October 27, 2015
News coming from the Western Balkans states resembles much with news coming from Moldova, with protests against the government being the current norm. Popular unrest relates first of all to the socio-economic reality in these countries, but it also refers to the East-West balance of power. The so called ‘normalization process’ between Kosovo and Serbia, of which the Kosovo signing of the Stabilization and Association Agreement may be seen as one of the steps ensuring progress, is linked with the two countries’ relations with the EU and the West in general. Meanwhile, among the protests against the government in Montenegro voices against the country’s NATO accession are becoming louder as time passes. In Moldova, ongoing street demonstrations against corruption are also underlying the tensions between the pro-Western and pro-Russian camps. It is not often that events in these regions make the headlines in the media – but they make a major impact when it comes to the global power balance.
Kosovo signed on Oct. 27 in Strasbourg the Stabilization and Association Agreement with the European Union. The announcement, marking an important step in Kosovo’s path towards international recognition and EU integration, triggered protests in Pristina. The opposition politicians released tear gas in parliament and dozens of the hundreds of protesters who were throwing petrol bombs at the parliament building were arrested as they were demonstrating against the so called “Zajednica” (the Serbian communities that would be able to associate in Northern Kosovo, where the Serb population is the majority) and the border demarcation with Montenegro.
Kosovo is the only country in the region that doesn’t have a SAA signed with the EU, as it was only offered after Serbia and Kosovo signed a major normalization agreement in 2012. The benefits will mainly be in the field of trade considering that Kosovar products will enjoy better access to the European market. The protests delay the approval of important legislation supporting the economic reform of the country, and, in the words of the US ambassador to Kosovo Greg Delawie “risking isolating Kosovo from the Euro-Atlantic community”.
Meanwhile, in Montenegro, the opposition protests against the government seem to have a real potential to turn into a civil revolt. On Oct. 17, police removed the tents blocking the traffic through the main streets of Podgorica and broke up the protest in front of the country’s parliament. Protests escalated and they are still ongoing, with periodical clashes between the demonstrators and the police. The main requests of the opposition are the resignation of the Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic, the change of the government that has been in power for more than 20 years, the formation of an interim government and the organization of early elections – to be the first free and fair ones held in the country, according to the opposition.
While the protests hadn’t achieved any of the goals until the police intervened, the police raid, the arrest of participants, journalists and some of the leaders of the opposition and the use of tear gas seems to have provided the organizers and the protest itself with much-needed ‘wind in the sails.’ The underlying reasons for the demonstrations are in fact related to the corruption scandals and the election irregularities that impaired a fair political fight. The way things evolved has stirred the Montenegrin political stakeholders and the public in many different ways. While the public and the opposition continue to point at the institutions for being ‘captive’ to the ruling elite, the government is saying that the protests are an attack on the country’s independence and an attempt to undermine its invitation for NATO membership.
The situation in Montenegro resembles that in Moldova, where protests against corruption are ongoing, with the political leadership playing the game of politics while also trying to show willingness to start the fight against corruption. The unstable environment is not only negatively affecting the country’s path to the EU but also stalling the economic reforms the country needs to implement in order to get out of the socio-economic crisis it now finds itself into.
Moldova and the Western Balkans are borderland regions. The nuances and details shaping each of the layers of society here are defining these regions’ geopolitics. Such ‘transitioning’ areas – that the mainstream media tends to ignore until events such as the refugee crisis takes them to the headlines – are seen as part of the spheres of influence of the greater powers, being both transit and negotiation nodes for them. During peace-time, such regions may indeed become “gateways” for commercial endeavors, living of the wealth of trade channels passing through their territory. However, for commercial regional hubs and gateways to take shape, strong, non-captive and not-corrupt states need to facilitate regional cooperation, to be able of administering the international dependencies that shape the trade and investment flows. In between the (rare) times when these regions enjoy peace, the negotiating seasons are marking their politics (both internally and internationally). These seasons – more or less turbulent – developments simply depend on the global power balance. And in this part of the globe, it comes down to balancing the West – the EU and the US against the East – Russia.