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The Western Balkans are resilient, yet stuck

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Can the countries of the Western Balkans use the current momentum for EU enlargement to move forward, or will they remain stuck in the current limbo? Is the region vulnerable to renewed armed conflict, or is there an underlying resilience that is often clouded by inflated political rhetoric?

These are some of the important questions puzzling Western Balkans’ observers on a regular basis. The International Republican Institute’s (IRI) periodic regional Western Balkans poll offers critical insights, sometimes counterintuitive, into key vulnerabilities and opportunities for regional countries to move forward.

Feeling generally safe, with caveats

The 2024 IRI poll suggests that, despite dominant media narratives, most citizens in the Western Balkans seem less concerned about security issues, prioritizing socio-economic concerns. They also have faith in various resilience factors to deter armed conflict.

Only a tiny fraction of citizens (0-2%), in almost all regional countries, think that an internal/external conflict is the biggest problem facing the country – Serbia is an exception with 6%. Similar shares (0-2%) think that this topic should be a top priority for the government. A minority of citizens in all countries (14-26%) rate ethnic tensions in their countries as being strong or very strong, except for Albania where the percentage is only 6%. 

In general, public sentiments about national security are mostly positive throughout the region. In almost all countries (except for North Macedonia, 46%), the majority of polled citizens describe national security as being somewhat good or very good (51-74%). Majorities or even wide majorities (54-70%) also say that they view the near future likelihood of armed conflict in their country as being very or somewhat unlikely. 

The reasons listed by those that are optimistic, however, differ by country. In Kosovo (88%) and Albania (59%) citizens primarily attribute the lack of conflict potential to the international community, therefore emphasizing external sources of deterrence. In Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), the largest share of optimists (59%) believe that citizens would refuse to fight a new war.

Even among the minority anticipating conflict, wide majorities (58-79%) expect some form of international intervention in the event of armed conflict, showcasing the importance of NATO’s regional deterrent role.

However, not all citizens of the region feel completely secure from armed conflict. Sizeable minorities in all countries view the likelihood of conflict as somewhat or very likely (19-30%), with the highest percentage (32%) being in North Macedonia followed by Kosovo (29%). Out of those who are worried in Kosovo, 58% say the threat comes from neighboring countries.

Mostly unhappy with governance, but also complacent

The IRI poll also shows that economic concerns are overwhelmingly stated as the main challenge facing all countries, with sizeable majorities (42-61%) expressing this sentiment, followed by corruption (7-22%) and other socio-economic concerns like poverty or healthcare services. In particular, a staggeringly high share of people across the region (83-97%) view corruption to be a very serious or somewhat serious problem.

This indicates a considerable vulnerability within the political system, particularly when matched with the high level of public mistrust towards institutions responsible for accountability and the rule of law. For example, in all of the regional countries, large pluralities to wide majorities (46-81%) express distrust in the court system.

Yet citizens may for now be willing to overlook such concerns. One possible reason is the lack of credible political alternatives.

Mistrust in political parties is very high in all countries (65-78%) with majorities also expressing mistrust in parliaments. This poses real challenges for opposition parties in the region. In three countries, majorities of respondents reported not trusting any single politician in the country (Albania 62%; BiH 62%; North Macedonia 52%).

On the other hand, the level of mistrust in any political leader is lowest in Kosovo (28%), Serbia (29%) and Montenegro (33%). Simultaneously, these countries are also the ones in which majorities think the country is going in the right direction. Citizens in these countries might distrust institutions, but they have high expectations from their leaders.

Another reason why the status quo in the region may be holding is that, despite expressing grievances about corruption and the economy, sizeable majorities (55-78%) rate the economic situation of their household as somewhat good or very good. Citizens may therefore be hesitant to disrupt their comfort and may prioritize stability over change despite their dissatisfaction or expectations.  

Anti-Western outlooks widely accepted outside of Kosovo and Albania

Regarding international relations, the IRI poll shows that while support for EU membership remains high in most countries, public outlooks on foreign policy – particularly regarding Russia and its aggression in Ukraine – indicate the prevalence of self-defeating attitudes towards the EU membership goal.

Citizens of Western Balkan countries, excluding Serbia, show strong support for EU membership in the event of a referendum, with 68-92% expressing willingness to vote in favor. However, in Serbia, the support is only 40%.

Despite the enthusiasm for EU membership, there is much lower support for a foreign policy orientation that is exclusively pro-Western. Support for such a course remains strong only in Kosovo and Albania (87% and 82% respectively) but is very low in Serbia (10%) and has less than a majority in the other three WB countries (31-39%).

Serbia displays a pronounced anti-Western sentiment, manifested particularly on the issue of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Only 6% of Serbian citizens view Russia as primarily responsible for the war. A large plurality majority (49%) view Russia as slightly to completely justified for its actions and 54% support its campaign. Even higher shares (80%) have a very or somewhat favorable view of Putin. 

This outlook is not limited to Serbia but is also prevalent, although to a lesser extent, in other Western Balkan countries. Majorities in Montenegro, North Macedonia and BiH believe in one of the three options: that either Ukraine, the West or all sides are responsible for the war (see chart below). This suggests considerable acceptance of Russian narratives about the war and may be a proxy indicator of broader geopolitical outlooks. 

The region is resilient but unable to move forward

The poll findings suggest that the Western Balkans will likely miss the current window of opportunity for EU membership, which emerged following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The EU seems to lack the decisive transformative power needed to bring these countries in alignment. 

One of the main reasons why EU enlargement had halted in the past decade has to do with skepticism in many EU countries to absorb new members in its largely consensus-based decision-making structures. Adding new members with divergent foreign policy positions, and very far from the EU foreign policy mainstream, coupled with weak governance standards will not help the region’s case for EU membership. 

The widespread acceptance of Russian narratives in most of the countries not only sends negative signals to already skeptical EU member states but also undermines the region’s response to EU conditionality, whether that pertains to governance reforms or the resolution of bilateral/ethnic disputes. Who will be willing to listen to the West’s promises and conditions if they do not trust it?

The poll also pours cold water on the potential for immediate political change in the region, which continues to be stifled by citizen complacency or lack of belief in alternatives. Persistently weak trust in institutions may reinforce the self-defeating preference for authoritarian leaders with a strong hand to fix ills, which may further undermine the region’s path toward the EU.

Yet, the positive news from the poll is that citizens in the region do have a certain degree of faith in resilience to security threats. On this issue, just as on other ones, the public may be right or wrong. But perception drives behavior, and for deterrence to be effective, citizens must believe that there will be peace.

For as long as these variables hold, the space for political change retains potential. But for now the optimistic outlook is somewhat ironic: It could be worse!

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