Why better research on the Western Balkans is worth it

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Producing knowledge on sensitive topics or unstable political environments is neither easy nor straightforward. Researchers working on topics such as corruption, security, or conflict often face challenges in the form of restricted access to information and interlocutors, or risks to personal safety. As a result, far less is known about such settings than about stable and transparent Western democracies.

Countries in the Western Balkans, although located in the heart of Europe, are one such place. Study of political, economic and social processes in the region spiked in the 1990s and early 2000s as academics became interested in (often violent) post-communist state break-up or exceptional events such as the hyperinflation when prices rose by 3.6 x 1022 between February 1992 and January 1994.

The region has re-entered the limelight, with the flare-up of tensions between Serbia and Kosovo since late July 2022, and the April 2023 election removing Milo Djukanovic after 30 years at the helm of Montenegro. Even so, there is still little systematic or comparative knowledge about numerous of policy domains – from party financing, to public administration, energy and climate, to transport regulation migration, or judicial reform.

The problems of obscurity

International scholars often view the Western Balkans as too narrow a region to study, and they frequently face linguistic or access barriers. Local academics often lack infrastructure and resources for such research, especially for lines of study that are prone to politicisation. These factors result in two problems, which are interrelated. First, misconceptions of the region persist because of the disconnect between international research on the Western Balkans and local knowledge. Second, the lack of a robust evidence base on the region’s politics and societies impedes policymaking by the Western Balkan governments. It also hinders international and European Union (EU) decision-makers from creating sound policies towards these countries. Studying the region is essential to addressing these problems.

Scholarly misconceptions often arise when theoretical work applied to the region replicates models developed for mature European democracies, which often cannot account for local idiosyncrasies. For instance, political behaviour in the Western Balkans remains mysterious because party competition does not match the traditional left- and right-wing pattern. We have little understanding of why nationalist voters support social democrats, or under what conditions formerly democratic parties slip into authoritarianism.

Equally, the dynamics of European Union (EU) accession are very different from those of the 2004/2007 Eastern enlargement rounds, in part due to post-war reconstruction and state-building, protracted political transition, unsteady democratisation patterns, and the rise of political and economic influence of China, Russia and the Gulf states. Local knowledge produced on these topics is scarce and limited to in-depth country case studies, which are rarely framed in relation to broader international processes or research about them.

The hunt for data

The disconnect between local and international knowledge production results in further difficulties in creating and implementing policies. Robust and efficient decision-making needs to be based on empirical data and systematic research, which permit assessment of the situation on the ground and the identification of problems to be solved. Research on the baselines for policy formulation, as well as on policy efficacy and effects, is scarce. For instance, a sustainable plan for green energy transition would require information on how many households consume fossil fuels and wood for heating, and what economic and lifestyle-related costs a switch to low-carbon solutions would entail for the state and for individuals.

This, and many other kinds of data, have never been collected for the Western Balkan states. I came across this issue when I was researching the transformation of citizenship policies in several of the region’s countries, and little has changed since. To obtain primary materials, I followed the trail of documents through archives scattered across different cities. I filed requests for free access to information to obtain naturalisation statistics, and in some cases civil servants handling my request would have to count manually the handwritten entries in citizenship registries. That such data had never been gathered before also implies that the real effects of citizenship policies had not been examined, and that policy change was the product of political bargaining not of solid evidence on policy effects.

Knowledge for democracy

A synergetic knowledge exchange about the Western Balkans, that includes local researchers, international scholars and decision-makers is crucial for charting the region’s future. While all the countries in the Western Balkan region seek EU membership, their transformation has been limited. Issues that have persisted over the past two decades as key barriers en route to Europe include post-conflict reconstruction, divided societies, state capture, bilateral disputes, and economic or political dependencies on third countries.

In different ways, and to different degrees, these challenges have limited the rule of law and hampered public administration reform. They have also obstructed the development of democratic institutions and a deliberative political culture, thus encouraging economic practices damaging to the economy, or misalignments with European foreign and security policy.

Knowledge is central to developing plausible policy pathways also for decision-makers outside the region – above all, the EU. Russia’s recent aggression on Ukraine has changed the EU’s approach towards its neighbours in the Western Balkans, for whom the prospect of membership had long lost credibility. Restoring this credibility in the new geopolitical context is at the top of the EU’s agenda. Any road taken, from traditional enlargement, to ‘phasing in’, to strategic association, needs an evidence base to suggest how conditions on the ground will impact the effectiveness of the EU’s policy instruments across countries and over time.

Moreover, producing robust knowledge on socio-political processes, and communicating this adequately to a broader public, is crucial for creating empowered citizens and resilient democratic societies. This sounds cliché but is far from it. An informed citizen is more likely to engage actively in political processes; more skilled at recognising disinformation and propaganda; and less prone to manipulation or mobilisation against other groups in society.

Throughout the 1990s, propaganda was the key fuel of wars and nationalism. In Montenegro and Serbia that created the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia after the socialist state broke up, media depicted Croats as enemies in order to justify the shelling of the Croatian coastal town of Dubrovnik. During the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, different belligerents manipulated historical facts to feed nationalist narratives.

Hence knowledge that enables citizens to distinguish facts from propaganda is especially important in environments with fragile ethnic, national and political balances. What is more, it can bring forward positive change. Initiatives such as citizens’ opposition to demolition of Tirana’s old National Theatre, where architects and civil activists provided information on the building’s historical value, or actions to stop the construction of a hydro power plant on the Rakita river in Serbia based on knowledge of how this would affect the riverbed, show that informed citizens can indeed respond to genuine calls for ‘democracy from the ground up’. Knowledge, indeed, is power: power to criticise, to innovate, and to create more resilient and inclusive societies. That is where research on the Western Balkans can make a real difference.


Jelena Dzankic is Director of Global Governance Programme – Southeastern Europe and Co-Director of the Global Citizenship Observatory (GLOBALCIT) at the Robert Schuman Centre. She has published on identity, Europeanisation and statehood in the Balkans, and more broadly on migration, mobility and citizenship issues.