What’s wrong with the Western Balkans?

A non-European history of almost 500 years, a playground for major powers and a fragmentation into small independent states with a lot of unresolved baggage between them is the cause for the very slow progress in this part of Europe.

More than two decades past since the violent breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s and the wars that followed (Slovenia and Croatia, 1991, Bosnia-Herzegovina, 1992), with the Kosovo war in 1999. While Slovenia and Croatia have become members of the European Union as well as of NATO, with Montenegro joining the alliance in June 2017, the rest of the region now called Western Balkans remains a headache for the international community and the EU in particular.

Cluelessness

Many attempts of involvement, mediation, incentives for economic prosperity and subsequent membership by the EU have produced little or no result. Although still engaged in the Western Balkans, the region does not enjoy the highest priority all the time in Brussels, nor can it be expected due to other hot spots and problems within the EU and elsewhere. Many observers agree for some years now that the EU doesn’t have a clear strategy how to foster positive change in the region, bringing it closer to membership. Or simply put, the EU has run out of ideas and is content with stability.

Even though the regular reports by the European Council project optimism by stating slow progress towards integration with the occasional criticism on certain issues, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Kosovo and Macedonia, to a lesser degree Montenegro, are far from the spirit and principles of the Union as they can be. All of them have in common political elites in total control of economic resources, the media and the judiciary, who don’t benefit personally from EU membership and the homework their countries must do to achieve it.

Historic hibernation

The problems in these countries have to do with their historic development, which is very different than that of almost all other European countries. With the beginning of the Renaissance in Europe, the Western Balkans fell to the Ottoman Empire. Subsequently, the region slept through the progress that would change the continent – the Enlightenment, the French revolution and the Industrial revolution. Even though the region was at the periphery of the Ottoman Empire, the legacy of the Christian medieval kingdoms conquered by the Ottomans slowly disappeared. Instead of a social contract common to European nations, especially after the Peace of Westphalia, the Western Balkans societies were more similar to the so-called Oriental social contract – a “benevolent” despot providing the goods, in return no opposition is offered. A model that is still in force in most parts of the Middle East and having a kind of comeback in the former centre of the Ottoman world, Turkey.

With the beginning of the Renaissance in Europe, the Western Balkans fell to the Ottoman Empire. Subsequently, the region slept through the progress that would change the continent – the Enlightenment, the French revolution and the Industrial revolution.

Due to the proximity to Italy and Central Europe, many individuals came into contact with European ideas and the changes to its fabric. But in general, these changes had little impact for most of the population in the Western Balkans. There are also today many people who come into contact with EU countries, understand the value of a liberal democracy and the rule of law. And they have a hard time understanding why their societies seem stuck in the past. You will hear many of them vent their frustration by saying “why are we so lazy”, “why are we so submissive” or “why do we elect the same vultures over and over again”. The people of the Western Balkans developed the ability to adapt to every foreign ruler or empire. The centre of power was always somewhere far away, even in the case of Belgrade as a capital. Suddenly, after five centuries, they had to take charge of their own destiny. But this adaptation seems far more difficult. Nowhere is that so obvious then in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Ottoman mentality

The truth is simply that the region doesn’t have any tradition or experience with a liberal democracy, citizens’ participation in political life or the simple consciousness that politicians work for the people and not the other way around, that public money is to be spent wisely and under public scrutiny. Although the Ottomans are long gone, all subsequent political systems until the breakup of Yugoslavia operated under similar principles, most so during the time of socialist Yugoslavia between 1945 and 1991, where the state provided everything, with no opposition tolerated.

The truth is simply that the region doesn’t have any tradition or experience with a liberal democracy, citizens’ participation in political life or the simple consciousness that politicians work for the people and not the other way around, that public money is to be spent wisely and under public scrutiny.

A lesser known historical fact can illustrate why the Western Balkans lacks behind in political awareness. The first printing press in Bosnia-Herzegovina was established in the town of Goražde, near the Serbian border, in 1521. It lasted for two years. The second printing press in Bosnia-Herzegovina would not start working until 1866, almost 350 years later. It is impossible to ignore the impact of examples like this one on society, literacy, national narratives or the emergence of an intellectual class as a vanguard of social change, or lack thereof.

One nation or several nations?

The consequence was that all political thoughts were of foreign origin, narratives were mostly part of the empires the region belonged to. In the 19th century the various parts of the Western Balkans began a path of asymmetrical progress towards statehood. Some gained administrative or political autonomy before others did, with Serbia and Montenegro being the first to become fully independent. The Western Balkans is widely known today for its inter-ethnic tensions. Regardless of the political and quasi-scientific interpretations, the people in the region are divided by a common language, geography and religion. That’s basically it. It’s one culture with various regional folklores, one language everybody understands and three religions. There are few examples in the world where a member of a religion is exclusively a member of a certain nation and vice versa. There is no Catholic Serb or a Christian-Orthodox Croat, all Croats are Catholics and all Serbs are Christian-Orthodox. So, one could argue rationally if we are talking about several ethnicities at all. But that train has left the station at least some 150 years ago, almost no one would support such notion today, particularly after the conflicts in the 1990s.

Regardless of the political and quasi-scientific interpretations, the people in the region are divided by a common language, geography and religion. That’s basically it.

Incidentally, the border between the Austrian and Ottoman empires in the Western Balkans was the same where the EU border is today. Slovenia joined the EU in 2005, Croatia in 2013. The date of EU membership for the remaining Ex-Yugoslav states remains a distant reality, but it will be at least 10 years until another Western Balkans state joins the club. At present, chances are, it will be Montenegro. So, why did Slovenia had such a head-start, while countries like Serbia or Bosnia-Herzegovina have still a long way to go?

Slovenia

Slovenia was at the forefront of the changes that swept Eastern Europe in 1989, bringing it at odds with Yugoslav institutions, particularly the Army. It had never a hegemonic policy towards its neighbours, far less corruption, no organized crime scene, no oligarchs and a population more engaged in the affairs of the state. In Western Balkans terms, a pretty “boring” central European country with problems similar to the Czech Republic or Slovakia.

Croatia

Croatia’s first decade of independence was overshadowed by war with its Serb population and their backers in Serbia, shady privatization, corruption and oligarchs close to its first president Franjo Tuđman, who was deeply engaged in the war in neighbouring Bosnia-Herzegovina. After his death in 1999, the country picked up steam and did its homework, which resulted in EU membership 14 years later. After that was achieved, Croatia’s political scene is today engulfed in historical revisionism of its fascist past (1941-1945), erasing the 45 years as part of socialist Yugoslavia. The problem is that by whipping this era out of the public mind, Croatia sets itself on the path of being the successor state of the infamous Independent State of Croatia, a puppet state set up by the Third Reich during World War II. The search for a national narrative is understandable, but that would be a very wrong place. The US State Department has repeatedly criticised this development, while the EU has been more silent. But as an EU candidate, these efforts laid very much dormant. Croatia is also interfering more aggressively now in Bosnia-Herzegovina on the side of Bosnian Croats, who make up 15% of the country’s population. As a consequence of Tuđman’s policy, all Bosnian Croats have also Croatian, and therefore, EU citizenship and many are leaving Bosnia-Herzegovina with no obstacles to settle anywhere in the EU.

Croatia’s political scene is today engulfed in historical revisionism of its fascist past (1941-1945), erasing the 45 years as part of socialist Yugoslavia.

It gets trickier with the rest of the former Yugoslav states. A review of the developments in these countries must include the effect of outside influence. One could argue that there is a race for influence between Russia, Turkey, the US and the EU. The forms of influence range from economic aid to media influence by injecting certain narratives to control public opinion. Several Arab countries, particularly the Gulf States, are also active both with investments and sponsorships of Islamic communities, by pushing their brand of Islam in the region, mostly in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo.

Serbia

Serbian society is also engaged in historical revisionism of World War II, but stays pretty much clear of dealing with the events of the 1990s, rejecting any responsibility for the wars. This “circling the waggon” is enhanced by the rejection of an independent Kosovo, once a province of Serbia. It keeps Serbia stuck in the recent past, which in time disintegrated all pro-European political parties and ascended to absolute power people, who represent the most nationalistic political forces. Serbia’s raison d’être since the 1850s was expansion. The dukedom, then kingdom grew more than double in size before World War I. With the kingdom of Yugoslavia, which adopted the political system of Serbia, its royal dynasty and army, it reached the peak of its principle policy. Marginalized in the socialist Yugoslavia, Serbian leaders, still communists, endeavoured to turn the second Yugoslavia into the first one after the death of President Josip Broz Tito. This is in a nutshell the cause for the Yugoslav wars. The Serbian leadership knew by 1990 that this attempt will not go down peacefully, ensuring support by the Soviet Union to use force.

Marginalized in the socialist Yugoslavia, Serbian leaders, still communists, endeavoured to turn the second Yugoslavia into the first one after the death of President Josip Broz Tito. This is in a nutshell the cause for the Yugoslav wars.

As things didn’t go according to plan and Serbia eventually became independent itself in 2006, after it was left even by its closest ally Montenegro, the country is still struggling to find a new place for itself in the world, after the core policy that defined it for 150 years failed. Serbia’s flirting with Russia and EU at the same time can be viewed through this lens. The materialistic advantages of EU membership are appealing to most Serbians, the values and principles of the Union are hardly ever discussed. A May 2016 study by the Centre for Euro-Atlantic Studies has found over 100 NGOs, media outlets and associations directly connected with the Russian lobby in Serbia. In light of Russia’s efforts to influence public opinion in Europe and the US, it is safe to say that much of the narrative dominating Serbian public discourse is influenced by Russia, above all a persistent dislike for NATO and any efforts to join the alliance. The costly rejection of Kosovo’s independence is not sustainable indefinitely and Serbia’s stability comes with a heavy cost having a de-facto one party rule, distancing the country from the principles and values of the EU even further.

Montenegro and Macedonia

The Russian effort through political surrogates to prevent Montenegro of joining NATO failed. The alleged coup attempt during election-day October 16, 2016 and Russia’s role is not yet fully investigated, but raised tensions in the region. After the change of government in Macedonia, amidst scandals and the refusal of former prime minister Nikola Gruevski, widely seen as pro-Russian, to hand over power after the last parliamentary election on December 11, 2016, the new government of prime minister Zoran Zaev is trying to fast track NATO membership by trying to compromise with Greece, which vetoed earlier membership attempts due to the dispute over Macedonia’s official name. As the Western Balkans has once again become an East-West battleground, there is a behind the scenes effort to find a solution. There is also less tension with the indigenous Albanian population.

Bosnia-Herzegovina

Bosnia-Herzegovina is the country where all of the efforts and issues discussed above collide. Croatia’s new self-awareness as a powerful player due to its EU and NATO membership and Serbia’s quest for a new identity sticking to the illusion of Serbian lands west of Serbia in the Bosnian Serb entity called Republika Srpska, which makes up almost half the country, are supplemented by efforts from Russia, Turkey, Arab countries and the US and EU to steer Bosnia-Herzegovina according to its respective agendas. Ruling elites among the Bosnian Serb, Croat and Bosniac (Bosnian Muslims) are mired in corruption and discredited among the population, yet still hold power due to a clientelistic relationship with its core voters. There is however movement among opposition parties across the ethnic spectrum to ignore the nationalistic narrative captivating the country for so long and to focus on tackling the many socio-economic problems.

Croatia’s new self-awareness as a powerful player due to its EU and NATO membership and Serbia’s quest for a new identity sticking to the illusion of Serbian lands west of Serbia in the Bosnian Serb entity called Republika Srpska, which makes up almost half the country, are supplemented by efforts from Russia, Turkey, Arab countries and the US and EU to steer Bosnia-Herzegovina according to its respective agendas.

The next parliamentary election in October 2018 could bring substantial changes because the ruling parties are no longer able to uphold even the pretence of doing something right. The remaining problem is the lack of any cohesive narrative, not even among the Bosniacs who have the biggest stake in holding the country together. Even though they make up half of the population, their cohesive narrative is mostly about Islam, fuelled by outside influence. Almost 25 years ago they changed their name from Bosnian Muslims to Bosniacs to underline their national identity with Bosnia-Herzegovina and its history. The last 20 years went into the opposite direction. Meanwhile, they control only a third of the country’s municipalities. The biggest Bosniac party, the SDA, seems more interested in increasing Islamic influence and enriching themselves, while projecting total incompetence in administration. For example, the capital city Sarajevo is plagued with water shortages for over two years with no solution in sight.

Outlook

Most people still remember the former Yugoslavia, a functioning infrastructure, health system, more or less competent administration and they also remember what Tito’s regime managed to achieve 20 years after World War II. Compared to that track record, today’s successor states have not much to show for 20 years after the conflicts in the 1990s. Regardless of the countless social media bots fuelling division and hate, people have also better contemporary examples to compare their societies with. The underlying problem of an apathetic population not used to political participation and not aware of its potential power to induce change is a cultural and historical issue not easily resolved. It is therefore no coincidence that international organizations like the OSCE, the UN and many states through individual programs are investing a lot of their effort in fostering awareness in political participation and civil society activities. These programs may not be headline material and can’t produce results over night, but they are a necessary step towards political change.

The nationalistic narrative ruling elites use to cling to power is mostly depleted and contrasted by economic despair, which would be much worse without the enormous financial contribution by the region’s diaspora to its relatives.

The nationalistic narrative ruling elites use to cling to power is mostly depleted and contrasted by economic despair, which would be much worse without the enormous financial contribution by the region’s diaspora to its relatives. A positive change that could have an impact throughout the Western Balkans is most likely in Bosnia-Herzegovina, as absurd it may sound given the country’s many challenges and outside influences. Due to its ethnic composition and a political system based on the Dayton Peace Accord, there is no monolithic power structure and no monolithic control over media outlets. Having been exposed to ethnic divisions for so long without any positive impact on every-day life, many people have realised how empty that narrative is and are willing to other solutions a try.

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