The Covid-19 pandemic accelerated the power struggle between the EU, China, and Russia in the Western Balkans
Recent report shows that democratic development in the Western Balkans declined during the Covid-19 pandemic. Governments used restrictive measures to consolidate their power. At the same time, the rights of opposition parties, the media, and civil society were diminished.
Our recent report is published in cooperation with the European Network of Political Foundations. It deals with the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on democracy in the six Western Balkan countries. The special focus is on democratic decision-making, freedom of the media, and civil society. It also examines the development of the EU’s role and support for EU membership in the region.
-The democratic development in the Western Balkans was worrying at the time of the pandemic. The role of national parliaments and opposition parties was limited as governments failed to include them in decision-making. Freedom of the media and civil society’s agility had also suffered a decline says Jelena Simic from Kalevi Sorsa Foundation.
-In the example of Serbia, the country’s political leadership ignored the parliament when it introduced the state of emergency and restrictions on fundamental rights it brought. It led, among other things, to opposition parties boycotting the parliamentary elections in the summer of 2020 in protest of the government’s actions. The safety of journalists was also weakened in Serbia. Individual journalists have even been arrested after criticizing the weak management of the pandemic.
The report on Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia shows the citizens’ support for EU membership did not change significantly in the region at the time of the pandemic. However, the weak development of the rule of law and the autocratic tendencies of the governments took the countries further away from EU membership, even though the EU offered significant health and financial support to the region in the form of a 3.3-billion-euro recovery package.
-Although the EU was the region’s biggest supporter during the pandemic, China and Russia tried to increase their influence through financial support, while also spreading disinformation, aimed at emphasizing their own role in supporting the region, Simic estimates.
Anti-EU forces in the region also took an advantage of the fragility of the situation to further spread disinformation and downplay the importance of the support provided by the EU. This was partially enabled by the EU’s initial slow reaction to the situation.
-After the pandemic, the Western Balkan region appears as a battlefield of power politics where the EU should take care of its own interests. It is important that the EU remains a visible player in the region and shows that it is serious about the enlargement, Simic believes.
The report indicates that the pandemic underlined the importance of civil society, especially when governments restricted the assembly of parliaments. Furthermore, NGOs provided up-to-date information and helped the most vulnerable groups of the population. The importance of the media as a disseminator of information was also emphasized.
In the summer of 2021 North Macedonia and Albania finally started membership negotiations with the EU. In order to open the negotiations, North Macedonia was once again forced to make concessions to Bulgaria, which for years has been the only obstacle on the two countries’ path to starting the negotiations.
Although the road for North Macedonia and Albania will be long, the progress gives at least some hope to a region that has been stuck in the waiting room for decades.
In the prevailing geopolitical situation, it must be ensured that the EU is and will remain the best alternative for the Western Balkans. This is in the interest of both the democratic development of the region and the EU.
Individual country chapters of the report are written by seven experts working in the region. The report has received support from the EU.
A discussion related to the event will be held on Tuesday, January 24th from 9 to 11 in Helsinki. We will welcome a high-level speaker at the event Pekka Haavisto, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Finland, who will share the floor with the authors of the study.
Kalevi Sorsa Foundation has been providing democracy support in the Western Balkans since 2008. The project is funded by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs.