Analyst: ‘Imperfect’ EU remains attractive for Balkans

Ivan Vejvoda.jpg

The Balkan countries are under no illusions about the EU – it is an ''imperfect human creation'' but is still their best option for guaranteeing stability and prosperity following the wars of the 1990s, Ivan Vejvoda, executive director of the Balkan Trust for Democracy, told EURACTIV Slovakia in an interview.

Ivan Vejvoda is executive director of the Balkan Trust for Democracy, a project of the German Marshall Fund of the United States dedicated to strengthening democratic institutions in Southeastern Europe.

He previously served as a foreign policy advisor to Serbian Prime Ministers Zoran Živkovi? and Zoran Djindji? and was a key figure in the opposition movement in Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

He was speaking to EURACTIV Slovakia’s Zuzana Gabrizova and Zuzana Vaskova.

European countries and EU foreign affairs chief Cathy Ashton recently persuaded the Serbian president to withdraw his original proposal for a UN resolution criticising the International Coirt of Justice ruling on Kosovo. It is considered a tremendous success for European diplomacy. Do you agree?

Absolutely. I would agree completely that it is a success overall, both for the European Union and for Serbia, and I would add Kosovo because what it demonstrates is the willingness on the part of everyone to go forward to find a solution to what would otherwise be a frozen conflict – something that is not possible to solve.

Here, because we have the European Union, we have a magnet for the whole region – including Serbia – to want to move forward and become a part of the EU itself, which means stabilising, bringing back normality and solving problems like all other countries have in the global economic crisis: unemployment, falling standards of living…

The only way to do that is to have allies and assess realistically what your position is, and I think the resolution and the compromise that was achieved point directly in this direction.

Could the compromise on the UN resolution be perceived as a first step towards normalisation of relations in the Balkans?

Well, the normalisation has been ongoing generally since the fall of Milosevic regime ten years ago and this year we will celebrate the events of 2000, when in peaceful elections we beat Milosevic in Serbia.

Looking at the state of bilateral relations between Croatia and Serbia, for example, or Bosnia and Serbia, there has been a clear improvement. The general line has been forward and this recent event with the resolution I think proves the willingness of everyone to further stabilise.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said there would be no further border changes in the Balkans. As someone who has witnessed many changes of borders, do you find his words realistic?

Well, this is a really traumatic experience for all the people living in the former Yugoslavia since the outbreak of violence during the 1990s. In a sense it all began with Kosovo back in the 80s and it all seems to be ending with Kosovo. We will see how the road to a solution moves forward.

I hope that this is the last chapter in the violence and note the fact that all those in the region – all the democratically-elected governments – have committed themselves to the path of European integration. Therefore I do not think we will see any further changes.

Do you think that EU countries that haven't recognised Kosovo yet will later change their attitude, considering that they think it will create a precedent?

Well, yes, the five countries of the EU that have not recognised Kosovo have been pretty clear that their attitude about recognition will not change. We will see how diplomacy with these five countries will continue.

For the moment, they've all clearly maintained the stance that this will be unchanged, and I think a lot will depend on how these negotiations – which will hopefully begin rather sooner than later – will proceed.

The Balkan conflict occurred not such a long time ago and is still an open wound in that sense. Does this generation of politicians stand a chance of solving the problems or do we have to wait for another generation of politicians to make a difference?

No, I think this generation can solve it. These are politicians who were not engaged in the war, at least not in Serbia. In Kosovo, most of the leaders were part of the war effort, but for example in Serbian-Croatian relations what has helped enormously for warming relations was a new Croatian president.

Josipovic is someone who is new and has not been part of the politics before. So in a sense, there is a change in the elite. These are people who fought against the Milosevic regime, who are committed democrats and Europeans and want to solve these problems in a responsible way.

Does the perception of the European perspective in countries that entered the EU in 2004 and 2007 differ from the perception in the Balkan countries?

I don't think there's a real difference, as there is the desire to join the European Union and, of course, other reasons as well. There's the famous return to Europe that was announced in 1989. These countries were cut off by the Cold War, the world order of Yalta and Potsdam. They were countries that were left out in the cold under the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, so they wanted to join.

I think Yugoslavia, or the countries that made up the former Yugoslavia – the Western Balkan countries plus Albania – who were not under Soviet rule want to join the European Union.

For years, the EU has had constant public support in polls. It's simply because it brings a little more predictability in their lives, a little more certainty, security and prosperity than if you were to stay outside.

And that's what will lead the desire to join the European Union. But I don't think anyone has the illusion that the EU is something perfect. No. They understand it's an imperfect human creation, but it's still the least bad one that we have.

Since we had two wars in a very bad time, when war shouldn't have happened in Europe in the 1990s, I think people understand that is important to join this peace project.

You mentioned in one of your interviews that the entry of Bulgaria and Romania into the EU made it more difficult for Balkan countries to become EU members, since there will be more focus on corruption, among other things…

Yes, the rules of European integration will be applied much more vigorously. The rules have not really changed that much, what has changed is the application of the rules. So there won't be any leniency, everything will have to be done, every reform will have to be accomplished. They won't be able to say, 'OK, we know that you will finish this': that has changed.

But I would say also there's something positive: it's the understanding that one really has to do the reforms for one's own sake. If one wants to have a country that's in order under the rule of law, where citizens can feel safe and with an independent judiciary where corruption is diminished, it's better to do all the hard work at the beginning and then enter.

But having said that, I think it's good that Romania and Bulgaria joined – because of geopolitical and strategic reasons. This is broad stability. It's been an important factor. Yes, there are difficulties, but I think Europe and the world are different because these countries are now in the EU and NATO.

When do you see the next Balkan country becoming a member of the EU?

Well, Croatia is obviously the first one, with Iceland, and then I think Serbia will probably be next in line and then some of the other countries – maybe Montenegro, maybe Macedonia, which is a candidate already, a full candidate for five years, but because of the name dispute…

It's hard to predict, but sometime before the end of this decade. Prognoses have always been very tricky but I think there's an understanding now that the greatest burden of responsibility lies on the countries themselves to do the work of reform.

The other important thing is that the process must be moving all the time – the EU does a step, we do a step. There's a mutual motivation to accomplish what is a very difficult work of changes in society, from what it was to a more orderly, democratically-ruled society.

Do you see Serbia entering the EU in about ten years?

Less, I would hope less. I mean, there has been some calculations made by our integration experts and it's somewhere between 2016 and 2017. That would be the quickest possible date, given all the steps that need to be made, given the ratification process.

As you once said, after Cyprus the European Union is no longer willing to see a frozen conflict within its borders. So do you expect the Kosovo problem to be resolved by that time?

Yes. Absolutely.

Now, public opinion in Serbia is against the independence of Kosovo. Will it ever change?

There are two things. One is that, at the moment, nobody is asking Serbia to recognise Kosovo – from Biden to Westerwelle and others. But I think the public also realises that there's a reality on the ground, that something happened when NATO bombed and the Serbian state had to retreat from Kosovo and that the two million Albanians do not wish to live under Serbia. That it means that Serbia has de jure sovereignty over Kosovo but not de facto.

So these are realities. If you're responsible – again coming back to my initial argument about how you survive in this world, how you attract investments – because there's no money in Serbia. We need foreign direct investment to get the economy going, which can create jobs. And that's what people really want when you have opinion polls, this is really what people care about: jobs, security. And I think in between those two things, we have the possibility to advance towards a solution. Nothing easy about it.

The toughest problem in the Balkans seems to be Bosnia and Herzegovina, since it's a country that is deeply divided into three main ethnic groups. Is there a way to solve this issue?

Well, they will also have to do the hard work of change and of talking to each other. I think for Bosnia we will have to wait until after the elections and then, I think, there's the possibility to reach some compromises after that and to move forward. They will have to deal with this.

The other thing is that we always have to look at these issues within the regional context: Croatians, Serbians move forward and they will have a pulling effect on Bosnia. We've seen this with the visa regime.

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