finalize the agreement unanimously. Read more “Bulgarian, Romanian Workers Still Not Welcome”