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The Balkans: Backsliding, Bankrupt, and Vulnerable

“It’s like 1965, but instead of listening to the Rolling Stones everyone is still playing Lili Marlene.”

This is how the Bosnian performance artist Damir Nikšić recently described the situation in his country, and much the same could be said for the rest of southeastern Europe. Last year German chancellor Angela Merkel even warned that if Europe did not resolve the migrant crisis there could be conflict in the Balkans.

While open conflict seems unlikely for now, there is much for Europe and the Balkan countries to be alarmed about well beyond Europe’s migration concerns.

For six years in a row, Freedom House’s Nations in Transit has recorded democratic backsliding in the Balkans. Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index 2016 lists Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo as the most corrupt countries in Europe (apart from former Soviet republics). Bosnia and Kosovo also provide more jihad volunteers per capita than any other countries in Europe. In Croatia, nostalgia for the World War II fascist Ustaša movement has reached alarming proportions, and relations between Zagreb and Belgrade are at their lowest ebb in at least a decade. In Macedonia months of anti-government demonstrations and increasing tensions between Albanians and Macedonians have led a prominent political observer to remark that “we are a country in disintegration.” In Serbia, journalists complain that there was more freedom of the media under Milošević than there is now. Over the past two years, mobs have torched government buildings in Sarajevo and Skopje, and exploding tear gas canisters are a regular feature during sessions of Kosovo’s parliament.

Why do these tensions persist and grow in southeastern Europe? Much of it can be attributed to the policies coming from Brussels and Washington. First, the assumption that the appeal of EU and NATO membership would encourage leaders in the Balkans to implement serious democratic reform has proven overly optimistic. Moreover, Western diplomats have been more focused on diminishing the Kremlin’s influence in the region rather than on encouraging democratic reform. In a recent analysis of the “NATO at any price” approach to the Balkans predominant in Washington and Brussels, Besnik Pula has pointed out that,

A new generation of autocrats has been taking over the region, sometimes with the direct complicity of overzealous American policymakers and distracted EU officials . . . Both U.S. and EU policymakers have been willing to turn a blind eye to corruption, which plagues the region’s governments, and have either downplayed or ignored the creeping rise of autocratic rulers . . . [who] are well-coached in telling Western diplomats what they want to hear, while blatantly undermining democratic principles and the rule of law at home . . . U.S. and EU policymakers need to ask themselves if oligarchs, autocrats and kleptocrats, who happen to be pro-Western, are any better than Putin—or helpful for the West’s long-term interests in the region.

Second, the international community’s diplomacy in the region, though with good intentions, has in the end revealed itself to be short-sighted in the search for quick fixes. Many of the institutions and processes the West imposed in the 1990s to promote reconciliation and foster stability have instead frozen hostilities and created weak and corrupt states now completely dependent upon the international community for subsistence and survival. With regard to reconciliation, the region is stuck in a quagmire of seemingly endless and draining international judicial proceedings. While the Nuremburg Trials lasted less than a year and the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal lasted for two and a half, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) has now been in existence for more than two decades. Similarly, western supervision of post-WWII Germany ended within a decade and full sovereignty was returned to Iraq sixteen months after the 2003 invasion, but Bosnia’s international protectorate has now lasted more than twenty years.

Meanwhile, the EU accession rules are being manipulated by member states in the Balkans to prevent their neighbors from joining. Greece has blocked Macedonia’s accession efforts for over a decade, Slovenia did the same to Croatia for several years, and Croatia now seems intent on doing the same to Serbia. The problems Bosnia, Kosovo and Serbia will cause each other if their turns ever come are obvious. Concurrently, enlargement fatigue, the Greek debt crisis, the migrant crisis, and now Brexit have distracted Brussels from developing and implementing a coherent Balkan strategy.  As one exasperated regional diplomat noted about his dealings with Brussels, “The Americans make you an offer you can’t refuse. The Europeans make you an offer you can’t understand.”

Third, international economic policy towards the region has in many ways been counter-productive. Financial austerity measures imposed on Greece by creditor states and international lending institutions, as Paul Krugman has argued, have had the effect of driving down economic activity in the country, exacerbating Greece’s debt-to-GDP ration. Meanwhile, Bosnia and Kosovo have the highest youth unemployment rates in Europe—despite being the beneficiaries of some of the largest international aid programs in history—many of which, it bears noting, are driven more by the demands of Beltway lobbyists and special interests groups rather than economic logic.

Brussels and Washington need to set a new course for southeastern Europe. While EU and NATO accession for the Balkan countries are undeniably positive goals, our current strategies have taken the region’s democratization and reconciliation processes too far off course.

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