Despite good news, the Western Balkans are in trouble

Dimitar Bechev

Dimitar Bechev

On March 30, the North Macedonian flag was flown for the first time in front of NATO’s headquarters in Brussels. The former Yugoslav republic had waited for this moment for over a decade.

Had it not been vetoed by neighbouring Greece over a diplomatic dispute, North Macedonia would have joined the Atlantic Alliance together with Albania and Croatia back in 2009. After a deal was signed with Athens changing the name of the country in June 2018, Skopje made significant headway in its efforts to join Western institutions.

On March 24, the foreign ministers of the European Union’s member states agreed to give the green light to accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania. This came five months after French President Emmanuel Macron vetoed an early vote by the EU to start negotiations with the two countries.

At a time when pandemics, populism and authoritarian resurgence have seemingly turned upside down international affairs, the Western Balkans stick to the habitual policy. European integration is still as popular as it was in the heyday of EU enlargement in the 2000s.

Vulnerable countries on Europe’s periphery such as North Macedonia and Montenegro, which became part of NATO in 2017, continue to value the security guarantee extended by the pact. NATO membership cements North Macedonia’s historically contested statehood and it is seen positively by all ethnic communities in the country, and so is joining the EU.

In Montenegro, NATO remains controversial, but the same logic nonetheless holds. The membership safeguards independence and secures borders.

Serbia, the largest and arguably the most consequential country to emerge from the former Yugoslavia, is begrudging the West and is hostile to the Atlantic Alliance. However, surveys show that the majority support potential accession to the EU. Serbian citizens prefer Europe, rather than Russia or China, as a place to live and work, study, or do business.

Yet, despite these recent positive developments and the continuing approval in the Western Balkans of Euro-Atlantic integration, there are also reasons to worry.

The relationship between the region and the exclusive international clubs that local countries are gravitating toward are increasingly fraught. The EU now is preoccupied with internal consolidation. Following Brexit, the priority is building resilience within the existing institutions. European leaders like Macron argue for the deepening of the eurozone. Authoritarian backsliding in Hungary and Poland and populist insurgencies in Western Europe further limits the enthusiasm for expansion. As a result, the EU is not too eager to hasten its enlargement to the Balkans.

The Atlantic Alliance is also experiencing problems. The Americans and the Europeans are divided by trade disputes, with United States President Donald Trump lambasting allies for taking unfair advantage of the US. The White House’s decision to close US borders to Europeans in the early stages of the coronavirus crisis, without advance warning, exposed further the rift.

European countries furthermore favour a more nuanced approach to China, and are sceptical of Washington’s hostile attitude to Beijing. The US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal is similarly a point of divergence. Tensions inevitably undermine NATO.

In the Western Balkans, Western institutions have also become part of the status quo. They wish to see themselves as promoters of democracy, transparency and the rule of law, but they are unable to stop state capture.

Serbia, which is a frontrunner on the EU accession track, was downgraded from free to partly free by the nongovernmental organisation Freedom House in 2019. Montenegro, the other star performer, has never seen a transfer of power to the opposition. The Western Balkans take their cues from Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban rather than the well-functioning democratic polities in northwestern Europe.

The challenge is well understood in Brussels. The EU has been pushing for judicial reforms in North Macedonia and Albania. At Macron’s insistence, the European Commission produced a new enlargement methodology allowing more rigorous scrutiny of negotiating candidate countries. But deep-running changes are tough, and often run into hard-nosed opposition by vested interests. The EU – much less NATO, which is at its core a military alliance – cannot fix countries unless there is local buy-in.

Western powers have also started pursuing diverging policies in the region. The EU and the US recently collided in Kosovo. To the Europeans’ dismay, the governing coalition in Prishtina fell apart on March 26. That happened after the Trump administration sided with President Hashim Thaci against Prime Minister Albin Kurti.

The White House has been amenable to ideas for a land swap floated by Thaci and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic. EU members remain sceptical, and Kurti is deeply opposed. The German ambassador warned the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK, the junior partner in the cabinet) not to back a no-confidence vote. LDK did it nonetheless. The ambassador’s US counterpart tweeted he was pleased that the Kosovo parliament would make such a move. Europe and the US used to speak with one voice in former Yugoslavia. Not anymore.

The West is also not the only game in town in the Balkans anymore. That was brought to the fore with China’s public-relations offensive in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Vucic poured praise on Beijing for its support and deplored Europe’s alleged callousness.

As usual, pro-government voices amplified the message. Billboards thanking “Brother Xi” have sprung in Belgrade, paid for by a Vucic-friendly tabloid. While China and Russia are nowhere near the EU in terms of trade, investment and financial assistance to the region, they are scoring cheap points – all with the help of Balkan politicians exploiting such foreign policy partnerships to their own benefit.

But the greatest risk that the Western Balkans face does not stem from their fractious politics, but the economy. The disruption caused by COVID-19 is threatening to plunge the eurozone into a deep recession. The ripple effects will be felt acutely in the region, which is already closely connected to the EU marketplace.

The Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies forecasts that the Balkans and Central Europe are headed for their worst year since the 2008-2009 financial crisis. The region’s recovery in the 2010s was slow, painful and incomplete. The shock exacerbated negative tendencies, from authoritarian backsliding to creeping brain drain.

A fresh economic slump would shatter the Western narrative in the Balkans, diminish democratic aspirations, and perpetuate state capture.

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