The state of democracy and freedom has been backsliding or at best stagnating across the EU-aspiring Western Balkan countries for a decade, and could result in a reappearance of ethnic conflicts in the region, the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG) says in a new report.
The group of analysts and scholars claim the EU has neglected democratic processes in the Western Balkans for some time, and now needs to speed up the process of integration for the countries in the region in order to prevent any further deterioration of the situation. Allowing the status quo to continue raises several risks beyond the further decline of democracy, including the threat of renewed ethnic conflicts in Macedonia and between Kosovo and Serbia, the report warns.
Over the past decade, all major indices of democracy indicate that the Western Balkan countries have moved away from becoming consolidated democracies, with the decline being part of a global trend also visible among EU member states, BiEPAG says in its policy paper “The Crisis of Democracy in the Western Balkans, Authoritarianism and EU Stabilitocracy”.
BiEPAG is a group of policy analysts and researchers, established as a joint initiative of the European Fund for the Balkans and the Centre for Southeast European Studies of the University of Graz. Its goal is to support the integration of the Western Balkans into the EU.
Decade-long downward spiral
"There is no single turning point for the entire region, but the downward spiral began a decade ago, and accelerated with the economic crisis in 2008 and multiple crises within the EU that distracted the union from enlargement," the report reads.
“Yet, formally, the countries have all progressed on their paths to EU membership, and the EU has remained rather silent on these developments, even when confronted with concrete evidence.” It singles out the wiretapping scandal in Macedonia, where illegally recorded conversations revealed top officials’ involvement in corruption, and the overnight demolition of buildings in Belgrade’s Savamala district to make way for the new Belgrade Waterfront development.
Partly as a result of this silence, BiEPAG writes that democratic institutions are “mere tools for political elites”. This flaw has been taken advantage of by autocrats, many of whom were supported and hailed as reformers by the West in their early rise to power. Those include Milorad Dodik as the hope against nationalist politicians in Republika Srpska, Nikola Gruevski as an economic reformer and pragmatist in Macedonia, and Montenegrin politician Milo Djukanovic, who broke with the dictator Slobodan Milosevic “at the right time”. Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, as the moderate former Serbian nationalist who decisively moved towards the EU and democracy, is another example. He has consolidated his position through repeated elections, and was elected president of Serbia on April 2.
The publication also notes that since the election of Donald Trump as the US president, the “Russian threat” has been a key feature in Euro-Atlantic debates, from elections in Western Europe to geopolitical meddling in the Balkans.
Other geopolitical crises, such as the refugee crisis and the emergence of the Western Balkan migration route, have been a “welcome distraction” for autocrats. These were a convenient opportunity to become indispensable partners in stopping the inflow of refugees. At the same time, the latent fear of renewed tensions has been carefully stroked by political elites.
Flying below the radar
According to the paper, autocrats in the Western Balkans rule through informal power structures, state capture by ruling parties, patronage and control of the media.
“Lacking the size and clout of Turkey or EU membership of Hungary, autocrats had to fly below the radar, allowing them to combine EU accession with stronger domestic control,” it said.
The paper concludes that the decline of democracy was possible because the signs were ignored or downplayed by the EU and the US for too long.
There is no single pattern across the region. The characteristics of flawed democracy vary across the Western Balkans; some suffer from destructive institutions like in Bosnia, while others from high level of inter-party polarisation like in Albania.
“The degree to which incumbents disregard institutions and democratic rule also varies, from Macedonia, where the dominant party between 2006 and 2016, the VMRO-DPMNE, has been engaged in blatant electoral manipulation and extensive patronage, to Albania, where alternation of power has been possible and frequent,” the publication said.
Unresolved disputes like that over Kosovo’s statehood have also encouraged the situation, since “external efforts at resolving the open questions of statehood have also favoured heavy-handed fixers, who are willing to disregard domestic opinion.”
Recipe for democracy
The BiEPAG policy brief provides a list of recommendations regarding the EU integration of the Western Balkans countries, closely connected with the current state of the democracy in the countries.
So far, only Serbia and Montenegro have launched their accession negotiations, while the other four Western Balkans countries - Albania, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Macedonia and Kosovo - are at earlier stages of the accession process.
“The EU needs to sharpen its focus on monitoring the aspiring members in the Western Balkans on their paths to stable and prosperous democracies governed by the rule of law and if not, risks for the region, and for the EU by extension, are considerable,” BiEPAG says.
It also points out that nearly 14 years after the Thessaloniki Summit, apart from Croatia which joined the bloc in 2013, the promise of enlargement remains unfulfilled in the Western Balkans.
“The longer the process is protracted, the greater the risk that the commitment of the region’s political elites to implement the reforms that the EU has demanded fades out,” it says.
Specifically, it recommends that the EU open Chapters 23 and 24 with Western Balkans countries that have not already done so as soon as possible due to the stalled democratic processes in the region. Chapter 23 refers to Judiciary and Fundamental Rights and Chapter 24 on Justice, Freedom and Security. According to BiEPAG experts, they should be opened early in the negotiations and be the last to be closed.
In addition, BiEPAG says the current approach focusing on the “Structured Dialogue” as a mechanism for engagement of countries that are not yet negotiating EU membership has thus far had only modest success in Macedonia, Albania, Bosnia and Kosovo.