Tag Archives: europe

Lost in transition – EU financed legal aid programme between Serbia and Kosovo falters

by Massimo Moratti

Since 2012, I have been informing the readers on some key developments in the field of property rights, as they emerged from the practice of a legal aid project in Serbia for refugees from Bosnia and Croatia as well as displaced persons from Kosovo*. The November 2011 – June 2015 phase of the project (which has been funded by the EU Delegation to Serbia since 2008) was implemented by a team of lawyers and barristers I had the privilege of leading.

Many of the blog readers might wonder what happened with the Project since the last post two years ago, and I am glad to use this opportunity to provide an update on subsequent developments. At that time, the project was due to end in June 2014, but received a one year cost extension from the EU Delegation to the Republic of Serbia. The project was financed under the Instrument for Pre-Accession (IPA), the main fund to support countries that are in the EU accession process.

Under the terms of the IPA, a local public institution, in this case the Serbian Government’s Office for Kosovo and Metohija (the OKiM), was designated as beneficiary of the Project. Accordingly, the OKiM provided free legal aid to displaced persons from Kosovo via outsourcing to a consortium of private companies and NGOs, which in turn implemented the project under the EU flag.

This is the standard arrangement for EU funding, but in this specific case, where the divide between Serbia and Kosovo* institutions remains wide, it was crucial to make sure that a team of EU-funded lawyers could operate between the two legal systems, engaging in de facto conduct that I defined as “shuttle legal aid”.

For those not familiar with the practicalities of the issue, it is worth recalling that there are, according to the Serbian authorities, around 200,000 displaced persons from Kosovo. It is unclear how many of them have not yet solved their property issues. While displaced persons are mostly in Serbia, their properties and other assets are located in Kosovo, and any attempt at ensuring the protection of their rights needs to be conducted before the institutions of Kosovo*.

However, the two legal system do not recognize each other’s documents, and there is no functioning post or telephone system between Kosovo* and Serbia. Lawyers and legal aid NGOs from Serbia are often reluctant to travel to Kosovo, both because of logistical and security issues and due to lack of familiarity with the institutional setting of the former Serbian province. Lawyers from Kosovo do not seem interested in conducting any outreach to potential clients in Serbia and more important than everything else, displaced persons themselves do not have the financial means to pay for legal expenses.

The EU-funded legal aid programme presented a solution to these problems, since it could operate in both Kosovo and in Serbia. The positive aspects were numerous: the project bridged the institutional gaps between the two systems, it was staffed with an adequate number of lawyer and barristers familiar with national and international law, and its proceedings were completely free for the IDPs (including coverage of court fees and expenses).

Indeed, besides successfully representing thousands of persons in administrative and court proceedings, the Project generated valuable information, in that it could closely observe the workings of the courts of Kosovo* in the context of property cases. Most of these cases involved disputes about the possession of property where an inter-ethnic element was present, which raised the profile and the tension in many of these disputes.

The project had a unique point of view, namely that of the claimants and their legal representatives and it could accordingly witness how legal proceedings took place “from the bottom” and very often without other international observers present. This unique point of view allowed the project to use its cases to collect information on court practice and in this manner legal aid became a “fact finding” tool, regularly reporting its findings on its website and from time to time on this blog.

The topics covered were some of the most contentious in Kosovo. Moreover, they involved the issue of property rights, where, as consistently highlighted in the EU Progress Reports about Kosovo, progress was slow or non-existent.

In the course of its work, the Project successfully represented displaced persons who were trying to challenge the illegal occupation, and in some cases demolition, of their properties. In other cases, the Project initiated criminal and civil proceedings cases against persons who acquired property via “fraudulent transactions”, highlighting patterns indicating that the forgery of property documents and records was not just an act of few corrupt individuals, but in certain areas a concerted effort to grab land to be used for business purposes.

In several landmark cases before the Constitutional Court of Kosovo, it was also possible to highlight how an internationally funded mass claims mechanism, the Kosovo Property Agency (KPA) had itself violated the rights to property and fair trial by refusing to solve property disputes or to award compensation to claimants.

However, like all projects, this one too came to an end on 12 June 2015. Continue reading

How quickly a year goes when the international architecture is coming down around your ears

by Rhodri C. Williams

Its not really the twelve months since Maidan that counts. Sure, that was heady, scary stuff, a slightly compressed version of the astonishments of Tahrir, but with every reason to be aware this time of just how quickly the other shoe was likely to drop. The anniversary of real note will come in March, at one year since we realised the magnitude of that other shoe. To wit – a permanent, nuclear-armed member of the UN Security Council engages in aggression against a neighbouring country. Thump.

I was probably less surprised than some. Before moving to Stockholm in 2009, I’d lived in Finland for five years, where I grew used to neighbourly behaviour ranging from aerial incursions to shock increases in finished wood duties that doubled the cost of a house extension. So when the Swedes suddenly woke up to Russian submarine raids, simulated bombing runs and other anti-social behaviour, it felt a bit like deja-vu.

The difference between then and now is of course Crimea. An aerial incursion on its own is a misdemeanour. But a pattern of incursions by the country that just jettisoned the taboo against aggression is in a different category. And, without justifying Iraq in 2003 for a moment, there really is no comparison. If Bush had formally annexed Saskatchewan to punish Canada for withdrawing from NAFTA, maybe then we could talk.

The silver lining in all this is that Putin’s regime is exposing itself as a rogue government rather than actually rolling back the non-aggression norm. For a sense of what the world would look like if Russia was the rule not the exception, one needs to look to earlier anniversaries. In my research on the Åland Islands of Finland, for instance, I came across a 77-year old article from the Spectator setting out a far more unruly Baltic in which the centrally-located archipelago constituted “the most important strategical issue in Northern Europe.”

At the time, various groupings involving Sweden, Germany, Russia and forces in Finland actively considered occupying and re-militarizing Åland in order to pre-empt the damage that could result from others doing it first. In effect, security was to be won at the expense of your neighbours rather than achieved in cooperation with them. Tensions around Åland never fully went away as indicated by recent revelations (here in Swedish) that Sweden maintained a secret occupation force in case the Soviet Union were to invade Finland.

But we truly are living in a different world now than in 1938, and one in which collective security is being tested as rarely before, but remains an article of faith. A striking example comes from Ben Judah’s recent reportage in Politico on the long lead-up to the annexation of Crimea. Former Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski describes attempts in 2013 by Russia to offer Poland a stake in the partition of Ukraine – an offer that fell entirely flat in a democratic country that had long since oriented itself toward European integration:

Russia has attempted to involve Poland in the invasion of Ukraine, just as if it were a post-modern re-run of the historic partitions of Poland. “He wanted us to become participants in this partition of Ukraine,” says Sikorski. … This was one of the first things that Putin said to my prime minister, Donald Tusk, [soon to be President of the European Council] when he visited Moscow. He went on to say Ukraine is an artificial country and that Lwow is a Polish city and why don’t we just sort it out together. Luckily Tusk didn’t answer. He knew he was being recorded.”

The fact that Russia’s behaviour increases and emphasises its isolation will remain cold comfort as long as it remains unclear what Putin really wants. If, as some maintain, he just wants de facto security guarantees, then Minsk II can be the end of the Ukrainian conflict if the West can show enough strategic patience to calm the situation down. If as others claim, he will continue to push as far as he can go on every front, then Western strategic patience will be seen as encouragement. Hard not to be somebody’s useful idiot in this brave new world.

Xenophobes elected to oversee European integration

Rhodri C. Williams

Well, the loonies have officially taken over the boobyhatch, as my late sainted Aunt Pat would have said. Marine Le Pen takes 25% of the French vote. Great Britain scores the first national election won by neither Labour nor the Conservatives but a party advocating independence for the UK (why didn’t anyone think of that before?) Austria and Denmark veer wildly right. And lets not even talk about Greece’s neo-Nazi Golden Dawn. So now we all get to adjust to the fact that a party campaigning under a swastika entered the European Parliament. At least they took some trouble to disguise it. Plausible deniability and all that.

Sweden was one of the few bright spots, with a very robust Green party (that has taken on some of the tough issues related to e.g. fisheries) taking second place. The election of the xenophobic and weasely Sweden Democrats (9.9%) who refused to say whether they would join a future Le Pen-led racist bloc was bad, but symbolically somewhat offset by the arrival (5.3%) of what had previously been a somewhat marginal feminist party (both were in a dead heat at 7% as of yesterday but lets take what we can get).

So with all that said, let me sign off with quotes from the Facebook feeds of three Sweden-associated friends of mine. First, as the voting began:

People who cannot be bothered to vote do not deserve to live in democracy. There are plenty of people denied any chance to make their voice heard who would gladly trade places with you. If you do not know enough – read or listen to debates. If you do not agree with any candidate – give a blank vote. Not voting has no excuse rather than laziness or stupidity. Usually both.

And as the results began to drop in:

Proud to have voted in Sweden today, wish I could have voted a few 100,000 times in the UK as well.

And as we wake up to our just desserts:

A black day for Europe. Happy that I live in a country, and from a country, that actively rejects these types of bigots and morons.

Seven decades since the end of World War II next year. I suppose Europe was overdue for a bit of teenage rebellion. Hope they don’t wrap their car around anyone’s tree.

One Europe?

by Rhodri C. Williams

As I type this, the points are rolling in for the 2014 Eurovision Song Contest. Its all a little bit surreal. Having done its best to stave off ‘politicization’ of a 2012 contest handed without strings to autocratic Azerbaijan, the organizers of Eurovision are now finding European politics bashing down the door and tracking muddy footprints down the hallway.

At the other end of Europe, it has been another bloody, divisive day in Eastern Ukraine, which is now described by the Guardian as ‘on the brink of civil war’. As mob rule descended on the Eastern city of Mariupol, one local Russian speaking resident described his view of the casus belli as follows: “This is the Donetsk people’s republic! We will destroy the Kiev junta and the Euro-gays! We will win!”

At this end of Europe, the picture could not be more different, with the Euro-gays sitting rather clearly in the ascendancy as the last minutes of the Eurovision contest roll down. A few minutes back, the astonishing transvestite performer Conchita Wurst of Austria passed the point of no return, taking high points not only from predictable Western countries but also east of the Oder locales like Georgia with rather mixed past records on moving past hetero-normativity.

More sadly, a pair of talented twins who happen to hail from Russia (but probably enjoy fairly little direct responsibility for troop movements on the Ukrainian border) initially drew loud and sustained boos from the crowd every time one of Russia’s few remaining friends in the region tipped them their 10 crony points. By the end the boos seemed to be drowned out by cheers, which indicate a far greater capacity to learn quickly from past mistakes on the part of the Eurovision crowd than the Kremlin regime.

The phenomenon of Conchita Wurst at this moment in European history highlights both the ascendancy of socially liberal values across many parts of Europe and the political division that gapes ever wider between European regimes that can handle individual expression and those that find it threatening. Not that the two never play footsie, mind. Just look at former Eurovision capital Azerbaijan, returned decisively to its draconian ways after the foreign media pulled out and yet all dolled up to assume the chairmanship of Europe’s ever less credible human rights organization, the Council of Europe, in just three days.

And yet, in the afterglow of a Eurovision contest that fell overwhelmingly to an Austrian ‘bearded woman’ who could belt out a power ballad like nobody’s business, the last word is best left to Conchita herself:

Waking in the rubble
Walking over glass
Neighbors say we’re trouble
Well that time has passed

At some point, now or in the future, Moscow will need to decide whether it always wants to be that grumpy neighbor or would rather integrate more meaningfully with a European community it has every claim to be a part of. But Europe would do well in the meantime to be a little more careful about who it welcomes into Conchita’s house.

Guest-posting at Opinio Juris – Åland and Crimea as distant cousins

by Rhodri C. Williams

I am grateful to the editors at Opinio Juris for facilitating my debut there as a late addition in their Insta-Symposium on the Ukraine crisis. My guest-post (accessible here) focuses on the question of whether the settled autonomy and demilitarization regime in the Åland Islands of Finland hold any lessons for the Crimea crisis. As such, it builds both on my ongoing research on the Åland autonomy and on my more recent commentaries on self-determination issues in the Ukraine crisis.

The Ukraine crisis is really only the latest in a series of post-Cold War crises that have unraveled all the constructive ambiguity built into the UN Charter, slinging concepts like territorial integrity, self-determination and non-aggression into one unhealthy mix and shaking vigorously. As pointed out by Thomas de Waal in the Wall Street Journal, the crisis also invokes many of the baroque debates surrounding sovereignty, regional integration, secession and devolution floating around the EU as Scotland and Catalonia contemplate their futures.

It can all seem dispiriting, but in the midst of the gloom it can be helpful to be reminded that there have been ostensibly intractable and potentially catastrophic geopolitical conflicts that have been successfully resolved, such as the Åland Islands question in the 1920s. And curiously enough, the deeper I dug, the more resonances I seemed to find between the Åland case and that of Crimea in Ukraine. But you, dear reader, should be the judge

No region for buffer countries

by Rhodri C. Williams

Events in Ukraine continued to metastasise since my earlier post reporting on the Yanukovich defenestration last week. I spent a long weekend in Finland, ironically enough reading a fascinating history of that country’s long and troubled history as a buffer country between Russia and Sweden. I was also sans internet, which always seems like a blessing until you get back and realise that the world moves on without you, occasionally in distressing directions.

What I missed of course, was the creeping Russian military takeover of the Crimean Peninsula, which is now by and large recognised as a fait accompli, with the only remaining debate focused on how to keep the de facto Russian border from moving into mainland Ukraine. Its impossible to keep track of the tsunami of commentary that has been triggered by these undoubtedly tectonic events, but it is revealing that much of it focuses on the role of the big blocs putting the squeeze on Ukraine, rather than the poor buffeted Ukrainians themselves.

One of the interesting things about the Western end of the discussion is the dizzying range of responses. At the most parochial end, the mid-term election attack ads on how Obama lost Ukraine are already in the make. However, such arguments only underscore how remarkably far the West has already penetrated the vast territory consigned to Soviet Russian tutelage after World War II. Imagine if Putin was coming under criticism in Moscow for failing to block an extension of the NAFTA, and you might get the idea.

Continue reading

The European race to the bottom on the Roma

by Rhodri C. Williams

It is something of a truism now that many Eastern European EU member states remain threateningly uncomfortable places for their Roma citizens almost a decade after having solemnly plighted their troth to the Copenhagen criteria, non-discrimination standards and all. Even the briefest perusal of the European Roma Rights Centre website provides ample evidence. To wit, for instance, this charming encounter between a busload of visibly drunken football supporters and a schoolyard of Roma children three weeks ago in Konyár, Hungary:

…the group got off the bus and threatened the Romani school children. They sang the national anthem and the anthem of Transylvania (Szekler anthem) and shouted racist, anti-Roma expressions (“dirty gypsies, we will come back soon”). They made gestures threatening to cut the children’s throats. Some members of the group also urinated in front of the school building.

***

In addition, the relevant school has previously been involved in a racist scandal. Earlier this year, a teacher at the school was dismissed after making racist comments about Roma on video. He said that Roma children are primitives, dirty and smelly, but who understand the physical punishment only, and that they should have their spines broken.

The teacher was fired from the school after the incident. The NGOs are concerned that the group may have targeted the school, which is not in an obvious location for a rest stop on this route. The fact that the former teacher was also on the bus suggests that the school was deliberately targeted. The subsequent events, including threats to children and shouting racist statements should have been investigated and clarified immediately by police.

Ah, the discreet charm of the post-socialist bourgeoisie. And yet – it is also a truism that many of the more established Western European EU member states may benefit from the splashy, full-bore racism in the East in the sense that it obscures their own slightly more sophisticated versions. In recent weeks, Italy and France have come under renewed criticism on this score, as – more unexpectedly – has Sweden.

Continue reading