Scenario 5: Banding Together

4 March 2022


Due to low levels of vaccinated citizens and financially-strained health services, successive variants of COVID-19 ravage the Western Balkans (WB) with systemic frequency. A lifeline encapsulated in Serbia’s ‘open door’ vaccine programme offers a chance for those around the region with enough resources and time to travel and take advantage of available medication; stemming from this goodwill gesture, Belgrade’s reputation greatly improves among its neighbours. These efforts are buttressed by pan-European assistance in the form of organisational support while the parallel financial and resource strains on the health systems begin to be alleviated.

This region-wide solidarity inspires similar strategies from governments and civil societies to work more collectively in tackling the most pressing issues facing the Western Balkans, namely environmental degradation, effects of climate change and the stymied economies. These in turn spur on a pro-democratic movement, and new voices gain power in the WB capitals when simultaneously looking for additional opportunities to overcome some of the larger historical and security-based issues plaguing their collective ascension to the EU though do not necessarily lead to further integration in EU or Transatlantic structures.

Background To the Banding Together Scenario

The growing number of emergencies around the globe, such as the next waves of COVID-19 pandemic or environmental issues, has posed a great challenge to the Western Balkans region. They have made the region even more vulnerable to external influences, be it of a political or social nature.
In this scenario, the Western Balkan region is being challenged by various external factors and local leaders embark on an uneasy and mostly pragmatic collaboration to face these challenges together. With time, transnational integration takes place that in its turn prompts strong pro-democratic tendencies and eventual EU integration.

Relevant Variables

The main variable of this scenario is the growing number of global challenges and their impact on the Western Balkan countries. Being united and working together against various environmental, financial or social challenges such as depopulation could help tackle them. As shown in the example of two recently-relevant challenges — the pandemic and environmental issues — this variable can influence regional cooperation.

One of the most pressing challenges currently is the continued COVID-19 pandemic and the inconsistent approach of the local political elites in tackling it. Weak crisis management and low vaccination rates result in persisting pressure on countries’ health systems and impediments to economic recovery. The pandemic has, however, shown that solidarity and mutual affinity exist in the region. At the early stages of the vaccine rollout, the better-supplied Serbia and Albania provided neighbours with thousands of acutely needed vaccines. Serbia also made vaccination available for non-nationals so that people from the region could travel there and get their jabs for free. This has shown that when faced with serious challenges, the WB states can transcend their differences, especially if it implies the self-promotion of respective elites.

The environmental issues and dubious and opaque environmental policies represent another common challenge. Natural disasters (such as floods or fires), high air and soil pollution levels, environmental damage, or stalled progress in decarbonisation objectives and green transition generate popular discontent and civic mobilisation.

In some cases, civil society’s watchdog activities and protests bring occasional success in achieving more sustainable policies and keeping environmental issues on the agenda. In other instances, governments reinforce the clampdown on civil liberties and remove certain projects and contracts from public scrutiny. Foreign investors, especially from China and Russia, are keen to exploit this situation that allows them to proceed with undisclosed investments disregarding compliance with environmental regulation or transparent public procurement. Such investments may have a potentially harmful impact on the environment (e.g. high air pollution) and a destabilisation effect on the countries, which can cause adverse emigration.

Environmental concerns, therefore, influence regional cooperation on several levels. They incentivise closer collaboration of civil society organisations and activists as many of the disputed projects have cross-border or region-wide impacts on the environment. At the same time, they show that coordinated responses to environmental challenges, including when negotiating the terms of foreign investments, could bring positive value to the region. Furthermore, natural disasters have been shown to be the main catalysts for feelings of regional solidarity. Other emerging crises and challenges such as migratory pressures or conflicts in the vicinity can follow similar patterns in raising mutual solidarity and instigating multi-level cooperation in the Western Balkans.

Among the variables deemed to have potentially the greatest impact is a pro-democratic transition and reconciliation that would disrupt the current course of the region. Over the past decade, autocratic leaders have strived to further consolidate their power. The democratic backsliding has been recently most manifested in Serbia, the key player in the region influential of Western Balkans’ image among Western policy-makers.

The lack of progress in the Euro-Atlantic integration has undermined pro-European reform forces in North Macedonia and Albania. Bosnia and Herzegovina has found itself on the brink of a collapse as the Republika Srpska leadership has proceeded with withdrawal from state institutions. Montenegro has been also dealing with internal tensions and rocky relations with Serbia and Kosovo has remained in a stalemate situation with Serbia when it comes to reaching an agreement on its status and normalising relations.

In this light, the prospect of EU enlargement seems the least credible than it has for the past twenty years and has effectively stopped being any driver for change. Pro-democratic forces in the region have suffered the most from the vanishing European vision for the Western Balkans. Yet, if the EU revisits its position on the enlargement and clearly stipulates the perspectives for the Western Balkans countries, and at the same time, democratic forces use the momentum to carry out a pro-democratic transition, the course of development would be reversed. It would signify a radical break with the current situation and enable the countries to move forward with many pending burdens, including the solution of bilateral disputes and achieving real progress in transitional justice.

Plausibility of the Global Challenges Scenario

With regional relations marred by the legacy of the 1990s and earlier conflicts, it is difficult for the Western Balkan countries to pursue other cooperation than that resting on economic benefits and pragmatic goal-oriented alliances. The cooperation has been so far driven by the WB leaders’ interest to show a willingness to act and find solutions to issues burdening their societies, thus calming down dissatisfied citizens and consolidating their power.

It is only with great efforts from all countries to start accepting the past and moving forward with the reconciliation and healing process — both at the top and social level — that we can consider a realistic integration of the Western Balkans. Although it still seems more likely that the shift in the direction of structured regional cooperation will be made along pragmatic lines, there have been several initiatives that give hope that a deeper integration could be plausible.

Notably, the Regional Youth Cooperation Office (RYCO) established in 2016 and aiming to support reconciliation, trust and dialogue among the youth or the Western Balkans Fund (WBF) operational since 2017 are good signs of a new spirit of cooperation in the region. Furthermore, the Prespa agreement between Greece and North Macedonia is a clear example that even extremely painful compromises can be undertaken and that decades-long conflicts can be solved out of a sudden when there is a will on both sides.

In this regard, a greater role played by the EU in facilitating collaboration among the countries could bring fruitful results. The EU’s official WB policy, the Stabilisation and Association Process, emphasises the importance of regional cooperation and closer ties in the political, economic and social spheres. This model of WB cooperation has, however, been rather limited over the years. One possible push for increasing it would be for the EU to revitalise the enlargement process. It could potentially serve as a catalyst for the countries to embark on greater mutual collaboration and thus go beyond the current state of cooperation.

At the same time, as the last couple of years have proven, environmental issues have become a real concern for the Balkans as floods, fires and high pollution have had a devastating effect on the countries. It has brought the states and their people closer in dealing with the aftermath together and raised mutual solidarity. Increased sensitivity of the population towards environmental issues brought a higher demand for the politicians to become more active in the preventive measures combating these natural disasters, such as the introduction of new environmental laws or maximising the distribution of funds and foreign aid.

Closer regional cooperation, for example in the form of support of joint projects through a strengthened and expanded Western Balkans Fund or more efficient use of EU’s financial instruments, would bring not only the improvement of the environment as such but also prevent dissatisfaction and emigration of Western Balkans citizens driven by the polluted environment.

Relevant Assumptions

A stable political situation together with institutions ensuring that the rule of law, democracy and human rights are adhered to will become a norm. In relation to that, welcoming mutual collaboration at a bilateral as well as on a regional level will become one of the cornerstones of the countries’ foreign policy agenda. Transparent and publicly available documents together with the promotion of regional cooperation among the public would also boost the civil societies’ roles and encourage more people to join various cross-border collaboration initiatives.

Working more closely together will also incite the countries to address a range of historical issues deeply rooted in the political and social realms. Therefore, reconciliation and democratisation processes could in fact serve as means of bringing the countries even closer, addressing the past conflicts and working together against various external threats posed by global events.
In terms of the reconciliation process, the political elites will publicly address and accept controversial topics and challenges caused by the 1990s conflicts, for example, related to the genocide in Srebrenica. For instance, the countries will collaborate in capturing war criminals and their prosecution, moving forward with domestic trials, and building on national strategies and national laws. Historical events (e.g., war crimes) will be depicted in the media and within schools without an ethnic or a religious undertone, and historical books used for educational purposes will also depart from ethnically-biased interpretations. These actions will eventually lead to a change in the political memory across the Western Balkans. Furthermore, the protection and respect of ethnic and religious minorities will be further consolidated at the political and legislative levels.

Additionally, the integration of the Western Balkans will have a significant impact on external actors’ power plays in the region. On the one hand, the region’s proclaimed multivectorial foreign policy attests to the fact that the Euro-Atlantic orientation is not the only game in town. On the other hand, the strengthening of regional cooperation as such is not contradictory to the prospect of EU membership but rather the opposite. Although declaratory welcoming non-Western investment, the Western Balkan countries will use their cooperation to enhance their standing vis a vis China or Russia, thus increasing resilience to harmful impacts brought about by their activities. Even if it is a by-product of the scenario, progress will be made towards European Union membership.

Implications If the Global Challenges Scenario Is Realised

If this scenario unfolds and global challenges bring positive impacts in terms of fostering greater cooperation and integration of the region, the political reality of the states would be one much more resembling those of the European Member states.

Staying outside of unified Europe and facing global challenges such as climate change or COVID-19, the regional leaders have strengthened mutual cooperation and pursued pragmatically oriented alliances focused on the economic sector (e.g., the Open Balkans Initiative). Pro-democratic change then made room for integration on other societal levels, including the cultural one. A new platform has been established to discuss common problems, overcome mutual economic and societal barriers, and search for consensus to have a stronger negotiating position vis-à-vis other external actors and contractual parties. The collaborative platform consists of regular summits of countries’ leaders or relevant ministers and several working groups that work on preparing summits and materials for decision-making. The summits are organised in various formats and not all of the WB countries take part in each of them. The integration thus runs in a multi-speed scheme, at different paces and intensities.

Furthermore, an extension of the Open Balkans initiative of Serbia, North Macedonia and Albania to other WB countries has been already agreed upon. As it represents the deepest commitment to regional integration in the promise of free movement of goods, capital and people, it will tangibly enhance regional cooperation. Further solidification of Western Balkan integration in the cultural or educational spheres (conditioned by progress in reconciliation and transitional justice and the solution of bilateral disputes) lags behind but has been put on track as well. The efforts of local actors, like the civil society and political elites, bring an overall increase of trust among the countries and lead to new cooperation initiatives. The ongoing regional cooperation platforms, such as the Western Balkans Fund, which had limited success in its aim to foster close cooperation and ties between the WB countries, will be given more attention and purpose and promote other similar regional efforts. Therefore, the successful outcomes of a variety of established cooperation platforms will prove to the political leaders that good neighbourly relations are essential for their own economic and political prosperity and will lead to improved domestic and external images.

All the above-mentioned steps will demonstrate to the European Union that the countries remain committed to their EU agenda and are willing to work on deep structural issues that will in the long run bring them closer to the membership and to their own political stability. In turn, the Union will re-focus its attention on the Western Balkan region and restore its commitment to further enlargement. This will lead to regular meetings and negotiations across different political levels with an aim to complete the negotiation process and welcome the countries into the EU.


Narrated by Barbora Chrzova and Anja Grabovac.


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Thank you to the International Visegrad Fund and the National Endowment for Democracy for their support


Western Balkans Futures: Five Scenarios for 2030

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