Balkans regional cooperation

I moderated a panel of Balkans luminaries this week at the Bled Security Forum, an annual Slovenia-hosted gathering that this year devoted itself to the theme of “trust” (and distrust). For my panel of present and aspiring foreign ministers, the organizers posed the question of why regional cooperation in the Western Balkans (that means the six republics of what was once Yugoslavia, plus Kosovo and Albania) has generated such meager results. As Hoyt Yee, the lone American on the panel, noted, there is no lack of regional initiatives–one of his interns found upwards of 60 just searching online with Google.

Serbian deputy prime minister and foreign minister Ivica Dacic was first out of the gates with one answer that held up well during the rest of the 90-minute session, even if his Yugo-nostalgia for Tito missed the mark with the other participants. What is needed, he said, is political will and courage. Only those who have got it will be prepared to accept compromise, which involves getting half of what you don’t want along with half of what you do want. The Belgrade/Pristina dialogue, he suggested, achieved little until it was raised from the technical to the political level (which meant to him, as he was at the time prime minister). The European Union magnet is important:  the EU is more popular in the Balkans aspirants than it is in the member states.

Croatian Foreign Minister Vesna Pusic suggested a different answer. Trust is not really the issue, and political will isn’t necessarily lacking. But leaders in the Balkans are still working out what their national interests really are. Only once they they get a good fix on what will serve their countries well will they be able to negotiate effectively and work with their neighbors cooperatively, which is vital for all. She underlined that she had advocated regional cooperation before it was popular to do so. But capacity to understand and enunciate priorities is still lacking.

This is particularly difficult in a country like Bosnia and Herzegovina, Ana Trisic-Babic said, because of its internal divisions. Bosnia needs new political leadership and a new social contract. Reform is vital to grow the economy and raise GDP. How long will people continue to put it off? There was more trust before the Dayton agreement than right now. Bosnia needs EU candidate status, sooner rather than later.

Senator Benedetto della Vedova assured all concerned that the Italian EU presidency will try to accelerate EU membership for all Balkans countries. It was a mistake for the EU not to have integrated Yugoslavia in the 1980s. But now integration of the Western Balkans with the EU is clearly having a big, positive impact, for example on Serbia as well as Montenegro. It should be no more than 10 years before all the Balkans countries become members.

Marko Makovec*, foreign policy adviser to the Slovenian President, noted that at one time some in Slovenia wanted to leave the Balkans behind. That is no longer the case. Now the question is what Slovenia, which has been an EU member for 10 years, can do to help its southern neighbors. The Balkans are going to need more tools than the normal accession process offers. Montenegro’s EU accession negotiator Aleksandar Andrija Pejovic confirmed that he gets a lot of help from the neighbors, who compare notes often on the EU accession process.

Macedonian Foreign Minister Poposki noted that Skopje continues to prepare for EU accession, and to behave as if it is a NATO member, but is stalled in the formal processes of accession to both organizations because of the “name” issue. There is no lack of communication on the issues, especially with Germany and Greece. But so far there has been a failure to implement shared democratic principles in resolving the name issue.

Regional Cooperation Council Secretary General Goran Svilanovic, fresh from a Berlin meeting that underlined the importance of regional infrastructure projects, noted that the Balkans states are already heavily indebted. They need highways and railroads that interconnect them more tightly, but they will not be able to borrow to fund these projects. Working together, they will need to prioritize and seek EU funding.

Yee wrapped up with a further plea for prioritization. The United States is still engaged in the Balkans and wants Bosnia’s internal difficulties and the Macedonia name issue to be resolved with a sense of urgency. Balkans citizens going to fight in the Middle East are a new and important issue. So too is energy security. It is important that solutions be based on common principles and values. We have seen how important these are in the crisis in Ukraine, where the principle of territorial integrity has been violated. Where we can get common ownership of clear principles and values, that is where we can expect success.

*PS: This did not do justice to Marko Makovec presentation, the written version of which he has kindly provided. It is attached here.

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