The coronavirus pandemic represents a serious economic challenge for the Western Balkan, whose economies are already very fragile. The International Monetary Fund estimates that economies in the region will likely decrease by between 3% and 5% as a result of the crisis ignited by the virus.
The recessive economic trend can have a very serious social impact. According to a recent World Bank study, failing effective government measures, more than 400.000 people in the region could fall into poverty. Furthermore, the share of the middle and upper classes would shrink substantially, between 2% and 10% depending on the country and the length of the crisis.
Young talented people leave
The demographic crisis in the Western Balkans can just worsen, in such scenario. Slowly but steadily, many people have left the Western Balkans in the last years, or plan to leave it in the future. Emigration is particularly strong among young talented people. They look for better opportunities in Western Europe or, to a lesser extent, in North America. Germany is the most desirable country of destination, as the proliferation of German language classes throughout the region indicates.
The demographic crisis weakens at the same time the regional social-economic sustainability and worsens the democratic prospects. If young educated people – the future ruling class, in other words – leave, it will be harder to find a counterbalance to growing authoritarian trends in the last years. Hybrid regimes can live longer and this is one of the most worrying consequences of the pandemic..
A too long transition
The economic crisis caused by the coronavirus is a new stage of the long, unaccomplished transition in the Western Balkans. Almost thirty years have passed since the violent dissolution of Yugoslavia, but most of its former republics are not members of the European Union yet. Just Croatia and Slovenia joined the club. Lack of jobs, innovation and infrastructures plague the region. The financial shock in 2006-2009 already exasperated the sense of being in a limbo, increasing existing frustrations.
The reasons for the 30-year crisis in the Western Balkans are both endogenous and exogenous. On the one hand, the ruling classes have failed in promoting radical reforms aimed at eradicating corruption, introducing effective free-market rules and strengthening the rule of law. On the other hand, the European Union has not delivered enough results in terms of political integration. Since the financial turmoil in 2006-2009, the EU has faced unprecedented threats in terms of economic cohesion and political governance. Thus the enlargement process was low on EU’s list. The pandemic puts further pressures on the EU, but iy cannot be a new excuse to keep the enlargement out of the core focus. The EU still is by far the first commercial partner and investor in the Western Balkans, yet this is not a reassuring and stabilising factor anymore.
The message that Brussels has sent to the Western Balkans in recent years has been too ambivalent. Time has come to act with renewed determination to integrate the Western Balkans. The new enlargement methodology launched by Brussels seems to go in this direction, although the effectiveness of the process will ultimately depend on the political will of both the EU and Western Balkans countries more than on technical provisions, of course.
Journalist and analyst, he covers the Balkans for a wide range of media networks. He worked as electoral observer for the OSCE/ODIHR in Albania, Macedonia, Russia, Georgia and Ukraine.