The Balkans are in no doubt going through a rather worrying period, but overall the picture is not entirely portraying just doom and gloom. While legitimately elected governments around the region are keen to consolidate their power though illiberal means, democratic values are also gradually growing from the grassroots. In the midst of negative developments, active citizenship is on the rise among the Balkan people. An increasing number of liberal, concerned citizens, are now making their voices heard, demanding accountability, progress, fairer societies, and an end to clientelistic/corrupt systems.
Democracy in the Balkans is Being Eroded
The failure to develop proper democratic institutions has tainted many of the region’s new democracies with the illness of corruption, which leads to little progress being made towards more accountable governance. The promise of EU integration was meant to drive solid reforms and further democratisation, but this incentive has not proven strong enough. EU integration will always be part of electoral policies as long as there is a strong support for it from citizens, but only in theory, as the practical, proper implementation of reforms is usually not a priority once a party takes reign of the government.
The most recent data that shows the dire condition of Balkan democracy was made public on the 4th of April 2017. Freedom House published its latest ‘Nations in Transit’ Report’, and the results of the state of democracy in the entire Eastern European region as a whole, are worrying. Around half of the countries in focus saw their democracies scores drop. Kosovo made some progress and is on an uphill trajectory towards the consolidation of its democracy; Montenegro and Albania have made a slow recovery, but not significant. Serbia saw its democracy scores decline. At the same time, Bosnia and Herzegovina has gone backwards with no signs of improvement since 2007, while Macedonia suffered growing decline since 2010, with an steep fall from 2015 to 2017.
The region now sits at a crossroads in history. Growing populism with an authoritarian tendency is expanding in Europe and around the world. Turkey is on its way to becoming a dictatorship; Russia is thought to seek the expansion of its influence in Eastern Europe; some governments (in Hungary, Romania) have initiated alarming legislation which sought to close the operation of a liberal university, and divest from the rule of law respectively; BiH and Macedonia are strengthening their nationalistic ways; Albania is currently in the midst of a typical scandalous/entertainment style election campaign, where one party is accusing the other, with the current socialist government taking inspiration from their Romanian fellow ‘left’ party by re-writing a law to not revisit sentences that would ‘worsen the position of the convicted criminal’ (at this point, several MP do not know which version of the law they voted for).
Protests and Social Movements help Citizens try to Reverse Corruption and Abuses of Power
However, a more recent trend in the region, is that these illiberal actions are not only no longer tolerated by citizens and activists, but they have moved beyond whispered criticism, and small initiatives. Participating in the political sphere and influencing policy and decision-making is not solely limited to voting or involvement in NGOs. Informal movements have sprung up, citizens, young and old, are taking to streets to protest, to visibly oppose governments or their actions, to show they they are not being represented.
In 2016 Macedonia witnessed its very own Colorful Revolution, which saw people taking to the streets to protest against abuses of power and corruption, triggered by a wiretapping scandal. Some of the Macedonians hoped to bring an end to the domination of Gruevki’s right wing VRMO-DPMNE party, and although not a remarkable success, the voting results, even with all the fraud that most definitely occurred, could not win the party enough votes to form a government, resulting in a crisis which still continues to date. In Albania and Romania, movements or protests are growing to keep their corrupt governments to account, but they are not ‘spontaneous’; instead they have been steadily developing for quite some years. At the beginning of 2017, active citizenship and participatory democracy took Romania by storm. Hundreds of thousands of people stunned Europe and the world with their power to stop the stubborn social-democrat government from passing legislation that would have decriminalised certain cases of corruption. The 2017 gatherings were the largest protests since the 1989 revolution. Albania has seen protests organised for various causes, perhaps the most recent and largest one involving hundreds of citizens who marched against the government’s intention to pass legislation that allows the import of waste. Despite having an environmental issue at the core, the protests were very much concerned with corrupt deals, and lack of transparency. Protests against the issue have been ongoing since 2004. In Serbia, small protests have been organised in the past few years, with April 2017 seeing thousands of students and other citizens protesting against the confidently elected president Vucic, who is on its way to acquire even more power.
Citizens find Solutions to Media Propaganda that Earns Votes for Political Parties
In order to consolidate their power and win elections, political parties in the Balkans have turned to the channels which shape public opinion and feed the population with daily information In the last few years, the media has become increasingly captured. Media outlets are biased and often serve the interests of specific political elites. ‘Fake News’, sometimes with a serious dose of ‘Soros-destabilizing-the-region-wanting-war-killing-democracy’ , has made its way into newspapers, TV channels, and online outlets. This strategy or conspiracy theory has been widely used recently to counter opposition to the governments. During election campaigns the media serve the agendas of their ‘business partners’ or ‘endorsed parties’, influencing public opinion at large. Whether a direct cause of the election results in Serbia or not, the media coverage of Aleksandar Vucic was much, much higher than perhaps all the other candidates combined. A student who took part in the protests of the 5th of April told BIRN that during the campaign: ‘All you could see was Vucic campaigning, citizens without the internet could almost never hear about other candidates.’ The space for independent journalism in the Balkans is shrinking, overall. Albanian mass media is mostly split in two, favouring either the Democrat Party or the Socialist Party. In Romania, TV channel Antena 3 blasted a long series of ‘made up’ news during the 2016 electoral campaign, while in Macedonia, the long governing VRMO-DPMNE party has also used media outlets to advance pro-government propaganda.
While some parts of the Balkan population bite the dust, others have become so engrossed by the practice that they are taking a stance against these media sources, and the people that dominate them. Albania has seen unbiased journalists developing online portals as alternative sources of information, and some are now widely shared online. Social media has given a platform to non-formal movements of activists, who communicate, criticise their government, and engage with the wider public. Romanians have taken on the Antena 3 channel, as well as others that similarly share invented news stories. Only in the first few months of 2017, the Romanian Media Watchdog has received thousands of complains, and fined some media outlets as a result. What is more, a boycott was also promoted, and more than just not watching a particular channel, activists reached out to businesses that pay for advertising, and few of them have since discontinued adverts on problematic outlets.
Grassroots Movements Seeking more Democracy have Potential
Despite being faced with new threats and challenges when it comes to the political, social, and economic spheres, the people of the Balkans are gradually beginning to take democracy more seriously. Perhaps over 20 years of disappointing governance and vices of the transitional period have led to the realisation that politics in the region does not represent the people, which led to more motivation to act. Alternatively, these years may have been sufficient to at least develop the understanding of the fact that rights come with responsibilities, and the more we participate in the political life, the more we have to gain. On the other hand, enthusiasm and exciting about the ability of social movements to bring change to the Balkans has also led to disappointments in the past. The 2014 protests in Bosnia and Herzegovina came to an abrupt end, and their main contribution to developing participatory democracy-the plenums- stopped functioning only few months after they were first organised. Not much has moved since in BiH, with post-protest elections giving legitimacy to govern to the same politicians. Still, a beacon of hope can be found at the grassroots and perhaps the awareness of such movements can inspire more people in the region to get involved. An increasing number of activists are starting to become more resourceful in how they use technology and street action to accomplish their goals, and 2017 started with a lot of demands for change and small successes in the Balkans. Romanians’ protesting gatherings across the country defeated the government. Macedonians attempted to overturn the VRMO-DPMNE rule, and a new coalition is slowly struggling to come to power; Albanians are organising yet another protest, this time to derail legislation that hinders appropriate sentences for offenders, while protests in Serbia are just beginning to unfold, with ever growing numbers of citizens taking to the streets.