Milica Delevic introduces Progressive Britain’s new ‘Spotlight on the Western Balkans’ series.
After having been a major focus throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, the countries of the Western Balkans (that is to say, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia) have largely dropped off the radar of international attention. Indeed, things in the region became somewhat better after the violence and horrors of the 1990s while other more challenging problems including the economic and social crises which began in 2007-2008; the crisis in Ukraine since 2014; the refugee crisis which peaked in 2015; Brexit since 2016 and, most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic to name just a few, came to dominate the international agenda and obscured events in this south-eastern corner of Europe. However, as policy-makers begin to imagine a post-COVID world, events in the Western Balkan region remain highly relevant, especially in Western Europe due to the region’s sheer proximity.
In parts of the Western Balkans, institutions remain weak, politics is volatile and contentious, and many things could still go very wrong. Ensuring that the region remains resilient in the face of internal and external challenges is clearly simultaneously in the interest of the peoples of this region and in Europe’s interest. It is also one of the areas where international engagement could make a real difference. So, having regard for all this, what is at stake today in the Western Balkans?
The promise of EU membership has long been offered to the countries in the region as an anchor of stability and prosperity. Over recent decades, the practical and political support that the EU provided to the region has precipitated some much-needed regional cooperation and economic and political reforms. However, the prospect of EU membership for countries in the Western Balkans now feels increasingly remote and no longer provides the incentive to bring about the resolution of long-standing issues and to precipitate reforms that it once did.
This leaves the region stuck halfway between its violent past that nobody wants to repeat and a future that seems impossible to achieve. Certainly, regional leaders continue to meet regularly and the EU still convenes Western Balkans summits holding out the prospect of a bright economic future. But Bosnia and Herzegovina remains a dysfunctional state and relations between Serbia and Kosovo remain unsettled. Across the region, citizens are discovering that economic development is not sufficiently strong to improve not only their lives but also that of their children. As corruption and democratic backsliding persists, many citizens have lost faith in internal actors to drive change and in external actors to support it. Unresolved issues, a lack of leadership and an erosion of trust make for a high level of frustration in the population. This leads some to speculate about a possible return to violence. While this risk cannot dismissed altogether, it is not very high either. The vast majority seems hugely reluctant to give up the hard-won stability of the last 20 years. Things are clearly not good in the western Balkans, but they are bad in different ways than they were in the past. Today, stagnation and the absence of hope are the main problems facing the region. However, these issues also prevent progress in addressing/aggravate the interethnic divisions that still exist.
The region is faced with a major and worsening demographic challenge, with low birth rates being compounded by high rates of outward migration. This reinforces the aforementioned stagnation while contributing to a ‘brain drain’ in many parts of the region as frustrated young people leave the countries of their birth. This further undermines the prospects for progressive and positive political change.
Against this background, it is no surprise that many in the region turn to local initiatives and self-organised citizens group to drive change. This paves the way for new platforms for civic activism and engagement, albeit often through initiatives that are aimed at addressing fairly specific and local problems. Throughout the region, we are seeing examples of people coming together to fight to protect their rivers, parks, theatres or cities, recognising themselves as citizens with a stake in their communities in the process. This represents a genuine call for more democracy from the ground and carries the potential for democratic renewal by opening new avenues and methods for participation and democratic experimentation.
While all of the leaders in the region still at least rhetorically declare loyalty to the prospects of EU membership, China, Russia, Turkey and the Gulf countries all vie for influence while the Western ‘pull factor’ weakens. Given slow economic progress and the number of ongoing issues in the region (as discussed above), it is cheap to be a disruptor in the Balkans.
The UK used to be one of the big players in the Balkans and even after Brexit it still matters. As with the EEA countries and Switzerland, the UK provides an example of the sort of relationship falling short of membership that the EU can have with a neighbouring country. The UK will thus be a “comparator country” that can provide a template for how cooperation with the EU can happen which countries in the Western Balkans might seek to emulate. On the other hand, both the EU and the UK have very similar priorities for the Western Balkan region – including for it to become stable, democratic and geopolitically aligned with the EU/’the West’. This offers an opportunity for cooperation that might be more difficult to achieve in other areas, where interests do not converge so obviously.
Finally, while the governments in the Western Balkan region are of mixed political orientation, the support of the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) has been associated with emphasising “stability” in the region often at the expense of democracy. More recently, Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) from the centre-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D), the centrist ‘Renew Europe’ and Green groups at the European Parliament have been increasingly involved in helping to create a more enabling environment for democratic dialogue within the countries in this region.
This is the introduction to Progressive Britain’s ‘Spotlight on the Western Balkans’ series which looks at the challenges and successes of progressives in the region. For more of our work on progressives around the world see our blog.