Challenges to Democracy in the Western Balkans are Part of a Wider European Trend
The European Union and the United States have shifted their democracy assistance in the Western Balkans more toward supporting the empowerment of civil society, including in the context of the increasingly “closed” space. Despite this, they are confronted with old and new challenges that reflect how complex this work has become. The countries of the region have experienced developments that challenge any linear notion of democratization that local or foreign actors may have once held.
GMF is a leader in civil society support to Eastern Europe and the Western Balkans. As a side event to GMF’s Brussels Forum, we held a workshop to look at the important challenges faced by civil society in these regions, and the necessary adjustments to Western assistance. On the sidelines, we spoke to President of the Belgrade Fund for Political Excellence Sonja Licht.
Sonja Licht: First, I would like to draw a line between Central Europe and the Western Balkans. We have somewhat similar pasts, but even that is not quite the same. There is a divide. Also, most of central Europe joined the EU in 2004–2007, so they have had a long time of developing their structures and institutions within the EU. The Western Balkans are in a different situation: except Slovenia and Croatia, the rest are far from the EU.
However, when you look at Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, it looked like they were managing to strengthen their institutions and infrastructure, that they were managing to strengthen their political culture, contrary to us. And now suddenly we see that we are sharing very similar challenges to democracy — very similar challenges to civil society, independent media, all those pillars that democracy depends on.
What is there that made us similar again? That is something that we should be seriously analyzing. Pavol Demeš talked about it during this event, that it is absolutely necessary to go into serious self-critical analysis. And not only this group of countries but also the democratic countries of Western Europe and the United States, because there is no doubt that what is happening with this aggressive rise of populism with nationalist and fascist features is a response to something that did not work well, even in liberal democracies.
What is happening to European democracy? How can Tuscany vote 20 percent for Lega Nord, which is a semi neo-fascist structure. How can the AfD be the strongest opposition party in Germany? This was unthinkable ten years ago. People say it is due to economic factors. Sure, but look at Germany. Germany is facing a growing economy. People say it is due to fear of migrants, but what is the percentage of migrants, for example in eastern Germany? Sometimes it is very small. So what I would like to underline is that we need to focus on these very difficult questions.
The most important question that we can ask today is what the liberal democracies are doing wrong. Enough with Fukuyama, he was simply wrong. But we all somehow behave like everything we have is given forever, taken for granted. We still do not know how to fight for democracy, we still do not know how to capture the imagination of the silent majority. The silent majority are not fascists. For me, this is the hope: that the silent majority is on the right side. But hope is not enough. What are our politicians going to do? What are our bureaucrats going to do? What are all the donors to our institutions going to do? Something is changing, but the question is are we changing quickly enough to not face a new disaster for all our values, the culture we live in, and what we believe in.
Read more from participants on how donors should adapt their strategies: On the Margins: EU and U.S. Support for Embattled Civil Societies in Europe’s East.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.