YUGOSLAVIA 30 YEARS ON: Historical conflicts hold region’s EU future to ransom

YUGOSLAVIA 30 YEARS ON: Historical conflicts hold region’s EU future to ransom
By bne IntelliNews June 21, 2021

Thirty years after the breakup of Yugoslavia, the successor states of the federation are committed to entering the EU. Yet along with the lack of priority given to enlargement to the Western Balkans by most EU members, historical divisions are also holding back accession. Unresolved disputes have prevented North Macedonia from opening accession negotiations 16 long years after it became a candidate country, while Bosnia & Herzegovina and Kosovo have yet to achieve candidate status. 

The question of whether to set a date for the start of accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania is on the agenda for the EU General Affairs Council on June 22, the same day as intergovernmental conferences with fellow candidate countries Serbia and Montenegro, the two frontrunners in the enlargement process, will take place. 

However, while first Slovenia then Croatia have already joined the bloc, the accession prospects for the remaining countries in the region are still far off. Serbia is expected to be the next to join after Montenegro, yet this requires normalising relations between Belgrade and Pristina. The same outstanding conflict means Kosovo is unable to apply for membership. In the years since North Macedonia achieved candidate status, Skopje’s accession has been held back by disputes with first Greece and later Bulgaria. With the latter still unresolved, no progress is expected at the June 22 Council meeting. In Bosnia, progress has been bogged down in internal political infighting. 

A new roadblock for North Macedonia 

Ahead of the June 22 council meeting, North Macedonia’s Prime Minister Zoran Zaev paid a visit to Sofia, but came back empty handed after failing to alter the Bulgarian position; Bulgaria vetoed the start of EU accession talks with Skopje at the end of 2020 over language and historical issues and is not planning to lift the veto, it was reported after the visit. 

Sofia wants North Macedonia to accept that the Macedonian language is a Bulgarian dialect and that the Macedonian nation was artificially created in 1944, as well as to admit that there is no Macedonian minority in Bulgaria. It also insists on the rewriting of history textbooks. The demands were put forward by the Bulgarian government after Skopje settled a long-standing dispute with Greece with the signing of the Prespa Agreement, under which the country’s name was changed from Macedonia to North Macedonia. 

A statement from Bulgaria’s interim Prime Minister Stefan Yanev was conciliatory, talking of the “atmosphere of trust and mutual respect for national interests” and the need to “continue with a search for solutions”. However, the Bulgarian foreign ministry took a tougher line, saying that guarantees regarding the implementation of the 2017 Friendship Treaty between the two countries currently do not exist, and that the requirements for conducting the intergovernmental conference for North Macedonia have not been met either.

The deadlock has even raised speculation that Albania might be allowed to decouple its progress from North Macedonia’s and move ahead faster — even though Skopje was given EU candidate status nine years earlier than its neighbour. North Macedonia’s failure to progress towards EU accession despite the country name change has been problematic for Zaev’s government at home. The opposition VMRO-DPMNE party has announced daily protests, while a recent survey conducted by the International Republican Institute (IRI) shows that the percentage of people who believe the country is closer to joining the EU now than in 2005, when it received candidate status, has dropped from 57% to 32% in the last three years. Nonetheless, 79% of citizens of North Macedonia still support the country’s EU integration process.

The normalisation question

On the same day, the Serbian side will go into their latest intergovernmental conference after an unproductive and reportedly tense meeting between Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti in Brussels on June 15. This was the first meeting after a break while Kosovo elected a new government earlier this year — and the first between Vucic and Kurti within the EU-mediated normalisation dialogue — and it did not result in any progress. 

Normalisation of relations is a prerequisite for either side to enter the EU but it is not clear how this would be achieved. Pristina insists on recognition of Kosovo’s independence — Kurti said at the meeting that mutual recognition is “the only way forward” — yet Belgrade is resolutely opposed to this. Kosovo is unable to even apply for EU candidate status as five members do not recognise it as an independent state. 

After the meeting, Vucic was cited by news agency Tanjug as saying that there was absolutely nothing at the meeting that the two sides could agree on, and that the Pristina side tried to provoke the Serbian delegation to end the dialogue.

EU special envoy for Serbia and Kosovo Miroslav Lajcak said that it was “not an easy meeting” but added that both leaders are “committed to work to reach a comprehensive agreement through the dialogue”. 

Meanwhile, Bosnia formally applied for EU membership in 2016, but the process has been stalled by continuous political disagreements.

Last year, the tripartite presidency agreed to initiate reforms in priority areas to help the country to meet the EU membership criteria, including improving the electoral framework and the functioning of the judiciary, strengthening the prevention and fight against corruption and organised crime and ensuring effective functioning of border management, migration and asylum systems. There has been little progress since then. 

Even Montenegro, which has already opened all chapters in its negotiations for EU membership and is expected to become the next member of the bloc, has internal issues. For example, the country still lacks a track record on improving the rule of law. The new government, which took office in December, has pledged to tackle corruption on all levels and had already revealed several cases of alleged misuse of funds and corruption by the former public administration, but so far no case has been launched. 

Moreover, the ruling coalition has constant disagreements and all reform efforts have been stalled as one of the main members of the ruling coalition – the pro-Russian Democratic Front – constantly refuses to support initiatives from Prime Minister Zdravko Krivokapic’s government. Currently, the party is boycotting the parliament sessions after justice minister Vladimir Leposavic was sacked over his denial of the Srebrenica genocide. Without the support of the Democratic Front, the government cannot pass any legislative changes in parliament as it loses its slim majority.

To add to the difficulties in pushing through reforms, Montenegro’s President Milo Djukanovic is blocking legislation changes adopted by parliament; even when his vetoes are overturned, this makes the process longer and more cumbersome. 

Regional approach 

Despite the differences with the region, there is an appreciation — which spans current and future EU members, and countries on both sides of regional fissure lines — of the benefits of bringing the Western Balkans as a whole into the EU. That was the motivation behind the declaration signed by the leaders of the post-Yugoslav states plus Albania at a summit on May 16, which called on the EU to speed up the accession process of the entire region. The leaders reaffirmed their commitment to EU enlargement, urged the EU to launch accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia without delay and said that the EU must take a more active approach regarding the Western Balkan enlargement process.

“The EU enlargement of the entire Western Balkans is in political, security and economic interests of the Union, and represents a geopolitical necessity and the main political condition for a stable, prosperous and sustainable European future,” said the declaration signed by leaders of the Brdo-Brijuni process at the summit hosted by Slovenian President Borut Pahor. 

Despite efforts to revitalise the enlargement process, the slow progress and seemingly intractable obstacles in the way of candidate and potential candidate countries are seen as having made room for other international actors to increase their foothold in the region. 

Both Russia and China, and to a lesser extent Turkey, have interests in the Western Balkans, with the former two gaining a boost to their reputations with vaccine deliveries to the region this year. Serbia stepped into the void left when EU countries were struggling to vaccinate their own populations by distributing vaccines to several of its neighbours. 

Today Russia is to a large extent seen as a declining power — despite its efforts states such as Montenegro and North Macedonia have entered Nato in recent years and all the countries in the region say EU integration is their main goal. Russia’s influence is now mainly limited to Serbia — despite its pursuit of EU membership — and Bosnia’s Republika Srpska. Meanwhile China has funded numerous projects in the region, particularly in the fields of energy and transport infrastructure, while Chinese companies have invested into industrial assets such as Serbia’s Zelezara Smederevo steel mill and RTB Bor mining complex. 

Contributions from Valentina Dimitrievska in Skopje, Eldar Dizdarevic in Sarajevo, Denitsa Koseva in Sofia and Clare Nuttall in Glasgow.


This article is part of a bne IntelliNews series marking the 30th anniversary of the start of the breakup of former Yugoslavia. Read other articles in the series at:

Big tech from a small country

Seven decades of Bosnia’s “red capitalist” Energoinvest

Srebrenica casts a long shadow in Montenegro 

‘Yugo-nostalgia’ fading but not gone