1. New Balkan Turbulence
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The Balkans was best known for minority problems. Today, the most bitter conflicts are between parties that appeal to majority ethnic communities. As recent turbulence in Macedonia shows, Eastern Europe could face new dangers if majority populism ends the current stigma against separatism for oppressed small groups.
The trouble in the Balkans today is not Russian meddling, though there is some of that, but a special case of the malaise afflicting Eastern Europe: unchecked executive power, erosion of the rule of law, xenophobia directed at neighbours and migrants and pervasive economic insecurity.
The pattern varies from country to country but is palpable from Szczecin on the Baltic to Istanbul on the Bosporus. The countries of the Western Balkans – Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia – have long tended to follow patterns set by their larger, more powerful neighbours. They are doing it again.
The ability of the European Union (EU) to fix problems in the Balkans is hamstrung when the same troubles persist within its own borders, sometimes in more acute form. Take erosion of democratic norms: Hungary over the past decade has slid from 2.14 to 3.54 on Freedom House’s “Nations in Transit” democracy score (lower is better). Poland’s decline is more recent but equally steep. Croatia is also backsliding. Almost all the Western Balkan states are declining, too, but more slowly.
The familiar image of the Balkans is of a region with lots of minority problems: small groups that are oppressed or want to break away. Today, though, the most bitter and dangerous conflicts in most of the states there are between parties that appeal mostly or exclusively to the majority ethnic community. Minorities are bystanders, pulled in against their wishes.
What of the risks of secession? At least three territories have the capacity to break relations with their parent states and establish local control, at least temporarily: Bosnia’s Republika Srpska; Macedonia’s Albanian-majority north west; and Kosovo’s Serb-majority north. All three would prefer to live under a government of their kin, yet none has acted, because they believe secession is doomed to fail. No important country is willing to recognise another breakaway republic in the Balkans.
“ The ability of the European Union to fix problems in the Balkans is hamstrung when the same troubles persist within its own borders, sometimes in more acute form.
This can change in at least two ways. If a state fails to perform essential tasks like holding elections, adopting a budget and disbursing funds, a region could claim independence was necessary and try to break off on these ground. Alternatively, separatism could lose its stigma if one or more territories in the EU context were to break off peacefully – though in practice there is no appetite to accommodate this at the EU level and sensitivities abound among member states. But if either of these happen, it will be time to worry about the Balkans.
“ Europe needs to speak with one voice and show zero tolerance of any party that systematically abuses power, or any state that systematically ignores the rule of law.