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The Twilight of Balkan Democracy

The run-up to a series of elections in the Westerns Balkans is revealing a frightening reality. Nearly two decades since the end of the Yugoslav Wars (1991-2001), the parliamentary democratic regimes of the former Yugoslavia are bankrupt. And perversely, it is precisely the embrace of electoral politics by both locals and the international community that is preventing a sober assessment of the depths of the democratic and security crisis in the region.

The Dodik Model   

As often before, Bosnia and Herzegovina is an exemplar of regional trends. For the fourth time in five years, the country is headed for a referendum. Called each time by Milorad Dodik, the hard line nationalist president of Bosnia’s ethnically Serb dominated Republika Srpska (RS) entity, the ploy is a cynical attempt to distract the entity’s citizens from his party’s appalling economic and political mismanagement.

In this respect, Mr Dodik is a model of post-Yugoslav leadership in the Western Balkans. If he is ever ousted from the presidential palace in the entity’s capital in Banja Luka he is headed to jail. This fact has more to do with the deeply criminal and cut throat nature of Balkan politics than it does with the effectiveness of Bosnian jurisprudence. Mr Dodik cannot afford to lose—but he cannot run on his record either. So he pivots.

It’s a tried and tested method. In 2011, Mr Dodik warned he would use the mechanism to challenge the jurisdiction of Bosnia’s state court and prosecution; in 2012, he said he would use a referendum to keep Bosnia out of NATO. Talked down from challenging the state judiciary by then EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton in the entity capital Banja Luka, Dodik attempted—and again dropped—the same initiative earlier this year.

Undaunted, Dodik and his party are trying yet again. This time, the RS government wants to use a referendum to challenge a decision by the Constitutional Court in Sarajevo which declared as discriminatory (and thus unconstitutional) a holiday that commemorates the entity’s founding in 1992.

Naturally, a referendum cannot overturn a Constitutional Court decision. Some fear Dodik is testing the waters for an RS secession referendum his party has scheduled for 2018. The truth is more self-serving: Mr Dodik is using the September 25th referendum to sabotage Bosnia’s October 2nd municipal elections.

To survive, he must reverse the gains his opposition won at the last general elections. But after a decade in power, his party is facing collapse. Unable to outright abolish to electoral system to prevent this result, he has done the next best thing: he’s hijacked it.

A Region in Crisis

It is an authoritarian’s gambit. In the process, it reveals the dirty little secret of the democratization and state building project spearheaded by the U.S., and for the last decade, the EU in the former Yugoslavia: it was a peace without democracy. And now the lack of the latter is imperilling the former.

Policymakers in Washington and Brussels will scoff at this characterization and point to the successful EU integrations of Slovenia and Croatia, and Albania and Montenegro’s entry into NATO. But in many respects, the incorporation of these states into the continent’s political and economic structures has only revealed how profoundly incomplete the Western Balkans’ post-war transformations are. The old regimes have disappeared but its leaders have not.

Economic growth in the region is anaemic. Unemployment is dizzying, and unsurprisingly the rate of brain drain, especially among young, educated professionals is staggering. Bosnia alone, a country of less than four million, lost 80,000 youth in 2015 to emigration. The situation is similar in Kosovo, Macedonia, and Serbia.

Yet local governments do little but peddle sectarian blood libels to divert voters from the pervasive corruption, patrimonialism, and clientalism of the ruling elites. And voters continue to support these parties out of a combination of fear and dependency. With no meaningful private sector to speak of, the only jobs are in the still sprawling public administration, ground zero for cronyism in the economy of favors.

Through it all, the collective post-Yugoslav political establishment has proven remarkably unsusceptible to the tides of history. From Mr Dodik in Banja Luka, to Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić in Belgrade, to Prime Minister Milo Đukanović of Montenegro, the region’s leaders are survivors; or zombies, depending on one’s view. Most are nearing their third decade in power or in its upper echelons.


Bosnia’s dramatic social insurrection in 2014, Macedonia’s “Colorful Revolution,” and Belgrade’s recent anti-redevelopment revolt all show that the energy and potential for genuine civic and social movements still exists in the region. But now the situation is becoming desperate and the region is polarizing along extremes—between the few who cannot get out, and those who refuse to leave.

The intransigence of local elites, and their sabotage of the electoral process, is inexorably leading towards escalation. Kosovo’s parliament is now filled with teargas on a weekly basis, and as in Macedonia, the government and opposition are on the brink of physical altercations. The far-right has returned to Serbia’s assembly, while Belgrade and Zagreb trade vicious barbs that recall the militant propaganda wars of the 1990s.

Even a return to actual conflict seems frighteningly plausible; Pristina has been rocked by a string of bombings over the last few weeks; Macedonia’s ruling party is still suspected of orchestrating the clashes that killed eighteen last year; while Mr Dodik nearly caused a catastrophic confrontation between Bosnia’s police and security agencies a few months later.

The artifice of parliamentary democracy is being eclipsed by political turf wars, the sort that only requires the deliberate reanimation of ethnic and nationalist tensions to become truly volatile. Only that today the lack of popular desire for conflict would be even less of an impediment to chaos than it was in the 1990s when the vast majority of ordinary citizens not only favored compromise but a unified Yugoslav state.

Investing in Tomorrow

The EU and U.S. must urgently reengage with the region, beginning first with its crisis spots in Bosnia, Macedonia, and Kosovo. Vice President Joe Biden’s recent visit to Belgrade and Pristina was a good start, but it was also an occasion marked by far too many diplomatic niceties.

Instead, Washington and Brussels must begin to name names and cut off the purse strings. First, let us dispense with the fiction that the region is “stable” and inevitably on its path “towards Europe.” European leaders must make it clear to their Balkan counterparts that their existing reform efforts are unsatisfactory.

Secondly, these words must bite. The governments in question rely exclusively on local rackets and foreign loans for their survival. If the Westerns are unwilling to dirty their hands with the former, then they can address the latter. From withholding IMF and World Bank loans, to assisting Interpol, Europol, and the Council of Europe’s Moneyval program, the tools for effectively mobilizing Euro-Atlantic conditionality already exist.

Finally, a small projection of hard power would go a long way to stabilizing the region as a whole. Bosnia’s meagre 700 person EUFOR contingent should be immediately beefed up, and the same should take place in Kosovo. Such small gestures would show to proponents of chaos—both local and foreign—that the West is unwilling to abandon the region’s hard won peace.

Understandably, Washington and Brussels are occupied with more pressing concerns. But a small reinvestment in Balkan democracy and stability today can prevent the calamity already coming into view tomorrow.

Dr. Jasmin Mujanović is a political scientist and policy analyst specializing in southeast European and international affairs, and the politics of post-conflict and post-authoritarian democratization more broadly.