EWB Interview, Florian Bieber: The EU Should Put More Focus on the State of Democracy in the Western Balkans

Interview with Florian Bieber, Professor at the University of Graz, Director of the Centre for South-East European Studies and the Coordinator of the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG), an open group of policy analysts, scholars and researchers, established as a joint initiative of the European Fund for the Balkans and the Centre for Southeast European Studies of the University of Graz.

European Western Blakans: What are your expectations regarding EU enlargement in the Western Balkans? Do you believe that Brexit and the internal reforms of the EU might postpone the integration of new members?

Florian Bieber: It seems quite clear that with the Brexit the EU is going to be less interested or less able to deal with enlargement and focus more on its own problems. This is the 3rd or the 4th crisis that the EU is facing in the last couple of years, the banking crisis, the Greek euro crisis, the refugee crisis, and now the Brexit, and this might be not the end of it. This clearly means that this is something that the EU is primarily preoccupied with, because the EU itself is at stake. It is a matter of attention, no institution can have attention on everything and the Balkans might be a collateral victim of attention focusing elsewhere. The second problem is that with the EU in crisis, the question is whether the attractiveness of the model of the European Union is something that can persuade countries to want to pursue it. The countries of the Western Balkans said that they all want to continue EU integration, but that commitment might wear thin if the EU continues to be in crisis.

EWB: Many political processes in the Western Balkans, from Belgrade – Pristina dialogue, through resolution of the political crisis in Macedonia, to resolving the deadlock in BiH, are dependent on EU pressure and the lure of EU integration. What kind of consequences do you think the postponing of EU enlargement might have for stability in the region?

FB: It is true, there is a lot depending on EU integration, even if it is not about EU integration itself. It is not only about the more obvious EU mediation like in the Serbia-Kosovo dialogue, but also that EU integration has had a moderating influence on political behaviour. If you are a political party in the Balkans and if you really want to survive, you may not only declare to be pro-EU, but you must behave in a certain way, otherwise you may be ostracized. If you engage in rhetoric that is clearly contradicting the norms of the European Union, there is a risk that you will not be considered as a reliable partner or a feasible governing party neither by the electorate nor the EU itself. A lot of parties in power claim that the only reason why they are in favour of reforms is because of EU integration. This commitment might disappear entirely if the EU integration is no longer possible. The risk is much broader than just the matter of these bilateral issues where the EU has been mediating.

EWB: The EU seems to be favouring stability over democracy and rule of law in the region. Do you believe this might eventually diminish the credibility of the EU in the region even in the eyes of those that strongly favour European integration?

FB: I think this is a real problem. At the end of the day, if you are stable, but not reforming, you may not join the European Union. You might be a useful partner outside the EU, but it is hard to imagine Serbia governed by Vučić or Montenegro governed by Đukanović, not to mention Macedonia governed by Gruevski or his allies as members of the European Union. As a counter-argument, you could say that the EU already has Viktor Orban and Kazcynski as their counterparts within the EU, and these are not actually role models for good governance or liberal democracy. However, they actually showed up only after their countries join the EU. Exactly because of that experience, a lot of member states would not be very happy to accept new “Orbans” into the European Union. They might be good partners in ensuring that the EU borders are closed when it comes to refugees or delivering on key issues, but I doubt they are going to be partners for change. As a result, if you are an activist not for the EU, but for liberal democracy, for a pluralist open system, then of course you are in trouble because your ally in the past has been the European Union, and now all of a sudden it looks like it may prefer alliances with more authoritarian leaders instead. This is something that is hardly desirable for reformists and they might feel abandoned. This is already happening as we speak.

EWB: As you have stated in your BiEPAG paper, democracy never enjoyed full legitimacy in the Western Balkans and is now facing a serious crisis in the West as well, while authoritarian leaders like Viktor Orban, Erdogan and Putin are offering attractive government models for “Balkan strongmen”. Do you believe there is a danger of Western Balkans moving away from democratic transition in the direction of full authoritarianism?

FB: I think this is already happening. A significant number of countries in the region are no longer full democracies, and whether or not they will become more authoritarian depends a lot on the challenges they are facing. In Turkey, a move toward authoritarianism is a result of protests by the opposition. For a government that knows it has a majority behind it and does not have a strong opposition it is a lot easier to be more open because it can afford to be more open. The more it feels under pressure and that it has a challenge, the more likely it is that it is actually going to be more authoritarian. We saw this in Turkey with Erdogan after the Gezi protests, which pushed him into becoming more authoritarian because his weaknesses were revealed.

This is exactly what we would see in the region as well. They might remain for a long time fairly semi-authoritarian and the façade of democracy might remain, or they might switch to more authoritarian patterns. That depends on the circumstances both in terms of rewards for at least pretending to be democratic and the fear that pushes them to be more authoritarian. But I think what is clear is that they are very much in firm control over their governments and that control looks likely to be extended further. And he have not really seen the “end-game” of these regimes, so it is not entirely clear how to get out of this trap.

EWB: What kind of approach you believe the EU needs to take in order to help achieve democracy and the rule of law in the Western Balkans?

FB: Essentially, the EU needs to look beyond the trees and see the forest. Their approach has been largely technocratic sometimes, ignoring the larger picture. Orban has been always arguing that in his dismantling of democracy in Hungary each of the components he takes in dismantling democracy are in fact democratic. Each constitutional reform was actually democratically legitimate, because this is something which is also in place in other countries which are democratic. So, this has been a very useful tool, you could put together a combination of lots of democratic institutions and the picture might actually be quite undemocratic at the end of the day. The part of the weakness is that the EU does not look very much at the larger picture, but on certain institutions – is this institution fine, is this other institution fine, and does not have a larger overview if this actually adds up to be an actual democratic network. This is a problem we are also confronted with regarding enlargement.

In BiEPAG we are arguing that the EU should put more focus on the state of democracy and less on formalities. Because a lot of the way in which authoritarian leaders control power is not through formal institutions, but informal institutions, political parties, networks. So, formally it looks nice and democratic, but behind the façade we all know that they are not governing democratically, but using these other mechanisms. The EU does not look at that, but says “Okay, the institutions are there, they are all fine and democratic, so it is all good”, but I think the EU really needs to look more critically behind the façade and say “This is just a façade, it is hiding something which we might not see entirely, but we know it is not exactly democratic”. I think this is what we need to have, looking more critically behind the scene.

EWB: Do you believe that the case of Savamala is an important indicator of rule of law in Serbia, or that its importance was exaggerated by the Serbian opposition and the civil society?

FB: It is exactly that, an indicator. I think what happened in Savamala itself is dramatic in the sense that you have unidentified people who are wearing masks and destroying buildings. No matter whether they were legal or not, this is the kind of action that you do not expect in a rule of law country, at least not that it does not go investigated. People see this as an expression of the problem of the system, which is that there are informal networks of power making decision without respecting formal procedures, and that they are pursuing a particular agenda which is not entirely transparent and are willing to break laws in the process.

In that sense, you can say that of course the scale is very minor, I am sure there are a lot of “Savamalas” and bigger incidents across Serbia that people do not know about because they are in some municipalities far away from Belgrade, and that nobody even thinks about protesting about because they accepted this as normal. I would not be surprised if this has happened before. But, this all of a sudden resonates well with more people, and as a reflection of this broader problem. Now, of course, you could just say it is an isolated incident, but even the government response suggests that is not an isolated incident, but that it is reflective of a larger trend in which Serbia is governed these days.

EWB: Besides having to go through internal reforms like all other candidates for EU membership, Serbia faces the challenge of the normalization of relations with Kosovo within the negotiating chapter 35, which is given special status. It seems likely that the crisis in the dialogue might hurt Serbia’s EU integration process as well, and overshadow all other negotiating chapters. What kind of approach you think the EU needs to undertake regarding this issue?

FB: I think the problem is that this process has so far been based on constructive ambiguity. As a result, there have been more post-agreement negotiations and disagreements than before the agreements, which is ironic. I do not know many settlement between two countries where it is harder to agree afterwards than before about the agreement. Usually you negotiate and then you have an agreement, and this agreement is then implemented, but here it is exactly the opposite. I think a part of the problem is that as long as this is such a contested process each side is trying to sabotage implementation or interpret it in a particular way. So I think what essentially needs to be done is the transformation of this process into something that could result in more firm commitments and more firm agreements.

And only then I think it is fair to say that Serbia has not lived up to the commitments it signed up to, but those are then well defined, written down and also measurable. In that sense, whether or not it is formally part of the accession is nearly irrelevant because each country has a lot of veto points in every step of EU integration. Countries like Germany or other countries that want to make sure that a genuine progress is made at the end of the day and that Kosovo is accepted, maybe not formally but de facto as an independent country, will always make sure that Serbia is sticking to its commitment. But in that sense whether it is part of the EU integration process formally or not is not as essential as the fact that it will not be there in the background all the time. The key thing is really about moving the process to more constructive and productive level of negotiations.


Nikola BURAZER, European Western Balkans Executive Editor


This interview has been produced with the support of the European Fund for the Balkans. The content of this text and the opinions expressed herein are the sole responsibility of the portal European Western Balkans and in no way reflect the views and opinions of the European Fund for the Balkans.