Give Balkan nations their proper place in Europe
Give Balkan nations their proper place in Europe
The Western Balkans: Fragile Majorities
The Western Balkans: Fragile Majorities

Give Balkan nations their proper place in Europe

As the European Union prepares to welcome 10 more nations - with Bulgaria and Romania hopefully entering soon afterward - we risk squandering years of effort and betraying our European ideal if we do not also embrace those neighboring countries that, for now, remain outside.

The historic project of integrating Europe will not be complete until we have incorporated the five nations of the Western Balkans - Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and Serbia and Montenegro. While the EU Commission says that it recognizes that their eventual membership is inevitable, these promises risk seeming insincere.

There is a danger that these countries will be allowed to fall further behind their future EU partners, rather than being brought into the European mainstream. Even in their immediate region, the disparity is widening as Bulgaria and Romania receive generous EU support for structural reform and rural development in preparation for accession as early as 2007. This divergence is a threat to us all.

What is needed is an act of vision by EU leaders at the summit meeting this week at Thessaloniki to position the states of the Western Balkans to take their proper place in Europe. Given their tumultuous recent history, it is premature to grant these countries formal status as candidates for EU membership. But that is no reason not to make available preaccession programs that will strengthen the social and economic cohesion of the continent.

In a joint communiqué this month, the presidents of five Western Balkan states insisted that their countries see their future inside the union. Their declaration revealed a new self-confidence and determination to fix the region's problems, particularly organized crime and corruption. Their unprecedented display of common purpose was a powerful demonstration of the fact that the Western Balkan nations are no longer hopelessly divided and are capable of handling structural EU assistance in the same way their Eastern neighbors, Bulgaria and Romania, have done

To its credit, the Greek EU presidency has proposed spending an additional E300 million on the Western Balkans and shifting support from reconstruction - which is largely complete - to stimulating economic development. Aid to the region would be moved into the budget for preaccession countries.

The Greek plan would send a welcome signal to the long-suffering people of the Western Balkans that they can look forward to being welcomed into the Union. It also amounts to an acknowledgment by the EU that the challenge in the area is no longer to provide humanitarian or reconstruction aid, but to address deeper structural problems, such as low agricultural productivity, deindustrialization and the need to retrain the work force.

Another signal of Europe's commitment to the region would be if the EU would ease and then lift the visa regime, as it did with Croatia. At present, visas make travel from the region to the European Union difficult.

Nevertheless, the proposal faces opposition at Thessaloniki. Some member states and some in the European Commission evidently believe they can get away with offering increased political dialogue, parliamentary cooperation, support for institution-building and tokens such as student exchange programs. That is simply not enough.

Without sustained economic growth, there just will not be long-term stability and democracy in the area. A minimalist approach will only ensure that the organized crime, migration and trafficking that beset the Western Balkans continue to spill over into the EU.

At bottom, the debate is really over eventual EU membership for the Western Balkan states. The European public and their leaders need to recognize that integration offers the best prospect for the continent's peace and prosperity. A far-sighted policy would treat Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and Serbia and Montenegro the way Bulgaria and Romania are treated now, and put them firmly on the road to membership.

The Western Balkans: Fragile Majorities

Political instability keeps growing in the Western Balkans amid geopolitical contests and increased tensions with Russia. In this excerpt from the Watch List 2017 – First Update early-warning report for European policy makers, Crisis Group urges the European Union and its member states to engage intensively to ensure the political space for avoiding more serious crisis does nto entirely vanish in the Western Balkans.

This commentary is part of our Watch List 2017 – First Update.

Mounting political instability in the Western Balkans has the potential to spark new crises on the EU’s immediate borders. Political tensions are particularly high in Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) and Kosovo. Many EU policymakers are concerned that Russia aims to exacerbate this disorder, a worry that has intensified since elements of the Russian intelligence service were implicated in a failed coup in Montenegro last year. But the region’s crises are rooted in a prevalent winner-takes-all party politics and flaws inherent in the political settlements forged to end the Yugo­slav wars. While Russia has deep-seated interests in the Balkans, its interventions are more opportunistic than strategic.

[T]he EU [...] should concentrate on local sources of instability, which often are linked to ruling parties’ refusal to give up power despite losing elections.

The Balkans are a part of the ongoing geopolitical contest, but local sensitivities are much stronger drivers of events and risks in the region than geopolitics: the EU therefore should concentrate on local sources of instability, which often are linked to ruling parties’ refusal to give up power despite losing elections. Regional states – including those discussed below – have endured on-and-off political tensions since the 1990s, so far without sliding back into secessionist wars. But the political space for avoiding more serious crises is narrowing, and the EU must engage intensively to ensure it does not entirely vanish. This will play out differently in each context but at its core the EU should seek to impose meaningful financial costs on, and slow down the pace of EU accession for actors who violate basic norms, and in particular on parties that obstruct a peaceful transfer of power.

Macedonia

The risk of a serious crisis is highest in Macedonia. National elections in 2016 failed to restore stability after a period of political turmoil and sporadic violence. The incumbent right to far-right VMRO-DPMNE party has refused to cede power to a majority coalition of parties led by the Social Democratic SDSM party. A central point of contention is the SDSM’s willingness to make some political concessions to the Albanian minority, which VMRO claims threaten the state’s existence. This invalid claim has resulted in daily anti-Albanian rallies in the capital, Skopje, as well as in growing alienation among ethnic Albanians. While the Macedonian Albanian minority’s leaders generally have remained committed to working within Macedonia’s political structures since the country came close to civil war in 2001, the current crisis could undermine this uneasy bargain.

Civil society groups have called for targeted sanctions against senior VMRO officials, and the European Parliament’s rapporteur has echoed these calls. The EU should use the threat of possible sanctions to press the VMRO to accept its electoral defeat and play the role of responsible opposition. Leaders of the European People’s Party (EPP), of which VMRO is a member, should use their contacts in Skopje to insist that VMRO stop blocking the transfer of power; if it does not the EPP should consider suspending VMRO.

Kosovo

The political climate in Kosovo has been poisonous since the ruling PDK party refused to cede power after losing elections in 2014. The nationalist opposition party – VV – has responded with public protests and accusations that the PDK is too generous to the ethnic Serb minority. The PDK subsequently reached a power-sharing arrangement with another part of the opposition, the centrist LDK, though this political deal failed to bridge deeper societal divides. While the EU previously coaxed Belgrade and Pristina into constructive talks, relations have worsened and there were tensions this winter over a Kosovo Serb plan to build a wall in the divided city of Mitrovica. Although EU officials keep a close watch on the situation, inter-ethnic tensions are liable to recur if the PDK and opposition exploit them as part of their standoff.

Domestic and international civil society groups have launched a dialogue between the PDK and opposition, and the EU should continue to support this. In particular, it should encourage these civil society efforts to bring ethnic Serb minority parties and representatives into the dialogue, while using its leverage with Belgrade to persuade Serbia not to obstruct the process.

Bosnia and Herzegovina

BiH potentially faces a decisive test of its sustainability as a state in 2018-2019. The country could be unable to replace the current legislature and executive when their terms expire in October 2018. The constitutional court has struck down elements of the electoral law, and all major Bosniak, Croat and Serb parties will have to agree on amendments to the law if state-wide polls are to take place next year. Given the polarisation of BiH politics, there is a significant danger that this will prove impossible.

Failure to hold elections in 2018 would result in the state’s gradual paralysis. In a worst-case scenario this would allow Republika Srpska to press anew for its secession from the federal state. The EU, supported by BiH’s neighbours Croatia and Serbia, should use the leverage of the accession process and related assistance to push all sides to amend the electoral law as quickly as possible, and emphasise its long-term focus on the country by, for example, committing to keep in place EUFOR, the small EU-led peacekeeping force, for as long as necessary.

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