Economic Downturn Seen Fueling New Divides Across Western Balkans

Posted on February 23, 2011

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BELGRADE, Feb 15, 2011 (AFP) — The western Balkans region, for so long riven by ethnic divides, now finds itself grappling with political divisions that have induced a governmental paralysis in some of Europe’s poorest countries.

Deadly protests, strikes and parliamentary boycotts all underline how the region has struggled to absorb not only the legacy of the past but also the impact of the economic downturn.

Observers say one of the casualties is enthusiasm for membership of the European Union, with governments which have long been pushing to join facing a backlash at a time of high unemployment and falling living standards.

“The national issue is not the main concern any more. The issue of employment and corruption is what really concerns the people nowadays,” said veteran Balkans watcher Jacques Rupnik.

The sense of crisis has been felt most acutely in Albania which has been gripped by a political deadlock ever since the opposition refused to recognise results of parliamentary elections in June 2009.

Tensions boiled over last month when clashes between the security forces and anti-government protestors left four people dead in the capital Tirana.

Marko Prelec of the International Crisis Group (ICG) said the violence should have served as a wake-up call as to the tensions mounting in what, after Moldova, is Europe’s poorest country.

“Everyone underestimated the severity of the situation in Albania,” he said.

In neighbouring Kosovo, a similar vacuum is in danger of forming with Prime Minister Hashim Thaci still trying to cobble together a fresh coalition after being forced into early elections in December.

Although Thaci’s party did come out on top, he fell some distance short of an overall majority and his focus has not been helped by allegations linking him to organised crime and organ trafficking. He denies the accusations.

It’s much the same story in Bosnia — another part of the former Yugoslavia mired in warfare in the 1990s — which still has no central government, four months on from its elections.

Macedonia’s main opposition parties are boycotting the parliament and want early elections.

And in Serbia, the region’s powerhouse, a wave of strikes by public sector workers and opposition protests have cranked up the pressure on Prime Minister Mirko Cvetkovic ahead of legislative elections due in spring next year.

“After two years of economic downfall and stagnation, the people are exhausted and nervous, and the government is still on the defensive,” analyst Dimitrije Boarov wrote in Serbia’s private weekly Vreme.

To date, Slovenia is the only former Yugoslave republic that is a member of the EU.

Albania, Croatia, Macedonia and Serbia all have their eyes on a seat at the table but while support among the population remains relatively high, there are clear signs of it slipping.

A December survey showed that 57 percent of Serbs were in favor of joining the EU, the first time that the support level had fallen below 60 percent.

In Croatia — the first on the list of EU hopefuls — a recent poll showed that the number of people had dropped to 49.4 percent, albeit still ahead of the 40.3 percent who were opposed.

Rupnik, a researcher at France’s Science Po University, said that the apparent growing indifference towards EU membership there was due partly to the slow pace of membership talks.

He warned against an ambiguous approach where Europeans “pretend to support enlargement” and Balkans countries “pretend to prepare” for it, but without in reality making the tough decision.

Even if Croatia is closing in on its goal of EU membership, that is only after five years of talks.

Although Prime Minister Sali Berisha has made Albanian membership his number one goal, its application has gone nowhere amid the domestic crisis.

Belgrade’s ambitions are also being stymied by its continued dispute with Kosovo, insisting that the breakaway region is still its territory.
The net result could be “a premature Euroscepticism,” said Rupnik.

“People doubt the European project even before it is reached,” he added.

[Description of Source: Agence France-Presse]

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