Many West Balkan countries are steered by strongmen: nationalistic leaders who show little regard for the rule of law. As long as they keep the region stable, the EU is willing to let their faults slide, experts told DW.
This week's big news from the Balkans is sure to put a smile on the faces of EU officials - Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic named the openly lesbian Ana Brnabic to succeed him as prime minister. Brnabic will be the first woman and the first openly gay person to head the government in the most populous ex-Yugoslav state.
At the same time, officials in both Belgrade and Brussels are well aware that the real power will remain with Vucic himself.
Vucic has spent the last five years in the Cabinet, starting as the first deputy of the prime minister and coordinator of secret services, in addition to his post as defense minister. He eventually took over the office of prime minister in 2014. During that time he marginalized political rivals, pushed back against any dissenters in the opposition and established an iron grip on the overwhelming majority of the media.
However, he was wise enough to cooperate with the EU on foreign policy and comply with the IMF's austerity demands. The concessions earned him the reputation of a pro-European reformer and a "factor of stability" in the Balkans. His pick for prime minister is only the latest step towards cementing this image.
In neighboring Kosovo, a new government is also on the cards after hardline nationalists won the snap election last Sunday. While Kosovo is staunchly pro-Western, the EU will likely have to deal with former guerilla leader Ramush Haradinaj as head of government. He was tried (though not convicted) for crimes against Serbs in the 1998/1999 war.
Strongmen leaders have also made their presence known elsewhere. In Macedonia, right-winger Nikola Gruevski managed to hold on to power long after stepping down as prime minister. His VMPRO-DPMNE party was eventually ousted earlier this month, but not before a crowd of Gruevski supporters assaulted his political rivals in the parliament. In Albania, the reputed moderate Edi Rama has flirted with pan-Albanian nationalism and faced protests for pushing through a highly controversial judicial reform. Bosnia remains hopelessly divided between Bosniak, Croat and Serb leaders. Even the politicians in the EU member Croatia are ratcheting up tensions with their neighbors and appear unwilling to stand up to hardliners who romanticize the country's pro-Nazi WWII regime.
Photo op with Angela Merkel
The EU wields enormous economic and political power in the region, as all the aforementioned countries - except Croatia - are still trying to join the bloc. Brussels, however, has been notably sluggish in its efforts to combat nationalism and the dictatorial tendencies of local leaders. Instead, the bloc's key nations have repeatedly praised them for providing stability to the tense region, ignoring complaints against them.
"The EU has been uncritical of the strongmen, as long they were rhetorically committed to reform and EU accession," says Florian Bieber, professor of Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz, Austria. "By claiming to be moderating forces and supporters of reform, they have received considerable support and legitimacy from the outside, including, for example, a visit by [Aleksandar] Vucic to Berlin just a few days before the presidential elections. The photo op with Chancellor Merkel boosted his credibility as a European candidate."
Observers believe that the EU stance can be partly explained by the series of major problems that has hit the bloc in recent years. While struggling with the debt crisis, the refugee crisis and Brexit, Europe's political elite does not have much energy left to deal with Balkan issues. In fact, the refugee crisis in particular made the Balkan governments key partners in keeping the lid on the refugee flow.
Moreover, according to Bieber, many member states are simply not interested in incorporating West Balkan countries into the EU, and the current "stabilitocracies" serve their interests.
EU 'tiptoeing' because of Russia
Another key piece of the puzzle, according to Serbian sociologist and former ambassador Vesna Pesic, is the current political rivalry between the West and Russia, which boasts especially strong ties with Serbia.
"The EU is tiptoeing so it does not anger Vucic and turn him towards Russia, which is openly moving into this part of the Balkans," she told DW, adding that the Serbian president was using the threat of Russia merely to manipulate Brussels.
With the situation in the Balkans getting worse by the day, the mantra of "stability" instead of democracy was a great embarrassment for the EU, she said.
"It's not helping. In fact, it has the opposite effect," she told DW.
"I am not blaming anyone, but it makes my skin crawl when [EU Commissioner Johannes] Hahn, Austria's [Foreign Minister Sebastian] Kurz, or the German [Foreign Minister Sigmar] Gabriel come to Belgrade to applaud Vucic for the benefit of our public."
'They become entrenched'
According to Bieber, the EU has recently become more engaged in the Balkans and "there is some realization that the policy to date is not working."
Even so, it might be difficult to rely on the usual tools of democracy to bring down autocratic regimes. Commenting on the political violence and alleged graft-fueled conspiracies in Macedonia, Bieber says that similar unrest can be expected elsewhere.
"The longer autocrats are in power, the more they become entrenched and a change of government through regular democratic procedure becomes challenging. In the case of Macedonia, the reason for the party to hold on to power is not just about power, but also about the risks of losing office, including jail." With such high stakes, other Balkan parties might attempt to cling to power in the same way, he told DW.