Western Balkans Wrap-Up

This week I wrapped up my Western Balkans research. The first topic I tackled was North Macedonia, another tiny Balkan nation historically dominated by its larger neighbors. North Macedonia made international headlines in 2019 when, following a controversial referendum, it changed its name – previously simple Macedonia – to add a geographical qualifier. This alteration came as the result of erstwhile Greek intransigence – North Macedonia’s southern neighbor long argued that the nation’s sharing its name with a territory in northern Greece compromised Greek territorial integrity and also muddled Greek history (the ancient Macedonians, who conquered the Near East under the leadership of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BCE, bear no relation to the native Slavic people of North Macedonia). North Macedonia’s momentous name change was heralded as finally clearing the way for the country’s accession to the European Union, but, alas, new opponents appeared to stymie North Macedonian accession. Both France and Bulgaria objected to the country’s membership, and the issues they raised are still being negotiated today (Bulgaria’s grievances involve, in part, the historical heritage of the Macedonian people, and whether they were historically considered Bulgarian).

North Macedonia has also faced its own internal conflicts since independence in 1991 – namely, the country’s sizeable ethnic Albanian minority strenuously objected to the primacy of ethnic Macedonians in post-independence politics in the 1990s, culminating in violent clashes that escalated to a civil war in all but name in 2001. Following international intervention, however, North Macedonia reformed itself to create a more inclusive, multiethnic state, and ethnic Albanians have largely played a vital role as upholders of the constitutional order since the signing of the Ohrid Agreement in 2001.

The last country in the Western Balkans I researched is also the most consequential: Serbia. The most populous country in the region, as well as the most homogenous, Serbia has historically dominated its neighbors, both politically and militarily, for the better part of the last century. When Yugoslavia was established after the First World War it was as a unitary state ruled by a Serb monarchy, and when the multiethnic nation finally collapsed in the 1990s its breakup was marked by Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic’s prosecution of a series of bloody, unsuccessful wars to try to maintain control of regions that wished to be independent.

Since the days of Milosevic (who was deposed by the democratic opposition in 2000), Serbian politics has become generally supportive of European integration (a principle that was even included, with some controversy, in the 2006 constitution), but the country still generally lags behind its neighbors in progression toward coveted EU membership. The territorial dispute over Kosovo’s independence is the most significant barrier to Serbia’s joining the EU, but even on the domestic front the nation faces several challenges before it will be welcomed into the European community. Importantly, the Serbian constitution has a weaker separation of powers and a less independent judiciary than European standards call for, and recent reform efforts have focused on these particular areas of improvement (though the success of those efforts remains to be seen).

Ultimately, I believe the constitutional challenges of the Western Balkan nations I have studied are largely manageable and will eventually be resolved in a way that brings the region closer to the EU. However, the lingering ethno-political tensions from the violent breakup of Yugoslavia just 30 years ago still cut deep, and political parties continue to rely on ethnonationalist rhetoric and politics to deliver victory at the ballot box. Until such deep-seated divisions are truly resolved – as the historical Franco-German enmity was buried following the Second World War – Western Europe will continue to let the nations of the Western Balkans wait for their invitation to the world’s largest free-trade area and all its attendant benefits and promises.