The EU’s illiberal Balkan friends

After years of engagement, the EU may have helped create illiberal democracies across the Balkans

Ten years after European governments began forging a more joined-up foreign policy, the results have been more procedural than substantial. There has been a proliferation of initiatives in times of crises, like President Sarkozy’s shuttle-diplomacy during the Georgian War last summer, greater cooperation in the United Nations, and the formulation of joint strategies to fight terrorism, small arms and weapons of mass destruction. The EU has also deployed a number of military operations, and above all civilian and police missions in Africa, the Balkans, the Middle East and even Asia. But speak to European diplomats and they say the EU’s work in the Balkans is the bloc’s most substantive foreign policy success.

From a region torn apart in the mid-1990s, a new one has indeed emerged helped by the “push” of ESDP missions and the “pull” of Euro-Atlantic accession. One country (Slovenia) in the former Yugoslavia is already inside the EU, while another (Croatia) is on its way. In Serbia’s capital Belgrade, from where so much of the region’s destruction was planned, Boris Tadic’s government is keen to foster greater EU links. Serbia together with Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) officially joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PfP) Programme in late 2006.

Though tensions remain between Serbian and newly-independent Kosovo, as well as over the un-demarcated border between Kosovo and Macedonia, nobody expects the parties to pick up arms again. The tiny country of Montenegro has had a hopeful few years since independence. Once cut-off Albania joined NATO at the Bucharest Summit in April 2008 together with Croatia. Only in Bosnia-Herzegovina have ethnic divisions defied one of the world’s most intensive, multilateral nation-building efforts.

But these EU successes may be more fragile than many diplomats think. Getting the international-run protectorates in Bosnia and Kosovo to produce a self-sustaining kind of statehood in both countries will be particularly difficult. But focus on these unique cases tends to overlook problems elsewhere in the region.

For across the Balkans, Euro-Atlantic integration has not produced fully-fledged democracies; instead, an illiberal form of democratic rule remains the norm. Though this is an improvement on the region’s dictatorial past it may not be a signpost towards fully-fledged democracy, a stage to be passed, but rather a permanent condition caused not only by political traditions and the opportunities caused by the transition to free-market democracy, but perhaps also by the nature of the EU integration process itself.

From Montenegro and Albania and further inland to Kosovo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia and Serbia a new post-1990s generation of political leaders have emerged. They espouse liberal ideals, and contest elections. Unlike in Ukraine, they largely respect the formal rules of their constitutions. Different than Russia, they do not command their economies and cannot draw on an abundant supply of natural resources, which obviates the need to tax voters. In Central Asia, many leaders use a KGB-style apparatus to crack-down on even mild forms of dissent; few Balkan leaders would or could even do the same. Dissimilar to leaders in the post-Soviet space, many Balkan politicians enjoy widespread popularity, some even of the father-of-the-nation variety. The name Milo Djukanovic has become almost synonymous with Montenegro’s independence.

But the region’s leaders – Sali Berisha in Albania, Milorad Dodik in Bosnia, Nikola Greuvski in Macedonia or Milo Djukanovic in Montenegro — nonetheless resemble their post-Soviet colleagues in a number of respects. For each one of the Balkan leaders practices an illiberal “strong-man” brand of politics. To varying degrees, they have sought to centralize powers and to provide benefits to a close-knit group of followers, be they family, clan or party members. Patrimonial behavior – a politics based on family and clan — pervades the region. According to Transparency International, Albania is ranked as 85th of a total of 180 countries. In a letter, the NGO wrote to Prime Minister Berisha about various forms of corruption allegedly being committed by his government. The same could have been written to a number of Balkan leaders.

Though contemporary Balkan leaders for the most part eschew the vitriol and nationalistic language of their predecessors, many still tend do their politics through fear of the “other”. Though originally hailing from an anti-nationalist background, Milorad Dodik, the leader of Bosnia’s Serb-dominated Republika Srpska entity, often plays on the fear of the “other” — in this case Bosnian Muslims — and is happy to conjure up a state of siege, much like Slobodan Milosevic used to to. Last year, the Bosnian Serb leader was seen removing a pennant of the country’s flag from a table during an official meeting in the southern town of Trebinje. On the table he left two pennants, one with the flag of Trebinje, the other with the flag of the Republika Srpska. The message: Bosnian Serbs do not belong in Bosnia.

Further south, Macedonia’s Nikola Gruevski has orchestrated similar stunts to fashion an election-wining form of Slav Macedonian nationalism. Skopje’s football stadium was recently renamed in honor of Philip II of Macedon, who ruled in the 4th century BC. Macedonia’s airport and the highway to Greece are already named after Philip’s son, Alexander the Great. Statues of Hellenistic heroes are being erected between across the capital city. Even in Albania, where there are few minorities and fewer sectarian tensions, the recent parliamentary election saw nationalist references trotted out.

Nationalist stunts, however, only work if they are reported uncritically in press. Several Balkan governments have therefore maintained an illiberal attitude towards the Fourth Estate. Freedom House said the biggest drop in press freedom in 2009 occurred in Central and Eastern Europe with journalists murdered in Croatia, and assaulted in Bosnia. Elsewhere in the region, the pressure less violent, but nonetheless palpable.

In Macedonia, for example, the government has been quick to brand any coverage it deems critical as “antipatriotic”, which, according to the US State Department, “impacted freedom of the press.” In 2008 Albania’s National Council on Radio and Television fined TV News 24, an outlet known for its criticism of the government, a large fee for broadcasting a television spot ridiculing Prime Minister Berisha. In Serbia, journalists also risk prosecution if they print information drawn from official documents. That is what happened to Dragana Kocic and Timosenko Milosavljevic, journalists for the newspaper Narodnih Novina. In Montenegro courts often assess significant monetary judgments against the media for slander.

As the illiberal playbook also requires the silencing of alternative voices, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) often come under pressure from the authorities. On a scale of 1-7, with 1 representing the least favourable conditions for NGOs, Freedom House gives Serbia a meagre 2.75, Albania 3 and Macedonia 3.25. When the Albanian government changed the legal framework that regulates civil society organizations, few NGOs dared to speak up. In Montenegro, Freedom House says the NGO sector “continues to exist in a precarious and competitive environment”.

But it is not only how they govern that makes the region’s leaders illiberal. It is also how they get elected. Though “free and fair” multi-party elections are conducted throughout the region, even under the watchful eye of the international community electoral fraud remains a persistent feature. In the 2008 Macedonian elections, the European Commission noted instances of suspected fraud such as broken or missing ballot boxes. Elections earlier this year in Montenegro were marred, the OSCE said, by “frequent allegations of electoral fraud and a blurring of state and party structures created a negative atmosphere among many voters”. The recent poll in Albania also met with OSCE’s disapproval. Positive developments had been “overshadowed by the politicization of technical aspects of the process and violations observed during the campaign which undermined public confidence in the electoral process.”

The persistence of illiberal rule in the Balkans will not come as a surprise to many regional watchers. Nor are things necessarily worse than before; many (but not all of) the current crop of regional leaders took power from the first post-Communist generation, who were equally if not more illiberal. But after ten years of EU engagement and three years after the death of Slobodan Milosevic, the region’s officially last strongman, problems persist.

This may partly be explained by local factors – the political opportunities created by transition to democratic rule, the weakness of formal and informal institutions and the history of strongmen – from kings to generals to nationalist demagogues and communist-era tyrants – that have shaped local conceptions of leadership. Whatever else they did the likes of Slobodan Milosevic, Enver Hoxha and Todor Zhivkov may have etched a model of leadership into the Balkan psyche, which is hard to remove. In a period of economic and social dislocation — the global economic crisis has hit the western Balkans particularly hard — many may also feel nostalgia for the powerful strongmen of old.

However, could the nature of the EU integration process itself be partly to blame for the region’s illiberal turn, not only in the protectorates of Kosovo and Bosnia, but elsewhere too? The “pull” of the EU and NATO is often credited with having changed the region. Developments in the press, civil society, the electoral process, and the courts have all strengthened by the prospect of Euro-Atlantic integration. But could the enlargement processes be exacerbating illiberal rule by being focused on political leaders — who stand to gain electorally when their countries progress towards EU or NATO membership even if their role may have been limited — and by spending limited funds on grass-roots empowerment?

Whatever is keeping the Balkans locked in a time capsule of illiberal rule, the EU would do well to examine how its policies are impacting the nature of the region’s leadership. Blocking the accession of the Balkans to the EU would likely result in more back-sliding on reforms. But continuing on the current trajectory may snatch from the EU one of its only foreign policy successes and from the people of the Western Balkans a truly democratic future.

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


ECFR Alumni · Former Senior Policy Fellow

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.