“A time of monsters once more”: The danger of losing the Western Balkans

By Jasmin Mujanović | North Carolina

“How does Slobodan Milošević’s will begin?” asks a Serbian joke from the 1990s. “In the unlikely event of my death…”

As the anti-regime protests in Serbia enter their third month, that sardonic quip captures much of the mood on the streets of Belgrade, Novi Sad, Kragujevac and dozens of other towns across the country. For weeks, thousands have been airing their grievances against the increasingly autocratic government of Aleksandar Vučić and his Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), often by drawing direct parallels between the current president and the former strongman, under whose tenure the former served as Minister of Information.

Much has changed in the Western Balkans’ most populous state, the popular sentiment runs, but too much has remained the same. And what remains at issue in Serbia – the incomplete nature of its political and democratic transformation since the end of the Yugoslav wars – is likewise at the heart of the broader crisis of democratic governance in the Western Balkans as a whole.

As such, the events in Serbia constitute a popular reaction to the perceived failures of democratic transition in the Western Balkans since the end of the Yugoslav wars. These manifestations are only the latest chapter of a wave of protests that has gripped the region since 2012. Beginning in Slovenia, an EU member state since 2003, and winding through Bosnia & Herzegovina (BiH), Macedonia, and now washing over Serbia – with smaller eruptions in every other state in the region – the past decade has been defined by a two-fold crisis: popular exasperation with the lack of substantive political transformation in the region on the one hand, and the continued attempt by entrenched elites to resist just such change, on the other.

However, since about 2014, the resulting maelstrom of political confrontation has also taken on an ominous geopolitical dimension. Faced with mounting public dissatisfaction, dimming Euro-Atlantic prospects, and anaemic economic conditions only further exacerbated by their own endemic corruption and by precipitous rates of emigration, the local elites have gradually begun turning to an assortment of foreign authoritarian powers to shore up their wobbly regimes. Chief among these are Russia, Turkey, China, and the petrol monarchies of the Persian Gulf. Each of these polities has, to various degrees, begun to make clientelist inroads among this regional elite and, in so doing, has started to give shape to the Western Balkans’’ (possible) post-Euro-Atlantic future.

The post Euro-Atlantic trajectory

What kind of future will this be? One in which increasingly reactionary elites more and more openly reject the aegis of the EU and US in exchange for a fraction of the financial and material support received from the West, but with major gains in the political license and international backing they deem necessary to openly brutalise their citizens and thus maintain their precious grip on power.

And that latter fact is, indeed, the top concern among virtually all Western Balkan rulers. They are political zombies, who have perfected the art of switching ideological mantles, without ever loosening their grip on power.

Russia, Turkey, China, and the pet- rol monarchies of the Persian Gulf have begun to make clientelist in-roads among this regional elite and, in so doing, have started to give shape to the Western Balkans (possible) post-Euro-Atlantic future.

It is a phenomenon I describe as ‘elastic authoritarianism’ in my recent book on the region’s democratic backsliding. Vučić, the erstwhile ultra-nationalist turned EU champion, is an avatar of this practice. But he is far from being the only one.

Milo Đukanović, the long-time ruler in Podgorica, has ensured that Montenegro has not seen a democratic change in government since he rose to the fore in 1991. The Croatian HDZ has only lost two parliamentary elections since 1990. In BiH, thanks in large part to the sectarian Dayton constitution, there has not been a single state-level government formed since the end of the Bosnian war without the support of at least one of the three leading reactionary blocs. The deeply illiberal, if not outright authoritarian tendencies of the regime in Belgrade are thus merely a particularly acute variation on a regional theme.

Thus, to suggest that these recalcitrant elites value their own power and privilege over the Euro-Atlantic perspectives (and preferences) of their citizens is no grand claim. Even so, those who doubt their willingness or capacity to use violence to ensure the survival of their respective regimes, and that taken together with the growing influence of malign outside powers, such a turn would constitute the dawning of a new political era in the region, would do well to take sober stock of events on the ground.

Consider that the amalgam of citizens on the streets currently in Serbia is broadly the same sort of coalition that toppled Milošević: a heterodox assortment of students and youth groups, opposition and reformist movements, as well as members of Serbia’s influential ultra-nationalist camp. The latter, it should be noted, has declined as an electoral force; but their ideological project remains largely mainstream, visible most obviously in the administration of Vučić himself, formerly a long-time member of the far-right Radical Party. In a society in which a true historical reckoning with Belgrade’s central, authorial role in Yugoslavia’s collapse has never occurred, such bizarre combinations are very much par for the course, and at present, are likely the only possible form of resistance to a government that has built a terrifyingly efficient one-party state in just over seven years.

Vučić and his cohorts certainly understand the threat. It is why his government has tried in every possible way to discredit, undermine, and marginalise what is clearly a growing popular movement. Admittedly, they have as of now stopped short of violence. But in neighboring BiH, in the country’s Serb-dominated Republika Srpska entity, the government of Milorad Dodik, a long-time appendage of both Belgrade and Moscow, the regime successfully dismantled a surging protest movement through overt police repression; and the ruling Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD) has continued to engineer the harassment of activists, journalists, and even elected opposition leaders since then – all with nary a whisper of critique from Brussels or Washington.

All Western Balkan rulers are political zombies, who have perfected the art of switching ideological mantles, without ever loosening their grip on power.

Nor should we forget recent history. The long-awaited breakthrough in the Macedonian name dispute has rapidly accelerated Skopje’s path towards both NATO and the EU, and the reformist government of Prime Minister Zoran Zaev continues to win praise from the international community. But the triumph of this progressive option was anything but a foregone conclusion.

Under the tenure of Nikola Gruevski, the previous Prime Minister, North Macedonia (then still the Republic of Macedonia) was on the brink of becoming a virtual police state.

The revelation of a massive, government- sponsored wiretapping scheme eventually led to the collapse of Gruevski’s VMRO-DPMNE government – but only on the back of nearly two years of intense social protest and mobilisation and belated EU (and, more importantly, US) mediation. And even after the Zaev-led Social Democrats (SDSM) and their ethnic Albanian partners were able to agree to a new government coalition, following a contentious election campaign, VMRO- DPMNE supporters stormed the parliament, bludgeoning and assaulting the assembled legislators.

Had the worst occurred, as was absolutely within the realm of the possible, and Zaev or any other leading reformist leader had been killed on the floor of the Sobranie, Macedonia might well have plunged into outright civil war or, at least, low- intensity civil strife. In other words, what has emerged as some of the best news in the Western Balkans in recent years was within a breath of setting the political and security situation in the region back by decades.

Similar concerns were thrown up during violent anti-government rioting in BiH in 2014, and even more strikingly by the Russian-sponsored coup attempt in Montenegro in 2016. In fact, the Macedonian experience still looms darkly over BiH, where the latest reports suggest that the Dodik regime has built up expansive parallel security structures in cooperation with both Russian-trained paramilitary groups from Serbia and with Russian security officials directly.

Quite simply, those who are convinced of the absence of violence, or the unwillingness of local regimes to use violence against their political opponents, are misinformed about what is already happening in these societies. The question is therefore not whether violence is possible again in the Western Balkans, but how much worse the current level of violence is likely to become. The answer, given both the local and international climate, is that that the potential for escalation is significant.

A failed European leadership

This is hardly the kind of political dynamism that EU primacy in the region was supposed to deliver when Brussels took over the reins of international leadership from the US at the Thessaloniki summit in 2003. Indeed, it became a veritable axiom of European policy in the region by the decade’s end that the EU was ‘the only game in town’. But even when critics began to note that, in practice, Brussels’ approach to the region amounted to little more than an embrace of ‘stabilitocracy’, genuine reflections on what a post-EU paradigm might look like have been essentially non-existent, both among EU policymakers and observers.

That is what makes the ongoing tumult in Serbia much more volatile than a mere anti-government mobilisation, although to be clear, it is a legitimate and necessary manifestation of popular democratic will. Because what has happened since 2003 is that institutional, procedural, and political legitimacy in the Western Balkans, which has not yet recovered from the trauma of the war years, has begun a new centrifugal cycle. And these protests are as much a cry of dissent against the likes of Vučić, as they are a rebuke of a Western community that has allowed political conditions to deteriorate to this point where revolutions, rather than elections, appear to be the only plausible means of progress.

Worse, while resentment and desperation are rising among ordinary citizens, parliamentary opposition blocs in most of the region have struggled to articulate any kind of compelling alternative vision. And those with any modicum of clarity tend to be the extreme nationalists, whose critique of the existing establishment amounts to little more than a call for more repression. Little wonder then that at the last Serbian presidential elections, a performance artist playing an oafish provincial kleptocrat came in third.

It all has the troubling markings of Gustav Messiah’s assessment (via Antonio Gramsci’s words) that the old world is dying, while the new struggles to be born. Policymakers in Brussels and Washington would do well to take heed of the moment, however, lest this become – a time of monsters once more.

A new Euro-Atlantic project for the region

The EU and US must urgently articulate a combined commitment to the region’s continued security and democratic transition. Not only would this be an important signal to send to the region, but it is an opportunity for a sorely needed reset of the trans-Atlantic relationship. The core of such an initiative must be a commitment to genuine democratisation and popular legitimacy which can harness the percolating energy of the Balkan demos to enact substantive change.

This should be combined with a determined confrontation against entrenched, bad-faith actors, in particular those that have begun to overtly threaten violence, and who preside over the region’s vast patronage economies. The sanctions recently imposed by the US against Dodik and his underling Nikola Špirić are an exemplary step in this regard, and must be followed by EU member states.

The West’s overall posture in the region must shift towards an embrace of sincere democratic values, but in tandem with a clear-eyed, realist pragmatism. In the greater scheme, this means recognising that there is no substantive difference between affirming that we are, once more, in an era of great power competition and revitalizing the political West’s historic commitments to liberal democracy. In fact, if the Atlantic community and its friends and allies are to persevere in the former struggle, they must unequivocally advocate for and support the proliferation of the latter.

The West’s overall posture in the region must shift towards recognising that there is no substantive difference between affirming that we are, once more, in an era of great power competition and revitalizing the political West’s historic commitments to liberal democracy.

Thus, shepherding Skopje fully and formally into NATO is imperative, but the EU must do its part too. The French-led sabotage of the opening of accession talks with both North Macedonia and Albania last year cannot be repeated. And now that NATO has greenlit the activation of BiH’s Membership Action Plan, Western diplomats must work with officials in Sarajevo to make sure that Serb nationalist elements do not, at the behest of either the Kremlin or Belgrade, jeopardise the country’s Atlantic prospects. They have been explicit in their secessionist ambitions; they have already recruited paramilitary forces, and militarised the police forces under their control; for these reasons, the threat they pose to BiH, the region, and the continent is unique and must be taken seriously.

Finally, both Brussels and Washington must make a decisive pull away from the politics of accommodating the elites in the Western Balkans. The most glaring and alarming example of this is the continued chatter over the possibility of a ‘border swap’, that is, a (re) partition deal between Kosovo and Serbia. There could be no more catastrophic development in regional affairs, short of outright war, than if such ill-thought-out adventurism were to be endorsed by the West. And if it were to occur, then the irredentist and nationalist frenzy it would unleash would doubtlessly have as its product actual inter- and intra-state violence across the region.

This, of course, is all premised on the idea that the EU and US still want to remain a relevant factor in the Western Balkans. If they do not, they need only continue with their languid indifference of the past decade and a half, and leave the local elites, with the help of their new foreign backers, to suffocate the last of the region’s democratic spirit.

DR. 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 from Hurst Publishers.