2020 Western Balkans: Attempt at repeating history

International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies (IFIMES)[1] from Ljubljana, Slovenia has prepared an analysis of the current political situation in the West Balkans with respect to the renewal of the dialogue between the official Belgrade and Priština, under the EU mediation. We bring the most important and interesting excerpts from a comprehensive analysis titled “2020 Western Balkans: Attempt at repeating history.”

2020 Western Balkans:

 

Attempt at repeating history

 

After an 18 month suspension the dialogue between official Belgrade and Priština was renewed on 16 July 2020. Simultaneously with the renewal of dialogue, which is headed by Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić (SNS) and Kosovo Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti (LDK), begun the renewed engagement of expert teams of the parties to the dialogue, which had already held several meetings. The Kosovo President Hashim Thaçi (PDK) is no longer a part of the dialogue. Namely, he has been indicted before the special court for war crimes committed at Kosovo (KSC-SPO – Kosovo Specialist Chambers and Specialist Prosecutor's Office).

Relations between official Belgrade and Priština are very complex and cannot be observed through the “black-and-white” prism. The renewal of the dialogue has more than symbolic importance. Prime Minister Hoti is “a new face” at the negotiating table and represents Kosovo at a time when Kosovo President Hashim Thaçi is faced with a war crimes indictment and the government at Kosovo is in crisis that begun during the Covid-19 pandemic.There is a noticeable disbalance of power between Kosovo and Serbia, as the participants of the renewed dialogue, because Prime Minister Hoti does not have the political weight or support in Kosovo to continue the dialogue. His government was established with the support of only 61 out of the possible 120 votes, which was the bare minimum required for its establishment. The LVV (Self-Determination Movement) and the PDK (Kosovo Democratic Party), which believe that the current government does not have the legitimacy to lead the dialogue, make a strong opposition in the Kosovo parliament.

Once again the dialogue will be far from simple, because the painful issue of missing persons as well as the issue of non-fulfillment of what had already been agreed and signed in Brussels in 2013, specifically the establishment of Community of Serb Municipalities (ZSO), will reemerge on the negotiating table.

The statements of Serbian President testify that the dialogue between official Belgrade and Priština cannot be observed through the “black-and-white” prism. Namely, on a number of occasions Vučić had stated “We can talk about everything only if it’s about a compromise. They will never get my signature to give the Albanians everything and Serbia nothing.  You will not get my support for such a thing. At this moment I am the President of Serbia, maybe you can find someone else who would be willing to accept that without a compromise, following ultimatums only.”

EU “takes it out on” Western Balkan states

The conduct and relation of the EU towards the West Balkans are an illustrative reflection of the complexity of the situation in this region. Formally, the EU constantly expresses its “support” to and “concerns” regarding the West Balkans, while, in practice, with its moves the EU pushes the region away from membership in the organization. For the paradox to be even bigger, while EU leaders frequently extend their support to the West Balkans and its Euro-Atlantic path and express concerns over the influence of specific countries in the region, primarily Russia, China and Turkey, through its policy of (non)enlargement the EU is actually pushing the West Balkans into the “arms” of Russia, while simultaneously accusing the very Western Balkan countries of having close relations and cooperation with Moscow, Beijing or Ankara. Furthermore, the EU persistently sets new conditions and criteria to Western Balkan countries for membership in the EU. Experts warn that currently 15 EU member states would not fully meet membership criteria expected from the Western Balkan countries. They also underlined that the EU was more lenient with Bulgaria and Rumania, as well as Croatia lately, when coopting them into the EU as full-fledged members.  In 2004, 9.5 countries were coopted into the EU as full-fledged members, after only half of Cyprus was granted membership in the EU. The analysts also emphasized the examples of the French province of Corsica and the Italian province of Sicily in which the implementation of EU regulations is far from what EU standards, regulations and directive prescribe.

The most illustrative example of (lack of) engagement of the EU is the dialogue between the official Belgrade and Priština on normalization of relations, which is facilitated by the EU. Although the so-called Brussels Agreement on the organization of dialogue was signed on 19 April 2013, the dialogue has been suspended for 18 continuous months. The dialogue was a complete fiasco. It was managed untransparently. In fact, while on one side the EU frequently urges Western Balkan countries to promote transparency or criticizes them of not promoting transparency, on the other side the EU itself often does not adhere to the transparency criteria. There is a plethora of examples of untransparency and unacceptable roles of the EU.

Analysts therefore believe that the EU must be stopped in “taking it out on” Western Balkan countries and that timeframes within which the countries will become full-fledged members of the EU should be defined, as otherwise there is no sense in continuing the process of integration into the EU. Over the past ten years or so, that is ever since the West Balkan region had been left in the custody of the EU, no significant positive steps forward have been recorded. Simultaneously, other countries, primarily Russia, China and Turkey, have strengthened their presence and influence in the region. In fact, such an approach by the EU has necessitated the return of the US on the Balkans. As the EU is becoming a less and less reliable partner, it becomes a question whether it will be able to overcome its internal crisis without the strong support of the US?

Visegrad Group experiences (V4)

At the initiative of Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić (SNS) on 10 October 20109 a trilateral meeting was organized with prime ministers of North Macedonia and Albania, Zoran Zaev (SDSM) and Edi Rama (PS), at which the Declaration on intent to establish a “mini Schengen” zone, which would include the three states, was signed. The three West Balkans leaders are aware of the fact that it is necessary to undertake major steps in the area of internal cooperation, with the aim of creating better living conditions for the citizens and, as particularly important, to stop the trend of massive emigration of the population from the region.

The Declaration is designed to assist the entire West Balkan region to start functioning on the basis of four key freedoms promoted by the EU- freedom of movement of capital, goods, services and people.

The joint declaration envisages elimination of border controls and other barriers, which should facilitate movement in the region by 2021. It would also enable citizens to travel in the region using only an identification card and find employment anywhere in the region on the basis of their professional qualifications.

The Declaration also prescribes recognition of diplomas at the regional level, as well as better cooperation in the fight against organized crime and provision of assistance in case of natural and other disasters, such as the current Covid-19 pandemic.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić has invited all members of the so-called Balkans six to accept the document on “mini Schengen”, regardless all the differences that exist with respect to the issue of recognition of independence of Kosovo.

Analysts believe that Western Balkan countries have to establish strong political, economic, cultural and every other form of cooperation and interact with the EU together, as a group of states with clearly defined requests. In the context of EU enlargement, it is necessary to clearly define the timeframe within which the enlargement will occur, as it cannot be postponed endlessly. In this context, it is also important to accentuate that regional cooperation does not mean that countries in the region had abandoned their European path and membership in the EU, which Montenegro has expressed as a major concern.

In this respect, the countries in the region could draw on the positive experiences of cooperation among the member countries of the so-called Visegrad Group (Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia), which often acted jointly in their dealings within the EU and presented clearly defined requests and stances. The Visegrad Group (V4) was established with the aim of facilitating and accelerating the process of integration of respective countries into the EU and NATO. Hence, which has been achieved. That is why it is important that the countries in the region act jointly with respect to the EU and/or other foreign policy initiatives, because an individual approach does not suffice and does not guarantee success. The Visegrad Group member countries are the biggest advocator of enlargement of the EU to the West Balkans.

According to the analysts, the moves that the EU and its leaders make will bring into question (Robert) Schuman’s vision of united Europe. In this context, it could be even said that although initially the French President Emmanuel Macron had worked against the idea of his great countryman, who had launched the project of today’s EU, he later rectified his policy and expressed stronger, yet still not sufficient, support to the process of enlargement.

Had the “mini Schengen” zone been established, it would now be much easier for the countries in the region to combat the Covid-19 pandemic, because the fragmentation of the area which once was an organically interconnected entity has proven to be lethal.

Poland’s “Marshall Plan”

Although it was the leading country in a group of 10 that had become full-fledged members of the EU on 1 May 2004, after years of membership in the EU Slovenia lost its leading position in the group. Namely, after the integration into the EU the Slovenian political and social elites did not manage the running of the state well  because of the constant political confrontations that led to internal political showdowns, which ultimately resulted in political instability.

Some countries, i.e. Poland, have seized the opportunities of EU membership and became a leader in the group of then newly coopted countries. In fact, in a short period of time Poland superseded Greece and Portugal with respect to GDP per capita. The Poland’s example can serve as a model to other countries for how to capitalize on membership in the EU, as it is a kind of a Polish “Marshall Plan” for rapid growth and development after integration into the European Union. The example of Poland shows the relevance of membership in the EU and even more the importance of having political leadership that is responsible to its citizens and works to improve general wellbeing.

Poland received 164 billion EUR from EU funds, which is almost two times more than the current Poland’s budget and is a kind of a Polish “Marshall Plan”.

Currently, the GDP of Poland is above 500 billion Euros. By 2030 its GDP should increase by around 190 billion Euros. However, Poland will not be able to fulfill its goal of achieving the European average by 2033 if it does not implement appropriate political reforms.

When Poland became an EU member, it was one of the poorest EU countries with a GDP per capita of only 14,800 EUR per year, unemployment rate of 19% and average monthly salary of 510 EUR. The economic growth raised to 4% per year, which is three times higher than the average growth of EU member countries (around 1.2%). In 2004, the Poland’s GDP was at a level of 44% of the EU average and in 2018 it increased to 67%. Currently, the GDP per capita in Poland is 26,000 EUR, while the   EU average is over 35,000 EUR.From 2000 to 2016 the work productivity has increased by 51%.

Analysts believe that the economic growth of Poland is predominantly a result of membership in the EU and economic growth of other EU member countries. On the labor market there will be a higher demand for labor (which will result in higher labor price). Productivity should be improved and the investments should be significantly increased. Only in such a way the Poland’s economy could grow to around 900 billion EUR until 2030, and in such a way through proper use of EU funds the Polish “Marshall Plan” would prove itself as a successful model for other countries as well.

Attempt at repeating history

While some countries, such as Poland, successfully benefit from membership in the EU and work on accelerated development, in the West Balkans there is an attempt at repeating history. A testimony of that are the current developments in Serbia.

Recently, at a video-summit of leaders of Western Balkan countries, which was organized by the Atlantic Council from Washington, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State and Special Envoy for West Balkans Matthew Palmer said: “The countries in the Western Balkans understand that their economic future lies in regional cooperation and integration into the European family of nations and a successful economy.” Palmer added that a good example of recent cooperation in the West Balkans was the “green corridors” project, which was launched also as a response to the Covid-19 pandemic and provides for relaxation of procedures for transport of goods in the region.

Problems with regional cooperation are still present in the West Balkans. Establishment of a “mini- Schengen” zone was rejected by Kosovo President Hashim Thaçi (PDK) with the explanation that Kosovo has a clearly defined path- membership in the EU and NATO. Various Kosovo officials, including the until-recently Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti (LVV), stated that it was an attempt of establishment of “fourth” Yugoslavia and the so-called “Great Serbia”. Montenegrin President Milo Đukanović (DPS) and a part of officials in Bosnia and Herzegovina offered similar reasons for rejecting the initiative.

Albanian President Ilir Meta (LSI), who is also the most experienced Albanian politician, recently reflected on the issue of “great-nation projects” and said “The Great Serbia project has failed and the idea of a Great Albania is not possible.

Disseminating information on so called “great-nation projects”, related to great Serbia, great-Albania, great Bulgaria or great-Croatia, distracts the region from necessary cooperation in all the areas. In example, Montenegrin President Milo Đukanovićpersistently scares the Montenegrin people with talk about potential great-Serbia hegemonism that negates the Montenegrin nation and state, while ignoring the fact that Đukanović himself was one of the closest associates of Slobodan Milošević (SPS) and an executor of the great-Serbia project in the nineties of the last century.

The current developments in Serbia indicate an attempt at repeating history. Namely, the efforts to overthrow the current Serbia President Aleksandar Vučić and his government are obvious. Essentially, this scenario is similar to the one from 20 years ago when the then Serbian President Slobodan Milošević and his government were overthrown.

The similarities between the current scenario and the developments from 20 years ago are easily detectable. The attempt to organize mass protests on the streets, which, in concert with a part of the foreign factor, the opposition would try to direct. Once again, there is Milo Đukanović and Montenegro and their respective roles. Once again, the official Zagreb and Priština are “back in the game.” Just like 20 years ago, there is also the inevitable Milorad Dodik (SNSD) and the official Banja Luka. In order to weaken Vučić, the until-recently coalition partner Ivica Dačić (SPS) and his Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) have also been activated. It is difficult to imagine what political benefit could Vučić have from the support extended to him by persons from the “black list” of the US Administration, such as Dodik, or Ivica Dačić, who had been “black listed” by the US for a long period of time. According to analysts, at the time when Serbia needs best possible relations with the West, their support is more to the detriment than to the benefit of the interests of Serbia.

Analysts also believe that the biggest attack on Serbia and its President Aleksandar Vučić will be launched pretty soon with the aim of illegally removing him from power, creating a new crisis and attempting to destabilize Serbia and the region.

Countries in the region accuse Serbia of undermining sovereignty of Montenegro and BiH, wanting to exchange Republika Srpska for Kosovo or Kosovo for Republika Srpska, destabilizing Croatia and being a foothold for Russian influence in West Balkans and Europe.

Analysts warn that only the strongest can broker agreements and it is obvious that the Kosovo talks are doomed to failure because of divisions in Kosovo politics. Leonid Brezhnev and Ronald Reagan, who were most hardened opponents at the time, managed to devise solutions only because they were strong politicians who enjoyed strong support. A similar example in the region can be found in Zoran Zaev (SDSM), who is a strong politician and able to device possibilities for dialogue and agreement with Vučić, as well as others in the Balkans- despite the fact that majority of them are opponents of Macedonian identity and integrity.  Is Vučić the only problem of the Balkans or are other policies also being pursued in the Balkans. Is the thesis about “great Serbia” the only problem in the Balkans?

Analysts also reminded that all of the most relevant decisions in the West Balkans are made with the support/consent of major powers. Hence, if Vučić and Serbia are the source of problems in the Balkans then the problem should be analyzed also through the aspect of actions of the so-called international community, which has been involved “up to its eyeballs” in the developments in the Balkans over the last 150 years and which is a partner to Vučić and Serbia.

Currently, there is no politician in the Balkans that could not be “removed” if so wanted by the so-called international community. One would expect that the situation in BiH should be resolved by the so-called international community, which could do that by removing Milorad Dodik, abolishing parallel connections that the EU itself has criticized, and then there would be no destabilization of BiH, at least for a period of time. Or it could implement all the conclusions of the EU, US, international and EU experts headed by Pierre Mirel[2], who had also clearly identified the mafia system headed by Milo Đukanović as the problem in Montenegro and suggested proposals for its resolution. Or maybe the EU could stop the latest financial support to the Republic of Croatia, which currently undermines the sovereignty of BiH more than ever before. Or it could swiftly coopt Serbia and BiH into the EU.

This is not a matter of just temporary measures, but also of strategic approach of the EU to the West Balkans, which is obviously lacking. However, references are constantly being made to the Russian, Chinese and Turkish activities and dangers for the West Balkans and the EU.

Analysts recognize partial similarities with the developments that took place in Serbia some 20 years ago. However, they also draw attention to the fact that the political strength of the Serbian opposition and the support it enjoys among the population and from aboard, is a far cry from the support that the opposition in Serbia had enjoyed 20 years ago. Furthermore, the discontent of the citizens with the current government is also not at the level at which it was 20 years ago. However, it is also important to bear in mind that Serbia has the strongest security-intelligence and defense system in the region to counter attacks of the kind. The inevitable question to be asked is: Who wants repetition of history in Serbia?

Will the region, officially as well, get new war criminals: Thaçi, Veseli, Ahmeti, Đukanović…?

So far, Kosovo Specialist Chambers and Specialist Prosecutor’s Office (KSC-SPO), have not developed their full capacities. Citizens of Kosovo live in fear and as a kind of “hostages” of the political-criminal structures and (para) military and (para) intelligence structures – which Kadri Veseli (PDK) and Hashim Thaçi symbolize.

However, the situation has significantly changed with the issuing of indictments against Thaçi and Veseli, which instills hope that the persons most responsible for war crimes committed at Kosovo will finally be processed. Furthermore, Ali Ahmeti, who during the war at Kosovo was a part of the same team as Thaçi, Veseli and many others, has been summoned by the Specialist Prosecutor’s Office. Bearing in mind that top-notch international prosecutors and judges are dealing with this case, it can be expected that specific associates of Ahmeti in North Macedonia, where for 19 years already Ahmeti has been the President of the DUI-BDI (Democratic Union for Integration) political party, will also be investigated.

Analysts believe that the actions of the KSC-SPO are belated, but show that justice is achievable. The same applies to the current President of Montenegro Milo Đukanović, who is brought in connection with war crimes committed on the territory of Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Republic of Croatia. In international circles there are speculations that Milo Đukanović will appear as a defense witness in the trial of Thaçi, although the scope and gravity of Đukanović’s crimes surpass by far Thaçi’s crimes.

The election campaign for parliamentary elections in Montenegro (30 August 2020) will be particularly interesting, as it is expected, inter alia, that Milo Đukanović will reveal to his Bosniak voters and the rest of the public the location of at least one hidden mass grave of the killed Bosniaks. In fact, Bosniaks, as the victims, are in the most difficult situation and under the biggest pressure from Đukanović’s regime to vote for the person who had been involved in crimes committed against them. There are hundreds of thousands of pages and document that connect Milo Đukanović with the war crimes. The first step must be made in Montenegro with the revealing of a location of a Bosniak mass grave by Đukanović’s regime. Đukanović has never opposed or in any other way confronted the war crimes that have been committed and the genocide in Srebrenica, which is evident from the transcripts of the meetings of the Supreme Defense Council (VSO). Furthermore, in its latest report the Freedom House[3]organization has categorized Đukanović’s criminal regime as a hybrid regime.Freedom House proposed to the United States to block issuing of visas, freeze assets and undertake other measures against physical and legal entities involved in crime, corruption and violation of human rights. It also suggested to the EU to immediately investigate abuses of resources from European funds, which the IFIMES international institute strongly supports.

Analysts also warn that in Kosovo two billion EUR of EU taxpayers’ money had gone missing or were spent in vain, because the results of the respective actions of the EU in Kosovo are insignificant. The EU should not punish Kosovo citizens, as the visa regime should be abolished for them, and introduced for specific political officials. Kosovo is in dire need of decriminalization of politics. That is why it is of quintessential importance to decriminalize Kosovo Albanians, through prosecution of those involved in crimes and corruption and perpetrators of war crimes. The situation on the political scene is still under the control of the PDK and SHiK - (para)secret service. Without properly dealing with the past, Kosovo Albanians and other citizens in the region cannot ensure a better future.

Ljubljana/Washington/Den Haag/Tirana/Belgrade/Priština/Podgorica, 6 August 2020

                                                                                   

Footnotes:

[1] IFIMES – International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies, based in Ljubljana, Slovenia, has Special Consultative status at ECOSOC/UN, New York, since 2018.

[2] In April 2020, Pierre Mirel, former Directorate-General for Neighborhood and Enlargement Negotiations(DG NEAR), said “Look at Montenegro, 32 chapters opened, only 3 closed in eight years, we have never seen that,” alluding to the current pointlessness of supporting Montenegro by the EU. In September 2019, Pierre Mirel  proposed a revision of the membership negotiation framework for Western Balkans countries, which was  largely accepted by key EU member states headed by France (Source: https://www.vijesti.me/vijesti/politika/435666/godine-koje-su-pojela-obecanja 18.5.2020).

[3] Source: https://freedomhouse.org/report/nations-transit/2020/dropping-democratic-facade



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