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Periphery’s periphery

Southern Europe has become the focus of the euro crisis, but it is in the Balkans where it is hitting hardest

Jordi Vaquer

Never had so few voted since democracy came to Bulgaria in 1989. Only 53 percent showed up at the polls for the early elections sparked by the government's fall after the turbulence in February. The poverty and corruption that brought Bulgarians out on to the streets seem unlikely to diminish now after results that can only enhance the country's ungovernability. Southern Europe has become the focus of the euro crisis; but it is elsewhere, in the Balkans, within and without the European Union, where the crisis is hitting hardest.

The Bulgarian writer Ivan Krastev coined the expression "periphery of the periphery" in reference to Bulgaria, Romania, Albania and the former Yugoslavian countries, whose own crisis is being aggravated by the euro crisis. The sole exceptions are Kosovo, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia, not because their situation is any brighter, but just because they are more isolated. The Balkans have suffered another setback as a result of their links with southern Europe. These countries, which lately benefited from private EU investment, now see the money returning to parent companies in Austria and Italy. Greece and Slovenia, now hard up, were also big investors in the Balkans. Slovenia, which had been the model for the rest of the former Yugoslavia and an investor in areas such as banking and goods distribution, is turning sharply to austerity to prevent itself from becoming the next country in need of a bailout. Greece, once the envied neighbor, is becoming an added problem. The incapacity of Athens to deal with illegal immigration, for example, is an additional argument for keeping Romania and Bulgaria outside the Schengen free-circulation space.

Emigrants and their remittances constitute another driver of the crisis. Consider the fact that 1.6 of the 2.8 million Romanian emigrants are about equally divided between Italy and Spain. A third of Albanian citizens live abroad, mainly in Greece (47 percent) and Italy (36). Spain is the top recipient of Bulgarian emigration in the EU; and Italy of Macedonian. These emigrants are harder hit by unemployment than natives of the host countries. Some return, while others can no longer send back money, which is important to local economies.

The authoritarian drift of Viktor Orbán in Hungary is echoed throughout the region

Croatia is in its fifth consecutive year of recession. Its joining of the EU on July 1 will be a rare bright spot in a process of EU expansion that is now at a standstill. The magnetism of the EU, its capacity to set norms and values, is dwindling. The authoritarian drift of Viktor Orbán in Hungary is echoed throughout the region. In Romania, Victor Ponta is imitating Orbán's tactics, though avoiding the open friction with the EU that Orbán seems to enjoy. Macedonia's ever-more authoritarian regime has copied Orbán's restrictive media law. While Hungary's national-populism is widely imitated (even in Albania, where exalted nationalism never possessed much political traction), so is the explosive mix of entrepreneurial, political and media control coined by Berlusconi in Italy. One of the imitators is the Cavaliere's personal friend Milo Dukanovic, president of Montenegro, who has been in the saddle since before independence without the need for authoritarian methods or fixed elections, eluding every attempt to investigate his murky business empire.

Brussels will be celebrating Croatia's entry, as it did the historic agreement between Serbia and Kosovo. These events are undoubtedly good news, like the reconciliation between neighbors throughout the region. But the price of this stability is a deterioration of the situation with intolerable poverty and certain regimes that we shall soon be unable to call democracies. The prevailing degree of cynicism, distrust and public receptiveness to radical options is the measure of a deep malaise. Then add the new ingredient, the crisis of a Mediterranean Europe with which the Balkans have important ties, and we have a massive challenge to the reconstruction of a democratic Europe, which cannot fail to include this region.

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