Can Europe Make It?

Democracy, 25 years after Yugoslavia

Just how democratic are the former Yugoslav countries today?

Lana Pasic
3 April 2016

Piran, Slovenia. The country has had the most successful democratic transition of the former Yugoslav states. Wikimedia. CC.The wave of democratisation in Eastern Europe during the late 1980s and 1990s also affected former Yugoslavia, where the political space opened up after Tito’s death in 1980. Yugoslavia consisted of six federal Republics: Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia, and two autonomous regions: Kosovo and Vojvodina. First multi-party democratic elections were held in the Republics in 1990, followed by the referenda of independence and a slow disintegration of the state.

In June 1991, Slovenia and Croatia declared formal independence and a referendum was held in March 1992 in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Macedonia seceded peacefully in 1991, Montenegro in 2006, and Kosovo declared its independence in 2008. Although the initial period of independence saw the rise of elected, but semi-authoritarian regimes, including Milosevic in Serbia and Tudjman in Croatia, all states are now, at least theoretically, on the path of institutional and economic reforms and accession to the European Union. Slovenia joined the Union in 2004, and Croatia in 2013.

Twenty five years after Yugoslav disintegration, all the states are formally democratic countries:  there are regular multi-party elections, apparent separation of powers, established democratic institutions and democratic language. However, there is a need to distinguish between the institutions and formal procedures of democracy and actual implementation.

Accountable governments, checks and balances, rule of law and freedom of speech are largely absent from political practices in the region.  Nepotism, administrative inefficiency, public spending and corruption have become the norm, and are blocking the democratic processes. Public resources are controlled by the political party elites, which hold leverage over media, judiciary and police forces.

Political parties in successor states are themselves undemocratic. Although the communist rule ended, the cult of one political leader with unlimited powers remains present, as is the case with Milo Djukanovic in Montenegro, Aleksandar Vucic in Serbia, Hashim Thaci and Ramush Haradinaj in Kosovo, Nikola Gruevski in Macedonia, and Bakir Izetbegovic and Milorad Dodik in Bosnia and Herzegovina. This absence of internal party democracy is then transferred to the wider political arena.

There are low levels of public participation in political decision-making processes, including elections, as well as low interest in participating, due to limited trust in government and democracy. Regionally, the election-turnout is low, and there is no trust in elected political representatives’ abilities or willingness to act in public interest. There is an overall dependence on foreign capital and loans, financial waste and mismanagement, widespread corruption in privatisation deals, and these states are now failing to respond to economic and social crises.

Besides for Slovenia, which had a relatively peaceful secession after the Ten Day War, and joined the EU in 2004, other countries have largely failed to consolidate democratic processes and practices. Slovenia was the most ethnically homogeneous of the republics, and it accounted for only 10% of the total Yugoslav population. On the other hand, it was economically the strongest, contributing one-fifth of the GDP, and one-third of Yugoslav exports, which certainly facilitated its successful transition.

Bosnia and Herzegovina’s multi-party elections in 1990 brought to power nationalist parties, and the quest for independence resulted in a four-year conflict. After the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement in 1995, democratic institutions, separation of powers and guarantees for rights and freedoms were enshrined in the constitution. Yet, due to a range of internal and external factors, the process of democratic development has been stalled and democracy in the country is weak and fragile.

The international community, as a guarantor of the Peace Agreement has in its own way affected the development of democratic processes. The Office of the High Representative (OHR) has played a crucial role in the country, using the Bonn Powers to enforce a number of laws, regulations and reforms. Over the last two decades, no major political decision has been made without the involvement of OHR or foreign ambassadors to Bosnia. The over-reliance on international actors has affected the accountability of political leaders. Besides international influencesand omnipresent corruption at all levels, the state’s socio-economic failures and political deadlock are some of the main reasons why B&H is now largely considered to be a failed state.

Croatia, an EU member since 2013, had undergone a period of semi-authoritarian rule in the 1990s under Franjo Tudjman and the HDZ (Croatian Democratic Union). Good improvements have been made since the early 2000s in the area of civil society and corruption, and the fight against corruption even saw the former Prime Minister, Ivo Sanader, sentenced over two high profile corruption cases. Overall, great strides have been made in terms of judicial reforms, transparency and civil rights, although administrative regulations are inconsistent and minority rights are not always respected. 

After the 1997-1999 war with Serbia, which ended with NATO intervention, Kosovo declared independence in 2008. Following the EU brokered deals in 2013 and 2015, relations with Serbia seem to be normalising, but independence did not necessarily bring about democratic and accountable governance to the newest Balkan country. 

In 2011 and 2015, Freedom House reported a decline in the area of media independence, national democratic governance and electoral processes. The country has seen numerous corruption scandals, includingjudicial bribes to the EU rule of law mission (EULEX) and corruption in the public procurement procedures. Leaders of the main political parties in Kosovo are widely seen as key figures in organised crime, and they have been involved in a number of scandals with the media, with most recent threats made by the Prime Minister, which led to massive journalists’ protests in Pristina this year.

Macedonia’s peaceful secession from Yugoslavia was followed by the 2001 armed conflict between Macedonians and Albanians, which ended the following year with the Ohrid Agreement and a NATO-led disarmament. In 2006, VMRO-DMPNE led by Nikola Gruevski came to power with the promise of economic revival and reforms, but similar to other ex-Yugoslav leaders, Gruevski is implicated in the shady privatisation deals involving the sale of the Macedonian bank, and financial mismanagement and secret deals around massive construction projects in the country. Democratic processes and principles have also been undermined by citizen wire-tapping, pressure on media and critical journalists, using judiciary and state bodies against political enemies and party- controlled public procurements. 

Montenegro made a quick progress towards the European integration, after its peaceful secession in 2006. It soon became the third country, right after Slovenia and Croatia, to begin accession talks, signing the SAA in 2007, and marking its entry into force in 2010. However, in spite of what seemed as a small nation success story, political elitism and corruption in Montenegro are the reason for often used label mafia-state.

Although elements and institutions of democracy, including elections, judiciary and parliament are present, the reality is that Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic and his party DPS are in charge of the country. Djukanovic has been in power since 1989 either as a Prime Minister or a President.

He has been at the centre of corruption charges over the privatisation of Niksicka Banka, now First Bank, which is owned by him and his siblings and its bailing out by the state during the financial crisis. Djukanovic was also investigated by the Italian anti-mafia unit over cigarette-smuggling operations, although charges were dropped in 2009 due to his diplomatic immunity.

Serbia’s road to democracy has been more difficult than that of other Yugoslav countries, due to Milosevic’s long rule. The 1990s conflict in B&H, Croatia and Kosovo damaged the country, and after years of civil society action against his rule, he was finally ousted on 5October 2000. In the following years, pro-Western and right-wing parties’ disagreements over the direction of the country exposed the numerous challenges Serbia was facing.

The assassination of pro-reform Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic in 2003 exposed the deep links between politics and mafia. Although the democratic institutions and processes have been introduced since, the elected parties, those considered democratic, left wing and right wing alike have all been implicated in corruption during the privatisation deals. The current pro-European government has also made a number of secret privatisation deals, including the sales of auto industry, steel factories and Yugoslav Air Company. 

Twenty five years after the break-up of Yugoslavia, with the exception of Slovenia, former Yugoslav Republics still have a long way to go before consolidating democratic rule. Although the prospects of EU membership serve as an incentive, and reforms are monitored by the EU, true democratic processes need to be developed from the inside, and are not enforceable.

The degree of successful democratisation process varies in each country, but corruption, nepotism, disrespect for media freedoms and financial mismanagement are present in all former Yugoslav Republics, and there is an urgent need to break the links between politics and organised crime.

Although substantial economic reforms have taken place in all countries, the failure of the social contract between the states and citizens is apparent. In spite of the presence of the democratic institutions, practices and regulations, the true understanding of democracy has not been adopted by either the political representatives or the electorate.

Get weekly updates on Europe A thoughtful weekly email of economic, political, social and cultural developments from the storm-tossed continent. Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData