What the elections mean for Serbian democracy

I am re-blogging my analysis of the Serbian elections written for the new Balkans in Europe Policy Blog.

When Aleksandar Vučić gave his victory speech on Sunday, after the resounding victory of his Progressive Party, his seriousness seemed in no proportion to his success. For the first time, since the second multi-party elections in 1992, can a single party govern the country alone. With 48.34% of the vote and 156 (of 250) seats in parliament, the party does not require a coalition partner, unless it wants a majority to the change the constitution.  There are dangers in this victory, both for the victor and for the Serbian democracy. First, Vučić and his party might have won a Pyrrhic victory. The elections were triggered by Vučić to diminish the rule of the prime minister Dačić and his socialist party. While he achieved this (although the SPS remains as strong as before in terms of votes), he cannot blame bad decisions on a coalition partner if he is to govern alone. It is thus unsurprising that despite the large majority, SNS seems to want to include some other parties in government. However, even if this were to be the case, the SNS will have a hard time bringing about early elections, as it did this time around. This technique, a favorite among incumbents in the region, (esp. in Macedonia and Montenegro) of getting re-elected when opinion polls are favorable, will not be easily available to the new government. Finally, the weaknesses of the party will become even more apparent. It failed to run a visible candidate for the mayor of Belgrade, as it lacked convincing and popular politicians, besides Vučić. If the party is to govern effectively, it will quickly need to increase its capacity, since cloning Vučić, as some satirical photomontages suggest, is not an option.

The risks for the Serbian democracy are equally apparent. A large majority, in a political system that is used to coalitions, bears its risks in the best of circumstances. However, Serbia lacks checks and balances to hold their governments under control. To some degree, coalition governments have been (flawed) alternatives to checks and balances. With few independent institutions, many loyal media outlets and two of the three opposition parties more eager to work with the Progressives than to criticize them, there is a risk that there will be too few critical voices in these institutions. The focus of outsiders on the Serbian government delivering on Kosovo has also muted external scrutiny of un-democratic practices. Not least, the elections themselves are a reflection of a problematic understanding of democratic processes. As a result, the elections do raise serious questions about the future of democracy in Serbia. It seems unlikely that the new government will become authoritarian, or step back into Miloševićs shoes, but Serbia might move away from democratic consolidation and towards a hybrid system that we can observe in other countries of the region.

In addition to this development, the elections have also highlighted the decline of the right and a general decrease of ideological differentiation in the party landscape.

The decline of the extreme right

A key feature is the continued decline of the extreme right and conservative parties in Serbia. For the first time since 2000, Vojislav Koštunica’s Democratic Party of Serbia is no longer represented in parliament. After being mocked as a “kombi party” for its ability to fit all members into a van in the 1990s, it is back at its beginnings. The opposition to EU integration and focus on Kosovo has not paid off.  Similarly, other parties, on the nationalist end of the spectrum, fared badly. The Serbian Radical Party continued its decline from 4.62% to 2% and Dveri, a more recent extreme right wing group, dropped from 4.34% to  3.57%. In addition, even smaller right-wing groups split less than one percent. This overall decline of the extreme and conservative right is an important, and easily overlooked, development in Serbian elections. It can be attributed to three factors: First, the populism of the Progressive Party itself, constituted by former radicals, has been able to absorb some of the vote. Second, the fragmentation of these parties—various talks of pre-election coalitions among Radicals, DSS, and Dveri failed—discouraged voters to choose any of them. Thirdly, the trend is part of a regional development. In Croatia, but also in Romania, the extreme right has declined in the context of EU accession. As the EU effectively rejects such parties, they become less attractive as most citizens are (skeptic) supporters of EU accession. Kosovo, and other national issues, also no longer figure into the agenda that voters care about.

Lack of Alternatives

The elections were fought among parties that all formally share the same goals and have no discernable ideological differences. All parliamentary parties want to join the EU, talk of “reforms” and oppose corruption. As a consequence, there is no reason that the incumbent would not win, when there is no alternative that is different. Besides the ideological similarities, most parties also demonstrated a willingness to form pre-election coalitions with parties whom they have few commonalities, and display, even for Serbian standards, a surprising lack of respect for democratic principles. When Boris Tadić made his comeback, after breaking with Djilas and the Democratic Party, he did not form his own party, but the Greens of Serbia were taken over by him (or offered). They changed their name to add «New Democratic Party» and voila, a green party became the election vehicle for Tadić.  The Liberal-democrats of Čedomir Jovanović used to offer a more radical reform program than the Democratic Party. However, its unprincipled coalition with a conservative Bosniak party, close to the mufti of Sandžak Zukorlić, and its continuous flirting with the Progressives discredited this claim. In effect, the only two programmatically consistent electoral lists where those of the Democratic Party of Serbia, which failed to enter parliament ,and the list of the former Minister of the Economy, Saša Radulović, „Dosta je bilo“ (Enough of this), which radically criticised the influence of political parties and the economic policies of Serbian governments in the past decade. While the consistency of the DSS is likely to lead them further into political oblivion, the list of Radulović might become more significant in Serbia. Having led a shoe-string campaign, barely managing the register of the list two weeks before the elections and facing strong attacks in the media, the 2.08 % the list achieved is no small feat.


Another way of rejecting the ideological and ethical homogenisation of Serbian party politics was a repeat of the „invalid vote“ campaign of 2012. Several activists called on citizens to go and vote, and then to reject any candidate by invalidating the ballot (see here from some examples). Altogether, some 3.17% of citizens did exactly that. While not all may have invalidated their ballot for the same reason, the high number suggests that most, probably, deliberately invalidated their ballot in protest. These numbers are lower than in 2012, when they were 4.39%, but remain remarkable. Finally, the easiest and most common manner of rejecting the current political offerings has been to simply not vote. Turnout was only 53.12%, or four percent less than 2 years ago, and the lowest for Serbian elections since the introduction of the multiparty system in 1990.

Thus, the Progressives have been able to capture the largest share of the electorate of any party since 1992, but their success is not built on energizing the electorate or changing the perception of politics, but rather as a result of citizens either resigning to the inevitable, or the irrelevant. The broader dissatisfaction with party politics will not be remedied by SNS, and thus some broader opposition, reflected in social movements or new parties, remains a distinct possibility, even as the pluralist political space might be decreasing.

The Authoritarian Temptation


Here is the English version of a comment I wrote for the Neue Zürcher Zeitung called “The Authorititarian Temptation in the Balkans”. It draws on an article (co-authored with Irena Ristić) and a book chapter published in 2012.

The Serbian elections 16th March end a year of political speculation. These are already the seventh early parliamentary elections since 1990, they are unnecessary as there was no government crisis ahead of them being called. The coalition government consisting of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS ) of Aleksandar Vučić and the Socialist Party (SPS ) of Ivica Dačić was stable and had a solid majority . However, SNS wanted elections to translate their popularity into a large parliamentary majority. In 2012 SPS could still bargain hard to obtain the post of prime minister. Today, this is hardly imaginable. Although the SNS is unlikely to be able to govern on its own after the election, it can determine the shape of the government.  The early elections are an example of the authoritarian temptation of governing parties in the Balkans, weaken the rule of law to secure their own dominance.

The “semi- democracies” of Southeast Europe

Regular studies of the Bertelsmann Foundation and by Freedom House show, that a particular type of democracy has taken hold in South Eastern Europe: elections are democratic, the political landscape is diverse, but populist and corrupt governments hinder the consolidation of democratic structures. Most post-communist countries in Central Europe developed into consolidated democracies. In the  South Eastern Europe, however, was intermediate form dominants, the democratic formalities be observed, but at the same time, populist parties control the state through patronage structures. This is particularly evident through the dominance of political parties over the media, the state and the weak rule of law.  The election campaign had not yet begun in Serbia, as the Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Vučić saved a child stuck with its family in a snowstorm on the highway from Belgrade to Budapest. Conveniently,  the state television on hand to film it. While this ‘performance’ was quickly mocked in social networks, the message got through : Vučić rescues children, while others go campaigning.

Not only in Serbia have governing parties used their dominance to engage in a continuous election campaign.  Even when elections are not upcoming [this was written before early elections were called in Macedonia], the ruling party of Macedonia, VMRO-DPMNE constantly advertise their successes on billboards and in advertisements. Due to this non-stop campaign by governments, it is difficult for the opposition to formulate alternatives. In early elections governing parties already have a decisive edge.  A second aspect of the authoritarian temptation is reflected through control of the media. Only a few critical media of the nineties have survived the past decade. The economic crisis and the state as the most important advertiser to have resulted in a media landscape in the region in which critical voices hardly find a place. This is particularly pronounced in Montenegro, Macedonia and Bosnia. In Macedonia all important critical media, such as the private channel A1 have been forced to close done and only few journalists dare to openly criticize the government. In Montenegro, there is often to attacks by “unknown” perpetrators against independent media. In Bosnia is the businessman and media tycoon Radoncic to became security minister [he was dismissed the day the article was published], despite persistent rumors of his contacts to the underworld. In the Republika Srpska the media is local President Dodik, criticism is only aimed at against the opposition, “Sarajevo” and foreign powers. In Serbia, only few media nowadays dare to openly criticize Vucic.
Media loyal to the government, however, weaken the opposition. Allegations of corruption, often without evidence, are part of the strategy here. The tabloids in Serbia regularly accuse members of the DS government that was in power until 2012 of corruption. Even if these allegations are certainly partly justified, they are used to discredit political opponents.  In addition to accusations of corruption, government media also regularly challenging the loyalty of the opposition and suggest that it is committing treason of the state or nation, particular in Macedonia or the Republika Srpska.
A final aspect is the dominance of political parties over the state. Careers in the public administration and in government-controlled companies are usually only possible with party membership. Thus,
parties acts as employment agencies and can thus secure the loyalty of its voters. This reduces the potential for protest as public criticism may result in loss of employment.

Political, not cultural causes
the danger of populism with authoritarian tendencies is not limited to the Western Balkans. EU member states such as Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria show that with EU accession the danger is not over. The temptation is great to attribute this development to “Balkan political culture,” but it has more to do with weak states and social and economic crisis that predates the global economic crisis. Often the EU overlooks the authoritarian temptation too readily, as long as the governments
cooperate. Thus, the willingness of the Serbian government to compromise in dialogue with Kosovo helped to distract from domestic political populism. However, if the rule of law cannot take hold, this will either lead to social protests, as recently in Bosnia and Herzegovina, or to illiberal governments, which seek to preserve their power with populist means, as in Macedonia and, probably soon, Serbia.

The Merits and Pitfalls of Comparison: Ukraine, Crimea and the Yugoslav references

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source: pic.twitter.com/6aETLmP0fA

International crisis, like the one in Ukraine and Crimea always lead to a scramble for expertise and historical precedent. Actors themselves might model their actions on earlier experience (Putin copying his intervention in Georgia 2008) or refer to what they consider relevant precedents (such as the decision of the Crimean parliament in its declaration of independence to explicitly refer to the Kosovo declaration of independence). Analysts and scholars might refer to previous conflicts to illustrate particular risks or recommend certain lessons (see here or for an insightful and positive example, see the interview with Josip Glaurdić). It is easy to dismiss historical analogies, the context differs, the country and the actors are others, and the comparison might only be useful to serve a particular stand point (reminiscent of the US debates over intervention in Bosnia where the conflict was either viewed as a repetition of Vietnam–hopeless and fare away with no good sides–or the Holocaust–with one side guilty of genocidal crimes and all others victims). Yet comparisons are useful and should have a place in the analysis of crises such as the one in Ukraine. However, for comparisons to be useful, they need to move away from a simplistic ‘this is just like that’.

Comparisons are not just about identifying what is similar, but also what is different. This might sound banal for a social scientist, but much of the comparisons in media are driven by findings similarities rather than both difference and similarities and are also often dismissed on these grounds. Instead, comparisons are done by all observers intuitively, based on personal experience or knowledge of certain conflicts or events and thus, it is better to make these visible and explicit. Furthermore, comparisons help us avoid the fetish of the unique–country A or conflict B is so special and particular, it cannot be compared with anything else. Such an approach is neither helpful, nor correctly reflects any particular place or conflict.

So where can a comparison with the conflicts over the dissolution of Yugoslavia offer some insights?

On Facebook and Twitter a photo of the five or so Serbian Četniks in Crimea circulated with word bubbles (see above) suggesting that they confused Ukraine (Ukrajina) with the Krajina region in Croatia (both names deriving from the word for border. Indeed, the conflict in the Krajina region might be the most telling episode of the Yugoslav wars in this context. The log revolution in 1990 was the preparation for the war to come in the following year. The Serb Democratic Party took power in several municipalities in the Dalmatian hinterland, the Lika and Kordun region, as well as in Slavonia and declared so-called Serb Autonomous Regions (SAOs) that claimed autonomy from Croatia. The clumsy nationalist policies of the Tudjman regime, such as reducing the status of Serbs in the new Croat constitution provided ample munition to these nationalist entrepreneurs. As Mark Thompson in his book on the media wars documents, Serbian TV was re-broadcast in these regions (and in neighboring Bosnia), which spewed out a constant diet of half-truths, lies and propaganda. A referendum with a suspiciously high turnout then ratified the autonomy and later independence from Croatia and provided the justification for the intervention by the Yugoslav People’s Army.

There are a number of striking parallels with the current efforts of Russia to take control of Crimea—here are key differences: In 1990/1 it was not clear that border changes within Yugoslavia or once republics left the federation would not be possible. It was only later that the principle of uti possidetis was transferred from decolonization to the post-communist context. Thus, while insurgent Serbs in 1990/1 could have a realistic hope of achieving recognition for their project, this seems unlikely today. However, the durability of frozen conflicts with territories with long-term uncertain international status in the post-Soviet space (unlike the post-Yugoslav space) suggest that Crimea can exist in international limbo like Transnistria, South Ossetia or Abkhazia.

A parallel is the role of Putin’s Russia to that of Serbia under Milosevic: (Semi-)Authoritarian regimes use the conflict to bolster domestic legitimacy and are able to unify (at least briefly and publicly) the population behind a nationalist project. The claim that local authorities act autonomously were proven wrong in the Croat case through the ICTY and scholarship, and the limited information available in Crimea similarly suggests that the initiative comes from Moscow, not Crimea itself—which of course can feed of local grievances.

Finally, the weak response and lack of a clear strategy encourages such strategies to change the status quo by force. The weak response of the EU throughout the protests and in the aftermath the overthrow of Yanukovich only emboldened Putin, just like the weak EC and US response in the early 1990s encouraged the policies of Milošević.

What conclusions can we draw from these, arguably sketchy points of comparison? First, it is crucial for international actors to be engaged in crucial moments of revolution. Had there been stronger international engagement, it might have been possible to discourage the Ukrainian parliament from revoking the language law (the decision was vetoed by the president) that gave official status to Russian—irrespective of the substantive discussion one can have on it—the change of the law created real anxieties and also was a useful pretext. Second, the conflict will not go away by itself. There was nearly a year-long lull between the “log revolution” in 1990 and the full scale war in 1991. Similarly, the referendum in Crimea might lead to some new status quo that appears stabile, yet provides for a significant risk of escalation and also as a pivot for nationalist mobilization in both Russia and Ukraine. Third, in moments of confrontation it is easy to overlook the pluralism with countries, but it is important not think in absolutes: While Russia might appear to be a more unitary actor than the Ukraine, it would be wrong to take this as given or permanent (as it would suit Putin). In the Ukraine the success of protests can easily be jeopardized by the Crimea crisis. Nothing is as poisonous for democratization as a festering territorial dispute. Here the EU and the US would be well advised to act strongly and forcefully to help the new government move towards democracy and rule of law rather than dithering and then lamenting the failure of the new government. One concrete step for the EU would be to commit itself to the EU perspective for the Ukraine. This might seem ridiculously remote and undesirable for the EU now, but this is in fact already the case. A democratic Ukraine that fulfills the membership criteria can join, its location on the European continent is no doubt. Stating this clearly that, if it so desired, it can become a member, can provide for a strong incentive for change within and would be an appropriate acknowledgement of the risks the protestors took in recent months in Kiev and elsewhere.

Grand coalitions are not so grand anymore

What do recent elections in Austria, Luxembourg and Germany mean for scholars of power-sharing in divided societies? At first glance, seemingly little. Neither is a particularly divided society, and identity politics is not a defining feature of political choices. Yet, there is a significance in the results: When Arend Lijphart and other scholars first wrote about consociationalism  in the late 1960s and 1970s, the main examples for countries governed by this form of democracy where in the Benelux, Switzerland and Austria. Lijphart observed that unlike larger countries that had alternating large parties in power, these countries had fairly stable grand coalitions governing the country, usually including socialists and christian democrats. His writings challenged the idea that consolidated stable democracies have majoritarian systems with one large parties (alone or in coalition with smaller parties) governing. Not only are these consociational systems equally viable democracies, but the scholarship on these systems argued that they provided for democracy in societies that had deep cleavages. These were less based on ethnicity or language, but on political families and elections usually did not shift power-relations profoundly.

Now times have changed since these observations. While in Belgium, grand coalitions still remain strong (but increasingly difficult, see the more than one year long coalition talks following the 2010 elections) due to the linguistic divide.The Netherlands, Lijphart’s first case study, grand coalitions have fallen out of favor by the 1990s. Austria has been governing for half of the 68 years since 1945 by grand coalitions (1945-1966, 1987-2000 and since 2007). Elections in September have led to a drop in support for both ruling parties, Social democrats and the conservative Austrian People’s Party, but both still hold a slight majority and are likely to govern together. Luxembourg had a similar experience as Austria, governed by a grand coalition for most of the post-war period (1945-1969, 1984-1999 and since 2004). Yet after elections in October, the so-called “Gambia coalition” between Socialists, Greens and Liberals seems most likely.  Grand coalitions are on the retreat in classic consociational countries. This has happened before, but earlier, this was based on the strength of one of the large parties (social democrats or conservatives), now it is based on their weakness. Furthermore, the underlying structure that propped up these grand coalitions has eroded.

Ironically, a grand coalition is most likely and also according to voters most desired in Germany that saw only few episodes of grand coalitions since 1945 (1966-1969 and 2005-2009). Thus, the elections confirm that the classic divide between larger more majoritarian and smaller consociational democracies no longer seems to be true. Of course, the fact that grand coalitions loose support and consociationalism abolishes itself might be true in some of the original cases scholars looked at, but this does not mean the same will be true in “harder cases” like Lebanon or Bosnia. However, some of the reasons why citizens turn their backs on established consociational arrangements are similar to those why dissatisfaction runs high in others. Blurring the line between countries that are governed by grand coalitions and those that are not highlights that this might be a useful temporary constellation, but in the long run, it creates dissatisfaction with citizens who feel unable to effect change.  Certainly the continuous decline of consociationalism in the original core countries of this form of democracy should give room for reflection on its challenges in divided societies around the world.

Is Change Coming to Bosnia? Reflections on Protests and their Prospects

I want my ID number

When the protests in Turkey began on the 28 May, what struck me was the centrality of the Mediterranean as the focal areas of social movements in the last two years. In addition to the Arab spring (summer and winter), mass protests were held in Spain, Israel and Greece and Italy is experiencing a crisis of confidence in the established party system. While there, the democratic governments either fall or could/had to absorb the grievance of many, the dictatorships in the southern Mediterranean were not able to. While Turkey is closer to the democracies of the northern rim of the Mediterranean, the response of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been more following the authoritarian reflex of its southern neighbors, thereby strengthening the protests.

At first, I was struck who the Balkans had been largely ‘protest-free’ in recent years, unlike neigbouring regions. However, recent protests in Bosnia suggest that the social movements against the status quo are now reaching the region as well. Of course, the protests in Sarajevo and other Bosnian cities had other causes as the protests in Turkey or other countries of the Mediterranean, but also share a number of features: the carries are young, urban, feel excluded from politics and government and see now other way to chance the status quo than by protest. What is striking is that the loss of public spaces and parks has been a key feature in small scale protests in the last years in the Balkans: Protests in Banja Luka in June of last year over a park, in Belgrade the cutting down of trees on Bulevar Revolucije earlier and in Tirana also over the destruction of a park. These protests failed to gather the momentum as in Turkey, largely because local politics and national politics had different dynamics, but they highlighted the concern not just for parks, but also for the symbolic loss of public spaces and more broadly a public good to what seems like narrow commercial (and political) interests. Thus the destruction of a park is a symbolic act that carries more significance than “just” an environmental issue, as Orhan Pamuk expressed in his reflections on the protests.

The current protests in Bosnia are not about a park, but over the lack of a decision. In a county that is more characterised by decisions not taken and with a prime minister (officially chair of the council of ministers) who claims in his government’s defense that “I think we are not the worst of the world, nor are we a country like Zimbabwe or Somalia”, it is decisions not taken that create most grief. After the constitutional court ruled in February that the current law on ID numbers is unconstitutional the government has been unable to propose a solution, resulting in newborns not being able to receive official documents. This has meant that newborns can’t get passports and are thus unable to travel. When the small baby Belmina Ibrišević needed to travel abroad for urgent medical treatment, but could not get the documents, the lack of a decision became a life or death issue and galvanized public opinion and led to protests.

The Bosnian government is notorious for not taking decisions as these are caught between competing interests of the entities and ethnopolitics where the substance of decisions is trumped by the question of who is to be in charge. Next to ID numbers, this is nowhere as obvious as the dispute in Bosnia about veterinary and sanitary inspections. As Bosnian politicians have been unable to agree on who is to implement the inspections, thousands of Bosnian farmers are likely to be unable to export their dairy products to Croatia once it joins the EU next month and more rigid controls come into effect. While here, also the economic survival of many hangs in the balance, it has not mobilized protests as the issue over ID numbers.

The response of political elites to the protests has been ugly. While some tried to ingratiate themselves with them, others dismissed the protests as either being anti-Serb or called on citizens to get off the streets and vote in next years elections. This response led Eric Gordy to comment in his blog that “[t]he national game is up. When it worked it produced a generation of politicians who believed that firing up resentment and fear would give them a permanent hold on power. It’s ringing hollow and their permanent mark is fading. They have become objects of ridicule. They’re over.”

While I wish he was right, I am more skeptical in my view. Heleen Touquet in her PhD on new social movements in Bosnia: “Escaping ethnopolis: postethnic mobilization in Bosnia-Herzegovina” (for the table of contents, see here) looked closely at groups in recent years that sought to mobilization citizens against the status quo. These efforts have largely failed, because they were unable to build a genuine cross-ethnic constituency or a country agenda that would make it difficult for existing elites to dismiss or ignore them. The new protest have this potential. There are, however, two formidable obstacles: First, how to build an agenda for change that all citizens of Bosnia can rally for. Second, how to translate this movement into a political option. While social movements can set the agenda, change has to come from the political system (unless it is overthrown in a revolution). While there are some parties (like Naša stranka) that aspire to pursue different politics than the currently dominant parties, it is at the moment hard to imagine a country-wide political movement that could be successful and transform the way decisions are taken and how the country is governed. The current political set-up encourages parties to run on mono-ethnic platforms and makes it easy of ethnonationalist parties to sow the seeds of doubt in change.

Notes from Ditchley


I returned a few ago from a very interesting conference at Ditchley on the Western Balkans. The discussions with policy makers and analysts did not raise any radical new ideas, but it was good opportunity to take the temperature on thinking about and from the region. It was also a lesson in bad metaphors. Many felt that carrots and sticks are not working, but theories why differed: People in the Balkans prefer meat to carrots or the carrot is actually a stick. Either way, the days of carrots and sticks seems to be over (nobody mentioned that the metaphor implies that the person in question is either a horse or a donkey).

There was broad consensus that overall things were heading in the right direction, but there were a number of warnings: many (but not all) thought that the state of democracy & rule of law and lack of deep rooted reforms in the economy will continue to be a source of difficulties in the years to come. There was a bit of a divide between a number of Western policy makers who felt that the EU and its member states were doing enough to bring the countries of the region into the EU and that it was up to political elites to make an extra effort and a number of analysts who thought the EU should do more and make the membership perspective more realistic. A specific suggestion was for the EU to begin accession talks with all countries of the region as soon as possible rather than wait for each country on their own to fulfill the specific conditions. Once talks begin–the symbolic year of 2014 was mentioned as start date–the negotiation process will force countries to shape up and carry out reforms in a manner that is unrealistic prior to the beginning of talks. It seemed clear that such a scenario is unrealistic at the moment with a many member states skeptical about enlargement and afraid (although unjustifiably so–see Turkey) that accession talks would lead to membership ‘on the sneak’. A problem that has become more pronounced in recent years is the use of individual member states to use the accession process to set additional conditions. This has made the accession process less predictable as the Commission cannot guarantee the next step in the process as individual countries might block whatever comes next for unexpected reasons that have little to do with accession. Of course, this also undermines the credibility of EU accession. The current approach of the Commission to launch dialogues with countries without accession talks has been a good way forward but without beefing up the DG Enlargement this cannot be expanded more broadly.

The most encouraging signals came over the Serbia-Kosovo talks which are expected to lead to some tangible conclusions before the summer and when the current window of opportunity might close. On the other hand, Bosnia was much discussed, but there were few new ideas on how to help the country out of its current deadlock.

I found it encouraging that there is a clear sense that incrementalism is the way forward, there is not going to be a big bang, but rather small steps that will change the region and resolve the open questions. For this to be successful, one needs to overcome the dynamics of what one participants aptly called the EU member states pretending to enlarge and elites in the Western Balkans pretending to reform.

Who won the Montenegrin elections?

I participated in a workshop on the state of the Western Balkans last week in Munich organized by the Hanns-Seidel Foundation, the party foundation of the Bavarian Christian Democrats. As a speaker noted that in Montenegro there has not been a change of government through elections since 1945 (a point I have made as well), an unnamed gentleman sitting next to me whispered in my ear “This is just like in Bavaria!” The location, the “Franz Joseph Strauss Saal” made the comment even more appropriate. There are some differences between Bavaria and Montenegro, however. A political system with a single party dominance can be more easily compatible with a consolidated democracy when a region of a larger state is in question. At least national politics brings about changes of government. It could thus be argued that the lack of change of government (at least not through elections), indeed a feature of Montenegro, has become a more serious deficiency of the political system once Montenegro become independent. However, looking a the result of the most recent parliamentary elections suggests that this is not about to change.

As the election results came in, both the government and opposition celebrated their victory. The opposition of course did not win the largest share of the votes, but it celebrated for depriving the governing coalition of their absolute majority. So who really won?

It is true that the governing DPS and its partners (SDP and the Liberal Party) lost their absolute majority in these elections, but considering them as losers would be getting the numbers wrong. First, having won 46.3% of the vote and 39 of 41 seats necessary to form a government means that the current governing parties are still doing extremely well. A comparison with previous elections also shows that the loss of the governing coalition is insubstantial. Since 2002, i.e. for ten years, the ruling parties have gained nearly identical numbers of votes (between 164,000 and 168,000). This variation of less than 2.5% of the vote over a ten year period is a striking sign of stability and the ability of the DPS and its allies to mobilize a very stable and large segment of the electorate. From this point of view, the elections in 2012 were worse than in 2009, but better than 2006. Thus, there is clearly no defeat visible here. If we look now at the largest opposition party, we find considerably more variation over time. The lowest point is reached in 2006 when the opposition is divided between pro-Yugoslav (whatever that meant at the time), Serb national and technocratic-economic camps. The opposition has left this low point now firmly behind, but it remains weaker than the SNP was as the main opposition party in 2001 and 2002. While the Democratic Front might signal the increasing ability of the opposition to form a joint platform and focus on issues other than identity politics, the odds of winning elections without a change in DPS seems difficult to imagine considering its very steady electoral base.


Croatia’s EU prospects and voices from the past

The conclusion of negotiations between Croatia and the European Commission is great news for the region. After nearly six years of talk, this crucial period of EU accession for Croatia has been completed. There is little doubt that Croatia will manage to join within around two years due to the cumbersome ratification process (note for any politician in the region: if it takes 8 years for Croatia between beginning talks and membership, it’s unlikely to be faster anywhere else.

Now the question is how to “sell” accession to the current member states. Here, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in a commentary today [paywall] clearly heads into the wrong direction. The author writes “In some [European] capitals, the candidate Croatia is considered a Balkan country and a corner stone of Tito’s Yugoslavia.” He goes on to note that the “former Hungarian crown land is as central European as Slovenia and resisted Belgrade’s Serb hegemony.” While the comment notes that the difference between Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim sozialisation (whatever that means) is not a source of conflict in the EU, they are not irrelevant when it comes to national specificities (Eigenheiten). Implicitly, the comment suggests that Croatia completes the European Union rather than opening the door to the inclusion of the rest of the “Western Balkans”: Every inclusion is also an exclusion of those who are not joining at the same time. To argue that Croatia is joining due to its Catholic and central European nature is not only doing the EU a disservice which is more than a club of Central and West European countries, but it also challenges the process of enlargement over the past decade and serves cheap and rather dated Balkan stereotypes (recently revived thanks to the Greek crisis). Finally, it also throws an ugly light on the way on way the FAZ has been commenting on the dissolution of Yugoslavia exactly twenty years ago with offensive commentaries by Johann Georg Reissmüller which lacked any critical distance towards the Tudjman regime and in its blatant Balkan stereotyping.


Negotiating Division and Cooperation in today’s Bosnia

As Bosnia is recovering from the latest crisis, once more the largest one since Dayton, it is useful to reflect on the underlying challenges Bosnia is facing today. When late Richard Holbrooke brokered the Dayton Peace Accords in late 1995, most attention was devoted to drawing the new internal boundaries of Bosnia and Herzegovina (henceforth Bosnia) to arrive at the “magical formula” which implemented the previously agreed division of the country into 49 percent under control of the Serb Republic (RS) and 51 percent under control of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (FBiH), the predominantly Bosniak and Croat entity. Thus emerged an over 1000 km long border know euphemistically as the inter-entity boundary line (IEBL). On the other hand, the constitution and new institutions of the country received only scant attention during the negotiations. It is thus not without irony that it is those institutions which have been at the core of the profound political crisis which Bosnia has been slipping into over the past five years, while the borders have remained relatively uncontested.

Does this mean that too much attention has been placed to borders and too little to institutions? While certainly the institutions established at Dayton were often flawed, the border drawing was controversial and remains potentially a source of contestation. The boundary between the two entities largely followed the ceasefire line and only contained two major adjustments: One in western Bosnia to accommodate the 49/51 formula by placing thinly populated regions under control of the RS and granting the Federation full control over parts of Sarajevo previously under Bosnian Serb rule—a territorial transfer which came about with last chapter of ethnic cleansing with most Serbs leaving the neighborhoods under pressure from the RS leadership in March 1996.

The border between the entities has become largely invisible over the past 15 years: In the first years, many feared crossing the border and police check points in the vicinity of the border constituted efforts by the entities to prevent people from moving freely within Bosnia. Even if the police were absent, this invisible line became visible by stalls selling cheap cigarettes from the other entity and taxi drivers waiting for customers from the other side as few were willing to cross this line with the wrong license plates. With a common currency and a unified license plate, and a decline in the profitability of the cross-entity cigarette trade, the most visible reminders today are the large signs reading “Welcome to the Republic of Srpska”.

With few exceptions, the IEBL has also become the ethnic dividing line in Bosnia. Prior to the war, most municipalities were multinational, with a significant share of the population hailing not just the largest, but also from other groups. The ethnic cleansing during the war largely destroyed this diversity and territorialized ethnic belonging. The internationally administered return process was possibly the largest experiment to undo the consequences of ethnic cleansing. Refugees and internally displaced did not only have an unconditional right to return (unlike what seems currently likely in either Cyprus or Palestine/Israel), but were also assisted if they did want to go back home.  Even if (on paper) half of the two million IDPs and refugees returned (the return process has slowed to a trickle since 2003), the returnees often did not stay or became a new minority, marginalized when it comes to jobs, education and services. Only three municipalities bucked the trend and ‘changed hands’ since the end of the war. Grahovo, Drvar, Glamoč in Western Bosnia today have Serb majorities, as they did before the war, although they lie in a Federation canton named after the Croat secessionist project ‘Herceg Bosna.’ The main reason that these municipalities saw such massive returns after the war was due to the overwhelming Serb population majority they had before the war and the fact that Serbs were expelled from the region only towards the end of the war in 1995. These three towns are thus the exceptions which prove the rule that ethnic cleansing has largely worked.

The internal borders of Bosnia are today less physical markers, but continue firmly separate political power and cementing ethnic divisions. A second category of borders in Bosnia are the external borders with its three neighbors Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro. Here a two-level border regime emerged. The physical border became more substantial since 1995 as Bosnia’s border regime evolved and it is likely to increase in significance as Croatia’s EU accession will lead, if not immediately, to a Schengen border between the two countries. On the hand, there is an ethnic border regime: The overwhelming number of Croats in Bosnia hold Croatian passports and a growing, but unknown number of Serbs in the RS have been acquiring Serbian passports. According to the Gallup Balkan Monitor in 2009 and 2010, 15.4 and 7.5% respectively of surveyed inhabitants hold a Serbian passport, n the Federation, 15.2% and 33.8% respectively hold the Croat citizenship.

This trend was certainly encouraged by the one year gap between the EU decision to liberalize the visa regime for Serbian (2009) and Bosnian citizens (2010). Beyond formal dual citizenship, other informal privileges granted to Croats or inhabitants of the RS create a virtual ethnic trans-border community. There are two ways of looking at this reality. Often, the ethnic ties are seen as a negative hold-over from the war years and help to undermine the already weak Bosnian state cohesion. These networks produce and reproduce loyalties and identities which can challenge the Bosnian state. This is exemplified by statements from the current president of the RS, Milorad Dodik, in which he stated that “case that tomorrow Bosnia and Serbia would play, I would cheer for Serbia.” Accordingly, only 15.8% of inhabitants in the RS support the Bosnian football team, while 75.8% in the Federation do. Forging closer ties to Serbia and fostering informal cross-border ties also reduced the identification with Bosnia. A consequence is the large support (over 80%) among Serbs in the RS support the independence of their entity over the continued existence of Bosnia.

Alternatively, one could also interpret these ties as having a moderating effect. In 2009, Tim Judah, the Balkan correspondent of The Economist coined the term Yugosphere. This Yugosphere describes the network of ties with the countries of former Yugoslavia in business and culture which have emerged since the end of the wars. They do not express a desire to re-constitute a political unit called Yugoslavia, but rather describe an alternative within the framework of existing states. Now, in addition to the Yugosphere, there are also a ‘Croatosphere’, and a ‘Serbosphere’. These are cross-border networks based on affinity along national lines. These ties are fostered by the above mentioned examples of state policies, including citizenship regimes, and create a sense of community. If the Yugosphere does not necessarily present a challenge to the existing states, it could be argued that the national spheres similarly provide for another layer of identity, but do not have to undermine multi-national states per se. It could be argued that these linkages provide for multiple centres and networks, which might reduce the degree of contestation over only one, namely the state.

The challenge for Bosnia arising from the ‘Croatopshere’ and the ‘Serbosphere’ is that these often enjoy more legitimacy and have been able to provide greater benefits to Bosnian citizens which partake in these alternative spheres, including freedom to travel and jobs, than the state. Moreover, these spheres are exclusive and the largest Bosnian community, Bosniaks, lack such a comparable dimension. Most importantly, unlike the Yugosphere, the national spheres often (but not necessarily) challenge the legitimacy of the state and thus constitute an alternative rather than an additional layer to identity among Bosnians.

Both transnational and subnational structures and networks have been unable to overcome or to short-circuit the cumbersome decision-making processes within Bosnia. While there is widespread agreement that institutions in Bosnia which require consent across national lines have struggled to take decisions for years. The frequency of blockages increased since 2006 when Milorad Dodik came to power in the Republika Srpska for a second time and pursued a confrontational line towards the international actors and Bosniak parties. The fact that neither the state nor the Federation have had a government for more than four months after the elections in October 2010 is indicative of the tense political environment. The reason for the political blockages can be easily attributed to, depending on the perspective, the President of the RS, Milorad Dodik, or Bosniak politicians insisting on a further centralization of the state. The modest legislative record of the Bosnian parliament in recent years and the slow government formation cannot, however, are not caused only by a particular politician, or a particular elite.

Instead, it might be tempting to shift all the blame to the power-sharing arrangement established at Dayton. With its emphasis on ethnicity and strong linkage between ethnicity and territory, it seems to a recipe for confrontational ethnopolitics. Nevertheless, it is equally misleading to consider the entire political system as source of the current crisis in Bosnian politics.

While it is true , that just as there are populist politicians which thrive on the current impasse, there are institutions with multiple veto points and excessive emphasis on ethnic representation, colloquially known in Bosnia as “counting blood cells”, i.e. predetermining peoples professional opportunities based on their ethnic belonging. In order to find out why Bosnia is struggling, we need to explore other causes.

As survey for UNDP in 2007 found Bosnia to be at the bottom of international leagues when it comes to social trust. Only 7.8% of surveyed citizens indicate that they trust others, considerably lower than other countries, including in South Eastern Europe. This low level of trust transfers into low levels of trust in institutions and low level of interest in politics, again significantly less than in any country in the region. What is striking about the findings is that Bosnia is less characterized by low levels of trust between ethnic groups, or by particular groups towards some institutions—by Serbs towards the state for example—but by a generally low level of trust, not ethnically neutral, but preferences along ethnic lines are overshadowed by the general breakdown in trust.

Considering this backdrop, it is not surprising that Bosnia has essentially become a “low trust state”. The institutions are predicated on the low trust along ethnic lines: Veto rights and blocking mechanisms are the embodiment of low levels of trust in political opponents (sometimes justified). International supervision since Dayton has often interfered into political decisions due to low trust in local political elites (often for good reason). The political discourse of elites has been based on the rhetoric of low trust: A key theme of Milorad Dodik’s party SNSD over recent years has been the need to preserve the RS against threats from Bosniak parties and international pressure. The supposed threat and low trust in both parties from other ethnic groups and international actors were the core message. Similarly, Dodik recently rejected the introduction of a new article in the Bosnian constitution, known as the “Europe clause” which would allow for laws essential to EU integration to pass with fewer veto rights. Similarly, Croat parties have emphasized the need for a third entity to protect Croat interests from being marginalized. Finally, predominantly Bosniak parties emphasize their distrust toward the RS and the intentions of the non-Bosniak parties towards the state. While most citizens’ distrust is not primarily ethnic, the distrust of parties has clear ethnic overtones. If the goal of parties with a mono-ethnic electorate is to generate loyalty within the ethnic group at the expense of interethnic relations, the parties in Bosnia have failed. If, however, the ethnic distrust is both a way to channel broader frustration and a mechanism to re-produce distrust, it has worked. The effect of distrust is disengagement from politics and helps to sustain parties that re-affirm low trust politics and, while not being particularly trusted themselves, direct high levels of distrust elsewhere.

The Bosnian system of government is thus characterized by the tension between the different types of distrust: the distrust by citizens, as captured by surveys, is based on the perception of corruption and abuse of office, as well as by the inability of the state (and sub-state units) to deliver services citizens expect, such as health care, social protection and employment. The low levels of trust along ethnic lines, as promoted by most political parties, on the other hand reinforces ineffective institutions and legitimizes the (ab)use of office to further a particular mono-ethnic agenda, often in conjunction with party and individual interests. The two different sources of low trust in Bosnia thus are seemingly disconnected, yet mutually reinforcing. This has made institutional change and the emergence of new elites more difficult in Bosnia than in neighboring countries. Although low levels of trust are not a given, they are part of the DNA of Dayton Bosnia.

What does this experience tell us about post-conflict institutions and international intervention?

First, if the institutions have as many veto points as in Bosnia (a law proposed by government can be blocked in at least four different ways by both entities and “constituent people” before being passed), the risks of blockages increases and the state fails to deliver, further undermining the legitimacy of the state.

Second, if the state lacks incentives for cooperation and instead constantly has to compete with national ‘spheres’ or sub-state units which can govern in the absence of multiethnic decision making, the prospects for elites finding an interest in making institutions work decreases.

Third, without islands of ‘success’, where the state can generate trust and legitimacy, the underperformance of the state only helps to legitimize alternative state projects.

Fourth, while political contestation might often have ethnic overtones, social concerns are shaped by fear, distrust and low levels of social cohesion, with limited ethnic dimensions. In brief, the causes for ethnic politics might not be found in ethnicity, but in other dimensions of alienation and exclusion.

Is Libya like Serbia 1999?

The Serbian football trainer Branko Smiljanić said in an interview that Tripoli today reminds of Belgrade in 1999. He went on to say that the similarities lies in the fact that life goes on largely as normal despite the bombing. A number of facebook groups have sprung up, such as the “Support for Muammar al Gaddafi from the people of Serbia” with over 32,000 ‘likes’ as of 21 March. The group also features photos from a protest in favor of Gaddafi in front of the 25 May museum and Tito’s mausoleum. The supporters of Gaddafi thus blend Yugonostalgia and the close Libyan-Yugoslav ties during the socialist period with the more recent past.

So does the 1999/2011 comparison hold? Neil Clark in the Guardian argued that March is a time of lies which lead to the UK involvement in Kosovo 1999, Iraq 2003, and Libya 2011. His argument that all three interventions are based on (potential) lies is of course simplistic and the assertion that Kosovo and Iraq were “classic imperialist ventures whose real aim was to extend western economic and military hegemony” suggest a simplistic argument based on some supposed “anti-imperial” reflex. I am not sure how and why the “West” has spread its hegemony in Kosovo or Serbia through military intervention. Just like protesters for Gaddafi, it ignores the target of the intervention amidst obsession with supposed imperialism.

So if this is not convincing, what are the similarities and difference? First, Libyan intervention in 2011 has been based on a UN Sec. Council Resolution, whereas in Kosovo such as mandate was elusive due to Russian and Chinese opposition. Intervention in Kosovo followed a conflict which began  to take a violent turn already a year earlier, in March 1998. A key difference between the two intervention is the group protected. Albanians were targeted by the Milosevic regime in 1998/9 as it considered Albanians potential supporters for the KLA and for supporting secession from Serbia. In Libya the opposition is by all indications not interested in seceding from Libya, but overthrowing Gaddafi and establishing a  democracy and a protection of human rights (even if we know very little about the actual composition of the opposition itself).

One argument put forth in 1999 was the ‘moral hazard’ argument: By supporting the KLA, the intervention rewarded the use of force for a secessionist movement. While over the past decade there is little evidence the de facto support for the KLA has emboldened secessionist groups around the world to take up arms, there is a problem associated with supporting the use of force (the main problem has been the lack of support for its non-violent alternatives). In Libya, there is no such moral hazard. It potential democrats are emboldened to overthrow dictators by the intervention, this cannot be considered problematic per se (although military intervention is likely to remain rare and it might encourage rebellion when odds of  success and intervention are both slim). The hazard would have been greater if there had been no intervention, the message would be clear to other dictators: be soft and you end up as Ben Ali and Mubarak, be brutal and you can stay in power.

Both interventions are imperfect in their own way. It is very difficult to predict the outcome and length of the conflict ensuing. Once intervention begins, it is impossible to ascertain whether the alternative of non-intervention would have resulted in fewer victims or less repression. There has been little time for planning for this intervention and besides the  UN Sec. Council resolution which talks about what needs to end (repression of human rights), and a change which reflects the will of the people, but it is unclear how to get there. In Kosovo there was little and poor post-conflict planning, leading for mass violence at the end of the war and anarchy which helped undermine legitimacy of the post-conflict peace building. At this point, the conflict in Libya is not yet a long standing civil war where a serious post-conflict intervention would be justified (and it is explicitly excluded by the resolution). As imperfect as interventions are, the ability of dictators to militarily repression opposition deserves to be curtailed, especially when they are as violent and heavy handed as Gaddafi.


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