In the Balkans to Stay

Sunday, January 30, 2000

Are the United States and Western Europe doomed—yes, doomed—for the next decade, at least, to police and doctor not merely a truncated Yugoslavia and a quasi-independent Kosovo but the rest of Southeastern Europe as well? And to do all this on top of having to nurse an ailing Russia without any certainty of accomplishment at the end of the day?

The short answer is yes. The long answer is yes—but. The West will achieve little in Southeastern Europe, however much money and manpower it invests in the area, because its inhabitants, especially the political-cultural elites, are simply unprepared to surrender their fierce tribalism as the new century begins.

In the meantime, the reformist states of Central Europe—Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic—have, compared with their neighbors, succeeded in

  • Dismantling the old political structures and building democracies
  • Marginalizing extremist groupings, like the once ruling communist parties
  • Developing a dynamic, private nonstate economy and an entrepreneurial middle class

When Slovakia wanted out of Czechoslovakia, Václav Havel waved good-bye and took the revolutionary step of changing the name of his country to the Czech Republic, thank you very much.

Why not the same experience for Southeastern Europe as well? Janusz Bugajski, director of East European Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, has an answer: "The reform process for much of the 1990s has been obstructed by an entrenched postcommunist political stratum. In sum, the development of a participatory civic society and the rule of law have been thwarted or delayed."

What made such failure inevitable? These five factors:

Authoritarianism. The onetime communist parties and their allies in Southeastern Europe discarded Marxism-Leninism in their quest to regain power. They realized that to attempt to "recommunize" their societies would be fatal to their ambitions, so they adopted strategies to undercut popular support of democratic and reformist parties. They managed to take control of media outlets, especially state television and radio. They retained the old party property assets and organizational structures and blocked the emergence of an independent judiciary. In short, the post-Communists calculated, quite correctly it appears, that a formal democracy could coexist with an "informal authoritarianism."

Weak democratization. A political culture of "dialogue, tolerance, and compromise" has shallow roots in much of the Balkans. Add a fragmentation of the resurrected noncommunist political parties, due to personality clashes and policy differences, and you have an explanation for the strength of the communist apparat. This was particularly true in Romania and Bulgaria; however, the recent electoral victory of democratic forces in those two countries has—for the moment—reversed this trend.

Nationalism. Xenophobic nationalism in the Balkans has helped authoritarianism. It has done so by fostering an intolerant political atmosphere, thereby justifying governmental controls over public institutions "on the pretext of defending endangered national interests." Ultranationalism inhibits the growth of a civic society based on unrestricted political competition, an open mass media, rule of law, and, above all, a balance between individual and minority group rights.

Economic stagnation. True, centralized command economies may no longer exist in the Balkans, but privatization and marketization have been thwarted by special interests that originate in the communist apparat. There has been what Mr. Bugaj-ski calls "nomenklatura privatization," namely, the grab of former state property by former communist elites. The result has been minimal market competition and the retarded growth of a genuine entrepreneurial stratum, which are essential phenomena to accelerate economic progress.

Criminalization. "A growing wave of officially sponsored criminality has swept across Southeastern Europe," Mr. Bugajski says. "Crime has contributed to unsettling the region’s fragile economies and democratic political institutions." The stability of Balkan countries depends on combating organized criminality as well as pursuing market reforms.

After NATO’s aerial bombardment and the surrender of Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic last summer, what hope is there for an improvement in the politico-economic situation in the Balkans? One test is the old one—follow the money. Will there be a flood of essential private investment into the region now that "peace" has broken out and Mr. Milosevic is still in the presidential palace? Perhaps, with government-guaranteed loans. Otherwise, forget it.