A wave of protests has been sweeping through the Balkans since 2018, gathering dozens and sometimes hundreds of thousands of citizens rebelling against corrupt politicians. Despite the turmoil and recession prevailing in the region, the most progressive steps towards change were made during an extremely difficult crisis, which shows that thorough changes in the Balkans are possible, but they require courage as well as strong and wise support from the European Union.
The year 2014 was extremely difficult for Europe, but also particularly demanding for the Balkan states that, following a period of bloody wars of the 1990s, or, as in the case of Albania, a rapid change in the political system, aspired to become members of the European Union. While Slovenia and Croatia managed to achieve this goal at different times, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia, Kosovo and Albania were faced with the prospect of waiting a vaguely unspecified amount of time, until a possible thaw in the EU’s expansion plans, as the President of the European Commission Jean Claude Juncker announced in May 2014 that the expansion processes would be halted for five years.
However, in order to prevent stagnation and deepening the divisions at both the regional level and between the Balkans and the European Union, the countries of the Western Balkans were invited five years ago to join the diplomatic initiative known as the Berlin Process, initiated by Angela Merkel.
The goal was to consolidate activities preparing countries to open negotiations or, in the case of countries with an officially confirmed candidate status, such as Serbia, to join the European Union. This was to be a sign for the leaders of the Balkan six (the so-called WB6) that Europe has not forgotten them, although the further EU expansion to the Balkans isn’t discussed. This decision was made at a very critical moment in the Balkans, when the political crises in most countries were getting worse.
And although a year earlier, in April 2013, Serbia and Kosovo began talks under the Brussels Agreement, which were generally to lead to normalizing relations between the two countries with the support of the European Union (Serbia does not recognize Kosovo’s independence announced in February 2008, which adds to the deepening political crisis in the region), political instability in the region has deteriorated, and despite all efforts, political crises began to gradually exacerbate already in 2014.
The Western Balkans took to the streets
It was in 2014 that a very serious and dangerous political crisis broke out in Macedonia, and protests against corruption in Nikola Gruev’s government lasted for months. The conflict reached a peak in Kumanovo, where the police has pacified a group of terrorists. The fighting resulted in 8 policemen killed, 37 injured, 14 militants killed and 30 accused of terrorism. Many believe that the attack was organized at the request of the then Macedonian Prime Minister, Nikola Gruevski, who wanted to divert attention from the largest wiretapping scandal in the region’s history, revealed by Zoran Zaev, today’s Prime Minister of North Macedonia. As if that wasn’t enough, the refugee crisis peaked in 2015, during which thousands of refugees, mainly from Syria, entered the territories of the Balkan states.
However, closing the borders in early 2016 did not mean stabilization, as another regional scandal broke out in October that year, this time in Montenegro. During the election, a group of Serbian and Russian citizens were accused of a coup attempt and terrorism. The police caught over a dozen Serbian citizens and accused Russia ofinspiring the coup. Two years later, journalists from the Bellincat portal, together with the Russian investigative portal insajder.ru, have confirmed the identity of two Russian military intelligence officers, who were to participate in the coup.
In the following years, each of the six Balkan states drifted around in local and regional conflicts and turmoil. An increase in mob executions has been observed on the streets of Serbian and Montenegrin cities – there were 114 of them since 2015, the perpetrators remaining unknown in the staggering majority of cases. In early 2018, a lot of attention was drawn to the murder of the informal leader of Kosovo Serbs, Oliver Ivanović, murdered on the very doorstep of his office in Mitrovica, Kosovo. This event has had a deep impact on the local Serbian community, but also more widely in the region. The perpetrators remain unknown to this day; according to specialists, the murder was carried out by professionals.
Organized crime and the deteriorating serious political crises are the scourge of all WB6 countries. Each of these crises is very often more or less directly caused by the powerlessness of state institutions against organized crime, corruption and the states’ lack of response to the basic needs of citizens. A wave of protests has been sweeping through the Balkans since 2018, gathering dozens and sometimes hundreds of thousands of citizens rebelling against corrupt politicians.
There was a different flash point in each state, but the idea of each protest was similar: protesters demanded justice and crackdown on corruption, and in some cases the resignation of the local political elite and electing new ones. In such an atmosphere, David Dragičević, the father of 21-year-old David who died in tragic circumstances in March 2018, stood against the local corrupt elite. The police said that his death was an unfortunate accident. Insisting that his son had been brutally murdered, the father led the protests in the center of Banja Luka, which gathered up to 40,000 people in October last year.
Protests have been commonplace in Serbia in recent months. Since December 2018, citizens have been taking to the streets every Saturday, protesting against corruption, party particularism and violence in politics. The protest has sparked an incident in which Borko Stefanović, a well-known opposition politician in Serbia, was battered. This, however, was only a prelude – citizens, but also opposition parties, famous artists and public figures now take to the streets every weekend in Serbian cities, demanding defending democracy, free media and elections. The exact numbers of protesters have never been estimated; according to the ruling elites, they were several thousand people, though the organizers state that they gathered over 100,000 citizens in the peak period. The scale of protests in Serbia is confirmed by video materials.
At the end of last year, mass protests of students also started in Albania, demonstrating against increasing fees at universities. Protests continue, but are currently led by opposition with Lulzim Basha in charge. Protesters reject the option of dialogue, which reflects the deep political polarization in Albania, which has been prevalent in the country since the fall of Enver Hoxha’s regime. Kosovo is also in deep political crisis. Last summer, mass protests took place in Pristina; these were against corrupt politicians, and also demanded that Hashim Thaçi resign from office as president and that a determined crackdown on corruption be enforced.
Reconciliation has never been so close
The Balkans are going through a very serious crisis, each country in its own way, despite the time- and energy-consuming initiatives taken by the European Union or the Member States themselves to prevent the eruption.
Five years since the start of the Berlin Process, under which the implementation of the mechanisms to improve regional cooperation and communication has been commenced, and six years since the start of the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue, the situation in the region seems worse than when the initiatives were being implemented.
Belgrade and Pristina are not conducting dialogue currently; they have been in a state of open diplomatic war since last year, with no end to it in sight. On the other hand, anyone who stays in the region a little longer will see that, in all of recent history, Balkan societies have never been as ready for reconciliation, settlement with the past and a pragmatic, apolitical building of the future.
Never before have the Serbs had such an understanding of how important ending the conflict over Kosovo is for the future. This pragmatism and understanding that change requires difficult and bold decisions was also evident in Macedonians and Greeks, who, in times of very difficult crisis, managed to resolve a diplomatic dispute lasting three decades, which had prevented these countries from developing. The agreement between Macedonia and Greece, or Montenegro’s accession to NATO in June 2017 are genuine successes of the Balkan states.
EU integration becomes increasingly vague
The most pressing problem for residents is not foreign policy, but high unemployment rate, difficult economic conditions and corruption. According to research by the Regional Cooperation Council (RCC), despite skepticism, the inhabitants of the Western Balkans still believe that European integration is important and a thing to strive for. Research results also showed that all countries except Serbia have a positive attitude towards regional cooperation between the Balkan Six states and consider it necessary for the region’s development.
Paradoxically, the countries that are the most positive about a possible accession to the European Union are those that have the longest way to go. In 2018, as many as 84% of respondents in Kosovo (whose residents are the only ones in the region to move around the EU under a visa system) believed that joining the Union would have a positive impact on the country’s development; Albania is right behind Kosovo, with a score of 83%. 59% of inhabitants in North Macedonia, 53% in Montenegro and 45% in Bosnia and Herzegovina also perceive joining the European Union positively. Serbia is the most Eurosceptic (although its accession possibilities are technically the largest). Only 29% of Serbs believe that joining the EU would improve their country’s situation; 39% believe that it would have neither positive nor negative effects; while 22% of respondents consider membership to be negative.
At a time when the prospect of European Union expansion to the Western Balkans is becoming more and more distant, even for countries that, like North Macedonia, have shown particular courage and decision-making in their struggle for membership, or like Albania, which introduced a number of legislative changes expecting a candidate country status in return, Euroscepticism is on the rise in the region, which, combined with the lack of developed institutions, and high corruption and unemployment levels, creates a very dangerous and unfavorable environment in the region, which often results in stagnation and a decision to migrate to rich European countries.
Five years after initiating the Berlin Process, the region’s recovery from the crisis is still very slow, and the process itself is being hampered by corruption, a lack of strong institutions and a lack of adequate support from European partners, although there is clearly a desire, a need, as well as the possibility and courage to carry out difficult transformation processes.
If the European Union waves this potential aside, it may soon turn against it, because, as stated by the authors of the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime report, if the development of hard infrastructure is not supplemented by smaller initiatives aimed at strengthening local institutions, then the only ones to benefit from connecting the region will be criminal networks. At present, the functioning of the Balkan six is often reminiscent of a symbiosis between state and organized crime.
The situation is dire, but certainly not hopeless. It requires the EU’s full involvement to work with the elites of these countries in developing cooperation models that would bring measurable results, but would also be transparent and acceptable to the Balkans’ inhabitants. Otherwise, there is a risk that, with a bit of unfortunate circumstances, the Balkans would once again fall into chaos, the effects of which are difficult to predict.
The publication co-financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland. This publication reflects the views of the author and is not an official stance of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.