The Backpacker's Guide to the Balkans

05 November 2017 /

Amid an action-filled EU agenda, characterized by Brexit and proposals to reform Europe, there has not been a lot of news on the Balkans. Nevertheless, a political regime called “stabilitocracy” has grown roots in the region and this merits attention.

Stabilitocracies are defined by leading scholars of Balkan studies as “weak democracies with autocratically minded leaders, who govern through informal, patronage networks and claim to provide pro-Western stability in the region” (BiEPAG, 2017). This article portrays stabilitocracy in Bulgaria and Serbia and explains why it is accepted by EU leaders despite its shortcomings in the area of the rule of law.

Bulgaria and Serbia, a member and a candidate member state of the EU, provide good examples of stabilitocracy, which is embodied by the countries’ leaders – Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic. Both Borisov and Vucic have a dappled political past, a mixed record on judicial reform, while being tolerated, as pro-European reformists at home and in Brussels.

The past of Bulgaria and Serbia’s stabilocrats   

Borisov and Vucic got indirectly and directly affiliated to politics early in the 90s. Borisov was the head of a security firm and personal bodyguard of Todor Zhivkov – Bulgaria’s longstanding communist dictator – and Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha – the country’s last Tzar (king) who also served as Prime Minister between 2001 and 2005. Vucic himself was a member of the Serbian Radical Party headed by Vojislav Seselj, a former ICTY indictee who was acquitted in 2016, and served as Minister of Information between 1998 and 2000 during Milosevic’s regime.

Interestingly, in the second part of the 2000s, Borisov and Vucic assumed leading roles in the political life of their countries. They cut off their former political ties; created new political parties (Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria; and the Serbian Progressive Party) which joined Europe’s center-right political family, the European People’s Party (EPP). This helped them reinvent themselves as a new generation of pro-European politicians who vocally support the fight against corruption, the latter being Bulgaria and Serbia’s biggest problem.

Mixed record on the fight against corruption

Years later, Borisov and Vucic are Bulgaria’s and Serbia’s undisputed leaders. Borisov is serving a third (be it incomplete) mandate as Prime Minister and Vucic has had one term as Deputy Prime Minister, two terms as Prime Minister (again, all of which incomplete) and is currently Serbia’s President. Nevertheless, despite their constant presence in power, Borisov and Vucic have not delivered on their promise to fight corruption.

On the contrary, progress on the rule of law and media freedom has been stagnating in Bulgaria and Serbia as attested by Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index and EU reports (Commission 2016), both leaders have been accused of autocratic tendencies. However, that being said, Borisov and Vucic are still the most popular political figures in their countries and are tolerated as reformists by the European elites.

Popularity at home and abroad

To understand the internal and external popularity of Borisov and Vucic, regardless of their past misgivings and inconclusive record on the fight against corruption, stress must be put on the attitudes of both countries towards the EU.

Bulgaria, a member of the EU since 2007 is one of the most Europhilic countries in the continent, where mainstream parties that have flirted with anti-EU rhetoric and were involved in scandals implicating the EU, namely the Bulgarian Socialist Party, have consistently lost points in legislative elections. Serbia, a candidate country, although less Europhilic than Bulgaria is still leaning towards the EU because of the lack of other viable alternatives –  the EU is by far the country’s biggest trade and investment partner.

Within this context, Borisov and Vucic avoid confrontation with the EU which could damage their internal popularity. Under Borisov, Bulgaria has complied with Brussels’ demands for fiscal discipline, maintaining a commendable fiscal record – the country has a 27% public debt to GDP ratio which is the third lowest debt in the EU after Estonia and Luxembourg. Moreover, the country has reaffirmed sanctions against Russia, to the detriment of its traditional cultural and economic ties.

Conversely, Vucic has agreed with the EU’s conditions on a highly unpopular topic in Serbia such as the normalization of relations with Kosovo, participating in a series of talks which intend to improve relations between both countries. Finally, both Bulgaria and Serbia have also been acquiescent in the midst of the refugee crisis, regardless of the large influx of refugees that both states exhibited.

The cooperative policies of Vucic and Borisov have been appreciated by the EU. The latter has praised stability in the Balkans during an otherwise crisis-driven period marked by the eurozone, Ukraine and refugee crises as well as a rise in Euroscepticism that culminated with the Brexit referendum.

Europe’s positive attitude towards Bulgaria and Serbia, contrary to the countries’ imperfections in the rule of law, can be exemplified. One example is Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s branding of Borisov as “Bulgaria’s golden boy” coupled with his support for the country’s Schengen and Eurozone bid (DW, 2017). Equally important, Serbia has started accession talks with the EU, becoming the only Western Balkan non-member country to do so along with Montenegro, and Vucic has the support of Europe’s center-right family in the face of Angela Merkel and Austria’s Sebastian Kurz (SN, 2017).

The immediate effect of Europe’s acceptance and rewarding of stabilocrats such as Borisov and Vucic has been a reaffirmation of both politicians’ domestic power and influence. However, the question remains whether in the future stabilitocracy can transform itself into a consolidated democracy which fosters media freedom and the rule of law.

Venelin Bochev is a Master student in Political Science at the ULB.


Außenminister Kurz traf serbischen Premier Vucic in Belgrad. Salzburger Nachrichten (SN), 2017. Accessed November 1, 2017.

Balkan Barometer 2017. Regional Cooperation Council (RCC), 2017. Accessed November 1, 2017.

Bulgarian prime minister is Brussels’ ‘golden boy’. Deutsche Welle (DW), 2016. Accessed November 1, 2017.

Crisis of Democracy in the Western Balkans: Authoritarianism and EU stabilitocracy. Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG), March 2017. Accessed November 1, 2017.

European Commission. Serbia 2016 Report. Brussels, 2016. Accessed November 1, 2017.

Transparency International. Corruption Perception Index (2016). Accessed November 1, 2017.

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