Democracy in the Balkans: waiting for a new 1989? An interview with Jasmin Mujanović

By on October 2, 2017

While not hitting the headlines as frequently as they used to, the Western Balkans still represent a flashpoint for Europe. Recurring authoritarian trends, incomplete democratisation processes, troublesome external influences and a fading EU perspective make the region a place worth watching closely – especially when it comes to security.

Jasmin Mujanović is a political scientist (PhD, York University) specializing in the politics of post-authoritarian and post-conflict democratization. He is a regular contributor on the Western Balkans for Foreign Affairs, the American Interest, Al Jazeera, Balkan Insight and the Balkanist. His first book Hunger and Fury: The Crisis of Democracy in the Balkans (Hurst, 2017) examines the persistence of illiberal forms of governance in the Western Balkans since the end of the Yugoslav Wars. We asked him to navigate us through the current political and social trends of the region, with an eye on the forthcoming developments and risks.


Democratisation processes seem to be slowly backtracking in the Western Balkans. Serbia’s presidential election further strengthened Vucic’s and SNS’ entrenchment in the country’s power centres. Macedonian institutions’ recovery following the distressed end of PM Gruevski’s 11 year-rule still looks fragile and reversible. Bosnia-Herzegovina appears trapped in its post-Dayton ethno-political conundrum, as 2014 civic unrest did not translate into a viable political alternative. Are the Western Balkans condemned to be stuck in a never-ending democratic transition?

It certainly seems that way but I would caution both observers and policymakers in the West (and in the region) to frame such analyses in context. Yes, the region is in the midst of an evident and deeply disconcerting period of democratic backsliding. But this is the result of deliberate political engineering orchestrated by self-serving political elites who feel threatened by substantive democratic reforms. In such an environment, the viability of elections to produce meaningful change is limited; elites purposefully create climates in which genuinely free and fair debate and deliberation cannot take place, even if actual ballot stuffing remains (relatively) rare.

Accordingly, the onus on creating actual opportunities and openings for reform falls to civil society and social movements. But in a region wherein the successive legacies of authoritarianism and conflict have deeply polluted and limited “learning experiences” for civic mobilization and self-organization, we’re still very much in early stages of these processes. I often encapsulate this sentiment by arguing that the Western Balkans are still waiting on their “1989 moment(s).” The old regimes may be gone, but their architects are not.

So, I think, we have to be a bit more patient. Yes, the protests in BiH in 2014 failed to produce immediate change and it remains too early to tell what the result of the new government change in Macedonia will be. But these episodes are not the end of the process of democratic agitation in the region, they are, in fact, the very beginning of what will take years and likely decades to “complete” (insomuch as the process of democratic consolidation can ever be truly completed; I would suggest that it always a work in progress).

Of course, it can be hard to be patient or optimistic about the Balkans but that’s also why it is especially important that said emerging social manifestations must be led by youth. We have both the energy and actual biological imperative to be optimistic about the future. After all, we’ll still be alive in two or three decades time, many of those in power presently won’t be. Because we will have to live with the consequences of decisions that are (not) being made today in the Balkans, we must demand – through the ballot box and the street – a greater say in how these decisions are made and debated.


As an increasingly inward-looking EU faces several crises at the same time, enlargement ‘s conditionality as a tool for democratization in the Balkans looks outdated and ineffective. What could Brussels do to reverse this trend and make enlargement a serious and attractive policy option again?

The EU needs to fundamentally re-orientate, both publically and at the policy level, who it is “pitching” the prospect of European and Atlantic integration to. Namely, it should be a project aimed at the citizens of the Western Balkans, not the elites. Recall, for the elites, the EU is but the most recent in a long line of ideological masks to obscure their consistently illiberal and authoritarian regimes. Note, for instance, that both Slovenia and Croatia remain two of the most corrupt states in the EU, and Croatia’s HDZ has only lost two parliamentary elections since gaining independence in 1991. That’s hardly an inspiring state of affairs.

These patterns of (non)development are the result of a Euro accession process that remains wedded to purely technocratic definitions of democracy. One simple step that can be taken to reverse course, at least in the remaining candidate and aspirant countries, is to expand and deepen the role that civil society has in both monitoring and implementing the respective accession processes. And, in the long run, the EU must develop stronger mechanisms for dealing with illiberal and proto-authoritarian regimes within their own midst, whether these are Hungary, Poland, or (as appears increasingly the case) Croatia.


Authoritarianism usually translates into weak State institutions. In such context, are Western Balkan countries more exposed to troublesome influence from actors like Russia, Turkey and Saudi Arabia – with the related security risks?

Certainly. Weak institutions and, more importantly, weak democratic norms mean that even mere “spoilers” – as Russia’s activities in the region are often described – have the significant potential for destabilizing the whole of the former Yugoslavia and, in particular, states like BiH and Macedonia where these institutions and norms are especially wobbly. Mind you, I think Russia’s designs on the region are far more serious than those of a simple spoiler but, regardless, the potential for genuine crisis is high.

My long-term concern as far as the crisis of democracy in the Balkans is concerned, and as I argue in my forthcoming book, is that the EU and the U.S. presence in the region is being progressively supplanted by a constellation of international authoritarian regimes; Russia, China, Turkey, the Gulf states etc. While their financial footprint in the region is still relatively small – the only measure policymakers in Brussels and Washington seem to want to discuss – their political clout is growing by leaps and bounds. When you combine this with the illiberal turn in Central Europe, we see that the Balkans’ already weak democratic regimes are being placed under tremendous external pressure.

So, what happens if some – or even just one – of these foreign authoritarian regimes decides to turn the Balkans into a new front for their respective zero-sum confrontations? What happens the next time Putin and Erdoğan have a spat, as seems only a matter of time, and one or both of them decides to weaponize their respective clients in the Balkans? After everything that has happened in Europe and the West, more generally, since Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, the sabotaging of the U.S. election, and the broader shockwaves of the Syrian War, these are the kinds of episodes we need to prepare for. All options are on the table, again.

And, I stress, this is only to give the most realpolitik spin to this discussion. Imagine, alternatively, if when the Macedonian parliament was stormed by the VMRO-DPMNE-backed extremists in April, that Zoran Zaev or other leading SDSM or opposition functionaries had been killed. Such an event would have plunged Macedonia into outright civil strife and would have had catastrophic consequences for the region as a whole. And even though it was, to my mind, a far more hopeful episode, similar concerns should also permeate how we think about the likelihood of a repeat of the 2014 protests in BiH. No one in Brussels or Washington has any right to feel smug or satisfied with how the entire Macedonia government change occurred. It was a near-miss and the region can ill afford to have such scenarios become the norm, even though that appears to be exactly the path we’re headed down.


Bosnians will go to the polls in roughly one year-time. Will it be business as usual, with ethnic parties calling the shots at both entity and State level, or new, more civic-oriented patterns of governance might be in sight?

Given the sectarian provisions of the Dayton constitutional order, the nationalists are, unfortunately, always the favourites to win in BiH. Nevertheless, there are a few reasons to be cautiously optimistic about the next elections. One, we’ve started seeing a serious effort by the left-civic bloc to re-unite its shattered ranks. The SDP and DF have already signed an agreement to run as a joint list and, in time, I trust some of the smaller left parties like the GS and Naša Stranka may join this coalition as well. I am especially heartened by the SDP and DF’s pre-emptive announcement that they will, under no circumstance, join a government with the nationalist SDA. That’s important, as it means the emergence of ideological not ethnic coalitions.

And it’s also important that this process of left re-unification is actually something of a grassroots affair, spurred largely by the advocacy of a handful leading intellectuals, led by Dr. Neven Andjelic (Reagent’s University London). Thus, the so-called “Jahorina Declaration” (of which I was a signatory) published in December 2016 serves as a pretty useful policy document on which to base our expectations, or at least aspirations, for 2018 and the period there after.

Relatedly, there are finally some reasons to be optimistic about the situation in the RS. The SDS-led opposition bloc has at long last turned the corner on its relationship with Milorad Dodik and the SNSD, and they are now fully and completely committed to ousting them from power. Dodik, like Gruevski, is likely to use all means, fair and foul, to preserve his regime and in this there is great danger for BiH, as I have recently warned. But if the opposition in the RS is able to defeat Dodik, or at least to repeat their relative gains from 2014, and the left-civic bloc in the Federation repeats their performance from 2010, such a result would dramatically kick-start Sarajevo’s EU and NATO integrations in short order.

The NATO half of that equation is especially important, as I noted in Foreign Affairs a few weeks ago, which is why the 2018 elections are also likely to see significant Russian interference. After the events in Macedonia and Montenegro, Moscow is especially keen to keep BiH – which it (correctly) sees as the geopolitical and strategic center of the Balkans – on the margins of NATO. Its local proxies, especially the Dodik regime but also Dragan Čović’s HDZ, have ensured that this was not a serious concern, at least not since 2006, but 2018 is shaping up to be a potential game changer. Suffice it to say while the likelihood of status quo paralysis is high, there is also genuine potential for progress in BiH if a handful of factors fall into place come next year.

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