The International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies (IFIMES) based in Ljubljana, Slovenia, regularly conducts analyses of events spanning the Middle East, the Balkans, and the world. IFIMES has prepared an analysis of the current political situation in the Western Balkans following a series of meetings of regional leaders. We are presenting the main and most interesting findings from our comprehensive analysis titled "Western Balkans 2023: From the Thessaloniki Declaration to the Introduction of ETIAS."
The 20th anniversary of the signing of the Thessaloniki Declaration was recently celebrated in Thessaloniki, followed by the Bled Strategic Forum (BSF), and the summit of the Brdo-Brioni process in Skopje, while the summit of the Berlin process will be held in October in Tirana.
At the Bled Strategic Forum, Charles Michel, the President of the European Council, announced EU enlargement by 2030. However, this statement was promptly refuted by the spokesperson for Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, who emphasized that establishing a specific timeline for EU enlargement is still premature. In her recent annual State of the Union address before the European Parliament, von der Leyen once again broached the topic of enlargement, albeit in a more abstract rather than concrete context.
Analysts contend that the EU doesn't know what to do with the Western Balkans, encouraging these countries through various declarations and statements, thus simultaneously taking one step forward and two steps back. If the EU doesn't expand into the Western Balkans, Russia will undoubtedly extend its presence. Russia is becoming an increasingly important factor in the Western Balkans as the region shifts from a political to a security concern.
The appointment of Christian Schmidt (EPP/CSU) as the High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina is the most lackluster legacy of Angela Merkel. Today, the High Representative in BiH governs the affairs in Bosnia and Herzegovina in a manner reminiscent of the olden emissary of the Sultan, Omer-pasha Latas. The hypocrisy of EU policy is epitomized in the actions of the High Representative in BiH. In one of his reports to the UN Security Council, he writes affirmatively about Dragan Čović (HDZBiH), thus conferring the sole and highest international recognition to a person who upholds all the results of legally determined Joint Criminal Enterprise (JCE) and undermines Bosnia and Herzegovina. In practice, the Prosecutor's Office of BiH exclusively operates within the Federation of BiH, or more precisely, in the Sarajevo Canton. The EU has never recognized that the security of BiH and the region is tantamount to its own security.
The candidate status granted to Bosnia and Herzegovina is conditional, as the EU's specified priorities for commencing negotiations have not been met. Today, there are EU member states that do not deserve membership, and Bosnia and Herzegovina is in no way inferior to them. Furthermore, there are EU member states openly and covertly supporting and collaborating with Russia. This prompts the question of what Bosnia and Herzegovina has to do to become an EU member. If there is a genuine will within the EU, Bosnia and Herzegovina could become an EU member in a remarkably short period of time. What actions has High Representative Schmidt taken so far to bring Bosnia and Herzegovina closer to the EU? Introduced amendments to the Election Law? Used Bonn powers?! The United States and the United Kingdom maintain so-called blacklists, but has the High Representative exercised Bonn powers against individuals on these "blacklists"? No. In the past, High Representatives in Bosnia and Herzegovina have been known to remove politicians from the country's political sphere for much lesser infractions. The key question pertains to the role of the so-called international community, including the Office of the High Representative (OHR), NATO Headquarters, EUFOR, the OSCE, EU, and UN, in the event of a conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The tools and mechanisms that the international community has at its disposal are not being applied, even though they are specifically designed for preventive purposes. Will Bosnia and Herzegovina be brought into a situation similar to Ukraine?
Analysts consider the recent deployment of additional EUFOR military forces in the vicinity of Bosnia and Herzegovina's Brčko District, specifically in the areas of Orašje and Bijeljina, to be a major development. To prevent any potential conflicts, it is crucial to deploy EUFOR military forces, preferably American troops, within the territory of the District, thus effectively deterring any possible confrontations. Conducting the regular military exercise "EUFOR Quick Response 2023" within the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina represents a significant preventive contribution to peacekeeping efforts.
High Representative in BiH, Christian Schmidt, along with the U.S. Ambassador to BiH, Michael J. Murphy, has installed new authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina, despite the fact that a government at the national level could have been formed without Milorad Dodik and the SNSD, Dragan Čović and the HDZBiH, as well as Bakir Izetbegović and the SDA. The same team has decided to eliminate the SDA from power and has influenced the recognition of the stolen elections by Milorad Dodik, thereby enabling him to become the President of the entity of Republika Srpska. This is how the international community introduced a "new model" of democracy in Bosnia and Herzegovina and is now allegedly contending with Milorad Dodik. If the international community had genuinely intended to bring about a breakthrough or turning point in Bosnia and Herzegovina, a government could have been formed without the involvement of SNSD, HDZBiH, and SDA. This would have provided a strong impetus for creating a new political climate in BiH, bringing the country closer to the EU. However, the current situation has led to obstruction, deadlock, and an open path toward the dissolution of the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The situation will become even more complicated if Russia withdraws from the Dayton Agreement, as it has from certain international agreements that aim to maintain a balance of nuclear capabilities globally. Bosnia and Herzegovina is presently in its most precarious period since the end of the war, with the current authorities unmistakably veering away from the path to NATO membership, a shift in which the Republic of Croatia has played a role behind the scenes.
A segment of the international community in Kosovo has created a host of problems by placing itself in an "embarrassing situation." They have been insistent with the Kosovo authorities, pushing for the holding of local elections in April 2023 in four municipalities with Serbian majorities in Northern Kosovo (Mitrovica, Zubin Potok, Zvečan, and Leposavić) at any cost. Despite inadequate conditions, the local elections were conducted with a mere 3.5% voter turnout, resulting in Albanian mayors being elected in predominantly Serbian communities. Apparently, the international community has opted for repeating past mistakes, further deepening the crisis.
The Brussels Agreement of 2013 envisaged the establishment of the Community of Serbian Municipalities (ZSO) in Kosovo. The Community of Serbian Municipalities is constituted by its statute but is guaranteed by the laws of Kosovo, which require a two-thirds majority for any amendments. Only member municipalities have the authority to dissolve the ZSO. Although established outside the legal system of Kosovo, the ZSO is a part of Kosovo's constitutional and legal order. Kosovar authorities resist implementing the ZSO's formation, citing a decision by Kosovo's Constitutional Court, which identified 24 violations or provisions inconsistent with Kosovo's constitution. Establishing the Community of Serbian Municipalities is a step toward normalizing relations; any other approach would entrench the current unsustainable situation.
The concerns about the formation of the Community of Serbian Municipalities (ZSO) are exaggerated, as the exact configuration of this entity remains uncertain. Envisaged to be established by 10 municipalities with a combined population of less than 100,000 residents, it is improbable that this entity could pose a significant destabilizing threat. Furthermore, the competencies granted to ZSO could not significantly curtail the central government's authority in Pristina, which would retain executive, legislative, and judicial powers throughout Kosovo.
Given the existence of the Brussels Agreement, the 2020 Washington Agreement now seems to be largely ignored, although, unlike the Ohrid Agreement, it was actually signed. Consequently, there is an expectation that the Ohrid Agreement may eventually fade into obscurity, as efforts are underway to find a new sustainable solution based on a "win-win" model.
Analysts believe that to achieve a normalization of relations between official Belgrade and Pristina, ensuring lasting peace and long-term stability, it is necessary to involve not only the five EU and NATO countries that have not recognized Kosovo but also Russia and China. Without their involvement, any achieved normalization of relations may only be partial and temporary.
The international community is urging the parties involved in the dialogue to take their commitments under the Agreement on the Normalization of Relations seriously. During the talks held in Brussels on 14 September 2023, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić accepted a compromise proposal for the normalization of relations, which involves simultaneously implementing the political aspects of normalization and working towards the establishment of the ZSO. However, Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti rejected the offered proposal, insisting on Serbia's recognition, which Vučić firmly rejected.
Analysts argue that it could be acceptable to offer automatic EU membership to the signatories of a comprehensive legally binding agreement on the normalization of relations. This is not an implausible scenario, considering the precedent set with Bulgaria and Romania. Serbia's current economic and political significance to the EU surpasses that of Romania and Bulgaria at their accession. Can the EU 'swallow this frog' for the benefit of all? Analysts also assert that a segment of the international community in Kosovo contributes to the problem, turning Kosovo into a powder keg. Therefore, President Vučić's statement that Kosovo is shifting from a political issue to a security concern should be taken seriously.
Vučić and Kurti have met on eight occasions thus far, but they haven't signed any agreements. That includes the Ohrid Agreement on the normalization of relations, which was reached only verbally in February of this year. Due to its refusal to accept de-escalation proposals, Kosovo is already subject to EU measures, which can be regarded as a form of sanctions. According to Prime Minister Kurti, these measures have resulted in losses totaling 500 million euros.
Starting from 1 January 2024, the EU is rolling out the European Travel Information and Authorization System (ETIAS) for third countries, which includes the Western Balkan states. This prompts the question of whether the EU is sincerely committed to the enlargement or if it aims to block the enlargement process permanently through the introduction of ETIAS. At the same time, the EU is demanding that Western Balkan countries introduce visas for third-country citizens. This would particularly impact Serbia, which currently enjoys visa-free arrangements with numerous countries. The introduction of visas for a large number of member states within the Non-Aligned Movement would undermine the positive outcomes of the Non-Aligned Movement summit held in Belgrade in October 2021, a pivotal moment in the development and enhancement of relations with these nations. The implementation of the ETIAS regulation would necessitate visa requirements for countries with which Serbia has fostered extensive economic cooperation, resulting in substantial damage not only to Serbia but also to other countries in the region.
In practice, the ETIAS system entails that citizens of any Western Balkan country must complete a specific application and request approval for entry into the EU before their arrival. This effectively signifies the quiet introduction of a new electronic quasi-visa regime, in contrast to the current free movement enjoyed by all Western Balkan citizens (except Kosovo). Consequently, this nullifies the candidate status, rendering it insignificant, and places citizens of Western Balkan countries in the same category as all other travelers coming to the EU from around the world. The EU should suspend the implementation of ETIAS for Western Balkan countries and consider expediting their membership in the EU as a collective package. The question arises whether the Western Balkans region, which has a total population equivalent to that of the Czech Republic and Slovakia combined, could jeopardize the integration of the 450 million-strong EU population.
Analysts caution that with the implementation of ETIAS, the European Union is undermining the progress it made with the Thessaloniki Declaration, which had encouraged Western Balkan countries toward EU membership by clearly articulating their European perspective. The introduction of ETIAS, or electronic visas for entry into the EU, invalidates the enlargement process and contradicts the statements made by European officials, further eroding the already tainted reputation of the EU in the Western Balkans. This essentially signifies the quiet introduction of a new quasi-visa regime, in contrast to the current freedom of movement enjoyed by all Western Balkan citizens. ETIAS represents yet another strategic misstep by the EU in its approach to the Western Balkans, stemming from the shortsightedness of Brussels officials who conceive such solutions, the indifference of leading European politicians who lack enthusiasm for enlargement in its true sense, and the condescending and often humiliating attitude they display toward the Western Balkans. In contrast, Russia and China are closely monitoring these processes and responding thoughtfully and assertively.
Serbia has been selected to host the EXPO in 2027, which reflects the outcome of the process of rebranding the country in its regional and international relations, initiated several years ago by the President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vučić.
Serbia secured the highest number of votes in four rounds of voting at the General Assembly of the Bureau International des Expositions (BIE). As the sole representative from Southeastern Europe, Serbia competed against the United States, Thailand, Spain, and Argentina to become the host country for this prestigious exhibition.
In addition to commemorating the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Non-Aligned Movement in October 2021, a major global event of that year, the selection of Serbia as the host for EXPO 2027 stands as a historic achievement. It also provides an opportunity for Serbia and the Western Balkans region to participate in the organization and presentation of EXPO 2027. Serbia has reaffirmed its commitment to fostering and strengthening regional relations by voting for Albania to become a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council. Many companies from the region will be involved in the EXPO 2027 project, presenting the Western Balkans with a chance to showcase its new "beautiful face."
Ljubljana/Brussels/Washington, 19 September 2023
 IFIMES - International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies, based in Ljubljana, Slovenia, has a special consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council ECOSOC/UN in New York since 2018, and it is the publisher of the international scientific journal "European Perspectives."
 Source: EU-Western Balkans Summit Thessaloniki, 21 June 2003, link: https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/PRES_03_163
 Source: The European Travel Information and Authorization System (ETIAS), link: https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/LSU/?uri=CELEX%3A32018R1240