The Crisis of Democracy in the Western Balkans. An Anatomy of Stabilitocracy and the Limits of EU Democracy Promotion
The new BiEPAG policy study has shown that the state of democracy and freedom has been backsliding or stagnating in the countries of the Western Balkans over the past decade. Through exploring the signs of democratic regression across the region, this document underlines that concepts such as “illiberal democracy” or “competitive authoritarianism” are in the rise.
The study finds that the recent rise of illiberal tendencies in several EU member states has called into question the EU’s transformative power of its enlargement policy. This is particularly obvious in the Western Balkans, where the EU is failing to live up to its promise to deliver democracy to those countries engaged in the process of joining the Union.
The study underlines that the EU needs to sharpen its focus on monitoring the aspiring members on their paths to stable and prosperous democracies governed by the rule of law. If it does not, the risks for the region, and for the EU by extension, are considerable. The findings of the study are forming the basis for a detailed set of recommendations on how to counter illiberal tendencies in the enlargement region.
The state of democracy and freedom has been backsliding or stagnating in the countries of the Western Balkans over the past decade.There is no single turning point for the entire region, but the downward spiral began a decade ago, and accelerated with the economic crisis in 2008 and multiple crises within the EU that distracted the Union from enlargement.
Yet, formally, the countries have all progressed on their paths to EU membership, and the EU has remained rather silent on these developments, even when confronted with concrete evidence, as in the case of the wiretapping scandal in Macedonia or the Savamala incident in Serbia. In the future, the EU needs to sharpen its focus on monitoring the aspiring members on their paths to stable and prosperous democracies governed by the rule of law. If it does not, the risks for the region, and for the EU by extension, are considerable. This BiEPAG policy brief provides a list of policy recommendations in regard of the European integration of the Western Balkans region, which is closely connected with the current state of the democracy in the separate countries.
In recent months, Europe has moved into great uncertainty. This uncertainty threatens to unravel some of the pillars of stability on the European continent that have been in place for decades. Western European democracies have well-developed civil societies, strong political parties and established media that can provide a bulwark against these challenges.
Democracies in Southeast Europe are more fragile. They have been backsliding for nearly a decade and a number of countries are governed by semi-authoritarian leaders whose commitment to democracy is lukewarm at best. The main driving force for democracy and reform has been EU integration, and its ability to provide an incentive for countries to reform, to strengthen democratic institutions and to result in reform-oriented liberal democratic governments. But, this main magnet for change in the Balkans has dramatically reduced its intensity. The members of the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group have been reflecting on this subject and the result is the policy brief “EU Enlargement in the Western Balkans in a Time of Uncertainty” which offers some strategies for the Balkans in an Uncertain World.
When the external EU and Schengen border is compromised, the borders of the Western Balkan states become European borders. When these states lag too much behind their European neighbours in their economic development and democratic standards, their citizens migrate. Regrettably, the political response to both dimensions of the migrant crisis in the Balkans has so far centered mostly on containment and deterrence. Worse still, there have been signs of horse-trading stability for democracy in order to have strong leaders able to tackle the migrant crisis. On the contrary, a decisive relaunch of the enlargement process, using existing tools and EU leverage effectively, would enhance both the capacities of the Western Balkan countries to handle external shocks and their attractiveness for their own citizens. Such a change in approach, however, requires replacing the current auto-pilot mode with a political driver of the accession process.
If ten years ago, Macedonia was a front-runner in the reform process, today it struggles to stop moving backward on virtually every single political criteria for EU membership. It is arguably the most devastating case against the credibility of the EU’s enlargement policy. The nascent efforts of the Przino agreement to establish the rule of law, accountability, and a level electoral playing field are met with strong resistance by the delegitimsed system that seeks impunity and its salvage through quick elections. As the scheduled dissolution of Parliament on 7 April is imminent, this BiEPAG policy brief presents the possible scenarios and policy proposals on how can the international community help restore the democracy and ensure the stability in the country, sending a powerful message to the other political elites in the Balkans.
This policy brief will address the EU’s drained transformative leverage towards Western Balkan accession countries, on-going political tensions in Montenegro, the agonising economic situation in the region, the main outputs of the Vienna EU-Western Balkans Summit, the Declaration on the Solution of Bilateral Disputes in the region, redesigned accession countries’ Progress Reports, and the impact of the refugee crisis on the Western Balkans region. The main message of this policy brief is that further efforts are needed to speed up the accession process.
Regional cooperation in Southeast Europe (SEE) has undergone a fundamental shift over the past decades. If in the late 1990s, when the process took off in earnest, it was mostly about strengthening security in the wake of violent conflict, nowadays the principal goal is to kick start economic growth and development in times of prolonged crisis. However, if in the 1990s, conflict was the alternative to regional cooperation, then now the alternative is to have frequent meetings between government officials, which do not necessarily impact or improve the every day life of people. Governments in the region are the main consumers of regional cooperation, while at the individual level, consumption of benefits deriving from regional cooperation is still lacking. On the other hand, citizens are highly supportive of regional cooperation. According to the Regional Cooperation Council’s Balkan Barometer 2015, 60% of citizens in the region want to see more regional cooperation and 76% believe that improved regional cooperation can positively affect the economy.
Recent assessments of the situation concerning media freedom in the Balkans have been sobering. The region is brewing with incidents of media freedom violations, which bring under attack not just the basic right to freedom of expression, but also the state of democracy in the region. In addition, some of the same problems that existed a decade or so ago are still haunting the Balkans: political pressure, illegal state subsidies – often in the form of state advertising, reinforced by the economic crisis – professional weakness, and a lack of security for journalists. Dunja Mijatović, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, declared recently that the state of media freedom in the Balkans today is worse than after the 1990s wars. Her assessment is in line with the findings of this year’s Reporters without Borders World Press Freedom Index and the Freedom House Freedom Press Report, both of which highlight a sweeping deterioration of global press and a massive decrease of media freedom in the Balkan countries. The aim of this analysis is to identify regional patterns and mechanisms of government control and pressure, as well as to offer potential benchmarks on how to effectively assess media freedom in EU accession countries.
Why don’t improvements in the business environment and deregulation of labour markets always result in the reduction of the unemployment rate? This question is addressed by looking at the relation between the level of regulatory burden for doing business and the labour market, and the unemployment rates in the six Western Balkan countries and territories—Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia. The sole dependent variable is the level of unemployment, which is examined in relation to the selected World Bank “Doing Business” indicators in the form of overall distance to frontier and labour market regulation pertaining to dismissing workers and tax wedge. The WB6 countries managed, during the past five years, to shorten the distance to the frontier, which has yet to result in a significant drop in the unemployment level. One of the possible reasons for this is that business and labour market reforms, though introduced, are not fully or properly implemented. The other is that some non-economic variables, such as the strength of political institutions and the level of corruption, undermine the positive effect of economic reform on the business environment. The paper concludes with suggestions for further research.
The EU accession countries of the Western Balkans (WB6) have come a long way since the wars of the 1990s. Besides progress at the individual country level, the emphasis within the EU accession framework upon regional cooperation and good-neighbourly relations has contributed to an overall strengthening of relations between the WB6 and their EU neighbours. Nonetheless, the persistence of unresolved bilateral disputes – some open, some only potential – poses a real risk of renewed instability by delaying EU integration and distracting from domestic reforms. This policy brief is presenting a list of key recommendations that set out some general principles regarding the tackling of bilateral disputes and a number of specific suggestions for the short term. Finally, a toolbox proposes concrete elements that the EU and its member states can draw on in addressing outstanding bilateral issues in the future.
The policy brief offers the key recommendations addressed to the EU, the To the European People’s Party (EPP), and Party of European Socialists (PES) and aimed at solving the ongoing political crisis in Macedonia. Democracy in Macedonia can be restored with sound political management. It does not have to come through a revolution. However, it is necessary to first change the government that abuses power and then to restore fundamental rights and values, to reform institutions, and to initiate political and social reconciliation. The EU should not lose its opportunity to support democracy in Macedonia and to increase its enlargement and foreign policy instruments. More than a few countries in the EU’s neighbourhood have similar needs, and it is in line with the EU’s strategic priorities to act.
In May 2014, the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BIEPAG) published the report “The Unfulfilled promise: Completing the Balkan Enlargement”. The report identified four different scenarios highlighting opportunities and risks for the enlargement process. While there were some positive developments since the launch of the first BIEPAG report (among others, Albania became a candidate country; a proposal for the Stabilisation and Association Agreement with Kosovo was adopted by the Commission; the launching of the Berlin Process), the words of the incumbent Commission President that no further enlargement would take place over the next five years cast a long shadow over the enlargement process. This policy brief covers the recent developments in the EU and the region in order to examine how they fit with in the previous analysis. BiEPAG offers a new list of recommendations, which may not shorten the time in the waiting room, but at least it can make it more rewarding.
Completing the EU Enlargement to the Balkans: Dancing the European Kolo. A step to the side or a step forward?
This policy brief, prepared by the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG), builds on its May 2014 Policy Paper, where different scenarios for the future of the Western Balkans were analysed, coupled with a specific set of recommendations on how to reinvigorate the EU accession process in the region, with particular focus on unresolved bilateral relations and internal political dysfunction in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The aim of this brief is to consider the latest developments related to the EU enlargement to the Western Balkans, namely the election of the new European Commission, the new initiative for the restart of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s accession, the announcement of new bilateral conditions, and the on-going deterioration of regional cooperation.
Eleven years after the EU committed itself to the European future of the Western Balkans, only one country—Croatia—managed to join. The accession process remains slow and the remaining aspirants in the region are unlikely to enter the EU before the end of the decade. In addition to an increasingly demanding conditionality, member states seem to be intervening more often with the integration process, often delaying in predictable ways. As a majority of citizens in many EU member states oppose further enlargement, membership seems remote and uncertain for many countries in the region. This policy paper explores the risks and opportunities that different potential paths in the integration process can take. More specifically, the report discusses four scenarios for the future of EU enlargement towards the Balkans.