European Western Balkans

Freedom House: Democracy deteriorates in the Western Balkans, Serbia faces the strongest decline

Protest "Serbia against violence"; Photo: FoNet/Ana Paunkovic

According to the latest Nations in Transit 2024 report published by Freedom House today, all Western Balkan countries remain “hybrid or transitional regimes”, with four countries facing democratic decline and two stagnating. Serbia faced the strongest decline among all 29 countries covered within the report, scores of Montenegro, North Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina also declined, while Albania and Kosovo’s democracy scores remained the same as last year’s.

According to Freedom House, all six of the Western Balkan countries remain categorized as hybrid or transitional regimes. “Hybrid regime” refers to a regime that has components of a democratic regime – such as elections – but where the democratic institutions are weak and there is an element of authoritarianism.  In 2024, Freedom House introduced new labels to indicate differences between hybrid regime types depending on the overall trajectory of democracy in the last five years – differentiating between “autocratizing hybrids”, “democratizing hybrids and “cyclical hybrids”.

The report cited events such as protests in reaction to mass shootings in Serbia in May, leading President Aleksandar Vučić’s government to rig the snap December elections. In North Macedonia, corruption increased following Bulgaria’s veto of the state’s EU accession. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, Republika Srpska’s legislation on the recriminalization of defamation caused concern about the safety of journalists and civil society activists. And in Montenegro, the 2022 constitutional crisis continues to affect “dysfunctional” municipal governments.

Western Balkans countries ranging from “autocratizing hybrids” to “democratizing hybrids”

Serbia was placed under the category of “autocratizing hybrids,” a term that refers to those regimes in which “Key institutions, from the media to the courts, have gone beyond the level of politicization expected under classical definitions of hybrid regimes and are now effectively captured by ruling parties and abused for partisan or personal gain.”

According to the report, in Serbia President Vučić’s government has rigged the elections and uses both public and private media to attack opposition members, journalists, and activists from civil society. Last year’s developments caused Serbia’s democracy score to decrease from 3.79 to 3.61. Serbia’s score deteriorated in the areas of the electoral process, independent media, local democratic governance and judicial framework and independence.

Albania, North Macedonia, Montenegro, and Bosnia and Herzegovina were placed under the term “cyclical hybrids.” These regimes are those that oscillate between various rival parties, which each make attempts to capture and weaken democratic institutions, causing the countries to “ricochet between democratic and autocratic “breakthroughs” without ever seeming to achieve a full consolidation in either direction.”

In North Macedonia, corruption remains a major issue as former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski’s party continues to hinder the work of the parliament. Gruevski and his associates have not been brought to justice for the pre-2017 abuses of power, and the criminal code was changed in 2023 to reduce the penalties for these crimes. These issues led to the country’s score to drop from 3.86 to 3.79 thanks to a decline in the areas of judicial framework and independence and corruption.

In Montenegro, the defeat of Milo Đukanović ended nearly 30 years of single-party rule. According to the report, while this brought an opportunity for further democratization in the country, the rift between the pre-2020 government and younger officials has led to “ineffective governance, interinstitutional conflict, and a yearlong constitutional crisis.” Freedom House reduced Montenegro’s score from 3.79 to 3.75 after a drop in local democratic governance.

Kosovo was labeled as a “democratizing hybrid,” meaning that it has shown a “commitment to reforms and the strengthening of democratic institutions.” Democratizing hybrids are those regimes which make attempts to move toward democrazation but are unable to achieve full democracy due to a history of undemocratic institutions or external factors.

Since taking office in 2021, the Kosovo government has made efforts to strengthen rule of law, and Prime Minister Albin Kurti led a vetting initiative for judges. However, due to Prime Minister Kurti’s “hardline approach” to negotiations with Serbia over normalization and his unwillingness to consult Kosovo Serbs, Kosovo has still been unable to achieve full democracy. There were no score changes for Kosovo in 2023.

According to the Freedom House report, the state of democracy in Albania remains unchanged with an overall score 3,79.

When it comes to Bosnia and Hercegovina, the report noted a decline only in the functioning of the independent media.

“In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the recriminalization of defamation by the Republika Srpska entity in July, as part of a series of concerning legislation on the media and civil society, put undue pressure on journalists in an environment that was already rapidly deteriorating in terms of hate speech and physical safety”, report says.

Results of EU parliament and US presidential elections important risk factors for democracy

Freedom House outlined recommendations for the EU to increase democratic potential in autocratizing regimes. These recommendations included “make addressing rule-of-law concerns a strategic priority within the EU, be consistent and transparent in withholding and releasing EU funds related to fundamental treaty violations, and support voter education on obstacles to reform.”

However, Freedom House also acknowledged the challenges that the EU may face in the coming year, such as a turn toward the right in the European Parliament following the elections. Additionally, the presidential election in the US may lead to a victory by Donald Trump, who has indicated that he would significantly reduce US aid to Ukraine.

Freedom House concluded that as democracy faces threats around the world, “democratic leaders must do the difficult work of identifying and then avoiding the errors, blind spots, and expedients that have allowed authoritarian forces to heap up gains in the region for the past 20 years.”

According to the Nations in Transit 2024 report, “only by reinvigorating their commitment to democratic principles and deepening their solidarity with frontline allies can the transatlantic community of democracies ensure that peace and liberty prevail, both at home and around the world.”

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