Gaslighting Democracy in the Western Balkans: Why Jettisoning Democratic Values is Bad for the Region and the Liberal World  

DPC Policy Paper

By Kurt Bassuener, Valery Perry, Toby Vogel, Bodo Weber

Executive Summary

The second Summit for Democracy (March 29-30) takes place in a radically different environment from the first Summit in December 2021. Russia’s brutal and unprovoked full-scale invasion of Ukraine has prompted the West to rally to the cause of defending democracy and freedom against hostile authoritarian powers. A groundswell of solidarity with Ukraine has swept not only the Western world’s governments but its people as well. Arms are flowing into Ukraine so it can defend its people and reclaim its territory, and the European Union has extended a membership offer to the country, as well as to Moldova and Georgia, breaking with decades-old policy.

However, this policy reset around values of democracy and freedom has not reached the Western Balkans (WB), where the US, the EU and others are pursuing transactional, values-free policies with even greater vigor, in jarring contrast to their posture toward Ukraine. These cynical policies are not only hypocritical – they are also ultimately counterproductive if the goal is comprehensive security in a Europe whole, free, and at peace. The West cannot protect democracy at home, or preserve bandwidth for the challenges posed by geopolitical adversaries Russia and China, by embracing autocrats and oligarchs in the Balkans, where the West holds more leverage than in any other region of the world.

The West’s current policy in the WB is completely antithetical to liberal democratic values and other proclaimed commitments. Worse, it is actively working against the West’s strongest allies on values in the region, which frustrates them, demotivates them, and drives them to the exit. This benefits the EU, and especially Germany, which receives tens of thousands of the region’s most educated, motivated and liberal citizens as cheap labor every year and allows it to maintain the pretense that the WB6 are on a straight accession path. It benefits the US as it pursues its regional pacification strategy, with its echoes of the Cold War geopolitics used in Latin America in the 1970s and ‘80s, which relies on propping up illiberal leaders in Serbia and elsewhere at the expense of democratic development. It suits local elites, as those who stay behind are more dependent, more traditional, less tied to democratic values and more easily controlled through patronage and fear. The outcome is that optimism and hope in the future have evaporated for citizens of most of these countries – Albania and Kosovo being notable exceptions.

These results of a values-free Western policy came into sharp relief in the research for this report, which is based on a tour of the region’s six countries in February-March 2023 and interviews with dozens of civic activists, analysts, journalists, and others. It provides a bottom-up perspective on the high politics of Western approaches to the region. Time and again, we were asked why we – the US, the EU, UK and other established democracies – side with those leaders in the Balkans who least share democratic values, while leaving our true values partners in the cold. These potential allies, in turn, are buffeted by ever-changing donor funding fashions (currently, “malign influence” and “disinformation;” previously, “countering violent extremism and “independent media”) and scant attention given to communities outside the capital. Donors’ focus on projects (according to their recipes) militates against strategic coherence in the fight for societal progress, accelerating the process of turning civil society into service providers disconnected from the population. This policy brief offers a few core recommendations of how democracies can change course – before it is too late.

Recommendations – Policy and Programmatic

Rethink and reset the policy posture: A wholesale re-evaluation of the democratic world’s policy toward the Western Balkans – as a whole and on each country – is long overdue. The West cannot protect democracy at home, or preserve bandwidth for the challenges posed by geopolitical adversaries Russia and China, by embracing autocrats and oligarchs in the Balkans. Legislatures are the most promising conduit to push for such a rethink and reset, as there is increasing parliamentary scrutiny of a failing policy. Legislatures need to endeavor even more than some already have to engage with demonstrated values allies in the WB6, particularly outside capitals, to inform their strategic policy reviews and recommendations to executives for a policy reset. The EU should insist on this, as the current posture will ensure dysfunction on its border for a generation – and prevent realization of the promise of enlargement for the region and the Union.

Replace the tactical appeasement of illiberalism with strategic embrace of liberalism: In spite of the wide-ranging critiques of Western policy heard, not a single interlocutor called on the EU, US, or others to go easier on governments for the purposes of EU integration. Interlocutors voiced frustration and anger that purported democratic values seemed to be an afterthought, at best. This undermines values allies and provides fodder for illiberal actors to label the West as hypocrites. The West should promote its democratic values, rule of law, and human dignity with the same self-confidence illiberal actors demonstrate in promoting their agendas, supporting the citizens and groups working for these values as their true values allies in the region. The holders of illiberal agendas and visions are working and learn from on another; those with liberal values must more effectively do the same.

Radical transparency of all funds going to governments: There was a profound sense on the part of civil society actors that their governments were effectively given a blank check, in terms of funding for purported reforms and infrastructure development. Governments and donors who proclaim the need for legal, political, and personal accountability need to demonstrate it themselves. The graveyard of abandoned projects and missing donor funds is breathtaking.  Legislative inquiry into such projects, funding, and the lack of delivery is not only necessary to restore popular trust in the WB6, but to keep faith with donor country taxpayers.  All foreign aid to governments should be transparent and available to citizens to review online. Further, any reporting requirements made toward CSOs should apply to governments as well.

Admit that Albania is different: Albania, while it suffers from many of the same syndromes seen elsewhere in the region, has a different popular dynamism and adherence to the concept of democratic values, in addition to a profound alignment with the West. It suffers from being lumped into “WB6” for EU convenience, and one could argue that its being grouped with the post-war countries of former Yugoslavia (including in the pernicious Open Balkan initiative) could unnecessarily hold the country back.

Democratic success depends on the local and the periphery: Given the centralized, personalized power rife in the region, a recalibration of the capital-centric policy (including by donor organizations) is essential.  Forcing accountability on political power – and giving citizens avenues of agency and empowerment – requires opportunities to be available statewide. Localities can be laboratories of democracy only if freed of the partitocracy and its vertical of power. Furthermore, while almost all interviewees spoke of the ongoing brain drain/human asset stripping, most noted that were dignity and a decent life (including basic services like education and healthcare) feasible at home, many people would prefer to stay. 

View civil society as a values partner, not technical implementation service: Civil society actors praised those few donors (EFB, EED, NED, and RBF were mentioned, along with several smaller grantors/partners) that give core rather than project funding, allowing civic actors to do the work that drew them to the civil sector – rather than constantly managing shape-shifting projectitis. Reporting should be proportionate and in line with what is expected of governments. The desire to minimize paperwork and support “ownership” feeds centralization and the reinforcement of existing power structures in the centers. Instead, a regularly assessed citizen advisory board should advise on policy and programming, and consulted with the same frequency, vigor and respect granted to institutions – not pro forma annual consultations.

Read the full paper – in English

Read the Executive Summary & Recommendations – in Albanian, B/C/M/S, Macedonian