An endangered liberal order and the Western Balkans: DPC reflections at the turn of the year

In the future, will 2016 be seen as the year in which the democratic world lost faith in its own institutions and processes? From the vantage point of January 2017, a strong case can be made that this is precisely what this past year demonstrated in the heartland of postwar democracy: Western Europe and the United States. Great Britain, the venerable moderator of European politics, took a radical turn with its vote to leave the EU on June 23. And the United States, bulwark of democratic practice for two centuries and the postwar liberal democratic order, elected Donald Trump, who openly espouses a caudillo sensibility, calls for an “America First” foreign policy which casts doubt on long-standing bipartisan policy “givens” such as NATO, and praises Russia’s authoritarian President, Vladimir Putin. This followed nearly a decade of relative American retrenchment under President Obama. It seems as if the West is in the grips of a virulent autoimmune disorder – responding to threats in ways that inflict debilitating harm upon itself. Upcoming elections in the Netherlands, France, and in the EU’s center of gravity, Germany, could deepen this negative trend. Even if the populist wave finally breaks in 2017’s elections – one hopes that Austria’s presidential election is a bellwether – the EU will remain self-absorbed through the year – and likely beyond…

As the pre-1989 democracies turn ever further inward, post-1989 democracies such as Hungary and Poland have embraced personalistic rule, with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Polish de facto leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski openly advocating a “counterrevolution” against liberal democracy, particularly in terms of social mores and full civil and human rights for all. Slovakia and the Czech Republic, as revealed in the refugee crisis of 2015-16, have also demonstrated a selective inculcation of democratic values.

The West’s crisis of confidence has only boosted the assertiveness of open adversaries of democracy – Russia, China, an authoritarian Turkey, Iran, and numerous other regional powers and actors. They now act with greater freedom of movement than ever before. While Russia’s direct engagement in Ukraine demonstrated this vividly, the far more sanguinary war in Syria illustrates it even more brutally. Aleppo – and numerous other cities in Syria – were devastated in full view of a West which had claimed to have learned from Bosnia, Rwanda, Kosovo, East Timor, and other places where mass assaults on human rights occurred. Russia (and others) stepped into a vacuum that the US and EU allowed to remain in the early stages of that war and in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. The amnesiac and self-exculpating “lesson learned” in Western capitals is that the pre-2011 policy of supporting authoritarian leaders for stability was the right one after all. This has already backfired, as the refugee flows in 2015 highlighted. But it has the reassuring ring of simplicity.

At a more micro level, efforts to impel the full democratization of the Balkans have been increasingly relegated to a policy sideshow for Western policymakers concerned with matters close to home – relations with regional leaders frequently sidestep difficult democracy, rights, and rule of law issues for assistance with “stability,” as demonstrated by Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz’s pre-election endorsement of Macedonia’s ruling VMRO. Stability über Alles is the crux of EU policies. The dynamics on display in the region for the past decade – exemplified by US retrenchment, Western collusion with entrenched elites, and a vacuum opening up for non-Western interests to gain traction – Russia, Turkey, Gulf States, and others – have been well tested and are now global.

The DPC team has worked for well over a decade to promote an organically democratic Western Balkans capable of integrating fully into the West. The region can provide either an example of how civic democracy can work, or how nationalist division and lasting instability could prevail. Bosnia and Herzegovina remains in a state of deep structural dysfunctionality and instability, in which even well-intentioned reforms to the economic and public sector seem to make little headway in the resolution of bigger picture issues due to the mono-ethnic parties gaming the Dayton institutional system to the benefit of their narrowly particulate interests, and to the disadvantage of the citizenry of BiH as a whole. Following the RS referendum stunt and the encouragingly weak international reaction to this direct challenge to the state judiciary, and in light of an increasingly aggressive posture in Zagreb, Bosniaks are feeling increasingly insecure, suggesting politics could become even more unstable and unpredictable.

Serb political elites in the region are the most energized by a Trump presidency, raising hopes to revive the realization of unfulfilled nationalist agendas. Even if those will prove to be unrealistic, by continuing to cultivate ties with Moscow and game a weakened West, authoritarian political leaders in the region will seek their chance to freely continue with Big-Man oligarchic politics. With the political dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia having definitely run into crisis in 2016, prospects for solving the still unfinished status disputes of the region in 2017 look more grim than ever before. Macedonia’s recent elections provide little scope for hope that the political impasse will be resolved any time soon – as DPC will address in a forthcoming report. Montenegro, still reeling from an attempted Russia-backed coup, is likely hoping its NATO membership bid will shield it from current and historical predatory forces.

As the US becomes less constructively engaged in the region, it will increasingly fall on Brussels to engage – though from where among the member states the impetus for strategic engagement would be summoned is unknown. Moreover, the enlargement process has revealed two key weaknesses. First, as illiberal democracy has taken root, most notably in Hungary and Poland, it is clear that the absorption and understanding of liberal European values and standards can be superficial, and are not irreversible. This directly weakens the EU’s transformative power when it comes to democratic reforms and the strengthening of the rule of law. Second, the presumption that the prospect of EU membership provides sufficient incentive to regional political elites to abandon their intricate and self-reinforcing ecosystems of economic self-interest has proven demonstrably false. In addition, the European refugee crisis and the EU’s dealings with the countries on the Balkan route has led to individual member states pursuing a separate, bilateral policy in enlargement, based on illiberal agendas, that undermines the EU’s joint action vis-à-vis candidate countries.

In light of the developments over the past 12 months, DPC has been reflecting on its own role in promoting accountability in democratization policy worldwide. Despite all the setbacks of the past year, and indeed the past decade, DPC remains convinced that its founding goals remain imperative: human dignity and freedom demand accountable, constitutional, democratic self-government. DPC remains more convinced than ever that long-term stability, security and opportunity are only achievable through democratic structures grounded in liberal values, accountable politics and the rule of law. When we founded DPC, we felt that the full realization of the post-1989 potential had already been stunted. But we did not sense the now-apparent vulnerability of liberal democratic values and practice in the established democracies of the North Atlantic community. The challenges for DPC and other exponents of liberal democracy are now threefold: 1) struggle to maintain liberal democratic standards in the current democratic fold – including the new post-1989 democracies in which it has been rolled back to varying degrees; 2) develop constituencies for these values as such – both at home and in the wider world; and 3) advocate policies within established democracies to assist those who wish to establish liberal democratic governance “outside the wire.” The centrality of Germany’s role cannot be overstated; nor should Canada underplay its role as the West’s most secure exponent of liberal values. Deepening and broadening this base into an active coalition for liberal democracy is the challenge. In the coming year, DPC will identify allies in the shifting policy landscape – in governments, legislatures, media, and civil society – who espouse a similar vision and join forces to rekindle a transatlantic and global commitment to defend and advance democracy, human freedom, and justice.