Home / Europe / A year of ‘anything goes’: the Western Balkans in 2018

A year of ‘anything goes’: the Western Balkans in 2018

14 December, 2018

By Irena Baboi – Senior Fellow

2018 began with a call for the Western Balkan countries to buckle down and push forward with their political and economic transformations, but also an assurance that support and assistance will be given to overcome all related challenges. The European Union’s new enlargement strategy urged the states in the region to increase their efforts towards implementing key reforms, and stressed the importance of a firm commitment to the accession process on both sides. The following months, however, showed that it matters less what the Western Balkan countries do at this stage, and more that Brussels does not suddenly find itself with a security crisis on its hands. The message continues to be that, as long as there is no outright war and the countries seem to be moving in a good direction, the region does not feature highly on their list of priorities. With a warning here and a promise there, the European Union is content in thinking it has fulfilled its obligations – and the half-hearted accession process continues to move slowly forward.

The Macedonian government has been concentrating most of its time and efforts this year on settling a 27-year old name dispute with neighbouring Greece. The signing of a historic agreement between the two countries in June was both preceded and followed by months of internal opposition, protests and bargaining, as both Skopje and Athens had to contend with resistance at all levels. Thousands took to the streets of Skopje to voice their approval for their country’s proposed name change, but these numbers were matched and even exceeded by citizens in both Macedonia and Greece rallying against the name deal. To further complicate matters, the 30 September referendum on the issue had a turnout of only 35%, making its positive result invalid. Nevertheless, Prime Minister Zoran Zaev and his Social Democrats seem determined to push ahead with the name deal, and have begun the long and complex process of convincing the Macedonian parliament to ratify the agreement.

The name dispute between Greece and Macedonia goes back almost thirty years, and largely revolves around a disagreement over which people has the right to be called Macedonian. Athens argues that ethnic Greeks, as descendants of the ancient Greek kingdom of Macedon and its ruler, Alexander the Great, have monopoly over the name and this part of history. Despite the fact that, when part of the Ottoman Empire, the region of Macedonia covered their two countries and Bulgaria, Greeks believe that Skopje’s Slavic roots rule out any claim they may have to this legacy. Going even further, Athens has insisted that the Balkan countries’ use of the name “Macedonia” implies a territorial claim to the northern Greek province by the same name. As a result, when Macedonia declared independence in 1991, Greece refused to recognise the country by this name, and the small Balkan state was from then on formally known as either the Republic of Macedonia or the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. It is under this latter name that Skopje joined the United Nations in 1993; the Security Council, however, has always acknowledged it as provisional.

The name dispute has been the biggest obstacle to European integration for Macedonia, and has resulted in Greece vetoing the Western Balkan country’s NATO accession in 2008 and blocking its European Union accession talks before they even began. The international benefits of an end to this dispute were clear less than two weeks after Zaev and his Greek counterpart, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, signed the historic agreement that would see Macedonia adding the geographical denominator “North” to its name. In July, NATO extended an official invitation for Macedonia to join the alliance, contingent on a definitive settlement to this name dispute with its neighbour.

Albania’s year has been defined by a quest on the part of its government to prove, both internally and externally, that it is committed to transforming its system to fit the expected standards. In both January and May, tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets of Tirana to call for said government’s resignation, accusing it of corruption and links to organised crime. The majority of the people demonstrating were supporters of the opposition, whose leaders have accused Prime Minister Edi Rama and his cabinet of filling their private bank accounts while most of Albania’s people struggle to make ends meet on an average monthly salary of just over £300. The calls for resignation were left unanswered, and Edi Rama’s government set out to convince everyone that there is no need for early elections.

As strengthening the fight against corruption and organised crime is also a key prerequisite on their European path, Albania has been showing some signs of determination to make progress in this area in 2018. In October, in a surprising move for the region, Albania’s interior minister Fatmir Xhafaj reluctantly stepped down a week after police arrested twenty-seven people in a major drug rings crackdown and two former ruling Socialist lawmakers on corruption charges, but failed to catch a drug lord who has been escaping arrest for the past two years. Xhafaj had been under intense pressure from the opposition to resign over his half-brother’s drug conviction, and is the second of Rama’s interior ministers forced to step down over illegal activities, with previous interior minister Saimir Tahiri currently under investigation on corruption and drug trafficking charges.

As NATO’s newest member and European Union membership candidate front-runner, Montenegro has been making its position in the region known this year. In October, the Montenegrin government banned ceremonies marking the 100th anniversary of the unification of the Serbian and Montenegrin kingdoms, arguing that these celebrations dishonour the memories of all the people who were killed during the Yugoslav dictatorship. As an independent state since 2006, Montenegro seems determined to distance itself from this past union, but also from neighbouring Serbia’s actions and decisions in general. In February, Montenegro reached an agreement in its territorial dispute with Kosovo, and the border demarcation deal was ratified by parliament. Come November, the Podgorica government was also one of the few that supported Pristina’s ultimately unsuccessful bid to become a member of Interpol.

Domestically, it is business as usual for the ruling elite, as Milo Djukanovic fulfilled his promise of officially returning to the leadership of Montenegro by winning the April presidential elections. As leader of the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS), Djukanovic has been in power with brief interruptions since 1991, and has held the position of prime minister six times and that of president once before. In October 2016, Djukanovic was the main character of a dramatic exit from Montenegrin politics, when he resigned after accusing Russian and Serbian nationalists of plotting a coup and assassination attempt against him while the parliamentary elections were taking place. His party only narrowly won the elections that year, and his resignation was widely believed to have been more for the benefit of the West than that of the East. Never one to stay away from the spotlight for too long, however, Djukanovic took the next available opportunity to return as head of state, securing his eighth mandate in power without the need of a run-off.

Although the role of president is largely ceremonial in Montenegro, the parliamentary majority that his party enjoys means that Djukanovic will continue to have 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. With a fragmented rest of the political elite, part of which took the first available opportunity to re-affirm its commitment to Moscow, the West is eager to brush under the carpet the allegations of corruption and organised crime links that surround him, and voting days tend to offer few feasible alternatives.

Between a political campaign that saw war criminals praised and glorified and a voting day with record numbers of irregularities, violations and abuses, the general election that took place in Bosnia-Herzegovina this year highlighted the system’s numerous dysfunctions, weaknesses and inefficiencies. Pro-Kremlin nationalist Milorad Dodik won the Serbian seat of the country’s tripartite presidency, and will be sharing the leadership with Sefik Dzaferovic of the Bosniak Party of Democratic Action (SDA) and Zeljko Komsic of the Democratic Front. While Dzaferovic’s win represents continuity – as he is a close ally of outgoing Bosniak president Bakir Izetbegovic and his family – , Komsic’s election came as a surprise. The defeat of nationalist leader Dragan Covic was not taken well by the Croatian government in Zagreb, and Croats in Bosnia-Herzegovina took to the streets to voice their disapproval of the election results. The more moderate Komsic is considered to have won only because of a tactical vote on the part of the Bosniaks, which goes back to the sore point that is the fact that Croats do not have an entity entirely of their own. The Croat opposition was vocal in its threat to dispute the results, and calls for the creation of a third entity have been growing louder.

Internationally, Sarajevo failed to gain candidate status of the European Union because its divisions prevented the country from finalising a simple questionnaire that the bloc uses to assess whether a country meets the requirements for applying to join. Internally, post-election Bosnia-Herzegovina finds itself with no legal basis on which a government can be formed. Under the current law, Serb representatives are elected only 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 in 2016, but parliament is yet to revise it, as Bosniak leaders have vetoed every proposal for reform introduced by the Croat ones. Failure to reform the law also means that elections for the upper house of the parliament cannot take place, which in turn leaves the country without a means to approve a potential government.

For the better part of 2018, the idea that a land swap agreement features highly on the list of solutions to the Serbia-Kosovo dispute has been making rounds in the media. Although in February the United States embassy to Kosovo voiced its opposition to a potential exchange of territories between the two countries, by July it was unclear whether or not Washington still considered this a non-option. In September, rumours that Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovo President Hashim Thaci are working on a proposal for this agreement were extinguished as quickly as they were ignited, as the two leaders cancelled a Brussels meeting in which they were meant to discuss this so-called border adjustment deal. Despite this, as one after another EU-brokered negotiation meetings failed to produce any tangible results, members from within the European organisation itself have started warming up to the idea – and the international mood towards what would ultimately be an extreme solution seems to be gradually shifting.

A quick fix to the Serbia-Kosovo dispute, however, has temporarily been taken off the table. In November, Kosovo’s government imposed a ten percent tax on imports from Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, a move Pristina argues is in retaliation for the two countries’ refusal to recognise its independence, and “savage” acts against the youngest Balkan republic. The “savage” acts most likely refer to Serbia’s recent intensifying of efforts to persuade countries across the world to withdraw their recognition of Kosovan statehood, a campaign which has so far come with some degree of success. Kosovo failing to gain membership of Interpol for the third time further increased tensions, and the import taxes now stand at one hundred percent. 

Under the potential territorial swap agreement, Serb-majority municipalities in northern Kosovo would join Serbia, while Kosovo would receive Serbia’s Presevo Valley. While it is unclear whether or not the agreement includes recognition of Kosovo’s independence by Serbia, it is abundantly clear that, in Kosovo at least, President Thaci stands alone in support of the so-called border adjustment. In September, tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Pristina to demonstrate against the potential territory swap. Kosovo’s opposition Self-Determination Party (Vetevendosje) has been very vocal against the deal, but Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj is also among those who oppose it.

Even if it means much-needed advancement on the European path, a land swap agreement could set a dangerous precedent and invite further calls for so-called border adjustments. Bosnia’s Republika Srpska is always keen to capitalise on moves in the region, and cause a commotion by re-affirming its desire to join Serbia. The Serb-dominated entity could be joined by Croats in the country, whose outrage at the October election result makes them more than willing to draw further attention to their cause. The agreement could also embolden Albanian extremists in Macedonia, unhappy over the country’s treatment of the minority, to seek the same future for the part of the country in which Albanians are currently concentrated. Every decision sends ripple effects over the entire region, and a change this significant could open a Pandora’s box with widespread and long-lasting implications.

The enhanced engagement promised by the European Union at the beginning of 2018 offered hope, but by the end of the year it turned out to be more of a lukewarm relationship. Despite their efforts in 2018, both Albania and Macedonia saw the opening of new chapters in their respective accession processes postponed until June 2019. One after another of the Serbia-Kosovo normalisation talks broke down, and Bosnia’s and Montenegro’s internal politics went on ignored. While the desire for European membership continues to be strong in the region, there is no guarantee that it will stay this way forever – and with very little effort, and even less expense, other international players could take advantage of the growing vacuum created by the West.

What the European Union needs to remember, above all, is that leaders in the region cannot and will not sell tough reforms and controversial decisions to their people unless Brussels confirms that said reforms and decisions are a step forward that will be rewarded. Prime Minister Zaev needs to convince both Macedonians and his opposition to get behind a deal that has been a point of contention for almost three decades. Albania’s government is under intense scrutiny from a population that has lost faith in their ability and willingness to work for rather than against them. Bosnia’s three leaders need little excuse to disagree and bring the country to a stalemate, and Montenegro’s Djukanovic without a definitive membership prospect is just another leader concerned with keeping a firm grasp on power. An end to the Serbia-Kosovo dispute will be painful for both sides regardless of the compromise ultimately chosen – and only the prospect of a better future has a chance of getting people at all levels of society on board with what will be the new reality.

When it comes to the Western Balkan countries, the essentials from the point of view of the European Union seem to have become having a West-oriented government, and not declaring war against one of their neighbours. Every step forward is rewarded with a distant promise, and every step back is reacted to with a vague warning. With transformation processes as difficult as the ones these states have undertaken, however, hard work is not something that should be left unrewarded indefinitely. Actions speak louder than words, and the words have not been followed by actions one time too many – and commitment has a chance of survival only when both sides consistently show it.

Image: Zoran Zaev and Alexis Tsipras shake hands after signing the agreement over on Macedonia’s naming dispute.

About Irena Baboi

Irena Baboi is a PhD candidate at the University of Glasgow, researching the future of European Union involvement in the Western Balkans. She also obtained both of her previous degrees from the same university, having completed an MA in Politics and Central and East European Studies and an MSc in Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies. Irena’s previous work experience includes internships with AKE Intelligence Group in London, as well as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and United Nations Information Centre in her hometown of Bucharest, Romania, fundraising for Macmillan Cancer Support, freelance writing and editing for Oxford University Press. She has also been a volunteer with the British Red Cross since 2013. Irena’s research interests include human rights, peacebuilding and statebuilding, conflict prevention, management and resolution, transitional justice, and post-conflict development.