What is a “limbo state”? The case of Serbia

For any country to be deemed successful, it needs to demonstrate the capacity to introduce meaningful or transformative changes that will positively influence citizens’ daily lives while accounting for a rapidly evolving world. To ensure the effectiveness of these endeavours, meticulous planning and anticipation are imperative, aiming to elevate the likelihood of success while mitigating the risk of failure. This forward-looking planning is contingent on the country being propelled by a clear vision, a navigational compass that dictates where it aspires to be. Although these principles might seem self-evident, there is an opposite trend developing in many places, with countries deviating from them. To better understand the basic dynamics of such states, I propose a novel concept that can be referred to as the “limbo state” (sr. zaglavljena država). Using Serbia as the inaugural case study, the aim is to test the validity of this concept, with the intention of extending its analysis to other cases in the future.

In essence, a limbo state can be defined as a state whose leadership’s inability, or perhaps, unwillingness to break free from the status quo becomes its defining feature. The concept’s core, however, transcends the notion of mere stagnation. As defined by the Oxford Dictionary, unlike the term stagnation, used to describe “the fact of no longer developing or making progress”, the term limbo focuses on “a situation in which you are not certain what to do next, cannot take action, etc., especially because you are waiting for somebody else to make a decision”. The subtle yet crucial distinction between the two terms highlights that the latter is more encapsulating. Building upon it, the concept can serve as a compelling lens through which one could scrutinise countries’ inclination towards a persistent state of inertia and assess the repercussions of such a condition on its wider socio-political developments.

There are (at least) three key elements that can be used to determine whether a country can be classified as a limbo state.

1. Absence of a clear and decisive vision of where the government sees the country in the future.

In this context, “future” denotes a timeframe surpassing the short-term focus of a few years; it signifies an ultimate objective or the envisioned “destiny” of the country. Although it is a forward-looking tool, striving towards achieving it is supposed to reflect on all current and near-future policy actions. However, a limbo state does not possess, nor does it actively seek, a vision of this kind, as maintaining the status quo aligns most seamlessly with the government’s immediate interests. Even if a limbo state articulates a pro forma vision stated in the President’s or Government’s speeches and official plans, it often serves the purpose of acquiring external and internal legitimisation rather than making a substantive contribution to on-the-ground developments as a genuine vision is expected to achieve. In practice, such a government’s actions go against the pro forma vision, essentially reducing it to a superficial, window-dressing exercise.

2. Reforms, if any, lack a cohesive and well-defined reform agenda, contributing to the sense of ambiguity.

It is in the interest of all governments to convey a sense of improvement to their citizens, with the aim of upholding social order. Yet, in a limbo state, reforms undertaken rarely produce tangible and transformative results. They lack a cohesive, well-defined, and encompassing strategy that could be linked to the overarching vision. The nexus between the two is evident. In such instances, reforms that are taken are taken for the sake of projecting an image of a government that is actively responding to the citizens’ immediate concerns instead as part of a larger transformative vision. Here, the emphasis lies more on shaping perceptions than on instigating meaningful change that would go beyond the already entrenched systemic frameworks. Consequently, even if some reforms may be normatively well-designed even in a limbo state, their effect is restrained by a systemic aim of the regime to maintain the status quo. This way, they fail even before they are put in place. 

3. Persistent societal perception of being stuck as the only certainty.

Having a clear vision and a concrete reform agenda are supposed to introduce a source of predictability for the citizens, offering a clear road ahead comprehensible to all. Yet, in a limbo state, there is a societal perception that one cannot predict where the country will be in the next five to ten years, let alone in a couple of decades. This, in return, creates a sense of apathy, i.e., an environment which deepens their sense of tiredness, dissatisfaction, and hopelessness. Accordingly, such societies reluctantly become accustomed to the status quo, rarely becoming successful in mustering sufficient energy to change it. These conditions tend to flourish in states with autocratic tendencies; the more prevalent they become, the deeper autocratic inclinations embed themselves. It thus becomes a self-fulfilling circle that is hard to break.

The necessity to introduce this concept in 2023 reflects the worrying developments in Serbia. In November of this year, the European Commission unveiled its latest Enlargement Package assessing the level of progress and preparedness for membership. Upon quantifying the assessments per chapter and fundamental subareas, the resulting rating was 3.05 on a scale ranging from 1 to 5. This rating gains significance when viewed through a comparative lens, revealing a marginal advancement of merely 0.02 percentage points since the previous year and a meagre 0.04 since 2016 — effectively signalling a state of standstill. This becomes a wake-up call if one considers that Croatia, for example, managed to complete its reforms and align with the EU’s acquis in six years. If put in the context of the key determining elements of the limbo state, Serbia stands as follows:

I. Officially, EU accession stands as Serbia’s strategic priority. However, the reality paints a different picture. So far, the European Commission, accompanied by the European Parliament and member states, continuously warned of the anti-EU or EU-sceptic rhetoric by the highest officials in Serbia. All remember the infamous statement by the head of the Serbian state that “there is no such thing as European solidarity”. These and similar statements have, in the past and currently, been continuously promoted by the pro-government tabloids, strongly contributing to the Euroscepticism among citizens. In other words, Serbia has been moving in a direction contrary to the expectations of a country aspiring to join the Union. This misalignment is further accentuated by the pursuit of foreign policies that the EU deems as a “strategic concern”, exemplified by overly amicable ties with Russia and, most recently, the signing of a free-trade agreement with China. In parallel, pro-Russian and pro-Chinese narratives are strategically employed, depending on the situation and the needs of the government. While acknowledging Serbia’s complex geopolitical and historical specificities and the impracticality of sudden U-turns, there is a palpable absence of indications that Serbia is gradually working towards the fulfilment of its pro forma vision. In short, these factors illustrate that Serbia’s articulated vision represents a matter of words, not of action, typical for a limbo state.

II. The European Commission’s assessments show that Serbia has made “millimetre-size progress” ever since it started the accession talks. Notably, the latest country report warns of the lack of division and balance between the three branches of government, a dysfunctional parliament, an inconducive environment for civil society, and a lack of much-needed progress in ensuring freedom of expression and media. Unfortunately, the list of open and concerning issues seems endless. Although some reforms are indeed undertaken that have been strongly supported by the EU, such as the constitutional amendments or media law reforms, those changes (even if normatively positive) are unlikely to produce a meaningful impact on the ground. This is the characteristic of the limbo state. In other words, the transformation of the political and societal landscape – the original aim of the accession process as seen by the EU – is going to be absent due to the state’s reluctance to change the status quo. This is also explained by the fact that Serbia continues to suffer from “elements of state capture” — a linked phenomenon that could be explained as blurring the lines between the state and the ruling party, thereby representing an environment unsuitable for democracy development. In other words, no matter the reform, the state remains in limbo.

III. The public opinion polls keep showing that a simple majority of citizens do not believe that Serbia will ever join the EU. The lack of confidence is unsurprising, considering that Serbia has been stagnating on its path to the EU since it opened the accession talks in 2014. This becomes even more logical if one understands that Serbia’s EU integration process essentially started as early as 2000, with the 5 October revolution. The populace, accustomed to a reality devoid of vision, permeated by anti-EU rhetoric, and marked by a lack of tangible reforms, appears to have entered a realm of societal apathy. Such a trend is dangerous, as it fits the needs of a limbo state. Citizens are disincentivised from strongly and energetically engaging in changing the status quo, fuelled by the belief that, regardless of their efforts, the status quo cannot be altered. Although a continuous chain of protests has marred Serbia’s landscape in 2023, they have not reached a scale significant enough to indicate a genuine departure from the prevailing sense of apathy. In addition, some even start believing that the change might bring new risks, and thus decide to play the blame game and accuse “the other side”, or in this case, the EU, for undermining the country’s overall position. Their tendency to engage in such exercise is exacerbated by the fact Serbia continues to face an unresolved issue related to territorial integrity – an issue of prime importance to many and whose successful resolution is a precondition for membership in the Union. In other words, in a limbo state such as Serbia, one unmistakable certainty emerges as a focal point: the persistent state of being stuck. In return, this creates political apathy, which further creates fertile ground for autocratic roots to grow without interruption.

The introduction of the described concept can be used to communicate the ongoing state of affairs in a powerful and easily understandable way. Although bleak in nature, it also serves as a call to action, urging collective attention and efforts to assist the country in question in overcoming its (self-imposed) challenges. Once the challenges are seen from the lens of a limbo state, this can open avenues for innovative solutions that could potentially yield results. For example, the Commission is proposing the Growth Plan for the Western Balkans, partially inspired by the civil society-developed Model for Staged Accession – whose aim is to incentivise breaking away from the status quo by increasing the incentives and benefits while clearly linking them to the required targets and level of reforms. With ongoing talks on reforming and boosting the enlargement policy, there is a strong need, in the context of ongoing geopolitical changes, for the EU to assist a limbo state such as Serbia in becoming a master of its destiny rather than its victim that drifts into the future without a discernible direction.

Photo: Unsplash /  Birmingham Museums Trust