Approximately a decade ago, the narration of the Western Balkans was characterized by shades of optimism, justified by the arrests of war criminals made by Serbia, some progress in the field of regional cooperation and a growing sense of “Yugosphere”, as the British journalist Tim Judah described the daily commercial and cultural relations between peoples in the region.
Sure, the Western Balkans did not shine in terms of democratic standards, but policy makers in Brussels, as well as analysts and researchers, though that the situation would have improved within a relatively short period of time.
Since then, many things have changed. The global financial collapse depressed the Western Balkans’ economies and the quality of democracy in the region has slowly worsened. In Serbia, President Aleksandar Vucic and his Progressive Party (SNS) have built an authoritarian democracy, according to several analysts, through an increasingly suffocating control on justice, security agencies and media. In North Macedonia, the former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski ruled the country through a combination of nationalism and nepotism for ten years (2006-2016). After he was forced by popular demonstrations and vote to leave the post, he was charged for corruption and fled the country to avoid a trial. He was granted political asylum in Viktor Orban’s Hungary. Where more, where less, democratic backsliding, populism comeback, widespread corruption and limitations of media freedom have been noticed also in Albania. Bosnia Herzegovina, Kosovo and Montenegro.
In the past these trends brought effectively the region to a large-scale crisis. Luckily, today such scenario is rather unlikely because the Western Balkans are tied to the Euro-Atlantic area. Albania and Montenegro are NATO members, while North Macedonia should join the club in the coming months. In Kosovo, NATO is still the main security provider. Montenegro and Serbia opened EU accession talks in 2012 and 2013 respectively. Albania and North Macedonia could follow them soon, if Emmanuel Macron will drop its veto. As for Bosnia Herzegovina, the country applied for EU membership in 2016.
However, the Euro-Atlantic “safety net” could be no longer effective to keep the Western Balkans on the right track. The governance crisis in the EU, the enlargement fatigue (fatigue or carelessness?), a slow recovery from the global financial crisis and the emerging confrontation between liberal democracies and non-liberal democracies, weakened it. And the more this safety net is weak, the more the Western Balkans leaderships feel authorized to ignore Euro-Atlantic values.
Today the “big game” between democracy and populism is played in the Western Balkans too. Governments are failing in delivering democratic progress, but civil society is committed to denounce abuses of power, corruption and nationalism. This shows that in the Western Balkans there is still a demand for democracy, transparency and values, issues that both the EU and NATO consider as crucial in their agenda for the region. Yet, to make values a real change driver, as well as the marker between full democracy and limited democracy, the Euro-Atlantic club must find again its unity that can also help it to preserve the status of the main stability provider in the region, challenged by Russia, China and some allied countries.