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What Europe can do for the Western Balkans

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The Balkans are no longer as exciting as they once were. The large-scale violence that made the region a central concern of European politics in the 1990s is no longer a feature of Balkan politics.

This is progress, of course. But the absence of violence does not mean the absence of problems. Persistent economic weakness, growing public frustration with leaders and renewed ethnic tensions have created an unsettled mix beneath the apparent calm. As Europe’s attention on these issues wavered, external actors – 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 country, it will need to re-engage in the Balkans.

EU membership should remain an important part of European engagement. But given the acute problems facing the region and the slow pace of enlargement, the EU must take immediate and concrete measures that can make a difference for local populations and change the negative dynamics in the region. This should include increasing its investments 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 moderate growth and poverty reduction to the Western Balkans. But corruption and unemployment, particularly among young people, which varies from 39 percent in Montenegro to 54 percent in Bosnia and Herzegovina, remains a persistent scourge. It is no coincidence that dissatisfaction with politics and policies is also on the rise: 71% of citizens in the region do not have confidence in the effectiveness and impartiality of the justice system itself. All of this means that people have very low expectations about their future. Forty-three percent of Western Balkan citizens have considered emigrating elsewhere.

Beyond their similar economic challenges, the six Western Balkan states share latent ethnic tensions, although each has its own specificities.

Albania experiences deep political divisions in which politics and clan relations intertwine in a web of vengeance and corruption. Drug trafficking and money laundering thrive in this environment. Rather than responding to these failures of governance, Edi Rama, the Albanian Prime Minister, recently made the situation worse by raising the specter of Greater Albania, fueling fears of Albanian secessionism in neighboring Macedonia.

Bosnia and Herzegovina still suffers from stagnation and stalemate 22 years after the end of its civil war. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, divisions between the three ethnic groups have become more pronounced over the past ten years. Few state institutions function as they should (in a multi-ethnic manner).

The Central Bank, for example, has three competing leaders and the military would likely collapse along ethnic lines in a crisis. The EU’s bet that institution-building could create a multi-ethnic state has been upended by ethnic politics. Ethnic loyalties proved stronger than any foreign-built institutions.

Kosovo is struggling to establish good governance, while facing new tensions with Serbia. Former Kosovo prime minister and war hero Ramush Haradinaj has been tried twice by the Hague war crimes tribunal and has even threatened to claim a third of Serbian territory. Pristina also managed to reignite tensions with Montenegro over the demarcation of their border.

In Macedonia, an internal political crisis has caused inter-ethnic tensions and even violence. Further clashes are not imminent, but the larger crisis continues. Leaders like former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski continue to play the “ethnic card” for political purposes, which risks reigniting violence.

Montenegro managed to join NATO and escape an apparent Russian-assisted coup attempt. But it is still only at the beginning of its EU reform process and must stabilize its public finances.

Finally, Serbian officials are also inclined to provoke regional tensions. Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic recently said that Serbia should never have recognized Macedonia under its current name. Other Serbian remarks echoed accusations from Macedonian domestic politics that present Macedonian leader Zoran Zaev and his new coalition as a step towards the destruction of Macedonia and the creation of a Greater Albania.

Withdrawal into “stabilocracy”

The Balkan malaise has had repercussions on the legitimacy of the EU. Only 39 percent of the region’s population continues to view EU membership as a good thing for their economy. Worse still, Balkan leaders now view the entire accession process with cynicism. As one local politician described it: “We lie to (the EU) that we are serious about reforms, and they lie to us that they are serious about membership.”

We can understand their cynicism. European public opinion seems opposed to adding new members to the EU and quite willing to tell its governments so. All it takes is a recalcitrant European political group and a touchy government to torpedo membership.

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 opposition intimidation and creeping authoritarianism . As we wrote in a 2016 ECFR guidance note“These ‘untouchables’ prevail over independent review and judicial oversight, employing powerful rhetoric of populism and nationalism and fueling the polarization of these societies.”

The Nations in Transit reports and Freedom House’s democracy rankings for 2016 show that almost every country in the region has seen a decline in its democracy scores. The largest decline was recorded in Macedonia, which remained in the grip of a political and democratic crisis for most of 2016. Serbia was close behind, mainly 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. This promotes corruption, drives out young people and pushes the region away from the EU.

It is high time for the EU to move beyond stabilocracy. Addressing economic challenges is an obvious path to achieving concrete results. Integration in infrastructure, transport, energy and digital are all on the agenda of the existing Berlin Process which aimed to reinvigorate the accession process. Indeed, public opinion in Western Balkan countries is strongly in favor of greater regional cooperation. The German-led initiative is expected to 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 stay in power in a candidate country for so long. Over time, they erode checks and balances and contravene fundamental principles of democratic governance.

This means that the EU must be more political and more intrusive, but the European institutions themselves are not used to taking such a hard line. It took American intervention to resolve the recent crisis in Macedonia, although several senior European officials visited Skopje before the American delegation. Member States must therefore take the lead.

Countries like the Netherlands, which have a proven track record of rule of law and human rights, should take a more visible stance. And even after Brexit, the UK can participate in security-related discussions. Media freedom and NGO legislation are other sensitive areas in which certain Member States (such as France or Spain) could play a leading role. Investing in technical consultations with governments on how to restructure vital public sectors, such as health and education, would also bring important results.

The EU cannot assume that the status quo will ensure stability in the Balkans. This will require combining accession tools with economic ambition and political clarity.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take a collective position. ECFR publications represent solely the opinions of their individual authors.

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