EU-Western Balkans Strategy:Export of stability or import of instability

By Almir Mustafić

Several days ago, the EU Strategy for the Western Balkans was presented in Strasbourg. It is aimed at establishing a common economic space and initiating economic development in the Balkans, and one of the goals is to better connect the Balkans region with the EU. It was stated that prior to the admission of new EU members, regional conflicts should be resolved, migration stopped, rule of law and stable democracy established and organized crime curbed. Issues related with border disputes and inefficient public administration are also very important, and the need for economic growth is certainly implied. In 2018, the EU promised to allocate around 1 billion euros for infrastructure projects and strengthening of educational capacities in the Balkans. IPA funds will also be increased from 2018 to 2020, as well as the monitoring of the spending of these funds. However, EU leaders will certainly have to bear a heavy burden because of the disapproval of EU member states that are opposed to the enlargement of the Union.[1]

Commissioner for European Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations Johannes Hahn said that Serbia and Montenegro did the most work on the EU path. Montenegro has opened 30 out of 35 negotiating chapters, and Serbia 12 chapters. Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) does not have a candidate status, and it has not completed the Questionnaire, a key precondition for obtaining candidate status. Therefore, an overview of the factual situation has been made in Strasbourg, and a framework plan of action based on it has been presented. According to the plan, Serbia and Montenegro are concluding accession talks in 2023, and it is planned that they become EU members in 2025. Albania and Macedonia will start accession negotiations in 2019 and BiH in 2024. It is important to emphasize that these dates are not deadlines, but predictions, and the dynamics of EU accession will depend mostly on the Balkan countries and their commitment to join the EU.

Interestingly, during his presentation, Hahn said, "From a European perspective, it is important to understand that either we export stability or we import instability."[2], and High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini wrote on her blog "It was not an easy year in the Balkans. I visited the six capitals of the region in one of the most difficult moments – in some cases, a moment of deep political crisis."[3] It seems that tensions in the Balkans are growing; in fact, it becomes obvious that they have been smoldering since the 1990s, and the culmination was prevented only by a favorable balance of global powers in the Balkans. However, after the US reduced its diplomatic activities and the EU began to focus on its internal priorities including its large bureaucracy and the ‘Brexit,’ the balance was disturbed and a vacuum that was created was filled with the Russian, Chinese and Turkish influence.

The authorities in the Balkans have changed several times since the 1990s, but the question is whether their ideology has changed since the 1990s. The way many top officials reacted to the ICTY verdicts to Ratko Mladic and the Croatian six indicate that it probably has not, and rhetorically we even returned to the late 1980s.

Serbia, due to its recent past and creation of preconditions for negative Russian influence in the Balkans, as well as because of the interference in the internal affairs of BiH, Kosovo, Montenegro and Macedonia, seems to be the biggest source of instability in the region. The glorification of war criminals, desired military neutrality and simultaneous armament of Serbia with Russian and Chinese weapons, nationalism and radicalization of various groups, dangerous bilateral bickering and mutual accusations, corruption, organized crime, sporadic suggestions of the exchange of Republika Srpska for Kosovo, as well as unresolved border disputes are not encouraging signs in the eyes of the West.

Most of issues that trouble Serbia are mirrored in Croatia, a Balkan country that is also in serious economic relations and agreements with Russia. In addition, the Croatian interference in BiH's internal affairs is not in the favor of stabilizing relations in the Balkans. Economic co-operation with Russia is not an issue in itself, but Russia's influence achieved over the economy in the Balkans is, and it could be seen in the recent Montenegrin coup attempt. A long-term stability in the Balkans that will facilitate its path to NATO is simply not in line with the current Russian interests. Bilateral issues between Croatia and Serbia and Croatia and BiH, as well as Croatian disputes with Slovenia, destabilize the entire region further.

As usually, BiH receives strong verbal support from many European centers of power. However, even though the High Representative has long been in BiH to control, suppress and thus manage the political processes in the country, things have slowly been getting out of control. Due to the widespread, non-sanctioned political opportunism, BiH is still a deeply divided country under the strong influence of world and regional powers, and a special problem is the occasional but direct interference of neighboring countries into important state issues. An additional challenge is the upcoming October elections.

Macedonia, in addition to the dispute with Greece over its name, is also going through a difficult period. More than once over the past few years, political and ethnic divisions, as well as Serbian and Albanian influences, have brought Macedonia to the brink of civil war. Kosovo is not recognized by five EU member states, and many analysts describe Kosovo as a ‘time bomb’ due to strained relations with Serbia. The recent killing of the leader of the Civic Initiative "Freedom, Democracy, Justice" Oliver Ivanovic in Kosovska Mitrovica was just a warning that the danger is real and that the tensions can escalate at any moment.

The described situation in the Balkans was favorable to China, Russia, and Turkey, and it seems that the US and EU have lost dominant positions in the Balkans, and that some sort of a quick solution for this region is now being sought. The EU begins to accept the fact that no Balkan state itself can make almost any significant change. The opportunities are created in the 'system', that is the relationship between the great powers and their influence in the region are changing first, and then the internal factors of each state make certain decisions and react to the external changes. This means that the internal factors, i.e. political leaders, assess the emerging opportunities first. Then, in accordance with these opportunities, they harmonize positions within their parties, after which they do the same with their partner parties in the government and finally with the opposition parties. In addition, the influence of the media, the public and religious institutions should not be forgotten. Regarding BiH, the situation is even more complicated, because the Constitution itself is extremely complex. The leaders of each of the three constitutive peoples must go through the above-mentioned process and then they can proceed to achieve consensus with other constitutive peoples. The interests of the great powers and neighboring countries, which often hinder positive processes in BiH, also play an extremely important role in the decision-making processes. In short, only when all of the above is harmonized, BiH as a state can make decisions and determine its foreign policy. Therefore, the European path is far more complex in BiH than in Serbia and Montenegro. Hahn, Mongherini, Junker and others know it very well, and that is why BiH - instead of being kicked to the side- it should be another precedent, just like Bulgaria and Romania.

Thus, a logical question is raised about the message sent to BiH by the new strategy. Is the new strategy actually telling BiH that it should follow the path of, for example, Serbia and interfere with internal affairs of its neighbors, for example, Sandzak and Kosovo? Perhaps the EU would then say, "Hey, these guys are becoming problematic; get them here with us as soon as possible!" In addition, does BiH need to treat Russia in the same way as Serbia in order to get closer to the EU? That would be pretty simple as in Belgrade, Covic, a Croatian member of the government, promised Vucic that BiH would follow Serbia in foreign policy. President of RS Dodik has already been part of the Russian story, and the only obstacle to Russia in BiH would be Bosniaks, who, by the way, are the most hopeful of the EU, NATO Alliance and unified BiH. Such an option would be an extremely bad long-term decision for BiH, but BiH and Serbia under the dominant influence of Russia would certainly be a major problem for both the EU and NATO.

On the other hand, the accession of Serbia and Montenegro first could be a logical move. It could be logical if - by the very accession of Serbia in the EU - a mechanism by which Serbia will be prevented from interfering with the internal affairs of the neighboring countries, especially of BiH is developed, and if the remaining Balkan states will not be left to the "good will" of Serbia on their path to EU integration. Of course, it is a big misconception if it is thought that this strategy will contend or stop Russia from spreading in the Balkans, but in no case should the situation in this regard be left to get out of control.

As far as the Balkan states are concerned, the EU is the best political and economic framework in the world, and as such, there is no real alternative for the Balkans. The EU is an interest group unified by economy, security, the rule of law and democracy, regardless of the challenges with which it is constantly struggling. All those who do not work on the EU path, as well as those who obstruct it, obviously do not want what is best for their citizens, that is, their voters, while their stories about different alternatives have almost no basis in reality. Benefits from the EU membership are many, but it should also be understood that the story is just beginning after the accession, and Croatia and Slovenia know it best - by the way, they have a GDP that is on average double that of the other Balkan countries. As time passes, it is expected that this difference will increase, while the difference in GDP between Slovenia and Croatia and other advanced EU members will decrease.

How does this affect the citizens of BiH?

The BiH EU accession processes was blocked for years and this government - whatever it may be - has managed to start them somehow. It is obvious and quite understandable that politicians and all those who work on the European path cannot complete this task alone. Instead of declarative advocacy for the EU and nationalist demagogy by many top officials, much more effort and work, as well as lobbying in international institutions, will have to be done. Every help on this path is welcomed, and for BiH assistance is of great importance. The citizens themselves are responsible for monitoring the EU integration processes, since they themselves choose their 'bosses,' their elected officials. Instead of betting on sports, watching soap operas and giving in to strong emotions, this time citizens will have to rely on common sense and dedicate more of their time to watching political debates and evaluating the results of those who they choose to work towards the EU path.


About Author

Almir Mustafić
PhD Candidate at International relations/IUS