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Pratchett
Photo: Meredith (Flickr); Licence: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Wise words from the master of fantasy or just a bit of a joke?

Another week, another selection of journalistic gems, compiled by one of the E&M editorial team: Frances Jackson on the death of Terry Pratchett, untold stories of those seeking asylum in Europe and a group of particularly determined French cycling enthusiasts.

Frances, Diaphragm / Baby editor

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A fond farewell

It is just over a month since one of the brightest literary lights of the last 30 years went out. Whether his most famous books took place for you in the Disque-monde, Zeměplocha, Scheibenwelt or Mundodisco, the magic of Terry Pratchett remains the same. His humour could be biting, but never caustic; the universe he created an escapist fantasy, and yet so very familiar; his stories simply unputdownable. 

The Discworld novels have been a part of my life for almost as long as I can remember. They were the audiobooks that alleviated boredom on long drives down France during the summer holidays, the increasingly care-worn paperbacks we passed back and forth amongst family and friends, the television adaptations we used to get so excited about as children. I don’t mind admitting that I got a little teary when I heard the news that Sir Terry's struggle with early-onset Alzheimer's was over. The loss, not just to the genre, but I think also perhaps to the world as a whole, is immense. The ranks of those rare few who have a real understanding of human nature, who recognise the follies of man, but have not lost their faith in humanity, are bereft of one of their finest standard-bearers.

Published in Good Reads
Sunday, 21 April 2013 22:58

Serbia on the Road to EU Accession?

After ten rounds of negotiations and near failure, Serbia and Kosovo have agreed a pact that opens up the path for Serbia's languishing EU accession. The constellation of events that led to the announcement of the pact on April 19th, including discussions with Russia, has brought this historic agreement about. Yet, while the ground has been laid for Serbia, it is only the first of many steps on the path towards EU membership.

The clear political stumbling block between Serbia and the European Union is the recognition of Kosovo's sovereignty. Having accepted changes in the governing of northern Kosovo, most notably giving the “Association/Community” “full overview of the areas of economic development, education, health, urban and rural planning”, Serbia is not close to making a full recognition.

A historical agreement with limitations

The signing of a 15 point agreement between Serbia and Kosovo constitutes a major success for High Representative Catherine Ashton, both for the stability in the Balkans region and unlocking the potential for Serbia and Kosovo's entry into the EU. The two parties, torn apart in Kosovo's war of independence in 2008, have reached an accord that recognises Kosovo's right to be governed by local independent statue, whilst giving Serbs in northern Kosovo their own police force and appeals court. However, far from being the end of the story, the agreement has created the space for normalisation to emerge, rather than sealed the relations between the two states.

Published in The Transnationalist
Saturday, 12 May 2012 18:30

Homemade Rakija, Homemade Problems

Already amazed by the hospitality of people all across Europe, Serbia yet exceeded the idea we had of hospitality and helpfulness. A few minutes after checking in at our hostel in Belgrade, a round of homemade Rakija stood in front of us. "It's on the house!", the hostel owner welcomed us. During the following night with some more Rakija and a glance at the Belgrade nightlife, we nearly forgot that we had stumbled into Serbia in the midst of an election campaign. We were reminded the next morning when some Danes, part of an NGO monitoring the upcoming elections, claimed their reservations and made us get out of bed earlier than intended. On the 6th of May, the elections affirmed the mandate of the present pro-EU government; in two weeks' time, there will be a run-off between two pro-European presidential candidates. Is Serbia inevitably heading towards the EU? (This article was originally published for the Euroskop project, a travel blog about today's Europe.)

Our perception of things gets somewhat clearer in the course of the day. Dušan, a student of law in Belgrade, takes us to the citadel atop of the city centre where we wander past stones dating back to Roman civilisation. While we enjoy the view onto the slow and mighty Danube river, Dušan gives us an insight into Serbian culture and history. It is a rich history, and Serbs are rightly proud of it: in its golden age in the 14th century, for example, Serbia established one of the first all-encompassing constitutions in the history of mankind. Many legends surround the arrival of the Ottomans, when Serbia long perceived itself as the defender of Christendom - and eventually lost. The collective memory is still marked by the 500-year Ottoman occupation thereafter. Another point of reference is the communist regime of Tito, when Yugoslavians lived relatively unbothered (when obedient) and were economically well-off - an idea of strength that today's Serbia struggles to live up to.

"Many people do not stop lamenting over those glorious pasts," Dušan complains, "I am certainly not one of them." Neither are mainstream politics of the last years when it comes to European affairs, it seems. Since the fall of Slobodan Milošević in 2000, the country has continuously been turning westwards. Liberal Pro-European Boris Tadić was elected president in 2004. In 2009, Serbia applied for EU membership and since early 2012, it has been an official candidate. After the elections on Sunday, nearly all the parties now represented in parliament are in favour of membership. Even the nationalist party and their leader Tomislav Nikolić, competitor to Tadić in the upcoming presidential run-off, has become an ardent promoter of the EU. The great paradox: none of the leading parties recognise Kosovo's independence. By contrast, 22 out of 27 European countries have recognised it, and some even make it the conditio sine qua non for the EU membership of Serbia. The motto "Europe and Kosovo" is completely utopian. Yet all the political driving forces boast that they will make sure Serbia joins the EU as well as keeping Kosovo.

The motto "Europe and Kosovo" is completely utopian. Yet all the political driving forces boast with it.

After our visit to the citadel, we meet Andrej Ivanij, a Serbian journalist and correspondent for Austrian and German newspapers. What is the Euro-enthusiasm of Serbian politics all about? "Politicians present the EU as a promised land. It is a story that is easily told: accede to the EU – and get money." As for ideological differences, there is no longer a right-left distinction, Ivanij assures us. The only remaining dispute is the question whether to be in favour or against EU membership. Serbian politics has flattened out: crucial issues like the 27% unemployed are not addressed, but simply put aside by the prospect of EU membership. Quite an easy way out for politicians. Many Serbians buy the story: the prospect of European funds is just too alluring.

Published in Reader Submissions
Wednesday, 26 January 2011 13:33

Thaçi: A big fish in organised crime?

I got a bit angry when I read the news that Hashim Thaçi, Prime Minister of Kosovo, might be "a big fish in organised crime". My problem is not that there is a smear campaign against him, but rather that the facts have been public for ten years, whilst the media is regularly surprised.

The recent uproar is based on a leak of a "secret" document marked as "USA KFOR", that - according to the Guardian - accuses Thaçi of being involved in organised crime, particularly in the smuggling of drugs and human organs. Just to be clear: this man got his position (and keeps it) on the basis of massive European and international backing. Shocking? Yes. Surprise? No.

A classified study (pdf, in German) by the German Institut für Europäische Politik, in 2007 quotes a German intelligence assessment which states "especially in Kosovo there are the closest connections between leading political decision-makers and dominant criminal clans from the province, which hold almost all the relevant key positions in society (...) Therefore, the BND notes 'Through the key players (like, for instance, Haliti, Thaçi, Haradinaj) there exist the closest interrelations between politics, the economy and internationally operating [organised crime]-structures in Kosovo'" (my translation, but you get the point).

A different BND assessment, leaked in the slightly darker parts of the web, is more blunt. The dossier (dated 2005) that covers activities of organised crime in the Balkans states that Kosovo is divided into three spheres of interest when it comes to organised crime - one of them controlled by Thaçi. He is brought into connection with riots that took place in March 2004, during which entire truckloads of heroine and cocaine were reportedly brought through the country. Via various connections listed in detail, Thaçi is brought into connection with money laundering, fuel- and drug smuggling, accused of being one of the main "customers" of a hitman. He created the Kosovar intelligence service that is accused of "reconnaissance, intimidation and the physical elimination (through hitmen), particularly of OC [organised crime] enemies".

These allegations are invigorated by public reports, such as the one published (pdf) by Dick Marty for the Council of Europe in late 2010, finding that "[Thaçi's] "Drenica Group" built a formidable power base in the organised criminal enterprises that were flourishing in Kosovo and Albania at the time". However, this was not limited to the German intelligence assessment, but four national intelligence services as well as joint intelligence operations by NATO. Accordingly, "[Thaçi] was commonly identified, and cited in secret intelligence reports, as the most dangerous of the KLA's "criminal bosses".

So, Guardian et al., it's not exactly news, is it?

Published in Beyond Europe
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