European Western Balkans

Freedom House: Democratic institutions in the Western Balkans continued to falter in 2022

Informal EU- Western Balkans meeting; Photo: EU

WASHINGTON –  According to the “Nations in Transit 2023” report published by Freedom House, the 10 non-EU countries that are rated as Hybrid Regimes – positioned in the grey zone between democracy and autocracy. Democratic institutions in the Western Balkans continued to falter in 2022.  Modest improvements in Albania, Kosovo, and North Macedonia were balanced by declines in Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Serbia’s score remained unchanged.

At the same time, drawn-out EU accession processes in the Western Balkans reinforced disillusionment with the union and sapped its power to stoke reform. The challenges associated with accession only increased with the addition of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Moldova, and Ukraine as formal candidates for EU membership.

“As with the other Hybrid Regimes in Nations in Transit, people living in the non-EU countries of the Western Balkans maintain strong support for accession to the bloc. In 2022, Bosnia and Herzegovina was granted EU candidate status, while Kosovo officially submitted its application for consideration. Yet despite these important markers of progress, citizens in the Western Balkans have felt abandoned by domestic elites who resist democratic reforms that would weaken their grip on power, and by international elites who lack the resolve to follow through on the accession process”, writes FH.

It is added that unlike in Ukraine, where the public’s expectations for accession by 2030 are high, years or even decades of waiting in the Western Balkans have left residents disillusioned about the possibility of membership in the short term.

“Even their long-term hopes are comparatively modest: for many in the area, the attraction of EU accession is more about individual prosperity and the right to travel, work, and study abroad—in other words, to leave—than it is about the prospect of democratic progress at home. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), “about one-fifth of the population born in the Western Balkan Six region lives abroad, mostly in a handful of OECD member countries”, it is stated in the FH report.

Given the crisis of confidence that this exodus represents, it is perhaps unsurprising that democratic institutions in the Western Balkans continued to falter in 2022. Modest improvements in Albania, Kosovo, and North Macedonia were balanced by declines in Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Serbia’s score remained unchanged.

North Macedonia and Montenegro both experienced acute political dysfunction during the year, but their Democracy Scores moved in opposite directions.

Political polarization in Montenegro, largely over issues of national identity, led to the collapse of two governments. In addition, lawmakers pushed through legislation that undermined citizens’ basic rights, while the Constitutional Court lacked a quorum to review the controversial measures. It is added that the recent defeat of Milo Đukanović, who has ruled the country’s political class for more than three decades, in the April 2023 presidential election raised hopes for generational change.

In North Macedonia, similarly strong political polarization and parliamentary blockades hampered the passage of legislation at the national level, but local governments’ steady improvements in transparency, civic participation, and intermunicipal cooperation had a noticeably positive impact on democracy and the delivery of public services

Although Albania’s scores in Nations in Transit place it close to North Macedonia and Montenegro in terms of democratic development, polling suggests that Albanians are more optimistic about the potential of EU membership to provide not only economic prosperity but also improved democratic standards.

Albania’s democratic institutions are challenged by clientelistic party politics, a lagging judicial vetting process, and rampant corruption. The country’s special anticorruption courts made small strides in addressing graft during 2022, resulting in a modest score improvement in the Corruption indicator, but there was little opportunity for further reforms before local elections set for May 2023.

Freedom House stated that the čong-strained relations between Serbia and Kosovo have continued to undermine democratic progress in both countries, though in differing respects.

“Remarkable efforts by Kosovo’s civil society to effect positive policy changes on gender-based violence and ethnic divisions were overshadowed during the year by an uptick in violence in the Serb-majority north, where the Serbian government’s influence and activities continue to subvert Kosovo’s full authority over its territory”, the report said.

Freedom House recalls that in Serbia the opposition returned to the political playing field after a 2020 electoral boycott, but the 2022 presidential and parliamentary elections were once again marred by irregularities, resulting in victories of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party and President Aleksandar Vučić.

“The region’s autocracies have steadily abandoned or crushed the various features—a degree of autonomy for local governments, a tiny corps of independent journalists or civic activists, a genuine if hemmed-in opposition party, or space for limited dissent within the ruling elite—that had previously mitigated the excesses of absolute power. The result, of course, has been a series of disastrous policy decisions that have taken citizens’ lives and threatened some of these countries’ survival”, report concluded.

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