The Western Balkan countries continue to grapple with various barriers to development and stability. While strides toward democracy have been made, fragile rule of law, weak institutions, and judicial inefficiency persist, hampering accountability and fostering corruption. Depressed economies and high unemployment foment youth emigration, which exacerbate demographic imbalances while draining the region of skilled labor. In turn, this foments ethnic tensions and political instability, hindering reconciliation and sustainable peace. 

IRI’s latest regional poll – which surveyed citizens across Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia from February 2 to March 5, 2024 – takes a deep dive into public opinion on these issues while providing a glimpse into the complex dynamics affecting the region’s development. Emerging from the data are both promising signs of progress and concerning potential for backsliding. Likewise, IRI’s polling data helps illuminate the most critical areas in need of development and where best the international community and regional governments can focus their efforts. Most importantly, the data reveals citizens’ priorities, which increasingly include closer ties with the West.

Broad Support for Joining the European Union and Following a Pro-Western Foreign Policy 

Aspirations for European Union (EU) accession drive reforms and foster closer alignment with Western standards and values, encouraging democratization and institutional strengthening. IRI’s data shows encouraging signs that this is exactly what most citizens want. When asked if they would support joining the EU if a referendum were held today, strong majorities in five of the six countries would vote to join the bloc, ranging from 68% in both North Macedonia and in Bosnia and Herzegovina to 92% in Albania. In Serbia, a plurality of 40% support joining the EU. This comes at a time of heightened motivation in Brussels to accelerate the EU integration process in the Western Balkans.  

Relatedly, a plurality of citizens in all countries except Serbia support a pro-EU, Pro-Western foreign policy course. In particular, 87% of people surveyed in Kosovo and 82% in Albania responded that their country’s foreign policy should be oriented exclusively towards the West and EU. These numbers suggest that many across the region see European integration and closer ties with the West as a path to greater prosperity. 

Russia’s War in Ukraine  

The poll also found that majorities in five of the six surveyed countries believe Russia’s war on Ukraine is completely or somewhat unjustified. In Serbia, however, a plurality of 49% think that Russia is completely or somewhat justified. While the risk of a major conflict spilling over from Ukraine seems relatively low, the potential for increased tensions and instability remains. Thus, IRI’s polling data is critical when contextualizing the regional divisions that have been exposed by the ongoing conflict. It appears that Serbia’s close ties with Russia are having an influence on citizen perception of the war. However, while Russia tries to aggressively compete with the West for influence in the Western Balkans, the data indicates that pro-Russian narratives are not resonating with most citizens outside of Serbia.

In fact, since the outbreak of the war, leaders in the Western Balkans have been eager to connect with their Ukrainian counterparts, providing crucial insight into governance during wartime and paths to post-conflict reconstruction. As noted during IRI’s Southeastern Europe Democracy Summit, Ukraine and the Western Balkans share a desire for Euro-Atlantic integration and effective democratic institutions free from corruption and authoritarian influence. 

Citizen Priorities 

It is important to consider the potential linkages between citizens’ desires for a Western-oriented foreign policy course and their concerns about the state of the economy. Economic development initiatives, supported by international investment, trade agreements, access to open markets offer opportunities for growth and prosperity while potentially revitalizing local economies. Thus, coupled with demands for closer ties with the West, are fears of economic hardship. With the exception of Kosovo, when asked about the most important problem facing their countries, the top answer was the cost of living.1 Thus, it is unsurprising that respondents in five out of six Western Balkan countries said that this should be the top priority for their government.  

Also revealing is the prevalence of corruption as a top answer when it comes to government priorities. In each country, corruption placed in the top three most important priorities for the government. These findings are in line with expert analysis from IRI’s Western Balkans Task Force, which published a series of six position papers in July 2023 on the effects of corruption and kleptocracy on democratic development. The papers underscored the deleterious effect of corruption on job availability and long-term growth.  

Looking Ahead 

The Western Balkans face significant challenges that require immediate attention and strategic interventions. Insights from IRI’s regional poll shed light on the complex dynamics shaping the region’s development.  It’s clear that both the international community and regional governments must make sustained efforts to address these challenges effectively. Prioritizing citizen concerns, fostering economic development, and strengthening democratic institutions can propel the Western Balkans towards sustainable peace, prosperity, and integration into the Euro-Atlantic community.

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