The Dangerous Stop in the Balkans by Carl Bildt


Even after a quarter of a century of relative peace, the Balkans have yet to achieve the lasting stability they hoped for when the region’s wars ended. And now that the process of EU integration has stalled, we cannot rule out a return to violent conflict.

STOCKHOLM – As two decades of war in Afghanistan draws to its most sinister end, it should be remembered that three decades have now passed since the war struck the Balkans. Both are case studies of how the mismanagement of war can have devastating effects that linger for decades.

In the Balkans, a small war between the disintegrating state of Yugoslavia and one of its constituent republics, Slovenia, was followed by a larger conflict in Croatia. In less than a year, a savage conflict was also raging in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Suddenly, Europe’s “post-war” period was over.

The Balkan wars raged for a decade. The Dayton Peace Agreement ended the conflict in Bosnia in 1995, followed by the Kosovo War, which continued until 1999 and was followed in 2001 by a serious outbreak of violence in present-day North Macedonia.

In total, the wars in the Balkans have claimed more than 100,000 lives, displaced millions of people and delayed the region’s economic and social development for decades. Despite having lived largely on credit, the former Yugoslavia had given its citizens a better standard of living than that of its socialist peers. The country’s long and violent disintegration changed all that.

The peace accords concocted at the time were only palliatives. Everyone understood that lasting stability would require a broader and much more comprehensive framework. Thus, in 2003, the leaders of the European Union declared that all countries in the region must work for a future of stability and lasting peace within the EU.

No one expected this to happen overnight; but neither did anyone think that the integration process would take as long as it has been. Since Slovenia and Croatia joined in 2004 and 2013, respectively, EU enlargement to the Balkans has stalled.

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The reason is twofold. First, political and economic reforms in the non-EU Balkan countries have been painfully slow, while corruption and nationalist sentiment have become more entrenched. Second, support for further enlargement has waned in many EU countries. While politicians still support the idea half-heartedly, the new hurdles and delays tend to be greeted with relief in several key Member States.

In addition, the problems within the Balkan countries are serious. A quarter of a century after the Dayton accords, the international community deemed Bosnia politically so dysfunctional that it warranted a new high representative with broad powers (I was the first to hold such a post, from 1995 to 1997) , derail the country’s EU membership program.

Meanwhile, Serbia is under the boot of an autocratic regime that flirts with China one day and bows down to Russia the next, while its representatives continue to perform well at the European Commission in Brussels. Despite enormous efforts by the EU and the US, the outstanding issues between Serbia and Kosovo are far from resolved.

Finally, after being prevented from joining the EU by Greece (due to a dispute over its name), North Macedonia now finds itself sidelined by Bulgaria for reasons that go back a long way. the history of the region (but which have no contemporary relevance).

To complicate matters further, the EU’s struggle to contain attacks by Hungarian and Polish governments on the rule of law and independent media has curbed its appetite for taking a risk with potentially anti-liberal new members. When Hungary offers its enthusiastic support for Serbia’s membership application, many others in the EU see a hidden agenda that must be blocked.

The opening of the EU in 2003 was a courageous and wise strategic step. But now that the prospect of Balkan integration is fading, the current masquerade cannot continue. Instead, political leaders need to embrace the reality and start defining realistic intermediate steps that could improve conditions in the region without giving up on the end goal.

A good place to start is the Open Balkan initiative, which was designed to increase trade between Albania, North Macedonia and Serbia. But it’s not enough. The EU should lead by example by proposing a new arrangement, which includes an offer to join its customs union and single market.

Three decades ago, the wars in the Balkans began with a small ten-day conflict on the borders of Slovenia. Slovenia now holds the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union. Its leadership program includes a summit between all Western Balkan countries and EU member states in October. This opportunity should spark clear and realistic reflection on the part of all parties.

The alternative for the Western Balkans is a return to violence. It’s already arrived. It is now happening in Afghanistan. This must not happen again in Europe.

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