At first glance, especially compared to other parts of the world, the Balkans seem to be in great shape.
The last few years, in particular, appear to have been good for the region’s ambitions to integrate with the West. In 2013, Croatia formally joined the European Union, after nine years as a candidate state. The year before, Serbia became an official candidate for membership in the union. And in 2014 Albania joined the ranks of Montenegro and Macedonia, which have been candidate states for several years. Even Kosovo, whose independence is unrecognized by five EU members, signed a Stabilization and Association Agreement with the EU, paving the way for potential future membership.
Meanwhile, NATO extended an official invitation for membership to Montenegro last December; one month later, without much fanfare, the Serbian government signed an Individual Partnership Action Plan with NATO, which deepens cooperation between the Serbian military and the Western military alliance and grants NATO troops immunity and freedom of movement throughout Serbian territory. Albania and Croatia have been NATO members since 2009, while Macedonia’s bid to join has been impeded by its name dispute with Greece.
The goal of the recent diplomatic push by the West has been to counter Russian influence in the region and ensure the consolidation of democratic regimes and the rule of law there. And the West’s efforts do seem to be bearing fruit.
But a closer look at this presumed success reveals that the fruit may be rotten. A new generation of autocrats has been taking over the region, sometimes with the direct complicity of overzealous American policymakers and distracted EU officials. The apparent Westernization of the region, it’s now clear, has come at great cost.
Both U.S. and EU policymakers have been willing to turn a blind eye to corruption, which plagues the region’s governments, and have either downplayed or ignored the creeping rise of autocratic rulers. These autocrats operate under a different, savvier playbook than those of the 1990s: Internationally, they enthusiastically embrace the EU in their foreign policy. With the exception of Serbia, they express the same fervor for NATO. They are well-coached in telling Western diplomats what they want to hear, while blatantly undermining democratic principles and the rule of law at home.
Domestically, these rulers rely on a tried and tested formula that makes their economically downtrodden citizenries, who suffer from some of the highest unemployment rates in Europe, entirely dependent on state-controlled patronage networks for jobs and other resources. These rulers also undermine their domestic opponents by forging alliances with oligarchs, often dependent on the state for their wealth, and exerting control over the media and the judiciary.
Take Montenegro. A small country of some 650,000, Montenegro has in one way or another been under the rule of current Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic and his Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) for 25 years. In the late 1990s, Djukanovic broke with the pro-Serbian wing of his party and led Montenegro to independence from Serbia in 2006. Since then, Djukanovic has, in effect, turned Montenegro into his family’s private fiefdom. In 2007, Italian prosecutors charged Djukanovic with leading a conspiracy involving cigarette smuggling and money laundering in the 1990s — charges Djukanovic has vehemently and repeatedly denied while relying on his diplomatic immunity to avoid cooperating with the prosecution. In 2009, areport by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists found that Djukanovic owned assets worth nearly $15 million — a hefty nest egg for someone earning his reported income, a monthly salary of 1,500 euros. Djukanovic’s brother, Aco Djukanovic, is one of Montenegro’s wealthiest men. Having started off as a concert promoter in the 1990s, he is now — among the plethora of other businesses he’s involved in — the primary shareholder of First Bank, which underwent what many believed to be a rigged privatization in 2006. The privatization involved an open tender producing only a single bidder, a company owned by the prime minister’s brother. The bank subsequently became Montenegro’s largest, with the government becoming its largest client.
In Macedonia, the decadelong rule by the center-right VMRO-DPMNE party of Nikola Gruevski has been accompanied not only by rampant corruption, but also by a thorough and overt undermining of democracy. A wiretapping scandal involving Gruevski exploded last year, revealing the government’s extensive use of domestic intelligence to spy on the opposition and Gruevski’s own political associates. As late as 2014, the EU identified few serious problems with high-level corruption in Macedonia — but after the scandal broke, a European Commission inquiry determined that the government had systematically engaged in “interference in judicial affairs, restrictions of freedom of the media, electoral irregularities, blurring of state and party, as well as lack of oversight over intelligence activities.” The political fallout from the scandal, including the opposition’s boycott of parliament, concluded with an EU mediator negotiating Gruevski’s resignation and the setting of a timeframe for new elections this year. Gruevski’s absence from government seems temporary, however. He is active in campaigning and makes almost daily media appearances, and polls show that VMRO-DPMNE remains Macedonia’s most popular party and is poised to return to power. And just this week, Gruevski’s ally, Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov, abruptly ordered the end of a criminal inquiry on the wiretapping scandal. This effectively frees Gruevski from the potential prospect of facing criminal charges for his conduct.
From Croatia to Albania, the region has plenty of grim stories of autocrats cloaking themselves in democrats’ clothing. Yet credit for the most dramatic political transformation — from ally of a war criminal to darling of the West — no doubt belongs to current Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic.
Vucic has quickly become a favorite in the West for his willingness to chip away at Russian influence in the country. Vucic has managed to pull off this remarkable feat despite the resistance of his governing partner and former mentor, President Tomislav Nikolic. Both Vucic and Nikolic spent the late 1990s as allies of former dictator Slobodan Milosevic but have since come a long way in refashioning their images from radical nationalists to reformers. Last year, Vucic was among the few Balkan leaders to be received at the White House, where he met U.S Vice President Joe Biden and National Security Advisor Susan Rice. In a move that likely pleased U.S. officials, Vucic pulled off a major geopolitical coup by signing the controversial agreement with NATO, effectively undermining what many saw as Russian efforts to gain a military foothold in Serbia. Unsurprisingly, Moscow responded indignantly to Belgrade’s agreement with NATO but has so far shied away from any steps to retaliate.
And yet Vucic has not exactly thrown the Kremlin’s phone number into the trash. Last October, he visited Moscow, where he met President Vladimir Putin and signed a deal for the purchase of Russian military equipment. Unlike Albania and Montenegro, Vucic has resisted demands to abide by EU sanctions against Russia, imposed after the Ukraine crisis. He and Nikolic have both made personal efforts to allay Russian fears over Serbia’s NATO agreement and reaffirm its official position of military neutrality.
Last December, Vucic was lauded by EU officials for arresting 80 former officials, including former ministers, on corruption charges. Conveniently for Vucic, most of those arrested were members of opposition parties. Serbia’s independent media have also suffered under his rule: Human Rights Watch has reported that the number of attacks and threats against journalists in Serbia was among the highest in the region. Just recently, a journalist at Serbia’s state television was sacked for asking Vucic “inappropriate questions” about his role in the ethnic cleansing of the 1990s. It was bad timing: Flaunting his reformist and pro-EU credentials is especially important for Vucic these days, as he faces an election later this month, which he is expected to win handily.
Vucic has managed, in part, to endear himself to the West through his willingness to continue negotiations with the leadership of Kosovo, in a bid to “normalize” relations with the nascent country. This “normalization,” however, falls short of any real intention by Serbia to recognize Kosovo’s independence, which Vucic categorically rejects, or dismantle Belgrade’s parallel institutions in the Serbian-controlled north. In fact, under pressure from the EU and United States, late last year the Kosovar government agreed to recognize and incorporate some of these institutions, a move that sparked a political backlash. (Kosovo, less than a decade old, is itself already exhibiting features of a budding autocracy: The Democratic Party of Kosovo, led by former Prime Minister and recently inaugurated President Hashim Thaci, failed to gain a ruling majority in the country’s 2014 elections and held on to power mainly by relying on the party’s control over the Constitutional Court. In response to the opposition’s protests against the agreement with Belgrade, the government has arrested dozens of opposition MPs and the leader of the main opposition party and used antiterrorist police units to ransack the main opposition party’s headquarters.)
For a variety of reasons, U.S. and EU policymakers have shown great tolerance toward the abuses of Balkan autocrats. In the context of the Ukraine crisis, U.S. priorities have shifted toward expanding NATO and preventing, or minimizing, Russian influence in the region, especially in Serbia and Montenegro. This makes leaders like Djukanovic and Vucic especially valued interlocutors. Some observers believe that U.S. support in recognizing Serbian claims in northern Kosovo is partly the result of this shifting geopolitical landscape, in which the United States is willing to pay a price to appease Belgrade. The diplomatic push for Kosovo’s international recognition has also appeared to lose steam: Despite being recognized by more than 100 countries, Kosovo has remained largely shut out of international organizations. Last year, the country launched a failed bid to join UNESCO.
Geopolitics have also enhanced the importance of efficient Balkan rulers in other ways: Today, their ability to deliver immediately on the more expedient demands of Western powers is more valued than success at the long and slow processes of democratic and judicial reform. The refugee crisis has made Macedonia an important frontier state, and the EU has turned a blind eye to the country’s use of violent tactics to keep Syrian and other Middle Eastern refugees from entering the country in transit to such destinations as Austria, Germany, and France. Serbia’s efforts to control the flow of refugees have been equally applauded, especially given the tensions the issue has created in neighboring Hungary. Moreover, domestic crises, including the eurozone dilemma, Brexit, and political fallouts from the flow of refugees, have kept EU officials preoccupied with internal matters, making EU enlargement largely an afterthought.
The overriding concerns with issues of security and political stability are partly responsible for giving free rein to the budding autocrats of the Balkans. Aware of their indispensability to strategic goals and interests beyond democratization and the rule of law, local leaders have masterfully exploited the political and diplomatic cover offered by strengthened EU and U.S. ties to attack and undermine domestic opponents. These ties especially have allowed leaders like Gruevski, Thaci, and Djukanovic to claim that, unlike their opponents, they enjoy the support of powerful Western patrons. And, with domestic opposition weakened, little stands in the way between them and their grand ambitions of power.
The Balkans may provide a buffer to contain Russian influence in Europe and fortify it from the flow of Middle Eastern refugees. Tolerating autocratic behavior and misrule may seem a worthwhile price to pay for stability. But this is a dangerous and costly gamble. Last year, in a visit to Croatia, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland gave a speech warning the region’s leaders against threats of “violent extremism, corruption, and criminality and the sleazy autocrats and oligarchs who come bearing gifts that promote their own interests.” The statement was interpreted as a jab at Russia. But U.S. and EU policymakers need to ask themselves if oligarchs, autocrats, and kleptocrats, who happen to be pro-Western, are any better than Putin — or helpful for the West’s long-term interests in the region. The EU must also decide whether it will make the push for reform and meaningful political change or allow the Balkans’ fledgling autocrats to swindle their way into the EU.