WESTERN BALKANS STILL IN TURMOIL
Reading the recent forecast for the economic development in the Balkan region, one sees some optimistic picture. The newest report of the Vienna Institute for International Economics (WIIW) demonstrates higher economic growth. But looking to the unemployment we do still see „stability“ in its wrong form: too high rates of unemployment. Unemployment is and remains a serious problem. But beyond the regional economic situation there exist other problems: „Uncertainties in the Western Balkans are mostly linked to developments in the EU and the USA, as well as, albeit to a lesser extent, to developments in Russia and Turkey.“ (WIIW Report with the following messages in the title: „Cautious upturn“ and „Haunted by the Spectre of Uncertainty“.)
Especially Europe’s situation and problems are vital for the developments of the Balkan region. The dependence is primarily economic but also political. The statement of President Juncker of no enlargement during this parliamentary period is still seen by many in the region as a statement against enlargement as such. Therefore the „Berlin initiative“ of supporting the economic development in the region and to give a new impetus for solving regional conflicts and creating new regional links was very much welcomed by regional politicians and citizens. After the first summit in Berlin there were summits in Vienna and Paris and now, in July 2017, a new summit in Trieste will take place.
At the Vienna summit there was not only an agreement concluded on infrastructure developments and concerning peaceful solutions of bilateral conflicts. An important new element was a civil society dialogue. This was seen by many NGOs in the region as an important breakthrough sending a clear message to the leaders in the region: they must take into account the voices and concerns of critical civil society.
The role of civil society
Also in Trieste a new civil society dialogue should be organized. In preparation for this event, a Civil Society Forum Tirana was organized in the Albanian capital. Politicians, experts and representatives of the region discussed proposals for the business developments especially start ups, the respect for civil rights and the fight against corruption, youth cooperation and the solution of bilateral problems. The participants were aware of their limited possibilities, but they were eager to shape the future of their countries. And they saw, that not only civil rights are an issue, but also the economic and social situations.
Old conflicts – new tension
But while we discussed all these issues in a hotel in Tirana well organized citizens in Skopje occupied the Macedonian Parliament. They would not tolerate the democratic election of the speaker of the Parliament. Again some political forces did not want to accept the result of the last election. This is a continuation of the long crisis in the Macedonian democracy. Unfortunately the president of the country instead of building bridges did not contribute to solving the deep conflict between the main political parties of right and left as well as with the Albanian parties.
In Albania itself we find again a conflict between government and opposition creating instability a few weeks before the elections. It is sad that there will be elections without participation of the opposition. Already now the opposition is not participating in the parliamentary activities. It seems that both parties while in government were at least tolerant to some cannabis farms in the country. But each party was tolerant to their „friends“. The present government of Edi Rama reacted too late and the opposition seems to have seen their disadvantage at the forthcoming elections. And it was pushed by its former leader Berisha into a radical opposition with many demonstrations and the decision not to participate in the elections.
Political dominance and corruption
Also in Serbia there are many demonstrations, but in this case they are a positive sign of civil society’s vigilance against misuse of political powers. Primarily it is directed against the actual and/or potential dominance in politics by one man, the newly elected president: Vujcic. It is not yet clear whom he will propose as prime minister and how the democratic Saaten will work with him as a strong president – beyond the constitutional powers. But people are afraid of a frozen political situation.
What is also in most countries the case are close contacts of the leaders to business especially to some oligarchs or big companies without the necessary transparency. And this creates always suspicion, if everything’s is done in a correct way or if some financial flows exist between the leaders and/or their political parties and the respective businesses. Even if one is not too critical these kind of „connectivity“ raises concerns. Corruption stays a very bad element of the political system and much more attention should be given the fight against it.
All these negative or critical elements of the political world in the Balkan countries are of grave concerns for the European Union. On the one side the EU wants to support the Balkan countries and knows that the best support would be quick membership. On the other hand the countries have still to do an enormous work of reforms and self-discipline. And there is no country which stands just before entry, even when we think of Montenegro with many chapters of negotiation opened.
The fact that regional integration is not going as fast as necessary and that also the solution of bilateral conflicts is far from perfect is a sign that most countries are not yet mature enough to join the EU. And that in addition to the fact, that also inside the EU things are far from perfect. But there is no alternative to a stronger and clearer engagement of the EU with all the countries of the Balkans. And that includes also a clearer language and a louder voice if and when developments in the Western Balkans are moving into the wrong direction.