The Western Balkans: Fragile Majorities
The Western Balkans: Fragile Majorities
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia

Consular Sadists

"We have returned to the dark ages," laments a senior Balkan diplomat from behind his stately Brussels desk. An aide nods in agreement. The subject is not political or economic deterioration in his country but a stifling EU visa regime that impedes legitimate travel to the Union from his region. "Even Tito let us travel more," adds the diplomat with a shrug.

The progression of the Western Balkans (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, and Serbia and Montenegro including Kosovo) from war-torn haven for war criminals to potential EU member states has been strewn with internal difficulties. It is ironic, therefore, that present concerns raised by countless officials, journalists and students stem more from intransigence in Brussels and EU capitals than from Western Balkan failures.

A pattern of rejection and suspicion is repeated in consulates across the region as citizens attempt to gain legal short-term access to the member states of the EU and are hampered by lengthy, subjective, expensive and humiliating procedures, which, to use the words of the exasperated Balkan diplomat, amount to "consular sadism".

The assault course laid out for visa applicants varies for each consulate as minimum requirements provided by a common EU visa policy can be complicated at the discretion of member states. Typically, a visa that should cost €30 is costing as much as €140, not including extra costs incurred while acquiring and translating a litany of supporting documents. The applicant must then face consular staff that may have a less than objective view on who can or cannot receive the official stamp.

Currently the Western Balkans remain outside transatlantic structures, have problems with organised crime and corruption and suffer from a perception of being a security threat to their neighbours. But none of this should lead to the regional equivalent of solitary confinement.

Isolating and humiliating a generation of students, journalists, civil society and officials in Balkan consular queues is hardly the way to encourage a European perspective to which the EU has explicitly committed itself.

How are young people supposed to be enthusiastic about an EU they are largely unable to experience? The generation that is being trusted to take the Western Balkans out of narrow-minded nationalism and conflict towards a European future is not being given the tools to do so.

This visa regime is also having a detrimental effect on the individual states the EU is putting so much energy into developing. Those that cannot travel legally seek other ways in which to do so, either through people smugglers, the black market in forged documents or by applying for citizenship, through family ties, of neighbouring countries that are allowed access. These side-effects further split already ethnically divided societies, undermine nascent efforts at state-building and increase dissatisfaction with their own governments.

Full access to the EU, such as that given to Bulgaria and Romania in 2001 and 2002 respectively, would be premature. But allowing certain groups a simpler, faster route to Europe is eminently feasible, safe and logical.

Member states should begin negotiations with each Western Balkan state on a selective Schengen visa liberalisation regime for academics, the business and trade community, civil society, media, and officials. This should include key elements that have already been negotiated with other countries, including Russia. The application procedure should also be improved (facilitated) for all other citizens, involving a simplified process with fewer supporting documents required and a significantly reduced processing time.

On 30 November, European Commission Vice-President Franco Frattini promised to submit a negotiating mandate for visa facilitation to the Council of Ministers, including clear and comprehensive road maps for each country to follow in order to reach the goal of visa liberalisation for certain groups and to simplify the common consular instructions.

Progress also requires continued commitment by the Western Balkans states themselves in areas such as border integration and security sector reform. But it is the minimalist approach by the EU to a region that is dangerously balanced between nationalist recidivism on the one hand and European integration on the other, that needs to be urgently addressed.

The importance of the freedom to travel cannot be overestimated. A senior Bulgarian official enthused that Bulgaria's liberalised status was a moment of trust between Bulgaria and the EU: "This signal was enough to unite politicians and citizens this step, Bulgarians knew that Europe was serious about their EU perspective."

It is time the citizens of the Western Balkans were reminded that the EU is serious about theirs.

The Western Balkans: Fragile Majorities

Political instability keeps growing in the Western Balkans amid geopolitical contests and increased tensions with Russia. In this excerpt from the Watch List 2017 – First Update early-warning report for European policy makers, Crisis Group urges the European Union and its member states to engage intensively to ensure the political space for avoiding more serious crisis does nto entirely vanish in the Western Balkans.

This commentary is part of our Watch List 2017 – First Update.

Mounting political instability in the Western Balkans has the potential to spark new crises on the EU’s immediate borders. Political tensions are particularly high in Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) and Kosovo. Many EU policymakers are concerned that Russia aims to exacerbate this disorder, a worry that has intensified since elements of the Russian intelligence service were implicated in a failed coup in Montenegro last year. But the region’s crises are rooted in a prevalent winner-takes-all party politics and flaws inherent in the political settlements forged to end the Yugo­slav wars. While Russia has deep-seated interests in the Balkans, its interventions are more opportunistic than strategic.

[T]he EU [...] should concentrate on local sources of instability, which often are linked to ruling parties’ refusal to give up power despite losing elections.

The Balkans are a part of the ongoing geopolitical contest, but local sensitivities are much stronger drivers of events and risks in the region than geopolitics: the EU therefore should concentrate on local sources of instability, which often are linked to ruling parties’ refusal to give up power despite losing elections. Regional states – including those discussed below – have endured on-and-off political tensions since the 1990s, so far without sliding back into secessionist wars. But the political space for avoiding more serious crises is narrowing, and the EU must engage intensively to ensure it does not entirely vanish. This will play out differently in each context but at its core the EU should seek to impose meaningful financial costs on, and slow down the pace of EU accession for actors who violate basic norms, and in particular on parties that obstruct a peaceful transfer of power.


The risk of a serious crisis is highest in Macedonia. National elections in 2016 failed to restore stability after a period of political turmoil and sporadic violence. The incumbent right to far-right VMRO-DPMNE party has refused to cede power to a majority coalition of parties led by the Social Democratic SDSM party. A central point of contention is the SDSM’s willingness to make some political concessions to the Albanian minority, which VMRO claims threaten the state’s existence. This invalid claim has resulted in daily anti-Albanian rallies in the capital, Skopje, as well as in growing alienation among ethnic Albanians. While the Macedonian Albanian minority’s leaders generally have remained committed to working within Macedonia’s political structures since the country came close to civil war in 2001, the current crisis could undermine this uneasy bargain.

Civil society groups have called for targeted sanctions against senior VMRO officials, and the European Parliament’s rapporteur has echoed these calls. The EU should use the threat of possible sanctions to press the VMRO to accept its electoral defeat and play the role of responsible opposition. Leaders of the European People’s Party (EPP), of which VMRO is a member, should use their contacts in Skopje to insist that VMRO stop blocking the transfer of power; if it does not the EPP should consider suspending VMRO.


The political climate in Kosovo has been poisonous since the ruling PDK party refused to cede power after losing elections in 2014. The nationalist opposition party – VV – has responded with public protests and accusations that the PDK is too generous to the ethnic Serb minority. The PDK subsequently reached a power-sharing arrangement with another part of the opposition, the centrist LDK, though this political deal failed to bridge deeper societal divides. While the EU previously coaxed Belgrade and Pristina into constructive talks, relations have worsened and there were tensions this winter over a Kosovo Serb plan to build a wall in the divided city of Mitrovica. Although EU officials keep a close watch on the situation, inter-ethnic tensions are liable to recur if the PDK and opposition exploit them as part of their standoff.

Domestic and international civil society groups have launched a dialogue between the PDK and opposition, and the EU should continue to support this. In particular, it should encourage these civil society efforts to bring ethnic Serb minority parties and representatives into the dialogue, while using its leverage with Belgrade to persuade Serbia not to obstruct the process.

Bosnia and Herzegovina

BiH potentially faces a decisive test of its sustainability as a state in 2018-2019. The country could be unable to replace the current legislature and executive when their terms expire in October 2018. The constitutional court has struck down elements of the electoral law, and all major Bosniak, Croat and Serb parties will have to agree on amendments to the law if state-wide polls are to take place next year. Given the polarisation of BiH politics, there is a significant danger that this will prove impossible.

Failure to hold elections in 2018 would result in the state’s gradual paralysis. In a worst-case scenario this would allow Republika Srpska to press anew for its secession from the federal state. The EU, supported by BiH’s neighbours Croatia and Serbia, should use the leverage of the accession process and related assistance to push all sides to amend the electoral law as quickly as possible, and emphasise its long-term focus on the country by, for example, committing to keep in place EUFOR, the small EU-led peacekeeping force, for as long as necessary.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.