Opportunity or Autocracy?

The EU’s current strategy to let EU accession of the Western Balkans come to nothing risks long-term stability and undermines the potential of the region. Germany should advocate a reappraisal of EU policy – or the EU will bear the consequences of its own miscalculation

By Vuk Jeremić, Former Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Serbia; President, Center for International Relations and Sustainable Development, Belgrade

Nothing explains the strategic importance of the Western Balkans for the EU better than a simple look at the map. Located at the midpoint between Berlin and Istanbul, what happens in the Western Balkans inevitably affects the entire European Union. The Western Balkans is also the gateway between Western Europe and the Middle East, illustrated by the recent refugee crisis as well as the worryingly high number of Kosovo Albanian fighters in Middle Eastern conflicts. Thus, while geography alone would justify making this region a priority for EU policy, the rest is literally history: Events in the Western Balkans twice cast a long shadow across Europe in the past century – first at the dawn of World War I in 1914 and then during the Yugoslav Wars in the 1990s. In both instances, solutions failed to resolve the underlying tensions that caused these conflicts in the first place.

Their geographic and strategic locations notwithstanding, the Western Balkans remain outside the European Union. Seemingly overwhelmed by the ongoing challenges and infected by accession fatigue, the European Union has relegated the integration of the Western Balkans to the back burner. As the above mentioned interconnections have sometimes earned the Western Balkans the title of Europe’s black hole, I believe this is one of the most short-sighted strategic decisions made by the present generation of EU leaders, and it has a high potential to backfire.

The region’s increasingly distant European perspective has eased the way for local autocrats to seize power through populist rhetoric, dismantling the achievements of nascent liberal democracies. What is more, the EU increasingly seems to prefer what University of Alberta scholar Srđa Pavlović has called “stabilitocracy” over veritable democratic reforms. An illustrative example is Serbia’s new president, Aleksandar Vučić, who served as information minister under Slobodan Milošević in the 1990s.

Vučić, as well as other Balkan strongmen, seems to have reached a tacit agreement with various Western decision makers: in exchange for appearing to maintain stability, he enjoys free rein to suppress fundamental rights and freedoms. Under Vučić’s increasingly autocratic rule, Serbia has experienced rigged elections, has witnessed its opposition leaders being slanderously vilified, and its media outlets surrendering their objectivity and independence to autocratic demands of fealty and subservience. On the economic side foreign investment levels are falling, corrupt and incompetent cronies hold most significant positions, and record numbers of young and educated people are leaving the region.

The picture is similar in other parts of the region, where there have been massive and sometimes violent street demonstrations in the past few years. Calls for the creation of Greater Albania, which would presuppose forcible changes in borders that are hardly imaginable without triggering serious tumults, have also reappeared. Such developments widen the gap between the region and the EU even further and thereby make the prospect of EU accession even more unlikely. Yet, both sides seem content with maintaining the illusion that accession negotiations remain steadily on track, although there is no end in sight.

Trading stability for democratic development is not only morally questionable. It runs contrary to the EU’s long-term interests. As long as Western Balkan strongmen operate on the assumption that state institutions must not serve as barriers to the exercise of their will-to-power and consider it perfectly legitimate to manipulate public opinion in favor of their own selfish interests, it will be impossible to achieve sustainable political and economic stability, not to mention sustainable regional cooperation and social reconciliation.

Should the EU continue to lend credence to Western Balkan strongmen’s lip service to European values while they intensify coercion and repression at home, then this is bound to produce at least two negative strategic consequences: popular disillusionment with the European project in the Western Balkans on the one hand, and heightened skepticism towards the desirability of enlargement in European public opinion on the other. Such a strategy only makes sense if the goal is to entrench the region as a sort of no man’s land-buffer zone between the EU and the Middle East.

However, if the goal is to bring the Western Balkans into the European fold, then Germany, as the most influential EU member state, should lead in a strategic reappraisal of European policy for the region – one that would reject “stabilitocracy” as a tolerable concept. I believe this would open the way for a truly stable and prosperous Western Balkans to become an eminently reachable goal in this generation. The region is blessed with a favorable geo-economic position, abundant natural resources, and perhaps most importantly, smart and creative people who possess the wherewithal to compete at a global level in their respective fields. It has the potential to catch up with Central Europe in terms of economic development and continental standards. Yet this can only be achieved if the free exchange of ideas, thoughtful debate, and meritocratic advancement can flourish within a genuinely democratic framework.

This article is based on an op-ed that appeared in the Washington Post in July 2017.