North Macedonia's recent successes have sent a ripple throughout the region
The presidential elections in North Macedonia last Sunday produced both a winner – pro-EU and pro-NATO candidate Stevo Pendarovski, a member of the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) – and the necessary turnout. According to the Macedonian constitution, a minimum of 40 percent of votes are required to validate the result under the constitution. After almost a decade at the bottom of the list of Western Balkans’ aspirants entering the European Union, North Macedonia climbed a steep slope to catch up, even overtaking some along the way.
Its path included public protests and external pressure (from the United States and the EU) which brought down long-time authoritarian prime minister Nikola Gruevski. His successor – Zoran Zaev, a relatively unknown politician from a small town – led an SDSM government that concluded a friendship treaty with Bulgaria and resolved the long-standing dispute with another neighbour, Greece, over North Macedonia’s name. The agreement was ratified by a slim margin but secured a majority in parliament following a positive but insufficient referendum.
Zaev’s victory was the last episode in a process that began more than three years ago and proved that a clear vision and strong political will can defeat authoritarian leaders, resolve symbolic issues with neighbours (even in the Balkans!), and reinstate a country’s as a credible EU candidate. Now, Skopje expects to begin negotiations with the EU in the second half of 2019.
The land swap deal between Serbia and Kosovo is clearly not happening any time soon – and this is good
Meanwhile, several waves of protest have spread across the Western Balkans in recent months. All have been influenced by the events in North Macedonia and, on the surface, are quite similar: a strong leader at the top (Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, Albanian President Edi Rama) confronted spontaneously on the streets by the people in Serbia and Albania to demand more civil and political rights. But events in the countries differ in both their composition and goals.
Protests in Belgrade
There have been weekly protests in Belgrade since early December 2018, with demonstrators taking to the streets for the 22nd time last weekend. However, it is only in the past month that opposition politicians have taken a lead in the events.
Serbia’s opposition parties make no secret of their ideological diversity. They include parties ranging from the extreme left to the far right of the political spectrum; but they are united against President Vucic and in support of a political process and culture that operates by rules and provides space for the opposition to play a role. They want to fix the dysfunctional parliament; to address the 39 recommendations on reform from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights; and, especially, to gain access to the state media.
Freedom House’s decision to reclassify Serbia as “partially free” rather than “free” in 2019 reflects the authoritarian tendencies of its leadership.
Thus, the parallel the protesters, consciously or unconsciously, have in mind is the anti-Slobodan Milosevic opposition in the 1990s, when liberals like Zoran Djindjic and conservatives like Vojislav Kostunica united behind a similar cause. Yet, unlike in the 1990s, polls suggest that 50 percent of the current protesters are mobilised by economic issues, while around 40 percent are focused on civil liberties and around 10 percent on Kosovo.
For the moment, however, Vucic’s Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) remains dominant in Serbia, followed at a distance by his coalition partner the Socialist Party (or SPS, Milosevic’s former party, which is now led by Ivica Dacic). The president seems confident that he can win a snap election, if necessary: he appears to believe that the support he can muster in rural communities offsets the threat from the demonstrations.
The loose opposition grouping the Alliance for Serbia believes the situation has changed over the last couple of months and that the current government’s trajectory is not leading Serbia to the EU. Opposition parties’ biggest concern is the amount of exposure they get on state-sponsored media outlets and the government’s abuse of its media influence in campaigning against protest leaders. This is partly done by labelling protest leaders as “fascists” (Bosko Obradovic of Dveri) or “tycoons” (Vuk Jeremic and Dragan Djilas).
In the view of the Alliance for Serbia, one possible solution for the current stand-off in the country would be a caretaker government, which would give the opposition political room for manoeuvre and thus provide a level playing field in elections. If there is a snap election, opposition parties might boycott it.
Berlin’s Balkan summit
The 29 April summit in Berlin co-hosted by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron was a clear demonstration that the European External Action Service (EEAS) has not played the role of an honest broker on behalf of the EU and its member states. Berlin, taking Paris on board, was keen to retake the initiative, especially on the Serbia-Kosovo dialogue.
Driven by US National Security Advisor John Bolton and facilitated by the EEAS, the dialogue has gone in a radical, albeit unoriginal, direction. Vucic and Kosovo President Hashim Thaçi initially suggested that they could resolve the dispute between their countries through a land swap, only for Kosovo Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj to undermine their efforts by imposing a tariff on Serbian goods. The summit in Berlin further forestalled the proposed land swap – at least until Belgrade and Pristina reach a broader agreement that would lead to Serbia’s recognition of Kosovo and accession to the EU. This is unlikely to be achieved under the current Serbian government, due to its confrontational tone and authoritarian inclinations.
It is with bitterness and a degree of self-pity that Vucic discusses the stalemate in Serbia’s negotiations with Kosovo. He takes every opportunity to reiterate that, unlike Kosovo, Serbia has fulfilled its commitments under the Brussels Agreement, particularly those on the association of municipalities. According to opinion polls, 62 percent of Serbs would prefer that their country remained in a frozen conflict with Kosovo, and most of them favour the implementation of the Ahtisaari Plan.
In this context, Serbia’s major allies and adversaries seem to have swapped places: Vucic now relies on the US to pressure Haradinaj to repeal the tariffs and, since meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin in November 2018, seems to have become more sceptical of Russia. While Moscow is widely perceived as Belgrade’s traditional ally, many Serbian politicians are convinced that the resolution of the dispute between Serbia and Kosovo would not be in Russia’s interest. They believe that the Kremlin aims to retain its ability to meddle in the disagreement where possible.
Protests in Tirana
Unlike Serbia, Albania is experiencing a political crisis driven not by a lack of political space for the opposition but rather by the opposition’s desire to take a short cut to power and avoid elections it cannot win.
The protests began after the government increased university tuition fees. Since Prime Minister Edi Rama often regards himself as “hip” and “down with the kids”, the protests delivered a blow to his public image. In response to protesters’ demands, he quickly set up a platform for dialogue and reduced tuition fees. Nevertheless, the opposition built on the mood of unrest, which on 18 February culminated in the centre-right opposition Democratic Party’s decision to boycott parliament.
Civil society leaders in Albania tend to describe the situation as the “Macedonia model” reversed. According to them, 47 percent of the population trust no politician, while 75 percent are against the “burning” of mandates by the opposition. The opposition might even go as far as to boycott local elections in June, adding weight to the argument – put forward by France and other European countries – that the EU should postpone its accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia. The opposition has accused Rama of arrogance, and has in turn been accused of having received funds from Russia. Thus, the polarisation is growing day by day. Given that the opposition is likely to escalate the situation further, Europeans should call on the government to begin a political dialogue, and on the opposition to participate in local elections.
Rama has adopted rhetoric on “Greater Albania” largely in an attempt to compensate for his lack of successes on the international scene and the new cold shoulder from the EU: the union’s reluctance to enter accession negotiations with his country has prompted him to revive ambitions to unite Albania and Kosovo (to the displeasure of the government in Pristina). During a government reshuffle in December 2018, Rama appointed Gent Cakaj, a 27-year-old born in Kosovo, as foreign minister – only for President Ilir Meta to veto the decision.
Following EU Commissioner Johannes Hahn’s visit to Tirana the following month, Rama proposed a “New Schengen Area” for Albania and Kosovo – and, possibly, other parts of the Western Balkans – through which citizens could move freely. (This would likely please citizens of Kosovo, after Brussels refused to grant them visa-free travel within the EU.) Rama brought up the proposal again in March, following a meeting with Zaev. Research the Open Society Foundation conducted last month showed that 65 percent of Albanians and 52 percent of Kosovo citizens support unification, shares that could grow by around 10 percent if the issue was put to a referendum.
Rama has attempted to insert himself into the negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo on a land-swap deal, despite persistent opposition to this in his party and wider society. Meta – who shares Haradinaj’s criticism of the EU, stating that “the Dialogue has demonstrated the EU’s weakness” – doubts that Serbia and Kosovo can make a deal, even if the government Pristina repeals the import tariff. The fact that an agreement on demarcating the border between Kosovo and Montenegro lasted for three years for no good reason demonstrates the difficulty of the task.
The need for political courage
The success of the Macedonian model sent a ripple through the Western Balkans in three major ways. Firstly, countries in the region now feel that there is new momentum in European integration, believing that they can strengthen their relationships with the EU in the coming years on merit. Should European member states postpone the accession process due to domestic calculations, this would discourage Balkans leaders from showing political courage in a complex, symbolically important region. France, the Netherlands, and other member states should allow the EU to open negotiations with North Macedonia and, possibly, Albania later this year. Such a move would help strengthen faith in the interests the EU shares with Western Balkans countries.
Secondly, opposition parties in the region look to the Macedonian model in contesting the government’s power. But while the Serbian opposition strives to re-enter politics on the basis of rules and principles that would create a framework and a political culture that gave it a legitimate role, the opposition in Albania is voluntarily exiting the political realm. Dialogue and a return to political civility are needed to overcome both crises.
Thirdly, the nineteenth-century view that a strong neighbour can impose its will on others was overturned by the resolution of the name issue. President Vucic may have expected to be consulted; but the agreement was reached without him. This is a healthy message for the EU to repeat. Each country in the region will succeed on its own merits, and by its own efforts, exercised in the spirit of good neighbourly relations. The principle should also apply to the dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo. This too should be based on the desire for prosperity and good relations with neighbours, and on transparency and inclusiveness.
The land swap deal between Serbia and Kosovo will clearly not happen any time soon – and this is good for two reasons. Although there is a need to move forward, away from the 2008 status quo, there is no evidence that the adjustment of the border would be prepared well or executed carefully. Moreover, the Serbian government will now have to focus on addressing the democratic deficiencies in Serbia instead of discussing great power gambits.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.