2021-10-11 14:26:04 As EU hopes fade, Russia, China fill voids across Western Balkans | European Union News
As EU hopes fade, Russia, China fill voids across Western Balkans
Analysts tell Al Jazeera that as the prospect of Western Balkan nations joining the EU recedes, Russia and China will step up their efforts to fill voids in the region.
Slovenia, which currently holds the EU presidency, urged the bloc last week to admit Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Albania by 2030.
The 27-member bloc rejected Ljubljana’s proposal for the six countries, all of which are at various stages of the membership process, on Wednesday due to migration concerns, but emphasized the importance of the region eventually joining the bloc.
“The Western Balkans are a part of Europe, just like the European Union.” “The EU is incomplete without them,” EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said at the meeting in Brdo, Slovenia.
However, the fact that the countries will not be joining the EU anytime soon gives Russia and China the green light to expand their presence in the region, according to analysts, a concern that EU leaders also expressed at the summit.
“Either Europe extends a hand and pulls these [Western Balkan] countries toward us, or someone else extends a hand and pulls these countries in a different direction,” Latvian Prime Minister Arturs Krisjanis Karins warned during the meeting.
Austria’s Sebastian Kurz, the embattled right-wing leader who resigned last week amid a corruption scandal, said last week: “If the European Union does not offer this region a real perspective, we must be aware that other superpowers… will play a larger role there.”
‘The situation has already deteriorated.’
According to political scientist Jasmin Mujanovic, Moscow and Beijing are already involved in the region, and the EU “lost the plot” in the Western Balkans quite some time ago.
“What’s most concerning is that there is still no Plan B.” The situation is already deteriorating, we’re dealing with new types of security and instability threats, and the EU is still failing to articulate any kind of post-enlargement vision for the region,” Mujanovic said.
A coup plot orchestrated by 14 people, including two Russian military intelligence officers, failed in 2016 to install a pro-Russian, anti-NATO leadership in Montenegro. The allegations were dismissed as “absurd” by Moscow.
Evidence also suggests that Russia has undermined Bosnia’s stability in order to keep the country out of NATO.
“Russia is heavily involved in Bosnia and Herzegovina.” It has explicitly stated that it opposes Bosnia’s membership in NATO and sees it as a threat to Russia’s security interests, which is obviously absurd. “However, it demonstrates the extent to which Russia has elevated this region in its foreign policy thinking,” Mujanovic explained.
With the denial of the Srebrenica genocide in recent years, Western Balkan countries have witnessed more historical revisionism, while concerns have grown over Serbia’s calls for a new “Serb World.”
Russia vetoed a UN genocide resolution in 2015 that would have declared the 1995 massacre in Srebrenica a “crime of genocide,” as international courts have already ruled.
Milorad Dodik, Bosnia’s Serb member of the tripartite presidency and a genocide denier, has stepped up calls for the Serb-run entity Republika Srpska to secede.
A Bosnian investigative news website reported in 2018 that Russian-trained mercenaries were assisting in the establishment of a paramilitary unit to support Serb separatists. Bosnia’s minister of security confirmed the report.
Vesko Garcevic, a Boston University professor, told Al Jazeera that the developments in the Western Balkans over the last five years were “not a good sign.”
The EU’s dwindling “soft power” will slow the region’s democratization process and “create space for other countries to enter,” according to Garcevic.
“In international relations, there is no such thing as limbo… China has been filling the space left vacant by Brussels in the last… let’s say… five years.
“Moscow sees this as an opportunity and will increase its support for groups and politicians such as Dodik in Bosnia or [Serbian President Aleksandar] Vucic in Belgrade, or it will do everything possible to keep the situation in Kosovo frozen.”
Analysts also noted that the dialogue between Pristina and Belgrade has dragged on for ten years with no progress on the central issue of Kosovo’s independence.
While summit leaders emphasized the importance of dialogue, it was unclear “how the process will exert its power if the perspective of membership is no longer clear,” according to Garcevic.
“With the prospect of EU membership, the EU has significant leverage to counterbalance negative trends in the Balkans… that leverage perspective has resulted in positive changes in the region.”
‘There is no strategy.’
According to Toby Vogel, senior associate at the Democratization Policy Council, the process of joining the EU is becoming increasingly difficult.
For example, in 2019, the European Commission asked potential candidate Bosnia to meet 14 priority points for its membership application. Bosnia had only completed one of the points a year later.
In an article, PhD researcher Nedim Hogic noted that Bosnia has been asked to do more for opening negotiations than any other country, which has resulted in incremental progress.
“By treating all 14 issues as equally important and demanding significant constitutional changes in exchange for candidacy status with an unclear perspective, the EU tries to achieve too much while offering too little, risking progress even on non-contested issues,” Hogic wrote.
Potential candidate countries, according to Vogel, are now hesitant to join the bloc.
“The EU has no strategy for its relations with the Western Balkans other than enlargement, and as soon as enlargement hits a snag, the EU’s influence diminishes,” Vogel explained.
“Whereas China and Russia – particularly China – are presenting loans that are essentially devoid of any political conditions, such as democracy, rule of law, and so on.” As a result, many regional leaders viewed this as “free money.”
Beijing has made significant loans to the region. Montenegro accepted a $1 billion loan for a road in 2014, which it has struggled to repay since.
“We need EU enlargement because it will improve the EU and the Western Balkans,” Vogel explained.
According to Garcevic, ideals promoted by the EU, such as good governance and accountability, “only [work] when the EU membership perspective is visible, something we can see on the horizon.”
“Missing that horizon gives the impression to people in the Western Balkans, to political elites, that it’s a moving target… [Membership] will not occur in the next 15 years, so there is no need for reform. They will turn to China because it can do business with them better.”
Beijing’s growing economic presence is causing concern in Brussels.
Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia are all candidates for EU membership or potential candidates. President von der Leyen reiterated and emphasized the EU’s 2003 Thessaloniki declaration that “the future of the Balkans is within the European Union” in her 2020 State of the Union address. Nonetheless, the region remains an outpost within Europe, drawing increasing attention from “external powers” whose interests may not always coincide with those of the EU.
In 2018, EU Commissioner Johannes Hahn warned that Chinese investment in the Western Balkans could turn the region’s countries into “trojan horses” capable of undermining the EU from within.
Since then, there has been increased scrutiny of Chinese projects in the Western Balkans, with concerns raised that the low standards of BRI projects may have a negative impact on the local environment, rule of law, financial sustainability, and, ultimately, the region’s EU integration prospects.
EU dissatisfaction may be exacerbated by the possibility of Chinese companies eating into European market share.
The focus of China’s presence in the Western Balkans is on Serbia and infrastructure loans.
China’s economic footprint in the Western Balkans is still small, but it has grown rapidly in recent years. The first Chinese infrastructure project in the region was completed in 2014, making the Western Balkans one of the world’s last frontiers for Chinese investment.
Serbia hosts the vast majority of Chinese finance in the region; it is the largest market in the Western Balkans and a front-runner for EU membership. Several large greenfield investments in Serbia have been made by Chinese companies, largely financed by loans from China’s Export-Import Bank. The loans were made for infrastructure projects and were secured by contracts with Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs).
Some of these projects run counter to EU expectations, such as coal-fired power plants or corrupt highway projects. Experience has shown that when projects are well-chosen and implemented prudently, Chinese finance can either fuel positive development or bring out the worst in corrupt local elites. The availability of Chinese finance reduces the EU’s ability to push for regulatory convergence.
On a broader geopolitical level, Beijing provides regional leaders with foreign policy flexibility. No one in the Western Balkans, however, believes that the offer is more desirable than EU membership and European integration.
Beijing fills the void left by the EU’s lack of strategy.
Beijing benefits from its newcomer status. While European, Russian, and Turkish partnerships have a history of interference, Beijing comes with a clean slate and promises interference-free development. In many countries, China serves as a counterweight to the regional hegemon, a dynamic that is also at work in the Balkans between Beijing and Brussels.
China is primarily intervening in areas where the EU has been absent, such as building highways for which North Macedonia and Montenegro had unsuccessfully sought funding from European partners. Similarly, anti-Western narratives and dissatisfaction with the pace of European integration cast a more favorable light on China.
China’s growing influence in the region is symptomatic of the Western Balkan countries’ strained relations with the EU, which has other causes. The best way for Brussels to address concerns about China’s influence is to make more efforts to listen to local needs and provide realistic, appealing alternatives to BRI projects and funds.
The EU’s new EUR 9 billion investment plan, which could provide long-term alternatives to potentially corrosive Chinese capital, is a step in the right direction. The Western Balkans are not the EU’s backyard or neighborhood; they are a “inner courtyard,” vital to Europe’s future, and thus an important arena for the work of the EU’s self-described “Geopolitical Commission.”
Confronting Stabillocracy in the Western Balkans – A New Strategy for US Assistance
Over three decades, the United States’ diplomatic and financial investments in the Western Balkans have aided Euro-Atlantic integration and economic growth. However, they have not stopped state capture, environmental degradation, or emigration. For the next decade, a new path must be forged.
The US must reinvest diplomatically in the region and reshape its assistance around two pillars: (1) a long-term civil society and local ownership approach that is agnostic to power centers, and (2) the development of a transparent and accountable economic ecosystem that prioritizes young people and diversifies economic opportunities.
There are risks to a US strategy that prioritizes individual dignity, civil society actors, and non-governmental stakeholders over entrenched leaders, who will see this type of assistance as a threat to their patronage networks. However, it is the only way to break the “stabilocratic” nature of these regimes and reverse stagnation.
Thirty Years of American Policy
Over the last three decades, the United States’ attitude toward the Western Balkans has shifted and drifted.
1 Significant positive structural changes have occurred across the region, from independence to NATO membership for some countries, alongside negative dynamics such as leadership ossification, damaging emigration, and institutional stagnation.
Conflict, ethnic cleansing, and regional fragmentation characterized the region in the 1990s. In the latter half of the decade, strife gradually gave way to economic reconstruction and increased stability. Throughout this period, the United States prioritized conflict prevention and regional stabilization through military intervention and significant diplomatic and economic investments, which eventually led to greater Euro-Atlantic integration. The 1995 Dayton Agreement, which secured peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina (hereafter Bosnia); the 1999 NATO air strikes to end Serbian forces’ assault on Albanian Muslims in Kosovo, and the subsequent UN political process; and the Ohrid Framework Agreement, which established the basic principles for the Republic of North Macedonia in 2001, are among the highlights of this investment and intervention (then the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia).
Throughout the 2000s, the US maintained its economic aid focus on post-conflict stabilization while also promoting the region’s Euro-Atlantic integration, with diplomatic investments gradually tapering off. However, in the aftermath of 9/11, the priority shifted to counterterrorism, terrorism financing, and illicit trafficking, resulting in a shift in US assistance toward greater security cooperation. Enhanced regional integration remained a priority, resulting in regional trade liberalization, with Western Balkan countries joining the Central European Free Trade Agreement in 2006 and the formation of the Regional Cooperation Council in 2008.
During those years, the United States’ residual diplomatic engagement in the region was primarily focused on Bosnia and Kosovo. In Bosnia, an effort to support the passage of a defense law in 2005 resulted in the country joining NATO’s Partnership for Peace program in 2006. In Kosovo, US diplomacy backed the country’s unilateral declaration of independence in 2008. Following these events, the United States’ interest began to wane as Washington encouraged the European Union to take greater responsibility for the region and accession prospects became clear.
Over the last decade, the United States’ ambition for the region has waned. There has been a tendency to let things play out while expecting the European Union to “manage” the region through the enlargement process. In the meantime, US assistance has remained focused on strengthening institutional capacity, security, and law enforcement, as well as preparing the ground for EU integration and accession.
Unfortunately, the process of accession has stalled and become increasingly political. Only Croatia has joined the EU, and the two countries considered front-runners, Serbia and Montenegro, have seen their progress stall for political and economic reasons. North Macedonia’s progress has also been overshadowed: with the name recognition issue with Greece resolved, Skopje has cleared an immediate roadblock to Euro-Atlantic integration (though Bulgaria’s concerns about historical and language issues have created a new roadblock, putting Northern Macedonia’s accession process in limbo).
Positively, NATO enlargement in the region has continued: Montenegro and North Macedonia joined the alliance in 2017 and 2020, respectively. Even as the enlargement process has slowed, NATO continues to engage in bilateral engagement across the Balkans.
Thirty Years Later
The Western Balkans have now returned to the United States’ strategic agenda, owing primarily to strategic competition in the region, namely the rise of Russian, Chinese, and, to a lesser extent, Turkish, and Gulf influence. The 25th anniversary of the Dayton Peace Accords was a stark reminder of what previous US diplomatic and economic assistance in the region could accomplish—as well as an acute recognition of the country’s drift since that historic engagement. Despite these reminders, the United States’ agenda is more focused on the actions of outside powers in the region than on a coherent U.S. engagement policy.
Strategic competition has contributed to Western complacency with Balkan leaders who have tightened their patronage networks over the last two decades. These leaders have learned the “language of the West,” paying lip service to the need for reform in order to keep aid flowing, even when they know such reforms are detrimental to their interests (good governance threatens corrupt practices). While Western leaders have recognized the credibility gap, they have prioritized the stability that these leaders appear to provide the West, as well as rhetorical support against strategic competitors. However, adherence to this “stabilocracy” is a short-term strategy; the region’s long-term stagnation will eventually lead to greater instability and an outsized role for foreign malign influence.
The costs of stability are high: from Serbia’s Aleksandar Vucic to Montenegro’s Milo Djukanovic, powerful leaders using strongman tactics have presided over years of state capture. While North Macedonia and Kosovo have made small steps forward, governments in Albania and Serbia have faced boycotts and protests over environmental and democratic standards. Montenegro has experienced real political change for the first time in 30 years, but the new political leadership is vulnerable to Russian malign influence, potentially reinforcing the view that stability is more important than change.
Strategic competition has contributed to Western complacency with Balkan leaders who have tightened their patronage networks over the last two decades.
Patronage networks have become deeply entrenched throughout the region, and public administrations have become politicized and populated with party loyalists. The work of the late 1990s and early 2000s has largely been demolished. The region requires something akin to institution rebuilding in the form of assistance and support—a heavy lift.
These networks have both fed and been fed by the region’s poor governance: all six countries are now classified as having “transitional or hybrid” regimes. Despite respectable economic growth, inadequate governance structures have hampered significant improvements in living standards. Corruption and emigration have increased societal frustration, which has been exacerbated by pollution and concerns about rising environmental degradation.
Corruption has worsened in the Western Balkans over the last decade, according to Transparency International. In the six countries, anywhere from 30% (in Bosnia) to 66% (in North Macedonia) believe corruption has had a significant negative impact on their lives. Basic services to citizens are inadequate, and administrations lack data and management tools, such as those needed to obtain reliable data on birth rates or land registry.
Many people have been forced to flee as a result of these conditions. Over the last five years, the region’s working-age population has shrunk by over 400,000 people; today, 47 percent of Bosnians live abroad. This brain drain creates a vicious demographic cycle, which citizens clearly recognize: only Kosovo has a majority (52 percent) who believe their country’s young generation has a bright future. Bosnia and Herzegovina (11%) and North Macedonia (11%) have the lowest rates (17 percent).
Every Western Balkan country has more than 25% youth unemployment, and unemployment is cited as the most serious problem in all six countries.
3 The lack of quality public services and adequate healthcare options only contributes to emigration, prompting some people to seek treatment elsewhere.
While some countries have taken steps toward a green transition and sustainable energy, environmental conditions and air pollution continue to be a serious issue in the region, sparking local activism and pushback against some governments. Due to aging power plants, mining, and other factories, the Western Balkans are one of Europe’s critical hotspots for air pollution (some of which are recent Chinese investments). These problems are exacerbated by a shaky healthcare system and gaps in data collection on air quality.
In 2018, the average concentration of dangerous fine particles was nearly six times higher than the World Health Organization’s recommended limit. Such particles pose serious health risks, including acute lower respiratory infections, chronic pulmonary disease, and cardiovascular disease. The toll is clear: air pollution is responsible for up to 19% of all premature deaths in Western Balkan cities. After all, environmental degradation is “a consequence of governance failures such as clientelism, graft, and gross incompetence.” These failures are especially visible to citizens whose windows must remain closed for days on end due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
There is a fundamental disconnect between the stated desire for greater regional integration and what it necessitates on one side—transparency of investments, market economy conditions, and responsive governance—and the maintenance of patronage networks and business-as-usual politics on the other. This disconnect has not been addressed by either US or EU assistance or engagement. Instead, the US and EU governments have prioritized government-to-government and inter-institutional dialogue. Though this strategy made sense at the time, it has since strengthened the positions of long-standing Balkan leaders rather than fostering reform. This government-to-government approach has also been reinforced by the EU accession processes.
Furthermore, EU accession has lost appeal for some Balkan citizens, who see the prospect of Euro-Atlantic membership receding further into the future, while it remains a positive prospect for many others. This is reinforced by a lack of progress in daily life and the fact that their children are leaving the region. Balkan leaders, who recognize public ambivalence and continue to oppose reform, have begun to hedge against membership, despite significant EU investment over the years.
Because of these negative dynamics, other state and non-state actors have stepped in to fill the void. Russia has been present in the region for decades, and it has recently re-established cultural, military, and economic ties with Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Republika Srpska, and, to a lesser extent, Montenegro. China’s economic and diplomatic presence has grown significantly in recent years, thanks to the Belt and Road Initiative, loans, the 17+1 Forum, and, most recently, vaccine diplomacy. This presence has put Montenegro, an EU aspirant, under a lot of debt (though it is now seeking help from Brussels). Furthermore, transnational organized crime networks continue to use the Balkans as a drug and weapon transit corridor, and cybercrime is on the rise.
The Western Balkans have risen to prominence on Washington’s foreign policy agenda in recent years, thanks in part to this great power lens. However, US efforts must go beyond simply countering Russian and Chinese influence; the US must develop a positive assistance policy agenda in collaboration with the European Union and other partners, including Japan.
A New Structure
A new framework for US assistance must be built on two pillars:
A long-term bottom-up grassroots approach that prioritizes civil society, activism, transparency, and accountability in US efforts. This method is unconcerned about power structures (e.g., presidency, parliament, or parties).
The creation of a transparent economic ecosystem based on government transparency and accountability, with a focus on providing economic and social benefits. This ecosystem places a premium on reducing youth emigration, diversifying economic opportunities, and incentivizing a green transition, regional economic integration, and connectivity—all of which rely on domestic economic development for success.
To be successful, the US should outline its assistance goals in terms of clear values and a positive vision for the region. It should, in collaboration with like-minded partners, clarify the reform narrative for citizens of the six countries and draw a clear connection between values, US assistance efforts, and internal reforms aimed at improving their quality of life. This also entails posing difficult, if not politically destabilizing, questions about the United States’ relations with some of these countries: Are leaders and their entrenched patronage networks truly good partners for the US if the US prioritizes transparency, pluralism, and a strong civil society over stability?
Despite the United States’ democratic shortcomings and societal polarization, American diplomacy should be confident in its ability to discuss democracy as a journey rather than a destination—not as a lecturer, but as a nation constantly striving to perfect its democracy. The inherent dignity and respect for the individual, enshrined in a rule of law structure that gives an equal voice to all—without fear or favor—is at the heart of US values, interests, and strengths.
[The United States] should, in collaboration with like-minded partners, clarify the reform narrative for citizens of the six countries and make a clear connection between values, U.S. assistance efforts, and internal reforms that seek to improve their quality of life.
When it comes to environmental protection, US diplomacy can stand on firmer ground. The Biden administration’s emphasis on climate change and a green transition provides a solid foundation for cross-border collaboration and campaigns centered on the need for clean air and water, less reliance on polluting industries, and the urgency of climate change. Such campaigns have the potential to foster inter-ethnic alliances: in Kosovo, for example, ethnic Albanians and Serbs are collaborating to protect rivers.
The following principles should guide US aid to the region:
Individual dignity is essential in realizing one’s full potential and claiming one’s right to a better quality of life.
Transparency, accountability, and shared prosperity strengthen pluralism and democratic structures throughout the region.
Regardless of political affiliation, the United States will support voices that take concrete steps (rather than simply repeating talking points) to increase transparency, accountability, and shared prosperity. Simultaneously, the US will work quietly with local activists whose activities may be jeopardized by public support.
Economic benefits should be distributed to those who uphold these values in a transparent and accountable system. This system should also focus on very practical elements such as building data collection and transparent tendering systems, which can serve as a foundation for policy decisions.
To avoid duplication and counterproductive programming, these principles should ideally first and foremost align with EU, UK, and Japanese assistance efforts whenever possible. Though the region should no longer be viewed as the European Union’s sole “responsibility,” concerted action will reap the greatest benefits. Diplomatic missions should align at all political and technical levels through a dedicated mechanism, such as building on existing meetings and contacts between the EU Directorate-General for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations (DG NEAR) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) (USAID).
A second factor to consider is the amount and scope of assistance. In 2018, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) committed only $131 million in assistance to all six Western Balkan countries (just about the export price of one F-35 fighter jet). While funding is not a panacea, it does indicate priorities. Aside from the amounts, it is also important to consider how, for what purpose, and for how long these funds are disbursed. Micro-funding, for example, can effectively support local activism.
Long-term financial and programmatic support for the region is also required. To sustain progress through this new assistance framework, US agencies should consider multiyear programs, such as supporting CSO overhead and organizational costs. Paying the salaries of those who do the difficult work of holding those in power accountable may be the most important thing to do. Indeed, large external development organizations may do good work, but they may struggle to transfer ownership to the local level or to ensure the sustainability of local CSOs when funding and projects expire. Exit strategies are also important; project closure should emphasize sustainability, reinforcing the importance of involving the local level from the start.
Similarly, rather than developing new programs or grand initiatives to counter great power competition, US assistance should focus on bolstering existing positive programs. If an organization is recognized as an agent of positive change in its community (with actionable benchmarks, as discussed below), it should be supported and its work replicated whenever possible. Priority should be given to localized programs and citizen initiatives, including cultural and people-to-people initiatives. Locally designed assistance efforts can be linked regionally over time to create empowered grassroots success hubs.
Although monitoring and evaluation efforts are still critical, this new assistance framework should take into account transparency and accountability benchmarks, whether for economic development, governance, or reconciliation efforts. These benchmarks could be developed in collaboration with CSOs to support local civil society capacity—they would benefit from US metrics and standards, but they would be too expensive for them to implement alone. These benchmarks would highlight the benefits of transparency. Furthermore, US officials would be able to more easily identify entities and individuals who do not wish to use these higher standards.
In order to publicize progress and document failure, benchmarking transparency necessitates effective tracking mechanisms at the local and national levels. Ownership of these tracking mechanisms should ultimately rest with civil society, government oversight agencies, and anti-corruption offices, but their development and early implementation should be supported by US and EU assistance. Transparency tools should provide a variety of sources, ranging from investigative journalism to audit functions and trustworthy statistics. This is especially important at the local level and for non-governmental actors who can provide legitimacy at the grassroots level while shielding this information from political interference. More reliable country statistics can also improve and facilitate international donor investment and assistance. Practical trainings for such efforts could be modeled after the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program and targeted specifically at administration statistics officials and civil society watchdogs.
Because this new framework prioritizes economic benefits, specifically the improvement of the region’s poor living standards and the reduction of youth emigration, existing U.S. economic growth and connectivity programs should be mapped onto the region’s most dire economic needs to ensure adequacy. Small, localized efforts to reduce environmental degradation or improve living conditions can have a positive knock-on effect in communities affected by the downstream effects of corruption, while recognizing that economic growth does not automatically raise democratic standards. Building business capacity and digitizing (for example, digitizing registries, developing e-procurement systems, and enabling e-commerce) can help small and medium-sized Western Balkan businesses meet higher standards. These can assist in meeting basic EU accession requirements, making these businesses more appealing to outside investors, and helping to employ young people who can then envision a future in the region.
In this way, economic assistance from the United States can truly serve as a bridge. To avoid activists being labeled as “anti-government” or aligned with “outside powers,” funding may need to be channeled through alternative channels in some cases. Collaboration with independent foundations and civic organizations can help to support and amplify this effort.
Finally, this new assistance framework will necessitate an active US public diplomacy campaign that disseminates information about the country’s principles, valuable local initiatives, and “champions” of transparency in a given country. This includes exposing the link between patronage networks and stalled economic development or environmental degradation. To protect them from the actors whose power is threatened by their activism, US officials at all levels should highlight commendable efforts on specific issues without naming specific individuals involved in these efforts. Whistleblower protection is lacking in practice (though not in law) in places such as Serbia, and people who want to speak up are afraid of losing their jobs.
Small, localized efforts to reduce environmental degradation or improve living conditions can have a positive knock-on effect in communities affected by corruption’s downstream effects.
The international community should highlight positive stories that support transparency and accountability efforts, as well as celebrate the bravery of local CSOs and activism aimed at breaking down patronage networks and exposing wrongdoing. U.S. officials should be selective in who they meet with from the government and be wary of the legitimacy that some public events confer on regional officials who are part of problematic patronage networks and state capture.
Risks and Benefits
In putting this new framework in place, the US must recognize the risks of a strategy that prioritizes civil society actors and non-government stakeholders.
This policy focus may appear to some Western Balkan leaders as subtle—or not so subtle—regime change. Working with opposition political forces on anti-corruption platforms may spark a backlash. Other US interests may suffer if these governments decide to retaliate against the new assistance framework or the CSOs and actors implementing it.
Such a reaction, however, would expose the entrenched “peace cartels” and “stabilocratic” nature of these regimes, as well as reaffirm the urgency of the challenge. For far too long, US officials believed that long-term regional leaders were “all we had.” Recognizing this, these leaders have marketed themselves to the West as the best that can be hoped for, claiming that “if you push me aside, the next person will be worse.” While this is true, backing leaders who have presided over a sustained period of democratic backsliding has not always resulted in positive outcomes for the United States. There is a cost to putting individual dignity at the center of a development assistance paradigm. Nonetheless, the anticipated long-term benefits can restore the Euro-Atlantic community’s trust and credibility in a more democratic Western Balkan region.
A second risk is limited resource waste: new partners identified through this framework may experience varying degrees of success. There will need to be some tolerance for such variation, which could be addressed through flexible funding mechanisms and robust tracking tools. In cases where micro-financing is more appropriate (it only takes a few thousand dollars to get a campaign started for local activists), the US may need to abandon traditional benchmarks and monitoring that are simply too burdensome for activists and likely not worth the tracking effort for US aid policymakers.
Finally, while connecting local programs regionally would be ideal, the specificities of the local level should remain the driving force when engaging civil society and local actors who know best what their community needs. Only after that is established as a priority will the US consider regional programs that address shared challenges while leveraging localized knowledge along the way.