On February 15, 2019, thousands of demonstrators marched in the streets of Belgrade, Serbia, calling for President Aleksandar Vucic’s resignation. “#1od5miliona” (1 in 5 million) decorated banners that spanned the crowd. The slogan was a snide counterattack against Vucic, who had once said that he would never give in to the demands of demonstrators, even if there were five million of them. The demands: fairer elections, free press, and an end to authoritarian government. Essentially, protests in Serbia symbolized the country’s struggle for a functioning democracy. That same day, approximately 300 miles southwest of Belgrade, a similar protest against Montenegro’s President Milo Djukanovic took place in the capitol of Podgorica.
The spring of 2019 brought something unexpected to the people of the Western Balkans: uniform political goals that transcended ethnic lines and divisions. Although not formally aligned, demonstrators in the Western Balkans all fought for reform within their state governments. Protests across the region, including the country Bosnia & Herzegovina, continued for months and ultimately led to a “Balkan Spring.” However, the corruption that has undermined democracy in the Western Balkans has been a persistent problem for decades now. Further complicating the issue is the EU’s difficult decision of whether or not to finally accept the corruption taking place in favor of speeding up the admission of Western Balkan nation-states into the EU.
Presently, the EU is set on holding back their admission of any new Western Balkan nation-states. EU reports state that countries like Serbia, Montenegro, and Bosnia & Herzegovina will have to overcome corruption to gain access to the EU. Serbia and Montenegro have both remained official candidate states for the EU since 2012 and 2010, respectively, and Bosnia & Herzegovina has remained a potential candidate state since 2003. But unlike Bosnia & Herzegovina, Serbia and Montenegro’s official EU candidacy accentuates the urgency for these two nation-states to resolve government corruption. One of the first steps to solve a problem is to recognize there is one: Vucic and Djukanovic adamantly deny allegations of corruption, despite there being convincing evidence that suggests otherwise.
At the beginning of every new year, the Transparency International group releases a “Corruption Perceptions Index” that ranks 180 countries’ levels of corruption for the preceding year. Using the “2019 Corruption Perceptions Index,” there is insightful information on conditions in Serbia. On a scale of 0 to 100, 0 being “highly corrupt” and 100 being “very clean,” Serbia was rated 39 out of 100. This resulted in Serbia being ranked 91 out of 180 for most corrupt countries in the world (with 1 being the least corrupt and 180 being the most).
Unsurprisingly, money is at the heart of Serbia’s corruption. During the 1990s, Serbia was weakened by the Yugoslavian Civil War and NATO’s intervention in the 1999 Kosovo War. Serbia’s economy collapsed soon thereafter, culminating in high rates of poverty and unemployment across the country. Policymakers have since undertaken initiatives to improve Serbia’s economy and standards of living, including a US$1.5 billion allocation from the EU meant to aid Serbia’s “economic development,” a necessary condition of EU admission. But despite some progress, 25 percent of the country remains poor, defined as struggling to earn a consistent paycheck and therefore unable to lead comfortable lives. Worse, 7.3 percent of the country is absolutely poor, or unable to provide for even basic necessities like food. Compounding the problem of poverty are the high rates of unemployment that drastically fluctuate year to year.
In 2017, the overall unemployment rate in Serbia reached a high of nearly 15 percent. In 2019, it reached a high of roughly 13 percent. Youth unemployment rates in Serbia have been even worse, averaging 40 percent from 2008 to 2019. Consequently, younger populations are emigrating from Serbia at an alarming rate to find jobs, further weakening Serbia’s workforce and GDP.
Understanding the economic crisis of Serbia helps illustrate why people in this country may feel compelled to accept bribes in return for political favors and votes. In 2017, Vucic’s campaign offered money, jobs, and food for people willing to vote for him. Voter coercion and political corruption extend beyond individual candidates; as a member of the “Savez Nezavisnih Socijaldemokrata” (SNS, translated as Alliance of Independent Social Democrats), Vucic and other party members have often made SNS party membership a requirement for employees seeking a job in the public sector, despite Serbia having a “multi-party system.”
Vucic and his SNS party’s autocratic rule in Serbia have created an environment of fear for independent journalists, one that ultimately violates a central tenet of democracy: free press. For years, journalists have been threatened and assaulted for investigating or publishing stories critical of Vucic and SNS. In December 2018, a supervisor at Serbia’s Belgrade airport had newspapers critical of the country’s government removed from stands. A year later, a reporter named Milan Jovanovic, who was writing an article on “local government corruption,” found his house burned to the ground.
Independent journalists in Serbia have obvious reason to believe that attacks are being ordered by public officials. However, the government disputes their account: an investigation into Jovanovic’s case found evidence that Dragoljub Simonovic, a prominent SNS member, was likely the one who ordered the attack. Taking all of these past and present violations of free press into account, Freedom House has given Serbia a “partly free” rating for their annual “Freedom of the Press” report since 2006, when the country formally became a sovereign, democratic nation-state.
Individual cases aside, it is evident that Vucic is keen on taking advantage of Serbia’s people and the dire circumstances of his country in order to gain political power. The violations committed by Vucic and his government stand in direct contradiction to democratic values the EU supposedly cherishes. While Vucic continues to profess his desire to get Serbia into the EU, his actions show otherwise. Unless Serbia’s government chooses to acknowledge the “five million” demonstrators, Serbia will be entering a new decade as a country unable to answer the demands of its people—that is, a country unable to embrace democracy.
Montenegro did not experience nearly as much infrastructural damage as Serbia during the Yugoslavian Civil War, leading to superior economic opportunity. Further, Montenegro’s coastal location on the Adriatic Sea with mountainous terrain makes for a beautiful vacation spot for hundreds of thousands of tourists a year. Even so, the favorable conditions in Montenegro belie the country’s persistent struggle with corruption: oligarchs like Djukanovic pollute the public service sector with personal business interests. Montenegro is rated 45 out of 100 on the “2018 Corruption Perceptions Index,” putting it 66 out of 180 overall in the world for corruption.
The Montenegrin “Balkan Spring” further illustrated people’s acknowledgement and discontent with the corruption going on in Montenegro. Protests escalated after a leaked video showed a prominent, local businessman giving money to a “party associate” of Djukanovic in order to be allowed to continue his “shady business practices.” Djukanovic has a history of illegally abusing his power to obtain money and enrich himself and his family, making conflicts of interest and nepotism major components of Montenegro’s collapsed democracy. Djukanovic has been in the public service sector for more than 30 years, where his track record shows a history of shifting alliances and “flexible” political ideology.
Once a supporter and close ally of Slobodan Milosevic, former President of the Socialist Republic of Serbia and later President of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Djukanovic has since become a friend of the West, complicating anti-corruption efforts. Western Europe is increasingly tolerant of the corruption going on in Montenegro, in part to preserve a strategic foothold in the region. Accordingly, Djukanovic has been able to deny allegations of his corruption, depicting critics as Russia-backed instigators trying to block Montenegro’s admission into the EU. In reality, though, most anti-government demonstrators in Montenegro and the Western Balkans are not critical of entering the EU. They simply object to the EU’s increasing tolerance of autocratic leaders while still claiming the importance of “democracy.”
The effects are clear. In 2005, Italian prosecutors accused Djukanovic and 14 other people, many of whom were Montenegrin officials, of illicit cigarette smuggling between the two countries during the 1990s. During that decade, Djukanovic served as Montenegro’s Prime Minister three times. The reports extensively detail how Djukanovic helped orchestrate smuggling operations with the local mafia in Montenegro. Charges against Djukanovic, however, were dropped when he declared diplomatic immunity in 2009. Since then, Djukanovic has continued to deny the allegations, all while having personally profited from the operation. As Ratko Knezovic, “former insider” in Montenegro’s government, notes, “Today Djukanovic’s family and a few associates control every piece of economic activity in the country.”
The questionable activity did not stop there. In 2006, Djukanovic created a council to oversee the privatization of public companies. He put himself as the president of that commission. When Montenegro’s Niksic Bank, since renamed First Bank, put up 30 percent of its shares for purchase, Djukanovic helped his brother Aco Djukanovic secure the purchase. Since then, Djukanovic and his sister, Ana Kolarevic, have gained significant shares in the bank, as well. Since the bank is a major source of income for the Djukanovic family, Djukanovic successfully campaigned to bail out the bank during the 2008 financial crisis. Likewise, in 2008, he created the Montenegrin Investment Promotion Agency in order to encourage foreign direct investments in the country’s growing tourist industry. The committee has disguised its true intent of serving corrupt politicians through a parliamentary campaign claiming a “national interest.”
Watchdog groups in Montenegro have complained that Djukanovic’s private investments make his position in government a conflict of interest. Montenegro’s Commission for Determining Conflict of Interest, controlled by Djukanovic’s party, disagrees, pointing out that the government still owns some shares in the First Bank, and that investment in the tourist industry is of national interest. In light of those facts, the commission argues that Djukanovic is allowed to serve as an official of Montenegro’s government.
Djukanovic has also used his authority to secure important political and economic roles for his family and ultimately ensure himself more power. As a New York Times article explained, “The president’s sister is the nation’s top lawyer, helping foreign investors join in the building boom sweeping across the coast. His brother owns First Bank, the country’s largest financial institution. His son runs the country’s biggest power plant. His nephew is involved in the country’s largest tourism projects.”
Thus, the biggest threat to Montenegro’s democratization and entry into the EU is not “foreign Russian conspirators,” as Djukanovic would have the public believe; it is Djukanovic himself and the autocratic state he has created after more than 30 years in “public service.” Montenegrins, as the Balkan Spring protests showed, are aware of the threat Djukanovic and his government and family pose for the country. Unfortunately, he is allowed to continue corrupt behavior, largely because other European states support a man whose hatred of Russia automatically makes him part of a strategic alliance against Russia. The relationship between the West and Djukanovic shows that some leaders are focused on geopolitical alliances and interests, even if it comes at the expense of democracy. And as the situation in Montenegro shows, sometimes those painted as “foreign conspirators” are unsung heroes fighting for democracy.
Thus, voter coercion, free-press violations, cigarette smuggling, conflict of interest, and nepotism united Western Balkan demonstrators against varying forms of autocracy in their countries. Unfortunately, the EU’s growing impatience, and the complex alliances between the West and public officials in Eastern Europe, have delayed reviving democracy in the Western Balkans.