Will Brussels turn its back – again – on the Balkans?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

French President Emmanuel Macron (C-L), German Chancellor Angela Merke (C), Federica Mogherini (C-R) High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, join with other leaders for the family photo (group photo) of the participants at the end of the Western Balkan Conference at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, 29 April 2019. [Pool/EPA/EFE]

Will the EU honour its word to Tirana and Skopje or will Brussels – not for the first time – leave the Western Balkans stewing in its own juice? All eyes are on the reaction of EU foreign ministers to last week’s inflammatory rhetoric by two Balkan leaders, writes Denis MacShane.

Denis MacShane was the UK minister for the Balkans under Tony Blair. He visits and writes regularly on the region.

This week the EU’s foreign ministers will meet (18 June) and once again the Balkans will be a hot potato on the agenda as most of the region’s warring politicians cannot see their own feet without shooting at them.

In a rare example of a serious diplomatic breakthrough two young left prime ministers in Athens and Skopje pulled off what seemed an impossible feat earlier this year when Alexis Tsipras and Zoran Zaev agreed to break a 30 year deadlock over the name of the country directly to Greece’s north – known since 1990 as ‘Macedonia’.

Skopje agreed to re-name the country “North Macedonia” to satisfy the Greek view that its region of Macedonia – larger in size and population than the 2 million strong Slav-Albanian country – should not share its historic name with its northern neighbour.

In exchange, Greece agreed to back the entry of North Macedonia into Nato and the EU. Greek diplomats had also been quietly supporting Albania’s entry into the EU with political leaders in Tirana and Skopje opening accessions talks this autumn.

Securing two EU member states as neighbours enlarge Greece’s economic possibilities. There are already 650,000 Albanians working in Greece in agriculture, construction, care-services for the Greek elderly.

Just as the entry of Poland and other East European states into the EU has helped improve their economies and create jobs so the hope was that the EU’s osmotic effect of raising standards in business and rule of law or human rights could work in Albania and North Macedonia.

Leaving these impoverished Balkan states festering outside the EU encourages their populations into illegal migration and criminality as lack of access to the EU’s market and infrastructure investment funds and incestuous clan-like and often corrupt politics demoralise civil society.

There is resistance in northern Europe especially from Muslimphobe nationalist politicians who object to the fact that the majority religion in Albania is a tolerant Ottoman-era Islam. 25% of North Macedonia’s population are Albanian heritage European Muslims.

All these problems are manageable but now the presidents of North Macedonia and Albania seem to be doing their best to derail the EU accession hopes.

North Macedonia’s president, Stevo Pendarovski, came to Brussels last week and said that Albania should be de-coupled from North Macedonia so that just Skopje would be privileged to begin EU accession talks.

Given Albania’s French-educated social democratic prime minister, Edi Rama, had solidly supported the struggle of Skopje’s social democrats to win power against the ultra-nationalist Nikola Gruevski, who filled Skopje with megalomaniac giant statues of Alexander the Great as if the hero of Hellenic antiquity was a Balkan Slav, the call by Pendarovski to dump Tirana was an act of considerable political ingratitude even by Balkan norms.

However, he is helped by his colleague, Albania’s president, Ilir Meta. He was once a friend of Edi Rama as one of the young reformers in the Albanian socialist party as they struggled against the conservative Sali Berisha, who presided over a pyramid share scandal that destroyed the savings of many Albanians and did little to clear up the chronic judicial-business corruption that ruled post-communist Albania for 20 years.

But Meta set up his own party – now run by his wife – and had to resign in disgrace as deputy prime minister in 2010 over allegations – which he denies – of talks over an improper €800,000 payment. Rama hoped making his old comrade president – a position elected by parliament – in 2017 would give him an ally as Meta always campaigned for Albanian integration into Euro-Atlantic institutions like the EU and Nato.

Meta, however, has decided to ally with the opposition Democratic Party now headed by Berisha’s protégé, Luizim Basha. In a classic updating of the old strategy of tension, Basha led his MPs out of Parliament in February and organised street protests, sometimes violent.

The president’s wife, with the mini-party founded by her husband, backed this crude attempt to destabilise the government.  Since February there have been endless street protests in Tirana orchestrated by Basha to try and show Albania is ungovernable.

Basha accused the EU’s Foreign Policy chief, Frederica Mogherini, of talking ‘bull-shit’ when she pleaded with Albanian MPs to adopt reforms to vet judges as part of the preparations of EU accession.

Basha has considerable support from the US alt-right, and uses a picture of himself and Donald Trump on all his social media as well as echoing Trump attacks on any media in Albania that dare criticise him. Magistrates in Tirana last week launched an investigation into a mysterious $625,000 payment Basha paid to US lobbyists to get a hand-shake with Trump.

Now Meta has sided with Basha’s strategy of tension by announcing as president he would suspend local elections due to be held at the end of June. The reason he gave is that the opposition parties, including the one run by his wife, would boycott them.

The aim was clear – to present an image of Albania as unstable and unworthy of being seen as a potential EU member state.  Russia has been accused of meddling as it did to try and stop the North Macedonia name change which led Athens to expel Russian diplomats. The last thing the Kremlin wants is to see the Western Balkans slowly stabilise into poor but normalised EU member states.

Rama is moving to get the Albanian parliament to strip Meta of his role as president as he has crudely abused his power in supporting a partisan bid to bring down the elected government. But now into this mess has stepped the North Macedonian president with his demand that Brussels rewards Basha’s policy of destabilising Albania via a classic strategy of tension using the street to defeat the elected parliament.

The question now is: Does the EU honour its word to Tirana as well as Skopje or will Brussels – not for the first time – leave the Western Balkans stewing in its own juice?

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