Image Source: European Commission. Credit: Deutsche Welle, a German public, state-owned international broadcaster. - Photo: 2022

The War in Ukraine Triggers a New Order in the Western Balkans

By Aurora Weiss

VIENNA (IDN) —Ukraine and Moldova have moved closer to membership of the European Union (EU) much faster than the six countries of the Western Balkans. There has been general agreement that requirements for EU accession candidature are not easy to meet, but Ukraine and Moldova seem to have got that status overnight.

Subsequently, frustration is growing. The 28-nation bloc held out the prospect of membership to six Western Balkans countries—Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo, North Macedonia, and Serbia—back in 2000 in Zagreb and then in 2003 in Thessaloniki.

However, the EU did not give such an assurance to six post-Soviet states of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine with aspirations of integration into the EU. On the contrary, the EU stated that membership negotiations with the six “Eastern Partnership” countries were not on the table.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24 has dramatically changed Europe, both politically and geo-strategically. It also seems to be bringing about a rethink in the EU enlargement concept, which until now has been aimed at fostering “peace and stability in regions close to the EU’s borders”. The prospect of membership has been considered a powerful stimulus for democratic and economic reforms in countries that want to become EU members.

But security instability was already reflected in the first days when Russian forces began the invasion of Ukraine. ‘Republika Srpska’—one of the two entities of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the other being the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina—has made it clear that they stand by Russian investments, even though the EU is the biggest investor in that country.

While the inhabitants of Serbia gathered in kilometre-long columns with the letter Z highlighted to show respect, as they say to the “braći Rusima (Russian Brothers)”, just a few kilometres away, across the border with Kosovo, great panic and hysteria arose. If we learn from something, it is indeed history. The war 30 years ago wrote lessons in the Balkans. People in Kosovo were afraid that following the example of their big brothers, the Serbs would find a reason to attack Kosovo.

A few days ago, President Vjosa Osmani of Kosovo sent a letter to US President Joe Biden and expressed her wish that Kosovo join NATO for security reasons. She reminded him of the genocide committed by Milosevic’s forces. However, there is a problem. Slovenia, Slovakia and Spain, members of NATO, have not yet recognized Kosovo.

The recognition of Kosovo, more precisely the mutual recognition of Kosovo and Serbia, is the focus of high EU officials.

Tensions ran high between German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić at a press conference on June 10 in Belgrade, where the two leaders disagreed not only over sanctions against Russia but also over the recognition of Kosovo as an independent state.

“So that you can understand that: We do not respond to pressure in this way, that someone threatens us, and then you have to do something,” the Serbian president said. “What was said regarding mutual recognition is also a surprise for us,” he added. “We have so far not heard that from anyone in Europe.” Responding to what were considered inappropriate attacks of the German Chancellor, with which he crossed every diplomatic level on the host’s soil, the Serbian President went on to say: “But Germany is big, and Serbia is small”.

On the other hand, Kosovo President Osmani—the most eloquent leader in the Western Balkans—whom we met a year ago in Vienna, shares softer views regarding the recognition of Republika Srpska. She was clear then, as she is today, that Kosovo does not look toward Turkey.

“We, like Kosovo, looked towards the EU-Atlantic path, and we never looked anywhere else. We doubt that Serbia can progress while trying to walk the Moscow and EU paths simultaneously. After the recognition of Moldova and Ukraine, there was a clear message from the EU that they were looking geo-strategically towards the Balkans,” the Kosovo President pointed out.

President Osmani hopes that Serbia will make peace with the past and move away from the legacy of Slobodan Milošević and realize that together as a region “we” can move towards the EU.

A year ago, such a development in the situation was not even a dream. The EU was pretending to be hard to get! No one could have imagined that Ukraine and Moldova would leap the countries of the Western Balkans and gain EU candidate status in just a few days.

Exactly one year ago, the Austrian government led by Sebastian Kurz who was chancellor at the time, invited the leaders of the Western Balkans to a conference in Vienna. EU Special Representative for the Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue and other Western Balkan regional issues, Miroslav Lajčak, was also present.

“The Western Balkans is progressing too slowly. We won’t see it even in ten years in the EU membership,” Miroslav Lajčák told us then at the meeting of the leaders of the Western Balkans in Vienna.

Just one year later, Ukraine and its neighbour Moldova, which are still underdeveloped according to EU criteria, have achieved the status of candidates for membership.

For this reason, EU Special Envoy Miroslav Lajčák has been on a “pilgrimage” in the Western Balkans for the past few days. He expects Kosovo and Serbia to sign a major deal as part of the EU-facilitated dialogue in the upcoming weeks.

“We will have another meeting between the chief negotiators next week. Hopefully, we will be able to announce a binding agreement, and I am also hoping to bring the two leaders together in Brussels for the third summit before the summer holidays,” said the EU Special Envoy who is tasked with achieving “comprehensive normalisation of the relations between Serbia and Kosovo”.

He further pointed out that the two parties had made progress. Negotiators have met multiple times and are discussing the implementation of several agreements that have already been signed but have remained on paper to date.

Kosovo and Serbia have been engaged in a dialogue for the so-called normalization of relations since 2011, which has yielded poor results despite some 33 agreements signed but implemented partially and selectively. Mutual recognition stands at the end of the long and thorny path of reconciliation with the past after the war in the 1990’s.

In May, Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti and Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić had dinner with Lajčak in Berlin, after each side met separately with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. The informal dinner was an attempt to revive the dialogue that has been frozen since July 2021. Kosovo and its allies expect the dialogue to end in mutual recognition, which Serbia has vehemently opposed.

EU Special Envoy Lajčák also spoke of the upcoming meetings in Brussels between European and Western Balkan leaders, with negotiations for Albania and North Macedonia being on the table.

“They have both met all criteria. And, of course, they are ready. I must admit, quite sincerely, that the problem is with the European Union since we have yet to reach a consensus across the block on this,” said Lajčák.

There are also problems in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Croatian President Zoran Milanović used the opportunity to point this out before and at the NATO Summit on June 28-30 in Madrid. He had just returned to Zagreb when we managed to reach his office. He was clear and disappointed with high political events saying, “even before the Russian invasion, BiH (Bosnia and Herzegovina) was Switzerland for Ukraine”.

“Ignoring Bosnia and Herzegovina’s request, the European Union decided on June 23 to grant candidate status only to Ukraine and Moldova without setting any criteria. Although I welcome the decision on Ukraine and Moldova, I am disappointed that the EU failed to give a European perspective to Bosnia and Herzegovina in this unique situation.”

He added: “That was a mistake, especially since all representatives from both houses of the Parliament of Bosnia and Herzegovina consensually requested the status of a candidate for EU membership. Even the Bosnian Serb envoys, who were often called secessionists, agreed. It was indeed one of those rare opportunities to strengthen the unity of Bosnia and Herzegovina, offer a more straightforward path towards a shared future and provide much-needed encouragement along the way”.

President Milanović continued to express concern for BiH and the fact that nothing will change after the upcoming elections in October. He was worried that it was not the problem only of BiH. The problem is, according to the words of Milorad Dodik, the current Serb member of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the collective federal head of state, and Croatian President Zoran Milanović, the “colonialistic German bureaucrat” Christian Schmidt. This is one of the rare situations in which Serbs and Croatians agree.

“The High Representative does as he pleases without any legal basis. Why is he not now forcefully implementing the court’s decision six years ago, which would have returned stolen rights to Croats in BiH,” stressed Croatian President Milanović.

The Office of the High Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Christian Schmidt, sent a diplomatic note to the Croatian Embassy in Sarajevo due to the statements of Croatian President Zoran Milanović, who repeatedly said that Schmidt was an illegal representative since the United Nations Security Council did not confirm him.

Since 1997, the Office of the High Representative has imposed around 900 different decisions. Schmidt’s predecessor Valentin Inzko banned the denial of genocide and the glorification of war criminals towards the end of his mandate. Schmidt has already decided on financing the upcoming elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Exactly six months ago, in November 2021, after handing over the duties to Schmidt, Valentin Inzko wrote us that he would stay away from media appearances in the territory of the countries of the former Yugoslavia.

“Following the BiH media, I notice, for example, that no one apostrophises the fact that the amendments to the Criminal Code of BiH, which I imposed regarding the issue of glorification of war criminals and denial of genocide, are EU LEGAL ACQUISITION,” he wrote to us on October 21, 2021.

We spoke with the new Prime Minister of Montenegro, Dritan Abazović. His raw and unstoppable energy resulted in the reduction of organized crime and corruption in the Montenegrin area. Even before he took this office on April 28, 2022, he saw his citizens only within the EU.

Less than a few days ago, he visited Belgrade, where he met with President Vučić and Prime Minister Ana Brnabić. Montenegro and Serbia have strong, indisputable historical links, although Dritan Abazović, an Albanian by origin, set clear borders between these countries when we spoke.

“We are not part of the so-called Serbian World,” Abazović told us while we were sitting in the bar at one of the Viennese hotels. Unlike the Republic of Serbia, the Government of Montenegro has implemented all sanctions against Russia. [IDN-InDepthNews – 06 July 2022]

Image Source: European Commission. Credit: Deutsche Welle, a German public, state-owned international broadcaster.

IDN is the flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate.

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