The more things change, the more they stay the same.
The above expression is commonly used in Anglo-Saxon countries to show inertia as an often decisive force in political and social developments, even when everything seems to change shape. This expression came to my mind while reading the scenarios in the Western Balkans Futures report published by Visegrad Insight. (Read the report)
The aforementioned report highlights the fact that the war in Ukraine was unimaginable in this form and on the scale we know today. The Russian invasion of Ukraine surprised all experts and even more so those who try to make predictions by looking at different long-term trends, as is the case with this report.
Of course, many variables and assumptions are taken for granted and, naturally, other trends are of primary importance in this context. And yet, after reading the report, I had to send the authors an encouraging message that resembles this expression at the beginning. The report highlights and highlights various developments whose value does not even diminish in this new context, on the contrary, some of them take on more importance.
The report presents several scenarios regarding the future of the region, from a bleak vision where the status quo turns into conflict to a utopian vision where cooperation between Balkan countries emerges victorious over global challenges. The scenarios are titled:
- Forced hand
- Dark future
- An elusive Europeanization
- Defragmentation of the Western Balkans
In all of these scenarios, some more realistic and others more triumphant, there are very important links running through the narratives of European integration, regional cooperation, the role of third countries like Russia and China and the changes economic and demographic.
These topics have been the focus of attention, politics, reforms, protests, public debates and social media posts. The ensuing war in Ukraine has brought geopolitics back into prominence, something that the first scenario carefully treats as a choice and solution that the European Union has the potential to make in the face of systemic rivals.
Stagnation leads innovation
Regional cooperation, which has gained momentum in recent years, not least due to the stagnation of the enlargement process, is seen as an area with enormous potential, but only if it becomes comprehensive and non-destructive.
Pandemics and public health, environment and climate change are global concerns that persist alongside war and require regional collective action. But the economy and the need to get closer to EU average standards are also a driving force for market expansion and the removal of barriers. Scenarios 4 and 5 provide arguments and details on exactly how this collaboration could affect the future.
Personally, I think that the scenario that comes closest to the analysis of the research work that we have developed at the Institute of International Studies (AIIS) in recent years is scenario 3: an elusive and inaccessible Europeanization, whatever something that seems to be getting closer but we know is still so far away, so much so that it loses all its meaning.
This scenario is based on the painful premise of a weakening of democracy in many countries in the region and within the EU.
Corruption erodes gains
In this pessimistic scenario, the dynamic of corruption between politics, business and the media, a present and perceptible trend, becomes such that it completely erodes democratic and economic progress.
On the other hand, the lack of trust and limited interaction between citizens and the active part of civil society do not bring the expected result.
As the report quotes: “The result of this scenario is that insecurity will actually increase, human rights will be violated (and important allies – the EU – will have less incentive to protect and protect them) promote) as well as autocratic and populist regimes. will be consolidated.
This scenario clearly recognizes and indirectly denounces the hypocrisy that is growing and taking shape in relations between the Western Balkan region and the European Union. The prospect of membership remains on paper and is discussed as a cliché during every visit by senior officials, but in reality both sides are only buying time to take the next step.
It is this hypocrisy that the war in Ukraine can and must put an end to. The European Union must think and act strategically for the region and make room at home – for our countries that are part of the European family – and through which pass the challenges that keep it up at night: refugees, pollution, intimidation of ethnic conflicts.
On the other hand, the countries of the region, especially those accustomed to flirting with third parties, must convincingly anchor themselves in the foreign policy of the organizations to which they aspire to belong and carry out reforms guaranteeing power and the independence of institutions.
If this does not happen, scenario 2: a gloomy future, where a complete disruption of the integration and development processes that have taken place so far is still a possibility. And for those who shrug their shoulders in disbelief, even the war in Ukraine seemed impossible until recently!
The original text was published in Albanian in EUROPE.