IEMed Mediterranean Yearbook 2013



Geographical Overview

Strategic Sectors


The Western Balkans 2012: A Year of Internal Political Conflicts

Kenneth Morrison

Senior Lecturer in Modern European History
De Montfort University, Leicester

While the European Union (EU) has faced very challenging political and fiscal crises of its own, membership of the Union remains a key objective of all the countries of the Western Balkans. Despite a perception in the region that “enlargement fatigue” will slow the process of European integration, Croatia (which will not be addressed here) will join in the summer of 2013 and Montenegro opened membership negotiations in April 2012. The picture is, however, less promising elsewhere, and although the quest for EU membership is largely consensual across the political spectrum (with some exceptions), internal political conflicts have undermined the accession process in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Kosovo and Macedonia. To compound this, the states of the Western Balkans have been severely impacted by the global financial crisis. The economic situation in the region remains far from stable as regional governments attempt to forge an economic recovery. It is within this context that the following selective analysis of the key internal developments in those Western Balkan states throughout 2012 is framed.

Following Croatia’s accession, the most likely country to join the EU thereafter is Montenegro. There was also some moderate social and political flux in Montenegro, although the government seems to have overcome the challenges. In October, following a lively election campaign, Milo Djukanovic returned as the country’s Prime Minister, although the coalition led by his Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) failed to win an absolute majority in the parliamentary elections. Nevertheless, it was a welcome victory at the end of a difficult year for the Montenegrin government. At the beginning of 2012, a corruption affair generated by the sale of Montenegrin Telekom compounded pre-existing dissatisfaction among the opposition and among those who argue that Montenegro has become a “private state” controlled by Djukanovic and a number of his associates. Thousands of protestors demonstrated against price rises, perceived corruption, nepotism, and the government’s failure to tackle organised crime. Initially, the protests appeared to be growing and the demands of the protesters shifted from the manifestation of economic discontent toward explicit demands for the government to resign. But the protests began to fizzle out by mid-year as the government announced that membership talks with the EU were about to begin.

In July, the government called early elections, seeking a new mandate that would allow them a new four-year term in which to embark upon EU accession talks. In advance of the elections, the opposition coalition, comprising the Movement for Changes (PzP), the New Serbian Democracy (NOVA) and numerous independent intellectuals, began to crystallise. The coalition was headed by the former Yugoslav Foreign Minister, Miodrag Lekic, who placed criticism of the government’s record on organised crime and corruption at the heart of the campaign. The opposition was, however, unable to end the dominance of the DPS and its governing partner, the Social Democratic Party (SDP). Nevertheless, for the first time since the 2001 election, the DPS and its coalition partners failed to win an absolute majority of seats in Parliament. They subsequently entered into a coalition with Bosnian, Croat and Albanian parties to form a diverse ruling coalition, albeit one that is now led by the “new-old” Prime Minister.

While the European Union has faced very challenging political and fiscal crises of its own, membership of the Union remains a key objective of all the countries of the Western Balkans

Political divisions were more acute in neighbouring Bosnia. The country has, for several years, lurched from crisis to crisis, and recent developments have done little to suggest that a departure from that trend is imminent. In January 2012, Vjekoslav Bevanda was appointed as Prime Minister after a long impasse in which the country had no state-level government. His upbeat rhetoric soon proved hopelessly optimistic. The first major challenge for the government was to adopt a state budget, but the issue only served to increase pre-existing strains between the predominantly Bosniak parties, the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and the Party for Democratic Action (SDA). Failure to reach an agreement led to the latter departing the governing coalition. Subsequently, the SDP leader, Zlatko Lagumdzija, sought coalition allies elsewhere. Having marginalised the SDA, he sought to open the door to Fahrudin Radoncic’s Alliance for a Better Future (SBB). But this did little to resolve the ongoing political deadlock, either within the Federation or between Republika Srpska(RS)and the Federation.  

In terms of the latter, Lagumdzija would surprise even his closest allies by reaching an agreement with Milorad Dodik, the leader of the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD), the largest party in the RS. The two pledged to improve cooperation between Bosnia’s two entities and the functioning of both the government and the economy. Their plans included revision of the electoral law, revision of the administration and the election of state prosecutors. Critics of the deal said it would reduce transparency and undermine the power of Bosnia’s state-level institutions. The country’s main Croat parties, who have long argued that the Federation is effectively run by Bosniaks (Muslims) and the RS by the Serbs, supported the deal while demanding that power should be distributed among all three ethnic groups.

In the midst of the internal political conflicts, a report by the Office of the High Representative (OHR) cautioned about the dangers of what they argued was the threat of rising nationalism in the RS. Addressing the UN Security Council in November, the High Representative, Valentin Inzko, stated that he remained concerned by the secessionist rhetoric of the RS leadership, singling out Milorad Dodik as particularly problematic in this regard. Both reports warned that Bosnia was falling further behind other countries in the region in terms of reforms, which, it was argued, would have economic, social and political consequences.

Nationalist rhetoric has also been a defining feature of Albanian politics in the past year. The year 2013 marks the centenary of Albania’s declaration of independence from the Ottoman Empire, and celebrations in advance of this were accompanied by a degree of nationalist rhetoric and jingoism. But this did little more than temporarily conceal the country’s continuing internal problems. Albania’s traditional adversaries – the ruling Democrats (led by Sali Berisha) and the opposition Socialists (led by Edi Rama) – did cooperate on a cross-party parliamentary commission tasked with amending the electoral code. But this consensus had broken down by June, when Parliament was required to elect a new head of state. While constitutional revisions formalised in 2008 gave the ruling coalition the right to vote in a candidate with a simple majority, Berisha faced pressure both from the EU and the US to select an appropriately consensual candidate. In June, following the collapse of talks between the opposition and government about a suitable candidate, Parliament voted to approve the interior minister, Bujar Nishani, as the new Head of State. Following his inauguration, Nishani moved to approve a request by Berisha and replace the head of the State Security Agency (SHISH), Bahri Shaqiri. The latter had gained respect for his professionalism, particularly for ensuring that SHISH did not fall under the political influence of the ruling Democrats. His relations with Berisha were not, however, very positive. The Albanian Prime Minister had accused him, former President Topi and the General Prosecutor, Ina Rama, of being conspirators in an alleged coup d’état in January 2011. Berisha drew further criticism for his nationalistic rhetoric during the week of celebrations held to mark the independence anniversary on 28 November. Berisha’s appeals to pan-Albanian sentiment angered some of Albania’s neighbours. The premier also raised eyebrows by offering a speedy path to citizenship for all the world’s ethnic Albanians.

Domestic issues were also at the heart of the Serbian elections in May. The elections saw a heavy defeat for Boris Tadic’s Democratic Party (DS). The electorate, tired of what they perceived to be the party’s mismanagement of the economy, corruption and falling living standards, punished it accordingly. Indeed, the incumbent mayor of Belgrade, Dragan Djilas, was the only Democrat who performed well, holding onto his post as mayor. In the wake of the elections, significant horse-trading led to Ivica Dacic, the leader of the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS), aligning himself with the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS). Dacic became Prime Minister, while the SNS leader Tomislav Nikolic became President, following his defeat of the incumbent, Boris Tadic, in the run-off. The downfall of the DS was complete following the formation of the new government, comprising the SNS, SPS and the United Regions of Serbia (URS). The elections threw the DS into crisis, with Tadic widely blamed for the defeat.

Within weeks of the creation of the new government, Nikolic resigned as head of the SNS, thereby allowing Aleksandar Vucic to lead the party. Vucic also took one of the Deputy Prime Minister posts and the post of Defence Minister. In August, he was also appointed secretary of the Council for National Security, giving him oversight of Serbia’s security services. Thereafter the SNS sought to make good on their pre-election promise to root out corruption. Indeed, Vucic warned those he accused of corruption that no-one would be beyond the law. Numerous high-profile arrests followed, the most spectacular arrest being that of Serbia’s richest businessman, Miroslav Miskovic, owner of the Delta Holding, who was arrested in connection with a number of privatisations that the EU had deemed problematic. The arrests were, seemingly, proof that the new government intended to tackle corruption energetically, though their critics argued that this was merely a cover for what was essentially the settling of political scores. 

The Nikolic government’s position on Kosovo and EU membership was, however, rather similar to their predecessors. Serbia obtained EU candidate status under the DS in March and hoped to get a start date for accession talks by the end of 2012. However, normalisation of relations with Kosovo remained the major stumbling block. Determined to acquire a starting date for membership negotiations, Ivica Dacic controversially agreed to meet his Kosovo counterpart, Hashim Thaci, in Brussels in October. The meeting, described by the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Policy and Security, Catherine Ashton, as “historic,” took place despite Serbia having an arrest warrant out for Thaci. This and subsequent meetings resulted in an agreement to implement an earlier deal on the Kosovo-Serbia border and appoint liaison officers from both sides. Brussels hailed the deal as a significant step forward, but it was not sufficient for Serbia to be permitted to proceed with EU accession talks.

Kosovo finished the year having ended the period of international “supervision” recognised by more than half of all UN Member States. Kosovar leaders and key international allies, such as the US, hailed a “historic milestone” in the modern history of the region, while others were less enthusiastic. Serbia dismissed the decision of the International Steering Group (ISG), which comprises 23 EU Member States, the United States and Turkey, reiterating that its government would never recognise Kosovo, supervised or otherwise. Kosovo also made tentative steps toward EU membership, although it remained the only country in the Western Balkans not to have benefited from any relaxation in the EU visa regime. The EU has assessed that Kosovo’s government have only made moderate progress in combating organised crime and corruption and have made slow progress in resolving the seemingly intractable problems in the northern, Serb-controlled part of the Kosovar territory. A positive move towards resolving the thirteen-year “frozen” conflict in northern Kosovo came, however, with implementation of the Integrated Border Management (IBM) agreement with Serbia. The agreement, initially concluded at the end of 2011 within the framework of the EU-mediated “technical dialogue” between Pristina and Belgrade, came into force just after Prime Minister Thaci’s aforementioned meeting with his Serbian counterpart. Yet talks were often undermined by events elsewhere. At the end of November, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) (for the second time) acquitted the former Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) commander and former Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj. He returned to a hero’s welcome in Kosovo.

Neighbouring Macedonia’s troubled year began with the death of its first president, Kiro Gligorov, who played the key role in the country’s peaceful separation from the former Yugoslavia. His death coincided with a deterioration of inter-ethnic relations within the country he led, relations that had become increasingly strained throughout the previous year. That trouble lay ahead became evident in January in the village of Vevcani (near Struga). Christian participants in a festival held there wore the Muslim veil and mocked the Koran, generating fierce protests from the ethnic Albanian community of Struga. In the violence that followed, a number of churches were set alight. A month later in the predominantly Albanian town of Gostivar, an ethnic Macedonian police officer killed two ethnic Albanians. The circumstances were never fully explained, provoking protests among ethnic Albanians. In March, clashes between Slav Macedonian and ethnic Albanian youths in the centre of the Macedonian capital, Skopje, became increasingly commonplace. Collectively, these incidents increased fears that conflict, such as that the country experienced in 2001, might return. Subsequently, thousands marched through the streets of Skopje calling for ethic tolerance

Inter-ethnic relations were further strained after the discovery of the bodies of five ethnic Macedonians, who appeared to have been shot dead, on 12 April near a lake in the environs of Skopje. The murders fuelled already tense ethnic relations, leading to more protests and more violence. Despite the identities of the perpetrators being unknown at this stage, it was widely assumed that the killers were ethnic Albanians. And, indeed, after an extensive police operation, six ethnic Albanians were charged. However, the police announcement that the men were “radical Islamists” brought thousands of ethnic Albanian protestors on to the streets of Skopje, their central claim being that the arrests were politically motivated. In the wake of the murders, tensions ebbed and flowed. In August, Defence Minister Fatmir Besimi (an ethnic Albanian) attended a ceremony in the village of Slupcane to commemorate members of the ethnic Albanian National Liberation Army (NLA) killed during the conflict in 2001 between ethnic Albanian insurgents and the Macedonian government. Although the move generated criticism, no action was taken against Besimi and the matter appeared to be at an end. However, a month later, the governing VMRO-DPMNE (Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization – Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity) announced that they would bring into law legislation that would provide benefits to members of the Macedonian armed forces who had taken part in the 2001 conflict. This provoked a crisis in the government coalition with VMRO-DPMNE’s ethnic Albanian coalition partner, the Democratic Union for Integration (DUI). The DUI and the opposition Democratic Party of Albanians (DPA) vowed to do everything to block the law if it was not extended to former NLA fighters. By the end of the year the law still had not been adopted, prompting some opposition parties to accuse the government partners of exploiting nationalist sentiments.  

The year’s end saw yet more political crisis. On this occasion, the main opposition Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) proposed more than a thousand amendments to the budget law. The party said it would use all possible methods to stop adoption of the law. It specifically opposed a proposal for Macedonia to take out two new loans in 2013 and demanded restraint in building more monuments (many of which were erected as part of the “Skopje 2014” regeneration project) and other unproductive projects. Following an attempt by the opposition to block the parliamentary session, police ejected a number of MPs from the building. Macedonia appeared to be sliding into a spiral of political crisis with uncertain consequences.

The year 2012 was marked by the progress of Montenegro’s EU bid, despite the social and economic challenges the government face there. Events elsewhere have, however, been marked by the intensification of political conflicts. Bosnia continues to lurch from crisis to crisis, Albanian politics remains defined by the Socialist-Democrat dynamic, Serbia and Kosovo remain at odds (despite the aforementioned EU-backed initiatives) and Macedonia appeared to be sliding toward serious crisis. Paradoxically, the aforementioned events have not rendered progress on EU membership for these countries entirely static, but there remains concern in Brussels over the future trajectory of these conflicts. They are, of course, only one factor in a complex picture, but failure to resolve them will only result in slower progress toward membership of the EU.