A Balkan ‘Spring’ or Protests Doomed to Fail?

A Balkan ‘Spring’ or Protests Doomed to Fail?

Since late 2018, the main opposition parties in Albania, Montenegro and Serbia have been boycotting their respective parliaments. Public protests have supported this, initiating a Balkan ‘spring’. The proclaimed reasons for the boycotts and protests in all three countries are strikingly similar. Will the protests succeed or fail?

Reasons for the boycotts and protests

The ongoing parliamentary boycotts and protests in Albania, Montenegro, and Serbia are all driven by very similar criticisms. In all three countries the protesters and opposition parties are questioning the validity of recent election results. They are calling for a press free of government control, and are complaining about widespread corruption.

The common problems that the protesters and the opposition have identified in the three countries are yielding very similar demands. They are calling for the resignation of the Prime Minister and/or President. This is depending on whoever appears to be more influential. They seek to replace the current governments with new temporary administrations to organize new elections. Reports that people are paid or otherwise rewarded to vote for the ruling parties are common in the more independent media outlets.

The electoral rolls have also been deemed suspect. Election observers have recorded illegal pressure on voters and procedural errors during recent elections. In addition, it is well documented that press coverage is often heavily biased towards the government. The governments exert financial pressure on media outlets by threatening to relinquish advertising from state companies. Also individuals and groups close to the ruling party often gain ownership of media companies through ethically and legally dubious deals.  

The protesters’ and opposition’s demand for a new non-partisan governments to organize elections reflects their fundamental lack of trust in the electoral process and the media. They want to ‘reset’ the political and electoral system, which they argue has been captured by the ruling parties.

Local Contexts

Of course, there are some circumstances that are unique to each country. For example, protesters and the political opposition in Albania have accused the government of allowing drug money to influence politics. These protests have been the most violent, with protesters clashing with the police.

Montenegro is facing the largest protests since it gained full independence from Serbia in 2006. Milo Đukanović, has served both as Prime Minister and President consecutively for a total of 28 years. Elections take place regularly, but Đukanović’s long unbroken rule has blurred the distinction between his party and the state. Furthermore, the Serbian political parties, including one of the main opposition parties, were enraged by Đukanović’s decision join NATO, as the alliance bombed Serbia and Montenegro in 1999. Therefore, while Albania and Serbia share key issues of corruption and media freedom, the context is quite different.

A violent attack on an opposition politician is what has sparked the recent protests in Serbia. Former Prime Minister and current President Aleksandar Vučić has survived previous protests, prompted by violence and corruption scandals. The protests recently escalated when the state broadcaster was occupied for the first time since Slobodan Milošević was toppled in 2000. This saw a strong backlash from the government who accused the protesters of violence. There are also rumours of early elections. A victory by the ruling party could help to dampen the enthusiasm of the protesters.

Prospects for success

So far, the Balkan ‘spring’ protests and boycotts have failed to achieve their aims. Part of the blame for this could be on ruling party censorship. Censorship ensures that most media outlets do not treat the protests objectively. The ruling parties in Albania, Montenegro and Serbia regularly try to discredit the protests by branding them tools of opposition parties, rather than as genuine citizens’ movements. This means that each one of the ruling parties has a significant trump card, namely, early elections. If they feel the need to silence the opposition to their rule, they can always call elections to gain a fresh ‘democratic’ mandate.

Furthermore, demands for non-partisan, temporary governments solely holding elections are a symptom of a lack of cohesion within the protest movements. They represent a range of interests and parties that would not usually cooperate. For example, the participants in the protests in Serbia range from Marxists to right-wing nationalists, from LGBTQ rights activists to trade unionists.

The protests in Albania began as a student movement against tuition fees before broadening into an anti-government movement that included the main opposition party. Many of the protesters in both Albania and Serbia do not have an easy relationship with the opposition, who have had their own scandals when in power relatively recently. As a result, no new functional coalition capable of winning elections is likely to emerge from the protests. It is difficult to see how the opposition and protesters can topple the current governments without defeating them in elections.

International Response

Both the protesters and the opposition have looked for foreign support. Backing from the EU and/or the USA would provide a major boost. It would help them to publicly validate their claim to be fighting for democracy. This would also add credibility to their claims that the electoral process might be biased.

The upheaval in North Macedonia over the past few years is a good example of how international backing can be decisive in toppling a similar regime. The previous government in North Macedonia was accused of corruption, media censorship and electoral fraud. Large protests took place regularly from 2014 to 2016. However, Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski was only forced to step down and accept new elections in 2017 after entering negotiations with the EU and the USA. This highlights how difficult it is to overcome a regime that remains determined to cling to power through protests. Even bringing these regimes to the negotiating table often needs foreign influence to add to domestic pressures.

International support for the Albanian, Montenegrin and Serbian protests has not been forthcoming. The EU has resolutely maintained that the opposition parties should return to their respective parliaments. European Commission spokesperson Maja Kocijancic responded to the boycotts, noting that “parliament is a place for discussion”. The US government has echoed these sentiments.

Opposition parties and the protesters have criticised the EU’s reaction. They argue that its unwillingness to speak out against the ruling parties strengthens undemocratic regimes. As a result, foreign meddling may embolden Albanian, Montenegrin and Serbian leaders to patiently wait out the protests. They will, in turn, back their ability to control the political narrative domestically. This means they can permit the rallies to continue and wait for popular enthusiasm to fade, safe in the knowledge that the protesters will not receive international backing.   


This is not the first time the media report a Balkan ‘spring’. Protests and parliamentary boycotts have become a regular feature of political life in South-Eastern Europe over the past few years. Outside of North Macedonia, none of these previous movements have managed to bring decisive change, or produce a realistic alternative to the ruling party in elections. They have also tended to split and fade away after several months.

The protests might escalate in Serbia, where the a push for the biggest protest so far on April 13 was recently announced. The protests also look likely to continue in Albania, though the opposition’s parliamentary boycott is starting to crack. The local elections on 30 June will test the resolve of the protesters.  There is no immediate sign of the protests ceasing in Montenegro for now. However, judging from previous protests in the region it will be a challenge to hold the public’s interest in the long run. Maintaining the cohesion of so many different groups in the protest movements and opposition parties will also prove difficult. Without the trump card of external backing from the EU and USA the protests and parliamentary boycotts look likely to fail to achieve their aims.

Categories: Europe, Politics

About Author

Luke Bacigalupo

Luke Bacigalupo is a political analyst currently based in Belgrade, Serbia. He holds degrees in South Eastern European Studies and Modern History from the University of Belgrade and the University of Oxford, respectively. He has previously worked as a political reporter at the Office of the EU Special Representative in Kosovo and at UNDP in Serbia.