Freedom House: Balkan States Hit by Democratic Setbacks

Balkan countries experienced democratic setbacks in 2016 because of corruption, political interference in the justice system and uncompetitive elections, said a Freedom House report.

Serbia’s democracy reached its lowest level since 2005, while Kosovo, Romania and Montenegro made some progress. Graphic: Freedom House.

Most Balkan countries experienced setbacks in their progress to democracy last year amid the re-emergence of populist authoritarianism in the region, according to Freedom House’s 2017 Nations in Transit report, which was published on Tuesday. The report said that populism was a wider trend and that 2016 brought the second-biggest decline in democracy in the Freedom House survey’s history, almost as large as the drop following the 2008 global financial crisis.

The ‘democracy score’ assigned to Serbia by Freedom House in 2016 was at its lowest level since 2005. “While improvements were visible in some areas related to European Union (EU) accession, they were offset by negative developments in electoral process, democratic governance, and media freedom,” the report said.

The report also mentioned the Belgrade Waterfront demolition incident where the rule of law was effectively suspended to allow private property to be knocked down to make way for a government-backed real-estate development project. Serbia’s electoral process revealed an obvious “unleveling of the electoral playing field among contestants in favour of the ruling parties”, it said.

The Balkan bright spots in the survey were Romania and Kosovo. According to the report, Kosovo made modest gains due to gradual structural reforms, and the nature of its democracy improved from ‘semi-consolidated authoritarian regime’ to ‘transitional/hybrid regime’.

Graphic: Freedom House

In Romania, a caretaker government addressed a number of outstanding issues, such as transparency in the voting process during the presidential elections in 2014.

Montenegro’s democracy progressed as well due to improvements in fighting corruption.

However, other countries had to deal with setbacks in their progress towards democracy. Bosnia and Herzegovina experienced its worst political dysfunction since the war, as demonstrated by the constant derogation of state institutions and mockery of democratic procedures by political leaders. “The referendum in the Republika Srpska in defiance of a Constitutional Court decision set a dangerous precedent for a country whose constitution is the result of a peace agreement,” the report said.

Graphic: Freedom House.

Macedonia’s ranking also dropped after the escalation of the country’s political crisis, presidential pardons for top politicians accused of wrongdoing, the lack of political dialogue, malfunctioning political institutions and the persistence of electoral irregularities despite changes stipulated by the July 2016 political agreement intended to end the crisis. The report also mentioned increased political influence over the judiciary, as illustrated by the obstacles to the work of the Special Public Prosecutor’s Office and the persistence of impunity in cases of high-level corruption.

Moldova’s biggest problem in 2016 was the lack of judicial independence, with the report saying that judges who did not obey political orders were intimidated, there was a lack of reforms to ensure integrity in the appointment of judges, and the Constitutional Court gave in to political pressure to restore direct presidential elections.  Bulgaria experienced a setback due to corruption and a lack of independent media, the report said.

Croatia’s democracy also deteriorated slightly compared to 2016 due to media independence issues.

Balkan Insight

04 April 2017

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