Vladimir Djordjevic and Vladimir Vuckovic, in their July 19 piecein Balkan Insight, say they are convinced that the Europeanization of the Balkans has been a failure, have set out to prove it – and are satisfied that they have done so.
Their evidence: corruption and fragile regional relations. Brussels is to blame for taking a “stabilitocratic” approach, i.e. favoring stability over reform. This has become the dominant European critique of post-war transition in the former Yugoslav states, one often shared also in the American press.
It is wrong. Based on some ideal European prototype that may not exist anywhere, even in Denmark, this approach overlooks the palpable progress made throughout the Balkans since the wars of 1991-2001. Progress should be measured from where the Balkans came from, not their distance from an ideal.
The states that once formed part of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s experienced war, mass murder, ethnic cleansing, and humanitarian disaster. Economic growth was slow or negative and corruption was the rule, not the exception. The outflow of refugees was much greater than the migration of young people out of the Balkans today. It was dangerous until 2000 even for an American to drive any route that stopped in Zagreb, Sarajevo, Podgorica, Skopje, Pristina, and Belgrade. I did them all but Belgrade for the first time in 2001, when it was still regarded as daring, especially for my Bosnian Serb driver.
Today, many tourists and people of all ethnic groups go almost wherever and whenever they want in the region, with minimal inconvenience, meeting little hostility, and mostly professional behavior on the part of officials at the borders.
Airports meet international standards. Drinking water and food, once serious hazards, are now safe, even if air pollution is at deplorable levels due to revival of at least some industries and much wider use of air conditioning and electric heating.
Standards of living have risen everywhere. Schools and universities lag behind their Western European counterparts but operate at a level that enables their best graduates to find their ways into Oxford or Princeton for undergraduate and graduate degrees. Rudimentary health care is available everywhere, although more advanced care often requires a trip into the European Union.
Governance and rule of law fall short. Parliaments are elected and coalitions form from majority governments in accordance with now well-worn constitutions, but the process is often less than free and fair, even if election fraud at the polling places is less common than once it was.
Incumbent political parties use their power to feather their nests by awarding contracts, jobs, and pensions well in advance of the voting. Police, prosecutors, and judges have little protection from undue pressure. Institutions that can resist such pressures take decades to build. Courts are not independent, but work under the influence of political, military and security elites, which aim to ensure their own impunity.
These are the “veto players” that Djordjevic and Vuckovic rightly criticize for impeding the fight against corruption. But the authors also castigate the EU for bringing about “mostly only formal, and hence limited and superficial, domestic structural changes”.
That ignores cases in which the EU and US have purposefully and successfully supported those who wanted to rid themselves of corrupt autocratic leaders. Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic and Macedonia’s Nikola Gruevski both found themselves in court as a result.
Those are cases in which the local populations demonstrated not only the political will to remove their leaders but also generated viable, pro-reform alternatives with wide popular support.
Brussels and Washington would be foolish to agitate for change if the alternatives are just as corrupt as, or worse than, current incumbents, or if there is no viable, pro-EU alternative that has support in the Balkan streets. That is unfortunately the case in Montenegro and Serbia: in the former, the dominant forces in the opposition are pro-Russian and anti-NATO; in the latter, there is no viable opposition at all.
The complaint that Djordjevic and Vuckovic register is essentially one about election results: they don’t like the ethnic nationalists who keep winning less than completely free and fair elections. Neither do I. Nor did I like Mayor Daley, who ran Chicago when I lived there in the late 1960s in a manner that would make Alexander Vucic blush, not to mention the ethnic nationalist who today inhabits the White House.
The big obstacle today to the Europeanization of the Balkans, apart from admittedly deplorable nationalist elites bent on protecting themselves, is not a supposed policy of supporting corrupt Balkan elites but rather Europe itself, which is not doing enough to ensure that the prospect of EU membership remains real and compelling to Balkan publics.
The new European Commission and Council need to find ways of keeping the door open, so that those who do advocate for and make the often painful reforms needed to qualify can argue effectively that there is a good chance of their countries getting in. That may still take a decade or more, but those who wish the Balkans well owe the process respect, time, and effort, not reification of an unrealistic ideal.
Daniel Serwer is a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and director of its Conflict Management and American Foreign Policy Programs. He is the author of From War to Peace in the Balkans, the Middle East, and Ukraine, published in January by Palgrave MacMillan.