The Moral Vacuum in the Balkans
By Nesti Gjeluci
Albanian Daily News
Published June 16, 2017
When the cat's away, the mice will play; so the saying goes. Though it may sound inappropriate to apply these terms to describe people, it may be appropriate enough to describe those who are wielding power inappropriately. To get this cleared away from the start, the region in question is the Balkans, the cat is authority of the West in that region, specifically its moral authority, and the mice are the political leaders of this region.
Historically, the Balkan region has demanded the attention of the world powers mainly because when the attention was not there, their leaders have tended to play with one another. The play at times has gotten rough, so rough that world wars have been known to happen. A referee, so to speak, to manage this rough play, has always been needed. The current situation is a bit of a puzzle; the West seems to have lost its moral compass, Balkan leaders are playing games at the expense of the people they are supposed to govern, while people in the Balkans are asking for directions. There is a renewed focus on the region due to external threats and ongoing internal corruption. Recent events on U.S. Capitol Hill and round table discussions in Washington are a sign that the region is not entirely forgotten. Recent news of a 'mini Marshall Plan' initiated by the German government called 'Balkan Plus' bodes well for the region. However, what is lacking is a more cohesive approach to the region that would foster a healthy society rooted on human dignity and flourishing. This lack is not a sign of exhaustion on the part of the West, it is rather a reflection of its own moral crisis.
Lack of Western Moral Leadership
The Cold War may seem too long ago only in a growing culture of willful amnesia and disdain to learn lessons from history. One thing that should be remembered is that the Balkan region and Eastern Europe at large lived under the subjugation of lies, another word used for it was propaganda. One had to secretly tune in to Voice of America, Radio Vatican or RFERL, to peek through the veil of lies and take in a little fresh air in order to grasp a sense of reality in which they were living. This ability to reach to sources that connected people to a reality that was deprived of them, laid the foundations of what happened later. Towards the end of the 1980s, relatively healthy societies of the West, led by an effective collaboration of strong leaders like Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II contributed to the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, so fresh air poured into the East and revived the hope and faith of its people for a better future. Then came the stark reminder of the volatility of the region when Yugoslavia disintegrated in the early '90s and later yet again a reminder of the need for intervention of the highest order before the turn of the century when Slobodan Milosevic started the campaign of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo.
Fast forward to the current affairs where EU accession for Balkan countries is a carrot that is losing its flavor and color fast. Skepticism among Balkan countries to integrate into the European Union (EU) is not only linked to its timeline but also to its meaning, largely due to EU's internal crisis that goes well beyond economics and politics. The days of solidarity and collaboration to overcome a common enemy, the Soviet Union, are not really here anymore. Instead, we see the effects of the vacuum of moral leadership in the region. A failed coup in Montenegro, internal political crisis and potential ethnic violence in Macedonia, serious challenges to the freedom of the press in Serbia, a political stalemate in Albania that only recently ended by what it seems to be a non-transparent agreement, the future of Bosnia's health as a functioning state, serious governance and corruption issues in Kosovo and its neighbors, are signs that deserve immediate attention.
At a time when there is a dire need for smart and targeted assistance and messaging, rather than cookie cutter approaches for policies that are not in touch with priorities and problems in the region, U.S development assistance is dwindling. There are still voices in the international community and on Capitol Hill that continue to highlight the need for attention to this region. However, democracy in these countries cannot be sustained and developed simply by calling for justice reforms and free elections. Leaders in the region continue to be corrupt and the people they are leading have dangerously lowered their standards by which to hold these leaders accountable. To reverse this dangerous pattern, we need to find smart ways to cultivate inner moral authority and order which is key to the development of an orderly society.
Speaking of society, two sources of pressure need to be exerted: moral authority from outside (the West) and at the same time the cultivation of inner moral authority in the society itself.
Starting with the latter, the vacuum can only be filled by civil society, whose engagement should push leaders that reflect its virtues. But if the society is not civil, that is if it lacks virtues, then space is created to throw seeds for the further disintegration of these societies and the region itself. In today's politics we rely too much on leaders and we judge their character as if they were flown in from another planet, forgetting that these leaders come out of the society and public they are supposed to govern. If the society's moral standards are compromised, they will produce corrupt leaders, and those corrupt leaders will stay in power because the people they are supposed to govern have lost the ability to judge virtuously. If the majority that comprises civil society today has lost its moral compass too, relying on political leadership from the inside and economic development aid from the outside is futile.
Civil society needs a renewed sense of courage for truth. Here is what I mean by way of an example:
There is a lesson to be learned from the dark days of communist past of Albania. It was governed by morally corrupt folk who bulldozed the country's pillars of integrity, such as faith-based institutions and intellectually sound leaders out of its way. Its chief aim, besides staying perpetually in power, was to denigrate society to such a degree that they would become slaves without even noticing it. Whoever would notice it in the process would be eliminated. And many did. Yet, despite its brutality and the length of time in power, despite the country's different religious backgrounds living together in same neighborhoods and often pitted against each other by their own government, the country became the ultimate example of tolerance and organic diversity. It was a survival that left many scars, but a survival nonetheless. How could this be?
What kept the integrity of the society sound and the human dignity alive was what Vaclav Havel famously referred to as the virtue of living the truth: "The only way to fight a culture of lies, whatever form the lies take, is to consciously live the truth instead of merely talking about it." Civil society in the case of Albania thrived through faithful neighborliness and solidarity when it was most under threat. Tolerance, inclusion and diversity thrived organically when no one had meetings to discuss such efforts. In fact, those very words were not part of everyday vocabulary. That is how culture is made and how integrity survives under threat. Each group, each family, living in close contact, side by side as true neighbors, found in their own identity, religious or intellectual or ethnic, resources that enabled them to live together in harmony. Most importantly, it enabled members of this society to survive one of the most traumatic experiences of tyranny.
True, one of the important lessons here is that tyrannies of that sort eventually come to an end and cannot survive forever. But another lesson for today's political culture and development assistance is that we need to create spaces where the choice for integration and tolerance is made freely not because the distant bureaucrat pressures people to do so through grandiose speeches and empty slogans. Over time, such disconnected and vacuous speeches, disconnected with the person's freedom to choose, will still create a suffocating environment where civil society will not have enough breathing room to do its work of intermediary between statehood and personhood; thus, risking the collapse of a fragile democratic culture.
Who will fill the vacuum?
I referred to another pressure that needs to be exerted: moral authority from the outside; the kind of moral authority that paved the way for the collapse of the eastern bloc. Today, the vacuum of this authority can be felt in the Balkans and it is ready to be filled. To refer back to the idiom used in the opening of this article, there are other cats already lurking in the neighborhood attempting to claim that moral authority. The West, U.S. and EU owes it to this region to get their own act together and provide authoritative moral leadership if they want to make their own institutions and structures attractive. The demand on the Balkan leaders should not simply be to keep their countries quiet and out of trouble, but to go well beyond it and demand good governance. As the West grooms, trains and talks to leaders in the region and as it condones them for doing the right thing and condemns for doing the wrong thing, it would do well to focus on building a civil society that can rebuild a culture of integrity. Does the integral part of society today constitute a minority or majority? That may vary from country to country. But what is clear is that however small that seed, it has to be nurtured if we want to see a stable region with its citizen living lives with dignity. That is the ultimate goal a responsible government should have. Integration, stronger economy, regional stability and security, and a strong international world order are but means to that end. To restart with a healthy reflection, the West would do well to heed the advice that Russian novelist and historian Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn gave in Harvard University commencement address in June 1978 when he called on the West to recover its willpower and to stand for what it believes. / ADN