Gloom but not all doom in Western Balkans

By bne IntelliNews December 16, 2009

Ian Bancroft in Belgrade -

For the Western Balkans, the effects of the global crisis made 2009 a deeply challenging year on a number of fronts, with only its European perspective once again providing a glimmer of optimism. Despite several noteworthy advancements in this regard, however, bilateral and internal disputes, some involving EU member states, continue to cast a lingering shadow over the region.

Though adoption of the Lisbon Treaty has diluted concerns over the EU's capacity for further enlargement, significant doubts remain as to its enthusiasm. For Stefan Fule - the Czech Republic's Minister for Europe, who is expected to be confirmed as the new EU enlargement commissioner in early 2010 - the challenge of maintaining momentum within and beyond the Western Balkans, as fatigue and friction threaten to nourish one another, will likely dominate his mandate.

The decision to liberalize the visa regime for Serbia, Montenegro and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia constituted one of the prime successes of the European perspective in 2009. As Kristof Bender, deputy chairman of the European Stability Initiative (ESI), emphasizes, "the visa-liberalisation process has shown that the EU can trigger major reforms in the Western Balkans. The criteria were clear. The goal was attractive. It is a win-win for everyone. Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia reformed their border control. They have more secure passports. This makes all of Europe safer."

Serbian progress

Indeed, Serbia has made several additional breakthroughs on the European front. Following another positive report on its cooperation with the war crimes tribunal at The Hague, EU foreign ministers recently decided to unfreeze the interim trade agreement that Serbia had been unilaterally implementing since the start of the year. Though the remainder of the Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) remains suspended, at the request of The Netherlands, further positive reports could see its unfreezing by June 2010.

Whilst apprehending the remaining war crimes suspects, namely Ratko Mladic and Goran Hadzic, remains a key requirement, unblocking the interim agreement allows Serbia to submit its candidacy for EU membership within the coming months. As Milica Delevic, director of Serbia's European Integration Office, stresses, "in 2009, Serbia has proved both the political commitment and administrative capacity necessary for the European integration process. It has demonstrated that it is committed to fulfilling the criteria and being able to work diligently. Under these circumstances, progress is bound to happen, as visa liberalization and unfreezing of the Interim Agreement demonstrate. The same attitude will remain for the future. We'll continue working hard, knowing that this commitment makes further steps - including an application for membership, whenever it might happen - successful."

With the International Court of Justice (ICJ) currently considering the legality of Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence, however, Serbia's accession course is by no means straightforward. Reflecting current divisions within the EU over the issue of recognition, Kosovo has to date been excluded from visa liberalization discussions, something that Kristof Bender warns about. "There is a risk that the EU creates a new Balkan ghetto, this time for one state only. This is very bad for the citizens of Kosovo, including, by the way, Kosovo Serbs. Being an optimist, I hope the folly of such a policy will lead to it being revised. Kosovo should get a full road-map process as soon as possible. It should be treated like all other Balkan states when it comes to visa liberalisation. The General Affairs Council on December 8 failed to send this message, but we need it in 2010."

Named and blamed

Nor are such sovereignty-related disputes confined solely to the Kosovo case. Though ranked as the third-best reformer of business regulation in the World Bank's latest "Doing Business" report, Macedonia's own accession prospects continue to be compromised and complicated by an ongoing name dispute with neighbours Greece. Having vetoed Macedonia's membership of Nato in 2008, Macedonia fears a repeat with respect to its bid to start accession negotiations.

Another EU member state, Slovenia, has also found itself embroiled in a dispute with another candidate country, Croatia, this time over disputed coastal waters. Though an Arbitration Agreement was signed in November, Slovenia's constitutional court is currently exploring whether or not it is constitutional, whilst the Slovenian government has confirmed that a referendum will be held on the matter. Despite the EU outlining a financial package for accession negotiations with Croatia, the extent to which its bid membership is further delayed will largely depend upon outcomes elsewhere, plus its own future compliance with The Hague war crimes tribunal.

For Bosnia-Herzegovina, reconciling relations between the state and its constituent Muslim-Croat and Serb parts remains key to securing much-needed constitutional reform. Without constitutional changes, the SAA with Bosnia, if and when signed, would be immediately suspended because its constitution violates the European Convention on Human Rights by precluding, for instance, members of the Jewish and Roma communities from the highest levels of political office because of their ethnic and religious heritage. To date, US-EU brokered talks have failed to bear fruit, with the Bosnian Serb Republic keen to safeguard the autonomy granted to it by the Dayton Peace Agreement that ended the war in the 1990s. With elections approaching in autumn 2010, the environment looks increasingly unfavourable for achieving concession and compromise. The citizens of Bosnia, however, along with Albania, look set to enjoy visa-free travel from next summer.

Upon being named the EU's new economic and monetary affairs commissioner, the outgoing EU enlargement commissioner, Olli Rehn, was praised for his political and negotiating skills; traits deemed necessary to tackle increasingly unstable public finances across Europe in the wake of the financial crisis. Rehn's likely successor, Stefan Fule, will quickly need to demonstrate that he possesses similar qualities. With rising expectations in the Western Balkans coinciding with enlargement fatigue within the EU, bilateral and internal disputes will continue to place the region's European perspective increasingly under the spotlight.

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