New threats to stability in Western Balkans appear

By bne IntelliNews October 1, 2014

Clare Nuttall in Bucharest -


A summer of unrest in Macedonia and the ongoing constitutional crisis in Kosovo, where no government has been appointed since the June elections, have highlighted the fragile nature of several states in the Western Balkans. Bosnia & Herzegovina will be the next state to be put to the test as elections approach in October.

Violent protests broke out in Skopje and other Macedonian towns in July and August after six ethnic Albanians were sentenced in connection to the execution-style killings of five ethnic Macedonian fishermen in 2012 – a case that divided the country’s population along ethnic lines. Without support from the two main political parties representing Macedonia’s Albanian minority, the protests petered out, but ethnically fuelled protests are a frequent occurrence in Macedonia.

While the Smilkovci Lake killings were an extreme example, violent attacks like these provide a rallying point for disenfranchised youths from both sides of Macedonia’s ethnic divide, who on a day-to-day basis are struggling with the same problems of poverty and unemployment. It is a similar situation in other Southeast European countries: Eurostat data shows that as of 2013 GDP per capita was just 35% of the EU average in Macedonia, and even lower at 29% in Bosnia and 30% in Albania. Meanwhile, youth unemployment is estimated at over 50% in Bosnia, Macedonia and Kosovo.

Dissatisfaction with unemployment, poverty and austerity cuts have sparked protests across Europe. However, in countries like Bulgaria, Greece or Romania protests have a clear focus on economic grievances, while in the ethnically split countries of the Western Balkans, even protests that originate in socioeconomic difficulties take on an ethnic dimension. “The unrest in Macedonia is really a symptom of the lack of prospects for certain marginal social groups on both the Macedonia and the Albanian side,” says Cvete Koneska, an analyst at Control Risks Group. “This is a regional or even European phenomenon, but the difference in Macedonia or Kosovo is that social or political tensions often acquire ethnic overtones. This makes the protest movements more dangerous because when nationalist rhetoric is used to mobilise people it raises the potential for violence.”

Unresolved issues

Koneska believes that clashes like those recently seen in Macedonia are also a sign of unresolved issues relating to the fundamental nature of the state, and that other states in the region are facing similar problems.

In neighbouring Kosovo an alarming power vacuum and constitutional crisis has opened up in the country where, more than three months after the June 8 parliament elections, a new government still has not yet been formed. Although outgoing Prime Minister Hashim Thaci’s Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) took the largest share of the vote, a group of opposition parties has united to prevent the PDK embarking on a third term in office.

Had the transition to a new coalition government gone smoothly, it would have marked the first democratic handover of power since Kosovo gained independence in 2008 – a significant milestone for any new state. Instead, the PDK and its opponents have become mired in a lengthy constitutional battle over the election of a new parliament speaker, a step that has to be taken before a new government can be elected by the parliament.

Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski is in a better position than Thaci, since his VMRO-DPMNE party was returned to power with a double victory in the April parliamentary and presidential elections. However, there are growing claims about the “Putinisation” of politics and the quality of democracy in Macedonia – from international observers such as Freedom House as well as the opposition, which boycotted the new parliament, claiming the election was rigged.

Gruevski’s alliance with the main ethnic Albanian party Democratic Union for Integration (DUI), and efforts to attract foreign investors, have helped keep a lid on the interlinked problems of poverty, inequality and ethnic divisions. However, this has not stopped cracks appearing within the country – as shown during the July riots – and questions about the durability of the state have not gone away.

Professor Florian Bieber, director of the Centre for Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz, wrote in a July paper entitled, "Macedonia on the Brink", that the country “has often seemed to be teetering on the edge" once again in recent weeks. “Many of the Macedonian majority feel excluded and marginalised – especially if they do not support the governing party – but for Albanians this more readily translates into a general reservation about the state,” Bieber wrote.

Election aftermath

The messy aftermath of the elections in both Macedonia and Kosovo has raised fears about what will follow the October 12 presidential and parliamentary elections in Bosnia. Snap elections were called after mass demonstrations in Sarajevo and other cities in protest over government corruption and high unemployment.

Flooding that caused an estimated €2bn worth of damage in May resulted in further deterioration of the economy. On September 18, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development cut its 2014 growth forecast from 1.8% to just 0.2%. The following day, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) said it was delaying the disbursement of funding for Bosnia.

Hopes that the upcoming election will improve the situation are not high. As in Kosovo, it may be some time before a new government is formed, given the need to broker new alliances between parties representing the country’s Bosniak, Croat and Serb populations. As early as May it became evident that the election race was “narrowing in favour of opposition and smaller parties at the expense of Bosnia’s traditional ruling parties, meaning that the post-election environment risks becoming increasingly politically confrontational,” says a report from IHS Jane’s Intelligence.

Nowhere is this more critical than in the ethnic Serb half of the country, Republika Srpska, where Milorad Dodik is fighting to hold onto the presidency of the autonomous republic. Dodik’s strategy has been to intensify calls for the ethnic Serb republic to secede. Recently, Dodik bypassed Sarajevo to reach out to Moscow independently, striking struck a deal to receive gas imports via Serbia through the planned South Stream gas pipeline. Dodik also announced he had lined up a Russian loan of up to $700m in the event of IMF support for Bosnia falling through.

Joining the crazees

The toxic combination of poverty, extremely high youth unemployment and a confused sense of national identity is contributing to another problem in the region. The numbers of young men from the Western Balkans that have joined the conflict in Syria and Iraq is not known, but hundreds of Albanian, Bosnian, Kosovan and Macedonian citizens are believed to be fighting in the Middle East.

A report from the Centre for Globalisation looks at the reasons behind the success that jihadist recruiters have had in Kosovo. It finds that the economy “seems not to be a decisive factor,” though youth unemployment is a definite contributor. “The lack of opportunities, lack of occupation and simply an excess of free time are some of the reasons that push young people into the radicals’ arms. Another crucial reason – an identity crisis – is a more complex one. Kosovo Albanians, or Kosovars, experience trouble with defining who they are... Religion offers a clear identity and a sense of belonging.”

Even more worrying than the departure of citizens from the region to fight abroad is the potential for them to become a destabilising force within their home countries should they return. Governments across the region – both from the majority Muslim countries and from Serbia where citizens have gone to fight in Ukraine – have responded by passing legislation to criminalise fighting in foreign conflicts. The sudden upswing in regional security cooperation highlights how seriously the problem is being taken.

Tackling poverty and unemployment may be the long-term solution. For many years, entry to the EU has been considered the end-goal for governments in the region, with hopes this will mean they become stable and ultimately prosperous EU member states.

However, “The promise of EU membership as a solution for problems in the region is losing its appeal,” Koneska tells bne. “Clearly countries such as Kosovo have fundamental statehood issues to resolve. In Macedonia too, Macedonians and Albanians need to have a meaningful discussion as to what kind of state they want to live in, while in Albania there are deep-rooted problems with governance, crime and corruption that need to be solved before those countries become EU members.”

While Albania was awarded EU candidate status in June – despite concerns from several EU governments over the level of crime and corruption – there is no date in sight for either Bosnia or Kosovo, while Macedonia’s passage to the EU remains blocked by the ongoing dispute with Greece over the country’s name.

With states in the region now appearing to backslide, in both political and economic terms, EU entry seems increasingly far off and hard to achieve. The loss of this as an incentive to improve could mean future lack of progress; governments in the region will have to find their own motivations for preventing ethnic conflicts and tacking poverty.

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