The Covid-19 pandemic has severely affected the Western Balkans. Not only have the health and well-being of citizens been (and still are) under threat, but young democratic institutions have also been put to the test.
Government action to fight Covid-19 and subsequent oversight was complicated by political turmoil: Albania’s Parliament lacks opposition parties; Kosovo’s already-troubled cabinet fell over Covid-19-related measures; and North Macedonia was in the middle of elections.
Albania, Kosovo, and North Macedonia show a mixed picture that is roughly similar in all three countries. The good news is that these countries’ young democratic institutions have proven to be resilient enough to withstand the challenges of lockdowns and states of emergency. The fact that the system did not break down, that rule of law prevailed, and that governments mostly acted in good faith in seeking security for the population can be considered as a positive sign. The bad news is that daily practice of democratic oversight through Parliament and other institutions – which was already troublesome – has been further weakened and, in some cases, largely absent, for instance in controlling how external development cooperation funding is used by the government.
In the short term, all three countries will need to take measures to move governance and oversight largely online, without ignoring the need and possibility for in-person work when possible again. In the mid-term, after this reality check of governance, reflection is needed on what worked well and what needs improvement. More importantly, action is needed to improve financial accountability of government assistance packages and donor aid. In the long term, all three countries should stay the course in building their democracies with the understanding that democracy does not only lie in institutions and mechanisms, but just as well in mentalities and behavior. The respect earned by some politicians and officials who laboured for the common good and safety of the people under difficult circumstances is exemplary and a positive sign for the future.
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