Balkans in the balance

By bne IntelliNews March 17, 2011

Alex Young in Belgrade -

With protests in North Africa and the Middle East showing few signs of abating, concern is growing about the Western Balkans' own particular vulnerabilities.

Amidst rising prices, stubborn unemployment and sluggish economic growth, people in the region have become increasingly impatient with the empty promises and pervasive corruption that have come to define politics in the region. Whilst seemingly secure for the time being, governments across the region will nonetheless need to be far more attentive to the factors that are causing the growing dissent. With their options increasingly constrained by an environment demanding greater austerity and less audacity, many politicians have begun nervously affirming it's the ballot box, not cries of protest, that's the sole arbiter of democratic opinion.

Five months on from its general elections, Bosnia-Herzegovina still hasn't got a government and faces the prospect of further political fragmentation that will impede much-needed reforms and the adoption of budgets for 2011. Whilst the newly-formed government in the Serb half of the country (Republika Srpska) sets to work, the financially-crippled Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina remains hamstrung by political disputes, motivated in part by fears of the two main Croat parties - the HDZ BiH and HDZ BiH 1990 (the Croatian Democratic Union Bosnia-Herzegovina) - that they will be excluded from the entity government by a Socialist Democratic Party (SDP)-led bloc.

Though Doris Pack, a German Member of the European Parliament, recently called on young people to take to the streets, the sheer complexity of Bosnia's institutional arrangements - combined with the fact that elections were only recently and divisively fought - deprives potential protesters of a much-needed focal point for their dissent, no matter how considerable and well-grounded it may be. Politicians of all stripes can probably take comfort from the fact that any protests will probably be as non-cohesive as the very state itself.

Blue in Belgrade

Elsewhere, both Serbia and Kosovo have noticeable concerns of their own as the first direct negotiations between the two foes since Pristina declared independence in 2008 kicked off in March.

With roughly one-third of the population believed to support early elections, the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), formed last year following a split within the Serbian Radical Party (SRS), mobilized some 55,000 peaceful anti-government protesters in early-February, demonstrating their popularity amongst Serbia's disenchanted electorate. Whilst the Serbian government's recent restructuring - including a reduction in the number of ministries, with Prime Minister Mirko Cvetkovic simultaneously fulfilling the role of finance minister - is likely to stem calls for a snap poll, the government will do well to see out the remainder of the year unscathed.

Kosovo's new government, meanwhile, was confirmed by parliament towards the end of February, with Hashim Thaci as prime minister and Behgjet Pacolli as president, following an agreement between the latter's Alliance for a New Kosovo (AKR) and the former's Democratic party of Kosovo (PDK). As Kosovo's richest citizen, Pacolli's appointment (after an initial boycott by opposition parties) has sparked considerable controversy, particularly because of concerns about how his construction conglomerate, Mabetex, secured lucrative contracts in Russia in the late-1990s and its alleged ties to the Gaddafi regime in Libya.

The coalition itself, which holds only a slim parliamentary majority, faces a number of important questions about its own long-term sustainability. With an estimated 30,000 young people entering an already saturated labour market every year, combined with continued tensions over the issue of its status, Kosovo faces the sort of social dynamic that could spark future protests targeting not only domestic politicians, but also the international community itself.

Neighbouring Albania, meanwhile, has witnessed the most violent demonstrations in the region to date, following the deaths of four protesters on January 21 after clashes with police. Calls for an independent investigation into the deaths have so far been rejected. Amid allegations of fraud and vote-rigging during the 2009 general election, the opposition Socialist Party continues to insist that PM Sali Berisha has to call early elections. With their demands falling on death ears, new waves of protests are planned.

Though the closest of the all the Western Balkan countries to the ultimate goal of EU membership, Croatia isn't proving immune to the turbulence. Zagreb has witnessed relatively small-scale but persistent protests against the current government, fueled in part by the revelations which swept the country following the arrest of ex-prime minister Ivo Sanader on suspicion of corruption and abuse of power. Having made insufficient progress in reforming its judiciary and fighting corruption and organized crime, Croatia's dream of joining the EU looks no closer to reality, while the population is becoming more euro-sceptic by the day as unemployment and a weak economic recovery take their toll.

Though the transition to democracy - albeit still imperfect - that the Balkans has witnessed over the past 20 years has created alternative outlets to express dissent and forums to resolve disputes, the potential for pockets of unrest to erupt remains ripe. Whilst these may not be enough to unseat governments, they will continue to unnerve foreign diplomats, observers and investors alike.

Progress will almost certainly remain blocked in contentious areas such as the Serbia-Kosovo negotiations and constitutional reform in Bosnia-Herzegovina. And in these areas lie the seeds of more damaging mobilisations of discontent that could have implications far beyond the borders in which they ultimately surface. Used to handling crisis and adept at improvisation, however, the region's politicians could be better placed than their counterparts elsewhere to ride out any storm.

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