In a recent interview with the European Western Balkans website Dušan Reljić, who heads the Brussels Office of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, made the eye-catching point that the GDPs of Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Macedonia are lower now than they were in 1989. Reljić goes on to explain how the stalled economic progress poses an obstacle to their joining the EU. “If there is less money for redistribution,” Reljić says, “we are faced with a stronger role of the state and of the government, and therefore the space for democracy lessens.”
The resulting concentration of power in the hands of small political cliques further perpetuates the economic disenfranchisement of the masses and concentrates yet more power in the hands of the few. It is this vicious cycle, which Reljić points out is characterised by “little respect for the rule of law, the suppression of democratic procedures and institutions…lack of media freedom etc.” that has made the EU far more cautious about admitting Western Balkan countries into the bloc than it has been about previous enlargements.
This is evident in its latest policy paper about the Balkans, which starts with a stern warning to aspiring EU members in the region: “First, the rule of law must be strengthened significantly,” the document says, before adding “Today, the countries show clear elements of state capture, including links with organised crime and corruption at all levels of government and administration… All this feeds a sentiment of impunity and inequality.”
The recent killing of the prominent Kosovar Serb politician Oliver Ivanovic has brought this point home in the most brutal way. The knee-jerk response to his assassination would be to suspect Kosovar Albanian involvement, he had after all, been accused of committing war crimes against ethnic Albanians in the 1990s. However, scratch the surface and the story that begins to emerge is of a politburo style administration, highly resistant to change and capable of drawing on its organised crime connections to enforce the status quo.
Ivanovic’s murder should perhaps have come as little surprise. In July last year his car was torched and in October, four people contesting parliamentary seats for his “Freedom, Democracy and Justice” party were intimidated into withdrawing their candidacy. There was no doubt this was a message and little doubt where it was coming from. For Ivanovic, serving Kosovar Serb interests meant at times being critical of Belgrade’s policies in Kosovo as well as Belgrade’s political mouthpiece in Kosovo: the Serb List party. He had also spoken out about organised crime in Serb enclaves of the country, saying that it was them who ordinary Serb’s feared much more than their Albanian neighbours.
In an interview with the Irish Times, a former colleague of Ivanovic’s pointed the finger at this shadowy conspiracy between organised crime and politics as being the cause of Ivanovic’s demise. “Literally anything can happen here. A criminal group has intimidated not only the citizens but the police, and it tells them who to arrest,” said Dusan Milunovic. “We don’t trust anyone.” So long as Kosovo remains in the grip of this cabal it will never be able to fully develop, either economically or politically.
Balkan observers need look no further than Montenegro, just over the (disputed) border from Kosovo for further evidence of how state capture in the hands of a politico-criminal clique deprives citizens of the opportunity for economic development. Under the nearly three decade reign of Milo Djukanovic, Montenegro has become the postcard image of a mafia-run state. Its yacht-lined harbours speak of conspicuous wealth but the bloody shootouts in the tourist-packed streets reveal the truth behind the facade. Meanwhile, the Montenegrin people serve as collateral in the high stakes game, expected to bail out Djukanovic’s personal bank when it went bust or losing their lives to stray bullets in gangland turf wars.
All of which harks back to the EU’s warning its policy document on enlargement in the Balkan’s when it says that this feeds a sense of impunity and inequality.
The EU’s stated recognition of that fact might just mean that it is going to be more thoroughgoing in its vetting of aspiring EU members than it has been before. In Kosovo, this would mean untangling the web of interests that lay behind Oliver Ivanovic’s murder and seeing justice be done. In Montenegro, it would mean sending a clear message to Milo Djukanovic that if he runs for president in April’s election that it will count as a black mark against the country’s EU application.