THE WESTERN BALKANS: A EUROPEAN STORY
Variations on proximity and neighbourhood
Six European countries in the wake of a disaster. The disaster was a complex war that reached an intensity in horror no one could possibly have imagined a couple of years before the eruption of the conflict.
In the post-war context, some of these six countries were stigmatized as warmongers in the limelight of international justice or overshadowed by a stigmatized neighbouring country. While some states could enjoy the thrill of liberation for a while, others looked more discretely for new directions – which is not incompatible with a flight forward into denial. A post-war situation means the disturbing proximity of the recent past where memory and forgetting blur the boundary between history and ongoing politics.
Different in size, with varying levels of experience of statehood and sovereignty, the six of them showed evidence of how even slight discrepancies within the nation-building process can turn into severe sources of conflict between neighbouring nation-states. These countries have never been a homogeneous block but adjectives such as ‘Western’ and ‘Eastern,’ when repeated often enough, eventually give the impression of naming areas designed by nature.
Dreams of grandeur and hegemony belonged to the past: a bitter realization. To counterbalance the fragility within the new world order and avoid directly confronting the irretrievable part of the horrific war, the six countries relied on a promising prospect combining economic development, continental integration, and a noble idea of Europe.
In 2022, the geopolitical context makes it evident that these six countries are Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia. However, the wars of the 1990s were not without precedent in recent European history. The violent breakup of Yugoslavia echoed another European context in the recent past, at the dawn of the European construction as we know it, i.e., as a post-war narrative of recovery.
In these variations on proximity and neighbourhood in the Balkans and beyond, let me focus first on these historical echoes, then consider the present geopolitical context of Southeast Europe within continental and global processes, and finally reflect on how ‘near’ the end of history is in the post-war European narrative and what constructive role the broader Balkans might play in dispelling this illusion.
The Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s were open conflicts Europe could not handle alone. Without significant transatlantic help and involvement, the outcome might have been delayed and even more disastrous. Was it really the first time Europe found itself in such a predicament? After World War II, six other countries felt their way forward in the aftermath of the disaster: Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxemburg, and the Netherlands.
Trampled by war and eager to turn the shameful page and adjust national narratives to the spirit of the times, the six founding members of the European community do show, right after 1945, certain affinities with the present-day context of the six countries labelled as the ‘Western Balkans’ (WB). These are just narrative echoes and not a comparative framework with consistent variables. Still, the contemporary conjuncture of the WB should not feel too unfamiliar to the European observer or an observer of Europe: with their post-war situation resulting from belligerent relapses, their cultural diversity, their delays, and discrepancies in state and nation-building, the Western Balkans are first of all a European story.
Europe in 1945 was the meeting point of the two superpowers of the emerging Cold War. It was in the interest of the United States to quickly rebuild the West of the Old Continent. The construction was initiated under the benevolent wing of the North-Atlantic military alliance and with transatlantic financial support. US geostrategic interest in European reconstruction was vital, hence the American neighbour’s “mentoring” of post-war Western Europe (Védrine, 2021, p. 168).
Solemn ideals of Europe after 1945, fuelled by the thrill of post-war recovery, might have blurred a key aspect: the role of weakness in the European construction. The post-war European success story was first a cooperation between six countries that had all lost the war in one way or another – a fact blurred by Europe’s post-war narratives. The concept of weakness at work in decolonial theories might be indeed more central than power in contemporary geopolitics. With a provocative twist, this could be applied to the Old Continent through the distorting yet critical mirror of the WB. It might reflect some of the continental construction’s most pressing global challenges.
Between the Balkans and East-Central Europe: the warm proximity of Hungary
The geostrategic importance of the WB long lacked a clear vision in Europe. It is an enclave, the worst possible way to be close to Europe. Proximity only makes exclusion more obvious and fuels frustrations. To this proximity of the EU in space and the hoped-for goal of EU accession in time, we can add the existence in the vicinity of toxic precedents. Examining them should help reassess the enclave's accurate geopolitical weight and highlight the complex transitions between neighbouring macro-regions.
Integration issues start inside the EU and not at its borders. New member states such as Poland and Hungary undermine European cohesion from the inside. The dismantlement of their short-lived and hardly ever consolidated liberal democracies has generated unfortunate suspicions towards candidate countries. What could the EU expect from Western Balkan SAP countries if East-Central European democracies were already that fragile? It is an understandable question, but is it acceptable to consider these cases a precedent and leave the WB out of the EU because of Poland and Hungary’s political backslide?
The Hungarian neighbour has brought a cynical twist to the vague notion of ‘Europeanization.’ If ‘illiberal democracy’ is exported from Hungary and Poland through, until recently, Slovenia, then we have something hazardous coming from the EU to the WB states in an unexpected way. Given the exhausted condition of the WB, such a political product might be tempting. Worse, it might also be sarcastically combined with pretended convergence with the EU. The result is a deadlock called ‘stabilitocracy,’ the new fancy variant in town.
The official voice of Hungary is explicitly supportive of the EU enlargement, at least to the limited extent that such generosity is compatible with the regime’s overt islamophobia. Among other ties, Viktor Orbán’s mafia-like solidarity with Serbia and the Republika Srpska seriously damages Bosnia and Herzegovina’s precarious post-war construction and undermines the fragile country’s SAP efforts.
The other way round, alarming signs indicate that the Hungarian leader considers the Republika Srpska as a model to follow by ethnic Hungarian minorities: through financial, political, and moral corruption, these communities are encouraged to live in enclaves, alienated from the states where they live, with the delusion that neighbouring Hungary is ‘closer’ than their own environment. This is a fair reason for countries such as Slovakia to consider the Balkans as a ‘neighbourhood’ priority in terms of democracy and security, despite the effective geographical distance from the Peninsula.
These warped geopolitical connections shed new light on democratic challenges. We are ‘standing one or two elections away from Hungary’ – so the phrase goes in the direct neighbourhood when the political situation seems to slip towards the Hungarian model. Beyond the regional context, this might be one potential definition of liberal democracy in the early 21st century: a fragile form of government just a couple of votes away from illiberalism and state capture. How long can seemingly healthy democracies (Slovakia, Slovenia, or France) maintain such a distance?
Europe’s global neighbourhood
Hungary’s suspicious interregional role might fuel more global discontent with democracy, hence the exigence to open up the WB enclave and reconsider its multiple ties and connections through a multiscale approach.
The EU might want to zoom out and look further than East-Central Europe’s self-proclaimed freedom fighters in terms of precedents. The whistle-blowing case to consider is more to the Southeast, stretching beyond the Balkans and well-known by the peoples of the Peninsula: it is the Turkish neighbour, with its cultural ties with the Old Continent, its imperial background, and chronic dilemmas between East and West. In short, another European story.
Behind Ankara’s current plan and behaviour, we find, among other reasons, a European failure. Turkey’s problematic geopolitical location results from accession talks with EU partners who never took Turkish candidacy seriously. Among other reasons, the integration of the hopeful candidate failed because of empty promises and disappointed hopes. We see the result: open contempt for democracy, aggressive involvement in ongoing regional conflicts, contradictory relations with Russia, and toxic nostalgia for empire.
It is easy to show geopolitical awareness on precedents once we know the outcome. We now know that Europe’s geostrategic interest clearly should have been to keep Turkey in the West and confirm it belongs to Europe. In the WB, the challenge is to anticipate such retrospective wisdom and to map the consequences of a failure of the SAP. The larger region might become even more exposed to Ankara’s neo-imperial interests, undergo Beijing’s intercontinental financial strategies with new ties of vassalage ahead, or be dragged into the declining Russian neighbour’s criminal flight forward.
From Greece to Hungary through Montenegro and Serbia, it is evident that the challenge exceeds the narrow circle of the WB enclave and should call for macro-regional coordination at least. That is the point where the WB enclave connects to the most pressing challenges of the Global South: exposed to multipolar interferences, the formerly colonized and the previously occupied meet on the regional scale of conflicts and democratic challenges.
Proximity is not merely a local or regional issue in our global age. Post- and decolonial contexts still involve the former colonizing countries as sometimes irritating neighbours in ongoing regional conflicts. A former colony might feel closer on the mental map than the direct geographical neighbours of the former colonial centre. The same applies to countries once occupied by continental empires. Europe is a patchwork of imperial legacies, and this diversity should encourage the Old Continent not to isolate herself from what is seemingly far away on the practical map. A significant step forward for the European construction would be to turn continental diversity into a more normative tool by reconsidering distances in the global neighbourhood instead of perceiving it as the ‘outside’ world – starting with the WB enclave.
After the end of history
For the moment, the integration of the whole Balkan Peninsula into the EU is the sustainable alternative to such fracturing, multipolar scenarios. It is a fragile alternative given the absence of a reliable ‘plan B’ for the enclave. To keep a small group of vulnerable countries outside of the club is unworthy of the Great European Novel, especially if we take an honest look at all the efforts of candidate countries compared to the behaviour of certain ‘new’ member states.
This means that besides a sober and critical analysis of the six countries’ situation, the WB also call for empathy: a feeling yesterday’s ‘six countries’ could express more explicitly towards nowadays’ weakest links. Understanding the present based on transnational memory: this is potentially, again, a cohesive European story.
Significant political contrasts and historical discrepancies leave no space for doubt beyond the echoes between post-war Western Europe and the post-Yugoslav Western Balkans. Let us focus here on one difference among many others. The six founding members of the European community have the most prolonged and profound knowledge and experience of continental construction. However, there is one point about Europe they know nothing about: what it means and how it feels to be left out of the project.
Being an SAP country in 2022 means, as the self-mocking phrase ‘Restern Balkans’ indicates, being part of a ‘rest:’ being left out of the European project, forced into an enclave and behind a pejorative label, and all this in the closest geographical proximity of the EU. It also means exposure to the multiple scales where globalization is at work without any protecting shield.
Nowadays, SAP countries might be more enthusiastically pro-European than the official engineers of the European construction. This contradictory situation will not last for long. The consequences of an ‘end of commitments’ might hook these countries into compromising deals and jeopardize their chances of catching up with their closest European neighbours. If Europe does not consider the stabilization of these six countries as a continental priority, then the enclave will degrade into the underbelly of the European construction. The vagueness and the shortcomings of ‘Europeanization’ can quickly turn into the distorted mirror of the European construction’s inherent weakness – unless the engineers of the continental project make the intellectual effort to consider the WB a part of the strategy to overcome the current deadlock.
The WB have become candidates or at least potential ones at a problematic stage in European history: the point where the Old Continent has already emerged from the shadows of the past, dropping the ‘post-war’ label, yet without having sketched new political perspectives on the longer term. A post-war story without a plan for the next chapter – a European story with a provincial touch.
No historical moment has a monopoly over the curious intuition that history might have come to an ‘end.’ Western Europe, at least, certainly did not wait for the late 1980s and the end of the Cold War to experience this mixed sensation regarding a particular stage of a historical process. The sensation depends on the geopolitical conjuncture, which in the case of Western Europe was rather favourable in the medium-term aftermath of World War II. Besides, despite the American reference behind the catchy phrase (Fukuyama), there is something genuinely European to the ‘end of history.’ This is not necessarily a compliment but might shed some additional light on the notion of Europeanization.
How long do ‘ends of history’ last? How long can a corner of space and time such as post-war Europe harbour the illusion that history only occurs outside its borders? Are other parts of the Old Continent allowed to experience the luxury of such sensations as well? Ends of history are evanescent moments. Faith in a fortress beyond the borders of history: this might be a major touchstone of the European construction.
The end of history is near indeed: Europe’s contemporary and global challenges unfold in the aftermath of such a moment.
This commentary is an edited excerpt from ‘Introduction. The Western Balkans: A European Story’ in Balazs, A. B., ed. The Europeanization of Montenegro. A Western Balkan Country and its Neighbourhood in Europe and the Global World. Baden-Baden: Nomos, 2022 (to be published this June)
Adam Bence Balazs, PhD, is a fellow researcher at the Centre for Social and Political Change (LCSP) at the Université de Paris and currently a lecturer at Andrássy University Budapest and the Bratislava International School of Liberal Arts.