European Western Balkans

[EWB Interview] Tomanić: Consequences of state capture in WB are now clearer than ever

EU integration of the Western Balkans, the new enlargement methodology and whether it can strengthen the EU membership perspective of Western Balkan countries and the dangers of “stabilitocracy” – were some of the topics we have discussed with Aleksandra Tomanić, Executive Director of the European Fund for the Balkans.

European Western Balkans: Last year you have been appointed as the new director of the European Fund for the Balkans. What are your plans for the future and how do you see the direction EFB is going to take in the coming years?

Aleksandra Tomanić: My appointment marked a new beginning and we took this opportunity to cross-check where we were and what we wanted to do in the following years. The context we are working in has dramatically changed, unfortunately not into the direction we had hoped for.

We recognised the need of giving ourselves a new strategic framework. EFB will remain committed to the EU accession process of all countries in the region. We think that it is crucial to contribute to bringing EU integration policy back on track, pointing at the Thessaloniki agenda and the consensus about the EU membership perspective of the Western Balkans.

Therefore, our work with outstanding experts gathered around BiEPAG – the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group – which we have established jointly with the Center for Southeast European Studies of the University of Graz, will be crucial. We cannot abandon the idea of European unity and solidarity and leave it to populists and fearmongers intent on undermining those very values.

Tomanić, Dimitrov, Kurti; Photo: Munich Security Conference / BMW Foundation Herbert Quandt / Lukas Barth-Tuttas

Furthermore, we want to utilize to a greater extent the EFB community – our alumni group of over 500 well-trained and motivated individuals who have taken part in some of EFB’s programmes over the past decade. This community is a special and very valuable asset of our organisation and we want to work much closer with it, as we think it embodies valuable change makers.

We are also adding a new dimension to our work, focusing on bottom-up democratisation processes throughout the region. Within this area we want to help create joint knowledge and understanding about the future of the region, putting citizens’ needs and demands at the forefront. We believe that all societal actors – active citizens and civic initiatives, academia, civil society organizations – need to reach a consensus on the fact that the future of our region as a whole depends on genuine reforms of all its societies. Consequently, we want to contribute to providing means that enable informed and empowered citizens to take action and demand accountable institutions and democracy from decision-makers.

EWB: What do you see as the largest obstacles to “Europeanization” of the region?

AT: Before I answer your question, I have to admit I don’t like the term “Europeanisation”. I see it as a remnant of the 90s, when our region was experiencing wars, sanctions, devastation, while Europe – or, rather, the EU – seemed to be the lighthouse of peace, stability and prosperity. This strong polarisation no longer exists. And this symbol of the EU as a lighthouse has changed – unfortunately for our region, but also for the EU itself.

The EU is even less the homogeneous block it was when the term “Europeanization of the Balkans” was coined. However, despite the fact that there are numerous internal problems concerning rule of law, economic development or solidarity, the EU is still a goal and a direction for the Western Balkans.

But let us go back to what this “Europeanisation” initially meant – accountable institutions, media freedom, rule of law, free and fair market access, basically everything covered by the Copenhagen criteria. Although these criteria can only be fulfilled by the accession countries themselves, a clearer commitment and dedication of EU institutions and its member states would be helpful, too. Undoubtedly, the responsibility for our own “Europeanisation” lies in our own societies, voting behaviour, our demands as citizens. As voters, we have to make our governments accountable for delivering what is necessary to reach these standards we aspire to.

As of now, all governments of the region are still officially committed to their EU accession paths. And the EU reassures a membership perspective of the Western Balkan countries. And, nevertheless, we are not moving in substance.

But despite all the obstacles, today we fully recognize the importance of fighting for the European idea, within the EU, but also outside of it. Functioning states, social welfare systems, human rights principles and the rule of law – those are the values we need to protect during this crisis, no matter what.

EWB: Do you think that the EU accession process can actually transform these societies? Do you think that the new enlargement methodology might strengthen the EU membership perspective of Western Balkan countries? There are many experts, especially from BiEPAG, that warn about the dangers of “stabilitocracy”.

AT: Let’s go back to the beginnings. The EU accession process was designed to help CEE countries go through their political and economic transformation and adopt the EU acquis communautaire, thus preparing for a European Union membership. For a while, the experience of CEE countries resembled a success story. Today we see that when it comes to a number of political criteria this was an early judgement. The rule of law or media freedom are no longer an unquestionable part of an EU member state.

The legacy our region was facing was a different one. Apart from political and economic transition, the Balkans additionally had to undergo nation-state building and post-war consolidation. We see today that the EU accession process could not deliver on all these open challenges. But we also need to be honest and admit that it was neither designed, nor mandated to do so.

Regarding the new methodology, much has already been written and analysed. There are still many open questions and missing details. Personally, I think that a new methodology was neither necessary at this point, nor will it be able to make up for lacking political will. The “old” methodology had safety and correction mechanisms, such as the balance clause, which were not used due to political considerations. The new methodology will require even more political commitment and decision-making.

Currently, we have realities that change literally on a daily basis and looking at the EU and all the challenges it faces now, I have to make an effort to be optimistic. The EU is facing its biggest survival test yet, so we will have to see where enlargement policy will figure.

Oliver Varhelyi presents the enlargement methodology proposal; Photo: European Union

For years, “stability” was prioritised and tolerated at the cost of democracy. Too little was publicly condemned and too much has been accepted silently. We had the paradox of tolerated and even supported stabilocracies, while expecting “Europeanisation” to happen. As I’ve said, it took us too much time to recognise that we had to fight for the “Europeanisation” of our societies even without publicly expressed support from where we hoped or expected it.

Looking around our region, “stabilocracy” becomes a term that almost provokes nostalgia. At least it contained traces of democracy in it. Today we are facing state capture, as finally stated in the last Communication of the European Commission. But after this assessment, not much has happened in practise. As if this assessment referred to the region, and not the countries it consists of. A credible next step would be the breakdown of this abstract regional state capture assessment by individual countries – which country, to what extent and causing which consequences.

But despite all the criticism, it is good to see that during this acute crisis the Western Balkan countries are being broadly included into crisis response mechanisms and that the greatest of all European values – solidarity – is being held up. Hopefully the EU manages to find the courage for full internal solidarity, a prerequisite to its own survival.

EWB: We in the Western Balkans are used to being overwhelmed by bad news and overall pessimism, especially when it comes to the political situation. Do you see any potential for change in the region and where could it come from?

AT: A number of polls in the past have shown that people weren’t leaving the region only because of economic reasons. The answers listed included access to education, justice and – today more important than ever – health. People were leaving because they were longing for a proper state. Today, facing the pandemic, we see the consequences of state capture clearer than ever before and also face the danger of absence of accountability, of checks and balances.

But despite all of this, I still think there is hope. And this hope is being brought by the citizens themselves. First, we see the existence of regional solidarity and compassion. The floods of 2014 have shown that, as did the reaction to the 2019 earthquake in Albania, and now the one to the earthquake in Zagreb just a few weeks ago. Solidarity, support, help among neighbours. Sometimes it is nice to see that this is followed by state action, as well. We have to find ways to finally manage to translate this expressed solidarity into normal, disaster-free times.

Secondly, hope is provided by people organising themselves in their neighbourhoods, people coming together to fight for their rivers, parks, and cities. We see throughout the region great examples of people completely overcoming ethnic narratives and divisions and recognising themselves as citizens, as constituents. In Tetovo (North Macedonia), Albanians and Macedonians successfully fought for clean air in their city. In Strpce (Kosovo), Serbs and Albanians fight together to preserve their rivers from destruction by small hydro plants, and similar examples can be found in Bosnia, too. There are also great examples of citizen movements and initiatives in Albania and Serbia. Those people have invested a lot of time and personal integrity to gain trust within their communities. And I see trust as the starting point and precondition for any change – trust that has been heavily compromised by corruption, state capture and the lack of political and economic results.

By becoming actively involved in issues important to our community, we can eradicate the division between us and the state. The state is our state. Furthermore, we need a different narrative. Politicians here mainly speak about people, and we are already satisfied when they happen to call us citizens. You can see that politicians in established and developed democracies speak with respect about voters, and to a lesser extent, but with even more respect, taxpayers. Language is important, it shows were the power lies. And in our constitutional orders in this region we (still) have democracies, so we are the voters, we are the sovereign. We have to retrieve our dignity.

So, yes, I see a lot of potential, and a lot of work ahead.

EWB: How do you see the role of think tanks in the Western Balkans? How do you think it is possible to increase their influence on policymakers?

AT: As you rightly pointed out, the question of influence is crucial. We have indeed high-quality think tanks in our region, a lot of expertise and knowledge is available. I am proud to say that the EFB also contributed to that. Unfortunately, decision-makers in most of the countries are utterly disinterested in knowledge, evidence-based policymaking, ex-post or ex-ante analysis, data etc.

Since think tanks’ direct access to their natural addressees is currently unavailable, this existing knowledge should be shared through other channels and to other audiences. If it is made available and produced in a way so that a greater share of interested citizens understand it without being experts in a certain field, then perhaps pressure from another side can be exerted on decision-makers. In the long run, educating voters will create different decision-makers. Of course, this is a long-term process, but I am afraid that there are no shortcuts.

In developed democracies think tanks may have the luxury of focusing on and addressing decision-makers, while remaining comfortably rooted in a milieu of experts and professionals. I am convinced that in our societies there is a need for reaching out to voters in all upcoming elections.

But again, our region is no special case. Looking at the current global situation, we see that for many years, scientists have warned, with concrete data and expertise, about the possibility of a pandemic. Decision-makers did not listen. Even when the epidemic began in China, institutions in Europe have warned decision-makers that all relevant systems should be prepared. Nobody listened to science, evidence, or data. Otherwise, how could one explain the fact that the most developed countries in the world do not have enough single-use protection at least for their medical staff?

Many people will pay the ultimate price because of market failure in sectors in which market principles should have never been introduced in the first place, because of ruined public policy systems and, ultimately, state capture, and this relates not only to the Western Balkans.

We live in interesting, frightening and challenging times. Once this is over, we need an open and honest discussion and, globally, we must put knowledge before empty, short-term and populist policy decisions.

EWB: What is your opinion of the Berlin Process, do you think it still represents a relevant process for the region, especially for think tanks and the civil society?

AT: The Berlin Process is a rare example of regional cooperation where all countries of the region are represented on equal footing. It was initiated in 2014 by German Chancellor Merkel after then EC President Juncker announced that there would be no enlargement under his mandate, so something had to be done in terms of harm reduction. It was good to have a high-level initiative in that situation.

Some great results have been achieved, such as the establishment of the Regional Youth Cooperation Office (RYCO) or the Western Balkans Fund (WBF). Yearly high-level meetings with accompanying civil society, youth, business and think tank fora have kept regional cooperation on the agenda. The EFB played a crucial role in establishing the Civil Society Forum, before it became an integral part of the Process itself.

Western Balkans countries' flags during Berlin process
Western Balkans countries’ flags during Berlin process

All regional processes and formats are complementary to the EU integration process and we should therefore not forget the well-established SEECP and RCC. So, if 2020 is really to bring the EU accession process back on track, we should put all available resources into its quality in order to secure concrete and tangible results and substance. Once governments really start delivering, we might not require that many complementary formats of regional cooperation.

EWB: You have been on the Munich Security Conference and spoke on the panel with the Foreign minister of North Macedonia Nikola Dimitrov and the Prime minister of Kosovo Albin Kurti, as well as witnessed the now-infamous Vučić-Kurti clash on the Balkans dialogue event. What are your impressions from Munich?

AT: The panel I attended with PM Kurti, MFA Dimitrov and EC VP Schinas was very constructive. My impression is that regional perspective, expressed by the three of us, was very much in unison. We agreed in our assessment of the importance of the EU accession process, visa-free travelling, empowered citizens, but also with regard to the amount of work ahead in order to improve societal resilience. It was the only panel dedicated to the region at the Munich Security Conference – except for two closed-door events, one being the round table you are referring to. The interest in all of the events was enormous.

When it comes to the Vučić-Kurti clash as you refer to it, I wouldn’t characterise it like that. The exchange involved participants other than the two of them. On the one hand, we had known arguments presented in a very calm way, nothing new came up there. And on the other hand, we had more than one representative being rather undiplomatic, raising voices and thus not only losing the impact of presented arguments, but turning the scene into an unpleasant situation, now referred to as a two-people clash. One person indeed figured prominently, but a number of others joined in. I couldn’t be more concrete than that, since I would prefer to adhere to the Chatham house rules which were applied by the organisers, although one participant said that the “Balkan Chatham house” rules were different.

Personally, I would like to see a change in tone and manner of communication between our elected high-level representatives. That is what politics and diplomacy should be about – talking and finding solutions, no matter how difficult and deep the problems may be. That is their job, that is why voters have given them their mandate. We need to get away from family feud communication and achieve responsible, politically mature communication and acting.

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