Another year went by without the renewed momentum for the EU accession process of the Western Balkans, and the consequences of the stagnation were clearer in 2021 than before. Crises in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Montenegro, yet another lost year for Albania and North Macedonia, as well as damage to EU’s public image, especially in the first months of the year, should all act as a wake-up call for Brussels and European capitals. That is, if the old and the new leaders are ready to hear it.
Several positive developments in the region, such as the establishment of a roaming-free zone, were few and far in between. Otherwise, the picture for the pro-European citizens of the region was bleak.
European Western Balkans brings you the most important events and developments in the Western Balkans in 2021.
The vaccine diplomacy
Mostly thanks to the procurement of large quantities of Chinese Sinopharm jabs, for the first couple of months of 2021, Serbia was among the leading European countries in terms of vaccinations per capita. At the time when other Western Balkan countries were still waiting for their deliveries, thousands of citizens from neighbouring countries flocked to Belgrade and other cities to get their first doses.
These developments influenced public opinion in the countries of the region. China and Serbia profited from “vaccine diplomacy”, while European Union missed the opportunity to score points, according to subsequent polls. EU did provide large quantities of doses to the Western Balkans in spring and summer, but it was the speed, it turned out, that counted the most.
By the second half of the year, the biggest challenge became not how to procure vaccines, but how to motivate the sceptical population to take the jabs.
Kurti and Osmani take over
February snap parliamentary elections in Kosovo could be described as a political earthquake. Vetëvendosje! (LVV), led by Albin Kurti came in first but, unlike the close result in 2019, this time all other lists were left far behind. The electoral success of the party, which won more than 50% of the vote, was boosted by a coalition with Guxo!, founded by then parliament speaker Vjosa Osmani. As a result of the election, Kurti returned to the office of the Prime Minister, while Osmani was elected as the fifth President of Kosovo since the declaration of independence in 2008.
Kurti’s government, however, was soon faced with a disappointment of some of its voters, resulting in unsatisfactory results for the party in October-November local elections. With the energy crisis hitting Kosovo particularly hard, Kurti’s potential first full term is turning out to be increasingly challenging.
The enlargement process remains stuck
The much-awaited first Intergovernmental Conferences with Albania and North Macedonia failed to materialize, with Bulgaria refusing to lift the veto it put in 2020. After three parliamentary elections, the new government in Sofia pledged to find a solution relatively soon. The damage to the EU’s credibility and enthusiasm of the citizens of the Western Balkans, however, has already been done. Serbia, it turned out, was the only country in the region that made any progress at all in its EU integration process in 2021, opening the negotiating Cluster Four in December. Even this decision was interpreted by some mostly as an attempt to signal to the entire region that the process was continuing.
Slovenia, which held the rotating Council Presidency in the second half of the year, tried to put some dynamism back to the enlargement process, holding, among others, the EU-Western Balkans Summit in Brdo in October. While the Brdo Declaration ended up mentioning the word “enlargement”, which was absent from the previous two Declarations, analysts did not find this sufficient to alleviate the sense of pessimism about the current state of the process.
Rama’s third win
Edi Rama won the unprecedented third straight term as Prime Minister of Albania in April 2021, his Socialist Party managing to win its second outright majority. The election was competitive, but the ruling party enjoyed the advantages of the incumbency. The opposition failed to attract enough undecided voters and has focused on the irregularities of the process in the days after the voting. Nevertheless, the elections have been orderly enough for the international community to congratulate the winner and call for a smooth formation of new institutions.
Rama’s third cabinet, consisting of twelve women and five men, was sworn in in September. With the subsequent split in the opposition Democratic Party over US sanctions to its former leader Sali Berisha, and reduced support for the Socialist Movement of Integration, Rama’s position seems quite secure heading into 2022.
Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue: Yet another stagnation
Aleksandar Vučić and Albin Kurti met face to face for the first time on 15 June in Brussels, and then again on 19 July. Both meetings went along similar lines. The Serbian side insisted on the unfulfilled commitment of Kosovo to form the Association of Serb Municipalities. The Kosovo side raised the issue of trade, reciprocal treatment of minorities, but also the most sensitive political issues – Serbia’s recognition of Kosovo and confrontation with the war crimes. No serious breakthrough was made, despite the efforts of EU mediators.
The relationship between Kosovo and Serbia even deteriorated in September and October when, first, a crisis over the expired agreement on the license plates broke out, leading to the blockade of border crossings by local Serbs. This was followed several weeks later by anti-smuggler police raids, which left multiple people injured. While both crises subsided, the chances for a normalization agreement in the near future seem very slim.
Regional Roaming Agreement in the Western Balkans enters into force
The Regional Roaming Agreement was greeted by the countries of the region on 1 July, when it entered into force and became fully operational, after it was signed by the countries of the Western Balkans in April 2019.
Majlinda Bregu, Secretary-General of the Regional Cooperation Council, which facilitated the agreement explained that, as of 1 July, the citizens would have the chance to speak and surf without any extra costs whenever they will be traveling in one of the six economies of the Western Balkans.
“We managed to remove borders, barriers and roaming charges for mobile phones. We are looking forward and we are working intensively to repeat the same success story with the removing of the barriers and borders, plus those extra charges on the freedom of movement of people and business in the region,” Bregu pointed out on 1 July.
Open Balkan initiative emerges from Mini-Schengen
The initiative for regional cooperation “Mini Schengen”, which gathers Albania, North Macedonia and Serbia, changed its name to “Open Balkan” in July, at the meeting of Prime Ministers Zoran Zaev and Edi Rama and President Aleksandar Vučić in Skopje. In a statement from November, the leaders pointed at “the questionable capacity of the EU to integrate new members”. “As we find our road to the EU derailed, we remain committed to reach the EU standards and bridge the economic gap with the EU”, the leaders stated. In December, they signed multiple agreements, including the one on free access to job markets.
Despite multiple assurances by the leaders that the Open Balkan is compatible with both the Common Regional Market initiative, which gathers all six countries of the Western Balkans, as well as the EU integration process, the insecurities over these issues remain. Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo are still reluctant to join.
Bosnia and Herzegovina: The biggest crisis yet?
In the final days of his mandate, High Representative Valentin Inzko amended the Criminal Code of the country, sanctioning the glorification of war criminals and the denial of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. The reaction from the Republika Srpska leadership was fierce, including the withdrawal from the state-level institutions and, subsequently, the announcement of legal steps that would include devolving the competencies of these institutions, including in the areas of justice and defence. The topic of Srebrenica remains extremely divisive, which was also noticeable in the reactions to the award-winning movie Quo Vadis, Aida?, which was also nominated for an Academy Award this year.
Inzko’s successor, German Christian Schmidt, was thus forced to deal with the crisis management as soon as he arrived to BiH, notwithstanding the fact that his nomination was not recognised by Russia or Republika Srpska leadership. At the nadirs of the 2021 crisis, the scenarios of a renewed conflict in the country started to be discussed once again. The difficulties made it impossible to make any substantial progress on reforms, including longstanding changes to the electoral legislation.
The fall of Zoran Zaev
In December 2021, Zoran Zaev resigned as Prime Minister of North Macedonia and leader of the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM), ending his time at the helm of the country’s politics. Zaev became the leader of the opposition during the rule of Nikola Gruevski in 2013 and Prime Minister in 2017. He is expected to be succeeded by Dimitar Kovachevski, the new SDSM President.
Zaev’s decision to resign was preceded by heavy losses of the ruling party in the October local elections, which included the defeat in the capital of Skopje. The loss of SDSM has since been interpreted in at least two ways – as a backlash against the government betting on the accelerated EU integration, which never materialized; as well as voters’ disappointment with the government’s record on reforms.
Krivokapić’s shaky year
On 4 December 2021, the Government of Zdravko Krivokapić marked its first year in power. On many occasions during that period, it seemed that even the first anniversary would be a tall order, given the significant differences between the parties making up a wafer-thin ruling majority. The most serious crisis for the government came in June after Minister of Justice Vladimir Leposavić was voted out by the ruling URA and opposition DPS for calling into question the Srebrenica genocide. Since then, the biggest ruling coalition Democratic Front has demanded either the reconstruction of the government or snap elections.
The enthronement of Metropolitan Joanikije in Cetinje monastery in September has probably been the biggest test for Krivokapić, so far. In the end, Serbian Orthodox Church priests had to be transported to the monastery by a helicopter to avoid the blockades of DPS supporters. The event highlighted the deep divisions still present in the country.
Environmental protests in Serbia
On 27 November and 4 December, citizens of Serbia blocked several motorways across the country in a response to the adoption of the Law on Referendum and Law on Expropriation. The adoption of the laws is seen as laying the groundwork for the lithium mine of the international company Rio Tinto in western Serbia, which has been met with serious opposition from the Serbian public. The protests ended up with multiple arrests and a violent conflict in the city of Šabac. Violence during the protests, which included the involvement of hooligan groups close to the ruling party, was condemned in an urgent resolution of the European Parliament.
The requests of the citizens regarding the two laws, including an outright withdrawal of the Law on Expropriation, were accepted by President Vučić on 8 December. However, the controversy around Rio Tinto, which seems determined to go through with the project, is still far from a resolution.
The departure of Angela Merkel
German Chancellor Angela Merkel retired in December 2021 after sixteen years in office. Merkel and her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) were a constant presence in the Balkans in that period, with each current regional administration coming to power during their “era”.
Merkel’s legacy in the Western Balkans includes keeping a close eye on Germany’s economic interests, devising the Berlin Process at the time when EU enlargement started to slow down, but also, as many analysts assessed over the years, being the primary proponent of “stabilocracy”. The Chancellor stuck to the policy of putting regional stability over democracy and European values until the end of her mandate. The outcomes of this position are expected to become even clearer in years to come.