European Western Balkans: Many people believe that we are witnessing a populist and authoritarian worldwide surge, exemplified by the success of the Brexit campaign and the victory of Donald Trump. Do you believe these developments may hurt the attractiveness of the liberal democratic model for Western Balkans states?
Alida Vračić: What we are witnessing is a sobering combination of populism and authoritarianism, but most of all a rise of anti-intellectualism worldwide. Political campaigns are being accomplished based on false projections, misinterpretation of facts and often low-key communication that lacks any real content. Events of 2016, including Brexit and the US elections, allowed for promotion of concepts that are incompatible with liberalism. As for the region, powers of liberal democracy in the Western Balkans states are in decline for years now, and one can even question whether the promised process of democratic transition has even begun.
Moreover, models of political behavior, seen more and more frequently in the EU (Hungary, Poland, France and other countries) introduced new rules of the game, where liberalism becomes a somewhat fuzzy concept, that gives no political rewards. In fact, there are few genuine European leaders still actively promoting liberal values. In such circumstances, missing strong and credible EU support, but moreover running out of good models of governance to follow, Western Balkans does not hold its own instruments to resist the authoritarian surges. Weak institutional setup coupled with domestic political instabilities is simply not apt for these challenges. Given the continued relative attractiveness of the European Union in the Western Balkans, the logical outcome is to look for already existing mechanisms in the EU, but that scenario is not as likely as before.
Absurdly, the region is expected to undertake complex and massive reforms, but it is often excluded from any discussions relevant to its own future. Refugee crisis is the most recent example of that. The ultimate damage for the Western Balkans lies within the notion/message that hard work, functioning institutions do not pay off for political elites and that political gains are taken anyway outside the liberal democracy.
EWB: Russian president Vladimir Putin and Turkish president Erdogan have a number of admirers in the region, and many are now celebrating the victory of Donald Trump. How do you see this Trump phenomenon? Do you believe that Trump, Putin and Erdogan could become role models for the so-called “Balkan strongmen”?
AV: Trumps, Putins and Erdogans exist in the Balkans for a considerable time now, in different shapes and forms. Many Bosniak officials in parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina, for example, have embraced Turkey as a role model and enjoy direct access to Ankara. The popularity of Turkey – driven through political speeches and campaigns – has become a folklore in the region, and stories of the good life under the Turks are overwhelmingly a part of the state politics. Admiration towards Putin in Serbia is a long-standing trend, and tendency to mimic political behavior is widespread.
Those “strong men” certainly provide for an “inspiration”, but populist tendencies are also very much locally grown. Western Balkans leaders have developed over time their own governing styles that often feature undemocratic practices. Powerful oligarchic parties whose national programs are deeply rooted in nationalism and populism are omnipresent. Only a few critical media of the nineties have survived the past decade and few critical voices still find its place. State remain to be the greatest employer, securing the loyalty and minimizing public criticism.
EWB: How are Western Balkans societies supposed to battle these authoritarian and populist tendencies? Which societal and political forces are expected to defend democracy and where should they find the support for this, especially if we take into account EU’s recent focus on stability?
AV: A solution will not come from the outside. A strong liberal push from within must take place to strengthen democratic institutions that can ensure the rule of law and deep transformation. Indeed, mayor drive in the EU’s policies towards the region has been centered on the stability of the Western Balkans that is a long run prevented other primarily societal structures to fully develop, and become apt for the ongoing challenges. Civil society is often seen as a part of the elitist group, and citizens are often cynical about their own influence and power they can project onto the political class.
At the same time, I do not think there are many people left in the Western Balkans who believe someone else will fix things in the Balkans for them. Times when citizens of the region expected US and the EU to lead efforts and ensure better future are gone or almost gone, which may well be the first step ahead and an opportunity given.
In the years ahead, silence should be replaced with strong voices in and outside the political spectrum. Instead of obsessing about political trends in the EU and worldwide, citizens of the region must define their own priorities and interest and demand political change, followed by socio-economic matters that need to be translated into their requests. High levels of unemployment, poor social benefit net, lack of quality education, environmental issues should all be parts of everyday narrative, one that diverts retrograde rhetorics to the real matters. In the times when people in the Western Balkans feel profoundly disconnected from their political leaders, this might be the key push factor.
EWB: Would you consider the situation in the Western Balkans to be a part of a larger, global trend, or there is something specific about the region?
AV: There are lots of specificities of the region, but what creates an impediment for the future is the lack of common vision. Where do we see the Balkans in 2030? What is the model we would like to pursue? Why? How do we get there? A little exchange of this kind is seen in the region, both among political elites, but also among citizens. Until that happens, change is not likely to occur. From the outside, the countries of the Western Balkans are seen as a whole, both geographically and economically, but in the region that is being largely overlooked and insignificant disagreements suffocate future-oriented discussions. In the best-case scenario, no country in the Western Balkans will join the EU before 2020, but much of the progress must take place in the Western Balkans itself.
Nikola Burazer, EWB 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.