The way forward

The way forward



Lenard Cohen and John Lampe, two veteran scholars of Yugoslav matters, look at the western Balkans and ask to what extent the seven countries of the region – the former Yugoslavia, minus Slovenia, plus Albania – have become firmly democratic. Amid the doom and gloom that often seems to be endemic to the region, their answer may be surprising: democracy, they write, has become the “only game in town”.

Cohen and Lampe acknowledge – albeit perhaps with less candour than necessary – serious problems with state legitimacy, above all in Kosovo and in Bosnia, and deep political polarisation in Albania and Macedonia. The democracies of the region remain weak in terms of state capacity and elite accountability, they write.

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The legacy of communism, of warfare and trade sanctions, and of pervasive economic mismanagement and corruption, is holding back growth. But, the authors write, state institutions across the region have shown sufficient “infrastructural strength and political legitimacy” to preserve democracy, even during the economic downturn.

“The general de-radicalisation of political life in the region helped its regimes face the economic crisis with considerable political maturity,” they write.

Dangerous territory

This is a huge achievement, and it is real. Not even the recent return to power in Serbia of Tomislav Nikolic, Ivica Dacic and Aleksandar Vucic, close allies of the late Slobodan Miloševic, has raised fears that democracy might be in danger. Much of that has to do with the credible offer of eventual membership of the European Union, first extended in 1999.

“Embracing democracy in the western Balkans” is an extremely useful survey of developments in the seven countries of the region since that year. It is inevitable that an endeavour of such scope would be weaker on some matters than on others.

Albania, which experienced the harshest communist rule of the lot and whose transition has been especially troubled, occasionally appears to be a bit of an afterthought in the book.

Fact File

Embracing democracy in the western Balkans: from post-conflict struggles to European integration

By Lenard Cohen and John Lampe(540 pages)

Johns Hopkins University Press, €26


Cohen and Lampe are strong on economic issues, but their insistence that the prospect of progress toward eventual membership of the EU helps maintain momentum for reform rings hollow when viewed against the experiences of Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia.

Toby Vogel