Alternatives & Analyses: Mike Carpenter: Europe’s existential threat is the oligarchization of its politics.

Ilian Vassilev: Good morning, Michael! The election results are being disputed by both sides and the final result has not yet been announced. The protests in the Supreme Court are expected. How long will it take to complete them and acknowledge the victory?

Michael Carpenter: It seems to me that President Trump will never recognize the outcome of this election, but I believe that the winner will be announced by the end of this week. In fact, if we look at how things are going in the state of Pennsylvania, Biden’s headquarters is very optimistic that the result will be in favor of Vice President Biden. As for the challenge in court that you have hinted at, I think it is important for your viewers to understand that challenging without any legal basis in terms of legal or constitutional violations is unfounded, and is something like posting on Twitter for a fee. It is completely inappropriate and I think that most, if not all, disputes will be rejected by the court because they are completely unfounded. It will take time, but the result will be relatively soon.

IV: As friends of the United States, we fear that the internal division is too deep and will take a long time to overcome. How long will this take to heal the rifts and what actions are needed?

MK: This is a very broad topic. Of course, I am happy that Vice President Biden is in a unique position among US politicians to govern in a way that unites Americans. He has long-standing friendships with dissident politicians such as John McCain, Dick Lugar and many others. He is accustomed to working in conditions of bipartisanship; it’s kind of second nature to him. So, I really think he is capable of curing the disunity of the nation, but there is something very disturbing from a sociological point of view that could not be cured simply by a person holding the presidency, despite every effort. And it will take a lot of effort in terms of civil society, the media, the way we educate children. Honestly, the real unity of the country and overcoming the division will be a long process.

IV.: Let’s move on to US relations with Europe, which suffered a lot during President Trump’s term. In an article in Politico, you talk about five areas for bridging this gap and rebuilding relations – trade, climate, arms control, democracy and the rule of law, including an urgent restoration of the confidence in Article 5 of the NATO Treaty. I guess this is not an exhaustive list, but where is the place for defense and security issues, including energy security?

M.K.: Energy security is essential for both economic prosperity and “solid” security. One of the key aspects in which the United States must play a leading role with its European partners in a much more concerted effort to address non-military threats to transatlantic security. If we look at the development of NATO in the last 4-5 years, we can see that our military capabilities retain their strength and are in the right direction. But if we look at our ability to counter non-military threats such as energy pressure, misinformation, shadow money, cyberattacks, we see that we are lagging behind. These are areas that are not the sole competence of NATO as a military organization. They require the joint efforts of the EU and the entire transatlantic community and the sharing of intelligence and much stricter policies, such as tackling shady money or greater energy security through diversification of supply. I believe that the Biden administration will pay much more attention to this area.

IV: Related to this is my next question about the damage done to democracy and the rule of law, as these are vulnerable areas to be exploited. Let me quote again one of the most important lines in your article: ‘Europe’s existential threat is a matter of governance. This is the threat of the corrupt “oligarchization” of European politics, which could ultimately undermine decision-making across the continent.”

Many European leaders prefer to limit their criticism to Eastern Europe and the new Member States, but you are very right to extend the scope and concerns about the oligarchization of EU policy across Europe. Many in Brussels would return the ball to the United States. How can the threat of oligarchization end?

MK: This is something that is observed all over the world. For me, the threat of oligarchic authoritarianism is a defining feature of 21st century geopolitics. If we take my country as an example during the term of President Trump, we see how the judiciary, intelligence agencies, diplomatic services are politicized, even the judiciary is politicized. And this is the real threat to democracy, because political and economic power is consolidating in the hands of a small elite, which is, in fact, the definition of an oligarchy. The danger is twofold: on the one hand, it leads to less democracy and more authoritarianism, and that in itself is worrying. It also opens up opportunities for foreign influence to manipulate the system by empowering corruption. We are witnessing this in the United States – Russian influence, but we see it in other countries and not only in Eastern Europe. In the Netherlands, for example, the Kremlin funded an NGO that later became the country’s second largest parliamentary party. So this is something that we have to fight for throughout the transatlantic community and around the world.

IV: Thank you. This is a very important issue that is relevant but rarely discussed in political circles. From the perspective of a person living in Eastern Europe, I would say that the fight against the oligarchy is a difficult mission for societies with weak institutions and corrupt elites. Politicians in Brussels and Washington often tell it is not their job to criticize their allied governments or strategic partners. Yet oligarchs and corrupt officials receive EU funds and receive red carpet treatment in Western capitals. Would the Biden administration restore the balance between economic interests and the core values of democracy by resorting to the Magnitsky Act and targeted sanctions against the oligarchs? After all, most of the money laundered and shady money used by the oligarchs are channeled through the large banks in old Europe, not Eastern Europe.

MK: The Magnitsky Act is one of the tools, but what is needed is to exert much more coherent pressure and provide incentives to prevent further oligarchization across Europe. This is a real challenge. In the 1990s, when many Eastern European countries aspired to become members of

NATO and the EU, these two organizations had enormous power and were able to force or encourage a series of reforms that prevented the oligarchs from gaining political power and helped the electoral system to become competitive and pluralistic. Now that many Eastern European countries have integrated into these structures, many of the levers of influence associated with the accession process no longer exist. But that doesn’t mean Washington and Brussels don’t have leverage. Here, I believe that we have made a huge mistake in recent years. Washington and Brussels still have levers of influence, and we must use them. Policies that are authoritarian in nature or lead to a concentration of economic power and restrict the equitable access of other actors must not be tolerated.

IV: Let’s get closer to the Black Sea and the Balkans – the challenges facing NATO and the energy dimension of security issues. Turkey has become much more assertive under President Erdogan. Greece is not the only opponent. Until recently, the mantra of no problems with neighbors has become meaningless – Ankara currently has conflicts with almost all of its neighbors.

You are talking about Trump’s “cozy relationship” with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his transaction diplomacy – making business deals sacrificing principles. In addition to Russia’s security challenges in the Black Sea, Turkey appears adamant to reconcile its neo-Ottoman aspirations with NATO’s collective shared security concerns. How will the Biden administration deal with this issue?

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MK: The aggressive behavior of Turkey that we have seen in recent years is a real threat to the cohesion of NATO as an alliance, as well as Turkey’s departure from democratic principles. Turkey is the country with the largest number of journalists in prison in the world, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. This is unacceptable for a NATO member. These will be the most difficult and important relations the Biden administration will have to deal with from the outset, namely how to encourage Turkey to play a more constructive role in the Black Sea and South Caucasus region, the Aegean Sea, and the Eastern Mediterranean. There are potentially many outcomes that benefit both the EU and Turkey if we work together. Unfortunately, nothing like this has happened in the last few years, and in fact, as you noted, there are conflicts with all of Turkey’s neighbors. I hope that we will devise a policy that will encourage this regime to change its behavior and realize that there are potentially mutually beneficial solutions if we cooperate. I am not naive and I do not think that this will be achieved solely by changing the way the two countries communicate, but I think that with the right policies, we could encourage change.

IV: President Trump has a lot of “friends” in Eastern Europe among the soft autocrats like Viktor Orban, Andrzej Duda, Milos Zeman, the Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa, and it seems to me that our Prime Minister also falls into this category. Each of them is playing the transactional diplomacy game, offering business deals in exchange for a muted US reaction to their authoritarian slide and the erosion of key democratic institutions. Will a future Biden administration address these challenges?

MK: As I have already mentioned, it will be crucial for the Biden administration to adhere strictly to democratic values and the rule of law in relations with its NATO and EU partners. This is not something that can be considered secondary; this is the basis of our values-based diplomacy. I firmly believe that many of the security issues must remain unchanged, and we would not like to use security as a lever of influence to force human rights action. But the dialogue on democracy and human rights must certainly rise and become the cornerstone of bilateral relations. There can be no European countries moving towards authoritarianism and maintaining good relations with the United States. There must be consequences for attempts to undermine the rule of law. It’s so simple.

IV: Let me quote from your articles in Newsweek and Politico again. This quote can be a revelation for many viewers not only in Bulgaria but also in the region:

“The Trump administration is so corrupt that our diplomats can no longer raise concerns about corruption or abuse of power without sounding hypocritical.”

My interpretation. On July 15 this year, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned companies and suppliers involved in construction of the Turk Stream that sanctions would be imposed if they did not wind up operations. Three months later, an American company supplies gas turbines for the most important and critical part of the Turk Stream segment in Bulgaria – the compressor stations. Is this example appropriate for the reference you just made? And one easy question – will the US finally impose sanctions?

MP: I completely agree that this is an example of the hypocritical nature of this administration, lecturing on the rule of law in other countries, although the president has posted on Twitter posts that are completely contrary to the rule of law in the United States. This totally confuses our diplomacy. As for the Turk Stream flow, I’m not entirely sure, but I think that measures are envisaged in the National Defense Authorization Act, on the basis of which the budget of the Pentagon and the US defense and military industry is approved every year. There are proposals to tighten sanctions on Nord Stream and Turk Stream, in particular the second pipeline. I can’t say whether this will happen or not, because this is something that the US Congress wants to do on a bipartisan basis.

IV: Thank you. Let’s look at the Western Balkans. The Prespa agreement is considered a success, but the Republic of Northern Macedonia and Albania are currently facing possible delays in starting EU accession talks. In most cases, Russia directly and indirectly feeds old and new antagonisms by skillfully using the oligarchs as intermediaries. The economic normalization agreement between Serbia and Kosovo seems a step in the right direction, but inter-ethnic and inter-state conflicts continue to be exploited by Russia, Turkey and China to the detriment of NATO’s interests in the region. Do you believe that a more active US involvement is justified, as EU accession talks are delayed and NATO seems to be the only shared platform for most countries? Of course, Serbia is a special case.

MK: I think that the United States really needs to commit to a more active role in the Western Balkans, but at the same time I believe that the United States needs to coordinate its policy with our European partners. One of the major shortcomings in the work of the Trump administration is the complete withdrawal from the EU in terms of diplomacy in the region and following its own direction, ignoring the EU’s actions and sometimes even undermining them. What is really needed is for the US and the EU to reconcile their strategic views and synchronize tactical progress using diplomacy. I think we can achieve this with regard to the negotiations between Kosovo and Serbia and with regard to Northern Macedonia, to steer it on its path to Euro-Atlantic structures, helping to tackle corruption and organized crime in the region, which is in our mutual interest. If we achieve this and act together, we will have more leverage in the countries of the region and, despite Russia’s intervention, we will be more successful.

IV: Last question. Apart from the differences with the Trump administration, there will certainly be areas of continuity in US foreign policy, and one of the reasons for this is that it needs the bipartisan support of Congress on key issues, such as the need to increase defense spending and show greater solidarity against adversaries such as Russia and China – I think of the 5G and the Three Seas Initiative. Where will the Biden administration put Eastern Europe and the Black Sea on the list of priorities?

MK: I could not speak directly on behalf of the future Biden administration, but I hope that the Black Sea region will be given greater priority than in recent years. As you mentioned, bipartisan support is needed to expand transatlantic cooperation to prevent threats from Russia and China, which are very different, although very often grouped together. Radically different tools are needed to repel Chinese influence on the one hand and Russian influence on the other. I hope that in the post-Trump era, Republican representatives in Congress and the House of Representatives will return to more traditional positions on projects that build transatlantic unity and repel Chinese and Russian influence. And we will be able to agree on the development of the necessary transatlantic cooperation; for example, a mechanism for investment screening and the fight against money laundering and the promotion of the preventive role of the Black Sea. these are issues that will receive bipartisan support.

IV: Thank you, Michael, for your time and good luck in watching the results of the presidential race. I hope to hear from you again and I wish you success!

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