Jasmin Mujanović is a political scientist (PhD, York University) specializing in the politics of post-authoritarian and post-conflict democratization. His first book, Hunger and Fury: The Crisis of Democracy in the Balkans (Hurst Publishers, 2017), examines the persistence of illiberal forms of governance in the Western Balkans since the end of the Yugoslav Wars. His publications also include peer-reviewed articles in top-flight academic journals, chapters in numerous edited volumes, policy reports for Freedom House, the European Council on Foreign Relations, and the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, as well as popular analyses in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Al Jazeera, openDemocracy, and a host of other media.

Trieste Summit is the latest high-level meeting under the Berlin Process How would you characterise the intraregional interactions, having the frozen conflicts known?

The Berlin Process is an important framing device for the EU’s efforts in the region. Unfortunately, in many ways, it’s a virtual process rather than a reality-based one. Too often, these summits reflect what Brussels would like the region to be rather than what it is in actuality. And the ultra-technocratic focus of the Trieste meeting, in particular, with its emphasis on highways, railways, and this “common market” idea has completely obscured what are the true crises in the region: namely, the unraveling of democratic norms and the rule of law, the regional clampdown on free media, and the dangerous lack of unaccountability among the very elites whom Brussels elevates as key “stakeholders” in the Berlin Process.

After Paris Summit, the meeting from the Italian city of Trieste is the first meeting after London activated the article 50 from the Lisbon Treaty. By comparison, do you perceive any changes in terms of EU`s engagement in the South-Eastern Europe?

There have been some minor changes in certain capitals but not in Brussels itself. Germany, for instance, I think is beginning to take a more active role in the region, because Berlin is (slowly) waking up to the reality that meaningful reform efforts in the Balkans require “authorship,” that is, the presence of an international actor who will take real responsibility for the success (or failure) of such initiatives. In the 1990s and early 2000s, this was the U.S. Post-2006 the leading actor in the region became the EU, an amorphous and often directionless organization, which has lacked both the willingness and capacity to enforce its policies. After both the Trump election and Brexit, Germany has realized that continental security and democracy depends on its leadership. Berlin is still deeply committed to the EU – the Union’s success is Berlin’s greatest foreign policy objective – but in order to ensure that, Germany needs to take the helm, at least, for the time being. And the Balkans are an important place to begin that process.

Trieste Summit was marked by the ongoing debate on EU`s proposal to create a Balkan single market, proposal vehemently rejected by Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro. Are their argumentation proving the refutation of any initiatives related to Yugosphere revitalising?

Tirana, Prishtina, and Podgorica are merely (re)articulating an old Balkan problem: the outsized – and, at times, hegemonic – aspirations of Serbia in regional affairs. This is a thesis that goes back to the 19th century when Belgrade fancied itself the “Piedmont of the Balkans.” And Brussels has certainly not assuaged these fears in fawning over Aleksandar Vucic, while systematically ignoring both his attacks on the free press and civil society in Serbia, and his duplicitous dealings with Moscow and Banja Luka, in particular. Realistically though, the fears of economic domination by Belgrade are unfounded, as Serbia’s economy, despite claims to the contrary by Vucic and others, has actually been underperforming for years. And, in the long run, everyone would benefit from a streamlining and rationalization of the region’s sclerotic and backwards economic regimes.

To which extent is the Europeanisation desideratum capable of neutralising the revanchist energies manifested especially by territorial claims?

Actually existing “Europeanization” policy cannot and has not resolved the region’s ethno-territorial disputes because it has attempted to circumvent rather than address the underlying reasons behind the persistence of such politics in the Balkans. Nationalism is an elite-manufactured, top-down project that is used by authoritarian and illiberal elites to subvert popular demands for greater accountability and inclusion. This was the case in the 19th century, it was the case in the 1990s, and it is still the case today. Until the EU commits itself to confronting the crisis of democracy in the region – especially the exclusion of youth and civil society, more broadly, from politics – there will be little substantive movement on the respective “national question(s).”

Is the regional integration an intermediary stage of the long-term process of EU ascension? Which should be the main pillars for transforming this plan into an attainable objective?

Well, this framing suggests that the EU and NATO membership are inevitable, that they are the “only game in town” as so many EU leaders like to boast. This is dangerously naïve. EU and NATO membership are a priority for the region among those of us who are committed to the Balkans’ genuine democratic transformation. But it is not at all clear that we are either the majority or those who predominate in ruling circles. For instance, Milorad Dodik in Bosnia is clearly both anti-EU and anti-NATO. His government is actively sponsored by Moscow, as was the previous government in Skopje, and Aleksander Vucic has been playing both sides of the Euro-Atlantic/Russian conflict for years. All of these actors are very serious in their anti-democratic politics and the refusal of so many in Brussels to speak clearly to this fact has resulted in them gaining an outsized influence in regional affairs. That’s dangerous. If the EU is actually serious about the integration of the Western Balkans, then it’s time to reboot “democratic realpolitik”: to name and shame those who obstruct Euro-Atlantic processes, to confront those who continue to flirt with violence (as Nikola Gruevski did, and Dodik does still), and to support more stridently those who are defending and advancing genuine liberal politics – especially among civil society actors.

Should the EU assume a more prominent role in the process of national minorities management from the South-Eastern Europe? Which instruments Brussels has for brokering the inter-ethnic dialogue?

We already have all of the instruments we need to protect minorities in the region, whether we’re talking about the Roma, the LGBT communities, or the respective ethnic minorities. We have the European Court of Human Rights, the OSCE, and a virtual plethora of international human rights accords which all of the regional states have signed, as well as the domestic courts. The problem is that there is no political will, in Brussels especially, to enforce these respective decisions and documents. Take only the example of the Sejdic-Finci decision from 2009. The EU has allowed Bosnian elites to obstruct the implementation of a binding legal decision for a nearly a decade. It’s ridiculous. And it’s especially absurd because, in the last three years, Brussels has stood by as the HDZ’s Dragan Covic (with implicit support from the SDA’s Bakir Izetbegovic) has completely re-framed the Sejdic-Finci decision to be about the need for additional ethnic quotas, rather than their dismantling. This isn’t just ethically abhorrent, it’s politically asinine; the EU is allowing Bosnian elites to pretend they have “solved” an issue that they know well will just result in a new constitutional crisis further down the line. And in the meantime, the real plight of minorities – whether its social and political exclusion, violence, or poverty – continues to be ignored.

Do you consider the European integration of Kosovo and Serbia as being tightly bound? Is the normalisation process supposed to be a measuring scale for the ascension to the EU?

Sooner or later, Belgrade will have to recognize Kosovo’s independence. There’s no way Serbia enters the EU without this and Vucic and the Belgrade elite know this is as well as anyone else. It’s why they agreed to the Belgrade-Prishtina Dialogue in the first place, even though it has fallen by the wayside in recent years, in order to begin acclimatizing the Serbian public to this project. This is not to say they will recognize Kosovo, of course, there’s no lack of anti-EU forces in Serbia after all. But there’s no great mystery here if Serbia’s EU membership is to happen, it’s ultimately just a matter of timing as to when they formally recognize Kosovo.

Taking into account Jean-Claude Juncker`s statement on temporising the enlargement in order to handle Brexit, do you consider that there may appear a power vacuum to be exploited by Moscow?

There has been a power vacuum in the Balkans for years, one that predates both Brexit and Trump, and it is largely the result of the EU’s directionless muddling in the region. Obviously, the UK is a far bigger political factor than the whole of the Western Balkans combined, at least on paper. But Mr. Juncker and his colleagues are in for a nasty surprise if they believe Moscow is going to let the Balkans just sit quietly while Brussels and London sort out their differences. Especially after two humiliating episodes for the Kremlin in Montenegro and Macedonia, Russia is eager to stir up trouble in the region. Dodik is one of their last remaining true-blue loyalists, so expect the next Russian gambit to come via his government, possibly in the context of the Bosnian general elections in 2018.

Both the state-owned and the independent media from the Western Balkans depicts a growing pro-Russian current in the region, Serbia representing the spearhead. Is this a consequence of Brussels` slow down on integration?

More or less, yes. Although I would argue the real spearhead is Banja Luka, not Belgrade, at least in terms of the real potential for chaos. Brussels began to believe its own hype about being the only game in town while simultaneously ignoring and often accommodating the retreat of substantive democratic governance and norms in the region. This became an ideal environment for Russia but also other authoritarian actors (i.e. Turkey, the Gulf states, even China) to step in, and progressively begin supplanting the EU in terms of both political and financial sponsorship. The more the EU lectured, without ever demonstrating its willingness to act, the more local elites began to think they could at least play both sides of the fence or even fully swap the patronage of Brussels for Moscow. This is a large part of why things got so out of hand in Macedonia; Gruevski was a bad faith actor for years before the EU ever deemed it necessary even to comment, never mind respond politically.

The freedom of speech and conscience is one of the major issues that have been discussed during the civil society session from Triste. Could we consider the activity of independent media and NGO as an evidence of how enhanced the democracy is in the Western Balkans?

The state of media in the Western Balkans is the proverbial “canary in the coal mine” and all relevant monitoring organizations have observed a precipitous decline in the freedom and quality of the press across the region. It’s good that civil society discussions are increasingly a part of the respective European summits in the region but too often these have turned into European and Balkan elites lecturing local civil society activists about what “serious” politics is rather than being a forum for the latter to highlight the abuses of the former. That needs to change. The press is the conscience of free societies and their role is doubly important in politics wherein politics is already so demonstrably skewed against the inclusion and best interests of the public.

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