By Akri Çipa/Dielli/
Millions across the Balkans find their lives turned upside-down by the pandemic. As the coronavirus crisis upends normal life and highlights the fragility of the region’s democracies, the future looks vexed, to say the least.
A Western Balkans-wide recession seems all but unavoidable in 2020. According to a World Bank report released in late April, the region as a whole is projected to experience negative growth of between three and 5.6 per cent.
Linda Van Gelder, the World Bank’s director for the Western Balkans, was unequivocal in stating that the coronavirus “is wreaking havoc on lives around the region — taxing health care systems, paralysing economic activity and undermining the wellbeing of people”.
The International Monetary Fund — which has also projected economic contraction this year for all the countries of the region — expects an economic rebound in 2021.
IMF experts estimate that economic growth in 2021 will range from 3.5 per cent in Bosnia and Herzegovina to eight per cent in Albania. Yet with all the recent volatility, that might not be enough to provide much reassurance.
Recession will result from a drop in domestic and foreign demand. Without a vaccine, scientists say a second wave of the pandemic is likely. Continued travel restrictions, physical distancing guidelines and other protective measures will continue to hit tourism and services that dominate the economies of the Western Balkans.
Unlike their counterparts in Western Europe, countries here have weak economies plagued by low wages, high poverty and unemployment and weak growth.
The closure of many small and family-owned businesses plus a strain on public budgets and a lack of financing opportunities all pose big challenges for local economies.
But even as economies suffer, the pandemic has highlighted critical political and democratic deficiencies in the region.
In Serbia, people have expressed their dissatisfaction with the autocratic rule of President Aleksandar Vucic and his ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) by blowing whistles and banging pots and pans from their homes.
Those taking part in the daily protests are angry about so-called state capture by ruling elites, the erosion of democratic institutions and perceptions that Vucic’s rule is increasingly dictatorial.
Protesters also object to the government’s draconian steps to stop the virus spreading, which include weekend-long curfews and measures to limit free speech. They see them as exaggerated and riding roughshod over basic freedoms and rights.
In Kosovo, the recently elected government was ousted during the pandemic thanks to political scheming by entrenched political elites.
In a surreal development, pot-banging protests took place to express support for the outgoing government and urge leaders to refrain from creating an artificial political crisis in the middle of a health crisis.
The government will serve in a caretaker role until the Constitutional Court rules on whether the country needs a fresh election or the formation of a new government is possible without elections.
Albania suffers from the fact that it does not have a real and representative opposition.
Following last year’s unprecedented decision by opposition lawmakers to resign en masse and renounce their parliamentary mandates, experts say there is no effective check on the excesses and abuses of the government.
North Macedonia, meanwhile, is battling the pandemic with a caretaker government and had to postpone snap parliamentary elections scheduled for April 12.
Across the region, the collusion between powerful businessmen and governing elites feeds unfair practices, harms economic competition and discourages investment, analysts say.
The COVID-19 crisis risks serving as an opportunity for companies to engage in anti-competitive practices while there is less scrutiny of government mismanagement and corruption in public procurement.
Not that the pandemic is to blame for stagnant reforms and backsliding on democratic standards. But experts say it has thrown those deficiencies into sharp relief.
Amid draconian measures, secretive decision-making on procurement and selective distribution of resources for groups hit by the virus, local efforts to promote transparency and accountability have morphed into a Sisyphean struggle.
In the meanwhile, even positive news like the EU’s decision to start accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia went largely unnoticed.
More than the pandemic itself, the main factors overshadowing the talks are skepticism about the pace of much-needed domestic reforms and doubts about the viability of EU membership in the short-to-medium term.
As countries move towards reopening, analysts predict that the strange mix of economic shock, institutional fragility and frustration with dysfunctional politics will lead to renewed and strengthened calls for change.
The leaders of the region have benefitted in the recent past from migration as a valve to release pent-up frustration. Rather than asking for change at home, those dissatisfied with the economic and political realities mostly went quietly and tried their luck in Western countries.
As the West is itself hit by economic uncertainty, this option will be less available and attractive. Dissatisfaction will have to express itself differently.
Optimists say this period represents a new opportunity to channel the overwhelming desire for change. They say the region needs to forge ahead at last with real reforms that lead to fairer economies, stronger institutions and more prosperity.
But the window of opportunity after the pandemic will not be open for long. If time is squandered, disillusionment risks turning into the region’s defining emotion for years to come.