Minister's Balkan ignorance
Britain's Europe minister Keith Vaz was on the receiving end of embarrassing criticism from the House of Commons foreign affairs select committee this week over his ignorance of Balkan affairs. He was also accused of behaving in a rude and arrogant manner when appearing to give evidence before them. "Mr Vaz was badly prepared and unable to answer questions in any detail," with an unsatisfactory grasp of the region's complexities, reported The Times on 28 March.
The committee singled out his lack of first-hand experience of the region since he assumed the office in 1999, despite the major upheavals in this period and the extensive and ongoing commitments of UK personnel and funds. Media accounts on 28 March differed as to whether the minister had actually visited the region: The Times reported that he had not visited the former Yugoslavia since 1999, while The Guardian stated that he had not been anywhere in the entire Balkan region. The British Foreign Office website records that he visited Croatia in February 2000 and Slovenia in September 2000. Vaz's departmental boss, Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, was also reprimanded for not visiting Yugoslavia.
There was a worrying subsequent twist when Vaz, 44, was taken to hospital on 29 March after collapsing while recording a television interview at the Foreign Office. (At the time of writing he remains in hospital under observation for a second night.) Vaz has been under severe pressure recently, and there was already speculation that he might lose his job, following the media outcry over his failure to co-operate fully with a parliamentary investigation into his business dealings and his connection to the Hinduja passport affair which saw the forced resignation of Cabinet minister Peter Mandelson. Such pressure may have been a causal factor in Vaz's collapse, and, of course, this bout of poor health may well have affected his performance before the committee.
A Norman conquest
One British man with a stronger connection to the Balkans is 86-year-old Sir Norman Wisdom, one-time British film comedy superstar, and still a legend in Albania. A series of wryly amused press articles related how Sir Norman's popularity in Albania built up under Enver Hoxha's Communist regime. The relative innocence of Wisdom's brand of slapstick humour, allied with its apparently ideologically sound theme (downtrodden errand boy Norman Pitkin repressed by capitalist boss Mr Grimsdale) meant his films were the only Western cinema fare allowed to be screened in the heavily censored Cold War-era society.
His appearance in Albania coincided with that of the English football team, which was there for a World Cup qualifier on 28 March. England won 3-1, but David Beckham could not compete in the Tirana popularity stakes. The England captain was left alone while crowds flocked around "Pitkini," who said by way of explanation, "I'm still big over here. Not anywhere else, but over here." "Sir Norman the Immortal Export, we salute you," declared The Independent in a leading article (28 March).
The arrival of "Pitkini" and the England team, along with the other matter of a possible regional conflagration centring around ethnic Albanians, provided the justification for various newspaper profiles of Albania. The country is Europe's poorest and least-known, wrote Stephen McClarence in The Times (24 March). The influx of 1500 English fans for the match actually "generated a temporary economic boom," according to The Daily Telegraph (28 March). Despite a coastline that provides "a glimpse of how the Mediterranean used to be in the Fifties before mass tourism" (The Times), at present Albania attracts only 300 British tourists in an average year.
Back to the Irish Lesson
On 30 March, a report published by the Centre for Economic Policy Research rebuked European finance ministers for their recent criticism of the Irish government's economic policy. The report claimed that their intervention was unnecessary, because Ireland's small economy would influence other European economies only slightly, and would self-correct its own modest inflationary pressure through the mechanism of higher prices making the economy less competitive.
Furthermore, The Guardian (30 March) reported Francesco Giavazzi, one of the authors of the report, saying, "it was a mistake to single out Ireland as many of the eastern European countries queuing up to join the EU would also be fast growing, inflation prone economies." You read it here first (See Oliver Craske's article in CER "The Irish Lesson").
Macedonia: what if?
What will happen in the powderkeg that is Macedonia right now? Sparks are flying, but it seems that we still await the big one. Anthony Loyd reported on the Macedonian army's offensive against the Albanian National Liberation Army in The Times on 26 March, describing it as "a day that history could record as setting the southern Balkans alight." Fortunately, it's not yet clear that's the case, though the longer the unrest continues the harder it will be to rebuild the trust between communities.
As I wind up this piece, confusing news is coming in of Slobodan Milošević's apparent arrest and subsequent release tonight in Belgrade. Too early for the UK print media to comment, but earlier today (30 March) The Guardian published a considered article by Marti Woollacott under the headline, "Serbia's first step to recovery will be to face up to the past." He holds that changing public opinion, which is moving towards accepting Milošević must be sent for trial in the Hague, "is a reminder of how much has changed in the Balkans." Had Milošević been in power still, "Macedonia would already be burning," writes Woollacott, quoting an unnamed Serbian journalist.
Oliver Craske, 30 March 2001
Also of interest:
- The Irish Lesson by Oliver Craske
- Archive of Oliver Craske's articles in CER
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