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The high cost of Balkan cohabitation

The Stipe Mesić-Ivo Sanader tandem surpassed the neighboring duo Tadić-Koštunica for just one year in the competition for the first Balkan cohabitation, almost two decades ago. The history of cohabitation in the Balkans has not been particularly abundant since then, but it has been very turbulent. It continues in the best light even today, when we have it in Croatia and Montenegro. In both countries, the relationship between the president and the parliamentary majority (government) is the most important political topic, convincingly surpassing all others and leaving behind two increasingly quarrelling camps that see the way out only in the other leaving the stage. Not in cooperation.

And in theory it is imagined completely differently. As a way for the two strong and opposing political blocs to be forced to cooperate while both being in power, to the joy of the citizens who will only get good decisions from that conflict, as the fruits of a great compromise. Few places have functioned like that, but never in the Balkans. It is possible that until the real, good cohabitation, we should “mow that lawn” for a few hundred years, just like other good fruits of democracy, but the question is – at what price.

Perhaps the precondition for successful political cohabitation is that there are supermen of democracy and political culture on both sides, visionaries who see in that model the only way to achieve the common good, as well as the only limitation for their self-will. It sounds like science fiction even for France, which is considered the cradle of cohabitation, let alone for the young Balkan democracies.

Thus, whenever one group wins the parliamentary elections and its opponent wins the presidential elections, we do not get cohabitation, but only a waiting room for new elections. In Montenegro, this waiting could end soon, according to statements from the ruling coalition, which has not been able to start working since it declared victory seven months ago. The last such “threat” of the new elections concerns the dismissal of the Minister of Justice, Vladimir Leposavić, which is demanded by the Prime Minister, and not allowed by the largest member of the ruling coalition. It is as if cohabitation fails to exist even within the majority coalition, let alone on the line to the head of state.

In Croatia, it seems to be somewhat more stable, because the cohabitation between President Milanović and the HDZ government has been going on for almost a year and a half, but again – at what cost? With the approaching of local elections, which will be held in two weeks, the war between the president and the prime minister on all possible topics is the only political interest in Croatia. It stopped only for the moment when Banija was hit by a catastrophic earthquake, until the warring camps realized that even that tragedy could be a good “ammunition” for a political showdown. Of course, vaccination is a field where conflicts do not stop, but there is no effect for citizens. Croatia is at the very bottom in the European Union, which itself cannot boast of success in immunization.

The only cohabitation in Serbia lasted three years, it seems, quite a long time for Balkan conditions. But the price, which we have mentioned several times here, was really huge. Political life was paralyzed by the conflicts between the camps of Boris Tadić and Vojislav Koštunica, and three key years for the transformation of the country towards EU membership were spent in that exhaustion. Not to mention the unresolved Kosovo issue, cooperation with The Hague tribunal, economic and social reforms. All that stood “on ice” until the main problem was solved – who will be in power.

As far as Bosnia and Herzegovina is concerned, cohabitation is embedded in its post-Dayton order as an untouchable law. It is not political, but ethnic, perhaps the only one of its kind in the world. And in that certainly lies one of the roots of the tragic dysfunction of this country, for a quarter of a century now.

The political crises in Kosovo are changing like in a movie, their causes are extremely diverse, but one of the sharpest was recorded at the time of cohabitation, during the presidential term of Hashim Thaci and the first coming to power of Albin Kurti and his Self-Determination. Kurti was forced to resign in March last year for many reasons, but a brief cohabitation with Hashim Thaci was certainly one of the more important causes of the then blockade of institutions in Pristina.

Also short-lived, but even more unsuccessful, was the cohabitation in Skopje between Zoran Zaev and President Gjorge Ivanov, although an independent politician, left behind from the rule of VMRO. Ivanov tried to stop the coming wave of change and refused to offer the prime minister’s mandate to Zaev, ignoring the parliamentary majority, and the knot was cut by the then high-ranking State Department official Hoyt Brian Yee. The short-lived cohabitation in Skopje was a typical Balkan waiting room for new elections, which President Ivanov used to represent completely opposite views from his country’s new government at international gatherings.

On the other hand, the absence of cohabitation, at least in the Balkans, shows that it is yielding results. In the years before cohabitation, Montenegro reached the historical maximum of its democratic emancipation, joined NATO and reached the lobby of the European Union. In the last seven or eight years of political domination of the SNS and Aleksandar Vučić, Serbia has reversed the previous negative economic trend, reduced debt to an acceptable level, increased GDP and especially the volume of foreign direct investment, and has shown that it can successfully deal with global crises such as migrants and health crisis.

The eternal interpreters of the Balkan situation will say – that’s how it is in “stabilocracies”, pouring fire on Vučić and Đukanović because of, as they say, the undemocratic character of their rule. True, both Serbia and Montenegro have not yet reached all the heights of full democracy that these purists demand of them, but is that really the price at which both countries should give up their progress so far in a period without cohabitation? Or, to put it another way – would cohabitation as a recipe for quality democracy make Montenegro or Serbia more advanced than they are now? Of course not. The Montenegrin example in the last seven months confirms this better than any theorizing. There is no evidence for Serbia yet, but even if there was, it would take a little longer.

Because of all this, the Balkans is an excellent laboratory in which hypotheses fall that cohabitation must necessarily lead to the progress of society, and that its absence inevitably produces setbacks. This is a black-and-white pattern that many in Europe have been waiting for to fulfill for decades, and they can’t help but be surprised that it still doesn’t give results that fit into the picture they themselves initially wanted. We are talking about everyone who celebrated the “final” departure of Đukanović and DPS in August last year, as an act of democratic maturity of Montenegro, only to realize recently that the new government in Podgorica does not have much desire to continue the road to Europe and cooperation in the region it inherited. We are also talking about those who, with the arrival of Vučić to power, expected Serbia to give up its membership in the EU, and especially the economic catastrophe in the country. Since these expectations have not been met, for who knows how many times, then the problem is not in reality, but in expectations. And, of course, in the price to be paid for it.

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