“1 in 5 million”: Mounting pressure in Balkan protests

New civil protests are laying bare growing forms of repression across the Western Balkans

The Western Balkans has attracted new attention in recent months. Though, as ever, not for the best of reasons. Those people who are have not voted with their feet by leaving the region – emigration recently hit a record high – have taken years of accumulated anger, frustration, and rage out onto the streets.

In the last 20 years, the Western Balkans has seen little progress. Political leadership from the 1990s may have changed colours, but the politics very much smells the same, in one aspect in particular – state control.

In 2015, the revelation of secret tapes made illegally by the Macedonian secret service exposed an unmatched level of abuse of power by the state apparatus there, abuse that effectively controlled the media and influenced judiciary. The issue stirred massive protests that eventually led to snap elections and the prosecution and sentencing of officials in the highest offices.

In Serbia, meanwhile, a continued trend of attacks on media and its freedoms goes on. A recent European Commission report stated that the “cases of threats, intimidation and violence against journalists are still a concern, while investigations and final convictions remain rare”. This was echoed in the 2018 Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index report, which highlighted the “alarming number of attacks on journalists that have not been investigated, solved, or punished, and the aggressive smear campaigns that pro-government media orchestrate against investigative reporters.”

Contrary to popular narratives, these protests go beyond Western Balkans stereotypes of divisions – religions, nations, identity politics

Media that do not report favourably enough for the state establishment and the ruling elites get openly labelled as “foreign agents and enemies of the people” and come under untenable political, financial, and administrative duress. With journalists targeted in such an organised fashion, it comes as no surprise to observe the numerous cases of intimidation, verbal abuse, and harassment reported in the past years. This culminated in late 2018, when a coalition of five Serbian media associations published a letter directed at the international community, calling for the action.

1 in 5 million

On the eve of 15 December , under the slogan “1 in 5 million”, an estimated 35,000 people marched on the streets of Belgrade. What started as a protest against state violence and unprecedented state media control revealed all the cracks of a deeply broken system.

Unresolved murders; attacks on political opponents, the media, and free thinkers; decades of restricted democratic freedoms; and the general atmosphere of fear have finally resulted in fully fledged protests resembling those of the late 1990s. The Serbian president, Alesksandar Vucic, responded by declaring that he would not meet any demands – “even if there were 5 million people in the streets”. As a result, the following weekend thousands more marched wearing badges displaying the slogan “1 in 5 million”, a picture shared in media reports around the world. Vucic later retracted his statements, offering a dialogue with the opposition, even snap elections. But there are few left who believe elections in Serbia can be fair given the government’s current grip on the media and in the current atmosphere.

Ten days later and some 350km away in the city of Banja Luka, capital of Republika Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina, thousands of citizens began their own protests. The death of David Dragicevic, a young man whose father accused the local authorities of concealing his murder, painfully unmasked all that is wrong with Bosnia today – high-level state corruption, a broken judiciary, and police brutality.

The father’s nine months of peaceful protest turned into a massive outcry from citizens seeking justice not only for David, but for all. On Christmas Eve, the Republika Srpska political leadership, led by Milorad Dodik – once a darling of the international community, now a member of the Bosnian presidency and a hardened Serb nationalist leader – set riot police on citizens who had gathered on Banja Luka’s central square. Dodik issued a statement warning that: “the street will not shape political decisions [in Republika Srpska]”, unmistakably mirroring the leadership messages in Serbia.

Repression with impunity

Contrary to popular narratives, these protests go beyond Western Balkans stereotypes of divisions – religions, nations, identity politics, and everything the region’s citizens have been told to hold on to for the last 25 years. The protests share one thing in common. They are directed towards the authoritarian leadership, pro-government state media, corruption, and a painfully chronic absence of the rule of law.

The European Union’s response to these events is weak, but very much expected. But if the region has learned anything from the Macedonian ‘secret tapes’ case, it is that a progress is possible, but the drive for change must come from within the Balkans itself. Unless the citizens of the region take up the challenge and respond adequately to this repression, the possible scenarios are ugly. Detached from reality, politicians in the Western Balkans do not shrink from using force. In their mission to (not) transfer power, they will continue to discipline their citizens using all means necessary.

As for the EU, pretending not to see the unrest throughout the region will have its consequences. The EU knows the region too well to risk not recognising that the challenges are only going to get greater. Wasting no more time, and not disregarding the political realities on the ground, the EU would be better off using its political leverage to align its activities in the region with the priorities that matter to citizens.

After all, this is what the EU project in the Western Balkans has, formally speaking, always been about. The absence of concrete actions, and constant political turmoil, together prevent the countries of the region from entering the EU accession process fast track. The EU leaders and their representatives in the Western Balkans repeatedly stress the importance of the role the citizens play in the region. The question is: what role can the EU play to remedy this? As a first step it should go beyond the typical formats and call for citizens’ consultations that take place with a much wider scope than before. Some important steps in this direction have been taken, such as  when ambassadors of all EU member states in Bosnia and Herzegovina met with Davor Dragicevic. Nevertheless, much more is needed. 

It would be the most ambitious exercise undertaken to date, yet it would be well worth including for the EU itself. A large majority of citizens in the region feel excluded from the EU integration process. And high level, closed door meetings remain reserved for the politicians only. This contributes to the impression that EU matters are neither public, nor that the citizens are expected to be active players in the process. This leaves them with very little to choose from 

Western Balkan citizens are fully aware that their freedoms are disappearing before their eyes. They know too well that governments growing in authoritarianism will not easily be stopped. But ‘easy’ has never been the plan for the citizens of the Western Balkans. They keep on protesting, in greater numbers than before but also now with clearer messages – those of anger but also of hope. In Bosnia each and every new attempt to show resistance makes a difference. Banja Luka residents defied the ban and lit candles to honour a 21-year-old student. Belgrade is stronger with Nis, Kragujevac, and other cities in Serbia, which joined in great numbers, led by doctors, scientists, actors unwilling to accept that their colleagues are leaving the region in thousands, possibly forever.

The new wave of protests gives citizens clarity, allowing them to define what future state they want to live in. But, maybe even more importantly, it bolsters their sense that citizens should not be made to live in fear of the state.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.

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