Europe is Ignoring Growing Balkan Chaos18 March 2017 | 03:20 | Balkan Insight
Reality on the ground looks the opposite, however, as a steady weakening in EU and US influence in the Balkans contributes to the reopening of a “Pandora’s Box” of troubles in the region.
The summit, which passed off in a collegial atmosphere, was speedily dubbed “historic” by some officials and the media.
Yet, it offered no concrete answers to the dangerous escalation of security, ethnic, political, economic and social tensions in the Balkans.
The fact that the premiers of six countries that share a troubled past were even able to discuss a common future was comforting.
But, despite that, the war drums are once again beating loudly in the Balkans, and more loudly with each passing day.
While the ominous rhythm underlines an urgent need to stabilise the region, local leaders seem incapable of that, and EU officials are unwilling to intervene, either.
Some good news - more bad
Speaking at the summit, EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn listed “rather bad news” from the region, which included “severe domestic political crises, sometimes heading towards serious ethnic tensions” in several Balkan countries, and the fact that “it is not yet clear where US policy is heading for this region”.
With growing ethnic and political troubles in Bosnia, Macedonia and Montenegro, and worsening tensions between and among Serbia, Kosovo, Albania, Macedonia, Bosnia and Croatia, the region appears to be facing its worst crisis in decades.
Hahn added that the EU “fully understands the severity of the situation in the region” and urged regional leaders to move on and use the attention they currently enjoy in the EU.
The six Balkan leaders duly discussed regional cooperation, economy and trade and signed a joint statement that stressed that their countries “have continued to make progress on our respective EU integration paths and will spare no effort in continuing this”.
Yet, even the amicable Sarajevo meeting fully revealed the existing and growing tensions between the various countries.
While Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic hugged Bosnian counterpart Denis Zvizdic on arriving in Sarajevo, for example, he carefully avoided standing next to leaders of Kosovo or Albania during the photo opportunities and press statements.
Vucic was honest enough to admit to journalists at the end of the event that while the event saw “great photos, superb hairstyles … as soon as the summit is over, the quarrels and conflicts will start again”.
Bosnia’s Zvizdic tried to put a positive spin on the situation in his own country, saying that “the process of European integration was very successful in the previous period”, and adding that for Bosnia, “the last year was the most successful one as far as the EU path is concerned”.
Federica Mogherini, the EU's foreign policy chief, made a similar statement while visiting Sarajevo two weeks ago, when she said she was “impressed” by Bosnia’s advances on its EU path.
But most Bosnia's 3.5 million citizens could not disagree more as they watch their country slipping ever further into political deadlock, dysfunctionality and maybe even a violent breakup.
Bosnia’s uncertain future was underlined by the fact that on the same day that the summit of Balkan leaders was taking place in Sarajevo, the Croatian member of Bosnia’s three-man presidency, Dragan Covic, was in the country’s costal town of Neum, hosting a more controversial Bosnian Croat conference.
This event was aimed at priming the Bosnian Croat and Croatian public for an initiative aimed at reorganising Bosnia’s Bosniak and Croat-dominated Federation entity, to pave the way for the establishment of a new majority-Croat entity.
Besides Covic, the Neum conference included a number of senior Croat officials from Bosnia and Croatia, including the President of Croatia, Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic, who again claimed there was “growing problem” Islamic radicalisation in Bosnia - despite the fact her previous statements on this issue drew a form rebuttal from, among others, Bosnia’s security minister, Dragan Mektic.
The Neum conference is expected to rally support for the autonomist plans of the Bosnian Croat political leadership, even though the initiative does not enjoy support from that many Bosnian Croats while experts warn that it could cause further tension in Bosnia as well as bad blood between Bosnia and Croatia.
Outlook is grim without clear EU perspective
While some EU officials realise how dangerous the escalation of tensions in the Balkans is, and how much potential it has to destabilise the rest of Europe and beyond, EU institutions are still preoccupied with the EU's own internal problems and seem unwilling to change their approach to the Balkans.
The latest example of this disregard was the “White Paper” that the European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker presented on March 1, outlining five scenarios for the future reform of the troubled EU.
Despite the danger signs from the Balkans, and despite many promises of continued EU support for the Balkan integration process, neither the 32-page paper, nor the three-page press release summary mentioned the word “enlargement” or any of the Balkan countries once.
Local and international officials admit that, currently, the EU looks firmly closed to further enlargement for many years, if not forever.
This applies not only to “troubled” countries like Bosnia, Kosovo or Macedonia but even to more stable ones, like Albania, Montenegro and Serbia.
Some experts and EU officials believe the EU's own future reforms should include an overhaul of the enlargement process, with new mechanisms, toolboxes and financial envelopes, so that the new EU - however it may look - is better suited to continue the integration process.
Without a clear EU perspective, at least some Balkan countries are likely to lose interest in EU accession. That would inevitably push the region back in the direction of the old nationalist dreams - or rather nightmares.
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