Balkans are Europe’s soft underbelly?

IvanKrastevControlled crisis would give Russia bargaining tools and distract from Ukraine, says Ivan Krastev. Could the Balkans be the next playground for Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, and his politics of destabilisation? he asks, writing for The Financial Times:

One of two scenarios could play out in the year ahead. The Kremlin could withdraw from eastern Ukraine and try to repair its relations with the west. Or it could try instead to regain the initiative, increasing the pressure on European leaders and try to split the continent asunder…..

At the heart of the Kremlin’s influence in the region is not cultural affinity, Slavic solidarity or the influence of the Orthodox Church, but something altogether less noble. Corruption connects people, and in the Balkans it connects dangerous people. Most of the Balkan oligarchs have their Russian connections. Russian foreign policy could easily make use of them.

But destabilising the Balkans — if that is indeed what Moscow is trying to do — is a risky project. Russia can offer these societies neither a working economic model, nor an attractive political one. It cannot even pony up much cash. Shared resentment is not the same as shared perspective. Abandoning the construction of the proposed South Stream pipeline reduced Moscow’s influence.

“Russian companies will be big losers from any Russian attempt to destabilise pro-western governments in the Balkans,” argues Krastev, chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, and a council member of the National Endowment for Democracy’s International Forum. “And as the story of the Ukrainian crisis demonstrates, oligarchs are unreliable allies. They do not have friends, only financial interests, and fears.”


Eurasia’s rupture with democracy

eurasia ruptureRussia is playing a pivotal role in accelerating the decade-long decline in democracy among the states of the post-Soviet sphere, according to the latest Nations in Transit report from Freedom House.

Russia serves as the model and inspiration for policies leading to a retreat from democratic institutions throughout Eurasia and bringing the region to a new, alarming level of repression during the past year, the survey states.

“The events of 2013 show that the regime in Russia as a role model for other authoritarian leaders, even in states where the authorities already surpass their Russian counterparts in institutionalized brutality and intolerance,” said Sylvana Habdank-Kołaczkowska, the report’s project director. “Ten years ago, one in five people in Eurasia lived under Consolidated Authoritarian rule, as defined in the report. Today, it’s nearly four in five, and the trend is accelerating.”

Nations in Transit 2014 finds that regression from democratic governance is the dominant trend across Eurasia and the Balkans, as well as in post communist Central Europe, where the persistence of clientelism and corruption further undermined democratic standards.

But the year brought some positive developments in Kosovo, Albania, and Georgia, which scored improved ratings due to better elections and peaceful transfers of power.  “The most encouraging trend of 2013 was the vocal civil society response to repressive or inadequate governance,” said Habdank-Kołaczkowska. “Civil society spoke up not only in Ukraine but also in Central Europe, Kyrgyzstan, and, to a lesser degree, the Balkans.”

Key findings: 

•    Of the 29 countries assessed in 2013, 13 were rated as democracies, 6 as transitional regimes, and 10 as authoritarian regimes.

•    As in every year for the past 10 years, the average democracy score declined in 2013, with 16 countries suffering downgrades, 5 improving, and 8 not registering any score change.

•    Russia’s negative influence on the governance practices of its neighbors became more pronounced in 2013, as replicas of Russian laws restricting “homosexual propaganda” and foreign funding of NGOs appeared in several Eurasian countries.

•    Corruption increased in Central and Eastern Europe in 2013, with half of the 10 assessed European Union (EU) member states receiving downgrades.

•    The Balkans registered some positive developments during the year, including Croatia’s EU accession and a historic agreement between Kosovo and Serbia, but dysfunctional governments continued to drive down democracy scores in the region overall.

Regional findings:


•    The environment for civil society became more hostile in Russia, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan.

•    Civil society proved resilient in Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, both of which registered ratings improvements in that category.

•    Kyrgyzstan and Georgia are the only Eurasian countries where ratings have consistently improved in the last five years.

•    Conditions remained dire in Belarus, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan—the report’s worst performers.

EU Member States

•    Hungary’s ratings declined for the sixth year in a row, and the country came close to falling out of the category of Consolidated Democracies.

•    Corruption worsened across the region, with Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovenia registering downgrades.

•    Economic and political pressures resulted in ratings declines in the Independent Media category in Latvia, Lithuania, and the Czech Republic.

•    The only EU country to register an overall score improvement was Romania, where conditions calmed after a presidential impeachment attempt and related political turmoil in 2012.

The Balkans

•    Productive negotiations over ethnic Serb areas of Kosovo and an orderly transfer of power following elections in Albania contributed to significant score improvements in the two countries.

•    The outlook is less positive for Macedonia, which fell back into the category of Transitional Regimes—after graduating from the group 10 years ago—due to a deteriorating environment for independent media.

•    A long-running political stalemate continued to paralyze the central government in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

•    Despite improvements in civil society in the last 10 years, minority rights—and especially the rights of LGBT people—continue to be challenged in several countries.

Freedom House is an independent watchdog organization that supports democratic change, monitors the status of freedom around the world, and advocates for democracy and human rights.