As EU becomes resistant to accepting new members, Balkan countries need better incentives to continue democratizing.
Ever since the horror of the Srebrenica genocide in July 1995, the United States has had a hand in every major breakthrough in peace processes in the Balkans, spending vast resources on peacekeeping efforts in the region.
Europe too has been an essential presence, making sure brokered agreements were sustainable, taking over peacekeeping missions and, most importantly, using the promise of prospective membership in the European Union to promote democracy and economic prosperity in the region.
During the last 15 years, as Balkan states reformed, their mutual hostilities quieted down. The shared goal of joining the EU encouraged them to develop more democratic institutions and work toward a borderless future. Croatia was granted membership in 2013, giving hope to others in its neighborhood.
But now, a strange thing has happened. EU countries have become resistant to welcoming new members into the club: the accessions of Romania and Bulgaria were arguably rushed, and the Union has been distracted by a series of crises since 2008 — the financial crisis, the euro crisis, the migration crisis and, most recently, the Brexit crisis.
Political elites across the Balkans show little interest in adhering to Europe’s bedrock democratic values.
Unresolved bilateral disputes, such as the diplomatic stand-off over the naming issue between Macedonia and Greece, have blocked progress and further undermined the credibility of the enlargement process. And the resulting lack of political appetite for Europe’s enlargement threatens to send the wrong message to a region where peace remains fragile.
Today, political elites across the Balkans show little interest in adhering to Europe’s bedrock democratic values. Instead, authoritarianism and clientelism are on the rise. Citizens in the region face increasing hopelessness in the face of rampant unemployment as their countries continue to struggle to return to the levels of GDP they had as part of Yugoslavia.
Brexit may be the last nail in the region’s coffin. Not only has the U.K. been an important advocate for enlargement, its departure will keep the rest of the EU far too busy to pay much attention to the Balkans. The situation has handed a powerful argument to a Balkan ruling class happy with the status quo: Why bother joining a union that is falling apart, and that doesn’t want us?
The situation has handed a powerful argument to a Balkan ruling class happy with the status quo: Why bother joining a union that is falling apart, and that doesn’t want us?
Balkan strongmen may still talk the pro-EU talk, but they walk like Russians or Turkish authoritarians. They offer short-term stability, but they have no respect for democratic institutions and strike populist tones that could undermine peace in the region. As the attempted coup and subsequent crackdown in Turkey has demonstrated, this is a dangerous model for the Balkans.
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The most striking backsliding has taken place in Macedonia, a front-runner in the accession process only 10 years ago and one of the region’s few success stories in conflict prevention. Wiretapped conversations, leaked last year by the Macedonian opposition, exposed the abuses of former prime minister Nikola Gruevski’s regime, and provided evidence of alleged corruption, governmental pressure on the judiciary and media, electoral fraud and the massive abuse of state institutions.
Gruevski and his entourage have fought attempts to instate checks and balances, as well as measures that would help guarantee credible elections, despite considerable EU efforts to resolve the crisis. President Gjorge Ivanov, one of Gruevski’s allies, attempted to resolve the standoff with a blanket pardon — a move that was met with months of daily protests until he retracted his offer of amnesty.
Resolving Macedonia’s crisis would be a game changer for the whole region.
What happens next in Macedonia, where the abuse of power has been so well documented, will have momentous implications for the entire region. If authorities are held accountable, other leaders in the Balkans may be convinced they should show restraint. If not, the message will be clear: transgressions will be left unpunished.
As long as Europe remains reluctant to admit new members, the U.S. will have to step up its involvement and help keep the region on track. Fortunately, this effort no longer requires the use of American military might. U.S. diplomacy has been effective when closely coordinated with EU efforts at maintaining stability and ensuring accountability.
Resolving Macedonia’s crisis would be a game changer for the whole region. Done right, it will send a clear message to burgeoning wannabe Putins in the Balkans: Your strategy leads to a dead end.
Nikola Dimitrov is a former ambassador of Macedonia to the United States, distinguished fellow at the Hague Institute for Global Justice and member of the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG).
Florian Bieber is professor of southeast European history and politics at the University of Graz, Austria, and BiEPAG’s coordinator.