The Western Balkans: Perspectives for integration and the challenges

An article by H.E. Mr. Qirjako Qirko, Ambassador, published by EPToday
In the political-diplomatic dictionary, the mention of the geographic term “the Balkans” is often associated with the historical reality of a “powder keg”, and that definition is not without a reason. The Balkans in general and the Western Balkans in particular, have been an arena where conflicts and struggles have played themselves out time after time. It was there where the First World War began, and regional and ethnic conflicts have erupted frequently. The last act of this tragedy was related to the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia and the desire of the clique of Milosevic to dominate and control the former Yugoslav republics. On the human scale, the cost of the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia was terribly high.
Thousands of human lives were sacrificed, primarily the civilian population, who became the prey of the criminal madness of Milosevic for the creation of a “Greater Serbia” and the domination of the Serbian nation over the other peoples of the former Yugoslavia. Among other things, this conflict contributed to the negative burdens created in the last decades of the prior century among the peoples of the region, to which there were added rage, hatred and refusal to accept one another. Not finding sustainable solutions, principally for the Bosnia-Herzegovina, conflict in and the conflict in Kosovo, on the one hand, and the delay in bringing to justice and international criminal liability the persons responsible for what happened in former Yugoslavia, on the other hand, has negatively affected the course of peace and stability in the region.
What makes peace and stability in the Western Balkans even more difficult is the fact that the nationalist spirit that stands at the base of the conflicts in former Yugoslavia, and even constituted the ideological basis of these conflicts, continues today to produce negative effects, time and time again, putting up serious roadblocks to any initiative that would contribute to stability. Unfortunately, this unenviable inheritance has had the effect of building walls of separation between the peoples of the region. However, it seems that the project of integration into the European Union is a magnet that has reduced or weakened to a great extent the nationalist projects or other ones coming from old agendas. In the last decade, at least, the citizens of the Western Balkans have started to identify themselves with the European project. In general, the project of integrating the Western Balkans into the European Union is considered, even by the people of the region, as the only process guaranteeing the region’s democratic transformation and its social and economic development. This mutual objective has brought a solidarity that could not even have been conceived of two decades previously.
The product of this solidarity can be seen in a not inconsiderable number of regional initiatives that aim at increasing human exchanges through consolidating a regional economic zone, improving the regional infrastructure network of transportation and energy, strengthening the security dimension through the democratisation of societies, better coordination in the joint struggle against organised crime, unlawful trafficking and also the improvement of border management standards. Promoting dialogue as the appropriate mechanism to find solutions for bilateral disputes or communication as a means for building bridges of cooperation not only has shown that such methods are effective for the region’s countries, but they have also proven to be the only alternatives for jointly addressing the European agenda.
The encouragement and support that the European Union has given to this process is of primary importance and is an added value both for the countries of the Western Balkans as well as for the European Union itself. The process of dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia, with the mediation of the EU, is doubtless an innovation not only because of the fact that the two states, which a little more than a decade before were at war, today have sat down at the negotiating table, but also precisely the progress of this dialogue, and as a consequence, the recognition by Serbia of Kosovo as an independent state, would give a final solution to the region’s most critical problem, which itself is also, in essence, in the interest of Serbia. On the other hand, Serbia is using this dialogue to profit to the maximum in its relations with the European Union, with the aim that at the end of the process, the recognition of Kosovo on its part will be the key for the opening the door to the members of Serbia in the EU. Meanwhile, the dialogue, not simply as a means of communication, but as a mechanism to bring to the negotiation table issues that were considered taboo not so long ago, seems to have given concrete results, especially in Albania-Serbia relations. The initiative of Albanian Prime Minister Rama to conduct an official visit to Albania after an absence of 68 years and the exchange of several visits to follow, is not simply a new approach in bilateral relations, but is also a European conceptualisation of the manner of discussions and the resolution of problems according to European standards.
It is true that Tirana and Belgrade have differences, both as concerns issues of their bilateral agenda and also concerning the Atlantic orientation, but in the final analysis, those two countries have a specific weight that is not small concerning the stability of the region. Therefore, the improvement of relations between them is a matter of special importance for stability in the Western Balkans. At the same time, the European Union is facing challenges that have cast doubt on its very existence. The financial crisis of the Euro, the rise of populism and the nationalistic, anti-EU spirit in member countries, uncontrolled waves of migration, terrorism, “Brexit” and so forth are phenomena that have awakened great insecurity, leading to the reflex to close up within oneself becoming active.
The firm message of the EU authorities that for the next ten years the process of enlargement will be suspended is not what was expected or needed for the countries of the Western Balkans. If the Western Balkans are in relative peace, this should not be taken as a given and as final. Almost all the countries of this region have been affected by internal political crises. If we add to this sad picture the shadows of ancient animosities, the situation is not simply fragile, but is a situation that could precipitate into instability in the region. Naturally, it is the right of every state or group of states to seek to advance their own agendas or interests in particular areas of the globe, but where those interests clash with the Euro-Atlantic objectives of the countries of the region, the presence of third-party actors becomesnot merely harmful, but even dangerous. Taking all of the above into account, neither the Western Balkans nor the European Union has the “privilege” of having relaxed relations, the development of which might be the object of projections over ten or fifteen years. Losing time, being passive or even worse casting doubt on the possibility of the integration of the Western Balkans into the European Union is dangerous not only for the Western Balkan countries themselves, but also for the European Union.
Instability in a region located geographically in the heart of the EU, especially important for securing its southeast side, a region from which two important projects in the energy field, TAP and IAP, are coming, two projects that are in full conformity with the EU’s Energy Strategy, would be very difficult to manage. For this reason, the perspective of the integration of the Western Balkans into the European Union has to be turned into a close perspective, tangible for the countries of the region. Almost three years ago, on the initiative of German Chancellor Merkel and with the full support of the EU, to so-called “Berlin Process” began. This process in the first place has special political importance. It has created the conditions for building a joint agenda with the countries of the EU.
On the other hand, it aims at improving the interconnection between the countries of the region both in the field of energy as well as that of infrastructure. Those are exactly the forms of cooperation that increase the interconnectivity of the countries of the region among themselves as well as between them and the countries of the EU. And those are exactly the messages of cooperation that help keep alive the belief in integration among the countries of the region, just as they assure the appropriate preparation for EU membership. It is essential for such messages not to remain limited only to the field of infrastructure, or the energy field, but also to be extended more broadly, into the fields of strengthening the rule of law, cooperation against organised crime and trafficking, cooperation in the field of customs, trade and the economy. Only in those forms will the aspiration of the Western Balkan countries be kept alive for EU membership, as well as helping the counties of the region in integration among themselves. The European Union and NATO are the main actors, ones with direct influence in the field of security and democracy in the Western Balkans. Albania, as a member country of NATO, has welcomed and has supported the Euro-Atlantic aspirations of the countries of the region, because it believes that in his way, the region’s security space is expanded, reducing the space of the “grey areas”.
It bears mentioning that not only Albania as a state, but as the whole Albanian factor in the region supports the integration of the respective countries in NATO. The case of Albania is perhaps among the few instances in the world where a country shares common borders with its mutual fellow nationals. It is important for the Albanian political parties in Montenegro and the Albanian population there have fully supported the membership of that country in NATO. The population of Kosovo and all the political parties there support the membership of the country in NATO. The Albanians of Macedonia and all the political parties in that country support the country’s membership in NATO. More than a national instinct, this is an integrating trend, with an orientation toward peace and stability. The expansion of NATO with Montenegro is doubtless one more guarantee for the region’s security. Getting beyond the internal political difficulties, fully implementing the Ohrid Agreement as well as resolving the disputes with Greece concerning its name will help Macedonia to become a member in this organisation as well. The readiness of Kosovo to join that alliance is without doubt a positive encouraging message for the value that NATO is recognised as having in the region. It is to be hoped that Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina will also join with this regional approach.
The example of Albania, a country that two decades ago was hurting the stability in the region, today as a member of NATO, not only contributing to regional stability with its military forces in Kosovo and Bosnia, but also more broadly, in global hot spots such as Iraq and Afghanistan, or with its maritime contingent contributing to check the flux of migrants in the Aegean Sea, testifies that opening such organisations to the countries of the region is a contribution to the region’s peace and stability, and also has a positive impact on global security.In conclusion, the Western Balkans are facing today a series of challenges dictated by history, problems that are bilateral and problems that are regional, the presence of third party actors and much else. A vital, sustainable process of the Euro-Atlantic integration of the countries of the Western Balkans is the only credible alternative to guarantee peace and stability in the region.


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