February 8, 2019
By Irena Baboi – Senior Fellow
For the Western Balkans, 2019 was marked by stagnation on the European Union accession front, lukewarm external attention to their internal developments, and growing frustration among the populations. Albania and North Macedonia saw their accession dreams postponed indefinitely, as the European Council failed to reach agreement on opening membership negotiations with the two countries. Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo underwent the usual political games and manoeuvres, with the former unable to form a government for months and the latter making its usual snail-paced progress on important decisions. Serbia and Montenegro both experienced waves of mass protests throughout 2019, with the underlying causes eerily similar in both frontrunners for European Union membership. At first glance, 2020 promised to be a year of changes and progress for the region, as Croatia embarking on its first European Union Council presidency, the French non-paper on enlargement reform, and the Zagreb summit scheduled for May could all be seen as signs that the integration of the Western Balkans is still high on the European agenda. January has come and gone, however, and it looks more likely that mass protests and election results have the potential to continue making headlines this year. If 2020 is to be marked by change and progress, the drive for this needs to come from within – and there will be plenty of opportunities for the international community to start paying attention to the region again.
Serbia began 2019 with thousands of people still taking to the streets of Belgrade and other towns and cities to call for their government’s resignation and demand free and fair elections. The “1 in 5 million” movements was triggered by a 23 November 2018 incident, when opposition politician Borko Stefanovic was attacked and beaten by masked men in the southern Serbian town of Krusevac. The protesters have also demanded an investigation into the attempted murder of online journalist Milan Jovanovic, whose home in the Belgrade suburb of Vrcin was set on fire on 12 December, and justice for Kosovo Serb politician Oliver Ivanovic, whose murder is yet to be resolved. As protests continued throughout 2019 and have spilled over to 2020, the aims of the Serbian people are clear – an end to what they see as political violence on the part of their government, and a level of democratic freedoms and rights worthy of a European Union candidate country.
Since coming to power in 2014, the Progressives have been accused of corruption, eroding of media freedom, running campaigns against government critics and the opposition, introducing laws that affect workers’ and young people’s rights, and generally maintaining monopoly over all decision-making in the country. With President Aleksandar Vucic at their lead, they have ensured that information is controlled and manipulated, that voting is not entirely fair and free, and that political allegiance continues to matter when it comes to well-paid jobs and promotions. As such, the party has gradually brought Serbia back to the social and political situation the country found itself in more than eighteen years before. The parallels drawn by the media to the popular unrest against Slobodan Milosevic’s decade of dictatorship in 2000 are particularly illustrative of this point – almost two decades later, in a European Union candidate country, the people still need to voice their opposition to autocracy, and demand rights and freedoms that should have been theirs for years.
Montenegro followed Serbia closely behind with its own series of protests, which began when Dusko Knezevic, prominent businessman and close, personal friend of President Milo Djukanovic for the last quarter of a century, accused him and his ruling Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) of corruption, cronyism, abuse of office and questionable financial deals. As owner of Atlas Group, a conglomerate of banking, insurance and health interests, Knezevic himself stands accused by the Montenegrin authorities of fraud and money laundering, and has fled to London to avoid prosecution. In retaliation to this judicial spotlight on him, in the form of a long series of social media posts, Knezevic decided to release documents and videos on a variety of corruption and mismanagement scandals, including ones that involve top level officials and politicians. What seems to have angered people the most is the so-called “Envelope Affair”, a recording from 2016 that shows Knezevic appearing to hand the then mayor of Podgorica, Slavoljub Stijepovic, an envelope containing a hundred thousand dollars to fund a DPS election campaign. The government’s corruption and links to organised crime have long been an open secret in Montenegro, but this was perceived as the first concrete confirmation of decades of wrongdoings.
European Union front-runner Montenegro is the only country in the region that is yet to experience a genuine alternation of power. As leader of the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS), President Milo Djukanovic has been in power with brief interruptions since 1991, holding the position of prime minister six times and that of president once before, and calling the political shots even when behind the scenes. Although the role of president is largely ceremonial in Montenegro, the parliamentary majority that his party enjoys means that Djukanovic has considerable control and influence over his country. From an external point of view, this is generally felt as a relief, as Montenegro has done very well internationally with the DPS in power. Devoted communist and ally of Slobodan Milosevic turned strong Western supporter, Milo Djukanovic has led his country on the path to both independence from Serbia and NATO membership, and has been a source of stability who has always been very sensitive and adaptable to evolving circumstances. However, a fresh series of protests that began in December and are still ongoing at the time of writing – this time over the adoption of a controversial religious law that is believed to undermine the role of the Serbian Orthodox Church in the country – suggests Djukanovic does not enjoy the same level of support internally – and the parliamentary elections of October will be an important test for the Montenegrin political elite.
Serbia and Montenegro were not the only two Western Balkan countries to experience mass protests last year. As yet another of the countries where change is a long time coming, Albania has seen its people take to the streets consistently since the beginning of 2017. The rounds of protests that took place throughout 2019 were organised by opposition parties, and said to be some of the biggest and most dramatic that the country has experienced in years. The opposing Democratic Party (PD), who were replaced by the Socialist Party (PS) in the last general elections and have lost every local election since, accuse Edi Rama’s party of winning through illegal means, but also of governing the state in a semi-authoritarian manner. The protests were marked by frequent clashes with the police, and on all occasions law enforcement responded with tear gas, flash grenades and water cannons to attempts by demonstrators to storm the Albanian parliament and government headquarters.
In response to demands for a new government, Albania’s Prime Minister Edi Rama maintains that he will not resign, and has dismissed all calls for snap elections. The opposition responded by resigning from parliament and announcing a fresh series of protests, a move that they hoped would add the breaking point pressure. The leaking of taped conversations between a notorious underworld figure and Socialist Party officials, along with the exposing of Shkodra’s Socialist mayor’s criminal past in Italy, were also meant to shake Rama’s party’s grip on power, and force an end to the country’s political and social stalemate. So far, however, Albania’s ruling elite seems not only determined to stay, but also quietly confident that the current circumstances are unlikely to last.
Albania, and with it North Macedonia, also saw its hopes of opening European Union membership negotiations shattered in October, when a vote by the European Council decided that the two Western Balkan countries are not ready to begin accession talks. North Macedonia’s Prime Minister Zoran Zaev resigned immediately, and snap elections are now set to take place on 12 April 2020. For the country that took painful steps to solve its 27-year name dispute with neighbouring Greece, the frustration and disappointment were palpable – this was neither the promised course of events, nor the appropriate outcome for Skopje’s efforts and actions.
The signing of the Prespa Agreement on 17 June 2018 was an extraordinary event, and one that raised hopes and expectations of an appropriate reward for North Macedonia from the international community. Instead, Skopje is once again forced to contend with political uncertainty, social disillusionment, and confusion over its domestic and international future. The Western Balkan country’s first half of 2020 is now likely to be dominated by political campaigning and the subsequent forming of a new government, when it could have been focused on the much-needed reforming of its systems and institutions. Frustration with the slow pace of change and fatigue over the frequent voting occasions are likely to make people even more disinterested in political matters, and disengagement on the part of the population will only make progress harder to achieve. As it is difficult to predict which way the voting will go, only one thing is certain – this could have all been easily avoided, and North Macedonia could have been shown as an example that hard work and sacrifices take you a long way.
As the two countries considered to still have the most work to do on the reform front, Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina had a 2019 defined by government issues and political impasses. The latter’s larger entity, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, formed a new parliament in February, almost four months after the country’s general elections. It took until November, however, for the tripartite presidency of Bosnia-Herzegovina to appoint Bosnian Serb Zoran Tegeltija as head of the Council of Ministers – effectively prime minister of the country –, clearing the way for the establishment of the state government. In December, Bosnia’s parliament finally confirmed Tegeltija as leader of the Council, ending a political deadlock that began after the elections and lasted for over a year.
This political impasse that characterised most of 2019 is, however, nothing new for Bosnia-Herzegovina. In theory, the complex political system created through the Dayton Agreement of 1995 was meant to give all three main ethnic groups a voice, and to ensure that each specific viewpoint is represented. In practice, Dayton has created a divided political landscape in which ethnic rhetoric is a successful political tool; only those who declare themselves as part of the one of the three main ethnic groups have a say; and everyone’s compromising limit was reached a long time ago. Politicians play the ethnicity card because they know it works, but they also play it because it is easier than finding solutions to issues that have become endemic. Corruption and organised crime, high levels of unemployment, and an economy and infrastructure that are collapsing are issues no-one in the political system is willing to talk about – and their refusal to work together has brought Bosnia-Herzegovina to a deadlock time and time again.
Kosovo’s 2019 was also marked by a surprising result in their parliamentary elections. The opposition Vetevendosje (Self-Determination) – a left-wing nationalist party that has never been in power – narrowly won the vote and ousted the once dominant Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK). The elections themselves were a surprise, as Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj unexpectedly announced his resignation in July, a move that followed the Specialist Prosecutor’s Office in The Hague summoning him for questions over his role during the Kosovo war. The next month, Prishtina’s parliament voted for its own dissolution, and President Hashim Thaci announced 6 October as the date for the snap elections.
It has not, however, been smooth sailing for Vetevendosje so far. As it was a narrow win, the Self-Determination Party needed to secure a coalition deal with the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), otherwise they would have been unable to form a new government. The standstill revolved around both parties’ desire to have one of their own as speaker of the parliament, and their leaders’ unwillingness to compromise on this point. After four months of wrangling, Vetevendosje and the LDK finally reached an agreement – and narrowly avoided fresh elections, a prospect that is unlikely to have been received favourably by the people of Kosovo.
Most leaders in the Western Balkans are seasoned politicians, who have used every means available to consolidate their internal and external position, and ensure there is little feasible alternative to their rule. In all six countries, a high level of mistrust for other parties has created a weak and fragmented opposition, most of which is seen as unreliable both by the West and their own people. Political elites across the region are in dire need of an overhaul, but this will require high levels of domestic and international commitment and support. As Kosovo and other Western Balkan countries before it have shown, however, a party that has never been in government can always score a surprise win – and, if nothing else, this should at least register as a wake-up call that the status quo no longer serves the people.
The year 2019 was one of unrest, disappointments, and lack of advancement on the European accession path for the Western Balkans. The people took to the streets against their governments in three of the six countries of the region, and in the other three the current domestic and international impasses are unlikely to be tolerated indefinitely. As 2020 will be marked by important elections and high-level talks, the probability of further voicing of frustrations is something that should be taken into serious consideration – as with enough commitment and support, both popular and external, mass protests in the Western Balkans can achieve great things.
Image: France’s President Emmanuel Macron and North Macedonia’s Prime Minister Zoran Zaev. The former has blocked EU membership talks with the latter, halting further EU-Balkan integration efforts (Source: Влада на Република Македонија)