This article was originally published by International Crisis Group on 28 April 2017.
The Balkans was best known for minority problems. Today, the most bitter conflicts are between parties that appeal to majority ethnic communities. As recent turbulence in Macedonia shows, Eastern Europe could face new dangers if majority populism ends the current stigma against separatism for oppressed small groups.
The trouble in the Balkans today is not Russian meddling, though there is some of that, but a special case of the malaise afflicting Eastern Europe: unchecked executive power, erosion of the rule of law, xenophobia directed at neighbours and migrants and pervasive economic insecurity. The pattern varies from country to country but is palpable from Szczecin on the Baltic to Istanbul on the Bosporus. The countries of the Western Balkans – Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia – have long tended to follow patterns set by their larger, more powerful neighbours. They are doing it again.
The ability of the European Union (EU) to fix problems in the Balkans is hamstrung when the same troubles persist within its own borders, sometimes in more acute form. Take erosion of democratic norms: Hungary over the past decade has slid from 2.14 to 3.54 on Freedom House’s “Nations in Transit” democracy score (lower is better). Poland’s decline is more recent but equally steep. Croatia is also backsliding. Almost all the Western Balkan states are declining, too, but more slowly.
The familiar image of the Balkans is of a region with lots of minority problems: small groups that are oppressed or want to break away. Today, though, the most bitter and dangerous conflicts in most of the states there are between parties that appeal mostly or exclusively to the majority ethnic community. Minorities are bystanders, pulled in against their wishes.
What of the risks of secession? At least three territories have the capacity to break relations with their parent states and establish local control, at least temporarily: Bosnia’s Republika Srpska; Macedonia’s Albanian-majority north west; and Kosovo’s Serb-majority north. All three would prefer to live under a government of their kin, yet none has acted, because they believe secession is doomed to fail. No important country is willing to recognise another breakaway republic in the Balkans.
This can change in at least two ways. If a state fails to perform essential tasks like holding elections, adopting a budget and disbursing funds, a region could claim independence was necessary and try to break off on these ground. Alternatively, separatism could lose its stigma if one or more territories in the EU context were to break off peacefully – though in practice there is no appetite to accommodate this at the EU level and sensitivities abound among member states. But if either of these happen, it will be time to worry about the Balkans.
A crisis is gathering momentum in Macedonia, highlighted as some 200 protesters stormed its parliament on 27 April after an ethnic Albanian politician was voted in as speaker. Clashes that followed inside and outside the parliament injured over 70 people. The country’s substantial Albanian minority fought a small, short war against the central government in 2001. Veterans of that conflict battled police with much loss of life as recently as May 2015. Yet as Macedonia teeters on the brink of state failure, its domestic conflict has little to do with inter-ethnic tensions: it is between two predominantly Macedonian parties, the ruling, right to far-right VMRO-DPMNE and the opposition Social Democrats (SDSM). The country has been a candidate for EU membership since 2005, when it was at the head of the Western Balkans pack. How did it fall behind?
VMRO-DPMNE has governed Macedonia since 2006. At some point after taking power – 2010 at the latest but the exact date remains unclear – the government began perpetrating what an EU investigation called a “massive invasion of fundamental rights”. This came to light in part in a series of leaks in spring 2015, summarised by the EU report as: “electoral fraud, corruption, abuse of power and authority, conflict of interest, blackmail, extortion … criminal damage, … nepotism and cronyism”, and many other offences including interference in the judiciary and independent institutions at all levels. The government was also shown to be illegally wiretapping thousands of people, including nearly all prominent political figures, along with media and many diplomats. VMRO had in effect converted most of the state into machinery to serve its partisan interests.
Under intense EU pressure, early elections were held in December 2016 that would normally have resulted in an opposition coalition government. Macedonia had also agreed to a mechanism to investigate and prosecute the previous government’s abuses. None of these things happened. The largely ceremonial president, though constitutionally required to appoint the head of the majority coalition as prime minister, refused: he is a loyal VMRO man. The president claimed that the Social Democrats’ concessions to their Albanian coalition partners endanger the state. In fact these concessions are mild and reasonable.
The result is a standoff. Naim Rashiti, executive director of the Balkans Group, a think-tank, warns that “VMRO simply does not want to transfer power, so it threatens to provoke ethnic conflict instead”. Though neither party can form a government, VMRO continues to run the state in caretaker mode. Meanwhile, what began as a battle between two predominantly Macedonian parties has spilled over into ethnic tension. VMRO has pinned its hopes on mobilising Macedonian fears of the Albanian minority and its alleged separatism. There are signs this is working: support for the SDSM has fallen, and “patriotic” demonstrations in favour of VMRO take place in Skopje daily.
Macedonia’s Albanians have remained loyal despite reservations about how the government treats them. They reasoned that Macedonia offered them the fastest route to membership in NATO and the EU. Since VMRO’s abuse of power has frozen Macedonia’s candidacy, this is no longer true. Albania overtook Macedonia in Freedom House’s democracy rankings in 2016, and even Kosovo – with the worst rating in the region – is not far behind. Meanwhile, amid precarious inter-ethnic cohabitation, VMRO’s exploitation of fears of Albanians’ so far marginal separatism is creating the conditions – a xenophobic failed state – that may provoke the minority to seek secession.
Macedonian civil society has called for targeted sanctions against officials, and the European Parliament’s rapporteur raised the possibility of “other instruments, starting from the financial kind”. The basic requirement is that the majority coalition must be allowed to take office and govern. To do otherwise is to risk ethnic conflict in one of the most dangerous parts of the Balkans. Macedonia was spared bloodshed during Yugoslavia’s disintegration, and its populations are still mixed, with Albanian-majority regions starting in the suburbs of Skopje, the national capital.
European messaging has been disastrously confused. While Brussels urges responsibility, some member states give aid and comfort to VMRO, which is an associate member of the European People’s Party (EPP). That link is presumably the reason for Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz’s otherwise inexplicable decision to campaign for VMRO in the December 2016 elections. Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, also an EPP colleague, said “Macedonia cannot be stable without [VMRO]”, endorsed that party’s call for a new election and urged the EU to speed up accession talks with Macedonia, Serbia, and Montenegro. Europe needs to speak with one voice and show zero tolerance of any party that systematically abuses power, or any state that systematically ignores the rule of law.
Kosovo’s leaders need to hear the same warning, because they are making the same mistakes. A struggle for power between Albanian-majority parties is paralysing the state and creating a dangerous ethnic backlash. A coalition of opposition parties won national elections in June 2014, but the incumbents refused to give up power. The details are complicated, but the consequences of the ruling Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK)’s clinging to power – if somewhat mitigated by a power-sharing-arrangement with the centrist Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) – are clear: Kosovars’ public trust in key institutions has plummeted; in the most recent poll, confidence in the prime minister fell from 48.5 per cent before the crisis to 19.7 per cent; faith in the Assembly and the president fell by similar amounts.
The opposition chose to fight the PDK’s iron grip on power with the most powerful weapon in its arsenal: nationalist resentment of Serbia and Kosovo’s Serb minority. A minor rock-throwing incident in Gjakovë in January 2015 degenerated within weeks to riots in the capital, Pristina, as opposition activists focused popular rage on the government’s weak spot, its alleged coddling of the Serb minority and subservience to Belgrade. The parliamentary opposition resorted to months of disruption, setting off tear gas canisters in the Assembly, pelting the prime minister with eggs and blocking the lectern. The government responded with waves of arguably illegal arrests of opposition deputies. At one point in 2016, nearly half the opposition’s representatives were in prison. An entirely technical exercise in border demarcation with Montenegro, a key EU requirement for visa-free travel for Kosovars, became hostage to the crisis amid spurious opposition accusations the government was giving away land.
Relations between the government and opposition parties have started a fragile recovery. A dialogue mediated by Balkans Group since March 2016 has party leaders talking and persuaded the opposition to stop disrupting the Assembly. Persistent work by civil society and local actors has in this case shown more durable results than high-level visits by international actors. Traditionally, Kosovo leaders have relied on internationals to resolve their conflicts. This home-grown initiative is a welcome departure.
Lurching toward Paralysis in Bosnia
In its last Balkans report, in 2014, Bosnia’s Future, Crisis Group noted “little risk of deadly conflict” but warned the country was “slowly spiralling toward disintegration”. Recent events confirm that assessment. Bosnia’s foundational problem is that none of its peoples, or their leaders, like its constitutional order – but ideas for fixing it run in opposite directions. When times are calm, Bosnians can muddle through. Even minor stresses bring the fault lines to the surface.
The latest of these might prove fatal. The details are again complicated, but the gist is straightforward. The Constitutional Court has struck down part of the election law, and unless it is amended, Bosnia will be unable to replace the current legislature and executive when their terms expire in October 2018. A caretaker government could function for some months but not pass a budget; by spring 2019, therefore, Bosnia might be in paralysis and disintegration.
The good news is that the laws are not especially hard to repair. The bad news is that amendment requires the main Bosniak, Serb, and Croat parties to agree. Any major party can hold things up indefinitely, perhaps to wring unrelated concessions out of reluctant partners. Something like this happened before: in January 2012, the court struck down a small part of the election law pertaining to the city of Mostar. The town has now missed two rounds of local elections and is still run, after a fashion, by a mayor in his fifth year as caretaker. There is no city council. What is barely tolerable in a medium-sized town cannot work nationwide.
Srećko Latal, director of the Social Overview Service think-tank and regional editor for the Balkans Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN), warns that “state paralysis is exactly the kind of crisis that separatists in Republika Srpska are waiting for, as it would provide an ideal justification to break away”. Republika Srpska’s leaders have made no secret of their desire for independence; its president, Milorad Dodik, once boasted that “one day [independence] will fall into our hands like ripe fruit from a tree. We are waiting to have examples of how to do this in Europe so that no one can blame us for anything”.
Preventing a catastrophe in Bosnia requires placing the state on a more stable foundation, rather than merely repairing the cracks revealed by this most recent crisis. Conventional wisdom holds that revisiting Bosnia’s constitutional structure is a fool’s errand, and that instead, the country needs the balm of European integration. That is now a very remote possibility: too remote for safety. Crisis Group repeats its recommendation to the leaders of Bosnia and its two entities: initiate a debate on fundamental reform along the lines sketched out in our last report.
Our Man in Belgrade
Macedonia’s crisis is the worst, and most dangerous, in the region, but its leaders are not alone in treating the instruments of state as their personal property. In Serbia, Aleksandar Vučić came to power in 2012 on a pro-European, clean government platform. He won EU support by promising cooperation on the main European priority, resolving the Kosovo–Serbia dispute. Since then he has leveraged that support – especially a claimed close relationship with Germany’s Angela Merkel – to gain what an international official described as “unparalleled control of all aspects of the Serbian state, media and society”. The official noted that Vučić’s “compliance with external partners has been rewarded with a blind eye being turned on [his] increasingly authoritarian” rule at home. His party’s influence over the media is reflected in his overwhelmingly positive coverage, compared to negative or neutral stories about his rivals.
What did Vučić do to get carte blanche from Europe? His main achievement was giving up Serbia’s ambition to govern Serb-majority territory in Kosovo, and agreeing to partially lift the veto on Kosovo’s membership in international organisations. These were big steps, hard for a former nationalist to take. As a result, Kosovo could sign a Stabilisation and Association Agreement with the EU and get its own international telephone code. Yet, Kosovo is still barred from the UN, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Council of Europe, and the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue has stalled. Serbia lacks a formal veto over Kosovo’s membership in these bodies but other states, notably Russia, back up and enforce Belgrade’s wishes. Vučić forced the Kosovo Serbs to join Kosovo government institutions at local and national levels, but he retains full control over their elected representatives, who make regular pilgrimages to receive instructions. In a reckless provocation that nearly led to armed clashes at the border, Serbia painted the first train scheduled to service both countries in its national colours and with the slogan “Kosovo is Serbia”.
The Kosovo-Serbia dialogue was built on the assumption that the hard questions of recognition and status were unresolvable, so a long period of incremental rapprochement was the way forward. That was probably right, but the approach is now exhausted. Within Kosovo, debate on the role of the Serb minority has been hijacked for partisan mobilisation, and as long as Pristina treats its Serbs as a punching-bag, true normalisation with Belgrade will remain impossible. The time for a frank dialogue about status may not quite have arrived but it is not far off. The necessary outcome is already clear enough: an independent Kosovo, recognised by Serbia, with an integrated but autonomous and self-governing Serb minority.
The Russians: More Opportunistic than Strategic
Until very recently, Montenegro was the sole bright spot in the Western Balkans. It is due to join NATO in May 2017 and is the most plausible candidate for early membership once expansion returns to the EU agenda. Its economy shows robust growth, and its politics are relatively placid. Or they were, until a recent election was marred by a bizarre plot implicating Serbian and Montenegrin gangsters and Russian spies in what some claim was an attempt to topple the government and assassinate the prime minister. The New York Times reported in February on a series of Russian moves “to exploit political fissures in [the Balkans,] an area that was once viewed as a triumph of muscular American diplomacy”. Others such as the Atlantic Council’s Dimitar Bechev are more cautious, but note the “lacklustre political landscape of the present-day Balkans does provide Russia with endless opportunities to rock the boat”.
Apart from this odd episode, Montenegro’s impressive track record is mysterious: it is the only country in Europe to be governed by the same party – in effect, the same person – since the late 1980s. It is enormously corrupt – so much so that an international watchdog named Montenegrin leader Milo Djukanović its Person of the Year “for his work in promoting crime, corruption and uncivil society”. Djukanović became an important Western ally during the late 1990s, when he broke with Serbian dictator Slobodan Milošević. Since then, he has fostered his country’s alignment with the EU and NATO, joining in the former’s sanctions against Russia in 2014. His country’s success suggests it is possible to thrive against all Western advice about democratisation and accountable government.
Russia’s role in what really happened in Montenegro remains obscure. There is evidence of planning for violent action by a motley group of Serbs and Montenegrins, drawn from veterans of the wars of the 1990s and the criminal underground. The plotters were apparently connected to Eduard Shishmakov, said to be a member of Russia’s military intelligence service. Dejan Anastasijević, a journalist who has covered the paramilitary underground, has written that Shishmakov served with official cover in Poland but was expelled as persona non grata; his presence in Serbia was under a pseudonym and without cover, perhaps a demotion. For an intelligence officer seeking to rebuild a tattered career, Anastasijević added, recruiting dodgy former fighters and gangsters would be normal behaviour, but it is unlikely Moscow would sanction an assassination.
Moscow’s interests in the Balkans are clear: prevent or delay NATO expansion but also push against EU’s dominance in the region, and promote friendly parties and leaders while compromising and embarrassing opponents. Russia has few illusions about Slavic brotherhood. Few in the Western Balkans bother to learn Russian. Balkan leaders do play Russia off against the West, especially when they feel exposed to uncomfortable EU pressure – or when they hope for cash handouts from Moscow. But Europe is a far larger financial presence. While Russia is not above stirring up trouble when it can do so at low cost, BIRN’s Latal argues that it does not want to see deadly conflict in the region, because this would likely draw in NATO forces.
The Balkans are increasingly discussed as a region hit by the chill of a new Cold War. But the most important thing Europe can do to keep peace and foster reform in the region is to focus on local sensitivities, which are much stronger drivers of risks in the region than geopolitics, and to remain healthy itself. This is a small part of the world, some eighteen million people with a collective GDP of about half of 1 per cent of the EU’s. They will follow the European lead, whether that is recession and xenophobia or booming open societies.
Beyond this, Europe should affirm its basic standards of democracy. Leaders in Serbia, Macedonia, Kosovo and some EU member states systematically violate these norms with impunity. Whatever expediency justified this has passed; hollowing out the rule of law is now the main threat. Finally, Europe should signal that the time for avoiding hard questions in Bosnia and Kosovo is ending.
About the Author
Marko Prelec, former Crisis Group Balkans Project Director, is Professor of Practice and Director of Applied Policy Projects, School of Public Policy, Central European University.
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