Home / Europe / The good, the bad and the pragmatic: European Union-Western Balkans relations in the age of Brexit

The good, the bad and the pragmatic: European Union-Western Balkans relations in the age of Brexit

December 7, 2017

By Irena Baboi – Junior Fellow

With the European Union’s attention almost entirely dedicated to the Brexit negotiations, 2017 has been a year of highs and lows for the Western Balkans. Some countries proved themselves capable of impressive progress, while others showed why external involvement is still very much needed in the region. Beginning with concerns that Russian influence will replace European involvement and ending with more down-to-earth realities becoming evident, this year has cast the light on what can realistically be achieved in the region; and with European Union membership still a distant prospect for these countries, the road to Europe will need to be paved with hard work, commitment and willingness to compromise.

At a press briefing last month, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker named Serbia and Montenegro as the Western Balkan countries he expects will join the European Union before 2025. The latter’s unwavering pro-Western commitment paid off this year, and in June Montenegro took one further step by officially becoming NATO’s 29th member. 2017 was also a defining year for Montenegro’s relations with the East – and between Montenegro joining the transatlantic alliance and the investigation of Russia’s involvement in an alleged plot to assassinate former Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic, relations between the two countries have never been colder.

Despite long-standing financial and cultural ties with Moscow, Montenegro has been reluctant to engage in the kind of West-East balancing act that neighbouring Serbia has been cultivating for decades, but relations with the Eastern power have been relatively friendly over the years. Former Prime Minister Djukanovic, who was in office for over a decade, made it clear that Montenegro’s future lies with Europe rather than Russia, and his successor, Dusko Markovic, has kept the country on this path. Montenegro’s dependency on Russian gas, however, has meant that Moscow enjoys a certain degree of support and influence in the smallest Western Balkan country, and the pro-Russian Democratic Front plays an active political role as part of the opposition.

The events during the parliamentary elections of October 2016 brought a sudden change to this dynamic. Montenegrin authorities argue that Serbian and Russian nationalists plotted to occupy the parliament during the elections, to assassinate Djukanovic, and to install a pro-Russian leadership that would prevent Montenegro’s NATO accession. Russia of course denies these accusations, but Montenegro’s determination to move forward with the investigation suggests that the Western Balkan country has made a decision on where it stands and where it is going.

As the other Western Balkan country closest to European accession, Serbia has done less to further its membership prospects and more to solidify its position this year. The April elections turned Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic into the president, and were followed by the largest protests that his country has seen in years. This reaction, however, was less to do with the election results themselves, and more in relation to the current state of the country. Internal development has been sacrificed in favour of external stability – and the Serbian people are experiencing more of the disadvantages than the benefits of this preference.

Russia’s backing coupled with Serbian influence in the region make Belgrade a crucial player from the West’s point of view, and one that it is in the latter’s interest to keep as an ally. It is no wonder, then, that externally, Serbia will not be abandoning its balancing act between West and East any time soon – nor that, domestically, President Vucic is likely to only increase his control over the politics of his country.

The April protests went as quick as they came, and Serbia’s current version of normality seems to have been restored. The Serbian leadership has, for the time being at least, secured itself both internally and internationally – and only the unlikely threat of being replaced would persuade it to make radical changes to its rule.

Albania’s year has been evenly divided between near-chaos and relative political and social peace. The protests, boycotts and political paralysis in the first half of 2017 raised doubts over whether the parliamentary elections scheduled for June would even take place, and a crisis of Macedonian proportions was seen as the most likely outcome of these internal tensions.

From February through to May, the opposition Democratic Party staged large-scale anti-government rallies, with thousands of demonstrators taking to the streets to demand free and fair elections for their country. The Democrats, who were replaced by the Socialists in the last general elections and have lost every local election since, accused Edi Rama’s party of winning through illegal means, but also of governing the state in a semi-authoritarian manner.

Despite a political deadlock that lasted four months, the June elections went ahead as scheduled, and the Socialists resumed control of the country. Edi Rama’s win seems to have restored stability – but it is not stability on its own that will push Albania’s democratic transition forward.

The accusations brought to the ruling Socialists are serious, but they are also eerily familiar. Vote rigging and opposition intimidation are not exactly tactics the Democrats have been reluctant to employ, and links to organised crime on the part of the political elite are close to becoming endemic. Albania is a country where European Union mediation continues to be vital, and the systemic corruption of the political system means that the reforms needed for their accession to move forward will be difficult to implement without external involvement.

Neighbouring Macedonia, however, is living proof that reform in a fragmented political system is possible. Despite the opposition’s best efforts to obstruct it, the progress made by Zoran Zaev’s government cannot be overstated. From Skopje’s name dispute with Greece coming close to being settled, to steps being taken towards making Albanian an official language, this year’s change in leadership brought an end to Macedonia’s political and social paralysis and seems to have returned the country to its European path.

Zaev’s SDSM coming to power ended a two-year political and social crisis in Macedonia. The previous government had been accused of widespread abuse of power, electoral fraud, media manipulation and embezzlement, and the revelation that then Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski of the ruling VMRO-DPMNE had orchestrated the illegal surveillance of thousands of people triggered mass protests throughout the country. After months of postponement, Zaev was finally granted mandate to form a government in May, and the complete break with the past promised has so far been evidently delivered.

Kosovo’s year has been defined by election results, with returns of old faces and wins for nationalist parties suggesting that Pristina has been turning to the past rather than looking towards the future. Former guerrilla fighter Ramush Haradinaj returned to power this year, while the nationalist Vetevendosje (Self-Determination Movement) came second in the June parliamentary elections, and was one of the big winners in the November mayoral voting.

These results, coupled with a low turnout in all elections this year, suggest a sense of stagnation and frustration on the part of the population. Kosovo’s relationships with both the European Union and Serbia are at a stalemate, and the youngest Western Balkan country is yet to be granted visa-free travel in the Schengen area. Furthermore, with reaching agreement on the border dispute with Montenegro seemingly unlikely as well, Pristina’s progress on the European path has reached an impasse.

The low voter turnout also meant that none of the parties could form a government on their own, forcing Prime Minister Haradinaj’s Alliance for the Future of Kosovo (AAK) to enter a coalition with both the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) and the Initiative for Kosovo (NISMA). The size of the current government will only further contribute to a slow internal and external development, as the sheer number of deputy ministers in power make the decision-making process substantially more difficult.

On the dialogue with Serbia front, relations between the two countries have been further complicated this year by Ramush Haradinaj assuming the role of prime minister. Serbia refuses to withdraw the international arrest warrant issued against him, by which Haradinaj is accused of murdering Serbs during Kosovo’s 1998-99 independence war. Taking advantage of this complication, Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic declared that the only option his country will realistically consider in their relationship with the youngest Western Balkan country is autonomy and delimitation for the Serb areas in Kosovo, a compromise flatly rejected by Pristina.

Like Kosovo, Bosnia-Herzegovina reached another impasse this year, and it is on a much-need electoral reform that the three leaders of the country are yet to agree this time. Under the current law, Serb representatives are elected by people living in the mainly Serb entity, Republika Srpska, but all voters in the mainly Bosniak and Croat entity, the Federation, elect both the Bosniak and the Croat representatives. This means that, with Bosniaks outnumbering Croats by more than three to one, the current electoral law allows Bosniaks to effectively elect both their own representatives and those of the Croat people. The law was deemed unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court nearly a year ago, yet Bosniak leaders continue to veto every proposal for reform introduced by the Croat ones. As 2018 will be an election year, however, failure to reform the law means that the elections to the upper house of the parliament cannot take place, and that forming a government will be impossible.

Left to their own devices, most political leaders in Bosnia-Herzegovina will choose the comfortable path of obstruction over the difficult one of cooperation and progress. Opposing proposals is easier than working together to reach consensus, and the alleged need to protect their ethnic groups’ interests is the main foundation on which their political power has been built and maintained over the years. With elections taking place next year, moreover, political games can be expected to intensify throughout 2018 – and compromise, although vital at this point, will continue to be difficult to reach.

A positive signal did emerge from Bosnia-Herzegovina in 2017, and it surprisingly concerned the future of their Republika Srspka. Although Belgrade vowed to strengthen relations with Banja Luka earlier this year, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic explicitly stated that his country does not want to annex Republika Srpska. This was the latter’s last bargaining chip in its political confrontations with the Bosnian Federation, as recent events in Catalonia proved that breakaway states declaring independence have little chances of survival in today’s Europe if not backed by a stronger state.

Overall, despite initial concerns and predictions, Brexit has had relatively little impact on European Union-Western Balkan relations. Having already made the decision to postpone enlargement until 2025 at least, the negotiations with the United Kingdom only served to further justify the slow pace of accession talks, and involvement has continued to be concentrated on near-crisis situations and interstate mediation. Similarly, Russian interference in the Western Balkans has been more limited than expected, and the tendency in the region has been to react against it rather than welcome it. Russia is yet to prove itself sufficiently generous as to determine an increase in support from the Western Balkans, and this is both due to the economic sanctions taking their toll and a lack of strong motivation and interest to do so. From Moscow’s point of view, a little political influence that can occasionally stir the pot is enough for now, and anything more substantial would require a financial commitment that the country is currently unwilling to undertake.

This, however, does not mean that the West can continue to disengage itself without fear of unwanted consequences. Although it is important to acknowledge the fact that recent slides towards authoritarianism and increased nationalism are more a product of internal trends rather than external influence, it is also crucial to highlight the fact that the latter can have significant impact on them. As things stand, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic is not alone in feeling sure of himself – many leaders in the region govern with a sense that power will not be taken away from them, and that external support equals a free-hand in all things leadership-related.

The European Union did not miss its opportunities to send an indirect message to the Western Balkan countries this year, but this indirect message also highlights the organisation’s tendency towards a delayed reaction, and should serve as a warning for the organisation itself. In his State of the Union address, Jean-Claude Juncker announced that Turkey’s accession has been put on hold indefinitely due to its increasingly undemocratic behaviour, particularly the mass imprisonment of journalists since the attempted coup. This decision, however, is more of a sign that the European Union has stopped believing Erdogan will renounce his autocratic ways in the near future rather than an attempt to persuade Ankara to return to its European path, and should be seen by Brussels as an example of what can happen when their relationship with a prospective member is not seen as progressing.

Both Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina are countries that cannot function without external involvement. Albania is treading a fine line between democracy and authoritarianism, and Macedonia’s progress is fragile in the face of an opposition determine to put an end to it. The Serbian-Kosovo dialogue will not move forward without European Union involvement and mediation, and anything less than the use of both the carrot but especially the stick will have no effect. Serbia itself needs a check on its current leadership, and Montenegro needs to be shown that their efforts have been worthwhile. The work that needs to be done in the next years is substantial but feasible – and only commitment on both sides will keep the relationships built going in the right direction.

That 2025 is still a long way away is both the good news and the bad news. On the one hand, it gives the countries lagging behind a chance to catch up, and represents sufficient time for them to get their relationship with the European Union back on track. The other side of the coin relates to those of the Western Balkan countries that have made positive steps towards the future – it is crucial that these keep momentum, and that progress and stability is maintained throughout the region. The Western Balkan countries need to show they are moving forward – and the European Union can and should ensure that they do.

Image: U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and new Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic 

About Irena Baboi

Irena Baboi is a final year postgraduate student at the University of Glasgow, studying Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies. Her main region of interest is the Balkans. She is also a recent graduate of the same university, having studied Politics and Central and East European Studies. She has previously interned with AKE Intelligence Group in London, as well as the United Nations Information Centre and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in her hometown of Bucharest, Romania. Her research interests include human rights, peacebuilding and statebuilding, conflict prevention, management and resolution, transitional justice, and post-conflict development.