The Return of Geopolitics in the Balkans

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Just over 100 years ago, in 1908 the latest of many crisis of the great power system that shaped Europe for a century leading up to 1914 featured the Balkans. In Britain the magazine Punch depicted the Balkans as a poisonous snake, encircled by the great powers embodies as preying eagles.

Today, the Great Game seems to have returned with force to the Balkans. Stories coming from the Balkans seem to be given the return of geopolitics credence: from an allegedly Russian-supported coup attempts in Montenegro in October 2016, to Russian media supporting mobs entering the Macedonian parliament to beat up opposition politicians, Western commentators proposing to re-draw Balkan borders and Serbian tabloids evoking the threat of war on a daily basis.

After a decade of little attention in the international media, the Balkans are back. Together with references to the larger geopolitical struggle are metaphors of the region as a powder keg and how World War One began in Sarajevo. Besides the stereotypes these views perpetuate, they miss the point. The main challenge to stability in Balkans is a serious decline in democracy over recent years. Autocrats, who are only marginally constraint by formal democratic rules, increasingly dominate the region, from small Montenegro, governed by the same party for over a quarter century, to Serbia and Macedonia. The autocrats win elections, like Aleksandar Vučić in Serbian presidential elections with 55 percent of the vote, yet they dominate the media through dubious ownership structures, state pressure and informal censorship. The state apparatus is dominated by ruling parties and party membership is the best guarantee for finding a job.

The regions autocrats thrive on crisis “management”. By creating and channeling crises, they engage in a classic bait-and-switch strategy. They won elections initially offering reforms and EU accession. By producing crises, they are able distract from more pressing and difficult economic and political reforms. Take the Serbian train, bearing the message “Kosovo is Serbia” in multiple languages sent to northern Kosovo in January without consent of the Kosovo government. Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić stopped the train shortly before the border after the Kosovo police threatened to intervene. The crisis helped to shore up nationalist sentiment, distract from economic and other policies and towards the EU, he sought to present himself as pragmatic, avoiding direct confrontation.

The EU has been accepting democratic backsliding as a willing suspension of disbelief. The governments continued talking the EU talk and remain formally committed to joining the EU, despite the crisis of the Union itself. Voters in the Balkans still want to join the EU as a way to escape the periphery, economic and political, the region is stuck in. In addition, the governments have been useful enforcers for the EU and its members. In exchange for closing the border with Greece to refugees, the nationalist and conservative ruling Macedonian party received outside support, despite serious allegations of abuse of office and subverting democratic institution. While the EU Commission called the country a victim of state capture, the Austrian foreign minister Sebastian Kurz joined an election rally of the party mostly responsible in December 2016.

The result has been regimes that stay in power by bending democratic rules and receiving Western support for the supposed stability they embody, a type of Balkan stabilitocracy.

The decline of democracy of course offers little stability. Strong men in the Balkans, and they are all men, rule through crises and seek to play off external powers one of against the other. While Russia has been engaging in the Balkans in recent years, it did because it has been easy. The US and the EU have been disengaging and local rulers have taken the advantage. There is no indication that ethnic tensions are increasing in the region, but rather autocrats deliberately seek to stir up tensions. When a violent mob stormed the Macedonian parliament on 28 April, its defenders justified it as a legitimate protest over the opposition coalition electing Talat Xhaferi, an Albanian who had been involved in the 2001 insurgency, as speaker of parliament. The mob was clearly directed and organized by the ruling party and framed its violence in ethnic terms. This is a product of the media under control of the ruling party describing the opposition as traitors and selling out to the Albanian minority. This is merely shifting attention from the crisis of democracy to interethnic tensions. An earlier manufactured crisis, a shoot out in the town of Kumanovo in May 2015, involving an Albanian armed group, at the first peak of anti-government protests, did not trigger a wider interethnic tensions and most citizens have not taken the bait. The consequence is thus not to redraw the boundaries of the region or to accept the logic that supporting local autocrats helps defend against pernicious external actors. Instead, it is weak institutions and strong rulers have become the key problem in the region, one that can be addressed by shedding support for stabilitocracy.

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