By Dušan Popov
Sustained peace in the Balkans seems impossible to anyone who holds some knowledge on the political situation of this troubled part of Europe. The state of affairs in the region remains tense even twenty years after the end of a series of conflicts that claimed the lives of over a hundred thousand people and displaced millions. Many of the grievances that caused the bloody conflicts remain unresolved and occasionally tensions can reach a boiling point.
The countries of the region are currently in the process of joining the European Union and some have already joined. Membership of the region in the European Union was long seen as the only possibility for creating a sustainable peace within it. The accession process for prospective member states nevertheless recently stalled. The protraction of the accession process brings uncertainty to the region and jeopardises the frail peace that is currently in place.
France and two other countries rejected the opening of formal accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia at a summit two months ago. The move was seen as a major setback for the European perspective of the region and created a crisis of credibility for the Union in the Balkans. The veto on the accession negotiations was not taken lightly in North Macedonia. The country went through a contentious name change in an attempt to normalise relations with Greece and open negotiations with the European Union after fourteen years without any progress.
Negotiations with Serbia also stalled over its issues with the partially recognised state of Kosovo, which the former considers to be a part of its territory. The government in Priština imposed hefty tariffs on Serbian goods last year in response to diplomatic efforts of Serbia to hinder the international recognition of Kosovo and its accession to international institutions. Belgrade walked out on negotiations for a new arrangement with the government in Priština in response to the tariffs. The move put its accession negotiations with the Union on hold permanently and resulted in a rapprochement with Russia and China.
The accession of Bosnia and Herzegovina is impeded by internal disagreements. Its convoluted system of government encourages factionalism and the persistence of ethnic divides which caused the bloody conflicts at the end of the last century. Governance remains difficult due to disagreements between the three constituent peoples of Bosnia and Herzegovina on most internal and foreign policy issues.
One would think that the chances for any tenable cooperation in the Balkans are bleak after reading this. An alternative to this constant state of tension nevertheless seems to have appeared in recent months. Leaders of the Balkan countries that are not members of the European Union met recently to discuss measures that would result in the formation of a free trade and movement zone. The initiative was welcomed by the top brass in Brussels as it could facilitate the integration of the region into the European Union later on. The opportunities of such a zone could however go further than just facilitated integration.
Trade among the states of the region would be facilitated with the formation of a single market and would likely result in the growth of industrial output. Many new jobs could be created as foreign investment would be incentivized with free access to a regional market. A tenable agreement on a common market could also benefit workers who have increasingly complained about inhumane working conditions in foreign owned factories. A common standard that would regulate working conditions in the states of the free trade zone would likely benefit workers in all of the countries and regulate the behaviour of investors.
Free movement of people as proposed by the leaders of the region is also likely to promote intercultural ties in a region known for conflicts and tension. Any free trade and movement agreement demands commitment to it and would likely moderate the behaviour of states participating in it. The level of tension in the region would therefore almost certainly go down and positive and sustainable cooperation of the states involved could become a more realistic prospect.
Some criticism was directed at the initiative nevertheless. An editorial by the Tirana Times claims that the formation of such a free trade and movement zone was largely redundant and useless. It calls upon the presence of many other regional initiatives as evidence for the lack of need for the said cooperation agreement. The author of the editorial nevertheless disregards the fact that many of these regional initiatives have been deemed ineffective. Commitments made in previous agreements are not credible enough and the formation of a free trade and movement zone would likely make them such.
The initiative nevertheless came under threat in the last month as a result of mounting tensions in the region. Montenegro recently passed a contentious religious law that de facto allows its government to confiscate land and assets from religious communities that have no evidence of ownership over the former. It has been speculated that the law was passed to specifically target the Serbian Orthodox Church to which most of the population adheres. Massive protests have erupted in response to the law and have attracted large swathes of the population. The president of Montenegro claims that the protests are an attempt of Serbia to undermine the independence of the country and relations between Belgrade and Podgorica have been put to the test.
Tensions are also high in Bosnia and Herzegovina where the Serbian member of the rotating presidency that governs the country threatened to secede from the federation in response to the voting patterns of foreign judges in the Constitutional Court. The presence of foreign judges in the highest court of the country is part of the legacy of the Dayton Agreement and remains controversial for the Serbian political leadership in the country. It claims that the foreign judges have been consistently voting against perceived Serbian interests. This is not the first time such threats have been made by politicians from the Serb dominated entity of Republika Srpska. Even though they have mostly been empty so far, they do represent a threat to the fragile peace within the country and hinder cooperation on basic issues.
A large amount of political will is going to be needed for a tenable political agreement on a free trade and movement zone in this situation. The benefits of this agreement would nevertheless be great for all countries of the region and would resolve at least some of the problems the region is facing. The countries of the Balkans must make credible commitments towards cooperation amongst each other. Only then would their behaviour in the regional political arena be moderated and spats could be avoided. This development would allow meaningful steps towards sustained cooperation and positive peace to be made.