Southeast Europe backslides on transition path, says Freedom House

Southeast Europe backslides on transition path, says Freedom House
By bne IntelliNews April 12, 2016

In line with the generally gloomy picture across the transition countries in Freedom House’s latest Nations in Transit report, most countries in Southeast Europe moved further away from democracy in the last year.

For the sixth year running, democracy in the Balkan region has declined, with almost all the EU candidate and potential candidate countries in the region backsliding during this period. Macedonia saw the worst regression in 2015.

The region’s average Democracy Score assigned by the influential NGO is now the same as it was in 2010, which is “a disturbing indicator of [the Balkan countries’] level of commitment to EU standards", the April 12 report says. In both the Balkans and Central Europe, “illiberal leaders and strongmen challenged fundamental principles of democracy".

The poor showing for the Balkan region comes amid a “grim portrait of decline” across transition countries, where no region has improved since 2011. However, while the average democracy score across the entire region has declined for 12 years in a row, this is a relatively recent phenomenon in the Balkans.

“The Balkans were once a bright spot for reform in Europe, but since 2010 the region has backslid, even as several countries have made progress in accession to the EU,” the report said.

Democracy scores are calculated based on seven indicators including national and local democratic governance, media independence, civil society, corruption, judicial independence and electoral processes. The score is on a scale of 1 to 7, with 1 representing the highest and 7 the lowest level of democratic progress.

The situation could worsen, as several states seal their borders to block the Western Balkans migration route. “The migration crisis should not become an excuse to isolate the Balkans from the rest of Europe,” said Nate Schenkkan, project director of Nations in Transit. “With youth unemployment above 50% in much of the region, turning the Balkans into an island inside Europe would be catastrophic for the region’s development. The EU should not privilege short-term stability over long-term reform in the Balkans.”

In the 2016 report, the scores of most countries in the region declined. In particular, the report singles out three countries - Serbia, Macedonia, and Montenegro - for criticism, and warned that the EU has failed to respond.

As the migrant crisis escalated in 2015, the leaders of the three countries “turned the EU’s disarray to their advantage, trusting that its longing for stability will outweigh clear evidence of individual politicians and parties capturing the state to promote their own interests".

The largest score decline was Macedonia’s, where scores dropped in six of the seven different categories. “Democratic governance in Macedonia continued to deteriorate in 2015, as the country experienced its worst political crisis since 2001,” the report says.

“Polarization of the political space and civil society had already been under way for a decade, as a populist ruling elite came to dominate the weakly organized political opposition and dismantled checks and balances in favor of a powerful executive, leading to a breakdown in political dialogue in 2014.”

In 2015, the ruling VMRO-DPMNE party’s overreach led to massive corruption and election-rigging scandals in 2015 and a persistent political crisis.

The EU “expended huge amounts of political capital” to broker the Przino agreement, ending a lengthy stand-off between the government and opposition. After conceding to the agreement in the summer of 2015, the ruling party stalled investigations and reforms that were needed to make the snap elections free and fair.

Early elections are due to take place in June, but the situation is still uncertain, with the main opposition party currently saying it will not take part in the vote. Despite allegations of vote rigging, corruption, and fraud that prompted Macedonia’s largest protests in years, ex-prime minister Nikola Gruevski has stalled implementation of the EU-brokered reform deal and appears likely to return to power in the June election.

Serbia’s democracy score declined partly because of the excessive concentration of power in the hands of prime minister Alexandar Vucic and the gradual deterioration of domestic democratic governance in the last few years. Serbia’s independent media rating also declined as the space for independent media reporting continued to shrink amid widespread self-censorship, while the ruling Serbian Progressive Party’s (SNS) control of advertising and other sources of funding, along with verbal attacks by government officials, “amounted to indirect censorship”, the report said.

Concerning the outlook for 2016, Freedom House said that there seems little doubt that the SNS will emerge victorious in early parliamentary and regular local and regional elections on April 24, particularly as the opposition remains in disarray. “It will be important to watch whether the ruling party steps up attempts to bring independent media under greater control in the run-up to these elections, as seems likely,” Freedom House said.

Freedom House noted that although Montenegro has opened six new chapters in its EU accession talks and has received a formal invitation to join Nato, the country is mired in corruption under prime minister Milo Djukanovic, who has run the country “in and out of office” since 1991.

However, things could change later this year. The report noted that Djukanovic’s ruling Democratic Party of Socialists will likely retain its plurality in the parliament at the October general elections, but there could be pressure on the prime minister to retire for good.

It is now more than 20 years since the signing of the Dayton Agreement that ended the Bosnian war; the region is now at peace and former Yugoslavian countries either have entered or are progressing towards EU membership, Freedom House considers that “the European Union’s policies in the Western Balkans have the appearance of success”. However, it points out that, “reform in the region has slowed and now retreated.”

“Durable peace in the Balkans is no small achievement. But peace without progress has led to a festering and potentially dangerous stagnation,” the report says. Among the persistent problems are crippling levels of unemployment.

Within Southeast Europe, only Slovenia is a consolidated democracy. Most countries - including EU member states Bulgaria, Croatia and Romania - are semi-consolidated democracies. Meanwhile, Albania, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Macedonia and Montenegro are ranked as transitional governments or hybrid regimes, and Kosovo is still considered a semi-consolidated authoritarian regime.

Kosovo has, however, made substantial progress in recent years and continued to improve its democracy score in the 2016 report. Bulgaria was the only other country to do so, reflecting progress in the area of national democratic governance.

In Bosnia, the Dayton Agreement has led to an “excruciatingly complex” political system that has crippled the Bosnian state and led to the hardening of ethnic divisions. Freedom House also noted that the country’s smaller entity, Republika Srpska, often rejects the legitimacy of national institutions.

In February, Freedom House said that the plans of Republika Srpska’s president Milorad Dodik to hold a referendum on the state-level judiciary system could lead the Serb enclave to reject the authority of the national courts, which would be ‘a profoundly unsettling move in a country where ethnic mistrust and separatist sentiment remain strong’. Dodik has since put on hold the plan for the referendum.

Moldova has also been mired in corruption and political instability. The country’s score marginally deteriorated, remaining the third most democratic country in the Eurasia group which includes several authoritarian regimes. However, Moldova deteriorated in the national democratic governance category after no less than four governments were appointed following the November 2014 elections, as well as the corruption category after $1bn was siphoned off from three Moldovan banks.