The energy sector in the Western Balkans has increasingly fallen under the influence of the local political elite, and external actors – particularly Russia. This environment has stifled the prospect of the sector evolving or diversifying away from fossil fuels; and embedded a culture of business built primarily on unfair market conditions and various nuanced forms of informal state capture.
Recent changes to Serbia’s Law on Security and Intelligence Agency have given the director broad discretionary powers; similar powers have also been given to the Interior Minister. Notably the Director of the BIA and the Interior Minister are loyal apparatchiks of President Vucic. As a result of these legislative changes, there are indications that President Vucic is close to completing his creation of a de facto party-state. As autocratic rule grows in Serbia, the rule of law and freedom of speech continue to erode; with significant implications for democracy and political stability.
Russia has built a relatively strong financial footprint in the Western Balkans, with investments particularly concentrated in a few sectors. As a further display of Russian ‘commercial diplomacy’, Kremlin-approved pseudo-private companies ostensibly operate as tools of informal political influence. In some cases, it is beginning to work, guiding countries in the region towards kleptocracy and state capture.
A failed Kurdish peace process, and the power struggle with the Gülen Movement, have forced President Erdoğan to secure new political allies. Ironically, Erdoğan has found support from the very (informal) ultra-nationalist groups that he had purged less than a decade ago. With this emerging alliance, Erdoğan is further darkening Turkey’s security apparatus increasing the chances of human rights violations and power abuse for the security forces.
Bulgaria’s Prime Minister, Boyko Borissov, has spearheaded recent legal reforms aimed at fighting public and private sector corruption. These reforms include the creation of a new anti-corruption unit with the remit to wiretap senior state officials. Although these efforts appear positive in their aims; given the trajectory of Borisov’s own political influence, there are concerns that a new anti-corruption unit with significant powers could be utilised against opposition groups, whilst further placing the private sector and judiciary under his influence.
Driven by a religious ethos, government-linked foundations operate under low levels of accountability, a factor that has allegedly exposed some of them to questionable activities carried out by government officials. In addition to becoming embroiled in allegations of corruption, Turkey’s charities have also used been utilised as a resource distribution tool; more specifically, as a place where government loyalists are rewarded with employment.
Liviu Dragnea has started a public campaign of defamation against anti-corruption institutions that have accused him of leading a criminal organisation. To legitimise his position, Dragnea is using autocratic methods, whereas he is the protector of the national interests empowering him to manipulate the judiciary and security systems.
The formation of a 4-party coalition in Northern Cyprus aspires to limit Ankara’s influence over TRNC’s political affairs. Despite having the political will, there are major regional political dynamics that might undermine the autonomy of the 4-party coalition; particularly the reality that Ankara has already demonstrated its capacity to use informal mechanisms to alter political behaviour in Northern Cyprus.
China’s grandiose infrastructure project, the One Belt One Road Initiative (OBOR), has begun to take root in the Balkans, with regional states increasingly looking to jockey for the position of China’s most reliable regional partner. As Chinese investment takes shape, there are indications that the region will continue to slip into an illiberal democracy more akin to today’s Turkey and Russia; with potentially larger repercussions for Western investment.
A complex network of influence has been developed since the early 2000s between the Turkish central government and AKP-controlled municipalities. These opaque power structures have allowed charities linked to the ruling elite to freely operate in these municipalities, essentially operating as informal social co-optation tools used by the government.
There are concerns that a series of reforms that reduce the independence of the Romanian judiciary will impact how international and non-politically exposed commercial players are able to compete in the market. If these reforms are passed, they have the ability to set the stage for the implementation of a de facto system of crony capitalism; a system that would ultimately serve the interests of the political and economic interests of Liviu Dragnea.
Last month, the Serbian Government and France’s Vinci finalised the agreement that will put Belgrade airport in the hands of one of the world’s largest construction and concessions companies. It is reported that Vinci will pay €500 million in concession fees, and invest another €732 million over the next 25 years.