Despite growing political interference and a substantial presence of money from questionable sources, some investors see Serbia – and especially its capital, Belgrade – as an exciting opportunity to create value. Combined with the fact that political interference and opaque transactions are distorting the real-estate market and creating further problems with the rule of law, a key obstacle to Serbia’s path towards EU membership, the country’s real estate market ostensibly offers a golden cage to foreign investors. In other words, opportunities about, but there is a risk associated with any change in political elite personality or priorities.
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.
Political fluidity in Macedonia, largely tide to the question of the country’s name and Greece vetoing EU and NATO accession until resolution is found, is facilitating the rise of politically exposed private sector interests. Whilst it is still in government, individuals tied to and associated with senior ruling SDSM figures are isolating ways to secure personal financial benefit before there is a change in the status quo.
Opportunities for growth are increasingly being stymied in the Western Balkans because of the growth of informal political influence (ostensibly through the rise of illiberal regimes), and an evolving notion of corruption. No longer is the main concern focused on influencers that ‘buy’ access to privilege; but more so on concerns that ‘legitimately’ elected leaders are presiding over the capture of state institutions and a massive redistribution of wealth.
Romania has been the target of public allegations suggesting that members of the government have illicitly benefited from EU funds through opaque schemes involving county councils and the Ministry of European Funds. Recent developments have further reinforced these concerns - often driven by the opacity that surrounds the distribution of EU funding.
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Authoritarianism, corruption, human rights violations, and political repression are elements that characterise political trends in Emerging Europe over the next year. Indeed, countries in the region will continue to move away from democratic reforms, while their ruling elite continue to secure their political power by leveraging informal mechanisms of influence.
The Balkan region is witnessing changes within state structures. These changes are empowering the ruling elite; and, ultimately, affecting the informal mechanisms used by the government to suppress oppositional voices. As evidenced in Serbia as an illustrative case, violence is steadily being substituted by subtle intimidation methods, previously legalised under the hope of EU accession, and utilised so as not to negatively impact their international image.
The use of state-sponsored criminal groups is not historically exclusive to Turkey’s ruling AKP, as evident in news that illicit organisations have publically pledged loyalty to President Erdoğan. As a result, elements within Turkey’s ruling political elite can utilise these groups to protect their political interests, further jeopardising political stability.
Central Asia has acted as a region through which Turkey has sought to channel its soft power, namely through the Gülen Movement. However, because of the AKP-Gülen split, Turkey’s involvement in Central Asia is in decline.
A sudden schism between Serbia’s President and Prime Minister may turn regular presidential elections into a high-stakes political drama whose outcome will determine the fate of Aleksandar Vučić as the country’s undisputed ruler. It may also carry a signature of Russia’s subtle, but masterful, meddling.
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Public enterprises represent a large part of the Serbian economy, and a vital instrument of informal power in the hands of political elite. Amongst other things, it has been used to instil and reward loyalty among officials and apparatchiks.
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Investors to Turkey should be aware that the domestic environment is increasingly prone to political risk, with a definite shift towards crony-patronage.