|Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Photo: Thanassis Stavrakis/AP
For many years the European Union – with its high democratic principles as well as its business, investment and employment opportunities – was seen as the best (if not the only) framework able to sooth and eventually neutralise the once violent and still unsettled spirits of the Balkan past.
But the EU and US’s silence in the face of the ongoing ‘witch hunt’ in Turkey, as well as growing ethnic and political tensions in other parts of the region, threaten to contribute to the revival of the ghosts of that turbulent past.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is continuing with his crackdown on his political adversaries in the country and abroad, a full month after the failed coup.
This sweeping operation affects hundreds of thousands of people in Turkey and abroad who are being arrested, suspended, fired or harassed, without their guilt being proven and without being given a chance to mount a proper legal defence.
Despite this obvious violation of people’s human rights, many US and EU officials have remained silent, while others have even tried to appease Erdogan, offering even more support in the future.
Some European officials strongly criticised the repression in Turkey, but even that seemed to be motivated more by the EU’s inner issues and disputes than by their care for the rights of the Turkish people.
Most EU and US officials apparently ignored the fact that Erdogan’s authoritarian and expansionist appetites have been enabled – if not contributed to – by the gradual dwindling of the Turkish EU perspective over the past decade.
Repeatedly shunned by the EU, Erdogan established his neo-Ottoman foreign policy, using ‘soft power’ – diplomatic, economic and cultural influence – to strengthen Turkish presence across the Balkan region and beyond.
Internal and external divisions
The weakening of EU and US authority and the strengthening of the Turkish and Russian presence in the region also allowed the recent resurrection of old tensions and disputes in other parts of the Balkans.
Relations between Croatia and Serbia – two key Balkan countries with unresolved issues dating back to the World War II – have in recent days reached one of the lowest levels since the war in the 1990s.
Both countries are currently run by conservative governments and show little willingness to address their own responsibility for their violent past.
Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic already seems to be following in Erdogan’s footsteps; publicly, he is a champion of European democratic values, while at the same time he maintains strong autocratic positions and tries to control independent media and civil society. He publicly supports Serbia’s EU and NATO perspective while at the same time keeps strengthening the country’s ties with Russia.
Deep internal political and ethnic divisions blocked the decision-making and EU accession processes in Bosnia and Herzegovina, threatening to break the country apart, which would destabilise the entire region.
The ‘name’ dispute between Macedonia and Greece, blocked Macedonia’s EU membership – which a few years ago seemed to be only a matter of time – and caused dangerous political and ethnic tensions, which also threaten to split the country in half, with potentially catastrophic consequences.
Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro are still eager to join the EU, yet their respective political elites are unwilling to undertake the thorough reforms required by Brussels, as they would deprive them of their power and riches, and potentially even result in legal action against them.
The inconsistent and confused response of the EU and US to the Turkish government crackdown sends a dangerous message to the politicians across the region, suggesting that the democracy can be cancelled and that repression pays off.
Most Balkan countries already had a poor track record in respect of human rights and freedom of expression for years. While the responsibility for this ultimately belongs to local leaders, the current Western disregard of the Turkish crisis inspires Balkan elites to follow Erdogan’s example.
‘Neighbourhood policy’ in crisis
The current situation in Turkey and in much of the Balkans suggest that the EU’s ‘neighbourhood policy’ (its policy towards countries in south-east Europe that are still not a part of the EU) and the accompanying US foreign policy have, instead of pacifying the EU’s immediate neighbourhood, contributed to its destabilisation.
After the violent break-up of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, US and EU officials strongly supported the accelerated EU accession of the Balkan countries.
This drive was meant to benefit the Balkan countries as well as the Western powers, since the stabilisation of Europe’s southern and eastern flanks was at that time perceived to be of the utmost strategic importance to the EU and US.
Yet that strategic direction was gradually derailed. The EU itself became more and more conservative, over-managed and overly technocratic and pragmatic. By focusing too much on reform processes, the EU lost sight of the ‘big picture’ that all these reforms were supposed to achieve.
As a result, the EU’s understanding of the advantages of the swift accession of Balkan countries gradually abated, and in parallel, EU requests for difficult reforms intensified.
As with Turkey, the EU asked for more and more reforms from the Balkan political elites, while offering fewer and fewer immediate benefits.
The situation became even more difficult and confused as the EU entered a series of economic and political crisis from 2009, which showed that some of the old as well as some of the new EU member countries – like Greece, or Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia – have failed to properly reform themselves.
This demonstrated that neither the EU accession process nor EU membership itself were a ‘magic pill’ for the transformation and democratisation of societies, which was the EU’s mantra for decades.
All these developments – capped with Britain’s recent referendum decision to leave the EU – also showed that the EU itself needs to be thoroughly reformed and transformed.
Yet EU officials still seem to be focused more on short-term solutions to fight a growing number of internal and external wildfires, rather than on the EU’s own long-term perspective, which is becoming increasingly obscure. EU leaders now do what Balkan politicians have been doing for so many years – they avoid facing their own responsibility for past mistakes, and refuse to reform.
All this sends a dangerous message to Balkan leaders, some of whom already think that repression and violence can get EU, US, Russian, Turkish or Arab attention and support faster and easier than years of difficult and unpopular reforms.
Any further weakening of the EU’s authority would leave the Balkans without its only long-term unifying idea, and would inadvertently fuel various secessionist, autonomist, irredentist and other nationalist agendas, which the Balkans have never lacked. http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/western-failures-give-new-life-to-old-balkan-ghosts-08-19-2016