BSF through the years     2011 | 2012 | 2013 | 2014 | 2015 | 2016 | 2017 | 2018 | 2019 | 2020


[BSF Paper] “Realpolicy” in the Balkans: Reanimating Democratization and the European project

This brief invites policymakers and analysts to reflect critically on the state of Euro-Atlantic engagement and enlargement in the Western Balkans. In the midst of a maelstrom of conflict, illiberal and authoritarian reaction inside and outside the EU, growing intra-European discord and a drift towards isolationism, weakening parliamentary institutions, widening social cleavages, and wholesale geopolitical realignment, Brussels’ glib, technocratic “business as usual” approach no longer suffices. In order to prevent opportunistic and resurgent authoritarian regimes—chief among them, Russia—and emboldened local spoilers from unraveling two decades of peace and democracy promotion in the former Yugoslavia, we urge leaders from both sides of the Atlantic to significantly reinvest in both their soft and hard power capacities in the region. In the short term, renewed Western presence and hard diplomacy is most urgently needed in Bosnia, Macedonia, and Kosovo. If the “European Perspective” is to remain truly plausible for the whole region, then we must dramatically re-think existing approaches to civic society empowerment, democratic accountability, and good governance.

Francisco de Borja Lasheras (European Council on Foreign Relations) & Dr. Jasmin Mujanović

New York, Sarajevo, Madrid

October 2016


This paper expresses the views of the authors, and was written in anticipation of the 2016 edition of the Belgrade Security Forum.



Policy must first reflect reality if it is to shape it. Policies must change in accordance with shifting international, social and political realities; especially when fundamental concerns such as conflict prevention, democratization, and the future of Europe as a whole are at stake.

This simple claim is a useful starting point for a badly needed reset in the Western Balkans. What is needed is an approach that takes stock of existing EU policy in the region, especially the enlargement framework, without treating these like religious dogma, nor shielding them from serious scrutiny.

Times have changed profoundly since the inception of the Euro-Atlantic package of policies towards the Balkans in the mid-1990s, and “business as usual” cannot continue. Existing EU policies in the region have often undermined substantive democratization, and empowered foreign and domestic spoilers. In contrast, meaningful policy intervention in the region must advance the kind of “deep” democracy promotion that the EU proclaims, and recognize the direct link between democratic consolidation and conflict prevention and broader regional and continental security. International policy can no longer elevate shallow notions of stability—a “good enough” approach—if Brussels, Washington and European capitals in general are genuinely committed to fundamental political, social, and economic transformation in the region. As Orwell warned us, we cannot allow the language of political correctness and ideological niceties to muddle our critical, analytical gaze.

Let us begin, however, with a comparative analysis of the halcyon period of international engagement in the Balkans—and by extension, an analysis of the factors and realities that no longer apply. The cornerstone premises and foundations of Western and EU policy in the Balkans, especially in the period between 1996 and 2006 were as follows:

  • Geopolitical stability. After the conclusion of the Yugoslav Wars (1991-2001), the Balkans entered a period of relative stability, with substantial peace frameworks in place in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Macedonia. The international presence in the region temporarily insulated the Balkans from broader geopolitical turmoil. Relations between the West and newly post-Soviet Russia were briefly normalized, seemingly resolving the most significant security dilemma of the post-World War II period. The core of the EU was surrounded by states committed to democratic transition, while the threat of terrorism and extremism appeared largely sequestered to the Middle East and Central Asia, notwithstanding the events of 9/11.
  • International commitment to the Balkans. American and European policymakers were genuinely committed to and engaged in the region through massive state-building projects and diplomatic lobbying, in addition to the sizeable presence of Western peacekeeping and police missions. In other words, the West was involved in the post-Yugoslav space both in terms of soft and hard power.
  • Elites’ commitment to transitional justice, socio-economic reform and political democratization. The large scale political and security presence of the international community in the region forced local elites to make substantive movement towards the Euro-Atlantic integration, while also guaranteeing the region’s fundamental stability and security, encouraging progressive and liberal elements within the local elite to assert themselves and suggest bold new approaches (e.g. Dragan Čavić’s 2004 apology on behalf of the Republika Srpska for the genocide in Srebrenica).
  • Europe as innovator. Finally, the EU itself was seen as a dynamic, growing, and evolving political project with truly global ambitions. The Big Bang enlargement in 2003-2004 in the former Eastern Bloc (and Cyprus, importantly) made accession seem a genuinely plausible reality in the former Yugoslavia as well, while the Thessaloniki agenda appeared to cement Brussels’ long-term commitment to region, beyond mere post-war peacekeeping.

Since 2006, however, global, European, and regional trends have changed dramatically.


The Return of Geopolitics

Geopolitics has returned to the Balkans since in the onset of the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria in a fashion arguably not seen since the early 20th century. More worryingly, this has occurred during a period of dramatic Western retreat and disengagement from the region. The widespread perception on the ground—among both local elites and citizens—is that a power vacuum[1] has emerged; the result of waning Western influence, shifting geopolitical realities, in particular the re-emergence of strong authoritarian currents everywhere, and the accompanying expansion of “room for manoeuvre” for local elites.

Above all, the Balkans are again a theatre for great power competition—despite the unwillingness of policymakers in the West to acknowledge as much. The existing (and overwhelmingly technocratic) approach to enlargement developed by Brussels in a nominally post-geopolitical, post-conflict historical moment has resulted in a fundamental inability of this model and its leading proponents to respond to “new facts on the ground.”

U.S. and EU influence in the Balkans has clearly ebbed. Understandably distracted by more urgent foreign policy crises elsewhere, as well as their own internal political convulsions, Western powers have failed to note the accompanying shift in political priorities by both local and external actors in the Balkans.

Local actors have earnestly begun to re-animate the latent sectarian tensions in the region, in order to once again cement their hold on power, free from substantive accountability mechanisms. The peace frameworks and their enforcement institutions continue to operate in theory, but as the recent referendum in Bosnia’s Republika Srpska entity demonstrated, reality is being reshaped by opportunistic elites, and their international backers—from Moscow to Ankara.

Nominally, every regime in the region remains committed to European integration. But disputes concerning NATO integration, in both Bosnia and Montenegro for instance, gesture at wider and more fundamental cleavages in the Balkans. It is becoming increasingly apparent that local elites favour EU integration only for their own (real and imagined) financial and political gain, with little meaningful normative commitment to the Union’s core liberal-democratic values.

Amid this internal fracturing, Vladimir Putin’s Russia has begun to transparently demonstrate its commitment to dismantling the Euro-Atlantic integration process in the remaining non-EU and non-NATO states in the region. Moscow has increased its political presence in the region—especially in Serbia and the Republika Srpska entity—weaving a net of pliant (if fickle) client elites and regimes to disrupt the Western agenda, or what remains of it, in Europe’s southeast. If Russia succeeds, they will have made pernicious “Trojan horses” of these regimes, should these countries ever actually join the EU.

Russia’s approach to the region is not consistent in any ideological sense of the term, but fosters instability, acting often as an opportunistic but nevertheless dangerous “spoiler.” In Macedonia, for instance, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, poking at dangerous embers, falsely labeled anti-government protestors as ethnically-motivated insurgents, while simultaneously emboldening Serb nationalist revisionists by vetoing the Srebrenica genocide resolution at the UN Security Council in the summer of 2015.

As with its ventures in Ukraine, Syria, and the former Eastern Bloc, Russia is willing to mainstream and support a heterogeneous amalgam of extremist movements, as long as they serve the core Russian geopolitical agenda: the weakening and eventual dismantling of American and European regional and global influence. The threat to the Balkans as a result of this resurgent “authoritarian internationalism” is only exacerbated by the accompanying (and increasing) incursions into the region by other illiberal regimes—from Turkey, to the Gulf states, to China.


Elite Retrenchment

As noted, elites have used the shift in the global balance of power and the reassertion of Russian influence in the Balkans for their own benefit. They have abandoned almost the entirety of their commitments to substantive political and economic reform in the region. Instead, the periodic adoption of relevant legislation has all but ceased in terms of implementation. Elites pay lip service to European integration—but govern ever more clearly as autocrats or populists.

With international presence and commitments dramatically scaled down, local elites no longer see the need to move towards genuine law and order. Having observed the arrest and prosecution of former Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader, they came to understand that for most of them, the road towards Brussels was also a path towards incarceration. But it was the West’s political and strategic withdrawal from the Balkans that actually allowed local elites to abandon this road. Without meaningful enforcement, the European mantra of “local ownership” has meant merely a reversion to traditional patterns of patrimonialism, cronyism and destructive politics in general.

Without the broad (geo)political securities afforded by deliberate European and American commitment to the region, Balkan elites will not follow the path of Spanish and Portuguese reformers in the 1970s and 80s, of Eastern European elites in the 1990s, or Tunisian leaders today. We need only look at the dramatic democratic rollbacks of the Visegrád Group countries to discern how long-term an investment in transition is truly required for a region or an individual society to definitively turn the historical page.

So while EU policymakers still speak of “reforms” and “leadership,” pleading with local elites to embrace both concepts, citizens and activists on the ground speak of two other phenomena:

  • The “untouchables,” a caste of ruling elites spared from the rule of law and accountability, who enjoy near absolute impunity, and erode trust in political and democratic processes and institutions as a whole.[2]
  •  “Stabilocracies,” systems that have the trappings of functioning democracies but are in fact characterized by weak institutions, governed by “untouchable” (and unaccountable) elites, engendering seething discontent among citizens, and which are nevertheless artificially propped up by Western loans for the sake of bankrupt perceptions of “stability.”


The European Project in Crisis

On top of these local and global centrifugal challenges, Europe as a whole is in the midst of a historical transition. The European project is moving into an uncertain contest between cosmopolitan, nationalist and isolationist tendencies. Insurgent far-right (or “new right”) parties are dismantling sensible and humane immigration and refugee polices across the continent, while emerging far-left parties reach new absurd heights by their defence of violent Russian revanchism in Ukraine and Syria as “anti-imperialism.” Confronted by a chauvinist backlash at home, and following disastrous engagements in Iraq (and Afghanistan) leaders from both sides of the Atlantic have lost their appetite for grand state building and democratization projects.  Thus, while remaining rhetorically committed to the Balkans, Brussels, other EU capitals, and Washington are no longer willing to engage in substantive democratization efforts in the region, hoping that some semblance of a political and security status quo will persist nevertheless.

The official discourse on enlargement and integration has become a quagmire of technocratic jargon. Brussels and many member states appear obsessed with form, and utterly unconcerned with substance. Policymakers in the European Parliament and Commission applaud Bosnia’s recent EU application, for instance, but ignore the utter unraveling of the country’s constitutional order. The Brussels echo chamber struggles to make sense of the reversion to street politics in Macedonia and Kosovo, and lauds Serbia’s leaders as visionaries—even as they engage in perhaps the most dramatic clampdown on the free press since the fall of Milošević. The politics of enlargement, especially the relation between EU institutions and key capitals, and local elites, appear increasingly rooted in delusion and insincerity, stifling political thinking and policy when it is most needed.



All of this said, let us take stock of what remains for policymakers in Brussels, key EU capitals, and Washington to work with, in place of the worn-out and counter-productive status quo.

  1. Enlargement remains relevant, despite all of the aforementioned problems, as a guiding framework for the region and should not be dismissed altogether. We cannot abandon the idea of “Europe, whole and free” even if it means dirtying our hands in the quagmire of ideological and political conflict. Yet the “transformative potential” of the EU, especially as it concerns “democratic fundamentals” should not be overstated.[3] The rise of illiberal regimes in countries once deemed as transitional success stories—from the Visegrád Group to Croatia—warrants caution. In fact, if the remaining Balkan states are allowed to stumble into the continent’s key political and security structures as half-finished, illiberal democratic polities, the result could disastrous, finishing off what remains of European cohesion.
  2. The EU is braced for intensive damage control after Brexit, so the Balkans will struggle to remain in the minds of key decision-makers, especially in their state of “managed instability”. The “agenda benchmark” these days is active conflict zones. More importantly, the appetite for deeply integrating new member states in an era of growing anti-European and anti-migration sentiment—especially refugee and migrant producing and debtor countries—is highly limited. That does not bode well for volatile states like the “WB6,” which could remain in the outer layer of a very different, looser, and unrulier Union. Moreover, we should prepare for further Brexit-like backlash from other EU member states; in this respect, the recent Dutch referendum concerning the EU’s Association Agreement is a harbinger of things to come. In turn, any pretence of big leap forwards is unrealistic. European policymakers must confront and respond to these concerns, and make opponents and constituents alike understand that the Balkans, in particular, will be a far more significant threat to continental security and stability if they remain marginalized.
  3. By the same token, the EU must seriously asses the position of the remaining non-member states in the region. All of the relevant economic and social indicators—from dizzying unemployment rates to shocking percentages of illiteracy and brain drain—suggest that the fundamentals of Balkan political economy remain a cause for long term concern (even if in the short term there are indeed some positive signs signals). Nor can the rate of economic reform be divorced from broader concerns about lack of political and democratic reform.
  4. European leaders should also speak clearly about what EU membership entails and what it means. It is not the end of history, nor is it a panacea for all political and social problems. The ongoing sensitivity of negotiations in Cyprus should remind all of us that membership, in and of itself, is not a solution. Comprehensive democratization is the best guarantee of stability. Efforts on this front must be redoubled because a further deterioration of the Europe liberal-democratic values—both within and outside the EU—will imperil the continent in ways not seen since the 1930s and 40s.
  5. To wit, it is time to recognize the clear evidence of a definitive illiberal turn both within in the Balkans and across large segments of the continent’s east. Failing democratic institutions, a rise in overt authoritarian tendencies, government attacks on the freedom of the press, the re-animation of ethnic tensions, and the rise of “street politics,” and Kremlin-style attacks on the emerging social movements are all clear indicators of this trend. Recent reports by Freedom House, the OSCE Special Representative on the Freedom of the Media, and by other independent watchdogs should cause European policymakers to realize that the post-Cold War order is unravelling —and a democratic counter-attack is urgently needed.
  6. Nor can we ignore the consequences of inaction. Since 2014, at least, it is clear that social cleavages are widening, and that a popular response is beginning to be articulated—the phenomenon of the Balkan indignados.[4] From the anti-waterfront redevelopment protests in Belgrade, to the Colorful Revolution in Macedonia, to the so-called Bosnian Spring, a diverse constellation of movements is not only throwing up the potential of a Euromaidan style insurrection in the Balkans, but also the potential for an authoritarian reaction. The essential “social question” remains unresolved in the Balkans. European policymakers should recognize this and seek ways to understand and maybe engage with these emerging social movements – instead of mostly with the resident oligarchs.
  7. We must also recognize that the European project is no longer “the only game in town.” Russia and its authoritarian fellow travelers may not possess the robust network of institutions or funds to challenge the EU as such, but we are deluding ourselves if we think that this is their objective. As illiberal tendencies become increasingly normalized it could only be a matter of time before even the formal institutional framework of the EU collapses. The Union, if it is to survive, cannot be taken for granted and must be actively promoted and defended, in Central and Eastern Europe, but also in the Balkans. Accordingly, the EU cannot escape the challenge of geopolitics; it is no longer merely a question of confronting Eurosceptic movements—it is a matter of protecting the EU. Technocratic inertia and jargon will therefore not suffice. Addressing many of these concerns will require detailed technical implementation and discussion, but the EU cannot play badminton while others play rugby.
  8. Finally, let us accept that the EU’s leverage has not only suffered from doubts concerning the pace of enlargement –the usual mantra- but more importantly has suffered from the perception that Europeans too easily barter with their own purported political values and commitments; that they do not act in unison; and neither truly “mean business” and are too easily fooled by local chieftains. Take the case of Bosnia and Macedonia, where the recent illegal referendum in the Republika Srpska, much as the ongoing intransigence of the Gruevski regime make a mockery of international democratization efforts. And this by regimes that otherwise depend completely on Western loans and aid – to some, the only leverage. Quick to buttress local strongmen for the sake of shallow conceptions of stability, on the ground few believe a Plan B exists—and given the track record of the past decade few can fault them for this observation.



In the final analysis, European policymakers must realize the incredible degree of credibility they have already lost in the region. Our recommendations—or more simply, theses—are not an exhaustive treatment of the subject, nor do we aim to provide a comprehensive blueprint for the way forward. We are instead attempting to (re)direct the conversation towards actually existing political and social realities in the Balkans and Europe in general – “realpolicy” as we have referred to it here.

This is to say, if Europe’s liberal-democrats do not quickly devise a plan B for the Balkans, we can be quite sure that our opponents will. And their plan will not merely transform the continent’s southeast for the worse—but Europe as a whole.


[1] See ECFR policy brief, “Return to Instability: How Migration and Great Power Politics Threaten the Western Balkans” (March 2016), by Francisco de Borja Lasheras, with Vessela Tcherneva and Fredrik Wesslau, available at

[2] See also: Mujanović, Jasmin, “The Baja Class and the Politics of Participation,” in Unbribable Bosnia: The Fight for the Commons, Arsenijević, Damir (ed.), Baden-Baden: Nomos, 2014. 

[3] Francisco de Borja Lasheras, “Eight inconvenient truths on Bosnia and EU policy in the Western Balkans” (October 2014), available at

[4] Francisco de Borja Lasheras, “The Balkan Indignados” (April 2016), available at