Deep gratitude and bitter disappointment
„We will never forget how she helped us. I remind you that a woman is coming to us representing a country that is our biggest trading partner and most important investor.”
In the run-up to her trip the German Chancellor was showered with effusive praise by Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić. The divided reactions to the outgoing Chancellor’s farewell trip to the Western Balkans illustrate both the strengths and weaknesses of her engagement in the region.
Not even the obligatory throng of journalists from Berlin travelled along. But at least among the EU candidates in the Western Balkans the two-day farewell visit of outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel this week caused a stir despite its rather symbolic significance.
For the last time, her interlocutors in Belgrade and Tirana sang the high praises of Merkel as the “locomotive of the EU”: no person has done more for the region since the Second World War than “the best leader in Germany”, Albania's Prime Minister Edi Rama assured the visitor, whom he decorated with a medal: “Without the German Chancellor, the Balkans will no longer be what it is.”
Welcome campaign aid
In addition, Serbia’s Father of the Nation revealed wistfulness and even fear of loss: Merkel was an „authority to whom we all felt obliged and responsible“. And further: „I am a little afraid of what is coming: Who will now call us from Europe and say that we need to build more roads instead of arguing with each other?”
Once again, an authoritarian understanding of politics was revealed in its purest form. And this includes: The national as well as the international public cannot be addressed in any other way than through intellectual underchallenge.
The president of the most populous country in the Western Balkans asks what is to become of the constantly bickering statesmen and women if the call of the clever and understanding governess, who now regretfully takes her leave, fails to materialise in the future? The fact that the author of this sentence, which supposedly expresses „a little fear“, does not believe what he is saying himself, and that the whole thing should be read as part of a communication strategy embedded in authoritarian structures, does not make the situation any better, on the contrary. It remains surprising that the German Chancellor – otherwise not very receptive to such exaggerations and charm offensives – played along with this game for a long time, even helping to organise it, and even fed it:
She had come to know the Serbian president as a person who tries to put promises into practice.
This was an advantage that was immediately exploited - in an abbreviated and pointed manner.
According to Serbia’s Finance Minister Sinisa Mali, the most important thing was that Merkel emphasised that Vučić “fulfils his promises”. This was “a great message that testifies to the prestige of our president, to the prestige of Serbia.
This phrase will certainly be heard more often in the upcoming election campaign – after all, presidential, parliamentary and local elections in Belgrade are scheduled for April 2022. Not that a new election victory for the incumbent president and his Progressive Party would be seriously in question without the help of the German chancellor. But this visit also provided him with international backing that can hardly be overestimated, with all the symbolic consecrations that go with it.
Disappointment among the opposition
Merkel’s farewell visit, on the other hand, has triggered deep disappointment, bitterness and anger among opposition members, civil rights activists and independent media. Their accusation: with her uncritical courting of authoritarian rulers like President Vučić, Merkel has weakened the democratic forces in the region and encouraged authoritarian tendencies.
The Chancellor had supported Vučić „all along“, Dragan Djilas, leader of the opposition SSP, was annoyed: „Now that Merkel is leaving politics, it would be decent for her to take him back.” The government-critical newspaper „Nova” sounded a similar note, seeing Merkel’s „legacy” in the „stabilocracy” and decreased support for the EU. The state of democracy had never been Merkel’s focus: „Goodbye Angela and please take Vučić with you.”
Merkel had „not said a word“ about the „catastrophic state“ of press freedom, the rule of law, the „criminalisation“ and increasing tensions in the region, Serbia’s ex-president Boris Tadić regretted: for in doing so she would have to admit that she had been “dramatically mistaken” about Vučić. Meanwhile, Željko Komšić, the Croatian member of Bosnia’s three-member presidency, said in Sarajevo that it was a „bad signal” that Merkel had “gone to Vučić again to support him”: “Serbia cannot be the boss in the Balkans. All states must receive the same treatment.”
The fact that she sought an exchange with every dignitary can hardly be blamed on the political realist. But analysts like the political scientist Florian Bieber from Graz also attest to a lack of strategic vision in her Western Balkans policy. Instead, Merkel has relied on short-term tactics and pragmatic interests. At the same time, the lack of clearer criticism from Berlin has „weakened democracy in the region”.
Indeed, Merkel’s last trip to the Balkans once again demonstrated the limits of her strenuous but conspicuously unproductive commitment to EU enlargement. In her 16 years in office, only Croatia has managed to join the EU in 2013. How many more years the candidate states Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, Northern Macedonia and Serbia will have to wait in the EU waiting room is now completely uncertain. The starting position seems worse today than when she took office in 2005. Merkel spoke of „still a long way to go” during her trip.
In fact, EU enlargement has become hopelessly deadlocked, which is of course not least due to the lack of political will for far-reaching constitutional reforms by the authoritarian rulers. It is not the fault of the EU that no further chapter could be opened in the accession negotiations with Serbia for years.
Hope for a restart
Those who had hoped for frank words and a vision for effectively accelerating the accession marathon from the German Chancellor at the farewell were also disappointed. The exchange of diplomatic pleasantries was accompanied by cautious exhortations for further reforms and a little praise for supposedly achieved „results“ through the „Berlin Process“ she launched in 2014. Merkel rightly reiterated the geostrategic importance of EU enlargement. But the lover of small diplomatic steps was again unable to present anything like an effective strategy for its implementation.
Opposition politician Djilas accuses Merkel of being only interested in stability, but remaining silent on the „destruction“ of independent institutions and democracy in Serbia: He hopes that a new government in Berlin, as a supporter of enlargement, will take a “different approach”.
Any German chancellor would „continue to take an interest” in the Western Balkans, Merkel said, trying to allay her hosts’ fears of a weakening of Berlin’s commitment. But whether Merkel’s heirs in Berlin and Brussels stick to the current mode of accession or strive to develop preliminary stages or alternatives to the distant full membership, they are to be wished more realism, openness, consistency and creativity in dealing with the aspirants.