The year now ending saw the continuation of older trends and some more recent ones associated with the ongoing war in Ukraine. Socio-economic problems in the region have persisted. American efforts to reduce the region’s dependency on Russian energy, as well as to raise the stakes for a Chinese economic presence, continue unabated. Pressure on countries not fully aligned with the West’s policy on Russia continued. Security volatility raised concerns, primarily in Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Problems with democracy and the rule of law remain salient in all non-EU countries in the region. Montenegro, formally the frontrunner for EU accession, found itself in political limbo and made only meagre progress vis-à-vis reforms. Bosnia-Herzegovina’s political crisis continued, fed primarily but not exclusively by the undermining of the common state by Bosnian Serb leader Dodik, the main pro-Russian politician in the region and a close ally of Hungary’s Orbán.

EU enlargement policy, traditionally the main driver of positive change in the region, has failed to elicit policy reform or enthusiasm among political elites or publics. That is because, despite the rhetoric about a new momentum and a geopolitical imperative for enlargement, the Balkans have seen little to convince them the EU is ready to change its ways, make good on its promises and provide the region with crucial help in its reform efforts. Instead, for yet another year, the ‘new momentum’ was essentially limited to Ukraine and Moldova, which were given the green light to start accession negotiations. Bosnia-Herzegovina may join them in March 2024, if it manages to complete the requested reforms.

Incidentally, the acrimony over Ukraine’s accession and the resistance put up by a single country, Hungary, will likely amplify those voices that would like to see the consensus requirement scrapped altogether in the intermediate steps of accession policy; this could be achieved as part of the institutional overhaul that will probably be required before further accessions. This will not be good news for countries which traditionally use and misuse their veto in the context of the the enlargement policy.

Thus, in 2024, the Western Balkans will have to navigate domestic political volatility, security problems and an uncertain ‘restart’ in enlargement policy. Kosovo and its relations with Serbia will revolve around the politico-diplomatic and security consequences of the violent Banjska monastery incident, where clashes between Serbian paramilitaries and Kosovo police left four people dead. The incident provided the Kosovar government a way out of a difficult diplomatic position and put the international spotlight back on Belgrade and the clandestine activity of Serbian security and intelligence institutions in Serb-inhabited North Kosovo. There are clear signs that Kosovar PM Kurti’s strategy of gradually extending his government’s de facto control to North Kosovo is bearing fruit, aided by a series of unnecessary, badly planned and dangerous escalatory moves by the political leadership of the Kosovo Serbs and by Belgrade. In the coming months, Kurti is likely to maintain the same strategy, while continuing to duck the issue of the formation of an Association of Serb Municipalities, which is seen as a hot potato that cannot be resolved without serious concessions by Belgrade towards its de facto recognition of Kosovo.

President Vucic, diplomatically weakened after the Banjska incident, will be pressured by Americans and Europeans to start delivering on the Ohrid Agreement, which was verbally accepted by the two sides in February 2023 and contains elements of de facto recognition. Vucic will likely aim to concede on the less painful elements of the agreement, while trying to regain the diplomatic upper hand. His diplomatic manoeuvres may be eased by his party’s comfortable victory in the recent Serbian elections, or by the question of sanctions against Russia no longer being in the limelight.

North Macedonia is bracing for a twin election year that is very likely to return to power the right-wing VMRO-DPMNE, a party which fiercely opposes the Prespa Agreement and the compromise deal with Bulgaria. A victim of its daring foreign policy compromises, but still more so of its failure to boldly pursue the transformation of the country, centre-left SDSM risks entering a deep crisis should it fall from power after a massive defeat. In contrast, ethnic Albanian DUI, an almost permanent partner in government, will attempt to collect enough MPs to maintain the upper hand in the negotiations for forming a government. The VMRO-DPMNE will do what it can to avoid such a development. The party will find itself in a tight spot if it does not find a way to grudgingly accept the constitutional amendments that are a precondition for opening the first negotiation cluster for EU accession. Further delays in this process will strike a death blow to the country’s reform efforts and will likely also jeopardise the hard-won inter-ethnic harmony. Diplomatic tensions with Greece are also likely.

For Albania, a successful year will leave a bitter aftertaste, after Greece effectively put a break on its EU accession process due to the crisis over Himara mayor-elect Beleris. Albania performed well in the UN Security Council presidency, successfully completed the screening process in view of opening its first negotiating chapters, successfully hosted the first-ever Berlin Process Summit in a Western Balkan country, and continued its relentless pursuit of judicial and rule of law reform. However, the mismanagement of the Beleris case by the Albanian authorities, coupled with Greece’s insistence that this was reason enough to disregard Albania’s otherwise stellar rule of law performance, denied Tirana the chance to open negotiating chapters. Greece has elevated the Beleris case to a new de facto conditionality for Albania. It remains to be seen how the Albanian authorities will handle the issue in the coming months, and whether Greece will persist with an approach reminiscent of its veto policy against North Macedonia prior to the settlement of the name dispute.

*Ioannis Armakolas is Associate Professor at the University of Macedonia and Senior Research Fellow and Head of the South-East Europe Programme at ELIAMEP

This article is part of the annual Special Edition “ELIAMEP Outlook – Predictions for 2024”, where ELIAMEP’s leading analysts and associates share their predictions for the year ahead. They assess the main challenges, trends, risks, potential opportunities and inflection points of 2024 for Greece, Europe, the Mediterranean and the world.