Several countries in the Balkans have seen intense anti-government protest movements in recent months, exacerbating nationalist sentiments and political tensions.
In Albania, protesters are calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Edi Rama amid perceptions of systemic corruption. Snap elections would likely see Rama retain power, leading to a period of intense opposition protests.
Montenegro’s President was the subject of anti-corruption protests. A period of resisting protester demands will culminate in early elections, which he will likely win.
In North Macedonia, the opposition VMRO-DPMNE party are expected to rekindle protests surrounding the naming agreement with Greece. Disputes over the election of the President are liable to be the key motivator.
Serbia’s President is liable to heed protesters’ demands and call for early elections. Vucic’s continued support from non-urban voters will preserve the ruling party’s status in government
During the course of 2018-19, several countries in the Balkans experienced anti-government protests stemming from issues including corruption, media manipulation, and territorial disputes. Protest movements remain ongoing in urban centers of Albania, Montenegro, and Serbia by both newly created organizations and established political parties, while demonstrations surrounding the name deal with Greece have temporarily abated in Macedonia as of the beginning of 2019. Protests have witnessed instances of unrest and violence, including clashes between protesters and police in capital cities and major urban centers.
Regionwide protest movements could lead to rekindling of nationalistic sentiment and exacerbate ethnic tensions
The protest movements throughout the Balkans are liable to lead to a rekindling of nationalist sentiments spurred by disaffection to systemic corruption and a lack of economic prosperity. Factions in each country seek to remove governments with the support of protest movements, and movement leaders have widely adopted nationalist stances to garner support for the changes in government. The various protest movements and leaders have promised to guarantee better governance and have capitalized on the existing nationalist tendencies. The rise in nationalist sentiments could see a shift in voting patterns with traditionally center-right to right-wing parties gathering traction and support by moving further to the right, particularly on issues of ethnonationalism.
The increasing influence of nationalism on political and government policies risks disrupting the already fragile coexistence of the multiple ethnicities within the region. Incumbent leaders are taking stronger stances on pre-existing issues, such as Serbian President Aleskander Vucic’s strategy in ongoing negotiations with Kosovo, which has included proposing a territorial exchange with Pristina and seeking to end the tariffs on Serbian goods through talks hosted by the EU. Vucic, in order to garner support from nationalist and right-wing elements, is liable to pursue a policy towards Pristina that does not include the possibility of recognition and call for the establishment of semi-autonomous ethnic Serb authority within Kosovan borders. The implications of the aggravation in Kosovo-Serbia relations could increase tensions between the Albanian diaspora in other nations, as well as other ethnicities. With this, a growth in the Albanian representation in North Macedonia and Montenegro has been recorded, as well as Bosnian and Hungarian parties in Serbia seeing an increase in support.
Initial protests against the Albanian government commenced in November 2018, when residents of the Astir neighborhood rallied against the construction of the Unaza e Madhe or Great Ring Road. Following the Great Ring protests, student organizations began staging mass demonstrations in Tirana and other urban centers. The protests called on the government to improve the education budget and the overall status of institutions in Albania, among other grievances.
Since February 2019, the main opposition party, Partia Demokratike e Shqiperise (PD) and other political entities have staged anti-government demonstrations in Tirana. The PD has called for Prime Minister Edi Rama of the Partia Socialiste e Shqiperise (PS) to resign and call for snap elections. Thousands continue to attend weekly protests in Tirana, which have seen widespread unrest with protesters targeting the PM’s office and parliament buildings. The PD accuses Rama’s cabinet of corruption and links to organized crime, as well as vote manipulation during the 2017 general election. All 65 opposition MPs vacated their parliamentary seats on February 18 in protest against Rama. The PD and other opposition parties have stated they intend to boycott the upcoming local elections if PM Rama refuses to step down.
Opposition demands for snap elections unlikely to translate into increase in political power
The protests are reflective of the perceived inability of the administration to reform the economy and tackle corruption, which remains a core public grievance and is often viewed as the chief hindrance to the country joining the EU. A continuation in the violence witnessed at political demonstrations could negatively impact potential negotiations with Brussels.
The increasing pressure on Rama caused by the protest movement and threatened resignation of President Ilir Meta, who has clashed with Rama in the past, indicate that a snap election is increasingly likely, possibly coinciding with the local elections in June. However, in light of the possible opposition boycott of the local elections, the PD and other parties could denounce such a decision and refuse to participate in any elections until Rama formally steps down, increasing the potential for an increase in political volatility at associated demonstrations.
Given that Rama’s PS gained 74 of 140 seats in Parliament in 2017 and that the protest movement has failed to gain sizeable traction outside Tirana, the PS could retain control of the parliament in snap elections. Rama’s victory would further elevate the discontent among the opposition, leading to large-scale protests, accusations of electoral fraud, and violence at protests.
Considering PD leader Luzlim Basha’s statements and the widespread discontent emanating from student organizations, residents of Tirana, and opposition members, protests are liable to continue in the near-to-medium term in Tirana. The protests could see an increased turnout if PM Rama refuses to engage in dialogue, call early elections, or put forth his resignation. Demonstrations will continue targeting government buildings and could witness further unrest. Further elevating the propensity for unrest are recurring accusations of corruption within Rama’s government, which have led to two senior ministers resigning since the protests began.
Since February, large-scale anti-government protests calling for the resignation of President Milo Djukanovic and his government have been recorded in Podgorica surrounding government buildings. The protests have included episodes of unrest, such as on March 16 when demonstrators launched projectiles at security forces who then proceeded to use tear gas and force to disperse the unruly gatherings.
Following the detention and subsequent release of an opposition leader in December 2018 which incited protests, a video was released in January showing Dusko Knezevic, a prominent businessman and former ally of Djukanovic, giving illicit campaign funding to a member of Djuaknovic’s Demokratska Partija Socijalista Crne Gore (DPS) party.
On March 30, leaders of the Odupri se protest movement and 39 Members of Parliament called for opposition parties to campaign together against the DPS should elections be called. A second anti-government protest movement supporting Knezevic was created under the banner of “Do Slobode” (To Freedom). The leaders of the Odupri se movement have continued to denounce Dusko Knezevic, who has attempted to set up his own political party. On May 9, the High Court in Podgorica convicted 14 individuals for their involvement in the October 2016 coup plot. Among the convicted are the leaders of opposition parties such as the Demokratska Narodna Partija (DNP) who are one of the chief protagonists of the ongoing anti-government protests.
Djukanovic liable to call snap elections; could see right-wing, Serb-interest parties making gains
The anti-incumbency sentiment towards Djukanovic, who has been in power for nearly 30 years, was exacerbated by corruption accusations and a failure to address the activities of criminal and drug trafficking organizations, who continue to operate in port cities and are known to conduct targeted killings.
Djukanovic’s denouncement of the protest movement will likely translate into a prolonged resistance by his administration to enact its demands which include the resignation of top officials and forming a transitional government to hold elections. With Djukanovic unlikely to acquiesce, a continuation of large-scale protests can be expected in the immediate term focusing on government buildings in Podgorica. Tensions with the opposition could be exacerbated by the conviction of opposition leaders for their involvement in the 2016 coup plot. Odupri se, whose leaders immediately denounced the conviction, will likely rally behind the DNP and other opposition leaders and seek to invoke perceptions of the persecution of opponents of President Djukanovic.
The unification of the Odupri se protest movement and leaders of the opposition is liable to increase pressure on Djukanovic to call snap elections. However, the emergence of the “Do Slobode” organization could see rival protests manifesting and scuffles among rival groups.
If snap elections are called, the DPS is liable to see a decrease in its overall seats but may still be able to form a governing coalition, while right-wing and pro-Serb interest parties stand to make gains. An increase in the political power afforded to Serb interest parties could result in further political polarization over future relations with the EU and neighboring countries, in particular, Serbia.
Beginning in 2018, anti-government demonstrations organized by the main opposition VMRO-DPMNE party and other nationalist organizations were witnessed in Skopje and other urban centers. The protests were incited by the Prespa Agreement with Greece, under which the country will legally change its name to the Republic of North Macedonia in exchange for the removal of Greek opposition to joining the EU and NATO.
Protesters denounced PM Zoran Zaev’s decision to resolve the long-standing dispute with Greece due to the multiple concessions during negotiations and perceptions of a change in the country’s national character. Clashes between protesters, mainly members of nationalist organizations, and police were reported surrounding the Parliament and other government buildings in Skopje.
The agreement was ratified by the North Macedonian parliament on January 11. Protests have temporarily abated as political attention has been focused on the Presidential elections. The first round on April 21 resulted in no clear winner, with both the VMRO-DPMNE and government-backed candidates garnering 42 percent of the vote. The second round of the elections on May 5 resulted in a victory for the ruling Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) candidate, Stevo Pendarovski with 51 percent of the total vote. VMRO-DPMNE officials immediately denounced the election results due to claims of voter manipulation.
Presidential elections highlight political polarization, protests expected to restart
Following the results of the Presidential elections and the possibility of both NATO and the EU calling for further concessions during membership negotiations, protests led by the VMRO-DPMNE could see a resurgence. Judging by VMRO-DPMNE officials immediately denouncing the election results, allegations of electoral fraud and corruption are liable to continue to be levied against Zaev’s administration. The VMRO-DPMNE will likely call on their supporters and members of nationalist organizations to stage demonstrations in urban centers, possibly motivated by President-elect Pendarovski’s approval of laws surrounding the name deal such as the changing of signs and constitutional amendments.
Instances of unrest stemming from nationalist organizations remain a distinct possibility going forward as nationalist elements have been galvanized by Zaev’s concessions during talks with Athens. Additionally, the VMRO-DPMNE could call for demonstrations if further party members are detained on allegations of corruption, as has occurred several times in recent years.
On December 8, 2018, the first anti-government protest was staged in Belgrade following an attack on the leader of the Levica Srbije party, Borko Stefanovic, in Krusevac, by unidentified assailants. The protests have continued and recorded crowds in the high thousands in Belgrade. The protest movement has manifested under the banner of “1od5Milliona” (One of Five million), which is a play on President Aleskander Vucic’s statement to the initial protest in which he said he would not compromise even if there were five million people in the street. The movement has spread to other major cities such as Nis and Novi Sad. Protesters are calling for the immediate resignation of President Aleskander Vucic of the ruling Srpska Napredna Stranka (SNS) party amid accusations of the manipulation of media and an increase in political violence.
On February 6, the opposition parties announced their intention to boycott parliament and proposed a manifesto containing reforms based on protesters’ demands. The protests were initially peaceful, however, on March 16 protesters attempted to enter the New Palace, the seat of the Presidency, as Vucic was inside, as well as the offices of the state broadcaster. Opposition leaders have reportedly given the government a May 4 deadline in order to heed their demands for widespread reforms.
President Vucic has stated that SNS officials are willing to call snap elections in order to gauge their popularity. On April 19, thousands convened in Belgrade for a pro-government rally.
Vucic to remain in power despite mass protest movement due to entrenched support and opposition disunity
Anti-government demonstrations in Belgrade and other urban centers are unlikely to abate unless President Aleskander Vucic accepts demands for widespread reforms or calls snap elections. Instances of unrest cannot be ruled out with protesters expected to gather at known focal points in Belgrade, such as the New Palace, the National Assembly, the public broadcaster’s office, and the University of Belgrade’s campus. Any allegations of media suppression or acts of political violence could incite larger turnouts and heighten the disaffection towards the Vucic.
If Vucic does not adequately respond to protesters demands following the May 4 deadline, demonstrations are liable to increase in both frequency and size. This increased pressure could lead Vucic to instruct Prime Minister Ana Brnabic to dissolve the government and call snap elections. As with protests against Vucic in 2017, which arose due to accusations of voter and media manipulation, the current wave of protests may lead to little substantial change and are liable to eventually be discontinued.
Judging by Presidential elections in 2017, where Vucic secured 53 percent of the total vote, and the relatively smaller attendance at anti-government demonstrations outside Belgrade, the SNS would likely maintain their sizeable majority in parliament in snap elections. In such a scenario, political instability could arise from protest groups refusing to accept the results and accusing Vucic of manipulating results.