Coronavirus is Not the Only Disease Afflicting the Balkans

Finding a cure to the current pandemic sweeping the Western Balkans – and the world – may well be easier than purifying the region of the malign influence of its political class.

The fall of Albin Kurti’s government in Kosovo was not the product of the COVID-19 pandemic, contrary to a spate of Western media reports.

In fact, little of what has occurred within the past few weeks in Western Balkan politics has been caused by the pandemic.

Instead, pre-existing political conditions have mutated, developed and evolved in the context of a uniquely opportune moment in world history – at least from the perspective of the Balkans’ enterprising political elites.

Consider the President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vucic, and his March 15 press conference, which made headlines all over the world for his bombastic eulogy of “European solidarity” and subsequent, saccharine pronunciation of “Serbian-Chinese friendship”.

Vucic was hardly a liberal, democratic, pro-European figure to begin with, so pronouncements about the demise of European solidarity from a man who spent most of the 1990s and 2000s in the ranks of the Serbian ultra-nationalist movement, and who was Slobodan Milosevic’s Minister of Information, should be taken with a moose-sized saltlick.

Moreover, Vucic’s adoration for the Chinese Communist Party hardly originated with the onset of the novel coronavirus. For years, his government has been one of the premier destinations in Europe for Chinese investment, surveillance technology, and arms.

In other words, Vucic was engaging in political theatre. He was rubbing the EU’s face in its struggle to mount a coherent, joint effort to tackle the COVID19 pandemic – in Italy, more so than in Serbia – and so to portray ensuing EU aid monies as a major win for his own government.

And while he sold his own voters the myth that he had shamed the Europeans into making major financial concessions, he was simultaneously currying favour with his new benefactors in Beijing, who, incidentally, engaged in a bit of political theatre themselves by initially shipping (faulty, one assumes) medical equipment to Belgrade via the President’s personal jet.

To be clear, legitimate criticisms can be made of the EU’s response to the COVID-19 crisis, especially as concerns the situation in Italy. But one must distinguish between genuine critique and political opportunism.

And Vucic, like his counterpart in Kosovo, Hashim Thaci, is a political opportunist, and a morbidly cynical one at that. Because while Vucic was using the pandemic to score geopolitical points, President Thaci was settling domestic political scores with Prime Minister Kurti.

He even went so far as to urge Kosovo citizens and police to disregard Kurti’s government’s attempts to curb the spread of the infection via shelter-in-place provisions.

And then Thaci and his allies in the Kosovo Assembly toppled the Kurti government. They toppled a government that had been in office for barely two months, during a global pandemic. Why? Not because of Kurti’s response to the spread of the virus in Kosovo – a matter over which reasonable minds can disagree.

Kurti’s government was brought down because of Thaci’s ongoing effort, in tandem with Vucic and US Presidential Envoy Richard Grenell, to deliver a final Kosovo-Serbia deal that would see the two sides engage in a politically reckless “land swap”; a land swap almost certain to lead to renewed violence, amid a global pandemic. This is the extraordinary project, in an extraordinary time, into which Thaci put his energy and political capital.

None of this should be a surprise to long-time observers of the region, though; the true disease of the Western Balkans, for a generation or more, has been our sadistic political leaders, above all their unreformed chauvinism and venality.

In that sense, all that the coronavirus pandemic has changed in the Western Balkans is the momentary thematic backdrop and the scale for political manipulation. The real crisis here is human and political; it is the political class of the region that, for more than a quarter-century, has put its own machinations and profit above the welfare and dignity ordinary citizens.

Unfortunately, the record to date suggests we may find vaccines and cures for the coronavirus easier to muster than a popular response to this habitual political malpractice. At least in the short term.

These are dark days, in so many ways, and so many of us are isolated from each other, physically, emotionally, socially. But just now might be the time to reflect on the incredible pent-up energy coursing through this region – and to plan for how we might all put it to constructive use when we return from this period of collective quarantine.

In Pristina a few nights ago, thousands of citizens banged pots and pans from their windows and balconies in symbolic opposition to the toppling of the Kurti government. That was a powerful act of defiance at a time when the public square is literally unavailable, and death surrounds us.

But the square and the streets will be available again – even if the world to come initially seems starkly alien to many.

What will remain for years to come, unless it is acted against, is the self-serving audacity of the Western Balkan political class. It is from their malign influence that the region must be sterilized and purified; and it is their stubborn refusal to fade away into the darkest recesses of our collective history which we must guard against. Especially when – as Kurti and his supporters did – one occasionally delivers a blow against their interests.

We must make our peace, for the moment, with hunkering down, and allowing the health care professionals and scientists to work on our behalf, to find a solution to the pandemic.

But the political and social future of the Western Balkans is not the responsibility of an expert class. It is the responsibility of everyday women and men all over the region, acting collectively to rid ourselves of the disease of kakistocracy.

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