The following is the second post of a hopefully regularly published blog on the Balkans. Read the first post here.
More than a month into a foreboding autumn, war has not returned to the Balkans; nor does it appear it will, at least not in the near future. Rather than shelling one another, Balkan citizens have been busy voting. But the democracy being practiced, particularly in the Western Balkans, is doing little to subdue ethnic tensions, and it remains a messy experiment.
In September, a Bosnian Serb referendum sparked talk of war and was deemed illegal by much of the international community. This month’s parliamentary elections in Montenegro were highlighted by the purported prevention of an ethnic-inspired coup and terror attacks, as well as by messaging services and political websites being blocked. In the upcoming Macedonian elections, a former premier who is under criminal investigation could emerge as the next prime minister.
Sept. 11 Croatian early parliamentary elections:
EU member Croatia ended up with the same governing party and coalition partner that it had prior to the snap elections. A center-right HDZ-MOST government is back, minus some controversial ministers.
Sept. 25 Bosnian Serb referendum:
99.8 percent of voters in the referendum on the Bosnian Serb national holiday defied Bosnia’s constitutional court and supported preserving Republika Srpska Day. Voter turnout was 55.8 percent, according to Banja Luka. After the vote, prosecutors in Sarajevo summoned Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik, but he did not comply.
Oct. 2 Bosnian local elections:
Nationalist Bosniak, Serb and Croat parties emerged victorious. The city of Srebrenica, known for the 1995 massacre of 8,000 Bosnian Muslims, elected its first post-war Serb mayor. Mladen Grujicic, the new mayor, denies Serb forces committed genocide in the Srebrenica area. Bosniaks are contesting the election result.
Oct. 16 Montenegrin parliamentary elections:
Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic’s Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) received the most votes, but it lost its coalition partner prior to the election and has a now-difficult task of forming a government. Three opposition parties that teamed up to oust Djukanovic garnered a combined total of parliamentary seats that nearly equals DPS’s total.
Days after the election, Djukanovic announced his resignation as premier, with DPS nominating Djukanovic’s protege, Dusko Markovic, in his place. The move is seen as an attempt by DPS to appease its potential coalition partners. Twice before, Djukanovic announced he would step down and retire from politics. He has been in power in Montenegro since the early 90s. There is already speculation he will run for the Montenegrin presidency in 2018.
Djukanovic, a Slobodan Milosevic ally-turned-campaigner for NATO membership, characterized this month’s elections as a choice between the West and Russia. Montenegro’s pro-western and pro-Russian opposition, which joined forces in an attempt to oust Djukanovic, cast the vote as an opportunity to dump authoritarianism.
If election day is an indication of events to come, it appears Montenegro will remain on its western course and will soon join NATO. However, it also appears Montenegrins will continue to grapple with authoritarianism. The elections were marred by the arrest of 20 Serbs whom Podgorica accused of plotting a coup and terror attacks. Subsequent arrests occurred in Serbia, and Djukanovic implicitly accused Russia of trying to orchestrate a coup in Montenegro. Critics, though, accused Djukanovic of staging the incident and said Montenegrin authorities planted evidence.
Also on election day, Montenegrin authorities blocked mobile messaging services Viber and WhatsApp, and hackers purportedly blocked some opposition websites in Montenegro. Main opposition parties have said they would refuse to recognize the election results, but the OSCE has given its stamp of approval to the vote.
At the moment, Montenegro’s government is still up for grabs, but pundits suggest DPS is more likely than the opposition to succeed in forming a ruling coalition.
Nov. 6 Bulgarian presidenital election:
The first of two rounds of voting in Bulgaria’s presidential elections will include numerous candidates. A parliament chairwoman nominated by Bulgaria’s ruling party and a pro-Russian former Air Force commander are the likely contenders to go to a runoff.
Dec. 11 Macedonian parliamentary elections:
Macedonia’s “early” parliamentary elections have twice been postponed this year. The Macedonian parliament has already dissolved in preparation for the scheduled Dec. 11 vote, but it is conceivable the election could get postponed again. If it appears former Macedonian prime minister Nikola Gruevski is on track to reclaim his job as premier, Brussels could throw a twist into the election. Gruevski resigned early this year under an EU-brokered agreement, and he is currently being probed by a special prosecutor for allegedly carrying out mass surveillance and other abuses of power.
On the Balkan Periphery
Sept. 2 Hungarian refugee quota referendum:
Hungarian voters overwhelmingly supported Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s attempt to vote down the EU’s plan to forcibly relocate refugees. However, voter turnout was not high enough for the referendum to be legally binding.
Dec. 11 Romanian parliamentary elections:
Romania is currently ruled by an interim group of technocrats, which replaced the government of Victor Ponta, who resigned amid corruption scandals and mass protests. Still, Ponta’s left-leaning Social Democratic Party (PSD) could return to power. The PSD’s primary competitor is the right leaning National Liberal Party (PNL), which has decided to nominate interim Prime Minister Dacian Ciolos for a new term. The PNL is also the party of Romanian President Klaus Iohannis.
April 2017 planned Turkish constitutional referendum:
Following a tumultuous year in Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party has apparently obtained the parliamentary support needed to call a constitutional referendum. The referendum, which may take place in April 2017, is intended to deliver Erdogan his long-sought executive presidency, thus ending Turkey’s parliamentary system of governance.
The EU plan to export democracy to the Western Balkans is stalling.
Montenegro, Bosnia’s Republika Srpska and Macedonia each have leaders whom critics have described as strongmen. This fall, each of the three leaders have faced or are scheduled to face major electoral hurdles. The West is treating each of the alleged strongmen differently, and none of the diplomatic approaches are resulting in democratic reforms.
At the present, Djukanovic is fiercely pro-western, Dodik is openly defying the West and Gruevski is nominally pro-western.
Djukanovic, who may remain his party’s leader despite his resignation, just emerged semi-victorious in an election that opposition parties described as “rigged.” The West did not seem bothered, though, presumably due to Djukanovic’s loyalty and Montenegro’s pending NATO accession.
The West said Dodik violated Bosnian law by holding the Republika Srpska referendum, yet neither the EU nor U.S. responded with sanctions or other punitive measures.
Amid pressure from the EU and U.S. over fraudulent voter rolls and biased media, Macedonia twice postponed parliamentary elections this year. The moves allowed a special prosecutor time to launch criminal probes into Gruevski and some of his allies. Brussels is now hinting that Gruevski’s party ought not to place him atop its electoral list.
In Montenegro, the West is wiling to overlook election irregularities involving Djukanovic. In Republika Srpska, the West is essentially surrendering to Dodik on the referendum issue. In Macedonia, the West is pushing hard to remove Gruevski and his cohorts from power. But, by hook or by crook, Gruevski has managed to remain in favorable standing with a large percentage of Macedonian voters.
Whether Brussels turns to the carrot, the stick or the white flag, EU diplomacy does not seem to be working in the Western Balkans. None of the approaches are resulting in more robust democracies in a region of Europe where leaders still often exhibit authoritarian bents.