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Geopolitical issues of Kosovo

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President Aleksandar Vucic of Serbia has confirmed his intention to attend the Victory Parade in Moscow on June 24th. «I have received an invitation from Moscow, so naturally, I will represent Serbia at Victory Parade», – Srbija Danas cites him as saying. «Few countries can pride themselves on anti-fascist struggle like Serbia. I will proudly hold the flag of my Fatherland on Red Square in Moscow», – the Serbian president said.

The Serbian leader also said that he was planning to meet with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin within the next few days ( on June 17 or 18).

According to reports, one of the key issues to be discussed at the forthcoming talks is the situation involving Kosovo. In the words of Aleksandar Vucic, the  current state of affairs has forced him to give up on putting forward “great initiatives” relative to the Kosovo issue and  he is waiting for proposal from  the international community. At present, he said, he cannot see a solution to the Kosovo problem, since all of his previously voiced proposals on Kosovo were declined: ««When I saw a solution everybody said that my vision was poor and that the issue had better be handled by those who do not live in the Balkans and who have nothing to do with  Serbs or Albanians rather than those who ar directly involved in the conflict – these are Serbs and Albanians. This is how influential states have been behaving in this region for more than 150 years». «I am waiting to see what kind of proposal we will receive. If you ask me why I say so and what I expect I will tell you that I do not expect anything. I do not know what they will propose», – President Vucic added.

The Serbian president approved of a decision by the newly formed government of Kosovo to abolish trade tariffs which were imposed on Serbian goods. He said that this decision would pave the way to the resumption of talks between Belgrade and Pristina and that it should facilitate the development of economic ties. «This will set a framework for better cooperation between our business communities», – Aleksandar Vucic underscored.

By the «previous proposals» on Kosovo settlement President Vucic means, first of all, the idea of dividing Kosovo into  the  Serbian  and  Albanian sections, which he and Kosovo President Hashim Taci presented in the middle of 2018 with a view to secure normalization of bilateral relations. The above mentioned measure was designed to guarantee implementation of the key requirement for Serbia’s membership in the European Union. The document included a protocol on a territorial carve-up of Kosovo.

The corresponding agreement was to be signed in early September 2018 in Brussels with the participation of EU leaders. However, the process was stalled by differences over division principles and protests by opposition forces in Belgrade and Pristina.

There existed two projects for the division in question. Under Hashim Taci’s plans, the relevant scenario was to be a “package” one envisaging a comprehensive exchange of territories, including Serb-populated Northern Kosovo communities Leposavic, Zvecan and Zubin Potok (about one fifth of the territory of Kosovo),  Albanian-populated adjacent to Kosovo Southern Serbian communities  Bujanovac and Presevo, and also, if possible, Medveja.

In the opinion of the Kosovo leader, a revision of borders to the effect that regions of Serbia with an Albanian majority would become part of Kosovo, while those populated by Serbs mostly would go to Serbia could ease tension between Belgrade and Pristina. That the Pristina authorities had to hand over to Serbia part of Kosovo was announced by Hashim Taci at the beginning of 2019 as he addressed the Council for International Relations in Washington. In his words, the signing of a corresponding agreement with Belgrade in Brussels under the patronage of the EU would make it possible for Kosovo to secure an approval from  Serbia and join the UN: «If a minor change of the border is the cost of a final peace settlement, it should be acceptable». Such an agreement, Hashim Taci says, should be signed “with the support of the United States”. In his words, it looks like Russia “is ready to accept an agreement which will be reached” between the two parties.

He added that what is meant is «commitment to achieve a comprehensive peace settlement between Kosovo and Serbia, which will guarantee Kosovo a seat in the UN and will enable it to acquire membership in the family of NATO and the EU».

According to the last census in Serbia, about 90 thousand people live in three southern communities of Presevo Valley. The ratio of Serbs and Albanians is as follows: in Presevo – 89% Albanians and 9% Serbs, in Bujanovac – 55% Albanians and 34% Serbs, in Medveja – 26% Albanians and 67% Serbs. Thus, Albanians make up the majority of the population of Presevo and Bujanovac and are “building up” their presence in Medveja.  This triggers concerns in Belgrade.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic agrees in principle to the division of Kosovo, with Belgrade regaining control of the province’s northern areas, but he is against a “package”, which includes the exchange of the territories of Presevo, Medveja and Bujanovac.

However, what disrupted the signing of an agreement in the spring of 2019 was  the negative position of top EU powers: in the first place, France, and especially, Germany. «The territorial integrity of Western Balkans has been formed and cannot be changed», – Chancellor Angela Merkel said: «There have been attempts to start negotiations on the borders but we cannot do it».

After talks between Aleksandar Vucic and  Hashim Taci in Berlin in April 2019 resulted in no concrete agreements, the initiative in the negotiating process was assumed by the United States. It was the Trump administration that issued an ultimatum and de facto forced into resignation the Kosovo Cabinet, led by Albin Kurti, a radically minded politician and a staunch opponent to Hashim Taci and any agreements with Belgrade. In addition, Washington got Pristina to lift the restrictive trade tariffs from Serbian goods – something the European Commission had failed to do before.

Speaking of European countries, Austria has come in support of division of Kosovo as a measure to normalize relations between Belgrade and Pristina. «If Serbia and Kosovo agree on a change of border, Austria will support the move», – Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said as he commented on the situation.

Nevertheless, a whole range of political issues has to be clarified if regional stability is to be achieved and not come under threat.

First of all, these issues embrace the territorial aspect of the “package” agreement, including the list of regions which are covered by it. Apparently, the exchange of territories of Northern Kosovo for the Serbian communities of Presevo Valley, which was proposed by Hashim Taci, does not appear to be fair from the point of view of the Serbian president, let alone for radically minded Serbian parties and politicians, who used this to mount their campaign in the run-up to parliamentary elections, scheduled for June 21st.

Secondly, Brussels’ approval of a new carve-up of the  Balkan borders will inevitably give fresh impetus to debates on the creation of “Greater Albania” – a state which would incorporate Albania proper, the larger part of Kosovo, Presevo Valley, parts of Macedonia, Montenegro, and probably, Greece, with a projected population of about 10 million people. These concerns are far from groundless.

Leaders of neighboring Albania acknowledge the inviolability of the existing borders. In 1992, the then Albanian leader Sali Berisha announced that “the idea of establishing “Greater Albania” was alien to Albanian ruling circles and political forces». However, in 2011 Azgan Haklaj, a member of the Presidium of the Democratic Party of Albania, said openly during his visit to Presevo that allAlbanian territories should be united to form one state. The incumbent Prime Minister of Albania, Edi Rama, keeps emphasizing that for Tirana, unification of Albania and Kosovo represents the so-called “Plan A”, while division of Kosovo should be viewed as a move in this direction. According to opinion polls, the plan to turn Albanian borders into “ethnic” ones (that  is, to include in  them all Albanian-populated areas in the Balkans) is backed by more than 80% of the population of Kosovo, over 70% of residents of Albania, and by more than half of Macedonian Albanians.

The reasons why the US and the EU, in particular, have been unable to secure a compromise-based long-term solution to the Kosovo issue lie in their unwillingness to pursue a balanced policy regarding regional conflicts in the Balkans. The experience of the 1990s shows that top western powers, forming NATO, sided with one of the parties to military conflicts on the territory of former Yugoslavia, thereby violating the key principles of international peace and law. In 1999 such an approach spilled into aggression against Yugoslavia and the subsequent military and political support of Albanian separatists in Kosovo. As for the EU, this organization, from the very outset, assessed the Balkan problems separately from one another, proceeding from the “uniqueness” of every case.

Such an approach underlay the Stability Pact for Southern and Eastern Europe, which was devised by the European Union and put into effect in 1999 but which never produced any tangible effect or lasting results. The current situation all but confirms that.

AllthisgaveextraimpetustoBelgrade’sandPristina’seffortstoachieveatleastsomebilateralagreements. As acknowledged by Le Monde diplomatique, «a carve-up of regional borders on the ethnolinguistic and religious principles may receive more momentum in the course of talks between Belgrade and Pristina. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic makes no secret of his readiness to recognize Kosovo in exchange for territorial concessions, whereas his counterpart Hashim Taci hopes to invite Serbian Albanians to live in his country», – the French newspaper reports.

Given the situation, Russia, with due regard for its interests and the history of Serbian-Russian relations, finds it important to use the models which the authorities in Belgrade and Pristina are currently ready to accept, including division and exchange of territories on the basis of a compromise and under the supervision and guarantees of the international community represented by the UN and its Security Council. Russian officials, in the first place, President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, has repeatedly pointed out that Moscow will welcome “any solution which will meet the interests of Serbia”.

About his country’s foreign policy priorities, including those related to the issue of Kosovo, Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic made a clear statement a few days ago to this effect. He said that Serbia has been cooperating with Russia and China in the same manner as many other countries of the EU and that simultaneously, it has no intention to give up on  its policy of integrating with the EU – trade with the EU is at an all-time high: «We want to belong to this community. But don’t forget that Serbia is in a specific situation, when we talk about Kosovo and Metohia. The undivided support for Serbia’s integrity comes from China and Russia, we have very good economic and other tie with these countries».

Simultaneously, he pointed out that Serbia, due to its geopolitical position, cannot say a decisive ‘no’ to either the EU, or the USA.

Considering the above mentioned, Russia considers it essential to continue to render diplomatic and political support to Serbia’s incumbent authorities and keep a close eye on what is happening around Kosovo, where they forecast the possibility of an  escalation of tension between the EU and the USA. 

From our partner International Affairs

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The fall of the Montenegrin dictator and its impact on the Balkans geopolitical balance

Slavisha Batko Milacic

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Image source: balkaneu.com

At parliamentary elections held in Montenegro on August 30, for the first time in history, the government was replaced in elections. Democratic Party of Socialists, which was in power since 1991, won 35.06%, or 143,548 votes, coalition “For the Future of Montenegro“ 32.55 % or133,267 votes, coalition “Peace is Our Nation“ won 12.53 % or 51,297 votes, coalition “Black and White“ 5.53% or 22,649 votes, Social Democrats 4.10% or 16,769 votes, Bosniak Party 3.98% or 16,286 votes, SDP – Strong Montenegro 3.14% or 12,839 votes, Albanian List 1.58% or 6,488 votes , and the Albanian Coalition Unanimously 1.14% or 4,675 votes. The Croatian Civic Initiative won 0.27% or 1,115 votes, and the Croatian Reform Party 0.13 % or 532 votes, and they did not pass the census. At elections voted 76.65% percent of registered voters, ie 413,954 of them, of which 409,451 were valid ballots.

The numbers are relentless: the parties that made up former ruling coalition won a total of 181,267 votes in this election, which is as much as 26,000 less than the three-party coalition. The three opposition blocs won a slender majority of 41 of the 81 seats in parliament. Coalition “For the Future of Montenegro“ won 27 seats, “Peace is Our Nation“ won 10  and “Black on White“ won 4 seats. President Milo Djukanovic’s Democratic Party of Socialists, DPS, which has been in power for decades, won 30 of the 81 seats. The party controls 38 seats with the support of MPs from minority parties, because the Social Democratic Party of Montenegro does not want to deal with Djukanovic.

Three main opposition blocs that won a slender victory in recent parliamentary elections in Montenegro have committed not to seek to withdraw recognition of Kosovo or change the country’s national symbols. The new ruling majority will also honor all current international commitments, such as membership of NATO. Zdravko Krivokapic, leader of the pro-Serbian bloc “For the Future of Montenegro“, Dritan Abazovic, leader of the civic “Black on White“ coalition and “Peace is Our Nation“ coalition leader Aleksa Becic made these pledges as part of an agreement about the key obligations of the new government.

“This agreement is confirmation that the new democratic government will be pro-European, pro-Western and pro-Montenegrin … There is no change to Montenegro’s foreign policy path, only its strengthening,” Becic told a press conference. Basically, the main role of this agreement was to appease the most powerful states of the West. The text of the agreement was written, except in Serbian, in German and English, but its contents, even a few hours after the signing, were not known to the leaders of the Democratic Front – Andrija Mandic, Milan Knezevic and Nebojsa Medojevic. This detail indicates that the ambassadors of four Wetern strongest countries(United States, United Kingdom, Germany, France), were informed about the content of the agreement rather than the leaders of the Democratic Front, which is the strongest political player in the three-member coalition, which undoubtedly indicates that the international factor had a great influence in writing the text.

According to the agreement the new government will also depoliticize key state institutions to ensure an uncompromising fight against crime and corruption. Opposition leaders said the new government will not carry out revanchism on a political or any other basis. However, Krivokapic said the new government will withdraw the hotly contested Freedom of religion law, which had angered and alienated the large Serbian community and the Serbian Orthodox Church. He said the current law endangered property rights.

”We will not accept a  law that endangers property and does not provide the most important right to freedom,” Krivokapic said.

That Djukanovic was in a world of his own, with a narrowed consciousness, became clear when he announced the founding of a church at a DPS party congress. As if Montenegro were not a secular state and as if churches are established by party decrees! Since parliament passed the Freedom of religion law in December 2019, tens of thousands of Serbian Orthodox Church supporters have been protesting in public, demanding its withdrawal. The law was undemocratic and with only one goal, to seize property from the Serbian Orthodox Church. Even if the Serbian Orthodox Church called for an agreement, the Democratic Party of Socialists has consistently rejected it, with public threats that only the Montenegrin Orthodox Church can exist in Montenegro.

Since Montenegro is not a democratic state, Djukanovic hoped to win again with undemocratic methods. The government has completely controlled the elections in Montenegro for decades; it had an army of safe voters, the media, huge funds, the security apparatus and electoral rolls full of phantom voters – yet it still lost. This speaks not only of the erosion of a clientelist and corrupt order, which even the most loyal supporters are slowly abandoning, but also of the enormous democratic potential and desire of citizens to control power and trigger change.

Clearly the Serbian Orthodox Church played a huge role in these elections. But, it would be wrong to conclude that Djukanovic was overthrown only by the Serbian Orthodox Church and by the contested Law on Freedom of Religion.

His other opponent was civic Montenegro. As much as propaganda wants to disguise it, civic Montenegro also voted against Djukanovic’s Democratic Party of Socialists – dedicated citizens who believe that Montenegro needs a government that will build institutions, implement necessary economic reforms, establish a fairer income distribution, strong health and education systems, stop the departure of young people and professionals, reform the judiciary, introduce the rule of law, move faster towards the European Union and create a state for everyone. All those who believe that sensitive issues should be resolved by compromises, and not by deepening divisions, also voted against Djukanovic. Governments committed to the public interest address sensitive issues through dialogue. Djukanovic did not have that sensitivity. Instead of negotiating with the Serbian Orthodox Church, he sought an enemy.

As in other autocracies, when leaders move out from reality, they get deposed, even when the whole security apparatus is on their side. Montenegrin dictator had been operating for a long time with uncontrolled power. He surrounded himself with extreme Montenegrin nationalists or with clients who pushed him towards ruin with their constant demands to insert another letter in the alphabet and repaint history … as if identity can be “rounded off” by force.

Conclusion

Djukanovic, as the president of Montenegro, will be in power until 2023. However, almost without any authority, because the function of the President of Montenegro is protocol, the real power is in the Government of Montenegro. Given Djukanovic’s criminal biography, it can be expected that his term will end much earlier, and that he will be prosecuted.

What is important to point out is that these parliamentary elections also affected the geopolitical balance of power in the Balkans. Pro-Serb parties will have the most power in the new government, with a tendency to take full power in the next elections. With the separation of Montenegro from Serbia in 2006, Serbia lost access to the sea and gained another hostile state in the region, because Djukanovic constantly pursued a hostile policy towards Serbia. Serbia will now regain a strategic ally in Montenegro, and will be given an even stronger economic presence in Montenegro. This will significantly strengthen the position of official Belgrade, and enable a stronger policy towards Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Without a doubt, the fall of Djukanovic at the same time marks the rise of Serbia as the absolute leader of the Western Balkans.

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Enough Of Double Standards!

prof. Zlatko Hadzidedic

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Deutsche Welle recently published a comment on Bosnia-Herzegovina written by Stefan Schwarz,a renowned German politician. In this text, the author advocates a revision of the German policy towards Bosnia, proposing a change of the country’s constitution, which needs to be jointly supported by Germany and the US. According to Schwarz, the current Bosnian constitution, imposed on the Bosnians by the American ‘peacemaker’ Richard Holbrooke in 1995, amputated the country’s territory and destroyed its soul. The Dayton operation formally saved the state of Bosnia-Herzegovina, but has dimantled its vital functions. Moreover, it has rewarded the convicted war criminals with huge parts of its territory, which is now controlled by these corrupt oligarchies as their private property, absolutely guaranteed by the international contract signed in Dayton. Therefore, says Schwarz, the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, commonly considered the most powerful woman in the world, has a great responsibility to use her power to press for a constituional order that would make Bosnia compatible with other European countries.

A systematic dissolution, from Lisbon to Dayton

It is difficult not to agree with Mr. Schwartz in his diagnosis of the Bosnian problems. It is also difficult not to agree about the need for constitutional changes, although the author does not go into specifics. Simply, there is no doubt that the current constitution must be changed if the state of Bosnia-Herzegovina is ever going to start functioning. For, the Bosnian state institutions are, first and formost, blocked by the existing constitutional structure, and only then by the will of the local ethno-nationalist leaders, who only take advantage of it. Yet, the point at which we, as Bosnians who remember the country’s recent past, have to disagree with Mr. Schwarz is the thesis that Bosnia’s ethnic partition was simply a result of the US-sponsored Dayton Peace Agreement.

For, Dayton was only the concluding part in the process of systematic dissolution of the country’s sovereignty, launched and sponsored by the European Union and the United Nations, and carried out by their nominated representatives, Lord Carrington, Jose Cutileiro, Cyrus Vance, Lord Owen, Thorvald Stoltenberg. This process began at the Lisbon Conference, in February 1992, several months before the outbreak of the war, havingresulted with the Carrington-Cutileiro Plan, the first internationally sponsored plan for ethnic partition of Bosnia. The very existence of this pre-war plan shows that ethnic partition was not proposed as a provisional solution for the ongoing war, as has been repeated many times ever since, including the comment by Mr. Schwarz. Rather, the war itself, withethnic cleansing as a tool in the creation of ethnically homogenous territories out of the single territory of Bosnia-Herzegovina, served as an instrument in the physical implementation of the concept of ethnic partition. This concept was first prescribed by Carrington and Cutileiro in 1992, and then adopted in all subsequent ‘peace plans’: Vance-Owen Plan in 1992, Owen-Stoltenberg Plan in 1993, the Washington Agreement in 1994, the Contact Group Plan in 1994, and the Dayton Agreement in 1995. Interestingly, the only concept that has been on the table in all these plans was the concept of Bosnia’s ethnic partition. No EU, UN, American or Contact Group initiatives have ever tried to consider any other option: Bosnia-Herzegovina’s ethnic partition has always been a must. Even those rare individuals who attempted to challenge the concept itself have even more rarely noticed that it had had a history that did not start in Dayton and that no alternative solution has ever been proposed. Therefore, ethnic partition of Bosnia-Herzegovina was not a clumsy mistake made by Holbrooke and the Americans in Dayton; it has been a strategy adopted by the UN, the EU, and all relevant global powers, a strategy that has not been abandoned to the present day. 

A division of non-divisible, a transfer of non-transferable

This prolonged international consensus about the concept of Bosnia’s ethnic partition craves for identification of its authors and explanation of its broad acceptance among the most relevant global powers (which includes not only the EU and the UN, but also all individual members of the Contact Group: United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, and Russia). However, let us first take a look at the concept from a theoretical point of view. Political and constitutional theory claims that sovereignty is, above all, non-divisible and non-transferable. What was being proposed as a ‘solution’ for Bosnia-Herzegovina, from Lisbon to Dayton, was exactly the opposite: a division of the state’s sovereignty, with a transfer of sovereignty to its three ethno-religious groups, so as to assign them parts of its territory over which they would gain sovereign control. Under these conditions, these groups have been labelled as ‘constituent peoples’ – a category otherwise non-existent in political and constitutional theory – as if they posses the primary sovereignty and thereby constitute the state of Bosnia-Herzegovina, whose sovereignty is a secondary one, derived from theirs and divided by implication. According to the Dayton Constitution, even the last remnants of Bosnia’s divided sovereignty have eventually been transferred to the so-called Office of the High Representative, so that the High Representative has remained the only level at which sovereign decisions can be made. At all other levels, including the level of the state of Bosnia-Herzegovina, all decisions can be blocked by leaders of the three ethno-religious groups, which practically makes these leaders sovereign. Yet, the current High Representative has abandoned even these, very limited constitutional powers, so that in reality no sovereign decisions can be made above the level of ethno-religious leaders. In other words, as noticed by Mr. Schwarz, it is not their irrational nationalism that creates their blockages on the level of the state; it is the constitutional structure which deprives the state of its sovereignty.

The British ‘solution’

Yet, who was powerful enough to reverse the universally valid constitutional principles, and why has this reversal been applied to Bosnia-Herzegovina, of all the countries in the world? After all, why this has encountered such approval by the most powerful global structures, such as the EU and the UN, as well as the most relevant individual powers, although the principles applied to Bosnia-Herzegovina are exactly the opposite from the principles upon which they are all built? Given the presence of British diplomats in all ‘mediating’ combinations before and during the war in Bosnia, and given the fact that the concept of ethno-religious partition is a concept the British diplomacy had previously applied in the process of decolonization of India, with the consequent creation of India and Pakistan (including the secession of Bangladesh), and also in Palestine and Cyprus, one may only speculate why the British Foreign Office put the ethnic partition of Bosnia-Herzegovina among its geopolitical priorities. In a broader perspective, it is certain that such partitions have never produced any degree of stability, as its advocates tend to claim; quite the contrary, all these parts of the world have become permanently unstable after application of the British ‘solution’ in the form of their ethnic or ethno-religious partition. Whether permanent instability along or around particular geopolitical points is one of the pillars of British geopolitics or not, remains to be more broadly explained by its historians; this is not a proper place for that. However, a more fundamental question is, why such a ‘solution’ applied to Bosnia has been acceptable to so many relevant global players, including the US, Germany and the entire EU? Probably we can never reach a clear and comprehensive answer to this question, either. However, in this very context, a clear response is required to Chancellor Merkel’s recent claim that „Bosnia needs more empathy“: Bosnia does not need any degree of empathy – empathy is to be offered to the powerless. What Bosnia needs is that the global powers simply cease with application of double standards, and start applying to Bosnia the same principles, concepts and values they apply to themselves. Above all, that these powers give Bosnia back its innate right to sovereignty.

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Is the EU risking geopolitical irrelevance in its own backyard? Lessons from Covid-19

Ioannis Alexandris

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Covid-19 and the global landscape

Undoubtedly, it is hard to make complete sense of the impact of such an unprecedented – at least in our modern times- global crisis and it would be premature to make any definite assessment. However, from a geopolitical perspective, it would be safe to assume that it has reinforced existing tendencies that were already underway over the last decade: On the one hand, a retreat to the nation-state. On the other hand, it has led to an acceleration of re-regionalisation, mainly due to the decoupling of global supply chains. These two apparently opposite trends are in fact two sides of the same coin, signalling a departure from hyper-globalisation.

Multilateralism has suffered a serious blow in the aftermath of the pandemic. President Trump’s decision for the withdrawal of the US from the WHO is indicative. The escalating US-Chinese trade war has now been coupled with a war of narratives, with each side blaming the other for ineffective response to the pandemic.

Caught between this new wave of competition, the image of EU has also suffered a blow, due to the late response of the majority of member states to the pandemic, and more significantly, due to the early lack of solidarity between its very own members.

Amid this current unpredictable landscape, with eroding post-WWII international institutions, Washington’s self-isolation, a rising China and an assertive and regionally present/emerging Russia, the need for greater strategic autonomy is evident. EU has the opportunity but also the responsibility to step up as a champion of multilateralism. Hence, on FP level, a more strategic EU could finally justify von der Leyen’s characterisation of her Commission as a ‘’geopolitical’’ one.

However, in order to do so, the EU should begin with its own backyard, the seriously-affected and volatile Western Balkans.

EU and the WB, the enlargement’s state of play

It was in October 2019, when a much-anticipated green light for the start of the negotiating process for Albania and North Macedonia was denied by France, followed by Denmark and the Netherlands, on the grounds that the entire framework of the membership process should first be revised.

Sympathisers perceived it as an honest questioning of the effectiveness of the existing framework. Critics attributed this decision either to president Macron’s need to bolster his leadership image at the European level or the need to satisfy the French public’s increasingly sceptical attitude towards EU enlargement. Regardless of the rationale of this decision, it was still another indication of intergovernmentalism’s privacy in its FP setting, threatening to impel the progress achieved over the last years in the Western Balkans and an additional blow to its credibility vis-a-vis its neighbours.

Even though this (myopic) veto was revoked in April 2020, following the promise of a revised enlargement methodology, accession negotiations are expected to last several years.  The EU needs to step up in support in multiple ways in order to secure its credibility towards the WB states, while preventing further democratic backsliding in the region.

Impact of Covid-19 on WB

Covid-19 hit WB at a particularly peculiar period, with Serbia, North Macedonia, and Montenegro having their elections in 2020, whereas Kosovo’s fragile governmental coalition under former PM Kurti was overthrown in late March.

Even though the average number of Covid-19 cases per capita stayed significantly lower than the majority of European states, the WB were particularly affected due to their weak health systems and vulnerable economies. The political effects of the pandemic are also significant, having resulted to rising populism and centralisation of power. Some leaders even attempted to politicise the pandemic, treating it as a political issue instead of a severe public health crisis. Susceptible to their long-tradition of playing their ‘’nationalist card’’ at times of crises, the leaders of the WB have also increased their anti-EU rhetoric during the pandemic. Moreover, the instrumentalisation of the pandemic as a legitimising tool for additional authoritarian measures has exacerbated phenomena of state capture, especially in Serbia.

Foreign actors – disinformation campaigns on WB

Apart from risking a prolonged democratic setback, the pandemic’s effect in the region has also a geopolitical dimension in an area characterised by geopolitical pluralism:

Since 2013, China has increased its (geo)economic presence through the ‘’Belt and Road’’ project and the ‘’16+1’’ format with questionable practices and no conditionality strings attached for the local political leaderships. The EU’s late response to the crisis paved the way for greater Chinese involvement in the area. Beijing, attempting to switch the narrative of its own early inertness in dealing with the virus in its territory, launched a ‘’mask diplomacy’’ campaign, providing with masks and essential medical equipment countries in need, including candidate states such as Serbia but even EU member states like Italy.The Serbian leadership seized this opportunity to blast criticism towards the EU, thanking China and ‘’brother Xi’’ (in his own words) personally

Russia is frequently engaging in covert operations and disinformation campaigns, especially in Serbia and in one of Bosnia’s entities, Republika Srpska. Kremlin also attempted to undermine the Prespa agreement between Greece and North Macedonia and is openly against the recognition of Kosovo. It also uses energy as a bargaining chip for political gains; In this case, sticking to its usual ‘’divide and rule’’ strategy Kremlin has supported disinformation campaigns ran by state-owned media. The majority of them emphasise on EU’s lack of solidarity and weaknesses, portraying Russia and other authoritarian models of governance like China as the ones that can guarantee efficiency/effectiveness and decisiveness in managing an imminent crisis.

Turkey, a candidate for membership itself, exercises its own influence through soft power (culture and religion), mainly in Muslim-populated Bosnia, Kosovo and Albania, but also in Serbia and North Macedonia, through economic means, adding to the region’s complexity of overlapping and contrasting foreign interests.

These actors pose no threat to EU’s prominence in the region (indicatively enjoying 75% share of the total trade) but could significantly sabotage democratisation. The more distant the European perspective will look, the less constrained the leadership of states like Serbia will feel to conduct business with them. Albania is one of the two (together with Montenegro) candidate states with full alignment to the EU foreign and security policy. Yet its candidacy status has stalled.

EU’s economic presence in the region is disanalogous to its visibility and soft power, especially compared to the aforementioned foreign actors, partially due to their disinformation campaigns. Thus, in the dawn of the outbreak pandemic a similar pattern was repeated: EU was originally criticised for placing export restrictions on protective equipment during the virus’ outbreak in Europe.  Even though the restrictions were lifted quickly, as the European Commission first pledged €38 million for the immediate healthcare needs of the WB states in March, followed by a lucrative support package of €3,3 billion that was announced on 29 April, the reputational damage was already done.

Instead, rather than affecting EU’s position vis-a-vis its Balkan partners, the current crisis should pave the way for a ‘’positive instrumentalisation’’ of the crisis in order to avoid risking its geopolitical (ir)relevance.

Thus, the current crisis could be the start for greater, deeper and wider EU engagement in the region for the following reasons:

Increasing need for supply diversification in Europe and WB

As Mark Leonard recently noted ‘’the current pandemic could mark a paradigm shift in EU-China relationship. Thus, the pandemic’s spill-over effect on supply chains will lead to a re-regionalisation process in an attempt to a partial decoupling of economic ties with China. This could give EU an advantage, consolidating its geographic proximity and economic primacy in the region and halting Chinese geo-economic overextension. China’s ‘’Health silk road’’ can generate asymmetries and the debt-trap phenomena in several states across its silk road map (Sri Lanka etc.) should be a point of concern among WB states.

US decline as a global hegemon and the eroding trust of its allies

The current US leadership is too inward-oriented, strongly committed to its ‘’America first’’ doctrine. The President’s counterproductive obsession in insisting on the Chinese origin of the virus and his decision to leave the WHO were just two recent examples that added to Washington’s unwillingness to continue its post-WWII role as the provider of global public goods. Domestically, the political landscape is deeply polarised and divided before the upcoming elections. This overall decline is also reflected on the eroding trust of EU citizens and citizens of other traditional allies towards Washington.

Indeed, Beijing has managed to boost its leadership credentials globally, amid an increasingly introvert and isolationist US leadership. Nevertheless, the lack of transparency and credibility, two essential elements of hegemonic/stability theory/global leadership, coupled with the authoritarian character of its regime render China ill-suited for leading an increasingly ‘’headless’’, also known as’’G-Zero’’ world.

To capitalise of the current situation while staying in line with its own set of values, the EU will have to:

Apply greater scrutiny using updated screening mechanisms on foreign investments, including Chinese ones, pushing sustainability and ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance) criteria. EU can lead the path towards greater sustainability in trade and investments, boosting its geo-economic credentials as a global regulatory power. EU should explore ways to include the WB in the European Green Deal and its ambitious economic goals for climate neutrality by 2050 for the avoidance of price disparities in energy. The EU could assist by sharing best practices and by outlining a clear ‘’green agenda’’ for the Western Balkans, unlocking their significant potential in renewable energy, especially in hydro-energy. Overall, this crisis has been a reminder that supply chains in critical sectors should be reviewed.

Regardless the outcome of the global efforts for an effective vaccine and a return to normality, the economic recovery in the region will not be easy, according to World Bank report. Therefore, the full inclusion of the WB is a dire need for any post-reconstruction plan on behalf of the EU, regardless of the accession status stage/level. In other words, new carrots will have to be invented, complementary to the one of accession, as the accession carrot is losing ground in the near future due to low prospects and/or slow progress.  Of course, economic support should go hand in hand with strings attached.  The EIB as primary funding instruments, should outline clear conditionality criteria related to green economic goals, justifying its recent self-branding as the ‘’European Climate Bank’’.

On a diplomatic level, other possible moves on behalf of the EU with constructive orientation could be finally granting visa liberalisation for the citizens of Kosovo.  Finally, EU will have to keep demonstrating active support for the continuation of dialogue and the negotiations between Pristina and Belgrade, bypassing US involvement. Finally, upon approval of the negotiating frameworks for Albania and North Macedonia by the European Council, the EU should not let go of the momentum and carry on with the first intergovernmental conferences that will mark the formal start of the accession negotiations. This will be another strong sign of support to the progressive, pro-EU forces in the two countries.

In order to counter false narratives and improve EU’s visibility in the region, an increase in the efforts to pushback disinformation campaigns of Russia and China both in the Western Balkans but also in its own territory and members, securing its own coherence and its external positive outlook. The new initiative in fighting disinformation is a step towards the right direction and the Western Balkans should be prioritised as a focal point. It has been proven that economic assistance per se is not enough to win hearts and minds.

Of course, internal coherence is a precondition. It was tested once again, bringing into the surface the traditional division between North and South, however, the capping stone of the negotiations led to a compromise, indicative of the Union’s resilience.  Greater internal coherence will result to greater credibility abroad, especially in the candidate Balkan states. For example, the EU member states have yet to reach an agreement on the migration pact. Also, it is hard to capitalise on its strong record of human right and RoL when still showing an ambiguous attitude vis-a-vis serious violation by the governments of Hungary and Poland. Emphasising on its strengths (social state, transparency) and capitalising on its recent economic agreement will send the right message to the WB states.

Kevin Rudd, the former prime minister of Australia, in an early Covid-19 essay warned that international institutions are becoming arenas of competition. The EU, with its 27 member states and diversity of voices, has been an arena of conflicting interests in its own. Paradoxically, it could be argued that its own tedious, yet successful – experience with multilateralism and fair compromises puts the EU in a better position to contribute to efforts of repairing multilateralism. However, it should start being taken more seriously by its very own people and why not, by the people that aspire to join it one day. This goal cannot be reached unless its first achieved in its very own backyard, the WB, through an increase of its credibility-visibility and active/practical role on multiple levels.

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