The fall of the Berlin Wall and post-Yugoslav transition

Post-communist transition, in post-Yugoslav states, contributed significantly to the uneven progress of changes that unfolded in the past quarter of a century across the Eastern parts of Europe. Twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin wall, the post-Yugoslav part of Europe’s former, communist universe firmly stands between the, more successful, transition-achievers of Central-East Europe and the, less successful, transition-non-achievers of the post-Soviet states.

The satisfaction that political and economic accomplishments are not as bad as most of the ex-Soviet lands’ is irrelevant, especially when compared with the despair over the loss of the historically important step of convergence with Western Europe. Before November 1989, this was the measure of things for us, Yugoslavs, and not communist Eastern Europe (as we all called it then). Eastern Europe had, for decades, looked at us from behind with inspiration and envy, because of our “communism with a human face.”

However, in the mean time, things have changed completely, and the majority of post-Yugoslav states have become transition laggards, instead of frontrunners, as expected in 1989. The explanation of this fall – with a deep, historic meaning for present and future generations – should take into account at least three issues.

The first of these issues is the fact that - contrary to the rest of the post-communist world - the historic events of 1989 passed almost unnoticed in the former Yugoslavia. Mostly, because of other, more pressing issues on the political agenda: growing ethnic conflicts and the preparation for the country’s dissolution. From the Yugoslav perspective, 1989 was less a revolutionary year and much more, if not completely, the time of reckoning with the decade-long, post-Tito crisis era.

The end of the bipolar world, which came with the fall of the Berlin wall, carried much more weight for ex-Yugoslavia than the new chance for change to the communist regimes. Simply put, at that very moment, two aspects of a lack of legitimacy hit Yugoslavia: one from within and one from the outside. The absence of any agreement, on the future design of the common state, was strengthened by the apparent loss of the external legitimacy of Yugoslavia. The space the country had kept between the two “blocks” because of its successful non-aligned foreign policy, instantly disappeared, and Yugoslavia – until then supported by the existence of the blocks - dropped into the abyss created when they disappeared. The country’s serious economic crisis, the war-oriented strategies of the political elites of former Yugoslavia, confusion in European and world politics vis-à-vis the Yugoslav crisis – were all additional pushes towards the point of no return.

The second important issue is, due to this state of affairs, post-communist transition in post-Yugoslav states became intertwined, in many complex ways, with armed conflicts and nation and state building. Today, a decade and a half after the armed conflicts have ended, war and state building remain the dominant image of the last two and a half decades, for many people, rather than post-communist political and economic changes. This image reflects reality - the former genuinely left the bigger mark, and decisively influenced the latter.

If history teaches us anything, this story’s lesson cannot only be about the power of the people and the difference they can sometimes make, which is the main message of November 1989; it is also about the power of the political decisions that elites and people take at “critical junctures” in history. Consequences of both good and bad decisions, at such junctures, bear strategic consequences, and the bad ones will haunt the region for many generations to come.

The third, and last, issue concerns the consequences of the bad decisions. The “triple ex-Yugoslav transition” has been more complicated and isn’t yet finished. While the first post-communist and post-Yugoslav decade was about wars and the establishment of new semi-democracies, the second one was about the optimism brought by the end of the armed conflicts, the beginning of economic recovery, the consolidation of democracy and rapprochement with the European Union. Now, in the middle of the third decade, progress is mixed with old and new challenges. The good news is that, as time goes by, our own specific problems give way to the ones shared by other countries of today’s world.

The Western Balkan, post-Yugoslav states now must find the way out of the vicious circle of several outstanding and mutually connected problems: unresolved status issues and bilateral disputes inherited from the dissolution of Yugoslavia, harsh economic crises, and the EU enlargement fatigue coupled with accession fatigue at home. To show the impact of the specific post-Yugoslav transitions, on future perspectives, I’ll compare the time that the former communist countries of Central and East Europe needed for accession to the EU - as an important indicator of overall changes, with the time Western Balkan countries need to accomplish the same goal.

After Croatia’s accession to the EU, in July 2013, the next Western Balkan accession cannot expect to happen until, at least, 2020. Things, however, have been going from bad to worse. Several years ago, the year 2020 was considered the most pessimistic possible date; it’s now the most optimistic one, and important for only one or two countries.

Before Croatia, the average period from application for membership to accession was 10 years. It took Croatia, as the most advanced country in the region, 13 years. CEE countries became EU members a decade and a half after their exit from communism, Croatia almost a quarter of a century after, and it will take other WB countries at least three or more decades - twice as much time as CEE countries.

The Berlin Wall didn’t fall the same way for all.

Jovan Teokarević

Jovan Teokarević is professor of comparative politics at the Faculty of Political Sciences, University of Belgrade, Serbia, and Chairman of the Board of Serbia’s Fund for an Open Society. He leads the Faculty’s Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies on the Balkans and coordinates an international Master Program on South Eastern Europe. He has published many books and taught courses on post-communist transition and consolidation of democracy and on EU-Western Balkan relations.

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