BALKAN BLOG: Cause for cautious optimism in the Western Balkans

BALKAN BLOG: Cause for cautious optimism in the Western Balkans
"Yes" campaigners rally in Skopje ahead of Macedonia's September 30 referendum.
By Clare Nuttall in Bucharest September 19, 2018

Looking beyond the angry rhetoric and deep-rooted divisions in the Western Balkans, several recent developments indicate a willingness to compromise as all the states in the region pursue their common goal of EU integration. 

There’s cause for cautious optimism about Macedonia in particular, ahead of the September 30 referendum on the so-called “name deal” with Greece. Under the agreement that ends a decades-long dispute between the neighbouring countries, Macedonia is required to change its name to “Northern Macedonia”, a concession few people in the country are happy about, but one that will persuade Athens to stop blocking Macedonia’s progress towards EU and Nato accession. 

Polls show that the majority of Macedonians who are planning to vote in the upcoming referendum will vote yes, but with speculation about an opposition boycott the big question has been whether turnout will reach the 50% plus one voter mark needed for the referendum to be valid. However, after keeping everyone in suspense for weeks, Macedonia’s main opposition party VMRO-DPMNE announced on September 12 that it would leave its supporters to make their own minds up. “Each individual, with their own morals and conscience, will make the decision they consider is the best for their family and for our dear Macedonia,” said party leader Hristijan Mickoski. 

This was encouraging given that VMRO, which has a deeply antagonistic relationship with Prime Minister Zoran Zaev’s Social Democrats, has a substantial following in the country. Mickoski’s announcement leaves just a band of small rightwing opposition parties, led by the pro-Russian United Macedonia party, pushing for a boycott of the vote. 

The Macedonian referendum has also become a focus of attention among other states in the region that are also aspiring to EU integration. The presidents of both Albania and Kosovo have called for a yes vote in Macedonia, where around a quarter of the population are ethnic Albanians. 

Bosnian breakthrough 
Any kind of progress is usually off the agenda around election time in Bosnia, as politicians ramp up their ethnically divisive rhetoric to mobilise voters, but this year was the exception, as on September 11 lawmakers adopted key amendments to the criminal code that had been requested by the EU. The EU delegation in Bosnia commented after the vote that the adoption of the changes shows Bosnia has the political will to be a credible partner in fighting serious crime. Admittedly the vote took place under heavy pressure from Brussels, Washington and the Office of the High Representative in Bosnia, but it still represents unexpected progress in what is shaping up to be an incendiary pre-election campaign period. 

And there was also progress in Kosovo, whose citizens came closer to securing visa free travel to the EU after the European Parliament confirmed the opening of negotiations with the European Council on the issue. This is an important step for Kosovo. Of all the peoples in the region, only citizens of Kosovo still need a visa to travel to EU countries. The step follows a lengthy struggle within Kosovo to ratify a border demarcation deal with Montenegro, one of the more controversial pre-conditions for visa liberalisation, with the opposition resorting to letting off tear gas in the parliament to prevent MPs from voting. 

Standoff in north Kosovo 
Given the underlying tensions in the region, however, there have as always been small-scale conflicts. Tensions were hiked over the weekend of September 8-9 in Serb-dominated northern Kosovo, after Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic cancelled a planned meeting in Brussels with his Kosovan counterpart Hashim Thaci. The reason given was that the Kosovan authorities had not allowed Vucic to visit the dam on Gazivoda Lake, an important strategic asset in north Kosovo. 

A couple of days later, Kosovan activists including veterans of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), blocked the road to an ethnic Serb village in the region to stop Vucic from visiting. In the end, the EU intervened to ask the protesters to unblock the road. Further controversy came when Vucic delivered a speech to Serbs in Mitrovica, northern Kosovo, where he talked of the late dictator Slobodan Milosevic as a “great leader who certainly had the best intentions, but the results were very poor” — unsurprisingly that sparked angry reactions from Pristina, Sarajevo and Zagreb. 

Yet the events of September 7-9 are seen as part of the long and tortuous political path to a negotiated settlement between Belgrade and Pristina, that could finally lead to the two states moving forward towards EU accession — Serbia by 2025, Kosovo at some unspecified time in the future. Normalisation of relations with Kosovo is one of the steps that must be taken as part of EU candidate country Serbia’s accession process. Kosovo, which unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in 2008, is not able to make progress towards accession to the bloc as five EU member states do not recognise it as an independent step. 

The normalisation process is therefore critical to both sides, and the indications are that after years of talks, several breakthrough agreements and as many setbacks, a deal could now be reached in the near future. 

Officials from both countries, including their two presidents, have talked recently of a possible land swap or “border correction” as part of a lasting solution to the longstanding conflict. Such a deal could see the Presevo Valley in Serbia, which is mainly populated by ethnic Albanians, handed over to Pristina, while northern Kosovo would go to Serbia. Recognition of Kosovo as an independent state is another critical question to be resolved. 

The idea of such a deal has, however, already met with fierce opposition in both countries, including from top government officials — Kosovan Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj said a land swap would mean “war”, while Serbia’s Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic said “pigs will fly” before Belgrade would recognise Kosovo. Not only that, but outside the country, while EU and US officials have been encouraging the steps towards a settlement, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has come down against a land swap. 

Both sides are using delaying tactics as they try to reach a deal while at the same time preparing their populations, wrote Marta Szpala of the Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW), referencing the events of early September. Internationally, Germany’s support has been critical for Serbia’s progress towards EU accession, meaning that Vucic has to try and persuade Merkel to drop her opposition to a territorial exchange. 

“Vucic is attempting to play on the differences of opinions between the individual states and is capitalising on the increasing tension in relations between Belgrade and Pristina to prove to the German government that the only solution to the dispute is the adjustment of the borders,” Szpala wrote in a September 12 comment

Kosovo is even keener to reach an agreement that Serbia, adds Szpala, since this is the only way to get full international recognition, and “Kosovo’s position on the international arena has weakened over the past few months because its main ally, the US, is pressing for a quick compromise… However, its government has been unable to develop a common strategy on talks with Serbia due to bitter rivalry within the government coalition.” 

In addition to the potential for unrest within both states, and the practical and human challenges ahead should a land exchange be agreed, there are fears that such a deal could lead to a wider destabilisation of the region. 

“Opponents of a territory swap worry that if the exchange finds enough support to be included in a final deal, it could inspire similar redesigns of other borders in the region,” wrote Stratfor analysts on September 4. 

The Stratfor report mentions, for example, Bosnia’s Serb entity Republika Srpska, whose president, Milorad Dodik, has been pushing for a referendum on secession from Bosnia and who repeatedly defies state-level institutions. Republika Srpska “could demand independence or its annexation by Serbia, a development that could lead to [Bosnia’s] collapse. At the same time, ethnic Albanians, such as those in Macedonia, could likewise demand self-determination or to be allowed to join Albania”.

“The takeaway from an exchange of territories to make Serbia and Kosovo more ethnically homogenous could be that the idea of having multiethnic countries in the Balkans has failed,” Stratfor analysts conclude. 

Centre of attention 
While this and other fraught questions remain unanswered as yet, the progress towards compromise on a variety of issues in the Western Balkans has been helped by the increased attention given to the region, especially by the European Commission and EU leaders. 

This has been highlighted in Macedonia, which has been inundated by visits from top politicians all trying to persuade the country’s citizens to back the agreement with Greece. Merkel, EU High Representative Federica Mogherini and US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis have all visited the country in September. 

The current attention given to Macedonia follows on from the European Commission’s release of its new enlargement strategy for the region back in February, which for the first time gave some concrete target dates for accession. Serbia and Montenegro are now hoping to join by 2025, while candidate countries Albania and Macedonia are expected to start their negotiating processes in the near future. 

Previously the enlargement process had slowed to a halt after Croatia became the last country to join the bloc in 2013, but in the last few years the geopolitical situation has changed dramatically. The migration crisis of 2015 and early 2016 showed the importance of the Western Balkans to the EU’s security. The other factor is Russia: amid the growing rift between Russia and the West, the Western Balkans has become one of the regions where the two sides compete for influence, a point made explicitly by Mattis during his recent visit to Skopje. As new conflicts open up in Europe and the wider world, efforts to resolve the old conflicts of the Western Balkans are redoubling.