On the Brink

Serbia, Bulgaria, Albania, and Romania are facing a new wave of popular unrest

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A second wave of revolutions is rocking the Balkan states. These are not merely uprisings against the remnants of communism but mass movements of desperation with dire economic conditions. They are directed against incumbent governments, whether post-communist or quasi-democratic.

Popular unrest has already dislodged the socialists in Romania, while mass protests continue to challenge the political status quo in Serbia, Bulgaria, and Albania. If not defused, the revolts threaten not only domestic stability but international security.

Serbia is in the midst of a major social upheaval as President Slobodan Milosevic has unsuccessfully tried to manipulate and defuse public protests. The real issue is not the reversal of forged local election results but the legitimacy and survivability of a corrupt and repressive Socialist administration that has lined its coffers with state funds.

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The regime has lasted this long primarily because it exploited the demons of Serb nationalism and fooled a confused populace during its proxy wars in Croatia and Bosnia. To distract them again, Mr. Milosevic may provoke a conflict in the predominantly Albanian province of Kosovo that could embroil neighboring Albania and Macedonia.

Continuing social trauma

Bulgaria has sunk into severe economic difficulties caused by the absence of structural reform. The political scene is dangerously polarized between the ruling Socialists and a broad-based opposition movement. Analysts view Bulgaria as having the most corrupt and incompetent administration in all of the former Soviet bloc. The government has stalled mass privatization and propped up uncompetitive state industries. Hard currency reserves disappeared, prices skyrocketed, and the standard of living collapsed for the bulk of the population.

Bulgarians have finally become frustrated and angry. In recent presidential elections, voters overwhelmingly supported the opposition candidate, Petar Stoyanov. However, under the Bulgarian constitution the presidency is a largely ceremonial position, while parliament and government remain in the hands of Socialists. The economic catastrophe has precipitated demands for early parliamentary elections. Protesters in Sofia have taken heart from the rallies in neighboring Serbia, and further social upheaval appears inevitable. To preserve its position, the government could provoke conflicts with the large Turkish minority, thus raising tensions with Turkey and destabilizing the south Balkans.

The unrest in Albania is largely due to the collapse of massive pyramid schemes that soaked up the scarce resources of over a million pauperized Albanians. But the crisis has now assumed political proportions, threatening the survival of the current Democratic Party government and tearing at the country's social fabric. The Democrats stand accused of benefiting from Albania's reform program and establishing a corrupt semiauthoritarian system. The government is already looking for scapegoats among the opposition and may not be averse to capitalizing on discontent in neighboring Kosovo and whipping up Albanian nationalism to distract an angry public.

Romania, the largest Balkan state, faces equally daunting traumas. Romania's reform program has spluttered and the economy is stagnant. Official corruption has prevented the emergence of genuine competition and a free market. With the election of Emil Constantinescu as president last November, the democratic opposition scored a notable victory. But the new administration confronts some critical decisions if the country is to be rescued from economic crisis. Paradoxically, major unrest can be expected if the government pursues a more rigorous reform program by freeing prices and decreasing subsidies to uncompetitive industries.

The Balkan states have fallen well behind the Central Europeans in marketizing their economies and creating a stable middle class. As a result, the social trauma will prove that much more severe when genuine reformers take office. The new governments will not have much time to convince the public that they can resolve their economic woes. Meanwhile, a populist or nationalist resurgence stalks ominously on the horizon.

Long-term lessons

The delayed Balkan revolutions serve two important lessons for all unreformed post-communist states.

First, long delays in overhauling the economy may initially cushion the population (and the regime) against the rigors of capitalism. But in the long term, this will simply drive the government further into debt and make unavoidable reforms more painful and destabilizing.

Second, where a particular governing party has unfairly dispensed privileges to a politically loyal elite, corruption and mismanagement become endemic. Economic decline in conditions of political favoritism and social revolt could propel a country toward authoritarian rule.

With the prospect of major upheavals across southeastern Europe that could breed chaos, xenophobic nationalism, and even new inter-ethnic wars, the West has a direct interest in stabilizing the situation. Corrupt or authoritarian governments that reject structural reform should not be assisted by international institutions. On the contrary, more substantive aid must be offered to opposition forces committed to full-blown marketization, pluralism, and institutional reform.

Furthermore, ethnic nationalism has to be strongly discouraged in all Balkan states among governments and opposition alike. Indeed, one key condition of any assistance program must be the revocation of all territorial claims and a respect for minority rights through dialogue between ethnic leaders. If we are serious about preventing more Bosnias, the remedies must be applied before events spiral out of control.

* Janusz Bugajski is director of East European Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

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