European Western Balkans

Freedom House “Nations in Transit” Report: Albania and Serbia decline, North Macedonia improves

Prime Minister of Albania Edi Rama, President of Serbia Aleksandar Vučić and Prime Minister of North Macedonia Zoran Zaev at the Mini-Schengen meeting; Photo: Tanjug/Tanja Valić

WASHINGTON – All six Western Balkan countries have once again been classified as “transitional governments or hybrid regimes” in the newest “Nations in Transit” report by Freedom House that tracks 29 former communist countries in Europe and Eurasia.

On the scale of 1 to 7, Serbia has scored 3,89 point, a decline compared by 2020, when it scored 3,96. It is followed by Montenegro and North Macedonia with 3,82, the latter country advancing from last year’s 3,75.

Albania has declined from 3,82 to 3,75, while Bosnia and Herzegovina (3,36) and Kosovo (3,14) are still behind the other countries in the region.

Serbia has lost points in the areas of democratic governance and electoral process, the two areas North Macedonia has improved in, while Albania has lost points in the areas of civil society and independent media.

Five out of six countries have a worse score than they had ten years ago, in 2011, though the developments have not been linear in most of them. Kosovo is the only one to have a higher mark than in 2011, though it started from a significantly low base of 2,82.

Serbia has achieved the third sharpest decline among 29 countries since 2017, behind only Hungary and Poland.

“Hungary’s model of media capture, for example, has been openly embraced by likeminded governments in the region. In Serbia, President Aleksandar Vučić and his Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) have overseen the mainstreaming of smear campaigns and progovernment propaganda, which contributed to the SNS’s sweeping election victory and the formation of a nonrepresentative parliament in 2020”, the Report noted.

Serbia and Hungary are also compared in terms of unfavorable electoral conditions, which makes it harder for voters to deliver electoral breakthroughs.

“This makes it all the more tragic when opposition groups in hybrid regimes feel compelled to boycott elections due to dramatically tilted playing fields, as recently occurred in Georgia and Serbia. While depriving the winners of legitimacy and drawing attention to serious abuses, boycotts also deprive voters of what little opportunity for change may remain”, Freedom House emphasised.

North Macedonia, by contrast, is on the opposite side of the scale, as a country that improved the second most since 2017, behind only Armenia.

“In North Macedonia and Uzbekistan, piecemeal efforts have yielded some positive change on the ground, resulting in improvements in the countries’ scores… In North Macedonia, meanwhile, Prime Minister Zoran Zaev’s center-left government has repaired some of the institutional damage wrought by his right-wing populist predecessor, and still has a chance to deliver the benefits of democracy”, the Report assessed.

On the other hand, Kosovo, Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina are mentioned in the context of a still possible opposition victory, but which requires extraordinary circumstances, which usually include the backdrop of corruption scandals and “ugly abuses of power”.

“While an opposition victory is not impossible in the gray zone, as Larry Diamond has cautioned, it requires a level of opposition mobilization, unity, skill, and heroism far beyond what would normally be required for victory in a democracy. To varying degrees, these traits could be seen in recent elections in Kosovo (2019 and 2021), Montenegro (2020), and Moldova (2020), along with the municipalities of Banja Luka and Sarajevo in Bosnia and Herzegovina (2020). In all of these hybrid regimes, the political opposition overcame the odds to unseat entrenched incumbents”, the Report stresses.

However, anticorruption policies of the opposition might also contain illiberal tendencies, which makes it hard to celebrate the opposition’s triumph in Banja Luka or Montenegro unreservedly, as the new mayor of the former and the new government of the latter have espoused ethnonationalist, exclusionary views, the Report added.

As far as negative tendencies in Albania go, the Report focused on the media environment.

“The Albanian media environment, which has long been plagued by oligarchic control like much of the coverage region, has also been affected by the increased use of strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs). In addition, controversial antidefamation legislation threatened to restrict online speech there”, Freedom House noted.

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