In this essay, Jasmin Mujanović explores the many issues which are hindering democracy and economic progress in the Western Balkans. The region’s failures are the responsibility of corrupt and unaccountable elites who have exploited nationalism to perpetuate their own power. Given the weakening influence of Western institutions, he argues that citizens have a key role to play if democracy is to progress across the region.
Nearly two decades since the end of the last of the Yugoslav Wars, democratic and multiparty elections are the norm in every corner of the former South Slav federation. The contemporary Western Balkans are firmly ensconced within the so-called Euro-Atlantic order, the vast architecture of the EU and NATO’s interests, relationships, and institutions in the region. Slovenia and Croatia are EU and NATO member states; Montenegro (and non-Yugoslav Albania) are NATO members; and even the remaining Western Balkans, in their entirety, are deeply linked to the West – politically, culturally, and economically. Their collective future appears to be, inevitably, within the concert of Europe.
Alas, scratch the surface and an entirely more sordid and disconcerting picture comes into view. Slovenia and Croatia are routinely ranked among the poorest and most corrupt states in the EU; Montenegro has in practice been ruled by one man, Milo Đukanović, for twenty six years; Serbia also teeters, once more, on the brink of one man rule, with President Aleksandar Vučić clamping down on free media and legitimate opposition; while Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), Kosovo, and Macedonia have each seen dramatic episodes of violence in the streets and in their parliaments over the last three years, as frustrations with the lack of meaningful socio-economic reforms have metastasised into seething public discontent.
According to every available metric, from measures of corruption to media freedom, the Western Balkans are in the midst of sharp decline, strident retrenchment, and profound crisis.
In short, the quality of the region’s democratic transition has been poorer than the quantity of its elections and organisational affiliations would suggest. But even the numbers are shocking. According to the most recent data from the World Bank, the average unemployment rate in the region’s non-EU states is somewhere between 20 and 25 percent; in BiH, Kosovo, and Macedonia that number is closer to 40 percent, and among youth it is closer still to 60 percent. Unsurprisingly, brain drain and emigration are endemic, with hundreds of thousands of young professionals, but also blue collar workers, having left these countries for Western Europe, the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand over the past decade. Across the region, the population is declining and ageing, as hopes of meaningful social transformation diminish with each passing year, and the political elite remains unmoved.
According to every available metric, from measures of corruption to media freedom, the Western Balkans are in the midst of sharp decline, strident retrenchment, and profound crisis. Vast patronage networks, controlled by the highest echelons of power, continue to define the economies of the region. Croatia, the Western Balkans’ largest economy, is on the brink of arguably its worst post-independence economic crises. Agrokor, once the largest employer in the region, appears on the edge of collapse, even though the government has taken formal ownership of the conglomerate. But few in Croatia believe the right-wing HDZ government is actually protecting the interest of its citizens by shoring up Agrokor. Instead, they are reminded that the firm, and its former CEO Ivica Todorić, have had close links to the HDZ – the party that has only twice lost parliamentary elections in Croatia since 1991 – for decades. Agrokor has received millions in sweetheart deals and loans, making Todorić the richest man in the country, and revealing in the process the profound degree of patrimonialism at the heart of Croatia’s economy.
Todorić is now facing jail time in Zagreb for his role in the company’s collapse. But while he is almost certainly guilty of all manner of financial malfeasance, he is also doubtlessly a patsy. In truth, there is a host of past and present HDZ leaders who should likely be facing similar charges for their own roles in Agrokor’s meteoric rise and fall. But that is precisely why the party has so aggressively attempted to distance itself from the scandal. Still, the structural dynamic is self-evident: despite having spent nearly a decade as an EU candidate state, and four years after becoming a member state in 2013, corruption and clientalism in the Croatian economy are still the norm. And this means, despite its EU membership, Croatia remains decidedly part of a regional phenomenon.
Despite having spent nearly a decade as an EU candidate state, and four years after becoming a member state in 2013, corruption and clientalism in the Croatian economy are still the norm.
Ask virtually any official in the EU or US working in or on southeastern Europe whether they are aware of how entrenched the region’s intersecting socio-political and socio-economic crises have become, and they will readily profess their concern. But they will also tell you that they are without ideas, and burnt out with the region’s seemingly perpetual calamities. And besides, between Brexit and the Trump election on the one hand and the wars in Syria and Ukraine on the other, Western attention and concern is nowhere near the Balkans. They all understand that the Balkans are Europe’s soft underbelly, and increasingly a playground for Russian meddling, but consumed by far greater woes, both at home and abroad, the region continues to list. Even Russia’s transparent role in the Croatian crisis, as Agrokor’s primary foreign creditor and stated interest in buying the country’s one-time oil giant INA, have barely registered in Brussels or Washington.
Two obvious questions emerge from this survey then: why have the Western Balkans proven so resistant to genuine democratic transformation? And what does this mean for the region’s future and, by extension, Europe’s and America’s future engagement in the continent’s southeast? To answer the first question, it is worthwhile stepping back, quite far in fact, to gain a sense of the fundamental nature of politics in the Balkans. That is, to recognise the truly generational patterns of governance by the region’s elites.
If the Balkans are known for anything, especially among the Western public, it is likely for the region’s apparently intractable nationalist squabbles. Though the extent of these sectarian tensions is frequently overstated, very little attention has been paid – beyond the most facile accounts – as to the origins or, more importantly, the social function of this toxic and persistent nationalism. But it is precisely the social role of nationalism, especially for the ruling elite, that is critical to understanding the region’s defining political dynamics. Not because nationalism is at the root of Balkan politics as such but because it is the ideological veneer for what is; namely, a peculiarly durable form of authoritarianism, fluid in its ideological commitments, but otherwise static and stagnant in social form.
The emergence of the modern state in the Balkans dates back to the early 19th century, during the long decline of the Ottoman Empire. Contrary to popular histories and mythologies in the region (and abroad), however, the original state founders in the Balkans were not patriotic rebels. In virtually every case, the champions of anti-Sultanic insurrection were only recently the loyal enforcers of the Porte’s administration. They shifted allegiances when they began to believe that they could no longer credibly extract favours, patronage, and spoils from the centre and not out of any great love or, in truth, conception of their respective ‘nations’. Only then did they begin to transform their imperial backwaters into independent, but no less backward, polities.
In order to justify and explain their own continued existence at the top of the social pyramid, elites began to progressively transform the region’s confessional differences into mutually incompatible ethnic communities.
What is therefore striking about the insurrections against Ottoman rule, such as the First Serbian Uprising (1804-1813), and what has continued to be the case in every moment of regime entropy and transition in the Balkans since, is the extent to which these ‘revolutions’ were merely continuations of the old order – only in miniature. Thus what replaced the Ottoman and later Austro-Hungarian empires in the Balkans were not free republics but provincial monarchies; where once the local ‘big men’ had enforced the imperial order at the behest of the Sultan or the Emperor, in the wake of these revolutions they did so of their own volition and, directly, in their own interest.
The similarities of this period with Yugoslavia’s dissolution are quite intentional, as in many respects the region’s experiences at the end of the 19th and 20th centuries were, from socio-political standpoint, largely akin. And in both cases, what appeared to be bottom-up explosion of ethno-nationalist hysteria were, in fact, top-down engineered power grabs. Namely, in order to justify and explain their own continued existence at the top of the social pyramid, these elites began to progressively transform the region’s confessional differences into mutually incompatible ethnic communities. Catholicism and Orthodoxy thereby became synonymous with ethnic Croat and Serb identity, for instance, and, moreover, the primary foundations for these emerging polities. That is, nowhere in the Balkans do we find at this time a coherent anti-imperial critique that extended beyond national grievances. And while some of these concerns were no doubt legitimate, for the most part they were proof of the utter lack of a meaningful reformist, or even revolutionary, impulses among the (still) ruling elite. This much was also true in the 1980s.
Well into the 20th century then, the Western Balkans, both as distinct polities and within the confines of larger states, remained stunted and backward in their social development. Illiteracy rates were among the highest in Europe; industrial capacities were minimal and under-developed; basic infrastructure, especially for intra-regional travel, was lacking; and the majority of the population continued to engage in traditional, subsistence-level forms of agriculture.
Much of this is still true today, although the devastation of the Yugoslav Wars – and its myriad consequences – can hardly be overstated. One need only visit modern Sarajevo, where the downtown core is surrounded by village-like hamlets, complete with livestock, to see that a distinctly different model of social organisation predominated in the region. Even socialist Yugoslavia’s much-touted industrialisation and modernisation did little to affect such retrograde tendencies, especially in rural areas.
In both cases, what appeared to be bottom-up explosion of ethno-nationalist hysteria were, in fact, top-down engineered power grabs.
Still, this model of regime survival was, and remains, neither the fault nor product of the Balkan peoples’ convictions. Indeed, the purpose of nationalism in the context of the cyclical process of state formation and re-formation in the region was to stunt social development and, primarily, to eject popular participation in the governance of these polities. Nationalism was therefore always an explicitly anti-democratic project, even as it has been woven through a maze of monarchist, communist, and quasi-liberal periods in the region’s history. Local elites became experts at navigating and surviving regime collapse without ever losing power. In order to do so, they orchestrated wars, pogroms, and all manner of crises, all with the aim of subverting popular demands for genuine change, especially in moments of crisis, into fratricidal violence.
As a result, the Balkans have seen just about every major ideological movement of the past century and a half pass through its parliaments and palaces. What has remained constant is the rule of the few, the inability of ordinary people to affect government, corruption and clientalism, and an opportunistic reliance on sectarianism in moments of regime crisis by cynical elites. In short, what has defined the modern history of the Balkans is a phenomenon we might label elastic authoritarianism: the process of persistent ideological mutation contrasted with static political and economic patterns, through which local elites have deliberately stunted social transformation processes in the region since the 19th century.
Put another way, or at least placed into a more contemporary context, we might say that the dirty little secret of the Western Balkans today is that while the Yugoslav state fractured into seven distinct pieces, its model of authoritarian governance survived. Despite the proliferation of multiparty elections across the region, the post-Yugoslav space is still largely illiberal, dominated by a handful of political dynasties, which are in turn administered through their expansive patronage and client networks. Elections, in all but a handful of case, generally serve to further reify rather than remedy these dynamics. And as a result, citizens have lost faith in the promise of democracy in the region.
DWINDLING WESTERN INFLUENCE
The effects of this loss of faith are only beginning to come into view. But they are worrying all the same. To start with, local populations have lost trust in the aegis and promise of the EU and NATO. Increasingly, the West is being pushed out of the region by a constellation of new authoritarian actors: Russia, primarily, but also China, Turkey, and the Gulf states. The financial contributions of these states to the region’s economies are still minor when compared to the funds furnished by the EU, in particular, but politically the waters are far muddier. Decades of broken promises and implicit support for crooked elites have numbed locals in the region to Brussels’ vague promises of eventual improvement – and made them predisposed to being swayed by the saccharine cajoling of foreign autocrats of every sort.
If the EU and US have proven unwilling or incapable of addressing, say, corruption and patrimonialism in these societies, what is the problem with accepting similarly tainted funds from the likes of Russia and China?
As a result, the explicit and unconditional injection of monies from Moscow and Beijing, for example, seem comparatively refreshing. If the EU and US have proven unwilling or incapable of addressing, say, corruption and patrimonialism in these societies, what is the problem with accepting similarly tainted funds from the likes of Russia and China? Even if a significant portion of this cash is redirected to elites, it will also build infrastructure, provide employment and financial lifelines for the most marginalised. Why look a Saudi or Qatari gift horse in the mouth, after all? If this logic seems tragic and self-defeating, only providing the kindling for future crises, it is only because it mirrors so closely the EU’s own engagement in the region in the last decade especially.
From the so-called ‘Connectivity Agenda’ to the ‘Berlin Process’, Brussels’ presence in the Balkans is a morass of vagaries, summits, dialogues, and promises, all with an explicit focus on detaching reform in the region from substantive political engagement. Thus, for example, the flagship Connectivity Agenda has focused almost exclusively on building road, rail, port, and air infrastructure in the region but devoted virtually no interest in accounting for how any of these projects are to be realised in light of the pervasive problems with corruption.
Nor have EU officials explained what particular link they see between better roads and better governance. When they are reminded that, once upon a time, the Yugoslav state had first-rate infrastructure of every sort but nevertheless dissolved into war due to its inherently authoritarian character they shrug. Indeed, in private, many even admit that such questions are too difficult to answer, so Brussels focuses on the easy ones, hoping implicitly to buy (or rent) social peace in the process.
GROWING SOCIAL DISSATISFACTION
And that, to be clear, is at the heart of the issue. Since 2012, we have seen major social insurrections in Slovenia, Croatia, BiH, Kosovo, Serbia, and Macedonia. Governments have been felled by these increasingly militant and desperate movements (although individual elites have remain stubbornly entrenched), institutions torched, and parliaments and public squares filled with tear gas. The artifice of ‘stability’ – the EU’s most prized priority in the region – is coming undone. And in the process, the essential question of the region’s future is coming into view: will these insurgent social movements and social protests be able to transform their societies before local elites engineer another ‘national(ist)’ crisis to save their regimes, as they have done so often before?
Recent events in Macedonia, for instance, speak very clearly to this dynamic. After nearly two years of tumult and protest, the opposition SDSM was finally able to oust the aggressively authoritarian government of Nikola Gruevski and his VMRO-DPMNE party. But the SDSM was only able to form a government thanks to repeated and consistent episodes of mass civil disobedience, the so-called Colourful Revolution and its various offshoots. And not before the VRMO-DPMNE and its supporters violently sacked the Macedonian parliament, and nearly murdered several SDSM and other opposition officials on its floor, in April of this year. Had this occurred, had Gruevski succeeded in using overt violence to prevent the peaceful transfer of power, Macedonia – and the wider region – would have been plunged into its worst crisis since the end of the Yugoslav Wars.
Will these insurgent social movements and social protests be able to transform their societies before local elites engineer another ‘national(ist)’ crisis to save their regimes, as they have done so often before?
But Gruevski is hardly the only desperate authoritarian in the region. Serbia’s Aleksandar Vučić has dismantled his political opposition through a combination of media manipulation, civil society repression, and repeated early elections. After the most recent elections, in April, the country saw weeks of student-led protests against the incoming president, whom the youths explicitly likened to the architect of Yugoslavia’s implosion (and Vučić’s erstwhile mentor) Slobodan Milošević.
Meanwhile in neighboring BiH and, in particular, in the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska entity, the long-time president Milorad Dodik is in truly dire straits. The entity is by many counts the poorest part of the entire region and Dodik is hanging by a thread after more than a decade in power, with each year marked by successive and increasingly more desperate nationalist stunts. Relations between his government and the opposition have grown so tense that near-physical altercations in the local assembly have become routine, as have duelling accusations of treason, conspiracy, and coup-making. And, of course, BiH’s western half was the site of the dramatic 2014 protests, which resulted in (among other things) the sacking and burning of the state presidency building by angry crowds. Though comparatively more prosperous, the entity is barely any more stable than its counterpart.
In any case, that rage and the disaffection which it represents is a growing reality across the region. Even wealthy and liberal Slovenia was shaken to its core in 2012 and 2013 by a series of mass protests which eventually led to the defeat of the then Prime Minister Janez Janša, a man who had been active in the country’s politics since the early 1990s. In his stead came Miro Cerar, a political novice and academic, whose party, the Modern Center Party, entered the parliament alongside a small troop of radical left MPs and veterans of the 2012-2013 revolts. Slovenia’s political scene has since calmed but, as with the protests in Macedonia, Serbia, and BiH, we should regard these events as part of a broader crisis of legitimacy and governance across the region.
In a way, despite decades of international involvement, the region is only now inching towards that which it was denied thanks to the wars of the 1990s: namely, its 1989 moment. Elsewhere in Eastern Europe, the promises of those halcyon days and grassroots uprisings may have turned to ash. But in the Western Balkans, the alternative to civil society mobilisation has never been mere stagnation – it has always been something far more brutal and sinister. If the region is to avoid the common mistakes of it past, it will require a sustained confrontation between ordinary citizens and their unaccountable elites. It is the only path towards genuine democracy in the Balkans.
Jasmin Mujanović is a political scientist specialising in the politics of southeastern Europe and the politics of post-authoritarian and post-conflict democratisation. His first book, Hunger and Fury: The Crisis of Democracy in the Balkans is now available for pre-order from Hurst Publishers.
Feature image: The sitting of the Western Balkans Conference, Vienna 2014. Image Dragan Tatic [CC].