19th Mar 2018


EU must open its eyes to Balkan realities

  • The West helped stop the Balkan wars of the 1990s, but the job is still unfinished (Photo: morbin)

On his death in 1898, Otto Von Bismarck is quoted to have said that "If there is ever another war in Europe, it will come out of some damned silly thing in the Balkans."

He was right. A decade or so after his death a silly thing in the Balkans was followed by World War I. Today, after a century of wars and conflicts, the Balkans are still far from political stability, but these days the instability is more likely to hurt the Balkan countries themselves than to provoke a wider conflict.

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The EU does not seem to understand the urgency of the situation, even though it has hundreds of diplomats and officials posted to the region.

Balkan countries alone are unable to break the old cycle of conflict: a resurgence in nationalism is taking place right under the EU's nose. But it is either too blind or too uninterested to take note. Member states blame each other for this or that failing, based on old friendships with this or that Balkan country, instead of crafting a clear and pragmatic vision of how to stop this dangerous trend.

Meanwhile, Balkan leaders have come to see EU enlargement as a kind of bazaar, in which you trade one thing for another, as cheaply as possible.

Serbia's former leader Boris Tadic, who last weekend lost elections to the nationalist-in-pro-EU-clothing Tomislav Nikolic, was a master of the game. The EU gave him first a stabilisation agreement, then visa-free travel, then EU candidate status in return for war crimes fugitives and so-called "concessions on Kosovo," which amount to very little. Serbia's approach toward Kosovo and Bosnia have not changed at all.

How realistic is the EU belief that Balkan countries are moving down the path to becoming stable, liberal democracies?

The break-up of Yugoslavia, which ended with the pro-independence referendum in Montenegro and the unilateral declaration of independence in Kosovo, is an open wound, and an ugly, ethnic wound at that.

The new countries' overarching desire to enter the Union is a huge opportunity for the EU to make a positive impact. Instead, EU countries remain divided on all the big issues, such as Kosovo's status and territorial integrity, the future of the Serb enclave in Bosnia, mounting radicalism in Serbia and even the very name of Macedonia.

Let's take them one by one.

In Kosovo, non-recognition by Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia and Spain has complicated legal aspects of EU integration, but more importantly, it is nurturing the unrealistic feeling among Serbs both in Kosovo and in Serbia that independence is reversible. The group-of-five knows well that Kosovo's sovereignty, now recognised by 90 UN members, is here to stay. It is time to get real and act responsibly.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the EU has done nothing to dispel the prospect of a referendum on secession by Republika Srpska.

In Serbia, the clear shift toward nationalism shown in Sunday's elections is a wake-up call that people still think borders can be redrawn on ethnic lines. It shows that the spirit of the "butcher of the Balkans" - the late Slobodan Milosevic - is alive and kicking and that Russian influence in the region is as strong as ever.

In Macedonia, Greece's silly objection to use of the name "Macedonia" is based on a populist fiction of Macedonian irridescence toward a Greek region of the same name. As the EU stands by in the auditorium, the dispute puts wind into the sails of ethnic Macedonian nationalists and aggravates tensions with ethnic Albanians in Macedonia. The recent outbreak of ethnic murders has not come out of nowhere.

Again, let's get real: nobody, except bureaucrats who are paid to do so, calls it the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (Fyrom) anymore.

It is clear that there is enlargement fatigue in EU countries and that the economic crisis has made it worse.

But the promise of EU integration in the Balkans is not just a promise to one day get into some kind of economic Disney World - it is the best available (and only?) way of stopping ethnic conflict in the region. It is a promise that goes to the heart of what the EU is for: to end war in Europe.

So the question is: what can the EU do more?

First, it should start acting as one toward the Balkan "third parties" and make it crystal clear that current borders are final borders.

Second, it should recognize Kosovo's independence and openly tell Serbia that unless it recognizes Kosovo it will not get into the Union.

Third, it should make a strong joint statement that Bosnia cannot be Balkanised, or even Lebanised, any more, and that Serbia must bin any claims toward Republika Srpska.

Finally, it should immediately bring Macedonia and Greece to a round-table with a black-and-white deadline for concrete results on the name dispute.

If the EU is too tired or too busy elsewhere to deal with these issues, Balkan countries will deal with them in their own way. Instead of another wave of enlargement, another success story as with the post-Communist states in 2004 and 2007, the EU should get ready for a violent redrawing of the Balkan map.

Where I come from, when you touch one border, you touch them all.

The writer is a post-graduate student of European affairs at Lund University in Sweden and the holder of a Swedish Institute Scholarship. He is of Kosovar Albanian origin

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