Stevo Pendarovski and Emmanuel Macron; Photo: Presidency of North Macedonia

The year 2019 in the Western Balkans has had few bright moments. With the political instability in each of the six countries of the region, non-existent Belgrade-Pristina dialogue and, most crucially, very limited progress on the European path, many would probably want to move on to 2020 as soon as possible.

Still, there have been some positive developments. The Greek-Macedonian dispute seems to be firmly sorted out, and the latter country is close to fulfilling its long-term goal of NATO membership. New initiatives for regional cooperation have been proposed. EU elections results turned out relatively favourably, and the Union has kicked off the process of cristalising its position towards the Western Balkans, the conclusion of which is expected next year. 2020 could be a watershed moment for the region in more than one way.

But first, here is a (mostly chronological) retrospect of the most important events of 2019.

Macedonia officially changes its name, gets close to NATO membership

Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg with Permanent Representatives; Photo: NATO

On 11 January 2019, the Parliament of Macedonia voted with the required two-thirds majority change the country’s name to the Republic of North Macedonia. The change came into effect on 25 January, when the Greek Parliament ratified the Prespa Agreement with a tight majority, mostly coming from the then ruling Syriza. The votes effectively ended the almost 30-year old dispute over the country’s name, and Prime Ministers Zoran Zaev and Alexis Tsipras were even nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize by the Members of the European Parliament.

Less than two weeks later, Permanent Representatives of the 29 NATO members signed the Accession Protocol with Skopje. The process of NATO accession is almost completed, with only Spain not ratifying the protocol by the end of this year due to the political deadlock that has gripped the country.

Majority of the citizens of North Macedonia supported the policy of the Government by electing Stevo Pendarovski, the joint candidate of SDSM and DUI, as the new President in May.

Anti-government protests in Albania, Montenegro and Serbia reveal citizen’s discontent with declining democracy

Protesters in front of Radio Television of Serbia; Photo: Tanjug / Dragan Kujundžić

For the first several months of 2019, serious anti-government protests have been challenging the ruling elites in Albania, Montenegro and Serbia. Even though the context of each of the protests was different to a certain extent, the non-democratic practices of the regional leaders, such as Aleksandar Vučić, Edi Rama and Milo Đukanović, were at least partially contributing to the participation of the citizens.

The protests have since withered in all three countries, but the core opposition members are still gathering every Saturday in Serbia. The protests have lead to further polarisation of the political scenes, with the most opposition MPs entering the boycott of parliament in Albania and Serbia. It seems very likely that the protests were only an episode in a series that is still ongoing.

April Summit attempts to revive Belgrade-Pristina dialogue (and fails)

Western Balkans Summit in Berlin; Photo: Tanjug / Marina Maksimović

Summit of the Western Balkans leaders organized on the initiative of French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel was held on 29 April in Berlin. In what was described as only an “informal discussion”, Serbia and Kosovo have agreed to continue with the talks to resolve their current disputes. However, no official meetings within the EU-mediated dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina has taken place in 2019, and Kosovo’s 100% tariffs are still in place. Election cycles in EU, Kosovo and Serbia are slowing down the process even further.

New European Parliament elected, new MEPs in charge for the Western Balkans appointed

New President of the European Parliament David Sassoli; Photo: Wikimedia Commons

As the polls predicted, European People’s Party and Socialists and Democrats suffered losses in the night of 26 May, but remained the two biggest groups in the European Parliament. On the other hand, liberal Renew Europe (formerly ALDE), the Greens and right-wing Identity and Democracy gained MEPs. The results, however, meant no significant changes of this institution’s position towards the Western Balkans.

David Sassoli succeeded his compatriot Antonio Tajani at the position of the President of the European Parliament, his first visit outside the EU being to Skopje, North Macedonia. During the fall, new MEPs in charge of the region were appointed, including the new Rapporteurs: Vladimir Bilčik (EPP) for Serbia, Paulo Rangel (EPP) for Bosnia and Herzegovina, Tonino Picula (S&D) for Montenegro, Isabel Santos (S&D) for Albania, Ilhan Kyuchyuk (Renew) for North Macedonia and Viola von Cramon-Taubadel (Greens) for Kosovo.

European Commission releases more openly critical annual Reports

European Commission; Photo: European Commission

The final round of the annual Reports on the Western Balkan countries released by the Juncker’s Commission were made public on 29 May. As expected, many similar problems were identified across the region – the sentence Corruption is widespread and remains an issue of concern appears in every individual Report – but the assessment of the general situation still varied depending on the country. While North Macedonia got mostly positive assessments, situation in Serbia was more clearly criticised than in previous years, especially with regards to the work of the parliament and the lack of progress in addressing the media freedom issues.

Farewell to familiar faces…

Federica Mogherini and Johannes Hahn; Photo: European Union

The elections for the European Parliament, of course, meant that the new European Commission will also be elected. The region will thus be seeing less of the people it had grown accustomed to in the past five year: European Commissioner for Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations Johannes Hahn, High Representative of the EU Federica Mogherini and President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker. In addition, President of the European Council Donald Tusk also relinquished his position after five years to become the new President of the European People’s Party.

…and welcome to the new ones

Josep Borrell Fontelles; Photo: Flickr / The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, European Union and Cooperation of Spain

Former Defence Minister of Germany Ursula von der Leyen was elected as the new President of the European Commission on 16 July, the first woman to hold the position. She has since repeatedly expressed her support to EU enlargement. Veteran Spanish diplomat Josep Borrell succeeded Mogherini as the new High Representative, putting the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue among his priorities.

Von der Leyen’s Commission was scheduled to begin its mandate on 1 November, but this was delayed for a month due to, among other issues, the position of the Enlargement Commissioner. Hungarian nominee Olivér Várhelyi finally got the green light from the Parliament in November, following the rejection of the original candidate László Trócsányi. The beginning of the Commission’s mandate coincided with the first working day of the new President of the European Council Charles Michel.

Local elections in Albania further polarise the country

Ilir Meta; Photo: Albanian Parliament

In what were expected to be the last significant elections in the region in 2019, most of the opposition, including the Democratic Party of Albania decided to boycott the polls on 30 June. This may turn out to be just a prelude to a deeper crisis or, hopefully, a low point before the resolution (see below). Attempt of President Ilir Meta to cancel the elections put him at odds with his former coalition partner, Socialist Party of Albania.

Berlin Process moves to the region

Western Balkans Summit in Poznań; Photo: Flickr / Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland / Tymon Markowski / MSZ

Following the sixth annual Summit in the context of the Berlin Process, launched in 2014 by Germany, held in the Polish city of Poznań, a joint Presidency was announced for 2020: Bulgaria and North Macedonia. This year’s meeting, held between 3 and 5 July, supported the Connectivity Agenda, Regional Economic Area, as well as commitment to strengthening the rule of law, fundamental rights and good governance in the region.

Vetëvendosje and Democratic League of Kosovo win snap elections, coalition talks stall

Albin Kurti; Photo: Flickr / Europe Upf

That the region cannot escape at least one general election per year was proven by the early going to the polls by the citizens of Kosovo, triggered after Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj was invited for a hearing at the Kosovo Specialist Prosecutor’s Office in the Hague. Opposition parties LDK and LVV won the contest, which was described by EU Mission as competitive, well-administered and transparent. This was not the case in the North, where Belgrade-backed Srpska lista won 95% of the vote in the atmosphere of intimidation.

Coalition government lead by the leader of Vetëvendosje Albin Kurti has been expected ever since, but the negotiations have stalled. The newest announcement is that the LDK is ready to support a minority Vetëvendosje government.

United States appoints not one, but two Special Envoys for the region

Richard Grenell and Aleksandar Vučić; Photo: Presidency of Serbia

First it was Matthew Palmer, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, who was designated by the State Department as a US Special Representative for the Western Balkans at the end of August. Then the question arose whether the EU will also have its own special envoy for the region, as some have argued during the summer (rumor has it that it will be Foreign Minister of Slovakia Miroslav Lajčak).

But it turned out that the US will have one more special envoy of their own, as Richard Grenell, current US ambassador to Germany, was named as a “special Presidential Envoy for Serbia and Kosovo Peace Negotiations” by president Donald Trump in October. While Palmer’s appointment was praised by the commentators due to his experience, the region was more baffled by Grenell, but the two diplomats announced that they will be working together.

The event of the year: EU Council fails to open negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania

Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel; Photo: Tanjug / AP /Michael Sohn

On 18 October, it became clear that there will be no positive decision on opening of negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania for the second time in 2019 (first one was in June). France was seen as the main opponent of the decision, but there have also been other Member States, such as the Netherlands and Denmark, that showed strong reservations.

President Emmanuel Macron, who visited Belgrade in mid-July, justified the decision by the priority of the internal reform of the EU, including the enlargement process. The immediate reaction of the Prime Minister Zoran Zaev was to propose early elections, which will take place in April 2020.

The backlash to the decision was maybe stronger than anticipated: Presidents of the European Council, European Commission and European Parliament condemned it as a “historic mistake”, while the European Parliament adopted a Resolution supporting the opening of negotiations in the week that followed. Multiple leaders of EU Member States, EU officials and experts criticised the lack of a positive decision, citing in particular efforts of North Macedonia to overcome the long-standing dispute with Greece.

Opening of the debate on EU enlargement reform

European Council meeting room; Photo: European Union

Reacting to the criticism that followed President Macron’s veto, France released a non-paper on EU enlargement reform in November, which was followed by a second proposal by nine Member States, including Italy, Austria, Poland and Czech Republic. European Commission has announced its own proposals for January.

While most of the experts on the Western Balkans have criticised the EU Council’s non-decision, the discussion on how the enlargement process should be improved has been going on for some time. It is expected to be the in focus at least until EU-Western Balkans Zagreb Summit in May next year, and probably further down the road.

Leaders initiate their own process of regional integration

Presidents Đukanović and Vučić and Prime Ministers Rama and Zaev; Photo: Government of North Macedonia

While it became clear that the EU needs to sort out its position on the region, the leaders of Serbia, North Macedonia and Albania tried to introduce at least some aspects of economic and labour integration in the Western Balkans. The so-called mini-Schengen proposal was discussed in Novi Sad in October, Ohrid in November and Tirana in December. The final meeting followed a series of earthquakes that hit Albania and showed some much needed regional solidarity. President of Montenegro joined the Tirana meeting, while the President of Kosovo declined to participate due to Serbia’s non-recognition of its independence.

Bosnia and Herzegovina without a government for more than a year

Zoran Tegeltija, the newly appointed Chairman of the Council of Ministers in Bosnia and Herzegovina; Photo: The Council of Ministers of BiH

The general elections were held on 7 October 2018, and it took thirteen months to nominate the new Chairman of the Council of Ministers, which in the end turnout out to be Zoran Tegeltija of the SNSD party. The full composition of the Council has been confirmed on 23 December. The main reason for such a long delay was the dispute over the Annual National Program, a part of the Membership Action Plan between Bosnia and Herzegovina and NATO.

Only two negotiating chapters opened, zero closed

David McAllister and Jadranka Joksimović; Photo: Tanjug / Rade Prelić

With the negotiation process with North Macedonia and Albania remaining unopened, one might have at least hoped for a more productive pace of Montenegro and Serbia. However, the former country has remained on 32 chapters opened out of 33 and three closed, while Serbia opened only two new chapters in 2019, a record low, and once again failed to close any of them. The latest European Commission’s non-paper on the state of the rule of law in Serbia found that there were serious delays in a number of reforms concerning the rule of law, as well as coordination of anti-corruption policies.

Western Balkan countries dangerously close to electoral crises in 2020

Vladimir Bilčik, Tanja Fajon, Knut Fleckenstein and Parliament Speaker Maja Gojković; Photo: EU Delegation to Serbia

The year began with the strong anti-government protests that shook Albania, Montenegro and Serbia. It is ending with mostly unsuccessful talks between government and opposition about electoral conditions in all three countries. Even though the processes of electoral reform are ongoing in all three Western Balkan countries, they are plagued by the lack of trust between the government and the opposition, resulting in numerous setbacks and delays. While the EU, OSCE and other representatives of international community are trying to help mediate the situation, nobody seems to be satisfied with the current results.

Serbia, where MEPs Tanja Fajon and Vladimir Bilčik and former MEPs Eduard Kukan and Knut Fleckenstein mediated three rounds of dialogue, will be a litmus test for the rest of the region – its parliamentary election must take place by the first weekend of May 2020. Alliance for Serbia coalition, as well as other smaller parties committed to boycott, claim that there is no time for genuine reform and demand snap election following the regular ones. Elections in Montenegro are scheduled for the second half of the year, while those in are Albania are not due until 2021. Opposition in each country is not excluding boycott as one of the options.