Getting EU Conflict Prevention Right in the Balkans and Caucasus
Getting EU Conflict Prevention Right in the Balkans and Caucasus
Changing Dynamics in the Western Balkans
Changing Dynamics in the Western Balkans
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia 4 minutes

Getting EU Conflict Prevention Right in the Balkans and Caucasus

EU Foreign Ministers have a chance to stem conflict in their immediate neighborhood when they meet in Brussels on 26 July. Armed clashes are still possible in Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and even Bosnia-Herzegovina. The EU needs the best tools and the best people to respond.

In the European conflict areas, the EU should be visible, credible and influential. In some cases, like during the August 2008 war pitting Russia against Georgia, the EU got it right. It stepped in to secure a ceasefire, encourage some Russia troops to pull back, and quickly deploy an EU monitoring mission. In other areas, like Bosnia-Herzegovina, the EU seems to have run out of ideas and energy on how to address the intransigence of local nationalist leaders and stand up to threats against the Dayton Peace Agreement.  

When they meet on 26 July, EU foreign ministers must take stock of lessons learned and decide what instruments best address conflict in their own back yard.

In Bosnia, the EU faces a country preparing for a general election on 3 October, where extremist nationalist rhetoric is dominating the campaign, and a referendum in the Serb Entity may put into question the authority of the Office of the High Representative (OHR).The EU Special Representative (EUSR) to Bosnia, currently Valentin Inzcko of Slovenia, is also serving as the High Representative. For the past several years this double hatting has not served the EU well, as the EUSR has been unable to assert himself as the EU’s clear united voice on Bosnia. Instead he has to spend more than half of his time on OHR duties, meet the competing demands of members of the Peace Implementation Council (PIC) which includes the US and Russia, and compete with the head of the European Commission delegation to be Brussels’ face in Bosnia.  

Now that the head of the EC delegation has departed, and the delegation is transforming into a full EU representation, the EU should commit to appointing a heavyweight EU Ambassador as head of the EU Delegation representing the Commission and taking over  many of the powers of the current EUSR, whose mandate should wind down over the next six months. The new delegation, soon to merge current Commission and EUSR staff, is likely to become one of the EU’s biggest worldwide. Reinforced with political and legal staff, it can start working after the elections with Bosnian political leaders, first to assist them in the difficult process of forming a coalition government, and thereafter to push forward on EU accession.  

A strong EU presence will help convince the rest of the international community that the EU can take the lead, and the long moribund OHR can close. If no decision is taken on the 26th there is a real possibility that Bosnia's tense elections will go forward with no single strong, influential, respected EU representative on the ground. Instead, the OHR will again be asked to help resolve Bosnia’s deep political problems most likely to little effect. 

Rather than wait, Member states and High Representative Catherine Ashton should be bold and transfer EU leadership to a new and reinforced EU delegation, appoint a reinforced head of delegation before October, and announce that the EU Special Representative (EUSR) to Bosnia is being phased out. After six months the EUSR mandate should expire, logically ending the OHR/EUSR double hating.

In the Caucasus, where conflict also continues to threaten European security, the danger is different because it is regional. Here the EU cannot project its interest in peace simply with EU delegations. The EU needs a regional representative to address South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Nagorno-Karabakh, where people continue to die on the line of contact, including five last month. For almost five years Peter Semneby, a Swedish ambassador, has played the difficult role of EU Special Representative for the South Caucasus, shuttling between regional capitals, Moscow, Ankara, Brussels and EU member states to inform officials about developments on the ground, propose solutions and monitor implementation. Such a respected EU representative is needed to talk directly to those Presidents and Prime Ministers who still hold most of the cards in deciding whether fighting restarts or dies down.

The EU delegations in the Caucasus cannot take up this regional role because they are bilateral bodies. Staff in Azerbaijan or in Armenia cannot be sent in to deal with Nagorno-Karabakh, which is internationally recognized as part of the former, but controlled de facto by the later. The offices in Armenia and Azerbaijan are also young, opened in 2008, understaffed and lack expertise on conflict issues. The Georgian delegation has been able to operate in Abkhazia, but it has no access to South Ossetia, and obviously cannot talk to Moscow.   

If the EU drops its special representative for the South Caucasus, a Brussels-based political director within the External Action Service (EAS), could perhaps substitute for the EUSR but not until the EAS is well up and running. He or she would also like Semneby need to have a political team on the ground, to do the painstaking confidence building necessary with the de facto authorities in Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh but that will take time. Until then, the current set up should remain in place, and the EUSR should be renewed for another 12 months, otherwise the Caucasus will be left without a clear EU presence to deal with conflict until the kinks of the EAS are resolved.  

The EU clearly needs to streamline its conflict prevention and resolution capabilities to be more effective. In the Balkans, countries have a clear EU membership perspective, the Commission is well implanted, large funds are being disbursed, and the conflicts are internal, and reinforced EU delegations can take the political lead. But among the more distant Caucasus neighbors, where conflicts are regional, financial resources fewer, and EU membership a distant hope, a regional envoy, backed with an agile political team, is still needed.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.