international analysis and commentary

The former Yugoslavia’s EU neighbors

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Over the past few years, a new trend has been emerging in the former countries of Yugoslavia that are not yet EU members. Serbia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Kosovo and Bosnia Herzegovina are being ruled by increasingly authoritarian governments. Such a situation is tolerated by the European Union as it hopes to ensure regional political stability through economic reform alone, thus at the expense of democracy and political freedom.

Recently, the small former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia has gained considerable attention in the international press. Since February, opposition leader Zoran Zaev has revealed to the general public proof of shocking abuses committed by Premier Nikola Gruevski and his party (the Democratic Party for the Macedonian National Unity, VMRO-DPMNE). These include the illegal wiretapping of more than 20,000 activists and opposition members, widespread corruption, electoral fraud, interference with the judiciary system and the attempt to cover up the killing of a young supporter of VMRO-DPMNE by the police, in 2011. The series of scandals convinced thousands Macedonian citizens to stage huge protests every day since the beginning of May, beginning to camp in front of the government building and asking for the government to resign (a protest which is already being called “The Macedonian Maidan”).

Consequently, it has become more evident how the Macedonian ruling élite has built an authoritarian system of power over the last nine years. On May 9th, police action in the city of Kumanovo left 18 dead and 37 injured. While Macedonian authorities officially blamed “a group of terrorists”, allegedly coming from “a neighboring country”, some suspect that the government itself might be behind the clashes, in order to divert public attention and stop the protests.

However, Macedonia is far from being the only case of growing authoritarianism in the region. On the contrary, the whole former Yugoslavia area seems to be experiencing similar dynamics. In the small Republic of Montenegro, President Milo Djukanović has been ruling uninterruptedly for almost 25 years, despite being strongly suspected of having connections with organized crime and with the local drug lord Darko Šarić. Over two decades, he consolidated his power by attacking civil society groups, the opposition and independent media.

Meanwhile, in Serbia, civil society is increasingly worried about the attitude of Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić who, after a landslide electoral victory in 2014, is extending his control over the media and state institutions. The Serbian premier, who served as Minister of Information during the regime of Slobodan Milošević, is an omnipresent figure in the national media and in the last year his government has been constantly attacking the activity of independent newspapers like ‘Pešćanik’(critical of the current majority). Vučić has also silenced Utisak Nedelje, one of the most important political talk shows of the country, and its chief Olja Bećković, as well as three other shows which were seen as a threat to the government.

Kosovo already qualifies as a “semi-consolidated authoritarian regime”, according to a 2015 Freedom House report, with huge pressure from the government on NGOs and media freedom. The ruling party (PDK) also infiltrated the EULEX mission in order to avoid that the tribunal for war crimes in the country might eventually indict some of its senior members.

Finally, in Bosnia and Herzegovina the “regional entity” Republika Srpska is on the verge of becoming the personal fiefdom  of Milorad Dodik, head of the biggest pro-Serbian party, who recently pushed through a law prohibiting freedom of speech in social media and is drafting a bill limiting the autonomy of NGOs. Indeed, this country may also represent the best example of personalization of power, another emerging trend in the Balkans: all main parties in Bosnia and Herzegovina are headed by a strongman – such as Fahrudin Radončić (pro-European conservatives), Bakir Izetbegović (Bosniac Islamic nationalists) or Dragan Čović (Croat right).

The “authoritarian temptation”

This trend is partially fueled by the growing influence in the region of leaders such as  Turkish President Recep Tayyp Erdoğan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. Balkans expert Florian Bieber labeled this tendency “the authoritarian temptation” of the governing parties of the “semi-democracies of Southeast Europe”.

While formally respecting democratic principles and laws, wrote Bieber in his personal blog, “governing parties succeed in having the absolute control over the institutions and the society through various forms of patronage”. In a context where high unemployment is widespread, this happens mainly through the exchange of votes for jobs, especially through the distribution of positions in public companies and institutions.

In addition, increased control over the media limits the voice of the opposition and of civil society. According to Reporters without Borders, press freedom in the region has worsened in the last year in Kosovo, Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, while Montenegro and Macedonia rank constantly at the bottom of the list. The strong influence of politics over the judiciary also plays an important role in these power structures.

It is worth noting that the de facto monopoly of power has allowed the governing parties to push through some economic reforms that liberalize the business environment and improve competition. For instance, just a couple of months after being elected, the government of Aleksandar Vučić in Serbia adopted arduous reforms on labor and pensions; last January Montenegro announced a program of economic measures for the next two years, with the aim of consolidating the country’s finances; even Bosnia and Herzegovina is gradually trying to change its labor market with new regulations intended to meet the standards required by the IMF. Remarkably, while democracy is deteriorating in the region, these countries are trying to improve their economies – with some success. In fact, Macedonia was described as the regional leader in the World Bank’s Doing Business report.

In a context where the pressure of public opinion rarely matters to authorities, improved business conditions inevitably bring along some shady business deals. For example, Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski has been widely criticized for his plans to fill the capital city center with monuments glorifying the history of the country: the project, named Skopje 2014, would require around €500 million according to opposition parties. Meanwhile, the Serbian government started a construction project called Belgrade on Water whose approval was secured by a lex specialis, and not by a regular vote in parliament. Kosovo is building the most expensive highways in the region, even if according to many observers there was hardly any need for them. Montenegro invested almost €110 million in the construction of a luxury tourist bay in Tivat, Porto Montenegro, which raised eyebrows. And, last but not least, Bosnia and Herzegovina might soon build another luxury resort near the Jahorina Mountain worth more than €2 billion.

Brussels’ political pragmatism

With the growing instability of the Middle East, the increasing influence of Russia and the fear of further penetration of radical Islam in the area, the EU has been investing more in the integration of the Western Balkans in an attempt to minimize the possibility of their destabilization. However, after the post-war emphasis on institution building and the rule of law, even Brussels seems to have lost hope in political reform and attempts to make the best of this situation.

With the economic crisis and growth stagnation, Brussels now opts for supporting governments able to implement much needed economic reforms in exchange for their silence on violations of human rights and pluralism. It likely hopes that political freedom will follow once a better economic situation is achieved.

A blunt example is the recent entry into force of the Stabilization and Association Agreement for Bosnia and Herzegovina, as a first step toward a country’s EU membership. This was a direct consequence of a new British-German initiative aimed at putting aside institutional reforms in order to give priority to economic betterment. In November 2015, right after the Parliamentarian elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina, both London and Berlin openly addressed Bosnian politicians, urging them to approve immediate reforms in order to improve the social and economical situation of their citizens and to openly endorse European integration with a vote by the national Parliament. The Sejidić-Finci case (a decision by the European Court in Strasbourg urging Bosnia and Herzegovina to change its Constitution to grant equal rights to minorities), which left the country in a stalemate for more than four years, was brushed away in favor of a criterion of purely  economic conditionality.

The question is how long will this policy be sustainable? The latest clashes of Kumanovo in Macedonia, in May, have shown that there is a long way to go before achieving true stability in the region and that, in any case, an improved economic situation may not be enough to guarantee progress on civil rights and well-functioning democratic institutions.