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What is behind the apparent upsurge in sentiment against George Soros in Macedonia?

A new citizens' alliance, Stop Operation Soros, was announced in the Macedonian capital, Skopje, on January 17. One its founders, Nikola Srbov, explained its purpose in a press conference.

"The Foundation Open Society, operating under the Soros umbrella, used its funding and personnel to support violent processes in Macedonia," he said. "It has monopolized the civil society sector, pushing out any organization which disagrees with the Soros ideology."

Another activist of Stop Operation Soros said that the main goal of the initiative will be the "de-Sorosization" of Macedonia.

What is behind this apparent upsurge of anti-Soros sentiment in Macedonia?

Nikola Gruevski, the head of the Macedonian ruling party (VMRO-DPMNE), also recently called for a "de-Sorosization" of Macedonian civil society. He said that the George Soros-funded Foundation Open Society Institute (FOOM) will not be prevented from operating in Macedonia but warned that he would not allow "foreign interests" to dominate the public sphere.

Gruevski’s attacks on foreign NGOs are surprising, given that many of his closest political allies, VMRO-DPMNE party members, and supporters of his government have had close links with FOOM. Several, including Gjorge Ivanov, who is now president of Macedonia, lawmaker Ilija Dimovski, and Jovan Donev, Macedonia's ambassador to London, have served on FOOM’s boards or in executive functions, while others have received scholarships and funding.

Yet in recent interviews and speeches, Gruevski has accused the NGOs and the opposition of trying to topple his government. The attacks on NGOs come in the wake of the December 11 general election in Macedonia, which his party -- in power since 2006 -- won with a reduced number of seats in parliament and which moves forward unsure of the continued support of its coalition partners. Gruevski is also under a cloud of suspicion related to the wiretapping scandal in which several members of VMRO-DPMNE and its business associates have been implicated.

"Gruevski sees Soros as the father of liberalism and a great threat to his authoritarian manner of running the country," Arsim Zekoli, a public relations expert told RFE/RL’s Macedonian unit.

Probably unaware of these developments, Soros published an essay under headline Open Society Needs Defending, which resonates perfectly with events in Macedonia:

"I am an 86-year-old Hungarian Jew who became a U.S. citizen after the end of World War II. I learned at an early age how important it is what kind of political regime prevails. The formative experience of my life was the occupation of Hungary by Hitler’s Germany in 1944."

Soros says that it is unlikely that he and his family would have survived if his father had not been prescient enough to arrange for false identities for all of them, and others.

After the war, he escaped from then-communist Hungary to England. As a student in London, he read the philosopher Karl Popper, under whose influence he developed his own philosophy:

"I distinguished between two kinds of political regimes: those in which people elected their leaders, who were then supposed to look after the interests of the electorate, and others where the rulers sought to manipulate their subjects to serve the rulers' interests. […] I called the first kind of society open, the second, closed."

Although he admits that the binary classification is "too simplistic," he still finds the distinction between open and closed societies useful and has dedicated his life to defending the former and actively opposing the latter. However, he feels that we have reached a critical moment, when open societies -- and the democratic institutions and civic organizations that sustain them -- are under threat everywhere:

"I find the current moment in history very painful. Open societies are in crisis, and various forms of closed societies -- from fascist dictatorships to mafia states -- are on the rise. How could this happen? The only explanation I can find is that elected leaders failed to meet voters' legitimate expectations and aspirations and that this failure led electorates to become disenchanted with the prevailing versions of democracy and capitalism. Quite simply, many people felt that the elites had stolen their democracy."

The disillusionment with what to many critics appears as sham democracy was clearly apparent in the recent antigovernment protests in Macedonia, a response to the wiretapping scandal and evidence of government corruption. Gruevski tried unsuccessfully to shut down the probe by the Prosecutor-General's Office, which only further enraged his opponents.

The recent scapegoating of foreign NGOs, and Soros in particular, appears designed to shift public attention to outside interference and consolidate his party’s weakening hold on power.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.
A train bearing the words "Kosovo is Serbia" in 21 languages stopped just short of Serb-dominated northern Kosovo on January 14.

On January 15, Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic sounded like a leader whose country had just averted mortal danger.

"If I had not asked the Serbs to stop the train, we would have had war," Vucic told Belgrade's Pink TV, reflecting on the "train crisis" that threatened to disrupt the fragile peace between Serbia and its former territory Kosovo.

A train dispatched from the Serbian capital toward Mitrovica -- an ethnically divided city in predominantly Serb northern Kosovo -- had stopped just before reaching those countries' shared border on January 14 and then returned to Belgrade a few hours later.

Its abortive journey unleashed a torrent of nationalist anger and a flurry of diplomacy to avoid conflict between Serbs and ethnic Albanians, who represent a majority in Kosovo.

Why all the fuss?

Vucic says he didn't see the train before its departure. But it was unusual in conspicuous ways. Its interior was decorated with images of icons from medieval Serbian monasteries (many of them located in Kosovo), while the exterior was painted in the red, white, and blue of the Serbian flag with the slogan "Kosovo is Serbia" written in 21 languages.

Many locals have dubbed it a "promotional train," others a "Russian train," as it was manufactured in Russia, which has staunchly sided with Serbia in the dispute over Kosovar independence.

Ethnically Charged Symbols

Such a marked display of Serbian heritage bearing words questioning the territorial integrity of Kosovo, unsurprisingly, was unwelcome in the eyes of Kosovar authorities.

Kosovo President Hashim Thaci had ordered a Rosu special-police unit to halt the train at the border, prompting local Serbs in Mitrovica to come out to protest his move.

There is already a daily train route between Kraljevo, in Serbia, and Mitrovica, so the special train bearing ethnically charged symbols did not appear to have been meant as a bridge between the two countries. But whatever the intention, increased tensions were the result -- the Belgrade daily Blic reported that only a single passenger boarded the scheduled train from Kraljevo the following day.

Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic emerged from a January 15 meeting of his council for national security saying, "We don't want war, but if it is necessary to protect Serbs from being killed, we will send an army to Kosovo. We will send soldiers; we'll all go. I'll go, and it won't be the first time that I go [to defend Serbs]. Serbia will act in line with the Serbian Constitution."

Nikolic was critical of the outgoing U.S. administration over its support for Kosovo's independence, which was recognized in Washington and many other Western capitals within days of its enactment in February 2008 and currently has the support of more than 100 UN member states.

"I think these are the lasts gasps of the current U.S. administration, whose members have had streets [in Kosovo] named after them," Nikolic said, adding that "neither the EU nor NATO reacted as they should have to [the January 14] events."

From Bad To Worse

Relations between Kosovo and Serbia have proceeded from bad to worse since the detention of former Kosovo Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj in France, based on an arrest warrant from Serbia over allegations of wrongdoing in a 1998-99 war in its former province. The Hague war-crimes tribunal has twice cleared the former Kosovo Liberation Army officer of charges, but Belgrade insists he should be extradited and has protested a French appellate court's release of Haradinaj pending a review.

Borko Stefanovic, a former head of Serbia's negotiating team for Belgrade-Pristina talks mediated by Brussels, saw Nikolic's comments in the context of the Serbian presidential election, scheduled for this spring.

"Regarding Nikolic's claim that this [halting of the train] was the last gasp of the outgoing U.S. administration," Stefanovic said, "I cannot escape the conclusion that it was in fact the last spasm of his own political career."

Dusan Janjic, an author on Balkan history and coordinator of the Belgrade-based Forum for Ethnic Relations, warned of the risk of summoning the ghosts of the 1990s, when multiple wars broke out as former Yugoslavia fell apart.

"Stop playing with trains like little kids," Janjic told Blic. "One may ask whether those who organized the departure of this train were aiming to strengthen their negotiating position or in fact to break off negotiations with Brussels," he said, in a reference to Serbia's ongoing efforts to join the European Union.

In an interview with RFE/RL's Balkan Service, former Serbian politician Vesna Pesic also questioned the motives of the train's sponsors: "I think it all boils down to the fact that the Serbian Progressive Party does not currently have a viable candidate for the presidential election. They have no one. This is how I interpret the fact that both Vucic and Nikolic have been appearing on TV to vow that no one will kill Serbs -- and yet no one is killing Serbs."

In the end, both sides may have gotten what they wanted from confrontations surrounding the "promo train." Vucic and Nikolic have burnished their nationalist credentials as protectors of Serbs, while Pristina has reiterated its sovereignty over all of Kosovo, including heavily Serb northern provinces.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL

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About This Blog

Balkans Without Borders offers personal commentary on contemporary Balkan politics and culture. It is written by Gordana Knezevic, senior journalist and former award-winning editor of the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje, as well as the director of RFE/RL’s Balkan Service between 2008 and 2016. The blog reflects on the myriad ways in which the absurdities of Balkan politics and the ongoing historical shifts and realignments affect the lives of people in the region.


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