The Western Balkans: from ‘powder keg of Europe’ to a Transatlantic perspective

The Western Balkans are an integral part of a shared vision of a ‘strong and free Europe’ and needs to be supported on the path of Euro-Atlantic integration.

/ By Philip T. Reeker, Acting Assistant Secretary, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, U.S. Department of State

This year, the Transatlantic commu­nity marks the 101st anniversary of the end of World War I; the 74th anniversary of the end of World War II; the 70th anniversary of the North Atlantic Trea­ty Organization (NATO); the 30th anniver­sary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Communism in Central Europe; and the 20th anniversary of the end of the Kosovo conflict. It is also the 15th anniversary of the “big bang” enlargements of the European Union (EU) and NATO in 2004, and the 10th anniversary of NATO’s 2009 enlargement. These anniversaries are a reminder of the enduring strength of the West, but also that the work of fulfilling our shared vision of a “strong and free Eu­rope” remains incomplete. We have come a long way, but the work isn’t done yet. The Western Balkans are an integral part of this shared vision, and we must redouble efforts to support their peoples’ Euro-Atlantic aspi­rations.

Jim Leach, a former diplomat and U.S. Congressman from Iowa, once quipped, “The only thing the Balkans exports is his­tory.” Outsiders sometimes characterize the Western Balkans as a region where the past remains very much present, and, in­deed, longstanding geopolitical, economic, and cultural forces at play in Southeastern Europe at the start of the twentieth centu­ry have endured or become resurgent. The Western Balkans remains fragmented — po­litically, ethnically, and culturally — with high unemployment and lagging economic and infrastructure development. Its strategic lo­cation and vulnerabilities have made the re­gion a critical front in increasing geopolitical competition for positive influence in Europe.

The unfortunate view in some quarters of the continent seems to be that the Western Balkan countries are in Europe, but not of Europe. Subscribers to that view continue to use loaded, pejorative terms like “powder keg” or “balkanization.” They believe that, rather than pursuing an upward trajectory of stability and prosperity, the countries of the region are condemned to a vicious and end­less cycle marked by poverty, zero-sum com­petition, nationalist resurgence, democratic backsliding, corruption, and conflict.

Balkan integration with Western institutions is in the political, security, and economic interests of the countries in the region, the EU, and the United States.

This does not have to be the case, as re­cent actions by Balkan leaders demonstrate. In defending the landmark Prespa Agree­ment, former Greek Foreign Minister Niko­laos Kotzias said, “History should be a school and not a prison.” The Western Balkans are not the same as they were 100 or even 15 years ago. The February 2018 EU Western Balkans Strategy reaffirmed the conclusion reached at the Thessaloniki Summit in 2003 that there is a clear “European perspective” for all six Western Balkan aspirants to join the EU, based on firm, established criteria. This reflects our shared strategic goal. Bal­kan integration with Western institutions is in the political, security, and economic interests of the countries in the region, the EU, and the United States. There has been measurable progress. Croatia joined the EU in 2013. Montenegro and Serbia have made significant strides in their accession negotia­tions. With hard work, the European Com­mission said EU aspirant countries could join the Union by 2025. We call upon all the countries in the region to pursue this goal by accelerating their efforts.

Courageous and forward-looking lead­ers like North Macedonia’s Prime Minister Zoran Zaev and former Greek Prime Minis­ter Alexis Tsipras were able to break through nationalistic and cultural barriers that had held the region back for decades. They paved the way toward North Macedonia becoming the 30th NATO Ally and joining the EU. The Prespa Agreement was arguably the most significant purely diplomatic achievement in the Balkans since the Dayton Peace Accords. It stands as proof that, with real leadership, persistence, and compromise, even the most deeply rooted historical and cultural conflicts can be overcome.

In 2016, Montenegro thwarted a brazen coup at­tempt aimed at undermin­ing Montenegrin democra­cy. This coup attempt was only one prong of Russia’s effort to destabilize the country; Russia also unleashed a pervasive anti-NATO disinfor­mation campaign to thwart Montenegro’s NATO accession. On May 9, a Montenegrin court found two Russian GRU officers guilty of attempted terrorism during the 2016 coup attempt, laying bare Moscow’s blatant at­tempt to destabilize an independent Europe­an country. The open and transparent trial represents an important step forward for the rule of law and is an example of Montene­gro’s resiliency.

Western Balkan countries should contin­ue to advance reforms that will draw them closer to Western standards, particularly in strengthening judicial independence and the rule of law, increasing anti-corruption ef­forts, bolstering media freedom, liberalizing labor markets, privatizing or modernizing state-owned enterprises, and boosting cross border trade. We would also welcome steps by Western Balkan countries to advance re­gional energy security by completing proj­ects such as the Krk Island LNG terminal, the Interconnector Bulgaria-Serbia, and the “Kosova e Re” power plant. In the face of ongoing Russian malign influence cam­paigns aimed at destabilizing the region, as well as China’s increased investment in stra­tegic industries through its “17+1” and “Belt and Road” initiatives, we need to increase engagement in the region and re-energize partnerships with Western Balkan countries. These countries need to know what they will get — and what they stand to lose — from the “deals” Moscow and Beijing peddle. The United States will continue to offer these countries a reciprocal and fair trading rela­tionship and is working to boost U.S. invest­ment in the region through new tools like the Development Finance Corporation.

Strengthening the Transatlantic alliance to preserve and defend our shared values, including individual liberty, representative democracy, media freedom, free markets, and the rule of law is a top strategic priority for the United States in a new era of geopo­litical competition. The close collaboration between the United States, the EU, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in the Western Balkans is a shining example of this partnership. Our work together to help Western Balkan gov­ernments accelerate reforms and strengthen their democracies is hardening their soci­eties against malign external influence; cre­ating better, stronger, global partners; and ensuring long-term stability, security, and prosperity for their citizens. This important work also prepares these countries for future membership in Euro-Atlantic institutions like NATO and the EU, in accordance with the wishes of their people.

It is these shared interests that motivate U.S. support for Albania and North Mace­donia’s EU membership bids. The European Commission’s May 29 assessment confirmed both countries met the conditions set out at the June 2018 European Council Summit to open accession negotiations. It is especial­ly critical that North Macedonia receive a positive decision to open accession negotia­tions in October. The Commission cited the Prespa Agreement and North Macedonia’s bilateral agreement with Bulgaria as exam­ples of “how to strengthen good neighborly relations for the entire region.” Continu­ing to stall North Macedonia’s enlargement progress will undermine the courageous compromises these leaders made for peace and progress, which serve as inspiration to all those who strive to secure a common Eu­ropean future.

Before and after the EU decision in Oc­tober, the United States will continue to urge Skopje and Tirana to press ahead with po­litical and economic reforms that strengthen rule of law and anti-corruption efforts and cement democratic governance. In North Macedonia, we are encouraging the govern­ment and opposition to resolve differences over the future of the Special Prosecutor’s Office before the mandate of the Chief Spe­cial Prosecutor expires. In Albania, the United States is working with our European partners in pressing for continued progress on judicial reforms; re-establishment of a quorum in the constitutional court, follow­ing vetting; and electoral reforms based on the ODIHR recommendations.

The United States likewise strongly sup­ports the normalization of relations between Kosovo and Serbia. At the highest levels, the United States has made clear that there is a historic opportunity for Kosovo and Serbia to achieve a comprehensive nor­malization agreement. Ideally, this deal would center on mutual recognition. We are here to listen and to help. How­ever, until the parties revive the stalled EU Dialogue negotiations, the chances of reaching an agreement are nil. Both Belgrade and Pristina have an opportu­nity to refocus on their strategic interest by removing barriers to negotiations, refraining from engaging in provocative actions, and returning to the negotiating table in a spirit of flexibility and readi­ness to compromise. To build confi­dence, we would welcome a decision by Kosovo to suspend the tariffs imposed on Serbian and Bosnian imports, and a move by Serbia to suspend its campaign to delegitimize Kosovo in the interna­tional community. Kosovo, of course, is headed towards elections in the fall and Serbia will likely have parliamentary elections next spring. The parties must work to navigate the political calendar and find their way back to the negotiat­ing table. There is no other path forward.

As work to normalize their bilateral relations proceeds, parallel work to meet these countries’ reform goals in areas like rule of law, judicial independence, media freedom, and democratic gover­nance should continue. Serbia — indeed all of us — must remain wary of persistent Russian attempts to influence Serbian government actions in a manner and di­rection inconsistent with Serbia’s Trans­atlantic aspirations. It is important, too, that the EU no longer delay extending visa-free travel to Kosovo citizens. The European Commission twice confirmed Kosovo has met all prerequisites, and both the Commission and the European Parliament expressed clear support for visa liberalization. Reliability is a two-way street.

Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) is another urgent priority and source of challenges for regional stability. We are pleased that in December 2018, NATO Allies agreed to accept BiH’s first Annu­al National Program (ANP), when the country chooses to submit it. Moving down the path to Euro-Atlantic integra­tion is BiH’s best hope for a stable and prosperous future and all the tangible benefits this process will bring its cit­izens. To achieve this worthy goal, the United States will continue to support the country’s leaders in undertaking necessary reforms such as improving transparency, reforming the judiciary, privatizing state-owned enterprises, and tackling corruption.

Despite the complex challenges fac­ing Western Balkans nations the United States is optimistic about the future of the region. The Western Balkans has tak­en significant, difficult steps forward in recent years. Brave leaders are disprov­ing the critics who say the region will never escape its past. The people of the Western Balkans have firmly chosen to join the West. Certainly, this path ahead is long and difficult, and it will demand steady and consistent leadership to make decisions — some of which may be tem­porarily unpopular — that align with their countries’ long-term, strategic goals, not short-term, politically expedient tactics. This is what citizens in Balkan nations have made clear they expect, and this is what is required to firmly anchor the Western Balkans into the Western com­munity of nations to the benefit of the region, the EU, and the United States. We are here to help the countries of the region build a brighter and more secure future for all of their citizens. The road is long and steep and at times rocky. But, the destination is worth the journey.

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