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Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy
19 May 2022

The Balkans: Proximity and Neighborhood - the Challenge of the Democratic Transformation

Read and contribute to our new dedicated commentary series.

The context

Between democratic challenges and European aspirations, what role for the socio-cultural and geopolitical concepts of proximity and neighborhood?

The Balkan region is embedded in the European continent but a part of it has been left out of the European construction. The so-called Western Balkans are surrounded by the European Union (EU), so close yet so far away from continental projects and perspectives. This workshop aims at freeing the Western Balkans from their image as an enclave for the purpose of offering a more constructive analysis and comprehensive European perspectives. Beyond the ‘Western Balkan’ label, there is a set of countries embedded in a larger macro- and interregional reality. Mapping the larger area of the enclave’s genuine neighborhood will emphasize how close the Western Balkans are to their EU environment. This new conceptual framework furthermore serves to address recurring questions about integration and democracy. Borrowed from the field of sociology (Georg Simmel), the concepts of proximity and neighborhood bear the potential to rethink the region instead of excluding a part of it from our European interrogations.

 

The purpose

The commentary series invites contributions from scholars, researchers, students, policy-makers, practitioners, and other civil society stakeholders from the region and abroad with the goal of fostering an interdisciplinary dialogue that seeks to approach the region from various innovative perspectives in order to evaluate its subjective and objective position in relation to the rest of Europe and the world.

Contributions may fall into one of four distinct but interconnected areas of research and policy discussion that seek to:

 

1. Highlight new angles on the challenges of democratic transformation of the region. Antidemocratic leaders in many Western Balkan countries have continued to undermine institutions that protect freedoms of expression and association, as well as the rule of law, in recent years, including those who have blatantly amassed power beyond constitutional bounds. Western Balkan countries' aspirations and attempts to join the EU are thwarted at the threshold of integration, and they tend to devolve into 'stabilitocracies.' Through Hungary and Slovenia, the so-called Visegrád 4's concept of 'Europeanization,' which promotes illiberal democracy, is entering the Balkans. Transforming the Balkans into consolidating democracies is a big challenge for the European Union, as well as the region's governments and citizens - and the crown jewel of the EU's enlargement policy.

2. Broaden the perspective on the peninsula as a whole. ‘Western Balkans’ is a pejorative label for a set of countries left out of the European project. Instead of focusing on the borders of this enclave with the EU, let us rethink the multiple boundaries that connect the six countries to continental politics, to the neighboring macro-regions and areas (the Alpine and the Danubian regions, the V4, the Mediterranean), and to the macro-region where the Western Balkans are in fact located, i.e., the Balkan Peninsula. Let us reconsider the longer-term cultural ties of this enlarged Balkan region with historical neighbors (Turkey, Russia, Austria) and new ones, such as China. Neighborhood does not necessarily mean geographical proximity. On this point, the Balkans connect to a contemporary European priority, namely the EU’s foreign affairs and security in the light of the Old Continent’s global neighborhood.                

3. (Re-) establish a civic sense of belonging: Ethnicism creates the illusion that a neighboring land is ‘closer’ than the native, as with Serbia in the eyes of Bosnian Serbs. Minority issues raise the question of the very quality of citizenship. Indeed, thinking in terms of ‘ethnonational’ belonging makes Bosnian Croats feel closer to neighboring Croatian politics, while Bulgarian Turks swing between their homeland and neighboring Turkey. Civic identity gets lost in the process. What’s more, the practice of democratic debates gets easily undermined when the discussing parts argue in the name of ethnic or religious differences rather than on the common basis of citizenship within a theoretically shared, common state.    

4. Rethink the ‘Balkans’ beyond geopolitical labels and constructed fractures. Opening up the Western Balkans will contribute to clearing our perspectives on the most pressing contemporary European challenges. Democracy and security issues are embedded in the continental challenge of relaunching the somewhat exhausted European project. Moving beyond dominating geopolitical labels and artificial fissures is a key goal for EU leverage and addresses the question of the Old Continent’s place and role in the contemporary global world. Democratic shortcomings and backslides call for the multilayer study of historical, cultural, and religious realities and stakes. Cohesion and enlargement, integration issues within European societies call for an examination of European diversity. Europe is a complex patchwork of imperial legacies. The Balkan Peninsula is a paradigm of a vital pan-European question: how to turn the given patchwork of legacies into constructive and normative diversity? With a refreshed and more generous and multiscale approach, the Western Balkans will not be a barrier anymore but part of the solution for European politics, democracy, and perspectives in a global world       

 

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Proposed contributions are expected to be from 500 to 2500 words long and can be submitted on a rolling basis to the editorial team: Dr Maria Mexi (maria.mexi@graduateinstitute.ch), Adam Bence Balazs (adam.balazs@andrassyuni.hu), and Dr Christina Griessler (christina.griessler@andrassyuni.hu)

The Geneva Graduate Institute’s Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy, the Andrássy Forum for Western Balkan Studies, and the Centre for the Research of Democracy (ZeDem) at Andrássy University Budapest have collaborated to develop and launch this commentary series.

 

Published contributions:

27 May 2022, The Western Balkans, A European Story: Variations on proximity and neighbourhood, by Adam Bence Balazs

22 June 2022, Why EU Enlargement? A Geo-Political Perspective, by Christina Griessler

2 September 2022, Balkanisation of Europe?, by Dragan Prole

1 November 2022, The Unbearable Lightness of Becoming European, by Frauke Seebas