The Balkans: Democracy is Struggling

2017 has, so far, seen a worrying degree of agitation and instability on the Balkan peninsula. At the start of March, David McAllister, a German MEP and chair of the European parliament’s foreign affairs committee, said “Geopolitics has returned to the Balkans […] We are seeing the growing Russian influence, we are seeing growing Turkish influence, the United States is a player, the European Union is a player, so there are different interests at stake.” McAllister’s concern is that this destabilization is underway as a result of these competing influences, and given that the region was consumed by violence in the not-so-distant past, (the Srebrenica massacre of 1995 remains the worst genocide on European soil since World War Two), such a situation must be attended to as a matter of urgency. 

From a European perspective, the influence of Russia is of particular concern. Although the countries of the FYR and Balkans have all shown commitment to European integration (indeed Slovenia and Croatia are already EU members), there are fears that this will redouble Russian attempts to influence political life in a zone it has typically considered to be within its sphere of interest. Serbia continues to enjoy a strong relationship with Moscow and observers draw parallels between the kind of regime Serbia’s Alexander Vucic endorses and that of Vladimir Putin: parallels that worry Europe. They would have perhaps worried Europe more, were it not for the fact that the EU is now deeply focused on its own Brexit-related existential problems - prompting many in the Balkans to suggest that they have been forgotten. This is not least the case for Edi Rama, the Albanian Prime Minister, who accused Europe of closing its door to Albania and Kosovo and has suggested, to Serbian ire, the possibility of Albanian unification if EU membership is no longer an option. Tensions between Kosovo and Serbia have now reached a near critical level. Attempts to normalize relations between the two states (thanks to the Brussels agreement of 2013), seem to be increasingly derailed by inflammatory rhetoric. 

To begin with, let us examine one of the major political events of recent months: the elections in Serbia. Incumbent Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic (‘once’ a Serbian ultranationalist) won the presidential position with more than 55% of the vote. His primary opponent, the liberal Sasa Jankovic came second with 15%. This victory (of more than 50%) meant that Vucic avoided a runoff election against a single opposition candidate. He can choose his successor in the role of Prime Minister, and is expected to by the end of this month. Analysts warn that he will, like Turkey's Erdogan, use the role to consolidate power and make the position of President (largely ceremonial up until now), into something much more significant. As Vucic will be the leader of the ruling political party, and the president, he will have the capacity to bypass the parliament and therefore could make constitutional changes to enshrine greater power in the presidency. His victory has been met with protests across the country by detractors levelling accusations of electoral fraud, muzzling the media and oppressing the opposition. At multiple rallies, which, according to some reports, attracted as many as 80,000 people, opposition protestors were seen bearing placards with “Down with dictatorship” and “Vucic, you stole the election.” One irregularity that protesters cited was the presence of 800,000 alleged ‘ghost names’ on the electoral lists. If true it indicates that democracy in Serbia is already broken. Sasa Jankovic, his principal opponent, said there were irregularities in 25 constituencies. So far, Vucic has not suggested that there will any kind of large scale investigation of the claims! 

The election certainly exposed the level of cynicism directed towards the political establishment in Serbia: the fact that the third runner up, attracting 9% of the vote, was comedy character Luka Maksimovic, a parody of a corrupt politician played by a 25-year old student, suggests how disenchanted voters are. Aside from economic woes, as witnessed across Europe, there are accusations that Vucic’s rule is increasingly authoritarian in character. This is particularly pertinent to the media. During the election, it was repeatedly alleged that Vucic monopolised the press; indeed the Journalism School of Novi Sad noted that Vucic had more air time than the other candidates - and the media were accused of bias. In its 2017 report, the watchdog organization ‘Reporters Without Borders,’ said that Serbia was among the countries that saw the worst decline in media freedom over the past year. Journalists working independently of the state frequently find themselves harassed. Vuk Jeremic, a former forces minister and opposition candidate, commented, “It has never been like this before, this kind of imbalance and inequity […] In this abnormal situation, you can’t even start talking about freedom of expression.” 

The Council of Europe has warned that in Serbia in recent times, there has been an increase in hate speech and violence against the LGBT and Roma community, along with an increase in racism among sports fans, which it suggests, should not be allowed to go unchecked. Serbia is not the only Balkans nation where domestic politics is characterized by a veer to the right. Croatia has had a period in which rights have deteriorated. A snap election last September in Croatia, saw the ruling conservatives, the HDZ, retain their lead. The period leading up to the election saw a spate of worrying attacks on the independent media and minorities, in particular ethnic Serbs. Last year, Zlatko Hasanbegovic, a man described by the Simon Wiesenthal Centre as a “fascist” was appointed culture minister. 

Hopefully it seems this period may have ended in Croatia, as the Prime Minster, the moderate Andrej Plenkovic (who removed Hasanbegovic from the post) has repeatedly pledged to move away from extremism and steer the country back to a centre-right position. 

The fact that inter-ethnic tensions seem to be on the rise, is of course a worrying precedent. The Serb-Croat axis is however far from being the only one of its sort in the Balkans’s complex mesh of 15 different nationalities. Much tension is concentrated around Europe’s newest country: (majority Albanian) Kosovo. The 2013 Brussels Agreement between Kosovo and Serbia (of which it was formerly a part) was a long-awaited accord, establishing a number of goals to be achieved in order to normalise relations between the two sides. The agreement laid provision for a Community of Serb Municipalities or Association of Serb Municipalities, which would be a self-governing association of those municipalities with majority Serb population in Kosovo. It was hoped that this would be established in 2015, but negotiations remain ongoing. 

The agreement also signalled the possibility of moving towards EU membership. At this point in time, relations between the two sides are acrimonious. In January, a Serbian train covered with signs saying “Kosovo is Serbian,” was sent towards Kosovo; a storm of outrage was provoked. Enver Hoxhaj, Kosovo’s foreign minister, responded with a three-page letter in which he said, “The Republic of Kosovo encourages the European Union … to urge Serbia to remain committed to good neighbourly relations and regional cooperation and not interfere in the domestic affairs of other countries, or take provocative actions which aim for the destabilisation of the region.” Last month Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama caused outrage in Serbia by suggesting that the reunification of Albania and Kosovo could be an option if both countries felt rebuffed by the European Union. He said this was not his desire but “a possible alternative to the closed door of the European Union.”

The statement was designed, it seemed, principally to criticize the EU. He and the President of Kosovo, Hashim Thaci, both voiced frustration at “the lack of vision by the EU toward the region”. Needless to say, it provoked upset in Serbia, where accusations of Albania hoping to cultivate a “greater Albania” (Serbian nationalists long cherished the idea of “greater Serbia”) were legion. Additionally, a few days prior, the mayor of the Albanian-populated town of Bujanovac in Southern Serbia, Jonus Musliu, said that the Presevo valley was a part of Albania, and that it was necessary for “Albania and Kosovo to show Serbia that this is a part of Albania that must not be touched”. in response, Vucic called on the EU to react and commented, “If I said that all Serbs should live in one state, I would be hanged from a flagpole in Brussels.” The US ambassador to Albania, Donald Lu, issued a statement decrying “careless” calls for the unification of Albania and Kosovo and arguing that rhetoric of that ilk undermined the regional stability of the Balkans. The flames were also fanned by reports that the former head of OSCE mission in Kosovo, William Walker, has said he was actively working on the unification of Albania. Vucic accused Walker of promoting this goal whilst heading the OSCE mission – saying, “Everywhere and at every level, Serbia will present this as the ultimate proof that Walker’s goal was never to protect human rights in Kosovo but to fight against Serbia and for the creation of a ‘Greater Albania’. Now, as signs of destabilization multiply, some analysts have mulled the idea of a land swap; for example, giving North Mitrovica to Serbia in return for the Albanian-majority Preševo valley going to Kosovo. 

Is the idea of border exchange really palatable, or indeed, possible? It seems that there is little appetite for it. Shqiprim Arifi, an ethnic Albanian moderate elected mayor of Preševo last year, has asserted he believes that there will be no return to the border shifts and violent conflicts of the past. He described, rather accurately, the problem: “It’s not in the interests of the region, and it’s not in the interests of Albanians. If they change one border, it’s a Pandora’s box, a chain reaction – Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Kurdistan. Our only option is to be together within the EU.” As there is a considerable strong Greek indigenous population in Southern Albania, there is also a fear that Albanian instability could lead to discontent on their part, destabilizing the region as a whole. Tensions have also flared in Macedonia, where there has been a political crisis since 2015, between ethnic Macedonians and Albanians. 

Serbia has, for some years, been ‘managing’ a difficult balancing act between its traditional ally Russia, (the link mainly lying in an ancient Slavic connection, with a long shared history of Orthodox Christianity) and the ‘realpolitik’ of the massive regional reality of the EU. At the moment, it continues to cultivate ties with both sides. After his election as President, Aleksandar Vucic told supporters that,”a huge majority of people in Serbia support continuation of the European path for Serbia, along with preserving our traditionally good ties with Russia and China.” Putin does not seem troubled by Serbia’s overtures towards Europe and endorsed the candidate. A notable sign of cooperation between Belgrade and Moscow is the fact that this year the St Petersburg Economic Forum, which is a major event in the Russian calendar, will offer special emphasis on Serbia, with a state delegation led by acting Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic attending. 

Russia unsurprisingly has supported Serbia in its row with Kosovo (whose independence it does not recognize) and continues to back hard-line Slavic extremists. Whilst pouring money into Serbia, it also supports Republika Srpska (the Serbian entity never to be forgotten as coupled with the horrors of the massacre of Srebrenica), within the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina which frequently causes consternation by suggesting it will hold a referendum on independence. A recent poll showed Serbians were more likely to assume Russia was the country’s biggest aid donor, rather than the EU, although the estimated €3 billion awarded by the EU since 2000 dwarfs the sums contributed by Moscow. Yet certainly the Kremlin’s presence is more visible than that of Europe. It has been accused of attempting to control state media and influence public opinion. Additionally, in September Serbia will participate in ‘war games’ organised by a Moscow-led security bloc. However, it will also have joint drills with the U.S. Serbia’s militarization is a concern. Just before the elections in Serbia, Vucic went to visit Putin and was apparently promised delivery of fighter planes, battle tanks and armoured vehicles to Serbia. This has sparked fears in the EU that an arms race may develop in the region. Serbia is not the only place Russian influence is feared by the West. The Kremlin has been accused of interfering in tiny Montenegro’s political development by plotting a (failed) coup last October that would have derailed its plans to join NATO. The country has now officially become a NATO member, much to the Kremlin’s vexation, who had spotted a potential Mediterranean port for its Navy . Appetite for EU membership remains fairly strong among the countries of the Balkans (in Serbia just under half of people are believed to be in favour of accession, according to a recent poll). Whilst Croatia settled in comfortably, acceding in 2013, other states are much further behind in the process, to their disappointment, although Montenegro and Serbia are engaged in formal membership talks. 

Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo and Macedonia are further behind. There is a sense that, amid the EU’s own internal strains, the region has been forgotten. Recently however, the EU’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini made a well-publicized trip to convey that this is not the case. With regards to Serbia, the EU has praised Vucic as a bringer of stability - and he has been lauded by top EU officials such as Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker. Europe has been accused by some of turning a blind eye to Vucic’s authoritarian leanings in gratitude for the ’stability’ he has brought, albeit that is generally a little admired characteristic of rightwing nationalists. Certainly, the values he represents are not entirely compatible with the core social values of the union but there seems to be little desire on the EU’s part to chide him for such at this point in time.

When the Council of Europe issued recommendations to Serbia with regard to hate speech, it also asserted that Serbia needed to acknowledge the Srebrenica massacre as genocide, something it has been reluctant to do. The shadow of the war looms large over the region, and many remember how quickly a war of words slid into carnage and catastrophe. The Humanitarian Law Centre has expressed its belief that the ruling political elite in Serbia glorify war criminals, as opposed to building bridges with victims. For example, former Yugoslav People’s Army Colonel, Veselin Sljivancanin, who holds a conviction for his high-profile role in the massacre in the eastern Croatian town of Vukovar, has been welcome at events organised by the ruling Serbian Progressive Party. It has also been suggested that Serbia's new chief war crimes prosecutor, Snezana Stanojkovic, will focus on bringing to justice those who have committed crimes against Serbs - rather than by them. The experience of a recent war is what produces these signs of destabilization - not just to the European Union, but also to the citizens of the Balkans. It is they who tread a narrow path and it is they that have everything to lose. 

Sara Bielecki