BiEPAG: Pandemic has contributed to democratic erosion in the Western Balkans

Belgrade at the time of pandemic; Photo: Tanjug / Tara Radovanović

GRAZ – The EU needs to identify and monitor the restrictions concerning democratic institutions and civil liberties that are permissible during the state of emergency in the Western Balkans, and the state-society relations need to be rebuilt after the pandemic, Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG) recommends in its newest policy brief, Western Balkans in Times of the Global Pandemic.

“Within a month, the circumstances created during the COVID-19 pandemic have further contributed to the overall trend of democratic erosion reversing two decades of reforms in the Western Balkans”, the brief finds.

It points out that the semi-authoritarian regimes in the Balkans have used the emergency situation to achieve almost unlimited power. Among the examples of undemocratic practices are the declaration of the state of emergency in Serbia without the parliament’s approval and publication of identities of COVID-19 positive persons in Montenegro.

“The pandemic cannot be an excuse for an unlimited suspension of democracy. The European Commission (DG NEAR), should issue guidelines in cooperation with the Council of Europe, on a) which restrictions of democracy and civil liberties are acceptable and b) how these should be managed in terms of their duration. The European Commission should actively monitor the measures taken and identify problematic restrictions and notify governments and the public”, the brief urges. It also suggests including the region in EU’s efforts to coordinate the gradual lifting of lockdown conditions.

Restrictive measures are caused by lack of trust between the citizens and the state

The brief notes that the Western Balkan countries have imposed very restrictive measures, which were caused by low capacities of the health care system and low trust featuring citizen-state relations.

“This approach reveals that the relationship between the state and society across the region is shaped by mutual distrust. But these draconic measures cannot hide the weaknesses of the healthcare system – it has not been brought to modern standards due to a lack of willingness and investment, and is plagued by a massive exodus of trained and senior medical staff, who are migrating abroad in search of better working conditions and higher salaries”, the brief stresses.

It also warns that the repressive measures do not risk targeting the fake media, but the independent and critical ones.

“The lack of reliable and accurate information, combined with irresponsible statements by government officials, adds to the collective stress and destroys trust in the state”, it finds.

The brief recommends that the securitization and restrictions should be used with care and in combination with education and communication, rather than instead.

Chinese support instrumentalised to criticise EU’s response and introduce authoritarian measures

“The EU has to secure its own autonomy to pursue its foreign affairs interests and to improve resilience in its own backyard when discussing 5G plans, infrastructure connectivity projects, climate change, public health, environment protection, and foreign policy with China. That will also require the EU’s closer cooperation with WB countries in those areas”, the brief notes.

It highlights Chinese dynamic aid diplomacy during the peak of the crisis, concluding that the support has been instrumentalized in the Western Balkans, in particular by Serbia, both to criticize the EU’s response and to justify domestic measures based on China’s authoritarian model.

Airplane carrying medical assistance from China lands in Belgrade; Photo: Tanjug/Dragan Kujundžić

However, it also outlines several reasons why it may not come to a significant rise of Chinese influence in the region – low quality and limited use of the medical aid, its representation as humanitarian when in fact it was commercial, and economic cost of the pandemic, which might cause China to scale down some of its foreign policy initiatives.

The policy brief recommends the EU to include WB countries in its post-pandemic recovery plans, continue the process of integration of the region and demand more transparency in bilateral agreements between WB countries and China’s companies as well as the application of the EU’s procurement and state aid rules.

Discussing the issue of the rise of nationalism as the crisis spread, the brief further recommends greater role for the Regional Cooperation Council to coordinate measures across the region, implementation of OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities recommendations and special measures to protect specific minorities, in particular Roma.

The document also covers additional areas impacted by the pandemic, offering recommendations in each of the fields: economy, health policy, migration, environment and social security.