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[EWB Interview] Freudenstein: EU’s dilemma in Western Balkans – short-term or long-term stability

Roland Freudenstein; Photo: Globsec

During this year’s GLOBSEC Forum in Bratislava we spoke with Roland Freudenstein who was a speaker at the GLOBSEC’s session Western Balkans: New Battleground of the Hybrid War. Freundenstein has been, since 2008, Head of Research and Deputy Director of the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies and, since October 2015, its Policy Director. He has contributed to debates and published extensively on European integration, international security, German-Polish relations, global democracy support and recently about the changes in the Middle East. 

European Western Balkans: What do you see as the key security challenges in the Western Balkans at this moment?

Roland Freudenstein: I would say instability, weak democracies, lack of the rule of law, and the deliberate attempts by outside powers to destabilise these countries further.

EWB: Why are the rule of law and democracy important for the countries of the Western Balkans?

RF: The rule of law is important for every country in the world. It guarantees that citizens can live their lives freely and that the economies can prosper. If the rule of law is weakened, if there is no free and independent judiciary, no free media, the end result will be that people cannot live freely, entrepreneurs cannot invest freely with confidence into the future, and that is bad for the stability of the economy.

EWB: It looks like the Western officials are neglecting warnings of opposition parties in the Balkans, as well as some civil societies organisations about the situation and the state of democracy in the region. How would you assess those statements that insist on rather stability than democracy?

RF: This is the dilemma that the EU faces. Do you opt for short-term stability, which means not reminding the existing governments of their commitments to the rule of law and recognising democratic elections, or do you opt to say – there will be no long-term stability without these rules of the game, without respecting the rule of law. In a way, it is not actually a choice between stability and democracy, it is a choice between short-term stability and long-term stability. People tend to distinguish between idealists and realists. What we called idealists are long-term realists, because in the long run, political systems without guarantees and clear division of powers, free media and strong civil societies, will not be sustainable. A country that is not sustainable democracy will not be stable.

EWB: Because of the Junkers statement that there will be no enlargement in the coming years, and because of the geopolitical situation in the region, it looks like the enlargement fatigue is really high. We know that Montenegro is opening chapters and Serbia is doing the same. What can we expect in the forthcoming period about the EU integration process?

RF: We have to start by asking if the perspective of joining the EU should be the only driver of reform and modernisation in the Western Balkans. Twenty years ago, in the countries of Eastern Europe, the main driver of the reform and modernisation was the desire for the reform and modernisation. The end purpose was not to join the EU but to westernise their countries in an irreversible manner. That means that the national elites and the majority of public opinion wanted their countries to become modern European democracies. The instrument for that was the EU membership. You had decided on a process in your countries and it was helpful to have an outside actor – the EU to give this process speed and direction. This was the purpose for the goal.

EWB: Do we see that in the Western Balkans?

RF: I do not think we are seeing it sufficiently at the moment. That is not primarily because the EU is lazy or fearful, or fed up with the enlargement, that is because in these countries the reform process has stalled in a dangerous manner, and in some cases, it has reversed. We are seeing backsliding to authoritarian forms of government. The EU’s behaviour is certainly not helpful. The main task is among the countries themselves in the Western Balkans to get back to speed and to momentum in the reform process.

Yes, there is an enlargement fatigue. That is partly completely normal and predictable result of the multitude of enlargements. In the past 15 years, the EU has enlarged like never before. Many citizens of the old EU countries complained that the enlargement has gone too quickly. Even though I believe these citizens are wrong, we have to acknowledge that this is the way they think. When Juncker declares a moratorium on the enlargement, it is those people that he wants to be on board. It may have a positive effect on those citizens but not on those countries that want to join the EU. Our politicians and leaders need to finally balance the messaging to different audiences – the leaders and citizens of accession countries as one audience and the citizens and the political parties of our own member states as another audience, and you need to bring them together.

EWB: You just said that we see the authoritarian tendencies in the region and because of that the process is backsliding, but also, we see support of Western European politicians, especially from the EPP group, who are supporting those politicians in the region. How do you see the official support of politicians who are marked by different NGOs and political factors as authoritarian?

RF: The key question is who is the authoritarian and who is the democrat. Naturally, about that question, there are strong differences. Not every NGO speaks the whole truth, they also have interest and political convictions. Just the fact that the NGO criticises a leader does not mean that the leader is a bad person. I do see tendencies within the EU and the EPP that I disagree with. There is a thinking that the short-term stability is a good thing and some people actually believe that the short-term stability and the long-term stability are the same. Some people also believe that most independent NGOs are actually themselves destabilising political systems and preventing the order from being restored. I would disagree with that notion but this is their argument. Let’s first tackle those debates in detail and look at what those NGOs are doing.

EWB: We recently got the Freedom Houses report on media freedom. Serbia was marked as a country with not that good situation regarding media freedom. How would you asses state of media freedom in the region?

RF: Recently there has been an inflation of indexes where quasi-scientific methods are used. While I do see it a value in trying to say that some countries are better than others in terms of media freedom, I have some doubts whether you can actually use scientific methods to prove that some countries are better than others. There is a rational argument to be made, and obviously, the media in these countries are less free than in some others, but I do not think there is a mathematical method to exactly determine this. There are differences in the way that Western Balkan countries let their own media operate and this needs to be addressed.

EWB: What do you see as the key external threats to the region is it Russia, Turkey or some other country or maybe terrorism, extremism?

RF: Whichever article you come across you always find four countries named as threats – Russia, Turkey, China and the Gulf states. Terrorism and extremism are also threats in the case of influence from Muslim countries, especially Saudi Arabia. There is a very clear support for religious fanaticism that can lead to terrorism and jihadism.

When it comes to Russia, Turkey and China, they have a different style of operating. Turkey also relays on the religious factor but in a different way from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies, but on ethnic tensions and factors. China uses economic influence in a way which makes us wonder what their ultimate intentions are. With China, the direct effects of their influence in a political term is the most difficult to see at this point in time. China itself is being a dictatorship and a one-party state, which violates human rights on a broad scale.

Russia is waging its war on the West in the Western Balkans like it does in other parts of the world. Russia has started aggressive moves in Georgia in 2008, and it seems like in the Western Balkans it relatively recently started – in 2013 and 2014, when Russia openly opposed any NATO enlargement to further countries in the Western Balkans. Russia is betting on Slav-Orthodox Christian loyalties and cultural closeness to the Russia itself. But most ominously, Russia is simply using every aspect of an ethnic tension of political destabilisation of any kind of conflict to its own advantage, which means to the disadvantage of the West and of liberal democracy. That is the most potent foreign influence in the Balkans, which we need to counter in some way.

EWB: How would you connect the long-term and short-term stability issues? Is it important to insist on short-term or long-term stability taking into the account the Russian strategy towards the Western Balkans?

RF: Optimally, you would support both, but in this case, the long-term stability is more important. Unfortunately, it is easier to take things down than to build things up and Russia is profiting from that richly. We have to increase our efforts to help to straighten the rule of law and democratic procedure, NGOs and civil societies. These are the elements that would remind leaders in those countries that the majority of people do not want to become part of the authoritarian Russian empire and to go back to the state of institutionalised corruption. NGOs and civil societies are a key in being a counter weight to leaders that might be tempted by the Russian corrupt authoritarian model. Also, there should be conditionality for further cooperation in the process of bringing those countries into the EU – if there is backsliding there needs to be some direct negative consequence.

EWB: The most observable Russian meddling in the Western Balkans is seen in Montenegro. How do you see the consequences of Montenegrin membership in NATO for the region, especially for the countries who are aspiring to join the NATO, but also for Serbia who declared its neutrality regarding NATO and other military alliances?

RF: Montenegro will feel the positive benefits of NATO membership and that will be seen elsewhere. The other most important aspect is that the US President Trump have not spoken enthusiastically about further NATO enlargements and yet, under his watch, a new country is joining NATO. This is extremely important inside and outside NATO to demonstrate that there is the more continuity in US policy and that the NATO is still there and therefore send a signal to Russia. The most beautiful thing about the coup attempt is that it did not work and that it failed its purpose, which was to prevent Montenegro’s accession to NATO.

Regarding Serbia, it has to decide its own future – if it wants to remain neutral or if it wants to do constant military exercises with Russia, that is fine, but do not expect that in that case, Serbia’s integration into the West is going to go any faster. Some EU member states who are very active member states of NATO are going to start wondering about what are the strategic intentions of the political elites and parties in Serbia. If Serbia maintains neutrality, which in this case is helping Russia, I do not think it is helpful with Serbia’s integration to the West, because neutrality in this conflict is not really possible. Montenegrin membership may help to convince some people in Serbia that maybe this neutrality is actually a lot of nonsense and that it actually makes sense to join NATO.

This article has been produced with the support of the Balkan Trust for Democracy. The content of this article 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 Balkan Trust for Democracy nor the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

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