“Debalkanizing the Balkans with the Kantian Theory of Democratic Peace”
Theodore Couloumbis* and Ergys Ramaj*
*Theodore Couloumbis is professor emeritus at the University of Athens and, currently, a policy scholar for the Southeast Europe Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Ergys Ramaj is a graduate of the Public and International Affairs department at George Mason University and, currently, a research assistant at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
This study focuses on the post-communist Balkans and juxtaposes the positions of what its authors call the “recidivist” and “transitionist” schools of thought. The thesis of the recidivists is that war is a deep characteristic of the Balkans and is destined to recur in the future. The transitionists, on the contrary, posit that war is a product of economic, political and social underdevelopment rather than being specific to particular geographic regions or cultures. Siding with the cautiously optimistic approach of the transitionists, the authors of this study employ a variation of Bruce Russett’s Kantian peace theory and attempt to apply it to the post-communist Balkans. Given the evidence of convergence (political, economic, and social) between the post-communist Balkans and the rest of the Euro-Atlantic region, the authors conclude that a sustained period of growth, cooperation and peace can be projected. Major problems, such as state fragmentation, inflation, unemployment, corruption, underground economies, organized crime and Islamist terrorism will not disappear soon in the Balkans. But an environment of consolidated democracy, advanced and liberal economy, and the promise of a common institutional roof over the whole Balkan region will act as a gradual and sure fire remedy for such and other ills.
I. Schools of Thought with reference to the past and future of the Balkans The 1990’s was a time of troubles for the post-communist Balkans. The wars of Yugoslav succession, involving Serbia, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, led a number of Western observers to conclude that the Balkans would be replacing the Middle East as the world’s leading flash point. Negative stereotypes soon surfaced with terms such as “balkanization” and the “powder keg of Europe” leading the chorus. Simplifying reality somewhat, we could propose that two schools of thought emerged in the 1990’s focusing on the recent past, the present and the future of the Balkans: We shall call the first school “historical recidivism” and the second “transition to democracy and economic development”.
The historical recidivists1 labeled the Balkans as a region condemned by history, culturally deficient, uniquely flawed, conflict prone, brutal and vengeful. Consequently, their recommendation was that the West should not get involved into the murky and divisive domestic condition of this area. Their advice was simply “stay at arms length”. In one of his articles titled “Give War a Chance” Edward Luttwak, a fellow at the Center of Strategic and International Studies, revealed his state of mind in relation to the region. In his view, if the belligerents of the Balkans had been allowed to fight it out among themselves, the wars would not have lasted as long and the casualties would have been reduced considerably2.
The democracy and development transitionists3- the second school of thought – proceeded with a diametrically different reading of the situation from that of the recidivists. In their view there was nothing “unique” about the Balkans if one were to compare its conflict quotient with those of many developing regions of the Third World. In fact, one should not exclude from the comparison much of Western, Central and Eastern Europe, the United States, China, and Japan, given the nightmarish butchery they experienced during the first half of the twentieth century.
In the transitionist view, wars in the Balkans – wherever they broke out – were the products of economic underdevelopment coupled with inability of political institutions to control corrosive inputs by flawed and demagogic leaders, such as Slobodan Milosevic, Franjo Tudjman, and Alija Izetbegovic – ranked in a decreasing order of culpability. In fact, given that most economic indicators for former Yugoslavia were clearly higher than those of Romania and Bulgaria4 (both of which managed to avoid war during their post-communist transition periods), the variable of bad leadership with a dose of external intervention (emanating in the early 1990’s mostly from Germany5) can be given extra explanatory weight. The transitionists’ recommendation to the international community was to become engaged in the Balkans using fire-fighting and fire prevention techniques such as peace-keeping and/or peacemaking and taking preemptive measures to support the economic development of the troubled region.
The projections of the two schools of thought reflected their respective images of the situation. The recidivists explicitly or implicitly assumed that the Balkans was like a set of falling dominoes – Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, Vojvodina, Tetovo, and Presevo. These ethnic confrontations could, in turn, invite Greek and Turkish antagonistic interventions resulting into a major conflagration reminiscent of the Balkan wars of 1912-13. Employing medical analogies (AIDS, other contagious diseases, sociopathic behavior) the recidivists’ remedy was to ask the West to keep a safe distance and contain/quarantine the whole affected area6.
The transitionists, for their part, rejected the recidivist allusions to the domino theory and likened them to a self-fulfilling prophecy. They argued that the international community (i.e., the West) with careful and measured engagement could prevent the creation of a region of proliferating protectorates and designated rogue states. Their emphasis was placed on prevention through the application of soft rather than hard power7. In this respect the dual enlargement processes of NATO and the European Union (EU) were expected to serve as carrots, rather than sticks, in shaping the prospective candidates’ transition strategies. “Conditionality,”8 as a prerequisite for enlargement, was expected to work as a powerful magnet toward democratization and economic modernization as opposed to the threat of sanctions and the use of military force. The transitionists, additionally, pointed out that post-Milosevic developments in Serbia and elsewhere in the Western Balkans were challenging the fatalistic assumption of the recidivists that the Balkan peoples would behave in the future as they “always” behaved in the past. History, they argued, has “thresholds” which mark a clean break with the past, as in the case of lasting reconciliation between Germany and France following World War II.
II. Hypothesis and Propositions
The authors of the present article, finding themselves closer to the views of the transitionists, will attempt to evaluate the future of the Balkan region (with a focus on post-communist countries) by employing some of the axioms of Bruce Russett’s democratic peace theory9. In a number of books and articles Russett and his associates – using a solid statistical methodology – have proposed that democratic countries (as shall be defined in the next section) have a much lower probability of going to war with each other than do dyads pitting authoritarian countries against democratic ones or dyads involving inter-authoritarian conflagrations.
Russett and Oneal10 in a book entitled Triangulating Peace: Democracy, Interdependence, and International Organizations have advanced a Kantian peace proposition along the following lines: Countries that fulfill successfully and durably three interrelated criteria, namely consolidated democracy, advanced/liberal economy, and joint membership in regional organizations (for our purposes the EU and NATO), simply do not fight wars with each other. Following on their steps, in this article we aim to examine the record of a number of post-communist Balkan states11 in order to assess progress toward meeting some minimum criteria necessary for the consolidation of peace in the whole region12.
Figure1. Russett’s and Oneal’s Kantian Triangle of Peace13
Democracy Economic Interdependence Starting with the variable of consolidated democracy, and despite the wealth of the relevant literature focusing on transitions/consolidations of democracy in post-authoritarian polities,14 we should realize that we are dealing with soft and changeable criteria. The predominant method of identifying consolidated democratic polities includes the following prerequisites: (1) two or more political parties, (2) periodic and constitutionally required elections (with a maximum period of 5 years between elections), (3) free press and freedom of expression, (4) no political prisoners, (5) no interventions by extra- parliamentary factors (especially the armed forces) following elections that call for change of party/ies in power, and (6) the functioning of a pluralist, and independent from government, civil society.
For the second Kantian variable, liberal/advanced economy, we will employ World Bank data and other credible sources, focusing on variables such as GDP per capita, GDP growth, imports and exports, foreign direct investment, unemployment, and percentage of poverty. Implicit here is our assumption that economic development and balanced growth are prerequisites for the establishment and perpetuation of stable democracy.
Turning to the third variable, joint membership in international organizations, we should note clearly the feedback mechanism interlocking the performance of all three Kantian variables. In the case of the Balkans, the most relevant organizations are the EU and NATO. “Enlargement,” the prospect and the process of moving to EU and NATO membership, calls for the fulfillment of economic and political criteria fitting Russett’s specifications. Needless to say, the satisfaction of this third criterion can best be determined by eventual membership. But in the interim period, through progress reports issued by the EU commission and the NATO Council Secretariat, one can estimate the distance traveled toward the destination of membership.
Throughout this study we must remain aware of the limitations that accompany statistical research. In short, correlation in the behavior of variables is not necessarily causation. Given that our dependent variable is the maintenance of peace (the absence of war), the Kantian triangle offers us our independent variables. We should also note as we have already stated in part I above that the variables of domestic leadership and foreign intervention by great powers have also deeply affected economic, political and enlargement outcomes for all the Balkan countries that are included in our study.
III.Comparative performance of states and regions in the post-communist Balkans
The purpose of this section is to employ a variation of Russett’s democratic peace proposition, based on Balkan performance data related to Russett and Oneal’s triangle of peace. Following the end of the Cold War, and after some years of confusion and decline, post-communist Balkan states, without major exception, have been traversing a road of sustained development and beginning to reduce the distance separating them from the European Union’s averages. This observation is based on the fact that the EU’s average annual growth since 1995 has been ranging between 2 and 3 percent15, while the
Economic growth rate of post-communist countries in the Balkans, as will be shown in Table 1 below, has been relatively higher ranging between 4 and 5 percent.
Since the first attempts at economic reforms in the early 1990’s, all post-communist Balkan countries have made considerable progress toward the liberalization of their economic policies. The regional economic environment has been steadily improving ever since the Balkans parted ways with war and social unrest. Most regional economies have recorded significant gains with the implementation of reforms ranging from bilateral free trade agreements to partnerships with powerful economic institutions such as the EU. These partnerships have in turn encouraged regional cooperation and economic interdependence.
Economic Performance of Post-Communist Balkans States
(US $ 2005)
Average annual growth of GDP/capita (%)
Foreign direct investment, net inflows (% of GDP)
Exports of Goods and Services
(% of GDP)
Imports of Goods and Services
(% of GDP)
below national poverty line
Serbia and Montenegro
Source: World Bank Country Data Profile and CIA World Fact book figures.
As table 1 illustrates, figures of annual percentages of GDP per capita growth indicate a continuous upward trend over the past ten years, demonstrating the success of economic policies undertaken by the countries and their governments. The average annual growth of GDP per capita has ranged between 4 and 5 percent, with Bosnia and Herzegovina reaching the rate of 10 percent, followed by Albania at 5.7 percent. It should be stressed here that Slovenia is the country leading the way with the highest GDP per capita in 2005 averaging $21,600, positioning itself far ahead from the next country, Croatia, with $11,600 of GDP per capita. Serbia and Montenegro were placed at the bottom of the list with an estimated GDP per capita of $4,400, with Albania just ahead of them with $4,900.
In 2005, foreign direct investment accounted for net inflows as averaging 5.1 percent of GDP. Bulgaria is the country whose economy has benefited the most from net inflows of foreign direct investment with 8.3 percent, followed by Romania and Bosnia and Herzegovina with 7.2 percent of their respective GDP inflows. The data on foreign direct investment serves in our opinion, as one of the key indicators in calculating the degree of economic interdependence and openness to foreign businesses. Needless to say, foreign investment is directly proportional to effective reforms in legislation assuring security and predictability in the calculations of external investors.
Although the Balkan post-communist countries have achieved their major economic objectives and remain poised to continue their strong economic performance, key problems such as high unemployment and poverty remain unresolved. Job creation has remained weak throughout the region, undermining some of the important achievements highlighted above. In the cases of FYR Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina unemployment rates have been alarmingly high as they account for almost half (45.5%) of the population for the former, and more than one-third for the latter (37.3).
Trade with the European Union in 2005
Exports to the EU (% of total exports)
Imports from EU (% of total imports)
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Serbia and Montenegro
Source: European Commission for Enlargement
Of special salience, as demonstrated in Table 2 above, is the shift of imports and exports in the direction of the EU which has assumed gigantic proportions, reinforcing the membership potential of the countries and territories in the Western Balkans. Slovenia is once more leading the Balkan list with 93 percent of its total exports and 94 percent of its total imports directed to the EU. Bulgaria and Romania, as the Union's newest members, are expected to increase their trade shares further in the direction of the EU. Albania, also, offers an interesting case with 84 percent of its exports and 67 percent of its imports being EU directed.
As we have indicated earlier in this essay, declaring that a country has attained the status of consolidated democracy is not without risks. Societies are not static and modernization is not necessarily a one way street. Countries can progress or retrogress depending on circumstances that are well beyond their control. With respect to the post communist Balkans, as Table 3 below amply indicates, the picture tends to support the thesis that the region is well into a transition path that eventually leads to the creation and maintenance of consolidated democratic polities.
Comparative Political Rights and Civil Liberties in the post-Communist Balkans
1995 and 2005*
PR= Political Rights CL= Civil Liberties/// Key: 7= Least Freedom 1= Most Freedom