The economic crisis, Greece and the Balkans

The economic crisis – which has eroded the EU’s solidarity and diluted its appetite for further enlargement – will serve to fuel populism and undermine the resolution of outstanding conflicts in the Balkans.

By Florian Bieber

The economic crisis has hit the Western Balkans particularly hard. The region was hit hard in absolute terms, a result of half-hearted economic reforms and the elites denial over the economic crisis reaching the region (a number of government ministers across the region predicted that their country would be spared).

The region was also hit hard psychologically, as growth has been sluggish or started from such a low level that the perceived benefits by most citizens are limited. As a result the reservoir of patience is small.

Who will benefit from the crisis? There are no clear winners or losers. However, overall populism is likely to gain ground. Good evidence of this is the media exchange between Germany and Greece, with the German media going for some good old Balkan stereotypes and the Greek media dragging out World War Two to counter German criticisms of the Greek economy. For the German media, Greeks are cheating, stealing Balkanites – which of course bodes well for the enlargement of the region – whilst Greek media like to draw parallels between the EU and Nazi occupation.

In Bosnia, it seems to disadvantage the established nationalists, especially in the Bosniak-Croat Federation, but might help new nationalists/populists, such as the tycoon, Fahrudin Radoncic (the owner of Dnevni Avaz, the largest daily newspaper), who recently suggested that non-Bosniaks should not be working for the Federation’s public broadcaster. In Serbia, it is likely to help the populist Progressive Party. 

Whilst no elections are scheduled in the region this year except for Bosnia, governments are likely to adopt populist policies. At least at the moment, it does not appear that the opportunity to clean up their act – particularly in terms of inefficient public administration – is being seized upon. Unlike in Greece, the unions are mostly weak and fragmented in the region, so paralysis is unlikely to come from the streets.

Altogether, the economic crisis motivates political elites to claim political successes on other fronts. Unfortunately, this is unlikely to benefit the resolution of outstanding conflicts, from the name dispute between Greece and Macedonia, to relations between Serbia and Kosovo.

In particular, the prospects of resolving the name issue between Greece and Macedonia seems as remote as ever. While the Papandreou government has been more pragmatic than its predecessor, it seems improbable that it has the courage to move a solution forward in the context of the deep economic crisis and faced with the fact that the leader of the main opposition party, New Democracy, is Antonis Samaras, whose hard line over Macedonia brought the downfall of the Mitsotakis government in 1993.

Possibly the most important aspect of the economic crisis is the policy of the EU. We have seen a serious erosion of solidarity among current EU members, and the economic crisis in Greece is likely to disadvantage the countries of the region – whether they are members, such as Bulgaria, who are now less likely to be admitted to the Euro-zone, or countries in the Western Balkans, who are now likely to be scrutinized more extensively than they would have been previously.

Florian Bieber is a Lecturer in East European Politics at the Department of Politics and International Relations of the University of Kent, Canterbury, UK.

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