The twenties have started off unpredictably. The pandemic is still around us, the economic downfall is self-evident and expected to continue, many businesses can’t reopen and people are getting sick and tired of measures and lockdowns being implemented by governments, which lack a coherent approach in tackling the global health emergency.
In addition, the vaccination process is slow and uncertain because there is a lack of jabs on a global scale, while a notable number of people are against inoculations. On the other hand, politics are getting complicated. Most of the Western Balkan states still haven’t begun mass immunization. The Covax system has so far been ineffective. From the Balkans’ perspective, it looks as if they have been left out of the European club. Serbia, as one of the largest countries in the region, donated a small number of its vaccines to North Macedonia, Montenegro, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, in order for these countries to at least begin their immunization process, however small.
These days, recovery plans do not differ significantly between the left and right in Europe. The main focus is how to minimize the medical crisis that has spilled over onto the economy. Once again, nature has shown its dominance and superiority over our collective social construct and something we call borders.
Nationalism plays a significant role in all Western Balkan countries, and all centre-right parties exploit it to their advantage. Most of them are catch-all players. The future of the centre-right is the future of nationalism. Even before the pandemic, the EU put enlargement as a third or fourth priority, and now it has slipped even farther away. Keeping in mind that the new American administration has a different perspective from the previous one, we can expect more pressure over the next four years on the region to reform Bosnia and Herzegovina and for relations between Serbia and Kosovo to be normalized. All these sensitive topics are being confronted by conservative voters and centre-right parties are mostly either associate or observer members of the EPP.
Now let’s dive into some of them. Since 2012 Serbia is run by the Serbian Progressive Party (hereinafter: SNS). Today it holds all levels of government across the country. The last parliamentary elections were held in mid-2020, which resulted in a landslide win for the ruling party. The SNS holds 157 out of 250 seats in the National Assembly, while their ruling coalition holds 188 seats. We should note that some small opposition parties boycotted the elections, under the pretense, there was a lack of media freedom to present their program to the electorate. The SNS’s popularity doesn’t look to have faded despite the crisis caused by COVID-19. The party, run by President Aleksandar Vucic, has been successful in rolling out one of the fastest and most effective vaccination programs in the world, with Serbia topping global charts based on the number of people immunized with both a single and double dose per one million people. The President also donated some vaccines to neighboring countries, which has shown to be a smart political move.
A negative trend for central right parties is evident in North Macedonia and Albania. In Skopje, the once ruling party, VMRO-DPMNE, still shows no signs of recovery. After being defeated in the 2016 elections, followed by its leader Nikola Gruevski fleeing to Hungary, the party is still losing voters. Its new president, Hristijan Mickoski, is taking a hardline nationalistic narrative, obstructing NATO and European Union membership.
On the other hand, Albania’s situation is more complicated. The leader of the Democratic Party of Albania and ex-mayor of Tirana, Lulzim Basha, formed a big tent that boycotted municipal elections and withdrew from parliament in February 2019, asking for free and fair elections. His centre-right party lost more than ten percent in the last ten years, and its main rival – the Socialist Party of Albania – gained more than seven percent. The current socialist government broke its pledge to ensure that a diaspora of around 1.2 million could vote in the April election. It moved Albania further away from the political consensus. According to the NDI report from 2020, around 70 percent of people are dissatisfied with opposition outside of parliament, and around 59 percent with the government. NDI public opinion research reveals that two-thirds of Albanians are dissatisfied with both the government and opposition, so it’s hard to predict the future level of democracy, not only the future of the centre-right. These stats are not unique to Albania. Across the region, trust in institutions is declining, which is an additional challenge for European integration.
The downfall of a “hybrid regime” in Montenegro, as it was once called by The Economist Intelligence Unit, began last year. The 2020 parliamentary elections had the highest voter turnout ever recorded in Montenegro at 75.90% and after almost thirty years, the Democratic Party of Socialists of Montenegro lost. EPP affiliate member Democratic Montenegro won little more than twelve percent and is now part of the new government. Their main partner is a catch-all, mainly cultural conservative and populist political coalition For the Future of Montenegro. Having in mind a big tent coalition that had a single task of overthrowing one of the most enduring regimes in Europe, it’s hard to predict their future. They are mixing parties with opposing ideologies. From Serbian-Montenegrin unionism, Russophilia to Pro-Europeanism, and pro-NATO.
Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina are the hardest to predict. EPP observer member Democratic League of Kosovo lost more than 50 percent in the last two years. Currently, the party doesn’t have its leader because of its poor election result. Nationalism as an ideology is very much present in most of the Kosovar parties, as well as the idea of unification with Albania. In 2021, Vetëvendosje (English: Self-determination Movement) won more than 50 percent of the vote, allowing them to form a government. They have almost doubled their support from the previous elections. According to the leader of Vetëvendosje, Albin Kurti, Kosovo should be allowed to unify with Albania if the people express this will through a referendum. Such a development would put Albania well into diplomatic conflict with Serbia, which regards Kosovo as its de jure territory. One poll from 2019 found 64% of Albanians in Kosovo and 75% of Albanians in Albania would vote in favour of national unification in any referendum on the matter. What will happen is hard to predict, the economy and the way out of the current crisis will definitely have an influence on the final outcome. Nationalism is here to stay and it will be on the rise if the economy deteriorates.
On the other hand, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, several different sides are interested in its future. Sarajevo, Banja Luka, Belgrade, and Zagreb all have their own perceptive. On top of that, there is Brussels and Washington that have shown less interest. Centre-right politics is closer to the far-right, as is the case in Kosovo. Ethnicity and policies relating to cultural identity are the main driving force of politics in Bosnia and Herzegovina. We can expect that the Republic of Srpska and Serbia will forge even closer ties as dialogue with Kosovo is not an option for the new right-wing Kosovo government. Party of Democratic Action (EPP observer member) is much closer to Erdoğanism with a particular interest in representing Bosniaks’ interest than the classic European centre-right party. The Republika Srpska, one of the two entities that together make up Bosnia and Herzegovina, has the Serb Democratic Party that is now trying to move away from the far-right and has adopted more modest right-wing national-conservative views. Still, it hasn’t gained new support among voters. Ethnic politics and nationalism in both entities will stay around until the foreseeable future as talks about reforming Bosnia and Herzegovina begins to play a more prominent role in the European integration process. Gallup polled tendencies of national unification in 2010, and according to them, about 88% of Republika Srpska citizens would vote in a referendum to secede from Bosnia and Herzegovina. The future of the centre-right in the Western Balkans is in close correlation with the reform of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia’s path to the EU, and the normalization of Serbian – Kosovo relations. Unfortunately, the next couple of years of recovery in the EU and its focus on itself will leave the region on its own, which can be very dangerous. Nationalism is something centre-right parties exploit to their advantage. The future of the centre-right is the future of nationalism in the Western Balkans.