You recently conducted research on a phenomenon commonly referred to as the ‘pandemic’ of illiberal democracies within the Balkans, using Serbia as a case study. What are the present risks for democracy in the region? Can certain leaders, such as Vucic, Orban, or Dodik, be accurately characterized as illiberal? How substantial are the existing challenges? Furthermore, why does the EU refrain from criticizing leaders in the region, particularly with regard to figures like Vucic?
There has been quite a serious decline of democracy in South-Eastern Europe. I see it as a part of a larger global wave of ‘autocratization’ that intensified after the 2009 recession. Hungary and Serbia are among the countries with the greatest decline of democracy globally; Poland and Turkey are also in this group. In our wider region, these countries turned into a new type of regime, which we call hybrid, as they have some characteristics of autocracies but still maintain formal democratic institutions. This type of regime evolves because democracy is still a prevailing global norm. Being a member of the EU or closely linked to it means there are limits to how far they can ‘autocratize’. However, the boundaries are being slowly moved. Once they win power in elections, these leaders slowly weaken the checks and balances on the executive branch of the government and the protection of individual and minority rights. This dismantling of liberal democracy increases their power; it makes them able to do things that were unthinkable a couple of years ago, and it is a terrifying image of the potential harm they are capable of doing. However, no unfair election is 100% safe in hybrid regimes.
I think there are always reasons for hope, and in the last couple of years, there were upset victories of democratic forces in North Macedonia and Montenegro or Budapest and Istanbul. It has to be said that the role of the EU has been ambiguous in this process. Under the EPP, it was an enabler of ‘autocratization’, at best. The EU chose to keep these authoritarian leaders close, maintain regional stability and hope the problems will eventually go away. Their position towards the rise of Orban or Vucic reminded me of the position towards the right-wing autocracies during the Cold War: “He may be a dictator, but at least he is our dictator.” For almost a decade, the worst these leaders could fear was being slapped on the cheek and greeted with “Hello, dictator,” which is what literally happened between Juncker and Orban in 2015. However, things have changed in the last couple of years, and I hope the next Commission will rethink the whole approach.
In Serbia, a significant movement opposing President Vucic emerged once again in May, yet as time progressed, the number of protesters dwindled, and no apparent alternative political course emerged from these protests. How do you interpret the current state of affairs within the country?
The last year was full of challenges for the ruling party and President Vucic. The invasion of Ukraine made Vucic’s balancing between East and West almost untenable. It also put the tensions in Kosovo and Bosnia under the spotlight, as the West tried to minimize the potential for troubles in the region while its focus was on Ukraine, which peaked with the ill-fated Ohrid agreement. The energy crisis and the inflation, which partially spilled over from the EU, made this mix of external challenges especially hard. Internally, after the 2019-2022 boycott, Vucic has to deal with very vocal opposition in the National Assembly. Like any other authoritarian, he despises pluralism, so for the last year, Vucic has repeatedly announced new elections in which he would “wipe out” the opposition, making the political life turn into a constant personalized political campaign. In early May, the two mass shootings in Serbia and how authorities handled them tipped into accumulated frustration and anxiety.
The mass gatherings that began in Belgrade and then spread to other cities were unprecedented. We have never seen such large protests recurring weekly, and they may be comparable to the judiciary protests in Israel this year. However, the political articulation of this evident dissatisfaction is lacking, which is not surprising. There have been many mass protests in Serbia in the last decade, but the relations between the protesters and political parties are very complex. Part of the problem is the government’s grip on the media and the smear tactics they use to silence the critics, first and foremost targeting political opposition and then everybody else – from academia to civil society and media. The citizens who oppose the government must also overcome the mistrust in the opposition, which the government-friendly media propagates. Another important reason why the political articulation of the May protests was challenging is the nature of the events. The mass shooting of children by a child was such a shocking and sensitive occasion that it made the discussion about the causes and political aspects of violence in society very charged and susceptible to emotional manipulation. For example, the parliamentary inquiry committee, established at the opposition’s request, was suspended by the majority after the lawyers hired by some of the parents of the killed children asked for that. In these circumstances, the political development of the protests was challenging, but it does not mean this issue will not resurface in autumn.
Considering the ongoing inflation and energy crisis, do you anticipate the potential re-emergence of protests in Serbia, as well as other countries in the region, during the autumn?
The salience of economic issues for protest mobilization is relatively low. The inflation and the energy crisis are indeed making people’s lives harder. The annual inflation rate in Serbia in 2022 was high, 12%; more than 9%, the highest level ever measured in the EU. Serbia is also threading on the verge of energy collapse. In a way, the collapse already happened in December 2021, when a major thermal power plant block broke down due to the poor quality of coal and years of underinvestment and mismanagement. Any short-term fixing of such problems still does not take care of long-term systematic ones, and actually, it is beginning to look like the government’s way to deal with the electricity sector will be to raise prices incrementally. Price hikes will add to the high inflation, making one problem feed another. But this is where the propaganda machine comes in. Vucic is a master of fearmongering. He often invokes catastrophic scenarios in which even bare existence is questioned and then presents himself as the saviour. This triggers genuine associations in a society that went through one of history’s harshest sanctions and hyperinflations. Many respond to such messages by saying, “Well, at least we still got electricity/food/heating.” So, it is tough to mobilize citizens on the economic issues. Instead, if we look at the recent mass mobilizations, the common thread is solidarity in protecting human life and dignity. Before the 2023 protests because of the mass shooting, the largest protests in 2018-2019 were triggered by the physical assault on an opposition politician. Even the 2021 environmental protests got momentum after hired thugs attacked the protesters. Things might be slightly different in other countries of the region. Mass protest mobilization can happen for various reasons. Still, I think things that move people, emotions, primarily anger, are often activated by a sense of injustice or threats to fundamental rights.
The region’s instability is intricately linked to the unresolved matter of Kosovo. Do you believe that Vucic and Kurti will be successful in establishing a lasting normalization agreement? Additionally, how detrimental is it to the democracies in Serbia and Kosovo that the general public in both Belgrade and Pristina remains largely excluded from these essential discussions about the status of Kosovo?
Kosovo is the central issue that affects or blocks many other regional political processes. As I already mentioned, the process got new impetus after the invasion of Ukraine, driven by the perceived risk that the instability in the region could get out of control. In many ways, maintaining the status quo was perceived as a less harmful option than rocking the boat. Looking back, the dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia changed the form and the dynamics several times, and we could see social, economic, or political focus, as well as the EU and the US switching as the drivers of the process. What we never saw during all of this time is the opening of the process and making it more inclusive. Of course, inclusivity may be used as just another buzzword, but without it, I do not think we can have any success in the normalization between people. The attitudes towards the other side are not softening, and my impression is that they may be hardening and that newer generations have more entrenched views about the conflict. This also limits the manoeuvring space for the politicians, who always have one eye on the next election date, to make a compromise. This was a cardinal mistake. The last decades look like a series of missed opportunities to involve the broader circle of political and social actors. So, as years pass, I see the probability of ending up with anything other than a frozen conflict steadily decreasing.
The EU enlargement process has come to a complete standstill. Do you believe that the proposals circulating in Germany about granting the Western Balkans access to the EU common market before full membership could offer a viable solution for the region? And what are the potential risks associated with prolonged exclusion of the Balkans from the European bloc?
Yes, the EU enlargement is stuck and needs to be revived. The EU is not seriously considering the Western Balkans enlargement, and the candidate countries are not doing enough to become members. What needs to happen is a sharp change of perspective, I think. We maintained a very linear idea of democracy and development, which predicts that the EU would set a certain threshold, the candidates would move towards that end, attracted by the membership as the reward, the EU would monitor this approximation and grant the membership after all conditions are fulfilled. However, we have seen that countries have been experiencing ups and downs, and after a while, membership stopped being a realistic political goal. For a candidate country’s political leadership, this creates incentives to manoeuvre and pursue other pathways strategically.
The distance from the EU membership becomes an important factor explaining why Western Balkans countries seek proximity to the external powers – Russia, China, and Turkey. So, what needs to happen from the side of the EU is for the membership to become a predictable, realistic goal. The EU needs to set a date for the future Western Balkans enlargement and, in this way, incentivize political actors in the candidate countries to make a new push towards that goal.
I do not think access to the common market would have such an effect. An equally important political and symbolic aspect of membership is attached to EU citizenship, having an EU flag on the Western Balkans national passports, or voting in the EU elections. Instead, ironically, not even the Conference on the Future of Europe engaged citizens from the candidate countries. I think for such a scenario to develop, there are some preconditions. Among them, the EU has to develop effective mechanisms for dealing with autocratization and corruption in the member states, it needs to adopt qualified majority voting in dealing with a broader set of issues related to the enlargement, and it needs to set the whole Western Balkans, no exceptions, back on the membership path. I think only a similar sequence of events could be genuinely transformative for the region; it is not likely, but I remain an optimist.