The Western Balkans – that is, the countries of former Yugoslavia minus Slovenia and Croatia, plus Albania – are faring relatively better than other regions on the edges of Europe. Unlike their Eastern neighbours, they are on track to become members of the European Union (EU). The latest strategic document published by the European Commission posits 2025 as a possible target for the next round of enlargement to Montenegro and Serbia, both seen as frontrunners. NATO has made inroads as well. After taking in Albania and Croatia in 2009, it welcomed Montenegro in June 2017. There is a clear prospect for the Republic of Macedonia to follow suit, in case it succeeds in resolving its long-standing “name dispute” with Greece. A deal between Skopje and Athens will also lead to the opening of accession talks with the EU. Compare that with the uphill struggle that other Western-oriented countries in “wider Europe” such as Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova have to deal with. There are no ongoing military conflicts in the Western Balkans comparable to the ones in the Donbas region or in Nagorno-Karabakh. States once comprising Yugoslavia, divided though they may be by grudges inherited from the bloodshed in the 1990s, are not facing a revisionist power next to their borders willing to exert control over their political choices or even annex part of their territories. They are surrounded by the EU and already integrated into its policies and institutions, from arrangements allowing visa-free travel to the legislation of energy to aviation. The implicit NATO security guarantee applies as well, even to countries that are outside the alliance. The descent into chaos many are concerned about is not a likely scenario.
But this is where the good news ends. The Western Balkans are under the sway of several negative trends.
Firstly, the backslide into authoritarianism. The region’s defective democracies characterized by low levels of accountability, general absence of rule of law, corruption and clientelism, and societies fractured along ethnic and religious lines are an easy prey to political and business elites whose commitment to democratic norms is at best shallow. As a result, international watchdogs register a general trend towards de-democratisation. In Serbia, for instance, President Aleksandar Vucic has subdued the media, seized control over critical chunks of the economy and the security apparatus, and undermined the opposition. In April 2018, Freedom House lowered the country’s score for a fourth consecutive year. Serbia is on the verge of being reclassified from an “unconsolidated democracy” to a “hybrid regime”, that is, a political system combining both democratic and authoritarian features. Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina (already labelled a “hybrid regime”) have gone a notch down, too.
The EU anchor compensates in part for democratic stagnation but is clearly not sufficient. Its transformative agenda cannot advance without buy-in from inside the countries in question. Moreover, consolidated democracies within the Union are themselves are under assault by populists and authoritarian-minded actors, especially in Central and Eastern Europe where cases such as Hungary and Poland have grabbed international headlines. Civil society has become more vocal in many countries, e.g. in Macedonia where anti-corruption protests paved the way to the end of the 11-year tenure of the populist right-wing VMRO-DPMNE. But it falls short of instilling democratic habits and rolling back state capture, the subordination of public institutions and policies to private interests, especially in divided countries such as Bosnia.
Democratic backsliding is taking place against the backdrop of chronic economic stagnation. Unlike Central and Eastern Europe, which – despite setbacks and reversals – have been converging with the advanced economies of Western Europe – the states once part of Yugoslavia (except for Slovenia) have seen the gap grow wider since the end of communism. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, in 2017, per capita GDP in the Western Balkans (at purchasing-power terms) was at 27.6% of the EU-15 (the member states before the 2004 enlargement). It stood at 35.4% in 1989. By comparison, the EU “new members” went from 41.8% to 52.3% in that period. Since 2008, Serbia went through a triple-digit recession (2009, 2011, 2014). Growth is overall sluggish. That in turn cements clientelism and corruption. The state remains the most significant employer and those in power have the means to exert control over constituents. The lack of jobs is contributing to outmigration.
State capture and authoritarian backsliding open a greater scope for nationalist rhetoric. It is reinforced by the West’s inability to exert influence over domestic affairs. Politicians have learned how to both talk the EU talk and scapegoat internal and external enemies in order to divert attention away from socio-economic ills and boost their popularity. Republika Srpska’s President Milorad Dodik, for instance, has engaged in brinkmanship, threatening repeatedly to initiate a referendum for secession from Bosnia and Herzegovina. Opposition parties share in the blame. Such as Vetvendosje in Kosovo, which attacks the government over the normalization talks with Serbia and, more recently, a deal on the common border in Montenegro. Or the Democratic Front coalition in Montenegro, which instead of focusing on anti-corruption and the rule of law, espouses Serbian nationalism and Russian-inspired animosity towards the West.
Such a toxic environment is hospitable to recurrent crises and wars of words, waged through the media rather than on the battlefield. Nationalism thrives in the public sphere and silences other voices. Opaque media outlets beholden to governments and shady businesses are at fault too. Taking advantage, governments and other political entrepreneurs act, in the words of Florian Bieber, as both arsonists and fire-fighters. They stir passions and resentments to dominate the polls but, in case they are in power, rush to resolve virtual crises five minutes before midnight in order to show the West they deserve credit. The outcome is a political regime defined by Montenegrin Canadian political scientist Srdja Pavlovic as “stabilitocracy” – where stability takes precedence over democracy and the rule of law.
Despite oft-drawn analogies with Ukraine and other hotspots in Eastern Europe, the Balkans are not on the verge of implosion or a repeat of the bloodshed of the 1990s. War is too costly and unpredictable. The gains it brings can be made by other, less risky means. Ill-conceived stability, therefore, is turning out to be the greatest threat to the Western Balkans at present.
*Photo: Miguel Fernandez Ibanez
1. The EU officially refers to the country as former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM).
2. The European Commission has been recommending to start membership negotiations with Macedonia since 2009. However, Greece has been using its veto in the Council to stop them.