Interview 08 Feb 13

The Balkans Face Unique Challenges in Europe

Questions of democratic development are more complex in the Western Balkans than elsewhere in Eastern Europe.


Nadia Diuk has been Vice President of the National Endowment for Democracy for nine years and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has published books and articles on the Soviet bloc and developed programmes in Eastern Europe since the 1990s. She was recently in Prishtina to open a summit of more 200 young people from all over the world.

Q: You have been developing programs in Eastern Europe since the 1990s and are back in the Balkans. What challenges face the Western Balkans compared to the rest of Eastern Europe?

A: The Western Balkans is very complex. In Central and Eastern Europe we discovered what we thought was the norm for moving from an authoritarian or Communist system to democracy. It worked more or less for the countries of Northern Europe, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary. We thought it was going to work that way anywhere else, but it turns out that was the exception. The Western Balkans has shown that the question of democracy is more complex. In the Western Balkans many countries still face the challenge of joining the European Union, which was an easy path for the northern countries.

We discovered in the Western Balkans that supporting democracy is not just a matter of reforming the government, allowing people to vote, and allowing people lead the country. There are many more complex societal influences, such as rising nationalism, and the overbearing influence of the Church in some cases; the Western Balkans is not in a unique situation in the world but it is in a unique situation in Europe. Many of the countries are still in sort of post-conflict period where the wounds of war are still present.

Q: Some international commentator have blamed the Western Balkan problems on ‘ancient hatreds’, some speak of an Ottoman influence, explaining why we cannot seem to get institutions to deliver. What are these combinations of complexities when you speak of Balkans as complex?

A: I don’t believe in the notion of ancient hatred. Often it’s used as an excuse for not making progress on tolerance, pluralism and moving forward. At the same time, Yugoslavia was one state and contained several nations, which was not the case in Northern Europe. In Czechoslovakia, which was mainly two major nations, they decided to peacefully divorce so that they could have more or less their own national group within the state. But they were in the early days of being independent, in the way of being independent from the Soviet bloc.

Yugoslavia had more of a challenge because it was run as a unitary state, although it was nominally republics, and those issues are more difficult to resolve. The Soviet Union faced similar challenges and in 1991 the Soviet Union dissolved. There were more or less peaceful relations between the nations that emerged out of the Soviet Union. But those nations were fairly well apart from each other territorially, whereas in the Balkans everyone is so close and intermixed and it turns out to be very easy to persuade people that they have historical animosities dating generations back.

It is almost like one of those advent calendars. You know you have those windows and you close some of them that are the good tolerant parts and you open the ones where nasty things happened and people look back and they see only the bad things. It makes it easy for radical extremist politicians to get people to support them and to take them into a direction that is not good for citizenship and promoting a peaceful future.

Q: So, what is there to look forward to in terms of progress?

A: Well, I am here for the second youth summit organized by the Youth Initiative for Human Rights where there are many young people coming together not only from Balkan countries but also from Africa, Venezuela and Pakistan. These are young people. The idea is to get young people together to have them start living the life that they want to see in their own countries in future because the future lies in the hands of the young people.

I took a look at the median age in Kosovo. The median age is 27 here, which is quite young. That means half of your population is under 27, so that half of the population, much of it doesn’t really quite remember all of the war and the atrocities that happened. They will have to carry that forward with them but the future is for them and they need to start thinking and acting as to how they want to see Kosovo be in the future, in 20 or 30 years’ time.

Q: How long will you keep your interest in the Balkans?

A: For the moment there are no ideas to move out. We are in direct contact with many civic groups that are working on some of these issues, who want to see all the countries move forward in terms of democracy and hopefully be in the EU. So we are not planning on cutting back, graduating or moving back any time soon. Where we see that there are needs, and where there are people who are doing good work that makes a differences we will be there.

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