One year after it landed in Europe, the Covid-19 pandemic has left a deep mark on the Western Balkans. On the one hand, it has exacerbated geopolitical dynamics that had been ongoing for decades, especially with regards to the activity of external actors. And while the EU has continued to be inconclusive, proceeding at a snail’s pace with its carrot-and-stick approach, China has seized on the opportunity and expanded its footprint.
When Covid-19 hit the Balkans, it was too soon to foresee that besides local health systems the pandemic would impact regional geopolitics too. In the longstanding instability also caused by stagnation in the EU integration process for Balkan countries, China exploited the situation to increase its influence in the region.
On 5 October 2000 the regime of Slobodan Milosevic was toppled amid popular protests, but the past 20 years have been anything but simple in Serbia.
October 5, 2000, is a Serbian metaphor for a dream of democracy. Like many dreams, it encouraged and mobilized those who shared it, while it was unrealistic about the scope and pace of changes after the defeat of Milosevic’s regime and naïve about the ways to move from traumatic experiences into a future free from fear.
Last July, Serbian parliamentary elections crowned an 8-year-long trend that was just previously described by Freedom House: Serbia is no longer a democracy.
Today, 20 years ago, hundreds of thousands of citizens gathered in Belgrade and assaulted the parliament asking for the resignation of the president of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Slobodan Milosevic, who was accused of electoral fraud. The day after, he recognized the defeat in the presidential elections. Since then, Serbia underwent a democratic transition – a process that was never completed.
On August 30, after 30 years, Montenegrin citizens ended the rule of one party, the Democratic Party of Socialists, DPS, in democratic elections, thus empowering the opposition to form a government for the first time since establishment of the multi-party system in the country.
Last month, a member of a news crew tried to film the building of a company whose alleged involvement in corrupt activities was being investigated. He was told by a security guard to move away, and was warned that he might be “shot like a rabbit.” This incident vividly depicts the extent to which the journalism profession has been degraded in Serbian society.
Before the removal of Slobodan Milosevic from power in 2000, elections were neither free nor fair and were fraught with irregularities, threats, and abuses, with the fraudulent local elections of 1996 leading to 78 days of student demonstrations. Political change was not the result of a vote for the Serbian parliament: it took a parliamentary and presidential election for the Yugoslav Federation as it existed then, which was held on 24 September 2000, to start the process.
In the Balkans it is often said that “everything started in Kosovo and everything will end there”, meaning that the cancer of nationalism that destroyed Yugoslavia began exactly there and that the Yugoslav conflicts had begun in Kosovo and would end there. Three decades after the beginning of those conflicts it is still hard to say that the processes they had unleashed have finished.
“Serbia isn’t a democracy anymore”. This will be the most important assessment that will follow the vote to renew the parliament in Belgrade on 21st June. The downgrade from democracy to “hybrid regime” was certified by the last report issued by Freedom House that confirmed the decline of the Serbian democracy in the last 10 years.
Despite the coronavirus pandemic, 2020 could be a crucial year for the Western Balkans. For over twenty years, the region has been stuck in a never-ending transition. Politics, economics, and geopolitics are still falling prey to old and new sources of instability. With the path towards the EU integration still uncertain, today many governments are marked by autocratic stances and international actors strive for a bigger say in the region. NATO is expanding to the Balkans, but regional security still depends on foreign soft power and influence.