Germany's Challenge: Ensuring Democracy in the Western Balkans
The high-level Western Balkans Conference, organized in Berlin today, August 28, will be wisely used by Germany to launch a renewed European Union focus towards the Balkans, a region that fluctuates between aspiring to become a part of the EU and fueling a system of “managed democracies”, the term now widely used to describe illiberal political systems that control their societies but provide the appearance of democracy.
Germany’s initiative to engage with the Balkans comes after a decade of retreating U.S. interest in the region and a time of a stated EU “break from enlargement” at least for the next five years, as announced recently by the new European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker.
However, the European Union cannot allow the existence of “black holes” within Europe, especially in a region where external influences have left the footprints of their civilizations. The Ukraine crisis has rightly raised Germany’s attention to needing to deal more actively with the Western Balkans, even when the EU cannot offer concrete steps toward integration.
Getting the Western Balkans on board is much more than a security issue. The rising influence of Turkey with its neo-Ottoman strategy finds ground in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Albania and Kosovo. Contrary to propaganda, this is not a bottom-up project based on culture and religious traditions, but a pragmatic engagement of similar-minded leaders based on economic interest and the attractiveness of a more authoritarian-minded regional power. Serbia, on the other hand, remains isolated, cooperating with Russia and other non-European actors in a tepid attempt to pressure and extract concessions from the EU on Kosovo, and to maintain its former leading role in the region.
The Balkans are also undergoing a period of democratic regress. The main problem of the region today is the state of its dysfunctional democracies. Bosnia-Herzegovina has been shaken by social movements against a nonfunctioning regime. Macedonia preserves the Ohrid Agreement as a facade while interethnic relations become more problematic. Albania is ruled by a clientelist government similar to the “Hungarian” model, which is ruining the balances of power and may influence the rise of social movements in the near future. In Montenegro, the same political elite has ruled the country for more than two decades. In several of the Western Balkan countries, such as Macedonia and Albania, the political opposition regularly boycotts parliament in the hope of raising attention to the loss of democratic principles and institutions.
A state of managed democracy is ubiquitous and seems to please the ruling elites. The liberal democracy that was the inspiration of the Eastern European peoples after the fall of the Berlin Wall is beginning to fade away toward illiberal democracy.
The entrance into the Western Balkans of a leading democracy and global actor such as Germany can help to transform the status quo and raise expectations. It provides new momentum of which both parties must take advantage: Germany to strengthen its leadership role and responsibility within Europe, and the Western Balkans to accelerate integration into the European Union. If this initiative does not generate positive political and economic impacts, there should be no doubt about the direction in which the Western Balkans will head.
Agim Nesho, President of the Albanian Council of Foreign Relations and former Albanian Ambassador to the United States and the United Nations.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Government of Montenegro/CC by-sa 3.0