Sobering lessons from a fraying liberal consensus: World order and the Western Balkans in 2018

Last year at this time, as DPC reflected on the turn of the year, we asked ourselves whether in the future, 2016 will be seen in retrospect as the year in which the West decidedly lost faith in liberal democracy and the world order built on its foundations.

Unprecedented developments on both sides of the Atlantic in 2016 brought this fundamental question to the surface: In the US, Donald Trump celebrated a surprise win at the presidential elections after having campaigned on a populist agenda. The incoming president announced a foreign policy based on the idea of “America first” that questioned the country’s traditional alliances like NATO, and instead would seek deal-making arrangements with Vladimir Putin and other authoritarian and autocratic world leaders in full ignorance of the principles and values that have formed the basis of postwar liberal democratic order. In Europe, the ramifications of the Brexit referendum put one of the EU’s big four, Great Britain, on an uncharted course toward exiting the Union. This magnified broader EU growing pains, as earlier in 2016, the breakdown of a joint member state policy in the European refugee crisis put the stability of the EU in question, feeding in no small part strong right-wing performance in several countries.

Given that background, apocalyptic predictions about the upcoming year 2017 seemed to be plausible – about the destruction of the liberal world order and the end of the West; in addition, with upcoming elections in the Netherlands, Germany and especially presidential elections in France a further dramatic rise of populist political forces and the implosion of the EU seemed within reach.

Looking back at 2017, we can be thankful that the darkest of those predictions have gone unfulfilled. Democratic institutions in the US proved to be resilient enough to prevent President Trump from implementing key parts of his announced foreign (and domestic) policy agenda, starting with the rapprochement with Vladimir Putin. Within the EU, national elections (for the time being) put some brakes on a continued rise of populist forces, most notably in France, where Emmanuel Macron won with a domestic reform and pro-EU campaign agenda. At the same time, Brexit provoked a counter-reaction within the EU, both among political leaders and citizens towards renewed support for the Union and the will to reform it.

However, looking ahead to 2018, there can be no expectation of respite. The volatility and unpredictability of Trump’s personality (and personnel choices) still threatens real global damage – from the unraveling of the Iran nuclear deal to the escalation of the conflict with North Korea. Even if not, the US will remain absent from the core role it occupied for seven decades in pro-actively defending the liberal democratic order. In the Middle East, the West in 2017 has definitely left Syria to Assad, Russia and Iran – one of the biggest disgrace to the West since 1989 that even trumps Srebrenica. The most long-lasting impact of America’s political shift may well be on the credibility and desirability of American and in turn Western norms and values. Trump’s evident affinity for dictators and the trappings of unaccountable government and his disdain for checks and balances makes the work of global activists and reformers even more difficult.

At the same time, both the US and the EU have entirely checked out of influencing the transformation of the order in the region, at a time when Saudi Arabia is preparing for a post-carbon world. While the country’s new leader has opted for a dangerous new regional policy that has already proven to be disastrous and backfired, first and foremost in Yemen, domestically he has initiated a previously unimaginable process of social liberalization with unpredictable outcomes for both the country and the wider region. In post-nuclear deal Iran, the conflict between reformers and conservatives at the end of 2017 unintentionally turned simmering social frictions into the biggest social protests since 2009.

There is no end to the challenges facing Europe. Germany’s exceptionally long coalition-building negotiations impede Macron’s push for EU reform. In Austria, parliamentary elections brought the extremist right FPÖ into power, in a coalition led by the new Chancellor Sebastian Kurz who already during the refugee crisis demonstrated that he is willing to take over leadership of the dark camp of EU member states from Viktor Orban. In Italy, polls predict that the upcoming parliamentary elections will lead to a shift toward the populist political right, and possibly unstable majorities. Regarding core structural reform challenges ahead, the EU seems to have in 2017 fallen back to “Plan B” approaches aimed at short-term progress and relief, but risk doing mid- to long-term damage to the foundations of the Union.

On asylum and migration, those member states that were part of the coalition of the willing alongside with Germany during the refugee crisis seem to – if they haven’t moved over to the populist camp – have surrendered to the closed-door policy of Orban and his populist, nationalist allies. At the same time, they have joined in with their former adversaries on a lowest common denominator policy of tolerating the build-up of fortress Europe based on tolerating unlawful policies and systematic human rights violations on the external border on the former Balkan route. This policy is complemented with dirty outsourcing deals with authoritarian regimes in Turkey and Africa and militias in Libya in disregard of the serious harm they inflict on migrants, thus undermining the position of the EU as a global player defending the liberal order.

On broader EU reform, Macron has set the stage with proposals focused on reforming the Eurozone. His ideas suggest basing further EU integration on situational as well as issues-based coalitions of willing member states. The concept of a multi-speed or two-track EU has turned into conventional wisdom among many EU leaders and experts. DPC, however remains unconvinced and deeply worried about such ideas. In our view, they offer no solution to one of the Union’s most worrying political challenges – its internal democracy problem, starting with the lack of effective means to deal with increasingly illiberal member states like Hungary and Poland. Sidestepping this problem, we fear, could lead to a creeping East-West division of the EU and to an unintended erosion of its political core – its foundation in core liberal democratic values. In addition, abstract ideas like Macron’s proposal for “citizens’ conventions” reveal no deep thinking on how the EU can reconnect with its citizens in a durable, institutional way.

At a more micro level, in the Western Balkans in 2017 we saw renewed unprecedented interest by the EU in the region, at least in terms of declarative public diplomacy. It started with a regional tour of the Union’s High Representative, Frederica Mogherini, continued with an interview by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker for the Financial Times, in which he explained to have argued with the Western Balkans as a reason for continued US engagement in Europe in his first meeting with Vice President Mike Pence, and ended with Juncker again declaring the region one of the EU’s priorities in his State of the Union Speech. It is the first time since 2005, when the EU took over Western leadership in the Western Balkans, that the Union pays attention to the region without any violent crisis having emerged. Juncker and others have justified this focus with the increased and potentially destabilizing influence of other actors in the region, first and foremost, Russia.

DPC remains highly skeptical about the tenor and focus of this demonstrated new European attention to the Balkans, despite having clamored for a reinvigorated and strategic policy. For over a decade we’ve been consistently warning that by presuming that the enlargement process and tools alone would suffice to complete the democratization and integration of the region, the EU has effectively allied with corrupt domestic political elites in rolling back democratic reforms and destabilizing societies, thus turning the region again into a security risk for Europe, let alone citizens of these countries. This is the paradox of the ideology of enlargement fundamentalism – the more one believes that enlargement will solve everything, the worse the conditions become for a genuine and deeply rooted membership perspective.

While renewed attention on the Balkans in generally is a positive development, it will only become substantial if it is underpinned by sufficient political will to deal with the region and its political challenges on their own terms. In that respect, what reinforced our skepticism was the newly evident sense of urgency within the EU regarding Russia’s actions and influence in the Western Balkans. DPC has been a lonely voice warning of Russia’s malign opportunistic spoiler role in the region, which progressed to an aggressive disruptor role following the invasion of Crimea and inducement of war in eastern Ukraine. Our warning and prescriptions were commonly met with accusations of alarmism or simply silence. Yet EU and wider Western policy in 2017 has jumped from one extreme of ostrich-like complacency to the other extreme of hysteria. Warning about Russian interference in the region has almost turned into a new business model for experts and think-tanks, yet without a grounding in understanding of the drivers.

As DPC has analyzed and warned for many years, Russian influence and leverage in the Western Balkans has largely been the product of EU and US policy weakness toward the region. And the West, if united and strategic, in clear alliance with citizens of these countries, can resist Russia’s advances by ensuring security and defending democracy, rule of law, and human rights. Russia’s local allies all consistently seek to undermine these rights, institutions and processes. Unfortunately, the EU and West has also flattered such governments as “partners.” EU and US policy performance in the Western Balkans in 2017 has been mixed, and further feeds our doubts on the substance of any new declared policy focus. Macedonia was the standout success story in the region. A democratic groundswell, based on a civic movement and then reflected electorally that for the first time since Ohrid managed to transcend ethnic dividing lines, led to a belated transfer of power in May 2017 with the formation of Prime Minister Zoran Zaev’s government. While the movement was entirely home-grown, joint US and EU intervention managed to prevent civil war (or at least a state of emergency and authoritarian consolidation) and helped secure the demise of Macedonia’s longtime autocratic leader Nikola Gruevski. A similar intervention in Albania solved the government-opposition deadlock over judicial reform that seriously threatened to block the country’s EU perspective. Montenegro finally succeeded to become a member of NATO, a breakthrough that substantially eased internal political tensions and put an end to Russian meddling attempts. However, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the EU’s policy approach, embodied in the so-called Reform Agenda, hit the immovable object of the political elites vested interest in not reforming a system that guarantees rule by constituent parties (despite their past “irrevocable written commitment” to do so). The EU reverted to its well-worn face-saving protocol of conjuring the illusion of progress by lowering conditionality instead of changing its policy. On Serbia and Kosovo, the EU at least implicitly recognized the crisis of its dialogue policy by announcing the start of a “new phase” of the dialogue – which has yet to be filled with substance. Internal political developments in the two countries showed the effect of the EU’s long-term sidelining with authoritarian political leader and of Brussel’s compromising over democracy and the rule of law. And, one cannot leave out Croatia just because it is itself an EU member, as that country through continued direct meddling in the domestic politics in BiH, and concurrent tensions with Serbia, contributes to regional instability not only from Zagreb, but from Brussels.

The EU, and the US are facing a number of core political challenges in the Western Balkans in 2018. DPC will elaborate on these issues throughout 2018, but as a preview the EU, supported by the US needs to:

  1. support Macedonia in moving from regime change toward an irreversible process of genuine democratic transformation based on accountability;
  2. take on the remaining status disputes in the region –
    • help Macedonia to unblock the name issue with Greece by seriously engaging with Athens,
    • move the new phase in the Serbia-Kosovo dialogue toward negotiations on a final, legally binding comprehensive agreement; negotiations need to start with a clear political signal that puts an end to newly emerged advocacy for a land swap, they need to put an end to Kosovo and Serbia being unfinished states and ensure territorial integrity and sovereignty to the Republic of Kosovo as well as a path to full international subjectivity;
  3. face the problems with democracy and rule of law in Serbia and Kosovo on its own terms by stopping to trade democracy for the dialogue;
  4. admit failure of its current policy on Bosnia and Herzegovina and prepare a new, approach based on a profound strategic rethink of its policy, to be initiated after the October 2018 general elections.

In 2018, DPC will as much as in the past years, push for democratic solutions to this challenges at the micro level in the Western Balkans linking them with developments at the macro level. At the same time, we will continue the expansion of our activities, started in 2016, and related to global developments, the crisis of the West and the international liberal order, by further expanding analysis and advocacy and by building new alliances and coalitions across the Atlantic and beyond for liberal democracy.