Democracy Lab

The Balkans Break Free

Ancient ethnic hatreds? That's so 1998.

On July 1, 2013, to much fanfare and fireworks, Croatia celebrated its accession to the European Union, two decades after it emerged as an independent state from the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia. To mark the occasion, thousands of Croats celebrated to the tune of "Ode to Joy" in the streets of the capital Zagreb. "This will change the life of this nation for good," Herman Van Rompuy, the president of the European Council, told the crowd. For good? But wait -- aren't we talking about the Balkans, Europe's most volatile region? Surely this is one part of the world that's always been hostile to the optimists.

Lately, though, the Balkan countries have been displaying a remarkable capacity to break with the darker aspects of their past. There's been such a stream of good news emerging from the region over the past few weeks that some journalists have seen fit to reassure their readers that their reports aren't a joke.

After the collapse of the communist bloc in Eastern Europe, ethnic rivalries re-emerged in Yugoslavia, turning the country into one the bloodiest battlefields in Europe. Following the smash-up of the old federation, politicians transformed its components into independent states. The new nations of Croatia and Serbia were dominated until the end of the 1990s by nationalist autocrats like Franjo Tudjman and Slobodan Milosevic. Both left behind legacies of hatred, corruption, and cronyism. The Dayton Agreement, the peace treaty that ended the war in Bosnia, left the country saddled with an inefficient, costly government that only preserved the zero-sum dynamics of the war. Against this dismal background, Zagreb's E.U. membership highlights not only Croatia’s transformation but the decisive U-turn that the region has recently made toward a democratic future.

In Tirana, Albanians are still exulting in the outcome of their parliamentary election last month, when the Socialist-led opposition handed a decisive loss to conservative Prime Minister Sali Berisha. A towering figure in Albanian politics since the country emerged from its hardline Stalinist regime two decades ago, Berisha resigned as head of his party and conceded defeat to his opponent, a scenario that few people could have predicted.

Berisha, who served as Albania's president from 1992 to 1997 (when he was ousted by widespread street protests), returned to power in 2005 on a campaign that made "clean hands" its slogan. He promised to rid the country of corruption, which has plagued Albania's difficult transition to democracy. Predictably, however, his own hands, and those in his inner circle, soon turned dirty. Over the past few years Berisha has cracked down on the judiciary to stifle corruption probes. The scandals that plagued his government involved everything from rigged road construction tenders to the shooting of protestors outside his office during an opposition rally in 2011. Eventually voters got tired of Berisha's increasingly autocratic and arrogant behavior, handing a landslide victory to the left-wing opposition headed by former Tirana mayor, Edi Rama.

Last month also marked a watershed for Serbia. The European Council, after acknowledging the progress made by Serbia in its negotiations with its former province Kosovo, gave Belgrade a start date for E.U. accession talks. That offer reflected the successful outcome of talks between Serbia and Kosovo, who recently signed a power-sharing agreement designed to defuse a long-standing quarrel over control of Serb-populated Northern Kosovo. The Council also approved a decision to open talks with Pristina on a Stabilization and Association Agreement, the first step toward E.U. membership. European Commission President José Manuel Barroso called the decision "historic," explaining that "We often use this word, but this is really a historic decision because we must not forget what was happening in this part of Europe not so long ago," Barroso said, referring to the wars of the 1990s.

Although the attention of the world has been centered on Taksim and Tahrir Square, Bosnians have been protesting on the streets of their capital, too. In early June, thousands of them formed a human chain in Sarajevo, refusing to let parliamentarians leave until they broke a stalemate that prevented vital identity documents from being issued. The rallies have continued since then. Serb representatives in Parliament have insisted on a special prefix on IDs to distinguish their entity, Republika Srpska, from the rest of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The so-called "baby protests" erupted after newborn Belmina Ibrisevic, who needed leave to go to Germany for an operation, was unable to get travel documents because of political deadlock on ID legislation. Popular anger intensified as government inaction meant that the infant couldn't receive medical care and then later died.

Winston Churchill famously described the Balkans as a region that produces more history than it can consume. The bloody breakup of Yugoslavia reinforced the long-standing view of the Balkans as a land of strife at Europe’s edge, driven by implacable "ancient hatreds."

Yet nothing seemed farther from the truth when the presidents of Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia joined their Croatian counterpart Ivo Josipovic for a summit on July 1 -- something that would have seemed unimaginable just a few years ago. The leaders discussed ways to resolve the issues that still weigh heavily on regional ties. "Croatia has become a better society and I hope our neighbours will also complete this journey, as quickly as possible," Josipovic said after the meeting, underlining that Zagreb wanted all its regional neighbors to join the European club.

The E.U. accession process has become an important benchmark for progress towards democracy. Aspiring states not only have to pass hundreds of pieces of legislations to harmonize their laws with the European Union, but as Gerald Knaus and Kristof Bender of the European Stability Initiative have pointed out, to qualify for membership Croatia not only "adopted hundreds of new laws and regulations but also radically changed its political culture."

Croatia accession to the European Union could provide an impetus for other countries in the Western Balkans that aspire to E.U. membership. Although Serbia has received it accession negotiations date, progress in the talks is premised on the implementation of its agreements with Kosovo. Macedonia, another E.U. candidate country, has seen accession process stalled for years due to a row with Greece over its name. In Albania, E.U.-minded reforms came to a standstill in the past four years after a political crisis erupted following the 2009 contested parliamentary elections. Tirana is hopeful that it will receive its E.U. candidate status this fall.

There's no question that the E.U. aspirants in the Western Balkans have much work ahead of them in terms of strengthening public institutions, the independence of the judiciary, and combating organized crime and corruption. They not only have to set their houses in order, but have to battle skepticism and "enlargement fatigue," both accentuated by the financial crisis. There is growing skepticism among E.U. member states, particularly Germany, against further enlargement of union for the time being.

Yet the deal with Croatia serves as a reminder that the European Union's "soft power" can yield results when used consistently and effectively -- a message especially welcome as Europe nears the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo and the start of the first World War. That's an event that's sure to prompt plenty of anguished reflection in the region. Nonetheless, many are starting to wonder whether the latest developments herald the dawning of a hopeful new era for the Balkans. It’s certainly long overdue.

STR/AFP/Getty Images


Our Friend in Cairo

Why does President Barack Obama persist in supporting Mohamed Morsy -- and not the protesters?

On Sunday, June 30, millions of Egyptians turned out to protest President Mohamed Morsy and his Muslim Brotherhood-dominated regime. Fed up with his disastrous economic mismanagement and systematic disregard for constitutional freedoms, the Egyptian people took to the streets to demand his resignation. "Leave! Leave!" they chanted in what may have been the largest demonstration in the history of the Middle East -- if not the world.

It was a breathtaking scene -- and potentially a watershed moment. Unlike the angry, disaffected youth who raged through the Arab Spring in 2011, these crowds, like those in the recent protests in Turkey, were made up of middle-class citizens protesting against a regime with an unpleasant tendency to trample on the rights of women, Christians, and Jews -- and to stifle the independence of the press and judiciary, ruining the economy in the process. While there has been some unfortunate violence, the Tamarod ("Rebel") movement is also organizing demonstrations, gathering signatures of no confidence in Morsy's government (it has gathered 22 million already), and threatening additional civil disobedience in the form of strikes if Morsy does not step down.

One would expect to find the United States standing firmly with these people. Surely, after our long and lonely search for secular and democratic partners in the Arab world, we could find some common ground with them. Surely, we could see the value of an administration in Egypt that could act as both a southern bulwark for Israel and a much-needed partner in countering the terrorist outposts in the Sinai and Horn of Africa. And surely, we could help support a government that could stand as an example for struggling states like Libya and Iran -- one that proves Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East are not predestined to live in oppressive theocracies.

Tragically, America has been relegated to the sidelines. The number of U.S. Embassy personnel has been reduced, and a travel warning has been issued for Americans in Egypt -- and for good reason. The people protesting in the streets were not only carrying anti-Morsy signs. They were also carrying signs with slogans like "Obama Supports Terrorism" and "Obama Supports Morsy," as well as pictures of the American ambassador to Egypt, Anne Patterson, with a large red "X" through her face. Some of these were set on fire. On Friday, Andrew Driscoll Pochter, an American college student who was in Egypt to teach English to schoolchildren, was stabbed to death as he took pictures of the protesters.

In what has to be one of the most stunning diplomatic failures in recent memory, the United States is -- in both perception and reality -- entrenched as the partner of a repressive, Islamist regime and the enemy of the secular, pro-democracy opposition.

It did not have to be this way.

When Morsy was elected a little more than a year ago, President Barack Obama could have expressed strong reservations about a member of the Muslim Brotherhood taking control of the country. He should have also been more aggressive about using American aid to extract concessions from the Egyptian government on human rights, as well as economic and political reform. Instead, Obama made a personal call to congratulate Morsy, characterized his election as a "milestone" in Egypt's progress toward democracy, and pledged $1 billion in U.S. taxpayer-funded aid. In the ensuing months, Morsy received a steady stream of assistance from the United States in the form of arms sales, unconditional financial aid, and visits from high-level officials such as Secretary of State John Kerry -- all of which enhanced the strength and legitimacy of his regime.

Emboldened by U.S. support, Morsy consolidated his power -- removing the traditionally pro-American military leadership, imposing an Islamist constitution, marginalizing the judiciary, and turning a blind eye to brutal attacks against religious minorities, including Coptic Christians and Shiite Muslims. Morsy also began to agitate for the release of the "blind sheik" Omar Abdel Rahman, who orchestrated the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Offensive remarks describing Jews as "bloodsuckers" and "the descendants of apes and pigs" soon came to light. Still, the United States continued to place its resources at his disposal -- apparently on the grounds that a budding Islamist dictator with a healthy hatred of Israel and America was the appropriate recipient of Abrams tanks and B-16 bombers.

More recently, as opposition to Morsy coalesced around the Tamarod movement, the Obama administration missed the opportunity to support its efforts and further the vital interests of the United States without firing a shot. Instead, the sole priority seems to be to defuse the situation and preserve the status quo. Ambassador Patterson has assumed the leading role in implementing this policy, meeting with members of the opposition not to encourage them to pursue a true secular democracy in Egypt but to try to persuade them to tone things down. Patterson has said she is "deeply skeptical" of their movement.

Obama, traveling in Africa on the eve of the protests, offered no words of support. Instead, he admonished the demonstrators to remain peaceful and made the tepid recommendation that Morsy engage in a "constructive conversation" about reform, since the president of the United States could not take a side in this debate.

The president's comments fall into an all-too-familiar pattern. We are witnessing a moment of real opportunity for reform in Egypt right now, just as we witnessed hopeful moments in Iran in 2009 and Syria in early 2011. In both cases, meaningful change might have been encouraged through robust economic and moral support for the protesters and diplomatic pressure on the regime. But in both cases, the United States opted for a policy of strategic silence.

The result? In Iran, we saw the window for change snap shut as the mullahs brutally crushed the protests and accelerated their nuclear weapons program. In Syria, hopes that President Bashar al-Assad would turn out to be a reformer proved groundless and the situation descended into chaos. Today, some 100,000 Syrians have been killed, and both Hezbollah and al Qaeda are engaged in a vicious civil war -- one the president is now dragging the United States into, albeit with no clear purpose or strategy.

Hopefully, we can avoid repeating the same mistake yet again in Egypt. As we prepare to celebrate the 237th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence this week, halfway around the globe Egyptians may witness the birth of their own freedoms. It is a great pity that Obama's policies have provoked so much hostility toward the United States from the very people we should most want to support -- and it would be an even greater pity if his accommodation of the Morsy regime helped the Egyptian leader remain in power. Since the president has refused to act, Congress should move quickly to freeze all aid to Egypt that is supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. We should treat with great caution any proposal to deploy U.S. forces to Egypt in response to these events. And we should find the courage to speak out forcefully on behalf of those advocating secular democratic reforms in Egypt.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images