On Thursday, October 5th, 2023, Professor Veronica Anghel hosted a conversation on political risk and the future of the Western Balkans with Jelena Dzankic, Professor at the Robert Schuman Centre of the European University Institute in Florence, Italy.
Though the Yugoslav Wars ended nearly 25 years ago, the underlying ethnic and factional conflicts still simmer within and between Western Balkan countries. Contestation within and among the Balkan states has recently resurfaced as a border crisis between Serbia and Kosovo, which only deescalated after the United States put pressure on Serbia.
"Tensions that have been unresolved for the past 30 years—but we could go even further back in history—can escalate in an unstable environment, said Dzankic. "Regional stability in the Western Balkans is very fragile."
Within states, contestation has taken the form of political paralysis; in Bosnia-Herzegovina, for example, the constitution—adopted as Anex IV to the 1995 Dayton Accords ending the war in Bosnia—has calcified an unwieldy and unrepresentative balance of power between the country's three largest ethnic groups. Unresolved conflict, in turn, feeds into the region's lack of democratic culture.
"These countries have a very scarce experience with democracy," said Dzankic. "The democratic path [...] after the fall of the Berlin Wall was downwards, and not upwards as was the case with Central Europe. The former Yugoslav lands descended into wars, Albania went into even greater isolation, which did not allow for this political moment of the rebirth of democracy."
Though there was hope for democratization in the early 2000s, most Western Balkan states have failed to build a democratic culture. Constituents do not hold their increasingly populist and autocratic politicians accountable. Young people disillusioned with political and economic stagnation emigrate at extremely high levels.
"These countries [...] have fallen into a sort of a transitional black hole," said Dzankic. "One of the things that you can see is a high degree of emigration from the Western Balkans, which has increased over the last few years to 25% of Montenegrin population […], up to 50% of the population of Bosnia-Herzegovina which now lives abroad, and the numbers in North Macedonia, Serbia, and Albania are around between 30% and 40%. So you can see a huge number of people simply leaving these countries in pursuit of better opportunities elsewhere."
In a regional and global environment characterized by escalating geopolitical crises, non-Western powers express increasing interest in the Western Balkans. This expanded dependency on external actors is generally predatory, as with exploitative Chinese loans that have significant economic consequences for countries like Montenegro.
However, while Balkan populations generally oppose economically avaricious and environmentally damaging infrastructure projects, they have not translated their opposition into political power, further degrading nascent democracies.
"Especially with industrial investments, the effects of pollution have been felt by local populations," said Dzankic. "But local populations do not hold their politicians accountable."
Russia, China, and the UAE are filling a vacuum produced by Western non-interest in the Balkans. While the EU has trumpeted its commitment to extending membership to the region, this remains distant.
"There's a discrepancy between the rhetoric on EU enlargement and the the possibility of this happening in the near future," said Dzankic. "Within the next 5 [years]... I don't see any of the region's countries becoming part of the EU."
Stabilizing the region and bringing Balkan nations closer to EU membership will ultimately depend on younger generations.
Said Dzankic, "With proper […] education, with proper knowledge, it's the young people who could carry these countries forward—if they don't leave."
Jelena Dzankic is part-time Professor in the Global Governance Programme at the Robert Schuman Centre of the European University Institute in Florence, Italy. Dzankic is Director of GGP Southeastern Europe and Co-Director of the Global Citizenship Observatory (GLOBALCIT).
She holds a PhD degree in International Studies from the University of Cambridge, and has taught and researched at the University of Edinburgh, University College London, University of Graz, and Passau University.
She is the author of the Global Market for Investor Citizenship (Palgrave 2019), a leading study in the field of wealth-based citizenship acquisition. Her earlier works include Citizenship in Bosnia Herzegovina, Macedonia and Montenegro. Effects of Statehood and Identity Challenges (Routledge, 2015), and the edited volumes Europeanisation of the Western Balkans: A failure of EU Conditionality (2018, with S. Keil and M. Kmezic), and The Europeanisation of Citizenship Governance in South-East Europe (2016, with S. Kacarska and N. Pantic). Her articles appeared, inter alia, in Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, Nationalities Papers, and International Migration Review.