BiEPAG Think Tank: Democracy in Balkans in Decline

A recently published report of the The Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group, a joint initiative of the European Fund for the Balkans and the Centre for Southeast European Studies of the University of Graz, Austria, under the title The Crisis of Democracy in the Western Balkans: Authoritarianism and EU Stabilitocracy sketches a somber outlook for democracy in the Western Balkans, linking the decrease in democratic values to the EU’s emphasis on stability while at the same time pulling back from the region.

Decline in Democracy in  Western Balkans according to NIT (Nations in Transit, Freedom House); DI (Democracy Index, Economist Intelligence Unit); BTI (Bertelsmann Transformation Index).
Decline in Democracy in Western Balkans according to NIT (Nations in Transit, Freedom House); DI (Democracy Index, Economist Intelligence Unit); BTI (Bertelsmann Transformation Index). Source: BiETAG

The report notes that this decline happened in spite of closer relations with the EU:

[T]he countries of the Western Balkans have lost more than a decade in terms of democratisation. This wasted time is even more dramatic considering the ever-closer ties of nearly all countries of the region with the EU during that period. […] The process of EU approximation has become unrelated to progress in democratisation. (5–6)

Part of the reason of this disconnect between democratization and progressive EU integration is that “[t]he EU preferred a leader-oriented approach for its engagement in the region.”

This “leader-oriented approach” is currently, also in Albania, showing its anti-democratic results regional leaders that increasingly behave as autocrats. The BiETAG condenms this approach as “inertia” and “laziness” of the EU:

The result has been the rise of a regional “stabilitocracy”, weak democracies with autocratically minded leaders, who govern through informal, patronage networks and claim to provide pro-Western stability in the region. As this study details, the status of democracy is weak, and declining. The safeguards, such as independent media and strong institutions, are failing, and clientelism binds many citizens to ruling elites through cooptation and coercion.

The EU and many of its members have been tolerating this dynamic, some out of persuasion, some out of inertia and some out of laziness.

The report concludes that “the belief that the EU integration process will gradually improve the state of democracy and make the countries stable, future member states has to be put to rest.”

Rather than continuing with “leader-oriented approach,” which the authors claim is “unsustainable” in the long term, the EU needs a “more critical and decisive engagement,” especially because the majority of the population in the Western Balkans is still pro-EU and strong support for democratic government, rather than autocratic leaders, will resonate strongly.

In line with this argument, the report proposes a number of policy recommendations, among others:

Name and shame

Noting shortfalls reminds citizens of the core reason for joining the EU: a stable and prosperous democracy based on the rule of law. Therefore, democracy backsliding must be regularly addressed in the annual reports, as well as by the EU Delegations in the region.

Make accession negotiations more transparent

Presently, the EU accession negotiations are conducted between the EU and the governments of the region, neglecting the role of other actors. […]  Parliaments of the countries in the region do not have full access to such documents either. Hence the negotiations process remains non-transparent and undemocratic. Due to the vaguely defined goals in the Action Plans within the framework of the negotiating chapters, governments are at liberty to manipulate perceptions of achieved results in communication with other stakeholders and the general public.

Gather expert opinion on a regular basis

Collaboration with credible civil society organizations from the region should be further institutionalised via regular channels of communication, for example through commissioning regular ‘shadow’ reports on the state of democracy.

Democracy is not negotiable

Past (progress) reports […] have undermined the credibility of the EU in pushing for democratisation by failing to mention apparent authoritarian practices. The state of democracy should not be short-changed for other reasons (such as cooperative behaviour in handling the migrant crisis).

Empower democratic forces in the region

Western Balkan governments are at liberty to influence both reforms and EU integration through a set of clientelistic networks and/or methods of more or less open pressure. It is essential to transform these networks so as to increase the influence of civil society on policy making (i.e. NGOs, civil society organizations, independent investigative journalists, etc.). In addition, efforts should be made to support constructive grassroots initiatives and independent media in the region.