Forget Russia, new menace in Western Balkans is Trump-style populist politics

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The EU's new conditions on Albania's beginning of accession talks are "bullshit", according to Lulzim Basha (pictured right), the leader of Albania's Democratic Party. [EPP/Flickr]

A new menace is stalking the Western Balkans: the region’s political leaders themselves. Many are now retreating from serious engagement with Europe in order to play internal political games, writes Denis MacShane.

Denis MacShane was a minister for Europe under Tony Blair, and is the author of Brexit: Why Britain Left Europe.

The re-Balkanisation and de-Europeanisation of Western Balkan policies is fast moving up the EU foreign policy agenda.

Despite the increasing revelations about Russian meddling in countries like Macedonia, Bosnia, and Montenegro, as well as the international diplomatic support the Kremlin gives Belgrade in its campaign to persuade the world Kosovo is just a breakaway Serb province, the real problem is now the refusal of Western Balkan leaders to accept that the 21st century settlement following the end of the decade of Milošević initiated wars should stand.

In Macedonia, the EPP-affiliated leader, Nikola Gruevski, who has been in power for a decade, will not accept that he has lost the election and should hand over power to a coalition of a moderate social democratic party and its Macedonian Albanian partner. Albanians form 25% of the multi-ethnic Macedonian population.

In Kosovo, the ultra-nationalist Vetëvendosje party that refuses all talks with Serbia (and another smaller party led by Ramush Harardinaj, a former liberation fighter) are blocking efforts by the Kosovar government to settle the issue of where the border lies between Kosovo and Montenegro.

The EU has said Kosovar politicians need to endorse the border as precondition for starting EU visa liberalisation talks. No one lives in the mountainous region bar a few sheep but a two-thirds majority is needed in the Kosovo National Assembly to agree the deal, and so opposition parties can play games.

‘Russia will protect us’

The same is true in Bosnia where the leader of the Serb community, Milorad Dodik, has refused all appeals to implement the Dayton Agreement, with strong backing from the Kremlin. The US has imposed a travel ban on Dodik but when EU foreign policy supremo Federica Mogherini addressed the Serb Parliament earlier this month, she was booed as Serb nationalist MPs shouted they did not need Europe as “Russia will protect us”.

Now, an opportunistic political battle over judicial reform in Albania has suddenly led to anti-EU populism in a country where previously pro-EU sentiment was almost universal.

The EU and the US want Albania to bring in a tough process of vetting applicants to be judges and other reforms to reduce the high level of corruption involving bribes to judges or direct physical threats against them or their families.

But in the Albanian Parliament the opposition Democratic Party refuses to vote for the EU-US proposals on vetting and judicial reform.  Albania is heading for elections this summer when the pro-Western and pro-EU prime minister, the Social Democrat, Edi Rama, will seek re-election.

Albanian politics in the 20 years before Rama won a clear victory in 2013 was dominated by the rumbustious Sali Berisha and his Democratic Party.

Under his rule there was endless financial scandals including the Pyramid affair in which millions of Albanians lost their savings and the country became a byword for corruption with many Albanian emigrating north.

Rama has agreed to send Albanian troops to fight ISIS in Iraq and has won the big prize for his country – the offer of EU membership. But first as German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has made clear via her spokesman, Germany wants to see “comprehensive reform of its judiciary system reform by the Albanian government.

“It is in the interests of the people in Albania – that by a large majority demand these reforms by the way – to move forward in this process. Germany calls on all political parties in Albania to tone down the political dispute. Talk of violence, that can be heard at times, can and should not be one of the means to push through controversial political positions.”

This reflects the concern in Berlin and other EU capitals that the Democratic Party has decided to organise massive street protests and boycotts of parliament in order to create a climate of tension in the run-up to the June election.

In 2013, the ageing Sali Berisha conceded defeat and a peaceful transition of power took place in Tirana – in stark contrast to what is currently happening in Skopje.

Now, however, Berisha’s successor as Democatic Party leader, Lulzim Basha, is stoking up street rage against Rama. Mogherini visited Tirana where she said that the implementation of vetting and judicial reform is the only hurdle that prevents Albania starting accession negotiation with the EU.

She added: “Those who do not vote for the vetting, do not want Albania’s EU integration.”

The day after Mogherini’s visit, Basha denounced her as he whipped up anti-EU emotions during an opposition protest rally stating: “There have been many EU officials who came here and said that there will not be EU integration without free and fair elections, fighting corruption, fighting drugs etc. Now they say it’s all about vetting and as soon as vetting is implemented EU negotiations can start. We have a word in Albanian for this and it is ‘brockulla’ and in English it is ‘bullshit’.”

The crowd then began chanting “Bullshit! Bullshit! Bullshit”. Basha’s crude Trump-like populism is unusual. Aged 42, and educated in the Netherlands he worked for the UN in Kosovo and at the Hague International Tribunal on Balkan war crimes.

Under Berisha he held top posts at a young age as minister of the interior and foreign minister and was seen by his EPP patrons as a new type of European politician in the Balkans.

But now the old style Balkan politics is rearing up and Basha, in his desire to replace Rama, seems keener to play the streets and parliamentary non-cooperation than European democratic norms. The same return to old style Balkan politics can be seen in Macedonia, Kosovo, Serbia and Bosnia.

The British Foreign Office is proposing a West Balkans conference in 2018, in the UK’s last outing as a European Union foreign policy player before Brexit. Britain’s Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, has visited the region and addressed parliaments.

The FCO conference is a good move as it now seems that the EU and its foreign ministers only take the West Balkans seriously when violence breaks out. It is nearly two decades since the Balkan wars following the break-up of Yugoslavia ended.

But stability, rule of law, peaceful elections and calm handovers of power seem beyond reach.

Further Reading

Russia accuses NATO, EU and Albania of meddling in Macedonia

Russia accused Albania, NATO and the European Union yesterday (2 March) of trying to impose a pro-Albanian government on Macedonia, which is gripped by political crisis.