The Fight for Democracy in the Western Balkans

Apr 18, 2017
Sarah M. Binder
Woodrow Wilson School

Emerging democracies face all sorts of challenges, from ensuring freedom of the press to addressing human rights deficits. A fall 2016 graduate policy workshop, “Managing Elections in Fragile States,” took students more than 4,500 miles from Princeton, to research the successes and challenges of electoral processes in the Western Balkans — specifically Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Serbia.

These countries have undergone democratic transitions since the end of communism; however, signs are emerging that progress made since the 1990s is unraveling. Most recently, Serbia elected Aleksandar Vučić to its presidency; he will assume the office on May 31. As prime minister since 2014, Vučić has been criticized by opponents for displaying authoritarian tendencies. He is expected to appoint a figurehead successor as prime minister and to transform the presidency from a ceremonial office into a more powerful post from which he could rule unchallenged.

Led by Professor Jeff Fischer, nine graduate students conducted field research in Tirana, Albania; Sarajevo and Banja Luka, Bosnia and Herzegovina; and Belgrade, Serbia. The students also traveled to Brussels, Belgium and Warsaw, Poland, for meetings with representatives from the European Union (EU) and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

As the students met with members of parliament, journalists, civil society groups, democracy and media watchdogs, and other governmental officials, they found the progress and challenges varied from country to country.

Serbia has a strong balloting process and regularly contested elections but is affected by a weakened media and is susceptible to the abuse of power by individual political leaders, notes Ken Sofer, MPA ’17.

In contrast, Bosnia struggles with interethnic mistrust, yet shows signs of the “growth of a small, but passionate and committed civil society dedicated to promoting a free and reliable press, rooting out corruption, and promoting democratic ideals,” said David Logan, MPA ’17.

During their travels, students witnessed both symbolic — Serbia’s old Ministry of Defense in ruins — and concrete examples of the country’s evolving political landscape.

“We met with a member of the Bosnian national legislature who also serves as a leader in a prominent national political party. He was surprisingly frank about what he perceived to be the political malaise and corruption within the country's traditional party structures. He was very vocal in advocating reforms that would make his party — and others — more democratic and policy-focused. Our local interpreter said she was amazed that any Bosnian politician would be so honest in public,” Logan said.

In December 2016, Sofer, Logan and their colleagues presented their findings to the Electoral Assistance Division of the United Nations (U.N.) at the U.N. headquarters in New York, New York, and USAID’s Electoral and Political Transitions Division in Washington, D.C. Among their recommendations, they encouraged improving transparency in internal party processes in Albania and consolidating the extended electoral cycle in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

“The research team found that Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Serbia have all made considerable progress in the past two decades transitioning into functioning democracies with regular, competitive elections,” Sofer said. “But across the region, the erosion of political institutions, the withdrawal of international community support, and the weakness of the independent media sector have put democratic gains in these three Balkan nations at risk.”

For Sofer, experiencing this workshop at the same time as the U.S. presidential campaign and election caused him to reflect more deeply on the concept and implementation of democracy.

“This workshop made me think a lot about what it means to be a democracy and how democratic processes contribute to a government’s legitimacy and ability to function properly,” Sofer said. “The progress these Balkan countries have made is incredibly impressive, but they should also serve as a warning that democracy is fragile, and cementing progress is just as important as making new gains. I hope I never forget that lesson throughout my career in public service.”

Led by Jeff Fischer, adjunct instructor at Georgetown University, the workshop included: Ken Sofer MPA ’17 (Serbia team), Nicholas Collins MPA ’17 (Serbia team), Yanchuan Liu MPA ’17 (Serbia team), David Logan MPA ’17 (Bosnia team), Edward Atkinson MPA ’17 (Bosnia team), Aditya Sriraman MPA ’17 (Bosnia team), Aparna Krishnamurthy MPA ’17 (Albania team), Mae Lindsey MPA ’17 (Albania team), Paco Verla Sandoval MPA ’17 (Albania team).