Trying to weather the storm: Covid-19 and Western Balkans

    Fragile economic and political environment in Western Balkans still renders it one of the most vulnerable regions to the political and economic impacts of the Covid-19.

    Western Balkan governments have taken strict measures to contain the spread of the coronavirus pandemic in the region. Since most of them lack an adequate health system infrastructure, these precautions are almost the only means to fight the pandemic. The latest statistics, however, reveal that the region has been mostly successful in containing the virus. For example, in Serbia, whose population is seven million, there are around only 8,500 cases and 170 deaths. The numbers are far lower in the other countries of the region. The Western Balkans owes this success to drastic actions, such as closing all borders, schools, restaurants and bars, banning social gatherings and travel, and imposing partial curfews.

    However, the fragile economic and political environment in the Western Balkans still renders it one of the most vulnerable regions to the political and economic impacts of the Covid-19. In Serbia and North Macedonia, elections, which were supposed to be held in April, have been postponed to later dates. Although opposition parties supported the decision, the tensions generated by the election atmosphere are still running high in both countries. The governments of Serbia, Albania and Montenegro are under fire from the opposition parties for taking an authoritarian path and allegedly using the extraordinary circumstances to advance their political agendas.

    Since December 2019, the Montenegrin branch of the Serbian Orthodox Church and the main opposition parties have been protesting against the government’s recently passed legislation. The latter would arguably lead to the transfer of most of the churches in the country to the Montenegrin Orthodox Church. The protests were temporarily halted after the arrival of the Covid-19 to the country. However, the political atmosphere became tense again after the state prosecutor summoned Metropolitan Amfilohije (Radovic), the Serbian Church’s top name, and an opposition MP for disregarding the bans and participating in a funeral.

    In Kosovo, the rift among the coalition partners over President Hashim Thaci’s call for a state of emergency for the Covid-19 crisis led to the fall of the recently formed government. Prime Minister and leader of Self Determination Party Albin Kurti opposed the idea, as, to him, such a declaration would transfer most of the executive power to the president, and dismissed the interior minister for his support to the president’s call. This led to a crisis in the coalition and the coalition partner Democratic League of Kosovo’s call for a no-confidence vote, which passed the parliament, eventually leading to the fall of the government.

    In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the situation is pretty different. compared to other countries in the region. Although the country is famous for its ineffective complex governmental system which leads to frequent deadlocks, both the central and local governments proved to be successful in their fight against the pandemic. Serbian-majority autonomous Republika Srpska gave a break to rigid politics during the process and showed full cooperation with the central government. Hence this cooperation among entities enabled Bosnia and Herzegovina’s state apparatuses to work effectively in containing the pandemic.

    On the international level, the pandemic overshadowed some important developments that the region had been waiting for years. In March, North Macedonia became the latest member of NATO. Moreover, the European Union finally decided to open negotiation talks with Albania and North Macedonia. Although the European Commission recommended the launch of the talks back in 2018, the two countries had to wait for about two years thanks to France’s veto. The EU can use the start of the negotiation talks to regain its popularity in the region. To do this, the EU must draw a solid roadmap for the Western Balkan nations and show them the way forward to make the necessary reforms in this process. However, the lack of a common strategy towards enlargement within the Union prevents the involved parties from becoming too hopeful.

    There were important developments in the Kosovo-Serbia normalization process in this Covid-19 era too. Kosovo, under pressure from the EU and the US, has finally lifted the 100% tariffs to Serbian goods. These high tariffs had been put into place as a retaliation after the Serbian government launched an international campaign against its former territory’s independence. With international pressure mounting on both sides, Belgrade and its former region Pristina is expected to resume negotiations after the pandemic. However, it is unlikely that these negotiations will lead to a final resolution.

    To add insult to injury, the Western Balkans is expected to experience a recession in 2020. Stringent measures and a steep decline in international trade have seriously affected the economies of the region. Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia, Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro will be receiving credits from the IMF and the EU. However, Serbia has chosen a different path and declared that it would not seek IMF credits during this process. On the other hand, the EU did not include Serbia in its 3-billion-euro macro-financial assistance package. Given that all other countries in the region are included in the package, Serbia’s exclusion can be associated with its recent overtures to China and Russia. During the Covid-19 pandemic, Serbian President Alexander Vucic heaped what is considered lavish praises on the Russian and Chinese aid delivered to his country while mocking the EU solidarity by likening it to “a fairy tale that does not exist in reality”.

    All in all, the Covid-19 pandemic has revealed a mixed situation in the region. On the one hand, the Western Balkan states have taken effective actions to stop the progression of Covid-19. On the other hand, they will face an acute economic recession post-pandemic. Only time will tell if the current trajectory represents only a low point in the cycle or a sign of much worse things to come.

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