The Balkans are not as exciting as they once were. The large-scale violence that made the region a central concern of European policy in the 1990s is no longer a feature of Balkan politics.
That’s progress, of course. But the absence of violence does not mean an absence of problems. Persistent economic weakness, growing public frustration with leaders, and renewed ethnic tensions have created a volatile mix beneath the surface calm. As Europe’s attention to these issues wavered, outside actors – most notably Russia, but also Turkey and China, began to assert themselves. If the European Union wants to maintain stability and influence in its own troubled backyard, it will need to re-engage with the Balkans.
EU accession should remain an important part of European engagement. But given the acute problems in the region and the slow pace of enlargement, the EU needs to take immediate, concrete steps that can make a difference for the local publics and change negative dynamics in the region. This should include increasing its investment in Balkan economies, improving its technical assistance to Balkan governments and, most importantly, holding Balkan leaders to higher political standards.
The Balkan Malaise
Peace has brought some moderate growth and poverty reduction to the Western Balkans. But corruption and unemployment, particularly youth unemployment, which ranges from 39 per cent in Montenegro to 54 per cent in Bosnia and Herzegovina, remains a persistent blight. Not coincidentally, dissatisfaction with politics and policies is also on the rise—71 per cent of citizens in the region lack faith in the effectiveness and impartiality even of the judiciary. All of this means that people have very low expectations for their future. Forty three per cent of Western Balkans citizens have considered emigrating elsewhere.
Beyond their similar economic challenges, all six states of the Western Balkans share simmering ethnic tensions, though each has its own specificities.
Albania has deep political divisions in which politics and clan relations intertwine in a web of vengeance and corruption. Drug trafficking and money laundering flourishes in this environment. Rather than respond to these governance failures, Edi Rama, the Albanian Prime Minister, has recently made it all worse by raising the spectre of Greater Albania, feeding fears of Albanian secessionism in neighboring Macedonia.
Bosnia and Herzegovina still suffers from stagnation and gridlock 22 years after the end of its civil war. Divisions in Bosnia and Herzegovina among the three ethnic groups have, if anything, grown in the past ten years. Few of the state institutions function as they should (in a multi-ethnic fashion).
The Central Bank, for example, has three competing leaders and the army would likely break down along ethnic lines in the event of a crisis. The EU’s bet that building institutions could create a multi-ethnic state has been upended by ethnic politics. Ethnic loyalties have turned out to be stronger than any of the foreign-built institutions.
Kosovo is struggling to establish good governance, while facing renewed tensions with Serbia. Kosovo’s former Prime Minister and war hero, Ramush Haradinaj, tried twice at The Hague war crimes tribunal, even threatened to lay claim to a third of Serbia’s territory. Pristina has also managed to re-ignite tensions with Montenegro over the demarcation of their border.
In Macedonia, a domestic political crisis has caused inter-ethnic tensions and even violence. Renewed clashes are not imminent, but the larger crisis rambles on. Leaders like former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski continue to play the ‘ethnic card’ for political gain, which risks re-igniting violence.
Montenegro succeeded in joining NATO and escaping an apparent Russian-assisted coup attempt. But it is still at the beginning of its EU reform process and needs to stabilise its public finances.
Finally, officials from Serbia are equally prone to provoking regional tensions. Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic recently noted that Serbia should never have recognised Macedonia under its current name. Other Serb remarks closely echoed accusations in Macedonian domestic politics that portray the Macedonian leader Zoran Zaev and his new coalition as a step towards the destruction of Macedonia and the creation of a Greater Albania.
Retreat into ‘stabilocracy’
The Balkan malaise has had a knock-on effect when it comes to the legitimacy of the EU. Only 39 per cent of the public in the region continue to see EU membership as a good thing for their economies. Worse, Balkan leaders now see the entire accession process cynically. As a local politician described it: ‘We lie to [the EU] that we are serious about reforming, and they lie to us that they are serious about accession’.
One can understand their cynicism. European publics appear opposed to adding new members to the EU and quite willing to tell their governments so. It takes only one recalcitrant European political group and a susceptible government to torpedo accession altogether.
In the absence of an effective accession process, the search for stability in Europe’s periphery has motivated EU leaders to turn a blind eye to the intimidation of opposition and creeping authoritarianism. As we wrote in a 2016 ECFR policy brief, “These ‘untouchables’ trump independent scrutiny and judicial review, employing a powerful rhetoric of populism and nationalism, and fueling the polarisation of these societies”.
Freedom House’s Nations in Transit reports and democracy rankings for 2016 shows that almost all countries in the region experienced a decline in their democracy scores. The biggest decline was in Macedonia, which remained engulfed in a political and democratic crisis for most of 2016. Hot on its heels was Serbia, primarily due to irregularities in the conduct of the 2016 parliamentary elections and a general decline in democratic governance.
Such ‘stabilocracy’, as it is known in the region, amplifies the underlying problems of the Western Balkans. It fosters corruption, drives the youth out, and pushes the region away from the EU.
It is past time for the EU to move beyond stabilocracy. Tackling economic challenges is an obvious avenue for delivering concrete results. Integration in infrastructure, transport, energy, and digital are all on the agenda of the existing Berlin process that was intended to reinvigorate the accession process. Indeed, there is strong public support in the Western Balkan countries for more regional cooperation. This German-led initiative should lead to the creation of an infrastructure fund, but any serious effort would require member states to double the funds available.
But the real challenge will be political. The EU should not allow leaders like Gruevski to remain in power for so long in any candidate country. Over time, they erode checks and balances and contravene the basic principles of democratic governance.
This means the EU needs to be more political and more intrusive, but EU institutions themselves have no tradition in taking that sort of hard line. It took US intervention to resolve the recent crisis in Macedonia, even though various senior EU officials had visited Skopje before the US delegation. So member states need to take the lead.
Countries like the Netherlands that have a track record of working on rule of law and human rights issues should take a more prominent stance. And even after Brexit, the UK can be included on security-related conversations. Media freedom and NGO legislation are other sensitive areas where particular member states (such as France or Spain) could play a prominent role. Investing in technical consultations with governments on how to re-structure vital public sectors, such as health and education, would also bring big returns.
The EU cannot assume that business as usual will provide stability in the Balkans. That will require marrying the accession tools with economic ambition and political clarity.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.