Aleksandar Vucic speaks during his formal swearing-in ceremony as president in Belgrade, Serbia, on June 23. (Oliver Bunic/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

Vuk Jeremic, Serbia’s foreign minister from 2007 to 2012 and president of the U.N. General Assembly from 2012 to 2013, was a candidate in Serbia’s 2017 presidential election.

Events in the Western Balkans twice cast a long shadow across Europe in the past century — first in 1914 and then in the 1990s. Both times, the forces unleashed by the carnage could not be contained within the existing international order. And in both instances, proffered solutions failed to resolve the underlying tensions that brought about the conflicts in the first place.

Located at the midpoint between Berlin and Istanbul, the Western Balkans is the most direct physical link between Europe and the Middle East. We were reminded of its strategic importance during the recent European refugee crisis, when the region served as the main land route for millions of migrants fleeing violence in Syria and Iraq. If we look at the political map of Europe, we see that the Western Balkans — notwithstanding its strategic location — remains outside the European Union. Some refer to it as the black hole of Europe.

Engulfed by a plethora of challenges, the European Union has clearly relegated the integration of the Western Balkans to the back burner. This is one of the most shortsighted strategic decisions made by this generation of E.U. leaders.

The region’s increasingly distant European perspective has eased the way for local autocrats to seize power through populist rhetoric, dismantling the achievements of nascent liberal democracies. Consider Serbia’s new president, Aleksandar Vucic, who served under Slobodan Milosevic as information minister in the 1990s.

He seems to have reached a tacit agreement with various Western decision-makers: In exchange for appearing to maintain stability, Vucic was de facto given free rein to suppress fundamental rights and freedoms. As a consequence, the divide separating Serbia from the E.U. has further deepened. Yet both sides seem content with maintaining the illusion that accession negotiations remain steadily on track, even though there is no end in sight.

Such trade-offs are not only morally questionable; they are also contrary to the strategic interests of the region and the whole of Europe. Under Vucic’s increasingly iron-fisted, despotic rule, Serbia has experienced rigged elections, seen opposition leaders slanderously vilified without consequence and witnessed media outlets surrender their objectivity and independence to autocratic demands of fealty and subservience. This is hardly surprising, given that such methods were widely used the last time Vucic was in power, in the 1990s. Meanwhile, foreign investment levels are falling. Corrupt and incompetent cronies have taken over all positions of significance. And record numbers of young and educated people are leaving the country.

The situation is not much better in other countries, such as Macedonia, Montenegro, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, where there have been massive street demonstrations, often violent, over the past few years. One also hears again calls for the creation of a Greater Albania, which presupposes forcible changes in borders — something that is hardly imaginable without triggering serious tumults.

Things are especially bad in Kosovo, which holds the infamous European distinction of supplying the largest number of fighters per capita to conflicts in the Middle East. There, the new prime minister is likely to be Ramush Haradinaj. A few years ago, Haradinaj was acquitted by the Hague-based International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia of gruesome charges, including the murder and torture of Serb civilians, after witnesses either recanted at the last minute or died under mysterious circumstances. His main rival is Albin Kurti, one of the most radical populist politicians in all the Balkans.

Vucic and other Balkan autocrats operate on the assumption that state institutions must not serve as barriers to the exercise of their will to power and that it’s perfectly legitimate to manipulate public opinion to serve their own selfish interests. Such practices neither represent a good foundation for the achievement of long-term political and economic stability; nor do they contribute to establishing sustainable regional cooperation — much less reconciliation. Lending credence to such tendencies can make sense only if the goal is to entrench the Western Balkans as a sort of no-man’s-land buffer zone between the E.U. and the Middle East, in the context of the refugee issue and much else besides.

Nonetheless, I believe that a stable and prosperous Western Balkans that increasingly looks like the rest of Europe is an eminently reachable goal in this generation. The region is blessed with a favorable geographical position, abundant natural resources, and perhaps most importantly, smart and creative people who possess the wherewithal to compete at a global level in their respective fields. It has the potential to catch up with Central Europe in terms of economic development and continental standards.

Yet this can be achieved only if the free exchange of ideas, thoughtful debate and meritocratic advancement can flourish within a genuinely democratic framework.