Europe and the Balkans – a goal worth aspiring to?

TransConflict participated in the TransEuropa festival in London, part of a Europe-wide festival which takes place simultaneously in 14 cities, including Belgrade for the very first time.

On Friday 18th May, a panel discussion, entitled, ‘Seeds of democracy: Europe and Balkans’, took place at Goldsmiths University. The panel – which spoke about the challenges facing institutional reform and civil society in the region – was comprised of Ian Bancroft, TransConflict’s co-founder, Daliborka Uljarević, executive director of the Centre for Civic Education (Montenegro), Zdravko Cimbaljević of the LGBT Forum ‘Progress’ (Montenegro), and Kemal Pervanic, founder of Most Mira (Bosnia and Herzegovina).

Mr. Bancroft introduced his remarks by posing the question as to “whether the deficiencies that we see today represent a temporary blip on the road towards democratic consolidation and European integration, or whether we will witness the emergence of a new hybrid regime that is formally democratic yet riddled with undemocratic elements, particularly deficiencies in terms of transparency and accountability.”

Whilst each country continues to “grapple with the legacies of the nineties” – including, for instance, the brain drain, wartime grey and black economies, and the emergence of new institutions – the greatest challenge is posed by “the persistence of widespread political corruption and state capture that is simultaneously motivated by accumulation and power-preservation.” Taking the case of Serbia as an example, the existence of a ‘partiocracy’ – “which describes the tendency for those political parties in the ruling coalition to exert excessive influence over all aspects of the state” – has proved a key obstacle to its on-going transition.

Mr. Bancroft warned that it should not be taken for granted that “the notion of European standards automatically contributes to democratic advancements.” Mr. Bancroft added that, though enabling politicians to justify often-contentious policies, the discourse of ‘European standards’ has “tended to strip public policy debate in the region of much of its substance.” Mr. Bancroft went on to emphasize the importance of more qualitative policy deliberations – particularly in the fields of health care reform and education.

Saturday’s panel at the London School of Economics (LSE), entitled ‘Europe and the Balkans: A Goal Worth Aspiring to?’, was opened by Mirjana Kosic, co-founder and executive director of TransConflict Serbia. In a brief introduction, Ms. Kosic touched upon recently held national elections in Serbia where the discourse of ‘European values’, ‘European standards’, ‘European principles dominated the pre-election campaign, ironically uniting opposing political factions around the promise of Serbia’s European future. At the same, with the institutional, economic and social crisis undermining the very foundations of the EU itself, the notion of a ‘European future’ is increasingly becoming more elusive and dispossessed of its once magnetic force.

Dr. Eric Gordy, senior lecturer in South East European politics at UCL, spoke at length about the state of Serbian politics and its European orientation, plus the emergence of values across Europe that differ from those socialist-leaning elements that have heavily underpinned previous European accession processes, such as human rights and equality.

With respect to the predominance of the European orientation across the region, Mr. Bancroft asserted that, “whilst this in part represents a lack of vision on the part of the region’s leaders, it also reflects the desperate need for foreign investment to help restore devastated economies – many of which have failed to reach GDP levels enjoyed prior to the collapse of the former Yugoslavia.” However, it remains questionable as to whether “the EU accession process – in and of itself – is sufficient to induce reforms” – including a dedicated fight against corruption and organized crime – whilst there are concerns about enlargement fatigue, both within Europe and the Western Balkans itself, result from the financial crisis and sterner conditionality.

Mr. Bancroft added that current uncertainty in the EU is “contributing to foreign policies that can seem schizophrenic on the outside, but reflect very real considerations domestically.” Taking the case of Serbia as an example, over 60 per cent of its exports are to the EU, whilst its banking system is predominantly owned by Austrian, Italian and Greek banks. Russian energy investments, including the South Stream pipeline, are of strategic importance, as are investment promises from China and Turkey. The country’s defence sector, meanwhile, one of the main drivers of growth, “depends largely upon contracts with countries of the non-aligned movement, which Serbia has worked hard to revive”. However, “the future of the defence sector will depend primarily on technology transfers that will require closer relations with NATO.” Such factors led Mr. Bancroft to conclude that the EU orientation and influence “cannot and should not be taken for granted…the discourse could very quickly shift from ‘Europe has no alternative’ to one that emphasizes the importance of multiple alternatives.”

TransConflict would like to thank European Alternatives and the TransEuropa festival – which promotes political and cultural exchange across Europe and collective action for alternative visions on the economic crisis, migrations and democratic participation – for its kind invitation, and look forward to working to uphold its mission and objectives in the future.

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