Will the COVID-19 pandemic strengthen or weaken democracy in the Western Balkans?

Everyone is so eager for the year 2020 to end and be forgotten as promptly as possible. It has been a year of turmoil, despair, uncertainty, and fear. This year has also turned all eyes on government’s ability to handle the health crisis, to take care of its citizens, and to reassure them that any step in their power will be taken to ensure people are safe and protected. The only certainty is that this year will not be forgotten. As for the Corona nightmare ending in 2021, it’s rather unlikely.

The domestic handling of the pandemic crisis set a daunting challenge for countries in the Western Balkans (WB). Known as states with unconsolidated democratic systems, with weak institutions, widespread clientelism, and low transparency, they were truly put to the democracy test. To intercept and halt the virus spread, several countries declared a state of emergency (Serbia, North Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina). This meant the imposition of long curfews and limits on civil liberties, legislative initiatives adopted through fast procedures, and changes to election rules. Furthermore, the names of citizens ordered to self-isolate during the pandemic were published (Montenegro, North Macedonia). In the meantime, a government was toppled through a vote of no-confidence (Kosovo)[1][2]. In all countries, there was a flood of fake news on mainstream and social media, with different conspiracy theories, but also untrue methods for dealing with the disease.

It could be said that this is to be expected in a region where countries have been struggling to consolidate their democracies since the 1990s, and the challenges mentioned above are simply a consequence of decades of political erosion. No wonder that under these circumstances, citizens’ trust in government institutions and their ability to cope with the virus, was low to begin with. The pandemic did impose an additional burden on the political systems, and they did send dangerous signals. If such tendencies continue to erode the societies even after the pandemic is over, they would further damage and significantly slow the pace of WB countries, candidates for EU membership.

On another note, the pandemic is not over yet. A global economic crisis is most likely on our doorstep, and the longer it lasts, the bigger the democratic challenge will be. This would “invite“ other external actors to take advantage of the fragile state of democracy in the Western Balkans and enhance their presence (Russia, China, Turkey, the UAE). Even before the pandemic, these countries have been exercising influence through various instruments. The region has also been known for its fragile stability in terms of security. Further democratic backsliding could be a contributing factor to the region’s renewed instability and conflict.

What can be done to consolidate rather than weaken democracy in the Western Balkans?

At the beginning of the year, the EU announced the revised enlargement methodology, and decided to open negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia. This process has also been affected by the pandemic. It raised fears that this process’ dynamic would be slowed down, since bigger challenges have risen in priority in the EU’s agenda. However, the European Commission has restated its aspirations for the Western Balkans region, and adopted the comprehensive Economic and Investment Plan for the Western Balkans. It would be important to start the negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia as soon as possible, so that the reform process related to it can unfold properly.

In general terms, instead of constantly reassessing the influence of external actors like Russia, China, and Turkey in the Western Balkans, the EU should seriously engage in finding solutions to tackle these actors’ presence. It is apparent that even though their overall investments are much lower than the EU, their communication strategy targeted at citizens is much stronger, and people are being convinced that these particular actors are their real allies (e.g., the media spotlight of the Chinese donations to Serbia to tackle the pandemic). The EU is straining its credibility in the region, leaving it to wait on the doorstep for too long, and leaving space for the “others” to fill in. Instead of “extinguishing fires” in the region and inertly mediating conflicts among neighbouring countries, the EU should be blunt and swift in its decision-making and communication towards the region. The announced Economic and Investment Plan for the WB countries is a great way to show presence and serious commitment to the region. But on the political side, the entire enlargement and accession process is missing dynamism. There are countries which have been candidates for more than 10 years without any prospect to foresee the date of accession and this creates “fatigue” in the EU support by the electorate and a vacuum for tendencies to shift the perspective towards the very known authoritarianism. It is not demanded from the EU to lower the criteria for accession, nor to impose “fast-track” negotiations, but consistency and dynamics which will keep the candidate countries motivated to maintain their course.

Finally, the pandemic was not as encouraging for autocrats as expected. This is true globally, not only in the region. Authoritarian leaders can reinforce their power through crises they can control, with an enemy of their choosing and strings they can pull. The global pandemic has one “monster“ enemy, the Coronavirus, which cannot be negotiated with. Governments must work and show proven results that they are handling it, enabling comparison with other countries through numbers and measures. But citizens cannot be fooled. This showed in Montenegro’s election results, in the Serbian protests about the announced reimposition of a curfew during the summer, but also in Belarus.

The spark of hope is that maybe this pandemic will not significantly enhance democracies in the Western Balkans, but it will not weaken them either. And there are ways of moving away from the status quo.

This article was submitted as part of the author’s application for the Road to Warsaw Security Forum: Western Balkans Program organised by the Casimir Pulaski Foundation.

[1] This designation is in line with UN Security Council Resolution 1244/99 and the International Court of Justice Opinion on the Kosovo declaration of independence.

[2] More on: Tzifakis, Nikolaos. “The Western Balkans during the Pandemic: Democracy and Rule of Law in Quarantine?” European View, (October 2020).