FES: Pandemic causes further centralisation of power and political polarisation in the WB

Foto: covid19.rs

BELGRADE – The leaders of Western Balkans countries are seizing a great deal of authority with scant resistance, while the reactions to the Coronavirus pandemic clearly demonstrate the weaknesses of political and party systems, shows the analysis “Democracy and the State of Emergency”, published by Friedrich Ebert Stiftung.

The report found that in countries like Serbia and Albania, there is an increasing personalisation of power, with President Aleksandar Vučić and Prime Minister Edi Rama playing the leading role in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic and being omnipresent.

The constitutionality of the restrictive measures have been questioned by the opposition in almost every Western Balkan country, while the temporary political unity of the main parties has been short-lasting, if it ever existed in the first place, FES found.

The report also looked into the “aid-diplomacy”, concluding that the non-EU actors, in particular China, but also Russia, Turkey and United Arab Emirates, tried to take advantage of EU’s slow response.

“This crisis may clear some doubts regarding the foreign policy orientation of the Serbian government”, the report points out.

After this initial report, a second will follow in May, followed by further reports in June and July 2020.

Country leaders use the crisis to seize greater authority

The report found that some of the countries in the region, most notably Albania and Serbia, have seen a further rise in the personalisation of power amidst the pandemic.

According to the report, COVID-19 crisis has provided Prime Minister Rama with the opportunity to personally assume a greater political and institutional role.

“The Prime Minister has been the communicator-in-chief, personally announcing every decision taken starting from details on the lockdown hours, to the justification of every decision including urging people to “not go out to take care of their family, and to remember to wash their hands”. On several occasions, he has appeared on TV replying to and giving explanations to citizens who have sent messages on Facebook”, it is stated in the report.

Analysis showed that in Serbia, Parliament lost its role in the decision-making process and the Coronavirus crisis intensified
the deterioration and challenges to Serbian democracy.

The announcement of the state of emergency; Photo: President of Serbia

“The State of Emergency was introduced with the triple signature of the President of the Republic, Prime Minister and Speaker of the Parliament, instead of the Parliament which still has not confirmed the decision in the plenary”, the report highlights.

On the other hand, situation in Montenegro is assessed quite differently.

“So far, there are no signs that the government is using the current public health crisis as cover to seize new powers that have little to do with the outbreak or to crack down on dissent. Moreover, one should commend the highest state officials for not using the warlike terminology in the fight against pandemic”, the report states.

When it comes to North Macedonia, the report also found that the declaration of a state of emergency in itself moved the balance of political power in the state into the hands of the government. The military and police have been actively engaged since the beginning of the outbreak in the country.

Political polarisation laid bare in most of the cases

Most of the Western Balkans have entered the 2020 in a highly polarised political atmosphere, with the elections in Serbia and North Macedonia both scheduled for April, and now postponed, while Montenegro is set to go to the polls in the fall. Kosovo saw the most dramatic political development so far, with its government being voted out after it lost the support of the junior coalition partner, LDK.

“This is a clear sign of a serious lack of unity, even in such grave times for the citizens of the RKS and a sign of political immaturity. For a large portion of the population, this has fed more revolt to the political leadership and for another large part of the population, it has fed more nationalist and radical attitudes”, the report reads.

Session of the Kosovo Assembly; Photo: Assembly of the Republic of Kosovo

While the political campaigning by party activists, including the President, have been recorded in Serbia even during the state of emergency, the report does not describe serious confrontation between the government and the opposition thus far.

On the other hand, while the relations between the government and opposition in North Macedonia started off as relatively constructive, especially during the unanimous decision to postpone the elections on 17 March, they have severely deteriorated, occupying a large portion of public discourse in North Macedonia on a daily basis, with frequent confrontations on two fronts, predominantly.

“The biggest opposition party, VMRO-DPMNE, constantly proposes different sets of measures criticising governmental policies daily”, the report finds, although it adds that there is currently no “blame game” discourse in the country.

The mistrust between the main players on the political stage has also been found in Montenegro.

“It is again demonstrated that a national identity based toxic polarization of the Montenegrin party system is even in these extraordinary times an obstacle for the national unity”, the report stressed.

According to the report, in recent days much more dissent on the Montenegrin political scene could be observed. Some opposition parties have been accusing the Government and in particular the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) of using the crisis as a kick-off of the political campaign, preparing a great electoral theft and the illegal spending of the aid funds in order to satisfy their political interests, and abusing the pandemic for its particular interests.

In contrast, many opposition political parties in BiH decided to take on the role of silent observer of the ongoing pandemic crisis in the country. However, a few larger opposition political parties, based in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, have opted for a more active role and engaged themselves, with varying degrees of success, in public activities such as periodical press statements criticising the crisis management authorities and ruling political parties for misuse of crisis context to promote their narrow and particular political interests.

Constitutionality of the decisions brought into question

The debate over the constitutionality of the restrictions on the freedom of movement and declarations of the state of emergency has been sparked in almost every country, showing that the political system is still not fully consolidated.

“Some measures provoked fairly intense public debates relating to the violation of human rights as they have a specific place in the Constitution of Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is too early to detect with precision whether the introduced measures exceed constitutional provisions, but general public discourse and media reporting point to the conclusion that those measures exceeding constitutional provisions will be those recognised by citizens and the expert community as measures violating human rights”, authors concluded.

In Kosovo, the decision to restrict movement was contested by President Hashim Thaçi, citing it as unconstitutional, having violated basic human freedoms in an environment where the constitutionally accepted state for issuing such a measure “State of Emergency” had not been declared. The constitutional court, having reviewed the case, distanced itself from evaluating the measures taken as necessary or not in fighting the pandemic, instead focusing on the legal implications of such a decision.

Similarly, in Montenegro the depicted adoption of the measures was followed by the disputes between the government and the opposition regarding their constitutionality. The opposition Democratic Front (DF) claims that the measures could only be promulgated and implemented if a state of emergency was declared and that everything else is a “brutal violation of the Constitution and laws”. On the other hand, the government claims that everything is in accordance with the Constitution. The report points out that both claims seem to be legally founded and that the constitutional court still had not made the decision.

Finally, in Serbia, several MPs urged the Constitutional Court to address their request of suspending the state of emergency, since it has not been declared by the National Assembly.

“The alarming ease with which Parliament lost its role in the decision-making process on such a crucial issue indicated its “unbearable lightness of being”, with a lack of influence and strength to conduct parliamentary oversight and control the executive”, the report found.

External actors – “aid diplomacy” intensified

Albania and North Macedonia, the countries that recently received the green light to open accession negotiations with the EU, seem to be the ones least affected by non-EU actors, at least according to the report. The document highlights Turkey as the second most prominent actor in terms of assistance, but it does not detect significant changes in the foreign policy of the countries.

EU airplane with medical assistance to Serbia; Photo: Tanjug

Serbia, most famously, is the country that has seen the most significant overtures by non-EU actors, partly on the initiative of its own authorities.

“The key role of the Chinese experts was acknowledged through consultations on concrete measures launched by the Serbian government”, the report adds, reminding of the criticism President Vučić had for the EU in the middle of March, when he said that the EU solidarity is a “fairy tale on paper”.

The decision of the EU to restrict the export of the medical equipment was also used by the Eurosceptic forces in Montenegro, through mostly pro-Serbian and pro-Russian media, to delegitimize the whole process of the Europeanization, the report found.

Finally, Bosnia and Herzegovina has, in addition to the EU, received assistance from the United States, China, Russia and Turkey.

“It seems that countries providing aid to BiH do so without any ambition to strengthen their influence, but rather to justify the reputation and influence they already have”, the report concludes.