The Western Balkans was being ravaged by civil war and nationalism-motivated conflict just some 30 years ago. The result was the independence and creation of seven republics that replaced the former Yugoslavia. Together with Albania, these countries aspire, as declared by their political leadership, to become part of the next EU enlargement.

However, many questions remain as regards how ready these eight republics are to join the EU especially at a time when many of the bloc’s newest members are questioning the union’s basic principles. What is more, nationalist sentiments, corruption, breaches of rule of law and disregard of human rights are not completely eradicated in those countries while considerable parts of their political leaderships are flirting with Russia or are ready to make huge concessions to China.

Florian Bieber is a professor of Southeast European History and Politics at the University of Graz and coordinator of the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG). An expert on the Balkans, he has contributed to our knowledge and understanding of the region and its problems with his books: Debating Nationalism: The Global Spread of Nations (2020), The Rise of Authoritarianism in the Western Balkans (2019). These are his latest books which enlighten fundamental questions about the Balkans and the origins of its complexity.

European Interest had the chance to discuss with Prof. Bieber the latest developments related to the EU enlargement and the eventual and possible consequences the negative reaction of some EU members, such as France could have on the region. Prof. Bieber explained why all countries should join the EU together when ready and why authoritarian tendencies are still on the rise.

European Interest: The recent retreat of the EU concerning the future enlargement in the Western Balkans provoked many reactions in both the Balkan states and some EU members. Are Western Balkan countries ready to join the EU? Was the EU sincere about the enlargement or did it use a “technical language” that was perceived by the Western Balkan audiences as a promise?

Prof. Florian Bieber: The EU did not retreat, but it was the opposition of France and few others, but the overwhelming majority of EU members continues to support enlargement. Following the French veto there has been considerable resistance and the letter of a majority of member states, support by others, outline the strong support to continue the process. Nobody claims that the countries of the Western Balkans are ready to join the EU, the accession process is about getting the countries to become ready when negotiations are concluded. However, without such accession talks, the countries will never be ready. Of course, it takes two to tango and it is not always clear that the governments in the region are willing to make the difficult decisions and reforms necessary to join, but this is likely to change if membership becomes a realistic prospect. If some governments, such as Serbia, are moving away from the EU in terms of the values, in particular democracy, accession might slow down or even stop, but then it should be clear the this is due to the failures of the government, not the lack of will in the EU.

 

Do you think that this change of intentions from the EU could have serious repercussions on the region? Do you think it could jeopardise political stability and encourage intolerance?

Already now, citizens in the region are skeptical about enlargement, meaning that significant share do not believe that their country will join. This leads to resignation and motivates many to leave the countries. Their motto is, if the EU does not come to us, we go to the EU. If the door is closed or at least there is no credible prospect, it will be discouraging those who want to reform, as it reduce their power of persuasion. Furthermore, it will increase both a consolidation of competitive authoritarian regimes in the region and those will not be picky as to which global power they cooperate with, be it Russia or China or somebody else. This can be destabilising.

The accession process is about getting the countries to become ready when negotiations are concluded. However, without such accession talks, the countries will never be ready

Although current Western Balkan states emerged from the same political environment, Yugoslavia, each country presents a different level of development concerning its economy, political life and social structure. Taking into consideration this diversity, is it realistic to expect an eventual accession to the EU of all countries together?    

Ideally, all countries would join together, not because they are in a similar position, but because this would prevent having an external EU border in the region, like the one between Croatia and Bosnia, Serbia and Montenegro. Furthermore, it would make it impossible for countries to block each other down the road. There is a downside to a Balkan Big Bang, if some countries have to wait for other to be ready. The gap is big also because Kosovo is still not recognised by 5 EU members, whereas Montengro could be ready in a few years, if there were the will. I would thus expect maybe two waves. After all the one by one approach is very drawn out and grouping countries together facilities the ratification process. It is important not to forget that all 6 Western Balkan countries are smaller together than Romania.

In your recent book The Rise of Authoritarianism in the Western Balkans you argue that even though the Western Balkan countries aspire to EU accession authoritarian tendencies are still active although hidden. Since you mention three particular republics, Serbia, Montenegro and North Macedonia, do you consider that in those countries the rule of law is under constant threat? Could you give us an example?  

The rule of law and democracy constitutes an important weakness in the region. Some of it is structural with a pattern of patronage, informal politics and weak institutions. However, in some cases, such as North Macedonia under the Gruevski government and Serbia under Vucic and Montenegro under Djukanovics rule, there is the additional challenge of strong men ruling and using their informal and often illicit power to tilt democratic competition in their favour. As a result, these are (or were) competitive authoritarian regimes. A lot of this occurs informally from the president calling media outlets to pressure on journalists, the use of state resources to campaign and promote the ruling party to employment for party loyalists. The ruling party in Serbia, SNS, has more members than the largest German parties, even though Serbia is 12 times smaller. People join parties to get a job, if you don’t getting a job in the public administration is impossible.

 

Since the area today’s Western Balkans is traditionally associated with nationalism, do you think that today new generations are distancing themselves from fanaticism or that nationalism remains a powerful political factor? 

The problem is that the most governments in the region are promoting nationalist myths and the narratives about the wars of the 1990s that promote their own ethnocentric view. As a result, there is not much space for a critical debate on the recent past. Similarly, the narratives promoted by most media and textbooks similarly is shaped by nationalism. This results in new generations often being more nationalist than their parents, who experienced Yugoslavia and had greater personal contact with other nations. I would argue that the nationalist rhetoric got worse in the past decade, following a timid opening up in the early 2000s, today, denial of war crimes and the public visibility of war criminals is common, most of all in Serbia.

The problem is that the most governments in the region are promoting nationalist myths and the narratives about the wars of the 1990s that promote their own ethnocentric view

Although Western Balkan countries permanently declare their desire to join the EU, the real agendas of the political elites remain complex. Is the EU, Russia or the US the stronger player in the region?  

Russia, China and the US are minor players in comparison with the EU, at least in regard to economic engagement. While Russia has a sentimental pull for some citizens, in particular among Serbs, its influence is opportunistic using the weakness of the EU to make gains, but without a strong and strategic engagement. The US is more engaged now, but is not a focused actor with President Trump treating the world as a place to achieve short term gains. This is unlikely to result in concrete US influence beyond the short term. Elites in the region are trying to play different global actors against each other to maximise their leverage and space.  Thus, other actors might offer an advantage for ruling elites, either symbolically, such as high profile visits of Putin to Serbia or by strategic investment like China’s funding for the highway from the coast to the north.