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Trust and democracy in the Western Balkans acquire importance in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis

Foto: covid19.rs

BUDAPEST – The reticence of the public to undergo vaccination is directly linked with mistrust in governments while in Serbia exists the profiling of a trend termed ’authoritarian production of trust, it was concluded during the presentation of the new Policy Brief „Outta Trust? (Post)-Pandemic Trust and Democratic Resilience in the Western Balkans“, published by The Balkans in Europe Advisory Group (BiEPAG) at CEU Democracy Institute.

Based on a large-scale public opinion poll carried out in the six countries of the Western Balkans, this brief shows that the pandemic has exacerbated the region’s issues with trust in public institutions even further.

The study finds that the reticence of the public to undergo vaccination is directly linked with mistrust in governments, corroborating earlier research by BiEPAG that warned about the wide diffusion of coronavirus-related conspiracy theories in the region and their relation with vaccine scepticism.
During the presentation of Policy brief, it was said that the crisis of democracy and trust also exists in the European Union, especially in some member states such as Hungary, and that it is closely related to the leaders in the Western Balkans.
Florian Bieber, professor at the University of Graz and the coordinator of the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG), said that that the issue of trust is not only in the domain of theory, but that it is important for the everyday life of citizens, but also for the ability of citizens to overcome the crisis of democracy.
He added that changes cannot come only from the EU, but also that citizens taking part in that process.
“Our survey indicates that people do hope that the change comes within, and in that context, we can be optimistic and perceive that as a positive signal that the EU is not seen as a saviour in the Western Balkans”, said Bieber.

Tena Prelec, BiEPAG Member and  Research Fellow at the Department of Politics and International Relations (DPIR), University of Oxford, said that the citizens of the Western Balkans are not less educated or believe less in science, but that a lower percentage of vaccinated people speak of low trust in government.

“Trust or mistrust in the governments in the Western Balkans is closely related to the vaccines. Trust in the institutions is evident in Serbia and Albania”, said Prelec.

She explained that the BiPEAG survey shows that trust in Serbia could be seen as mediated by the trust in the regime and in the ruling party

“Here, we find the highest correlation between trust in government and reported vaccination – and consequently significantly lower vaccine take-up among those distrustful of the ruling regime; furthermore, respondents from Serbia express the lowest belief in the effectiveness of elections. This is especially prevalent among those with the lowest trust in government: only 25% of them believe the government can be changed through elections, while in the region as a whole, this share is at 53%. It follows that, in Serbia, those distrustful of the government have very little belief in the possibility of it being changed through democratic means”, BiEPAG analysis shows.

Prelec mentioned that public opinion shows that Serbian citizens believe more in Sinopharm and Sputnik than in Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine.

“Our regional public opinion poll shows that across the Western Balkans Pfizer is the most trusted COVID-19 vaccine, and in Serbia, it is Sinopharm and Sputnik. That is clearly a sign of the overall sentiment in the country, and the predominant narrative created by the media”, said Prelec.

Prelec said that survey shows that citizens of North Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina perceive Serbia as the most helpful actor during the COVID-19 pandemic, in addition to the fact that all statistics are in favor of the EU.

“North Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina perceive Serbia as the most helpful actor during the COVID-19, although the statistics are in favor of the EU. That is a clear sign that the strategic communication of the EU needs to be strengthened”, underlined Prelec.

Jelena Vasiljević, BiEPAG Member and Research Associate at the Institute for Philosophy and Social Theory, assessed that the low trust of citizens from the region in the institution is bad news, but that the survey also aimed to show whom citizens trust if they do not trust institutions. She said that over 20% of citizens in each country said they believe that positive changes can come from self-organized citizens.

“Self-organized citizens are seen as an important factor to bring change across the region, and the political parties and institutions are the least trusted”, said Vasiljević.

She pointed out that trust in the EU is high, mostly in the entire region, with the exception of Serbia, but that trust in the opposition is low in almost all countries.

“In Bosnia and Herzegovina, self-organized citizens are the most trusted factor in political change, whether political parties are mostly lower. We see the contrast between self-organized citizens and political parties.  This is a signal that there is an increase in citizens’ trust in some new things”, said Vasiljević.

Vedran Džihić, BiEPAG member, Senior Researcher with the Austrian Institute for International Affairs (OIIP), said that some authoritarian practices from EU member states, such as Hungary, had spilled over into regimes in the Western Balkans, with Serbia being particularly specific.

“Serbia is probably specific because our research has shown that a large part of the population believes that an authoritarian hand is better at handling the COVID-19 crisis. They do not believe that democracy is a good system for decision-making in crises,” Dzihic said.

He underlined that citizens produced trust is maybe the potential way out, as BiEPAG brief has identified that there are emerging constituents of change across the Western Balkans. Džihić concluded that the United States and the European Union should make a radical shift towards countries and governments in the region that have authoritarian tendencies.

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