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. 

 

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.

 

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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