On April 27, masked nationalists stormed the Macedonian parliament, injuring Social Democratic Party leader Zoran Zaev, among many others.
It wasn’t an isolated incident in the Western Balkans, a region that comprises Albania and the former Yugoslav countries of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia. Twenty-five years after the fall of communism, Western Balkan countries have become halfway democracies and the region struggles with ethnic, religious and nationalist tensions.
Here are three main issues that can explain the political crisis in these countries:
1) Why didn’t democracy deliver healthy political competition in the Balkans?
The opposition center-right parties that rose to power after the fall of communism in the early 1990s have dominated political life — first as nationalist parties in the former Yugoslav Republics, but later as advocates of pro-Western values, including membership in the European Union and cooperation with the international community.
Former communist parties retooled themselves into main parties of the left by becoming detached from socialist ideology and moving away from populist economic reforms. As a result, parties on the right claimed issues that made them popular with the traditional constituency of the left and embraced popular norms of liberal democracy. This meant parties on the left were somewhat crippled in their efforts to emerge as a credible alternative to ruling center-right parties.
As I show in my research, for example, the center-right parties even took on traditionally left-wing issues such as gender equality, eager to show to their citizens and the world that they supported Western values. In Albania and Montenegro, where the left has remained popular, the parties faced internal threats and fragmentation, forcing them to cling to populist policies to survive as legitimate political forces.
Where does this leave the region? The lack of healthy political-party competition in many of these countries has led to one-party and one-leader regimes, often mired in clientelistic politics, when political support is tied to exchanges of goods and services. These regimes, in turn, are unwilling to give up power and adopt timely economic and political reforms needed to guarantee membership in the E.U. What seemed like a strong commitment to the E.U. has turned out to be superficial lip service rather than actions to improve the rule of law and strengthen representative and power-sharing institutions.
The dominant center-right parties, demanding to hold on to power at all costs, are questioning the benefits of E.U. membership and, with a weak opposition in place, democracy in these countries is again at risk.
2) What’s Russia got to do with it?
Russian interference in the Slavic-majority nations in recent years has further complicated the political landscape. In October 2016, a plot by a group of “Russian nationalists” to assassinate the prime minister of Montenegro was thwarted. In March 2017, Russia accused Albania, NATO and the E.U. of trying to impose a pro-Albanian government on Macedonia, all while supporting pro-Russian nationalist leaders in the Balkans. Heavy Russian investments coupled with the spread of conspiracy theories and anti-Western, anti-E.U. propaganda makes the region a battleground for political influence from the East.
3) Can the E.U. mediate democracy in the region?
The E.U., although scrambling for ways to assure the Western Balkan states of their unquestionable future path to membership, provides a legitimate option for a more prosperous region, but most importantly for a peaceful one.
To fulfill membership requirements, Eastern European states looking to join the E.U. have to comply with the Copenhagen criteria — which means ensuring the rule of law, economic stability and state capacity to implement necessary laws. This policy of conditionality comes with sizable rewards in the form of funding, investment opportunities and, ultimately, E.U. membership.
The question that remains unanswered for the Western Balkan states is whether conditionality is a sufficient incentive to overcome the high costs of E.U. membership. The case of Croatia, which became the 28th member of the E.U. in 2013, is somewhat encouraging. However, the rest of the region is not making fast enough progress toward membership. For example, despite pressure from international actors, including the E.U., Albania has been unable to successfully implement judicial reforms to create a process to vet the credentials and qualifications of all judges and prosecutors and ensure the independence of the judiciary.
The E.U. faces a dilemma. If the bloc demands lengthy, meaningful changes in exchange for membership, Russia could take advantage of the opening and push against the expansionist European agenda by offering nationalist incentives and an alternative vision for the Western Balkan states. If the E.U. speeds up membership talks, it could ensure short-term stability in the region but potentially undermine democratic reforms, leading to anti-E.U. sentiments in countries where citizens have yet to reap the benefits of democracy.
The recent protests in Serbia demonstrate this potential problem. As detailed here in the Monkey Cage, the election of Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic as president triggered anti-corruption protests across Serbia. Vucic is known abroad for his pro-E.U. stance. But many Serbians remain deeply resentful of his victory and accuse him of fraudulent elections and corruption.
What’s next for the Western Balkans?
Learning from the most recent accessions, the European Commission has decided to prioritize the rule of law and judicial reform in the integration process, making it the foundation on which all other reforms are to be built. However, as scholars have noted, although the principle of conditionality induces formal legal changes, it does not promote practical action that can lead to meaningful transformation.
What does this mean in practical terms? To foster true change in the region, the E.U. will have to consistently and strategically assist countries in adopting and putting into practice these legal changes. And a firm political approach to democracy assistance, supporting key institutions such as independent judiciaries and independent media that help level the political playing field, could bring some new leaders into a region where the democratic process has been stalled by domineering political figures.
It is clear that European leaders understand that the E.U. is a necessary actor to prevent recurring wars and ensure durable peace in the Balkans. The mode of E.U. engagement in the next few years will be critical in determining whether the region will prosper or again become the territory where big powers test their spheres of influence.
Ingrid Bego (@IngridBego) is an assistant professor of political science and public affairs at Western Carolina University. She is the author of Gender Equality Policy in the European Union: A Fast Track to Parity (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).