Reflections on Efforts to Prevent and Counter Radicalization and Violent Extremism in the Balkans

We’re delighted to introduce the translation of this policy note, published originally in June 2017, and to make it available to readers who speak Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian throughout the former Yugoslav space.

Since this note was first published, the preventing and countering violent extremism (P/CVE) industrial complex has become ever larger, more well-funded and all-encompassing in what we used to call the democratization and development world. Government contractors, particularly in Washington, DC, and London, have increasingly been reaching out to learn about the Western Balkans – often having little to no experience – in anticipation of/competition for upcoming contracts. Consultants who once worked on prison reform issues are now reshaping to address prison radicalization and deradicalization; organizations that provided counseling to war victims and their families are seeking to rebrand their talents to address reintegration of foreign fighters and their families; NGOs that have for two decades worked to promote youth engagement, reconciliation and intercultural tolerance and education are repackaging their toolkits to frame such activities in terms of contributing to prevention by building local community resilience. DPC staff have seen such “flavor of the month” trends wax and wane over the past decades in the Western Balkans – but few of them have come with this speed, intensity and price tag. The dominance of the security narrative, particularly following the 2015 migration surge in Central Europe, is unprecedented. The most salient, organic issues are being crowded out, in terms of both funding and policy attention.

As of summer 2018, this trend shows no signs of abating. Yet just as Perry wrote a year ago, there is reason to ask two critical questions: just how different are these initiatives from their democratization and peacebuilding predecessors, and what are the risks of securitizing reform efforts that were previously viewed as important reform goals in their own right?

At a time when the values and principles of liberal democracy are under assault throughout the West, we are being reminded why they matter to societies that want to live in an accountable, rights-based system justly governed by and through the rule of law. Election systems based on real representation and personal accountability, independent media and the free exchange of ideas, respect for the rights of the most marginalized and the independent checks and balances of a political system grounded in complementary local and rationally-structured higher levels of governance, staffed through an independent civil service free from political party patronage, make up one side of the liberal democratic system. Engaged citizens both holding the system accountable and also contributing with their own skills and mobilization in and across their communities make up the second. These remain the pillars of – to use the language of P/CVE – resilient communities.

And yet throughout the Western Balkans, as P/CVE workshops, conferences and activities are held, police are trained, and youth are sent on study trips, one can reasonably ask, as did Perry last year, how these activities differ from those done in the region for the past 20+ years; following Dayton in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1995; UNTAES in Croatia in 1996; proclamation of UNSC 1244 in Kosovo in 1999; Ohrid in 2001; and engagement in the South of Serbia following violence in 2001. In each case, conflict management, peacebuilding and democratization tools were put into play by embassies, donors and their local partners on the ground.

While such technical democratization support can be valuable to the individuals and communities participating at a micro level, however, it is imperative that policymakers abandon the fantasy that fundamentally political problems can be resolved by technical capacity-building projects alone. The theory that such support could ultimately make a substantial systemic macro-level impact made sense in the first heady years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, in the context of countries working through various “transition” processes. As we are witnessing in countries like Poland and Hungary, the durability of even genuine democracy-building and reform processes is far from certain and progress is not linear. Countries recovering from violence and war carry an added burden. In all cases, the importance of long-term and sustained commitment from without and within – in the form of active and self-defined constituencies – is essential.

Perhaps most importantly, there has been little open acknowledgement of the extent to which governments in the region have effectively captured the system, through a mix of structural fixes (such as indirect election of mayors that ensures party control from the top down), economic control (through failed privatization carried out without transparency or legal process) and patronage networks that have locked in through regular public messaging threatening renewed violence if anyone seeks to rock the boat. While DPC has not institutionally jumped on the P/CVE bandwagon, we all know from academic and professional colleagues that root causes and drivers of radicalization of all forms can include a mix of grievance, frustration with corruption, marginalization as a minority “other” and the resulting tiered sense of citizenship in one’s own country, and a sense of hopelessness at the prospect of any institutional redress.

If all of the myriad projects currently being implemented in the name of P/CVE were offering something different, something that genuinely analyzed the generational democracy gap, addressed the real risk factors, and contributed to truly accountable and participatory governance at all levels, then DPC would welcome the renewed Western engagement they entail. However, it seems that donors are once again, or still, more interested in scattershot activities – with their relentless focus on “deliverables” – rather than a direct confrontation with a predatory political ecosystem which has calcified over decades of Western, now predominantly EU, primacy. That primacy is now being challenged from within and without.

We at DPC welcome a chance to broaden the debate through this publication na naškom, and hope that citizens in the “WB6” can join us in explaining to donors that just as the wars were not generated from the bottom-up, but the top-down, today’s manifestations of extremism are also driven from the top-down (including from within the Western camp). At a time of rising nationalisms and extremisms throughout Europe, this is a difficult message to send. However, we also know that a silent majority remains interested in the benefits of accountable liberal democracy, yet unable to affect sclerotic systems, and that it represents an untapped constituency.

Access the Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian version HERE