Serious backsliding in terms of democracy and the freedom of media can be observed throughout the region over the past decade. Yet, the EU has remained rather silent on these developments, even when confronted with concrete evidence, as in the case of the recent wiretapping scandal in Macedonia, or the Savamala incident in Serbia. This leaves the impression that the EU is willing to provide external support to regimes that include considerable shortcomings in terms of democratic governance for the sake of the (false) promise of stability.
This exchange of stability for external lenience on matters of democracy can be called a ‘stabilitocracy.’ In a regional context this practice has led to establishment of a new type of illiberal political systems that formally commits to EU integration and internalizes the reform discourse, but in practice continues to govern through informal rules and clientelism,while at the same time it continues to offer stability towards the EU, be it in pacifying regional issues, such as bilateral relations, or in regard to external challenges, such as the flow of refugees.
However, these offers are misleading, as the lack of democracy in the region is the main source of instability itself. Semi-authoritarian stabilitocracies are both willing to cause and manage instability with their neighbors or towards the internal other – the opposition or minorities – for the sake of securing continued rule. Paradoxically, if things continue as they are, the Western Balkans will end up not only with less liberal democracy but also less stability, and this is why the trend of stabilitocracy promotion needs to be reversed.
After years of democratic decline, the new Macedonian government that took office in May 2017 constituted not just the first democratic transfer of power in the region in four years, but also an apparent break with the success of autocratic rule in the WB. The results of the local elections held in October 2017 ratified the change of government and gave it not just much needed backing, but also clarified that after a decade of increasing authoritarian rule, clientilism and nationalism, most citizens back a different political course. It is important for the EU to learn the lessons from the Macedonian experience.
First, in response to the state capture in several Balkan countries, a Macedonian moment, meaning a concerted action of a broad opposition coalition that would overthrow the incumbent in an election, monitored by civil society with large-scale social movements, and the EU as well as US mediation, is increasingly becoming the only path toward renewing democratic rule in the region.
Second, the biggest failure of electoral revolutions in the 2000s was the failure to build and respect institutions and rules. From Milorad Dodik in the Republika Srpska in 2006 to Vučić in 2012, too often the hope of Western actors was pinned on finding the next reliable, reformist partner. The result has been supporting the current generation of strongmen, who talk of reform when it suits them, but building a highly personalized system of control. Key for sustainable change is strengthening institutions over people and building of professional and transparent institutions able to break the power of patronage networks that are the main transmission belts between politics and citizens across the region.
Third, sustainable change also requires a new type of party politics. To date, most parties in the region are deeply distrusted and joined to get a job not to pursue a political commitment. The political groups of the European Parliament should use their position of influence to remind their Balkan counterparts to their commitment to respect European values including the democracy and the rule of law.
Finally, following the change in power, the EU’s interest in critical input from expert NGOs and assistance to civil society fades out. It is vital that international democracy promoters maintain their support for the inclusion of civil society and social movements in an effort to create pressure on the new governments to govern better and more transparently. Additionally, efforts should be made to support constructive (local) grassroots initiatives.
The op-ed is a short version of the latest BiEPAG Policy Brief “Western Balkans and the EU: Fresh Wind in the Sails of Enlargement”, produced by Marko Kmezić and Florian Bieber