A Democratic Scorecard for the Western Balkans
The transition from the 20th to the 21st century marked a pivotal moment in the Western Balkans. By the end of 2000, the three leaders—Franjo Tuđman of Croatia, Alija Izetbegović of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), and Slobodan Milošević of Serbia—who had presided over the most destructive crisis in Europe since the end of the Second World War were no longer on the political scene. Moreover, the electoral success of democratic coalitions in Croatia and Serbia, the progress toward democratic standards recognized in Albanian local elections, and electoral reforms introduced in BiH all aroused a sense of optimism for democratization in the region. Thirteen years later, where do these countries stand on the path toward democracy? Has their performance fulfilled expectations?
According to Nations in Transit 2013, the latest edition of Freedom House’s annual assessment of governance standards from Central Europe to Central Asia, democracy is still far from being fully consolidated even in the best-performing states of the Western Balkans, namely Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, and Macedonia. As Figure 1 shows, the overall Democracy Scores in the region—on a scale of 1 (best) to 7 (worst)—ranged from 3.61 (Croatia) to 4.39 (BiH) for calendar year 2012, with the exception of Kosovo, which remained an outlier at 5.25. The Democracy Scores of Croatia, Serbia, and Montenegro have changed little in recent years, while those of Macedonia, Albania, and BiH have suffered significant deterioration since 2006, declining 0.11, 0.43, and 0.35 points, respectively. Freedom House classifies Albania and BiH as Transitional Governments, but at this point their transitions are heading in an authoritarian, rather than a democratic, direction. Kosovo is the only country in the area that is rated as a Semi-Consolidated Authoritarian Regime, and its negative trajectory in the past three years suggests that it could stray even further from European norms.
Figure 1: Democracy Score Changes between 2001 and 2012
Source: NIT 2002, NIT 2007, and NIT 2013.
Note: The NIT ratings are based on a scale of 1 to 7, with 1 representing the highest level of democratic progress and 7 the lowest. The NIT ratings reflect the period January 1 through December 31 of the year preceding the publication. In NIT 2004, Serbia, Montenegro, and Kosovo started to be examined in separate reports; in previous editions, ratings were for the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.
Kosovo and BiH have different regime classifications, and their Democracy Scores are a considerable 0.86 points apart. However, they share two crucial features: years of shared sovereignty with international forces (the Office of the High Representative in BiH and the EULEX Mission in Kosovo) and persistent problems regarding statehood (disputed subnational autonomy and the threat of ethnic separatism). These elements by themselves might be considered major obstacles to democratization, but they are combined with other weaknesses common to the region, such as corruption and political dysfunction. In BiH, a recent ruling coalition took 16 months to form and lasted only four. In Kosovo, the 2010 elections were marred by fraud, and senior public officials have been arrested for abuse of office. In light of these complex problems, extensive democratic development in these two countries is very unlikely in the short term.
Figure 2: Democratic Performance by Category
Source: NIT 2013.
Figure 2 shows the 2012 performance of the Western Balkan countries in the seven categories that factor into the overall Democracy Score. The graph highlights the fact that despite their different levels of democratic development, these countries share a common profile: Independent Media, National Democratic Governance, Judicial Framework and Independence, and Corruption are the weakest dimensions of democracy, while Electoral Process, Civil Society, and Local Democratic Governance are the strongest. The findings suggest that democratic development in the area is mainly obstructed by inadequacies surrounding the rule of law—an enduring institutional legacy of past authoritarian rule. Weak and politicized justice systems are often incapable of holding political leaders accountable for corruption and other abuses, and independent media frequently come under pressure for attempting to bring such official malfeasance before the court of public opinion.
Figure 3: Rating Changes between 2008 and 2012
Source: NIT 2009 and NIT 2013.
Note: : 0.25 improvement; =: status quo; : 0.25 decline.
In Figure 3, three phenomena are evident: 1) Civil Society, the indicator with the best ratings, is facing stagnation in all countries with the exception of Serbia and Croatia; 2) although Corruption is one of the most serious problems in the entire area, Croatia, Serbia, and Macedonia have made some progress in passing anticorruption legislation and adjudicating high-profile cases; and 3) Independent Media is the indicator that has suffered most since 2008, declining in all seven countries, particularly in Montenegro and Macedonia. The decline of media freedom is especially alarming in light of the institutional weaknesses described above. Moreover, these countries’ relatively good ratings on Electoral Process and Civil Society are less significant if voters remain uninformed and civil society activists are unable to convey their message to the public.
The Nations in Transit data clearly show that electoral breakthroughs like those at the turn of the century are necessary but not sufficient for lasting democratic development. To achieve true progress, policymakers and citizens must ensure that all components of the governance system are functioning properly. In a time of political ferment in other parts of the world, this is a lesson with applications well beyond the Western Balkans.
Alessandra Pinna, who received her PhD in political science from Istituto Italiano di Scienze Umane, is a researcher at Freedom House.
Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.