The 30 Years’ War. Media in Eastern and Central Europe Since 1989


Sometime in the halcyon days of the very early 1990s, before war convulsed Bosnia and spread turmoil across the Balkans, a few Bulgarian friends and journalist colleagues were at table in Sofia, in the shadow of magnificent Mount Vitosha. Perhaps it was the influence of the Alpine landscape, or the prospect of turning a profit out of their fledgling efforts in the then Brave New World of democratic media. In any event, as one of those present now recalls, they fell to debating how long would it take to ‘’become Switzerland.’’ Six years, maybe eight at most, was the widely accepted horizon for a generation impatient to see changes.

Viewed from the distance of three decades, this recollection seems both naïve and depressing. Asked for his assessment of the situation of Bulgarian media today, one veteran has a single word: “Terrible.” For evidence, he pointed simply to Bulgaria’s current ranking of 112th on the Press Freedom Index of Reporters Without Borders. In this gloom, we mourned especially the passing of dear friend Radostina Konstantinova, a pioneering female figure in media who succumbed at the age of just 49 to cancer. Others in Bulgaria and across central and eastern Europe -- editors, reporters, enablers -- soldier on, often self-censoring as they continue to eke a living out of working in media, juggling the imperatives of serving readers but also heeding the very real power of the often-invisible masters who have taken over significant swathes of media territory in the digital age.

When I decided almost a year ago to try and capture what happened to media in central and eastern Europe after 1989, I was surprised at the relative lack of summaries available. In part, this reflects one of the most obvious truths – that for all the shared experience of living in Communist countries for decades, the populations and history of this region remain very different. Baltic and Balkan, as in, say, Poland and Albania are deeply dissimilar (despite some common history of Roman Catholics in often lonely battles against Communist absolutism). Even those with more obviously common traits - citizens of eastern and western Germany, or the Czech and Slovak republics today, are as likely to dwell on divisions between them as on similarities. Moreover, the more time elapses between the collapse of Communist rule and the hybrid history that has unfolded since, the less obvious or even relevant the shared experiences become.

Central and Eastern Europe are the geographic territories examined in this report; as ever, it is hard to draw lines: Austria is very much part of the discussion on media and democracy; the larger territories of Russia and the former Soviet Union – Belarus and Ukraine - are mentioned expressly, but this paper is NOT intended to give a complete picture of those two countries, where events have unfolded with increasing rapidity since last August, when people took to Belarus streets in unexpectedly large numbers. The diversion of a civilian plane flying from Athens to the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius on orders from Alexander Lukashenko, the Belarus president, has created fresh outrage: Mr. Lukashenko ordered the diversion so that his security forces could arrest a young journalist, Roman Protasevich, living in exile in Vilnius and organizing demonstrations in Belarus that at their height last fall attracted some 200,000 people. His activism apparently so angered Mr. Lukashenko that the Belarus leader – in office and rankling both Moscow and the West since the mid-1990s – felt he could act with impunity, and perhaps with support of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who over past decades has blown hot and cold toward the erratic Belarusian leader.

Just in recent weeks, Russian security forces under Mr. Putin have restricted free speech and independent media in many respects. In January, Alexei Navalny, Mr. Putin’s most forthright critic, himself was detained upon his return from Germany, where he was treated for near fatal poisoning, and swiftly convicted of “violation of parole,” a sentence that could keep him in jail well into the 21st century. Leading supporters of Mr. Navalny have been forced into exile; thousands of people who took to the streets in solidarity with Mr. Navalny arrested. Until very recently, independent media in Russia – or organizations like Medusa, a news service operating from outside Russia, were still able to speak some truth to power. Now, some are being officially branded “foreign agents” or even “extremists” which severely narrows their field of operation.  The challenge posed by Mr. Navalny – in particular by his detailed chronicle of massive corruption, viewed tens of millions of times on YouTube – appears to have struck a chord and the Kremlin in response is punishing and discouraging dissent.

In Belarus, Mr. Lukashenko had already adopted similarly strong measures after presidential elections last August in which the opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhounovskaya claimed victory. Just in recent weeks, opposition leaders in Belarus said up to 40,000 people have been detained and/or sentenced for participating in protests against the government. Some of Belarus’s neighbours have backed those protests or offered opposition leaders like Mr. Protasevich asylum. Sweden is among Western countries helping to keep news of Belarus in the spotlight. The complexity of the region’s politics has been on full display in Poland, which in recent months has come under strong EU criticism for allegedly muting or silencing journalists but at the same time has offered shelter or at least verbal support to Belarus’ opposition, including the parents of Mr. Protasevich.  

Indeed, in part because of their membership in the EU, the leaders of Poland and Hungary, the two former Soviet bloc countries and EU members now most often accused of a regressive slide toward authoritarianism, are more subtle in their silencing of critics, or advancement of their right-wing agendas.

Several of the people interviewed for this report voiced mounting concern at developments in the region, in particular in Hungary, where prime minister Viktor Orban – once an anti-Communist dissident - has maneuvered openly to constrict media. After securing a crucial two-thirds of seats in parliament in 2010 (a feat later repeated in 2014 and 2018) Mr. Orban moved with an Orwellian touch and proclaimed the advent of “illiberal democracy.’’ Having secured two further victories in national elections, he then worked through and with his business and political allies to form a Central European Media Press Foundation. Known by its Hungarian acronym KESMA, it now includes some 500 organizations running all aspects of media, from advertising production and revenue to small print publications or still-just-about-surviving regional broadcasters.

Just in recent days, Hungary’s government has curbed media freedom significantly, unexpectedly adding to new laws defining what is considered gay propaganda. Mr. Orban, who has increasingly drawn himself as a Christian leader, says the new definitions help combat child porn, but his critics see the new laws as a move against LGBTQ campaigners.

The fate of Hungary’s largest Internet platform is instructive for Hungary and other countries in the region. Founded in 1999, its development mirrors that of other media and platforms across Eastern Europe in what has been labelled the “decade +” of media transition from 1989 to 2004, when Hungary and others joined the European Union. All seemed set relatively fair until 2008, when the global financial crisis hit Central and Eastern Europe just as it did the rest of the world. According to one veteran of Hungary’s media battles, Peter Erdelyi, that ushered in a period in which the government cemented its power by allowing what he called “government aligned oligarchs” to acquire regional newspapers.

In fall 2020, Index was taken over and its challenges to government policy effectively silenced.  Mr. Erdelyi and his partners in a new media outfit, 444, paradoxically face a new task: giving bloggers and NGOs a new platform even as the old one on Index was shut down.

As a source of financing, Mr. Erdelyi said, 444 is using a subscription model which is a hybrid of a paywall and crowd sourcing offering different packages but still making sure that readers with low income get basic access. With fingers crossed, 444 is to unveil this model in by early July.  

Meanwhile Mr. Orban’s skilful skirting of genuine accountability has spread beyond Hungary to Poland and recently, it appears, to Slovenia, where another Communist-era dissident, Janez Jansa, has followed in Mr. Orban’s career footsteps and become prime minister. The key difference between these two leaders is their temperament. Mr. Orban, in the view of Scott Griffen, deputy director of the Vienna-based International Press Institute, operates with “plausible deniability,” whereas Mr. Jansa, a figure in Slovenia since the late 1980s, is more strident and hot-headed. He regularly goes on television or Twitter to denigrate European officials. Jansa’s opponents see him as a European version of Donald Trump, noting in particular his refusal to acknowledge Mr. Trump’s defeat in the 2020 elections. The IPI and other press freedom advocates condemned Mr. Jansa this month for “wholly inappropriate” remarks about Dunja Mijatovic, the Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner who dared to accuse the Slovenian leader of disseminating “fake news.”

Particularly worrisome is the prospect that Slovenia assumes the six-month regular rotation of the EU presidency on July 1. Just how rattling that may prove was evident in late April and early May, when speculation ran rife in Balkan diplomatic circles that Mr. Jansa was at least one force behind the appearance of a mysterious “non-paper,” a diplomatic document sketching hitherto rejected scenarios for the region. As published by the Slovene Web site, the document postulated the partition of Bosnia-Herzegovina between Serbia and Croatia and mulled a broader reorganization of territory in the region. (Needless to say, such territorial reorganization has repeatedly been rejected as impossibly violent, even genocidal, as the Balkan wars of the 1990s amply proved).

While it seems unlikely that any regional politician or government would seriously adopt such a stance, Jasmin Mujanovic, writing on Balkan Insight, saw “a recurring debate’’ under way, in part because “the EU has no coherent agenda for the Western Balkans.’’ By contrast, Mr. Mujanovic wrote, Russia and China are “no longer mere ‘spoilers’ but genuine geopolitical competitors” with Europe. In addition, he noted, “neither local elites nor local citizens will tolerate being indefinitely sequestered to the E.U.’s waiting room.”

Whatever the truth, the rumours and conspiracy theories are deeply familiar to Balkan actors who watched the former Yugoslavia slither into war in the 1990s. Media on all sides played a big part in whipping up emotions then; guarding against a repeat by poorly sourced and deeply partisan media in the region today should be a top priority. Experienced diplomats like Valentin Inzko, the longtime special envoy for Bosnia, know how to use media in a timely fashion to get Bosnia, however briefly, on the large and crowded international agenda. Just before President Joe Biden arrived in Europe in June, Mr. Inzko gave an interview to Bloomberg News expressing hope that renewed interest from a new Administration, “combined with European Union efforts, could give the country a unique chance that must be used.”  “We need to be more robust, more prescriptive, and we need to act fast,” Mr. Inzko said. “Otherwise we will lose the Balkans.”

The Western Balkans of course are not alone in being fragile democratically, and susceptible to the vagaries of new media. Across the world, bloggers and content providers of all stripes are alternately attracted or repulsed by new outlets and platforms. Young people, usually defined as being in their 20s, but often massive consumers of new media in their teens, in particular shun traditional media, taking instead to platforms like Tik Tok to express themselves, often in short clips with little overt political message. Measuring the effect of such viral hits with their tens or even hundreds of millions of views is a science in its infancy; monetizing such prospects a new challenge for advertisers and media managers. Ever evolving technology that shapes media makes it generally harder to predict or adapt to change. The rapidity of expansion has made it hard to do thorough background checks, monitor and if necessary take down “fake news.” The use of local languages further enhances the complexity of factors at work in a world where even the most well-equipped operations – Facebook, let’s say – can err or be asked to think again about who and what gets access to coveted platforms.

Another aspect of media controversy in Central Europe is ownership. In 1989, crowds cheered revolution and freedom and nobody was thinking too much of practicalities like raising capital, publishing on a commercially viable basis, and who would have the biggest say and on what basis. That phase included acquisition of East European media by German, Swiss, American and other foreign media, and ran, choppily regulated, up to the 2004 expansion of the European Union. When the financial crisis of 2008 hit, that prompted more examination of how media was owned and run, but there was – perhaps crucially – no unified approach to regulation. In those years, the power of the market was still seen as the guiding principle for economic and political change, and thoughts like Ivan Krastev’s reflections on how the East was engaged in a pale imitation of Western ways had yet to cloud the horizon. All the while, the cast of foreign media actors who took the plunge into the East shifted, sometimes with little scrutiny. A variety of owners and structures emerged, some of them reflecting that the region’s economy and commerce are very much now part of global business.

Media across the region contend with all the troubles faced by their peers elsewhere, with money of course often even scarcer than it is in US newsrooms battling to survive the loss of traditional revenue models. East and central European journalists did not necessarily have any financing pattern fixed in their Communist past when the Party essentially determined editorial policy and the state paid the bill.

Some select newsrooms could tap into large reserves of financing if their owners and managers (and regulators) agreed the investment would be good business and deliver a transparent outcome. The developments around the reclusive Czech billionaire Petr Kellner and his PPF conglomerate of media, telecoms, real-estate and financial services will be worth watching in this regard.

In late March, the billionaire Petr Kellner, said at 56 to be the Czech Republic’s wealthiest man with a fortune worth some 17.5 billion dollars, was killed in a helicopter accident in Alaska, where he liked to ski glaciers. His PPF conglomerate encompassed real estate – including loans to homeowners in China – and major stakes in about 30 TV channels reaching some 45 million viewers in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia. These included the biggest commercial TV channel in the Czech Republic, TV Nova; additionally yet, Mr. Kellner owned mobile network Telenor CEE, No.1 or No.2 in countries where it operates: Hungary, Bulgaria, Serbia and Montenegro.

His widow, Renate, and four children are the heirs to the Kellner fortune, which is run by a foundation that so far has given scant clues as to what it intends to do. The dimension of any change is large: Leos Jousek, spokesman for PPF, noted in an email exchange with me that he had recently spent six hours in conference calls across multiple time zones to effect a straightforward structural shift.

The structure that Mr. Kellner built – complete with 94,000 employees in 25 countries and glossy brochures touting PPF’s activities, -- is very typical of big business on a global scale dependent on activity around the world for its growth and development. In 30 years since the collapse of Communism societies changed, and so did media and their goals. Whereas the appetite for news and truth is still strong, and the desire for new narratives and ways of telling those stories is by no means satisfied, different groups in politics and business are using media as a powerful means to get what they want. The European Union, based on the principles of liberal democracy, was considered sufficiently strong to defend its standing and mode of operation simply because all members accepted those conditions to join the club, as it were. Only gradually over the past 10 years has it dawned on some EU members that a more robust defence of the bloc’s principles was needed. In 1989, the main goal was to fight totalitarian regimes. Gradually that aim blurred as the various ex-Soviet bloc countries appeared to move to a brighter future, albeit at vastly different speeds, and with wildly varying degrees of openness. Now, as a EU official said in an interview for this article, “The situation is getting really kind of crucial, and it’s crucial to act now”.

Take the rise of the reclusive Mr. Kellner. As far back as 2007, one of Mr. Kellner’s companies, Home Credit, acquired a pilot license that allowed the company to offer non-banking loans in China.

According to the pilot project was a success, indicating that a bigger business on a larger scale would be profitable. Czech media cited Home Credit’s representatives as saying that that would require improvement of Czech-Chinese relations.

According to Aktuálně.cz, Home Credit hired the C&B Reputation Management to spread positive information about China, and to attack China critics. “Good relations with China are crucial for Kellner’s business,” wrote Aktuálně.cz. Mr. Kellner accompanied Czech president Milos Zeman on his private jet on at least one visit to China, and in 2017 the pilot license turned into a full one.  By 2019, the overall amount lent in China reached some 300 billion Czech crowns, or $14 billion.

Along this path, there have been flareups over the exact nature of Czech relations with China. Prague’s mayor Zdenek Hrib, prominent in the Pirate Party, has fanned  speculation about overly friendly ties. There were rumors of Home Credit seeking to cement a partnership with Charles University in Prague, but student protests, among other factors, apparently stymied such plans and the university professor backing a Chinese-funded course resigned.

A Pirate Party member who sits in the European parliament for the Pirates, Marcel Kolaja, posed a formal question in February 2020 asking whether Mr. Kellner’s PPF Group could acquire Central European Media and its potential audience of 97 million in Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia.

The transaction may be problematic not only from an economic and antitrust point of view but may also lead to further limitations of media pluralism in those Member States, Mr. Kolaja suggested. He asked how and whether the EU Commissioner responsible for media freedom and pluralism, Vera Jourova, would act to prevent potential harm to media freedom.

Ms. Jourova, who is from the Czech Republic, eventually approved the deal, but has gained a reputation as a politician prepared to challenge perceived attacks on media pluralism. In recent weeks, a highly controversial deal in Poland has seen her doing battle with that country’s ruling PiS party (Law and Justice party.)


In the latest ranking by Reporters Without Borders, Poland took 62nd place, to the evident discomfort of Gazeta Wyborcza, the flagship newspaper founded in 1989 by the anti-Communist dissident Adam Michnik. “We were overtaken by countries such as Armenia, Georgia and Niger,” the newspaper’s reporter Dominik Uhlig wrote last November, citing attacks on individual journalists as one reason for slipping behind.

Weeks later, on Dec. 7, 2020, the giant Polish refiner PKN Orlen announced that it was buying Polska Press, thereby shifting control of numerous regional newspapers to a state-owned company from a German company which had bought a majority stake.

What appears from outside to be a somewhat bizarre move is in keeping with the ruling Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (Law and Justice) party’s determination to “re-Polonize” media. After 1989, Poland established strong traditional media like Gazeta Wyborcza and its publishing company Agora. Investment from media outside Poland also grew and remains strong: for example, the German-Swiss group Ringier Axel Springer, according to the company’s LinkedIn profile, owns among others “Onet – the largest news portal in Poland, Fakt – the largest Polish daily and Sympatia – the leading dating site in Poland.”   

But political clout clearly rests with Law and Justice, whose officials have increasingly assumed important roles, particularly in the state TV and radio channels that are estimated to dominate up to 40 percent of the national viewership.

Certainly, Law and Justice showed no hesitation about its acquisition and the subsequent sacking or enforced departures of eight senior editors.

"We are taking over the publishing house @Polska_Press. Thanks to the transaction, we will gain access to 17.4 million users of portals belonging to the group," Orlen CEO Daniel Obajtek said on Twitter.

Since Germany’s presence on Poland’s media market is still strong, the Polish government in an apparent effort to discredit today’s Germany repeatedly reminds viewers of Germany’s crimes during WWII.

But in a sign that the ruling party cannot necessarily behave just as it pleases, Poland’s Ombudsman Adam Bodnar acted to block the controversial Orlen deal, and a Warsaw court on April 13 approved his move.

The next day, Ms. Jourova told the news site Euractiv that the Orlen case “raised concerns in the Commission.”  “Of course we cannot interfere into these ongoing procedures but generally speaking, when these mergers create a bloc that starts to work in the interest of one political party, then it’s a very dangerous situation,” she added.

An EU official interviewed for this article said that there is growing pressure on member states individually and the Commission as a whole to bolster the institutional response in order to preserve credibility. The official conceded that progress toward what the commission is calling a “Media Freedom Act” has been slow, in part because the EU never expected to have to enforce values on which the bloc is based. “Commissioner Jourova said: we did not expect to do that… OK, we don’t have the tools to enforce the EU values because, you know, we thought OK, now that there is this EU, now we are in this family based on common values. It was a bit taken for granted.”

As a result, the EU commission is now publishing a “Rule of Law Report” which focuses on four things:

  1. Independence of the judges
  2. The Mechanisms that are in place against corruption
  3. The state of media pluralism and media freedom
  4. Constitutional checks and balances
Austria and Germany

In 2019, Austrian politics were shaken to their core by the publication in Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung and Der Spiegel of a taped conversation between Heinz-Christian Strache, then Vice Chancellor of Austria, another senior politician in the right-wing Freedom Party, and a woman purporting to be the niece of a Russian oligarch, Igor Makarov. In this encounter, which took place at an undisclosed location in Ibiza, the fake niece and Mr. Strache appear to discuss offering each other mutual assistance – Russian money for Austrian contacts. At one point of the conversation, Mr. Strache is heard wishing he had a setup like Orban in Hungary, the implication being that a state-run media would not leak and spoil any eventual deal.

The “Ibiza-gate” scandal underscored a surprising aspect of the free press discussion in Europe in general and Austria in particular – the unusual strength of ties between political parties and the state machinery, with a special role for media and recently for Austrian judges in dismantling these cozy relations.

Young people today outside Austria may well not know the country’s post WWII history: it was occupied by troops from the four Allied powers who withdrew only in 1955 in exchange for Austria’s neutrality. After the war, many Austrian newspapers were directly linked with a specific party, serving a country in which almost every influential post was handed out under a “proportion” system. Austrians are very used to the idea that political power and media work together and that government subsidizes media. Of course there are other European countries where government subsidizes media but in few places is this relationship so entrenched.

The very system by which Austrian publications receive state backing appears deeply flawed in terms of fairness, although it helps maintain a vibrant and competitive market for print news. Die Kronen Zeitung, a national publication which has long dominated the newspaper market, and two other tabloids are awarded far larger subsidies per reader than the left liberal Der Standard daily on the bases of copies printed rather than sold at kiosks and by subscription.

But it is not just the conservatives who benefit from Austria’s unusual system. During the last decade, it was the Social Democratic Party SPÖ that started the practice of awarding their allied publications with copious “Inserate” – advertising inserts paid by the party. Public advertising by government bodies – particularly in the past year of Covid pandemic – have continued to grow.

In addition, Austria is only just now passing a freedom of information law that has been standard for decades or even longer in other countries. There’s public support for subsidized media in Austria, as in many other countries – it can help maintain high quality and, as in the arts, sometimes secures the institution’s very existence. The obvious danger is that the publication becomes hostage to a political party.

As everyone now knows, Ibiza-gate led to the immediate collapse of Austria’s government and new elections. The political scene remains turbulent roiled now by questions as whether Chancellor Sebastian Kurz told the whole truth (and nothing but) when testifying in 2019 before a parliamentary committee investigating the Ibiza scandal. Mr. Kurz is confident that he will emerge innocent; however, the mere prospect of a sitting Chancellor being indicted has generated oceans of hostile commentary and called into question how the Austrian system holds politicians to account.

Similarly, the practice of public advertising in media outlets did not, in the words of the International Press Institute last December, cause the problems surrounding public advertising but “it made existing problems and imbalances more visible.” “The volume of advertisement by public bodies in Austria is very high,” said Daniela Kraus, director of Vienna press club Concordia. “We are talking about an amount of 180 million euros per year.” IPI concluded that the importance of public advertising in overall expenditure is even clearer in comparison in neighbouring countries. In 2017, a year of federal elections in Austria as well as in Germany, the German government spent less money on advertising even in absolute numbers although Germany’s population is nearly 10 times that of Austria.

Medienhaus Wien, a non-profit organization in Vienna, published a report on ministerial advertising spending in 2018 and 2019 at the federal level. As IPI noted, for most of that period, the former coalition between Austria’s People’s Party ÖVP and the right-wing Freedom Party FPÖ was governing.

Two thirds of the advert money went to the three biggest tabloids Österreich, Kronen Zeitung and Heute. Spending on other media was significantly less. Österreich received 5.15 euros per reader in 2018; the daily Kleine Zeitung 1,71 euros and the left liberal daily Der Standard 0,89 euros.  Andy Kaltenbrunner of Medienhaus Wien, who conducted the study, described the way Austrian government distributes advertisement money as “unashamed, unimaginative and feudal.”

“The motto is: we give it to whom we want,” Mr. K said.

The damage to free speech is perhaps all the greater in that Austrian media might well have served, post Communism, as a model for its ex-Soviet bloc neighbours – territories like Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Slovenia or Bosnia and Herzegovina – which were ruled at various points in the past from Vienna in the now defunct Hapsburg empire.

Plus ça Change…

In the 30-plus years since Communism fell, media have evolved but the age-old tendency for those with political power to use it with as little accountability as possible has remained. Yet the picture is not totally bleak: younger MEPs, for example, are using the European institutions that can call out questionable practices to do precisely that. These politicians hail from across the spectrum – for example, in the conservative bloc known as the European People’s Party, pressure finally squeezed Mr. Orban so hard that he removed his Fidesz movement outside the EPP. Poland is deeply divided over matters such as the right to abortion, with both right- and left-leaning forces lining up behind competing ideologies. MEPs speak up against what they see as the timidity of European officials or politicians reluctant to bring cases before the European Court of Justice. At a hearing in March, Michal Simecka, a first-term MEP from the Progressive movement in Slovakia, summed up the dilemma thus: “We have reached a point,” he told a discussion group, “where erring on the side of caution is too risky.” He and others argue for more robust action from the Commission because, as Mr. Simecka said, apparent violations “keep piling up” and “The EU does not have strong formal competences” to hire what he called killer lawyers to argue cases before the Court of Justice, which in turn risks looking weak if it does not speak out forcefully. Another MEP at the same hearing, Sergei Lagodinsky of the German Greens, noted wryly that two years in the European Parliament had made him “a very wary politician.”

Wary, but watchful – and increasingly prepared to resist Mr. Orban and others – Bulgaria’s Bojko Borissov, for example -- so that democratic gains and free speech are protected.

The challenges for democrats continue to grow: in Hungary, again, Mr. Orban recently put 11 state universities under the control of foundations, apparently along the lines of the foundation running the media. If need be, this would give the prime minister a post from which to keep a close eye on universities – traditionally hotbeds of resistance and molding the global elite.

In another move already stirring protests in Budapest, Mr. Orban just signed with Shanghai’s Fudan university to build that university’s first overseas complex. (A marked contrast with the lack of Orban enthusiasm for George Soros’ Central European University, which is now moving in large part to Vienna).

The Balkans, once more

As Mr. Inzko made clear (see above), there is a chance that the Balkans are “lost,” particularly if free speech is constrained. The Dayton agreement has silenced the guns in Bosnia, justice has been served to the former Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladic and dozens of others responsible for the deaths of more than 100,000 Bosnians. But the fierce nationalism that led to war still holds sway in the western Balkans.

Just days ago, Serbia’s interior minister Aleksandar Vulin outlined a vision for bringing together the Serbs from all over former Yugoslavia: “I believe that the creation of the Serbian World solves the national question of Serbs,” he said, according to Serbian news agency Beta. “It stops the spread of ‘Greater Albania’, guarantees Serbs that genocide against them will never happen again, and above all ensures long-lasting peace in the Balkans.”

Similarly harking back to the 1990s, Ratko Dmitrovic, minister for family affairs in Serbia, has held senior posts in Serbian media since the 1980s. His views of other Balkan nations do not appear to have changed since he was a strident warmonger in the 1990s. Another measure of the still powerful position of Serbian nationalists in the Balkans today is the strong grip of the Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik in the Bosnian Serb territory Republika Srpska.

Both Serbia and Croatia retain a strong affiliation to and interest in the affairs of the respective ethnic groups in Bosnia, which is formally governed by a hydra headed bureaucracy. Again, this has silenced the guns, but also frozen in place structures that were meant to last months rather than decades. They satisfy no-one except those who get salaries, cars and other minor perks courtesy of foreign powers still overseeing the Dayton arrangements.

Similarly stalled – if not so badly – are talks to address EU membership for Albania, Kosovo, Montenegro, Macedonia and Serbia itself.

In the three decades since the journalists gathered to conjure their visions of a brighter tomorrow, the mood in Sofia newsrooms has shifted, along with vanishing trust in politicians and media.

Since 2007, when Bulgaria joined the European Union, the country has sunk 77 rungs in the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index. More worryingly, only one in ten Bulgarians believes that the media are independent. Vanishing credibility is seen as a result of the growing control of oligarchs and politicians on media coverage.

The few optimists who do remain see some flickering light at the end of the tunnel. Most recently in Bulgaria, that came in the form of American action – rather than moves in Brussels.

In what was said to be the biggest such action ever, Washington sanctioned several Bulgarian oligarchs and tycoons and dozens of their companies under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, which targets worldwide corruption and human rights abuses.

Among those sanctioned is Delyan Peevski, a controversial media mogul and former member of parliament, who has been cited for years as the main reason for the deterioration of the media environment in Bulgaria.

This sort of move – whether from Europe or America --can lift the mood of even the most skeptical of observers of the post-Communist world.

Elena Yoncheva, a former TV journalist in Bulgaria and current MEP, recently said that although journalists’ life is not threatened as in Russia or Belarus, the real victim in Bulgaria is journalism itself. 

Yoncheva, who addressed a public meeting in Sofia on media video link from Brussels, noted that for the former governments of Boyko Borissov, press freedom was not a priority and citizens were being poisoned with populism and propaganda.

“This is because authoritarian regimes do not need free media,” Yoncheva said. “Media policy has been an orphan for years. And journalism itself has been killed slowly and systematically.”

The article gives the views of the author, not the position of the "Europe’s Futures–Ideas for Action" project or the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM).