Serbia’s Vučić poised for poll win before White House talks on Kosovo

Election will bring another big victory for leader accused of increasingly authoritarian rule.

Serbia’s Vučić poised for poll win before White House talks on Kosovo

Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić ventures into new territory next week with a visit to the White House for talks on Kosovo. But at least one thing will be familiar — the feeling of another election win under his belt.

Vučić has been the Balkan country’s dominant political figure over the past decade and his nationalist Serbian Progressive Party is on course to win around 58 percent of the vote in a parliamentary election on Sunday, helped by a boycott from some opposition parties. That would be an even higher score than in the last election four years ago, when the party’s list won just over 48 percent.

Vučić has dismissed critics at home and abroad who accuse him of increasingly authoritarian rule. The country has plunged in the democracy rankings compiled by NGO Freedom House in recent years. Last month, the organization’s Nations in Transit report cited “years of increasing state capture, abuse of power, and strongman tactics employed by Aleksandar Vučić.”

Vučić has also courted controversy during the coronavirus crisis. Early in the pandemic, he blasted the European Union for initially restricting the export of medical equipment to countries on its periphery, claiming in a press conference that “EU solidarity is a fairy tale that does not exist” while heaping praise on China.

But such criticism has not dented Vučić’s standing at home or abroad. In a clear intervention in the election campaign, Donald Tusk, the president of the European People’s Party — the Continent’s main center-right political family — tweeted praise for Vučić after a video call this week.

For years, the EU has tried to foster dialogue and closer cooperation between the two sides. But the United States has seized the initiative in recent months.

“Dear President, you have full right to be proud and satisfied with what you have done for Serbia during your term. Economic success and strong leadership constitute the trademark of your rule,” Tusk gushed. “Good luck on Sunday.”

Vujo Ilić, a political scientist at the Center for Research, Transparency and Accountability, an NGO, said such remarks helped Vučić with a “balancing act” in which he tries to stay on good terms with disparate international powers, including the EU, traditional ally Russia and China.

“There is no mention of democracy or the transparency of elections in that tweet,” noted Ilić.

Vučić himself has presented the election as being about the need for strong leadership. “Serbia finds itself at a time where it needs to be concerned about important issues and where great political challenges await us. For that we need a strong government and a strong parliament,” he told public broadcaster RTS.

Vučić’s next international challenge is next Saturday’s visit to the White House (just a few days after a trip to Moscow) for the first talks to be hosted there between leaders of Serbia and Kosovo.

The two states have been locked in a frozen conflict since 1999, when NATO bombing ended Serbian control of Kosovo in the last of the wars that tore Yugoslavia apart. Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008 but Belgrade continues to regard the territory as a rebel province, blocking its path to international organizations with the support of Moscow and Beijing.

For years, the EU has tried to foster dialogue and closer cooperation between the two sides. But the United States has seized the initiative in recent months, led by Richard Grenell, the former U.S. ambassador to Germany who was last year appointed President Donald Trump’s special envoy for the talks.

Grenell said this week the White House discussions would focus on economic issues. “We, the United States, feel very strongly that this 20-year fight between Kosovo and Serbia is only going to be solved through economic normalization, jobs for young people, and a growing economy,” Grenell told Kosovan media outlet Gazeta Express.

Deep divide

While the outcome of the White House talks is unclear, the result of Sunday’s election is anything but — in part because of deep divides in the opposition ranks.

For the past year and a half, opposition parties and their supporters held near-weekly protests in several cities in a development considered the most significant political upheaval since the ouster of strongman Slobodan Milošević in 2000.

Former U.S. ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell at a meeting with Aleksandar Vučić in January 2020 | Andrej Cukic/EPA

Sparked by a physical attack on opposition politician Borko Stefanović, the protests called for electoral reform and increased media freedom, among other changes, and their leaders threatened to boycott the elections if their demands were not met.

This culminated in talks between several Serbian political parties, mediated by the European Parliament, with progress made in the area of electoral reform and misuse of public resources. Most notably, the electoral threshold was lowered from 5 percent to 3 percent of the vote, making it easier for some of the newer protest parties to enter parliament.

But some saw these reforms as insufficient, and the opposition bloc has since split. The Union for Serbia coalition led by former Belgrade mayor Dragan Đilas is boycotting the poll and urging voters to do the same. But others, like the Movement of Free Citizens of actor-turned-politician Sergej Trifunović, have chosen to participate.

“The Serbian Progressive Party will have a majority with or without the boycott,” said analyst Sonja Stojanović Gajić. “This will allow President Vučić to claim internationally that he is the voice of the people, even if a significant part of the electorate decided to boycott voting.”

Stojanović Gajić also noted that the ongoing pandemic means monitoring of the election will be significantly scaled down, increasing the risk of fraud and other irregularities.

“The international monitors won’t be there in sufficient numbers and domestic monitors have decided to monitor the elections from outside the polling stations because of the safety of their staff,” she said.

Source : Politico EU More   

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US court takes no immediate action on John Bolton book

Judge Royce Lamberth said he was troubled by aspects of the former national security adviser's conduct.

US court takes no immediate action on John Bolton book

WASHINGTON — A federal judge denied on Saturday the Trump administration’s request to block the release of John Bolton’s memoir, noting that the former national security adviser’s book had already been “printed, bound and shipped across the country.”

U.S. District Court Judge Royce Lamberth said the Justice Department’s request to suppress the tell-all book on national security grounds would be impossible to enforce, but criticized Bolton’s decision to move ahead with publication without the explicit go-ahead from the government.

“While Bolton’s unilateral conduct raises grave national security concerns, the government has not established that an injunction is an appropriate remedy,” Lamberth wrote.

Lamberth’s ruling came after a nearly two-hour hearing conducted on Friday by videoconference and telephone due to coronavirus restrictions.

“The horse, as we used to say in Texas, seems to be out of the barn,” Lamberth said at the outset of Friday’s hearing. “It certainly seems difficult to me about what I could do about those books all over the country.”

Bolton’s book alleges that Trump encouraged China’s construction of camps for its Uighur population, and that he pleaded with Chinese President Xi Jinping to purchase American agricultural products in order to aid his reelection.

Yet Lamberth raised repeated issues with the way Bolton ultimately appeared to short-circuit the review process to rush out the brutal account of his 18-month stint working for U.S. President Donald Trump.

The memoir, titled “The Room Where it Happened,” is officially set for publication on Tuesday, but physical and digital copies of the book have been circulating in Washington for several days, generating a flurry of unflattering headlines for the White House. And 200,000 copies of the book have been sent to resellers, according to Bolton’s publisher.

Bolton’s book alleges that Trump encouraged China’s construction of camps for its Uighur population, and that he pleaded with Chinese President Xi Jinping to purchase American agricultural products in order to aid his reelection. It also describes Trump’s offer of favors to autocratic leaders and affirms House Democrats’ impeachment evidence that Trump pressured Ukraine to investigate his political rivals in exchange for military assistance. Trump has said Bolton is a “liar,” and multiple Cabinet officials have disputed his version of events.

In Friday’s hearing, Lamberth pressed the Justice Department attorney arguing for the restraining order, David Morrell, to explain what benefit such an order would have at this point given the wide distribution of the book.

Morrell insisted that there would be value in retrieving as many physical copies of the book as possible and in heading off e-book and audiobook versions that have yet to be released.

“This is not an all or nothing proposition,” said Morrell, a deputy assistant attorney general in Justice’s Civil Division. “The government still has an interest in stemming the flow of classified text out of Simon & Schuster and all of those affiliates … and its distribution chain.”

Morrell also said the logistics of implementing an injunction were not really the government’s problem, but Bolton’s since he breached his agreements related to classified information.

“The onus is on Mr. Bolton to figure out how to do this … This is a problem of his own making,” Morrell said, adding that the ex-official should “claw the book back.”

While Lamberth sounded skeptical about his ability to recall the book, he peppered Bolton’s attorney with questions about why the former high-ranking ex-official would unilaterally move to publish without written authorization from the National Security Council.

Lamberth made plain that he thought Bolton acted rashly and in violation of his obligations when he gave the go-ahead for publication of his book in the absence of a formal sign-off from the White House.

When Bolton’s attorney, Chuck Cooper, asserted that Bolton had followed his legal obligations “not just in spirit but to the letter,” Lamberth shot back: “No, he didn’t.”

Bolton’s book describes Trump’s offer of favors to autocratic leaders | Alex Wong/Getty Images

“He had an obligation….once he invoked that process, he can’t just walk away,” the judge declared, adding, “He didn’t tell the government he was walking away. He just walked away and told the publisher ‘go publish.’”

Lamberth’s posture spells trouble for Bolton when the judge considers the White House’s broader case that Bolton should forfeit the proceeds from his book because it contains highly classified information that could do “exceptionally grave” damage to national security.

Bolton has suggested that politics corrupted the review process, but Lamberth wondered why he didn’t seek judicial intervention rather than simply telling his publisher to send the book to the printer.

Cooper argued that Bolton simply considered the review process complete once the initial reviewer, Ellen Knight, deemed his manuscript free of classified information. All that was left, he believed, was a pro forma written letter, Cooper argued.

Trump’s complaints about Bolton divulging private conversations have also been somewhat muddled by a series of claims by the president that the book is largely or completely fabricated.

But that letter never arrived. Rather, his successor as national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, took over the process and designated a more senior aide to review the book without informing Bolton.

Morrell said Bolton’s decision to bail out on the review process was reckless.

“It is not his role or entitlement to decide when the process is done. That belongs to the government and the check on that is judicial review,” the DOJ lawyer said. “You can’t have an author unilaterally deciding to bail out when they’re unhappy.”

Lamberth, an appointee of President Ronald Reagan, did not immediately rule on the government’s request for a temporary restraining order on Friday. Instead, he said he would hold a closed-door, classified session to hear from government officials who have said in secret court filings that Bolton’s book contains classified information.

The virtual hearing Friday came just hours after Bolton’s move late Thursday night to dismiss the lawsuit entirely, contending that the Justice Department’s legal drive violates the First Amendment.

Bolton argued that the administration’s claim of classified material is a fig leaf for its effort to punish him for revealing embarrassing information about Trump.

While lawyers and high-ranking national security officials have submitted to the court grave warnings about the national security damage the book could do, Trump has made a series of sweeping statements that laid bare his desire to suppress the book merely for breaching what he views as a duty of confidentiality owed by White House aides.

While there is a legal framework to protect national security secrets, there is no obvious legal mechanism to impose blanket secrecy on former White House officials, although Trump seems to believe such an obligation can be legally enforced.

“Conversations with me, they’re highly classified,” Trump told reporters at a photo op Monday with Attorney General William Barr. “I told that to the attorney general before. I will consider every conversation with me, as president, highly classified.”

Trump’s complaints about Bolton divulging private conversations have also been somewhat muddled by a series of claims by the president that the book is largely or completely fabricated. In a tweet Thursday morning, he called Bolton’s tome “a compilation of lies and made up stories.”

Lamberth seemed to pick up on Trump’s agitation about the Bolton book, asking Morrell during the hearing whether the president had waded into the review process by directing officials to claim certain matters were classified.

In his book, Bolton affirms House Democrats’ impeachment evidence that Trump pressured Ukraine to investigate his political rivals | Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

“Your honor, I have not spoken to the president. I’m not aware of that,” the DOJ attorney said.

Much of Bolton’s move to dismiss the case against him focused on DOJ’s claim that his book contains highly classified “compartmented” intelligence, which would trigger a higher standard of review. Bolton says he took great care to exclude any classified information— but especially so-called SCI material — and submitted to a painstaking review with Knight, to be extra careful.

Morrell also conceded under questioning from Lamberth that at least some of the information the government says is classified in the book was classified after the initial review.

On Friday morning, the Justice Department acknowledged that the newly installed NSC intelligence official tasked with the additional review of Bolton’s book — Michael Ellis — hadn’t been formally trained as an “original classification authority,” a requirement for officials who make classification and declassification decisions. Rather, he obtained his training on June 10, the day after he completed his review of Bolton’s book and then retroactively reaffirmed his earlier determinations that the book contained additional classified material.

Bolton’s lawyer noted the disclosure to Lamberth. “This was the day after his declaration says he completed his review. How about that?” Cooper asked.

Source : Politico EU More   

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