The success of the Brexit campaign in the UK and the election of Donald J. Trump in the U.S. has crystalized in the West a phenomenon that has been evident in the Western Balkans for the better part of the last decade. Namely, the Euro-Atlantic project has stalled, and that the very idea of liberal democracy, both in the Balkans and in the West more broadly, is in crisis.
Civil society actors, and all those committed to the democratization and stability of this region, cannot afford to underestimate the significance and severity of the coming realignment if we are to “reclaim Europe” as a political and normative project.
We are approaching a moment of regime entropy; the Euro-Atlantic framework which has defined the region since the end of the Yugoslav Wars is weakening, local elites have realized it—as have, to some extent, local progressive forces—and the contest is now to redefine the region as a social space in the years to come.
This process may take decades, as did the process of post-Ottoman realignment for instance, beginning with First Serbian Uprising (1804-1813) and ending only after the First World War. Nor is it impossible to reverse this process of erosion, but for policy makers and activists, it is critical to acknowledge that the contest has nevertheless begun.
In this contest there are three camps—although fluidity between the first two remains significant: (i) the local elites who are still hedging their bets with and on the West, (ii) elites who are clearly and deliberatively moving towards new benefactors, and (iii) the nascent civil society of the region, which is still very much in the process of only articulating its existence, and has historically struggled to assert its own political program.
By the “Euro-Atlantic project,” of course, I mean the integration of the states of the former Yugoslavia into two primary political blocs: the European Union and NATO. But when we speak of the EU and NATO what we are really talking about is values and norms, rather than mere institutional affiliation.
The EU and NATO mean, in theory, economic prosperity, democracy, the rule of law, and security. If we understand each of these terms as experiences rather than mere events—that democracy is not merely elections and that security is not merely the absence of active conflict—the purported “transformative” dimension of the Euro-Atlantic project in the Balkans already seems shaky.
In reality, it is much more than shaky. Over the past two years we have seen a complete breakdown in parliamentary governance in Macedonia and Kosovo, we have seen a profound turn towards illiberalism in both Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the region as a whole is no longer nestled into a cocoon of stability. Turkey is on the brink of dictatorship, and is certainly in a state of war, Hungary likewise flirts with illiberalism, while Greece continues to seethe economically and politically.
And framing all of this, in turn, is the profound geopolitical shift that has begun since the end of the Arab Spring and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and to which we can now add both Brexit and the U.S. election. Today, unlike even decade ago, there are concrete and deliberate attempts by Russia, in particular, to draw into question the democratic Euro-Atlantic project in the Western Balkans. And the EU and U.S. can no longer be fully depended on defend either, both in the Balkans and as a whole.
To be clear, the current government in Moscow has no serious competing project for the region; neither Belgrade nor Skopje will soon become a member of the Eurasian Union. But when we glibly suggest that Russia is a mere “spoiler,” we fail to take full account of what that means; what does it mean for a reactionary, authoritarian power to sabotage the democratization, reform, and reconciliation processes in the Western Balkans? Indeed, precisely because these processes have been “uneven” so far (to say the least), the corrosive effect of Russian, or illiberal sabotage more broadly, is increased.
In this respect, Russia invests little in the region, in terms of concrete financial capital as compared to the EU and individual member states like Austria. But it actively exports it values, and politically emboldens fellow travellers in the Balkans and elsewhere. The inherent anti-democratic impulses of local leaders, like Milorad Dodik, Nikola Gruevski, and Aleksander Vučić, among others, are strengthened the more Russia asserts itself as the leader of a “illiberal international” and the more European and American policymakers in the region respond with technocratic promissory notes or simply disregard.
In other words, Russia and the broader global turn towards authoritarianism are providing local elites with the ideological subterfuge (the nation, traditional values, sovereignty etc.) necessary for them to obtain but primarily maintain the status quo: a political-economic culture rooted in patrimonialism and kleptocracy.
I refer to this phenomenon as “elastic authoritarianism” and in the book I am currently writing, I suggest that it is the essential quality of the Balkan state and elite culture. Namely, the adoption of ideological facades—say, communism or liberal-democracy—while maintaining traditional forms of rule and domination.
It is elastic both because it is able to incorporate these various ideological projects, and because in moments where an existing ideological paradigm collapses or weakens, local elites have historically managed to turn on a political dime. In the final analysis, what this means is that the status quo—the supposedly inevitable drift towards Euro-Atlantic integration in the Balkans—is at the very least, fundamentally at risk.
A few weeks ago, I published a piece with my colleague Borja Lasheras of the European Council on Foreign Relations in the Belgrade Security Forum paper series where we argued for a turn towards “deep democratization” in Western policy towards the Balkans. The essential message of the paper, much as this rejoinder, is simple: all is not well in the Balkans, in fact, it is worse than it appears.
This is not to sound alarmist or to dismiss the necessity of that which I critiqued at length today, Euro-Atlantic integration. In fact, it is more necessary than ever before. But meaningful democratization in the Balkans cannot occur through mere technocracy; it must instead be a political project, one that embraces the necessity of embedding deep in these societies democratic norms and values. And that, in the end, can only occur through empowering local civil society actors—like those leading the charge in the streets of Skopje today—over the course generations and not merely the fleeting life cycles of particular policy initiatives.
Dr Jasmin Mujanović is a political scientist specializing in southeastern European and international affairs and, in particular, the politics of post-conflict and post-authoritarian democratization.