What’s Up in Western Balkans? Ask an Expert

V4 and WB Experts speaking on the developments in the region

26 May 2022

Tetiana Poliak-Grujić

EU Neighbourhood Programme Director

In partnership with:
Supported by: 

On the EU – Western Balkans relations:

Ledion Krisafi, Albanian Institute for International Studies (ALB)

The Russian aggression in Ukraine has shed new light on the perspective of the Western Balkan countries and their aspirations to join the European Union. In particular, this new political situation has shown that the existing status quo of internal stalemate is no longer stable. Consequently, a new strategic vision is needed for the future of the region, in order to guarantee not only stability but also democratization and economic development.

The European Union has for many years “imposed” stability “as a governing alternative to avoid confrontations between the countries of the Western Balkans. to centralize reforms and democratic processes in the Western Balkan countries. In this context, the European Union has “allowed” autocratic behaviour and tendencies by not reacting to the leaders of the Western Balkan states.

There are some sub-contexts within the Region that develop through agreements or initiatives such as the Open Balkans, which have turned into an arrow rhetoric towards the Union’s policies and the role it should play in the Western Balkans. The Open Balkans produced a series of agreements without consulting the public of the respective countries, thus continuing the autocratic and contemptuous behaviour towards the values ​​of the rule of law and the principles of democracy. It remains to be systematically analysed and seen below what the European Union’s position will be in the dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia and whether Serbia’s position on Russia’s war in Ukraine has been merely a pre-election narrative.

The situation in the Western Balkans has received a wide and largely negative impact from the aggression in Ukraine. Hot or subtle destabilizing points and nationalist narratives have exacerbated the situation in Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina, which continue to be the weakest links in the security chain in the region. The still non-negotiated dispute between Bulgaria and Northern Macedonia, which indirectly holds Albania hostage in the framework of the opening of negotiations, seems to aggravate the position of the European Union as a geopolitical actor. Agreements reached after the 1990s or after the dissolution of the Yugoslav Federation in the Western Balkans have shown that beyond the relaxation of the current situation, they have not reflected adequate solutions to the nature of conflicts and especially reconciliation between deeply divided societies in the region. The economic situation at the same time has been affected by the uncontrolled rise in prices and shortages in electricity supply which have complicated the situation by forcing people to organize national protests.

The division of the region when it comes to sanctions against Russia (but unfortunately, even when it comes to popular sensitivities about the war), between Serbia and any other state that has taken sanctions, has again called into question the framework of regional cooperation and new initiatives. like that of the Open Balkans.
Therefore, one of the first steps to be considered by the European Union is to articulate an honest approach to the ambitions that the Union itself has in relation to the region. Repeated statements by top European Union officials that the region belongs to the European Union have begun to feel worthless and stale. The failure of the European Union to achieve some simple steps such as the organization of the first intergovernmental conference with Albania and Northern Macedonia, as well as visa liberalization in Kosovo are nothing but threatening and not optimistic signals. The latter become even more problematic in light of the fact that the European Commission itself has made these recommendations for years.

The European Union must make a choice whether to continue to be simply an economic union or to transform into a real geopolitical actor in the international arena. The conflict in Ukraine makes this choice even more important. The first area where the European Union should show this clarity as a geopolitical actor and not simply as the largest economic donor is the space in the Western Balkans. Various international reports and surveys at the national level have shown that the credibility of the peoples of these countries is higher towards the institutions of the European Union than towards the institutions or political parties in the country. Therefore, it is important for the development of human capital that the European Union be a model of sustainability and guarantee of the rule of law. Although the lack of clarity in this regard has made it difficult to transmit these values ​​to the 6 countries of the Western Balkans.

This is not to say that the ball is in the European Union’s court alone, as the countries of the region vary at different levels when it comes to the health of democracy in each of these countries, the readiness or readiness of their economies to keep up the pressure. of a common market and the different level they have in terms of specific reforms.

It remains to be seen how the new enlargement methodology of the European Union will affect the improvement or advancement of political leadership and whether it will change with the right impact the trajectory from a purely technical paradigm to a framework that focuses on democracy. and the rule of law. Passivity in the activity of enlargement of the European Union and interventions oriented towards democracy are two elements which do not favour the democratization process in all 6 countries. Contextualization of policies depending on the nature of conflicts and disputes at the national level; tighter mechanisms in favour of accountability and quality of reforms enabled in most cases by European Union funds; Emphasis is placed on programs that strengthen the rule of law through civic participation and the incentive of projects focusing on security and good neighbourliness are some points to underline the concrete continuity of the European Union in the Western Balkans.

 

Dimitar Nikolovski, EUROTHINK – Center for European Strategies (MK)

Being a global event in close geographical vicinity to the Western Balkans, the war in Ukraine inevitably begs the question of the various implications it would have on future developments in the region. 

Considering the European Union’s importance for democratic developments in the Western Balkans, I expect the war to influence their relations in at least two ways. 

First, it might send an impulse for reinvigorated interest in a faster integration process for the Western Balkans countries.  Thus, the EU could invest much more energy and funds into resolving the many bilateral disputes that are posing a threat to the general enlargement process. In addition, it might amend and lighten the accession procedures and criteria, thus concentrate more widening rather than deepening the integration.   

Most importantly (and speaking from a Macedonian position here), the need for enlargement might produce a change in the decision-making procedures, so that single countries will not be able to block processes, as presented by the case between Bulgaria and North Macedonia. 

Nevertheless, the EU may not forget its peacebuilding and stabilization mission, and should act within it.

The second way in which the EU might position itself is to, in fact, do nothing and forget about enlargement in the Western Balkans. This outcome might be due to the many disagreements that already exist within the EU even on strategic issues. The very concept of enlargement and integration might take a different turn, with varying statuses of membership and association. As a result of this far-fetched scenario, I am certain that the Western Balkans will not be considered for full membership, but rather only integrate and associate in some limited aspects. 

With regards to the war in Ukraine, I would say that it changes the overall situation because it forces some of the actors in the WB to draw the line and clearly position themselves. It has already produced a positive outcome in North Macedonia, since all mainstream political parties stood clearly in support of Ukraine and condemned the Russian aggression (even those we were a bit worried about). So, it is a large consensus at the elite level, despite the existence of many dissenting and pro-Russian voices at the level of civil, or uncivil society. 

Especially, the Ukraine situation has put Serbia’s president Vucic in a difficult situation, where he has to finally clearly position himself, considering the advanced status in EU accession process that Serbia has. He still has not done this, but it has cost him some votes, especially pro-Russian ones, in the latest elections. 

The security situation in the Western Balkans is the most vulnerable in Bosnia and Herzegovina, especially because of Dodik’s erratic behavior. We have dysfunctional institutions and a strong push for disintegration of the country. Having said this, I do not expect a new war, but rather possible limited disturbances of peace, and maybe violent protest. In this regard, North Kosovo and Montenegro have also proven to be points with limited violent outbursts. 

When speaking of alternatives to NATO or the EU for the region, usually the counterpart is some kind of membership in a Eurasian Union, or closer alliance with China. An alternative to NATO, in particular with regard to security, can be simply the further deployment of EU forces, such as EU Althea Mission in BiH. However, if this is treated as a viable alternative to NATO, this would entail a change in strategic orientation of the EU, further from the US and other NATO allies, and I don’t see this huge change happening in the near future. 

Regarding  the role of the Visegrad 4 in future processes of the Western Balkans, the V4 countries have already emerged as strong supporters of the WB EU membership bid, and have done a lot in terms of exchanges of experiences and sharing of best practices. At points, certain V4 member states act as advocates for the WB accession, but sometimes this is not the most sincere approach, especially with regards to overlooking Rule of Law standards and placing emphasis on other enlargement criteria. We must not forget that some of the V4 countries are not exactly the model EU members. In a situation when the WB is struggling with issues of corruption and deficient Rule of Law, so do Poland and Hungary. 

However, we do have some positive experiences from the Western Balkans in terms of re-democratization already (such as North Macedonia’s Colorful Revolution), so perhaps it can be a two way street: that even the V4 can learn from the WB. 

The situation of civil society is much better: this project itself is a part of a wider cooperation between civil societies in both regions, and I have to point out that the cooperation in this regard is very positive and fruitful. Again, I have to reiterate that we should continue transferring knowledge in both directions, especially with regards to issues such as human rights and quality of democracy. 

 

Julianna Ármás, Researcher, Institute for Foreign Affairs and Trade

At this point, we have to admit that the European Union’s (EU) enlargement policy towards the Western Balkans is at a standstill. In recent years, the EU has failed to achieve significant and long-awaited breakthroughs.

Yes, EU enlargement is a two-way street. However, the Western Balkan countries cannot be expected to meet the accession criteria without the EU offering a credible enlargement perspective and real incentives that can provide real solutions to structural problems or outstanding bilateral issues. At the same time, a credible perspective does not mean turning a blind eye to the often-voiced rule of law or economic criteria. It is simply a matter of recognising that meeting them also requires political will on the part of the Western Balkan countries, which is increasingly lacking in the absence of any hope of future accession. However, this is precisely where ignorance is prevalent: changes in the perception of the EU among the public in the Western Balkans or the political consequences of the non-accession process are given little attention compared to the expected reforms. 

Year after year, it is repeated that we have to lobby for the inclusion of the word enlargement in official EU documents and communications, or accept the veto of another EU member state in the accession process, thus leaving the solution to a bilateral agreement. In the absence of a credible perspective, Euroscepticism, especially among the younger generations, and the influence of the superpowers are likely to grow. Last October’s municipal elections in Macedonia and the subsequent political crisis were already an imprint of a turning away from the EU. Meanwhile, citizens’ perceptions of the EU in the Western Balkans are deteriorating, with a third of Bosnians, Macedonians and Serbs believing that their country will never join the EU. The most striking change was observed in Northern Macedonia, where in 2020, 25 percent of citizens no longer trusted future EU integration, and in 2021, the figure was 31 percent. This is not surprising given what has happened in recent years, and in fact the rates are expected to increase in the future. These trends have been further elaborated in the analysis “The Future of the Western Balkans. Five Scenarios for 2030”, published in the framework of the project “Western Balkans Trends – Exploring Trajectories for the Region“, supported by the International Visegrad Fund. 

But the lack of a credible enlargement perspective does not mean that the European Union is not present in the region. However, it is a recurring problem that, although the EU is the main economic partner in the region and the bulk of FDI comes from the EU, the EU’s representation in the media and its role in political discourse is not significant. As long as the resources provided by the EU are not visible, the Community’s influence will remain negligible and Russia, China or Turkey may become increasingly prominent players, regardless of whether they are significantly behind the EU in terms of financial support, international trade balance or investment. Several recent examples prove this, such as the personal reception by President Aleksandar Vucic of medical supplies from China during the COVID-19 epidemic, or the possibility of a mass vaccination campaign with Eastern vaccines, but also the refusal of Serbia to join EU sanctions in response to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, which also confirms the influence of a great power. 

And the war in Ukraine draws even more attention to the great power influence in the Western Balkans. Russia has traditionally been a major player in the region, thanks to its historical and cultural ties; it has considerable influence in Serbia, Montenegro and Republika Srpska, thanks in particular to good personal relations. Fears that the war could spread to the Western Balkans are not just an idle fear; Russia’s strategic objective is to maintain the status quo in the region, and its Euro-Atlantic integration efforts are therefore detrimental to this interest – in particular, joining NATO. The Western Balkans could be a source of new instability as the Western world order is reshuffled, and the 500-strong increase in EUFOR Althea is a sign of this fear. Even if the Western Balkans does not become a side theatre in military terms, this is more likely to happen at the political level; in some cases, the disruption of political unity may be enough for Russia, as indicated by the non-papers published in spring 2021 or by Milorad Dodik’s increasingly radical threats.  

The question remains, however, what impact the current war in Ukraine will have on the EU’s enlargement policy. Ukraine’s request for accelerated accession in response to Russian aggression also raises the question of accelerating the accession of the Western Balkans, the only area of enlargement policy where countries have a realistic chance of accession and already have candidate or potential candidate status. On the one hand, there is no fast-track admission procedure and, on the other hand, no major breakthrough is expected in the Western Balkans from the EU. The EU is not in a position to address several crisis zones or challenge areas in parallel, and even then it is more likely to pursue a reactive policy. Despite expectations, neither the German nor the Slovenian presidencies have been able to achieve a breakthrough in the accession process or in lifting the Bulgarian veto. Although the official programme of the French presidency (as well as the series of conferences on the future of Europe) does not identify the Western Balkans as a priority, President Macron has repeatedly stressed the need to offer a clear accession perspective to the region, as evidenced by the new Western Balkans summit planned for June, at the end of his presidency. 

There is no doubt that the war is causing reactions from the highest levels, including in relations with the Western Balkan countries. President Macron, who has been in campaign mode since the spring, has shown extraordinary diplomatic activity since the beginning of the war in Ukraine: he has not only held telephone talks with Putin, but also with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, like Macron, stressed the need for a clear EU perspective for the Western Balkans, as any delay would only strengthen the influence of third parties vis-à-vis the EU. However, it remains to be seen whether further steps beyond these symbolic diplomatic statements can be expected. Of course, this does not mean granting candidate status to Bosnia and Herzegovina or Kosovo, or ‘fast-tracking’ Montenegro and Serbia, but it does seem more feasible to lift the Bulgarian veto blocking the accession process of Albania and Northern Macedonia or to open further accession chapters. 

However, the enlargement discourse should not link the case of Ukraine with the Western Balkans. Supporting Ukraine’s accession to the EU is a political position, but putting the issue on the same level as the Western Balkans would further undermine the EU’s credibility in the region. At the same time, it is undoubtedly true that the war in Ukraine could give new impetus to the EU’s enlargement policy, starting with the opening of accession negotiations with Albania and northern Macedonia.

 

On the security in the Western Balkans region upon Russian invasion to Ukraine:

Mariglen Demiri, EUROTHINK – Center for European Strategies (MK)

The perspectives of the Western Balkan countries in the last 30 years are related to the European Union and its perspectives with this part of geographical Europe. In fact, since the collapse of the socialist systems in the Balkans, these countries have accepted a so-called European way of living and building relationships with others — especially with their neighbors — in a non-violent way, having learned from the wars of the 1990s in almost all the countries of the former Yugoslavia.

Since then, for over 20 years of history, war has not been an option for any side, including the extreme elements in the Western Balkans. With the recent developments in Ukraine and the Russian military aggression against Ukraine, war is making a comeback as an option for resolving conflicts — even though it had long been rejected and forgotten, and war was an unacceptable way of resolving them.

Relations between the Western Balkans and the EU have been uneven in recent years, with inadequate engagements with each other. Failure to give a date for negotiations in some of these countries (Albania and North Macedonia), due to the blockade of Bulgaria on North Macedonia due to unresolved national identity problems, is one of the boiling points of some citizens in these countries. In the meantime, North Macedonia was going through a process of democratic recovery, where the role of the EU was much smaller in terms of monitoring and assistance for the implementation of this project, and much larger in resolving disputes with Greece and Bulgaria. For some citizens, the role of the European Union during the whole process was perceived to weigh in favor of Greece and Bulgaria, and that therefore North Macedonia was pressured to make big concessions. In the end, despite the concessions made, there was no adequate response from the other side, i.e. the EU and its member states. All of this has resulted in a higher degree of Euroscepticism among citizens over the years, but also among part of the political establishment.

The second moment that shook the priorities of the Western Balkan countries, especially in North Macedonia, is the war in Ukraine and the consequences on the economy and energy capacities. In the last two years, the citizens of these countries have faced a very problematic attitude of the state institutions in terms of healthcare aspects, but also in general with the institutional relationship which during the pandemic was quite stalled and controversial. The consequences of the war affected the prices of food and energy, which in fact created a disturbance of the comfort of the citizens and the social cohesion. The countries of the Western Balkans have joined the EU initiative on sanctions against Russia, and thus reinforced the above effects, given that Russia is one of the main sources of gas in the region, but also the main exporters of oil — and North Macedonia has a specific trade relationship with Russia.

This increases the initiative and the feeling of deception among the previously Eurosceptic elements in these countries. This is especially so because of the fact that, in the case of North Macedonia, the state made compromises in the national sense, but also in the economic and energy sense, and the consequences have already begun to be felt by the state and the population.

Extreme nationalist circles in these circumstances see a kind of opportunity for their long-awaited third half. The EU’s mismanagement of the crisis and the non-anticipation of the war in Ukraine, was welcomed by these elements with open arms. Hence the fear of unresolved national disputes that in the past were places of fire like Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina. These two countries, like the rest of the Western Balkans, have failed to fully recover from the wounds of war and unresolved national relations over the past 20 years. This reinforces NATO’s role in the region with all the paradox that it brings. Namely, although NATO means militarization and military usurpation of a part of the population in these countries, if it withdraws from these places (Bondsteel in Kosovo for example), the fear of war between the population will increase along with the appetites for war among the extreme elements.

 

On the Political Crisis in Bosnia and Herzegovina:

Jasmin Mujanović, Political Scientist (BiH – US)

Heading into the summer of 2022, Bosnia and Herzegovina remains mired in the most significant and protracted political crisis in the country since the conclusion of the Bosnian War (1992-1995). At the heart of the matter is a twin effort by leading Serb and Croat nationalist elements in Bosnia to unravel the country’s tenuous political and security order, a venture in which both are (in)directly supported by the governments of Serbia, Croatia, and Russia (with additional backing from the Orban government in Hungary). On the face of it, these efforts are separate initiatives, but they constitute a singular political program of action, which seeks to functionally dismantle the Bosnian state from within and bring it to the brink of formal dissolution.

On the one hand, the SNSD regime in Bosnia’s Republika Srpska (RS) entity, headed by long time strongman Milorad Dodik, has initiated a concerted and systematic secession effort, the aim of which is the “exit” of the RS entity from the Bosnian state and its appending to neighboring Serbia. In essence, this initiative is the continuation of the Serb nationalist program of the 1990s which sought to carve out of the wreckage of the Yugoslav state a so-called “Greater Serbia”. While the Vucic regime in Belgrade rhetorically recognizes the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Bosnia, the secessionist authorities in Banja Luka are almost wholly financial and politically dependent on Serbia and Russia, and senior Serbia government and security officials routinely participate in RS government events in which secessionist (and irredentist) rhetoric and ideas are prominently featured.

Concurrently, the government of Serbia, in particular the Minister of the Interior Aleksandar Vulin, have in recent months begun promoting the concept of a “Serbian World,” a regional agenda which would see the “unification” of all ethnic Serb communities in the Western Balkans within one grand Serbian polity. This project is as much influenced by Moscow’s “Russian World” as by Milosevic’s erstwhile “Greater Serbia”. In short, Dodik’s secessionism is, fundamentally, an expression of continued aggression towards Bosnia (and the region) on the part of Serbia. Or as Kosovo’s President recently put it, an indication that the Vucic regime, like the Kremlin, does not truly consider neighboring states to be truly, permanently sovereign polities.

Separately, the main Croat nationalist bloc in Bosnia, the HDZ, and its leader Dragan Covic have spent much of the last two years attempting to steer the country’s electoral reform debate towards the de facto creation of a so-called “third entity”; i.e., the re-creation of the wartime break away territory of the “Herceg-Bosna” whose entire senior leadership was convicted of crimes against humanity by the ICTY, and the creation of which was characterized by the court as a “joint criminal enterprise”. Covic and Dodik are, respectively, each other’s closest allies within Bosnia, and have come to serve as an important bridge between Zagreb and Belgrade. While relations between Croatia and Serbia remain frosty, as in the 90s the two capitals share a symmetry of interests in Bosnia, in that neither side see Bosnia’s statehood, sovereignty, or territorial integrity as desirable or durable. Much as Franjo Tudjman, Slobodan Milosevic, Mate Boban, and Radovan Karadzic all explicitly coordinated efforts to partition Bosnia during the Bosnian War, contemporary hardline elements within the broader Croat(ian) nationalist establishment view Serb(ian) nationalists as strategic allies in Bosnia.

This orientation has also brought Croatia and its proxies in Bosnia, Covic and the HDZ, into a likewise de facto alliance with Russia, and Moscow’s primary asset within the broader Euro-Atlantic community, Hungary. As noted, Dodik is the Kremlin’s most extremist regional associate. He has, in turn, facilitated growing contacts between his close collaborator Covic and Russia. As a result, since 2017 at least, the Russian Embassy in Sarajevo has increasingly promoted HDZ talking points in its commentary on Bosnia affairs, above all with respect to the aforenoted election law reforms. Covic’s HDZ party has returned the benefaction by twice, to date, voting in Bosnia’s parliament to block resolutions condemning Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. Likewise in 2020, on a visit to Moscow, Covic bemoaned the “lack of Russian influence” in Bosnia. Simultaneously, both Dodik and Covic have emerged as key interlocutors of Zoran Milanovic, the pugnacious populist President of Croatia, whom the country’s Prime Minister, Andrej Plenkovic, has openly accused of being a “Russian player”.

Concurrently with these developments, Budapest has also taken a strident pro-Dodik line in Bosnia, with the Orban government not only explicitly blocking EU sanctions versus his secessionist regime, but also threatening to supplement any loss of monies by the Banja Luka regime with a €100 million lifeline to be provided by Hungary. In recent weeks, Orban’s government has also begun explicitly backing the HDZ’s sectarian election reform objectives, while the EU’s enlargement commissioner, the Hungarian Oliver Varhelyi, stands accused by both authorities in Sarajevo and MEPs in Brussels of having assisted in coordinating a secession-related vote in the RS entity assembly in January of this year.

In short, while Bosnia’s secession crisis is obviously primarily rooted in the revanchist, ideological machinations of the country’s Serb nationalist establishment, it is likewise a product of significant, malign, international interference on the part of a collection of actors who, while lacking a unified agenda, nevertheless harbor a shared antipathy to the idea of a functional, democratic, and sovereign Bosnian state. Structurally, rebuffing this offensive will require a greater degree of coordination among both local pro-integration forces and those in the Euro-Atlantic community still committed to the ideal of a stable and rationally governed Bosnia. Locally, this will mean so-called “pro-Bosnian” actors using the country’s institutions to enact credible reforms, while Sarajevo’s remaining Western allies work to creation the conditions for the country’s Atlantic accession. Given the current geopolitical climate, failure to do so may lead to this protracted political impasse becoming a credible security crisis.

 

On Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue:

Ján Cingel, Executive Director, Strategic Analysis Think Tank

Negotiations on the normalisation of relations between Belgrade and Pristina have been stalled for several years and it now appears that they will remain stalled for some time. In the short term, there is no possible compromise in sight that would motivate both sides to speed up the implementation of the points already agreed, as this is currently the sticking point. The end state may not be explicitly named, but it is more or less clear: mutual recognition on the basis of sovereignty while ensuring full protection of the Serb minority in Kosovo.

At the moment, however, negotiations between Belgrade and Pristina are in an imbalance. The current situation favours one of the parties to the dispute – Serbia. The current situation allows Serbia to block cooperation and deeper integration of Kosovo into the international community. Serbia is even conducting an active diplomatic campaign aimed at countries that have recognised Kosovo’s independence to reconsider this step and ‘de-recognise’ Kosovo. Over the last few years, this campaign has borne some fruit for Serbia – around a dozen countries have withdrawn their recognition of Kosovo’s independence.

The motivation for Serbia to change this approach is weak, as the only potentially strong motivator – EU enlargement to the Western Balkan countries and the progress of Serbia’s accession negotiations in particular – are currently also stuck and the whole process is under a big question mark due to the sceptical attitude of some member states. On the other hand, however, it should be stressed that the candidate or potential candidate countries from the Western Balkans region are also lagging behind in the necessary reforms, their internal problems are accumulating, and as the prospect of EU enlargement is receding, so is the will of their governments to adopt the necessary reforms and to adopt often less popular measures, which are, however, necessary for the democratic development of the countries.

At the same time, Belgrade is trying to benefit from a long-term strategy of “sitting on more chairs” and developing good relations with Russia and China in addition to the EU. Belgrade tends not to commit 100% to the EU alone and thus does not devote 100% of its energy to the necessary reforms and democratisation processes that are a prerequisite for a successful outcome of the accession negotiations. As long as Brussels tolerates Belgrade’s approach, Serbia will continue to play its game of ‘non-aligned country’ and thus ultimately strengthen Russia’s and China’s positions in the Western Balkans region.

Therefore, the key role in unblocking the negotiations between Belgrade and Pristina is currently played primarily by the 4 NATO member states (also NATO-4) that have not yet recognised Kosovo’s independence: Greece, Romania, Slovakia and Spain. As members of NATO, they can facilitate closer security cooperation between Kosovo and the Alliance in order to redress the current imbalance in the starting point of the current negotiations. At the same time, such an approach requires one less country that does not recognise Kosovo – Cyprus, as it is not in NATO, but at the same time takes a rather strict position on the Kosovo issue, given its own territorial integrity problems.

This approach does not necessarily imply immediate recognition of Kosovo’s independence by NATO-4, but may involve a number of smaller steps – in addition to recognition, but which would send a clear signal to Belgrade that the position in the four NATO member countries is changing and Serbia must at least reconsider its campaign to cancel Kosovo’s independence recognition.

These steps should gradually lead to Kosovo’s inclusion in NATO’s Partnership for Peace initiative, for which recognition of independence by all NATO members is not a prerequisite.

For Slovakia, one of the above-mentioned steps could be the return of the military contribution of the Slovak Armed Forces to the KFOR mission in Kosovo, which was terminated at the end of 2010 following the declaration of Kosovo’s independence in 2008. The KFOR mission is positively perceived by both the Kosovo and the Serbian sides, which understand the international contingent in the context of the protection of the Serbian minority in Kosovo as well as the local cultural monuments of the Serbian minority.

The “more flexible attitude” of NATO-4 may bring benefits not only in the case of Kosovo. Unblocking the talks, better integrating the Serbian minority in Kosovo, especially north of the Ibar River, would have other positive consequences. First and foremost, it would undermine the equally damaging considerations of a “Kosovo-Albania Union” and eliminate the dangerous competing concepts of a “Greater Albania” and a “Greater Serbia” that threaten a potential escalation of tensions in the region. It would also contribute to the definitive burial of the no less harmful and dangerous idea of dividing Kosovo along ethnic lines in order to swap territories, which has been discussed in the past, among other things, under the watch of the former Trump administration in the US.

At the same time, however, a more flexible NATO-4 stance should not be seen as a “reward” for Pristina, but rather as a necessity in order to break the stalemate and to motivate Kosovo to make concessions and implement what has been agreed. It should be stressed here that the current Kosovo administration, with its current intransigent to the point of being unconstructive, is itself complicating the situation and relations with both NATO-4 and EU-5 to a considerable extent. One of the tasks of NATO-4 diplomacy will be to signal also to Pristina that the points of agreement already agreed under the supervision of the international community need to be implemented and that Pristina’s current attitude only complicates the situation and narrows the room for manoeuvre of the NATO-4 countries.

Breaking the stalemate over Kosovo is also important in the current international political context – the efforts of the transatlantic partners for a united position towards Russia because of its unprovoked aggression against Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin himself has mentioned Kosovo several times as a pretext and rationalisation for the annexation of Crimea and the recognition of the breakaway republics on the territory of the Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk as ‘independent states’. This is understandably against Serbia’s interests, as it undermines its argument regarding the inadmissibility of Kosovo’s declaration of independence in an international legal context. Belgrade, despite being beholden to Moscow for blocking Kosovo’s entry into the UN, views with great concern the military aggression of its close ally, which puts it in a very awkward position. Moreover, if Ukraine itself has also not recognised Kosovo’s independence.

This momentum should be an opportunity for the West to put pressure on Belgrade to decide which side it is on and, on the other hand, to unblock the stalled negotiations with Pristina. The West should not prioritise ‘stabilocracy’ in Serbia at the expense of genuine democracy and cooperation in a regional context. Serbia is an EU candidate country, and its government should therefore be judged by EU democratic standards and in the light of its activities in neighbouring countries.

Strengthening prosperity and stability in the regional context should also be achieved through EU-backed initiatives such as the ‘Regional Common Market’ through the ‘Regional Cooperation Council’ (RCC), the ‘Berlin Process’ or CEFTA, rather than through initiatives that only strengthen Serbia economically and politically – such as the value-free ‘Open Balkans’ initiative.

Unblocking the negotiations between Belgrade and Pristina by levelling the playing field under which these negotiations are taking place can therefore have a major positive impact on the dynamics of relations in the entire Western Balkans region.

 

Ferenc Németh, Researcher, Institute for Foreign Affairs and Trade (HU)

The normalization process between Serbia and Kosovo under the auspices of the European Union (EU) has not been discussed in a positive light for years. Despite the fact that the parties meet from time to time – at technical or political level – the negotiations are not about the results achieved, but about the disputes between the representatives of the two countries. The EU has been virtually powerless since 2015; it has been unable to keep the negotiating partners in check, which would bring us closer to a legally binding agreement acceptable to the parties. What could be behind the status quo? Why, moreover, is it necessary to put the normalisation process on a new footing?

The obstacles to the effective continuation of the dialogue are not new, and there are several sources of the problem. On the one hand, the parties have maximised their positions: for Belgrade, this means non-recognition of Kosovo – and the establishment of the Association of Serb Majority Municipalities/Community (in Serbian: Zajednica srpskih opština; in Albanian: Asociacioni i Komunave Serbe) within Kosovo – while for Pristina it means international recognition by Serbia. In this situation, it is no longer conceivable to find a compromise or a “happy medium” where both sides stand to gain as much as they potentially stand to lose.

Among the problems is the politicisation of the issues at stake. All (technical) issues discussed in the dialogue are taken to the highest political levels by the parties. As a consequence, there have been no new agreements since 2015 and most of the existing agreements have been partially or not at all implemented by the parties.

This is contrary to the original purpose of the settlement of relations between the two states: to guarantee the legal security and well-being of the citizens of Kosovo and Serbia. The failure of the status negotiations that preceded Kosovo’s unilateral independence (2008) foreshadowed that, due to the diverging views and interests of the parties, an agreement that could achieve a maximum and comprehensive political and policy settlement between Belgrade and Pristina is unlikely to be reached in the near future. However, after 2008, there were still unresolved issues that negatively affected the daily lives of ordinary people and were waiting to be resolved, which is why the EU embraced the normalisation process in 2011.

It is worth noting that the dialogue is already yielding results in the form of agreements that are having a positive impact on the lives of the population. In particular, the establishment of adequate border crossing points (IBMs), Kosovo’s international dialling code and the implementation of the mutual acceptance of motor insurance. Legal certainty for the residents of northern Kosovo (mostly Serbs) has been enhanced by the integration of local police and judiciary into the central system.

However, no progress has been made since the dialogue was politicized (2013) and especially since autumn 2015. New agreements are not being concluded, and agreements already negotiated are not being transposed in Serbia and/or Kosovo. These processes have been overtaken by episodes of instability (just think of the so-called train incident or the issue of car number plates), and dialogue can often be stalled for months (before and after elections) or even years (when 100% of the trade tariffs is imposed). Politicians have thus hijacked normalisation, and the process itself has become quite exposed to political developments in countries’ domestic and foreign policies and bilateral relations. But this is not an ideal situation for anyone, including the EU.

It would be wrong to blame only the political circles in Belgrade and Pristina for the status quo. The EU has not been able to act as a mediator in recent times, nor has it been able to provide the incentives and examples that would have positively influenced the parties’ willingness to seek compromise. The best (and most negative) example is the Prespa agreement. The bilateral dispute between Greece and North Macedonia, which had lasted for almost three decades, was successfully settled in 2018; North Macedonia changed its name in the hope of achieving its two foreign policy goals of NATO and EU membership as soon as possible. Skopje thus became the 30th member of the military alliance in March 2020, but progress towards EU integration has been so smooth. EU member states blocked the opening of accession negotiations three times after the name change, which finally took place in spring 2020. Now, a year and a half later, the first intergovernmental conference – the actual start of negotiations – has not yet taken place. 

Both Kosovo and Serbia see this as an example. The EU does not keep its promises even when a candidate country (in our example, Northern Macedonia) makes significant concessions to move integration forward. This is not an incentive for the political elites in Belgrade and Pristina: why should we find common ground and seek compromise if it does not lead to progress in EU integration? Especially when normalisation of relations is only one of the 35 chapters of the negotiations.

Maintaining the status quo is the worst alternative in the Kosovo-Serbia relationship. The two countries will be further away from EU integration, there is a risk of instability from time to time, and this situation could also allow room for external actors to gain ground. Maintaining the status quo can only have negative consequences, as pointed out in “The Future of the Western Balkans. Five Scenarios for 2030”, published in the framework of the International Visegrad Fund supported project “Western Balkans Trends – Exploring Trajectories for the Region”.

A complete rethink of the dialogue is therefore needed, as well as a redefinition of the “rules of the game”. In redefining the framework, we must return to the original objective of the normalisation process: to positively shape the situation of citizens. This process can only be overseen by the EU, which must also step up its efforts to ensure that the dialogue moves at the right pace. The re-engagement of civil society (Track II Diplomacy) in the normalisation process is essential.

It is also important to depoliticise technical agreements. Agreements that can improve the socio-economic situation of the population, such as the agreement on the mutual recognition of diplomas, which has not yet been implemented, should be given priority. Obviously, there will still be politically sensitive issues – on the Association of Serb Majority Municipalities or the international status of Kosovo – but it may be worth focusing on agreements where there is a chance of willingness on the part of the parties.

And the EU would also benefit from a departure from the status quo, i.e. a continuation of the dialogue within the new framework. It would be a guarantee for stability in the Western Balkans and could also reduce the influence of external actors that could hamper the normalisation process.

 

Back to Western Balkans Futures page.

 

Our partners are: Albanian Institute for International Studies (Albania), Foundation BFPE for a Responsible Society (Serbia), EUROTHINK – Center for European Strategies (North Macedonia), Institute for Foreign Affairs and Trade (Hungary), Prague Security Studies Institute (Czechia), Slovak Foreign Policy Association (Slovakia).

 

The project is supported by: International Visegrad Fund.

The project is co-financed by the Governments of Czechia, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia through Visegrad Grants from International Visegrad Fund. The mission of the fund is to advance ideas for sustainable regional cooperation in Central Europe.

 

 

Contact:

Tetiana Poliak-Grujić, Programme Manager, t.poliak@res.publica.pl

 

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Tetiana Poliak-Grujić

EU Neighbourhood Programme Director

Programme Director for EU Neighbourhood at Visegrad Insight, Res Publica Foundation. Tetiana’s professional experience includes working in both corporate and non-profit sectors. She participated in design, implementation and reporting on several projects related to human rights and democracy development. Tetiana holds a Master in European Integration diploma from Belgrade University and her thesis focused on the status of political rights in the Eastern Partnership countries. She also has degrees in Law and Business Administration.

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