Serbia and Kosovo must learn to live with their differences as East and West Germany did in the past, Hido Biš?evi?, secretary-general of the Regional Cooperation Council for South Eastern Europe, told EURACTIV in an interview.
Croatian diplomat Hido Biš?evi? is currently serving as secretary-general of the Regional Cooperation Council for South Eastern Europe.
He was speaking to EURACTIV's Georgi Gotev.
Mr Biš?evi?, what is new with regional cooperation in the Balkans? Can you tell us what the Regional Cooperation Council (RCC) has been doing since it was established?
We have just had the second anniversary of the establishment of the RCC – at the end of February – and if I look back and evaluate the process and the results achieved, I think I can safely say that the establishment and the upgrading of its operational capabilities has been completed successfully. Now, the RCC is fully operational, working at full capacity and has a high profile in the region, with the international community, the EU and the various European institutions.
We have gained a certain amount of leverage with the member states and governments in South Eastern Europe (SEE), which gives us an operational area in which to promote regional cooperation and focus as deeply as possible on concrete development projects in the priority areas of energy, infrastructure, economic and social cooperation and human capital, among others.
Needless to say, the establishment of the RCC and the transition from the Stability Pact to a regionally-owned cooperation institution came against the backdrop of the very sensitive, complex and challenging political situation in SEE.
You are referring to the fact that Kosovo declared independence around the time that the RCC was established.
The regional differences over Kosovo only complicated what was already a complex situation, due to a number of unresolved issues that are still burdening the region, hampering certain bilateral relations and casting a shadow over regional cooperation.
But even in these difficult and challenging circumstances, I think we can say that regional cooperation is genuinely on the rise.
To be quite honest, there is a direct link between cooperation in the region and the ups and downs of the EU's enlargement process. There is a clear correlation between the readiness of countries to put aside their differences and open up to each other, and the enlargement policy of the EU.
This is why it was rather difficult to enhance regional cooperation in 2009. The year was characterised by a great deal of introversion by the European institutions and the EU, and enlargement policy was evidently put to one side. This brought about a return to old rhetoric in many areas in the region.
Can you see this clearly in Sarajevo, where you are based?
Yes. Sarajevo is the centre of the region in many senses – here one has something of a bird's eye view of bilateral relations in the Western Balkans, where there is a common orientation towards the EU and Euro-Atlantic integration.
There is an interplay because of the different statuses of relations between this or that individual country and the EU, but there are still remnants of the past and unresolved issues that are influencing the political circumstances in which the RCC operates.
Croatia, the country that you are from, is well advanced in terms of its EU accession negotiations. But countries like Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) and Kosovo are still far from achieving crucial steps such as visa liberalisation. In what way can regional cooperation accelerate this process, and is everything done on a bilateral basis?
First of all, let me tell you that regional cooperation is one of the key political criteria for EU accession – that is why regional cooperation is something of an obligation for any of the aspiring countries. In Croatia's case, regional cooperation was not one of the country's priorities ten years ago: everyone was looking towards Brussels – not the Balkans – and memories of war and issues such as cultural identity persisted. But now, one of the top priorities of Croatian foreign policy is regional cooperation.
Countries are realising more and more that there is compatibility between the road to the EU and regional cooperation. Not only in terms of the Stabilisation and Association Agreement and the formal negotiation process, but also in terms of moving from the past to the future in the Balkans, educating new generations, removing old prejudices and stereotypes and truly introducing European values and standards to the region.
Do you think it will be possible for Serbia and Kosovo to sit around the same table? There are two important upcoming meetings, one in Slovenia in March and one in BiH in June, organised by the Spanish EU Presidency. Kosovo wants to be called by its constitutional name but Serbia objects to this. Is there a solution?
From the RCC's perspective, we have found a solution. We have discussed the issue with Belgrade and Pristina and explained that the RCC is a neutral organisation without any political preferences. Despite their historical differences, it would be in both sides' interests to participate so that they can have a say in the economic and social development of the region. Balanced development in the Balkans is vital for long-term stability, particularly with the current economic crisis in mind.
If we allow segments of the region to fall behind in terms of employment, administrative capacities and economic development and become a sort of black hole, this would bring instability to the whole region. It is therefore in everybody's interest to cooperate in this respect, but Belgrade-Pristina relations are very complex. There are known diplomatic techniques that could solve the meeting issues, but one of the problems is that both sides are currently awaiting the decision of the UN court on Kosovo's status, meaning that domestic issues are influencing decisions on both ends.
But there are other important issues concerning relations between Belgrade and Pristina and there needs to be full recognition of the sensitivities and realities of the situation. It is imperative that both sides learn to live with their differences. The situation reminds me of some relationships in Europe in the last century, such as between East and West Germany. It is vital to nurture a culture of dialogue and mutual understanding, even when you have differences, because this is the only way to avoid prolonged tensions. Of course, this part of Europe is full of tensions, differences and unresolved issues.
Even though it is not our direct mandate, the RCC is trying to promote a culture of constraint, tolerance and dialogue, because the two groups will have to live with their differences for years, if not decades. People also have to get on with their daily lives on both sides and if there is a Serb community in Kosovo, their own needs must be understood. We have to find a formula to live with the problems.
The alternative to a solution would be a frozen conflict and we have seen very vividly in the last few years that if a frozen conflict is left, it will eventually explode. Meanwhile, we hope that both Belgrade and Pristina continue to lean towards the EU.
Are there other players complicating the situation? Is Russia interfering with the process?
I would not say that anyone is interfering, but there are obviously very different positions throughout the international community. Several EU member states have said that they will never recognise Kosovo. Some RCC members in the region recognise it and some do not. There are clearly differing approaches from all over the world and even within the EU. The Russians, for example, have an outlook based on their own foreign policy issues.
In the RCC there are civil servants from both Serbia and Kosovo. How do they work together?
They work very well together. The RCC is a good platform for contact between people and nurturing a culture of dialogue and mutual understanding. To quote myself from one of the very first RCC staff meetings, team-building is a form of region-building – a very simple message.
Sarajevo has been chosen as a base for regional cooperation, but BiH is not a very good example for other countries to follow. How do you see the situation there now and in the future?
To be very honest, I think the political situation in BiH at the moment is very worrisome, extremely worrisome. It appears to be a dormant, frozen conflict. It is centrally placed, both geographically and politically, and reaching a self-sustainable constitution based on the Dayton Agreement is of crucial importance for the durable stability of the entire region.
One cannot envisage durable stability and regional cooperation in the Western Balkans and SEE with BiH as an unresolved issue. It is hard to imagine that neighbouring countries such as Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro can move towards the EU if BiH remains a sort of black hole in the region. I believe that true, durable stability in the Balkans is closely linked with BiH.
Unfortunately, BiH does not seem any closer to self-sustainability now than it was when the Dayton Agreement was made 15 years ago. I would say that a combination of renewed internal political action and assistance from the international community is still very much needed. BiH must remain a country in which the current security and stability architecture, including territorial integrity, is preserved.
If the situation in BiH remains unresolved, this could open a Pandora's Box and create a pebble effect throughout the Western Balkans. This would be a shameful result of almost 25 years of dealing with the crisis in the former Yugoslavia. The rest of Europe would be united, free and democratic but there would be the opening of a new crisis in the Balkans.
The disintegration of Yugoslavia created some 3,000 kilometres of new internal frontiers. The EU would surely not want any more additions to its internal borders…
Absolutely – I think the international community and the EU are firmly of the view that the present security and stability architecture in SEE needs to be preserved. But on the basis of this architecture, how do you enhance the self-sustainability of BiH to make it more secure? How do you revive progress on a new constitution? BiH is about to hold elections – not a good time to have constitutional debate as nationalist rhetoric will come into play.
In my mind, the only realistic way forward in BiH would be for the political leaders and parties representing the three constituent peoples to agree upon a set of minimum principles about what country they want for the future.
The international community and the region itself need to take a certain amount of responsibility for BiH. If the present situation continues, the region will be the first to feel the effects, for example over visa liberalisation, border issues and trade. A supportive mechanism needs to be created by the international community, one that includes not only the EU and the United States, but also Russia, Turkey and the countries in the Balkans. And there needs to be a timeframe for this process, in order to have a goal and to separate the issue from the political debate during the election period.
This kind of approach might help to pull BiH out of its own political lethargy and the extremely harsh effects of the economic crisis must be taken into account. This goes not only for BiH but also for all the countries in the region. The crisis and the unresolved ongoing issues are, of course, not a recipe for stability and cooperation.
In a nutshell, what kind of communication do you have with the European Commission and what does it expect of the RCC, given its financial support?
The core of the RCC's mandate is to foster the European and Euro-Atlantic orientation of the whole region, so the RCC is something of a go-between for the EU and the region. Of course, the RCC plays a role in the Stabilisation and Association Process for the region. When we are in Brussels, the EU wants to hear our inside knowledge about developments in the region and how the countries are responding – particularly in the priority areas.
When we are discussing with the region – both multilaterally and bilaterally with individual countries – we relay messages from Brussels about the EU's expectations. Politically, in Brussels we are advocates of the EU enlargement process and in the region we pass on EU messages about responsibility and resolution of open issues. It is a two-way street.
The border dispute between Croatia and Slovenia came as a surprise in the midst of Croatia's EU accession negotiations. Does the RCC cover border matters, considering that there are many other areas where similar problems could arise?
When this event occurred, the RCC saw that the EU might allow this bilateral issue to be linked to the membership negotiation process. The SEE countries involved in the RCC have since signed a resolution committing to refrain from using bilateral issues during any future EU negotiations. There is a strong political commitment, because one can only imagine the Pandora's Box of bilateral issues such as border and property disputes that could be connected to the accession process.