Since 1991 the region of the Balkans has been a place of dynamic change. The region (excluding Greece) has been divided into two subregions: the Western Balkans, consisting of Albania and the entities that emerged from the breakup of Yugoslavia—Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Serbia, Slovenia, and Montenegro, and Bulgaria and Romania. The division of the Balkans into two subregions reflects the distinct dynamics in the two sets of states.
For instance, the Western Balkans were subjected post-1991 to the dynamics of building nation-states, while Bulgaria and Romania embarked on the path of postcommunist consolidation of democracy, marked by free elections, market liberalization, and the strengthening of civil society.
However, the underlying feature characterizing the developments in all Balkan countries was the uncertainty of their transition process. This may be the main reason why Slovenia, which emerged from the dissolution of Yugoslavia, not only managed to distance itself from the Balkans with its domestic and foreign policy objectives but also ultimately “left” the region altogether.
Ambiguity dominated the Balkan states for the better part of the 1990s. This pattern changed as a result of the Kosovo crisis of 1999 for two reasons. First, and perhaps tragically, by that time the nation-state-building projects in the western Balkans had reached a plateau of stability, which allowed the countries from that subregion to focus on their democratization. The uneven transition processes in Bulgaria and Romania had led to the establishment of the first reformist governments in those countries.
Second, in the aftermath of the Kosovo crisis the two dominant international institutions in Europe—the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)—altered their perceptions of the Balkans.
After 1999 they recognized the candidate status of Bulgaria and Romania and outlined the prospect of membership for the countries of the Western Balkans. Such twin alteration of the intraregional and extraregional trends in the Balkans informed the 21st-century processes in the region.
Despite their being lumped together, the postcommunist development trajectories of Bulgaria and Romania were characterized by quite different dynamics. The transition in Bulgaria, which began on November 10, 1989, with the removal of Todor Zhivkov as head of state, was in effect an internal coup within the Bulgarian Communist Party.
These developments set up the background for a rather unpredictable transformation process, one that was initiated from “above” and did not reflect a significant social anxiety with the communist status quo. The pattern of power up to 1997 was marked by governments that came, tried their policies, and were ousted by either the corrective of popular unrest or a change of allegiance of coalition partners.
After 1997, however, governments followed the road of democratization and market reforms fairly consistently and pursued the objectives of EU and NATO integration. As a result, on March 29, 2004, Bulgaria became a member of NATO and joined the EU on January 1, 2007.
In Romania, the transition process began with a series of violent protests across the country in December 1989, which culminated with the execution of the communist dictator Nicolae Ceaus¸escu on Christmas night, 1989. During the winter of 1989–90 a new political formation emerged, which called itself the National Salvation Front (NSF). It established itself as the vanguard of the revolution and ruled in Romania until 1996.
During this period the government was afflicted by internal dissent as a result of the authoritarian tendencies of the NSF leader Ion Iliescu and domestic unrest caused by both the interethnic tensions with the substantial Hungarian minority located in Transylvania and the social disorder caused by the miners’ uprising during 1991. Another set of problems was associated with the NSF’s wavering foreign policy.
|Bucharest, Romania, nowdays|
After the elections in 1996, however, consecutive governments did away with the uncertainty characterizing the country’s initial transition process. Thus, like Bulgaria, Romania joined NATO on March 29, 2004, and joined the EU on January 1, 2007.
The post-1991 period in the subregion of the western Balkans was in many respects even more heterogeneous than the one in Bulgaria and Romania. Although all countries in the subregion experienced violent upheavals of one sort or another, they dealt with their effects differently. Albania was the only country from the western Balkans that did not emerge from the dissolution of former Yugoslavia.
Yet internal conflict beleaguered its postcommunist development. The period up to the 1992 elections was generally characterized by chaos, which led to an exacerbation of the division between the north and the south of the country, rapid growth of organized crime, and the beginning of large-scale emigration fueled by the economic deterioration.
Subsequent governments failed to address these problems, which led to a severe crisis in the country during 1997. It was spurred by the collapse of several financial pyramid schemes, which wiped out the savings of the majority of the Albanian population. During the unrest, military depots were raided and scores of weapons were looted.
Order was restored only after the international community dispatched a military force to the country during Operation Alba. Albania did not fully recover from this crisis, and in 2006 continued to be the poorest country in Europe.
Republic of Macedonia
The transition of the other countries from the western Balkans was marked by the wars of Yugoslav dissolution. Unlike the other republics of former Yugoslavia, however, Macedonia succeeded to gain its independence peacefully after a referendum on September 8, 1991. The country’s transition, however, was hampered by the embargo on former Yugoslavia imposed by the international community.
At the same time the country faced an embargo from Greece, which refused to recognize the country by its constitutional name and continued to refer to it as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Concurrently the existence of the Macedonian nation and language was challenged by Bulgaria. Furthermore the ecumenical independence of the Macedonian Orthodox Church continued to be challenged by the Serbian Orthodox Church.
None of these challenges threatened the existence of the Macedonian state as much as the tension caused by the conflict with the substantial Albanian minority in the country. In the wake of the Kosovo conflict the nearly 25 percent of Albanians living in Macedonia demanded greater recognition of their cultural and political rights. This led to violence during 2001.
The conflict was settled under pressure from the international community with the signing of the Ohrid Peace Accords in August 2001. As a result of the implementation of these accords the EU recognized Macedonia as a candidate country in December 2005. It became a member of NATO’s Partnership for Peace program in 1995.
The beginning of the democratic transition in Croatia is usually dated to the electoral victory of the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) in the first multiparty elections in April 1990. The vote for the HDZ, led by Franjo Tudjman, was also a vote for independence from Yugoslavia.
The subsequent Homeland War lasted until 1995 and witnessed the territorial consolidation of the country and the exodus of the Serbian minority, as well as the military involvement of Croatia in the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The authoritarian rule of President Tudjman, which lasted until his death in 1999, was characterized by nepotism, criminal privatization, and subversion of constitutional practices.
It was only after the parliamentary and presidential elections in 2000 that Croatia began affiliating itself with European institutions. On May 25, 2000, it became a member of NATO’s Partnership for Peace program. In terms of its relations with the EU, Croatia was the most advanced country from the subregion of the western Balkans. On November 13, 2005, it began its accession negotiations, which were the final stage in gaining membership to the Brussels-based bloc.
The development of Bosnia-Herzegovina after 1991 was marked by war, which ravaged the country until 1995. During this time, over 250,000 people lost their lives and many more were either internally displaced or fled the country altogether.
After the signing of the General Framework Agreement for Peace (Dayton Accords) in 1995, Bosnia-Herzegovina became a virtual protectorate of the international community with a rotating presidency between the representatives of the three dominant ethnic groups—Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs.
|Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, nowdays|
However, decision-making in the country was overseen by a High Representative of the International Community, who could intervene in the domestic affairs of the state and remove elected officials. Bosnia-Herzegovina gradually overcame the division between the three ethnic communities and progressed with the consolidation of its statehood.
Serbia and Montenegro
Until the Kosovo crisis of 1999, the political process in Serbia and Montenegro was driven by the extreme nationalism propagated by Slobodan Miloševic´, which fuelled the breakup of Yugoslavia. As a result Serbia and Montenegro were involved in several wars and subjected to international sanctions.
Miloševic´’s ouster during the elections of 2000 and his subsequent arrest and transfer to the International Criminal Court for the former Yugoslavia in 2001 seemed to suggest that the country was distancing itself from the policies of the 1990s. However the murder of the reformist Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic on March 12, 2003, reflected the continuing legacy of the wars.
Montenegro held a referendum on its independence in May 2006 where its citizens voted to become an independent nation. Montenegro declared its independence on June 3, 2006, followed by Serbia’s declaration of independence on June 5, 2006. A further complication was the status of Kosovo, which after the 1999 conflict remained a protectorate of the UN, although still formally a province of Serbia.
In 2006 representatives of the international community, the Serbs, and the Kosovar Albanians conducted talks however, on the status of the province. The talk yielded little progress, as the Kosovo citizens favored independence, which was formally declared in February 2008, despite Serbia’s objectives.