Readers of the website can preview here the introductory paper for Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso's international yearly conference "The long-lasting '89". Trento, November 13th -14th

13/11/2009 -  Anonymous User


In Europe, the year 1989 was a historical transition that stood for the promise of lasting peace after the Cold War decades, emancipation from authoritarianism through the establishment of democratic regimes, and, with the fall of the Iron Curtain, the reunification of the continent.

For the Balkans and the Caucasus, this process of transformation is still ongoing: 1989 is long-lasting because its promises are yet unfulfilled and the hopes of that year are at risk of fading away in the prolonged, wearing transition. Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Osservatorio focuses on two decades of change and contradictions (1).
In South-East Europe and the Caucasus, these twenty years have been marked by institutional crises, armed conflicts, and a dramatic process of state fragmentation. Nevertheless, it would be negligent to overlook substantial improvements in living standards and political, social, and economic conditions.

On the other hand, the European Union's redefinition of politics and identity in the new, post-Cold War landscape is a process marked by ambivalence. Two contrasting notions of the EU remain unresolved: one is inspired by the project of a federal Europe, the other calls for economic alliances between States jealously guarding their national sovereignty. Despite ambitious enlargement to the South and East, as well as efforts at internal institutionalization, the European political project has progressively weakened and, today, the EU is struggling with its political responsibilities both within and beyond its borders.

Against this backdrop of lights and shadows, we seek to reflect on what has been hampering the reunification of the continent. Here, we will be discussing the radical changes of the last two decades and the possibility of the European political project regaining its momentum.

After the Wall, the War

The end of the Cold War's ideological opposition was accompanied by the initial illusion of a linear path from communism to democracy that underestimated the complexity of the transition processes. During the nineties, it became more and more apparent that the outcomes of democratisation processes were connected to pre-existing conditions from before the fall of communist regimes and that transition trends varied significantly between countries.

In central Europe, the experience of organised dissident movements and popular uprisings encouraged pacifistic transformations that marked a clear break with the past, the start of the democratisation process, and swifter European integration.

In contrast, the Balkans and the Caucasus, for different reasons, have not followed the same path as the rest of the post-communist region. From Yugoslavia's relatively liberal system and Albania and Romania's repressive regimes to the sclerotic organism of the Soviet Union, these regions lacked a democratic opposition that could have offered an alternative to the communist nomenclature and led the countries to democracy. The unsuccessful turnover of political elites ensured a continuity with the past. Former communist elites repositioned themselves politically and took the lead in the transition process, virtually preventing society from processing its authoritarian past and from forming a solid democratic conscience.

Even where armed conflicts did not take place, such as in Romania and Bulgaria, an early phase of political turmoil characterised the journey to democracy. In the former, the transition started with an explosion of violence that resulted in thousands of deaths and the execution of conducator Ceauşescu. In Bulgaria, a round-table was created for the communist elite to negotiate reforms with the opposition, yet attempts at reform proved weak, late, and ineffective. What followed was a period of political instability marked by three parliamentarian elections in four years. Nevertheless, the democratisation process in both countries experienced new momentum in the mid-nineties when local elites invested in EU membership and avoided turning toward the violent authoritarianism that consumed other South-Eastern European and Caucasian countries.

But elsewhere, institutional crises, nationalism, and wars blocked the start of economic and political reforms. In these cases, what, in the late-eighties, appeared to be the beginning of an age of peace actually became violent implosion. In Albania, the end of one of the harshest communist regimes led to a chaotic, sometimes violent, period characterised by an institutional vacuum, economic collapse, and mass migration. In Yugoslavia, where nation-building was emphasized over democracy-building, nationalist forces occupied the political space and mobilised public opinion by channelling widespread social discontent caused by the economic crisis of the eighties. By fuelling deep-seated feelings of fear, these forces further legitimized nationalist policies. In the new states born from the dissolution of the socialist federation, nationalist policies long prevented the establishment of democratic institutions.

Opposition to the communist regime was dominated by nationalist and independence movements in the Caucasus as well. As in Yugoslavia, these forces stirred ethnic and territorial conflicts that cost thousands of lives, caused the forced migration of over a million people, and led to state fragmentation. The Chechen wars are the best-known example in the Caucasus, but it is important to mention that violence exploded in the early nineties in Azerbaijan where a war marked by ethnic cleansing led to Nagorno Karabakh's de facto independence from Baku. Analogously, the conflict between Georgia and Russia started in the early nineties when Abkhazia and South Ossetia obtained de facto independence. These regions were acknowledged by Russia only after the Russian-Georgian War of Summer 2008. For the leaders that rose to power during the early nineties, state weakness and fragmentation were among the crucial challenges in the struggle toward reform.

In the Caucasus as well as in the Balkans, once the door to nationalism was opened, several countries found themselves trapped in a spiral of violence. The aspiration to create small homelands or greater nations stirred ethnic conflicts that ended up blocking both political and economic reforms and the formation of democratic political culture.

Ten years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, democratic institutions in many of these countries remained yet to be built and wars had added ruins to the already difficult challenges of transition. In the Balkans, the presence of the European Union has supported the post-conflict recovery and, albeit in a late and contradictory fashion, influenced the democratisation process over the course of the last decade. The same cannot be said of the Caucasus where such an international presence has been marginal.

Change and fragility

Twenty years after 1989, both the Balkans and the Caucasus have established political systems with the formal requisites of democracy. In many cases, however, a widespread civic conscience is still lacking and, especially in the Caucasus, elements of authoritarianism are still present.
The political systems established in the two regions are, for the most part, underdeveloped, dysfunctional democracies with low levels of institutionalisation, weak rule of law, and a still-marginal role for civil society. Furthermore, in some cases, the independence obtained following state fragmentation processes was not matched by authentic sovereignty - let us think of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, or the de facto states of the Caucasus.

The current economic structure taking shape in the transition to the market economy is not exempt from fragility either. The fall of communist regimes had been accompanied by widespread expectations for better standards of living and a way out of the deprivation of the socialist economy. In the collective imagination, the free market and the free circulation of goods would lead to widespread wealth. Thus, in the early years of transition, liberal reforms and privatisations found wide social consensus in spite of the erosion of the welfare state.

Over time, the disillusion of such expectations in large sectors of the population, together with increasing inequalities in the distribution of wealth, sometimes led to nostalgic, idealised re-visitations of the past, especially by those generations that had directly experienced the shocking transformations of the economic system. In addition, the consequences of the war economy, privatisations marked by high levels of corruption, and the deregulation of the production system have often further complicated the painful transition from the planned economy to the market economy.

Despite undeniable weaknesses, visible progress has been made in the democratisation of institutions and society in many countries. While Romania, Bulgaria, and Slovenia have had such developments acknowledged with EU membership, the rest of the region has been showing positive signs as well.

In the Western Balkans, the risk of large-scale military conflicts can be considered averted. Stabilising factors certainly include significant democratic progress in both society and institutions, as well as external conditions like an international presence and aspirations to European integration. Yet, one cannot overlook the fact that the reduced risk of violent ethnic clashes is due to the formation of ethnically quasi-homogeneous states following the tragically successful nationalist policies of the early nineties.

In the Caucasus, on the other hand, the risk of war is still present, as evidenced by the all but reassuring increase in military spending that has dominated the whole region in recent years. Only a year ago, the conflict between Georgia and Russia, following increasing tensions over South Ossetia and Abkhazia, led to hundreds of mortalities, episodes of ethnic cleansing, and tens of thousands of new refugees. War rhetoric remains highly present in the political debate in Azerbaijan where it often evokes the possible military reconquering of Nagorno Karabakh, a de facto independent region mostly inhabited by ethnic Armenians.

In many Balkan countries, although nationalist rhetoric and violence have been quelled over the years, the public space is still strongly conditioned by extremist groups, often sporting violent behaviours against ethnic and other minorities. Currently, one of the most serious concerns in this regard includes the persistent intolerance of sexual minorities, who are often forced into invisibility in order to escape discrimination and violence. In a clear demonstration of just how much extremists are still able to control institutions, the Belgrade Pride march that had been planned for 20 September, 2009 was called off following threats from religious and nationalist groups. Threats and clashes have also plagued the Sofia Pride event, highlighting how EU membership does not automatically guarantee tolerance and inclusion.

In the long, complex process of change undertaken by the Balkans and the Caucasus over the last two decades, civil society, though it remains fragile, elitist, and largely dependent on external support, has played a significant role. For example, some non-governmental organisations in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, and Croatia have assumed an active role in the democratic development of the former-Yugoslav states. Their work encouraged examination of the tragedies of the nineties, supported the spread of civic consciousness, and contributed, to some extent, to inter-ethnic reconciliation.

Analogously, some organisations in the Caucasus deal with human rights issues in the post-Soviet space, addressing the abuses and violence perpetrated since the wars of the early nineties. It should be noted, however, that such voices still struggle to be heard in the public realm. Even in Romania and Bulgaria, despite these countries' progress and EU membership, civil society has had trouble becoming a critical mass and asserting itself as an interlocutor for institutions.

The realm of mass media, for example, is a good litmus test for the changes of the last twenty years. In the former Yugoslavia, newspapers, radio stations, and TV networks, controlled by nationalist elites in the late eighties and during the wars, channelled the regimes' ideologies to stir hate and fuel war. At the same time, independent media (2) resisted the political and cultural degeneration that accompanied nationalism. Even though many media outlets survived the repression of the nationalist regimes they opposed, some of these media outlets are currently being forced to close down. Their target audience is quantitatively marginal, preventing them from competing with more politically neutral media. Unfortunately, the situation is not rosy in the EU countries either. In Bulgaria, for example, journalists have been threatened and killed and the degree of autonomy of many media outlets seems limited.

In the Caucasus, authorities exert direct pressure on important TV channels (3) or alternative sources of information (4) in an attempt to influence or change their editorial viewpoints and sometimes even deny them frequencies in order to shut them down. The situation is even more problematic in the northern Caucasus where pressure ends in violence and journalists like Anna Politkovskaja pay for their professional commitments with their lives.

Even though Balkan societies are gradually developing antibodies to authoritarian, repressive temptations, in the Caucasus, the path towards the rule of law is all but linear. Here, the nineties and the former regimes have left an heritage of endemic corruption, weak trade unions, fragile judiciary systems, and dangerous links between crime and politics.

Which Europe?

The twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall is accompanied by celebrations as well as bitter reflections on lost chances. The “return to Europe” of the Eastern part of the continent is not yet completed, and the European political project seems to have come to a halt. According to Rada Iveković, with 1989 “Europe had a historic opportunity to become stronger, but did not use it. The time of a strong European presence at the international level has obviously still not come” (5).

It is important not to underestimate the achievements of the 2004 and 2007 enlargements, as well as the crucial introduction of a single currency and the opening of many borders between member states. Today's Europe, engaged in the ratification of the constitutional Treaty of Lisbon, is composed of states that jealously cling to their national prerogatives. The ideological momentum for reunification and the aspiration for a “common European home”, called for by Michail Gorbačëv, have been weakened by a struggle with “enlargement fatigue”. In addition, fears of a wider, less safe Europe have transformed the Schengen zone from a common space into a new wall.

It is our hope that the issue of visa liberalisation being discussed these days by the European Parliament will soon find wide consensus and new potential. Over the years, mobility restrictions for Western Balkan citizens have ended up further isolating these societies and discouraging their budding democratic elements. In other words, the EU has not supported the positive values of dialogue and transnationalism and risks gradually turning into an exclusive club.

The nineties were a “lost decade” for the EU in the Balkans because of inconsistent policies and the EU's random order of acknowledgement of the Yugoslav successor states. On the other hand, since 1999, Europe has taken a more proactive stance in the region and Brussels has outlined a long-term strategy emphasizing credible integration as the key to stabilisation and democratisation.
For example, realistic expectations for EU integration and conditionality mechanisms have achieved positive results in Romania, leading to improved protection of minorities, children, and labour rights. In Bulgaria, the path towards EU institutions has been crucial in healing the wound of the expulsion of the Turkish minority from that country during the eighties. The Turkish community, partially repatriated, is currently integrated into the Bulgarian political system.

In Croatia and Serbia, which are not yet member states, the EU has supported moderate nationalist forces which, in turn, are supporting cooperation with the Hague Tribunal and are encouraging progress in political democratisation. Despite the feelings of disappointment about the long delay, local public opinion mostly supports the integration process and EU membership prospects are among the main element of consensus in the Western Balkans. However, further delays in the enlargement process risk hampering the credibility of European institutions and their influence on the democratisation process.

After years of weak European presence, the EU is currently showing a more proactive strategy in the Caucasus. But a strengthening of efforts towards peace and stabilisation needs to take place, even without membership prospects for the countries of the area. In fact, without renewed dialogue with Russia, EU integration may very well become a destabilising factor in the region.
As in the Balkans and the Caucasus, the European Union struggles with its diversity. A new momentum for the European political project currently depends on the EU's capacity for diversity management, its willingness to play a strong role in the changing international context, and its ability to put forward a transnational project in answer to localisms.

Such a European political project has suffered several blows that have undermined its ideal strength. In the words of Fatos Lubonja: “Europe in ’89 was stronger […]. Not because it was really stronger in and of itself, but because its faith in that project was stronger” (6).


(1) Through 2009, Osservatorio has explored and analysed twenty years of change in the Balkans and the Caucasus through interviews, articles, essays, and multimedia collected in the dossier “The long-lasting '89”, available on-line at

(2) Those years saw the creation of Radio B92 in Belgrade, later to become a TV station and web-portal among the most popular in Serbia; the weekly Feral Tribune in Croatia, that denounced the authoritarianism and crimes of Tuđman's regime; the weekly Dani in Bosnia and Herzegovina, that first published about the crimes committed by Bosnjak and mujaheddin troops.

(3) See the case of Imedi in Georgia or A1+ in Armenia.

(4) See the cases of Radio Free Europe and BBC in Azerbaijan.

(5) Andrea Rossini, “The Fall. Interview with Rada Ivekovic”, Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso, March 4th, 2009.

(6) Marjola Rukaj and Davide Sighele, “The Wall, the Walls. Interview with Fatos Lubonja”, Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso, June 4th, 2009

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